MANKATO, MN: AN OUTLINE, A PARABLE
Mankato means night.
At night, a satellite picture of a city doesn't look like a city. Instead, it looks like a shattered windshield after sunset—headlights in the distance—the yellow light catching the spider-webbing glass. Even the far-reaching suburbs glow. The haze extends well into what might otherwise be black. From that distance, every city looks the same.
One night in downtown Mankato, at the Wine Café, I sat outside drinking with a group of friends, all of us huddled together in the cold, the smoke of cigarettes, and each other's breaths. Nick, Sara, and Debbie were laughing at my intentionally-bad impression of a professor when we heard the clack, clack, clack of high heels on the parking lot pavement.
A girl sprinted by, her mini-dress slowing her down, hobbling in her heels. She turned the corner. We all looked and shrugged at each other, took another drink. Twenty seconds later, another person ran by, a man, moving much faster than the woman had.
This time, my friend Nick looked at me, said Was that...? Should we...? I nodded and we stood, handed off our beers and ran after them. Our friends dissolved behind us.
I first arrived in Mankato 3 weeks before my graduate classes started. I slept in a professor's house, empty for the summer. I woke early to attend a teaching workshop, to meet my new colleagues and cohort.
We sat in a computer lab, everyone else talking; they all knew each other. The composition director made small talk with me, another student at the front. My stomach tangled into a fist.
When everyone else in the class went quiet as the top of the hour approached, a boy in the corner started telling rape and dead-baby jokes to the girl sitting next to him.
What's the worst part about skinning a live baby? He didn't wait for an answer. Trying to hide your erection.
Our boss pretended she couldn't hear him.
So did I.
While northern Minnesota is all lakes and forests and rivers, southern Minnesota is corn fields and rolling plains.
Mankato itself is only a giant suburban enclave surrounded by farmland. The upper-class, white-washed neighborhoods support two long stretches of "urban" commerce. Here: a mall, a Best Buy, an Applebee's. A row of dingy bars. A single Vietnamese restaurant that gets closed after the owners are arrested for human trafficking.
When we were kids, my friends and I locked ourselves in the basement, turned off all the lights. We stuffed blankets and towels and t-shirts in the cracks of the dirty windows, under the door. We kept adding layers over the leaks until, when we turned off the lights, the dark fell heavy on our eyes until it was pointless to keep them open—until the room gained such weight that the darkness itself asked me a question. My arms prickled. I swayed, reached for support. Found none. I sat down on the cold concrete floor and felt my face so I knew it was still there.
We played a game in that darkness, too. One person tried to find the others in the dark, feeling around in almost complete futility. If done thoroughly, it might have taken hours to search the room like a grid. Instead, we crashed ridiculously into things, tried to hurt ourselves for the others' amusement. We tried to make each other laugh.
By the time I heard her screaming you hit me! they'd been yelling at each other for hours. I sat up in bed, stared at my door. I was disoriented. It was still my first year in Mankato, and it wasn't unusual for my random, school-assigned roommate and his visiting girlfriend to scream at each other into the early morning.
I listened to them yell for another 30 seconds, uncertain what to do. I heard her make a break for the front door of the apartment and he blocked the doorway. She ran back, away from him, and locked herself in the bathroom.
I pulled out my phone, dialed 911. When the police arrived, I opened the front door and pointed them in. She was in the bathroom talking to a friend on the phone, sobbing he hit me, he hit me. But when the door opened to an officer, she claimed that she had fallen into a door frame.
When the cops left with my roommate in handcuffs, I sat staring into space on the living room couch as his girlfriend yelled at me. Why'd you do it? Why'd you call the cops? she kept asking. He's gonna be in so much trouble now, she moaned. In the morning, she was gone and so was her sleepover bag.
By noon, campus housing started to move me around campus like the pea in a shell game, hiding me from my roommate, who was out of jail and back in school by Monday.
Why did I feel like it was my fault?
Every weekend before this, I had heard them screaming at each other. I'd heard her slapping him, loudly, in the face. I had heard him warn her time and again don't you fucking do that again, his voice lowering with the threat.
I never called the cops on her for striking him.
I explained this inner-conflict to my friends. They all assured me I did the right thing. I think I just waited until it was too late for everyone.
A False Comfort:
I've read that people often feel complicit in things that are out of their control. I've been told that we desire this. That we want this responsibility, if only so we might convince ourselves that we can repair it. If we are the problem, then we might be able to fix it.
It is often easier to feel guilty than to grieve.
But I can't help it. Guilt is useful. It forces me to ask useful questions. How did I contribute to this? How can I better respond in the future?
Grief may be more honest, but it's an empty gesture, a truthful futility.
Aphotic (adj.) – "untouched by sunlight, lightless." In reference to deep-sea regions. From the Greek a- "not, without" + phos- "light."
Empty (n.) – "a thing that was or is expected to be full [...] barges, freight cars, mail pouches."
If Mankato was empty, what was I expecting it to be full of? Should I have done more of the filling?
Mankato, Minnesota housed the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
38 Dakota men were hanged the day after Christmas, 1862, and the townspeople celebrated, put up a two-ton memorial slab so they might commemorate the day.
Now a state school crouches on top of the only hill for miles. The rural undergrads in Mankato like to lean out the windows of their pickups and shout darky-darky at non-white pedestrians.
This is progress, I tell myself.
A Confrontation (cont'd):
When Nick and I rounded the corner after the man chasing the girl, we could see them two blocks up ahead under a yellowing street light. She was on the ground, he was standing over her. He was short, but the light above him made his shadow long. She kept trying to stand up, and he kept knocking her down. I didn't know if we could get there fast enough, so I shouted as we ran down the dark streets.
The man looked up.
Is there a problem here? I asked, panting with both threat and hope in my voice.
We slowed our sprint to a jog, then a brisk walk as we approached, not wanting to scare the man into doing something desperate or crazy.
What is this? The fucking cavalry? The man stepped toward us as we approached.
Behind him, the girl got up and sprinted away before we could say something to her. I watched her get smaller in my peripheral vision, trying to keep most of my focus on the man.
We just want to make sure everyone's okay, Nick said, sticking out his hand to shake. The man and I both looked down at my friend's outstretched hand in blank disgust.
I'm from L.A. the man said to us.
Yeah, well, welcome to Mankato, Nick said.
The man looked behind him, and the girl, still sprinting in the distance, fell hard, face-first to the pavement. She got up quickly, resumed running.
She's my girlfriend. She's fine. Trust me, he said.
I think we'll just wait, I said.
My girlfriend's never run from me like that, Nick said.
Just ‘til she's out of sight, I said.
Fuck you faggots, the man said.
When I lived in Mankato, I forgot what real dark was like. I thought I knew it, equated it to the dim and dangerous corners of midnight in the city. But in that darkness, I could always see; a shape, a color, an outline. Something moving.
Here's what I forgot: the weight of black. The oppression of it, the way it pushes back on the optic nerve like strain. Like getting your teeth out, and the dentist says you'll feel some pressure. And sure enough, you do feel something as they leverage what looks like pliers into your numbed-up mouth to crack and pry your teeth out.
Real dark stresses your senses, your imagination. Reality balloons and shrinks until you feel microscopic, impossibly swollen. A droplet in an unknown sea. A mouth on Novocain.
Darkness: The appearance of black in a colored space.
If Mankato was a colored space, I saw mostly black.
The human eye can't see color in too-bright or too-dark a place. Instead of red or purple, orange or brown, the retina gets scaled in gray.
A Partial List:
Placards got put on the wall of our teaching office, where 20 TAs shared a space, where we met one on one with our students at least twice a semester. One woman posted a list that offered knowledge of the top 10 things to do while high on crystal meth. 4 of these items were butt sex. Another placard read happiness is jizz on your face.
Another woman in my office demanded to know the breast size of every other woman in the office. She lamented the weight of her own size D's. On a different occasion, this same woman asked a man in the office about his sex life. Her friend—eavesdropping with 6 other people—laughed loudly, then apologized. She said sorry, just the idea of the word sex and *Chris' name in the same sentence is hilarious.
Another time, while I was meeting one on one with a student, a coworker approached us, said he had just returned from the doctor—you should get tested. Then he walked away, laughing.
I tried to ignore it.
A Confrontation (concluded):
Nick and I waited with the furious man until we couldn't see his girlfriend any longer, then waited a minute or two more. The man kept glaring at us, calling us cunts, assholes, motherfuckers. He told us to mind our own goddamn business. We stayed silent, made sure he didn't see which way the girl had turned.
When she was gone, we turned our backs and walked back towards the bar with him trailing behind us—hands in the air—telling us to BRING IT, FAGGOTS!
We returned to the patio where our friends waited to hear our story. But Nick and I took our bottles back, sat down, and said nothing. We didn't look at each other. We felt something like shame. The man kept shouting.
My friend, Monica, was a TA in my office. A large group of girls in the TA program didn't like Monica because she asked a lot of questions in her classes and talked a lot in general. She was relentless in her positivity. Exhausting, really.
One day I entered the office to find Monica sobbing to her friend, Erica.
What's going on? I asked, alarmed.
I just can't take it anymore! she said.
She told me about two of her professors in the literature department who were refusing to respond to her emails or help her get funding for conferences she'd travelled to.
They promised me they'd reimburse me, but now they're claiming they never told me that, that they can't give me the money for that conference two months ago. I can't make rent without it!
Monica told me about how they were badmouthing her and Erica to the girls in their literature cohort. The professors got drunk at parties and laughed about so-and-so's pathetic paper or that bitch's fucking unprofessional evaluation of their teaching at the end of the semester.
After that day, Monica stopped volunteering with the GSEA. She didn't go to any more conferences. She stopped asking so many questions.
Months later, when Monica approached the head of the English department about her professors' bullying behavior, he nodded sympathetically, said that he believed her. Said he couldn't do anything about it because of the teaching unions.
Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people. —Carl Jung
Trauma sends us retreating into ourselves. We make ourselves small, curl up and wait for the threat to go away. But there is always the danger that our marrow will close around us, that we'll never emerge from the hardened bone of our own skulls. We might never get out to see any darkness but our own.
Without reaching out for help, we might never learn how to heal.
I am unreliable. I am plagued. I am trying to confine chaos, to define that which is without meaning, that which has too much meaning.
Darkness means nothing. Darkness means dimness, means ugliness, means pressure & absence. Darkness means a hole, something we fill.
The pressure of absence builds in me.
Black is derived from the Old English blaec, which in the 14th century was used to reference the dark spot in the pupil of the eye.
For blackness, we must first look into ourselves.
Someone made a mistake when naming this city Mankato. Or maybe the mistake happened before, when someone misheard or miswrote the name of a Dakota chief. His name was Mah-Kato, which means blue earth (in less prominent translations, it is blue river or sky). Instead, what we ended up with—what Man-kato really means—is blue skunk.
The residents of Mankato laugh about this; a funny joke about a stupid mistake made long ago. What they don't hear is the theft, the carelessness, the 150 years of repeating a lie without correction.
When a friend of mine read the first draft of this essay, she was frustrated. This isn't the Mankato I know, she said. I have family and classmates and school friends and church friends and work friends here. Every community has its good and its bad sides. Which is why I think you're wrong to classify them all as "Mankato."
My friend isn't wrong. But perception makes reality.
I don't intend to say that Mankato has no light. I'm only saying I didn't bring any of its light with me. I was never able to ignite it or trap it or hold it.
A Qualification (cont'd):
My friend from Mankato reminds me that we define a place, at least partially, by the people we know in it. You just knew and encountered a high percentage of fucked-up people in Mankato.
I wonder if maybe a town is more than its people, though. I wonder if its history defines it. I think that maybe, if a place was created without light, maybe it can never really hold it.
It's my second year in Mankato. A good friend's ex-girlfriend accuses him and me of sexual harassment. She becomes an ex-friend. She says we taught porn to our students, talked about pubic hair, made rape jokes in the office. She says she can't remember exactly what we said, but that whatever it was definitely happened in the office (or maybe on Facebook? These things are hard to keep track of). She says she's afraid we'll hurt her.
We are suspended from teaching, barred from campus unless escorted. Our coworkers are called in to testify. Those who don't want to talk to the head of Affirmative Action (Linda Hanson) are threatened with loss of funding and no diploma.
Overnight, the inappropriate placards on the walls of the office disappear. Ms. Hanson thinks my friend and I threw them away, that we were trying to hide the evidence of more misconduct. No one else owns up.
Because a false accusation like this is bad for a political narrative that matters, because it soothes their conscience about their own ugly behavior, even our friends want us to be guilty, at least a little bit, though no one remembers this actually occurring.
Still, my friends tell me, you are a bit of a loud mouth.
I can't find my footing.
Despite our fear of night, only about 47.3% of violent crime happens from 6pm-6am. So, despite our perception of crime as something that exists mostly in the dark, it is actually just as likely that you would be robbed at 3 or 4pm as at midnight or 1am.
What this suggests is that our fear of the dark has less to do with an actual increase in danger than it does with our emotional or psychological imagination—darkness isn't scary because of an increase in actual mortality concerns, but because of what we conjure up out of the shadows.
Or maybe the dark doesn't add new fears. Maybe—like my mom once told me about aging—the dark doesn't change us, it just makes us more of whatever we were before. Maybe we fill that absence with whatever dread we already harbor in the daylight.
I can't help but wonder what my fear of close friends says about who I used to be.
I can't help but be afraid of what my constant, clenched-jaw rage says about who I might become. It doesn't feel like it's "myself" being heightened. It feels like a stranger reaching into my chest and squeezing polluted liquid from places within me that I don't recognize.
An Accusation (cont'd):
While the harassment investigation is ongoing, I swing from the certainty that I'm actually a bad person to wishing that I had actually said what I was accused of saying, so much worse. My accused friend and I privately console ourselves by sharing the kind of jokes we have been accused of telling. Did you hear this bit Louis CK did about masturbating on 9/11? We laugh at the absurdity.
Five slow months pass. Ms. Hanson stops asking questions, stalls. She threatens police action against my friend after he is escorted by campus security to the University President's office so he can lodge a complaint about the process. She calls me into her office and orders me to keep silent or I will face expulsion and worse.
My accuser, however, says what she wants. Even professors who know the truth are scared to be seen talking to me, for fear of her reprisals. I see her at the coffee shop with mutual friends and I bolt out the door. I scream loudly in my car, slam the steering wheel.
I grow unpleasant to be around and my friends stop calling.
I decide to be relieved by this.
Finally, a dean—uninvolved in the process up until now—is called in by the President of the university, and he determines that, even after Linda Hanson has changed the documented charges against me (switching out and making up two new allegations), the school "cannot determine" whether the events in question occurred. Not even when using the lowest possible standard of proof (more likely than not).
Further, the school finds, even if the events had occurred, they would not have qualified as harassment.
Still, the letter clearing me of the charges ends with a scolding. It takes me a few dizzying reads to realize that the fact that I'm innocent doesn't mean they didn't want to punish me, that they didn't try.
I take a deep breath, resume teaching for my last year.
One night in the Wine Café, a man walked in chugging Draino right out of the bottle. At first, he only got a few curious side glances. Then he turned inside out.
He vomited tar. His eyes went red, bled, and thick, black liquid oozed out his nose. The girl singing lyrics off the karaoke's scrolling screen stopped, made a high-pitched noise in her throat. Someone called 911.
When the paramedics arrived, they carried him outside and loaded his melting body into the back of a white van. The red and blue lights turned purple in the droplets of rain on the windows. The patrons huddled and whispered, told those who hadn't seen him what the "story" was, as if they could tell from the aftermath.
I don't know if he's dead now. I couldn't find mention of it in the paper the next day, or the day after. I didn't know his name to look for in the obituaries.
Once he left the bar, the antiseptic smell of his blood filled the room. He was easy to clean up. A few people left, but most remained. The music started again, the din of conversation resumed; most everyone was happy to go back to their gin and tonic, their rum and coke, the easy, passionate chorus of Seal's Kiss from a Rose.
Mankato means forget, means pretend.
The term The Dark Ages refers mostly to what other scholars call The Middle Ages. The term is often traced back to the poet Petrarch, who was distraught by the destruction of Greek and Roman culture.
To Petrarch, The Dark Ages was partially a reference to a previous light dying out. Modern historians commonly view it in a similar way, only to mean little light escaping, in reference to the relative lack of literature and knowledge in that era.
I wonder if I might take it a step further: The Dark Ages, to Petrarch, didn't just refer to our previous knowledge fading or new work failing to be written. Instead, it also refers to his reaction to what was happening in his time. He wrote, rather dramatically, my fate is to live among varied and confusing storms.
Petrarch didn't understand the men around him—their thoughts, actions, and desires—and neither do I. Looking closer, I can't empathize with such a lack of empathy. I can't imagine the dark inside their heads.
But this is stupid. Of course I can imagine. I can't help imagining what misconception or self-deception my accuser must have held inside her broken head, what made her say what she did about me. I stretch for compassion.
But—mostly—I fail. Most days, I end up right where I started: wishing her grievous fucking harm.
A Christmas Story:
My last year in Mankato, I moved to a rundown duplex, where my downstairs neighbors often fought loudly.
On Christmas day, they had a big falling-out. I sat in my slant-floored studio listening to him call her a stupid cunt. She fled out the front door, where I could hear her crunch and wobble down the steep hill through the snow and ice.
He shouted after her fuck you! Fuck. You. YOU FUCKING SLUT!
He went back inside. Slammed cupboards or drawers.
I didn't bother to get up and watch her walk away.
After about thirty seconds of silence, he decided he had more to say, and went back to the front door to scream some more. I looked up at my ceiling and listened.
I can still see you, you fucking slag! Get the fuck out of here, you hole! You gash! YOU CUNTING WHORE!
I wondered for a moment whether she really was a whore.
I put on my headphones to tune him out, listened to Elvis sing "Blue Christmas."
And when those bluuuuuue snowflakes start falling, that's when those bluuuuuue memories start calling. You'll be doin' all right with your Christmas of white, but I'll have a blue, blue-blue-blue Christmas...
Mankato means distance, means mistake, means violence. Mankato means skunk, not sky.
What scares me now isn't that I look away from darkness. To this, I'm resigned. What blackness I see I swallow. And if I try to contain too much, the pressure will build to bursting.
What scares me now are the times when I think, even for just a second, that a person is owed such a night. Too often, these thoughts press out against the inside of my stinking skull.
How small I am, how petty. Here I am, angry at a city. Angry, and afraid of the people who live there, what damage they can do to each other, to themselves, to me.
I'm angry they don't know better. I'm afraid I don't, either.
A Direct Address:
I'm not trying to tell you what the dark is—where it begins, where it ends—or that I'm more bright than blackened. I'm just trying to explain how some of the night slipped in, how fear and fury poisoned my optic nerve.
I moved away from Mankato the day of my last class. Found a trailer in rural Ohio to sleep in. Now, outside my trailer's bedroom window, a decapitated bicycle seat and its rusted neck reflect on the chain link fence behind.
But even when the dark threatens to reach inside to where my TV's blue-glow is stretching, I know it's not the night's shadow growing blacker on the carpeted floor. It's mine.
For a little light, please see "Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk," by Charles Simic.
Light (v.) - "to touch down, as a bird from flight," from the Old English lihtan "to alleviate, make less heavy."