90 / 365 – Slide

DANIEL CHERRY

My editor said I should get out of the office. “You can’t report on a story like a drug epidemic eroding a town without getting out there.” What I want to get out of is North Dakota. But I decided not to say that. Haven’t had any luck yet from any of the places I’ve sent clips in the last month.

People talk about how there hasn’t been much snow this year, but when I go out there it’s still a big flat plain of white nothingness. I feel like I’m going to fall asleep, after just like a half hour, even when I have music playing. You drive ten miles and you look out and it’s the same flat white fields, a few lines of trees out at the horizon. It looks like you’re where you were ten minutes ago. On and on. It’s like a hundred miles up to Jericho. I can’t believe I make it there. I’m always thinking I’m going to fall asleep and drive off the road.

I did drive off the road, but not because of that. When I got up there, I stopped off at the cafe where I usually go. I ran into the police chief. He sent me over to the bean elevator, to talk to someone over there who might know something. That guy sent me out to talk to someone in somewhere called Neudorf. I’m wondering where the heck that is and he gives me directions down a few county roads. I don’t know why they call them county roads. Half the time they’re just dirt ruts. These were pretty badly kept, with muddy puddles in the ruts and grass growing in the center. Whenever I complain about the roads, people laugh and say stuff like, “You should try driving a pickup, y’know?” They always say “Y’know” around here. They sound stupid when they do it. So I guess if I had a truck the county roads would seem fine. But since I have a normal car …

So I was driving down one and I came to this area where the ground was suddenly very hilly, crisscrossed with gullies, like maybe a river had run through there once. The road wound around bluffs and dropped down into this gully. I thought I must have made a wrong turn. I have an atlas with all the roads in the state drawn in it. I pulled over to have a look. I realized my mistake almost immediately. The flat little patch of snow on the shoulder wasn’t flat or a patch of snow. The snow must have piled up during a blizzard. The shoulder fell away from the road pretty steeply, and my car was leaning off it at a pretty steep angle. I tried to turn back up on the road but my tires just spun on the frozen grass and the car slid further into the snowbank down the hill.

Of course this happens while I’m out on one of those county roads. It was an hour before anyone came by. At least in North Dakota they always slow down to see if you’re OK. It was a young guy, driving an old sedan. He said, “You’re stuck.” No shit, man. I said, “Yeah, I was just trying to pull a little out of the road.” He said, “I can’t pull you out with this, but old on. I’ll go to my uncle’s house and borrow his tractor.” And he moved on.

I thought, There’s no way this guy’s uncle happens to live around here. But about fifteen minutes later I hear this tractor grumbling along somewhere out of sight. That’s when I realized how quiet it was out there. Just the sound of the wind blowing though the grass. Nothing else. Pretty soon this huge tractor comes over the crest of the hill and down toward me. Its wheels were as tall as me. He stopped when he got abreast of me and he said, “You got a tow rope or a chain?” I said, “Do I look like I tow people around in this car?” I don’t think he appreciated that. He said, “Most people keep ‘em in case they do what you just did.” He got down with a chain and held it out to me. I said, “I have no idea what I would do with that.” So he crawled under the car and hooked it up by the rear wheel. I said, “That isn’t going to break my wheels is it?” He came up and he had a little mud on him. He shook his head but didn’t say anything after that, other than to tell me to put it in reverse and to take my brake off. Well of course.

He climbed into the tractor, gunned it up, and in just a few seconds the car was out on the road. He got down, unhooked the chain and he said, “There’s a gate up ahead. Turn around there.” I started to ask if I should pay him — I was hoping he would say no — but he just shook his head. He got back in the tractor, wheeled it around, and grumbled off the way he had come.

I was going to go visit that guy in Neudorf but I figure I’ll just call him. This is a lot easier work to do by phone.

 

DARREN HARMANSON

My nephew was on his way out here when he saw a guy driven off the road. That guy from the Grand Forks Tribune. Out poking around, asking a lot about drugs, or whatever it is they want to read about in Grand Forks. He had pulled over to look at his map I guess. The roads around here all go straight. It’s kinda hard to get lost, although he said he was going to Neudorf. Took the least traveled way he could have thought of to get there. Maybe somebody was trying to get him lost, I don’t know. I think people are being polite to him, people are good out here. But I know there’s a few wondering what he’s trying to get at, trying to make a bigger story out of things.

Lucky my nephew came by. I didn’t leave the farm all day. I don’t know many people were out, who would have come by him on that road. He came and borrowed the tractor. Still the best thing to pull a thing. Guy didn’t even have a tow-rope. Made my nephew get under his car and hook him up. I had to loan him a shirt when he got back to the house. I think he was a little put off by that guy, he didn’t even know how to help. But by the time he had that shirt on and I had popped the top on a beer for him, he was laughing about it.

We don’t have guys poking around from the papers that often, but if that’s the worst they do, I suppose it ain’t bad, y’know?

89 / 365 – The Game

FINN TILLARY

The Tournament’s on, March Madness. It’s not as big a deal up here as it was down in Minneapolis. Even the years we weren’t in the tournament, everybody was making a bracket, ducking out of classes to catch games. We’ve had a few guys talking about it at the cafe, but not as many as I’ve heard talking about when the ground is going to dry out this year, or when they think planting will start. And even when it does come up, it seems like it goes right to Jericho basketball. It’s always the same. How this year’s team should have been better, even though everyone forgets that in October everybody thought the team would be last in our district. And then that goes right to our team, and not usually to the year we won the state, but the year we just missed it because of my idiot moves at the buzzer.

Cross did a pretty amazing job this year, getting a bunch of guys who weren’t really all that good, any of them, to play scrappy, even smart. You don’t have to listen long to get the idea that they aren’t so sure about having an Ojibwe coach. Nobody says that, exactly, but you hear them second-guessing the coach, and everybody’s always second-guessing the coach, when they’re done second-guessing the players. They say weird things about, why didn’t he jump up and down more, maybe if he’d yelled at them more, maybe if he argued with the refs more. I can tell you when we were in a game and struggling, the last thing I needed was to have coach yelling at us. We knew what we needed to be doing and yelling didn’t make us get more focused on it.

Sometimes it just works and sometimes it doesn’t. Our team was better my senior year, the year we didn’t win. We were better players, but when it counted we didn’t do the right things, especially me, especially in that championship game against Cavalier, when I kept bricking threes. We had the best record in the state that year, but we struggled through the championships, just off our game. The year before we weren’t really that good. At least not as good as our record. Didn’t have the confidence. Didn’t know what we could do. But we had that run, late in the season, through the playoffs, where things sometimes seemed to slow down. Moving up the court, I could see everybody, passes went right where you wanted them. People were driving in, around, getting under the basket, just where we needed to be when the ball was rebounding or when we needed to take a shot. Sometimes I just seemed to be doing the right things. It was like I wasn’t thinking hard at all. I remember talking about it with John, with Chris. John said, “When you just flow, that’s when you’re on your game.” I didn’t need a coach yelling at me to tell him that.

All season, when I got to games, I heard people, dads mostly, yelling at the team, complaining that they weren’t competing right, that John wasn’t coaching them the right way. I never heard so much complaining, and they were winning when no one thought they could. I didn’t even think they could, to tell you the truth. But they were good. They beat a lot of the good teams — Langdon, Munich, Cando. The team did better than they’ve done since we left, better than anyone expected. When I hear those dads complain, I wonder, what game are they watching? It’s like they’re not watching the score, not seeing how good the guys are playing. It’s like they’re watching some game where the only thing that matters is the coach yelling and the kids looking pained and frustrated.

88 / 365 – Fog

foggy

It had been warming for several days. Sunny. Comfortable outside. He had driven to town yesterday with the truck windows open, with the radio turned up loud, as he might have done on a summer night. His heavy coat was too hot. In the sunlight he was warm in his shirtsleeves.

He woke up again, his heart alight, hoping for another sunny day. The light through the curtains was muted. He opened them and saw a dense fog had settled over the farm, a thick curtain beyond the sheds. The trees in the shelterbelt surrounding the house were soft shadows, visible and then invisible.

The air outside is heavy and damp as he steps out the back door. It has frozen overnight, but only just. The puddles in the drive are topped by a thin sheet of ice, crisscrossed by cracks, a shattered pane of glass, reflecting up the bland siding of the house, the still-barren limbs of the ash tree towering over it. He taps his toes on the ice, cracking it further, sending ripples through the reflections. Water drips from the drainpipe running the height of the house behind him.

He walks to the truck, then decides on the bike. He walks it down the driveway, down to the mailbox. He kicks it off and heads down the road. At first he can see only the belt of trees surrounding the farmstead, and then nothing but the gravelly road, the near ends of the stubbly field, with scattered sheets of snow. The world evaporates into gray nothing only a hundred feet away from him. The moisture in the air seems to fill his ears with a void of sound. The bicycle clatters over pebbles in the road. In the murk he hears birds, a flicker, maybe, and a flight of geese. Ghost sounds from the nothingness. He hears a truck, too, and cannot tell where it is, if it is on his road. He slows and listens. It passes, distant. It must be on the east-west highway. The sound fades and the hidden prairie is quiet again.

87 / 365 – Like Ghosts

clyde

FINN TILLARY

I had been into Neudorf a couple of times, but never in the winter. On the main street there are a lot of vacant spaces. My grandmother told me once that when the railroad bypassed them and came to Jericho instead, a lot of families put their buildings up on wagons and hauled them up to Jericho. Bought a lot and set them down. There’s a bar that I thought I remember being open when I was young. The snow drifts were piled up right over its door, covering its windows. There was another building, a store, that looked as though it had had its front windows smashed out, bit by bit over time, and each time they nailed a new piece of scrap lumber across wherever the hole was. It’s a pretty motley patchwork of old plywood, unmatched shutters, unpainted planks, and even most of a door nailed up over the windows. There used to be a schoolhouse too. I remember in high school, some guys at a party one night got pretty drunk, wanted to go burn it down. They wanted me to go, and the only thing that saved me was that Laura wanted me to get her home. They all got nailed on the way down there for drinking and driving. They didn’t really do anything serious to you then, but a lot of those kids caught hell at home. So we didn’t burn it down. But later, when I was off at college, somebody else did. It was kind of a cool old structure. Somebody had talked about making it some kind of a museum, a pioneer museum. They said you could make a pretty cool museum out of that town. But a lot of it is gone, now.

I drove in there and you couldn’t get to most of the town. The snow was plowed up to Ed Armbrust’s house and one other. There’s a whole other block further away from the highway where the snow was high in drifts. I got out and walked a ways down that street. There was a house that I remember looking kind of stately when I was growing up. It had dormers in its second story roof, and a front door with some nicely cut glass panes. The door was gone. I peeked in, and you could see that the floor had caved in. The fridge, the stove, all the stuff in the kitchen had topped down through the hole into the basement. Junk, papers, pieces of moldy carpet were scattered all over. It was like they had turned the house into a trash can.

It’s practically a ghost town. I wonder what it’s like to live in a place like that, if you’re Ed Armbrust, or whoever lives in the other house. Jeez, it could be just two or three people living in the whole town. But what would it be like to have neighbors, or not neighbors, but a house where all of the things in it are crashing through the floor into the basement. Where eventually the roof will cave over all of it. Or some stupid high school kids will come and set it on fire, because they think it’s fun to see something that was nice once burn to coals. It’s becoming a ghost town, but it’s almost as though the people in it are ghosts already.

86 / 365 – Chicago

They were in the morning rush hour heading into Chicago when Lars began to stir. His eyes were closed and he flexed his cheek, as if his face were practicing to be awake. The truck was rolling softly and stopping, rolling and stopping. The small car in front of them braked suddenly and Finn hit the pedal hard. The truck jerked and Lars looked around. A semi out his window grumbled to a halt, the engine brakes popping. They were surrounded by cars and trucks. Lars rubbed his eyes.

“How long have we been going?” he said.

“Couple of hours,” Finn said.

“I didn’t feel you start up,” he said.

Finn started the truck again slowly, trying to find a coasting speed that he could keep up.

“I started gently,” Finn said. “You looked like you needed sleep.”

Lars nodded and rubbed his eyes. He watched the jerking flow of traffic. Finn hoped he wouldn’t ask him about Chicago. He didn’t feel like talking what the slowly creeping feeling in his stomach said was another failure. Another failed chance to rise to the occasion. Wishing it would go away just made him think about it harder.

Lars said, “You ever have to drive in this? This would make me crazy.”

Finn said, “No. I sold my truck —“

He realized he had been holding his breath. “Before we came,” he finished.

Lars nodded.

They approached the junction of the interstate with another interstate, two great rivers of metal rolling slowly together, two motley sluggish streams blending and curling into the heart of the city. Slowly they floundered through it.

Lars said, “I don’t know if it’s because it’s so crowded or because the cars are so packed in here, but it makes me want to jump out the window.”

Finn said, “Maybe that’s from sleeping in a truck all night.”

“Somebody said I should move to the city, at least Grand Forks or Fargo,” Lars said. “I can’t imagine living in a place like this.”

Finn nodded.

“You think you’ll ever come back?” Lars said.

Finn shook his head.

“Your girlfriend still here?” Lars said.

Finn said, “Was.”

“She left?” Lars said.

“Was my girlfriend,” Finn said.

Lars nodded absently.

“I think I screwed that up for good,” Finn added.

Lars said, “I’m sorry.”

Finn looked out the driver’s window, away. Nothing to see but the dull grey side of a semitrailer. The wheels made a clatter as it pushed over a crack in the roadway.

“Not sure I could live here either,” Finn said.

Lars said, “I imagine it’s a little easier when both people come from the same place, a similar place.”

Finn nodded.

“You may find out you’re really different, in the end,” Lars said. “But at least the day-to-day, you expect similar things.”

A car cut them off. Finn honked. He said, “I shoulda taken the loop around. I didn’t want to pay the toll. We’ll probably make it up in gas, just sitting here.”

“I thought we were going to get married,” Finn said. “I think she did too.” He hadn’t wanted to talk, now he was talking. “She said, ‘Let’s wait,’ And now —“

They were coming deeper into the heart of the city now. The highway dipped down below street level, squeezed between concrete walls. Brake lights flashed. The city blocks were taller, grim old buildings, drab and unkempt and loomed over them. Lars looked out his window.

“When we were driving in here, in August, just like today,” Finn said. “I feel like I was going the wrong direction from Minneapolis.”

The tracks for the El were perched above them, running down the centerline of the highway. A train clattered to a stop at a station above them.

“I thought I was coming back just for a little bit. Like I had forgotten something. And then I just couldn’t leave.”

 

 

85 / 365 – The Bus

JOHN CROSS

That second year, our senior year, we thought we were going to repeat as state champions. We were beating everybody. Then there was the game in Lakota where it started to come apart. And we were never the same.

The Lakota team was playing rough. Haraldsen was trying to get me riled up. He said, “Lakota — they’re like the sworn enemy of the Ojibwe, aren’t they? You aren’t gonna let some Lakotas knock us out, are you?” I hate that shit. People always try to make deep points by calling up my Indian heritage. They don’t know anything about it.

What did get me worked up was when they took out Mark Timms. He wasn’t that good at anything but passing, but nobody ever paid attention to him and he could really work the ball around the court if Finn got tied up. He made this great steal, starting flying up the court, was sailing up in the air like a bird and this guy from Lakota took a chop at his back and knocked him flat on his face. Bad cut on his forehead, they were worried about a concussion. Our bus driver grabs the coach’s car and runs the kid off to hospital in Grand Forks.

I was like a bull after that, just plowing through those guys. I almost never fouled but I ended up going out on fouls. I let myself get angry. But we were on a run. When I fouled out we were up by fifteen points. They never had a chance after that.

After the game we all pile into the bus, which has been left running outside, it’s about twenty below, maybe forty below with the windchill. We’re sitting there for fifteen or twenty minutes, all the cars clear out and we’re there all alone. People are joking around, whooping it up because of the tear we went on at the end, how we beat them by so much when it had been so close most of the game. There are a couple bottles of vodka or something getting passed around. Our bus driver never noticed stuff like that, you could practically take a sip while you were talking to him and he wouldn’t notice. But that’s when somebody remembers that our bus driver is in Grand Forks.

It’s just the seven of us left on the team, four or five cheerleaders, and the ten people in the band who are the pep band. People are saying, “Who’s going to drive?”  I had taken a sip of the booze, but only one sip. My mind was still hard from the game, from seeing Mark go down, so I had laid off it. People wanted Finn or Chris to drive, they were really the leaders, but Finn said he’d had too much to drink. I thought one of the cheerleaders should do it, but a bunch of the guys said they didn’t want a girl driving. So after awhile, somebody said I should do it.

I didn’t want to do it, because I knew there was probably going to be trouble about a student driving us home and it was likely to be worse if I did it. But nobody would do it so finally I sat down and got us going. I had driven farm trucks before so I thought I could probably do it. Everybody was yelling and hollering and I stopped suddenly and got up and they all shut up and I said they were going to have to be quiet if I was going to drive. The wind was blowing snow off the roof of the school and around the parking lot and people looked at that and shut up. They were quiet the whole way home.

The road was hard to see in spots with the snow blowing across it. A few times there was so much ground drift across the road the bus slid on it a little. I kept it down around 40 miles per hour. By the time we were getting close to town, they had realized we were missing. A police car picked us up about ten miles out of town. He pulled me over. He came into the bus and started yelling, what the hell was I doing hijacking the bus. Kids started telling him what happened and that we had been left behind. He told them to shut up and he started in on me again, said I was going to get arrested for driving without a bus license. I stood up and told him I’d be happy to ride the rest of the way to town, we just wanted to get home. He didn’t know what to do, it was just him, so finally he tells me I can drive the rest of the way. I drove the bus into school and parked it. Most everybody packed into cars and drove off. I got to go over to the police station and get a ticket. He told me there were other things he could charge me for, they would see about that.

The next Monday, at school, I get called in for school discipline because I had driven the bus. I kept asking people, “They asked me to drive and I did. What else should I have done?” Nobody had an answer for that. I’m sure if it had been one of the other guys, they’d have slapped their wrists, maybe, said don’t do it again. They were talking about suspending me. Finn said it was ridiculous, said he would try to get his dad to say something to the principal, Mr. Lee, but I guess he wouldn’t do it.

So I was going to get suspended for a week. Then they realized it might cost us a couple of games and the chance to play in the state tournament. So I got called in the office again, told never to do it again, and told that they were being generous and would skip my suspension if I didn’t get in any more trouble. I never got in any trouble, so that was stupid. I was pretty careful around that school, like I am now. I knew what was going on. I knew they wanted to do worse because I wasn’t one of them. And they were only letting me off because they cared more about winning basketball games than they cared about the rules that were supposed to be so important. It was ugly in both ways. Sometimes I’m surprised I came back

84 / 365 – A Garden

It was six miles from the Tillary’s farm to the Nilsson’s. Eight sections between. The county roads rise and fall across the waves of the prairie, a soft white line pencilled across the rolling flatness. The sandy roadbed crunches softly beneath the bike’s tread. The section near the top of the farm is seldom travelled. Dried brown grass clump between the wheelruts. At a crest in the road he stops. He stands astride the bike, looking out. The wind tickles its fingers through the feathered tops of the durum. Ripples in the golden sea. The neighbor’s field across the road is planted in sunflowers, bright and yellow and leaning. Yellow and gold spread out to the shelterbelt. A stand of poplars sway and lean east out of the wind, light green topping sticklike trunks. Dark green shrubs, ash and chokecherry, crowd between the trunks. The sun is warm on the back of his neck. A pair of birds spring suddenly from the field with a sharp rasp. They wheel circles around each other, calling, and aim away toward the far trees. Other birds answer, unseen, from the wheat and sunflowers.

He is here. This is it. The blue of the sky wheels around him.

In all the years he has been away, he has never felt this. A feeling of being at the center of gravity. Laura called it the Navel of Home.

His hands rest on the bike’s bright blue frame. Absently he reaches over and pulls the feathery ends of wheatgrass growing from the side of the road, from the narrow strip not touched by tractor or chemical. Its tips are soft. He reaches down and picks at up a fistful of the sunhardened stems. A weed. But as Mr. Nilsson taught him, when he began to moonlight for the Department of Natural Resources, one of the few native plants you could find near town. Looking back out across the swaying sea of grain, it occurs to him this is all artifice. The fields of wheat and beans and sunflowers and canola, criss-crossed by shelterbelts. The dusty road. None of it is native to this place. As he looks at the land spreading away from him he sees for the first time the spread of the transformation, a landscape wholly made by people who came, broke the sod, ploughed up the grasses, cut furrows and planted crops, planted shelterbelts to keep the loosed soil from blowing away. It is the world, spreading as far as the eye can see, a world imagined and made, not the world given.