The Prophets of Old Town

Back in July, I entered a creative writing contest sponsored by the Lansing State Journal. I did not win, but I liked the story enough that I figured I’d share it.

For the record, the restriction was that the story (or poem or essay) integrated Lansing in some way. My goal was to tell a story that could only have taken place in Old Town. Whether I succeeded at that—or even at writing a decent story—is an exercise best left to the reader.


They had just finished a late brunch at Golden Harvest and decided to take a leisurely walk to the Brenke Fish Ladder. On the way, Sadie nudged Dean and nodded her head toward Cravings Popcorn across Turner Street. “Mind if we stop by real quick?” she asked.

“Now?” Dean asked, lifting his porkpie hat to wipe the sweat off his wrinkled brow. It was already 80 out, and he couldn’t handle the heat like he used to.

Sadie laughed. “You know me. There’s always room for popcorn. ‘Sides, I want to make sure they’ve got posters for Jazz Fest.”
“Can’t argue with that,” Dean said, smiling broadly until his white teeth in his chocolate face shone in the sun like the ivories of a piano. In years past he had been on stage at Jazz Fest, and was one of the first to volunteer this year.

Cravings did indeed have posters. Sadie walked out with three bags of specialty popcorn tucked safely in the tote bag under her arm, and swung a fourth bag of theater-style popcorn loosely from her hand as they walked—”To eat as we go,” she explained.

“Get enough volunteers for Jazz Fest?” Dean asked as they resumed their walk.

Sadie sighed. “It’s hard. After Sam moved to Hamtramck, and Carolyn’s so busy taking care of her husband. They were some of my most committed volunteers. Terry and his crew came through in the end, but young people these days aren’t so good at volunteering.”

“Too busy looking at their phones?” Dean waved his thumb over at a gaggle of college-aged kids walking down Grand River, holding up their phones like compasses and chattering loudly.

“Well, maybe. What are they doing down here anyway?”

“Playing Pokémon Go, probably. My daughter’s big into it. Some sort of cell-phone game where you catch little monsters just by walking around town.”

“Well, if it brings people out… We need people downtown, anyway. I hope they see what a gem of a city we’ve got.”

They headed past a fisherman—nothing was biting—and beyond the old chained valves and the brick building to the amphitheater-style steps encircled by rushing water. Dean was ambivalent about the fish ladder, but it was one of Sadie’s favorite places. It rang of a hollow loneliness, she would say, and echoed with the voices of a thousand engineers and a thousand fishermen at war, trying to make the city a little brighter in their own ways.

Sadie untwisted the tie off her bag of popcorn and grabbed a handful of kernels. They leaned over the fence above the water and strategized how to recruit more volunteers.

“Mo-ooo-oom! Hurry up! There’s a Magikarp somewhere over here!”

Distracted, the friends turned around. A young girl, about eight years old, was dashing down the concrete steps, holding a smartphone. Behind her, a well-groomed middle-aged woman with fashionable sunglasses was following a little slower, holding a tablet in her hand.

“Pokémon Go again,” Dean said, rolling his eyes and folding his arms across his chest.

The little girl came to a standstill about five feet from the pair. “There it is,” she squealed, swiping frantically at the phone. “Got it!” She waved the phone triumphantly in the air.

“Good job, Maddie!” the mother exclaimed. “Ready to find the next one?” They turned to leave.

Dean clenched his fists into tight balls, and his voice was constrained. “Really, ma’am? You come all this way just to catch a stupid monster and you don’t even stop to look?”

The mother spun around, smiling uncertainly. “I’m sorry, what?”

“I said, you came all this way and you aren’t even gonna look around?”

Sadie rubbed her temples.

“We’re just playing a game. It’s just something fun to do,” the mother retorted. “Lighten up, will ya?”

“He’s got a point, though,” Sadie said. “You should come look.”

“Fine.” The mother grabbed her daughter’s hand and marched her down the steps, next to Sadie and Dean. “We’re here. We looked. Now what.”

“Oh, just watch the water,” Sadie said. “Truly.”

“Need more people to just look around,” Dean muttered. “People like you are gonna kill this place. Ow,” he added, for Sadie had stomped on his foot.

The girl paced around the edge of the fence above the water, but the mother gazed down in the river, watching the water rushing and bubbling over the steps at her feet. As she stood there, Sadie could see her visibly relax.

“Come here often?” Sadie asked.

“Actually, this is my first time.”

“Oh, you’ll love Old Town,” she said. “Lots of wonderful stores around here, and of course the River Trail. Come back in a couple of weeks and we have Jazz Fest.”

“I’m not really a Jazz person,” the mother said, intensely focusing on the frothing waters below.

“Oh, but have you ever been to a live Jazz concert? All the kinetic energy—the dancing and moving. Town really comes to life.”

The little girl came back to her mother. “Mom, are there fish in here?”

“Life, in this place? I doubt it, honey. I heard from a coworker there aren’t really fish here anymore.”

“Hmm,” Sadie said. “Why don’t you watch the river carefully for yourself to see?”

She opened the bag of popcorn again, and tossed a kernel in the water. There was a glint of silver and a splash. The kernel disappeared.

“Mom! A fish!”

The mother’s jaw dropped. “But I thought…. How did you…”

Sadie smiled. “Maybe it just sank in the water. Or maybe there’s plenty of life left around here… if you open your eyes to look.”

Sadie nudged Dean to head back up. From the bottom of the fish ladder, the mother watched them retreat. Finally, she shook her head as if to shake some phantoms out of her vision. She grabbed her daughter’s hand.

“Come on,” she said. “I think I saw a cool store a little ways back. Let’s go get some popcorn.”