An image of city and sky assembled before me. Wasn’t this the swooping drama I had yearned for when I left this morning, checking for my keys and cigarettes, lurking out before she noticed? I pulled the doorknob towards me while pushing the door with my shoulder, moving quietly into the dark recess at the top of the staircase. I knew she would find me by the end of the day.
I left with the camera. It was a clunky Sony thing from the ‘90s or early two-thousands, but what’s the difference, because I think decades are a poor way to organize history anyway. Ten years don’t hug the contours of upheaval and repression and mutation.
I found it at a garage sale and biked home with it perched on my handlebars. Then I brought it with me today. I don’t know what I wanted to do with it. There was already a tape in the machine, a yellow and black eight millimeter labeled O’DONOVAN 1999 in neat black capitals. It was full of old family movies, the kind that don’t age well because they contains laughter, or the strange piano recitals of cousins who no longer play piano, but spend eighty percent of their paychecks on fentanyl, or the belabored birthday party interviews with members of the family who are no longer members of the family and never should have been.
I was drawn to the camera because it could emit the feeling and fabric of that moment towards the end of the twentieth century that I would never live, but that I would always know through symbols, projections, intimations. The machine’s bent colors, the grain of its image, its cracked audio forever revealed the years when it was used, when it was advertised in profane consumer reports and carted to turn-of-the-century reunions. History hung on its every frame.
I wanted to record over the old tape and transfigure my moment in the aura of the ‘90s, so that the present would glow with the LCD chants and lamentations that are the remnants of that time. In some doomed way I longed to see my world through the lenses of the past, to translate the material of today into the pixelated and distorted shapes of history. It was the only reason I wanted to record anything at all. If I rewrote Miranda in the image of the camera, would she stay with me? Could I help her? Would our story belong to the past?
I took my truck west on 6th and down to where the creek cuts a gash through the city. I parked and locked the doors, took a path down to the edge of the waterway and awkwardly pulled myself over a rusted fence, straddling the cold bar at the top and twice nearly dropping the camera into the gutters of used bikes and used syringes and used glossy packages of blunt wraps.
That 2002 pickup, white and rust-brown where it was dinged up, had carried me and Miranda across the country spitting and sputtering.
I jumped down from the top of the fence and my ankles stung, the tight, coiled pain briefly spreading up my heels, even though I had practiced these motions countless times, at night and in the hellscape late afternoon. Laughter would ricochet through the damp freeway overpasses and I would know the eroding concrete monuments of a failed and forgotten future.
Miranda had four gold hoops of identical size. Two around the edge of her left nostril and two on the upper cartilage of her left ear, each ring of each pair equidistant from the center of their respective body parts. We drove with no map, miraculously illuminating a path through sagebrush and lavender. Somehow, we oriented ourselves in the grid of interstates and back roads that bind the flesh of a country. We would see how far we could drive without sleeping and sometimes at night we would smoke too much to stay up and blast through entire states, and every time Miranda lit one up, she would pass it to me first. This was not for my benefit, not to give me the first drag, but to offload some of the guilt of each new cigarette, as if it diminished her responsibility in the act or transferred some of its weight across the center console.
It was the middle of the summer and she wore knee-length carpenter shorts and white socks and dark leather shoes, and just before sunset we’d always, and I mean without fail, pull off the road to sit in the bed of my truck, or climb some tragic water tank indelibly marked with a ‘50s motor oil logo, rust eating into the color and line of history. Sweat would weigh down our shirts and hang on the hair behind our ears, and we’d watch the blood ball sun burst over wheat and cattle and red clay canyons and endless oceans of sage. Then there was usually no talk, because there was already an infinite conversation contained in the most minute motions of our hands and our eyes.
The name Miranda might come from Latin. Mirandus: to be marvelled at. But I like the theory that it was produced by Shakespeare for The Tempest. That it erupted into the realm of language because a writer sat at a desk and wrote something that was wrong, thus inventing a word, a world. Miranda shared with me this origin. She felt that it was a falsehood, a lie from which other parts of her radiated. She meant nothing, three syllabi randomly fused together. But for me the solidification of Miranda out of the wisps and mists of language meant everything. It allowed for a kind of liberation where the sounds of the wrong were not wrong, but that they butted up against the flesh of speech and ruptured the folds of a fortified tongue.
As we drove, finally approaching Miranda’s city across the sea, she spoke. We had been on the road for a few months and our arrival at her house in Brooklyn had been methodically delayed.
“You do know that you can’t come in,” she said.
“My house. You can’t come in when we get there. I just need to pay my dues, you know, say hi to the dog and kiss my mom or whatever, then we can go upstate or to Vermont or Maine.”
“Okay,” I said. “I thought we were gonna see the city.”
“We can see the city, but you can’t come in,” she said.
“Okay, I get it. But why? Why would it be so awful?”
“It’s not that it would be awful. It’s that I don’t want you to meet her. I don’t want my family to invade us. I want to tell you things like you are untouched by the past.”
“But I already know everything. So what’s the difference if I meet your mom?”
She popped a paper match with one hand and lit a cigarette.
“Because then in your mind there’ll be a voice and an eye color to my stories, and it will all become too real, and you’ll leave, won’t you?” The static jumped and cracked. The colors bent in and out of crude four-sided pixels. Her voice was stretched and restitched, fried almost beyond recognition. Smoke filled the screen.
Before the trip we had both been pleasantly lost for a few months, drifting from the grids of command and behavior that hang in the air and structure our lives. But we were also swimming through labyrinths of hysteria, citywide benders and little blue pills and each week we were further from any kind of salvation. And that was both a wild kind of screaming freedom and a horrifying freefall, our stomachs crawling up our throats.
Our trip, which was really more of a departure with no end date, felt like a series of impulsive decisions, motions that cannot have consequences or implications because nothing comes after them. They exist pure and clean and untouched by guilt. And since we knew that nothing did come after one’s actions, no final culmination nor moment of exalted clarity, this was exactly how we aimed to live. In that way we were ecstatic, and in that way we mourned the dead.
Soon the thick smoke would choke the arches of glass and steel that bent through the city, and it would hang low in the sterile corridors, those places where the mirrored buildings watched and judged, and where well-hidden klaxons could at any moment announce the start of curfew.
As we approached Texarkana, Texas, I watched rusting transmission towers fan out into yellow brush. They were placed perpendicular to the road so that every forty miles I would look out the window and they would snap into alignment, forming for a second a straight line of infinite structures stretching out to the horizon.
When we reached Texarkana we walked into a bar full of men in ‘70s shirts leaning heavily over their drinks. And it was the ‘70s. Framed pictures plastered the wall, but they weren’t of celebrities, like in storied Hollywood restaurants and Connecticut pizza places. These pictures buzzed with the grain of sixty millimeter film, sons and fathers next to bloated trout, farm girls and tractors and leagues of wheat, cows and clapboard houses and dogs caked in mud.
Miranda and I sat in a dark booth, staring down a pitcher of beer, the room smoky and tepid. A mother and three small children entered the bar, and the high squeals of siblings filled the booths and dark corners of the room. I looked at the faces of the children, towheaded and streaked with traces of red dirt, and they echoed those local faces on the wall, and then I suddenly knew they were the same people, some of the same children. Soon I could see most of the men in the bar reflected on the walls, bordered by slim pieces of homemade frame; they drank and watched themselves stretched through time, their faces levitating above bottles of bourbon.
We paid our bill and left. It was 97 degrees out, and as soon as we stepped out the door we were wading through viscous, swampy tar, and a sweet apocalypse of cicadas enclosed around us, and neon weeds sprouted from crumbling, heat-stressed brick.
What did it mean for flora to reclaim what humans had forged? Heaven bent to our methods, supersonic booms and empty coiled towers on Park and yet still everything returning to dust and wet. This is our midcentury epoch. Writing it is mere archaeology.
We drove to the edge of Texarkana, beery and laughing, where the little grid of streets stopped pretending and trailed directly off into dirt. Miranda parked behind an abandoned gas station right out of an Ed Ruscha photograph, except the whole building was completely consumed by kudzu, the stuff sprouted through gaps in the patchwork tin roof and rushed through the doorframes, bright dense green vines against postwar reds and yellows.
The two old gas pumps stood ten feet apart like fossils revealed after some total cataclysm, the STANDARD logo atop the crest of each pump beaming into focus as they were hit by the 6:00 PM sun, conjuring latent images of Studebaker trucks and pleated pants and roadside diners.
We kept the windows down. The air was an impossible molasses. Then, still laughing, we pulled off our sweat-heavy clothes and I caught hazy, saturated glimpses of the thick coiled black snake just above Miranda’s hip, and the black butterflies on her ribs, and the thin curved black line with a bow that wrapped around her upper thigh.
Dry, fingerlike spindles of vine lapping at the top of the truck in the hot wind.
The warm LCD strings hummed as they jumped and curved from the screen, and the slowly advancing tape purred, and Miranda and I were neither present nor past, neither here in the ruins of empire nor there in the warm glaze of Americana, but drowning in a fever of time, with dull headaches and little beads of sweat on our wrists and collarbones that held perfect teardrop shape before imploding in silent ecstasy and darting down our arms and our chests.
Later, long after Texarkana, we built bookcases in our one bedroom apartment off 6th Street. Miranda and I found and cut and sanded and stained the wood ourselves, a project we felt more secretly proud of as the material assembled into function before us. Some set their hands on drywall and wiring and stretch this labor into rent, building glass castles for absentee billionaires up in the hills. Miranda and I built a swaying bookshelf and then couldn’t afford to solve a termite problem.
After a few months, I picked up a book and the middle shelf splintered apart. Even some of the texts were chewed through, obliterated, you could say, rendered blank and flat by the insects, bugs whose intricate dance of syntax and morphology I could never understand. But I already knew the futility of trying to know such things. Archaeology is more bounds and borders than possibilities.
The second time we passed through Tennessee, I lost her. We were just east of Knoxville and I realized I should have stopped there for gas, where we moved for an hour through rainy traffic past water towers and brick smokestacks, old refineries and mills battered by the downpour.
I couldn’t get a range readout on the old truck, so I had been nervous about gas since L.A., especially in the desert. But Miranda was never nervous, because I think some part of her wanted to run out of gas between Kingman and Flagstaff, as the sun set over waves of scorched hills. Maybe she wanted to break down and walk out into these alien valleys and feel the humming, high-pitched sunset light funnel through oblique juniper trees and rapidly filter down into the cones of our eyes.
“I can’t do it,” said Miranda, her eyes trained forward in thought.
“Miranda,” I said in frustration. We had passed Knoxville on the I-40 just two weeks ago, turning around in Virginia, again pushing back Miranda’s return home.
“We can keep going, go back up to the Midwest, or Mexico.” She wouldn’t look at me.
“You don’t know what it’s like to enter your house and feel gravity pulling you to the floor. Or see your dad sitting on the sofa staring into space, beer going warm on the coffee table, not a thought in his head. I think about running into him in a grocery store parking lot, or on the train, and what would I do? Brief eye contact? For how long would I cry after stepping off at my stop? But you know what the worst part is?” I could sense things rupturing in her mind, her inner self breaking through layers of mirrored, out-of-reach models.
“I am supposed to take care of him! He says to me, you’re going to take care of me when I’m old and sick. I am? How could I? How can I not?”
Now the rain had stopped, and I watched wet moss and slate and hills flash past the windows. Miranda stopped talking, and I didn’t have a response for her. Language couldn’t voice whatever it was that boiled within her, and so something else had to give way.
We stopped in a small town to get gas. I stood by the pump and Miranda went inside to get a pack of cigarettes. The tank was full. I walked inside to piss. I didn’t see her inside. When I got back to the pump she was gone, and I didn’t see it, but the camera would have caught it all in beautiful grain and distortion, her short brown hair flashing behind her as she found a ride in the parking lot, crossed the street with a woman half her height and slipped into a brown sedan with Mississippi plates.
I walked along the basin of the creek, holding the camera by the strap of its bulky plastic case, a kind of cheap black plastic made thick to look like leather, but that scuffed easy and frayed like twine.
The dark water ran by me on the right, and on either side the concrete sloped up to accommodate a fuller flow. I was looking for a place where I could set up the camera and let it run, where it could take in a good few minutes of city noise, traffic and sirens and fronds rustling in the wind. I wanted to capture in that static an image of the scraggy hill that rose to the south revealing motionless oil drills and cranes bending towards the heavens.
But the camera had already become rooted in my mind, had already begun to sculpt and render my world. Only through the fiction of its crude, grainy vision could my memory erupt from the depths of style. What I saw and heard was filtered through its aura.
I approached a bridge in the creek and pulled myself up over a ladder enclosed in a rusted metal box. It was almost dusk now and things had begun to feel grey and alien. No longer did the sunlight pass over the towers and trees, illuminating the life seeping between the fortified walls of the city’s many cells. I placed the camera on the top of the bridge, just resting it on the concrete, and it assimilated perfectly with what was in my field of vision. There was no difference between what I saw and what the camera saw. I had manipulated my eyes, through the tunnels and interstices of history, to see.
The sound of the city rolled towards me, immediately broken from its moment and filtered back through time, split and made gorgeous. It was curfew now. The klaxons fired and waxed in and out of pitch.
From the top right corner of the screen, she descended in a painstakingly adorned chariot carried by bony black wings, transfigured finally and forever in the glow of history, black mesas and broad blue skies and railroads and wheat fields and clothes lines and junkyards flashing in her eyes. She stopped and swayed over the city like so many lights above America, hanging and ticking in the smog-choked night.