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Comments (1) Posted 08.11.11 | PERMALINK | PRINT

August Fiction: Emily Mitchell

States


In the spirit of August and the tradition of summer reading, Places is featuring a series of short stories in which landscapes are central to mood and meaning.

James Casebere, Landscape with Houses
[Landscape with Houses (Dutchess County, NY) #3, 2010. © James Casebere. Courtesy of Sean Kelly Gallery, New York.]

Pennsylvania


Pennsylvania is the softest state in the Union. Early in its history, when it was still a colony, Pennsylvania passed an ordinance outlawing sharp corners for the good of the citizenry. As a result, the artisans of Pennsylvania pioneered a style of furniture making that came to be known as Rustic Curvature for its solid forms and smooth, undulating lines. In recent years, reproductions of these designs have been enjoying a renewed popularity.

The no-corner rule meant that Pennsylvania never became a center of industry like many of its neighbors, but has remained indebted to agriculture for much of its economic base. The statute has never been removed from the books, though today it is rarely enforced.

In Pennsylvania, the mountains are shaped like breasts. This is not discussed by most people or taught in the public schools. The culture of the rural western half of the state tends to be conservative and to exhibit a great love of birds, fried foods, and small boxes.

Pennsylvania is an old state and therefore a sad one. More than two hundred years ago, it was vivisected so it could be made into farms. The houses peel paint and the little towns, knotted around crossroads, seem often to have forgotten what they wanted to say next.

The official motto of the state is “When in doubt, breathe, but not through your mouth.”

New York

Brashness is well known to characterize New Yorkers in their public lives, but they are almost all absolute push-overs in private. The homes of New York are often decorated with mirrors in unlikely places. Some people attribute this to unusually high local levels of vanity, but really it is just because mirrors are very inexpensive in this region. Also, people in New York tend to live in small houses and apartments, and mirrors make their rooms look bigger.

Recently, there have been numerous cases of haunted mirrors, and this has caused problems for the police, as well as homeowners. A typical haunted mirror appears normal until it is hung on a wall and then the surface shifts, warps, and becomes a reflection not of the room or person physically opposite to it, but of the place the viewer really wishes to be. This can be a disturbing thing to learn about yourself or about your spouse, and a number of apparently happy marriages have been damaged or destroyed by haunted mirrors. The attorney who led the class action suit against the manufacturers said in her briefing to the press: “You think that your husband is content at home, and you discover he’d rather be trapped in a sock factory with his third-grade teacher Mrs. Swenson. We consider that this forced disclosure of subconscious desires causes undue pain and suffering to the victims and, in many cases, significant loss of income.”

The police have been instrumental in disturbing the chain of supply for the haunted mirrors, though some residents feel they could be doing more.

New York City is not the capital of New York, although it is the state’s tallest city. There is some dispute about whether it is the largest in terms of population, since many of its denizens have been shown conclusively to be constructed out of glue, paper, and one other top-secret ingredient. Regardless, New York City is truly a world city, replete with grand avenues, skyscrapers, and beautifully maintained city parks. There is a multitude of artistic and cultural establishments and tourist destinations. They include the famous statue, which stands guard over the harbor, raising her reading glasses in her left hand to peruse the great book clasped in her right.

What is written in the stone pages has been read by only a handful of workers and restorers, as it is impossible to see either from below or from the platform on the brim of the statue’s bowler hat to which visitors can ascend by means of an interior staircase. These workers say that the pages of the book contain lists of slurs aimed at every race and ethnicity that has ever come to this most polyglot of cities, ranging from the thoroughly archaic to the most contemporary. The city fathers were not aware of this when the statue went up — it was a gift from abroad — and by then it was too late. Periodically, a citizen’s group will protest publicly that the book’s contents go against the spirit of the city and should be erased, but someone else always counters that it would be wrong to destroy a famous work of art by altering it so drastically. The argument goes on until everyone gets tired, or distracted by something more pressing. Because all groups are insulted with equal virulence in the pages of the book, no particular faction has been motivated to mount a sustained campaign to have the offending matter removed.

The official state vermin rotates biannually between the Greater Glowering Cockroach and the Egg Rat, which can be distinguished by its blue webbed feet.

Montana

From space, Montana looks like a supine lion covered in its golden fur. In fact, if you put your hand on the earth in certain places in this state, the ground does emit warmth like the side of a cat flopped down in a square of sunlight. If you see the earth shuddering very gently in and out or hear the deep thrumming noise that might be the hills purring, this is only an illusion, though it is an extremely convincing one.

Montana is known for its vast rangelands that have supported herds of cattle since the state was first settled by Europeans, and its culture centers on cows too. People pursue a number of pastimes involving these versatile animals, including cow racing, cow vaulting, and the cow toss. A recent attempt to bring these sports to a wider audience through television has not diminished the specifically local flavor of the contests, and many Montana natives consider these pursuits integral to their way of life.

Montana is one of the few female states in the Union. While many states take the a ending, usually considered feminine, only Georgia and Montana among them are actually female. The other female state is Maine. Many people find this information surprising. They are shocked to discover both the scarcity of female states and the fact that Montana — with its pioneer culture that valorizes physical strength and emotional reserve — should in fact be one of this small number. This reflects more on our contemporary expectations of male and female than on the state of Montana, which, after all, cannot help how it was made.

Vermont

Once a year the people of Vermont all go out of their houses and shout “Chimney Witch, Be Gone!” at the top of their lungs. This occurs in early November. The tradition originated in the French Acadian culture, which filtered down from the territory that is now Quebec into the state’s remote but beautiful Northeast Kingdom. According to legend, the Chimney Witch squats in the chimneys of unsuspecting householders and prevents St. Nicolas from entering the dwelling unless she is given notice to get out before the first frost. This is the only time that Vermonters shout in public, and all of them do it simultaneously at 4:00 p.m. on the first Wednesday of the month. A witty local writer commented, apropos of this practice, that in liberal Vermont, even the evil spirits are given almost two months’ notice before they are evicted from their abodes.

This liberal outlook is a well-known (and often maligned) quality of the state. Although there have been some difficulties between longtime residents, who hold more traditional views, and newcomers, most communities have been able to find common ground. The MJ Dairy incident is a case in point. The dairy produces the infamous Mary lane line of cheeses, all of which contain the resin of the cannabis plant among their ingredients and are said to have a mild narcotic effect. When the dairy’s buildings were burned down last year by arsonists, the devastation united libertarians and liberals who believe in marijuana legalization with law-and-order conservatives who don’t like to see Vermont become the ground for the extralegal violence. Prayer vigils were held outside the torched buildings and within a month enough money had been collected to rebuild the facility from public donations alone.

Vermont was reforested this past century, and its trees are still skinny and young. They cling to the granite sides of its mountains as best they can, but life is hard in this cold northern clime. Their roots snoop around the tumble of gray rocks and the thin soil, looking for a way in. Sometimes they find one, but not very often, and when they do manage to puncture the hard shell that the land here habitually wears, they sometimes don’t like what they find underneath.

The trees whisper messages among themselves, but they are not old enough yet to have anything more profound to say than human beings do, so it is not advisable to spend much time listening to them. The mountains by contrast are exceedingly old. But they don’t talk very often.

North Dakota

The land that is now North Dakota became part of the surface of the earth far later than most of the continental United States. This is why people in this state have a tendency to think too late of things they ought to have said or done, after there is already nothing that they can change about them. They spend a lot of time saying, Oh well. Next time. The official State Gesture involves the clapping of the heel of the right hand to the forehead once. The state police do it in unison at their swearing-in ceremony and accompany it with an extended exhalation of breath in the form of a long OYO (as in zoo or fool). It is a sight to behold.

No one in the state is completely sure where the land underneath them came from. There are two competing theories among scientists who study the subject. One holds that the land was an ancient asteroid shaped like a plate. The other proposes that the land in fact remained deep underground for many millennia before a seismic shift thrust it up in a single cataclysmic movement toward the light. The evidence is inconclusive. The fossil record shows animals from vastly different eras crammed together into single strata of rock, and this remains unexplained by either theory. Perhaps in North Dakota old forms of life find a final harbor before dying off at last to make room for what is new.

The most beautiful thing in North Dakota is the blue lightning, which, because of the flatness of the terrain, can be seen from hundreds of miles in any direction. It sutures together the clouds and the ground, and in this way, it reminds people of the compromises they make between the part of them that wants to stay, but flies away, and the part of them that wants to fly away, but crouches on the ground, blinking its eyes and licking the air.

Louisiana

There is no state of Louisiana. The fact that the myth of its existence persists so powerfully to this day can be attributed to the deep-seated desire that we all share for a place between the water and the land that is simultaneously both and neither. In this place, we are free to drift over a surface still and dark, like glass, which parts before the painted prow of our small wooden boat. It is important that the boat is wooden so we can hear the creaking sound it makes as it eases through channels the color of licorice and among tangled vines trailing luminous moss. Our destination is a small lonely building, a house or sometimes an old general store or even a cantina hoisted above the water by broad stilts beneath each corner. What we find there differs from person to person. Sometimes the house is empty. Sometimes it is filled with people having a party and dancing. Sometimes only a single person is waiting on the dock that extends out in front of the building, sitting there as if he or she would remain exactly in that spot for however long it takes us to find him or her.

The other reason that the state of Louisiana continues to loom so large in our collective imagination is the Great Hoax of 1782. The hoax was orchestrated by a group of planters from the French West Indies who intended to entice capital investment in their enterprises from bankers in Paris and other European cities. They began to spread information about great and growing port cities along the southern coast of the North American mainland which, they claimed, would soon precipitously increase trade between the United States, then a recently formed nation, and the islands of the Caribbean. They named these cities after cities in France, and even went so far as to have woodcuts and etchings made illustrating the various street scenes and public works then supposedly taking place in them. The artists they hired were talented and evoked, from nothing but their imaginations, bustling, vibrant towns, inhabited by people from all the nations of the world, mixing and living freely together — a spectacle that had never been witnessed until then. Soon it became au courant in the French capital to pepper one’s speech with slang purported to originate in the Gulf cities. Where this slang truly came from no one knows, though it shows similarities to the Basque language and to Welsh.

The campaign was a success. The investors in Europe were moved to open their purses, and money flowed to the French island colonies. But another unforeseen effect also resulted from the machinations of the conspirators, which was the increased interest on the part of the United States in acquiring this rich territory adjacent to its own. As we all know, the Louisiana purchase of 1803 took place a mere twenty years after the planters first gathered together over port and cigars to devise their plan. Once the purchase was made, of course, the Americans soon discovered their error: There were no Gulf cities. Louisiana was a pure fabrication. But so many among the new revolutionary elite had staked their reputations on the purchase of this territory, including Thomas Jefferson himself, that they could hardly admit their error publicly. To protect the President’s dignity, the fiction was maintained. As it is to this very day.

Nevada

If a garbage can were flat, it would be called Nevada. This is what people in surrounding states say when they wish to disparage the state known variously as the Radiation State, the Woo-Hoo State, and the Slot Machine State (this last is used only by non-Nevadans seeking to provoke Nevadans to fight them in a bar). While these appellations are clearly intended to be pejorative, it must be acknowledged that Nevada is the place to which many of our worst nightmares are eventually consigned. It might be more accurately called the Nation’s Unconscious: it is where we put the things that we don’t want messing up our lawns. The most important of these are nuclear waste and the sex trades.

An odd confluence between these two domains has been remarked upon recently by a well-known pornographer. In both erotic arousal and radiation poisoning the subject undergoes an experience of melting, as internal boundaries and membranes give way allowing for the delirious loosening and mixing of the body’s tissues and fluids at an ever accelerating rate. The dermis separates into its many tenuous layers, peels away, shed like a lizard’s scales. The soft tissue becomes tender and swollen as bruises. The limbs lose their rigidity and swim through the suddenly soft air, their motions freed of all consequence, closed off by darkness from any constraint or from the onerous weight of the future until finally the subject itself disperses in death or in “the little death.”

Our pornographer further submits that because Nevada is a desert, a place in which time does not appear to pass, we have reserved it as the place in which we collapse gently in on ourselves.

Most of the state is uninhabitable because it lacks water. Visitors slide through it in silver cars on the single great highway to traverse its northern expanse, and they get out to gaze with rapt horror at the emptiness, thinking, “If you wanted to die, all you would have to do is choose a direction and walk...” Numerous attempts to establish towns along this highway have failed, and their remains can be seen at the side of the road, where off-ramps lead to nothing but shuttered and derelict buildings, mostly convenience stores and gas stations. These buildings take several years to be covered by dust completely, and it is possible to judge the building’s age by how far up the front door the sand has crept.

California

The beauty of California is famous throughout the world. What is less known is that attending this innate loveliness are deep insecurities, which are often overlooked by those who are jealous and therefore inclined to be unsympathetic. This terrible, pervasive self-doubt manifests itself in numerous ways. The tendency to rioting in the cities, for example, is one symptom; the high proportion of the population who believe that the state of Louisiana is nothing more than a hoax perpetrated by the government is another. The earthquakes to which the coastal regions are prone are not due to self-image problems: they are just the result of a high level of plate tectonic activity in the region.

The beaches of California bake to a lovely braised brown, but smell like big, ugly birds. The mountains, on the other hand, smell delightful.

Because the state of California is so vast and because it contains such a diversity of places and people, it is impossible truly to do it justice in the short space this present exposition allows. I would exhort the reader to stir herself, to shake off the lethargy that has settled onto her body like a fog and go out to find the truth for herself.

Take as little as possible with you: a sturdy pack, a notebook and pencil, some candles. A picture of your most dearly cherished window or door. A memento of the time in your life when you were most ashamed (you will bury this along the way). A warm hat. That should be sufficient.


Editors’ Note


“States” was originally published in Ploughshares 36.4 (Fall 2010) and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.

Our special feature on place in fiction began last week with an essay by Richard Powers, “What Does Fiction Know?” Earlier this week we published a story by Urban Waite. Stay tuned for more by Anthony Doerr, Ashleigh Pedersen, Barry Lopez, Ryan Harty and Danielle Dutton.
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Comments (1)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT >>

I can tell you that in Northern California, the mountains do indeed smell delightful, though I think the beaches do, too.
Bob Dahlquist
08.14.11 at 10:53



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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Emily Mitchell is the author of The Last Summer of the World. She teaches creative writing in the Northeast Ohio MFA program at Cleveland State University.
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