He was born to do this job. If he could do it all over again and have a choice to have it happen the way it did or work at McDonald’s and live to be 104? He’d do it all over again.
Jan Brown, on the death of her son, killed in Afghanistan, 2011
The Mayor Meets the Minstrels
Last week’s worthless minstrel, Trini Trodon, sang out of tune and hadn’t even heard that the Occupation began taking over upscale coffee shops and men’s rooms a month before. This time, as Mariah and I passed through the rowdy Occupation cordon with their trash barrel bonfires into the Classless Society, I prayed for at least a decent show. I wanted to be free of the growing desperation outside, if only for a few hours. I knew it waited just outside the doorway, and would get worse as winter set in. Inside we found just what we were looking for, an aura of acoustic music, dark oak paneling, and flickering candlelight. We were greeted by a duet, the dulcet tones of her alto and his mellifluous baritone voice accompanied by his steel resophonic guitar. They perched on large black cobweb-covered amplifiers gathering dust on the tiny stage, with a purring CatBulb glowing faintly to one side. They had no Fix-a-Voice but sang in tune by their own talent. I hoped they would teach us, inform us, and entertain us.
I recognized the lines they sang from the Song of Hiawatha. Raised in a time of channel and Web surfing, my own short attention span never managed to memorize thousand-line Iliads or Aeneids. To say nothing of plucking lute or lyre. I was thus doubly impressed by the pair as they sat in the barroom singing and playing to the hushed crowd.
He with the ‘didn’t bother shaving’ beard of a heartthrob sat up straight and picked out chords on the metal guitar. Her willowy figure stood in a long dark velvet gown with rhinestones that glittered in the candlelight, playing a flute between stanzas. They sang a perfect duet, not just in tune but balanced in volume and tone. As Mariah and I finally found seats on the floor, the duet sang a jingle about the Classless Society, then began singing the news. My eardrums buzzed pleasantly and I felt a wave of calm wash over me.
Mariah listened to what they sang and then whispered to me, “How can everyone be above average? That’s not mathematically possible!” It was as if a spell had been broken, and I was jolted awake. The flow of words stopped and the woman smoothly transitioned to the flute. The crowd turned as one to Mariah and shushed her rudely.
As soon as everyone quieted and turned their attention back to the couple on the stage, she set aside the flute and duet resumed. Their words picked up where they left off, not letting the crowd miss one bit of the narrative.
She had five hundred, he was four-oh-nine,
They could have split the difference, worked it down in time.
Hers the only books in town, he the only vet.
Come and read a book of hers while he checks out your pet.
It didn’t have to end that way, it could have been fine.
It’s sad, so sad, people create their own misery…
I thought that romantic issues in someone else’s small town didn’t interest me, but at least that meant there was no important bad news. Then it occurred to me: What did these two sing about our town as they traveled around?
After the news song was finished, the mosh pit cranked up as kids outran their attention spans and strove to keep warm in the chilling room. I couldn’t hear any footsteps on the thick carpet, since wooden shoes had been forbidden the summer before. I understood the serious part of the program was done, and the duo switched to a kids’ song about coffee in a copper kettle. At last the music stopped and Al the bartender started a roaring fire in the hearth. I could smell hickory in the mix of burning wood. The crowd relaxed and conversation bubbled up. The duo was surrounded by well-wishers with plenty of offers to put them up for the night, and I lost sight of them.
I headed to the bar when it was finally open for business. I was about to order the Gopher the Gusto Pale Ale on tap when old Blevins leaned over and recommended the local Pinot. “Just think of it,” he said as he raised his glass, “the local vintages are finally as good as the Sonoma County pinots, before the heat baked away the whole California industry.” He sipped and smacked his lips. “Ah, I miss Papapietro Perry.” After a deep sigh, he said, “But try the ’47 Gopherific. It beats that Gopher Baroque swill.” My eyes widened when I heard him pronounce the word ‘Gopherific’ without a hint of slurring.
“What about the cold weather and the snow?” I asked.
He grunted and said, “Over the years we’ve been getting less while Napa Valley gets more. On average we’ve been getting warmer while they get colder. We’re about equal now. It’s the severity of weather extremes that poses the hazard. Vineyards have the technology to ward off the extreme cold to even the score. California predicted its own wine demise decades ago.”
I was amazed at this lecture, the longest I remembered ever hearing from him. Still, Blevins knew the old stories and was a wine snob from way back, so I took his advice. Gopherific had deep, complex red cherry aromas, notes of cinnamon and spice on the nose and on the palate. I brought a glass for Mariah and we sat on the floor. “You won’t believe this, but old Blevins recommended this,” I said.
“Why won’t I believe it?” she asked. “He may never be sober but he knows his wines.”
“No, he sounded … sober,” I said. I looked over at him, still at the bar but talking rather than drinking. “He looks good, not flushed. It’s like…” I shrugged. “It’s like he’s normal.”
Closing time came when Al’s nightly quota of firewood ran out and the Classless Society dipped towards freezing. Water dripped off an icicle in the rafter onto my head as Mariah and I headed for the door. “Sign of a leak,” I thought. “Freezing, thawing, this place can’t last long.” As we left, I saw the Occupation was gone for the night as well. The streets were dark, and the barrel fires had gone out. After our eyes adjusted to the dark, we dodged the cold barrels and empty Thunderbird flasks both intact and not on the sidewalk and headed down 4th Street. “Rochester,” I said, “the city where the bottles break.”
Mariah walked a few more paces, then said, “Rochester and Minneapolis. Chicago and New Orleans. Even Bethlehem, PA. It’s like this everywhere, not just here.”
“But I’m here,” I said. “I’m responsible for what happens here, not in Pennsylvania. And the glass is broken right here. I can’t clean it all up with my hands, one piece at a time.”
“You don’t need to. You couldn’t if you tried. And the same people who broke bottles tonight may well be the ones who sweep it up tomorrow. It’s a surreal kind of job security.”
I asked Mariah, “Ever wonder where they go after dark?”
She looked at me and said, “Who, the Occupados? Or is it Indignados? Whichever they call themselves today. I bet a lot of them have homes, maybe squatting somewhere after the Crash. They aren’t all completely destitute. Most of them have jobs of some kind. They get up in the morning and work, just not lucrative work.”
“Like what?” I asked. “They can’t all be orderlies at the Clinic.”
I saw her breath steam out in a sigh. “Raking leaves for the doctors. Mowing lawns for the docs. Cooking meals, scrubbing floors, washing cars. For the docs.” She stopped suddenly and inhaled. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“The docs,” I said. “What happens to this town if they all just … vanish?”
“If?” she asked. “After 200 years, the Clinic might – would it?” She grabbed my sleeve playfully and asked, “Disappear like the stars when the sun rises? Look at them now while we have them.”
She pointed up at the stars visible in the waning crescent moon and we lingered for a minute. We inhaled the earthy smell of fallen leaves and fireplace smoke. The sky spread before us with a wash of stars, marred only by a single copter with running lights heading for the clinic. It hushed across the sky, and scarcely caused a breeze as it passed overhead. When it was gone, the darkness closed back in around us. I felt sorry for those who lived back when the sky was bleached out by streetlights.
“In a few nights we’ll need to bring cats with us,” I said, trying to stretch the moment.
Mariah smiled and sighed. “Binky always hates the cold.”
“Good thing you got me a KatPack – or rather you got Mr. Pizza one,” I said. “He’ll appreciate that. And he glows bright enough for two cats.”
She smiled and gave an exaggerated sigh. “I’d better go feed my not-too-bright cat. Besides, it’s getting cold out here and I’m feeling inspired. What do you think about matching figurines of those troubadours? Solid mahogany, I can match her skin color. I can set up the laser and have prototypes done overnight.”
After an embrace meant to warm us as we parted, Mariah went to her woodcarving studio in the backyard and I headed for the house, shivering in the cooling Minnesota breeze.
The next day I stood in the grocery’s ‘Two Items or Less’ line and there they were, last night’s duo. “Good morning,” I said. “I’m Peter Sakalov. Thanks for visiting and singing for us last night.”
“Oh, yes!” the man exclaimed. “You’re the town drunk –” His partner suddenly kicked him in the shin. “- er, mayor of Rochester,” he continued. “I’m Apollo and this is Artemis.”
“Pardon my associate’s rudeness,” Artemis said sweetly. “We may have been misinformed.” Then she gazed directly into my eyes and asked, “So you should know if anyone does, what is the town average? No one can tell us for sure.”
I pondered a while and answered slowly, “Hard to say, but it’s something like 857. We have lots of doctors in town with way too much stuff. We call them Crapaholics, people addicted to owning things. But I think they’ll pare down soon and help lower the average. Some people with a jar of aspirin count that as one item, others count each tablet plus the cap and bottle.”
“Speaking of aspirin, we’re going to your Mayo Clinic today,” Apollo said.
I felt the rush of heat in my face and wondered how obvious it was. I tried to keep my voice calm. “Don’t have a headache, do you?” I asked calmly.
“No,” Artemis said. “What would they do if I did?”
I babbled something like, “Amputate, I guess.” What else could I say? “While you’re there, stop by the gift shop and get a genuine GlowCat. They were first developed right here at Mayo, but you need to shine a UV light on them.” I knew immediately that was a stupid thing to say, and fumbled for my wallet.
“No one buys the old fluorescent animals any more,” Apollo said. ”And we already have a CatBulb that glows in the dark, thanks anyway.”
I paid for my milk and cat food, and excused myself brusquely. As I hurried out, I stepped carefully over several sleeping bags just outside the door. I handed one rousing sleeper a package of energy bars and headed for city hall.
Later I told the fire chief, “We can’t prevent troubadours from going anywhere they want, but no one has to tell them interesting places to go.”
Chief put his hand on my arm and whispered, “Maybe they’ll just visit the Clinic and write a feature song. You know, Mayo was famous in its day. Could be they’ll sing about its glorious past.” I knew that wasn’t true.