In the spirit of vicariously experiencing snowy delights in NYC and beyond, we bring you a second installment of tales from homeville. Mark Hay writes from Spokane, WA. And of course, feel free to send in your own anecdotes and photos to firstname.lastname@example.org
Years ago, while making some repairs on my childhood home with my father, I peeled back layers of wallpaper to the wood beneath. I was surprised to find writing on the wood, and as I scraped away paste and paper I realized the script was an address stamp. My home, I learned, like almost every other in my neighborhood, was the mushrooming aftermath of World War II, built for GIs in search of a quiet life, but built out of the same airdropped crates that supplied them on their island hops through the South Pacific. I wondered for a moment what these crates had dropped into, what this scorched mark on the wood was, or that gash—where the crowbar pried open the lid, or something more sinister. I brushed away the thought and whitewashed over the wood. Still the life of the house became more visible to me. I noticed more the holes in the ceiling of my bedroom, the remains, we had been told, of shotgun blasts. At night, as wind shook my window in its pane and cables rubbed groaning against the rafters, as mice skittered above my head in the space between the roof and the ceiling, I worried about ghosts. For years I slept poorly until the bulk of my superstition faded. But now I come back to the same house, and I cannot sleep. I think it is because now the entire town is full of the wraiths of history for me, and I cannot silence them.
I grew up in the city of Spokane, WA, towards the Idaho border. But to call it a city is nearly a farce. There is a city center on the site of an old mill town, but it is easy enough to forget where I live, several miles away on the edge of the Palouse, a blasted stretch of the big empty rippled with hills and farms. But before the plains and hills, there is the bluff overlooking Latah Valley, a sharp drop through clusters of pine trees upon which several cars yearly impale themselves or around which they wrap at the behest of their drunken or careless drivers, some of whom I once knew.
Driving along the bluff at night, looking at the clustered lights in clear cuttings amidst the pine forests, it strikes me as funny that these small towns are ostensibly part of the city of Spokane. That is all this place is—small towns, each distinct in architecture and nature, growing outwards and butting against each other, bound by knots of strip malls developing along the arterial roads connecting them. We refer to these neighborhoods like individual entities: I live on the South Hill, but I have friends who live in Browne’s Addition, and I rarely make it out to Hillyard or Felony Flats. Some are not even English speaking, as they are dominated by our large Russian speaking Slavic population, the source of my education in Cyrillic script and filthy Ukrainian slurs. And the neighborhoods think of themselves as independent, sometimes voting for their own autonomy from the government of Spokane, like the Valley did not long ago. Between the neighborhoods, patches of woods not yet touched by developers mark off the old barriers, but they are vanishing. The woods I played in as a child have turned into a nursing home, a low-rent apartment complex.
People flee and rebuild regularly here as neighborhoods eat themselves. The epidemic of recreational methamphetamine production burns the flesh and the conscious of those who produce it, and the old Victorian houses they appropriated as labs in Pleasant Valley or in the pre-war heart of my own neighborhood decay with the flesh of their owners. Skeletal men with matted hair and discolored hands, yellowed and sometimes glinting white with nearly exposed bone, patrol the edges of these blights, glassy eyed living dead, and they draw daily closer to my own home. In a city that sleeps heavily before midnight, they are often the only beings creeping over the streets as lights flash red.
Death of neighborhoods, of friends and acquaintances, of the woods and the open spaces, it is spreading all over this city, but that is not why I am leaving town today. These are not my ghosts—those I am driving towards today as I pull past the city limits north of Wandermere and onto Highway 395.
To the north is my other home, fifty miles away, in the town of Chewelah, WA. Cresting the hill just outside of town, one sees all there is to see: a railroad track and a pile of minerals by a factory with broken and rusted windows, and just beyond a shriveling town of 2,000 jammed between craggy mountains that today hide their peaks under a layer of fog. My mother moved here about a decade before, and I followed. I had to.
In 1995, my mother suffered a stroke. It nearly killed her, but she lived, albeit having lost the use of the left side of her body and, whether through brain damage or the shock of the incident, also having lost a great deal of her mental capacity. Her house in Chewelah was in ill repair and could only be heated by use of a woodstove. She could not split wood, and she could not peel back the barn doors to shelter her car from the heavy winter snows. So every weekend I would drive up, sometimes to find her in the dark, the power having been shut off after she had been unable or unwilling to get the mail for a week and missed a utility payment.
The sight of this town, the smell of burning pinewood, it reminds me of those years living from one Social Security check to the next, learning how to balance finances and pay bills before my time. I was sheltered from a life on welfare alone by my second self in Spokane, but the shame and anger of those checks never leaves. Nor does the rage at those who would mock you and your family, call you lazy or a drag on the economy. I feel violent discontent as I pull onto King Street.
Pulling up outside of my mother’s apartment, a government development from the economic crisis of the 1970s fixed to the income of the resident so long as they prove their inability to live above the poverty line, I see the electric wheel chair outside. I want to cry, but I choke it back, using it to force down my heart as it tries to beat its way out of my throat. Every time I come back, she is worse. She can barely walk anymore, confines herself mostly to the chair. Today she will tell me about the decay of her legs, about the pains, and she will reminisce about the days when I sat by a woodstove in the winter reading.
Snow dusting pine trees, the slight green from below impenetrable and blinding whiteness, fog rolling down hills into valleys, clumping and uneven. Even the barren Palouse, the semi-deserts beyond the forests, it is more beautiful now than I remember it being. Even the decay of the city and its slow transformation fascinates me as an increasingly alien observer. But these knifing winds and broken and brown needles underfoot are teeming with spirits and with dread meaning for me.
When I left Spokane and Chewelah, I left behind my mother. I abdicated a duty I had put upon myself to care for her, to make sure that she used the life she had salvaged. I remember times when she was getting better—the first day she was able to feel in her left arm again, when her speech grew more coherent. And now I look at what has happened since I left, at the wheelchair.
The first time I came back home, driving along the bluff, my father turned and looked at me. “You know there’s nothing for you here, right?” he said. “Your future isn’t here.” He’s right. My life isn’t in Spokane anymore, nor in Chewelah. And I know my father and my mother are both proud and happy that I have found a new life, that I am growing into a man somewhere that can nurture and shape me in more profound ways than this place could have. But coming back here, looking at that wheelchair, I have to ask myself, is the man I am becoming worth it? Can I look at myself, what I have become in these past years, where my life is headed, and say it was worth that wheelchair and all the obligations I left behind in these forests and hills? These are the ghosts I cannot shake. This is the one thing left for me at home—the ripping and maddening question what have I become? And can I justify it by what has become of what I left behind? Looking at that wheelchair and then at myself in the rear-view mirror, I can’t say with any certainty that I can.