Angela Palm grew up in a place not marked on the map, her house set on the banks of a river that had been straightened to make way for farmland. Every year, the Kankakee River in rural Indiana flooded and returned to its old course while the residents sandbagged their homes against the rising water. From her bedroom window, Palm watched the neighbor boy and loved him in secret, imagining a life with him even as she longed for a future that held more than a job at the neighborhood bar. For Palm, caught in this landscape of flood and drought, escape was a continually receding hope.
Though she did escape, as an adult Palm finds herself drawn back, like the river, to her origins. But this means more than just recalling vibrant, complicated memories of the place that shaped her, or trying to understand the family that raised her. It means visiting the prison where the boy that she loved is serving a life sentence for a brutal murder. It means trying to chart, through the mesmerizing, interconnected essays of Riverine, what happens when a single event forces the path of her life off course.
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About the Author
Jorjeana Marie has narrated over seventy audiobooks, performed in hundreds of commercials, and starred in Listen to Grandpa, Andy Ling with Elliott Gould. She is also a stand-up comic who has opened for Richard Lewis, Louie Anderson, and Kathleen Madigan.
Read an Excerpt
A Memoir from Anywhere but Here
By Angela Palm
Graywolf PressCopyright © 2016 Angela Palm
All rights reserved.
MAP OF HOME
Every map is a fiction.
— D. J. WALDIE
I used to spend hours poring over the state road map, perplexed by the way towns and cities were annotated. Here was a small pink dot called Hebron, its name typed neatly in a little sans serif font. I moved my finger across light yellow paper, then across a wavy blue line until it touched the next pink dot. This one was called DeMotte. This was where I lived. In the pink dot called DeMotte in the map of Indiana. But our address was Hebron, Indiana, and not DeMotte, Indiana. Knowing little of governance and less of mapping, I rested my eyes curiously on the yellow paper — what was between the two pink-dot towns? A vast patch of nothing? How could we reside in both towns, yet seemingly in neither at the same time? Where did one town start and the other end? Was there an unnamed part between the two that was up for grabs? I wanted to conquer that yellow land and write myself all over it: this part, this swath of land right here, belongs to a girl.
I obsessed about this empty space. I turned it round and round in my head, mulling over its possibility. At school, I was learning about the laws of physics — a primary introduction to an invisible governance that was as old as time. I became aware of moving forward in time, bound by the laws of the universe. This, too, I obsessed about. It changed the way I saw everything around me, including Corey, the boy next door whose bedroom window faced mine. He moved mechanically, rhythmically, through time and space. At eight years old, I had imagined mapping myself onto his skin, clinging to the idea of a future between me and my eleven-year-old friend that did not exist. I followed him closer than his own shadow. Little girl, second skin. He did not mind.
The yellow space on the map could be an isolated system, I thought, enclosed and separate with a nuclear interior — like a thermodynamic system, where all the energy is contained and nothing gets out. I was well acquainted with the sensation of exterior isolation and interior energy, of the power in that juxtaposition. We lived many miles away from most of the kids I went to school with in DeMotte. I lacked a true set of friends, our home far from the subdivisions where kids from school played together. Instead, I took to books and art, to sketching still life pictures with charcoal and singing loudly in the rain. Though I watched Corey in his window as if he were a television show, he was a real friend, materializing beyond the frame as hands that gripped mine and swung me in circles, as feet to kick a ball to, as ears to listen to me talk and sing. As proof that we existed beyond our windows. But mostly, solitary pursuits replaced social ones and a cacophony of ideas swirled inside me, while DeMotte's social hubbub remained distant and encamped within a town I didn't feel much a part of. Further isolation stemmed from the fact that the town center, several miles from where our houses were located, was comprised of the affluent Dutch, who had settled and built homes, farms, and churches there many decades earlier. The DeMotte Dutch were a close-knit bunch: tall and blond with smart little noses, nearly interchangeable last names, and conservative values and politics. In this town, you were either Dutch or you weren't. Other backgrounds weren't given attention.
Most of the kids we lived near were poorer than us. Some of them were the kind of poor that amounted to dirty hands, hunger, unwashed and ill-fitting clothes, and no coats at the school bus stop in the thick of winter. Many were the kind of kids who either bullied or were bullied by others. My brother, Marcus, and I were well fed and clean clothed. While our food wasn't fancy, it was abundant. A measurable amount of parental love was available to us. Our clothes were from the clearance racks at Montgomery Ward, which my mother felt was an extravagance — it was more than she'd had, and certainly more than my father had had. And it wasn't much to complain about. The clothes were usually one season removed from fashionable, but they were new and our very own. Despite these differences, all of us living by the river were the kind of kids who sometimes had money for the ice cream truck and sometimes did not. We were the kind of kids who sometimes looked on, frozen in our tracks as the truck rolled by, a plea hanging between us as a slowed-down, creaking version of "Home on the Range" cut through the air.
Something about our neighborhood had caused my parents to set physical boundaries of roaming allowance that did not extend much farther than our backyard. The road, barely wide enough for two cars to pass, had no sidewalks, and there were many drunks, as we called them, who often drove recklessly down our shared street. If you were playing on the road and a car came, you didn't simply step aside. You ran out of the way. There were also near vagabonds, supposedly unsavory individuals who stayed a spell in one of the makeshift pole barns or partially dilapidated trailers and then moved on. These were factors in our boundaries, though I didn't yet know how or why.
The area to which we were restricted had once formed the bed of the Kankakee River and often flooded. Every few years, when the human-made part of the river swelled and reclaimed its old course, our home became an island. Periods of flood became epic adventures, because our house was constructed in the exact place where the river ought to have been. Where it once had been. Floods gave us the opportunity to go back to a time when sustenance came from the land, as did fear and injury. We learned from our neighbors, who were active Revolutionary War reenactors and rendezvousers, how to suck the thin pink trills of grapevine when we were thirsty. We practiced spearing fish on gigantic carp, the mud-veined fish that seemed to rise up from the bloated overflow like Loch Ness monsters, with the point of an arrow. Leaning over the edge of a canoe, we would look the mythical beasts right in the eye. Then, wham, we hit them straight through the spine, justifying their deaths by the fact that they were inedible and served literally no useful purpose on Earth.
One day I asked my mother about the space between the pink dots. "Look at the map. Dot here. Dot there. No middle."
What was in the yellow? Could we go there and find out?
My mother was a good sport, letting my child's mind discover these small curiosities according to its own will. We got into the car and drove past two houses. The first was Corey's house. The second house belonged to my aunt Carleen, who was my mother's younger sister. We turned right, passing the River, the bar and restaurant that sat fifteen feet from the riverbank. I would someday get a job there — a rite of passage in this neighborhood that I looked forward to. We then drove across the bridge that spanned the actual river, the mighty Kankakee, as we moved along the path I'd traced on the map with my finger. Then we stopped. I'd been holding my breath.
We hadn't driven far at all.
"This is it," she said. "This is the part between the two towns."
Through the back window of our van, I could still see our house. On the other side of our newly constructed fence, smoke rose from a narrow pipe that stuck out of the top of Wild Bill's workshop, where he was undoubtedly tinkering with a metal forge, clanking red-hot iron with a small mallet, a tobacco pipe hanging from his lower lip and a green beret set askew on the top of his graying head. We thought he resembled a renegade Bilbo Baggins, the adopted uncle of all the neighborhood kids reincarnated from our favorite story, from which he read to us in his cabin as we chewed homemade sourdough pretzels by the fire. Another trail of smoke seeped from the top of his tepee, which he lived in a few months of the year, though he had a perfectly functional house. From where I sat with my mother, I could also see Penny's rusted mailbox, felled and flattened by the side of the road, left there in protest against the man who'd run out on her or as a reminder of him and how she would never take him back again. Brightly colored azaleas bloomed around its metal carcass, growing up and around its remaining parts, demanding that passersby take note of its irony. A little farther in the distance, a blue tarp extended from the front of Earl's trailer, rigged up on steel poles staked into the ground. The trailer's door hung wide open.
The laws of thermodynamics, I would learn, deal with the concept of entropy — a measure of a system's disorder and uncertainty. Entropy cannot decrease within any isolated system. It only shifts, like all matter, changing shape and colliding with itself. Diluting, diffusing, evaporating, and folding back onto itself. In our perfect history, junk particles from the big bang eventually become Lake Michigan, the Sahara, a field of tulips in Holland. What wonder is the order in disorder. What beauty. What certainty. A more specific definition of entropy considers the energy within the closed thermodynamic system. This energy serves as a yardstick for the disorder, where entropy is directly proportional to the energy's heat and inversely proportional to its temperature. In our closed system, the river was the heat and the water table was the thermometer. It was a system that seemed desperate to break the boundaries of physics.
"We live in the middle?" I asked my mother.
"Technically?," she said. "Our address is in one town, and our phone number is in the other. Pay taxes to one, and go to school in the other. It's like not living in either town. Or like living in both at once."
"So nobody wants us."
I looked around, stunned by my new perspective. Most of what I saw was familiar — driveways and houses I'd seen before. These were signs of home, but I felt spat out like bad milk. And yet, I was looking at it in a new way — seeing it for the first time with the scrutiny of a stranger. It occurred to me then that this part of the map was unlike either of the pink-dotted towns. Children I went to school with did not live like us, shooting handmade weapons into the woods and wearing deerskin costumes. They were not learning Morse code or the words to Revolutionary War folk songs.
Soldier, soldier won't you marry me,
With your musket, fife and drum?
Oh, no, sweet maid I cannot marry ye,
For I have no coat to put on.
In the songs we sang, I always pictured myself as the girl waiting to be married off to a soldier or a carpenter or a sailor like some certain destiny, packaged, but unaddressed, for a future delivery date. When I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I never knew how to answer. "What do you think I should be?" I would reply.
When I sketched with charcoal, I anticipated the sensation of blurring the crisp black lines into something softer, more fluid and wet-washed. When I painted with watercolors, I most often favored textures that were salt spattered or misted with water. I was engaged in an ongoing corruption of medium, and every undertaking was an exercise in thinning and thickening substances of expression until they were perfectly muddled. "Here is the fringey edge where elements meet and realms mingle, where time and eternity spatter each other with foam," Annie Dillard writes in Holy the Firm. Dillard has an intimate relationship with land that shifts, with water that rises around people who can only watch and try to understand what they're seeing. Fringe investigation was the science of my neighborhood and of my art.
Along the banks of the Kankakee, where water met the land and foam blurred the line between solid and liquid states, Wild Bill lived in a tepee. But why? I wondered. And from that why, other whys flowed. Why did the ice cream truck driver look relieved when we shrugged our shoulders as he drove by? Why had the river been moved? Why had anyone built a whole neighborhood in an old riverbed that flooded half the time and stunk like rot and heat all the time? More important, why did they stay there? Why did some people seem a part of the land more than others, more entwined with it?
Filled with this new view, I knew that I was neither sort, but instead some half-breed spawn of both worlds and alien to both. A bookish fishergirl who longed for the social opportunities of a cookie-cutter subdivision. When I looked more closely, I saw that Penny's mailbox might well have been blue at one time. One day in the distant past, Penny and her man had bought a little house with a nice blue mailbox. They had planted flowers that emerged newly green from the soil each April. Once, hope had filled the emptied valley of the river's bends.
"You shouldn't look at it that way," my mother said, and drove the car a little farther down the road. I looked out the back window at the river behind us, the river that, over time, would thrill me, claim me, disappoint me, and save me. It wasn't a wavy blue line like its cartographic representation, but brown with muddy water that ran quickly westward. It gave me the sense that the water was the only thing that would ever get out of this place. And it was in a hurry to do so.
We were isolated by our coordinates, by the where of us. Where we lived was rural, in the broadest and most specific senses. Isolation was a measure of that fact. Our address was Rural Route 101. The in-between space on the map was a real place that had been there all along. Not unclaimed, not up for grabs, but completely inhabited by the parts of the two towns that were beyond "town limits." Address over here, phone number over there, missing from the map. Energy contained. Separate. Because we were beyond limits, isolated and insular, rural and unclaimed, we became unassuming outlaws of sorts. We were both on the map and off it at the same time. We were the entropy of the two towns, the junk particles of the nucleus with its own status. But even so, there was a pulse that connected us, a bloodline of sorts. In our in-between-towns land, population forty, there were nights of whiskey-fueled fireside revel, when everyone sang sea shanties and knuckled washboard rhythms beneath full moons. There were archery lessons and tomahawk throws and jewelry-making lessons. There were gourd paintings and firecrackers and canoe races. There was a band of kids who swung from the thick vines that draped our very own Sherwood Forest.
Decades later, I would find that it's in places like these that I am truly comfortable — in the square half inch of yellow paper between pink dots. The in between here and there, where damp moss grows and people sometimes live in tepees. Where a boy turns his bedroom light on and off to send an SOS signal across a small patch of grass to a lone girl who sits on a rock with a book and cannot save anyone. Where hologram children play forever and eat electric blue Popsicles and never wash their hands and sometimes spear fish with arrows. Where things stay a little bit broken. On maps, you notice, they never put a line. Between countries and states and counties, yes, but not in the yellow space between bright pink dots. But sometimes the yellow is green. Sometimes it is white. Sometimes it is brown river water, rising above the flat line of the land to prop up the identity of a tiny village.
When I came back to this spot twenty years later to see what had become of the riverbed, to see what ghosts would rise from its eroded banks, it was all still there. The road had a new name, the one-way arrow of time expanding here as it was anywhere else on Earth, but the defining entropy of the place was the same. There was no aftermath through which I could proceed as story, as I'd hoped for — no obvious tale waiting to be told. There was only stasis and the recapitulation of a contained present tense, moving toward a future that bears scars of the past. I glimpsed Earl, older now than ever, still adding scrap-made structures that outcropped around his aging trailer. Corey's parents remained, though their little white dog was no longer yapping on the front steps and Corey himself was in a prison hours away from the river. The blue house with the accidental magenta door, where I'd lived for fourteen years, was still there, the way my father had left it when we moved. The people, the who of the place, still bore the unmistakable marks of rural folk — that telltale dichotomy of endurance and neglect, active and passive states happening at once.
Excerpted from Riverine by Angela Palm. Copyright © 2016 Angela Palm. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
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Table of Contents
Part I Water
Map of Home 5
An Arsenal of Sand 15
This Movable State 29
DIY for the Faithless 43
Part II Fields
Map of Corn 85
The Regulars 103
Dispatches from Anywhere but Here 117
The Baddest Men on the Planet 139
Part III Mountains
On Robert Frost's Lawn 195
Map of Our Hands 207
Life on the Installment Plan 233