THE PRAIRIE IS BEST rendered in fall. In a land where light—its length, its clarity—is abundant, it is only in fall when its sheer intensity, its radiant glory, is felt. In late afternoon, as the sun slides lower in the western sky, the buttes blaze copper; the harvested fields of wheat turn tawny. The sky slowly streaks to calamine. Shadows lengthen and the world rushes toward the close of day, the golden light lasting a mere hour. It is as if you are within the brushstrokes of a fiery painting.

As the ferocity of the crepuscular light fades and darkness seeps across the vault of sky, stars shroud the edges of the wide world. It is as if fireflies are lodged into a large black sheet. Once, when I was in elementary school, while my family drove home in winter on a cold, clear night, the aurora borealis leaked into my periphery. Lime ribbons began to swirl higher and higher until the ionosphere pulsed. Vertiginous, my father pulled over and we enjoyed the silent fireworks sweeping across the sky—it felt like I was inside the birthing of a nebula.

The ocean of the prairie is too large to be captured in any one image. However much I’ve tried, no panoramic lens can give the scale of the prairie’s magnitude. The prairie cannot be summited; we cannot even go, like a forest, into it. To truly experience the prairie, we must lower ourselves and submit our bodies to the ground. We must be comfortable with soil, with earth, with dust.

For hours in childhood I would lie down on a hilltop beyond the wheat field behind our house. The sky washed with clouds that slowly shifted like a trail of smoke. The earth below me seemed to move, but maybe it was because of the wheeling of a hawk or the whirling of a turkey vulture high above me. I felt unmoored, floating across the sea of sky.

The prairie, too, can become unmoored. The chalky soil of western North Dakota was, in the early days of European immigration, cut into bricks to build sod houses—brick by brick, layer by layer, crude houses rose across the ocean of sage, milkvetch, and little bluestem. Like a fishnet, the grass’s roots held the sod bricks together yet were still permeable. Sometimes bull snakes fell from the ceiling onto dining tables.

But the prairie is fragile. To be of the prairie is to recognize its fragility. To some, what feels harsh and open is, upon closer examination, delicate and sensitive.

The prairie of western North Dakota does not heal. On my sojourns in southwestern North Dakota, near Amidon and Mar­marth, I’ve rubbed my hands along wagon tracks still rutted in the land from Custer’s fateful trip west.

Before growing upward, grass tests the conditions to see whether it can make a home in place. Before sending up its bright blade, as much as two-thirds of the plant will vein through the soil, spreading outward and down like the branches of a tree. The grass is patient; it can take years before it decides to pop up and emerge.

This patience has been broken throughout history by various animals—horses and cattle whose hooves aren’t shaped for the arid soil of western North Dakota—and by excavation of oil and coal, which rips the roots and breaks the fibers that bind and secure soil in place.

The prairie needs time to flourish. The empire of fossil fuels moves swiftly. The prairie I know is not like the forests of New England; it does not regenerate quickly. In a culture where we spend, lose, save, and buy our time—where time is an economic transaction—the prairie teaches us that to flourish, we need patience.

When a mountaintop is removed, we see its rubble cast into the valley. When a forest is clear cut, we see the stumps like fibrous tombstones. But when the prairie is overturned, we fail to mourn because, to most of us, the prairie is dirt, a patch of grass, nothing remotely remarkable. What we cannot recognize we oftentimes will not protect.

Perhaps it is because of intimidation. Since the prairie spreads, instead of builds, we view it as no great wonder, as something we have no control over, as something that’s around and beneath us, as something we cannot conquer. But so often, at least to our way of seeing, we fail to notice what’s right at our feet. By looking down, instead of up, an entire universe reveals itself. A community of microbes, miles of roots twisting and wrapping, field mice and badger burrows.

To live on the prairie is to be hunted, whether by a coyote, by a pack of boys, or by the sting of loneliness. There is no other way to say this: the prairie reveals. Like a painting viewed at a nose’s length, layer upon layer of color, of grass, of our very selves, is exposed on the prairie. It is a place that tests us spiritually, even existentially.

The prairie is humble—supple and gentle, a purl of stiff stalks in the wind, pulsing and swaying: a large, undulating wash of brown and green against the air that, not so very long ago, was brackish and heavy. The prairie begins in stillness and slips through the soil of my imagination, a great canvas against which to paint the ideas of history, the possibilities in a broken world, a vast space that makes enough room for any idea, for any wish—a biotic community of possibility and rootedness.

The prairie is perceived as barren, and the only way to deal with emptiness is to fill it up. Space is what the prairie provides. By seeing space, we might better know the spaces within us, and how to hold and carry space. To see space is a matter of sight. With enough space, ideas have room to take root, grow, and blossom.

The prairie, for millennia, was not perceived as empty; it was a riot of life. Throngs of bison ambled across the prairie. Elk, grizzly bear, and gray and red wolves lived as far east as the Missouri River. Cougars hunted the plentiful pronghorn antelope. And then Europeans, desperate for food and clothing—and, later in the nineteenth century, for sport as well as in a systematic attempt to starve Native Americans—began a multispecies slaughter. With the megafauna of the Plains reduced, a spiritual inanition replaced a region that had once vibrated with life. The symphony of the prairie quieted.

The prairie trains the eye to be attentive. The dome of the sky smolders cerulean, sapphire, indigo, crimson, amber, saffron, lavender, periwinkle, and plum.

The level of noticing that the prairie teaches is only achieved through attentiveness and stillness, and it’s often found in solitude. Perhaps this is why many Native Americans went on their vision quests atop buttes. It is by looking out that we can finally see within.

The boundary of the mixed-grass prairie is supple. Over dozens of miles the tall grasses, such as big bluestem, which can grow to more than six feet in height, lose their grip as they are replaced by the short grasses. There is a gradual change—there is no strong boundary, but rather a gentle flow. The mixed-grass prairie of North Dakota is the geographical center—the heart—of the continent.

Yet we are a culture that plays to the edges. We are fascinated with coastal cities, with density, with, as the writer Gretel Ehrlich says, building against space. But in the great middle is the core from which everything flows. It is the center upon which everything depends. When a wound in the heart festers, rot sweeps through the body—and this rot, in a place where little attention from the wider culture is given, can replicate, if not fester, over generations, spreading to the rest of the bioregions slowly, methodically, if not metaphorically, until we all are reduced to a stubble.


EACH YEAR DURING childhood, Dad and I went to Borenko Coal, near Nelson Lake, four miles from our house, to get coal for our fireplace. I was his small helper.

Dad lifted me into our silver Dodge, a two-door pickup with a shiny ram’s head atop the hood. A scratchy blanket with southwestern patterns prickled my legs as we rumbled across the roadway, a blue slice of Nelson Lake water coming into view, breaking the velvety, brown hills.

Once there, Dad, trim, with a red handlebar mustache, pulled the pickup under a large chute, glanced between mirrors to make sure the bed was centered. He put the truck in park and gave a thumbs-up to the man working in the trailer ahead of us.

Large black chunks of coal tumbled into the bed, which bucked and jolted as it filled. On occasion, Dad looked over and sometimes smiled. His hair was still red; no crow’s feet then around his eyes. The chalky smell of smoke from his clothes perfumed the cab.

Once the rocking stopped, Dad put the truck in gear and we drove away, heavier with the weight of coal, Nelson Lake slipped behind flaxen hills. At home, he propped open the entryway door leading to a bin built of two-by-fours and plywood. He handed me a pair of his large leather work gloves and then smaller pieces of coal to haul into the entryway and plop in the bin.

The chunks were luminous. As if flecked with jewels, the coal glistened in sunlight. Piece by piece the bin filled with the promise of winter warmth, of us gathered around our coal stove heating the living room. Sometimes, in winter, I was allowed to go outside, make a snowball, and bring it inside to place on our hot, black stovetop. The snow steamed and crackled, and a pool of water grew, soaking up the smaller and smaller globe of snow.

Hot and cold, hot and cold. Even my parents must have known then the costs of this warmth—black soot flaked across the floor; ashes were hauled outside to cool.

Coal is dirty. But it put food on our table, it kept us warm, it paid for ski trips to the Black Hills and Bozeman, Montana, or family vacations to Disney World and Key West.


ONE DAY, I SAT at Grandma Brorby’s vanity, in Aunt Shelia’s old room, while Grandma fiddled with her pearls and asked, “Would you like to have some fun, honey?”

I never said no to Grandma, the woman who peeled my apples and cut my bologna sandwiches into little triangles without the crust—she knew I didn’t like crust.

Grandma lifted me up and plopped me on her lap. She unscrewed the lid of a small vial; her acrylic nails clicked against plastic.

“Do you like how my nails look, Taylor?”

Oh yes, I told her. I liked them a lot.

“Would you like your nails to look like mine?”

I closed my eyes to think about it (we liked to keep each other in suspense). I opened my eyes and looked into the bright light of the vanity.

Grandma rested her chin on my small shoulder, her curled brown hair tickling my ear.

“Yes,” I said.

Grandma’s white teeth glistened behind me; her eyes glittered behind her large glasses.

We sat and she hummed as, stroke by stroke, my nails turned crimson—one, two, three, until all ten shined like bright little apples. And then Grandma held my hands, one by one, and blew.

WHEN DAD CAME to pick me up, I bounded up the green-carpet stairs like Daisy, my Grandma’s black dachshund. Dad saw me, and I stopped. I knew that look. His eyes flashed to Grandma.

“Go back downstairs,” he said, and I slid on my butt, bounced harder and harder on each step because I knew I had done something wrong.

I went and sat in front of the vanity and stared into the mirror.

“Mom, I have one son and one daughter, not two daughters,” I heard him yell.

Each word jolted me as I sat in my small chair. I held my cheeks with my fingers and then peeled the paint from my nails.


THE FIRST MEMORY I have of my sister, Tanya, is of her lying down on her back on the ashen-colored carpet in our trailer house, her long red hair fanning out from her head, a wide smile spread across her face. Ten years older than me, Tanya was like a third parent in my life. She’d lift her legs straight up from her pelvis, bend at the knee, and tap her femur. “Hop up here, Nerdbomber,” she’d say.

I, still in a diaper, cruised over toward her, gripped her hands as she slid my small Jell-O body on top of her legs. I never let go of her. She’d rock me up and down; her bangs, secured in place with hairspray, bounced as the weight of me pulled her legs toward the ground. I slid back and forth across her acid-washed jeans, her Hypercolor T-shirt changing colors before my eyes. I’d start giggling, knowing what was about to happen.


I’d start to smile, my tuft of red hair flowing up and down.


I’d let out a cackle.


I’d shoot over her like being shot from a trebuchet. I somersaulted above her head, Tanya’s hands firmly gripped mine, and I’d stick a landing, the force of which made me shoot from side to side as if I was balancing on a waterbed. Woozy, I’d laugh as Tanya slowly let go of me. Sometimes I tumbled, other times I stayed right side up, my diaper a little lower on my hips. She’d help me hoist it back to its proper place before I’d crow for her to launch me again and again and again. And all the while, my big sister never let me go.


AS A CHILD, my father often made me cry—his loud, gravelly voice always seemed tinged with anger. Even saying good morning could provoke me to tears.

Once, while zipping up my jacket so I could go play in the snow, I accidentally looked down as the zipper rumbled up my belly. It caught my neck.

I wailed, and large tears fell onto my mittens.

My father stood up and pointed down at me. “Remember,” he said, “Brorby men never cry.”

But whenever I wanted to draw something challenging—a toy gargoyle or a triceratops—I would always take it to Dad. Usually it was in the low light just before bed, just before he would leave for the graveyard shift at the Bobcat factory, where he worked as a welder, forty miles out of our small town in coal country.

Dad would take my sketch pad, set down my toy, grip my pencil, and make light strokes across the page—never hard, never committed lines. As I sat by his frame, hardened by manual labor, perfumed by cigarette smoke, I watched gentle lines flow across the page. My father’s large fingers gripped my small pencil, the sound of the graphite against the paper mesmerized me. Later, his strokes could be pressed upon by me, tracing his movements, apprenticing to make something beautiful in his wake.

But my father fumed when I wouldn’t grab him a leech or worm while we fished for walleye. I played with a toy Arctic tern, leashed on a short plastic rope alongside our boat. As we trolled against the current, and I held the rope, I watched the decoy make gentle rings in the hypnotic water. I daydreamed, which, in my family—where I was always encouraged to be in movement, to be doing something—was a type of sin.

Whenever I was caught reading a book, my parents would tell me to go and do something, which was a euphemism for go outside: to play baseball, to go fishing, to be like the other boys.

Outside was an amber world of wheat, gentling rolling hills where I’d sometimes be chased by angry ottomans of fur—badgers. Outside was where I escaped with my tackle box and sketchbook, walked past a weathered, abandoned farmhouse, weeds choking the scoria roadway leading to its now glassless window frames. The house, I thought, was certainly haunted.

The Square Butte Creek was my babysitter then, a twig of a stream I’d meander along as I hunted northern pike, watched muskrats cruise along its grassy banks. No other children wandered in this watery world. My classmates played video games, worked on the family ranch, and didn’t escape to the musical world of western meadowlarks and ring-necked pheasants.

Nature was the great god I sought. In nature, there was time for stillness, for me to sketch a great blue heron as it stalked small minnows. In nature, I relished how close I could crawl toward a beaver before the great paddle of its tail walloped the surface of the water.

All this was for me, mine for the savoring. The world beyond my small town fueled my mind on the page. I drew largemouth bass and northern pike lurking under cattails. I couldn’t see that watery world below the surface, but I trained my eye to notice the opalescent clams glimmering through the cocoa-colored creek or the shortening tails of tadpoles in small, shallow pools.

But farther downstream was Nelson Lake, the only lake in North Dakota that never freezes. It’s a man-made reservoir whose water cools the coal-fired turbine engines of Minnkota Power, the power plant where my mother spent her career as an administrative assistant.

Beyond the loamy hills near the Square Butte Creek swung the large dragline that ripped lignite coal from dusty North Dakota soil. The dragline was a part of the mine where Grandpa Brorby worked—the mine that supplied the coal to Minnkota Power.

THE EARLIEST WRITTEN account of lignite mining in Dakota Territory, to the best of my knowledge, is from 1873, when small mines were developed along the main transportation routes in what, in 1889, would become western North Dakota. To get to the coal, settlers tunneled into outcrops or simply dug the lignite out from the land—a technique like that used in modern strip mining.

By 1900 there were seventy-three “wagon mines” in the state—small, seasonal mines where farmers and ranchers brought their buckboards to the site and filled them with coal before making the trek back to their sod houses or tar-paper shacks.

In 1918, the Whittier Coal Company and Truax Brothers began strip-mining with horse-drawn elevating graders and dump wagons. The wagons disposed of till and hauled lignite to a loading site, where it would then be transported by rail.

Over the next half century, mining spread from northwestern North Dakota and followed the miry Missouri River east, as far as Underwood, fifty miles upstream from the capital of Bismarck. Later, because water is required to generate electricity, large electrical generating stations began to develop along Lake Sakakawea, the two-hundred-mile-long reservoir in western part of the state, as well as the main artery of the continent, the Missouri River. Mining had arrived in south-central North Dakota.

Grandpa Brorby began in the coal mines in Divide County and then, when coal was discovered in the late 1960s, moved his family—my grandmother, my father, and his three siblings—south to Center, in Oliver County. Others moved from Noonan, a coal town in Divide County, cutting the population in half, for it was a company town, and this new exodus drained Noonan of money, of people, of story. The city of Center, though, spread, if gently—new houses, a larger school, new Scandinavian names, in a community of farmers and ranchers that were Germans-from-Russia.

The Square Butte Creek, just outside Center, was dammed. The dam was made of jagged rocks that, when wet, looked like the newly discovered coal but still held the water back, creating, over time, Nelson Lake.

AND THEN, by November 1970, a power plant was completed. The Milton R. Young Station, owned by Minnkota Power, featuring a five-hundred-foot smokestack, was a high-rise on the surrounding prairie. Visible for miles, it chugged while burning coal like a lit cigarette—a Polaris for me on late-night rides home from Bismarck.

From a distance, the power plant looked like something built by a small child with blocks—large squares against the rolling, tan hills. The top of each block had a clear rim of black, as if drawn on by a marker. The base of each block of the building was a crisp white, a type of almost-camouflage in winter, when the sky smeared gray and white on overcast days.

Metal gates wrapped around the entrances to the plant—no barbed wire—and if you tried to pass through the front entrance gate, a voice would issue from a silver box with punched holes, after pressing a button, like an old telephone, the voice asking who you were and whom you wanted to see. If you answered correctly, the metal gate jolted back, allowing passage like some medieval entrance to another world.

On the grounds of the power plant, small industrial four-wheelers zipped across the cement, darted between garages, carrying men in hard hats, wearing plaid or denim shirts. It seemed like a city to my callow young eyes—one, though, without windows and that was all too often covered in soot.


IN MY CHILDHOOD BEDROOM was a varnished oak box lined with red felt that Grandpa Brorby had made for me. This small chest was where I kept my treasures: a Morgan silver dollar, some marbles (one black and one blue), and a jagged lump of coal.

In quiet moments, I’d open the box and roll these gems in my cupped hands. I felt the weight of a history I did not yet know.

For me, it begins with coal—a black, speckled not-quite rock that looks as if stars streak across its surface, this black hole that pulls the whole world, as if gravitationally, to its center.

There, in my palm, I’d hold the universe in the making, layer upon layer of Earth’s history—one part dinosaur bone, two parts bird feather, many parts mystery, compressed by millennia.

So much remains seen and hidden in North Dakota.

As I turned it over, I’d wonder what the coal could tell me about the Stygian underworld from which it was created. I held it up to the light, rotated it like a diamond, only to set it back in the box.


MY MOTHER AND I often sat in the kitchen-cum-dining-room of our trailer house at my squat plastic Playskool table with a white top and forest green legs. I’d pull off the lids of my Play-Doh containers, and out wafted what smelled to me then like the ocean. Between our hands we’d roll red and green and blue, warming it to make the dough pliable, smiling at each other.

I remember my mother’s fingernails—how the nail was not smooth and round, but made up of planks of cartilage dovetailed together like something from a fine woodworker’s shop. Sometimes, I’d roll my small fingers across the ridges of her nails.

“You are going to have large, beautiful moons under your nails, just like your father, Taylor,” she’d say, smiling.

Sometimes, when I was alone in the bathroom, where the light was bright, I’d hold my hand up just right, so it would catch the light. I’d twist my head and squint, checking to see that I had my mother’s ridges and, underneath, my father’s moons, a type of celestial landscape blending to become one in me.

ONE NIGHT, MOM AND I made a volcano, the green dough rising off the white tabletop. Mom helped me press down with my thumb to make a huge hole in my volcano. Then she rolled the blue dough paper-thin and wrapped it around the volcano’s base.

“Look, Taylor, it’s a lake.”

We rolled the red into tubes and folded them down the sides of my volcano. I imagined Tyrannosaurus rexes or stegosauruses running for the hills.

“Look, Mom—it’s lava,” I said, my hands beside my head as I bared my teeth and snarled. We laughed, and then I launched from the table and bolted past our fireplace and down the long, dark hallway to my room. I flipped on the light, ripped off the top of my large plastic toy bin, and grabbed a Batman action figure and a velociraptor. I darted back down the hallway, burst past the counter, and broke into the kitchen.

“Ta-da!” I cried.

“Oh, Batman and that dinosaur are going to make this look so good,” Mom said. She then held up her hand, looked shocked, and said, “But wait—let’s make your volcano erupt.”

I sat in my small yellow plastic chair and kicked my legs back and forth under the table. This was always my favorite part.

Mom went to the sink and snagged a bottle of soap.

She returned and hovered over the volcano, dripping some liquid into it. I looked up at her and she winked.

She glided over to the cabinet and retrieved some baking soda and vinegar. I shot up from my seat and rushed over to a drawer to snatch a spoon.

We both took our places. We knew what to do.

Spoonful by small spoonful, I ladled the soda into my volcano. Mom popped open the vinegar lid. She held the bottle above the volcano. I bit my lower lip as a small stream began to shoot through the air and then, suddenly, the volcano erupted.

I squealed as the suds slid down the side and slipped around the ankles of my velociraptor and wet Batman’s cape.


ON A SUNNY DAY under a cobalt sky on the Missouri, we shoved off from the United Power Association’s boat landing in my grandparents’ blue Sylvan fishing boat, churning the beautiful ocher-colored water as we plowed upriver. The minnow bucket, filled with fatheads, swished in the stern, wetting the navy carpet.

Grandpa Hatzenbihler slowed the boat and we glided up and against the current, no longer having to hold on to our hats. Cottonwood leaves twitched like silver coins in the noonday sun. I heard a thwack in the distance. Grandpa, silver hair shooting out from his trucker hat, gripped the key with his sausage-sized fingers and shut off the motor.

“Come give me a hand, Taylor,” he said.

I tromped to the bow of the boat, wrapped in my orange-and-yellow lifejacket, my head topped with a bucket hat. I’m sure I wore jeans, for that was the Summer of the Jean, as my family dubbed it, a summer when I only wore jeans because I, at seven, played baseball and did not want to sunburn my legs.

“Help me toss the anchor, will you?” Grandpa chimed.

I grabbed the nylon rope with Grandpa as we waddled toward the front of the bow, the heavy, blue plastic anchor swinging like a putter between our hands. My hands rubbed against Grandpa’s belly, large and round from years of dough and cream—German-from-Russia cooking—and homemade chokecherry wine.

“Ready?” he asked. “One, two, three.”

The anchor made a loud ka-plop and quickly disappeared into that muddy and watery world. Grandpa chuckled and patted me on the back.

“Grandma, can you hand me my pole, please?” he said to his wife, who was dressed in polyester pants and a sleeveless blouse.

“Taylor, can you take this to him?” she asked as she passed me the fishing pole with her liver-spotted hands.

I shuffled from the stern to the bow.

We rigged up, and I got to put the minnows on everyone’s hooks. I had learned that it’s best to place the hook right under the minnow’s mouth, press upward quickly, and pull the hook back around. This usually doesn’t kill the minnow, which you want to swim and look normal on the hook—you want to trick coveted walleye into swallowing those suckers, Grandpa had told me.

Sometimes he asked for a big fathead, by which he meant a spawning male—large, black about the body and head. I hated putting these ones on Grandpa’s hook; they sounded like crunching chips when I pushed the hook through their heads.

Eventually all three of our lines were in the water, and we sat back and waited for that quick bam-bam of a walleye bite.

“Dollar for the first, the most, and the biggest,” shouted Grandpa from the bow.

Soon after, Grandma set the hook, and a smile curled around her thin lips. We heard, “Scheisse, scheisse, scheisse,” from the front of the boat.

Grandma and I giggled.

I got the net as Grandma reeled slowly and methodically.

“There it is, Taylor,” she said, and a white belly with that beautiful golden-green scale side sliced up from under the surface.

I plunged the net into the water and scooped underneath the fish.

“It’s a good eater,” Grandma laughed to Grandpa, who had kicked on the live well to fill it with water.

A few fish later, I had already grown tired. I ate a homemade summer sausage sandwich on homemade buns and juneberry kuchen and played with my decoy of an Arctic tern alongside the boat.

“It’s okay if you want to take a nap, Taylor,” said Grandma.

I took off my life jacket, used it as a pillow, and curled up in the shade behind Grandma’s chair. I slept, the gentle purr of the trolling motor and the soft smack of the river against the bow of the boat lulling me to sleep.

Later, I woke to the sound of Canada geese blasting above me.

“Grandpa, can I fish up front?” I asked.

“You bet, buddy. Let’s pull anchor and troll for a bit, it’ll be easier for you to fish away from the motor anyway.”

I put on a sleek silver-green minnow and thought about how much it must hurt to have a hook through your head, then be plunged into the murky Missouri, only to be chomped on by a walleye. I swung my pole over the river, opened the reel, and watched the sinker take the minnow to the bottom. After a few seconds, I clicked the reel closed and watched the tip of my rod tick tick tick as the weight dragged along the bottom.

A moment passed, an eternity.

My rod bent into a mighty U.

“Grandpa, I think I might have snagged a tree,” I yelled.

“Yah, yah, let me come see. Grandma, can you hold my pole?” he asked.

Grandpa lumbered toward me, a wrinkle of sweat on his upper lip.

“Oh, no, that’s moving. If it is a tree, keep reeling, but it might be a big something, Taylor. It isn’t moving like a walleye.”

I kept reeling. I pulled back my rod when I could, like those great saltwater fishermen I watched on television fishing for marlin or sailfish. My hand went tense, so I sometimes did a big pull, took my hand off the reel, opened and closed my fist quickly, then returned to reeling.

“Grandpa, let’s pull our lines in just in case Taylor does have a fish on,” said Grandma.

Their lines came in and skittered across the surface of the river like dragonflies. My grandparents watched me. Grandpa came toward the bow.

“Slow and steady, Taylor. This might be a wall-mounter.”

Don’t break the line, I said to myself.

Even if it was a tree, I wanted to see it.

And then it came. It was no tree. A snout broke the surface, four barbels dripped with water, coal black eyes looked at me from an ashen body.

“Grandpa, it’s huge!”

“Cecelia, I need a knife,” said Grandpa.

I looked up at him, but he didn’t look at me.

“Here, Monsadius,” said Grandma.

I kept reeling. The large fish’s gray snout sliced out of the water. Its belly was white. Its tail looked like a shark. Its side was wrapped in gray armor.

My eyes widened.

Grandpa grabbed the fishing line out from the tip of my pole, pulled it toward him, and slashed the line. My pole snapped straight, and the ghost submerged back into the water.

“Why did you do that? Why couldn’t we bring the fish in the boat?” I cried.

“We can’t, Taylor, it’s illegal,” said Grandpa.

“Why?” I wailed.

“Because it’s against the law; we’d get in big trouble if we kept it.”

“But we don’t get in trouble for keeping walleye or crappie or bass.”

“That’s a pallid sturgeon. They’re endangered—it’s why we can’t keep it.”

“What does ‘endangered’ mean?” I asked.

“It means it might go extinct,” said Grandma.

“What does that mean?”

“It means that there are so few of them left that, if we don’t put them back to protect them, there’ll be no more,” she replied.

I set down my pole, grabbed my toy tern, and tossed it in the water. As it bobbed against the boat, I thought about the monster of a fish I had just seen—about it lurking down below me, one of so few in number. I wondered if it was lonely, if it felt as alone as I often felt. And then I wondered—now that I knew—what else in my life was at risk for passing away.


LIGHT FILTERED THROUGH my blinds on an early Saturday morning. It was Earth Day 1995. I hurled from bed in my Batman pajamas, hustled toward my chest of drawers, stood on my toes, and opened the top drawer. I worked my hand from right to left. From the drawer I pulled my black Batman cape, complete with Velcro patches, tossed it around my shoulders, and squished the Velcro to my pajama shirt.

Mom and Dad were still asleep. I tiptoed past their room and scooted on my butt down the fourteen steps. Past the front door and the dining room was the large living room—at least, it seemed large to me. We had just moved from our trailer home to a blue split-level across town. We now had a basement. I had both a bedroom and a room for the drafting table Mom and Dad bought me so that I could draw in solitude. Reams of unused printer paper Mom brought home from work bricked the room’s walls.

Outside, it was late April; a few patches of snow streaked the ground. I touched the knob on our wood-paneled television and static snapped my fingertips. My hair stood on end as I clenched and unclenched my feet in our soft ashen carpet. I turned the larger knob to the number 13—Nickelodeon.

I plopped down on the carpet and criss-cross applesauced my legs. On the screen, a large yellow bull began to sing. The cartoon was about Rocko, a wallaby, and his friend Heifer. That day, there was a new character, Captain Compost Heap. CCH, as others called him, told the residents of O-Town (where Rocko lived) that the dump, which looked like a large muffin top, was too full of trash, and that the local corporation, Conglom-O, was dumping its waste in the local river. CCH began to bob and sing to the menagerie of animals about recycling and composting, warning that if the residents of O-Town didn’t take care of the planet, they would get what they deserved.

The compost heap reached toward the sky, its eyes strained, as if to sacrifice a virgin to a volcano god. Pink chemical compounds representing fluorocarbons darted across the screen and blasted toward the ozone layer. They chomped as if devouring donuts. Captain Compost Heap pulled out a magnifying glass and sang, “They’re too small to be seen with normal vision.” And a choir of fluorocarbons harmonized in shrill voices, “But there’s getting to be more of us each year.”

The frame cut back to the O-Town dump. Captain Compost Heap’s voice rang from the background when a dark character came into view.

Heifer said, “Look, it’s the Grim Recycler!” And the Grim Recycler said, “No autographs, please.” A wolf and pig bounced, making farting noises. I giggled.

Outside our large bay window, past our evergreen tree, rose the white and gray spire of smoke from the power plant.


TO THE WEST OF CENTER, a large dragline swings back and forth every day as its mammoth bucket, weighing over one hundred tons, maneuvers with a boom, scrapes away the grass and soil of the prairie.

Grandpa Hatzenbihler, a hard-up farmer, lamented that the Baukol-Noonan, Inc., mine moved west instead of east—surely there was coal under his farm. The dragline made other families wealthy while he struggled with the yearly harvest.

Once the overburden—the rock and soil atop a coal deposit—is removed, the trucks come to transport coal from the strip mine to Minnkota Power. Large clouds of dust kick up. As a child, I loved watching the trail shoot up and hover as the trucks rumbled toward the power plant.

The coal feeds massive boilers in the belly of the plant, which turn the chunks of earth into electricity and heat. Because the coal burns so hot, Nelson Lake water is needed to cool the power plant’s boilers. In winter, steam snails into the air from the lake. Fishermen wrapped in snowmobile suits hurl lures through ropes of mist, hoping to catch largemouth bass.

Between the mine, which we refer to as BNI, and Minnkota Power are overflow ponds—backwater that gathers from marshes and small, unnamed creeks the size of twigs. The ponds, rimmed with emerald-colored reeds, are the size of football fields.

A gunmetal gray farmhouse, worn from wind, water, and snow, marked the entrance to these ponds. When I was young, my mother told me that an old man lived there, but in all my hunting for fish along the cattails, I never saw a vehicle pull up to the farm, much less a light through its windows. I kept looking over my shoulder as I cast lures along the reeds, just in case.

The ponds were a nesting ground for carp, whose small, supple mouths, when they came up for air, looked like belly buttons. Their large black backs broke the surface and eventually one would roll among the cluster and shine his belly, the color of creamed corn, against the pale, fading light.

AT ELEVEN, AFTER CATCHING Brad Pitt casting in the movie A River Runs Through It, I asked my father what he was doing. “Fly-fishing,” Dad said. And that year, on Christmas morning, a fly rod was waiting next to my velvety stocking.

The ponds were where I taught myself to fly-fish. A large hill rose in the southern pond near a tawdry beaver lodge. I cast my large nest of feather and fur back and forth; after it broke the serene glass of the pond, I stripped the line to help the fly submerge and cruise along the cattail reeds.

This was a warm, murky aquatic ecosystem of muskrat, fish, and amphibians. The chorus of northern leopard frogs was so loud that it sometimes felt like a subwoofer in my ears. I would see whitetail deer come to the water’s edge at twilight—ever so slightly, the deer descended the steep southern hill’s embankment. Near the edge, they would crane their necks; the flicking of tongues sent gentle ripples across the pond. Ears twitched, first this way, then that. If I threw a stick in the pond, the deer, half a football field away, jolted. They stared at me as the stick bobbed in the water.

It was a serene world, and we all, the deer and I, sensed danger lurked in the distance.


BY HIS ACTIONS and decisions, James J. Hill, the Empire Builder, shaped early life from Minneapolis to Seattle after Europeans arrived. Building his great western railroads in the decades of the 1870s through the 1890s, Hill opened the last remnants of the Homestead Act to cultivation and commercial interests. European settlers then bought their land through Hill’s Great Northern Railway with the assurance that their crops and goods would be transported on Hill’s railroad, securing the magnate a monopoly on the commerce across the northern Great Plains.

With land on their mind, my ancestors left the boreal air of Norway for the sea of tall grasses in Minnesota. The Homestead Act, originally passed and signed into law in 1862, had opened vast tracts of land—160 acres for any white man, white woman, or freeman who would make a go of it. The stiff stalks of grass waving in the afternoon breeze must have exuded the scent of possibility. Once cut and plowed, the land exposed the rich, brown soil of the Red River Valley of western Minnesota, a newly minted state.

The Brorbys settled near Rothsay in Otter Tail County, two hundred miles northwest of Minneapolis, in the 1860s. Our name—Brorby—is rooted in place: a farm name meaning “brother city,” with no paterfamilias ties, like other Norwegians. A name taken from the farm my family must have longed for or longed to remember.

Describing the reaction of his protagonist, the recent immigrant farmer Per Hansa, to the western tallgrass prairie in his novel Giants in the Earth, Ole Rölvaag wrote, “Such soil! Only to sink the plow into it, to turn over the sod—and there was a field ready for seeding. . . . And this was not just ordinary soil, fit for barley, and oats, and potatoes, and hay, and that sort of thing; indeed, it had been meant for much finer and daintier uses; it was the soil for wheat, the king of all grains! Such soil had been especially created by the good Lord to bear this noble seed; and here was Per Hansa, walking around on a hundred and sixty acres of it, all his very own!”

But the Brorbys didn’t take to Minnesota, on the eastern edge of ancient Lake Agassiz, that tabletop flat land. Two generations after settling in the United States, in the 1910s, my great-grandpa Melvin, like the characters in Rölvaag’s novels, uprooted his family and left the Red River Valley, moving farther west to the pothole prairie of northwest North Dakota.

Socked in the corner of the state, Divide County borders Montana to the west and Saskatchewan to the north.

I grew up in the house that coal built. Great-Grandpa Melvin started up the family practice of digging for coal. Coal provided. It fortified our psyches and lined our bank accounts.

Fossil fuels flow through my veins.


I REMEMBER JEERING CIRCLES on the asphalt playground in the early morning light. Boys and girls, cupped hands over their mouths, egging Charlie and Andrew on. Hit him. Take him down. Put him in a headlock.

I looked on from the periphery—Andrew, three years older than me, trudged like a mini-Quasimodo, his weight behind every hook or jab. Charlie, trim and wiry, lunged, hurled haymakers. The two boys eventually locked, rolled on the hard ground; sharp gravel cut their skin, a crimson trail on the elbow, above the brow, a swollen purple flower blossomed on the cheek.

In first grade Charlie had invited me to his birthday party, along with six other boys. No one went. He got into fights, my parents said. I couldn’t play with boys who got into fights.

I walked to the slide, sat, and waited for the bell to ring. Mrs. Sheetz came out through the sleek metal doors and snagged each boy up by the ear. The circle scattered like ants.

I’D BE LYING if I said there wasn’t a part of me on those early mornings that wanted to step into that circle, to test my mettle—but there was something else burning in both those boys, some deep-seated anger churning in their bodies, something that needed to be exorcised. They both were raised by family members.

The fights were because Charlie would pick on Andrew’s younger brother; Charlie called him retard stupid idiot dipshit.

When each boy was yanked up by the ear, it wasn’t anger I saw. It looked like some billowing sadness, a dark mantle of clouds gathering on the horizon of their lives.


WHILE WAITING FOR Mrs. Schmidt, our third-grade teacher, to reveal our spelling words for the week, I crossed my right leg over my left, just like Matt Lauer, the host of Today, whom I watched every morning before school. Sleek and dapper, I wanted to be composed, put together, just like him.

“Only girls sit like that,” said Wesley.

Boys, Wesley told me—if they crossed their legs at all—were supposed to rest their ankle on the opposite leg’s knee, making a type of triangle gap between the crotch and legs.

I protested. “My way feels more comfortable.”

“What?” asked Wesley. “Because you don’t have a penis? Only girls sit like that—because they don’t have penises.”

I uncrossed my legs, slid my tibia along my knee until my ankle rested on my kneecap. I grimaced as a sharp pain shot through my pelvis. It hurt to sit like this.

YEARS EARLIER, when I still lived near Wesley, he and I rode our bicycles on the abandoned driveway next to his trailer house. There must have once been a trailer there, but it was long gone, a square of broken cement the only remnant of any previous residence. Weeds shot through the cracks. Sometimes they’d smack against our skinny shins as we whirled into a tempest, circling around the driveway, pumping our legs to pass each other.

I screeched to a halt, the black rubber of my tires streaking the cement like a line of charcoal. I told Wesley to wait right there.

I dropped my bike, ran through our crisp, clean grass, and bolted into the entryway of our trailer to snag an ice cream bucket. I shot soap into the bottom of the bucket, zipped outside, and cranked on our garden hose. Suds frothed and, nearly full, I turned off the hose.

I waddled over toward Wesley, my right hand holding the bucket as my left arm, perpendicular to my side, jutted out to balance me. Worried, I walked slowly so I didn’t drop my soap brew.

When I reached Wesley, he was yanking weeds out of the cement, tossing them like carrot tops into the grass. I asked him if he had seen the ant mounds while we zipped around the driveway. Of course, he hadn’t. He was too focused on pedaling hard and trying to beat me.

The anthills looked like gunpowder—volcanic little mounds where red or black ants disappeared and reappeared through a pin-sized hole.

“Watch,” I said. Tipping the bucket carefully, I poured a thin line of soapy water from high above the hills, directly into the holes.

A grin spread across Wesley’s face.

Suds bubbled atop the mounds like lava. The water gurgled.

I stopped. We waited. No ants appeared.

I ran back to the house and filled three separate ice cream buckets. I hollered from the front yard at Wesley to come from the abandoned lot and help. We stationed ourselves around more anthills. Our plan now was less precise—no sudsy waterfalls this time. It was time for full-on floods.

We ran around the driveway. Water gushed from our buckets as we squealed. Soap foamed and glistened across the wet pavement.

When my buckets were empty, I ran toward the house, turned on the hose, and pulled it as far as possible, folding my small thumb over the nozzle. A great wave of water shimmered in the air before falling like thunderbolts across the anthills.

I needed some way to assert my power, to show that I was in control, that, like a general, I could give orders and others would follow. Wesley had emasculated me earlier in the week, and, in the realm of boyhood, there is no sharper insult than to be called a girl.

We insult those we plan to control, those we seek to overpower. Our insecurities and weaknesses transfigure into attempts at domination—that’s what Wesley did in class, whether he knew it or not. The detail of how I sat became an opportunity for control, a moment to remind me that, to fit in, I needed to conform—that we don’t do that here. To sit properly, you must sit like this.

It was a whittling moment, an opportunity to chisel me into an acceptable form, to see if I would follow someone else’s orders, to do as I was told.

Now, I needed those ants to die—to drown them, to show Wesley that I could kill with something as gentle as soapy water. I needed to show him that I was in control over whether something lived or died, that I could order Wesley to be an accomplice, to do my bidding—that he, too, would enjoy seeing the small red and black bodies bubble to the surface, char in the afternoon sun, that he would help bring about the apocalypse as I ordained it.

I needed to show that I also possessed power, that I was a powerful little boy.

BERN AMBLED DOWN Prairie Avenue, shaded by elms, bookended with ranch homes and fertilized lawns. He held a paper bag in his suntanned hands. Adam and I were practicing T-ball, my Louisville Slugger over our right shoulders. We tried to wind it in a circle like Kirby Puckett, before unleashing hellfire against that little ball on a stick. Usually, we missed, spun around in a circle, and then looked back to make sure the other wasn’t laughing—and tried again.

That day, Adam cracked it—a line drive right at Bern, who caught it. Did he giggle or cackle?

We pulled our caps close to our eyes and kicked at the grass.

Bern sauntered toward us.

“You have to get it from him. You hit it,” I said and pushed Adam toward Bern, who looked as big as a barn.

“Sorry, Bern,” said Adam, and Bern stretched out his arm, pockmarked from cigarettes. He let the men from the coal mine put out their smokes on his scaled skin down at the bar: one butt for each snifter of bourbon.

Bern nodded, grunted something into the air, and moseyed along, step by step, and we turned to practice once more, to dream of the Major Leagues, of getting far away from here.


THEY LIVED TOGETHER in a tawny house on the south end of town, across from the Corner Stop. The biology teacher and the home ec teacher, track coaches too—they shared a house together. One had curly hair the color of sand, the other straight black hair, typically tied in a bun.

Later, when I got older, I heard rumors about how they liked to linger in the locker room after meets, talked with the players who stripped and got in the shower, who washed the sweat and salt from their game-tired bodies. I only knew the teachers in passing—on my way to the library in first grade, marching in alphabetical order for Mrs. Sherwin. We scurried as the bell rang and high schoolers flooded the hallway. I remember that their smiles looked the same—gaps between their front teeth; big, warm grins, mild bemusement behind their spectacles.

Later, they moved, together, to a larger town.


WHEN I WAS TEN, my parents and I took a vacation to Key West, Florida. I remember hordes of people bustling down Duval Street on a warm day.

We passed by Ripley’s Believe It or Not, moving in a thick crowd. I stuck close to my parents, sometimes holding their hands to make sure I wouldn’t get swallowed up by a drove of strangers. A large man, taller than Dad, resplendent in a sequined dress, fake eyelashes, and blond wig, sashayed alongside us.

“Hey, sugar, wanna come take a walk on the wild side?” he said to my father.

As we walked, I whispered to Dad, the man having now lost pace with us. “Dad, why did that man say that to you?”

“I’ll tell you when you’re older,” he grunted, tightening his grip around my hand.

EVERY SUMMER BEFORE I reached middle school, my mother and I, along with Aunt Raylene and two of her children, traveled out to my uncle Scott and aunt Trudy’s house in Billings. The dry heat of August meant that the Tongue and Powder Rivers had already turned to dust as we blazed across eastern Montana.

These trips were to see family, but they were also for back-to-school shopping, my aunts and Mom lugging us six cousins to Old Navy to buy clothes in a state with no sales tax. In this memory I’m thirteen, and my cousins and I laid out our new school clothes on the basement floor. My cousins—on my orders—decided to host a fashion show for our parents. I must have seen glimmers of runway shows on television. Aunt Raylene’s children, Katie and Evan—eleven and six—joined Scott and Trudy’s three kids, Grant, Chase, and Paige—seven, four, and one. Before us were piles of new blue jeans, T-shirts, polos, and shorts.

“Uncle Scott, we’re almost ready,” I shouted from the bottom steps. “Can you lower the lights and turn on the music?”

“Got it, buddy!” Uncle Scott bellowed.

We put on our first round of clothes and began to march up the stairs one by one. I instructed my younger cousins to wait until the person in front of them got back to the steps before tromping up to our parents and modeling for them.

“Remember,” I whispered, “turn your head from side to side, twist your hip. Stop in front of them, twirl, and march back down. When you get down, change into your next outfit as fast as you can.” I looked away from my cousins and yelled up the stairs. “Everyone ready up there?”

The music started to pump.

“First, from preschool just down the road,” I announced and paused. “Chase! Chase is sporting athletic blue shorts from Old Navy, paired with a green polo top! Whether he’s coloring outside of the lines or kicking a soccer ball, this four-year-old is ready for whatever the day throws at him!”

I heard a wash of laughter as Chase, who was out of sight, worked the crowd. Downstairs we could see flashes from our mothers’ cameras as Uncle Scott clapped to the beat of the music.

“Next up is Evan!”

I announced for everyone. I announced because it meant I was in control, that I controlled the narrative. The narrative I already had from family trips to Florida, the narrative that I was the only grandchild who loved musicals, the only one who hid out in his art room rather than joined grown men in garages to discuss the mechanics of trucks and rifles and football, like my other male cousins.

There was an affection I sought, a type of recognition I knew I needed, one that, at least at my aunt and uncle’s place in Billings, was rooted in being an announcer, rooted in entertaining people.

I knew then, as I know now, that if you make people laugh, if you can amuse them, they won’t beat the shit out of you, they won’t suspect you of being gay.


ON A SUNNY SATURDAY, Mom dropped me off at the Civic Center for art class. Me, eight women, and Jack, our art teacher. Elfish, wire-browed, Jack, at sixty, was my height in middle school.

Easels dotted the cold white room. The radiators rumbled. We rubbed our hands. The women were ecstatic that I, a boy, was taking art lessons. Some painted mule deer, others bouquets of flowers; a woman named Carla was painting from a black-and-white portrait, rendering her pastel version in color.

“My dress was actually green, but purple is my favorite color,” she said as she slid a stubby pastel out of her box.

Later in the day, Jack and I went into a storage room, which was filled with faux wooden tables and gray metal chairs. Somehow, it felt like a slaughterhouse.

Jack flicked on the projector, on which we then placed the picture of a brown trout I wanted to sketch. Jack turned the dial. In and out of focus went the trout, a brown creel next to its plump body.

Jack looked as if he were about to tell ghost stories when out came his pencil—a slash here, a mark there. The pencil jolted across the bumpy pastel paper. Jack’s eyes narrowed. The projector whirred while I pulled at the collar of my shirt, because there was no airflow.

I watched his hands, colored with pastel; his gaze never left the image.

He stepped back, held the pencil near his mouth as his other hand, free, went limp at his side.

And I wondered if he knew, wondered if he could tell. A boy and a man, silence between them, making art in a dim-lit room on the prairie.

He sketched differently than Dad—Jack held the pencil firmly, made committed lines on the paper. He had spent his twenties, the women told me over lunch, sketching tourists down in Florida rather than welding boilers in Iowa, like my father had.

And then the door opened, and a chill filled the small room.


WE GRAPPLED, WESLEY AND I, wrapped thin arms around each other’s heads. Wrestling, it’s what boys do. We swayed back and forth like bluestem in the breeze, tried to throw the other down; on our backs we tried to wrap our feet and pull the other forward, make him fall onto the hard brown carpet.

That’s what we wanted—to be on top, to hold the other in place, to wrap our arms around the other’s armpits and press down on the back of his neck to do a full nelson, or snap his forearm behind his back and lift it up into a chicken wing, or to get on the backside, wrap legs around stomach, and pull—we wanted breathing to be hard, to whisper, Hurts, doesn’t it?

We didn’t grab each other’s head and slam the neck onto our shoulder to do a Stone Cold stunner, but we’d body-slam each other on the couch. We didn’t lift each other up by the chest and smack down to do a Rock bottom, but we’d snake an arm around the other’s neck, pull back toward ourselves, and do a sleeper hold. It was our way to show we were men, to show that, if we ever wanted to, we could hurt each other.

In second grade we, just the two of us, played ball tag. I kept getting the ball, hurled it like a stone at Wesley, kept taunting, “Tag, you’re it!” and then ran and got the ball again. Over and over. “Tag, tag, tag, tag!” And finally, Wesley, who was larger and slower than me, picked up my baseball bat and whipped it like a tomahawk. When it knocked me back into the cold grass, I cried, “Jesus Fucking Christ!” for the first time.

By eighth grade, our bodies had changed. Stronger, lower voiced, we pushed harder, sweated more, our faces a welter of crimson. Wesley played ball, ran track. I did speech and practiced saxophone. But that day, we tossed and tumbled, and when I pinned Wesley, we both saw it, couldn’t unsee it—that our bodies had changed, and mine had betrayed me.

IN EIGHTH GRADE Henry grew baseballs in his arms. In swimming class, I had to turn away, had to keep from fading into a daydream—how he’d wrestle cattle into the cold mud, hold them down, arms locked around their heads, hot iron pressed into their velvet coat, branding them for life. A small coal in my gut told me to look away, told me that the prairie could also burn boys who liked boys—that’s what we teach rural children. To be true, move away; find a home elsewhere; move along like a turtle slowly scraping away soil to reach the river, where you belong—someplace, but, no, not here. By eighth grade the boys were already lifting weights, heavy ones, too, but I knew to keep my head down as they snapped towels at testicles, their croaky, pubescent voices cackling with delight. I kept swallowing the coal even though it hurt, hoping, one day, the growing pain inside me would go away.


I CAN SEE MYSELF AT FIVE, when I close my eyes, slipping my small feet into my mother’s sleek, gray high heels, especially when no one else was around. How I’d traipse around our trailer house like a newborn egret, my arms flapping and flailing to help me stay balanced. I’d also wear Mom’s old plum-colored silk pajama top; it flowed down past my apricot-sized knees. I’d jolt and flow around the room, steady myself as my feet shot around in the shoes. I’d say over and over a word of my own invention: somabeechysomasafa. I said it whenever my fingers rubbed silk, some euphemism akin to This feels so damn good.

Or maybe I’m three, outside with my father—he’s trim with thirtysomething metabolism. He’s holding shiny pruning shears as he manicures our shrubs: a little taste of English gardening in our coal country life.

I’m in a small gingham apron; my cheeks look as if they’re stuffed with chestnuts, my hair is nearly crimson, not yet fired gold from days in the summer sun. I have my candy apple Fiskars scissors and a determined look on my face: I’m helping Dad cut the world to fit my form.

It is the last time there is a picture of me outside of our house in an apron.

Or perhaps I’m six, stomping and somersaulting to my Disney Sing-Along videotapes, the Mickey Mouse head bobbing along to the beat of “That’s What Makes the World Go Round” from The Sword in the Stone. I became a fish, like Arthur and Merlin, or tromped along to another Disney song when the Genie sang “Prince Ali” from Aladdin.

Throughout my childhood I wore down my black, gold, and red pencils. I crumpled sketchbook paper, which grew into small hills, as I obsessively drew Jafar, the villainous grand vizier. Something in his voice, his sense of style (a long, dark flowing robe), his snappy mannerisms, his witty musical lyrics, appealed to me more than the dishwater story line of another Disney hero—in this case, Aladdin—pining for a princess.

I didn’t believe in erasing—erasing was for mediocre people. I craved perfection from the start. I’d hold my paper away from me and gaze at the near perfect black line shaping Jafar’s robe: not perfect enough. And I’d squish the sheet into a ball before blasting it across my faux wood-paneled room.

I’d launch from my slumped state, sketchbook and colored pencils in hand, barrel down the hallway, break into Tanya’s room. I knew, just like she always did, that she would help me draw Jafar. There she’d be, bobbing on her waterbed watching The Breakfast Club or listening to Sir Mix-a-Lot or Vanilla Ice. She’d pause her movie or shut off her music, and turn to me.

“Yes, Nerdbomber?”

Exasperated, I’d sigh.

“I just can’t get Jafar right! Can you show me how to draw him one more time?”

“One more time,” she’d say emphatically, but there never seemed to be a limit to her one-more-times.

Tanya would take my sketch pad from me, turn to a clean page, and take out the black pencil. I’d retrieve my copy of the book version of Aladdin, snap it open, and snuggle up next to my sister. Slowly, perfectly, Jafar took shape. I’d watch her eyes dart back and forth from the book to the sketchpad. Under the spell of my big sister, I’d watch her draw his hat, his long face, his robe. I’d steal a glance at her face. Her eyes seemed to hover somewhere in the space between the book I held and the page she drew on. I wanted that type of concentration. I wanted to be as good at drawing as she was.

Suddenly, there he was: Jafar. Tanya would then exhale, slip the pencil back into my hand.

“I’ll even let you color him in this time.” She smiled at me and tickled my stomach.

I’d snag back my sketchbook, shut it, and huff toward the door.

Before leaving, I’d turn back toward her as she unpaused the movie or unmuted the music.

“Thanks, Consuela.”

“No problem, Nerdbomber. Last time.”

She knew I’d be back within the hour.

ONE DAY IN SECOND GRADE, Mrs. Fryslie asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. The other sixteen boys in my class said police officers, farmers, miners—professions they would one day become, their futures set. I said I wanted to be a Disney illustrator.

My classmates laughed.

My lunch box with Timon and Pumbaa, from The Lion King, chilled in the large, steel fridge with other boys’ Dallas Cowboys or Green Bay Packers lunch boxes.

I’d gaze around at the small bookshelves underneath the windows, up at the reading corner, complete with beanbags, and over to the wall where the class pet hermit crab, Harold, was kept. Mrs. Fryslie, middle-aged with chestnut hair and large glasses, read to us from The Boxcar Children, her lilting voice painting the world of the Alden children who kept their milk cold in a waterfall. I found that world amusing. But there was some understanding threaded through my DNA that told me I would always be a misfit if I never left where I came from—there was some desire for a different world, one where I could dance and sing. And in that faraway world, there must be others like me. I hoped there were.


AT FOURTEEN I WATCHED, through our dining room window, our neighbor Mark, only two years older than me, soap up his Dodge Stratus. He was shirtless. Mark, like his older brothers Travis and Hunter, was a wrestler. Mark was kind to me, though we never hung out, and he was the youngest of a group of upperclassmen.

Muscled from lifting rusted weights in our small school’s wrestling room, Mark sunned his body and moved around his car so unselfconsciously. He made me shiver. Mark had abs. He swaggered when he walked, as if he had the right kind of body that simply belonged to him. He had a large cross tattooed down his spine and across his wide shoulders.

One day, after beers with Mark’s dad, my father cracked up when he told me Mark had to have the tattoo artist stop. The pain was too much for him when the needle stung his spine. The tattoo wasn’t yet done, and Mark was scared to get it finished.

I didn’t care. To me, Mark was strong—and he wrestled.

I wanted to wrestle to be strong, just like Mark. I wanted a strong body, to be in a sport that, at least from the outside, would make middle-school bullies think twice before messing with me.

But my body. My body, that of a redhead, was a landscape easy to read. My body flushed red when I was embarrassed and flared with hormones. Sometimes, I felt I just had the wrong kind of body.

I couldn’t wrestle. I couldn’t risk rolling around, mounting boys who were older, stronger—my body would betray me. The manifestation of what I knew to be a sin on my silent prairie revealed: that I liked other boys.

Years earlier, in elementary school in summer, I’d swim at the school pool, a large, echoey room with high and low diving boards. Even before I jumped in, my eyes watered from the chlorine. As I pruned in the water, some days Mark would come to swim.

I don’t remember if he swam laps, or if he soaked in the pool to cool down from lifting weights.

What I do remember, even back then, was my amazement at the freedom he felt in wearing a tight black Speedo. A boy in my own class wore a speedo, but Steven was as large as a bison and on the swim team. Mark wasn’t on the swim team. There wasn’t a socially acceptable way for boys to reveal their chiseled bodies. Speedos were taboo. But Mark was a wrestler, and no one messed with wrestlers.

I asked my mom to show me Speedos in the JCPenney catalog. When she asked me why, I stammered in my shy way that I was thinking of going out for the swim team and wanted to know if they really did make you swim faster.

“Well then, let’s look,” she said, confirming what I already knew back in those days before I even hit puberty: I needed to hide what I really liked, what I wanted, or to make up excuses for things—even clothing choices—so that I could fit in where I lived.

I didn’t go out for the swim team. I didn’t make my mother order a Speedo then.

In middle school, I stewed in my embarrassment over my changing body, over its repeated confirmation of being different. I no longer wore gym shorts to school. I quickly changed in the locker room, my head down. Sometimes I felt a terror and crossed my legs, hard, in class. While I still was the fastest in my class and could do the most pull-ups, after seventh grade my body didn’t put on muscle as quickly as the other boys. I stopped growing in eighth grade; at five and a half feet, I was one of the shortest boys on the basketball team. While I grew hair at an alarming rate, the other boys, even when hairless, were filling out in ways my body didn’t. That was the year I stopped playing sports and focused on speech and playing saxophone.

One night, on a trip to Bismarck, I quickly roamed the swimsuit section of Scheel’s Sporting Goods. I scanned and searched, the way other boys surreptitiously search to buy condoms, for what I hoped would be there.

And it was.

Hidden on a small rack, the closest rung to the ground, were a few black and blue Speedos. Mark wore black, but even then, I knew navy would look better on my slight, Nordic body.

I dashed to the register, plopped down the Speedo, and when the checkout clerk raised an eyebrow, as if I were buying a condom for the first time, I told him I was on the swim team. He nodded, shoving the scrap of nylon into a plastic bag

Before meeting up with my parents, I dumped the bag and the receipt—there was no going back now. I crumpled my new swimsuit into a ball and stuffed it into a pocket in my jacket, where it would stay secreted.

For the next several weeks, when Mom was out shopping for groceries or Dad was upstairs sleeping, preparing to go in for his graveyard welding shift, I slipped it on. I walked around the living room, savored how it fit against my body, imagined my seamless strokes through pool water. Me, cruising along, no drag, not being held back.

But I never went to the pool with my Speedo. Weeks after buying it, I took a scissors and cut it in half, and cut it again; smaller and smaller strips fell into our trash can. I shoved the scraps of Speedo lower, burying them below the garbage.

THAT YEAR, MR. ERHARDT, my middle-school English teacher, a gangly middle-aged man with brown hair, who resembled Ichabod Crane, quietly took me to a bookshelf in his classroom.

“Taylor, I’ve been enjoying reading your pieces for class,” he said, “and I have a book here that I think you’d enjoy.”

From the shelf he pulled out a thin volume with an aqua-colored spine. He flipped the book over and showed me a cover with an old man and his chocolate-furred poodle, sitting under an oak tree near a lake. The man was squinting and didn’t smile. In large block type the book was emblazoned JOHN STEINBECK, and underneath the author’s name Travels with Charley: In Search of America.

“I think you’ll like this book,” Mr. Erhardt said, smiling.

I nodded.

“Are we reading this next?” I asked.

Shaking his head, Mr. Erhardt handed me the book.

“No, I just thought you might enjoy it—he even writes about North Dakota. It’s on page 118.”

I took the book from my teacher’s hands, flipped open its well-worn pages, and thumbed to the spot. My eyes sped across Steinbeck’s sentences. “Someone must have told me about the Missouri River at Bismarck, North Dakota, or I must have read about it. In either case, I hadn’t paid attention. I came on it in amazement. Here is where the map should fold. Here is the boundary between east and west.”

I stopped. My eyes shot up to meet Mr. Erhardt’s gaze.

“Good, isn’t it? I knew you’d like it.”

I nodded again.

“How long until I have to get it back to you, Mr. Erhardt?” I asked.

“It’s yours,” he said, smiling once more. Then he turned his head ever so slightly and leaned toward me. “And, Taylor, I think if you really wanted to, you could write like that.”

My eyes widened. Scared, jolted with what seemed then like the terror of responsibility, I nodded quickly, feigned a smile, and shoved the small book in my backpack.

“Thank you, Mr. Erhardt,” I said, dashing out of the room.

In my backpack I had a book by a man I had never heard of, someone long dead, but who wrote about where I came from, saw my home the way I saw it, the ecotone of lush green grass and broken brown buttes. He had documented it, taken the time to write about my part of the world, and, for me, echoed that it was important, a way of understanding the country I called home.


CIRRUS CLOUDS FEATHERED the cerulean sky. I walked home a little after school had let out. I had stayed late to practice music.

In eighth grade my band teacher, Mr. Rooke, would write me notes to get out of study hall so that I could get away from classmates and play music. I stayed after school and practiced in a dinky practice room so that I didn’t have to tiptoe around Dad as he slept before going in for work. I could wail and rock on my horn without worry. The practice room was next to the office of one of the school secretaries. Whenever I finished, packed up my saxophone, and closed the practice room door behind me, Mrs. Miller would crack her door and say, “It sounded even better than yesterday, Taylor.”

On this day, my saxophone bobbed up and down in its hard-plastic case as I rounded the corner onto Prairie Avenue, I glanced to the west, past the stubble field and toward the weathered farmhouse with its rusty weather vane, the place I sometimes still passed whenever I needed a break from the reality of school to sink into the security of fishing for northern pike or watching red-tailed hawks circle high in the sky.

I walked past Eric Johnson’s house. Eric, who was in love with basketball, and with whom I played on the team since fifth grade, had recently fallen in with Kai Martin, a pint-sized bully whose mission it was to mock me. Austin Berger, whose grandpa was a decades-long friend with Grandpa Hatzenbihler, filled out the trio.

Throughout eighth grade I had started to be called gay or faggot, but I didn’t really know what those words meant. I knew it wasn’t good to be gay or to be a faggot from how the boys said it.

I didn’t shut down so much as I tried to avoid. I asked teachers not to put me in groups with Kai, Eric, or Austin.

Kai’s stepdad, Walter, was the wrestling coach. Mark, my neighbor, stood up to Eric, for me, but said he couldn’t do anything about Kai since his stepdad did so much for him as his coach on the wrestling team.

“I told Eric I’d take his Adidas shoes and shove those stripes sideways up his ass,” Mark told me.

Eric, eventually, left me alone, for a while—but after cajoling from Kai and Austin, he joined back in.

THROUGHOUT EIGHTH GRADE, my mother drove me to Bismarck for saxophone lessons. At the power plant, one of her coworkers had recommended a college student in Bismarck.

“He’s certainly made Zac better at saxophone. Zac actually enjoys practicing now,” Mom’s coworker had said to her.

When Mom asked Mr. Rooke, he told her that private lessons could do more for me than anything he could do in band class.

On some level my parents must have known I was struggling to fit in, that I looked forward to going away each weekend to speech competitions. In hindsight, I’m not sure they could afford my saxo­phone lessons, but my mother drove me an hour each way every week to sit in her car for a half hour, whether it rained or snowed, while I tried to master the A-flat or F-sharp scales.

WHEN I GOT HOME from school that day, I slowly opened the door. I floated like dust to not risk waking Dad. With a quiet thud, I put down my saxophone and backpack.

The house was still, the lights were off. The trees in the backyard had begun to bud and the rooms inside the house had a matted glow.

After a few minutes, I went downstairs to Dad’s large safe in our hobby room, what Dad sometimes called our Man Cave. The safe didn’t have a combination, only a large lever-handle. He left it unlocked so I didn’t even need the key.

Over the past year I had taken up fly tying. Pheasant feath­ers, deer fur, small and large hooks, were strewn on the forest green counter where I practiced making nymphs, caddis flies, and streamers.

I pulled down the lever and swung the safe open. Inside, in neat rows lay our shotguns and rifles. My twenty-gauge Winchester, which Dad had bought for me in fifth grade to take me pheasant hunting, rested at the front. I rubbed my hand along its sleek forearm.

Earlier in the year, after I asked Mom and Dad if I could start taking lessons, they’d bought me an electric piano.

“I hope you have a better teacher than I did,” Dad said. “She used to hit me on the wrists with a ruler.”

I’d come home, turn the volume low or, if I sensed there was something in the air that might wake Dad, plug in my headphones to practice. I’d lay my fingers across the instrument’s sleek plastic keys, adjust the volume, and practice my scales. In my own muffled world of music, I could pound out the pain I felt pulsing throughout my body.

But music wasn’t working anymore.

Behind my shotgun were Dad’s twelve-gauge and deer rifles. Uncle Greg, my father’s older brother, had left Dad his pistols when he died a year earlier.

I opened the black plastic case that held Uncle Greg’s sleek black nine-millimeter pistol. I checked the chamber and slipped a bullet in; I made sure the safety was on for the moment.

I don’t remember crying; I don’t even remember feeling particularly sad as I came back up the stairs. The kitchen was warm and the dining room still.

I went over to my backpack. Each pull of the zipper sounded loud. I stopped to make sure Dad hadn’t woken. I pulled out my yellow science notebook, opened it to a new page, and drew two columns:


I sat for a few minutes and began to fill each column; the process wasn’t quick, but it wasn’t ponderous either.

I remember listing Mom, Dad, Tanya, and Music under “Reasons to Live.”

The only item I listed under “Reasons to Die” was:

Because I am gay.


MY PARENTS KNEW something was awry. Throughout that school year I spent more time in the basement, more time practicing music, more time rehearsing my speeches. I got my driver’s license at fourteen, so I could start barreling in my grandma’s old ’89 Buick Park Avenue to towns twenty, thirty, or sixty miles away, where I could visit the friends I’d made at speech competitions.

One night, my parents told me how they were inviting Kai’s stepdad, the wrestling coach, a short man with a sturdy frame and mahogany hair, over. They had had enough. They wanted to know why Kai had a problem with me.

Mom and I sat at the table. There was a firm knock against the door. Mom tapped her finger.

I didn’t say a word. My parents laid out how Kai had been bullying me. I tried to not look the coach in the eye, but, in my periphery, I could see a vein pulse in my dad’s neck.

When Dad asked the coach why Kai was picking on me, the coach leaned back in his chair, looked at my father, and said, “Your son didn’t invite Kai to his second-grade birthday party.”

My father flushed. He then rubbed his handlebar mustache, puffed-up like a sage grouse, and told the coach to get out of our home.

THE FOLLOWING YEAR, while I qualified for state in speech and continued to practice my piano and saxophone, I gave my parents an ultimatum: either we moved forty miles away to Bismarck, a town one hundred times the size of my hometown, or I’d commute each day for high school. I shook whenever I thought about spending the rest of my high school sentence in Center. A girl three years older than I was, who had been on the speech team with me, commuted each day to a private school in Bismarck. I knew getting out was possible. I suggested that I could stay with one of Dad’s siblings, Uncle Jody or Aunt Shelia, during the week, that I could get a job and pay them rent or chip in on groceries, that I wouldn’t be any trouble, that I just needed someplace bigger, someplace where I felt like I could disappear rather than be noticed, singled out, made an example of what happens to you when you don’t fit in where you’re planted.

Instead of seeing Bismarck in the rearview mirror after my private saxophone lessons, I wanted to live there—a town with two colleges, a symphony orchestra, art galleries, a large public library, two malls, a Red Lobster, and two public high schools. I wanted to be in a town where I sensed there could be room enough for me to grow.

I wouldn’t need to commute. I didn’t need to fight my parents; they were invested in me. I wouldn’t have to wait for yearly pastel classes with Jack, wouldn’t need to commute for my saxophone lessons, could take Advance Placement classes, even take classes at one of the local colleges. My parents had tried to make the world of Center work for me as best they could but, as I ended my ninth-grade year, my parents listed their house for sale so that we could make a new life together in Bismarck.

NEAR THE END of that school year, at the end of a long workweek, Mom and I hopped in the car and zipped to Bismarck, its flaxen bluffs sweeping down to the tawny Missouri River, before revealing the spreading city of cement and steel. We had an 8:00 p.m. date with the National Symphony Orchestra. During my last year living in Center, North Dakota was selected for one of the symphony’s residencies. For nearly two weeks, the orchestra would give workshops, breakout performances, and large symphonic concerts across the state. No musicians came to our small coal-mining town, but Mom had gotten us tickets for this, as the Bismarck Tribune said, once-in-a-lifetime-event.

When we arrived at the Bismarck Civic Center, a large, cavernous building that typically hosted the Class B basketball state championships, monster truck rallies, and rock and country music concerts, I noticed a large black curtain divided it in half. There weren’t plans for the ten-thousand-person arena to sell out.

Mom and I shuffled along and settled into our seats. We sat, pulled out our programs, and smiled at each other. There were names of composers I didn’t know—Dvorak, Peter Schickele, and Brent Michael Davids. When my eyes roamed around the program, I noticed that unlike Dvorak or the one composer I had heard of, Tchaikovsky (because Mrs. Harrison, my elementary-school music teacher, had played his 1812 Overture for us in third grade), both Schickele and Davids were alive. I had thought all classical music composers were dead men with white hair. I realized, then, that beyond the wheat fields and short stubble grass of Center, other ways of living in the world—beyond coal mining, ranching, or working at a power plant—existed.

A violinist stood, nodded his head, and the haunting sound of an oboe cried out into the civic center. The strings began to swirl into tune. I turned my head and listened closely. Mom glanced over at me. And then out burst Leonard Slatkin, the conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra. Applause rang out from the audience. The elfin Mr. Slatkin, dressed in tails, stepped up onto his podium, bowed to us, turned, flicked out his baton, and snapped his arms through the air.

There was a crash of cymbals. I gripped the arms of my seat and leaned forward. This was Dvorak, his Carnival Overture. The strings blazed into a bright tempest as a ba-dum banged out from the timpani. Tufts of Slatkin’s hair floated through the air like silver silk. I smiled at Mom as my head quickly jolted back and forth, my hands gripping the arms harder, desperate to hold on to the world.

THE SUMMER OUR HOUSE was for sale in Center, my parents let me fly by myself for the first time. We drove four hundred miles to Minneapolis so that I could take a direct flight to visit Tanya and her husband, Mike, who had been her high-school sweetheart, for a couple of weeks.

In Seattle, I saw silver salmon flung across Pike Place Market, ate my first pain au chocolat, and wiped dripping juice from my chin after biting into softball-sized peaches. Before my visit, the only skyscraper I had ever seen up close was the twenty-one-story state capitol building in Bismarck.

Here, I stared down at my feet as we walked around downtown. There was so much shiny steel and glass. My eyes felt as if they were burning.

One day, my sister took me to the bank where she worked. I met Luke and Stefan. Luke and Stefan didn’t have grease on their hands like the men back home. My sister told me that Luke and Stefan got manicures. Stefan’s beard was groomed. Luke even plucked his eyebrows.

The men I knew prided themselves on having beards that looked like tumbleweeds, eyebrows that looked like caterpillars.

When we got back outside and into my sister’s Mustang, I asked her why the men back home didn’t take care of themselves like Luke and Stefan.

My sister sighed. “Because they don’t care how they look, Taylor. And because they’re not gay.”


We believe that Levi should not change around other men because he’s attracted to them. Just like straight men shouldn’t change in the women’s locker room. If you believe Levi should change in the women’s locker room, sign your name below.

THIS WAS THE MESSAGE, on a lined piece of notebook paper, tacked to a clipboard, which circulated in the boys’ locker room during my sophomore year of high school in Bismarck.

Levi, a boy in my gym class, wore sequined jeans, long beaded necklaces, bright shirts, and a zebra-patterned fedora. The makeup unnerved the football players, confirming, for them, that Levi was gay, that he must find them attractive, and that he wanted to have sex with them. The foundation on Levi’s face was bedrock to his identity. Some days, Levi wore lip gloss.

When the girls heard about the petition making the rounds in the boys’ locker room, they jeered. The boys, they said, needed to get the fuck over themselves. The faces of the boys, large, hulking football players and wrestlers, fired red. The girls, in booming voices, said they’d love to have Levi change with them.

When the petition made its way to me in the onion-scented locker room, I looked at the names on the list and committed them to memory. I quietly passed the petition along but didn’t sign it.

These were the days when I snuck into our basement, turned on the big-screen television, and watched Will and Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

I’d sit close to the television, the volume barely on to avoid detection, and watch the parade of gay characters. I’d see real-life gay men dress and advise straight men—worlds so far away from what I knew. Whenever I heard one of my parents rumble closer to the stairs, I switched stations—maybe to a baseball game or NBC—and slowly turned up the volume.

WHEN LEVI SASHAYED in the art deco marble and brass hallways of Bismarck High School, the boys stared. He smirked.

I envied his fierce independence and his confidence. Being coy was his ace in the hole. The jocks smoldered with hatred.

I was trying to fit into a new school—a high school where my class was larger than my entire hometown. I wanted to be me, in the way I thought Levi was being himself. But something about me rankled boys, agitated them—or at least it had in Center. I learned out of necessity to stay quiet. In Bismarck, I found my friends in band class, or selected them by their high grades in Mrs. Lord-Olson’s English class—that’s how I found my friend Paul.

TO RIP UP PRAIRIE GRASS, a person must grip the blade as close to the ground as possible, heave back and forth, wait for the soil to loosen, and then give one final yank. It does not happen quickly, may take several attempts, and can draw blood from hands.

Even when successful, part of the root remains underground, hidden, left behind. It refuses to leave home.

TALL AND LEAN, Paul played tennis and was part of a friend group of three boys and four girls. He started to invite me to hang out with his group of friends. We played Twister or Catch Phrase, a word game where a person tries to describe the clue on the electronic screen without saying the first letter of the clue, using a word that rhymes with the clue, or the number of syllables the clue has.

When I’d see Paul in class on Mondays, I’d thank him for letting me hang out with his friends.

“They’re your friends, too, silly,” he’d say to me, smiling.

Had I really had friends before, though? In Center, birthday parties felt like placeholders for something else, some filler for a future life I couldn’t yet see.

Now, in Bismarck, there was a group in my life, friends who started to ask me if I wanted to go to a movie or see a play at the local college. My world suddenly felt wider—like there was room for me.

IT TOOK THREE DAYS for the Bismarck High School principal, a portly man with a halo of white hair, to put the kibosh on the petition to have Levi change in the girls’ locker room.

MY NEW GROUP of friends included a tall blond boy named Drew. Drew played tuba in band with me and was a lineman on the football team. When he guffawed, everyone went silent, then laughed at Drew’s laugh.

Throughout high school, Drew and I were on student council, split the “good guy” vote for homecoming king, and screamed together while riding roller coasters on our band trip to Los Angeles.

In high school both Drew and I dated women.

BY THE END of sophomore year, Levi transferred high schools. I felt like a blade of prairie grass again, swaying singularly in the breeze.


IT WAS A BOOK that shifted my imagination during my junior year of high school. In Ms. Montgomery’s AP English 11 class we read George Orwell’s 1984. Our summer assignment had been to read Orwell’s dystopian novel on our own and create a study guide for our classmates for the first day of class. I didn’t think I could do it. Not only did I not get why the clocks struck thirteen, I felt dense—Orwell proved to be something more than a challenge for me. His writing felt at the time, under the George W. Bush administration, too real and too close to home, like the innocent veil of my childhood was peeling away and the weight of responsibility—of reading the news and following politics—was now upon me.

In AP English 11 we spent weeks on Orwell. Ms. Montgomery had us investigate the Patriot Act, enacted shortly after 9/11. We dissected commercials to watch for patterns of propaganda. We learned about countries where certain books were outlawed. I got a chill in class because I started to see connections to the United States government.

Ms. Montgomery was relentless. Tall, with full cheeks and cropped chestnut hair, she challenged us: “What page is that on? Where’d you get that idea? Are you just saying what you hear at home? Beachey, do you agree with Taylor? Paul, challenge Taylor. Is that the best you can remember from that passage?” Class felt like a gladiatorial match. It wasn’t so much daunting as thrilling.

As the semester rolled on, I spent more time on English than other homework. When we read Miller’s The Crucible, we researched modern-day witch hunts. When we read Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, we self-selected between two sides to debate one sentence that is a stand-alone paragraph at the end of the book: “He stood up.”

“Did he or didn’t he commit suicide?” asked Ms. Montgomery. “Pick your side.”

For two days we debated like the British House of Lords. We pointed. “How could you think that?” We yelled. “That’s absurd!” We rooted our arguments and persuasions in the text.

On the second day, Erin Weller switched sides. “Traitor!” shouted her boyfriend, Kurt. The debate reached a fevered pitch when Kurt accused another classmate of using a liar’s technique.

“All right, all right, let’s cool down,” said Ms. Montgomery.

This was not the world of Center, of hard bodies hitting one another on the football field or of driving for a layup. Unlike Center, this was a world where I sensed my teachers’ politics were different from my parents’, where the world felt a little bit more open, like there were options.

DURING THE SPRING semester my brain exploded. We spent most of the term on two men: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Some shock wave hit my body: these men got me. Transcendentalism became the closest thing to a religious experience I had had up until this point in my life—simplify, simplify, simplify? Check. Different drummer? Oh yeah. Seeing some lives of quiet desperation? Uh-huh.

At times in class, Aaron Frenette, whom we all called Fernie, or Baby Fern, undid me: he would lean back in his chair, wrap his hands behind his head, and flex his biceps. I would flush, tell him to Stop it, try not to giggle, but turn bright, like a cherry tomato.

LATE IN MY JUNIOR YEAR Ms. Montgomery was recognized with the National Education Association Foundation’s highest honor, the Award for Teaching Excellence. Harvard called and offered her a spot in a PhD program.

“I think I want to stay in the classroom,” she told us one day.

“But, Ms. Montgomery, it’s Harvard!” we said.

That year was Ms. Montgomery’s last teaching at Bismarck High School. She left for Harvard.

Senior year I felt her absence when walking past her old room.

WHEN I WAS A SENIOR, I had Mrs. Pole, but, as talented as she was, I missed Ms. Montgomery. I missed nature writing. I missed finding stories I could fit into, written by men who felt what I seemed to feel whenever I was out in nature.

We read Hamlet and recast scenes from the play, acting them out in front of our classmates. My group did The Real World: Elsinore Castle, after The Real World, the MTV reality show where a group of strangers lived together; I dressed as a goth version of Hamlet and dyed my hair black.

We read Jude the Obscure and compared Little Father Time to Pearl Prynne in The Scarlet Letter from Ms. Montgomery’s class and laughed about how they’d be a perfect match with all their brooding and angst.

I realized then that having Ms. Montgomery as my English teacher was the first time I ever wanted time to slow down, when I was opened to a new world, when it felt like it was possible for me to be me. I found a type of security in books, which revealed that there were more stories, more ways of living, in the world.

BY THE END OF HIGH SCHOOL, I was voted Nicest Senior Guy and Most Likely to Be President in the senior class awards. I was Bilbo Baggins in the school play of The Hobbit and first chair in the jazz band. When it came time to apply for colleges, I only looked at out-of-state schools. I needed to leave the prairie I grew up on. I needed to find more boys like Levi, men like Luke and Stefan. I needed to be transplanted to someplace else, to feel rooted, secure. I needed a new community.

YEARS LATER, I SAW Drew post an engagement announcement on social media. We had lost touch, but when I looked at Drew’s announcement, I stopped scrolling.

Drew was engaged to a man.

I WROTE TO DREW, asking him why we never came out to each other in high school. All those band rehearsals, student council meetings, movie parties—we never whispered, never gave any hint, that we were keeping up appearances.

When he wrote back, Drew mentioned how religious his family was. But when he wrote Because I like to be liked, goose bumps ran up my neck.

I thought back to being on the homecoming court with Drew, his hands on his head as the homecoming king crown hovered back and forth, my eyes darting in his direction, waiting for the crown to land on one of our heads. I knew he wanted it. I wanted it, too. I wanted to prove that in two short years in my new school, I had made myself the most popular boy there. I needed it to be a popularity contest—because many people voting for me would then be confirmation that I was liked, was accepted, that maybe I was even safe.

In Center, the small town swallowed by the prairie, it wasn’t my harassers who hurt me the most. It was the silent classmates—whether they knew it or not—the ones who didn’t stand up for me, the ones who had no words. It’s impossible to be safe at home when no one gives you a sense of security.

I kept thinking how validating it would be to be crowned in Bismarck.

But that didn’t happen. The crown landed on the quarterback’s head.

Drew rolled his eyes.

I clenched my jaw and slowly clapped.

AT THE END of Drew’s email was a final sentence:

And because of Levi.

Levi, before he left the school, was testing the soil. He showed us it wasn’t safe to be gay at Bismarck High, that everything Drew and I loved or wanted would be taken away if we were found out. Drew dated a sassy, fierce flautist and, for two weeks, I dated a high-kicking member of the Demonette dance team. We needed cover, some sign of protection so rumors didn’t circulate about why we weren’t dating anyone—I was always busy studying, or busy working after school at JCPenney, or busy, busy, busy. Weren’t we horny, just like the other boys? We were, but anytime I dated a girl, it lasted, at most, only two weeks. Guilt welled inside of me. All I wanted to do was hold their hands, to style their hair, and to watch Rent with them, singing along.

I remember once kissing another girl on my doorstep at home. I knew my father could see us. I wanted him to see. I needed insurance that I was safe. That if I performed kissing someone of the opposite sex, my parents would stop wondering why it took me so long to date. That any other questions might be quelled by my pretending to be straight.

Whenever I told the girls I wanted to stop seeing them, they cried. One made me take her to an elementary-school playground because the garage door opened as I broke the news to her. She couldn’t bear to have her parents see her like this. We sat on swings as she wept. I kicked at the gravel. I didn’t want to hurt her—or to hurt any of them.

IN MY IMAGINATION I can still see Levi—his high cheekbones and sharp, angular jaw. In the picture of him in my mind his fedora is pulled down, close to his eyebrows, one of which is raised just so. He has a furtive gaze. He knows something, something we both knew all along: I am gay.

I am gay—the shortest, most life-changing sentence a person can say. But it wasn’t really being seen by someone else that confirmed my gayness, it was my self-knowledge. The knowledge that it wasn’t my hobbies or preferences that made me gay, but something deeper inside of me, something beyond my control, like my red hair or being diabetic. Being gay, I realized then, was as rooted inside of me, as bedrock to my being me, as the prairie that had shaped my imagination. But at that time, in high school, with Levi being made an example of, I also knew something else: to survive home, I had to leave.


TWO WEEKS AFTER I graduated high school, I lobbed my thumb off like a knob of butter. I was working on an assembly line at Bobcat, where Dad worked. I was building rollers and idlers—metal widgets that went into Bobcat’s skid-steer loaders—to help pay for college.

In two months, I would be off to St. Olaf College in Minnesota to be a music major, starting on the long track, or so I believed, to become the symphony conductor I always dreamed of being.

But on that warm June day, at around 4:00 p.m., I daydreamed and pushed the button to lower the press, which squeezed the metal pieces together.

My left thumb was over the hole where the press ground down. Three thousand pounds of pressure per square inch.

I didn’t even feel it.

When I pulled my hand away, there was a hole on the thumb of my glove. The fabric was clipped away clean. Bright blood shined on the sleek steel.

I gripped my thumb, held it above my heart, and sped to the nurse’s station.

WHEN MY SUPERVISOR saw me hurry away from my press, he yelled.

I opened my hand.

Blood shot at him.

Color leeched from his face.

WHEN I KICKED OPEN the door to the nurse’s station, she told me that it was nearly time for her to be done for the day.

I moved into the small office, sat on a chair, my hair damp under my hat, and told her she needed to call 911.

“What?” she asked.

She looked at my hand and began to scream.

In even tones, I kept telling her to call 911.

She didn’t.

Eventually, I grabbed her blue silk blouse with my good hand, pulled her close as blood speckled the tiled floor, and said, “You need to stay calm, so I stay calm. Call 911.”

She nodded.

IN THE BACK of the ambulance, I cracked jokes as the nurses tried to find a vein for an IV. I told them I had tough skin. They feigned laughter.

Sweat pooled at my temples. I closed my eyes, focused on breathing. I didn’t know where the missing hunk of my thumb was, having guessed I left it, crushed, at my workstation.

There was a fleeting thought that maybe someone went back and got it.

IN THE EMERGENCY ROOM, a white sheet blocked my left side.

I closed my eyes again and focused my breath. My hand and forearm were numb.

A minute passed and a booming voice broke into the room. Beside my bed stood a large salt-and-pepper-haired doctor.

He told me that his name was Dr. Erickson and that, lucky for me, he was in the hospital when the ambulance brought me in. He was, he stated proudly, the hand specialist in the region.

“Will we be able to reattach my thumb?” I asked.

He lowered his head and sighed.


I turned away from him for a minute.

“What can you do then?”

“You’re lucky you didn’t hit a knuckle with the press,” he said. “We won’t have to amputate your entire thumb. You’ll only lose the first digit.”

I swallowed hard.

“What I’m going to do, Taylor, is fold your skin over the wound, tuck it into place, and reshape what I can so that it still looks like a thumb. You’ll never have a nail grow there again.”

WHEN THE DOCTOR stepped out for a minute, I heard the surgical team behind the white sheet. Eventually, a wheeled chair squeaked against the shiny floor.

“Here we go,” Dr. Erickson said.

Then there was a tug on my hand.

I do not remember what they used, if there was a grinding sound, or if I asked and the surgeon told me he was using a scalpel.

I remember the tugging, which seemed to be constant. My skin folded over and tucked into itself, stitched in place.

THROUGH THE EMERGENCY ROOM window, I saw my dad. He was talking to a nurse, who pointed over at me. He couldn’t come in, but he turned toward the glass.

I imagined that that must have been what it was like when I was a butter bean newborn, my dad looking at, as he said to one of my uncles, his “whopper” of a son. Dad cooing, scratching his fingers against the glass, all those years ago, trying to get me to look at him, counting all ten toes and fingers.

I wonder what it was like when he first held me, his son who would inherit his own red hair, his deep gravelly voice, his love of baseball. How perfect I must have seemed to him, his own image in so many ways, reflected.

BUT NOW, in that emergency room, my father was looking at his eighteen-year-old maimed son. The son who was clumsy enough to cut off a chunk of his thumb, the finger that makes us human, that allows us to grip, to tie our shoes with ease, to curl under and continue scales on the piano, to give a thumbs-up, signaling everything’s A-okay.

That small, crucial part of me was now gone. I was no longer his perfect son.

Deformed, I lay there and looked at him.

I REMEMBER HIS ONCE telling my mother that he didn’t want me to work at Bobcat, that it was too risky.

I RESTED MY HEAD on the pillow and looked at him.

He stepped toward the glass and tears pooled in his eyes.

I feigned a smile and took steady breaths with each tug on what was left of my thumb. I wondered what it looked like, my new nub, what it felt like to fold skin over exposed bone and muscle, to try to give some appearance that I was just like everyone else, to be resculpted in the rest of humanity’s image.

DAD STOOD THERE. What else was there for a father to do?

My eyes didn’t break from his, and he let his tears slide down his cheeks. His eyes reddened.

“I love you,” he mouthed through the glass to me.

I closed my eyes, gently nodded, and opened them.

I stared at my father.

“I love you, too.”

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