Plenty of people are from Northbridge, Massachusetts. I was an implant. But the important things happened there the first kiss, the first hangover, and all the other romantic notions of what it means to grow up. I moved there when I was twelve years old from a larger town not twenty minutes away. It’s fair to say that despite my parents’ warnings about which areas to stay away from, the town shaped me in ways that environment similarly shapes most teens, in a way that small towns have a habit of doing; training us to crave something anything else. But we all keep coming back, as it were, and we all keep running into each other.
Tucked among other smaller villagetowns, separated by state forests and thinner, seemingly unnamed other patches of woods, Northbridge stands as an altar to its failed beacons. Church towers poke through the skyline from every neighborhood, three for every dilapidated mill complex. The town historian tells my eighth-grade class that Northbridge is a mill town. Or, it was a mill town. Now it’s lost between Providence and Worcester, the railway connecting the two cities still running all day and all night. Mostly freight, children are told. Whether most people in Northbridge knows what’s carried on the whipping train cars that crash through the lowermiddle class neighborhoods is not determinable. Teenagers run around on the train tracks in the afternoons after school gets out, smoking pot and wetting their feet in vernal pools. The train tracks connect opposite sides of Northbridge, which, coincidentally or not, are two of the poorest neighborhoods in an already poor town. It wouldn’t matter much to whatever is within the train cars because there aren’t any stops within miles, anyway. The trains don’t stop for people. People stop for the trains.
The train tracks may be the most wellkept infrastructure in any of the four mill villages that comprise Northbridge. The teenagers know that walking them is the fastest way to get just about anywhere. The sidewalks are broken or were never finished. The bridges are always under repair. The trains keep running. Massachusetts is a blue state but Northbridgers always go red. Or typically. Or so someone said. It seems plausible. A new WalMart opening was the biggest thing to happen in the last 15 years, which makes the town’s mythic political persuasion feel all the more likely. There was already a WalMart there but around 2005 it moved a few miles out of the town proper. Now, it sits near the woods, past the lakes you can’t swim in anymore and is called a “Super” WalMart.
The store is staffed almost exclusively with teenagers, townies, and teenagers who will become townies. Teenagers who will create narratives about how they married their high school sweethearts when in reality they married whoever stayed. They settle in and thank God for their wives and husbands.
The Christians run the town, but Northbridge is not a Christian town. The Christians run the lumber store. They also run the icecreamshopminigolfmegaplex that sits on the one road outoftowners are most likely to travel because of its proximity to other places that aren’t Northbridge. The icecream place is also outside of town proper, through the “Village,” which is the poorest housing development in town. A series of streets filled with decaying townhouses, it was originally designed to house the mill workers, kids are told. The re-appropriated mill buildings loom in the distance, filled with call centers and hopeful small businesses. A red brick tower with a clock face that still keeps time for dutiful workers stands guard between the main intersection in the sleepy downtown and the road to the Super WalMart that is also the road to the cecreamshopminigolfcomplex. It’s a tower only residents need pass. The outoftowners and the Christians take the highway or the streets that stretch around farms that grow vegetables for the homeowners. There’s a distinction there. I barely knew anyone in Northbridge who was a homeowner. The icecream place is right off the highway, near a state park called Purgatory Chasm. The Christians guard the road to Purgatory and peddle desserts and mini golf to tourists who want to climb through a small rocky canyon and wonder if they can ever see themselves jumping off a ledge called Lover’s Leap. Or what about the Devil’s Pulpit?
Purgatory is always busy on the first nice day of the year, and for about six months after that, also. To get there, you drive past the highway and into the woods on the other side. The road seems like it will keep going forever but after a few moments of admiring the way the sun breaks between the trees, the wood promptly clears way for a small parking lot. There sits a portable toilet next to a playground that was renovated in the middle of the 2000s. A short walk away from the parking lot, near a public pavilion, the ground is studded with small rocks, then larger rocks. Then the earth opens and you find yourself in a chasm that is neither very deep, wide, nor long, but full of families, twentysomethings with service industry jobs, and girl scouts.
The Christians with the ice cream are waiting down the road for when everyone is done, when the hikers are ready to recline in sugar comas on the shop’s rolling lawn.
If the teenagers have cars or friends with cars, they smoke pot in the woods around Purgatory. On a nice day. If they have jobs, they might stop for some ice cream. More likely, they drive further back down the road and stop in at WalMart, or drink 69cent sodas at the corner stores that post up in ramshackle buildings peppered throughout the many villages. Or just smoke more pot.
When mills sprung up across the state two hundred years ago, many towns already existed. Like most places in the area, they were all developed in identical puritanical patterns: downtown there is a church at the intersection of a Church Street and a Main Street; there is a “commons” across the way from the church, an elementary school not far off; a post office, a town hall. Residential houses built up around these little epicenters. Back when all the residents still worshiped each Sunday, this church created a panopticon of moral law. Everywhere you went, its tower loomed over you. God was always nearby. God was always watching.
I’m not sure how much of God is left in Northbridge. If God is there, he’s a seasonal resident. Or else he prefers a main street with empty storefronts and coffee shops that just won’t last. A history isn’t rich just because it’s documented. In middle school, all the kids go to get their “confraternity of Christian doctrine” or “CCD” classes. That is, except for the Protestants, who, like myself, just went home after school and to church only on Sundays, or for youth group.
No matter the actual percentage, it always seemed that the majority of the other kids were Catholic, part of a club that the rest of us just weren’t in the know about. The Catholic kids went to their CCD classes until they were confirmed, and then they didn’t go back to church until their baccalaureate service in high school, if they made it that far. In the mid-2000s, kids were taught in eighth-grade health classes that the only way not to get pregnant was to not sleep with anyone. A decade later, a large percentage of the girls who sat in those classes are single mothers. Some of them might now work at Super WalMart. Some in the latest popup coffee shop. The churches still stand. The Christians with big houses on the outskirts of Northbridge wander into town on Sunday mornings to fill the pews. God is always watching. Or, it is a question. God is always watching? In 2007, town voters declined to approve a multimillion dollar property tax override, a decision that eradicated funding for school clubs, sports, and electives. Before high school, I made a list of the groups I’d join. When I got there, there were no clubs. There were no electives. Instead, there was a mandatory study hall worked into every student’s schedule. Sit still. Do your work. In an unusual and groundbreaking solution, parents took out loans to pay for a football team. The Friday night games commenced and no students seemed to question why they had to sit in a study hall four times a week when they didn’t sign up for one. Instead, they got high and went to the football game. They cheered. The parents cheered.
In 2010, a junior takes his life just weeks before school starts. The town recoils. The line for the wake stretches down the street. “Rest easy, kid,” his peers recite to each other, to themselves, to the internet. A quirky and comical tshirt designed to look like a tuxedo is sold in his memory. Rest easy, kid.
Where exactly these high schoolers think he is resting is unclear. Didn’t they pay attention in CCD? Suicides don’t go to heaven, say the pastors in the pulpits who preach under the tallest failed beacons in town. Rumors fly left and right about the how and the why he did it. Why did he do it? Romantic trouble? I heard he was fighting with his girlfriend. Untreated depression? Archetypal unhappy teenage male. He couldn’t take it. Needed a release. Jumped ship, swam away. Rest easy, kid.
That year, the high school hosted lecturers who explained how to recognize the warning signs that a peer might commit suicide. They might give things away. They might dramatically lie about their experiences. They might withdraw. Afterlife: rolling green hills, a pond, sunny, and 75 degrees.
God is always watching. Three churches for every mill building. A place to work, a place to worship. My friends smoked pot in the first-floor bathroom between classes.
Fast forward: opioid crisis. Breaking news: the district attorney donated funds for a “drug drop box” at the police station. Residents drop their excess prescription medications off in a secure location. Avoid enabling. Avoid the gateway. Rest easy. A pastor from one church says to focus your recovery on God. Fill that thirst with God. Bait and switch. Celebrate recovery. Rest easy. God is always watching. Sixty overdoses one year. Thirtyseven the next. One fewer teen smoking pot in the woods. One more doctor explaining that marijuana is a gateway drug. One more closed coffee shop. The mills still stand. The churches still stand. The schools fill up. Nothing to do. Sit still. Do your work. Wait for that first nice day: sunny and 75 degrees; drive beyond the Christians with their ice cream and rolling hills. The road seems like it will keep going forever but after a few moments of admiring the way the sun breaks between the trees, you park. Climb into the chasm. In Northbridge, Purgatory is the best you can reasonably hope for.