The dentist was the last holdout.
Henry Wray grew up here. He told me about it in that casual, rambling way a person can when he has his hands in your mouth. His stories were all yesterday. It was just a blink ago that Arlington had more single-family homes than condos. Tilapia risotto may not have been readily available, but you could walk down the block to get your hands such modern-day urban rarities as drill bits, a toilet brush, and practical underwear.
When he was little, Henry Wray’s mother took him shopping at Kann’s department store. He remembered standing up on the platform in the shoe department and ogling the caged monkeys kept there, one guesses, for the pleasure of the children and the relief of their mothers. As he grew, he moved and returned a time or three, watching the familiar landscape shift in that way cities do regardless of the potency of memory. Block after block gave way to office complexes, high rises, big-shouldered condos selling for $400 per square foot.
Dr. Wray has wrinkles. He wears a bow-tie. After a life of who knows what, he returned to the area and bought up one of the last little houses on North Kansas, a street that is barely a pass-through between the whizzing lanes of Wilson and Fairfax Boulevards. The tiny structure still had the feel of a home. A narrow corridor through the single-story bungalow was flanked by closet-sized rooms transformed into exam spaces and an office. The windows were plentiful. The carpet was brown. His part-time assistant greeted everyone with a booming hello.
To one side of Dr. Wray’s lot squatted a black-and-red structure made of what appeared to be oversized legos stuck together at wrong angles. It contained an insurance company and not much else, thought it was hard to tell through the tint of its windows. Behind the dentist’s house was a used car dealership and on the opposite side, a busted-up patchwork of weeds fenced in chain link.
From every side, shine pressed in on North Kansas Street. Across from Dr. Wray’s, the glassed balconies of a corner apartment building sipped shafts of light into bent shadow. A little further on, the FDIC’s rippling mirrors stretched the sun aquatic. The brushed steel face of George Mason University’s new Founders Hall burned back the day, its tiny windows blinking blinking against plaza trees that will require two decades of rain to cover its nakedness.
Every six months since I started working here, I made the 90-second journey across the street. I loved walking through Dr. Wray’s door (A front door! With a handle that turns!) After hanging my jacket on the coat rack, the dentist himself would call me back. I never had to wait. Henry Wray would reminisce as he hammered away at my plaque. On the way out, I would listen to the receptionist spill over with bubble and opinion as she jotted down my next appointment. I have one in my book for September.
Just last week, wrecking crews arrived. They rolled their equipment onto North Kansas Street and unfurled a barbed-wire border between past and future. You can get your visa stamped, but you aren’t coming back. The backhoes roared to life. Dr. Wray’s office, the last of the single-family homes in that long-gone memory of a neighborhood, lay in a heap on the ground. I watched as hot dust settled on the debris.
Time for a new dentist, I suppose. The old fellow is unlikely to start fresh anywhere else, unless “starting fresh” means sipping a martini by the side of some Canadian lake. This week, big yellow monsters clambered over the rubble of Dr. Wray’s office went to work on the black-lego building. Now, an entire city block is a moonscape of splintered drywall and shattered glass. Diggers pound deep into the orange dirt to gut the very belly of the earth. An underground parking garage? A sub-basement for HVAC? Anything and everything. It will go down, it will climb up. It will eclipse the sun. It will house the transients who, like me, have little time to spare for memory.
A local historian has written that no one can find a photograph of the Kann’s monkeys. People did not have smartphones in 1956, and even if they had, the mothers were too weary. Who captures such mundane things as shoe-shopping? As dental appointments? I did not think to snap an image of the last house on North Kansas Street or Dr. Wray’s red bowtie. I had no idea what was coming.
Blink, and it’s gone. Even though we know everything is fleeting, we cannot bear to hold that truth up in the front of the mind. We believe in permanence against all the evidence because it would be too frightening to consider how much we stand to lose.
Then the world up and blindsides us. Or, perhaps, we blinder ourselves.
I do this every day. I mourn the loss of the familiar, but I can’t even draw up an image of the object of my nostalgia. What did he look like, anyway? I gaze at the patch of once-woods where the new houses are going in, trying to discern some trace of the sacred canopy that sheltered a first kiss. What was there before? I wrack my brain. I probe the cavity. Emptied of recollection, the hollow place aches. Loss is the ice water. Better to go thirsty, some people believe.
We love so much without even knowing what inhabits the corners of our hearts: a small swath of trees, a giggle with a lover, the rainbow of petit fours in the pastry case at the supermarket. Every bit of it, beautiful enough to make the jaw throb, if only we had a moment, just one more moment, to notice this feast spread here for our senses. So perfect. So within reach.