Opulence, Kansas by Julie Stielstra follows the story of Katie Myrdal, a sophomore living in Chicago who lost her father to suicide. The circumstances of his suicide and the unknown nature of his private business ventures are peculiar, and while detectives search for answers, Katie lives with her aunt, Maggie, and her uncle, Len, in Opulence, Kansas -- a place where Katie can finally see "a long way out here. From the ground."
Chapter 7 (pp. 31-36)
"So," said Maggie, as she put away the skillet. "How do you feel about going to church?"
My immediate, thoughtful, gracious response was to stare at the dish towel and go, "Um."
"It's okay, she said." You don't have to. I don't always go either, but Len likes to. 'Some keep the Sabbath going to church, I keep it staying at home...'"
I started. I remembered that poem! From my Emily Dickinson period...
"'With a bobolink for a chorister and the orchard for a dome,'" I said.
Maggie picked it up: "'God Himself preaches the sermon, and the sermon is never long...'"
"So instead of getting to heaven at last, I'm going all along!'" we finished together and laughed. Wow. Just this nice feeling of pure pleasure, just being with someone, doing the dishes and saying an old poem.
"After the service, we're having a picnic--for Memorial Day."
I'd forgotten it was Memorial Day weekend. And instantly felt terrible--I was out here, laughing in the kitchen with Maggie, while my mom was going to be languishing alone over my dad's ashes... but she probably wasn't.
"Oh, hell, I am so sorry," Maggie said. "I didn't think... Oh hell..." She stood nervously wringing at the dishrag.
I liked how she swore.
"It's okay," I said. "I forgot too. Now I feel bad. I shouldn't have forgotten, it's just so weird... Part of me is glad when I forget, and then I feel guilty, but I can't help it..." I trailed off
Maggie wiped back a straggle of her hair. "Anyway," she said, "the church is hosting a picnic with the social service in town--for the kids and families with problems, you know? Battered women or kids with parents who died or who are gone in the military--just any family with kids who need some help. I don't know, would you want to come? Help out, meet some of the neighbors? Maybe--if you don't mind, maybe you could bring your camera and take some pictures? Just for the folks who'll be there, they might like some snaps..."
Church picnics are not exactly my thing, obviously. Mom was raised Catholic, I think, but Daddy wasn't anything, or that's what he always said. I don't think I ever went to church. But when we studies the Middle Ages in school, I always kind of liked the stuff about the monasteries. Quiet, orderly, simply: you prayed and ate and worked all at certain times, and it was silent. And modest.
"Really, it's fine if you don't want to." But you'd be absolutely welcome to come."
"Sure," I said. "I'll come. I don't have any church clothes, though."
She laughed. "The pastor'll be in jeans under his robe. God sure doesn't care."
Why not? And if I took a few pictures of people and their kids, why not?
I liked the singing. The hymn books had all the words for you and everyone else knew the melody, and somehow the tunes were so... I don't want to say predictable, exactly, but there was something simple and direct about them, that even I could kind of tell where the lines would go, and after a verse or two I could sing along. Singing with people--another nice thing I never expected.
Afterward, I was introduced to Pastor Dave, a ruddy-faced graying man who shook my hand and said simply, "Bless you and welcome!" He was in fact wearing jeans--and work boots--under his robe. He took off his robe to come into the gathering hall to help set up tables and the men all heaved the tables around with much screeching and scraping of metal and linoleum. More people started coming in with a burst of kids' and women's voices, and there were smells of casseroles and salad dressing and onions. Someone started frying up hamburgers. We stayed inside because the clouds were piling up again, shot through with blazes of sunshine that came and went. I tagged after Maggie, who introduced me to the Kirchners and a bunch of other people, and many of them had the same last names, and I lost track of who was who. They were all very nice and smiled at me and said they were glad to meet me. They did not ask what grade I was in or how long I was staying, though everyone did manage to make some kind of wry comment about how different this must be from Chicago. And every time I said--honestly--that yes, it was different and in a good way. That made them happy, and overall it was pretty easy.
It was like people out here knew how to live with space between them. In the city, there are so many people all in the same place that you storm along and grab your own space before anyone else can take it and act like there's no one else there. And then, when you're with people you do know, it's all hugs and kisses and oversharing about your diet and other people's marriages and the state of your bowels, for all I know. Out here, there was plenty of space for everybody, so you were actually glad to see each other as it happened, and chat and have a friendly word, and then leave spaces for breathing. I was a total stranger, but that was okay.
I got out my camera, and Maggie started lining people up, and I took their pictures, and they all just stood there grinning, and it was no big deal. She knew who everybody was, so we'd sort through the shots later on. I took some candid party shots, just for the heck of it, and then went to find the bathroom. It was down a windowed hallway, and when I came around the corner, I saw a guy sitting on a bench. He didn't notice me. He looked about my age, maybe a little older, so maybe not so much into mom-and-kids theme that afternoon. He sat hunched forward, his elbows on his knees, intent on his cellphone. The sun emerged from the clouds and suddenly rim-lit him: outlined his shape, the curve of his back, the angles of his elbows and shins, light on his forearms and the toes of his boots. I snapped off three shots and the sun disappeared. He still hadn't seen me. The bathroom was right opposite where he was sitting. When I got there, he glanced up and I said, "Hi." And went into the bathroom. I felt embarrassed that he could hear me flush the toilet. He said hi to me when I came out again. What the hell.
"Hi," I said again. "I'm Katie, Katie Myrdal."
"Oh, right. Len and Maggie's, what, niece, right?" I guess word travels fast.
"Yeah. Nice to meet you."
"Did you get, like, something to eat or anything?" I asked him."
"Naw, no, thanks. I just brought my little brother to this things. My mom had to work, so I said I'd bring him."
"Oh. Which... which one is your brother?"
"Fat little dude in camo pants." I knew who he meant. "He's Doug. I'm Travis. Travis Gibb."
"Then he turned his head. His hair was shaggy, just uncut long, not on-purpose long, but not all over. The right side of his head was almost bald, just a feathery fuzz, with a few strands off the top falling down. The skin was stiff, shiny, pink, creased, and he didn't really have a right ear, just a gnarly little rim around the ear hole. I felt a little sick, but was damned if I'd let on. The pink shiny skin sheath went down his neck inside his collar. And his right hand... curled, contracted, two fingers missing. He placed his hand by his thigh where I couldn't see it.
"Burns," he said. "You haven't heard the Gibb house fire story yet?"
I shook my head.
"Your dad, I heard he died," he said.
"I'm sorry," he said. "So did mine."
"In the fire?"
This time he nodded. "Back in January."
"But you and your other family are okay?"
"Mom was working. Thank God. I got Dougie out, and he was fine. But my dad... he was done. Nothing to do for him"
"My dad shot himself," I said abruptly. What, was this some kind of competition? Whose dad had the most gruesome death?
"I heard that," he answered. I stood there, twisting my camera strap, while Travis Gibb sat there and looked up at me. "It'll get easier," he said. "Takes a while, though. Maybe not so bad for me. My dad was a song of a bitch."
"Mine wasn't!" I said. "Not to me."
He stood up.
"I better go find Dougie," he said. "See you around, I guess. Maggie and Len are good people. They'll take good care of you."
And he walked away.