George T. Mormann

Tag: George T. Mormann

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.

Cancún

     I woke up in a less familiar Mexico. The Mexico I knew was contained to storefronts like those on W. 18th; taquerias and cantinas with a neon cactus glowing through frostbitten windows. Midwestern brick is painted adobe tan and depicts street-side exhibitions of Azteca deco and bucolic murals of the Tex-Mex fringes, where cactus shadows are swallowed by the desert come dusk. It’s synonymous with the borderlands, but where we landed, it was just an afterthought. The sober American vista, as far reaching as it is, cannot be glanced at, cannot to size up like a thumb raised to the moon. Palm trees bend toward the sunrise along La Zona Hotelera. Our taxi delivers us to a Riviera with so many likenesses of suburban decadence — Outback Steakhouse, Margaritavilles, Señor Frog’s — las casas del Bud Light. Cancún, crown of the Yucatán, a foreigner’s comfortable respite from true Mexico.
     Skip coffee, head to the pool bar for a tequila sunrise. I look into the windows of the resort, peek in on brunch crowd, and watch them — those families from Bakersfield and right-outside-Cleveland — eat chilaquiles and french toast. Behind me there are men moving stones, building a bigger patio. Their hammers clang in unison with forks tolling against mimosa flutes in the dining room. I see tourists’ lips flicker and gape all the while hearing the slang of my coworkers back in the states. This week, I’ve traded in my steel-toed boots for a pair of flip-flops, but still turn to join the workers as they pause to look to the beach as a lambently draped figure dips her foot in the sea.

     By bus we travel inland to Chichen Itza. Cancun '12It rains on the way there, but our guide Arturo is compelled to assure everyone aboard that the dripping in the vents above us is from the air conditioning. He offers us Gatorade at two US dollars each, and asks us not to crap in the rear lavatory. Solamente numero uno.
     I fell asleep and woke up to the same scenery — a freshly watered span of trees swaying up and down like they were fanning the bus across the freeway. The water, whether it was truly rain or just a/c condensation, cooled my scalp as it brought with it a stream of chilled air. Arturo was describing the earth of the Yucatán before I fell asleep. How thin yet rich the soil is, how the plant life flourishes because of it, how impassable the untouched jungle is. Now he’s telling us about the ancient city, Tulum. The Spaniards could only write about the city from their ships. That was some six-hundred years ago… from our resort it’s a two hour drive.
     The skies cleared as we entered the gates of Chichen Itza. The path leading to the site is a winding flea market of native bric-a-brac and novelties; tables of sugar skulls and Mayan calendars fashioned into magnets and analog clocks and printed onto tie-dye tee shirts. The peddlers compete with Arturo for our attention. Regalos de Maya, Come take look, Cheapah than K-Mart! Sellers run up to us and offer real wooden masks, insisting that any tourist tap it to prove to us all how wooden it is. One Mayan dollar, they’ll say. That’s forty dollars to you, Arturo says. Even the descendants of the Mayans themselves, the Nativos, approach us with handfuls of embroidered hankies for twenty pesos each.
     Arturo instructs our group to clap towards the steps of the Temple Kukulkan, and when we do, a moan begets from the peak of the temple. To breathe life into the temple is to revive it from centuries of silence, and there are fewer simple joys than to hear our own echo. Within this temple is a smaller temple, Arturo said. Here, the Mayans had defeated an enemy, and to honor their victory had built an even bigger temple over their enemy’s. Eventually, the Spanish arrived and you know how the story goes, but they kept the temple, adopting it in their language, El Castillo. Today, a fence surrounds the entire site. Property of the Mexican Government — ticket prices vary.
     Conquerors are conquered. Subjugators face revolution. Profiteers live forever, enshrining so many legacies onto the façades of coffee mugs, of which I bought two.

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.