The first story is a promise, a tank of gas, a sonnet for the ocean — the first story is always about leaving. So for now, my town of Hibbing is nowhere or the same as anywhere. White paint that peels like fingers. Dogs that bark as cars pass after dark. Signs for beer and Main Street. Nondescript in the way that it, like most things, was once beautiful.
The same could be said of my first character and of her softened Victorian with a sagging porch and rusted hooks for holiday lights. Her name is something pretty but she is called Sissy, same as half of any town. She is blond and dresses on a budget, mostly autumn sweaters that are too large and bag around her elbows. She is pretty in a hard and chapped sort of way, all knuckles. If she will smile for you, you might believe that she is old enough for her daughter and the ex-husband who mails her the standard accruement of her child’s development. She hangs the stuff — crayon notes, handprints, and report cards — all over her kitchen, but no one is in the house when she can’t sleep.
Until she’s drowsy, she slices potatoes and listens to owls outside her walls. Death hangs about her as if she were a train-wreck conductor who made it to safety — her story will be in the rumors of what was left on fire. Sissy will carry weight I leave nameless. My armless cousin. My father’s cancer.
His name was Albert Halverson. His mouth was triangular, his shoulders as sturdy as any ore worker’s. He was late for everything, even the refinery parties Mom dressed us for in new pairs of wingtips and little ties that came with factory-made knots she could just slip over our necks.
I will describe Sissy’s eyes the same as my father’s, his flat pupils and the sleepless ridges that rose up under his skin. Every bone was visible in his face and will be in hers, even if she doesn’t share his work and lack of sun. She will still make her money from one of the mines, but it will just be for paperwork, a vague job I won’t distinguish from anything else. She will stay no more real than a yearbook snapshot or perfume that floats above her desk and stapler. To look at her, as skeletal as my father and his hockey-night friends, is to see everything and remember nothing. To say she’s gone feels like she’s always been missing.
In the story, she will move. And like a figment or myth, she will stay in motion. Service stations and roadmaps, an oil-change in Fresno. When it is finished, the first story will be a hairdresser’s gossip and, together, you and the narrator will muse about this Sissy neither of you really remember. You will swap versions of when she started driving and what was in the paper sack on her passenger’s seat.
Ali and I were walking west of town when I spotted the Larpentuer house and found my second character. His family was one of the first to get involved with iron ore, before the Civil War. They had a hand in every part of the town, the taconite mine, the refinery, and the railroads that sprung up to bring the stuff to Duluth and Minneapolis.
Near the house, Ali told me the stories again, how Wayne Larpentuer never leaves except to cash interest checks. How most days he doesn’t bother with clothing. How the inside of the house is a shrine to his dead parents, a clutter of snuff boxes, bowler hats, and pearl necklaces.
But, for his story, I don’t need his ghosts.
I want him fleshy, palpable as the sweat of your security-guard brother. When he chews one of the apples from the trees behind the house, I want you to know its texture on your tongue. When he sweeps the long wood hallways and repaints the vault ceilings, you need to see the wet swell of his blisters.
In the story, he will comb his hair every time he leaves the house. He will have ritual yard-work at night and a series of bird feeders he constructs from pine to store in one of the sheds on the outskirts of his property. He will call a cousin in Missouri every Saturday afternoon. He will go to town when you aren’t looking, pay full price at the theater just to watch the coming attractions.
My family never got to a movie on time. It was my father’s fault. He waited too long to shave. Or, as we got into the car, he realized we needed to take the trailer off the hitch. Or he was wrong about the schedule. Or the hockey game on television went an extra period. He never apologized but stayed quiet and we sat in the dark while ushers swept up debris. Forty minutes later, when the late-show previews were over and the story got to what we had seen, he gathered us home.
My Wayne Larpentuer will drive into Hibbing every time a new feature opens. The trip is his pilgrimage to the mailbox, the moments of wait while a short-order cook scrambles your eggs and melts your cheddar. Because he only watches the previews, he only gets a glint of plot. The film as a whole takes place in his expectation.
But the actual story will be the house and a group of grade-schoolers who, on a dare, bust a window with a sixty-year-old croquet mallet. The story will lurk in the empty rooms with their flashlight, how at every turn they expect to find chicken blood or a gagged and bound Sissy from the first story. There will be photo albums and little-league trophies. With every step, the floorboards will squeal darker possibilities and the kids, with their faces bright as spotlights on a search boat, will make up anything you want to know.
Two stories into the collection, I will need Hibbing to become Hibbing. Ambience must crystallize like a kidney stone, reveal a gray sky and snow that comes off the lake in sheaths seven months wide. The highway that hangs onto fog as if it were a ticket stub from an inaugural ball. How our best cars are driven every morning with their lights on to Duluth for coffee and jobs. I will set the exodus to music, wheels spinning over cracks, spitting stones. When the sun comes up on our abandoned city, I will let you see it from above. The only motion will be the swirl rising from our factories and refineries.
But this cannot be dogma, not just another manifesto against a sad town on a plain of sad towns, not like beers with Pitmann and Boyd. A few pitchers and one of us says this place sucks and the others nod. We all have quirks that show up in our silences. Pitmann fiddles with a quarter. I drum my thumbs against the pitcher. Boyd spits tobacco onto the floor with every other breath. If Alison is there she defends the place, reminds us of the time Firehose played Grigg’s Landing a few summers ago. We drink as we watch her, dressed like she could live anywhere, her voice free from regional diphthongs. And we all remember how she knew somebody who knew somebody, and that she makes thirty thousand and doesn’t have to pay for her antibiotics. One of us says sucks and the others stay quiet.
In the third story, Hibbing will be my protagonist behind the wheel with narcolepsy, a kleptomaniac with nothing to steal.
Dickerson, back in a college writing class, told us that a story needs tension. He said it was simple. There are only three kinds. In this case, Hibbing vs. self, Hibbing vs. nature, etcetera. Like there’s only three ways to put out a fire. But this story will be combustion without heat or air, without fuel.
There will be the Larpentuer elementary school and Larpentuer Junior High. There will be the city council meetings, a list of minutes that shows tabled renovation. There will be the lingering rumors of the new Larpentuer mall, a business group that hasn’t started building just yet, a tax item that will come to referendum one November or the next.
There are only twenty-three Taconite trucks in the entire state and I’ve driven twelve of them. They run in nine-hour shifts, two guys in the cab on your first and last hour for safety. I’ve worked the drill and explosives, walked scout in fifty below. But the story in the mine will not be the ear I lost to frostbite or my cousin getting his arms torn off.
We all have degrees, have read Chaucer or Yeats in a humanities class we couldn’t dodge. My brother writes Japanese — I saw him doing math in kanji on a napkin before he told us where to park the loader. My cousin, before the accident, used to throw clay garden pots for my mom. We all had minors and practiced an instrument in a gabled attic. But we don’t mention our hobbies, just like we don't mention the rest of our differences.
Everyone in my family works the field instead of the plant. We know the seventy-five square miles of mine by landmarks and nicknames, more specifics than we use to speak to each other. My dad, same as everyone, called me Hal. He was called Hal. My brother is called Hal. When the phone rang, Mom said it was for Hal and, somehow, only one of us would get up and take the call.
Ali’s brother lives in Portland now and sends her Green Peace postcards with Earth-Day stamps. In the story, he will be re-named something pretentious and symbolic when he returns to Hibbing with a following, six or seven men and women from college. They will drink in our bars and smoke cigarettes outside the safety fences, watching us work.
The stuff we come for is invisible— Taconite is only a quarter iron. It is mostly sand and silica. It looks like any other rock. If you watched us, you’d have no idea why we were filling the trucks, but Ali’s brother, close enough to smell it, will understand. When we blast, the afternoon smells like a dentist filling a tooth, like a parking lot in the sun. Even with cloth over our mouths, we breathe hot, salty metal and it smells like America.
We blast once a day. Even if we have to wear leather mittens and lay the charges under snow, even if the guys on drill are only ten percent sure, we follow our best lead and break ground before dark. The Messabi range is mostly clay at the surface and it bulges before it is thrown clear. The air gets mottled with white powder, steam if it’s winter, and the earth turns into a puff cloud that blows a hundred feet in every direction.
Ali’s brother’s plan will be to take themselves hostage. They will cut the fence at night with sleeping bags, a guitar, and flasks of liquor. Entry will be easier than they expected and they will quickly lose their dour efficiency and find time to play some football with a bag of explosives. They will spray-paint the drills to look like giant, spinning breasts.
But there will be an accident, an eruption. That close, the flash will be too bright to fully understand. It will simply register as an absence of everything that was. It will strike them deaf for a moment and break their skin with chunks of dirt.
But this will be misdirection. The story is not about the plan gone wrong but about Ali’s brother, his homecoming. He will watch the ground resettle in silence. He won’t say a word, even as he detonates another charge. He will accept the burst of heat without covering his head and, when the others have fled, he will break the night into a series of colorless explosions.
When our stores are empty, he will simply wait for morning.
My father, before the hospital, was a union man and a Democratic representative for the state caucus held in Minneapolis. After marrying my mother, he was a member of two churches and would go to both services every Christmas Eve. He was secretary for the Hibbing Skeet and Sporting Clays Association and took the local Boy Scouts ice fishing twice every January.
The fifth story will be a simple story of belonging. It will feature another Sissy. Sissy Hopka will be a small-boned woman allergic to hairspray. Her brothers, three of them, will be in the army and she will have a baseball card collection, mainly mid-eighties Fleer and Topps, worth a few thousand dollars.
But what I am interested in is the few weeks every winter when, in the basement of St. Paul’s Church, she makes lefsa. The Hibbing Lutheran Women’s League will make four thousand pieces for holiday sales and Wednesday-night Advent services, and Sissy Hopka will be on the potato line with a ricer, waiting around the stoves and boiling water, chatting with Sissy Luellen, Sissy Havachuk, and Sissy Moran.
The fifth story will also be the story of recipes.
Impurities are removed from Taconite by breaking it down. When the crude is through the grinder and finally tubbed, someone works the magnets to coax metal from water. In the story, it will be Junior Havachuk who does it.
After the Taconite has been condensed, it is mixed with a clay adhesive, formed into little balls, and baked at 2400 degrees for a few hours until its surface is dark gray and chalky to the touch. When Taconite is ready to be processed into steel, it is in the form of pellets roughly the size of a marble or the flakes of potato that, in the story, Sissy Hopka will emulsify with butter.
When my father was shooting skeet, I often came along and worked the trap, judging hits and misses. Six men would stand in a half-circle with guns, a few of them with cans of beer near their feet. But what I remember is their talk, how they conducted strange business, who’s got a lawnmower they don’t need, who’s got a girl to ask my Junior to the Sadie Hawkins. Dad often came home from sporting clays with a half-bottle of my mother’s perfume he had gotten for some fresh rhubarb or a set of never-used garden tools.
As potatoes are boiled, peeled, and readied for Sissy Hopka to process, Sissy Havachuk will tell the others about her boy Junior who works the magnets and sleeps too much. What he needs is joy, she will say. I don’t know exactly how yet, but she will convince Sissy Hopka to intercede on his behalf and, with one of her brother’s pistols, she will kidnap Junior after swing shift.
She will take Junior on a trip to watch the sun rise over Lake Superior, according to his mother’s wishes. It's a hundred miles east and eventually they will have nothing better to do than talk. The gun was your Mom’s idea, she will tell him.
My mom quit smoking when Dad got sick. An entire carton of 100’s sat on their nightstand, but she couldn’t light up in the hospital. He was in no condition to talk and I never really heard her speaking to him but she never left his room. When he was dead, we all knew she wanted a cigarette. She was a mess when she cleaned the house, a wreck at bingo with her church friends. Coffee made it worse and, in a month or so, we had to brew it for ourselves.
By the time Sissy and Junior get to the shore, it will be cold and the sunrise will be half-started. They will both know that, for all its drama, their adventure was nothing more than a half-hearted favor. As the sky goes to pinks and oranges there will be nothing between them to share.
But anyway, it will be a pretty big lake.
The sixth story will happen in Chicago, at a Chinese restaurant I will paint real enough to smell the soy sauce and scrape grit from a plate with your thumbnail. Here are your characters — he a veterinarian, she a loan officer. She will wear a scar like a bottle cap on her forehead. He will have lisped since he went to Larpentuer elementary. In Hibbing, they were Sissy and Junior. She asked him to the Sadie Hawkins and they made out, parked in an alfalfa field. The night of their story, they will find their separate ways to the restaurant with two unimportant people who know them by normal names I won’t mention.
He will order the lo-main in terrible Cantonese to impress his intern, a transplanted Canadian who doesn’t like hockey. Sissy will enter on the arm of a catalogue model. They will have adjoining tables but not make eye contact. There will be banter and laughter, dinner noise and forks twisted up with limp noodles.
When I first kissed Allison, I was wearing Polo or some other Junior High cologne that smelled like hay. She sneezed into my mouth and we didn’t try it again for several weeks. She says that if it hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t be together.
This is who Allison is. Everything — her work and mine, nights on the town and day-trips to Duluth — exists only as little letters from God about love and loving. If you ask her for dating advice she will take you to the pound and watch you toss a soggy ball with the dogs. Even in the winter, she eats her lunches at the park and takes a camera with her. Our living room is crowded with albums full of random strangers with their children, strangers holding hands after a fight, strangers feeding each other pretzels from the vendor who parks his cart on Minnesota Avenue.
She says I don’t pay enough attention to things that happen because they have to, that I’m only interested in choices and irony. After one particularly harsh argument, she gave me an assignment. I wandered town searching for interventions of grace and returned with a bunch of little poems. A loon taking flight on a lake that should have been too small, a rhymed couplet for its solid, heavy bones.
But the sixth story will be the miracle she wanted me to find.
Sissy will spill hot mustard on Junior’s intern. The catalogue model will dab a wet napkin to the intern’s stomach and their fingers will touch. I will let you decide what the future of that contact is but the important exchange will happen while Sissy laughs her apology.
She and Junior will finally look at each other and, though there is a nagging familiarity about their features, neither of them will remember anything about Hibbing.
Three versions of a similar story with the same title.
This is what I like about previews. A set-up doesn’t have to be interesting to be interesting. Before I know everything, anything has possibility. The same scenes could find their way to fifty different final stories.
So. The death of Sissy Lindgren.
Anyone who will make it this far will know that Sissy can be mother, daughter, aunt, and neighbor. Here she will become all of Hibbing, the woman scrubbing the Ranger Hotel’s bathrooms, the one with crooked teeth in my first geometry class, my first kiss on the basketball court, and my mother with her rotting cache of cigarettes.
In the first telling, Sissy Lindgren will take an elderly cousin to see a movie downtown. It will be a weekly outing, soup and hot Italian sandwiches before they walk the seven blocks to the theater. The Wednesday of the story, it will be raining and Sissy will have to hold two umbrellas and steady her cousin with an elbow.
But the story will take place during the previews. The first will be another film about the devil, a lusty brown hue in the lighting. Bet he loses, Sissy will whisper to her cousin though she will have to repeat herself so often that, by the time she is understood, neither of them think it is funny. The second trailer will already have started and, without coming in at the beginning, Sissy will start to think about the medium.
These are the stories we tell when we are drinking with Pitmann and Boyd. Everything starts with someday or one time when I was in high school. Dickerson would cringe, say this stuff has nothing to do with narrative. And he might be right. But when Boyd slams an empty glass to the table and struggles to light a cigarette while he is laughing, I think story disintegrates into a vague hope that we either were or could be worth talking about.
That will be Sissy Lindgren’s epiphany. She will figure out that what brings her and her cousin back to the theater is the discussion afterwards, talk about which scenes were too graphic, when they started crying. Or else they will talk about what is coming, share anticipation for a story that isn’t even ready to be witnessed. And, with this, she will realize that there is always a point where the coming attraction fades into another movie with a loud soundtrack where she can’t remember, for the life of her, who is playing the waitress.
She is sitting next to a dead woman.
The second Sissy Lindgren will find the same epiphany on the range. There are too many jobs being performed at once, and it is too large a space for us to trust checks and double-checks before we blast. Safety is ensured because every member of a team knows exactly when and what will explode. She, on the morning of her story, will biopsy a core sample with a field kit before radioing in the coordinates in order to have a deeper cut made. The crew boss will ten-four and congratulate her on running so far ahead of schedule. She will realize she has no idea where she is in relation to everything else that was on the board when she ate breakfast. She will ask for the numbers she just gave him but the radio will not work. For a while she will stay where she is and watch the sky move with heavy clouds. Eventually, she will decide there are trucks to her north and west. She will choose one of them and begin walking. It will not take long for her to hear the ground break where, had she followed a different hunch, she would have been standing.
Finally, my last Sissy will tell her parents that Junior agreed to go to the Sadie Hawkins. They will be eating soup and hot Italian sandwiches, passing the milk when Sissy tells them that the guidance counselor also called her into his blue office to give her the results to her first standardized test. I don’t think my father ever took one but, judging by my Brother Hal’s results, I imagine he would have scored high. When Sissy is alone she will get something no one in my family had, an awareness that the numbers could translate into anything, not just a good school but an address in Pennsylvania or Cleveland.
She will also realize that Junior, for all of the charm in his charismatic hamstrings, is not a bright man. The difference will be staggering and she will see him as a beautiful tollgate to the interstate. And because she is as smart as the test indicates, she will realize she could find happiness in either direction. This, as she listens to her parents make love through the ceiling, will not be a comforting revelation. When the dance comes she will have no energy to question Junior’s lead, letting the room whip around her in a too fast slow-dance blur of decorations and tinsel.
This is the place where I tell you that my name is really Junior. My girlfriend goes by Sissy and has the thickest Minnesotan accent in town. There is no Ben, there is no Allison. Or maybe I tell you my name is Matt and let the doors fall off whatever story I’ve got going, leave you to guess that neither of my parents are dead and that the only Taconite pellets I have held were packaged in plastic and distributed during Minnesota history month. Maybe I tell you I have no memory of Hibbing and let all of this bleed.
Or maybe I plan the last story.
In 1957, St. Louis county had nearly twice as many residents as it does now. Hibbing’s Halverson Theater, the largest in the county, was made of wood. Movies were made of celluloid. There was a fire.
Here are the facts: no one was killed. Bits of scorched film fluttered about Main Street for months, but the theater was rebuilt by the time the town helped elect Kennedy.
What I want you to focus on will happen before the movie, before the fire. Donald Dargus will tease Junior Lindgren’s wife about a run in her hose. She will flirt back, making sure to keep her hand firmly on her husband’s backside. The Hopka brothers will show up drunk — too drunk to worry about straining their necks sitting in the front row. One of them will complain about not being able to watch the women in front of them. There won’t be any, he will say. They will begin to reminisce about necks and ponytails. Sissy Boyd will tell her grandkids about the time their father was tricked into eating manure.
I may invent more conversation, I may not. But, eventually, I will acquiesce to history and let the place burn.
ben halverson's soon to be written