Click to go straight to a chapter:
I. Setting Out.
II. Getting Right in Ohio.
III. A Tractor for Your Trailer.
IV. Mass Pike.
V. Tollbooth Poem.
VII. Keeping Myself Awake: An Interlude.
VIII. Reverse Osmosis.
IX. Red Track, Grey Matter.
X. Elsie’s Party, Part One.
XI. Elsie’s Party, Part Two.
XII. Longest Light.
XIII. Oh Yeah, Father’s Day.
XIV. On the Road Again.
XV. Lake Erie.
XVI. Midnight Run.
XVII. The Quaker Woman.
I. Setting Out.
My brother is driving. I’m in the backseat at liberty to write. Dad, riding shotgun, shuffles through sheets of paper explaining stock valuations and physical therapy exercises.
The car is a 2015 Buick Lucerne with 62,000 miles on it and counting. Destination: Ludlow, Massachusetts, where my dad grew up, where he’s from, where he still has family: his cousins, his aunt (who turns 88 in two days), his sister (who he hasn’t seen in 25 years), his niece (likewise).
We left Belleville, Illinois, at 8 a.m. this morning, yours truly behind the wheel. Football (a.k.a. soccer) streams on satellite radio, channel 157, the European Championship tournament. This is the first round of the tournament, dubbed group play. Earlier, Russia knocked off Finland. Now, it’s Turkey and Wales.
It’s been awhile since I’ve been in a car’s backseat. I’m enjoying it; it feels like a luxury. Like I’m flying on an airplane. What else is there to do but to read, to write? To describe, to explain, to tell?
At the first rest stop, my dad pointed at some new socks he was wearing.
“What do you think of these?” he asked.
They were short and dark. He said they aren’t really new, he just forgot he had them, they got buried in the back of a drawer. He said he’s tired of wearing white ones all the time. The new ones blend in better with his shoes.
Out in an Illinois farm field is a thin, curving stretch of tall, unmowed grass, orange lilies blooming amidst the knee-high, wavy yellow-green. There must be a ditch there, deep enough to keep the tractor and the farmer away. A small stream trickles through.
On the side of the road lay a deer in rigor, legs like pool cues sticking into the air. A divided interstate known as I-70. Trees in the median where the divide is wide and bosky. A few wildflowers. More orange lilies, Queen Anne’s lace, butterweed, brown-eyed Susans, multiflora rose. Or similar. Like when you rent a car. Chevy Impala, or similar. Nissan Rogue, or similar.
Ford Escape, or similar. Yes, we are traveling by car because I hit the escape button on what had been a plan to fly to Boston, to rent a car there, to drive back west to Ludlow, which is in the western half of the state, not far from Springfield, not far from the Connecticut border. At some point I decided I wasn’t prepared to brave the airport experience with my dad, who doesn’t walk very fast, who uses a cane, which he calls a prong. Neither one of us has a very good bladder. So I decided we would just drive. Then my brother joined up.
In Azerbaijan, where this football match is underway, there are storms. They’re in Baku, a pipeline node, 300 miles from the Turkish border.
Where the interstate median skinnies, there are no trees and the grass is mowed. Through these stretches runs a low cable fence, to corral the runaways, the sleepers, and the drunks. Four lines of braided cable comprise the foot-and-a-half tall fence, taut and sentinel, ready to wrestle a Wrangler, to tackle a Taurus, to slow down a semi, to snare a sedan. To nail a Nissan. Except in places, too numerous, where the fence finds itself sagging, where it was rammed into by a car careening from one side of the interstate to another, its driver having lost control of the wheel. All the king’s men haven’t had a chance to put the fence right and tight again.
Squat metal silos and lines of telephone poles stand out above a dark, budding crop of soybeans. It’s the middle of June. The farmers are fretting the sun. What looks like kudzu but could be some other vine such as wild grape or Virginia creeper chokes out tree after tree, encircling the trunk before strangling its way higher, sinking hairy roots into ripe bark, stealing water, zapping xylem, filching phloem. The tree becomes a dead stand of wood, shedding its bark, baring its wood like bone bleached in the sun.
We are now on eastern time. Indiana. Nick calls out the exit for “another Belleville.” Indianapolis isn’t far away. Wales scores. I give directions for taking I-465 around the city. I looked up blue highways we could take to avoid driving so much interstate, if we so chose. So far we have not so chosen.
II. Getting Right in Ohio.
A zero last night, unplanned. Number fourteen out of 166 days so far this year. I remain short of my meager goal of one zero every ten days. But I’m doing a little fist bump this morning regardless.
I had plenty of drink on hand in this king room at the Hampton Inn dateline Cleveland-Beachwood, Ohio, USA.com. Puffy disposable flask of vodka. Repurposed glass tonic bottle chum-full of straight Beam whiskey. Can of Bud Ice, can of Space Dust.
When we got settled into our rooms—my brother offering to stay with my dad in the two queens across the hall—my body said it wanted some limbering up after ten hours in the car, scrunched travel that strained my kneecaps and somehow stirred the bear of a blister-bruise on the ball of my right foot. A day of highway travel is the opposite of a day of putting your feet up. I jogged on a treadmill to try to undo the drudgery.
Volume on the highways and byways is back, pandemic or no. Cars appeared from around every bend, hailed from every direction as we stopped for gas just west of Columbus, OH. A guy in a fluorescent shirt driving a compact car graciously allowed me to nose out into traffic from the gas station parking lot. Then we were briefly back on I-70 east before hurling ourselves onto Columbus’s version of I-270, no less a slaughterhouse of a drag strip of a smog bowl than the one in St. Louis, which I usually try to avoid. I could have taken U.S. 42, north by northeast, to subvert Columbus, patching into I-71 further north. But the maps app showed traffic around Columbus looking good, the roads highlighted in green, so interstate it remained.
I nearly caused at least one fender-bender trying to ‘get right’ as I wanted to trade I-270 north for I-71 north, the exit for which came up quick, in need of a bigger advertising budget, no sign appearing to announce its location until—boom!—there it was, the exit ramp for I-71 north, and I was going too fast to find a spot in the line of cars waiting to make the same exit I needed to make. What else could I do? Slowed down, nosed in, hoped I didn’t get rammed from behind, hoped I wouldn’t bump the car in front of me as I edged my way in.
I was tired and cranky, contemplating a caffeine boost even if it ruined a decent night’s sleep. I threw my hat down into the front middle of the car and second-guessed not taking the alternate route. My dad and brother tried to calm me down. Moments later, heading comfortably north on I-71 toward Cleveland, the crush of cars melted away, like it magically can, someone somewhere dialing down a traffic dimmer switch as we cruised toward I-271, which circumvents Cleveland to the east. My brother fed me directions from the backseat, his old phone plugged into his laptop for battery power, there being no USB ports in Dad’s older but not exactly old grey Buick.
III. A Tractor for Your Trailer.
Never have so many trucks—semi-tractor-trailers—been on the road. Proof? We just passed a rest area east of Cleveland, en route Erie, Pennsylvania. The trucks were overflowing the parking lot, lining both the exit ramp leading to the rest area and the ramp leading back onto the highway from the rest area. I’ve never seen that before, not like this. My brother and my dad were thinking the same thing.
I read last year, or maybe it was earlier this year, that because of the pandemic, the Department of Transportation temporarily lifted a cap on the number of hours truck drivers can work in a given timeframe—a week, a month. That could have something to do with it. That and the booming economy of stuff. Our stuff. The things we order, that show up on our porches, on the front steps of my parents’ house. That’s where B and I are having most of our packages sent these days. Pet food. Lawnmower parts. Running shoes. Clothing that might or might not fit.
More trucks it is. And more speed. I have never before seen so many semi trucks passing me with so much fervor, so much gusto, so much devil-may-care. Tractor-trailers going 80 miles per hour, 85. And so few of them pulled over by law enforcement. None nabbed so far on this voyage. We’ve seen one or two trucks sidelined with an exploded tire but those busted tires are the only things holding them back.
Other items of note: what is with all of the solar panels in Cleveland? Is this an Ohio thing? Fields of solar panels. One accompanied by a sign claiming the power harvested from that particular array was powering 5,000 homes. Empty lot, empty field? Lease it to the power company. Why not? In a summer already gripped with a heat wave out west and one soon to come in the Midwest? The powers-that-be seem happy to lay panels here in Ohio but as I think about the St. Louis Metropolitan area I cannot think of one empty lot, one scrubby field that has been converted into a home for solar panels like the ones I’m seeing heading East. What gives?
Thickets of sumac along the interstate, starting to bloom. Yellow feather-duster of a plume. Wildflowers: yellow, purple, white. Buttercup, clover, bergamot. Or similar. The lake appears. Dark blue, the color of ocean. Except for there being another side, land visible across the water in the distance. The slides and stacks of some kind of industrial plant. Iron ore, coal, grain. Whatever fills the ship. This side of the lake I see rows of grapes, rushes, cattails. Tall, thin, dead trees. Poplars perhaps. Skinny ash. More grapes. The sky is almost entirely clear. High smudge of cirrus, a painter testing a shade of white against sky’s blue. Contrail, residual contrail. Grapes along the lake. An old Massey Ferguson tractor, iconic red and black.
Pennsylvania in the rearview. We have reached New York. Its tollbooths sit empty under flashing yellow lights. Red-winged blackbirds perch along fences and watch as cars and trucks fly by on the Thruway.
IV. Mass Pike.
Home stretch. Dad’s home, anyway. Brother driving us east on the Massachusetts Turnpike. The sun is so strong through the Buick’s back window that I’ve got a towel draped over my head, to shield the back of my neck. The ups and downs, the curves of the Berkshires. Just through Becket, my dad announces it as, “The highest point on the Mass Pike.”
A few ponds appear right along the turnpike. Fens you could call them. A beaver’s hut. Half past six in the evening. All of us ready to quit the car, the road, the stream of vehicles passing on the left.
Somewhere east of Buffalo we witnessed the transition from rest areas into service areas. I like the service areas. They provide the traveler a restroom, a fast food restaurant (McDonald’s, or similar), a big parking lot, and a gas station, all within a hundred feet of the interstate. I like not having to wonder how far the restaurant or gas station teased by the blue roadside sign might actually be from the interstate once you exit. I like having everything grouped together in one convenient package. At least once on this trip, west of Columbus I believe, we needed both a gas station and a restroom. We stopped first at a rest area, then stopped again not long after that to fill up with gasoline.
Over the Westfield River. Earlier we tracked the Mohawk River as we continued east through New York, not yet to Albany. At times we passed over or nearby the Erie Canal. We saw an old, erstwhile lock of the Canal right beside the highway, now completely dry, just dirt, grass, and interstate.
Exiting the Mass Pike for Ludlow we saw that once where there were tollbooths; where once you would hand the toll-taker whatever it was you owed, now there weren’t even any booths left over, the whole toll-taking apparatus was gone. Like it had been carried away and dropped somewhere else by a tornado. We tried to convince Dad that there were cameras in the sky, that the toll bill would show up through the mail but he didn’t quite believe us.
V. Tollbooth Poem.
The collectors are no longer
At the tollbooths
In fact there aren’t
Any tollbooths left at all.
Instead, gaunt cameras
Hang above, connected to
Vast server arrays blinking
Wise in hot silence at
Electric farms chugging A/C
Like sweet water in
The useless red deserts of Utah.
But don’t worry we
Have your number we
Will send you a bill
In the slug-salted mail.
We are staying at Karen’s house. She is my dad’s first cousin, my first cousin once removed. I’ve never liked that moniker—so formal, technical, sterile. I’ve always just thought of her as part of my family, my Massachusetts family.
Her mom Elsie, known to me as Aunt Elsie, or just Auntie, is the Randall Family matriarch. My dad’s mother died when he was young—three years old, I am told. Rosemary was just four months old. Their mother Barbara died when her kidneys became infected as a complication of childbirth. My grandfather was stationed somewhere in New York in the Navy. I believe he was able to come home to see his wife before she passed. And though my grandfather remarried, I never thought of his second wife as being my grandmother. I don’t think the term step-grandmother was ever used. I could be wrong, but I don’t recall my dad ever referring to her as his step-mother. I don’t know what he called her. It’s all a little nebulous to me.
If I’ve had a grandmother on my dad’s site, it has been Elsie. She’s been in the same house the whole way, a house with a pool, with the farm field in the back, meals served up as if from a magic cellar, nothing much about the house having changed since the eighties. My kind of house. I come back after five years and it’s as if I never left. Some of the people change, but not the house, and not Elsie.
I can’t get too deep on this topic, not now, not yet. It’s still Thursday night, we were on the road all day and I want to remember more from the road. We shot due east across the Empire State, I-90 almost the whole way here from Cleveland. Until we slipped south toward NYC on I-87 for fifteen or twenty miles before hanging a right on an exit ramp that curved to become a long looping lefthand turn on an eastbound flyover that took us across the Hudson River on a pretty old-looking bridge. A blue, iron bridge way above the dark blue-brown Hudson, the paint of the bridge peeling, baby blue paint weathering as if it were paint on somebody’s backyard deck. My brother was not a fan of this bridge.
The Friendly’s restaurant in Ludlow is gone, replaced by an Urgent Care facility. There’s a joke in there somewhere. All the Friendly’s restaurants are gone. If you don’t know Friendly’s, think of it as a Denny’s-style restaurant but with a wide selection of desserts including this ice cream and sherbet concoction made to look like sliced watermelon, with chocolate chips as the seeds. That watermelon loaf sherbet said Summer in Massachusetts in the eighties and nineties. My dad talks about going to Friendly’s when he was young, going in there with a quarter and getting a meal. Or eating the Awful Awful, which was some kind of shake with extra ice cream.
Over the years, Ludlow stayed pretty insulated from and resistant to some of the national/international chains. That embargo seems to be falling apart. A Wendy’s was a noticeably new tenant along Center Street as we exited from the Mass Pike and headed toward Elsie’s house and Randall’s Farm. There was a McDonald’s in Ludlow going way back, maybe my grandfather even took us there in the eighties.
We came up those back steps to Elsie’s house slowly, one by one, my dad being careful, an old shed where he collected eggs to be sold at an early version of Randall’s Farm sitting just across the driveway, the shed painted barn red, modern-day Randall’s Farm store hands storing plastic bags of something in there in the late bright breezy light of Massachusetts in June. I had always wondered about that shed, never having set foot in it, never knowing my dad’s connection to it until tonight, his dad having some position in the egg business back then.
We get into Elsie’s, the dinner table right there, plates set out, a counter on the left opening into the kitchen, one step down. Ahead the great room, its ceiling massively high, a few deer head trophies attached to the tall walls, a relic of Elsie’s husband Bill, my grandfather’s brother, the founder of Randall’s Farm, lost to cancer way too long ago. Airing on TV is the very same sports event we were listening to on satellite radio as we closed in on Ludlow down the Mass Pike—the men’s golf U.S. Open, round one, from San Diego, CA.
Who had the golf turned on? I wondered but did not ask. Had to be Elsie, though. Was she watching it? Don’t know. There is a little bathroom right next to the dining area there, and as I stepped in there I heard her talking with my dad and my brother, about sports. I heard her profess her continuing adoration for Tom Brady. My brother asked if she were a Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan now. She said yes. She watches the Patriots if they’re on TV, but now she also watches the Bucs if they’re on.
As dinner got underway—it was just Elsie, Karen, me, my dad, and my brother—Karen asked out, “Who has the golf on?” No one answered. Eventually, I said, “I don’t mind it.” And I didn’t. With golf on mute in the background we ate chicken from The Stand and local asparagus known as Hadley Grass. As we noshed on sugar snap peas, Elsie confessed to sometimes eating them uncooked.
VII. Keeping Myself Awake: An Interlude.
I mean, I don’t need to be asleep. I’m resting. I’m comfortable. In a chair the color of inner avocado. Sure it’s late but I’m relaxed. Not all sleep is relaxing. Maximize the relaxation. Isn’t that the point of sleep?
A book, a pen, this comfy chair, ambient sounds of the Mass Pike through the cool air and the slightly opened windows of this handsome house. Ocean whiskey, plenty of fresh water, my consciousness still kicking. This is a lot better than the Hampton Inn outside Cleveland. There is no road tomorrow. For a few days, anyway, this is the end of the road. Why would I want to sleep this away?
New England has brooks
Missouri has creeks
I didn’t marry no creek
Late-night listening to the Mass Pike, I-90, and wondering: who is doing all of the driving at night?
VIII. Reverse Osmosis.
Saturday morning. I wrote almost nothing yesterday. In the morning we dropped by the Ludlow Community Center/Randall Boys and Girls Club. The director was excited and also surprised to see my dad, who twenty years back made a major donation toward construction of the building, which features a full-size pool, a large gymnasium, game rooms, and an exercise center. What a rush of pride to go in there and see the list of contributors for the capital campaign that funded the building and see my mom and dad alone on top and then Microsoft et al in the tier below that!
What might have been a quick visit became an in-depth tour, culminating in a photo of me, my dad, and my brother surrounded by a preschool class playing on the playground just outside the Club. [Note: At the time of this writing, I do not have a copy of the photo but I expect to have a copy at some point, so if you want to see it check back here in a few weeks.]
After touring the Club, I went over to Randall’s Farm with my dad. Randall’s Farm is a medium-sized grocery store that features a deli, a creamery, and a garden center. It’s a pretty cool place that Elsie’s husband Bill started as a roadside produce stand. His daughter Karen took over the reigns in the late nineties and guided the store through a major expansion, transforming it from a smaller corner-market sort of place into the entity it is now. When he was a kid, my dad worked at the earliest incarnation, what then was simply called “The Stand.” It sold eggs and local produce.
My dad made his way slowly around the store while I ordered some of their very good sandwiches. Before I ate mine I jogged around the unplanted farm fields that lay behind the store, behind Elsie’s house. Then took a quick dip in the pool. By then it was time to get back to Karen’s so my dad could take a short nap. We had dinner reservations for ten people for 5 p.m. on the other side of Springfield. We left at quarter ’til five and got back just shy of nine. The day went by like a freight train traveling a little too fast.
As I sit here in the avocado chair, the sink makes a gurgling sound from the drain leading to the garbage disposal, like water trickling down, or through, or by. There is a reverse osmosis filter tied into the system that must be responsible for the gurgling sound. Who was the first person to reverse osmosis, and why? Was it a mistake? What was wrong with osmosis? Who needed it reversed? Osmosis had to be like, What, I’m not good enough for you anymore?
The blister-bruise besetting the front landing pad of my right foot continues to plague me. A small blister has reappeared just under the second toe. But the whole area feels like it’s bruised. I can run on it alright but it hurts when I walk barefoot on hard floors. And when I crouch, like a catcher would, bending the toes there, that’s the worst. I have been icing it periodically, and I iced it again last night. This has been going on for six weeks.
In my news feed I saw the headline: Man Loses Leg to Necrotizing Fasciitis. I read that and thought, Sort of sounds like it started in the foot. Could that be what I’m dealing with? The sink gurgles with curiosity. OK, I’ll look it up.
“Alex, I’ll take foot problems for $1000.”
The late great Mr Trebek reads, “This disease, which has a sudden onset and spreads rapidly, enters the body through a cut or a burn, and usually involves bacteria, although sometimes it is fungal in nature.”
I’ve got no cut or burn to speak of. No fever, no swelling, wouldn’t call the pain excessive. Nor does there seem to be any spread of the malady beyond the area initially affected. So I guess I’m alright. I guess I’d like to solve the puzzle.
“Alex, What is not necrotizing fasciitis?”
The next headline suggests life as we know it began on Mars. And if that’s true then I want to know what the hell we’re doing on Earth. That’s all I want to know. That’s the big question, the $1 quadrillion asteroid made of iron question. Who were those Roman Emperors? How tall were the pyramids on Mars? And what kind of coffee did they serve there? Did they like the day-old stuff, like I do? You never hear about aged coffee, do you? Oh, wine ages, whiskey ages, beer ages, everyone’s excited about those beverages getting older, but never coffee? At the end of a three-hours-seated body-drubbing, alimentary torturing, barn-dilapidating, face-punching, mood-slipping, foot-dragging, suspender-breaking, drink-tipping, food-searching, hair-frying, joke-popping, chicken-winging, thigh-stopping, cake-breaking, mind-slipping, dessert-dying, table-flipping marathon and a half hour Jesus I could’ve walked to Boston and back in my new red shoes kind of meal do you, nor did I, hear anyone ask or offer a fine, room-temperature brew slightly decaffeinated based on the molecule’s half-life of 24 hours in water, which is a shame because people are missing out on a mellow, slightly mood-enhancing if tepid but nonetheless sustainable, acceptable, and FODMAP-friendly kind of a drink.
IX. Red Track, Grey Matter.
Saturday morning I got out and ran. That Ludlow high school track was really tucked away. As I approached it I still couldn’t see it. There was a fence with a “No Trespassing On Fields” sign and then another sign assuring that “Police Will Take Notice.” Indeed, the Ludlow Police station, fire station, and city hall were just half a mile away up Chapin Street.
But the fence was open, with a v-opening in the fashion of a sideways stile, nothing there to be closed. Beyond the fence I saw a ball field and then, behind the ball field, the vista opened and I beheld a high school’s track, the reddish ground-up rubber running surface surrounding a well-kept , well-watered soccer field.
There were four people using the track. One guy had a military style front-pack on. He was flipping a tire and giving me a look. He had either survived a war or he was in search of one. I put my head down and started jogging.
Eventually the original four track-goers all left. I had the place to myself, just me and the sprinklers, which were going full blast, one of them spraying off into the boggy woods. The cottonwoods loved it, their shiny green leaves shimmering with laughter like kids playing in a sprinkler at the height of summer.
I relaxed and looked around, taking a break from a slow jog. I noticed a trailhead up the hill above the track, with a trail or two leading up into some woods up there. I was curious but didn’t investigate. I was there to run and the day was running against me as well.
I returned to Karen’s house and made my dad some coffee. He was jonesing for it bad and didn’t know how to work the Keurig. I showered, drank some juice, ate some berries, and we talked plans. I took my dad to Elsie’s whilst Nick stayed at Karen’s to watch the football match that was about to air.
It was time for me to hit a bookstore or two so I asked Google Maps to get me to Grey Matter Books in Hadley, about a half an hour away.
The original plan was to come back to Elsie’s, get my dad, drive back to Karen’s to get Nick, then drive back to Elsie’s for the 2 p.m. party. And somewhere in there I was supposed to get sandwiches from The Stand.
The ice cream and cake get-together, initially meant to celebrate Elsie’s 88th birthday, had since become a possible venue for reuniting the estranged children of John B Randall (my grandfather) and his first wife Barbara (my grandmother, whom I never met) ….
I had scouted out three used bookstores that I thought I’d have time to visit on the trip. As the day progressed, it became clear I was going to be lucky just to spend an hour in Grey Matter in Hadley. I did get to spend about an hour in there, and I was lucky to have done so because that store had perhaps the best section of used poetry books I’ve ever found in a single store.
From the road, the store was tucked away, part of what I learned was a sort of arcade, not terribly visible or obvious from the road. There was a dirt drive with a sign proclaiming PARKING for some set of businesses. I pulled into the dirt drive and followed it to the back of the one building visible from the street. There was a parking lot situated like the center of a wheel, with a collection of surrounding businesses radiating out in all directions therefrom, like spokes. Screen printing, ballet studio, yoga studio, a theatre, the bookstore.
I followed the sign for Grey Matter Books, donned my mask, tried the door, and it opened. Stepped in, sort of a modestly lit place, a clerk behind the counter talking poetry or poets with some guy who must’ve been a patron. They didn’t have masks on so I freed my face of mine. Directly ahead of me, no need to ask, no need to poke around, was the single largest, quirkiest, and most valuable section of used poetry books I have ever had the pleasure to browse….
“Get your chapbooks here!” cried the ghost of some dead poet who never got published but often visited the store, just to look at the books.
I got James Wright, Charles Wright, and Franz Wright. They had a collected C.D. Wright, and I love her book Deepstep Come Shining but I was in a position to be choosy and that Collected Works of hers was more of a doorstopper than a thin volume I could slide into my fanny pack before hitting the road.
A book about writing poetry that a poetry instructor introduced me to a few years back—Richard Hugo’s Triggering Town—was there. Love that book. I wasn’t thinking about it or looking for it but there it was; it found me. A lovely, light paperback copy in excellent condition. Then a slim volume of Hugo’s Selected Poems. Mine.
(And, by the way, if you’re wondering: No, the dog Hugo is not named after the poet Richard Hugo. Hugo the Dog is not named after anyone, or anything, we just liked the name. I discovered the poet Richard Hugo through a night class at Washington University about a year after we adopted Hugo the Dog….)
I started pulling chapbooks at random, which one can rarely do. Chapbooks are almost pamphlets. They have no spine; they aren’t thick enough. But they’re eclectic, strange, and a lot of fun. I pulled one by Georges Hugnet, which has a wild black and white surrealist cover consisting of several photos photoshopped together in the age before Photoshop existed. There’s a large amanita mushroom upfront, with a stony beach scene in the background, a woman in misery holding her hands over her face, and someone behind her passed out on a bench.
I judged that book by its cover and I have no regrets. I had multiple thoughts. First, I don’t care what’s inside, I’d buy that little book for the cover alone. Second, it would make a perfect gift for a friend of mine from college, Adam Edell, who recently moved to Minnesota and got married.
Indeed, the inside is a succession of surrealist collage-style photos that remind me a lot of the Joseph Cornell wooden boxes full of odd bric-a-brac—trinkets and baubles. I’m not sure it’s really a poetry book but I suppose there are some lines of poetry written first in French with translations into English toward the bottom of each page.
As I was pulling books off the shelves, some names came to mind. How about Ed Skoog? I went and checked, yes, they had one of his. How about Kenneth Rexroth’s One Hundred More Poems from the Chinese? I happened to have a copy of the very same book with me on the trip but it was rented from a library, renewed the maximum three times. Grey Matter had the very same copy, a red hardcover with Chinese writing on the cover, except that their copy was in better shape than the one on loan from the library. Mine now.
Knowing I was on the clock, I walked away from The Best Poetry Section Ever to look for (1) William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways; and, (2) field guides, preferably about weeds. They had Blue Highways but not a great copy, just the mass-market copy, its print a little small for these aging eyes. I was carrying a fat stack of poetry under my arm so I was getting picky. Next to Blue Highways was Heat-Moon’s other, much less-famous book, PrairyErth, a “deep map” of the American prairie. Done. Excellent condition, lightly read if at all. A compendium of sorts, an almanac. I opened to a section with quotes from a variety of writers about coyotes. I’m-a take this book with me to lots of different places, open at leisure to any page I want, dive in.
I did not find a field guide to weeds. I had to go. Reaching into my fanny pack I encountered something unexpected and quite sharp. A knife! My little Ken Onion pocketknife had unfolded itself. By some miracle—the ghost of that unpublished poet—I was spared a bloody fiasco that might well have put the kibosh on my purchase of the stack of books I had gathered. I said a small prayer of thanks to whoever or whatever was watching over me, paid $71 dollars for the stack of books, and headed back to Ludlow.
X. Elsie’s Party, Part One.
In the meantime, a text from my dad, “Where are you?”
I saw the text just as I was getting back to Elsie’s house. It wasn’t yet 1:30, the party didn’t start until 2 p.m. and besides my dad was inside the freaking house, right where he was supposed to be. I was getting the vibe that something had gone amiss but I couldn’t figure out what I’d done wrong.
I went inside and my dad asked me, “Where have you been?”
As if I had not told him I was driving up to Hadley to visit a bookstore. Then he asks, “Did you get the sandwiches?” Hell no I didn’t get the sandwiches, when was that going to have happened? Then he asks, “What about my nap?” I said, “Dad, there isn’t going to be any nap today.”
It felt like the whole day, the whole damn trip was collapsing in on me. Elsie, as usual, was unfazed. She had told me the day before, and again earlier that day that it was just a casual cake and ice cream get together. You don’t have to be here right at two o’clock, she had told me before I left for the bookstore. Karen went and got us some sandwiches. I went back to Karen’s house to get my brother.
We were back at Elsie’s before two. I slinked out to the back porch to eat my sandwich; thought better of eating it all at once, figuring it would be easier to ration food than time. Soon a couple of my dad’s cousins were there, George Whitehead and Mary Lou Gerrish. Then everyone else started arriving. Before long a silver-blue Outback arrived, a model a few years newer than mine. And my cousin Courtney stepped out.
XI. Elsie’s Party, Part Two.
There is not enough water for the night. We dream in baths of salt. Cake and ice cream on a paper plate. Singing a happy birthday to Elsie. Sitting next to her at the table while everyone else stands. When I sat down at the table, no one else was nearby, neither standing nor sitting. I was nervously sitting alone, just me and the tops of three eaten strawberries.
That’s my favorite move at a party. Sit where no one else is. Not way away from everyone, not where no one else is going to find you. Find the vacuum, the open pocket. Then sit and wait.
I performed the maneuver twice yesterday at Elsie’s, first on the back porch. In truth, I really did just want to find a place to sit and eat my sandwich before people started arriving for the party, which was billed as a cake and ice cream social, in celebration of Elsie’s 88th birthday.
But that was just part of the story. It was also likely that my aunt Rosemary (my dad’s sister) and my cousin Courtney were going to be there. My dad and his sister had a falling out somewhere in the wake of my grandfather’s death. I don’t really know the details. But it meant that I hadn’t seen my aunt Rosemary, nor my cousin Courtney, even once this century. A chance at ending that estrangement seemed worth taking.
It wasn’t long before I had company on the porch as the partygoers arrived right at 2 p.m. and started to find their way onto that screened-in porch, the one overlooking the parking area behind Elsie’s, looking onto the field back there, one of my three or four favorite porches, if I had to say.
John A appeared through the sliding door, then David, then Teddy the Dog, then Barley the Dog, then Johnny Ruple, then Stephanie’s husband Alex, whom I had not yet met. Then my brother. I looked at the pathetic brown crumple of banana peel sitting there next to me from the banana I had just eaten and I felt squalid, wondering if anyone could smell the spent peel.
That banana had some miles on it. If it hadn’t come all the way out East from Illinois it had at least joined the caravan in Cleveland. What’s more, I had taken it with me to the old, rundown but still perfectly usable and pleasantly secluded running track behind the Ludlow public high school earlier this morning.
When my cousin and my aunt arrived I was feeling the nerves pretty good. I went inside and stood at the bar that divides the dining area from the great room, got a beer out of the fridge. Courtney, her son Finn, and her mother came up the back stairs of the house. Then they were on the back porch.
And Elsie, who was inside not far from me, looked onto the back porch almost as if she didn’t believe it would really happen. She said, “Oh my God, it’s Rosemary.”
The party is all a bit of a blur. But I do know that my dad at least said hello to his sister. They might have made a little bit of small talk. It’s progress. I talked to Courtney for a while, and so did my brother. She and her son Finn had just gotten back from spending some a couple of days camping and swimming out somewhere in Western Massachusetts. Finn, who enjoys swimming, is enrolled in a school where he is learning, among other things, the Mandarin language. It’s hard to fathom not seeing my cousin for 25 years. It was good to see her, and it was good to see my aunt, who I talked to for just a few moments.
There were a lot of people there, and lots of conversations bouncing around the room. I spoke with Mary Lou for a while. She told me the story about when my dad brought my mom out to Ludlow for the first time. As Mary Lou described it, the room lit up when my mom walked in and everyone loved her from the start. That was a pretty good story and it made me think I haven’t talked to Mary Lou enough.
I think my favorite part of the day was just as Courtney, Rosemary, and Finn were leaving. I was getting ready to change into my trunks and jump into the pool. Finn, age six, was probably hoping to get into the pool the whole time he was at Elsie’s. Courtney asked me if I was indeed about to go swimming. Moments later I was swimming in Auntie’s pool with Finn, my first cousin once removed. That was pretty cool.
XII. Longest Light.
This is the longest light of the year, the longest light of the year my friends, and I’m all up in it, wearing it like a headdress of ornate feathers.
Yes, it is early morning, Sunday June 20, and I have been awoken by a clattering from above. I am in one of the basement bedrooms of Karen’s fine house, directly below her bedroom, the main bedroom, in which my father is staying. I have lived in basements and I know their acoustics work better for waking than any alarm clock.
It was 5:13 when I stirred, an undeniable grey light seeping through the blinds. I put on some clothes, my flip flops, and trudged up the stairs. The door to my dad’s room was open but he wasn’t in the bed.
I asked in, “Dad, what are you doing?”
From around the bend he answered, “Going to the bathroom. Why?”
Hah, he’s alright then. Time to write.
I passed out last night not with alcohol but with exhaustion. Not a bad feeling, really. The old tonic bottle of whiskey was on the nightstand if I wanted it but I never got that far. As I fell asleep, my dad was still awake watching hockey, feeling alert after a late shower. The hockey game, in which the Islanders were up 1-0 over the Lightning, was audible to me one floor down but it wasn’t going to keep me awake. Not even commercials could have. Hell, I slept with the bedside lamp still glowing, a move I learned at Farm.
At thirty minutes past midnight I heard sounds from above. I tried to make sense of the footsteps, the creaking, wood sighing under human weight. My guess is he had been down for ninety minutes, was getting back up to pee. But maybe he stayed awake that long and was only then turning in, I don’t know. When he was done moving around I stopped wondering and went back to sleep myself.
XIII. Oh Yeah, Father’s Day.
Depending on how you want to look at it, it’s either very late on Sunday night or very early on Monday morning. Monday the day of our leaving, the first day of less light, a turning, either toward or away.
I’m burning the midnight oil, fifteen minutes past the zero hour on the 21st of June. My bags are packed. We plan to leave at 8 a.m. I don’t think we’ll have time to go back to Elsie’s, or to bid adieu to The Stand.
Dad wanted to go over there one last time to take some photos. We were over there on Friday, and he showed a young woman working the cash register his photo on the wall, which had been mostly obscured by a metal rack holding flats of mason jars. It’s the photo of him as a boy working at the original incarnation of the store. There is not a single photo my dad is prouder of in the world than that one.
We spent most of yesterday, Father’s Day, at Elsie’s. We got to her house right around lunch time so Nick and I went over to The Stand. I don’t think Nick had been over there in twenty years. I ordered four sandwiches—a #1, a #3, a #4, and a #6. We milled around the store and killed time while the sandwiches were being made. The store was busy, especially the deli, which serves up some damn good sandwiches, Randall’s bias aside.
One aisle away from the deli area is a row of baked goods. The amount of bread on offer at Randall’s is impressive. All kinds of bread from a variety of bakeries around the area. Baguettes, ciabatta, buttermilk rye, Portuguese loaves, strange Eastern European creations that looked like funnel cakes or crab rangoon. I wanted to try them all. I stood with Nick in front of the babkas, including a chocolate babka.
“Seinfeld!” he exclaimed. “That’s what a babka looks like?”
We should have gotten it but didn’t. I bought beer, juice, kombucha, and baked Lays. For the trip back.
After we ate the sandwiches at Elsie’s table, Dad wanted to go out to the pool. To see the new patio furniture Elsie had gotten. And to sit in the sun. He loves the sun, he’s a sun-bug. Always has been. I was hoping he might get into the pool with me because I think he could use the pool to do some exercises for his legs and for his feet that he can’t do on land. He brought his trunks with him on the trip but he wasn’t going to join me.
He sat at one of the tables out there.
“This table’s been here for years,” he said. “It’s not new.”
He didn’t want the umbrella put up. He wanted a chair to prop his legs upon. He told me about how his Uncle Bill put the pool in, however many years ago, concrete slab-like tiles making a walkway all around it. A thin strip of grass grows between the concrete slabs and Elsie’s house, where stairs lead down from her back porch.
“The grass is the same,” he said, as we were making our way to the pool. “I don’t think it’s ever been mowed.”
I don’t know, maybe he’s right, maybe it never gets mowed. It was just a small patch, and dry this time of year. He talked about how he’d come out and visit in the summers of yore. He’d sit right at the table where he was sitting and his dad would come through the gate on the west side of the pool, my grandfather being neighbors to Bill and Elsie.
“Were you here then?” he asked.
I wasn’t sure. I said, “When do you mean?”
“Oh, the eighties and nineties.”
“Yeah, I think I was here for that,” I said. “I used to love coming to swim in this pool.”
Elsie’s daughter Anna and her husband John live in my grandfather’s old house now. The gate on that side of the pool still works, I checked. I have my own memories of walking across the yard from my grandfather’s house when we would visit when I was young. Elsie’s pool was like a Mecca. A pool we could use, right next door. What could be easier than that?
I took one of my floppy sun hats and put it on my dad’s head, hid him under it, from the sun, which saps his power, the power to be himself. He looked kind of funny with that big floppy hat on him. I should’ve taken a photo. My mom would’ve laughed.
I edged into the pool. To cool off, to immerse, to bathe, to shed, to slough, to regenerate. Just then my dad asked me about the bruise on my arm, which by that time had turned a yellowish green. No one else had asked me about the bruise. I told him about the pump room at the old farmhouse in the middle of Missouri, which had been breached once again by an eager family of groundhogs. I had amassed a stack of cinder blocks from various spots around the old Farm and was trying to stack them in an orderly fashion on top of the tunnel the groundhogs used to get into corner of the subterranean pump room. There’s a pipe for the farmhouse toilet keeping any human from easily reaching back into that particular corner of the room so I was kind of lugging the cinder blocks back in there. On one shrug I caught my arm on a bracket holding the toilet pipe plumb to a timber stud. That was the bruise.
He had enjoyed enough sun, twenty minutes or more. We headed back into the house using slow, gradual steps. The sun, the hot sun, the parched grass. An A/C unit sticking out of the window there.
“This one unit cools the entire house,” he said. It doesn’t. “Or maybe there’s one unit upstairs,” he added.
Up the stairs, onto the back porch, where Nick was reading.
“Where’d you get that hat?” my brother asked my dad.
It’s funny because I had a package delivered to the house a week ago. My parents are almost always home now. B and I are often not at home. We’re over at my parents’ house more and more. So we’ve just started having packages sent to their house. My dad texted me when the package arrived, which he loves to do. He typed, “It’s very light. Perhaps another sun visor for you!” Giving me grief about my floppy sun hat, which he must think is funny looking. The package was, in fact, a dozen blue LED candelabra-base light bulbs.
Inside the sluggish sliding door separating the back porch from Elsie’s great room, we got my dad over to the comfy chair facing Elsie’s TV, on which the final round of the U.S. Open was unfolding. He was tuckered out by the sun and relieved to be sitting down again. He never made it back over to The Stand. Anna and John’s kids, Judy and John, went over with his phone and took a bunch of photos and some video for him.
Anna and John cooked up one hell of a Father’s Day dinner. Some of the best swordfish I’ve ever had. Burgers, dogs, cukes, salad, corn on the cob, Randall’s baked beans. A feast. This was after John gave me a primer on operating one of the Massey Ferguson tractors sitting out back. With John standing on the back of the tractor, shandy in hand, I slowly drove that red diesel around Randall’s Farm, working the clutch, working the brake, testing the throttle. It was an unexpected treat, and one I won’t forget.
XIV. On the Road Again.
It’s nearing lunch and I’m in the backseat. I say to my dad, “Do you want McDonald’s?”
“Yeah, I do,” he says.
A truck towing a pop-up trailer begins to pull past us on the left, someone’s bare foot propped out of the passenger window. As the trailer goes by something hanging off the back of it makes a flapping sound, a ribbon in the breeze, a pennant carried headlong into the direction of travel. West.
My temples are heavy. I stayed awake to sip ocean whiskey and listen to my dad sleep, if you could call it that. He rocked around like a lake between shores. On one side snores, interrupted by land, forced back to the other side of the lake, full of sighs, finding somewhere in his fitful sleep some solace in the water, a place where again he was young.
It’s Monday, just after noon eastern. Football on the satellite radio. North Macedonia and The Netherlands. Cruising west on I-90, the New York Thruway. Onondaga Lake to the south of the interstate, Seneca river to the north, a big park there and a big parking lot for boats and their trailers.
Dad calls out, “Comfort Inn!” He’s been calling out some of the towns listed on the green roadside signs. He earned a master’s degree in mathematics from Syracuse University, not far from here. These towns are places he knows, or at least places he remembers.
It’s the Warners Service Area. We exit. There’s a line inside and Nick gets in it. I walk with dad to the restroom. Then we sit down in the large seating area common to the New York Thruway service areas. High ceiling, lots of light, well attended-to. But the line is long and we’re in for a bit of a wait. There’s an old fry on the floor and both my dad and I are looking at.
“Do you want that fry?” I ask him.
He is laughing, saying, “I was thinking about it.”
I say, “It might be the only fry we’re gonna get.”
Nick finally has the food. A couple of fish filets for me, two for dad also (he only ate one for lunch, had the second one for dinner). Fries. Nick got a chicken sandwich that stole the show. I’m not sure what kind of chicken sandwich he ordered but he was not impressed by the one he pulled out of the bag.
“This is it?” he said. “That’s pathetic.”
He was not happy. It looked to me like the Chick-fil-A southern-style chicken sandwich, which doesn’t have anything on it but a couple of slices of pickle. A crispy chicken, is what I think McDonald’s is calling it. He was so disappointed with the sandwich that at first he put it back in its wrapper and put it back in the brown paper bag. Eventually he ate some of it, but I don’t know if he finished it or not. Dad got quite a laugh out of the whole thing, and told the story back to us later that night in the hotel and then to my mom when we all got back to Belleville.
XV. Lake Erie.
A car goes by fast on our left.
My dad exclaims, “Speeding!”
Another car is right behind it, zipping by, “Speeding!”
I took us off the interstate south of Buffalo. That area of I-90 is suddenly devoid of service areas, no longer a part of the Thruway. Along with the loss of the catchy nickname goes the predictable and consistent allotment of service areas every thirty miles or so. We needed gas and a bathroom so I pulled into a Mobil. Nick and my dad went inside but incredibly the place did not have a bathroom.
My maps app showed a rest area not far from where we were but to get to it we would be leaving the interstate for a while, heading south along Lake Erie on state route 5 instead. Unfortunately, the rest area on my maps app was just a place to stop and look at the lake. There was a building there but it was in fact a restaurant, not a rest stop. Hoak’s, Lakeside Dining Since 1949. Maybe one day I’ll go back and eat.
We continued down route 5 and pulled into a park along the beach. At first we didn’t see a bathroom but down toward the water I saw a port-a-potty, which we ended up using. It wasn’t a bad place to stop. I got out and looked at the water for a while. Took a photo. The lake looked like an ocean, with white-capped swells and water as far as I could see. There was someone fishing and another person out windsurfing on the chop. I saw the windsurfer fall but get back up again without too much trouble. Further up the coast, to the north, was the skyline of Buffalo, a few windmills spinning in the sky between the beach and the gray outline of the city in the distance.
XVI. Midnight Run.
Some commotion. Waking, waking. A light on in the hallway, hotel, in the room with my dad, two queen beds. I left the TV on. “Doesn’t bother me,” he said, “doesn’t bother me.” We both fell asleep. Now our eyes, open, looking at each other, he is out from under his cover, PJs, he is working, working to get up, to swing those legs, to swing them down.
“What’re you doing?” I ask.
“Going to the bathroom,” he says.
He is building up the momentum to get his feet down onto the floor, to rise. He rocks back onto the soft comforter, into the mattress, bending at the hips, jackknifing back to get the bounce of energy he needs to get his legs down onto the ground where they find the floor and now he is up, up. Feet on the floor, knees called into action, that’s where the wobble is, steady, steady, still, pause, pause and gather, pivot, tiny, step step, down the aisle made by our two beds.
I’m mostly covered by my comforter but my right foot is sticking out from beneath my sleep sheet and just then I know, I know he’s going to see my foot sticking out and when he sees it he’s not going to be able to resist reaching down to give it a goose. And he does see it, and he does give my foot a little squeeze as he makes his way to the bathroom, the TV still going, in the middle of the night, in a Hampton Inn outside of Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.A.
XVII. The Quaker Woman.
“Quakers?” asks my dad.
“I don’t know,” I say. They could have been Mennonite, even Amish. They had traditional garb on. Beards on the men, long pants, the older man wore a hat with a brim all the way around it. The woman wore a long dress and had a bonnet over her hair, strawberry blonde.
There were three of them. The older man, his beard white. The woman, who was probably in her thirties. And then the younger man, who seemed shot from a cannon as he was loosed upon the rest stop. As soon as they parked their vehicle, a black SUV, maybe an old Lincoln Navigator, this younger Quaker fellow wearing trousers and Teva-style sandals starts doing laps around the sidewalks of the rest stop. Next thing I know he’s doing a handstand, walking on his hands like a carnival act. Then, then for his next trick he starts doing pull-ups on a redbud tree. He was probably in his thirties and he was ready to jump into the sky.
The woman, likely the daughter of the older, reserved gentleman in the wide-brimmed hat, wore leggings under the dress and brown shoes with laces. There was something about her. I thought as she passed by me and my dad, with her dad by her side, that she had something of a smirk on her face. Possibly a reaction to her husband? brother? turning the rest stop into his own personal jungle gym.
And I’ll be damned if my dad, as me and him and my brother are getting back into the Buick somewhere in western Ohio bound for home; I’ll be damned if he doesn’t say to us, “Did you see that Quaker woman?” No answer. “She was beautiful, ” he says. And she was.