Jim, Randy, and I had just started smoking pot. We barely knew how. At first, we used an apple, a technique Jim’s older brother had shown us. Wherever we smoked – my house, Jim’s house, or Randy’s mom’s apartment – we disposed of the apple-pipe with the most careful attention to detail. For example, we didn’t stuff it at the bottom of the garbage. Someone might smell it. We didn’t chuck it outside into the neighbor’s yard. Someone might find it, smell it, and turn it over to the police. Our fingerprints were on that apple. Instead, we’d chop the apple up and stuff it down the garbage disposal, or flush it down the toilet, or just eat it. These, we thought, were foolproof methods of disposal.
After we got the hang of it, we grew braver and restless. We drove around the rural countryside of Union County, apple in tow, looking for our next great revelatory experience. I was the only one with a car, an old Chrysler Concorde my parents gave me, and I took us by the cows and cornfields, the farmhouses and soybean fields, the woody banks of our Missouri River oxbow. While driving, we liked to play homemade tape recordings of our attempt at a band. We’d nod our shaggy heads and say, “Sounds good, man” or “Bad ass,” dreaming big, even though the sound quality was shit and the instruments sounded like hissy white noise.
All fifteen-year-old freshman, we fit together perfectly, Jim, Randy, and I. Jim was the big one, already over six feet and two hundred pounds. I was in the middle, three or four inches shorter and forty pounds lighter. Randy was no more than five-two. He actually had to gain weight to wrestle at one-hundred and three pounds.
Eventually we started smoking out of a Dr. Pepper pop can. It became our first regular pipe, the first thing we used more than once. Again, the methodology and technique was imparted to us by Jim’s brother, a legendary pot smoker. He loved it so much he dropped out of college for it. Well, that and cocaine.
So Jim bent the pop can just so and poked little holes in the necessary places and I drove us out of Elk Point and down South Dakota Highway 50. I went farther than we’d ever gone, past the road where you could turn right and head towards the hills and be in Iowa in five minutes. I decided to be spontaneous and turned off the highway onto a paved county road I’d never taken.
The hills became steeper in these parts, more forested, the houses less frequent. Eventually we came upon a little country cemetery. I think Randy spotted it. He was always absent-mindedly noticing things. We pulled off the highway and parked safely out of view behind some trees.
A spiky black fence enclosed the old stone graves, which numbered exactly fourteen. It made me think of my brother Trent, who was one year older. As boys, my mom dressed us alike, and sometimes people thought we were twins. We shared sports, action figures, had the same friends. It happened quickly and without a clearly identifiable cause, but by high school we had completed our growing-apart process. We didn’t hang out, and we didn’t share mutual friends. I didn’t know him anymore. I only knew that, at sixteen, he drank all the time and – the reason the cemetery reminded me of him – was obsessed with death.
“Hey, look at that tree,” said Jim.
A lone, nondescript deciduous tree stood about ten yards from the cemetery gate, apart from the forested tree line, like a general in front of his cavalry. What really made it stand out was the rope hanging from one of its branches. We thought that rope was the coolest thing ever, and we tied it into a noose and smoked under the tree. That’s what we took to calling it: the tree.
We dug a little hole and stuffed our pop can in there, covered it with twigs and leaves. A little careless, yes, but we were safely in the middle of nowhere, miles from anyone. At least that’s what it seemed like when you looked up at the open sky or gazed into the wooded thicket. There were shadows, and all you felt was stillness.
Around this same time, Trent was getting on my nerves with his incessant mourning of people whom he knew, at best, casually. “Ryan’s frickin’ stepdad died today, man,” he said one night at supper. “That’s three people I know in the last two months who’ve died.” Ryan was Trent’s friend Ryan Kayl, and Ryan’s stepdad lived in Denver, some 650 miles southwest of our little town in the southeastern corner of South Dakota. I knew for a fact Trent had never met Ryan’s stepdad.
“I bet you were really close to him,” I teased.
“Ross,” my mom scolded, even though I’d had private conversations with her in which I expressed my belief that Trent had no right to be in mourning of people he barely knew, and she had conceded that she, too, found his constant verbal obituaries tiring. My mom turned to Trent and said, “The best thing you can do is just be there for Ryan.”
“It’s just so hard. Everybody close to me dies.” He hung his head and dropped his fork on his plate, the metal clanking. He sobbed softly.
I shook my head and sighed. Loudly. On purpose. I looked to my dad for support, but he just continued to chew his food. He stayed out of stuff like this, delegated the mediating of brotherly disputes to my mom.
It was worse when Trent drank. He’d get sloshed every weekend and pretty tuned up most weeknights. It was strange, though, because he wouldn’t slur his speech or stumble at all. He’d drink to this certain point at which his eyes glazed over, and then he’d just start bawling about all the people he knew who’d died. It was as if he’d already lived an entire lifetime – or several – and everyone he loved had perished long ago. I suspected it was all a ploy by Trent to get attention, but the truth was I didn’t know where it came from, nor did I make an effort to learn.
He also started criticizing me for smoking pot. How did he find out? It was Elk Point. Secrets were public knowledge. One night while my parents were out, we were drinking in the basement – Jim, Randy, and I. Trent came home around midnight, crashing our party. He hadn’t quite reached that sobbing state of anguish. Instead, he was angry.
He said to me, “You’re a fucking pothead.”
I said, “So?”
“You’re a worthless druggie.” Druggie was the ultimate Elk Point drug pejorative, worse than stoner or burnout.
“You’re a worthless alcoholic.”
Trent came at me, fists flying. I absorbed a shot to the cheek, barely felt it. I wrapped my arms around him and brought him to the ground. He kicked and screamed. Randy and Jim just sat in their spots on the couch and recliner, respectively, amused and entertained.
I should mention that my parents adopted Trent when he was five days old from a seventeen-year-old girl from Sioux Falls. I came along a year after that, and, fifteen years later, had two inches and twenty pounds on him. I held him face-down on the floor until he agreed to give it up. I let him go and he dashed from the basement living room and up the stairs.
Randy and Jim shook their heads and chuckled. They’d seen Trent and me argue plenty of times, but it had never gotten physical. A minute later, Trent reappeared with a twenty-gauge shotgun pointed at me. It was the one and only time I ever had a gun pointed at me.
Trent’s eyes were red and moist and he cocked the gun and said, “Keep laughing, motherfucker.”
“Come on, dude, put the gun down,” Randy said.
I knew Trent would never shoot me. His finger wasn’t even on the trigger.
Trent laid the gun against the wall and sat down. We apologized to each other. Everything cooled down. Trent got drunker and started whining about some friend of his from Beresford named Zach Hardy who had shot himself. I loved Zach Hardy so much and Zach Hardy was such a good friend of mine and on and on. Rather than sit and listen to that drivel, I suggested to Jim and Randy that we get an apple out of my parents’ fridge.
We were at the tree, had just finished a few bowls off the pop can. We’d got used to the tree, the cemetery, our little spot, and we were ready for the next big thing to happen. Randy pointed north down the county road – the direction opposite Elk Point – towards the top of a hill we couldn’t see over. “Let’s see what’s up the road,” he said.
We climbed in my car and ascended the hill, which led to more steeply rolling hills. As we headed north, the tree cover to our right grew thicker and thicker. “It’s like a forest out here,” I said.
“Whoa,” said Randy, pointing out the window. A space had been cleared from the trees at the top of a hill and a log mansion stood large and proud like a castle, taller than the trees surrounding it.
Jim said “We could record our first album there” just as the tape recording skipped and cut out, then jumped to a spot several beats ahead.
A few miles later, we ascended the steepest hill yet, and, upon descending the crest, came on a strange ravine. To our right was the continuous forest and to our left, there were two houses and what looked like an old-West style general store.
“What the hell?” said Jim.
I turned down the music and when we reached the hill’s base, just before passing the general store, a posted green sign said Nora and beneath that Population 5. Time slowed to a crawl, or maybe I applied the break, but it felt like we passed in front of that sign for ten minutes. I heard the words Nora Population 5 in my brain like some kind of esoteric mystical chant, over and over, and I saw a vision of the sign in my head, even as I stared at it.
“Holy shit! Did you see that?” Randy said.
“Nora Population 5,” I yelled.
“Turn around,” Jim yelled.
There were no cars for miles and I flipped around and pulled up to the storefront. It was actually just a regular-looking, off-white two-story country house, except that it had a saloon awning over the front with the words Nora General Store painted in red letters.
I shut off my car, my heart pounding. I’d never heard anyone in town ever mention anything about Nora. Ever. I wasn’t exactly lost, but I didn’t know where we were, either – how many miles we were from Elk Point, how far we were from the closest towns, Alcester, Beresford, and Akron.
“We’re going in,” Jim said, opening the passenger door and climbing out.
It was just Randy and me. I met his eyes in the rearview mirror. “We have to,” he said, and got out. I checked myself in the mirror. Of the three of us, my eyes always got the reddest – double pinkeye, I called it – and this time was no different. I opened my door and followed Jim and Randy.
There was no open sign or store hours posted. Just a regular door atop a three-step concrete stoop. Jim knocked, and a few seconds later, it opened. We reeked like pot.
A plump, middle-aged man with greasy grey hair and a scraggly beard stood before us. His brown-rimmed bifocals were so thick they looked like Plexiglas. I don’t know how he could see us through them. I immediately thought: this guy either repairs antique timepieces or he has children locked in his basement.
“Hi there,” he said, chuckling to himself. “Welcome to the Nora General Store.”
We said hi in unison like triplets.
“What are your names?” he asked, looking directly into my eyes.
I swallowed before answering, my mouth drained of saliva. I desperately wanted cologne and Visine. And water. I said, “Ross.”
I thought: make something up, make something up. “Ross Wilcox,” I said, as if reporting for duty. He went down the line: “Randy.” “Randy what?” “Randy Ballinger.” “Jim…Jim Cunningham.”
“Come in,” the man said, opening the door further and backing in. He had a gimp in his right leg, and his shoulder dipped with each step. “Let me show you around.”
Inside, the place was enormously large and open, the ceiling almost two stories high. This is because the room housed, at its center, an old, beat-up wood-carved pipe organ. I’d never seen one up close. “Does it work?” I gasped.
Huge brass pipes stood on either side of the wood console like the columns of the Parthenon, rising all the way to the ceiling. At the console’s center, three rows of keyboards elevated at staggered levels in a kind of keyboard staircase. A wood pedalboard of expression pedals ran along its base.
“Yeah it works,” the man said. “Sometimes I have concerts here. I have them every Christmas.”
“Can you play us something?” Jim asked.
He hobbled over to the organ and seated himself at the console. As he did, I took in the rest of the room. It was mostly bare except for a row of old chairs encircling the walls. At various spots hung tattered wreaths and Christmas stockings, and on one of the windowsills stood three wood nutcrackers. The paint on them was chipped, and they possessed the eerie veneer of forsaken porcelain dolls.
Suddenly, a deep burst of bass filled the room. My neck jerked and my body stiffened to attention. The man held the chord for several elongated moments, then ornamented it with a melodic fluttering of shrill notes.
He removed his hands from the keyboard, and the room went silent.
“Wow,” Randy said.
“Okay, here goes.”
He launched into “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and the room thickened with music. What I mean by that is you could reach out and tangibly touch the notes in the air, as if the sounds were sheets of gelatinous material circling about your hands, or crawling on your neck, or vibrating down your spine.
The man – the organist – looked like the pilot of some strange, medieval flying invention. His hands moved up and down the stack of keyboards – pressing buttons, turning nobs and dials, it seemed. His legs moved up and down, as if he were pedaling a bicycle, and his feet moved back and forth along the pedalboard, pushing down and releasing, down and releasing.
What’s funny is I hate Christmas music – I always have – but I closed my eyes and let the room fill with country people come on a dark, frigid December night. Maybe they all drank hot chocolate to keep warm, I don’t know. And maybe there were marshmallows in their mugs, melting together into a thick white foam. And maybe they sang along together like they do in church, Joy to the World, Silent Night, Bethlehem, the Wise Men and the works.
I breathed in Christmas carols, swallowing, forcing them down my throat. But they’d disgorge in my chest, reverberating like a drill, and work their way back up my palate and out my mouth in exhale. I opened my eyes and thought: How rurally 19th Century European it all seemed.
Of course, once he was done playing, we had to hound him with the story of our band.
“I play guitar,” I said.
“I play bass,” Randy said.
“I play drums,” Jim said.
We told him how all our equipment was in Jim’s parents’ basement, how we played original, instrumental compositions which were totally in the vein of psychedelic post-punk art rock, how we recorded ourselves with a tape recorder and listened to it in my car, how we’d played at a few parties and were looking to book gigs in bars but we weren’t old enough, how we were eventually going to move to Omaha and get a record deal with Saddle Creek Records. Like Bright Eyes. You’ve heard of Bright Eyes, haven’t you?
Of course he hadn’t. But he offered us milk and cookies, which gave him the connotative aura of Santa Claus. We sat in the chairs along the walls and ate our snacks and he told us about Nora.
“It’s kind of strange, but I don’t even know my neighbors. Those two houses you saw? I barely know the people who live there. There’s an older couple in one of them, but they’re not friendly. They keep to themselves. The other house is pretty much vacant. Some guy from Vermillion owns it, but he’s never there.”
“So it’s pretty much just you and that couple,” Randy said. “It’s really Nora Population 3, not 5.”
The man laughed. “Yeah, that’s right. We’re down to three.”
He told us a little more about how he grew up in some little town I’d never heard of. They had a pipe organ in the church, though, and that’s where he learned to play. He never married or had any kids, and he eventually reached a point where he didn’t have to work anymore. So he moved to Nora and bought his own pipe organ.
A few chairs down from me, I spotted a purple Beresford Watchdogs sweatshirt. At a break in the conversation, I pointed at the sweatshirt and said, “Do you support the Watchdogs?”
The man looked confused for a moment, but his eyes followed my finger and he said, “Oh that. Oh, no, that belonged to a boy who used to do some work for me. He, uh, he died not too long ago.”
The man nodded, his face suddenly tight, solemn. “Yeah. He was a good kid. A really good kid. He’d come out here and sweep and clean and help with the chickens.” He pointed with his thumb over his shoulder. “I’ve got some chickens out back.”
I got up, fetched the sweater, and sat back down. Staring at it, I said, “Was his name Zach? Zach Hardy?”
The man looked at me, his eyes wide. “Yeah. Did you know him?”
“No,” I said. “But my brother did.”
I clutched the sweater tightly. The material felt different now that I knew who it used to belong to. I handed the sweatshirt to the organist. He took it. He rubbed it between his thumb and index finger. “He was a good kid,” he repeated.
I didn’t think, I just asked, “Why did he do it?”
The man shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said, his eyes on the sweatshirt. “He did a lot of drugs.” He looked up at us. “Hard drugs. He wasn’t happy. But I thought he was doing better. I thought he’d turned a corner.”
I stood up and said, “We have to go. I need to get home.”
He thanked us for coming, told us to stop by again. But I walked out in the middle of his goodbye speech. I went to my car and started it, waited for Jim and Randy.
They got in a minute later, and Jim said, “What’s wrong, man?”
“Do you guys even know who Zach Hardy is?”
“Yeah, he’s that guy Trent knew from Beresford who shot himself,” Randy said. “That’s crazy he worked here at the Nora General Store.” He laughed after that, probably because of the whole absurdity of the Nora General Store and the pipe organ and its organist, all of that, not because of Trent and his grieving.
But I got defensive. “That’s Trent’s friend,” I said.
Jim turned the music up and I’m not sure if they even heard me.
“We should jam with that guy,” Jim said.
“What was his name?” Randy asked as I pulled onto the highway.
“What was his name?” Jim said.
When I asked my mom about Nora, she said, “Oh sure. The Nora General Store. There’s the guy with the pipe organ. I’ve been to a few of his Christmas concerts.”
“It’s been years.”
“What’s his name?”
She shook her head. She looked confused, like I’d asked her if she ran into John Lennon at work that day. She said, “I don’t know his name.”
“Where’d he come from?” I asked. “Like, when did he suddenly appear in Nora?”
“Years ago,” my mom said. “But I’m not sure where he came from.”
“Is he related to anyone in town?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Isn’t it weird nobody knows anything about him?”
“It is weird,” she said with encouragement.
That weekend, we were at a bonfire party out in the country, off a gravel road by some grain silos. We told everyone about Nora, but no one was interested. They’d nod and say, “That’s cool” and walk away, back to the keg or to some other, less esoteric group of people. We made a pipe out of a beer can and smoked. It was a pretty typical night – Jim, Randy, and I standing around hoping to get laid but instead just getting high, talking about how no one else in this town knew anything about music.
Trent was there, and towards the end of the night, when the gathering had all but thinned out, he was leaning against his car, talking to a girl two grades above him, a senior. And she was listening to him. Trent had the magic like that.
But not on this night. In a few minutes, the girl got in her car and drove off, and it was just Trent, standing by his car, orange in the glow of the nearby fire. We watched as he shifted his stance back and forth. He jerked his shoulders and grunted, as if he were trying to break free of a straightjacket. Then the sobs came.
We reached him as the tears fell. He covered his face and turned away from us.
I uncharacteristically put my hand on Trent’s back and said, “What’s wrong?”
“Fuck off,” he said.
“Come on,” Randy said. “Tell us what’s wrong.”
Trent uncovered his face and said, “What do you care?”
Instead of telling him why we cared, I said, “Have you ever heard of Nora?”
At first, he shook his head, wanting no part of it. But we told him where it was, described how to get there. He stood still, suddenly calmer. We described the ravine, the green sign for Nora, the saloon awning, and the general store. His ears perked up, and he leaned forward a little, bending towards our voices. That’s the thing about Trent. He listened. He even listened to our band, and no one cared about our band.
We told him about the pipe organ and the mysterious organist. We gesticulated wildly as we told him how the Christmas music filled the room. Meanwhile, the party thinned out, the bonfire dimmed.
We got to the last part, the part about Zach Hardy. I said, “I found Zach Hardy’s sweatershirt in Nora. The guy said that Zach worked there.”
Trent’s eyes were dry now. Everyone had gone home. It was just the four of us standing by Trent’s car. We watched the fire burn and slowly die, like the fading of an organ chord, and we listened, at least I did, to Trent talk about what Zach Hardy was like. And it didn’t matter how well Trent knew him. Or if he knew him at all.