Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:

Java deer

Deer head, Java Cat Coffee House, Emporia


At the Java Cat, a woman in her 20s sits down with a book and I’m curious as to what she’s reading. Fiction? Non-fiction?

The sky is dim this particular day, the overhead bulb has burned out. Dark clouds hold rain, waiting to let go, and later they will. That afternoon and evening, the sky does its best to fill the crevices of earth with water.

I’m drinking an Evan’s Kicker this morning, chosen because it is loaded with caffeine. The series of gray days has left me feeling depleted.

One coffee shop customer gets a parking ticket. “How much longer do I have before they come around again?” he asks. “I’ll just leave it until then.”

Kari Crump, from Studio 11 next door, walks through the room wearing a t-shirt promoting “junk,” which is what she sells. Good junk, that is.

A woman comes in and asks Java Cat owner Angie Baker to donate gift certificates for a back-to-school event. Angie does.

Earlier that morning, in the alley outside the coffee shop, I ran into Kristi Mohn lugging a metal real estate yard sign. “I wore the wrong shoes today,” she laughed, and I looked down to see the high wedge shoes she had on. “I’ve been all over, out in the country this morning,” she said.

An older man wearing shorts limps in and orders coffee. A phone in his pocket rings with a barely audible chime. He’s either ignoring it or can’t hear it. He sits down with his coffee and bagel.

Looking out the Java Cat’s front window, I glance at the sign on the bank: 73 degrees at 12:05 p.m. We understand freaky weather in Kansas, but a cool July has stretched the edges of our belief.

Behind me are Brown’s, Graves and Stanley’s – sturdy businesses that have been in this block since I moved to Emporia 30 years ago. In the block’s lineup, however, I’m missing Haynes Hardware, Red-X Drugs, and Litwin’s. At the first sidewalk sale I attended in Emporia, I purchased my all-time favorite dress at Litwin’s – a tropical print on a coral background. Ever since then, I’ve been trying to find a piece of clothing that was as well-fitting and as perfect for me in style and color.

The whistle and the rumble of a train catches my attention. It occurs to me that the reason train whistles are so comforting is because they’re multi-toned and sound like organ chords.

At the Java Cat, I’m reading Amy Sage Webb’s book of short stories, “Save Your Own Life.” Amy is a professor at Emporia State University and teaches creative writing.

Her book is a candy store of great imagery and lines. I savor “Communion,” a piece set in Emporia. In it, and in all of these stories, the narrator is a great observer, a noticer, and that makes me love Amy’s characters all the more.

Amy writes, “In Atlanta, Allys thought of the Midwest. She thirsted for quiet and weather. Imagined, hungrily, the great spaces between everything and everyone. Allys did not imagine livestock and mobile homes. Relentless wind. Angle parking. Or the way the featureless Midwest would take her breath and voice out of her. The way, out here, she would find nothing big to say.”

With these stories, we step into someone else’s head for awhile, someone else’s life. Good fiction like Amy’s wakes us up to who we really are, helps us understand our own connections, our own paths, thoughts, and peculiar actions.

I don’t write short stories, but imagine that people-watching is similar to writing fiction. We observe strangers and we wonder what it would be like to be that tattooed woman who is leading a 3-year-old by the arm, or that man in a fishing hat walking an old dog. We’re curious about their stories, about their lives.

At the Tallgrass Writing Workshop earlier this summer, Amy spoke about writing fiction. She mentioned psychic distance, saying that when we are further away from the event in time we gain wisdom about the situation; our experience has widened, we know more than we did at the time of the event.

Maybe – if we step back far enough – we might even be able to see the character that we’re each playing here on earth, and the stories that our own lives have written.

Copyright 2013 ~ Cheryl Unruh


  1. Thanks for the great comments, Cheryl. I love what you do, and I’m grateful for your observations. By this I mean both those close and rich with detail and those speculatively, thoughtfully distanced, about this wonderful place where we find ourselves in so many more ways than literally on the map.

  2. What it’s Tuesday night and my Emporia Gazette is still down in the lobby.

    So glad I can find Cheryl on Facebook also! I enjoy each and everyone of her words!

  3. Oh my gosh Cheryl
    You knocked another one out of the park…love the way you put all these thoughts together…great stuff for sure. You put me right there everytime….I look forwards to reading Flyover everyweek. You inspire me to write more myself. Love love love Kansas.

Leave a Reply