A coming-of-age travel story
I’m in a tunnel of difficult work. Since my head is exhausted, I’ll just quickly write some facts: I woke up late and prepared material. I tested my sensor. Looked at maps. Biked to the old graveyard in Ridgefield. Keelers and Sturges’ and Revolutionary war heroes are buried there. Most of the stones I saw were from around the 1800’s. I tested the sensor. Seems like it works! It is so peaceful there; I felt at ease. People forget that cemeteries are more like parks. I moved around, doing my tests. I don’t think anyone saw me.
The thought comes to me: perhaps I am also dead.
I am so tired, so tired; all this effort is tiring; but hey! here’s sleep. Amen, goodnight.
First day on the road. I set out after saying goodbye to Granddad. He looked like a little bird and his hands were limp. His mouth was thin as two tiny nightcrawlers and his skin was flaking off everywhere. Purple eyelids today, where yesterday the skin was yellow. He looked just like a baby bird and his body was so small. He was making an escape from his body.
I decided to test the sensor on Granddad. There are three little lights that flash when it gets close to biomass of any kind, and a small beeping sound. When I opened the package it started lighting up like crazy. Gotta figure out how to dial back the sensitivity settings so that it only pings when it gets near certain kinds of biological material. I reread the manual and it seems this is possible.
So I brought it into Granddad’s room, to check it against withering skin. I put the sensor near his flesh and the three little lights flashed as they should have.
It hurt to let his hand go, because when I did, it just hung there limply. So arbitrary - to have to choose when to say goodbye. Now, or in twenty minutes? Arbitrary! The nurse caught me in a hug and I let tears fall.
Now he and the nurse were a unit, were one entity; and when she said to me, “we must all go down this road”, I knew that it was the combination wisdom of the dying man and his caregiver.
I got on the road and - the flowers! Sky! Grass! Miracles! Gasps!
In that moment I was happier than I’ve been in so long.
I arrived in Hookstown, PA at 5pm and caught up with Joey and Missy and the girls. When there’s no one around to imitate, you must invent someone to be. Sometimes when this happens I choose a complex or bombastic personality to inhabit, but today I picked someone low-key. Lots of smiles and laughs. They took me to a graveyard where my relatives are buried. I have never seen a headstone of my relative. It did not move me.
But then they took me to the little river town that my family settled and that did move me. It has three streets. People still live there. It looked like the kind of place you could blow down if you blew hard enough.
I described in full my project to the family. They liked it; they found it interesting. I can’t express how good it feels that I have been talking about my project and people who know nothing about it understand and find it interesting.
In fact, this elates me.
Even my mom said, “well, that’s a really cool idea.” Her father lays dying.
I had hardly a thought all day, just breeze and joy. Tomorrow I set out for Fort Wayne. Tonight is a held breath! Amen.
Woke up at 6 and ate with Aunt Missy and Uncle Joey. It was so great, to be with - family (?!) I drove through Ohio - a huge place… Rolling hills, scenic route recommended by Joey. Townships with the highway as their center, big sky. I listened to a book by Roberto Bolaño as I drove. The book is violent and I caught myself forgetting to breathe.
I got to Fort Wayne sooner than expected and found the gravesite with only a little trouble. I took photographs, and as I was so doing I met two women my age, one of whom went to SCAD for historic preservation. Even out here in Fort Wayne, IN, it seems young adults are very anxious about finding meaningful work to do. She wore a simple black dress and elaborate earrings that swung heavily near her neck. Her little face was expressive and she had the smile of someone imitating a professional. We talked at length about my project. I didn’t leave out any details! She was fascinating. Mild and sweet and odd. She was walking away. I began to walk towards her. Saw her turn and come back - to give me her email. I couldn’t believe I had managed to make a new friend and felt that the world was large, true, but generous.
Then I went to get something to eat and saw more malls, dry hot road.
The memorial park is a thin strip of green - sort of like those diagrams of ancient Pompeiian houses. Very narrow but long. A thin gravel car path runs through it, winding around a large knoll in the park’s center. Near the front side, there’s a small field with a volleyball net. In the back, behind the knoll, many large trees. At the top of the knoll, there is a small group of blossoming apple trees - (it’s June). And then the grave. It’s nested in a rectangle of gravel, which is surrounded by a short fence, which is covered with dried wreathes from an annual Spring festival. Around the outside of the whole thing there’s a larger fence that closes off the viewing area.
Did I know there was a parade in Fort Wayne that day? I did not. The small town was full of people! Next to the park was a baseball field and a sort of social club for the parents. I had to pee so I went into the parents’ social club after hiding my stuff in a bush. There were puffy men in button-downs and shining women with low-cut dresses. It was early in the day, but everyone in the social club was sloppy and the room was wet and it stank. The swimmy scene gave me a weirdly dark feeling. Everyone in the room was a little wet. I quietly used the restroom and downed an errant sprite.
On the other side of the park was a very large entertainment complex - a huge cylindrical building that was white and shone across a parking lot that could fit at least 2,000 cars. This place was called the Coliseum, and it was guarded by armed security. Did I know there was a concert at the Coliseum that day? I did not. I watched the parking lot fill quickly. From my perch on the knoll I could see bored security guards moving about the parking lot. It occurred to me that this was the landscape for guns. Guns were the only personal object that could cause a big enough kind of disruption out here, besides maybe a big car. But a car is an imprecise instrument. I began to scare myself a little, watching the officers, peering out of a divot between two apple trees. I was imagining gunshots cracking across the big hot lot, metal crumpling, the zing of a bullet, the taste of metal, the taste of asphalt, the sick glee of a sudden crisis, of the feeling of an event.
When would my moment come? I played a game: how much longer could I stand to stay? I was imitating a casual person, a loiterer. Truthfully, I wasn’t loitering at all. I was waiting. Two children volleyed a ball across a net down at the foot of the knoll. A boy swung at his father’s pitches on the field next door. Many people came and went, many people came quickly and went quickly, including two women from the Allentown Public Library. They wore dark velvet outfits and hats.
At the Allentown Public Library, they began, there is a comprehensive genealogical research facility (I already knew!). They invited me to come visit. How pleasant! Pure generosity out here in Fort Wayne, I thought. Generosity with the resources.
First I thought I’d stay til four, then 6, then maybe 7. I was beginning to want to leave. The parade in town and the concert next door meant that the park and the adjacent public centers were full of people coming and going. People coming and people going. As the hours passed and I loitered, I began to think the whole thing was foolish and unnecessary. Just as I was wavering, I met two new folks! A 20yr old (Cole) train switch programmer from Clemson, who told me about the train engineers’ union and why it’s bad news. He was sweet and easy to talk to. Then his girlfriend? - a woman named Michelle who had studied International Affairs at Princeton and who was going to law school for tech law or intellectual property law or maybe patent law. They both looked so healthy, I felt myself observing, with tight skin and sparkling eyes, large mouths and broad smiles. I envied them, especially because I knew they were lovers. I could see them wanting to be nearer to each other. And still they were asking questions about my project. The three of us talked for maybe over one hour and again, I answered their questions, relating the information as best I could, (leaving out a couple of details) and they were honestly interested in it, and it was so easy and fun to talk to them and the women from SCAD this morning - as well as my own family - about this work. It feels great to be able to say exactly what it is I’m doing, the procedure.
So we talked until 7:30 or so, and then they disappeared over the side of the knoll to be alone, and still I waited and waited. By 9:15 the sun was almost fully lowered and suddenly everyone who was in the park disappeared at once. I saw my chance and took it.
My hands were shaking as I tried to anchor the sensor and I had to start over. This time I made contact, but not perfect. So, not fully believing in my project anymore - or, suddenly seeing absurdity in it - I went to my car and took some deep breaths.
I ran back up, hopped the fence, and inserted the sensor into the ground with purpose. I immediately felt the thing pass through the soil, some layers of material, and then make contact with something textured and delicate, like many layers of leaves. My heart was beating hard, it was really “in my throat”. The timer on the device was reading out an estimated thirty second wait. My heart hurt in my chest, I could hardly hear anything because of the blood swishing in my ears. At one point a man walked by and I made myself as small as I could, but I don’t think he saw me. The timer went off - I forgot to silence it - and I nearly fainted! But then I retracted the sensor, jumped back over the fence, gloves on, and carefully tweezed the stuff off each of the three nodules (you’re supposed to do them one at a time, but I had reprogrammed it to get everything at once, given the publicness of the park and the fact that I had only allotted myself one evening to do it.)
The last thing I did at the gravesite - my heart still punching under my breastplate - was to make a tiny apple out of plastelina. I wrote an inscription on it but this seemed too absurd or cute, so I blended the ink in with the flats of my thumbs and made a swirly blue apple. Plastelina is a very stable material. I’m pretty sure its pliancy is what helps it last. My little sculpture will have to be removed by someone or else it’s not going to go away!
I left the park for an Airbnb out in Syracuse off a two-lane highway. My eyes hurt and the road was blurry and my heart still pounded that whole hour, and the car sort of stank, but I found it, and here I am and quick sleep for a big day tomorrow! Amen, the stars shine forth, goodnight.
My trip was supernumerary.
The second day, I left Indiana early. I was sad to leave my little porch room so soon. Can I tell you about this little porch?
I came in late last night and all the porch lights had been left on. The host said to look for a “glowing Yoda” lawn decoration in front of the house. My eyes were so tired and bad I nearly missed it, but - I didn’t. I let myself in through the basement and climbed up the narrow staircase. The living room was empty but smelled like life. Scattered around were books on Buddhism and baby toys, the plastic kind that retains traces of whatever it touches.The host had been curious to hear me talk about my project, but it looks like we wouldn’t be meeting in person. I took a shower in the spartan bathroom and dared to use my host’s towel. The porch room was breezy and pleasant. The Yoda glowed across the lawn. I put my little phials in a drawer in the side table and passed out, wondering if the situation could be trusted.
And in the morning I woke up with no harm done, so the situation could be trusted, (testing by trial, not hypothesis! I heard the inner voice say) and I slipped out of the house unnoticed and drove down to Ohio. Throughout that whole long drive, the thought that I’d been successful occurred to me just once. When it did, I felt a small squeeze in my chest.
The museum at the University of Urbana is one room with big windows, shining wood floors, a kids’ section at one end of the room, and an adjoining office with several biographies, and a large desk with an old computer.
I’d been excited to meet Cheryl after talking for some months. “Can I have a tour?” I asked.
One thing Cheryl, the director, said to me, was “how do you make a museum of a man who had no possessions?” The only artifact proper that they have is a sort of biography, written in longhand, by a contemporary of his. It’s a strange manuscript, Cheryl says, but we’re nonetheless happy to have it. Other than the manuscript, all we’ve got are just…you know, cultural artifacts. Stuff about, around, and in reference, to him. You know, an argument between Disney and one of his long lost relatives regarding the movie they made, a couple of postwar advertisements, some furniture that would have been typical of his time, advertisements for hard cider companies. Ha, I thought.
Cheryl has kinky orangeish hair.
When I emailed her first, the response was quick.
I outlined the project a little vaguely, not wanting to appear like some kind of creep. Not wanting to seem like I had an unusual fixation!
She agreed that hoping to get myself invited to the Chapman family meetings was improbable. I told her about my difficulty getting anything from the web - all of the confusing information on the actual man: his paths across the states, where he eventually landed, the question of his death. Even through the email, I heard her sigh. “So many claims have been made to the body’s whereabouts. People have been tossing the question around for a good century and a half. It’s very tough to say anything definite about him.”
I noticed that Cheryl’s use of the the word “him” felt special, somehow pronounced. Like she held the “h” in her mouth in a precious way, how carefully she pushed the word forward. We chatted on the phone, the first of a series of phone calls. Her voice was reedy and it sounded like the inside of her throat was viscous, like someone who’d just eaten yogurt. A long story turned short: Cheryl used to be an assistant teacher at the University of Urbana. The museum was the destination of devotees, impersonators of all kinds, minor school field trips. The museum director was getting older and looking to cut back his hours. In a move rather unlike her (she confessed over the phone) she jumped on the position. Stephen, the former manager, took on duties as a volunteer in the genealogical research department - “everyone wants to know if they’re related to him” - she said. Here, instinctively holding the phone away from my cheek a bit, I blushed. I had wanted to know too.
My relationship with him was a little different - somehow bigger, larger; and I believed this as well as anyone else who tramped through the museum. My approach to the man would be more special. More exacting.
But Cheryl, upon taking over the museum, found to her dismay that the museum was intent on making a cartoon of him. His portrayal in the mainstream was macho and freewheeling, the original American entreprecariat (I thought with scorn). It hurt her to spread what she felt knew were exaggerations or even outright fabrications to the visitors that came there. It was simply against her nature. “Seriously”, she insisted, “some of this stuff is just - absurd!” I nodded vigorously on my end “-so I just started to try to gather just facts.”
The “F” in “Facts” punched out over the phone - suddenly I wanted to grab Cheryl by the face and nod so vigorously that she’d know - and really know - that I knew - that that’s what I wanted too - somehow to touch him, to hold something, to just be close! She had been talking but my mind was holding the image of squeezing his hand in my hand, rubbing skin with him.I tuned out, I tuned back in. “Stephen”, she was saying in a slightly higher register - “is so stubborn about everything, and he loves him. Calls him Johnny, as if he owns him, you know?” I didn’t but I nodded again.
And then she said, “I just wanna know for certain that all of this shit is real.”
I started at the sudden shift in language. Cheryl spoke like a kindergarten teacher- by trade and not by bent. “Cheryl, my darling,” I thought, curling my heart around her, “you have your woman” - and I wouldn’t believe my luck, really - for behind the title on the internet, beyond the glint of the museum, the protections of academia, the stacks of papers and the permissions, the writing and write-over, the collection of new material, the editing of the old materials, the imagining of new displays, the administering of tours, the recognizing of old visitors, the pleading for funds, the bargaining and the asking for new artifacts, the cataloguing, the number of emails, be they high or be they low, the things that make a days work in the life of Cheryl, whether the description of his life in her froggy, constant voice, drew people in or pushed them out, or merely irritated the texture of the air enclosed in those four walls - the bigger thing of which all of these tasks and trials were a mere accessory, was that Cheryl may have been able to get close to the man, closer than Stephen (without a doubt!)
But also maybe even closer than the devotees, the academics, the administrators and registrars - she was the gatekeeper, and though people (her family, even dear friends!) might make fun of her (what museum you work at? they’d say, at some kind of neighborhood or school event, and, with only a touch of defensiveness in her voice, she’d begin: “it’s the only museum in the world…”
By now I was eager for us to be in the same room.
Through our many calls I became used to her reedy voice. My picture of her was so clear: she fought Stephen, she fought her friends, but she was getting closer to him. I often found myself sort of grinning into my phone as I listened to her, surprised that there was someone who has experienced the crux of - shall we say - an academic concern of mine - so vigorously, so viscerally…
I told Cheryl a little bit about the project, and she was hooked like a fish. Tell me, I began, everything you know about the dispute over his body…
And so, like stories go and sometimes life too, we became partners of sorts. From my own research I knew a little, but she knew more, and she was living this, after all, and curious in different ways.
The Chapman Society is a hard group to penetrate. Despite my vision! Despite the clarity of my vision, which I wouldn’t trouble them with. The vision, which had come so clearly in my last year of high school, one day sitting in my room: I was wearing a heavy leather coat, slowly taking a horse up the side of a mountain. The angle of incline was astonishing. At the end of a longish path, a clearing in the trees. A half of a chimney, a couple of burnt logs. The handle of a pan. My heart throbbed once in my chest. Serene loneliness, or, aloneness. And, of course, evidence.
I remembered this vision late one night about a year ago. It was prompted by observing a young girl alone at a loud bar. She was supremely alone- it was almost like she infected the things around her with loneliness - and she was curled around a notebook like a schoolgirl taking a test. I scoffed out of jealousy at her scene and then sighed out of jealousy again. Then I remembered the time, as if I had lived it, I had come upon the scene of the abandoned panhandle in the clearing.
There was a period where I didn’t hear from Cheryl at all. She was preparing the museum’s collection to go on tour to some festival-or-other. Though I had grown fond of Cheryl’s unexpected and rambling phone calls, it wasn’t until this period of silence on her end that I was able to recognize my growing attachment. To call fondness what it was. On the other hand, it was only in the time where she broke off of our communication that I was able to hatch my plan.
You see, you can check all kinds of sources; you can check the facts and the lists; you can call every member of the Appleseed society, but you want the truth, right? And so you have to go to the source, and I mean straight to the source, and the source is - right? - underground, I mean truly subterranean, or so I hoped - you, of course, would like to touch the body yourself, but you can’t, and Cheryl was working herself into a frenzy calling this person and that person and exchanging this or that bit of information! Fact was that nobody knew, and that there had been so much activity (for decades, even!) passing the ball back and forth across the net, or simply throwing the ball into the outfield, hoping somehow it would come back! Anyway so much activity, all in the realm of speculation. I mean why hadn’t anyone just checked the source, yet, and it seemed too simple to be possible, and I called Cheryl, who was in the middle of taping a lifesize cutout of an apple tree to its cardboard stand, and she confirmed this.
Specifically, she said, ‘What are you proposing?!’, excused herself from a team of volunteers, and said again, in a slightly lower voice, ‘what are you proposing?’ and then, ‘how?” And so I explained, there was a probe, it was used for science hobbyists to find new species of animal creatures in unexpected places - this is, the literature goes, how the Robinmoores Night Frog was discovered, how the Clear-Winged Wooly Bat was located, folded up behind a leaf, in the Malaysian rainforest, this is how the Colobopsis Puberscen Ants were discovered by a curious traveler in Borneo, a few feet underground, in a hidden network of tunnels barricaded with saliva. Anyway, these tales and others like it are how the manufacturers sell the product.
I explained that this sensor could probably help us go straight to the source; my brother, who is an amateur biologist, or, “citizen scientist”, had one, and I could test it out; I’d try anyway; and so I found some species in my backyard, nothing exciting. Adjusting the settings yielded different results, which I kept careful track of. I pulled a marigold out from underground, an old piece of leather tucked inside a wall, countless bugs. The little pincers on the end of the sensor tugged them out of hiding and I amassed a small collection of stuff in phials on my windowsill.
Cheryl wasn’t comfortable - was not comfortable- she repeated, perhaps because it was her job to protect this material - these things - I mean, maybe she was thinking, what if I find traces of his sweat, his cock, his tears, on the bible that we have - the glass box around the book was flimsy, after all - or the very fact that he had lived, or that someone who took up occupancy in his name like a light inside a housing, the man, the man we were all circling around, “Johnny”, the one who they were all looking for…I imagined Cheryl and I taking a seat on a terrace, nodding to one another, “all is at rest”, we’d say, and tip a glass back, contributors of new, concrete knowledge to an otherwise floating history.
And still she balked at the idea!
The central dispute, off of which the other smaller disputes branched, was whether or not John Chapman’s body was buried on one side of the river or the other in the town of Fort Wayne, Indiana; two sides of the town had been quarreling for decades - longer, perhaps, of course longer - anyway, it looked like I might be able to settle it - Cheryl and I, if I were being generous.
And then she called me, breathless, middle of the night.
“Victoria, there’s this, probe, thingy, its for digging for sea-life under the beach- anyway, its like, you drive this thing down, and”
“Cheryl!” I cried-
“-there are settings for the kind of organism you want to find,”
Clawing against my own sleep, I cried again, “Cheryl!”
“What!” she said.
“I told you about that.”
“What?” she said.
“I told you about that!”
“Oh,” she said, and I could hear her waking up. “I think I had a dream,” she began.< br> “I get it.” I said. “So can we please do this?” I asked.
A fuzzing on the receiver, which meant she was nodding.
And so we talked some more, and I scheduled some time off work, and the weeks before my trip approached with alacrity, and my grandfather began to die, and off I went.
I told Cheryl that the device returned nothing: either the machine was broken, or else his body really wasn’t there, like she had been betting. Either way, I said, I am kind of tired of the whole thing, and have to go home to see my mother, who may or may not be grieving.
I knew that telling Cheryl I had, in fact, collected the samples, would maybe deflate her a little bit. To be able to fulfill DNA requests, to begin to be able to actually find his family members - not least, to have to turn over this truth to authorities who specialize in forensic biology or biological forensics or what have you. If she knew that the mystery was over, what would she do next? I couldn’t imagine her having to go back to preparing museum tours for kids and inventing new attractions for increased museum traffic. When every barefooted apple picking impersonator came through the museum, standing in the squares of sun coming through those big windows, Cheryl could still secretly say to herself: I am on the hunt. I am much more involved in this than anyone else is. I am majorly involved.
I stepped out of the museum - Cheryl’s office, actually, where we had been discussing ideas for future research.
We talked about trying to reach the family members - she could try other routes through primary documents, surely, or we could take the sensor down to Darke County, Ohio, where his half-sister is supposed to be buried. I felt guilty, because I reached out to Cheryl from out of nowhere, and at the time my desire was perfectly synchronized with her desire. But now, my desire being satisfied, I was fully prepared to abandon her with hers.
Anyway, I stepped out of her office, past the hot collegiate at the front desk, all the soft curvaceous architecture. I stepped out past all of that, and reviewed the events of the recent days in my head, having a little trouble fathoming them completely. There was all this wide space between trees, trees with long arms, trees with leaves hanging off their ropey branches. I stood, imagining many fuckings on this collegiate lawn, or afternoons with books, students getting the precious ear of a teacher in an off-hour; the rhythms of the school-year, where projects end and they are graded; the university, the oversight of the appointed professors and headmasters. The lifting of cups at graduation, the rows of cocked heads, a prelude to lives of learning! Effortless hunger of the star student. My feel felt wet in my shoes and a quick chill passed. My car and everything in it was safely parked in a visitors’ space in the admissions lot.
Words of a long-ago boyfriend came back to me as I stood on the green. “I remember,” he insisted to me over coffee, “I remember something so different than this” - and he gestured broadly around the room at the people drinking coffee and eating scones and busing this and that cup. Of course, he did not mean, “a scene from a previous moment in my life,” or, “another coffee shop that was here before.” He meant, another life entirely, an entirely other world. Though I had long become used to disregarding his extraterrestrial fantasies, I suddenly had this glimpse of what he meant. I could imagine it - not imagine it - I was suddenly there, in that other different world. I clapped my hand to my heart, which suddenly hurt - even the bones that held it hurt - with the intensity of ancient knowledge. I have never a thought this alien enter my mind, to this day. There I was, I could remember it too, a wholly different world, in which pain was eased, a lot, a whole lot! Oh! I can’t describe to you, the realness of what I felt in that moment. Paradise, I might’ve whispered.
I left the campus and drove to Columbus, to the next Airbnb. On the way I stopped at a lake and swam and ate tomatillos and cheese and napped in the sun. The lake was still and green clumps floated on the top of it.
A family of “rednecks” was throwing beer bottles at a crow, and this offended me so I left.
When I arrived at the Airbnb in Columbus, my mother called to tell me that my grandfather was dead. I tried to write or say a prayer but I couldn’t. I felt sort of bored. It felt good to be alone.
The owner of this Airbnb recommended strongly that I go to a back meadow, where I would find several horses in paddocks. This was the main attraction of this particular Airbnb, and though I am afraid of horses I went out, perhaps to be agreeable, perhaps feeling obligated to get my money’s worth. I followed her directions, cutting across the back field, making a turn left at the line of pines, following a clear path through the very tall grasses. I followed the path all the way to its end where it intersected with an unknowably large wooded area. Either the host was lying about the horses or I had misunderstood the directions. I began to make my way back to the house, which was empty now, and heard a man calling out to someone. I guessed he was looking for his kid. I wanted to hide, since I was, in the strict sense, “trespassing”, and I ran back to the house, cutting my bare legs against the burrs.
I checked my materials in the trunk of my car as the sun went down, and then read the first of several Johnathan Chapman biographies until I fell dead asleep.
I left early to get to Marietta, where his father is buried. Or, if he is not buried there, at least there is a memorial marker to him there.
The town was sweet and old and southern. I was in no way shielded from view, and there was plenty of foot traffic at 10:30AM. But I did what I came to do, which was deposit a little phial sample next to the memorial of Chapman’s father. My secret gift to the narrative in which I was now an active member: to reunite those who were separated in life. Son was now proximate to father, in some small or metaphoric way at the very least.
Across the graveyard, a large grassy knoll stood in the center of the plot. A sign next to the knoll said that this is an earthwork, one of many in a large network by the Hopewell native american tribe, spread out all across Ohio. There’s a time capsule buried in it.
Concerning the incident at the Mound, I should say I walked up the steps that were laid into it, on the balls of my feet, in sandals. I didn’t quite know what to expect from the experience. I had done no research and felt I wasn’t properly primed to have an emotional response to this staggering, ancient Earthwork.
In fact, I felt nothing at all, just all these physical sensations, like I remember vaguely having to pee. I nodded at a couple who were descending the steps of the mound, who said “that, that’s really something.” I bobbed my head and purred with enthusiasm, eager to please. I approached the mound of the ancients.
I walked up, stayed for a second out of respect (without being properly impressed by the magnitude of this experience) and then, feeling the press of time, began to walk back down from the mound. Something rustled behind me about halfway down, a disruption in the ferns, something discordant that I sensed physically. I guess it was that the back of my neck felt prickly, and I turned back around. What I saw, friends, I won’t forget - this was the face - the long, dark, slim face, nestled between two ferns, of a man, whose eyes gleamed orange and whose grin wanted for two teeth. The head rolled from side to side as if on a ball joint, and the tongue clicked against the roof of the mouth and made a shucking sound. I could barely hear the words. It was as if wind blew through his soft palette, that’s how light the sound was.
But the words were clear, and it whispered - “Live as if you remember nothing.”
I threw the head a piece of jerky, which it caught in its teeth and pulverized with alarming speed. I tiptoed down the steps of the knoll, frightened I might awake anything else.
When I texted Cheryl about this strange occurrence, she replied simply: “that’s one of those things they were known to say”. I wouldn’t talk to Cheryl again, I really forgot the project right after I did it. I guess I remembered the actions that I planned and did; the emotions were really hard to recall. But the head spooked me deeply.
At a gas station halfway out of Marietta proper, I saw a huge swarm of moths. Moths everywhere. The moths fluttered against my damp shirt and on my arms while I pumped petroleum into the heart of my machine. They fluttered against my skin like eyelashes. A clump of moths hovered around the back of the car. I don’t know what the sensitivity of moths to decay is. Probably high, trumpeted my brain.
I left Marietta and drove as fast as I could to Pennsylvania, to Georgetown (the place that my relatives settled) and saw my Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Bob, grandparents, and old Joe Cain, dead now, too. I told them the story of my journey, deciding to stick with the lie I told Cheryl. “I didn’t find anything,” I said, feigning disappointment.
When I left, Grandma kissed me on the collarbone. She sort of, missed my face, and instead went for my collarbone. This felt somehow poignant.
I hit the road again, late in the afternoon, but I couldn’t make it home and my eyes were hurting and blurry so I stopped in Carlisle PA at a Quality Inn. I got Indian food, looked at my body in the mirror, had an erotic moment, thought briefly of going swimming, thought briefly of getting piss drunk in the hotel bar, did neither, went to sleep relatively early and did my exercises in the morning.
Would you be surprised if I told you that, in the morning, right next to my bed, there was that head again, clacking its jaws, chewing on the pulldown string on the bedside table lamp. I threw it another piece of jerky and shivered from the core; one long shake that traveled from my toes to my scalp.
AM news: a mass shooting at a nightclub in Orlando. I looked across the room at the two other men there, truck drivers in their middle age. I suddenly felt very vulnerable! Their breakfasts looked weak and wet.
No women in the whole motel that I could see, except for the manager.
I finished the drive home. I saw my mother, who had changed since I left, in the fact that she now no longer had living ,parents. My mother is lovely.
It was hard to imagine leaving home so immediately, so I spent an extra day in their woodshop in the basement, fashioning the perfect box to store my samples in.
I reflected, as one ought, while hammering nails into each of the corners of the box I was building.
“O, life,” I began.
Tap tap tap.
“You endless, endless volley.”
Tap tap tap.
“You infinite ellipse.”
Tap tap tap.
For what I was feeling, was under-emotional about my specimens. It seemed easy enough to plan all of those actions and then do them; underneath my thoughts, at every moment on my trip, I had this racing feeling of wanting to get closer, closer, closer, closer. Like, what I actually wanted, was somehow to slide naked right into the grave with him, heavy dirt pressing down against my heart, and kind of mix with everything that was down there - that’s the image that was lurking behind everything. And everything got in the way, relentlessly!! Clumsy, emotional Cheryl, the speed of my car, the procedural barricades of the Chapman family society, what else? the two nested fences at the grave, the size of my body, the weight of my body, the endless cell phone calls ringing in from home, the pleasantries of the Airbnb hosts, the adaptation to new landscapes, endless, relentless things in the way of just being there, which I could feel like I remembered it. And that fucking head, just chawing away, who the fuck knows where it is now, the dead bodies in Orlando, jesus christ my heart, the mound of the ancients, everybody everybody was clamoring for position in my brain, my dying grandfather, they wouldn’t go away, just parading back and forth across my skull like a greek chorus, and the clutter, and the fucking mess, in the middle of everything, tap tap tap, BANG! I crushed my finger under the hammer.
My grandfather’s hammer!
Tap tap tap.
And I was using my dad’s old scrap wood.
Tap tap tap.
And my brother’s citizen-scientist sensor.
Tap tap tap.
“Delivering us all to this moment”, I thought, dramatically.
(I should make it clear that at this moment I wasn’t thinking or feeling, I was “composing”. And the feelings I meant by the lines I was composing may follow after, was my wager.)
I held the three phials up to the light and really looked at them -
“A tooth, the biscupid of John Chapman, who was known also by the nickname ‘Johnny Appleseed’”;
A couple of hairs;
"A flake of bone (or shale, but let’s be generous).”
“Oh life”, I began, again.
“You endless handoff. You relay.”
Tap tap tap.
“You persistent passage.”
Tap tap tap.
“Whose materials are mixed all hideously, and disorderly.”
Tap tap tap.
“I will be,”
I paused with the hammer over the last nail on the box, exhaling. The handle felt very good in the hand. “Precious with you.”
I buried those things in my parents’ backyard next to a tree.
Now I’m back in Providence - Pawtucket, rather. I already caused a fire at the stove in the new house but Drew helped me put it out. I went to work. Drew and I went on a walk this evening. I have a bed now.
Fragile hope for the summer.