Present Ghost

Telling stories




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?”

I shrugged.

“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.

Scattershot Memories of My Midwest


Every year my mother would remind my father that it was “not a vacation” to go to his family farm in Gilmore City, Iowa, but as long as they were married, she went. No matter how old my little brother got, she always seemed to worry about the baby wandering too far into the cornfields and getting lost or that we would somehow forget that we shouldn’t drink the well water.

In the quiet first two weeks of August, our large family would drive from smalltown Ohio to even-smaller-town Iowa to camp out in or around the decaying farm house that my father had inherited from his mother, the daughter of Danish immigrants.

Every trip, my father designated a fix-it project for the property. What he thought was good, wholesome fun, my mother viewed as an extension of her daily life—just magnified by more natural dangers of asbestos, unexpected critters living in house, and the inconveniences of living without running water.

While we scraped, shingled, painted, washed, or burned, however, I saw the ordeal as an adventure.

Each year the house looked more or less the same no matter what we had done the year before. Sometimes it would show less damage, but when we arrived in our overpacked Suburban with a ladder laced to the top, we would find a two-store white wooden home ordered from a Sears catalog at the turn of the 20th Century. Over the decades as my great-grandparents became more financially stable, they added onto it.

On the grounds were several animal buildings in various states of ill-repair, and by the time I could remember which was which, I knew that the roof of the pigsty had caved in entirely, its strong cement base encasing the rubble.

The largest building was the enormous stone barn. Around all these buildings was an encirclement of trees. (I learned very young that if you see a grove of trees in the middle of flat farmland, you could expect that somebody once lived there, even if the house had rotted away or been torn down.)

In our little forest, we often found rampant growth of marijuana plants someone had cultivated in our absence long ago. When we snickered at the thought of our entire family burning it in a big bonfire and getting outrageously stoned, my father assured us that he would kill it with Round-Up and Mom added that we wouldn’t get high from it anyway. Regardless, we dare not take any home to show our friends.

The house was still stocked with 1940s and 1950s appliances that would run on propane when we were there. In the old living room, divans covered in raccoon shit and peeling wallpaper slouched downward in dusty shavings. On the bookshelf, there were old Bibles published in Danish. In an old box, I found glass negatives of dead relatives—women in dresses with puffy sleeves playing guitars and men standing next to the very earliest models of tractors. There were babies in christening gowns, and a curious snapshot of the brand new telephone mounted on the wall behind the kitchen table. When I came, the same wires that connected the Christensen family line to the outside world were hanging limp and naked from the wall because, as the legend went, a family of mentally handicapped pot-smoking squatters stole it and several other family treasures when they had broken into the house some time in the 1970s.

We would spray everything with Lysol so we could eat cold cuts and Sun Chips at the table. When it was dark, and we hadn’t returned to the nearby town at my mother’s behest for an emergency motel stay at the Broadway Inn, we would light cintronella candles to keep away the mosquitoes.

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