stewart-river-tree

 

2005, Tuesday, December 9

The car turns itself to the right onto an uninhabited half-mile gravel road on which the county has wasted a number. 53. The car turns itself left onto a stub of a road. The car has to be careful not to scrape its undercarriage as it humps and bumps along for a few yards. The car stops and leaves itself in gear with the engine running.

So it seems to the driver.

Modern cars do everything but pick the place to go and steer you there,” he told his wife only twenty minutes ago. She answered in the female “Uh-Huh” which means, “I’ve heard you say that so often I don’t have to listen any more.”

He had only intended to come upstairs from his basement office to get a cup of coffee and head back below to chase down a bug in his programming code. However, to get a cup of coffee he had to make a pot of coffee, and his wife said as long as he was making it to make a full pot, which was what he was doing when a car commercial came on between old fart drug ads on the game show she always has on but never watches as she prepares a full hot meal to deliver to three old ladies, which she does every week day. “Ladies” she calls them, which assures him that they are, because his wife reserves the word lady as a compliment to a certain kind of woman over a certain age, the kind of woman who makes his fingernails itch, except, of course for his wife, who is universally called a lady, despite not herself being over that certain age, leaving him to wonder if it is fitting for her to be called a lady.

Without saying a word, or needing to because his wife recognized his petulant mood without even looking at him, he got in his car and drove, or let the car drive, not thinking about bugs in software but bugs in human brains, until he finds himself here again looking out his windshield at the expanse of Lake Superior, too large an expanse to think about. Too large, too deep, too watery, too unsettled, too—just too too! And worse, he had left his damned coffee cup on the kitchen counter.

It had been her idea to move here twelve years ago, once she realized that with his freelance and consulting work they could live where they pleased, meaning where she pleased, which was fine with him because no place really pleased him. “All that beautiful nature will relax you,” she had said, meaning it would relax her, not that she needed relaxing. He knew it would only make him tenser, which it did, of course, once he decided it would.

So here we are,” he tells the car, which for all the genius in its design, cannot carry on a decent conversation, not that he knows many people who can carry on a decent conversation.

A couple inches of snow fell yesterday, covering the . . . the what? It isn’t a beach. A beach is an expanse of sand lying along the shore between the water line and the vegetation line. This is like a beach, but instead of having sand to get into your shoes and socks, it has stones on which to turn your ankle or break a foot, not that he ever has, being a very careful person, even when in this petulant mood. The stones are covered with snow, but the lake is untouched by winter. Superior declares its indifference to the four seasons that rule the rest of the temperate zones of the world. Superior carries its amassed heat well into winter and its amassed cold well into summer.

He stares not at Superior or at the sky but just above the horizon, about an inch above it on his windshield. He would design a windshield that has a grid built into it, “You know, like graph paper. Think about how useful that would be,” he told his wife when he had the idea while they were driving down to The Cities to visit their daughter and family. “For what?” she had asked and then did not notice he did not answer because she was counting pearls and sapphires, or whatever it is that people count when they are knitting another thing to donate to the hospital auxiliary fund drive, which will end up a Christmas gift to be thrown in a drawer. He knows the horizon beyond his windshield is about seventeen miles away, having looked it up when they first moved here, back when you went to the library and looked through reference books to answer a question. Libraries are nice places. Quiet. Would they survive? “Those database folks are doing such amazing things,” he told his wife only last night—again. She answered “Uh-huh.”

If he could see to the next land over the horizon, which thank God he cannot, he would be looking a few hundred miles, a distance he could look up on Google maps, which he has no intention of doing. Instead he looks out his side window at the stoney-beachy place, which he thinks of as his stoney-beachy place because he comes here often, not really often, only when TV commercials or software bugs or human bugs get to him, which might be often.

Lake Superior has its own brand of stones, a brand often carried away and across the state and the Midwest. The stones range in size from fractions of inches to three feet across. They are the victims of the eternity of waves which crash onto the shore and the steady pace of time since Lake Superior first appeared out of the glaciers an X number of thousands of years ago, which he could look up in Wikipedia, which he has no intention of doing. The stones are flattened on one or two sides, shaped as ovals, circles, rhomboids, ellipses, and similar shapes that deserve but do not have names, names which the stones make you want to invent. Always rounded and smoothed! Round and smooth are the defining elements of Lake Superior’s brand of stones. Everyone bends down and touches them, picks them up, caresses them, rubs them against cheeks, hefts them in palms, and throws them in the lake, a childish gesture, which Superior somehow elicits from otherwise rational adults, well, maybe not all that rational. For twelve years he has watched tourists put them in their pockets and in cans and jars to take them back to St. Paul or St. Cloud or St. Louis or St. Petersburg. Or throw them in the lake.

He has a theory, formed right here on his stoney-beachy place, about the stones and the visitors who have come to Lake Superior. All who have ever come are only visitors, he decided for his theory, whether they realized or not. They came in four waves. The first group, which neighboring Canada calls First Peoples, took the stones for utilitarian purposes and aesthetic appeal. Very useful they could be as tools, if you held them and thought about them, looking around you at all the options. While living here for centuries the First Peoples must have seen the stones as pleasing to the eye and hand; who could not, what with the various colors and patterns ingrained in the stones? Well, there are those people who glue them together and paint them, but the First Peoples were not cursed with epoxy and acrylic. The Second Peoples passed through planting flags, claiming land in vast chunks, renaming places first in French and then from French into English, and hopefully spraining ankles and breaking knee caps on the stones, which they must have cursed, coming as they did from places with real beaches. The Third Peoples, like the First Peoples, settled, but this group took firm hold of where they settled with buildings on small chunks of land with paper claims first stored in wooden buildings and later in buildings of stone, imported squared stones, which look more official and permanent than do Lake Superior’s rounded stones. The Fourth Peoples, who only pass through, are America’s largest and most uncivilized tribe—the tourists. Millions of the stones have been carried, jarred, pocketed, or car-trunked away with no impact on the count of the uncountable stones. The oldest living residents, who are only one or two generations away from the first-to-arrive Third Peoples, describe an overwhelming task as “like piddling in Lake Superior.”

He has several times started to explain this theory to his wife, but she never lets him explain anything that takes more than three sentences without interrupting him with “Dear” followed by a task she has for him to to do around the house or for one of those ladies she takes care of, meaning he takes care of, too. The lesson he should learn, but does not, is that if he did not expound his theories to her, he would have fewer chores to do.

His stoney-beachy place is an arc starting in front of his car and curving towards Highway 61, then back out ending at a point of sharp bedrock rising a dozen feet out of Superior. The arc runs for only a couple hundred yards. Beyond the point of land, on which grow stunted spruce and one noble birch, lies another arc, like his, but running for a mile to a higher and more forested point of rocks. He has never crossed the first point of bedrock past the noble birch. He does not call his place a bay, lacking as it does any sense of security and harbor. The stones lie in a swath thirty yards from water to vegetation, although in a storm the waves will reach all the way across the stones.

It is time for his task, the reason for which comes. He takes his foot off the brake. The car lurches forward several inches before he slams his foot back on the pedal. “A bug in my software, not yours,” he apologizes to the car. He has not named any car they have owned, as do some people who have a glitch in their software. He leaves the anthropomorphic habit to his wife, who calls this car Doug, which seems all wrong to him. He would tell her that this car is very female, but then he would be anthropomorphisizing. And she would think he was complimenting women. He slides the lever up to P and turns off her engine, no, its engine, and takes his foot of her brake, no, its brake.

He settles his stocking cap down over his ears, which his wife calls his Bing Crosby ears. He pulls on his hardware-store-variety work gloves. He comes here today for no real utilitarian purpose but for his own reason, ashamed to admit he has a non-utilitarian reason. When his wife came with him once six years ago on a warm spring day, the kind of day on which even he felt lightened of spirit, she sat in the car counting pearls and sapphires, getting her usual head start on the next Christmas. When he came back an hour later, she told him that his purpose seemed to be to fill Superior back up with rocks. “Stones,” he told her, “These are stones; rocks are crude useless things.”

Uh-huh,” she had answered. He does throw stones in the lake, but throwing is not his purpose; selecting is his purpose.

You’re a fine woman, quite attractive, looking a decade younger than your forty-nine years, quite the lady, as everyone calls you, retaining your college-girl figure.”

But what?” She kept knitting.

A man has a few obligations, unlike women, who have many obligations. A man has obligations to his nature, obligations to preserve his hunter-gatherer DNA and keep his testosterone flowing but in check.”

Uh-huh,” she had answered.

He steps out of the car and pulls up his pants, which are routinely dropping below his fifty-one year-old paunch, which his wife considers cute, somehow thinking a man wants any part of his anatomy to be described as cute.

When he hears a car turning off 61 onto 53, he turns to look . For a moment the red and blue lights on top of the car flicker. The siren emits two short burps. The sheriff stops behind his car.

When they first moved here twelve years ago, it took the sheriff a few casual-just-bumping-into-you encounters to figure him out. Back then, the sheriff has since told him, he looked a bit less law-abiding than he does now with his paunch. The sheriff learned he has a last name for a first name, Hutchinson, and a first name for a last name, Jack, which the sheriff then thought sounded like an A.K.A. To the town he has no apparent means of support or income and lives an upper-middle-class life style. If he lived a rich man’s life style, they would understand. One day, out of desperation, more personal curiosity than professional interest, the sheriff just out and asked him about his name and business.

Hutchinson had answered, “Don’t hold me accountable for my mother’s naming peculiarities. I am a technical consultant slash programmer slash designer. All I need is good connectivity. That’s my peculiarity. Don’t hold me accountable for moving up here north of everything. That’s my wife’s peculiarity.”

So, do folks call you Hutch, then?”

Hutchinson does not like Hutchinson, but he likes Hutch even less, especially since those unfunny comedy movies with that terrible actor. Hutchinson knows he blew it when they moved north. He could have introduced himself with a nickname, which would have settled the deal in the town. Maybe Biff or Rowdy or Buzz or Buck or Rocco or Vinnie. But his wife would have just laughed and told everyone the truth. He is not a nickname sort of guy, but then he is not even a guy sort of guy.

Sure,” he told the sheriff, “you can call me Hutch.”

The two men went for coffee and exchanged commiseration on jobs and wives. Hutchinson discovered the sheriff is a good conversationalist. They have since had many coffees together and many commiserations, the sheriff often checking to see if Hutch is out on County 53.

The sheriff leans out of the patrol car window and asks, “You found the perfect rock yet?”

Hutchinson knows the sheriff is jerking him around; he’s willing to play along. He explained his reason for coming the first time that the sheriff had pulled in behind his car, which was two cars ago for each of them. “It’s stones. A native of this area should know the difference between a stone and a rock and a hole in the ground, and Lake Superior is one big hole in the ground for you not to know. Five stones of course. Not one!”

Bad day at the computer?”

Bad Day at Black Rock?”

I get it. Spencer Tracy movie. Wasn’t he the real killer in The Fugitive?”

Different one-armed man.”

They have those up at the casino. Do you make regular donations to the tribe?”

I am, officer, a man of science and mathematics. I just take my money down to Superior and throw it in to save the gas mileage. Do you?”

Now and then, just for the votes, of course, only for the votes, of course. We did not go canoing this summer like we always plan and you always pike out of.”

Today my canoe was capsized in the electron stream. I am a man overboard.”

Computer crash. You are in one of your moods. I heard from my wife via your wife. Your wife, sir, is a fine lady. I don’t know how she puts up with you.”

Is your wife a lady?”

My wife is a child of the forest, Natty Bumppo in high heels, a true mountain woman of the Sawtooth Mountains.”

A poetic sheriff, you are. It was more of a brain crash. My software crashed, the stuff inside my head. Bugs, officer, bugs, everywhere bugs!”

You want to meet in town and commiserate over coffee?”

I want to select five stones, which I may then go home and throw at my computer or at the mirror.”

Go to it, then.”

As the patrol car pulls onto 61 heading north away from town, the lights flicker and the siren burps twice.

As if the stones aren’t dangerous enough to walk on, today they are slippery with the layer of snow, which the bright sun is meting to ice. He has to dig through the snow to find his five stones for the day. With a booted foot he clears an area of snow. In the three weeks since he was last here, Superior has had two good blows. The waves have reshuffled the deck for him in the few feet closest to the water. He bends down and picks out a few stones, all of which he flips into the lake. “Doesn’t matter to me, you beautiful nasty old temptress,” he tells Superior. “I will not lower my stone standards.”

When Hutchinson was in third grade, he had a vibrant funny Sunday School teacher, who became his mother-in-law, who is still a vibrant and funny lady. She knew how to teach a class of eight boys and two girls. She had the students act out Bible stories, such as David and Goliath, which did not provide a spark for the two girls, but it was the hit of the year with boys. For the next couple weeks the boys were busy trying their hands at using the slings made by Hutchinson’s future father-in-law, rest his soul, who predicted that his wife and the Methodist Church would be sued when all the silly uncoordinated little boys knocked out a tooth or an eye. He seemed to be disappointed, being a man much like Hutchinson, when his gloomy forecast did not prove true.

As they acted out the story, each child getting a turn to be David using wadded up gray construction paper as the stones, little Hutchinson was caught not by the downed Goliath but by David selecting his five stones. When he played David, right after playing Goliath and taking too delicate a dive to please the other boys, little Hutchinson took time to look carefully though the wads of gray construction paper lying on a large sheet of green paper, his future mother-in-law knowing that rivers are more likely to look green than blue. The other students told him to hurry up so they did not miss their turn. Little Hutchinson pointed out that David was supposed to pick out exactly the right five stones.

At Sunday dinner that day, which was pizza and popcorn because she was not going to get caught in the roast-chicken-and-mashed-potatoes-for-Sunday-dinner rut, his future mother-in-law told the story of fastidious little Hutchinson, being sure to use the word fastidious for the sake of the vocabulary of her one daughter and two sons. Only the daughter thought it funny, laughing until she choked on her pepperoni, pineapple, and mushroom pizza to which she had added corn chips and pickles, his future wife being an adventurous child. Hutchinson the man is surprised that his wife has not connected his stone-collecting to fastidious little Hutchinson, but then, always being busy counting sapphires and pearls, she does not count how many stones he collects.

To find the perfect five stones, it takes Hutchinson forty minutes of kicking away snow, digging out stones, and flipping into Superior the ones that catch his eye but do not make the cut. Five stones, two to three inches in diameter, flat on two sides, and perfectly smooth. He always selects five stones of different colors.

Because even he likes a little variety in life.

It took him years to identify what he found arresting about David’s five smooth stones. It was that little David had defeated the Goliath by being detail-driven. Having been overwhelmed by Goliaths in his life, Hutchinson falls back on getting the details perfect, which is how he became a programmer.

With his five stones in his pocket, he sits for a few minutes in the car waiting for her engine, no, it’s engine to warm up while thinking about their daughter, feeling blessed that she is like her mother and not like him. As he drives back to town, he formulates a new plan for the afternoon to address a couple details that need his attention.

He parks his car in the garage beside his wife’s car and takes his five stones out to the storage shed, where he adds them to a fifty gallon drum three-quarters full of smooth stones, the total of which can be factored to five. After he makes sure the garage door has closed, he steps into the house. He is disappointed to find it quiet because he needs his wife’s help for the details he has planned for the afternoon.

Then she calls from upstairs, “Dear, why don’t you come up to the bedroom. You need to relax.”

He chuckles to himself. As always, she is one step ahead of him, even with the details.

©Clyde L. Birkholz 2017

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