Essays taken from a weekly newspaper column published in the Washington County News, Washington, Kansas. Look for my book, "Dispatches From Kansas," available from Amazon.com, or from the author.
Monday, November 30, 2009
Sunday, November 29, 2009
Saturday, November 28, 2009
Friday, November 27, 2009
Thursday, November 26, 2009
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
The underworld of Kenyon Hall
A familiar darkness (Part 2)
Down we went, and down, our flashlights bathing the walls in a bluish glow while behind us in pursuit our living shadows like disembodied wraiths mimicked our passage in amplified and exaggerated movements. Theirs was a wild, disjointed dance, in sharp contrast to our studied descent. Step by slow step we dropped into the underworld of Kenyon Hall, eyes and ears probing the darkness and returning nothing but a palpable blackness.
How many times had I passed though such doorways, submerging myself in perpetual starless night, heart hammering, sensing my own inadequacy and fear but prodded by a sense of duty to investigate, to search, to hunt men like prey, though never elucidated or mandated, an unspoken directive that some ignored and others savored with predatory intensity? Enough to never be freed from. Each step jogged another memory. There was the flooded basement of a lower downtown wreck where I was almost electrocuted, and the warehouse of dead cats, the old industrial laundromat where I dreamed I was executed by a shot to the face, the echoing storerooms of Law & Sons Casket Co. with its endless rows of coffins and heavy fire doors, the fabric distribution center on South Santa Fe where one could hear shuffling feet and the whisper of clothing as invisible beings went about their insubstantial lives, a haunted place made unnerving by dual time clocks whose stampings sounded exactly like the slide of a shotgun. And so many others, bleeding into a composite of dark chambers preceded in each instance by a heavy revolver and blocky sights sweeping the area before me. And now, in this Kansas ruin, each step delving deeper into my past, so that by the time I reached the bottom stair I’d returned to dozens of similar stairs and felt imprisoned in a nightmarish recollection.
Dave at my back prevented this from blossoming into panic. A stabilizing force, his presence at once grounded me to the present and provided courage. But I had no doubt about how I would have fared were I alone.
A hallway branched off to either side. To our left a pale oblong shape materialized into an upended bathtub, an incongruous apparition resembling nothing more than a boat pulled onto shore and abandoned to the merciless elements. Beyond came a crystalline drip drip drip of water falling into water. Within seconds a thin film of moisture slickened the surface of the tripod, a greasy substrate commingling equal parts humidity and microorganisms that would develop into a cough lasting a week or more. The place was alive.
How alive remained to be seen. As I moved to the left, stepping around the bathtub to proceed down a narrow corridor, I poked my head into various rooms, sweeping them with the flashlight to determine their vacancy. I half expected to see eyes staring back, or the hunched backs of rats scurrying for shelter, but the rooms were as silent and still as if frozen in a photograph. Each seemed to have its own inventory of useless relics. One was filled with exploded cases of Pace enchilada sauce—which accounted for the red explosions marring the walls and ceiling of the auditorium, making it look as if a massacre had taken place—and another with some kind of canned foodstuff whose contents had swollen until the lids bulged or oozed a black fetid slime. “What are we breathing?” I asked.
In the far corner of the basement we came across what looked like an office, carpeted now with religious tracts printed in Spanish and several bibles whose pages had dampened to a sickly gray hue. It looked as if the place had been evacuated in a hurry, like you see in the movies when a raid is going down and everybody’s trying to destroy the evidence of some clandestine endeavor. Here and there were the charred remains of homemade torches, usually rolled up newspapers or scraps of material burned to stubs.
The last room we came to was a Goodwill from Hell. Moldering piles of clothing and shoes filled dozens of wide shelves, most of it picked over, dug through or left underfoot in mismatched lumps. Dave was entranced by the rows of worn shoes and set about photographing them. This involved a process known as “light painting,” experimental in our case because we had never done such a thing. While he tripped the shutter I waved my flashlight across the shoes, my position to the side so that shadows floated across the picture. I tried the same procedure on the bathtub with mixed results.
We wanted to find the boiler room, hoping for gargantuan machinery rusted beyond redemption. A side corridor took us deeper into the bowels of the building until a right angle dropped down a flight of stairs. Our way was checked when our flashlights threw back a glittering reflection; the steps disappeared into water black as ink.
The pool was familiar. I once stood in the selfsame pool as 240 volts DC arced through my fingers like the hammer of God, rendering me senseless in darkness turned incandent.
I ached for a week. I never forgot.
Postscript: There is no forgetfulness but something else entirely—evolution. In the nights following our exploration I’ve returned to that familiar darkness, but in every instance the sense of menace has dwindled to a half-remembered shadow. The dreams begin the same as always, dark hallways with rows of doors like bared teeth, the notched groove of the pistol sight before me, only to shimmer and fade into the notch of a camera’s hot shoe. The transition is staggering in its implications. Through the viewfinder the doors were merely doors, the darkness something to be illuminated. And then the dreams stopped.
I can’t say what changed or why the dreams disappeared, only that something happened inside the devastated walls of the grand old edifice. I had entered in search of art and found absolution. Perhaps Kenyon Hall was an exorcism of sorts, its long, slow death a sacrifice granting release, or, if not, then reconciliation. The place was indeed alive.