Friday, July 11, 2014
Minnesota is mostly flat. When I was a small boy, the highest hill that I knew was on the highway to St. Peter. My Aunt Rose lived in St. Peter with her husband, Howard "Mick" Mickelson. When we traveled to St. Peter to visit my Aunt, we descended the hill to the Minnesota River, a big, muddy flood of water hidden in eerie thickets and gnarled woods. Returning from St. Peter, we climbed the hill, the highway cutting a diagonal across the face of the steep bluff. At the top of the great hill, a little airport launched small planes into the humid skies above the great valley and there was an overlook and a drive-in movie theater.
The hill was a tremendous thing to a child and the vista from the summit where the highway turned toward the Twin Cities was awe-inspiring. It was like that mountain in the Bible where Satan took Jesus to be tempted. You could see all of the nations of the world from that height, the cultivated land and the wilderness, the small villages spiked to the earth by their church steeples, towers turned upside-down to pin the towns with their silos and railroad sidings to the loam like a specimen butterflies: you could see to the horizon where the sun was scything through amber fields of grain and the terrain of sorrow scoured by grey-green thunderstorms like the thumbs of the sky gouging the earth. You could see into tomorrow and through to the past as well. Everything seemed visible from that height if only you had an eye to see it.
On Saturday mornings, about once a month, we drove from the Cities to St. Peter to visit my aunt Rose. She taught 8th-grade English and was a very witty woman, cynical and disparaging about her students and other faculty members at the Junior High where she worked. Rose’s husband, Mick, was the Dean of Men at a small Lutheran liberal arts college, Gustavus Adolphus and, when I was little, my Aunt and her family lived in a suite of rooms on the bottom floor of a dormitory housing male college students. For some reason, I recall the apartment as resembling the set of the old Dick Van Dyke show, although a bit darker, and I suppose there was an ottoman or hassock over which a visitor might stumble and take a pratfall. Rosemary’s mother, Helen Beckmann nee Zeilinger, also occupied those rooms. My grandmother was the widow of a Lutheran pastor and the furnishings of the old parsonage where my father and his four sisters had been raised crowded the apartment. I recall that there was a painting of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemene, really a romantic nocturne with a yellow moon and some glistening tropical foliage adorning a midnight blue landscape. Our Savior was praying and He looked worried, like a sorrowful Labrador retriever, dark eyes and dark beard and His forehead lit wanly by a moon that seemed to be drawing clouds to it and absorbing them in its buttery light. My grandmother was a severe woman with tightly pursed lips and, like Jesus, she also always looked worried. She played organ at local churches on a substitute basis and my Aunt also played the organ, I think, at a local Episcopalian Church.
My father fancied himself an iconoclast and he viewed his sister, ten or eleven years his elder, as conventional and unimaginative. He liked to argue with her. Mick smoked a pipe and was silent. He was an orphan and had been raised in a real Dickensian orphanage and, as a young man, he had been a superb athlete. He liked to talk about sports. Sometimes, Johnny Mickelson, Rose’s oldest son, would practice his trumpet. He was lazy and heavy-set and he played his trumpet lying flat on his back on his bed in his room. I recall him playing jaunty virtuouso pieces like "Bugler’s Holiday" by Leroy Anderson. At that time, Johnny was in high school.
In those days, people had a pot roast of stringy beef for weekend lunch, potatoes and gravy, some kind of casserole, and jello with fruit embedded in it like bugs in amber. After eating, the adults sat in the living room, watching college football games on Tv, or baseball, and we were given some money and told to walk down the hill to the movies.
Rose’s other son, Jimmy, was our age and he led the way. We emerged from the gloomy apartment onto a patio beneath the ramparts of the domitory building. There we had to skitter hurriedly away from the shadow of the building since college boys were overhead, drunk and disorderly in their dorm rooms and, sometimes, they pitched beer bottles at us. The projectiles were launched from third or fourth or fifth story windows and shattered on the patio where there was grilling equipment and a picnic table. Then, we traversed a bald grassy ridge and could see all of St. Peter spread below us. The campus of Gustavus Adolphus occupied the top of the river bluffs and the city filled the valley, a grid of streets drowned in tall, stately trees, shingle roofs under the green crowns of the oaks and elms, a red-brick Main Street that was ancient and that ran parallel to the river hidden in the river-bottom thickets. Church steeples protruded through the leaves and parks with swing-sets and rump-polished slides glinted in the sunshine and, to the southeast, where the river valley deepened and narrowed, we could see terraces manicured like an English garden and the sinister turrets of the State Security Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Lunatics were always escaping and wandering around the periphery of the town, although they were usually captured in one of the taverns downtown, in the dark rooms shaped like railroad cars, drinking with old bachelor farmers who had come into St. Peter to have a few beers and watch the ballgame on the Tv above the bar.
In those days, it seemed that the hill leading down from the college was very steep, even precipitous, but, then, the land leveled and we walked ten or twelve blocks past old Victorian houses on their shady lawns, strolling under arcades of big trees with intertwining branches to reach the tumultuous movie theater on Main Street. It was a matinee and cost 50 cents admission and the place was always crammed with wild, shrieking children with no adults anywhere in sight. The kids hustled around in little mobs and fights were always breaking out and popcorn rained down from the balconies like salty snow. The show began with a serial – a strange, jittery black and white episode involving space aliens with lobster-claws wearing turtleneck sweaters battling cowboy heroes. The space aliens seem to occupy someone’s cluttered basement and they were plotting against the humans and held a young woman hostage in a metal cage. The aliens conspired in clicks and huffs and the cowboys were always hurtling across the chaparral to rescue the girl-hostage. Sometimes, an engine chugged across the desolate landscape and there were explosions cut into the action, seemingly stock footage from World War Two documentaries, and, when the train labored across a high trestle, the good guys and bad guys fought with their fists atop the moving freight cars. After the serial episode had ended imperfectly, with someone entombed alive or staring at a time-bomb with a short fuse or catapulted from a biplane toward the spiny desert floor, the main feature began. This was always an Elvis Presley musical. Elvis was a roustabout or a carny entertainer or some kind of race car driver and he wooed a beautiful young woman and had fistfights with hordes of thugs. Sometimes, he strummed on his guitar and sang to the young woman, or to his cronies, and there was usually car chase or a brawl on the beach near the end of the movie, before Elvis won the girl’s heart and married her. The kids ran up and down the aisles of the theater and popcorns spurted from the cardboard tubs that the children carried and cups of pop were spilled on the floor. Until I was 40, I had complete contempt for Elvis Presley as a result of these afternoon matinees.
After the movie, we hiked back up the hill to the dormitory where my mother and father were getting ready to load the car for our trip back home. One sunny afternoon, I recall that we encountered some older boys who were bullies on the sloping sidewalk beneath the towers of the college. The older boys challenged us and, I think, my brother and Jimmy fled. I wasn’t about to run away from bullies and so, I think, I was punched in the mouth or nose. But, maybe, I don’t recall this event accurately. It may have been that I ran away and left my brother and Jimmy to be beaten by the bullies. Since the memory is very unclear to me, I suppose, I should assume the worst and conclude that I don’t recall things clearly because I have willfully forgotten them, probably in an attempt to repress thoughts that would make me ashamed. So, I presume, that I ran away and my brother and Jimmy were cornered, made to disgorge whatever coins they had remaining after the matinee-movie and, then, slugged in the belly or testicles and left writhing on the pavement under the old oaks and the jeering cicadas. But I don’t know for sure what exactly happened.
Aunt Rose was my father’s eldest sister. My father had been a chubby, handsome little boy, the darling of his four sisters. I believe that my father thought of Rose as his benefactor, perhaps, even as a wise, older guardian. When my mother, just graduated from High School, was pregnant with me, and unmarried, she and my father fled their small central Nebraska town, married at the county seat not in the county adjacent, but a couple of counties away to avoid scandal, and, then, went west, to the Nebraska panhandle where, apparently, the couple lived with Aunt Rose and her husband in Chadron, during the pregnancy until I was born. (I was baptized in the Lutheran Church in Chadron where Rose and her husband were members.) Of course, the irregularities attending my birth were never discussed and I don’t know whether this incident caused my father to become closer to his oldest sister, or, instead, perhaps, fostered some sort of rift. I am aware that my mother’s relationship with her older sister-in-law was complicated and, sometimes, mutually antagonistic.
In contrast to the mystery attending my parent’s marriage, Rosemary’s lawful and decent church wedding was on ample display at her home. Prominently displayed on an antique sideboard was a picture showing Rose as a bride. In the photograph, she stood before the cream-colored altar at her father’s church in Albion, Nebraska. Rose wore a mermaid-styled wedding dress that descended the several steps to the altar, arrayed in a floral drapery that, also, had something of the scent of the sea about it. I recall peering into that old picture and marveling at Rose’s pure, pale, and imperious beauty. She was very slender on the morning of her wedding, completely unlike the rather matronly and plump woman that I knew. Her face was severe and beautiful and her eyes and lips seemed to pronounce some kind of inscrutable judgement on the world: she looked like a Saint in glory or, even, like the Virgin Mary at the moment of Her Annunciation. Her husband, a big athletic man, stood next to her slouching, it seemed, in an ill-fitting suit – Mick’s arms looked too long for the suit and there was something vaguely simian about his posture. But, of course, the picture was not about the Groom; he was merely incidental to the image. The picture was about Rose and her beauty and the extraordinary wedding dress that cascaded from her slender lily-like torso and its draperies, the floral whorl of fabric arrayed across the three steps rising to the altar. You could lose yourself in tracing the drapery of that garment.
The wedding picture, displayed in the church narthex, across from the box where Rose’s corpse rested, seemed to have been hand-colored. It had the curious cool hues of an old photograph, colors that seemed crafted and refined and distilled into ethereal subtlety, tints just slightly faded so that they seemed to be viewed through a faint intermediary mist of vapor. The photograph was ageless – when I first saw the picture, it could not have been more than 15 years old, but the image seemed to be something from the remote and ancient past. I looked at the picture when I was a child, and, then, looked at Rose as she sat in her kitchen talking to my father and saw the great mystery of resemblance and difference – this slender apparition in the framed, glass-sealed picture was somehow the same woman before me, chubby and a bit dowdy, an eighth-grade English teacher in a small town. How could this be? The photograph showed Rose as Gothic tracery, a peaked, pointed adornment standing in front of an altar carved into peaked and pointed arches. But my Aunt Rose, as opposed to the figure in the picture, had always seemed Romanesque to me (although I would not have known that word at the time) – she had the broad, vaulted brow of her father, the Lutheran pastor, a big expanse of pale forehead that gave her a faint suggestion of baldness and the columns of her legs were set squarely on the earth and, when I was a boy, there was nothing even faintly ornamental about her: she was a practical, thickly constructed fortress – Ein’ feste Burg...
The organ growled in the sanctuary. People were assembling for the funeral. In her coffin, Aunt Rose looked like an owl, the lower part of her face was framed in heavy greyish jowls. With my mother, I stood by the wedding picture for a long time, looking at that image. The picture wasn’t exactly the way that I recalled it. The drapery of the wedding dress was, perhaps, a little less involuted than I remembered. And was there a trace of a smile, a Mona Lisa smile, on the Bride’s lips?
Mick was studying in graduate school in Greeley, Colorado and we were on vacation. Once there had been a Lutheran church camp at Estes Park and, I think, my father had fond memories of the place from his boyhood – I suppose it had been a cool and lovely refuge after the sweltering heat of the central Nebraska’s sand-hills. We camped next to a river that came rushing down from the front range, rapids that ran clear and swift over a stream bed musical with many small and smooth and singing pebbles. Mick had come from Greeley to eat hamburgers with us. My mother was cooking those hamburgers on the Coleman stove and the next morning, I think, our plan was to drive up into the mountains, among the snowy peaks and the meadows brilliant with columbine, to Estes Park and beyond.
Mick gave my father a book. He said that the book was a late birthday present. It was Dover paperback, large and white: The Complete Woodcuts of Albrecht Duerer. We sat at a picnic table and flipped through the pictures where were, of course, extraordinary. The river chattered in its grove of aspens and big storm clouds clustered overhead on the heights where there were stone pillars and walls, escarpments like the ruins of hilltop fortresses. I was afraid that there would be a downpour and that the little river would rise and flood our campsite only a dozen yards or so away from the boulder-strewn course where the stream ran. Mick had brought a six-pack of Falstaff beer, brewed in St. Louis which he shared with my father. The fat knight, John Falstaff, was shown on the plump beer bottle’s label, holding a foaming mug in his big hand. I had never seen my father drink before. In a remote valley, hidden from us by the ranges of mountains, thunder sounded.
With my brother, I sat at the picnic table as the long evening darkened, paging through the book of Duerer engravings. The mixture of sadism and delicacy in those images astounded me: ten-thousand virgins were being slaughtered by men in turbans and someone was boring out a martyr’s eye with an auger in the eye-socket like a carpenter’s tool and, in the nativity scenes, the animals crowding around the manger were each characterized, with noble features and bearing as distinct as each of the disciples shown seated around Christ at His last supper. Years later, my brother and I copied pictures from the book of Duerer engravings – we accomplished this by laying typing paper over the woodcuts and, then, carefully tracing the images with pencil through that paper. This exercise made me aware of the intricate detail in the draperies of garment falling about the hips and laps of Duerer’s Madonnas. The artist seemed obsessed with depicting in the most precise way the manner in which clothing clumped and twisted around itself, the way that gravity sculpted robes, the way that even Christ’s loincloth as He hung crucified was clotted and knotted, simultaneously furled and unfurled. When copying those images, which we later tinted with colored pencils, we became aware of Duerer’s peculiar, excessive, and intense interest in drapery – indeed, there were many woodcuts that seemed to be primarily about drapery, images in which the ostensible subject matter withdrew into clouds of diaphanous fabric. What was this all about?
Memory is inaccurate. I portray Mick’s decisive gift to our family, the book of Duerer woodcuts, images that have accompanied me and guided my imagination all of my life, as something that we received in Greeley, on the banks of that cold river flowing down from the icy summits of the Rocky Mountains. But, in fact, I can’t recall any moment in my life when that book of pictures was not a part of our household furnishings, when I didn’t have the book at hand to pore over its images, using those pictures to illustrate my fantasies and later make tracings until it became tattered and its cover was torn away and some of the pages fell from the text and drifted away.
Later, it rained a little in the valley beneath the mountains. It was after midnight and the rain was very light, like a kiss on our canvas tent.
The morning of Rose’s funeral dawned clear and bright, but clouds gathered and hardened into greenish mask covering the face of the sky. It was so humid that car-metal sweated and the grass in the fields looked dark with moisture.
With my son, Jack, I reached St. Peter ninety-minutes before the ceremony. I shook hands with relatives that I had not seen for many years. During the funeral, thunder spoke from time to time and people looked, apprehensively, at the church’s windows that hid the landscape outside behind panels of stained glass. Twenty years before, a tornado had swept through the town and uprooted all of the trees and hurled them like battering rams against the houses. The church stood next to city park and, I think, was demolished in the storm. The city was denuded and those arcades of tall, cool, shade trees through which my brother and I had walked with Rose’s son down to the movie theater were destroyed. From the mount where the college, Gustavus Adolphus crowned the city in its river valley, the great sea of oaks and maples and cedars had receded, withdrawn to the bore of the river below and its opposing, unsettled banks and the town lay naked, exposed to the pitiless skies. I suppose some of the people in the church recalled the tornado and they glanced at one another with worried looks and tuned their ears to the frequency of the wind and the rain that was now falling outside the sanctuary.
Jimmy, Rose’s son, greeted the mourners and thanked everyone. He is a retired sports writer. He said: "At the end, Rose lost a few steps. But, if you knew her, it didn’t matter much because she was always a dozen steps or so ahead of everyone else." Thunder boomed in proximity to the church. "You see," Jimmy said, "Rose always had the last word."
The Pastor told a strange story to illustrate his sermon at Rose’s funeral. The Pastor said that once there was a man with unprepossessing features, indeed, perhaps, downright ugly. The man was disappointed in love and yearned to embrace beautiful women, but they rejected him because of his appearance. So the man met with a doctor and had the physician prepare a mask that could be fitted very tightly over the man’s face. The mask showed a handsome man with a smiling face. In a secret operating room, the mask was surgically affixed over the man’s unpleasant face. Almost immediately, the man was successful with beautiful women and, after courting several of them, he married the most beautiful woman of them all. For many years, the man lived happily, but he was distressed by the idea that his wife didn’t know his secret and had never known him in his true form. At last, the man arranged with the surgeon to remove the mask covering his actual face. But when the surgeon removed the mask of the handsome smiling man, he was amazed. Beneath that mask, the man’s visage was also very handsome, smiling, serene and at peace.
"So," the Pastor said in a satisfied voice, "if you wear the mask for long enough, the mask will grow to become your true face."
Thunder punctuated his words. Outside, the first rain drops fell.
A light lunch was served in a fellowship hall down some steps from the sanctuary. It was the Leichenschmaus typical for Lutheran funerals: olives and pickles, ham sandwiches on little brown and fluffy buns, potato salad and a variety of cakes and brownies.
I sat with my mother with Jack and Angelica. My cousin from Kansas City, Becky, was also at our round table in the corner of the sanctuary.
"What do you suppose that story about the face transplant was about?" I asked my mother.
"I thought it was a good parable," my mother said.
"But what did it have to do with Aunt Rose?" I asked my mother.
She said: "That I don’t know."
Inset in the wall behind our table was a small rectangular of rather dour-looking stained glass. Presumably this glass was a fragment retained from the tiny former church, a relic left over from the ruin made by the tornado. Perhaps, the relic had symbolic or mystical significance – after all, the tornado had spared this fragile sheet of colored glass soldered together in little panes of brown and caramel, lettered lenses circular in their unassuming mahogany-colored frame. The stained glass was a Latin diagram of the Trinity, an odd thing to display in the Fellowship Hall even in this rather remote and dim corner. The Trinity was diagramed as three words forming the corners of a triangle – the words were Pater, Filius, Spiritus Sanctus and the lines between them were staunchly marked with the phrase "non est": that is, Pater non est Filius non est Spiritus Sanctus non est Pater and so on. Radiating inward from the names of the Persons of the Trinity were lines marked est all aimed like arrows at a central term: Deus.
This austere diagram fascinated me and I pointed it out to my mother. "What in the world does that thing mean?" she asked. I explained my interpretation of the schematic figure. "I don’t agree with that at all," my mother said. "Then, you are a heretic and must go to Hell," I told her.
My cousin Becky told a joke: "There was a bus crash and two dozen Missouri Synod Lutherans were killed and went to Heaven. In Heaven, they were ushered into one of God’s many mansions. Heaven is pretty much a party all day and all night long, lots of singing and dancing, Dixieland and Mozart’s music playing everywhere, very convivial. It’s actually pretty rowdy. So God went to the chambers adjacent to the place where the Missouri Synod Lutherans were ensconced. God told the saints in the places next door to the new arrivals to be as quiet as possible, at least for a few days, until the Missouri Synod folks got acclimated to Heaven. ‘Don’t make any noise so that they can hear you,’ God said. ‘If they hear you, that will spoil it for them. They want to think they’re the only ones up here’."
During the funeral, while the Pastor spoke, my mind wandered. A white pall had been placed over the casket, something like a table cloth in an expensive restaurant, and atop the cloth there was a great fan of red roses. The white cloth bore the marks where it had been folded – I could see shadows where folds had been and, further, there were places where the cloth seemed to have been bunched or clumped in some way and, then, left in disarray for a long time. Those places showed creases and folds that were symmetrical – that is, the floral-shaped indentation at the right mirrored a similar indentation on the left. If you looked at the faint wrinkles in the white cloth long enough, you could see benign and cherubic faces in them or the symmetrically displayed wings of angels, Duerer’s messengers in garments with drapery folds like cascades of flowing water.
During the lunch, Rose’s casket was shoved against a wall in the narthex. When I left the fellowship hall to go to the toilet, I saw the casket on a steel gurney with wheels, the white pall removed from it and, presumably, refolded and stored wherever it was kept. I met my mother coming from the Ladies’ Room. "Well," I said, "I guess Rose isn’t having much fun at her party." "No," my mother said. "It’s like she’s already been forgotten," I said. "Shoved into a corner while everyone eats downstairs."
It gave me a lonely feeling, a mournful sense that human life is something compromised and bereft.
I learned to drive a car on the highway from Eden Prairie where we lived and St. Peter, my Aunt Rose’s town. On the weekend of our monthly visits, my father would load everyone into the car, hand me the car keys, and tell me to drive us down to St. Peter. My father sat on the passenger side of the car, nervously watching me. Sometimes, he would bellow at me and shout orders and insults and none of this hectoring really much improved my driving. If anything, it make things worse because I was nervous, myself, and high-strung and a bit fearful of the speeds required by the four-lane highway from Shakopee, where we crossed the river, to St. Peter. It was easy enough to drive in our neighborhood where I knew all the streets and each bump and crack in the asphalt from riding my bicycle and, descending that great hill, from the bluffs down to the tangled river-bottoms was always a kind of a thrill, airplanes spurting into the sky from Flying Cloud, the small airport on the crest of the hill, the deep green of the water-logged woods around the river and, then, the tunnel-like passage across the valley, as if through a green grotto of trees with the place where the highway passed the high-water mark for some long-ago flood, a white standard showing water levels a dozen or more feet above the road, then, the little bird-cage bridge over the river at Shakopee, the right turn and the village with its grain elevator and railroad crossing and the taverns where farmers came to listen to polka music and, then, the four-lane highway outside of town, the long trip past many dangerous intersections with the towns a mile or so away from the freeway except at Jordan where the road intersected the village briefly, a meadow near Belle Plaine scabbed with huge glacial boulders, then, the descent into the valley of the Jolly Green Giant at LeSeuer with the colossal figure towering overhead on a billboard, a laughing green colossus entangled in vines usually with a couple arrows shot by local archers right into his groin, and, at last, after following the course of the brown and muddy river, the town of St. Peter.
At St. Peter, I had to take a right turn off the four-lane highway at a Garden Center just before we reached the speed zone where 169 turned into St. Peter’s Main Street and ran through the length of the town to exit at the other end by the St. Peter State Security Hospital and the Prison for the Criminally Insane. The first time I approached this right turn, clumsily angling into the turning lane, I was going too fast. "Slow down! Slow down!" my father shrieked. I braked hard and the car skidded a little, fishtailing. "You’re going to kill us! You’re going to kill us all!" I swung the car around the turn too fast and the wheels squealed. It was as if this cost me an enormous physical effort and I felt as if I had run some great distance against a powerful headwind. "I’m sorry," I panted. My father calmed down a little. We were on a quiet lane, slowly ascending the hill to where Aunt Rose lived.
"You have to watch your speedometer," my father said. "You have to be guided by instruments. It’s like a pilot landing a 747. He has to slow the plane enough to be able to stop within the length of the runway. You have to reduce your air-speed to the right velocity to land."
My father was the second of his siblings to die. His sister, Elizabeth, who was a brilliant musician (she taught piano at a college in St. Joseph, Missouri), was a heavy smoker and died of cancer of the jaw. Elizabeth is the mother of my cousin, Becky. After my father’s death, his sister, Rhoda died. Rhoda had been married to a very great mathematician, apparently a genius who authored an important book in mathematical theory and who died from diabetes when he was only thirty. Rhoda had other husbands and was a colorful personality – she once told me that she had been trained as a courtroom stenographer and that, for some reason, she thought in short-hand: "I’ve never told anyone but you," she said to me. "That will be our little secret." Rose was the eldest daughter. A sister in poor health, Mimi, dependant on oxygen and, therefore, unable to travel, remains alive in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
On the day that I almost killed everyone in my family by poor driving, I also piloted the car home. Everything went smoothly. It seemed that I could do this – that slowly, and with effort, I was learning how to drive. The bluffs overlooking the Minnesota River cast long shadows and I drove through them to climb the great hill and emerge at its summit: little biplanes from Flying Cloud sailed out over the great lush valley like fragile kites and images danced on the screen of the drive-in, and, far away, just faintly visible over the trees on the other side of the river, the big Ferris Wheel at ValleyFair illuminated like an emblem of eternity rotated slowly above the crowns of the oaks and maples.
A great tempest broke over St. Peter and the cemetery. The fountains of the sky were opened and rain flooded down inundating the earth. After the funeral, I drove from the cemetery to Minneapolis in the interminable, windy storm. A rose dewy with rain atop a stem with sharp thorns lay on the console between the car’s two front seats. On the big hill rising from the valley of the Jolly Green Giant, I saw several smaller cars buffeted so severely that they had skidded from the highway and ended up in ravines or stranded in the middle of muddy fields. The great bend in the river visible from 169 a few miles north of St. Peter was wild with turbulent, muddy waters. The sides of the road were matted with fallen branches, masses of green and leafy twigs, signs smashed into inarticulate debris, the general flotsam and jetsam of this great, continental hurricane.
I told my son, Jack, that I was driving on a road that I had traveled a hundred times before to visit my Aunt and, then, to return home and that this was highway on which I had learned to drive and that every intersection and every hill and every wooded dell descending to the river was marked by a memory and meant something to me. I said that I had not driven this way for several years and that the climax of the trip would be crossing the Minnesota River at the ancient village of Shakopee and, then, passing through the bore-hole of that tunnel of trees, underneath a sign showing the height of a flood that had occurred when I was in fourth or fifth grade, the sign showing the water-level shaggy with vines growing around its pole, and, then, ascending from the river-bottoms up the flank of the huge and imposing bluff to a vantage from which all the world would be visible and from which planes launched themselves into the void.
But, unbeknownst to me, in the years intervening, the road has been rationalized. It no longer joins with the archaic Main Street in Shakopee, no longer constricts itself to pass over the railroad tracks and that bird-cage-shaped bridge, no longer crosses the dark and mournful river-bottoms with their tangled woods standing knee-deep in black water, and, of course, no longer ascends that long and dramatic hill.
"This road has to cross the river somewhere," I said. Rain fell in sheets and the ditches were flooded and overflowing with moss-green water. We came to a long and gradual causeway. On low concrete stilts, the highway was borne across the river and there was no great hill at all.
I told my son that when my father died, an enormous blizzard blew out of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in New Mexico and stalked across the plain to central Nebraska. We had to haul my father’s casket, a thing of profound and unfathomable weight, up an ice-covered slope, knee-deep in snow, with the wind howling at us and filling our eyes with sleet. "When Beckmanns die," I said to my son, " there is always a disturbance in nature. My father was born in a howling blizzard and was buried in one. When I die, there will be earthquakes and comets and tornados, because, of course, I am the greatest of the Beckmanns."
In my first year of law school, I had a girlfriend, Tarin H– . Tarin had been raised in dire poverty, working as farm laborer in mosquito-swarmed vegetable gardens where her step-father grew tomatos, cantaloupes, broccoli, and cabbage on their small family acreage. As it happened their farm was located where a large shopping mall was later built, Eden Prairie Center. Tarin’s step-father sold his acreage to developers and went from being very poor to great wealth – I believe he was probably paid millions for his land, very prime real estate at the intersection of 169 and 494, at the sign of the Flying Red Horse, a service station marking that location. Tarin’s parents bought a prestigious house, really an estate with a big post-modern mansion, occupying the highest ridge of the river bluffs overlooking the Minnesota River and Shakopee. The house had huge windows opening onto vistas of the valley and you could see for mils from that height.
One weekend, Tarin’s parents flew to Las Vegas and she stayed at their house, watching the family’s several dogs. I visited her. The house was huge and a bit intimidating and her parent’s furniture from their old farm place seemed too small and old and dowdy, out of place in the rooms that looked like something from an Antonioni movie or IKEA warehouse. The structure had great cantilevered decks extending over the steep hill that plummeted down to the river and white interior walls and several sky-lights overhead, slanting panes of glass mounted in curiously angular shafts in the roof of the house. As the sun set, rain clouds gathered in the west. It was cold outside. Although it was only early September, the night air had the chill bite of November.
Something went wrong. There was a quarrel. What was supposed to be romantic became ugly and contentious. Rain began to fall and the great picture windows were streaked with raindrops. The rain splashed down from a great altitude and didn’t seem to affect visibility. From that high place, I could look down into the valley and see cars moving on lonely country lanes, following the leash that their headlights traced on the glistening black roadways. I wasn’t happy and thought, I suppose, that it would be better to be any place but in this ugly, huge, and drafty house high atop the hill in the middle of nowhere. I imagined myself deep in the valley, riding in one of those cars, and thought of the long ascent up the hill, the road rising higher and higher until it reached the summit of the bluffs where the red and white beam of the searchlight rotating atop the air traffic control tower swept across the fields, the highway, the trees tottering on the brink of the abyss, flashing across the white blank screen of the Drive-In movie theater now closed for the season. As I watched the headlights of the cars far below and thought of each of them alone on the highway, hurrying to some destination or other, a sense of vast loneliness oppressed me. Seen from this great height, human life seemed to me to be utterly sad, bereft, and mournful.
The mortician told us to put on our emergency blinkers and so the caravan of cars inched away from Trinity Lutheran Church. Windshield wipers slapped at the deluge of water pouring onto windshields. The trees along the road writhed and branches flew through the air like spears. The lane up the hill to the cemetery was like a waterfall.
We carried the casket over the soaked sod. Enough of us had hold of the box to keep it from being too unwieldy. A long barrage of thunder rattled across the sky.
The tent tethered over the open grave kicked and bucked in tempest. The Pastor read the necessary words hurriedly. My cousin, Jimmy, opened a bottle of champagne and we drank from slender plastic cups. "We’re celebrating Rose’s life," Jimmy said. There were several bottles of champagne and we each had two or three drinks. Jimmy poured from the bottles until they were empty. He took a shovel in his hand and said that he wanted to be alone at the graveside. The sky raged and rain pelted the top of the tent, drumming on the stretched canvas.
Jimmy gave each of us a rose from the floral arrangement that had been spread across the casket at the church. Because of the high humidity and the chill in the air made by the pouring rain, the rose seemed imperishable. It was scarcely wilted several days later when I finally made my way back home. My secretary, Susan, said that the best way to preserve the rose was to suspend it upside down and let it dry in that position. So I taped the rose to a bookshelf in my office, the blossoms hanging down like a plumb-line. The petals of the rose are completely intact as I write these words and the flower has preserved its shape. But it is now an impenetrable black, darker than the darkest night.
In a way, I suppose, each death of someone near and dear to us is like a pedestal. It allows us to mount higher and see more. With each death, the height of this pedestal grows and allows us to peer farther and farther into the distance. In the end, I suppose the pedestal will be so lofty that we will be able to see beyond this world and into another place.
Thursday, July 3, 2014
I never forget the location of a bookstore.
Once, when I traveled to Boston on business, I bought several books at a bookstore a couple blocks from my hotel, the Parker House. I recall this bookstore as being vast and impressive, with three levels, a coffee shop, and a remarkable collection of books by Irish novelists. At this place, I bought Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman.
Last week, on Martha’s Vineyard, at a congested intersection in West Tisdale, I heard a public radio spot about true crime books. The woman interviewed said that she thought the best of all true crime books was Errol Morris’s A Wilderness of Error. She said: "It is probably heresy not to recommend In Cold Blood, but I think A Wilderness of Error is a better book."
I crossed the Nantucket Sound from Martha’s Vineyard on a Massachusetts Steamship Ferry crowded with trucks carrying garbage. Estates on the Vineyard cost between 7 and 13 million dollars and, I guess, it is offensive to rich people to have to share their island with garbage. And so, it seems, they ship it back to the mainland.
I saw a seagull riding the wind next to the ferry that stank of rotting garbage. The seagull never once flapped its great, arched wings. Who says that animals are not capable of play? This seagull was playing with the breezes stirred up by the foul-smelling ferry.
We reached Boston at 2:30 in the afternoon and returned the rental car. We checked into the Hilton at the airport, immediately across the road from terminal A. Julie said that she had finished all of the books that she had brought to read on Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard. I told her that I would take the subway into Boston and see if I could buy her a copy of Morris’ A Wilderness of Error.
The Logan Airport Hilton is a great, lonely mausoleum of a hotel, hermetically sealed against the roar and bustle of the runways and terminals. I went to the lobby, which was empty and vast, and spoke with the concierge. He directed me outside and I rode a shuttle bus a half-mile or so to the train station
At the train station, I bought a 12 dollar day pass and, then, rode the Blue Line through the tunnel under the harbor and into Boston. I had done this many times and knew that the stop closest to the Parker House Hotel was "Government Center". My plan was to get off the subway at that stop and, then, walk to the bookstore nearby to purchase Morris’ book.
"Government Center" stop was closed as a result of construction. I took the Blue Line to Bowdoin, the next stop on the line. When I emerged from underground, I recognized a curving line of office buildings, a structure made from pre-stressed concrete, massive and ugly and brutal. But I knew where I was because of the concrete landmark and made my way back to the plaza atop the "Government Center" subway station.
It was 92 degrees on the streets of Boston, airless and with high humidity.
A great crowd of people stood in the open, sun-drenched plaza between the public buildings. The people were mostly silent, although, sometimes, they raised a great unanimous cheer or sighed at the same time. I estimated that there a thousand or more men and women, crushed together to watch several big color screens on which a soccer game was displayed underway. The United States team was playing Belgium in the World Cup Championship in Brazil.
I walked across a complex intersection to the sidewalk under the facade of the Parker House Hotel. Fremont Street was busy with traffic and the glare from the chrome and bumpers made me squint.
King’s Chapel Burying Ground was at my right, beyond the iron fence next to the sidewalk. The old slate graves looked like peculiar geological formations pushed up through the yellowing sod, black crystals emerging from underground. On my last trip to Boston, I recall walking past that graveyard in a hurricane, an avalanche of sleet and snow falling out of the sky and flung horizontally against the ancient graves. The dead seemed particularly forgotten and hapless in that wind-borne chaos.
The bookstore that I recalled with unerring accuracy was at a small plaza between School and Washington Streets. I walked past the ornate, French-empire style City Hall and rounded the corner only to discover that the bookstore no longer existed. In its place, the three-story glass windows opened into a Walgreen’s pharmacy.
I think the huge shop had once been a Borders Bookstore. Borders went out of business a couple of years ago. I was bitterly disappointed that the place no longer offered books for sale. I suppose that, if you are feeling ill or need medicine, a pharmacy is a useful business, particularly at this busy street corner, but this was little solace to me as I stood in the scorching sun wondering where I should next go.
A little dazed, I strolled a block down Washington and, then, walked back to Fremont on Bromfield Street. It is a narrow lane and the shadows were cool and the air smelled of restaurants preparing for dinner.
There is a subway station beyond the old Granary Burying Ground on the edge of the Boston Common. I entered the subway and tried to access the train platforms, but my Charlie Card, the magnetized pass that operated the turnstiles would not let me through the gate. So I ascended the steps again to the hot street and crossed to a larger subway entrance on the other side of Fremont, passing between crowds of street vendors and beggars and skimpily dressed girls in summer skirts and loose blouses.
It was over 100 degrees on the train platforms and the air was foul with crowd-stench. The heat and fog of gaseous sweat dazed me. Trains were sitting on various sidings, panting like hot dogs, and the place was thronged, big mobs of people pushing this way and that. It took me a few minutes to figure out what train I should take toward Copley Square. More steps, slippery with sweat, had to be descended and, then, climbed again. In the steam-bath heat, people plowed into one another, dully stumbling over the slick concrete.
I took the outbound Green Line train to Copley. Then, I hiked across the square to Trinity Church. I found a door leading inside and walked through heavy, dark vaults to where a young man was sitting at a desk. It was as hot as an oven in the huge brick church.
The young man sat a podium displaying brightly colored coffee-table books, obscenely spread-eagled for inspection. The books showed the interior of the huge church. I asked the young man what it cost to enter the church and he told me that I could buy a ticket downstairs.
"Where is a bookstore near here?" The young man blinked nervously at me. Then, he said: "I buy my books at Trident." "Where is that?" He said: "Go down Newbury – it’s one block over (he gestured). The bookstore is right at Mass." I went into the church crypt and bought a ticket to enter the place. I found a toilet, locked myself in a stall, and looked at my city map. It appeared that I would have to walk five blocks on Newbury to reach Massachusetts Avenue. But there was a Green line subway station at Massachusetts (Hynes Station) and I would be able to take the train back to the Blue Line from that place and, thence, return to the airport.
I went into the Church. The interior of Trinity Church is resplendent with color: Pompeii red covering plaster in the heights of the tower, majestic courses of fire-house red brick interspersed with bricks colored mustard-yellow and Rembrandt-brown, all assembled in a great, polychrome mosaic. From the outside, the church seems Romanesque, heavy, impenetrable, forests of turrets rising over formidable rampart walls. But, inside. the place soars upward with Moorish exuberance – it is like an immense fat man implausibly light and agile on his feet, like Oliver Hardy’s soft-shoe dance in Way out West, graceful and airy, murals and ornate cherry-wood carving wrapped around the interior space, bright alcoves full of gem-like stained glass hovering in the middle heights, close enough for the images to be legible, but still remote from the congregation, occupying a kind of half-accessible heaven above the dark prairie of rose-wood pews, and, then, the lofty heights above occupied by great shaggy giants, the evangelists cumbrous and immense in the high prophetic peak of the steeple. Somehow, the structure combines a sense of upward thrust and bright, even, radiant illumination with a vast weight, a gravitas equivalent to the bulk of Grover Cleveland, or a gilded era robber baron or fat, oyster-fed H. H. Richardson himself, the architect from Louisiana who designed this place. Trinity Church is one of my favorite buildings and it always takes my breath away.
Above the narthex, John LaFarge’s Jesus stands in stained-glass majesty. The Savior is outside of the building, in the world, Christ represented as a column of pale white light standing in blue darkness. Jesus occupies a dark blue mandorla – perhaps, we are supposed to imagine him striding toward the Church through the icy gloom of night, a towering spectre moving through the darkness.
One shudders at the glacial blue and white of LaFarge’s image of Jesus, but it was, in fact, exceedingly hot in the church, sultry, with huge fans nodding back and forth like mechanical deacons.
On the street, I crossed Boylston, went north a block to Newbury, and, then, hurried along the street.
The blocks were long and the walk was hot, without shade, on the crowded sidewalk. I passed girls in low-cut dresses acting as hostesses at sidewalk cafes, ice cream and gelato parlors, fashionable boutiques and hair styling places, restaurants offering Asian fusion menus or Spanish food or Italian specialties, expensive pizza places that bake their pies in wood-fired ovens, all of these enterprises occupying the ground level of elegant old brownstone apartments lining both sides of the arrow-straight and broad street.
The bookstore was where it was supposed to be. I went inside, talked to a slender girl in a black tee-shirt bearing an image of a three-pronged spear, and she found Morris’ book for me in the history section.
I bought a Film Comment with Morris’ book. The man at the check-out register wanted to discuss movies with me. But I didn’t exactly understand his comments.
Carrying my purchases, I hurried another half-block to Massachusetts where my map showed me that there was a subway station, the next stop on the Green Line: Hynes, named after the Hynes Convention Center.
I couldn’t find the train station. There were no plausible entries into the underground. I hustled up and down the street, looking in all directions for the subway but couldn’t locate it. I stooped to inspect manhole covers and peered into cavities in the bowels of buildings where coal had once been loaded to fuel furnaces and, if there was a crack in the sidewalk, I gazed into it, hoping to discover the passage downward, the way to the shadows. But my search was unavailing. There was a freeway across the road and an impromptu-looking shack on Massachusetts marked with the word "Hynes" and I went there and scrutinized the rear of that shanty looking for pits and crevasses, fissures leading downward but, again, found nothing. This was very disappointing for it meant that I had to hike back down Newbury, retracing my steps to Copley and the subway entrance by the Public Library.
The blocks were long and the walk was hot, without shade, on the crowded sidewalk. At street level, businesses occupied the front of the elegant, old brownstones: expensive pizza places that cooked their pies in wood-fired ovens, Italian trattoria, Thai bistros, a Spanish restaurant and, then, some Asian fusion places, hair-styling studios reeking of chemicals, pricy-looking boutiques, gelato and ice cream parlors, girls in low-cut blouses standing at the edge of the sidewalk beckoning pedestrians into sidewalk cafes.
It was obvious to me that a person of my kind did not belong on that street, that I should not be allowed to perambulate that sidewalk even for a minute, that I had traveled from Martha’s Vineyard with the garbage as a kind of penance and that I was hot and half-hallucinating as I walked as quickly as I could back to Copley square.
I rush down the steps into the subway to get out of the glare of the sun, but on the first sweltering landing, there is a tattered sign and it tells me that there is no access through this arcade to the inbound trains on the Green Line and, quite evidently, it is an inbound train that I need to reach the Blue Line and, then, the airport. So, I climb back up the the sweat-slick steps, cross the street toward the great marble barge of the Public Library docked there at the plaza and, then, hurry along Copley Square scanning the vantage ahead of me for some sign of the promised entry into the subway. But I can’t seem to find the steps leading downward and so I circle the block and, at last, find the entrance only a few feet from where I commenced my circuit of the Library, an assemblage of Victorian wrought iron hiding in plain sight. This alarms me. It seems that the sun and heat have entered my brain and that I am experiencing curious lacunae in the world, places that are right before my eyes but that can’t exactly be seen, or, at least, can’t be seen for what they are.
Since the Government Center station is closed and undergoing construction, and since that station is the nerve center of the whole subway system, it’s central neuron as it were or ganglion, I understand that the way back to the airport will be complex. I will have to go to Haymarket and, then, transfer onto the Orange Line and, then, ride that train for one station to access the Blue Line.
It is even hotter and more sultry, more difficult to breathe and, therefore, more difficult to see clearly, on the train platforms and in the grimy tunnels than I recalled.
The Green Line train is crowded this time of day, around 6:00 pm, and so I have to stand for several stops, exiting into the gloomy, furnace-like heat at Haymarket. The next subway train is nine minutes away. The people on the platform stand there withering in the heat, drizzling pools of sweat down onto the filthy concrete.
The Orange Line train is even more crowded, crammed with Latino women and their children, many of them in perambulators. It is only one stop to State Station. I exit there. Signs point the way to the Blue Line – that is, through a quarter-mile long wormhole, a cement tube tiled overhead with grimy white tiles that seem to seep some sort of rancid liquid, perhaps, sweat condensed on their (relatively) cool surfaces. Everyone trots down the tunnel which goes on and on endlessly, finally snaking around a curve where there is a thunderous roar – the sound of the Blue Line train to the airport just leaving the platform.
A sign overhead flashes the information that the next train will come in 12 minutes. It seems impossible to endure this airless, suffocating heat for that long. More and more people arrive at the station and I am standing on the yellow-for-caution lip of the platform, jostled ahead into a place where no one is really supposed to stand due to the dangerous proximity of fatal edge, and, now, behind me the crowd is eight deep, now ten deep, now twelve deep as more and more people throng the narrow platform between the walls and pit through which the trains move.
Apparently, the Blue Line travels to an immensely populace ghetto, a slum of some sort inhabited by tens of thousands of immigrants speaking incomprehensible languages, a vast polyglot assembly of the very poor crammed elbow to elbow, buttock to groin, shoulder to shoulder on the scalding subway platform. Children are shrieking and the crowd jostles and shudders and, as the train appears – headlights rounding a black humid curve – I feel the mob moving forward and pressing against me as if to hurl my body into the void, onto the third rail, under the grinding iron wheels of the train.
But, I think, at least, I am positioned to get onto the train first, ahead of the rest of this huge unruly mob, many of whom will certainly be left behind on the suffocating platform.
The train stops at the station with its doors fifteen feet to my right and also exactly fifteen feet to my left – in other words, I am trapped against the side of the subway car, equidistant between the two doors that are now crowded with people cramming themselves into the compartment. I struggle along the hot metal of the subway car and, at last, scramble onto the train just as the doors are closing.
The subway car is air-conditioned, almost cold, and the transition from the sauna heat of the platform into the chill refrigeration of the train is shocking. This can not be good for one’s health. People are treading upon one another’s feet and cursing, but also giggling and laughing in a good natured way and women are gossiping in Portuguese, I think, and Hmong and some of subway riders have desolate panicked eyes and look suicidal and others show bland, empty expressions like zombies and there are mad women and mad men gibbering, drug addicts wilting like rare exotic orchids, babies howling, the whole thing hurled through the black, boiling darkness.
All of my sorrow, all of the residue of my grief settles into my feet. It is a slow sedimentation of misery that goes into my lower extremities and makes them throb with pain. Ever since my close friend, Terry Dilley died, I have found it difficult to walk any distance without serious, searing pain – and now my wounded mourning foot is so sore that I am afraid that it will collapse throwing me to the dirty floor of the subway compartment where I will be trodden under heel and destroyed.
We roll through the silent, shrouded construction zone, the closed Government Center stop, then, to Aquarium, where the platform is mostly deserted, then, to Maverick where many people depart the train, then, to Airport where I stagger out of the subway. I call the Hilton for the shuttle bus to pick me up and the white van arrives in less than ten minutes. At the Hilton, the man driving the bus says in a cheery voice: "Welcome back, sir." "Thank you," I tell him.
What do I conclude from this excursion? In big cities, the urban poor suffer greatly. The level of inconvenience and suffering experienced by people compelled to ride these subways, sweltering in summer and frigid in winter, is immense, arbitrary and capricious, taxing, unjust, unreasonable, and, it seems, by and large, borne with equanimity.
That is the moral of this essay. No more, no less.