Saturday, July 24, 2021

The #Midwessay: Travis Scholl, A Reckoning in Missouri


A Reckoning in Missouri

Travis Scholl


Editor's note: this essay is graphic in its depiction of a lynching.


On Tuesday, January 13, 1931, if you would have opened a copy of The New York Times, you would have turned to page three to read the news that carried the headline BURNS NEGRO KILLER ON VICTIM’S SCHOOL. It narrated the account of the lynching of Raymond Gunn in Maryville, Missouri, some 1,250 miles due west from New York City, 100 miles north of Kansas City. The event gained national headlines mainly for two reasons. One, it occurred well north of the boundaries of the American South, which had gained the title “the lynch belt.” Two, the county sheriff, for dubious reasons, did not deploy the National Guard troops that had been activated specifically to protect Raymond Gunn as he awaited trial.

In hindsight, the event is even more striking for the fact that the lynch mob was willing to burn down their own schoolhouse if it meant they could torture and kill the Black man who confessed to killing the white female, Velma Colter, on the premises where she taught.

Next to the article on page three of the Tuesday, January 13, 1931 edition of The New York Times sits an ad for Vitalis hair tonic.

“For every effect there is a cause.” In case you’re wondering, to this day, the Vitalis V7 formula—CAUTION: contents flammable—has remained virtually unchanged.

“For every effect there is a cause.” Raymond Gunn was dragged a mile outside of Maryville, Missouri, to the Garrett schoolhouse. Shingles were removed from the roof so that men could tie his living, breathing body to the ridge beam and doused with gasoline, lethal tonic. Then, at least two thousand people watched as they burned the whole thing down.

“For every effect there is a cause.” If the Middle West we call Missouri can exist as an essay, its cause is the geography of a nation’s most fraught compromise, the way south and north bleed into each other’s boundaries. We have just begun to reckon with how many of our national monuments were built upon the backs of the slaves whose labor made them possible. But these kinds of monuments—slabs of marble, sculpted glass, bronze domes—were not built in this Middle West. Where the Garrett schoolhouse once stood, today you will find only a field beside a country road. No marker. Beneath the tilled surface, the earth has long mixed with the ashes of one body and the blood of another, neither of whom received their due justice.

Friday, July 23, 2021

#The Midwessay: Allie Leach, "Midwest Nice" and Other Tired and True Stereotypes

“Midwest Nice” and Other Tired and True Stereotypes

Allie Leach


Last spring, with the sudden change from teaching at school to teaching online at home, I got pretty lonely. And I had a bit of extra time on my hands. To curb that loneliness/boredom, I looked to YouTube to cheer me up. I’d watch clips from musicals like Meet Me in St. Louis. Since I’m from St. Louis—well, from Ballwin, a suburb 40 minutes west of the city—watching these clips made me nostalgic for home, for the Midwest. Somehow, I fell down a rabbit hole of Midwestern-ness and came across the comedian/journalist Charlie Berens. Berens, a Wisconsin native, has his own YouTube channel, one that I found great solace in and many belly laughs from about a year ago.
     Watching his videos last year, I felt like, even though I was from Missouri and he was from Wisconsin, I could relate with the Midwestern stereotypes that he mocked. Even now, I still find many of his satires spot-on. Then again, Midwesterners are complex and these brushstrokes don’t show the full person. Let’s unpack a few of his videos and, while we’re at it, a few moments from my life. 

Midwest Nice

In Beren’s Midwest Nice Part 1 and Part 2, he highlights familiar Midwestern tropes like being overly-helpful to your neighbors and friends; saying “hi,” “hello,” “howdy,” to everyone you see; giving a friendly wave to everyone else at a four-way stop, allowing them to continue, before you proceed driving; holding the door open for people, even if they’re a block away; getting trapped into long, overly-personal and confessional conversations with neighbors; being too nice when people are clearly stepping all over you (in his case, a lady is literally stepping on his foot); saying sorry to everyone and everything (including inanimate objects) even if you have no reason to be sorry.
     Whenever I say “sorry” to someone—like when I nearly collide with a co-worker in the hallway—I always think of my mom. I can remember several instances where she’d correct, “If you accidentally run into someone, don’t say, ‘I’m sorry,’ say ‘Excuse me.’ You didn’t do anything wrong.” I still say “sorry,” though, each time this happens. 
The need to be overly-apologetic and overly self-effacing might be a Midwestern thing, but it might also be a “me” thing. I know plenty of non-Midwestern folks who are like this, too, and, I’m sure, they can relate with lots of the Midwestern stereotypes that I’m writing about here. Even still, I want to tie this “sorry-ness” to the Midwest. What is it about the Midwest, particularly the St. Louis region, that makes us so damn sorry all the time? 
     St. Louis is filled with Catholics. We have Catholic churches at nearly every corner; Catholic elementary, middle, and high schools, even All-Boys and All-Girls Catholic High Schools (I went to one of them—Visitation Academy.) Many Catholics—especially school-aged ones—regularly go to confession. We atone for our sins, even if they’re as small as “I was disrespectful to my mom” or “I lied to my friend.” We are led into a room—the size of a telephone booth—and tell the priest why we’re bad. Why we’re sorry. This might be one reason why I am the way I am.
     Am I annoyed that I’m overly polite? It depends on the situation. Today, for example, I cut in front of someone at the grocery store and the laundromat—I move too fast when I’m running errands—and I turned around and gave them a sincere, five-second look and said, “I’m so sorry.” Because I was. However, also today, while briefly stopping in a nearby park before turning around, a woman rather brashly came up to me, asking me to roll down my window, and said, “Can’t you read the sign? This parking lot is ONLY for people with horse trailers.”
     “Oh! I was just checking my directions home before I left.” In that case, I didn’t say sorry. I had nothing to be sorry about. As I rolled up my window, as she walked away, as I made a U-Turn, I yelled, “BIIIIIITCH!” It felt so good.
     One more thing about Midwest Nice. So many Midwesterners that I know are sweet to your face and then talk shit about you behind your back. So many Midwesterners that I know stuff their other emotions—you know, like sadness and anger—down, down, deep down until shocking, volcanic eruptions occur. Whenever this happened with my dad, my sisters and I got scared. Dad never gets mad. This is so weird. Whenever this happens with me, my friends and co-workers are stunned silent. In the six years I’ve known you, I’ve never seen you like this before. It’s unsettling on both sides—theirs and mine—and reminds me to show everyone that I know a wider range of me. 

Midwest Goodbye

Beren’s take on the Midwest Goodbye takes it to an extreme and for good reason: it’s a satire. In the video, a working-class-looking guy tries to leave his friend’s house after having a beer and a chat. After trying hard to leave, his friend offers him another beer. 
     “Alright, one more and then I go,” he says. This exchange happens about ten more times. He tries to leave and then his friend offers him some brats. “Well, if you’re de-thawing them right now, I’ll have a couple.” His friend also gives him a bunch of rhubarb from his garden. He doesn’t want it, but he takes it anyway. “Guess I’ll be making pie,” he says. He keeps over-committing to social events. “The St. Aloysius Fish Fry? I’ll be there.” “The St. Luke’s Charity Softball Pub Crawl? Yeah, I’ll be there.” Then there’s the punchline, “Okay, I really got to go. Your first child’s only born once.” Even the punchline, which is meant to be literal, has that kind of Midwestern, cheesy masculine humor that I’m all too familiar with. This scene reminds me of my family.
     My family was always the last one to leave a party. My mom’s side of the family, in particular, was a super kissy-kissy bunch. With each goodbye to grandma and grandpa, aunts and uncles, cousins, and second-cousins, you’d give them a hug-and-a-kiss. That intimacy and love and beer-induced-drunkenness from the adults would, inevitably, prompt more conversation. I’d scope out my two sisters and my parents from across the room. After trying to leave the first time, we were all stuck in separate conversations. We’d say goodbye to another family member, and the same thing would happen all over again. It wasn’t until we were the only ones left at the party, that my parents would say, “Well, look at us. The last ones to leave the party again.” They almost said it like a badge of honor.
     As an adult, I still have this problem. I’d love to be one of those people who can do the “Irish Goodbye” or “Ghost-it,” but, again, that wouldn’t be polite. What makes it even worse: I married another Midwesterner. He’s from Ohio, and he has just as hard a time making quick and graceful exits. Whenever we visit our older neighbor for dinner, we’re always making eyes at each other or giving knowing nudges that say, Time to go. But here’s the problem: neither of us wants to be the wet blanket. 
     “Well, thank you so much for dinner…” 
     “Yes, yes. Wait! Have I shown you these pictures?”
     “Oh, no, not yet.”
     (Thirty minutes pass.)
     “Well, it's so great to see you…”
     “Let me give you a few books before you leave.”
     (Thirty minutes pass.)
     You get the picture. Usually, we get the point where the other person has to say, “Well, I can tell I’m keeping you…”
     “No, no, no, not at all,” we say in unison. What we really mean to say, “Yes, yes you have been keeping us. We’ve been trying to leave for a fricking hour. Boy, BYE!” We wish we could be like that. But: we’re Midwesterners. 

Midwest Cheap

In Midwest Cheap, Berens piggy-backs off his friends’ Netflix and Disney Plus accounts; has a hard time giving things away to Goodwill; refuses to waste anything, using his soap until the last sliver and scraping the final bits of peanut butter from the jar; regifts Christmas and birthday presents; saves too many packets of ketchup and soy sauce, too many tiny bottles of hotel shampoo and conditioner. In other words, he’s cheap.
     It’s important though to ask this question: why does this stereotype hold up? Coming from a blue-collar, middle-class upbringing, I can relate. My parents took out a second mortgage and constantly refinanced their home so that my sisters and I could attend a stellar Catholic, All-Girls’ High School and go to Liberal Arts colleges. In doing so, they had to pinch their pennies where they could. My family rarely went out for dinner, and when we did, my mom reminded us, “Nothing over six dollars” and “Order from the Kids’ menu as long as you can.”
     Early on in High School, my friend Alex and her parents took me out to an Italian restaurant. It wasn’t fancy, per se, but the entrees—at $9-11—were kind of pricey for my family’s standards. Alex’s dad was a dentist, and, yeah, I’d say they were well-off if not wealthy.
     “Get anything you want from the menu!” her parents encouraged.
     I scanned the menu, looking for anything that was under $6. Mom’s orders.
     “I’m not that hungry. I’ll just get the toasted ravioli.” (As an aside, toasted ravioli is a St. Louis thing. If you’re not familiar, here’s a quick summary a la the Internet: “Toasted ravioli is a breaded, deep-fried ravioli, usually served as an appetizer and with marinara sauce. It was created and popularized in St. Louis at two restaurants, Mama Campisi’s and Charlies Gitto’s, both located in an Italian-American neighborhood, ‘The Hill.’”)
     For like five minutes, Alex’s parents and I battled it out: they genuinely wanted to treat me and I couldn’t be treated for anything over $6. I won the battle and was proud that I stood my ground. Even still, Alex’s lasagna looked really good.
     “Do you want a bite?” she offered. Being the polite Midwesterner that I am, I couldn’t say no.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

The #Midwessay: Devin Thomas O'Shea, Types of Missouri Guy

Types of Missouri Guy

Devin Thomas O’Shea


A major type of Missouri guy sits in his ’98 Saturn recording YouTube rants on his phone. The phone is positioned horizontally on the car’s dashboard. His videos frame the steering wheel, the ceiling of the car, and a man on fire with rage about Star Wars and divorce court. The man is over thirty with varying arrangements of facial hair and reasons to be pissed. 
     Margaritaville Guy heard “Cheeseburger in Paradise” back in 1984 and has listened to it once a week, every week hence. He owns multiple models of Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville daiquiri blender, and a deck of ticket stubs from Buffett concerts at the Westport Amphitheater, Branson, Missouri, and a themed ocean liner cruise that cost him a month’s salary and hastens a liver condition brewing in Margaritaville Guy’s guts. His lifestyle is oriented around hard liquor and good times; Margaritaville Guy needs permission to chill, and a music culture to support his checking-out of reality, because things have not been going well at the office, and sales are down, and the speed of his promotions has been slower than promised. 
     Truck Man does not get his F150 tires dirty, but he is ready for the Second American Civil War. He has joined the Proud Boys, the Three-Percenters, the local Blue Lives Matter Facebook group, and several prepper/militia organizations too obscure to mention here. The truck is raised, and was purchased by Truck Man’s father; a fatter, grey-er, middle-aged Truck Man himself. Truck Man listens to country music and does not admit that he likes pop country best; the kind with big bass lines, clever lyrics about dirt roads, and a little hip-hop blended in. The trucks keep getting bigger and taller—tall enough that a BLM pedestrian can kiss the Ford logo on the top of the grill as Truck Man does exactly what Rush Limbaugh wants him to do to those protesters. 
     Rapid fire: 
     Obsessively Fit Christian Youth Pastor Guy
     Too-Skinny Gas Station Attendant
     Online Sports Gambling Addicted Uncle
     Pontoon Boat Hoosier (stars-and-bars upholstery on boat)
     Glue-Huffing Garage Pipe-Bomb Assembler
     Qanon Dipping Tobacco Advocate
     Recovering Fentanyl Addict Who Can’t Afford Therapy
     Grass-fed Steak Salesman (pretends to enjoy grilling)
     It Works! Bodybuilder
     YouTube Fast Food Reviewer
     These types of Missouri guy are white, of a certain socio-economic class, and come off as either straight or extremely closeted. In reality, Missouri is home to many types of guy. Guys of a million different creeds and ethnicities, but somehow these Missouri guys are the ones you already know. They are the loudest; they are the easiest to make fun of. They are downwardly mobile and feel humiliated in their bodies. Their masculinity is ridiculed, they are unable to cry as they once did, as little boys. And while they don’t have to be this way, the anger won’t vanish until their material conditions improve, and they wake up to love in their lives.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

The #Midwessay: Gwen Niekamp, Wanted: Grad Student to Show Famous New York Writer Around St. Louis

Wanted: Grad Student to Show Famous New York Writer Around St. Louis

Gwen Niekamp


Riding shotgun in my second-hand Civic—paid for in cash I saved from an $11/hour gig—the New Yorker sucked her teeth as the St. Louis Arch appeared on the horizon. “Before I came here, I didn’t realize the Arch was an actual structure; I thought it was a metaphor. Gateway to the West, yada yada.”
     I was in my mid-twenties, and in the first semester of an MFA program, which had brought the sixty-something New Yorker to campus to work with graduate students. I’d never heard of her before the visit was announced, but a frantic Google search revealed she was New York literati. I hungered for her validation.
     The day before I toured the New Yorker around St. Louis in my car, I arrived at the duplex, the top floor of which my MFA program maintained for its visiting writers. I was to conference with the New Yorker to discuss an essay I had written, and I rang the doorbell for quarter of an hour, then emailed my professors that the New Yorker did not appear to be home. “Keep trying,” they advised, and eventually, she appeared at the door, her wrist draped over her brow to shelter her eyes from the afternoon sun. She was wearing a sheer nightgown through which I could see her nipples.
     “I can come back,” I offered.
     “No, no, no, no, no. Come in, come in.” 
     I ascended the staircase behind her, averting my eyes from her exposed panty lines, and once we were inside the apartment, I took a seat at the dining table while she showered and made breakfast. She set a hot bowl of microwave oatmeal on her copy of my essay.
     “I don’t really have any notes,” she said. “But in New York, we don’t use the Oxford comma—”  
     “—I’ll take it out.”
     The doorbell rang, signaling my classmate had arrived for his conference. I collected my things, pausing briefly to notice that a ring-shaped pucker had formed on my manuscript where her bowl had been. I thanked her for her time and made toward the stairs, but she called out for me: “Wait! Wait! What are you doing tomorrow?”
     Would I have given her my number had I not perceived she was well-connected, a byline machine in cutthroat New York City? Had I not felt insecure as an emerging writer from flyover country, as a Kentuckian living in Missouri? I’m not sure. But when the New Yorker called me to invite me to take her to the St. Louis Zoo, I felt a rush of pride to be chosen from among the graduate students. Her attention, I thought, could pluck me from obscurity.
     It was 2 p.m. when I arrived to pick up the New Yorker for our zoo excursion, and after calling her several times, she finally woke. Again, the nightgown, the nipples, the panty lines. Again, the waiting as she showered. Again, her hunger. She was out of oatmeal, so together we visited a chain coffee shop, where she ordered French toast and bought souvenirs for her daughter. Would a young woman appreciate a tote recycled from a burlap coffee bag? I did not think so, nor did I think it represented St. Louis, but she bought it anyway. 
     The zoo was closing by the time the New Yorker and I finished the meal, so we settled instead on a tour of St. Louis in my car. I was still getting my bearings in the city, and the area I knew best was my neighborhood. Crabgrass and red or yellow brick duplexes, metal awnings and chain-link fencing. Bathtub Madonnas. Fire hydrants painted after the colors of the Italian flag. Donut shops with ten-cent coffee in Styrofoam cups. Handwritten for-lease signs. Once in a while, a hawk atop a powerline, or children learning to ride bikes in a church parking lot.
     The New Yorker clucked and mewed at my St. Louis. When I hit a pothole, she braced herself belatedly against the seatbelt. “How long have you been driving?” she demanded, and seemed surprised by my answer. “Since sixteen?! How do you feel safe on the road knowing teens are driving?” 
What else was said? She bragged of her celebrity friends and the movie stars she’d profiled for glossy magazines. She asked where I wanted to submit my work and scoffed at the idea of a $40 honorarium: “My book advance? Half a million.”
     She asked if I had ever held a gun—“Is hunting something people do here, or is that a fiction?”—and I remembered shooting at Coke cans as a kid. “Inconceivable,” she murmured. 
     I began to feel unnerved by her musings about the Midwest, by the idea that she was approaching St. Louis the way she might have regarded the exhibits at the zoo. Would I factor into her next essay? St. Louis Arch on the horizon—metaphor for a gateway I’d never manage to pass through—my character would be promising enough with whom to spend an afternoon, but ultimately provincial, broke, and uncultured. 
     When I hit another pothole, the New Yorker asked if it was easy to learn to drive. “Perhaps,” she suggested, “you could teach me.” 
     By chance, we were approaching the Missouri Botanical Garden, and I redirected her attention away from the prospect of driving lessons in my personal vehicle. The Garden, I informed her, had woodlands, box gardens, rose gardens, and the historic home of a man who’d made his fortune selling supplies to California Gold Rushers. 
     At the ticket counter, I showed my Missouri driver’s license for a reduced admission rate. The New Yorker, ineligible for this discount, faced a $14 ticket.
     “I’m a member of the press,” she announced to the attendant. “A press pass? Don’t you offer free admission for members of the press?”
     “I don’t know what that is,” said the attendant.
     Reluctantly, the New Yorker shelled out full price, and we strolled through the Japanese Garden, whose paths border a four-acre lake and wind over bridges to small islands. At the crest of a taikobashi-style bridge, we paused to admire the vista—the artful reflection of autumn leaves in the water below. “You know,” breathed the New Yorker, “this is really nice.” Then, she listed the members of my cohort, criticized their writing each in turn.
     At the start of our tour of St. Louis, her approval and confidence would have thrilled me, but by the time we stood on that bridge, I didn’t want it anymore. I was tired of her and disappointed in my own hastiness to define the Midwest by comparison to New York. Middle America, to the New Yorker, was but a buffer between coasts. St. Louis, to her: a blight, a pockmark, a gateway, a layover. 
     Of course, the New Yorker never wrote about me or St. Louis. Why would she have? She likely hasn’t thought about the tour in years. But I think about it every time I glimpse the Arch on the skyline. I’ve made the choice to live in St. Louis even after graduating from my MFA program, and my concept of the city and the Midwest continues to swell and evolve. I don’t mind flattening the New Yorker into a punchline. How daft she looked, gaping up at the Arch with an open-mouthed grin, wearing pity on her face, reveling in her own perceived cleverness. Maybe the Arch is a metaphor, just not the one she expected.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

The #Midwessay: Alan Van Wyk, Minnesota



Alan Van Wyk


The sky here still feels a little off; a little too much. Not too big, exactly, but too deep, appearing without surface or limit. Simply there. Everywhere. An upward sink of feeling, drawing attention, making it impossible to look anywhere else. To try to look down is only to fall into the reflection of this sky, into a limitless place without mark or measure. 
     Growing up in California there was always a limit. Mountains one direction ocean the other. The continent ended at our feet; we could jump off any time we wanted. And it was impossible to turn away from the horizon, from that offing where the future reached the edge of the world. A point that was always more movement than destination, the never quite fixed place of possibility. 
     In our imagination we followed the sun as if it were ours alone. 
     History—the one history that we were taught as the only history that mattered—unfurled behind us towards us, as a movement of time that was our destiny. Which is to say that any reflection on place is also about privilege. Or perspective. So to write, as to live, from that place was always to imagine into that not quite fixed future, a future made large as the possibility of our own want. Yet as our desire it was a future founded on a confusion between what was and what might have been. There the present was always already a nostalgia of possibility lost. 
     But in this place, in this media res, where there is no true horizon, history is not so straight forward. It continues to roil over us. 
     It has been said that our work ethic—those of us who have always been outsiders here—arises from a certain anxiety, an anxiety over the uncertainty of grace. Which would mean that we continue to fill these pages not as an imagining but to fix these our lives and loves. But here and now I’m not so sure, for we—again, those of us who have always been outsiders here—seem quite aware that we have arrived by violence and not by grace. And in this violence I remain lost. Unbounded and without direction attention wanders and so grace remains impossible to fix. To write here is to try to find another work, another ethic, to fall into this blood soaked land to find purchase, attending to a land a mirror to a sky that is too much.       

Monday, July 19, 2021

The #Midwessay: Jodie Noel Vinson, The Midwest Essay is Strong and Limber

The Midwest Essay

Jodie Noel Vinson


The Midwest Essay is strong and limber, broad-shouldered, hard working. Digs deep. Makes a point.

Or three. A swish from behind the line, straight shooting. A dribble on the page, a dart toward the right margin then a drive in the paint.

It’s the brilliance of a golden sun—squint at the full-bodied, flaring orb of it—rising above a glowing plain.

Or is it the circle of silvery tinsel that catches in the candlelight casting shadows from the long leafed table in the old farmhouse; a well-rounded thought, beginning knotted to end, the precious angel halo of a pageant, a memory returned to sit deftly around golden locks, just above the ears.

Anyway, it’s something about the light, which, I should mention, can also be glaring. You’ll stand sunburnt and exposed to the ridicule of the world.

Or is it the heat, which clings to your skin and makes the sweat stand out from it in beads. It’ll curl your hair if you’re not careful. The damn humidity of it.

What I’m trying to say is that it’s more than just weather and not only climate. The Midwest Essay is atmosphere. 

And, at the same time, solid ground. 

It’s that person perpetually waiting for you in the warm yellow kitchen. The enigma of a life lived apart.

It’s a drive down Highway 20 through the college town, westbound, and all you can see out the windows on either side are the flickering green aisles, stalks way above your head.

Or maybe it’s a sprint down the rows of someone else’s field, a leap to the left over the soybeans to tug at that stubborn weed.

Or it’s the soil that drops in heavy, cloying clumps when uprooted.

Or the clay that sucks at your toes at the bottom of a muddy lake and won’t let you go. 

Or maybe it’s a tick burrowed deep behind your ear.

The Midwest Essay lingers like light angling across a landscape. With no mountain to duck behind, you get every last ray of it. 

It’s all there on the page. Honest. Modest. Bare-limbed. Often, it is swimming. Sometimes screaming. Mostly with delight.

It’s the creak then bang of a screen door in summer. The dinner bell that calls you back.

The voice of the Midwest Essay is often passive, but it can also be aggressive. Unassuming but alive. It also has a conscience, a small cricket incessantly chirping.

The Midwest Essay is a zucchini hidden under the shade of its own vines. In the sun, it grows bloated, over-ripe. If this happens, hollow it out and it will sail, a small boat bobbing in the lazy current of the nearest creek. 

It’s something in the warm lake water, always dirt brown. With your cousins you strain the sand and clay and rocks from it and it falls from your uplifted fingers laughing and clear as a shared memory shot through with sunlight, only to regain its murky mystery with a splash. 

It’s the fossil found on the shoulder of a gravel road. A small, scalloped reminder of what came before. That maybe where you stand now fish once swam. And maybe they will again. 

There’s just that much possibility in the Midwest Essay. Something about those open horizons. Nothing standing in your way. Plow on til morning.

It could also be the leaves of that farmhouse table, fitted neatly between ends like a completed puzzle: an expanse, bounty-laden, that appears out of nowhere, as if always there. When the guests leave, it is shelved again behind the bureau.

Of course! It’s the harvest itself, never a clearer metaphor. Those creamy yellow kernels beneath the rough ridged husks. Pull the sticky silk strands away. Sink your teeth in.

The Midwest Essay tastes sweet, but will, at times, smell like manure. 

And the joy in it will always find its equal in the melancholic fall of an autumn leaf. That slow spin back to earth.

Sometimes the Midwest Essay asks you to fit your foot to a larger print, letting it sink down to the packed snow below. The borders of it are well-defined, razor-sharp with a thin coat of ice. You can’t know where it leads. But there’s a light on in the house ahead and a pair of worn brown skates hanging by the door. 

The Midwest Essay is the strength to leave. But let’s also admit that it’s the strength to stay. 

The slow drip of a long icicle from a gutter, counting off the days til spring.

It’s the shimmering emerald of a stretching April lawn, almost neon in its newness. Beloved pets are buried in shallow graves beneath.

Or is it the pale ghostly green the sky could turn, just before a twister. Describe it if you can. A warning, a wonder, a cool basement nook, safe beneath stairs.

Then again, it’s not all security and productivity and mediocrity, just because it’s in the middle. The Midwest Essay is not a clichĂ©. But you can see danger coming a mile away.

It’s the cyclonic funnel itself, sucking up everything in its path til all you’re left with is a blank page. A fresh start, or a finish.

If you’re not careful the Midwest Essay will write you to the edges. One day you’ll get on that road and the horizon will be clear. You’ve seen what the stalks have borne, and the fields are no longer barren; beansprouts about to unfurl. As you drive you’ll start to wonder what’s on the next page over. 

You’ll stop to fill your tank and when you get out into the warm summer evening the Midwest Essay will be sung in the cicadas’ croon, a chorus rising from the roadside ditch, green-black in the dying light, but sparking with the occasional firefly. As if in answer, a lightning bolt crackles like a whip lashed across the sky. 

The Midwest Essay always reads clearer in the rearview mirror, blushing with the sunset of your leaving.

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 allongĂ©, reaching toward something just beyond her grasp.