Sunday, February 22, 2015

Diary: An Excursion



Visiting hours at the hospital where my son is confined are from 6:00 to 7:00 pm. When I come to see him, I park my car in a cold, icy lot that is almost completely empty, a desolate concrete steppe illumined by overhead lamps that show shapes and the outlines of things but which denude objects of their colors. There is no attendant at the front door to the hospital although a woman sits at round desk near the entry. She nods to me. There is a woman’s magazine on a small round table and bottle of hand-sanitizer. My route through the hospital leads me past the lounge with its sepulchral black grand piano, the glass case showing photographs of the doctors and health-care providers, at least half of them of Indian origin, and the cafeteria with its sour institutional smell and nurses with long, straight hair unraveled over meal-time sitting in cubicles over their food and cell-phones.

You have to ring a buzzer and show your profile to a lens in a glass blister on the wall to be buzzed into the unit where my son is confined. Between two locked doors, there are lockers where the visitor deposits his coat and wallet and the pens and pencils from his breast-pocket and his car-keys. Exactly what you are supposed to put in the lockers is unclear to me and the rules and protocol for gaining admission to the Ward are uncertain, never actually expressed, and, so, I don’t know what can be legitimately brought into the closed unit and what might constitute contraband. It doesn’t matter – everything that I bring for my son, he rejects and its ends up in storage or donated to the other patients.

In the Ward, there is a central nursing station and two corridors separated by another locked door, although this is typically propped open when I come to visit. The rooms and hallways are entirely featureless. The windows look out over more parking lot, as cold and desolate as the place that I traversed to enter the hospital, the target on the asphalt where the Mayo One emergency helicopter lands, and the slaughterhouse with its turrets of steam and vapor standing in the floodplain opposite the frozen mill-pond. There is a big canister of decaffeinated coffee in a small room with cafeteria tables and an easel bearing a three-foot tall flip-pad on which someone has written "Have a Wonderful Day!" in elaborate calligraphic letters.

There are no pictures on the wall in the room where my son is lying in his bed. There are no books on the little table beside his bed, merely two pair of ear-plugs made of soft yellow and red rubber. My son is wearing socks and green pajamas. He looks very thin and his wrists are bony. He has been in this place for sixty days and there is no end in sight to his confinement. During that sixty days, he has exercised by doing push-ups in his room and run on a slightly inclined treadmill. There are a few small weights, but he has not lifted them. He has not felt the sun on his face or the breeze blowing across the frozen fields for two months.

What has happened to my son is indecent, a terrible travesty that seems a kind of grotesque caricature of hospitalization. The nurses are scrupulously indifferent. No one cares. Even my son has ceased to care. Time is measured by dinner menus or variation in the crafts offered for the diversion of the patients –it doesn’t matter whether it is a Monday or a Wednesday or a Sunday. No one gets better. No one improves. Nothing is accomplished. Time passes and nothing is accomplished.



My wife is a loyal person. So long as her son is confined to the hospital, she contrives her days and nights to be a joyless and solitary as possible. She believes that if she suffers sufficiently somehow her son will be saved.

I am far less loyal and more devoted to my own pleasures. An opportunity arose for me to attend a seminar in Minneapolis and so I signed up for the program and decided to travel to the big city on the afternoon preceding the continuing legal education. It was my plan to see a movie, enjoy a nice meal, and, even, have a few drinks. I had an image of myself with a German book that I am reading, the volume Dezember by Alexander Kluge illustrated with photographs of a snowy forest by Gerhard Richter. I thought that I would find a cozy bar somewhere, sit at a booth by myself, and sip a mixed drink while reading my book, while marking its margins, while looking up unfamiliar words in my Cassel’s dictionary. In that way, I would occupy a solitary hour before finding my way to my motel room where I might watch an hour of TV or read a book revew that I had brought with me in my briefcase. I would be alone and happy and well-fed and the drinks would fill me with a pleasant satisfaction without really making me drunk and, on the car radio, there would be something wonderful to hear. I would rest comfortably throughout the night, wearing my warm sweat-pants that I had carefully packed, and all would be well.



I drove to Owatonna on the freeway after departing my office in flurry of last-minute emails and phone calls. I had been too busy to eat lunch and so I stopped at the Bridge Street exit to get a sandwich at Burger King. The hamburger, devoured as I drove, was excellent – it had the faint smoky taste that characterizes Burger King hamburger patties, a flavor unique to that franchise. The highway was straight and fast and no one was driving at a speed less that 85 miles an hour. I zoomed past the jet planes impaled like a bouquet of flowers on steel towers at the Owatonna airport, passed the earthmovers and bulldozers on their pedestals at Richie Brothers, and, then, shot through the big valleys by the Northfield exit where the swamps are gouged with long drainage ditches that form arrows and ciphers in the wetlands and the little hillocks are noble with stands of old trees.

In the city, I found myself in the wrong lane and ended up exiting Crosstown 62 on Penn Avenue. I drove through the residential neighborhoods to 50th and, then, turned west. I had a vague memory of walking in this neighborhood once, bereft and solitary, mourning a lost love, I think, a half-day hike whose beginning I couldn’t recall and whose end was similarly lost to my memory. I was somewhere south of Lake Harriet, I thought, and I recalled traversing these blocks as well in the middle of the night in the winter-time, bound for a home that seemed impossibly distant. Could this have even happened? A memory of trudging over snow and ice for many long miles afflicted me, but I couldn’t exactly recall the circumstances of that walk.

A few blocks to the west of France and 50th, I looked down side-streets that also seemed familiar to me. Thirty-three years ago, I had a girlfriend who had left Austin to live in Minneapolis. She was an LPN and had moved to the city to be with one of my buddies who had stolen her away from me. My buddy abandoned her and, after this happened, she called and wanted me to see her. I was told to meet her in the vicinity of the Edina Theater where she was staying at a girlfriend’s house. This friend, a young woman, was also a nurse who worked at the nursing home where my girlfriend was employed. The young woman was staying at her boyfriend’s house that evening and so we had her apartment to ourselves. We slept in her bed. On the wall above the fragrant-smelling bed, there were black and white pictures of a little boy with a huge white skull, an enormous head that seemed to crush his tiny face beneath it’s weight. My girlfriend told me that the pictures showed her friend’s brother who had suffered from hydrocephalus and died a dozen years earlier.

I parked my car in the ramp behind the Byerly’s at 50th and France and walked down the alley between the buildings to the front of the Edina Theater. The alley had been strewn with salt that had a turquoise and aquamarine tint, just a trace of color on the grey-brown concrete. In the theater, I saw the kind of people for whom I have contempt – well-dressed grandmotherly ladies discussing their plane tickets for flights to southern California and Florida on the morrow, delicate gay intellectuals retired from teaching positions and wearing berets over their pink and neatly groomed faces, lonely old men who had developed a cinema habit forty years ago when they were in college and still attended the movies twice or three times a week. I bought my ticket, used the toilet, and, of course, I am not so blind as to imagine that I was different in any significant way from these other men and women who comprised the audience for the European art film that I attended, Two Days, One Night directed by the Dardennes brothers.

Our pleasures are as habitual as our miseries.



After the movie, I went outside. It was dark and cold and I had a moment of panic, not finding my car where I expected it to be. The wind was chilly and it invaded the cold, barren concrete ledges of the parking ramp and, for a moment, I felt very discouraged, as if, in fact, I was hiking in the middle of the night, moving along the empty streets, like a ghost, and passing the houses all completely dark and locked against me and not knowing where I was going. But, then, I found the car and made its taillights wink with my key and, because it was only 6:20 pm, I thought that the traffic on the freeways would probably be difficult and so I decided to drive to nearby bookstore and kill some time there, rummaging among the second-hand volumes.

I drove west to 100 and, then, took the highway north to Excelsior, the intersection where the old Anchor Inn had once been located, one of my father’s favorite places because of its 50 foot salad bar. The Anchor Inn is gone now but there is an ancient strip mall along the south side of Excelsior and this is the location of Half-Price Books, a store that I like to browse. I went into the bookstore and first checked the art books to see if there was anything interesting in that selection. A man came into the niche where I was perusing the picture books and he was breathing hard, a sort of faint gurgle in his thorax, and this was aesthetically unpleasing to me, not at all appropriate to the book about Tiepolo that I held in order to turn the colorful pages, and so I withdrew from that particular dead-end aisle and went to look at the archaeology books where I found a wonderful volume about the Mayan concept of the ocean and the waters of the world, another dead end aisle to which the man with bronchial ailment pursued me. I carried the Mayan book away under my arm, checking next the philosophy section, then, the poetry books and finally memoirs and essays, the man with the rachitic breathing always only a few steps behind me, before paying $13.37 for the catalogue of the Mayan archaeological exhibition.

I dreaded the cold outside but it was bearable, I suppose, and this time I found my car without difficulty. The weather was supposed to moderate, but I had detected no relaxation in the iron grip of the cold on the sky and earth. I must be getting older and querulous because I was afraid of the fast traffic on 394 and skeptical that I would be able to navigate it safely, but the roads were not crowded and I had no difficulty making the corner by the Walker Art Center and shooting through the Lowry Tunnel to take I-94 over the frozen river to the Huron exit on the East Bank of the University of Minnesota. I had reserved a room for the night at the Days Inn on University Avenue, a motel mostly used by poor folks bringing their children to the U of M hospitals. Sometimes, I saw athletes in the motel, huge black men who had the ease and grace of All-Conference football or basketball players, but the sick and the poor seemed to predominate in that place. The lobby of the motel, smoke-free for more than five years, still stinks of cigarettes – or, perhaps, there was a once a fire in that place and the stain of the burning in fabrics and air has never wholly departed.


To the desk clerk, I was "Todd." At first, I thought he was calling me "John" and that, because he was Chinese, his pronunciation was idiosyncratic and, therefore, had turned me from "John" into "Todd". But, increasingly, as we spoke, I perceived that the clerk’s English was every bit as good as mine and that, for some reason, he thought that I was "Todd" and persisted in calling me by that name. Finally, he asked for some identification and I showed my driver’s license to him and he said: "So you are not Todd?" using an accusatory tone of voice as if I had misled him. "No, I am John," I said. He told me that he had no reservation for me and that, perhaps, I would be turned away from the motel. I protested that I had made a room reservation that morning and he looked again and, then, smiled and said: "Oh, here it is. Of course, you are not Todd, you are John." "I am John," I assured him. He squinted at me skeptically. "What will happen to poor Todd?" I asked. "Oh, he’s not expected here until March, mid-March," the clerk told me. He handed me an orange band of paper to put on the dashboard of my car so that it would not be towed from the hotel parking lot. I carried my duffel bag and a valise with some books, including now the Mayan volume and Dezember by Kluge with its icily abstract photographs by Gerhard Richter, to the elevator. It took an immensely long time for the elevator to arrive and it seemed to fall down the elevator shaft clanking mournfully like Marley’s ghost. I took the elevator, the little box also stinking of cigarettes, to the third floor, and the floor underneath me trembled and I heard the chains rattling as the elevator in which I stood was grappled upward, hoisted as if from the bottom of the sea.

After putting my things in my room, I went to the elevator and tried to summon it with the down button but nothing happened. A woman emerged at the end of the hall and told me that the elevator was broken and so I hurried down a cold stairwell, went outside to put the orange band on my dashboard, and, then, hurried to the backdoor of the motel. I was not wearing my winter coat since I had intended to be outside for only a few moments. But the back door of the hotel required a room key to open and admit me into the rear of the lobby and, although I was certain that I had brought my key-card with me, I couldn’t locate it and the wind was blowing, hissing across the midden-heaps of snow and ice scraped off the roads and parking lots and piled behind the motel and, to the north, the big sierra of grain elevators was split here and there, passes between the towering columnar silos through which the gale poured with an endless sullen fury and I felt my fingers becoming numb and the cold settling into my torso and groin. I turned around and saw that a van full of heavy Ojibway Indians had pulled next to my car. The Ojibway were coming from their vehicle, shoving a sick girl, the only slender person among them, in a wheel chair over the ice plated on the parking lot, and they were laughing with one another, carrying paper bags and coolers – I saw the license plate of the Leech Lake Band on the van and surmised that the Indians had come from Bemidji and environs because the little girl was ill and scheduled for treatment at the U of M children’s hospital, and the tribe, approached six or seven of them, and still I couldn’t get the door open, but no worries, one of the fat Indians, a big man with a cheerful moon-face, was holding his key-card in front of him and, when I stepped aside, he opened the door and the Indians entered and I followed them, wondering: "How are they going to get the sick girl upstairs?" But, perhaps, they were on the ground floor because as I passed by the desk clerk I didn’t hear any discussion about this problem, the Indians gathered together in a tight group to whisper about something as I walked through the lobby and out the front door to the Chinese restaurant located at the other end of the parking lot.



For some reason, the Chinese restaurant was crowded and, when I asked for a table for one, the host looked at me skeptically, but, then, said: "Yes, yes, I have just had a table will be five minutes." I went to the bar and stood for awhile, ignored by the people there, until, at last, a Chinese girl noticed me, and reluctantly, it seemed, asked what I wanted. "Can I have a martini?" I said. "I don’t know how to make a martini," the girl replied. "There are many types anyway." "I know," I said. The girl said that if I would wait she would find someone who knew how to make a martini. A college kid came and asked me what I wanted in the martini and I said that it should be made with vodka and he then asked what kind of vodka and I said it doesn’t matter to me, not at all. "Okay," the kid said and, at that moment, a waiter came and tapped my wrist and said that my table was ready for me.

Before my son became ill, I sometimes had supper with him in this Chinese restaurant and the food was reliably good and, surprisingly, authentic, I thought – almost all of the other customers were Chinese it seemed. Once, I had ordered a dish made from pork belly and it was the most rich and wonderful thing that I have ever eaten, meat something like uncooked bacon, slippery and sweet served in a mild chili sauce. I told my son that there had to be a consequence of eating something so excellent and, indeed, for several days after consuming that meal my bowels were radically unsettled. The martini was brought to the table and it was yellowish with a mummified olive as hard as a stone sunk in the center of the glass. The vodka was warm and went to a place immediately behind my eyeballs where it set to work tightening certain screw mechanisms. Just the smell of the warm vodka made me feel nauseated. But I’m diligent and have been taught to eat what I order and so I swallowed the drink although it didn’t seem to settle right in my stomach.

I ordered a pork hock in sweet chili sauce. The pig’s foot came in huge basin-like bowl and was swimming in a red sauce the consistency of salsa. The pig’s knuckles had fallen from the bone and were floating in the soup-like sauce in a knot of white cartilage. The meat on the hock was superb, faintly flavored with ammonia and pig manure, and the pig’s foot was draped in pale strips of cream-colored fat. It was almost too rich to eat, the sort of meal over which you swoon and hallucinate. I swallowed great gobbets of creamy fat dowsed in the chili sauce and expected that there would be awful consequences from devouring something of this sort. After I had dissected the pork hock, I poured the remaining chili sauce over my sticky rice and ate that as well.

When the young waiter delivered my check to the table, he said: "Happy New Year!" Only then, I realized that it was the Chinese New Year, Lunar New Year, a celebration that explained the crowds of happy people in the restaurant and the fact that now, at nine-o’clock, more Chinese students were coming through the door, crowds of them in their heavy winter coats, waiting in line for tables, or bellied up to the bar where they were drinking various kinds of Chinese beer. Outside, it was terribly cold and I began to shiver and overhead, I saw the moon as a sliver in the sky abiding above a single brilliantly lit planet, a wanderer in the sky holding up a torch almost as bright as the fragment of moon showing over the campus and the big hulking buildings in the dark.



I climbed the stairwell to my hotel room and put on my sweat pants and tried to read. But I was terribly tired, so tired that it seemed as if I had been betrayed by my blood, that the blood circulating in my body was not properly oxygenated and, therefore, not restorative and so my mind refused to translate the German words on the page and I felt terribly depressed and lonely. I threw myself in bed but couldn’t sleep. Finally, I drifted off, but, then, was afflicted by cheerless dreams – I was young and a girl that I loved had canceled our relationship and I was walking somewhere, in transit from a place that I didn’t recall having left to another place, an address where likely I would not be welcome, and it was the middle of the night and I knew that I had to cross an entire city, miles and miles of sleeping suburbs and bridges over freeways where even the traffic had gone away to rest for a few hours and that I would still be marching along this path until it was dawn and beyond dawn and, then, I was walking on some railroad tracks along a river, a big river that was blue between blue bluffs, and I came to a tall structure that had once been a mill, a grist mill of some sort and I found that the mill was between me and the route that I had take to my destination and so it was necessary to find hand-holds and toe-holds in the mill’s walls so that I could scale that structure and continue on my way. Then, I woke up and found that my legs, particularly, the calves of both legs, were sore, exhausted, stiff as if, in fact I had spent every moment, asleep walking at high speed over rough and uncertain terrain.



I felt as if I were hungover. At the seminar, I was queasy and unsteady on my feet. Snow had fallen and the streets in the city were clogged and it took me 30 minutes to travel four blocks after I crossed the 3rd Street bridge from the East Bank of the river. The seminar was dull and I wished that I could go somewhere and lie down for a few hours. I put a bagel in my pocket and picked it apart as the speakers discussed latest trends in the law associated with Uninsured and Underinsured Motorist claims. Two cases in which I was involved recently were the subject of much discussion and the seminar speakers mischaracterized those decisions and pronounced falsely upon them and, then, when one of the presenters asked if any of us had any knowledge or experience with the issues presented by those cases, celebrated motion proceedings that I had, in fact, argued, and that were now under appeal to the State Supreme Court, I didn’t raise my hand because it seemed futile to discuss what I knew and understood with others whose interest in the issue was only academic and, therefore, fraudulent in some respect. At noon, I walked in the skyway to the Wells Fargo Bank Building and stood in the lobby, a place that is like a vast sandstone mausoleum, all fluted, featureless walls rising over a crypt-like interior. In glass cases, like reliquiaries embedded in the walls, there were artifacts of modernism – sleek typewriters with Bauhaus imprimatur, a toaster that could heat four pieces of bread, elegant-looking phones and clocks and radios. I went into an Arby’s to have a sandwich but the crowd was too great, people loudly shouting across the room, and my head hurt and the three ounces of vodka from the previous night still seemed to be tightening screw mechanisms in the chambers behind my eyeballs, little cells closing like the torture room in "The Pit and Pendulum" except these cells were somehow part of my sinuses. I went to a Chinese place called the Bamboo Hut and ate a plate of chicken thighs cooked in sweet chili sauce and my bowels were wet and tremulous.



I left the seminar after a speech by an accident reconstructionist named Ken Drevnick. I know Mr. Drevnick, a policeman retired from 20 years service with the State Highway Patrol. Once I met with him in Woodbury and bought some opinions from him and I respected Drevnick as a man of integrity and wisdom. He spoke to me like a former soldier – I supposed he had been in the Marine Corps – and he had tattoos in his biceps.

I went into the lobby of the CLE center as Drevnick was answering questions in the auditorium. I looked at my cell-phone to see what had been happening at my law office during the period of my absence. Drevnick came out of the seminar and his wife, who had come to see him speak, went into the ladies’ room, and the expert witness, looking a bit uncomfortable in his suit and tie, gazed over in my direction. Our eyes met and so I knew that I had to go to see him and shake his hand. I told Mr. Drevnick that he had done a wonderful job with his presentation, something that I meant sincerely, and he asked me how things were going in Austin. This is the question that I always encounter when I travel. "Okay," I said. "Okay, things are going okay."


On the road home, the landscape was like an engraving made by a steel-tipped burin. All of the color and light had drained from the world.

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