Home to Fargo for Easter. Saturday night supper. Talk turned, as it usually does, to the old days, to the history of the tribes, which distant unsmiling face in the black-and-white studio portrait begat which great-grand-cousin long ago sundered by worms. We talked about Grandma and Grandpa on my mothers side, to the farm where our family went every Sunday to eat a hear meal and watch Grandpa doze off during the Jack Benny Show. (His Letterman, I suppose.) I said I could make a map of that house to this very day, so well did I remember the place. The chair where Grandpa waited to see our car coming up the tree-lined gravel road; the spot where he stood to say goodbye. The bedrooms upstairs that seemed frozen in time 20 years before, diffidently occupied today. (Of course kids never know what means what to whom, so the sight of ordinary boring things on the dresser stirred little curiosity. It wasnt until years later, when you saw an small metal container from Grandmas dresser in your mothers possession. Hey, I remember that. Check the lid: 1893 Worlds Fair. A gift from her father. I have it now, and inside is a commemorative coin I bought from the Fair.)
The room that fascinated me the most was off the big hall upstairs a long dark narrow hallway, a closet stuffed with musty clothing (furs, beaded dresses, heavy coats) and a room where they stored detritus from the previous half-century. An old Victrola with a collection of railroad-spike needles; ancient magazines that looked like they came from another country, blankets, board games that cracked and flaked when you opened them up, a weary bed that sagged to the floor when you bounced up and down. The room was like a net theyd dragged through the lake of their lives and thrown on the dock. No one told you what this stuff was; no one really cared to ask.
Oh, that was Elis room, my dad said.
The hired man.
But the hired man slept off the porch.
Not Eli, he slept upstairs. There were stairs from the room off the porch up to his room, and thats where he lived.
There were stairs from the room off the porch. All of a sudden the thick coats and dresses parted and revealed the secret passageway; I thought harder, thought of that room off the porch yes, there was a staircase. But I had no memory of Eli.
Your grandfather went to town to hire a man, and he talked to Eli, down at the hall, and Eli, he didnt say anything. He never said anything. So Victor just went on to see if he could find someone else, then he went back to the farm. The next morning, there was Eli sitting on the steps. Hed walked in from town.
That would be about 10 miles. Eli first showed up in the late 30s, if I get the chronology right. Or he was there when my dad got back from the war. He stayed until he died in the early 1960s. I have vague memory of a hired man, and its probably him, but I remember nothing more than a shadowy unease with someone who wasnt part of the family, and knew it.
He kept to himself, my dad said; he spoke to no one. Once a week hed walk into Harwood - a mile or two and sit in the store for a few hours. (Yes, the general store.) Then hed walk home. That was his weekend in town. He spent nothing and read nothing and owned nothing; he worked, ate, and he slept, and whatever thoughts he had at night after he put out the light never made it past his lips. From what they knew, he fought in the Great War, went back to Wisconsin, worked in the mills, then drifted west again, and for some reason snagged his sleeve on Fargo, where my Grandfather found him.
I wondered if he was around during the great Badger in the Culvert incident: Pepper the dog cornered a badger in a pipe under the road, and there were fears the creature was rabid. My uncle shot it. This formed the basis for my first piece of writing, a six-page storybook written in first grade. Maybe Eli just stood back and watched. Maybe he sat inside and had coffee. Sundays, with all the kids and relatives and cousins, could have been a substantial annoyance. Or not. You just didn't know.
He got sick, and they took him down to the hospital, and then he moved into a room in a hotel on NP Avenue, Dad said. That was the flophouse district, or was becoming such; one of the bars, the Pink Pussy Cat, had a large neon sign outside that must have kept the transients on the second floor awake at night. NP stood for Northern Pacific the tracks were close by, and you could hear the trains rumble in at all hours. The train, the buzz of the neon outside the window, the clatter and racket of a bar - urban sounds for a man who'd lived in the quiet prarie. One night shortly after he checked into the hotel, Eli died. I imagine the maid found him. Or the man who came to get the rent.
He left some money; Grandpa made inquiries. The money had the usual miraculous effect of creating relatives from thin air. Nephews arrived, took a check, and stepped back out of the story. He didnt have any possessions not even the bed at the farm was his. All he left in the room was the cumulative effect of his weight on the springs. And isn't that a tidy lesson? The bed is a bachelor's wife; he sings to it when he snores, soaks it when he's sick, joins its each night with gratitude to lay his dreaming head upon it, and leaves it with regret to stand and stretch and start to toil. And in the end three kids bounce up and down squealing with glee, and they've just no idea. None.
He was the homeliest man, Dad said. He looked like Ichabod Crane, gaunt, big ears, thin neck, and he had this high squeaky voice. Id sit out on the steps and talk to him and hed say OH YES IVE BEEN THERE
and everyone jumped a little, because Dad had taken his voice up two octaves and screeched like a sheep that got its ear caught in a tractor spoke. And right there, forty years after he died by the train tracks in a cheap hotel, Eli came back to life.
But that was all there was of him, and that was that.
Later I thought of my father sitting on the steps come to court my mother, no doubt, passing time with the Hired Man, talking to the guy everyone else had long ago written off as a mute. Thats who he was then; thats who he is now. No small accomplishment.
Hes in a new house now. I thought I would miss the old house its where I grew up but I realized right away how glad I was hed moved. Not just so he could have someplace new and sunny and bright wed been trying to get him to move since my Mom died. No, it was just the relief I felt that I didnt have to go back there again, sleep in my old small room with my junior-high books on the shelves, my Marvel decal of Captain America still stuck to a doorknob, the empty smell of loss in every closet and every room, the dry weight of time holding everything in place. Open any drawer, and there was forty years of compacted history staring up at you. We had every Christmas in the living room. I played piano in the living room every day. When Gnat came last year we hid eggs in the living room. My mother died in the living room.
The new house is modern and bright, lining a cul-de-sac in the endless suburban sprawl of south Fargo. A city that did not exist has grown since I left; the city that was there when we lived on the north side, but its frozen, its done. Its over. It cannot grow the airport on one side, the river on the east, the waste-treatment plant on the north. By his new house stand two gargantuan churches, one built to resemble some peculiar cross between a barn and a European cathedral. Our old church is between North and South, a downtown church across from the old Kraft warehouse, north from the Sons of Norway hall. The congregants who were incredibly old when I was a little kid are still there fewer in number, sometimes stooped, but often just as ruddy and vital as before. A full house, which was nice. You cant imagine that the congregation is replacing itself at the needed rate. Once they had Sunday school for every grade, but not anymore, I think.
We sat in the balcony. I took Gnat up a secret passage to a tiny door in the back of the loft, and showed her the rope to the bell. The area looked as strange and forgotten as it did when I rang the bell; like so much of the church it seems to have been sprayed with some sort of time-thwarting fixative. I suppose when you use a place once a week, and only then for an hour or two, it holds up well. I suppose its good that we age faster than churches. At first it makes them seem behind the times; eventually they seem outside the times.
Hadnt seen the padre in a while; wed caught up in the vestibule. When I came up at the head of the communion line he gave me a wink.
Afterwards, the usual dinner at the Holiday Inn banquet room; ham in alarming amounts. On the way out we ran into my third-grade teacher. My third-grade teacher, friends. She looked about 50. She remembered me: I was such a reader! I thanked her for teaching me, and walked a way a little dazed: I'm 46 years old. And I just ran into my third-grade teacher. Back to Dads house to find eggs with Gnats cousin. I packed, neatened the room. We'd taken out some afghans the night before - one green, one blue, both knitted by my Grandmother decades ago. I'd curled up under them as a kid; they were later draped around a chair in the living room. Good as new. Can't shake 'em. Sometimes you actually get irritated at the obstinate persistence of inanimate objects; it would be simple if they'd just leave. Because here I am in my father's new house, staring at this letter my Grandma wrote in wool. You can run your hands along it and pretend you're touching her; you can imagine the day at the farm, with Grandma knitting in the front room, Grandpa looking for the car keys so he can drive out and check the progress of the crops, Folger's brewing in the kitchen, Eli loping off to the barn to change the oil in the tractor, worrried about a pain he's been having. But you'll get nothing out of them. Gnat has no idea of the blanket that kept her warm, just as Grandma had no idea there would ever be a Gnat. It can drive you nuts, the wishing. But what can you do? You remember, you pass it on, you let it go. In the end it's just a blanket. For all I know Grandma kept the 1893 container because it was practical, and her dad got it from a man at the GAR hall. The only object I think my Dad would ever miss was the piece of shrapnel he got in the war, and had made into a wedding ring.
Coffee and cake until it was time to load up the car and point it east. Id say we headed home, but Fargo is home as well. From one home to the other, then; from the old home to the new. An apt thing to do on an Easter Sunday, no? Let's ask the pastor of my childhood church: