Sometimes a Vague Notion

by David Armstrong
Featured Art: Rep2 -Felicity Gunn

Here in the backyard of our mutual friend in San Diego, holding a beer while a balmy twilight coats us in aquatic hues, a woman talks about Norway. Norway by way of Bulgaria.
     “Bulgaria is awful,” she says. “But Norway is expensive.” She’s a systems analyst for a cyber-security company.
     Another woman says San Francisco by way of Hong Kong by way of, originally, Thailand.
     Among others in this six-week writers workshop are a couple of New Yorkers, two Baltimoreans, L.A. folks (with stints in Poland), a South African, and an energetic woman from Lake Charles, Louisiana, whose pale hands utter like scared doves when she revs up for a joke.
     Chatter. Writers talking shop, life, travel. I say Ohio. “I’m from Ohio.”
     Someone says, “Oh.”
     Like the abbreviation of the state itself.
     A sip of beer, eyes downcast, searching the dirt for a lost thread of conversation.
     I should have said San Antonio (current), or Las Vegas (three years), Pacific Northwest (one), or even Japan (a few months).
     Because Ohio is a vague place. A conversation ender. A fly-over state. Rows of corn and plains and farms and factories. The Midwest (though a vehement Iowan once denied me even that: “Ohio is in the east,” he declared, “not in the middle, and definitely not west of anything”).
     Sometimes Red. Sometimes Blue. Blue collar. A swing state. Strictly non-icon.
     The license plates read, “Birthplace of Aviation,” when we all know, strictly speaking, that isn’t true.

But I’ve meant to write something else. A sort of mini-survey of how we define Ohio via the lens of Ohio writers writing about Ohio.
     In Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng depicts the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, which has the motto: “Most communities just happen; the best are planned.” She continues, writing that “the underlying philosophy [is] everything could—and should—be planned out, and that by doing so you could avoid the unseemly, the unpleasant, and the disastrous.” Ng, of course, dismantles that careful construct almost immediately.

My own Ohio memories, too, elude narrative neatness: Creekbeds choked with sodden leaves. Stones. The threshed scent of mayapple plants as my brother and I split them with sticks.

In his short story “There’s Too Much News,” Darrell Spencer describes the southern part of the state through the eyes of a man from Nevada: “Trees here, there, and everywhere, like in Red Riding Hood and slasher lms. Like one of those gangster movies—you know, the place where the bad guys take the snitch to rub him out so no one’s going to nd the body for a hundred years.”

Deer dancing through powder-sugar dustings of snow in early winter, their white tails bobbing.

I grew up not twenty-five miles from where Donald Ray Pollock worked at the Mead Paper Mill in Chillicothe. His descriptions of place in Knockemstiff feel most familiar to me: “The cinder-block building in the middle of the drive-in lot [had a] loud rattling projector . . . the concession stand in the middle, and the johns in the back. The smell of piss and popcorn hung in the hot dead air like insecticide.” The poverty and hard-scrabble existences of his characters have all the texture of “flaky brown snakeskin stretched out on the kitchen counter.”

No one ever grows up here. We were always grown. Hard is its own adulthood.

I helped my dad build a few of those cinderblock buildings. Our drive-in was exactly like Pollock says. The old, dark Appalachian hills with their slumped spines and deep shadows made a heavy backdrop. The “old man” in Pollock’s titular story, like my own granddad, worked hard and served an industry destined to go bottom-up: “Though he hated being away from the holler, the [DT&I Railroad] was the best paying job he’d ever had. Every time he came home for the weekend, he joked, ‘It’s so goddamn at up there I can’t stand up straight.’” Which is to say, he was Ohio.

Pit mines. Gouges in the earth.

Born in Lorain, Toni Morrison once described Ohio as “an escape from stereotyped black settings . . . neither plantation nor ghetto,” adding that it was a “curious juxtaposition of what was ideal in this country and what was base.”

The wind speaks a language through the trees. Sycamores like alabaster pillars. Boxelder. Prickly skinned gumplant. Goldenrod. Milkweed. Life, the living.
     The winding gray ribbon of rough gravel through scrubby farms, their winter wheat, the shallow ditches of cracked straw. The dead. My cousin. Hung himself from a fan. The boy in second grade. Three-wheeler accident. Our star tailback. Drug overdose. Our neighbor’s daughter. Our neighbor. Our neighbor’s wife. Murder. Suicide. Murder.

In The Bluest Eye, Morrison captures the liminality of Ohio’s seasons, of life here, of existence between bitter pains and sweet joys: “The rst twigs are thin, green, and supple. They bend into a complete circle, but will not break. Their delicate, showy hopefulness shooting from forsythia and lilac bushes meant only a change in whipping style. They beat us differently in the spring.” The place—its raucous, springtime hope, its verdancy—is inevitably bent to baser ends, no celebration or grim disaster without its hand in the other.
     In Beloved Morrison describes “Winter in Ohio [as] especially rough if you had an appetite for color. Sky provided the only drama, and counting on a Cincinnati horizon for life’s principal joy was reckless indeed.”

Ohio’s previous slogans include:
     “The Heart of it All” (1984).
     “So Much to Discover” (early 2000s).
     “Find it Here” (present).
     From these I take it that she’s a place still in search of identity.

Henry James once noted that Hawthorne’s genius was hampered by his having been born in America: “The items of high civilization,” he wrote, “are absent from the texture of American life.” The sentiment is echoed in the disregard of Middle America by its coastal centers and capital, as if the nation’s lifeblood were already drained from its belly by a particularly morbid and sanguinary wound. Hawthorne himself predicted the yield of such disregard, the resultant frustration, the people lashing out in madness: “On they went, like ends that throng in mockery around some dead potentate . . . on they went, in counterfeited pomp, in senseless uproar . . . On swept the tumult, and left a silent street behind.”
     Yet where Hawthorne saw the madness of the mob and James saw only the “consolation” of “American humour,” Morrison sees the strength of unostentatious nuance. Sethe’s house in Beloved is called “124” and lies outside the city limits of Cincinnati and, as Morrison notes, possesses “no adjectives suggesting coziness or grandeur or the laying claim to an instant, aristocratic past. Only numbers here to identify the house while simultaneously separating it from a street or city . . .” It is, in essence, an Ohio sort of place through and through, lacking pinnable qualities. Its power coming from uneasy complexity. Mutable. In-between.

The cold ground. The wet ground. The chug and thud of shoulder pads as you run. The crowd. Football. The swinging song of magical brass and thrip staccato of snare drums as flags flap by. The rowdy blistering anger of young men set to something methodical and with purpose, if only to take a brown, oblong object from one line to another.

In his poem “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio,” James Wright concludes, “Therefore, / Their sons grow suicidally beautiful / At the beginning of October, / And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.” As such a son I felt the burn- ing anger in my blood roll up seemingly without reason, a swift tide near-palpable under the skin. How to survive such reckless and restless lunacy? How to stop thinking that everything is always somewhere else?

I ask a friend who grew up in northern Italy what she thinks of when she hears the word “Ohio.”
     “I don’t think of anything,” she says. “I think of people. Just people. Regular, American people.”
     I ask her what she means.
     “The place,” she says, “retreats.”

Guns. More guns. Brown hills bellowing gun re in the heat of cold deer season. Tobacco spit. Top teeth to bottom lip, and a roach-brown dribble of juice on the chin which you wipe away with the back of your hand. Quiet rebellion and ashpoint violence. Smell of burning. The magic-kerchief trick of wind pulling wood smoke from chimneys in showy, slender coils.

Perhaps she’s right. In Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, the place, as my friend remarked, “retreats” in favor of the people: a “procession of grotesques . . . all of the men and women the writer had ever known . . . made a deep impression on his mind and he wanted to describe it.”
     Anderson’s Ohio is a multi-faceted inexplicability—no Golden Gate Bridge or Manhattan skyline—the embodiment of the twentieth century’s new subjective reality: “In the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were all beautiful.”
     What other place is as gracious as Ohio? So willing to step aside for her people?
     Anderson’s landscape is Wing Biddlebaum’s expressive hands, Doctor Reefy’s paper pills on which are “written thoughts, ends of thoughts, beginnings of thoughts,” and the “grey eyes and thick lips” of Belle Carpenter, who “when black thoughts visited her . . . grew angry and wished she were a man and could fight someone with her fists.”
     Belle’s fury still lingers like a national anthem.

The sulfur-tinge of dusk as I swept the concrete pad of a gas station. A girl with yellow hair who worked second shift at a cabinet factory and agreed to marry me. No matter where we go now, home is in the other’s eye, our easy memory a pollen on the skin, a binding made of love and place.

“Ohio, huh?” someone says at that backyard party in San Diego.
     The people. The land. Its fictions and small truths, its half-finished cinderblock buildings cooling under the waning workday sun. All the place fails to be, all it seeks to become. Lost in the back of my brain, a scattered confetti of ashes and occasional reworks.

David Armstrong has authored two story collections, Going Anywhere (Leap- frog, 2014) and Reiterations (New American, 2017), and a chapbook, Missives from the Green Campaign (Omnidawn, 2017). His stories have appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Narrative, Iron Horse, and Best of Ohio Short Stories, and have won the Mississippi Review Prize, Yemassee’s William Richey prize, and the New South Writing Contest. He is a professor of creative writing in San Antonio, where he lives with an amazing partner, a loquacious four-year- old, and a grouchy rescue dog. Website:

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