The Water Works
There are places in this world you cannot reach, roads visible to the eye and as obvious as the corner drugstore that somehow remain untraversed though seen day after day. There is a field of young grass in the middle of a populated neighborhood no one has ever crossed. There are houses near the center of town, weathered and unkept, old victorians like the homes of witches in horror novels within which a living soul has never been found. Untrodden dirt paths snake into wooded lots. Abandoned factory buildings emit smoke from tall stacks.
Someone points to the building behind the chain link fence and asks, "What's that?"
But no one's been there. So no one knows.
When I was young and my mind had yet to be filled with the facts, that dandelion fuzz doesn't fall up, that rain isn't angel's tears, that the music in the walls is knocking pipes and the lights in the sky are flights of tired commuters, then there were big blank places where the imagination I was born with pooled and then evaporated like the remains of a spring tide. As if something wondrous forgotten.
Later came first kisses. Later came sparkling eyes for which I sold my heartbeats to pay bills. Later came time in which everything was clear, where everything had an explanation and surprise was something to fear.
Elders taught me the earth circled the sun, that gravity was a warp in space made by stuff, which needed to exist to define space. That light was the speed of time. That Santa Claus was a myth perpetrated by my parents. That someday I would die.
"Thou are dust, and unto dust thou shalt return," I was told, and a smudge of dirt planted by a priest's thumb on my forehead to remind me.
And it was so confusing that after a while I didn't know what to believe, so I played along while imagination drifted away as unreclaimable vapor. Into the sky.
I was a child and my parents were worried I wasn't eating enough. I was very thin.
While trying to get me to eat my mother told me a story about a boy who like me, wouldn't eat his dinner. He got very skinny. One day while he and his mother were coming home from the park a thunderstorm rose suddenly. The sky went black and a big wind came and blew the little boy off the ground. His mother held onto his hand, but at the last moment, the wind was so strong she lost her grip, and he flew away into the dark black clouds.
His mother called to him as he jetted upward. But the wind was so huge, and she was just a woman. She watched him getting smaller and smaller, crying for her as the storm clouds consumed him.
"But he came back," I remember saying to my mother.
"No he didn't."
After that, every time the sky went dark, I was sure I could see him up there, lost forever in the sky, a victim of the winds.
We were six-years old. Michael Noone said, "Here they are," and pointed down but I was captivated by the fence before us that seemed to stretch into the clouds.
"I wonder if that's real barbed wire?" I said, looking at the concertina wire coiled at the top of the metal wall.
Clouds drifted overhead in the blue like leaves on a stream.
But Michael had his own obsession. "They're here," he said, forcing his hand through the fence's diamond braid. "Look."
So I did. In the deep green grass on the other side, a patch of clover attracted none of the bees in the weeds around us. He pulled some clover out by the roots and for a second couldn't get his palm back through. He yanked hard, grunted, and his hand came free. He was holding a clump of clover trailing a tiny ball of dirt and roots.
"Every one," he said, and he thrust it toward my face. "Like I said."
Every clover flower had four leaves. I'd never seen a single four-leaf clover, and here was Michael, holding an entire handful.
He said, "They're all four-leaf clovers in there. And they're all three-leaf clovers over here. That's because it's magic in there."
"What's in there?" I asked him, presuming if he knew it was magic, he knew what was in the big white buildings behind the fence.
"It's the water works," he said, as if I was ignorant. And he flicked a thumb toward the massive water tower that shadowed our neighborhood. It was a dark green cylinder, featureless except for the words "Priceless Water" painted at the top. At the base of the tower were several white brick buildings with black impenetrable windows. There were no signs on them. No logos or designations. Like the fence itself, there were no entrances. They were the type of buildings I would have drawn in kindergarten, clumsy abstractions of something real.
"What's the magic?" I asked.
"Water, stupid. Don't you know anything?"
"How do they get the four-leaf clovers to grow?"
"They come from the lights," Michael said, as if I should know that, too. "At night you can see them. They drive around the ground and take off and fly in the sky."
That didn't make sense. "Cars fly in the sky? Don't they just have regular cars in there? What about the cars for the workmen?"
"Nobody works in there," Michael said. He stood and chucked the clovers. I followed him along the fence, around the corner where it ran into the woods, down to the Rahway River where the sunlight fell in droplets through the trees, where in the cool and damp we caught frogs and sunfish and snails you could put in a bucket one day, and come back the next to find four more.
Behind us somewhere the river fell. We could hear it beyond the fence, like a giant's sigh. But from where we stood, it drifted past apathetically, carrying dead leaves and tiny twigs, as if it didn't matter it was going to wind up inside the water works.
We lived in a two family house. My grandparents lived upstairs.
One day in the summer my grandmother came downstairs to use our phone to call the phone company. Hers was broken. She told my mother it was picking up airplanes.
After she scheduled a service call, my mother and I followed her back upstairs and listened to her phone. When she took it off the hook, there was no dialtone.
My mom said she heard the radio. Music, like the top-40 hits.
Grandma listened, and said she heard airplanes.
When I put the phone to my ear I knew they were both wrong.
I heard voices. It was as if every conversation happening on every telephone on earth was streaming through grandma's phone all at once. A huge crowd of talking. It was like walking through the world's fair. Every now and then you'd get close to some people and make out their conversation. Fractions of sentences. Bits of words. And then you'd get far away again and it sounded like a giant's sigh. Like a waterfall.
The thousands of voices seemed to be making the same message over and over as some of the conversations got closer, and some farther.
"Don't be afraid. Wait for us."
I told my mother that's what it said.
She held the phone to her ear, listened hard, then slammed it down in its cradle.
She sent me outside to play.
Later that day, the repair man came and fixed grandma's phone. She said he told her there were radio waves bouncing off the tower in the water works. They were aiming right to her phone. He just put a little shield on her phone so the radio waves couldn't get in anymore. Then her phone was working again.
My grandma was happy her phone was working, but said the phone man made her nervous. He'd come in a truck that didn't say "Phone Company" on it. His uniform didn't have a name tag.
She was happy when he left, but she watched him get in his truck and drive down the street. He didn't turn down St. George's Avenue like everyone else did. It looked like he'd gone into the water works.
The first time I was inside the water works I was looking at Michael and he was staring into the distance with a half-squint like he was trying to make something focus that wouldn't come clear.
It was white inside the buildings. It was white and far and someone told me that in here, if you were going to make a globe of the world it would look different. The seven continents would be gone and there would be other land and other sea.
Inside the water works it was white nothing that went on forever, and numbers didn't add up straight and if you flew into the sky, you'd come up out of the ground.
Inside the white buildings were people as white as nothing. So much nothing that all you could see of them were their black eyes, dark as the space between the stars. And there were animals like horses and dogs that could speak to you by casting words into the world on waves you felt in your stomach.
The first time I was inside the water works we met the boy who'd become lost in the sky. He was still trying to get home.
It made me sad for a long time.
When my first daughter was born we lived in Edison, New Jersey, which is pretty close to Rahway.
One day when my wife was tired from a long week being a mother, she asked me to take the baby so she could have some time on the weekend to go out with her friends and do whatever it is wives need to do when they've been mothering too long.
I put the baby in the car seat and figured I'd drive to the park on the other side of town. But I had the idea to go past the old two-family house in Rahway. So I did.
It was smaller. The mimosa tree in front my grandfather planted nearly reached the roof.
I showed my daughter the window to my bedroom where I'd looked out and seen the lights. She was chewing on an arrowroot cookie and had cookie-saliva goo all over her. I wiped her clean with a wet one.
Rahway park seemed nearly the same to me, except everything had gotten a bit smaller since I got bigger. The grass was less green. The wooden bridge over the river had been torn down. Only the concrete footings on the river banks were left.
I carried my daughter through the park and down into the woods where most of the park visitors wouldn't go. I carried her into the place where the sun fell like drops and the somewhere beyond the chainlink fence the river fell and sounded like a giant's sigh.
The buildings inside the fence were gray and unkept. Paint peeled from the cinderblock. A couple of the windows were cracked and there were bent aluminum blinds behind most of them.
I found the main entrance. There was no lock on the gate and a sign clearly read, PROPERTY ELIZABETHTOWN WATER COMPANY, NO TRESPASSING.
The water tower was still there. It was painted yellow now, and at the top was the name of the water company.
I found a patch of fresh cut grass between the water works and the park and set my baby down. We picked through the weeds. Blew seeds from dandelion puffs. I made a whistle with a blade of crab grass. We swung on the swings in the park. She drank juice from her sippy cup and I got a soda from the hot dog guy.
When it was time to go home I put her back in the car seat beside me.
"This is where I grew up," I told her, wondering if she could understand English.
She looked at me for a second, and then put her fist to her mouth.
I had to stop her from eating a handful of four-leaved clover.
c Joe Mastroianni, 2002