What Might Have Been

In high school they gave us a test to determine which careers would best match our skills and dreams and personalities.

There were dozens of questions about interests and hobbies and work ethic and attention to detail, answered in blackened circles.

We spent almost an hour taking inventory, holding every idea up to the future’s bright light and assessing its worth.

A week later, the guidance counselor began meeting with us as individuals, offering hope and laying out maps of coursework like a sweaty salesman unloading timeshares on commission. 

You aren’t very ambitious, he said when it was finally my turn. Are you good with your hands?

I shook my head.

Not ditch-digging, he assured me.  More like giving handjobs for cash at truckstops.  That’s what you’re suited for.

Some dark magic–black as #2 lead–had uncovered my lack of both talent and drive, had laid it bare for this balding, bespectacled man in his gray flannel suit from two decades before.

That’s the best option available to you, given all this data.  He waved a handful of coffee-ringed sheets at me.  

I explained that I wanted to explore all my options, keep an open mind.

Well, he offered, looking at his notes.  You could be cannon fodder, or get paid to have pre-med undergrads run experiments on you.  Some folks in your situation become rodeo clowns. Occasionally, I’ve had kids like you become stars in the snuff film industry. You might also want to consider suicide, and if so, I have this handy brochure–

I declined the pamphlet.

You’ll need to figure this out, he sputtered.  I have to guide you, to offer counsel.

I stood to leave.

There is something else–almost too terrible to mention.  I hesitate to bring it up, as it always makes me feel like I’m violating the ethics of my vocation…  

We looked at each other, and I shrugged, open to suggestions but already trying to remember which knots the Cub Scout manual recommended for nooses.

It’s basically all of the things I’ve mentioned synthesized into one horrific career.  But you do get summers off.  And holidays.  He was whispering, ashamed. But I really don’t think it’s a good idea.  Why teach when you can…I don’t know, rob liquor stores?

And I would have followed his advice, too, if my eyes hadn’t gone bad, if I could still see to drive a getaway car or point the gun in the right direction.  But Fate intervened, dropping me here like an errant shell casing the criminal is too thoughtless to take with him as he flees.

That, kids, is why I teach.

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Fargo Freddie

Part 7 of the Northern Minnesota Project.

In times of existential despair or confusion, Fargo Freddie liked to remember an inspirational quote he had once seen on a bathroom wall:  Pussy ain’t free.  To fully savor the best life has to offer, he reflected, one must always pay–psychologically, spiritually, or financially.  Given this, he saw himself as one of the more benevolent operators in this world.  All he wanted was money.  To hell with your soul.

His was not the only brothel on the ice of Lake Ayers, but the air inside his shack never stank of dead ends and exploitation.  Buoyed, perhaps, by Freddie’s belief in his own mission statement, his bitches saw themselves not as rock-bottom desperate, but as vital threads in the beautiful tapestry of humanity, which, they admitted, was unfortunately stained by semen. And, while dead-eyed, broken runaways appeal to the class of man who enjoys humiliating women more than sex, Freddie didn’t want that clientele.  Their money spent just as well, but their psychic cost to his girls was too great.

Every once in a while, the Wrong Sort would open his door and stroll inside, looking for action.  That they didn’t belong was obvious.  They leered and sneered and the frozen breath they exhaled was as discolored as their teeth.  A quick wave of Freddie’s .22 usually provided just the encouragement they needed to move along.  For the slow learners, a few shots of his brass knuckles underlined the point.  Freddie had never had to kill anyone, but he did not doubt that he could do so, if the need arose.

Freddie liked Lars right away.  Here was a man whose face carried past tragedy in its creases but had never edged over into hateful bitterness.  Lars came by often, usually with his son, who was content to color at an empty card table while his father played poker or drank gin or took a girl to his truck.  The bitches enjoyed the boy’s company, particularly Irene, the bartender, whose own son had been eaten by a bear at around Paul’s age (and in whose defense she had lost her arm).

One of the hoes–Maude? Laverne?–even bought the boy a small fishing rod at the general store in town, and Freddie took it upon himself to show the child how to use it.  While Lars was otherwise occupied in the cab of his pickup, they sat on small stools next to the fishing hole, and Freddie showed Paul how to attach the cheap tin lure to the fishing line, ever careful of the hooks.  He demonstrated the proper way to raise and lower the pole, enticing unseen fish to bite.  Paul felt the pole jump in his hands–almost lost it–and struggled briefly before pulling the fish out onto the ice.  It flopped on the ice, throwing water off its silver fins.

“Shit, boy,” Freddie said, squeezing Paul’s shoulder, “that’s a fine eelpout!”

“It’s a burbot,” Irene corrected.  “Eelpouts have elongated anal fins.  They actually look like eels.”

“Reeny, just cook the fuckin’ thing, okay?  Boy caught his first fish, you talkin’ all this shit about fish names?”  Freddie unhooked the fish, then slammed it onto the ice twice in rapid succession, killing it.

Irene fried the burbot in butter on a small stove, adding salt and pepper for seasoning.  The head she offered to Freddie, who fixed it to his line and went right back to fishing.  Paul looked at his plate, on which rested the meat of an animal that had been alive half an hour earlier.  He did not feel hungry.

“What’s wrong?,” Freddie asked him.  “You thinking about the head of that fish?”

Paul nodded.

“We all got a time, kid.  Worms are gonna eat us someday, and then somebody’s gonna take one of those worms and use it to catch a fish out of this lake.  And when they eat that fish, they’re gonna be ingesting a little piece of us.  It’s a cycle.”

“That’s not scientifically accurate,” Irene interjected.

“Irene!  It’s a fuckin’ metaphor!  It ain’t science!  It’s a literary tool doubling as a philosophical parable!  Calm the fuck down!”  He turned his attention back to the boy,  “Death is the price we pay so life can go on.  Dig? 

“Everything worth doing costs something.  This fishing pole cost five dollars.  The lure cost 75 cents.  That dinner cost you time and that fish his life.  Irene may be a mouthy one-armed trick, but she’s a helluva good cook.  That will be the best fish you ever eat.  I can promise you.”

Paul looked down at his food, then took a bite.  Freddie was right; it was delicious.  He quickly took another bite.

“What’d I tell you?”  Freddie laughed.  “It’s worth that little bit of sadness, isn’t it?”

Paul was too busy eating to say anything.

Had Paul looked up from his dinner, Freddie would have told him his ideas about pussy, but he reasoned that the child had learned enough for this particular afternoon.  He felt his line go taut, and he smiled as he reeled in his catch.

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On the Ice

Part 6 of the Northern Minnesota project.

Paul was four years old, a scrawny kid with shaggy auburn hair and freckles.  In those days, he spent a great deal of time with Mrs. Augsburger in the living quarters above her husband’s drugstore, coloring and building elaborate Lincoln Log structures while his father worked downstairs.

He preferred Sunday, because his father did not go to work.  Paul typically passed time at home within ten feet of the wood-burner, rotating his activities regularly so the heat baked him evenly.  On a Sunday in December, his father called him away from his toys and dressed him in a cheap olive green snowsuit from the Sears catalog.  It would have fit a large boy twice his age, but Lars never could figure out the damned sizing charts. The sleeves and pant legs were rolled into cuffs, which diminished the child’s comfort, but Paul, as usual, did not complain.  It had been below zero regularly for weeks, with wind that passed through you like the spirits of the condemned.  He didn’t say anything about that, either.

They climbed into Lars’ rusty red Ford pickup, but did not head to town.  Instead, they followed a pair of icy ruts through the bare trees and down a gentle grade toward the lake.  Wisps of snow sailed across the ice ahead of them.  Lars eased the truck onto the frozen surface.

Each winter, the population of Thief River Falls diminished significantly, as locals moved their activities onto the ice of Lake Ayers.  The lake’s eight square miles hosted hockey games, figure skaters, and curling, but the real action revolved around ice fishing.  Local men covered the ice in small shacks that stayed in place from November through March.  For the avid sportsman, any moment not spent at work was spent hiding from familial responsibility on the lake.  Few women braved the ice, and none of the men complained.  Without much civilizing feminine influence, the lake in winter felt like a frontier village, all hairy, grimy masculine id.

Business owners of ill repute, aware that most of their patrons would not enter their more permanent establishments for months, created elaborate temporary structures, travel versions of their regular locations, and took to the ice.  Bars, gambling dens, and burlesque houses sprang up, each offering their usual fare and, most essentially, a hole cut into the ice for fishing.

Paul did not know who Fargo Freddie was, but he liked his ice shack immediately.  A large flag hung behind the bar where a parka-clad woman with one arm poured drinks.  A few other women sat playing poker at card tables nearby.  In the corner, a radio played Elvis.  Lars ordered a beer for himself and a ginger ale for the boy, then steered his son to a table.

Lars asked the bartender for some playing cards, which he gave to Paul.  

“Can you make a building with these, buddy?,” he asked.  “I want to talk to someone for a little while.  These ladies can watch you.  Like Mrs. Augsburger.”  The boy nodded.  Lars soon left with one of the poker players.

Paul opened the box of cards.  They were cheap paper, somewhat discolored.  Each card had a unique drawing of a nude woman mistreating herself.  Paul paid little attention to the pictures, focusing instead on construction.  His early efforts–given the poor materials–collapsed, but in time he developed an understanding of structural engineering, and soon he was putting the fifth level on a tower.  The women talked and laughed and drank nearby, but did not notice his achievement.

The door opened, and a stout, unshaven man entered, heading for the bar.  An arctic blast followed him, blowing Paul’s tower down.  The top cards fell off the table and onto the ice, where they continued to move, pushed by the draft.  Paul scurried, picking them up, chasing the Queen of Hearts across the frozen floor, reaching for it as it dropped into the fishing hole.  

He was too late.  Peering over the edge, he could see the lewd woman sinking beneath the surface, disappearing.  Soon, he could only see his reflection, green eyes gazing back up from the depths.  Then, briefly, his father’s face behind his.  A harsh tug pulled him back from the edge.

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Lake Ayers

Part 5 of my Northern Minnesota project.

The train’s brakes startled Lars.  Typically, they rumbled past steadily, a rhythmic clacking that a man could grow accustomed to over time.  This monstrous screech was something else entirely.  He might have gone back to sleep as it subsided had he not reached out reflexively to touch his absent wife.

His son cooed gently in his crib–not upset, not distressed–but batting at a folded piece of paper pinned to his chest.  He had managed to get a corner into his mouth, dampening the note and smudging some words, but enough of the message remained to make Lars tremble.  Blood rushed to his head, and he sat back down on the bed as if magnetically compelled.  

Outside, there were shouts and cries, men running up the platform, their feet beating in time with Lars’ heart.  He could not move, could barely breathe, and he stayed put until he heard a dismal knock on his door, confirming everything he already believed but still refused to accept.

The newspaper, to spare Rosie public shame, reported her death as an accident–a fatally mistimed sleepwalk.  The truth spread through word of mouth–a policeman tells his wife, who tells her hairdresser, who tells everyone–with the eventual result that she could not be buried in the local cemetery, which was considered consecrated ground and off-limits to such clearly unforgiven sinners.  Lars’ father might have used his considerable clout to override the decision, but he remained silent on the issue, as with all others related to his former heir.

Eventually, Lars settled on cremation, and he took a small boat out on Lake Ayers and poured her into the deep blue water.  The ashes sank through the water with a quickness that surprised him.  As the remains descended, they spread out in cloudy tendrils, blossoming as Rosie might have, had Lars withdrawn ten seconds sooner. For a moment, he considered diving after her, swallowing water and ash until he could no longer breathe.  

He rowed back to shore, each stroke a monument to paternal duty.  The tragedy was his fault, at least in part, but he consoled himself by remembering that he had never loved Rosie but did love his son.  Getting home meant being with him.

Within the week, he had moved out of the basement apartment and away from the twice-nightly reminder of terminal despair.  To the end of his life, the mere mention of trains curdled the contents of his stomach.

Father and son moved into a small cabin on  the lake just as the winter freeze set in.  It had once been a hunting cabin for the Harrelson family, but their ever-increasing wealth rendered it too rustic for the new generation.  Roy had called on Lars at the soda counter to offer him the place as a rental, a last gesture of goodwill towards his best foreman.  

Lars no longer played piano.  His hands grew rough splitting and carrying wood for the small black barrel stove in the corner.  There was little insulation to the cabin, so he began tacking cheap blankets on the walls to hold in the heat and keep out the Minnesota cold.  The baby watched all of this with patient bemusement.  Lars sang to him–Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday–and as time passed Paul babbled along with the songs and shook his limbs in a manner approximating rhythm.

There were no other houses for a mile in any direction, and they did not, in those early years, have electricity, but decades later Paul looked back on that time in the cabin as idyllic, just a boy and his dad in the wilderness, the Outside World at bay.

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This is Part 4 of my Northern Minnesota project.

Paul Eugene Keillor entered the world on the last day of March in 1951.  Unlike his father, he was an easy child from the beginning, when he shot out of the birth canal with a minimum of maternal pushing.  In the days and weeks to come, his good nature became apparent.  He cried just enough to be heard, and he only took the milk the Rosie’s breasts had produced, never expressing displeasure when food was temporarily out of stock.  Young Paul slept through the night before he had passed a full month on Earth.

Lars was pleased that his scrotum had produced something of such quality.  He spoke of his infant son so fondly to his customers at the drugstore–a clientele with an average age of 15–that condom sales decreased dramatically and the local teen pregnancy rate rose.  Had the deeply concerned civic leaders properly diagnosed the epidemic’s cause, they would have moved to ban the sale of banana splits to minors.  Instead, in keeping with the times, they blamed Communism.

Rosie, whose baby boy had been named in part after the noted socialist Eugene Debs, saw the world in far less optimistic hues than her husband.  She appreciated the child’s disposition and found him the best possible result of procreation, but she hated life in the basement apartment, hated the trains that woke her (but thankfully not the baby) each night.  Worse–and this she felt she could not share with anyone–she hated motherhood, the whole shit-smelling, weary thing.  Some people, she reflected, were born to nurture their young.  These women had a downy softness Rosie lacked, a familial drive she couldn’t activate within herself.  

This lack of motivation was new to her.  During the War, she had seen the famous propaganda poster of the Riveter flexing and boasting We Can Do It!, and she knew it was true.  She took a job at Harrelson’s stacking lumber and worked her way up to be a foreman by the time she and Lars married.  

Rosie spent her weekend deep in the works of Emerson and Thoreau, attending seminary via correspondence course and honing her speaking skills at Stillwater.  After her ordination, she found an eager audience for her sermons among the men at the Tavern, who chafed under conservative notions of self-respect and sobriety.

Her pregnancy destroyed everything she’d built for herself.  The larger her belly grew, the more anxious the men at the mill became around her, until Roy Harrelson himself told Rosie it was time to think about her new career–as a mother.  Even her beloved Unitarian congregation, they of the Open Minds, seemed shocked at the sight of her expectant form waddling above them, reciting from the Gospel According to John Steinbeck, her hands supporting the small of her back.  The singing grew less boisterous, the offering plate less full, the Tavern less crowded.  As she entered her last trimester, she ceded her pulpit to Thief River Falls’ most prominent tattoo artist, and spent the next three months at home, waiting to give birth.  Lars still played the hymns every Sunday, but she couldn’t bring herself to go, couldn’t bear to see her former parishioners avert their gazes.  

For a brief time, she had believed that being a human Petri dish would not change her station in life.  Why should it?  But when nine months of gestation erased nine years of self-creation, she realized that her formidable motivation had washed out of her during labor.  She did not have the energy to rebuild herself.  

Instead, Rosie wrote a note explaining all of this to her husband, apologizing for accepting his proposal and detailing the baby’s routine.  She waited until Lars was asleep, then pinned the letter to the child’s pajamas.  He stared up at her, the green eyes she had given him wide with curiosity.  She kissed him on the tip of his nose, rushing out also his last image of her wouldn’t involve tears.

It was fortunate, she realized, that her home should be so close to a train station.  Her exit would be quick and easy, without time to over-think or reconsider.  She heard a distant whistle, and saw a tiny speck of light that grew larger with approach.  For the first time in months, she felt that old moxie return and felt the exhilarating rush of self-determination.  She left the platform, moving herself directly between the rails and turning to face her future, which steamed toward her, inevitable.  

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You’ll need to read this and this first for the following vignette to make any sense.  Please–leave me some feedback.  I could use it.

Abortion was out of the question.  Lars had rejected almost all of his Lutheran past, but he held tight to the idea that life began at conception.  Philosophically, Rosie agreed, although she was adamant that she hadn’t yet conceived of the cell-cluster in her uterus as Life, therefore rendering his argument moot.  She did not want a child, and never had. 

“Worse,” she lamented, “it’s going to be that much harder to haul my ass up onto that piano each Sunday.  My belly will get in the way.”

Lars pictured himself helping her up, his hands cupping her firm buttocks and lifting.  This brought back memories of the only moments they had ever shared.  Instinctively, he put his hand on her breast. She socked him in the mouth, hard.

“What the hell are you thinking?,” she demanded, rising to leave. 

“I think you broke my jaw,” he said.  “Marry me?”

Standing, she was barely at eye level with him, but he felt completely overwhelmed by her.  Her feline green eyes narrowed into a perplexed squint as she regarded him and their possible options.

“That’s a worse idea than fucking you in the first place.”

“I can’t feel the bottom half of my face.”  In the near-dark of the fading lightbulb overhead, he looked nearly handsome.

She thought some, then sighed.  “Okay.  Fine.  Let’s do it.”  

In the wedding pictures Paul first saw after their deaths, his parents could have passed for happy.  His father’s lips were curled upwards in a smile and his mother, her stomach noticeably swollen, held a half-empty bottle of bourbon aloft in celebration.  The ceremony was held at Hamlet’s, of course, officiated by a Unitarian minister Rosie had trained under at the state prison in Stillwater.

“Dearly beloved,” he began, “we are gathered here today in the presence of God and my parole officer, to celebrate the wedding of these two young people, so obviously in trouble…”

The pair exchanged vows and rings, and the traditional Bible verses were avoided.  Some attendees were moved to tears, particularly those millworkers who were footing Rosie’s bar tab for the evening.  

After the party ended (as dictated by local liquor ordinances), Lars carried his unconscious new bride across the threshold of his apartment and laid her gently on his bed, pulling his shabby quilt to her chin so the chill October air wouldn’t bother her.  He settled his palm below her belly button, imagining how his child was developing, hoping to feel movement.

He sat that way for awhile, in silence, with only her warmth for company.  When the 2:18 train roared past and she did not stir, he pulled some filthy laundry into a makeshift pillow and went to sleep.

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This is a continuation of a story i started yesterday.  You’ll want to read that first, if you haven’t.

Lars spent every Sunday playing music for the Unitarians, who coincidentally held their services in Hamlet’s Tavern.  They sang traditional hymns retrofitted with Woody Guthrie lyrics, hoisting pitchers of Pabst Blue Ribbon and munching peanuts.  The minister, a pint-sized woman named Rosie, gave her sermons while pacing on top of the upright piano.  

“We are the church of the Open Minds, the Loving Hearts, and the Hair of the Dog,”she declared each week over the background crack of billiard balls.  She was small, but her voice boomed.  During the war, she had gotten work at the sawmill, and she had proven so tough that the men had accepted her as one of them.  That she could outdrink even the burliest lumberjack helped tremendously.

On the weekend after the North Koreans invaded their southern counterparts, she caught Lars looking up her black wool skirt from his piano stool while she was leading the congregation in prayer.  She cleared her throat slightly, enough to draw his eyes up to meet hers.  Then, she took a slightly wider stance, holding her position until Amen.  After the service, they shared communion in the Tavern’s lone bathroom, standing with her back against the door, because its lock was broken and propriety mattered to them both.

During the week, he worked as a soda jerk for Augsburger’s Drugstore.  He made root beer floats and banana splits for the high school kids ditching class and watched the busy shoppers pass by the large window that faced Main Street. It wasn’t much of a living, but it covered the efficiency apartment he rented in the basement of an old brick hotel next to the train depot.  The tracks ran so close to his building that a passing train would shake his brass bed and jar him awake. This happened at least twice between midnight and dawn each night.

In mid-August, he woke to a far different disruption–the determined rapping of small knuckles on his apartment’s heavy wooden door.  The walk from bed to door–no greater than fifteen feet–took almost a minute, owing to a combination of deep-sleep uncoordination and the clothes, boxes, and newspapers strewn about his floor.  

The draft rushing in under the door reminded him that he was wearing only his boxer shorts, and those were on their third consecutive day.  Using his foot, Lars scanned the floor for his terry cloth bathrobe, but he found only his red and black flannel jacket. The knocking grew more insistent.

“Hold on, goddammit,” Lars begged, his drowsy mind overwhelmed by the challenge of dressing with haste. He gave up and put on the jacket, then approached the door sans pants and swung it open.  Rosie stood in the hallway, smoking an unfiltered Camel.

“Christ,” she said,  “this is almost enough to make me ashamed of my choices.”

“Wait.  What?”

“I’m pregnant,” she said.  “We’d probably better figure something out.  Can I come in?”

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