191 / 365 – Seduction

SARAH BERGMAN

The first time I went into the cafe it was to take pictures. Since we’d come here I was walking around, kind of in a daze. Had I really done this? What was I going to do here? I had gotten a job to teach a class of photography down at the community college by Devil’s Lake. But after I got Leah up and off to school, I was alone all day. Wandering around the couple of blocks of downtown like a ghost.

I could see through the windows, the curve of the bar, the chrome rim to it. The chrome barstools. There were so many things in the room that looked like they had been frozen from the 40s or 50s, like the old chrome clock or the wooden and metal placards with those stupid sayings on them. Not the kitschy ones like they make now that are all ironic. There was one for an cream separator machine. Another one for a brand of gasoline. And calendars, six or seven of them hung up from the 1980s. It must have been closed a long time, and everything was just set in place like they were waiting for the owner to come back and open it back up. The vinyl in the booths was covered in dust but it had this faded look that I thought would photograph well. I could imagine a series of photographs, probably with the colors emphasized to look like old polaroids. I could picture them on a wall in one of the little failing galleries in Boston where I used to show things. So I thought, this would be my project.

It took awhile to find the owner. There was a ‘for lease’ sign in the window but the agent whose name was on it was long gone. I found out that the building’s owners had a farm just south of town. The flower shop next door and the plumbing business were the only places paying rent, and that wasn’t doing much more than covering taxes. They hoped it wasn’t going to need a new roof soon, because they might close it up then. I drove out to see them and they just gave me a key to the place.

I decided to take my time. I went there a lot, over a few weeks, seeing what the light was like at different times of day, like in the early morning when the sun crested the row of storefronts across the street and streamed into the windows. Or at midday when it shone from overhead. Or in the evening when the light cast reds and browns from the brick building across the street, the old theater, and the light played long shadows across the counter and up the walls above the grill. It was dusty in there and I tried not to disturb it at first. I found I liked it in all kinds of light. I just liked being there.

And my idea of what I was doing slowly changed. I stopped imaging the scene in these dusty Polaroid colors or in black and white. I wanted to see it crisp and new. I imagined it with people in it, talking. Having conversations that I wasn’t having with anyone. For awhile I thought about painting it so that I could have it look all spruced up, just empty and waiting for people. I wondered how much work it would be. Then I imagined actually having people in there.

That was right around the time my mother called and said they wanted to give me some of what I would inherit when they were gone. It wasn’t much, but it was more than I would ever save up, especially out here where it was impossible to find a job.

It took me over. I had fallen in love with it. Only someone as stupid as me would have imagined it full again of people and then said, “I want to bring it back to life.” And think she could do it, with no experience in running a cafe. I just knew something about seeing people happy. I wanted to see people happy, relaxed, enjoying themselves in a place. Maybe because I wanted that for myself. It’s like this place cast a spell on me and said, “I can be the place where you find this happiness you want.” I don’t know if it’s really made me happy — it’s made me worry, morelike. But it’s been better than sitting at home.

 

190 / 365 – Jellyfish

FINN TILLARY

There was a guy in my unit who was a diver. I mean, he didn’t dive for the Army, but whenever he had any leave, he was off somewhere to go diving. The guy was from Iowa, a farm boy too. He was older than me — in for more than ten years. Didn’t go to college — most of those guys didn’t. Straight from high school into Army and then diving. Didn’t have a family or anything.

I said, “You went into the wrong service. You should have joined the Navy. Then you could probably do it every day.”

He said, “Yeah, but who from Iowa goes into the Navy? Most people haven’t seen water bigger than their stock pond.”

He a picture of himself in all this gear — a black suit, tanks, mask, that mask for the oxygen. Almost like a space suit, except it was him somewhere in the South Pacific. He showed it to me one night while we were out having beers. I said, “You should do a promo for the Navy, for people in Iowa, and you could walk out of a stock pond in Iowa.” He didn’t think that was as funny as everyone else. I said, “You could be holding a string of fish. Then people would sign right up. Everyone likes a better way to fish.”

He always talked about diving whenever we were off duty. Over meals in the canteen. My friend Craig who roomed with him said he talked about it in the dark to put himself to sleep. If we were out with other people, he’d pull that picture out and tell a story about a dive somewhere. He liked that picture. It was like his whole personality was wrapped up in scuba gear. I said, “I thought the South Pacific was all warm and tropical. This looks like you should be swimming with Polar Bears.”

He said it was because of jellyfish. He’d gotten stung somewhere once, Australia or something, and almost died. I didn’t know anything about jellyfish. I thought maybe they just stung real bad or something. He said that if he’d gotten stung worse or there’d been more of them, he could have died in five minutes. You didn’t want to get him talking about jellyfish. After diving, it was his favorite topic. If you got tired of hearing about diving somewhere or what kind of tanks to use or how deep he had been, you’d steer him onto jellyfish. I used to know a ton about jellyfish, way more than I ever wanted to know.

He told me they were taking over the oceans. He said they had always been a problem in warm places like Australia, where you couldn’t swim in the ocean in the summer on the north because they were so thick you’d die in five minutes in the water. But now they were taking over everywhere. He said the Black Sea was full of them — they were killing off all the sturgeon. Nobody was going to be able to get caviar any more. He said someone had told him there was an area off the coast of Africa where they were so thick it was like a wall of poison jelly the size of South Carolina. He said when they were having the Sydney Olympics a huge school of them appeared out in the ocean right where they were going to have the swimming part of the triathlon. I guess they have to swim in the ocean. They thought all the triathletes were going to get killed. Then this huge swarm, like the size of a small city, suddenly disappeared. This guy was always talking about jellyfish like that, like they were the monster in some kind of zombie movie. Maybe it is that bad, I don’t know. I’m up here and there’s no ocean for a thousand miles in any direction. I don’t exactly have to worry about them.

I said that to him once and he said, “Oh, but you’re making a new home for them.” He talked about the dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi. I’d never heard of that, but he said it was a huge area where the Mississippi went into the Gulf of Mexico, where there was so much fertilizer runoff and other chemicals from the river that nothing could live. There was no oxygen in the water for fish or crabs or whatever else lives out there. Except jellyfish, I guess. I guess they can slow down or something so they can survive where there’s not enough oxygen. So huge swarms of them are forming out in the dead zone in the gulf. He said, “Just wait till they come near shore during Spring Break some year. Then everyone’ll know about it.”

I said, “Well, I don’t know if the runoff is that bad from where I’m from, but anyway it flows north. The creeks where I’m from drain into the Pembina and then into Red River, and they all flow north. Into the Hudson Bay. The Arctic Ocean.

He said, “Just wait. Pretty soon they’ll be jellyfish clogging Hudson Bay, too. The Arctic ice is melting. Who knows what will grow up there?” It was like he was rubbing his hands together, all excited at the prospect. That’s what this shit does to people.

189 / 365 – Encircled

FINN TILLARY

People don’t know North Dakota, except they fly over it and they look down and they see nothing. Brown maybe, and a grid of roads. I guess that’s what a lot of people think of as empty. When I was in the army, I’d be out with guys and if I said anything good about North Dakota, they’d say, “Man, I don’t know how you could like it. What’s out there? I’d at least want to see a big building, or a mountain or a hill or something.”

It’s open, but it’s full. I’ve known guys can’t deal with the opposite — a big city, or being surrounded by big mountains. Maybe that’s me, too. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t live in Chicago. My dad once had us all out to Colorado for the big ski vacation. Everybody got new ski gear, all kinds of bright blues and yellows and oranges and we packed all this stuff up in the van and drove it all the way to Grand Forks, and unloaded it and checked it in and bounced through three flights — there to Chicago and then to Denver and then to some little mountain town, I don’t remember. And then we had to pack up all our bright new gear into a little car that was way too small and head up to a resort. And my dad was getting agitated the whole time, and the whole week we were there, he was on a short fuse. Blowing up at everyone after he had a drink or two in the evening. That’s when he still drank a lot. I had never skiied before but I was learning and Ben was learning and Christine was complaining the whole time because she kept falling down in the snow and thinking she’d broken something. And I thought, Man we all have this nice stuff and for what? We all hate this.

After we got back, my dad apologized, one of the rare times he ever did that, and said he thought being circled by all those mountains made him feel trapped, like an animal or something. I thought he was crazy, but I thought he was crazy a lot in those days.

After that, the only place he ever wanted to go for a vacation was Florida. Hit balls around a bunch of golf courses and not be cold. He thought that would be great bonding for us, if I would go out with him and a bunch of other old rich guys every day and hit balls around. I think Ben did it for awhile. By that time I couldn’t stand doing anything with him. I’d try to make up some excuse, like I had a basketball clinic or the work was really stacking up at the shop, so I couldn’t go. Usually he wanted to go in the winter, which is basketball season anyway, so it worked out. And I could say, hey, it’s more important for you to go sit on your ass in the warm sun that to drive through a snowstorm to watch your son play basektball. And it was. But I didn’t care.

188 / 365 – Morning Light

FINN TILLARY

We slept in these dorms that were containers. Modular units, shipped over, all the same inside. A lot of the guys I was with were reservists, a little older, so they had older kids. A lot of them had pictures of their families and drawings up on their walls from their children. I had a little snapshot of Kate that I taped to the wall, but the wall got hot during the day and after awhile the tape didn’t stick. I’d come back at night and it would be on the floor and I’d spent five or ten minutes trying to press it on just right so it would stay up there, right above my head. After awhile I gave up. My mother had her whole class make me cards, which were really just stick-drawings of people and rabbits and dogs and notes that said things like “Thank you Corporal Tillery!” or, “We miss you! Come home soon!” Which of course I didn’t know anyone so how could they miss me. But I was glad to have them. The container didn’t have any windows, so taping them up on the wall above my bed made it feel like I had windows.

In the mornings in the summer I’d step out and the sun would strike you. You forget, you’re up high, the light is different. It’s a pretty barren place, Afghanistan. Like the desert. People think North Dakota is like that, empty and barren, nothing in it, but you haven’t seen anything until you’ve been to Afghanistan. Some days I’d get out and in that harsh morning sun, I’d look at the burned hills and mountains and think, “We’re fighting over this? Let ‘em have it. Maybe the reason they live up here is nobody wants it.”

I was just on the base most of the time, until the end. Parts of it were old, but so many more soldiers were coming in they had to build on it. Somebody told me it was built by the Americans, after World War II. Then the Soviets had it. Then after the attack on New York, we took it over again. You’d think we’d learn something by being there so long and still not controlling anything.

The base is so huge, it’s like a city, practically. People come and you can buy things there. They try to cell you cheap stuff, like copies of movies, or computer games. One guy had things he would unwrap from old cloths. He had a big ceramic vase, or an urn, I don’t know what it was. Painted in blue, Chinese. He said it was old, some dynasty I never heard of. He insisted I buy it. I thought, “I don’t even own a bed, not really, and he thinks I should have this vase.”

At night planes and helicopters flew in and brought the bodies of soldiers, brought them in from around the country where units were fighting. They’d ship them out from there back to Germany and back to the US. We had to line up along the roadway and salute as they passed. Whenever the planes came in they’d ring and you’d have to get dressed up and go out. I’d have been working all day, fourteen, sixteen hours, and trying to catch a little sleep and then we had to go out and stand there. It made me feel lucky that at least then I didn’t have to leave the base. Of course it made me more frightened later when I had to go out. I’d stand there and think about the guy, or the woman, who was passing. Think about their family back home. You sent them off and now they’re not coming back. Just a folded flag and maybe a medal or some nice words that probably lost their feeling as they passed along the chain from the unit back to whoever it is goes out to tell people their son or daughter is dead and their whole world is fucked now. In the winter it was freezing when we were out there, standing with snow pelting us in the dark. But we had to stand there and salute anyway. Most of us were glad to do it. You have that feeling, “I’m glad it’s not me.”

Back in Chicago some people asked me if it made me wonder what we were doing, was it worth it being there. It didn’t. Standing there, saluting, watching the bodies, freezing when it was winter, I didn’t think about much of anything except that I wanted to go to sleep. And I was glad it wasn’t me so I could sleep. The only times I wondered what I was doing was when I stepped out of the container in the morning, into that harsh sunlight, and looked at the dead hills and the barren country and think, “What are we doing in this godforsaken place?” It was just in the morning.

187 / 365 – Begin the Story

This is how we tell our story:

It begins in the long hours before dawn, before light. Before the birds gather in the old maples and the ash trees out back, gather and twitter and whistle and call. The lulled rustle of crickets. The slow rise and swish of the breeze, shooing the branches, rattling the wind chime hanging from the sun porch. The unlatched screen creaks back and forth on dry hinges. We begin the story before light, when it can be told from memory, the pictures seen in dreams, even in waking. Before the daylight shines hard on the long flat prairie, reaching unbroken to the shelterbelts and the sky. The daylight reminds us of things, a sound, a thing out of place, that disrupts the neatness of our memory. Daylight can get in the way of a story.

So it starts before the timer clicks on the automatic coffeemaker by the sink in the kitchen. Before the clock radios clink on the country stations out of Minot, Devil’s Lake, and up in Saskatchewan. Before the chorus of birds outside the window will awaken the sleeper.

In the darkness when the trees rustle and he rushes away, shivering, running with sweat, wound up tight like a cornered animal. Sweating and shaking, as he has done since he came back.

186 / 365 – Blowing Away

GUY OSTWALD

The machines, they still are something. When my daughter comes and picks me up for a Sunday dinner and drives me out to her place, I see them on the lot there along the highway. Bigger than the ones we had last year. I hear they have that GPS in them now, will practically drive themselves. The computer in those things is probably more important now than the farmer.

My great-grandfather was a smith, had one of the shops in town when they first settled here, after they came over from Russia. You think about a smith, a guy working a bellows to stoke his fire and banging on steel rods, you probably don’t think about this high-tech, but he was kind of it in those days. If you had a machine, or even a wagon, anything with metal parts, guys like my great-grandfather probably made it or at least were who you had to see to fix it. If you were a farmer, an ambitious farmer trying to plow extra acres, put away some money in the bank or to buy more land, you needed him as much as anybody.

My father bought a tractor during the good years before the droughts, before the Depression. The bank note on that thing just about put him out of business when things dried up. A lot of young families around then had bought up land and things like tractors on loans to the banks. The banks failed and the farmers failed. I remember other kids I knew in school, leaving town on their trucks, headed west or east, most of them, looking to start somewhere else. I guess in our family the word was, Don’t ever take a loan from a bank. Cash on the barrelhead, they said. When my dad took out that note on that new Farmall I guess he got an earful from my grandfather. It was going to ruin him. Didn’t he know not to buy things he couldn’t afford. Well, they almost turned out to be right. We could barely get enough to eat in those days but damned if he wasn’t going to make that payment. Folks here helped each other out, tried to keep the drought from ruining each other. And he did it.

I was never much as a farmer, and I wasn’t a good hand fixing them, like some guys, guys like Fred Vanek. He could listen to a motor like it spoke a language and then fix it. I was never any good at that. But they amazed me. The things they could do. The combines got so they took days and days of work and did it for you. I sold them most of my working life. I loved it. A farmer who really listened, who really learned how to use them, he could do well. And a lot of guys around here did.

Some people say, well, some guys did well, but don’t you see there aren’t nearly so many farmers around here as there once was. I guess there’s something to that. And the ones you see aren’t so young, either. It’s not a profession young people are going into now. Of course, all the young people are oil crazy, seems like. And even a guy like Fred Vanek would have trouble making a go now, unless he learned how to be a computer repairman. The mechanical stuff hardly breaks down now, and you have to be able to talk to the computer to fix it.

Of course, there’s the plant here, and that’s done all right. They don’t make whole plows any more, just big parts to send to the plant back east where they put the whole tractor together. Not as many people may be able to farm any more, but at least there’s jobs here. That plant’s held the town here, I think. It didn’t blow away like so many other towns out this way.

 

185 / 365 – Awake

He heard her rustle in the dark.

You awake? he said.

She rustled again. I can’t sleep, she said.

Me either.

He watched the fan turn on the ceiling. It seemed to chop at the street light that leaked through half-baffled window.

You’re really going? she said.

I have to, he said. I signed up. Maybe it was stupid but I signed up.

Why?

We’ve —. I told you.

You say different things.

I don’t know. Where I’m from, people are going. I don’t know.

There are so many other things —

I’ll be back.

What if you’re not? Lots of people aren’t coming back.

I’ll be back.

What if —. She said, Not everyone is coming back … whole. All the way back.

I’ll be back.

He looked at the ceiling. I’ll bet my friend John went.

John?

The Indian guy, the center on our team. The one that should have gotten the scholarship to the U instead of me. Those guys, his people, they get the shaft, and they always go, first out the gate to fight anyway.

I’ll send you what I earn. I don’t think it’s shit but I’ll send it to you. For the rent.

I don’t want the rent! she said, her voice rising into something like a wail. You always … Why do you do this? Always making this into some … trivial little issue. As if it is.