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Behind Glass in the Good Land - Josh Mcdonald

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Ecclesiastes 1:9

Milwaukee has a certain smell. It’s a beery, gritty nostalgia in the air—not off-putting, but not what you’d call pleasant either. I coveted this Happy Days town a lot, but only managed to live here for one summer, engaged to my girlfriend who is now my wife.

That summer holds an airy, sunlit place in my brain still, effused with the aroma of the city. Heather and I bounced around town collecting antique decorations for the wedding—making out, fighting, drinking Miller in the heat. It was our subconscious surge of youth in protest of the grown-up-ness of being married and all that came with it.

Heather moved out of her apartment and camped out in a friends guest room. I billeted for the summer months on an air mattress in my buddy’s living room. We were suspended in amber for a season while our house—and the seven houses to follow in the next decade—lined up in our future.

And here I am on a long weekend with my family, back in the place Alice Cooper reminded us was named “the good land.” I’m listening to my wife, the kids and dog breathe and hum in their sleep as I write this.

There’s where mom and dad met…there’s the coffee shop we went to every morning…here’s the beach where we used to walk—remember how cold that sand was!

I’m not sure my kids could be any less interested in these sites, but I like to think it lands somewhere. Maybe those files are in a rickety cabinet somewhere deep in the bright pink folds of their brains and fall open occasionally. I can’t get across to my son the light in his mother’s hair as she read Douglas Coupland to me, my head in her lap, cradled next to the warm tummy where he would come into being.

Look there’s where we went on our first date…we had our engagement party there—or was it there? Remember that awful movie we saw in the cheap seats over there?

Heather and I drove—slower this time—through the ashy corridors of our city. The iron gates hung and the stone doorways yawned, rusty city clocks toned like broken hearts. The hipster restaurants from ten years ago are still around, and the hipsters look about the same—although now with 401(k)s and glasses over their face tattoos.

Simmering in this reminiscence, setting my kids eyes rolling, I’m struck by one theme over and over. How much I don’t actually remember. Was that walk in this park? Was that kiss stolen under that rain-sparkled tree? Or that one? Who were we there with—and then when we finally salvage the names—what happened to them?

And my kids now—9, 8 and 6—carve their own memories on the days, listening to mine just because they are raised polite by a sturdy mother. Yeah sure dad…cool.

We passed one of those hip places—the kind that sells pub food, but like organic so it’s okay, and I noticed the windows. They were the old stained glass, gritty from decades of urban exhaust, advertising an old pharmacy. Cigars, 10 cents, newspapers 25, these windows had said to that corner for more than a century. Under this, a clear window framed a 20-nothing kid in an Alf t-shirt he wore ironically. He sported a handlebar mustache. This insane William Boroughs collage of sincerity and scorn, satire and solipsism made me dizzy.

Or maybe it was the pinching irony that I watched Alf in real time and this kid didn’t even know who he was .

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again…or for the pure meta quality of it, once again in the King James: The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done…

The more things change, the more they stay the same? Something like that. These cliches we throw at the torrent of time passing to—if not slow it—at least observe it for a second. As I realize these Milwaukee memories are now old memories; as I see myself to my place under the sun with the hopefuls, failures, innocents, runaways, junkies and saints who have gone before me. Even Alf t-shirt kid was there.

What has been will be again…

We take the kids to the Milwaukee Public Museum. My son fawns over the Tyrannosaurus skeleton; my daughters squeal at the robes of the Egyptian pharaoh queen. The wife and I breathe a little kid-distracted silence and hold hands.

The museum—here is where we’ve tried to staunch the hemophiliac bleed of time. The dioramas stand there like silent paramedics in the carnage. The Ice Age, the early native settlements in Wisconsin, the Slovak immigrants with the brown bottles and carpet bags—we’ve frozen them all, here, for as long as we can.

I can’t walk into a museum without thinking of Holden Caufield’s vision at the end of Catcher in the Rye. Eternal, unchanging, safe— and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole. No matter what was going on, he could always go back there, where: It always smelled like it was raining outside, even if it wasn’t.

My daughter stands before a herd of fiberglass antelope against a blue concrete horizon. This is the clearest memory my wife has of this museum as a kid—those brown-yellow glass eyes watched her stand on tiptoe too. Will there one day be another pane to look through? Some diorama called “21st Century Girl and her Family Look at Museum Exhibit”? Will we be behind the glass someday?

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be…

This is how I see it—frozen between the seconds. The cold beach sand. Curling smoke from the brewery chimneys. The hipster behind the glass under the 10 cent cigar ad. Then a diorama where a little girl with bombshell blue eyes peers through a museum display window. Her father looks on—a balding forty-nothing in an un-ironic t-shirt. The past and the future lay still on both sides of him—his face locked in a permanent, grateful smile.


Josh Mcdonald has been writing since he could hold a pen. He's worked as a professional copywriter and in various forms of ministry for most of two decades. He ghostwrote for Kiplinger's, almost won a contest for Creative Nonfiction magazine and was a quarter finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. He hopes to reach a critical mass of near misses. He ministers, writes and lives in Appleton, Wisconsin, home of Houdini and Willem Dafoe. He's married to a woman squarely out of his league and has three spellbinding children.

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