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FARGOBehind the Glitz and Glamour
By SCOTT NANKIVEL
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Scott Nankivel
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHOME Cock-a-Doodle-Doo!
Fargowhere a day seems like a week, a week like a year, and a bullet to the head like a blessing. When I speak of Fargo, I technically speak of West Fargo, the smallest of the three sectionsNorth Fargo and South Fargo being the other two. The last time I looked, the population was twelve thousand. It will either grow or be swallowed by weeds; neither would surprise me.
The city sits on the eastern border of North Dakotaso far east, in fact, there was apparently no room for an East Fargo. Our state is bordered by Minnesota, South Dakota, Montana, and the country of Canada. For those of you not familiar with North Dakota's terrain, it's ... how do I put this delicately? ... it has none. It's a huge football field full of wheat, with nothing taller than a cow to obstruct the horizon. If you suddenly drive off the road in a blizzard, you'll never know it. That's why we have fences around our fields: not to keep the cattle in, but to keep the cars out. Otherwise, who knows where you'd end up? "Oh my God, we're in Canada!"
North Dakota has been nicknamed the "Prairie State," and all one has to do is look out a window to realize that it's not an excessively imaginative title. But then, we're not overly imaginative people. The stark prairie terrain, as it washes over the edge of the North Dakota horizon, lends a feeling of infinite bland. Some say you can stand on the western border and wave to a friend on the eastern border. But the ones who say that are usually loaded on strawberry Boone's Farm. Aside from the definitive laws of physics, I guess the only obstacle that might block your view of the eastern border is Salem Sue, the world's largest statue of a Holstein cow.
Just outside of New Salem, it stands thirty-eight feet tall, fifty feet long, constructed entirely out of fiberglass and hollowmuch like its entertainment value. It was built in Wisconsin for the New Salem Lions Club, and then transported in three parts. A professional artist was hired to direct the assembling. (Note: It's money well spent to have professional direction when putting three pieces of a cow together. A rank amateur might have made the embarrassing mistake of putting the head where the ass is supposed to be.) A website honoring the statue claims: "Salem Sue is known worldwide." Interesting. I defy you to travel anywhere outside of the tri-state area, much less the country, and find anyone who's heard of Salem Sue. Of course, I've never been to Zimbabwe. Maybe she's the talk of the town over there.
Despite possessing a glob of fiberglass in the shape of a cow, tourism has never been a strong point for us. State government recently suggested that the word North in our state's name is what's killing the tourist trade. But when all you've got to offer vacationers is a large cow statue, maybe the word North isn't your biggest problem. Adding insult to injury, in 1927 the folks in South Dakota chiseled away at a mountain until four presidents' faces were perfectly dimensioned in stone, right down to the pores in their skin. Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Lincoln all look down from their rocky mountaintop, reminding everyone that even the impossible is possible. After all that hard work, it's a real shame that Mount Rushmore doesn't have the worldwide popularity of Salem Sue.
The portrait of Fargo is similar to that of other older, medium-sized Midwestern towns: a main street, an elementary school and a high school, a library, and various businesses sprinkled throughout the remainder of the city. The city is bordered by the Red River on the east and the Sheyenne River on the westeach a branch of the mighty Mississippi, and each making flood disasters a way of life for the people of Fargo.
Traffic flow is meager enough to be managed with stop signs rather than stoplights. Because of one stubborn farmer, an odd few acres along Twelfth Street are still functioning as a grain field. He's holding out for the big bucks, and nobody's happy about it; after all, Fargo is a city on the make. Every entrepreneur in town has his eye on the plot of land. At one time Erv Raymond wanted to build a new bowling alley there; the Catholics believe another church should go up and are kneeling at attention with shovels in hand; and the Lutherans would like to build as well, but they're ... Lutherans, so they're about nine thousand bake sales short of an opening bid. Despite the haystacks, Twelfth Street has become one of the "hot spots." There is a row of new houses, a strip mall, and a Live Bait & Liquor store. It's a bewildering phenomenon to me that in order to own a store in the Midwest, it seems you're required to hand paint a sign that reads: Live Bait & ... [fill in the blank]. Night Crawlers & Beer. Minnows & Marshmallows. The second part doesn't matter. They're convinced that anything will sell better if advertised next to something that will help you catch fish. Leeches & Bibles.
Today I will be moving away from my hometown of twenty-three years, headed to Los Angeles, the land of hopes, dreams, and loose women with huge jugs. The truth behind my leaving is simple: I want more than what Fargo has to offer. I'm a dreamer, an artist; the passion to become the next big movie star is bursting from my pores. The television and movies were what honed my dreams from being an artist of some type to becoming an actor, and finally to the laser-sharp aspiration of being in People magazine.
Because of Fargo's modest disposition, I spent most of my childhood keeping my dreams to myself for fear of ... well, for fear of people saying, "Keep your dreams to yourself." The people of Fargoin my eyes, anywayhave always seemed to believe less is more; I've always thought more will never be enough. Every week my mother was satisfied with simply reading People magazine, but not me, no sir. The only thing that would satisfy me was my face on the cover. And not a "body shot," mind you. I envisioned nothing less than bottom of my chin to the top of my hair covering the entire page. Comparatively, Fargonians have very, very, very subtle aspirations. They're content being content. They live in everydayness. They don't want to rock the boat; they want only to sit in it and troll around the lake on weekends. They want only to attend their afternoon card parties, with whist on Saturdays and pinochle on Sundays. They want for their weeknight bowling league to improve just a little each year, and maybe one day take that first place trophy, but only if it's in God's great plan. They have wants, yes, but no demands. They want their rainbow sherbet, but if lime sherbet is brought to the table, no one is going to jump up on a chair and yell, "I demand my rainbow sherbet. I've earned it. I've ordered it! I want it!" They sit there politely and profess the virtues of lime sherbet.
"Scottie, it's time," my mother yodels up the steps as if I'm still nine years old, which was my age when we first moved into our modest two-bedroom condo. "Rise and shine! Cock-a-doodle-doo!"
Because of her unique insanity, my mother is an endearing woman, and the only thing that gets in the way of our relationship is that she is my mother. If she were anyone else's mother, I could see myself being good friends with her. Even so, she has been the single constant in my life, the only person I could definitively count on when I was growing up. After divorcing my father and moving my brother Todd and me into our new home, she started working long, hard hours as a waitress at the local diner to make ends meet. With the exception of being on her feet all day, I think she loves working at a restaurant, especially the social aspect of it. She's the ultimate busybody. Other people's business fuels her.
Unfortunately, remembering names is not her strong point, so occasionally she'll associate regular customers with what meals they order on a regular basis. I imagine it's all the more jarring for victims when she applies the food-memory device outside the walls of the restaurant. Without any pretense, she'll walk up to someone in the grocery store; point a finger and say, "Eggs Benedict." Then, as if she had just called him by name, "How's your son doing in school?"
The terribly confused father squints and replies, "Which son?"
"The one that puts Tabasco sauce all over his fries?"
In harsh contrast, I myself will exert an alarming amount of energy in dodging people if I don't know their names. My mom, on the other hand, will proudly yell down a crowded Kmart aisle, "Western cheeseburger! Did you pass your kidney stone yet?"
It's this endearing lunacy that makes you want to call her Mom, even if she isn't yours. Everyone loves her. My friends like her because she makes the grilled cheese deluxewhich is basically a grilled cheese sandwich with a slice of bologna. She helps keep Gary, the Amway rep, in business; a smile on Mary Kay's face; and the cupboards full of Girl Scout cookies.
Physically, she is slender, with a gaunt face, which is exaggerated by the oversized white-framed glasses she wears. Her hair is continually permed, and each morning she brushes it in a manner that transforms the curls into waves that reach high into the air. The higher they reach, the better her mood. Before one perm has run its course, she'll start up another. If you look closely, you can see remnants of a perm from the seventies.
"I laid some sweatpants out for you on the toilet tank. Thought you might be more comfortable travelin' in those," she yells up the steps. I am surprised at the strength in her voice, as I know losing her first-born son to the world is going to hit hard as soon as I drive away.
Six in the morning feels like six in the morning no matter how exciting or important the event is I'm getting up for, which is why I set the alarm for eight. Today is the first day of the rest of my life outside the confines of repression, mind-numbing terrain, and Salem Sue, so I figured it was best not to go into it drowsy.
Out my bedroom window, I can see the day is gloomy and afflicted with gray. Through the haziness of the morning, I can still see the lone water tower, which after years of erosion has lost its s and now reads "We t Fargo." Trees line all the twelve streets and twelve avenues, forming a perfect grid-like forest. The low-hanging clouds are filled with a suspicion of rain, as if the weather is sad to see me go. I am sad as well, because I know moving to Los Angeles means I will never see weather again. Even our local meteorologist has given up on referring to the state of California. For him, California is no longer a place for weather; it's merely the portion of the map he stands in front of to deliver the national forecast. Occasionally, a New York cold front will cause him to lean eastward, revealing the states of Washington and Oregon. Every now and then something severe will pass over the Rockies, and he's forced to step back, thereby revealing the red-hot letters printed across the state of California: "Same old same old."
I won't, however, miss the winter blizzards the prairie can kick up. Nor will I miss having to go out into twenty-below temperatures at three in the morning because I forgot to plug in my car. That's right. You see, cars in the Midwest have a block heater that needs to be plugged in nightly to keep the engine warm. Often we string a big orange extension cord from the house to the plug, which dangles through the front of the grill.
My uncle Dwight is slightly simpleand when I say "slightly simple," I don't mean to suggest anything other than that he was from the South. Uncle Dwight, who moved back to Fargo with his family after having spent the first thirty years of his life bouncing around from one southern trailer park to the next, took one look at the cord dangling from the front of my car and asked, "Is that one of them there electric guitars?"
He meant "car" but said "guitar" simply because his brain felt more familiar with the phrase "electric guitar" and so it instructed his mouth to say it. After a while you learn to work the translations out on your own.
Not until this particular morning did I notice how perfectly my bedroom is lit at eight in the morning: not too bright, and yet bright enough for the airplanes to dive and swoop their way through the skyline-like wallpaper. Even though they're World War II fighter planes, I suppose it's childish not to have given them up to an adult coat or two of eggshell-white interior latex. Perhaps it was something my father would have done on a lazy weekend afternoon if he had been around. Perhaps.
My parents divorced years before divorce became fashionable. In fact, it was embarrassing. Many events in my life have been so affecting that in the middle of them, time appeared to suspend, thereby embedding every sight and sound into my memory for life. I was ten years old when the first happening of this type occurred.
I remember I was wearing my red scarf but had forgotten my mittens. As I grabbed the silver car-door handle, which was covered in a thick coating of frost, I jerked my hand back in shock. The chrome was so bone-chilling cold to the touch that I had to use a piece of my scarf to push in the knob of the handle, and my foot to pull open the door. As I climbed onto the seat, I considered it a little victory that I was getting away with not having to take my gloves to school.
That morning it was my mother's turn in the carpool rotation. As the sixth kid piled in, my heart stopped when he asked, "Why doesn't your dad drive anymore?" My victory with the gloves was instantly stripped of importance. In that fraction of a moment, my mind captured a picture. A soft lens filtered the images of all the kids in the car: of Brad, with his baseball cap that he wore defiantly under a winter stocking cap; of Mike, missing his two front teeth that had been knocked out that weekend; of Tyler, my best friend, who sat perfectly still in the middle of the front seat, kicking nervously at the bottom of the ashtray with his boot-covered toes. But the most vivid image was of my mother, who wore a purple turtleneck and had a tuft of her hair twirled up and cinched with a bobby pin.
I can still smell the car's musty upholstery. I could describe in detail the frost patterns on the windows, formed by my mother's haphazard scraping, which resulted in random diffusion of the sunlight as it landed on the kids' faces. To the boys, nothing was out of the ordinary; Glen had asked the question casually and in complete innocence.
So Glen, who was sitting directly behind me and thus hidden by the headrest, asked again, "When do you think your father will drive next?"
I could feel the blood pounding through my head as I wondered if I would have to answer the question. Or would it somehow be okay to just be silent? Bang! Another prodding kick to the back of my seat as Glen waited impatiently for an answer. He earnestly wanted to know when my father was going to be driving next, because everyone enjoyed his sense of humor.
My father made the trip to school less painful, I guess. He was a child of sorts himself and could easily strike our funny bone. His jokes were juvenile. On many occasions he would look out the side window and say, "Would you look at that!" After our attention was averted, he would hit the car horn and pump the brakes yelling, "Look out!" We screamed in fear of an accident, and as soon as we discovered it was a joke, we laughed like it was going out of style and punched at his shoulder. At stoplights he would pretend to fall asleep and start snoring as loud as he could. Once the light turned green and cars behind him started honking their horn, we would squeal with laughter and shake him awake. Our exaggerated reaction to his hijinks made my father pound on the steering wheel with delight.
I had a father that everyone loved and a mother that everyone loved; yet for some bewildering reason they didn't love each other. I couldn't figure out how that was possible and therefore concluded I must be part of the reason. Even kids who didn't carpool with us heard stories of my father's tomfoolery and were instantly filled with envy. For the most part, I was a very average studentnot too smart, not too athletic, and with no special giftsso in many ways the joy my father brought to the other kids is what defined me, which made it all the more important for me to conceal the divorce. I didn't want them to assume he was flawed.
And it wasn't until Glen posed that question that I fully understood: my father wasn't ever going to drive us again. I can still see their breath hanging in the air, the sun refracting off the frost, Mike's broken smile beaming, Tyler's toes tapping, and my mother's brown bobby pin. It was all there. I didn't want to be the one to tell them the news; so as the car zoomed down the street, I grabbed the door handle and yanked it open. Screeech! Mom hit the brakes, and the car swerved toward the curb as a cheer of delight from the kids in the back poured out the open door, along with their concerns for my father's absence. It proved to be the first in a lifelong cycle of deliberate diversions to avoid the subject of my parents' divorce. Indescribably difficult effort would go into dodging the topic. The emotional pain of simply admitting that my father no longer lived with us would have been a tea party in comparison to the pain and labor that went into covering it up.
Excerpted from FARGO by SCOTT NANKIVEL Copyright © 2012 by Scott Nankivel. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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