Two Liberals Assess the Midwest from a Bar That Serves Charcuterie Near the Ocean

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John ran his finger along a rip in his jeans. The skin that showed through the torn denim felt cold from the pint glass he had rested on his thigh. He liked to sit at the bar but hated putting his shirtsleeves on the sticky, dirty surface. He had a habit of spinning away from the bar and holding his drink.

“Poor girls are easy because they think you’ll buy them shit,” John said. Seth was retweeting a #MeToo post from his phone and didn’t respond. John only sort of believed what he’d just said. “I guess she never asked me to pay. But fuck her.”

John had met Katelyn at a campaign meeting for a local lefty politician in 2016. She was cheering an organizer’s talk about single-payer health care when he noticed that the back pockets of her jeans had rhinestones running along heavy white thread stitched in the shape of a butterfly. At first he thought her style must be ironic, and he was impressed. He had never seen that style of jeans in this coastal city. The girls he went to high school with in small-town Nebraska, though, wore them whether they were going to the Dollar General or a bachelorette party. Sweatshirt or low-cut tank top—either way, it was the same bootcut jeans with rhinestone flair on the pockets and square-toe Justin boots.

People here don’t know where she’s from, John thought. He’d been to more than one “white trash” party thrown by rich twenty-somethings, who showed up in tattered overalls and straw hats—thinking, apparently, that’s what everyone wore in rural areas. John went to those parties, too, but at least he got the wardrobe right: a T-shirt with the sleeves cut off tucked into Wranglers, a baseball cap, a big belt buckle.

“She grew up on a fucking pig farm,” John said.

“Jesus,” Seth said. “Trump country.”

He’d been to more than one “white trash” party thrown by rich twenty-somethings, who showed up in tattered overalls and straw hats.

John nodded. He didn’t miss Katelyn. It was a relief not to be seen with her. He felt embarrassed by her accent and hated how she defended what she herself called Brokelahoma. But it pissed him off that she had broken up with him.

“Sorry how that went down, man,” Seth said, looking over the charcuterie menu on a heavy clipboard the bartender had set out for them.

That morning, John had seen a tweet in which someone was whining that expensive, pre-torn denim from high-end manufacturers mocked people in poverty. John wanted to reply that Walmart sold new jeans with holes in them, for Christ’s sake—that farm kids bought pre-torn jeans to do chores in the winter, which he doubted many people here knew. Why feel sorry for fucking idiots? he wanted to tweet. They can’t even dress in their own best interest.

The jeans he was wearing came from an Abercrombie at the Lincoln mall where his mom shopped. He liked how they fit but only wore them with shirts long enough to cover the pedestrian brand name. The tear in the thigh was very small, really just a deep fray with threads still hanging across it, which John thought was just right. In high school, he had once bought a pair of jeans whose tag read “destroyed.” They were full of exaggerated rips and intentionally discolored with a yellow-brown tint called “dirty wash.” When he wore them, it annoyed his dad, who still liked to tell him how hard his grandfather had worked for the money that paid for his college degree. It had paid for his whole twenties, really. John was in law school now and had come around to his dad’s way of thinking, sort of—agreeing, at least, that “destroyed” denim was tacky. He felt he had evolved both in style and politics.

“I’m not gonna lie—I used to be kind of shitty to girls,” John said. “But when I met Katelyn I thought, don’t judge her for her background.”

“Plus, where are you from, man,” said Seth, who had grown up not far from the nice bar.

“We lived in town,” John said.

Seth took a drink.

Down the street, at a faux-dive bar where John had heard a Waylon Jennings song for the first time, he always ordered PBR can specials and people who knew he was from the Midwest slapped him on the back like he must be an expert on country music and cheap beer. His authority was diminished here where they served imports on a copper bar, but invoking his Nebraska heritage commanded some respect on the matter of meat. When the bartender answered Seth’s question about where the pork came from and how it was smoked, John nodded the same way he did when he pretended to have read something.

Seth looked at his phone. “Headquarters posted that they need volunteers. Voter registration stuff.” He paused. “Katelyn might be there.”

John checked the Facebook event to see whether she had RSVP’ed.

“I doubt it,” John said. “She told me she gave up on the Dems.”

“So what is she?”

“I don’t know,” John said. “A bitch?”

They both laughed.

“Who did your parents vote for?” Seth asked.

“I’m not sure,” John said. “Out there you don’t talk about it as much. Probably Trump.”

“Didn’t Bernie win the caucus?” Seth asked and signaled the bartender to tab them out.

“Yeah. But Clinton won the primary. Which didn’t count. That year Nebraska had both. Long story,” John said. “Example of how fucked up that state is. Happy to never go back.”

Seth nodded and didn’t offer that his dad had voted for Trump. As a child who grew up with sailboats, he had been fascinated by the Great Plains—“a sea of grass,” he had seen it described in a history book. But everyone he met from there had terrible things to say about it. He wanted to see it for himself, kind of, but not enough to actually go.

The check arrived, wedged under the cover of an old Faulkner novel. John remembered that his mom liked to say Faulkner “stole everything he knew” from Willa Cather. That reminded him that he needed to come up with an excuse about why she shouldn’t visit for his birthday. She’d do the pile of laundry he’d been avoiding, but she’d want to do tourist stuff.

He finally messed too much with the small tear in his jeans. His finger poked through the threads. He cursed under his breath. It was officially a hole now.

“So you going with me to headquarters?” Seth asked.

“Why not?” John said. “First let me go home and change.”

Sarah Smarsh is the author of Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, forthcoming in September from Scribner.

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