In honor of being home.

When I tell people I’m from Bentleyville, most don’t know what I’m talking about. I wouldn’t expect them too. The next question inevitably asks me what it’s like there. Home and I have a complex relationship, one that I can’t possibly sum up in a neat, tidy answer. In spring ’11, I had to write a narrative feature on my hometown for one of my professors — one whom I miss dearly and who saw that storytelling spark in me when others didn’t. This narrative is old, but it still fits. I’m home for the first time in a while, and in honor of that — here it is.

I’ve always been told that home is where the heart is, but no one ever told me what condition my heart would be in when I finally got out.

Twelve years of schooling, best friends, first loves, bonfires, and racing to beat curfew can’t stamp out the overwhelming feelings of suffocation that plagued the first 18 years of my life.

Bentlevyille is a town: a Giant Eagle, a hotel, three mechanics, five churches, three funeral homes and seven bars. But growing up – and even now – it’s a four-walled, padlocked room.

The one main road in town winds down off a hill, coming down from the off-ramp of I-70. A nondescript sign perched next to the truck stop informs you that you’re now entering Bentleyville – a map dot, a single traffic light, famous fish sandwiches, a losing football team and a box of tragic newspaper clippings.

Two hulking hotels now dot the once-free land surrounding the highway ramps. Shiny and new, they do barely any business. What reason do people have to take up an extended stay in a place like Bentleyville? Perhaps, like me, they fear that if they stay too long, they’ll never get out alive. The grip of Smalltown, USA, can be exceptionally vise-like, and here is no exception. Don’t let the claws sink too deep, or else it’ll never let go.

A King’s restaurant is essentially the only eatery the town has to offer. It’s a 20-minute drive from there to the house where I grew up. I learned to make it in 12 in those years between getting my license and that summer when my 11 p.m. curfew was finally lifted. There’s something distinctly youthful and magical about racing down deserted back roads at night, watching the clock, blaring whatever happy-sounding song happens to be on – windows open because it’s summer and it doesn’t matter if it’s not that warm yet. I’ll remember that feeling forever, and I know that I’ll never, ever get that back.

Two sets of train tracks crisscross the town; in those nights when being a 16-year-old came before pleasing my parents, a tale of being caught by a crossing train came in handy.

In my 21 years, I’ve never actually seen a train come through town after 7 p.m.

Main Street goes on. Churches, funeral homes and bars line nearly every inch of the proceeding length of road. If people in Bentleyville take nothing else seriously, they do so with their religion and their alcohol.

It’d be funny if it weren’t so stereotypical.

It’s impossible for me to go in to any one of these places without seeing someone I know, someone who knows me, or someone who knows someone I’m related to. It’s both a blessing and a curse. On the bright side, there’s always someone who knows me. On the downside? There’s always someone who knows me. Bentleyville is very much a double-edged sword, and it has a tendency to cut to the bone.

Just down the road, past Greenlee’s Funeral Home, the Methodist Church and the stop light, there’s Jet’s Food Center – just “Jet’s.” Don’t go too far, though. Turn left right after the second set of train tracks. If you pass the pizza shop, you went too far. Jet’s is was is possibly the last remaining “mom n pop” store in for a good long distance. Five aisles, a hot deli famous for just about everything, and currently run by the 74-year-old daughter of the man who built it. There are “tabs” and “accounts,” and if you don’t have enough money on you, you can come back and pay for it later.

It’s the same customers day in and day out – buying cigarettes and pasta and playing lottery numbers. It’s been my place of employment since I was 16. I’ve worked every holiday since I started there – including every Christmas for the past five years.

It’s where I learned that people are both inherently good and inherently cruel all at the same time. People here have made me cry, and people here have restored my faith in humanity.

It’s so contradictory here, it’s painful.

The slightly creepy looking man sitting outside? That’s Drunk Ray, named such due to the fact that he comes in every day at 12:50 p.m., hangs around until 1 p.m. when the American Legion next door opens, then comes back at 3 p.m., completely wasted. He’s in his 70s, no doubt. His back is stooped, and he gets angry when he’s drunk, but he’s been nothing but kind to me in that drunk-old-guy kind of way.

He’s also dying of lung cancer, due undoubtedly in part to the two packs of Camel nonfilters I’ve sold him nearly every day for the past five years.

I don’t know what I’m going to do when my “regulars” start disappearing.

            Things are quieter here. There’s no traffic, unless, of course, there’s a train going through town. There are no blaring car horns, except for when drivers see someone they know pumping gas or out walking—then they give the obligatory “beep.” I can stand outside and hear the wind blow, hear birds chirping in a tree somewhere. At night, I can hear crickets chirp and “peepers” singing their chorus. In the winter, you can almost hear the snow fall and the ice crystals form. In the summer, you can smell barbeque cooking, and in the fall, there’s that distinct fall smell:  dried leaves, fireplace smoke, and Halloween excitement. There’s a bonfire somewhere in town almost every night from May until November, when it finally gets too cold to stand it.

            The people here are fiercely loyal, though I don’t think most of them know to what. They’re loving and helpful and will not hesitate to ostracize you. They will judge you like it’s their job and then offer to help you carry your groceries. Someone once told me, “If you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s okay, because everyone else in town undoubtedly does.”

It’s home – suffocating, consuming, and full of every memory I’ll never get back and every one that I want to escape from. Driving down that off-ramp is like diving head-first into that shoebox we all have – full of little trinkets, ticket stubs, letters and memories that we want to hold onto forever and that we can’t wait to get away from.

That’s what home is, essentially. You spend your whole life trying to get away, and no one really knows how to react once they do. You’re never truly free, though. Home’s too nosy; it follows you. It’s hot and restless, and it whispers behind your back. It hunts you down and haunts you, not just when you’re gone, but when you come back, too. It chases you and drives you absolutely crazy.

It’s Halloween parades and Fourth of July fireworks, Memorial Day services and Friday night football games with dinner after at King’s. It’s Saturday morning breakfasts before play practice and racing down back roads at night – sunroof open, radio on, breaking curfew and trying too hard: too hard to grow up, too hard to stay young, too hard forget, to be in love or be perfect or be yourself. It’s not realizing that, one day, you’re going to have trouble deciding whether you should define it by the good memories or the bad ones.