So a few weeks age I went to my friend M's (we'll call her Marilyn's) place in Michigan. If you recall, she bought it earlier this year, and has been counseled by several of us eager to see her avoid disaster with ill-conceived plans, among which is putting money into a building slightly less sturdy than an outhouse.
I'd arranged to go out Saturday morning, planning on helping her do some work, and enjoying a nice chance to get away from the city. I'd brought my little tent, looking forward to a campfire and a night under the stars ( besides which, the house is so disgusting I can barely bring myself to go inside it, let alone sleep in it).
I got up early so as to be there in time to get in a good day's work, and headed east on 90. Somewhere in Indiana I began to get sleepy and pulled into a rest stop for a power nap. The sky was getting overcast.
When I arrived near the house about 2 hours later, the sky was dark and rain was pouring down. I pulled into the parking lot of a small mini-grocery when my phone rang. I saw that it was Marilyn.
"Hi, I'm about five minutes from the house. I've just stopped for some juice and a snack."
"Oh. You're already there?"
"There." Not "here."
"Yes, I'm at Union Market."
"Oh, well, I've just gotten some trees loaded up. I'm about 2 hours from arriving."
"You're still in CHICAGO?!?!"
"Yes, well, I'm not really a morning person, so I'm just getting going now."
I looked in disbelief at the pouring rain. I was exhausted because I'm not really a morning person either, but I'd gotten up early to drive to freaking Michigan at 7am so that I could help someone who had said she was going out that Friday night when we agreed on the date.
"Fine," I said. "I'm pretty tired, so I'll nap in the car."
Fast forward: peeing in the bushes, sleeping in the car, waking up to sun, putting on overalls in the pole barn. Marilyn arrived, scattered as usual; soon after, dirt guy made topsoil delivery with his young son. We discussed unemployment (everyone is out of work there). I helped shovel out the dirt while Marilyn nattered on about natural building techniques and cob and clay and straw bale and converting Japanese car engines smuggled through Canada into biodiesel, and the poor guy listened politely because hey, she's paying the bill.
Walking back to the house, found a large dead hawk on the ground outside. "Holy crap."
"That's shamanistic," Marilyn declares. "It's giving us its power."
Not for the first time, I begin to suspect Marilyn has a serious screw loose.
"It's a dead hawk," I replied, "and something killed it, and we need to find out what, and we may need to report this to the local fish and wildlife service."
The bird showed no signs of physical injury, no predator marks. Marilyn suggested we checked with her neighbor. We walked to a small house by the road next door. Marilyn knocked, which instantly elicited a cacophony of dog barking from inside the tiny house. I began to imagine dueling banjos.
A short middle-aged woman answered the door. Her right hand was held as though she'd had some kind of paralytic accident. She seemed very nice. Marilyn explained the situation, and the woman, Pam, suggested she get her bird book. A small, skinny cat came up to be petted. Scratching its head, I felt it was chewed up with fleas. From behind the plate-glass window three (three) large black dogs stood on a couch and barked.
Then one of the woman's sons came out. Marilyn had mentioned that she'd hired the woman's sons to do work for her. This was the younger one. Chin-length brown hair, large pale eyes. Abso-freaking-lutely beautiful.
The banjos switched abruptly to violins. I felt the cat purr through its scabby neck. I understood the impulse.
So after examination and referral, we decided the bird was a juvenile Sharp-Shinned Hawk. As we looked at the poor thing, beautiful and very dead, Marilyn mentioned finding another bird dead in the same area the week before. I looked at the house; above where the bird lay was a large window. I stepped and looked along it. I saw a large mark.
"They are flying into this window. You need to put up curtains or tape or something."
Giving her its energy indeed. Cripes.
I suggested we bury the bird ASAP; it was breaking my heart to see it lie there. Marilyn suggested she wanted to bury it with one of the trees, but she had to decide which. We began planting trees, and let's just say this woman had no plan for watering other than me filling cat-litter containers with water and loading them onto a riding lawn mower to be driven up the hill and hand carried to each sapling.I began to notice that I was doing most of the work.
At one point I carted the wheelbarrow to the pile of mulch and began shoveling it in. A colony of red ants had infiltrated the entire pile, and I felt bad that I was disrupting their work, but I had to get that mulch. As I wheeled the mulch up the driveway, I felt a hot sting. Then another. Aaaaand another. By the time I got the mulch to the field, I had stings all over my legs, heading up to my hips, and I knew what was happening. My overalls had been infiltrated.
"Excuse me; I have ants in my pants," I said, and ran into the house. I stripped off the overalls, amazed that all the welts on my legs where the work of so few creatures. Dang, they were effective.
Did I mention that Marilyn was so disorganized I didn't actually get started until 4:30? Yeah. I watched her and saw she could not hold a thought for more than three seconds without spinning off on five tangents, and could not stay on task to save her life; I began to suspect a serious case of ADD. By late afternoon she'd not yet decided what to do about the hawk; it was still lying on the ground, wasps at its eyes.
"Seriously, Marilyn, can we please bury this poor bird? This is all getting way too Antigone for me." (she ended up putting the bird in a box and burying it the next day.)
We headed up the road into Indiana for dinner at a local restaurant we'd tried before (Marilyn's place is in Michigan, just over the Indiana border; the closest shops are in Indiana. IN addition to moving between states easily, you also cross from Central to Eastern time. It's odd.) Marilyn was wearing a T-shirt that said "Change," but it was not an Obama shirt. She worried that she'd invite political comment.
Sure enough, on the way into the restaurant we passed a few old boys standing by the door.
"Hey, is that an Obama shirt?" one called out.
"No," Marilyn sighed.
"She wants you to give her a quarter," I explained.
"Well, I'm glad it's not an Obama shirt," one said.
I paused, holding the door. I gave a huge, sweet grin. "I LOOOOOOOVE him. I am so proud to have a president who can pronounce 'nuclear.'"
We sat at our table and ate. At one point one of the old boys from the door came up to our table. He was wearing a bright orange work T-shirt.
"So what is that shirt about?" he asked. Marilyn explained its origins. I offered him some of our delectable appetizer, a basket of fried breaded vegetables with Ranch-dressing dip.
"What does your shirt say?" I asked. "Oh, you work for the Michigan Department of Transportation. MDOT. You like it?" He said he did.
He sat down next to me. His name was Tom, he'd been divorced for 32 years, he lived in a trailer ("no reason for me to buy a house at my age"), had a cat, and thought skunks were amazing animals. He also liked his job and answered all of our questions about things such as what they did with roadkill. Soon a guy sitting next to us at the counter joined in, and sat next to Marilyn. His name was Smitty. We talked about the rental properties he owned, and recent issues with flooding when a contractor forgot to put flashing on the roof. Marilyn finally asked about roofers and chimney-builders, and I realized she was still planning on sinking cash into the craphole house of hers, I and decided she was totally off her rocker.
Tom had to go sit with a friend and his father, and we chatted with Smitty a bit more. I have to say, when I've traveled out to this part of the country, it feels so very American. Everyone has something interesting to say; everyone has a story. And they're good, decent people.
Smitty got up and we stood up too. I saw him lean down to listen to a man seated at the counter. He stood up and looked at us. "No, I don't know their names," he said. The seated man looked mortified.
We introduced ourselves.
"I didn't think he'd ask you," the man said.
"Honey, I've only known him for a half-hour, and I could have told you he'd do that,"I laughed.
We left. "Boy, we sure are popular among the fifty-something blue-collar set," I observed.
Back at the land, we stopped by Pam's house and invited her to a campfire. She was getting ready for bed but her son came along. He helped build a campfire and we sat in the smoke and chatted for a long while. Well, Marilyn and I chatted; the son listened, and I fed his dog graham crackers and thought somewhat cougarish thoughts.
Later on I climbed into my tent, determined to overcome my fear of the dark. I love sleeping in my tent. It was a good night, although I had to focus on not scratching my gazillion ant bites.
The next day I drove back, and once again stopped for a nap in an Indiana rest stop. I woke and headed into the plaza to use the washroom and get some pretzels. At the counter, I reached for my keys. Not there.
"I must have left them in the restroom," I said, and checked. No.
Then the awful thought: I left them in the car. I walked back and looked in. Yep, in the steering column. And there on the seat, my cell phone, with the Verizon roadside assistance number in it.
Crap. Crap, crap, crap. I was stranded at a rest stop Somewhere In Indiana.
I headed for the BP convenience store, despairing that I could get any real mechanic help. I looked at the 18-wheelers in the parking lot out back, gauging the backup. The only other time I'd been locked out of my car had been in Chicago, and it took forever to convince the local car dealership/service store that they could admit to having a slim jim, which they kept reminding me was illegal.
I walked into the store and stood in line. When it came my turn, I was facing a large middle-aged man with a name tag that told me his name was Bob. I leaned across the counter.
"Bob, I'm not going to bore you with the hell that has been my weekend; let me just say it has led to me locking my car keys in my car out there. Do you by any chance have a slim jim?"
I waited for him to explain that they didn't have one because they were illegal. And given that this wasn't a repair shop, I knew there would be no Cuban guy eventually appearing with one in his hand.
Bob walked over to a display rack, where a stack of slim jims hung next to salted sunflower seeds.
Bob opened one package and handed it to me. "Here. Try it. If it works, come back and pay for it."
At my car, I was trying to pop the lock, not even knowing how the mechanism worked, just hoping to feel something catch, remembering that it had taken the Cuban over a half hour. After about 30 seconds, Bob was standing next to me.
"How about trying to grab the button?" He asked. He took the slim jim, made a few deft twists, snaked it between the top of the window and the weather stripping, reached down, caught the lock button, and pulled it up.
"BOB! You are my hero!" I said. I got my keys and we walked back to the store so that I could pay.
"Boy, I wish I could find a feisty, independent woman like you," Bob said.
"We're rare, and under-appreciated," I said.
"I took a lady to the fair this weekend. We met online."
I took in Bob's profusion of ear hair and a belly that suggested he'd had a VW Bug with a side of fries for lunch. I imagined the woman meeting Bob for the first time.
"She said she was 74, but a young 74. Know what? She was a 74. She could barely hear me!"
I felt bad for Bob; he seemed like a nice, lonely guy.
The young woman working with Bob was surprised at how easily he'd popped the lock. "Wait-- is it a Honda?"
I said yes. How she knew this I probably was better off not knowing.
I left after Bob assured me he'd willingly help with any car issues I had; just come on back.
The heartland, for all its weirdness, does have a lot of heart.