Saturday, May 29
In the late '80s, in what I remember as a very dry year, my parents bought a
house at the bottom of a hill. By the summer of 1993, when it wouldn't quit
raining and most of the arable land in the middle states seemed to be under
water, we came to understand that when the previous owners said that the
basement had always been dry, they were either mistaken or lying.
A less industrious man than my father — a man with less dedication, or
less fidelity to his own sense of possibility — would have given up on
the basement then: Immediately, with the sound of the first generation of sump
pumps still clattering in his ears. Such a man would thereby have saved himself
hundreds of hours of tedious labor and many square feet of sodden,
I had time today, as I helped my father haul ragged chunks of moldy
sheetrock up the stairs, to meditate on this theme at some length.
I'm home for the weekend, unexpectedly. Early in the week I found out that
my cousin Richard's wife Phyllis had died, and so I decided to go to Kansas for
the funeral on Thursday.
Richard isn't exactly my cousin. He's my dad's cousin, although he must be
at least 20 years older. I can't remember now what that makes him — my second
cousin? My first cousin once removed? English vocabulary fails me here.
Richard is the the sort of man people describe as "a character". He eats ice
cream for breakfast every morning. He drives too fast and cons his way out of
speeding tickets. He tells stories. Some of the people in his stories were
born well before the start of last century. Some of them are people like
my crazy, fanatically religious great-aunt Frannie, who wandered all over the
country on God's behalf and drove maniacally and seems not to have gotten out
of the speeding tickets very often.
Phyllis was a character in her own right. When I knew her, she was already
legally blind and moved only with difficulty, but I would have hated to cross
her. She was in poor and worsening health for the last decade of her life. When
it got really bad, Richard bought her a hospital bed and slept on a cot next to
it, when he could sleep at all.
They were married for 50 years and change.
After the funeral, we drove around and put flowers on family graves, and
then to the farm where my dad grew up. The farm is off a gravel road some miles
northwest of Salina, and some miles east of Culver, a town whose surviving
institutions are two churches and a grain elevator. CarolAnn and I walked in
the back way from the cemetery, past some of the old cars and what used to be
the hog barn. (The back way also turns out to feature a lot of poison ivy and
mosquitoes this season.) We grilled things and drank a couple of beers. Me and
CA did our best to ignore the usual stray Republican talking points. We left
not too long after dark, but I went back the next morning to talk to my Uncle
Ron for a while and wander around in the pasture east of the house.
There's nothing like stepping in cow shit to really take you back to your
Where I live now, the Rocky Mountains start a couple of miles from my back
yard. What I understand about the high places of the world is still based on a
single low hill in Eastern Kansas. From the top, where there's an outcropping
of native rock, you can see the biggest elevator in Salina, the thin line of
Highway 81, and Crown Point, where my grandparents are buried. There is always
a little wind, even when the air is dead everywhere else. In a dry summer you
can smell the heat — road dust and field dust and desiccating grass
— and hear it in the insect hum. This spring it's wet and humid and
Even from the top of the hill, it's harder to discern the lay of things than
it used to be. The pasture is more overgrown with trees than when I was
younger, and the rocks themselves are almost obscured by cedars and some kind
of low, woody colony plant I've never thought to identify.
Everything changes, and it was never quite the way you remember it to begin
with. On the other hand: There are still frogs and turtles in the cow ponds,
where Richard probably fished as a kid with my great-great-uncles. You still
have to watch where you step. There's still yucca, buffalo grass, and a pair of
buzzards circling. The wild turkeys that became so plentiful 10 or 20 years ago
are thick; so too the deer.
I drove to Lincoln that afternoon. Up 81 to York and across on I-80, past
the exits for Beaver Crossing and Seward. I talked to
Sarah-who-has-a-PhD-now-and-still-fences for a long time. You see some people
and it makes you glad they're still who they are — so many of the ones
you've fallen for, one way or another, seem to lose themselves entirely
— and of course it also tears your heart out a little.
Somewhere around last call, I headed north towards Laurel. I was too tired
to be driving and the road was full of wildlife and I would have been smarter
to stay in town, but Lincoln is full of ambiguity and everywhere I look is
another reminder of the kind of fucked up decisions I made in my early 20s and
the kind of ragged ecstasis that usually prompted those decisions and the empty
forms of all the things that used to seem like vessels of the community I was
going to belong to for the rest of my life, and I usually can't take it for all
I always just kind of take it turn-by-turn, but the route to my parents'
house is something like Valparaiso, Prague (rhymes with egg), North Bend,
Snyder, Dodge, Wisner, Wayne, Dixon, the Logan Center road, a right at the
church, and home. There's a light on the corner, and then you go past the old
parsonage where, as a teenager, I always made a point of turning the radio just
about as loud as it would go because I was disgusted that my neighbor Ben and
the rest of his fanatically evangelical family were all sober and in bed at
whatever hour it was.
If futile, essentially incomprehensible, and largely unnoticed poetic
gestures are the stuff of adolescent life (with a special extension for
participants in 4-year degree programs), I should probably ask myself why I'm
still making so many of them at 29.
:: write in the margins