Midwestern Nice

by Khristy Knudtson

Neighbors US Postal mailbox

The Midwest region of the United States garners a reputation that is unlike any other. Wisconsin, where I have lived all of my life, embodies airs of apologetic pleasantries in almost every interaction. This concept of “Midwestern nice” is a pervasive descriptor of the Midwestern people—it defines us from sea to shining sea. Being known as “generally agreeable,” “polite,” and “non-confrontational” does not seem so bad.  Living in a state of determined resolve to “love [one’s] neighbor” is a small part of a picturesque “American dream” that all Midwesterners pray for in church on Sunday.

Since I’m writing this on a Sunday, the day of our Lord, I will confess to you that I am not “Midwestern nice” nor do I love my neighbor.  

The trendiest way to describe my personality is introverted and idiosyncratic; however, I feel like “grumbly, reclusive troll” is probably more accurate.  Fortunately, most people find me endearing—whether that is symptomatic of “Midwestern nice” or the leftover wine from the 11AM service, I cannot tell you.  

Well, in 2013, this hobgoblin became a homeowner, and while I was excited to expand my attitude to the square footage most apt to contain it, I was not prepared for the neighborly greetings I would have to endure while I was trying to unpack my belongings.  One never fully realizes the importance of lost deodorant when you’re still shaking hands at 8PM and have work in the morning.  Yet, it did not occur to me that I had much to worry about until the next day when I was walking back into my home after a long day of work when I encountered Edna for the first time.

Deep in thought and most definitely minding my own business, I did not realize that the shrieking I heard was actually directed at me.  I had assumed it was a forgotten tea-kettle or smoke-alarm—both of which, unless mine, were not my business.  

I did not see her, but like any prey, my other senses compensated, and I located the screeching harpy on her screened-in porch.  I will confess that once I realized the noise was directed at me and under no circumstances did I need to take cover to avoid impending doom, I exchanged pleasantries albeit very short ones. 

While I’m sure it sounds like I am being a complete crotch, I assure you that unless you’ve had to live under the regime of neighborly social peril, you cannot understand the rush of finely attuned senses as you survey the battlefield, wait until the time is right, slip out your door, and hustle to your car.  You hope that your 2006 Hyundai opens on the first try and that all of your baggage sails over the front seat and into its place in the back—hell, as long as nothing spills, it’s considered a safe landing.  Locked inside your car, you “the victor” giggle maniacally as you feel the rush of adrenaline.  You are the winner—now running ten minutes late for work but a winner nonetheless.

Throughout the years, I have been audibly assaulted by a variety of things.  Some things are rather benign like the time Edna asked me my name.  In retrospect, it would have been the perfect time to make up a super fancy “special agent” name but the stress of socializing could only produce “Bond, James Bond” so the likely conclusion was to opt for my given alias.  

And here’s the thing…I have tried to be nice—as nice as my little troll heart can be—but I just have to draw the line when a “How are you this evening?” is followed up by a street-length diagnostic journey of a urinary tract infection and description of all the symptoms.  

Despite all of this, nothing could have prepared me for the conversation I had last Friday night.

Having spent the day inside plagued by Wisconsin humidity and peppered with anxiety, I decided to make my rounds to Starbucks and Walgreens to pick up my prescription of Lorazepam. As it was about dinnertime, the journey out of my dwelling did not seem dangerous, and I was further goaded by the thought of the sweet caffeination to come.  I was off!

It wasn’t until I made it to the end of my front steps that I realized Edna was in the back of her driveway, hanging her laundry on the clothesline.  I suppose it was an amateur mistake. It was unavoidable to let the interaction go unacknowledged so I raised my hand in the air, gave a short wave, and kept on walking to my vehicle. Then I heard “khristy….Khrisssstyyyy, KHRISTYYYY!”  

Like my Midwestern ancestors before me, I could only think of one phrase to describe precisely how I was feeling:  

Son of a bitch.

Turning stiffly, I looked over my shoulder and gave a simple “Hey, what’s up?”  

Shuffling over, she said: “Can I have some ————?” 

To this day, I am rendered with disbelief that I did not hear her.  Even after my “What? I’m sorry, I did not hear you” I could not hear her still.

When I finally heard her, I was fairly certain that I did not hear her correctly.  

After all, one does not expect to hear “Can I have some cat hair?” from their neighbor.  

If you are confused, I will confirm that yes, my neighbor did request some cat hair from me.

Now, I will say that I think I have a pretty good poker face when I need to.  I teach teenagers, after all.  But I will readily confess that there was no way in God’s Midwestern landscape that could hide the colossal confusion that clung to my face. 

I was simply rendered speechless (sorry you missed it, Mom).

Kudos to Edna for continuing because I don’t know if I could have asked my neighbor for hair.  

“Well, you know how hair just collects around your house?  I mean for dogs it does, I don’t know for cats…If I could just have some…”

Listen, I love my cats more than most people.  I was not about to commit my felines to any sort of cockamamie bullshit my neighbor had cooked up.  Thus, there was only one response I could give: “Why?”

“See, I have four gophers in my yard and I can’t get rid of em, so the neighbor lady down over there told me that cat hair may work.  Since I know you got cats, I thought I’d ask.” 

Honestly, that seemed reasonable. A logical conclusion can be made, here:  If Edna wanted to rid herself of the gophers, it must mean that the gophers have stayed long enough to need removal.  Gophers are not an invasive species of Wisconsin (believe me, I checked).  

I digress.

Next, I had to think of my cat whose fur currently resembles that of a tennis ball as she has been shaved for the summer.  I repeated this to Edna.

“Oh, it’s okay, I don’t need that much actually, just a bit like this” holding her index and thumb together in the shape of the traditional “ok” symbol.

I nodded.  Slowly.

“Just stuff it in the mail slot when you get a chance.”

This is dicey.  First, putting something in someone’s mailbox that is not, in fact, sanctioned by the United States Postal Service violates 18 U.S. Code § 1725 “Postage Unpaid on Deposited Mail Matter” and can result in a fine up to $5,000.  Yes, I looked it up.  

Second, let’s be honest, here.  Who in their ever-loving right frickin’ mind is going to stick cat hair in someone’s mailbox?  Even the thought of the sentence is enough to make me shake my head.  

After a little more nodding and awkward conversation, Edna and I parted ways.  I ran my errands in a befuddled stupor that could only lead me to the following conclusion in my journey of self-acceptance:

I may not be “Midwestern nice” but I’m sure the hell not going to be the neighborhood cat fur caper, either. 

Category: Featured, Nonfiction, SNHU Creative Writing