East of Main
I asked Dad why he had picked the desert town. “Why did we go there in the first place?”
Denny’s. No one I knew in this world would have been eating at a Denny’s restaurant. I went inside to stretch my legs after the longish drive and to drink a coffee. I suppose it was possible to run into someone I knew, though not likely. I imagined a scenario in which we would have reminisced about the old days. We would have talked about how times have changed, how we have changed, how people have changed. Change has been the talk of this town since the 1960’s. But I asked myself, what would be so terrible about running into someone I haven’t seen in years? I don’t know. Depends on the someone. Plus, I wanted to be on my own. The hard fact may be that being in town is not something I desire to share with anyone anymore.
The Denny’s was new to me. When I was growing up there was one chain restaurant in town. It was a Pizza Hut. The fact of there being only one chain restaurant amazed me as a kid. I landed here as a 12 year old boy from Beaumont, Texas, a city then with a population of over 100,000 people and where there were two or three fast food restaurants on every block. McDonald’s, Sonic, Burger King, Arby’s, Wendy’s, Whataburger, we had them all in Beaumont, Texas. Then here I come, a 12 year old boy, a native Texan, to this desert town with only a Pizza Hut. It brought me unexpected joy. This was a town that didn’t look like any other town, a town without a MacDonald’s. Then after a while, I began to resent the Pizza Hut. I wanted town to be wilder. I wanted to be wilder.
My family left Texas because Dad, a full-time preacher in those days, had been called by the one and only Baptist church in town. My family were heathens in this desert town of more recent saints. Years later I asked Dad why he had picked the desert town. “Why did we go there in the first place?” “Mostly I felt a call,” he said, “I know you don’t like it when I get religious on you, but I felt a call. I never take a church or leave a church because I feel like it. I’m not picking a place to vacation. I’m listening for a call, and I had a sense of a call to go there.” “How do you know when you have a call?” “It’s a process.” “A process of what?” “Of prayer, of listening, of thinking, of waiting on God. I know you don’t like religious talk, but that’s what a call is. You don’t pick a church because of money or climate. Well. I say that, and that’s probably why most preachers pick a church these days. Money and climate. You know, ‘Heaven for climate—Hell for company’ sort of shit. Preachers will pick a church for the neighborhood or for where their children can attend school. Although, I admit that’s part of why your mother and I left Beaumont.” “Why is that?” “Because we wanted you to grow up in a better place. You loved the outdoors. When we moved, your mom and I felt like you were healthy enough to move. We wanted you to have a place where you could live a fuller life. And you did. You’ve lived a fuller life. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t change anything from those years.” “No. I don’t guess I would either. There would have been a few situations I would have changed, but not the move, not growing up there.” “We all have situations we would change.” “We do.” He nodded, “And I know what you’re talking about.”
I left Denny’s after a swallow or two of coffee and walked outside into the midmorning heat. The heat shouldn’t have surprised me but it did. Main Street was already busy with traffic. I got into Dad’s truck and started the engine and entered the carnival flow of SUV’s, RV’s, cars, big trucks. I didn’t know where I wanted to go. I wondered for the thousandth time if this town was my hometown. Dad claims it is, though I never heard him say it. A few years ago a member of his congregation told me that Dad once told her, “The boy is from Texas. He travels everywhere, but this is his hometown. It always will be.” Maybe Dad was right, though the idea of me being connected with anything where “always” is a factor tends to fall apart. I identified a hometown as a place where you didn’t need to change, where you could be you, where all the joys and disasters of life were lived and continued to be lived for better or worse in the memories of anyone who ever knew you. Maybe I was wrong about all that. I don’t know. These days what makes for a hometown is a riddle to me. If dad was still Dad, I would ask him what he thought.
I turned east off Main Street at the Visitor Center. The Visitor Center was another new feature of town. I drove in the direction of the ballfields and the new public library. The library had been built on top of the old middle school and sits across the street from the ballfields. There was a line of four cars parked in front of the ballfields, and I parked in a spot between them. I sat in the truck and looked for what was different. The ballfields hadn’t changed much. The dugouts, the concession stands, and the scoreboards looked a bit updated. They stood in the same place from when I was a kid. The fields were the same diamonds and squares. I played a couple of years of Pony League baseball. I failed utterly at the game, unlike Dad. Dad had his back-to-back dingers in Little League, while I felt relieved when I didn’t strike out. I struck out more times than I made contact with the ball. All I could manage on a baseball field was to catch. I had a pretty good arm, too. I still like to play catch. There is something of an inner golden retriever in me that snaps to attention whenever a ball enters a room, even if the ball happens to be a waded-up pair of socks that my sons want to toss around. I tried to drag up memories about my nights on the baseball field. There wasn’t much to recall. I’m not sure how I developed an affection for the game. It must have been because of Dad. Dad grew up in an era when everyone loved and played baseball. The New York Yankees were a dynasty, and Mickey Mantle owned the town. Every sawmill town in East Texas had a local club. That’s when baseball was America’s National Pastime. And as a young boy, I romanticized the game and players. I enjoyed the history and the lore more than I liked playing the game. I memorized stats. I knew Ty Cobb’s career batting average was .366. I knew Ted William’s 1941 .406 batting average had made him the last .400 hitter, although George Brett in 1980 and Tony Gwyn in 1994 came close. Babe Ruth hit a stunning 60 homeruns in 1927. Back then, I read Roger Creamer’s book Babe: The Legend Comes to Life, and I watched on television Max Gail’s one man performance in The Babe. I could sing the lyrics of “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio” and believed DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak would never be broken—still hasn’t been broken. If anyone had asked me, I could have acted out Willie Mays’s “The Catch.” Being the aficionado I was, I understood it wasn’t just the catch that made “The Catch” so great, but it was the presence of mind and the throw after the catch that made it great. Twelve years old, and I had all these baseball stories and stats at the tip of my tongue. Little league coaches knew I couldn’t play worth a damn, but they loved to talk the game with me. I kept up with baseball until the 1998 season, which was the season when Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa surpassed Roger Maris’s 61 homeruns. But I thought the homerun chase was a sham. I thought those three players were a sham. I was one of those old timers at 26 years old who didn’t want to credit even Maris with hitting more homeruns than Ruth. Maris needed more games and a lively ball. Ruth probably had a lively ball, too, but not as lively and not as many games as Maris. To my mind, George Herman Ruth was the Ruth, the Babe, the Bambino, The Sultan of Swat, the hot dogs and beer homerun champion. Then the 98’ season happened. I don’t know what killed the game for me more, the swollen triumvirate of McGuire, Bonds, and Sosa, or the sports media that went along with it all. Cheered it on. Hardly questioned a thing. I was done with the game. It was all shit.
Around ten years ago I returned to the ballfields. I wore a baseball cap and sunglasses, which is an obviously pretentious though notably effective effort at a disguise. I am not famous, not at all, but this is a small town, and people recognize each other for years and nearly every local male over the age of 40 wears a baseball cap. I did not want to be recognized. I didn’t want to be seen. But I returned to the ballparks because I wanted to see those boys and girls whom I had grown up with. A few of them were there, cheering on their own kids as they played baseball and softball. Some of them were watching their grandkids play. We are grown up’s these days, watching our kids or grandkids play the games we once played in the same ballpark. We bear the torpors of middle age—rounding middles, thinning hair, fragile teeth, skin and other parts loosening around us all the time. There were the obvious successes of those kids who, now as adults, have become real estate agents, accountants, dentists. Among them were formerly average students, dumpy cheerleaders, and queens of one kind or another. There were the perky girls, and it wasn’t just their tits, who now drooped. The former athletes who now waddled. The gossips who still prattle on and prattle on. Ordinary time takes its ordinary toll until we are vanquished, though most of us would beg for something more. Even when we have become tired of life, even when life has been lived through levels of despair, most of us would gather enough hours for one more good day. Our kids replace us. Our grandkids replace our kids. What should our hope for any of them be? That they might find joy. That they might feel the sun warm on their backs when they sit at a kitchen table. That they might pause at rivers and make offerings of flowers and sticks. That they go barefoot from time to time. That they will realize forgiveness is necessary. That they in turn will be forgiven.
In the library I surveyed the books for sale. I saw a couple of volumes to purchase before driving back to Mom and Dad’s house. After scanning the books, I went to the back of the stacks and picked a table between fiction and magazines. I carried a shoulder bag stuffed with two notebooks, a half-dozen pens, and two books from Dad’s collection. I brought along the Garrison Keillor anthology, Good Poems, given how many poems Dad had marked, and also Report to Greco by Nikos Kazantzakis. I set the Kazantzakis and one of the notebooks on the table in front of me. The original library in town was not as bright as this one. It held fewer books, and the spaces between the shelves were oddly narrow. I remember going to the library with Dad not long after we had moved to town. We both got library cards, but I don’t remember ever checking out a book. I used the library in middle school and high school. In middle school I wanted a place to hide. Since kids didn’t read, the library seemed like a smart place to hide. During one of my first ventures, I found a book about deductive reasoning. I remember the introduction of the book talked about Sherlock Holmes. The writer claimed that everywhere around us there are clues for reasoning our way to logical conclusions. I read the book twice. Afterwards, I began practicing what I had learned. Did the greyish smudge along the inside of Misty L’s right ring finger indicate she wrote with a pencil? Did Kelly T’s constant fidgeting suggest that he masturbated obsessively? Did Jessie S take an extra-long drink of water because he had been playing basketball? His shoes have been recently scuffed. And Jessie S, who may as well have been born in a red plaid flannel shirt, wore a Chicago Bulls t-shirt. I was able to hide my observations. Learning how to watch, how not to be seen were useful skills for the trauma of 6th, 7th, and 8th grade. They remain useful skills.
As a child who wanted to disappear, learning how not to be seen was a good first step towards a vanishing act. Since then I have often lingered in the quieter sections of museums, libraries, ruins, galleries, and private collections until I felt as if I had vanished. Only now, I believe, my efforts at vanishing have been attempts to slow down time. Vanishing, true vanishing would be to step outside of time. While walking in Greece this past spring it occurred to me that ruins might exist outside of time. The epochs, weathers, the spirit of other ages have encrusted them, yet they are not bound by time. In the 18th century entire ruins were lifted from their original locations then moved to more stately grounds. There are records of new structures being built to look like ancient ruins on various country estates in England. Other ruins go unnoticed, hidden by the earth or behind a stand of trees where hardly anyone walks anymore. I was climbing to a hilltop chapel on an island in Greece this past spring when these half-formed notions about ruins came to me. The chapel is not a destination. Monks enter the chapel three or four times a year to prayer. A local family keeps candles lit behind the plastered walls, burning as they do among shelves of icons and pegs from which priests and family members hang their coats. The chapel stands at a highpoint on the island. From this highpoint, I looked towards the south. I saw the Aegean push into other islands. I watched an old woman swimming just out from shore. Her naked body, like a strip of light, was surrounded by utter cobalt. To the southwest, I could see the burnt arches and tumbled walls of a 20th century painter whose family had built the estate. In the years following World War II, winds of conversation and writings and paintings filled the 42 rooms of this once palatial compound. By the 1950’s the home had become a place of pilgrimage for painters, writers, explorers, philologists, individuals unbound. Yet when a fire destroyed the home in 1961, the painter never returned nor did his friends. Some of the arches and walls remain, though they are broken into guesses about the rooms they had secured. I made a list that morning of individuals associated with the painter. I listed the other islands I could see, as well the mythologies associated them. I slipped the list into my notebook before walking down to the port. It was already hot. Locals fanned themselves and drank coffee under the shade of café awnings. Now in the library, I took the list out of my notebook and studied it and then placed it between the pages again. The library could not have been quieter. The shelves, the books, the tables were much too orderly. There is a sentence from the Kazantzakis book I have been trying to memorize. “For this was my greatest ambition: to leave nothing for death to take—nothing but a few bones.”
I left the library not knowing where to go. The temptation was to leave town and drive to the mountains where I would camp that night. There was nothing I could fix, nothing I could change, nothing I could make better. I was trying not to leave town too early. I was trying not to drive back to Mom and Dad’s house. I sat in Dad’s truck with the windows rolled down. The same cars were parked, parked neatly in a row. Where to go? The canyons all had signs. The swimming holes had all been discovered and dammed into perfect circles.
I cranked the engine and turned on the air conditioner. Too early to leave. There were other places to see. There was Milton’s Diner or The Sizzler. There was what the locals called Old Town Park, which Dad said only locals used. There were neighborhoods and roads around the valley that tourists didn’t know about. What did they know of Terry’s house? What did they know of the street where David and I made aluminum foil spikes one night and set them across the road? The traffic jam that stunt caused! The police came looking for us. Yes. All these places. All these names and stories. I realized I was mapping my own memorial tour. I who had hit no homeruns, who had burned down no garages, who didn’t want to tell myself my own lurid tales. Yet I was in search of places that would return stories to me, and in doing so, they might return what I once felt. I did not want to behave so predictably, but there I was. The green, green grass of home encapsulated in the dimensions of a ballpark. I could drive past my old house, the home where I grew up, the house on Mi Vida. No one would be there to greet me. There were no oak trees to speak of. No Mary to weep.
Damon Falke is the author of, among other works, The Scent of a Thousand Rains, Now at the Uncertain Hour, By Way of Passing, and Koppmoll (film). He lives in northern Norway.
Now available! The second printing of "Between Artists, Life in Paintings and Prose", by Damon Falke and Tabby Ivy.
Juke contributors Damon Falke and Tabby Ivy worked for over three years in collaboration on this beautiful body of work. The first printing sold out during their 2022 exhibition at the Hockaday Museum of Art in Kalispell, Montana. The book can be purchased at https://www.tabbyivy.com/books
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