Spring 2023 • Vol. XLV No. 2 NonfictionApril 4, 2023 |

Fossil Land

A dead thing, if it’s lucky, will become a place. Dead things make way for the living, soften into soil and climb through the water table, up stalks of corn, through clusters of globe mallow, into nomadic grains of pollen spirited away on the legs of bees. Living things, somewhere else, take shape. But there are places, too, where dead things only die, cased or layered beneath thin sheens of life-for-now, billboards that may as well read in jaunty script:

NOTHING TO SEE HERE!

WE ARE ALIVE.

All of this was underwater once. Nebraska is riddled with palaeoniscoid fishes and xenacanthid sharks. Chimaeroid scales and skeletons, petalodontoid teeth, violent and smooth, beneath all that grass.

If you play the alphabet game along this route—west on Interstate 40, then north along 35 and 85—you thrive on the recurrence of antiques stores. Aside from license plates, they’re almost the only way to get a q. In youth I lived for these shops, mesmerized by the attempts at organization of so many disparate pieces of history, little tokens of this kitchen or that, gifts from people now dead to other people now dead, collectibles (so often spelled “collectables,” an error my mother would ruefully repurpose as a pun whenever the collectible in question was, in fact, a table). If you’ve never been to one of these shops, the best and most overwhelming version is, by far, the antiques mall. These sprawling theme parks of antiquity are typically organized in long, narrow aisles lined with floor-to-ceiling glass cases stuffed as elegantly as possible with small trinkets, handwritten tags tethered to their hosts by strings. Sections are organized by seller, and from there by era, decade, layout contingent on the quantity of items in play. Jewelry goes with jewelry, Nazi paraphernalia with Nazi paraphernalia, et cetera. 

There are always disturbances. A patch for the Klan, black-faced dolls in cheery poses of servitude. But then, of course, there’s the glass, thickly shielding what’s beyond, as if to say, Don’t worry, it can’t hurt you. It’s only history now. 

My first stop, always, was whatever rack of moth-gnawed clothing lurked on the outskirts of the store. If one were to move one’s body in such clothing, really move, the cloth would certainly come apart. The clothing is riddled with such transgressions. Tears along seams at the thighs, buttons intact but hanging oddly from the ports of buttonholes by matching threads. Understandable vestiges of aging—yellowing lace, the pocky divots left by industrious silverfish and moths—but also the ruptures made by fingers and cigarettes, sun and nails, the discolorations and rifts that could have been resewn, forgiven and forgotten, glaring little testimonies of repairs unmade. 

These racks are always small. Fabric is one of the less stalwart materials, among the earliest to go. Next is paper, the troves of pamphlets and home journals, pre-Prohibition sheet music stacked in upright trunks. Next are wood, aluminum, glass. Each subject to its own worst enemies.

Plastic, on the contrary, lasts just about forever.

Ceramic also is a survivor. My fixation, when I was young, was ceramic figurines, especially tiny figurines of tiny animals. My favorite was a deer, impossibly small, a faintly judgmental expression painted on its porcelain face. I remember finding it in a rotating display case, the type used to showcase slices of pie. With a surge of insistent, childlike cathexis, I used four dollars of my own money (a minor fortune) to buy it.

The way you get a price read on something with the tag upside down in an antique shop is to crouch very low to the ground, look up, and read the tag through layers of glass shelving. It’s like a superpower, when you’re young, checking prices in this way. Economic intelligence predicated on fresh, nimble knees.

Perhaps more than anything, even the figurines, I was drawn to the necklaces (circa ’50s and ’60s), Technicolor blue, dodecagons in sharp shifts of plastic and tanzanite. I didn’t know about tanzanite then, of course, beyond its presence as an element in my soon-to-be-much-maligned purity ring. I could not have imagined it coming all this way, from the sweat-slick mines of the Merelani Hills of East Africa to become the spoils of a J. C. Penney sale at the Tulsa Promenade. I knew only that it was foreign and finite, and this was enough of a reason to treasure it above all else.

… …

In Saint Joseph, Missouri, you can buy a house for next to nothing. But there’s a tipping point: how many other people buy one of these gorgeous dead houses, splendid and gaping as abandoned ballrooms, determines the value of your house. Emptiness signifies a “bad” neighborhood; occupation signifies a “good” neighborhood. 

The deciding factor in choosing one of these historical homes is what they call “good bones.” Solid construction, plumbing, electrical. Windows that aren’t complete trash. Sometimes locals will rip out the copper wiring, leaving a property virtually valueless. There are entire blocks of these homes, staggered shells of brick and cracked glass, like the photos you’ve seen of dead coral reefs, a hollowed-out tangle of deserted real estate.

The expression “good bones” has always amused me, not only the idea that a house would resemble a body (an idea not entirely without merit) but that the term is almost exclusively used in reference to old houses. I’m not an architect, but it’s hard to imagine that anything’s been uninvented. Steel is steel, chemically speaking. Glass is glass. We haven’t, as far as I know, lost the recipe for good bricks. Nonetheless, there’s a reverence for old things, sometimes, whether they’re wise or not, whether they’re sturdy or not, whether they’ve crashed the economy on a twenty-year cadence or not. The privilege of age, as such. 

When you see these houses, you can recognize the pointing. If there are new bricks, they never quite match the old bricks, or if old bricks are slipped in, the mortar between them is a slightly different shade. There are nearly always flourishes, fresh coats of paint and realigned fencing like funeral makeup, at once a mask and a reminder of the situation at hand. 

Nonetheless, there are always people seated in poses of pleasure on the porches or standing with cups of tea just inside the reframed windows, flushed and desperate with their civilizing success, hoping you like it.

… …

On the occasion of the last Nebraska funeral—although it’s never the last, not really—we stay in a borrowed home in Lincoln, near the railyards and the University of Nebraska stadium. It was chosen for its price and not its aesthetics, but the latter are difficult to ignore: the entire place is themed after The Office, so our discussions of funeral arrangements and cemetery visits take place as we drink from world’s best boss mugs, pressed against pillows emblazoned with sayings like I’M NOT SUPERSTITIOUS . . . BUT I AM A LITTLE STITIOUS. At night, when the trains come through, the whole house shakes like a grade-school Coke-bottle-tornado experiment. In the morning, after we wake and put on our black clothes, we walk out onto the porch, past a framed print of Dwight Schrute’s emergency-management chart, and there are parties on two sides. It’s game day, full-blown pandemic notwithstanding, and it’s possible that we could have predicted this, so close to the stadium. Over two fences, east and south, there are uninterrupted swaths of partygoers, crowded into backyards in cropped sweatshirts around kegs of whichever beer was the cheapest, bought by whoever’s older cousin was available. The music is dated, loud, and as they dance—about nothing, interrupted by nothing, visible only over the tops of the fences—they appear as the prairies do, rooted and senseless, acre upon acre of blond hair blowing like switchgrass.

… …

The wake—or visitation, which is simply a wake without alcohol—is a mess. At the low-sloped conclusion of a long, daintily pink chapel, there’s a coffin, and inside this coffin is someone you love. But the grief is not why it’s a mess. Grief is pure and searing, druglike. The mess, like the bodies of so many dead houses, is structural. 

Over the span of the three hours specified by the invitation, people arrive at various intervals. While perhaps preferable from a managerial standpoint, this is problematic from the perspective of a mourner. Some people are having last looks at the coffin, while others who have already grieved are enjoying a buoyant catharsis, laughing it up a few feet away. It’s like everyone is popping molly half an hour apart. 

The funeral is its own party, sixty people in four pews, leaning and fidgeting and crowded with heartache, as though the scents of one another’s bodies will save us. “Be Thou My Vision” is sung and ascends in a wet haze that hangs in the already sweat-damp air of the sanctuary. My grandfather built the cross in this church. It’s enormous, right angles perfectly right. White oak, the church secretary is pretty sure, although there’s no record of it.

At the cemetery, four men from the local VFW have been waiting in the slate-gray cold for an hour. I stand on the icy slope of grass by the plot that will one day be mine, if I want it. When the man with the bugle plays “Taps,” although the mouthpiece of the horn must be frozen, and the others fire their rifles, it is the only thing that makes sense. It’s as orderly and elegant as DNA, blissfully loud, and I cry like a monster.

… …

The site of the reception is already a dead place. It’s a house my grandfather built, among several he built, but with the added cachet of his having lived there. The guests are crowded into each of the small rooms he devised, rows of mourners at two-foot intervals, as though arranging ourselves like the dead might honor them.

On the way out, down the driveway, I stumble into a discussion of travel these days, of the ease and exhaustion. How simple it is to get from one place to another, and how disappointing it so often is to have arrived.

… …

Just off Highway 29 there’s a Cabela’s, which is not a sporting goods store so much as a necropolis. When I was little, it was the closest I ever got to a natural history museum. Herds of stuffed deer and mountain goats gambol over multiple tiers of fabricated stone. Beneath this scene, wild turkeys crouch among sparse foliage, alongside multiple small mammals. A lone mountain lion slinks along the lowest level, presumably stalking all of the above. 

The part of the store where they sell the guns is reminiscent of certain bars in Philadelphia or lower Manhattan: dark leather seating, recessed lighting, framed historical photographs, and rich wood cabinetry that might hold bottles of rare brandy as easily as bolt-action rifles with names like Savage Impulse and Patriot. 

The tactical gear section is overlooked by a neat row of detached moose and buck heads, mouths fixed in unflappable half-smiles. If you’ve ever seen a fly clamber over the stiff fur of one of these sentinel heads, you know what it is to see a live thing traipsing over the dead. One is put in mind of the heads of conquered kings, mounted above the bridal beds where Genghis Khan would take their wives. 

… …

Long before it snaked through the walls of mid-century mansions like veins, copper was valuable. And like nearly anything of value, it has long been treasured, and has long been stolen. Historically, copper has functioned as a material of currency and weaponry, plumbing and fine art. It has at certain moments and places been reserved for royalty. Since copper is poisonous to many aquatic organisms, it’s been used on the hulls of boats to eliminate algae. It’s been championed, at times, for cleaning aquariums, and eschewed, at others, because it kills just about everything inside.

… …

Every once in a while, in those coral reefs that so closely resemble the skeletons of houses in northwestern Missouri, the algae comes back and the reef is restored. For the most part, this doesn’t happen. Beneath the Coral Sea, there are five hundred miles of white reef, blanched by all the things we’ve alternately been instructed to ignore and embrace. But there are, sometimes, flickers of life in these dead places—fish may return, for example, if they perceive the reef to be alive. Even the recorded sounds of a healthy, living reef have, in some instances, been enough to draw creatures back to the dead places they’ve abandoned, to reinhabit them. 

There is, of course, a difference between attempts at restoration and delusion, and a special brutality in pretending a dead thing is alive. To stand in a place whose only mandate is to shellac the status quo and call it charm. To mold the skin of a hunting trophy so that it looks not only lifelike but thrilled to be here, to sell you more firearms. To claim heritage over future, or existence over evolution.

There’s no elegance in the lie of what we’ve lost, what we’ve forfeited for the artifice of being fine. Nothing to see here! We are alive. 

But there is still water, stone, a litany of life under all that switchgrass.

The living will, every once in a while, resurrect the dead. 

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A. J. Bermudez is the author of Stories No One Hopes Are About Them (University of Iowa Press, 2022), winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award. Her work has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, Boulevard, Story, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere. She is a recipient of the Diverse Voices Prize, the PAGE International Screenwriting Award, and the Alpine Fellowship Writing Prize.

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