198 / 365 – That’s How It Works


They weren’t really close enough that you could see who they were. You could tell by the uniforms. Olive or yellowish brown, you saw that and then you shot at them. You shot at the uniform. They saw green, they shot at us. I didn’t even want to wear that uniform, I hated that uniform. I wonder if they would have shot at me if I was wearing a Czech uniform. Would they have hated someone in pale gray instead of green? I don’t think it would have mattered. Somebody has a gun, they are dressed different, you shoot at them. And they shoot at you. That’s how it works.


197 / 365 – Shelter


They started putting in shelterbelts around here around the time of the war, if I remember that right. It was after all the drought — we had years of it, even more than just the dust bowl years that got all the attention. It had been dry so long the soil would just blow away if you turned it. My dad would see a dust cloud blowing off one of the neighbors’ fields and he’d say, “There’s what’s left of Ed’s money, just blowing away.”

My dad put in one of the first shelterbelts around here. A line of ash, a mile long, north to south, along the west side of our land, where it’s most level there. Course it wasn’t long after that he bought up the neighbor’s section when he moved out, left for the West Coast.

It’s still there, though the trees are dying now. A lot of guys around here, they’re taking out the shelterbelts now. They get in the way when they’re putting chemicals down. The sprayers are wider now, and they don’t want to be turning them all the time. I let mine stay, especially that first one. My son, he wants to pull it up and I say, it’s going to die soon, just let it die. It held this farm together for fifty, sixty years. Leave it be. I’m sure once they’ve got the farm paid off they’ll tear them out. They’ll say, “Look, the trees are about dead now.”

What they don’t pull out, they’re dying out. They’ve got this beetle, the emerald ash borer, working this way from northern Minnesota. I little green beetle from Asia. I studied up on it and I guess it came over in wood, packing material. All that cheap stuff we like to buy from China, got your cheap tree-killer, too. This globalization, shipping things all over the world, instead of making them at home, it’s going to ruin us all. Of course it probably kept my farm in clover for a long time. We were shipping grain all over the world. But it’s coming back to haunt us now.

196 / 365 – Vacuum


She is vacuuming again. She vacuumed last night, and also the might before. It’s a beautiful late-summer day and the breeze is blowing just gently, gentle lulling gusts. The house should be open, open to the season while it’s friendly. Instead she has all the windows closed and she is vacuuming. It’s an old chrome canister vacuum, we’ve had it forever, and it screams like a jet-engine. Sometimes I think I can tell the state of her mental health by how often she drags that thing out of the closet. Last night it was the whole first floor, even the front parlor where no one goes anymore, where no one ever has gone, The day before that it was the whole goddam house.

I’m sitting out on the old swing under the ash tree. It’s a perfect summer afternoon. The fields around the house are in wheat this year, and they’re rustling in the light breeze, little ripples that swirl and circle like water in a pond. The most gentle rustling on the light pulse of the breeze. It would be almost peaceful, if there weren’t the groans and growls of that damned vacuum going off from time to time.

I don’t remember her being so relentless with it when I was younger. I said, “What are you doing? You just vacuumed yesterday!” She said, “It’s dusty in here.” The place is spotless, but she thinks there must be some dust somewhere. And she’s gonna get it. She lives on the prairie where the wind blows all the time and it’s summer and the windows should be open. It’s a beautiful day. And it’s not dusty. You want to see dusty, I’ll take you to Afghanistan and you can see dusty.

On the bad days, when I first got back, I’d be up in my room, feeling like I was going to blow over if I had to talk to anyone, and she’d come bursting in with that thing, jabbing and thrusting at the dust in the room with that grinding nozzle. I screamed at her and she couldn’t even hear me over that thing. One day it was really bad, I had the windows shut, I didn’t even want any daylight, and she blew in there with that thing. I threw her out, screaming. I don’t think she knew I was in there, the look she had on her face, like a frightened cat. But the next minute she had her composure. “Finn Tillary! I need to vacuum in there! This house is a mess!” I don’t know, the scream of that thing, it really got to me. I was hiding in the corner. I had the door lock. I thought, ‘If she busts in here, we’re really in trouble.’

So now I sit outside. It’s better out here, since I can’t get her to stop.  The house is immaculate. I’m not sure what dust she thinks she hasn’t gotten yet, but there’s no machine is going to get it. My grandmother, she lived with us for a little while. She spoke Norwegian to herself sometimes, when she was muttering. She called the old vacuum a stobe-suger. I don’t know what that meant. I was just little, I used to think it meant “stab-sucker.” That’s how my mother uses it, vacuuming back and forth, day after day, jabbing with the nozzle into dark corners. I don’t know what she’s stabbing at but she sure can’t seem to kill it.

195 / 365 – Border


Once I drove Kate up to the border. It was my sister’s wedding, the reception. A warm summer afternoon, the sky a royal blue, with just a few brushstroke clouds at the horizon. A perfect day for a perfect wedding and my sister was being a total bitch. She wanted me to make a toast, after the best man, because the best man wasn’t going to do it right. And she wanted to tell me exactly what to say about how they were such a great pair and we were happy to bring our families together and some crap like that, some bullshit I would never say. So I said to Kate, “Let’s just get out of here,” and we got in my old pickup and snaked through all the cars parked along the drive and the county road and got out of there. She tried to get me to stay, and that probably would have been a good idea, since I have to hear about this practically every Christmas and Thanksgiving, but I just couldn’t. I had already made sure her new husband had arrived at the wedding standing up and on time.

I wasn’t trying to go to the border. I wasn’t trying to go anywhere. I was on a county road and it was one of the ones that keeps going through and after awhile I had slowed down and was looking at her again. She was in a very simple but very nice dress she’d gotten in Chicago and she was leaning back against the door post of the truck and giving me that smile, that smile that says ‘I am not going to say anything even though you’re acting stupid and driving me crazy.’ That’s what love is, I think, when someone will do that for you. I shouldn’t have let that go so casually. That’s the stuff you say wedding toasts about.

After awhile I realized the road was going to end soon by the cemetery that’s practically up on the border. And I slowed down and said, “We’re almost to Canada.” And Kate said, “I’ve never been to Canada.” I couldn’t believe she’d never been to Canada, it’s right in our damned backyard. The road ended at the cemetery, an old one that must have been from a church that blew over sometime a long time ago. There aren’t any new stones. It didn’t look like anyone had cleaned it out in a good while. The border was about a hundred yards further up, across a field that had just been mowed for hay. The ground was dusty on our shoes. Then we came to a little patch of dirt and the furrows and tracks from the machinery ran at perpendicular. Just a change in the pattern.

I said, “That’s it,” and pointed. She said, “That’s the border?” I said, “Yeah.” She said, “There’s no fence.” I said, “Well, there aren’t fences, just because there’s a line on the map. Nobody out here needs to be kept on one side of the other.” She stared at it a long time. I said, “You should step across and then you can say you’ve been to Canada.” And I thought, but didn’t say, “And nobody will bother you for never getting out of your own damned back yard.” Because she did look beautiful and she was trying to be nice.

194 / 365 – Dust


The dust billowed up like that. Swirls, shaken loose from the land. I watched them from down in the dry creek beds where I tried to find shade. I watched them and tried to read them. Troops moving down the dry and dusty summer roads? A convoy of trucks, Russian trucks, moving west now? Or Germans in retreat? Once the whole horizon to the north seemed to flare up with yellow dust, the line where the earth and sky met growing vague and then disappearing, as if the whole earth was turning to dust and blowing away forever. At the edge of a town a few nights later, where a man let me hide in his chicken coop and he brought me an end of dark bread, after the sun had set and it was dark, and he drew a picture of what I think was a tank, with a stick in the dirt. He pointed off to the north and then at me, questioning. I shook my head and pointed east. He drew another and another shape in the dirt next to the tank, like circles, lots of them, and then he scratched them out. He was talking the whole time, telling a story I couldn’t know, but I thought it was that there had been a big battle of German and Russian tanks and the Germans had been wiped out.

I had traveled by night, but the days were getting longer. I watched the sky, the dust. It seemed to billow up everywhere. The Soviet army was coming. I had to stay ahead of it. It was like some kind of monster coming, devouring the farms, the plain. Or a giant machine that would harvest the parched crops and the dead land one last time before it was burnt over forever. Everyone was afraid in the towns I visited. I had thought they would see my uniform and shoot me. Nobody likes a deserter. But everywhere I went, the farms I passed near, the villages I skirted, people offered me food, or a place with straw to curl up for awhile. The days were long enough now I had to travel in open daylight. Still, the billowing dust seemed close behind.

193 / 365 – When You Get Older


We were shopping in Devil’s Lake this weekend and the store already had Christmas decorations out. Not even Halloween yet — they still have an aisle for candy and pumpkins. And then aisle after aisle with tinsel draped down from the ceiling and sparkling balls and lights and signs saying “Early Christmas deals” or something. I’m glad my kids are grown and old. I wonder how much stuff people have to buy now.

When we were young, my grandmother used to kind of tut-tut over all the presents we got, which was hardly nothing compared to what you had to give your kids when mine were young. She told stories of how, when they first came to the Dakotas, Christmas might be a little candy and a toy made by her Pa, or some ribbons to put in her dress or her hair. Well, times change don’t they. She remembered the days, after they got settled and they had their land mostly plowed and they had a house made out of wood, they build two grand new stores right on Main. One was the Boston Store, and one was the Chicago Store. When I was little the Boston Store was the plumbing store, same as today, with someone upstairs, a real estate agent or something. I wondered why the plumber’s building said “Boston Store.” The Chicago Store was where the furniture store was, but when I was a girl they had a fire and the top of the building caved in and so the brick where it had said ‘Chicago Store 1901’ isn’t there anymore. And now it’s just a vacant lot full of weeds. But my grandmother said when they used to come into town on a Saturday afternoon in the fall, the streets would be getting dark but the windows of the Chicago Store and the Boston Store would be brightly lit and full of things, a doll, a toy train set, Christmas tinsel. And she would imagine what it would be like to live in town and have things like that, like they had in Chicago and Boston. She thought living in town must be like Chicago and Boston. And then her father told her, No, those were big cities, where things in windows and houses were fancy but the streets were crowded and dirty and people could hardly afford those things. Much better to live out on the prairie where the air was clean and a family could live healthy and right.

She told me that for a long time growing up she dreamed about going away to Chicago or Boston. But then she met Erik Looysen, he was my grandfather, and they started their own farm, and she never did. Not even when she had moved off the farm and into town in Newcastle, when Newcastle was still a town. She said, “Sometimes you get older and you realize you don’t need to do things like that any more.”

I thought of her this weekend, looking down those long aisles of bright red and pine green decorations and things in big boxes. I hope my daughters aren’t out shopping in those aisles already. Sometimes you get older and you realize you don’t need to do things like that any more.

192 / 365 – Summer’s End


There’s a cool in the air tonight. It’s not the hard nip of an October morning, but it’s there in the breeze that whispers through the windowscreen and makes the curtain billow up. I can hear rain softly falling on the maple outside the window, the branch that ends it arms out to the roof of the house and the dormer for my room and scratches at it from time to time. Like it’s saying, “Hey, I’m about to lose my leaves. Pay attention.”

Summer’s passing and I don’t feel like I noticed it was even here. I guess they’re not like what summer meant for most of my life up until now, what it hasn’t been since that summer right after college, when Kate and I packed up and wandered around Europe for three months, just going where we felt like. Before I enlisted. Even though I worked every summer growing up, it still felt like that. The days were long enough for work, with still enough left over kicking up your legs or pushing off into the lake in the canoe and enjoying the late afternoon or tearing off after some wild-hair idea. This summer, it was like I forgot to do that. Somehow I got too busy trying to work, or trying to get away from all the noise in our little apartment in Chicago. Maybe this is something that we’re meant to say goodbye to, now that we’re older. Like my dad says, you don’t get anywhere lying around all the time and watching the sun shine.

Fall was always my favorite season. I know it’s the season when things are changing, dying, but it seems like things get new then, when the air turns sharp and the days shorten and the winds start to blow harder out of the north and you know you’re going to be seeing a lot of people, hanging out with people indoors, since there isn’t anywhere else to be. But Fall was always good after a long summer. I don’t feel ready for Fall. I’m not excited about like I’m supposed to be.

I’ve met a lot of older guys who’ve talked about the years going faster and faster and you can hardly keep up with them. Maybe that’s all this is. Life spins faster and you either spin with it or you get out and stop. I don’t know what happens if you stop.