First Draft: Feeding the Machines in Shadow Country
1. Corpse in the Bag
The biggest clue telling me I’m peeking into a childhood memory is that the stalks of grass I remember are overgrown, gilded in the sunlight to look like wheat, and they tower over my head. Juvenile visions when peered at through the spyglass of hindsight, twenty years long, can be rife with such distortions. Everything is bigger because you are so much smaller.
The possum corpse rustles against the plastic grocery bag.
Dad is driving a turquoise four-door Ford sedan, and we’re on the way to school, and he’s pulled over to the side of the road where these leviathanic columns of grass bend beneath a morning breeze by the abandoned Stanley Works factory that reaches so high above me its top disappears in the clouds. Dad, in the memory, is more a moving shadow, bending light around him, than a flesh-and-blood man. Maybe this is the spyglass’s work. However old I am in the memory, he will die in less than five years. The spyglass knows this, even as I, watching Dad exit the car with the makeshift sarcophagus in his hands, do not.
I didn’t see Dad toss the dead possum over the chain-link fence, but I heard the shuffle of movement. I didn’t hear any thump, just the car door creaking open and thudding shut. Dad re-entered, smiled at me, and drove me to school.
We’d had possum trouble only recently. It might’ve been late Spring as what we had dubbed potato bugs (though they only superficially resembled Jerusalem crickets and would have been far away from their natural environ) had begun clinging to the screen on the back door, terrifying us kids when they left their shells behind and further colonized our portal out onto the back yard. It was warm out and the trash we’d put out there would stink and raise putrid fumes quicker than in seasons past. Porcine fruitflies would cruise in drunken arcs over our garbage pails; though there were often no holes in the bags, there was often effluence on the ground.
The backyard was big enough, the spyglass tells me, to escape the rotten fruit smell and its winged, buzzing entourage. The battle in the commons could be left behind if one fled to the far corners of the green chain-link fence to play on the swing set, toss a baseball or crack open the rocks at the base of the oak tree and discover the iridescence ringing their centers.
The killing itself was itself a mysterious process. One night, after having tolerated for too long the possum terrorizing us and our trash, Dad grabbed a massive tree branch, and walked outside, the back porch door closing behind him. He entered again with shoulders slumped, fatigued, having beaten the thing to death. I never saw the process, only the massive, powerful, demigod who had departed however briefly, murdered a thing, and came back unscathed. And when I saw Dad’s face, serene and unblemished, for the last time, in his coffin, it felt as though the city had done the same to him. I’d left and come back to find him put in a bag to be tossed over a fence.
2. Industry fills the hive and enjoys the Honey
Settlers populated New Britain as early as 1687, then incorporating it as a new parish. Two centuries later, it broke off from neighboring Berlin, Connecticut and became its own city, adopting the motto “Industria implet alveare et melle fruitur.” Industry fills the hive and enjoys the honey.
In the early twentieth century, manufacturers “The Stanley Works” and the “P&F Corbin Company,” among others, lent the metropolis its moniker “Hardware City.” The Midwest had, in Detroit, a Motor City, a bastion of manufacturing and industry, the embodiment of that romanticized image of men (and women) in cavernous factories, working with their hands to build things that would be used.
The wire coat hanger was invented in New Britain.
Our YMCA, the one I spent summers in as a kid learning billiards, enduring my first grade-school crushes and learning how to swim, is credited with giving to the game of basketball the technique of dribbling. If a city is built early enough in America, it will eventually be credited with having invented some necessity or another. Allegedly, hamburgers came from New Haven.
During the fall, with our jackets and scarves, we’d drive to Rogers Orchard in Southington, and Dad would put me on his shoulders to pick the Red Delicious’s and Honey Crisps that no one else could reach. Granny Smiths were in season as well, and the spyglass reveals to me baskets filled nearly to the brim with red and green. By the time we left, I was too besotted with the day’s haul to pay any attention to the apples that had fallen and rotted at our feet. But I always noticed them when we pulled into the parking lot, and how thickly they smelled of honey.
In Stanley Quarter Park was a jungle gym, the spyglass again distorts its size, but it was a colorful and indestructible thing. A natural wonder, as I imagine such metallic ecosystems appear to adolescents. In this park, I learned to ride my bike, learned what it was to fall at (relatively) high speed and skin your forearms and your shins where red rose in thin stripes through the skin. Learned that crying is the natural response to pain. And learned that after all of this, I was to get back on the bike and try once again to move myself downhill.
There I stood or sat or fell or rose, amongst the verdant landscape of Stanley Quarter Park or the mountainous rows of Christmas-presents-to-be at the Toys R’Us in Corbin’s Corner or even at our old church, Bethel Alliance Church, on Stanley Street. Trees everywhere, always green, even when there was snow on the ground. The place seemed to defy the metaphysics and geological churnings of the earth that I’d learned about in school. Seasons happened here, but the place seemed to exist in its own vacuum, unchanged, unaltered, magical.
Ours might have been the only driveway to feature a basketball hoop so whenever our cousins from New Haven came to visit during the summer, our afternoons playing pickup and trying to emulate the ankle-breakers we’d watched in the And1 streetball tapes would bleed into purple-sky evenings. We played until we couldn’t see the ball anymore. And a brief flirtation with street hockey had us doing the same with rollerblades and hockey sticks.
In summer, the place’s magical qualities were heightened.
One afternoon in particular, a summer thunderstorm caught us outside. A bunch of us, I and my sister and a friend of hers and my brother, ran up and down our street as the sky turned blood-red and raindrops as fat as balloons splashed on our faces, raindrops so big you could dodge them. It was so warm and the raindrops so bulbous, that the impulse to seek shelter and dry out escaped us completely, even as thunder boomed perilously soon after the lightning. We bathed in that storm. We roared with laughter, and we bathed.
I and my best friend, a Polish-American kid with whom I spent many hours playing Mortal Kombat Trilogy and Doom, would sneak through a break in the wooden fence separating our block from a nearby parking lot, and we’d head over to the Wal-Mart that had just opened up and spend the entire day hogging their PS2s and Nintendo 64s before we wound up with our own. We grew up as Sega Genesis kids, I having traded in my Super Nintendo for a console with a game library that didn’t censor my on-screen violence.
The last time I saw the other side of that fence, over a decade and a half later, the Wal-Mart was gone, like a potato bug that had left behind its shell, a horrid and flaking thing that stared menacingly with deadened eyes at everything that passed through its field of vision.
We’d driven past it too quickly to see whether or not fruitflies made drunken arcs over the refused husk that I imagine must have smelled sickly sweet of honey.
3. Kissing Princess D
I met her during my sophomore year of college and, since then, she has thrice saved my life.
In the spring, I’d been inducted into a society. Life in the Ivory Tower is lived largely between one’s ears. When the music grew too dulcet or the tones too incomprehensible, there was always drink to introduce a little welcome cacophony into the song, a bit of chaos to stir up the stream. It broke windows that needed breaking. So did video games, and so did semi-regular trips to the gym by our residential college.
Soon into my freshman year, I found that the only places where I was not utterly outclassed were the beer pong table, the jungle juice cooler, the bar. And where classmates grew increasingly proficient at navigating the corridors of power here, developing relationships with professors who would guide their entrance into professional careers there, meeting others in their shoes who would become invaluable when they ran for office or threw themselves headlong into their startup, my arms grew thick and muscled holding up the bar.
My discomfort (to put it diplomatically) living and studying and breathing beside these peers lent my primary preoccupation a destructive atavism, pushed this valence electron into an increasingly distant orbit until nights out became nights in with my closest buddies around a few handles of Jack Daniels and a Nintendo 64.
D wasn’t a regular companion the way most bartenders are, fleeting islands of commiseration, clung to after a long day spent suffering the slings and arrows. She was a fixture in the society, a descendant, having inherited an august lineage inextricably linked to the organization. She was a pillar, her back as painfully straight as one, buttressing the roof above our heads. And I loved her so much that whenever others in my class would leave half empty glasses on the bar in our building or scatter smashed crackers and cheeses on the rug or spill indistinct, sticky fluid on the bathroom floor, I hated them with a singular, preoccupied, adult hatred.
We called her our stewardess.
We had weekly Bar Nights where she would work the bar in our building and members of my cohort would cozy up and order Manhattans or white wine and sometimes they would come in with an entourage of hangers-on from the English Department or other similarly-classed friends, and they would place their orders, collect their drinks, tip her and sashay off to their corner tables in the darkness where they talked bloodlessly about love, and argued about the antiseptic economic processes that attended civil wars in Africa, and ruminated with lotioned, unblemished hands on the hard work of intellectual thought that built our country. How terribly smart and elegant our Founding Fathers must have been!
I stayed at the bar.
She would tell me stories that involved her working as a contractor, her redoing her garden, her putting shingles on a roof in the Ninth Circle of a New England summer, her digging her truck out of snow and lashing chains to the tires and driving wherever she needed to drive, her building a house.
Beautiful comes close to describing her, but the thing that shone beneath her skin was the glow of someone at work, occupied with some noble task, the opposite of deconstruction. Tangible, dirty, meaningful work. Planting the cherry tree that George Washington, in his puerile and atavistic adolescent impulse, would chop down. No matter what sweater or t-shirt or button-down she wore, a blue collar always ringed her neck.
So, to compensate, I would lie and make myself seem more working-class as a kid than I was. I would tell her about the cop wakes that happened in bars when an officer would retire. Things I’d stolen from other places, TV shows, books, movies.
Pristine white tower-ness so aggravated me that I couldn’t listen to the music between my ears anymore. I needed classic rock guitar riffs and drum solos and angst screamed into a microphone. I need the jackhammer and the crack of the mallet smashing brick and the sawing of wood. So D was the only person I could run to for solace, with her stories about taking potshots at squirrels that would shit under the shed or the benders she and friends would go on as kids. Harmless drunkenness lived through beat-to-shit two-doors.
She would test new drinks out on me.
We started with The Sour, which involved some wizardly combination of amaretto, whiskey (I think), sour mix and other spirits I’d failed to recount or recall. It tasted like candy and where two would down the other society members, I was tall as an oak after five. Soon after, we moved onto the Green Pig (the Swine was our society’s spirit animal), composed principally of vodka. This, too, after it became too popular, I realized, was not enough, so I always asked D to put an extra kiss on top. Smiling, she would upend the bottle of vodka, twirl it like a barista working a latte, and hand it back to me. The bite felt like a lover chewing on a bit of lip, and I fell a little deeper for her.
I told her of my writing, of girls I had no business falling for, and we’d rag on how high and mighty the kids behind me would act. Then we’d sorrow over the fact that they would be our senators and our presidents and the CEOs of companies that would fire us to meet their bottom line. Always us, D and I, me comfortable in my refusal to believe that I’d become more like them than I was like her. I was the one chasing the Ivy League degree. One of us was brushing up on John Locke in an armchair on the sixth floor and one of us was washing the window that looked out over The Commons.
I returned to the society building in the years after graduation, during one bit when I was briefly homeless, having been bested by a disease I’d watered and to which I’d given sunlight in college, and it was D who gave me a key, let me sneak in and sleep on a floor I would’ve been kicked off of had others in the society known about it. When I’d found stable housing and my graduate school situation had normalized, I would return to Bar Nights, but by then, I’d told her that I wouldn’t drink anymore, couldn’t, and the relief in her eyes broke my heart. The kindnesses she had showed me with each drink she had poured before were leavened by the way her voice, raspy from the Marlboro Lights we would smoke out back during her breaks, would nudge me away from the edge, would slowly peel away the blanket of rage I’d wrapped myself in after cancer had left my father a serene, desiccated pod.
I was the furious, raving ingrate whose ribcage could be seen through his skin, bristling against the folks I’d had to share a dinner table with while she quietly slid more of the roast beef she’d cooked onto my plate.
I’d made her complicit in my destruction, and now I didn’t have to ask that of her. Now, I needed only let her help in the rebuilding. A little oil in the gears. A little paint on the walls. A little concrete for the foundation. A hammer, a chisel, and a broom for us both.
Even now, while I’m picking through rubble for anything that can be salvaged, stooped over, covered in dust and ash, I’ll pause, thinking I’ve just heard a snatch of birdsong and I imagine turning over my shoulder and seeing her. Putting in a new window. Whistling a tune I recognize.
4. The Uniform
Throughout middle school and assorted weekends in high school and college, Mom took us to various office buildings around Connecticut (a gears and metals manufacturing shop in Hartford, a real estate office in Windsor, two office complexes in Glastonbury, a legal shingle in Bristol, a water filtering facility in Plainsville). We were all given separate tasks depending on how many of us were home at the time. If we had a full house, one of my sisters would vacuum, the other would dust and clean the desks. My brother would tag-team on the vacuuming, and I was the trash guy. We criss-crossed Connecticut via its highways and backroads and by the time some of us were just getting into college, it took longer to get to the places than it did to clean them. Rhythm governed us, and when it was just Mom and myself, it often felt like a husband and wife negotiating a kitchen while crafting a meal, always moving, never running into each other, their affection for each other filling the swirled air between them.
To this day, fury flashes through me whenever I watch someone toss a half-empty coffee into a garbage pail. My heart breaks for the person that’s gotta take that trash out and may not know what explosive device is waiting for him or her, lurking somewhere inside that plastic.
This, I think, explained why I was so quick to call D beautiful. She spiritually resembled my mother. Beauty in the crevices lining her face, beauty stacked in the blisters that sometimes crusted their palms, that roughened their hands, that sometimes carved at their voices. Beauty, to me, real and enduring and meaningful beauty, happened when someone sacrificed for your explicit benefit, when she gave up something essential of herself, without asking, without expectation of repayment, and often without you noticing. She worked, and I benefited. And it was work that others, my schoolmates and some colleagues, would look at as demeaning, work that someone deigned to do, or stooped from their perch to accomplish. The dirty work she did that no one appreciated, simply expected. What I could not ever hope to emulate was the way, after the uncaring would throw unfinished coffee cups into the trash while my mom, unsuspecting, would have it spill over her when she took out that trash, they would keep from hating that person.
One of my sisters always applied makeup before we packed into our turquoise Subaru Legacy and backed out of our driveway, and I would always squabble with her about the fact that we were heading out to get dirty, not to be looked at. The clothes we wore were supposed to make us invisible.
I quit drinking in the middle of a winter, New Haven’s temperatures approaching their nadir. Too cold for a jacket. Too cold for a hoodie. So I put them together and enjoyed how it looked, how it made me feel. Throw on some snow boots and I looked exactly like the kid they didn’t let into the Ivory Tower. Outside churches, donning my uniform, huddled among little circles on the sidewalk around the light of a half-dozen Newports, I felt like that kid too.
Inside those rooms, I was met with people who, battered by self-loathing into an evacuated potato-bug shell of a human being, said hey every time you announced your name and introduced yourself, who said it collectively and who sounded, in that instant, like the church choir back home in the midst of a rousing “O, Holy Night.” Men and women sacrificing for my explicit benefit, sacrificing something essential of themselves, without asking, without expectation of repayment, often without me noticing.
They shared their foxhole with me, and our hoodies and the jackets we wore over them and the jeans and the snowboots and the Newports, those made our uniform.
We were doing work, the necessary, dirty work of rebuilding our capacity for love.
It was an unspoken, morbid, hopeful understanding among us that we would never see this magnificent cathedral we were building, never pay witness to the completed thing. We could imagine it, and often it was the image in our heads of our repaired lives and our reconstituted existences, scar tissue stronger than skin, that powered our labor.
More often than not, it was joy in the work. It was a mother and her son, hoodies arming them against winter, waltzing their way through an office building, she dusting and vacuuming, he emptying the trash bins, the both of them moving in a rhythmed, loving silence.
5. Project Finance
There is such a thing as suit fatigue.
The week I landed in New York after approximately seventy days in the West Bank, I began interviews with law firms for next summer’s employment. I had one suit, one that I liked very much, a few shirts to alternate between when one was too sweated-through, and a few ties to cut some color through the conservative black-and-white.
I liked how the uniform made me feel because that would help better sell myself. What law firm would hire someone uncomfortable in a suit?
The whole experience felt a little like Up In the Air, except that instead of firing people, George Clooney is, at every destination, confronted with the sudden and monstrous and castrating fact of his own joblessness, and that card he swipes to pay for his trips takes money out of his own account instead of his employer’s, sending him deeper and deeper into the Elephant Graveyard that is Overdraft Land. And there’s no Vera Farmiga.
Pistoning me through the whole enterprise was the realization that attainment here of a summer associate position would put me a large step closer to fulfilling the life project of being in a position to take care of my mother, to make sure that she was never hurt again. To never have to endure that car ride early in my film school career when, in the course of spiriting me back to the bus station after a weekend at home, Mom told me she’d lost her job as a tax analyst. It was the fall of 2010, the onset of hoodie season, and I’d come to believe that the Recession would never touch my mother, that she was protected by a hedge of divine beneficence, that she was immune to such titanic misfortune. She’d lost a husband; she would never lose her livelihood. For the first time in as long as I could remember, I cried. Seeing me fall apart, she said, “that’s why I didn’t tell you while you were in New York.”
How dare you try to protect me, I thought but didn’t say.
She’d worked in a support capacity for the finance industry, and this amorphous thing that had crippled our economy and dislimbed my mother, became the unrivaled object of my animus. The industry’s image was not bettered when D, the following spring, lost her job as our society’s stewardess.
This time, I recognized the architects of her hurt; I knew the people who had ripped her from her livelihood, divorced her of her inheritance. They’d been my college classmates. They’d been the kids D had served Sours to, the kids for whom she’d made Manhattans and poured whiskeys, the kids she’d served. And now they had turned into job-killing sociopaths. I hated them with a preoccupied, adult hatred.
And now, wearing my suit, sitting outside the hotel room that held my interviewer, similarly dressed, only having earned his cufflinks and his patterned tie and his coiffed hair, I knew I was on track to becoming the same. The job I was fighting to get, I knew somehow, would entail doing to others what had been done to my mother, what had been done to D. This is simply what Ivory Tower kids did. Who they became.
But when interviewers asked what practice area I wanted to go into, or what group had drawn me to their firm, I startled myself by saying, “project finance.” I’d never done any of that work, knew no one who had, only held in my mind images of men on wires building a bridge, men and women, previously jobless, laying down road for a highway. Men and women in a factory constructing material for rail lines that would get people from Boston to Chicago in record time.
Wire coat hangers.
In my mind, saying project finance filled that empty Stanley Works factory building back in New Britain with people, with bodies, with life.
When the law firm says no, we will not be offering you a position in our summer program, you wonder a little bit if the refusal was not based on something they saw or didn’t see in your resume but whether there was something in your posture, something lacking, that made their decision for them. Maybe if you wore a nicer watch or you wore a watch at all… Maybe if you’d scrubbed the rest of your origins from your accent, if you’d rendered it entirely antiseptic, things would’ve turned out differently. If you’d walked in with a gilt-edged portfolio with your school’s crest embedded on the front, instead of that plain black three-ringed binder holding all of your notes and resume copies and transcripts, they might’ve said yes. It’s a foolish worry, but in your anger, you hope, as you leave, that you’ve scraped enough of your home off your shoes and into their carpet to leave a stain.
I exit the elevator, it’s an elevator on 49thStreet, it’s an elevator on State Street, it’s an elevator in New York, it’s an elevator in Boston, and I return to the hotel and even though it’s summer and I’ve sweated through the same dress shirt for the fourth day in a row, I ache for the hoodie and the black jacket waiting for me at home. The worn jeans, the torn apart gunmetal-gray boots. The pack of Newports and the sidewalk outside a church with others like myself, worn in the face, nearly radiant with fatigue, all cradling the same darkness, the last words of the Serenity Prayer, collectively-uttered, still thrumming between our ears.
But I undress, hang up my suit and my shirt, and begin researching for the next day’s interviews.
Tomorrow, I will put those clothes back on, rehearse my answers, throw some oil on the gears and do it again. The corpse is in the bag, and the bag is in the air.
Still, when I said in interviews that I wanted to work in project finance, I detect underneath it all a compulsion to try building, or rebuilding, my home, matching the reality to the dream-memory where things are alive, resurrecting the thing and perhaps, in some ephemeral way, bringing my father back to life.
There’s a hookah spot in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn that I frequent, crowded regularly with a small army of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans who key the place up with noise and mirth and threat, bits of Brooklyn shot through with Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic, and we’d bullshit at length about whether the Broncos will make it to the Super Bowl this year; they’d trash my Ravens then concede that the team had made some moves in the off-season; and they’d go to war over whether Marquez was right to drink his own piss in preparation for his 2009 Mayweather fight. “No Mexican can step to me over that shit.”
There I sat, the bar cutting off our circle, in Brooklyn, in that little island of swearing and baritone and missing consonants, chasing the same thing I’d chased in New Haven, the same thing I’d left behind in New Britain, that hulking, hollowed-out edifice, coreless but still standing, slouched by time, its insides dug out by cancer, ruins glistening in decay, beautiful wreckage.
6. A Kingdom Made of Gears
I’m afraid to return to New Britain, terrified of experiencing the place without my father present. He was a Deacon in a church there but served no really essential function in the town municipality. He was a gear, necessary the way every gear is necessary. Replaceable, but someone’s machine stops if he is gone, someone’s machine is in need of repair, needs to be fed.
I imagine going back some day. Maybe I’m a father by this time. And maybe, before this return, I take my son or my daughter on that ride, familiar to me, novel to him or her, on Metro-North between New Haven and Grand Central, the twice-daily voyage I made throughout early sobriety, when I was in the course, along with others, of rebuilding myself. And maybe my kid will point out the window and I’ll follow their finger, seeing the smoke billowing from the smokestacks in Bridgeport, the blackened, dilapidated cars in the junkyard, the small cathedral and the emptying factories that surround it. And I hope my kid will marvel at this, and I imagine I will smile, as if to say, “this is a beautiful kingdom and one day, it will be yours.”
I won’t have replaced my father. But maybe the machinery, the family that was disrupted by his removal, can hum again with unfettered, unabated life, sated, properly fed.