We’re from the Midwest mostly. We’re from Lawrence and Davenport and Dubuque. We’re from Kankakee and Oswego. We’re from Griffith and Joliet and Mechanicsville. Platteville and Green Bay. And Altoona and DeKalb and Clinton.
We’re from Joplin.
The words of the cities themselves conjure certain smells and songs. Eddie Rabbitt’s “I Love a Rainy Night” and lightly buttered yams. Thirty-Eight Special’s “Hold On Loosely” and the Fourth of July gunpowder drifting below the exploding purple girandoles at the speedway. Anything by Joan Jett and the sulfuric fetor of the steel mill. Stevie Nicks and the rancid, spoiled-fruit stench of the oil refinery.
Or they simply evoke the feeling of a rotisserie fork turning hotly in our stomachs.
Most of us grew up in well-heated, well-lit homes. Gabled houses with garages cleaner than grocery stores. Flagstone-laid, pinecone-spotted paths leading to the front porches. The black spruce bending toward the neighbor’s Tudor like it’s keeping a secret. A licorice-red swing set in the backyard. A small ceramic man with a Scottish hunting cap protecting the mailbox—stoic yet somehow noble.
Our towns have water towers. Great steel orbs and graffiti-smeared globes and flying saucers on stilts. An enormous iron aspirin tablet next to the high school. The Tin Man’s inverted head with MAQUOKETA sucks in running spray paint.
ELKHART in all of its unscathed, civic propriety.
ELVON looming over several acres of unharvested wheat.
Some of us were raised on farms. We can talk about silos and combines and grain elevators and detasseling corn. We can talk about counting the beans and the fever itch of hay and how it can drive you to rinsing your arms with gasoline. We can talk about cow tipping and crop blight. We can talk about the pig doctor and how he swallows the viscous, worm-like, bluish membrane after castrating the hogs—how he plucks it out of the mutilated genitals with a pair of homemade forceps.
We can talk about highway driving and the solemn, solitary beauty of a fodder-filled silo receding in the distance; how it’s there for miles and then suddenly disappears as if the horizon imagined it and then reclaimed the thought with a god-like whimsy.
We can talk about fishing.
A few of us grew up in trailer parks, and our rooms had lots of paneling. Infinite, impeccably grooved, pecky-pecan paneling. Long sheets of synthetic wood that we could drive a thumbtack through. Paneling that splinters and warps and chafes with a kind of sinister eczema. Paneling that is made to be unmade.
We are long-boned because we were well fed. We ate potatoes and barbecued beef. We drank milk by the gallon—two percent, with the royal blue cap. Some drank it whole.
Most of us have skin the color of a paper towel lightly dabbed in Wesson Oil.
In the winter, with the aluminum taste of frigid air in our lungs, we can look out over tractor-scarred fields of frozen mud and know exactly who we are.
We were raised with tornado culture and good dental histories.
When we came to New York we left behind pets. We left behind coaches and priests. We left behind friends who went to work for insurance companies. We left behind half-dead cars and VCRs and laminated baseball-card collections. We left behind two-lane, mercilessly straight, never-ending highways.
We didn’t say goodbye to everybody. We couldn’t possibly have said goodbye to everybody.
Some of us had never eaten garlic. To most of us, basil sounded like a prison town in southern Illinois. Ginger was that girl on Gilligan’s Island. Some of us thought cappuccino was a cup of chino.
Most of us have some variation of blond in our hair. We’re spaniel blonds. Rhubarb blonds. Cottonbox blonds. Peach blonds. We’re soda-cracker blonds and bloodhoney blonds. We’re Formica blonds.
We generally look like the people walking through the Indianapolis Metropolitan Airport on any given day.
We are Catholics and Protestants and Lutherans and Presbyterians and Episcopalians and we can recite the prayers by rote. Even though most of us have vehemently denounced our faith and want to be (or pretend that we want to be) Atheists and Marxists and Anarchists, we can still recite the prayers.
And at a pretty good clip, too.
The sofas back in our Midwestern homes smell like beef Wellington and forest rain and something not unlike the woodchip mulch used to bed gerbil terrariums.
We smell things on the street that remind us of the old pullout back in Manteno. The love seat back there in Fond du Lac. A vinyl record on the Second Avenue sidewalk between Fifth and Sixth can do it to us. A feather duster from the vintage shop on First between Ninth and Tenth can do it to us. The inside of an old bowler hat—something from an altogether different time—even that can do it to us.
Certain things always seem to send us back.
We have strong middle names like David and Matthew and Esther. Biblical names that followed us from the fishfly fogs of the Mississippi and the broken-bottle shores of Lake Michigan and the muddy, mosquito-misted banks of the Des Plaines River; middle names that quietly pursue us like private, invisible birds.
We have snapshots of our dogs. That’s Waldo with a ten-gallon hat. This one here in the hand-knitted sweater is King, and look at the subtle pattern change there, see?
We keep our driver’s licenses hidden from each other. We seal them in boxes and stash them in breast pockets. We slide them into old books and deny our late-eighties hairdos. That wasn’t my hair. That wasn’t my Ogilvie Home Perm.
Most of us work in book publishing. We work with lots of older white men who roll up their sleeves and wear seamless khakis. Jacks and Bobs and Todds. And Blakes and Steves. Men who find a kind of sacred nonchalance in the way they wear their ties.
And we work with lots of white women, too. Maryannes and Kathies and Pamelas.
We make sixteen or seventeen thousand dollars a year, but we tell each other eighteen or nineteen. If we make twenty, that’s way too much. We survive on slices of pizza and ramen noodles. We eat a lot of flaccid hot dogs straight off the wagon.
We walk to work or, rather, we bound there like power hikers, in great vaulting astronaut strides. We voom to work. We alakazzam to the office in half-ruined shoes.
A few of us walk through the precarnival hours of St. Mark’s, bank across Astor Place, and cut diagonally through Washington Square Park, where as early as eight-thirty a.m. the Rastas are out whispering smoke into your ear.
Smoke and sess.
It’s good, Mon.
The pigeons have schizophrenia.
The office is fluorescently lit and the carpet incredibly gray and each employee has a cubicle that smells not unlike the inside of a bowling shoe. At some point, they (the folks from human resources) employed the term workstation as a replacement for cubicle. We call the big ones bull pens and the little ones Skinner boxes.
The housekeepers shellac the Skinner boxes to the point of a high, almost vinyl gloss. The sad chemical smell of lemon cleaning fluids creeps into our clothes and settles in our hair and a hint of it can be detected if we inhale deeply into the center of our pillows.
The iteration of Skinner boxes has a museum-like quality.
We are exhibits.
Earnest Midwesterner Comes to New York.
Will work for anything.
He’s in publicity. She’s in editorial. He tracks the bellwether titles and circulates an in-house report. She collates book briefs and talks to agents on the phone. He’s in mass market promotion but wants her job in telephone sales. She’s in production and walks around with these cardboard-pizza-box-bottom-type things called “mechanicals.”
Co-op advertising and review easels are terms we use. Back order and print run and flap copy are terms we use.
Excerpted from The Year of Endless Sorrows by Adam Rapp. Copyright © 2007 by Adam Rapp. Published in December 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.