Rachel Z. Arndt
Creative Non-Fiction
The University of Iowa

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When driving from New York to Iowa City, stop in Chicago for the night. Drop off some tote bags, pack some bedside tables. Onward. The drive requires two highways, the first named after John F. Kennedy, the second named after numbers.

Tire tread under the Aurora Toll Plaza’s electronic tolling cameras

The highway thralls forward and does not slice the horizon so much as call for it. With no trees to suspend the air, the emptiness streams westward, asking me to practice a different centering, one where I rearrange the scenery until it can hold what I had been calling origin. Chicago recedes behind me, its urban noise reduced to truck sound, wheels humming violently against the flatness. There is no in between, only in, a land that flexes in front of the driver.

Sign for Champion Seed

The seeds grow better than anything natural. They have “top-performing genetics” for “many tillable acres.” Their DNA is stronger, suited to the violent drought-flood cycle, an exchange like that between a man and a woman shouting until they’re not, until one is suddenly atop the other and you can’t tell whose voice is whose. The seeds are blind to the origins of this place: Jacques Marquette came from the east not with the intention of settling but conquering. He thought the animals would be bigger out here because the travelers who’d claimed to have come eastward said so. And so there were giants, like some awful colonization of every place I’ve known, or a calculated reminder that place involves people and people rupture.

★★

What filled the void I left in the Midwest for eight years was not much: nostalgia for the present, shifted westward; a shifting New York. I expected infinite horizon, and the land gave it to me. I expected abundance, and the earth shot everywhere. Where cows roam I smile and wait for the chewing to stop. One thing to think about when you come here is what hasn’t come with: You don’t find the subway everywhere. This is a symptom. The corn monolith spreads. This too is a symptom. The monolithic New York never was, so you need to construct it. I made a mistake thinking the land vast and deadened by factories; here, all that’s living really isn’t and makes me sway for sidewalks and concrete train platforms. What filled the void I left in New York was boiling pressure: Once you leave, you never come back. The grid in the middle strings you up and asks, politely, if you will please stay.

★★★★★

I see it more as a marker for improper definitions, almost a mythology. Like, what happens when the Midwest you were talking about on the right side of the map is not really the Midwest that sits in
the middle? I mean that it belongs to the right side and not the middle. It is a distortion. By the
place and in the person within the place. Against the place: There are so many people who prop up their hatred of New York by making where they’re from into fictions. I think maybe the other reviewers are having this problem, this not-seeing or at least this New York-prodded temporary blindness. That’s the only time we really see the first person—in her disdain for where she lived masked as an in-awe-of-perfection gaze at where she came from—and where she knows she’ll end up. But the joke’s on her because when she gets there it’ll be unlike anything she’s seen and so will she.

Pigs’ smell

★★★★★

The thing about all the other reviews of pigs’ smell that bothers me is how everyone else seems to be in search of some personal justification. As if the review could express something more than a justification of the pigs’ smell. You are not SPECIAL! You are not MEANINGFUL! You were not meant to smell the swine with your boyfriend to find that you LOVE him, nor were you meant to smell the swine because it’s been on your list for ages. You came here because you came here. I too am not on assignment. But let ME tell YOU: As far as fables go, the way pigs smell is a damn good one.

Corn

★★

The problem with corn is quantity. The husks rising from the earth, the kernels inside. It’s crowded in a corn. What I’m trying to tell you is I miss New York, and I’m not supposed to. All those individual kernels so frighteningly bundled up in stalks in mazes make me think of the subway, obviously, and the apartments, and the people on the street and how I would chant “idiots, idiots” on the subway stairs but be glad to be surrounded by so many of them. I can’t hear the corn hitting the wind, or the wind hitting the corn, only the concrete highway hum. I knew there was lots of corn here, but this is overwhelming: It’s too much. I was from the Midwest before and now on return I wonder if I really could be from a place where there is such abundance, like the ground has been stimulated by some god to produce, if I could be from a place that’s so opposite where I’ve been and where I’ve been surprisingly happy, considering my disdain for the crowds and the movement and the urge to be busy. These corn stalks are busy growing and I’m finally here to hear them, and amidst the landscape’s painful infinitude I feel the solitary pull of New York, where there was no solitude, or where there was solitude everywhere among the throngs of humanity.

I am back here, and I am unsure.

★★★★

I will trade you half a cob for a dip in a butter vat. It’s not artisanal but it’s salty. It’ll remind you of the difference between “waiting in line” and “waiting on line.” The difference is empathy.

Mississippi River

★★★★★

But I have never been propelled across the Mississippi. Spilling over the bridge—because it is an arced bridge, because it is a bridge that rises then falls, because it is a bridge—is spilling over.

The bridge above it lets you coast too much on the way down. It says: Heap on the gravity, lest you forget you’ve crossed a border, one of the old-fashioned jagged ones drawn by geography.

★★

Drunk and wearing a dress, I wanted a shortcut home. I climbed the Gowanus Canal bridge. Things were going well, and that worried me. Which is to say good, the bridge exists: I am on one side and then the other. But that one was not so high, whereas the Mississippi tries to convince me I’m looking at a photo. So used to seeing myself flipped in the mirror, I can’t remember which side I part my hair on. Or why I devalued this grid system in terms of the other when both have their merits. The river tells me to forget choosing because it’s always a positioning of relativities: that side versus this one, and which came first. If the rest of the reviewers would just listen and visit, they’d see fields swept through a telescope. The fields only look that way; when I get to what the lens was pointing at, I find false walls, no life in sight.

★★

Happy in Brooklyn but growing Midwestern blindness. All this against the East River, its swimming ferry more than any boat I’d seen on this tangled channel since, after all, this is the first time I’ve gone westward by land.

★★

The soybean field with furrows sliced keeps itself afloat. Upriver there is runoff, and the banks sag. Farther down some intersection of supply and demand: The sewage from Chicago, diverted from that city’s great lake, joins in. I was never sure why the East River was so filthy, and I blamed the Hudson on New Jersey. In Chicago, I explained, we make sure to pump the dirt out. But I did not explain that out was still within, still hugged by the country’s middle.

Gas pump lever lock

★★

Here the opposite of what is familiar is what is familiar. I am struggling to translate: The plants are bigger and there are more of them than I could ever have told about, the sky is grayer and brighter and almost blinding in its intense fulfillment of nothingness, the flatness arches and dips; it writhes. I have to reconfigure these fields so they are not first blown through New York, so they are not first cut into lines and inhaled for euphoria but instead are scattered and lost and picked up in whiteness.

★★★★★

I have always wondered why some gas pumps have those little levers that hold the handle up so you can pump the gas without doing any actual pumping or squeezing and why some gas pumps don’t offer such a charming metal convenience. If you are dumb enough to get back in your car while the gas is still flowing and try to drive away—i.e. if you forget why you’re parked next to a giant piece of machinery on a lot with the sweet smell of petroleum and decide that forgetting means you shouldn’t be parked there and should be driving—then you should not be pumping gas. In New York it’s against the law for gas pumps to have these locks, but in Illinois and Iowa, two lands of plenty, I can laze all I want while gas shoots into my car, no hands required.

Cows

★★★★★

I want to consume the Midwest. Cows are well-suited for this: You can consume them in watching them stupidly wander, watching their gigantic cuteness spread across fields; you can consume them by eating, or by wearing. They are good at what they do, and here, now, what they do is let me back in to a fantasy I’ve been building for eight years.

★★★

These cows are not quite right. Shouldn’t they be facing the same direction? Shouldn’t they be spotted, or at least posing for milk cartons? The closer I get to them, the more they look like cows; that is, the more I am convinced that they actually are cows. But I sense they’re different from the ones I grew up with—perhaps because I did not actually grow up with cows, or thinking of them much, except for their meat and liquid components. Like they’re wearing cow masks, yes, that’s it, like they’re wearing cow masks because they’re robots dressed as cows, some of them, and they are so good they’ve convinced not only the other cows that they’re the same flesh but also themselves.

“Exit 244”

★★★★★

In 2004 construction crews began replacing highway signs whose text is written in Highway Gothic with Clearview-typefaced ones. I haven’t navigated in a while. Perhaps easier to read (you see shapes, not individual letters) but perhaps misspelled. Revulsion is not repulsion, but from far away the p’s tail drops off and it’s all wrongly familiar.

The road lines seem to be narrowing, or maybe disappearing. It’s hard to see because my windshield is fogged up, and I can’t remember whether hot air or cold air defogs, so I figure it’s best to just focus on breathing.

Construction cones marking Dubuque St. lane closure

What happens when you move to a place where everything carries multiple meanings? Obviously things make us think of other things, but it’s almost unbearable when every thing calls to mind tons of other things. The cones want to be decentered. Can I say they ask for it? At least that they assert being markers of something that they’re not: The cone is not constructed where it stands for construction. It is a bad metaphor, one that is its own undoing, the cone falling in on itself, no longer marking where I should go but just showing me where I should not. The cone leads constantly to more metaphor, to substitutions of substitutions, which give me, while driving, the false hope of replacing the sensation of things with the things themselves. I feel as if I am moving but I do not grasp what it is to move, to glide on pavement or between cities. I can watch the cone substitute itself for something else, and I can substitute that something else for even more something else, but I will never understand what it really is to be a cone marking off a construction area, or, for that matter, to be a driver marking off some path someone may know.

★★

It’s too orange. Or maybe I’m being condescending. After all, the leaves here are quite lovely. The way the road turns gently is an easing. But I’m bound to worry at my cuticles, since here, apart or adrift, or just moving on a parallel that stops short, nothing counts. This space and time are removed, blasted from the vacuum and air-dried to stiff perfection. The cones are consonant with building.

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