Ghost Town

The Midwestern sun shrinks back into its shell, polite as a dairy farmer just passing through. The trees hold their tongues, choosing rather to raise their arms and sway. The movement of these shadow giants gently pumps waves into an otherwise flat landscape. The scene leans west after the sun. Late summer rests in thickets of unbuttoned white collars and recently gifted pearls. The streets of “downtown” Powell test the silence with clinks of nice weather we’re having and clacks of how’s the new office?

Bubbles of activity lean against one another, exchanging cross-fit glories, vacation spots, and phone numbers of baccalaureate babysitters. This interruption of Ohio slow-motion is welcomed by practiced parents returning home from a late dinner, cherishing the suburban traffic that nurtures their Pinot buzz. A riotous Toyota Prius slips past in the opposite direction. The car is half-powered by nerve, its high school senior hoping to later recount a fake identification success. The trees raise their arms and sway.

Tucked away in the nape of Fox Run, a burble of beer pong and alt rock suggests the weather in this neighborhood might stay Ohio forever. Behind a curl of pent-up pines, suburban sendoffs cup tiny flames between their fingers. The trees smile down, remembering how these rebelnauts used to clamber through their sturdy arms in an attempt to climb to a different point of view. Years later, they’ve grown content down here on the ground. Smoke pushes its way out of their lungs, out of his, out of hers—as if completing some cosmic trade they could not possibly comprehend.

I zero in on a chain-link constellation, picture it in waves of green and purple. There are inquiries of igloos, sled dogs, and getting mauled by a bear. Laughter shows itself in tufts of smoke. I smile, reply with steadfast silence, and tap my foot. I wonder who will become my smokers in Alaska—my toe-tappers, my star-grabbers.

It feels like someone has pressed paused on our scene. Brad suggests we return inside.

The party breathes us back in. The boogie of being twenty-something feels swollen in this suburban basement. Cult classics (“Ooh La La” by the Faces) rub knuckles with irony-plays ([insert song title] by Lil Jon). Like if jazz was a reluctant, white millennial.

Brad pushes a whiskey ginger (twist of lime) into my hand. My introduction of this drink marked a milestone in our friendship—softened the blow of entering post-grad life. We touch glasses and rest our behinds on the top of his parents’ couch. The other side of the furniture absorbs the chatter of my younger sister Megan and her two friends. Visions of these people will keep me warm in Alaska when merino wool can’t. Cradled warmly between them, I feel less lost and less destined to be a poor young adult. Megan kicks her head back with a wave of laughter. She looks just like our mom.

Without warning, her face trickles from cheery to drunk-and-about-to-cry, and I hear why. “Come on Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners has just claimed the speakers. I catch Megan’s eyes remembering every instance we’ve heard this song together, and perhaps time will slow down before the song picks up and we’ll enjoy a nice montage of her becoming a young woman. But it doesn’t, and we don’t. I can feel the waves coming.

Andrew floats over to my side, presses my hands between his.  His eyes know something mine don’t. But he’s my older brother, and maybe I don’t care to know.

I probably look pathetic, mouthing the words to “Come on Eileen” in between wipes that transfer tears to sleeve. One of those dumb dance circles closes in on Andrew. Maybe nobody is watching me. Maybe Andrew isn’t checking in on me between romps of carpet-stomp and hippie swagger. Yes, gravity has ears. And yes, this feels like a montage. Collecting tattoos, pledging his allegiance to literature, moving to motherfucking Alaska. And he’s doing it for me. Isn’t he?

He told me once not to trust everyone I meet here. Then he talked about dreams. He asked me where I want to live when I’m older, not accepting “here” as an answer. He always talked that way when he was driving us somewhere. Like everyone else we knew, our friends and family, were aliens, and we were the only humans left. It scared me sometimes the ideas he could unravel on the road, still getting us from point A to point B in one piece. I think the radio might have been keeping us safe.

The last seconds of our song trade places with another. I think maybe Alaska is just a metaphor—he’s always using metaphors. Maybe it’s code for something else that isn’t actually that far away. Maybe it’s a thought bubble that will claim him for a short while, until we each return to our home in Powell, Ohio. Our parents will say Andrew’s out back, reading. And that’s where I’ll find him. Tucked into a hammock, wedged between the slant of two of our backyard trees. Transcribing a hum that he’ll say can kill you in your sleep if you aren’t careful.

Signs of autumn fall in improvised circles. A stretch of matching houses sits back against a fence of trees, recharging beneath the sun. Children chip off from the tribal brick, get cast gently into the winds of September. Mothers and fathers wander their neighborhood streets like ghosts, reveling in the lives they’ve wrestled to the ground. The trees offer themselves up, arms raised as if to say, we can take you closer.

 

ANDREW LUFT is currently pursuing an MFA in screenwriting at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he also teaches college composition and acts as managing editor for Permafrost Magazine. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming at apt literary magazine, Driftwood Press, and Poetry City, USA, among others.