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
Wednesday, June 23, 2021
The #Midwessay: Joshua Bohnsack, Midwessays
Dan and I had the day off at the restaurant and I told him we couldn’t stay out too late because I had court the next morning. So we bought some malt liquor at the gas station and drove twenty minutes to Tipton because they had a skatepark. It was full of elementary school kids on summer break with nothing better to do than writing their names in Sharpie on the skatepark picnic table. I rode the mini halfpipe and the smaller kids clapped when I hit the coping. The older ones leaned over their handlebars and yelled, “Do a kick flip.” When I did, they shrugged.
Dan and I finished our 40s. We drove by Rhino’s, the bar where Tanner worked when we were 18, but it wasn’t open that early in the morning. We drove by his mom’s house, but the grass had grown tall and there weren't any cars in the driveway.
We took some back roads and got caught in construction where they were repaving one lane. Dan had to drive on the left-hand side of the road. He told me to roll down my window, then got close enough to a traffic cone that it clipped his mirror. “Knock the next one down,” he said.
I reached my hand out and flipped over a cone, then another one, then the woman holding the stop/slow sign made eye contact and shrugged like, “what’re you doing?” And it didn’t seem funny anymore. I pulled my arm into the car and had a bruise on the inside of my wrist.
We drove through the town of Bennet where we found a bar called Butch’s Pub with a sign that had a clipart barn and silo and the words “just one more,” and I said, “We should take that as a sign.”
We drove and somewhere along the way, maybe we ate, but we drank more. On a gravel road, Dan said, “Watch this.” He unbuckled his seatbelt, rolled down the window, and sat on the doorframe. I watched as he drove road, his left hand guiding the wheel, while his right sat on top of the car.
He said, “Now you get up.”
I mimicked his actions and watched the sun set perched on the door.
The car started to slide, and Dan said, “Shit.” I ducked in as the car sunk into the ditch and I could touch the grass when I reached through the window. “Sorry,” he said.
“I have court in the morning,” I reminded him.
“Where are we?” He asked.
Dan paced leisurely and I crawled out the driver’s side door, letting gravity slam it shut. I sat on the incline of his car roof, letting my feet rest where the window had been rolled down.
Dan took a picture of me sitting like that, which he would later show me, after a truck stopped and a woman got out and said her sister is sleeping with a guy who has a tow truck, and called him and she gave us gum because we smelled like booze and she didn’t know if he would call the cops, and after the tow truck showed up and we gave the driver fake names and all the cash we had from our wallets, and after he pulled the car from the ditch and said he trusted us to mail him a check for the rest of the balance, and that he had friends in Iowa City who would track us down, and after we waved goodbye, and after Dan said “I’m almost out of gas and don’t know where we are,” and I remembered the road from buying pigs when I was a kid, and it led us to the I-80 truck stop, and after he asked if I was mad and I said “No” but slept all the way home, and after I went to court where my public defender said I would have to come back the next month and asked me if I had stopped drinking, and after we went back to work and I said, “Fine, show me the picture.”
South Side, Iowa City, IA
Victor and I would play karate in the open alley behind the restaurant. The boss hired me on a Monday and I came in the next day, and worked the following 27 days after that, before I took a day off, which I ruined by drinking too much.
Once, Victor found a man in the basement. He had gotten too drunk the night before, and when going to the bathroom, opened the door to the basement and fell down the stairs. When the guy came too, he was nearly naked, and dirty, and the door opened to reveal a short Latino kid. The man thought he had been kidnapped, and Victor tried to explain through his broken English, which only confused and angered the guy more. He pushed passed Victor and ran into the street covered in mud wearing only his underwear.
When Victor told me the story, he said, “It’s hot in the basement.”
My Spanish isn’t great, but was enough for Victor and I to understand each other. When boxes of paper towels, toilet paper, and napkins came in, I’d ask Victor if he wanted to play karate. He’d carry all the empty boxes to the alley and say, “Watch.” He’d throw it up in the air and give the box a kick. “Bruce Lee,” he’d say.
When we finished breaking down the boxes, we threw them in the back of our boss’s truck, along with empty booze bottles. Once it was loaded, I’d drive us down to the recycling center where we would sort the bottles by color and clear. We’d drop the cardboard on the loading dock and watch as people picked through the sacks of cans for ones they could get 5 cents for at Hy-Vee. After this, we’d go to a sister restaurant and load up on burger patties and veggies.
Once on one of our runs, I asked Victor to help me move my futon. I was moving apartment s and wanted to leave it at the recycling center. “You don’t want it?”
“Naw. You want it?” I asked.
He thought about it, then called someone. He spoke too fast for me to understand his phone conversation. “You’ll bring it to my house?”
We carried it from my un-air-conditioned studio apartment, loaded it in the truck, and he told me where to drive. Five or so miles out of our way, we pulled into an apartment complex by the K-Mart. While we put the futon in his apartment, I wondered how he got to work. His roommate was ecstatic. He jumped on the futon and asked me, “Juegas XBox?” and held out a controller.
“Juego PlayStation. Lo siento.”
He just shrugged. Victor and I got back to work. On the ride to the other restaurant, I asked if he liked Iowa City. He said he did. Much better than Omaha. “Oh I like Omaha. There’s some good music there,” I said.
“I was there for three months. In the jail.”
“Jail? What’d you do?”
“I’m illegal,” he said. “It’s terrible. Dirty. No good food. No lawyers.”
Sometimes Victor said he was Guatemalan, sometimes Mexican. It depended who was asking. He’d told me both, but I never wanted to pry.
We loaded up the new boxes of food, and Victor held up a box filled with heads of lettuce and said, “A good one for karate.”
Columbus Junction, IA
Named for the train station that used to run through town which was named for the brutalist who laid claim to the entirety of the land five hundred years before a few thousand miles away, my football team comprised of fifth and sixth graders from the four elementary schools in my district traveled across the river, because the maintenance fees were cheaper in Iowa. Josh McManus’s dad coached us to victory while I picked dandelions on the sideline. Mateo tried to explain that it was the best when the number said bore an orange one, and we had a three. I just wanted to run into someone. I played safety because I was fast, real fast, and the last line of defense, I was the one who could catch them, recover that ball, and run it back to Muscatine.
The other team wasn’t great, so my defensive skills were left unused. In the fourth quarter, they’d had enough, and one wing put his helmet down and directed it into Josh McManus’s face mask. From the bench, I watched his mouth guard swing a trapeze, launching a chiclet onto the field.
His dad stepped in to stop the game. This wasn’t the first time Josh McManus had lost that tooth. A few months earlier, he’d been playing half court basketball in the driveway with his younger twin brothers, when he wanted to show them up, he lowered the hoop and dunked over their heads, only to catch his front tooth on the net coming down. They sank the tooth in milk, and saved it that time. Now that it had happened again, everyone had to act fast. My teammates, the other team, and the parents took the field, running fingers through the dense turf hoping to find that tooth. I took the chance to crawl around, not caring if I grass stained my pants, hoping I would be the one to find that tooth.
After too long, the McManuses called it quits and rushed to the hospital. The tooth was gone, even if it were to be recovered. I wasn’t a hero, and neither was anyone else. As we watched them pack into a minivan and drive to the nearest hospital an hour away, nobody wanted to keep playing. We might have forfeited without a coach, or maybe we’re still in time out. Maybe that tooth is still there, pressed beneath the soil, waiting to emerge.
Joshua Bohnsack's work has appeared in The Rumpus, Hobart, Salt Hill, and others. He is managing editor for TriQuarterly and publisher at Long Day Press. He grew up on a farm and moved to Chicago.