Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram. She’s a retired clinical psychologist and former performer. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Rumpus, Manifest-Station, The Coachella Review, Lady Literary Review, NoiseMedium, The Creative Truth, Adelaide, Litro, Angels Flight—Literary West, TreeHouse Arts, Persephone’s Daughters, Better After 50, Canyon Voices, Open Thought Vortex, Fourth and Sycamore, Nixes Mate, Cold Creek Review, Communicators League and others. Her play, “Life Without,” opened the staged reading season at Script2Stage2Screen in Rancho Mirage, California and was a semi-finalist in the Ebell of Los Angeles Playwriting Competition. She’ll receive her MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts in June from the University of California at Riverside/Palm Desert.
No Place Like Nebraska
Patrick waited out the morning in the beige café just off the interstate. Everything looked dreary to him today. He had hoped for more but he knew the political realities of the little town of Wahoo. It had been a Republican stronghold since FDR. Just 30 long miles down a desolate backroad, a half-hour away from the state capitol of Lincoln, Wahoo was even more conservative in every way than the rest of the state, if that was possible. Just last year, though, both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated which had thrown the country into widespread rebellion. But not here in Nebraska where time and politics seemed to stand as still as a silo. The night before, his unsurprising election loss had been a landslide and Wahoo looked to be the final nail in his political coffin. It was his home town, after all.
He had never felt so alone. He looked up from his coffee cup to see Rebecca, his assistant, coming back from the women’s restroom. Ten years younger than he was, she had been along for the ride from the start, never making any demands of her own. They had shared political strategy but not much more. She walked over to him and put her arm tentatively around his shoulders.
“I’m so sorry, Patrick. I wish it had gone differently.”
“We both knew the odds.”
“Yeah, I know.”
The coffee shop was nearly empty after what passed for the breakfast rush. The room was a little shabby like Wahoo itself, the only place left to eat that was at all decent. Over the years, the town had shrunk like cheap wool in the rain, losing population and gaining dust. All the buildings seemed to be the same color, weathered by the brutal Nebraska winters. He had given his last stump speech from the gazebo – a bandstand in the town’s better days - that unseasonably warm November morning two days ago before the election. There were eight people there - mostly friends from high school.
As he stared out the window into the square, his thoughts circled around the many times he had visited his grandmother just a block or so away. She proudly kept a framed picture of Herbert Hoover on her mantel, placed directly in the center where family photos usually resided. When he was old and bold enough, he’d argue with her.
“Grandma, don’t you know Hoover was responsible for the Great Depression?”
“Nonsense,” she would scoff. “That was Roosevelt’s fault. He was a Socialist.” She always pronounced it “Roo” not “Roe,” which aggravated him almost as much as her antediluvian politics.
Still, her house was warm and comforting, the sugary smells from the kitchen and the nostalgic memories nearly nullifying what eventually became their constant disagreements. The house was small - two bedrooms and one bath - the place where she had raised Patrick’s father who had inherited her intransigent conservatism. It was simpler when he was young, oblivious to his father’s involvement in the Ku Klux Klan. He hadn’t found out until a political friend told him years later. By then, it didn’t matter. But now, he wanted to think of the times when he didn’t know so much, when life was pure and uncontaminated. For him, that’s what Nebraska was all about. It was the main reason he came back after graduating from college five years ago with his political science major. There was something unfinished here.
He looked over at Rebecca and positioned his chiseled face into a smile. He wasn’t used to comforting words. She walked around his chair and sat opposite him at the wobbly table.
“Thanks. You did a good job. Not your fault this didn’t happen,” he said.
“I know. The chances were just…”
“I thought maybe civilization had made it across the plains after Kennedy died.”
They watched as the waitress come over, carrying a coffee pot and a cup. She had the outdated look of someone who had been brought up here and had only ventured as far as Beatrice or maybe North Platte. The mousy hair was probably in the same style she wore in high school.
“Would you like some coffee, honey? And how about more for you, sweetie?”
“Yeah, thanks. You, Becca?”
“No, thanks. You ready to go?”
Patrick thought for a minute and shook his head. He wasn’t ready. Somehow he already knew he’d never be back here in this same sad place. He would never again run for the state legislature, never come back to Wahoo, never be able to romanticize his childhood again.
He stared into the cup and in its blackness could picture that final rupture with his father. Patrick had been a senior in high school and President of the poorly attended Young Democrats club. He had come home late from a meeting flush with enthusiastic plans, carrying campaign materials for a statewide political race.
Anger seemed to spew like magma from his father that night, just as it always did. Its appearance was inevitably both sudden and surprising. Patrick never understood his wrath or the reasons for the frequent beatings he suffered. But now, at 17, he was nearly grown, taller than his father. These days, the weapons of choice were words.
His father catapulted from his chair. He reached for the stack of pamphlets but Patrick quickly pulled it back. “You’re not going to pass around that shit, not in my town. That guy’s a Commie.”
Patrick turned to face him. “Yeah, I am. And it’s not your town. It’s mine, too. And Mom’s. And Grandma’s. You don’t run things around here any more.”
“Don’t you talk to me like that. You have no sense. No respect for authority.” He reached behind him for a heavy red vase that always sat on the side table and impulsively hurled it at his son, just missing his head. The deafening noise as it crashed against the fireplace brought his mother running. She stopped at the doorway, frozen by anxiety.
“Glenn, what’s going on? Patrick?”
Mavis was still wearing her apron from her hours in the kitchen that evening, her face wizened by the cruel signs of premature aging. She had a weary, gray look about her which always made Patrick feel sorry for her. He knew she would stand up for him if she could. But his father had been violent with her, too.
“It’s OK, Mom.”
“No, it isn’t,” his father roared. “Your son is a traitor. You’ve failed him, Mavis. He’s a bum. He’ll always be a bum. I’m ashamed to say he’s in my family.”
No one knew what to say. Inside the scorching silence, Patrick knew what he had to do.
“Sorry, Mom.” He went over, gave her a quick hug and made his way upstairs. A half hour later, he came down carrying a small suitcase to find the house empty. It didn’t matter any more. He took one last look at the frayed, faded ovrstuffed furniture in the living room and slowly turned the knob on the front door. He paused for just a second, hoping for what? A miracle? But he knew better. Within fifteen minutes he was at his friend’s house and into a different life. He would never return to the creaky old house and would never speak to his father again. He didn’t come back for the funeral, either. For him, his father had died years before, that very night he left.
Rebecca’s silky voice intruded into his reverie but he was grateful to be shaken out of it. “You’ll run for office again. It always takes a couple of times for people to…”
“No, I don’t think so. But thanks for your confidence. In fact, thanks for all of it – your hard work, your coming here with me today. All of it.”
He looked over at her again, this time noticing her lively, clear blue eyes. She was attractive in a preppy sort of way, always dressed well, a little buttoned down. How much of his life had he missed? He wished he could feel the infused energy from all the caffeine he had ingested that day. Maybe that was why he began to notice the throbbing at his left temple. It was almost a relief to feel a physical kind of pain, something that could be medicated away.
He took a deep breath. “Let’s go. I’ll drop you off at your place in Lincoln.”
He felt a subtle but fleeting longing for her but there was far too much static on the line for him to make any decisions about it now. They slipped into his dirty, beat-up blue VW bug and started to drive away from the café.
“Would you mind if we drove around a bit?” he asked.
“No. Sure. What are we going to see?” She was curious without being intrusive. She had learned to be cautious around him.
He didn’t answer because he didn’t know yet. With the grief and sense of loss came the sudden sense of buoyancy that comes from closure. He now felt free to make his escape from this airless universe, this decaying small town that lived in his brain no matter where he was.
“Let’s drive through town. I’ll show you where I grew up. The first time.”