These Things That Save Us

Bert.JPGThis weekend we had to say good-bye to Senator Berkeley, my constant sidekick for the last thirteen years. As I work from home, it’s no exaggeration that we’ve spent around fifteen hours a day together, either writing or walking or napping on the couch together. Berkeley was born while Nicole and I were on our honeymoon, and we bought him from a farm near Weeping Water not long after that. He’s been around for everything, and now, suddenly, not.

This is painful not because it is exceptional. The opposite.

Going through old pictures and dredging up many memories, I was reminded of this story I wrote when he was a puppy and later published in 2011 in Conversations Across Borders, a now defunct online journal. This was always one of my favorite stories from my early publishing push, mostly because of its depiction of a dachshund named Weasel. (It’s also fun to look back on a story I wrote in my mid-20s that shows my conception of aging married couples in their 30s and how they deal with being so old.) I wanted to share it here, not necessarily as a tribute, but just because.

These Things That Save Us

After seven years of marriage, the only thing my wife and I owned in common was a dachshund named Weasel. The dog was our pride and joy, a tri-color dapple with gray spotted patches and brown ears. He had his own room on the second floor of our townhouse, a closet stocked with toys, special food prepared by a butcher, and a pet-nanny for when we were on vacation. He had it easy, but he earned his luxuries by making things simpler for me and my wife.

Weasel was the reason I looked forward to coming home most nights. We enjoyed long walks, the dog and I, while Sharon snacked on caramel corn and watched television alone. Before we left for the park each night, as a sort of kitsch joke, I’d lean in to kiss my wife’s forehead where the skin had been tweezed raw around the eyebrows. I’d say, “Love you, honey,” and she’d reply, “Have fun, boys,” as we walked out the door.

Sharon was a big blond woman, but not really fat. She was tall with hips, a small paunch. She looked athletic in a way, but my wife was no athlete. “She’s lazy,” I’d grumble to our friends at dinner parties, emphasizing her faults. Sharon had empathetic blue eyes and could be a wonderful kisser after some wine, but I never told anyone about these things. I stuck to my well-rehearsed punch lines when talking about my wife. How she planned monthly “mental health days” from her morning radio show at a Top 40 station; that she spent little time grooming herself during the week, which is common for morning radio hosts; and that she wasted most of her time wrapped in her grandmother’s quilt, curled into the elbow of our leather sectional. This was what I talked about when I talked about my wife.

It wasn’t quite as bad between us as I liked to make it sound, but it was close. We were in our mid-thirties then and had been married for seven years. We didn’t have kids, we didn’t have a mortgage, we leased our cars. We ate dinner separately, off paper plates, and only begrudged a visit to each other’s families in odd-numbered years. In even years we vacationed to peninsular Mexico during the holidays. It’s safe to say that we valued our privacy above all else. That’s just how we lived.

Sharon, Weasel and I rented a historic townhouse in a revitalized urban district, a nice gentrified neighborhood near a city park. Because the area had been declared blighted, our landlords made a killing remodeling old railroad houses into hip new digs for young professionals and childless couples. The wood floors and antique bathroom fixtures were a real boon to our self-confidence. And despite the air stream that blew through them, the single-paned, oak latticed windows were breathtaking against the backdrop of a white hot Nebraska thunderstorm.

I loved our neighborhood in those days. The park was spectacular when in season, sugar maples and red oaks blooming up with color against a deep fall sky. There were tennis courts and jogging paths, a thru road on which the WT who lived just beyond the park sped through.Bert Ball

It was a nice place to walk, which was what Weasel and I were doing on a late October evening several years ago when everything changed, a Friday just minutes after I’d returned home from tedious business meetings in North Carolina. (I worked for a venture capital firm that specialized in agribusiness and genetically enhanced corn.) The sun was starting to set as we started off, but it was still warm enough to be in traveling clothes, a polo shirt and slacks. There had been a lot of cool rain that season. The grass shivered in the mud when the northern breeze moved over it.

Walking the dog allowed me a kind of privacy, which is also why I enjoyed traveling so much. I yearned for the bustling lonesomeness of airport white noise, the freedom to be secluded in public—to appear deeply pensive without someone asking, “Whatcha thinking?” This is also why I liked to walk, to indulge in the secret adventures of a man and his dog, cruising down the sidewalk with nothing in particular owed to anyone. Just a man and his dachshund. We were free to look in our neighbors’ windows from the sidewalk, their domestic projections lit up incandescent. We could kick and sniff at garbage left at the curb. A man walking his dog has a right to be there.

Weasel bounced next to me and smiled a wide-jowled dog grin, exhilarated by the cool breeze and its unsolved odor. Sharon had him under the quilt for most of the week, I could tell, putting him outside only when the rug was in imminent danger. A dog like Weasel loved to be outside. He needed to run and smell dirty things in the park, crunching cast-off chicken bones when he could find them. There was fresh air and sniffing out dead birds.

We stopped to wrestle in a mound of leaves. I let him bite my hands and squeezed his muscular hocks. Then we walked towards a squash court near the far end of the park, where the thru road entered. On cool nights like that one, I let Weasel unburden himself by the court if no one was around. He took such pleasure in it, which was understandable. It’s sometimes nice to know that others will see your shit.

As Weasel backed into a crouch an SUV came speeding over the hill at the far end of the park. Its wheels went out from under it as it jumped the apex. Its tires barked an unsure cadence as it returned to the pavement. It was going to crash. I saw this. The SUV tipped and screeched on its side across the street.

Weasel jumped towards the noise, he ran out to the length of his leash and yelped at the vehicle as it lay askew against the papery bark of a sycamore tree. Weasel and I ran towards the overturned Bronco. We crunched through leaves as fast as we could, the jingle of his tags marking our stride.

We stopped on the sidewalk across the street and observed the sweat-suited tennis players who were gathering around the vehicle. The Bronco’s airborne wheels still spun, ripped sod trailing its path to the sycamore. “Get me out of here,” the driver cried. The tennis players surrounded the Bronco, hopping on the balls of their feet, but they weren’t helping him. Weasel yelped in a frenzy towards the car’s undercarriage, its muffler, oil pan, and fuel tank—the grime-stained internal organs of a car—jumping on two legs at the end of his leash. After searching for somewhere to tie up Weasel, I slid the hand loop at the end of his leash over a bench post and ran towards the crash.

This wasn’t something I’d thought through, of course, running towards the wreck. It was a corporeal action that just needed to be done. I felt its insistence in that moment and my body was propelled by blind instinct.

The tennis players looked through the windshield at the young man trapped inside, telling him to remain calm. “Jesus Christ,” he screamed from inside the vehicle. “Will somebody help me?”

I leveraged myself on the top of the Bronco, crawled across the dusty front fender and leaned into the window to ask the driver if he was okay. He was little more than a boy, seat-belted into the cockeyed vehicle wearing a camouflage jacket and blue jeans. He had a dirty mustache and greasy, hand-swept hair.

“Can you unbuckle yourself?” I asked, checking to make sure he was alone, but the kid just screamed.

The tennis players began pleading with the kid to turn off the engine. His stereo still played crackling rock. The motor wasn’t running, but the carburetor could be feeding gas onto a hot manifold if the ignition were still engaged.

“You’re going to catch fire,” one of them yelled.

The boy seemed to come to his senses then. He unbuckled himself, wormed his way upright in the small cabin of his Bronco, and reached for my hands.

“The keys,” I shouted, directing him to pull them from the steering column. “Get the keys.”

The kid stumbled off the top of his cab after I pulled him out, tripping into the arms of the tennis players. The neighbors crowded around us and a few of them came to ask if I was okay too, grabbing at my arms, because I must have looked unsettled.

I stumbled through the crowd and sat in the root-crook of a large burr oak, collapsing into a wind-gathered pile of dry leaves. The kid who crashed his car crouched in the group of tennis players, gasping thank yous.

Within the minute, police and fire crews sped onto the scene, lights and sirens blaring, their tires screeching as they arrived. They checked out the Bronco, made certain that it wasn’t a danger to those who’d gathered there, and began marching off distances for their report. The paramedics put the kid on a stretcher and eased him towards an ambulance as they checked for spinal injury and broken bones.

A young cop approached me. “Are you the one who pulled him out?”

He scratched notes in a leather-bound pad as I told him what happened. I explained that I’d recently come back to town, having been away on business. He asked where I lived, and I told him, “Around the corner. It’s a townhouse.”

“What’s your name?”

IMG_4089

“Gerry Martini.”

“What were you doing here?”

I explained how the street leading into the park had a higher speed limit than it should have and pointed out the sudden drop on the park side of the hill that surprised drivers. But he only wanted the gritty details. The crash, pulling the kid out of the car.

“I was walking—” I hesitated then, realizing what I was about to say. “My dog. I need to get my dog.”

The cop followed me across the street and explained that they might need a further statement from me.

“That’s fine,” I said, rushing to the bench where I’d left Weasel, even though I could clearly see he was gone. The leash had been removed from the post. There was no sign of him. I dropped to my knees and dumbly searched through the leaves, my hands trembling.

“Have you seen a dachshund?” I asked a group of kids near the bench, but none of them had. I ran to the squash courts but they were empty, his abbreviated pile of shit lay in the dirt. The tennis players had returned to their games. I crouched and squinted, but there was no sign of Weasel anywhere in the park and my eyes couldn’t seem to penetrate the hazy fall gloaming. 

“Did you see somebody walk off with a little dog?” I ran from

person to person in the thinning crowd, pleading with them to help me.

“It’s a park, mister.” A lady in a blue fleece camisole leaned against a tree, smoking a cigarette. “Who would notice someone walking off with a dog when there’s a car rolled over?”

I searched for nearly an hour. The park was empty by the time I went home. The tennis courts were lit but quiet. The parking lot abandoned. The wide lawns held only trees.

The whole time searching I wondered what I would tell my wife when I went home, convinced that there weren’t words which could explain what had happened.

A friend once asked me if I enjoyed being married.

“She drives the nicer car,” he pointed out. “You do most of the cooking and cleaning. You shovel the sidewalks when it snows. You do the laundry. You were the one to get a second job when money was short. And you are the one that has to travel for work every week.” I had complained a great deal to this friend about the many ways in which Sharon succeeded in driving me up a wall, so he had every reason to suspect I was genuinely unhappy in my marriage. “Tell me,” he asked, “why are you guys still together?”

“Isn’t it obvious,” I told him. “There’s a simple reason why it works. I get to leave town every week.”

Sharon and I met at a Jaycees meeting when we were in our late twenties. I was attracted to her on-air brashness, her blonde Amazon height. I wasn’t exactly looking for a commitment at the time, neither of us were, I believe, but we were married within a few years anyway, in a large secular ceremony at the Alumni Center. We didn’t really have long-term goals in those days. Sure, we saved for retirement, my employer provided a great 401(k), but as to kids, or a house, that just wasn’t us. We found the perfect townhouse and were content to lease it. We were interested in the “is” phase of our lives. The middle-term investment of living year-to-year without letting things get complicated. 

But we did concede to buying a dog, after a few summers, that was our idea of an acceptable responsibility. Sharon saw an ad in the newspaper for miniature dachshunds and we drove to this farm outside Weeping Water to have a look. Weasel was the last of the litter, the only one who hadn’t yet been purchased. He was sleeping in the back of a small plastic kennel under a locust tree when we first saw him, curled into the warm belly of a bulldog puppy more than twice his size. The farm boy pulled him from the nest and held him out to us. They called him French Fry; they called all of their dachshunds French Fry for all we knew. His downy fur was grayish. He sort of rolled his sticky little tongue out of his mouth when he yawned, those whimsical puppy yawns that we couldn’t help but swoon for. The whole way back into the city he slept nestled in Sharon’s lap, crying only once, when one of us turned off the radio.

We couldn’t talk about the fact that Weasel was gone in the weeks after he was lost. The details of how it happened were never brought up after my first feeble efforts to explain them. I had my theories—different varieties of thievery—and Sharon must have held her own, but we never discussed them. I was too guilty to even look at her.

I didn’t understand at the time, but the way in which we’d lost Weasel didn’t matter. What became important were the ways in which we grieved.

We put up flyers around the neighborhood advertising a lost dachshund, walking next to each other down the winding avenues. We placed increasingly emotional pleas in the classifieds and drove around nights after dinner, shining flashlight beams into sewer hatches and under park benches. Sharon even gave Weasel’s description on her radio show, choking up as she recited his distinguishing marks, his overbite, the near almond shape of his eyes.

None of it worked though. Weasel was irrecoverably lost.

pillow

There were times when that dog meant more to me than anything else in the world, but, until he was gone, I didn’t realize how much he’d also meant to Sharon. She needed Weasel to cuddle with under blankets on the couch, caressing his velvet ears, feeling his cold black olive nose against her neck. Sharon had a strong desire to be soothed, for a soft couch and downy comforters. And for a small dog that liked to sleep inside her space, that burrowed under the blankets and nestled his head in the softness of her thighs. It was enviable, in some ways, what they shared. They had a common space, a drowsy comfort. She needed to freak out with him at strange noises when I was away on business, the fur on the back of his neck mohawking into angry spikes. The only remedy to this nervousness was to scratch his puffed chest until it calmed him and her both.

For two weeks I changed my travel plans at work, concocting paper-thin lies for my boss so I could stay home and look for the dog every afternoon with Sharon after she came home from the radio show. It was a reversal of my former routine, now power-walking the neighborhood during daylight hours with Sharon and a sleeve of flyers, searching out groups of kids to ask if they’d seen our dog. I’d avoided children before, because their rough fingers patted Weasel’s back too stiffly and they asked stupid questions. “What is he? A dog-shund?”

Sharon cried on my shoulder when I finally had to leave for Raleigh-Durham. I kissed her on the top of her head and said I loved her. She cried harder when I told her this, her chest heaved, fists clinging to my jacket. It wasn’t until I was in the car that I noticed my shirt was marked with her tears.

She called my cell phone throughout the first day in North Carolina, but didn’t leave messages. When I called her at lunch and in the evening she was tight-lipped. She didn’t have anything specific to say, but she needed to call. Sitting alone in our house, she was compelled to press the buttons on her phone, to punch in my cell number. She needed to tell me that there was no news about Weasel.

“Do you think it’s time to quit looking?” Her voice, the smoky tenor she spoke through on her radio show, had turned into the whiny voice of a teenager. “It’s all I think about at work. Where could he be?”

“I’ve only been here one day.” I sighed into the receiver at the hotel. “But I can come home if you need me to.”

“Okay,” she whimpered. “If you want to.”

Driving home from the airport, I hoped that Weasel would be there when I walked in the door. Sharon had called three times while I was in the air, but hadn’t left messages. It was possible that she had found him, that she didn’t want me to find out through voice mail, that she wanted to surprise me. It was possible that Weasel would be there, his leash on, waiting for me.

This would be the first time I’d come home from a business trip without his yelping to greet me. I didn’t want to believe what was happening would happen.

The house was quiet when I pushed open the door, the living room lit softly with lamps, the television turned off. Sharon was in the room, I realized, on the couch with her head under a quilt. The quilt was black and yellow and cream, its squares stitched into a pattern of striking contrasts.

I thought to call out to my wife, to walk into the kitchen and yell her name across the house as if I didn’t know she was laying there on the couch. I wanted to compel her to stand up and greet me. I dropped my luggage to the floor and tossed my keys on the table. I pressed the door closed and flipped the dead bolt. I rattled the chain loudly into its lock.

Sharon didn’t move from under the quilt. I could hear her breathing, her stifled sobs that couldn’t be concealed. Sharon could never stand to be looked at when we dealt with real things, if she might cry. She couldn’t take that kind of open suffering, and agonized in different ways.

sunset

I walked to the couch, sat by her legs, and rubbed her feet through the soft quilted fabric. For a long while I just sat there. The thought occurred to me that I could leave, that I could grab my jacket and head out for a walk in the park. It was another beautiful fall evening. It wouldn’t have been a strange thing for me to do.

But I lifted the quilt and crawled under with my wife instead of leaving. My body pressed against hers, our long legs mingled. We found each other’s hands and breathed together. In the musty darkness I felt the cold wetness of her cheeks on my face, but we didn’t kiss. We didn’t talk either, but merely shared each other’s air.

Advertisements

100 Years

soil-collection.jpgThis weekend marked the centenary of the lynching of Will Brown outside the Douglas County Courthouse in Omaha. There were a number of events and memorial services to mark the occasion, including a gathering and soil collection ceremony outside the courthouse yesterday morning. (The soil collected from the site will be on display in Montgomery, Ala. at the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice.) It was an emotional morning on many levels. Standing in that spot, my mind wandered while the politicians spoke and played back over the events. It has been a few years since I walked around the grounds and imagined what it would have been like to be there during the riot. The morning was also a culmination of the work of so many people in Omaha over the past seventeen months to bring together the community for a commemoration like this in a meaningful way. So it was heartening to see that labor bear fruit and to have the Omaha Community Council for Racial Justice and Reconciliation be at center stage.

As part of this effort, at the invitation of the Kingfisher Institute, I delivered a lecture earlier this month at Creighton University that focused on some of the reasons why I wrote Kings of Broken Things, how I came to see myself in relation to the book, and why the story is told from the perspective of bystanders, rather than, perhaps, Will Brown himself or other victims of the violence. If you’d like to watch a recording of the presentation, you can here, with the action starting around 55 minutes the recording of the livestream. Alternatively, I’ll paste below an essay version of the presentation.

I’ve been at a loss for how I should personally observe this dark anniversary. Hopefully this will suffice.

On Whiteness and an Omaha Race Riot: 100 Years Later, a Writer Reflects on the Lynching of Will Brown

A long section of my novel Kings of Broken Things describes a race riot in World War I Omaha and the subsequent lynching of Will Brown, a 40-year-old black man who’d been dubiously accused of raping a white woman. It’s troubling material, to say the least, and how the country has changed (or failed to change) since I started working on the book a decade ago makes the history even more troubling. Focusing solely on Omaha—where major riots haven’t erupted in decades—violence and segregation remain endemic. These are difficult things to talk about in mixed company and, as it relates to the relevant history, many here would rather forget the bad times. During the first few weeks after publication, online comments questioned why I was “stirring up trouble” by revisiting the riot, and some expressed opinions similar to a Facebook user who addressed a post about the riot by saying, “History like this is hidden for a reason.”

It’s an important question to ask ourselves, if we agree that history should be hidden—or if we think that acknowledging our history is an important part of reconciling with racial violence in Omaha. Generally, I side with the famous William Faulkner line from his novel Requiem for a Nun—“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”—but, honestly, it’s a little murky even to me why I worked so stubbornly to finish and publish this particular novel. I’m not a native to Omaha and have no family connection to what happened here a hundred years ago. I could have largely shrugged off the troubles detailed in Kings of Broken Things if I wanted, as many do; it’s generally easy enough for white Midwest Americans like me to walk away from what can be seen as other people’s problems.

To a certain degree, I did turn away. I saw myself as a bystander: that I never meant harm to anyone and was therefore pardonable. Yet throughout the process—writing the book, researching the lynching of Will Brown—it became impossible to ignore the complicity that bystanders like me have in the violence that yet plagues our nation.

An estimated 15,000 people participated to some degree in the Omaha Race Riot of 1919. That is to say, a colossal mob of white people took over a city that was then one of the largest west of the Mississippi River in order to murder an innocent black man in retribution for a crime that likely didn’t even occur. In the process, the Douglas County courthouse was nearly destroyed, along with the rest of downtown, and Omaha’s reform mayor was also hanged when he attempted to disperse the mob, though he was cut down and would survive. Will Brown was a 40-year-old itinerant laborer who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. There isn’t much known about Brown beyond his connection to these crimes, except that he came to Omaha from Cairo, Ill., and was a “hunchback” and physically disabled. He lived in the same house with another black man and a white woman—a fact that was principal in his being accused of raping a white teenager that September. There had been dozens of white women raped earlier that summer—mostly by white men in blackface who were part of a criminal organization run by Tom Dennison that was undermining that new reform mayor by whipping the public into hysteria about “black criminality”—so after Will Brown was identified to police by the alleged victim, an angry mob nearly lynched him on the site. Though he was whisked to the courthouse without being harmed that evening, two days later, on Sunday, September 28, 1919, Will Brown would be lynched in downtown Omaha without ever being arraigned on charges.

Many of these events happened in places I walked by every day for the near-decade it took me to finish the book. (I work as a reporter at the courthouse where the riot occurred.) And once I knew that a man had been lynched and hung from a light pole on a particular corner, it was impossible to not wonder about that each time I was on the spot. Not only what happened there (what it would have sounded like, what it would have felt like to be in that crush of fanatical anger) but also the eerie experience of standing in that space a hundred years later. Knowing the history of a place can haunt you, much as that very place can be haunted.

My first writing professor, the prodigious novelist Jonis Agee, often talked about what she called “the psychosis of the land”: how trauma was experienced in most all places on the prairie, and even if you no longer see the direct effect of that trauma, it has left a mark. So I wondered what it meant that a man was lynched on the spot where now there’s a crosswalk I use to get to work, that the light post he was hung from has been replaced several times since then, but that there’s still a light post. Particularly as time passed, writing this book, as the destruction of black bodies again became a generational dilemma for our society, as we learned names like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and so many others, how could you not wonder about what kind of nation we are, what kind of people we are, that this keeps happening?

In some ways, writing about the Omaha Race Riot was a matter of craft—incorporating primary historical sources in order to portray the riot as horrific in fiction as it was in real life—but there was some personal involved too, of course. In this case, I had to put myself in a mindset to depict the mob, to get inside the psyche of a person who would shoot at a hanged man until he was disemboweled, while also imagining what Will Brown might have had running through his mind as his hours dwindled. In the progression of the riot, I think this dehumanization comes out in excerpts like these:

1. Everybody had a theory about how these things happened, especially later, when a mob caught one, a black man who did bad things to a girl. They would wonder about it in Omaha for years after the fact. What went through his mind? What was he thinking when the cops handed him over? This one they caught, this Will Brown. They’d wonder if his ears worked, if he was able to hear what that mob promised to do to him. They’d never know. No more than fifty people had even heard of him the day he was arrested, but the day after, Will Brown’s name was on the lips of every person in Omaha, after what that girl said he did to her.

2. They got Will Brown. The raiders. Karel was there. He reached up at Will Brown but couldn’t touch him. Men had taken over again, their arms longer than Karel’s, their hips heavier when he tried to move them. Karel stretched but couldn’t reach—all at once Will Brown fell, and it was Karel’s hands that tried to catch the weight of the man and pass it off. But Karel couldn’t hold. The weight crashed through him, crumpled him into a corner. Will Brown on top. Karel saw Will Brown’s eyes as the raiders grabbed and lifted him and carried on. Will Brown’s white eyes popping out of his skull. Raiders lifted Karel to his feet, but Karel’s legs didn’t work. His legs and hands were numb where he touched the black. He flattened against the wall to watch raiders tear off down the stairs. He couldn’t follow. They held Will Brown out a window. They ripped his clothes off. They had him.

Both the causes and effects of the lynching of Will Brown remain with the community. In many ways, the old ghetto boundary lines codified by Red Lining and other racist governmental policies still segregate society. And though the city and its suburbs consistently rank among the best places to live and raise a family, and the area is praised for its suburban public schools and low unemployment rate, these features aren’t enjoyed equally. While this situation is not uncommon nationally, the gulf in Omaha is wider than most anywhere else.

In a recent series on change in the African-American community over the last decade, the Omaha World-Herald interviewed a prominent community activist, Willie Barney, who described his experience coming to the city like this:

At first he and his wife, Yolanda Barney, saw Omaha as ‘a gold mine,’ with low unemployment, strong public schools and a vibrant downtown. But where were all the black people? Not leading corporations. Not very prevalent in civic leadership. Not even present in his neighborhood […] As he looked more closely at the city, he began to see what had been hidden. Omaha might have a low jobless rate overall, but black unemployment was in the double digits. The public housing projects didn’t look as bad as in other cities, but the poverty was deep. Plus the geographic separation was stark. (OWH, 8/9/17)

While the city touted revitalization and economic success, the homicide victimization rate for African-Americans in Nebraska was highest in the nation for several years, and twice the national average, which led to Omaha being tabbed three times in this decade as the most dangerous place in America to be black. The numbers suggest how different life still is across races here.

I moved to Omaha around the same time as the Barneys and noticed many of the same things, if in a more general, clueless-white-guy kind of way. Coming of age in Lincoln, there was a persistent sense that Omaha was an outlier in Nebraska, and not in a good way. The capitol city is part of the state-at-large—a bigger actor in pioneer history, home to the state’s beloved Cornhusker football team and flagship university—yet, across the divide, broad swaths of Omaha aren’t party to the Nebraska I grew up knowing. Omaha’s urban struggles and shootings were as far away from the cul-de-sacs of my childhood as those we saw fuel the L.A. riots in 1992. What I did hear about Omaha, the parts inside the byways, communicated a consistent message: look away.

Though the lynching of Will Brown is the most explosive incident of race violence in Nebraska, it isn’t talked about all that much and has been treated very much like settled history. More palpable are a series of riots, lootings, and fire-bombings that began in 1966 and devastated the Near North neighborhoods. These riots peaked in the summer of 1969 when black, fourteen-year-old Vivian Strong was shot in the back and killed by a policeman near the projects where she lived. This is a familiar story, how riots broke out after Vivian Strong was killed. Red-lining was in full effect by then and the construction of the North Freeway in the 70s would further segregate the peoples and economies of Omaha—but the way I’d always heard it growing up was that members of the black community had destroyed north Omaha during the riots and that its prolonged depression is therefore the mess of the black community to clean up, regardless of why the riots started, regardless of anything, really. Punitive sentiments likes this have not exactly left us either.

Whoever owns the legacy in this political sense, it’s true that such unleashed anger and destruction sealed a certain fate for many neighborhoods. And, as like everywhere, suburban flight showed who could walk away and who could not.

When I moved to Omaha after college, in 2005, my fiancée and I ended up in a diverse low-rent neighborhood in midtown, one that was pretty rough around the edges. Like many in our generation, we were trying to reverse suburban flight, if for no other reason than we didn’t want to live in the middle of a parking lot. Those days, there was quite a bit of violence on our block—a friend mugged, a few acquaintances jumped outside bars, two ex-cons across the street who fought drunkenly with baseball bats—though most of what made the papers was related to drug deals gone bad and, really, I never felt all that unsafe. I didn’t do drugs, I didn’t talk shit, so why should I worry?

I was right about that. We were just starting out, my fiancée-then-wife and I. That’s how the prevailing narrative for folks like us goes here—not exactly rags to riches, but along those lines. Soon after marrying we had our first kid, bought our first house, got our first good jobs, had another kid, bought a better house in a better neighborhood that has better schools. More or less how it’s supposed to go. We didn’t stay in the low-rent neighborhood much longer than we had to, because, honestly, the calculus changed and we were mobile. Why wouldn’t we move twenty blocks west if it made life easier? We weren’t fleeing, we were recalibrating.

The toughest question I struggled with while writing Kings was why I was the person who should write this book. There was a little voice inside my head that told me to be quiet. In truth, although it’s much too late to turn back now, I’m still not so sure that I was the right person. The instinct is to hold tightly to the good things I have in life and forget the rest. However, as I was writing the novel, I struggled with appropriation issues and finding the best perspective to tell the story, there was another little voice that told me I couldn’t use my position or race as a way to get out of writing about these issues; or, for that matter, contemplating how ethnicity and whiteness have been elemental forces in the development of Omaha. Failure was always an option, of course, but I had to try my best to write and publish this novel, so I didn’t feel like I’d copped-out when given an opportunity to do good work. For me, Kings was always about reaching—to understand ideas bigger than me… to compose a novel beyond my abilities… to write a story that’s more than the sum of my fears, misconceptions, and prejudices, these things that comprise the worst face for all of us. There are lots of reasons to write, the most tangible for me has always been the process of creating something from myself that’s better than myself. This, and I believed that someone could tell about the lynching of Will Brown in a way that would draw more attention to the story than straight history. On my good days, I believed that I could be that person.

Even at the start, armed with this high-mindedness, I wanted to use certain immigrant narratives and the shaky status of German-Americans during World War I to set up what I knew was coming at the end of the novel. (German immigration and the settlement of the West is a big part of my family’s legends, as you might suspect.) The literal placement of whiteness in the riot was a key part of this strategy, insofar as the riot had to involve diverse notions of whiteness. Not only belligerent working class louts who storm the courthouse, but also reviled hyphenated German-Americans eager to improve their station, political movers-and-shakers who wield prejudice to get what they want, and, just as important, a bunch of pleasant folks who are there to be nice to their neighbors, who desire little except to remain pleasant. Those Nebraskans who want to live on the fringes, just out of reach of the troubles of other folks. Bystanders, like me.

Yet, in the early drafts, no main characters were actively involved in the riot. I worried a lot about making my characters likable, at least those who were precious to me, who resembled me, but the novel was flat, written this way, particularly because I didn’t want to implicate my “good” characters in such an evil act by even having them inside the courthouse, much as I wouldn’t want to implicate myself. The novel only really began to make sense after I transformed teenage baseball prodigy Karel Miihlstein into an active participant in the riot and let him find his way to the spot where Will Brown is seized by the lynch mob.

After letting Karel evolve into a fallible being, his emotional darkness and struggle to be accepted by others became organizing principles. By making Karel a courthouse raider, this was no longer disembodied whiteness that merely observed evil acts. Karel was there, he touched Will Brown. (But Karel couldn’t hold. The weight crashed through him, crumpled him into a corner. Will Brown on top. Karel saw Will Brown’s eyes…) It took me a long time to willingly go to this place with one of my precious characters. Of course, from the beginning, none of the characters in Kings of Broken Things were ever clean. There was no purity to protect.

During those specific months of revision, I found myself more and more interested in the group of boys who surround Karel in his working class neighborhood and come together because of their love of baseball. Because of this, Kings of Broken Things spends a lot of time reveling in the hijinks of young white men. Petty theft, brawling, sneaking into bars, trying to catch a glimpse of a girl’s pubic hair, barging into neighborhoods where black people live and returning to “tell the tale.” Traditional good-old-boy lore. Of course, I too went through similar initiation as a young man—the vastly more restrained 1990s Lincoln version—and what I remember most are the times we should have got in trouble for whatever we were up to, but we were almost always let off the hook. The argument in favor of this cycle is that we were shitheads once, sure, but we grew up, we’re balanced and successful men now, so what’s in the past no longer matters.

Around when the final draft was nearly done, in February 2015, I was talking with a friend from those salad days. He asked, “Do you think we would have been part of the riot if we were teenagers then?” At first we both said, “No, not ever.” But given a moment, we admitted that we would have been there. Not as raiders who snatched Will Brown, but amidst the teens who took advantage of the chaos to smash out a window in the courthouse and slur police without consequences. Of course we would have been there. We’d have nothing to lose. Not in a physical sense, not in terms of our freedom.

It makes me sick sometimes to think about all the things my friends and I got away with, not because our misadventures were so terrible, but because not every young man in this country gets to walk away from petty crime.

I’d never thought to use Kings of Broken Things as a way to vindicate anyone for what happened—the lynching of Will Brown was an irredeemable act—but even for those who weren’t perpetrators, even for bystanders, there is a degree of complicity. From walking away, from looking away. I couldn’t have written this novel without appreciating that. In my author’s note I mention that I consider this novel an “act of remembering,” which is to say it’s a call for ownership of that history, and in a similar, maybe more important way, it’s also an act of seeing where we live, who we are, and who we live with.

 

 

In Our Other Lives Cover Reveal!

I’m very excited to sIn Our Other Liveshare with you all the cover for my new novel In Our Other Lives!

The cover turned out so great, especially the layers and texture at the top. Thanks so much to Hafizah Geter, Carmen Johnson, Stephanie Delman, and Vivian Lee for their work in shepherding this along, and for designer David Drummond for all his hard work.

The book is now available for pre-order in hardcoverpaperbackKindle, and audio editions. If you’re inclined, please put in your order now and have the book arrive on March 3, 2020.

We’re getting so close to launch!

A provocative novel about abandoned faith, heartbreaking loss, and inescapable government scrutiny in the heartland of a post-9/11 nation.

American missionary and ROTC cadet Tyler Ahls, long missing in Pakistan, has just surfaced, proselytizing in an Afghani terrorist propaganda video. For Omaha nurse Elisabeth Holland, it’s a shock that her brother is even alive. Now she must ask herself a more grave question: Is he a hostage or a traitor?

Seasoned FBI special agent Frank Schwaller is asking this too. He’s come to Nebraska armed with countless hours of video, audio, and email surveillance. The object of his unyielding gaze is Elisabeth. But the more Schwaller uncovers about her—from her and Tyler’s evangelical Christian upbringing to her shattered youthful dreams to her broken marriage to a drifter—the more mystifying Elisabeth and the two men in her life become.

To find out the truth about these entwined lives—and the desperation that comes from love, fear, and the need to disappear—Agent Schwaller will discover how even the most lonesome corners of the Plains can be darkened by the long shadow of war.

From Kings of Broken Things author Theodore Wheeler comes an exploration of love lost, the failure of humanism, and the revelations of how deeply the US government spies on the personal lives of its citizens.

“A captivating, thought-provoking, and sweeping novel filled with power and depth. Set against the backdrop of America’s near-decade long war on terrorism, this is a novel to be read and re-read, to be treasured and remembered.”
-Kassandra Montag, author of After the Flood

“Powerful, provocative, fascinating and deeply unsettling: this novel about the threads that connect our lives and those who would hold to account this haywire of memory, love, faith, reason and understanding.”
-Robert Olmstead, author of Savage Country

“Taut, knuckle-whitening, and full of intriguing questions. An FBI agent visits Omaha, Nebraska, to gather information about a radicalized young man who was either captured while on a mission trip to Pakistan, or who voluntarily joined up with a group of terrorists, only to find that in this Midwestern city everyone keeps a secret; that disappearances and deaths pervade their lives as surely as it does for those in the Mideast; that the war abroad is nearer than anyone imagined.”
-Phong Nguyen, author of The Adventures of Joe Harper

National Memorial for Peace and Justice

A few weeks ago I went down to Montgomery, Alabama to visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which educates about lynching in America and how its legacy of racial violence echoes through our society today. Unsurprisingly, the visit was such a powerful experience. As a result of the research I’ve done over the past decade, some of which is posted here, I arrived knowing many of the facts about lynching in America, but the memorial is an effecting piece of art in the way your physical perspective changes while walking through, so that the hanging casks (each of which represents a county where a lynching was committed, and which features the names and dates of those murdered) start off at eye-level and are hanging above you by the end. It’s a devastating piece, in a necessary way. Here are some photos I took:

 

For almost a year now I’ve had the privilege of working with a coalition of folks here in Omaha to bring a replica of the Douglas County cask that’s on display in Montgomery. Thanks to the tireless work of people like Vickie Young, Chris Whitt, Franklin Thompson, the Kingfisher Institute at Creighton, and many others with the Omaha Community Council for Racial Justice and Reconciliation, there will hopefully be a dedication of the cask near the site of the Will Brown lynching this September, which of course is the centenary. Keep an ear out for that.

Here is the poem “Invocation” by Elizabeth Alexander, which is featured at the end of the memorial and is of an emotional coda for the experience.

The wind brings your names.
We will never dissever your names
nor your shadows beneath each branch and tree.

The truth comes in on the wind, is carried by water.
There is such a thing as the truth. Tell us
how you got over. Say, Soul I look back in wonder.

Your names were never lost,
each name a holy word.
The rocks cry out—

call out each name to sanctify this place.
Sounds in human voices, silver or soil,
a moan, a sorrow song,

a keen, a cackle, harmony,
a hymnal, handbook, chart,
a sacred text, a stomp, an exhortation.

Ancestors, you will find us still in cages,
despised and disciplined.
You will find us still mis-named.

Here you will find us despite.
You will not find us extinct.
You will find us here memoried and storied.

You will find us here mighty.
You will find us here divine.
You will find us where you left us, but not as you left us.

Here you endure and are luminous.
You are not lost to us.
The wind carries sorrows, sighs, and shouts.

The wind brings everything. Nothing is lost.

Book Deal!!!

deal
The listing in Publishers Marketplace!

I’m very excited to share that my next novel will be coming out with Little A in the Spring of 2020! It’s a pleasure and a privilege to again work with editor Vivian Lee on the book.

This is the novel I started working on in 2014 when on fellowship that summer at Akademie Schloss Solitude. I began with the basic idea that I wanted to tell a story from the perspective of an NSA spying investigation after reading about how government contractors became so acquainted with some targets of surveillance that it became like a reality TV show for them, except surreptitiously through a web cam, and without consent. And not just the vulgar things they witnessed, but when relationships started and ended, when siblings or children died, jobs were lost, etc. I’d just read Uwe Johnson’s Speculations About Jakob, a novel that features a Stasi detective who becomes enmeshed with the lives of the East German family that’s the object of his surveillance, and the premise seemed so alive and relevant that I had to try my hand at the contemporary American equivalent. My novel didn’t exactly end up like Johnson’s, and it was turned by dozens of additional influences, but Speculations made for an invigorating model, particularly as I wrote that first draft of the book in Germany.

A much-deserved thanks goes to my agent Stephanie Delman for her tireless work in helping me get to the heart of this story and working out a deal to have the book published with Little A, my second with them, of course, after Kings of Broken Things. Many thanks to those who helped this book along with notes and emotional support, including Nicole Wheeler, Amy O’Reilly, Drew Justice, Kassandra Montag, CCB, Ryan Borchers, Felicity White, Bob Churchill, Ryan Norris, Doug Rice, Jean-Baptiste Joly, Jeff Alessandrelli, Trey Moody, Brent Spencer, Dave Mullins, the creative writing program at Creighton University, and many others I’m surely forgetting. More soon!

“Attend the Way” Digitized on Heavy Feather

Published back in 2015 in a print version of Heavy Feather Review, my story “Attend the Way” is now part of their digital archives. Check it out here!

This has always been one of my favorite stories, as it was from a prolonged period when I was dreaming and writing about what our neighborhood in Omaha (near Dewey Park) would have been like 20 to 30 years before we lived there. My car died around then, so I spent a lot of time walking back and forth between home and Creighton, or home and the Douglas County courthouse, for work, which meant I spent a lot of time talking to guys hanging out on street corners and on the steps of rooming houses. As a young writer, meeting folks who ended up in less-than-best circumstances was gold. Midtown was still pretty rough then. It was great.

His room at the Kellogg has a big window, which is what he watches after work now, the downtown buildings reflecting the last light of sunset. And then he watches the fluorescent lights of the offices as they pop on after a while. It’s a drowsy sort of happiness this gives him.

Later in the morning he sits outside on the edge of a flower box and waits to be picked up and taken to where he will work for the day. Rodney has mowed for the city a long time, fifteen years or more. The man Rodney works with has learned a lot about him over the years, but even he doesn’t know Rodney’s mother was a white lady, that she came from Hastings and moved east to work for Mutual of Omaha in the fifties. She held more than a few jobs for them, over three decades, all clerical stuff before there were computers on every desk. Rodney’s father worked at Mutual too, that’s how they met. He was a custodian. They lived together for a few years in the Leavenworth neighborhood. It wasn’t such a great place to live, just as the Kellogg isn’t now, because there were junkies on the sidewalks and slumlords let most of the houses go to shit. But the people who lived there would let you be. They wouldn’t hassle you for doing things differently than most folks wanted you to. Rodney knew this, he understood it well.

His father left their midtown house when Rodney was thirteen years old, but he came back to visit most weekends, even when his life was running short, living alone by then in some innavigable parcel of land north of Cuming, south of Ames, east of 40th, west of the river. The man died and was buried during the three years Rodney was away in the army. Rodney could have had a furlough to return for the funeral, if he’d requested one, but he didn’t. His mother had moved back to Hastings by that time too, since he was in the military and she’d retired early. She was fifteen years older than Rodney’s father, and she worked a long time even after she retired from Mutual, simple stuff she was used to doing with insurance forms, for a while at the hospital in Hastings, a few years after that for a shyster lawyer.

Rodney wished someone would have been there to meet him when he came back from the army, but it wasn’t a big deal. In those days men still had to drive up from base after serving, which was from Arkansas in his case. He rode with a few guys he knew that were heading his way, one other from Omaha and a couple from Sioux City who had the car. They stopped at the dog track in Council Bluffs because the two with the car wanted to gamble. The family of the other guy from Omaha was waiting outside, and he wanted to give Rodney a ride.

“C’mon, buddy. Get in the car,” the man said, but Rodney shook his head and jogged after the two from Sioux City who were entering the track. “I’ll find a ride,” Rodney yelled back. “I’m going to bet some.”

Rodney did like to watch the greyhounds run and that’s what he did for a few hours, even after the guys with the car decided to head on. He sat inside the smoke-dense building with a smattering of others, men bent over the seats to study the odds. Rodney distracted himself by watching the greyhounds pound the earth on the other side of the glass, those long, graceful dogs chasing a mechanical rabbit along the rail. They went around the track and then back into a box.

He hadn’t thought about it in real terms until then, that his father was dead. It made him sad that his dad died young—he didn’t even know what had done it. Rodney wondered if he was a man then, since he no longer had a father.

During an intermission he walked out of the building and across the parking lot, jumped a fence near the interstate, and jogged across the bridge to Omaha. He was in fatigues still, a rucksack sagged over his shoulder. Rodney couldn’t keep his breath running over the bridge and had to stop every so often to look down at the river, as if he were lost in a strange country, a new man in a lonely and desolate place.

 

NBA Honors KINGS!

The NBA (no, not that one) (no, not that one either) (yes, this one) announced in a press release that Kings of Broken Things has been named the Fiction Honor selection for the 2018 Nebraska Book Awards!

Myself and other winners will be honored at the Celebration of Nebraska Books on December 1 in Lincoln at the Nebraska History Museum, 131 Centennial Mall North.

To add to the fun, one of my old classmate’s from Creighton, Andy Hilleman, will be honored for his novel World, Chase Me Down; and another friend and all-around amazing person, Lydia Kang, won the YA category for her novel The November Girl. Congrats all around!

“Little Me” Published on Narrative Magazine!

yhr2daup_400x400It has been a while since I’ve published an honest-to-God real short story (as opposed to an excerpt from my novel) so it’s feels great to get back in the saddle and share that my story “Little Me” is now up as the Story of the Week on Narrative Magazine!

“Little Me” was a finalist for the Narrative’s 2017 Fall Writing Contest and I’m very pleased that they wanted to publish the story.  After a few near misses as finalist for the Disquiet Literary Prize and the Summer Literary Seminar’s Fiction Contest, it’s great to have the story out in the world.

Read online here. (You will need to create a free account to read the whole story, fyi.) In the meantime, here’s a taste:

YOU SHOULD KNOW that I didn’t own the house on Brentwood. I was only staying there, like a house sitter. So when Teddy rang the bell and stepped inside the foyer, I hesitated, I didn’t tell him to get lost like I wanted to. He was just as much inside the house as I was, if that makes sense—uninvited, without a word of welcome. All existence was tentative those days, the month I lived on Brentwood, so what else could I do but let him in.

Teddy was eleven years old. He was stocky, chubby, his cheeks so fat his eyes closed when he smiled and barely slit open even when he wasn’t smiling. His hair had been buzzed some time before and sprouted in mutinous blond wings off the sides of his head, like he’d slept on it and hadn’t showered. We sized each other up in the foyer. He in jean shorts and a too-tight T-shirt; me cinching the sash of a monogrammed silk robe I’d found upstairs, a robe I wore most all night and day over my own shorts and T-shirt. Teddy must have been a familiar sight to the people who owned the house. The Sinclairs were family friends, and that month they were touring Tuscany. They’d mentioned their travel plans during a party my parents had hosted a few weeks prior. I let myself in through an unlocked patio door when they were gone because I needed a place to stay.

You see how it was. I had no standing to refuse entry to Teddy.

He was probably a neighbor kid anyway, or a nephew dropping by to get the mail, so I should be nice. Then again, maybe neither of us belonged there. We were both a little strange.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Teddy.”

“That’s my name too,” I said. “I’m Ted.”

Teddy nodded, smiled politely, then gazed into the house, inhaling in heavy, rapid breaths through his pug nose, like he’d run up the hill to the door. He went up the stairs to the living room, and I let him. I shrank away so our arms didn’t bump. I didn’t want to be near Teddy, not when he snooped around the living room, the dining room, not when he went to the kitchen, got a Pepsi, and downed the whole can in frantic gulps that were interrupted only when the fridge door swung into his back.

“How about we call you Little Ted and we call me Big Ted? How about that?”

I could tell he was against the idea. He smiled, a grimace-smile. He wouldn’t look me in the eye. “Then what do you suggest?”

“My name is Teddy,” he said, still not looking at me. He was so quiet I could barely hear him. “We can call you Hans.”

“Hans?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t get it. Why should I be Hans?”

“I made it up.”

“I’m Hans?” I asked him.

He called me that from then on.