At the campus bus stop in front of Kalamazoo Planned Parenthood bowed heads draped in black habits and bowed heads draped in black hoodies crowd together. Hands worry rosaries and scroll smart phones. No one bothers to look up. It’s an unremarkable day. Mid forties, mostly sunny. Contrails scar the sky. New York to San Francisco. L.A. to Boston. Kalamazoo: flyover country. Three year degrees at the university here. Get in. Get out. Get on with life. My thirteenth year in Michigan, genuflecting before this station on rusted knees.
Stations of my Rustbelt cross: Newspaper job in Chicago. Late edition to bed by midnight. Pilgrimage north. Preach Byron to coeds on the El. Crash Lincoln Park bachelorette parties. Trade punches with grown men long after closing time. Born and raised forty miles west. In Black Hawk. In a dying mill town. Where men once cast iron and processed hogs and dumped waste in the river. Tinting the water Ash Wednesday-gray. Mills long since razed, a riverboat casino moored in their place. Former line workers at LaSalle and New Era dump fistfuls of coin into quarter pulls. Tinting their hands Ash Wednesday-gray.
Black Hawk, my home. Black Hawk, state of mind. Black Hawk, a dream of blondes I never had the balls to ask out. Corporeal Black Hawk, sturdy brunettes with cracked and yellowed teeth, with bad skin, with babies sagging them like overripe fruit. Rustbelt love is faith. Rustbelt love is resignation. It’s snow squalls and pummeling, one hundred-degree Augusts. One hundred percent humidity. Visible atmospheres and Holy Ghosts. Farmer’s Almanac religion. Where Tom Skilling is Oracle. Where Tom Skilling is suffered and feared. Where Tom Skilling is regarded with flawless blonde awe.
Kalamazoo, Black Hawk, Iowa. Equidistant but not equal. Black Hawk only exists on paper these days. And I wish that Iowa didn’t exist. But Iowa was and is and always will be. Iowa, the early morning night terror from which I wake. 3:33 burn red digits. I moved there. For a time. For the wrong woman. For fear of losing her. Six months in Iowa is not heaven, Shoeless Joe. It’s a disruption in these thirteen Kalamazoo years, counted as a convict marks days in the hole. Tallying hours one cornstalk, one thrown pot roast, one barren screw at a time.
Easier to see the beginning of things than their ends. More stations of this Rustbelt cross. Illinois undergraduate days. Surrounded by industrial pig farms. Empires of swine. But goddamn, bacon is manna. Even on Fridays. Even with pigshit in the air and pissbeer on the floor of the Purple Pride. Nickel draft Wednesdays when they change the kegs. When lonely boys who will fill out to become lonely men slouch at the bar. When Annie Diaz and I slurp fishbowls of blue liquor slush. First date fumbling, but I win second and third dates anyway. Enough dates to knock her up. Wrong time for all concerned.
Annie Diaz. Last I heard: Married, three boys. She had a favorite poem. Used to tell me anyone with a soul should have a favorite. All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home. Their women cluck like starved pullets, dying for love, she incanted, curled in bed, tangled between my strong legs and our wet sheets, in that student ghetto Victorian. The one without air conditioning. Windows painted shut.
Therefore, their sons go suicidally beautiful. And I feel tired of being a man some days. Forty-degree-days in Kalamazoo. Mostly sunny. Commuting from teaching or taking a class; doesn’t matter which. Drive to the room I rent. My room, opposite direction of the house on the brick-paved side street. The house my Iowa woman had wanted. Before she wanted out of Michigan. Back when she wanted a family. Nowhere near Planned Parenthood or these student ghettos. In a neighborhood of professors and doctors and lawyers. Proper grownups the way Annie Diaz and I pretended to be nearly two decades ago sealed inside that Victorian bedroom, dreaming of heroes.
Poor in land. Rich in hair. A full head the next girl will latch on to like a lifeline, like a leash. Hair she’ll run fingers through and wonder if I’m too old, imagine me when we move into the forever house in that city upon the hill, when our boys are ten and I teach them a curveball. When we’re tangled in legs and sheets. She’ll wonder how strong the back, how good the knees. How vital the man. To move furniture, to set up behind the plate. To fuck.
And I’ll grow weary of this Rustbelt climate but won’t dare to move south or west or east. My boys will have their own seasons, their own storms to weather. Their own stations to walk.
Dan Mancilla lives Kalamazoo, Michigan where he’s in the final year of his Ph.D. in Creative Writing at Western Michigan University. His fiction has appeared in such publications as Barrelhouse, BULL: Men’s Fiction, The Chicago Tribune, Monkeybicycle, and River Styx among others. “Visible Atmospheres, Holy Ghosts” is a story from his book-length manuscript, All the Proud Fathers. You can read more about Dan and his work at danmancilla.com.