Late January

It rained last night. My blood was stirred. This morning’s air was sharp and fresh and fragrant. Fog as thick as oatmeal held in the sounds and compressed the echoes. I stood outside and breathed and listened to the chickadees and titmice scold me, for being late with the bird feeder. What do these tiny balls of color and song make of me? Gift giver? The god of birds?

The ground perspired, and the sun burned through and the sky became blue-gray and I was grateful to be alive. The golden remnants of last year’s corn harvest gleamed. The cellphone tower three houses east up the highway hosted six perching turkey buzzards, huddled together at the top of the tower and waiting for the slightest exhaled breath of wind.

I walked across the road to the neighbor’s house and freed Ruby Puppy from her pen, and we romped north across the fields, Rocky Fork Creek winding just below and full of ghosts of black folk escaping from slavery. And I heard the Song of Langston: I do not need my freedom when I’m dead. I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.

I held the squirming herder dog in my arms, and I wept.

The cozy, drowsy cat on the afghan, ears pointed at my mouth. The box of breakfast cereal sans bowl and milk. The oval framed photos of Great-Grandfather Homer and Great-Grandmother Selinda hanging on the walls. A small rectangle of wood on which is etched “Mr. B.,” a gift from a former student. Indian artifacts and fossils filling shelves. This single room holds three hundred million years of animals turned to stone, twelve thousand years of stone points. A cup of cold coffee. A framed poster of “Moonlight Daring Us to Go Insane,” my second play, the story of my Grandfather Red Jones standing in church and brandishing his pistol, refusing to let mourners bury his dead, drowned baby son.

Below the bluff top, barges could be heard chugging east and west on the Mississippi.

Kestrels hovered over the field, ready to drop unannounced into a birthday party for mice. A red-tail hawk perched in the notch of the Kentucky coffee tree. The woods behind my house were being drilled by red-headed and red-shouldered and pileated woodpeckers. In the roots of trees, tiny frogs stirred in their sleep. The den of ribbon snakes in the dirt underneath my shed flicked their tongues and dreamed deeply.

Thawing January soup of drips and puddles, a murky, fecund bullion of soil and roots and bark and leaf rot, wild onions the seasoning and soon dandelions and violets and asparagus the meat. The coming sun-warmed feast, the choir awaiting the conductor.

It rained last night. My blood was stirred.

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Guess who got a $130,000 check just before the 2016 presidential election? According to the Wall Street Journal, one Ms. Stormy Daniels, porn star (so I read), was the lucky recipient of the money. Michael Cohen handed Ms. Daniels the check. He is a head Trump organization lawyer. He says of himself, “I am the fix it guy.”

Since I am not cynical like most of you, my first thought was that Michael Cohen did the nasty with Stormy, and that he was protecting his most famous client from embarrassment. Turns out, Stormy Daniels met Donald Trump at a celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe in 2006, the year after our leader married Melania. Michael didn’t row the Republican boat ashore, Donald did.

It could be entirely innocent. Stormy might have made a hole in one, the bet was $130,000, and the Donald lost the bet and uh, paid her. She might have bought a set of Trump Golf Clubs, with gold shafts, which cost $130,000. Sadly, for those good friends—the porn star and the soon-to-be President—there were holes and shafts, alright, according to other golfers who were at the tournament. Stormy, observers said, was more “licky than “lucky.”

Remember the character Preacher, in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath?” When our hero Tom Joad meets up with Preacher, he asks if he’s still preaching. No, replies the broken man. He used to drive women into a religious fervor, and when they’d fall on the ground, speaking in tongues, he’d look at those writhing women, God help him, and he’d lower himself on them.

Fundamentalist Christians, all Erskine Caldwell “Tobacco Road” and humping like bunnies, are the most oversexed Americans. Which explains why they love Mr. Trump, warts, shaft and all. Jesus God, Republicans are randy.

Other porn stars at the golf event in Lake Tahoe said Trump touched them inappropriately. Other porn stars? At celebrity golf tournaments? Are there no wives at these events? Certainly, Melania Trump wasn’t there. I’m not satirically outraged, I’m full blown outraged, that rich men get to, uh, play, uh, golf.

Moral depravity has set in. And since the evangelicals won’t rise up—well the women won’t, anyway—I will. I hereby invoke John Paul Sartre’s “Credo of Existential Malefaction Entirely Not Titillating,” or CEMENT (see-men-t). My motto: If I can’t have Stormy, you can’t.

Sisters, will you join me? Will you sit across the dining room table tonight and glare at your husbands? Will you bury their golf clubs in the cold, cold ground? Will you spit out the word “stormy” with vitriol and venom? Will you whisper, “I know what you’re thinking?” And watch the hubby squirm with guilt.

The rich don’t suffer guilt. They buy. They burn. They bandy about. They ogle teens. They ooze oil. They orate and obloquy. They disgust me.

Unless one of them sends me a check for $130,000 and arranges a date for me with Stormy D.

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Song for Sunrise-Girl Child

We buried Xach’itee’aaneh T’eede Gaay sister of Beringia today at our summer camp she could not breathe we took her lifeless body from her straw bed and laid her in ochre and stone points The Mother’s bosom and covered her with dust her spirit journey unfolding even as we wept

All of us take the journey skybound from the Upward Sun River it is one thing to know quite another to grasp when the loved one is a horripilate child SunriseGirl-Child we held at night from Sabretooth from cold from Brother Wind.

11,500 years the teachers from the future say our girl was First Child from genomes born and passed to Athabaskan and Algonkian peoples of the south the Valley of Water born of the Valley of Ice and teeming life and Xach’itee’aaneh T’eede Gaay loved birdsong

I carved my daughter a flute from reed and taught her to blow her sweet breath across the mouth hole and she played for the owl with horns and teased Bother Wolf until the cay echoed with cries and calls and Crow joined in until the perfect silence of Grandmotherset

Sunrise Girl-Child’s tiny bones minus her heart returned the ochre had protected precious arms and ribs and skull and there was reverence of the finders for First Child she heard their whispered awe the mothers among them fighting back tears we came from you Flute Girl sister

Xach’itee’aaneh T’eede Gaay Sunrise Girl-Child of ancient Beringia of First Firerainsnow the New World the Old Asia the frozen journey the thousand stories around campfires the dances beneath Coyote Moon and Grandfatherrisen night star oh

We loved you.

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I stopped in at Orville and Quilt Queen’s house, for coffee and homemade cookies. They glanced at each other. Something was wrong.

“You best sit,” Orville said. “Reba died last night, in the pole barn. I went out to feed her and Ruby Puppy, and Reba had crawled away from the heat lamp—to die, I guess. Her body was froze stiff. Ruby was pawing at her.”

The three of us sat at the kitchen table and wiped tears from our faces. Orville had dug a grave in the nearly frozen ground, carried our dear Reba and laid her in the hole, and buried her.

We did find some humor in the situation. Acres of voles, moles, snakes and mice could rest easy, as old Reba, who daily in spring and summer caught those creatures—tossing them into the air and swallowing them whole—was gone. But Ruby Puppy had completed her apprenticeship, so rodent safety was temporary at best.

All the best things in life are temporary: young love and lust, tomatoes, wine, starlit nights, wilderness, wild things, music. The millennial generation seems to me to be more obsessed with taking smart phone photos of beauty, rather than immersing themselves in beauty. Our best fiction is about characters breaking out of mundanity and diving head first into beauty, into sin, into flesh, into depravity, into all fruit and nectar of the world.

Quilt Queen said she wanted to go that way—freeze to death. Orville opined that fire was the way to go. Many of you know that I came within minutes of freezing to death, in 1985, as friends and I walked across the frozen Illinois River on a twelve-below-zero night, and the ice broke, and three of us plunged into the river. It took over an hour to pull me and the other guys out. I lost all feeling and sank into a deep sleep, my eyes freezing shut, a light glowing and pulling me to it, to my mother who was sitting on the ice in a summer dress and holding a wolf on a leash.

“Oh, to be a dog,” Quilt Queen said. “Reba didn’t know about death.”

I saw my father cry but two times: on his deathbed (he was terrified), and when our family dog, Candy died. I was only thirteen, and I watched this man of men sit on the basement floor and press the lifeless animal to his chest and sob, and I was fascinated.

Ruby Puppy and Reba are a hundred yards from my house. I have full run of the farm and permission to set the dogs loose and run with them. Reba has placed countless bodies of critters and songbirds on my shoes, for my approval. She has rolled in decayed bodies and dung of all types and then embraced me.

And now she is gone.

And now Ruby will run in the pasture at sunset, and she will follow her nose to the newly dug grave, and she will smell her loved one, and she will lie still and quiet. And one day she will be laid to rest in that field. And, so shall I lie. And, so shall you.

In a field of stardust, in Milky Way, riding the next wind or terrible storm to the stars and back again. And all around us are the story tellers, keeping the dark matter, which is memory: alive, fiery or frozen, still or leaping, drenched in tears, drowned in laughter.

Warm, so mother’s breast warm and perfect, is memory.

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This summer, Madison County Sheriff John D. Lakin appeared at a democratic rally in Alton. He seemed direct and empathetic. He told the crowd to call him personally—personally—should the need arise. When deputies refused to charge a man for punching my car’s hood at the Nature Institute, I remembered the invitation and I called my Sheriff. Tried to call. Subordinates asked, why do you need him? I was put on long holds. I was reconnected with the deputy substation in Godfrey. John D. Lakin, it seems, was just kidding. For whom does he work? And that’s just a local lie.

This morning, a gleaming and triumphant Congressman Paul Ryan appeared on camera. We won! When asked by “The Today Show,” what about all those billionaire CEOs who said the tax plan is crazy, Ryan shrugged. He said the CEOs didn’t read the literature. When asked to comment on billionaire Republican Mike Bloomberg’s op-ed piece denouncing the tax plan, Ryan said Mike doesn’t get it. When asked about a huge majority of American voters opposing the plan, Ryan talked down like a school superintendent to his district teachers: I know something you don’t know. No, he doesn’t. He is a comfortable liar. Mrs. Ryan, take note.

A few years ago, beloved democratic Senator Ted Kennedy, on his way to a tryst with Mary Jo Kopechne, accidentally crashed his car on a bridge and let the woman drown. He did manage to make it to shore, to tell a lie, to pay no price for killing a ‘nobody,’ because he was needed in the Senate, to be a voice for Progressive policies, to be revered for his courage at overcoming cancer, and to die with honor and accolades.

Lying to one’s self is a category of lying. A lot of priests and preachers and self-proclaimed evangelicals denounce the ‘sin’ of homosexuality then are found with underage boys in motel rooms. Bigoted cake bakers call themselves artists so that they can refuse to serve gay and lesbian and transsexual people. You just know what those people would have done to black people a few years back. All in the name of God. Not all in the name of you or me, because we would quickly deny them their excuse. But patriarchal God, Zen master that he is, keeps his mouth shut while his flawed constituency spouts bigotry and hatred.

Now, facts are lies because Bannon, Trump et al, relying on uneducated, unwashed white zealots, have not heeded the wisdom of George Orwell’s “1984” (originally titled “1948” until the publisher got cold feet) and invented a whole new reality. The truth is bigotry crowd got their start with rightwing windbag, Catholic and ‘Jesus is a White Man’ proclaimer Pat Buchanan. My father nearly shit himself with joy when he found a TV outlet for his hate, in Pat B. and his sister Bay. Hate became legit.

Patriotism, jingoism, nationalism: these are the ‘last refuge of a scoundrel,’ essential to slavery, Manifest Destiny, mass slaughter. A few notable scoundrels: Andrew Jackson, George Rogers Clark, Henry Kissinger, Pol Pot, Stalin, Hitler, Blackwater Inc., the KKK, Idi Amin, Augusto Pinochet, Father Charles Coughlin, Pat Robertson, The Crusades. The current nutjob sycophants: Sara Palin, Mike Huckabee, Michele Bachman, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Trumps, Kennedys, Bush’s. The list is endless.

Now we find we can’t even trust the people we vote for. We have endured a year of selfish, lying, hypocritical, rich sons of bitches who give not a flying fig for what Steven Colbert snidely calls ‘ordinary people.’

My fellow ordinary people: what are we going to do? A lot of people my age say they don’t really care—they won’t be here for the coming chaos. They won’t? So, their grandchildren aren’t their responsibility?

Excuse me while I touch the lie.

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A Letter from our President

Dear NBC: This is your president writing for a friend—I know, you’re honored to hear from me. My friend likes to watch TV—eight hours a day. Except for your fake news programs. Believe me. Rachel Maddow can kiss my friend’s ass, and he’d like her also to know he would never grab her pussy, that Lesbo with the thumb in the dyke. Please pass along my friend’s good wishes to the cast of “Chicago Fire” and “Chicago P.D.” Those shows are about true heroes, not filthy Antifa protesters in Virginia. “Hannibal” is delicious—so funny! Please cancel “The Voice,” as it is a black show—even the white people are black—and does not reflect True America. According to my friend. Sincerely, Donald tRump

Dear CBS: This is your president writing for a friend—I know, you’re honored to hear from me. My friend likes to watch TV—eight hours a day. Except for your fake news programs. Believe me. Believe me. Stephen Colbert can kiss my friend’s ass. My friend has written to the FCC about the lame fake comedy Comrade Colbert spouts and the shucking and jiving of that brownie band leader Jean Baptiste. “Blue Bloods.” My friend loves the Blues and the Bloods. “Mom.” That is so funny, even if that Libtard Allison Janney is the star. My friend wants me to order wiretapping on Janney, Janney Kiss My Fanny Hole. But I will not abuse my power. I could, believe me, but I won’t. Sincerely, Donald tRump. Heil Hitler! PS Love the boobs on those “2 Broke Girls.” My friend loves the boobs.

Dear ABC: This is your president writing for a friend—I know, you’re honored to hear from me. My friend likes to watch TV—eight hours a day. Except for your fake news programs. Believe me. He does wonder why you have so many programs about uppity Negroes and Jews. He loves “Dancing with the Stars,” especially that girl who wears skimpy cowgirl costumes that show off her camel toe. My friend would like to hump that camel! He’d also like to have that Jimmy Kimmel hit. I can order a hit, believe me. I know a guy who knows a guy. Then Jimmy’s little baby with the bad heart can grow up an orphan. But, believe me, I’m not ordering any hits while I’m in office—I promised my lord and savior Jesus H. Christ. Sincerely, Donald tRump. PS. My friend would like Sophia Viagra’s autograph, if possible on that left “cantaloupe” of hers.

Dear FOX: This is your president writing for a friend—I know, you’re honored to hear from me. My friend likes to watch TV—eight hours a day. Including REAL NEWS. His favorite is your show “Lucifer.” Boy, that is one bad hombre sack of shit—my friend says—not me. And you’re showing that “Christmas Story” musical live! Talk about a white Christmas! Boy, he loves that “X Factor” show. The English gal gash—what’s her name, Gillian? My friend would like to put his X in G, if you get my drift. And by the way, his X is huge! Hey, they should do an episode about Steve Bannon and his pal Al K. Hall! They’re scarier than any alien. Thank God, says my friend, for “Fox and Friends.” That Judge Napolitano—that is a hanging judge a bit swarthy, maybe. My friend is begging you: Please bring back that old pussy hound Bill O’Reilly. I’ve seen—my friend has seen—old Billy slide his hand right up a slit skirt—. Sincerely, Donald  tRump PS. It can’t be wrong if it’s Right! My friend says.

Dear Disney Channel: I would like to invite the girls from your “Liz and Maddie” show to the White House for a two on one with your president. Such inspiring girls, so wholesome and winsome, believe me. Maybe they could help me decorate the Oval Office for the holiday! Sincerely, Donald tRump

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Good News

This afternoon, Farmer Orville and I worked on re-wrapping Scout the cat’s scratching post. She had torn it to shreds over three years, but this morning I saw her start to scratch then change her mind then walk to the couch and look longingly at the arm rest. There is no reasoning with or punishing a cat. I knew my Aristotle: I had to take an action.

(Scout the cat has three other scratching posts, none of which she will use. No, it had to be Old Scratchy or nothing.)

I bought some sisal and some nails, and I joined Orville under his carport. Good news: We wrapped and nailed the sisal into place, and Old Scratchy was as good as new.

Orville’s wife Quilt Queen drove up. She’d been out shopping and visiting friends in nursing homes and spreading good cheer. She climbed out of the pickup and told us to join her in the kitchen.

There on the counter was the first batch of homemade Christmas cookies—peanut butter. Quilt Queen always makes cookies in a certain order, and peanut butter is always the first. We ate cookies and drank coffee.

“Thank you, Orville,” Bev crooned, “for my Christmas present you bought me this morning. Look at me you guys, and tell me what’s different.”

She twirled her head from side to side. Her husband looked at me and crossed his eyes. Finally, Bev ran her fingers over new gold earrings.

“They were on sale,” Bev said. “Down from five hundred dollars to two hundred fifty.”

“Of course,” Orville said, “it you hadn’t bought them at all, you’da saved five hundred dollars.”

Orville knows his math. That didn’t stop his wife from pointing out that, in the fifty-seven years they have been married, she had scrimped and saved and raised three kids and cleaned and farmed and cooked, and gone without nice things.

“Why won’t you let me buy anything?” Orville looked at me again: touché.

“Because, old man, you never want anything.”

“I want me a gold nose ring.”

“Oh yeah, I can see you wearing a gold nose ring. Wouldn’t our church congregation love that.”

Talk turned to a local possum which broke into a liquor store, tipped over a bottle of whiskey, lapped up its contents, and passed out drunk as a—well, possum. The owner let the critter sleep it off, and today the hungover marsupial was relocated.

“She’d like to relocate me,” Orville said.

“Well, I would if you start going crazy like Charlie Rose. Or our president. Trump better not grab me.”

That is how I left the happy couple. I drove home with the refurbished Old Scratchy. Scout the cat nearly cried with joy. She stood up and started ripping the sisal with renewed vigor.

The cat got Old Scratchy, the possum got Old Granddad, Quilt Queen got gold earrings, Orville got plenty of nothing, I got peanut butter cookies.

Cookie Season is long and arduous and requires much practice. I made a note to myself to go to a local workout place and learn some hand strengthening techniques and stretches, for maximum cookie efficiency. The next time you hear from me, I will be buffed and ready to go.

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Smoothie Operator

My dear friend Earl recently went on a smoothie kick. He claims he has lost weight, his blood pressure is down, his eczema is gone, and he just feels better. What does Earl put in his fancy pants blender? Frozen fruit, greens, cinnamon, ice cubes and some other stuff.
I am a spokesperson for the American Spinach Institute and Kale U.S.A. I eat those greens almost every day. That’s right—regularly, if you get my drift. Along with carrots, apples, cucumber, tomatoes. Even Scout the Cat has joined the crusade, spinach-wise.
I am also a Luddite. When the robots get you, I’ll be safe and secure in my underground bunker in Elephant’s Breath, Illinois. But Earl suggested I get on the healthy wagon bound for Heart Healthy City. A kale salad, Earl pointed out, is way less kale than a quart of pureed kale. So, damnit, I bought a modestly priced blender. The Ninja 8000. I lost six pounds in two hours on the first day.
Put the blender on the counter. Fill the container with kale AND spinach, a little orange juice, and carrots, and fire off that baby. The first result came out a shade of green that resembled puke I hadn’t seen since my hippie drug days. It was almost a solid. I called Earl and taunted him as I drank the sledge. UM! Good sledge! Did I put in the water? Earl asked. You didn’t mention water, I said.
This morning, I added frozen fruit—peaches, strawberries and pineapple—and cinnamon and water, and the color paled, and the stuff was moderately drinkable and slightly sweet. I drank my quart, pretending it was a greenish milkshake, like those Shamrock shakes at McDonalds.
Then Nature called, 1-800 BUT-HOLE (288-4653) , and I answered the call and lost another six pounds. And boy, am I ‘feelin’ groovy!’ My hair is growing back, my bunions are debunioning, my rosacea is running away, and I can feel my feet!
Attention, Ninja 8000, I am available to be the face and voice of senior blending. I’ll say to the camera, ‘I might be an old coot, but I blend smoothies, and I’m not going to die!’ ‘Regain your sight and your hearing!’ ‘Lose your shake, your dandruff, your feminine itch, your itch to be feminine, your inner feminazi, and heal your femora.
*May cause liver problems in rats. People with Type 6 diabetes should smarten up—there is no Type 6 diabetes. May cause severe rash during oral or any other kind of sex. May give you cravings for buying guitars and amplifiers. Don’t blend if your parents were from Lithuania.
Do not apply blended mash to hemorrhoids or athlete’s foot. Do not chew mothballs. If symptoms persist, call your veterinarian—he’s cheaper. May cause excessive gas, nose blowing, trickle-down-your-leg, hot flashes in men, the urge to pat people’s butts, you believing that ‘The Price is Right’ is art, Republicanism, and Nancy Pelosi Taut-Eye Syndrome.
Tomorrow, I’m adding chocolate bars.
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The Old Men and the Sea of Leaves

This was a dreamer day, warm temperatures, golden grass and trees and neon-colored, crackling leaves underfoot, mellow folks dressed in shorts and tee shirts, walking along the river.

Farmer Orville and Quilt Queen weren’t home, so I opened the dog pen and let out Ruby Puppy, Reba the farm dog and Bud who was visiting. We romped across the fields, and the dogs dove at holes. Bud is elderly, but he was leaping in the tall grass. We passed the beehive, which was abuzz with workers prepping for winter.

Juncos have arrived from up north, slate-grey with cream-colored breasts. They ran along in the grass and under leaves using their beaks for plows. Bluebirds perched on the Osage Ironwood posts. The sky was filled with circling turkey buzzards and the resident red-tail and Cooper’s hawks.

The dogs and I got back to home base just as Orville and Quilt Queen came back from shopping. Beverly had fed about twenty people yesterday, and she was exhausted. She excused herself and went in the house for a nap. Orville made fresh coffee while I set up porch chairs. Old Walt emerged from his house, headed for the confab, so I set out a third chair.

Walt is nearing 90. His wife has been in a nursing home since I’ve lived here. He soldiers on. He walks as slow as a human can, leaning on a stout cane. He has a mane of lush white hair. He was born in Orville and Quilt Queen’s house. He is a big fan of my newspaper columns. He almost always tells me so, whereas Orville and Quilt Queen figure Midwesterners don’t need praise lest they get big heads.

Orville brought out the coffee and set the cups on the outdoor table. “No pie left,” he said. “The grandkids ate every morsel. The turkey skeleton ain’t got a bit of flesh left.”

How was my Thanksgiving? my friends asked. I told them I ate a cheese sandwich and Fritos for supper. Orville shook his head at Old Walt and said Gene doesn’t get it. It ain’t about sex. It’s about pie and holidays arranged by females—that is why us boys need women in our life. We all do. Walt guffawed, even as he knows his wife will never be able to return home. I said my last wife’s pie ultimately cost me $30,000.

The breeze blew the leaves into funnel shapes. It had been coming from the north for two weeks, which is why, Walt told Orville, all his dang leaves were in Orville’s yard, saving him from raking them. The leaves will be bundled and carried to the blackberry bushes for mulch and protection from the weather.

“I hate shaving,” Orville said. “See, Gene, what a wife will do is get you to shave and bathe regular. Have you boys seen that 19th century beard of Letterman’s?” Whereupon Walt and Orville discussed how they missed David Letterman, shocking me to my core. It’s a long turn of the channel knob to go from Fox News to Letterman/Colbert.

It dawned on me that Orville might actually envy me for my independence. He would have eaten a cheese sandwich and Fritos with chocolate chip cookies for a chaser, had he been by himself on a holiday. Perhaps that is your dream, when you have been married for sixty years.

I headed home for a nap, smelling of dog licks and decaying leaves and crusted honey and barn mold and Old Spice. “Good to see you,” Old Walt called, his words warming me to my core.

This was my Thanksgiving.

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A Thanksgiving Memory

November 23, 2017 “A Thanksgiving Memory”

Thanksgiving 1973, 4:30 am, and we watched out of our apartment window, snow coming down in buckets. We had got up early to drive the three hundred miles from Chicago to Alton, to my dad’s house, but now we hesitated. Snow in Chicago, in those days, was serious stuff.

But we got on the road, very little traffic, stopping along the way for coffee and hot chocolate. The snow followed us—or we followed the snow—all the way to Baldwin State Park, my dad’s name for his fifty acres of woods on Route 67. He and my stepmother hadn’t attended our wedding in Long Island. This was the first meeting.

I warned Barbara, from the moment I knew we were serious. My dad was two men in one body. He could be gregarious; he could be buried in foul moods, like layers of dirty blankets. Surly I exaggerated, my wife said, as we drove up the steep, one-lane dirt road above Piasa Creek, the oak woods heavy with snow.

Dad greeted us at the door. He hugged Barbara and took her coat. My stepmother came out of the kitchen and kissed my wife. Dinner was nearly ready, as our trip had taken almost eight hours. Dad sat us in the living room, the TV in the background showing a football game. He was in his recliner, a glass of ice and amber liquid on the end table next to him.

Barbara nuzzled next to me, watching my father watch the football game. Few words were spoken. Then halftime came. Dad looked at me and asked if I wanted a drink. Barb, why don’t you go and help Marlene with the dinner?

Dad and Barb walked into the kitchen. Marlene told Barb, no thanks, you sit with your father-in-law and get to know him. Back came Dad with a drink for me, Barb trailing behind. He sat and turned up the TV and sank into oblivion. Barb took a sip of my drink and asked for one of her own.

You know where the bar is, my father said, not even bothering to glance our way. My wife stewed for thirty minutes. No words were exchanged by anyone in the house. Finally, she looked at me. She jerked her head: Come talk to me. We stood up and went into the hall bathroom. I warned you, I said. The nerve of my dad, to ignore the woman guest. I made a bad joke: He treats his wife the same way.

I’m leaving, Barb told me. I will not stay in this house. We drove eight hours, for this? I knew her well enough to know she wasn’t joking or just letting off steam. She was leaving. Never mind that we were deep in snow-covered woods, with only a two-lane highway the shoulder of which was too narrow to walk.

She fetched her coat from the hall closet. Going for a walk? my dad asked. And out the front door my wife went. Marlene came from the kitchen to announce that dinner was served. She asked my father: What did you do to upset Barbara? He shrugged and went right back to watching the television.

We’re leaving, I told my dad. Okay, he said, so casually, so seemingly disinterested.  The important thing with him was to steel the emotions; nothing could hurt him.

Marlene followed me to the car, kissed Barbara and said she was so sorry her husband was a jerk.

And back we drove towards Chicago, the snow letting up a bit, exhaustion making cautious drivers of us both. We stopped at a Cracker Barrel outside Bloomington and ate the saltiest Thanksgiving food I can ever remember. We got some wine and a motel room, and we passed the bottle back and forth and laughed, at the worst Thanksgiving of the imagination, an event that would never be discussed again.

The next summer, my dad walked Barb all around the fifty acres. They came out of the woods holding hands.

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