from Dimestore Paperback Memories
Winter is a mystery that can happen in a day. Never has there been a consummation or ceremony that doesn’t in some way symbolically involve snow, ice, frozen clouds of respiring weather. Virgin snow. Fresh-driven snow. Snow that at first falls miraculously, this Wonderful Life-ly, then after days and years of it, in a sheet that deadens. A white sheath that hides the corpse from what we want to see. An end to it all. What most taboos are: what we know most intimately. Great advice: paint it white. Satanicly so.
Winter in the midwest plain sucks. Winter is a form of killing. After it’s initial planetarium laser show of making everything in the real, perceptible world all of a sudden outlined, it’s an endless, barely ebbing tide of sorrow that causes most living creatures to feel depressed, to sit back moodily, to seek the consolation of milk or ice cream, or to lay back in wooden-framed chairs whose cushions are over worn as to allow the mind to forget about the body and boringly, emotionlessly, ponder. Winter is deadsville. To willingly spend an entire winter in a place that has true winters, north of the Mason-Dixon Line, is a way to torture the mind into believing that martyrdom is truly an option. Winter is expressively for to suffer the slings and arrows of mental sadomasochism.
And it’s not like winter sports are a lingering hobby one can pursue. To what to wit: snowmobile luxuriously over the tundra, cross country ski oneself into a coronary in the woods, perhaps ice fish into ecstatic reverie all the while trembling with glee or frostbite. Although to watch a game of hockey in a dark basement tavern where they have an air hockey table and a slide-a-shuffle-board-puck-at-bowling-pins bowling game, might be near fun’s essence. There comes a time, after the appreciation of condensation arrays itself frozen and solid, that leads all that is animate to utter stillness, which leads to a letter drawer’s opening and it’s shutting to occur obsessively and the glint of the letter opener scintillate menacingly. Winter leads one to travel up and down stairs in a house repeatedly for a semblance of travel, it leads one to the damp basement to inventory a collection of soda pop cans hidden for future consumption. It leads one to stare repeatedly and for hours into the refrigerator hoping that by doing so somehow the behavior will accumulate into the appearance of a fresh, authentic Mediterranean dish. Winter also leads one to the most futile behavior of all, the one that looks most like a coma enjoyed: reading and writing.
As in any place distant from spot lit reality, where there are horrors. Even in the spotlight, where there are televised bank robberies, suicides by cop, more murders than can be cynically considered population control, and in this great land, hourly vents of evil instantly morphed into media just as the weather is endlessly gossiped about and made out to be an adversary. Turn on coverage of your local war. Winter is the same thing. A battle that can never be won. A time beared with. Only the fools pretend to enjoy it. Never forget the core of Dante’s hell was frozen over.
Winter brings back stories of memories better left unremembered. What the world doesn’t ever need to know about is Scotty who lived in a low-rent, colonial façaded apartment building on a hill, more of a mound of dirt behind a convenient store. It was near the gully of the always trickling crick bed, near University avenue, near Eleanor L.’s house that was built by her father out of varnished wood and weird in the style of modern architecture, like museums or gas stations are: blocky and low. Scotty lived pretty much alone because his mother was a nurse to old people. He was a kid of 13.
The first principle irony of his situation was that his sister, who looked vaguely oriental, was retarded and confined to a wheelchair. She was really Hispanic. Her body was wracked by genetics gone cruel but not unusual. She drooled and wore the same dark blue/ white flower dress for days in a row. It was kind of cool that she always smelled like a baby. She said that it was her favorite dress, but we knew better, when we could understand her, sometimes she tried to take it off and show us, or really anybody, her clean underwear. She could kind of talk and you knew what she meant by how she made noises and faces and moved her arms about. When she wasn’t trying to talk, she mostly drooled and smiled. Not much drool.
One day when we were eating chunky peanut butter on spoons in his apartment and watching cartoons, Scotty said that she liked to do this thing. I said what? Scotty said yeah she liked to have it done to her because she saw it once on t.v. and since then she moves up and down and makes funny noises weirder than the ones she usually makes, like cows mooing, and she tries to point and she touches herself. Scotty said that if I wanted to I cold do anything I wanted to her, just as long as he could watch, as long as I helped him clean her up afterwards. Put her dress back on right. I didn’t know what he meant but it made my peanut butter spoon taste like a mouthful of saliva just before you’re going to throw up. He said if we wanted to since there was two of us we could even take her out of her wheelchair. She was looking at me and trying to smile. Her name was Angeline. Then Scotty tried to convince by saying that she really did like to do the thing because they did it all the time. Sometimes this is how life welcomes you to the age of twelve.
I told him I had to go home. I ran all the way there, up the hill of a place they called “Tanglewood”. I ran until I could drive a car. I ran for three years. I ran until I was enrolled in Driver’s Ed.
There’s nothing more essential to youth than driving a car. Especially if it’s an American muscle car, the height of motorized nirvana. In contemporary society, there’s a huge selection of the exact same rounded, easy to drive teardrop-shaped vehicles, in various sizes featuring pretty much sameness on wheels. Who knows why there is a market for complete lack of style/personality, no angulation, no prominence, no rugged individuality in a vehicle’s shape anymore.
Back when cars were cars and what a person drove was taken for granted as their commentary on what life means, rather than the status level they thought they had achieved, there was one car in particular. There was one car that defined what it meant to be young and alive in a certain era and to remember that era and drive it around a decade and a half later. There was one car that had a style all its own. There was once a midnight blue 1966 Pontiac Tempest.
Slick, like a dark shark. Couch-like vinyl front seats, front and back. The back seat was everybody’s dream of a mobile bedroom. Its trunk was everybody’s dream of a bash in the making: big, so big that it could easily haul up to three kegs. Big enough to comfortably smuggle two people into the drive-in. Even on a hot night. The vehicle was the devil in mechanical disguise.
Designed for the appearance of flight, it had wings that took the shape of fins or horns. Giant lightning bolts of metal that tapered into glowing jets of propulsion turn signals. It’s front looked like a portrait of a partially insane bee, or a hornet having a bad day, or a basking whale from a robotized planet, or even maybe an angry Mig-27 winking.
Sacral, purity of chrome everywhere. Bumpers, trim, wheel covers. Swords of windshield wipers. The hood was so wide and slate-like that the car felt and looked and drove like the prow of a boat, or submarine. Sadly, it was an automatic, but it still could easily lay a patch and rush the senses with that airplane-taking-off-acceleration feel. Its straight six cylinder had enough power to impress if not to drag race. No one back then dragged anyway, except in b-movies.
Other kids who were secretly jealous of my set of wheels called it the Bat Mobile. Nothing wrong with that. Kids with faster cars– Cameros, Challengers, Mustangs– they made fun of it because it was a cool beyond what they had learned. They’d forgotten it their cars were the little brothers of the GTO.
It was a dream machine. Prometheus’ chariot with an AM radio. Turn signals that sang “I’m on, I’m on, I’m on.” A speedometer and dashboard that read like very old wind-up alarm clocks. So much room that driving it felt like piloting a Barcalounger made of steel. The worst thing about having owned this car, having driven it, having to have sold it when it was impractical to take it to college with me, is that when a similar one drives by every six months or so, bringing back its shadow from oblivion and rust, a headless horseman behind the wheel, the memories it leaves plowed in its in tow. The memories it churns in its tail fins. The memories a car can possess and drive away with, forever.
Simple escape. The opposite of a wheelchair. The opposite of winter. The opposite of the aftertaste of guilt.
It is a place called Jubilee. A series of riverine bluffs and hillsides masquerading as a park, contained. Concealed within its treelines are buildings of an old abandoned pioneer college building that’s now attended to by a few women and by some park rangers who have nothing better to do than engulf themselves in the smell of old wood rotting and stacks of Readers from the nineteen twenties, bound by string and ties of leather shoelaces, while their pages tether away like lost butterfly wings in the last full days ofany season. Women and men in their early twenties, thirties and forties who have given up on anything that might resemble success or fame. Men and women whose skin is so pale and faded, who have glass bead clear liquidy eyes, whose hands and feet are so hard-worked that their fingers and toes are permanently chapped pink. People whose job it is to tend to history, to remember and record, to whom we should ask questions but we never do. People who are the most real people of us all. And we rarely see them.
They are in places like where what is mostly heard is birdsong. So far off the highway, the highway itself surrounded by rolly-polly farmland, and if they are not living history cemeteries these villages that call themselves cities, then the cemeteries that encircle them staffed with way too many Voorheeses to even be mildly funny, then what is?
It is this place called Jubilee. It of course has its own turn of the century cemetery. Defined most notably by its wrought iron fence that introduces the ruin of the college’s founder’s house, wherein lived his wife and who knows how many mistresses (they have secrets that if we make them up, they had been already been true) in a typically Midwestern gothic existence. Trees, mostly oak but some cedar, dripping with vines, a tendril transplanted from a patch of green from Louisiana. Fence now tilting once painted blue now painted (badly) black, leaning in its attempt to hold down a plot of land. Failing to do so. Rolling into the netherworld of the woods.
It is and has been a place where for centuries young people come to consummate their lust. The ritual probably originated in a spring school picnic. In sixth grade, classes from the local private religious schools were taken out to Jubilee for lunch and afternoons of baseball or hiking or doing whatever could be done while being monitored by apathetic teachers, some of them young enough to feel the yearn of the season.
Always, every year, there would occur an unstoppable water balloon fight between boys and girls. The reason this happened was obvious to everyone involved. Amateur wet t-shirt contests. The hormonal soup we rained upon each other was a blessing with no disguises. Near strip tease shows in white button downs and Polos.
Makes sense to return to the very locale where Lisa M. was chased into the park service’s women’s bathroom. To hunt her down for nailing you on the top of your head with a fat round light blue balloon thus wiping out your hair thus making you look like a wet dog, flat-headed fool, fag. Oh the infamy of it. Her saddle shoes a blur of zebra skin. Sweet cherub laughter when you tackled her in the crispy autumn leaves.
Lisa M. . . . a brown-haired, olive-skinned maiden of fair-weather Lebanon. The first crusade of Prince Lionheart. We return to our victories and defeats as if they were cathedrals built over springs of emotion. Waterfalls of memory lost somewhere in the forests that surround. Look around in them and you’ll find nothing and some of its traces. Empty beer bottles, some paper burnt, the key to a house that no longer even stands. Baseball cards with their quartzified pink tongues of gum. Simple apothecaries of believing, especially ingesting anything for the reality it promises. A gram of memory, or a memory gram.
On the hillside of the tiny cemetery, shaded place in a bed of leaves fallen last fall, above the creek that ran so clear it was believed to be a spring that paused for a moment where a tree had toppled over some rocks (or were they blocks of concrete?) into a pool. Pausing into pools of each other. Another wicked writhing.
The innumerable number of these places in an America that is sprawling out of control. What is created is living cemeteries of strip mall mortuary. Inside of which anything can be acquired for a small fee. No one realizing that a purchase is a transaction– a form of trade– giving something for something else, bills and coinage for some equally useful or useless object, or service, or trademarked illusion. That what it is isn’t about anything at all, the sell of absence, the purchase of nothing, and the strip malls keep encroaching and promising the end of architecture as an act of aestheticism. The vision is simple and even scarier than that at the end of the Planet of the Apes. Badlands. An abandoned K-Mart, its door swinging open. From inside, the sound of clean version music. Behind it, a garbage dump of a Walden eroding into sunset.
But before this happens everywhere, back to Jubilee. A patch of forgotten valley and woodland. Nothing special. A meadow off a small, cracked up and tarred back together blue-grey highway. Forgotten to time, it forgets time too and grows vines and vines of itself, dirt and hillock on which trees grow. And worms eat everything below. Including bones and secrets. The produce section of carnality. A branch creaking in the wind.
On a lighter, more airy note. Driving a car at night to the weave of loose gravel white rock road in the farmlands was the perfect way to try to find and race UFOs. With a six pack on the floor ready to be opened and nursed into empty aluminum can oblivion. Unlike the mythical, government sponsored sightings in New Mexico or Colorado or Arizona where there’s so many air force bases that it’s pretty obvious what’s going on, here, in the farmlands, who knows what’s up?
They cross the skies almost every night, especially when you aren’t looking, but then nothing escapes the corner of the eye. This was way before some idiots in England went out to fields and made landing patterns that are so totally fake. This is before that. This is when life from other realms actually used the anonymity of cornfields and forest ravines and riverbeds as rest stops for their summer vacations. Complete seclusion. Far from big cities.
To track them all one needs to do is to drive out to the square-grided country roads of farmland, past the city’s limits, their outer limits, and keep driving, while sipping and looking up. It’s pretty hard to get lost and quite easy to not be found.
You roll the windows down, put the heat on low, turn the radio on even if it only plays AM. Then you go get one of your best friends at the time so that he or she will open and serve you a beer while you both slowly move through the night, looking up, illuminated only by the headlights and dashboard’s dusty glow. With luck, the local police won’t pull you over on your way out of town, after having shone a light into the vehicle, having seen arms gone akimbo in an attempt to hide the beverage in question, then pull you over for a lecture and a bottle emptying party. Just in case, as a big boy scout, you must be prepared.
Gently, secretively, as a gourmand might sip at a glass of Château Neuf du Pape 1912, you, holding a bottle between your legs pssssshsssst it open and taste in gradually larger and larger fizzy, wretched, tin-tasting gulps, and becoming slightly more and more buzzed while piloting. Incremental bliss.
In small amounts, two to three cans of the ass-cheapest you rationalize as economical and drinkable, known as bottom of the barrel, completely overlooking the taste found in Mexican, European, or Japanese brews, you sip a liquid that tastes of bread, burnt and liquefied.
Driving through big scary weed trees, wild roses, fields of yellowing corn in a late summer, hearing the static of 1970s hits on WIRL and laughing about anything that isn’t even funny. Driving slowly into fogginess under a clear blue ocean sky of lightning bugs and stars, looking up above in silent wonderment. What were those occasional moving lights? Falling stars or meteorites crashing out of sight like we eventually would, like our dreams and songs of illusion never brought to a boil. Looking for tracers of ourselves who have passed and are incapable of remembering their one time famous gigs as stardust.
About the author: Philip Kobylarz is a teacher and writer of fiction, poetry, book reviews, and essays. He has worked as a journalist and film critic for newspapers in Memphis, TN. His work appears in such publications as Paris Review, Poetry, and The Best American Poetry series. The author of a book of poems concerning life in the south of France, he has a collection of short fiction and a book-length essay forthcoming.
Artwork: B. Ellis Williams is a poet, visual artist, spiritual counselor, occasional philosopher, aspiring psychopomp, and priest-in-training. He holds an MFA in poetry from St. Mary’s College of California, and presently studies and resides at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.