4th Annual Nonfiction Contest Winner
Judged by Kathryn Miles
One Sunday afternoon in late summer, in an industrial park in Ithaca, New York, a man with a keen eye for detail flagged down a police officer to report a possible child abduction:
The citizen reported that at approximately 1650 hrs, he observed a 6-7 year old girl riding her bicycle south over the bridge on Brindley Street. The girl was white, had short blonde hair, was about four feet tall, and was wearing a white or blue “Care-Bear” t-shirt, a white bicycle helmet, and a blue plastic bracelet. She was also wearing a backpack. The citizen stated she was being followed by a large light-colored sedan driven by a white male. . . .
Approximately one-half hour later, the citizen left his campsite in the area commonly referred to as “The Jungle,” and saw what appeared to be the girl’s bike lying on the side of the roadway near the Brindley Street Bridge.
After additional officers were called to the scene to canvass the city’s south and west neighborhoods, the police department issued a news release (of which the above is an excerpt) seeking assistance from the public.
~ ~ ~
I once knew a man I’ll call Ray who was living part-time in the Jungle, a decades-old encampment between some freight tracks and Cayuga Inlet, when he was nabbed for boat theft. The barest outline of his crime—all I’d heard before I met him—was enough to prompt a flight of fancy of my own. (How readily we are unmoored, giving the slip to our everyday lives.)
I set sail on a boat named Destiny, my back to the city. All of Cayuga Lake stretched to the north, long and narrow—a 38-mile finger with a bird refuge at its tip. Skimming the water, I pictured the Cargill miners half a mile below me moving through dark caverns between pillars of salt—remnant of an ancient sea. I glided by modernist homes perched high on cliffs carved by ice age glaciers, and by the coal-fired power plant that provided electricity to my newly abandoned house. At the ten-mile mark I came to the Myers Point lighthouse, white light pulsing every six seconds from its lantern room—I’d had my eye on it all along—and then sighted the bell tower belonging to the tiny college where the lake is at its widest. I sailed past…
But no, Ray’s crime wasn’t remotely like this. The boat, he would inform me, was a motorboat, and the voyage I’d imagined a mere sprint from the launch to the Jungle so that a case or two of beer might—if only the boat hadn’t run aground—be delivered to his friends in style.
~ ~ ~
I can’t help but see actors. The cop playing a cop—which makes me wonder: How does the real-life cop keep the TV cop at bay? The Jungle-dwelling man playing a vagrant playing the Good Samaritan, getting a taste of what it’s like to be taken seriously. Was his hunger for recognition so great that needing became seeing?
The bicycle lying on the ground, wheels winding down: it’s like the scene in the movie M, just after the man lures little Elsie into the woods. The part where her ball rolls out of the bushes and comes to a rest. “If you don’t show it,” the director, Fritz Lang, said, “if you just let the audience know what happened, then every single man and woman can imagine the most horrible things, correct?”
~ ~ ~
I recognize that I’ve raised the expectation that something horrific will unfold. This is not that kind of story, thankfully, not any kind of story, really, though how fortunate would be the mystery writer, who is handed two suspects to start with and a setting that is more than a little forlorn. When I read the police department’s news release—quite by accident, a few weeks after it was put out—I concluded it was a false alarm: no dark headlines had appeared in the newspapers, no missing child posters were plastered around town.
~ ~ ~
Before reaching the bridge at Brindley, the girl would have pedaled around the parking lot of the Aeroplane Factory, which churned out fighter planes during World War I. The area was teeming with immigrants back then (Italian, Hungarian, Irish), but other than two or three houses—loose-shingled, porches peeling, tiny yards filled with large and small objects beyond any use—no sign remains of their lives.
The first time I drove through the industrial park, situated between a state highway and the inlet, the bridge was closed for repairs, forcing me to turn around at the Factory. It was a November Sunday and I was searching for AJ Foreign Auto, on Cherry Street. I drove behind Wegmans, where we shopped for our groceries, passing the entrance to a trailer park called Nate’s Floral Estates. I passed a windshield repair shop and a discount carpet warehouse. I drove by rows of self-storage units, tight-lipped about their contents, and by a scrap processing plant—the looming blue scaffolding of its electromagnetic hoist inert. When I finally arrived at AJ, after overshooting it as far as the bridge, I parked on a bumpy mix of gravel and broken glass and stepped out into grudging sun. Half a dozen luxury cars surrounded me, their wheel wells sitting in sparse weeds topped by starbursts of tiny yellow flowers. A thin sheet of plastic, caught in a doorframe, drifted in and out of a shattered window.
~ ~ ~
Perhaps there was no girl pedaling a bicycle. She was a hallucination, the product of drug withdrawal or advanced alcoholism or schizophrenia. Or the girl was real, and she was riding a bicycle, but the bike lying by the side of the road half an hour later was an illusion (the police report had said nothing about finding a downed bike). It was a hunk of twisted metal that had fallen off a truck on its way to the scrap processing plant, and—from afar—the tent-dwelling citizen had tried to make sense of it. Because our brains attempt to impose patterns on what we see. They look for what they already know. They fill in the missing pieces and disregard the pieces that don’t fit.
~ ~ ~
I’d gone to AJ to see a mural of scantily clad women. The sort found in comic books, with pop-out breasts and cinched waists, they posed on the cinderblock wall that formed the back of the shop and then curved around to meet the water. Gripping wrenches down around their thighs, the women were so bold I almost took a step back. Two were in bikinis, and a third—a purple-lipped blonde with gold hoop earrings—wore a cropped white t-shirt and metal-belted green pants slung low for a peek of pink thong.
A few letters about the mural had appeared in the local paper. (Now that the leaves were off the trees, you could see the women from the highway.) One writer charged sexism, another countered with freedom of expression. Later, after black bars of paint had suddenly appeared over places of anatomical significance, there would be hints of a battle over censorship. But like a tease of snow flurries that fail to become a storm, it would all quickly taper off: the artist would not become a hero (in fact, he would admit to adding the bars himself), the letter-writers would not become champions of their respective causes, the starlets up there on the wall would never become stars.
~ ~ ~
A social worker friend tells me he hasn’t seen Ray since he got out of jail, thinks he’s skipped town. I picture Ray breezing down to Florida on his motorcycle, assuming he got it running again, and wonder who’s taking care of his 12 pit bulls, if in fact he possessed even one. For Ray enjoyed telling stories. He told me he hunted deer and hung their carcasses over buckets to collect their blood, which he drank. I, too, should drink deer blood, he said, looking me over; the iron would do me good. He also said he likes to draw unicorns; he promised to draw me one after he served his time. Although he professed to believe in them, he never claimed to have seen one. Why, if you tell tall tales, not tell this one? I wonder. Why not say you saw one by moonlight, in the Jungle?
~ ~ ~
The training wheels have come off the bicycles belonging to my twin nieces, who are now flying down the sidewalks of their subdivision. I imagine them leaning gracefully into cul de sacs, ponytails swishing as they get back up to speed. Knowing my brother, he doesn’t let the girls out of his sight. Everyone says it’s at once joyful and sad: Before you know it they’ll be out of the house. My brother half-jokes that they will never leave home.
~ ~ ~
Perhaps the girl was real but there was no man trailing her. Or there was a man but he was her father and, like my brother, was keeping a respectful yet watchful distance. Or her father, but in the midst of a custody battle he feared he’d lose. Or just a man driving slowly, as I had been that first time, because in unfamiliar and convoluted territory.
~ ~ ~
The police report appeals to me because of its artlessness. Its economy and matter-of-factness (never mind that all the facts are in doubt). It doesn’t strive for effect, stating flat out that there is “no indicia of an abduction,” and yet is highly suggestive nevertheless. At first I imagined the worst but then, knowing better, pictured the girl dropping her bike to scout things out under the bridge. Maybe she threw a rock or two at the fish in the murk. Just for a minute—during which the witness saw the abandoned bike and went in search of a cop—before she pedaled on.
I like that the man who flagged down the officer is “a citizen” (a fact, assuming it’s true) and not a “vagrant” (a judgment). The report’s vocabulary is, of necessity, egalitarian. I considered that the very mention of the Jungle was prejudicial—it conjured up all manner of unreliable witnesses—but then it’s in keeping with the attention to detail, and is the citizen’s home, after all. And there has to be some account of the witness’s whereabouts in the half hour between his two observations.
~ ~ ~
After studying the mural at AJ, I walked across the parking lot to the inlet, straightened almost 50 years ago into a flood control channel. The water was of indeterminate color and barely moved. It threw a few winks at the sun; the sun scurried behind clouds. As I stood on the bank, soaking in the silence, a man began to yell from somewhere across the channel. It took me a minute to understand what he was saying. Goddammit, I finally made out, as he got closer. Goddammit, he yelled again, and again. He’s crazy, I thought, a denizen of the Jungle. Harmless to me, though, with the bridge out. Then I saw that he was just a teenager in a camouflage jacket, eyes hard to the ground as if an explanation might materialize out of the dust he was kicking up. Let him yell, I thought. This is the place for it.
~ ~ ~
For a moment I allowed myself to be the girl on the bike. A girl I knew nothing about other than what the witness thought he saw of her. She seemed to belong more to my childhood than to her own—a childhood in which you could hop on your bike and go, so long as you promised to be home by dark. I knew just enough of the roads she pedaled on, the bridge she crossed, what she saw along the way.
I knew how the place she was in goads the imagination. How a kind of invisible energy runs through it. Even if you know nothing of its history. Of the moonshining and the gambling more than a century ago. Cockfighting right there on Cherry Street, in empty, cavernous buildings—though here we’re relying on lore. Steamboats and barges, then railroad yards and passenger trains. Only freight rides the rails now—coal from Pennsylvania on its way to the power plant up the lake; road salt in the other direction after being extracted from the lake’s honeycomb tunnels.
There used to be many more frame houses like the several I’d seen on my way to AJ—houses from which men walked a few blocks to their jobs in lumberyards, coal storage facilities, a factory that produced cardboard boxes. But in the 1960s, money came for the flood control channel and the Army Corps of Engineers got down to work. It was a near clean sweep of the monopoly board. Half the homes were burned to the ground in fire-fighting exercises.
~ ~ ~
There was also a boy. On the day I drove to the mural there was a young boy in the industrial park—open-jacketed, arms spread like an eagle’s wings—balancing on a rail as I crossed over the train tracks to the proverbial wrong side. An hour later he was still there, counting his steps toward the tracks’ vanishing point, where silent warehouses joined a silent sky. Did he imagine himself a high-wire artist on the order of a Philippe Petit—his dream to touch the clouds?
Perhaps I startled him, because he wobbled then flailed as if his life was in the balance, though the ground was mere inches away. I sensed he was not alone. A crowd had gathered—men and women and children unseen by me. Some clasped their heads and tensed their shoulders. Others brought their hands together, kept them there in prayer. The boy resumed his walk; the crowd held their breath. Waited to see what he would do next.
~ ~ ~
The city once tried to close down the Jungle, which is really just a small plot of woods owned by the railroad. Things had come to a head in the spring of 2009 with a spate of open burning—of rubber, and of plastic-coated wire to get at copper that could be sold for recycling. All of it polluting the air and straining the resources of the fire department.
The railroad had tolerated the settlement in its midst, its conductors known to pitch bottles of water over the fence and into the Jungle on hot days. But now the city felt it had no choice but to threaten the railroad with $1,000 per day fines: the woods aren’t zoned for living, the structures don’t meet building and fire codes, there’s no plumbing or sanitation, the grass is overgrown. And so the railroad nailed orders-to-vacate to the trees.
But further investigation turned up the fact that the city owned some of the land being squatted upon and therefore would have to fine itself. The deadline for clearing the Jungle was suspended.
~ ~ ~
The Aeroplane Factory, which over the years has housed yoga and artists’ studios, has been on the market for a while. According to the realtor’s ad, it’s in a “highly visible location.” The property has space for outdoor meetings and for a deck on the inlet. Such talk reminds me of the girl. If her family owns one of those few surviving houses, they could be sitting on what is to them a goldmine. If they rent, they might be forced to move. But first, commercial loans must start flowing again. Until then it’s but a realtor’s dream. You have to be the sort of person who’s determined to see what she wants to see.
~ ~ ~
In the spring of 2010, the Jungle’s “mayor”—a 60-year-old man who had been living off and on in the woods since he was five—was found floating in the inlet, behind the lumber store. There were no signs of foul play. His obituary testified to his numerous friends and to how much they respected him. His good reputation made me wonder if he was the “citizen” in the police department’s press release, that rare person who looks out for others and goes out on a limb to report something suspicious. The chances are pretty good: until his death there were only 15 “core” residents living in the woods, some of them women, though the population swells when you factor in transients.
What does the mayor’s death mean for the future of the Jungle? The fires had stopped. Will they start up again? Will the social code remain intact? Where will the Jungle’s residents go when developers finally arrive and the realtor’s vision is borne out? A city once called “The Forest City” would seem to promise numerous alternatives. Woods are still everywhere, as is water.
But the Jungle is close to the recycling center. It’s within walking distance of two grocery stores. Of the soup kitchen and the bus stop and even the downtown shops. Nobody wants to move. It’s not just a home. For everyone, anywhere, it’s location, location, location.
~ ~ ~
After she turned west onto Taber Street, the girl would have made a left onto Cherry Street and then, just after AJ (the mural by then painted over), another left onto Cecil Malone Drive. Perhaps she didn’t live in one of those loose-shingled homes after all but was visiting her grandparents at Nate’s Floral Estates; it’s mostly retired folks who live in those doublewides.
One Christmas we drove to Nate’s, my husband and I, on the theory that it might be just the place to gawk at lawn ornaments. We weren’t disappointed. Candy canes lined walkways, and nativity scenes nestled among bushes. Enormous beribboned packages stacked on the snow glowed from within. We passed inflatable penguins seven feet high, the Grinch slipping into a chimney, Santa strumming a guitar (Rudolph at the mike, an elf on drums). Everything blinking or waving or nodding.
It was after we passed a lighted reindeer, head swaying side to side, that a white-tailed doe appeared abruptly in front of our car and turned toward us. As if to question all that artifice. As if to remind us of what is real. But in that moment it was the doe—not the animated sculptures or the giant inflatables—that was fantastical. Flesh and blood the illusion. Before we could absorb the fact of her, she leapt up and out of our sight.
Abandoned bicycle photo courtesy Shutterstock.