Ghost Towns of New Jersey
by Kyle Hemmings
This is a photo of us at Ong's
Hat back in 1976. That's you with that smudge of a nose and awkward smile, one arm draped over the curve of Jacob Ong's graveyard
slab. A town named after the legend. He snubbed a young lady and she stomped on his hat. He flung it to a tree, where it lodged
on a branch too far. From that, a triangle on a map appeared--Ong's Hat. It was before the advent of chaos science, pirate
computer networks, Enigma code breakers.
That's your younger brother,
Tim, a glutton overdosing on attention, standing between us with a sleeveless jacket, showing off his sinewy arms, one marked
with the tattoo of a former girlfriend, Barb. A girl, whose love was ephemeral as a morning bowl of Rice Crispies. Mine attended
a small college in Kansas and in letters, her paragraphs grew more sparse each month.
On shimmering July afternoons,
Tim pitched a wicked curve ball, and I'd hit a homer sooner or later. At night, you and I sat in the bleachers, talked about
our lives as if they were evolving universes, and our thoughts floated up to a strain of stars I did not know the names for.
And there's me with long auburn
hair and handlebar mustache, the face smooth and my dreams still hard as slate. Deceptive as quicksand. A sexy smile for the
camera. I can't remember who took the picture. What I do remember: driving down Highway 70 with the windows open, ingesting
the scent of briny and salt water from the ocean, a breeze pinching my face, spilling a bottle of Heineken in the back seat.
Fucker, you yelled, clean it. The smell. The old man will shit bricks.
No sweat, dude.
On the radio, Grand Funk Railroad
blaring, Mark Farner crooning "Sally." Everybody knew a girl named Sally back then. Sally tried to sell us bad pot. Sally
cheated us of years. Sally married a dork named Bill. Sally stopped partying with us.
On the way down, we stopped
at a beer and shot joint. Tim made out with a girl with long stringy hair and pimples on her chin. She said her boyfriend
was some greaser freak into motorcycles. We invited her to our table and bought her beer and shots of whiskey. The beer was
warm and flat. She took a long gulp from her glass and licked her lips. Adjusting her orange halter, she scanned our faces
and asked if we each had some money. If we did, she said, she’d give us a good time in your car. You and Tim smiled
and nodded no. I told her I had a twenty. She said it’s either all of us, or if a single, it’d be thirty. She
excused herself to go to the restroom.
You pulled me aside.
“You an idiot?”
“The right one will
come sooner or later.”
“How soon? I only got
In the car, I felt a good
buzz. From the bar’s open window, I heard the crazy chick yell, cheap assholes. I thought about the two of us
coming together in a shriek of spilling delight. I thought about the dark secret of her flesh and how I would never taste
Well, that's us posing next
to Ong's grave and behind, another of a Tory, who lost his head to an errant cannonball. You laughed whenever you told the
Later, we explored an old
ram-shackled house, not far from a creek and a woods of skinny diseased trees, their crowns slouching towards the soil, brown
and yellow rings marking their trunks, stamping the passage of time.
The house had broken windows
for eyes, and a mist covering them, maybe like cataracts. There was a smell of old sawdust inside, chipped tables with scraped
varnish, chairs with torn cushions, flower-patterned. Springs exposed. Over thin floorboards, our feet clomped, echoed those
of giant intruders. In the attic, a yellowed photo of a family on a mahogany chest, the picture, maybe circa 1880. A family:
mother, father, little girl. The father's mustache twirled up. A little girl's rows of curls repeated themselves in perfect
tunnels. The mother, in white frilly dress with a cameo pinned near her bosom, stood pompous like some mistress to a Russian
czar. Their eyes froze like dark stars.
We trudged downstairs. You
flipped on a flashlight, the one used for car emergencies. Always so pig-headed and guarded and careful. In the cellar, weeds
grew between the cracks of walls, between rotted, infested wood. Watch your step, said Tim. There were puddles of muddy water,
their fetid odor oozing, and your foot splashed in one. "Fucker!" I yanked your arm. "OK, man?" An old wood stove in the back,
overturned. On the broken floor, a rusted ax, awls, a plane, a construction bench, a wooden rocking horse, some painted ducks.
You turned and shone the flashlight in my eyes. "Neat, huh?" you said. I winced at the light. I'm hungry, said Tim. Again?
And then, my memory turns
smoky, my brain ram-shackled like that old house. We drove up the ramp onto Highway 70. The car swerved. You OK to drive?
I said. You sneered in the rearview and said the beers wore off. A little groggy, you said with a slight shrug but can handle
it. I offered to drive. Same shape as me, you said. Fuck you, I said, I’m not.
Tim napped up front. You scouted
for an exit, a sign for a diner that sold universal cheeseburgers. You needed to take a leak. The exit, a charcoal pit stop,
coming up on the right.
A flash of high-beams. I saw
it coming. The screeching car wheels. His. Ours. Both. The sound of the collision like the instant of black, our bodies jumbling
like puppets pulled on a string, the car veering off the road, fractured words from your bloodied mouth, and then...a silence.
A thought of hollow trees was my last thought. The string cut loose. Stillness. Stars. Hollow trees. Black.
And now, pushing back the
lid of the coffin, digging myself out of the packed, dense dirt, I brush off my jeans, work towards the house. I’ve
lost count of the years that have passed by. Was I in a coma? Was I in a tunnel?
It is early evening, always
early evening. The house sits like a silent, bleeding mother. There is a grove of old birch trees in the distance. Do they
remember my name? I'm older and no wiser. I have rings of memories that are more like scars.
Stepping on creaking floorboards,
I eye the cobwebs hanging from the ceiling, layered like silk. Climbing to the attic, I pick loose chips of old paint from
the walls. I enter the long, narrow room--dark, dank, hot.
I stand before you, sitting
in a straight wooden chair, perhaps Shaker. Your glassy eyes stare past me. "What's taken you so long," you say. Your voice
sounds like mine, the way I’ve always imagined it, and perhaps I have stolen yours. You rise slowly and I suspect you
have gone partially blind. Your eyes are filmy and frozen. "Let's go home," you say, "I'm hungry."
So tired, you say, of living
in this caved-in house of dust and heirlooms and diaries.
“Daylight can't be a
lie, “you say. “It's still daylight, isn't it?”
How long, you ask, how long,
and your words trail into the spaces between these shaky walls.
No, I say, stay where you
are. Stay where you are.
“Want to go home.”
No, I say, this time, I can't
take you with me.
On a dusty chest, I spot a
photo of us at Ong's Hat.
"The photo," I ask, "who took
Your eyes do not roll, and
a slight smile travels to one side of your face. The same smile you wore that night, minutes before the accident.
"Not a photo. A window...
I want to go home, you say.
Tottering, I step
towards you, try to embrace you, prodigal brother, but you are nothing, less than a wisp of air, you disappear, vanish, only
the image of you, of us in that photo, looking out from a world of stillness. Still as the bark of those skinny trees by the
creek, and over the hill.