Continued (July 14 -17)
“Just one,” I say, holding up my index finger. The hostess holds up her index finger too, and I follow her to a table in the refrigerated, non-smoking section. The windows look out on the back parking lot. From here I can spy on the dogs, who are tied to either end of the trailer. They lie in the shade, oriented to the direction in which I walked away. My soul’s not out there with them this time. It’s holed up in my chest and moving to strangle me. I’ll be trapped with people who don’t understand that they are going to die someday, people who suffocate children with lies so that they are tractable. Educators. Don’t get funny, I tell myself. Each time I walk into a classroom I want to tell the kids to run for their lives. Four months of student teaching, then a job, all leading to restrictions, which in themselves seem to be nothing, but when added together crush sanity.
The dogs doze. The customers eat. I’m going to go look at rocks. The South Dakota School of Mines and Technology has packed eons of fossils, rocks and minerals into the second floor of the administration building, a space not as big as it sounds. I Ooh! over tight little folds in Gneiss, squashed pebbles that look like eggs, microfaults in banded sandstone, tortured lavas, columns of basalt, shiny anthracite, iridescent peacock coal, dense mysterious Torbanite, and the ever-lovely, oil-soaked sandstone from the Newcastle formation of northeastern Wyoming.
I Aah! at septarian nodules that look like cracked bicycle seats or arteries around a shrunken heart, at paper shale that looks like a wasp’s nest and zebra stone which looks fake. At ventifacts shaped by the winds, at trilobites that look like pagan goddesses in layered skirts, at the bogeyman of the Silurian – a spooky gray eurypterid preserved in pale shale. I gaze at beautiful, massed tendrils of chrinoids that look like feather dusters with handles made of stacked beads, at turtle shells and skulls and claws, and lizards and alligators which have not changed much in millions of years, at the cast of a giant amphibian which looks like an exploded tire. I gasp at an improbable fish head that’s the size of a Volkswagen’s hood.
What’s this? Four fingers are enclosed in a scaly mitten, the thumb free. Incredibly, it’s the mummified hand of a bird pelvis dinosaur. Within the same case is one Merycoidodon Culbertsoni, a dog-size creature, preserved as it died, on its back, its head to one side, its legs spread in utter resignation.
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See the Six Foot Rabbit
I can’t believe it. I’m going to see the rabbit that I found so attractive, but disturbing, when we came here on family vacations so long ago.
Who goes to Wall Drug? The Amish, who wear sunglasses and slurp ice cream cones, and visitors from India, who might think this is a shrine, of sorts. Where else can you select your favorite shade of nail polish beneath the gaze of a buffalo head, a stuffed turkey and an owl?
I quietly ask a clerk in the drugstore, “What happened to the corral, the one with the animals? There was this huge rabbit.”
“We still have it,” she assures me. “Go out that way.”
A lie! They’ve replaced the stuffed white mule with antlers with a crummy plush rabbit. Is nothing sacred?
I speed up the ramp to the interstate aware that several hundred miles of notoriously unattractive landscape lie in wait. I hit the windshield washer button once in a while for something to do.
The restaurant is so spare it’s clinical. Yellow table tops are set with one salt and one pepper. That’s it. A man seated near me in a mint green and beige booth orders a chicken sandwich, “No lettuce or mayonnaise or anything like ‘at.” Dinner arrives; two slabs of meatloaf on wings of white bread and mashed potatoes drenched in dark gravy. Not one sacrificial vegetable lends color to the presentation. The meatloaf is short on flavor, so I order rhubarb pie, which tastes pretty good, except the crust isn’t cooked.
Back on the road, humidity creeps up like a poisonous gas. This is still cattle country and herds drift on the broad hills, but the land is divvied up by fences and farm buildings are aligned at the edges of checkerboard fields. Corn appears: the vast, orderly fields are impressive in the low light. A look up or down drainage shows the overlapping slopes produced by meandering streams.
“Are you real hungry?” the waitress asks.
“I’m not sure.”
“’Cause the griddle cakes are big.” She tucks her ticket book under her arm and makes a huge oval with her hands.
“Uh.” I’m really not awake.
“You can have just one. If it’s not enough we’ll make you another.”
My pancake looks like a hot golden flattened softball. I pour syrup over it which is sucked up like oil into reservoir rock.
The museum at a Catholic Indian school is – museumy. I’m greeted by gray carpet and walls, indirect lighting and strips of buffalo hide glued to a stand on which a sign says: “O.K. to Touch.” There is much art of the ghost-warrior-faces-the-mystical-wind type, done by young artists who have learned what tourists will buy. One would think, from looking at the exclusively tragic pictures, that the Indian had perished with the buffalo.
Lightning bugs bang and pop and willows droop gracefully. Campers watch TV, raid refrigerators and run vacuum cleaners, just like home. Candle flames waver in the breeze and throw their soft light on the Victorian column tied to the door frame, on the strongbox, the dented toolbox, on St Elizabeth draped in a sheet, on my clothes which spill out of the shower behind her, on treasures tucked into corners, on the mule deer antlers above my head. Room to sit and to sleep and whatever is outside the door, that’s for me. I don’t want the trailer to be like home, I want the trailer to be home.
“Did you get Fun-sueded yet?” my friend from Cheyenne, who now dwells in Kansas City, asks.
I swat bugs that flop about in the light of the payphone and watch the full moon rise over Sioux City. “Huh?” What is he talking about?
“You know. The Chinese theory that moving to a new place gets you disoriented to the gods of the four directions and you’re unhappy.”
“Fun-suede?” I repeat.
“It’s a theory. The squares are all different and when you go to a different one you need to get reoriented.” This is a man who used to teach English. “It happened when I got to Kansas City.”
“Dave got Fun-sueded,” I holler. “Dave got Fun-suuuueded.”
“I hate my new job,” he admits quite seriously.
“I hate the job I don’t even have.” I can’t get serious.
“There’s an electrical storm tonight,” he says. “It rains too damn much here.”
I look around at the tents and trailers, the trees and the moon. “It’s nice here. Has been all day. A little windy.”
“Call me when you know something, like what you’re going to do when you get to your dad’s,” he says. “And let me know when you start student teaching.”
Suburban Sioux City offers gas at a reasonable price, a dog track, and breezy weather. I’m looking for the edge of town as the truck lurches along the interstate, which has been given a permanent wave by the ceaseless trucks. “Pickin’ the best route was a skill before the interstates,” an old guy at the gas station said. “Now, ya’ just go.” It’s going to be a necessary skill real quick if this road doesn’t improve.
The roof of a barn floats in roof-high corn and I pass countless, identical, handsome blue silos before the wavelength of the bumps stretches out and the trailer stops pushing and tugging. Willcomen Freunde, says the town of Holstein. The land is taken up by plants confined to perfect rows, within a grid of fields, within a grid of roads. It occurs to me that there are people who like doing this. It’s obsessive, like living beadwork.
Fortune in the form of a wrong turn, takes me down a road which leaves the interstate far behind. The land is beyond flat. Driving through fields of corn puts me below see-level. It’s a relief to see a barn, this one full of cloistered chickens, shielded from profane eyes until they are naked and shrink-wrapped at the grocer’s.
A county fair causes me to interrupt my cruise through the green seas of Iowa. I try to park in the established field, but as the truck slides down slick grass into muck, I realize we’re about to get stuck. The wheels spin as if we’re in snow, so I ease out, skidding sideways until the wheels grip a dry patch. The trailer follows like an unwilling accomplice.
A pretty buckskin mule with a cropped mane and long eyelashes is being coaxed up a ramp by a farmer in an area where restored, antique farm machinery is displayed. The mule is upholding his reputation as a focus of inertia, however, so I decide to check back later.
I’m hoping that the home crafts shed has food for sale, but I find solitary cookies, brownies, biscuits and slices of pie enclosed in baggies, some with ribbons attached. Bob’s raisin pie received a blue ribbon and these comments from the judges: “Crust good flavor” and “Could be browner.” Over in flower arranging, Carl took first place with a stem of gladiolas jammed into a Pepsi bottle. Sarah was tops in “any other annual” despite not knowing the name of her entry. Feverfew was written in by the judge, a plant that besieged Athenians gathered on the Acropolis to save themselves from starvation, only to be slaughtered anyway.
I can’t even look at the fine arts winners.
“How’s the mule doing?” I ask a farmer who wears a straw hat and a Cap’n Ahab beard.
“He’s gonna go now. You watch.” The mule is most of the way onto a belt that resembles an exercise machine. When his farmer says, “Hup, hup,” the pretty boy walks and his hooves clop, clop against the wood slats that provide traction.
“What’s he driving?” I ask the farmer. A narrow loopy belt connects the main belt to another machine.
“Why, it’s a thresher. That’s how they did it before engines,” he says patiently, as if I’m not dumb, just young.
The mule keeps walking. “How long can you keep a mule working like that?”
“Gee. You know, I’m not sure. Couple hours, anyway.”
A collection of gas engines bolted to small carts blow smoke, ‘fart’ at regular intervals and rock back and forth on metal wheels which qualify them to be included in the next re-enactment of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Three vintage farmers sit on a bench and baby-sit, at the ready with cans of gas and oil. One engine drives a belt that turns a drive shaft, which cranks a wooden ice cream churn. A short farmer strides up to me, his thumbs hooked in his overall straps like a proud poppa.
“Have you tasted the ice cream yet?” He pulls me by the arm toward a gazebo. “Give her some,” he directs a woman who scoops too little into a cup. He watches my face as the vanilla, butter and egg miracle melts on my tongue. Another spoonful disappears, and another.
“Geez this is good, and your set-up is wonderful,” I say. “Did it come like a kit?”
“Oh, no. That’s a gas engine from around 1920, and a Little Giant speed jack with a 3:1 reduction ratio, also from the twenties. And the White Mountain ice cream freezer is original, too. The engine was used mainly in machine shops to power lathes, drill presses and saws. The Little Giant was used to slow down the speed of a tractor engine so it could power a grain elevator.” I love people who make sense.
“See, after I found the freezer at an auction and rebuilt it, I just had to do this. It’s my invention I guess you could say.” He smiles. The engine poops, the belt lazily turns the drive shaft and more ice cream is born.
I wander into the shade of a barn where Bo, a black junior market steer blessed with Alfred E Newman ears, who weighs 1190 pounds, stands on legs that could support a semi trailer. “This other one’s name is Magnum,” says a small boy who pats a steer with hips as high as my head. “We named him after our tractor.”
“We like the tractor alot,” his mom adds.
Two big blonds, with gorgeous tans and high round rumps, munch hay from a basket hung in their stall. A foal with long legs, wide knees, and a delicate head dozes at his parent’s enormous feet.
Zeus, an actual Belgian draft horse
“These horses are all wrong.” A thin man who wears a black mustache, dark glasses and a baseball cap glued to his head like every other male in America, smiles at me.
“You’re looking for draft horses, right?”
“These here are Persians and they’re not full-size draft horses. See how disproportional their necks are?”
Persians? “Are these your horses?” I ask.
“Oh no. I don’t own any draft horses.”
“You’re a farmer, though?” (Is there manure in Iowa?) “I have a question for you. You spend all day fussing with the plants: the rows of soybeans are straight, the weeds are pulled, the corn is picked and put away, the hay bales are neatly stacked, right?”
“You got it,” he beams.
“So, how can you stand to go home and mow the lawn?”
“I can tell by your question that you’re a hunter-gatherer, not an agriculturist,” he says.
The road is straight, if bumpy. The sun sprays gold from the west and I think, The gods do come to earth. The hills are alive with lightning bugs and an eternity of corn. Bugs stream like streaks of rain as I speed into the darkness. I splurge and check in at a motel somewhere near Dubuque, Iowa. Inside the room are two double beds, an alarm clock and lamps with plastic dust covers over the shades. The dogs lounge on the carpet, stretch out and sleep. We could be anywhere, but the smell of manure drifts into the room from a sales barn and lighted stock pens across the road. I pull aside a curtain. Yep. That’s Iowa out there.
“I’m a Bohemian Gipsy.” The cook has thick white hair and black eyes that could drill through a wall. “Help yourself to coffee. Know what you want?”
“Ham and eggs?” There’s no menu, just bowls of raw potatoes, butter and eggs by the stainless steel grill. I’m the only customer in the roadside cafe, on the edge of town, on the edge of Illinois. The ceiling is so low that I feel like a giant as I walk to the coffee maker, take a mug and pour steamy coffee.
“You wouldn’t see Bill Clinton drivin’ a Dodge Omni,” she says as she cooks.
“Is that what you drive?” I ask.
“You bet. A real used one.” She bangs a plate in front of me that overflows with potatoes and eggs held in place by a slab of ham, then sits down across the counter from me.
“Him or Bush. They can’t even open their own doors, got a bunch of guys to do it for ‘em. Let ‘em drive over here in their own car, eat breakfast and talk to me. Then I might believe what they have to say.”
Eggs and potatoes mush in my mouth but I shake my head and manage,
“Don’t you ever believe ‘anyone named Them.”
Her great frame shakes with laughter like my gramma’s used to. “You’re probably right. They can all go to hell.”
Evidently the riding lawnmower is the pickup truck of the Midwest. Mow, mow, mow the median, the shoulders, the lawns and the schoolyard, the church, the barber shop and the graveyard, which provides the only public land in many miles and a place to stop. Butterflies tickle my stomach as I stroll the newly-shaved grass between rows of west-facing headstones from the 1800s. Carved letters have dissolved in the rains and many are no longer readable. The tombstone of a Mr. D S, who died in 1881, makes a novel claim: Poisoned by his Wife and Doctor. I’m but an hour from my dad’s.
The truck stop parking lot is nearly empty, so I pull in, get out of the truck and stare at the trailer, which lists badly to the left. Something big is busted. I get down on the ground opposite the sinking side. The spring has fractured clean through.
“You’re not really here are you?” – that’s my brother.