We were both liberal and in our early twenties, made drunk not only by the poisons we consumed, but so too by our aimlessness. The world was still our oyster and we could see no end to the pursuit of aesthetic vanity. But we, my best friend and I, found ourselves in a flat, boring land seemingly devoid of wondrous heritage. The search for beauty forced one to follow trails well nigh imperceptible to the common eye, and so we did.
Something, perhaps traces of conversations I had had with my father as a child, nudged me in the direction of James Dean and his classic American appeal. At the time the present story took place, however, I was working odd hours at a video store. I found myself nestling in comfort, under dim lighting with bourbon at hand, watching Dean’s films for the first time: East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant. Although only vaguely conscious of it, I was searching for something that only the past could provide me. And there was something tragic about the shortness of the actor’s canon which only added to his legend. As many a youth are prone to experience, I was struck with an epiphany, and immediately phoned my friend. Now, it was true we were in a rather barren place bereft of both spirit and antiquity; yet, as I said, traces of spirit could be found and followed by those who searched.
My friend parked his car at my place, and we set out together late one morning in my own vehicle into the countryside. It didn’t take long for there to be nothing but cornfields for as far as the eye could see. I hadn’t before thought to explore my state, its quirks, oddities and all. So when I learned that far out in the middle of nowhere rested an iconic link to the American past, excitement overcame me. Out of the dim lit rooms we emerged into the realness of daylight, the countless jokes put aside for a jaunt into the natural.
These were days before the internet was a thing so fully developed as it now is, causing our adventure to have been rather haphazard and ill-researched. But this unpreparedness, I would argue, lent itself perfectly to the day, providing us a memory which the modern web would have only crushed in its vice of disenchantment. I had wanted to escape the city, and this felt like the perfect opportunity to do so. Better still that my good friend was glad to join me in my odd quest amid the sea of corn and tobacco. And so we eventually arrived at the small town of Fairmount, the reputed place of Dean’s boyhood. But we knew not where to begin our search; or, indeed, even what it was we were searching for.
We canvassed locations in the town, stopping at a museum dedicated to the actor, and later at a strange house-turned-gift-shop. The latter gave us what we desperately needed at that point: direction. The proprietor was a man living entirely within the past, surrounding himself with materials from old Hollywood which he put up for sale. There was a passion there that was to be admired, though it was somewhat imperceptible to our young apathetic eyes. The home was on a sleepy street in an old, small American town. It was like a scene out of a movie from decades prior: a place not in tune with the nihilism of today. And the gentlemen therein told us of the locations of Dean’s childhood school, and most importantly, of his grave.
Our vanity prompted us to query further as to how best to show our respects; and so we were told that Dean preferred smoking Chesterfield cigarettes amongst others, and that leaving a pack open on his stone would best serve this purpose.
We visited the school, then simply an abandoned brick building surrounded by fields, parking lots, and neighborhoods beyond. Everywhere we went, we knew the eyes of the locals might be peering at us as we stood out starkly from the residents. To them we must have appeared as wild, young heathens respectable only in so far as we sought the past. Alcohol was never far from our minds, and our acquisition of it was inevitable. However, before this end, during the summer twilight, we found his grave amid the fields. The tragedy of Dean’s early demise was mirrored by his final resting place between the tombstones of his parents.
As the sun began to set, there was not another soul around except for ourselves and the cemetery’s caretaker somewhere far off. The breezes were only slight and periodic, and the silence of the area added to the ghostliness of it all. We smoked a cigarette each, being careful with our ashes, and left a pack for James. Whatever it was we, …I, was searching for, I found it then, if only for a fleeting moment amid the quiet, endless fields at dusk.