Jo never thought of himself as a river guy, per se, yet one morning he awoke in a canoe, floating down a body of water that clearly was a river. Perhaps he should’ve been more concerned about his predicament, given the fact that he’d fallen asleep in his comfy bed the previous night. But, as Jo noted, there was something a little off about this morning. Like God had moved Earth to some distant corner of the universe. The world looked familiar enough — there were trees along the shore, fish swimming in the water underneath him — yet there was a vague strangeness to it all, like the trees and fish weren’t actually trees and fish but instead alien creatures posing as trees and fish. It didn’t make sense to Jo. There was a fog in his mind, and attempting to think about his situation only made him nauseous. So he resolved not to question anything he was experiencing and instead continued down the river as if it was just another Tuesday afternoon in Cincinnati, which is where he lives and had fallen asleep the night before, and also where he clearly was not at this particular point in time.
Jo attempted to deduce his location by examining his surroundings. The river was quite wide — perhaps two football fields across — with gentle sloping hills on either side. He put his hand in the water and it was strikingly cold, as though it was fresh from the top of some Colorado mountain. Where in the name of Sam Hill Momma am I? He quickly eliminated foreign places like Africa and South America, because the air here was brisk, and he couldn’t deny that there was a definite American feel to his surroundings. There were no monkeys howling from the depths of the forest. No crocs lurking around his canoe. Yes, Jo thought. I must be floating down the Ohio River. He wasn’t so far off on this assessment. The river he was on had been modeled after the Ohio River, but in this new reality, there was no such thing as the Ohio River. Or Ohio. Or America. Or Earth.
The river he was on had been modeled after the Ohio River, but in this new reality, there was no such thing as the Ohio River. Or Ohio. Or America. Or Earth.
Jo floated for what felt like hours before he finally spotted something resembling civilization. Just ahead was a dilapidated wooden pier. A large white sign with chipped paint announced the town Jo had happened upon: Welcome to Grimesville, it read, home to 100 grumpy crabs and one truly mean fuck. It was cold and overcast as Jo guided his boat to the shore and stepped foot onto Grimesville, a place he’d never heard of and frankly probably would’ve never visited if he wasn’t so tired of floating down a rather monotonous river. The river was pretty, don’t get Jo wrong, but pretty in the way that Elizabeth Moss is pretty. Pretty in the way that a snowless winter is pretty. Pretty when viewed from a certain angle. Pretty after a certain amount of intellectualization has occurred. If that makes sense.
At any rate, Jo made his way into Grimesville, a greasy town that lived up to its name. The streets looked like they hadn’t been improved in decades. The houses were two-story plantation-style numbers that, years ago, probably would’ve been beautiful, but they’d since fallen into a state of disrepair, with rotten boards and chipped paint and other obvious signs of ill upkeep. There was a mill at the center of town pumping a pungent gray smoke into air that, frankly, didn’t seem all that clean to begin with. Though there wasn’t much to recommend this particular locale, Jo figured he’d do a little exploring, because when would he have the chance to be in Grimesville again? He needed a guide, though, someone who could tell him what, exactly, was going on around here, and perhaps fill him in on the 100 grumpy crabs and one truly mean fuck thing. So he kept walking, past the once-proud houses, as the mill pumped pollution into the atmosphere of this strange non-Earth that Jo inexplicably found himself exploring.
If I may pause here for a second to talk about why Jo had been plucked from his average life in the relatively non-descript city of Cincinnati to venture upon a faux-Ohio River in some distant Earth-like place like some kind of alternate reality Huckleberry God Damn Finn. I can’t speak to why I picked Jo in particular. I suppose there was no rhyme or reason to selecting him over, say, Brenton from Palm Springs or JoQuanda from Queens. But I can tell you that the only reason anybody at all was chosen on this particular morning is that I, God, up here in heaven — though I do not call myself God, nor the place I live in heaven, though I must continue this illusion for all of you Earthlings who believe in such monikers — made a particularly strong pot of coffee this morning (I call it Mississippi Mud), and began feeling jacked up and experimental on account of the excessive caffeine. Humans, I’ve learned, so often look to me for answers when strange or unexpected things happen in their lives. They turn their mouths to the heavens and ask “God, why me?” or something along those lines. The point that these humanoids are missing is that there is no grander meaning to anything that happens to them. Every murder, miracle and misgiving; every diagnosis, accident and stroke of bad luck was brought about because of freak things up here in heaven — like, for instance, me drinking a ridiculously strong cup of coffee and having a flash of inspiration to fiddlefuck around in the world. Frankly, most of my interventions are initiated out of boredom, because I — like all humans — don’t know why I exist, either, and sticking my nose into human endeavors is a halfway entertaining means of passing the time.
Jo eventually stumbled into a coffee shop along the main strip. What better place, he thought, to gain some insight into the local goings-on? He ordered a 12-oz drip, and the man behind the counter — a grizzled old duck of about 60, with bad teeth, gray hair and a gold ring in his left ear — served it up black.
“Could I get some cream and sugar in this, please, sir?” Jo asked.
The man grunted.
“You must not be from ’round here,” he said. “We haven’t had that stuff in years.”
Jo nodded and sat down at the bar. He took a sip of the coffee and nearly spit it out. It tasted like burnt popcorn steeped in muddy river water, yet Jo composed himself and finished the cup. Best not to be rude in a foreign place, he thought. He rapped his knuckles on the table and looked at the old duck, who was reading a newspaper — The Daily Grimes — behind the counter.
“So,” Jo asked. “What’s the deal with this place?”
The old duck glared at Jo for a second, then returned to his newspaper. Fine, Jo thought. He stood up and began meandering around the shop, eyeing some newspaper articles posted on the walls. Most of them were run-of-the-mill small town stuff, like a local little league team winning a championship or how a tree in Grandma Josephine’sq yard resembles a squatty old man. Then Jo’s gaze landed upon a more substantial headline. “Mill to close, thousands left jobless.” Jo couldn’t find a date on the article.
“Say, when did the mill close?” he asked.
The old duck laid the newspaper down on a stool in front of him. He looked slightly annoyed.
“Over a decade ago,” he said. “I’d been working there for 29 years when it shut down. Came out of the blue. One year from retirement. Didn’t give me a damn cent to live on.”
“So that’s why this?” said Jo, gesturing around the shop.
“That’s why, what?” asked the old duck.
“That’s why this shop.”
“Yeah. Yeah, that’s why this shop.”
Jo strolled around the place, reading a few more headlines. Then he turned back to the old duck.
“Then why’s it still pumping?”
“The mill. Why’s it still pumping?”
“Couldn’t tell ya. No one could. They locked it up when it shut down. Built that barbed wire fence around it that you probably saw. No one’s been there since, that I know of.”
Jo thought of several follow-up questions, but decided to ask none of them. It was beginning to snow. There was already a thin layer of white on the street. Jo stepped outside, and a blast of cool air filled his lungs. He looked up and down the sidewalk, at the wreaths hanging from the lampposts and the plantation style homes that had once been regal. For a moment, he understood why someone would want to live here. It wasn’t nice in the traditional sense — this was no Portsmouth, New Hampshire, or Portland, Maine — but objective beauty wasn’t everything, he thought. It was nice to be in a place where beauty had to be discovered, where prettiness was juxtaposed next to ugliness. That gave the prettiness a more substantial thrust, Jo thought. He took one last breath of cool air, then walked back into the coffee shop. The old duck was cleaning a mug in the sink.
“The 100 crabs and one truly mean fuck thing,” Jo asked. “What’s that about?”
The old duck chuckled.
“So you saw the sign.”
“Hard to miss, coming in off the river.”
The old duck looked Jo in the eyes.
“Off the river?”
“Yeah, off the river.”
“Son, there ain’t a town for 200 miles upstream. Where the hell did you come from?”
Jo realized he didn’t really have a solid answer. He figured the old duck would think he was crazy if he told him that he’d woken up on a kayak out of nowhere.
“Cincinnati,” he said.
The old duck finished washing the mug. “Never heard of it,” he said. “But sounds like a fine place.” Then he went back to reading the paper. Jo assumed the old duck had forgotten about the truly mean fuck question, and didn’t push the issue. Instead, he turned his attention to a more pressing matter.
“Got any places to sleep in this town?” he asked.
“I’ve heard the sidewalk’s not bad.”
Jo didn’t smile.
“Kidding. I got a studio apartment above here that I wouldn’t mind putting you up in for a night, if you’re interested.”
“Great,” Jo said. “Could I come back a little later? I’d like to walk around town for a while.”
“Sure,” the old duck said. “Ain’t much to see, but go for it.”
Jo nodded his head, and made his way through the door. The cold air tightened his face like a mandolin string. There were at least three inches of snow on the ground now. Jo kicked up a pile of it, causing a swirl of white to float away on the breeze. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and began walking down the street, toward an elbow in the river that flowed through the heart of town. This really is a pretty place, when you cover it in a sheet of white, he thought. He thought back to his childhood Christmases in Cincinnati, the way the snow came in droves and turned what was a ho-hum city into a shimmering snowscape. He remembered looking out the living room window of his fourth-story apartment at the snow tumbling down, while his brothers opened presents near the tree and Christmas tunes played on the radio. A beautiful memory, he thought. Then he snapped back to the reality of his situation: How the hell did I get here? He thought about how the old duck had never heard of Cincinnati, and for the first time, he considered the idea of Cincinnati being a figment of his own imagination: not a place that existed in the real world, but a construct of his mind, a concept that originated within himself. Impossible, Jo thought, and kept walking toward the highly-polluted river. Impossible.
Jo stayed in Grimesville for much longer than expected. It’s impossible to say just how long he was there, because time isn’t really a thing in Grimesville, but let’s just say he was there long enough to begin calling it home, which was surprising even to himself. He struck a deal with the old duck about renting the studio apartment, and even started working part-time at the coffee shop, learning the finer parts of making lattes and cappuccinos from the old duck himself, who became more and more like a friend with each passing day. When Jo wasn’t working or hanging out in his apartment, watching through his bedroom window the mill mysteriously pumping pollution into the mucky sky, he was usually relaxing down by the river, which Jo found beautiful despite its general uncleanliness. What I like most about rivers, he often thought. Is that they know exactly where they’re going, and nothing is going to stop them from getting there. For a moment, he believed this a poignant insight, but then he berated himself for being so cheesy. On some days, when it was less cold, Jo would strip naked and wade into the river, allowing the frigid water to send a pleasant shockwave through his nervous system. This always made Jo feel fully alive. I love this place, he often whispered to himself, unaware that, frankly, there were much better places than Grimesville. I never want to leave.
So Jo continued living his life in Grimesville as if it was where he’d always been. The coffee shop. The apartment. The river. That was his wheelhouse. Then one night, many months or years after he’d arrived, he awoke at 3 a.m., feeling wide awake. He laid in bed for a moment, looking around his dark apartment, before feeling an inexplicable pull to move toward the window and gaze at the mill. Jo stared at the ugliest of human creations, spewing froth and foam into the river, releasing toxins into the sky, and suddenly felt the need to discover what it was all about. Jo thought back to the newspaper headline. Surely there was a reason it was still churning despite producing nothing. Jo, overcome with hazy mid-night delusions, felt that it was his duty to march down to the mill and figure out what was going on. The good people of Grimesville deserve to know, he whispered. Obviously, he wasn’t thinking straight. He put on his ratty old peacoat and made his way down the stairs, making sure to take quiet steps so as not to wake the old duck, who’s bedroom was in the backroom of the coffee shop. He unlocked the front door and opened it. The bell dinged. He stood frozen for a moment, worried that he’d woken the old duck. But then he shut the door and moved down the snow-covered sidewalk, toward the hideous beast at the center of town.
If we may take an aside here, I’d like to explain that it was me, God, who implanted the urge to explore the mill in Jo’s head. He had no idea I had anything to do with it, of course, because he’s a pea-brained human who couldn’t possibly understand ideas of such magnitude, but I’m telling you now that it was me, and you’ll just have to believe me in this regard. And just like a few minutes ago (I use “minutes” here in relation to universal time, not human time), when I drank too much strong coffee and got a wild hair about yanking Jo out of Cincinnati and placing him on a polluted river to Grimesville, this implantation was inspired not by any grand scheme, but merely by a bout of insomnia. For the life of me, I couldn’t fucking sleep. I was bored. And as I laid there in my puffy cloud bed, I couldn’t stop thinking about what Jo was doing down there on non-Earth, and decided it was time to shake up his world again. Why not? One must keep things interesting. The more I thought about implanting this urge, the more I realized that maybe I actually could teach Jo a lesson this time, instead of pulling him this way and that for no discernible reason other than my own amusement. Yes, I could use this moment to show Jo a truth about his existence, instead of turning it into another illogical dead-end. Whether or not Jo understood his experience as expressing some grand truth was out of my hands, but at the very least I could place him in a position to harvest some understanding. As I thought about this, I suddenly realized something: was I becoming a benevolent God? Was I actually starting to care about my harebrained human subjects?
As I thought about this, I suddenly realized something: was I becoming a benevolent God? Was I actually starting to care about my harebrained human subjects?
No, I thought. Impossible. To compensate for this sudden burst of empathy, I promptly gave Bob Orca, a 52-year old plumber from Harlem and the breadwinner for a family of four, a fatal myocardial infarction. That’s more like it, I thought, as his wife cried beside him. I cracked my knuckles and crawled out of cloud bed. Then I made a cup of coffee and turned my attention to Jo, who by this point was arriving at the outskirts of the mill.
Jo deftly climbed up and over the barbed wire fence, a man moved by a power much greater than himself, a power he didn’t understand nor frankly even register. As he jumped down onto the mill property, he looked around for an entrance to the building. It was cold, like Rocky Mountain cold, and his fingers were already numb, despite wearing a pair of high-quality winter gloves. It didn’t take long to find a door, but pry as he might, he couldn’t open it. So after a few unsuccessful attempts with his numb hands, he took a step back and kicked the absolute shit out of the door with his boot. That did the trick: the thing flung open, and Jo walked into the mill for the first time, unsure of what he’d find.
A blast of hot sulfur-scented air punched him in the face, but Jo wasn’t fazed. He was on another level — indeed, on a mission from God, though he had no way of knowing this — and without an ounce of fear in his heart, he took his first steps inside, shutting the door behind him. To his surprise, he was standing inside of what amounted to an enormous empty warehouse: it was as if a Sam’s Club had been stripped of all its goods and stood bare as the moon. It was almost pitch-black, but Jo could make out a small glowing light across the emptiness — which, by his hasty estimation, had to be 200 yards away. As he moved forward, his steps echoing in the empty space, he heard a noise emanating from the light. It sounded like the shoveling of gravel. The noise grew in intensity as Jo approached the light — CHIP, CHOP, CHIP, CHOP — and before he knew it, he was standing at the precipice of a half-open doorway. The light coming from the room was a muted yellow, like Venus’ atmosphere. Jo took a deep breath and stepped inside.
What he saw made sense, given the sound he’d been hearing, but it still took him by surprise: a small man dressed in rags was shoveling piles of stuff into a large furnace. The small man’s face was completely obscured, save his eyes, by a piece of red cloth. At first, Jo thought the small man was shoveling coal, but then he realized it was an enormous pile of trash, complete with old computers and printers and branches and desks and chairs and tables. This struck Jo, who was still foggy in the head, as completely unintelligible, so naturally he addressed the small man –whose forehead glistened with sweat — in a stern voice.
“Excuse me,” Jo said. “What the hell are you doing?”
The small man looked at the pile of trash, then back at the furnace. The pile of trash, the furnace.
“What do you mean what the hell am I doing?”
“I mean why the hell are you shoveling that humongous pile of trash into that fire?”
The small man put his weight on the shovel.
“What do you mean no reason? Surely you’re burning trash in an abandoned mill for a purpose.”
“No,” the small man said. “No reason.”
Jo stared blankly at the small man, who was picking his teeth with his tongue.
“I baked a chicken,” the small man said, pointing to a silver platter on the floor. “It’s over there if you want some.”
“I don’t want any of your trash chicken,” Jo said. “I want to know why you’re doing what you’re doing.”
Jo’s face flushed hot with anger.
“If you say ‘no reason’ one more time, I swear…”
“But there’s no better answer,” the small man said. “I cannot tell you why I’m doing what I’m doing. I cannot tell you why I’m here.”
“Doesn’t it bother you that you’re polluting the sky and the river and all of the beautiful scenery in this town?”
“But there’s no better answer,” the small man said. “I cannot tell you why I’m doing what I’m doing. I cannot tell you why I’m here.”
“Not my problem.”
“But it is your problem. You’re making Grimesville an unhealthy place for everybody! You’re the one doing it, and you could stop right this instant if you wanted.”
“No, I couldn’t,” the small man said. “This is not my choice.”
“Then who’s keeping you here?”
“I don’t know. Someone. Something.”
“I don’t know.”
Jo rubbed his temples.
“I don’t understand,” he said.
“Neither do I.”
The room went quiet for a few seconds. The fire crackled, incinerating yet another piece of trash.
“Want some chicken?” the small man asked.
“No, I don’t want your fucking chicken!”
Another short silence. The fire crackling.
“How did you get here?” Jo asked.
“Where did this trash come from?”
“Beats me. Just keeps showing up.”
“Have you ever been outside of the mill?”
“The mill we’re standing in now.”
“Oh.” The small man sighed. “I don’t know what a mill is. I just do this.”
The small man started shoveling.
“A mill is a place that produces something,” Jo explained, as the small man worked. “Like a factory. This one used to produce paper, but it shut down years ago and put hundreds of people out of work. And usually when a mill closes, it stops pumping pollution into the outside world. But that’s not the case here, because you’ve been inexplicably tossing trash into a fire that’s been burning for as long as anyone can remember!”
The small man didn’t understand Jo’s words. He was losing interest in the conversation. He shoveled a few more pieces of trash into the inferno, then stopped and rested on his shovel.
“I have nothing for you,” the small man said. “I’m sorry. You’ll have to look somewhere else. Or just give up.”
Jo ran his fingers through his hair. He sighed deeply, then began walking out the door. He paused when he reached the doorway, stormed back into the room and kicked the chicken into the wall. Meat flew everywhere. “That’s what I think about your chicken!” he shouted.
“No issue here, sir,” the small man said. “Just more fuel for the fire, as I see it.”
Jo stomped out of the room and sprinted across the big empty space. His steps seemed to be echoing louder on his way out, resounding in his head like the ceaseless ticking of a doomed clock. As he neared the exit, his mind began to clear, and he began questioning his motives for coming here in the middle of the night. All around him the factory was churning and pumping. He could hear the pipes groaning and the gears aching. It dawned on him that he was standing in the very heart of nonsense, right in the atrium of absurdity. Smoke blew out of the mill’s stacks like the breath of a great sick animal, and that smoke ascended into the atmosphere of non-Earth, where it began changing things not only in Grimesville, but as far and wide as the mind could fathom. Cincinnati does not exist: Jo thought, and for the first time, he knew it was the absolute truth. Though, like the small man, he could not explain why.
Jo was up early the next morning, well before the sun rose, and hours before the old duck got out of bed to open the coffee shop. Jo dressed in his peacoat and stocking cap. He gathered his few belongings in a brown leather case the old duck had gifted him. Jo made one last sweep through the apartment, ensuring he hadn’t forgotten anything, and as he was doing so, caught a glimpse of the mill — lit by lampost light — through the window. He briefly considered the small man, but quickly moved onto other thoughts, because the small man’s mere existence made him feel empty and hopeless. Jo crept quietly across the floor, made his way out of the apartment, and tiptoed down the stairs and into the frigid Grimesville pre-dawn. He walked along Main Street, the once-regal houses staring at him through the darkness like shrouded devils. The crunch of the icy snow under his feet was meditative. He thought about where he wanted to go, about how he could get away from this strange town, about what other villages — if any — awaited him further down the river. He passed the Grimesville sign, the stupid mean fuck riddle within, and soon he was at the dilapidated old dock he’d arrived on.
God, if you’re up there, he pleaded. Please, I pray, tell me what all of this nonsense is about. But I couldn’t answer him, because I was passed out in my cloud bed, dreaming about a world so glossy and free that when I awoke the next morning, I cursed the universe for making me a measly God, a creature doomed for eternity to be a creator with no idea why he’s creating or what may lie above his head, just out of sight.
Jo looked up and down the lazy river. He squinted his eyes and gazed along the shoreline. His canoe was nowhere to be found. Snow began falling in fat flakes as Jo sat on the pier and took off his boots. He hung his feet over the edge, into the cold water. Stars could rarely be seen in Grimesville, on account of all the pollution, but on this particular night a tiny patch of brilliant glitter shone through the smog. Jo swished the cold water with his feet, dipped his hands, splashed some water on his face. He wasn’t a religious man by any means, but something moved him to appeal to a power greater than himself. God, if you’re up there, he pleaded. Please, I pray, tell me what all of this nonsense is about. But I couldn’t answer him, because I was passed out in my cloud bed, dreaming about a world so glossy and free that when I awoke the next morning, I cursed the universe for making me a measly God, a creature doomed for eternity to be a creator with no inkling of why he’s creating or what may lie above his head, just out of sight.
I spent my last night in Italy eating a DiGiornio at a small table in a rustic cottage.
I snapped myself out of the daydream, yet again befuddled as to why I was considering Hemingway.
Claire Rousay has captured the moment by ‘enchanting the ordinary.’