HAVING settled in a portside seat, J. watched Jersey’s Palisades pass by up to Fort Lee as the Greyhound followed the Joe DiMaggio along the Hudson apartment cliff-banks. He caught brief glimpses, past the passengers across the aisle, of the sky funneling down the cross streets through Manhattan. The bus turned onto I-95 at 174th and sailed in and out of holy Bronx, and the Long Island Sound burned platinum under the morning sun until New Haven. There, the bus cut north on I-91, and J. turned his attention to his seatmate, a chattering strange-o named Duluoz, recent divorcee from Spindle City, MA, recovering from a crack-up, traveling under an assumed name, and hoping to Go West, young man, and seek his fortune there. They sat beside each other and thought the same thoughts of the soul, bleak and blue and sad-eyed.
At Hartford, J. transferred to a regional that took him the rest of the way to his uncle. Family but not familiar, J. knew him best in his recurring role as deus ex machina, e.g., when J.’s mother was short on cash again or they needed to find a new place to live again because they’d received a final eviction notice again. It was that same savior — now reluctant warder — wingless, haloless, yet nonetheless recognizable, who greeted J. as he stepped off the bus at the end of the line on a cold moon’s day.
ALL small towns are alike. Upend a box filled with a Main Street, a Center Street, a Peach Street, a Plum Street, a Cherry Street, a series of numbered streets. Arrange loosely around a church. Pour streams or rivers or ponds or lakes along the outskirts. Lay macadam roadways in cowpaths or grids or both and arrange homes accordingly. Unroll thin, threadbare runners of grass to weave between sidewalks forced slantward by flexing tree roots and potholed roadways. String a ring of storefronts around Main and Center. Populate with the descendants of Puritanical zealots. Pressurize under restrictive, backward social norms until tender to the tooth.
Small towns are the perfect contrapasso for all city sinners.
THE day J. arrived, he found himself confronted by the fair sight of a gazebo planted in the dead center of the town square. He tried to remember if he’d ever seen a gazebo before. Where in the city could you find a gazebo? Maybe Central Park, but J. preferred the small parks overloomed on all sides by streets and buildings, the ones that had to fight for every shabby emerald inch. A salt smell, a memory, scratched at J.’s nose though the ocean lay far away. Gazebo, gazebo, gazebo, gazebo, gazebo. J. thought the word to himself over and over until it was just a series of syllables devoid of meaning. Origin unknown, oriental corruption, c.f., belvedere: “a fair sight.” Gazebo. Gah-zee-boh. Gaze-bo. Gaze. J. felt eyes on him. Small towns reversed the polarity of city invisibility. Move along, move along, the orangutan gestured to the rubbernecking zoogoers as he loped away in search of boundaries, borders, demarcations, dark alleys, a gas station to get a new pack of Old Golds or at least an off-brand loosie, and the local book shop. A vinyl banner hung across the main street read “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate” in Comic Sans.
J.’S uncle owned and operated a diner that white-knuckled the edge of the town square. Like a theatrical stage transitioning between scenes, the building’s previous incarnation as a hardware store could still be seen through the diner’s scrim. The old sign still hung over the doorway, and in situ overstock still cluttered the diner’s shelves, befuddling the non-locals who occasionally wandered in and attempted to purchase a garden hose or paint can or car wax or batteries or box of nails.
The diner served as a cenotaph to J.’s grandfather, who kicked off shortly before J.’s arrival in this world and passed the hardware store down to J.’s uncle. By then, J.’s mother had already departed the small town, having fired herself at velocity toward New York (along the same path, albeit reversed, of J.’s exodus) and away from her dying father and her big brother the moment her high-school graduation cap hit the ground. She was eighteen years old, and the world could wait no longer, not even for them.
ABOVE the diner, the hardware store’s office had been converted into a studio apartment. However, unlike the diner, which wore the trappings of the hardware store like a threadbare mourning shroud, the second floor fairly bowed under the weight of history, a Castle Elsinore where the ghost of J.’s grandfather drifted in from stage left, plucked his natty Italian briar from its pipe stand on the coffee table, and slid white king’s pawn to king five on the chess board set up next to the stand — he was the type of player who preferred a good land rush over diddling around in one’s own territory, e.g., setting up a fussy King’s Indian Attack like some folks.
Once, while hunting for a pen, J. found an old leather pouch filled with the vanilla Cavendish tobacco his grandfather had smoked in his uncle’s roll top desk. Out of curiosity, J. wrapped the tobacco into rolling paper and took a few test puffs, but it had gone stale years ago and left his throat raw and stomach queasy for hours after.
Two armchairs and a heavy leather sofa squatted around the low square coffee table, oversized refugees from J.’s grandparents’ home — J. couldn’t imagine his uncle ever going out to shop for a living-room set. While J. lived there, on and off, for the next two years, he often dozed off reading on that couch and woke up in darkness to the dull roar of his uncle’s snore rattling the window frames from across the room, his own head propped uncomfortably against a hard throw pillow, with grandfather’s vintage acrylic Boston College blanket (Go Eagles!) tossed over him and his book resting on the coffee table, bookmark carefully inserted between the pages where it had fallen open, spine up, on his chest, dropped by somnolent fingers. At the time, even this small act of charity — the blanket, the bookmark, the pillow — on the part of J.’s uncle, carried out under cover of darkness, so to speak, rankled him. It seemed J. was to be deprived of all choices, even those regarding his own discomfort. If this sounds ungrateful, well, gratefulness had always grated J, anyway.
DOZENS of photographs shingled the apartment walls: historical black-and-white photos of, e.g., Give ’Em Hell Harry clutching a copy of the November 3rd Chicago Daily Tribune over his head with a manic gleam in his eyes or Jackie Robinson stealing home on Yogi Berra in Game One of the ’55 World Series or a team photo of the ’46 Boston “Ted” Sox mingled with more prosaic shots of family-album-type fishing trips of J.’s uncle hoisting pendulous, rainbow trout, flounder, salmon, et al., while seated in a canoe or standing on a dock or riverbank. Wall-mounted piscatorial replicas posed in frozen arches and undulations among the framed photos, mouths agape, eyes marble bright. One made of latex rubber even used to sing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” as it flopped back and forth on its faux-wood-grain plastic plaque; its dying batteries transformed the tune into an unsettling basso profondo dirge.
Fiberglass rods, nylon monofilament spooled lines, a wicker creel, rubber waders, life preservers, even a set of oars, huddled in trippable distance of the front doorway. On the opposite side of the door, stalagmitic plastic sports trophies from his uncle’s childhood — mostly for baseball, track, and bowling — crowned a wooden display cabinet that held signed baseballs, Spalding gloves, and more trophies under glass.
During J.’s inventory of his uncle’s apartment, he noticed the curves of an acoustic guitar peeking out in the space between the display case and wall. After tuning it by ear, he ran through the few simple songs he knew: Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger,” some Ramones numbers, Elvis Costello’s cover of Sam & Dave’s “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down,” Bowie’s cover of Them’s “Here Comes the Night,” et al., wincing as the steel strings dug into his soft hand. J. closed his eyes and pressed harder until the pain filled his mind, until nothing of him was left but the bloodless-white tips of his burning fingers.
SAY your mother dies when you’re just a little kid. Cancer. By the time you’re a teenager, you realize that when you recall her in your mind’s eye, her portrait has been cobbled together from photographs and illuminated with the flickering bulb of your recollections; that there might not be one primary, pure, unadulterated memory left of the woman who gave birth to you — not even the smell of her rose-scented soap, which, through time and overuse, had petrified into the rememberance of the memory of the smell of her rose-scented soap — that you’ll never know for sure what she actually looked and sounded like when she was a living, breathing, walking, talking, stereoscopic human being.
Say at the start of your senior year of high school, your dad gets sick. Cancer. Your uncle drives your dad to and from the hospital in Hartford for tests and more tests then treatments and more tests and more treatments. You take some time off from school to help run the family store. The store sits across the street from your school. Every day, you look out the window and see your classmates come and go. Sometimes, friends stop by the store after classes to say “hi” and see how you’re doing, but they don’t know what to say, and you don’t know what to say, and as the days and weeks pass by, they stop by less and less and eventually stop stopping by altogether. You try not to look out the window, to busy yourself stocking shelves or taking inventories or sweeping the floors or organizing the stockroom or helping the occasional customers. You try not to think about the college applications to UConn and B.C. in your desk drawer, about the athletic scholarship offers (partial, but still) that you had to turn down once you realized you wouldn’t be returning to school for the rest of the year (or ever, but you don’t know that, not yet).
Say you take a galvanized steel trashcan and a ponderous equipment bag lifted from the school gym out to the woods by the lake on the outskirts of town, prop the can at an angle against its lid, and hurl screaming four-seamers and downshifting three-fingers and plunging split-fingers and swinging two-seamers and diving forkers into the can, which booms thunderous applause through the trees in response to each pitch. You throw pitches until your dripping sweat turns the dirt beneath your feet to mud, your arm falls off, your hand melts to the bone.
Say the cancer kills your father. But not before the immense weight of responsibility — for him, your sister, the store — has slowly but thoroughly and utterly crushed you over the course of the three years from diagnosis to funeral. You discover that being crushed is not the same as being broken. Being crushed, you are still whole but denser, airless, and harder to knock down thanks to your new lower center of gravity. You build a memory palace bricked with the totems of your father’s belongings and make your home there, a child’s elegant solution to the impossibility of endless mourning.