—though perhaps I return so frequently to the contest in Baltimore to prove to myself that there is some precedent for what I am experiencing. To create a mental chain, which might be laid across the landscape.
What I would like is to be able to describe the moment after the collapse—that is, after I was eliminated from the dance marathon, reduced to a spectator, and barely that for how quickly I fled from the space—the moment when the doors opened for me at last and the sun blinded me, turning blue splotches of sky and cumulus punctuation marks into Carnival phantasms, purple and loud and riotous visual noise, distracting from round little orioles jumping un-mechanically between telephone lines and the occasional squirrel flickering amid funereal birches, grey and considerate and waiting—but I can’t remember it. I am not sure that it happened at all, really, which means that I can’t be sure that it will happen here and now when the thing is finally done.
I am, however, able to describe a woman I met towards the end of my month of dancing asceticism. There was a sham marriage taking place on stage between two ex-ballet dancers (the school had closed after the crash in ‘29) who were competing alongside us, and the woman and I had both been adopted as sham bridesmaids, which meant a choreographed routine trotting up the makeshift aisle for which neither of us had sufficient preparation or training.
Though we were in on the machinations, there was still an intimacy to it. She and I spoke a little as we adopted our requisite dresses and aspects of repose.
Have you ever thought, she asked, of what your own fake wedding will look like?
Of course, I said, ever since I was in petticoats.
I asked her how she came to be embroiled in what I was then calling the Ongoing Fiasco, and she told me that she had come to Baltimore from Nebraska when the bank foreclosed on her farm. She said that she wanted to buck the stereotype by heading east instead of west, which goes to show how well I keep tabs on our nation’s migratory patterns, because I had no idea that there was such a stereotype.
Oh yes, she said: we all end up in Oregon picking apples or in California picking strawberries until our hands and backs are too mangled to keep out the lines of late-arrivers who want to pick for less money.
I hardly thought that they wanted to pick for less but she assured me that it was more than desperation for a job. By the time they reached the West Coast they had traded hope for spite, despairing of the chance to make a new life and hoping instead to be complicit in someone else’s misery. If they took lower wages then they could twist the knives that already porcupined out of everyone who had left the Plains early. For all the good it did me, I pretended that I had never encountered that kind of Nihilism.
There was some reciprocal interest in my own story, but we exhausted that in precise order, both of us sensing that our time in Nebraska wasn’t thoroughly ended. I inquired further, and she went on to tell me that the farm had been inherited from her father, a squat Pennsylvania Dutchman who went blind rewriting German myths as if they had taken place in America. Siegfried atop the Blue Ridge, lakes transmuted into obtuse Rheines blistering around a curved, infinite plane. She had to burn the volumes when his dementia worsened, because he would pick them up, little foreign objects that they were, and within words he would be thrown thousands of miles. Across rivers and oceans; not transported, but whisked as if by a string tied to a tooth.
She burned him too, after he had moved beyond complaint. And she took up with a lodger of theirs, a self-styled anarchist with a thick, indescribable accent. (Not, mind you, that he was foreign. She stressed that he was an American, a rootless autodidact who sounded misplaced on every coast). Together they stockpiled grain until the yields began to decay, as then they stockpiled guns and ammunition and manure.
To hear him talk about it, she said, it made perfect sense—that these things would be a deterrent. The War had been mostly a phantom presence in Nebraska, sometimes stalking young man who would later vanish, but never quite revealing its true shape—casualties were draped over with the manual logic of vast acreages, where farmers were turned upon by their own machines, or fell through false ceilings fashioned from crusts of corn set like traps in depleted siloes. The pair of them had never sensed that armament itself was a variety of violence. At least, not until the Anarchist had gotten used to having guns in the house. Towards the beginning it had not been necessary to overthrow the government, just to wait for its inevitable collapse, its preordained ascent into the only kind of equality that really earned the name (something about a man and his will, she didn’t quite remember anymore), but the land didn’t agree with him; the sacrosanctity of property didn’t quite put food on the table. When the farm could no longer sustain them he wanted to follow their neighbors to California and agitate against corporate structures that were being propped up unjustly by an unjust government—she saw bloodlust for what it was.
When he left she promised to be on his tail, arriving in Salinas like an echo not more than a day or two later; but she became practiced at a sort of silence. A noise anticipated but cruelly dispersed into ragged waves of virtually no amplitude. She headed first to Philadelphia, where she had family, and then Baltimore, where she didn’t.
This last piece information was given while we waited, bobbing at the front of a snarling crowd, for the bride to throw her garter. She had climbed, perhaps gracelessly, onto an elevated platform, and so the hurled object descended upon us, a reminder of the withholding grace of the contest, which places objects just out of reach until we split our nails from standing too long our toes. Picture the garter tumbling overhead like a hailstone. Inclement. The dancers behind us let it fall to the floor and then fought over it, a hiss of elbows and knees and one of them struck in the windpipe, lying on her back for so long that the judges deemed her to have ceased dancing; they loomed over her while she choked on her own diaphragm, wantonly incapable of clearing the floor like an honest citizen.
The Nebraskan left me for a moment in order to help the other dancer up, which shocked me, slightly. She leaned her head in close to hers and told her something that I couldn’t hear. Echoes, again, this time trying dream logic on for size. For a second I almost forgot to dance (like I was holding my breath, unconscious, biology letting me dangle)—and I had to recite a mantra—I don’t have a body, I don’t have a body—until I could feel duality shrinking again, and thoughts permeating outside my mind, splashing lively into bones and sinews and hair follicles, even the most painful parts of the whole.
I watched a crowd lush with disapproving faces. To dance for a day is fine, virtuous even, but to dance for a week is to cast vile calumnies against your fellow man; a mad-faced rebuke even to the paying customers. From my month in Baltimore to the present day (see how geography inflects time) there has been a loosening, a withering of the alive bulbs of outrage. We have been reduced to mere loathing, though we will not leave the house in order to show it. But in Baltimore a woman with a handbag the size of a large dog asked me if I was more sinned against than sinning, and when I hesitated to respond she spat at me and called me a whore. She didn’t leave, either—the presence of sinners meant the dissolution of rights and hierarchies, so why couldn’t she be the scowling countess of the space? Of course she had finally taken herself away by the time the Nebraskan and I had met, but her siblings stalked the risers, searching us for signs of the end, which I suppose must be entertainment enough to those who paid for it.
This was plenty for me, anyway, until the Nebraskan comes back. She had cooled, slightly, and asked me if I was really so competitive that I couldn’t help her cart off the poor temporary invalid. After a beat she apologized, said that it was a rude question and that the dance had made her irritable—which is just as well, because I’m not competitive.
So I asked her if she would ever return to Nebraska.
She looked around and the looking was infectious. Not jubilant, but like a cough; she reminded me that I was not seeing, that I had to clear my throat. So I was looking the other way when she shook her head (signs not being a precious resource, apparently). She said that she was not nostalgic by nature; that Nebraska’s big selling point had been her farm, which represented a family and a livelihood that had jumped ship—no mean feat in a landlocked state.
I suggested that maybe there was no more Nebraska for her, that in a way the whole state had ceased to be, and she trained an arid grin on me and said what nonsense I was talking. Nebraska was right where it always is: 2,000 miles west-northwest, a squat little cannon of a state. Unchanged even to the keen observer.
Brian Hoey is a Seattle-based writer with an English degree from the University of Chicago and an apartment with more books than square feet. His worked has previously appeared online in Juked.