December 22, 2016
We eat ham and beans for lunch, and Paul exclaims that he feels like he has been in this café before. “Because you write about this Gene, you make me feel like I know it.”
We walk across the highway and meet Farmer Orville, who is lounging on his front porch and soaking up the sun, and Paul’s grin is a foot long, like everyone who reads about Orville reacts when they meet the man versus the myth.
Orville tells Paul, “How you put up with that guy?” “It isn’t easy,” Paul says. I promised Paul some Quilt Queen cookies, but: “She is payin’ bills,” Orville tells us. This is code for Quilt Queen is in a bad mood.
I unleash the hounds from the dog pen, and Ruby Puppy and Reba charge at Paul and attempt to lick him to death and then flop on their backs in oak leaves and get their bellies scratched. “I hate dogs,” Orville says. This is code for “I love dogs.”
The eagles have landed. Paul and I drive from Godfrey to Grafton, stopping along the Great River Road and exclaiming like kids. There are bald eagles on ice floes and perched in trees. There are red-tail and Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks soaring low on the tree line. The sun gleams on the melting ice, a blinding light on a warm afternoon.
Paul and I are the Tom and Huck of existentialism. To that cursed band, led by Sartre, misery is a human construct, born of thinking. This is why we marvel at eagles, at the natural world, for people are profoundly unnatural. Those of us who are introverts feel this disconnect intensely. There is no salvation for us. Eternal life is about birds, wild things, earth itself, currently cleansing its self of a deep-set human stain.
We eat ice cream cones in a tourist shop in Grafton, the young girl server laughing as Paul and I discuss ex-wives, pot smoking and arthritis. We meet Luke, a red-faced old man who looks like Santa Claus, a woodcarver who fashions sculptures from tree stumps, with his pals the Itchy Brothers. We tell Luke we went to Alton High, and he says he did too, Class of ’62, and he tells us his greatest memory, of Alton High’s production of “Lil’ Abner.” Oh, that gal who played Daisy Mae, what a looker.
(I remember, I saw that show from the balcony. My mother took me. She asked me what I thought. I told her I’d rather be on the stage. I didn’t tell her, that girl who played Daisy Mae, in that skimpy outfit which accentuated her perfect bosom, made my young heart tremble with desire.)
Paul, a vegetarian and fitness nut before there were vegetarians and fitness nuts, recently had a double bypass operation. His father had one at age 72. “I’ve been thinking about death since I was born,” Paul says.
We both did miserably in high school. Yet, Paul taught anthropology as a tenured professor, I became an artist and a teacher. Go figure. We both were loners, are loners. We could communicate our thoughts telepathically and blink codes. We had a list of teachers we felt were fools, and we played pranks on them, one of which our brutal fathers would have killed us for, had they known.
We hug goodbye, Paul driving on to stay with his sister and her husband. I watch his red car wheel right and disappear down Clifton Terrace toward the Great River Road. The river is great, the highway not so much.
In my ear at point blank range a black-capped chickadee scolds me for not filling the bird feeder in a timely fashion. If I stood still enough, long enough, I would be draped in birds of many colors. Overhead, Crow tells the other crows, “Caw-caw.” This is code for “safe.”
This is my name in bird.