you can't go home again -- Thomas Wolfe
Thomas Wolfe never lived in North Dakota. Whenever I return to Mayville, where I was born and spent most of my childhood, I am always struck by how much of it feels the same. Twenty-five years disappear with my first glance at Main Street..
It's partly an illusion, of course. The streets and buildings may look the same, but most of the old businesses are gone. Gift shops and video rental stores have replaced hardware and grocery stores..
The economy is much different, harder now.
Still, in a nation of perpetual and frantic change, a surreal, surface timeliness holds sway. The rituals, the rhythms of life feel the same. Old men still shuffle toward the same stools in the same cafes. Children still loop lazily across the streets on their bicycles on late summer evenings, unattended, safe. The gossip is about the same. The kindness, and the pettiness.
When I was in my mid-20s, like so many young people from North Dakota, I left the state for a better job elsewhere. Like thousands and thousands of others, I never came back, not to live. North Dakotans think of themselves as the last of small-town Americans. But, really, we are largely economic or social exiles. For almost a century now, the state has been sending too many of its young into the larger world.
Most of my old friends from high school and college now live elsewhere. Some left in search of opportunity. Some left just to get away. Growing up in Mayville in the 1970s, I remember the town's conservative expectations weighing on me like a gravestone. I remember standing on the roof of the abandoned chicken coop on our farmstead and staring as far south as I could, which was all the way to the horizon, trying to see beyond the rim of my world, trying to imagine everything that was happening out there. I remember longing to escape.
So I finally did.
Yet North Dakota is always there, waiting for you, waiting for you to come to terms with both its strengths and weakness. You can go home again. The character of the people, the little towns, the broad unchanging sweep of the land itself, are still there..
This is both a blessing and a curse. The state gives its expatriates an unusual chance to come to terms with their own histories. The past is waiting for most of us down the end of a flat highway. With luck, we can use that chance to understand, appreciate and even forgive a little more than we ever expected. We may come to appreciate small-town qualities we once denigrated, recognize the virtues of habits we once dismissed as provincial..
But if the past is still full of unresolved questions, buried anger, enduring grievance, then the time-in-a-bottle nature of so much of the state is a trap. The setting for your old unhappiness is still there, and they've hardly moved the furniture. It's all just waiting for you..
This edited excerpt from a novel I am working on is not about me, but it is about trying to understand these feelings. The character, David Petrovsky, fled his small town and family many years earlier with a sense it was the only way he would survive. Now he returns to his hometown (which I have cleverly named Mayriver, so you won't confuse it with my hometown) and a brother he hasn't seen in years. He returns to North Dakota, this odd, unlikely place he finds etched still at the base of his heart.
He had been driving for two and a half days and the world was starting to bend and blur in the corners of his vision. His journey had taken him across desert, forests of oddly balanced stone, vertiginous green slopes, and then into the long, familiar unfurling of the middle plains, his inner landscape, still, after all these years. When he dreamed of country, it was always this country, the lazy swell and trough of the grassland, the ribbon-straight roads, the imposition of order as you turned east: trees in surveyor's lines, square miles of earth tilled black, square miles of grain cut close, a golden burr beneath a limpid sky. It was late October; he was thirty-four years old, and he was returning to North Dakota for the first time in eight years.
Scott had called. Their father was dead. David had waited for the story, some last flamboyant gesture, a leap from the top of the grain elevator toward a five-gallon drum of rum and Coke, or a bet he could lie down on the railroad tracks and disconnect the engine from the rest of the train while it rumbled overhead..
But it had been a stroke in the middle of the night, and there was nothing to the tale except a blind groping of the old man's hand toward Scott's shoulder in the ambulance, a grip still strong enough to leave a bruise, then the word from the doctor an hour later, the drawn curtain, and the fact that Scott had forgotten to call the priest for last rites, which meant there was now some debate over whether Father Otto would preside over the funeral.
He reached Fargo on I-94 and was surprised how the city had lapped out of its old boundaries in a scrim of cheap apartment blocks, oversize discount stores and chain motels. Well, it was part of the United States after all, and he guessed he shouldn't be surprised that the tide of prosperity had floated its debris to this almost-urban outpost on the edge of the Big Empty. The country was booming; money was the trump card in any debate. Still, it left him melancholy. He had driven nearly two thousand miles from Los Angeles, mostly through unspoiled country. He wanted to think of the Red River Valley that way, although he knew it was false nostalgia. God didn't use plows. This had always been a manmade landscape, a world pressed into being.
He drove north on I-29. Sky and earth. Small towns. Everything looked the same to him: the silver grain elevator pricking the heart of each town; the railroad tracks running out of both ends like a wire stringing them all together. He remembered the country at night, so black and empty that each town floated like a single blurred light, and sometimes you saw the Burlington Northern moving between them, sparks jumping off the boxcar wheels in the dark like fireflies, an artery of fire, impossibly thin, stretched across the distance.
The sun was setting and the colors bloomed: a grossly theatrical pink curtain, laced with threads of scarlet, a fringe of midnight blue. The best sunsets in the world, his father always said. Why not? They had to be somewhere. Why not here? His thirty-four years had yet to bring him to a place with more sky or a slower unwinding of the day. He recalled the summer sun slanting toward the earth for hours, stalling on the horizon like a deflated beach ball..
Now, in mid-autumn, the show was shorter but no less spectacular, a violent fan of color, the sun tumbling as if off a table, slipping beneath the rim of the Red River Valley before you caught your breath. It filled him with a host of uneven, familiar voices. Who are you now? Who do you think you are now? He thought of his earth-tone apartment in Sherman Oaks, the pastel-covered scripts piled on the desk, and the old whispers made him impatient..
He turned on to 200 in the deepening blue and there was no escaping the unscrolling of the years. He followed a succession of earlier selves down the highway. Every curve, tree, stand of cattails, farmhouse window glowing yellow rose before him with such familiarity, such a sense of fundamental remembrance, that he was lost in a funhouse of his first eighteen years. David Petrovskys multiplied in front and around him until he was herding the whole dead weight of his early life along the narrow road.
There were no other cars in sight. He pulled over and stepped onto the gravel shoulder. The air held the scent of turned earth. The first stars were directly overhead. Lights from the Lovelace house escaped a stand of trees. A thought came to him: You have screwed up so many times and in such splendid ways since you left here, what can your first eighteen years matter? Ask Kattarina if she cares; count the pages in the trash can and the halting music on those you saved, those that miraculously ended up being read or spoken by someone. Then remind yourself how lucky you have been despite it all..
The road was just a road. The fields and the trees and the smells in the air were part of the past. The past was the past. He drove the last miles slowly. As he took the final curve he was surprised by a row of grain bins glinting like 1950's spaceships. A strip of cheap townhouses swung into view. Everything else was as he remembered. Mayriver appeared as a swelling in the landscape, an island of trees topped by the ghostly presence of the water tower. The reassuring bulk of the brick college buildings anchoring the north end of town swung into view, the highway straightened out, and the college disappeared. The town was a wall of trees, the bright lights of the CENEX station a lonely herald at the gates..
He drove in. The old A W Drive-in had become the A and M. Had the letter just tipped over? The Mayriver Motel was still next door, and, from there, it was all the same, the streets, the homes, the yellow-brick-road pools of light beneath the streetlights. Time had no purchase here. Years hung suspended in air. You could run your hand through them, brush them off on your sleeve, shake them out of your hair, dance through them like rain. You could count them and, unlike snowflakes, they were all the same. You could hold your breath, but sooner or later you would breathe them in. Stopped. Back. Home..
Such crap. Nothing hung in the air but dust. The town was bone-dry, an empty glass. He had drank down everything it had to offer a long time ago. It was a place, nothing more.
Scott's house was on the edge of town, a huge place for a single man, with a white barn and a three-car garage. A piece of paper taped to the door: "Out at Dad's." So he drove back down the highway in the dark, back down the county road and turned into the old gravel driveway. Lights on everywhere in the house. All as it had been. So many nights. He remembered driving down the road drunk and thinking this is home, home, and he remembered driving in clear-eyed and heartless about everything, the light in the house turning inside him like a knife, a feeling he would use to cut himself free..
Park in front of the garage. Up the porch steps. The old screen door. The kitchen table. The family room smelling of cigarettes. Pall Mall straights.
He found Scott in their father's bedroom, surrounded by shoes. He pulled himself up to shake David's hand, a heavy warm grip, matching the solidity of Scott at 32, the short stocky legs, the powerful chest behind the sweater. The same boyish charm lit his smile, but it seemed to float at an odd distance. He settled back onto the floor and David noticed a crown of thinning hair.
"Five pairs of black dress shoes," Scott said. "Six pairs of brown loafers. Our father was Imelda Marcos..
David sat on the edge of the bed. He looked at the strewn about penny loafers, oxfords, zip-up Beatle boots and the thought their father was truly dead settled on him with a blank finality. Dead. Their father. "You want any of these," Scott said, "they're yours..
He shook his head and, after a moment, managed to add, "Maybe a sweater..
His brother swept the shoes into a pile beside a cardboard box. "I'll take care of this later. Let's get a beer..
The risen moon outlined the hill, the solitary tree, the edge of the field in a rim of frost. Scott turned out the lights behind them and they sat on the porch in the dark. "It's a little cold for this..
Scott laughed. "I knew California would turn you into a pussy. This is not cold, bro..
David remembered the way neither his brother nor his father would wear anything heavier than a sweater until the snow fell, a stubborn refusal to give into the long months ahead. He settled back into his creaking chair and stuck his hands into the pockets of his jacket. His brother held his beer between his legs and didn't move.
"You doing all right?" "Oh yeah. I mean, you know ..." Scott stared at the hill and the moonlit creek. "That priest. I should have thought to call him ..."
"Don't worry about that."
"I don't. I just want everything to go all right -- there's a lot of people coming to the funeral, and --" He shrugged and drank his beer.
"I'll take care of it. I'll talk to him. You're handling everything else."
"Thanks. I can't stand him..
He sipped from the beer and settled his feet on the railing, avoiding David's eyes.
"He had old Mrs. Skarsrud over here. Cooking her a steak on the grill. Who knows what he had planned after that. It was about one in the morning. He told her he had a headache and then he falls sideways on the couch. She calls 911 and I'm on call for the ambulance, can you believe that? Ten years as a volunteer fireman and I've never done anything more important than put out ditch fires, and now I end up taking him into the hospital..
He shook his head as if he still couldn't believe this had happened.
"Anyway, I was the driver. I was supposed to be driving, but I got in back with him and I'm talking to him. Just talking. Shit, I don't know if he can hear me, but it just seems like I should say something, and then he reaches up and he sort of grabs for my shoulder, and he's still got a grip, just about crushes me. I take his hand and he squeezes the hell out of it, and then we're at the hospital. Doc Christianson came and gave me the news about an hour later. I had them pull the curtain and I spent a little time with him, but you know, that's just nothing. It's not like they're sleeping. It all goes out of them, right away. You can see it."
"I think --" "So I call you and I come back here and I never think to call the priest."
"Don't worry about that."
"I'm not ... Man..
They drank and watched the moon. Watched the moon and drank.
"You know the last time I saw him we went over to Cormac's," David said.
Scott nodded. His brother's face was still young, soft and round, with round lively eyes and a broad, solemn forehead. "Eight years ago. I was out of town.".
A smile, but the last words said a little too flatly. I've been gone too long, David thought. Give it time. It'll be all right.
"Yeah ... I went out to look at the Old ABM site. Somebody at Universal thought it might make a great fortress at the end of the world for this bad thriller they were trying to put together. Anyway, I stayed in the motel but I stopped by and we ended up going to Cormac's. That was when the doctors had told dad he had to cut down and he was trying to ration himself to six cigarettes and one whiskey a day."
"The first time they told him to cut down."
"I suppose. Anyway, we're there, sitting at Cormac's bar in the basement, and you know how it is: every time my drink gets one inch below the rim, Cormac fills it. I'm drinking whiskey and water and pretty soon I'm not drinking anything but whiskey and we're arm wrestling and Cormac about kills me, and when I can't see across the goddamn room and he's talking about taking out the shotgun, I figure it's time to leave. Dad's been milking this one watered down rum and Coke all night."
"He did that for awhile."
"I'm driving because he forgot his glasses at home. He's blind. I get us down to the first corner and then I'm sick. I'm leaning out of the door heaving my guts out, and he says, 'Davey, what's a matter? Are you drunk?'.
"I say, 'Damn right I'm drunk. I've been drinking straight whiskey for three hours with your damn friend.' And he says, 'Well, you better let me drive.' And I say, 'You can't drive. You're blind!' And he's sitting there, happy as a little kid, like he can't believe it, and he says, 'Yeah, but Davey, I'm sober!'.
They laughed together and it wasn't funny. David found it still wasn't funny..
Scott said, "Might have been the only time he ever came back from Cormac's sober."
"Might have been the only time anybody ever came back from Cormac's sober."
"You know, when his eyesight first got like that? The doctor told me they think now that might have been a first stroke."
"Really?" "Yeah. They say that now. When it doesn't matter..
Scott finished off his beer. He glanced at David's still half full bottle and disappeared into the house. David closed his eyes and thought he could hear the warmth exhaled slowly from the earth. He was freezing.
"How are things in LA?" Scott said, settling back in his chair. "Everybody getting rich?" "Not me. Everybody else" "The whole country's getting rich. Except here," Scott said. "It's okay to be greedy. Hell, it's good for the country. It should be the best damn time in the history of the world to be a thirty-two-year-old white guy trying to make money. But we're sinking here. You want to make a dime in this town, you pretty much gotta squeeze it outta someone a penny at a time..
Scott was invested in half a dozen ventures, the seed plant on the edge of town, the video store, a bean cooperative David didn't completely understand. He realized he actually didn't know if his brother was doing all right or about to go under. "The farm economy is countercyclical," he said.
His brother swigged his beer.
"If that means it doesn't make any sense, you're right."
"You know what it means."
"Economics? We don't got economics here, brother. You don't have economics on the plantation. We barely got barter. Anyway, it sucks and day-after-tomorrow we bury the old man..
That left them drinking for a bit. "You know, Camille is back in town," Scott said.
David listened to the trees creak in the wind. It was too cold to be out here. He wasn't going to let his thoughts slide outside the radius of the yard. He was back for a week and then gone. He was long gone and this was a parachute drop to the natives. He was less than history, he was a rumor, a forgotten name in the yearbook, a ghost that would appear at an open grave and then disappear before you could be sure what you'd seen. "Lots of people like to see you," Scott said.
"I doubt that..
His brother laughed. "Well, a few..
Scott drained his Budweiser -- Budweiser! -- and stepped through the door into the kitchen. He held two bottles between his fingers when he returned.
"You know she's divorced."
"Yes. I know she's divorced."
"Still a good looking woman."
"If you don't shut up. I'm going to kick your sorry butt off this porch and down the hill..
Scott laughed again, held his beer up toward the stars, so clear in the unblemished air they hardly seemed to blink.
"My brother's baaack," he announced.
David visited the priest and, four blocks from the church, decided to walk the rest of the way to the funeral home. He was surprised at his pounding heart, his shaking hands. He parked in front of the bakery and made himself stroll down Main Street..
The sun was warm. It was one of those bright, still autumn days when the colors are crisp and yet soft at the same time. There was a single elderly woman coming out of Holvig's Drug down the street. No one else around. He walked past the empty windows of the old Sears Catalog store, then the broader dusty plate glass of what had been the Coast to Coast store. He stopped, cupped his eyes and stared through the dust at the empty space inside, remembering how they had kept the pup tents and BB guns in the farthest corner. Of course, it had seemed much bigger.
Ashberry's cafe was still open. The drug store. One hardware store and a new video rental shop. But a third of the storefronts seemed deserted and another third seemed to be gift shops, the kind that featured hand-knotted potholders and carved letter boxes and would be lucky to average two sales a day. From the prosperity of his early childhood, to the collapse of the 80s, the town seemed to have slid into a threadbare but graceful sort of retirement. A dignified surrender to reduced circumstances..
He remembered when he had thought this street was the center of the world, and then when he had been painfully aware it was not. There might be nothing easier in the world to despise than small-town shopkeepers, and he remembered clearly when he had hated the men and women running the businesses here, their Civic Clubs, their Crazy Days and Moonlite Madnesses. It had all seemed like puffing, preening self-importance to him, a kind of flat-earth society that insisted in putting this infinitesimal dot at the center of the universe..
But now he understood it for what it was, a desperate attempt to stave off the jackbooted march of the country toward bigger and better. Toward this day. Now, too late, he wished them well.
His brother was standing on the porch of the funeral home taking a breath of fresh air.
"There's nobody in there right now. But they've been coming by all morning. How'd it go with Father Otto?" "Fine. No problem. The ladies are serving coffee and cake downstairs..
Scott nodded, let out a breath. They stood together, looking at the Sons of Norway hall across the street.
"Nice day," Scott said.
"Well. I suppose I should ..."
"Sure. They did a good job with him. I mean, they put a little makeup on, but I guess they have to. It's kind of an old suit." He shrugged. "But it was the best that fit him."
"I'm sure it looks fine."
"Yeah. It's not like it's going to be on display for a real long time, right? I don't suppose the worms care..
Scott's laugh sounded like pieces of sandpaper rubbing together. David opened the door and followed the hall to the viewing room. The casket was mounted on a table hung with folds of red velvet. Passing the empty folding chairs, he wondered at the color. A kneeling stool waited at the front of the casket, but he stood, placing his hands on the cold blue stainless steel.
His father's flesh had fallen away and his nose was hawklike, his cheekbones severe. Lips the color of dried blood had been fashioned into what was supposed to be a neutral line, emblematic of repose, but looked to David like a frown he remembered from his childhood, one of vague dissatisfaction, as if his father was waiting to discover what it was that was going to irritate him. Except, of course, it didn't seem like his father lying there at all. The body was shrunken, smaller and echoed hollowly within his own chest. Like saying good-bye to a statue: that was Hemingway. But what it felt like was saying good-bye to a collapsed balloon. He noticed the gleam on the folded hand and was astonished to see the wedding ring there still, after all these years. He considered it and reached out to touch his father's hand. He made his fingers linger. What he felt reminded him of the dissected animals of biology class, the chemical dampness of bottled flesh. Surprisingly cold. He turned and walked back down the hall and out the door, past his brother, and out onto the sidewalk and down the street into the sun.