Sunday Stories: “Pruitt-Igoe”

by Grant Maierhofer

We snuck in I think cos my friends we wanted to die. One of us thought maybe he’d  write something about the place, some poem or something, I don’t know. My friends and I we didn’t think much then, just sort of did what came and went like that, but when we heard they’d decided to destroy this massive space we thought maybe we’d sneak in and let it swallow us. I remember looking through the windows of this like old husked-out building walking home from school without much else to do. I’d stare and my father’d say whatever he’d say about the black families and poor families who lived there but it never stuck much, I didn’t care. My friends the young ones mostly were black kids with sneery faces not unlike my own—I preferred to keep around a crew of unhappy-faced weirdos and we’d hound St. Louis for better guts and it was great. The 70s are piss but I don’t know. My father didn’t work and my mother barely could. The house we lived in wasn’t far from school and school wasn’t far from the buildings and I can remember sometimes going in there to eat dinner at friends’ homes and it wasn’t a big deal at all. We heard adults talk left and right about the politics or something. We’d drown it out like anything and just couldn’t be bothered to care. I love my city, maybe, some days I guess. I don’t know. Sometimes I think about it and still get sick over the noise. We’d almost been caught for so much young bullshit it was odd when it was over, like the city upped and wiped away our sneaky nights in dead sunlight as the community watched confused. I feel tormented that way sometimes. Like the back of my neck might shove through my Adam’s apple and go spattered on the wall. We had endless cans of spraypaint and the city sounded like it might set half itself on fire over “racial tension” or something. Women cried in streets and in front of the buildings. Families and young men screamed out for their fathers like it was all that was left to do. I don’t know. I remember school feeling sort of tense before they came down. I remember that kid who thought he’d write something about it all doing all sorts of research. It was him, he was Jeremy I think; it was Jeremy, Michelle, Mike who we called Igor (a black kid from East St. Louis who didn’t live in the buildings but went to school with Michelle and Mike/Igor loved old horror movies) Enny this girl who always followed Jeremy to sing his praises, and myself, that is Terence, who went to school and set small fires and loved so much to die.

I met them whenever it starts to get dark. I don’t know. I met them out by this demonic McDonald’s and we sat having Cokes and spitting on the ground as truant officers and church ladies walked by with sad eyes. I hate school but I go, the others are about the same but the truant officer picks on Jeremy cos Jeremy’s too smart for school and sits reading Black Spring or whatever in gutted alleys and such while the rest of us ignore the elements. The truant officer asks Jeremy and through Jeremy the rest of us just what we’re doing and we sort of nod and whisper satanic stuff or something and he backpedals away like this crazed moron and Igor shouts “It’s alive!” and after that we can’t contain our collective stomach and begin to spit Coke entrails to cover the pavement. Some city. 

Kids don’t  know much.  I  guess we weren’t  kids maybe. I don’t care. We were clueless though, looking up or out and seeing these boarded up former homes it was strange. Thousands of people suddenly gone wherever.  Faces and histories slowed to a crawl. We walk up and around and it’s almost like you can hear this long moody music playing. The city quiets down and people still sit on the dirty corners lasting to the sounds. These great notes of music spit out from their teeth and we kick cans and make our way toward the structures. Parts of them still housed people then. Their plan was to implode one, evacuate everyone from the rest, then finish destroying all thirty-three buildings. We’d heard this from Jeremy many times. Jeremy liked to talk it through. So many windows. This apparently endless world of outward eyeballs I wondered at so much and now they’re cracked and jagged, kids likely cut themselves all the time on there now. Even the city’s board-up job was halfway. Can’t believe the neglected feeling walking with your pals as wind dies down. It’s  something else. Something obscene and rotten and Enny says something we all laugh at cos she doesn’t seem to understand a thing. She wears these white shorts and I think how dirty they’ll be when we leave the place. I wear my Levi’s and my pack with paint cans and the rest of us basically look like some broken gym class with dead manners. Jeremy says something about Minoru Yamasaki and I don’t quite catch it, ask for repetition. “Minoru Yamasaki designed this place in the fifties and he was a hero. The city loved him cos they couldn’t find a place to split up all the whites and blacks. Pruitt Igoe comes from a white and black guy and they wanted this place to be split right down the middle like. Minoru Yamasaki. He made these buildings in New York, real famous. Imagine watching something like this—something you built up and people thought you were a hero—watching how quick it’d come down. Minoru Yamasaki.” Jeremy sort of mumbled stuff like that to himself just to see if we were really his friends I figured. He had this collection in his room of all these angry old writers talking about piss and dying that he loved to read out loud. I wondered where he’d picked up knowledge about the buildings; then didn’t care.

Igor stepped up onto the curb as we walked an empty street leading up to the abandoned ones. For awhile he walked like a mummy and the girls just loved it. Michelle smiled and the fading light hit her teeth just as my left eye caught sight of the dying structures. I couldn’t quite make sense. It’s not about that maybe. I don’t know. I don’t put things together so much, it was just like Michelle’s teeth and those buildings were more alike than not just then, all kind of dying, just stuck here waiting for it. Igor stops then and turns so his right side faces the buildings and takes on this really mania’d face, raises the right arm and points up toward the structures moaning weirdness none of us seem to understand. My stomach seemed to bob to the pavement then as the whole city suddenly climbed up inside the back of my head and I felt like every presence burrowed up like ghosts against my brain. Igor hadn’t lived at Pruitt-Igoe, but he didn’t need to for understanding. Again my mind never drew connections just so easy but I saw something in the teeth to the structures and I saw something and felt something in the ghosts of that place and Igor’s pointed arm. Then it was odd like. Maybe Igor was communicating just with me I figured. The dark brown skin of his elbow seemed to call out to me like the angles and broken walls ahead as the nervous ghosts inside my brain scrambled for recognition. I heard the music then again and noticed the rest had walked up the street as Igor came and wrapped his arm around me. I didn’t get it nor do I looking back but my heart felt something endless for Igor’s that minute, like whatever came could only ever be an epilogue against his skin cut through the skyline.

Jeremy had this black leather wristband from his older brother who went away to prison for cutting someone’s side open with a broken bottle. As he reached over and climbed into one of the windows of a building about three blocks in from Jefferson on Howard, we watched him from the street to be sure and I felt haunted. The buildings were really a small city inside the city, and we were entering a dangerous place. Homeless stayed here we’d heard or junkies, exhippies maybe who knew; the girls seemed anxious. As the last lights caught Jeremy’s wrist I noticed how the clasps on the inside pinched a bit as he reached over and I worried he saw something tense. Jeremy was a bit older than the rest of us and meaner mostly. Standing on Igor’s shoulders he’d looked like a stickman from outer space and Enny seemed panicked he might stumble. I just kicked around some sand and waited. Now inside Jeremy made some racket setting up some way for us to follow easy, so first we lifted Michelle and Enny as the ghosts seemed to rush out my  ears screaming. Nobody mentioned  anything tense but all felt it. The light was going fast and the city suddenly sounded like a breathing cop, its flashlight tapped against our spines. My pulse rose up and I was last over, vaulting a bit then pulling myself on dusty window smear until welcomed by fellow arms and pulled into a room where the air seemed sucked out.

A family’d lived here we knew and our moods were sour. How grave the idea suddenly got. Photos on the wall a bit and pulled up carpet in the corners of the room and one rusty white metal chair outside what might’ve been a kitchen. I pulled this cheapo red plastic light from my bag and shined it out and felt the coptap again against my spine. I felt sick but knew the friends couldn’t feel that way. I felt the buildings closing up around me like the world was already pulled retching from its sleep and only I could witness. Every morsel of sweat apparently saved up for months suddenly rushed out along my neck as Jeremy pulled a black paint can and went to the front door of the home. PRESSING DETH  Jeremy wrote and none of us much knew what he was getting at. Likely a carried-on conversation with Henry Miller or Céline or one of his miserable lowlifes but we liked the way the painting bled down and knew it was better.

You know all of us I figure had ideas what was what, but we stayed close all the same. Rooms sprawled out like caves before us in this mirrored broken tomb. I said as much. I said to Michelle “You know this place is a tomb” and she looked at me like I was losing something. I asked her, you know, I asked all of them whatever they were feeling, and each seemed lost off in some fantasy of dark or something. I couldn’t get a handle on Jeremy’s breathing, he seemed ready to panic or fall asleep in all this death, the rooms hardly had doors, the doors hung on for all they could but wilted nonetheless. I winced there and breathed in dust. I liked the way my chest puffed out with so much story. Kids and families and mothers and sons and dying and living and so many birthdays held here in one quarter of the twentieth century, little more, before being turned to empty ideas of a life; vacant examples of what humanity might look like from the outside. I kicked out the doorframe in apartment 4F and I guess I remember it cos the foot it got an infection after. Igor seemed depressed, wallowed almost by the severity and weight of what an evening. I felt worst for him perhaps or Enny. Enny was desperately trailing Jeremy as he sobbed through rooms leaving long waves of discontent bleeding down the walls without attention toward what he wrote. Seemingly endless lines of derision and teenage misunderstanding of what we had before us. I hate the fucking city. These cowards build homes to  keep the outsiders out then burn down the homes when they don’t like the consequences of pure neglect. I saw my shirt rip before it happened. The rooms seemed to pull on me I figure. Reached out to feel a family’s mirror and look inside the medicine chest for drugs or poison and as I pulled away the fixture tore the fabric just. I appreciated it  without fully comprehending why. Later maybe I understood that I’d been given an absence to represent the absence, a space of cloth neglect for all the real suffered seasons here. I stood behind Igor as we walked together into what might’ve been a lobby at some point but looked like the bad end of nuclear means. The doorways collapsed inward with piles of wood and dusted tracts of leased rooms or desk and chair fragments and it felt closer to entering the chambers of some pre-human cave than what once housed so much feeling. I closed my eyes and felt my chest leap out for air and knew I’d never really breathe again, not the same. Jeremy held onto Enny as Michelle, Igor and I hung back near the former office and Jeremy we saw was weeping bad. Igor grabbed onto my hand then and it seemed like breath restored itself through the hole in my neck where the ghosts made way. My nose inhaled the scent of what might’ve been a schoolhouse after filled high with garbage and centuries-old sweat maybe. The room was more a feeling than a sense. The ceiling seemed ready to crush each one of us as intruders on civic distemper. I don’t know. I liked it there. I missed what might’ve been my father had he done well maybe. I missed the city before it ate itself like one of those snakes, suicidal. We stood inside what was already the grave of so many lives and suddenly Jeremy, weeping, pulled from Enny and raised his hand slightly so she’d stay right there. He took his can of black spraypaint and walked once in a circle around Enny without leaning over to paint, then again and the sound of the paint suddenly shot me through with blood and anger. I was dying with desire for him to cover the attempted whitewash in the blackest coat and I could smell the aerosol amid the dusted remains and Jeremy painted what must’ve been a perfect circle around Enny moving inward, creating this black labyrinth of bleeding chemicals and for a bit I thought the floor might fall through into the real. I grabbed a paint can from my bag and walked to the top of garbage stuffed high in the entryway and wrote THERE IS WAR INSIDE THIS PLACE not knowing much what I was hoping to say but when I’d finished knew it made good sense. I then sprayed the contents of the can into my hand turning the palm black not knowing why. Michelle and Enny looked at me like I’d lost it and that was fine. I don’t  much go for explanation. It was like I stood inside my death; that room the most I’d ever feel. I stared at Igor and even he seemed confused by the pain stretched across my teeth. I don’t know. I make myself sick thinking about it, I feel dead thinking about the city, and that’s all it is I figure. I felt the pulse of a city maybe. Like all its history and infection and I were one—the explanation doesn’t matter.

“You know I bet once they’ve destroyed these buildings everyone will forget Minoru Yamasaki.” “Igor are you OK?” “Enny your eyes are caked with dust.” “Terence what’s the matter with you?” “Jeremy who’s Minoru Ya-ma-whatever?” “This room is toxic, guys.” Inside a place where life is made not to matter perhaps there’s like this vacuum of sounds when everyone tries to speak. I listened as they spoke and picked up a scrap of small red cloth I still keep but it was more like I’d fallen asleep or let go. I pitied Jeremy because I knew some sense of desperation drove him to want to preserve this place somehow. He’d write it out I guess. I don’t know. I couldn’t even think about it for months weirdly. Too much pressure or something once they started detonations. Buried the scrawled paint of our disgust like so many scraps of clothing and the dust would spread for miles. Jeremy read me these passages once from a biography he’d found of Minoru Yamasaki and my head was broke for hours after. You don’t see the world as made up of paintings done by individuals and homes as visions of a better way. You see the structure. The building. The buildings. They tear through the earth almost, eyes and steam and metal and suddenly established they threaten everyone with the possibility of their collapse. The building as representative of the end-all-be-all of human desire and achievement, maybe. The buildings as talking to us, screaming down roads without throats. You see an absence in the air and already construct a building to take its place. Your eyes water with flecks of plaster as the city’s reach spreads outward and the sound of detonation rips your stomach pulled with fire. There’s something hellish about the city, the world it buries in structures. My eyes stay closed.


Grant Maierhofer is the author of Flamingos, Gag, Clog, Postures, and the forthcoming nonfiction work Peripatet, and Drain Songs, forthcoming from FC2. He holds an MFA from the University of Idaho where in his final year he was the Hemingway Fellow. His shorter work is available in Egress, 3AM Magazine, LIT, Always Crashing, and via his website

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