The Rapture of Petrach County in Three Parts

By Zoe Yohn

I. 

            They met each week at Daylite Donuts and when that closed, they made the pilgrimage to The Over Easy. The diner wouldn’t be around much longer, either, but when the inevitable happened, there would always be the McDonald’s out near the interstate. 

            – You hear about Peltz’s alien? 

            – Bullcrap. What the hell are you talkin’ about? 

            – Said he found it in the dirt out behind the house. He’s calling it God. 

            – He ain’t. God? Really? 

            – It don’t matter what he’s calling it, he didn’t find shit out there.  

            They shook their heads, rubbed their palms across their eyes, still greasy with the exhaustion of a lifetime. Someone gestured for Debbie, for more coffee. 

            Dale Peltz used to join for hash browns and eggs, but he was a mean bastard. It was a blessing, they agreed, when Dale got sick, because he quit the diner when driving got too sore on his gut. He’d started to stink by then anyway, unwashed skin ripe with odors that weren’t polite to name.

            – Swears he did. And whatever it is, he says it’s going to bring the farm back. He told you that, didn’t he, Jim?

            – Yep. 

            – Like hell. He must be on some new medication, pain management. I had a cousin who gone the same way, near the end. Just lost it. 

            They were quiet for a minute. 

            – That farm is nothing but a weed patch. Won’t even grow stone. 

            – He was a damn idiot not to sell. 

            – Still can. Last plot north of town, and he’s got that good access road. Sensyus offered him a fortune for it. 

            – They’ll get it in the end, anyway.

            – He’s got more dirt than sense. 

             – A fortune. For a plot of piss-poor land not fit for a feedlot. And he still won’t let it go. 

            They’d all sold years back, before the Sensyus announcement, before something like Sensyus even existed, when the factory farms had come in. Petrarch County was wiped clean for pennies. They traded their farms for homes in town. Then, town was gutted and after a few years, so were their savings. Their family land was long gone, too, turned to corn and soy for feedlots, sucking the nourishment from the dirt. Dale Peltz was the only one who held out.  

            – Dale wouldn’t know what to do with money like that, anyway. 

            – That farm’s the only place that can take the smell of ‘im. Stench would kill us all if he moved to town. The man is a walking biohazard. 

            – He can’t move his ass two miles down from that shack. What’s the point of selling? 

            Truth was, no one wanted Peltz to sell. They wanted him to die on that sandbar. He’d been too slow, but they’d been too quick, biting at the first offer that came. They watched as their land was parceled off and cashed the checks. Only a crystal ball could have predicted the arrival of Sensyus to the county, just a few years later, with its multibillion-dollar plans, handing out thick wads of techno cash that should have been theirs by right. It was their land, after all, and the only thing worse than missing payday would be to see Dale Peltz cash in. 

            – A coffee can. That’s what he told Jim, isn’t that right, Jim? That’s where he’s keepin’ it, God or the alien or whatever the hell it is – in a goddamn empty Folger’s can. 

            – Yep. That’s what he said. 

            – Shit. 

            – You seen it, Jim? The alien?

            – Nope. Just know what he told me. 

            – There isn’t no alien, just a foolish old bastard with too much time. 

            They shook their heads. They didn’t like to think about if it was luck or smarts that kept them sane, because they worried they didn’t have much of either, really.

            – Didn’t you offer to buy him out, Jim? Before you sold to QualityFoods?

            – Yep. 

            A low, collective whistle sounded across the table, rippling paper napkins. 

            – Shit.

            – Your land and his. Shoot. That’d be some money now, wouldn’t it?

            – Sure would.  

            – Well, it won’t be long. Sensyus will get it. He ain’t looking good, is he, Jim?

            – Nope. 

            The diner air was heavy with bacon fat. They could feel it on their tongues long after their plates were cleared. It took acid to cut grease like that. Clogged the arteries, mottled the heart. None of them were getting any younger. 

            – Peltz is the last of it. One damn farm between now and the future. Won’t be long. 

            – What is it again? 5G something? 

            – Somethin’ like that. 

            – All that’ll give you cancer. Or autism. Saw it on Facebook. My sister-in-law’s kid, somethin’ isn’t right there and it’s the 5G. 

            –  Yep. 

            Their faces, stale with stubble, all orbited towards the clock hanging above the griddle. Their days were shorter without the rhythm of the land. Pink sunrise to lavender sunset, the scent of freshly turned soil and manure. It’d been a clockwork they’d set their bones to. That was gone, and now their eyes seared beneath neon hot cell phone screens. 

            – Well. It’s a shame anyhow. 

            – About Dale?

            – About Jim’s land. 

            – Sure as shit is. 

            – … wonder if Sensyus will pay for deconsecrating the Peltz farm?

            They laughed. 

II. 

            It was the dowsing rods that found Him. They found everything good in his dirt. Dale just got to dig it up. 

            – Water and blood son. That’s what his grandpa had told him. There’s water and blood in this dirt, you just have to find a feel for it. 

            His grandpa taught him how to use the rods, the right way to hold them and wander the land, paying attention to the slightest tremor in the metal. But there was more to it than that. Even now, laying in the dark on his back – because the lumps in his gut hurt like a son-of-a-bitch – a hum rang down Dale’s fingertips. He could feel copper, cool and smooth in his palms, the pathway of dirt-knowing that ran taut as electrified fishing wire from the rods to his wrists. There was a vein of something rich with moisture was trapped beneath the crust of his earth, waiting.

            Folks in town didn’t think there was anything worth saving on his land. They were idiots, clogged and stupid with methamphetamine and WiFi, or foreigners, who didn’t know the land from the sky. Dale did, though. He held out, he believed. His tongue lapped across his gums and came away tart and metallic. Blood. Blood in the dirt, blood in his mouth, but it would be alright now. 

            Dale had been reared on the land. When he was a boy, the breeze rippled his blood, as it did the wheat in the fields. His fingers and toes froze along with dirt after the first frost. The boys in town thought he’d be better off selling, but they didn’t know worth from value. 

            He shifted to his side and groaned. The bed was rank with sweat, his sheets long yellow. If he had a wife, or some kids, they’d’ve told him to get his stomach looked at years back, when his belly first began to ache and the clods were only pebble-size. They’d expanded over the years. By the time he made the trip to the specialist, the doctors didn’t know if he’d fit in the cat scan machine. A nurse tried keep quiet on the phone to the Denver Zoo, asking if he might squeeze into the machine that scanned large mammals, but he heard. They got him in the hospital machine eventually, and all that just to tell him it was too late to operate.

            Dale took a deep, painful breath in and hauled himself upright. He didn’t turn the lights on. The house was quiet, empty. Padding along the hallway, stretching longer than it ever had before, he palmed the wall to keep upright. Sweat pooled in the folds around his neck. 

            Not long, now. In the kitchen, he reached for the top cabinet and took down the coffee canister where his daddy used to keep folded bills and the keys to the tractor. Not long for him, but forever for the farm. 

            Dale opened the lid and was flooded with the glory of his Savior.

III. 

            The Sensyus CEO was ready to rip it out of the ground, but the lead contractor was a Christian. He knew a miracle when he saw one, he said.  

            The CEO threatened him, told the contractor he could either clear it out or lose a crew and a paycheck. The contractor still refused. It was too late by then, anyway, because the news vans had turned up for the groundbreaking. The contractor, weeping on his knees, was a better image for TV than the Sensyus CEO and his golden shovel.

            The air was metallic, a crisp April morning suddenly close and dense, like a late-summer thunderstorm was boiling across the plains. The folks in town felt it, too. They showed up in clusters, not long behind the news vans, some for the groundbreaking, some unsure of why they were there at all, except to say they’d felt they had to be. Something drew them from their homes and out to the old Peltz place. 

            By mid-morning, the access road was backed up all the way to the northern edges of town. Cars by the dozen, caked in dirt, were stitched tail-to-nose along the road, trucks, cop cars, mini-vans bursting with impatient children. Even the meth chefs found a spark for the rusted-out hunks-of-junk usually cemented to the cookhouse front lawn and joined the parade.

            Rumors began to circulate that the National Guard would have to be called in. No one had ever seen so many people in one place in Petrarch County, not during the County Fair, not during the Octoberfest parade. They must have come from the surrounding Counties – Adams; Burlow; Monart. And maybe even further because there were cars arriving that were city-clean, gleaming and free of dust. 

            On the edges of the Peltz land, clusters of people waited for something to happen. Mothers perched on car bumpers and breastfed their children, high school boys jeered and jumped around, increasingly frenzied as the day baked hotter and heavier. Some folks were praying, rosaries knotted through their knuckles, and others wanted stupid and slow in long, looping circles of their own. 

            A barricade of bodies formed around the site where the ground was supposed to have been broken, surging outwards and circling the Sensyus construction trailer. The crowd heaved against it; meaty shoulders packed to metal rocking violently. Hiding inside, the CEO tried to keep his balance. Legal was in his ear, real-timing a plan of action. 

            – Monica, sorry, can you – can you just, repeat that? No, I can’t – it’s too – there are what, four thousand hicks out there fucking screaming, I just – e-mail it to me, okay? And the ‘copter? Is it on the way?

            The crowd grew thicker, the sun bore onto the earth and baked it dry. Dust haze hung in the air, obscuring the densest depths of the group. It churned against itself, spitting folks out hard onto the dirt before they tried to dig back in again. Law enforcement couldn’t find the way through to the center. Rumors flew like hot oil. Antifa, a bomb, alien spaceship crash. The CIA and FBI were on their way, Air Force stealth planes had been seen circling the south field. 

            By mid-afternoon, the construction trailer and two news vans had been toppled and set alight. There was no sign of the Sensyus CEO. Not a hundred feet from where his abandoned golden shovel lay, a throng of wailing women in prairie garb flung themselves to the ground and clawed dirt into their mouths. Holy men of all sects – priests, reverends, bishops, rabbis, imams, Tibetan monks and more – circled the earth, chanting reverently in their own prayerful tongues. The National Guard hadn’t been able to tear through the order of nuns holding ground over the furthest reaches of the site and in their absence, a handmade infantry marched through the thickets of bodies, semi-automatics resting on their shoulders. They were the guardians, they told the crowds, the protectorate of the land. 

            Meanwhile, the lead contractor had never risen from the ground. The knees of his pants had worn as soft as wet paper, ready to tear. The muscles in his back spasmed and ached, knotted, refusing to unravel. Touring this same spot the night before, surveying the emptiness before it was to be ripped up and churned for the future, his boots had kicked dust from the bald earth, at the nothing before him. 

            And now, from the ash where even the heartiest high-plains grasses had refused to grow, bloomed a pomegranate tree, as rich, ripe and heavy with fruit as it had been in the Garden.  

About the Author: Originally from the Nebraskan plains, Zoe Yohn is a writer based in Dublin, Ireland. She holds an MA in Anglo-Irish Literature and Drama from University College Dublin. She has published short fiction in The Honest Ulsterman and her short story “Language Barriers” was long listed for the 2021 Exeter Story Prize. Zoe lives with her husband in Dublin, and is currently working on a novel.

The Great Plains

By Jennifer Walker

Author Bio: Jennifer Walker started her writing adventures as a child composing short stories. As she matured, she wrote poetry and novels. Her poetry collection, Prairie Girl, was selected as a 2022 Finalist for The Birdy Poetry Prize by Meadowlark Press. Jennifer is married and a proud mother of three boys. Her other roles include being a high school English teacher and a farmer’s daughter. Jennifer has lived all over the American Midwest before​ finding her way back to her home state of Kansas.

An Interview with Daren Dean

Interview Conducted by Shaun McMichael

Grit lit Novelist, Daren Dean, opens up about his new novel This Vale of Tears (Cowboy Jamboree (CJ) Press; October, 2021), a torrential tragicomedy of manners, miracles, and mortal wounds.

Cuckolded scofflaw Troy Scofield kicks off This Vale of Tears’s torrential tragicomedy when he kills old Bobby Lee Phelps, the lover of his wild-thing wife, Alisha. Troy’s prison release seven years later rekindles the brooding enmity between the pugnacious Scofield and Phelps families who because of their similarities are destined to conflict. Both rural Missouri clans mirror each other’s dire money trouble, generational curses, and cults of patriarchy alive and well in the novel’s 1970 epoch. “Old wounds ran deep. A shared genealogy spooled behind them but was powerless to heal the rift. The men…liked to think of themselves as figures of some grand tragedy and knowing all along that their own flaws of character would eventually bring them low” (60). The liquor-pickled men carouse and pick fights while their women leave, cling, or manipulate in ways that unintentionally double their misery. For example, young Raelyn Phelps flees her family’s abusive confines just to run into Troy. The two entangle in a star-crossed love affair further enflaming already combustible Phelps and Scofield patriarchs. I spoke with Daren Dean about his process writing This Vale…

Shaun Anthony McMichael (SAM): What was your entry point into this novel?

Daren Dean (DD): I wrote This Vale… a while ago and over a long stretch of time. I would have loved to start publishing this stuff when I was thirty-five instead of in my forties and fifties, but it wasn’t ready. But what I remember is that for “This Vale…” I wanted strong-structured sentences that flowed like Cormac McCarthy and William Gay’s style of writing. 

In terms of the story, I had this idea of writing about a deeply troubled character like Troy Scofield meeting a much younger character like Raelyn Phelps and about how she affects him. Then I wrote the first chapter, which operates as a kind of prologue. I didn’t call it a prologue though because of the immediacy and impact it possesses. After I wrote it, I wondered how I was going to keep up with that intensity and pace. The way I tried to achieve that relentless pacing was to cut out all the boring parts, which has always been a goal of mine. At the same time, I didn’t want to overwhelm a reader. As the chapters go along, some of them are more languid as certain dynamics take more time to develop.

SM: Let’s talk some more about Troy: “Everyone knew or had heard of Troy Scofield, he wasn’t a real person anymore in their minds, he was an evil spirit haunting the backroads of the past. An evil man who belonged in a tomb” (255). 

Troy is a rage-filled, entitled mess, yet a reader can’t take their eyes off him. We’re compelled to him the way women are. At outset, Troy appears as a bad seed. But as the narrative unfolds, we see he’s a seed trying to grow in a shallow cowpie. This brings me to the topic of likability. Tell me about what draws you to depicting characters whose unlikeable qualities may turn the average reader away.

DD: I knew I was never going to be the kind of writer who writes to a market. That’s just not who my role models were. Let’s take Flannery O’Connor. You would be hard pressed to think of a single likable character in her prose, yet you still want to read about them. The matter of likability just isn’t something I think about. I wanted Troy to read like a real person whose life is fucked up from the beginning. I wanted to show his progression. 

I grew up around people like Troy—people with good qualities and bad. Let’s take my step-father, a truck driver and a local charmer. Though he and my mom weren’t married that long, I loved the guy. He was great with kids. He was always carrying around a Reader’s Digest to improve his vocabulary. Occasionally, he’d throw out new words at you, only he’d use them in a way that wouldn’t make total sense. Like when we were bickering, he’d argue, “well, that’s immaterial!” And I would scratch my head wondering what he meant. So in my first published novel, Beyond the Pale (2015; Fiction Southeast Press), I give that quirk to my main antagonist, Vaughn so he’s not just a relentless evil.

Or let’s take one of my great aunts who passed away a few years ago. She was always exasperated, saying “Oh my god, all you kids do is mess around!” Whenever I would see her, she would look at me and say “Haven’t seen you for a while. Don’t you love me anymore?!?” When I first brought my wife by her house, I said it to my aunt first, trying to get her goat. “Auntie, haven’t seen you for a while. Don’t you love me anymore?!?” But then she said, “Oh, shoot. I’m the old lady. You come see me!”

I like using little details like these in my fiction, giving mixed qualities to my characters.

To go back to Troy, he isn’t Hitler, but he’s never going to join the Chamber of Commerce. I wouldn’t even say he’s in the middle. He’s just a regular person. And when you get right down to it, we’re all just regular people.

SAM: Troy makes the most sense in the context of his environment: Fairmount, a town in Kingdom County, Missouri. Tell me more about the setting.

DD: Fairmont is fictional, though based somewhat on Fulton and a few other small towns that I grew up around and where my mom and dad still live, separately. These towns were established by Southerners, which is funny because I don’t consider myself Southern exactly.  My fictional county “Kingdom County” comes from The Kingdom of Callaway County. Around the Civil War, citizens of this county tried to remain neutral and succeeded officially from the United States. But as with a lot of places that tried to remain neutral during the Civil War, the towns in The Kingdom of Callaway got taken advantage of; both sides hated them. I write about that in The Black Harvest (2020; CJ Press).

Like a lot of writers who write about their hometowns, I write about these places to gleefully expose their underbellies. Though I’m aware that people from the place may get mad because my novels aren’t PR pieces about how wonderful the towns are and how great the Soybean Festival is, etc.….

SAM: While plot convention necessitates foreboding tones to some degree, I felt a profound sense of ominousness throughout this novel. Even after the climax’s catastrophe, in the denouement, a reader feels that the real storm has yet to break. To what extent did the disturbing nature of our contemporary times fuel this sense of foreboding that floods the novel?

DD: Not so much. The story takes place in the ’60s and ’70s. I grew up in those times and it wasn’t hard to write about those feelings from back then. As a kid, I remember not understanding exactly what was going on or why people were saying what they said. I didn’t know what my future was going to be. So it seemed natural to try to capture that experience. 

SAM: This is a language driven work as much as it is character driven. For these characters, bottle openers are “church keys”; to be armed to the teeth is to be “loaded for bear”. You’re a college professor. Tell me how you keep your ear low enough to the ground to maintain authenticity?

DD: You pay attention to the language, the cadence, and the diction of the people around you. Of course, many of the people who were adults in the ’60s and ’70s don’t speak in the same way anymore; they’ve been exposed to more things and have become more ‘sophisticated’. But in writing this novel, I wanted to remember how people spoke back then. So again, I turned to memories of my great aunt. She still spoke the way she had when she was young. We were out driving down a gravel road to visit some of my cousins and she said, “When I drive through here of a night, I have to watch out for deer and the like.” And, like an idiot, I said how interesting I thought that was, “of a night”. But she just thought I was making fun of her. I love to capture things like that and put them in my fiction. When someone says something in a natural way from the heart, I pay attention. 

SAM: The intertextuality with music is enjoyable in This Vale…. Thank you for sharing your soundtrack for the novel on Spotify (https://open.spotify.com/playlist/58qZpSttC27ZEbF7rD4oSA#login), which makes a wonderful companion for the novel. In addition to musical artists, I hear the following literary artists’ voices in This Vale…: O’Connor, Faulkner, and McCarthy. Who were you listening to when you wrote it?

DD: Two early influences come to mind. Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) was a book that felt really close to my life. I could really understand it in a tangential sort of way. 

In the ’90s, I read Flannery O’Conner for the first time. She’s not a writer they introduce you to in high school because she’s so subversive. I remembered thinking, who has been hiding Flannery O’Connor from me? And I read everything she wrote. Wise Blood (1952) had a particular impact on me. I had a strange childhood—four or five childhoods really. Part of my growing up was with my aunt and uncle. My uncle was a holy-roller, lay-preacher who spoke in tongues and did the laying-on of hands. When I was about eight years old, they asked me what I was going to be when I grew up. At the time, I had this weird obsession with Elvis, so I said I was going to be a singer. They were very irate. “No,” they said. “You’re going to be a preacher and serve God!” We didn’t just read the Bible. Biblical language was your whole life. You memorized it. You had to do citations of it. I went to this little Christian school where you had to recite whole chapters. I memorized 2 Corinthians 13, the love chapter, in the King James, of course, because as they’d say, “if the King James was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for you!”

So when I read Wise Blood and Hazel Motes came along with his Church of Christ without Christ… It hit me hard. After I finished it, I knew I had to start writing again, that it was my true calling.

Everybody said it was crazy and that I couldn’t do it. It’s funny. Now that I have these degrees and am a professor, suddenly everyone comments on how I’m so intelligent. But I don’t remember anyone saying that when I started. They told me to pull my head out of my ass.

A few years after reading O’Connor, I came across Mississippi writer Larry Brown, who became another big influence. I’m nothing like Larry Brown, but his characters really spoke to me. I could really understand them. And I thought I could work in that school of writing.

There are writers I read now just for language. Let’s take Barry Hannah, a master of the non-sequitur. He has this great short story called “Ride Fly, Penetrate Loiter” (1983) about these guys hanging around a gas station. They see this beautiful, well-dressed woman and the guys start speaking Shakespearean. With a turn of phrase, Barry Hannah can pivot genres. He’s a genius with language. Reading Barry Hannah or others like him, I get emotional and have to share it with somebody or exclaim “can you believe they wrote that?” When I was younger, I used to read everything, but now, if a writer doesn’t move me that way, I don’t want to read them.

SAM: A reader can’t help but be dazzled by well-limned scenes in your work rendered with fugue-like detail. How do you go about composing a scene?

DD: The secret I’ve learned to writing isn’t much of a secret. It just takes a long time to develop, and you can only progress so far beyond a certain point unless you grasp it. Madison Smartt Bell writes about it in his Narrative Design(Norton, 2000); Robert Olen Butler devotes his book From Where You Dream (Grove, 2006) to it. What the secret is, is what they’re talking about: writing from your subconscious.

Some writing teachers say you brainstorm, then outline. But when I try to write an outline, as soon as I really get into a scene, the outline is no good anymore. If you’re writing well, you’re writing from the unconscious mind, from where you dream, as Butler says.

Since we were kids, we’ve been getting in trouble for daydreaming. “You’ve got to work harder,” they’ve said. “You’ve got to diagram some sentences. That will be good for you.” But as a writer, none of that will help you unless you have great ideas. How many ways can you polish a turd? It might be grammatically correct, and your sixth-grade teacher would love it, but it could still suck.

So how do you write from the subconscious? You get distracted a lot by everyday life: taking out the garbage; telling your kids to do their homework; helping your wife with something; dealing with a student plagiarizing… All those things detract from being able to  get your head in the right place. You have to do those things, but they do detract from being able to dream your stories. Of course, those daily happenings can also enhance your stories. I find that inspiration usually doesn’t happen when you sit down and say “Okay, now I’m going to write.” You might be in the shower and suddenly, a scene starts happening and you’ve got to get out of the shower and write it down or it will be gone forever. So when you’re washing dishes and inspiration happens, if you can maintain that state of mind, that’s where you can start. 

SAM: I found that the most gut-wrenching scenes in This Vale… were those in which an adult tries to fill up a child’s need for love with good manners. Yet one of your epigraphs is a quote from William Faulkner’s Light in August (1932): “Perhaps they were right in putting love into books,” he thought quietly. “Perhaps it could not live anywhere else”. Tell me about the love you put in this book? To phrase the question another way, how/why is it loving to write a book depicting such tragically unloved characters who act out in unlovable ways? 

DD: To me, what fiction is all about is expressing the things that go unexpressed. Even if we love people and they love us, the words ‘I love you’ are inadequate most of the time and we hurt each other. Even with the best intentions, we don’t communicate well. I don’t propose how to fix this in my fiction. I’m trying to capture it. My aesthetic is not to teach moral lessons. That’s what I admire about Cormac McCarthy. He states what happens and you see the story unfold. But he doesn’t tell you how you should feel about it. It’s frustrating because you sometimes want him to. But for me, it goes back to the Bible. If you read the stories in Genesis, there’s very little ethical commentary on what happens. Much like literary fiction, it happens, and you’re left to ponder what it means. Life tends to be that way. I don’t want to give a sermon and tell people what to think. Not to argue with John Gardener too much; there’s a responsibility you have as a writer. But it’s not to tell the reader what to think or how to live.

SAM: There’s a Romeo and Juliet comparison with Troy and Raelyn’s relationship. Indeed, the Phelps vs. Scofield dynamic alludes to the Capulets-vs-Montague tension. Was that in your mind at all when constructing the narrative?

DD: It wasn’t really in my mind when I was writing it. But I was talking to a reporter who did a review of the book and in trying to think of a way to explain the novel to an average person I remarked that it was a hillbilly Romeo and Juliet story. 

SAM: The strongest thematic tie for me between your work and the Shakespeare play is actually in how ineffectual the older generations are in helping the younger generation. Take this quote for example: 

“Walker Scofield (Troy’s grandfather) was crazy and the inheritance he had passed on to his kids and heirs was that each had their own brand of peculiar to contend with” (295). Along with generational curses, This Vale… depicts vicious cycles: sexually-charged relationships imploding and rebirthing anew; the toxic relationship between alcohol and masculinity; neglected children who beget children they then neglect. What inspired these vicious cycles? 

DD: It’s been observation and thinking through what I’ve seen in my family and other people’s families.

Parents now want to help their kids and they try so hard to cocoon and protect them from all the negative experiences that it also can hinder your growth as a person. I’ve been guilty of that as much as anyone. I’ve tried so hard to protect my kids, I worry if they’ll have the necessary grit to make it through truly bad times when mom and dad aren’t there. I’m sure they will, but I can remember growing up and seeing the complete opposite.

During the time that This Vale… is set, it was a different generation. When I was a kid, adults had more of a WC Fields approach to parenting, like “go away, kid. Ya bothering me!” kind of thing. A parent’s attitude back then was, “I’m doing my thing here, you go do your thing over there”. My parents’ generation was all about doing your own thing and making yourself happy. My mom was married five times. My dad was married three times. People were trying to find themselves. That’s what you used to hear all the time. 

And they had it tough. My dad told me a story about how his mom got remarried to this really big jerk. The guy was huge, but he also horded food from the kids. The ice man would come once a week and stick a brick of ice in the icebox. The Iceman Cometh, right? Well this guy would stash food in the icebox and not share any of it with my dad or his brother. And they were hungry. So one day they made a plan to wake up early and gorge themselves on the food and attack their stepfather when he came down after them. And that’s what they did. They attacked their stepfather and felled him to the ground. His mom screamed “you’re killing him”. My dad said, “Well, he’s been trying to kill me for years!” He realized after that that he couldn’t stay there anymore and ran out of the house. He was twelve years old. He moved around with different family members until he joined the army because he could get paid and get his three-square meals without having to asking somebody if he could sleep in the backseat of their car. 

As for my mom, she was only seven years old when her mom died in childbirth.

These are the situations I want to capture in my stories set back in time.

SAM: Though the novel ends in tragedy for some of the characters, one of your middle-aged characters has a somewhat surprising repentant turn around by the end of this novel. If there’s a glimmer of hope in the ending, it’s for this middle-aged character. How did you decide to have this shift happen?

DD: I wanted to show that he had changed over time too. He’s not a perfect character. But I wanted to show this man in the position of acknowledging his own failings as a father while preserving what there is left to preserve. I see this play out a lot with parents who had it hard and were really stern with their kids. But then, when they have grandchildren, they spoil them. I didn’t want the story to just end in death. Sure, you’re the main character in your story, but when you’re gone, life goes on. And that’s the rebirth. 

Daren Dean’s next novel Roads is forthcoming from Cowboy Jamboree (CJ) Press in 2023.

About the Interviewer: Shaun Anthony McMichael is the editor of two collections of poetry by youth affected by trauma, mental illness, and instability: The Shadow Beside Me (2020) and The Story of My Heart (June 2021). Over 40 of his short stories and essays have appeared in literary magazines, online and in print, such as The Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row, Carrier Pigeon, Litro, Existere, Nude Bruce, and others. Shaun’s book reviews and author interviews can be found on PopMatters, an online arts and culture magazine.

Looking for the Road to Verona

By Russell Thorburn

About the Author:

Russell Thorburn is a recipient of a National Endowment Fellowship and the first poet laureate of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He lives in Marquette, where he sometimes performs with his sextet Radio On. His one-act play of a retro-alternate reality, Gimme Shelter, was set for a premiere at the Black Box Theatre but was cancelled by the pandemic.

Back in Our Heyday

By Matthew McGuirk

There’s still a clear view in all directions back at the farm and it’s been a little time since I’ve been up there, mainly because life gets moving and everyone has so much going on. With a family and kids and everything you can’t visit every weekend and Christmas is tough because you don’t want to rip the little ones away from their presents. Standing outside the car, though, engine still idling, it all still looks like my childhood. Looking to the left and right and the neighbors are mostly the same except a little older and the buildings look familiar except a little more worn–the barn wood a little greyer and the galvanized roof a little more rust and a little less silver in that sunlight. Time throws a little dust on everything or maybe it shines it up a little and makes it clean, I’m not really sure which at times but being back up here feels like ten or thirteen or maybe eighteen, probably all of them…but mostly it feels like haying. There’s still that scent in the air, the dry hay gets in your lungs and that’s really the best I can describe it. The animals that eat most of the profit are meandering in the pastures because summer allows the unmowed grass to be the primary source of food, some of them as small as black and white dots on the far hill just outside the wood line mixed with pines and maples mainly. 

Days didn’t start too early for us during the summer, but my dad was always out the door early even on the weekends, already on the move before breakfast hit the table. My mom was always the cook, and still likes to cook for everyone, although it’s in a different location since splitting with my dad. We always had eggs and bacon before throwing hay or stacking it on the wagons in the field or unloading it in the barn. When we were young, the bales all spit out in little lines following the tractor that coughed little gray clouds into the air. It was pulling the bailer along just fine, that was before the kicker came and made that part of the process obsolete. I look around now in the cut fields and see big marshmallows and realize we were still doing it wrong back then. I remember riding on the flatbed wagons and trying not to get our feet stuck in the too wide slats, homemade like everything else. My cousin Corey and I did a little more work at that point because my brother Derek was a little younger then and Corey’s brother Shane was still younger than him. One of our dad’s rode in the tractor and bailed up the rows, steering wheel in one hand and light beer in the other; another uncle pulled the flatbed supporting Anheuser as well and the last throwing each of the bales onto the wagon between sips and resting that beer on the edge where it looked like it’d spill with each bump. We lugged them into place like overfilled luggage. 

We didn’t know we were getting swindled by our dads until we realized all the unloading of the wagons happened through our hands. We sat down and negotiated with our dads, the bosses and the employees, maybe this was all part of their plan to show us that to get anywhere in life you’ve got to speak up. So, we went from five dollars a load to ten and that worked out well and bought some extra popcorn at the movies or helped us sneak in a king size versus a regular sized candy bar. It wasn’t until we were all off at college and back for summers that we worked hourly under our dads and it only made sense when it was four or five grown men throwing and stacking bales that they should all get paid that way. 

We had friends that were always over and helping out in those days. They’d throw the bales with us in middle school or wipe sweat from their brows before playing a game of Texas hold ’em after we were done with the wagons for the day. Some doubling what they’d made and others going home with pockets turned to dog-ears. Sometimes, I wonder if their parents sent them over in middle school to run some energy out of them or maybe they just wanted a little time alone with each other for the first time in a while and didn’t want the kids barging in. Maybe a little country air and a little hard work would instill some good values in their boy. I’m not really sure if this is how that works though because I still remember 13-year-old Carter grabbing a beer from my parent’s fridge and putting it in one of the cups from the cabinet, plastic souvenir one from a Sox game, and sipping at it. We all just looked and eventually my mom caught him and sent him home, but he came back and there wasn’t much of a mention of it anyways. 

It was pretty simple most days, at least if you got all the way to dry raked rows, that’s what my dad always said. There was always weather and mulch bales weighed about double what any other bale did, but they fetched a lighter price and quite a bit more anger from the dads when the rains came on a forecast that called for sun.

Of course, farm equipment was always breaking down. I learned about death through a broken bailer. It wasn’t a family pet: a guinea pig in a cold basement, or a dog dying of old age with bad hips or a cat that got hit where the traffic runs too quick in this rural spot. No, my first nudge with death was hearing the mower rumble along in the long hayfields on a day in July and waving at my dad in that cab and hearing some sort of clog, something caught in those whirring blades. I remember seeing smoke plume up into the air from the gears that couldn’t spin and a string of language I’d repeat down the line when I was a few beers deep and debating with a college friend in a bar somewhere. I remember running over, we always wanted to learn the ins and outs of what went wrong on the farm and home and learn the various fixes. By the time I rounded the bend of the still high grass, I heard my dad rambling on, words I knew I wasn’t supposed to say. He was on the other side of the mower and I eased around, the tractor was shut down at that point, but I could hear him heaving his weight against something. I caught a glimpse and turned away; he was yanking on the hind legs of an animal. Later he told us a deer was there, unseen in the grass. Thinking back now, I realized he worked that whole afternoon pulling bits and pieces of a fawn that was recently birthed in the grass out of that mower: small legs and soft fur, heart with too few beats and lungs that had barely tasted the air. 

I still wonder about the hours my dad spent out of the house and the many other odd jobs he held and how that all played out with my parent’s split. I didn’t pay the bills, so I really didn’t know either side of the story. I’m sure I didn’t notice all the spats or silence between them through the years and I’m sure I missed some of the good times as well. Looking back there were the bickering words after the papers had been passed from one hand to another, not a fight, but still, something awkward to sit through while drinking a coffee in the dining room. At that time, I wondered how far removed we were from her bringing beers and sodas out to the hay fields or him driving the John Deere pulling that flatbed wagon full of bales and us sitting on top and my mom telling us not to get to close to the sides or to hang on when we went around the corners. 

Looking out over these fields and barns and the house I grew up in, I can’t help but think about the homemade lemonade pops we ate when the days were hotter than usual, 13 year old Carter grabbing that beer and nobody caring too much because we were doing a man’s work anyways. The hot days where we threw too many bales with hay fever stuck in our eyes and our arms latticed with cuts, still crest and wane like those sunups and sundowns we saw so many of, but a few bucks wasn’t all we pocketed back then. 

About the Author: Matt McGuirk teaches and lives with his family in New Hampshire. BOTN 2021 nominee with words in various lit mags and a debut collection with Alien Buddha Press called Daydreams, Obsessions, Realities available on Amazon and linked on his website.

Website: http://linktr.ee/McGuirkMatthew Twitter: @McguirkMatthew Instagram: @mcguirk_matthew.

On Rust Belt Shame

By Richey Piiparinen

This essay is from a working manuscript entitled “Hunting Octopus: Collected Essays”.

In a June 15th, 1981 Time magazine puff piece called “Nothing Rotten about the Big Plum”, the author describes how then-Mayor of Cleveland, George Voinovich, sauntered onto the mound at Municipal Stadium wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with Cleveland’s new marketing campaign, “New York’s the Big Apple, But Cleveland’s a Plum.” Predictably, Voinovich then proceeded to throw out the “first plum”, a play off the ceremonial first pitch. Unlike a baseball, however, a plum splats. Which it did in this case. In the catcher’s mitt. The Yakety sax-like scene illustrates the lengths cities will go to project an image as far away from reality as possible. These city branding campaigns usually end poorly. 

Figure 17: Mayor Voinovich throws out of the first plum. Source: David I. Andersen

Meanwhile, In Pittsburgh the city’s marketing elite leaned in with a character called Border guard Bob. Dan Fitzpatrick, a reporter Post-Gazetteexplained that Border Guard Bob was a fictional Barney Fife-type persona who was to star in a television ad and be put on billboards. “The idea was for Border Guard Bob to wear a uniform and stop young people at Western Pennsylvania’s borders, he wrote, “before they had a chance to leave for other cities. If he was unable to persuade people to stay, Border Guard Bob would have hitched a bungee cord to the car’s back bumper and, looking into the camera, say: “’He’ll be back.’” 

Yikes. 

Where does the will, or lack of will, come from that incites these once-powerhouse cities to so pitifully delude themselves into thinking that this is how to put yourself out there? How does a collective devolve to be so vulnerably self-unaware?

Though my career is in the field of city building, particularly urban theory and policy, my initial graduate training—my first love, really—was in clinical psychology. My thesis was on secondhand, or vicarious, trauma related to the September 11th attacks, which turned into a few published studies with titles like “stress symptoms of two groups before and after the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01” inplaces like Perceptual and Motor Skills. The broader ramifications of the findings are that groups, such as nations, cities, or neighborhoods, are impacted by experiences on an aggregate level just as individuals are on a personal level. Collectively, the perceptual “catch” of these experiences—be they traumatically and instantaneously profound like 9/11, or slower-moving and distress-inducing like deindustrialization and the job and income losses and communal, familial, and personal conflicts that inevitably follow—become absorbed as memories of what was, what is, and what may never be. These memories, however, often remain below the level of conscious awareness. They are thus not processed but left “undigested”, not unlike a brick of food in the belly that echoes forward in the tainting of future experience via the prism of emotional distress, else emotionlessness. In other words, loss unfelt is loss everlasting.

“Only echoes answer me,” writes the playwright Anton Chekhov in Swan Song, the quote referencing the extent of how things can unravel like a fountain of bits and pieces, the manifestation of which is breakage flowing into breakage. Or as Yeats put it in his poem “The Second Coming”: “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold”. The issue, then, for people, and groups of people i.e., cities, isn’t about whether things fall apart—things will fall apart—but what’s to be done with the remains. Will they be ignored while yet another undoing is in the making? (This seems the approach humanity is taking toward climate change and late capitalism.) Or will they be leveled with and carried forward?

Arguably, the Rockstar of the notion that collectives have thoughts and feelings is sociologist Emile Durkheim, who formulated the idea of a “collective conscience”, a concept described in his 1893 book The Division of Labor in Society as the “totality of beliefs and sentiments common to the average members of a society.” The focus in this essay is on the specific beliefs and sentiments about the geography of the Rust Belt that arrive as projected judgement from the outside in yet are preserved by a peculiar regional flare for the self-own that operates from the inside out, the latter of which I’ve come to call “Rust Belt Shame”. 

It’s important, here, to delineate shame from other negative affect, particularly guilt. Guilt is about an act done and the consequences of one’s conscience. “I feel bad. I have done wrong.” These are the types of words we hear in our head when feeling guilty, and it’s is an Adam- and Eve-like self-discourse arising from the backlash that is a moral authority. “Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this you have done?’ And the woman said, ‘The serpent deceived me, and I ate’.”

Shame is different. If guilt is the internal feeling Adam and Eve felt as they left the Garden of Eden, then shame is the feeling they felt from the hisses of the onlookers that watched from the balcony of biblical context. In modern-day parlance, shame is the gas that gets you cancelled. It’s the societal norming that acts as guardrails to where culture can and can’t go. But hive-minded morality chutes can lead society astray, especially if they are constructed from a collective conscience that is more repressed than processed. Or more virtue signaling than virtuous. As a guiding, resolving, feeling shame carries with it a lot baggage. “Shame is a soul eating emotion,” explains psychoanalyst C.G. Jung, referencing shame’s groupthink tendency to try and erode what’s wrong instead of grow what’s right. And it’s an emotional self-tunneling that can lead to a house of mirrors as far as not knowing where progress proceeds from, a reality eloquated supremely in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s, The Little Prince. “Why are you drinking? demanded the little prince. So that I may forget,” replied the tippler. Forget what? inquired the little prince, who was already sorry for him. Forget that I am ashamed, the tippler confessed, hanging his head. Ashamed of what? insisted the little prince, who wanted to help him. Ashamed of drinking!” Or in this case: “Why are you ashamed, Cleveland? Because I am a plum. Why are you marketing yourself as a plum? Because I am ashamed.” 

That shame is a particularly important sentiment which clots in the Rust Belt consciousness, and it’s the tributary so many Rust Belters flow into and out of in this stream of living that’s been labeled “flyover country”, what’s the source emotion, or the experiential watershed, that gives Rust Belt Shame its materiality? It’s most basic element, its ground truth, is loss, chiefly the loss of status. Here, Lao Tzu put it best: “Pride attaches undue importance to the superiority of one’s status in the eyes of others And shame is fear of humiliation at one’s inferior status in the estimation of others.” Legendary sociologist Charles Cooley theorized in 1922 that there were essentially only two social emotions, pride and shame “The thing that moves us to pride or shame,” Cooley wrote, “is not the mere mechanical reflection of ourselves, but an imputed sentiment, the imagined effect of this reflection upon another’s mind.” 

The Rust Belt, of course, is not alone here. Cities the world over are afflicted with the hangovers of history. “Nearly every historic city has its brand of melancholy indelibly associated with it,” begins the author of the essay “From the “Geography of Melancholy” in the American Reader, “each variety linked to the scars the city bears. Lisbon has its saudade: a feeling of aimless loss tied to the city’s legacy of vanishing seafarers, explorers shipwrecked in search of Western horizons. Istanbul has huzun: a religiously-tinged brand of melancholy rooted in the city’s nostalgia for its glorious past.” But the Rust Belt’s version seems to go beyond the romantic notion of nostalgic longing for better times, and into the Japanese art of self-impaling, or Seppuku, known as “hari-kari” in the West. If not for a strange, if subconscious, tendency for the self-dig, how else would you explain selling Barney Fife as a prison guard as the star of an attraction campaign to retain the city’s younger, creative types? The whole concept is perverse. Like selling sand to the thirsty. 

A few years back, I got contacted by Benjamin Wallace-Wells, a writer for the New Yorker, about a piece I wrote that discussed the self-flagellating tendencies found in Cleveland and the rest of the Rust Belt. “Shit happened,” I wrote. “Shit is still happening.” My point was that a fall from grace had occurred. Deindustrialization and urban core abandonment were real and long-shadowed. Cleveland shrank. It shriveled. As did Pittsburgh and Detroit. Socioeconomic effects ensued. A colossal housing market collapsed. A new settlement pattern was categorized called the “shrinking city” and a novel urban aesthetic was even birthed: “ruin porn”, referring to the predilection of vacancy gawkers to play on the untaken cathedrals of the Industrial Revolution. And the fact that it all did—the leaving, the shrinking, the decay, the return to earth, in fact all those features of mortality—it triggered a projection in America’s mind’s eye that something was wrong with “them” but not necessarily with “us”. 

That’s because it’s soothing for a collective to compartmentalize its failing parts. To jersey-barrier the appendages vanishing on the vine. And for good reason, because while swaths of the inland were failing, the Sun Belt was growing. The Coasts prospered. New York was New York, never sleeping. Las Vegas was shiningly gluttonous, albeit literally and figuratively built on a house of cards. Matter of fact, it can be argued that the Rust Belt was the first geography in modern America to “die”; that is, not grow. There was the Old West and its ghost towns, but the Old West never held such a prominent position in the American hierarchy as did the Arsenal of Democracy—home to the likes of Rockefeller, Carnegie, Mellon, and Ford. And given America is a manifest-destined country whose soul was conceived on the crossroads of unbridled consumption and growth, the side-eyed glances, the head shakes, the laughs at that kept coming from late night talk shows at a region that was named after a loss of gloss, well, it was not unexpected. American exceptionalism wasn’t conceived to expire. So, mock the loss and tend to growth. Mock reality and make myth. Drink a boat drink and play roulette. It’s all uphill from here…

Still, the projections, the Cleveland jokes, they are one thing. That’s punches taken. But why do we as a people accept it, let alone curate it? “I have, in fact, never lived in a place whose proud residents so consistently and gleefully disrespect their hometown as Cleveland,” notes well-known Jeopardy champ Arthur Cho in his Daily Beast piece “Cleveland Comes Crawling Back to LeBron: The Masochism of Rust Belt Chic.” Cho, a Cleveland transplant, goes on to write that though he hates to “engage in victim-blaming,” the reason “everyone dogs on Cleveland is that we ask for it.” Why? Cho concludes: “If we weren’t suffering, we wouldn’t be Cleveland anymore.”

Beyond shared identity, there’s an adaptive reason for Rust Belt Shame. It’s not just a collective phenomenon. It’s not simply about losing out on some kind of civic pride arms race measured in skyscrapers, population growth, and Fortune 500’s. No, losing one’s livelihood and one’s ability to make meaning is deeply personal. “This isn’t my first rodeo,” explained a GM Lordstown plant worker in a 2018 Guardian piece “A ‘kick in the stomach’: massive GM layoffs leave workers distraught”, “This is my third GM plant. I’d like to be able to plant my roots somewhere. I feel like a gypsy.” “This is devastating. This is our livelihood,” echoed a co-worker. These public-but-private happenings, then, get stitched into a shared experience that becomes cultural, or part of the menu of sentiments defining a Rust Belt daily life. This response, however, is often adaptive. It’s not moaning. “[T]he very fact that shame is an isolating experience also means that if one can find ways of sharing and communicating it this communication can bring about particular closeness with other persons.” so notes the author of “Shame and the Social Bond.” Hence, the collective character armor that is Rust Belt Shame. 

Yet this doesn’t mean such a group identity can’t tip from adaptive to maladaptive. Or from digested and transcended to imputed, identity-defining, and concretizing. 

Which brings us back to the New Yorker reporter I noted earlier. A few days after we talked he wrote a piece entitled “Donald Trump and the Idea of the Rust Belt”. From our discussion, the reporter, Wallace-Wells, correctly latched onto the notion that in the national discourse of the Rust Belt there was—beyond macroeconomic explanations for deindustrialization and the ideological and voting proclivities of alienated Reagan Democrats—a depth of the narrative that wasn’t exposed and rarely discussed. I called this hidden reality “the idea of the Rust Belt”, or a worm at the core in the national psyche that’s carried around like a shadow, i.e., barely noticed but constantly cast. Wallace-Wells explained that the “idea of the Rust Belt” is a projected upon reality that “…everyone is vulnerable. The story that is told is about the certainty of loss.” 

Yet he also lamented the fact that in that process of existential displacement onto the region, a parallel sentiment has been left out. “It’s a little strange to remember the ideas of the Midwest that the Rust Belt has crowded out,” he writes. “The conviction that the heartland provided a moral counterweight to coastal excess and cynicism.” He’d go on to reference a Jonathan Franzen interview wherein the author remarked: “There is a prolongation of innocence there, a prolongation of childhood, that has to do with the Midwest being just a little bit farther from the rest of the world.” “There is what would strike many Americans as a bizarre absence of cynicism in the room,” echoed the writer David Foster Wallace. 

As for the future of the Rust Belt, there are really only two directions for the region to proceed from, not only from a collective conscience standpoint but also the associated response that is city leadership, policy, and, of course, city branding. There’s the direction that is away from loss. And there’s the direction that is through loss. The former gets you a bungee cord hooked up to your belt loop in which you are snatched from the horizon and slung back to your baseline. That Sisyphean existence.  The latter gets you room to know who you are versus what you are told you are, or what you wrongly tell yourself. 

Like you’re a plum.

About the Author: Richey Piiparinen is Director of Urban Theory & Analytics at Cleveland State University. He resides in the Collinwood neighborhood of Cleveland, OH with his wife, no dog, and three kids. He believes the term “Rust Belt ” is not a pejorative.

Kitchen Visions

By Matthew Schultz

About the Author: Matthew Schultz is originally from Cleveland, Ohio. You can read all about it in his novel, On Coventry. He then attended graduate school at Saint Louis University. While there, he spent a lot of time in Forest Park. Matt’s most recent publication, Encomium: Cento Paradelles, is available from Beir Bua Press. Keep an eye out for forthcoming collections from Alien Buddha Press and ELJ Editions.

Background Noise

By Jim Ray Daniels

 The TV was on. No one was watching it. My nephew Albert stood in front of me, having opened the door and let me in. His wife, Suzie—or Sooz, though I could not call her that, given the warmth and informal goodwill it implied—was on the phone, clearly telling somebody what-for. The nine-year-old twins, Bim and Jim, were chasing each other in a mad circle. Albert held up his hand. I thought he was going to shake mine, but he was giving an air-stiff-arm to the kids that stopped them quick enough to cause rug burns or sparks.

*

My grandfather had insisted on leaving the TV on for his fat dog Ralph when we picked him up for some family occasion at which his presence was required. Ralph had the benefit of a human dog’s life. My grandfather cooked him pancakes and hamburgers in his ancient cast-iron frying pan. He never even rinsed it out, so it always contained a toxic mix of burned food scraps and the yellow stink of old grease.

One day, stopping in to check on him, I found the heavy pan on the floor tilted up against the fridge, and I figured out that my grandfather finally could no longer lift the pan at age 95. He stood, head bowed, hands on hips, as I picked up the pan and put it back on the stove. I expected something from him—an explanation, some comment, I don’t know what, really—but he remained silent, his lips trembling slightly with what was unspoken. The dog looked at me soberly. Whatever had been in the dropped pan, Ralph had taken care of. Grandpa walked back into the living room, where he sunk into his ancient easy chair, leaning his head back against the stained antimacassar which may had not been washed since my grandmother had died ten years ago. Ralph dutifully followed him, plopping down at his feet with a heavy thud, as usual. 

I thought about mopping the sticky floor. I thought about scrubbing the pan with steel wool, or taking a sander to it to erase the accumulated residue, trying to recondition it, but I just kept thinking about the watery eyes of my grandfather and the clear eyes of the dog. I wondered if Ralph had eaten his last pancake. I felt like the heavy thudded clang of that pan on the floor was a sign of something, and it was. Within a month, my grandfather was dead.

*

Albert, his great grandson, took Ralph when Grandpa died and slimmed him down, and the dog lived five more years. Maybe Ralph had insisted that the TV be left on when he was here and it had just become a habit to leave it on. If he couldn’t have pancakes, at least he could still listen to the shrill, exaggerated TV sounds, either trying to sell something, or trying to get you to laugh, or scare you, or whatever. But as Ralph would tell you if he wasn’t a dog, you can’t smell or eat TV, so I’m not sure how much the TV did for him. 

*

My grandfather fed Ralph whatever he had, so Ralph ate a lot of meals-on-wheels. The kindly volunteer driver, a grandmother herself, remarked that my grandfather had quite an appetite. Ralph in turn kept my grandfather alive, if only forcing him to get up and let him out and in a few times a day. Good boy, Ralph. Making it to 95 on your own, quite an accomplishment for anyone I think. My own father wasn’t going to make it that far.

*

I hadn’t been such a great grandson or uncle. In French, brother-in-law literally means handsome brother. If only it were that easy to move into being handsome. My sister Jean was Albert’s mother. If I’d been the age I am now when my grandfather was dying, I might have been more empathetic and caring. I missed seeing him before he died because I had a softball game to play in that night that I refused to skip. My mother said, “If you want to say goodbye to him, you’d better come now.”

We were in the playoffs. One of my teammates had begged off on his 25th wedding anniversary to be there. My grandfather, a big baseball fan who remembered Ty Cobb, would have wanted me to go to my game, I told my family. I’ve come to hate anyone who claims to know what a dead person would have wanted. It’s like pretending to know what a dog is thinking, which maybe I just did.

*

Albert, Suzie, and their twins Bonnie and Jim. No one turned down the sound. Bim was short for Bonnie somehow, and Jim of course was James. at nine, they were still mostly polite or maybe they’d already written off their serious great-uncle who only made cameo appearances during the holidays.

I first sat on the couch, then quickly shifted over to the lazyboy chair on the side to avoid the glare of the enormous TV screen. It was like they always had company, the people on the screen nearly as big as Bim and Jim. There are a lot of names that end in “im”. I hope Bim doesn’t marry a Tim and Jim marry a Kim.

“What are you watching?” I asked.

“Nothing special,” Suzie said. Albert nodded as if I’d asked a question that did not deserve a reply. The kids ignored the question, though they were now staring vacantly at the screen. Cartoon Network, it appeared, and somebody needed to calm down and become human again. Maybe me.

I had never been in their house before. I lived seven hours away in deep, dark Indiana. I work in Elkhart, the RV capital of the world, at Jay Sport Camping Trailers. Jay’s real name was James.

*

We made small talk, just like I’m making small talk now. Stalling for time. 

“Uncle Carl, why are you here?” Suzie asked finally.

“Can someone please get me a glass of water?” I asked the people on TV,

“Bim, can you get your uncle some water?” Suzie said. She squeezed the remote in her hand. One of them, anyway.

“Great uncle,” I said. “I’m your great uncle.” I never got tired of that joke.

“Hmmph,” Bim said, not quite cute anymore, and stomped off into the kitchen, which had been redone, as is the initiation rite for anyone living in this particular suburb, apparently. Some of my old friends from high school lived nearby and had showed me their kitchen islands and peninsulas. Suburban tropical.

*

I drank my water. Cold, from one of those refrigerator water hookups that always break after a year or two.

“We’re going to move my dad into a home,” I said. “Nobody can handle him anymore. Even the aides who came in twice a day to get him up and put him to bed could no longer do either. Like Ralph, he was expanding into extra large. His wheelchair, a double wide. My father paid the bills and let it go on with Grandpa as long as he could. No room at the family inn for the guy who’d killed his brother and never told the secret, even to those who already knew it.

Or son. I should have mentioned. I have not been a very good son. Why Indiana? When the car jobs dried up, a trailer job seemed like the next best thing. Indiana was flat like lower Michigan. Crossing the border was hallucinatory, except the hallucinations speeded up in Michigan, as was the tradition of Michigan drivers, a slur in Indiana. “Michigan driver!” they shouted out their car windows at each other.

I met my first two wives in Indiana, and I hope to meet another one there before I get in line behind the old man on the lonely road of no return. I don’t believe I’ll meet Ralph there. 

All Dogs Go to Heaven was a cartoon that starred the voices of Bert Reynolds and Dom Deluise, both deceased. Am I showing my age?

*

We were planning to pay extra for our father to get a single room. If he ever stopped knowing who we were, we’d move him to a double. Or if his money ran out first, then we’d take what Medicare gives us.

“I love my father,” I said. “But I can’t lift him either.”

“You’re in Indiana,” Albert said, looking at me over his glasses as if he did not believe me, sizing me up like an actuary.

“You could lift him, Al,” I said. “Big guy like you.”

“You’re not suggesting,” Suzie said. 

“No, I’m not,” I interrupted. Al sold life insurance, which I didn’t know was still a thing, though I understand it’s kind of a tax shelter now. 

“But we could use your pickup truck and help moving. We’ve got to get him out of the house and into the home—isn’t that ironical, shouldn’t it be out of the home and into the house?—and get rid of at least half his stuff. We’ll have to sell the house. I’m using up my vacation to come up and do this. He’s on a waiting list.”

The kids had disappeared. I had neglected to bring them bubble gum like I used to do. Their parents hated bubble gum. I, who will never have grandkids, had to spoil somebody, and that’s how my grandfather spoiled me, by giving me things my parents did not want me to have—soda pop, candy, potato chips, cheap plastic toys from the dime store—cowboys, Indians, and soldiers. And how my grandfather spoiled Ralph.

Since Ralph died, Albert and Suzie had not gotten another dog. The kids did not even know about Ralph, like we did not know my grandparents had another son besides my father—that my father’d had a brother—until we were adults. “If we tell them about Ralph, they’ll want to get another dog,” Suzie said in her Suze voice. “No dog,” Albert affirmed.

Of course, the kids might whine about getting another dog, about how they’d missed out, but my father could not whine about getting another brother. The thick curtain of grief followed them around forever. My grandmother, quite frankly, did not seem to like my father at all. The more he did for her, the less she liked him. After she died, I think he took it out on Grandpa.

“He’s sitting over there now with that giant speaker next to his ear watching right-wing news shows and nodding, but he can’t even get up to make himself a sandwich anymore. He ‘lost’ the emergency help button we got him. The house smells worse than every nursing home me and your mother visited.” His mother, my sister Jean. I’d promised her I’d make this request in person. “He won’t listen to me,” she’d said. “He won’t say no to you,” she’d said. I’d never asked him for anything in my life, so I wasn’t sure where she’d gotten such confidence. I could have gone on forever, just like the TV, with excuses, but they really didn’t care. They had twin nine-year-olds.

Twins who were screaming at each other from somewhere in the back of the house. Big house, successful career. Remodeled kitchen. Kudos to Albert. What was I lacking that kept me from staying in love, or at least married? Both my exes still lived in Elkhart. I’ve heard that they’ve become friends, which I hope is a lie or at least an exaggeration.

Jean had borne the brunt, but she knew me and did not begrudge taking on the role of primary caregiver. Brunt. That’s a tough word. Begrudge. Growing up, I had spent a lot of nights in our tiny box of a house eating my dinner alone in the tiny kitchen that had never been remodeled, exiled by my father, who had no brother, but had a son. 

Suzie got up to check on the kids. I could hear her firm voice. Each kid was sent their own rooms to cool down, but Suzie did not come back. She was probably in the bathroom sighing, waiting for me to leave. It was just me, Albert, and the TV. Albert juggled one of the remotes. He changed the channel to one of the all-sports networks. Soccer players were playing volleyball with their feet. I’d seen it before. The novelty wears off.

“Give me a date,” Albert said. “Give me a date, and I’ll be there. Not with bells on, but I’ll be there.”

Bells on. He had added a lot of insurance salesmen quirks to his vocabulary, as if he’d learned English from a David Mamet character. 

I do quality control on the trailers. I go camping on Lake Michigan, on the tiny wedge of it that Indiana owns. Indiana Dunes—it’s almost beautiful. I was close enough to sneeze in Elkhart and be heard in Michigan, but it was not Michigan. In self-imposed exile from the state I loved. 

Why had I never asked my grandfather about his dead son? Why were we passing down the silence from dog to dog?

To get to Chicago, I had to drive through Gary, Indiana, which, despite the Music Man, was better known as one of the top ten armpits of America, one of the many little Detroits. All my compasses tilted back to Detroit, the original armpit, my father’s armpit he would wrestle me into in a playfully violent way until I outgrew him.

*

“I’ll get you a date,” I said, and stood up. It almost sounded like a threat. I was living alone in Elkhart, Indiana. Couldn’t I find a way to move my father down there, or retire early or something and move back to the Motor City? I was 55. Double nickel. A nickel for your thoughts. Hey Dad, what’s on TV? 

I grabbed one of the remotes and pushed the off button, but nothing happened. “I’ll get you a date.” 

A romantic day spent discarding family treasures and deciding what clothes he might want to die in. My father, to be fair, had been the one to help everybody else die—his parents, his aunts, two cousins. Was he making up for not being there when his brother died of a burst appendix in high school? I hadn’t asked him about my dead uncle either.

He’d handled all their paperwork and emptied their houses, but now it was his turn.

“Now, it’s my turn,” my father said. He’d turned his TV off to tell me.

About the Author: Jim Ray Daniels is the author of six collections of short fiction, including, most recently, The Perp Walk, Michigan State University Press, 2019. His fiction awards include  a Michigan Notable Book prize,  finalist for the Paterson Fiction Prize, and awards from the Midwest Book Awards, the Independent Booksellers Association, and the Foreword INDIE Book Awards. He currently teaches in the Alma College low-residency MFA program and lives in Pittsburgh.

Platter of Light

Kyle Simonsen

Winter arrived as midnight sleet, spackled everything with a southwest wind’s relentless pressure. Chunky, bubbly ice pasted our patio and the south side of our mailbox. A thin layer of powder fell to camouflage the treacherous ice beneath.

*

I bundle my three-year-old son for the sinister chill. He doesn’t remember winter, doesn’t know snow aside from the glittery stuff in drifts of picture books beside his bed. Before leaving, I crouch down and catch his gaze. 

“Now, be very careful,” I say. “It’s dangerous out there.” 

He nods, eyes big, says nothing.

*

The preschool parking lot is a vast rink, smooth and slick from curb to curb. He clambers out the car seat and down and whoosh, they’re gone, his feet, somehow three different ways, scrambling. I snatch his elbow, haul him up.

“Let’s walk careful. Like penguins,” I tell him, and we do—for a minute—shuffling above the thin light of the ice and the dark concrete beneath.

But then he skates, and then stomps, and slips again but I’m holding his hand, and I catch him, and then again. He cracks ice, kicks it up, takes time teasing at the cracks with his toes, watching it splinter, spiderweb, laughing when his shoes melt enough of the stuff to squeak as he glides across it. I realize I can only see the slipping, but he sees so much more, and suddenly the lot catches the sun at last, a platter of light reflecting back up into the everywhere.

About the Author: Kyle Simonsen teaches writing, editing, and literature at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. His writing appears in Assay, Rain Taxi, and March Xness, among other places, and he is the managing editor of The Linden Review. He has a wife, and she has him, and together they have two kids in a place called Wahoo.