What Kansas most hated about herself was that she was irrepressibly wholesome and incapable of sleeping in on Sundays. She also fretted that that record-breaking ball of twine on display in Cawker City marked her like an unsightly goiter. Seemed the older she got, the more roadside attractions she accumulated. So it was with aging. She thought about this as she tried to lean unprimly against the wall and nibbled on a carrot stick at the annual all-state cocktail party. New Jersey, that scurrilous wag, had made a joke whose lasciviousness she detected too late, something about boning, and she’d impulsively quipped that she was a femur’s daughter. (It was thought by some, those sniffy wiseacres that believed a book’s cover told them everything they needed to know, that she lacked a sense of humor, a belief it had been hard to shake since those dry days when she’d protested the imbibing of spirits. She now admitted on this point she may have been a stubborn holdout—“A trifle doctrinaire!” Illinois once huffed—though she stood by her belief in Election Day and Sabbath sobriety. Now, in her dotage, she herself indulged in a pony glass of cordial from time to time, held it demonstratively in the air at hootenannies such as this one, which met with eye-rolling, making her feel like the most scorned and fraudulent kind of Johnny-come-lately. How was it a state so central could be made to feel so marginal?) She’d immediately regretted having spoken to New Jersey at all, which was often the case, and then she saw the look on his soon-to-erupt face, a potluck look of having taken a mouthful of something unidentifiable he couldn’t wait to spit in his napkin when unobserved, and she glowed red as the tasseled corn on which an August dusk has alit. Quelle naïf, scoffed Louisiana, who’d been snide and territorial ever since the Purchase. Well, didn’t Kansas just feel like a bolt of gingham, mercy.
She watched New York sashay like the cock of the walk, as he was in a habit of doing, his fetching silver hair shimmering like a thousand moonlit lakes. Once, some years ago, he’d invited her for a visit: “Hey Kansas, come to the big city, get out and live a little, doll, see what you’re missing. We’re the fly-to, not the flyover,” he’d said, elbowing her in what she feared would seem to him like corn-fed ribs, and he’d promised to take her to a Broadway revival of Oklahoma, which had always been a favorite of hers, so she threw caution to the wind and said, oh, what the heck! “The time is NY!” he’d said, which did make her chuckle. He could be a charmer, that one, slick as snake oil. She ended up in an unscrupulous cab (she was up-to-date in her thinking and therefore did not believe the corruption of the cabbie could be blamed on the Romani people) and had to fork over all the pin money she had hidden beneath a sock in her pocket. She’d been taught that trick by Nebraska, who seemed somehow to know her way around the mean streets of the world. Kansas always consulted Nebraska before traveling anywhere.
She’d found New York, dashing rogue, an interesting state to visit, but, mmmm, well, she wouldn’t want to live there and was happy to return to the snoozy flatness of home, unruffled as it was by the swagger and glitz of freshly rehabbed celebrities and sullen artists who constructed irreverent pietàs out of flank steak and doll parts. Honestly, these citified onions needed a hobby, thought Kansas. Nothing wrong with them that a good sewing circle and a tuna noodle casserole couldn’t cure. (Though Kansas could boast her own share of the famous and clever, had she a mind to brag, her humble cities did not feel the need to chisel in the sidewalk the name of every Tom, Dick, and Agnes Moorehead who’d spent a debauched night inside the state lines, like that be-arched and self-doubting child of Missouri’s, who has never recovered from the heady inebriation of the World’s Fair, its brief and shining moment a century ago, pity.)
Oh, horsefeathers, there was that cur Missouri now, with whom she had a long and difficult history, once causing Kansas to bleed (though he refused to rehash those hemorrhagic days of yore with her now, Blood under the bridge, he’d say with a growl), a history and proximity from which no restraining order could save her. He twirled his waxed moustache and leered at her, knowing she had no choice but to tolerate his impertinence, given their shared custody of little latchkey Kansas City. He tossed her a narrow-eyed nod and she backpedaled so hastily she bumped into Texas, oof, whose sizable caboose was always stalled on someone’s tracks. Texas’s plate was, as usual, piled high with victuals, appetite and ego both big as, well … Texas. That’s one state who could do with a little calorie counting, thought Kansas, lay off the Longhorn T-bone and toast, opt instead for some lean chicken and a spear of broccoli or two, maybe a smidgen of blackberry slump from time to time to get some fruit in his diet, do that tub’s arteries a world of good. Well, she could hardly talk. It had been a long time since she was a mere slip of a territory, some years since she could shimmy her backside into the slender frontier duds of her youth. No, she’d gained a few since then. Those hardy farmhands and prairie preachers liked their pot roast and potatoes and apple pan dowdy come Sunday, and she had the waistline to prove it. She could never again wear horizontal stripes nor anything that accentuated those childbearing hips of hers.
California, now there was a state that could eat absolutely anything and never gain an ounce, which Arizona believed would not continue to be the case unless the immigration laws were stiffened. “Hey, Kansas, got your greenhorn card on ya?” quipped Arizona once, a comic genius that one. Kansas didn’t think the nation should let just any yahoo cross our borders, but she, being of welcoming attitude toward any industrious pioneer, had given sanctuary to many a displaced inhabitant of Hispanic heritage herself and found them to be fine, hard-working folk—let us not forget those early days of the Spanish conquistadors, they were certainly enterprising—and she didn’t believe the country’s many ills could be laid at the feet of the illegals, though you wouldn’t catch her spouting such socialistical notions publicly, no siree bobhope. Speaking of unpopular ideas, she sure missed that old fire-eyed sword swallower John Brown, though naturally she dared not even think such a thing in the presence of Virginia. He’d had the most handsome neck, a principled neck, straight and stalwart as a silo, snapped like a steeple in a storm in the end. Never had she regretted the invention of the gallows so keenly. Well, his methods left something to be desired, no doubt about it, but those had not been days of fruitful diplomacy, and she’d watched him grow ever more lean with violent resolve when it seemed blood was the only language the country spoke. Oh, dear, she always got nostalgic in large gatherings. Dear John Brown now lies a moldering in the soil of New York, New York never missed an opportunity to remind her when the states started waxing fondly about their youths. Things just hadn’t gone as she’d hoped, and she had in fact risked a little hope back in the day when the Exodusters, fleeing the threat of a second bondage, had made their way to the promising refuge of her, had flocked to Kansas, veritable droves of refugees thought Kansas was the place to be, and then she’d briefly nursed hope again when the plains were radically aflame with those wild-eyed agrarian crusaders. Nope, things had taken an unfortunate turn. A believer in the fate of a name, Kansas thought it was no coincidence that a century later it was little Linda Brown who would take on those muttonheaded Topekans determined to force the state to stick to its hateful yokelhood. Something else she didn’t like to admit was how little affection she harbored for her capitol. She wasn’t sure where she’d gone wrong with that rabid pulpiteer, holy moly.
Yes, blood under the bridge she supposed. These days she knew well the role she played as an inveterate red state, and it was too late in the game to blue it up now and tip the scales. Those arrogant coasts, made smug by a little waterfront property, piffle, those on the side where the sun rose claiming to have their righteous colonial fingers on the pulse since Day One, they had to be held in check somehow. Hello? Ever hear of the witch trials? Now that had been a proud and progressive historical moment, had it not? Those Mayflower wisenheimers. Actually, Kansas had a soft spot for the Puritans, but she wasn’t averse to trotting out their human rights record whenever she was accused of intolerance, which really got her goat. She’d burned nary a witch in her day, she felt compelled to point out. Has anyone taken a census in Lawrence lately? Tolerance didn’t begin to cover it. That was a city that welcomed all manner of peculiarity, as college towns tended, on misguided principle, to do. Was it really necessary to be a card-carrying oddball to teach college? Tolerance schmolerance, fruitcake is fruitcake, and who wanted to sit next to that at the Ponderosa? Change your shirt, comb your mop, quit muttering into your beard, and make some sense for Pete’s sake! While she was glad that that unpleasant House Un-American Activities business was behind us, she knew which of her cities would make the list should another Tail Gunner Joe ever rise to power and start to sniff out unsavory sympathies. Give her a school with an agronomy major any dadgum day of the week. Massachusetts had once accused her of being an ag hag, and she’d sputtered, I know you are, but what am I? Not one of her finer rhetorical moments, to be sure, but where does that Maotsechusetts (she’d gotten that one from that old porch swing punster Mississippi) get off insinuating she’d been left behind in the post-Industrial dust? Anyway, Lawrence, Lawrence, you can give your children all the guidance in the world, but they choose their own paths in the end, and it might just lead to Vermont, heaven forfend, but what are you going to do? It’s a free country. How many times had she heard that at a board meeting? Don’t I know it. Maybe we ought to start charging, she’d jested, yukkity-yuk: dead silence. These were the cut-ups who said she wanted for a sense of humor. Oh, she had a sense of humor. You don’t live through countless supercell tornadoes further flattening your fruited plains and host all those UFO and Airstream trailer conventions without having a sense of humor, oh no you certainly do not. California indeed.
Good gravy Marie these reunions took the peewaddin’ out of her. Social situations caused her insecurities to itch around the throat like a woolen turtleneck (which she hated; she much preferred a V-neck in a synthetic blend, however unnatural). She was a homebody at heart, always had been. Thank goodness she knew enough to keep her trap shut in mixed company. Watermelonwatermelonwatermelonlalala, she chanted to herself as she made her way across the room, to keep from being drawn into social intercourse. At the last Christmas-Hanukkah-Kwanzaa-all-purpose-heathen celebration, she’d gotten a little tipsy on the green sherbet punch that South Dakota brought and that the District of Columbia, who’d crashed the gala demanding to be recognized and who everyone knew was a serious tippler, had spiked, that ornery cuss, and she’d stood on the table and started to sing, belligerently, O Little Town of Bethlehem. She was all for inclusivity, but did that really mean those lovely crèches with their plaster-of-Paris baby Jesuses and wisemen and doe-eyed Marys would now and forever have to gather dust in the basements of all state buildings, go begging for all eternity? She understood why people got het up about the Confederate flag waving its freighted X in front of a capitol dome, but what, pray tell, had little Jesus ever done to anybody? Was it his fault some cockamamie ignoramuses twisted his words to suit their poison? She didn’t think so. Shoot the message but don’t hate the messenger, people! She was feeling discombobulated now. These affairs always scrambled her thinking like eggs in a morning mess hall.
Oh, nuts, Colorado was headed her way and was sure to drag her blasted purple mountain majesties into the conversation, as she did at every opportunity, little Rockies this, showing off their altitude, and land sakes you should have seen the Rockies that, blahbiddyblah, and to insinuate that Kansas was somehow responsible for the flatness of her eastern border, a regular assassin of picturesque landscapes. Somebody was always pointing a finger seemed, the nerve. Sometimes Kansas thought of Colorado as an obstinate wrinkle someone ought to just take a hot iron to once and for all. Talk about making a mountain out of a molehill, she’d said to Colorado once. She had a sense of humor. No doubt Co-co, as she liked to be called (which caused collective eyes to roll, not just hers, and in fact Kansas never took Colorado directly to task for putting on airs, was always polite as pie to her face; that was the code of the Midwest and she abided by it), was going to try to lobby votes in the evolution debate, egged on by Tennessee of course, who’d all but outlawed the word “monkey” in public discourse. Really Kansas, though she knew the position some of her less science-minded denizens insisted on, couldn’t understand what all the hoo-hah was about when it came to evolution and creationism. If we’d all once been eyeless salamanders staggering out of the briny deep, couldn’t we just agree that God had seen fit for us to start thusly? Maybe there’d be no Johnny Weissmuller, no Esther Williams, had we started differently, maybe gifted swimmers had genetic memory buried in their limbs. And weren’t rugged, winsome, plum-lipped actors (Louise Brooks, that comely Pandora, born and bred in Cherryvale, KS) gifted in synchronized movements a boon to the human race? (She did love the old movies, those days of uncomplicated, ermined glamour, had a collection of old Photoplays at home.) She could see an advantage or two to having once had gills. Maybe the Garden of Eden was just, you know, growing its fallen perfection on another side of the planet and those two lines eventually met up, fell in love, and gave birth to humanity as we know it today. Or something like that, she hadn’t worked out the details yet. Course she didn’t want anyone thinking she was endorsing any kind of intermixing of the bestial and bipedal classes, no, she’d have to think that one through a little more. In any case, there was always a compromise position to be had (as that dastard Missouri well knew). A stubborn inflexibility of principles so often resulted in the most dunderheaded legislation: requiring a hunting license to capture mice, say, or making it illegal for a woman to doff clothing beneath the portrait of a man, the stately stare of a jowly patriarch no doubt inciting the most lascivious thoughts in the woman as she shimmies free of her petticoat, har (Ohio’d been given no small amount of grief about that one over the years. Get a load of this! Nevada would say as she walked by all those gilt-framed presidential portraits and flashed fishnetted thighs in Ohio’s direction. Kansas thought Nevada was really a closet introvert, possibly even dowdy in her off-hours, despite those false eyelashes she batted like a duck coming in for a landing and all those compulsive behaviors, because she often ended up sobbing into her gimlet by the end of the evening. Definitely looking for love in all the wrong places, that one). Oh, Colorado just got buttonholed by Wyoming, probably playing landscape one-upsmanship, praise cheese and crackers!
Gadzooks, Kansas had a doozy of a headache. There were tiny ice picks of light stabbing at her eyes, and she could feel her sinuses pulsing. She seemed to spend half the year nasally compromised. Smack dab in the middle of the allergy belt, she found hay fever season had her honking her horn for months on end, all that deceptively cheerful goldenrod spreading unchecked across the plains. She was going to try inconspicuously to duck into the cloakroom, fetch her wrap, and slip into the night unnoticed, God willing and the creek don’t rise.
She parted the coats and, oh, there was Idaho! Sitting in the closet by himself, looking as unpopulous as Montana, dreaming, she knew, of Wyoming, who had blackened Idaho’s come-hither eye at last year’s party. Kansas tried to smile at him and wished she could tell him that she personally didn’t give two hoots about what two consenting states did in the privacy of their own borders, but she knew it would likely sound false coming from her, what with some of her most vocal citizens barking so hatefully on the subject. If there was anything that wearied her more than those constituents’ grim devotion to the End Times, she couldn’t think of what it would be. Lordamercy, how they loved a brimstone scenario, those merry apocalyptics, looked upon world unrest as evidence that the prescience of Revelation and Nostradamus and the Mayans was upon us, and bring it on! When their predictions mandated they build Styrofoam pyramids and keep a nightly vigil to scan the skies for the silver spaceships that would ferry them to the Afterlife, she found herself nostalgic for the simpler times of backyard bomb shelters stocked with a lifetime supply of tallow candles, Twinkies, and condensed milk, the Red Menace lying in ambush under every mattress, waiting to spring on Democracy as soon as it slept. That threat at least had an address you could send a postcard to, Freedom is here, wish you were beautiful. Now it seemed like folks feared everything, however tabloid, just to be on the safe side. Oh, these upstart modern times, they did make a body bone tired. She was beat as a rented mule. Kansas quickly found her stole and gave Idaho a sympathetic, if non-committal, nod on her way out.
She was two feet from freedom when she felt a tap on her shoulder. It was Colorado, ratfinks! who told her she was wanted in the Continental Room. Kansas hemmed and hawed a bit, tried to scratch up a plausible excuse for being the first to flee, then Colorado said, OK, if she had to know, she was going to receive an award. “An award?” asked Kansas, blink-blinking in the dim light of the foyer. One reason she’d wanted to quietly secede from this reunion was because she always received exactly bupkis at the awards ceremony at the end of the night. All the usual suspects walked away with the golden statuettes every year while her mantel continued to collect only dust. She felt herself flush red as the head of Rita Hayworth at the thought, and she began to giggle and stumble about like a moony schoolgirl on roller skates. “Me,” she asked, “are you sure?” One year she’d received the award for most promising silver-tongued governor, but it was instantly clear to everyone that this had been a typo, and with a leaden heart she surrendered it to Arkansas, who tried hard not to gloat until Kansas was pushed to the back by the circle of glad-handing congratulators.
Co-co grabbed her by the arm, ushered her back, and whispered, “Gonna be your night, no more playing Kick the Kansas,” and Kansas choked back a sob. Could it be her sideline diplomacy and (albeit reserved) congeniality (who was it brought snickerdoodles and s’mores to every tiresome fireside chat) had finally been recognized for the low-profile but essential consensus-building assets they were? Would the trusty tortoise finally win the race? Any time Kansas edged close to any kind of long-overdue recognition, she thought of her airborne prodigy Amelia Earhart soaring in the skies over exotic, grass-skirted locales not often frequented by Kansas girls, thought of her disappearing into the side of a sunlit mountain, and it choked her right up. Amelia, Amelia! thought Kansas.
Colorado sat Kansas down at her table, and she saw that Iowa, for some reason, would not look at her. Probably just a twinge of jealousy, as Iowa, thought to be plain and simple as a burlap bag, was similarly misunderstood. Nevada grinned her radioactive grin from the next table and twirled in her fingers a paper umbrella. Everyone’s eyes were boozily adroop, and the ceremony was winding down. New York, emceeing as he did every year, was falling back on some Borscht Belt shtick (he’d taken her to the Catskills when she’d visited, which she’d enjoyed, except for all those wife-hating jokes. She didn’t think that line of needling was necessary, had felt somehow personally implicated by those wisecracks New York tried hard not to hoot at), and then he said, “And now for the long-awaited final award of the evening,” and Kansas pricked up her ears. “The prize for best sense of humor”—oh, this was a new category of recognition entirely! And as it was the final prize of the evening … Kansas looked at her dear neighbor Colorado, who she could see was trying not to beam prematurely, and there was Missouri, sitting at a table near the front, stroking his chin and glaring at her through the slits of his envious eyes, and in fact all eyes were on her!—“the prize for best sense of humor goes”—New York opened the envelope ceremoniously and said, “Oh, the dark horse places at last! This year’s prize goes to my good friend from the Middle Kingdom: Kansas!”
Saints preserve us! Kansas found herself rising wobbily to her feet, and then everyone stood with her and her ears filled with the sound of their booming, their adoring applause. Dear Amelia! said Kansas to herself, the sound catching in her throat, and she thought too in this moment, one of the finest in her statehood, that John Brown (though not especially known for his madcap antics) was also there beside her, witness to justice. She felt his righteous spirit in the quickened beat of her heart. And then she saw the shoulders of everyone around her begin to shudder like jackhammers, moved to tears they were! and New York regained his composure and said, “Oh, I’m sorry, oops, I seem to have read the wrong line, my bad! The award actually goes to … Colorado! Whose idea it was to award Kansas the prize for best sense of humor! Hawhawhaw …”
Kansas saw the faces around her collapse in hilarity as the states bent at the waists and beat their knees, Colorado, Missouri, Massachusetts, California, even Nebraska, that turncoat! They brayed like mules and wiped the streaming tears from their cheeks, and in that moment Kansas, a longtime defender of the right to bear arms, took out the automatic weapon of her imagination and gunned down every last smug and bullying, sanctimonious, superior star on the American flag, spraying bullets as though she were just sowing seed, becoming again the wild gunslinger she had been in those lawless days of her girlhood. In her mind she plugged each and every one of them full of lead and watched them drop to the ground like wet sacks of sorghum, but outwardly she remained stoic as a silo in December. She would not give these blackguards the satisfaction of seeing her wear her broken heartland on her sleeve.
Colorado, New York, Nevada clapped her on the back, and one by one the states circled around her and told her what a good sport she was, shook her hand, socked her jovially on the arm, and, what was this, she saw—could it be?—admiration in their eyes, deference even? Why yes! She was certain she espied approval in the way they coughed into their shoulders and sighed and smiled, approval of the good-natured, trooperish way she had handled this ribbing, admiration for how she always soldiered on in the face of disappointment, and it was true, that was part of having a very good sense of humor, wasn’t it, being able to be the butt of the jocularity of others (however cheap) with aplomb, to take being made sport of in stride? This made Kansas’s heart leap modestly in her chest, and she decided to hang up the hardware and take those turn-the-bruised-cheek teachings to heart.
She felt herself fairly vibrating with forgiveness as she walked toward the door inside a cozy circle of radiance, whose heat she could feel on her scalp, and she lapped up the grace of finally having made it to that inner circle of love and high regard, as though she were one of the original colonies, the Dirty Thirteen as they were affectionately known, to that golden place where your chin was chucked and your hair tousled and you were accepted for the sometimes gullible but quick-witted, good-humored, necessary bumpkin you were. And as she felt herself rise into the pinkening clouds of a perfect new dawn, into the welcoming embrace of posterity, she lowered her goggles, set her throttle toward eternity, and waved at the disappearing patchwork below her.