Sunday, September 28, 2008

Skylight Diorama

-- For Daniel

September can be a cruel month in the Piedmont of central North Carolina. It taunts you with a cool night -- makes you think the fall is finally here -- and so you break out your old favorite blue sweater and the next day suffocates you.

Last week there was a guy in the Caffe Driade singing and playing the guitar on the patio under the pines. He wasn’t bad. He had written his own ballads about people longing for love and getting on trains and leaving each other. But then he started talking between his songs -- sharing how he used to be a lawyer until God called him to attend divinity school, and how the main problem with our culture is that we’ve lost the ability to mourn.

Across the room near the bar I saw a psychiatrist I know who specializes in electroshock therapy for people with severe and intractable depression. The doctor looked like he’d had a tough day at work. On the scale of general mournfulness, I would say his face fell somewhere in the range between Elie Wiesel and Edvard Munch’s
Scream.

In seventh grade my friend Bernie taught me how to make a sound like a train whistle. What you do is put two fingers in your mouth and blow as hard as you can while simultaneously making a sort of reverberation with your voice. Done right, this produces a shrill noise, which most people find irritating. But it does sound remarkably like a train whistle.

When the born-again lawyer started percussing his guitar and indicating that he was about to sing yet another song about a train heading off into the night, I thought of old Bernie and did the railroad whistle, big-time.

My daughter was not especially amused. “Dad. Are. You. Completely. CRAZY?!”

My train whistle is not
that obnoxious, really -- it’s mainly just startling. Something you’re not expecting to hear on a quiet evening in the Caffe Driade while listening to a recovering lawyer/troubadour sharing his life story with an incognito brain shockster and a few other sedate white people.

The attorney-in-redemption sang on into the night, rolling down the rails toward the distant lights of Oblivion. It felt pretty sticky out there.

* * *

What with all that steam in the air, it had to rain. It poured for several hours the next day, and about three o’clock Pam called to say the skylight in the kitchen was leaking. “You might want to come home and put up a tarp and call the roofer,” she said.

The roof guy arrived and he was a huge man with an equally formidable-looking pickup truck. He plunked an extension ladder up against the house and said, “Join me. Let’s see what the trouble is up there.”

I followed the Man Mountain onto the roof of 115 Forest Ridge Drive. I pointed out the spot where I thought the leak was coming from. He settled into his work, taking apart the skylight and peeling away some shingles. Then he stopped and looked straight at me. He revved his power screwdriver a few times and said, “So whaddya think of the Election?”

When you live in a college town full of liberal Democrats marooned in the Deep South, this is the sort of question that can give a person pause. Especially considering the particular setting in which it was asked.

I launched into punditry. I handicapped the turnout in the Rust Belt swing states. He responded by citing some poll numbers on the split among Evangelicals, and opined about the fallout of the mess on Wall Street. It was all “On the one hand this, and on the other hand that.” Like CNN up there on the roof.

I suggested that the blogosphere was a mixed blessing for politics; it democratized public discourse while adding to its general mendacity. He said he agreed with that, and noted that the traditional newspaper business was in big trouble.

“My dad is an investigative reporter,” said the roof man, “and he’s retiring. Nobody wants to read the paper anymore.” It turned out his father had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997.

I told him I always enjoyed reading his father’s articles in the Raleigh
News & Observer. After awhile, I said I should be going down. He said he would stay up there and finish fixing the roof.

I lingered for a minute and gazed through the skylight into my own house. It was kind of a mess down in there. I wondered if it ever occurred to people to clean up for the roof man. Somebody was calling our ancient Golden Retriever from another room, and I could see she was having trouble getting traction on the hardwood floor in the kitchen. She fell down a couple of times, then finally came to a stand and ambled out of my diorama of disheveled dreams.

* * *

Angela and I spent the weekend in Maryland, visiting her fiancé Al who has muscular dystrophy and lives on a ventilator. We celebrated Al's twenty-sixth birthday. But driving home Sunday was sad. Angela said it felt like we were going in the wrong direction. The subject of death came up. She said death was weird, and I agreed with her on that point.

We saw a sign on I-95 for a restaurant called the Virginia Grill and I thought we should stop there for lunch. We followed the signs into a pretty town by a river. We found the restaurant and parked the lift van, then discovered there was no wheelchair access.

When I inquired in the restaurant, the people looked stupefied -- like I had asked if they might possibly have a retractable roof so that my daughter could descend for lunch in her flying saucer.

I walked back out to the van and told Angela there were too many steps up to that restaurant, and no ramp.

“Let’s get out of here,” she said. “This place gives me the creeps."

“There are a lot of places like this,” I replied. "It's small-town America for you."

“Not it’s not. This is the
Truman Show.”

For a fleeting moment I imagined she was right; that we might just look up and see a cleft in the sky with a movie director peering down, trying to figure out how people like us had wandered onto his perfect set.

America -- what was that, anyway? I recalled another time we'd come to see Al. It was a few years ago, before his operation. Al and Angela, and Al’s mother Lois and I spent a warm Saturday afternoon on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The four of us stopped together in a row at the Lincoln Memorial and I read the Gettysburg Address out loud. Then I noticed some tourists taking our picture. Maybe they thought we were actors in some kind of a living diorama. Quite the American tableau: Two young people in wheelchairs. Two older people standing beside them. Two black, two white. ". . . Far above our poor power to add or detract."

Back on the highway we missed the I-85 junction just below Richmond, and ended up on a two-lane road across southern Virginia. It was about thirty-five miles of exquisite heartache. Rolling fields of hay and cotton and tobacco gave way to the pines and little brick Baptist churches, white steeples scattered like breadcrumbs in the forest, pointing the way home.

In a field between a trailer and the Apostolic Holiness Church we saw some kids playing softball in bare feet. Beyond them, and past one more abandoned farmhouse with its tin roof collapsing on old lumber, a new strip mall was rising on a scraped-over homestead.

A bluegrass singer on the radio mourned Five Generations of Rock County Wilsons. The last fifty acres didn’t mean a damn thing to them, the song said. They just came and blew it all away. Then we lost the station and searched for a new one. Dr. Pepper Schwartz was cheerfully promising you could find your soulmate on Perfect Match Dot Com.

I looked over at Angela. She sighed. Tonight I would put her in bed with her telephone and she would talk to Al for a couple of hours, like she does every night. Someday, somebody should write about the two of them and it would be a love story for the ages. I would do it myself, but I think any bard with lesser literary chops than Shakespeare should probably leave this one alone.

What I could do, though, is maybe write some lyrics for a blues singer in a bar, about a white-faced, deaf and demented old Golden Retriever who slips on a hardwood floor. As seen through a skylight, looking down, while talking politics with a roof man whose father won the Pulitzer Prize but can’t catch a break from a generation who would rather sit at their computers reading blogs.

I rolled down the window and got a whiff of October up ahead.

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