Tag Archives: Midwest

Hometown Sketch: Night at Malarky’s

 

night-club

There’d been a wedding that night—a couple from a nearby town smaller than Storm Lake—and afterwards the groomsmen made their way to Malarky’s, the local nightclub just north of the lake across from the Tyson packing plant. Malarky’s was a family restaurant by day, club by night, and housed in an otherwise inconspicuous building save for the sign with the four-leaf clover and the fact that it meant an escape for hundreds of youth in the northwest pocket of Iowa. It was the only nightclub for several zip codes and every weekend kids from surrounding towns drove miles through the cornfields to drink toxic-colored cocktails, dance, and hopefully hook up.

It was one of two places in town that stayed open until 2 A.M. and every weekend the cops shook with unreleased tension, hoping for some out-of-the-ordinary action—a reprieve from leading funeral parades and handing out barely-above-speed-limit speeding tickets. They camped out in the parking lot, arms crossed, memorizing shady faces and predicting whose fights they’d soon be breaking up.

And there was always, without exception, a fight.

Clubbing at Malarky’s was a rite of passage in Storm Lake, and if you were a local college student this included a ride on the ‘drunk bus.’ This converted purple school bus may’ve been the butt of its own joke, but it was no joke to be stopped for public intox if you chose to walk instead. (Read: Bored police force.)

Now, I was a late bloomer in terms of rebellion and it took me until the age of 24 to grace the dance floor of this establishment. I didn’t drink until I was 21, and still had never really been drunk, so on that humid late-June night my hometown best friend took it upon herself to introduce me to this surpassed youth experience.

We started at my apartment with a couple of Smirnoff wine coolers, donning borrowed heels and puckering our lips at our reflections as we dabbed on another coat of red lipstick—one layer per drink consumed. This was a new facet of womanhood, I thought, another rite of passage in itself, dressing up in costume to appear bolder, looser, and more seductive. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I was ready to take on the night.

Enter: two teetering girls on the brink of a renewed energy for life. My friend had been a mom for some time and this was one of her rare nights to blow off steam. I’d been struggling to find work and a way out of town, and in the meantime I was in desperate need for some fun and was ready to say yes to about anything, starting with the first pool-blue cocktail that my friend set in front of me. It was strong, sweet, and made me cringe, but it got me on the dance floor amidst the crowd of former classmates, teens, and coatless groomsmen.

Preferred music be damned, this was not the place to be picky. We danced to Top 40 hits and terrible hip-hop. We danced near and chatted up the groomsmen—a dull, paunchy lot, but our pickings were slim and when else would we get the okay from our husbands to flirt? I cheered the absentee newlyweds, envisioning the ceremony, the bride’s dress and the flowers with such clarity that I began to feel as though I’d been a part of the celebration. Wasn’t life beautiful! There was so much to be grateful for, so much beauty and kindness and love! Hope existed and people were inherently good! Everybody was exquisite, but especially (to my friend’s embarrassment) the boys whose ages I’d hate to guess and whose faces I stroked as I wobbled to the bathroom, their expressions sending signals I was too soused to accurately read.

Long_Island_Iced_TeasWhatever else I drank that night, I know there was a Long Island Iced Tea and a Jell-O shot that may or may not have made it to my mouth, its whipped cream cap dabbed on my nose like a miniature snow peak. In the bathroom we took selfies and pouted our blurry lips, knocking into other girls on our way out—a mild rough-and-tumble only permitted in the throes of inebriation.

My friend led me by the hand to get some air out front where a fight was just breaking out. The cops moved in, frowning with delight, tensions high, and in that moment—a moment recounted to me the next day when I returned my friend’s shoes and asked if she’d found my ID and earring—she took me by the waist and kissed me as though it were a stage performance. It was soft, it was intentional, but clouded and mostly forgotten. If I’d been fully cognizant at the time I’m sure that one Katy Perry song would’ve come to mind (“the taste of her cherry chap stick”). This was a woman I’d loved for nearly 15 years, so in retrospect, it was probably about time we’d kissed. And hopefully, at the very least, we added to the fight-scene entertainment.

Just before closing we made our exit, followed by one of the groomsmen who tried to join us for a ride but was snubbed by the locking of doors and a sardonic wave as we weaved carefully out into the pre-dawn silence of our town that I was aching with a need to leave now more than ever.

That night was a sample, a taste of an endless series of new experiences I wanted to explore. It was a balancing point between youth and adulthood, the old me and the new, and it is solidified in my memory as a time that I finally let go of my insecurities and danced loose the shyness and awkwardness I’d been holding on to for far too long.

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Hometown Sketch: Hells Angels Rumor

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In the summer of 1971, a rumor went around Storm Lake, Iowa that the Hells Angels were coming to town. The rumor was linked to a vague mention of the Midwest in a biker magazine, but through the nuanced and intricate ways that news spreads in small towns, the rumor grew into the greatest panic Storm Lake has ever known.

At this point the Angels were long notorious for their exploits all over the country. People were either enthralled with or repulsed by them. The Angels had links to The Grateful Dead and Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, and were immortalized in print (outside of news headlines) by New Journalist writers such as Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson. The Angels symbolized ultimate freedom and debauchery, anti-hippiedom with a Beat-like mindset for exploring what our expansive country had to offer. But unlike the peace-loving, Zen-seeking Beats, the Angels liked to stir shit up, starting fights and assaulting women. Or so it was said.

I first heard of the rumor while sitting at my grandma Shirley’s kitchen table (where we had all of our best conversations), enthusiastically scribbling down notes as she recounted how she’d considered hiding in the bushes behind her house and how she’d worried that the bikers would raid her and my grandpa’s Wholesale Market of all their beer. “People actually left town because they were afraid it would be too dangerous,” she said. My grandpa Jack wanted her to leave but she wouldn’t. Instead, she said, they went and bought some .22 bullets for their rifle. Other families shipped their wives and daughters off to relatives in other towns, or banned them from leaving the house. Men were entreated to stand guard and protect those who dared to stay.

Forty thousand bikers were guesstimated to arrive for the town’s 4th of July Star Spangled Spectacular, inciting a request for the National Guard’s services. Baseball bats were stashed at the ready, a bank boarded up its windows, and trucks were assigned to blockade the girls’ dorms at the local college.

The idea of this event in my hometown’s past thrilled me and I went to my grandma Rose—a lifelong resident of the county—with questions about her experience. She said she hadn’t believed anything would happen even if the Angels did come through, despite my grandpa’s boss warning him that the filthy fiends might rape his four young daughters. But even my grandpa said, “We’re staying right here.”

My mom, along with her siblings, must have read something in their parents’ nonchalance and ditched the house to go swimming at the lake where they saw some visiting bikers, enjoyed their time, and left unscathed.

My dad and uncle were also told to stay home, but in true form they took off on their bikes for another park where dozens of visitors on motorcycles were camped out hoping to see or possibly join up with the Angels. The boys talked to one couple from Pennsylvania who had a baby with them and thought they were the nicest people, so what was everyone so worried about?

The crowds grew so large that the lake road was jammed bumper to bumper with traffic. The state moved in 40 cops with a communications truck for crowd control. Two helicopters were borrowed from the National Guard, and when 35 bikers headed out from Mason City towards Storm Lake, a highway patrol plane followed them in and had them diverted to a park about 10 miles outside of town. Local residents flocked to see the assembly like eyes to fresh road kill on an unmarked highway. But in the end the most unnerving run-in happened at Grace Lutheran Church where a wedding was in session. Two curious bikers saw the full parking lot and assumed it was the rumored biker rally. They were spotted— before any of the immediate family saw them—and were told to leave before the mother of the bride had a conniption fit.

When the fear of the Angels’ visit began to dissipate, rationality filled in the gaps and left the town wondering, How could we have reacted differently?

Is there something to be learned from unfulfilled mass hysteria? I wonder how I might’ve reacted in said time and place. I can speculate that I’d keep my cool and wait for it to all blow over. That I’d be more practical in my efforts to defend my home and self. But there are things that we only know we’re capable of once put in those situations, and we must do the best we can to simply make it out alive.

 


Cabin Ghost of Okoboji

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We were nine, maybe ten or eleven. Old enough to know better but young enough to reject any sort of objective explanation. We were the Goosebumps generation—thrilled by the supernatural and open to the possibility of the beyond. Cheap thrills and thunderstorms were the height of entertainment, and Hide-and-Seek was the best way to waste an afternoon.

We were Okoboji babies—annual visitors to the lake resort town hidden inside the forests and corn-laced highways of Northwest Iowa. My extended family had met there for years, sharing conjoined cabins and living up a short-term life of leisure. It was a town rife with history and allusions to spectral sightings, made all the more believable by the aged and creaking rides at Arnold’s Park with its abandoned-chic vendor shops.

Midday at the lakefront cabin, the men and boys dangled their feet over docks in hopes that a fish might bite, while the women went off to peruse the Emporium, leaving the girls behind, swapping stories in the back bedroom.

As we sat on the bed, laughing and painting our nails, a sound from inside the bathroom caught my attention. I asked my cousins if they heard it, and the three of us paused to listen.

A low, rhythmic flapping beat like the blood pulsing in my ears.

We exaggerated our fright, clinging to each other by wrists and elbows so as not to mar the half-dried paint. Sydney—the oldest—stood up and we followed, inching to the bathroom to flip on the switch. As light filled the shadows, the bedroom door shut by itself as though it had just admitted an invisible guest. We huddled, frozen in the bathroom doorway, where above us a rogue ceiling tile lifted and fell in attempts to communicate. We screamed again and ran through the room, spilling a bottle of red nail polish in our haste, leaving it to spread on the carpet like a fresh pool of blood.

We flung open the door and ran toward the lake, calling out for the men at the docks. But there was no one in sight. Where could they be? Our fear rose and we felt deserted by the ones who could save us.

We didn’t dare turn back. We wandered the shore until my grandfather approached, shirtless and baring a rod with a barbed and swinging hook. Could he be trusted? Was it him, or had he already been possessed?

We took our chances and related our encounter. He raised his eyebrows and chuckled. “Sounds like a draft to me,” he said. We denied it up and down. The day was stagnant and steamy; there was no breeze to support his theory. No, it was a ghost, we cried, unwilling to consent to his nonchalance. Come look, we said and led him through to the back.

The bathroom tile gave a single immoderate flap and settled into place for good. My grandfather, tall as a tree, reached up and prodded the tile. “Just a draft,” he repeated. “You girls should get out and enjoy the lake. Go for a swim. And clean up that spill before your mothers give you a real reason to be scared.”

He left, leaving the door open in his wake. We looked at each other and shrugged. No matter what might haunt the back of the cabin, there was no way we were going to test what lay beneath the waters of the lake.


One Page at a Time

Growing up in Iowa, I developed an insatiable desire to see the broader world around me. I would look through binoculars over the cornfield that stretched out behind my backyard, blinking and squinting and imagining the lives of the families living on the other side. At dusk I could see lights go on and off in little window specks. Were there kids inside those windows, making faces as their parents sent them to bed? Did they read the same stories before falling asleep? Those houses felt a world away, but, similar to the worlds inside of books, gave me a hope to one day see what else was outside my little town tucked inside the fields in the heart of America.

I was a quiet kid obsessed with stories. TV shows such as Full House introduced me to big city life as well as big family life, sending me into daydreams of a lifestyle very different from my own. I wondered what it was like to attend a three-story, fenced-in school on a busy city street, to travel by subway, and to grow up living in a high-rise apartment with no yard for dogs or flowers or tomato plants. Anne of Green Gables sent me dreaming of the opposite, of a place where I could be free to wander and roam in the country surrounded by acres of animals, wildflowers, hidden paths, and nothing but time.

I remember when my great aunt Lorraine told me she’d been to all fifty states. I wanted to know if she’d seen the Grand Canyon, the coast of California, the White House. She helped my travel dreams seem attainable, especially since she was someone from my own family.

The Midwest is the perfect place to foster a dream for travel. Especially small town Midwest, where kids grow up curious about the other side of the cornfields. When you have to travel 70 miles for the nearest (substantial) mall, or for the restaurants advertised on TV (Oh the days when The Olive Garden and Chile’s sounded like luxury cuisine), even Starbucks carries with it an extra special appeal. Sipping a mocha Frappuccino during a Saturday shopping trip to Sioux City felt like turning a page in the proverbial book of life experiences—a book with chapters not limited by distance. Every city, every neighborhood has its own character, each street and structure, down to each person.

When I travel I look for the ubiquitous, that little something that helps me connect to the world around me.  While acclimating to New Zealand’s summertime in January, I was thankful for the familiarity of the English language. When handling money in Japan I took comfort in the 10 decimal place to know how much I was spending. These connections aren’t to say I didn’t look further, but they did serve as a basis for seeing where I’m from in a new way—whether politically, educationally, by cuisine, or otherwise. When I see how other places function, I question if things here are the best they can be.

A similar outlook is sparked when I read. For example, dystopian literature such as Brave New World, 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, or The Hunger Games series feature fictional worlds with (quasi) believable futures. If this is where we’re headed, then how can it be prevented?

I believe that when reading and travel are combined, there’s no end to inspiration and understanding. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road inspired me to keep pen and paper with me whenever I leave home. I don’t snap a lot of pictures when I travel but instead rely on words to bring me back to a specific time and place, and to the people I interact with. This is what gives me hope in the modern day world—recording what I see and know and learn—and it’s why I plan to never stop chasing new scenes, in life or in the imagination.


Hometown Sketch: Cheesy Rider

 

 

Cheesy Rider wore a severed squirrel tail tied like a talisman to his extra large belt. But that wasn’t how he got his name.

As a kid Cheesy rode around town on an undersized Stingray, his dirty socks up to his knees and his hair a disheveled brown nest. He had a sister named Beep Beep who announced herself with the onomatopoeia, her hands clapped together like a swimming fish when making her way through crowds. He had a son, too, whom he was no longer allowed to see; but no matter the attention his family drew, Cheesy remained oblivious, or apathetic, and judged no one in return.

He grew to be a stocky man with a scrappy beard and thick glasses that he cleaned with his fingers like windshield wipers when it rained. Whatever the weather, he rode, never drove, and never left the small Iowa town in which he grew up.

In the summers of his youth he hung out underwater at the deep end of the pool wearing goggles, ready for the girls whose swimsuits went up after jumping off the high dive. When that was banned he tailed the local garbage trucks so often that they hired him on for knowing the route. He was fired after less than a week.

If Cheesy talked to anyone, he talked about bikes, and he wasn’t unfriendly to encounter. But if he took to you, he’d approach you and never shut up.

One Halloween, a young couple hosted a costume party at an acreage in the country and looked out the window to see Cheesy riding up the dirt road, a trail of dust announcing his arrival. They debated turning out the lights, denying an open invitation. But as the biker drew close they saw that it was a friend in costume—his getup spot-on, right down to the 16oz. bottle of soda in the back pocket of his cargo shorts—and they greeted him with a hearty laugh and a beer.

Cheesy Rider was a town legend but his claim to fame was not the enviable sort. For months, more than a decade ago, farmers found him in their barns in the mornings. He played the warm shelter card, but the farmers couldn’t shake the funny feeling that there was a motivation deeper than sleep. Later on, after a 3 a.m. patrol in a barn on the outskirts of town, Cheesy was found pulling up his pants amidst a herd of sheep. He was arrested on the spot for bestiality, and the sheep were heard bleating their relief.

Then a few years ago, a new mystery befuddled the farmers. They discovered that their horses’ tails were missing, cut off at jaunty, haphazard angles. For months no one could figure out who was dismembering the horses or by what service the tails were put to use. But sure enough, when the cops found Cheesy, it was hardly a surprise. He was arrested again and this time put in jail. Eventually he was released for good behavior and moved to a group home where he’s to live out the remainder of his life.

Though the town’s citizens may no longer see Cheesy riding the streets or assaulting the beasts, there are few who will forget him—telling his stories and whispering his name for generations to come.

 


Hometown Sketch: Neighborhood Watch

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Nobody got away with secrets on Lorna’s street. Affairs were unlikely. Teenage liaisons: failures from the start. Unemployed, and unable to sleep, Lorna was a one-woman neighborhood watch.

“New car?” she asked at the door of any neighbor whose driveway sported unfamiliar wheels. Several times a week she’d turn off the stove, leave on the TV, and go out knocking. And she already knew who was home, so there was no pretending you weren’t.

“Hi, Lorna. Sue’s brother is over for dinner.”

Lorna didn’t take hints. “How nice. Is Paul staying long?”

She stood with her arms crossed over her sagging, unsupported chest barely concealed by an over-worn purple blouse. Her left foot stuck out, as though ready at any moment to slip inside the door.

“Just today. Better not keep him waiting. Take care.”

Slam.

When the Branders to the East put up a garage between their houses, Lorna gave them up for an entire year. But not without withdrawals. She and her daughter Mary—who often sat lounging in their driveway after Lorna watered the pavement with a garden hose—grabbed the aluminum arms of their lawn chairs at the sight of the Branders, and swiveled their ample bottoms to face the other way.

This left Lorna to turn her attention to the west, slicing her hand in front of her neck to stop Mr. Fletcher from mowing, or beckoning to his wife, Nancy, while she hung clothes on the line out back.

“I don’t know why he had to go and move us out here,” Lorna said of her husband, Earl. “California has post offices, too! How do you stand this place? I’m so miserable.”

Nancy clipped a pair of Hawkeye boxers to her clothesline and asked, “How long have you lived in Iowa?”

Lorna’s eyes widened, accentuating the charged look of her black and gray striped hair. “Twenty-two years next month! Can you believe it?”

Across the lawn, Earl felt for snakes in the landscaping and flung them windmill-fashion into the cornfield.

Lorna called over to him, waving her arms wildly. “Earl! Watch your hands! We don’t need another trip to the emergency room.” Then to Nancy she said, “I’ve never met a more accident-prone man. I won’t let him near the kitchen. I’m Italian, after all, not Cajun!” She laughed and then stopped abruptly as she spotted another neighbor through the houses. “There’s Sheri. Her mother passed away last month and she’s taken up the bottle to cope. I’m gonna go say hi. We’ll catch up later,” she said and took off.

“Thank God,” muttered Nancy.

Most of Lorna’s neighbors endured her intrusions with good humor. Those who didn’t moved away or installed deadbolts. Yet despite her meddling, Lorna’s neighbors felt secure knowing that their children were safe and their spouses faithful. And there was something to living with such an assurance.


Hometown Sketch: Walking Man

 

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No two days on the streets were the same. Flowers bloomed at different rates and snow accumulated in shifting waves and peaks. The sights of this small town didn’t get old when each day the cloud patterns cast new shadows on the lake’s surface and on the red brick businesses just north of the water’s edge.

All weather was walking weather for Walking Man.

An addiction, people called it—equating him with the meth heads in the basements and trailer parks of the town’s underground. But his was a lifestyle of health and vigor. Of gainful occupation.

A stolen car incident in high school prompted his hobby—the same high school, incidentally, by which he now lived and started his daily trek. He clocked out at the packing plant before dawn and was on the streets by noon, making his way south to the lake, along the shore past the University then west towards the hospital. School traffic sent him north, where kids attempting greatness at the Field of Dreams provided passing entertainment.

He knew what people called him. Not that it was clever. A red-haired man in a Chevy sang out in smooth tenor whenever he crossed his path: “Walking Man, walk-ing the streets aga-ain!” It’d be more amusing if it weren’t the same man who stole his car all those years ago.

In his forties Walking Man married a woman whose only daughter kept mostly to her room. It was a good arrangement; neither he nor his wife required much affection or attention. And if she did—well, then she had the daughter, or her hospital patients. They divided the domestic duties, and the yard work they hired out. She hadn’t the time, and his snake phobia kept him out of the grass. The pavement was his domain.

When the local Times took notice of him, he wondered whether the Cullens were lacking for material. Who would find his routine interesting? They even printed his miles per day. He got more attention than expected and endured months of exaggerated nods and waves from townsfolk—those people who, from a distance, Walking Man watched grow older, plant gardens, run stoplights. There was serenity in the events not in his control. He had his walking, and his work, and that was enough.

In many ways this town didn’t change. The farmers offered their predictions, the mayor maintained the vote, Walking Man walked the streets, and the paper published it all.


Trucker Couple from Indiana

Norma’s lips curled over her toothless gums as she squeezed her husband’s arm. “This is so exciting, Eddie! Our first nice picture together.”

They were like teens posing at junior prom.

Eddie was standing with his arms crossed loosely over a smudged V-neck tee. Around his neck he wore three gold chains that caught at the curls of his exposed chest hair. Smiling at his wife he said, “Yes it is.”

Norma and Eddie were truckers from Indiana, passing time at the local Wal-Mart while stopped on route.

In small-town Iowa, Wal-Marts are one of the few retailers left and are utilized as community centers as well as department stores. They’re host to egg hunts, teenage rendezvouses, and the mother-daughter pair from the nearby church who, even on nice days, don workout clothes every Saturday morning to speed-walk the aisles.

In the entrance to the in-store portrait studio, Eddie tried his luck on the Spin-to-Win wheel—its bold pink, yellow, and green pie slices blurring into gray. The wheel ticked to a stop, landing on: Free 16×20 Portrait.

“Whoo-eee!” said Eddie, snugging up to Norma.

“Can we get our picture taken today?” she asked, smoothing the front of her NASCAR t-shirt.

Tucked back in the small studio, Norma and Eddie sat side by side on a sheet-draped posing block. They smiled at each other–their heads touching and their hands held between them. At the flash, their pupils dilated and they blinked several times, Eddie sneaking a wink at Norma.

“Will you hold the picture till we’re in next, please?” Norma asked at the register. Then with a Thank-you, she and Eddie left, their shoulders together and their fingers linked.

2010


Squatting in the Wrong Decade

The first time I saw a horse on a rooftop was in Lexington, Nebraska. It wasn’t a real horse, but I’ve never seen one, alive or otherwise, on a roof since. Coming from a packing plant town, the familiar Tyson aroma of seared hog flesh filled my nostrils and gave me a sense of home as we drove into Lexington. Barmore Drugs could’ve passed as Storm Lake’s Ressler’s. All these small Midwestern towns resembled each other in the details.

Down a residential street, two young girls in oversized T-shirts helped their mom rake the lawn. I pictured my childhood self and friend jumping into leaf piles at my grandma’s house, then heading inside for a snack of apples with caramel.

I was with my dad, spending two days driving to Broomfield and stopping here for the night like two road-weary truckers—a bed and a clean bathroom our main requirements.

On the outskirts of town a giant plum-painted water tower sat, like an industrialized Jack Horner, squatting in the wrong decade. Front lawns along residential roads were spotted with rusted truck beds filled with such things as wood, torn-out carpet, and empty bottles of engine oil.

Sticking out like Jack’s thumb on the edge of town, an African restaurant and a huddle of tall, well-dressed black men talking and laughing in the parking lot.

In its prime, the heart of this town must’ve been the railroad. Two spiral ramps supporting a footbridge over the tracks–for the days when it was needed to cross without danger–stood as the town’s most notable landmark.

Our motel parking lot was strewn with semis, and as we walked past them to the office my dad straightened protectively. In our motel room, we opened our paper Sonic bags to find cold fries, a chicken sandwich coated with black lettuce, and no appetite.

My next meal came as a Styrofoam cupful of Froot Loops, dry, the next morning. I frowned at the assortment of O’s, but kept any complaints to myself. I couldn’t wait to get to Colorado and the well-stocked cupboards of my uncle’s house.

March 2007