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Ghosts of Devastation - Sarah Mohler

My past selves still speak to me sometimes, asking me to remember them and their struggles and what they have done or failed to do to get me where I am. I ask that they not remind me of the embarrassing things they’ve done, or the painful things, but I suppose if I try to silence them, I rob them of the power to teach me about myself.

They brought me, for example, to graduate school, and to the steps of Taylor Hall on the Kent State University campus. The first days of autumn surround me on all sides: yellow-brown leaves that didn’t have the decency to flare into fiery beauty before giving up the ghost and an incessant wind that has fluffed out my hair and nearly driven me to find an indoor seat from which to record my thoughts. Instead I glare in no particular direction, at an opponent I cannot fight, and refuse to give up the outdoors. I have a history of stubbornness and winter is marching steadily closer.

Before me sits the site of the Kent State shootings of 1970. In this leaf-strewn autumn under an approaching sunset, it appears a somber place, made more somber and somehow more lonely by the occasional passerby. There’s an energy here, but it’s not the energy of the event, as some people might assume. It’s the energy of time and nature. I see it in the quiet fortitude of the trees, the carefree maturation of the early autumn grass, and the indifferent scurrying of the black squirrels. Nature has a way of standing stoically in the face of all human activity. Impassive. Nonchalant. Soldiering on in complete disregard of anything we might do to it. It is the inimitable skill of the natural world to always return to equilibrium, as if totally oblivious to human activity. It remembers itself, independent of damage, suffering, or conflict.

I wonder if what we regard as memory is even applicable in a situation like this, or if memory is simply something so important to the human experience that we try to ascribe it to places and artifacts that couldn’t possibly “remember” any part of their history. On the other hand, we can’t possibly know anything that exists outside of our own human perceptions, so why couldn’t a tree, a mountain, a building, a park, or a chair have its own kind of memory?

Places like the Kent State site, upon which people and events have left an indelible mark, retain a certain subdued electricity. Nature is steadfast in its quest to regain equilibrium even in the face of the most destructive weapons we (or it) can unleash. The grass still grows outside of Taylor Hall. Trees grow on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius. People commute through Lower Manhattan and vacation along the Las Vegas strip. Moose and elk in Yellowstone National Park walk atop centuries of ecological history tied up with natural wildfires. The quiet resolve of these sites of destruction is infinite and stalwart.

At least, that is what I imagine. I can’t visit Ground Zero. I have no budget to fly to

Chernobyl or Nagasaki or Glencoe, nor the vaccinations and bodyguards to attempt a tour of Libya. I’m not likely to see a community rebuilt after a tsunami or an earthquake or a wildfire anytime soon, and there are no Great Ruins of the Ancient World anywhere near my Kent, Ohio apartment. The most epic prehistoric natural disaster of all time – hypothesized to have landed on the Yucatán Peninsula and wiped out 75% of all life on Earth – is far beyond my means for travel.

And so I have decided instead to turn inward, to apply these considerations of pathetic fallacy to a small-scale and personally significant space. The pain of a single human life cannot hope to touch that of the disasters mentioned above, but then, there isn’t a person alive who can honestly say that they’ve never used the word “devastated” to describe the inner brokenness cause by some personal loss. After some deliberation, I make the hour-long drive from the Kent State area to Sachsenheim Hall in Lakewood, Ohio.

What horrific disaster resulting in a wasteland of human suffering hath been wrought in this unprepossessing, 100+ year-old German tavern? a reader might ask.

It is the place where I had my heart broken the worst it’s ever been – not just broken, but steamrolled, pulverized, mixed with dog poop, molded into patty form, charred black on a rusty, crusty castoff grill, and left by the side of the road in a downpour to be forgotten about.

On Halloween night 2012, I fell for an amateur Cleveland comedian. This happened far off on the other side of Cleveland, at an Eastside Comedy Zone event at Toth’s Place in Mentor, Ohio. He was dressed as a Power Ranger – one of those costumes with the comically fake foam muscles sewn into the fabric – and I had dressed as a vampire hunter. (Two days of trying to fit Party City vampire fangs to my teeth, including a session with a disgusting gummy tube of Fixodent recommended by someone online, had frustrated me so much that I said screw it, I’mma just hunt these sons of bitches instead. That’ll teach them to have unmanageable canines.) I sat at a table near the center of the room with my friends during the open mic, a portion of my consciousness focused on whether or not I was showing off a scandalous amount of thigh in my too-short jean skirt. I have a very clear image in my mind of this goofy, bright-eyed, dimpled Red Ranger standing onstage, telling self-deprecating jokes about how difficult it is to date when you live with your parents and prefer to spend your evenings reading comic books and watching WrestleMania. I have only the vaguest of notions, however, as to what struck me so strongly about this particular young man at the outset.

Perhaps I saw a bit of myself reflected back at me: a young nerd with a bruised heart and crippling self-esteem issues enclosed in a thin veil of bravado, simultaneously believing that he had a lot to offer in a relationship and that no one would ever take the time to discover it for themselves.

Improbably winning the evening’s Sexiest Costume Contest ought to have given me the confidence to express my interest in him, and more a few years later there’s still a stupid, delusional part of me that thinks that that decision could have absolutely made all the difference.

How often did I go to the Sachsenheim in the year that followed? He hosted his comedy show there every Thursday night at 9(ish,) so at least once a week I had the theoretical opportunity to make him fall madly in love with me. There were open mics all over the west side of Cleveland in those days: at the Five O’clock Lounge, Touch Supper Club, Visible Voice Books, the Lakewood Village Tavern and Mahall’s and Duck Island and Barrio and a juice bar that I don’t think is there anymore. But the Sachs was the place that spiked my adrenaline and drove me through several stages of grief on a nearly weekly basis. I could be almost assured to see him here – sometimes offers to host gigs at the Improv or the Funny Stop required him to leave the show’s running to his cohost – and I would usually go in armed with some imaginary conversation, an overabundance of hope, and a flattering pair of jeans.

Occasionally (okay, fine, more than occasionally,) I would painstakingly choose some ultra-flattering halter top or off-the-shoulder shimmery thing for the evening, which at a certain level, even at the time, made me wonder if I was projecting the image of someone who was trying too hard. I mean, who goes to a dark tavern for open mic comedy on a Thursday night and dresses in leggings and a flowy purple tank top with a sweetheart neckline? And heels? Who does that?

This belief that I had to be at the peak of my hotness quotient was dampened somewhat by the perpetual chill the Sachs seemed to offer regardless of season. (How was I supposed to spark that initial attraction if I always had to mask the hotness with a hoodie?) I suppose, to be fair, that an open mic night at the Sachs wasn’t exactly the most romantic of places to attempt a courtship, with its smell of basement and fried food, frequent raucous laughter, more frequent profanity, sportsball, flat screens, and the Keno machine at the corner of the bar lighting up and keening desperately every so often for someone to just maybe touch it please, just once, give it a try, it’s probably actually really fun once you get to –

Woah, hold up. My former self is identifying a little too much with an inanimate gambling machine.

Let’s move on.

On comedy nights, I always drove to Lakewood from the west, so the Sachs always came up on my left. From the south, as it turns out, there’s a different set of potholes on a different set of streets; it’s not the same drive I used to make. Taking a different route, and making a righthand turn into the oddly triangular parking lot, stops my mind from reliving every anxious and excited visit that came before. My return feels unreal.

There’s still no good way to park here that doesn’t require a minimum of a three-point turn to get either in or out, and the remnants of pavement still look as old as the building. Pulling straight into a spot across from the door robs me of the cinematic opportunity to sit in my car and gaze pensively at the building, contemplating my past heartache as a single tear slides down my cheek. I would have to twist myself around in the seat and crane my neck to see out the back window, and the moment is ruined anyway by the need to field nosey text messages from my mom.

The walk inside ought to be cinematic as well. The music swells, the camera pans up the wall, then comes back to my face to showcase my nervousness about this undertaking. The opening of the door, stepping over the threshold, crossing the small vestibule and facing the door of the tavern… these should all be heightened events, except… they’re not.

I hesitate before going in, not so much because I’m afraid it’ll hurt – that’s what I’m here for, after all – but because I’m not sure how many people are in there at 5pm on a Monday and self-consciousness is one thing that I haven’t completely conquered yet.

This is my first visit to the Hall’s tavern (for much of the building is taken up by practice rooms for local musical societies and halls for parties and special events) in over 4 years. It’s been 5 ½ years since that fateful Halloween night. I’m surprised, to be honest, by how little I feel, sitting in this dimly lit bar where, for a period of nearly a year, I twitterpated my way through the most intense crush I’ve had the misfortune of harboring. It’s as chilly as it always was and as dark, because I suppose people aren’t expected to come to taverns with notebooks and pencils and the desire to recapture the yearning of bygone days. When I arrive, the only patron is an old man, seated on a barstool and dividing his time between his boot-shaped beer mug and the episode of Two and a Half Men playing on the flat screen above the bar. It is an unnatural quiet which flows in to fill the space between the canned laughter as Alan Harper quintessentially blows his chances of having a threesome. Soon enough, however, a dozen people have filtered in and are socializing on the short side of the L-shaped room. I suppose this better emulates the atmosphere to which I’m accustomed, but there’s still something missing.

There’s a long, molded plastic folding table on the raised platform that used to serve as his stage, and a flatscreen TV anchored above it where the tin Budweiser sign used to hang. The adjoining space, which still houses ping-pong table and pool tables, is dark and vacant. Six glass block windows along that wall so filter any outdoor illumination at this time of day that the place seems gloomy in broad daylight. The bar, nestled along the inside edge of the L, looks the same as always, its wood surface slightly uneven and dinged, but still polished like it’s keeping up appearances. The black bar stools would clash with the very brown décor, if only the lighting was better.

The long side of the L, where I am seated, used to fill up with loud and bawdy comics on Thursday nights, mostly men, and mostly unkempt. Their means and levels of deviance varied widely, from the recovering meth addict to the straight-edge comic book nerd.

My crush was on the latter end of that spectrum. In fact, he was the latter end of that spectrum, so much so that his foul-mouthed stage presence and slightly twisted way of thinking seemed to be the only things that made him suitable for such a mishmash of friends and acquaintances. Tight-fitting superhero t-shirts were always paired with oversized jeans (perhaps reaching for the nostalgia of the JNCO era?) and street shoes that he’d probably had since high school.

More than once I daydreamed about taking him shopping for pants that actually fit him, convinced that there was an ass under those jeans that deserved the hug of fitted denim. Also, by some complete and utter coincidence that I simply cannot explain despite my best efforts, it was around this point in my life that I discovered that my ovaries go absolutely batshit bonkers for a pair of toned arms, the sort which happen to be especially flattered by tight t-shirts.

Thinking of him takes effort, I find. His is not the first face called to mind as I look at these tables and their vintage wooden scoop-backed chairs. I see Andy, the goofy neo-hippy who looked strikingly like Stephen King’s unclaimed love child; Will, the baby-faced blond whose comedy always gave the impression of intense caffeination; Chelsea, who always looked like she’d been dressed by a blind thrift store employee with an 80’s punk aesthetic; Erik, the bearded ex-wrestler; TM, whose alcoholism necessitated a hip replacement at the tender age of 27; Jeremy, the aforementioned meth addict; and Jon, the tall, amiable, fluffy-haired mutt with deep dimples who let go of the comedy scene before I did.

These are the presences my memory conjures as I sit here. His flits around and often disappears altogether, much as he did those years ago as he was socializing with friends, organizing the night’s lineup, finalizing his own set, and dealing with the occasional technical issue. I am both confused and relieved that he’s been depleted here just as he has been in my memory, but I suppose I’ve done that myself in the intervening years. At the end there was nothing to do but shovel dirt over my withered fantasies and plant something new over them. I doubt, then, the assumptions that I brought here with me today – that I could somehow find an impression like the one I sensed at Taylor Hall steeped in the old wooden panels of this building.

Having been raised by a clever and resourceful father and an overly cautious and superstitious mother, my adult mind has developed a mostly pragmatic bent that simultaneously rails against, and is intrigued by, the fantastic and improbable. Both sides try to claim an explanation for the sensations I feel on the steps of Taylor Hall and the bar at the Sachsenheim. I must be conflating energy with memory, or perhaps with nostalgia. I see the ghosts of living people in these empty chairs not because they have left something of themselves behind, but because I have brought something of them with me to project into this space. I put them here because the associative centers of my brain are whispering that there’s been an error somewhere. Why am I here, if they are not? Why are the chairs around me empty, and why is there no spotlight at the end of the room awaiting the awkward stylings of an amateur comic? This is a place where people come to hear the one about the gay boss, the homemade skateboard with the shopping cart wheels, the silent war for the last maple cream stick at Dunkin’ Donuts, the guy who accidentally fed bong water to his pregnant wife.

Another part of my mind asks me why I want him to be here so badly. Hadn’t I worked hard to erase him from my daily thoughts? Hadn’t I voluntarily forgotten his jokes, his movements, his dark eyes, the sound of his voice? Hadn’t I done my time in the dark pits of depression, listening to his rejection ping around like a bullet in the hollow space where my soul had been? Hadn’t I wallowed for months in the enabling anguish of heartbreak songs? Darren Hayes’s “Black Out the Sun” suddenly became more realistic than melodramatic, Hanson’s “For Your Love” seemed a mocking parody of real-life romance, Clay Aiken’s “Lover All Alone” moved me in miserable camaraderie more deeply than ever before, and I learned truly what Katy Perry meant when she sang about falling from cloud nine.

Perhaps I came here searching for ghosts that no longer haunt me. If the latent forces I seek to find here are just my own manifestations, what can I objectively say about the atmosphere of the Sachs beyond these admittedly limited perceptions tainted by my own experience there? It seems silly, for example, to wonder whether any random patron could walk in here today and, on any level of consciousness, sense the anguished residue of a lovelorn post adolescent virgin or her obsession with this awkward yet charming Batman-wannabe with amazing biceps.

I fear that somewhere inside me is that 26-year old whose romantic goals are incompatible with mine. She thinks she might still have a shot with this first man who truly stole her heart, while I have moved on to a long-term relationship with a man who cares about me and has no qualms about showing it. I know her better than she knows herself – how can I not? – and I know that if I bring her out and have a talk with her, the first thing she will do is insist that we stake out a Cleveland comedy show… just to see if he’s still there.


SarahLynn Mohler a 2020 graduate of the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts program at Kent State University, where she taught College Writing and Creative Writing. Her master's thesis, "The Bones of the Horse: A Personal and Cultural History," is a series of braided essays chronicling the evolution of Man's relationship with horses as well as her own evolution as a horseperson. She is an Instructor for Polyphony Lit’s nascent Creative Writing Workshop program.


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