Last week, I visited my son John at his college in Southern Illinois. John is an architecture major with talent I don’t understand. On his suggestion we took a day trip to Cairo, Illinois. “Kay-ro,” he explained, was the proper pronunciation.
We drove an hour south toward the very sphincter of Illinois in my battered Volvo. John wanted to drive and I was happy to oblige. I sat shotgun, rolled down the window and rested my head. I was exhausted from traveling, my ongoing divorce, the workweek, and any number of the midlife pressures (both real and imagined) I am usually enduring/suffering/creating. I also had recently reverted to a bad diet, alcohol, and a little dope. A weekend with John sounded good and I treasured, not a little, the opportunity to ride with him as two anonymous travelers in a land unknown.
I’m Billy. This all happened on the eve of my fifty-second birthday.
“F-I-R-E-I-N-C-A-I-R-O,” I said.
“What?” John asked.
“You know that song? ‘Fire in Cairo’? By The Cure?”
“It’s a good one. It’s old,” I said. “Robert Smith sings the letters out like that. On the chorus.”
“It’s probably not this Cairo though.”
“No, probably not this Cairo.”
The idea to undertake the little road trip had been supplied by one of John’s English professors. An apocalyptic lit course. I liked the idea of that.
“This town,” John said, “is mega abandoned. It was a river port town in the early 1900s and it collapsed with the end of river traffic and desegregation. The whites left town. In a decade the town went from a population of twenty thousand to three thousand. Imagine eighty-five percent of anything just vanishing.”
“Why are we here?” I asked.
John shrugged, “To look around. And to take some pictures for my class.”
The wind felt wet and thick against the skin of my face as we tore down the highway. The road cut cleanly between great and gnarled walls of green vegetation. Fat insects smacked against the windshield. I’d smoked a jay in the bathroom at the last gas station and wasn’t sure if John had detected my intoxication or not. I thought he probably had.
Looking at him, I fought and defeated the urge to say “You’re a good kid” or something like that. No reason to embarrass either of us. This was just a no-pressure weekend. A nice break.
“Here,” he tossed his professional camera into my lap, “start snapping.”
We passed beneath a trestle parenthesized with dense foliage and knotty vines as thick as fire hoses.
“Cool,” I said. “King Kong.”
We pulled through the town and I clicked away, capturing shots (I didn’t really understand why) of closed liquor stores, gray and emptied strip malls, shattered parking lots. The sky was a slick gray and the air deeply humid.
“What’s that smell?” I asked. “Smells like popcorn.”
“I hope it’s popcorn,” John sniffed. “It’s probably ditchwater.”
The streets stood empty. We cruised through what might have been a main drag fifty years earlier. Houses and great stone buildings seemed to groan beneath pilings of overgrowth, birdshit, and debris. I tried to read the gappy marquee displays: “SA SU M ER IN CAIRO!” “WE OME GR S!”
Some dangerous looking guys stood by an old hamburger stand. They faced inward in a ring, watching us over their shoulders. I nodded to them and snapped their picture.
Between buildings I caught glimpses of a long cement wall that presumably held back the Mississippi River.
And then, just like that, we drove out of town.
“That was it?” I asked.
“There are some historic bridges just out beyond here. I wanna drive ’em. I’m in a bridge mood.”
“A bridge mood,” I said.
I don’t like heights or narrow spaces. As a light drug user, I should have known the bridges wouldn’t do me any good. I found them each terrifying. They were long and soaring metal structures, arcing over the broad black surfaces of the Mississippi, then the Ohio River. Beautiful, in a skeletal way, and they themselves looked sad, like the desiccated bodies of dinosaurs reaching from river shore to shore.
John glanced at my hands clamped tight over my kneecaps.
“Those are some white knuckles, Dad.”
“Just a pretty narrow bridge is all,” I said. “And don’t look at my knuckles, just watch the road.”
He laughed and coasted the car down the grade of the bridge and, like a roller coaster train returning to station, we leveled out and slowed.
I released my knees and exhaled.
“You didn’t take any pictures,” he said.
“There won’t be any bridges after the apocalypse,” I said. “They’ll all get blown. Watch a war movie.”
“This looks good. Let’s check this place out.”
John turned off the road into an old filling station. He parked the car before a great crater in the cement. It looked like a bomb had been dropped, or as if the earth had just been scooped out by some monstrous claw. He unbuckled his seatbelt and opened the door.
“What are we doing?” I asked.
“Snooping,” he said. “Get out of the car.”
I stepped out and joined John at the edge of the crater.
“They must have dug the tanks out,” he said.
The pit had a depth of maybe twenty feet. Greasy little pools glittered in the mud and stone at the bottom.
“You mind if I have a cigarette?” I asked.
He rolled his eyes.
“Thanks,” I said, drawing one from my half-crushed pack.
I began to explain how I don’t really smoke a lot any more but, hey, this was a vacation for me, when I accidentally kicked some gravel down into the crater. The glassy surface of the pools trembled, then exploded with a great diaspora of leaping frogs. They hopped outward climbing the rocky walls. There looked to be hundreds of them. All black and small and furious—frenetic as gnats.
“Whoa, nice,” John said. “Take their picture.”
I handed him the camera. “Maybe you should do the camerawork for now.”
He took it and snapped shots of the creatures. I wandered over towards the gas station to smoke. Trash and shattered glass collected at the foot of the brick building. The windows were all boarded up. The doors were chained shut but the glass had been busted out. I poked my head in. The store was ransacked and filthy. Drifts of garbage and debris covered the floor. The air smelled like acrid, fruity garbage. I stared at the trash, the destroyed counter and its smashed-up register. I glanced over at the empty magazine rack and caught sight of a dog nosing its way in my direction.
My heart stopped and the burning cigarette fell from my mouth and landed with a pat on some crumpled newspapers.
The dog stared out at me from the shadows. His eyes caught the light and shone like eerie blue coins in the dark. I couldn’t tell if he was dangerous or not.
“Dad,” John called at me. “What’s in there?”
I raised my hand at him, signaling “hold on” or “be quiet” or “don’t rouse this fucking dog,” but John just walked toward me.
I took a step back and the dog followed. As he came into full view I breathed a little sigh of relief. He was an old mutt, lanky and sad in the folds of his face. His coat was the color of burlap. His paws snapped some broken glass as he transferred his weight and rolled the muscles of his shoulders toward me.
He sneered a little, showing his yellow teeth.
“John,” I said. “Get back in the car. There’s a dog here.” I backed away slowly.
“Is there anyone in there with him?” John asked.
“What? Like other dogs?”
“No,” he said. “Homeless guys or something? Travelers?”
I turned away from the dog and jogged toward my son. I pushed against John’s chest and said, “Seriously, get in the car.”
John lifted the camera and snapped a picture.
The dog wandered out of the store and looked at us. The spokes of his ribs stood out against his skin. A muddy collar hung around his neck.
“Poor guy,” John said and I agreed.
The dog ambled toward the road.
“You scared it,” John said.
“It scared me.”
“Is there any food in the car? Let’s leave something out for it.”
“John, it’s walking away.”
John ignored me and ran to the car. I followed, muttering, “I don’t think there’s anything in there. A can of Dr. Pepper maybe.”
He opened the glove box and rummaged around. He drew out a spray can of Mace and held it up. “This yours?”
“That was your mother’s,” I said. “Is your mother’s.”
I opened the passenger door and cast a last look at the dog. John shut the glove box and sat in the driver’s seat. “How is Mom?” he asked.
“Good, I imagine,” I said. “Don’t you talk to her?”
He turned the ignition. “I do.”
“How’s she sound?”
We reversed out of the gas station and drove back into town.
“She says you’re leaving your job,” John said.
“How does she know that?”
John shrugged. “Is that true? You’re leaving the high school?”
“Well, maybe. Eventually.”
We drove along the river wall. I had enjoyed the idea of being cut-loose for the weekend but by this time I was longing for some hanging vine of civilization to clutch. Cairo, it turned out, was not spectacular in its abandonment, but an achingly lonely place. The wind smelled sour, the buildings were destroyed or half-destroyed, the sky smoked a steel-gray.
John parked beside a cardboard-colored house built on stilts. From the streets we could see that the windows were boarded up and graffitied upon. A long wooden stairwell led up to a deck and a strangely new-looking sign reading “Sug’s Riverfront Bar and Grille.”
“Sug’s has seen better days,” I said.
“I’m going up there,” John said. “Come with me.”
“John, don’t,” I said. “Who cares? It’s abandoned. Let’s just drive around. Take pictures from the car.”
“I’ll be right back.”
“What about dogs? There could be dogs.”
He looked at me, unsure if I was serious or not.
“Here, at least take the Mace, use it on a squatter or something,” I said. “If you have to.”
“Back in a minute.” John shut the door and trampled up the rickety steps toward the restaurant.
I leaned back in my seat and turned up the stereo. We had been listening to Abbey Road on the trip down here. I changed the track to “Octopus’s Garden,” thought better about it, then advanced it to “Polythene Pam.” I reached into my cigarette pack and withdrew my final joint of Cajun Gambit. I cracked open the window and lit up.
John was right about my leaving the high school. I had spent the last fifteen years teaching English at Bradley Zale High and this was my final semester. A friend of mine had offered me an administrative position at a public high school in Denver and I’d accepted. I hadn’t told John about it and I certainly hadn’t thought I’d told my ex-wife about it, yet the information seemed to have leaked out.
The strummy urgency of “Polythene Pam” (“She’s so good looking, but she looks like a man”) caused my heart to race a little. I dug through my book of CDs and stopped on an album John had given me as part of a birthday gift a few years earlier. It read: Saturday Morning: Cartoons’ Greatest Hits. I smiled. I liked this disc. I switched it out with The Beatles and began searching the tracks.
In my early career, before I taught high school, I wrote for a series of action cartoon shows—all of them based on toy lines. None of the shows did very well or are remembered now, but I enjoyed the work immensely because it felt like a sustained period of grade school recess. The stoner atmosphere and low responsibility level of the job suited me nicely.
The CD was a kind of tribute to those days of my life, days I’d explored for John in verbal retellings that, over the years, had become so exaggerated and mythologized it was now a little unclear to me if that period of my life had ever actually happened or if it was just a pleasant, years-long hallucination. Each track of the album was a theme from an old Saturday-morning cartoon show covered by a rock band. “Go Speed Racer Go” by Sponge. “The Tra La La” by Liz Phair and Material Issue.
I found my favorite track: “Spider-Man” by The Ramones. I tranced out for a few minutes, listening to the song, smoking the joint, imagining Spider-Man swinging between New York skyscrapers. John never wanted to talk about Spider-Man, or music, or old cartoons—and that didn’t really bother me. His interests were functional: architecture, outdoorsmanship, organized sports. I was okay with that. Actually, I was probably a little envious of his practicality and the pleasant ease with which success seemed to come to him.
The Ramones sang: “Is he strong? Listen bub, he’s got radioactive blood.”
It occurred to me that I was sitting in Cairo, Illinois, toking up while my son picked through rusty garbage. I looked over to the driver’s seat. He hadn’t even taken the pepper spray. I rolled up the window, turned off the ignition, pocketed the key and left the car. I extinguished the joint on the curb and slid it back into my pack for later.
I started up the steps to Sug’s when a withered black guy rolled up on a bicycle. White hair shot from his scalp in sprouts. He wore dingy overalls and sneakers. A flashlight dangled from a thong on his wrist. Plastic bags filled with empty liquor bottles hung from his handlebars. Two dogs accompanied him on long leashes of jump rope. One of the dogs I recognized.
“Hey,” I pointed, “I know that dog. He was at the gas station.”
The man and both dogs stared at me.
“This my dog,” he said.
I took a step backwards up toward the restaurant. “Yeah,” I nodded. “I know that now.”
“What you doing up there?” he asked.
“Oh,” I said, “I’m looking to buy some property in town. . . . I thought I’d cruise around. See the sights.”
“Man, what’s your name?” he said.
“Me? My name is Billy. What’s your name?”
“Bitch,” he said, “I’m Mofuckulus.”
I took another two steps up the stairs, saying, “That’s nice. Well, I guess I’ll go buy this property now. See ya later.”
Mofuckulus narrowed his eyes at me and watched as I slowly walked backward up the long staircase.
“You know you lit a fire in that gas station,” he said. “I had to stomp that shit out.”
“F-i-r-e-i-n-c-a-i-r-o,” I whispered.
When I reached the top of the stairs Mofuckulus flipped me the bird and rode off, his dogs trotting silently beside him.
The doors to the restaurant lay shattered on the wood of the deck.
“John?” I called, stepping into the place.
“Yeah?” he said.
John stood on a chair against the bar. He seemed to be putting a lot of effort into ripping a decorative oar from the wall. “I wanna keep this,” he said.
I nodded like I understood. The place was a disaster. Chairs and tables were stacked and strewn about the dining room. Appliances and fixtures were torn from the walls and left in the open. Empty juice bottles, an opened First Aid Kit and some ashy coals all lay across the surface of the bar.
I looked back up to John and the wall-mounted oar. “Yeah,” I shrugged. “Fuckin’ steal it.”
He tugged hard, and then said, “It’s screwed in. Do you have the car keys?”
I handed him the keys and he twisted one against the screwhead. “Who were you talking to down there?” he asked.
“Oh,” I said, “just Mofuckulus.”
John pulled the oar free with satisfaction plain on his face. He handed me the keys and stepped down from the chair.
“You going to mount that in your dorm room?” I asked.
“Maybe,” he said.
I nodded and took a step toward the windows. “It’s sad that these are boarded up,” I said. “I bet you could get a good view of the river from here.”
“Are you okay, Dad?” he asked me.
“Yeah,” I touched the surface of a table. “There’s still salt in the shakers.”
We walked outside and I gave the street a once-over for my new friend and his dogs but saw no one. We took the stairs and slid the oar lengthwise into the car.
“Ready?” he asked me.
I looked around. Maybe it was the pot or maybe I was stalling—but I wanted to tell John I was moving out of state and I didn’t want to do it in the car. “One more building,” I said.
He smiled strangely and asked, “Really?”
“Yeah, that one.” I pointed across the street to a red-brick building covered in vines, it looked to be six or seven stories tall and I instantly regretted making the suggestion when John said, “Let’s climb to the roof.”
The stone archway above the main door read “Caraway 1909.”
“Caraway,” I said, “like the seed. Or Carry Away. We are getting carried away.”
We walked across the empty street. John kicked out a plank and ducked into the building.
The pot had made me thirsty but I didn’t want to go back to the car alone. I followed John into the Caraway building.
It was dark inside but for stray columns of dusky sunlight. The interior seemed like an atrium, floors had collapsed on themselves and what flooring did remain looked severely uneven, damaged by water and time, every surface was warped and cluttered with trash. The stairwell stood exposed to the rest of the building and I know now that if I had been thinking clearly I would have never allowed John or myself (and certainly not both) to climb it. As it was, I dutifully followed John up the stairs.
I knew that when we reached the roof I’d have to tell him I was moving. I also knew I was being a little bit of a drama queen about this. It wasn’t like we’d never see each other again and I didn’t think he’d miss me. It’s just that I knew I’d miss him. I’d continue to visit him in college and I’d buy him plane tickets to come out and visit me, but the era of a few hours’ car-ride distance was done. The era of his childhood home was over and I was acutely aware that it was I who was locking the door on those days. I don’t know. I suppose I just felt that, in some way, this really was our last time hanging out together.
My heart started to pound a little. I ran out of breath. This would be a bad place to have a heart attack.
John looked back at me, “You okay?”
I waved him ahead: “Yeah. I’m fine. Keep going.”
Not wanting to look like the aging guy I am, I trudged along and followed my son. I leaned against the wall and tried not to look over the unprotected edge. The air felt cooler up there, metallic and brave. We passed doorways into other wings of the building. I saw a pile of some old Christmas decorations. Old clothes. More debris. And then what looked like an old action figure lying on the floor.
“Hang on a second,” I said, walking out into the hall.
I knelt down and picked up the toy. It was an old Batman figure. Most of his face was rubbed away and he was missing both legs but, sure enough, Batman.
A full garbage bag sat beside the figure. I kicked it over and more action figures spilled out. John stood behind me as I sorted through the piles of toys.
“No way,” I said, holding a figure up.
“What?” John asked.
“This is The Dragoon,” I said. “I used to write for this character. He had a cartoon show.”
“It looks like Spider-Man,” John said.
“Well, sure, but it isn’t. It’s definitely The Dragoon. I didn’t think these figures even existed anymore.”
“I guess they don’t. Just in a garbage bag in this condemned building.”
I dug through the bag. A lot of characters I didn’t recognize, but a few I did—Nightcrawler, Aquaman, The Sea-Lion, Polar Bear Man, She-Ra. All were in shabby condition and all were at least twenty years old. I filled my jacket pockets with a few of my favorites.
“I’m coming back for this,” I said, tapping the toe of my shoe against the bag.
“Whatever,” John said.
We continued our climb. We took the stairs all the way up and came to a doorway. John pushed it open and we walked out onto the roof. I breathed easy. The shitty air was a little more tolerable than the air inside the building. The sky had darkened. It would be night in a matter of minutes. John walked to the edge of the roof and looked out over the dilapidated, empty town and the broad river. He crossed his arms across his chest and watched the slow drag of the river. After a moment he began to take pictures.
I inhaled. It was time to tell him about the move.
And then on the street: Mofuckulus bicycled up to the building with his dogs.
“Ah, damn,” I said.
“What?” John asked.
I pointed down to the guy. “That’s our friend.”
“Who is he?”
Mofuckulus leaned his bike against the curb and walked towards an opened window. He bent down and lifted each dog up by the rib cage and hoisted them inside.
“I think he lives here,” I said. “We should go.”
“Okay,” John said.
“I’ll go first.” I opened the door and slid back into the stairwell. The sound of dogs scrabbling in debris echoed clearly in the building. John followed behind me. We crept down the stairs and I watched as, six floors below me, Mofuckulus rooted in his plastic bags. His dogs circled him wagging their tails. He muttered words to himself I couldn’t understand.
I looked back at John and held my finger to my lips. I didn’t know if Mofuckulus himself was actually dangerous but I thought his dogs certainly could be. As I turned back to watch my step I slipped on a scrap of ceiling plaster and fell back against the staircase. In that split second I felt certain I was going to roll off the stair and fall six stories to my death in front of my son, Mofuckulus, and his dogs. I rolled my ankle and hit the steps hard. The crash echoed all throughout the building rousing several unseen pigeons from their roosts. John called my name (“Billy!” not Dad) and grabbed me by the arm.
My ankle swelled instantly. Mofuckulus’ dogs erupted in a chorus of panicked barking.
I looked over the edge: Mofuckulus stared up at us with an empty, baffled look on his face.
“Sorry!” I called down to him.
He shouted: “Motherfucker!” and his dogs ripped up the stairs after us.
“Ah, damn,” I whispered.
“Dad, get up!” John hoisted me up by my armpits.
I tried to stand but a shooting pain stabbed up from my ankle to my brain. I leaned against the wall. The dogs were already on the third floor.
“Dad, come on,” John pulled me into the wing and helped me hobble toward the window. He stuck his head out, then ran to the far side of the room. He looked out another window and shouted, “Fire escape! Dad, come on!”
He ran to me and threw an arm across my back. He jogged me toward the fire escape and every step sent a white hot shock of pain through my leg. The dogs’ barks echoed throughout the guts of the building.
“Wait!” I shouted, twisting out of his grip. “The action figures!”
I hopped back towards the garbage bag and fell atop it. The dogs crashed together in the doorway before me, their nails scraped deep into the planks of the floor, foam flew from their black lips. The dogs made a run for me. I pulled the can of Mace from my pocket and sprayed directly into their faces. As I sprayed, it occurred to me that I wasn’t certain the dogs were actually about to attack. The one I knew from the gas station actually had a goofy, happy look on his face, as if he was pleased to see me again.
The dogs bowled into me and knocked me over. The hot and ashy smell of Mace filled the room. The dogs cast their heads side to side, rubbed their faces on the floor, sneezed and whimpered.
John buried his face in the crook of his arm and pulled me up with the other. Mofuckulus shouted and trampled up the stairs after us. I grabbed the bag, twisted the top and slung it over my shoulder. John walked me to the window and we climbed out.
“Give me that stupid bag,” John said, taking it from me. “You just walk.”
He carried the bag and guided me down the fire escape.
“Damn it,” John said.
“I left my camera in there.”
I shrugged: “Let it go, I guess.”
Slowly, and with much pain, I climbed down the fire escape. It seemed as if dogs were barking all across the little town. I could see none of them, only hear their deranged calls. Little candle flames appeared in the upper windows of abandoned buildings. I felt intensely watched.
Mofuckulus screamed at us from the top of the fire escape: “What did you do to my fucking dogs?”
We finally made it down to street level. John took the car keys, ran across the darkened street and started the car. He drove it over to me and I threw the bag of action figures in the back. I sat in the passenger seat, shut the door and John drove on.
We passed through the main strip of town. John and I watched the strange, broken faces of squatters in the candlelit windows. All the watchful eyes seemed crazed and half-sunk in shadows—like a city of refugees, survivors that had claimed some fossilized river town. The city that had once looked totally abandoned, now actually seemed full of secret people.
“How many are there?” John asked. “How many people do you see?”
I didn’t answer. I didn’t know.
John slowed the car and parked in the middle of the street.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“How much money do you have?”
We held eye contact there for a long moment and then, with reluctance, I fished out my wallet. “A dollar bill and some credit cards,” I said.
“A dollar bill,” John said, reaching for his own wallet.
He pulled out all the cash he had, a fifty and a five. He looked around the car for something—what, I couldn’t tell. He pulled the soda can from the cup holder and wrapped the money around it. He pulled a bracelet from his wrist and slid it over the bills, securing them to the can.
“What are you doing?” I asked again.
“Making a donation. Stay here.” John got out of the car.
In the darkness, John ran behind the car out into the street. On either side, candles burned and faces watched him from windows. The wind dragged off the river carrying the crazy sound of dogs and bells and horns from distant river traffic. John rolled the can like a goodwill grenade down the street into the broken town.
Watching the behavior of my son in this apocalyptic place caused something in my chest to knot. To have felt pride and love for him would have been enough. But more than that, beyond that, I sensed that he’d surpassed me in all the ways I’d hoped and dreaded he would—and that he had done so, long ago, without my knowledge, without my consent, and without my help. I didn’t have anything to tell John that he didn’t already know.
We didn’t have to tour the wasteland. Our relationship, John had revealed, was the wasteland.
He returned to the car, started the engine, looked at me and said, “Okay. We can go.”
And he drove us back.