The Countess Somebody from Italy

I was thinking about skin cancer last night (I have it). And sunscreen. And that led me to recall my adventure in New York City, in 1984.

My play “Going Steady (and Other Fables of the Heart),” opened Off Broadway in the fall of ’84. Heady stuff for a first-time playwright. The publicist set me up for some appearances on local media, including “The Joey Adams Show” on the radio, Joey a former Borscht Belt comedian, now about 90. And there was “The Joe Franklin Show,” a daily talk show in New York City that was also syndicated.

Franklin taped five shows every Monday. I happened to be on the first segment. The other guest was Jack Klugman’s ex-wife Brett Somers, who was on a lot of TV game shows. During break, Joe told me he hadn’t realized there were no more male guests for the week. Would I be his “Ed McMahon” for the week? I would be expected to join in the patter and ask guests questions.

The second show featured Brooke Shields—teen Brooke Shields who was staggeringly beautiful. She came out, kissed Joe and then show-biz kissed me and sat and talked bout her current ad campaign for non-smoking. Posters depicted her with a smashed cigarette in her luscious lips with a slogan something like “smoking isn’t cool.” I felt my head bobbing at every syllable from Brooke’s mouth: Yes. Yes. Yes, Brooke. I remember her stage mother Terri standing behind the cameras and glaring (so I thought) at me. With good reason. I wanted to lick her daughter.

I can’t recall the third and fifth shows, New York celebrities, none of whom wished to commune with the playwright. But the fourth show—oh my god. The guest was Countess Somebody from Italy, a beauty expert who was hawking (of course!) a new book on beauty secrets.

Out walked Countess Somebody from Italy, on a cane. She must have been 90. She wore a long black dress, pearls, and a black hat and veil, her middle girdled tightly. I thought there was a chance that the countess might explode. I literally could not see her face—except for a curved line of bright red lipstick. She moved side to side, as if she might topple at any moment. Joe and I helped her sit. And I went into a panic. Would she want to lick me?

What question would I ask of the Countess Somebody from Italy?

Joe Franklin had partied with the countess. I think he might have visited her in Italy. I was sitting there, sweater and blue jeans, feeling like, oh, Countess Somebody’s gardener Eugenio. Thankfully, Joe was a pro. He asked her about moisturizers and wrinkles and healthy food for vibrant skin, and god knows what. And I was thinking, I’m off the hook. I was even daydreaming a bit—my play was opening in a few days; I was hot shit.

Then Joe Franklin, tearing me from my reverie, said, “Gene, what do you want to ask the countess?”

The black hat black veil turned in my direction; the red lipstick wound parted and waited. For show biz neophyte hick playwright Eugene Baldwin to ask a question about beauty.

I heard myself say, “I’m very pale.” The Countess nodded. Joe Franklin pursed his lips: More, please, pale Ed McMahon. “Hi-yo!”

“I’m very pale.” Pause. “I… I sunburn easily.”

Countess Somebody from Italy sprang into action, doing ten minutes about this pale playwright and what he must do to achieve beauty, Joe Franklin over her shoulder in total sympathy: you poor Midwestern boy who sunburns, oh no! (Would she have been pleased to know I had skin cancer 35 years later?)

Next up: “The Joey Adams Show,” with Joey mentioning my play once and proceeding to riff a stream of jokes about the Midwest, cows and corn, deliberately mispronouncing “Alton,” saying with a Yiddish accent “y’all” every fourth word, and a monologue about the Catskills.

Gentle Reader, I did not lick Brooke Shields. Oh yes: My play sucked.

 

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octoberiver

the sun makes jewels of the river

and the trees light long, slow fires

and wetland pelicans like cottonfields

gather

and cottonmouths slitherpath to sleep

and the turquoise sky like deep dreams

and limestone bluffs all shadowpaint seep

sweet water

 

 

 

 

 

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King Gene

I, in my great unmatched wisdom, declare that the Village of Godfrey has hereby become the Kingdom of Gene. I am King Gene, not to be confused with Mr. Green Jeans or Gwen Stiffy Annie, or Greta What’shername. Make Adoration of Gene Great Again (MAGGA). Villagers are hereby referred to as Maggots.

Tributes to King Gene may include: Girls (I’m not picky).

The Kingdom of Gene announces tolls on every road the peasants—I mean pissants—I mean people drive on. All schools closed—keep them Maggots dumb. The Mississippi River is hereby the Gene River, and only I can sail upon it.

Only churches which glorify King Gene and White Jesus may remain open. Every fourth child in line at Dairy Queen (my true Queen, love those blizzards) is mine, to be used as workers in the Jeffrey Epstein Institute (formerly Godfrey City Hall).

I, in my unmatched wisdom, declare black to be white (but not black people to be white people—I mean, get real).

Unmatched wisdom is not to be confused with unmatched socks. The former is me; the latter comes from China. In my wisdom, I hereby: withdraw the troops from Sirius Radio, lower the taxes of my lords and their ladies of the evening, and impose tariffs on goods from St. Louis, or as the KOG calls it, “Dark Town.”

The Kingdom of Gene, where all the men are strong, all the children are good-looking, and all the women are mine, is an equal opportunity backstabber. Banned as of January 1: Mexican rapists’ restaurants; ice cream because it sounds like ISIS; farmers because they’re farmers; every person named Charlie; only Casey’s General Store pizza will be allowed because there isn’t a hint of Italian in any bite.

The Kingdom of Gene has perfect parks, the best parks, huuuuge parks. Too bad you Maggots can no longer visit them. The Kingdom of Gene has the best water, like lemonade, really. Too bad you Maggots can no longer drink it. Your King, Gene, doesn’t like trees. The Kingdom of Gene’s forestry crews will be harvesting the trees around your Maggot house and selling them to Afghanistan for wooden swords to fight the Taliban.

Rules for Women in the Kingdom of Gene: Old ladies bye-bye!
Rules for Men in the Kingdom of Gene: Sext away—Grab it! Cop a feel of it! There is no sexual harassment here!

Thanks to all the Maggots who voted for me. You expected a mayor; you got a king. And now, let’s all sing the King Gene Song © 2019:

“King Gene loves me, this I know/The King Gene Bible tells me so/We are Maggots/We don’t count/He’ll love us if we put out.” Chorus: “Yes, King Gene loves me/Yes, King Gene Loves me/Yes, King Gene loves me/The King Gene Bible tells me so.”

And I tell you so. I love you, my Maggots, my hayseed stupidos! Make Adoration of Gene Great Again! God bless me! And God bless the Me!

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Consider

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow;
they toil not, neither do they spin.”

Consider the birds of the forest, the sky;
they sing—not on Spotify.
Consider a world without birds;
Explain to your grandson:
only feed birds in winter, otherwise spoil them.
Teach him to take birdsong for granted,
(a single note of which pales Mozart’s power).
Explain how one-third means two-thirds remain;
one-third of birds vanished from Earth—
just a number, nothing more, stay calm.
Your grandson’s third grade class learned
that birds evolved from dinosaurs;
the skeletons of birds, of behemoths are the same.
Tell the child you don’t believe in evolution;
feel his small hand disengage from yours.
When he cries out, “I don’t want to live like that,”
Tell him, “Hush, someone might hear you;
it is God’s will, the End of Days.”
Tell him the world is just fine;
all that nonsense about milkweed is a liberal lie.

Explain your cancer.

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Prospects

A destitute family with no prospects moves, hoping for a better life. The son, just back from prison for manslaughter, rejoins them. They meet up with other destitute families all in the same boat—poverty, starvation, bad luck. When police kill the son’s friend, he retaliates by killing a policeman. He goes on the lam, abetted by family and friends. His mother and father both die and his sister miscarriages. It all goes wrong and it will never be right.

I have just encapsulated John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” and the plight of Tom Joad and his white family out of the Dust Bowl and into oblivion. The book won a Pulitzer; the movie won Best Picture. Kern County, California, where the book ends—with Rose of Sharon, Tom’s sister, having miscarried, breastfeeding a dying stranger—was not at all happy with the story. “What’s good for General Bullmoose,” after all.

And I have just described the desperation that goes on in poor black St. Louis communities every single week. It plays into the white perception that crime is a black thing, that blacks kill blacks and no one cares. That whites must gate up their homes and live separately. For self-preservation.

The 1930 era must have been shocked by the Joads. Movie and television entertainment were all giggles, screwball comedies; the nation did not see or hear about the Okies, the families wiped out by the Dust Bowl. People loved the book and the film; politicians denounced it as a communist plot.

Imagine the greater shock if the Joad family had been black.

Imagine a 1930 book about the plight of blacks in the Jim Crow era. Would not have been published—if written. Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry et al, and now Ta-Nehisi Coates (“Between the World and Me”, a must-read) and contemporary black writers–would not have been published. At the time, their ancestors were being terrorized by whites—not just in the South: in my town of Alton, in Belleville, New York, in the USA. Perhaps the message is that the poor of all colors fight a class war. There is some truth to that. But poor blacks, without the inestimable benefits of white privilege, have little to no shot. Horatio Alger is the whitest of white myths.

Last week, I wrote a piece about an innocent black kid shot to death in his own yard. This week it’s about the shooter of that kid. He accidentally shot the kid (he was aiming for someone else—a tragedy in every way—stole some money, went on the lam, his aunt aided and abetted his escape, and now he’s in jail. Winner? Loser?

Now he’s in jail. Like the cop killer Tom Joad. Root for the fictional one and not the real one. The real one on the home team.

 

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Happy

7-year-old St. Louisan Xavier Usanga was shot to death on August 12 while playing in his backyard. He was the tenth African American child to die from a gunshot since April.

It is fairly easy to pick up a newspaper and read a gun violence story and cluck your tongue and go the refrigerator and get a snack and not think a second about your own white child or grandchild because this kind of death will not come for your kids. What other response might there be?

It is more than easy than to sit with a group of white friends, shake heads, proclaim black kids getting shot a tragedy—but. But what? I have heard it. Black on black—they don’t care. They are animals (I overheard this at a local café).

Dawn Usanga, Xavier’s mother, who should be an existentialist philosophy professor: “In a way I’m kind of happy he died at 7. These streets didn’t have a chance to ruin him. He could just as easily been swept up in this war, and the boy who shot him could have been my boy someday.”

Is this the new norm of evolution? Black kids have a life expectancy of 7-10, so forget dreams? Just be cute black puppies and wriggly black kittens, just play in the backyard until you’re shot?

Remember history class—the Emancipation Proclamation? The slaves were set free. What did they do with their freedom? You know, we all know—they squandered it. My people, free people, white people came from (insert country here), and they had nothing, and they made something of themselves. My people, free people, black people were forced out of Africa:

“Overnight, four million slaves now free people were freed by a speech. Four million freed blacks, without money or resources, without housing or clothing, without experience of life away from the plantations from which they came, without family or tradition, without anything, walked away, many to the nearest city or town about which they had heard. They descended on Atlanta, Birmingham, Montgomery, New Orleans, Memphis—with nothing. Ghettos the like of which makes today’s ghettos seem opulent, were born overnight. The residents had no sewage, no water, no food, no shelter. Most of them had long ago been separated from other family members via slave auctions.

“They did receive hate. An abundance of hate. Hate was, however, low-calorie, thin material for clothing, non-paying, identity light. Hate begat disease, poverty, disgust. Disgust expressed by a generation whose grandparents and parents were slave owners. Disgust expressed by working whites who now had to deal with a potential enemy who would work cheaper.” I wrote this, for my book.

That white disgust is current. That myth of whiteness is now. That story—of the superiority of Europeans—is a white wet dream. There is no race called Europeans. There is no “white.” Pale complexion is a function of climate and environment. There is a single human race. Eighteen African tribes, eighteen women… are the mothers of us all. If you don’t know this, that DNA evidence made this possible, you might want to read a science book. If your drunk uncle was your source for “whiteness,” you might want to look up some peer-reviewed studies. Your drunk uncle was… not a scientist.

Xavier Usanga didn’t know any of this. He was a kid.  His mother Dawn said, “He was born with a smile on his face and he died with a smile on his face.”

The street Xavier lived on is described as an environment where young black men with guns have all the power. All the power. We all want some power. There is rampant absurdity in the notion that young black men only want dominion over a street, a street which is a universal symbol for the greater history of humans on our planet: conquering, annihilation, blood. It’s somehow gorier (and blacker, don’t forget) on the street level.

But it’s the same goddamn thing. Lawless gunslingers, huddled masses, the marshal off on a wild goose chase, drunken men challenging each other, like the scene in Owen Wister’s “The Virginian,” where Trampas calls the Virginian a son of a bitch and the Virginian draws his pistol and says, “Smile when you say that.” The white myth, the founding myth. Leaving out the staggering number of girls in isolated cabins being raped by their own fathers, their mothers beaten.

But it’s the same goddamn thing.

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Corny

I was sitting in a sub sandwich shop (not Subway), and the ubiquitous flat TV screen was there. I bit into my sandwich and looked up at the screen: ESPN. Was the show football? Baseball? Soccer (I love soccer)? WNBA? No.

ESPN was covering the National Cornhole Championship. If you don’t know (I don’t know what “cornhole” means—I hope it’s something vulgar), Corn Hole is basically pro beanbag. It is good wholesome fun at a Labor Day picnic (unless “cornhole” is something vulgar and the kiddies get ideas), but ESPN?

The contestants stood about twenty feet away and tossed beanbags into wooden boxes with slanted holes in them. They scored either by getting the bag into the hole (a lot of my favorite games involving getting it into the hole—unless “getting it into the hole” is something vulgar), or knocking away another player’s bag which lies near the hole.

The sound was off, so I didn’t know what the athletes were saying—though they were banging their chests and raising triumphant fists, and a bleached blonde announcer, the type who does local news in small towns but isn’t considered cute enough for the Bigs, interviews the combatants. But the crowd was boozy and lusty. Men standing behind the bleached blond were gazing longingly at the bleached blonde’s ass. It seems as though the athletes had certain weight requirements: Tubby, tubbier and tubbiest.

Which leads me to last week, midweek, midday. I wasn’t feeling well. I had knocked off writing, and I was lying on the couch. I hit the old clicker to see if there was a ballgame on. ESPN again. Only this time, the event was, I kid you not, the National Cherry Spitting Competition live from somewhere in Michigan (I think the programmers were ashamed to say the exact location).

Old geezers (sorry, athletes) were standing behind a line, grabbing their crotches, contorting their mouths and spitting cherry pits across a paved asphalt area that has line delineating distance. The ESPN cameras weren’t good enough to show the teeny, flying cherry pits, so they showed the launch (the spit) and the landing, the pits tumbling to a stop and more old geezers (sorry, judges) with tape measures shuffling (no, not Shuffleboard) forward and taking measurements.

The sound was on. Reenactment:

Announcer 1: This is Fred’s 20th year of competition.

Announcer 2: He told me he hates leaving his sheep.

Announcer 1: Who doesn’t? But his son is on the farm to hump them while he’s here.

Announcer 2: You just said hump.

Announcer 1: His last name is Hump. They call it “humping the sheep.” I apologize to the national network. Here we go. Fred steps up…launching…Oh, eighteen feet five inches. Wow, Fred?

Announcer 2: That was neat considering that Fred swallowed his pit last round—and that counts as a turn!

Announcer 1: Let’s go down to the field and our Cindy Big-Breasts. Cindy?

(Cindy approaches contestant with a microphone.)

Cindy: Tell us all how you did it. I hear you have a mouth secret.

Fred: Uh-yah. I take that there pit, moisten it, and I fold my tongue in two longways. Then I jump forward and fire, unfolding my tongue and whammo!

Cindy (to the booth): Guys, Fred just gave advice to all those young spitters with dreams out there.

Fred: Can I have a hug, Cindy?

Cynthia: Fuck off, pervert. (to the booth) Back to you, guys.

ESPN? Are you so cynical that you’ll show anything on TV that’s cheaper to shoot than baseball? Announcers? Trying to make sports heroics out of beanbags and cherry pits? Have you no shame? How about Mighty Mucus Blowing (brought to you by Kleenex) and Underwear Crack Tug (Michael Jordan No-Tag) and Women’s Distance Farting (Febreze)?

Give me games with stealing and slamming and putting the old ball into the hole (into the hole, Tiger!) and goals and “downtown” and shuttlecocks and pucks (unless “shuttlecock” and “puck” are something vulgar and the kiddies get ideas).

 

 

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Still, Life

Early morning, the sun half asleep, the breeze strong and cool. I walk ten miles, wind-aided, past Admire’s bench and across Piasa Creek. Carol Admire was killed when, a couple of years ago, a drunk driver hit her bicycle along the Great River Road. The granite bench is caked in a thin coat of mud.

Most of the lowland forest ground is hard-caked mud, scars from the two-hundred-day flood. Still the paved path along the river is iced with dust, and hikers’ footprints and biker’s wheel prints play a game of Twister.

Along the eastern point of Scotch Jimmy Island, a mass of twenty-eight egrets fish on stilt legs: babies chasing mothers for piscine bits, small snowy egrets and the great whites mingling, squawking. Egrets and herons sound angry, their long throats making them baritones. Happy egrets cry, “Meh-meh-meh.” You’d think they were grumpy.

On Stroke Hill, monarch butterflies flit above the last wildflowers, dipping low enough to sip at clover blossoms. Catbirds mew in the rests of cicada music. Hummingbird Man’s feeders dangle in the breeze, the collective tiny birds making a boat motor sound. Three shirtless, dirty, half asleep boys stand in front of a house and drink coffee and watch me.

The bluffs along the river have changed perceptibly since I moved back to my hometown. Tons of limestone boulders have shifted closer to the path, the trees preceding them having been crushed. The houses on top are closer than ever to the carved-out precipice, the detritus from the yards boating down waterfalls and settling below.

Stevie’s fish stand at the bottom of Clifton Terrace has been set on a trailer frame, hitched to a truck, the fish sandwiches which drew crowds of bikers and bicyclists and hikers now just a memory. Stevie still keeps a cooler of water on her porch, for those of us in the know. She is old, bony, high-spirited, but not as old as the Mississippi River and nowhere as old as the limestone brimming with 300 million-year-old fossils: trilobites, crinoids, horned and honeycomb coral.

The biggest change, the most shocking change, high above the river, is that my friend Orville and his wife Quilt Queen have sold their pickup truck, trading it in for a modest SUV. A farmer without a pickup truck is like a diner owner without pans. Quilt Queen said they didn’t like driving the truck anymore.

Change. I don’t like it. I’ve only had seven years to get used to things here in my hometown. And now they’re already… changing. I wonder if the river feels the same way. Its cult of fishermen and boaters throw their trash into the Father of Waters; invasive carp rise as clouds of silver and choke out the native life; there are as many bits of Styrofoam in the river as there are egret chicks, as many beer cans as frogs.

Still, life persists. Wildflowers poke through asphalt and sidewalks heave from tree roots and groundhogs—which we love once a year and shoot the rest of the time—bore their way to happiness and dinosaur alligator gar and snapping turtles rule the murky river depths and peregrine falcons hold the blufftops and silver-spotted skippers sip their nectar suppers and blue-tail skinks sun in tree tunnels and orb spiders master weave between twigs and branches and communist, cooperative ants will outlive humans by eons.

Still, life. I’m not sure we deserve it.

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Watchers

 

It sits silently on a two-foot-high tree stump, its long-muzzled head pivoting left and right. I hike over the hilltop and there it is, staring at me, and since he is a young herder dog, I am leery of going forward. He could take me down.

Hello, I say, but the youngster, whose lifeless tail makes no indication of mood, doesn’t make a sound, just stares. And so I walk slowly, passing him, looking over my shoulder, and already he is focused on the road behind me. Is he a stray? Is he restrained in some way? Is he just high on life and fearless?

The road slopes down toward the river. I drop below sight of the handsome dog. But I keep looking behind me—he is a herder after all.

On the LaVista trail, I hear a birdsong pattern: “ree, ree; ree, ree.” I imitate the pattern by whistling, and instantly the bird responds. We call and respond back and forth four or five times: “Ree, ree; ree, ree.” But I can’t see the respondent, and I don’t know the song.

On down the curving hill I walk. “Ree, ree; ree, ree,” into my right ear. The singer, whatever it is, is following me, watching me from high in the treetops, luring me with a song that is clearly not over. Then higher up the slope in the thick forest, a blue jay calls, and then it adds: “Ree, ree; ree, ree.” My chorus friend answers the jay, and now we are a trio. Two blue jays are hopping from tree to tree and singing with me and watching me.

Yesterday, lawnmowing day. I push the mower across the backyard, and then I see Bunny, the surviving rabbit of three siblings. He pops out of the snowbush and watches me and nibbles wild violets. I try not to anthropomorphize him—he needs to stay wild—but we meet face to face often. I stand and talk to him. He doesn’t find me boring.

Yesterday, Bunny sits in my path and watches. I turn off the mower. Bunny, I scold, Bunny begone. I turn the mower back on, and finally he hops across the yard into the weed patch where the ribbon snakes den up in winter.

Two nights ago. I need Cheez-its. I walk outside in the dark and circle left toward the carport, intending to drive to the local convenience store. And I stop. Sitting on top of the car is a large shadowy creature, its ears pointy and long. It sits perfectly still this shadow, as something inanimate. It watches me.

A noise comes from the woods, and the creature turns its head and shoulders sideways. It is a feline—many times larger than Scout the cat, is this wild, calm, lithe dark shadow. Its head turns back towards me.

What is any animal doing on the top of my car? But there it is: Shadow, nonplussed, watcher. I take one step forward, and the bobcat simultaneously stands and leaps backward, landing far ahead of the car. It jumps my six-foot-high fence and vanishes.

I look up into the starlit sky, the cat shadow gone like disappearing ink. Venus chases the half-moon. A plane high and silent passes east to west.

I watch.

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Village News

Godfray Village News
Dear Mr. Baldwin,
As you know, the Village of Godfray has passed the Godfray United Neighbors Nervous Unless Toting (GUNNUT) ordinance. Every Godfray citizen of voting age is hereby ordered to keep firearms in the home.

As you also know, you responded to the new village mandate by purchasing a Nerf Super Soaker Barrage with “durable construction; large reservoir holds a whopping 84 oz. of water; three spray settings to choose from; capable of reaching targets up to 38 ft. away.” Ha-ha. The joke is on GUNNUT.

As John Wayne would say, “Not so fast, pilgrim!”

Clearly, you do not take the Village of Godfray or GUNNUT seriously. However, we believe in second chances. We note from the tax records that your domicile consists of 800 square feet. Accordingly, the following guns are deemed appropriate for you:

Glock 500 (“the mower”), Colt .77 (“the two-hand shredder”), AK-107 (“the driller”), Mossberg 117-gauge shotgun (“the pulverizer)”. We can assure you these peacemakers can reach targets farther away than 38 ft. Your targets–burglars, murderers, malingerers, bunnies–will be doused in a watery substance aka “blood.”

Just present this letter to any gun store or private citizen or teenager who has one in his closet or crazy old geezer who sits in his lawn chair and waves a pistol, and you will receive $200 in coupons good for: The Corny Maze, Gladys Hair, Hares R Us, Heirlooms Almost Always Make Us Cry, Gunny’s Diner, Shotgun Frankie and Frankette’s Hot Dog Emporium, Bullet Hardware and Fish Bait, Pitbull One Stop Insurance, Gas America, Rat-a-Tat-Tat Cat Groomers, Gaseous (French cuisine) and Chick Filly.

The Village of Godfray, a mucho-minded MAGA mingler, stands AND sits AND crawls AND sleeps with our President. If you don’t like it, we will send you back to All-Town where they love libtards, snowflakes, women’s libbers, underwear sniffers, darkies, fat cheerleaders, Old Black Joes, Old White Joe Biden, and “Old Man River.”

This is your last warning, journalist boy.

Sincerely,
Elizabeth Warrant, Chairman (not chairwoman) GUNNUT (not Dunkin’ Donut)
Village of Godfray*

*not affiliated with the Village of Godfrey, Illinois, Godfree, Illinois or God Free Atheist compound somewhere in Illinois

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