#37 The Confessor of Littlefield: Ghosts in the Junkyard

Ghosts In the Junkyard

At night Bill continued to write short stories. Ghosts In the Junkyard,” he called them. All seemed to involve characters engaged in a contest of will against an incontestable fate, as in the film noir movies he admired in the 1940s and 1950s. Drawing inspiration from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, Bill wove together the stories of the wrecked automobiles of a small town junk yard: the 1966 Lincoln with the suicide doors; the 1970 Road Runner that ran out of road; the Ford Fairlane that was sacrificed delivering Ms. Pinchlips’ peach pie to the church bake sale. Bill read about madness in the family from R.D. Laing, and tried to imagine what became of the children in Ms. Penny’s one room school house. All now had their own wrecks in salvage yards to write about but didn’t because nobody really wanted to take their eyes off the great hope for something better.

Bill himself felt grateful to be alive in America. Life could be far worse, and for that he shared vicariously in the spoils of leisure and consumption. But on a personal level he was always alienated from others. No matter how others saw things he always seemed to want to disagree. It was a defensive impulse that was made stronger when he came across an obstinate personality like Trenton’s, or a petty chest heaver like Mr. Hektor, who presumed to know more about Bill’s leg then Bill.

Still, he felt conscious of transferring some of Virgie’s traits, or Rita Hapflik’s into characters who met a merciless fate. Despite what had happened in the past, Bill told himself he wasn’t trying to exercise any demons, nor did he view his life as a crushing fate. He just wanted to be able to write stories that at least a few people liked but his characters didn’t breathe on their own. He realized he was writing too much of his own wish fulfillment into their lives but when he tried to coax the characters towards denouement in a world of chaotic contradictions they were too calculating and lifeless. He lacked situations where his characters took their leisure and showed themselves; created their own space.

A person’s existence was in some ways determined by the environment. When Bill thought of his fellow classmates he remembered them as 8 year olds, happily accepting their parents’ view of the world, their religion and politics. By adolescence, all began asserting their individuality. By age 40, they, like their parents, would assume family and community responsibility, vote the Republican ticket, go to church on Holy Days. But how did he really know that? Laing’s work with dysfunctional families supported Bill’s belief that his mother determined she “knew” him, just as Rupert, Mr. Hektor, or Rita Hapflik would say they knew him. Virgie and Clara had determined his sexuality, but what made them know more than he did? He’d always recalled the sound of Benny shutting the door behind him and walking toward the bed. Bill didn’t move. “What does that say?” Benny seemed to be saying. “Nothing,” Bill would say. “It doesn’t mean a damn thing.”

Bill always admired fictional characters who stood their ground with coincidence and fate. And he had to acknowledge that the grittiness of his own characters was a manifestation of the surliness he’d affected since childhood. He realized he came across as gruff. He would catch himself looking in the mirror in what he thought was a mood of contentment, but the demon in the mirror would be making a gesture of contempt. His entire adult life he’d been cognizant of having to show a softer facial expression. He didn’t mean to frown most of the time. He finally accepted that the figure in the mirror was him showing disgust with himself. “The demon facing you is you,” said Bill to the image in the mirror. And then he thought of the demon with a snake coiling around his erection, a symbol lent by the movie The Exorcist.

*

Bill kept The Hapflik Salvage and Repair title of the business in memory of the father figure Hiram represented. He owed it to Hiram. Besides, not many people knew Bill, except those who had been coming for repairs and getting parts for years. He didn’t spend on advertising or belong to the Chamber of Commerce and his business had dwindled primarily to scrapping metal over the years. Until Vida came along he only did a few repair jobs a week.

Littlefield had expanded further east over the decades, away from Bill toward the expressway, with a mall and fast food restaurants. There was a regional grocer and department stores. Gone were the local TV repair man, the shoe, clothing, and appliance stores. The housing at the end of Main St. West where the prominent families of the community lived until the 1950’s now was for subsistence renters, with the current landlords dividing the four square houses into four upper and four lower units which were let out by the week. The crumbling laundromat across the street and east a block from Bill changed hands three times during the 1960’s and 70’s and was now vacant. Humstin’s Garage, across the street from the laundromat, was a mausoleum without a caretaker since Humstin died in an auto accident in ’72; underbrush swelled up around its crumbling block foundation and its roof had caved in.

The big screen of the Drive In theater still loomed against the northern sky. Once a year, municipal workers came to clean off pigeon droppings and the birds that had been brained on it. Now the old Drive-In was used for a weekly flea market and farmers co-op, which kept Bill busy on Wednesdays. The flea market goers drove old cars and stopped in to ask him if he had a bumper for a ’73 Mercury, or a spindle for a Pontiac, or a front end for a Chevy pickup. Everyone else took their newer cars to the dealerships by the mall, or to service shops that did insurance work. Bill had lost a lot of business but his taxes remained low because of the condition of the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, down desolate Barnett Road, the land was being developed by a consortium of developers headed by Pete Van Innern, and 2500-3500 square foot houses were being planned. There was a dispute between the developers and the township as to who would be responsible for maintaining roads but in the end the Township relented. The large houses being built along the creek were part of an association of summer homes for wealthy families, mostly from around Chicago, who didn’t associate with anyone in town. In the Winter, branches lay forbiddingly across a snow drifted gate, closing off Barnett Rd. The wind heaved snow across the barren corn field where the stalks that jutted through the snow looked like rows of broken chairs in an empty cathedral. On the east corner of Barnett Rd. and Main St. was Hapflik’s, with the scraggly oak vines heaving over the snow capped fence. A mile west of the salvage yard, a new road was put in at the expense of the association which connected the network of development and was kept clear and patrolled year round by the township.

Pete Van Innern had taken over his father’s bank and then sold it to a national bank out of Detroit. He and his wife, the granddaughter of Virgie’s aunt and uncle Haskins (the Deacon and Deaconess), purchased the old Drive-In because the Deaconess had hoped the church would build a youth facility on the site before the Drive In was erected. Rosemarie Van Innern admired her grandmother and walked with the same graciously snooty air. She wanted to name an auditorium or a historical room in honor of her grandmother. For Rosemarie, her grandmother was a symbol of a simpler time. The newer generation was relieving itself of the duty to church and community service. It had been decades since church was a necessary means of business networking. Banks and finance companies were owned by far away owners who paid locals commissions to sell their products and services. The banker, insurer, auto repair man, electrician, plumber, all competed with franchises and retail businesses owned from far away. The local community enticed a a furniture manufacturer in the early 1960’s that now employed 4,000 workers, lifting the community’s conspicuous consumption. The old farms were drying up, going to seed, the barns wasting in the wind, with forgotten family names fading from them.

Joy rides along the winding road through the steep woods had vanished by the late 1970’s, and the road began to be patrolled 4x per day by the county sheriff deputies. The largest homes in the community were now being built in the hills that broke south in back of Bill’s salvage yard. A half mile from Bill, a gated park was built that overlooked a breathtaking five miles of gradual sloping scenery.

In the late 1970’s there was still some talk of the the new Van Innerns donating the Drive-In property to the Lutheran church but Rosemarie Van Innern considered the condition of the neighborhood and decided that the lot at the end of old Main St. no longer existed the way her grandmother knew it. She imagined her grandmother resurrected on the spot of her beloved church on old Main St., now shuttered and with weeds growing through the pavement in the parking lot and thought, “no. Gram would be convinced the lord was losing badly, his battle with the devil.” The new Lutheran church was in a place of thriving safety and comfort, the goal for which those who now lived on old Main Street strove.

However, by the early 1980’s the landlords on old Main Street were brought to bay by higher taxes and stricter zoning regulations. And the city council was at a quandary over what to do with Bill’s salvage yard. The neighborhood association said something had be done about the lower property value that it caused. The city council agreed. They sent inspectors who told Bill he had a number of violations; that he didn’t have the required liability insurance to operate. It was a lot of money for Bill but he had no choice.

To pay for the insurance Bill began picking up refuse tires from tire shops with the intent to dispose of them, but he found that the scrap fee he had to pay absorbed all that he received for discarding the tires. There was an extra business tax for discarding rubber which was passed on to the customers. To the refuse yard shredding the rubber, Bill was a customer. Customers didn’t make money, they paid it. For a while he buried the tires in a hollow near the back of the property, but he had covered so many tires that they were beginning to float back to the surface along the banks. After that he simply stacked them until they were visible through the thicket behind the garage.

In 1981, the Lutheran church elders had decided to build their new church facilities near the expressway where the land was sure to appreciate in value. Soon after, the Baptists announced they were building a new church near the interstate. The Methodists and Presbyterians had left for a neighboring small village in the mid 70’s and in place of the demolished buildings there grew scrub oak and weeds. What was downtown during Rupert’s day was now the far west end of a village that once existed; now transferred three miles east. The conspicuous presence of class leisure had asserted itself toward the interstate to the west with a Golf Club, including 2500 – 3500 square foot ranch houses. There were competing car dealerships that pushed the prestige of consumption, the reflection of a person’s wealth still shown in the size and color of his chariot. The Van Innerns resisted the cost of tearing down the movie screen until property values had risen but they knew they would have to get of rid of it if they were to get rid of Bill’s junkyard.

*

The weekend flea market was a weekly summer event, while the farmer’s market in the old Drive In concession stand was open on Wednesday’s the year round. Family farmers still brought apples, peaches, vegetables and dairy. After the weekly Summer market, the farmers auctioned their old horses, young cattle, goats, sheep, and chickens. Bill watched the same old farmers for years stumble from their pickups into the old candy stand where Bill used to buy a box of milk duds and go around back to the restroom to take a piss and smoke a cigarette with Staines or Biffy. Both had been killed in Vietnam. Often, he’d stood in the front window gazing out at the old concession stand and remembering the tingling night time excitement. He even conjured a drawing of it reminiscent of Norman Rockwell. When he saw the farmers walking in the same shirtsleeves generation after generation, the same bibs, he thought of the fact that he still enjoyed the Andy Griffith Show. The nostalgia in his mind’s eye desired Opie, Andy, and Aunt Bea because they symbolized the reassurance of a warm armed past, while the generations of the future waited with cold arms crossed and to tell you that you’ve fallen out of favor.

He was glad he had the leisure to keep alive the fairy tale world of the past but usually Bill’s fits of nostalgia were stopped short by the sobering reality that the world was advancing toward the future while his roots were rotting. The Van Innerns, the Lutheran congregation, Virgie, even Rita Hapflik had stayed ahead of the curve of time, while Bill had wallowed through the ever present moment, draining into the past. Bill’s clothes were from the salvation army and the money he no longer spent on comics was spent on second hand books; of which he had perhaps two thousand, mostly classics. He now was studying philosophy and reading Rabelais, Voltaire, and Nietzsche.

Bill’s characters all told him about himself, about his faults, his judgments, how he’d always thought others were thinking. He always assigned associated values to looks of surprise or disdain, read a grimace a certain way; always watched strangers and composed character sketches of them. But ultimately no one really knew anyone; just enough to know the characteristics they like or don’t like about one another, enough to fill in the fictional narratives of existence that assign motives and intentions to casual passers by and drivers on the road.

Sartre’s No Exit impacted him deeply. Hell was other people, but it also seemed like hell was what we made of other people. Hell was for others what they made of us. No one was good or bad, just living with the choices available to them. Yet, Bill was aware of the occasional sneers others would flash back at him because of his ever present grimace when he was seen at the store, the bank, the post office. His appearance told others that he wasn’t on the ladder with them. His clothes told it. The old cars he drove told it. He was the dirty guy in the dirty garage on the edge of town whom nobody really knew and who didn’t talk much. He was a cheap but slow mechanic, and that was enough to get a little business.

The wood stove belched and plumed smoke out of the chimney into the air above the garage. The musty cement floor was swampy, cool and moist. Here and there were brittle mounds of frozen sawdust and engine fluids, black and gooey. The door and walls of the entry way between the back door and the kitchen where Bill and Vida took off their clothes and boots were stained with grease prints, but the kitchen, living room, bathroom, and Vida’s room were sparkling clean. The stairway and two rooms upstairs, Bill’s, weren’t as clean. Books scattered the floor around Bill’s chair; history books, reference books, psychology, philosophy, politics. He had been attentive to history since he was a boy and found in history a way his characters could have relevance. As he read of changes in industry through the decades he visualized how the world around him had changed, how the world of the newspapers had changed. The existence of a person was defined by the culture and times in which one lived – even the Mennonites had built a new three story school house five miles away.

It gnawed at him that the certainty of his youth had vanished; that he no longer felt assured he would prevail against time with various achievements. He’d never received recognition for anything creative. And while it was satisfactory to receive appreciation from time to time from someone for fixing their car cheap, he wanted to say that everyone had their own voice of self realization. Appreciation for good music or literature was the imagination of a person realizing how interconnected symbols help define things which had previously only been known darkly. For him, the problem was to create a narrative that presented the non-story of an individual’s existence as though there was denouement and in a way that activated a reader’s imagination.

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