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in a place originated around third grade, when I found a book about the Italian city of Pompeii, abandoned in A.D. 79 when Mt. Vesuvius erupted, it lay buried by ash and soot until its rediscovery in 1748, by a man building a vineyard. Once it was excavated archaeologists found a city that was teeming with life, smothered and immortalized in ash. The eruption happened so quickly that the inhabitants had little time to leave, and those who didn’t were found huddled in their homes, the bric-a-brac of their lives surrounding them, preserved in an amber of ash, as if time just stopped.
Around the time I discovered Pompeii, my grandparents had some river property along the banks of the Big River, a few hours south of Saint Louis. Built on stilts by my grandpa and his friends because it was only a few hundred feet or so away from the river and fenced in (sort of) by a low hanging perimeter of metal ropes hung from concrete and iron posts
that were invisible due to the verdant growth surrounding the tended grove of huge peeling elm trees, accessible via rickety grayishlavender painted stairs, the Clubhouse was, as family photographs concur, a secluded preserve. If you left the property and followed the dirt road deeper into the woods you’d find a sandy trail branching off to your left, the topography of which was an obstacle course of hills and dips for us to ramp into and off of on our bikes, which led to the sandbar; a beach of sorts where the river was shallow and slow moving where the family went to swim, barbecue and imbibe Busch and Stagg in staggering quantities. Standing on the small deck at the bottom of a flight of precipitous stairs leading to the river I saw my grandpa as a sort of Superman, as he sat in his Johnboat trying to get the outboard motor working. Accidentally putting his hand on the fan blade on the top of the motor he pulled it back, inspecting the hamburger of his palm and said “Oh. Well.” When I brought this memory up to my mom a few years ago she told me that he was just drunk off his ass. For the adults it was a party destination, for my brother, cousins and I it held a mystique that could be found if you somehow shuffled the geographies of Tom Sawyer and Bilbo Baggins to concoct a sort of hillbilly Middle Earth. A child’s sense of space and geography allows me to remember that the Clubhouse and the land on which it teetered above was huge, grove mapped into quadrants by my cousin Kevin and I that we would explore, hiding behind fallen trees to scare our girl cousins, and playing with our action figures on the hard dirt around the trunks of the oaks.
Deep in the mud of the river just behind the outhouse, or further down the river, in the Mississippi or in the delta in the south lay the Baroness, the G.I Joe figure Kevin’s sister Katie got at the flea market because it was a girl toy, the same reason Kevin threw it into the river. In the corner of my old room at my parent’s house, now turned into a multi-purpose guest bedroom, storage room, shrine to my childhood sits the two foot tall Alvin (of The Chipmunks) doll I got for during my birthday weekend when the whole family gathered at the Clubhouse. While in the cereal aisle with my brother and nephew when they visited St. Louis in March 2011, I see a box of Lucky Charms and remember how Kevin and I ate the two boxes his mom brought for the weekend and finding cramps and diarrhea as the surprise prize at the bottom of the box, forcing us to run back and forth, up and down the rickety stairs between the Clubhouse and the outhouse. On one of my trips I came upon a dense Amazonian nightmare of a snake blocking the door of the outhouse, coiled three feet tall with a darting plum colored tongue. Hurrying back towards the Clubhouse with my thighs clamped together in waddling headlong rush I looked ahead for an adult but for whatever reason none were around, seeing instead my grandpa’s axe leaning in a malevolent, retributory stance against a support beam. I began to drag it back to the outhouse convincing myself that I was going to chop this snake’s head off and take a dump.
Thankfully, for the both of us, the python had moved on and I took my relieved dump. In the months, winter or busy, between our visits the place became, sadly, a dump. I remember being with my grandparents when they returned for the first time in the spring and seeing my grandma cry uncontrollably with anger at what some punks had done to their home away from home. The cabinets were filled with glasses, and what dishes that remained that hadn’t been fast-balled against the walls, painted black with soot from when someone put the mattress on the breakfast island and set it ablaze. I wondered if that person had also seen the python before the outhouse, and that was the reason why they took a dump in the sink. The walls would be frescoed with mud, turned into bas relief by the sledgehammer holes. The windows smashed, the floors filled with empty or shattered beer bottles and cans, the slashed couch and chairs upholstered in flaky layers of ash shed from the bonfire fed by phonebooks, beer boxes, and anything flammable found indoors. In response to those discoveries the family would re-convene for a weekend for repairs, plastering, replacing windows. I don’t know how often this occurred. My intact memories of the Clubhouse unscathed outweigh those of its being defiled, and I forget the last time I was there. The last memories I have of it are of my grandma and I picking Bluebells that grew around the iron ropes that sequestered the property. Of a large black dog that had come onto the property and followed my grandpa around on the riding mower the time Kevin, Jason and I went with him to cut the grass after a long period of heavy rain. Of that shaggy dark dog swallowing a long black snake whole, and looking from a distance like he had a yard long tongue. After the flood of the Mississippi in 1993, when Old Man River reached into the Big River and swelled to the roof of the Clubhouse, my grandparents sold the property to the state of Missouri, the area that it inhabited having been declared uninhabitable flood land. Shortly after that my mom and step-dad bought twelve acres of property in the Mark Twain National Forest near Lake Wappapella and Poplar Bluff, MO, and that sort of became a family destination, but rarely for anybody other than myself, mom and Jim, as its title “the property” belied much less partying than “the clubhouse”, Jason had moved in with grandma and grandpa due to his and Jim’s calamitous collisions, and Kevin moved to Tucson with his parents. We would go down to the property always every weekend during the spring and fall, and during summer we would often go for a week or two at a time, where I would build a series of clubhouses, often called a
clubhouse and rarely a fort, in the woods on the perimeter of the cleared, barren area of grass that the trailer from the 1960’s we’d bought from my grandpa’s aunt sat. I haven’t been back since October of 2006. In March of 2010 my brother and his family visited St. Louis, staying at grandpa’s house - having transitioned two years before from “grandma’s house” when she passed - as he always has, and where he lived for five years before moving to Colorado with our father. For sentimental reasons my brother wanted to go back to the Clubhouse property; to see it for himself, to show his children where he had spent so much time, even though, according to grandpa, nothing was left to be seen or shown, and once we arrived Jason didn’t really see the use of pursuing sentimentality much further than the iron chain blocking the overgrown and soggy dirt road leading to it. A late spring snowfall that looked more gray than white gave the occasion an even stranger feeling of time out of place, or a place out of time, and fell a few inches thick as my nephew Joseph went down the road, nothing more than two overgrown ruts indented into the ground and as I tried to match the mental landscape of my eight year old self to what I was now revisiting. I recognized – maybe – one of the fence posts, and came to a clearing with no great peeling oak trees, no gravel, the river much closer to the road than it should have been, and a single sentinel post standing in the gray and white. I wasn’t convinced that this was the original location; there was too much missing, it was too different from what I remembered that I told Joe that we should keep looking. The path became crowded with evergreens reaching towards each other across the road, with dead trees and brush piles that we had to vault over or clamber under, and we came to a path that led to the left and found sand underfoot. It turned and I recognized a dip, a swoop of the sand with small hills on either side that Kevin and I used to run and jump over, completely unchanged from our time racing along the course towards the sandbar. But how could this bit of geography remain the same when everything else, when so much else, of what I had more experience with and around was gone? Those huge peeling trees had vanished, or were so bony that I didn’t recognize them. The gravel that made the driveway and sat beneath the clubhouse was all washed away, only one post possibly remaining from twenty or so. Joe and I kept walking until I became convinced that the clearing with the post was the original site of the clubhouse and we headed back, the road back being much quicker than going. Once convinced that it
was the original site, when we passed it I could swear that I saw the exact place where grandma and I picked Bluebells. Ducking under the iron chain towards the van Jason asked me if I found the site; he knew it was the clearing, was surprised at how much ground the river had taken, and we wondered which part of the clubhouse that lone post supported. As we had lunch at Steak N Shake I wondered why that post had lasted when all the others had fallen or been swept away, and if it stayed simply as a reminder for any of us who might return, as a guidepost for a changed place.
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