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We'll Take Him

Southern refugee Todd Dills finds his niche up north.

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Todd Dills is wearing those leather pants again. It's a Tuesday night in early April, and he's holding forth at Quimby's Bookstore, reading from his novel in progress to a small, attentive audience. "My mother was a crazy whore," he begins, his oratorical voice filling the room. "My father, Professor Hank Ledbetter, was perpetually drunk in the family room." At this there is laughter from the audience, but silently a number of people are wondering: What's with the leather pants when you read, Todd?

The pants, he says later, were purchased for him two years ago by his parents, as a Christmas present. They were on sale, and they knew he wanted them, but they came with a warning. "Son," Dills remembers his father saying, "you come into the state of South Carolina wearing those things, you best be on a Harley or you're gonna have hell to pay with some of these guys around here." These words proved prescient. "Sure enough," Dills says, "the first time I ever wore them in the state, I got arrested." In Chicago, however, they seem to bring him luck.

In early September 1998, two days after his birthday, Dills left Rock Hill, South Carolina, where he'd spent his first 21 years. He arrived in Chicago, plump from his mother's cooking and pulling cigarettes from the requisite pack of Marlboro Reds, to study fiction writing at Columbia College. These days Dills is 50 pounds lighter (not a conscious effort, he says) and one MFA heavier and the founder and editor of The2ndHand, a broadsheet literary quarterly. He's given up the Marlboros for budget-friendly cans of Bali Shag tobacco, and has successfully banished a colony of rats from his basement apartment in Ukrainian Village--a feat that should decisively make him a Chicagoan.

And yet he is still a Carolina boy. He speaks with a faded drawl. He has hungered for, and traveled to the south side in search of, grits. He almost exclusively uses the word "lady" in place of "woman" or "girl." On a good night, he fries pork chops and stews turnip greens for dinner. He watches NASCAR.

In his novel, Rapture, agents of the Lord descend to earth and transmogrify into turkeys. The story arcs from the post-Civil War era to the present and borrows from Revelation and The Confederate Reader; he reluctantly sums it up as "a series of interlocking narratives [that seek] to project nothing less than the very mind of the south onto your pliable Yankee brain." His self-published 2002 collection of short pieces, For Weeks Above the Umbrella, is a portal into the mind of the south in its own right, filled with Dills's autobiographical accounts of, among other things, holiday trips back to Rock Hill and a quest for the perfect pair of aviator shades.

"I think he wants to develop a picture of the south colliding with the contemporary world--which is not necessarily a new project, but I think Todd can pull it off," says writer Greg Purcell, whose work has appeared in The2ndHand and who participated in an outdoor reading series Dills organized in the summer of 2001 that included events at the Illinois Centennial Monument in Logan Square and at Buckingham Fountain.

There's nothing especially southern about The2ndHand, though, beyond its obvious function as a mouthpiece for its southern creator. Printed in runs of 2,000, it can be picked up for free in ten cities from Honolulu to Stockholm, where "the hands," as Dills calls his volunteer distributors, reside.

For the first few issues, Dills rounded up work from friends, coworkers, and fellow grad students. "He is a proselytizer," says Purcell, "and he understands more than a lot of people that putting together a literary organization is about...developing a pool of talent that others would want to aspire to. [Other] start-up magazines, they're not developing or nurturing new talent like The2ndHand is. They want to make a big splash with their first issue; they want to cram it full of names."

These days submissions roll in from all over, but Dills still draws heavily from what has become a stable of regulars: Joe Jarvis, his roommate, who produces densely written rants on everything from Chicago winters to pornography; Jeb Gleason-Allured, who has recently begun helping Dills edit; and Brian Costello, whose "The Night I Told My Parents the Truth," from the spring 2002 installment, wittily parodies a coming-out confessional. The magazine favors humor, experimentation, and absurdity; the stories, by and large, don't take themselves too seriously. A separate crop of work is featured at www.the2ndhand.com, including a series of "itineraries," day-in-the-life accounts written in the imperative mode.

"12:47," begins one of Dills's recent entries. "Look at watch in bathroom. Excrete. Emerge to the scene, yet again, ghosts from years past, when you traveled around wildly uncertain of anything and nothing at once. Comprehend this fact: time can not move in reverse....Move to dance. Fail, crashing into dwarfish woman, girl, who scowls." He wants to eventually publish a book of itineraries solicited from various pop culture icons. Lou Reed's first on the wish list, followed by a host of disparate personalities: John Ashcroft. Kate Moss. Ira Glass. Iggy Pop.

Dills comments on every manuscript he rejects. "I hate form letters, man; they make me sick!" he says. "I would prefer a little scrap of paper that says NO on it. I would prefer somebody to write 'fuck you' on a piece of lined notebook paper with their initials on it and send that to me with my returned manuscript. That would be great. I would feel good about that."

One night in September Dills was riding his bike down Augusta on his way home from a bar when suddenly he found himself sitting on the sidewalk, talking to himself. His bike's front fork was bent in half and his right cheekbone and eye socket were broken. He thinks he was hit by a car, or maybe he struck something in the road, but the memory of the accident is lost to the head injury. All he can really remember before waking up again in the hospital are "weird dreamscapes."

In surgery, says Dills, "they moved parts of the right side of my face around, up by the cheek, back into the correct places and they put a kind of dissolving plate in there to hold it all together as it healed. Unfuckingbelievable stuff, really." On his birthday he was home from the hospital, black eyed and swollen, smoking cigarettes and eating vanilla ice cream with his friends and parents, who'd flown up from Rock Hill to catch their first 2ndHand event.

Dills had to back out of that one, but he's taken part in every other reading and party affiliated with the broadsheet (there've been ten so far). These performances may, in fact, be what he likes best about publishing it. "It's like punk rock," he says. "You're onstage, taking it to the people." Dills played guitar in a few "shitty punk bands" before starting The2ndHand, and while it quickly became his baby, he missed the performative aspect of music--"my time on the stage." He dreams of organizing readings that people will pay to attend. He envisions a night at the Empty Bottle featuring a cast of locals: himself, Costello, and Gleason-Allured; Joe Meno and Elizabeth Crane. Two hours of readings, five bucks at the door, lots of beer.

In the meantime Dills digs in on the near northwest side, thinking and writing about the south--something he can best do at a safe remove. In his darkest vision of a return to Rock Hill, all projects are lost to blackout nights at the Silver Dollar Club; his gut balloons in response to bountiful fried okra, sausage gravy, and biscuits; he is blown clean of all writerly ambition by warm southerly winds and stripped of momentum by some thankless job, some $5-an-hour thing involving grease traps and dishcloths. At best, the words would keep coming, but they'd fall on deaf ears. When Dills gave a reading in Greenville, only two friends and three random shoppers showed up. "In Chicago," he says, "there's cultural space, and interest in someone like me. People will listen."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stephen J. Serio.

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