It wasn’t right to call them the Waterheads, but that’s what people called them.

They didn’t agree on much else about them. Depending on who was talking, the Waterheads lived in the first farmhouse, or the second, or the third, after Indian Trail curved around the corner of a field and became Deerpath Road as my hometown of Aurora, Illinois shaded away from suburb to farmland.

There were several theories on how the Waterheads got that way. The theories I remember, or believe I remember, ranged far and wide. The Waterheads were inbred, and they came from Arkansas or somewhere else people thought of as having a lot of inbreds. Or maybe they had been too close to a nuclear test. In the 1970s, World War II didn’t seem that long ago, and Nazis—the default villain—weren’t out of the question.

Nailing down a more precise diagnosis was complicated by one small problem: no one in the room—or around the fire—had ever seen the Waterheads. Someone knew someone whose friend or cousin had seen them—the typical attribution of the urban legend. But in the days before search engines and cell phones it was a tall order to get that third-hand someone’s name on short notice, let alone check out the story.

In any event, the Waterheads’ condition came with superpowers. Legend had it they plowed their fields without tractors or even horses, and their farm, whichever one it was, didn’t have a dog. They didn’t need a dog to chase off anybody who tried to get a close look at them, since they could hit thirty miles an hour running and could keep up the pace for a half-mile. Usually they didn’t have to, as trespassers would find their cars and tear out long before that became necessary—but maybe some of those trespassers didn’t get away.

We didn’t have all the facts, if there were any facts, but we made the best of those we did have. That we’d never seen the Waterheads was beside the point. We hadn’t seen the Civil War either, and we knew it had taken place.

*     *     *

In my one season of high school cross-country, our roadwork now and then led us along Indian Trail where it bent and gave way to Deerpath Road. Someone close to the front of the pack would yell “Waterheads!” and lead us into a sprint. By then I had started to doubt whether the Waterheads lived there, or anywhere—but on that stretch, if nowhere else, I found a little speed.

Retiring from track after freshman year freed me up to nibble around the curriculum for the rest of high school and throughout college. Sociology exposed me to the concept of the social fact: true, false or unknown, beliefs had to be taken into account if people acted on them. Book learning and the real world, whatever that was supposed to be, came together to convince me the Waterheads were one such social fact: whether they existed or not, some people took precautions.

In class or while reading on my own, I also learned about the law of compensation. In folktales and legends, and the comics that descended from them, a character’s shortcoming in one area was offset by strength in another. Just as blind men could see into the future, and dwarves and hunchbacks could work magic, the Waterheads must have superhuman strength.

*     *     *

If I could bend the facts to my wishes, in some episode I would conclusively learn the truth about the Waterheads. The passage I imagine would begin something like: Halloween of senior year gave us our chance.

The rest would flow from a night of the ordinary malice boys either grow out of or take as a stepping stone on the way to bigger and worse things. Like a clown car act in reverse, we pile into a Dodge Omni like the one in Wayne’s World (a movie set in Aurora but filmed in Scarborough, Ontario) or some other beater years away from becoming a collector’s item. To warm up, we transplant “For Sale” signs to lawns where they don’t belong, then move on to soaping windows and toilet papering houses and yards. We egg selected cars in several neighborhoods, and we could hit more, but we have to offload the bags of dog shit, which are stinking up the car.

At the next stop, we would cut the lights but leave the engine running in case the Waterheads come for us.  To be on the safe side, we split up and cover all possible Waterhead houses, running up with our bags already lit and flaming with insult.

Setting my flaming bag on the porch with something like care, I don’t hear anything until the door is already open and the light from the living room spills out toward us. As far as I can tell, the man standing in the doorway is normal, but he looks like he hasn’t slept for years. He doesn’t speak, or move, or pull out a shotgun; he just keeps standing where he is, empty-handed and unblinking. Behind him, in a wheelchair next to a sofa sits a girl who looks small for her age, whatever age that is. She has the same large eyes and thick eyebrows as the man, but her forehead rises in a crown of lush growth. I think of bread rising from a pan or of a chef’s hat. Thinking about what this growth looks like would be easier than looking at the growth and thinking about what it is and how no body could grow in proportion to that weight, supported and drained by a tube.

I’m flatfooted, and the man could step out and knock me down. He could yell, or at least lecture me on what an asshole I’m being, and with no way to disagree I would just have to stand there and take it. Then things would come out even: I could face the consequences and eventually forget about the whole thing.

Instead, he will just keep looking at me as if he were at the bottom of a well from which he had seen everything before—including me, or somebody just like me, and the paper bag burning down to its foul base. He might go on looking until that bag burns out and at another one after it, as I stand there not quite facing him and the girl, looking anywhere but at their eyes, memorizing the pictures on their wall and having no idea what to say.

The spell will be broken when the driver honks the horn of the waiting car. The man will look up as I take a quick step back before pivoting, then racing to the car.  The porch light goes out as we kick up wet gravel in the curve, and our mission is over. Several beers will fail to numb the hot, tingling cap of shame on my scalp.

*     *     *

However, the facts had no interest in being bent to my wishes.  There was no such scene of resolution, only years of gathering the facts that let me imagine a resolution.

The first fact was the condition’s clinical name, “hydrocephalus,” from the Greek “hydro” for water and “kefalos” for head. The symptoms and literal meaning are the same as the epithet we used, but at least the indirection of the word’s polysyllables avoids adding insult to injury.  A condition characterized by excessive fluid accumulation around the cranium and overall physical underdevelopment, hydrocephalus requires continuous draining of fluid with a shunt—possibly the ugliest word in the English language—to reduce the pressure that would otherwise cause brain damage. The second fact is that, while persons with hydrocephalus often live to adulthood, their life expectancy is considerably shortened. Third, the condition does not run in families, nor does it result from inbreeding or exposure to radiation.

*     *     *

Just as some theologians see God as the ground of being, we can see place as the ground of legends. Certain kinds of places give rise to certain kinds of legends. Literal crossroads become the metaphorical sites where Robert Johnson and others have sold their souls. One lonely stretch of road allows a spectral hitchhiker to be picked up and dropped off, and on another such stretch a live hitchhiker can be picked and dropped off by a spectral driver on the anniversary of her death, a tale both lampooned and honored in the “Large Marge” sequence of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. While looking for physical traces of those spirits seems like the same kind of fool’s errand as the search for the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot, these cautionary tales offer a fair proxy for very tangible dangers ranging from rotting floorboards and falling beams to hibernating bears and squatting addicts.

*     *     *

What happens, though, when a place ceases to exist in any recognizable form? If its identity is erased by force and abuse of power, as in building on Indian burial grounds, a collective uneasy conscience expresses itself in stories of a curse and its consequences.

However, if a place is erased by the less mysterious workings of the real estate market, a different calculation arises. The agreement by a willing buyer and willing seller to transfer property in an exercise of alienable rights permits both sides to walk away happy, the “win-win” of management jargon. There is no obvious misfortune or injustice in need of offsetting or karmic retribution, no deformity that calls for compensation. Whatever goes up in place of the site that once gave rise to legend starts first with a tabula rasa of graded soil, then farmland becomes subdivisions and strip malls, and we probably won’t hear about the Phantom of the Starbucks or the witch who lives in the tract mansion at the far end of the cul-de-sac. Some might argue that the curse is hidden in plain sight and the karma instant, in the process citing the usual and, to me, valid arguments against sprawl, but these consequences involve neither mystery nor surprise, only logistics. We sing along with Chrissie Hynde “my city was gone . . . way to go, Ohio.”

*     *     *

Or Illinois, as the case may be. Sprawl happened to the Waterheads’ house, whichever house it had been, as the farms and their adjacent buildings gave way to nondescript residential development in the 1990s and 2000s. The population of Aurora, about fifty thousand when I was born, had topped one hundred thousand at the time I left for college, and according to the 2010 census, it was just short of one hundred ninety-eight thousand. The original core of the East and West sides near the Fox River spread in all directions as the “old” Aurora of manufacturing and small businesses was surrounded by the “new” Aurora, a place with no visible means of local support. Rush-hour traffic to and from Chicago worsened, and a new commuter train station was built where Aurora’s Far East Side hits its limit on Illinois Route 57 and meets the similar expansion of Naperville. Wherever they came from—Jalisco, South Asia, Schaumburg—the new Aurorans had no reason to know where the alleged Waterheads had lived. It wasn’t the kind of site honored by a historical plaque, only a set of coordinates to be divided between lots and built on.

*     *     *

As far as I know, Aurora’s sprawl has yet to give rise to any urban legends. The new neighborhoods and businesses have not gelled enough to take on a collective character and a shared body of knowledge—or misinformation—with the attendant fears and anxieties that are condensed into stories.

This could change over time and at a high price. Commentators have come to speak of “slumburbia,” where even relatively recent subdivisions have become less desirable as the middle classes return to cities and rising gas prices make long commutes less practical. Time and wear are also likely to expose the slipshod construction of housing created by even flimsier financial bubbles. Metropolitan areas in the United States are gradually coming to resemble their counterparts in Latin America and Europe: a prosperous center with outlying areas that are marginal in every way. A new wave of stories with their own Waterheads, or chupacabras, might provide some small compensation for the aging and decay of these places.

*     *     *

On visits home, every once in a great while, I drive down a part of Deerpath Road that used to have a story, however wrongheaded it may have been. I don’t have to speed up, since no one will be running after me. But I don’t slow down to look, either, since what I once tried to make sense of is gone. That stretch of road now has nothing to tell me.


Photo credit: stevendepolo / Foter / CC BY