Illinois – Gracjan Kraszewski

Marcus flew into Champaign’s Willard airport from Midway-Chicago. It is hardly a forty-minute connector, unsurprising because just to drive can take no more than a true two hours, depending on traffic, depending on the amount of potholes on Cicero Avenue, depending upon the amount of Bettys and Dorothys and Jeds and Joes who slow the natural stream south by flipping the turn signal on at the last minute off Cicero unto the drive-thru, so many of them there, all the options, depending on weather, depending on the smell of Chicagoland (when it’s bad people drive more frantically, veritably in flight, and so stop more abruptly, slow things down), depending on the kind of music available for driver-side selection. If all these factors are off, Chicago to Champaign-Urbana-Savoy can take nearly four hours. But if they’re on and in your favor—sparse traffic, a recently paved road, few fast foodies, clear skies, fresh exterior smells, maybe even a light breeze or two to stand up the hairs on one’s arm in a pleasurable way, and songs for serenity and sustained, cruise control vehicular operation—one hour, fifty-three minutes is not outside the realm of possibility (with legal limits pertaining to the left lane generally accounted for, too).

Marcus was at the moment in the sky not under it, fifteen minutes until touchdown, so said those that knew. Beneath him, outside his left shoulder leaning [it touching the following] Plexiglas-polycarbonate window: farmland; untilled, tilled, and overdone; there a vast expanse of dandelions, over there whole squares and hectares of shatter cane, also called sorghum, sometimes referred to as great millet or milo while, most unusual of all, in all its fullness, sorghum bicolor; all these checkerboard, chess board, cut-graphed near cropcircled, really one degree from someone with inklings of a plan just putting the pieces together, connecting the dots of the land below, open and evidently fertile land, plains, expansive spaces, the harshest of contrasts from downgazes onto horizons-long leagues of urban sprawl and the Bauhaus glass box, sheer façade, flat roofed fantasies of places like Van der Rohe’s Illinois Institute of Technology upon departure compared to now (yes, some of these regional pilots did turn right first and out towards Lake Michigan before getting on track straight shot south and so was that why 40-45 minutes correctly sounded longer than necessary?), now look and see the waves of churning, wind pushed farmland on the solid ocean below, and that which is most noteworthy of all during the forty minutes flight: the suddenness of it all. The way that it is all city one moment, all rural that same moment; there is no ‘next’ moment, the change happens during the recession of the ongoing former state. The only comparison is to the winter-summer transition that happens each early March on the Mississippi Delta. Springtime does not exist.

Marcus was an agent who was a secret agent who was, even during the flight, an active secret agent. He had secured parts and prints number one in Iceland and then repeated the successful performance in Italy two months ago. It was now the fall. He was to meet a man here who could, ostensibly and obviously, decipher the prints, assemble the disparate parts and then deliver the completed superweapon—one capable of disassociating North America from planet Earth, for example, well, that’s what they had told him anyway and that they then told him that all this was not just super hush-hush discreet but fine-tuned calibrated to a setting reading si vis Pacem, Para Bellum still did not ward off the electric cold courses up the spine, back down to the toes each he time he thought of potentialities and possible (unforeseen, see: negative) contingencies —to the New Mexican desert before Christmastime.

Marcus’ undercover identity meant nothing to the passengers around him. Fine, the very secret nature of the whole business, and therefore the inaccessible nature of the necessary information required for the care v. not care sliding scale noted then null and voided, put away, at least for the moment, Marcus nonetheless had this feeling that even if they did know they wouldn’t give a shit. A slightly heavy-set woman two seats to the right, husky not heavy, friends might say, well built not wide, she was fiddling with a bag of peanuts, trying and failing to rip them open time and time again until she cut her thumb with an unclipped fingernail, mouthing “woaaah sha-yeeeeeeeee-tt” much softer, nearly inaudible, than she perhaps wanted to but could notconsidering present company, see: a very public space. She did not stop shaking her injured hand for five minutes minimum afterwards, eventually picking up the object of her wound and subsequent salt and throwing it down the aisle ahead. You think she’s have time for Marcus and Marcus’ ‘secret agent’ business? What would that matter when the world had already proved hard and frustrating enough right there in the microcosm of a mini-bag of peanuts? What about the guy in the seat directly ahead of Marcus, picking his nose and then smearing the findings on the bottom of the seat in front of him? And, just how was this man able to get away with this sort of behavior? The gentleman next to him was sound asleep, alternatingly snoring and farting—snore, fart, snore, fart, snore…—the whole flight. His nose picking, left seat comrade in careless arms, he too, go figure, did not seem to care about that. Was that one of the main problems of the world today, Marcus thought, that people just did not care?

The plane landed smoothly. Dinging sounds above, belts clickiningly unbuckled about the waist, the squeaks of formerly pressed down seats inflating upwards back to normal as their former occupants now stood erect, awake, some frustrated, some smiling, many more bored andapathetic, but all of them trying to read the silent social signals for entry into the aisle for hands up above to click-pull, fidget-open the overhead compartments and pull down one’s own luggage without dropping someone else’s luggage onto a white-haired grandma who had quit the crossword puzzle too soon for her own good.

Marcus left the airport in a rental car pre-ordered and waiting with a key practically in the ignition, it too waiting for just one halfhearted turn to the right. It was no more than afew miles from the airport, technically in Savoy, to the very heart and center of Champaign-Urbana. Leaving the airport, past the UI golf course on the left, it within the airport zone proper itself, one arrives at US-45, S. Dunlap Avenue. There is no option to go straight, but a right will take you south towards Tolono and Tuscola, then all the way out of the state even unto Corinth, MS, if you let that happen, where, yep, US 45-S can continue to transport you in that direction even further and further down and deep, one can arrive at the campus of Mississippi State University in a practically straight shot, hundreds of miles on US-45 S with but a 10 mile turn onto US 82 near the immediate approach to Starkville.

But Marcus turns left, towards the twin cities and campus. At one of the first intersections, at the east-west breakpoint of Church Street, he notices a sign pinned to a telephone pole advertising something called Curtis Orchard & Pumpkin Patch, very close up ahead and one right turn on Duncan! The right side of 45 is lined by a still in use Amtrak rail line. Marcus keeps going, past an ALDI and a Schnucks and an IMAX theater, noticing right beside the movie theater is a beer shop named Friar Tuck’s and he instantly remembers, without taking his eyes off the road or any hands and fingers off the wheel, that Illinois beer is supposed to be good, brewed according to the Bavarian purity law good, owing to the German immigrants here in this part of the country, past Best Western Paradise Inn and the Old Orchard Lanes & Links, past HMD Academy of Tae Kwon Do and Massey Family Dentistry until he reaches Windsor Road.

Another sign on a telephone pole suggests drivers turn left, to come and worship at, and enroll one’s children at, St. Matthew Catholic Parish, probably one of these old school community-all-in parochial programs where the school is attached to the church, it’s Saint Paul one body many parts in the frozen music of its essential architecture, where the kids begin the day with Mass in the church and then walk hand-in-hand behind their teacher to work through their writing, reading, arithmetic, this following the Bp. Fulton J. Sheen God and country—what Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana, but two and a half hours from here, used to be, ‘God and country,’ really the Saint Augustine City of God not City of Man Catholics make the best Roman citizens for they are first and foremost passport holders in the Kingdom of Heaven thing—recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and one Our Father, One Hail Mary, One Glory Be, this commencing a day of hard work, because true Midwesterners work hard, they all do, the real ones, the ones from here like crops from the soil from here, for here there is faith, and foundations, and feet on the ground, heads still screwed on straight, here, and these kids and their teachers at St. Matthew’s Catholic school probably go about their daily business quietly and efficiently and with excellence in mind but humbly left unspoken, like Illinois German Midwesterners are wont to do, some of these maybe brewing then supplying homages to the purity law at Friar Tucks, for these people understand there is no contradiction between teaching the youth during the day and brewing for their parents golden, crème-frothed relaxation at night, for to instruct and to brew is but a very Benedictine monk thing, and though none of the teachers at St. Matthew’s are members of the Benedictine order, the ora et labora spirit is most likely very alive there, the going about the hard work of pedagogy, the old fashioned recitations of committed memorization punctuated by hard fought two hand touch football by some of the older seventh and eight grade boys on the macadam line playground during recess. One of these kids, just perhaps that one, there, the one, even while dressed in his green polo and khaki slacks, who is(you noticed, haha, what an arm, right?) putting tight, forty yard spirals onto the unworthy hands of his classmates all throughout this blustery, but simultaneously warm and soft fall afternoon, he, the young QB, and they, all of them, are bouncing about happily in coming thoughts of Saturday, this Saturday, at Memorial Stadium and their guys against the visiting Iowa Hawkeyes. And, maybe, just but maybe, this QB in the making, diamond in the not that rough at all of St. Matthews here, in Champaign, IL, maybe just one day it’ll be sixty-five yard spirals and he’ll be wearing orange and blue, not green and khaki, and the hands his throws will fall into will not fall onto macadam, but be carried safely across goal lines under roaring cheers at that one and sameMemorial Stadium, it when being at its best being like the only place on earth one would want to be.

Marcus stops at a place on the left, off the still same US-45, a store, grocery-farm-co/op-?, called Harvest Market. What a store, what a place, this; this freaking middle of the map, American as all painfully precious and beautiful dot. Definition Americanness something here for all of us all, so much so it wounds the inner tear ducts sunset over oceans of land, of farms, of silos, so many silos so much sentimental nostalgic but sentimentality working so right a la Kevin Costner plowing under his corn to build a baseball field so as to reconcile with his ghost dad who turns around instantly and says he’d like that, maybe even very much, when Costner’s character quits calling him ‘John,’ although that is his name, and instead inserts into the sentence, ‘Hey ___, you wanna have a catch?,’ the word, the name, that name of eternal significance, nay honor, nay even holiness, for God the Son taught us that God the Father is precisely that, ‘Dad.’

Aw, it’s freaking beautiful, Marcus thinks, inside Harvest Market and eating a heaping breakfast from a breakfast buffet featuring local sausages and bacon, eggs that are fluffy without artificial enhancements and yellower that sunflowers in bloom, grits and hash browns, hash browns hashed but still all potato, corn on the cob, and coffee that tells you in silent notes for the nose and eyes: 4am, dew on the grass but cows to be milked, that milk in your coffee, from the cows post-milking, the farm, the paint-chipped barns, the taste of dinner piping hot after nothing in the stomach the past eighteen hours but that coffee, and those feet hurt and they itch and they’re pretty cramped in the boots, maybe just a bit damp, and the callouses on the hands won’t stop tearing open.Now you tear into something, this piping hot plate, your turn to be in charge and get your fill so yeah go get it.

Tractors, tractors, tractors, cement trucks and tractors.Marcus sees so many out the window. He sees out over the train tracks that line the right side of US 45 and sees flat farm fields and grid patterned out roads and sees the alternate way to arrive into the heart of Urbana where he’s heading for he’s coming in the standard way, from Willard airport, up 45 straight ahead until you reach Honorary Illini Boulevard, which is called W Kirby in Champaign and W Florida in Urbana; Honorary Illini Boulevard, a right onto off of45 takes you past, after taking you under a the train rail overpass bridge, the Illini baseball and softball fields on the right, the basketball arena, on the right as well, and Memorial Stadium on the left, the UIUC arboretum on the right soon after you cross over Lincoln Avenue, which taking a left takes you down the very vein of the separation between the campus proper, on the left, and Urbana, more specifically West Urbana, on the right. But, not going left on Lincoln but continuing straight on West Florida, with that glorious arboretum on your right hip the whole time, the aboreuteum, with the hill which in wintertime, this being Illinois, serves as an acceptable place to climb up and sled down, forming the right hand fore and back ground all the while ,and because downtown Urbana has not changed as the ultimate destination point, one can pick left turns onto S. Busey Ave, S. Orchard Street, Race Street, or even Vine Street, right at the corner of Blair Park.

S. Orchard is a good option, one which then takes you over Pennsylvania and Michigan avenues, each loaded with enormous houses, double-sized lots—affordable though, impossibly affordable considering the historic district and the historical university with the great reputation and the really good, Big Ten division 1 sports and the not bad weather, four seasons, nice, and the proximity to Chicago—cobblestone streets not too far from view, often right beneath one’s feet or tires. And then past the turn off to Carle Park via Indiana, where professors’ kids play on the toys and in the sandbox and climb the spider web climbing thing or even play a kind of one basket basketball game where you have to take it back beyond the three point line on a change of possession but with soccer, with just one soccer net there, in Carle Park, while the professors, some of them, switch through two or three language grammars, dialogues mainly, while sitting on a nice wooden bench sipping a coffee made at home, for it’s all walkable here.

But for the thing at hand, the standard way to arrive at downtown Urbana from Willard airport, that which Marcus will soon do, he still looking out the second floor windows at Harvest Market, still having a coffee and remnants of a breakfast already longed for, looking out over at the alternate way to arrive into downtown Urbana, out on the grid and the farm lands, the beautiful scenes maybemademore beautiful by a late fall twister touching down over those fields so long, please, Lord, that no people would be harmed and no crops destroyed,yes,even that, even the latter, forpeople themselves are harmed when their way of life, their means to their daily bread is disrupted, back to that though at hand, the standard way, that would be the way Marcus would soon be coming to Urbana himself, you cross over Indiana, do not turn right to head towards Carle Park butfind the end terminus of S. Orchard at its intersection with Washington, still in the heart of West Urbana, then turn right and head straight past Urbana Middle School, Urbana Middle School adjacent to Urbana High, make it to Vine street this way and then turn left, go, go, go until you, having gone past the Lincoln center, are now at a crucial juncture, often under grey skies, Main Street, where to go right is to go out towards Aldi andSt, Joseph, IL,to go straight is to be able to get, eventually, onto I-57 N to Chicago, but, to turn left takes you past places like Crane Alley brewery, West Main Dental, Priceless Books, Rick’s Bakery, with turn options towards the Courier Café, Strawberry Fields Café, St. Patrick’s Catholic Church and the Urbana Public Library, all of these, and so much more, so many dreams just waiting to be fulfilled and that can be accessed from leaving the machine at the mid-town parking garage right there in the center of it all, the mid-town parking garage, stone’s throw to the Lincoln Center, home base for the Saturday morning Farmer’s market, every Saturday from late summer through those golden, glorious mid-western falls and nearby the headquarters of the annualSweetcorn Festival which, while only held one weekend a year, the last one in August, usually, and though but once a year what a once a year thing this once a year thing is and becomes that one time a year it comes around.

Marcus has finished the entirety of his Harvest Market breakfast. He makes his way to downtown Urbana the standard way, taking the S. Orchard route past Carle Park, having turned right on Indiana then left on Race, past the Urbana Free Library unto his destination. The destination is classified, naturally. But there was all the darkness, and paint-chipped walls, and intimidating large guys in Italian suits with hands crossed in front of them standing behind the guy sitting behind a desk waiting to ask Marcus a few key, password protected questions before handing him a final address, and just one window, with faint sunlight struggling through the dusty long unwashed panes, itself, the sunlight, struggling to break through the clouds in the first place into this one and same room in an undisclosed location in downtown Urbana that, while trying to be anonymous, and perhaps succeeding, does not succeed in being atypical for even the leaky pipes, themselves paint chipped and dirty, look straight out of central casting.

Marcus is back on the road, a country road. He arrives at the address written in green ink on the scrunched piece of paper the guy at the desk in the dark room in downtown Urbana had handed him. He’s quite a ways out of town now. He didn’t make it all the way out to Allerton Park, but close enough to somewhere in the vicinity here. He pulls up to the only structure on the property, a large grain silo. Marcus walks inside. Margaux Avril’s L’Air de Rien is blasting a silo-bumping high decibel volume, enveloping the solitary figure—yoked out of his mind, to first impression note—who, shirtless, is deadlifting a massive amount of weight (for reps) at the center of the silo. There is nothing here but the man, Margaux’s music, being locked in on repeat, a few machines behind him, the man, some screens and cords and wires and such, who knows?Marcus thinks, and then waits, watching.

The man drops the final rep hard to the floor, at the same time Margaux sings, ‘tu sais que, je te tiens.’ He throws on a button up, navy blue car mechanic shirt,one with the name tag L. Michaelson, walks over and introduces himself. He offers Marcus a drink. Marcus declines. The man insists. They drink a few beers that the man had brewed himself, and they are delicious beyond belief.Then they get down to business. More passcode sensitive questions asked and answered. Marcus opens his briefcase and presents the pertinent material he had collected in Iceland and Italy, respectively. The man smiles. He pours himself and Marcus another beer. They toast John Bernard Czestochowski and Karl Schliemann. This’ll do, the man assures Marcus, mission accomplished, my friend, he says. By the way, want another beer? They toast Aeneas Ibanez and Marcus’ father. They even toast Einar, fucking Einar, right? the man says laughing, his laugh nearly completely drowned out by Marcus’ very loud laugher.

Then man then says, nodding and sipping beer foam like the alpha he appears to be in every way, then we do this, I do this, you see. I take your Iceland and Italy stuff, I combine it to that which I haveherealready, the materials and the math, and then we, basically, overlay it to Schliemann’s original stuff, we finally can realize Schliemann’s defensive-deterrent vision forthis. ESSNWNAU-AL becomes the premier thermonuclear powerin the world, he says, haha, serous stuff, huh? But all by yourself?Marcus asks, before asking for another beer. No, the man says, obliging and pouring while answering. There’s a whole team coming next week. They were waiting on the word that you had arrived and everything would be in place. We build it, build it!, then we’ll transport it back to New Mexico in pieces, deconstructued but us knowingit can be done for we just did it, under the cover of night and just covers, camouflage, etc, and re-assemble it there before entrusting it to the friars in the desert and the His or Her Serene Nuclear Highness. Marcus proposes a toast to the Serene Nuclear Highness.

The two, now friends, clink and drink.

Gracjan Kraszewski, Author of the novel, ‘The Holdout’ (Adelaide Books, 2018) and the historical manuscript, ‘Catholic Confederates’ (Kent State Univ. Press, 2020). Currently working on a 1,000 page plus absurdist and maximalist philosophical comedy novel entitled Job Search set one hundred years in the future investigating themes of American freedom, free will, and the pursuit of happiness in a time of apocalyptic thermonuclear geopolitics. Fiction has appeared in Riddle Fence, Wilderness House Literary Review, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, New English Review, The Southern Distinctive, PILGRIM, The Coil, Bull: Men’s Fiction, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Rumblefish Press, Five on the Fifth, and on The Short Humour Site. Pieces forthcoming in the Nashwaak Review and Black Bear Review.