Opening each drawer, I hoped to find some lost thing that had belonged to my mother, an old picture or a note, but I found only more dust. I had to turn the pillowcase inside out to get the last of it. Once that was finished, I sat on the corner of the bed and tried to take it all in, this room where my mother lived, realizing finally that I might not find her, that this might be as close as I would get.
Who was I kidding anyway? I was no detective, but I had nowhere else to go. Work and wander the streets. Spend all the money I could find. The traffic signal at the intersection, blinking outside the window, battled the rising sun so that the hairline cracks in the plaster took on alternating hues of light and dark to the beat of a pulse. The slow encroachment of the white light held me captivated, the flickering shadows on the wall growing into images familiar yet unnameable, until finally the red light was overpowered by the day.
You got dirty clothes and cash? As I prepared the wash I noticed a couple in the corner arguing in hushed tones as a young girl danced around their legs, oblivious to the conflict. Her partner had done something wrong, his shoulders slumped, eyes on the floor. Rashes up and down. Are you a fucking idiot?
Netflix Australia Content Catalogue November 12222
I wanted to step out behind them and find out what they were talking about, what this guy had done, but instead I turned back to my washing. Once I got the machine running, I set all my money out on the nearby folding table. The wash cycle still had at least thirty minutes on it so I stuffed all my money back in my pocket and went outside, stood on the sidewalk, and looked both ways down Center.
That was when I heard the catcalls. Yeah you, blondie. The loogie slapped the ground near my feet, an unsettling green in the mid-morning light, then the engine roared as the truck hurdled the train tracks and the boys disappeared around the corner. My hair hung past my shoulders and I wore jeans and flannel shirts no matter the season. There is something about seeing a thin figure with long hair on the side of the road that makes a guy want to be heard, I guess. The crossing arms came down, red lights flashed, and steam whistles sounded in the distance: two long, one short, one long.
A minute later a train engine chugged out from behind a grove of leafy trees, pulling a hundred and fifty boxcars, creaking and groaning as the weight shifted, railroad ties keeping rhythm with odd clicks and snaps as the wheels passed. Graffiti covered the sides of many cars: thin-lined scribbles, illegible tags, and squared-off pieces that must have been done with a paint roller, but only one artist had any consistency: HOPE. This word appeared most often in three-dimensional lettering, blocky or bubbly, but sometimes shaped into odd representations: a clown juggling four balls that hovered above his open hands spelling out the word, another time four raindrops falling from a cloud said the same.
I had always loved graffiti—it was a special way of remembering, of reminding the world of what has gone overlooked, been forgotten. The caboose passed, the arms came up, and the few cars and trucks that were waiting pulled up the slight incline to mount the crossing.
I got onto the tracks and turned north, hoping they would lead me to the Old Rail Terminal Mall, and once I got around the corner, past the grove of trees that must have been planted to conceal it, I was in the old rail yard. The tracks I walked split in two before me and that second set split into five that came to dead ends, where a number of train cars were parked. It was a mishmash of browns and blacks and warm colors against the rusty maroon backdrop of the car but it worked.
At the bottom corner were numbers: 6. I stepped to the car and touched the stream of lava, leaving a perfect fingerprint in the wet paint.
The piece had been painted that day. June sixth. This artist lived in Holm. I reminded myself to keep an eye out for graffiti around town and cut over to the grocery store to see if I could find a cigarette, or at least a halfie in one of the ashtrays. She had a hypnotic quality that drew me, that pulled my words from me.
Something inside had to come out, and it ended up being the stupidest, most awkward question I could have asked. This was what my father had said when he had caught me stalking ashtrays two years back.
Notes & References
I regretted saying it before I had finished, my heart again entering panic mode, quaking in my head. I stood there next to her long enough to get a deep breath of the soft floral perfume she wore, roses and violets, and in that time she glanced my way twice but did not meet my gaze.
Thinking she might not like me, might not like being approached, I took a few steps back to let her have some room and understood suddenly that I had done to her what the boys in the truck had done to me. I studied the roses and the chrysanthemums in their buckets, bundled into dozens by color, but I was drawn again and again to Jenny, her bold blue eyes, soft slope of a nose, and the way the slight breeze lifted her blond hair in wisps. Before long, a Cadillac pulled into the lot and angled into the first row.
A woman got out with a long, thin cigarette hanging from her mouth, the brand I associated with this type of older lady. Pantsuit, perfume, expensive car. Digging in her purse as she moved toward the store, I thought she was going to walk right in, cigarette and all, but as the electric doors opened she tossed it without looking in a flash of sparks on the sidewalk.
After the store swallowed the woman, Jenny looked around to be sure no one would see, then crouched and picked up the cigarette. She took a deep drag, then handed it to me and stepped off the curb into the parking lot. I leaned back against the store and puffed as I watched her approach the car, open the door, reach inside. After the car door slammed, she kept on in the same direction, past the next row of cars parked facing the store, but turned to me with her hand in the air to show me what she had gotten. She flicked a lighter inside a chimney made with her left hand and I bowed to the flame.
I figured my laundry had finished, so I went back to the laundromat and moved my clothes into a dryer. To kill some time, I dropped a quarter into the Pac-Man machine and beat four levels, but the ghosts won eventually, as they always do. It was past noon by the time the bedclothes were washed and back on the bed, so I stopped in for a burger at the Arlington.
I got the one with a scoop of peanut butter like the super had mentioned—somehow more sweet and delicious than I had imagined—then I snaked a spiral through the west side of town. As my mother had told me in her letter, the Arlington stood at the intersection of Old Main and Center and the streets that crossed Center had been named after trees. Those trees grew along each street with the exception of Elm, whose trees had all been lost to disease. First Ash, then Birch, the middle school was on Cypress, followed by Dogwood and Elm, and Fern ran parallel to those for six blocks in either direction before turning eastward to meet up with Old Main making two grids, planned and predictable.
The streets named for trees had no sidewalks; rather the blacktop broke into gravel near the edge of the road where grass then picked up, the lawns of wooden houses with peaked roofs or the occasional three-story brick apartment building. Churches here and there and nothing more to Holm than that. I took Fern north past where all the other streets ended and found the high school and beyond that the cemetery, and then turned around to take Fern south, ending up at the hospital and the government center.
Beyond Holm to the west, the forest grew thick before it dropped off into the Spirit River, then came up just as thick again on the other side before it turned into farmland.
Center crossed the river valley on a long bridge, became a four-lane highway on the other side. I sat in a swing in a playground that shared a small square of grass with a picnic table, a couple of benches, and a water tower. I had talked the librarian into letting me take the newspaper outside and was reading about the recent conviction of Timothy McVeigh, guilty on eleven counts and likely to be sentenced to death by lethal injection later in the summer, when a young man stopped his truck, sauntered over, and introduced himself as Sven Svenson.
Six feet tall, all field work and sunburn.
Boots, hat, Confederate flag for a belt buckle. Cheek swollen with long-cut tobacco. Blue eyes and straight teeth on display, his similarity to McVeigh in the photo next to the article I was reading was striking. When he ran out of swear words he bent down and pushed my shoulders, sending me backwards on the swing and, unready for such force, I tumbled for half a flip in the air before I landed in the grass, the newspaper splayed out next to me, peeling away in the wind.
I was in the habit then of making sweeping generalizations, defining large groups of people by a single shared characteristic. It was easy for me to do, since I had been so isolated for so long that by this point I always felt like I was outside looking in, even back in Grand Marais where I had spent my entire life. Holm, it seemed, would be no different. When I finished gathering the paper and refolding it, I lay again in the grass to gaze at the sky and saw that I might have a friend in town, or at least a sympathetic ear: someone had climbed the rusted ladder of the water tower and spray-painted the word sucks after HOLM on the tank.
Past the laundromat and the railroad tracks, Center Street led me out of the planned part of Holm and set me on a path to the fairgrounds. Beyond the plastics factory a few other smokestacks towered in the distance, and to the south was a run-down residential neighborhood, a few blocks of smallish square houses placed at odd angles on spotty lawns.