Excerpt From A Work-In-Progress
The delicatessen: gone and then here and then gone again; suddenly deserted and sepia-stained by additional decades of pollution, the kindly owner long since gone, as was his standing offer of some cake for you every time your father waited for take-out; gone like the old men always seated in the back, racetrack gamblers your father had said—these ones who never seemed to leave have now indisputably left; the meat case on the other hand, the one that had held pastrami, gefilte and dills, that one topped by a glass vat of matzo balls that looked like it belonged in a Frankenstein film, well, it might still be there but you’ll never know because the window with the fresh and somehow virginal strawberry cake is now boarded-up by a plywood sheet with No Trespassing stenciled on it . . .
Here, at the other end of your life, you grasp the importance of something that should have been obvious: That memory inherently magnifies; it enlarges the details, real or imagined, amplifying the good and also the bad. And in doing so, it pulls the now-distant closer to you—or seems to, at any rate. To revisit, however—to stand in the midst of the actual thing remembered—is like using a telescope the wrong way around—things seem smaller and, if not farther away, then certainly diminished.
You’ve no idea why you’re here; there’s no reason that can be articulated to others or yourself. You had been too far away to have credibly decided that, ‘Hey, as long as I’m in the area . . .’ And you’re no longer connected in any way to this place—anyone you may have known is either dead or gone. And in leaving when you did, yes, you’d won, but this also doesn’t feel like a victory lap—perhaps since the win had been just as much a close call made possible by luck.
Something else has drawn you here and you still can’t work out what, but the one thing that you’re certain of is that it has nothing to do with finding closure. It feels much more like curiosity; like an urge to scrutinize your own DNA to understand its sequencing—and, perhaps, if you have the courage, the nature of any mutations.
Down the road slowly, looking for your old school, and finally it comes into view: gone and then here and then gone again; the remembered landscaping suddenly melting and disappearing into the weeds. The ‘Twenties architecture had always made it seem more of a castle than an elementary school, and now abandoned, with what passes for crumbling battlements, it looks like the Midwest version of a gothic ruin. At one time, however, everything about the place had seemed to you outsized and medieval—vast, wide halls and immense staircases that could accommodate five students descending side by side, as if the very building had been challenging you to grow into the knowledge being dispensed there. All that’s gone now, gradually fading—like the echo of the late bell disappearing down the hall after the school day had begun. The building has become a husk next door to something that’s much newer and operating under its name. It’s double-fenced now; contractor’s chain link standing in front of the black wrought iron from the old days. And hanging on the new fence, in somber unity with the deli, there’s a sign that warns Keep Out . . .
Everything’s changed except for the streets: Somehow through the years they’ve remained intact, the long-forgotten names materializing again just seconds before their signs posts. It’s a persistence that’s in no way comforting and the exact opposite of nostalgia. In the past, these streets had guided you through recollections of this place and had even helped in the remembering itself much like the rooms inside a memory palace. Their continued presence now, however, has transformed them into a grid; faint guidelines to help you more accurately trace the absent, the threadbare and the imagined. It’s like TV news graphics of tornado-leveled towns overlaid with Google-mapped streets: a meticulous underscoring of the destruction’s scope as if that were some sort of explanation.
As you wander the town, it feels as though you’re passing through double exposures: your ambered memories and the Rust Belt decline have shared the same addresses thus far. And at each of those, the clash between past and present had ended in a standoff—which makes you feel increasingly disconnected, like you’re standing outside of time.
Across from the school, beyond the main road, north toward the neighborhood where your best friend had lived: gone and then here and then gone again, but this time not coming back—because it’s happened at last, as it was bound to; a street name has finally eluded you. It’s simply not there, and you’re certain that it won’t be, not on the tip of your tongue or anywhere elsewhere. How in the hell can you forget this but still know that his long-ago cat had been called Arthur? You carefully make your way to the corner searching for something familiar because, Christ, you’d practically lived here on the weekends and then literally every day throughout the summer. But now the trees are gone and the all houses are less cared for: everything here has been made unrecognizable by time and downturn. And if you allowed yourself, you’d admit that this feels a little like panic: Because you can still recall an afternoon out in his grandmother’s garage, where both of you had shot his late grandfather’s pistol into an ancient phone book. It was stupid and luckily nobody had been killed, and to this day you can still feel the adrenaline surging. But that’s all you have—an unmoored memory; something that exists only in you because your friend and his grandmother are both long dead, and now even the location has been lost . . .
These streets are like remaining nerves that had once led to an amputated limb; they’re alive and pulsing with information from something that’s no longer there: phantom feelings, certainly, but still having visceral affect.
But that’s not right—it’s something more insidious and complicated than that. This visit isn’t neatly about swimming upstream; you haven’t made your way here to search for lost time. In fact, it would have been far less disturbing had the town just disappeared, had some unimaginable catastrophe happened and simply leveled it all. Because it’s not the change itself that you’re reacting to—rather, it’s all the falling apart: entropy made even worse by the gauge of memory. This is essentially like visiting a friend who’s dying from some terrible, wasting disease, where recalling her previous vitality becomes as difficult as seeing her fade away. You wish the town had been unrecognizable instead of deeply and sadly less good because it’s transformed you into a tornado survivor looking for reminders of your life before the storm.
If you’re in your best friend’s neighborhood, then your own must be close by, and you’ve run out of excuses to put off paying the visit that you now realize is the reason you’re here. Five streets over and a lifetime away: gone and then here and then gone again; your father planting a carefully staked sapling off-center on the expansive lawn dissolves into the enormous tree that now stands in a shockingly small front yard.
And then you slowly turn around before considering the rest of the house because most of your childhood memories involve gazing out from the yard to the street. It occurs to you all these years later that these six or seven or even eight blocks had been the Mississippi to your own Huck Finn. That when you talked about home back then, you were referring to maybe a dozen houses as much you were to your own. Case in point: You couldn’t say what the color of your parent’s bedroom had been, but you perfectly know that Gary’s house, three down and on the right, had been cream with a second story painted charcoal gray. But not anymore; it’s now a single yellow that’s beginning to fade into something more subdued; a color that had been fashionable maybe 10 years ago. And you also note that the lawn in front badly needs to be cut. To the left now: the majestic tree canopy over the street has never been restored—in the wake of the blight that killed the elms, you had assumed that other varieties had replaced them, but obviously no one had bothered back then—perhaps they had thought it best to move on. And since forward motion is something you passionately believe in, you can’t explain this uneasy feeling that it hadn’t been the right decision: Something lost was allowed to remain so, but what exactly had been gained? You then look directly across the street at the house you could always see from your porch: Weirdly, it hasn’t changed in any way, there’s not a single thing that’s different—those architectural details that had been ill-advised even back then are still there, and now more questionable than ever. Under what circumstances does something like this occur? How does a less-than-interesting home bestow on itself historic status? Evidently someone had deemed not moving on to be the more desirable option.
And finally an equally slow 180, which brings you back around to your old house: gone and then here and then gone again; a different color now, with your father’s tree higher than the roofline and, remarkably, your mother’s overly tall custom shutters still flanking the picture window—or maybe new ones designed to be duplicates for reasons you’d never fathom. This, you realize, is the nature of legacy as it plays out in real life—the complex lives of your parents have in the end been reduced to this: a tree and shutters, both of unknown origin to the successive owners of the house, that for some reason seemed worth preserving—perhaps for nothing more considered than a shrugged Hey, they look okay. You wonder what your parents would have thought about their temporary immortality—the result of two decisions that they may not have pondered themselves. Or at least not as much as you had pondered before writing “Not Really Green Eyes.” But the result for you will be much the same, because no one really knows who writes pop tunes—they simply enter the culture fully formed from what most people assume is a song factory. And just as the tree will eventually be cut down and the shutters finally changed for a different design, this era’s music will fall out of fashion—and with it your one hit song.
And it’s then you understand that even though you had tried to have a different trajectory than your family, you were in fact part of a dynasty with a history of dubious and accidental contributions. Gone but still here and then gone again, but you’ll forever be coming back: Whether you remember your past or not, you’ll always be condemned to repeat it. This is the nature of your DNA—its sequence and its mutations . . .
You walk the eight blocks from your childhood to the cross avenue where there’s a better chance of a cab; to the familiar corner with the neighborhood pharmacy, just down from the grocery store. But any memories it might have stirred fail to materialize, because when you get there, the only thing you find is a weedy, vacant lot. You’re still staring at it when an old woman approaches, heading up the street with determination in the direction of your old school, and as she passes by, you can’t help yourself—you simply have to ask:
“Hey—I haven’t been around for a long time; what happened to the drugstore that was here?”
Slowing down, she sizes you up with a suspicion that doesn’t feature in any of your memories. And when she pauses, she keeps much more than a careful distance between you and her. “Barton’s, you mean? They went out of business about seven years ago, after all the problems with the fake prescriptions and that thing with Medicare.” And then she moves on immediately, uninterested in anything you might say next—and it occurs to you that curtness, too, isn’t present in your recollections.
You turn back to the stark and shadowless weedy lot where the pharmacy had been, thinking about fraudulent prescriptions and the now inauthentic past. Jim Barton has been a good friend of your father, and every one of your childhood ailments had been cured with medicine dispensed by him. Fake prescriptions. That thing with Medicare. The Rust Belt blight had affected far more than buildings and neighborhoods.
Jim Barton: gone and then here and then gone again—replaced by someone you never knew. And you imagine that unlike these crumbling facades, Barton had begun to fall apart from the inside. The downturn for him had been a losing battle against cancerous economics—the collapse had first hollowed-out his livelihood and then proceeded to devour his hopes.
And in the wake of this, perhaps, he’d filled his first forged prescription—which must have been deeply self-shocking, although even more so later on, when he realized he’d gotten away with it. And thus encouraged, he did it one more time—and then again and again and again. At which point he began to manipulate the records for reimbursement from Medicare.
All of this, maybe, while presenting a front to the world that showed no signs of inner collapse. And to achieve this he would have had to have sent almost subliminal signals about no trespassing; oblique warnings to those around him that it’d be best if they kept out. These would have been directed toward his family and his friends, but at some point he might have understood that they were actually intended for himself: Cautious reminders that in the future self-examination would have to be sidestepped.
But in the end, Jim Barton’s desperation and self-delusion had simply led to this—a stark and shadowless weedy lot, and a suspicious old lady who needed to walk much farther for her medicine.
That was the sequence of Barton’s DNA and these were the broken strands. Or maybe it’s just your imagination fueled by apophenia . . .
A cab finally comes into view and hailing it proves no problem at all; it pulls curbside with the swift eagerness of a taxi in an old film. And it makes you realize that anymore this isn’t a taxi cab town. It’s a place of far fewer small luxuries and not many expense accounts. In the back now, you tell the driver to take you uptown. “I want to go to the old bank building—the tallest one—but I’m not sure of the address.”
“No problem; I’ll get you there,” the driver says in the direction of the backseat. “But, hey, you should know it’s the third tallest these days.” Turn and face the strange, ch-ch-changes, whispers Bowie, suddenly seated next to you. Look out, all you rock ‘n rollers. Then he’s gone, and you almost laugh because, yeah, thus far this trip has confirmed that you’d taken his further advice to heart and had become a different man. “A bank still owns it, though,” the driver continues, helpful and weary at the same time, “Pretty much more of the same—just a different one.”
The cab window next to you now framing a stream of images from your past: the movie art house boarded up; a different shopping center in the place of the one you knew so well; the church and library, still next to one another, both still impervious to time. And then a distinct shift for the worse—the crossing of a line that divides the still-clinging from the parts of town that have simply let go, like that hell-of-a-final-step that takes you from the shallow end into the deep. Locations so changed, you don’t recognize them, even though you must have passed by them countless times back in better days.
“You from around here originally?” the driver asks.
“No—but someone I once knew was. Just curious about where he came from.”
At the end of the street, the old bank building juts above the urban blight—still here, but much smaller than you remembered and significantly less imposing. And it hits you that you’d come from a place that had once called a 20-story building a skyscraper. But it was also more than that back then—this Art Deco building, already old by the time you were born, had been the Future to you. Unlike the rest of the town, it had always seemed to have been transplanted here, evidence, maybe, of a world far beyond this place. To your younger eyes, it had looked like what King Kong might have climbed in advance of the planes that would shoot him down to ensure he’d never leave.
Staring at it from the cab, you find the through line that stitches past to present—the building remains visceral to this day; it still thrills you, an emissary from the future, that has since seen things which overshadow it. Even darkened with the years and seemingly shrunken, it defiantly remains not of this town—as fully apart from its decline now as it was from its ascendancy then. The old bank building, the lone example of Art Deco in this place, is a testament to other kinds of outsiders—those who are also at odds with the Midwest, its tastes and its sensibilities. And further, it’s a monument to simply not being here for all those who aspire not to be.
Your father: gone and then here and then gone again; one time he had taken you to the observation deck, and you’d never forgotten that from way up there you could clearly see another state and, you still persist in believing, another country on the horizon. Looking back, you’re certain he’d misunderstood: your excitement hadn’t been about a building that was the greatest pride of the town—your pulse had been racing because you’d seen beyond the city limits . . .
In front of the building you ask the driver to wait because the chances of finding another cab here seem slim, and increasingly it was becoming important to know that you had a way out of this place. “Is that plaza with the river view still there around the back?” The driver nods, cuts the engine and settles in with yesterday’s sports page.
Up close, the building’s limestone skin is stained and muted with age, but allowing for this, you have to admit that it still looks good. In other circumstances it might have earned a well-deserved restoration. But not right now because it’s in the wrong place at an economically grim wrong time. Still, for having been born before the massive crash of the previous century, here it is, still holding forth in the wake of post-Millennial collapse—albeit in the literal shadows of much taller and newer structures.
The plaza still runs from the rear entrances of the building right down to the river’s edge, which looks much more polluted now—as it probably is. Overlooking the water, there’s a structure of some kind. And when closer, you find that it’s a podium supporting a large map under half-fogged Lexan. It angles upward on the far end toward the river in an attempt to suggest perspective and has to be several years old—outside long enough for the sun to have bleached most of the color from the inks. At the top in the back, faded lettering in san-serif bold proclaims Forward To The Future, and just below, a few points smaller, On The Move In The New Millennium. Centered under that, after all the sloganeering, is simply Five-Year Renewal Plan. The bank must have been part of the financing, but still, why leave this standing here? Pride, maybe? Or, more likely, it might be as a cautionary reminder about making ill-advised investments in the future—an accidental corporate monument commemorating yesterday’s tomorrows.
Underneath the three-tiers of the title, the map itself is a ghosted image where only the boldest contours remain, and most of these are only partial. There’s a rub-on arrow atop the Lexan, curled now from the edges in by time and the river’s humidity. It points to the phantom area just below and announces with a faded Day-Glo confidence that, like it or not, You Are Here, although it refuses to say in what way.
The Lexan flares in the late afternoon sun and you’re suddenly thinking of that carnival attraction: Gone and then here and then gone again, just like its annual visits. Every a year a tractor trailer would arrive alongside the edge of the drive-in’s parking lot. Both sides of the truck announced in three-foot letters that there was an actual whale inside. The driver was an old man—at least old to you—who would then become the ticket taker and, after that, a docent of sorts. Inside, after parting with 50 cents, there was indeed a whale—frozen solid behind a half- fogged glass that ran the length of the trailer. Later you found out that it weighed 20 tons and was nearly 40 feet long. Exactly how the old man had come to own the whale’s corpse was never clear, but this much was: he annually appeared next to the parking lot with the regularity of a holiday. And that was the thing—his dependability was the reason that you still remember all of this. Because if something is kept frozen for long enough—decades it turned out, in this case—freezer burn is unavoidable, and the truck was obviously not airtight. Over the course of your annual visits, the whale’s skin began to progressively peel, making it ever less recognizable until a point was reached where small labels were needed to explain specific features. You increasingly needed to squint at the hulk encased behind the half-fogged glass and fall back on memories of previous visits to make sense of what you were seeing. Slowly you began to realize that the more recent appearances of the whale were smudging your earlier recollections. The present was overwriting the past, not simply following it. And it was then you instinctively understood that it was time to stop giving your 50 cents to the old man by the fold-down steps . . .