Tayo Basquiat recently gave up tenure as a philosophy professor to pursue creative writing. He is in the MFA creative writing program at the University of Wyoming where he also teaches communication for the School of Energy and still teaches philosophy and religion as an online adjunct instructor for Bismarck State College. Tayo’s work has appeared in On Second Thought, Northern Plains Ethics Journal, the Cheat River Review, and as producer of Wyoming Public Media’s “Spoken Words” podcast.
Life at a Dead End
A pale green, pin-thin insect with large elongated wings lands on the arm I’m resting out the open window of the pickup’s cab. With antennae even more oversized than the wings it probes the air for information. Even though the breeze is gentle, the insect has trouble righting itself in any sensible fashion. A couple jerks of my elbow send the insect on its way.
Another sigh, some crunching on a carrot stick, a swig of tea. Drawing the shade on another day of searching, the firelight of the setting sun buoyed by a thin blanket of light blue and pink covering the rolling expanse of prairie, undulations of golden grass and yellowing leaves. The air, crisp and fresh, scented by harvest fires. A turn of the key brings the pickup to life, I slowly back up from the field road that provided a place to snack, nap and think, and turn north on the next gravel road which, according to the map, would lead to a dead end. Dead ends are sirens, often trouble, but I can’t help myself.
The last dead end? A doctoral program in philosophy. Academia, that seductive beauty, beguiled me. I imagined my neck draped with a scarf, sipping scotch with crusty colleagues, subscribing to the New Yorker, casually using words like “liminal” and “discursive.” A minion of graduate students would eventually devote themselves to furthering my work. The first week I asked what postmodernism was and the looks I received sent me into red-faced silence. Clearly my admission to the program was a joke, a mistake.
I redoubled my efforts, read two books for every one assigned, a secondary source to explain everything I didn’t get about the primary source. I developed elaborate crib sheets of contributions I could make during seminars. I drank cup after cup of coffee, worked on logical proofs and ethical case studies in my dreams, and started running to get out of my head. I lost thirty-five pounds. I was holding my own in the program, checking off the list of qualifying exams, defenses, and proposals, but questioning my choice to live the life of the mind. The daily trafficking in nothing but abstract philosophies made me feel insecure, shaky and bewildered. There was never a feeling of completion, always something that raised an objection, an unending stream of counterarguments.
One day I read a Wendell Berry novel to relax. By the end, I craved dirt under my fingernails. I wanted my bones to creak and my muscles to ache after a hard day’s work. Despite the sea of concrete surrounding my apartment complex, I subscribed to “Acres U.S.A.,” a publication dedicated to production-scale organic and sustainable farming and ranching. I read all of Wendell Berry’s books, even the poems. I traded my books on Aristotle and Habermas at Moe’s bookstore on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley for books on soil health, cover crops, and rotational grazing. My friends and doctoral adviser listened patiently. They tried to reason with me.
“But you’re almost done! Everyone feels like this toward the end.”
“Have you actually ever farmed? Maybe you should go talk to some farmers first.”
“You don’t have to be the next Socrates, just finish the degree.”
“Maybe you should see a counselor.”
“Okay, but North Dakota? I always thought you hated that place.”
None of it got through. I had a counterargument for everything. I manufactured my own nostalgic version of roots and land, chucked the academic gig and returned to North Dakota with a half-baked dream of starting an organic farm. I didn’t know I was being cliché. And naïve.
My plan, such as it was, included a map, gas, and luck. For the three months I’d been back in North Dakota, I’d been driving the backroads, trying to find my place, a little sign affixed to a fence announcing the sale of an abandoned homestead I could bring to life once more. So far nothing but dusty roads, hope receding with the thin line of the horizon.
But as I reach the end of this last road for the day, the dim light of dusk reveals some kind of town that isn’t on my map. A homemade wooden sign announces “Clem’s Haven.” The gravel road suddenly becomes Main Street with a few buildings on either side. The first on my right has a sign, “Sunny’s Sundries,” and behind the fishing rods, Tonka trucks, saddles, and boots arranged in the display window, a man stands, hands on hips. He doesn’t return my wave, only a stony stare. Because I grew up in a tiny place like this, I know treatment of outsiders can go one of two ways: extension of hospitality through smiles and a wave and a nod or complete silence while sizing up a stranger’s capacity for being up to no good. This knowledge doesn’t make me feel any better.
The next building is sprawling and opulent, three stories with a large veranda, Victorian style in a decidedly western adaptation, but beautifully painted a clean, glistening white with sky blue shutters and trim. A woman watches through a parted curtain as I drive by. Again no return greeting, no softening of the face into a smile of welcome. My self-consciousness rises another notch. I know I don’t have the most welcoming demeanor. I have a hard time smiling when I meet someone, mostly because I don’t want to feel the rejection if they don’t smile back, but maybe I should try smiling as I wave now. It occurs to me that I should have replaced the California license plates on my pickup. Californians rank below atheists for most North Dakotans. “In my experience, nothin’ good ever come outta Berkeley,” an old woman at church carped when I left North Dakota for graduate school. Too late now, and anyway, I’ve been living in camper without an address so the DMV has to wait. I’m stuck with my scarlet letter.
Two more houses, simple one-story homes, and an old post office—four more people watching, one in a rocking chair, one straddling an upstairs window ledge of the post office, two hiding behind slightly parted curtains in the homes. No one returns my feeble wave.
The gravel road dead-ends at the beginning of a grassy area featuring a picnic table and a fire pit. I make a U-turn, pointing the pickup in the direction I’d come, pausing, motor running. Loneliness and regret assail me, regret for returning to North Dakota, loneliness because I am alone and an outsider, socially awkward and slow to make friends. I do not have a wife and kids to wear like a badge that says “Trust me! I’m a family man!” I don’t have parents and siblings with their families living on homesteads nearby. I’ve never actually raised cattle or seen rust on wheat or hitched a draft horse to sulky plow. I am not Wendell Berry.
I see myself for the fool that I am and decide this will be the end of my crazy quest. As I creep my way back through the gauntlet of stares and scowls, trying not to kick up dust, I am overcome by the impulse to prove I am a good person and no threat to these people. We are all just people after all. I don’t know why I always think the worst.
I stop the pickup in front of the building with the person straddling the second story window sill, a man dressed in a nice business suit and a fedora sits stock-still, staring off in the direction I had come into town, as if expecting an onslaught of strangers in my wake.
“Hello?” My voice is small and cracks from disuse. I think it’s been almost a week since I have spoken to anyone at all. The man doesn't even turn his head to acknowledge my presence.
“Sir?” I try again, moving up the street a little in the direction of the man's gaze, trying to make eye contact. Nothing, not a word, not a grunt, not a nod, not a breath. I burst out laughing. A mannequin.
They are all mannequins, every single one of them perfectly positioned to appear as occupants gawking at whoever wanders up the road. Relief washes over me. I notice the faintest light dancing at the edge of my periphery, and forgetting my previous discomfort I turn up the little side road to the only house in town with a light on.
Through my cracked, bug-encrusted windshield I see the house is small compared to the ones on the main drag, having only one floor and what looks like an attic loft and a paint job reminiscent of the famous “Painted Ladies” of Postcard Row in San Francisco, no less than five different colors highlighting various decorative woodcuts, doors, shutters, eaves and trim. A screened-in porch features a set of old rockers. White Christmas tree lights dangle haphazardly from the porch ceiling. Plants, vines, stained glass ornaments, and one of those carpeted cat trees completes the porch decor. The yard looks equal parts edible forest and scavenger's paradise, full of oddities I had only begun to take in when I catch some movement. A gimpy dog is coming over, tongue lolling from its jowly smile. I turn off the engine and step out of the vehicle into the cool of the evening to meet it.
The hound’s fur around its eyes and muzzle are whitened with age. Even from a distance I smell rotting teeth. Hobbling up, it nuzzles against my legs, passes between them, and waits for the base of its tail to be scratched. I don't exactly want to touch the matted fur of the mutt but can't resist the dog's eyes or the suggestive positioning on its posterior's behalf.
“Hey, stinky, anyone home with you?”
She answers by rolling over for a belly rub.
“Anyone home?” I call out and wait. It doesn’t seem so, but then maybe they are just old or asleep or deaf or having sex. I rap on the screen door and then step into the porch. The interior door to the house is open and music is playing. “Hello, anyone here?” At the threshold, I see the main room, like the yard, is full but not necessarily cluttered. In the center of the room is a large Japanese-style table, low to the ground and shaped like a painter's palette and surrounded by an assortment of purple and paisley cushions, serving, no doubt, as seating. The perimeter of the room seems to be divided into spaces for various artistic endeavors: sculpture, pottery, acrylics, carving all have areas with projects in progress. One area is entirely devoted to music, and stands hold a cello, clarinet, mandolin, and guitar, all waiting patiently for the return of their player. There’s a small wood stove is the middle of the room, helping to somewhat separate the cozy inner sanctum of gathering and eating from the outer section of creative endeavor. The walls are full of old playbills and record albums, the albums forming a double border at the midpoint along each wall in the room. Playing is a recording I know well: Duke Ellington, the live performance at Fargo, North Dakota, 1940. The air smells like the smoky chocolate of pipe tobacco. The ceiling is painted like an autumn night sky, midnight blue with stars and swirls in likeness of distant galaxies; descending from a black hole is a rope with knots. Clever. To the right, a hallway with two additional doorways, maybe a bathroom? Bedroom? The barely audible mewling at my feet is from an orange tabby that’s weaving gratuitously against and between my legs, finally rolling over and stretching after rubbing its face on my toes a few times. Two Siamese cats stare from just beyond reach, curious but not enough to lower themselves to the kind of indiscriminate prostration committed by the tabby.
It’s clear no one but the cats are home, and though I want to go inside and snoop around, I know I shouldn’t linger anymore. I go back outside and wander around the side of the house, following a path between metal sculptures and haggard tomato plants, bird baths and wind chimes. The dog ambles behind as quickly as her old bones can muster. Food plots in varying stages of harvest and decline reveal an industriousness and care I can appreciate from all the gardening books I’d read: squash seasoning in the field, hidden bounty of potatoes waiting under dead vines, rows of dried beans ready for winnowing.
The path spider-webs in multiple directions and I am drawn down the way to the woods. My vision has adjusted to the low light and I see that the northern terminus of the dead end is created by a valley that supports a respectable stand of cottonwoods and elms. Near the top of one side of the valley is what looks like the remains of a foundation, probably one of the early stone barns crafted by newcomers to the area who perceived an abundance of rocks over trees for building what was needed. I admire the foresight and genius and also the hands of such a craftsman. Large, meaty hands, calloused, rough like sandpaper, hands that can maneuver a hundred-pound stone. They are capable hands, not like mine at all.
The prairie here is a tall, healthy carpet of native buffalo grass and blue gramma grass, purple coneflowers and Echinacea, and there’s no barbed wire. The dog pads along ahead of me, stopping to catch a scent or leave one. The North Dakota wind has stripped the trees of most of their leaves. I take off my flip flops, the soft dirt path cool and smooth to my skin. The damp of early frosts has drained the crispness from the fallen leaves where they wed the bare ground and release the musty smell of decay necessary for life. My steps are almost soundless. The dog rouses a male and female pheasant pair, their loud, sudden departure startling me. She barks, all bluff. Her chasing days are over. Overhead in the trees, squirrels chitter and scold us intruders for interrupting their gathering work. Swallows and black-capped chickadees flit from brush to limb and back again, following us in their own way. Scat from rabbits and deer, even an occasional fox, litters the path here and there.
The trail meanders down into the trees in the valley where, unseen, the calls of turkeys betray their position. I love turkeys. At night when they perch high in trees for protection, the sight of their huge forms backlit by the moon in the night sky beckons the imagination to prehistoric time. Right now they are unable to keep quiet, despite the scent of man and dog. Their gobbling reminds me of a Sunday long ago. I am seated with my class in the front pew beneath the raised pulpit and dressed in a white gown. Something started me giggling—I can’t remember what—and the more I tried to control it, the worse it got. After the service, I stared at the reddened folds of fat bunched up around his clerical collar as Pastor yelled about my immaturity, how I needed to take my faith seriously. I wanted to chuck it all right there, but my parents’ disappointment brought me around, at least outwardly. Inwardly, I harbored a preference for laughter over faith even then and left the church about the same time I arrived in Berkeley. I’m having trouble figuring out who I am or what to do with my life, but most days even I know I’m a turkey not a saint.
The path comes out at the grassy end of Main Street, and the sight of my pickup over at the house startles me. What am I doing? What if the people have come back while I’ve been wandering around their property without permission? How do I explain myself? As I turn up the road back to the house and my pickup, I practice a few lines—do all introverts do this?—for the encounter, trying to sound casual. “Ah, there you are! I’m sorry for intruding but I just found the valley so lovely I couldn’t help myself.” Or maybe, “Are you the people behind the mannequins?” Or, “Sorry to bother you, I’m lost.”
The dog and I stand before the porch once more. “Hello? Anybody home?”
The music has stopped, the lights are still on, and no one emerges from within. I am both disappointed and relieved. Still, I want to know who lives here. I like what I see. I want to come back here and sit on their porch with them. I think they are the kind of people who laugh a lot. I will help them winnow their beans.
But there’s more. I want to be the person who lives here—the artist, the comedian, the musician, the gardener. I want the place to be abandoned so I can possess it and take its shape. I will stop moving, quitting, wondering what to be. I can be this. Yes, it feels exactly right.
From the glovebox in my pickup I scrounge a pen and a scrap of paper and scribble a note.
Dear inhabitants of Clem’s Haven, I thought I was exploring a dead end on the map and stumbled upon your cool little town. I’d love to meet you.
I sign my name and include my phone number. I tuck it between the porch screen door and frame. They’ll call and we can start with friendship. Then, maybe they’d do a contract for deed on the place. Maybe I can live in one of the houses on Main Street, help them keep the place up, and take over when they die. My mind moves rapidly into my new life.
But as I drive away the prairie emptiness swallows me and my optimism. Reality gives me a hip check that dumps me on my ass. Why would they sell their place to me? Why would they let me live there? Who do I think I am? I am not them and they probably aren’t who I’ve imagined them to be. In all likelihood we’ll never meet and I’ll never know, but in the darkness driving back to my camper there is this certainty: Clem’s Haven is just the latest figment of my imagined self, another thing I think I want to be but am not or will grow tired of and quit. What I really am is good at dead ends.