Motel clocks don’t tick. They lie in coiled repose until they unleash their hellish shriek. If you wake up early you almost feel like you got the jump on them.
I woke in the same posture I’d assumed when I slid under the sheets. I looked at the clock: 8:30. I’d set the alarm for nine. Something told me I wasn’t getting back to sleep. Six hours, eh. Five hours and 59 minutes would have been insufficient, especially considering the drive ahead, but six? It’ll do. I got up and turned on the coffee pot, which I’d made before I went to the party. I’d also packed. (I’m one of those types: the pre-packers.) All I had to do was shave and shower and head down to breakfast. The coffee tasted good, and I didn’t have a hint of crapulous noggin – which either meant I’d paced myself nicely during the previous evening, or the hangover would come down like a sack of anvils while I was on the road.
I went down to the Holiday Inn restaurant to meet Dad and Doris. We were handed menus, a superfluity the waitresses cheerfully offer up with full knowledge you’ll have the buffet. Why wouldn’t you? There are few words in the English language that have the plain poetic appeal of Breakfast Buffet; you imagine the spoils of Croesus, from eggs to pancakes to pans of bangers, rashers unnumbered of bacon, rolls and fruit, and a man in a ceremonial hat at the end of the line carving off hanks of hog. And you can go back. Last time we had the buffet I was alarmed at the dimensions of the people in the line; they weren’t just fat, but dangerously overinflated, like pool toys pumped up by gas-station airhoses. This time, however, we had the line to ourselves.
Pancakes are my weakness. After two years of low carb eating I have allowed pancakes back into my life. One per weekend. Maybe two. The bacon was crisp; the sausages were so plump you were tempted to squeeze them and see how far you could shoot a stream of fat. The eggs looked fluffy and moist. I heaped my plate high and tucked in.
The eggs were as dry as minced newsprint; the sausage was a damp log of Congeal-While-U-Wait fat, the bacon tasted like cold salty strips of fried playing cards, and the pancakes were cold. The pat of butter sat atop the short stack, obdurate; it would not melt.
“This is cold,” I said.
“So’s my quiche,” said Doris.
Dad nodded, eating. “It could be warmer,” he said.
I pushed my plate away. “I’m going to say something,” I said. Dad looked slightly alarmed: he came here often. Who was I to ruin his rep? Big city kid comes home, throws his weight around, demands his eggs be hot? Don’t cause a scene. (Mind you, this is a fellow who mortified his children TWICE on family trips, once by correcting a hostess as to the proper order of the seating, the other time by picking up a chair in the dining room of the Des Moines Holiday Inn and shaking it to knock off the crumbs on the seat.)
“I’m not paying for this,” I said, calmly. Of course, it was highly unlikely I would pay for it under any circumstances; it falls to the Patriarch of the clan to pick up breakfast. I fought him for the last check a month ago, but only with the foreknowledge that I would roll over and show my throat the next time.
“Don’t make a scene,” he said.
“Dad! It’s cold. The pancakes are stiff. Are you afraid of what the waitress will think? You shot Japanese planes down, for heaven’s sake.”
He gave me a look that correctly noted the insult, but also seemed to inform me that Japanese planes had not dropped pancakes on my plate.
“What do you want them to do?”
“Do? Could you be a crotchety old man for just a second here? Aren’t you suppose to be the guy complaining? I’m going to tell them the temperature on the buffet table’s completely off, because everything’s cold. They’ll want to know. Otherwise other people will complain.”
“If they’re like you,” he muttered.
“Dad! Back me up here. Waitress?” I called her over. General mortification settled over my father’s quadrant. The waitress came over, all smiles. I wanted to say: Nine years waiting tables, just so you know. Just to set your mind at ease. What follows is neither a personal attack, and it will have no impact on the tip; it’s possible the trouble is with the kitchen, which we all know has its moments. But I did not. Close, though. “Hi! I’ve had the buffet many times, and it’s great. This, however, is cold. Everything is cold. Either the temperature’s set too low or it’s off. I mean, I’m not expecting it to be scalding, but this isn’t good.”
“Mine’s cold,” Doris said. (She was born in Brooklyn, God bless her.)
“It’s a little cold,” Dad said.
The waitress pursed her lips, a thousand calculations going through her mind. Chance the customer was right: even odds. Effect this might have on subsequent tables: nightmarish. Leverage over shift chief if complaint is true: substantial. Short term effect: unknown.
“What can I do?” she asked, bracing herself.
“I’d like the kitchen to make it fresh – two eggs, bacon, short stack.”
She looked at Dad and Doris, but they made vague gestures of resignation. The waitress left. A few minutes later I was given a pancakes the size of an hoop in a Civil War ballroom gown. I gave one to my dad. He ate it all.
“Now that’s good,” he said. “Not like the other one.” He made a face of mild disappointment. “Too cold.”
After breakfast they gave me a box. In the process of moving from the old house to the new one, they’d found some coins I’d collected as a child. Thanks! I stowed it in the back of the Element, and we said our goodbyes. Hugs to Doris, handshake to the Lion of Fargo.
Oh – wait a minute. I meant to avoid the traffic on Ten. Construction had narrowed it down to one lane, and Sunday noon would see many cars heading to DL. Dad had taken the interstate to DL the previous day; what route did he take?
“Take the Downer exit,” he said. (Yes: there is a town in Minnesota called Downer. Oh the laffs we had in high school.) “Just go straight until you come to a dead end, and then you turn – well, I forget which way you turn. You’ll see it.”
Waves and goodbyes. I opened the laptop to see if I could leach off the Holiday Inn’s WiFi; I could. Called up The Google. Sure enough: the Downer exit led to a county road, which threaded around Cormorant Lake. That would take me past the construction. Stowed the Mac, turned the key, hit the road.
It doesn’t take long to leave Fargo. I used to feel a certain relief when I saw the WELCOME TO MINNESOTA sign on the freeway. Fargo’s right on the border, so you cross back and forth all the time; Minnesota, when I was young, was summed up by Moorhead, the twin city across the river, lesser and shabbier in every respect. When I was in college , heading back to the dorm after the GRUELING INTERLUDE with the parents, the sign was like the crossing from East Germany to West. Now it’s semi-permeable. It actually takes some momentum to get my soul to pass through it as easily as I’d like.
The interstate unspoiled as it always does, a blank flat grey gash drawn through the green fields. I came upon Downer after 15 miles; I found the county road, took my place in a six-car queue heading to DL, and sped along. I had no map. I needed no map. This land was my land. On the other hand . . . this was going on a little longer than I’d thought. Had I missed the turn? No, it was a dead-end. A T-bone intersection. Trust The Google. I passed farms, barns, silos; side roads that went from hardpack to gravel; burnt fields and green pastures irrigated by machines that looked like gigantic tame Praying Mantises. The road dipped and rose and weaved. It was straight on the map, but the map can only tell you so much.
How did I feel? I felt like this. (Music file, 1.7 MB)
I came to the dead-end. I’ve always had an excellent sense of direction; the magnetic fields are strong in this one. Left is north. And so I went, speeding up a strange old road, waiting for Ten. And there it was. I turned (left is east) and I was off.
I didn’t stop for lunch. I drove. I needed no coffee. (I stopped once for gas, which I hated to do; all those cars I’d passed, passing me with brash impunity. Bastards! I will have you again, I will!) After a few hours the cell rang; Dad.
“Where are you?” he said in a teasing drawl he used when he was feeling playful.
“Just hitting Motley.” (Yes: there is a town in Minnesota called Motley.) “I’m making good time.”
“Have you stopped?”
“No.” Because I am your son! I am James, Son of Ralph, and I do not need to stop! I could drive to the edge of the ocean and hit the Canary Islands by nightfall, because I am the Scion of He Who Has Always Made Good Time.
“Well, it was good to see you. Say hello to Natalie.”
“I will.” I braked; a couple emerging from a Motley bar was ambling across the road, crossing in the middle of the block. The woman flipped me the bird.
“Gooooodbye,” he said.
“G’bye, Dad,” I said, and closed the phone.
In the old days I would have been resentful of a phone that let my parents call me halfway through my exodus to freedom; now I assign Dad a special ring-tone for his mobile. (A snippet of "Walk the Line" by Johnny Cash. Of course.)
Motley meant I was now on the down-south leg of Ten. The traffic would thicken soon, and I’d join the stream of metal and plastic heading back from the lakes. Sure enough: within half an hour I was hurtling down the chute at 80 MPH nose-to-arse with everyone else. Within an hour Highway Ten had been joined by other ancient arterials, and within 90 minutes I’d lost the thread of Ten altogether. It plunges into the city under the flag of Highway 47, a road that arcs north to another world entirely. Once upon a time I knew a girl who lived a few blocks off 47, hours to the north. She sent me an email a few years ago. I wrote back and she didn’t. I don’t think about her any more, except when I find myself on 47. But 47 turns into something else when you’re heading home.
I drove through Northeast, expecting to be held up by a procession of Catholic priests bearing a grand cross, trailed by acolytes and parishioners. Happened once, and I expect it every time. Cut through downtown. Called home on the cell: wife and child were out. Well, let’s go to the office, then. Pick up the mail, empty the blad. I parked the Element outside the Strib, tottered inside on shaky legs – I’d been holding down the pedal for four hours – and wandered through the dark office. Got the mail. Passed the Sunday crew hard at work on copy desk. Back in the car. Called home. No answer. Well, only one thing to do.
I drove to the car wash and had the Element scoured of bugs and dust. That’s how much I love my car.
By the time I got home Wife and Gnat had returned; kisses and hugs and hail-hellos, and then a brief wave: naptime, thank you. BANG. SLEEP. An hour of deep potent slumber. When I woke I had a cup of coffee and sat outside in the gazebo and told everyone tales of the weekend. My tongue was still thick; however much I’d slept, it wasn’t enough. Maybe I’d only gotten 5 hours 59 minutes after all.
At the end of the night I brought out my bags, including the box of coins my Dad gave me. Gnat was excited to see the treasures within. We sat on the steps of the basement and opened the box.
Pennies. All pennies. Pennies from the seventies.
Well, not entirely. There were a few coins from my trip to Europe, and I gave those to Gnat. She was thrilled.
“What’s in this bag?”
It was a deposit bag from a Fargo bank, made of a thick shiny canvas. Inside were more coins – pennies – and three pocket watches.
“What 's that?”
I snapped one open. “It’s a watch. Before people wore watches on their hands they carried them in their pockets. These belonged to my grandfather. Your great-grandfather.”
“He’s in heaven now,” she said with confidence.
“That he is.” There were no hands on the watch. I opened the other. There were no hands on that one, either.
“How did they tell what time it was?”
“These are broken.” I opened the third, which was heavier than the others. It had all the hands. It was quite beautiful, in a severe sort of way; no engraving on the front, just smooth silver. The face was made of ivory. From the 20s, I’d guess. About the time my parents were born. Grandpa Victor had stood on the farm at noon and snapped this case open, looked up at the sun; he’d stood in downtown Fargo on the Saturday shopping trip and checked the time against the big clock on Front Street.
Somehow the face had been cracked; there was a small triangular segment of ivory missing by the number seven. It had gone into the back of the drawer. If it had passed to me when I was collecting pennies, I’d gotten it in the seventies – junk passed to a bright-eyed kid. From one drawer to another. And now here it was in my hand in the Twenty-Oughts.
I wound it up.
“It works!” Gnat said.
So it did. I put it in her hand and closed her other hand around it.
“It’s yours,” I said, and she beamed up at me.
“Thanks!” She said. She went dead solemn. “I will so not lose this.”
We leaned close, put our ears to Victor’s watch, and listened to it tick.