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, fungus-enslimed drywall.
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 roots.
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 growing thick.
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 that long.
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.