Thursday, October 25, 2007

Scott Edwards in downtown Vermillion, Kansas

Vermillion grill

The color of rust

Ol' One-Eye

Photographer finds vision and a forgotten America on walk from Wisconsin to the Grand Canyon

When Scott Edwards left Wisconsin in April last year he had a dim outlook on the virtues of the human race.

He was walking from his hometown of Neenah, Wis., to the Grand Canyon— his destination with a “big hole,” as he called it—in part to recreate an artistic vision gone stale. It was also, admittedly, a midlife crisis of sorts, a “fat” (his words), fifty-year-old man trying to outrun a sense of loss and decrepitude. Besides a renewed interest in capturing the perfect image, what he found during the next 122 days was an America most people had thought lost.

“It’s an America most everybody else in the country would like to think of as us,” he said. “When you ask an American, any citizen, what they think an American is, they’ll recite these virtues that they hope they can live up to—but that Middle American actually does live up to. It’s not that they try to, it’s just ingrained in them.”

Edwards was in Vermillion last Monday while retracing his route to fulfill a promise. His return was supposed to be part of a book tour, but the book has so far proven elusive. Still, he had promised people that he would return, and here he was, photographs in tow. A small portfolio of his work was displayed at the Vermillion Public Library.

“People actually threw things at me in Wisconsin,” Edwards said. “When I crossed into Iowa people waved, crossed the street to greet me, stopped on the side of the road to give me food and water, and invited me into their homes. It was almost freaky.”

But it was in Kansas, when crippled by a stress fracture, that he found hometown America.

He spent three days recuperating in Vermillion, and then, a few miles down the road, in Frankfort for the same span. Residents paid for his meals, ferried him around, and local businesses put him up in a bed and breakfast until his foot healed. And then he entered Washington County.

“It turned out, walking from Vermillion to Clay Center, walking as much as I did, I gained weight,” Edwards said. “Barnes was ready for me. And then from Barnes it was like the ball just kept bouncing down the road. And they’d not only feed me when I got in their home, they’d give me this care package to keep me going. When I tell people this, they look at me like I’m crazy.”

He was treated to food at Our Daily Bread and ensconced at the Dh Ranch south of town. The beauty of the country mesmerized him.

“That was like storybook land out there,” he said. “It was Wizard of Oz land. Rolling hills and double-rutted dirt roads leading out to this farm. It was marvelous. I had the whole place to myself, and the fridge was chock full of food, and I did my laundry and took a shower twice a day, and I ate like a pig the entire time I was there.

“And I rolled out the next day—or should I say I waddled out the door— and it was the beginning of the worst day of the trip.”

The wind blew 40 miles an hour and the temperature climbed to triple digits. He quickly became dehydrated, his small supply of water evaporating under a raging thirst. A passing motorist gave him a bottle of water, which he drank that night while camped in the cemetery at Kimeo. His tongue swelled so much it stuck to the roof of his mouth.

On the road to Green he came across an abandoned schoolhouse. On inspection he found a faucet which dribbled red chunky water when turned on. Though it gagged him, he drank it anyway.

It was a hard lesson learned hard. After that, he carried more water.He talked of other adventures, blessings by Navajo holy men, nights of sleeping in roadside ditches, hunting shade and perfect light for the perfect black-and-white large-format image. When he reached the Grand Canyon he considered staying, but finally consenting to return home. And when he got in a car and took off, he found the speed dizzying—and terrifying.

On his return trip, Edwards planned on stopping at a select few places where people extended an extra measure of hospitality. “The first thing I noticed on my drive out here was, ‘that’s a long walk,’” he laughed.

He also intends on reshooting some images with a larger camera.In a lull between library visitors Edwards wandered outside and crossed the street to stand in the shadows of a series of metal grain elevators silent and rusting in the early autumn afternoon. High cirrus clouds flirted with the sun. Pointing to several places he photographed on his inaugural trip, he suddenly plopped on the ground and framed the grill of a truck against a skyline of twisted, half- destroyed elevators. “That’s it!” he cried. “The light is perfect! That’s the composition!”

Thursday, October 18, 2007

What dread hand, what dread feet (Part 2)

Three steps. Three steps into the kitchen and I’m swinging around the doorjamb, snapping the shotgun level to the center of his body mass and squeezing both triggers.

If he moves fast and ducks into the bedroom Daryl nails him with his .38.

Three steps and it’s over.

Through the open door came the sound of a vehicle thundering down the alley. My ears strained for footsteps but the car drowned it out. It roared past the house pelting gravel and broken glass against the fences. In its wake fell a preternatural silence, and like the snuffing of a candle the dread presence was gone.

I waited a moment more, ears screaming for something to latch onto, a scrape on the linoleum floor, the rustle of clothing, heavy breathing, and hearing nothing stepped into the doorway, sweeping the kitchen with the shotgun. Night spilled through the open door. I quickly crossed the room and closed it.

Dolly was inconsolate, sobbing hysterically on the living room floor. Daryl radioed our partner with an update and told him to go home. We worked to get her calmed down and in the process tried calming ourselves.

“What was that?” he asked when we found a moment alone. I had no answer.

Later, I let myself out the back door and walked back to my car. The night was full of menace and the shotgun a welcome weight in my hands.

We returned the next night, same procedure, arriving hours early, little talk, curtains closed tight, TV on low. But a new element had been introduced, a horrific dread that cloyed the air like smoke from a fire, choking our lungs, sapping our energy.

The night dragged on endlessly. Daryl and Dolly dozed on the couch while I sat in the entrance to the kitchen, the shotgun cradled in my arms. I thought it possible that this time he would come in quick and low, so I listened for the unmistakable sound of a hand on the door knob. But I also expected to sense his presence long before the knob moved. And this time, I vowed, there would be no three-step rule.

It was much later when a pall descended on us, quick as lightning, amplified by the ringing of the telephone. Dolly stifled a scream but reached for it, lifting the handset with palsied fingers.

“I know they’re there,” a male voice said.

She dropped the phone. Daryl snatched it up, listening intently to the hum of silence. But the connection was unbroken, and in the intervening seconds I believe our heartbeats, loud as they were, meshed into a sort of malefic rhythm that would bound us somehow across all time.

Without speaking, Daryl set the phone in the cradle.

Very few neighboring houses provided views of all entrances to Dolly’s house. The man could well have lived next door. But the phone calls set a pattern over the next several days as Daryl returned alone, varying his arrival and entry point each time. The calls came early or late with maddening irregularity. It was as if the man’s goal was to keep them off balance, a cat-and-mouse game or power play, with a young woman’s sanity or, perhaps, her life, hanging in the balance.

Our gambit set him back, made him more cautious, but we never doubted that he was watching our every move. Nor did he never allow us to doubt it. His calls were too short to trace. He hid in darkness. He was always there, even when he wasn’t.

Shortly thereafter Dolly vacated the house and moved in with Daryl. We hadn’t rescued her, as my chivalric fancy had imagined. The dragon outwitted the knights. And yet believing her and offering our assistance was more than any other would do. If we didn’t succeed in our mission we at least brought about a standstill, and created a barrier the presence could not cross. Under the circumstances, perhaps that in itself was enough, and all that could be hoped for, or expected.

The man escaped to prey on others. I like to think, however, that realizing he’d been expected, that a trap had been laid, poisoned his nerve whenever he gathered the night and went afield to cause mischief. And that he understood at some point his luck would run its course, and a time would come when a yawning abyss would cut him down in a spray of red mist.

What I have never been able to explain is an evil so pervasive that it conjures its own malevolent atmospherics. For the sake of reference I claim this was a man, but a mere mortal cannot radiate such life-draining hopelessness and terror. Demon, vetala, shayatin, asura, succubus, incubus—mankind has tacked names on such evil since the beginning of language, and for most of humanity they’re only fanciful terms, ancient myths or words to frighten children. I only know that such descriptions are empty and inadequate when one comes under the influence of such malignity.

From my vantage on the Kansas plains I am sometimes taken aback at these episodes, almost incredulous, as if they were something read in a novel or overheard in a conversation, something that happened to another. But in my dreams there are no such illusions. In the shadows of perpetual night, at the end of dark corridors or behind closed doors where the sound of running water can stop a heartbeat, that which we confronted still watches, still waits, still hunts.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

What dread hand, what dread feet (Part 1)

And what shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? and what dread feet?
– William Blake

Lori said, Are you all right, and I said, No. I stared at the ceiling and the slatted bars of sunlight inching down the wall and thought I had never felt such dread, that a terrible new benchmark in nightmares had been set. But the thought dredged up something deep within me, something the dream had disturbed, or awakened.

In the dream I walked with an unarmed guard down a dimly-lit hallway redolent with an underlying odor of death and decay only partially masked by sterilants. Double doors opened onto a dusty industrial yard illuminated by a single vapor light. As we moved into the yard tin sheds and misshapen lumps of machinery withdrew into the shadows. A dog broke at our feet with a yelp. Startled, the guard cursed and hurled a rock after it.

Other than the thudding of our hearts, the silence was absolute. Unnerved, we tried to laugh it off, but it fell flat with the sudden click of a door latch behind us. Such dread fell on us that it was as if all light and hope were extinguished. The guard bolted for the building, crying oh no oh no oh no. Hard on his heels, I followed.

We burst into the corridor and listened. No sound other than a faint running of water issuing from an unmarked door down the hall. We approached with legs gone weak, the dread deepening with each step until it became almost too much to bear. We stared at each other, trying to summon the courage to open the door. I drew my pistol. He gingerly turned the knob.

The water stopped.

Do we scream in our dreams? I bolted awake so fast I never had the chance. For long afterward my chest squeezed the breath out of me. Lori asked what happened but I wouldn’t say. It was all I could do to convince myself that I was in Kansas, that the dream hadn’t been real, that it was just my overworked brain descending into its own mysterious hell. But once it was real.

I didn’t know the girl well. She was a dispatcher and I was a field technician so we rarely saw one another. What I did see I didn’t like—she was loud and crude, almost obnoxious. When she began coming to work with stories of being stalked, few people believed her. But I was a sort of knight errant, a throwback to the days of chivalry, and her stories got to me. The fear in her eyes was no invention.

Her name was Dolly. She told me that almost every night a knock on the front door augured a presence that sucked the very air from the room. The presence would circle the house, rapping once on each window until it reached the back door. The knob would turn until stopped by the lock. Milk bottles were smashed on her porch. In the latest incident her cat was gutted and left on her doorstep.

The police took reports, beefed up patrols, but the man kept returning. She considered moving but didn’t have the money.

When I called the police I was told there was nothing they could do unless they caught the guy in the act. “What if we catch him?” I asked.

“Make sure he doesn’t walk away.”

One afternoon I parked several blocks from her house, walked down an alley and slipped through her back door. From a duffel I removed two pistols and an Ithaca double-barrel shotgun sawed off at eighteen inches. An hour later a friend named Daryl came through the front. He had a two-way radio borrowed from work and a rusty butcher knife. He dropped the knife into the sink. “Found it,” he said.

Six blocks away another friend was waiting in a company truck. Our dispatcher was told to act immediately upon our signal. We were ready, and soon dusk filtered down and night fell.

In that day, in that place, it was not so hard to decide to take the life of another. When blood is spilled all constraints are relinquished. The predator must become the prey. We made small talk in subdued voices, the TV turned low. Hours passed. I wasn’t so na├»ve that it hadn’t crossed my mind to doubt her. As midnight approached Dolly whimpered once and curled into a fetal position.

A double tap on the front door.

The sound unleashed a primal fear that liquefied our bones. It was as if a dark cloud had fallen on us, smothering us in paralysis and a terror greater than any we had known. It thickened the air like fog. Daryl crawled for a position inside the bedroom and I scrambled for a place just off the kitchen where I had an unobstructed field of fire, but it was like moving through molasses.

A rap on the front window.

I snapped the shotgun open and checked the loads. Two double-00 buck shells, each capable of cutting a man in half. The latch closed with a crisp snap echoed by the release of the safety.

Tap. This immediately behind me. My skin crawled.

Daryl told our partner to remain in position. “He’s here,” he whispered.


Three windows to go. I pulled the .45 from my belt and verified a round in the chamber.


Dolly lay on the floor, arms over her head, trembling violently.


I moved behind the wall, braced the stock against my shoulder, barrels down. We would to let the guy get halfway into the room before taking him out.


Time stopped. Sweat trickled down my sides. I could scarcely breathe from a sense of doom that permeated the air.

The doorknob turned with agonizing slowness. After a long pause, the door cracked an inch.

Behind me Dolly moaned like a wounded animal.

My finger slid to the forward trigger as the door swung open.

(Conclusion next week)

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Let me tell you what I think

It was late at night in a wealthy suburb. The woman who opened the door was pretty, young, and visibly nervous. She held a Smith and Wesson .38 snub-nose revolver in her right hand, the hammer cocked, her finger on the trigger. It was aimed at my belly button.

“Would you mind pointing that some other direction?” I asked.

She was, admittedly, an aberration. Most of the customers I dealt with were pleasant if not a little paranoid. (Understandable since I was an alarm technician.) Some were poor, most were lower-to-upper middle class. A few were obscenely rich.

If you’re wondering, yes, the rich are different from you and me. If I had to sum up my impressions, I’d say as a rule they’re arrogant and demanding, their kids are obnoxious, spoiled and supremely conscious of their elite status, their houses are too big and too ugly, and they suffer from excessively poor taste in art and household furnishings. They drive nice cars, though.

This introduction is an apology for what follows, an illustration of the type of people I dealt with for 26 years. Prior to that I worked with gun-crazed bullies, alcoholics, losers, cowards, and lowlifes. There were a few real keepers there, too. Moving to rural Kansas offered a new class of individual, the stoic, staid, hard-working, near-mythic Midwesterner of traditional values and beliefs. God bless them, I love them all. But working in a retail environment has introduced yet another category of humanity, one I’m finding hard to cope with.

I’m not talking about the mother with the kids from Hell, the wife who wants to browse and the husband who wants to shoot himself, or even the woman who piled over a hundred dollars’ worth of merchandise on the counter and said, “I’ll give you seventy-five dollars for that.” Sorry, I’m not that desperate.

No, I’m referring to the customers who are so assured in their beliefs, so positive that they alone possess the answers, that their god has bestowed upon them a special dispensation of perception and clear-eyed cognizance, that they have no other choice than to share them with me.

A good example is the older gentleman who came in several weeks ago. Uncommunicative to the point of taciturnity, he deftly ignored my welcome and shuffled through the shop, grimacing at each item as if it held occultic meaning. I went back to adding up tickets. On his last approach he stopped in front of the cash register and said, “You know why America is in such bad shape?”

Startled, I shook my head.

“Because of those places men go to look at naked women.”

He said it so grimly that I almost laughed. When I asked if he was referring to gentlemen’s clubs (an oxymoron of note), he nodded, his eyes dark and brooding.

While I think the cause of America’s troubles are more complex and layered than the simple presence of businesses catering to lechers, one look at his expression cautioned against lengthy debate. “Whoa,” I said, drawing out each syllable as if the breadth of his erudition was overwhelming. “I think you’re onto something.”

A few days later a woman entered the store and marched right up to me. Flashing a gift certificate, she announced she was there to redeem it. “I really don’t need much,” she added. “All I need is Jesus.”

I stared at her. “Huh,” I said. I should have said, “Uh-oh.”

For the next 45 minutes I was privy to her conversion—every bit as dramatic as that of Saul of Tarsus—her church-going history (Baptists are Nazis, Methodists the chosen race), her theory of literature (“The only book you need is the Bible,” definitely not the thing to tell an author), the reason for America’s demise (abortion, gays), the way to peace in the Middle East (missionaries and bayonets), plus dozens of real-life Jehovian encounters, all of which were incontestable and meant to bring me to my knees. So zealous was she, so impossible to interrupt, that we stayed an extra 35 minutes after closing before I could politely usher her out the door.

I’m a nice guy, really I am. I love to listen and I love to talk. But where do these people get off thinking I care one whit for their outlandish opinions? I could overlook it if it was just a few kooks, but they seem to be multiplying. I need a way to combat them without going on the attack.

I’m thinking T-shirts. Something to get a subtle message across, such as “The answer to world peace is an asteroid,” or “The problem with America is you.” It’s tempting to wear an “I’m a godless liberal humanist pro-gay pro-prairie dog” T-shirt just to jerk their chains but that could instigate midnight bonfires. Plus, I’d probably get fired. The one I like best says, “Your prejudice is your own. Don’t blame God.” Problem is, I don’t know if these yahoos can read.

If you’re looking for answers to the questions that have befuddled man since the dawn of time, I am not your man. If you think you know the answers, please keep them to yourself. We’ll both be ignorant in our own benighted ways.

As for the woman with the pistol, I learned she was a new wife who found the mansion too big and too silent. When I was ready to leave, I saw the .38 stuffed in the couch cushions. With her permission, I gingerly removed it and dropped the hammer. She thanked me and let me out, quickly closing the door on a dark night swimming with sharks, predators and serial killers, and not only in her imagination.