A Useful List for Those Who Wish to Imagine Rural America
I toured the country in order to compile the best possible representation of rural heritage for the National Museum of Rural History. As its chief curator, I am indebted to the nameless and the named, the symphony of tractors chased and unchased, the amber waves of grain which assault us in lyrics and postcards. What follows is a brief list of notes from four years of intensive, site-based field studies. This is rural America as I found it. Little red barns abandoned to peeling red paint, never reclaimed. Pre-fab barn-like structures potted near dirt driveways, shiny metal roofs, decorative windows. Farmers whose overalls have been replaced by Iron Bowl t-shirts, grizzled beards, grim faces. Teams not winning like they used to. American Legions low on parades. Kentucky bluegrass in decline as a result of corn subsidies. Agri-biz is made up of seeds you don’t plant, blueberries you don’t pick, strings you don’t strum. You can’t sing about a harvest that’s not supposed to happen. Go ask the city councilwoman who runs a psychic call center from a dairy farm. She has a special connection to Elvis and an affinity for raccoon noises. Lurleen, age 12, wants to marry the 4-H counselor once her breasts bud properly. Rolf, the 4-H counselor, talks to young rurals about abstinence and self-esteem. Market demands drive social needs. He takes his talking points from AARP bulletins. No one bothers with cows anymore. Even the fairs have turned into human beauty pageants, auctions to sell the next best marrying meat. A widow died because she witnessed two stars shoot across the sky in one night. She slept in a family cemetery until gas-men drove in to exhume their mineral rights. Her son keeps his mom’s ashes in the garage until a new burial location is cleared by the Oil and Gas Board. Jimbo, 8, thinks ghosts are good people looking for a living wage. Sparky the one-legged dog saw fine until he drank rainwater from a driveway puddle near the old plant. Steve, 6, likes to fire his BB gun at Sparky while Mee-Maw watches the fancy tv preachers. Mee-Maw, 62, says the Lord makes her cry. She can’t wait until He comes. She’s all-in on the rapture. Her son owns Jon’s Body Shop, which doubles as a ballroom for wedding receptions. The aroma of diesel fills the nostrils of the recently-sexed. Missy, 21, doesn’t give a fuck about whether he marries her whatever else he carves in trees around town. Those trees are going down. She saw the timber trucks last week. They clear-cut the forests to make paper for rich New Yorkers. They chop up 200 years of family albums chipped into tree trunks— marriages, babies, accidental love stories, boys who disappeared, women who loved them. Missy says if you’re looking for a heart, the woods near the lake is a harem of tree-carved hearts. El Dorado, 2, is named after a show Missy followed on cable. That illegible rash on his cheeks drives her crazy. Folks don’t read rashes anymore. Missy thinks there’s a difference between mystery and meaninglessness. When she uses coupons, the price at the register is always higher than her calculations. She keeps hoping. The calculator in her purse slathered with tinfoil star stickers from Bible camp. The fury on her face when she remembers she’s pregnant. It’s a boy, Missy says, I just know it. Motherfucking man in the making. There is a garden of retired farm implements where little children confide their secrets to fairies. A leather whip hangs from the gas station wall— two dollars— but who needs it? Some say Mr. Bittles, the once-upon-an-orchard-keeper, likes to play rough. He buys his girls online. Graham cracker crumbs line the edge of a wastewater retention pond. Kids hear stories about ugly ducklings turning into magical swans. An article in the paper concerning duck migrations. Elmore, 76, knows those ducks been dead for years. Someone needs to set those kids straight ‘fore one of them gets hurt. This may not be Cambodia but it ain’t no Disney show either. Where are their parents? A roadside truck bed burgeons with small wooden hearts, country-craft motifs swearing God Bless America in faded white paint. Parents sext their middle-schoolers on accident and blame the cell phone networks. Blame AT&T. Blame Satan. Pay Kenny, 47, who owns the gas station, to run a little exorcism on the side. Community activism. A white brick building named Church, 111, surrounded by ATVs, trucks, and half-diaper toddlers. A baptismal font brimming with cell phones. Anxious owners, worried parents. Gladys, 41, wants to know where Mr. Bittles got his upgrade. Elmore hums a synthesis of “Old Dan Tucker” and “Amazing Grace”. Young daddies touch lottery tickets in front shirt pockets. Hand over heart, protecting their investments. Gas-station Kenny asks for alms before the blessing. Gladys in a huff, thinking this was to be an exorcism. Thinking she’d pay more to kill a demon than hang around and pray like she does at home. All the time. Doing dishes. Kenny mumbling holy-molies while the pastor plays Mexican music on his ukulele. Not one single Mexican in these parts. The pastor shrugging— he took lessons online from YouTube. Mexicans own the internet. Larry, 22, carries a doggy-bag, stands with his hunting boots umbrellaed outwards. Condolences issue from the radio in banjo notes. Something big must have died. Larry shot the owl before it settled on a tree to haunt him. Owls done stole too many lives from us this year. He and the boys plan to organize an Owl-Destroying Militia. Missy asking if the demons are gone cause she needs a ride to Wal-Mart. Her car won’t start— transmission. She’ll pay back the driver for his gas. A smudge of ash tumbling from her sleeve. Grace, 63, wiping her lips with a Kleenex, motioning towards the kitchen counter, a row of canning jars neat as tin soldiers, their waxes left open. A man on the porch resting his legs. A sagging bench nearby. A footstool saturated with two-tone Mickey Mouse stickers. Grandkids Grace keeps when Missy works night shifts. A window left open. A smidgen of honey on the tablecloth. Stars silenced by the bright blare of frack pads. Companies owning the night, using the water, changing the land. Fields lie, fellow-like, now. A cardiac arrest blocking traffic. The huff of idling trucks. A face lined with tired-marks. Oven biscuits. Bumps of air trapped beneath the rust-colored paint.
Alina Stefanescu was born in Romania and lives in Alabama with her partner and four small mammals. A Pushcart nominee, she is the author of 'Objects In Vases' (Anchor & Plume, March 2016), 'Letters to Arthur' (Beard of Bees, August 2016), and 'Ipokimen' (Anchor and Plume, November 2016). Her first fiction collection, 'Every Mask I Tried On', won the 2016 Brighthorse Books Prize. She can't wait for you to read it. More online at .