All you can offer is a weak blessing – the same blessing you’ve been offering yourself since you began this journey east – to home – to the land you know too well: I hope you get where you’re going okay.
Part of the the land of if collection
An early draft of the first chapter of The Land of If, a novel in progress. Enjoy! (And your thoughts, praise, or criticism greatly welcomed.)
Your story begins — as your best stories do — on the slats of a bench at the corner of If and Maybe, with a smoke and a pair of legs. A peeling green wood-slatted bench; a stale smoke and a borrowed lighter; a long, long, pale and well-made pair of legs. She lets you borrow her lighter before lighting up her own, then she leans down, this young woman and her legs interrupted by a tall set of socks pulled nearly to her knee, and she smiles, but it’s too hot here in middle America.
Every storefront squat–brick and none tops three stories, all of them squeezed up against each other like a mass of books, and across the street just shacks and one-stories and grain, grain waving its dust bowl dance easily all the way to the horizon, and you – you stopping here on a bench, somewhere in the fields east of Omaha, for one last smoke before the dry road. Her companion half-turns to you, his eyes cast out at the very same distance that holds your gaze, and asks you about a bus you know nothing about, and so that’s what you mumble, I don’t know. And should you know anything about a tiny little plains town? No, not more than the sign on the bumpy road here could tell you from the rusted, torn leather seats of an old tow-truck:
Welcome To If, Iowa
And so that’s what they’ve called the main and only road this way through town; and the only other road, stabbing through its center at a slight angle with an old man’s semi-senile sense of humor, you’ve also already met: and every square and manmade foot dulled over and aged over by a layer of sedimentary dust from decades past – as if the great Midwest lay at the bottom of an inland sea with its cast-off debris and excrement drifting and solidifying at its floor – A pool hall, three bars, a drugstore (the kind with pop and ice cream floats) and a barber shop with an old striped pole. Further down, with no more fanfare than the rest, yes, a police station hunkered down under concrete, and barely recognizable on its facade, a scratched, spray-painted sign marking the station a fallout shelter: here time slowed in the forties, sputtered in the fifties, and gasped finally in the sixties. What’s left here: the undead, ghosts who refuse to give up what their parents and grandparents built, hobo shacks on the edge of town and hidden among the grain, and you’d wonder if a bus even stopped here (or more plainly, if the world around here still considered this place a here worth an afterthought), but there is that sign, right above your heads.
This, like every town left past its prime, has a thousand untold stories, but yours is not one of them. Yours doesn’t begin here, it turns here in the hushed voices of an unshaven young man and an un-showered girl seated here beside you on a bench at the corner of If and Maybe; it begins as you exhaust your lungs of the smoke from what you intend to be your last cigarette (the last of the pack). The butt ends of his unintelligible words bear force, and she’s sitting arms-crossed over her lap, leaning forward and inward. She whispers weakly, and bored, and resigned. He rises, looks again at you and declares he’s heading down the street to get something to drink, and do you want anything too? But you shake your head, no, no. He heads off down the street and is forgotten.
Even the wind that picks up feels dusty and dry and hot and she’s looking at her hands, this young woman in dark shorts and tall socks, a dirty (grey or perhaps dingy white) tank-top, a cast-off, torn and broken faded blue hoodie and a knit winter cap with fringes that hang down along the sides of her face. And there’s a tear on her face a tear leaving behind a pale white stripe and you say “Are you ok?” and all she does is nod and look at you with a little girl’s smile.
Then you rise up, casting the end of your smoke into the street, and reach your hand down to hers. All you can offer is a weak blessing – the same blessing you’ve been offering yourself since you began this journey east – to home – to the land you know too well: I hope you get where you’re going okay.
You’re off, heading ‘round the corner. Keys in the car, unlocking. This place isn’t your West, and it isn’t your East; it’s somewhere in between, the heat and the air and the endlessness of the sky and grain and the ground oppress you, as if all the oxygen in this world were sucked out and replaced neither with despair nor hope but with emptiness itself. This is not your somewhere in between – it’s nowhere in between, and you’re hurrying to get back in your car, with its brand new timing belt, and press your foot to the floor until If and Maybe are just a distant memory on the long road home.
She’s there next to you, a bag slung over one shoulder, nose-ring flashing the sunlight from one nostril, dark hair blue black spilling out over her shoulders from below her cap and her eyes wide open. She opens her mouth to speak, the first uncertain words of hers you’ve heard and understood:
“Can I go with you?”
You try to process the question like a kindergartner practicing calculus. She shifts, looking hurriedly around the street, and repeats it.
“Can I go with you?” and the second time you think you understand something about a woman and a man, and it’s too quick to calculate. No time to ask or investigate the Why? hanging in the air between; you take her bag and toss it in the back. And you’re back on the bumpy road out of this little dying town, passing fields and fields and fields and on the back of the welcome sign there’s graffiti; the signs for I-80 stretching clear across the state pop up out of the grain with growing urgency. The intersection looms ahead like a distant mirage for minutes and minutes and then you’re there, and that’s when your thoughts finally return from the road. And the first question you ever ask your passenger:
“Which way are you going?”
Behind her eyes you can see her thoughts go, and you’re just set on believing she’s about to say wherever you’re going when she speaks up.
“West,” she says.
West. And there, in the nowhere between the East that is calling you back home to rest, the East of your childhood and the East of settling down among bricks and cobblestones and maple, the East where the sun rises out of the bay, the East that you understand; and the West that turned you away, the West that you came to conquer, the West that wanted so much to spit you out, the great wide open West with all its impenetrabilities, impossibilities, consequences and unknowns, there -
there you look at your nameless passenger and look one last time into the red and purple evening rushing in from the east -
there you turn into the sunset -
Your story begins – as your best stories do – in the middle of things, in the middle of America, in the middle of a journey, at the intersection of two roads, a choice, east and west; and at the place where two stories meet -
there you turn back to the West.
A hundred miles down and Des Moines slinking away on the road behind and she’s flicking at the pages of an atlas found in the door pocket; and she decides to answer your second question:
“Sidney,” a break, a dramatic pause, a verbal rumble strip: she’s investigating a road sign on the cover of your atlas, “Sidney 66.”
Of course it’s not real. You’ve met people on the road before, called them by their road names, and here’s your passenger and all you know: Sidney 66, heading West, she smokes like a raging brushfire and she’s got those long – long and perfect legs.
“I’m not going to tell you all sorts of fucked-up shit about me,” she says out the half-open window, “so don’t ask.”
You open your mouth before your mind makes sense of what she said, and laugh into the evening wind. “Nice to meet you too, 66.”
She turns and half-grabs your eyes with hers gotta keep an eye on the curves; her lips curl up and the skin around her eyes wrinkles and her face says I deserve that, don’t I? Yes, Sidney, yes you do. She tucks the atlas back in its pocket, reaches into the back for her bag and grabs a pair of jeans. And off come the shorts – one swift yank – right there on the seat next to you. Legs that seem as long and unbroken as the Nebraska road looming ahead somewhere in the night and as pale as an undiminished midwestern moon, and she lifts her ass up off the seat – one swift pull – and a zip and she’s wrapped tightly in her jeans. No celebration; no shame – just denim to warm her against the oncoming cool of night. Sidney sits half-crossed in her seat, angled toward you:
“So what’s your shit?”
“What’s your shit, dude? Why are you on the road?”
Here you could spoil your story by expositing every last bit of history in dialogue, but casual words are the least precise and most demeaning of Man’s faculties, they have so little poetry and are so frequently without texture. The grand accident of discovery happens in mystery and metaphor and moment that we are shown by the world around what we cannot see within. So you weave threads from your various stories, as the deep plains night overtakes you from the East. Who are you? You’re a writer, perhaps, or at least one who’d like to be. You’re a lover, perhaps, or at least you used to be. You tell her the long and the short of it, the jobs that didn’t pan out, the projects that failed, every thin letter that came in the mail from magazines and publishers and imprints and chapbooks. It all rolls out of you like the road rolls out before you, and you don’t even know why you’re bothering to say what you’re saying except that the sound of your own voice is sweeter when someone’s listening, that to hear yourself speaking for an audience that breathes and stretches and smiles and looks like a girl you once knew feels like a holiday from that unyieldingly silent and immobile empty seat who’s been your copilot since Denver.
She looks back out the window for a while.
“And you,” you ask, “what’s with that guy we ditched?”
For a mile or two, you wonder if she’ll even answer. Finally she tosses the butt of her cigarette out the window. “Him? He’s just another asshole.” And then, the silence of the open road, that unending hypnotic hum and whine of hot tires.
“What type of sandwich would you have?” Just like that, no preface, “if you could choose?”
You squint into the rear-view mirror looking for the outline of some sandwich shack you must have missed. You lean ahead and look for a Subway billboard. Nothing but the tall, comfortable darkness of cornfields; Omaha rising up in the far dark distance. She smirks quietly, looks around at the jumbled junk in the back and what the hell you consider her question just throw out something crazy something random something tasty.
“Sprouts. I like fresh sprouts, and mache – maybe spinach… and roast eggplant. Boursin cheese. All wrapped up in a crepe drizzled with a teeny bit of vinaigrette.” She stares at you as if trying to figure out why you didn’t just answer ‘ham and cheese on rye.’
“Seriously? That sounds a bit… intense.” and yes it does, but it’s only your ideal choice right this very moment, ask again and you’d come up with something new, even if you could remember what you just ordered.
And Sidney picks up a spoon from the floor, lays it down on the glovebox. “I used to work at a deli. And this guy came in one day and ordered a smoked turkey on french bread with mustard…” she looks deep into the faraway past – “lettuce, tomato, olives and havarti.
“But he only wanted a half, and I made a whole. So I took the extra half and ate it for my lunch later. We shared a meal in shifts of solitude – an isolated date.” Your eyes on the road, her eyes studying the shape of your face. “He looked like you.”
“You hopped in a car with me because I look like a sandwich boy from your days at a deli?”
Quickly added, her eyes back out her window, “I love so many sandwiches. It depends on my mood.”
In Omaha, a quick stop at a Kum & Go for pre-wrapped simple subs no adornments thankyouplease, water, fuel and cigarettes – she calls them fags, an affectation appropriated from a book or a friend from overseas but definitely not native to her tongue. Fags, she says, without a look around, let’s pick up some fags. And she grabs a refill for her phone and pays for it all with her little bit of cash. On the way out she pockets a lighter and waves goodbye to the cashier in one swift trick. It’s late; sitting around in little dying towns deep in Iowa fields sucks the day’s life away – waiting for the mechanic to stop flirting with that lolita in her daisy dukes – yes he even disappeared with her for an over-stretched lunch at the cost of your time on the road: maybe you’d have made it past the Mississippi, past the cuckolded empty mines of Coal Valley, past the obsolete remains of the Illinois and Michigan Canal in La Salle, and maybe even a night under the breezes of Lake Michigan. And there – crossing over Chicago’s big shoulders out of the immense, unbounded plains of the West into the thick forests and crisscrossed jungles of the East.
Everything here flows to the Big River, but not you.
In the here-now, these early miles of Nebraska, pulling into a rest stop along the highway, a rounded rectangle of grass and green, diagonal parking spaces, and a rusting swing-set, one a.m. arrives. Sidney’s phone rings; she doesn’t even look. “That might have been part of it,” she responds.
You look at her blankly until some neuron, somewhere, makes a lucky connection. “Just how crazy are you?”
“There’s a long history of the crazies on my dad’s side.”
And how crazy are you? All turned around now, Iowa’s seen you coming and going and now here’s Nebraska again. And a girl you don’t know helps you pull a pair of sleeping bags out of the car so you can rest under the stars – “keep your eyes closed if someone shines a light on you,” you tell her, “the police won’t bother you if they think you’re asleep.” – and in the morning you’ll still be heading back the way you came. Away from concrete certainty and plans already set in motion.
It’s her turn to take your hand (all zipped up individually in your sleeping bags) and she asks you why you turned west for her, why you didn’t keep going east the way you’d planned. Her hand is warm, small, softer than she looks. Under the great faint belt of the Milky Way, you can see yourself from somewhere in the sky above, two down-filled rectangles spread over too-green grass with your heads uphill a few feet from farmland, hands met in the middle, tiny things coming to rest as other tiny things zip and zoom left and right across the landscape of the darkness with their white and red beacons singing this is where I’m going; this is where I’ve been, and further south a train rolls slowly through the night carrying consequential beings along the arrow of their intentions – here to Denver, there to Chicago, onward, and further. Up here in the ceiling of the stars, it doesn’t matter which way you’re going. It all comes ‘round again.
You don’t know. Isn’t that it? She squeezes your hand and you come rushing back down to here, to now, and you tell her that.
“That’s the best kind of knowing,” she answers. “It has so much promise.”