You know, I almost feel sorry for Minnisapa. I don’t know precisely how one feels sorry for the ugly truck stop north of town or the way the hills pinch and dry out as they approach the town (as if they got depressed by just looking at the place) or the housing project where the poor white people used to live and where the poor black people live now or the inevitable McDonalds and Pizza Hut or the ditch beside the highway, which reminds you that this place was built on a literal backwater, or the El Grande motel or the eternally failing sandwich shop or the unintentionally retro 1980s mall logo. Has architecture ever seemed more like litter? This ugliness, Minnisapa, is your punishment for hating me.
I’m here this weekend helping my parents with some things around the house– the house where a “Home Sweet Home” sampler hangs without irony, where there is a glinting shrine to my high school speech and theater career, where my Dad leaves Frosty the Snowman out year-round behind the house by the tracks because it cheers the passing railroad men. I raked the leaves today; I’ll put on storm windows tomorrow. It is nighttime, and I am in my boyhood bedroom, with its 1970s time capsule furniture and its embarrassing decorations and its attic-y sense of slumber. Actually, all of Minnisapa has a sense of being disturbed after a long sleep. With its packaged food and clichéd speech and cable stations full of crap, with its multiple strategies for numbing itself out, Minnisapa never really seems wakeful to me. We think of a sleepy town as something sweet, but we are wrong: sleep is as likely to be agitated as calm.
A towel has been set over the dresser where there is still a charred patch from the time I—trying to create “atmosphere” for some lonely reverie—knocked over a candle almost twenty years ago. Above it is a Magritte poster of a dark sky with a bird made of sunny sky in the middle of it. At the time, I just thought it was pretty. I don’t know how I missed its symbolism. What else have I missed?
Despite the comfort of being in my parents’ house, I have trouble sleeping here. There’s a railroad track in our backyard and a bar across the street. It is closing time, and the bar is dribbling out its drunks. They are loud, although I cannot hear what they are loud about, which just makes it worse. I think I hear Chimes Sanborn, who was not unkind to me in high school, his voice now thick with booze; he had an incisive, effervescent mind. I don’t know why he stayed.
All these loud drunks make Minnisapa even more country than usual, declaiming whatever it is that drunks declaim, whatever it is that men say when they haven’t expressed an emotion for twenty years and then all-but-vomit their feelings into the air. I can’t make it out, because the other drunks rev their cars and honk and go on like beasts back from the dead. But I can guess: women caused him problems, for which he, a misunderstood soul, was not responsible.
Or something like that. I just want them to shut up.
Oh no. One has gotten loose. One is getting closer.
I can hear him, stumbling over–or maybe into–the hedge by our yard.
“Zach, it’s time to go home, buddy! Give us your keys!”
“No, leave me here. Leave me alone!”
“Dude, we love you. We’re not going to let you drive home.”
When did Minnisapa drunks start saying “love?”
“I’m not ready to go home. Saturday night is never going to end! Tonight is never gonna end! That’s my plan: the party never fuckin’ ends!”
A less desperate drunk says, “Hey, I’m not gonna argue with you. We gave it our best shot.”
The group goes away. This one crazy guy stays. I can actually hear him staggering. The leaves crunch, but not in any regular rhythm. I try to listen closely to sort out something else: the breeze or else his wheezing, slurring breath.
“Fuck you,” he says to the air, in the oddly Southern accent of the drunk Northern redneck. “You don’t know anything.”
I start hoping that he’ll go away. “Hoping” isn’t usually an activity, but tonight is different.
He doesn’t go away. The soliloquy has just begun. “You don’t know fucking anything. You don’t know anything about pain. You don’t know anything about music. You don’t know anything about your only son, your pride and joy, trying to kill himself. You don’t know anything about fucking anything.”
A car revs and honks. Another drunk.
Someone says, “You stay here and do what you need to do. I am here, in the parking lot, and when you’re done I’m driving you home.”
“Yeah, I just need some air. Just give me some air.” I think the buddy walks off.
The escaped redneck just starts talking, in the moonlight, to no one. Who does that? Who is that crazy?
“You don’t know what it’s like to see your only son in the hospital with his mouth all covered with charcoal.” He starts crying, sobbing, wailing, all accompanied with rounds of “fucking-eh.” He is getting closer to my window. My parents sleep in the room behind me. Have they turned off their hearing aids?
“You don’t know what it’s like.”
“Where’s a fucking drum kit. I need my drums.”
He starts slapping a tree. No, he’s drumming a tree. He’s touching snares, tom toms, basses. He’s punching quarter notes, eighth notes, trills. I swear I hear a time signature breathing under there. I’m thinking: the skin will rip off his hands.
Come on, physics. You owe me this one. Skin percussing against bark will break and bleed.
But it doesn’t.
That’s it, I think. I get up, pull on my clothes. I quiver. I gather my courage. I affirm myself like a madman. “I have a right to do this. I am competent. You will hear me.” I find my cell phone in my luggage. I affirm myself again and crack open the window.
“Excuse me, it’s really late. And I’m trying to get some sleep.” I prepare myself for the worst.
He stops drumming; he looks at the window, deflated, sheepish, stunned, and says, “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking there was anyone around.”
Really? But I can tell from his tone that he means it.
And then, as if it were the most natural thing to say next: “My boy tried to kill himself last week.”
“That’s okay,” I say. “No problem.” The great Minnisapa diminished.
“You have any kids?” he asks. I am terrified that he wants to chat and yet oddly flattered that he thinks I might have kids. No one who has spoken to me for more than five syllables thinks I have kids.
“No, I don’t,” I say. I also want to say, “but I have had people I love die.” But I don’t.
“They can be a lot of heartbreak, but I’d never have it any other way.”
“Well, I wish you luck with your son.” And then I think to ask: and what it is about your son that makes you feel all virtuous because you love him?
“Thanks, buddy,” he says. No one has ever called me “buddy.”
He starts to stagger away and then says, as if in response to a question I never asked. “I love my son. I sometimes wish I didn’t. Life would be easier. But I love him.”
“Yes, I know you do.” I had expected him to go away and now it isn’t clear that he will.
“I love my son,” he says.
“I know,” I say.
“I really love him and he’s gonna have a hard life.”
“I know you love him.”
“I love my son,” he says.
“I love my son,” he says again, with the insistence of a threat.
It isn’t a threat. His eyes stay kind. It is the speech of drunks, who foolishly think that speech is supposed to be communication, that it is supposed to register with us, so they keep repeating it until it does.
“Yes,” I say, “You love your son,” repeating exactly what he said, hoping this placates him.
“I can usually work out things by drinking and playing the drums. You know, buddy. Bad day at the job site. Car fucking breaks down. You play some music; you drink some beer; life’s pretty good.”
“Yeah, sometimes the usual things don’t work.”
“I’m gonna turn in now.” I start to close the window.
“Let me shake your hand,” he says, with his odd resourcefulness.
“I’d love to, but there’s a screen here,” I say.
“Come around front,” he says, undeterred, as if this is a reasonable solution to a minor problem. He almost falls over sideways, but catches himself.
I tip-toe through the dark living room, because, however bizarre, shaking his hand seems the least inflammatory option. Me, in my weekend-in-the-country ensemble and bathrobe. He is standing at the front door. What if he gets in?
He is short, shorter than me, wild haired, wearing a studded biker vest and blue jeans. He has one of these amazing pot bellies, as if his life force, unable to make him taller, pushed him out; it’s as disarming as a smile. “You’re a good man,” he says. “You coulda called the cops on me but you didn’t.” He stumbles and extends his hand.
I grab it. It is both flabby and muscular. He squeezes hard enough to break my bones, but there is nothing mean in it. He leans into me, reeking of smoke and beer and b.o., and hugs me. The studs from his biker vest press into my robe and his bristly hair brushes under my chin.
“You’re a good man,” he says again, with a hug that sags into an embrace.
“So are you,“ I say. “So are you.” He continues to hold me. I breathe in his beer-halitosis and dried sweat and feel his bristly hair under my chin and clench the back of his vest so he doesn’t topple into me until I–who fantasized embraces with Minnisapa boys throughout high school–feel what might be drool. Now I am the one who is awkward with the moment and mumble something and slip from his grasp.
He seems to awake in my arms, says, “I’m sorry” and stumbles away to his friend in the parking lot.
I sometimes need to rinse myself of Minnisapa, and so, in that spirit, I make plans for the night of my return to Twin Cities. I try to plan something particularly urban: a friend of mine and I will have dinner at the bar of a fashionable restaurant, so the beautiful young waiters and waitresses can treat us to the urgent choreography of a busy restaurant; I will see the kind of movie, mother and daughter in northern China, that would never play in Minnisapa. But tonight I’ve chosen a performance of Hamlet in an expensive theater which is happiest serving up Agatha Christie to suburbanites. The acting is awful, with the lines schlumped together like overcooked pasta. The production is in love with the veneer of royalty which Shakespeare has given these narcissists. I keep thinking: they are missing something, not just emotion, but something more essential, and as I hear Hamlet whine to Laertes, I understand it:
Was’t Hamlet wronged Laertes? Never Hamlet.
If Hamlet from himself be ta’en away,
And when he’s not himself does wrong Laertes,
Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it.
Who does it then? His madness. If’t be so,
Hamlet is of the faction that is wronged;
His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy.
Replace “madness” with “addiction” and untangle the cat’s cradle of the Elizabethan syntax, and we could be in family day at the treatment center; someone claiming to be the true victim of their own awful behavior. Hamlet says that he is “of the faction that is wronged.” How does that make you feel, Gertrude?
Hamlet is a country-and-western song, with oceans of spewed self-pity and your mama stepping out with your uncle. I want to sweep away the polite, pompous version on the stage and replace it with hundreds of television screens and Marshall amps and V8 pick-up truck engines roaring their despair and depressed Ophelias drowning in Funyuns and HoHos and microwavable ice cream, and I want those who view the ultimate carnage of the final scene to be cops called to yet another domestic.
But, as we order decaf after the show, I say to my friend only, “It struck me that Hamlet is country.”
“Oh, that’s interesting,” she says. “I could see how it could be a little white trash.”
I make a face. And when I say I make a face, I mean that I focus my gaze and I tighten the muscles around my eyes in a way that says that, for these seven seconds, Minnisapa is my truest, oldest love, and you best not talk that way about it.
Then a waiter appears with a dessert tray and my friend says, “Oh look, it’s the four desserts of the apocalypse,” which is a joke we share, and we turn our attention to molten chocolate cake and fruit tart and crème caramel and cheese cake.
So I do not go into all that rages in my head, and I do not mention the most important thing of all: Hamlet’s father must wake the good citizens at night, out of love for his effete, too-verbal, unreachable son.