Ellis counts his arrival in If as the last in a line of cosmic jokes: a town named for possibility. As the bus pulls away, he feels that everything around him—the implied query of the town name, the city population sign, and the coffee mugs stamped with question marks at the Flying J truck stop—is calculated to remind him of his absurd existence. His choices cling to him like beads on a string, each one a glassy reminder of the mistakes that bring him here: a DWI resulting in the suspension of his license, a second assault on his third wife (who left him with as many marks on his face as he did on hers), and enough money stolen from said wife’s coat pocket for an open-ended ticket out of Sioux Falls. He has ridden the bus till the money is gone and the driver ejects him in If, a town that doesn’t warrant an inkspot on the map.
He finds that a lack of motivation coupled with a waitress at the Flying J whose collar is continually ringed with sweat keep him from moving on. The Silver Arrow has rooms on the cheap and he lands a job with Schwan’s delivering frozen food, door to door. The balding rep who hires him looks the other way as he ponies up his license with the corner lopped off. In this town, drivers are hard to find. “No drinking,” says the rep. The look in the rep’s eyes tells Ellis the world is bearing down on him, hard, so he agrees, “Not a drop.”
Every day, as he runs his route, Ellis knows his job is a remnant of old business models. Companies just do not exist anymore that market products in this fashion, except for scams, multi-level schemes involving security systems or knives or vacuums and hours of unpaid work. Still, Ellis takes comfort in the feel of the truck, the banana cream pie paint and the blistered edges of the freezer doors.
Luann, the waitress at the Flying J, serves him coffee daily and brightens when he wears his uniform with the swan embroidered over the pocket. “I was sure you were just another drifter passing through,” she tells him as she wipes down the counter one morning. When he forks a fried egg onto a slice of toast so the yolk breaks and runs, she stops circling the rag and continues. “Putrescence of the road,” she says. “That’s what I call them. Things hit-and-dragged till all feeling has left them. Funny how you can spot a person’s bad intentions from far off.” Ellis agrees, though privately thinks she’s talking smart to impress him. Drifters aren’t that common, after all—the traffic through town is so slow that visitors can be numbered without resorting to toes.
Soon coffee isn’t enough for either him or Luann, and she winds up in his motel room, examining neat piles of change near the sink. It’s an old trick, he explains, to test the housekeepers’ honesty. When he returns home at night he counts the stacks, the quarters, nickels, and dimes. Only when he reaches $3.75 does he relax. Anyone that can be trusted with loose change, he reasons, will leave the rest of his belongings alone. When he finishes explaining, she strips off her shirt and knocks the change to the floor.
Eventually he saves enough money to move out of If, even has some left over to cover rent in a new place. Only he finds he can’t leave town yet. The obvious reason is Luann, who can’t concentrate at work if he doesn’t drop by at least once during her shift. She claims she can’t sleep and spends half her nights at the motel. The clerks at the Silver Arrow have seen worse and don’t ask questions when she requests a key.
On the job these days Ellis is really moving product. People were wary at first, but now refer to him as theSchwan’s man. Apparently the route has been served by a series of high school dropouts who didn’t remember customers’ names or their purchase preferences. Once, a driver failed to double-check the freezer door latches, and more than one customer bought refrozen food (the ice cream bars were the worst, thanks to hard ice crystals from the thaw).
Ellis decides Luann isn’t the reason he can’t leave, blames the name of the town instead. He can’t let the idea rest that two sides exist to the town’s name. One looks forward to what could happen, and the other casts backward, cataloguing what didn’t happen, but could have. If he hadn’t stopped here—but he had, and now has to figure out why.
Colloquial knowledge holds the answer to the origin of the town’s name, and Ellis is in a good position to gather it. The glove box of his delivery truck becomes a repository for post-its covered with anecdotes in his loose scrawl. A withered grandmother on Carpenter, who routinely orders fried chicken dinners, offers a historical viewpoint. While the town fathers argued, one outspoken wife said in jest that she’d make custard for everyone, ifthey chose a name. They took her at face value, and posted the name of the town in memory of her statement.
A boy with arms the size of drinking straws at the Plainview Trailer park claims his mother says If is a joke, that the town is called “I Forget” because no one can remember the real name. Admitting this memory lapse is too embarrassing, so “If” is used as a stand-in.
Ellis’s favorite, though, comes from the local philosopher-cum-short order cook at the diner on main, Lewis Johansen. “The town’s name is indicative of a deep spiritual crisis,” Lewis argues when plied with an orange push-pop. “A crisis that has infected both the hearts of those founding settlers and our own.” He licks a drip running down the cardboard tube of ice cream and looks Ellis in the eye. “Anyone who says otherwise just can’t face the truth.”
The notes fill the glove box until Ellis has trouble sorting out the genuine accounts from the fakers, so he stops asking and instead compiles his own version: you needed twenty-five people to start a town, and they only had only twenty. “If we had another resident…” became the standard greeting for anybody passing through. When he tells this to Luann, she laughs.
“Don’t let that keep you up nights. If you live here long enough, you’ll forget that question or drive yourself nuts.”
He tries to bring up the subject later, but she stops speaking to him for days at a time, until one night, lying in bed, she answers. “I’m a native, you know. Grew up in this place, always asking myself, ‘If I leave town, who’ll care?’” She twists the sheets, rolls on her side with her back to him. “That’s what you’re asking, isn’t it? Why do we care?”
He places his hand in the small of her back, just above the curve of her buttocks. “So why did you come back?”
“That’s the easy part,” she says. “I never left.”
Aweek later a customer asks for his number and he tells her he’s still at the Silver Arrow. She is thin and flat-chested, but has a wolfish look about the cheekbones that gives him an icy feeling in his lungs, as if he were breathing the chill air billowing from his truck’s open freezer. He tells her to ask at the desk for him, and she tucks the bleached ends of her hair behind her ears and sucks in her cheeks.
Ellis takes his lunch sitting in the truck with the doors open, and halfway through his baloney and cheese he realizes that chasing two women could make the town unlivable for him, if word got out. In a panic he abandons his route and heads to the Flying J. He parks behind the semis and looks through the plate glass window to see if Luann is on shift. She is, always is, and when she heads back to the kitchen he goes from cab to cab of the semis and asks the drivers why they stopped in If to refuel. He gets blank stares and shaken heads until a guy hauling watermelons over from California says, “Why not? You read signs for a hundred miles and never see something like this.”
“Meaning the town, I take it,” says Ellis.
The guy cocks his hat and hawks phlegm on the cracked asphalt, shoots Ellis a look that lets him know plainly that he’s a moron. “If,” he says. “Driving along you ask yourself the same thing, and there it is, on the sign, so you have to see.”
“If what?” Ellis asks. Though he is aware that this makes him sound simple and reductive, he truly wants to know, to get another perspective on the issue.
“Isn’t that the question. If I had a wife in every state I drove through, would I hate myself any less than I do now? Probably not. If I drive 70 more miles to the next town, will I drive off the road? Who knows.”
The guy keeps going, but Ellis has had enough. Those are wrong kind of questions to ask, he now knows. Because the town has only one question worth asking of the people that live there. Will they stay, or not? Because if they do, well, they’ll wonder why they did… and if they don’t the question wasn’t meant for them to begin with.
He leans on the glass door and slides in as it moves. Luann doesn’t see him until he is up close and ordering. She offers him coffee and a slice of cherry pie, and waits until he has the cup to his mouth before she speaks.
“What are you doing here in the middle of the day?”
He looks away, can’t meet her eyes. She will know soon enough, but he can’t bring himself to tell her, can’t find the words. He can hear her feet scrape the floor behind the counter, and the silence between them feels like a revelation.
“You’re thinking of leaving,” she says. When he lifts his head, she shushes him with a hand. “Everyone does, sooner or later.” “I took a trip one time,” she says, “to Chicago. Went to see the skyscrapers. But standing there in the cold shade of the buildings, I wondered why I wanted to leave If. I came home—I’d seen enough. You understand? If isn’t the question, it’s the answer.”
Ellis swallows too fast, watches how she holds her hands as she adjusts her apron while she waits. He looks away and toys with his pie. He used to think the name of the town a laugh; it meant any number of things could happen. But as he picks at the glaze on the cherries, the slight skin that has formed sitting under the glass counter, he feels his opportunities narrowing, and he sits a long while, searching for that first sentence, one that will involve an iffollowed by a then.
Steve Woodward has an MFA from the University of Michigan and is an assistant editor at Graywolf Press. He is at work on a novel. “If, Minnesota” is his first publication.