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The Nowhere Place

by Ann M. Bauer

 

There is a stretch of Highway 63, about 200 yards long, that runs from the massive, wooden cut-out of Minnesota that says Thank You for Visiting the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes to a white index card of a sign that bears a timid Welcome to Iowa and the Iowa slogan printed in standard army-paint green.  My older son calls the space in between the Nowhere Place. 

Still fields, filled with prairie grass and wildflowers, line the road.  There are no houses here, and no people.  No movement.  Each time we pass through I look for deer or squirrels or even a stray cow from a neighboring farm; but there are none.  There are insects here.  I know  because I can hear the ceaseless, metallic hum of the cicadas.  But this does not comfort me.  Insects can survive atomic explosions, poisons and plague.  It makes sense that they would exist to defy nothingness.

"We're nowhere now,"  Edward always announces gravely as we enter.  "We aren't anywhere in the world."   He came to this concept of desolation early, well before he could read and just after he learned to speak again. He was almost six.  

Still mostly silent then, he would sit behind me, staring out the window.  It was I who pointed to the signs and read their messages aloud as we hurtled past.  I was marking our progress, proving my competence as a driver.  You see, I have gotten us out of Minnesota.  And forty seconds later: Look now, I've managed to reach Iowa.  Matthew, asleep in his booster seat with his heavy melon head lolling over one shoulder, did not hear me.  He was happy, tucked away in his warm, red-faced baby dreams.

But Edward, ever watchful, never sleepy, took the simple, square facts I gave him -- we have left one state. . .we are entering another -- and deconstructed them.  In the elaborate folds of his brain, these truths fractured until their crystals of reality came apart and floated free.  He worked them, like one of his thousand-piece jigsaw puzzles, and discovered they fit together to make a completely unexpected shape: We were, briefly, lost to the world.  We were nowhere.

Edward was fascinated with the Nowhere Place.  At one point he asked if anyone lived there, if we could ever live there.  He talked to other people about living in Nowhere, to his grandparents and occasionally to children he met in the park who would look at him quizzically and then run away.  These were among his first conversations after he returned to us.  Edward, the new incarnation of him anyway, seemed to take comfort in the fact that there could be an actual lack of place.  A tiny country stranded in the Midwest that he might call his own. 

Even back then Edward knew, as I did, that a human being can be knocked off the continuum of this ordinary, sweaty, oxygen-filled existence and into the locked stillness of nowhere.  It can happen in a second, simply because molecules, dust funnels or ideas configure in a certain way.  

I shared my son's obsession with the Nowhere Place, feeling daring each time I drove the distance and successfully reclaimed solid ground.  I came to believe it was our movement, traveling sixty or even sixty-five miles an hour, that anchored us and kept us safe.  And that if we were to stop between the signs, all three of us might just tumble out of the car and out of our lives, into a nameless expanse of space.

 


Ann M. Bauer is an Iowa Arts fellow, currently earning her M.F.A. in creative nonfiction at the University of Iowa. Her work has appeared most recently in Atlantic Unbound, Fourth Genre, and River Teeth.

 

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