What Cornel West and Ella Baker Can Teach Us about Ferguson
Whitey Bulger, Boston Busing, and Southie’s Lost Generation

How to Live a Lie in Mercury, Pennsylvania

By Amy Jo Burns

Images: "White County Beauty Queen..." by Al Stephenson (Wikimedia Commons) & "Dancing Lights" by Onceuponatime13 (DeviantART)

Excerpted from Cinderland

As if Mercury itself somehow knew how badly I wanted out, Thursday night of Spirit Week was the last town fire I ever took part in. At dusk, the homecoming amoeba prepared to parade through town. Its course had already been set, and it was an expanded version of the path all the students took the day of the explosion at the McCandless car dealership: starting at the elementary school and ending at the high school where a homecoming bonfire waited to be lit.

In the elementary school parking lot, someone handed me a bucket of candy, and I had to pull my hands out from the cuffs of my sweater to hold it. The air was getting colder now. Inside the bucket, I found peppermints, Smarties, and butterscotch in golden cellophane, all the hard candy flavors I used to collect as a child when I’d stood on the side of the road, watching the floats as they passed by and dreaming of the day when I would get my turn.

Cinderland by Amy Jo BurnsFirst up was the band, always the band. I still loved the deep, rhythmic pound of the bass drum and the shallow smack of a drumstick against a snare drum’s rim. The sound seeped into my chest and spilled out of it at the same time. It made me think of autumn, of the spark that came from performing for a stadium against the chill of nightfall. My heart burned brightest when the rest of my body had grown cold.

The sun had started to set. After four blows of a whistle, the Mighty Mercury Mustang Marching Machine took off, turning the crisp corner one row at a time. Up next, the class floats fell in line behind the band. A series of gleaming fire engines followed next. The penultimate display featured the MHS football team and cheerleaders clumped together on hay bales that had been tossed onto a flatbed trailer. The boys looked so fresh in their jerseys paired with faded Levis and Wranglers, the girls in their MHS sweaters and turtlenecks. A small homecoming miracle: on this float, there were two boys for every girl.

Last, seven cars with their tops down formed a convertible convoy. When we pulled out of the lot, a crowd had already gathered. Lawn chairs flanked the sidewalk, and children jumped on top of gutters and flailed their arms. “Candy! Candy!” they shouted. Young mothers hung back, cradling babies wrapped in blankets. Fans bordered both sides of the route all the way from the elementary school to the high school. They made a tunnel of people, a preparation fit for hometown royalty.

As we snaked through town, my escort Luke and I tossed candy from the back of the convertible, where we sat enthroned, our dirty boots scuffing the backseat’s upholstery. We smiled and waved. I felt my steel heart melting. It hurt, how perfect this moment was. I knew it was real—I could feel the hard candy in my palm, the crisp wind on my face. I could hear the crowds cheer as we passed and the hypnotizing thump of the bass drum as we moved.

And yet my constant sacrifice for this ultimate chance to put myself on a pedestal now felt like bleeding out on the inside. I faltered as we encountered all the stop signs and potholes and old houses I’d seen a million times. This is it, I said to myself. Twilight set in as we rode past the old graveyard where Simon’s engine had once idled and he told me he didn’t want any suitcases between us. Past the restaurant with the chameleon names, past the barren lot where the Mercury Diner once stood, past the bushes where Pete and I hid the first night we played Spotlight. Traveling my hometown’s geography at a crawling pace, I couldn’t deny my own reflection. I was the graveyard, the asphalt, the grass, the sky. We had done this together, the town and I. More than Nora, who rode in a convertible ahead of me, more than Pete or Simon, who had each performed their own homecoming rites, Mercury itself had been my most loyal accomplice.

Even with all our failings, I belonged to this town and these people in a way I wasn’t sure I could belong to anyone else. We shared the same illusions, and we harbored the same secrets. As we crept through town on the backs of American-made cars, the band playing, the kids screaming, the fire trucks wailing, the mania swelled. It was real but it was also a lie, and the whole town was besotted with it.


Amy_Jo_Burns-by-Jen ZilaAmy Jo Burns teaches at the Arts Council of Princeton and writes for Ploughshares. She lives in Franklin Park, New Jersey. This is her first book.