Down the road a ways from Oklahoma City, down Rt. 66 West, you’ll find the city of El Reno. If you’re driving that way you’ll pass right smack through the middle of it. At first glance, it looks like modern times haven’t been too kind to El Reno. Most of the buildings downtown are vacant, little more than glorified pidgeon roosts. You want to believe that this isn’t the whole story, but there isn’t much else to go on. Second and third glances confirm your first glance.
If you park your car and get out and cross the street to the Old Opera House, you’ll see a fading mural on a brick wall. If you walk under the awning, you might be startled by pidgeons swooping down and flying across the street. You’ll notice pidgeon droppings on the sidewalk and broken windows in the shop fronts. It’s the middle of the day but something about this place feels spooky.
You might decide to hurry back to your car since it’s kind of hot outside and that man across the street looks a little wierd. You hate yourself for thinking that but it’s just what you think. If you drive around town, you’ll see some of the old houses where the townies live. Some have porches sunken in, paint peeling off the walls. There’s an old Victorian style house all in brown that must have been beautiful at one time, and there’s a stately house, all white with pillars that looks out of place next to its shabby neighbors. You wonder if everyone knows the family that lives there.
Instead of turning back, you continue down Rt. 66 for just a ways to see what else there is to see. There’s a sign for Ft. Reno and you figure you don’t have much to lose but time and you got plenty of that, so you go ahead and exit towards the fort and continue one mile down the road. The landscape is flat and green and brown all around you. There are lines of trees here and there and some gentle sloping but no major hills.
You park in front of the museum, which used to be an officer’s house. You learn that from the woman behind the front counter, who says they now charge admission prices as of August first. It’s two dollars for an adult. She tells you about the fort and how it started as a way to keep the Indians in check and then had some other uses throughout the years as a stablery and some other things. Apparently Seabiscuit’s sire was bred here. Now it’s a headquarters for the USDA. You pass on into the next room and overhear her talking to another group. Her grandfather had a farm not too far from here.
Outside you can hear cicadas in the trees and someone mowing the lawn. You take a look around the old house and then head out to your car again and drive towards the chapel. This is where they have a lot of weddings during the summer. The chapel is small and not much to look at from the outside. It’s white washed like all the other buildings here and faces the big green lawn at the center of everything.
The door is slightly cracked and you walk in. The first thing that hits you is the smell of warm wood. Everything in the chapel is made out of pine, and the windows are colored yellow so the sunlight coming through them looks like honey. The air is cool in here and you are alone among the empty pews and pulpit. You sit down on a pew near the window and just sit there.
Outside you can hear the man riding the lawnmower still. You can imagine him sweating under his hat, making neat sweeps on the grass which looks all faded in the noonday sun. His feet are hot in his boots. There is a cicada rattling in a nearby tree. You can hear the chapel settling and creaking and almost feel the air as it rises and settles in currents around you. It carries dust with it.
You sit in the light, the light that looks like honey and is warm like teddy grahams. Your hands rest on the smooth, cool wood of the pew, palms down. It feels you have stolen a moment away, that any second someone will call for you or ask you to help with something.
But no one calls. You continue to sit in the Ft. Reno chapel, and outside the man continues circling the lawn until every blade of grass is cut.