(originally published in Roots magazine, 2012, but the lifespan of online literary magazines is unpredictable, and I want to have it somewhere more reliable.)
The places you find depend almost entirely on the people you find them with. Which is why it was reprehensible of me to be driving around Youngstown with my ex boyfriend on a cold windy day. I knew if I went with him, I would find something good. Wanna find the dead? Bring something dying with you. Nothing more corpse-like in this entire state than the zombie relationship we had been pumping antibiotics into for the last 8 years, so sure that eventually science will catch up and find us a cure. I know the way this bait works – I used the decaying scent of our guilty whispers, hushed anger, veiled flirting to lure the buzzards, and once I saw the buzzards, I saw the broken driveway which led us into the asphalt heart of the City of the Dead.
The City of the Dead is down by the railroad tracks, where the boxcars used to buzz the tire plants and brought their tons of black coal dinosaur bones to the captains of industry and their waiting minions. When approaching it, you will see the skies start to tint a particular color, like a memory of a rainstorm. It will not rain, it never rains here. But there is wetness and puddles and the ooze of moisture through brick. Once upon a time the weeds were kept back by constant traffic, but now they are trees, which technically makes them no longer weeds right? If you get tall enough, don’t you grow out of that?
Where did they all go, these men of steel and copper and rebar? The buildings lie picked apart, and the roads are torn up. I watched cautiously, expecting giant worms fed on rendered waste to rise up, their coils eating through the landscape. But it was quiet. If not eaten by worms, was it disease? An unknown virus traveling in among the rock waste, infecting the men so that they became unsettled, uneasy, unsuccessful. Did it drive them away to the North? If you are in the middle of Ohio, which direction do you run? North, towards the lake, or South to the river? East to Pittsburgh or West to the great glass capitol of Toledo? Wherever they went, they left. Almost all at once, as if one day they put down their shovels and telephones and looked at each other in unison, mice who hear the cat approaching. They let their tools lie where they were. They packed up their children and wives, and abandoned their houses, which would slowly become the outer defenses of the City. The distractions for community leaders and fake kings, carpetbaggers who would slink slowly in to fill their voids. The City was smart. Left alone by its keepers, it prepared for war, built the moats and murder pits and grew the long grass tall. Then went to sleep, determined to outlive the politics of recession and development.
It worked. Not even the street rats, with their ever present tags and empty 40s, had been here. Or they had come once and never again. Or they had been eaten and their flesh spun into spools of abandoned cloth. The green waste of ceiling night crawlers drips down the corners. Maybe this City had never been populated by men. Maybe that was the secret, that this was a clockwork factory, and the men were actually made of steel, and these are their bones I am walking on right now, climbing over with no thought, no respect, eager to expose every corner of this places that wants to stay hidden. I am an interloper. I’m probably going to die with some steelworker curse on my head. I’ll be lying in my death bed, striking and dying with the weight of molten steel on my chest, trying to light a goddamn cigarette before my wife catches me.
So he watched me climb around on the rocks, and since he hadn’t brought his camera with him (on a trip to take photos, what?) he kept pointing out things I should take shots of. Stop doing that, I thought silently to myself. Stop telling me what to point my lens at. There isn’t some formula to this. I’m trying to document death here. But he doesn’t understand the concept of death, he is tingling with life, in the way that never stops to see the remains of what it has fed upon.