A portrait of the small town as a young man


I turned off my phone and put it in my desk. I quit Facebook, and closed my email accounts. I deleted my LinkedIn profile, so potential employers wouldn’t be wooed by my two summers at a day camp and unpaid writing internship at an obscure online publication. I unliked all the Pearl Jam concert videos and David Foster Wallace interviews on my YouTube account. The only trace of me I’d leave in New Jersey would be a receipt at the bottom of a Walmart parking lot trash can for three disposable cameras, a bag of tortillas and a case of canned beans.

After miles on highways, quarts of watery gas-station coffee and, at last, tunnels of titanic, late-season GMO corn, I pulled into town. A town deep in the Heartland into whose name on a map I’d stubbed my index finger with my eyes closed. My car’s headlights struck figurines in the windowsill and cast monstrous silhouettes across Ardis’ dining room. I drove toward the farm cottage in the back of the property, the gravel on the driveway popping like corn on a skillet. I stopped for the horse.

“Never mind her,” Ardis said, walking down the hill from her home. “Go, git.”

The horse wandered back into the prairie. Ardis touched my face.

“You shaved,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“How come I ask is I saw your picture online,” Ardis said.

A headshot I took in my parent’s bathroom and used exactly once when my first short story got published in a now-defunct literary journal.

“What happened to your beard?” she asked.

“Oh, I got rid of it a while ago.”

“You on the run or something?”

Maybe. I’d bought a University of Nebraska hat at a gas station on the way to fit in with the locals. I was 30 miles from the center of the country, even farther from home. I’d ghosted my girlfriend at a time when ghosting was just called being a terrible person. I’d rejected a job offer to work in a small publishing house despite literally everyone in my life telling me I should take the job and not move to Nebraska. Not cut ties with my family and friends, move to a town of 2,000 people, write a novel and attempt to pick up Miss Nebraska at the State Fair and convince her to move into a cottage I was renting for $100 a week. “But there are horses,” I’d tell her, and I’d pull out my disposable camera and say, eyes bleeding, “Just wait until I get these developed.”

That would all work.

What was I doing?

I rode my bike into town the next morning, about a half-mile from the cottage. That gave me away pretty quick. “People in this town don’t ride bikes,” the librarian, Ardis’ daughter-in-law, told me.

Certainly I was after some authentic experience. A neo-Luddite, navel-gazing quest to find something real in a world where everything and everyone felt fake. I needed to grow up. Instead, I photocopied pages of local history books for five cents a page and squealed with delight at the smell of hot paper and the sound of clinking change. Oh to read about this town on paper, a stop on the Burlington Northern line. Willa Cather wrote My Ántonia here; two museums and three homesteads are dedicated to her. Boomed in the ’20s, then slowly died over the following 90 years. This was real.

I walked downtown. The streets were paved in perfectly laid brick, which rattled as tractor-trailers barreled through. I was eating French fries in a McDonald’s parking lot months prior when Ardis’ son, a banker in New York, called to see what horrible thing I had designs on doing when I called his mother to see if I could stay in the cottage for several months.

After proving myself harmless, he gave me the town gossip, and I used notes from that conversation to comprise a guided walking tour of the town. There was the old opera building; once thriving, now padlocked and serving as a garage/trash heap. Looking through dusty windows, I saw the covered classic cars Ardis’ son told me the building’s owner, “a shitty man,” kept in there. A Subway, “the place to go out.” A pharmacy, now closed. A bank, now closed. A building front with spectacular art installations made by the town doctor whose wife left her. A bookstore, closed. The Palace, “a good place to get a steak.” South Bar, “a good place to get meth.” The two-lane bowling alley, “a good place to get French toast in the morning.” The shack off Webster, “a good place to get Filipino food from a mail-order bride on Fridays between noon and 2 p.m.” A train station — the train station — that had been picked up and moved two blocks, painted and padlocked. The grain elevator, no longer working. The Republican River, brown and dry and festering.

I walked to the Sinclair gas station. A man in Terminator sunglasses stared at a rotating display of Hunt’s Brothers pizzas, sizzling under orange tubes. A boy and his brother, during school hours, scratched lotto tickets at the counter. They won.

“We’ll take another.”

“You wanna cash in your winner?”

“No, I’ll pay for it.”

The older boy wrote a check for $2.

At the grocery store next-door, I stood in line behind a mother and four children, all jumping and crying around her in a hurricane. A starch-white elderly woman leaned over and asked why they all had cell phones if the mother was paying with WIC stubs.

A better writer, like, say, Tolstoy, would’ve taken all that information, gone back to his cottage and wrote about how every dying American small town is miserable and dying and small in its own way. I bought an iced tea and ate a bean taco and wrote about trains.

“What the hell are you doing here?”

That’s what Jeff asked after a few rounds in South Bar a few afternoons later. The draw of two-dollar Budweisers had called me.

“What the fuck are you gonna write about us for?”

Well, I’m not really going to write about you… I’m just here to write.

And so it was that Jeff would say, “Hey, write this one down,” every time he said something important. Hay “making bank” because Texas and Oklahoma were in a drought. A joke about how you know you’re in Kansas if you’re banging a goat. How he can’t be tied down because he “lives by the tracks.”

“Jeff, quit it. Your wife left ’cause you’re screwing around all over town,” the bartender, a senior at the University of Nebraska, cut in.

Jeff and a buddy invited me to see what life really was like down by the tracks after a long night at South Bar a few days later. The bartender told me, definitively, not to go. We sat in the backyard as quarter-sized mosquitoes made half-dollar-sized bubbles in our skin, and Jeff smoked meth. They say life in small towns can feel like a drain, and I felt like I was at the bottom, where the water swirls fast, so fast you can’t see outside it. If our country were a pool, here in the center of it the horizons would be most obscured.

The next morning, Ardis and her husband took me for a ride around the area. Ardis had moved from Lebanon, Kansas, 30 miles south, the actual geographic center of the lower 48. We ate lunch in the town’s general store — a buffet with meatloaf, potatoes and green beans for $3.45. Everyone was over the age of 65, at least, and I wondered how. How is this town going to survive? How does it even exist?

We drove by a field of glimmering building frames, long abandoned mid-construction by a group of Transcendental Meditation practitioners, who were going to build a center for world peace at the direction of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. “They were weird, and then they stopped coming,” Ardis said. “Don’t know how come they chose here,” her husband added.

We stopped for a milkshake, 89 cents, in a neighboring town with even more empty storefronts. “It’s hard,” Ardis said. “We need more people to come back. They leave, and they don’t come back.” Her husband added, “They say they will.”

Back in town, I went to a volleyball game at the high school. The bleachers could accommodate the whole town, and then some, but only the parents were there. The announcer introduced every player, and mentioned where the seniors would be going the following year. Many were off to a state school, some to the community college up the road, and some players had to sweat out a pregnant silence that gestated after their names. A parent curious about my presence eventually told me they can only field a six-man football team, and in fact, all the high schools in south-central Nebraska had switched to six-man football years ago.

“So why are you here again?”

I had no answer anymore. I was exposed. A voyeur. I had options elsewhere. I had lived a life that afforded me the privilege of throwing it all away and, still, expect to regain most of it whenever it was I returned. If I was looking for authenticity, it was there. It was ugly. If I was looking for solitude to write free from my own life, I found it. If I was looking to escape, with horses and meth and Miss Nebraska, I could escape forever. It was lonesome.

I was fooling myself if I thought just living in a cottage on the end of town made me anything other than a tourist. I wanted this town to exist, but only for me.

I dawdled around town for a few more weeks, continuing to write. Soon, though, my fingers were just moving on keys. The words didn’t make sense. I missed my friends. I missed my family. I missed the creature comforts of a stepping-stone job, of Pearl Jam videos, of sardonic Facebook commentary, of a phone with a camera on it, of hope.

We were watching The Patriot at South Bar on my final night in town. It was just me and the bartender — not the one who was a senior at the university, the one who stood there the rest of the year while she was gone. I was drunk on cheap beer, and asked the bartender if I could stay until the movie was over. It was early in the morning.

“You can stay as long as you want.”

When Mel Gibson saved America, I paid and left. I ran for some reason. I nearly ran into a cop.

“Going somewhere?” he asked.

“Home,” I said, thinking about the cottage, worried I’d be arrested on my last day for public intoxication.

“Then get going,” he said.

A couple years after I left, I got an alert on Google News about the town. A white supremacist had come in and attempted to buy up the tax liens on a bunch of homes. He was trying to create an all-white colony, a community in his image, where he’d be the savior, like the Transcendental Meditation people had tried before, like the boomtown residents had tried before them, and, maybe, like I’d tried a few years prior.

My heart sank. This couldn’t happen to Ardis. To the doctor-artist. To the poor kids scratching off tickets at the gas station. Not even Jeff deserved it.

It didn’t happen. The townspeople pooled their money and paid off the liens themselves. The white supremacist came and left, just as I had before him, and the TMers, boomers, and Willa Cather before me.

I went back last year, with my wife and son, and the bookstore had opened. They were selling craft coffee. South Bar had been bought and renovated, and when we stopped in, a wedding party dressed in Canadian tuxedos took shots and bought us drinks. The opera house was getting refurbished by the historical society. Laura Bush had come to speak at a Willa Cather conference. They were surviving.

It was like I was never there.

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