The red clay there had been sculpted into sensuous curves, swirling and dipping in a languid serpentine through the scrub, by the passage of a million rude boys on sputtering minibikes and jacked-up Stingrays with sparkly banana seats and mile-high sissy bars and showy gearshift knobs mounted in exactly the right position to catch just post-pubescent balls with every sudden stop. I’d sneak down to that forbidden no-man’s land, down to the dump, where every basement of every undersized brick ranch house in Scaggsville would periodically disgorge its most compelling contents whenever domestic tension lit the fuse on all those troublesome nuclear families.
It was a pursuit that was something like mining gold from an open vein of the stuff, inexplicably laid bare in the middle of nowhere, and I’d wander wistfully through the surreal landscape of abandoned Mediterranean-style console television sets with shattered screens and the yellowing hoses of insane sixties-modern hair dryers with crinkly plastic bonnets big enough to hold the most extreme airlifts and double-process bouffants. Everything unwanted ended up there in due time, from scattered volumes of the encyclopedias that salesmen foisted on tired housewives in curlers to the unbelievable mother lodes of family photos unloaded in error by angry husbands stuck with the chore of cleaning up that goddamn basement.
I’d slip between the squat houses of Lakeview and find the place where the road ended, just past where Anita skidded on the gravel and got the dreaded concussion our mothers were always warning us about. Stepping through the curtain of brush, I’d emerge in the ruddy geography of my deepest desires and follow the tire-worn curves to the place where the ruins of a million big dreams lay in scattered piles, find a comfy place to sit, and rifle through the remains of all those lives with all the prurience of a porn-obsessed pre-teen.
People would dump stuff in giant black garbage bags and in loose piles, seemingly anywhere there was a place where you could back up a Torino and empty the contents of the trunk, and I’d find new ones and lounge in them like a luxuriant addict in an opium den, leaning back against the inevitable stack of National Geographics and paging listlessly through a twenty year-old issue of Popular Mechanics while I daydreamed about the world of the future and the wondrous DIY applications of masonite that seemed to be that publication’s main stock in trade.
On lucky days, I found bound stacks of love letters tied up in ribbons or boxed in well-worn cigar boxes, and I’d read through them as a perverse spectator following the arc from the first twinges of love until the desperate, pleading, sickening last letters, which ended with giant, scrawled pleas of “Baby PLEASE don’t let our LOVE die like this PLEASE Natalie PLEASE!!!” I’d read through them all, living out a romantic life in high compression, and would sit back afterward and sigh, “that’s never gonna happen to me,” which was mostly true. Sometimes, I’d see the pathos at the end of the relationship and laugh, chuckling “sucker” with the hard-boiled bitterness of a cheap detective, and sometimes, I’d find the love stories that ended so badly and so sorrowfully that I’d compulsively dig a hole in the red clay, lay the stack of letters in the bottom, and fill it back in like the grave of a big idea gone wrong, stamping the disturbed dirt back down and scratching a lonesome heart into the ground with a stick.
The dump was, in its way, sort of like the afterlife, in the kind of mythological sense where the afterlife was a real place that you could find if you looked hard enough and paid a somber boatsman to deliver you into, and for a kid like me, the kind of kid who lived to learn the tales that might make his life make some kind of sense, it was heaven. I’d wander through the low brush and the clumps of ailanthus trees in search of new territories, and found stacks of paint-by-numbers landscapes mixed in with art class failures, pieces of portraiture so lumpen and distorted that I’d stare at the asymmetrical features of the subjects and my own face would hurt from imagining myself in those shapes. The good paintings, the pretty ones, though, I collected, taking them further into the woods to nail them up to trees in a gallery of fading artworks, and when I visited my open air museum, I always felt like I was in a movie or maybe a dream, which, of course, I was.
I always lingered too long, spending too much time rooting through the abandoned record albums and bags of auburn synthetic hair falls and rusty toolboxes until I heard the siren’s call, the sound of my distant mother hollering my name, over and over, with increasing anger and urgency until the genetic coding that makes us respond to such calls overrode my resistance and dragged me home by the shortest route possible. When I had the time, though, nothing could tear me away.
I’d go with a few purloined tools and dismantle every electronic thing I found, stripping old radios and orthophonic super hi-fi consolettes down to their component parts with no agenda other than a desire to tear into the meat of the things that made life go and see what was there. Here and there, throughout the dump, I’d leave these ritually-mutilated devices, laid out like the victims of an unexpected robotic autopsy, with vacuum tubes lined up in little rows along side of all the big old-fashioned diodes and resistors that I’d clip out of their places in phenolic circuit boards that always smelled faintly of burning brake linings, and I don’t know if I really learned anything worth knowing, other than the occasional object lesson in the danger of certain things.
An ultramodern white plastic futuristic pedestal-style console color TV showed up one afternoon, and I was on it like a flash, unscrewing and unwiring and clipping leads left and right like the little freak I was until I got to the huge aluminum tanks of the capacitors that were part of the high voltage circuit. I reached in with my wire clippers, got a grip on the dull silver case of a capacitor with one hand, slipped the wire cutters into place with the other…and woke up a considerable time later on my back in the red clay, the inseam of my pants just starting to dry. In a rage, I found a broken slab of cinderblock and slammed it into the back of the picture tube, which expired as picture tubes often did in the face of such an assault, with a high-pitched shriek of in-rushing air and a reflexive jet of dislodged phosphor from the face of the tube. I kicked the set over, raised the cinderblock over my head, and blinded the cyclops once and for all. Bastard.
I found the first pornography I ever saw down in the dump, buried under piles of Southern Living magazines, and it was compelling and horrifying, the kind of early seventies porno that was printed mainly in black and white on thick stock, depicting cold scenes of bored girls with bad skin and big hair getting skewered by slack-assed hippies with droopy mustaches and oversized genitalia that gave me years of delirious insecurity until I realized they were the exception, not the rule. Even in the harshly overlit or grimly underlit fixed tableaus of the magazines, you could just tell the girls were all chewing gum and irritably waiting for it all to be over, while the guys just had a glazed look that I didn’t recognize fully until I realized what that strange incense-y smoky smell was that was always in the clothes of all the mean boys in the neighborhood. Those were the years when I was starting to get curious about such things, but the stacks of aging porn with their noir visions and color photos where the color was so misaligned that they looked like grist for 3D glasses did little but make me think that maybe sex was kept secret and whispered about because it was so stupid and silly, not because there was anything especially worthwhile about it.
So I rambled through the wreckage as a happy little boy, just exploring the things that people discarded precisely because they didn’t want to have them around where they could be seen, and in a strange way, those were some of the times when I started to think that maybe life was something odd and beautiful and worthy, that maybe there was more to it all than the glam surfaces of seventies suburban life. I’d explore until I overloaded on the novelty of it all, some days, until I felt the first twinges of a feeling that gets me sometimes, even now, or maybe more so now than ever—the feeling that life’s just too big, that the world’s just too big and too full of stories and lives and realities for anyone to ever fully understand. The overload was so strong, sometimes, that I’d rush home and just sit there, shivering, feeling like the impossible weight of the whole world was a weight balanced on the head of a pin, hanging over me and waiting to come crashing down at any moment.
Other times, I’d just lose myself in the maze, reading and reading and reading and tearing things apart until stronger forces would pull me away, until I got hungry or thirsty or…well…until I felt like reading in privacy of the bathroom, as it were.
I sat amid piles of old paperwork, surrounded by Better Homes & Gardens cookbooks full of lurid photographs of insane hors d’oeuvres from the days when a really stylish party required dozens of rolled-up things made of white bread, canned deviled ham, and rosettes of Cheez-Whiz™, and the feeling hit me in the gut, that cold, wrenching feeling down low that you get when it’s time to go—when it’s really time. I got to my feet and stood there, clenching my butt as tightly as I could and thinking about the approximately two thousand four hundred and thirty-eight steps between where I stood with my butt clenched in the red clay hills of the dump and the back bathroom of our house, where I’d once peed my name into the unpainted drywall of the room and then authoritatively claimed that someone else did it—a very, very bad man I’d seen walking through the yard, if memory serves.
I dreamed desperately of that stained wall, where an artful arrangement of the letters “J-O-E-B” by the toilet would have been a freakin’ Picasso to me as I sat there, took about fifteen stiff-legged steps, the kind you take when you’re so desperate not to mess yourself that your thighs are just locked together and you’re walking like Tallulah Bankhead in a skin-tight dress, all from the knees down, and on the sixteenth step, it was all over.
My walk changed abruptly from the clenched walk to the disgusted kind, the kind where you walk in tender, broad strides, hoping not to move stuff around, but even that was too much. I could hear kids playing in the streets of Lakeview proper, in between me and my destination, and I knew I’d never make it home alive, walking the crapped-in-my-pants walk and all.
In the bright sun, I carefully pulled off my shoes and socks, shucked off my painfully blue Tuffskins™, and slipped down my high-rise Sears Surplus briefs with the patience of a surgeon. Holding my clothes in one hand and my drawers on a stick, I raced through the woods in a flash of cotton-poly and pre-pubescent pink, invoking every prayer in the world not to get caught in my half-streak. There was a little creek that ran through there in those days, and I stripped off my shirt and jumped into the creek in a spot where the water swirled around a clump of tree roots and hollowed out a deep hole, taking a few minutes underwater to complete the gruesome task of cleaning myself up and rinsing out my appallingly unfashionable skivvies until they were as clean as they’d been when I put ‘em on.
I wrung out my underpants and flung them onto the mossy bank, then just swam for a while, just enjoying the warm water and the places where the sun broke through the trees and lit up the creek like liquid crystal over a bed of multihued algae and smooth stones, taking care to move upstream the whole time, and finally climbed out, walking back to where my clothes were to sit in the sun on the soft moss until the breeze and sun dried my skin. I pulled on my socks, my pants, my shirt, and my shoes, wrung out the underwear again, pocketed them, and started to head home.
My damp underpants made a faint wet mark on my jeans, so I withdrew them, climbed a tree right at the edge of the red clay pathways of the dump, and tied my drawers to the end of a long branch, intending to return for them when they’d had a chance to dry, and with that, I headed home, hoping that the change in numbers in the inventory of my undergarments would go unnoticed. In lesser households, a pair of inexplicably missing drawers would get you a lecture that “underpants don’t grow on trees, you know,” but in mine, my parents knew better than to ask why in such cases.
My father used to say that Joe-B was just a different child, and he was right.
I totally forgot about my underpants, and in time, I moved on from the dump and into even deeper waters, into the insane worlds of puberty and high school and the latter days of despair and impossible expectations of young adulthood, and when they plowed the dump under to start building the second in a series of ugly “developments” that would eventually destroy every last bit of untamed land in Scaggsville, I was sad, but I knew there were more things out there for me, more dumps of data and lost dreams, abandoned by all the people in the world who just can’t be bothered to interpret their own lives, grist for the mill for storytellers and daydreamers alike.
I went for a walk, looking for the imprints of bulldozer treads, heading down Susini Drive to the end of the world, and even the land itself was different, with all the rumbled waves of red clay smashed flat for the perfect lives of every idiot who ever dreamed that you can actually live in a suburban landscape, and I couldn’t help but think of all the places where I’d buried unhappy love stories and hope that they’d take root in the basement rec rooms in all those uniform faux-colonial nightmares and breed discontent and romantic discord, haunting the lives of the unwise residents of that buried graveyard of tossed-out dreams. Sometimes, I’m ashamed of myself for thinking such bitter thoughts, but I am human, and, as my father said, a different child. Life goes on.
On my way back, I caught sight of something in the trees, something white and ragged, and I looked up to see my underpants at the end of a long branch, flying like a flag, ragged and ratty from years of weathering the storms and heat and cold of the seasons, just holding their ground there, waiting for my return. I had to stop and laugh and remember, and I pondered climbing the tree to retrieve them, but just for a moment. The red bands in the waist band had faded to a sickly yellow-orange, and the leg holes had burst into fringes of fraying knit, and the bark on the branch had started to wrap the tight knot I tied on that afternoon, and it all just seemed right, somehow.
I turned back, leaving my unlikely mark on the landscape, a flag to fly in defiance of all the so-called progress in the world, at least until that tree, too, had to come down so that some blank-faced family of idiots could inhabit the land of all the lies that TV’s been telling us for far too long, and I thought of how it felt to skinny dip in that stream, paddling listlessly through the currents of the little pools there and heading upstream in water so shallow I could barely stay afloat, back in the days when there were places to go that weren’t virtual or simulated or otherwise constructed, back in the days when the most exciting place in the whole damn universe was just a dump.
© 2004 Joe Belknap Wall