1996, February 2
“Get out of the house. You’re drivin’ me ’round the bend.”
Ray ignored his wife and remained a lump in his chair by the picture window of their house on the hills of Duluth.
Clarice repeated the words. “Get out of this house! You’re drivin’ me right around the bend!” This time her tone was an order, not a teasing suggestion.
Ray stirred in his chair, enough he hoped to please her. It did not work.
“Go out an’ feed the birds.” She was back to making friendly suggestions.
“Feeders are top full. We’re short of customers right now.”
She looked out the window. “Well, go get yourself all set up to feed squirrels. I see plenty of them out there. Go to the Walmart and buy some corn and feeders!” She was back to ordering.
“I do not feed rodents. I don’t shop at the Walmart. It’s owned by rodents.”
“Urrrgh! Go down to your ship canal and pretend your bridge is going up. Out! Out.”
Ray was going to protest it was winter and the harbor was locked in ice. Then she played her trump card. “Mary and Birdie are coming over this afternoon to plan our next Ladies Aid.”
“It has not been called Ladies’ Aid for more than thirty years.” But he stood, put on his parka, and went out the door.
When she heard his 1965 pickup pull out of the garage, she called the two women. “Don’t make a liar out of me. I told the Winter Clod you two are coming over.” This was almost an order. Clarice was a woman in charge. Mary was glad to escape her husband. Birdie had been a widow for a decade. Both lived within five blocks.
As the three ladies settled around the over-polished oak kitchen table, Birdie asked, “Does poor Raymond have that seasonally arrested disorder?” Birdie considered all husbands poor. Clarice was not sure if she was criticizing wives or husbands.
Trying not to laugh, Mary choked on the blond brownie in her mouth, which was too dry she realized as some of it sprayed out before she could raise her hand to her cover her mouth. When she managed to stop her laughing choke, she explained, “Birdie, it’s called seasonal affective disorder. SAD disease. But I betcha Clarice would like to have Ray arrested for January and February.”
“What the Winter Clod has,” Clarice said, “I call seasonal bridge deactivated disorder.”
Mary tried to explain away Birdie’s confusion. “Ray has this thing about the Aerial Lift Bridge going up and down.”
Clarice padded Mary’s explanation. “He says every time the bridge goes up it gives him a lift. In the winter the bridge doesn’t lift, nor does he lift from his chair ’til I drive him out of the house for my own sanity.”
Mary added to Clarice’s explanation. “He sits down there in the summer, my Bernie says. He just waits for boats or checks the times when an ore boat or a salty is coming through. My Bernie says he explains about the lift bridge over and over to tourists like one of those ‘Ask Me’ guys they used to have at tourist places around here.”
Clarice wanted to tell Mary that she wasn’t wearing an “Ask Me” button. Aloud Clarice said, “He’s still in mourning about how they turned off that old foghorn.”
“Oh. I miss that, too!” Birdie said. Birdie was the church organist with a good ear.
“”Play it for us,” Mary ordered.
“BEEEEEEEEEEEEEE-ooooooop!” Birdie answered in a surprisingly deep voice. Birdie repeated, “BEEEEEEEEEEEEEE-ooooooop!”
They all laughed. When Birdie did it again, the other two joined in. Soon they were trying to make harmony of it and spraying blond brownie crumbs over Clarice’s lace table cloth.
Ray had not driven entirely away. He drove only a short distance down the block to where he could peer between high snow banks into the kitchen and watch his wife make her two phone calls. Satisfied to have caught her at the lie, not that he would tell her, he drove away. The only reason he did not feed the squirrels was because she kept telling him to. The only reason she kept telling him to was to keep him from feeding the squirrels.
He had not meant to drive down to the waterfront, but that’s where he next found himself. Clarice had never asked him to explain his thing about the lift bridge. She reasoned that if he could explain, he would have told her. Several times. His thing started when their grandchildren came to visit from Bemidji and Ishpeming. The first few visits had been fun for the kids. After that he bribed them with ice cream. On her last visit, the thirteen-year-old had required a caramel macchiato as her bribe.
Ray’s thing was not for the mechanical aspects of the lift bridge. Ray had only one career in his adult life; he had been a car salesman. The mechanical aspects of the cars he sold were only a selling point for him. “Yes, he’s a car salesman,” Clarice had to explain for years. “Go buy a car form him and meet the other Ray. An’ don’ ask me which one is the real Ray.” Ray had been a good car salesman. Direct and slow-talking, projecting an air of being honest, which he was. He left his first dealership over questions of their honesty and retired five years ago for the same reason.
Ray let the pickup engine idle in the ship canal parking lot. It had been a cold winter of heavy snowfalls. The sidewalks to the ship canal were unshoveled. He knew the sunken walkway beside the canal was drifted in. His plan to stand under the inert bridge deck was a no-go. If he could not walk under the bridge, he would walk on the bridge.
On Lake Street he parked near the bridge. Because it was ten degrees with a stiff off-lake wind, he pulled a thick stocking cap down over his ears and put on choppers, thick wool liners under soft deerskin mittens. He walked out onto the east sidewalk and stopped in the middle. He looked down into the cracks in the canal’s thick ice. The cracks were deceiving. Pressure opened up cracks in the ice; pressure cemented them back together, but the lines remained. He lifted his eyes to look out over Lake Superior, which to Ray was a feminine noun. Today she had SAD, as she usually did in January and February. Lake ice, open water, and sky were blended into a thick gray paints spread upon canvas, at which he was not looking. Ray was living a memory, or what he thought was a memory. Maybe.
Ray, in fact, had a suspicion about the source of his thing, which not once had he ever shared with Clarice. When he was eight years old, give or take a year, his mother borrowed her parents’ car to drive the two of them down to Duluth. It had been a fine blue lake summer day, at least as his memory insisted he recall it. Mother and small boy stood by the ship canal and watched an ore boat approach on Lake Superior. When the boat and the bridge operator exchanged horn signals, mother and boy turned to watch the deck of the bridge float slowly skyward, not swinging aside or splitting in the middle to lever upward like bridges in a book his grandfather had given Ray. The bridge deck stayed horizontal. His mother pointed at the massive counterweights at the two ends of the bridge which allowed the deck to be lifted with surprisingly little horsepower.
Mother and son ate ice cream and watched an ore boat leave the harbor through the ship canal. His mother wanted Ray to wave back at the sailors on the boat passing in front of them. Ray had eyes only for the bridge. His mother told Ray (or maybe she didn’t because she always denied it later) that his father had been a sailor on the ore boats. (Or did she say “is a sailor,” if she had said anything at all?) Only after Ray had watched the deck drop back down and the counterweights rise all the way up, he turned to her and and asked, which she also denied happened, “I have a father?”
Maybe she had answered, “Raymond, everyone has a father somewhere, or had one. Let’s drive up to Gooseberry Falls.”
On the ride back home to the Iron Range, Ray fell asleep. When he awoke the next morning, he asked about his father the sailor. “Who said anything about your father being a sailor?” his mother answered.
When Ray grew a little older, he realized what it meant that he, his mother, and her parents all had the same last name, by which he concluded that she had lied: not everyone had a father, he for one.
Ray was in boot camp when the war ended. Navy boot camp. Despite what he hoped, his decision to be a sailor drew no comment from his mother. After Ray’s three years of duty in occupied Japan, he enrolled at Duluth Teachers College with a vague idea to be a teacher, maybe a history teacher, or maybe some other subject. He drifted through his freshman year. In April his mother unexpectedly died. To give himself time to cope with the loss and manage all the details, Ray had to take incompletes for his classes.
Ray stared into the pasty gloom hanging over Lake Superior and wondered if his incompletes were still hanging there unfinished in some musty cabinet up at the University of Minnesota Duluth. The tires of cars crossing the the open gridwork of the deck whirred behind him.
He walked to the Park Point end of the bridge, where he paused to look up at the counterweights hanging over him, and crossed the street and walked to the middle of the harbor side of the bridge. He and Clarice had once come to this spot in their courtship. She had completed her degree at the Teachers College and was teaching third grade at the far east end of Duluth. They first met in a car dealership. She was waiting for her parents’ car to be fixed; he was waiting to be interviewed for a job. His plan had been to go back to college in the fall, but he proved to be a successful and happy car salesman. The next June they answered marriage’s summons.
Clarice had to resign as a teacher. As if the mere thought of sex tainted a woman, married women were not allowed to teach, unless they had an unhealthy husband or a husband in the military. Male teachers did not carry the same stigma. Clarice subbed until 1963 when she was again allowed to teach in the Duluth schools.
The vibration of the sidewalk from passing cars brought Ray back from his memories. Ray tipped his head back and looked up into the maze of steel lattice that braced the bridge. His memories claimed his attention again.
When his mother died, she took the truth of his father to the grave. He always thought one day she would tell him. Ray’s grandmother, who survived another decade, claimed not to know. Her inability to lie convincingly was buttressed by her stubbornness. His mother had carried the stigma of being an unwed mother her whole life. The father, whoever and wherever he was, would have been stigma-free. Unlike his small-boned five-foot-tall mother, Raymond was of average size. Was his father a large man, sailor or otherwise? Was he the average of his two parents? Why had she been in Duluth in 1926? Ray’s birth certificate listed only a mother. Ray had not missed having a father in his childhood; his grandfather willingly served the role. It was only that niggling memory, either a true or a false memory, which had been aroused when he started bringing his grandchildren to watch the bridge defy gravity. His grandchildren had waved at the sailors and ignored the lift—and the uplift—of the bridge.
Three years ago Ray and Clarice spent February visiting three snowbird couples in Florida. Florida’s rains, humidity, and frequent drab were no better than Duluth’s snow, dry winter air, and lowering gloom. They were happy to come home. Clarice told her friends that Ray was perhaps not quite as much a Winter Clod down there, but he had been at least a Dust Bunny, a damp dust bunny.
Despite his practicality, Ray had a secret taste for metaphor. Maybe his secret father had been a sailor-poet. No, he could not imagine his mother falling for a poet, nor for any man that he could imagine. Metaphoric Ray could see the two choices offered by the bridge: facing out over the lake with its frequent storms or into the safe business-driven harbor. How had his mother that one time, one time only, chosen the wild lake side and not the safe harbor side? Why had she made that one trip with him to visit the bridge?
Ray knew what was happening back up at his house. The three women were eating up all of the blond brownies, which Clarice had made to lift his spirit, making them a little dry the way he preferred them. He doubted any words were spoken about Ladies Aid. They were laughing at men, he knew that. Well, so be it. They were just coping with winter gloom in their way.
Ray pulled off his choppers to dig a pill bottle out of his shirt pocket. A young woman jogging past him on the bridge slowed, looked at the bottle, went past him, turned, and jogged in place watching him. Ray asked her, “Would you like one, then?” She turned and jogged on to Park Point.
Ray had been taking the pills for five days. The doctor was a tiny young woman who was filling in for Ray’s Old Reliable, who was on vacation down in Florida. Dr. Tiny told him it would take “about a week for the pills to lift his mood.” Lift. She had used the word lift. When Dr. Old Reliable made his way back from Florida, Ray would have to explain how Dr. Tiny had talked him into trying the pills, which Dr. Old Reliable failed to convince him to do every December. Ray wondered how many of the pills it would take to lift Lake Superior’s mood. Ray swallowed his pill for the day and strode back to his pickup.
The pickup was his Silly Affectation, as Clarice called it. The engine required constant tune-ups with parts whose names were unknown to anyone under the age of thirty. Parts such as points, condensers, and coils, which not only required special ordering but which could now be installed by a dwindling number of mechanics. Mechanics mind you, not technicians.
Ray drove his Silly Affectation to the library, which was Duluth’s Silly Affectation. The library, which was supposed to look like an ore boat, looked more like a collapsing blimp badly in need of a lift. In the library he ran into Mary’s Bernie, which was how he was known in the church, as opposed to Pastor Bernie and Judy’s Bernard. After they checked out books, the two men decided to go out for coffee. They sat and talked, growing nostalgic for the dearly departed Bridgeman’s Ice Cream restaurants, especially the one near the old armory where they had gone to see the singing stars of their youth.
Ice Cream was a silly idea on a cold winter day, but nostalgia trumped commons sense. They drove Ray’s Silly Affectation to an ice cream chain in the tourist area near the ship canal. They bought complicated ice cream at tourist prices in a shop where the workers sang if you left them a tip, which posed a dilemma—social responsibility versus aesthetics. They dropped their dollar tips and rushed out the door to eat to the satisfying tick of the idling engine in Ray’s Silly Affectation.
An hour later when Clarice was mixing a batch of blond brownies, she looked out the window and said, “Well, I’ll be damned. The Winter Clod is going to feed the squirrels.” Thirty minutes later with his task completed, Ray entered the house, which smelled of brownies and fresh egg coffee. When Clarice saw his sheepish expression, she said, “Yes, but I know you didn’t shop at the Walmart.”
©Clyde L. Birkholz 2017