Though Beatrice doesn’t live at the end of the world, this is beginning to seem a technicality. Because so far it feels like you’re driving through an early Springsteen album: leather, denim and baseball caps inside too many tricked-out cars. And the endless succession of skinny kids hanging around on every corner; like that one, with his upended bike, kneeling next to the ratcheting gears. The town exudes a civic pride in being a kind of Wayne’s Worldsimulation, and this guarantees the wink you’ve been waiting for is never going to come: each one of these chop tops is aspirational instead of a John Waters reference, and you’ll need to think hard about that tonight, with scotch and a long journal entry . . . .
Something never thought about; something almost forgotten: The whir of a push mower and the play of sunlight on leaves that will be gone in three years’ time. Which makes you what? Seven years old? Or very close to it.
Your father’s mower whirring in the front yard, under the canopy of limbs that will soon be diseased. But all the memories of him have been too-long packed away, and so you have to make do with impressions: He’s conjured up as short, with darkish hair; in a white tee shirt, inappropriate pants and the smudgy suggestion of work shoes. All of this Sears-Catalog neat; it’s almost conceptual clothing. Because you can’t recall if he sweats while working out there–or if he perspires at all. Which, it now becomes clear, is also the reason you’ve parted and combed his hair.
Another season’s whirring, across a less-shaded lawn, as the last elms in the neighborhood begin their rapid decline. The kitchen’s still there; it can still be imagined, complete with its strange dimensions: too narrow and too long and then all at once wide in a way you remember as momentary. It’s where the savage intimacies of the family had most often been exchanged; collisions leaving many more scars than that dangerous drawer full of loose German knives. In the kitchen the family had been too distant and at the same time much too close; it had been a place where acceptance widened-out, only to narrow and close ranks again. The dining room, however, has become theoretical–as detail-free as the interchangeable dinners that had marked each holiday and celebration. Reduced to an essence half a lifetime later, this room’s revealed to have been the kitchen in a chandeliered Sunday Best; where weekday dictates and intolerance had been served up on good china. But its mislaid appearance has also faded these uneasy memories: the narcotic blessing of forgetfulness, though late, has at last arrived.
Still later, on a stifling night long before there’s any air-conditioning, a spray truck whirs past your tight-shut window, fogging yellow-lit neighborhood streets. This last-ditch rescue of the trees comes at the songbirds’ expense, because the insecticide kills many more robins than the number of elms it saves. The Midwest, however, is equal parts of momentum and determination–there once something is put into motion, no price seems too high to pay. Which isn’t surprising, because a comfortable rut is the most costly thing of all.
And then your father’s mower, blades glinting in the bright sun, trims around the new birch, avoiding the stakes. But the whirring this time is your childhood receding, leaving you earthbound, stranded and ten.
Wires and stakes, three sets of them; a new beginning secured in this stark new world. With the elms now gone, what was hidden is revealed: A ruler-straight horizon below a featureless sky. The kind of flatness that makes it seem you can see the neighboring states. But seeing forever is of little use when there’s nothing to be seen: The town is bordered on all sides by regressions of itself; either countless other identical places, like the result of facing mirrors, or greener, simplified versions of a single, industrial sprawl. Urban and rural are cinched together by the Rust Belt’s psychogeography: Outside of the townships–out among the cows–the only thing that changes is the population count. The scenery shifts, but can never avoid the grim context of the region. The feel of heavy manufacturing thrums, even when it can’t be seen; an analog of the locust drone that had once throbbed throughout the elms.
Hand clippers are used to trim those places the mower is too big to reach, and with practice, you’ve become adept at keeping the lawn from obscuring the stakes. With the elm trees gone, the town is exposed; it’s like that scientific toy from last Christmas–the scale-model man with all his bones and organs showing through clear-plastic skin. You’re beginning to see the town’s inner-workings, all the stuff that’s meant to be kept out of sight. And though too young to to do anything about it, you start to realize you want to get away. For one thing, the car worship is like weekday church, and the truth is you’ve never believed. But your friends had killed time watching from corners, shouting out models and years. And so at those intersections you had learned politeness; learned the benign dishonesty of manners, discovering that smiling could be a disguise for your deep and abiding disinterest. There’s also the bullying of those smarter or different; something shrugged-off like the weather. It’s tolerated in the kids because their parents also do it, with dismissiveness instead of scuffling. Getting good grades and reading books are invitations to be called a faggot. But the teachers won’t help because they’re unwilling to battle willful ignorance that’s generations deep . . . You’re wasting your life in this insular town, caught up in its rituals, repetition and rules. Because after you’re done faking all of that interest, after the hallway hassles over ruined grade curves, what’s left of your day is further splintered by narrow, ceremonial patterns: hymnals, baseball and frequent house arrest for asking unanswerable questions. So yes, now that the elms are no longer here, you can see things you want to leave behind. Is it possible staking the new tree to the ground is to prevent it from trying to escape? To keep it from pulling up its burlapped root ball before that becomes impossible? To guard against the birch floating away from this flattened desolation, to where its paper-curled presence has a chance of better fitting in? Standing here staring at the endless horizon, you feel a similar tethering: You may not live at the end of the world, but this is beginning to seem a technicality . . . .