A town of a thousand residents, split like firewood by a line drawn on a map. College Corner, Ohio, lay less than 75 feet from the doorway of the tavern- disturbingly still, as menacing as a drowned kitten. But in West College Corner, Indiana, on the Hoosier side of town, there's still a packed bar, still life and country laughter and singing.
The Last Viking digs through his pockets for a tin full of mints. He's trying to quit smoking. The temptation offered by an evening's worth of secondhand smoke satisfies nothing, the mints mere placebo to keep the mouth from asking for a cigarette, for one just one more drag off of the ol' coffin nail.
He crunches mints and his eyes water. I puff away of my thirtieth cigarette, a pack and a half in just under 22 hours, trying to remember to turn my head on exhale. We're both three sheets to the wind, firewater eyes filled with bloated pupils, diluted blood forced from our faces faster by the cold.
Mr. Chops, the designated chauffeur, disappeared, lost to tables full of women and slow sips of Indiana-legal cans of Budweiser. Mr. Chops tends to be everyone's friend, even sober - especially if those everyones happen to be fellow musicians, own their own breasts, or can carry on an intelligent conversation.
Calling Chops a sociable guy would be an understatement. Trust me. It's like staring at a naked supermodel for hours and then saying, well, she's kinda cute in the face...
The Viking tells me that he has to let his dogs out, that he wants some company walking the two blocks back to his house. And he tells me, too, that this is his world, his life outside of the quaint brick-and-bullshit facade of Oxford Fucking Ohio.
He sounds almost embarrassed to admit that, yes, the town that feeds us both has become nothing more than a running academic joke, that our paychecks revolve around perpetuating the myth of 1950s ivy-covered youth, and that, yes, he feels more at home crossing the state line, home to a blue-collar nowhere.
As we stumble along crumbling sidewalks and orphaned railroad tracks, I can't help but be envious of a man who finds something meaningful in a place as real as West College Corner, Indiana.
Fuck the myth of Christopher Columbus and Spaniard conquistadors - history remembers their legends, their gilded discoveries of the New World, just as local alumni recall the glory of Oxford. Leif Ericson, and descended spirits, yearn to discover the very real world, to silently find meaning in America's lost nowheres.
Ain't no shame in being a real man in a real world. Hasn't been any shame in it, in North America, since the first settlers crossed over from Asia, since the first Scandinavian explorers came and lost the continent to Spanish, Portuguese, and English conquerors.
The Last Viking popped open a bottle of beer as his dogs ran free into the steel cool October. My jealousy boiled over and I lit another cigarette, my only weapon against a man so free.
My envy could, at least, help keep the mint makers rolling in the dough.
* * * *
The women, the Last Viking promised, wouldn't be much to look at, wouldn't be the sort of barroom eye candy Mr. Chops and I were used to back in Oxford. At least, he promised, we could catch the end of the Boston-Cleveland league championship free of chest-beating, bandwagon Indians fans.
Neither Chops or I were surprised when the Last Viking, in his deviousness, had forgotten to mention that the infamous Viking Tavern housed as many real women as real men on a Saturday night, women who smelled of workweeks and overtime, who spoke with twangs and who danced slow dances with farmer boyfriends and mechanic husbands and weathered strangers.
Jesus H. Christ! I thought, watching these women put in requests to the deejay. Beauty! Pure fucking Venus beauty, free of the bourgeois, the airs of Entitlement!
America the Beautiful, tangible tits and cowgirl ass! Dance Brad Paisley and Kenny Chesney and sing Karaoke into the Indiana night so loud the rich city girls burst into shallow, plastic pieces!
The eye candy be damned. Even Mr. Chops, the Red Sox fan, seemed too distracted to catch the final out of what proved to be a pivotal game in his team's march towards the World Series.
Watching real women dance can make men forget about almost anything, even an American League pennant.
* * * *
The Last Viking didn't need the company to walk his hellhounds. He didn't ask me to walk back to his house for my health, either.
Every human being, every second of every day, exists as nothing more than a motive with a pulse. Motives are the blood of consciousness and impulse, the fuel that feeds the fires of thought. Some motives are mysterious and potentially sinister, like the motives behind the tips of shoelaces, those plastic aglets that nobody seems to question. And some motives are innocent and fruitful.
Some motives, too, are esoteric, supernatural and inspired by God. And men can be motivated to play hands of fate just as surely as men can be motivated towards creation or destruction.
The Viking popped more mints as we walked towards an old shed behind his house, a bright-blue building scarred by sections of missing siding. A lone spotlight illuminated the east side of the garage, a simple incandescent bulb standing watch over a wall and an improvised workbench, cans of red paint and paintbrushes.
The Last Viking didn't say what motivated him to invite me deeper into nowhere. He didn't have to say a word, actually, because, like a mother knows love for a child, some monuments to hope speak more with silence.
The side of the barn contained one of the most beautiful testaments to humanity's enduring spirit, to the power of life and death, I've ever seen. And it's in the middle of a blue-collar nowhere, in West College Corner, Indiana.
* * * *
I've walked the Mall in Washington, touched the names of the Vietnam War casualties on the Wall and stood on the spot where a great man once set my country free, at last, in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln. I've heard lectures by Nobel Peace Prize laureates, listened to speeches delivered by some of the world's leading humanitarians and defenders of those who cannot defend themselves.
And beneath a watching heaven, in the heart of Middle America, across a simple state line and down paved arteries through cornfields and soybean patches, the working class of nowhere in particular created a masterpiece so divinely inspired that the great religious texts of the world seem like coloring books.
You see, there's a woman, a wife and mother next door, fighting cancer, who's endured several rounds of chemotherapy. She spends most of her time in this one lonely room, strength coming and going like a bullet train as she fights a battle that she may lose.
There was a time, not long ago, that the woman stared out of the room's one window and saw nothing but an old blue barn. And then the woman's family decided to paint We Love You, ____, in big billboard letters, on the side of that barn. Friends soon started painting their names and wishes beneath the banner, in bright red. And then strangers started stopping by, too, adding their names.
There are now so many names, so many people stopping by, that there's a can of paint and brushes always ready and waiting, night and day. The owner of the barn not only sanctioned the vandalism but embraced it. And people began cooking for the family, taking different nights a week.
The Last Viking had a real man's tears running down his face as he told the tale - he and his roommate were flipping the bill for the eternal light that allowed the woman to see the wall, any time she wanted to, even in the middle of the darkest night. He cooks on Mondays, when he can.
Not even the most damned demons of hell could laugh at such a monument.
In the cool steel night, beneath a star-filled sky, another man was motivated, by unknown forces, to pick up a paintbrush, pry open a can filled with stiff acrylic, and to add his name to the great organic work:
Green Bay, VA
Green Bay, VA
The Last Viking wasn't the only one with tears in his eyes.
* * * *
The Last Viking put his dogs away, popped another handful of mints. I lit another cigarette as he talked about the sheer wonder of being able to look up at night, at any time on a clear night, and to see stars - he pointed out Orion, that great bowman in the sky, his belt marking not some silly border between Ohio and Indiana but an ethereal state line between Mankind and Eternity.
We were both still drunk, still lost in conversation and thoughts of the wonders of the world one finds in blue-collar nowheres as we headed back to the bar, back to find the elusive Mr. Chops. As we crossed the railroad tracks, one of those real women and one of those real men walked together, towards an old pick-up. Both said hello, as if the world was perfect.
The world, of course, is far from perfect. But sometimes, crossing state lines to nowhere, mere yards from an Ohio somewhere, can make even imperfection a thing of beauty.
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