Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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You leave Kentucky, with its leaning phone booths and thick green twilight and sloe-blossom bourbon and dogwood insouciance, and you head west on the bus with $984 and some roast-beef sandwiches and some bananas and a bag of trail mix and the usual doubt and the usual set of diminishing expectations. For twenty years you’ve had a vision of the ideal place. You’ve tried to explain it, but you can’t. It is something like nowhere, but not a ghost town. It is alive. It is not the vision of a televangelist: Leave It to Beaver with a policeman on every corner. It is not a utopian vision of the future: twenty-four-hour abortion and milkshakes for the poor. It’s a place just as free as New York City, but there are no glittering porno palaces, and it’s quite possible you cannot buy liquor on Sundays. Nobody seems to understand this place, but you know it exists. People say, You oughta go to such and such, they got a dog track up there; or, You should try Hell Island, there are plenty of good-paying jobs down there; or, The weather’s real nice in Bermuda. Nobody listens; people only tell you the place they want to live, give you their version of paradise: eighteen bucks an hour and a short winter and a dog track on the edge of town.
When you say the word Iowa to people sitting next to you on the bus, they immediately nod their heads as if they understand, and think (even though they have never been there), Corn, flat, pig, dull: what do you want to go there for? The feeling about Iowa is so instantaneously unanimous, it’s almost a sure bet that the place you’ve been looking for all your life is there somehow. But you keep your mouth shut and let the road take you where it will. You’ve been wrong often enough.
You ride the bus through the rain and mist and darkness and into the setting sun, and the land turns a rolling green, and the cities give up their grip, and the sky seems to get bluer, and the people seem to get friendlier, and you buy a cup of coffee at a McDonald’s and think that they’ve sneaked burned chocolate liqueur into it, because, when you feel you might finally find the place you’ve been looking for all these years, the coffee always tastes a little bit different.
You go to Waterloo first, and, as usual, the name of the city has tricked you. You’ve been to every tourist hot spot, every fashion center, every city with Springs or Beach or Falls in its name, and you still haven’t learned that picking a city from a map is like picking a girl from the phone book. At Waterloo, you don’t even need to get off the bus. So you ride on to Independence and like it well enough but can’t find a place to live. The motel is twenty-six bucks a night. You leave after three days. In Cedar Falls you stay at the Blackhawk Hotel for a week for eighty bucks total, eating Spaghetti-Os out of the can and watching the NBA playoffs, but this isn’t it either. The guy at the desk (the lobby is also the bus depot) tells you northeast Iowa is the place to go: Oelwein, Decorah. At first he wanted to send you to Dubuque, because they have a dog track there, but you explained to him that a place with a dog track is the last place you want to go, that you want to go to a place that is nowhere. He had to think on that, because most people in Iowa grew up in a place exactly like what you are describing and dream all their lives of getting the hell out and moving to a town with a little sin in it, like Dubuque; but now he’s on your wavelength. He tells you with assurance that you’ll like Decorah. For whatever reason, you are already thinking west: Fort Dodge, Sioux City; and, if that doesn’t work, up into South Dakota — just forget Iowa. But there is something about the way he says it, the look in his eyes, the steady Midwestern conviction, that makes you say (even though the fare is twenty dollars more), All right, give me a ticket to Decorah.
The bus drops you off in Decorah and whooshes away, and the little depot office is already closed. On the other side of the highway are the red plastic roofs — the Dairy Queen and the KFC, the Hardee’s and the Wal-Mart and the Pizza Hut — and the bile rises from your throat up into your eyes. You could be in Colorado Springs or Tampa or Bakersfield. You could be anywhere or everywhere. What’s the point of all these highways, of getting away, of spending your last few dollars, when the world is just one big franchise loop and wherever you go, no matter how far you travel, the bus always dumps you off right back where you started?
So you sit on the little purple bag you’ve had for nine years that’s stuffed with your grease-stained clothes, like a big pillow. You sit on it in this late-spring late afternoon in the far-northeast corner of Iowa in this red plastic village after the bus office has closed on you; and you think, I’ve been let down once more, no point in staying here. That place you described to the guy behind the desk at the Blackhawk exists, but you’re the only one who can find it. No one else can give it to you. If someone else has found it, it belongs to them. And you think, I’m just going to sit here all night, because you don’t want to spend thirty dollars for a bed and some TV shows and Pizza Hut commercials and a shower and some perfumed soap chips and checkout at 11 A.M. You can eat for ten days on thirty dollars. Thirty dollars will buy a lot of cream-cheese sandwiches.
So you just sit there steaming on your stuffed purple bag with the broken zipper, with another bag to your left, a green handbag you found in a Las Vegas dumpster. It smells like the after-shave of an air-force cadet, who you think was a black man because of the hard, kinky hairs at the bottom of the bag. In the same dumpster you also found a Gideons Bible with the Lord’s Prayer underlined in pencil. You’ve got that Bible and all your cooking tools and a travel alarm clock and a few other things in the green dumpster handbag that smells like the after-shave of a black air-force cadet; and you have $612; and you think, I am just going to sit here all night. I don’t care how cold it gets. When the bus comes in the morning, I’ll climb up on it and get the hell out of here.
But you haven’t seen the town yet, the real town, which is over the hill. And you wonder for a moment whether it might yet be the place. This is just the highway where the tourists come blazing through on their way to Broadway plays and oral sex. So you sit there a long time, just sit there while the traffic streaks by as if someone has sped up time and forgotten to tell you, and the sun sinks and glitters and catches the drifting pollen from the trees, and you think, Well, I’ve got some squashed cream-cheese sandwiches and a peach and some peanuts, and I don’t really want to sit out here all night; I have $612, and one day I’ll be dead, and it won’t make a bit of difference then if I spent thirty dollars on that motel room. So you pick up your stupid bags and trudge up the highway to the nearest motel, which has an indoor pool and a restaurant, and you pay the thirty bucks and get a newspaper in the lobby.
Your room has no windows, and someone has stolen the painting off the wall, leaving just the plastic studs, and you wonder why someone would steal a motel painting. You watch TV but it just makes you feel empty, so you turn it off and open the paper and look through the ads and see that rentals are cheap and that there are a few jobs (two cooking jobs), so you say, Maybe I’ll just stay here in this miserable franchise town for a while. I’m sore from traveling, and I am down to $580. With breakfast in the morning at the restaurant, it will be $575, and a bus ticket will make it $527, and pretty soon I’ll be in a homeless shelter playing cards with a drug addict named Vic.
You give one of the rental places a call, the one for $160 a month; the place is already rented, but the woman wants to talk. She has an open kind of breathmint freshness. For a minute it sounds as if the AT&T operator has spliced you into 1952: you can almost smell the gladiolas and hear the fizz of Coca-Cola and the riffle of bridge cards; and you know she is brewing up some fabulous cheese-and-wienie recipe for the Pillsbury Bake-Off. You tell her you are just passing through but would like to find a place to stay for a while (a tinge of weariness and childlike hope in your voice), and she says the same thing that the guy behind the desk at the Blackhawk said: Oh, you’ll like Decorah. She gives you this sudden, inexplicable sense that you actually belong somewhere, that maybe you were kidnapped from here long ago, stolen right out from under your mother’s ironing board and forced to go to high school in California, where they gave you drugs and told you the world was coming to an end — but now you have found your way back, have stumbled back somehow against all odds like Rover after he fell over the waterfall in Yellowstone Park. And, for no other reason than faith (because you have to believe — that is why you came), you believe her.
There are more ads to call about, but suddenly you want to see the town. There is just a little light left in the sky, so you wander back down the highway past the bus station and start up the hill into the old part of Decorah. The world is wicked when it all becomes one thing, when satellite photographs show the earth has a red plastic roof on it. You find yourself muttering (you have been alone too long); you wonder if Jesus will return; you hope that space creatures will abduct you — and all the while you’re coming down the hill toward the little Iowa town. There are high bluffs all around, and nestled into them is the place called Decorah, a town of about eight thousand spread out in a drowsy puddle of melted-butter light. You pass the meeting hall of the Sons of Norway, and a small diner with a sign in the window that says, Homemade Pie. Time has slowed. The windows of the little houses are flooded with the melted-butter light. Big green maples cut purple lacework patterns across your chest. The sky is as gold as a Byzantine dome, and the birds are gliding and diving and doing slow backstrokes through the air. Two little boys come flying down the hill at you in their soapbox cars.
You stop for a moment and catch your breath. You wonder how anyone ever found this place, how it was made, and how it has stayed so far off the beaten path and kept from being devoured by the Wal-Mart and the Pizza Hut that crouch like wolves at the edge of town. People smile at you; they know you’re not a criminal because, if you were a criminal, you would drown in the golden light. Then you wander back to the motel, and it is already dark along the highway. You get a sandwich and eat it as a monk would, thinking not of sustenance but of the noumenal essence of cream cheese. Then you go down and sit by the indoor pool with a sort of warm-brandy glow in your breast, because you knew all along that you would find this place, that it was out there waiting for you.
In the morning you make a phone call about a one-bedroom basement apartment, $185, utilities paid. The guy tells you to come on out. His name is Gary, and he is a schoolteacher and a Christian, of all things. He shows you the place and says, If you don’t have the money for the deposit, you can just give it to me later. But you pay the entire sum gratefully. You should give him all your damn money. You feel you owe it to him for playing the part of the 1952 Christian schoolteacher landlord in the town where you were kidnapped from under the ironing board while your mother was watching King Kong and dreaming of winning the Pillsbury Bake-Off.
I’ll see if I can get you some furniture, he says.
No, that’s all right, you say. Please, don’t go to the trouble. I’ll find some things. That’s the way I always do it.
What are you going to sleep on?
I’ll get a bed or something, eventually.
I’ve got a mattress just sitting around, he says, and a little table and a chair. I’ll bring them over.
He brings them over and the day goes by and it becomes your room, a big room with a cement shower stall and parti-colored shag carpeting and a nice kitchen and a mother and daughter overhead living their lives just as they’ve done from the beginning. You lie on the mattress with the green blanket you bought at Penney’s for $8.49. You have $181 left, rent paid, a little food in the fridge, utilities turned on, table and chair, and an architecture book you borrowed from the library. The sun is in the window and it’s just stuck there. Your Christian landlord probably pointed at it and said, Stop for a minute until my new tenant, who was kidnapped at a young age, and who has had such a hard life, gets adjusted to this new town.
Even in this golden dozing Norwegian fairy-tale village, job hunting is the same. It is getting turned down by a pizza place called Happy Joe’s, or by a janitorial outfit called Pioneer; or it is “No thank you” from a chicken-processing plant, or “Sorry” from a factory that makes fishing lures or ice chests; or it is “Not hiring right now” from a convenience store called Quik Trip; or it is “No” from a doughnut shop called Dunkers or an organic grocery called The Four Winds; or it is “Try us in two weeks” at a diner called Mom’s. It’s the same as everywhere else, except a little slower, and the light is golden, and the people are cheerful, slightly overweight, and ruddy cheeked from the prosperity of agriculture and God. They shake your hand and say it is only a matter of time, which means you don’t have the job yet, but faith always meets its just reward.
Back in the one-bedroom basement apartment, you cook a pot of beans and listen to the clock radio that you bought at the hardware store for $14.95. You spin the dial and listen to the people talk, and they play old songs — “Twelfth of Never” and “Vaya con Dios” — because time has not passed in this part of the world, and it never will pass if anybody here has anything to say about it.
Then twilight comes, and suddenly there are puffballs raining down outside the window in the golden twilight, and the kids have come to ride their homemade soapbox-derby cars down the hill out front. They scream and shout and laugh, and the ringing of their voices as they fly downhill in their wooden cars in the golden puffball-raining twilight is so beautiful it is like being stabbed in the heart by the one who made you.
Then it is dark and the children have gone home, and the street lamp outside the window casts a patch of warm apricot light on the wood paneling. You watch the light because it changes and because it is light and because there is something about this light: it is the light from which everything came and to which everything will return. You know this, but you don’t know how you know this; you can’t know. But you watch the light the way a dog watches its master, and you listen to the radio and lie on the mattress, and slowly, without knowing it, you drift off to sleep.
In the morning you have eggs and a shower, and you go out to look for that job. At the unemployment office an emphysemic woman with cherry-frosted goldfish lips and a helmet of red hair, nervous and incompetent, squints at you. What kind of job do you want? she asks. Oh, yeah. Subway is hiring today.
You fill out a Subway application and sit down with about eight other people who want a job at Subway. The guy behind the partition conducting interviews owns the Subway on the edge of town by all the other red plastic roofs, and he has a mellifluous baritone like the Father of All Fathers. Subway’s the fastest-growing franchise in America, he says. A pair of pretty college-girl twins from Sri Lanka are here for the interview. He pronounces it “Sarry Lanka.” That used to be Ceylon, he says; not many people know where Sarry Lanka is, not one in ten, but I’m in the travel business.
The twin sisters from Sarry Lanka smile at him.
You all have such beautiful smiles, he says.
The guy sitting next to you has been let out of jail for the afternoon so he could come and apply. He wants a full-time job making sandwiches so he won’t have to spend so much time in jail. He’s served four months, has eight to go. He’s in for breaking a TV over a guy’s head in a bar. He’s from France, so he can sympathize with the Sarry Lanka twins (he even tries to pick one of them up). He refers to his arrest as “when I got in trouble,” as though he were a little boy and the State were his dad. He is proud of planting the TV on the guy’s head. He tells the Sarry Lanka twin about it as if it might impress her.
The Subway owner asks a long list of summer-camp questions: What do you like to do? Do you like sports? What are your plans after you get out of school? None of which has anything to do with making sandwiches. You leave the office after five people have gone in before you. You will take any job, of course; you are in no position to bargain. You have ninety-eight dollars left and very little pride. But you are a little old for a funny hat and summer-camp questions.
Church bells ring the next morning at eleven o’clock. It rained earlier, but you were asleep, the green blanket over your head. It is cloudy now; maybe it will rain some more. There is a bumblebee nest somewhere up in the ceiling or inside the wall, and the bees slip out every now and then, floating down into the room. You try to figure out where they are coming from, how they get in, but they just descend, one every day or so, and bump around the room. You try to catch them and help them back outside. One day, a bumblebee is hovering around and just drops straight into your beef stew. By the time you fish him out he is a goner. Another day, just out of bed, you step on one and he stings your foot and you pound the little bastard into the carpet with your shoe.
Of course, you find a job, a cooking job. Gordon from New Jersey has brought the diner of his youth all the way from New Jersey and planted it here in Iowa, and he’s going to open it in two weeks. He found the town while working on the railroad, stumbled upon it same as you did. He knows nothing about running a restaurant; he only knows about the diner of his youth, and he stands there inside the diner of his youth in the town of his dreams with the songs of his boyhood playing on the jukebox. When you come through the door, he thinks you are just one more clown who wants to dunk French fries and get home early to experiment with your new rubber-ball nose, but you have cooked in fifteen places. After you talk with him awhile and show him you have brought your own cooking tools, he wrings your hand as if you are an obstetrician who has just announced, It’s a boy, ten pounds two ounces.
So you work at the diner and business is good and you pay the rent and you live in the beautiful little town of Decorah, with the safeness and the decency and the churches and the unlocked bicycles and the melted-butter light that fades into comfort like your great-aunt’s curtains on a long afternoon. You meet a girl, and gradually, inevitably, you begin to have feelings for her. She is an editor for an archaeology magazine and makes thirteen dollars an hour, but in the evenings she works as a waitress at the diner. You look forward to the nights she works. You like everything about her: the tilt of her head and the glint in her dark eyes and her pride and the way she loves to be alive but doesn’t really know what to do with it — which is why she is waiting tables in the evenings in the diner of Gordon’s youth instead of being out with her boyfriend, who is a bum, who will always be a bum. You think maybe you could save her from the bum, but she is with the bum for some very good reason (she’ll probably get pregnant by him, have the child out of wedlock, and put it up for adoption), and whatever dance they’re doing, you’re not a part of it. You’ve had your chance — many chances. Pretty soon you’ll have to be moving along. Would she come with you? Would she live on a bus? Would she give up her career and her boyfriend for part-time jobs and a pot of beans and bumblebees falling out of the ceiling? Those questions were all answered long before you met her.
You live in Decorah almost a year because you want to see the town in all the seasons and the children growing up and the dapple of the shade trees and the drunks going home and the angry juvenile delinquents at storefront windows and the pain in people’s eyes when they have lost everything or when they simply don’t know anymore. The seasons seem long and some of the nights even longer, but there are books and there is the apricot light on the wall, out of which you came and to which you will return, and there is the radio and thoughts of the girl. Then spring comes and the snow is melting; you would like to stay because you fought hard to find this place. You came a long way and looked a long time. But this is not your place. Your place will never be this place; it will always be the next place. How long will it take you to figure that out?
Gary, the Christian schoolteacher landlord, is sorry to see you go. He never doubted you; from the beginning it was simple trust. The devil can’t run the show if you don’t let him. You pack up all your junk, leave the mattress and the table, leave the pots and pans, leave the travel alarm clock because it’s stuck at four o’clock. You get everything into your two bags, the purple bag you bought in Niagara Falls and the green handbag you found in a dumpster in Las Vegas. You shake hands all around. Gary writes you a check for the deposit, pretends not to remember how much it was, and gives you an extra fifty dollars. You walk back down to the bus office along the highway among the red plastic franchises, and you buy a ticket and wait. The clouds begin to roll in. You think of the girl. The bus is late and you almost hope it doesn’t show. You know that if you couldn’t get it right this time, you’ll probably never get it right. Then the rain starts down, and the bus pulls in. You climb aboard and stuff your purple bag into the overhead rack. There are only six other passengers. The bus rumbles and squeaks and pulls out onto the highway. Most of the time when you leave a place it is a relief knowing you will never come back, and you’re eager to move on. But this time it is different. You look out the scratched silver-blue window and watch Decorah fall away in the rain.
I just finished a delicious dinner of seafood pasta, half a bottle of good Merlot, and a story by Poe Ballantine: “Never and Nowhere.” Either the story or the wine was bloody great. I think it was the story, because wine usually doesn’t make me want to get on a Greyhound.
As a student who lives in San Jose and goes to school in Boston, I’m always a little unsure which place to call home. To make every place I go feel a little more familiar, I always take certain items with me. One is Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. Another is a necklace a friend made. The third is a copy of The Sun.
When traveling to North Carolina for an internship, I didn’t bring The Sun because I expected to have no trouble finding it. It took me two weeks to finally locate a copy of the July issue. Poe Ballantine’s story “Never and Nowhere” really struck a chord with me. I feel exactly the same way his protagonist did every time I enter and leave a new town — as if I am trying to find something that doesn’t exist.