Station X: Christmas Eve, Strawtowne Pike
Author’s note: “Station X” is part of a 14-part collaborative text and audio project between myself and printmaker and musician, Kyle Peets, that reflects upon daily life during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though the project is not explicitly religious, it does borrow the narrative structure from the popular Lenten ritual the Stations of the Cross or Way of the Cross, in which pilgrims reenact the Passion of Jesus Christ by processing and praying before tableaux depicting different moments from that story.
The text and accompanying ambient music were composed independently of one another during the pandemic at a distance of over 2,000 miles—me in Indiana and Kyle in Oregon. Kyle did not have access to the text I was writing while he composed, and I did not have access to the music he was composing while writing. This was to ensure that any synchronicities would be accidental.
We suggest reading the piece, then listening to the recording.
That was at the new house.
At the old house on Stratowne Pike, the house my grandparents and my two aunts moved into when my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer, we would walk out past the barn, across the barren field toward a dark windbreak. It was farther than it looked, and colder out there in the middle of the field than it was close to the house, and so we always bundled ourselves in hats and scarves before beginning the walk out to the wood.
My dad would carry my brother on his shoulders at least part of the way. My uncles would be carrying cans of beer, which they plucked from the case cooling on the back porch. Out there in the woods there wasn’t much to see, really, except some rusted farm equipment, old beer cans, maybe a whiskey bottle. On the walk, my dad had a knack for finding arrowheads just sitting on top of a furrow, turned up when the field was plowed under.
This is the house where we gathered for many Christmases and Thanksgivings, where we would play heated games of Trivial Pursuit and Pictionary, and then stay up late giving dramatic readings from the Collected Poems of James Whitcomb Riley, the so-called Hoosier Poet, whose 1885 poem “Little Orphant Annie” inspired the creation, years later, of the comic strip.
Little Orphant Annie's come to our house to stay,In my memory, the poem took the place of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” in our Christmas Eve ritual.
An' wash the cups an' saucers up, an' brush the crumbs away,
An' shoo the chickens off the porch, an' dust the hearth, an' sweep,
An' make the fire, an' bake the bread, an' earn her board-an'-keep;
An' all us other childern, when the supper things is done,
We set around the kitchen fire an' has the mostest fun
A-list'nin' to the witch-tales 'at Annie tells about,
An' the Gobble-uns 'at gits you
But that house is gone now. Four years ago, a tornado blew through the county and came near enough to nudge the house off its foundation. House inspectors came and judged that it was no longer a safe place to live, so it was condemned and razed. All that is left is the gravel drive with its strip of grass and weeds down the middle, and a faint outline of where the foundation had been.
Sometimes when I am driving back from Indianapolis, after a weekend with my kids, I make a quick detour off route 31 and visit the empty lot, remembering the feeling of anticipation I felt as the house came into sight; how the dogs would begin to bark and rush out to our van to greet us, followed by my uncles who would come out to ask if they could help carry luggage; how I would hug them, or, as I got older, shake hands; how as we all walked into the house my uncles would grab beers from cases chilling on the porch, and, later, as I got older, I would grab one, too.
In the Google satellite images, images taken from the USDA’s Farm Service Agency map data, the shape of the gravel drive is still clearly visible; the way that it ran parallel to the north side of the house and then made a loop around the garage and then met back up with the drive again. When you zoom in to several hundred feet from the ground it looks like the looped rope of a snare.
But when you drag the small icon of a person over the old gray asphalt, it glows blue, meaning that a Google car has driven past. I drag the little orange person over the green fields, my cursor holding them by one arm, their legs dangling and swinging with the sudden motion, like someone being carried away by a clutch of balloons, and drop them on the blue road in front of the driveway. It is then that the house appears. There it is: the white gable of the roof is peeking from behind a line of trees in full leaf. Orange daylilies flank the entrance to the drive.
According to the timestamp at the bottom of the screen, it is June of 2009. It is a glorious day. The sky is a wash of light blue at the horizon that grows more and more intense and saturated with elevation. Among the white puffs of clouds it is deep robin’s egg, and with a dragging of the mouse upward I can see that the sun is white and blurry at its nadir and beyond the sun it is Marian.
It must be early June because the corn in the adjacent fields has just emerged, several inches high.
If I close my eyes, I can feel the heat of that sun and smell the odor of those lilies.
A few seconds of meditation and I am there walking that drive way; the noise of my shoes on the gravel like a needle traveling the groove of a record.
Dave Griffith is the author of A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America (Soft Skull Press). His essays and reviews have appeared in print and online at the Paris Review, The Normal School, Another Chicago Magazine, The Los Angeles Review of Books, the Utne Reader, Killing the Buddha, and Image, among others.
Kyle Peets is a multi-disciplinary artist and educator who has exhibited his work nationally and abroad. He has had solo exhibitions at Platte Forum gallery (Denver, CO) as well as various group exhibitions: Character Profile at Root Division gallery (San Francisco, CA), Art Is Our Last Hope at The Phoenix Art Museum (Phoenix, AZ), and Art Shanty on the frozen White Bear Lake (Minneapolis, MN). His work has been published in the periodical SPRTS by Endless Editions (New York, NY), and is archived in the Watson Library Special Collections, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and MoMA Manhattan. He received his MFA in Printmaking from the University of Iowa and a graduate certificate in Book Arts from the Iowa Center For The Book.