I’m a roadrunner baby, you know what I am
I can speak American.

--The Screaming Blue Messiahs

If you were to drive south out of Chicago toward, say, Memphis, and it was getting dark, and the massive late-summer western skies were piled with glowing jade and peach and black Missouri and Iowa storm clouds, blinking and flashing with lightning in their guts, their feet a deep purple fog of rain on the darkening prairies, you might notice that the corn fields—hundreds and hundreds of miles of them out there heavy and dense in the gloaming—looked and felt like a sea. You might also notice that the occasional lines of abandoned box cars, or the dirt country lane with six semi-trailers parked between I-57 and the maize shore, would look for short moments like the white spume of night waves rolling at you from the ghost sea of the plains. It’s eerie.

It’s tornado alley. There’s nothing between your little car and the Rocky Mountains but empty and cold combines in the rain, lone farmhouses with one yellow yard light burning, strange midnight ramblers driving the highways listening to the Stones and nursing a flat bottle of whiskey, wet coyotes sniffing at the edges of the cattle pens. Nothing to stop the twisters. It’s so empty of landscape out there that, if you were like me, and listened to the low-budget Air America station in Chi-town, AM 850, which goes off the air at 7:00 p.m. every night, your radio would start to pick up the right-wing talk station out of Colorado. There would be crackles of sizzle as the lightning flashed, and in one sizzle, the liberal blab would become conservative blab. And you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. They both dislike the Mexicans.

South of Kankakee, beyond Chebanse, a huge porn shop squats on the port side of the road. One shiny semi angled in, a couple of pickups. Moths frantic in the parking lot lights like living snowflakes burning wild circles. LINGERIE, BOOTHS, TOYS, 24 HRS. Gone into the dark as Denver’s Gunny Mike asks his listeners, “What is wrong with America?”

The small city toward which you speed appears as a bright glowing mass on the cloud bellies, its lights making big UFO gleam for miles to your southeast.


We wake up in the cigarette-stinking Ramada Inn in Champaigne/Urbana and go to the Fighting Illini game at U of Illinois in a downpour. They aren’t allowed to feature Chief Illiniwik anymore, but the heart-broken and angry white folks wear his shirt and yell “Chief” all during the game and post threats on their t-shirts like, “No Chief, No Check!” The cries of “Chief” sound like “Boo!” Of course, there are many real boos mixed in there too.

F-16s do a fly-over and their noise is so loud it goes off like a bomb in the stadium and Chayo starts to cry.

Two corn-fed shit-heads behind us are making the requisite ball-game sounds—no, I’m sorry, FOOTBALL sounds, because you always have to say the full word “FOOTBALL” when discussing a football game. FOOTBALL is so important that it must be recognized with respect. “Let’s have us a FOOTBALL game.” “We gonna have us a goddamned FOOTBALL game today.” “Today, we gon’ see some FOOTBALL.” I listen attentively to this, since I always feel I have missed some man-code I might pick up. I’d like to speak American. It’s my job as a writer to do some eloquent listening, as Kim Stafford calls it.

I would be good at a wrestling match. Hell yeah—I can talk tombstone piledrivers and figure-four leglocks with anybody. I can hold my own with baseball, but baseball guys are freakin’ pansies and only say lame shit like “Play ball.” “Let’s get down to it and play some FOOTBALL.” There is a great variation I totally love: “C’mon, Huddey, let’s man-up and play FOOTBALL!”


So, we are sitting in the rain and a group of older African-Americans is led to the seats right before us. I cannot believe it: it’s the Tuskeegee Airmen. I whisper about them to Chayo and Megan. I tell them we are sitting with greatness.

At half-time, the University honors these heroes with some medallions. The two FOOTBALL fans behind us refuse to stand or clap when the audience rises to honor them. As the men receive their medals, the guys make Fat Albert jokes. “Hey hey heeyyy” they yell. They scoff when they hear that the Airmen faced racism and prejudice. Someone makes an error and tries to give the wrong medal to one of the Airmen, and he steps aside. We watch it on the Jumbotron. Asshole # 1 behind me says to Asshole #2: “It aint mine, but I’ll takes it!” in a “Negro” accent.

Hey hey heeyyy.

I would submit here that The Tuskeegee Airmen manned the hell up and that these good ol’ boys should be shining their shoes. But what do I know.

When the ceremony ends, Asshole #1 says, “It’s about time we got to some FOOTBALL.”

Maybe I start to wish we had a draft.


We’re all Americans gathered on a rainy weekend afternoon in a stadium built over the bones of the buffalo, ghosts of the Illini and the pioneers baffled by the hubbub and fireworks (yes, we won—21-0). The prairies are plowed under and covered in Dairy Queens and Wal-Marts.

We take our drumline boy out to pancakes in the morning, and I stare at the tattooed necks of bikers. I am in love with everybody. My family thinks I’m kidding when I love the 400 pound woman in the tight t-shirt who can barely walk. I want to hold her hand and taste her white skin. I want to buy the creaky old sport in a red ball cap an ice cream cone. I’m losing it—I’m feeling my heart get way too broad. I want to buy the new Nikki Sixx CD because I love Nikki Sixx, but Cinderella teases me, “That kind of thing goes on your permanent record.” I have a delightful chat with the girl in Hot Topic who shows me the stump where her pinky was chopped off and has a full-back tattoo. I find, to my deep shock, that our boy thinks I’m a freak and embarrassing. “He, like, talks to chicks that torture small animals.” I cry, “But I love her! She had to give up clarinet when her finger was cut off!” I reel myself in. I’m not living in one of my notebooks, where God spills out of the trees and angels disguise themselves as beggars to see if we will help them. I’m not in that place where the dirt and the trees are telling me secrets and things are holy. Or maybe I am.

Yes, I am.


As we drive out of town, I take the wrong highway, but they all go to Chicago. How can you tell 55 from 57? It’s all cows and soy beans and RV centers. Stuff I also love, by the way. Chicago doesn’t care how we return--itis the monster on the lake. All wind goes there. Tumbleweeds try to get there. All trains dream of Chicago. Bluesmen get off the bus there and head for Maxwell Street, though there isn’t much left of it.

Every single pond and lake I see is the pond and lake I want to live beside.

We open the sun roof to watch a pair of hawks cut quadrants in the sky, scaring up rabbits and prairie dogs.

I turn on the radio. They are still mad at the Mexicans. We have 124 miles to go. The corn is dry and rattling. The fields are yellow as Van Gogh paintings. Clouds of birds fly across the road and turn as one and vanish in the air, like Venetian blinds suddenly opened. My family is eating Oreos.

My daughter says, “I bet there is a dinosaur footprint out there and nobody knows it.”

I love America.

I can’t wait to go back.

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