What I Know in a Week

Ready for Cale’s father’s funeral

So last Sunday, I told you that the new story had arrived, and was ready for boarding. Now it’s Saturday, five writing days later, and I’m 7800 words in. (That can happen, sometimes.) And I know some things.

I know who my character is: Cale, short for Caleb, the younger son who left the farm for urban and academic life. And I know the biggest character he’s going to have to push against: his older sister Ray, short for Coby Rae, who’s run the farm herself for 25 years. So when Dad got the farm, he kept painting Barrows & Sons on the trucks. And Coby Rae had been a ranch kid right from the start, had no patience with anything girly, insisted that everybody call her Ray anyway. She was a better son than I ever was, knew her way around a field and a fuel injector and a co-op board meeting since junior high.

I know what the landscape looks like. I know the gossip that goes on at the co-op as the farmers come in for lubricants or to schedule their deliveries of corn, most of it bound for ethanol refineries. I know how far everybody has to drive every day. You drive a lot in Nebraska, because everything you need is 15 miles away from where you’re at, no matter what you need or where you’re at.

I know how Cale and Ray’s brother, mother, and father died. The opening chapter is the preparation for the father’s funeral, in the church you see up at the top of today’s post. Having an image like that is important not for describing the color of the pews or the altar cloth, but to describe what it would feel like to be inside it. The sanctuary was lit only by daylight through the two big windows on each side of the plain plastered walls, the room feeling every second of its 130 years. It’s hard to remember how gloomy an indoor space can be in on a bright prairie day, the sun pours straight down like hail and leaves no light to scatter sideways.

I know what the farm looks like, because I’ve seen it in my own neighborhood. Deceased trucks and tractors and implements and cars, all left wherever they dropped. The trucks still had Barrows & Sons painted on their rusted doors, the trucks we used to haul corn and wood and gravel and sand and Christmas trees and dead stock and whatever damn thing somebody needed moved from A to B. The weeds had grown up to about mid-door height and then just surrendered, like everything else.

And most importantly, I know Cale’s biggest internal dilemma: he’s never really been convinced of who he is. And the fact is, the simple binary of I got out, she didn’t isn’t sufficient anyway. Because I didn’t just leave one culture, I joined another. A culture in which we talked endlessly and rarely accomplished anything, a culture in which feelings and manners and process outweighed getting shit done. A culture in which no finely-sliced difference couldn’t be sliced even a little further, Freud’s narcissism of small differences carried to the sixth decimal place. I left a world I didn’t want and never would, and walked into a world I didn’t understand and never would. I had dual alienship.

So a good week. I’ve got the people and the place and the voice. I’ve been surprised half a dozen times a day at what somebody said or noticed, always a good sign that the story’s real. And I’m ready for week 2.

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