Island City

Laura Adamczyk

April 10, 2023 
The following is from Laura Adamczyk's debut novel Island City. Adamczyk has won awards from the Union League Civic & Arts Foundation of Chicago and the Dzanc/DISQUIET International Literary Program. Her work has appeared the Chicago Reader, Guernica, McSweeney’s, Ninth Letter, Salt Hill, and more. Her short story collection, Hardly Children, was published by FSG in 2018. She lives in Chicago.

I can tell by your faces that you think you recognize me. I can see you trying to figure it out. It’s true, I grew up here, I’m from here, but I haven’t lived in town for some time. Even then I never really made myself known. There’s no reason you’d know me, I guess is what I’m saying. I wasn’t out and about. I mostly just went to school or drove around. The usual things. You must know there’s never been much to do here. For a while when I was fourteen or fifteen I had this thing where every couple weeks I’d poke around in the antique shops down the street. I’d never buy anything. There was never anything new, always the same old crap. But I kept going back, creaking into each room and picking through it all, like I might find something I couldn’t live without.

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Maybe you recognize my dad in me. The resemblance is not exactly subtle. My mom used to make a big deal about it, like it was some mystery where I came from. I’ve seen that face before, she’d say. I know that face. Whenever I would scrunch my nose or bug my eyes. Whenever I was being impatient or ironic. Whenever I gave a look that said, What are you gonna do? or, Hey, don’t look at me. That’s when the face I was given became most like the face of the man who’d given it to me. But then again, I doubt you’d remember him either. My dad lived here for far less time than I did and wasn’t exactly what you’d call a social but­terfly. He was never much interested in people, or only ever in the smallest doses. And from what I remember, he did most of his drinking at home.

Or maybe it’s that I don’t look like you all. It’s a difference you’re noticing rather than any familiarity. That’s not an insult. It’s just a function of a small town and this one is like any other. Sometimes the clichés are true. Everybody kind of looks the same, dresses the same. It doesn’t take a lot to stick out. It can be as subtle as a hairstyle or the cut on a pair of jeans. Small towns lag behind. That’s partly why I came here. You can feel untethered in a place like this. There’s a sense of no consequences, like you’re in a foreign country. It allows for a certain kind of freedom. Like, I’ve never been embarrassed in front of a dog, you know? It’s the perfect place to give up, is what I’m saying. That’s not an insult. I’m sure each of you has somewhere you’d think of going when you want to go lower. Each of you has your own personal below-sea-level. Island City just happens to be mine.

It’s funny, Mom told me never to come in here, I don’t know why. You’d think it would have been the bar farther down the street. There was always a line of motorcycles in front, spread out like a deck of cards, and tough-looking dudes milling around in leather jackets and bandanas, their skin so weathered that it had become a kind of shell. Or the place on the way out of town with all the pool tables where they let high schoolers drink. But of all the bars, this is the one she told me to avoid. Of course, she told it to me when I was something like seventeen, when there wasn’t much to do with the information. This town is funny, it’s only bars and antique shops. Yes, and churches—bars and antique shops and churches.

But I like this place. I really do. I like when bars are one big room and the bar of the bar is right in the middle. A square inside a square and everybody can see everybody else, like theater-in-the-round. You know, when the audience is seated on all sides of the performer. I like how generic it is too. The outside probably looks no different than when it was first built. I’ve always liked that chipped blue-gray paint on the brick and the gold script stenciled on the window. Plus, who doesn’t like fake wood paneling? And that black board with the drink specials on it—how do they make the writing glow like that? I wonder what my sister would think of this place. I can’t see her choosing it. Then again, sometimes she’d surprise you. She’s always had a way of making things work. She’d probably think this place is funny. Like the air conditioner in the window—she’d get a kick out of the garbage bag taped around the sides. Ah yes, she’d say. It has all the modern amenities. It’s like a black lung, that thing, sucking in and out. I love it. There’s the world outside—bright and warm, summer just beginning to open its arms to everyone—and we’re all here inside this dark, sealed chamber. There’s something about a bar that you can’t see into from the outside and that you can’t see out of either. It’s the way it should be, I think. We’ve got our own business to attend to.

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There was a second as I was walking through the door, then that hallway before you make the turn into this room, when I wasn’t quite inside but wasn’t quite outside either. It reminded me of this time in the city, I don’t know, something like ten years ago. It’s funny, it’s only an hour and a half away, but it might as well be a day and night’s drive. It’s not just the difference in landscape, but there’s something of a lack of culture here. And industry and ambition. Like I said, I grew up here, I can say that. Either way, I think we can agree there are some differences. For good and ill. I’m not going to get all the way into it. Okay, I have always found the name funny. The tiniest tributary breaks away from a river and loops back, making an island no bigger than a couple football fields. The town builds a park on it, the town’s main park, the only thing close to a destination this town has, which I understand, I get it, it’s a good use of the space, but then they put island in the town’s name—island in the name of a town in the middle of a prairie. And then the city. That must have been more than the usual dose of wishful thinking, even when the town was new and optimistic and the trains still stopped here. I get it. Once I met a very short man who shared a name with the tallest tree on the planet. It’s just that this town is closer to not existing than it is to being a city. You have to admit that’s funny. When Mom still lived here, she’d tell Sister, who’d then tell me, all about Island City’s most thrilling developments, like when they finally tore down the train station. I pictured tractor shovels slowly pushing into its side, the thing putting up as much resistance as a sandcastle. Walking down here I saw the field where it used to be. A lovely array of empty bottles and an old TV, if I’m not mistaken. Then I came in here and I remembered.

It was June or July, a warm summer night after work, it was really nice, I remember, still light out. I was outside the big art museum downtown waiting to be let in for a reading. Some famous writer was there and a not-small group of people had gathered. I don’t know why it was taking so long, but when they finally funneled us in, one at a time, it was through the revolving doors of the side entrance. The doors’ glass was opaque white, so that you couldn’t see anything on the other side, only dark shapes. When it was my turn and I stepped inside the door, I realized that anything could be waiting on the other side. I mean, sure, it would probably be one of the museum’s lobbies, the museum I’d visited a dozen times before, but I wouldn’t really know until I got in there. The few seconds I turned inside that white, airless capsule, with someone in the slot ahead and someone behind, I was trapped. I was locked in. I couldn’t see anything except the dusty white of the glass, my feet shuffling on the cement floor. I pushed into the unknowing. It felt like it took a long time, but soon I was released. It was a relief. Not what I found on the other side—the welcome desk, the donation box, people milling—but just that the in-between was over. It was what I imagined dying to be like. Passing from one thing to another without knowing exactly what awaits you. I had that same feeling coming in this place. I had an idea what would be here, but didn’t know until I was all the way in. Turning that blind corner, I found myself making a wish: I want someone to tell me what’s going to happen.


Excerpted from Island City, by Laura Adamczyk. Published by FSG Originals, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2023 by Laura Adamczyk. All rights reserved.

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