Saturday, September 7, 2013

Hustle Inn? Hustle Out!

    On Monday, Labor Day, that is, I and my lady friend, P, decided we ought to take a bicycle ride over to Hustler.  It was a good day for it.  The wind was brisk and a little bit chilly.  It was also coming from out of the west, which was important because if it continued like that, it would be at our backs on the way home.
    It’s a nice ride over there, especially on the Omaha Trail part, which runs from Elroy to Camp Douglas.  It’s far from the main highway, so there’s little traffic noise beyond a few cars on the nearby back road.  The deep rock cuts between hills are scenic, and filled with blackberries.  There’s an old railroad tunnel, and a little rest area inaccessible by car.  So it’s a pretty pleasant and secluded ride.  We encountered a few other riders along the way.  Some smile and say “Hi,” while others stare straight ahead.  There are also pedestrians along the way, and it seems that a lot of them carry music with them, and have ear buds in so they don’t hear when you come up behind them, no matter how you shout.  Maybe it’s time to invest in a bell, a loud bell.
    Well, we pulled in to Hustler at around 1:00 p.m., and we were hungry!  We biked to the downtown, just a half block  away.  There was a bed and breakfast, but they were closed on Monday, even though it was a holiday.  It’s too bad, because their deli menu looked good.  I’ll have to go back on a different day.
    So  the closest place was the Hustle Inn.  We decided, what the heck?  Let’s get us a couple of burgers!  There was a sign outside, meant to be a joke, we were sure, that said, “Lousy service, warm beer,” and something else, I forget. Cold food?  We went in anyway.
    There was an elderly couple sitting at a table, waiting for something, I think.  Godot?  Perhaps.  And maybe the elderly gal at the bar was too.  And the old guy at the end of the bar, all waiting for Godot.  Or service.
    The phone was ringing as we walked in.  It continued ringing as we walked up to the bar and took a seat.  It rang and rang while banging and clattering sounds emitted from what seemed to be a kitchen.  We sat at the bar and watched as the last half hour of “How the West Was Won” played out in Cinerama ™ on the T.V.  George Peppard was getting ready for a shootout with some bad guys on a train steaming across the desert.  At the other end of the bar, on the other T.V., some wacky guy was jumping on Sheriff Andy Taylor’s back, and laughing.  I’m not sure what that all meant, but I understood gunfights in the old west.  And the phone kept on ringing.
    A heavyset and frowzy woman finally emerged from the kitchen.  She was carrying a couple of bags of styrofoam carryout boxes.  She set them on the bar and answered the phone curtly.  I don’t know what was said, but she was unhappy.  She was unhappy, dour, sour, and sullen.  She finished her phone call and distributed the carryouts between the woman at the bar and the couple at their table.  She took their money and asked the old couple if they needed help getting out the door.  Gus is guessing that she asked out of politeness, not out of a desire to see them gone.  I didn’t exactly infer this from her tone, but I’m hoping it’s so.  But the man said they were fine.  His breathing wasn’t all that good, and he had a plastic tube up his nose, attached to a machine around his belt.  But he was moving along fairly well, and said, “I’ve got the door for ya, Ma!”  The woman at the bar payed for her food and followed soon after.  The woman tending bar walked up and stood in front of us.  We said “Hi,” in a really friendly way.  She looked at us as if we were teenagers wanting to carry out illegally.  Her gaze was uncaring and impersonal, and tinged a little with suspicion.  Her manner said that she would just as soon we were not here, in this bar, in this town, in the county, state, country, planetary sphere, perhaps even this celestial plane.
    “Trail passes?” she demanded.
    “You need trail passes?”
    “No, we…”
    “Food?” I asked hopefully.
    “Whattya wanna drink?  Anything?”  She asked this as if we were wasting her time, and why the hell don’t we hurry up and get out?
    “Water,” I  said.
    “Coke,” said P.
    She stalked away, and returned with two glasses of ice, a pitcher of water, and a can of Coke.  She sourly took our orders.  I ordered a bacon cheeseburger.  P ordered a cheeseburger.  We decided to split an order of fries.  She seemed disgusted about that decision, but decided to let it go.  She stalked back into the kitchen.  I heard meat being slapped on the griddle, sizzling.  Another couple, dressed for bicycling, came in.  She came back out.
“What can I get for you two?” asked the bartender.  Huh?  Uncle Gus and P did a double take and looked at each other.  Where’s the suspicion?  Where’s the utter indifference?  I looked at the couple, obliquely, trying to discern what cause her to be friendly to them and not to us.
They did not appear to be locals.  They were wearing fancy biking clothes, but not much fancier than Gus and his friend.  They ordered light beers.
And here’s where Gus runs into difficulty, trying to classify these folks.  I didn’t get a good look at the woman.  She was kind of hidden on the other side of the man.  And it doesn’t really do to stare at someone’s significant other, eh?  Anyway, the man.  Hm.  He wasn’t any bigger than Gus.  He appeared younger though, in his late thirties.  He wore a goatee. Not an artsy goatee, but more of one that a welder might wear.  It was an aggressive sort of goatee.  He was a  blue-collar sort, maybe in construction of some sort, the sort that makes enough money to afford a cabin up north in addition to his regular home.  He works hard and plays hard.  I imagine he owns a Harley and a Jeep in addition to a bicycle.  He said later on that they take a vacation every year in the Dells, which says a lot about a person.  So he probably had a motorboat of some sort as well, maybe a jet ski.  Possessions that he guarded with a firearm or two.
This is all supposition on Gus’s part.  But I’m still trying to understand why this guy got preferential treatment over Gus and P.  Is it because he was louder, and more vocal?  Was it the goatee?  The hair?  His attitude in general?  I just don’t know.
The bartender brought their beers.  The man said, “Boy, I’ve been thinking about pizza all day!”  He nodded at a sign that mentioned their “homemade” pizzas.  “Ever since we biked through Wonewoc and saw their pizza place.  But they weren’t open!  I’d sure like some pizza!”
“Sorry,” the bartress said.  “We don’t have pizza today.”  I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t have said, “sorry” to us.
“Damn!” said the man.  “Oh well, just give me a cheeseburger then.”  His friend ordered the same thing.  They each got fries with that.  The bartender went back to the kitchen and went to work.  Up on the T.V. George Peppard was hanging on to a pile of logs for dear life while he swung out over a chasm and a bad guy shot at him over and over.  And on the other T.V., the wacky guy was sitting in a classroom, in a desk that was way too small for him.  The barmaid brought our food to us. It was in little plastic baskets lined with parchment paper.  She set a cardboard six-pack container filled with condiments on the bar.
“I’ll just put these fries between you then,” said the barmaid.  It was the first civil sentence she’d said to us.  She must have forgotten her manners.  We thanked her and she went back to the kitchen.  She came back with the food for the other couple.  Then she stayed and visited with them.
They all got along fine.  The old guy at the other end of the bar joined in.  They talked about the F.I.B.s, and the barmaid told the old guy to be careful, you don’t know where they’re from.  The goatee guy assured them that he lived in Wisconsin.
“I used to live in Illinois,” he said. “But that was a long time ago.  I don’t even root for the Bears!”  Nobody was worried about our point of origin.  But personally, Gus had his doubts about that guy.  He had Chicago Tourist written all over him.
George Peppard finished his gunfight.  He won, of course, but it was touch-and-go for a bit there.  Then he and his family loaded up the buckboard and rode out of town for somewhere else, and the camera panned out and through time to show all the progress that had been made since the West was Won.  There were scenes of huge dams and huge open pit mines and huge fields of amber waves of grain being irrigated from the huge dams, and a voiceover extolling the virtues and greatness of the people of the U.S. of A.   On the other T.V., the wacky guy in Mayberry was carrying his diploma and looking proud.
Gus ain’t gonna complain about the food here.  The burgers were just fine.  The bacon on the bacon-cheese burger was the kind that’s round, like the burger.  I don’t know why that should be outstanding to me, but it is.  They make a bacon shaped like a burger bun.  And it’s a good lean bacon.  I like that.
The burgers came with lettuce, onion, tomato (fresh) and a pickle.  The fries were fine, the kind with the skins still on some of them so they look fresh-sliced.  So everything was just fine.
We ate our food while the guy with the goatee talked about staying in the Dells, at a little hotel where the owner knew them, and they got a place to stay at a really good rate, where they could walk downtown and drink and not have to worry about driving back.
“We went out with my buddies last night,” he said.  “And there sure were a lot of ethnics in the bars!  I mean, they were packed in there.  And I don’t want to say anything bad, (right) but haven’t they ever heard of deodorant?  I’m sorry, (sure you are) but some of them were really ripe!”
The old guy at the bar chimed in.
“Well, you know, when they passed that smoking ban, and the first place they did it was Madison, my boy said the first thing he noticed was the smell of people.”
“Yeah, that’s right.  But I’m talking about the ethnics, you know? I don’t think deodorant is in their culture.”  The others agreed that this might be the case.  They went on to discuss vacation homes up north, and going out drinking tonight with buddies.  “That beer’s gonna taste good tonight!” he said.  Then they went on to talk about the upcoming football season.
An old black and white French film short came on.  It was subtitled, but most of the plot was visual.  A woman was setting a cozy table for two.  Candlelight and wine.  The next shot was a guy blocked in his parking spot.  He was carrying flowers.  The owner of the car blocking him came out of the barber shop to move out of his way.  His face was covered in lather, and when he pulled away, he lost his parking space, and was driving around looking for another spot, while all sorts of other things went on with the original guy, and his wife waiting at home for him getting slowly drunk at their cozy table.  It was damn funny and clever, whatever it was.  Yes, we sat there enjoying a subtitled black-and-white French film while everyone else talked sports.
We finished our food as well as we could.  No candle light or wine here.  There were still some fries left.  I took money out and set it on the bar.  The barmaid dragged herself away from the others and came down.  She looked disdainfully at the leftover fries.  I felt guilty.
“Are you all done here then?”
“Yep.  I guess we couldn’t quite eat it all.”
“So it’s okay if I take these away?”  She asked us this impatiently, as if we were jerking her around.
“Oh.  Yes, sure.  Thanks.”  She sighed and cleared the baskets away.  She took my $20, and brought my change.  I guess you don’t make a lot of money unless you sell drinks.  Maybe that’s why we were a disappointment to her.  I don’t know.  We left a tip for her pains.  The other couple ordered more beer.  The man asked about the motocross track on the edge of town.  The barmaid told him proudly that it was an officially sanctioned motocross event that’s held during Hustlerfest.  We both picked up our helmets and gloves and stood up.  I don’t know why, but I had the urge to say, “‘Bye!”  But the barmaid and the old guy were wrapped up with their new best friends.  Nobody noticed us leaving.

Saturday, August 10, 2013


Gus was rejected.  Again.  Can rejection be both a noun and a verb?  I was rejected, and they sent me a rejection.  Yeah, I guess it can.  Only I didn’t even get a rejection.  I just checked the list of people who were accepted, and I wasn’t one of them.  If you’re not accepted, you’re rejected.
And it wasn’t me directly who ended up rejected.  It was the story that I had written.  Is that last sentence correct?  Or should it be, “The story I had written was rejected.”?  That’s more proper, but they both get the idea across.
The story was one that I had worked on for a long time.  I had honed it and polished it.  I had written and erased and added and cut and rearranged.  I worked on it.  I felt as if I had breathed life into it.
    And they rejected it.  After almost three months of deliberation, and each day bringing me that much closer to believing that they wanted it, I got my rejection.
    My discovery of rejection happened on a cloudy-dark and cold day.  The clouds were rain clouds, the first I’ve seen in a month.  They were heavy with unspent moisture, and the wind, coming from the southeast, hurled them across the sun and the sky.  There were patches of blue seen obliquely between the black and sullen clouds.
But would clouds really be sullen with the wind tossing them around like that?  More likely they’d be shouting, roaring with glee, begging to be thrown further and faster than any cloud had ever been flung before!  So perhaps it was my mood that was sullen and heavy, and I was projecting that onto the clouds, my clouds, brother clouds.  I wanted them to be sullen and heavy and dark, and follow me wherever I went.
    After a couple of hours of walking in and out of the house, half-heartedly beginning little chores, my friend, P, mentioned that she could see those clouds following me, and that there were waves of darkness rolling off of me.  Good, I thought.  P mentioned that maybe I should get out, maybe go for a bike ride.  I looked at the sky and thought, yes, a bike ride would be perfect.  Maybe it will rain.  I hope it does rain.
    I packed a few things in my bike.  I took the requisite notebook and pen, my old iPod, some fruit and water.  I dressed sensibly, in layers.  I wore a wicking undershirt covered by a fleece.  A fleece in the middle of July.  How could it be this cold?  I biked down to the trail and headed into the wind.  The one thing I’ve learned over the years was that it’s good to begin a trip into the wind.  It makes the return trip easier.
    During the first mile I almost turned back.  I didn’t know where I was going anyway.  But my legs warmed up and I decided to keep going.  The trees around me whipped back and forth, and small dry branches broke off here and there, falling onto the trail.  Along the bluffs a flock of buzzards seemed to be playing in the wind, letting it take them higher and higher, then plunging hard and fast toward the ground and swooping suddenly to slice along the edge of the bluff and out of sight.
    I pedalled along, head down against the wind.  I rolled over bridges and past the former town of Podunk. There really was a town named Podunk?  Well, it was more of a whistle stop, but all that remains now is an old stone potato storage shed beside what use to be the railroad tracks.  It’s an interesting structure, with walls two-feet thick.  It’s been converted into a hunting cabin, or just a weekend hideaway.
    I finally rolled into LaValle.  There were some cars gathered down by the River Mill, and I imagined people inside, nursing drinks, huddling out of the wind, maybe talking about sports and laughing together.  They might have shots of something warming, maybe some sipping whiskey to take the chill from their bones.
    I stood at the crossroads and stared down the street for a while.  Then I biked down to the little local library.  They have a wifi hotspot.  I stood outside and checked my email on the iPod.  There was an email from P.  “How ya doing?”  “Doing great” I replied.  I got back on my bike and leaned back into the wind.  My stomach was empty, but I didn’t want any of my stupid fruit.
    I had a destination in mind now.  I was going to bike to the Corner Pub in Reedsburg.  I was going to order a porter and sit in the corner and write.  A porter sounded good on such a cold and windy day.  Maybe a burger a little later.  I pushed on against the wind.  In a few places the river cut in close to the trail.  There were ripples on the water, little splashing whitecaps, even down there in the protection of the close-growing trees.
    There were other bikers on the trail.  There were single people, couples, and families, scattered along the way.  I made sure to smile and say hi.  Some of them seemed to be having fun, some were just working at it.  I saw a person up ahead, walking away from me.  It was a woman.  I called out from a distance. I didn’t want to startle her.  There was no reaction.  I called out as I got closer, then again.  Still no reaction.  I slowed to pass and saw that she had ear buds in, listening to something that was not her surroundings.
    It must have been close to noon when I got to Reedsburg.  I biked to the Corner Pub.  I walked the bike around to the front where there was a bike rack.  It was full.  Full of kids bikes, BMX style bikes.  I looked in the big plate glass windows.  There was a sea of little league uniforms inside, packed from wall to wall, along with their parents.  There was no place to sit, no hope for a quiet corner.  Pete stood at the grill in the front window, tending to rows of burgers.  He saw me.  He nodded and shrugged at the same time.  I waved back and got back on my bike.  I waited for a break in traffic, then headed across town.
    I had thought I’d go to J’s at the other end of town.  Yes, it’s really called, “J’s”  I thought, maybe there I could find a corner to hide in.  Then I got to wondering about their beer choices, and wondering how welcome or comfortable I might feel there.  Halfway there I turned around.  I biked back downtown and stopped at the Deli Bean.  I ordered a sandwich and water.  Marilyn, who owns the Deli Bean with her husband, Mohammed, was working at the counter.  She seemed happy to see me, but it didn’t really lift the clouds.  Sometimes a guy just doesn’t want those clouds to lift.
    My uncle had a theory that Hell might be that way, in which we would just sit and refuse any comfort, maybe even be unable to accept it if it was offered.  That seems like a description of depression to ol’ Gus.
    I like the food at the Deli Bean.  It’s mostly sandwiches, and some soups.  But they’re all good, and have some imagination to them, and even flavor and spice.  They have a turkey-and-chutney sandwich, muffaletta, roasted veggie.  They make a very nice french onion soup, and in the summertime you can get freshly made gazpacho.  And on quiet days it’s always fun to chat with Marilyn and Mohammed.  Politics can get pretty lively in there.
    Today it was was kind of busy.  Reedsburg was having its sidewalk sale weekend, so people were coming and going the entire time I was there.  I sat over by the window with my pork carnita panini.  It was good, and mildly spicy.  It warmed my belly.  I watched the people, notebook in hand but not writing anything.  The people were happily shopping, and almost everyone had a bag or package in their hand.  But Gus wasn’t doing any shopping.  Gus had raided the small change jar to make this trip.
Gus hasn’t been working much these days, for various reasons.  But there was a job coming up in another week, tearing off old siding and putting on new.  It looked like about two weeks worth of work with Gus’s friend, S.  We used to drink together back in the day.  We even worked together years later.  I always enjoyed it.  And I was looking forward to making a few bucks again.  I tried to feel good about it, but the clouds stayed.
    I finished my sandwich and got up to leave.  Marilyn was talking to a friend about things she hates.  She is able to do this while laughing at the same time.  And partway through her list she saw me waiting to get past her to leave.  She laughed again and said, “But I really like you, Gus!”
    Well that was a nice thing to hear.  I climbed back on my bike, feeling a little better.  I headed back west, toward home.
    The wind was at my back now, blowing me down the trail.  But the sitting had stiffened me up a little.  It took some time to work the kinks out.  The air, instead of growing warmer as the day progressed, seemed to get colder.  The clouds gathered, and halfway to LaValle the rain came down.  It was a cold rain, and felt like icy pebbles beating on my fingers as they gripped the handlebars.  I tried to upshift, but my legs didn’t like it.  So I kept my head down and pressed on through the rain.
    I finally reached LaValle, and biked down to the library again to have a drink of water under the awning.  There was another email from P, wanting to know how I was, and would I need a ride.  No, I was fine.  Gus got back on his bike, put his head down and slogged down the trail.  For exactly two blocks.  Screw this.  He turned around and biked straight to the River Mill.  He sat down and ordered a Moon Man ale.  And emailed to P, yes, I’ll take that ride.  I’ll buy you a beer.
    When Gus arrived home, there was another email waiting for him.  The siding job was off.  The owner of the house had decided to be the help.  Rejected again.
    Reading over this post, I know it’s a somber one.  Well, it’s about rejection.  But for some reason, Gus never stays down for very long.  Since then I did some other work, got back in the money, and that was good.  I sat down the next day with the Writer’s Market to see where else I can send my work.  I don’t even care if it pays or not.  I just want to be accepted in something beside my own blog.  I know I can do it.  And this makes Gus feel pretty good, just knowing that he’s doing something besides riding under his own dark clouds.

    And a final note.  Since I started typing this up, Mike, the owner of the River Mill died.  Mike was a genial and jovial man, who laughed easily.  Mike made up the personality of the River Mill, and his staff reflect his nature.  It’s hard to imagine the place without him.  I’ll admit that I was on the outer fringes of his acquaintances, but he always recognized me, and passed the time of day when things were quiet.  Very often a few friendly words with a near-stranger can brighten a person’s day as much as the sun unexpectedly breaking and beaming through stormy clouds.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Paddling to the River Mill

For years now, I've been wanting to canoe the stretch of the Baraboo river between Wonewoc and LaValle.  From the Wonewoc end, it looks interesting, beginning with a long straight stretch that flows quietly away from the highway and suddenly bends around a corner and disappears.  You can't see where it goes from there.  It's hidden from the road and doesn't appear again until you reach LaValle, eight miles away.  Of course, eight miles on the road could be 16 or 20 or more miles by river.  It's not a fast way to travel.  And, from what Gus has heard, the Baraboo is not an easy river.

There are tales of people who ventured onto it, expecting a pleasant 3 hour tour, and not arriving until the end of the day.  The river, is strewn with fallen trees and surrounded by swamps and shallow muddy ponds.  It's a river that meanders and all but disappears, spreading wide and shallow across mud flats the suck and pull the unsuspecting traveler.  It's not a river to be taken lightly.  A few years ago, two women decided to paddle to LaValle.  They left Wonewoc in the afternoon while their husbands planned to meet them in LaValle.  At suppertime, they weren't there yet.  And then it became dark, and they still hadn't showed up.  The men finally contacted the fire department to begin a search.  The searchers were using four-wheelers to ride up and down the bike trail, which cuts through the swamp and crosses the river a couple of times.  They drove back and forth, not finding anyone.  But according to the woman, they could hear the four wheelers, and were calling out, but the machines were too loud and nobody heard them.  The women finally found a place to pull out, at around midnight, and made their way into town walking, tired and hungry and covered with bites.

(Neko Case is singing, "This Tornado Loves You" on the radio.  Oh, man, that's a nice tune.  Sorry, that has nothing to do with anything.)

I have talked to other people who have canoed that stretch.  They were young and not inexperienced.  And they all said that it was a hard stretch of water, and that they wouldn't do it again.  I believed them.  Gus is one of those guys who isn't afraid to take advice.  "So, Gus," you might wonder.  "Then what ever possessed you to try it this time, after being told how bad it was?"  Well, the thing that convinced me was rain, and lots of it, day after day.  I kept an eye on the rive, watching it rise, and rise some more.  I watched it finally crest at the top of the banks, and I decided, what the heck, I'm gonna do this river.  I'm gonna own this river!

So on a Sunday morning, I arranged for a ride, packed some food and water and loaded the canoe onto my pickup to drop it off on the edge of town. I could have started right in town, but have been down that stretch a few times already. It meanders far and wide for miles and miles just to double back to the city limits.  I didn't feel like running that.  I put in at the little rest area east of Wonewoc.  There's an artesian well there where town folk fill jugs of drinking water, rather than drink the chlorinated and flouridated stuff in town.  And that's fine, I can't blame them.  I often wonder what kind of pesticides and herbicides are being dumped on the fields across the road from there, but I guess no matter where you turn you're liable to have something to worry about, if you choose.

There's a little swale in the park that is usually just grass.  But that day it was filled with water from the flooded river. I was able to set the canoe in there without having to worry about slipping down a muddy bank.  From there I loaded up and paddled out into the broad and muddy Baraboo river.  The current was stronger than it appeared.  I had to move quickly to get situated and point the bow downriver.  But then for the next mile, things were pretty smooth.  The breeze was blowing, the sun was shining, the sky was blue and dappled with white clouds.  Birds of every feather and song were flying and calling all around me.  A muskrat surfaced suddenly and floated along beside me, almost close enough to whack with my paddle, if I was the sort who might do that.  But I'm not.

The straight stretch ended suddenly in a 180 degree turn.  And just that suddenly the river became a tangle of downed trees, of trees and tall grassy banks closing in around me.  The first couple of tangles were navigable, but there finally came one that I had to search for an opening through.  I backed up, fighting the current, made a couple of false starts, backed up again, and finally found a narrow chute between the river bank and the crown of the downed tree.  I shot through, cringing a little as the branches scraped along the underside of the canoe.  And that describes most of the rest of the trip.  I worked my way around branches, under trees, and over trees.  I thought I was trapped at one jam, looking a long portage through the stinking mud.  But I doubled back and found where the flooded river had cut a new channel through the woods.  It was narrow and shallow, but deep enough to float me.  I popped out at the other in, back in the main channel again.  After 50 feet or so, I had to climb out and onto a downed tree trunk to lift the canoe up and over.

I finally came to a place where I had to portage.  The only exit was on a muddy river bank.  I pulled up alongside it and climbed out, trying to keep a footing on the bank.  But I slipped and went down, landing heavily on my hand.  My middle three fingers bent backward under me and suddenly popped out of joint, nearly touching my wrist.  Just as suddenly, I was on my feet, and felt the fingers popped back into place again.  It hurt an amazing amount!  And the thing that amazed me the most is that I didn't yell or scream or anything.  What would be the point?  I was all alone.  All I did was groan, and say, "Aw, jeeze!"  There was no one to hear my pain.  No one to feel sorry for me.  And really, I didn't have time to feel sorry for myself. I had to grab the canoe rope and pull it up the bank before it floated away.  Of course, the canoe wouldn't have gone far.  All it would have done is float down to the fallen tree and get tangled up in the middle of the river.  I dragged it up and carried it through the coarse and sharp river grass.  The blades slashed at my bare legs and feet.  I reached the open water and slid back in.

The river twisted and turned, sometimes almost doubling back on itself.  I would rudder myself around a sharp bend and see the river where I'd been five minutes earlier.  One moment, the sun would be in my eyes, and then next it would be at my back.  And even though the river was not the most dangerous or challenging that I've ever been on, it was definitely the most work.  Ol' Gus's arms worked steadily to keep the canoe where I wanted it to go.  I had packed a lunch, but only eaten a half a sandwich so far, because there was just no time to idle and float.  I could have pulled ashore at some point, but there were insects along there.  So I had to keep going.  And it wasn't without its rewards.  There were steep cliffs that I didn't know existed back here.  There were hidden farms with cattle grazing next to the river.  There was one steep cliff that had a chain link fence running along the edge.  Cattle stood up there and looked down at me.  I passed a low-hanging tree, and realized that there was a dead fawn in one of the branches, hanging limply over the river.  It was a sad thing to see, but it got me thinking about how far I was from any well-traveled routes.  I have heard of lions doing that, and every year we hear rumors of big cats in this neighborhood.  And though I didn't feel in any danger, it seemed like a good idea to not linger under those branches.

I had to navigate many more snags and jams, but only had one more portage.  That was in a section of the river with a tall grassy bank on one side, and a muddy swamp on the other.  And when I looked more closely at the tall bank, I realized that it had more nettles than grass, and the nettles were waist high, and I was in shorts and sandals.

I back-paddled for a some time, looking up at that bank, and looking at the distance I would have to travel.  There were three trees down in the river, so it would be a couple of hundred feet of carrying.  And there was no telling what the ground would be like, but most likely it would be mud.  Mud and sawgrass and nettles, and me with bare legs and toes.  I sighed and climbed ashore, taking care to not slip this time.  Then I pulled the canoe ashore and set out across the broad isthmus.

I started to think seriously about a cold beer right about then.  My plan was to pull out at the River Mill and wait for my ride there. I was going to have a cold one and relax.  The River Mill.  It was built back in the early 80's, when the old River Mill burned down, along with the rest of the block.  There was also an old hardware store that never rebuilt, and at least one other business that I don't recall.  I like the River Mill and I don't.  I feel ambiguous.  It's a big log tavern, with high ceilings, a stuffed moose and wolf and lion on a big shelf above the bar.  It's got the feel of a northwoods tavern, airy and comfortable.  But it's got this big-ass television right behind the bar.  It's just big, and loud, unless you ask the bartender to please turn it down.  And they usually do.  And, back to the "like" column, I really like the service there.  The owner is a genial and good-humored guy, always ready to visit if he has a minute.  The staff is always friendly, and generally prompt.  It's a really nice place to hang out and have a beer or two.  It's a great place to unwind.  It's clean and kept up really well.  There are lots of windows all around and a really pleasant dining area that looks out at the river.  I've seldom had a bad time at the River Mill.  I'm not impressed by the food though.  Once again, it's like a lot of food served in cafes around here.  A lot of it is ready-made and not really inspired.  It's not "bad" so much as not much of anything.  And really, in a place like this, I feel bad for finding fault with the food.  And, of course, it's just my opinion.

The grass slashed at my bare legs, and the nettles stung me every step of the way.  I was able to drag the canoe though.  The tall grass and the mud didn't scrape it.  If I had had to carry it, I would have sunk in.  I nearly tripped over some long-fallen trees hidden in the grass.  But I made it around the jam and put the canoe back into the river, sliding the nose down the tall bank, and then carefully following behind.  My feet and legs were smarting from the nettles and the sweat that trickled into the thousand tiny cuts.  But the amazing thing about nettle bites is that they go away quickly.  I dragged my legs in the river for a short distance and the welts were gone.

The next two hours seemed like, well, two hours, or maybe even three.  That's not to say I wasn't still enjoying myself.  I was.  The scenery was lovely, and that portage was the last bad jam that I encountered.  But it was still a steady occupation that demanded attention.  I was getting hungrier, of course, and now was passing "No Trespassing" signs (at the edge of a cliff along the river??  Please.) and hearing steady gunfire on a hillside.  Every time I thought I'd gotten away from the gunfire, the river doubled back closer.  But I finally entered a stretch that I recognized, one that I'd seen from the bike trail.  And sure enough, a couple of bikers pedaled past a quarter mile ahead.  I knew exactly where I was!  I dug in, telling my swollen and purple finger joints and aching shoulders that it wasn't far now.  And it wasn't.  I pulled into LaValle as the sun was dipping down to the tall trees the hilltops.  There was a landing right between two taverns.  One of them was the River Mill, my destination.

And here's the thing.  Ol' Gus had just finished this five-and-a-half hour odyssey, and done it alone.  I had conquered the river.  In my head there was a fanfare, and there was a crowd of people watching from the taverns, wondering, "Who is this man?  Who is this intrepid and powerful specimen of a man who braved the long, lonely river alone and is now emerging, weary and hungry and bruised, but undaunted, to claim his well-deserved accolades?"  Yeah, that was in my head.  I tried to climb from the canoe as if I had just gone out for a spin.  I think I did a good job of it.  I unloaded the canoe and carried everything up onto the bank, with a spring in my step, to a handy picnic table.  Then I turned back to retrieve the canoe.  This would be the hard part, picking it up as if it weighed nothing, and then walking up and not stumbling.  I also managed that, balancing the 17-foot canoe on my shoulders, tripping lightly up the slope and then gently setting it on the grass.  I was impressing myself!  From there I walked into the River Mill.  I decided to go with a weary but undefeated walk, kind of stretching, maybe dragging my feet a little.  It was kind of a letdown to see that nobody was anywhere near a window.  And nobody paid any attention when I walked in,  aside from a glance to see if they knew me.  Then they turned back to their conversations.  So much for my self-image.  I crept sheepishly up to the bar and ordered a New Glarus Moon Man pale ale and a glass of water, then pulled out my iPod to email for my ride home.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

What's my Book About?

So anyway, Alaska Bike Girl posted this on her site.  Here's part of it:

"I was tagged in a post by Katey, one of my friends who is also a writer, and a disciplined one at that. Katey did a post on "The Next Big Thing," a blog hop where writers from around the world share what they're working on by responding to ten questions. Am I supposed to tag someone? If so, I'm going to tag Uncle Gus, who is also working on a novel. Alright, ready or not, here is my entry to "The Next Best Thing." Before I begin, did I mention I'm also working on revising my novel? I am."

So there ya go, in case anyone is interested.  Yeah, Gus thinks he might be a writer someday.  But really, he's a day laborer.  And an errand boy.  Yes, often an errand boy.  I'm the guy folks call if they need a ride, or a pet sitter, or parent sitter, or a cat coaxed down from a tree.  And perhaps you, gentle reader (Hahahahaha!  I've always wanted to type that!) have surmised this from my writing.  And for the most part, I'm fine with my place in society.  Well, except when the bills don't get paid on time, or when I can't afford a beer.  But, like I said, I'm fine with it.  I've seen some of the options.  And somebody has to do it.

But back to the writing thing.  Alaska Bike Girl sent a list of questions, and I answered them.  I don't have anyone to tag though.

"But Gus!" you might exclaim.  "Where's the Food Revue?"  Gosh, I just don't have one today.  I don't get out to eat much these days.  Did Gus mention that he was as poor as dirt?  But I did get locked in the men's room at a local tavern this past weekend.  Oh, you're intrigued already, aren't you?  And who wouldn't be interested in the White Trash Adventures of Gus?  Anyway, my friend, P, was in a mood and wanted to get out for a beer after the third week of darkness and rain.  So we emptied the change jar and left.  No, I ain't a-gonna mention the name of the tavern.  I go there more often than the others.  Anyway, we got to the tavern.  We ordered beers.  IPA.  Oh, my, they were good. And there were a few people there who were good company.  We ordered refills.  I had mine half gone and went to the mens room.  So far, so good.

And the door to the mens room has had a bad latch for a long time.  A year?  And so the cylinder has been taped shut for at least that long.  Duct tape!  So really, just the friction of the tape holds the door shut.  Well, that tape finally tore through when ol' Gus was in there.  I grabbed the knob, the door knob, (yes, I washed my hands!) and turned it, and all it did was spin in my hand.  Jeeze.

I could hear people out there, at the far end of the room at the bar.  They were laughing, having a good time. I could hear stools shifting out there, and bottles being set on the bar.  It sounded fun out there.  And it sounded like too many people for me to start hollering that I was stuck in the bathroom.  But there was a beer waiting for me.  What should I do?

I remembered I had car keys in my pocket.  I pulled them out and tried sliding them between the door and the jamb.  No luck.  Then I looked at the hinges.  Hm.  It might work.  I took the key and slit it under the head of the hinge pin.  And pushed.  And pried.  The tooth of the key finally slid under the pin and I pried it up.  It came easily after the first quarter inch.  Yes!  I was so cool!  Gus had control of the situation, he was in charge, he didn't need to call for help.  Gus had that cocky self-confidence that comes from a pint and a half of good beer.  He dug into the next hinge.  It came up easily.  I set it on the sink with the other.

The third hinge didn't move.  I worked at it for a while, and realized that my hands were covered with grease.  And the grease was flecked with shiny bits of metal from the hinges, metal scraped off from years and years of openings and closings.  I didn't care.  I had a mission.  I went at it again, working the key against the pin, trying to get a purchase under the head of it.  No luck.  The key slipped and scraped a knuckle.  I kept working until my fingers were raw.  I finally beat on the door a couple of times.  Nobody heard.  They were too busy laughing and talking and having a good time.  I went back to work.  I scraped and pried and sweated.  My hands were slippery with grease and sweat, and my shirt was growing wet.  Didn't anyone have to use the bathroom??  The key slipped again, and a sliver of metal slid into the pad of my index finger.  It slid through the grease and the skin and halfway to the first joint, it seemed, leaving a tip too small to grab.  I finally gave it up.  This was ridiculous.  I had a beer waiting, and people to visit with.  I finally beat on the door again, during a lull in the noise out there.  A moment later I heard footsteps.

"You okay in there?" called the bartender.
"Yep.  Just locked in."
"Shit.  I have to get a key."  His footsteps retreated.  I put the two hinge pins back in and started washing my hands.  By the time I was on the second lather, he was back, working the lock.  It took a while, but it finally clicked open.
"That damn thing should have been fixed a long time ago," he said.
"Yeah."  I left him, and went up to finish my beer.  The bar was almost empty.  The people we were visiting with had left.  P asked what happened.  "I got locked in.  Stupid door."  We watched the bartender grab a fresh roll of duct tape and go back to the bathroom.  He was back a few minutes later.
"Well," he said.  "I hope you weren't traumatized."
"Only a little," I told him.
"Well, maybe a free beer will help?"
"I'd say that would do very nicely."

Okay, that was my big adventure.   Back to the book.

What is the working title of your book?
 "Before I Go."

Where did the idea come from for your book?
The idea came from my experiences working on the house that I live in, and the realization that I could live to be hundred and still not have all the work it needed finished.  And I got to wondering, what if a person did want to leave, just ditch it, but couldn't, in good conscience, until everything was done?

 What genre does your book fall under?
Contemporary fiction.  Yeah, that sounds right.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
The two main characters would be played by Edward Norton and Jeff Bridges.  Well, a younger Jeff Bridges, but still with the Lebowski look.

What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Yow.  Let's see...A recently single and directionless man goes to work with an alcoholic carpenter who suddenly seems to have a secret second life.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
It would have to be an agency.  I just can't see myself self-promoting.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
About a month, once I got all of my notes together.  I don't know how long it took to write the notes out.  A couple of years?  And I did the typing over a month that I was "between jobs."  It kind of kept me from hearing the wolves at the door.  Oh, they were still there.  I just didn't hear them.  Much.

 What other books would you compare this story to within this genre?
"Nobody's Fool" meets "The Great Gatsby."  How's that for pretentious?

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I was in a really excellent writing group, and the others, one in particular, were actually doing something with their work, and so sitting down and typing mine up was really an act of desperation to catch up with them.  Sadly, for me, the others have moved away.  I need to get another group started.  I know they're out there.  I've done some looking around, so far with no luck.  But I have hope.

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest? 
I've gone with the themes of loneliness, friendship, loyalty, loss, perseverance, and hope.  I like the idea that even people who seem to exist on the ragged fringes of society have a need to search for not only a physical place, but a place in their minds and in their souls that justifies their existence.  Friendship can get us through many things.  Friendship can give us the strength and the will to persevere and to hope and to grow.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Private Matter

'Ol Gus wrote this...when?  I don't even remember, at least 5 years ago.  I wrote it down a day after.  It's all true, as near as I could remember.  Someone else might remember it differently, and that's fine with me.  So here it is, a day late for Memorial Day.  And there's no talk of food.

My brother got sent to Iraq.  I'll admit right now that I don't really know him all that well.  Mark is almost ten years younger than I am, from a family of ten children.  By the time he was in the fourth grade, I had moved away from home.  When he was eighteen he went into the army, and seldom came home for the next decade.

When he did get out, he had a wife, a son, a job and a house.  But he stayed in the reserves, and eventually, inevitably, he was called back up, and was sent to serve in Iraq.  I didn't think much of it, and still don't.  I thought he should refuse.  But he and I have different ideas of right and wrong, and for Mark the right thing to do was serve his country.

And so for the next year the only contact we had with him was through his wife.  And now, finally, after over a year, he was coming home.  His wife called me and the rest of the family in late October to tell us he was flying in to Volk Field, and that we could meet the plane if we wanted.  Most of us siblings have scattered, from Alaska to Florida.  But there are still a few of us who are close enough to drive to meet him.

But the thought of the military's staged welcome home, and the idea of the contrived ceremony of meeting the plane as it touched down made me balk.  I didn't want to be a part of it.  I mulled it over all of that morning, and finally my balkyness turned into a disgusted resignation.  I wanted to see him home.  He's my brother.  I just didn't want to be a part of the crowd and the ceremony.  I thought it should be a private matter.

No, I didn't want to go, but in the end decided that it was too far for my parents to drive.  I quit work at noon and drove over to their house.  The three of us rode together in Dad's big Buick.  I was behind the wheel, as I had been for the last few years whenever there was any distance involved.  Dad took the back seat.  He always sits in the back when Mom comes along.  He sits in the back and doesn't say a word.  I think he has trouble making small talk with me.  We don't often see eye-to-eye on many things.  I'm his oldest son, and I think I was often the most troublesome.

Today though, at Mom's urging, he talked a little about when he was a kid growing up on the farm outside of Elroy.  He talked about how they'd all go to church on Sundays.  And then after church they'd stop at his grandfather's house to visit.  "But he lived down by the train yards," Dad said.  "And the coal dust was everywhere, on everything.  So Ma always made sure we brought our farm clothes to play outside in.
"My grandpa worked at the roundhouse," he said.  "He was an oiler.  The engines would come in and roll onto the turntable and then into the shop.  He's have to go all over every moving part with his oil can.  Then they'd roll them back out and put 'em on the track again."

That was about all Dad said during the half-hour ride to Volk Field.  Mom did a pretty good job of filling the silence by telling me stories, mostly of her childhood, most of them stories I'd heard many times before on different trips.  She sang a few bars of, "Shine on, shine on harvest moon, up in the sky," and then told me about visiting her older sister who had been in the last stages of dementia before she died in a nursing home, and who shouted out, "Honey moon!" when Mom sang that song to her.  Mom was silent for a moment, then said, out of the blue, "She was only a stableman's daughter, but all the horse manure!"  I kept my eyes on the road and drove on.

The temperature had been dropping through the morning, and now it was down below freezing.  The wind picked up and whipped dry brown leaves and ribbons of snow across the highway.  Heavy gusts rocked the big Buick.  The sky was a bright hard blue, but the clouds were dark and heavy and scudded in clumps across the sky and across the sun so that we were driving through a chiaroscuro of sudden darkness and sudden sunlight.  Whenever I looked in the rearview mirror, I could see Dad looking out across the brown stubbled remnants of cornfields and to the bare trees beyond.  His face was as unreadable as the gray woodlands on the rocky hillsides.

He had been through WWII, in Africa and Italy.  But he never talks about it.  He talks only of the traveling there and back.  "It was a job," he says.  "When it was over, we came home."

The guard at the gate at Volk Field hunched against the wind when he came out of his shelter.  His collar was pulled up over his ears, and he only glanced in the car before he waved us through.  We looked like what we were, a family there to meet the plane.

We followed the signs that said, "Parking."  The narrow road wound past old brick and stone barracks and officer's quarters and the mess hall.  Dad said they were all  built during WW I, before they started making everything out of wood and tin.

The parking lot was half full, and more cars were coming in as we parked.  My sister's van pulled in beside us.  I hadn't even seen her following.  She had her two kids, Vincent and Rebecca with her.  Rebecca came running over to tell us that they'd followed us all the way from the gate.  There were six of us now, and we all turned together and leaned into the wind, slowly and steadily moving toward the big gray airplane hangar that squatted at the edge of the runway in the distance.

The wind was even worse here with no hills to block it as it tore across the flat sandy land.  The powder of snow and grit rose up to cloud the buildings, and suddenly fell away again.  Dad was moving slowly but gamely on his poor bowlegged knees.  In his eighties, he still has a drill sergeant's voice, and a solid grip when he shakes your hand.  But arthritis had hit his knees over the last few years.  I asked him about it a while back when I saw he was having trouble walking.  All he said then was, "They hurt like hell."  But he hasn't mentioned it since then.  It hurt me to watch him walk.  I used to follow him around on the farm, looking for new calves or checking the fence line, and I always had to run to keep up.  Today we all slowed, pretending to be strolling so that he wouldn't be left behind.

We had to go through another gate to get to the hangar.  There was a tent set up at the gate, as big as a garage.  Big propane heaters roared and blew in hot air, but the young guys working there were still bundled up and shivering.  They made everyone hold their arms out while they ran metal detector wands over us.  One of the politely and apologetically asked Mom to open her purse for inspection.  She checked out okay.

Mark's wife, Tammy, was waiting for us on the other side of the tent, along with their son, Zach.  Tammy is a hugger, married into a family of non-huggers.  We have our space, even among each other.  Even though she knows this, Tammy ran up and hugged each of us.  Now there were eight of us walking slowly across the tarmac, through the cold and the wind and the sand and the snow, the last 50 yards to the hangar.

Inside the hangar it was warm and brightly lit and filled with people.  There were groups of families who stood in clusters and chattered and laughed.  There were other people who stood apart, alone and silent while they waited.  The voices of the talking, laughing people merged and echoed off the walls and off the ceiling until it became a low roar of anticipation and excitement.

There was no sign of wealth to be seen anywhere in the crowd.  A few of the young wives or girlfriends were dressed in their best, of course.  But for the most part the people, especially the parents, were in everyday working clothes, and many of them looked apprehensive and unused to crowds.

After a while a man stood up at the podium and announced that the plane was nearly there.  The big hangar doors were kept closed, so we all filed out, maybe two hundred of us trying to funnel through the two small side doors.

We could see the landing lights of the plane up against the bright and cold blue sky.  It still seemed to be miles away.  A few people cheered and waved little American flags on sticks.  But their voices were cut thin and blown away by the wind.  Dad looked up at the sky as he had done every day when he was farming.  Then he looked at the hard bright landing lights.  He had his back to the wind and his face was turned up, his jaw muscles clenched.  He didn't say anything.  Mom was confused.  She was standing behind a tall woman, and saying, "Where is it?  I don't see it!"  Tammy put her arm around her and moved her from behind the tall woman.  She pointed, and Mom said, "Oh there it is!  I see it now!"

The plane dropped smoothly onto the end of the long runway.  White smoke puffed up under the tires when it touched down.  It slowed incredibly soon, it seemed to me, for such a huge machine.  Then it turned off the runway a quarter mile away, and stopped.  It took a long time for the steps to be wheeled up to the plane and for the door to open.

We finally saw figures filing out, and down the steps.  A man on a platform at the edge of the crowd started cheering, and the rest of the crowd took it up.  Then more soldiers walked out and the same voice shouted out, "I don't think they heard you!"  The crowd cheered louder while the soldiers gathered in a group beside the plane.  I stayed in the back of the crowd, apart from them, and looked over their heads.

Mom and Dad were shivering from the wind and the cold.  I walked with them back to the hangar where they ended up talking to another couple who had also come in from the cold.  I left them there and went back outside.

There was a company of veterans outside now, about ten of them, all carrying big American flags.  They were getting set up to fall into some sort of formation.  The ranged in age from thirty to sixty or more years old.  One of them was a short and grizzled guy with a beard.  He was dressed in black leather and wore a Harley-Davidson bandana on his head.  One of the many patches on his jacket read, "Viet Nam Vet, and Proud of It!"  He had that beaten-down-but-not-beaten look that I've seen so often on men at the V.A. hospital, on men from that era.  I've also seen that look a hundred times on television and in movies, every time there's a displaced vet as one of the characters.  I've seen so often that it seems more an affectation than a reality.  There's a part of me that says I'm wrong to think that, but on the other hand I don't recall seeing it on WWII veterans.

The soldiers were finally moving to the hangar, hurrying now to get out of the wind.  None of them wore coats.  I turned to go inside to tell Mom and Dad when my nephew, Vincent, came running up to me.  "Uncle Gus," he said.  "You're not as much fun as you usually are."

I didn't know what to tell him.  I had never realized that he thought I was fun.  I told him I was sorry.  I told him I was thinking of other things.  And I was.  I still didn't want to be a part of this.  I was trying to keep the annoyed and bitter feeling alive.  But it was getting hard.  The anger was still there, but what with the cold, and the wind, and the gray driving snow, what with Mom befuddled and Dad hobbling, I began to feel empty, and I began to feel alone, and I began to feel lonesome in my anger.  I followed the crowd inside and found the rest of the family.  We waited together.

The soldiers started filing in the back door, all in their lightweight desert camo uniforms.  We watched and waited until, finally, Mark walked in.  He's a big man, and stood half a head taller than most of them.  He looked about him, smiling in an oddly unsure but happy way that I remembered from when he was a little kid, a look that seems to say, "I'm happy to be here, even if I'm not sure where 'here' is."  I moved out to where he could see us, then stepped back with Mom and Dad.

Tammy and Zach pushed through the crowd to meet him, but the rest of us held back, letting them have a moment together.  I glanced over at Mom and Dad.  Mom was smiling distractedly while she watched Mark.  But Dad's face was twisting, as if he were in pain.  His mouth turned down sharply and I thought for a moment that the walking and the cold and the wind had caught up with him.  I took a few worried steps toward him, then stopped.  I stopped because I knew he wouldn't want me to see him, to see his face sttruggling to keep a confident smile on, struggling to keep the tears back.  When I saw that on his face, on his strong-jawed and stoic old-soldier face, and realized it for what it was, it hit me too, with an awful suddenness.  It filled my chest so that my breath hitched and I had to look away to make it stop.  But I couldn't look away for long.  I couldn't keep from watching as Dad forced his tired and aching legs forward to meet Mark, as he held out his hand to shake his son's hand.

I hadn't seen how the rest of the family had greeted Mark.  I had only watched Dad during that time.  And now, as he held out his open hand, his mouth kept turning down, twisting from that smile that he kept vainly trying on, and the struggle went on and on until Mark ignored the open hand and hugged him.

We didn't stay much longer.  The soldiers had to meet up, to be debriefed before they would be allowed to go, and that would take hours.  We said our good-byes and then I ran ahead to the parking lot to warm up the car and bring it as close as I could to the airstrip gate.  From there we followed the winding road back to the gate and turned out onto the highway.  Outside the wind was cold, and was still driving the leaves and the dust and the snow across the road, hissing across the hood and roof of the car.  But inside the car it was warm.  Dad spoke up from the back seat.  "Boy, that heat feels good."  A few minutes later he spoke up again, the last thing he said all the rest of the way home.  "Well," he said.  "I'm glad we went."

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Cookin' for the Arts!

Last Thursday night found me on the rain-drenched roads in the hills between Viroqua and Lafarge and points beyond.  The lightening forked through the clouds around me, but I couldn't hear the thunder for the roar of the rain on the hood and the roof of my little truck.  There was little traffic, which was fortunate because when the puddled rain wasn't trying to pull me to the shoulder, the thousands of worms were being turned to a slick puree under my tires.

So you might ask, "Gus, what the heck were you doing out in such weather?  Was it a family emergency?  A disaster of some sort?"  No, it was nothing like that.  Though, I say with some amount of bragging, it might have been a disaster of sorts if ol' Gus hadn't showed up.  Okay, yeah, I know I'm gonna go to hell for Pride.  So be it.  No, I was on my way back from working at a benefit dinner for a Writer's Workshop.  A fellow I had worked with in the construction trade, Jimmy, was hosting it, along with the Workshops director.  What was her name?  I don't recall, I'll call her, "Sonya."  Just because.

Details.  What details do I need?  Jimmy called me up to see if I could help out at this dinner, feeding about 50 people.  He knew I'd had experience in the food business.  Ol' Gus wouldn't call himself a chef by any means.  But he knows his way around a kitchen, he knows the basics.  I like to think that I shine at prep work, doing the behind the scenes stuff.  I've done the line cooking thing, but I'll tell ya, I just don't have the temperament.  As soon as I get an order in, I'm a bundle of nerves.  What's up with that?  I don't know.  I can do it, I have many times.  I've dealt with lines of hungry people.  But at the end of the day, I'm pretty wiped out just keeping the panic tamped down.  So there ya go, Gus's admission of weakness.

But I told Jimmy, sure.  I'd be happy to help out.  There was going to be a chef there putting stuff together, so all I need to do was help him out.  The chef was leaving before dinner got served, so I had to see that everything was ready to be plated up and served.  It was all pretty straightforward.  And I'd get to meet some literary-minded people, even a bona-fide Author, who was going to be reading from his latest release!

I got there and was introduced to the chef, Robert, who informed me that he wasn't an actual "chef", but his father was, and Robert had been cooking professionally since he was young.  And that was fine with me.  I respected him for not putting on airs.  I've met a few folks who I think could have been called "chef" who have learned it by the seat of their pants.

Robert put me to work peeling some ginger to be pureed, then slicing apples and pears for the desert.  Jimmy and Sonya were setting the tables and arranging things.  They were giddy and a little excited about the event.  I got the impression, though, that they didn't have much experience in setting up banquets.  They came into the kitchen, laughing and joking around.  And that was fine.  Sonya asked Robert a question about serving times, and it got discussed for a moment before I realized that they hadn't really been communicating that part very well.  They couldn't settle on a time for seating and serving, and it eventually became a heated argument that went on while I quietly sliced pears and apples as thinly as I could.  They were three people talking over each other, not getting anywhere.

At one point, Sonya mentioned that she wanted to express her feelings about how Robert was talking to her.  That didn't get very far either.  They finally agreed on a time, and then Robert told them both, "Now.  If you have any other questions, or anything to do with me, ask it now.  From now on my only communication is with Gus.  That's it.  We need to concentrate on what we're doing."  I thought that was a little extreme, considering that most everything was ready.  But I mentally shrugged and went back to cutting.  Jimmy and Sonya went back to work in the dining room.

Robert and I worked and talked.  We didn't talk about the job at hand so much as everything else.  Robert had cooked in cafes and restaurants out on the west coast, big and small, a lot of organic stuff.  He did seem to have a good knowledge of what he was up to, but I still couldn't help thinking he was still flying by the seat of his pants.  He also had a chip on his shoulder.  And then Sonya came in the kitchen to ask how a certain dish was going to be served up.  Robert's face grew dark, and he looked down at the bowl of ginger/lemon puree he was mashing up.

"I...what...Sonya...didn't I tell you..." He sighed heavily and seemed to be working himself into a higher plane of anger.  Sonya didn't seem to see it.  I wondered briefly if they were a couple, and if so, why were they still together.  "I just wanted to know so..."
"You know what I have going on here.  You know what I told you."  He didn't raise his voice, but spoke through clenched teeth.  Jimmy came back in, and then Sonya started talking about her feelings again, and why they should be known.
"I'll give all the information you need to Gus.  He'll fill you in.  After I leave."
Jimmy looked at me and smiled.  "Sounds good," he said.  "Come on Sonya.  Let's get changed."

She wanted to stay, to continue the discussion about her feelings.  But Robert was already reaching into cupboards and slamming spoons onto the counter and a pot on the stove.  She spun around and followed Jimmy.  I waited to hear an explanation from Robert, but it didn't come.  He started muttering under his breath, talking about polenta and water and ratios.  He spent five minutes trying to figure the amounts and ratios in his head.  Then he measured out the water, turned on the heat, and we went back to talking as if the argument had never happened.

In the end, everything went smoothly.  Robert left after the polenta was done.  Waitstaff volunteers showed up, a couple of dishwashers started scrubbing pans left over from the day.  I had help, very good help, plating up the food to serve.  Everyone was happy, even the vegetarian who had to have the mushrooms picked out of her dish before we could take it out to her.

Personally, Gus thought the beef dish was a little too acidic.  The tomato needed to be cut a little.  And the vegetarian choice could have been something a little more imaginative than just mushroom broth with a few vegetables.  But, like I said, everyone seemed to be happy.  And after everything was served, I got to take off my apron and put on a clean shirt and open up a bottle of Moon Man pale ale from New Glarus Brewing Co.  That hit the spot just fine.  I went out and mingled a little while someone else cleaned up behind me.  How often does that happen?

I did see some people I knew, and a few dear friends showed up.  But by the time Gus was out there, the reading was about to begin, so there was very little visiting to be done.  The reading began with a one-man skit that left the audience wondering if it was over or not, unsure of whether or not  to applaud.  But the reading went well, and drew a good response at the good humor and warmth of the writer.  Afterward there was a question and answer that left me wondering if people actually read the material before they asked the questions.  Oh, not everyone.  Just some.  And the best part of that was that Gus was sitting next to some friends and we were able to snicker quietly together.  Yeah, I know, Gus and Friends might have been being a little catty.  But come on, people!

After the presentation, everyone seemed to be ready to leave at once.  Gus had wanted to socialize a little more, but it just wasn't in the cards tonight.  I gathered up my tools and clothes and headed out to the truck and onto the highway out of town.  The air felt heavy and warm.  I couldn't see any stars.

The rain began to fall as soon as I got beyond the pale glow if the streetlights.  It grew heavy and rattled in sheets across the hood of the truck. The wind picked up right before I dropped into the valley.  I turned on the radio, and the local station, WDRT, was playing some really nice old blues.  I turned it up to hear it over the sound of the wind and the rain.  A pair of headlights came up from behind, caught up to me, then dropped back suddenly as the rain came down harder.  I turned on to Hwy. 82 and the pair of headlights kept on without following me.  The truck started the climb up the tree-lined and winding road to the next ridgetop.

A week or so ago my truck's tailpipe rusted off.  The rest of the exhaust is still there; catalytic converter and muffler.  So the noise isn't awfully bad.  But it exhausts under the truck bed now, so that resonates along the body and frame when I have to give it some gas.  I finally reached the top and then dropped down the other side into the next valley.  A distorted guitar wailed out of the radio, while someone sang about a love gone wrong.  The guitar and the voice were dark and muddy, like the night outside.  They were heavy with reverb and distortion.  The music belonged to the night.  It belonged to me and my truck with the missing tailpipe.  It seemed to go on for a long time while the truck sluiced down the road.  It became impossible to judge how far I had traveled, and for how long.  I came out on top of one ridge thinking I was not far from home, only to realize that I was two ridges too early.  There were miles to go.  I finally came to a small town that had one bar open in the middle of the block.  There were a few cars outside, and I saw some people sitting at the bar as I drove past.  But it didn't look like a place I would belong.  Often Gus wonders if there is such a place.  I left that town behind and was back in the dark countryside.  I rocked on through the dark and the rain and the wind and somewhere there was a dark and muddy part of my brain that wondered, as anyone is bound to wonder from time to time, if home was where I really wanted to go tonight.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Bad Coffee and Mad Women at the 29 Pines.

So anyway, Gus went to Eau Claire over the weekend of the mumblety-mumblth.  He went with his friend, and ex-employer, Jim.  It was for a convention, the topic of which I ain't a-gonna mention here, because when I did mention it to my friend, M, she broke into gales of derisive laughter.  So I think it's enough to say that the conference room was peopled entirely with women, except for Jim.  And me, of course, but I was only there to move heavy things and to be company.  And that's fine.  I was not attending the convention.

Okay, that's out of the way.  The convention was held at the 29 Pines Inn and Conference Center, which is basically a self-contained compound between Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls, just off of what highway?  Highway 29, of course!  Right smack dab in the middle of the prairie, miles from anything.  It consisted of rooms, a swimming pool, a bar, a restaurant, store, gas station, laundromat and some slots.  Everyone has the slots!  And really, I didn't care.  It was good just to get out of my town and into another, just for a change of scenery.

We got up there in the afternoon.  I helped Jim get set up in the convention room.  While we were setting up, three women came up to Jim, all excited to see him.  They were all my age or older, but all, oddly, with perfectly blonde hair.  At that age, I tell you.  But Jim introduced them as some friends of his who love to party.  Well, that's fine too.  But then they disappeared.  Jim had some things to do, projects he was working on, so I went to the lounge and had a beer.

The lounge was pleasant enough, with some good beers in the cooler.  I passed the time writing and watching people and basketball.  And really, that first evening passed very uneventfully.

On Saturday Jim was going to be busy all day there.  I had come down to the continental breakfast lounge to have a cup of coffee that might have been okay except for the taste of styrofoam.  Man, if that doesn't leave a bad taste in your mouth!  So I took off and headed to Chippewa Falls to search for a good cup of coffee.  I finally found a place, a really funky little brick building with big picture windows.  It was the "4:30 Coffee House."  I went in and saw artwork that I didn't pay much attention to.  There was a group of high-school age, or young college age, kids sitting at the counter.  I got my coffee and sat down.  I took my first sip.  It was lousy.  It was just a lousy cup of coffee.  It was weak and bitter.  And I thought, "I just drove a half an hour for a bad cup of coffee."

Then I looked around.  The artwork was just photos of banal landscapes with some hot air balloons.  There was a little lending library filled with Tom Clancey and Dean Koontz novels.  And there were little family-type groups scattered around, the type of people who aren't going to complain about the coffee even if they do know it's bad.  I was really disappointed, but I sat and watched the people and drank my coffee.  I got to the bottom and tossed back the last of it and got a mouthful of grounds.  They tasted like twice-brewed grounds.  Nice.  I left.

And you know how it is when you're in an unfamiliar town, and you know you should explore and find something cool to do?  Well, that was my thought too.  But I just didn't have a starting point, to tell the truth.  I drove around aimlessly and finally found my van pointed back toward Eau Claire.  And I decided to go to Water Street.  I could find Water Street easily enough.  And I had some recollection of hearing that it was a cool part of town to be in.  Of course, I might have mis-remembered.  Or things might have changed.  Either way, I did end up on Water Street.  It looked a lot different than I remembered, but I drove through, saw a coffee shop, and pulled over.

This one looked neat, in an old brick building with a big picture window facing the sun.  It looked warm and welcoming.  There were college kids in there, reading and doing college stuff.  The girl at the counter was nice and friendly and gave me a coffee mug and pointed me to the carafes.  I tipped her and filled my mug and sat down.  I took a drink.  It was no better than the cup I had in Chippewa Falls!  I didn't know what to do.  Do I go up and tell the girl that I hate her coffee, when so many others are obviously fine with it?  Let's face it, I'm the odd man here.  So all I could do was sit quietly and drink the coffee and try to not scowl.  I watched a girl walk past the window in the sunshine.  She was wearing a red dress with white polka dots on it.  The dress was nice, but she was really clumsy on her high heels.  I finished my coffee and walked about 8 blocks, up and down the street, then drove back to the 29 Pines.

When I got there, I looked for Jim at his table.  He wasn't there.  Just on a whim, okay, maybe an educated guess, I checked the bar.  And there he was surrounded by the three cutest women at the convention.  They were nice looking, though two of them I think were older than me.  The third was about my age and had really nice friendly eyes.  There was an empty stool between her and the others.  She pointed me to it.  It seemed like a safe enough place to sit.
The women were all drinking Bloody Marys.  There were a couple of other women sitting on the other end of the row, around the "L",  furthest from me.  The biggest one seemed to be hitting it kind of hard.  She started to get loud, laughing a lot at her own jokes.  She started talking abut the size of her breasts.  They were huge.  They were enormous.  They rested on the bar on either side of her drink.  Then, since I was the only other guy in the room, she turned her attention to me.  She stretched the neck of her shirt way down to show me her print brassiere.  "Isn't this nice?" she shouted across the bar, daring me to contradict her.
"Jim say's you're a carpenter!!"
"I got some work that needs doing.  I won't pay you any money though. But I'll take care of you, if you know what I mean!!"
I guess I turned red.  Everyone started laughing at me.  And even at that distance from her, I'm sure I flinched a little.
 "You don't need to be afraid of me," she shouted.  "I won't bite!  Unless you want," she added coyly.
 The woman beside me, the one with the nice eyes, put her arm around my shoulder and told the big woman, "Now you be nice to him!"
 The bartender was overworked, and finally brought my Bloody Mary.  It was huge, with a skewer of pepper jack cheese and some sort of Slim Jim sausage, and a few other things to munch on.  In the meantime, the big woman had two Old Fashions in front of her.  She drank one down and started on the next.  Then she started shouting at me about all of the work she needed done, and how she'd take good care of me if I did it.  She showed off her bra again, and the woman beside her started making comments about how scarey her breasts looked in the morning with nothing to hold them up.  Turns out it was her niece.  They were sharing a room.  The drunk woman's jokes got cringingly crude.  She shouted about if anyone needed milk in their coffee in the mornings, just ask.  Yeesh.  But maybe Gus is sharing too much.  He has to slip into third person to forget the horror.  The horror!

We all ordered chicken wings.  They were really messy and not very exciting.  Gus can't remember the last time he had wings, but knows enough to not be disappointed if he doesn't like them.  And he was not disappointed.  But he had a pleasant conversation with the woman beside him.  She was an ambulance driver in Milwaukee.  She used to be married to a baseball player who had been a pitcher for the Brewers but never got far.  Now they're divorced and she has a boyfriend in Green Bay, and is thinking of moving up there.

And by this time, they all got up to leave, except the really drunk woman.  The nice one beside me squeezed my arm when she left.  "Don't let her scare you," she said.  And just like that, I was alone with the drunk woman.  The nice women were gone.  Jim was gone.  Even the bartender had disappeared somewhere in the back.
"Come on over. I want to talk to you!"
"Nah, I've got my stuff right here.  I'm fine."  My ears were hot.  A man came in and sat at the far end of the bar, intent on the basketball game on T.V.
 "Well, I don't want to yell!"
I didn't want her to yell either, but I also didn't want to be seen with her.  I tried to compromise by moving down to the corner of the bar.  This at least quieted her down.  Quite a bit, actually.  So that helped, except that she started interrogating me about where I lived, why I was there, when I could come to Madison to work for her.  I answered really vaguely, and even lied about where I lived.  It seemed to work.  After a long, long time Jim came back in to see how I was doing.
"Fine," I told him.  "I'm gonna run to the bathroom.  I'll be right back."  When I got back, the woman was gone.  Jim was still there.
"I told her that her niece needed some help with something.  I guess we're eating in the restaurant here tonight.  Unless you found a different place."  But I hadn't.  And by dinner time, the really drunk woman was completely sober and quiet and apologetic.  But the nice ones had made other plans, and we didn't see them again until morning.

But that's not all!  That evening I wandered back to the lounge.  There was a group of people there, celebrating someone's birthday.  They all seemed to be couples, and they were all pretty drunk already.  They were locals, and I got the feeling that this was their regular Saturday night gathering place.  One of them was sitting next to me at the bar.  He was a fierce-looking guy on the high side of his fifties, I guessed.  He had a cloth engineer's hat on his head, and hard and mean glinting blue eyes.  He had a great bushy gray mustache that traveled around his mouth, down over his jaw on either side of his chin and down his neck to his shirt collar.  He was sucking on Bud Lights and tumblers of Jack Daniels while he talked with his friend, a gaunt and hollow-eyed guy who fidgeted and twitched the whole time.

They were discussing "that n***er in the White House," and how he was going to destroy this country with his health care system.  They talked about that for a while, then the discussion turned to their guns, and how they weren't giving them up.  The gaunt man said he didn't have any assault rifles anyway.  But Mustache Man reminded him that one of his rifles could be converted into an assault weapon.  "Oh yeah, that's right," said Gaunt Man.  "Well, either way, they're not gonna take it from me!"  He wandered off to talk to the women, who were sitting at a tall table together, drinking and screaming with laughter.  The women had been drinking "Mystery Shots" since about 5:00 that afternoon.  The Mystery Shots were a row of bottles with brown paper wrapped around them and numbered from 1 through 10.  Each one cost a dollar.  The bartender had told me earlier that it was really cheap booze that nobody would buy anyway, so this was a good way to get rid of it.

Another man took the stool beside Mustache Man.  He called for a couple of more drinks.  His arm was in a sling.  He said he had just had surgery on his shoulder.
"Oh, man," said Mustache Man.  "That can't be fun!  I remember when I messed mine up arm wrestling..."  I gave him a closer glance.  He didn't appear especially tall, but his neck was thick and corded and sloped outward to his shoulders like the foot of a stone mountain.  He seemed like a man who could back up his tough talk any day of the week.  We wasn't a man to be trifled with. I started listening more closely, even though he was pretty drunk and starting to repeat himself.
"...well, my arm was getting sore, and I should have stopped right there, you know?  I mean, I just beat five guys in a row, and that was enough.  But I said, 'Okay, one more!'  And this guy came up.  He was a sheet rocker!  And he was just a kid, but musta weighed 220 pounds if he was an ounce!  And I thought, 'Oh no.'  And I knew I'd have to take him right off the line or I wouldn't stand a chance.  So we locked hands there and the starter said, 'Go!'  And I pushed that kid's arm about yea far...and just stopped.  It was like I hit a fucking brick wall!  And that kid looked at me and smiled just as nice as anything, and says, 'Is that all you got?'  Smart-ass little shit.  Well, I tried to give it more, but I just didn't have it!  And before I knew it, he just pushed my arm all the way back and slammed it down on the table.  And I could feel it!  Man, I felt it and heard it, everything in my shoulder just going, 'R-r-r-r-r-rip!'  Jeezus!  And that was all she wrote.  I couldn't even pick up a fucking beer.  And I finally got up to go that night, and it was windy out there.  And the wind caught that door, and do you think I could pull it back?  Not to save my life.  And that was the last time I arm wrestled.  Hell, I used to wrestle with either hand.  But I want to save at least one, you know?  Anyway, if I tried today it would be just bone-on-bone.  I don't think there's any cartilage left..."

They each had another tumbler of Jack Daniels.  Two women came over to join them.  Jim showed up then, and ordered a martini.  He said he was done for the day.  Mustache Man turned to look at us, as if he hadn't even known I was there already.  He pulled off his hat and gave what might have passed for a grin, if not for those hard blue eyes.
"Well, look at us!" he said.  "Three bald men in a row!  I think that's lucky."  Jim didn't know any more than I did if that was good luck or not, but we were both agreeable to the idea.  Mustache Man aimed his eyes at me.  I got the feeling that he'd love to fight just to pass the time.  "How old are you?" he demanded.
"I've got you beat," he said.  "I'm 59!"  It sounded like a challenge.
"Yeah, I guess you do have me beat."
He seemed disappointed.  Then he said, "How old were you when you started losing your hair?"
"I don't really remember..."
"How old were you?!!"
He settled back onto his stool.  "Yeah, I was about 30."  He seemed to be brooding, and his eyes narrowed into little sparkles of pale blue.  "I ride out to Sturgis every summer.  And I don't wear nothing on my head.  So I get out that and my head's all red and so hot you can fry an egg on it..."  He stopped again and stared at the rows of bottles along the back bar.  Then he said, "You ever get these sores on top of your head?"
"What kind of, I don't get any sores."
"Well, I started to get 'em.  Now the doctor says I have to keep my head covered.  Sucks to get old...but it beats the other choice, I guess."  Jim and I agreed with him.

One of the women came over and leaned against Mustache Man.  Her hand was on his thigh, rubbing him a little.  "You ready to go home, babe?"  He seemed to consider this for a long time.  He was staring at a half tumbler of Jack Daniels and a can of Bud Light in front of him. He was giving them more attention than he gave to the woman.  He finally said, "Yah. I s'pose."  But it took a long time to finish those drinks.  He kept forgetting them while he talked to his friend, then mumbled to the woman.  They finally helped one another out the door and to the parking lot.  Jim and I agreed that we were glad we weren't on the road tonight.