The Art of Brutalism

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March 21, 2022 by The Citron Review

by Amy Cipolla Barnes


April 21, 1995 

The Greyhound bus is gray. The skies are gray. The Murrah Federal Building is gray too. All with an “a” instead of an “e.” My sister and I usually ride in sunny yellow school buses, not sad gray ones. When we pass by what’s left of the brutalist building statue, it feels like a hand game of here’s the church, we are the people as all the passengers slide down steamed windows and slide down their faces to catch a glimpse of a crushed building spewing more gray onto the road. 

Just a day before, the road we’re riding on was full of people exiting in a not-drill, in a gray haze from a gray building. Running down stairs and down people and down children, in front of other buses and other cars. My sister and I are traveling alone for some reason I can’t divine. It’s not divine. For some reason God has protected us but not the people in the broken building. Maybe we didn’t fit in the car or the moving truck. Our parents are at our destination, unaware that we are mired in brutal gray. 

Living in Kansas, I’m used to seeing buildings tossed about by invisible hands gripping out from tornado winds. Houses are low-lying for a reason, with basements and storm shelters dotting the farm landscapes. Our old house that we’ve left is the only one that had two stories. Dangerous. Tempting the sky god to rip the lid off and expose unlabeled cans and unlabeled sleeping children.

We – the passengers and my sister and I – all stare at this concrete federal leviathan, watching it still rippling a bit like a cartoon image or a fruit-scented Jell-o mold, ripped open at its heart. Stapled papers and staples and left-behind cardigans and briefcases tossed by bomb winds still flutter in the street. The bus drives over them like a gigantic paperweight that can’t quite catch everything.  

There’s a new aching brutal brutalism in the structure that was built strong, built federal, built to stand. An architectural giant that didn’t stand when truly brutal people, terrorists-built not architects-built things, bombs and anger instead of a mammoth federal structure. The ugliness is shocking. This isn’t a building that anyone looks at for beauty. It’s a government building, utilitarian. The Oklahoma City skyline isn’t known for its skyscraper beauties or architectural wonders. This is/was a building for workers, not wonderment. 

We can’t see our bus driver from the back of the bus. He’s hiding behind a smoke-yellowed plastic curtain. He must feel the bus almost tipping as all stare slack-jawed and he accelerates, and calls us all back into the bus seats, distracts us with some random fact about a historical sign or historical fact or maybe just tells us his name. I don’t remember. He’s only a secondary character with cigarette breath circles around his head like a cartoon character but we listen.

My sister and I spend the bus ride with a cast of characters that felt straight out of The Wizard of Oz if the movie characters traveled by bus and not on foot. There are men looking for hearts and sweethearts and brains and courage, traveling on torn vinyl seats missing a limb or a wife or a child. Elderly women wearing witches hats, holding Tupperware cauldrons of chili offer us Sucrets that smell of their coat pockets.

We spend the night in the bus station because no one thought we would have to stop and no one planned for a hotel. My sister and I are alone, gripping important papers that are weighty in their paper-ness: passports, checkbooks, utility bills, birth certificates and marriage certificates, vet and doctor records, shoe boxes of documents and suitcases of bare basics. The bus station interior is cavernous and stained and sticky and breathes booze and coffee whenever someone opens the door. We try to sleep on plastic 80s plastic benches that aren’t meant for sleeping, only for waiting. Benches that smell of a thousand or million visitors’ sweat and sweetness. All night, sirens sound and rubble moves and men cry and women scream. I hide my sister’s shoebox next to mine, next to my ribs. There are strange men snuggled into other benches just feet away, imprinting their DNA into the plastic. 

In the morning, we eat smashed peanut butter sandwiches out of waxed paper and walk a yellow sticky line back to a new bus with a new driver and new secondhand smoke. We can see only swirling bits of gray in the gloomy Oklahoma skyline. My sister and I find a seat together. The man next to us is taking photographs of himself, searching for his soul and his lost son on 35 millimeter film. Another man in Army fatigues sits next to his backpack wife, a stacked pack of uniforms and courage. I sit closer to my sister, making sure I can still find her heart, and mine. 

The bus driver takes a long route outside of the city center, circumventing the brutalism, announcing historic buildings from behind his wizard’s plexiglass. 

The skies aren’t technicolor again until we reach Arkansas.


Amy Cipolla Barnes has words at FlashBack Fiction, X-R-A-Y Lit, McSweeney’s, The Molotov Cocktail, JMWW Journal, Lucent Dreaming, Anti-Heroin Chic, Flash Frog, Janus Literary, Cabinet of Heed, Spartan Lit and many other sites. She’s a Fractured Lit associate editor, Gone Lawn co-editor, Ruby Lit editor, and reads for Narratively, Taco Bell Quarterly, Retreat West, CRAFT, and The MacGuffin. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net, the Pushcart Prize, Best Microfiction, long-listed for the Wigleaf 50 in 2021 and included in Best Small Fictions 2022. Her debut flash collection Mother Figures was published by ELJ Editions in summer, 2021. A full length collection AMBROTYPES was published by Word West in March 2022.



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