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The Silence That Swallows You Whole

People like big cities because they don’t want to face the fact that the world is empty. In big cities, buildings and billboards and barricades block out the void, and if you walk fast enough, you can forget that the stillness is bound to catch up with you by nightfall.

Small towns offer no such delusions. One look at a small town and you can see the entire cycle of life turning over in its grave, children growing up, old people dying. These things happen in big cities, too, of course, but small towns make no bones about it. A small town looks you dead in the eye and says, well, this is it. This is all there is to life. That is why some people don’t like small towns, because they’re honest places, and the truth is scary.

If you ask those people why they don’t like small towns, they probably won’t mention anything about “fear of the truth” in their answer. This is no surprise. A sizable percentage of the world’s population hasn’t even had time to think about the truth yet. No offense to the truth, of course, but people are busy. They’re busy with afterschool sports and driver’s education and dating and choosing a college; busy with their career, getting married, raising a family, planning their well-earned vacation to the Bahamas. And when we’re preoccupied with our little games of hopscotch here on the ground, it’s easy to forget that above our heads looms the vast, echoing chasm of the skies.

However, in a small town, the sky is closer. The wind is colder. And beyond that last row of houses, at the edge of the city limits, there is harrowing truth to be reckoned with. You get to the end of that dead-end road where the gravel meets the corn rows and the huge horizon swoops down to suck up the flatlands, and be honest: your heart stops. You have to face the truth faster in a small town. There is nothing else to do here.

My hometown is small, and less than glamorous – although they’re trying very hard to make it more glamorous in the downtown area, where a gypsy caravan of high-end boutiques can be seen camping out in some of our quaint turn-of-the-century storefronts. I’ve always lived here. I spent my childhood and my teenage years in this charming, uneventful Midwestern hamlet. When the time finally came to think about college, i.e., the enticing possibility of leaving home for greener pastures, I chose to stay here. I enrolled at the small, private university a couple blocks off the city center. It’s a quiet place, characterized by brick buildings and large trees. Most of the students at the university aren’t from this town. They always laugh when I tell them I’m from here. “Really?” they say, looking me up and down. Some of them tell me I’m too cool for this place. I shrug and say I’d be too cool for any place. (Lies, by the way; I’m not actually that cool.)

Now, people come to this university from all over the country, all over the world, to get that high-quality education you can read about in our brochures; and some of them, poor kids, don’t realize they’re also signing up for two to four years in Small-town America, population: no one very cool, points of interest: nothing very interesting. This means I’ve heard quite a few complaints about my hometown over the years from my fellow students. Usually I let them rant a while before I reveal with a dry smirk that I’m from here, at which point some of the more sensitive ones might apologize to me, but I always laugh it off and say, man, I feel you, though. This place is pretty boring.

Then they’ll sigh, relieved that I understand. “There’s just nothing to do here,” they say, with a listless gesture at the lack of landscape. I know, I say, shaking my head. But somewhere inside I’m always thinking: what are all these things you’re wanting to do? What else is there?

I don’t try to explain this to my college classmates, but the truth is I’m perfectly happy here in this boring excuse for a city. Maybe that’s because I myself am a boring excuse for a person. I don’t know. I’m just not that hard to please. I don’t need a high-octane, adrenaline-laced environment to keep me engaged. For me, every day is an adventure, even if all I do is I walk to my classes, maybe saunter downtown midday for a chai latte from one of the local cafés, and end up at home by sundown, reading a good book. It’s not that hard to have a good life, I feel like telling people. All you need to do is slow down and realize this is it. There is no Mecca.

I’m a musician, and periodically, I go to play the piano and sing for residents at the local assisted living home. I like sitting in a room full of elderly people. You can practically feel the stories whirring in the air around them, all the more tantalizing because you know some of those stories will never be told, will go with their keepers to the grave. But for now, the stories are alive, and the room is electric, buzzing with conflicts and romance and plot twists. Old people’s eyes are mysteries; you can see the years growing in their eyes like trees. When I sing to them, I swear I can see the forests move.

After my musical performance for the residents, inevitably, one of the ladies will approach me painstakingly with the help of her walker, looking at me with time-misted eyes. “You shouldn’t be wasting your talent on us,” she’ll whisper, patting my hand. “You need to get out there in the world.”

“You have a great voice, girl,” a woman at my church exclaims. “You should go on American Idol.”

“I still say we should find a way to get you into Juilliard,” an old family friend keeps telling me.

“You need to be on Broadway,” says one of my college friends, a music geek from Saudi Arabia. “Seriously, I’ve been to Broadway, and you’re as good as them. You could do it. I know you could.”

He flatters me, doubtless. They probably all flatter me. And yet the insistence is unanimous, whether I talk to a classmate or a senior citizen: I shouldn’t stay in this town. I won’t stay; that’s the prediction, made with nodding heads and knowing smiles. I’m not long for this town, everyone tells me, clapping me on the back. There’s no way around it. One way or another, I’m leaving.

It’s late afternoon, the time of day when the sun gets homesick for the other side of the world. Its heartache is tangible, bleeding warm and golden through the stained glass windows of the empty church. I am sitting at the grand piano in the jewel-toned ambiance of the sanctuary, playing for no one. The music echoes off the walls.

I come to this church to practice because no one ever bothers me here. The secretary might say hello as I walk past her office, but that’s generally all that happens in the way of human interaction. That’s why I nearly jump into the ceiling today when, in the middle of my conscientious rehearsal of one of those killer runs in Chopin’s “Revolutionary” Etude, I hear a human voice.

“Hey, you’re not bad at all,” the voice announces. I stifle a scream.

When my heart finally stops thrashing around in my throat, I shakily rise from behind the piano and peer across the room. There on the other side of the lectern stands a young man. I’m momentarily stunned. I thought I was the only young person in history who liked to hang out in old churches.

“Sorry,” says the young man. He is facing me squarely with his hands in his pockets. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“That’s all right,” I lie. I want him to leave so I can keep practicing, but I’m a good liar. Instead of leaving, he walks toward the piano.

“Seriously, that sounded amazing,” he says, and as he comes closer, I get a better look at him. His face is fresh, uncomplicated. His eyes, which are riveted on me, contain the glint of intelligence, but they don’t have too many trees growing in them yet, so I would estimate his age to be about twenty – close to my own age.

He is staring at me. I don’t know what to do. I smile. “Thanks,” I say. He keeps staring, seemingly fascinated. I have no idea what could be so fascinating.

“Yeah, you’re way better than I am,” he says at last.

“Do you play?” I ask him. He shakes his head, and shifts his gaze to the piano.

“No. I don’t play. I just mess around.”

His name is John. He’s the son of the secretary at the church – just visiting town for the weekend. In three days, he’s headed to boot camp. When he tells me this, I suddenly notice that he carries himself with that kind of understated alertness you would expect of a soldier. Meanwhile, he’s looking at me like I’m the aurora borealis… something eerie and enthralling in the night sky. He leaves me to my practicing eventually, but returns twice within the half hour, as though drawn to me by some unexplainable force. He asks me random questions, scanning my face for clues to a mystery that even I can’t see.

When I stand up to leave, he is there again. I have a feeling he’s been around the corner listening to me play. I decide not to get mad.

“You are really good,” he says, giving weight to each word. “Really, really good.”

“Hey, thanks, man,” I reply. I swing my book bag onto my shoulders. It’s time to go.

But John is still watching me, with his hands in his pockets.

“So,” he finally says. “Where do you think you’ll end up?”

And there it is. The question. I told him earlier that this town is my town, that I’ve lived here all my life, that I’m attending college here, and now he wants to know. Am I here by choice? Or am I just waiting for the right moment to fly, like a bird poised at the edge of a nest?

I answer him honestly.

“Well, I’m not really planning to leave the area. At least, not for a while. I like it here. It’s pretty quiet here, but you know… I like quiet. Quiet works for me.”

John stares at me one last time. He lets out a little laugh, breaks eye contact, and doesn’t look back.

“Oh, man,” he says. “That’s like the opposite of me. I can’t wait to get out of here.”

Of course.

“Too boring?” I offer.

“It’s boring. It’s… just too sheltered.” John is walking with me through the sun-stained sanctuary, keeping his eyes on the floor. “People here are just completely cut off from reality.”

“Yeah, I mean, I understand,” I say. Inside, I feel the questions battling to the surface: what are you talking about? What is reality, then? Isn’t this town just as real as any other place?

Maybe it’s too real, I realize. Reality is lonely. I’m remembering the cornfields at the edge of the city limits, and the empty sky; the silence that swallows you whole.

“I understand all viewpoints,” I muse aloud.

“Do you?” John counters, still not looking at me. “Do you really understand? When you live in this town?”

Enlightenment has no geographical prejudice. Pilgrimage is pointless, I want to tell him. But I keep my mouth shut.

He opens the sanctuary door and lets me out.

“I don’t know,” he says, looking through the walls of the church, into the distance. “There’s just so much more out there.”

When the sun goes down, the city turns up the lights. Don’t worry, the city says. This isn’t the end. This is the beginning. There’s no such thing as an end, just multiple beginnings, over and over. You don’t have to stop now. You’ll never have to stop.

But there’s no use pretending any longer. The end is coming. It’s coming for all of us: the stillness, the silence, the void. Maybe you can’t see it yet in a big city, but if you’re honest, you can feel it… pressing in on you from the other side of the buildings, the billboards, the barricades. Soon they will fall, and you will see. You will see the very thing you were trying not to see.

Here in my hometown, there are no appealing facades, no protective walls to shield me from the truth.

I can already see the end. The end has always been visible from here. It’s out there every night, at the city limits, at the end of that dead-end road where gravel turns to dust and sweeps out to the ends of the earth.