Dad and Grandpa Ken planned to do chores all day, so Dad pawned me off on one of the Owens girls, Rosemary. She was sixty, the same age as my dad. She was heavy-set and swarthy for somebody from Iowa. I even noticed some dark hair on her arms and some stray black flyaways by her ears. She decided to take me two or three hours away to an antique store.
The air conditioning in her car was up awfully high. We drank weak coffee from Styrofoam cups. My organs were twisting and my legs hurt. I took out some new painkillers: Midol for my period cramps. The previous day I had taken twenty Advil and decided to switch. I would have gone to the doctor for these problems but I knew they would just put me on the pill. I don’t like the idea of being on hormones unnecessarily—my mom's hair started falling out when she went through early menopause. She’d cried every day. Her hair was the only thing she liked about herself; now that it was coming out, she was miserable. She saved the hair each day in separate Ziploc bags to see if the problem was getting better or worse and in case she needed to use it in the future. “For a weave.”
A second reason I didn't want to go on the pill was that I might not be allowed to take my Valium as a sedative anymore and I’m an insomniac. I almost forgot to say the third reason for my not going to the doctor:
I am lazy and poor at planning things.
The Midol made me dizzy. I wished I were in the car with my dad so we could’ve listened to music. The air conditioning was blasting and I was very cold. It was unfortunate to have to be cold on such a sunny day, but I didn't want to offend Rosemary by asking her to turn it down. She was wearing a short-sleeved button down shirt. I figured that she might be the kind of person who sweats easily.
“You sang beautifully yesterday.”
“Oh, thanks,” I said. “Thanks so much for coming.”
I’d performed for the patients at Maple Crest Manor, the nursing home where G.K. placed my grandma after hemming and hawing for years over how to deal with her Alzheimer’s. G.K was well enough to remain living at the farm (his main infirmity being a nasty temperament), so he made it his business to be there for the majority of Grandma’s day; making sure she got proper medical care and watching sports in her room till it was time to put her to bed. Visiting Grandma at the home was G.K.’s time to shine. He checked much of his bitter demeanor at the door, walking into the cafeteria with a wide grin and a number of clever jokes; often bearing small gifts of fruit or nuts for the nurses' aides.
He’d hatched the idea to have me sing at the home a few months before Dad and I went out to visit. I brought my guitar, assuming the show wasn’t actually going to happen. But when Dad and I arrived in Fayette, G.K. drove us to the nursing home. The bulletin board for Tuesday read:
8 AM Breakfast
9 AM PT
10 AM Hair
11 AM Lunch
1 PM Ken & Mel’s Granddaughter
2 PM Bingo
Playing a show for a bunch of elderly people at 1PM is daunting. You don’t have the darkness of night to help you create the “magic,” the audience hasn’t drunk any alcohol to lubricate the sights and sounds, and it’s too early in the day to create a persona. Nobody at a nursing home would be impressed by that anyway.
Complicating matters, most of the songs I sang were Southern traditionals; if they weren’t specifically murder ballads, almost all of them mentioned death or dying. I’d added in a couple new ones to spruce up the set, like “Honeycomb,” by Ricky Nelson. Dad and I performed it together; he’d won his middle school talent-show two consecutive years with it.
I scanned the audience while singing: an old man was agitated from a hearing aid problem, Grandma Mel kept falling asleep, and G.K. looked stressed out. After a couple of the folk songs, he got up and said, “The people are getting restless. You’d better get your daddy up there and do ‘Honeycomb’ again.” We did. Dad played an Advil bottle like an egg-shaker.
I guess the people there liked it well enough; a nurse's aide came over and asked if I could play for Assisted Living the next week. G.K. offered to be my agent, promising to get my name on the marquis next time I was in town.
At the antique store, the lady at the counter said that she’d looked already for old clothes and sheet-music. Rosemary had called in advance to ask about those two items.
(It was touching.)
I started to try a pair of white roller skates on when Rosemary pointed out that they could be dangerous. I thought about the fading scars on my knees, which I’d skinned the day after getting mugged in Cambridge, and how much I had resented their then-fresh presence.
“Yeah, I'd better not get them. The last thing I need is more cuts.”
“Your dad and Grampa could hold you up,” she said. I immediately thought about whether that would make a good photograph if it were set on the right street, because I am always thinking about capturing memories rather than making them. Thinking about it was pointless anyway; G.K. would never walk over to the road for a picture. He always had some odd concern, like one of us stepping on a ditch thistle. Plus, although a car only went by every ten or fifteen minutes, G.K.’s street was technically the state highway.
In any case, I would’ve wanted to wear short shorts and knee-socks in the picture and I hadn’t packed the shorts and didn't own the knee-socks.
I looked around for other useful things, but the antique store was kind of nauseating because every room was ordered by color. Nothing stood out.
Rosemary and I got back into the car and looked for a place to get lunch. I was still feeling faint from all the painkillers. My stomach was throbbing.
We both ate hamburgers, which Rosemary said were good except for the fact that you could taste the beller in them.
“The guts,” she said. “Undercooked, you know?”
I did know.
I tried to pay for lunch with the money that Dad gave me, but Rosemary insisted that I put it away. She said that I could pay for lunch when she came to Boston, which made me a little sad. I knew she would never come to Boston.
On the way out of town, Rosemary asked if I wanted to go see Randy’s house. “Who’s Randy?” I asked.
“Oh, he’s a crabby old thing who’s been collecting junk his whole life. Jackie’s boyfriend.” (Jackie was Rosemary’s sister.)
“What kind of stuff?” I asked.
“Oh, lots of old guns and memorabilia. Don’t think it’s up your alley, so don’t feel bad saying no.”
I told Rosemary that I would like to go to Randy’s house, and after warning me two more times that he was an ornery man, she sighed.
“Well...he has been expecting us.”
Randy was waiting outside a grey shack. “There he is, the old crab,” Rosemary said.
“Is that his house?” I asked her.
“Nah. Just a shed for his extra junk.”
Randy opened the door to his kitchen, which led into to a modest, 1920s farmhouse. He seemed shy more than anything else. He fidgeted and struggled to make small talk until Rosemary suggested that he show me his collections. Randy walked us into the living room, which was basically arranged like an antique store—complete with display cases. “Lemme know if you wanna see anything,” he said.
I looked through the cases and wished that Randy’s house were an antique store. He had a bunch of Civil War army pins. A necklace with a chain woven out of human hair. Several “exotic” photographs from the turn of the century. And some small, brown leather baseballs from the mid-1800s. On the wall was a large photograph of an American Indian girl who looked to be in her mid-teens, decked out in traditional feathered garb. Her naturally beautiful face wore a serious but longing expression. “Bought a hundred of those Indian pictures just so I could have the one of that girl,” Randy said. “Didn’t have too much trouble selling the rest off. They’ve got the original frames and the photographer is collectible.”
Randy started to get a little more comfortable. He took us into the next room of his house, his bedroom. One end of the wall was covered with various animal hooves (Randy had killed some of the game himself); in another area, antique fishing rods had been mounted vertically—like spears. Randy’s bed felt stiff to the touch and was topped with a Mexican blanket. He seemed antsy, and we followed him into the next room.
There was a large mahogany cabinet at the center of the room, where Randy apparently kept his most prized collection: the guns. He whipped them out, one after another, opening the breech on several Civil War shotguns, 1920s rifles, and spinning the cylinder of eight or nine different revolvers. Every time he showed a weapon to Rosemary and me he made a point of finishing off his description of the item by saying, “It’ll shoot a man deader’n heck.” Finally, he reached into the top drawer and removed a tiny, pearl-handled gun, no larger than the palm of my hand. He looked at me: “This is a lady’s pistol from the 1910s. You could hide it in your garter.” He opened the breech. “Shoot a man deader’n heck.”
Randy wanted to show me another feminine item of interest: a lady’s marine cap. He told me I could have it.
“I don’t got no use for lady’s clothing, unless it’s the undergarments.”
On the way out of the room, Randy pointed out a large, hundred-year-old poster of a woman’s naked bust leaning out of a boat over a body of water. Bobbing up from the water were the heads of three middle-aged men, staring up at the girl and her breasts. The scary thing was that the men’s heads were decapitated. It was a beer advertisement.
As Rosemary and I were about ready to leave Randy’s house, I noticed that he had a nice wood-framed print of Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World. Christina, wearing a light pink housedress and sitting awkwardly in a wind-swept field, looks up at the house above her, to the right. I told Randy that I liked his painting and he said, “You know the story behind that? He painted that girl from behind because she was crippled, and her face was uglier than a mud fence.”
When we left Randy’s house, I thanked him for the hat. Rosemary chuckled and shrugged as we pulled out of his driveway, Randy in front of his shack surveying her driving skills. “I guess he liked you,” she said.
Rosemary drove me back to the house.
We drove through a series of rural hills. We began to see less corn and more trees. Sometimes we would see some painted horses, which I love.
Rosemary sighed again.
“This is God's country. Know why they call it that?”
I mulled over her question for a minute.
“Because it’s so beautiful?”
“Right,” she said, “And because of the hills.”
I was relieved she didn’t go into a speech about Christianity. That was something my Uncle Butch, a snake-oil salesman for Jesus, would have pulled.