Some day I would love to collect pieces I’ve written from traveling experiences that date back to when I was a kid. I have it all mapped out, and the project will come together summer 2014. When I wrote this piece in 2011, I was convinced that I might have a narrative structure worth developing.
It seemed like such a vacant vacation. My family arrived at dark and although the streets were clear of any visible riffraff, a few very clean sheets of brilliant paper whipped around in the late June wind. In Minnesota, it’s barely Spring by the time the calendar says it’s time for june bugs and the sleepy lepidoptera to unfurl their crackling wings.
For a big city, the streets were long and lonely, nothing like I’d ever imagined. Coming from small towns, my father always liked to offer the generous promotion of “small cities” to where we had lived. If there weren’t combines trucking down Main St., society wasn’t all that rural. So this was Rochester: big, full of space and quiet, luxurious pubs with a few fine dining establishments we couldn’t afford.
In the morning after our late arrival at the Raddison, a woman with a leathery lemon face eyed me from her small cluster of round tables of glossy-painted chip board. Her complimentary breakfast choices of milk, coffee, and a Danish were framed by her walker capped with slivered tennis balls, an overstuffed duffel bag, a messy assortment of newspapers, and a weather-beaten black satchel bursting with medicine bottles. Everything teetered in a tower between her legs. If I moved just two inches to the left, I would have knocked it all over.
She caught me staring at her and told me that she’d been waiting for a kidney for three years, you see. She was next on the list, but something always kept happening. She was not giving up, though. It would be nice if they just let her stay at one of those Ronald McDonald Houses, but they didn’t.
“I’ve got a lot of people supportin’ me so I can stay here,” she said.
Her Danish was yellow, probably lemony too. That Pine Sol taste jammed into a jelly and fatty plastic piece of dough.
The Harley crew seemed to have woken up. Tottering children in tiny tethered, tasseled black jackets stamped with HOG sayings about whose grandkid belonged to whose grandma and don’t mess with her because she knows how to ride, doesn’t need you, and quite naturally, loves Jesus.
Quickly, the little brown-haired boy in the corner reached for the milk, spilling it over the silver pitcher lip and onto the counter.
Aw, hell, Jase. Gwine and lookit whatchu dun. Now don’t go worryin about it. Your maw won’t have to know. Go git yurself a doughnut an some orange juice, hear? PawPaw’s gwine git the scores from last night’s game.
The little boy returned to the breakfast kiosk with a chocolate doughnut and a handful of dry off-brand Lucky Charms, some sticking to his little fist and the rest littering the outdated hunter green carpet, getting ground into the floral print.
The woman interrupted my people watching.
“Three years. I don’t think anyone is forgetting me. My daughter comes to visit sometimes. She lives in Moline, works at a newspaper, and has a family. You know, she’s busy.
What about you? You want a family? Isn’t that just the thing. You want to do that too?”
“Well here’s something I’m sure you know, but don’t take anything for granted. Nothing. I’m alive, but you know, I used to have hair just like you. When I was young—bright red. Curlier, but bright and striking. Copper-like. My daddy used to call it ‘auburn’ because it was more sophisticated that way.”
The rest of the Harley crew herded by the coffee pots, filling their cups and talking about something from the day before. Most of them had hard-stitched iron crosses on the backs of their jackets. Sagging breasts hung like deflated balloons and wrinkly eggs spilling languidly from the gaping sides of their laced up corsets. Dad always said they were the nicest people, usually. Once, someone had given him a ride home all the way from Wichita to Lawrence when his car broke down and he had to make a job interview. He didn’t get the job, but he had the time of his life and it wasn’t crazy at all. All they did was stop by Jim Callan’s mom’s house to catch beans and potato salad. They had a game or two of hearts and were on their way—no funny business, not even beer.
Even though I thought it was obvious that I wasn’t interested in the woman’s plight, and that I was more interested in the morning news or the bikers, she persisted.
“I’m telling you. They’ll probably call me tomorrow. Maybe as late as next week. Jessica’s coming up with little Marcus—he’s half black you know, but I always was OK with that. Always. He’s my grandson, and I couldn’t see it any other way.”
One of the Harley men nodded toward us as he passed by and winked at me. After he’d left the lobby, she leaned toward me and placed her hand on my knee.
“Remember: When I leave, you won’t see me. I’m not trying to harass you. It does get lonely here, but I expect it’s better than the hospital or even that Ronald McDonald House they’re supposed to have. At least the people in here are well. There are some sick people too; but mostly, they’re just going somewhere and I get to watch. Listen. See that lady over there? She stores the muffins in her apron. Her name is Marisol and her little friend there, Ruth Lynn. They both do it and take them to the back.”
From the window’s view, I could see more white papers swirling in the distance. The Harley crowd was leaving, revving and kickstands were kicking up.