“Please be happy. I’m all right. You’re all right. Everybody is all right…”spoke the almost silent whisper in my head, though louder than before. It was her because I never talk like that.
I’d been feeling guilty, naturally. As if there were something wrong with feeling more like the man she always saw in me but didn’t get to have. It was tearing me apart. The next night I went in to brush my teeth and fell again. That’s when it happens, in the mirror. This time it was fear of having sinned and blown it, basically. The old programming. Every kind of failure you could think of, especially not staying young. Then and there I tell you, with the toothbrush in my hand and staggering, I heard, “Everything is all right and unfolding as it should. You must relax. Everything is fine.” However one may feel about communicating with the dead, it worked. I did feel better, and the words came back each time the old ways tried to kill me.
The change is real. Yesterday I carried two large bags of worn slippers, a dead robe, gloves with holes, and most of her battered favorite shoes up to the trash can. I also threw away some things of mine including old but perfect shirts that made me feel like hell because I hated them but was too cheap to toss. How self-destructive would I have to be to wear them, anyway? Kathy’s fine possessions are a different category, yet most of everything will go. I’d like to be ready to jump. The time will come, you know. We both deserve it.
I’m learning. The first thing is, I’m not alone, or maybe no one is. The second is, I wouldn’t call it healing in the sense of restoration, say, because my old life is just gone, ka-boom, and this is something else. As if we died together but I stayed. I keep coming back to: this is just the sort of thing she’d do for me, and I had better pay attention.
When I first met Kathy but she hadn’t moved in and we hadn’t even taken all our clothes off yet, she showed up at my door one afternoon and handed me a brand-new chainsaw… She knew that I was poor, that my small apartment had a wood stove, and my radical iconoclastic landlord—a mutual friend—had told me I could come out to his farm and cut firewood for the fall. There were several downed cherry trees, ancient huge ones (wondrous seasoned hardwood), that he wanted to clean up. I must have told her I would use my hand saw.
“Wha— My God, you didn’t have to do this, but I love it! Thank you!”
It was yellow, shiny, and a good brand. This was more than just a gift. Everything about it was momentous. Something in me knew my life was changing. I remember being scared but willing.
“Mickey helped me pick it out…”
She’d introduced me to him at the bar the night before. (All this takes place inside three blocks of an small colonial town on the Eastern Shore. Her place, my place. Walk across a little park to reach the bar. Soft spring air. The waterfront. Insanely blessed.)
“Mickey? Wow. Okay…”
“Do you really like it? Will it work for you?”
“Oh yes! I’m just amazed!” Etc, etc.
[Old man, young man. What is happening?]
The Iowa trip was so damn primal. I don’t know how to tell you. Every mile was territory we’d covered together many times. Take that brick building in the photo down the street from her parents’ old house in Des Moines. The one she shared with a brother and a sister while she went to Hubbell Elementary, junior high, and Roosevelt High School when her father drove her every week to Drake and waited in the car while she had her lesson with a real piano teacher. It used to be a grocery store called Johnny’s. “Run down to Johnny’s and get us some milk, will you?”
I can just imagine. It’s still eerie, though.
Every time I ever drove myself or both of us to 39th Street after navigating off the freeway, I knew to “turn left at Johnny’s.” The store was long gone by the time I showed up, but her family called it “Johnny’s” anyway. My name too, of course. It’s the strangest kind of grounding. So evocative hearing it from them, but I was wary. My Air Force family changed houses over 40 times before I went to college. I attended public school in five states and two countries, hardly ever had a friend for more than six months, and never lived close to any relatives until my forties. By then the usual connections had grown cold. I felt guilty but excused somehow and blamed my parents, only vaguely sensing what I’d missed. My memories of home were largely John or Helen driving off with screeching tires while we worried we’d be orphans.
Kathy on the other hand, after living in Wall Lake, Harlan, and Ottumwa spent most of her pre-college years in a single neighborhood in Des Moines. Hilly, green, and civilized, with downtown just a short bus ride away. She went to the same schools every year, got to know the sidewalks, parks, stores, churches, libraries, and changing seasons of the same place, filled with neighbors, friends, and families she knew. Most of Kathy’s relatives lived half a day away. Her parents never raised their voices at each other or spanked the kids.
In over 20 years of visiting her parents in Des Moines, I learned the street names, where to go for groceries, get an ice cream cone, or buy a tire. Mundane but exotic. There were all these stories about people I had never seen. When we’d pull up in the driveway, her dad would come out to help unload and ask about the trip, the weather, and the car. I didn’t understand at first because I’d never been treated like a son. (To this day I have Jack Mills’ photo on a dresser but not one of my own namesake.) While this was going on, Kathy would go in to visit with her mother and immediately plug back into news and gossip, who had called, and what was on for dinner. The joy she showed each time was humbling. I was like a savage taken in by missionaries, grateful for the food and kindness and a bit suspicious. This can’t be real. There isn’t any blood and no one’s cursing. No stabbing cigarettes into the ashtray followed by a slamming door. It was real, though. No tension in the air unless I brought it with me.
I didn’t just marry her, in other words. I hope you get my meaning.
There it is, the house with the chimney, 39th Street in Des Moines. We’d show up twice most years, in June and over Christmas. The neighborhood’s a little different now. Kathy’s parents sold out and moved to assisted living in ‘99 or so. An older lady they all knew lived in the yellow house on the left until she died of Alzheimer’s. The yellow house on the right was owned by a couple I never once laid eyes on in all the 20 years we visited. A Hindu family lives in the white house with the silver car now, a Latino family where I was standing for the shot. Not back then, of course. Sometimes Kathy would fly out early so she could have a longer visit until I arrived. That’s what she did in ‘78 when I drove out for the first time to meet her folks. Oh man.
We need a little background here…
Kathy divorced her first husband a couple years before I met her back in Chestertown. She had a very fine apartment with hardly any furniture because of the divorce, the whole first floor of an old brick house on Queen Street. Moving into my much smaller, funky place behind the real estate office was a fearsome act of love. King’s Grant Real Estate, it was called. (Our address would be “Rear King’s Grant.”) The owner and all-around remarkable individual was the fellow with the cherry trees. He used to brag to me that by the time he was 30 years old, he’d made a million dollars and filled three passports. This was absolutely true. He and his wife were friends of Kathy’s and had given her a great deal on another place he rented when her marriage broke up. Easy to move when all you have is a grand piano and some clothes. My apartment was actually a former eye doctor’s office, and the long examination room was still there. To make it work for us, he had his handyman knock down the interior walls to open up the floor plan and build a second closet, so we each would have one. We never paid a cent, my rent was still the same. Old times on the Shore, when life was easy, cheap, and rich.
The point of my telling you all this is that Kathy waited until the work was done before she notified her parents. I remember clearly when she made the phone call to Des Moines, sitting on my thrift store sofa with the front door open. She told her mother that she’d met someone (me, of course), she loved me, and was moving in. Her mother must have asked if we’d gotten married, because I heard Kathy say, “No, not married,” and then her mother cried… So did Kathy, Iowa daughter that she was. (She told me later that she’d never made her mother cry.) The lady took it hard but gently. I know she wished us well and said they’d like to meet me, obviously. Kathy flew out to Des Moines shortly afterwards. I followed a week later in my ‘67 Saab.
My oh my.
I remember it was very hot and humid. I wore as little as possible for the trip (T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops), but when I got close to to 39th Street, I stopped at a gas station to change clothes in the men’s room. Her parent’s first glimpse of me was in crisp new jeans, a white shirt with a bolo tie, and cowboy boots. (My dress outfit.) They let us have the second bedroom without a fuss, although their universe would never be the same, nor mine and Kathy’s either. It was the sort of house with wooden floors, thin walls, and squeaking hinges on the doors. You’d hear voices, footsteps, everything. That very afternoon, however, while her mother set the table for dinner 20 feet away, Kathy closed the bedroom door and did the bravest thing. She was always one for celebrating new beginnings. What a lucky fool I was.
By now you’ve figured out I stopped there on my way out to Keota, It wasn’t smooth and simple. I was humming into Omaha on I-80, thinking to leave the interstate and try the back roads into Iowa, but I was torn up thinking of the last time we’d been there together, reading signs and trying to blow my nose at 70 mph, oops the wrong spur, added 20 miles. I even recognized the road from having made the same mistake before once on our way up from Taos and knew I’d have to veer south after crossing the Missouri. If only every landmark didn’t remind me she was dead.
Once into Iowa again, I stopped for gas and food in the wildly misnamed town of Atlantic. No doubt there’s a story. We’d been there before as well, the same damn station, only now it was a giant truck stop with a McDonald’s franchise on the inside. I was in the darkest mood and starving, so I violated my pre-planned COVID protocols and entered. By this time I’d given up on being the only one in three states to wear a mask but kept one in my pocket for the restroom, which I visited right then. As soon as I came out, I wished I hadn’t stopped.
Everyone I saw looked sick and crazy. Do you project much son. The PA system blasted constant trucker shower reservations. There were racks of nasty MAGA merchandise by the registers. I bought the first Big Mac I’d had in decades, stunned at what it cost, and carried it outside to eat inside the car and plan the rest of the route. At that point I was fine with dying then and there, but the industrial cow meat mess I held was warm and I had cookies for dessert. I checked the map—yes, I still use an atlas—and then it hit me: of course I’d stay on I-80 and exit in Des Moines. The whole nine yards, boys, all the way. I had to. You probably can’t imagine how I felt. I’d never experienced that kind of pain, an utter blackness just for me, a test to see if I could make it to the house on 39th Street that I’d first rolled up to 45 years before, when she and I were so full of life that she made love to me with her parents right there in the other room, and now I had her ashes in the fucking urn beside me in a parking lot on the goddamned prairie where I’d never go again.
I sobbed off and on all the way to Des Moines, 80 miles at least. Let it out, man, let it out. Every 10 miles was a highway sign that gave the distance like another bullet in my chest. But I kept going, found the exit, turned left at Johnny’s, drove on up the hill, and parked. There it was, all right, just gray now instead of Husker red.
The street was empty, quiet. Kathy and I had walked up and down it countless times, mostly to get out of the house, you know, or exercise, or so that she could share some secret of her growing up days. But this time it was only me as I went up the hill with a small container of the ashes in my pocket. I scattered maybe a tablespoon of powder on the pedestrian bridge across the freeway as a trial run, then walked by her old house like I had every right to do and flipped a portion in the yard… That went off so well—no shouts—I made the circuit one more time and did it all again. I know she saw me, knew that I was there, and it was good. “I am your man, I will not let you down.”
(My note to her from long ago she’d stuck up on the fridge…)