When I got done at the WAM, I got back in my car. It was afternoon in August and god-awful hot. Without thinking, I took a swig from the water bottle in the car and burned my tongue on liquid hotter than brewed tea. The heat had melted the lettering off a plastic bag I had in the car that had said "WicHIta: Hi is our middle name."
I had asked Jim where I might find an artsy café, and he recommended the Riverside Perk, a converted house that looked like a Wild West hotel. Over the tattered seats on the front porch hung a sign reading, "You must have purchase to remain on premises." Punk kids littered the stoop: silver piercings, bright blue hair, Mohawks, chains, torn jeans. When I stepped in, a flamboyant adolescent with Tarot cards strewn before him loudly giggled, "he's a dominatrix; people pay him to be bad to them." A young Asian man in his crisp shirt and tie (it was still 90 degrees and humid) patiently explained something to two thirty-something women who sat forward in their chairs to make out what he said. A bald-headed man about fifty read a book titled Turkish Grammar.
I walked through the smoke-filled room to order at the counter at back and then moved to the non-smoking room next door, lit by dim lamps. I set my backpack down and fell into a chair. At the table across the way sat two girls. One had a large white face, and wore sandals, shorts, and a dark T-shirt with a sunflower stitched into it. The other was tiny and tan, with a small mole in the hollow of her neck. She was barefoot, wearing jeans and a light purple top. I thought about approaching them for the book, but then decided they probably wouldn't know who Hopper was and wouldn't want to be interrupted, so I left them to themselves. I was done for the day and let out a sigh.
"Rough day at work?" the paler one asked jokingly, pointing at my backpack and journal.
"Actually, yes," I said. "I'm here to research your town for a book I'm writing."
They laughed and asked what kind of book would look at Wichita. When I told them, they grew excited.
"So do most people ask, 'Who is Edward Hopper?'" the paler one laughed.
I asked her name, and she replied in a husky booming voice, "Misty." The other one said with a little girl's voice something that sounded like "Mishella." She spelled it for me M-i-c-h-a-e-l-a, and I said, "Oh, Mick-I-ella."
"He got it," they squealed and looked at each other.
"We grew up in a small Hutterite town," Misty explained. She had been a school teacher, and talked to me a bit like I were a child, like Glenda the good witch. "Freeman, South Dakota, where most people are related. The nearest town is 15 miles away. No one had ever heard that name and they couldn't pronounce it, so they just called her Michelle-a."
"How did you get the name if no one knows how to say it?"
"My mom is from Bolivia. My dad left the colony in the 1960s to avoid the Viet Nam draft and traveled the world. He met my mom in Peru and brought her back as a wife."
I pulled out some postcards of Hopper's works to show them.
"That's Bootleggers," I explained. "It's in Manchester, New Hampshire.
"I like New Hampshire," she said.
"You've been to the east coast?" I asked, a little too incredulously.
"And the west coast," Misty emphasized, rolling her eyes. "And all over."
Michaela added, "We had an opportunity to travel with our church group to pretty much all states. I'm missing like three states in the U.S.: Alaska, Nevada, and North Dakota (which is ironic because I'm from South Dakota)."
Meanwhile, Misty gushed over a post card of a painting by Caravaggio. "Oh, did you see his David and Goliath?"
"In Vienna?" I asked. "You've been to Vienna?"
"Yeah," she said off-handedly. "Austria, Italy, Germany."
"Our colony actually encourages travel and study," Michaela informed me.
"Freeman must have the highest rate of bachelors," Misty gibed.
"Degrees or single men?" I asked.
"Both," they laughed. Misty noted, "Like the people in Hopper's paintings: farming is no longer a feasible means of making a living. Most of the men [in Freeman] that do it have to travel outside to find wives."
Michaela said, "I saw a collection of his [Hopper's] work a few years ago in South Carolina. With a mysterious woman in like a hundred of his pictures? A lonely look to his paintings? Isolation is a good word. Almost empty. I think that he captured scenes of isolation where people choose to be isolated. When I look at the scenes where it's not so much people in them but more so places, the places are beautiful. They're serene. Of course, the lighting affects that, big time. They're in a certain light, like later in the day. That golden hour. What I love is he paints in my favorite times of day. Wouldn't you love it there? You're out there away from the city. And you don't want anybody else around. It's a choice. You can tell that if you asked to sit down opposite her, she wouldn't accept. She is choosing to be alone there. She wants it; she needs that. I don't know what she's going through but something deep. She wouldn't want a guy to listen. She wouldn't want anyone near right now."
Misty said, "Hopper's characters I think want to be all alone, thinking. Actually, it reminds me a lot of home."
"Totally," Michaela chimed in.
"There's a lot of space," Misty continued. "And you can be intimidated by that."
"It can be eerie out there," Michaela added. "I live on a farm, and it's very eerie, the wind and everything. You have to make friends with it or else you'll go crazy."
As I drove away, I didn’t know what I would tell my friends the sisters when I got back to Chicago. Certainly I would thank them for introducing me to a man as accommodating as Jim. And Wichita had been an unexpected wonderworld for an art fan like me. Jim seemed like some wizard pulling the levers of Wichita to manipulate my experience there. I was taken to the inner cave of the president's office. But Wichita itself was strange and conflicting--a bit of a shocker. It would be like Dorothy trying to explain Oz to Auntie Em.