Brian G. Angevine
©2010 Brian G. Angevine
I am a new arrival in Abuc, Kansas, which sits near Highway 36 in north-central Kansas. Just a few miles from Nebraska and very close to the geographic center of the nation, Abuc could easily be dismissed from anyone’s awareness. But, surprisingly, it is an important part of the economic mix of north-central Kansas. It might be more understandable if it sat right on the important east/west highway link that stretches from St. Joseph, Missouri in the east to the steep hills and cut valleys in the west beyond Atwood and the tiny hamlets of Bird City and St. Francis where it crosses the Republican River prior to entering the eastern reaches of Colorado, where the towns are even smaller.
Having taught in Norka, Colorado early in my career, I was slightly more familiar with the Colorado side of Highway 36 than with the part through Kansas. You might have heard of Norka if you read Plainsong, the plaintive account of small town life created by Kent Haruf. I knew the town by a different name--just as I know the town of Abuc by a different name. I changed the name to protect the innocent, and myself.
I had lived in many small towns in Colorado and Kansas after growing up in the big city. Some things are appealing in a small town; the lack of traffic, the familiarity of often-seen faces, the relaxed pace. But other factors are disconcerting; the lack of interesting things to do, the scarcity of services, and the fact that everyone knows what everyone else is doing.
Once, while teaching in a small town I left school during my planning period to get a haircut. Several people stopped me and asked why I wasn’t in school. Until then I hadn’t realized that teachers are more subject to a near prison mentality about schools than are students.
But this isn’t about schools, per se, although a school played a part in this incident, or incidents. And there were some lessons learned, I hope. Teachers can attempt to teach but learning occurs in a variety of ways. What a drastic lesson! Nobody that age deserves to learn that way!
I walked along the gravel road at a good clip, my two young dogs coursing through the fields nearby. They loved these walks—runs for them—as much as I did. Their experience was much different than mine as they followed mysterious scents with their noses questing the air and the ground, and honoring each other’s finds with a rush to sniff the same spot. I laughed as they jammed their noses together into a tuft of grass and then peed on the innocent sprout, with the taller of the two dogs nailing the shorter one with his stream. No wonder they reek most of the time.
I let my eyes drift to the sky and marveled at the wide sweep I could see in this relatively flat country. I love the view from my Colorado mountain cabin, but I had to admit that this one was just as interesting although the scenery was much different. The early morning was nearly silent just as I prefer at many times. I do my best thinking in silence. But as I listened I heard intermittent truck traffic a mile away on 36, and enjoyed the wind soughing in the occasional tree bordering a soybean field.
Today the clouds were puffy little sheep trailing each other from southwest to northeast on a gentle breeze. The sun highlighted the edges of the ones to the east and made those ahead of me to the west glow a bright golden hue transitioning gradually to a brilliant white. Summer was fading away to fall and here on the plains the air was dry and crisp in the early morning. Everything was still green but the growth rate was slowing to a crawl while crops matured in the daytime heat.
Eighty acres of wheat on my right had been cut earlier in the summer and my dogs ran through the stubble in a comic race following scent trails. Dominick, the larger of the two brothers, ran with easy grace as his powerful body bounded through the light cover. Munchie, the smaller of the Airedale/something else mix, had a nerve or muscle problem that caused his right foreleg to kick out to the side as he ran. He didn’t let it bother him too much but it did slow his pace a bit and made him kinda clumsy. Dominick stopped suddenly and Munchie, intent on what he was doing, ran right up his butt. Munchie rolled in the dust but Dominick barely flinched. Angry at the insult of having his brother’s nose buried in his rump he turned and flashed his huge teeth and growled. Munchie scrambled to his feet and honored his brother’s find by peeing on something. Meanwhile a rabbit ran into the distance unmolested by the bumbling brothers. I guess Airedale mixes aren’t the best rabbit hunters.
I chuckled and shook my head at their inept hunting skills. “Good thing you guys don’t have to eat wild game. You’d never make it,” I shouted to them. They perked their ears up and looked at me with quizzical expressions. Dominick, always the pleaser, came trotting over for a pat on the back, while Munchie, the black sheep, shied off in another direction, loath to be held back from his investigations.
I heeled Dominick as a pickup raised dust as it approached from the west. The loud exhaust rumbled as the young man drove by, lifting his hand slightly as I gave a big wave. I didn’t know who he was, but he probably at least knew where I lived. I picked up my pace again and headed for the crossroads still a half-mile away.
On my left the soybeans gave way to a hedgerow marking the division between fields, and probably property owners, and a stand of corn took over. The dogs ran down the hedgerow together stopping abruptly every few feet to check out an interesting odor. Then Munchie disappeared into the corn. I tried to call him back but he would have none of that. Dominick trotted alongside and tried to figure out where his brother was in the tall corn.
An old house loomed on my right and I admired the once attractive structure. Someone had taken more care than usual to use decorative touches around the windows and along the roofline. A concrete footbridge arched across the drainage ditch along the road. I think I would have made the bridge slightly wider, but I probably would not have done as good a job building it to last a hundred years or so. I stopped to look at the house and wondered; who built it; who grew up there, and why was it abandoned now. It certainly seemed worth saving to me. But the norm around here seemed to be to abandon houses and let them fall into the ground at their own pace.
Another house back nearer the highway and caddy-corner from where I live had always seemed like a nice place too. But it was abandoned and over grown now as the lovingly planted trees that had provided shade now dropped huge branches on the roof as they died out. I shook my head at the waste and disregard for the time, money and effort put into building up these farmsteads only to let them dissolve as the original owners died off.
As I walked away past yet another abandoned house, this one not so save-worthy, fought against gravity across the road, Munchie streaked out of the corn and ran toward the old barn. Dominick and I completed the mile and turned back toward what was now home. He saw Munchie rolling in the dirt over by the old barn and went to join him. Then I smelled the reek of skunk. Too late!
“You idiots!” I shouted. “Get away from there!”
They slunk back to my side redolent and pawing their eyes. Of course my buddy, Dominick, wanted to rub against my pant leg and beg for help. I tried to keep him away but he managed to wipe one side of his face against my jeans. Munchie frantically rolled in the dirt and nearly put out his eyes with his dewclaws as he tried to chase away the sting.
At least they stayed with me the rest of the way back to the house, including the treacherous sprint across the highway that ran in front of our place. The ten mile stretch of road carried an inordinate amount of traffic, especially semi trucks probably trying to circumvent the weights and measures setup along Highway 81 ten miles to the west. I think truckers knew they could turn at the Abuc corner off of Highway 36, drive ten miles south and ten miles west on narrow paved roads to hook up with eighty-one going south to Concordia. But it made our little slice of the country noisier than one would expect in such a small town.
My wife was just getting up as the stinking dogs and I walked into the kitchen.
“Ugh! Who stinks?” she asked.
“I reckon all of us do now. Munchie found a skunk and still doesn’t know enough to stay away. Dominick decided his brother needed help and got a face-full too. Then they rubbed on me to make sure I knew what was going on.”
“Well get them out of here!”
“I’m gonna try to wash them off real quick to see if I can get rid of some of the smell before it permeates their skin.” The three of us trooped into the bathroom and I started the shower running as I stripped out of my clothes. Half an hour later the bathroom was splattered with water, several old towels now smelled like skunk and the odor was horrible.
Thus starts a day in Kansas farm country.
It was so very dark, dark and musty, dark and dusty, but mainly just dark. Her eyes saw nothing and she was afraid to reach out. One time she reached out and a sticky mass of spider web wrapped around her hand. Now she was afraid to reach out. Sometimes she thought she heard sounds, like dogs barking, maybe, but she wasn’t sure. It wasn’t cold or hot, just dark and the same temperature all the time. She had no idea what time it was, day or night. She had no idea how long she had been here. Curled up in a ball she went back to sleep. Sleep seemed safer than wakefulness.
We lived in the house my wife grew up in. It was a strange structure, not ugly since her dad had a lot of pride and tried to keep his things looking nice. But it had been neglected for several years after his death and there were many things that needed to be fixed.
The old, original house was about twenty feet by twenty feet. A bedroom, about10 by 10 and a living room and dining room along with a 10 by 10 kitchen was the extent of that structure. The bathroom was outside. That part of the house was probably built in the early 1900’s. When her mom and dad bought the place they added on after the kids started coming. In the 1950’s another 10 by 10 bedroom and a new kitchen were added, along with a tiny indoor bathroom with a stool, tub and sink. The old kitchen was converted to another bedroom. Then, later on, they added a different entrance with an enclosed six-foot porch with big windows. Mom used it for a plant room, mostly, and nobody ever used the new door. Everyone just entered through the kitchen door.
Dad always sat at the kitchen table next to the door so he could see out the window when visitors arrived. He angled his chair and rested his elbows on the table while he drank coffee and smoked cigarettes. A radio was always handy so he could listen to his favorite polka music no matter how distorted the atmosphere made the sounds. When he wasn’t working in the field he spent a lot of time in that chair at that table.
Mom was basically a cook. She cooked all the time. And dad just ordered what he wanted. “Ma! Get me some more coffee. And give me some of those crackers over there. Don’t we have any of that bologna? Maybe I should go get some jaternice at the store. I suppose it might be hot now. He usually makes it on Wednesday.”
It was pretty much a soliloquy. Mom seldom answered, just jumped to do his bidding. It was not at all unusual for her to have to stop doing whatever it was he wanted done to do something else that he wanted done first, only to be reprimanded when she didn’t have the first thing done when he expected it to be done. I felt sorry for her.
But now they were gone and we were here. I tried to treat Carlsbad, my wife, with as much respect and caring as possible. I think they might have named her Carlsbad after the place she might have been conceived, but I don’t know. People around here just called her “Carly.” I was happier here than I ever expected I would be. Although the mountains of Colorado felt more like home I enjoyed the freedom around here and most of the people were very nice.
The first time I visited Abuc Carly and I had been dating just a few months. But it turned serious for us in a hurry. I had been single for 12 years and she had just gone through a messy divorce. I decided right away that this was my last chance to make a relationship work and I promised myself I would do whatever it took to see it through. We had a pretty good time and had stuck together through all the normal (and some abnormal) times for over 20 years.
Back to that first visit: Abuc has an annual “Rock-a-Thon” that features not a single loud guitar playing, gyrating musician. Instead residents sign up to rock in one of two rocking chairs to collect donated money. This goes on day and night for some time—I’m not sure how long, and food and polka music lend substance to the many activities besides rocking. Anyway, Carly and I went with her folks to the Rock-a-Thon at the Community Hall. Meeting new people was not easy for me, but I dutifully went around and shook hands and introduced myself.
“Hi, I’m B. G. Anjou. How are you tonight?”
“Anjou! What kind of name is that?”
I was not sure what they meant, so I replied, “It’s my kind of name.”
“No, I mean what nationality?”
“Well, mostly French.”
“FRENCH! FRENCH! Oh boy did you come to the wrong place!”
You see, Abuc is a Czech community. It was settled by Czech immigrants, mostly farmers who found the land very similar to the land around Brno in what was then Czechoslovakia, and is now the Czech Republic. They escaped the wars and suffering and death around their hometowns and found north central Kansas and Nebraska to their liking. Nearly all the people around here had the same Czech nose and love of beer. Gatherings usually included lots of accordion music, polka dancing and native costumes while the men (mainly) consumed lots of beer.
Years later I visited the Czech Republic on a Fulbright-Hays study grant. A professor at Charles University in Prague talked about what he called the Politics of Drink. “The Poles are vodka drinkers and they are the only people in the world who drink warm beer and have cold beaches. The Czechs are distinguished by region. In the north around Prague we drink beer and hard liquor because we have a more fiery temperament. In the south around Brno they drink beer and homemade Slivovice, a kind of plum brandy. They are a little mellower and have a more rural lifestyle. In the southeast are the wine drinkers. The climate is warmer and the people more laid back.”
I found his homily interesting and have noticed people’s behavior dictates the substance they drink. Or the substance they drink dictates their behavior. The first time I set foot in Carly’s house she offered me a beer. I was kind of shocked because we knew very little about each other. I had been raised in a non-drinking family and really didn’t drink much at all. I still don’t drink much, but the other night at a party one of the residents said, “You’ll have to get used to this.”
“Used to what?”
He indicated his glass and said, “This drinking. Everything around here is accompanied by a drink.”
And I guess they’ll have to get used to my name. I am kind of proud of Anjou. It is a region in France that produces fine pears that you might know about. And one of my ancestors served as the king of Poland, although she was a female. Poland didn’t have kings from their own country at the time because the aristocrats feared one of their own would control too much of the country. So they selected a king from another country. In this case the House of Anjou provided Jadwiga and she proved to be a fine king.
She thought about how her parents told her to stay away from strangers. But in a small town everyone knows everyone. She didn’t really think it was a risk to walk home from school nor did her parents. But that day they were not at home when she got there. That happened sometimes when mom had to stay late at work. It really wasn’t a big deal. She would just make a sandwich and watch TV until they got home. The sun was just going down when someone knocked on the door. She peeked out the window but didn’t see a car or pickup. She reached for the knob and turned it to open the door.
Carly took care of her parents more when she visited later in their lives. Dad was getting too stiff to cut his toenails and Mom certainly couldn’t do it for him.
“I had to cut Dad’s toenails,” she said, laughing. “They were so long and starting to curl. He couldn’t even get his shoes on.
“I peeled off his old, holey socks and there were these talons staring me in the face. They were all yellow and hard and brittle.” She made a face and laughed again. “I had these big clippers and luckily wore my glasses. When I would crank down on the clippers there would be a ‘POW’ then ‘Zing’ when the piece of nail glanced off my glasses. There’s no telling where some of those things wound up. Heck, they might have killed someone if they stood too close.”
We almost rolled on the floor laughing.
“So did Dad give you twenty dollars?”
“Yeah, always. I guess he thinks I won’t come out unless he helps pay for my gas. But gas has gotten a lot more expensive now. I used to be able to fill up the tank and eat a meal on $20. Now I can’t even fill the tank.”
I have my own story to tell about twenty dollars. I like to help out when I can so on one visit I asked if there was anything I could do.
“Sure. I was cutting out there on the 80 yesterday and the combine wheels got caught in a ditch and broke off. I jacked up the back end and propped it on some railroad ties. We need to go out and take off the broken assembly and put a new one on.”
“Okay. Let me put on some jeans and boots and I’ll go with you.”
We stopped by Carly’s Uncle’s house and picked him up to help. Dad drove out in the field and stopped by the teetering hulk of his OLD John Deere combine. The green machine was balanced on about five stacked up railroad ties on a slight slope. Uncle and I grabbed some wrenches and crawled under the incredible hulk. To my surprise Dad took off with the truck.
Uncle and I worked for several sweaty hours pounding on the unyielding bolts until they worked loose.
“Y’know?” I said. “This thing could fall on us at any time. It doesn’t feel too safe to me.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Y’know, we’re out here alone. There is not a soul that would hear us if we got trapped under here.”
“Yeah, I know.”
Finally we stopped and drank the one beer each that sat in a small cooler. After a while Dad came back, we loaded the wheel assembly into the pickup and took Uncle back home.
Next day Dad took me to a junkyard and wandered around until he found a John Deere like his. He had me crawl through the weeds to wrestle the assembly off that combine, paid a few bucks for it, and then took it out to the field. After I reassembled the thing he drove the combine out to the road while I drove the pickup.
When we got back to the house I figure I had worked about six hours under hot, dangerous conditions, but I felt good that I could do something to help Carly’s dad. He strolled into the bedroom and got his billfold and handed me a twenty. I was pissed! I did it to help out not to be paid. And if he decided to pay me for a difficult, dangerous job shouldn’t the pay be commensurate with the work?
Another time I offered to help with the grain auger. The motor wasn’t working right so Dad sent me up into the grain bin to check the thing. I started messing with the wiring and he plugged it in without any warning. I jerked my hands away just in time to avoid amputation or electrocution. Guess what he paid me for fixing the auger?
Carly always thought of him as being generous. I guess you could look at it that way. But I never really thought I was on the generous end of things. But, on the other hand, I wanted to help and didn’t expect any pay for my help. So, in a way, it could be called generosity. But it was also an attempt to not “owe” anyone anything.
She thought back to that fateful time she had opened the door. The guy was not really a stranger. Everyone in town knew him. But he had never come around the house before. That day he asked her innocent questions she had to answer. He didn’t seem threatening. And she was interested in what he was showing her. She was wearing her best Hannah Montana outfit and felt really cool. Everyone at school thought she looked just like Miley Cyrus in her Hannah Montana guise.
She stepped out the door to see what he was talking about and followed him around the side of the house. His pickup was parked in the back and when she looked in he tossed a gunnysack over her head and tied her hands and legs. He folded her up on the floor of the pickup and drove away. They drove for a while on dirt roads and then he carried her inside wherever she was now.
The light suddenly flooded the room and hurt her eyes. Did light actually hurt a person? She closed her eyes tight and covered them with her hands. After all this time of wanting light she had to shut it out. Did light have some property that could invade your body and hurt it? Was there some kind of physical wavelength that caused harm? Maybe it was magnetic. Some people thought overhead wires caused a magnetic current that could mess a person up. She was surprised her mind was working this way. Usually she didn’t think about scientific stuff. Maybe it was the sensory deprivation that caused her mind to work different. After all there was nothing to do in the dark if you were afraid to reach out.
Carly and I went to the local restaurant for lunch. This was becoming a kind of ritual. It was not like we needed to eat out since there was plenty of food at home. As a matter of fact Carly usually bought way too much. She would make out a grocery list and then add things that looked good as she walked around. That was what retailers counted on--the impulse buy. That is why they pay the storeowners big bucks to put their product in a certain place. For instance Pepsi and Coke alternate between front aisle end caps and back aisle end caps. They worked out a deal where the products change position every week. You never see RC Cola or anything else on those end caps.
Product placement has been an interest of mine since I started working on my doctorate. My initial interest in advertising was spurred by Sesame Street and the Electric Company. I was fascinated by the way they used music to teach other things, like the alphabet. I started studying that and wound up enrolling in a doctoral program with the idea that I would use music for a variety of things, perhaps leading to something in the media.
I picked the University of Kansas for my doctoral program partly because they had the only music education focus in the state. The University of Missouri at Kansas City was another option, but their program was aimed at performance, not education. I do not have a performer’s mentality. My attempts to play professionally were interesting but not spectacular. Playing in a dance band was fun until the places got smoky and the hour grew late. Many times I drove the 60 miles back home over a snowy mountain pass at three in the morning when I lived in Colorado. That was not fun.
But I learned a lot during my research at KU about how music was first used in advertising and especially about an amazing man from Kansas and Wisconsin who started the first distance-learning project teaching music. I wound up writing his biography and garnering a lot of somewhat useless information about Muzak and other ways music is used to manipulate human behavior. Listen to the music that is playing next time you enter a big department store or big grocery store. It is no accident!
Carly and I enjoyed visiting with people at the restaurant. It was the hub of activity in town and attracted people from all over. For some reason restaurants had closed in nearby larger towns and that caused people to come to Abuc when they wanted a decent meal. There was nothing fancy about the place. The old building was pretty much the same as when it was built—who knows when. Someone had kind of “paneled” the walls with old barn siding, but the floor was wavy and unfinished and the ceiling was covered with old pressed tin tiles that had been painted, albeit a little haphazardly.
A small bar fronted a cooler with beer and sodas and a small kitchen partially hid behind a wall so that one could see the flames shooting from the grill. There was little attempt to meet codes that might be enforced in a large city restaurant. Nobody wore hairnets. Who knew what kind of bugs and rodents patrolled the ancient building? But the food was good and not too expensive.
As we sat waiting for our chef’s salad with ham—the usual—the owner strolled in with another load of meat.
“Hey Dan, what’s happenin’?” I called.
“Not much,” he replied with a smile. “You guys doing okay?”
He didn’t stop to talk, just took his meat to the kitchen. The floorboards creaked and shifted as his six-two frame weighed them down. He always seemed pleasant and was a pillar of the community. Along with the tiny grocery store he owned and the restaurant just two doors away, he and his wife seemed to keep main-street from blowing away. There was little reason to go downtown if those two places were closed. Of course one would visit the post office and the city services to pay bills, but that required only a few minutes of activity.
A big store at the corner housed an antique shop. It was stuffed to the brim with people’s castoffs, as are all antique stores. The intrepid owner had an engaging personality and made an effort to keep the store more organized than most such places. And she would show up at the restaurant to help out when they got too busy. Nobody asked her, she just would walk in and start taking orders and filling drinks.
That is the way around here. Abuc residents and nearby farmers are helpful if nothing else. When a truck arrives to restock the grocery store several men just show up to help unload it. I’m not sure whether anyone calls them or if they just know. I doubt they are paid to do the work.
One of my favorite helpful guys is Thomas Deskovski. People pronounce his name all kinds of different ways, but it is Czech through and through. That reminds me of how people pronounce a certain well-known basketball coach’s name, Mike Krezeshevski.
Here are the first 5,000 words of this story. If you wish to read more, please go to Amazon.com and download the story.