Joyland

New York |

Small Town, Big City

by Patrick Bella Gone

edited by Laura Chow Reeve


WINTER

The plastic couple had fallen on the ground, one woman and one man in their Sunday best next to the park bench, curled in fake grass, trapped like turtles on their backs. Charlotte didn’t know how long they were lying there. Minutes? Years? Both were one inch tall, shorter with their legs permanently bent at the knee. A mini-dog looked on. Did it pity them? She framed the image to include a well-pruned mini-flower pot, and took a photo with her phone. “What the fuck,” she thought. She posted it to Instagram with the caption, “Straight people.”

That morning, she’d borrowed her father’s car. Spending the last three days away from New York at her parents’ house had reignited her anxieties. She came out to her mother over the phone a few months ago and primed herself for a confrontation, staging scenes in her head, but no one mentioned it so she didn’t mention it.

She was trying to finish her book about miniatures. When people asked, “Why are you so obsessed with small things?,” she’d say it was really an obsession with parallel worlds. While a bunch of her friends made work about Second Life or VR, the miniature felt like the tangible precursor of alternative realities, lanes of concurrent isolation. Friends and former professors would send her emails, “Have you been to ____ miniature world yet?” and she’d reply, “No! Thank u / u the best!!” and add the location to her list.

Thirty miles from her parents’ house, she slid into the parking lot of Roadside America, purportedly:

The World’s Greatest Indoor Miniature Village


Voted by Road Trip USA as one of the most unique tourist attractions in the United States


The Enchanted Miniature Land of Yesterday & Tomorrow: ‘You Have To See it To Believe It’

Its website promised a six thousand square foot display, ten thousand hand-made trees, and a population of four thousand miniature citizens. When Charlotte arrived and paid her $6 entry fee, the woman at the desk gave her a pamphlet and told her “the show” repeated every hour at fifty minutes past the hour, “so stick around for it.”

“I will,” Charlotte promised.

Crossing into the display room felt like reaching the crest of a rolling hill. The room’s walls, painted like a landscape painting, extended greenly into the two-dimensional distance. Her fellow Roadside America patrons, giants wandering the town’s exterior, walked politely in their modest fleeces. All white people, she assumed, drove there from the twenty-first century versions of this town to see themselves reflected in their miniature static ancestors.

Inside the town’s waist-high plexiglass border, the population hummed with activity on pause: paramedics wheeled a mini-dying man out of his house on a gurney, children flew a kite on a front lawn, Kaufmann’s movers unloaded mini-armoires, mini-dining room chairs, and mini-art deco lampshades. Downtown, the mini-office workers bustled under a cinema marquee advertising the film “Boys’ Town.” Each street was a frozen tableau, as if the past had paused itself and became toy in some sort of reverse Pinocchio effect. Charlotte wondered why real boys dreamed of becoming heroic figurines.

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IN WHICH OUR HERO CONSIDERS THE GENERATION GAP OR LACK THERE OF

Charlotte checked her phone— twenty more minutes until “the show”— and saw a text from Gina, her roommate.

“Thought u were coming home today bb”

“Made a mini pit stop” Charlotte sent her the photo of the couple.

“LOL that dog” “have u read the Jonathan Swift yet?”

“No” “tried” “can’t read anything that old” “too much Gulliver backstory — where r the scenes????”

“there’s our new conceptual project” “cut the fat in classics”

“The Penguin Classic Diet”

“Charlotte’s Reductive Literary Hot Takes”

She sat on a bench by the mini-train station and read the pamphlet, featuring the story of Larry Gieringer and his brother Paul. Roadside America began when Larry climbed a nearby mountain top and looked down onto his town, thinking it was small enough for him to carry home. He felt new perspective and wanted to preserve it, touch it, author it. The two brothers worked for seven years building models, and when Paul quit to become a priest, Larry continued on alone for the rest of his life. Fervently, piece by piece, he whittled at blocks of wood, fashioning them to his dream—a miniature village. A church, a bridge, a horse-drawn carriage, a stable, a farm-house—a boyhood dream being shaped into reality.

Charlotte admired Larry as an outsider artist, but decided boyhood dreams were her nightmare. She took notes in her phone: Isn’t it the boyhood dream to see the patriarchy fully realized? Isn’t Lord of the Flies more accurate than Leave It to Beaver? Instead of inventing a new world with new possibilities, Larry idealized, cloned, and shrank his neighbors. She looked at the town’s citizens, all cast and fixed in one dude’s ongoing nonconsensual livestream.

Slipping the pamphlet into her tote, Charlotte explored the perimeter and noticed time sliding off its axis: some sections depicted early pioneer days, other neighborhoods more mid-twentieth century. She looked at the couple who’d fallen off the bench in the 1930s, while on a nearby hill, mini-cowboys fought mini-Native Americans in the 1760s, and she wondered where her miniature Pennsylvanian forefathers would go after the slaughter: to their 1950s suburban homes or to the Stars & Stripes Saloon, which, according to its marquee, featured “Beautiful French Can-Can Girls?” Of course Larry Gieringer’s vision of small town livin’ features war with people of color and eroticized femininity, she typed. But it somehow makes even more sense that his depiction isn’t bound to one historical moment . Larry’s world slid all of Pennsylvanian history within walking distance, parallel neighborhoods with people unsure of which period costume to wear, of turning down the wrong street and becoming their grandmother.

On Christmas Eve, Charlotte had been riding in the car with her mom when John Mellencamp’s 1980s hit “Small Town” came on the radio. “Oh boy!” Her mom increased the volume of Mellencamp’s voice as well as her own voice, a duet. “No, I cannot forget where it is that I come from / I cannot forget the people who love me / Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town / And people let me be just what I want to be.” Charlotte mouthed the words, imprinted in her from childhood, as if the car were driving backwards into past Pennsylvanias. While her mother drummed on the steering wheel during the heartland rock instrumental interlude, Charlotte thought about how one’s ability to be “just what I want to be” seemed highly dependent on one’s alignment with white Christian lifestyle choices. She considered pointing this out to her mom, one of the more progressive people in the town, but she was already sliding into the next lyric, “Well I was born in a small town / And I can breathe in a small town / Gonna die in this small town / Yeah, that's probably where they'll bury me.” The guitar riff soared. They drove by condos and a podiatrist’s office.

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RUST BELT WHITE CHRISTIANITY DISTILLED INTO A TEN MINUTE PAGEANT OF INANIMATE OBJECTS

When a little girl tried to vault Roadside America’s plexiglass border wall, her mother grabbed her waist, pulling her back towards the mountains. Behind them stood a greying man. He wore a fleece and jeans one size too big and looked a lot like fucking Mike Pence. Charlotte imagined Larry Gieringer as a conversion therapist, creating an Aryan queer-less town, a town populated entirely by 1 inch tall Mike Pences. Mini-Mike Pence delivering milk. Mini-Mike Pence walking dog. Mini-Mike Pence beside mini-Mike Pence on park bench. Mini-Mike Pence dressed as ‘Beautiful French Can-Can Girl’ kicking leg for audience of applauding mini-Mike Pences.

Just then, the town went dark. Trains slowed and fluorescent sunlight set as a lone spotlight shone on an American flag painted on the sky. A glee club warbled through the speakers, signaling to the giant spectators, who took their seats. Fifty minutes past the hour. Charlotte slid open her phone’s camera. The town had only two churches yet hundreds of church bells sang. A soprano a cappella-ed “God Bless America” as the face of white Jesus merged with the flag, then into a portrait of the family ideal: man in military uniform, arm around woman, woman holding baby. The sky pinked as the soprano hit her high note: “Home Sweeeeeet Hoooooome!,” and the town jerked to life. Trains resumed encircling the inhabitants, a boy’s kite soared in perfect electric breeze.

“Un-fucking real.” Charlotte stopped recording. She opened Instagram but couldn’t decide on a caption, thinking that if the show happened eight times a day, then the sun rose and set on Roadside America eight times a day, meaning maybe the town wasn’t a relic, but operating years ahead, in an accelerated, prophetic future.

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IN WHICH LINDSEY WAITS ON CHARLOTTE, POSSIBLY FOREVER

Lindsey sipped the last of her Green Machine Naked juice through the straw, conserving her lipstick, as she stood up from her chair in the Queens Museum Cafe. Charlotte, her old friend from high school, was supposed to meet her half an hour ago, but hadn’t returned any of Lindsey’s texts. It would be just like her to bail after Lindsey drove the whole way from Seacaucus to hang out.

Lindsey was happy to be away from Joe for the day, who Charlotte hated. “Lindsey, what do you expect? He lives with you, so you’d expect him to be chill, but his main interest is playing 80s metal with his metal bros, all of whom have zero awareness. It’s like they’ve been in a Metallica bomb shelter for ten years. I don’t know how you deal.” Since that comment, Lindsey had lost interest in her Seacaucus friends and her coworkers at the middle school and was trying to hang out with Charlotte and her New York friends more. She read all Charlotte’s essays, and sent her the link to The Panorama of the City of New York, a mini-NYC, saying, “We should go!!,” but now, sick of waiting, she entered the exhibit alone, and read the wall text:

Conceived as a celebration of the City’s municipal infrastructure by urban mastermind Robert Moses for the 1964 World’s Fair, the Panorama was built by a team of more than 100 people over the course of three years.

“Even the mini-city wasn’t built in a day!” Lindsey joked to herself. She was glad Charlotte wasn’t here. She never laughed at her jokes. She stepped forward and placed her hands on the railing. The city Lindsey idolized and feared was nothing but a room of toys sprawled at her feet. Lindsey looked at the bridges she’d driven over that morning: the George Washington and the Whitestone with their beautifully fluid lines. “It’s like an analog Google Maps in here,” she thought, and took out her phone, tweeting, “The mini-New York City is like analog Google Maps #QueensMuseum.”

The scale was such that New York City’s population seemed absent, the largest city in America depicted as ghost town, the East Village trafficless, Times Square vacant, like in the opening scene of Vanilla Sky, she thought, which is maybe how Robert Moses pictured it: empty, pristine, and from above.

It reminded her of “The Shock of the New,” the modern art series from the 1980s she was watching, in which host Robert Hughes talked about Le Corbusier’s ideal urban plan. Ville radieuse, ‘The Radiant City,’ was never actualized, only a model in his office, a mini-city of elegant highways and tower blocks built on stilts whose citizens drove identical cars in symmetric unison, every citizen equal, sitting side by side on matching contoured chairs, perfect and surrounded by perfection: no architectural class distinction, no Metropolitan Opera, no Marcy Projects, only unifying concrete. Lindsey pictured one Vanilla Sky-era mini-Tom Cruise sprinting through Le Corbusier’s model, face awash in melodrama, his handsome confusion upstaging the infrastructure.

Lindsey realized she’d been staring at the one mini-plane flying in and out of mini-LaGuardia, watching it land, take off, land, take off, following the path of its wire across the sky. When she looked around, she was alone with the empty city. “You really know how to clear a room, Lindsey,” she thought as she walked towards mini-Brooklyn. She took a picture of what she thought was Charlotte’s neighborhood. She texted it to her with the caption: “Where the fuck u at, gurlll?”

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IN WHICH LINDSEY WAITS ON LOVE, POSSIBLY FOREVER

The last time Lindsey saw her grandparents, she asked how they’d met. They grew up in neighboring towns in a central Pennsylvanian valley, an area her grandfather called The Foot. He said, “We were riding in the back of a truck. They’d go around The Foot picking up kids, high school kids, who wanted to head to town on a Saturday night.”

“What? How many people were in this truck?” Lindsey asked.

“Maybe like 16 of us? 20? It’s a flatbed truck. So the truck would stop at the movie theatre in town and everybody else got out, they coupled up, and I looked over and there she was. We were the last two standing there.” Lindsey had looked at her grandmother, who smiled and shrugged.

At first, Lindsey had found it funny. “I’m the descendant of The Foot’s least eligible bachelor and bachelorette,” but when she told the story to Joe and the guys from the band one night, nobody laughed, so she hadn’t told the story again.

She looked out across Lower Manhattan and thought about all the absent men: the Wall Street men, the bridge-and-tunnel men, the craft beer-drinking men, and all the men like her grandfather who would never go to New York because of “traffic” and “the crowds,” and she tried to imagine the last two people in the shrinking world, the bottom of Tinder, Grinder, OKCupid, Bumble, or that app to find threesomes that she deleted off her phone after three days. Who would be the last two? She pictured Mike and Karen Pence.

Lindsey had seen an article about Karen Pence in Cosmo, which she didn’t really read, but followed on Twitter. She’d read the passage aloud to Charlotte the last time they hung out. “Mike approached Karen after seeing her play guitar at mass at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Indianapolis…‘When I first met Mike Pence, it was love at first sight,’ Karen said in an ad from Mike’s governor campaign. ‘On our first date, we went skating at the Pepsi Coliseum at the state fairgrounds. We skated around for a little while, then he reached over and took my hand.’”

“Normie prom king and queen,” Charlotte had said. “Good find, Lindz.”

Lindsey didn’t say it reminded her of the night she met Joe after one of his gigs, of how, as she helped carry gear to his Corolla, his mic stand on her shoulder, he had invited her to a hockey game.

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IN WHICH CHARLOTTE CONJURES A DEMONIC SPARRING PARTNER

Charlotte watched the man in the fleece regard the town with pride. He lifted his daughter so she could see above the plexiglass. He indicated towards the mini-construction workers, and said, “Look at those hard-working men.” Charlotte walked up beside the Larry/Mike Pence man and spoke to the daughter. “Don’t trust anything he says.”

“I’m sorry, what was that?” Larry/Mike Pence replied.

“You heard me. This backwards-ass dream of yours is fucking the world up!”

“You know, I grew up on the front row of the American Dream, raised in a small town in Southern Indiana in a big family with a cornfield in the backyard.”

“So you can relate to this? Great. I grew up here, in Pennsylvania, so I get it too.”

“When I was young, I watched my mom and dad build everything that matters: a family, a business, and a good name. I was raised to believe in hard work, in faith, and family. You know, Dad ran gas stations in our small town and he was a great father. If Dad were with us here today, I have a feeling he’d enjoy this moment. You know, the best thing that ever happened to me is that 31 years ago I married the girl of my dreams, a school teacher, an artist. She is everything to me.” Larry/Mike Pence’s wife held up her hand silently. People clapped. A crowd had gathered. “But regardless of whatever title I’ll hold, the most important job I’ll ever have is spelled D-A-D.” More applause. “What’s your name, sweetheart?”

“Charlotte.”

“I have a daughter named Charlotte. She’s a writer too. And you know, Charlotte, the American people are tired of being told that this is as good as it gets. They’re tired of being told by politicians in both parties, ‘We’ll get to that tomorrow’ while we pile a mountain range of debt on our children and our grandchildren.”

He spoke to the crowd, not to her, and she knew the only way to reach them was through delivering a end-of-TV-episode moralizing monologue of some kind, but she didn’t know how to speak like that, so instead she said, “You’re a dick.”

The crowd tightened. Larry/Mike Pence stepped over the wall, amongst his dream. “You know, Charlotte, it doesn’t have to be like this. In my home state of Indiana, we prove everyday you can build a growing economy on balanced budgets, low—”

Charlotte reached her regular-sized arm into the mini-world and pushed him, and he tumbled into a valley, onto a railroad track. The train approached as the crowd watched, and instead of running over the giant man, the toy hit his leg and derailed, skidding into nearby homes, leaving him unscathed but Charlotte culpable for the deaths of hundreds of mini-citizens.

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IN WHICH OUR HEROES SIP TEA AS VERMIN EAT THEM FROM WITHIN

“Hey!! I wanna make it up to u” Charlotte texted Lindsey. “I’ll b in yr hood 2nite” “I’m reading at Rutgers” “Could I stop by for an hour???”

With a soundtrack of AC/DC’s “Back in Black” played by Joe’s hands leaking from the basement and muffled by the floor, they drank Positive Energy Yogi Tea in the kitchen. Lindsey showed Charlotte a video of the artist Willard Wigan, who made sculptures of cultural icons so small they could fit on the head of a pin: Betty Boop or The Incredible Hulk in the eye of a needle. Charlton Heston the size of half a period. “I have to make sure I don’t inhale my own work,” said Wigan with a wink. When the TV show host asked, “How do you keep your hand still to paint them?,” Wigan replied, “I work between the heartbeats.”

“Isn’t he funny? What do you think?” Lindsey asked.

Charlotte said she didn’t find the work that interesting, but liked how Wigan hid cultural ubiquity. “It’s like carrying around a Bart Simpson so small you don’t realize you have it. Like it’s inside me, like a pop micro-organism.”

“Do you know about the insane amount of little life forms orbiting you, crawling all up in you? Your body is like 50% little creatures. Most of what you think of as yourself is actually not you. It’s crazy.”

“Oh my god, so now I’m thinking there’s all these mini-Obamas and mini-Marilyn Monroes in my bloodstream and my hair and stuff.”

Lindsey made a joke about the microscopic Jesuses floating around inside her grandparents, then said, “Remember how I told you I couldn’t sleep on election night?”

“Yeah, you texted me. I should’ve texted you back.”

“It’s okay. But that night, I kept feeling bitten, like when we all got bed bugs at Girl Scout camp. When was that, like eighth grade? It was like this consistent gnawing, and I realized that this army of tiny women had surrounded me like in Gulliver’s Travels or whatever and were eating my body.”

Lindsey had woken up and walked around the apartment, glancing out the window at a train sliding across the horizon with so many freight cars full of objects it seemed to have no beginning or ending, and thought about her first date with Joe at the hockey game, high in the bleachers.

“Do all those people over there look fake to you?” she’d asked him, indicating across the ice to their mirror image on the opposite side of the arena, extras copied and pasted, models for a still-life.

“What do you mean? They’re hockey fans like us,” said Joe.

“But it’s like they’re plastic. Like, one red hat.”

Even when the people in their section cheered, shouted expletives, proclaimed their individuality, the other side seemed to act only as a group. And as much as Lindsey wanted to interpret their togetherness as positive, when “The Wave” swept through the section driving the blob to its feet, its arms overhead in a collective “Woo!” spreading from seat to seat in seamless flow, all she felt was fear.