Midnight Pub

Frames Of Reference- Chapter 12


I’m looking at her face again, even if my focus should be on the road. Even so, I know the drone of the engine and the soft purple hum of the overhead light will get me drowsy. I need some visual ephemera to pace myself.

Before us, the streaks of resilient yellow paint designating the meridian flash past like pages in a flipbook, unremarkable reminders of the nation’s infrastructure, the Corps of Engineers, Roosevelt’s New Deal, troops of men out here to paint the landscape with their brash obsidian serpent, which they subsequently named Highway 50.

It was earlier in the day that we decided to get away from West via an excursion to some nearby municipality, accessible through an hour or two of driving, and we bantered over the idea a while in the living room, she with her copy of The Great Gatsby nestled comfortably on her lap and me pacing around aimlessly like a lesser species of rodent in close quarters. It was around eleven, muggy, and I had gone into the kitchen to splash some water in my face, then gathered up a satchel and stuffed it with some sandwiches and carrots.

“Let’s go hiking,” I suggested. “Up in the mountains. I know you say you can’t, but you need the exercise. Beautiful around here.” She balked at the idea, took out her phone to examine the map, mentioned that she’d like to go see Rocky Ford or Petomele, neither of which sounded all that alluring to me.

“Canon City,” she acquiesced. “Downtown only. Too hot to exert myself.” So we packed the bandanas, the sunscreen and some light protection, along with several plastic gallon jugs of pithy room temperature tap water, and made our way up to the destitute prison colony, the last resort of the hopeless and the damned.

On a whim I parked next to the Portland Cement Plant, the dragon which rises in midday as you enter the area, stretching towards the skies above like the tongue of Oz’s Emerald City. From a distance, it looks like a transcendent ivory castle, and then it’s over the trestle bridge and the Arkansas juncture, and you see it for what it is- an industrial remnant of the 20th Century, dredging what little natural beauty the area possesses for the small chunks of byproduct it can glean. Cars of silt up from the banks.

“Get out here,” I said, for kicks, and she made her way off into the park and I followed her, both of us well out of our element but making light of the scenario like a comedy troupe. She bounced forward.

The park adjoining the plant is corporate, meaning that it serves no actual function save as a morbid plateau for the derelict employees to eat their lunches in, three dead trees screaming for nutrients and a proud sign declaring in bold text the gallows statistic of days since the last on-site accident, which happened to be 79. It was past lunchtime, though, the sun was searing beyond the stacks of paste, and we probably weren’t supposed to be there.

Holy hell, I whistled up at the bleached-tan buttes above. This is entirely anachronistic. A depot with bells and whistles, no computerization, no automation. Clanking and belching, the fires of Isengard murmuring to themselves in this picture-perfect illustration, and not a soul in sight. No supervisors, no surveillance cameras, no gates. A passage straight through this Sinclair wet dream, perfectly carved towers with opaque windows, nobody ever goes in and nobody ever goes out. The factory that produces America.

“You can see for miles,” she said, holding her water bottle aloft. “It just goes on and on. Imagine these people, think what they have to go through every day.” A freight train across the road from us began moving alongside the Arkansas, paying us no mind as its wheels roared and spun, the trestle opening to allow its passage. Past that, the conveyor belt continued its arduous ascent toward the top of the barrel.

“Portland’s all day-trippers and recluses,” I respond. “Howard Hughes types, artificial turf enthusiasts. Much less pedestrian than Florence. Either that, or you’re not Howard Hughes, you’re living in a shack, alone, nobody but your hound dog and your sawed-off for company...” I lose the tangent, reject its premise outright because the type who line Old Portland Road remind me too much of someone I know. Maybe they’re all a little like that around here.

“I don’t like it,” she admitted, and got back in the Camry. After a few minutes of deranged contemplation, silent stock still in the dream country haze, I followed suit.

We spent the remainder of the day wandering around downtown Canon aimlessly, she got some earrings at one of those cheap trinket shops which she seemed to enjoy, lapis lazuli or thereabouts. Forty dollars for the pair, give or take, which is nothing considering what I’m beginning to take in.

I’m becoming Lamont Cranston, beak nose slipping further into my ribbed jacket, legend overtaking the man, and they’ll wonder in successive generations what precisely became of me, whether I dissipated into an inky cloud or merely took off across the southern border for less fertile pastures. Either way, the eye of the needle is closing.

The freighter is hitting home.

I don’t remember exactly who his parents were, or when he showed up, whether it was in my eighth or seventh year, but I do remember his name. Renard.

He was destined for the Ivy League, seemed to have a stoic gaze whereby nothing could shake him, and just looking at his unmarked arms and crisp slicked-back hair, there was an immediate sense of revulsion about the kid, at least to me. I couldn’t quite place it, until one day when we were out on the lot during recess overlooking the heavy traffic of downtown Manhattan, cars stuck bumper to bumper across multiple blocks, and we had thrown together a makeshift game of baseball to pass the time.

Ren had been shuttled here due to a bureaucratic mishap, he complained the entire year about how he had been selected for a private school and that next year he was definitely headed for a prep outfit in Rhode Island. He looked at everyone around him with disdain and fear, even those of his own social class who had come to terms with their situation.

I may have misheard it, that’s what I realize now, and in a way it makes the memory even worse, but so help me, I remember Ren making some snide offhand comment, as we were waiting in line to bat.

“Too many Spicks around here,” he mumbled. “Give it a rest-”

I don’t know what exactly set me off, what wire was crossed in my cerebrum, whether it was the pressure of the soundscape around us or the sweat that pooled on my flesh or the way he seemed so unaffected and disinterested by it all, but the next thing I knew- my successive wave of consciousness- I was railing on top of him like a hurricane, left hooks straight to the jaw, dislodging several pivotal facial muscles, releasing blood, his hair matted into the gravel. It took two teachers to pull me off him, all the while kicking and screaming in animal fury.

Ren never came back after that, I’m not sure where he went or what happened to him, I imagine after the experience he thought twice before opening his mouth, but that he also was likely shunned and regarded by his social circle as an outcast due to his disheveled appearance. All of this is speculation on my part, of course.

That night, my father sat me down on his knee after dinner, looked into my eyes, held my chin with a stern countenance I couldn’t avoid. I assumed that he would take my side in this, our family was proud of our working class heritage and Dad often talked poorly of people like Renard. I was wrong. He slapped me across the cheek.

“But Dad- he said-”

“I don’t care what he said,” shutting me down. “You never pull a stunt like that again.”

“I need to. To show him how he’s wrong.”

“Look, Son,” Dad sighed, leaning back, unsure of how to proceed. “You need to learn where and when to pick your battles, how to approach things. Otherwise, you transform into an animal. That’s what separates us from the beasts, our conscience. It’s called emotional maturity. Emotional maturity, that’s a term I want you to remember. You got that?”

“Yes, Dad.”

“I had to speak with your counselor today. His family doesn’t want to get involved, isn’t going to press charges, probably for the best of everyone. My guess is, they’re sick of him as much as the rest of us. But you never pull anything like that again. You get mad, ball your fists and count to ten. Breathe deep. That’s how real men handle things.”

“Yes, Dad.”

And so the term lodged itself in my subconscious. I carried it with me wherever I went from then on, keeping my hands in my pockets, maintaining that I couldn’t ever hope to make a difference in the world.

In high school, sophomore year, I witnessed a car accident where the driver at fault rammed into a station wagon, got out and instead of going over to the other car, darted out across the street and out of sight. I didn’t chase after him, although I was pretty close from my position near the alley. Emotional maturity, I told myself. People without it are broken enough to flee from the scene of a crime. People with it are civilized enough to ignore the crime. I walked on.

Senior year, the scandal broke regarding the head coach and his ongoing abuse of the cheerleading team. There had been clues, subtle hints here and there, which I felt I had picked up on beforehand. Even back then, I possessed an unusually high comprehension of the human mind and what it was capable of. I knew something was deeply wrong.

But every time I considered raising my voice, blowing the whistle on the whole affair, Dad would appear before me in holographic blue, the heavyset brow, the thinning hair, the dry parsed lips, silently whispering that phrase: emotional maturity. And I wasn’t one to argue with the deceased, because ironically enough, one would require a lack of emotional maturity to do so. And I was a mature person, I reminded myself. I wasn’t one to stir the pot or to cause upset. Upset could result in growth. Mature people don’t require growth.

I still don’t know who eventually broke the news about that.

Marriage is probably the greatest test of emotional maturity. Here I am, it’s cold and dry, the radio yields nothing but static. We’re racing fervently along the mother road with the moon up above, she’s sleeping and I can’t begin to conceive of the thoughts racing through her overworked psyche.

She watches people die- not every day, certainly, but at least once a week as I would gather. She sits there administering cures and ointments, salves and lathers until the line goes flat, and although I was doing exactly the same a year ago, it feels like a lifetime. I can’t remember how to stitch a wound, how to check for a pulse. I may not have a pulse, anymore.

And it takes a great deal of emotional maturity to invest all your time and energy into a person who deals with that level of trauma, a great deal of what Dad insisted was the required component of any functional person. The rejection of one’s fundamental animal tendencies in favor of a reserved statuesque demeanor. The great sinkhole of drive, ambition, purpose. The death of imagination and creative problem solving. The assumption of fictive construct.

I wonder when Gerard Kessel as I knew him died. I don’t know if there’s a specific moment I could point to when I ceased to be him, when my values of integrity and honesty were sacrificed, and in a way that’s worse, because it means all the thoughts crept out very, very gradually, in a long and arduous process, making me all the more oblivious to their erasure.

Memento Mori, Mr. Kessel.