This month, the brilliant Joseph Scapellato shares an anecdote and a story.
HFR: What's the story behind the story?
JS: I grew up in Western Springs, Illinois, a due-west-of-Chicago Chicago suburb. As a kid I played in Spring Rock Park. In Spring Rock Park there is no spring.
When I wrote “We Try to Find the Spring in Spring Rock Park in Western Springs, Illinois” I was trying to finish a story collection. Because the collection is attempting to be more of a “concept album”—as opposed to attempting to be more of a “greatest hits album”—I re-read what was in it, looking and listening for what other “notes” and “movements” and “tracks” it seemed to need. Content-wise, what it seemed to need was a story that was directly (rather than indirectly) about conflicts between Native Americans and European settlers, and form-wise, what it seemed to need was a story that instead of being about myth was itself a myth.
Around this time, I went to my mom and dad’s house in Western Springs, the house I grew up in. Me and my wife and my brothers and my folks had dinner. Before dessert, I poked around on my parents’ bookshelves and found Western Springs: A Centennial History of the Village, 1886-1986, a slim hardcover volume put out by the Historical Society of Western Springs. I remembered: I’d forgotten all about this book. My mom had nabbed it at a garage sale, or I had. Maybe a decade ago I’d skimmed it.
This time I read it. I was dazzled by the many things I didn’t know about my hometown—things that wound up in “We Try to Find the Spring in Spring Rock Park in Western Springs, Illinois.”
I was also ashamed.
Why didn’t I know any of this?
Why didn’t anyone I know know any of this?
Maybe how I grew up was a little like how you grew up: no one I knew knew anything about the local history of the land we were right then growing up on. Or if they did, they didn’t talk about it. I grew up mostly with other white folks, almost all of who were removed by at least two generations from their European immigrant ancestors. Not a lot of people knew what their last names meant. (Scapellato, I found out a few years ago, means Without a Hat. And my mother’s maiden name, Gacki, means A Certain Kind of Bat.)
With the help of the rediscovered book, I tried to write a story about Native Americans and European settlers, and at the same time, I tried to write a story about my hometown. I hadn’t written about my hometown since grade school, when the finicky time machines and interdimensional portals and world-warping spells that always featured in those stories served to get me, my narrators, and my readers out of Western Springs and/or into a very different Western Springs.
In early drafts, “We Try to Find the Spring in Spring Rock Park in Western Springs, Illinois” began with what is now the embedded story: the Native Americans finding the spring speaking from the rock. But those drafts kept skittering away. I couldn’t get them to have the traction they seemed to want to have.
So I played with adding the frame—the plural narrator—and that’s when I sensed that the story this story really wanted to tell was the story of being a citizen of Western Springs and wanting to know the built-over plowed-under long-faded history of the land you were on, of having to work hard to touch that history, to attempt to recreate it by retelling it.
And then I realized that I’d written a story about storytelling, which, I’ll argue, every story, especially every oral story, is at least partly about. (How can a story not in some covert or overt way be about its own telling, its performance of itself?)
I am indebted to Kevin “Mc” McIlvoy, fellow Illinoisan, for this story. Mc: thank you, friend.
We Try to Find the Spring in Spring Rock Park in Western Springs, Illinois
We try to find the spring in Spring Rock Park in Western Springs, Illinois and we can’t. We can’t remember. We can’t remember where it isn’t anymore.
We stomp out of Spring Rock Park and we cross the train tracks where we’re not supposed to cross and we pass the new train station made to look like the old train station and we get right up to the Western Springs Water Tower. The first floor of the Western Springs Water Tower houses the Western Springs Historical Society, we remember. We knock on the door and we try to open it and it’s locked—we all try one at a time, once—and we try the windows, all of them, all of them locked. We cup our faces to peek through the windows: inside it’s dark, the darkness looking thick and poured. Outside where we are it’s summer afternoon, linked ponds of light, earthy-cool islands of shade. We sit in the grass of the Western Springs Water Tower Green in the Western Springs Water Tower’s bending bridge of shadow. We sit in an arrangement that would like to be a circle. We’re thirsty.
A clean police car rolls by. In it the officer watches us, not the road. The road is Grand Avenue. We remember Grand Avenues.
While the officer watches us and not the road he runs a stop sign.
We toss off our shoes and we pick our ears and we pretend to know where we really are. We hurt in places and in ways we can’t help each other find. These places and these ways, they groan from where they hide—they’re walls about to give, floors about to split, hearts about to starve. They’re how we mope along alone together. They’re why we want to find the spring in Spring Rock Park that we can’t remember where it isn’t anymore.
The Western Springs Water Tower anyone can find for now. It’s tall and even more alone than us, with a splendid limestone body and a splendid redbrick head and a splendid short and slanting roof that once was struck like a match by a strip of lightning, we remember. Without moving, the Western Springs Water Tower laps at the fluids of the last two centuries with the kind of lips and tongue we can’t imagine, tasting no one we know can remember what.
Its tank is empty, we remember.
Two smart mothers push strollers stuffed with babies and baby-things right by us. They don’t look our way on purpose, none of them. This is a way and a place in which we hurt.
Remember! one of us says, the oldest, and the way it’s said it’s fury from a deathbed.
Remember? says the youngest.
The shade outside our shade shifts its many edges.
Remember with saying so, says the one who says so little.
Saying so? we say.
We think about it. We feel it out.
A Say-So, we say, remembering.
A firetruck chugs past, no lights or sirens on. In it the firefighters watch the road, not us.
So we do it.
We Say-So about the spring.
We say, The tribesmen and tribeswomen who first found the spring found it speaking from a rock. What it said, it seemed to say to all: We are we are we are we are.
Winter and summer, fall and spring, We are.
You don’t say, says the oldest.
We say, The tribesmen and tribeswomen drank from it. They hunted the animals that drank from it and they gathered from the plants and the trees that drank from it. They moved away from it and they moved back to it. The stories they told of it told of the ones who to them had made it. To them the stories seemed to say, We are you we are you we are you we are you.
This we don’t remember, we say.
We say, The settlers who first found the spring found it speaking from a rock. What it said, it seemed to say to them: I am here.
Winter and summer, fall and spring, I am here.
If you say so, says the oldest.
We say, The settlers built a little house around the spring. They built little roads from the little house to bigger roads. They caught the spring’s water in buckets and jars and jugs. The stories they told of it told of what to them it might make of their settlement. To them the stories seemed to say, You are here.
This we remember, we say.
A police officer rides by on a bright bicycle. Watching us, he steers with a jerk onto the sidewalk, crunching to powder a nub of colored chalk left there by a child. He dismounts near a memorial bench.
We say, The tribesmen and tribeswomen returned.
Some tribesmen were impressed by the creations and arrangements set inside the little house, by the way the settlers took the spring’s water into buckets and jugs, and these tribesmen asked questions, while other tribesmen were outraged, afraid, or squeamish, and made dark jokes the interpreters did not interpret.
Some settlers were impressed by what to them was the tribesmen’s curiosity or indifference, and they answered questions with their own questions, which nourished more questions, while other settlers were squeamish, afraid, or outraged, and made dark jokes the interpreters did not interpret.
The tribesmen and tribeswomen departed.
The settlers caught the spring’s water in jugs and drums and tanks.
The settlers named their settlement Western Springs, we say.
The tribesmen and tribeswomen returned with kindred tribesmen and tribeswomen from nearby lands and together discussed the likelihood of an upcoming great departure.
Some tribesmen from this discussion departed to meet with other more important settlers in Chicago, and upon their return, met again with the settlers of Western Springs at the little house. Through interpreters the tribesmen described the Chicago promises that signaled, it was true, an upcoming great departure to other lands and springs.
One settler asked if this meant they’d never return?
One tribesman told a story of the tribe that walked into the sky.
One settler told a story of the executed god-man whose body returned to life.
One settler added, And walked into the sky.
One tribesman said a spring is an always-returning.
Visit, said one settler.
The same police car pulls up. Two officers get out and join the officer who’s leaned his bicycle against the bench. They all adjust their loaded belts.
We say, The tribesmen invited the settlers to a ceremony of singing, dancing, and storytelling, and although the interpreters did not interpret on account of their participation, the settlers, who did not participate, made do with meaning on their own.
The tribesmen departed and never returned.
The settlers pounded a plaque into a rock.
The police officers approach.
The settlers built more and bigger roads to more and bigger houses. They built a railroad. They built sewers and wells and drove them deep into the earth.
Then the spring stopped speaking, we say.
All its water was gone.
Its little house fell down.
The police officers stop outside our would-be circle. Their faces are practiced.
We say, as loud as we can, And it never spoke again.
Leave, say the police officers.
This we don’t remember, I say.
I don’t and you don’t, you say.
He doesn’t. She doesn’t.
So we say, They don’t.
Joseph Scapellato was born in the suburbs of Chicago and earned his MFA in Fiction at New Mexico State University. His work appears in Kenyon Review Online, Third Coast, Post Road, Unsaid, and other places. He lives in Chicago.