by William R. Soldan
When I set out to write the story, I have little more than a prompt that’s been chasing its tail in the center of my brain for months: Eddie Loves Debbie. This short phrase of graffiti is plastered everywhere I turn, shouting at me from the surfaces of things.
Rebecca and I take one of our two cars into the shop to get the breaks done. It’s still early, so after leaving the mechanic’s we spend the rest of the morning driving around town checking out the old mills and the overgrown, rubble-strewn stretches where others once stood. The sun is trapped behind the steel-gray blanket of the sky, and as if to punctuate this detail, Rebecca’s sunglasses fall apart right in her hands. “No need for shade when the day is dim,” I say, trying to be clever. There’s a chill in the air, defying the month of May, and my feet are cold because I forgot to wear socks. We begin near Girard. The landscape along the Mahoning River seems as good a place to start rummaging for material as any.
Driving down Division Street toward Martin Luther King Boulevard, V&M Star coughs out smoke in the same spot the Briar Hill Works used to; before Black Monday devastated thousands in Campbell; before Youngstown Sheet and Tube and so many others were picked off along the river like bottles on a fence; and before the dynamite’s blast ricocheted off I-80, signaling the Jenny’s last goodbye and marking, yet again, the end of an era.
“Even if I had a concept,” I say to Rebecca, “A writer has options—where to start, where to go, where to wrap it up—but those options have to narrow according to the motivation and clarity of the concept, of the vision. And I have no damn vision.” She doesn’t reply, just smiles, knowing I’m in the process of talking myself into giving up right before her very eyes. “What I mean is that for a story to go somewhere specific, to have a certain effect, many possible dimensions need to be considered, and some ruled out for the sake of coherence.” She nods. “So then I have to decide what I want the story to accomplish—”
“Don’t you think you’re getting ahead of yourself?” she says.
“Of course I am!” I grin in spite of myself.
“You already have two characters,” she says, “and you already have their world, or at least a world. Just look around you.” She gestures out at the patches of deserted land along the river and the buckling homes on the hill. “Just write a life for them.”
I hesitate for a moment before responding: “Interesting.”
She looks puzzled.
“You said ‘a world.’ As in maybe they’re from a different one?”
“Well, that’s not exactly what I meant. But sure.”
“Interesting,” I repeat.
“And who says it has to accomplish anything anyway?” she says. “I mean, whatever happened to the idea of art for art’s sake?”
“Maybe you’re right.”
“Of course I’m right,” she says turning to look back out the window.
That’s it. Just write a story. The casual assumption that it’s just that easy makes me grin again.
I of course don’t want to concede that I think most of my writing is shit; that despite having written a few competent stories, as soon as I hit a snag of any kind I begin convincing myself that maybe I’d be better off sticking with poetry.
Thinking this, and successfully frustrating myself, I continue to ensure my story’s delay by treading mental waters and trying not to drown. Meanwhile, all the questions and practical tips about structure and content I’ve garnered from various books and classes on the craft only make the undertow stronger.
So with Rebecca’s unintentional suggestion that Eddie and Debbie were perhaps from another world tucked away in my mind, I reset my sights on the world in front of me.
I look up into the old Briar Hill neighborhood rising up just across the road from the mill’s monstrous bulk, and my eyes are drawn to a house that was probably once a well-kept little home, though now the yard has taken over the rickety front steps and the porch roof looks like it could come toppling down any minute. I survey the rest of the houses in the area, looking for both the glimmer of a story and any trace of the neighborhood it used to be, but the only thing I see is the all too familiar sight of a world gone to shit and lives barely holding on.
Ahead, the freeway overpass acts as a dividing line between the fossils of Briar Hill and the newly renovated Westlake Terrace apartments, which have gone from nondescript brick housing projects to tiny, colorful units that don’t look like they’d hold their own in a strong wind. Beneath this false surface, the marrow of the city has all but dried up, and it’s going to take more than some fresh blacktop and a few coats of paint to turn things around.
V&M has shrunken out of sight in the rearview mirror as we pass beneath the freeway. The sound of cars passing overhead echo off the pavement like crashing waves, and it occurs to me that this very spot might be part of the story.
They had been sneaking around for some time. Eddie and Debbie both knew that even though their neighborhoods sat side by side, the world would always want to keep them apart. He was a third-generation Italian from Briar Hill and she was a black girl from Westlake. Even if their folks had been open-minded, there would always be forces beyond their control trying to keep them apart. One such force was the so-called “urban renewal” project. When the I-680 beltway and the connecting Route 422 tore a path through the lower north side—making both the mills and the malls more accessible to those who’d moved on up—homes were demolished and many in Debbie’s community were forced out. And though it was just across town, when Debbie’s family packed up and moved to Campbell, it seemed as though their love was just another sad sacrifice in the name of progress; to her, she might as well have been moving to the moon…
No; that’s not it at all. That’s too … mundane.
So where does their story begin then, I wonder?
The obvious answer is at the beginning.
But beginnings often seem so damn arbitrary, I tell myself. They simply drop us into some sort of stasis or normality. Then some event knocks the characters’ lives sideways. But where does it go from there? The whole thing can quickly get very messy. Should the story be linear or circular or quilt-like?
This discursive interior monologue, along with my penchant for putting things off appears to have created an impasse before a path is even chosen.
On and on my mind spins, like a washing machine on full tilt.
As I wrestle with the story, the tentative details of which are trying to take root within the city’s bleak history, we approach downtown.
Along Federal Street, passing the bus station and moving through the city’s center, I stop at a red light. As I wait for it to change, I examine the one stretch of downtown that, at least to the uninitiated, gives the impression of revival, with its few bars and restaurants, an auditorium, the Home Savings. My eyes are drawn to the black and white images of the old city lining the façades of some of the buildings, put up in an attempt to beautify the area and distract the eye from the lingering vacancies that still dot the street. The images are of a time when the future was promising and the sharp realization that good things rarely last hadn’t yet sapped the people’s hearts of hope.
Revitalization, I think as the light turns green.
They looked haggard as they left the pawn shop and got into their van. Driving down Federal, Eddie looked at the big black and white pictures of the bustling downtown area on the sides of the buildings, and he tried to sound sincere. “The city’s got a plan, babe. They’re gonna put us back on the map.” He was referring to the Youngstown 2010 plan that was supposedly going to revive the city. “By the end of the decade, we’re gonna be more than just that place where you lock your doors and step on the gas.” Debbie was usually the optimistic one, but she hadn’t had any dope since the night before; the sickness had set in hours ago. Eddie’s guts were also twisted, but for her sake he stayed positive. After all, they’d just made a quick fifty unloading the digital camera and some DVDs they’d boosted from Wal-Mart. That would be enough to at least take the edge off while they figured out their next move. “We’ll get ourselves clean,” he said. “You’ll see. Things are gonna start looking up.” But before she could tell him to shut up and hurry, Debbie hung her head out the window and puked on a parked car…
Maybe, I think, still not sure where this is going.
Within less than a couple minutes we move through the entire downtown, go past the old Republic mill, and turn onto Wilson Avenue, where suddenly the word revitalization seems absurd—the ironic punch line to a cruel joke.
From downtown to Bridge Street, I’m strangely captivated by the landscape, one I’ve known for many years but have only recently taken an interest in. I’ve always been drawn to ruins and abandoned places, areas that many people avoid or have forgotten altogether. They have about them a sort of sad beauty, like flickering spirits clinging to the physical world. And this stretch of road clearly has its share of ghosts. Industrial to our right and somewhat rural to our left, it’s virtually walled with worn out spaces: junk heaps and boarded-up bars sandwiching intermittent machine shops and auto garages. The fractured hillside to our left is a slanted grid of secret streets and domestic wreckage: broken buildings, overgrown properties, and land that barely seems to be holding it all up. Plywood and chain-link appear to be the only thriving commodity.
Perhaps they live in one of those hovels on the hill, I tell myself.
After scoring a bag, they parked behind the dilapidated house that was just one of many. They usually slept in the back of the van, but a huge hole had rotted through the roof just above the bed in the back, and rain had made a mess of things back there. They started squatting in the house about a month ago. They picked one that at least still had all four sides intact and moved in late one night after fixing up in a Wendy’s bathroom. Eddie figured Debbie would just fire up right in the passenger seat like she usually did when she was this sick, but she surprised him and waited until they got into the kitchen. Once there, she was quick, despite her shaking hands; she had already pressed the plunger by the time Eddie was dumping his share into the spoon. “Tomorrow we’ll get on the waiting list for the clinic,” he said. “I mean it this time.” But Debbie couldn’t hear him. Her eyes had rolled back in her head and she was turning blue…
Damn it; still not right. Tragic but predictable.
Jostling us along the pitted asphalt toward Struthers, I’m flooded with imagery. And each sight—edges of crumbling brick, sheets of twisted metal, the burnt out husk of an old Lincoln Continental—fills me with a strange mixture of mirth and mourning. It’s an oddly visceral feeling, and an apt sensation given my gutted surroundings.
My eyes scan the hollow homes on the hill, and I’m suddenly smacked with a flash of morbid associations:
Crooked remains, picked clean by shunned vultures, half collapsed beneath the burial shroud of low clouds; corpses of rotten sheet-rock and splintered frames; the dead and dying staking permanent claims to ground that no one wants; copper pipes and wires become organs and nerves; aluminum siding like stolen skin, flayed, peeled off bit by bit and hauled to the scrap yard across the river, exchanged for a few greasy dollars—day after day, year after year, until all that’s left is this graveyard, littered with bones and shards of glass.
I crack the window to let in some air. It’s still chilly, and the wind is moaning a dreary song, like a messenger carrying the collective expiration of a different place and time.
They came from a place like this, but different, my mind whispers, and I wonder what that even means.
By the time we get to the far end, where Wilson turns into Broad and disappears into Lowellville, we hang a right on Bridge Street. When I was younger, the bridge we now drive over was made of steel, girders crisscrossing and casting shadows in the changing daylight. That was many years ago, before the road was closed and the bridge rebuilt into this boring, nondescript scaffold.
Rebecca maintains a sort of knowing silence, as if aware that I’m in a state of reverie, still searching. Looking past her, out along the stretch of post-industrial wasteland flanking the still stagnant Mahoning River between us and downtown, with its few operational facilities but otherwise barren flats, I try to figure out what to do with all this visual information.
The more I take in, and the more it all evokes, the less control I feel I have over how it all takes shape.
How can you have less control than no control? I wonder.
“Good question,” I say, only aware that I’ve said it out loud when Rebecca replies:
“Oh, nothing,” I say, “just thinking.” She nods and again turns her attention to the scenery moving by her window. “It’s just that I’m getting a weird feeling that there’s a different story trying to claw its way to the surface.”
She looks back at me. “Like what?”
“I’m not sure.” I pause. “Remember our van?”
“The one we lived in off and on? How could I forget?” she says, her voice laced with both nostalgia and relief that those days are over.
“Crazy times,” I say.
“Good riddance,” she says. “We’re lucky we made it out alive.”
Suddenly aware that I’ve been crafting Eddie and Debbie’s story—albeit unwittingly—with bits from mine and Rebecca’s own history, I let out a sigh and try to clear my head.
More than a quarter century has come and gone since the mills closed, and the land reaching toward the horizon is like a stubborn old man refusing to relinquish his few prized possessions. Inert cranes and lone smokestacks jut from the earth, as if giving the finger to a world that’s left them behind.
I wonder what other rusty relics lay buried in all that dust.
My mind again whispers: Doorways… between here and somewhere else…
I turn onto Poland Avenue, which parallels the Mahoning just opposite Wilson. “I want to find a place to park when we get back down to Center Street,” I tell Rebecca, “so I can foot it across the bridge to get a better view and jot some things down.” As it turns out, slowing to rubberneck at rundown warehouses and abandoned mills pisses off a lot of people on the road. So the view has been little more than a vivid slideshow due to constant motion, and stopping will give me a chance to take in the scene along the river a little more thoroughly.
“Sure,” she says. “You just want to switch, and I can just drop you off and come back for you?”
“We’ll switch in a few minutes. But yeah, you can come back for me.”
Poland Avenue is like Wilson Avenue’s doppelganger: with the exception of some subtle characteristics and a slightly smoother surface, it’s like a reflection in a hazy mirror. We’re essentially travelling in a large rectangle, the valley now to our right and an opposing hill into Struthers, and the Southside beyond, climbing gradually to our left.
I had managed, if only for a few breaths, to let my thoughts move away from the two lovers. But it’s as if my internal and external worlds are conspiring against me, refusing to let my mind just idle while it waits for something to manifest.
There it is, on a metal square, below the words NO TRESPASSING, those familiar flourishes that started the whole damn thing: Eddie Loves Debbie.
And again, a little further, on the side of a dumpster. Further still, on an electrical box. A sign on a telephone pole…
The proclamation, simple and always the same, echoes down Poland Avenue, urging me to again question its origin.
How many other places and planes echo with this phrase?
Is Debbie the type who needs constant reassurance, or does she just have a faulty memory and need to be reminded? Maybe it’s Eddie’s memory that keeps slipping. Or perhaps he’s just not good with words. After all, it’s far from poetry; even a bit sentimental. But it’s memorable—indelibly marked on the consciousness of this town.
I know I’ll never know the answer, each question, old and new, vying for space inside my tired skull. I begin to realize that when things have no proven source, no known reality to back them up, it’s as if they demand something grander—something less real.
We get to Center Street and cross to where it runs back into Wilson Avenue, and I pull into parking lot of the Check-N-Go mini mart on the corner. When we get out of the car, Rebecca walks around to the driver’s side, and I kiss her, placing my hand on her belly where my son is softly kicking. “Just take a cruise around for a little bit,” I say. “I’ll call you when I’m ready.”
“Be careful,” she says. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
After she gets into the car and pulls away, I backtrack across the bridge. As I move toward the middle, I pass over a network of railroad tracks and gravel strips and finally the river’s murky currents. I stop at a point where just below me a dirt access road runs between two sections of a giant rusted-out mill with broken windows and no signs of life or production. My eyes follow this stretch toward downtown, which sits in the distance like a project never finished.
Again, the two lovers have retreated to the back of my mind as I’m struck by the stark significance of the scene.
So many lives and futures crushed with one hard blow.
I close my eyes and try to visualize the pictures I’ve seen of this place, back when it was the place to be.
The darkness slowly fills with new images—old ones—of a time before my time: vats of liquid fire, blast furnaces, massive hearths lighting up the night. Men in sooty clothes, bustling back and forth, their grimy skin thick with sweat; some merely silhouettes, outlined against the raging flames. Sounds—the chugging, hissing, clanking of creation—soon join the images, and as this prosperous inferno blazes through my occipital lobe, illuminating my brain, my body can almost feel the heat.
Eddie walks down the hill, clutching his lunch pail and wiping sweat from his forehead with a callused palm. It’s early morning, but the humidity is vicious. Down in the valley, the Campbell Works and the other mills along the river are belching out their fires, and the orange and black haze that’s settled over the land seems to keep it plunged in perpetual twilight. But it also means that folks have food on their tables. Life is good, he thinks…
“But then something changes the stability of things,” I say to myself.
When I open my eyes I notice the air has softened. There’s a break in the lazy stratus above, and some light has spilled through, warming my skin. The view before me of enormous abandoned mills, weedy lots, and weathered rocks is in severe contrast to the scene behind my eyes a moment ago. These extinct but somehow lasting vestiges of Youngstown’s prime appear to me the remnants of an ancient civilization, wiped out by some swift plague.
Or perhaps a great war.
Again, I close my eyes. This time the scene’s changed.
The mills are like huge barracks, equipped with massive convection ovens. Amidst the cacophony of production, a clash of screeching and squealing and squishing sounds—sounds whose tonal quality is somehow both mechanical and organic—resound off the titanium walls. Men move around at the bases of the giant machines, wearing some sort of rubber protective gear, their heads hooded and their faces shielded with plastic masks. Among them is Eddie. He’s poking around at something through a grate with an electrified rod. Inside the opening I catch a small glimpse of the source of the sounds: a glistening mass, like a tube of knotted muscle, spasms in its cage as he prods it with the pole. With each shrieking convulsion, it ejaculates gluey, multicolored slime that shimmers like the inside of an abalone shell. The substance seeps into giant cauldrons which are suspended by chains and transported by men on cranes to various parts of the mill. Eddie’s eyes appear feverish behind his mask. Whatever it is they’re leeching from this creature’s body is clearly the lifeblood of their industry. Further along the seemingly endless corridor of the facility are thousands of cages housing thousands of these pulsing, oozing things—rows upon rows, disappearing into the distant shadows of the mill—and thousands of men just like Eddie, milking these monsters. The tortured sounds of the creatures are suddenly overtaken by a rumbling deep inside the earth. Men begin shouting and scattering in all directions, vats of the iridescent goo topple over. Something has gone terribly wrong. The structure is shaking apart. As it falls to pieces, the ground opens, swallowing the mill and most of the men with it. Eddie has made it out. He runs up the hill, toward home; toward Debbie. But a fissure in the hillside stalls him. He sees Debbie fleeing from the porch as the house disappears, but he can’t reach her. When the sky splits apart, another place appears through the gap—a place similar, but different…
Again, the whisper: This place…
I open my eyes and I know who they are. The story for which I’ve been grasping blindly resides in that other place, that similar but different place.
The two lovers have been given their entrance into our world.
These rotting corpses of industry that stand before me are doorways. Places in space that were ripped open when the denizens of that other world took their ambitions too far. That volatile substance they were extracting from those pitiful, disgusting monstrosities was their steel, their dominion, their ultimate destruction.
In the mill just below the Center Street Bridge lives an old man. Long ago, when things were better, he worked there. Now, it’s the only place he has left to go. He has no security and nothing to keep him warm but memories. It’s his only haven.
Early one morning, curled up in his sleeping bag on the floor of the old locker room where he used to change at the end of his shift, he hears a rattling. Just a rat, he thinks. But then the light changes: something about the air seems thick and blurry, as if he’s looking at something at the bottom of a swimming pool. The rattling stops and the locker door behind the blur opens. Out steps a man, disheveled and weary-eyed, as though he hasn’t slept in years. The old man remains still and silent as this stranger quickly moves outdoors. He waits, and then follows.
Outside, the man who appeared removes a marker from his pocket and writes something on the mill’s façade before walking up to Poland Avenue and then toward the city, away from the rising sun.
The old man follows Eddie, watching him leave his little message on signs along the way. But it’s not long before he loses sight of him; it’s as if he turned a corner and simply disappeared.
Later that evening, as he heads back to the shelter of the abandoned mill and the little home he’s made for himself there, he sees a woman standing at the entrance, her hand raised to the words of her lover, almost caressing them. Her face is somber; it’s the same sad beauty that marks the face of the city itself, he thinks.
Then, as if by instinct, Debbie follows the same course her lover did, the sun bleeding into the horizon…
Almost in spite everything, the sense that reality has another story in mind creeps back up, like an itch I just can’t reach. The gravity of what’s happened here, this real place, at once tough and vulnerable, sits on my shoulders like lead. Within moments it occurs to me that there’s more to the grim details of this forgotten valley than merely being fodder for fiction.
What about real people and real pain?
I can’t help but feel that Youngstown deserves better than my silly little tale.
Contrary to the bleak lens through which I view the world (all worlds, as it were), I love this city, though I have no generational relation to this place. I am not the son and grandson of men of steel, shaping and wielding and winning wars. I came here after the fall. But I was raised in this city and its fringes, raised in an era already burned down and boarded up; an era suffering the fallout of the city’s foolish reliance on a single industry and sinking deeper every day into despondency and disrepair. Though I was not born of the blood of this valley, the city’s history is no less a part of me. I’ve only ever known the emptiness and desolation, known little to nothing of the better times, but I’m learning to better appreciate the dichotomy of life and death—of beginnings and endings; how things often arc and circle back, and how they sometimes fade in a straight line.
As for Eddie and Debbie, I’ve begun to wonder if they were ever even real. They may have been nothing more than an ambiguous legend born out of some kid’s boredom; two imaginary figures who’ve managed to grow beyond the confines of those three simple words.
Though Rebecca hasn’t yet returned to pick me up and there’s no one else around, I try to find something meaningful to say. I try to articulate something about how symbols are every bit as mutable as the things they represent; about loss and lament, perseverance and possibility.
I call Rebecca and tell her she can pick me up in a few minutes, but before turning to head back toward the Check-N-Go I pause and take another quick look in every direction, feeling the city in my bones. I open my notebook and scrawl a quick note:
All things are susceptible to Time, but Time is susceptible to a fiery spirit.
“This city still burns,” I say, closing my book and crossing back.