Ballad for a Friend

The weather couldn’t be more perfect. My mother is in town for the day and I take her to Nina’s Cafe for lunch. We have our sandwiches and coffee and we find the last table for two outside. This is city living the way I want it to be. The way I want my mother to see it. Easy-going and laid back. Autumn trees with the sun shining through. People chatting. People walking their dogs. Everyone friendly.

My mother is giving me an update of the people I grew up with–former friends, aging relatives. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a down-and-out man approaching. He looks like he’s here to beg for money. There might be a story about how he lost his job or how he needs bus fare to get back to Green Bay for his cousin’s funeral.

I try to ignore him but he’s getting closer. I’m about to tell him that I’m sorry. I don’t have any change. It’s then I realize that he is not bowing like a beggar, but crouching, like a cougar about to pounce, and his eyes are fixed on my mother. He lets out a cry and jumps magnificently. I am up out of my chair and push him away before he can reach her.

Now his crazed stare is fixed on me. He lets loose a long string of foul words as we circle each other. I’m scared like I’ve never been scared before and I’m wondering if some of the other cafe patrons are going to step in to help me, but they keep eating their lunches, looking on as if they’re watching some old rerun of a Jerry Springer show.

He takes a couple of swings at me which I avoid. I don’t know what to do. I think about the semester of karate I had back in college as a phy-ed requirement but remember nothing. I could employ my skills as a student of Bashido–the way of the Samurai–but man, I am nothing without my sword. Besides, it would take me fifteen minutes to warm up, bow, and say hello.

As quickly as he came unglued, he becomes subdued. All the madness and crazy light in his eyes has changed. I am no longer his personal demon. He turns  away. I go inside the cafe to have them call the police. They tell me they already have. Within minutes the squawking police car arrives. The man sees it and turns around. Puts his hands behind his back. He’s been through this before.

I can only imagine what will happen to him. Someone will write up a report at the station. They’ll add it to his records. He’ll go through another evaluation. They still won’t be able to assess him properly so he won’t get the treatment he needs. He’ll be released. He’ll perpetually go through our government’s revolving door. That’s the real madness.

Song of the Sauna

I have only been in a sauna twice before, both times suspicious of their authenticity—the fiberglass rocks that needed to be plugged in were a big clue. But I’m in Finland where taking a sauna is an art form. This is my chance to do it right.

After shedding my clothes, I open the sauna door and startle the naked woman lying across the lower bench. I shut the door behind me and apologize for the interruption. She lies down again. In the low light I climb to the top bench with all the poise I can muster, and stretch myself out long and languorously, as if I sauna often. But as soon as I close my eyes, I feel the heat lay on top of me and hold me down. I try not to panic. Besides, there’s a cold plunge pool waiting for me down the hallway when I’m through.

I try to relax. The woman on the bottom bench exhales. Usually I would be scrambling over myself to talk to someone from another country but I am jet lagged and too hot.  I wonder how long she has been in this sauna. For no reason at all, I decide she knows twenty-four languages and that her English is better than mine. It hurts to breathe. It hurts to blink. If I said anything now, it would only come out as drool.

I look at the clock. I’ve been in here exactly ninety seconds and I want to get out but my competitive nature, normally reserved for men, absurdly kicks in and I am determined to stay until she leaves first.

Two minutes later, she stands up thank God and I do mean GOD, but she doesn’t leave.

“May I increase the heat a little?” she asks in a sultry voice, gesturing toward the water bucket. Her blond hair, wild from sweat, makes her look like a Nordic Medusa.

Despite the fact it’s hotter than I can stand it already, I urge her on as if the place were feeling drafty.  “Oh yes please,” I say. “Absolutely.” This, I am certain, is the crucial rule of the sauna: always say yes to more heat. It can never be too hot. To say no would be like sending a drink back for being too strong.

She snatches the ladle and douses the rocks with two big scoops of water, causing a flair-up like an out-of-control grease fire at the St. Clair Broiler. I turn my head away in anticipation of the coming heat. The wave of it breaks over me—my face, my breasts, my hips, and settles at my feet.

“That is better, don’t you think?” she asks.

Trying not to pass out, I agree.

“You are American,” she confirms, settling herself back on her bench.

“Yes.”

So now, me staying in here longer than she does is not only a matter of personal pride, but one of patriotism. The United States, known for its unwavering fortitude, is relying on me to maintain this reputation. I cannot let my country down. It’s my duty to ignore the feeling that I’m lying in a house fire.

I decide other things about the Nordic woman. I decide she is a musician of orchestra stature. A first chair violinist. She and I have zilch in common, but maybe her Scandinavian relatives and my Moravian forefathers do. Nothing comes to mind though, except the Black Plague and goat cheese. It’s been exactly four minutes. Not only are the sweaty toxins running out of my pores, so is my resolve.

I try to imagine the healing powers of the sauna. I try to think poetic thoughts, I try to form stirring odes to people I love or once loved, but I can’t. My brain is rising like a Bundt cake and I can only think of the people in my life who made me cry: my high school math teacher, my freshman year roommate, the gate agent who left me stranded in Frankfurt for three days, the guy who tried to tow my car in 1998. Bastards, every one of them.

Another minute passes. I can’t stand it in here any more. I smell the cedar wood, I taste the sweat on my lips, I feel it roll down my jaw and along my neck. I can hear my heart begging me to be reasonable and quit this foolishness. And when the heart speaks, a person ought to listen.

I think of the cold plunge pool, a six-by-six sea of salvation, and I get up. The Nordic Medusa wins. The U.S. will have to reign glorious without me. I fly out of there, run down the hall, and jump in the pool. The cold water is deep. I’ve been slapped awake like a newborn. There is no greater reminder that I am alive, and that’s what matters.

Poison Ivy in the Key of C Minor (an opera)

I know, I know. It wasn’t that long ago I complained about how cold May was, but now. Now that I’ve chosen to take the day off work somebody’s gone and punctured Satan’s left lung releasing a heat index of 120–two degrees past the Geneva Convention treaty for humane outdoor existence.

But I promised my brother I’d take my niece to Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park to count the number of rare Dwarf Trout lilies living there. It’s for some Girl Scout badge and he’s too busy doing oh I don’t know what working in his air-conditioned office I guess.

I bring a plate of cookies for the forest ranger as a blatant bribe to sign my niece’s book so we can just get the hell out of there but as soon as we step out of the car and into the humidity, the hairy forest ranger has us walking through the woods to Hidden Falls and Pioneer Creek. He looks like Smoky the Bear in a big girl’s blouse.

Ten minutes later we are being led down the side of a high and steep ravine, staggering through ankle-deep fungus, sweating, hyperventilating, clinging to clumps of brush and vicious flesh-ripping nettles, the major moments of my life flashing before me in soupy color, the heat screaming through the trees, deer ticks longing to infect me with some muscle-withering disease, and mosquitoes regarding my tender skin the way a Little League team would regard an unattended ice cream truck.

While the ranger and my niece count lilies, I fall face forward into the creek and try to drown myself. When that doesn’t work, I crawl back to the bank and rest my head against a decomposing stump, wondering how I let myself agree to this.

“Fantastic, don’t you think,” the ranger says, slapping his heavily-titted chest. “Getting out of the city and into nature.” I better be in my brother’s will.

Now back in the cool air of my home, I inspect what’s left of my sunburnt and ravished body. I am a heap of sores, rashes, scratches, bruises, hives, bites, pustules, and cuts. I look like an early Christian after a particularly stressful day with the lions.

The state park has its pastoral value of course. The acres and acres of untouched trees, the clear air, merry waterfall, fauna and flora whirling about in heavenly ecstasy. And I’d trade every painful bit of it for the ease of crossing Grand Avenue during the haze of rush hour to grab a margarita in the nearest bar.

Land of the Free, Home of the Brave

We arrive at Uncle Frank’s house while he is squatting beneath the gas grill trying to read the instructions for starting the barbecue. “Let’s see now, push in knob and turn left…there that should do ‘er.” The hiss of escaping gas sounds like the distant wind of a storm heading our way. Frank rises to his feet, shakes himself down trying to remember where the hell he put the matches.

Frank stands over the grill now and pulls a match from the pack. The match doesn’t quite make it halfway across the back cover when a whoosh of blue flames strikes back at him, drawing a gasp from the party. He ducks like a batter avoiding a fast inside curve.

Uncle Lowell guffaws loudly from a nearby lawn chair. “Hey Frank,” he whoops, his burgundy face flush from alcohol and sun. “I thought the fireworks didn’t start till after dark.” Lowell laughs at his own joke until his laughing suddenly evolves into a wet loose cough. He coughs so much I fear he’s going to choke but he recovers and shakes a Marlborough from a pack and pops it in his mouth. The coughing fit has momentarily humbled him and for a while he’s silent as he lights his cigarette, looking out through watery eyes.

Out front my parents have pulled up. Mom carefully exhumes a bowl of potato salad from the floor of the back seat. She’s in charge of this operation and she wants Dad to help by just staying out of the way. The bowl is sealed as if it were radio active plutonium. Like one too many pallbearers at a funeral, Dad lends a well-intentioned, yet useless hand to the bowl that Mom carries.

“Where the hell did those hot dogs go to?” Uncle Frank yells.

A pickup truck arrives next. My cousin Steve hops out wearing a tractor cap over his long thin hair. He unloads a sack full of fireworks and a rocket launcher. He carries enough explosives to blow up an Afganistani village.

Inside the house the kitchen table is loaded down with bowls and plates of food. The men snack on chips and cheese, talking about the pitiful state of professional sports. The women try to out-compliment each other on their salads and desserts. For some reason, Dad is attempting to name the members of Nixon’s Cabinet.

Suddenly there is a lot of commotion. Looking out the window it appears that Uncle Frank’s barbecue is on fire. He waves the gray smoke away and rescues the hot dogs like bodies pulled from a disaster. They are curled in agony, crispy and black. There are no survivors.

After supper, Steve sets up the rocket launcher and ignites the first round of fireworks. Kids scream and yell. There are aahhs and oohhs. But each successive rocket fails to live up to the one before and soon everyone is slapping mosquitoes and heading into the house. Steve and Lowell, with their cigarettes, stay out there sitting, lonely silhouettes against the fading sky.

Paradise, the Blues, and Rosie Briefly

Lately I’ve been too busy to write. My mother, a nurse who has saved hundreds of lives, chides me because we haven’t gotten together all winter and now it’s spring. For this, I feel bad. I deserve nothing but meals of hot dogs on Wonder bread and Bud Lite. They would complete the worst winter I can remember having—ongoing sore throats, long hours at work, indifferent co-workers, conflicting domestic schedules, snowstorms, plumbing repairs, everything.

And everything I allow to fill my days is embarrassing. What I complain about is hardly severe, not compared to other people around the planet. It’s not as if I have a tsunami to outrun or a revolution against a dictatorship to survive. I wonder if I have any of the stuff going on in my life that actually builds character.

While walking through a crowded St. Paul skyway, an older woman shuffles along, relying heavily on a cane. Like a slow-moving tractor on a highway, she is causing a major slow down for the rest of us. She presses her thick body onto an escalator and I am right behind her. I check my cell phone and hope my errand won’t take too long so I can get back to work before my lunch break is over.

A second later, I realize I know her from somewhere. She’s a college friend of my mother’s. She’s in a lot of the old photos from my parents’ parties—those great uproars. I can still hear the table-slapping laughter, the off-key singing, the jokes, the ice cubes in glasses. I see my parents and their friends, their faces glowing with youth and hope. Everyone has their arms around each other, smiling and gesturing through the blue smoke, caught mid-sentence or mid-laughter, frozen forever in the moment by the surprise flash. She is one of those faces.

I don’t see many of my parents’ friends anymore. That generation is almost gone. Tom Brokaw called them the “greatest generation”, the World-War II, hard-living, raised-in-the-Depression, anything-is-possible-so-let’s-go-to-the-moon generation. They are not the cautious low carb, fat-free, mandatory-helmet-wearing generation to which I belong.

I think of tapping her on the shoulder, but I tell myself she won’t even remember who I am. To her I am just one of the kids in pajamas saying good-night to the adults. I tap her on the shoulder anyway. She turns in my direction. The recognition comes and she says my name.

“How’re your mom and dad?” she asks. “We sure did have fun. And your mom? What a gal,” she says, shaking her head at the memories. “How’s she doing? You know, they found a lump in me too, but I think hers was worse.”

We shift our feet and I help her off the escalator. She continues. “Great lady, your mother. Yeah, probably the greatest lady I’ve ever known,” she says, looking at me straight to make sure I know she’s serious. “Say hello to your mom and dad for me.”

Once home, I phone my mother but she’s not there. She’s volunteering at the Alzheimer’s unit.  “The greatest lady I’ve ever known.” Those words still echo in my head. On some future escalator no one will ever remember me for the meetings I attended or how many emails I got through in a day, but if some friend were to say these words about me to a child of mine, what a big, shiny success this brief time will have been.