Downers Groveby Michael Hornburg
“Highly polished, smoothly written . . . a nearly faultless ear and delightful authorial voice.” –Kirkus Reviews
From the author of Bongwater, “an electrifying portrayal of adolescent angst.” (Booklist)
Downers Grove is the haunting and tender story of Chrissie Swanson, a paranoid high school senior for whom graduating has become a matter of life or death. She’s an unusual girl in an ordinary town. Her mother’s sex life is overshadowing her own; her brother is aboard his own private Enterprise, slipping into one black hole after another; her best friend is hornier than a Prince song; leaving her eccentric grandmother as the only source of wisdom in a rapid downward spiral. As Chrissie tries to take control of the events that shape her life, she finds the events beginning to take control of her, until she is finally cornered by choices with everlasting consequences. Full of humor, wit, and the sacrilegious worldview of a savvy teenager, Downers Grove paints a searing portrait of the American dream in all its broken glory.
“The spirit of Holden Caulfield is alive and living in Downers Grove. Chrissie Swanson is the picture of Salinger-style disaffected youth, chafing at the limitations of her dead-end hometown. Chrissie’s voice effectively combines world-weary teenage impertinence with eloquent vulnerability.” –The Baltimore Sun
“Michael Hornburg renders the voice of his teenage heroine with a ventriloquist’s skill, and draws a subtly unnerving portrait of the world she has to live in.” –Madison Smartt Bell
“Highly polished, smoothly written . . . a nearly faultless ear and delightful authorial voice.” –Kirkus Reviews
“Chrissie’s view of fin de siecle America as lived in Midwest suburbia today is as profound as Winesberg, Ohio has been for much of this century.” –Richard Howarth, Square Books (Oxford, MS)
LYING in the yard tearing out clumps of grass, watching a jet draw a white line across the sky, I wanted to have a vision or some major introspection, to feel possessed and hallucinatory, to know, if only for a moment, that God really existed. Fluffy white clouds towered into the heavens like one dream piled on top of the next; a whole sky of afterthoughts polluting the air. The faces of movie stars, the shapes of dead pets, all lurked within the shifting vapor. Pressing my fingers between the blades of grass I focused on the gravity sucking me to the surface, imagined the slow rotation of the earth, its massive size, its ambient orbit, the endless void of the universe, but curiosity only seemed to accelerate my potential for a psychotic break.
My name is Crystal Methedrine Swanson, but my friends call me Chrissie. The name was part of some bad joke my parents formed in the confusion of my birth. Dad signed off on the name while Mom was in a narcotic dreamsleep, totally wiped out after fifteen hours of labor.
He says I was conceived during a crystal meth excursion in the north woods of Wisconsin, hence the name. Mom says Dad is an idiot.
I’m seventeen years old, it’s summertime, and there’s an underlying sense of anticipation churning through my nervous system, as if a meteorite were screaming toward me this very second from the black depths of outer space. Which is good, “cause I’m definitely in need of a change. I’ve outgrown my pink and white gingham bathing suit. The white lace trim is worn and frayed. It makes me feel like an oversize Lolita without anyone to seduce. Parked on a blanket, burning calories reading dirty books loaned from my mother’s library, sometimes I feel like the sun is my only voyeur.
School sucked today. All the usual shit, senior year 60516. Sitting in my algebra class, listening to the formulas, the calculations, the answers, the endless steps that needed to be memorized, I started vegging out and began to imagine myself crumbling into dust and falling onto the floor. I had a scary thought that nobody would even notice, and then, in the middle of the night I’d be swept away in the rustling bristles of the janitor’s broom.
I looked around the classroom, tried to imagine everyone twenty years from now: Who was the housewife? Who was in jail? Who was the car accident?
Maybe I should dye my hair purple? Maybe I should try to be more social? Maybe I should stop talking to myself? It’s Friday afternoon and there’s a thousand voices telling me what’s wrong, examining the problems, making up new ones. Suburbs are the ghettos of meaninglessness.
MOM came home from work and dragged my brother and me to a Parents without Partners potluck. I protested most of the way there, but it was potluck or starve. Anyway, that’s how Mom put it. This tall swarthy astronaut type named Dan has been hitting on Mom for the past month, and tonight we get to meet the swaggering bachelor under the shadow of the Ten Commandments.
“Best behavior,” she warned, then clicked on the turn signal, took a deep breath, stared longingly at the church–kind of weary, kind of sad–and veered into the gravel parking lot of Saint John’s Lutheran Church, a squat white-stone building off Route 53 in Lisle.
Started on the fly in the seventies, the place was obviously rolling in the dough by now. Part fallout bunker, part shrine to blandness, the building reeked of ammonia. We piled out of the car, locked the doors. Mom straightened her jacket, swept David’s hair away from his eyes.
For all it’s worth, churches seem like just another stop on the consumer highway, the crucifix a groovy logo for mystical life insurance. It really shows how desperate people are to have acceptable delusions of paranormal experience, of life after death in a world full of angels far beyond the clouds.
Mom forked over the tickets and made small talk with the church ladies. My brother and I hung up our coats, admiring the trophy case beside the church office. The cinder-block hallways smelled of the afterburn of sports: dried sweat and dirty sneakers. There were hot dogs and sloppy joes brewing in the gymnasium, potato salad stacked high, four different Jell-Os, and deviled eggs from here to Naperville. A massive crucifix hung above the electronic scoreboard. Red and white felt banners claimed conference championships 1992 and 1995. The room echoed with chatter. Mom looked at me sorta worried, and I smiled back all virginal and sweet, but we were as obvious as a hair ball on a white carpet. The astronaut spotted us before we made it to the food line. My brother, looking his usual morbid self, slouched into a folding chair and drifted toward an interlude with another dimension, totally insensitive to Mom’s freaking.
When she introduced us, the astronaut shook my hand really hard like some two-bit candidate running for office, when I know all he had on his filthy mind was the cheap hot tub hotel on Ogden Avenue or wherever the hell it is these two trade laundry. He blushed, looking as happy as a game show contestant. I could tell right away that Mom was attracted to his confidence and stability. The astronaut was as far away from Dad as Jell-O is to mashed potatoes. She liked it that he belonged to a church and that this was our first peek into the sunshine of his mysterious galaxy.
A long line of wide bodies was hunched over the sm
orgas-board. I picked up a white paper plate and plastic fork, then took a place at the end of the line. Supper was a showcase of sloppy joes, baked beans, and various mayonnaise salads brimming from the edges of clear plastic Tupperware bowls. I did the best I could.
MOM got kind of defensive on the way home, insisted Dan was cute, that he had potential. I gave him the finger-down-the-throat award.
“I’m sorry no guys my age wear Doc Martens.” She switched on the car radio and turned it up loud, as if she didn’t want to hear what I had to say.
“I hope you’re not thinking of doing anything irrational,” I said.
Mom got all silent and weird, and I worried about her, saw her aging in front of me, all alone in that big house, drunk with her habits–straightening the silverware drawer, bundling up old newspapers for recycling. The radio crackled under the power lines and the song disappeared, then the radio crackled again and the song popped back. Mom turned it up, sang along to bits and pieces of the chorus.
“Some songs get stuck in my head forever,” she said. “I must’ve heard this one a million times by now.”
“Makes you realize brainwashing is for real,” I said.
“You kids are so cynical. As soon as you smell sentimentality an alarm goes off.” She twirled her hand around like a siren-light. “You have no respect for the past,” she said, then sang along again, her head swaying back and forth in that half-crazy way that meant trouble. Whenever Dad didn’t show up or things didn’t go as planned Mom picked up a happy-go-lucky sway and shook it shoulder to shoulder like all she wanted to do for the rest of her life was dance.
“It’s all that television, all that MTV, you think you’re so modern.” She shifted from third gear down to second rolling up to a stop sign. “And those computers. The Internet. All of a sudden the world is flush with typists. You’ll all grow up to be secretaries.” She laughed.
“David would look good in a dress,” I said.
“Shut up,” he said.
“You shut up,” I said.
Mom smirked as if she had won.
Every time we roll down Maple Avenue and pass the watertower I get a wicked case of cotton mouth. It glows blue-green at night, sorta eerie, like some alien sci-fi space station. I always wondered why people would want to live on a barren planet and call it an adventure. It’s bad enough growing up in a dead-end town like Downers Grove, but at least there’s a drive-thru when you’re thirsty. And someday I’ll have my own apartment with a refrigerator full of ice cream and beer and I’ll paint the walls all purple and gold like some bodacious Egyptian queen. There’ll be lots of oversize white lace pillows, and organic grapes, and beeswax candles, and hardbody slaves, like that cute mechanic who works over at the gas station on Sixty-third and Main.
But then, bouncing over the Burlington Northern tracks, it dawned on me that Mom probably had the same kind of fantasies when she was my age, and now she was a lonely cowgirl with two teenagers stuffed into her holster and that I was a younger, trashier version of her. I tried to keep it all to myself, but then looked around and realized that in the general scope of things, everyone in the car was fucked.
Mom turned into our subdivision. The split-level houses were identical to one another in shape, the only significant trademarks were the exterior choices of paint or stain. A couple of pioneers had water sprinklers swishing over their yellowing sod. Our next-door neighbor was having his lawn sprayed by some top gun exterminator boy in a crisp white ChemLawn uniform. Dr. Jewels was in the driveway telling junior where to squirt that big black hose. Jewels is a nickname, his real name is Woskanovitz or something like that. We call him Jewels because he wears more jewelry then Zsa Zsa Gabor. Rings, bracelets, medallions, even the hubcaps of his Cadillac are gold. The man buys jewelry for his car.
As we pulled into the driveway I heard Mom gurgle a wet sigh. She looked sad. When I got out of the car to open the garage door I noticed a yellow dandelion had pushed its way through the rocks outlining our driveway, so I stomped on it with my boot.
“Why’dya do that for?” the lithium candidate asked while struggling out of the car. He leaned down all sensitive and stupid, cupping the flower in his hand, trying to fix it, set it up straight or something, but that sucker was already dead as yesterday. Jewels payed big bucks to kill dandelions while Mom clipped the leaves and mixed them in her salads. Maybe that’s what separates Republicans from Democrats.
I went upstairs, curled on my bed, and tried to figure out why I am who I am and what I need to do to mend the situation. It’s a charming form of psychic mutilation I slink into whenever I’m depressed. I wish I knew how to play guitar. Why is everything so hard?
A few minutes later there was a timid knock at my door. Mom flippped on the light and sat on the edge of my bed, looking guilty, then apologized for dragging us to the Brady Bunch clinic. I said it’s okay, that I know she’s lonely, and so she kissed my forehead, but still looked all freaked out. I worried that Mom’s insecurities were clashing with my own, that her life seemed as unpredictable as mine, but there wasn’t much I could do. She stood, turned off the light, and closed the door. I moshed my face against the pillow and tried to dredge up some fantasy that would lure me into drowsiness but couldn’t concentrate, because I’m worried about Mom, about us, and about everything.
©1999 by Michael Hornburg