Along the Mississippi River, scattered in weedy stretches devoid of factory silos and warehouses, stood small brick sheds marinated in oily engine exhaust. Many of the structures had a railroad use, or once did—housing controls or tools. Those nearer to Highway 61 or the river levees were likely to be owned by the city of Davenport, or some state authority, or the federal government, and connected with traffic control, sewage management, flood monitoring, possibly even the effort in the 1970s to encourage eagle reproduction on the slender scrub islands between my Iowa and Lincoln’s Illinois. Straw tufted from scabrous shed vents, tin chimneys, cracks in grime-curtained panes. A brothel for birds? Whatever, as a feverish fat kid and weirder vegetarian teenager, moon-eyed and spiral-notebook-cradling, I made a study of enigmatic urban details that might be termed non-frastructure, taking my Thoreau-inspired walks past maximal rust, grit, graffiti—the desolate Midwest seldom featured in movies or on television, a secret kingdom I could call mine. Sand piles. Shuttered snack shacks. Conoco stations run dry and vaguer ruins angling from soil or cement, gnarly roots tethered to and somehow sustaining the disco present. By the river, a day wore the depths and heights of ancient hours: glower, glower, glower. Circling a sooty shed like a ragtag explorer, I had no doubt of its significance. If only this find could be categorized! Padlock was rattled and tugged, and eyes tried to burn through window grime. Vents beckoned—each a web-strung fret! But the fear of tetanus prevented me from strumming on it. (The fact that no kid ever contracted lockjaw intensified its dreadful mystique.) I noted the warp of the tarpaper roof, what might be lime powdering an outlet pipe, caustic rivets, a missing brick. Every shed had a missing brick, a gap crudely plugged with concrete batter. I sniff-sniffed sun-baked corners and knelt before acrid gutters suffering mineral drip. I ran a finger along raised silver gashes on the iron door. Recycled tank armor? The plate released a smoky World War odor which commingled with the thick dank vegetal stench of knee-deep weeds—fuzzed pods, stems, leaves—and with the rambunctious fertile river reek of mud, fish, and chemicals. Spongy air pressed on the tongue, Monday communion, instantly laved by a rush of saliva. Where I was could not be pointed to on a ten-fold “motoring” map. On maps it appeared the river abutted the road, when in between existed a crease in the continuum encircled by fence diamonds: peace-rich acres of asceticism for an escapee from family hysteria. I rapped on the shed. Open up, lineman, spike administrator, impotent eagle, confessing Jesuit, Toonerville Trolly passenger, gruff Grandpa Potts of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang! Scarred metal did not budge. Enter the wind, which manipulated litter with the skill of an archivist unrolling scrolls, or swooped down the tracks, a grand gracious character in a dust tuxedo. Waves sliced the light to shreds. Overhead flew blackbirds unfit to represent America. Distant bridges, high, low, arcing, straight, all of them tentatively appending a city’s little pointy skyline. Ahead and behind me were other forgotten municipal snippets: corner crumbles of a sprawling invisible castle of time. The past clinging to the present or the present clinging to the past: an open question. Glitter from broken bottles and a glass tower differed only in scale. Dark bricks, even chipped, appeared more solid than pale virgin I-80 masonry housing yet another Wendy’s.
I prayed a sun ray would penetrate a padlock, twist like a gold key, shackles dropping, iron plate creaking open to resolve the Mystery of Humble Perseverance, that tension between the devastated veneer of non-frastructure and the space it wrapped, made sacred. Once it would have been easy for a bulldozer to wipe away the sheds between trestles, but the owner of the Milwaukee Road had for some good reason not given that order during Ike’s administration, and by the freaky-deaky era of the Hustle it was too late. Too late since non-frastructure was spawning. Each month more sheds revealed themselves near railroad beds lined with shadows of imperiled Paulines and pennies flattened into playground talismans, Abe stretched as in a circus mirror. The more sheds I spotted, the more I needed to know their purpose. What was concealed next to the teetering river, under an industry-stained sky? What unspeakable beauty or shocking Twilight Zone twist or bereft shred of reality? A leaf blown through a vent, the green button stripped from spring’s zoot suit? A piano-playing bordello crow? John Henry’s steel-driving hammer? A lost Mark Twain manuscript? A kamikaze pilot who had gotten way, way off track, dive-bombed a dredge, survived, and been living on shed insects since 1944, unaware of Hirohito’s surrender? Was reclusive Miles Davis blowing his horn in there, bending a note into the minor key of post-Vietnam America—a whole note halfformed, reaching while dying of dreams—wordless grief, boredom, ambition? Was the shed an underfunded cultural museum containing the cornet played by Bix (Iowa’s native jazz genius) and the high heels poetess Edna Millay kicked off before dancing in the Main Street fountain with her local lover, poet Arthur Davison Ficke? Circuitbreaker for the force that through the green fuse drives the flower? Refuge for the eighteen minutes missing from the White House tape? Final seedy haunt of the city’s famous literary bohemians: Susan Glaspell, Floyd Dell, George Cram Cook? Bleak cut-rate hair salon responsible for the hideous blue curls glimpsed at Shannon’s cafeteria? Think tank for Uncle Eubie, mother’s crazy genius brother, who just might invent the brave new barge? Haversham elopement chapel? Clinic where red leeches sucked distractions from the eyes of over-stimulated librarians? Retreat of a tug captain driven mad by a hull scratching through the Channel of Nails? Another odd spot for Sheriff Blackie Stroud to stow the stolen crates of county-jail peaches that got him fired in Iowa’s dumbest scandal? Last stop for the goofy campaign signs of the populist politician who promised a “ukulele in every pot” and horrifically fulfilled the pledge, which explained why so many homes contained a ukulele, although I had yet to hear anybody play a ukulele except tulipy Tiny Tim on the Tonight Show? Buoy repair shop? Harpoon archive of a peg-leg Ahab hunting the giant white catfish wallowing below Lock and Dam 13? Was my favorite All-Star wrestler cowering in there—the gentle Hawaiian Hono-Hono, who won even fewer matches than Chief Wahoo McDaniel? Home of Jimmy Hoffa’s skull, or skeletons from mother’s past that would explain why she giggled so much, bathed so little, had a law school degree and no career except arguing coupon cases at Kmart? No bones, but the fedora of the wise guy driving the car that she jumped out of as a girl, rolling into a ditch next to a highway next to railroad tracks next to a canal? No fedora, but the stethoscope Grandfather Miller wore when he set his middle son’s leg wrong, creating the limping humiliated Dave who later became my father, sort of? Or none of the above—a safe haven for the God that Nietzsche had mistakenly declared dead?
Ben Miller, an essayist and fiction writer, is the author of River Bend Chronicle: The Junkification of a Boyhood Idyll amid the Curious Glory of Urban Iowa. After attending Cornell College (Mount Vernon, Iowa) he entered the New York University writing program, studying under E. L. Doctorow, John A. Williams, and Luisa Valenzuela. His prose has appeared in The Kenyon Review, New England Review, The Yale Review, AGNI, Ecotone, Raritan, One Story, and elsewhere. Six of his essays have been cited as “Notable” in the Best American Essays anthologies, and another, “Bix and Flannery,” was chosen for the 2004 edition by Louis Menand. Miller’s awards include creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. In addition to writing new prose, he is collaborating with Brooklyn painter Dale Williams and coordinating his public art project Mural Speaks! in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where he lives with his wife, the poet Anne Pierson Wiese. Miller will return to Harvard in 2017 as the recipient of a Schlesinger Library research grant. In 2018 he will become executive editor of the Fritz M. Bauer Library of Remembrance and Human Rights, an international series of print volumes dedicated to “documenting humanity’s extraordinary stories of resistance in order to preserve human dignity and to create a more just and humane world.” (updated 12/2016)