Suburbia Deserta


Chris Nakashima-Brown


My life has acquired the incongruous feeling of one of those sitcoms that outlasts its own premise. Recall the final season of Happy Days: Actors twenty years older than their characters, sporting wide lapels and blow-dried haircuts, paunches straining the bounds of letter jackets, trapped in some limbo zone between 1959 and 1960. Malph or Potsy might wander through an episode, overweight, coked-out and balding, droning senseless one-liners like lurid proverbs. Previously obscure parts, now leads, compound the purposelessness of the series.

Wandering the abandoned streets of this decrepit suburb, I feel like a neglected extra trapped in Arnold's with no exit. I await the narrative progress of time, but find none.

I was educated in the brief window of time when high school English teachers could assign Carlos Castaneda's tales of peyote-induced sorcery without causing even a minor curricular crisis. It was in that quiet period after the last gasp of the revolution that never happened, when the Bicentennial quarters were still shiny.

We read two of those books. Tales of Power, Journey to Ixtlan. We pondered in adolescent wonder the notion of a secret voodoo reality beyond the cinder block and concrete, listening for the voice of the shaman through the drone of a thousand lawn mowers. I still wonder occasionally whether a familiar follows my movements through the surface world, when I spy a crow perched on the mailbox watching my house, or when the mystery rodent that lives in my eaves awakens me with late night chirping.

Perhaps one of those odd strangers in thrift store duds hanging around the old library pulling strange musty arcana from the stacks and tuning in cryptic transmissions on beat-up AM-pocket radios is my Don Juan. The shuffling fellow with the long yellow-grey beard and the black t-shirt emblazoned with a faded but colorful iron-on Sagittarius decal seems a likely candidate. He walks by my house every day around a quarter after ten in the morning, and looks at me through the attic window, expressionless.

I suspect he and the others are affiliated in some secret fellowship, passing oblique communiques to be interpreted by fellow cryptographers of the glue dust that falls out from moldy bookbindings. Theirs must be a suburban sorcery, composed of verbal alchemy milled from between the lines of neglected texts, found exclusively in remote libraries and dim paperback trade shops under strip mall awnings manned by bespectacled sentinels of oblivion.

I pass the time in my small house and on the job, until the answers present themselves like tantric revelations, truths of the ether illuminated by the static aura of some derelict utilizing a different bandwidth of psychic radar.

I am fortunate, in a sense, that my work is unengaging, dull. It leaves me with time to pass on my own projects. My errands often keep me out of the office for hours at a time, allowing me to visit the mall, which is just across the freeway from our solitary industrial park. Once or twice a week I even have time to slip in for a half-price feature at the multiplex.

Friday afternoon I encountered Ann in line, and she talked me into a new karate film. We sat in the front row and came to accept the unique moral code of the world of underground kickboxing. Afterward we looked around in the toy store, and indulged ourselves in the smorgasboard at Wag's cafeteria.

It was a three-day weekend, the kind you can really get lost in.

Unless one is planning to disappear into the dark solitude of the theater, I believe it is important to carefully time a visit to the mall. I like to enter just as the stores are opening in the morning. Frequently even the clerks will still be hidden in the secret catacombs of the back rooms, making plans for the future.

I once tried going much earlier, and found legions of geriatric zombies speed walking in sensible sneakers and military-looking bodysuits, hidden behind those strange plastic sunglasses that completely hide the eyes. Ann's theory is that they enable sight into the dimension beyond life.

I prefer the old suburb where I live, the atmosphere of deserted utopia. I revel in the beauty of its premature decay. Chips of cinder block periodically fall from the walls of fourth generation Bauhaus knockoffs, amid ancient soda fountains and movie palaces converted into quiet chambers for failed professionals. Psychically abandoned office plazas harbor merchants purveying specialty goods for which there is no market.

Among my favorites is "Division Headquarters," a military modeling shop which specializes in scale replicas of the battered architectural artifacts of a hundred wars. Many of the kits are modifications of buildings designed for model railroad sets.

I am constructing a 1/72 scale diorama in my basement. It is a speculative rendering of the post-apocalyptic landscape of the city I live in. It now consumes most of the space in my cellar, occupying the scale equivalent of three or four square miles.

The buildings are mostly scratch-built, dozens of commercial strip shacks transformed into lonely bunkers for the degenerate hoardings of the human detritus who conduct daily scavenger hunts in the abandoned shopping plazas. Irregularly outfitted armored personnel carriers plod their way through the potholes of parking lots, scrounging for serviceable parts. The figures, most of them plastic toy soldiers modified to neutralize their otherwise obvious aspect as 18th Century hussars or cold war commandos, are often hidden from each other in their desolate post-industrial human dens, underneath rusted manhole covers (indeed, the underground maze I have postulated and constructed is even more elaborate than the surface world). Pith-helmeted expeditioners roam a dying desert of grit, broken glass, and metal fragments, crunching bone underfoot. With careful scrutiny one can find them half-hidden, with scoped rifles braced against collapsed telephone poles, looking for carrion-feeding crows and vultures to drop from the sky. Currently, the human population is 23.

As I conceded to Ann when she visited after the movie Friday night, the world I have created in the basement is both a secret yearning and an accurate rendering of our city, as I see it. She liked it. We sat in beanbag chairs underneath the center of the layout, peering out through the smashed windows of the ransacked grocery store, watching the shadows dance under black light as we listened to tape recordings of wind and rain, holding hands and occasionally flashing lightning on the scene with a fluorescent lamp.

When we got bored we went upstairs, unplugged the clocks and fell asleep on the couch amid pizza crumbs. Long before dawn, we woke each other up, got high, ate Twinkies, and lied around and admired each other's unexercised bodies, watching late movies with the sound off, listening to the resonant meanderings of early '70s space music.

Recently I visited the labyrinthine new mall on the edge of town, and discovered an incredible new bookstore that stocks nothing but the autobiographies of forgotten TV actors. Hundreds of them. The memoirs of Majel Barret, Star Trek's Nurse Chapel. Several volumes of Matt Milner trivia, with separate treatments of Route 66 and Adam-12 (I believe the characters were the same person). The ribald recollections of Alan Hale, skipper of the S.S. Minnow. The obscure tales from behind the scenes of "Welcome Back, Kotter," told from the point of view of the oddball Horshack. The index included references to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, E. Howard Hunt, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Among the strangest volumes — "Jimmy's Puf n' Stuf Memories," concerning the real-life surreality of the short-lived children's program.

Unsettling. Characters long ago consigned to oblivion live beyond the world of plot, roaming secret backlots, recording their memoirs.

Walking along the perimeter of the food court, I pondered the notion of events occurring "behind the scenes," of the true life that lurks beyond the surface drama. I resolved to record a similar tome concerning myself, to better confront my own shadowed dimensions.

About the Author
Like all the best quirky, innovative and hard-to classify writers working these days, Chris Nakashima-Brown lives in Austin, Texas. He maintains a Web site at and has previously appeared in the pages of RevolutionSF with A Brief History of Negative Space.

Suburbia Deserta © Chris Nakashima-Brown
About the Artist
Erin Merlino is an artist residing in San Antonio. She's working towards a BFA in Studio Art at Texas State University, with a specialization in drawing. A selection of her work can be viewed online here and she can be reached via email at

Artwork © Erin Merlino