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
Thursday, June 24, 2021
The #Midwessay: Kyle Francois, Midwessays
One time my friend said there was a dead armadillo in town. He was sweaty, There’s a dead armadillo in the parkin’ lot by Bucky’s. I told him armadillos don’t live in Iowa. He said there was a dead one in the parking lot. So we walked down to the lot where he said it was and Ross had dirt on his face. He walked ahead of me all quick like he had to go the bathroom. That fall we drove all around rural Iowa and harvested fur-bearing animals. Ross had a few stints in and out of the emergency room that summer, so the fall was a great release. We drove a big old truck and got muskrat and mink and raccoon and coyote. When we came to the parking lot on the other side of Bucky’s, the general store where we bought Sixlets and slender glass bottles of Mountain Dew, there certainly was a little armadillo curled up dead. Ross poked it with a stick. It was a little bloody, and the armored hide was split and cracked. It looked pathetic. It musta fell outta a fruit truck, I said. I’d never seen a fruit truck. I never saw a real armadillo either, so I figured it must of fell out of a fruit truck that came up from Texas or Georgia, wherever armadillos lived. I didn’t carry a camera with me. I thought of the theme song from Bonanza. I looked at the sun. I looked at the fruit truck armadillo coiled in the dusty lot.
Across the street from the lot was a new convenience store. The new windows had plastic over the glass and the sign looked like places in Cedar Rapids and Marion. Places that weren’t in the country but near Super Skate and the mall. Ross loved that convenience store after Bucky died and they tore down his one-hundred year old house. Bucky was a good guy, he wore my Dad’s company ball cap that said Francois Construction. His shop had a big glass display with candy in boxes marked 10¢ 15¢ 25¢. And we found that dead armadillo in Bucky’s parking lot when his shop was already closed, after it became the historical society.
Muckersville is a river town. A collection of trailers and campers on the Wapsipinicon River. I mean it was. I remember it as a collection of trailers and campers, when I floated the Wapsi on inner tube. Back then we all went tubin’ and sleddin’ and muddin’ and afterward everyone lined up in another line for food from crock-pots.
In the winter one could ride their snowmobile down the river from Troy Mills to Muckersville. And it wasn’t that big of deal, I heard about a family that drove their hulking old station-wagon down the river for mass because it was better than the roads. Gavin Caves, a baseball player, called me crooked cock, or c-squared, his Dad liked to drink. Old Man Caves was a guy that looked mean. I remember him writhing on the metal bleachers, watching basketball games—waiting for a cigarette...drying out. Anyhow one night he was at the Dam Bar & Grill and he drank Busch Lights and hopped on his snowmobile to ride home. Hop on hop off Old Man Caves—hop on, hop off.
Gavin was cocky but I can’t blame him because if your Dad is that dad you gotta have an attitude as to not get broke. Old Man Caves liked to ride fast. And when he was moving down the Wapsi at eighty and saw the little open patch of water, he really gunned it. Snowmobiles, at high speeds, can skim across water for short distances. In this instance, the front skis lodged under the thick sheet of ice and flipped him eighty miles per hour headlong through the January night. Without helmet he hit ice, bit off his tongue, yet managed to live. I don’t think anybody asked him, but maybe he laid there and just wanted to die. The water below the ice wasn’t deep, but the channel geometry created pools and holes where northern pike and walleye preyed.
The legend of the Wapsipinicon says a Wapsi and a Pinicon, lovers, drowned one spring in high waters. The literal translation of Wapsipinicon is White Potato River. And while Old Man Caves laid there on the White Potato River, his lover was at home with the kids and popcorn in disposable foil pans with wire handles.
Later, when Old Man Caves was back home, his wife had new responsibilities after work. Of course the cooking and cleaning, but also smoking cigarettes without inhaling and blowing it into his mouth with jaw wired shut.
At the Field of Dreams my Grandmother asked who taught me how to spit. The wooden bleachers went thirteen rows back. I spit.
“Cousin Colin.” I spit.
“It’s rude and disgusting.”
The corn ached toward the sky like capillaries. The ball diamond was full of fanny-packs and sunglasses. It was hot. I spit. My head was blonde and hot. My head felt hot. I spit. “I was lost in the corn-maze.”
“Where’s your cousin?”
“I don’t know.”
I spit and slapped my mitt. All the other cousins got to spit and carry five gallon buckets full of feed—one on each arm—two at a time. I carried one with both arms.
When I am up there and looking down my stomach hurts. The summer is past the dog days and the afternoon hints at fall; it’s cold to be standing wet and shirtless on the rock. Lake Delhi looks like the ocean, hardwoods cover the hills with A-frames and seasonal cabins. Some are on the water and have docks, and the A-frames in the bluffs have hundreds of stairs that traverse the hillside. Jim yells from the boat below: “Don’t look just jump!” Everyone down there has already jumped, and now they are taking turns swinging off a rope tied to a large elm hanging over the water. I pace from the edge of the rock back to the path from the edge of the rock back to path. He isn’t wrong, if one is to jump they should just jump. The rock juts out over the water and it has a deep crevasse toward the front third, it seems as if it could break off and tumble into the water below. Although I know it won’t. Below Jim smokes a cigar and wears oversized aviators, he is puffing and smiling. He jumped and now is behind the wheel of the boat with his right leg up on the side like he is the captain. He yells at my uncle Dale and throws him an Old Milwaukee. Dale swims to the beer floating in the lake and hollers back a familiar nickname: “Thanks, Fatty!”
It remembers Lake Delhi when water smoothed its pale and porous base in a continual wash. It recalls boats and jet-skis and fishermen and drunks. And, yet without the water, it still changes with deliberation, from the moss it wears in patches to that deep crack that doesn’t cut all the way through. The rock remembers the homes built in 1996 or 1998, now pointless. No longer does it feel the pads of people’s feet in the summer, but in winter it still sits within bare branches of trees that ache to the sky like capillaries. The rock thinks of itself as a face, or a nose—or a face with everything besides a mouth. It thinks how long it lasts compared to the A- frames, the ski-doos, the restaurant, the bar, really the restaurant-bar. It lasts longer than the recreational lake itself. The years between 1922 and 2010 passed like nothing. When the dam failed that July day and the water began to drain by the tens of thousands of cubic feet per second, the face, that is a cliff, knew that it’d be fine.
My great grandma Ida lived in Masonville across from Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. In the winter, at eighty-five, she cleared the front steps for the old people. I sat in mass and looked at the veins in peoples’ hands. And learned to stay on top of the notes. But this isn’t about that.
Masonville is the hometown of Robert Gallery—the former offensive lineman for the Iowa Hawkeyes drafted in the first round of the NFL draft in the 2004 draft by the Oakland Raiders. He came from a clan of Gallerys. All hulking, all sports all the time, they lived near my Aunt and Uncle. Robert Gallery was three-hundred and twenty pounds when he played for the Raiders. When he was at East Buchanan High School, he won the state high jump competition and wrestled at buck eighty.
His little brother, John, punted for the Iowa Hawkeyes. But before this, his graduation party featured pork, and party potatoes, and light beer. Busch Light, if I had to guess, my family wasn’t invited to the party but the Gallerys did manage to borrow my parents’ folding tables. They were heavy old metal things my parents received as a wedding gift. The tables ended up at the graduation party by some over extension of midwest kindness, I mean my cousin borrowed the tables for her graduation party and loaned them to the Gallerys for John’s party. Robert picked em’ up in his new Chevy Avalanche and the drive back to the family farm looked pretty golden to him. When he rolled back into town and visited the old haunts, people asked him how it was. “Oh things are pretty golden,” Robert said, “yeah, pretty golden.”
The day after the party, Robert moved up to the bridge colloquially known as high bridge and heard the slow smooth work of a locomotive and the staccato clank of a bell, while one table rode broken in the lined bed of the truck. Gravel plumed ten feet behind Robert as he pushed the Avalanche up the hill. Had he danced on the table the night before? Sure did. Had it snapped in half as the crowd gasped and hollered? Probably.
But what was done was done and Robert decided he would huck the broken table off high bridge. Robert had intimidating dark hair past his shoulders, on Sundays it flowed from his helmet and fell just above his number, when he was hungover I imagine it in a loose ponytail. I imagine the decision to throw the thing off the bridge as an act of shame. A specific midwestern slurry of shame and guilt. His parents’ farm had a burn pile, he could have buried it under the ash. He could have kept it in his Avalanche, snapped close the bed-topper, and disposed of it in town. He might have thought to acknowledge his mistake, his drunkenness, and drive the broken table to my parents, but if he did think about this he didn’t think about it seriously enough to will it into action. Instead, Robert parked the Avalanche in the middle of the bridge and chucked the thing down next to the tracks. A good fifty foot drop. What was done was done.
On a Sunday, Mom and Dad got word about the table from our Aunt. It might sound silly, but the tables meant a great deal to my parents. We rode as a family to high bridge that afternoon and the plan was to get the table as to repurpose the two folding mechanisms. The day pressed on and Mom and Dad were pissed that Robert ditched the table. It was hot. Dad got the table and fixed it. Robert Gallery sent Mom and Dad a letter with his signature.
Kyle François is working on his first book of essays and lives in Chicago. He is from Paris, Iowa.