“The Softer it Falls, The Longer it Dwells Upon” by Tomiiko Baker

04Jun10

“All we ever wanted was everything. All we ever got was cold.” — All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, Bauhaus. WKQX, 4:21 P.M.

“Try Accuweather from now on. Weatherchannel.com is complete crap.”

My boyfriend Alex has been teaching me the art of making definitive evaluations of utility and assigning value to perceived level of excrement contained. I now know that Russians and Americans are equally capable of discerning and reporting what I will heretofore refer to as “Shit-worth.” Many adjectives fall under the Shit-worth umbrella and their gradient is defined not only by delivery, but also connotation and the object it modifies.

“It’s hard to negotiate this snow on your ghetto-ass tires.” Alex likes to use the empirical to illustrate his technique.

“Route 20 is closing so if we skid off into a ditch we’re fuckered!”

The value of “Ghetto-ass” in the previous statement is trumped in this instance due to delivery of “Fuckered,” as it carries a certain gravity by the way it punctuates the statement.

I typically phone my mother’s house as soon as I hit the 90/94 split to let her know I’m on my way home. I am puzzled when she said that many guests wouldn’t be able to make the trip to Iowa for her wedding. The weather has not been bad for February, for Chicago in February. I was expecting a light cosmetic dust to blanket the area, just enough to cover the dirty snow flanking the roads, just enough to bring back the glitter when streetlight reflects in the flake’s crystalline structure.

We met the storm west of Rockford, well out of Chicago. Snowfall dove into the windshield giving the illusion of traveling at warp speed.

I was ready to blame my mother for everything. “Who has a wedding in February? What happened to June brides? It’s not her birthday! It’s not even Valentine’s Day!”

I was in full bawl by now.

“What arbitrary dipshittery concluded that the last weekend in February was a good time to get hitched?”

Newly invented curses with “shit” as their root are great but it’s hard to recognize their total value until you’ve actually had to put it to use. It’s kind of like having a jack of diamonds in your hand while playing spades. Sometimes it’ll get you a trick but more often there are just better cards out there.

It takes four hours and twenty one minutes to drive from the Lincoln Square area on the north side of Chicago to my mother’s Queen Anne style Victorian in downtown Waterloo, Iowa. There are Waterloos all over the place: Ontario, New York and, of course, Belgium. There’s even a Waterloo in Illinois. According to Google Maps it would take a little over six hours to drive between the Iowa and Illinois Waterloos. I wonder if that other Waterloo is as peculiar and un-medicated as my hometown. Small towns are filled with people who are related, sharing genes, intelligence quotients and illnesses. They don’t have the vigor of larger cities made up of immigrants, traffic and enough jobs to warrant erecting tall buildings. There aren’t tributaries of new people streaming into small towns to revive the gene pool. The small town where I grew up has a gravitational pull so strong that people who want to leave its socially incestuous confines typically never succeed for good. Mostly they wind up back home, even the talented ones.

It’s not uncommon for someone, years later, to date a sibling of a former spouse. My mother left my dad for my uncle Buddy. Buddy was “better” at everything. His courtship of my mother consisted of weekly shopping trips to the Crossroads Mall to buy party dresses, nail polish and cheap strappy shoes with skinny heels. Crossroads was the only mall in town and there was admittedly something exciting about cruising up to the Sears parking lot in Buddy’s primer gray Buick Skylark. The backseat was quilted with beer cans. You could not see the floor. Iowa has had a recycling program since I can remember, but Buddy kept the empties in his car until there was a sufficient amount to justify redemption: five-cents per can.

She didn’t know he would never propose. She didn’t know that months later she would find him naked in the middle of the night with a furious drunk on, slashing through those dresses he’d bought her with a buck knife at the kitchen table. She did know that Uncle Buddy could afford to buy a new davenport and worked a stable job at John Deere. The idea being that if you’re going to have a live-in boyfriend, one with bad habits like bowhunting in the backyard after a three-day bender, he should at least be able to pay the bills. Striking with the grace of an archer, he used more precision than my father. Dad would secure a clumsy handful of hair and use the knot to smash her head against a railing. My uncle delivered his abuse with a skillfulness that would bloody her lip but not blacken her eyes. He was better at that, too.

“Some of my friends don’t know who they belong to. They can’t get a single thing to work inside” — A Song For You, Flying Burrito Brothers. WNIJ, 6:38 P.M.

I once played a game with an old roommate where we wrote down all the nationalities of different men we’d been romantic with. I won as I’ve covered slightly more of the planet. Actually, I won because I was boy crazy. I was always the horniest with the exception of one of my high school girlfriends. She was blessed with a sexy boy name and a huge behind. In another age, Jaysen would’ve been a Valkyrie, worshiped and adored for her Norse thickness. In 1990, she was just another white girl with great hair, too many teeth and a bubble-butt. I think she stored her libido there. Jaysen started being sexy at an early age. I believe the term du jour was “pansexual”; boys, girls, hairbrush handles, she could get it on with anyone or anything. After nights of heavy drinking and making statutory rapists out of male undergraduates from a neighboring college town, we’d crash at her parent’s house. Her dad would leave his bedroom door open so he could hear us sneak in through the window.

“You’d better get your asses to bed you little shit ass shits!”

“Shit-ass-shit” doesn’t carry much shit-worth as it’s an explicative uttered only by quadragenarians or their seniors.

When I labeled my hometown “un-medicated,” I was excluding Jaysen’s family. Their prescriptions were in full display on a lazy-susan on the kitchen counter. The southwestern motif and the careful arrangement of Fiestaware made the whole pill buffet seem less peculiar. Jaysen and I didn’t know what psychotropic meant. We knew that her dad took Prozac to feel better, so one night we took a couple of them before we went out. We chased them down with cans of Milwaukee’s Best on the way to College Hill. I’ll never underestimate the power of the placebo effect because we were so much bolder when we had the excuse of prescription meds. We snuck into the most popular live music venue in that little university town. We ordered pitchers of beer with such drunken conspicuousness that no one would’ve imagined we were not yet out of high school.

It could’ve been those nights roaming the international dorms of University of Northern Iowa, or it could’ve just been genetics, but my xenophilia has been in full swing since. After spending my late twenties playing “around the world” with men as if it were a co-ed drinking game, I landed in the former Soviet Union.

Fluid seeks its own level and I met Aleksi somewhere in the middle of a bottle of Jameson. We’re both what is referred to as blue-blood alcoholics. We’re not addicted to any other substances. We drink cheap beer without irony: we drink in the backyard if the weather is nice, we drink in bed when it’s not. Alex holds my right hand when I’m nervous so I can’t get at the farm of hangnails I’ve cultivated on my thumb and index finger.

Aleksi Mikhailovich Sinitsyn came to this country sixteen years ago. He came as a teen, his father was his sponsor. He was given a social security number and a chance at naturalization. He was abandoned two years later, his father having since returned to Moscow. Now, due to that initial lack of guidance, he is what they call “out-of-status.” You won’t get any value judgments from me. I understand how factors like confusion can make it near impossible to think beyond the day-to-day. I understand how rather important things just don’t make it on your Life’s To Do list; how we let things slip by.

I mean, hell, my plates are expired.

“Where in the hell are the street cleaners? Does this state employ the industrial snow plow or does everyone just have one mounted on their pick-up?”

Aleski suffered a bit of co-pilot pique after the car fish-tailed coming around a bend somewhere between Galena and Elizabeth, Illinois. With what little traffic there is, we come to a complete stop. The accumulation is significant so we decide to pull over and wait in the parking lot of the “Kwik Mart” until we see the flashing safety-orange beacon of the street plow. We file in behind its mammoth form and follow it into the country illuminated only by the flashing lights and the sparks from the plow scraping the asphalt beneath the slush. Plodding along in the darkness we are a herd of large cold-weather mammals making our way west to the other side of the storm.

“Hush now child and don’t you cry. Your folks might understand you by and by.” — Move On Up, Curtis Mayfield. KBBG, 10:25 P.M.

My parent’s dating lore is comprised mostly of stories involving concert going. To hear my dad tell it, these concerts were magical episodes where he was the reluctant hero bravely introducing my mother to the world of high quality drugs and arena rock. My mother was always the blossoming hippy sorceress who could conceal dad’s drugs or booze at a crucial point during the night’s journey only to fully realize her powers when she’d produce the contraband from her carpetbag at the after-party.

Dad carried the tradition on with me. I’d always gone to concerts with my father, at his behest. Stevie Wonder, R.E.M., Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac. I owed all these experiences to him.

One year, when at home from college on summer break, The Band sans Robbie Robertson was scheduled to play at Electric Park Ballroom. Electric Park was an elaborate old theater in an area of town that conjoined my hometown and the neighboring town. It’s name an unfortunate conjunction of the two towns, Waterloo and Cedar Falls. It’s name an accidental reflection on the small cultural vacuum that is the river valley. It’s name… Cedarloo, the wooden toilet.

The strict attendance rules for dad’s third shift gig at the Iowa Beef Packing Plant left him with two tickets to a show he’d have to miss. He drunk-dialed my mother a week before, and singing the praises of Levon Helm, he convinced her to take his ticket and accompany me. It was the first concert I’d ever been to with just my mom.

I inhaled pints of beer like it was my job that night and eventually found myself having a very dramatic heart to heart with my mother in the women’s bathroom. I apologized for not being our families’ great savior. I apologized for getting us kicked out of the apartment complex on Russell Road when I had a party the weekend she snuck off on a skiing trip with the vice principal of Hoover Intermediate. I confessed that I lost my virginity when I was thirteen.

She giggled and said “me too.” Then she told me not to drink so much and that I reminded her of my dad.

“I bet your mama was a tent show queen, and all her boyfriends were sweet sixteen.”– Brown Sugar, Rolling Stones. KXGE, 9:04 P.M.

It has taken my mother until her early fifties to find a husband. Her betrothed is magnanimous, well dressed, sophisticated and worth waiting for. He is patient and devoted. I have no idea what could be wrong with him. It’s not as obvious as with the others: the forty-five-year-old above-ground pool technician, the bulimic professor (god rest his soul), the womanizing Iranian, the painter who carried nun-chucks and wore kung-fu shoes, and the love of her life, a former farm boy who adored golf, Sunkist oranges and unwed mothers of African American decent. Chip Kopierschutz drove a jeep and owned his own roofing business. He was tall with curly blond hair and a nose so narrow it whistled when he drew air. I was in the purgatory of tweendom when she first brought him home for dinner, which would’ve put her in her early thirties. He was a mere twenty-three.

Chip’s parents owned the only health food store in town. Instead of chocolate and potato chips, our cupboards were stocked with carib and trail mix. Tom’s Natural cinnamon toothpaste was never as palatable as Crest and the bottles in the shower labeled “Kiss my Face” confused my friends who couldn’t discern whether it was shampoo or some other solution of vague obscenity.

Chip’s mother was disturbed enough by their coupling to abandon her strong Lutheran convictions and visit a fortune teller. She knew she couldn’t ask God for the break-up so she enlisted her hired mystic to help manipulate the tide of events in her favor. Five years later, Chip moved to Texas and married a more prolific single black mom.

“Fuck Me! Was that lightning?” Alex was really excited at this point. “I’ve never seen an electrical storm in winter. Northeastern Iowa is some kind of strange vortex.”

The weather in Iowa awakens the latent meteorologist in all of us. I used to think the saying, “If you don’t like the weather in Iowa, wait 15 minutes,” was a clever and accurate adage until I heard people say it about Illinois. I’ve asked Alex if people said as much about the weather in St. Petersburg or Moscow. But honestly, to date, I have never seen what is called “thunder snow” in any other place except my home state.

“So what do you think? EMF?”

“Energetic Mother Fu…?”

“Noooo. E-lec-tro-Magnetic Field. I’m gonna turn off my phone. Maybe a vast portion of the state is settled on ancient native burial grounds. It feels like a lot of Indians died here.”

“Good one, Mulder.”

Rain and hail collide and become polarized as they fall through the atmosphere’s natural electric field. Lightning bolts are caused by the negative charge of the ground surging upwards. The effect is that most of the streaks of lightning we see aren’t traveling down. Instead the storm cooks the air enough so that the electric vein shoots from the earth back home to the sky. It is simultaneously tellurian and ethereal.

With my entire field of vision awash in the silver of snow and illuminated balls of hail, I became quite aware that this was the point in my trip where catharsis was supposed to happen. I anticipated an awkward journey home transformed, no longer a needlessly dangerous travail to attend an event—which, traditionally should’ve occurred before my birth—no longer the result of poor planning for a rushed union. As my 2001 Prius methodically carves its way though snowcaked roads like the streaks of white heat that cut through the heavens, I imagine Tesla himself curling his forefinger, beckoning me home to complete this mad arithmetic. This feeling of anticipation stays with me until signage reminds me that we are still 80 miles from our destination.

“Does Dubuque have a Doey Joey’s? I have that gift card from Christmas.” I asked as hunger pangs start to influence my travel route.

“Ehm, I wouldn’t know, babe. I don’t hang out in Dubuque.”

“Well can’t you look it up on that smart phone?” I ask Alex in a pointed manner that suggests his latest gadget is not worth the MSRP.

“Well, it seems that the only service is something called Iowa Wireless. Not exactly 3G.”

“I’m gonna work it out cause time won’t work it out for you. I’m gonna work it on out” — Ocean Of Noise, Arcade Fire. KUNI, 11:47 P.M.

On long drives Alex serves as navigator and raconteur. He tells stories of growing up in Russia before the end of the cold war, before the fall of the big red bear. His descriptions of old world architecture distract me from the monotony of the flat roads stretched out before us. His memories of constructivist propaganda art are both fascinating and frightening. He fills my head with histories, mythologies, mysticism and memoirs. My favorite story is of the ancient Sarmatian Warrior Women who occupied an area near the Caucus Mountains when the continent was known as Eurasia. Legend holds that as girls these warrior princesses had their right breast cauterized to divert the strength to their shoulder and arm. It is said that a Sarmatian female could not marry until she had killed an enemy in battle.

Less than two blocks from my mother’s home we see the cruel accusations of the policeman’s cherries. He had just exited the parking lot of the Black Hawk County Correctional Facility.

“Waterloo’s finest must be seriously bored to pull you over in the middle of an ice storm.”

Alex’s latest observation on the screwiness of my birthplace only served to irritate.

I ease over to the side of the road where inmates smoke their squares as they heave shovels, breaking into sheets the icy crust that formed on the sidewalks.

“Fuck, shit-shit, fuck-fuck!” I manage.

“Fuck, shit-shit…” followed by any suffix is a superlative in the “shit-worth” language tree.

“Officer, I drove through the light because I didn’t want to break suddenly and slide through the intersection. I’m only a few blocks from…”

“Ma’am, I pulled you over because of your license plates.”

Pause.

“They’ve been expired… for three years.”

The officer disappeared to run my plates, confirm my identity, scribble my citation on his metal trapper keeper and whatever clandestine trivia was left to complete at the console of his squad car.

In the eternal and unspoken “Us Vs. Them” war, that the self- proclaimed seditious wage against the badge, Alexi is my comrade. He hates five-O too.

“Dickhead,” he mumbles in solidarity.

I start to shiver even though I rolled-up my window. It was the kind of shivering that happens when your emotions decompress, relaxing from a tension chord to a rippling sine wave.

Why was I always met with pure shit whenever I hit the city limits? What is it about this neglected town for which “evacuate” never meant escape from its bowels—but an emptying of them instead? No amount of traveling, promotions, love-making or drinking could ever stop my inevitable transformation each visit home; the transformation back to teenage malcontent. Would I ever mature enough to let nostalgia soften my memories; washing over them with the same forgiveness that allows my parents to be friends, the same absolution with which my mother unruefully and even affectionately calls Waterloo home? Indeed, I am still a snotty teenager. And Alex, god bless him, has witnessed the transformation, and the dysfunction, and managed to not only be charmed by the people I love, and the place I come from, but to love them as well.

The storm shat enough precipitation to bring down power lines all over Northeast Iowa. We meet a house filled with candlelight and a cheery groom in the kitchen arranging flutes around the unplugged champagne fountain. I notice the considerate way he handles the stemware.

“This one is softer in every way.” I think to myself.

In order to escape my filial obligation to arrange flowers or set-up chairs, I duck out to my car for a cigarette. My mother descends the stairs of the front porch wearing snow boots, her full-length ashen fox fur and a silk headscarf knotted on the left.

“Wooo-Whee, this weather ain’t playin’ around is it?”

“No ma’am. No it’s not. But I guess we’re having a wedding tomorrow, blizzard or no blizzard!” I say.

I could tell she’d had some champagne to calm her nerves. Her eyes are shiny and the right side of her mouth is pursed like an invisible cigarette is lodged between her lips.

She searches for approval from any feature of my face. She feels guilty for making so many people travel during the one month of the year when bad weather is predictable.

From the time she left Buddy, she supported us by working retail at the Dillard’s department store in Crossroads mall. When other mothers were roasting turkeys or arranging gifts under the Christmas tree, she was recovering from the Nor’easter of shopping season. The dead of winter brought with it a reprieve from questions like, “Does this come as gift set?” For this reason, my mother loves February.

* * *

I hang my bridesmaid dress in the closet before crawling into bed. Aleksi, still in his track jacket and jeans, lies beside me suspended in those last fifteen seconds preceding a hard night’s sleep. I forgot to pack the Persian red bra I bought to match my dress and wonder if Dillard’s will be open in the morning. I recall lingerie shopping with Jaysen as a late teen; my mother congratulating us on our full bosoms. I wanted a breast reduction but Jaysen and my mother agreed wholeheartedly that big boobs were power. I warned that I’d lop them off as soon as I could afford an operation. My mom wondered aloud if it was medically possible to put into her chest what would be taken out of mine. The three of us burst into rounds of giggles, our laughter spilling out of the dressing room.

“And there’s nothin’ sure in this world. And there’s nothin’ pure in this world. Look for something left in this world. Start again.” — White Wedding, Billy Idol. My head. Showtime.

The wintry mix bleached the town, leaving everything in a sanitary glaze. Meteorologically speaking, there must be enough warmth for winter storm clouds to release snow or sleet. Once temperatures plummet even further, however, the clouds give way to a dry crispness. The anemic winter sun is made brilliant in the vast snowdrifts. The view from my bedroom window the next morning is bright and salt-white, giving the landscape an appearance of some immaculate desert.

* * *

Winds must have reached close to fifty miles an hour the day my mom got married. Four rows of chairs were set-up in the parlor facing the faux floral decorated wedding arch. The space was snug once guests filed in. The ceremony had several acts. Before vows were taken, a Rueben Studdard look-alike in a shiny red vest sang, “Ribbon In The Sky,” a capella. My young cousin performed an interpretive dance and during the peak of her routine, landed heavily enough to dislocate the ancient chandelier from its socket. My step-brother-to-be secured the fixture with a wire hanger. When the minister asked any objectors to “speak now…” the wind nearly blew open the living room door as if on queue and rattled the windows to the point of concern. Once the couple was announced everyone adjourned to the kitchen to drink warm Asti from the fountain.

The pearlescent limo meant to carry the wedding party had a front tire stuck in a curbside snow bank. Once liberated by a groomsman in slippery-soled dress shoes, we sailed that ivory vessel, in all of her ground-effects and tube light glory, on a perilous voyage to the reception. Aleksi and my favorite cousin Christopher took turns spinning funk and soul music, Christopher throwing in some Lil Wayne on occasion to keep the younger guests from mutinying. Uncle J.R. and Aleksi had a dance-off that resulted in J.R. getting stuck in the splits until Aunt Carletha helped dislodge his heels from the Berber carpet. Christopher’s girlfriend got so loaded she burned a cigarette hole in her skirt. My grandmother Ferndale, a small framed woman from Little Rock, Arkansas, with a gold front tooth, who maintains a perfect blue-black double French roll even in the rain, crumpled a twenty-dollar bill in my palm winking her approval of Aleksi like a television mobster. The figurines on the wedding cake looked as though they’d been glued together. The smiling groom had a blond pompadour and the bride had Caucasoid features with her skin tinted brown. The paint on the nose and cheeks had rubbed off.

And sure, I thought of the uncanny charm and multiplicity of that unlikely gathering in an anonymous Midwestern town; the benevolent groom and his brood happily folding into the amalgam that is now my extended family. But mostly I was struck by the notion of family as the ultimate creative act and the fruit of one woman’s repeated brush strokes. Like Monet creating a series, my mother’s genius lied in her determination to paint the same subject over and over again, until she finally made something this large out of seemingly nothing, until she’d painted her masterpiece. To participate in the ceremony, the unveiling of a life’s work, surely was the real reason we were all there. That is what I raised my glass to all night.


Tomiiko Marie Baker was raised in northeast Iowa but has lived in Chicago long enough to be confused for a native. A graduate of the University of Iowa, she works for Northwestern University, another big 10 school. She lives in Albany Park where she does not blog, knit or garden. She is beholden to the Midwest for reasons she’s not yet discovered. Her fiction has been previously published in the now defunct Void Magazine, 2004. She likes her onions cooked.


To read Tomiiko Baker’s comments on Terry White’s “The Frotteur in the Dark,” click here.

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Notes from K. Anne Unger, Editor

The subtle internal conflict of our protagonist is as compelling as the voice in this piece. Watching a young adult woman unearth her past deeds and circumstances is something we find ourselves doing at some point in our lives, especially when faced with confronting a family affair with which we feel a thousand years removed. When a situation or event requires us to drudge through our past, whether benign or traumatic, we often feel the need to examine where we’ve been to help us make sense of where we’re at today. Our protagonist, confined to her car on treacherous roads with her boyfriend, is lulled into past memories by various songs, first on the radio then in her head, making her look inside and acknowledge who she is and where she’s been, and ultimately, just like the ice storm she’s caught in, accepts things for what they are.

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Comments on this story by Hannah Lackoff, author of “The Dead Do Not Come Back At Night”
The weather, the car, the radio, the intermittent conversation of the characters all come together to build a quiet yet strong atmosphere of time and memory. Trapped as she is in the liminal space of a road trip, the narrator has nowhere else to look but internally. There she finds a wealth of nostalgia with all its pros and cons, and as we readers piece together her life from disjointed, and sometimes jarring fragments, we too feel soaked in the past. Returning to ones’ childhood home is always a strange sensation, and Baker has wrapped us up with her, and made us again feel that jarring mix of peace and discomfort.




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