Jonathan Frey teaches writing at North Idaho College and is currently at work on a novel. He lives in Spokane, Washington, with his wife and daughters.
Jonathan Frey Landscape with Strip Mall
When we were boys, my brother and I found arrowheads. We found them on the fringes of the parking lots and in the anemic clutches of hardwoods between cul-de-sacs. We found them, these emblems of a history larger and stranger than our lives. We found them and carried them in pockets, kept them beside our beds and in secret places. We found them, but we did not believe in them. We did not believe that these arrowheads had been made once, carried, fixed to shafts, strung and shot. Everything around us contradicted them. We could not conceive of these woods as anything other than what we knew them to be: borders of the ordered world, the surplus, not yet subdued only because no one had gotten to it yet.
Growing up there, in suburbia—in northeastern Atlanta, was like growing up without a place. Like growing up inside a kind of repetitive and orderly fiction. Subdivisions and strip malls intersected by the neat lines of broad highways. Nothing left to chance.
Occasionally, we went places that felt like real places, and so we knew that they existed. The baseball stadium was in a real place. It was in Hapeville, near the airport, and if we got lost looking for cheap parking, we would find ourselves in run-down neighborhoods, and our mother would reach across us to lock the car doors at stop lights. Our grandmother lived in a real place: Tarrant City, Alabama. It was where our father had grown up on the blue-collar edge of Birmingham. The pecan tree dropped its harvest on her house every fall, and the empty lot between the backyard and the Food Lion was overcome by kudzu.
So we knew real places existed, and when we were old enough, we set off in search of them. I left first—for Texas and then farther field to Latin America, to India. Not long later, my brother bought a Volkswagen bus and set out across this continent. He returned one summer with a beard and stories of the Rocky Mountains and the wheat farms of the Palouse.
Once, I called and asked if he would pick me up at the border in Presidio, Texas, and he said he would. I was taking buses north from Yucatán, where I had been living. We met at the border crossing and headed straight for Big Bend, but before we could get there, we stumbled into a development that looked like the polished, upscale version of a set for a spaghetti Western. There was a general store, a saloon that served shrimp cocktail and fourteen dollar hamburgers, and, mercifully, a gas station. But, besides the gas station attendant, we saw no people there at all. It was a ghost town made of shellac and particle board, and we recognized it at once. This was an outpost of suburbia here in the real world, comical and horrifying in equal measures.
That was all years ago. We have both ceased wandering and settled in places that are not as radically different from the place we grew up as we might once have imagined for ourselves. We both have families, and occasionally we return to my parents' home in northeastern Atlanta. A couple summers back, I was there with my family, and we went by the old high school.
It was abandoned. I knew that. They had moved the high school to a new facility nearer my parents’ house. Now the green was coming up through cracks in the pavement. There were no cars, nothing that resembled life.
We drove the circumference. My daughters were in their car seats. I talked nonstop around the school, a guided tour. My wife humored me. My daughters sucked binkies and didn’t ask questions. This was the bus lane. I would wait outside that building with James in his long black trench coat for his mother to pick us up. Here was the loading dock for the theatre where we’d paint sets and where Jenny would smoke, and cuss, and smoke, and apologize for always smoking and cussing. The road curved around beside the baseball field, where I had tried out, and not made the team, and abandoned athletic pursuit forever. And the football field. I had been the mascot my senior year because Barb was too short to see through the eye holes in the great foam head. It was a task for which I, long-limbed and bookish, was uniquely ill-suited. And that was all. We turned out on the highway and drove away.
I can still picture these places, but they no longer exist. Maybe a month after we returned home from that visit to my parents, they razed the entire campus to make way for something new. I saw photographs online. A classmate of my brother’s had hopped the fence after hours and chronicled the demolition in process. Here is the cafeteria, its roof open to the dusky sky. Here is the theater, rows of seats facing the chasm.
In my memory, it has become a place, a real place. It always was, but I could not see it. The failure: mine.
Someone was there before we were, and I do not know who. But I know there was the railroad; I remember hearing its howl from my bedroom when I stayed up late reading or writing. And I know there was the river, broad and muddy. I know that these woods were walked by feet before mine. And when I go back, I remember what I can, and I imagine what I cannot, and maybe that is enough.
Maybe that is progress. Strata on top of strata, lives on top of lives, and the relics of my life will be as improbable to those who come after as those arrowheads were to us. Once there was a school here, and boys played baseball badly and tried to talk to girls who smoked and cussed. This variety of progress in which the past is obscured under the march of the new is the fabric of that place, and that place is already no longer mine.