Surviving Death in a Land Without Condiments

by Jim Knipfel

It's not exactly a love/hate relationship I have with the Midwest. It's more like a pride/terror relationship. I spent most of my first twenty years living in a double handful of towns along a very narrow band of the country stretching between Baton Rouge, LA, in the South and Minneapolis, MN, in the North. About ten years ago I moved East, and brought with me a sort of sick pride in having survived the nation's heartland--home of more madness, empty cruelty and serial killers than any other part of the United States. We had Gacy, Dahmer, Ed Gein and Carl Panzram. Henry Lee Lucas made a few passes through my territory. Most all the names you remember lived and killed just a few hours' drive or less from from one of my apartments. It's fucking scary out there. That does something to a man over time, and as a result I never miss an opportunity to proclaim proudly where I was spawned.

Yet whenever I head back there, for whatever reason, maybe as a result of having gotten myself all cultured up in New York, I find myself filled with the Great Dread at encountering, once again, what America is all about.

Laura's mother had died fourteen months earlier, on Easter Sunday. That was the last time I'd been back. Now that her father had died, the routine was still fresh in my memory. Laura and I weren't exactly married anymore, but there was no question as to whether or not I'd make the trip to Grand Rapids. Had to, if only to try and protect her from the vultures who would be descending on her and her father's estate.

(While I was on the phone, getting a bereavement-fare plane ticket from American Airlines, the operator informed me, "This is, of course, a fully refundable ticket." "What," I asked, curious, "just in case he comes back to life?")

In many ways, it was a carbon copy of her mother's funeral. Thing is, I don't know how common this all is; whether or not it's a specifically Midwestern or a specifically familial thing. Folks I've spoken to seem to find it strange: A collection of four viewings and a memorial service in Grand Rapids, then a 600-mile road trip to a little town called Bland, MO (some 2 hours south of St. Louis, nestled uneasily in the Ozark foothills), where there were a few more viewings, another memorial service, and, finally, a burial. It was like a six-day marathon of death. It got me thinking--and looking.

When you're involved in a funeral from the get-go, yet you're not a part of the immediate family, you're job is to do absolutely nothing. Sit and do nothing, stand and do nothing, ride along and do nothing, eat ham and do nothing. Oh, maybe you'll chat with someone, some stranger, now and again, but that's about it. Most of Laura's extended family had no real interest in talking to me, given that word had obviously spread that she and I had split up. So I spent my time sitting around, listening to folks chat about death in its varied forms.

"When I was a girl, maybe fifteen years old," one aunt was saying to someone during the second viewing, "my sister died of diptheria. She was at the house at the time, and since the whole place was quarantined, y'know, because of the diptheria, the doctor had to perform the autopsy on the kitchen table."

That was followed by a slew of "bodies on the kitchen table" stories from the others. In other corners of the room, friends and relatives shared tales of heart attacks, strokes, cancer and farm accidents. "Willie, see, he fell in front of the tractor..."

The one thing that made it interesting was the fact–and I don't know if I've mentioned this before--that all of Laura's male relatives bear striking resemblances to major literary figures. Her father looked like W.H. Auden, her uncle Elmer like Henry Miller, uncle Ivan like Louis Ferdinand Celine and uncle Gene like Norman Mailer. A photograph would make it appear to be the greatest collection of writers ever gathered in a single room. But given that they're all from Ozark country, when they open their mouths, what comes out is a strange mishmash of redneck mutterings. After Laura's Mom died, and it was my job to help keep these folks entertained while Laura took care of her father, Elmer, Gene and I got drunk around the kitchen table one night. They told me all about the time when they were kids that the two of them got a coon dog drunk on moonshine then jacked it off. My own tales of cow tipping in Wisconsin just didn't hold up.

After the memorial service in Grand Rapids, and everyone came back to the house, it was my job, once again, to entertain. But things were different this time. Something'd changed. I sat around the same kitchen table with the rest of them, all of us working hard at the jug of Canadian Club, me telling my stupid little stories. But this time, instead of laughing and throwing stories back at me, they just...stared.

Just a few sentences in, and I could already see their eyes die and their faces sag. They kept looking at me, but now they were looking at me as if I was some kind of alien creature, telling them all about life on my home planet, Zamchot. While my mouth kept telling the stories, my brain was telling me, "Shut up. Just shut up. Stop talking. Just make some cheap excuse and go into the other room and never come back. Do it now." I didn't, and they just stared. I was ready to be lynched. But, thankfully, in time they made their own excuses and left.

At five-thirty the next morning, Laura and I packed up her father's car and headed out on the ten-hour trip into Deliverance country. We brought a thermos full of coffee and a cooler full of food in an attempt to avoid having to leave the car. Things get spooky out there.

South of Chicago and north of New Orleans, all along the narrow band of highways that snake through the Great Dead Heart, the independent restaurant vanishes. Poof. Just doesn't exist. Chain restaurants, chain banks, chain gas stations, chain gangs. That's America right there. Nothing unique about the notion, but when it slaps you across the face, you can't help but be disturbed. Dead highways ripping through nothing. We struggled to find anything worthwhile on the radio, just to keep our minds off the emptiness around us. Of course, we've been trying to do that for about fifteen years now--and we finally found it, just south of St. Louis, with a signal strong enough to carry us those final two hours into Bland.

WHNQ, "Your All-Seventies Radio Station." Now, this is the music that both Laura and I were tortured with when we were kids, so for the most part, this is the music that means more to us than, say, the music of the Eighties, let alone the Nineties. The difference, of course, between our reaction to “Funk #49” by the James Gang and the yuppies' reaction to “The Big Chill” soundtrack is that the yuppies get all misty and nostalgic when they hear The Rolling Stones or "Heard It Through the Grapevine." The reaction we had to the songs on WHNQ was pretty much a universal "Ewww...Christ Almighty." Ten years of one-hit wonders coming back to haunt us. Still, the notion of changing stations never crossed our minds. We had to hang onto something that week.

At least hearing Grand Funk Railroad's "American Band" offered me the opportunity to explain to Laura my long-held notion about the "Natural Fact," as referred to in the song.. I won't go into all the details, but the Natural Fact is something which was first proposed by Socrates, theorized later by the likes of Kant, then later by Husserl and his student Heidegger, only to disappear for some thirty years, before re-appearing again in the lyrics of Grand Funk. I wish I could say that she was terribly impressed.

Once we started sniggling our way into the tarpaper shacks and trailer parks of southern Missouri, once the road had narrowed down to two lanes, I kept my eyes on the side of the road. While the restaurants were still all chain operations, now and then a little independent shop of some variety would pop up, and inevitably it would be worth noticing.

First there was "Stooge's Video and Liquor." Now, you know that two guys were sitting around the double-wide, drunk as skunks, watching some John Woo film and listening to Raw Power when the notion came into their pot-addled brains to open up the joint. Better yet, just a quarter-mile down the road, there was another shop, this one called "Jim's Gun Rental." I told my friend John about that after I got back to town, and he immediately decided that it was something New York desperately needed. Neat thing is, you could just go into Jim's, rent yourself a sawed-off shotgun, sneak a quarter-mile back through the brush, hold up Stooge's, then go slip the gun through the night return box! If that's not good business sense, I don't know what is.

Down in Bland, the situation for me only got worse. The friends and relatives we had to deal with there were even more hardcore backwoods than anything that made the trek to Michigan. The dead-eyed stares became more violent and wicked, as I just tried to be my regular entertaining self. The night after the funeral proper, Laura and I were staying in the basement of a tract home inhabited by a cousin of hers. While we dropped off our bags, I took a quick glance at the library shelf next too the television. I always do this; it lets me know what I can expect from the folks who are housing us for the night.

Lots of pre-teen books about sports heroes, a few editions of the Guinness Book of World Records, some Trixie Belden and Boxcar Children, and something else.

"Laura, my God, look at this," I whispered back to her as she unpacked a few things. "Novelizations...lots of them! And all of them sequels! Do you realize what we're looking at here?"

"You're not going to steal anything. That'd just be stupid."

I immediately realized that I shouldn't have mentioned anything.

"Maybe you could mention it tonight, let them know what they have," she suggested.

So I did. That night, while the family was sitting around, watching some stupid made-for-TV movie, I worked on my second beer and waited for a commercial. It finally came.

"So, uh, who's library is that downstairs?" I began, innocently enough.

Laura's cousin--a teacher--seemed as confused as her two basketball-star pre-teens. "Oh, we just put all our books down there. I keep getting things I think the kids will be interested in, but I guess they just aren't readers, much."

Silently, I kicked myself hard in the ass for not keeping my goddamn trap shut and just lifting the books. It was too late, though--I was in it, and there was no turning back. I went on, trying to control the wavering in my voice, explaining how much those fucking sequel novelizations will be worth, how rare they are, what an important statement they make in the literary world, while all the while I'm getting that same, "My God, he's an alien" stare.

I give up. Whenever I try to be nice, I fail. I finished my story, got silence in response, emptied my beer and stepped into the kitchen for another. I went downstairs and started counting the hours until my flight out of St. Louis the next morning, Sunday, a full six days after I first stepped into this hellhole of death and misery.

Copyright Jim Knipfel. Published originally in the NYPress. Illustration by Russell Christian. All rights reserved.

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