“You forgot the reunion was today?”
“I had them give me a laxative.”
Pause. Neither of us knew what to say.
“Okay,” I said.
I’d had this Saturday blocked off for weeks to drive Dad from the nursing home to his all-school reunion in Southern Indiana. He’s one of four or five remaining members of the Spencer High School Class of ’46, and I can’t say when the last reunion was. Outside was an early fall day. Sunny. Nice driving weather. (I’m considering all of this in maybe less than a second.) Also, as it happened, my old Jeep’s brakes had failed the week before, so I was driving a ten-year-old Honda CR-V with a new-to-me-car-smell. I was reluctant to put laxatived-up Dad and his wheelchair in it. But the seats are Honda-leather. Honda-leather wipes clean easily enough. “Spencer Reunion” had been on my iPhone calendar for so long it felt inked-in, an inevitability. Prostate cancer doctors said Dad probably had a year, maybe a year and a half.
“It’s fine. Let’s go,” I said.
“Okay,” he said, and moved his catheter bag from the bed to the wheelchair.
Though we barely had enough time to get to Spencer, I slowly drove Dad past the old farmhouse near Cartersburg we’d auctioned off a couple years ago. “See? The concrete blocks are still stacked around the wellhouse where you put them,” I noted as we both made observations about what had and hadn’t changed. “If they leave them year-round it’s going to trap moisture and ruin the wood,” Dad said. We drove away.
After a while he said, “I think I’m going to have to stop.”
“Ohhhhhh kay,” I said. “We’re close to the high school…?”
I could tell he didn’t want to poop in my old high school. “Or Cox’s Plant Farm? We’re close to that, too.”
“Let’s do that.”
Soon we were crunching parking lot gravel in front of Cox’s, an enormous greenhouse attached to a warehouse of garden equipment, a homegrown superstore at the corner of U.S. 40 and Hazelwood road. We were the only customers this time of year. “Restroom?” I said, not pausing as I wheeled Dad past the cashier.
“Back there,” she said, leaning against the counter with the radio playing Nashville country — older songs, though, like, ones that were already old when I started my songwriting project. “I’m Going Back to a Better Class of Losers” was playing as Dad and I zoomed past gnomes and reflecting balls. Then while I stood guard outside the restroom door, they played “John Deere Green,” telling once again the story of two kids who could easily have gone to my high school — the protagonist climbed the water tower and painted a heart with tractor paint, “and the whole town said that he should’ve used red.” The song’s bridge section is a magical little moment where a cleverly assembled, legitimately-arrived-at emotional moment comes together with a little gospel-tinged piano otherwise absent from the rigid, drum-machine tic-tic-tic that dominates the rest of the song musically: “More than once the town has discovered/Paintin’ over it ain’t no use/There ain’t no paint in the world that can cover it/The heart keeps showing through.” Deft. I really love that bridge.
“You okay?” I called inside.
“I’m… all right,” he said.
Next was a song that’s a perfect example of how Nashville writers can find a relationship truth you know well but haven’t enunciated yourself. This particular hook also captures how I’ve felt since the election: “I Just Want to Be Mad for Awhile.” The singer warns her partner to leave her alone after an argument (“I’m still mad at you this mornin’/Coffee’s ready if you want some”). She wishes he’d stop trying to cheer her up.
“Please don’t make me smile — I just want to be mad for awhile.”
Yeah. Turn that one up, Cox’s Plant Farm Lady Cashier.
“Hm, your blood pressure is on the high side,” various medical people have been telling me for a year and a half. Finally my doctor put me on something. Trump Pills. I’m supposed to take them early in the morning, an hour before I eat. It’s not easy.
Nothing is easy.
“I think I’m ready,” Dad called. I went in to help him back into the wheelchair.
Guess I have to say, these days, I’m low-level outraged all the time. I try to keep people from seeing it, but just ask the dog about it, or slow drivers in other cars on the interstate when I’m commuting alone.
My outrage spikes occasionally and unfolds more every day, and I’m shocked at how little I apparently understood the people at my last high school reunion. At how little I understand that Cox’s Plant Farm cashier.
“This is a nice car,” Dad said, touching the dashboard with an air of defending the car’s honor, even though nobody said anything against it. Made you wonder if this whole time he’d thought I was disappointed by it somehow? Or was he talking himself into liking it?
Nobody understands anybody.
No need to get into clarifying it with him. “Hated to see the Jeep go, but it was time,” I said.
We were driving my favorite part of U.S. 40, where it undulates gently up and down for miles. “This is the old National Road,” he said eventually, as if he hadn’t said it a jillion times. “‘The Cumberland Road.’ Jefferson knew we couldn’t settle the West without it. Sections of the roadbed were corduroy — you can tell where if you look for rows of sycamores on both sides that sprouted from the logs. For a long time, the road disappeared into the trees at Mount Meridian, where they ran out of money. Funding was always an issue — they dumped President Martin Van Buren in the mud, on purpose, near your old elementary school, just to dramatize for him that he needed to allot more money for the road. They paid off the stagecoach driver to put Van Buren in the ditch, and it happened within sight of where you went to school, which is why it was called Van Buren Elementary… I suppose you knew that.”
“These little towns are all about the same distance from each other, based on how far you could drive horses before letting them rest.” He says these facts with interest, as if he’s learning them himself for the first time.
These little towns. I look at them differently now.
My friend Evan, who I met playing in Indianapolis rock bands and then worked with in advertising for years, is a meanderer. He’s spent dozens of vacation days, maybe hundreds by now — God, we’re getting old, maybe thousands! — piloting his old Saturn around the backroads of Indiana with a dog at his side, wife at home because she doesn’t have the same vacation days available, rolling her eyes if you ask where he is. Evan adores small-town Indiana, learning the quirks of each little town and eating its meringue-topped pie. We both love how each little community used to contain every stratum of a society — churchy laborers, witty grocers, drinky record store owners, novel-reading factory managers, lawn-proud lawyers, art-loving pharmacists, piano-playing insurance agents, snooty judge’s wives buying Brach’s Bridge Mix to place in cut glass bowls on end tables for club meetings in parlors. But the children of the people who “pondered what made Shakespeare and Beethoven great” moved mid-century to small cities, from there to medium cities, then to big cities. Now only bedroom communities and college towns contain the wholesome variety and heterogeneous mixture that keeps a snug little microcosm with a town square healthy. Seemingly, today, this year, all that’s left in most of these little abandoned towns are spiteful Trump voters.
Evan is bereft.
“I’m going to have to stop again,” said Dad.
There was a gas station coming up at the junction of U.S. 40 and State Road 231, which we’d be taking south through Cloverdale and Carp to Spencer. “This is Midway,” Dad said, as he always does, while we waited at the light by North Putnam High School. Across from us was a burned-down fancy restaurant where my friend used to waitress. The restaurant is just a sign, some concrete, weeds, crumpled energy drink cans and small trees growing from the foundation. “They call it Midway because it’s ‘mid-way’ between Terre Haute and Indianapolis.” I know. I parked and found a steep wheelchair ramp to the crowded mini-mart.
Here’s the thing. Everyone in the mini-mart was friendly. None of them saw themselves as “poor” — they just don’t have money right now. I feel the same way, actually. We’re all just a duck call business venture (or lucrative Nashville smash hit song) away from fame and leisure. None of the giant-fountain-coke-getters viewed the others as anything other than funny, smart about something, possibly ridiculous in some way, and mostly good at their jobs. And waiting for their ship to come in. No wonder they resent being lumped together and labeled.
There’s a songwriter in the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame named Bob McDill, who’s often quoted saying, “You can’t write country music looking down your nose at it.”
He was asked by American Songwriter in 2007, “Did you start off looking down on it?” “Yes,” he said. “I was in Nashville for a long time before I understood it. I just sort of had an epiphany when I heard that George Jones song, ‘It’s Been a Good Year for the Roses.’ There was something in it I never noticed before. There’s an anger, sort of a silent, quiet rage that’s right under the surface. Who knows why? Maybe it’s an anger at trying to make your way in a world with a certain degree of helplessness.”
Hm hm hm. That song is from 1970.
“Charlie?… Charlie?’ Dad said, in the stall of the mini-mart restroom where an overweight, older, bearded guy in a worn-out checked shirt and dirty khakis stood at the urinal. I kind of didn’t want Dad to say anything till the restroom was empty, but there was no way to control it. “I’m here,” I said. The old man ignored us, but also somehow managed to communicate, “It’s okay, don’t worry about me.” Somehow.
I got Dad to the reunion on time. No further stops. No “accidents.” Everyone was glad to see him. He enjoyed it. We drove around Spencer afterward and he told me more things he’d spent my whole life telling me, and we ate at a restaurant he likes.
We drove around the cemetery where his mom, aunts, uncles, and grandparents are buried (his estranged father — who died in a car wreck in 1936 — is buried miles away in the small city of Bloomington). His sister is way over in a different corner, buried with her husband in the floodplain, a part of the cemetery Dad holds in contempt. My mom doesn’t want to be buried anywhere near any of them. Probably we’ll have Dad cremated so he’ll fit, and put him near his mom and grandparents.
As mordant as it all sounds, visiting Dad’s relatives’ graves is another familiar childhood activity. For what probably adds up to hours I’ve studied the names on the tombstones around my great-grandparents, admiring the typography carved into their headstones—who were they? Was this a rigid, easily offended seamstress? Suspiciously fastidious bachelor elementary school vice principal? Nickname-giving, pack-a-day electrician with big gambling debt from playing cards? Brawly lumber yard foreman? Ditzy bookkeeper for the clothespin factory? Most were casual racists, some horribly active racists, partly maybe because of their anger at trying to make their way in a world with a certain degree of helplessness.
One probably painted a heart up on the water tower, or maybe the river bridge. The heart keeps showing through.
Meantime here I sit with my Trump Pills. Argh. Please don’t make me smile right now.
Just got to keep going and deal with all the shit.