Thursday, September 17, 2009

historical fiction-ish: Monowi, Nebraska

a couple years ago now, i saw a news piece about a town in nebraska, called Monowi, that only has 1 resident. the woman who lives there is very old and interesting. i ended up writing a short story about her for a project for the one writing workshop i took while i was in grad school (turns out i'm not much of a team player [duh] so workshops are not for me ... i used to go to an amazing arts camp every summer and take writing workshops there, and there always ended up being some very strong relationship of love hate competition encouragement btwn me and the workshop's instructor, so i laid off workshops the whole rest of my life until this one i took in grad school, because the whole thing just wasn't for me, and oh my god can i tell you some weird stories about the friendship/hatred that ended up developing between me and the instructor of this grad school workshop). i don't know what to call fiction that is based on real facts but embellished and mixed in with fiction -- you call it historical fiction when it's about the past, but this story isn't about the past, really. it's about the past, but the RECENT past.

anyway, i wasn't going to share this story with anyone outside of my workshop, because i felt weird about it being about someone who is alive, and also it's not really my normal prose style, but it ended up making the email rounds with my family and the feedback i got about it was that it was touching, etc., so it gave the story some worth to me, that people liked it.

i got the idea to try to contact the woman it was written about, Elsie. i got an address for her online that ended up being accurate, and she wrote me a very nice letter. in my letter to her, i'd told her i wrote a story about what i knew about her life, and that i could donate books to her library she maintains in a trailer (people come from the neighboring towns to the library). she told me she already has all the books she can handle, that she is so surprised that someone would write a story about her, and that she'd like to read it. when i wrote back to her, i sort of, like, warned her about the story -- like that it was very loosely based on her in some parts, but that it does include my imaginings of what the experience of the death of her husband was like so that it might be sad to read -- basically, she is a very old woman in a secluded town and i didn't want the story to bewilder or bum her out, so the letter i sent her with the story was sort of like me trying to prepare her for the story. but she never wrote me back, so who knows. I hope the story didn't make her sad. maybe it was confusing to read such a combination of fact & fiction about herself: her husband, her bar, her library, the dwindling down of the population of Monowi: these are facts, but the rest is invention, maybe it was too weird to her that i'd do that. maybe it offended her. i really cherish the one letter she wrote to me.

anyway, here is the story i wrote.

by the way, if you follow this blog, can you log yrself into "blogspot" as a follower of Sweetheart Redux? it kinda helps me to know if anyone out there is reading this stuff.

kisses and punches,
princess robin



The Wind

The prairie grass being blown by a late afternoon wind sounded like bedsheets rubbing lightly against each other in sympathy with a restless sleeper. When the winds picked up hard, the town was a song of whistles; she never knew as a little girl if the whistling was just from the wind speeding past the small apertures of her ears, or if the sound was outside of her, if it came from the wind pushing its way too forcefully through all the tiny cracks in the windows of the slightly flimsy houses and public buildings of the town. When the winds picked up hard, all the vast, open space of Monowi, Nebraska, population 93, became a menacing wasteland with nothing to hide behind to shield you from the stinging grit, you just had to walk home or to someone else's home, as quickly as possible, with your head down and your hair thrashing about your face like something separate from you and wildly alive.

This is Before

Population: 93. Walk home or to someone else's home. This is when there were still people in the houses, and before the floor of the one-room schoolhouse was a mat of weeds and rotting floorboards turned purposeless, just jetsam floating atop a sea of wildflowers.

But then, there were never many people here to begin with. "Sh," the wind always whispered in flat Monowi; obediently, the stoic farmers who lived here always spoke to each other, and to the school teacher and the minister and the couple who ran the general store, in hushed voices. There was a sense of perseverance in staying so quiet that seemed uniquely American to the residents of Monowi. They were proud of their own spare ways.

Eventually, there would be no people in the houses. Finally, there would be no more houses, except for me and Rudy's house, the house that Rudy built for us to live in, built it in 1961, so it is not ancient and rickety like the others. A few years ago a group of men drove over from Norfolk, many of them friends of mine from the tavern, to tear down the few remaining old buildings for me, because seeing them, rotting and empty, was starting to spook me. It made me feel lonely to look upon them. There were four houses still standing and every last one of them would fall over if you gave it a good push. Our still-standing house is far too big for me to live in alone, and I stay in a little trailer behind the tavern. I like the smallness of it, and the fluttering of the little gossamer curtains I made last spring when the wind gets to them, and it doesn't bother me when the wind makes the trailer shake.

The men from Norfolk moved some things into our old house for me, keepsakes too big to keep on top of a coffee table, that's for sure. The weathervanes from two of the houses they brought down had been easy to get to among the rubble, so I kept them, and they're in the house now. And from the general store when the Watts family had to leave and couldn't take much of their stock with them, I'd been hanging onto some of the clothes and little things like pocket knives and stacks of handkerchiefs in boxes I kept in the back of the tavern, so I had the men move all the boxes into the old house. And of course, a lot of the furniture is still in there, a lot of things that our kids left behind when they moved out, and even our old bed is still there in its usual old place, that bed of ours which is almost as long across as my whole trailer. So these boxes of this and that old remnant of Monowi are stacked on top of the furniture, and when you walk by the house, what you see through the windows is the boxes and bags full of things, pressed up against the glass. The people who sometimes come here from magazines and TV news shows to interview me, "The Mayor of Monowi, Population: 1," etcetera, they always say something about my old house. I have never told any of them that that is where I used to live, where I had all my days of matrimony and motherhood, but something about the house is haunting to them; they'll look at the house with a troubled look on their face and then they'll turn to look at me, and forgetting for a second that people drive as far as 80 miles away every morning to come to my tavern and talk and eat awhile before driving to their jobs, these reporters look like they're thinking that I must be the loneliest woman alive. But I'm not.

I grew bigger and Monowi grew smaller.


All of my neighbors were a part of my family, even though Aunt Victoria and Uncles William and Jack were our only blood relatives here. There were even certain trees I especially loved. There was a display case at the general store that held a small collection of dolls in it that Mrs. Watts wasn't able to sell (their dresses were sun-damaged) and I loved the way the identical dolls' lips were painted as surprised smiles -I pretended they were the little sisters of me and my sister Emily. My parents treated our housecat and certain of the farm animals as though they were siblings of mine and Emily's, and in fact, I'd been named after their favorite cow at the time of my birth. Elsie.

There was never a sense of overfamiliarity, though. People think of me as chatty now, and heaven knows I am, but when I was a little girl, and even more so as a young woman, I was often what people would call withdrawn. Folks walking by could tell when I was preoccupied with my thoughts, I could just sit alone and think them, and stare out in the prairie, nobody would trouble me, they gave me my space.
The prarie grass was already taking over by this time in Monowi, encroaching on the land that'd once had a barn and families' homes and rows of crops on it. This was always a small town, but it used to be possible to make a living from a family farm. It already wasn't possible anymore by the time I was a little girl, at least not in the heartland. When I was born, we still had the train running through here, and most folks, like my parents, had to take it to their jobs in bigger towns nearby.

The Perkins family was our only immediate neighbors on the dusty road where our own house, now long gone, stood. Theirs was a two-story house painted cornflower blue, with three steps for the front porch and a crooked, inconsistent row of sunflowers growing along the perimeter of the house. Along one side, they'd strung a clothesline that connected from a slat in the fence to a hook nailed into the kitchen window's frame. Walking home, I glimpsed more than once Mrs. Perkins watching a dress or napkin anchored to the clothesline swaying in the wind as she stood at the kitchen sink, absentmindedly drying a dish with her apron. The family moved to a town right outside Lincoln when I was twelve, and no new family moved into their house.

Imagine you can hear the train whistle in the background. It sounds forlorn and timeless. Imagine sitting i dly on a pillow placed in the sun-bleached grass of the front yard. It's dusk, on a warm, still day in the summer, and the only noticeable motion is the frenetic, jumping-about flight of the fireflies. You are looking across the narrow dirt road at the empty Perkins house, at the debris of felled bodies of sunflowers piled on top of themselves. Nothing about the house is alive, you can't even hear its wood creaking as it settles into the cooler night air. The clothesline has long ago fallen in among the weeds.
Suddenly you see a family of wild brown rabbits hopping quickly across the lawn.


Running down the main road that leads into Monowi. The sound of your feet stomping loose rocks. The sound of your own breathing, the sound of a dire pant, but you feel only exhilaration, racing your sister Emily to the rust-specked grain silo up ahead. Emily is wearing sandals, and she falls forward when a rock catches on the sandal’s toe. Crying from the abrupt shock of the tumble and the injustice of being so suddenly hurt, she sulks into the field and lies on the ground, flattening the tall prairie grass under her body. At age seven, her hair is a blond so pale it is almost white, and she pushes it away from her face, squinting against the sunlight to look up at your face, your still-standing figure. Now she is laughing at herself for crying. You lay in the field, too. Your breathing slows. In your meadow bed, bugs hopping on your bare arms, you look up at the bare blue landscape of sky. If seen aerially, you home, your Monowi, would present a landscape as blank as the sky, a fawn-colored sky below the sky.

Meeting Rudy

Rudy Eiler spilled a cup of fruit punch on himself one Fourth of July, at the annual picnic. He was standing by himself when he absentmindedly tipped the cup towards his shirt while watching something happening in the distance, and I was standing by myself as I watched it happen. We were both children.

His family kept more to themselves than most of the rest of us, which may be part of the reason I was able to fall in love with him, with all the anxiety and almost-terror that accompanies true love when it's just starting. If I'd known him as well as I knew the other young people in Monowi, I almost certainly would have seen him as just another sibling, and probably would have fallen in love with someone I'd meet in another town; I'd been daydreaming of meeting a boy at a dance someday, and I thought that if that didn't happen, I would probably meet someone at whatever place of business I would eventually work at. But the Eiler family was known for reading and generally keeping their own company in their leisure hours, even though they weren't overly serious, and could each hold a lively conversation when a situation called for it.

I became fully aware of Rudy the Christmas holiday that I was twelve. We both still went to school, though it was just the two of us and one other child as old as us that still came; the three of us sat in a row against the back wall, doing independent studying from the books the teacher gave us, while she taught aloud to the younger kids.
We had three days off from school for the holiday. On Christmas Eve, while I was sitting around the fire with my family and we all felt happy and our faces were all pink and warm, I was quieter than usual, because I was thinking about Rudy. I was having an epiphany about the whole rest of my life, or maybe what you'd call a prediction. I knew that we would love each other.
When I saw him the day after Christmas, he sat down next to me and started to talk as though picking up where we'd left off in a conversation. My pencil rolled off my desk while we were talking, and when he handed it back to me, he kept his hold on it for a moment before letting me take it back. He was already teasing me, lovingly, the way he would the whole rest of his life, shining his attention on me.

Mass Exodus

I wore a white cotton summer dress with mother's white leather sandals, which were precious to her even though the straps were coming unsewn from the soles. I wore short white gloves and a sprig of Queen Anne's Lace in my hair. We got married on a hot, windy day in June. It was also the day the last big farm family left Monowi. All their crops would lie fallow that August, eventually decomposing and finally leaving no trace of themselves.

Three months after we were married, Rudy's mother died suddenly, of an embolism.

My Aunt Victoria moved to South Dakota, to live in a spare room offered to her by a friend who'd moved away from Monowi years ago.

My first daughter, Jane, was born.

My father passed away in his sleep.

The Watts family closed their store, bringing their entire stock of overalls with them, but, for mysterious reasons, leaving most everything else behind; they moved to Lincoln.

Rudy had a job at a factory in Overton. He bought a truck to drive there in, and this was better than taking the train home, because he brought groceries home many nights, and sometimes a little novelty, like a string of plastic beads for Jane to wear around her wrist, and one time a little plastic basket with plastic daisies in it one time, which became the centerpiece for our dining table, unless it was a holiday.

My sister Emily got married to the son of Aunt Victoria's friend in South Dakota, and moved into the same house where Victoria had her room; the bond they had there was closer than it had been in Monowi, when Emily's loyalties lay mostly with me, mother and our pretty school teacher Ms. Southern, and though I loved Aunt Victoria, this new bond of theirs was the first thing to give me a feeling that people were betraying Monowi by abandoning this place for greener pastures, and that their flight indicated a lack of determination, almost a lack of dignity.

I gave birth to my second daughter, April, in the spring of 1964.

Dinnertime was at 6. When Rudy got home from work, he would immediately change into his flannel pajamas under a flannel robe in the winter, or a clean white t-shirt with his flannel pajamas bottoms the rest of the year.

The table was circular, with the basket of plastic daisies in the center. Rudy and I and April and Jane, ending back at Rudy -- that was how the circle went, the night pitch black outside. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see us reflected in the large front window, the backdrop of night making our reflections all the brighter, luminescent and ghostly.

Rudy's father died, after having surviving longer than we thought he could without his wife. He had a heart attack, possibly while bending down to pick up his spoon, because he was found in the kitchen, sprawled dead under an overturned chair, with a bowl of cereal on the table and a spoon near his body on the floor. If his wife had still been there with him, I feel certain his death would not have been caused by something so incidental. His life would still have been fortified by the company of Rudy's mother, and he wouldn't have died in a kitchen. He would have died out of doors, which would have been a death more suited to him.

Uncle Jack moved away.
Uncle William moved in with us.

The Miller family and the Oak family stayed in Monowi. It came to feel almost like a slumber party at night, or at least like what Emily and I used to call slumber parties (a concept we learned from a magazine), on nights when we decided we weren't going to go to sleep, when she climbed into bed with me instead or we sat outside on the porch, and the night felt exempt from normal routine because we'd named it a party. Living in close proximity to only these other families, certain social boundaries were entirely dropped, and some of our habits maybe were peculiar only to our tiny Monowi. Sometimes the whole town of us would still be awake doing daytime routines like sweeping a porch or beating a rug even into the dawn hours, or walking over to visit each other as late as midnight, when almost everyone else in all of Nebraska, I like to imagine, were asleep in their beds, except maybe some men in bars and teenagers up to mischief. It was like we were the last people on earth and were reshaping human habit, giving it a little flavor of subterfuge.

Elsie's Place

Jane and April grew up and moved away, and it was just Rudy and me in our house, uncle William having passed away mid-sentence in a drawn out recollection of a birthday party he'd attended almost eighty years earlier. The older I get, the more I feel about Monowi as though it is a person I love more than anyone else ever has, and I was already overflowing with this protective loyalty by the time I was in my forties, when I was itching to work but would not desert Monowi even for a day. This is how Rudy and I alighted on the idea of the tavern, which, as I mentioned earlier, has become an institution around these parts, with people coming from all the neighboring towns to eat and drink and meet up with each other; some people stay all day, watching TV with me and even helping tidy up, and many people leave messages with me to deliver to people who will be stopping by later in the day. More than once, I've been the person to tell a man that his wife was in labor over at the Norfolk or the Overton hospital.

Some things and places become beloved institutions only over time, when familiarity makes a person feel like a partial owner, like with a road that at first looks ridiculous paved, but later comes to be relied on as the best road around because you can drive on it in storms without worrying about mud. But "Elsie's Place," our tavern, drew people to it literally the day it opened. Rudy and I had intuited beforehand how successful the place was going to be, and it made us antsy all throughout the process of getting it built and set up. Sometimes I would even think nonsense thoughts about the planning because I would feel so overeager; I would tell Rudy some thought of mine to just set up a port-a-potty next to the building until the indoor plumbing was installed, or that we could just buy a couple microwaves for food preparation until we eventually installed the skillets, I was just so eager to already be standing behind the register or sitting in one of the booths Rudy was constructing, chatting with folks all day and preparing light meals for them, bringing them bottles of beer so satisfyingly cold.

Rudy was so funny, he designed this postcard that he had printed up; it's a picture of the old Perkins family house when it was right on the brink of collapse, as crooked as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and it says "Welcome to Monowi!" at the bottom. I continue to reprint the cards when I run out of them. They're displayed in a little recipe box next to the cash register, and my customers buy one almost any time they meet someone new, letting the newcomer in on the loving joke of Monowi, my town where I am mayor, treasurer, town clerk, librarian and the only resident.

On our opening day, the beer tap wouldn't work, and as I'd suggested when I'd been chomping at the bit to open months earlier, we'd opened when we still only had the port-a-potty for our restroom, but the minor setbacks of Opening Day don't change the fact that it was the most fun day Rudy and I ever spent together, though there have been many fun days. Friends came and went all day long, some of them stopping in before work and coming back after work and staying until we closed up at 10. Rudy and Mike Miller, our neighbor and the one who built the tavern with Rudy, rented a helium tank and bought several bags of balloons for the occasion, and it was such a funny novelty to have our hands on, we weren't in the business of selling balloons or throwing children's parties, so what were we doing with all this helium? -- the oddness of it made me giddy. People took turns inflating the balloons just for the heck of it, and it became a game to find places to put the floating balloons. A couple people pushed a large bundle of the balloons into their truck's cab with them and brought them home to their children. We drank beer all day and at the end of the night I felt like a different woman, or like the same me, but living an alternate life. I could imagine us living in Omaha, a town populated by thousands, on a street populated by a hundred friends of ours, each house lining the sidewalk a family we knew, and knowing all of them forever. In this fantasy, It's a holiday, and we've just walked home from a festive party down the block, we're still both buzzing with excitement from all the interesting conversations we've just had. We're filled with energy from the many people all around us, and our souls are not the quiet, slightly lonesome souls of the last survivors in Monowi.
Rudy and I did become the sole survivors of Monowi The Oak family had moved a couple years before the tavern opened, and the Millers eventually moved away, as well. Mike Miller had been the mayor, organizing an annual town hall meeting that the four of us joked about as we were having it. I took over the position of mayor. I use Elsie's Place as the town hall when I have the annual Public Hearing, which I alone attend. One newspaper has called my civic duties Kafkaesque*, and yes, of course they are. Because Monowi is an unincorporated town, the Nebraska law requires this sort of bureaucracy, and while the reporters seem to assume that I am being helplessly pushed through these rituals of governmental tasks, I enjoy the absurdity of it, which is like a private joke between me and me.

It would have seemed the natural choice, between the two of us, for Rudy to take over as mayor. As my husband, he'd always made sure that things were running smoothly and that I was happy, the way a mayor is supposed to care for the residents of his town. But Rudy had renal cancer that was already at end-stage by the time we became aware of it. My Rudy. And before we knew it, he was a thin man who had trouble even breathin. He died at home, in our bed. My last words to him were "good night."


Closing the rickety screen door to the tavern, your dog at your side, anxious for the walk you are about to take her on. You stand still for a moment and look about you at the completely empty town. There is a single streetlight that stands in front of Rudy's library, and you see the darting bodies of mosquitoes illuminated by the light of the lamp they hover excitedly around. It is not quite dark out yet. In the distance, the vast fields of prairie grass sway slightly in the wind, like the constant, subtle rise and fall of a calm ocean. Breathing. The sun is setting behind the field, glowing pink and orange. When you look to your left, you are looking at what was once the main street. Now it is a pasture of weeds the same dulled golden color of the grasses. Here and there, some of the wood from the buildings that were brought down lays in piles, as minor monuments to the buildings themselves. Deer have begun to stalk around these streets. You see one at the end of the block, looking intently at something hidden from you in the thick tangle of weeds. Then it notices you and becomes still. Its eyes are looking into your eyes.

Elsie, me

Mayor of Monowi: Population 1; most of the articles about me contain a headline somewhere along these lines. We ("We." Me.) are the only documented American town with a one person population. Another point of interest is the fact that the sign for Monowi still states a population of 2, which is what it was during the last census. This detail usually gives the interviewers a sense of animosity towards the government for -- well, what is it exactly that bothers them about the sign? -- for rubbing my face in Rudy's death, perhaps. But I don't feel upset about it; the next census isn't until 2010, and that is just the way it is.
Interviewers always write about Rudy's library. It was his dying wish that I would put all of his books together in one trailer and call it "Rudy's Library." There are a little over 5,000 books in it, and I am quite proud of this. Again, these journalists seem to forget that I don't exist in a bubble. People come to Monowi every day and most of them borrow books from the library; they don't just sit on their shelves collecting dust.

So, I grew bigger and Monowi grew smaller. Then I grew smaller, and I get a little smaller every day. I am an old lady. I am the sole survivor of a place I can't explain to you, even though I've been trying to this whole time. Like I said, I feel like we let Monowi down. This is America. Monowi was a place where food grew. We had cows and fruits and vegetables, we had so much wheat, and for a while we were not forgotten by the rest of the country; we were a real part of the economy. That in itself, America forgetting us, feels okay to me, because what can you do besides accept it? I loved growing up in my extended family of neighbors. I loved the slumber parties. I loved walking with someone, anyone, at night and just inhaling and smelling the night air smell of Monowi, prairie grass and a silence that had its own scent; it smelled a pleasant sort of dusty smell. But they shouldn't have left us. They should have stayed here in Monowi. For years and years, it was almost, almost, utopian.

* Times Online, "Introducing the Mayor of Monowi (Population: 1)," by Tim Reid

No comments:

Post a Comment