Every Wednesday, I?m posting a short, 1000-word prequel to one of the eleven stories in If You Need Me I?ll Be Over There, which comes out June 1. This one?s a prequel to the fourth (and seventh and eleventh) story in the collection, “If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There”.
The day I left Pennsylvania for my new life in Nebraska, blackouts ravaged the northeast. The news came in over our car radio somewhere just before Indiana: New York, Boston, all the way down to Baltimore, nobody had any power. It was a hot sunny afternoon. The highways Dad drove over were the flattest I?d ever seen, with a horizon that never rose above eye level. I felt like we were going to crash into the sun, which kept itself blindingly before us, making everything shimmer. Mom worried aloud about finding a hotel with electricity, and I worried for the first time about going somewhere so vacant. I would know nobody. I would drink too much one night and stumble past town limits and suddenly be the tallest thing on the landscape for miles, ready for the tornado or the bolt of lightning to render me in shreds.
We found a hotel with a backup generator in small Illinois town I?d never step foot in again. I got my own room, and that night I dreamt of being buried in a corn field, but playfully, my head up above ground as though I were at the beach, while underneath I felt moles and prairie dogs plough passageways through my insides.
Much later, my parents in the minivan driving back east, I stood one evening in Lincoln?s Haymarket, wondering what to do next. I hadn?t made a friend yet. I was right by the train tracks at the beginning of a light rainstorm. Above me hung big boulders of clouds, but out on the western horizon the sun looked like an orange slice as it set above the browned silhouette of a cargo train slowly rolling southward. The sunlight cast on the meager fifteen-story skyscrapers of this small town made them beam and shine their brightest colors against a denim-blue sky. I felt my jaw slung loose, gaping upward at the half-arc of a rainbow sloping over the place where my new home sat. It was a sky I?d never known before, a sky so far away from the ones I?d taken for granted, and suddenly as though in greeting the whole sky flashed and sparked with a half-dozen threads of lightning that stretched beyond my field of vision. God?s grill, it looked like, and I broke out in laughter, right there in a parking lot at the edge of the West.
I had a roommate named Bruxton I ate lunch with sometimes. Not much of a friend. He was tall, blond, and solid, and in our room he?d sit with a nugget of tobacco tucked in his lip he?d spit into plastic cups. One lunch, pizza and chicken fingers, he asked me, Are you from a small town or a big city? He had never met someone from the East Coast before, even though I clarified that Pennsylvania?particularly the hills of Western Pennsylvania?wasn?t really on the coast. But I said, Small town, definitely.
Oh yeah? he said. What?s the population?
I thought it was something like 8000. Mount Lebanon had over 30,000, and we weren?t even half as big.
Bruxton said, That?s a big town.
Oh, I said.
My town?s got 400 people in it, he said. I was one of fifteen in my graduating class.
I didn?t even get to grow up in a small town. Numbers meant different things here. The temperatures, the cost of gas. On Saturdays our football stadium, filled to capacity for a record number of years, became the state?s third largest city by population. I guess I had chosen Nebraska so as to undergo such transformations. I?d felt hemmed in on all edges, and everywhere I turned I saw more family. Jerem had made our parents proud by going to Penn State, never being too far away to come home when needed, when missed. I?d figured that running off to a point smack in the middle of the country would be a noisy coup d?etat, plates thrown and parental feet put down, but Mom and Dad treated it mostly as a puzzle. Where are you going to go without a car? Mom asked, as we?d first rolled into town.
I wasn?t going anywhere. There were nights I could forecast the rest of my life here, nights where out by the airport I?d look up and see so many stars the sky for the first time had depth and texture. One night a guy down the hall with a car, not much of a friend, took us out to Denton (pop: tiny), where we pulled up alongside Ford F-150s outside a bar called the Daily Double. A girl my age stood on a low stage and read numbers monotone into a microphone, and the guys from my floor?all born-and-bred Cornhuskers?persuaded me to order chicken gizzards. What are they? I kept asking. I pictured the flap of skin that hung jowlishly from their faces.
It?s by the stomach, Bruxton said. I pictured sweetmeats and intestines. It?s where they keep the gravel, he added, unhelpfully.
They arrived, deep fried, and tasted like wet erasers. I must have made a face because they all laughed. I played four rounds of Keno and lost each one. If I had a nickel for every time I heard ?Mustang Sally? on that trip from Pennsylvania, I could?ve afforded to play a fifth, but instead we went home and fall soon fell, and the wind I felt every day from every direction started to turn malevolent. It snowed the day I took my first college final, but that was weeks and weeks before I?d know true winter, with snow up to my thighs and windgusts aiming to knock me over. In Nebraskan weather I was a child again. Or still. I?d have a whole life ahead of me of staying out of trouble.
You can pre-order If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There here.