We play army at Tyler’s birthday party. Cream the Carrier, Smear the Queer, King of the Hill—games boys on the prairie play to the swoosh of grass in afternoon heat. Something in the land pulls us towards violence. We tackle our friends, drive our hollow boned bodies into the hard dirt. One team holds fort atop the butte, the other down in the coulee. No mercy, no grace, forget what we learned in Sunday School. The trees echo with screams, cries that ripple across the prairie.
They lived together in a tawny house on the south end of town, across from the Corner Stop. Ms. Voss and Ms. Leingang, the English teacher and the History teacher, volleyball coaches too—they shared a house together. One had curly hair the color of sand, the other straight black hair, typically tied in a bun. We lived two blocks from them before we moved, and my sister had them both in the classroom and on the volleyball court. Later, when I got older, I heard rumors about how they liked to linger in the locker room after games, talked with the players who stripped and got in the shower, washed the sweat and salt from their game-tired bodies. I only knew Ms. Voss and Ms. Leingang in passing—on my way to the library in first grade, marching in alphabetical order for Mrs. Sherwin. We scurried as the bell rang and high schoolers flooded the hallway. I remember that their smiles looked the same—gaps between their front teeth; big, warm grins, mild bemusement behind their spectacles. Later, Ms. Voss and Ms. Leingang moved, together, to a larger town.
We’d peel around the pothole-riddled road, the Corner Stop the finish line—no stoplights or signs to get in the way. Like rockets launching into the sky, we slammed our legs down and up and thought we were headed for the moon. Waxy leaves twitched in the breeze as sweat slid down our faces. We blinked faster to keep it out. Tick tick tick snapped the playing cards in our tires. Jeans, stained with grass, wet and heavy from sloshing in the creek.
We ripped around the corner, the boys and me, heading home from baseball, but stopping first for candy, except—wham—Cale went over the handlebars, knocked out his front two teeth. Like Chiclets stained red, they shined in the slant, mid-morning light. Stay there! we hollered as we peddled on, not knowing what Cale’s parents would say, his sobs echoed off the tall cottonwood trees. That’s what happened, the way it was, in our little town—each boy bound to the other, ready to sever the cord when things got tight.
I’m sitting at Grandma’s vanity, in Aunt Shelia’s old room, while Grandma fiddles with her pearls, says, Would you like to have some fun, honey? I never say no to Grandma, the woman who peels my apples, cuts my bologna sandwiches into triangles without the crust—she knows I don’t like crust. Grandma lifts me up and plops me on her lap. She unscrews the lid of a small vial, her acrylic nails click against plastic. Do you like how my nails look, Taylor? Oh, yes, I tell her. I like them a lot. Would you like your nails to look like mine? I close my eyes to think about it (we like to keep each other in suspense). I open my eyes and look into the bright light of the vanity. Grandma rests her chin on my small shoulder. Yes, I say. Grandma’s white teeth glisten behind me. We sit and she hums as, stroke by stroke, my nails turn crimson—one, two, three, until all ten shine like bright little apples. And then Grandma holds my hands, one by one, and blows.
When Dad comes to pick me up, I bound up the green-carpet stairs like Daisy, my Grandma’s black dachshund. Dad sees me, and I stop. I know that look. His eyes flash to Grandma. Go back downstairs, and I slide on my butt, bounce harder and harder on each step because I know I’ve done something wrong. I go sit in front of the vanity and stare into the mirror. Mom, I have one son and one daughter, not two daughters. Each word a jolt as I sit in my small chair, holding my cheeks with my fingers, as I begin to peel the paint from my nails.
Tex ambles down Oliver Prairie Avenue, shaded by elms. He holds a paper bag in his sun-tanned hands. Cody and I are practicing t-ball, my Louisville Slugger over our right shoulders. We try to wind it in a circle like Kirby Puckett, before unleashing hellfire against that little ball on a stick. Usually, we miss, then look back to make sure the other isn’t laughing, and try again. Today, Cody cracks it, a line drive right at Tex, who catches it. Does he giggle or cackle? We pull our caps close to our eyes and kick at the grass. Tex saunters toward us. You have to get it from him. You hit it. I push Cody towards Tex, who looks as big as a barn. Sorry, Tex, Cody says, and Tex stretches out his arm, pockmarked from cigarettes. He lets the men down at the Western Saloon put out their smokes on his scaled skin, one butt for each snifter of bourbon. Tex nods, grunts something into the air, and moseys along, step by step, and we turn to practice once more, to dream of the Major League, of getting far away from here.
A sunny day in June. Baking day. Grandma wants my help. I climb the stool, roll up my sleeves, and place my hands on the cool counter, faded flaxen from years of rolling and flouring, whipping and baking. I push my chef’s hat back to keep it out of my eyes. Grandma stands behind me, her liver-spotted hands hold mine, roll the pin back and forth, back and forth, spreading the dough like a rising lake. Her voice crackles in my ear, A waltz, Taylor, it’s a waltz when you bake.
We’re making sugar kuchen, Grandma and me, while her chokecherry tree shimmers in the afternoon sun. Everything dances at Grandma and Grandpa’s—the house of polka, the home of hugs and laughter. Grandma, a small woman, her shoulders heavy from years of hard work—farming and children and cooking and butchering. The loss of her third child, a boy, Keith at three months. I never hear her say his name.
But, still, we dance. Mr. Welk and his wunnerful wunnerful wunnerfulin the background. Grandma hands me sugar cookies to smash, the crumbled crown atop our thin dough, the sweetness in the sugar kuchen. And Grandpa comes through the garage door as I hop down for a hug. He smells like fish as he kisses Grandma.
I climb back on top of the stool and begin to whack and smack cookies, breaking bits like porcelain teacups. Here are our little Champagne Ladies to dance a polka with us. And they’re off, Grandma and Grandpa. They spin in circles, whirl before me, Clarinet Polka in the background. A half-century of marriage twirls in front of me, and it seems that the world changes as an accordion plays in the background, a little sugar in the air, some sweetness in the room.
Mom drops me off at the Civic Center for art class. Me, eight post-menopausal women, and Vern, our art teacher. Elfish, wire-browed, Vern, at sixty, is my height in junior high. Easels dot the cold, white room, and the radiators begin to rumble as we rub our hands. The women are ecstatic a boy is taking art lessons.
Vern and I go into a storage room, filled with faux wooden tables and gray metal chairs—somehow, it feels like a butchering room. Vern flicks on the projector where we place the picture of a brown trout I want to sketch. Vern turns the dial. In and out of focus goes the trout, a blonde creel next to its plump body. Vern looks as if he’s about to tell ghost stories when out comes his pencil—a slash here, a mark there. Streaking across the bumpy paper, Vern’s eyes narrow. I watch his hands, colored with pastel; his gaze never leaves the image. He steps back, holds the pencil near his mouth as his other hand, free, goes limp at his side. And I wonder if he knows, wonder if he can tell. A boy and a man, making art in a dim-lit room on the prairie, silence between them, and the door—
We grapple, Cale and me, wrap thin arms around each other’s head. Wrestling, it’s what boys do, and we sway back and forth like bluestem in the breeze, try to throw the other down, try to wrap our feet and pull the other forward, make him fall onto the hard brown carpet. That’s what we want, to be on top, to hold each other in place, to do a Full Nelson, or a Chicken Wing, or get on the backside, wrap legs around stomach and pull—we want breathing to be hard, to whisper, Hurts, doesn’t it?We don’t do Stone Cold Stunners, but we’ll body slam each other on the couch. We don’t do Rock Bottoms, but we’ll do a Sleeper Hold. It’s our way to show we’re men, to show that, if we want to, we could hurt each other.
In second grade Cale and I played ball-tag, just the two of us. I kept getting the ball, hurled it like a stone at him, kept yelling, Tag, you’re it! and then ran and got the ball again. Over and over, tag, tag, tag, tag. And finally, Cale, the larger, slower friend, picked up my baseball bat, whipped it like a tomahawk. When it knocked me back into the cold grass, I yelled, Jesus Fucking Christ! for the first time.
But now, in eighth grade, our bodies have changed. Stronger, lower voiced, we push harder, sweat more, our faces crimson. Cale plays ball, runs track. I do speech and practice saxophone. But today we toss and tumble, and when I pin Cale we both see it, can’t unsee it—that our bodies have changed, and mine has betrayed me.
In eighth grade Corey Hintz grew baseballs in his arms. In swimming class I had to turn away, had to keep from fading into a daydream—how he’d wrestle cattle into the cold mud, hold them down, arms locked around their head, hot iron pressed into their velvet coat, branding them for life. A small coal in my gut told me to look away, told me that the prairie wasn’t the place for boys who liked boys—that’s what we teach rural children. To be true, move away; find a home elsewhere; move along like a turtle slowly scraping away soil to reach the river, where you belong—someplace, not here. In eighth grade the boys lifted weights, and I changed quickly in the locker room, kept my head down as they snapped towels at testicles, cackled with delight. I kept swallowing the coal even though it hurt, hoping, one day, I’d find it turned into a diamond.
My bright blue socks a dead giveaway. I stop at Liquid Assets for a drink, just a drink, I tell myself. It’s a quiet night, soccer on one screen, the Twins on the other, couples whisper quietly in corners. I pull myself to the bar, and the bartender, a young woman, college-age, wearing a low-cut tank, says, Sugar, what are you drinking? I look at what’s on tap and order a beer. I break my rule, going out drinking at night, alone.
It’s maddening—surrounded by flares, metal testicles swing from hitches, t-shirts captioned Goin’ deep and pumpin’ hardor Frack that hole. My left hand quivers, I bring my beer to my mouth. Cool relief, cold safety. Something to ease the sad story of this place, Dickinson, North Dakota, the latest Boomtown USA. What the heck, I order another as my feet swing under my stool, bright blue breaks the drab décor of this room. Two men in cutoffs play billiards, remind me of The 19 in Minneapolis, though this is no bar to pick up men, no place of refuge in the storm of boys and oil and money and sex. I ask the bartender where the beer is from, Beaver Creek Brewery in Wibaux, sweetie. She likes calling me sweetie. Wibaux, Montana, a skip over the border, a place—Grandpa told me in childhood—where you could get married at sixteen. What’s the beer called? She looks up from washing glasses and I notice her eye is purple-yellow, Redheaded IPA. A redhead for a redhead, I say, and take another swig.
Two’s enough and I push back my stool, pay my tab, thank the waitress. I push open the door and a sting of diesel hits my nose. I look up at the inky blackness above and wonder about the inky blackness deep below. Where is my home going, this land on fire—and I’m off the ground, flying, just like I always wanted to do when watching Mary Poppins. I hit the stone wall, hard, take a kneecap to the brow, hear a low fag ring in my ear. I reach for my glasses, not broken, somehow, and hear the roar of an engine, the smell of burnt rubber. It’s a white pickup, that’s all I know. A white pickup on an ocean of black oil.
Taylor Brorby is an award-winning essayist and a poet. His work has been featured in North American Review, Orion, The Huffington Post, and he has been interviewed about his work on NPR. Taylor is the author of Crude: Poems, Coming Alive: Action and Civil Disobedience, and co-editor of Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America. A contributing editor at North American Review, Taylor is at work on three separate memoirs that involve environmentalism, queerness, and disability.