August 5th, 2021
“What Reese is doing throughout, even with the bumper stickers, is providing an unflinching and oftentimes humorous — though some might say terrifying — view of the flyover states, and why not? This is who we are, in some ways, and Reese is showing — teaching — us what that means. No explanations needed. Like a good teacher, he’s letting us figure things out on our own.”
“How many souls make up the inexhaustible winds? How many of them taught with their bones’ chalk? What are the givens?” This passage from Requiem for a Teacher by Don Welch serves as epigraph on which Jim Reese’s essay collection Bone Chalk is built. There’s an even-handedness about this collection, a sense of unflappability donned by the author that creates a kind of trust between reader/author, a sense that this person is a Teacher, capital T, but that doesn’t mean that each of these essays is the same. In fact, in content and tone, these essays span a rich cast of characters and situations: learning of the locals at the neighborhood tap; exploring the seedier areas of Omaha; meeting inmates through the author’s work in prisons; and then there’s the author himself, Reese, who shows his depth of thought and reflection and, like a good teacher, is always pressing us to think deeper about those people who we think we know, especially those living on the fringes of society, or perhaps even more pointedly, those who are or have been incarcerated.
The essay referenced immediately above is titled “Never Talk to Strangers — 12 Years in Prisons and What Criminals Teach Me.” The essay, perhaps the most ambitious and most personal of the collection, starts with an account of brutal crimes that took place in the author’s hometown of Omaha in the eighties. After introducing those heinous crimes—which I won’t discuss here in this review—Reese immediately pivots away from them and to himself, asking the question that ultimately guides the rest of the essay that is this: “Is there a killer inside me?” This question of course is acknowledging what we all know to be true, but perhaps keep repressed, which is this: how do I keep the good-natured part of myself flourishing while acknowledging, though suppressing, the darker sides of myself? The Smashing Pumpkins, put it more directly in their song Disarm: “The killer in me is the killer in you.” And this exploration of what we are made of—what’s inside of us—propels the essay.
Further along, same essay, Reese discusses his own family, his teaching in prisons, and he begins to build on other questions and realizations. “What I began to discover,” Reese writes, “was that addiction, in all of its gross immaturity, will make people go to extreme measures.” And later, while talking to an inmate in the prison yard, the inmate says, “You know, I’m no killer or sicko. My whole stint that got me here only lasted five months. Meth will eat you up. Fifteen years I’ll be down for an addiction I couldn’t shake.” And this is the heart of Bone Chalk, as it intimately frames Reese’s world as a teacher, certainly, but also as a constant lifelong learner himself, better understanding those with whom he interacts regularly, and the lessons he’s learning come from inmates, as we’ve just seen, but also a range of unsuspecting characters.
One such couple Reese learns from, and pays tribute to, are his noble and humble in-laws, who lead quiet, productive lives. You’ll never meet a person who reveres his in-laws the way Reece does, as the third essay of the book is titled “The Mother-in-law Archives” and shows us the virtues of his wife’s mother, a woman who was “born during the Great Depression” and “makes pie crusts from lard” and has “unidentifiable things in her deep freeze.” This is a woman who has anything you need: from a “blow torch” and “nunchucks,” to “bell bottoms” and a “bowling ball.” She is a person who, born out of the Great Depression, wants to keep everyone in the family well fed. The father-in-law is on equal terms with the mother-in-law, and an equally impressive essay was written about him, a meditative deep-thinking soul who has a keen eye and a shy sense of humor.
The wonderful thing about this collection is that its focus is not solely on Reese, which is the way of most personal essayist, but rather Reese reaches outward to honor those people with whom he has shared time and knowledge. But not all of the essays are meditative and serious. Some are bombastic and humorous, and do look inward, and show Reese’s range of writing ability, such as the essay “My Life as Willy the Wildcat.” It’s about a time when Reese took on the role of his college’s mascot and learned the ups and downs of taking on a new persona. The essay is a kind of sexual exploration, which makes perfect sense given that most eighteen-year-olds are trying to find comfort in their own sexuality, and this is amplified by the fact that he’s taken on a new identity. On one hand, he says, “simulating an animal brings out sexualized behaviors in others, in me, and I didn’t care.” Later on, Reese admits to being humiliated in those woozy after-bar hours when he went home with a “lady friend” and “immediately after [his] paper-mâché head came off, her hysterical laughter and sighs ensued.” Reese now has the luxury of age and hindsight through which to tell this self-deprecating essay, and Reese is skilled at intermixing the humor with poignancy.
This is evidenced further by three chapters that are like found poems in a way, showcasing the various bumper stickers Reese has paid witness to on cars traveling through South Dakota, where he now lives, stickers about guns: “My peace sign is a cross hair” or “Gun CONTROL Means Using Both Hands”; politics: “Charlton Heston is MY PRESIDENT”; food issues: “Save a Cow, Eat a Vegetarian”; and sex: “I like my women like my deer: HORNY” or “Boobies make me smile” or “If You Are Going to Ride My Ass At Least Pull My Hair.”
What Reese is doing throughout, even with the bumper stickers, is providing an unflinching and oftentimes humorous — though some might say terrifying — view of the flyover states, and why not? This is who we are, in some ways, and Reese is showing — teaching — us what that means. No explanations needed. Like a good teacher, he’s letting us figure things out on our own.
Even in the first essay of the collection, “How to Become a Regular,” is a kind lesson — a direct address to someone new to a small town, and it offers an intimate view into a single evening at the local tap. We meet an assortment of characters, which is ultimately how Reese frames the instructions — by how we relate to one another, which often means never refusing another beer, “I guess I have time for one more.” This, so you can watch Edsel “plop another peanut into his rum and Coke . . . and offer . . . wisdom about women.”
These essays are character studies of Midwesterners who have something to teach all of us, if only in their own subtle way, but that’s exactly the point. One of the other teachable moments here is the simple idea of paying attention and embracing those people in our community who, even if they aren’t aware of it, are leaving indelible marks on us — using their own bones’ chalk to show us all the ways possible to live, to work, and to relate to one another.