Understanding that deserted shopping plazas are sometimes cemeteries for Cabbage Patch Kids: that’s the first key to letting go. The second is this: John Wayne Carlson was eighteen years old when he told me his plan.
In another week he would have been nineteen. He was going to co-op, not college. Three months studying mechanical engineering at a private school outside of Flint, Michigan, and another three working the floor at a General Motors plant in Mansfield, Ohio. Four years of this set to rinse and repeat and he could have started at seventy grand anywhere in the country.
He had, as we all do, this life.
He’d play shortstop in the summer and fall. On weekends he’d move furniture with his dad at an H&R Block complex downtown. Every day after swim practice we’d smash at Taco Bell. That was where he told me —
“Do the math.”
He’d drink the same thing day in and day out. Always a large soda. Always a Baja Blast with lots of ice. Twice that week he’d won a free crunchy taco from the peel-off sticker on his drink and he’d told me, smiling, “Mike, you do this long and often enough and you’ll win the million. Buy two large sodas instead of one. Drink what you can and throw away the rest but at least double your chances.”
Good-natured, skinny John Wayne.
Two weeks before graduation, a letter printed on thick and coarse cream-colored paper arrived at his house saying he’d won the million. He was going to be flown to California and crowned El Presidente at Taco Bell corporate headquarters, a hulking, labyrinthine tower of mirrored glass and steel where he’d be handed a big floppy check and get photographed by the local news media.
When his mom found him, the blood seeping from underneath his hair had dried and clung-stuck his head to the floor in a dark crimson paste. A small piece of his skull was floating around in the open drain next to the washer and dryer. He hadn’t been drinking. He forgot to towel himself off coming out of the shower and cracked his temple falling on the corner of the bottom basement step.
Some of our parents have been laid off. Last week, Gabby Braun’s Dalmatian got massacred by a slow-moving tractor-trailer. Shit happens. But really, most of us don’t understand the extent to which life in Hubbard, Ohio, is sacrifice to some strange mystery.
Shields Road. The clock on the dash glows 11:15 and the train rushes by against my headlights, carrying the smell of track-rust and pinecones. To the left — inky treeline that stretches out into forever pitch black. To the right — that house. 3359 Nowhere. Abandoned and alone under the mile-long shadow of the woods, a single porch light blessing chipped siding.
The blinking red of my phone, a text message:
Hal-eh shoma chatoor eh?
(HOW ARE YOU?)
“It’s not always like this,” Chad says.
“Sometimes a victim places his hand on your sternum, even close to your neck.”
Chad is forty and balding and up to his chest in the chlorinated water of the Hubbard indoor pool, teaching us how to save lives. He speaks in measured beats.
“This is out of panic,” he says. “Out of fear of drowning and dying.”
“You have to be ready for this.”
“Remember,” he says with a practiced calm. “Together, we can save a life.”
This is the motto of the Red Cross, printed in tall black letters on wallet-ready paper cards that prove certification in LIFEGUARD TRAINING AND FIRST AID and CPR/AED FOR THE PROFESSIONAL RESCUER. Earn one and you’re licensed to save a human life.
There’s five in this class, among us a fifteen year-old girl who plans to guard at a country club and a retired optometrist whose wife passed in her sleep.
“She just went one afternoon,” he tells our lot.
When we’re finished in the water we climb out and circle around a life-size, shirtless rubber dummy with bulging fake nipples and a hideously frozen smile.
“Michael, come over here and help me please,” Chad says.
“Put your hands on the dummy’s chest.”
“Do you feel his heart? Do you feel the life left in the dummy?”
Always, lying in bed, there’s the shriek of the train whistle in my mind, and later — louder — the silence of 3359 Nowhere standing against the woods. Born and raised in Hubbard and I’ve never noticed that house. Now three nights coming back from the pool and 3359 aches by the tracks, looming, and there’s the desire to get out and go inside, to touch the walls and to walk on the floor, if there even is one.
CPR. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation. For cardiac emergencies. To be employed until more advanced medical personnel arrive. Thirty compressions and two breaths for an adult, child, or infant. To resuscitate them. To bring them back to life.
I repeat this over and over in my head: a mantra, a whisper to pray me to sleep.
“Do you feel it?” Rob asks.
It is the sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. It is the corner of Liberty Plaza.
“I mean, who knows what kind of shit they had going on back there that night?” he says. “Christ, could have been demons and shit, man.”
Rob owns a brown S-10. The front cab is clean as a whistle. Spotless and lemon-scented. Pop open the back and you’re liable to vomit in Technicolor. All across the truck bed there’s a gruel of salt and cement dust and layered spots of something red and sticky. Rob’s dad runs the local Culligan water supply store. Old ladies order salt for their water softener systems, Rob delivers it in 60-pound bags in his S-10. When he’s not working Culligan, when he’s not laying concrete sidewalks for port authority at the town airbase, he hunts small game and skins it right out of the truck bed on a blue tarpaulin he says used to be his baby blanket.
In high school he wrestled at 152. He’s 190 now, a national qualifier in Olympic-style lifting. Tonight we’re sitting in the deserted, vacant parking lot of an abandoned K-Mart shopping center chasing a sickness we both felt in our guts two months ago as we sat in the S-10, our eyes wide, our souls paralyzed.
“I mean, I know that feeling,” he says. “That fucking panic of throwing 120 kilos over your head and thinking you’re going to drop it on yourself. The fear of blowing out your knees. Scott, my lifting partner, he did that. He held his dislocated kneecap in his hand for a half hour before the paramedics came. Screamed like a bitch too, but don’t tell him I said that.”
“All that,” Rob says, “was nothing compared to that night and that feeling.”
He’s rarely so eloquent. Two months ago we were driving out of Liberty Plaza, a rotten gathering of crumbling stores spread across an empty, weed-ridden lot. We came upon a corner, a little enclave where a dozen or so tiny shops might have thrived before everything shut down. In this space: a headless Cabbage Patch doll, an overturned shopping buggy, a plastic bag floating mid-air against moon-glow, graffiti (“Satan knows”).
“I’m telling you,” Rob says, “Something bad was back there.”
He shines his brights against the greasy windows on the front of the old K-Mart, on what ten years ago might have been the entrance to an automotive section that offered cheap oil changes and vending machine Kit Kats.
“See that? Zombie hobos could slam up against those windows right now and I wouldn’t budge. Rabid plague motherfuckers. But whatever was in that corner was bad. If you let your mind take a walk in places like that,” Rob says, “you might get fucked up.”
I’M GOOD, YOU?
I text back in English a full day later.
E Street Radio is all Bruce Springsteen. Twenty-four hours a day. When they’re not playing his records they’re playing interviews and he talks about dreams and why he made Nebraska. For six years, it’s been the cracked and dusty voice of Bruce Springsteen telling me everything’s going to be alright, everything’s going to be ok.
I burned Grace a copy of Darkness but she never quite understood.
She’s an Air Force linguist now. Persian-Farsi. She spent last summer in the desert with her face wrapped in tight black up to her soft blue eyes. She picture-mailed me her military ID card once. In the tiny text she’s 5’6’’ and 120 lbs. In the tiny photo she’s country-plain and beautiful, a rural school runaway with hair long and brown and a face that can save.
“You’re afraid of things leaving,” she said as she packed her bedroom into boxes.
“You’re afraid of things changing,” she said after her graduation from Basic in San Antonio, Texas.
There’s two disposable cameras worth of glossy pictures taken at Lackland Air Force Base stuffed in my top dresser drawer. Five pictures of me and Grace. Forty-five of cloud stalled in Lone Star sky.
The Hubbard BAILEY’S HOMEMADE — once a veteran’s hall — is now an ice cream shop. The new VFW opened next to the library and has MEMBER’S ONLY stickered across the front door in big-print camo lettering. The girls at Bailey’s wear unflattering bow-ties and black aprons and never look as happy as something like Rainbow Rock-Pop sounds.
“What are you getting?” Rob had asked John Wayne.
“Cotton Candy Explosion.”
“What the fuck is that shit?”
“Cotton candy ice cream with sprinkled rock pops.”
“What are you getting?”
“Pink Champagne sherbet.”
“Hi,” this girl says behind the counter.
Homeless Steve in the parking lot of St. Pat’s in Hubbard swears by the numinous feeling. “The numinous feeling,” he chortles, “is that moment of realization, of truth, of recognizing something beautiful and the validation of self that comes with it.” Homeless Steve will shake your hand after services and say, “Peace be with you.”
“That is the most wonderful feeling of awe,” he assures. “That is the most numinous of feelings.”
That was GRACE (her nametag silver and bright).
“Fuck me sideways with a wrench.”
“Nice. Fuck me sideways with a tractor blade.”
“Fuck me sideways with a toothbrush.”
“Gross,” Rob says. “And not painful enough.”
How we got into Pauline’s Lounge across the PA line was Rob and I both grew patchy beards. 10:35 and he’s put away six Millers against my carefully paced two. Robert James Godfrey seems placid but I can just imagine the alcohol coursing through his muscle mass.
“I’m Mallory!” a woman shouts.
She gulps a two-dollar shot of Black Velvet and sneezes. She’s pretty but she’s either twenty-five or she’s forty and in the dim light I do not know.
“Where do you go to school?” she asks.
“I said I’m eighteen, Mallory. My best friend just broke his head and died in his mom and dad’s unfinished basement. I have two hundred dollars in my savings account. Last night I sat in the dark and listened to The Ghost of Tom Joad on cassette. I’m on hiatus from fun. Do you understand, Mallory?”
“I went to Kent State!” she hollers.
Fuck me sideways with a roaring chainsaw.
The muddied slab of carpet in the doorway, the RC Cola pop machine from the early 80s, the stacks of Rotary flyers — everything about Hubbard Community Pool reeks of chlorine. Class by class, it becomes second in familiarity only to oxygen.
In the front office, chlorine mingles with mall-bought perfume. There’s Krystal with a K on a swivel chair, her leg balanced on a metallic filing cabinet as she paints her nails a sour, glaring purple.
“You’re late. How come?”
“The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive.”
“I’m really sorry about John Wayne,” she says.
“Chad is on deck with the brick. He says you need to shower before you get in the pool. You have to swim your five hundred first and then he’ll sign you out after you dive for the brick in the deep end. Oh, and you can’t be in here.”
“Staff only in the office. But happy early birthday.”
The men’s room hasn’t changed in the last twenty years. Navy blue lockers. Sky-blue tile on the shower floors. The toilets are teal. In the ladies’, everything is pink. I took swim lessons here before I could read and wandered into the wrong locker room by mistake.
My dad would take me when I was three and four. When I got tired, when the muscles in my legs would cramp up and I couldn’t kick anymore, he’d say –
“Swim to the other side. You can make it.”
Last night, Rob had the windows down in the S-10. We’re leaving a steak restaurant and there’s this scream, this all-at-once exclamation of surprise and panic and I say –
“Rob, slow down.”
“I said slow the fuck down. Those people might need help.”
There’s a woman in her eighties splayed on the asphalt. She’s staring upward. At streetlights. At cloud loping across night sky. On her face — a half smile. In her eyes — a glistening. Her cheeks are garish red and her wig is noticeably slipping off her skull. A man — her husband, maybe — kneels beside her, his hand placed on her forehead, his lips mouthing “Everything’s going to be all right, everything’s going to be okay.”
A woman in an over-sized hoodie bolts out of her SUV. There’s kids in the back windows, their faces and hands pressed up against the glass. She’s skittering, patting her mouth with her hands, her voice cracking as she says over and over –
“We called 911. We called 911. We called 911.”
“Wake now. Go down there and rescue that brick.”
Underwater. A waking, translucent death. The sinking away from reality.
3359 Nowhere. One night you’ll get out of your car and go into that house.
Twelve feet under. The tough skin of my heels hitting the grimy pool bottom. No air. The weight of the brick. Fifty pounds of rubber. A human life in my hands that I’m supposed to drag to the surface and breathe back to life.
You’ll get out of your car and walk towards that house not out of choice but necessity.
The tightening of my lungs.
Out of reasoning real and clear only to you.
I imagine their inward collapse and, for a moment, a suffocating panic.
Inside 3359 there’s darkness, metal and broken plastic, and a realization, a truth.
The surface. Shimmering and crystalline. The feeling of emptying out. The absence of heart, of heartbeat.
There’s a smell rank and foul like dried piss and old paint and there’s a sound, a faint and approaching noise like the crackling of footsteps in the hall.
Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe it’s everything.
CHRISTOPHER LETTERA hears strange noises in the night woods. Voices on CB radios. Bats, maybe. He received his Master’s in English from Youngstown State University, where he founded and worked as Managing Editor of Jenny Magazine for two years. He is the recipient of the Robert R. Hare Award for fiction and placed as runner-up in the Ohio River Valley chapter of the recent National Society of Arts and Letters short story writing competition.