KIRON, Iowa — Russell Paulson had already heard by the time he arrived at the Quik Mart for his afternoon coffee. Walt Miller had died.
“Died last night, huh?” someone was saying as Russell pulled up a chair.
“Yeah, last night,” another man said.
Russell listened; he had known Walt. At the age of 80, he knew almost everyone in Kiron, a town of 229 people, one of whom is U.S. Rep. Steve King, who has a house on the edge of town. Russell knew King, too, knew that he was the sort of person always stirring controversy, often by raging against what he called “cultural suicide by demographic transformation.” More recently, King had said that “we can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies,” a comment embraced by prominent white supremacists and widely condemned around the country as demonizing Latino and other non-European immigrants.
There was little controversy across King’s district, though, a swath of rural America made up of tiny towns with tiny, aging white populations that routinely elected King with more than 70 percent of the vote. In Kiron, people brushed it off as King being King, a man they all knew, expressing a plain truth they all understood: The white population was shrinking, and towns like theirs were vanishing, with the few exceptions being places such as Denison, a pork-processing town 20 minutes down the highway where population growth was being driven by immigrants from Mexico and Central America.
Kiron, meanwhile, was losing steam. According to the most recent census figures, the population included nine Mexicans; the other 220 were all white, and their numbers were decreasing by 10 or so each year, and now, on a Wednesday, by one.
“Oh, Walt Miller? He did pass?” Dwain Swensen, 67, said, sipping his coffee.
“What’d he have, pancreatic cancer or something?” said Ron Streck, 70.
“Liver,” said Herman Kohnekamp, also 70. “I think that’s what it was, wasn’t it, Russell?”
“I knew he passed but didn’t know any details,” Russell said.
It was a quiet afternoon, the ritual 3 p.m. coffee in a place where, as one regular put it, “you can figure out Steve King by understanding all of us.” Every day but Sunday, the bell on the front door rang as they arrived. The wood-paneled backroom was waiting. The Bunn-o-Matic and the Styrofoam cups. The space heater humming. The clock with the squinting Merit cigarette man on one wall, the calendar on the other, the cracked blinds dangling over the window where the view through the slats was a sea of farm fields, and on a hill in the distance, a stand of evergreens where the cemetery was. Now the bell on the front door rang again, and Russell looked up.
“Oh,” Ron said under his breath, seeing who it was. “Here comes trouble.”
It was Kevin Lloyd, 52, who came in occasionally, and had been in the day before, all riled up about the latest Steve King situation, waving his hands and going on about how people had misunderstood what he’d meant about “other peoples’ babies.”
“If you’re American, you got to take care of America!” he had said then. “I love that people want to come here from Mexico, from Ukraine, from the Middle East, but they need to come here legally.”
Dwain, Ron, a woman named Jane Gronau and Russell had been there, sipping their coffees, as Kevin had continued that he had no idea why people would call King a “white supremacist,” or, for that matter, why people would call President Trump racist. “Now, is Barack Hussein Obama a Muslim? In my opinion, yes,” he had said, and that had brought him to the other thing he figured King meant about babies. He had meant Muslim babies of the Muslims that Obama had allowed into the country.
“And here, I’m going to quote a great president, Abe Lincoln,” he had said. “He said the fall of America will come from the inside. Well, if you’re allowing all these children in, and if they hate America, how long is it going to be before we’re not the United States of America anymore?”
Jane had nodded: “If you study the number of Muslims, there are going to be so many here, and they’re going to have so many kids, they’re going to be able to take over that way.”
Dwain had nodded: “They say ‘freedom of religion’ but if you’re Muslim, and you become Christian, you’re ousted. Sometimes, they kill ’em.”
“They behead ’em,” Kevin had said into a quiet Iowa afternoon.
“I think what King was trying to get across is, look: We can only grow so many hogs, so much beans and so much corn,” Kevin had said. “If we let everybody in, we’re going to be without a food source. And what happens when that’s gone? Then we’re all in trouble.”
Chaos, beheadings, starvation, the death of one America and the rise of another — that was the trouble Kevin had raised the day before, and now he was back, interrupting the conversation about Walt Miller.
“What are you up to, Mr. Paulson?” he said to Russell.
“Just listening and learning,” Russell said, looking at the floor, holding his coffee. “Every once in a while, I learn something here. Every once in a while, I learn something about myself.”
“So how old was Walt?” Ron continued.
“Mid-60s, I’d say,” said Herman.
“Died last night,” Ron said again.
“Last night,” Herman said again.
After a while, Russell asked, “I wasn’t sure if he was home?”
“Yeah, he was at home,” Herman said, and Russell was quiet the rest of the afternoon.
The next day, Russell had his morning coffee and got into his car.
He stopped by the bank where he’d been going since the 1940s.
“Hi, Russell,” the one teller said to her one customer.
He got back into his car and drove one block to the edge of town, turned onto the two-lane highway, then one long gravel road after another, straight lines stretching out into still-fallow fields.
“Some of the roads have been abandoned,” he said. “Because there’s not as many people living out here, the roads just disappeared.”
He knew the roads better than anyone. His own family’s roots in the area stretched back to the 19th century, when the U.S. government was aggressively removing Native American tribes to make way for one of the largest immigration waves in American history. The Swedes came, the Germans came, the farms, the towns and generations of babies, one of whom was Russell Elmer Paulson, born in 1937. He was raised on his mother’s family farm in rural Kiron and never left other than a stint in the Army, and one in Dubuque.
“It wasn’t for me,” he said, driving along.
He and his wife, Glenda, inherited land when Russell’s parents died and lived on it until they retired and moved into town. Russell’s work had been farming and insurance adjusting. His culture was being a Methodist and a Mason and listening to polka, though most of that had fallen away. The church he and Glenda had gone to “died for lack of people and money,” he said. There were hardly any Masons left. Polka was not enjoying a revival. His kids had left for jobs in other areas. Glenda had died last year.
“See that ridge? That’s the old railroad bed,” he said now, driving along, squinting through his gold-rimmed glasses.
“My aunt bought this,” he said, passing a stand of trees where farmhouses had been.
“Walt would go there,” he said, pointing out a repair shop where Walt Miller had coffee, and soon he turned onto a narrow dirt road leading to the farm where he and Glenda had lived, a collection of storage buildings where Russell now kept his old tractors, and one he used as an office, where he went these days to work crossword puzzles or just sit and think.
“Commune with God and the birds,” he said. “Well, not too many birds now.”
He glanced around at the old buildings, now shuttered and locked, though someone had broken into one of them recently.
“They stole a bunch of tools and such,” Russell said, pulling back onto the gravel road. “No need to get all worked up about it.”
He had a huge bag of peppermint Life Savers on the console, and he unwrapped one and put it in his mouth. He passed a rotting barn and a bird on a stretch of barbed wire, and after a while, a gray house with a huge American flag.
“This is Steve King’s house here,” he said, looking at it.
He had known King a long time and saw no reason to be bothered by something or other he said. He supported King — “I have no reason in the world to dislike the man” — but wasn’t one to rant about politics. He had no computer, no smartphone. His television had no cable. He watched a half-hour of national news, a half-hour of local, followed by “Wheel of Fortune” and Lawrence Welk. He ate chicken tenders and food he described as “American.”
“He’s just kind of one of us,” Russell said of King, driving on past a field where a church had burned down, and the home of a man who’d died last year. It began to rain.
“When it comes down like it’s doing now, it’s just wonderful,” he said.
He drove past fields and more fields until he came to another stand of trees on a hill.
“This is the cemetery,” he said, pulling in.
He drove slowly past the headstones. “A lot of these people I knew,” he said and began reading names.
“Paulson — this would be my folks right here,” he said, and then he noticed the time, almost 3 p.m.
He headed back to town, pulling onto Main Street where a wooden sign said, “Kiron, Blessed with the Best.”
After King had made his comment about babies, some out-of-town protest group had put up another sign below that one that said, “White Supremacist.”
The sign didn’t make any sense to Russell, and, after it was removed, his main worry was that the protesters might have damaged the town sign, which had started to rot a few years ago.
Russell had taken on the job of maintaining it. He had trimmed the tree branches that had grown through the wood. He had taken down “Blessed with the Best” and repainted each of the letters. He went to a lumberyard and had a new K, I, R, O, and N made, painting each letter several times and spraying them with wood preservative. One year, he and Glenda had planted a bed of petunias and geraniums.
“I don’t think we will ever have a better display of flowers,” he said now, and soon he was pulling up to the Quik Mart for the afternoon coffee. As he walked inside, he saw a funeral notice on the front door with a photo of a smiling man in gold-rimmed glasses.
“Oh,” Russell said, pausing for a moment. “There’s Walt.”
He glanced at the funeral information for Walt Miller, poured his fourth coffee of the day, and sat down in the backroom. Dwain and Charlie Harm were already there, but they weren’t talking. A car swooshed by. An eighteen-
wheeler swooshed by. Charlie tapped his nails on the table.
The next day, the bell rang as the door with the funeral notice swung open, and it was Dwain, then Bob James, then Herman, then Russell. The Merit cigarette clock showed a few minutes after 3 p.m. Russell got the coffee pot and poured. The bell rang again, and it was a man named Glen Ballantine.
“Time for plowing?” Herman asked the 84-year-old farmer.
“Two weeks,” Glen said, sitting down.
Bob was reading the paper. Russell was sipping his coffee, looking out the window.
“Got the visitation tonight,” Herman said.
He didn’t have to mention Walt Miller’s name because they all knew what he meant.
They went back to talking about plowing, and Glen was saying how different farming was now than when he was a young man, which for some reason reminded him of one of his first jobs, digging graves.
“For 18 bucks,” he said.
“You dug a regular grave for 18 bucks?” said Dwain.
“Oh yeah, and we had to fill ’em back up again,” said Glen.
“I helped dig one once,” said Russell. “You know, manually. Only one. I don’t know what I got paid. But. That’s a long way down to the bottom of that.”
“If there was frost in the first foot, you got $1 more,” said Glen.
“What’d you use to get through the frost?” asked Bob.
“Pickax and sledgehammer,” said Glen. “And when we’d fill ’em, we’d fill ’em in 14 scoops. We were just little kids, more or less.”
“We had more dirt than we needed,” Russell said. “And had to —”
“Had to haul that away,” said Glen, finishing his sentence.
“Had to put that on the pickup,” said Russell, and they went on talking like that until Herman got up to leave. It was after 3:30 p.m.
“Funeral home starts, what, at 4?” Herman said.
“Four till 7, it says on there,” Russell said.
The funeral home was in Denison, and the sun was going down as Russell turned onto the two-lane highway toward one of the only towns in Steve King’s district that was growing, and which appeared in the distance as a cluster of lights and rising steam from the pork-processing plant.
Russell turned by the Walmart, bustling on a Friday payday, and turned again into a neighborhood where Latino kids were playing in a yard. Up a hill, he parked in front of the funeral home, where people were still streaming in near 7 p.m.
Russell made his way through the receiving line, his hat off, comb lines visible in his gray hair. He shook hands with Walt’s family, who thanked him for coming, and inched forward until he reached the open casket.
He stood there a moment. He looked at Walt. He looked at the light-blue satin lining and the farm scene etched into it. A man stood next to Russell.
“Went fast,” he said of Walt, who had passed away soon after his diagnosis. “That’s what you hope for.”
“I do,” said Russell, still looking at Walt, and soon, he headed back to Kiron.
The funeral was the next day at Zion Lutheran Church in Denison, and more people came from Kiron and other vanishing towns like Odebolt and Ida Grove. They sat in jeans and dresses and suits on the wooden pews of a church founded in 1872, and read about Walt in the program, where it was said that “farming and fixing equipment and household items were his favorite things to do,” and soon the church bells began ringing.
The pews creaked as everyone stood and watched the pallbearers roll in the coffin draped in a white cloth with a red cross, and a procession of dozens of family members that included exactly one baby, a girl with a black ribbon around her head.
“Your world has changed,” the pastor began.
When it was over, people got back into their cars and drove 20 minutes up the highway to the cemetery in Kiron, a long procession of headlights passing through fields and more fields, then turning right, then heading up the hill to the stand of evergreens, and afterward, at 3 p.m., the bell on the Quik Mart door began ringing.
It rang for Herman, who arrived with a loaf of homemade bread. It rang for Dwain, for Bob, and for Charlie, who shuffled into the backroom and said, “Buried a nice guy this morning.”
It rang for Russell, who poured his coffee, walked back into the wood-paneled room, and pulled up a chair.
“Strawberries come to life this time of year, Russell?” Dwain asked.
“I don’t know,” Russell said.
They talked about the frost, and when spring might arrive.
“Well, I better get moving,” Charlie said and headed out.
“I got things to do, too,” Russell said, but then he didn’t leave, not yet.
He got up and sat where Charlie had been, closer to the window.
“Well, I gotta go,” Herman said.
“See you, Herman,” Russell said.
“Bye, Herman,” Dwain said, and now there were just the three of them left.
Dwain cleared his throat. A car passed by. The space heater hummed. Bob finished his coffee. Russell swallowed the last of his.
“You want more coffee, Mr. Bob?” Russell asked.
“Do you?” said Bob.
“Yeah,” Russell decided, and walked over to get the coffee pot.
He poured some into Bob’s cup. He poured some into Dwain’s cup. He filled his own and sat down again. He tapped his thumb on the table. Eventually he stood up and walked toward the door, where Walt’s funeral notice no longer was.
“See ya, Russell,” said Dwain.
“See ya, Russell,” said Bob.
“I hope so,” Russell said.