How We Lived on Main Street
by Christian TeBordo
Of course, none of us actually lived on Main Street. Main Street was for commerce. Main Street was for you. For us, Main Street was an opportunity, the opportunity, mostly, to serve you. And what a delight it now seems, not to have served you — none of us ever found ourselves missing that aspect of it — but the things we were privileged to serve.
Main Street had it all. It had everything — cakes, candy, cookies, both flavors of iced-cream, and popping corn — a person could need for nourishment. Our general stores and emporia provided enough pins; buttons; posters; novelty-Ts; beach towels; figurines in ceramic, in rubber, in glass, yes, even in pewter; back-scratchers of plastic and wood; yo-yos American and Chinese; toy muskets; toy blunderbusses; and plush animals to handle every household necessity. And the music! The street rang with the sounds of your, our, whole history, from nationalistic battle hymns by the medley to murder ballads to the deepest cuts of the barbershop scene. But more than merchandise and entertainment, Main Street fostered a sense of community, almost as if community was built into the neo-Victorian, the neo-Georgian, the neo-Victorian/neo-Georgian facades of our buildings. In truth, though, the secret ingredient, the spackle that gummed it all together, was us.
Again, none of us lived on Main Street. Still, we were there every morning when the sun rose; we were still selling, still celebrating, long after it set. We represented every race, nationality, and most of the more desirable foam, mesh, and fur species — the rats, the bugs, the donkeys and dogs. While most of us, male and female alike, wore the standard straw brimmers, suspenders, pinstripes, and a smile, we were also princesses and paupers, ladies and tramps, heroes, villains, and plucky sidekicks. Several of us were a turtle made of pure light.
We could have gone on like that forever. In a sense, maybe we did; we had feelings after all, so many of them, enough that some of us managed to live in an eternal present. In another sense, the sense that Main Street is no more, and we are mostly no more, too, it did not.
Jesus, listen to me. I suppose it’s true what they say about turning into your father.
But no, there’s a line separating melancholy-tinged nostalgia and blind, futile optimism. That line is a vast gulf, a barren wasteland. You could call that line Main Street.
“One day,” my father would say, “we will all live on Main Street. I believe this. I have faith that my children will live in the Castle.”
It pained me when he mentioned the Castle. I knew we would never live there, none of us, because there was nowhere there to live. Many of us, and I was one, wouldn’t so much as look up the gentle incline toward the Castle.
“I will never live in the Castle,” I said.
“Not with an attitude like that,” my father said. “Or who knows?” he added. “Maybe even with an attitude like that!”
Then we were in the barracks, exhausted after another long day. Main Street was dark in the distance; though, the barracks being windowless, we could not have seen Main Street were it lit. The early-a.m. feedings, hosedowns, and reeducation were over, the loyalty oaths resworn, our positive mental attitudes reinforced, and I and my father hit our mattresses simultaneous, though I’d had to climb to mine. That night, for the first time, I heard my father sigh.
“You too?” I said.
“Always,” he said.
I didn’t believe that, of course; I had never heard my father express dissatisfaction with anything but my own dissatisfaction, but I took what I took for his negativity as a positive development, thought I could cultivate it into something productive. For all his devotion to Main Street, my father was a leader, respected among us.
“I have something to show you tomorrow,” I said.
“Wonderful,” he said, and followed up with the plosive exhalation that meant he was already asleep.
During our mid-morning bathroom allowance, I guided my father through the post office, which didn’t function as a proper post office but did offer colorful postcards depicting every inch, every angle of Main Street, out the back doors, and into the network of tunnels into which the backdoors of Main Street let out. He had been there innumerable times before. We all had. There was nowhere on Main Street where any of us had not been. I could not show him anything new about Main Street, but I hoped to show him a new way of seeing something old.
I allowed the door to close and then waved my hand, indicating the featureless backside of Main Street, cinderblocks punctuated by doors stingily stenciled to indicate their functions, as we stood beneath fluorescent light in the tunnel.
“Isn’t it magical?” my father said.
“It’s the backside of a decorated shed,” I said. “A glorified stage set. A simulation. A fake,” I said.
“And yet,” said my father, “without it, there would be no magic.”
“But your sigh,” I said, “last night.”
“As I fell asleep?” he said. “Isn’t a man allowed a sigh of satisfaction after a hard but rewarding day’s labor?”
A satisfied sigh. Rewarding work. I should have known there was no getting through to him. And yet I gave it one last, pathetic try.
“It’s not real,” I said.
Our implants buzzed at the same time. My father seemed to have been expecting it, but the little shock in my neck always surprised me, sometimes hurt.
“Time to get back to the real world!” my father said, and then he put a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t dally,” he said, “too long.”
But he seemed to be trying to tell me something else. Maybe he would have been able to clarify if he hadn’t been so conscientious, if he hadn’t run so quickly back to his post.
As soon as he was gone, something replaced his hand on my shoulder. It was larger, bulkier, but softer. I looked down and saw the fluffy white digits of a gloved paw. A dog’s paw.
Our dogs were upstanding, both literally, in their tendency to walk Main Street on their hind legs only, and figuratively in their dedication to our customs, their loyalty to management, to you. They were the ones who actually seemed to believe you were always right. Even when your children screamed in their faces, kicked their furry shins, yanked their velveteen ears. Truly our dogs had suffered, and yet they had always treated their suffering as a reward in itself.
So I was afraid to turn around, to look into his eyes, to face his righteous anger, earn my reprimand, my demotion, possibly my torture. My implant buzzed again, this time more forcefully, and still I did not move.
Another buzz and I had a choice to make. I could run back to my station and spend the rest of the day in fear of what would come from this adventure. Or I could turn and let the punishment begin. Though a career coward, I’ve always preferred to get the worst over with as quickly as possible. Sometimes I think I was born to capitulate. I turned and looked up into his eyes.
He was one of our taller dogs, our tallest actually, but for all his sheer size, he generally gave off a clumsy, you could say goofy, impression. Not so now. His expression was fearsome, rage in his gaze, the slobber at his tongue predatory rather than preposterous. One gloved paw had remained on my shoulder when I’d pivoted, and now he raised his other to my other shoulder.
Our animals are not verbal, so they have become exceptionally good at communicating with their expressions. His angry eyes bore smoldering into my soul, and yet I could tell immediately that it was not me with whom he was angry. I had sparked the fire, yes, but I hadn’t built Main Street on a foundation of illusion, and he knew this. He knew this only now. As articulate as the pen of a philosopher, his face told me that it had never occurred to him that he’d been living inauthentically, and that he wouldn’t go on with it another minute.
He pointed to the rear doors. I did not turn to look, instead maintaining eye contact. He bowed his head and punched it repeatedly. When he raised it again, there was fierce determination in his gaze. He pointed, indicating that I should go, and with haste. I left. I ran, implant buzzing wildly.
What happened next is, of course, history. But I don’t want to think about history. I want to think about what came after history.
As the survivors walked through the still-burning rubble, kicking at the dead and still-dying bodies of your family and friends, those of us who had abstained, cowards like myself and loyalists like my father, crept back toward the street from the surrounding lands in which we’d watched and listened to and smelled the carnage. The sense of disappointment was immediate. It had been fun, even right, for them to do what they’d done, fun and right for the rest of us to have let them. But what now?
My father was the first to speak.
“Now no one will ever live in the Castle,” he said.
I was ready to point out, yet again, that no one would ever have lived in the Castle regardless, but something stopped me: the expressions of our dogs. Our dogs’ expressions said, quite clearly, that they had always wanted to live in the Castle, and, though they tried to hide it, their expressions succeeded only in expressing that they were trying to hide that it had not occurred to them that destroying the Castle could prevent their ever living there. A weakness of their expressiveness.
But soon the strength of their expressiveness returned. Their expressions said someone would have to pay for the fact that they would never live in the Castle.
My father had spoken, and I had not. I ran again.
The second carnage was more of an aftershock, but I kept my distance longer out of prudence. When I finally returned, I found everyone in the still-standing barracks, everyone but my father.
Which is to say that things continued to happen once history was over. We picked through the ashes daily, finding, for a while, plenty of edible candy, wearable clothing, tradeable baubles. Animals arrived, animals made of flesh and skin and fur and scales. As the supplies dissipated and the wild reclaimed its territory, people began to disappear, in dribs and drabs and torrents and dribs and drabs. They left, speaking of other Main Streets, better Main Streets, real Main Streets, maybe one Main Street for each of us, until this Main Street was my own.
This morning I found buried treasure. A crystalline plastic cube, packed to the brim with hundreds of glossy, gleaming hard candies in every color, each one a near perfect sphere, but more perfect for the rare imperfection. A part of me told me to preserve them, to limit myself to two or three per day, never to bite, always to suck, to allow the cube to sustain me over weeks or maybe months. There is, after all, no one left from whom to hide them, no one to try to claim what is mine.
Nevertheless, they were gone before the sun reached its highest point in the sky, and now my stomach and brain and teeth ache. For much of the afternoon, I tried to convince myself the ache was not real, until just now I had a sort of epiphany: the ache was real. It was real, but it was not good.
Everything is real. A fake Main Street is a real fake Main Street. A false castle is a true false. A phony family is a genuine phony. You are all just like me, authentically inauthentic. It sounds simple, even stupid, when put so baldly. Maybe that’s why no one ever says it. But I don’t think anyone knows. We certainly didn’t. I don’t think you know, either. At least I never saw you live as if you did.
Christian TeBordo‘s most recent books are the novel Toughlahoma (Rescue Press Open Prose Series), and a collection of short stories, The Awful Possibilities (featherproof books). He lives in Chicago, where he directs the MFA program at Roosevelt University.