Sunday, July 18, 2021

The #Midwessay: Sarah Curtis, The Wishing Heart

We're back for round 3 of #Midwessay coverage starting back up this week, in which we re/visit essays and essayists from Midwestern states and those of us still in Midwestern states even if we live elsewhere. In our first round we published one week in each state, and now we're swinging back through to continue. Up this week is Michigan, coordinated by Ander Monson. Are you a Michigander? A Michiganian? Do you have thoughts or feelings about our fair water-bordered state and its literature? If an essay captures the workings of the mind, what is the mind of Michigan? Be in touch and send us something.


The Wishing Heart

Sarah Curtis


The wishing heart of you I loved, Kalamazoo.
I sang bye-lo, bye-lo to your dreams.
I sang bye-lo to your hopes and songs.

—“The Sins of Kalamazoo,” Carl Sandburg

After the garage sale was over, my husband loaded the unwanted items into our van to take to Goodwill. He paused when he got to the pink chairs. “Do you want to hold on to these?” he asked, knowing their story.
     I shook my head, glad to be rid of them but sad to see them go. I’d bought them a few years before from an antiques dealer named Bob, a local Kalamazoo character. In the handful of times I entered Bob’s shop, I noticed how out of place he seemed amidst the rows of delicate chinoiserie, with his hulking frame, stained bib overalls, and heavy work boots. He loved the Victorian and Art Deco eras, but wanted nothing to do with Midcentury modern or beyond, and he’d send you to the retro consignment shop two miles away if that’s what you wanted, mumbling “stupid trend” under his breath.
     As I got to know Bob, I learned he wasn’t rude, just devoted to his craft, and maybe a little shy. One Sunday afternoon I went into the shop looking for a chair for my den. By that time, I knew Bob well enough to strike up a conversation, and told him what I was in the market for. He thought for a moment, then his eyes lit up, and he said he had just the ones for me. I followed him down a precarious aisle to a pair of wing chairs he’d bought from a wealthy local matron who, he made a point of saying, did not have cats. I got the feeling Bob hated cats, had seen enough clawed upholstery to last two lifetimes. He leaned down to point out the intricately carved Queen Anne legs, and I told him the chairs were nice, but not my style. For one thing, they were covered in a hideous pink chintz, but Bob assured me it was an easy upholstery job (it wasn’t). He wouldn’t let up, and after a lame attempt at negotiation, I paid $300 for the pair.
     When I got the chairs home, my husband hated them. He thought I’d paid too much, and that the chairs weren’t our style: correct on both counts. Looking at them in my home, I realized I’d fallen under Bob’s spell. I wasn’t a wealthy local matron; I would have been better off going to the retro shop. My husband carted them, grumbling, to the basement, where they remained until the garage sale.

One morning shortly after I bought the chairs, I was scrolling through a local online news site when I saw the headline: “Well-known Kalamazoo antique dealer found dead in home.”
     No. I held my breath and clicked. It was Bob. He’d gone to an estate sale, where he’d paid for his goods with a thick wad of cash he kept in his bib pocket. He was distrustful of credit, said his brother, the one who found him. Oh Bob, of course you were. A man had seen him pay, then followed him for two weeks before breaking into his home with an accomplice one evening. They tied Bob up and bludgeoned him to death with a baseball bat. Bob had lived half a mile from my house; in fact, I’d later learn my neighbor had spotted a ski mask and pair of gloves on an early morning jog shortly after the murder. This evidence led to the killers’ convictions.

Bob’s murder shattered my perception of our sleepy, Michigan town. We’d moved here from Chicago four years before the crime, when my husband was offered a job at a large foundation. At first, I had no interest in moving. We had no friends or family nearby, and was Kalamazoo even a real place? It sounded like a word Dr. Seuss had invented to rhyme with Timbuktu.
     But when we visited, I felt like I’d walked into one of my childhood Eloise Wilkin storybooks. Ruddy-cheeked farmers at the market filled my toddler’s palm with blueberries and peaches, flower beds exploded with fat pink peonies, and glass milk bottles sat on door stoops. Our realtor drove us downtown, where we saw something called the “Doo-Dah Parade.” The realtor pulled the car over, and we rolled down the window so my daughter could hang her head out and watch with delight as men, women, and children strolled along, dressed as the Village People, or bloody zombies on roller skates, or hand-holding hippies with signs around their necks reading DOO DAH. The Masons passed by in their white dinner jackets, followed by a burly man in a half-shirt playing the flute.
     “What’s this parade for?” I asked the realtor.
     He shrugged. “Nobody really knows.” That’s when I decided I could move here. 

In the fourteen years since that day, I’ve come to see that Kalamazoo is just a town like any other. The kind of place that can embrace a cranky antiques dealer, but also where men can follow him home and beat him to death over a greasy wad of tens. Or where an unhinged Uber driver can snuff out six lives on a shooting rampage. You live in a town long enough, you see random acts of good and evil, moments of altruism and greed, the lights of fellowship and the shadows of bigotry. I’d wanted to raise my child in a storybook, but I ended up raising her in America.
     As I watched my husband load the wing chairs into our van, I thought back to how Bob’s eyes had brightened the day I’d bought them, that moment when he realized he knew just the chairs for me. But would anyone at Goodwill love them the way he had, see past their chintz to the supple carvings on the legs? Or notice the curvature of the wings, like the arch of a ballerina’s back in arabesque, her arms allong√©, reaching toward something just beyond her grasp.

Sarah Curtis's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Creative Nonfiction, Salon, the American Literary Review, the Colorado Review, Crazyhorse, and the 2020 anthology River Teeth: Twenty Years of Creative Nonfiction. She holds an MFA in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Michigan, where she's at work on a biographical memoir. More of her writing can be found at

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

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