Brain Cookies

Thornton Wilder’s Wet Dream

My small town doesn’t have a lot of things. It doesn’t have a mall. There’s no movie theater. We have one restaurant and no bars of any kind. We don’t even have a Walmart.

Here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter. Here, people find their own entertainment. Here, people find their own small pleasures. The mild isolation of a small town tends to select out the outliers, homogenize the flavors, distill the culture. You won’t find a Thai restaurant or a yoga studio. But you will find the following:

• High school basketball. It’s on the radio. It’s the topic of conversation everywhere you go. When there’s a home game, you can tell when it’s over by the steady stream of cars driving through our otherwise sleepy town. Often, you can tell who won by how much the cars are honking.

• Pick-up trucks. Almost all the basketball fan honkers drive these. I think there was a memo, because they’re all big tan Chevys.

• The Chicago Cubs. Not many Sox fans around here. Suits me just fine.

• Tractors. The older the better. You are not legally allowed to have a community event that does not involve a dozen 94-year-old farmers on their lovingly restored International Harvesters, Allis Chalmers, New Hollands, and Massey Fergusons. (Oddly, John Deere is a rarity.) In the 4th of July parade, they are a source of Tootsie Rolls and Jolly Ranchers. At the Winter Festival, they glitter with lights.

• Golf carts, ATVs, and other small motor vehicles. Small town cruise vehicles of choice. Excellent way to tootle around town so everyone can see you.

• Fundraising dinners. Head on over to the American Legion Hall on a random Saturday night, and you’re likely to come across someone selling food for some cause. It can be anything from pork chop sandwiches to kumla* dinners. Auction optional but recommended.

• Donald Trump. No comment.

• FFA. This is a farm town. The Future Farmers of America organization is far more active than I ever dreamed it could be. My daughter’s middle school classmates had livestock entered in the county fair, for goodness sakes. I just ordered a flat of strawberries that I have no idea how I’ll use before they go bad.

• Dogs. Everyone has a dog or two. Doesn’t really matter what kind: yappy mopheads are as acceptable as terrifying hellbeasts. And you must walk it as often as possible.

• Cheap beer. I’m talking Budweiser, Coors, Miller. Women drink Lite varieties of these.

• Chatting over a fence. Often, but not always, a literal fence. Pro tip: don’t start a conversation with your neighbor unless you have at least a half an hour free and your house has been vacuumed in the last fortnight. Because you will talk that long, and you will invite them in to see the new bathroom/cat/wallpaper.

This is based on my own limited experience over the last seven months. Some of these are probably common to many small towns; some, like the kumla, are almost certainly more rare. I imagine that visiting another small town would feel both comfortably familiar and excitingly different.

“Oh look, honey, there’s a crawfish breakfast fundraiser at the Moose Lodge!”

kumlaplate

* Kumla is a traditional Norwegian potato dumpling cooked in ham juice and served with the ham, applesauce, and, for some reason, butter. I’d never heard of it before moving here, but that’s probably because I’m not Norwegian. Lots of folks around here are, though—there’s even a town called Norway just southwest of here.

Originally published at The Preterit Review

Interview with Thaddeus “Taddy” Skruggs and Mabel Torgeson, last living survivors of the Bowling Green Massacre. Recorded on the event’s 100th Anniversary by The Stuffington Post’s lead historian, Imelda T. Petrovavich.

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TSP: Do you remember where you were on November 31, 1916?

Skruggs: Do I remember? Shoot, acourse I remember. Don’t think I’ll ever forget that day. It were cloudy, lookin like mebbe some snow comin in—

Torgeson: Naw, Taddy, it weren’t cloudy a’tall. The sun was out, I remember on account of my cousin Nellie’s hootin an hollerin bout her complexion for the Andersons’ Christmas shindig. As if she were really all that and a bag of hammers to begin with. [laughter]

Skruggs: Eh, Mabel, yer crazy. Twere goin to snow n you know it.

TSP: Mr. Skruggs, you remember it cloudy. Why was that significant?

Skruggs: Oh, my ol hound dog, Wilbur, was actin up like he always did when weather was acomin. I lost him that day, Wilbur.

TSP: In the massacre?

Skruggs: Naw, he run off like the dickens after Trudy Simmons’ cat that mornin. Never did see him agin. Trudy never got her cat back neither. Good ol Wilbur.

TSP: I see. Ms. Torgeson—

Torgeson: You can call me Mabel, honey.

TSP: Okay, Mabel then. Where were you when you first realized something unusual was happening?

Torgeson: Well I’ll tell you. I was down in the root cellar, gettin a jar of watermelon rind pickles for mama. She was expectin my brother Jessop then, and couldn’t get enougha them pickles. Anyway, I heard this noise, like the mules had got outta the barn agin and were tearin up the sileage.

TSP: Did you ever discover the source of that noise?

Torgeson: It was those blasted mules, all right. They starved that winter on account of eating all that sileage. Durn fools, mules are.

TSP: Ah. Mr. Skruggs, I understand you were near the epicenter of the massacre. Can you tell us what that was like?

Skruggs: I don’t think no one can tell what that were like. [rustling sounds]

TSP:  Mr. Skruggs, I can’t let you smoke that in here.

Skruggs: Shoot, guess I’ll haveta do this sober then.

Torgeson: [laughter] There’s a firs time for everythin, Taddy!

TSP: Thank you, Mr. Skruggs, I appreciate your cooperation.

Skruggs: What was the question agin?

TSP: Can you describe the scene at the heart of the massacre?

Skruggs: Twas cloudy, as I said, an me an my buddy Dale was lookin at the new roller skates in the winda a Adcock’s General Store. Real sad what happeneda Dale. Arm ripped off like the wing of a fly.

TSP: That must have been hard to see.

Skruggs: Naw, I wasn’t there for that. He was workin the thresher for his ol man bout six years later. Dangerous work, farmin.

TSP: Ms. Torg—Mabel, did you lose any loved ones in the massacre?

Torgeson: Nah, I didn’t know nobody was lost. Wilma Schneider, she married that fancy fella with the jalopy and moved to Omaha, but that’s not really lost, is it? [laughter]

TSP: Given the current political climate, what lessons would you like our audience to take away from your experiences 100 years ago?

Torgeson: Mules are durn fools and need lockin up iffn you don’t want to be dinin on mule steaks in January.

Skruggs: You know, Miss Petrawhatsit, you are right purty. You could be one a’dem underwear models in the Sears Roebuck catalog. You ever thought about doin that insteada this interviewin?

TSP: Thank you both so much for an enlightening conversation.

Special report from The Preterit Review’s sister publication, The Stuffington Post

Eggs

Consider the egg. Specifically, the chicken egg. A humble item: staple of bakeries, cornerstone of brunches, favorite projectile of delinquents.

I never really thought much about eggs before becoming a chicken owner. Now, more often than not, my days revolve around eggs.

If you’ve been following these dispatches, you know that I have four chickens: Jimmy, Delta, Bob, and Dave. Three of them lay an average of one egg a day, for about a dozen eggs every four days. (Dave’s productivity has been below expectations, i.e. nonexistent.)

Eggs are common. But here’s the thing: eggs are amazing.

Imagine the resources that go into making an egg. A chicken generates a yolk, a white, and a shell that could become a chick if not or its lack of a sperm cell. This virtually complete reproductive package is a substantial portion of the hen’s body size and weight. She essentially grows and births a baby.

Every.

Single.

Day.

I can barely deal with the fallout of generating a single egg cell once a month.

And the eggs are DRY. Well, I did read that there is some fluid that eases the egg’s passing through the cloaca, but it dries almost instantly.

I try not to think about this too much.

The entire process of laying an egg is adorable. When a chicken is ready to lay, she’ll find a dark, private place and huddle there quietly. Even Bob, who never shuts up, is quiet when she’s laying. You might hear some shuffling around, and maybe even hear the egg hit the floor, but that’s it. Of course, once the egg is out, they raise holy ruckus. Pride? Pain? It would take someone fluent in chickenese to say for sure.

Another surprising thing is that laying isn’t the same for every chicken. My three layers all have their own routines. Jimmy goes in, lays, and is done. Delta takes a long time to work up to it. She’ll go in, sit, go out, go back in, go back out, like a woman pacing during labor. Bob doesn’t mess around. She is in and out in record time—I assume because she’s got lots of talking to get back to.

And their eggs are all different. I can tell which chicken laid which egg. Jimmy’s are medium brown and relatively large, nicely shaped, smooth. Delta makes enormous eggs with gorgeous deep golden brown shells that fill my palm. Bob’s haste shows. Her eggs are long and skinny, with shells that unfailingly have an odd, wrinkled blemish on the pointy end.

There’s also a surprising amount of delight in finding an egg. Every day is Easter. The delight is not dampened by the expectation of the egg, or the limited places to look. Delight is more intense when the egg is found still warm.

I find myself seeking that egg thrill. I frequently peek outside to track the chickens’ movements in the coop. If I only see three outside, I know there’s one “in the box.”* I make excuses to go out to the coop half a dozen times a day, just to see if there’s an egg to collect. I feel guilty disturbing a laying hen in even the slightest ways, like opening the garage door or speaking too loudly when outside.

If one of the chickens skips a day, I worry. Is it too cold? Is she sick? Did I interrupt her too many times? Is she getting enough light, water, food? Is she angling for dental?

One thing is certain: Dave’s unsatisfactory performance will be brought up in her quarterly review, and continued low productivity will be reflected in her compensation package.

*The phrase “in the box” makes me inordinately happy. I can’t help paraphrasing Carr in Cool Hand Luke: “Any chicken caught without an egg spends a night in the box.”

Originally published at The Preterit Review

Chickens

Back in Tract Housingville, Suburbia, the overlords in the homeowners association wouldn’t allow residents to keep chickens on their property. Due in large part to my contrary nature, the inability to have chickens made me want them all the more. Chicken ownership became something of a touchstone for me, a symbol of overthrowing the oppressive micromanagement of a bloated and self-important bureaucracy.

When I moved to Smallsville, I was suddenly freed from the draconian regulations. I can have a shed. I can have a clothesline.

I can have chickens.

My husband built me an amazing coop, with nesting boxes inside the heated garage that connect to the screened-in pen outside. I got myself a used copy of “Backyard Chickens for Dummies.” I compared prices on scratch grains. I bought straw.

Then all I needed was some chickens. Like everything else in my life, this transaction was arranged on Facebook. A local farm family agreed to sell me four chickens for $5 each. The woman took us out to her chicken shed, grabbed four at random from among her 30 or so birds, and tossed them unceremoniously into a large cardboard box we’d brought for transport.

My new flock was quiet on the drive back home—until we took a turn a little on the fast side. From the box in the back seat, we heard a low, grumbling “buk buk buk.” One of the chickens was complaining about the driving.

This was my first true taste of chicken ownership. Because here’s the thing: chickens are hilarious. I had no idea how funny they are. They don’t even have to do anything special to be hilarious.

When I go out in the morning to top off their feed and refill the water trough, they come running over to see what I’m doing, talking the whole time. They’re curious about everything. They chase each other around the yard for table scraps. You can tell they still think of themselves as their ancestors the velociraptors, despite being stuck in a poofy four-pound body.

Best of all, they have widely different personalities. Delta is the queen mum, fat and serene. Bob never shuts up. Dave is big and dumb and does whatever Bob does. Jimmy is like Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting—a scrappy tough guy with an attitude.

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I think Jimmy may be connected to the mob. I’m afraid to ask.

Sometimes I’ll let the chickens out into the yard for a few hours. They stay put fairly well, but do enjoy a nice explore when they’re feeling frisky. Once, when I looked out the kitchen window, I counted three birds—Dave was missing. I went out to see where she’d got to. (Yes, Dave is a she—all my chickens are hens, despite their names.) Bob, as usual, started clucking nonstop. I swear she was tattling on Dave like a three year old: “Dave went into the neighbor’s yard even though you said not to go over there and I told her not to go but she did anyway and now she’s over there but I’m still over here because I’m a good chicken and Dave is a bad chicken because she went over there when you said not to.”

Another time, we had to put the chickens back inside while it was still daylight (chickens will naturally go back into their safe place when it gets dark). I thought I’d be smart. I got out the food scoop and made a big production of pretending to fill their trough. Delta cooperated nicely, as I expected she would. Jimmy knew I was bluffing, but she couldn’t take the chance of missing out on extra food if I wasn’t. Dave, being dumb, didn’t understand my pantomime, but also being dumb, wasn’t hard to catch.

That left Bob.

Bob is the smallest chicken, and fast. In that moment, when her freedom was threatened, she was smarter and faster than the two allegedly intelligent bipeds working together. If we went left, she faked us right then scrambled left around our grasping arms. If we cornered her by the fence, she darted between us. Ten solid minutes of chicken hockey later, Bob succumbed to the classic “trap her against the door with your leg” ploy.

Egg laying is a subject for another dispatch.

Originally published at The Preterit Review

Purposefulness

Six months ago, I moved from a large Chicago suburb, about 38 miles from the city, to a small rural town about 24 miles further out. You wouldn’t think that a mere 24 miles would make much of a difference in lifestyle. After all, the United States is nearly 2,700 miles coast to coast. People speak with no accent to my ear. I can use the same money I always have. I didn’t even leave the state.

My town has 1,017 people (as of 2013). There are no stoplights. There is a fire station but no police department, a library but no grocery store, a diner but no pizza place. Some people have mail boxes, others don’t. People don’t lock their doors. Golf carts are a popular means of local transportation. I don’t have one, but it really doesn’t matter because you can walk the entire town in 15 minutes or less.

I also moved from a 20-year-old tract house to a 106-year-old Victorian. It has one tiny bathroom, no dishwasher, no central air conditioning, an unfinished basement, and a detached garage. The front door has a draft, the floors creak, and the paint is chipping.

These things could be considered annoyances. But here’s the thing: they’ve made me realize the immense satisfaction that comes from living purposefully.

This is easiest to explain, perhaps, through example.

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I don’t get mail delivered to my house. Instead, I have a box at the post office. Unless the weather is extremely brutal, I walk the three blocks to pick up my bills, junk mail, and the occasional greeting card. I take the same route each time, a circular path that doesn’t retrace any steps. Doing this lets me enjoy the fresh air and get a little exercise—something that can be hard to come by for a work-from-home couch potato. But beyond that, the ritual of walking to the post office is soothing. It forces me to put Important Life Things on hold for just a few minutes. It connects me to my neighborhood, my surroundings, the place I inhabit for this slice of time. I notice when my neighbors put up holiday decorations. I know which houses have dogs and when someone gets a new dog. I follow the seasons in the flowers and trees that I see every day. I find myself looking forward the trip to the post office, a novel feeling.

Another example is shopping. Aside from a gas station and a dollar store, it’s at least a 15 minute drive to buy anything. Stores are far enough away that I must consider my purchases carefully. If I forget to buy capers for tonight’s chicken vesuvio, we don’t have capers in our chicken vesuvio. I schedule multiple stops on one trip—first Walgreens, then Aldi, then PetSmart—and thus avoid spending half my life in the car. Added bonus: I spend less money this way, because shopping has moved from entertainment to chore.

Because there’s no central air, I must plan my daily summer activities to take advantage of cool mornings and afternoon siestas. Because there’s only one bathroom, I must plan the family’s routines so everyone has a turn at the sink. Because our public library is very small, I must plan which books I want to read and request them through the interlibrary loan system. These mundane tasks take on new meaning when they receive such attention and forethought.

I’ve noticed this purposefulness leaking into other areas of my life. I check the nesting boxes several times a day for eggs and get a thrill when I find one. I made both bread AND butter the other day. From scratch. A friend asked if I was Amish now. I laughed, but honestly, I can see the appeal of that kind of life. Not that I’m ready to give up my internet and flushing toilet.

Could I have made my previous life purposeful? Probably. But like many people, I’m lazy and tend towards convenience. If I have an easy way out, I will most likely take it. Being purposeful is hard work. At the end of the day, I’m often more tired than seems reasonable. I think back over my day and both wonder how I filled it all and marvel at how much I’ve done. So many rituals. Walking to the post office. Making a menu and grocer list. Feeding the chickens. Washing the dishes. Dusting the woodwork. It all becomes an exercise in zen, when approached from the right perspective.

If I could only figure out how to make mowing the lawn into a meditation, I’d be zenner than a Buddhist monk.

Originally published at The Preterit Review

In early December, during the town’s Winter Festival, we stopped into the insurance agent’s office for free cookies, coffee, 2017 calendar, and chit-chat. We learned that on Christmas Eve, one neighborhood sets up an amazing display of luminaria.

Flash forward to Christmas Eve. Driving home with bellies full of Chinese food, we took the long way through the apparently famous luminaria. It was beautiful, that soft glow lining the curving streets.

Then we found The House.

A dazzling rainbow of lights flashed and danced over lawn, trees, roof, and windows. A sign directed us to “listen along on 92.7 FM.” It was a personal playlist of Christmas carols and holiday pop hits providing the soundtrack for the display. Animated light bulbs sang “Blue Christmas.”  Giant snowflakes twinkled in on the roof in time with “Let it Snow.” You get the idea.

We parked and marveled.

A boy, maybe 10 years old, came out of the house with a plastic tub in his hands. My jaded suburban self assumed he was collecting money–best case scenario, to support a charity dear to the hearts of the family.

Nope. He offered us mini candy canes from that tub.

What followed was a 10 minute conversation with this young man. We learned how his dad started planning the show every February, which pieces were added how many years ago, how he and his brother got to climb on the roof to set up the snowflakes, that “Go Cubs Go” was left out because of potential copyright issues, the perils of selecting branches that might break off in a storm, what they planned to do next year.

We also learned that these brothers not only knew my son from school, but also that “he’s the one who has a cat named Pickles.”

This town has 1,000 people, according to its official sign along the highway. Yet this sort of thing happens all the time here.

Merry Christmas.

My mom always made the best vanilla frosting from scratch. It was smooth, creamy, buttery–the perfect complement to a fresh cake.

Others would try to duplicate her results with little success. No one could get it right: myself, my sister, and even my grandma, who was the best baker I ever knew. Our frosting always came out looking separated, almost curdled. Tasted fine, just looked gross.

But my mom? She could make it right every time. The running joke was that she purposely never gave out the whole recipe, but left out an ingredient or step, thus ensuring that we would all have to rely on her to make it properly. She denied this.

After she died, my dad tackled mom’s frosting with determination. With each attempt, he adjusted some minor aspect of the recipe: the brand of margarine, the temperature of the milk, the length of time it was beaten, all systematically. He had varying degrees of success, but never was his frosting smooth like hers.*

Today I decided to use up some limes by making a lime cake. I didn’t have the ingredients to make the recommended cream cheese frosting, so I dug into my giant blue recipe binder and found a card labeled “vanilla frosting,” not realizing this was my mom’s recipe. I set about making it, substituting butter for margarine (because butter) and adding a few tablespoons of fresh lime juice and a little extra flour to compensate for the extra liquid.

When it was finished, I realized what I had just done: I had created a perfectly smooth, beautiful frosting just like my mom used to make. Only lime flavored.

This is quite possibly the greatest achievement of my life.

My mom passed away on Labor Day 2012. I don’t believe in the supernatural, but I can’t help but wonder at this coincidence.

*Dad says he had success on a few occasions, but since he failed to invite me over for cake I have no way to verify these claims. I remain skeptical.

Yesterday’s Cookies

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