Thursday, November 19, 2009

A familiar darkness (Part 1)

Dave Leiker’s footsteps echoed hollowly as they faded into a silky gray nothingness. I stood rooted in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Kenyon Hall, taking in the overturned tables and chairs, piles of wet sand, soggy insulation and collapsed ceiling tiles, papery strips of plaster peeling from walls delicately etched with multi-hued shades of mold, and limpid pools reflecting the ethereal silver light bathing the shards of glass underfoot. I waited and listened for other footsteps or other voices and heard nothing but my heartbeat and a thin wheeze already forming in lungs gone raspy. My right hand steadied the cool metallic surface of a tripod but felt instead the rubber grip of a Smith and Wesson model 686 .357 magnum. And so our memories possess us and not the other way around. Captives merely to an inescapable past.

I had never before laid eyes on Kenyon Hall, the former administration building for the College of Emporia (now defunct), but it was at once familiar and unsettling in the way all ruins are, notably those whose recent dwellers scribbled cautionary and ritualistic remarks on the floors, walls or chalkboards, or liberally desecrated the hallways with gang symbols of indeterminate meaning. “Get out while you can,” one such note found by flashlight on a chalkboard on the fourth floor of an empty school, might seem childishly melodramatic in the light of day, but once the sun sets such phrases tend to aggravate an innate fear of the unknown harking back to our Paleolithic ancestors, and take on new meaning as shadows move of their own volition. For visitors to Kenyon Hall, one of the first such banners painted in blood-red lettering greets the unwary with “Everyone will suffer.” As I read it I imagined the golden light filtering through the stained glass windows of the auditorium dimming to charcoal and darkness rising in the corridors, with the surrounding emptiness and devastation quickening into a sensation of utter aloneness. It was easy to do because I’d been there before.

Not there, as such. It could just as easily have been the abandoned school at 11th and Bannock in Denver, or the empty Ideal Laundry in Five Points, a monumental structure covering most of an entire city block. Or the old chemical factory off Yale and Broadway, at the time an EPA Superfund site and a place one did not want to linger. When night falls, they’re all the same.

Dave, a photographer from Emporia, had invited me down for a road trip through the dying towns of Bushong and Dunlap. He also knew my fascination with uninhabited structures and arranged unrestricted access to Kenyon Hall. The invitation came with several caveats. Wear heavy boots because of the broken glass, he advised, and be aware that there were signs of gang activity; it was never assured that we would be the only ones in the building. The former didn’t bother me but the latter was definitely a concern, so I dropped a small Colt .380 in the camera bag. Better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.

I couldn’t help but wonder in the days preceding the trip how I would react, not so much while I was there but afterward, when latent memories triggered by the echoing corridors resurfaced in the dark hours on the far side of the witching hour. Would I find myself back in those eldritch chambers, hearing once again the sound of interior doors creaking open and the quick rattle of hurried steps? Would I draw my revolver with sweaty hands and turn the volume of my radio down to a whisper and wait breathless in total darkness for direction totally dependent on the movements of unseen others, knowing that flight was never an option, that whatever transpired would be an endless loop whose ultimate denouement would forever be in the future? I did not relish returning to those familiar halls.

But I wanted to photograph the place. And perhaps in ways I couldn’t fully understand I also wanted to test myself, to discover if there remained any traces of the man I was a thousand years ago in that other life I’d left behind.

Our preface of Lyons County backroads and ruins of a more rural nature lulled me into a bucolic state of mind. The empty fields stretching to a limitless horizon, the quiet graveyards and forgotten homesteads, all told of another world than that of the mean streets of a metropolis. It also helped that we met up with Dave’s wife, Cheryl Unruh, for a delightful meal at an Asian restaurant whose food was unparalleled. By the time we pulled in front of the towering edifice of Kenyon Hall, I was sated and stuffed and altogether at peace.

It lasted just long enough to step inside, get my bearings and hear voices.

The voices belonged to a group of people who’d seen the front door unlocked and followed us in. Dave informed them that the place was closed, but the damage was done. After that I never stopped listening for the scrape of feet or telltale signs that we were not alone.

Every empty building has its own audible signature. Deciphering its sounds however faint or tenuous is a matter not only of listening but of fully engaging the senses with the idea that whatever lies outside the norm, whatever that norm might be for that particular structure, might be something as innocuous as a rat or something stalking you. Something that might kill you. Survival is about trusting what you hear and trusting what you don’t; it’s also about mistrusting everything.

We wandered the four floors for hours, sometimes alone, sometimes together, until finally Dave suggested exploring the basement. The stairway was pitch black.

“Who goes first?” he asked.

“I will,” I said. And flicking on a flashlight descended into that sunless catacomb, each step a remembrance, each step a deeper journey into dark recesses where I will forever wander alone.

(To be continued)

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