Sunday, October 28, 2012

Gus's Cold

On Sunday afternoon, he felt a tickle and then a scratch in the back of his throat.  By Monday morning it had grown into a cold.  He woke up coughing and sniffling, and couldn't breathe through his nose until the second cup of coffee.  He told himself that he didn't feel all that bad, that it was only a cold, and he could work this off.  His plan was to go to the cabinet shop and split wood today, and that is what he intended to do.

He took his time with breakfast, and with getting dressed.  He dressed in layers, putting on his faded and worn work trousers, a cotton tee shirt, a flannel shirt, a hooded sweatshirt and a frayed green work coat.  His shoe lace snapped in two as he tightened up his work boots.  He coughed and grumbled while he knotted it together and walked out the door.

The starter on the truck had been giving him trouble over the last couple of months.  This morning it buzzed for a moment before it finally kicked in and groaned, laboriously turning the engine over.  After the engine started, he waited a minute, letting it run in neutral to warm up the transmission so it would shift easier.  Then he eased out of the driveway and down the alley and out of town.

The shop was twelve miles from town, down in a sheltered valley.  The wind was blowing hard, and rocked the little truck as he drove down the road, and then turned off onto a meandering side road that led up onto a ridge.  There was a woman he knew who lived there, up the road from the workshop.  She had told him that she had a bucket full of splitting wedges that he could borrow.  He stopped at her house to pick them up.  She asked if she could help with splitting wood.

"If you want to."
"Yeah, I do," she said.  "It's a good day to split wood."

He agreed, and waited while she slipped her boots on.  She was only a few inches shorter than him, and in her heavy tan work coat appeared more muscular than him.  He followed her out to the shed where he picked up the bucket of wedges and she took her axe and splitting maul, one in each hand, and put them in the truck.

They drove down into the valley where the workshop was.  The cut maple was piled in a jumbled heap behind the workshop.  The pieces ranged in size from a foot across to some broad enough to turn into a dinner table.  He rolled a large one out for a splitting platform.  Then he rolled another on top of it.  She began tugging another out and started rolling it up the slope.

"I want to work up here," she said.  "The sun is shining up here.  It feels good."
"It's more steps."
"I don't care.  That's where I want to work."
"That's fine."  His voice sounded gruff to him, made harsh by his clogged sinuses and raw throat.  He smiled so that she knew it was okay, that she didn't need any more reason than that.  She didn't seem to notice either way.  She went to work on her stump while the wind roared over their heads, bending the tops of the trees that were further up the hill.  Down here there was scarcely a breeze.  If the wind changed, he knew, it might come sluicing up the valley, harder and harder as the valley narrowed.  He had felt it like that before, pushing the snow into waves of drifts.

He started swinging into the wood, driving the maul as hard as he could so that it would split across the center.  After a few swings, he pushed a steel wedge into the groove he had started.  Then he turned his maul around and began driving the wedge in, swinging steadily.  The wedge drove deeper while the ringing of steel on steel was joined by the ripping of wood fibers.  The wedge dropped suddenly as the slab split in two.  He looked up at the woman.  She had taken off her coat, and was busy driving her maul into a slab, slicing off smaller pieces for kindling.  He saw that even with her coat off, her arms looked strong.  She handled the maul easily.  He took off his coat as well, and started breaking the wood into stove-sized chunks.

He grew warm as he worked.  He could feel and smell the sweat on his body, even through the hooded coat and under the flannel.  He took off the hooded coat and continued working, splitting the stumps into ever smaller pieces and throwing them onto a pile to be moved when he grew tired of swinging the maul.  He felt good.  His breathing was easy now, and his head was clear.  He glanced up and saw that the woman was now in her tee-shirt.  She had disappeared into the woods once while he worked.  She was back five minutes later.  Another time he had heard her clearing her nostrils noisily onto the ground.  Both times he had kept working, concentrating on making sure that each blow of the maul landed where the last one did.  He didn't want to miss one and have the woman see.

He stripped down to his tee shirt and rolled another log onto the stump.  The maul only dented it, and bounced back.  He swung three or four more times before it sunk in.  He put a wedge in, and realized the woman was standing there, watching.

"That's a tough one," she said.
"It sure is."
"I can pile this stuff up if you want.  I'm tired of swinging the axe."
He was surprised.  When he had looked up, she seemed as if she could do it all day.
"Sure, that's fine.  I'll just keep on here then."  He opened his water jug and drank deeply.
"I didn't bring any water," she said, and reached for his jug.
"I have a cold."  She shrugged and took it from him anyway.  She drank greedily, and spilled some across her shirt.
"You can't drink it if it's on your shirt," he said.
"Yeah, I should be more careful."
She loaded some wood into her arms and carried it to the stack alongside the shop.  He went back to swinging the maul again, finishing the log and pushing it to one side.  The woman was already back, pulling one of the unsplit pieces from the pile.  On its end it was more than half as tall as she was. He guessed it was over a hundred pounds of wood.  She wrestled it over to his chopping block, alternately rolling and dragging it.  He helped her to place it on the center of the block.  It hung over the edge at either end.
"Thanks a lot," he said.  She smiled and carried away more of the split wood.

The wind was still loud overhead, but down in the little valley there was only a breeze, enough to dry the sweat on his shirt as he worked.  He swung the maul again, enjoying the heft of the head through the handle, the flexing of muscles in his wrists and biceps, in his shoulders and across his back.  He enjoyed the sound of the wood fibers splitting as the blade clove it through the middle.  He hadn't expected this one to split so easily.  He separated the two halves and split them in half, then halved again.  He was happy to feel his lungs clear, and to feel the air filling his lungs.  He felt good.  He felt strong.  He finished the log and started on another while the woman cleared away all that he had split.

They worked through the morning, until he was quivering and thirsty and the water had run out.  She told him that they could have soup at her house.  They loaded the tools and drove back up the hill.  The fire in her big cook stove was low, but it was still warm, and didn't take long to build back up.  She went to her refrigerator and pulled out ground beef and vegetables.
"I'll haul in some more wood if you want to chop this stuff up," she said.
He hadn't expected to help cook, but picked up a knife and went to work dicing onions, carrots, garlic and parsley.  His wrist holding the knife felt weak after swinging the maul.  His eyes began to feel heavy while he worked.  He finished chopping the vegetables, then seasoned the meat and browned it while she added more wood to the stove.
"Let's cook over the fire and shut the range off," she said.
"Okay, good."
"Are you okay with cooking on a wood range?"
He set the pot onto the flat black stove top, over the hottest part.  The meat started sizzling again, almost immediately.  They added the onions, then the other vegetables and broth and let it simmer off to the side, on the cooler part of the stove.  Halfway through the cooking, he noticed his lungs getting full again, and his head swelling.  By the time he slid the pot to one side, he felt drowsy and tired.  When he had first started cooking, the house smelled good.  Now he didn't smell anything.  His head started to hurt, and he told the woman.
"I thought you were looking a little peaked.  Sit down, I can finish."
She dished up the soup and they ate it with bread and butter.  He had been hungry earlier, but now was only able to eat one bowlful of soup.  His skin felt papery and dry.  He wished he would sweat again just to feel moisture.  When he opened his mouth to eat or speak, it seemed that he should hear the crinkling and rustling of his skin.
"I think I'm done for the day," he said.
"I figured as much."
"I'm going home, I guess."
"You go right ahead."
"Had a good morning," he said.  "That's a good pile of wood."
"Yeah.  It was a good morning."
At the door he stopped and said," I'm taking tomorrow off, I think."  He had told her that he would run new drain pipes for her kitchen sink.  Now it seemed like a Herculean task.
"That's fine," she said.  "I bet I won't see you for a couple of days."
"We'll see."
"Yah.  Don't push it."  She smiled and closed the door after him.  Out here the wind was blowing through his coat and whistling through the bare branches of the huge willow that stood along the driveway.  He shivered a little and climbed into his truck.  Even though the wind was sharp and cold, the sun was bright, and the cab was warm.  He turned the key and the truck groaned slowly over, then caught and started.  He put it into gear and pulled out of the driveway and down the gravel road, driving slowly until he reached the pavement.  His eyes felt puffy and tired, and his face felt as if it were filled with thick glue.  He forced himself to stay awake for the fifteen minutes that it took to drive home.  Once there, he climbed up the stairs and took a long hot shower, then put on some baggy clothes.

And he did nothing else but lie on the couch and watch simple movies all the rest of the day and into the night.

What??  You think Gus is gonna review food when he felt like this?  But it's okay, he's better now.  He even crawled under his truck and replaced the starter so he doesn't have to park on a hill any more.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Birds and Bees and the Trempealeau Hotel

And can this really be the end of September?  I guess that's a common enough complaint, or exclamation.  We all wonder where the time went, how it got to be so late.  Gus often wonders this at closing time when he's just not ready to go home yet.  Often, that's just when everyone else wants Gus to go home.  But I shall not visit that scene today.

This past winter, I told of my search for canoe building materials in St. Paul, MN.  Well, a month or so ago, Gus finished his canoe!  Yes indeed, and he even chose a name for it, but I'm gonna keep that to myself for now.  I don't know why.  But here's the thing.  Ol' Gus put a lot of worry into building this craft.  Probably more worry than work went into it, to tell the truth.  There were periods of staring at it and wondering if this or that strip was the right one, or wondering why there was a small  gap in a joint where there was none the day before.  And there were times of famine, where Gus just couldn't scrape up the cash for epoxy or fiberglass.  Those were tough times, my friends (he intoned dramatically).  They were times of despair and self-doubt.  But you know, seriously, I've never wanted much, but my own canoe is one thing I've wanted for a long, long time.  Okay, I'll be honest and say that I'd really like my own sailboat as well, but Gus ain't a-gonna hold his breath on that one.

So, all that said, the canoe is finished, out of the shop to make way for other projects, and safely lodged in the shed out back.  It's been in some of the local ponds and a river.  And a few weekends ago I put it into the Deep River, the Ol' Man River, the Mississippi.

So on Sunday I woke at 4:30.  I had set my alarm for six, but didn't need it.  I got up and made coffee and then checked the weather.  I figured that if I made coffee first, I wouldn't change my mind.  The weather report was good, with breezes and a sunny sky.  I sucked down the first cup, then told the lady friend, P, that we were going canoeing.

One hour and a pot of coffee later we were on the road with the canoe resting securely on the roof of the old Toyota pickup.  The sun was up and the skies were clear.  There's something about the prow a canoe hanging over the hood of a truck that just feels right to Gus.  It just says, "We're going somewhere!"  Maybe other folks don't see it that way.  I hope they have something else that feels just as right.

It's about an hour and a half to Trempealeau State Park.  We pulled into the lot and parked and had the canoe in the water in less than ten minutes, including a quick run to the outhouses.  Another five and we had paddled out onto the rolling expanse of the Mississippi River.  There was only one other craft out there, a fishing boat anchored in the lee of the riverbank.  We took the canoe straight across the channel to an island, at which point we realized that we were both hungry and overheated already.  But we had food, and were overdressed, and were able to take care of both problems before we took off up the river.

It feels good to be in a canoe.  And that's really what this is about.  Gus could go on and on about the scenery and stuff.  And there was scenery, beautiful scenery.  The bluffs are tall and the islands are tree-covered.  And there are birds, and birds, and more birds.  There is also the sound of the highway a half mile away.  But for Gus it's all about the canoe, about pushing the paddle through the water so that the canoe moves forward.  It's about knowing how to turn, and how to stop.  It's about being one with the canoe, about reading the river, seeing the water ripple over stumps just below the surface, and steering your way around it.  It's about keeping it pointed where you want to go, no matter how the wind blows or the current turns.  And then there's the feeling in your shoulders and your back as you push through the water.  There's the entire physicality of the canoeing experience that, when coupled with just being outdoors with the river and the wildlife, can't be replicated.  It feels good to be in a canoe.

When I finished building the canoe this spring, I had to end with a fiberglass and epoxy coating.  I had some trouble with that, ending up with some bubbles and a few wrinkles and other blemishes.  So the first time I showed it to someone, I felt like I had to apologize for that.  But as I'm in the water more and more, the blemishes seem to disappear.  This is especially true when the currents get tricky and I'm able to handle it almost alone.  The canoe dances across the water almost joyfully.  But perhaps Gus is projecting.

We did have a good trip on the river.  We stopped for lunch on an island beach.  We had sardines and crackers and fruit while we watched the river go by.  It's pretty cool to watch the water swiftly flowing past.  Then we pushed on up the river, past the silver maples filled with black cormorants that dropped almost to the water before gliding across to the other shore.  We found a channel that cut through the island and followed that into a shallow channel that opened up as far down the river as we could see.  Halfway back to Trempealeau we encountered a flock of pelicans, right before a mad hornet settled on Gus's neck and stung.  And stung.  I could feel the poison shooting in, like liquid fire.  So I killed that hornet, right there on the spot.  My goodness but Gus was angry!  I did some cussing for a while, but there was nothing for it.  P worried that I might have developed a bee allergy over the last couple of years, but that wasn't the case.  P often worries needlessly.  But the sting was just a painful annoyance, like the Republican party, and we soldiered on.

I noticed at some point that I was doing all the work.  I mean, the canoe became hard to handle, slow to respond.  And I watched my paddling companion for a little while and noticed that her paddle was only settling into the water and gliding back of its own accord.  We call that "dip stroking."  I suggested that I could use a little help.  Even though we were heading down river, the headwind was more than making up for the current.  P dug in and concentrated on helping, and it made all the difference.  I did have to remind her a few more times along the way, but by the time we reached the park channel, we were both pretty tired.  Our drinking water was almost gone, as were the snacks.

Gus could really feel the weariness hit when we pulled in at the dock.  We both climbed out and walked around a little.  I eyed the canoe, thinking that it was going to take a great effort to pick it up.  While we walked around, someone pulled up to launch their fishing boat.  The man got out of his truck and walked over, looking at my canoe.  "That's a really nice-looking canoe!" he said.  I thanked him.  He admired it for a bit.  The bottom was covered with sand and grit, so it was hard to see the blemishes that I had lost sleep over.   I finally told him that I had built it, and he was properly impressed.  We talked a little more, then he went back to launching his boat and I found the strength to lift the canoe onto my shoulders and carry it across the lot to my truck.  I felt pretty good.

So of course we were hungry.  P likes the Trempealeau Hotel in downtown Trempealeau.  It is a very popular spot, and it's the home of the Walnut Burger.  But to tell the truth, I've been in there a few times and never really felt comfortable.  Oh, it's all nice and clean, with screened-in dining rooms and a nice bar.  There's a lovely view of the river, and the bluffs beyond if you're seated in the right place.  But there's just something indifferent about the service.  And today was no exception, even though it wasn't busy there.  We got there at about 3:30 in the afternoon, and there were some people, but plenty of open tables.  We were shown ours, ordered water and coffee and then looked at the menus.  I ordered the blackened catfish, P ordered the walnut burger.  And the waitress was cheerfully indifferent.  And then, just before our food arrived, in walked Gus's ex-employer from when he was cooking part time.  She came in with her boyfriend and another couple, and sat down right next to us before she saw us.  That was quite a nice surprise, but still seemed a little awkward, though I can't quite put my finger on it.  We chatted a little bit, but it just seemed stiff.  But my leaving that place of employment had been a bit awkward.  I think she had hoped I'd stay longer, and I feel kind of bad about that.  And that, as they say, is for another day.  Still, it was good to visit with them.  Our food came, and it was fine.  No, Gus can't complain about the food there.  It's always good.  It's just not great. Perhaps "uninspired" is the word I want.  And the service was, again, indifferent.  I have had the same experience when I was working in this town for a week or so a year ago.  I would come in and sit at the bar and try to look friendly, try to strike up a friendly howdy-do with the bartender, and it inevitably fell flat.

That same couple of weeks though, Gus spent a few happy hours at the Hungry Point down on Lake Road on the edge of Trempealeau.  Every visit there was friendly.  The bartenders were amiable, and I had a fun time just chatting it up, mostly listening to the patrons.  Yup, Gus will have to go back there some time. But back at the Trempealeau Hotel, it took a long time to get a coffee refill, and to get our bill.  When we finally stood up to go, we both felt bone-weary.  It was a good tired though.  And when we finally got home and unloaded, and Gus got all cleaned up and relaxed into his easy chair, he could still feel the river's current rolling under him.