Does Gus even want to talk about the two-hour ride with his mother to Lacrosse and back? Well, no. But I’ll do it anyway. The trip up wasn’t as terrible as I had anticipated. The conversation was circular.
“Where are we going again?”
“Why are we going there?”
“For a checkup.”
“Boy, it sure is a long way.”
“Yep, it sure is.”
And then repeat every ten minutes.
There’s an old oak tree along Interstate 90 between Sparta and Lacrosse. That oak tree always catches my eye any time I drive up there. It sits alone on a small hill, sturdy and gnarled, surviving the storms and the seasons for many years. I imagine it’s been there since long before this road was built, when all of the traffic was on Highway 16, a mile away across the valley. I like that old tree. This day, with the light blowing snow, the tree looked ghostly gray and distant. I had a brief feeling of being out of sync with this time, of not quite being in touch with the world of high-speed interstates. Then it was gone.
The testing was a hard and bad time, the worst Gus has seen in two (that long? Yep, I guess so) years of testing. She couldn’t follow simple directions, trying to add strings of numbers instead of just repeating them back. Halfway through she was crying in frustration. The doctor was a kind woman, and patient and gentle. She somehow had Mom laughing again, though still teary-eyed by the time it was done.
When we were leaving it was raining. I had her wait by the door while I ran to get the car. And I did run. It is feeling less and less like a safe thing to ask her to wait for any length of time. But she was still there when I pulled up. She didn’t recognize the car.
We drove over to the food co-op for lunch. They have a café there, a really nice one, upstairs. Mom likes it because you can look over the balcony at the store below, at the colorful produce aisles and other displays. I ordered for her and I think I did a good job of it. She ate it all without complaining. And then we headed back to Reedsburg.
The ride wasn’t too bad at first, except for some brooding about the testing. But as the road rolled away behind us, she became more and more restless. The ride was taking too long. The weather was bad. We should be home. Where are we staying tonight? Does Dad know? Why aren’t we going home?
I fielded these questions as well as I could, but by the time we got to her residence she was awfully contentious. I told her that we could at least go in and use the bathroom. That got her attention. Making sure there is a bathroom nearby is getting to be more and more important to her. As soon as we got in there, she knew where she was. She even forgot the last couple of miles of wondering where I was taking her. She started talking to a couple of residents and forgot that Gus was there. This was both a relief and very, very saddening. I said my good-byes, and she answered in a distracted way.
Gus is not ashamed to say that he drove, he fled, to the Corner Pub. It’s kitty-corner from the four-plex theater, on the corner of Main Street and North Webb Avenue in Reedsburg. The owner, Pete, brews his own beer there, and does a good job of it.
I parked the car and got out and suddenly felt just how drained I was. My feet were dragging and I was slouching. I stopped and stretched a moment, straightening my spine. I practiced smiling. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Gus has heard that it takes only 17 muscles to smile, and 42 to frown. That’s a lot of muscles fighting the smile. I decided to not look at it that way. I smiled and went in and ordered a porter.
That porter was dark as ebony, with a thick chocolaty head that one could eat with a spoon. It had a dark dry malty sweetness and, Oh, that first long swallow went down very nicely. I sat back and looked around. The booths along the far wall were filled with older folks lingering over their late lunches. There was only one other person at the bar, a guy in his mid-sixties, I’d guess. He was sitting at the other end of the bar from me, but as soon as I glanced at him he waved and started hollering over at me.
“I got my voting done early!” he said. “I tell ya, that whole ‘voter ID’ bill is a crock if I ever saw one!” I said yes it is. All he needed was an opening. “Boy, that recall is really something, isn’t it?”
I agreed with him. His voice carried pretty well, and a few people looked over at us.
“Yeah, that Scott Walker, he thought he could walk all over people. He’s got another think coming!”
I didn’t disagree, but more people were looking at us.
“Yep, a million signatures is a lot to argue with. Why, there’s folks that voted Republican signing to get him outta office. Where are you from?”
I told him.
“Oh, my boy just bought a house there, right by the library.”
I knew the house, right across the street from me. And I realized that I had met this man’s wife a month ago when I signed the petition to recall the governor.
“Well, how about that,” the man shouted. “Sure is a small world, isn’t it?” It sure is.
The waitress carried a basket of French fries to a table across the room. The man watched her and then said, “You know, I used to work at the McDonald’s in Madison, back when they made their own fries.”
Is that right? They made their own fries?
“Yep. I was the manager there, down on Park street. We got in bags of potatoes, and had a peeler there, a mechanical peeler. And then we’d run ‘em through the slicer, parboil ‘em for three and a half minutes, then drain em. And they’d be all ready for the fryer. I didn’t live in Madison though. I lived in Mount Horeb. And I used to rent this camper from a guy who owned a gas station just up the street from the McDonald’s. He let me use his bathroom to wash up in, and I’d help out at the gas station if he needed it. It was more of a service station, so he’d need someone at the till now and then. Yep, it was a pretty good arrangement.” He had some papers and clipboard in front of him. He shuffled the papers, clipped them in the board and stood up. “Well, I guess I’d better get going.”
After he was gone, M came over.
“He’s our local Concerned Citizen. I hope he didn’t bother you.”
“No, not really. Just a little loud is all.”
She rolled her eyes.
“Oh, that was nothing. It’s a good thing the other Concerned Citizen wasn’t here. Let’s get you another beer.”
That was back in February. It’s now the end of March. The snow is gone, and the ground is dry. Since that time, Gus has not earned enough to put fuel in his little pickup truck, let alone food in his belly. The only thing that keeps Gus out of the poorhouse for now is feeding his increasingly mad elderly neighbor, and driving her to various appointments. That is the way of it sometimes. On Monday Gus dug up a garden and trimmed branches for some beer money. In the meantime, the calls from Mom have gotten more frequent. And that’s not a big deal, for the most part. If Gus has a joke book beside the phone it helps a lot.
But then there was Tuesday’s visit, when I asked her if she wanted to go for ice cream. She thought that sounded like a good idea. We drove downtown, about a five minute drive. The ice cream was very good, and perhaps Gus had a little too much of it. But it was the Zanzibar Chocolate!! Mom had the mint chocolate chip. She said she liked it. But she was very restless about getting moving. “We have a long way to go,” she said. Uh-oh.
On the way back through town she told me that if I saw a rest area, we should maybe stop. “Well, we’ll be at your place in just a few minutes,” I said.
“Oh. But then we’re going home, right?” Gus had no idea at all how to answer this. He pointed out some pretty houses and drove faster. He said, “Look, I have a harmonica!” I keep a harmonica in my ash tray. I played “Oh, Suzanna!” over the space of a couple of blocks. Mom laughed. And then I saw her residence on the horizon. “Here we are,” I said.
“It’s where you live.”
“There’s a bathroom you can use here.”
“Oh, good.” I pulled up to the door to let her out. “I’ll park and be right in,” I said.
There was a small musical group setting up in the public area of the retirement home. It appeared to be a 40-ish woman and three teen-aged girls, ranging from about twelve to fifteen. I walked down to her room, and she was looking around for what she should pack.
I said, “Well, there’s some music getting ready to play. I’d like to listen.”
“Okay,” she said. We went back down the hall and took a seat. Attendants brought more and more people out until the open area was filled. Mom introduced me to the same people I meet almost every week. Some of them remembered me, others didn’t.
The music started up, and I was amazed to hear these kids cranking out “Orange Blossom Special.” The oldest girl stepped up to the mic and just belted out the first verse. Her sister followed with a fiddle solo, they sang another verse, then the youngest did a solo on the mandolin. She played with a look of fierce concentration, while her glasses kept sliding down her nose, and Gus found himself smiling. Later on, this same kid took out the spoons and played as if she’d been born with them in her hands, slapping out a rhythm that clattered like shining silver droplets of dancing bright sunlight across all of the people and down the halls. Uncle Gus wanted to laugh out loud at the sound.
The group took a break after a while. I walked with Mom back to her room and explained to her that I had to leave.
“But where am I going to stay tonight?”
“Well, this is where you live now.”
“I know. But…this isn’t really.”
“No. I know. And I’m not even going to pretend I have an answer.”
There didn’t seem to be anything to say. We walked together back down the hall to where they were getting ready to start again. I told Mom that I was going to take off now, and she had suddenly forgotten I was there again. She said, distractedly, “Okay. See you,” and then started talking to someone.
Gus fled back to Pete’s Corner Pub. Things were quiet in there. M was tending bar. I asked her how her day had been. “Hot and greasy,” she said.
“That sounds very sexy,” said Gus. Sometimes Gus doesn’t think first.
“This is as sexy as it gets these days, honey,” she said. “Visiting your mom?” It seems that’s the only time I get to Reedsburg these days.
“Well, here, you'd better try this. Freshly tapped.” She filled a glass with Bourbon Scotch Ale without asking what I wanted. It poured almost nut-brown, with a tan head, and when I took a long pull on it I could taste a mild sweetness and a hint of bourbon fragrance. “Oh, man.” I said.
“Nice, huh? I’d have one, but I O.D.’d on it already. And now it’s four o’clock. I’m done.” She waved at the other waitress. “I’m done!” she said. She started mixing up a margarita. “I have to meet my husband, and my daughter, and her kids, at Pizza Hut. I hate Pizza Hut!” She raised her glass to me, and then downed it in a couple of minutes. “Oh, mommy needed that!” She started mixing another. “Oh, it’s okay. This one’s only a single.” She took a sip. “Mmm-hm. Mommy will be there soon. Let me buy you another before I run.” My glass was still half-full, but it was too late. She set another beside it and drank her glass dry before she ran out the door.
That was two days ago. Mom called again last night, not remembering why. But I told her about my work day (digging more garden, cutting more branches, setting up a bird house) and the story about M slamming her margaritas before she had dinner with her family. That all worked out fine by the time we hung up.
Today I drove the neighbor on some errands. When I got home I saw that Mom called. Again. I haven’t called back yet. And it looks like rain on the way. That seems like a good thing.