Let Me Tell You the Truth About North Dakota
ADAM MICHAEL LUEBKE
I ended up in Burbank in pursuit of an affordable mattress. Is there any other reason to visit Burbank? I could have picked one up from the side of the street in Koreatown, as oftentimes people throw out their old furniture and mattresses. Sometimes they don’t even have stains on them. Sometimes they are bed bug free. But I thought I’d spend the cash and spring for a new one. After all, the president said the economy is improving because Sizzler and Chi-Chi’s were hiring.
I had a bad feeling about walking into the expansive Sears store. I was in over my head, which is why I might have taken an aggressive stance with the balding sales clerk. His pink cheeks and sad smile did little to calm me. He had dim eyes and a soft roll of fat around his middle section. He’d spent a lifetime earning minimum wage and eating fast food on his lunch breaks. I could see his whole life in a flash. From the womb to the tomb. Sexually unsatisfied. A compulsive consumer of Sex and the City reruns. A man who used his microwave more than his oven. And he seemed to have a little crush on me at first.
There may be no excuse for what I did, but I was in a particularly foul mood after having driven around Los Angeles all day looking for mattress sales, and finding one Sears after another had run out of the one I’d wanted.
I was also on edge because of a new book published that teaches Americans how to deal with the dark economic and social decline that has come and will continue to deepen. No more middle class. Only groveling, desperate workers living in slums and eating mostly beans while the elite live in gated cities and enjoy organic food.
“Don’t scoff at the beans,” the book’s writer, Tyler Cowen, said. Get used to eating more of them, the book said. Beans have the nutritional impact of fancier foods, but without the fancier costs. Well shit, that’s great survival advice.
Welcome to the modern world…
I opened my mouth to tell my pink-cheeked sales associate about my urge to buy a mattress. After leading me to one of the “best mattresses available for a most modest price”, he invited me to lie on the mattress and experience the comfort for myself. As he patted the edge of the display, he thought he’d make a little small talk with me.
“Where you from?” he asked, and reached out to touch my wrist. He must have detected an accent in my voice.
I told him where I’d grown up.
“From North Dakota, eh?” he said. “Is that down by the Gulf?”
After I explained to him where on the map North Dakota is and how it has never moved since it was granted statehood in 1889, I then made a big show out of how far away that was from “the Gulf”. I spread my arms as wide as they could go. I waved my left arm and said, here’s North Dakota. I walked about twelve paces and then waved my outstretched right arm. Here’s the Gulf, I said. But, either way, I don’t much like to talk about North Dakota.
“I suppose not,” he said. “Welcome to the real world. Now that you’re pursuing your dreams in the big exciting state of California and out of boring old North Dakota.”
Boring? I asked. North Dakota is anything but boring.
Have you ever been there?
“Closest I’ve been is Colorado. So there’s a lot of fun stuff to do in North Dakota?”
Fun? I asked. Stuff to do? Listen, I said, and lowered my voice. There is nothing fun about North Dakota. Ever since the Great Plains Council Bonfire Act of 1891, there are about 30,000 Indians running around the state. All the tribes consolidated and pinned down North Dakota. It’s like they never realized the modern world advanced around them. They live in 1850 still. You’ll be streaking along a county road in your car, with Rush Limbaugh’s voice booming over the speakers, and you’ll see a glimpse of a colorful headdress disappear into a thick belt of trees. The only reason you see them at all is because they wanted you to.
It’s why I was never allowed to wander more than a few feet away from the house as a child. Imagine! I said, and at this point my salesperson flinched, but I continued: a kid has a whole farm to play on, but he can’t be allowed to wander more than a few feet for fear of being snatched and raised an Indian and never seen again.
But you’ll never hear the United States government admit they failed to clear out the natives in North Dakota and Montana. It took the most advanced military ten years to find the leader of Al Qaida, despite the fact the CIA trained him in the 80s and paid for his kidney dialysis treatment from time to time.
Anyway, after Custer was slain, the various Indian tribes rallied and hunkered down in the upper Midwest and eventually the whole state was left to fend for itself.
My salesman at this point did not know what to think. He rocked back on his heels and smiled, but it was a tight smile. His lips had lost color, but his cheeks had reddened. “So, about that mattress,” he said, pointing to one of the displays.
You think I’m putting you on, I know, and that’s fine. I don’t talk about this often but you kept poking into my personal life, I said. I try to buy a mattress and damn, I’ve got to get into all this heavy history. I’m as thrilled as you are about dredging up this painful past.
“Sir,” he said, “this can’t be the case. Can it? 30,000?”
Well, don’t believe it then, I said. Anyway, 30,000 is just an estimate. You think the Indians fill out the census every decade? Maybe there are only 29,319 of them, I said. If you want to split hairs all afternoon, fine. It was just my fearful childhood I’m dealing with. Not everybody grows up in California and gets to start rock bands and skateboard around town and smoke pot and go to the beach and hike the hills and mountains and visit Hollywood. Some children grow up watching their grandfather get two arrows blasted into his back and poke out his chest. When grandpa fell forward, the arrow tips stuck into the ground and pinned him like a lawn ornament.
Those arrows come out of nowhere, I said. Silent killers. You might hear a whizzing sound, but by then it’s too late. You’re already falling.
“Your grandpa,” he asked, cautiously, “he really, like that, that’s what happened?”
He had a flat top crew cut, I said, which is maybe why I’ve always grown my hair long. He was a relentless smoker. Tough as nails. He’d just finished plowing the field. Apparently they’d been watching him from the trees. But we’ll never know for sure.
“Did the cops catch the killers?” he asked, looking at his fingernails.
What world are you living in, man? I said. Cops? Killers? This is a way of life. That’s how it is in North Dakota. We could have called the sheriff, but what would he have done? Hunt down 30,000 Indians who walk without a sound or without leaving a trace in the earth? No, the sheriff would have pumped two shotgun blasts into the trees and told us he hoped that would scare ’em away. And hell, we could’ve done that ourselves, I said. In fact, my father did.
“You’d think they’d use Seal Team Six to hunt them all down and clear them out of there,” he said. “Doesn’t that disrupt farming? Always having to watch your back up there?”
Seal Team Six, I said to myself. This isn’t like finding a lethargic Osama bin Laden cooped up in an old house in Pakistan. And if the government used drone strikes to clear them out, North Dakotans would shoot them down.
The real tragedy, I’d say, is hearing a bunch of people run around the coasts saying that North Dakota is a hick state and irrelevant, but what’s more pathetic is the people who bebop around California and have no known natural predators. What keeps you motivated? I asked him. The consistently warm weather?
You don’t know what fear is, I told him. You can gorge on food and drink and live as happy as a bed bug in a whore’s mattress feeding feeding feeding without any motivation to improve or expand your knowledge or consciousness. If you saw your grandfather die face down in the grass you’d have a more precious outlook on life.
“Why didn’t they get you that day with your grandpa?” he asked. His voice was so quiet he had to repeat the question.
They don’t kill kids! I said. Not anymore. They aren’t savages! It’s life and death to them. Life isn’t some crackerjack game.
My salesman thought about this awhile. I watched him think. He forced a huge smile on his face and opened his palm toward the nearest mattress. “So,” he asked, “what do you say? Give it a try?”
I can’t lay down at a time like this, I said. In fact, I’m no longer considering buying a mattress. Americans need to scale back. That’s the word in the finance world, anyway. Get rid of your comforts and get ready to subsist on beans and sleeping on blankets on the floor. The lifeblood of the easy, middle class lifestyle is being extracted by multinational corporations and global banks vacuuming up your tax dollars and government allocated resources.
“But what about your back?” he asked with real concern. “You need a good mattress for your back. People can’t sleep on blankets on the floor! Everyone should have access to a comfortable mattress.”
Welcome to the real world, I said.
[photo by S Yao]