Sunday, October 18, 2015
It will not be so easy for you to find the grave of Tom Donnelly.
My friend is buried in St. Mary’s cemetery in Newry Township. People will tell you to take 251 from State Highway 218. They will say that you must drive past the old creamery at the four-way intersection at Corning and, then, after a few additional intersections, make your way north on the gravel roads. Then, you must watch for a green hill where there are some graves flung across an incline and a cross bearing a plaster Jesus.
The roads in this part of the county have been given numbers correlating, I think, to their distance from the nearest village, Blooming Prairie and the farms have addresses within that town. But the street and avenue numbers seem arbitrary: How do you find 680th Avenue in country where there is no regular grid of streets and avenues? And Google Maps won’t help you – the gravel roads sometimes carry three or four different names or change their identification every 100 rods.
Perhaps, you will meet a farmer mowing the ditch of his land or someone dressed for hunting standing with his labradors at a field drive that goes nowhere. But I should warn you – don’t count upon encountering anyone in this part of Newry Township. The vicinity of the cemetery feels wild and lonely. Here the land is broken by ridges of gravel left by ancient glaciers and there are steep hills and potholes full of marsh and lagoon, not good terrain for farming. The land has been emptied-out and the old farmsteads plowed under and some of the fields seem to be reverting to wilderness and the trees in their old shelter belts planted by pioneers have grown wild, lush jungles of underbrush where feral cats hunt. My wife’s grandmother lived in this township, but her house is long-gone, bulldozed into a ravine where lathe and joists are heaped among rusty, abandoned harrows and cultivators. The ravine is lavish with vines and wild flowers and poison ivy, deadly with tangles of barbed wire, and the only thing remaining at the old homestead is a half-collapsed trailer towed there to rot in peace a dozen years ago.
The cast-iron gates to St. Mary’s cemetery stand a hundred yards west of the gravel road. The driveway is serviceable and curves around the tract of old stone columns set on limestone piers, gravestones like broken and decayed teeth jutting up from the grass, and implacably carved granite markers embedded in the turf. At the highest point on the hill, a deathly white Jesus hangs on his cross. The graves all have Irish names. The shelter belt that divides the cemetery from the pasture-land on its west is an impenetrable forest full of thorns and bird-calls.
It is not so easy to find the grave of my friend Tom Donnelly. But if, by chance, you reach that cemetery, enter through the gates and walk south along the bottom of the slope, and there you will see the gentle incline where the earth covers Tom Donnelly, a place where the sod has been replaced like pieces of a green jigsaw puzzle over the five foot deep trench where the body is buried.
On an unseasonably warm Saturday in the second week of October, 2015, a crowd of people has gathered to dig Tom Donnelly’s grave. Donnelly was a grave-digger himself and, so, his associates have special rights and privileges with respect to 14 country cemeteries among the farm land comprising Steele, Mower and Freeborn counties. A cooler full of beer sits under a tree and people are passing around a bottle of Jameson whiskey and, if you want to step down into the trench and scoop out a few shovelfuls of dark earth, veined with clay (one of the other professional gravediggers tells me) you are welcome to try your hand at Tom’s profession or just as welcome to lean against a tree or sit on the sod and watch the others at work.
The slight incline where the grave is being dug has been selected because the soil is relatively soft, but not too sandy, and the ground unlikely to resist with root or stone. About a third of the dark soil cast out of the grave is kept on a wooden piece of plywood lying flat against the grass. The majority of the earth excavated from the hillside is thrown into the flatbed of a pick-up truck parked next to the pit. The amateur grave-diggers, mostly Tom’s children and grandchildren, aren’t strong enough to fling the soil all the way to the back of the pick-up truck’s bed and so a windrow accumulates over the tail-gate. Now and then, one of Tom’s colleagues, partners with whom he dug graves for many years, will clamber up onto the truck and shovel the earth back into a neat heap against the vehicle’s cab. When the trench is about three-feet deep, Tom’s grave-digging partner drives the truck slowly away and down the gravel road to dump the soil somewhere. The people lined-up to descend into the pit and shovel earth there disperse for a few minutes and the bottle of whiskey is passed around again. The space between the nearby graves, most of them made a hundred years ago, gradually fills with empty beer bottles and cans. The gathering is pleasant under the warm sun and most of the people are smiling, laughing with one another, although voices are subdued, even a bit hushed.
Jimmy McDermott, Tom’s long-time friend, takes me to the grave of John O’Leary. He wants me to see the stone marker inset in the sod and marked with the lightning bolt insignia of The Grateful Dead. McDermott has been a close friend of mine for 36 years. He says that when he is driving back from the Twin Cities sometimes he will get off the freeway at Geneva and stop here to drink a beer at this graveside. John O’Leary was Tom’s brother-in-law, a immigration lawyer of some repute in Washington D.C. before his death in 2002. I knew him slightly and went to his funeral, primarily because I was close to Tom Donnelly and his wife, Sheila, John’s sister. The funeral was held in a Catholic Church in Albert Lea and, after the ceremony, we went into the church basement for sandwiches and potato salad with brownies for dessert. It was mid-week and I had to return to my office and I remember leaving the crowded gathering in the basement before most of the people had departed. John O’Leary’s casket sat alone, shoved into a corner of the narthex by a group of folding chairs and a stack of service bulletin pamphlets. I felt a momentary pang of deep distress – what an awful thing to be dead and sitting in the corner of empty hallway among folded chairs and neglected furniture, waiting for the living people to arise from the basement and form the cavalcade to take you across the open country to your grave...
We go back to the shade of the trees closest to the flurry of activity where the grave is being made. A pretty girl is standing in the grave that is, now, breast-deep, flinging some dirt over her shoulder onto the plywood planking. The girl’s hair is red. This country is where the boats of Irish and Norwegian immigrants unloaded their cargos, forming two separate communities more than a little suspicious of one another. The Norwegian Lutherans suspected the Catholic Irish of enjoying life too much and, for a long time, the groups didn’t socialize much and didn’t inter-marry. Tom’s four daughters, all of them beautiful, stand around the pit, drinking beer that is rapidly warming in the sun. His eldest son supervises but doesn’t do much digging. The youngest son is happy to jump into the grave as if it were a swimming pool or a pleasant hot spring warm as a sauna bath. The pick-up truck returns.
The bottle of Jameson whiskey is passed around again. Lady bugs flicker in the air and graze gently on ankles and wrists. One of the men who dug graves with Tom tells me that it is always windy at this cemetery. He says that Tom Donnelly’s father-in-law, who also dug graves from time to time, lost two fingers to frostbite on this hill. "How do you burn the graves to dig them in the winter?" I ask. "We’d use 300 pounds of charcoal and a gallon of lighter fluid," the man told me. He had a red face and a fringe of whiskers around his mouth. "It’s freeze and melt and freeze and melt, a terrible mess," he added. "But, then, we got a big burner, a propane torch on wheels, that works better."
Winter is purely hypothetical on this warm afternoon. And there’s no casket, no one weeping or sniffling – death and burial is also hypothetical in this bright sunshine with a merry riotous wind tousling people’s hair and rolling the spent beer cans down the hill into the tall grass.
The shadows lengthen, The grave is deep enough. I think of Tolstoy’s short story "How much land does a man need." Someone covers the craggy heap of dirt on the plywood board with green carpet. People are unwilling to leave the party. They sit in little groups under the trees passing around spirits.
A few months ago, I awoke in an unfamiliar darkness filled with the roar of water. An early morning thunderstorm drowned the city, overwhelming the storm sewers so that all the intersections were pond-deep with flood water. In the course of the downpour, one of my legal secretaries lost her home. Water saturating the earth under the lawn behind her house made an emulsion of the soil and changed its consistency and resistence to sheer forces so that the pressure of the earth burst the concrete-block backwall of my secretary’s home. Blocks were flung across the basement and gas lines severed and a great avalanche of mud and broken stone poured into the structure. The entire rear wall of the house was not merely collapsed, but blown inward, hurled down so forcefully as to imperil the home’s support. When I saw the house, it was perched precariously on some jerry-rigged beams, condemned, a half-dozen contractors and city building officials huddled together discussing the situation in terms of cautious horror.
Calamity is sudden and ubiquitous and, by and large, there is no insurance against such events. My secretary quicky discovered that her homeowner’s policy was cleverly written to exclude coverage for this catastrophe and, so, at least on first analysis, without compensation or recourse. All was lost. The storm-shattered home could not be repaired, the pit full of broken stones and ruined utility connections and smashed appliances was not to be salvaged. In any event, the cost of repairing the house was greater than the value of the structure before the disaster.
After watching people dig Tom Donnelly’s grave, I drove back to Austin and the VFW where a benefit was underway to raise money for my secretary whose home had been destroyed. The town was still and empty. Perhaps, some people had availed themselves of this last preternaturally warm weekend of the year to travel north to their lake cabins. The city streets were deserted and the evening fell without consequence at silent intersections and across empty parking lots and, even, the downtown bars seemed to be empty, a few solitary patrons, standing like sentries by their back doors puffing on cigarettes.
Most of the people at the VFW post were associated with my law firm. A silent auction was underway. I opened a tab and charged as many drinks as I could for my staff gathered around several tables near the steam trays from which food was being served. We bought ten dollar dinner plates, white bread soaked in gravy with some bedraggled, stringy fragments of beef – an unappetizing-looking mess, but, surprisingly, good, I thought. A singer mismanaged the tavern’s sound system to create deafening squalls of feedback. We moved to a table at the opposite end of the room under a flag and glass-fronted cabinets listing the names of post members who had died. I swallowed a purple and, then, a green jello-shot and had some more whiskey. My paralegal and her husband drove me home – they said I looked too tired to drive, but, apparently, thought I was obviously drunk. My house is only twelve or fifteen blocks from downtown and so it didn’t matter – I could walk back to the side-street near the Post in the morning to retrieve my car.
Although some money was raised to repair the house destroyed in the rainstorm, it will not be enough. In the end, I presume the house will be destroyed, bulldozed into the grave of its ruined basement and the earth smoothed and tamped down in that place, and, then, sod laid over the rectangular site where the building once stood.
Life is not a novel and there is a danger in indulging in jovial Dickensian descriptions of real people. Description, particularly of a person’s physiognomy, can be readily misinterpreted, or regarded as condescending or critical or, even, racist to the extent that a person’s appearance conforms to certain caricatures or parodies of the type. These hazards loom unavoidably when discussing Tom Donnelly. Simply put, the man was a veritable cartoon of an Irishman, and, indeed, a cartoon of a particular kind of feisty, bantamweight Irishman – without exaggeration, one must concede that Tom Donnelly had the exact appearance of leprechaun, at least as this mythical creature is imagined to exist in the popular media. Imagine the diminutive mascot for Notre Dame’s sports teams, "the fighting Irish" wearing a green cap and a waistcoat, his chin festooned with a fringe of beard, a scrawny, scraggly, bony little fellow with a pipe in his jaw, and his dukes raised to threaten a fistfight with all oncomers. This was Tom Donnelly’s bodily habitus in sum and substance.
It’s possible at some earlier time in his life, Tom Donnelly might have resisted the destiny that poured his great and noble soul into the tiny body of a leprechaun. But, when I knew him, he had embraced his appearance and, indeed, seemed to rejoice in it. From time to time, he consulted with me about incorporating himself as a living leprechaun and, in fact, trademarking his particular attributes – his scraggly beard like moss on his lower jaw, his pale, regular features as delicate as those of a girl all scribbled over with freckles, his hard, bony, tubular body, mostly gristle and sinew wrapped around spine and ribs and shoulders rising to a height of about five feet tall. If I were to show you a photograph of Tom Donnelly, you would think it altered by computer, photo-shopped, manipulated to present a image of tough, ageless little mannequin, a mythical being, but, in fact, that was the way the man looked and there is nothing more, I think to say about Tom’s physical attributes than this: although he was tiny, Tom was immensely strong and, until his death ten days before his 64th year, dug graves for a living, and, when you saw a picture of him without scale, that is, a photograph that did not show him with other people and, therefore, dwarfed by them – such a picture hangs on the wall at Lucky’s Pub at Harmony park – you would notice that the man was perfectly, indeed, exquisitely proportioned, built like a professional basketball player or a major-league pitcher but merely on a tiny scale.
He guarded his thoughts and did not make them common currency. Although I suppose that certain episodes in Tom Donnelly’s life evinced strong opinions, I never heard those opinions expressed. A friend of mine, also Irish by background, once said to me: "Opinions are like assholes; everyone has one." Perhaps, Tom thought something similar.
In the early 1980's, someone told me that there was an Irishman living in the rolling farm country between State Highway 218 and the Interstate, a corridor of land 18 miles wide at its south but narrowing in the north where the two highways joined at Owatonna. The Irishman was said to farm with immense draft horses much to the discomfiture and disdain of neighbors. Presumably, some sort of strong ideology, some zealotry with respect to ecology or chemicals or the internal combustion engine supported the decision to use horses in his fields and not tractors, but no one knew exactly what his teams of colossal draft horses meant – if they were an emblem or symbol, it was one that was not readily deciphered. (I know that Tom was trained as a macrobiotic chef, whatever that means and that, in fact, he met his wife, Sheila, the mother of his six children, in Boston; she was working at the same restaurant where Tom cooked – but whether this had any significance with respect to the horses and Donnelly’s subsistence farming was never clear to me.) Undoubtedly, Tom held certain convictions and, unlike most of us, actually lived in accord with those beliefs, but I must say that I have never known anyone with less of the proselytizing or missionary spirit.
Through mutual friends, I came to know Tom and toured his farm and saw the immense horses in their stalls in his disheveled, ancient barn. Chickens scattered underfoot and small dogs barked and, on a sunny shelf, a cat regarded the livestock and the green fields and the sloping hills where Sheila collected medicinal herbs with savage and divine indifference. After some years, the horses yielded, as we all knew that they must, to tractors and other mechanized implements and the big barn with its cavernous stalls upholstered with straw and alfalfa declined into ruin. The family grew up and the children left for spouses and careers and, then, Sheila and Tom divorced. Sheila went to northern California via Las Vegas. Tom moved into town and was living in the village of Geneva when he died. One of his children told me that she had gone to the farm-house where Tom and Sheila had lived and found that it was still standing, the doors open, and pictures on the walls that Sheila had hung years before (I wondered whether the picture of the Pope that Sheila kept in the kitchen was still near the big cast-iron stove.) The old house was wet inside and smelled of rot and mildew and this was offensive to the woman who reported this to me – either the place should be repaired and allowed to house another family or someone should bulldoze the structure, knock it flat into its basement, and, then, bury the ruins so that golden-rod and hollyhock and thistles with purple tassels could grow there once more.
At Tom’s burial, a man came up to me and said that he had driven Tom and Sheila back from Boston in 1978. At that time, the couple had a son, Dan, who is now an eminent lawyer in Austin. (Dan was born in rural Ireland when Tom and Sheila lived there, apparently, after his stint as a macrobiotic cook in Boston.) The man was good-natured and said that he recalled the huge horses on the farm, grey and colossal, with blonde manes. The man said that once he was visiting Tom and was standing by the barn when a full-grown and shaggy sheep flew forty feet through the air. The sheep that had become a projectile was bleating frantically before it dropped into a mud puddle. "The sheep would bother the horses," the man told me, "and they would pick them up with their teeth by the wool and just pitch them high in the air." "
Tom was a witty fellow with the soul of a poet. Once, I read to him some prose that I had written, or, perhaps it was a few pages of rhymed couplets that I made for New Year’s Eve. He told me that the work showed promise but that in old Ireland no one was accounted a poet who was less than seventy years old – "It takes years to learn the craft," Tom told me.
Tom’s wit was bone-dry and most people that he mocked, or satirized with his words, never knew that they were being teased. He was courteous and tactful and his wit, though generally ironic in character, could be easily mistaken for mere acquiescence or indifferent commentary. Once, I invited people to a party and prepared as one of the hors d’ouevres boiled cauliflower that was supposed to be dipped in an elaborate sauce that I had contrived. The sauce contained different kinds of honeys and mustards, ginger with sage and other herbs. But, of course, in the hustle and bustle of the party, the bowl of boiled cauliflower florets became separated from the dip that was supposed to make the vegetable special and memorable. As we drank beer, Tom carried the big bowl full of soft-boiled cauliflower from person to person. With a twinkle in his eye, he held the bowl beneath the partygoer’s nose, asking: "Cauliflower anyone? Have some cauliflower?" Of course, people recoiled from the offer with dismay. With a single gesture, the pretentiousness of the dish, the stupidity of presenting boiled cauliflower as finger-food at a party was exposed. For a moment, I saw myself from a different and unflattering angle – but there was nothing unjust in the critique and, in fact, I had to concede that the whole thing was pretty funny.
Later, I wrote a Noh play on the subject of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians at Waco. For the play, I inflated balloons and used them to model masks that I devised from paper-mache. One of the masks depicted Koresh, not as he actually looked, but as an Old Testament prophet, a figure like God in William Blake’s engravings illustrating the book of Job. Other masks were supposed to represent prairie dogs, small animal faces painted brown with brown whiskers – if I recall correctly, Sheila and Tom’s children played the role of the gophers. (In the play, the destruction of the Branch Davidians by Janet Reno’s FBI was symbolized by 19th century campaigns conducted by ranchers against prairie dogs that had once lived in million-member villages on the plains near Waco.) Under the influence of Yeats’ plays made for the Abbey Theater, and after reading a half-dozen Japanese Noh plays, I wrote a one-act verse theater-piece. The verse was recited by a panel of readers and masked figures acted the parts of the ghosts and solitary wanderers in the Texas desert. We staged the play in an abandoned youth drop-in center, a huge dark space above a pizza joint that reeked of stale water and pepperoni, tin roof-tiles displaced by leaks and hanging down like stalactites over the big ruinous dance-floor. The play was lit by candles and another friend played percussion while a panel of readers intoned verse attributed to the masked figures, but, which, of course, they were unable to speak. For some reason, Tom Donnelly was cast as David Koresh and I recall him standing in the flickering candle-light, draped in an Old Testament shawl and wearing the mask of Jehovah as he slowly raised a staff, brandishing it like a shilleleigh at the mob of white-clad prairie dog ghosts come to harass him. To gain admission to the play, each audience member was supposed bring a bone and the floor where the masked actors danced and strutted was strewn with skeletal fragments and several half-burned Gideon Bibles as well. Flashlights cut through the gloom, illumining the bone-white masks and the real yellow and brown vertebrae and rib bones scattered about on the tile floor. In the corners of the room, where old legal files were warehoused, you could see traces of wallpaper showing the Fab Five, the Beatles, singing on a bandstand – this was a remnant of the days when the place had been city-sponsored teen hang-out. Voices echoed in the big room and the guttering candles recast each gesture in a dozen uncanny shadows and a cow-bell was rung to signify the appearance of the ghosts to the wanderer on the Waco plains. After the performance, everyone drank beer and congratulated one another on a job well-done and, after a half-hour or so, the candles were extinguished and the beer cans swept together and put in a black garbage sack and we departed, leaving some of the props still strewn about – it was my plan to come back with some more garbage bags in a day or two to clean up the remains of the Noh play.
But, of course, I didn’t get around to the final phase of the clean-up. And about six months later, someone from the pizza place was deputized to go upstairs to warehouse some damaged or outmoded chairs and so stumbled across the detritus of the play. It was always spooky to climb the long steps leading to the old teen drop-in center and the walls of old legal files seemed to whisper either with disfigured plaintiffs or vermin and, when you came into the dark space, black even at midday because the windows had been boarded shut, you sensed that someone or something had been there just a moment before you, and had now departed – those were footsteps, weren’t they, that you heard faintly retreating into another, even, more inaccessible room? The person from the pizza place set down the chairs but saw that the floor was covered with bones, a fragment of a cow’s skull and some thick vertebrae beside two or three Gideon Bibles that seemed to have been half-consumed by flame. The pizza worker shuddered at the blasphemous display and, then, found on the floor a Polaroid photograph. In the Polaroid, a masked figure dressed in strange garments brandished a stick over a crowd of cowering pygmies, the features of all of the smaller figures concealed by featureless plaster masks simulating some kind of animal. Of course, the police were called and an investigation was undertaken as to the activities of a strange and sinister death-cult in Austin, a hitherto-unknown challenge to the forces of decency in town. In the end, the mystery was solved when I confessed that the debris in the drop-in center was the result of a theatrical endeavor, a Noh play to be specific – an account that no one even bothered to believe. Of course, the authorities were vastly disappointed and no amount of explanation could persuade them that the teen center ballroom had not been the site for Druidic cult activities, possibly tending toward human sacrifice, and, certainly, sexually deviant in character.
What Tom Donnelly thought of the whole escapade was never made known to me and, I believe, he was too politic to say anything later when questioned about the incident.
On the Sunday morning that Tom was buried, I hiked across town to retrieve my car from the VFW Post. Ordinarily, I walk my dog in the evening, after coming home from work at about 5:30, but this morning I decided that the dog would accompany me. The weather was fine and startlingly warm, blue, cloudless skies stretching up to infinity overhead. In the fields, I knew that the great harvesting machines were operating in amber clouds of dust, gravity boxes full of grain slowly tugged along the roads to the elevators. The sky was so blue and empty that when you looked upward into it, you felt vertigo and a sense of being drawn into the heavens.
I walked to the post-office and, then, past the old Courthouse and the jail to the VFW. No one was around. Sometimes, church bells sounded, although tentatively – it was as if this oppressively beautiful weather had, perhaps, dampened them and their intimations of mortality. At one intersection, I looked into the distance, down an avenue shaded by big trees, and saw a man crossing the street, two or three blocks away. The man was completely ordinary, nothing noteworthy about him at all, but his setting was grandiose and theatrical – behind the man a maple tree displayed leaves more golden than the gold tesserae that I had seen in Byzantine basilicas in Rome and Sicily. The tree seemed to be lit from within and glowing with an intense inner radiance. Oblivious to the beauty behind him, the man hustled across the asphalt and climbed into his pick-up truck and, then, drove away. The tree remained, brilliant as the dome of a cathedral clad entirely in gold mosaic, shining with God’s own particular radiance.
For ten or twelve years, Tom and Sheila were part of group of four couples who spent New Years Eve together. Julie and I were also part of that group. Men and women are happy together only intermittently and marriages are mostly disastrous and so, I recall, that each New Years Eve, one or the other of the couples were fighting, and, possibly, even threatening divorce and, thus, there was always tension at these gatherings. Usually, we went to a restaurant and drank, eating prime rib or shrimp for supper, then, drinking some more before retiring to one of the group member’s houses in town for champagne at midnight and a pass at slow-dancing to the music of Leonard Cohen or Ry Cooder. At one of those gatherings, we had some kind of contest and I won a small framed picture shoeing Tom and Sheila Donnelly glaring at one another suspiciously. "This is so you can remember us when we get divorced," Sheila said. Tom looked at her with indifferent disbelief; he was skeptical, I think, about her words. The picture frame was garish with rhinestones – it looked like something a child had made in a craft class at school.
A few years later, Sheila left. This was a loss to the community because she wrote a much-admired weekly column in the Austin Herald about the activities on her farm. She is a vibrant and beautiful woman, seemingly indestructible – a few years ago, I heard that she was gravely ill, but, later, learned that she had recovered. When I saw her a year ago, she looked, if anything, even younger and prettier than I remembered her. Sheila moved to northern California where one or more of her brothers lives and, apparently, has prospered there.
Tom moved from the farm into the town of Geneva. He became a habitue of the Geneva liquor store, a place that installed Guiness on-tap in Tom’s honor. Every day, I am told, Tom came into the bar mid-morning, ordered a Guinness and, then, solved a crossword puzzle from one of the local papers. At Tom’s burial, a man told me that a candle was burning in the bar at the place where Tom customarily sat to solve the crossword puzzle, that a sharpened pencil was resting next to the puzzle displayed on the folded newspaper, and that a mug of Guinness was there as well to comfort Tom’s spirit were it restless or wandering.
When Tom was sixty, a gathering was held at the Geneva municipal liquor store in celebration of that auspicious occasion. I bought a bottle of Jameson’s whisky for Tom, the booze that James Joyce celebrated as being as murky and turf-ridden as the Liffey River itself. I was hesitant to bring the bottle into the bar, although my reservations on that account were groundless. The booth where Tom was sitting was packed with gifts, all of them booze, and it seemed that Tom’s beer that night was on the house and people came and went, some of them taking long draughts from another bottle of Jameson’s that had already been opened. There was a cake with lavish green icing and Tom was wearing a baseball cap if I recall correctly and, also, possibly a baseball jersey although this is not clear to me. Tom smiled broadly, showing us his mostly toothless gums and he seemed to be very happy. I stayed for an hour or so, leaving not because I wanted to, but because I knew that if I lingered too long, I would get very drunk and, then, be faced with a dangerous trip home. The bar was a typical southeastern Minnesota municipal liquor store, windowless gloom lit here and there by beer advertisements – some great drayhorses towing a wagon of Budweiser beer in a murky circular diorama over the taps, a juke box playing intermittently, some loud and fat women teasing the bartender, old farmers in feed caps sitting solitary and aloof under TV sets burning like fireplaces to which no one had to pay much attention. At that time, Tom had become famous in this part of the world. He served as the bartender at Harmony Park, a place where outdoor music festivals were conducted during the ice-free months, and had been dubbed "the Mayor" at that place. In St. Paul, he was a living legend, the mascot for a female Roller-Derby team, "Tom, Tom, the Leprechaun" – not only his appellation, but, also, a fight chant used to inspire the girls to more intense mayhem. In the bar, he sat like a State Senator or a Roman tribune, dignified and a sort of caricature of himself, and people came to him as if he were the Pope, bowing as if to kiss his ring, although he had no ring to kiss and, although, he greeted each supplicant as his equal. Nonetheless, there was a sense that we were in the presence of someone august and unique, the sort of person from whom you should obtain a souvenir, perhaps, an autograph or something that he had touched or used. I talked to Tom about digging graves and he said that although he felt the cold now more in his bones and that the work seemed harder and more arduous, he was still in the business four seasons a year. Tom told me that I should go with him some time to St. Paul to see the Roller Derby girls in their splendid and beautiful combat. "I will get you laid for sure," Tom said. "With a roller-derby girl. They will do anything I tell them."
A little later, I left the bar. I drove north past Harmony Park to 251 and, then, took the country roads to Austin, aiming to avoid encounters with police. The air smelled very crisp and clean. It made me a little uncomfortable to see Tom without Sheila. In my imagination, they were always a couple – one could not exist without the other. I passed farm land that had once belonged to my wife’s family, saw the old barns and fields, craning my neck to look down the gravel roads where pickups were moving slowy in shrouds of yellow dust. At Corning, the old creamery buildings were heaped in a sanitary stack, apparently an enterprise that now had nothing to do with milk, but instead sold seed corn. On occasions, like this I think back to the fact that I was raised in the suburbs and lived there until I was 24 and that this entire world that I now inhabit is so completely improbable that sometimes, it takes away my breath.
Tom must not have been a Catholic, at least at any time that I knew him. Sheila kept a picture of the current Pope in her kitchen, but I had the sense that it was a talisman, with not much more significance to her than an image of a four-leaf clover or a lucky rabbit’s foot. Sheila ran a troupe of belly-dancers and had enlisted her daughters, all of them beautiful girls, in that enterprise. On that basis, she was in perpetual conflict with the Catholic church. Sheila was a feminist to the point of gleefully strangling her rooster because he "pestered" her hens and, of course, the patriarchal characteristics of the Catholic church were anathema to her.
Once, I attended a pagan ritual that some members of our group had invented. The ritual occurred around Easter but was correlated to the seasons – an equinoctial ceremony. We met at dawn in a field near Plunkett’s horse ranch and some libations were poured and some poems read. It seemed fairly ridiculous to me. After all, I am the grandson of a Lutheran pastor and recognize that it takes five-hundred years for a home-made sacrament to develop the patina of age that endears that ceremony to its participants. It was cold and the dew was half-frozen and I think we had to drink whisky later to warm ourselves up.
In any event, there were no ministers and no priests anywhere in evidence at Tom’s burial. The day had become almost oppressively bright and warm – 85 degrees, a temperature unprecedented for a day in Minnesota in mid-October. I joked with people at the burial that I hoped that they had Tom on ice because of this inordinate warmth and people nodded to me as if I had spoken words of wisdom. The cemetery was thronged with people and we all gathered around the grave, hot wind blowing off the soybean and corn fields beyond the shelter belt, con-trails adorning the limitless blue sky high overhead. Hordes of little lady-bugs crept up our ankles and crawled around our wrists like living necklaces. Tim O’Leary, Tom’s brother-in-law, and Sheila’s brother, spoke a few words; he recited the poem by ee cummings that begins "buffalo bill’s defunct..." I read a short speech and Jim McDermott told a story and read a poem. I concluded my speech with words from Yeats’ "Under Ben Bulben":
Whether a man dies in bed
Or a rifle knocks him dead
A brief parting from those dear
Is the worst we have to fear
And though gravedigger’s toil is long
Sharp their spades, their muscles strong,
They but thrust their buried men
Into the human mind again.
Tom’s daughters and their husbands carried his plain wood box to the grave. The mortician gestured mysteriously and performed some passes with his hands as if performing some kind of trick or sacrament and, then, the casket bearing a cap and a bottle of Jameson’s whiskey with a dirt-encrusted spade was lowered into the vault. The mortician and his assistant yanked their ropes out from under the casket and coiled them by the edge of the grave. Then, the lid of the vault was set over the casket and a burly young man jumped into the grave, standing on top of Tom and using a big two-by-four to lever the vault into a position exactly centered in the grave – it was precise work and I wondered about its significance, because, of course, the whole thing was simply going to be buried in a moment. When the vault was centered, Dan Donnelly handed me a spade and I lifted two shovelfuls of earth and dropped them onto the vault. I expected there to be a hollow ringing sound, some kind of thud, but there was no noise at all – the earth slipped back into its place in the ground soundlessly. Then, I passed the spade to others and a queue of people took the shovels, four or five old spades now having materialized, and filled the grave. It took a long time – perhaps, forty minutes.
At the end, Dan Donnelly stood alone over the patch of abraded earth. He stabbed violently at the dirt remaining on the plywood panel, forcefully lifting the clods with his glittering shovel, but, then, becoming very gentle, and, even, graceful, as he put the earth on the grave and, raking it the way a monk might rake a Zen garden, using exceptional care and discretion to precisely level the soil above his father. I could see that his face was contorted by private and unspeakable grief.
When my father died, many years ago, my wife invited people to our house a few days after the funeral. We sat around the kitchen table and drank some whiskey and beer. A couple weeks earlier I had undergone a vasectomy. When I explained the procedure, I recall Sheila Donnelly looking at me with austere disapproval – "You must never try to defeat life," she said. "Life comes when it wants to come and that’s just the way it is." Tom nodded in agreement.
Later, Sheila asked me to tell the story of how my father had died. She said: "The very best stories are about how people have died. There’s no better story." And so I told her the story, conscious, I suppose, of the fact that it really wasn’t a story at all because there was, perhaps, no point in it but the telling.
Someone said that Tom had been found lying on the floor, cold and unconscious, an exhausted inhaler in his hand. In the autumn with the trees dusting the world with golden pollen, Tom’s allergies troubled him and he had asthma. Perhaps, the inhaler had not helped the asthma attack or, maybe, there had been no vapor in the inhaler to medicate him. In any event, Tom had suffered a cardiac arrest and was deemed brain-dead when transported to the hospital in Albert Lea. A respirator kept him alive until his daughters could reach town from where they lived in the Twin Cities. After they said their farewells, the respirator was turned off. I am told that Tom’s heart was so strong that it beat persistently for more than six hours before stopping.
A friend of mine who is a doctor, one of the couples with whom we used to celebrate New Year’s Eve, said to me that if he had known that Tom needed an inhaler, he would have got him a dozen, a hundred even. "I hope he didn’t die because he didn’t have an inhaler," the doctor said. None of us were willing to accpet that possibility.
As the casket was being lowered into the hole, someone said in a stage-whisper: "I hope that bottle of Jameson’s is empty." And someone else responded, "it better be or Tom’s hand will come out of the grave and fling it at you."
The cars formed a caravan and drove from the cemetery in Newry township along the gravel roads to Geneva and, then, Harmony Park. On the gravel roads, the vehicles moved in yellow plumes of hot, bright dust, raising a golden cloud above them parallel to the lanes on which they traveled.
At Harmony Park, the old tall trees were still green with leaf, vegetation deceived by the unseasonably warm weather and the meadows beside the shallow, marshy lake were shady as the Elysian fields, mottled patterns of sunlight playing on the trampled grass. The big sea-shell-shaped music stages sat deserted and only a few people were camping in the pastoral distance, sitting around fire-pits marked by the rusty wheels of big agricultural vehicles. It’s a private park where you can go to indulge in substances that might be deemed sufficiently illicit in a State Park campground to get you arrested, or, at least, ticketed, and the campers who had preceded us to the place seemed to be pleasantly stoned. It’s hard for me to convey the exact quality of the light in the big park, something muted but, nonetheless, with a glittering edge, trees overhead bushy and soft as if daubed on a canvas by Corot.
The signs for the park showed an immense oak in silhouette against a starry night. In the oak tree, music notes, quavers and semi-quavers, were hung like ripe apples. The toilets were a row of aquamarine porta-potties shoved against a place where you could take a shower – a concrete block building with the shower stalls that was named Katharsis for some reason, the letters written in an exuberant scroll. I had been to the park a couple times before but always at night. In the dark, places seem much larger and I recall the army of people bivouacked in the meadows under the trees, the cold, ominous presence of the shallow lake nearby, and the bright lights on the stages lit for the musicians as if they were movie sets. On one occasion, I recall being with Leroy, one of Tom’s cronies from Mankato, and helped him set up his kiosk to sell barbecue chicken. (Leroy’s barbecue chicken is famous in this part of the world.) We got drunk and some women distracted Leroy and, then, Jimmy McDermott’s son, Dennis, who had Down syndrome got lost and we had to search for him --he was with some friendly High School girls playing in the cattails by the cold, marshy lake – and, so, the chicken didn’t get on the grill until well after ten-thirty at night. Leroy is fastidious about his chicken and unwilling to serve the meat until it is cooked through and through and so I recall an hour or two passed and when the chicken was ready to be sold, it was after midnight and, although the music was still underway, no one had much inclination to eat at that late hour. We wandered back to Lucky’s Pub in the middle of the park and there was Tom Donnelly, the mayor of Harmony Park, dressed as if for a baseball game, serving Guinness stout in plastic cups, one of his beautiful daughters, I think, at his side to help with the line of customers standing in front of the wooden shack. I don’t recall what kind of music was being played that night – perhaps, it was a blue grass festival with mandolins and banjos sounding sweetly in the darkness. Tom shouted last call, served the final customers, and, then, we walked back to where Leroy’s chicken was sizzling on the grill. The sky between the trees was full of stars. Nothing that night seemed very extraordinary to me then, but, now, years later, I know that every night of that kind, indeed, every night, without exception, is remarkable.
At Lucky’s Pub on the day of his burial, there was a picture of Tom Donnelly with a demonic look on his face; a sign called-out his dates under the name: Digger. The picture was set in the center of the bar pub, beneath the wooden awning marked with huge green shamrocks. Tom looked like banshee in that picture, like an improbable supernatural being. The Guinness was poured from black cans and was very cold. Across the meadow, there was ham and potato salad, little buns with which to make sandwiches, and another caked, buried in green icing.
On my way back from the food tables, a lady bug suddenly flared in front of me. The little creatures seem inert as pebbles until you touch them and, then, they brandish wings and flutter into the air like tiny, predatory helicopters. The lady bug’s wings caught a ray of sunshine and the insect seemed to blaze like a match lit in the center of the bright landscape, propounding some kind of truth to me. The sunbeam made the bug gold, a globe of whirring flickering gold – it seemed impossible to me that something so small could be so beautiful.