He had read a few brief excerpts on Minnesota while standing in the Travel section of the Mall bookstore. There were several books on the Midwest United States, but few had more than a paragraph or a half-dozen footnotes on Minnesota; most of the books spent most of their pages on Chicago or Springfield or St. Louis or a place called Branson, Missouri, of which Rudy had never heard. Branson sounded like an awfully small town for so many dedicated chapters, and Rudy worried that if St. Paul, Minnesota rated fewer words than such a place, he might literally be bored to death there. But a job is a job is a job, his mother used to say, and St. Paul had come calling, boring though it might be. And so Rudy drove.
If you have ever driven across Middle America–up, down, or otherwise–you can imagine what such roads might do to a young college-educated man like Rudy. Being particularly weak stomached, the “roadside attractions” that greeted him often left him feeling quite ill. Two shudders ran up his back every time he passed a flattened animal: one just before he passed it, and one just afterwards while he thought of the sad little end each interstate-crossing creature had met. Still, through toll-booths and seas of traffic cones he made his way to the North.
I won’t bore you with thick details of the scenery, but know, dear reader, that it was very, very flat through Texas and Oklahoma. The hills through Missouri seemed steep and exotic after that flatness, but by the time he’d reached Southern Illinois, it had flattened back out again. The green hills and dales of Wisconsin were warm and welcoming and seemed like a home about which he had never known. The farmland called to him even as he neared the northwest border, and he felt like he would miss this place through which he’d passed. He was growing anxious to reach his new home, however, and farming probably didn’t pay as well as accounting.
He crossed the border, reached Minneapolis/St. Paul, and was a little struck by the understated grandeur. It seemed like a simultaneously small and large place. The people smiled as he passed them on the street, and he felt a bizarre comfort and confidence; against character, he felt compelled to roll down the sedan’s window and feel whatever cool breeze came his way. The city smelled like a city, of course, like diesel exhaust from the busses and coffee shops and wet cement from a mid-day rain. But it also smelled to Rudy like opportunity and a fresh start and a foot-in-the-door (and it might have been the Bravo Bakery on Grand Avenue but it also smelled a little like cinnamon). At that moment, Rudy felt as though his intrepid decision to follow this job couldn’t possibly go wrong. He also felt quite hungry for a cinnamon roll now, of course, so he followed his nose and ordered two for himself; one for now, one for the following morning, which was Monday, which was also the day he would start work.
Feeling it too early to check into his hotel, Rudy sat down at a table in the bakery with a hot cuppa and his roll, and stared out the window at passersby while he picked at his roll with a fork. As she poured him a fresh cup, the waitress, a pretty thirty-something named Jill, brushed a stray lock of auburn hair from her face and looked at her watch. “We’re closing the shop in about twenty minutes,” she said. “Can I get you anything else?”
Rudy noted her obvious hint about how it would be a lot easier to close the shop if he wasn’t sitting at the table nibbling on a roll. “No, thanks very much,” he said, “I’ll just take the check.”
“You visiting?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said. “No. I mean, I’m new here. I start work on Monday.” He added that last part because he’d hardly spoken to anyone in two thousand miles, and he thought she might ask him about his new job, which he was eager to talk about.
“Oh is that so?” she asked, making her o’s sound as round as any you’ve ever heard. “Whereabouts?”
“The Fifty-Sixth Department?” He wasn’t sure why he’d made it a question.
“The Fifty-Sixth Department of what?”
“Well, I’m not exactly sure, but I think that’s just what the company calls themselves.”
“Oh. I see,” she said. “What do you do?”
“I’m an accountant, you see, but as I understand it, they make little miniature buildings.” As he said this, he thought he saw a hint of dawning realization on her face; her eyes widened in an expression he would characterize somewhere between shock and fear. “Is there something wrong with accounting?”
(to be continued)