The Mayor of Oak Street
Vincent Traughber Meis © 2021
All Rights Reserved
The Sangamon flows muddy and rank through the corn and soybean fields of central Illinois, giving its name to my city and the lake it fills on the south side before continuing its meander west. One of its tributaries, the even lazier and muddier Harold’s Creek, ran practically up to my back door in its own journey through the woods behind the homes on Oak Street.
The afternoon sun filtered through the tall trees, warming my shoulders as I walked along the creek, imagining building a raft like I had seen my brother and his friends do a few years before. I would ride it down the creek to the Sangamon and into the Illinois, eventually reaching the Mississippi. The Mississippi would take me to New Orleans, a city memorialized in song, literature, and film as a place of wonder. It wasn’t that I needed to run away like Huckleberry Finn. I hadn’t yet learned to hate everything the Sangamon gave its name to. It was a boy’s fantasy brought on by the heat of summer and the mesmerizingly sluggish flow of water.
I heard a branch snap deep in the woods. I often saw hobos from the nearby Wabash Line wandering in the woods, and my mother told me I needed to avoid them, but I sometimes watched them from behind a clump of bushes. My eyes darted around the area and saw nothing. I glanced at my watch. Time to go. For most kids, these were the carefree days of summer, but I had things to do. From the creek, I walked up the hill, through our backyard, and out to the street.
Mrs. Sloan’s heavy oak door hung wide open while a screen kept the swarms of late summer flies and mosquitoes at bay. I put my face to the mesh in what felt like an invasion of her privacy, causing me to tingle from the top of my head down to my big toes.
“Hello? Mrs. Sloan?” I shouted into the dim interior of the hall.
I opened the screen door haltingly and stepped inside. The door creaked shut, sounding painful in the silence of the house. I took a step, and then another. My legs shook. I peered to the right into the living room and left into the dining room. A force had taken control of me and pushed me on, my sneakers barely touching the carpet.
I went as far as the kitchen, passing two empty bedrooms on the way. Her purse sat on the yellow chrome Formica kitchen table, the keys to her Oldsmobile right next to it. Out the kitchen window, I searched for her floppy straw hat in the sunny backyard. She was neither in the garden where she often tended her vegetables nor in the lawn chair where she sometimes sat, large sunglasses on her nose and a cocktail in hand. I took note the lawn needed mowing.
Nylons hung over the bathroom shower curtain rod, hypnotically swaying in the breeze from the open window. Though we called her Mrs. Sloan, I had never heard of a Mr. Sloan. My father once complained about entering the bathroom and finding my mother’s nylons drying in plain sight. I wondered if Mrs. Sloan was sad living alone or happy she had the freedom to do what she wanted.
I should have been scared of her coming home and finding me lurking in her house, but a stronger force blocked the fear, a compelling energy moving my mind and body, making me feel impervious to danger. I continued down the hall to the living room, stopping to gaze at each of three framed needlepoint messages: “There’s nothing to fear but fear itself,” “A cheery smile makes life worthwhile,” and “You belong among the wildflowers.”
I had come to Mrs. Sloan’s door in my rounds, collecting for my paper route. She was a month behind in her payments. And I rationalized my invasion of her home out of concern for her welfare. My mother once said she wouldn’t be surprised to find her passed out drunk on the front lawn one day. My brother in high school sometimes came home from a night of drinking with his buddies and would collapse face down on his bed in our shared room without removing his clothes or shoes. One time, he ended up on the floor. Perhaps Mrs. Sloan had fallen like my brother. Perhaps she had fallen asleep in the bath and was at risk of drowning like I had seen on a television program.
I spent a few more minutes in the house before exiting through the front door into the calm and quiet on Oak Street. I continued up the block to do the rest of the collections. That night I drew a floor plan of her home, noting doors and windows. My brother called me a weirdo when the first thing I looked at in the Sunday paper was the page with the floor plan of a new house on the market while he went for the sports section, my father the news, and my mother the book reviews. I also scribbled notes about Mrs. Sloan’s house: the color and shape of her purse, the black-and-white photo of a somber older couple in the living room, the buff-colored nylons, the approximately twelve-inch cross hanging over her bed, and the needlepoint messages.
Before I entered my teenage years, I would know my way in and out of most every house on the block without being discovered. It was the Midwest. It was the ‘60s. Crime happened elsewhere. In addition to delivering papers, I mowed lawns. I could cross barriers, move within fences, and befriend dogs. Access. Getting inside the house was usually the easy part.
Everybody told me my paper route and lawn-mowing jobs would be good experience though I had no idea how much I would learn about myself, about others, about life, the good and the bad. I could assume the face of the upstanding neighborhood boy, appearing at their doors to collect subscription payments, smiling and making small talk while below the surface I was another person, motivated by desires they would never understand.
The second time I entered a home was as spontaneous as the first. It was the Pruitts’. While mowing the front lawn, I noticed Mrs. Pruitt lock the front door, take her two identically dressed little girls by the hand, jump into their Ford station wagon, and drive off. When I got around to the back of the house, I spotted the kitchen door standing open, beckoning me. I turned off the mower so I would hear if the car returned. I went into the kitchen. My mother would die rather than let our kitchen fall into such disorder; the sink filled with dirty dishes, and the kitchen table covered with open schoolbooks and scattered papers.
A half-full milk carton sat on the counter. I opened the fridge and saw a whole shelf of soda pop. I took an orange Crush and drank it as I did a quick tour of the house. Not much interesting. The rest of the house was as messy as the kitchen. I finished the soda outside, threw the bottle in the trashcan, and finished mowing the lawn. Before I went to bed that night, I drew a floor plan of their three-bedroom and put it in a folder with Mrs. Sloan’s.
I thought of these intrusions as accidents, isolated incidents that wouldn’t be repeated. But images of those escapades kept dancing through my head, enticing me to do it again. The rush of danger, the real possibility I might be caught, was like a drug. At the time I was still ignorant about drugs and addictions, but my body clearly knew sensations it wanted to revisit. I managed to stave off my urges for a few months. I turned twelve over the summer, and several of my customers who had heard it was my birthday tacked on a bit extra to their payments.
Lawn-mowing season came to an end as the weather turned cold, and we had our first snowfall. Soon after, I started receiving calls about paper holds for the Thanksgiving holidays. To me, they might as well have been invitations. I prayed it didn’t snow as the soft whiteness would show the hard dirty prints of my boots, a trail of my activities. I had to start thinking about such things: tracks I might leave, who in the neighborhood tended to snoop out their windows, or how often people left doors unlocked, windows open.
I made a point of being friendly with the dogs on my street as I knew my extracurricular activities at houses with animals could be a problem. The Jackmans had a golden retriever. I’d received notice to put their paper on hold for five days, making me guess they weren’t going to leave the dog in the house for that length of time.
When I did my collections the week before Thanksgiving, I casually mentioned to Mrs. Jackman that I had received the hold notice. People loved to give out information they didn’t have to. She revealed they were going to their lake house in Arkansas. Butch was curled up at her feet. He raised his head as she took a ten out of her wallet and gave it to me. She told me to keep the change, and I thanked her profusely while I tore off her receipt.
I reached down to pet the dog. “I guess Butch is going to get a vacation too.”
“Oh, yeah. He loves it down there.”
Bingo, I was in. After our Thanksgiving meal, Dad and my brother watched the football game on TV while Mom cleaned up. I went to my room, saying I was going to read. Nobody thought it was odd. In my family, everybody did pretty much what he or she wanted. Normally, after a Thanksgiving meal, Dad and my brother passed out in front of the TV, and Mom curled up in a chair to read after cleaning up the kitchen. They had all had a lot of wine at dinner, including David, who my parents allowed to drink though he was only sixteen, something about him learning to drink responsibly at home keeping him from being irresponsible when he went out. I wasn’t sure that was working.