South Jersey Auctions
On the road before dawn, homing south into the sandy, regressive
world of Repaupo and Swedesford, falling back behind time into a place
familiar as a movie set, into that pseudo-Southern world of smoking
auctioneers and solicitous porters, and guys with crew-cuts who drove
all night from Tennessee to get here early and buy. We are sleep walkers,
ambulatory in our dream of what we’ll find in the damp auction house,
all the while hating its failed mound system, boxes of moldy kitchen curtains
and leprous dolls left lying out in last night’s downpour. Look at all this broken shit,
you say, wishing it were whole. Expectant, we examine the sad triage
of household goods, boxed contents of evacuated attics and the unlit basements
of its invisible owners. Opening the dresser drawers of the dead, brushing
our fingers over delicate installations of larvae, silverfish running across
the photo of a pop-eyed child. You lift a buttery piece of porcelain to the light,
touch a metal chair leg with your magnet. I read a book leaf dedication from
a dead woman to her dead son. There must be some value here, we think,
in this trafficking of domestic detritus. We are not that far from Atlantic City.
Anything is possible here, half a mile from the glistening, indurate highway.
After the yellow Blatz buildings sat empty for twenty-five years,
rich guys from Minneapolis came to town and hired
a PR firm to explain their benevolent plans for reclamation,
things they would do to the abandoned brewery.
We learned retrofit. It was a religion in the Rust Belt in the Eighties:
our vision of fragile, windowless shells filled with something else.
First was Schlitz Park, glimmering at the foot of Brewer's Hill:
exposed Cream City brick, mauve carpet and track lights,
the sawdust smell of newness imposed upon the past.
Cable TV station, social workers and fundraisers where once
there had been horses and hops. Then the Blatz—
offices and apartments wrenched from yeasty silence.
Retrofit doesn't mean you put a new drug store where there
was an old drug store. It means you accept the archaic,
suggestive outline of the possible, wade through pigeon shit and
hanging wires to find that unexpected alcove where diners will look out
over city streets; kick aside rubber boots the workers wore to clean the vats,
imagine the right lighting for the piano bar. It means you see
through what's real and ugly to the art of what could be. The grain elevator
that becomes a condo. The stable that says boulangerie.
This is where architects and seekers waded through rubble,
honing their dreams. Plumbed and wired their will
upon these discarded resources, fitted ideas into bricks
until there was a forest of retrofitted buildings in Brew Town.
Apartments, offices, trattorias—a trendy sphere of commerce
carved out of the bodies of past employers. Schlitz and Blatz,
gutted and reclaimed. Pabst, waiting in silence for the inevitable.
No employer lasts forever. The brewmeisters misjudged
something essential. One day in 1963 brewing stopped
and hundreds of men walked out of the Blatz without looking
back. The brew house filled with ghosts and guano, exploding
bottles of old beer, vagrants who lit little fires in the corners.
This is the cycle of business in Brew Town and everywhere.
Big ideas work, big ideas go bad, then there is the long
wait: sleet falling winter after winter on the empty, useless
building that the dreamers drive by. Then someone stops.
I am just a little cork, he said, trying to tell our daughter how it felt
at fifty-seven to be unfettered by purpose or possessions, without
a home or job, car, lifetime collection of books or music, not even
a dresser drawer of clothes, favorite faded tee or tennies. Tethered
to a hospital bed in his institutional gown, thinner arms floating free,
head awash with memories of other things that floated: Lindy rigs
before they dropped deep into Palmer Lake the summer we caught no
walleyes; a Portugese man-o-war in the quiet surf at Sanibel; cigarette
butts tossed off Tony’s boat into Lake Michigan. Things that spread
out on the skin of marine blue, floating broad as a ray’s back in the sun,
or were tumbled by the surf to rise again: a plastic juice bottle, tampon
case. Sad televised images of the plane’s flotsam in Long Island Sound.
Writing to her, he remembered objects seen at dusk he’d wanted
to reel in, knowing them still useful, but devalued by too much time
adrift: a dog’s sun-bleached play ball, Styrofoam cooler, aluminum
landing net. I am just a little cork, floating on the sea of life, he wrote
to our daughter from the prison hospital, as if she could dip her hand
into the icy water he’d fallen into and retrieve that tiny buoy, her father,
pocketing him while he slept, sparing him the hard float toward home.
July 4, 2002
Somewhere near Grand Gorge, speeding over
an up and down green carpet of Catskills, I slow
for the unexpected: a roadside corral of ponies and
miniature ponies, shaggy, scuffling too close together
in the afternoon heat, awkwardly precious and peculiar
in a landscape of trees and fields and house trailers.
Just as I am passing this petite menagerie, I see the zebra:
segregated from the ponies, tightly penned, his horsy
head relaxed in a feed trough, his African tail
swatting American flies. It is amnesia, more than
freedom, that I want for him, hoping he was born on
this odd farm, native as a whitetail, with no gene
memory of the veldt, fond of alfalfa and the farmer’s
touch on his flank. I watch him grow tinier in my
mirrors until he is lost behind a sagging barn. Last night
my daughter called and said Dad is back in the ICU,
chained to his bed. Where do they think he can go?
As if his captors believed that he would drop
the bed rails and exchange cardiac care for flight,
join a dusty herd of bad businessmen with bad hearts,
escape en masse across the Serengeti of selfish decisions
and unsecured creditors: indistinguishably damaged,
lost in a spoor-gray blur of stampeding, endangered fathers.
|Deborah Fries works in multiple genres—including poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction. Her poems and poetry reviews have appeared in numerous print and online journals, including Cream City Review, North American Review, Cimmaron Review, Valparaiso Review, and Terrain.org, where she has been a contributor since 2000. Her first book of poetry, Various Modes of Departure, was published in 2004 by Kore Press, Tucson. Her second book, A Field Guide to Temporal Habitat, will also be published by Kore. She is the editor of the online publication, New Purlieu Review.