George T. Mormann

Category: Author

Writer’s Block

Stepping into the void
of this old factory
I smell only the dust
that awakes to the clack of my heels.
The rust of use blankets the head
and keeps it warm throughout
a seemingly endless winter.
I am unable to imagine
the ghosts;
the wind has their breath.
It creeps through a checkerboard
of broken windows,
or mountains as I see them
from here,
on the production floor.

 

Originally posted September 17, 2012

Banal, Illinois

Beside a quiet road on a stifling August morning. Some arbitrarily named road that split the bane of my upbringing down the middle.

To my left, a cornfield, eaten up by quasi urban development perpetually for lease. A narrow plaza with a Southwestern façade meant to imitate adobe — a misrepresentation of the landscape but anything to make it feel like we-were-anywhere-else-just-not-here. And a self-storage facility, warehouse of dead relatives’ chinaware and unwanted lampshades, hidden because of the memories.

To my right, a cluster of indistinguishable houses. A cookie-cutter subdivision, the kind with names reminiscent of Minnesotan lakes and what New England must look like come October. Never been, but they were the sorts of places I’d always hear about.

I drove all the way back to tear an ear of corn off a fledgling stalk. I peeled the husk like a banana and took a bite out of it. Counting 24 chews before my eyes watered, I spat it out, got in my car, and left.

It tasted awful, but I was desperate to not forget where I really came from.

Two Dollars to Enter Hell on Earth

My first preview to the apocalypse was in a junkyard in South Chicago. The earth was a sun-baked plateau of blackened gravel uniformly blended with glass shards from a thousand windshields. The sunlight was as piercing as the pebbles wearing the soles of my shoes. In neat, endless rows cars were lined bumper to bumper, doors ajar, hoods and trunks burst upward — it was a parking lot that had spontaneously combusted, and in one fateful second, the only survivors were the most haggard and dirty of us all, crawling into one chassis and out another in search of salvageable pieces of a world lost to us. I can’t believe they charge you two bucks to enter hell on earth.

I was looking for a “coil pack” to replace the defunct one in a car that I’m driving temporarily, indefinitely, until it requires a repair that exceeds my skill set (which would be any repair more complicated than replacing a coil pack). To describe the junkyard in a less fatalistic way, it’s like an open air supermarket; the way this rusty plethora of automobiles is situated, organized in rows according to make, and in some instances, the effort of bunching the models together, too. Seeing haggard men drag little carts and wheelbarrows through the lot gives the whole scene that surreal sense of being in a grocery store, one that happens to be under a highway overpass, and without a produce section, or any vegetation whatsoever.

By way of pure luck I find a coil pack that hasn’t been pilfered yet. The car, a Pontiac Bonneville, has a current city sticker, meaning the car was just scraped recently. The back end is beat up, but otherwise everything appeared all right. The only trouble is the third screw beside the engine. My hands aren’t that small, and grasping a ratchet makes for short, laborious turns that strain my thumb something awful. Once my plundering of spare car parts is done, I began poking around through glove boxes and under seats. The scrap workers have likely already got a head start, but I wanted to try my hand at filching something good, maybe obscurely valuable. Besides, like I said in a previous post, my net worth is currently pocket change.

Having gone without a smoke all day, stumbling across a book a matches filled me with the hope of grabbing a forgotten pack of cigarettes. During my scavenging, I uncovered a layer of smashed beer cans beneath a backseat cushion that had been ripped from the car and stuffed in the trunk. Whomever drove this car was apt to taking booze cruises, maybe they left half a six pack for me. A beer, a smoke, and if I can find the foreign junkers I could sit in the drivers seat of a totaled BMW and dream under the blistering daylight.

I wouldn’t be so lucky. It’s a wasteland. While combing the interior of a thoroughly decayed Cadillac I found its leather bound owners manual. The manual was clean, unscathed, and brandished the luxurious logo of it namesake on the cover, inlaid with fool’s gold. Hardly crafty, I impressed myself with the idea of turning it into a photo album. Cut out some of plastic photo pockets and bind them in the manual. A little more elbow grease and I could post it on Etsy. I could get twenty of the thirty bucks spent on that coil pack back in my pocket.

Kev, the Butterfly

     Kev and I grew up together, but weren’t friends. We despised each other, but in that sort of boyish rivalry, he being the bully and I being his fodder, that wanes into harmless shenanigans as you get older. I also say it because he’s dead. Calling him what he was might imply that I’m pleased he no longer exists, which I’m not. Better to cast him as likable than as a prick, at least for his sake.
     Kev never outgrew that phase which envelops all us young men: burgeoning masculinity — it’s what killed him. One night he tried felling a tree, only he did so with a Honda Civic, and he was drunk. Story goes that it was the first night Kev had tried alcohol, but I know this to be untrue. At thirteen he was caught pocketing a fifth of bottom shelf vodka from the Walgreens on West Theodore. Twice.
     Kev’s accident happened two days before the start of our Senior year. I didn’t hear of his death until a week later, in the hallways, where I saw classmates wearing tee-shirts brandishing his last yearbook photo with his name, birthday, and that final Saturday of summer break air-brushed in bright, bubbly lettering, like those shirts you get made at carnivals.
     I walked up to one of the girls wearing this tee-shirt. She looked familiar, but her name escaped me. I asked if there’d be a funeral, or if it already happened. That’s where she may have gotten the tee-shirt, I wondered. “There’s gonna be, like, a memorial(?), or something, soon,” she said, and darted off before I could say anymore. I’m sure she knew who I was. White Urkel, as Kev called me. Perhaps reviling me was her special way to honor the boy to whom she gave his first blow job. Alexa! That’s her name.
     The memorial service was held a month later. His family had him cremated. From the gossip I’d heard about the scene of the crash, an open casket was not an option to consider. It was at St. John’s, a neighborhood church within walking distance for most who lived in town. The service was just short of standing room only, and the doors leading into the church were left open, allowing the stifling heat of crowded mourners mingle with the late August air.
     I attended out of curiosity, because I wanted to hear what would be said about Kev. They would paint an angel out of him to be sure. Kev’s little brother followed each of his stories with, “and then Kev would say, ‘don’t tell mom.’” It drew restrained laughter from the congregation, listening to a young man confess to a multitude of crimes against their neighbors: rosebushes crushed under the tires of bikes and birdhouses shattered with baseball bats. Yet the congregation laughed. His brother’s dead; they let him speak with impunity. Me and Kev’s Freshman Biology teacher, Mr. Lauder, spoke briefly, noting Kev’s fondness for the phrase, “survival of the fittest,” which was inappropriate given the circumstances, but was the most honest thing said. I do recall Kev murmuring that as he lapped me during our annual running of the mile in P.E. Kev thought he was the fittest, but failed to actually grasp the context. Expressions of strength belonged solely to him. Mr. Lauder didn’t mention Kev’s consistent D average. Again, in respect to the dead, we seek to polish a rough stone. I thought of saying something, but there was nothing I could say that was free of his animus towards me. That time he chucked a softball at my groin, how he’d ride up to my house and throw pop-snaps at my dog, or flinging green beans at me during lunch. Shit, he’d even stuff them in his pocket and ambush me in Social Studies. And that Honda Civic he plowed into a tree belonged to his ex-girlfriend’s brother. He beat the kid up and stole his keys; the stitches were still fresh in his cheek while a town grieved the sudden loss of one of their boys. The way they’re handling this is less about reminiscing and more about casting him into sainthood. They’re giving him accolades for traits that he boasted of, but never possessed. Screw it, he was a prick.
     But his mother approached the altar and I realized how necessary it all was. She took to the podium (something no one seemed to have expected) and a remarkable coincidence was witnessed. Before she said a word, a white butterfly had strayed into the church, presumably through the open doors, but let’s just call it fate, and it began to cascade towards the altar, coasting above us all like a flower bud in an eternal breeze. People gasped at the sight, a toddler pointed to the butterfly and said, wah-wah, causing all the women to swoon. Kev’s mother’s knees went limp, buckled. She grabbed hold of the podium to keep herself from fainting outright. The butterfly fluttered near her, danced around her head, teased her and everyone with it’s presence. As soon as Kev’s mother and several other mourners cupped their hands and tried to capture the small butterfly, it escaped from whence it came. A wave of tissue as white as the butterfly rose to dry wet faces in every pew. From the look of it, they were all dabbing their noses and eyes with their own Kev, the butterfly. What a miracle. Even I was duped.
     Having heard enough, I followed the butterfly out of the church, enticed to ask it a question, half-expecting, half-hoping a flutter over my head for an answer. “Prove that you’re Kev,” I said. It’s angelic wings flickered onto a twig above a stream of rainwater in a ditch, where in an instant the hallow butterfly sufficed the appetite of a hungry toad, which blinked as it swallowed him whole. He was just being young and didn’t know any better.

The Man Behind HACK

My online wanderings, guided mostly by embedded hyperlinks in a variety of articles, led me to the blog of a Chicago cab driver, who detailed his interactions with passengers of all stripes and personalities. They were stories of lost souls and souls lost in the otherwise organized yet expansive grid of Chicago’s streets. Dmitry Samarov, a painter at heart and a cab driver because bills got to be paid, sees Chicago through a perspective that I’d say beats the hell out of a bird’s eye view — he saw Chicago, every square mile and the curbs of every corner, from the windshield of a taxi that would constantly be on the move had traffic not been an inevitable plight. Samarov’s stories recounted the day-to-day grind of driving and the woes of the driven, whether confessed to Samarov or observed through the rear-view mirror. Samarov’s voice was heard by the right people, and eventually his first book, HACK: Stories from a Chicago Cab, was published.

This past Saturday, the Joliet Public Library was hosting a regional authors fair, the first I’d ever heard of. Finally, I thought, this once industrious steel mill of a town is nurturing my interests. Samarov would be one of the many authors featured at the fair, so I saved the date and made note to nap in the evening, as I usually sleep away the daylight.

Before heading to the library on Saturday, I checked Samarov’s Twitter, curious if he’d posted anything pertaining to the book fair. His latest message had stated: “Had to speed back home from Joliet to get books. Because they have no copies of my books for me to sell. At the book fair…”

I left in hopes that Samarov would be there, and have with him some copies of his book. To my surprise, the parking lot of the library was packed, and I had to improvise, parking in the bus lane of a neighboring school. The cynic in me anticipated a room filled with authors buried in piles of their own books, while the mass of library patrons watched cat videos at the public computer terminals. Fortunately there was a decent turnout of people, both for the authors and for the computers.

After my first lap through the fair grounds, scanning the area and finding heads hunched over computers, people holding books and nodding at authors as they spoke, and few authors starring back at me with expressions of supposed desperation, I made my way back to the entrance to start again, but intent on conducting a more thorough search my second time around. That’s when I saw a man rushing towards an empty table, lugging a taped-up box, his face draped with a red beard. The man behind HACK, Dmitry Samarov.

My relief had come, but his seemed to have persisted. He had a handful of keys in his hand, fumbling through them for something to slice the box open. With so many keys I wondered if he had one solely for the purpose of opening boxes. Before saying hello, I reached into my pocket and asked if he would like to borrow my knife. It occurred to me shortly after that walking over and offering a knife upon meeting somebody might not be so apropos, but after finishing Hack and reading about all of Samarov’s interactions, I’d concluded that my actions were harmless, if not altogether dismissible. After asking him what the deal was about there not being any books, he explained that the local Barnes & Noble was responsible for supplying the goods, but had only a single copy of his book for the fair. I noticed the book on the table, the library’s copy available for check-out. If that was the book he was talking about, it wouldn’t have done him much good. He said that he’d arrived on time, but having to drive back to Chicago and return for an event which lasted only four hours cut a sizable chunk of his potential time to sell books. It worried me that his first out-of-town gig could possibly turn out to be an absolute bust. Once he had two stacks of HACK on the table he let out an exhale of relief. I reached for my wallet and asked for a copy.

In the words of Nelson Algren, Chicago is, “like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”

That essence of realness about Chicago, like calling rust rust and not patina, how the grit of life confronts you and either insists that you mind your own business or seduces you into joining in its debauchery, was experienced in the back of Samarov’s cab. The variety of passengers is immense: the drugged underclass in their ragged attire and shameless transactions, leaving nothing to imagination; prostitutes gone heavy on mascara and heading to the high rises where their johns await their scheduled arrival; haggard men telling possibly true or likely tall tales of each building they pass en route to their destination; suburbanites reveling in the sultriness before returning to the monotony of cul-de-sacs and strip malls — all converge to paint a portrait of Chicago not with oil paints, but with the motor oil of Samarov’s oft dis-repaired taxi. At the book fair, Samarov had told me that, “first, second, and third-most, I’m a painter,” and I should add that many of his paintings and sketches accompany his stories, and allows the reader to immerse themselves even deeper into the nature of Samarov’s colorful array of real-life characters.

One of the interesting aspects into Samarov’s cab driving career was how pleased so many passengers were about him being white, and how pleased they thought he’d feel pointing out this obvious fact to him, often in the most insensitive ways. Ironically, reading the reactions of such narrow-minded riders to Samarov’s skin tone only reaffirmed my prejudices of Cubs fans. More than one of his passengers have asked if they were on the voyeuristic show, Taxicab Confessions, either before or well into their darkly personal admissions. Of course it wasn’t the case, but those in the backseat always offer forth the goods regardless. To the populace, a taxi serves as a mobile confessional of sorts. Get in, confess the plight of your life, and it’s cash or card once you’ve reached your desired street corner. As Samarov points out on a Sunday evening, after dropping off a talkative young man at his house, “He wants to keep talking, but we’re at his house, so he pays up and darts out. There’s always more, but the story hardly ever continues past the allotted time, the length of the ride is all that’s offered. Often, though, it’s more than enough to get a glimpse into another’s world.”