Thursday, October 22, 2009


The best Swamp Magnolias in Powesheik County grow along the banks of the Deep River, just north of the town that shares its name. There is a grove, if you can call it that, which is split in half by the river. Their branches reach out to each other, straining to touch. In late spring their flowers fall into the river.

At that time of year a man by the name of Warren Guthrie used to sit on the muddy bank and watches as the petals drift lazily down the small shallow river. It wouldn't be right to describe Warren as a smart or happy man. He spent his life avoiding such things. His youth was wasted smoking marijuana in abandoned barns, and drinking stolen liquor in the darkness of Deep River's only movie theater. It didn't matter what movie or what barn, just as long as the whiskey was strong or the smoke was thick.

When he dropped out of High School he joined the military, and spent three years of the Korean War on a military base in Virginia, smoking dope and drinking beer. He was discharged, dishonorably, and he returned home.

He spent the better part of his life working as the worst mechanic in town. The cars he fixed usually came back months or even weeks later in worse condition. If word had gotten out at how poor of a mechanic he was the good people of Deep River would never have patronized Earl's Garage and Auto-Body Repair. Earl was a shrewd business man though and kept Warren on, he would rotate Warren from customer to customer, never letting him work on the same car twice. Earl explained this to his wife Sylvia saying "That boy doubles my business, it is getting to the point where people around here think their cars just fall apart." It was true.

Warren rarely talked when he smoked or drank, he just sat there with the same blank look on his face, as if he was watching the magnolia flowers drift slowly down Deep River.

When Warren died, of cancer at the age of 78, the county had to come and collect his body. He hadn't married, and there was no next of kin. These were unusual circumstances in Powesheik County, most people there had enough cousins to make dating a treacherous endeavor. It isn't unusual to find couples on their first dates reciting their family trees, looking for the branch that overlaps.

In his will Warren asked to be cremated and to have his ashes spread among the grove of magnolia trees. The county sent Glen Carrol out to search for the grove. It took three weeks of looking up and down both sides of Deep River before Glen realized that Swamp Magnolias don't grow in Poweshiek County, the winter kills them before they have a chance to take root.

So Warren's remains were spread under the branches of a stand of Dogwood trees. Now during the summer months Glen Carrol thinks of Warren Guthrie when he sees the white flowers of Dogwood trees.

We should all be so lucky.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Consequences of Split Pea Soup

In the early afternoon a man in a grey hat sat at a table drinking a glass of iced tea. The beverage was an un-seasonal choice, it was mid-november, and snow was falling gently on the man's grey hat. The staff of the small cafe had abandoned the man to his glass of iced tea an hour ago. He was innocently waiting at his outdoor table for a simple bowl of split pea soup. The cashier told him it would be brought to his table. His request of a table to be placed outside was unusual, but somehow the manager had been convinced that it was the only rational place for this man to sit.

The only thing that was remarkable about the man's attire were the sporadic burn marks that mottled his grey suit and hat. His tie was straight and black, and his shoes were somehow darker than black. The shoes were obviously polished with care, yet their darkness swallowed any light that came into contact them, as if he was standing in two puddles of darkness.

Passers-by chortled and snorted to each other. They laughed at the mans burned, out-dated, clothing. One brave soul asked the man "Where did you get your hat?" and then quickly answering his own question "A fire sale?" It was not a good joke, and the man in grey gave a cold stare that removed any sense of mirth from the passerby. The young man scurried off into the falling snow, giving periodic glances over his shoulder.

When he finished his iced tea, the man in scorched clothes, stood up walked slowly into the cafe, took out a book of matches, and busied himself with the task of setting the building on fire. As the fire took hold, and began to climb the wall the man grabbed the nearest waitress and repeated his request for a bowl of split pea soup. Unable to comply the waitress screamed for her life.

No one died in the fire, but on the other hand the man in the grey suit could not be accounted for. Police sketch artists made attempt after attempt to capture the likeness of the man. Each sketch was a failure, when the witnesses was given the chance to examine the portraits, they invariably said that the sketch looked nothing like the man in the grey suit.

Never make arsonists wait for their soup.

Monday, October 19, 2009

What I Think About When I Hear Glenn Miller

The last time I saw my Mother she was already underground. She hated everyone and hated herself for hating everyone. Towards the end she would write me these letters about how I didn't brush my teeth right, or how I never put the bottle of ketchup back in the fridge. The letters were about the childhood she gave me. I like to think they were her anger at how short that time was. It was only fourteen years before I got a job and started helping to pay the bills.

I hated her too, or I hated what she had become. It is hard to love someone who is filled with bile and rage. None of the nurses in the hospice wanted to treat her, or even get near her bed. She would scream out at them, yell at them for stealing things she never owned, or even wanted. The hospital called me when she bit a nurse who was changing her i.v. bags. My mother was yelling at her because the nurse allegedly stole her water pick. My mother didn't even floss. She had never owned a water pick, let alone an electric toothbrush.

The doctors barely touched her. Towards the end they only graphed her downward spiral. The charts were filled with vitals and statistics, all shrinking and decreasing, as if the woman I knew, the mother I loved had already left and the remains were evaporating. The only evidence was the charts. They wrote everything down on the clipboard that hung from the foot of her bed, and they wrote it in duplicate on the clipboard that hung on her door. Other than that they told me how slowly she was dying every time I asked.

When the hospice called me for the last time, to tell me mother wasn't going to make it through the night, I tried not to go.

Let me explain.

She wasn't always like that. I remember when I was little and she would put her favorite records on, and we would dance together in the living room. We'd flip the coffee table over onto the couch, and then she'd go and choose a Glenn Miller record, and put it on the turntable. She taught me how to swing dance, how to foxtrot and keep a steady jazz square going. She would turn me and spin me, and then we'd slow dance. She'd hold me close like only a mother could.
Sometimes she would cry and tell me she loved me, and that nothing else mattered. At the time it confused me, why was she crying, we were dancing and having fun. As a child I never made the connection between tears and laughter. At the time, I didn't understand that you could recognize how quickly the most beautiful moments in your life flash by, and how even when you are in those moments you can mourn their passing.

Her illness took all of that warmth away. She lost that part of herself that made her care about moments and people in her life. She'd been in the hospital for the better part of the year by the time we moved her to the hospice. She called me names, and told me how disappointed she was in me. She told me I was a mistake, told me that the day I was born was the worst day of her life. How I wasn't worth the nine months of effort, and the eight hours of painful labor.

When the hospice called, I was listening to music alone in my own empty living room. It wasn't Glenn Miller, I don't even remember what it was. I only remember the silence between the notes, and the how wrong it felt for the singer to mourn their unrequited love. The voice on the phone sounded worried and practiced, and finally relieved when I told her I was coming. I wondered how many times a day that person had to make that call, and how many times no one came to watch their next of kin die. I thought about how horrible it would be to die alone knowing that there was someone out there who once loved you, but couldn't bring themselves to hold you at the end.

I made every stop I could. I was hoping that the nurses telling my mother I was coming would be enough, and she could die in peace, knowing that I still loved what was left of her. I was hoping I would come and find her lying on her bed, looking like she was asleep and at peace, and that maybe I could hold her limp figure and cry, and wish away all the years we spent apart.

When I entered her room she was crying weakly in the dark. Every breath was a sob that took all her strength. It took all of her strength to cry. I sat next to her bed and reached out to take her hand, and stroke her hair, but she pulled her hand from mine. She cowered on the other side of the bed. I sat with my hands outstretched for the better part of an hour before she started to struggle to breath. She stopped sobbing and started gurgling and coughing. Five minutes later she was dead. She didn't get any last words. There were no whispered promises of love, not even any last promises of bile. My mother simply died, her face still wet with tears.