I hate the Interstate. I love the Highway. The older I get the less I like sitting on the dial-tone road – it’s a slick cement chute, empty of life, with only the overpasses to hint at transverse routes. The only exits that matter are the ones you want; every other opportunity goes unmet. Indifference is easy at 82 MPH, more so when you’ve gone up and down this road for three decades. The Interstate is statis.
Ah, but the Highway.
Ten connects Minneapolis to Fargo. And vice versa, of course. It always has. Before the Interstate, Ten was the road between here and there, two lanes of concrete slabs that bothered your shocks and made the wheel jump in your hands. But it kept your attention. Strung along Ten were all the towns set up in the early days of the trains, improbable hamlets with names like Motley and Dilworth. Each larger town was halved by a perpendicular artery, and each of those roads split off into endless capillaries. If you wanted to get lost, you started on Ten and kept going until the pavement turned to gravel and the gravel turned to dirt. If you wanted to, that is. We didn’t; we were headed to Fargo.
It’s three and a half hours by Interstate, if you speed, and you get out of the city in good time. It’s four and a half on the Highway. You spend part of that hour slowing to limp through towns great and mean, places that have a swinging yellow light and a bar and a gas station, places that creep up to the road like some old wounded beast, places that had the lucky to have Ten march right through the center of things so you could sample the signage: Kiwanis Lions Elks Guns Gas Food Camping Liquor Motel Bait Feed, and incidentally speed limits are strictly enforced. You don’t doubt it. You slow. Everyone does. Then the sign says 65 and you do 75. Twenty miles later there’s another. These are the towns you usually know only as a name on the Interstate signs. It’s nice to finally meet them.
We were supposed to leave at 10 so we could get there by 5. What is it about women that makes them incapable of leaving at ten? And what is it about men that makes them insist on leaving at ten when 11 will do? I always want to build some time into the schedule, presuming some sort of catastrophe en route. Construction, plague, meteors, whatever. We got to St. Cloud by 12:30, which was a good sign. Ate lunch at a Wendy’s, which has apparently developed a new moisture-extraction technology for their hamburgers. Back on Ten. Family slept in the back seat; I listened to old radio shows on the iPod, thinking about the trip. I had two objectives, and one of them was fireworks. Not to buy them, of course; they’re illegal in Minnesota. (coff) But just to walk in the great warehouses of North Dakota and see them again! The explosives of my childhood, with all their glorious Chinese graphics.
We made good time, and got into Moorhead around four. Like the train, like most of the old Highways, Ten enters town by the back alleys. We threaded our way through the blasted downtown, leveled in the 70s for Progress, across the river past the foundry and the Case Implement Warehouse, down Broadway, down Main, out to the grand glorious West Acres Mall whose arrival in the early 70s killed downtown stone dead and opened up a new world for North Dakota teenagers. It was here we learned to walk around and look at girls and do nothing about it. (There was no food court.) So successful was the Mall that it pulled the entire center of gravity of the town sharply south and west, and within a year a bright new Holiday Inn rose next to the mall. Then a strip mall. Then apartments. Then everything. This is Fargo now, and the downtown is the urban equivalent of a curio shelf. Occasionally, it gets dusted. But more about that later.
We checked in at the Holiday Inn. Gnat was thrilled: she loves motels, as kids do, as I did – and still do. She ran around shouting “THIS MOTEL RULES!” The glasses, wrapped in plastic! Two phones! TV! A phone book, Daddy! Our own phone book! Who should we call? Whoa: a SPONGEBOB MENU – FOR KIDS!
We had a room on the second floor, overlooking – well, overlooking this.
A swimming pool! With a pirate ship! Imagine her reaction.
Of course she wanted to swim right away, but there wasn’t time. We’d come home for a particular reason, and we had to meet the family soon. I had come home for a wedding. I was going to be the Best Man, in fact. And we were late. Off to the church, and –
No gas. Dang. Well, I know where to stop in Fargo for gas. Pulled into the station: card reader out, please pay inside. Ran inside, and got behind three people who engaged in a simple activity common to Fargo but strange to the outside world: paying for gas at a convenience store with a check. I shot a fiver to the clerk, gassed up, and sped down Main. Found the church by old buried instincts, parked, ran inside. Late? Yes, but no matter; they’d forgotten the wedding license, and had sent someone to retrieve it. Now everyone was here and ready.
Small ceremony. There was the padre who had presided over my mother’s funeral, the inheritor to the pastoral job once filled by the man who baptized Gnat in Minneapolis, four decades after he’d dunked me in this very room. There’s the baptismal font, in fact. There’s the audience, his on one side, hers on another. I clapped the groom on the shoulder, got the ring, got my instructions. The groom had that nervous thousand-yard-stare, and I put an arm around him: I’ve done this. Piece of cake. It’ll be fine. Then we walked.
Up on the stage. I’ve been up there before – cherub choir, communion, Mom’s funeral. The sun was beating hard through the southern stained-glass window; overhead, the same immobile Jesus on the pedestal. You always sneak a glance up there every few minutes; He never moves a muscle but you never know. I was three feet from the communion rail, the barrier between us and the altar, a place you just didn’t go; when you were a kid you’d no more go behind the altar than walk on burning coals or open up a golf ball to see if blinding liquid really shot out. I felt the trip up drain out of me. I was aware of my heart, thumping with a low and comforting rhythm. I closed my hand around the ring and turned to watch the bride come down the aisle.
She looked beautiful. And I knew the groom thought so too. I don’t know everything about my father, but I know when he’s happy. This was his wedding day, again; this was his wedding day here, again.
He could no more have forseen this moment fifty years ago then she could have. Back then he was a young man back from the war; back then she was a young woman having a cup of coffee at Chock Full o’ Nuts in Herald Square. But here they were now. And now to put this thing together. She joined him on the top step; I smiled at a new sister-in-law, and we all turned faced the pastor.
He smiled, raised his hand in blessing, and began.
(Fargo story continues tomorrow. Fourth-themed Fence available here. New Matchbook. Perm link here.)