The End of the Idyllic Days
by Anthony Ilacqua
It’s generally accepted that our time is divided into two different eras: BBB, Before Bed Bugs and ABB, After Bed Bugs. This definition is simple enough, and it has the distinction of the one event that seems to have been the catalyst for the ending of the old days and the beginning of the new days.
At the onset of summer, we had moved into a swanky downtown apartment. Swanky is just about the best way to say it, of course, and I know that in 1957 when the place was built, it was swanky. However, add 50 years of neglect and disrepair, and well, you get the picture. The place stank of death. Old people perfume, and garbage odors wafted into the halls above sullied carpets with trace smells of urine. There were crying babies in the place too. I trusted they found snacks of lead paint chips and cigarette butt sandwiches.
This is no exaggeration.
We were led to believe that things were going to be different. Perhaps people in 1957 were led to believe something different too. Well, we have moved from the atomic age to the space age to the computer age to the generation fixated on terror. Whatever the age, whatever the case, whatever the people climbing through the stairwells and halls of the downtown apartment, the grandiose days are well over. It makes me think of the RMS Titanic. Of course this ship sank, it had to sink, right? No one would want to see such an amazing thing degrade to the withered and used up shadow of its former glory. So, this was the case with 109 Ideal Street, Industria, USA. Our apartment, #22F has seen countless workers over the years, immigrants, mid-level workers, young people. And now, here we are.
It happened because of a random set of events. The events themselves did not seem so random at the time, in the old era BBB.
I paced Ideal Street from on end to the other. On the east end, the streets terminate at the base of foothills, Industria is in a semi-valley. On the west side the streets end at fields, pasture and farmlands. In a way, the farmlands are picturesque. At sunset, I’m told, the cool air from the fields comes with the whispering last light of day. It is my opinion that the farmlands are brutish, dated, and in desperate need of a facelift. Of course, the facelift is why we’re here, after all.
The north-south avenues starting at Morgan on the west and moving toward Vanderbilt on the east are all abandoned of industry now. The warehouse districts butt up against rail line spurs and weedy concrete driveways and loading docks. Trash that looks every bit as old as Industria itself fades in the sun and degrades in the elements as it gets held in oxidized chain link fences. The trash, in itself, is not so alarming. Litter is part of life, and everyone knows that, but such old litter is wild. It’s a greater symptom of the problems in Industria.
I make random notes.
Here and there, I see the future. I see restaurants and nightclubs, movie theaters and event venues as they dot the scene up and down Ideal Street from Morgan Avenue to Carnegie Place. I see the coffeehouses and breakfast eateries too, they’re on the smaller avenues where the sidewalks can be ever widened to accommodate outdoor seating. I see magazine stands, and boutique shopping, and the lively downtown style living that will occupy the upper floors of the warehouses.
I see the future.
But time is something of an enigma. I could, in fact divide time up as such: DCA, During Carrie Anne and ACA, After Carrie Anne. Oh, Carrie Anne. It probably wasn’t meant to be, but we gave it a shot anyway.
Carrie Anne in the morning, Carrie Anne all day long. Carrie Anne and I went to school together. Her performance there was, well, double that of mine. Her ideas, her energy, her resilience and her dedication. This is not to say that I am self deprecating, nothing could be further from the truth. I just want it known that I admired everything Carrie Anne did and I tried to emulate her at every turn.
DCA was excitement. DCA was Haiti, was Tokyo, was the world. DCA was our idyllic days when we found ourselves in the destroyed places and consulted builders, associations, governments, that our ideas of progressive retrofitting and building would be best for all involved.
And then we came to Industria.
On our first night, we looked around for something to eat. Her hunger pangs clouded her mind. I shifted to jokes, which never seem to work well, and yet I do it anyway. Nervousness, I guess. When we found nothing, she suggested we drive back to “civilization.”
“But we’re here now, there’s something to eat, it’s part of the adventure,” I said.
“I don’t want adventure Larry, I want a hamburger,” she said.
“I figure there’s something close by, let’s just keep walking, we’ll find something up the road,” I said. Yet this was not the case. There was nothing up the road except more darkness. “Probably a really posh place with old red booths and jukeboxes.”
“Well, for your sake, I hope so.”
What we came to, sadly, was a small Korean grocery just down the street from our apartment. The first little while in Industria was a flop, and I wanted to keep things positive. In the dimly lit grocery, the smells of tainted meat rose in swirls enough to put me off my appetite, and I think it was working like that with Carrie Anne too.
She looked over the packages of food. She chose the packages that looked familiar to her, I knew this because she took the less than familiar ones and put them back just as quickly. “We don’t have any pots or pans,” she said.
“No,” I said. “Maybe with some aluminum foil, we can improvise.”
We took our purchases and left the grocery. Back out on the street, the night folded in quickly. “I wonder what this place was like?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“I bet the place was wonderful, you know? When it was built. What a place.”
“You don’t mean to think that this place was ever ideal, do you?” she asked. We stopped on a corner. The traffic signal was not working in the normal way, it just flashed red to all directions. I looked both ways, I looked down toward the oncoming line of travel and the line behind us. There was nothing coming or going.
“Yeah,” I said.
“You’re kidding yourself,” she said. “There is nothing here as there was nothing here, and now that we’re here, I don’t think there ever will be anything here.”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “Haiti was worse than this.”
“No it wasn’t,” she said. “Our job there was nothing compared to this. Look at this place.”
“We have all sorts of things to work with,” I said. We reached the other corner and turned to the right, headed our way home. “I see a great place here. I can’t see how you think Haiti was better than this.”
“At least in Haiti the earthquake cleansed the place of the bad construction and it took care of the demolition.”
“I see your point,” I said. I said it and I meant it. There was something about Industria that was so much different than anything we had seen before, and until that moment I couldn’t finger the difference. Industria with the exception of infrastructure and vitality was completely intact. In the last block or so of the walk home, I changed tracks. “You don’t think this place was ever nice?” I asked.
“No Larry, it couldn’t have been. It looks like it was built too fast and there wasn’t enough codes in place to govern the growth. The place was built without the things that make towns what towns should be. They built this place without schools and churches and grocery stores. This is by far the worse planning and the worst company town I’ve ever seen.”
“How many company towns have you seen, really?” I asked. In school we’d studied a few, but this was a new thing for me. My focus in school was seismic retrofitting.
“What?” she asked. “I was all over Wyoming and Idaho Senior year. When you were out on the beach pretending at urban redevelopment, I was making arguments for the removal of towns like this one.”
I took the keys from my pocket and fumbled with them, and once I got a hold of them, I fumbled with the lock. “That kind of hurt,” I said.
“Oh,” Carrie Anne said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.”
In the apartment, I tried to figure out the the oven. I turned knob after knob on the old appliance and hoped for the best. I filled the kitchen up with gas. “Carrie Anne,” I called. “Have you ever seen anything like this?” I pointed to the open oven door. “I can’t seem to get the thing to work.”
“Forget it,” she said. “Let’s just eat this out of the can.”
“Out of the can? Can you do that?”
“You haven’t seen much have you?” she asked. “It’s already cooked before they put it in the can.”
“Oh,” I said.
“And of all the real problems with Industria, it’s a food desert.”
“Food desert?” I asked. “What a great term, one of yours?”
“No Larry, it’s the term for a place like this that has nothing but dirt bag convenience stores or fast food. But in this situation, I would be grateful for fast food.”
“Oh,” I said. I changed tracks again. “I guess the oil dried up here, but it’s not a bad place to live.”
“I think,” she began in a far off and distracted way. “Something weird happened here. Usually people move into the cities from the country for work. I think it happened the opposite here. I think anyone who could work moved out and are probably farm hands or some such thing now.”
“Well, we’ll get ’em back here, right?” I said.
“A few movie theaters and chain restaurants isn’t going to be enough.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“We’re going to need more than that,” she said.
“Oh, right, like schools and churches and stuff?” I asked. “That seems reasonable.”
“It’s the whole thing Larry. There needs to be everything here, and I just don’t think it’s feasible.”
“Well, we just got here,” I said.
Night is the real test. It’s a test for everything. At night every emotion, every thought, every fear, every everything comes out in full force and exaggeration. At night, I feel the tremble of the earth as feel the quake in my head. At night, I feel the worst, and I feel like every decision was wrong. I feel like I should have just gone to school to be an accountant like my dad told me to do. I feel like I should be held responsible for everything I’ve ever done. At night, I know I should have apologized to my dad before he died. At night, I know I should forgive him too. At night, I feel like I should be a better man, a better partner, a better everything. At night, I feel like I should tell Carrie Anne of all my misdeeds and why I can’t seem to be a better person.
The old building hums at night. Pipes deep in the bowels somewhere clank and rattle. The higher hum, the one barely audible over breath, comes from the electricity coursing through the wires like blood coursing in veins. And then there are the pops and cracks from the ever expanding and contracting floorboards and walls. It’s all nonsense. The night is nonsense and laying awake in the bed, in the darkness will not change the way of things neither inside of me or among the general workings of the outer world.
The best I can hope for, especially on a particularly dark night is that the following day will be sunny, and start with sun. Sometimes when a day begins with overcast or fog or rain and eventually becomes sunny and clear, there is still no hope.
In the kitchen of our apartment, I found myself shocked at a few things. The first thing, of course, was that I had made it out of bed before Carrie Anne. And the second thing was that the few wrinkly panes of the windows faced east and the daylight really made for a good outlook on the day, and on life. Perhaps time can be further broken down into this: OSD, On Sunny Days and OGD, On Gloomy Days. Times of OSD are good indeed. On such a morning, making coffee and figuring out the daily routines and overlaying those on the tasks at hand, can be kind of fun.
During the process of boiling water for the instant coffee, I heard Carrie Anne stir. Her bedroom door opened, closed, and she walked down the hall. I listened for the toilet to flush. If it flushed at all, it was after the water came to a boil in the electric tea kettle.
“Coffee?” I asked as she walked down the hall.
“Coffee,” she said. “Extra strength.”
“Well, I thought we’d go over our plan for the day. We got a week to get this presentation ready.”
“Can we talk about it after coffee?” she asked.
I said nothing, just nodded. I poured the boiling water over the coffee powder in her cup. When I put the cup on the table in front of her, I waited for a reaction. When none came, I tried again. “How’d you sleep?”
“Terrible,” she said. She leaned forward in her seat. The chair at the table was ancient, wood. I imagined that all the apartments in the building had the same chairs around the same tables and arranged in the same way. The concept in 1957 was the move-in furnished apartments. Anyone coming to Industria only just had to come into Industria. They moved in on a Sunday and they were at work on Monday morning. Not a bad concept, and not even so bad for the time.
Carrie Anne moved her chair closer to the table with a hop. “I think I’m allergic to this town,” she said. She scratched herself, her side and her neck. The rigorous scratching did nothing for the itch because she just kept at it. This morning was OSD and BBB and DCA.
“Allergic?” I asked. I filled my cup and sat at the table next to her in the old wooden chair.
“It’s bad,” she said. “Anyway, how did you sleep?”
“Well, it’s quiet here, I like that. I slept pretty good,” I said.
“That’s good,” she said. She sipped her coffee.
When we met the streets of Industria, the day was in full light, full force, full swing. “Pretty quiet here,” I said. The comment, an obvious overstatement, of course, went unanswered, if not unheard. “You see,” I said pointing at a particularly attractive brick warehouse of the street opposite. “I see a brewpub on the first two floors, tables and dining on the first floor, a bar and billiards on the second. The two or three floors above it, maybe mixed use of offices and living.”
“Yeah,” she said.
“Don’t you get it?” I asked. “It’s a great building.”
“My allergies,” she said.
We crossed the street. A few old parking meters stood in slants and angles with rusted parts and broken windows. We stepped up on the other side of the pavement, I looked into the office windows of the old warehouse. Newspapers from who knows when were in various places taped and falling from the inside of the glass. A dead bird, petrified, stiffly remained in the corner of the windowsill. I tried to look into the depths of the room and with the sun on my back, this should have been an easy thing to do. I moved closer into the glass and cupped by hands around my brow to block out any light. Then I moved farther away from the glass hoping for some of the same. OSD, yes, but this was the exact moment when DCA turned quickly to ACA.
As I moved away from the glass, I noticed the reflection behind me: the scene of the street we had just crossed and the boarded up buildings opposite. I saw Carrie Anne in the reflection too. I could see her, and I could feel her behind me too. And when she screamed, I heard that too. In the reflection I saw her struggle and dance. Then, still in the glass, I saw her shirt come off. “What’s happening?” I said turning around.
“Jimmy McGriff!” she shouted. She threw her shirt to the dusty sidewalk and her hands flailed around her head and neck making her hair cover her face and her breasts began to jump around in her bra.
“What? What is it?” I asked.
“Jimmy McGriff! Jimmy McGriff! Jimmy McGriff!”
“I,” I said. I stammered. “I-I-I-,” I continued. I didn’t know what to say. Here she was, no shirt, dancing, shouting Jimmy McGriff. I bent over to pick up her shirt.
“Don’t touch it,” she said. I snapped to attention. I froze and looked at her. “Jimmy McGriff,” she said again.
“I don’t know what that means. Who’s Jimmy McGriff?”
“Jimmy Mcgriff? I don’t know. It’s what we were taught to say instead of swearing,” she said. She calmed down a little. She looked over her arms and torso. During the inspection of her body, I calmed down too.
“Like cheese and crackers?”
“Cheese and Crackers instead of Jesus Christ,” I said.
“Right,” she said. She bent over to pick up her shirt. “I don’t know what Jimmy McGriff would be code for.”
“Oedipus,” she said.
“What?” I asked.
“Never mind,” she said. She turned her shirt right side in and then inside out again. “What is this?” she said.
I looked at the shirt in her hands. There were bits of fabric folded up underneath and inside of her fists. The taut plane of fabric between had a little insect climbing across the shirt. “Oh, you got a little friend,” I said. In retrospect, this was not the right thing to say. This was also the time shift from BBB to ABB.
“A little friend? Larry? Are you really that out of it? This is a bedbug.”
“Bedbug?” I asked.
“Bedbugs, and that’s what’s all over my body,” she said. “Jimmy McGriff.”
“Bedbugs?” I asked again.
“Do you have any bites?” she asked.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “How would I know?”
“You’d know,” she said.
“Well,” I said. I wanted to change the subject. “Well, I have more places I want to see. You up for it?”
At day’s end, I returned to the apartment. I walked the few streets from one side of town to the next. I stopped at the Korean grocery, where I was already a regular.
In the apartment I was met with silence. On the kitchen table, Carrie Anne left her report. On top of the paper she had an upside down drinking glass. Under it, there was a whole collection of the “little friend’s” relatives. “Oh, wow,” I said. The top of her report read: Industria, The End of the Idyllic Days, demolition appropriate, rebuilding not recommended. “Wow,” I said.
Anthony ILacqua’s third novel Warehouses and Rusted Angels is forthcoming from Ring of Fire Publishing. His former novels, Dysphoric Notions and Undertakers of Rain are both published through Ring of Fire Publishing. He is editor in chief for Umbrella Factory Magazine that he co-founded in 2009. Anthony’s blog: anthonyilacqua.blogspot.com