Fiction from Web del Sol

Future Tense

Michael Martone

      Time is all mixed up here. "Here" is Riverside, Iowa, and the reason Time is all mixed up has to do with the way people here are forced to talk about the town's main attraction. Well, it isn't quite an attraction yet.
      There is a committee working on that. But what will be the attraction once they get it going is that Riverside, Iowa is the future birthplace of James T. Kirk. James T. Kirk is a character from Star Trek, a television show about the future that was canceled years ago. This adds to the confusion. People have to talk about the television series in the past tense, fondly, nostalgically. It's over and done, existing in reruns. But the people of this small Johnson County town are planning events that will have happened (is that even a tense?) sometime in the next century.
      By all accounts this was Steve Miller's idea. I spent a rainy spring day looking for Steve Miller to ask him about it -- to get the history of this thing that will happen. As I looked for him I visited the sites of importance in the future boyhood life of a made-up boy who would become, in his own future, a Starship Captain. During that day in Riverside, Iowa, I did transport back and forth in this warp in time, but also I traveled through the thin membrane of fact and fiction. I saw what had happened and what will happen and what people had wanted and wished to have happen, to have happened, to have had happen.
      In the consignment store on First Street, I picked through an old cigar box full of yellowing decals and hand lettered buttons that said things like "Riverside Iowa The Future Birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk." The woman who ran the store helped some older women exchange condensed novels for other condensed novels.
      "I've read that one. And that one. And that."
      "That was a good one."
      On the decal was a silhouette of the town -- a low bushy outline of the tops of trees and the water tower and the steeple of the Church of the Assumption pushing through. The message was Trek your way to Riverside Iowa, in a futuristic organic type. But that skyline was instantly recognizable as that of another town time forgot -- sleepy and shaded, holy and watered. Riverside does have a pleasant seat rising in steps from the valley. The river is the English. The abandoned railbed follows the river's trek. First Street, the highway, a step higher, runs parallel east and west. And above that the red brick fronts of the town, the terraced lawns of the dice-white houses above and beyond, and beyond that the massive Assumption and its lesser buildings -- convent, rectory, academy and school -- on the very summit of this old round-shouldered hill. It must have been lovely. It must have been obvious when some unremembered town founders saw the place for the first time and founded. This is, this was the place, their place.
      It isn't a town that time forgot. That implies that nothing changed, changes, of course. I was looking up at the town from an elevator in the valley. Sparrows were diving into some spilled and spoiling corn on the ground. The tracks were gone, the roadbed nearly invisible now. The stores all gone on First where the sidewalk is still raised wagon-bed high above the road for the easy exchange of goods. There are a few bars. A branch bank. The consignment shop. Water from the rain is running down the streets that lead up to the church, the heavy clouds it seems a few inches above the steeple's point. "It came to him in a bar, I think." The woman who ran the consignment shop was telling me about Steve Miller's idea. "Something had to be done. Look around," she said. She had grown up in Riverside, remembered the farmers coming to town and the Amish in their wagons. The birthplace is right next door, or will be, she told me. "Last summer during the first festival they put up a little marker. I don't know if it made it through the winter. I haven't looked." She said she was still surprised they came -- the busloads of strangely dressed people who watch the television show and go to things like this dressed like characters from their favorite programs. Aliens walked the shattered sidewalks. They wore capes and mail and green make-up. They came from Chicago, a busload. A woman from Los Angeles flew in in her own plane. The camp grounds were guarded by kids carrying ray guns. They bought decals and stickers.
      But I could tell she was unsure of the idea.
      "Something has to be done," she said again.
      "It works, doesn't it?" I said, "I mean, I came because of it, I guess." I was out of season though, she said, laughing a bit. Next week, March 26th, would be the actual birthday.

      Somwhere in all those episodes of Star Trek there is a mention of Captain Kirk's birth. It took place in Iowa, of course. You fill in the attendant mythology of values that this shorthand would lend to a character, to the character's character -- hardworking, honest, independent, loyal. All of it. Steve Miller wrote to the producers of the show claiming kin. Sure, why not? they said. Riverside it is. Plans were made then for this annual festival in the summer, part of the schedule of festivals of harvesting the various species of local produce, the circuit of centennials, the founding of railways that no longer survive. All the Days -- Norwegian, Swedish, Czech, Dutch. The signs on the outside of town were changed. They once read: Riverside -- where the best begins. Now a Trek has been substituted for best, a line painted through lightly so you can see both, hedging the bet. The population is 826.
      There is not one Kirk listed in the Riverside phone book. Most of the names look like German to me. Steve Miller is trying to find a family named Kirk to move to town, the angel Gabriel with an annunciation. That is what the secretary in the city attorney's office told me.
      "He's trying to get somebody here to change their name. Anything." The attorney is leaning in the doorway of the office professionally involved in the finer points of the statue saga. Steve Miller wants to have a statue built in the park of the young James T. Kirk leaving Riverside for the space academy. William Shatner, who played the character of James T. Kirk, won't give permission to use his likeness since his likeness is now a policeman on another television show. And the lawyer wonders about this -- who owns the likeness of a made-up person, whether they need to ask permission of the actor at all. I can tell he has thought about this in his spare moments. To him and to his secretary all of it is so curious. They tell me to go look at the pile of rocks in the park. That is where the statue will be, of the Young Kirk going off to space.
      "Where do they go?" I asked about the young people of Riverside. They are going away, obviously, and their leaving is not commemorated. There is nothing here for them to do. It is literally a sleepy little town, most folks driving up to Iowa City to work, driving back here for bed. As we talk we keep running into the time problem. The town's only claim to fame is something that has yet to happen, that will never happen, that they want in a half-hearted way to make happen.
      There are little statues of Mary housed in little grottos in many front yards. A Catholic town. The blue of her robes is often bleached and bled to a robin's-egg blue. And on the breasts of some of the figures is a dollop of red, the heart that remembers so much, a spring flower pulsing in the shadows of the brown evergreens. The Church of the Assumption is something. It is on the Registry of Historic Places. The woman in the consignment shop said that people came from all over the countryside to build the church. It is red brick, huge yet functional, vernacular and honest. If it were even older than it is, even though it is registered as historic, maybe people would come to Riverside to look at it and leave a few dollars behind in this town. Mary, above the main door, is at least twice the size of life. She is being taken into heaven whole, her clothes billowing, suggesting a sucking whirlwind, a midwestern twister. Her clothes wrap back around her and cling to her upraised arms. Her clothes are becoming clouds. Her flesh too -- clouds, air, pure white heaven.
      I've been told that I can buy a vial of Kirk Dirt. It has been scooped from the birthplace. Steve Miller owns the lot that will one day be the birthplace. As I walked from the city attorney's to the lot that will one day be the birthplace, I did kind of get into the spirit of the thing. I imagined children playing in this alley which still is a cinder alley. Of course my imaginary children were imagining within their games the people they would become, stopping now and then to rewrite, in elaborate collaboration, the history of their future and starting over again now more confident, more clear about where they were heading.

      Okay, I admit I've watched Star Trek in its endless reruns. I love the parts where Kirk, the boy from Iowa, rages when his crew has been shanghaied from him. His crew like Odysseus's men are always succumbing to the eating of the lotus, easily accepting the paternal and protective care of some alien superior race. And Kirk rages. It never works for him, this future of bliss. He tells us. He tells his crew. He tells the sad-eyed aliens too. Man, he says, must struggle. Human beings must always be improving, perfecting, restless and unsatisfiable. It takes awhile for the crew to stop acting like kids, to grow up and act like adults. These grown men in funny outfits. And these children here pretending in my imagination, exactly duplicating the stories they have absorbed from TV. The scripts of television are their scripts. Life is already becoming, will always be becoming, lived somewhere else.
      There were no children in the alleys playing. In the drizzle, I did not look too long for the stick that was supposed to mark the future birthplace. There was junk in all the backyards. Old rose trellises needed painting. Clotheslines sagged with the invisible weight of ghost laundry. Here and there on some rooftops and backyards were the satellite dishes all pointing up to space.
      It is plain, isn't it? Obvious to you now that this town will not survive to the future, to the time, if there will be one, of the miraculous birth. The birth that the rebirth of the town is staked on. Riverside will be lucky to make the next century. You know it. The people who remain know it. And Steve Miller, wherever he is, maybe he even knows it too.
      Up the road to the west is Kalano, Iowa, another small town. It is thriving. I stopped there for pie, and the cafe was closed, only for remodeling, to expand. The town has two Main Streets. One is for the cars. The other is for buggies and the horses. The Amish materialize in the alleyways. Do thier business. And disappear. Sure, people come to catch a look at them. The stores all have the Amish culture captured in charms and mementos of impulse purchases, souvenirs of the simple. But the tourist dollar, however large, cannot explain the health of the town. It is not the attraction of the Amish but the Amish themselves who drive the town. When they spend money they spend it here -- the dry goods, the blacksmith, the hardware. It is an economy that sustains itself. It is a mistake to say it is living in the past.
      Riverside, a few miles away, is nostalgic for its future. Its scheme for survival is a paradigm of many towns and cities where convention centers and shopping malls are only less-original lures for someone-else's expendable income. These developments are models of recreation, not creation. Life is a species of entertainment in this model, not part of a community which sustains and enriches itself and which is a part of a larger community that does likewise.
      Steve Miller, wherever he is, believes as many of us do that out there somewhere is a great new universe and that we should all go. Steve Miller is acting to save what is left of his dying town, I am convinced. What is sad is that his hope rests on a birth that never took place and, even in his wildest dreams, never will.

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