It was the deep bellow of the semi that crackled over the frozen streets of Ishpeming, Michigan that made her realize she was listening to the soft whine of tires on the highway and not the northern February wind climbing Pioneer Bluff. The porch creaked beneath her. Her dog whimpered from behind the picture window through which he watched his master, beckoning her to come in from the cold. She looked away from the sleeping town below and focused her eyes on the cup of herbal tea she held in her thick, numb fingers. The steam rose in straight lines. The wind picked up. The straight lines wavered.
The semi bellowed again, except softer. For a moment, she wondered if the driver was also beckoning her to come in from the cold, except this time forever -- to follow him and start over -- until her dog again whimpered from inside her father's house and she realized that starting over was impossible. She had already come too far.
The wind gave warmth to her numbing face and brittle lips with its whips of cold and colder and coldest air. Air that cracked in the trees and stung her like the pain of remembering had done hours before this moment, hours after her father's final smoke-filled breath was torn from her face by the hospital's strawberry air. Breath that had seemed to not want to leave her, for it had clung to her lips and chin and pulled away slowly, ever so slowly, like that last unconscious gasp was her father's leathery fingers caressing her face in goodbye.
And it was.
And she had stood there in that strawberry air noticing the sickening smell of it and not the pleasantness it was supposed to carry in its desires to steal away the stench of death. She had stood there staring at her father's lifeless body, waiting for his chest to rise again, for him to wake and smile one last time with his yellowed teeth. She had stood just like she was standing now, watching a lifeless Ishpeming spread out below her -- alone and remembering.
She looked up from her herbal tea and out onto the sleeping town. She could see the old Gossard building, the white bricks stained with the dust of a town that was old enough to be her great-great-great grandfather. A building that today held the small town bustle of businesses clumped together in what people called a mall. Nothing like the shopping malls people boasted about in other places. Nothing like the factory it used to be where her mother had worked making braziers and girdles. A building that today only held the sweat and hard work in the spirits of those who walk the wood floored halls without clicking heels and squeaking tennis shoe existence. A building that had the same body, but not the same heart.
And she could see the largest house in town perched atop the bluff opposite of her. A house in which, years ago, some bigwig of the mines probably lived in order to keep a watchful eye over his employees. A house that today held a doctor and his careful stare that could watch over all the people who he had delivered into this place, and the houses of all those he had said goodbye to when they left.
She could see the monstrous bodies of Cliff's Shaft looming in the moonlight; bodies that donned concrete overcoats to protect their wooden skeletons when the town had begun to grow -- as if those overcoats were needed to give the mine shafts, and all they spoke of, eternal life. And the moonlight, glistening off of the snow that blanketed the town, allowed for her to view the roads that led past the high school, the post office, the churches, and the Congress Bar. Roads that the film crews had taken when they filmed Anatomy of a Murder. Roads that the film crews had blocked off so that the real Ishpeming couldn't seep into the fake Ishpeming -- void of anyone who actually lived here, filled with actors and actresses that represented the town, for all the world to see -- as if it only existed through the careful cuttings of film and the perfectly timed entrances and exits.
But she had seen the town when entrances were untimely, and exits were unwanted. She had walked those same streets over the last fifty years of her life, living in uncut, unrewindable, unreshootable moments in which she had wished it had only been a movie. She could see the break in the trees where the railroad tracks had once lay -- tracks that had once brought people into Ishpeming, and Ishpeming to Chicago.
She could remember the sickening smell of weeds and iron ore pellets that had mingled in her nose, masked by the belief that the boy who laid with her alongside of the tracks, who held her naked body, who had taken her away from here for just a few moments, really had been in love with her; and she could remember the laughter of her classmates in school as she had run with all her might to escape the humiliation of her love for that boy who had only loved her on a bet.
As the wind shifted in the night, she remembered the choking smells of the black smoke that had taken away the elementary school, awakening her from her dreams of love and the disgusting smells of ore pellets and weeds that had mingled with it. She saw the power lines that the twelve or thirteen year old boy had climbed up to while playing one night, and remembered the cry of the fire siren as the people gathered to see him tangled in the sizzling lines, his life taken by one ill step or a short puff of the wind.
Next to those power lines she could see the clump of trees in which she had taken her own first puffs off of a cigarette -- left lingering on her breath and in her hair. And she remembered going home afterwards and her father crying out in disgust because he hadn't wanted his daughter to "turn out like he had," which sent her crying to her room because what her father had said choked in her throat worse than the smoke itself.
And she could see the tower of the fire hall, and she wished that it would sound right now, so that she could watch the bedroom lights flicker on and then off; so that she could be sure that she, indeed, wasn't here alone.
But she was left alone.
Alone to remember earlier in the day when the dog had whimpered with her, and had kissed her cheek, and she had run throughout the house touching belongings that were cold to the touch.
Running from the faded brown record player that had been the family's sole means of entertainment. Running to the only picture ever taken of her father, her mother, and her -- being only six years old, unaware of the monster that was eating away at her mother's liver. She had lingered there for a moment to ask that picture why they had left that unspoken of to her. Why they had lied when her mother was making periodic visits to the doctors. Why they told her, instead, that her mother was just running errands -- "bringing a couple of pasties to the neighbors."
And, for a moment, she had screamed at that picture that she "never got a chance to say good-bye," because when she had gone to visit her bloated, pale, shallow-breathed mother in the hospital she had no idea what was going on. She had no idea that her mother's goodbye was that frail, rasped, "I love you;" no idea that her own goodbye was that faint squeeze she had given to her mother's hand. And she had screamed, "damn them" for not telling, while her fingers had traced the outlines of their faces, becoming cooler with each second they had stayed there smudging the glass that held one moment of long ago. And her fingers had grown so cold that she had pulled her hand back, repulsed by the freezing sensations that were running through her body, staining her. And she had run.
She had run to fondle the dolls that filled the shelves lining the dining room. Grabbing the yellow curls and hurdling them across the room. Pushing against their porcelain faces until the backs of their heads shattered against the wall. Clawing at their pearly blue eyes that were staring at her as if nothing was wrong.
She had run to the family's silver set. Throwing the ladles, and the spoons, and knives. Bending the forks against the plush carpet because they didn't mean anything anymore. Because out of all those hours her father had spent at the mine, saving his paychecks so that the family could eat with utensils that made them feel like they were kings, this was all that was left for her to hold and remember.
And she had run to the kitchen. Pushing the chairs out of her way, even though the slightest touch of their metal frames sent shivers down her body, frightening her because this was the end of anything, and everything, she had ever known.
But she had turned back from the edge of the room -- running to the stairs which she had scampered up to find her father's bedroom. And she had rifled through his clothes, throwing them from the dresser drawers. She had found his jewelry, pitching handfuls of it through the large mirror that rested on top of the dresser, shattering it like the porcelain dolls had against the cold wall.
Everything was cold and lifeless as she had fallen onto the bed, shivering at the tickling of the cloth, pounding her fists, her tears, and her rage into that bed in which she had been made. Her dog had only listened as she screamed in wonder why she had even been conceived and why everything was so cold -- just like her father's cheek had been when she had bent to kiss him, to force goodbye from her lips. A goodbye no better than the one she had given her mother -- meaningless, unwanted, and numb.
The wind did not leave her alone when the first signs of morning began to shadow the horizon. Instead, it stayed with her, slapping the cold, crisp air against her tingling body. She saw the dottings of life in the lights that illuminated the small bedroom and kitchen windows below her. She heard the rev of the cars as the cooks and waitresses made their way to open up their restaurants so that everyone could come in and sip coffee and talk about the old days when the mines were new and plentiful, and the railroads had brought strangers into friends.
The bustle of life grew louder in her frozen ears as she turned to climb the porch steps. Her fingers were frozen to the cup that now only held the icy remnants of herbal tea. Her lips were chapped and blue, preventing her from screaming in pain, or crying out a welcome to those that were now making their ways to the restaurants. Her body quivered with tenseness that only the northern February wind and nostalgia could carry. She longed to lay in that bed to which she had cried only hours before; to curl up with her dog, smelling the warm, musty fur that he had gained watching his master, his love, out of the window all night -- securing her existence and preventing her from falling too far off of the edge.
At the door she turned one last time to see Cliff's Shaft donning their protective and concrete coats, the Gossard with its own dirt coverings becoming less pronounced in the fading moonlight, the giant house across town in which she hoped the doctor was staring out at her, watching to be her second sentinel -- her safeguards of the night; and she saw the roads that the false Ishpeming had held for those few minutes of representation; and her memory whispered to her, beckoning her to remember the time when her father had told her that, to the Indians, "Ishpeming," means Heaven.
|Ryan C. Sjoholm currently resides in Las Vegas, NV. This is his first piece in NMJ and he can be reached via email to Chimura@yahoo.com.|