By Amy Jo Burns
A long time ago, I fell in love with the stoplight in the center of my hometown. Mercury is just a stop off of Route 80, a town that has one of everything so we don’t feel the urge to leave. My stoplight is your typical stoplight — one that breaks during heat waves and shivers beneath the ice of harsh winters in Western Pennsylvania. I’ve sat beneath it countless times with the boys who loved me in my youth. I remember once a young man named Simon first told me how he felt about me as we waited beneath this light. The jeep he drove pulled to a stop next to an empty patch of asphalt where farmers sold firewood in winter and ears of corn in summer. I was just 16 and thrilled by the heat of the beating sun, the thrum of an idling engine.
He told me he cared for me, and then in the same breath he said, “I’m leaving soon.”
Simon was a few years older than I was, and he had already plotted his get-away from Mercury. He planned to study engineering at a college near Erie. He’d always been one of the few everyone knew would get out of town. He was smart, ballsy, optimistic, not to mention athletic. As we sat beneath the red light, I could tell his thoughts troubled him. I watched him sit in that moment of pause — just long enough for the other lanes of traffic to clear — and consider whether it was right to honor his roots or cut them loose, a ritual I would enact a hundred times in seasons to come. Simon wasn’t afraid to leave. He was afraid of leaving behind any attachments. He knew what I would come to understand in a few years’ time: if you wanted to get out of Mercury, you had to leave running. Otherwise, you’d never get up enough nerve.
That stoplight also reminds me of family and the town that was my family. I saw the light as much as any person in my life; it stood sentry to each of my nothing moments.That was the day I discovered that when you wait in a car with the windows down, the heart will show itself. On the night before he left town, we took Simon’s jeep to an off-road by the highway in search of one of Mercury’s secret landmarks, a tiny bridge with no water running beneath it, a spot where football players went to “think” before big games and the girls went to chase them. It was another place for pausing, for fending off the inevitable, and it seemed like the best spot we could find to say goodbye. I didn’t blame him for leaving town without looking back. I envied him instead.
My friends and I knew how to pass time together, and we also knew how to pass it alone. We all had our favorite spots for solitude — or at least the appearance of it — rusted tire swings, slick rocks next to the waterfalls, the old basketball hoop that had been turned on its side and left next to the woods. These, more than anything, bookend all memories of my youth — old, industrial things, bits of corrosion, and spaces so empty you can’t help but fill them with romance.
That stoplight also reminds me of family and the town that was my family. I saw the light as much as any person in my life; it stood sentry to each of my nothing moments. My sister and I sat beneath this light, our heads moving in sync to the radio, and then later I had the same ritual with my younger brother every morning before school. My body knew the town’s topography—when it rose, when it fell, and I could have driven through town with my eyes closed. The landscape had a certain melody to it, much like our trademark dialect. Nothing spoke of home more than the cadence of our sentences: Yinz remember Bobby? The kid who never took a turn at bat during kickball in gym class? He flew off his four-whiller dahn in that old field where we used to play spin-the-bottle, n’at. I miss that sensation, knowing a place, trusting in its rhythms so much you can abandon your own sense of sight.
That kind of trust turns familiar rhythms into stories and legends, and there are stories to be told about this light of mine. At midnight, it holds red and no longer surrenders to green. This was a tale my neighbor liked to tell me.
“I sat there for 15 minutes,” he said. He’d just gotten his license and I was years away from getting mine. “And wouldn’t you know a cop pulled me over. We went back to that light and it proved me right. It never turned green.”
Even later, the light flashes crimson and the slow rhythm can hypnotize you like a ticking piano metronome. When I was still young with a fresh license in my pocket, this gave me such a rush. I had a Cinderella license, one that demanded I be home by midnight, and everyone I knew was rushing home to beat the clock on a Saturday night. Still, it felt as if the entire world was asleep but for me. The boys who played basketball — the town’s favorite boys, no doubt — were always hurrying to get home before their coach’s curfew in winter, many of them wearing wool caps stitched with black and gold yarn to keep them from catching cold. The only distractions that could slow them down were the whispers of a beautiful girl and thick patches of ice.
Take a left at this light, and it’ll lead you to houses with my name scrawled on basement walls and living room couches with vials of my lipgloss still lost in the cushions. Like me, my friends lived in the same houses for most of their lives, and many were just walking distance from the courthouse at the center of town. The courthouse was the perfect spot to meet — you could see it from anywhere — and yet we never met there. We preferred secret places, our places. Those who lived outside city limits were the ones who hosted haunted hayrides and bonfires and games of spotlight. But in winter, we stayed close to home.
Take a right at the light and you’ll end up in the grassy spots I used to run through on summer nights. My hometown knew how to woo its young, the grass licking our feet, so cool in the hot night. There were fireworks every July, fresh banners for the new restaurant in town that wouldn’t last, and the flush of discovering that the boy you’d known all your life looked different by the glow of a campfire.
Go straight at the light, and you’ll find the road I took out of town toward other highways, other cornfields, other lives. Until then, Pittsburgh was the only city I’d been in, the city that had grown the family that came before me, one where my father had restored many of the roofs of its closing mills and manufacturing plants and my grandfather had repaired many of its kilns. I couldn’t find a life for myself among the silent smokestacks. I wanted to explore other towns, other stoplights that didn’t know me so well. Always, Mercury and its stoplight have been a harbinger of my worst secrets. And when I got the chance, I ran away from them all.
If you pass through the light and take a few more turns, you’ll drive past the house of a piano teacher I once knew. I was just a girl then, only 10 years old, and I saw my stoplight every Monday on the way to my lessons. This was a man I once loved and admired, as did the rest of the small town we lived in. He taught me about chromatic scales and staccato rhythms and how to lean into the music I played. This was also a man who liked to put his hands on his female students to the beat of the flashing metronome. Here is the secret that haunts me still: when it came time to tell the truth about what he’d done, only a few students were brave enough to talk, and I chose to stay silent.
I could sit beneath it for
an entire evening, waiting for it to turn green, not caring if it does. The light stares back, red and open-mouthed, poised for either a scream or a kiss. Which way? I want to ask it. Which path will fix what I’ve done?
I wasn’t the only one who left town. Every young person in Mercury faced the same impossible choice: to leave home, to find a way to stay. My friends became engineers, army men, doctors, and teachers. They moved to Pittsburgh and Erie and North Carolina. Some of them moved back. Some stayed close to home, others learned the trades of our mothers and fathers. Most of us still like to work with our hands. We patch roofs and sew quilts and restore old furniture. Many of us have lost touch.
More than 15 years have passed, and I’m still homesick. The town I grew up in made me a romantic. A liar. A victim. An accomplice. It made me strong, it made me weak. My hometown was my first love for its distant waterfalls and for the countless trips to the post office and for its roads that curved like a coiled snake, and it broke my heart when so many turned their backs on the young girls who dared tell the truth. I broke my own heart again when I turned my back on them, too.
Mercury is the deepest, saddest, loveliest, strangest place I’ve ever been. Everyone I know feels the same pull toward it — those who have stayed, and those who have left.
“Mercury is like a whirlpool,” one of my best friends says. “One you don’t want to get sucked into.”
The magnetism exists between our memories and the landscape itself, one full of back roads and eerie strip mines. There are blood-red trees in autumn, wind that will burn your cheeks, fires that will keep you warm, and hundreds of bridges that will lead you to Pittsburgh, a place that outsiders call the “Paris of Appalachia.” We have family feuds and graveyards half-full and stories that will still be told long after we’re dead. There are stoplights that break their own rules: green, yellow, red, green, yellow, red, red, red, red. In the far distance there is a fair city presiding over all of us, remaking herself just the way we imagine we can, too.
Even now when I return home I can’t wait to get to my stoplight. I could sit beneath it for an entire evening, waiting for it to turn green, not caring if it does. The light stares back, red and open-mouthed, poised for either a scream or a kiss. Which way? I want to ask it. Which path will fix what I’ve done?
I’m not sure which the real sin is: the lying or the leaving. The question itself leads me down the spiral paths of my youth, places I’ve not visited in a long time but will never forget. The tree I hid behind during a midnight game of hide-and-seek, the one-lane bridge on the outskirts of town, even that black-and-white house where my old piano teacher still lives. In this way I hold my hometown close, chasing these memories, wishing some of them might have turned out differently, knowing they never could.
Originally published in The Pittsburgh Anthology (Belt Publishing, 2015).
Amy Jo Burns is the author of Cinderland, a Rust Belt memoir of fire, steel, and long held secrets. Her other writing has appeared in Dame, Good Housekeeping, Jezebel, The Rumpus, and Salon. She currently writes for Ploughshares and is also at work on a novel.
Banner photo by Jon Dawson