Writer in Residence · 06/28/2010

Fragments of a Pennsylvania, from a Larger Region

Abel, Pennsylvania (“Rubber City”, “Tire City”, “Hot Buttered Rubber Town”) facts: city of rubber, city of alcoholics, city of zeppelins, birthplace of the waffle cone, free clinics, and reinforced concrete. Approximately 56 nautical miles from a “Styx Monument” (origin unknown), one of three (rumored) temples of the rock band Styx and one of the seven (rumored) gates to Hell, a destination for Styx cover bands from across the globe.

In 1933, the sea swallows the U.S.S. Abel, tire city in the sky. I’m
the captain. Climb
aboard. We’ll search
tomorrow on
every shore.

Here, he first saw her in the darkness, standing among the trees.

Ache, Pennsylvania (“Capital City”, “Capitol City”, “Funnel Cake Town USA”, “Marigold City”) facts: A plaque in the middle of the town circle, the circumference of which is lined with either marigolds, American flags, or Gerber daisies (depending on the mood of the seated City Horticulturalist, an elected official, currently a Democrat) named for various notable residents including H., K., and T., notable for the use of a single initial as their name, notable for their extensive collections, for their unusually long beards, their unusually loud voices.

Notable for the school dance, where on May 2, 1982, he first saw a bare thigh.

Site of occasional county fairs: performances by rock and roll musicians, country and western musicians, bluegrass musicians, enormous funnel cakes and young lovers. Proposed site of the first U.S. detonation of a nuclear device. First performance by Styx to more than 75 audience members.

Ada, Pennsylvania (“City by the Bay”, “Waterville USA”, “Birthplace of Miniature Ponies”) facts: Here they dance on their roofs, selecting the songs that made them famous, the songs of their youth, the songs for their time, and here they forget why they built their roofs flat in the first place, why they built all those ladders that year, why they filled so many buckets with so much sand. Their feet fall through the roof holes, then their bodies, and they keep dancing, their legs dangling above dining room tables cluttered with neglected bills and whining cats, unfed. The rambling houses form a maze, linked by hammocks and trees planted too close to the foundations, the roots stretching beneath the earth, twisting around pipes and buried power lines, reaching up into the crawlspaces to tap danceable rhythms from below, poking through, sprouting into bedrooms and disorganized closets.

Here, their bare legs touched, dangling, hidden beneath the rooftops.

The children have invented, independent of existing tapping codes, of which they know nothing, a code by which they tap messages to one another at night from the darkness. Tap. Tap. Tap.

Adams, Pennsylvania (“Owl Town America”, “Old Feathers and Stone”) facts: Location of the “Great Peanut Ride” in which residents annually construct human-powered vehicles from peanuts and race them along Main Street, where specialty entertainments have been constructed to amuse spectators and race participants alike.

They watched the peanut-cars from beneath the bleachers, humming quietly to themselves to the tune of an entertainment, softly amused and comforted in the cold by the seam between them. He would will his hand into hers if not for the cocoa and bags of steaming peanuts.

Agnes, Pennsylvania (“Fresh Air, Freedom, and Fun”, “Dedicated Workforce”) facts: Location of a second, newer, monument to Gary Busey.

They arrived late in the afternoon and were treated to a tour of a taxidermy studio. The taxidermist, naked but for a cloth wrapped around his loin and tattered sandals hanging from his ravaged feet, took them into the back room where they stood in what could have been a shallow pool of animal blood and laid their hands upon the wet pelt of a fox, ready to be pulled over a plastic form in the shape of an animal in action. The taxidermist held the fox skin to his bearded face and gave it to him to do the same. He nodded. He could feel it. He presented the fox to her open arms, her hands trembling as she lifted the wet skin to her face. The taxidermist showed them a shoebox full of hand-made eyes, reached in, and dropped one each into their hands, the eyeballs warm in their palms.

Albany, Pennsylvania (“Birthplace of Instant Coffee”, “Silenced Guns”) facts: Because of a unique magnetism, the city’s elevation remains indeterminate. Because of the phenomena, sometimes known as “Maybe a Mile High Pennsylvania” even though residents sometimes suspect that their town is, in fact, underground due to difficult light. Produces more salvage per capita than anywhere in Pennsylvania.

Location of the original Paradise Theater, honored by the classic 1981 Styx concept album Paradise Theater. After the Paradise Theater burned in 1971, Styx lead singer Dennis DeYoung, profoundly affected by news of the loss of the theater, moved to Carbondale, Pennsylvania to contemplate how he might properly pay tribute to the theater. In Carbondale, he formed what would become the band Styx, who would record three albums before DeYoung, having found the sound and talent to realize his vision, would return to Carbondale to write what would become the most lasting tribute ever created to a destroyed theater. The best times Are just me this time, some rain And we’ll be Rocking, the Paradise Here, with me, You.

Here he stood next to her in line in the cafeteria, afraid to speak.

Alexandria, Pennsylvania (“Hopes and Dreams by the River”) facts:
The skin of the city breached and ruptured; the silent networks of fiber and cable, splayed like veins and threads of exposed muscle, throbbed light and low-voltage current, like blood pouring into the cold winter air.

Alliance, Pennsylvania (“Funktown”, “Grieftown”, “Sugar City USA”) facts: Think corn dogs and the Almighty. Think carnival time, 365. Think clowns. Think tiny, dancing dogs in dresses spinning circles around a midget on motorized stilts. Think a giant tire rolling through town, destroying the city every three weeks, while a thousand residents watch and cheer, ready to rebuild.

Here they climbed stone stairs in late autumn, the night cold and crisp and damp, and settled on the frozen grass at the top of the ruins of the first iron furnace in the county. Here they kissed, he cold and hungry, she in her tights, striped black then white, pulling him on top of her. Clumsy lips, clumsy tongues. He straddled her. She wrapped her legs around his waist. He touched her thigh. She stretched the V in the neck of her black sweater, pushed away the cup of her bra, and exposed to him her left breast. This is my breast, she said. He touched the tip of her nipple with the tip of his finger. She told him she had to go home, a short walk away, but promised to call.

Here AM 1290 first played a Styx song, the name of which is now forgotten. The DJ, alone in the dark, could not have imagined the pajamaed young people across the city gathered around their radios, feeling for the first time an emptiness, an absence, a hole, a feeling only love could fill.

Per capita income unusually high, bolstered by manufacture of devices used in textile industry and animal experimentation.

*Alma, Pennsylvania *(“The Little Paris”, “Motor City”, “Fun City”) facts: Residents water daily their lawns, prune the dying and dead from the tips of flowering trees and shrubs, and dine in the twilight on wide, columned verandas; they sip wine from festive plastic porch cups, while birds sing melodic flute songs and tuck seeds between the tight blades of grass growing on clean, green lawns.

Here, in the summer, they watch movies together on the couch every afternoon. When he looks at her in a particular way, in a way that tells her he has something important to tell her, he can see in her face that he should not say it, that he should be content with this.

Ammon, Pennsylvania (“City of Champions”, “City of the Future”, “City with a Future”, “Future City USA”) facts: He wore shoes that would tell her that they were going on a date. Too many times what he had thought was a date was really just hanging out and so he had learned that keeping a pair of polished black shoes in the closet to wear only when he was going on a date would help to indicate to his companion that they were on a date, that this was serious, that perhaps there would be kissing, perhaps there would be making out, and that they might stare into each others eyes and smile and laugh and brush fingers when reaching for the Sweet and Low. The table on which they sat wobbled despite the wad of napkins the server had shoved beneath the lop-sided leg. Water splashed from their glasses whenever he put his elbows on the table and she laughed a polite laugh to tell him that it was okay even though it wasn’t as she dobbed dry her tights with her napkin.

Angola, Pennsylvania (“City of Convenient Lovers”) facts: In the car, they listen to Styx in silence as they drive without aim a loop through the hills, the windows cracked to blow the smoke from the weed they are sharing into the cold night.

Annville, Pennsylvania (“City of City Planners”) facts: Cold in his attic room, he rewinds his years-old_ Pieces of Eight_ cassette and listens and listens again to “Sing for the Day,” imagining her there with him, studying Algebra II, captivated by the song so much that she will stare into his eyes and see the thing in them that he wants her to see and ask him to dance. They will dance. He will turn up the volume on the boom box. He will adjust the bass band of the graphic equalizer. Together they will rewind the cassette and listen again and dance again. They will kiss. He presses pause on the cassette player and puts his hand on the phone, puts the handset to his ear, puts his finger in the hole of the rotary dial and turns, dialing the first six of her seven numbers, but cannot decide whether he should let the song play in the background or save that moment for when they are together. He hangs up the phone and presses play.

Arche, Pennsylvania (“City of Broken Dreams”) facts: The streets stutter a stutter here, the birthplace of country music, the birthplace of hope, the birthplace of herb-infused oils. Vibrating homes resonate in the wind, and for this reason, was the location of the recording of the first demonstration recordings of what would become the rock band Styx. Here twin brothers Chuck and John Panozzo began to develop their chops, the former on bass guitar, the latter on drums. In the evenings, when warm, they would drive into the fields at night and bless their instruments with a mixture of corn and their own blood and semen and howl into the moonlight, each silently praying for better chops. Chops that will, if only for a moment, change the lives of young lovers.

Here, he held her hand in the movie theater, or imagined that he would hold her hand in the movie theater, and she would imagine him holding her hand in the movie theater, imagine her first kiss in the blue glow of Hellraiser. Here they would both silently discover an erotic attraction to needles on skin, but because they feared rejection, their hands did not touch, and their lips did not touch, and neither communicated their interest in needle play to the other, and so, they never dated again, she complaining to her friends that he wouldn’t even hold her hand, didn’t even try to kiss her, and he denying to his friends that they had ever gone to a movie together at all.

Here, the streets move and hum, singing soft songs during business hours, songs that sound to everyone like something they have heard before, when in fact they have not. The roads, asphalt waves, undulate beneath wheels and feet, occasionally knocking over the elderly and infirm.

Arnold, Pennsylvania (“Fire City USA”, “Ole’ Three Thirty Three”) facts: City of ore, city of forlorn lovers, city of whips and frappes, city of the sinking airship. Birthplace of the hexagon, lethargic television watching, and American Wurst. Winter home of Glen Burtnik, late-era bass player for the rock band Styx. Local attractions include the world’s largest collection of bleachers as well as the second largest tongue museum in the eastern United States. Over 15 acres of well-maintained city parks, many of which feature benches, trees, and metal playground attractions designed for the entertainment of young people. Swing-sets outlawed in 1943 due to lascivious nature of swing-sets. The town inspired the novel Swing Long, Swing Free and later movie of the same name, in which locals, unable to swing, swing in secret and mount a swing-in. By the end, the entire town embraces young people and learns to love again.

Ashland, Pennsylvania (“Fungicide City”, “Party by the Bay USA”) facts: An every-city, the model city for every city in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, and Connecticut. Includes buildings, streets, underground wire and pipes, and trees. Constructions of paper, constructions of glass, constructions of young loves interrupted, young loves never consummated, young loves loved once, again, and then again. The same story storyboarded with wide white paper, scraps of felt, and matchsticks. Hosts annual contests.

Atomic, Pennsylvania (“White Chocolate City”) facts: Perform love re-enactments daily during temperate months in the gazebo at city center. The performances, monuments to loves actual, fictional, and potential, illustrate both foible and folly as well as successes, near-successes, and the love that is a settling like agitated sand churning that, given time, forms a soft bed below clean, clear water.

James “J.Y.” Young contemplated cocaine and future hard rock hits here, sitting atop the rock that would one day become the second (rumored) monument to the rock band Styx. On the horizon, he saw what he believed to be fame, but was really just the glint of the sun’s reflection in the chrome of hundreds of automobiles rusting in a salvage yard. Here he carved his initials into the stone with his knife and hummed secret melodies dreaming of stadium lights and tour bus bunks.

Here they walk, each waiting for the other to speak, neither ever speaking. Here she wonders how long they will do this, how many times they will walk without speaking. She would begin to keep count, but she is the type of person to only count from the beginnings of things, and she cannot remember when it began. If she had known from the start that this was something she wanted to keep track of, the silences, the moments when something should be said but, when neither of them has the energy to say the thing that they would like to say, say the thing that will communicate some incommunicable want beyond movie selection and popcorn versus Red Vines, she would have begun to record. This, she thinks, would help her to know the limit. They are both feeling people, but not good articulators.

Here, buildings burn and the streets melt molten.
Every lighted letter in every sign, dark.

Here, they hold onto each other in the darkness knowing the value of a moment of warmth, the moment before lips meet lips that is every first kiss, a moment that will never again be a moment.

Here, they run their fingers over initials carved in rocks and inhale coal dust blowing across a cold field of rusting metal. Here, they enjoy beer in plastic cups and smoke cigarettes in the cold valley of an abandoned rock quarry. Here, he sits on a rock painted with names and the cryptic symbols of amateur Satanists, pulling the paper label from a cold bottle of beer. He looks at them across the tiny fire, their faces red from the heat. They cough from the smoke and laugh lip to lip.

Roads named for trees. Notable rock works. Faux Roman ruins manufactured to look just like Roman ruins if ancient Rome included water slides and a foot-long hot dog stand.

Here they walk for miles on seldom-used railroad tracks, stepping on each tie, stepping over overgrown grass and weeds, stepping aside for the occasional ghost train chugging along toward some less-abandoned industrial park. Here she tells him that she’s not a virgin, that she lost her virginity, drunk, one night in the back of the Buick parked behind the abandoned Church of God over on 12th and that it was not exactly as she’d expected it to go, that it was not bad, but somehow not good either. She slid her hand into his and said that she thinks it’d be better the second time around, and he, unsure of what, exactly, was happening and what he should say or do, assured her that yes, it would be better the second time around.

Matthew Kirkpatrick’s fiction has appeared recently in Conjunctions, The Collagist, Wigleaf, Diagram, and elsewhere. He lives in Salt Lake City, UT.


posted by Roxane Gay