Monday, July 16, 2007


It hasn't happened for months. I was beginning to think it had stopped entirely, that thing where the seams open up between worlds, between times. But it's been happening again lately, and I'm glad. I had been thinking that maybe all the shivering ambiguity had gone from the world at last, and all that was left anymore was literal reality, the stark present, none of that elusive gap between seeming and being that sometimes allows the dream space, the imaginary world, to slip in.

Today, for instance, I was walking around town, streets I hadn't seen for awhile, along the crooked creek that runs behind my house. And there, at a corner that I'd seen dozens of times, where the creek bends hard, was the barest remains of an old railroad trestle--and just behind that, about six feet of decrepit track--all of it so overgrown with weeds that you had to be looking just that way to notice it at all.

I started scanning the crossroads where I stood, to see if I could see any trace of the old track bed. There was none that I could see, just the usual collection of houses. But the yard just across from the track remains was oddly open and flat, in a way that suggested some prior history. And....whoah. Right at the edge of that yard in front of the house was an old sign, so faded that I couldn't read it until I got up close. It said: "Eagle Street Station."

The sign must have been at least half a century old, probably older. It was clear that no tracks had run that way in several decades. I was looking right through a window into the town that no longer was.

I've been nostalgic ever since I could remember, in the old Greek sense of that word--not sentimental for the past, but rather dragged backwards into it somehow, into the memory traces that hover in certain places. Maybe it was the town I grew up in. It looks really normal on the surface--smallish rust belt town, seriously in decline in the late 1960s, like every other rust belt town, lately retooled into a semblance of the tourist town it originally was.

But it's not normal at all. The whole place has a strange carnival spirit hovering over it. I grew up between two cities, haunted by two historical ghost carnivals, or more specifically, amusement parks. The amusement park in one city was more or less ordinary, except that it was already antiquated. Soon enough, there was nothing left of it but bones: the twisted curves of a condemned roller coaster, the silent arc of a defunct ferris wheel looming over an old wooden boardwalk. For a long time, the only thing open on the boardwalk was the Funhouse. Inside was a lot of weird antique amusements, like a mirror maze, a spinning wooden disc that threw you off, a spinning barrel that gave you knee burns as you scrambled and tumbled inside it. But the most unnerving part was the Laughing Clown just outside the door--a clockwork horror whose diabolical, mechanical laugh echoed down the length of the abandoned boardwalk.

The one in the other city was its own kind of creepy. There wasn't much left of it anymore in the 60s, except a kiddie train with uncomfortable wooden seats, run by solemn, bearded old men; a pony ride that involved several dispirited ponies harnessed in a steel ring and walking slowly in endless circles; and an ice cream stand from which more dour old people sold exquisite homemade ice cream. The whole place had an odd atmosphere. Our parents weren't entirely comfortable taking us there, and we weren't entirely comfortable going.

The bearded old people were the last surviving members of what had been a huge and thriving religious cult--the House of David. Back in the day, people came from all over to the amusement park, which was bigger and more glamorous than anything else in the county. There was music every night, all sorts of music. There was a dance hall once, and a beer garden, and most of all, a baseball diamond. The House of David baseball team was once famous on the barnstorming circuit--the bearded caucasian equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters, who played a dazzling game and pulled goofy stunts. Every year in the local parade, the House of David float was the most wondrous.

They were a millenial cult, waiting for the end of the world, and for paradise on earth. In the meantime, they thought they may as well give the rest of us unsaved a good time. They came from all over, believing that the leader was Christ returned. They made millions of dollars in their various enterprises, and owned most of the farmland in the county. They were celibate, because they believed that was best. Well, except for the leader, so it is said, who treated the colony girls as his own private harem. There was a sex scandal, there was a trial, there was gossip.

Now there's not much left but two huge old mansions, some land, the rusted remains of amusement rides somewhere deep back in the woods and oh, a few feet of narrow train tracks that lead nowhere. Some say that the leader is entombed in one of the houses in a glass coffin (he wasn't really supposed to have died. He's just really asleep). Some say there's a warren of underground tunnels between the houses, where the colony treasure is hidden. Some say he was an evil manipulative bastard. His few remaining followers--a handful of old people still waiting for paradise, still certain it will come any day now, say he was innocent, and the scandal was all lies made up by people who wanted their money.

In any case, there is an aura about the place--a very strong charge. It's deeply haunted by its own history. And it compels me to track it down, to walk those few feet of broken track right back into the time when it was whole, and alive, and wilder than anybody now living knows.

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