The First State

Anthony Varallo

In Delaware, it is illegal to slide on ice. Children live in fear of being caught, dare one another in wintry parking lots and snowy playgrounds. “You first!” the children say, to the other children, who say, “No, you first!” These exchanges can last for hours, days. The children’s breath plumes before them. Their feet ache.

In Delaware, shoppers do not chat with cashiers. Sales are strictly a business transaction, nothing more. The shopper places his or her items in front of the cashier. The cashier says, “That’s $47.33.” The shopper sighs, as if aggrieved, put upon. The shopper wishes to suggest, through an exaggerated search for their credit card, not only that the price is too high, but is somehow probably the cashier’s fault, too. The cashier knows this. That’s why the cashier does not say “thank you” or “have a nice day” when the shopper takes the bags from his or her hands and stomps away.

In Delaware, it is not appropriate to compliment someone on their new hairstyle. When someone gets a new hairstyle, you are to say, “What the hell happened to your hair?”

In Delaware, the summers are relatively mild, but this is never to be mentioned. Summer is only to be spoken of as hot and humid, in that order. Only. So, if Delawarean A says, to Delawarean B, “Jesus, it’s so hot and humid today,” Delawarean B is then to say, “It’s supposed to be hot and humid all week.” Delawarean A then has the option to say, “I’m getting pretty sick and tired of how hot and humid it’s been lately,” since the phrase “sick and tired” is another approved expression, along with “about had it up to here” and “the hell with this.” 

In Delaware, there is no sales tax. $4.99 means four dollars and ninety-nine cents, period. Hand the cashier a five dollar bill and the cashier will hand back one penny. Delawarean’s pockets are heavy with pennies. You can hear them jingle from across state lines. Maryland, for example.

In Delaware, drivers keep their license plates for life. All the license plates you see in Delaware are the ones the drivers got on their sixteenth birthday. That’s why some of them look so scratchy.

In Delaware, no one likes to travel outside the state, since traveling outside the state invariably means meeting someone who will ask where the Delawarean is from, and then the Delawarean will have to hear the person from another state say, “You’re the first person from Delaware I’ve ever met!” Say this to any traveling Delawarean, and the Delawarean will immediately stick their hands in their pockets and look away. Listen for the sound of pennies shuffling, quietly, angrily.

In Delaware, on December 7, 1787, Delaware became the first state to ratify the Constitution. For one glorious day, Delaware was the shining star of the colonies, the embodiment of American idealism and enlightenment, the center of democracy itself. Then the next day happened, and it was back to the usual.

In Delaware, the appropriate way to order your food is by saying “I’ll take,” as in “I’ll take the shrimp scampi” or “I’ll take the crab cake sandwich” or “I’ll take the house special.” It is not appropriate to say “I’d like” or “I’d like to have” or the needlessly formal “I would please like to have,” as is customary in other, friendlier states. Iowa, Minnesota, and Ohio, for example. Say “I would please like to have the chicken parmesan” to any Delawarean waiter and you will find yourself on the receiving end of a withering stare reserved especially for out-of-state diners. Out-of-state diners can expect their entrée to arrive late, under-seasoned, and cold.

In Delaware, no one talks about their job. A job is just a job, a means to a paycheck, something to be endured. Do not try to engage a Delawarean about his or her job. Approved conversation topics: how hot and humid it is, this traffic we’re having, it’s like you can’t get a decent tomato anymore. What happened to your hair?

In Delaware, a tornado will occasionally form in the sky, but will be driven away by the sheer power of Delawareans’ collective complaints. During tornadoes, tens of thousands of Delawareans will stare outside, saying into phones pressed to angry heads, “Jesus, would you look at all these stupid clouds?” To date, no tornadoes have touched down in Delaware. 

In Delaware, it is possible to casually drive through three states—Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania—without even realizing which state you are in. Corollary: for out-of-state drivers, it is possible to drive through Delaware without ever realizing it, and to claim, upon meeting a Delawarean who likely knows better, that you’ve never been to Delaware.

In Delaware, every citizen has the same exact dream every night, but never discusses the dream with anyone else, and thus never discovers that others share the same dream. In the dream, a smiling dolphin figures prominently.

In Delaware, no one stops by. Stopping by is seriously frowned upon. A felony, in some counties.

In Delaware, to go to the beach is to go down the shore, no matter which direction one is actually driving from. On all roads, from all compass points, people driving to the beach are, in fact, all going down the shore. As in, “I talked to Helen and Jim last night; they said they were going down the shore tomorrow.” 

In Delaware, everyone knows they will never be truly understood. To be a Delawarean is to be a kind of mystery to the rest of the country. It is useless to try and explain Delaware to a non-Delawarean. It’s not even fun to try.

Anthony Varallo is the author of a novel, The Lines (University of Iowa Press), as well as four short story collections: This Day in History, winner of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award; Out Loud, winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize; Think of Me and I’ll Know (Northwestern University Press/TriQuarterly Books); and Everyone Was There, winner of the Elixir Press Fiction Award. He is a professor of English at the College of Charleston in Charleston, SC, where he teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing and serves as the Fiction Editor of Crazyhorse. Find out more at or follow him on Twitter at @TheLines1979.

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