[Parts 1 through 7 of the Show Trials series of posts can be found by scrolling through the “Houses” tab at the top of the page.]
One night after dinner Anne engaged in a long phone conversation with John, chair of the citizens’ committee in my in-laws’ neighborhood. The committee formed in response to the expansion of a small rural dump that now, every day, processes dozens of truckloads’ full of reeking and potentially toxic garbage and sludge and livestock carcasses accumulated from surrounding cities and counties. That night’s topic: should the committee, per recommendation from the assistant county administrator, ask the landfill management company to pay for and to install a geographically distributed system for performing chemical analysis of gases emitted by the dump? Questions abound, most of them at least mildly paranoiac. What does the assistant administrator know about this sort of technology? Why doesn’t the county government itself ask the dump to install the gas-analytic system rather than having the citizens make the request? If the data demonstrate that toxins do not exceed regulatory thresholds, will the dump simply ignore citizens’ complaints about how the persistent stink adversely affects quality of life, not to mention property values, in the neighborhood? This wrangle has been going on for nearly three years now and, despite the complaints aired at public hearings, things have only gotten worse. Isn’t it time, I want to ask Anne yet again, to rev up the Show Trial hearings? It must be another manifestation of a persistent haunt: to bring back to my awareness not just the decadent futility of the situation but my impotence in staging a farcical simulation of that decadent futility for anyone other than an imaginary audience.
After hanging up with the citizen committee chair Anne calls her mother. A fundraiser is being organized for the Historic County Courthouse. Did I mention that the assistant county administrator who helped my father-in-law move the slave auction block onto the Courthouse lawn is the same minor functionary who is now recommending the gas analysis device to the landfill citizens’ committee? It’s a small county and Anne’s family has lived there for generations. The landfill is metastasizing literally at the edge of their back yard, with the citizens’ committee chair living right next door. It’s not surprising that Anne’s mother has positioned herself right in the middle of both the Courthouse restoration and the landfill resistance. She’s even a member of the local DAR, the organization responsible for mounting the commemorative plaque honoring Colonel Lynch on the Courthouse wall. For me the convergence feels like destiny: stage a Show Trial at the County Courthouse spotlighting the unstoppable expansion of the County Landfill. It’s this very convergence, though, that constitutes the impasse for mounting the Dump Show Trial. The in-laws are walking a political tightrope with the county, making nice on the Courthouse restoration while offering resistance to the dump. The Show Trial would push these two competing impulses together, and as far as Anne is concerned the admixture would prove volatile. More than likely the Historical Society would deem the show culturally inappropriate, denying whatever permit might be required to stage the performance in the Courthouse. No reason it can’t happen; no way it will happen – the Dump Show Trial can never be moved beyond the imaginary phase.
But just a minute, I said to Anne the next morning after the haunt had accomplished its nocturnal fermentation. The citizen chair: isn’t he the principal of one of the county public schools? Yes he is. Maybe, I go on, instead of staging the Dump Show Trial in the Courthouse we could do it at his school auditorium. What sort of school is it, I ask: elementary? high school? Technical school. Great; maybe he’s got some AV kids who can help with sound and lighting, plus he’s angry enough about the landfill to be an ally of the Show Trial wouldn’t you say, although the county is where his bread is buttered professionally. You know, Anne considers, a school might be even better than the Courthouse. The county runs all the public hearings at a school, including the landfill hearings. But not at the tech school, she clarifies; at Yellow Branch. I know that school: it’s where my wife and all of her cousins attended elementary school, where her aunt had once been principal. We could call it a Public Hearing, Anne says, the possibilities maybe starting to open up for her. It would still piss Mama off, but at least it wouldn’t happen on her turf.
An insidious and provocative haunt is coaxing me to imagine that the Dump Show Trial could actually be staged, its imaginary audience augmented by a real one; that the Show could have politico-economic impact on the locale; that the event and its fallout could alter my relations with the in-laws, for better or for worse. That my public authorial acclaim might, after seemingly interminable delay, be launched.
Act One: A public hearing is convened to consider the Regional Authority’s proposal to expand the landfill. What begins as an informal local dump next to the stockyard will, over the course of the Show, come to occupy the entire county, perhaps the entire planet. Some of the arguments against expansion will be predicated on the actual case. Consider the hazard posed to the nearby airport posed by buzzards circling the dump, a hazard explicitly proscribed in federal regulations. Objection overruled. Or the proposed amelioration of the odor problem not by diverting or containing the raw sewage and other olfactorily offending substances dumped into the Dump but by spritzing aerosolized perfume to cover up the stench. Proposal approved. Other objections will be imaginary: that the dump is built on an old slave or Indian burial ground – overruled. Later the Authority will propose dumping bodies of homeless people into the landfill, claiming that the practice would demonstrate respect for the historical use of the land – approved, along with a small grant and a commemorative plaque.
The alchemical cocktail served at recess will be called Sludge. It will be dark brown, cloudy, slightly effervescent, lightly perfumed.
In Act Two an area family auctions off its homestead, which abuts the Dump. There are no takers. The Authority buys it for a song as a site for future expansion.
At this stage Act Three is still as murky as the cocktail. The precedent established in the other imagined Show Trials is for Act Three to be set in Limbo, and in that regard the dump overflows with potential. For Jesus the wicked were fated to burn in Gehenna. Translated as “hell,” Gehenna was a valley just outside the Jerusalem city walls, a place where in earlier times Moloch worshipers had annealed their children in the braziers of their bronze idols, sacrificing the ones that couldn’t take the heat, a place where later the city had established its dump with its unquenchable fires. Do the homeless as human refuse make the Dump their home, tending the graves of their brothers and sisters, recycling and reusing the refuse, rigging up heating systems fueled by the methane rising from the waste, digging tunnels and constructing permanent shelters in midst of the waste? Maybe the delving denizens begin to assemble castoff materials into components of the time-traveling Device, a deus ex machina that takes shape in the sixth movement of the Salon Postisme Suite of fictions. Maybe in its emergent autopoietic sentience the Device is able to speak for itself in Act Three. And, heeding the burnt offerings continually offered in the Dump, does Moloch rise at last from the ashes, wreaking his redemptive vengeance on the scorched earth? By this point many audience members are throwing garbage at the performers, parents are demanding the resignation of the school principal, Colonel Lynch and his posse are fixing to string me up. Left to their own devices, the imaginary audience laugh, hiss, applaud, discuss the show among themselves as they wait for the last act to begin…