Oklahoma, he said in his mind, two long os, two short as, and wanted to know if there would be anyone to whom he could disclose, ever, the tenderness of his feelings, in all their callowness, when he said this word.
—Salvatore Scibona, The End
O is for Oktaha, Okemah, and Okmulgee, small yellow towns with tall water towers and low-lit diners where the cheerleaders still gather after the game.
O is for Oolagah, a name like a spell, where Will Rogers once said he’d never met a man he didn’t like. “When you meet people,” he said, “why, after you meet them, and see their angle, why, you can see a lot of good in all of them.” He died when his plane crashed in an Alaskan lagoon at the apex of August. The pilot was Wiley Post, a famed barnstormer with one good eye, but he wasn’t ours, he was a Texan. Amber Valetta went to my high school; Gap Band Avenue is just down the street. You can sing Mmmbop and I can sing mmmbop, and the Hanson boys still live in Tulsa, where they lived, too, in 2001. Were they homeschooling that fall, or were they on tour when the towers fell? Did they think, like I did, how lucky we were to live nowhere, how no one could ever want to hurt us, not aliens, not invaders, of course not terrorists. I’d forgotten already how Timothy McVeigh parked a truck on a Wednesday afternoon two hours west of Tulsa, a truck meant to go nowhere but everywhere, its cargo nitromethane.
O is the buffalo-skin Osage shield on our sky-blue flag: seven eagle feathers, six brown crosses, a peace pipe, an olive branch. My oldest friends both bear it in vivid tattoos. One rolls up her sleeve, one shows me her shoulder, and together they explain: this is not a dream catcher, this is not from a band. This is a crest, this is a reminder, this is the need to carry your home in your blood, on your skin.
K is for kicks as promised in the song. Route 66 runs through downtown. We call it 11th Street.
K is for Kansas, a plank of a state pushing down from above. In history class, I stare at the 1863 map of America. To the east, Arkansas with its Ozarks and moonshine. Texas below (the less said, the better). To the west, an inch of New Mexico, a wedge of Missouri on the right. All these states defined and established and there, in absentia, Oklahoma’s outline perfected—the crinkled Red River, the panhandle jutting—my state, in total, labeled UNORGANIZED TERRITORY.
We are the refuse and the refuge, an American Siberia, where the Choctaw, Creek and Cherokee, the Chickasaw and Seminole walked in long, barefoot lines. We are flyover country. We are forgotten and forgettable. I drove through Oklahoma once, you say and shudder. At fourteen I write angry poems about my hometown, my Southside neighborhood with its own park and pond, its neighborhood committee, its community yard sale. K is for kill, as in what I would do to get out of this place.
K is for Katy who lived down the street in her house full of wonders: two dogs, a Nintendo, an upstairs where her older sister tells me never to point my middle finger straight up. Fuck will become a favorite word of mine, and maybe there’s some echo in that hard smack of K that makes me think of home.
L is for land, both yours and mine, and Woody Guthrie’s tumbledown shack where he built a machine that killed fascists with just six strings. L is for the land and its running, a thousand homesteaders perched on a line until the pistol was shot. L is for the lies swallowed alongside the dust, crops gone dead and dry. L is the liquid gold underneath, oil jacks like long-legged grasshoppers corroded red, still bobbing.
L is for land and just how much of it we’ve got out here. I will never love forests, feel cramped and not cradled by mountains and valleys. I’ll leave Oklahoma and try to find somewhere as wide and open and broad, and the closest I’ll come is the coast. Homesick, I go to the beach and look out at nothing, at no one, at water that waves like wheat.
A is for awkward, as in adolescence. In 2007, we unearthed Miss Belvedere, the 1957 Plymouth coupe buried half a century in cement. Our state was a hundred years old, forty-sixth recognized, a practical preteen. The car came up ruined and the onlookers gasped. The contents destroyed—a girl’s bobby socks, a boy’s Elvis LP. We ate cake, we applauded, but Miss Belvedere lingered, the rusted emblem of our dumb, dashed hopes.
A is for astonished, how people react when I say where I’m from, and I know every response: No, I’ve never been in a tornado and yes, I can sing the song. A is for “a slut,” my hometown backwards, the saddest, truest palindrome: Tulsa nightlife, filth, gin, a slut. A is for angry, annoyed, aggravated because who can help how and where they were born?
H is the Himalaya ride at Bell’s Amusement Park. For Katy’s eighth birthday, we went to Bell’s where I sat with Thomas, my second-grade crush, relishing the centrifugal force that pressed his side into mine. H is the heat that forced us through Bell’s gates every summer to the White Lightning Log Ride, the Chili Pepper Plunge. H is the horror house, Phantasmagoria, where I was too scared to ride, even with Thomas. H is huge, the white-washed Zingo roller coaster, all clatter and speed. H is for homeward, where we boomerang back, but Bell’s is a parking lot now. I drive by and wonder what Thomas would say, if he remembers our ride on the Wildcat. I wonder if he remembers swapping my Jurassic Park trading cards for his foreign coins, how badly I pined in my eight-year-old heart. In 2007 the city razed Bell’s; in 2008, Thomas shot himself in the head. His mother writes on his memorial page: My memories can’t fill the space you left.
O is for open, the lay of the land and demeanor of the people. O is for OK! our license plate slogan because “mediocre” wouldn’t fit. I make up mottos in frustrated moments: Oklahoma—Could Be Worse and Oklahoma—At Least We’re Not Texas. O is other and ostracized and out, how I feel each time I leave. O is the onus I feel to do good by my state, impossible as it seems when our senator maintains that God alone steers the world and love is a binary that only goes one way. O is a navel, and Oklahoma is ours: if Maine is a thumb and Florida a foot, Oklahoma sits squat in America’s gut. Are we Midwest? Southwest? Southern? Plains? O is for oh, who cares.
M is for Midtown, the liquor store where I worked, selling pints to the cowboys and grandmas and drunks. We’d talk as I bag, about weather, the game, and I’d send them home with their boxed wine and brandy before I lost my own night, weeks, months, a year to a glass.
M is for My-am-uh, spelled like Miami, because that’s just the way we say it. M is for mighty, as in “Mighty nice day outside,” and M is for “mustard,” where my accent breaks through.
M is for moments I feel I could love it here: sitting atop the Big Blue Whale of Catoosa, driving into the sun through wide lands of nothing. M is for mine, because it is: my birthplace, my origin. M is for mother, my own, who comes home to find me drunk and asleep in my father’s armchair, curled up like a cat. She won’t wake me, won’t berate me for crashing back home after she told me to fly.
And A is alpha, and always, alas, because this is where I began and persist and may die. Where I can’t shake a pride as bright and brutal as my friend’s tattoo, a sadness as keen as Will Roger’s doomed plane, a hope as tentative as dawn against the mesas. A is for absurd—the 80-foot golden Tulsa Driller, the fourth longest-lasting light bulb in Magnum, OK, the World’s Largest Totem Pole in Foyil and Oral Roberts’ record-holding Largest Praying Hands—all somewhere between Arkoma and Texola, one home to 2,000, the other 36, bookends of this ridiculous place.
A is for all of it, and actually, all right, because it’s not so bad, not really. But A is mostly for again, as in never, as in when I want to go back to the dirt and the scrub and the heat and the storms. And A is accept, as in what I must do. And A is for ain’t, because it ain’t so bad, but it ain’t easy either, and because someone still loves you, Oklahoma, but it just ain’t me.