St. Louis was where buildings first topped the trees and lights displaced the stars. In St. Louis the highways never emptied and people never slept. By age twelve I was certain that if I lived in the city, in any city, I could be anyone I wanted.
I wanted to be anyone other than who I was.
Years later, as I cruised past the Gateway Arch, memories of the city faded in and out like a weak radio station. Of course, St. Louis, like most first loves, had long since been replaced——by Kansas City, Albuquerque, Bogotá, Washington, Paris, and Boulder. But no one travels far enough to escape.
Timing and luck awaited me everywhere.
A few miles south of St. Louis crumbling brick tenements and smoky cement towers gave way to countryside, and I lowered the car window. The air no longer smelled of chemical spills but of rain and earth. Here, past and present cohabited, spawning gray-planked outbuildings, fields of scrub cars and rusted trucks, small graveyards bordered by blackberry vines, and long cornrows beneath billboards pushing anti-drug slogans.
An hour later, on a county road, I began to encounter the overworked and overfed faces of my childhood. They zipped past me on a winding two-lane, black and soft in the twilight. I wondered if broken dreams are always black and soft at twilight.
I knew the road well; it led to my hometown.
A narrow bridge soon welcomed me, while the shallow river beneath it lay as lifeless as a black ribbon in the hair of a corpse. An approaching car slowed, the driver waving cautiously while craning his neck to stare. It had been more than twenty years since the town was my home. It had been a few years since I called any place home.
I refused to consider prison my home.