The Kingdom of Ohio Online - Matthew Flaming

CHAPTER I

THE PHOTOGRAPH

WHETHER BEAUTIFUL OR TERRIBLE, THE PAST IS ALWAYS A RUIN.

When I look back on my childhood, my earliest memories seem like artifacts from a lost civilization: half-understood fragments behind museum glass. I remember the spherical alcohol lamp that glowed like a tiny ghost, ringed with dancing blue flames, which hung over the dining-room table of the house where I grew up. I remember the sweet, oily smell of coal smoke, and the creaking of horse-drawn carriages on the dirt road outside. Most of all I remember the summer twilight over the mountains and how, on certain evenings, just before the sun sank below the horizon, it cast rays so luminous and golden that they felt like a solid, enveloping cloak into which a small boy could simply disappear. An intensity no light today seems to match.

These images appear as snapshots of a vanished world—literally vanished, considering how much has changed between those years and the present day. Since then, airplane flights linking the continents have transformed once-in-a-lifetime voyages into matters of a few hours spent in a comfortable seat. Things like telephones and automobiles, once improbable rarities possessed only by the very rich, are now taken for granted by average people. When I was young, the changing of the seasons was the most important punctuation of life: ancient rhythms that have since been replaced by electric lights that turn night into day, and fragment each day into electronic-precision intervals measured by the punch-clock instead of the almanac.

Now, watching the young men and women dressed in skin-tight leotards rollerblade past the bench where I like to watch the sun sink over the Pacific on these warm Los Angeles evenings, I know that my world no longer exists. It has vanished utterly, and would be incomprehensible to these self-satisfied, bright-faced youths.

Thanks to the genius of human invention, things have sped up until I can hardly keep track anymore: the new-new internet, the new world order, the next big thing that seems to arrive every day (if the newspapers are to be believed). Carried on the tide of progress, we all seem to be fast-forwarding into a future where our memories become irrelevant relics from a useless and discarded past.

Let me be clear: I don’t mean to glorify the “good old days,” or to condemn the contemporary milieu. Whatever charms the past may have had, I don’t believe those bygone times were any better than the present (at least, apart from my own preferences—and I won’t pretend to speak for anyone other than myself). Instead, what I’m trying to explain is that I am a kind of dinosaur: a member of a near-extinct species, fumbling with arthritic talons on the typewriter keys as I write these pages.

Several years ago I took a composition course at the local community college. During those sensitivity-laden sessions (where bad prose was miraculously transformed into “challenging work,” and cliché into “irony”), the instructor taught us that a story should start by making clear where the narrator stands, establishing the voice. And that’s what I’m hoping to do here—only, rereading these last few paragraphs, I see that it doesn’t seem to be working. And to be honest, clarity in general isn’t one of my strengths these days. So maybe it’s best if I begin (again) by simply explaining how it all began.

IT WAS TWO YEARS AGO when the little bells above the entrance to the antiques store tinkled and the door swung open, a sweating delivery man staggering through. I looked up from the book I’d been reading and stood.

“Got a shipment for you,” he announced, dropping the packages next to my desk. “Need your signature.”

I wrote my name on the screen that he shoved in my direction. “See you around, boss.” He gave me a thumbs-up gesture before departing into the brightness of the world outside. I looked down at the three large boxes.

It had been almost a decade since I’d opened my antiques store, and by then it was a reasonably successful business, located in a middle-class Los Angeles suburb. I should emphasize that I didn’t start the business because I was ambitious. In fact, I had opened the store for quite opposite reasons: as a refuge, a way of retreating from life. Despite my decades of trying to feel comfortable in the world, I had never really managed to fit into this place (this sprawling California city with its constant noise, its nirvanas of vitamin juice and self-realization—or this twentieth century in general, for that