Monday, March 8, 2021

The #Midwessay: Louise Krug, How to Be a Midwesterner

Fire season in Kansas begins in late winter, when frozen ground thaws and its dampness retards the pace of a creeping fire line. Ranchers set fire to pasture’s dry grasses and seedlings on the most calm day possible. Winds are a threat, sweeping from the Colorado Rockies across foothills, through the high plains, and across—and downward from—the high country. The scent of fired grasses blows east to the more populated towns, the sweet smell of grasses burning, an incense. This process, learned from Indigenous friends and relatives (before they were sold out to railroad companies and real estate brokers), sustains the pastureland for bison, cattle, horses, and deer who sometimes graze with cattle herds.
     In this season no person, writer or not, cannot help but be moved by the epic scale of the landscape. I am reminded of this as the season turns to this mode, particular to the grasslands. Once I drove through the Flint Hills after dark when fires still burned, snaking under a full moon, and then a spring snowstorm began. The gleam of blue moonlight on snow streaked with dendritic fire rivulets stunned me. How could I ever imagine my small life as central to the cosmos?
     All the writers’ works that represent Kansas essays in this collection live with this simple fact—the seasons and its weather will overwhelm any human enterprise, and even egos. Many of these writers’ work is new to me, and without question, I know there will be an underlying humility, even from those not born and raised in the Sunflower State. Survive a few ice storms, snow, high winds, and burning heat—and you are a member of the Kansas club. August and September are the months when fields of “weeds” are yellow with wild and a few cultivated sunflower crops. That is another marker of seasons that proceeds outside of people’s management.
     Other factors encourage the Kansas writers. A slower pace leaves time for reflection, reading, book clubs (High Plains Radio’s ambitious series, for example) and literary communities. I would guess there are more writers per capita than most places. Isolation leaves time for individuals to write, without distractions or traffic-filled commutes.
     No, the state is not all flat, nor all black-and-white as in The Wizard of Oz. But what if it were? Even more occasion for a good story. —Denise Low, Kansas Coordinator.


How to Be a Midwesterner: in Three Acts

Louise Krug

Act I

The hairstylist hadn’t asked before he cut me the bangs. They were very short—two inches at most. After he did it, I said, “Oh!” and he said, “I thought it would look cute.”
     The first time he cut my hair, he had marveled at its denseness, but then said, “How am I supposed to cut this?”
     He rented a place on a farm, and his cabin had no plumbing or electricity—on purpose. To wash dishes, he lit a Bunsen burner and heated water that he lugged from a pump outside in a kettle. He had told me living off the grid was connected to his experience of Y2K when everyone thought the world was going to end.
     Later, I was not surprised to hear about his firing from the salon due to drinking and tardiness. I had cried at home about my unwanted bangs, but had not complained to the salon, I wasn’t sure why. When I first met the hairstylist he had been clean shaven, but each subsequent appointment he had more and more of a beard, until he resembled a younger, red-haired Santa Claus.
     The whole reason I had started going to him in the first place was my usual hairstylist, Luci, was always booked solid, and if I had to cancel an appointment with her, which I often did because of work or childcare, I was out of luck. Luci was glamorous, had two pugs, and seemed to be always going to or coming from Las Vegas, where there were lots of hair shows. I loved to find out what Luci was eating lately, as she stayed away from entire food groups but still managed to never cook for herself. My last appointment, Luci had been into black coffee, kimchi, and blueberries. She also went to a personal trainer who was her frenemy.
     When I had my most recent appointment with Luci I asked about him. Was he alright? Was he still living in that shack in the woods? What was he doing for work?

Act II

I was told I would have to make a speech. As Nick drove our little car toward the city, I read aloud over and over what I had written. It wasn’t long, on a half-sheet of paper. He told me how it sounded, when I was talking too fast. It was sticky summer, and we arrived at a street bathed in velvety shade, with stone houses bigger than any we had ever seen up close. The one whose address was on our creamy invitation had bushes that were shaped into animals and employee parking.
     Inside, we were handed nametags. Nick whispered that he saw a portrait of George Washington on the wall. The chandeliers were low enough to bite. Rooms on all sides, one with puckered-silk walls and sofas on claw legs; one with a Christmas tree and wrapped presents though it was July; one with a black-and-white tile floor and crystal picture frames showing different weddings. All the people were in the backyard, holding drinks. Once outside, we saw that the pool seemed strangely small and normal, a brown brick patio, a splintery swing set.
     I saw the PR woman who had emailed—a pink and green skirt-suit and lots of lipstick, with a name tag, which is how I knew who she was. We shook hands and she said, “You’re so young!” I would speak at the end of the gift ceremony, she said. “But for now, explore! Have fun!” And she disappeared.
     Nick and I met some people and ate a bunch of macaroons and oysters, but I didn’t get to make my speech. The PR woman either forgot to introduce me or decided I wasn’t right for the event. It was a fundraiser for a brain-injury charity that commemorated the dead daughter of the old man whose house it was. Though I had brain surgeries, maybe they weren’t the right kind. The daughter, one of eleven children, had been shot twice in the head during a burglary twenty-five years ago when she was home from college for the weekend. We all watched as the old man was presented with a painted portrait of his daughter. Although he owned the house, he didn’t even live there. Rather, he used it for events and had a home a couple of streets over that was for real. He and his wife had divorced and the children had long grown up. They had lived in this home when they were younger, a man said to me. He said he was one of the sons. When they had been kids, they had not been allowed in any of these rooms. They had a special playroom on the third floor, he said.
     Nick told me this story on the drive home. I saw him talking to the man, blond and slight, like a jockey, but I was across the room refilling my water glass. I had gone into a bathroom to cry about my skipped speech, but had not cried much. Nick had waited for me outside the door, and then taken my hand. Together we walked to the dessert table and loaded up our plates with more macaroons, lava cakes, and sugar cookies iced with the number “25,” the years since the old man’s daughter had been dead.


At a Margaritaville in the Miami airport, it was 11 p.m., and I found a piece of metal in my chicken. I showed Nick, and he clenched his fork with resolve.
     “You’re going to have to say something,” he said.
     Or maybe he didn’t say that. Nick was even more chickenshit about speaking up about food orders at restaurants than I was. He would never send anything back, not even if he got shrimp when he ordered a chicken sandwich or diet instead of regular. So maybe I said it to him: “I’m going to have to say something.” Who knows what his facial expression had been. Probably nothing, at that point. It had been a day in airports—we were coming back from a vacation in El Salvador and had missed our connecting flight to Kansas City, so we were getting ready to crash in the airport hotel. Our kids were beyond exhausted, staring into space as they chewed fries.
     When the server came around, we stopped goading the kids to finish their food, and I lifted up the metal piece that looked like a staple.
     “I’m so sorry,” the server said.
     “That’s okay,” I said. “But I shouldn’t pay for this meal, right?”
     She held up our ticket. “I’ve already printed it off,” she said.
     “Oh,” I said.
     I started eating again because I was pretty hungry and desperate. I found a few more metal pieces after that.
     “The cook must have been cleaning the grill with one of those metal brushes,” Nick said.
     “I guess so,” I said.


Louise Krug is an assistant professor of English at Washburn University. She is the author of two memoirs about brain surgeries that she had in her twenties, Louise: Amended (one of Publishers Weekly's Best 20 books of 2012) and Tilted: The Post Brain-Surgery Journals, recipient of the Hefner-Heinz Kansas Book Award in 2018. She has published essays in The Huffington Post, River Teeth, Juked, various anthologies, and elsewhere. She lives in Topeka, Kansas, with her family.

What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond.  These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors

No comments:

Post a Comment