In all things, in the trials and tribulations of life, there is solace in casserole. Think calmly, think midwestern people, think midwestern things. Wooden spice racks, communal suppers and the special sort of calm that accompanies the orange dusk of a hard day’s work. The sun sets, slowly drifting underground, and your skin is cracked and dry, sore knees and blisters, perfumed lotion as you grip an iced tea and calculate the sleep you’ll get for tomorrow’s toils. The zen calm of a summer day on the plains, everything moves in a directional concert, conducted by the sister winds from any random direction. Hot breezes pour into your ears and all you can smell is the earth, keep slouching in a lawn chair and digest that potato salad. Fine art and learned scholars are exchanged for deviled eggs—experimental substances and wild incense is left behind for tomorrows newspaper and cheap potpourri. Calories and finicky nutrition labels melt from the forefront of your mind—a day on your feet can purchase as many breakfast sausages as it takes to fill you up. Coffee is black, and only serves to get your morning started, the evening is reserved for beer, and only serves to lull your day to its end. Still kitchens, cicadas, air conditioning, freshly vacuumed carpet, bare feet, cherry tomatoes.
Dirty boots, hard slung over white gravel work sites, thousands of miles walked under steel toes and X many days without an accident. Laborious repetitive machinations that make the pillars that make the foundations that keep the Burger King leaning into the whooping winds of the plains. Every day is powered by a routine, a careful set of rules that keeps the whole thing on its feet, a thermos full of coffee and a protein rich silver canister that can survive a high-beam drop. Tire sales. Dentists offices with ancient fake wood paneling, little pictures of dogs and sticky notes all over monitors that went out of fashion back when Friends was still on the air. Drywall experts and the long story about the time they did the thing at the place and saw someone famous.
You’re going to need a belt. A belt holds the jeans to the waist, gives the shirt a foundation, and displays a commemorative buckle. Pagers and cell phones need the belt, something to clip on to, and the belt is where we loop the little holder for a multi-purpose cutting tool or an aged pair of pliers. The belt is a weapon. Swatting flies and wrapping around knuckles, the belt is an all purpose survival device. The belt used to help get your point across. Any belt taken to a spouse can be later used to strangle you in a jail cell, and any belt taken to a child can be returned when the child is old enough to shave, and you are unwell, and those bad grades come slapping back with teary rage. The belt will never wear out, and its tanned leather will absorb the character of everything you do in the plains. The belt is a reliable constant, fixed into the universe with a specific purpose, if for nothing more than a rack for your thumbs when pondering a particularly thoughtful something.
Little league, high-schoolers serving licorice and cheap nacho cheese, storms you can actually see coming. De-tasseling corn, sweaty acne riddled faces getting in the way of an underpaid migrant worker. Sun tea, panting dogs, bare and dirty feet. The post office, the bank, the bar. Angry men staff the tiny monopolies and squint for their keys—too cheap to get that prescription, and too frustrated to read a book about Europe. Pleasant men cut the hair and sell the fishing lures—too alone to ever update the candy dish, and too bipolar to keep the shotguns in high places and unloaded. The schools are a crushing thing, they eat at your will and they eat at your dreams. The teachers are a varied thing, some drink for the next check, and some strive to keep you hungry. There are places away from the show, places all over in these blue and yellow maps, and while the midwest consists of every state between pizza and surfing, there are things to learn, ideas to form, and brainwashing to shake. Thick boots, computers, plane tickets, ethnic people. If you’re different you’ll never belong, but if you belong, you’ll never be different.
Casserole is a high holy art form. It sits in the base of the world, simple foods designed to keep you from drying up, and in the midwest, they are a special clay. Generations of grandmothers and people from the boats have their fatherland foods warped into dishes that use whatever is available, be it tree bark or candle wax. Creative layers of noodles and corn and cheese and protein and flour and whatever will bind and slice. The thirty something past-participle-addicted-would-be writer sitting in front of a keyboard, craving these lineal and genetic foodstuffs, everything needs to be sliced, everything should be the bastard child of lasagna. The casserole is always layered, always baked, and is only complete when there is that perfect crust—that perfect layer of crunch that will never scrub off—a kitchen cabinet forever full of dark tinted glass dish-ware, memories of elder women with purple veins in their hands. Aprons, mashed potatoes, the beans nobody eats, grandmother’s smile and her gold crowned tooth—the tiny king of her disposition.
The communal feast, different shoes, still sweating after a shower, cologne, the high school gymnasium, thin fake wood paneling. You head out for the evening, something to kill a wayward and irregular Thursday after work, something to break up the end of the five-day and smooth out Friday for the weekend. You head out for the evening, something that’s not like at home, food that you’ve eaten but isn’t familiar, sitting with Thy Neighbor and communing with the group think. Cold salad, garlic rolls, spaghetti from a tin trough, eye contact with your underage yet future bride, the ambience all fluorescence, and a respectful but deafening murmur about the village, peace be with you, and also with you. Ten hours in any direction is still home, and ten hours in any direction is a total and complete cultural shift. Foreign lands, mountains, deserts, unfamiliar ways to pump gas, more plains. Tiny pockets of New Thought, Mr. Oberst’s silly hair, stinky leather school buses and the twelve year girl who told you about her alcohol poisoning.
The plains are empty, the plains are silent. Somewhere in a tractor leftovers are consumed, Van Halen will never die. Grass between your toes, clouds that look like something, bored afternoons, oxycontin, not a thing to do and a generation of questionable tradition. Butter on your nose, pickled pigs feet, the traveling rodeo, cow tipping, swing dancing, telemarketing, state-line casinos, dollar dance weddings, summer squash. I burned my textbooks and imitated a rain dance. It’s all up to you.
Music in this episode:
Paneye – Season For Milking Stonefish
Lee Rosevere – Eileen
Bosques de mi Mente – Nueve das de Invierno
Bosques de mi Mente – El Peso del Silencio