Saturday, October 1, 2011

Sometimes You Go Home: Part 1

Recently I drove 675 miles "home," to the small town in Iowa where I grew up, and then turned around two-and-a-half days later and drove the same 675 miles back here. Last time I made that drive was over two years ago to officiate at my cousin's wedding, just a few months after Iowa legalized marriage for everybody. I joked that I'd gone home to marry my cousin. This time I married my baby sister, Biker Bitch Babe (BB).

I admit I never would have made the trip when I did if my sister hadn't asked me to be their minister. It was the first week of the quarter and I had to cancel the second day of classes, leaving 50 students with the false notion that I'm an easy-going teacher. I'd rather eat kitten tacos than log 1500 miles in my old van in four days with only a Neil Gaiman book on CD to keep me company (one of those times I really miss my old dog), but my baby sister chose her wedding day--9/10/11--a year and a half ago so her intended could remember it, and I agreed to travel west to perform the ceremony, so drive I did.

I left Wednesday after I finished teaching the first day of classes, finally pulling out about 8:00. I figured I'd be up anyway so I might as well drive, in spite of the downpour from the edge of an east coast hurricane. It was an uneventful drive except for a creepy post-midnight stop at the Salt Lick rest stop on I-74 in Illinois.  Acres of woods looming behind the little picnic shelters, and those lines of semi trucks rumbling in the still night with nobody around, and a guy sleeping in his car in the closest parking space ..... But wait ... Was he really sleeping or was he dead? He had his hands crossed over his chest and his car was running ..... I didn't stop long enough to see if he was breathing. What could I do for him if he were dead?

I walked with purpose down the sidewalk and into the empty, cavernous building, expecting Rutger Hauer to step up behind me and suddenly slit my throat under the buzzy, sick florescent lights. Every sound I made echoed behind me, and my clenched bladder didn't want to pee in case the tinkling noise might mask the sound of my murderer entering the bathroom to grab my ankles, drag me out of the stall and disembowel me on the cold tile floor. I had to force myself to wash my hands and walk, not run, to my van. My heart was still pounding as I passed more ghost trucks lining the ramp, pulled back onto the highway and made my way to a motel in Peoria where I spent the night. Obviously I need to lay off the Stephen King novels.

I drove as far as my middle sister Suzy's house Thursday, where we stayed up way too late trying on her collection of dressy shoes and little black dresses, dancing around the living room, and swilling most of a box of wine. We got a late start Friday because I was still writing the wedding ceremony because Suzy had to take her car into the shop, so I was bumping down the level B (minimum maintenance) dirt road toward Mom's farmhouse when my brother Hoghead called to say they'd already finished decorating the country club for the reception Saturday night. Whoops. Oh well. One of the advantages of having a gay brother is that he takes over any decorating task and makes the place look like an HGTV segment. I'm sure the balloons were all blown  inflated to exactly the same size and the confetti had  been counted and arranged artfully on the paper tablecloth to look as if it had just been scattered randomly, but oh so prettily.

After I hauled my bag into the house, Mom showed me everything that was new since I'd been there two years ago. Then Suzy, Hoghead and I fought over who got which bedroom, I won, and everybody headed to BB's house for 2-pound steaks and brats on the grill. And, since the bride and groom hadn't seen the ceremony yet, we needed to do a little wedding rehearsing.

To be honest though, not everybody headed straight to BB's house. Suzy and I made a detour and stopped at the state liquor store, which Mom had told us is now owned by our former high school English teacher, Mr. Swanson Swanny. A huge swap meet was going on down the way at the fairgrounds, so the road was lined with dusty pickups, but the swap meeters had considerately left a few spaces open in front of the store. This one appeared to be permanently occupied by Mom though.*

I can only guess that "Mom" is the name of the boat.

As we walked into the dim, dusty store we didn't see much liquor. The front of the store is packed with stuff. Cheap old guitars hung on the walls, rusty mechanical .... things .... crowded long tables along with old appliances and stacks of magazines. On top of a tall cabinet in the center of the room sat a stuffed swan festooned with cobwebs. A real used-to-be-alive stuffed swan. I wanted it. I wanted it bad.

From a circle of old easy chairs in the back of the room we heard a voice say, "The liquor is in the back there. Just keep walking." I wasn't sure I recognized him--30 years older and a few pounds heavier, his head shaved now--but Suzy muttered, "That's him." He was reclining back in one of those butt-sprung chairs visiting with a younger guy and a middle-aged woman.

"How did you know we came in for liquor?" I asked.
"You just have that look about you, like you need a drink and soon," Swanny said. That look had been stuck on my face since I crossed the state line the day before. That look had been on my face every time I walked into his class in high school.

We asked him if he remembered us, but he didn't until we told him our names. He was glad to see us and seemed rather delighted when I told him I teach writing at a university. At least I took his "no shit?!" for delight.

When PBR isn't good enough...
Suzy bought herself a fifth of Smirnoff and I picked up some local wine from Madison County (you know, the one with the covered bridges where John Wayne was born), the next county east. Yep, they're growing grapes and making wine in Iowa now. Look out France; Iowa is the new California. My best find was a small bottle of jalapeno raisin wine, the only one there. Swanny said it was best to float half an inch on a short glass of beer. A short glass, not a tall one. I plan to share this one generously.

Before I left, I tried to buy the stuffed swan, but the younger guy said he didn't think Swanny would sell it. I said he could ask him, but he said he didn't think it was a good idea to ask him. Then he noticed the cobwebs on the swan and got up there and started brushing them away. I really wanted that swan. The next day when Hoghead went out to the swapmeet to look at hubcaps and carburetors and Hawkeye memorabilia, I told him to buy me that swan. He said he told Swanny I'd pay $1000, but Swanny wouldn't even talk about it, probably because it's illegal to own even a feather from a migratory bird because it holds precious memories for him. I would never have paid $1000 for a stuffed swan, but I might write him and threaten to turn him in if he doesn't ask if he'll leave it to me in his will.

Suzy and I finally left the liquor store, scooped the loop uptown, and headed over to BB's where the steaks and brats were already on the grill and the recycle bag was already overflowing with empty beer cans. We did a little rehearsing for the wedding, ate like Iowa farmhands, and then headed back to Mom's. She and I stayed up until after 2:00--3:00 my time--talking. For once I was the one who finally said I had to go to bed or I would fall asleep at the kitchen table.

(Note: I realized I could write an entire memoir about this one trip, so I'm going to speed things along now. Although I try to break every rule for good blogging with my long, rambling posts, but there's no reason to be ridiculous about it. I suppose I could speed blog it: the little dog peed on the big dog; my niece saw BB's garters and said, "No fair! What do I get to wear on my head?"; and the groom and I had a little discussion about who was in charge and why I was in charge.... But would I ever get to the wedding?)

One corner of the square uptown. (There is no downtown.)

* Why, yes, I did say my high school English teacher owns the store this sign belongs to, but maybe he was not the one who taught me punctuation. In any case, he retired from teaching last year, so he can tell apostrophes to go to hell if he wants to.*


  1. I can't wait to hear what happens next...

  2. If this were fiction, I would end up getting my hands on that swan next.

  3. Well, doggone it, you should have taken a picture of The Swan - at least you'd have that!

  4. I know, right? My sister is supposed to send me one. I was too busy wrangling for it to take a photo.

  5. I'm still trying to figure out why someone would make a Jalapeno Raisin wine. Did you try it? Sounds awful!

  6. I haven't tried it yet. I don't like spicy food, so I don't expect to like the wine. It's a novelty.

  7. Hahahaha! I love being BB! And I will get that photo! Running behind life is leaving little time for other things! And you can argue who's in charge with that man forever! I will be....

  8. If the big guy wanted to marry his bride, for about 20 minutes in the middle of his BBQ the minister was going to be in charge and run a rehearsal. He asked me why I got to be so bossy. I told him because he had a goal and that was to be married to my baby sister by 5:30 the next day. And if he wanted to meet that goal, he had to make sure I was willing to say those magic words that start with "By the power vested in me by the state of Iowa..." and then sign my name on the license. So to make that happen, he had to let me be in charge. I thought it went pretty well from then on.

    And now he's all yours. ;-)