Saturday, April 10, 2021

The #Midwessay: Joshua T. Anderson, Loomings from the Deep North

Winter. Bone deep cold. Oil. Wind. Fargo (you can still pose with the woodchipper from the movie at the Fargo Visitors Center). These are some of the first concepts that usually come to mind when people think of North Dakota. The essays presented here examine the complexity of North Dakota, “a state used as a punching bag for a place where nothing happens,” as Bronson Lemer writes. It’s not an easy state to love, but it is a hard place to shake.  —Pamela Pierce, North Dakota Coordinator


Loomings from the Deep North

Joshua T. Anderson


     When asked what it was like to grow up along the chipped-tooth edge of eastern North Dakota, the first word out of my mouth is always winter.
     Winter in North Dakota deserves the same treatment as the whale in Melville’s Moby-Dick. How Melville begins his grand adventure with the Etymology and Extracts sections. Tracks the word “whale” through its origins. Hunts it across its poetic, philosophical, and religious fragments. Across pages soaked in saltwater. 
     Call me Ishmael, I could say, and then lose myself mapping out North Dakota’s monstrous whiteness. 
     But I only have 500 words here. About 400 left, give or take.
     So I’ll just tell a story.
     The year is 1973. Maybe 1974. 
     It’s January. Twenty below zero. 
     My Uncle Lew and his buddies Jim and Pete are on their way home from a bonspiel curling tournament in Stephen, MN. 
     Stuffed in an old Ford pickup, they look like the fourth line of a hockey team: mutton-chopped goons and baby-faced bruisers.  
     The boys slurp beer foam from ice-cold cans. Crank up the Creedence to drown out the heater vents, hot as a dog’s mouth. 
     They don’t know the origins of the word “blizzard.” Don’t know that “blizzard”—meaning “a severe snowstorm”—is a Midwest colloquialism that first entered the lexicon in an Iowa newspaper in 1870. Don’t know that before this, Davy Crockett used “blizzard” to mean a violent, hail of rifle fire and a “blast of words.” 
     My uncle and his pals learn blizzard the hard way: when snow whips across the flatlands. The road nothing but howling ghosts.
     The pickup skids and slams into a snowdrift. The engine dies.
     In North Dakota, we no longer sacrifice our young to the harvest gods. We give them a case of Budweiser, a rebuilt V6. Miles and miles of prairie highway.
     The boys burn everything they can in the ash tray: pages from the truck manual, the crumpled dollars in their wallets, hacksawed bits of curling brooms, the Polaroids of their sweethearts. Everything, until all they have left is their bodies. Their breath. 
     For two nights and three days, the boys sit on each other’s feet. To pass the time, they click on the battery, listen to a stranded radio host beg listeners for food. The boys eat snow and keep each other warm telling jokes: “I’m so hungry I’d walk through this storm to eat that DJ,” Lew says.  
     On the third morning, wind still whipping across the road, Lew looks up and sees the tops of telephone poles. Blue sky. 
     This land swallows everything. The Red River. The annual flood. Down to the bottom of a glacial lakebed. So when Lew looks up, it’s Jonah’s view from inside the mouth of the whale. Except much fucking colder.

Before the land swallows that storm and everyone inside that old Ford, Lew hears a horn blast. “Sounded like a ship’s foghorn,” he’d tell me, years later.  And that’s what I hear, too, every time he tells it, even though I know it’s a firetruck, blasting through the snow drifts.
     When he told it to me again this February, I asked him why we love these stories. About frostbitten toes. Fingers amputated at the knuckle. Killer storms looming in the distance.
     “Because we survive,” he said.
     And in this one, we do.

Joshua T. Anderson is a writer who was raised in a crumble-brick farmhouse near Hoople, ND, which he hopes makes him an honorary “Hooplehead” in HBO’s Deadwood. He currently lives in the New England woods with his partner Nicole, their Catahoula leopard dog, Libby, and several hundred red-wiggler composting worms. His work has appeared in North American Review, Sonora Review, and Bourbon Penn. He is an assistant professor of English at the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, Connecticut. 

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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