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I am a cheerful man, even in the dark, and it's all thanks to a good
Lutheran mother. When I was a boy, if I came around looking glum
and mopey, she said, "What's the matter? Did the dog pee on your
cinnamon toast?" and the thought of our old black mutt raising his
hind leg in the pas de dog and peeing on toast made me giggle. I was
a beanpole boy, and my hair was the color of wet straw. I loved to
read adventure books and ride my bike and shoot baskets in the
driveway and tell jokes. My dad, Byron, was a little edgy, expecting
the worst, saving glass jars and paper clips, turning off lights and
cranking down the thermostat to keep our family out of the
poorhouse, but Mother was well composed, a true Lutheran, and
taught me to Cheer up, Make yourself useful, Mind your manners,
and, above all, Don't feel sorry for yourself. In Minnesota, you learn
to avoid self-pity as if it were poison ivy in the woods. Winter is not a
personal experience; everyone else is as cold as you are; so don't
complain about it too much. Even if your cinnamon toast gets peed
on. It could be worse.
Being Lutheran, Mother believed that self-pity is a deadly sin
and so is nostalgia, and she had no time for either. She had sat at the
bedside of her beloved sister, Dotty, dying of scarlet fever in the
summer of 1934; she held Dotty's hand as the sky turned dark from
their father's fields blowing away in the drought, she cleaned Dotty,
wiped her, told her stories, changed the sheets, and out of that
nightmare summer she emerged stronger, confident that life would be
wondrous, or at least bearable.
I was named for my great-grandfather John Tollefson, who landed in
Lake Wobegon, in the center of Minnesota, from Voss, Norway, in
1880. Lake Wobegon was a rough town then, where, all on one block,
for less than five dollars, you could get a tattoo, a glass of gin, and a
social disease, and have enough left over to get in a poker game, but
Lutherans civilized it. They were hard workers, indifferent to vice. John
and his wife, Signe, came from Voss and begat Einar, and Einar and
Birthe (Birdy) begat Byron, and Byron and Mary begat me, John, the
third of five children, with Bill and Diana ahead of me and Ronnie
(Byron, Jr.) and Judy after.
It was a good place to grow up in, Lake Wobegon. Kids migrated
around town as free as birds and did their stuff, put on coronations
and executions in the long, dim train shed and the deserted depot,
fought the Indian wars, made ice forts and lobbed grenades at each
other, dammed up the spring melt in the gutters, swam at the beach
raced bikes in the alley. You were free, but you knew how to behave.
You didn't smart off to your elders, and if a lady you didn't know came
by and told you to blow your nose, you blew it. Your parents sent you
off to school with lunch money and told you to be polite and do what
the teacher said, and if there was a problem at school, it was most likely
your fault and not the school's. Your parents were large and slow afoot
and they did not read books about parenting, and when they gathered
with other adults, at Lutheran church suppers or family get-togethers,
they didn't talk about schools or about prevailing theories of child
development. They did not weave their lives around yours. They had
their own lives, which were mysterious to you.
I remember the day I graduated from tricycle to shiny new
two-wheeler, a big day. I wobbled down Green Street and made a
U-turn and waved to Mother on the front porch, and she wasn't there.
She had tired of watching me and gone in. I was shocked at her lack of
interest. I went racing around the corner onto McKinley Street, riding
very fast so I would have big tales to tell her, and I raced down the hill
past the Catholic church and the old black mutt ran out to greet me
and I swerved and skidded on loose gravel and tumbled off the bike
onto the pavement and skinned myself and lay on the tar, weeping,
hoping for someone to come pick me up, but nobody came. The dog
barked at me to get up. I limped three blocks home with skin scraped
off my forearm and knee, my eyes brimming with tears, and when I
came into the kitchen, she looked down at me and said, "It's only a
scrape. Go wash it off. You're okay."
And when I had washed, she sat me down with a toasted cheese
sandwich and told me the story of Wotan and Frigga. "Wotan, or
Odin, was the father of the gods, and his wife, Frigga, was the earth
goddess who brought summer, and the god of war, Thor, was the
winter god, and the god of peace was Frey. So from Odin we get
Wednesday, from Thor, Thursday, from Frey, Friday--Sunday and
Monday, of course, refer to the sun and moon--which leaves Saturday
and Tuesday. Wotan and Frigga had a boy named Sidney, and Thor
had a daughter named Toots, and they fell in love and one day Sidney
went to find Toots and steal her away, but Thor sent a big wind and
Sidney rode his bicycle too fast and fell and skinned his knee, and
that's why Saturday is a day off, so we can think about it and
remember not to ride our bikes so fast." She gave me a fresh soft
peanut butter cookie. She wiped the last remaining tears from my
cheek. She said, "Go outside and play. You're all right."
In Lake Wobegon, you learned about being All Right. Life is complicated,
so think small. You can't live life in raging torrents, you have
to take it one day at a time, and if you need drama, read Dickens. My
dad said, "You can't plant corn and date women at the same time. It
doesn't work." One thing at a time. The lust for world domination
does not make for the good life. It's the life of the raccoon, a
swash-buckling animal who goes screaming into battle one spring night,
races around, wins a mate, carries on a heroic raccoon career, only to
be driven from the creekbed the next spring by a young stud who
leaves teethmarks in your butt and takes away your girlfriend, and
you lie wounded and weeping in the ditch. Later that night, you crawl
out of the sumac and hurl yourself into the path of oncoming
headlights. Your gruesome carcass lies on the hot asphalt to be
picked at by crows. Nobody misses you much. Your babies grow up
and do the same thing. Nothing is learned. This is a life for bank
robbers. It is not a life for sensible people.
The urge to be top dog is a bad urge. Inevitable tragedy. A
sensible person seeks to be at peace, to read books, know the
neighbors, take walks, enjoy his portion, live to be eighty, and wind up
fat and happy, although a little wistful when the first coronary walks
up and slugs him in the chest. Nobody is meant to be a star. Charisma
is pure fiction, and so is brilliance. It's the dummies who sit on the
dais, and it's the smart people who sit in the dark near the exits. That
is the Lake Wobegon view of life.
When I was ten, I got absorbed in the Flambeau Family novels in
the Lake Wobegon library and devoured them all in one summer, one
by one, sequestered in my bedroom (The Flambeaus and the Case of the
Floating Barolo, and the Flippant Bellhop, and the Flying Bonbons, and the
Floral Bouquet, the Flagrant Bagel, the Flamboyant Baritone, the Broadway
Flop, the Flustered Beagle, and, finally, The Flambeaus' Final Bow). They
were all about Tony, a boy of Manhattan, and his socialite parents,
Emile and Eileen. Tony is a junior at St. Trillin's on West Eighty-ninth,
All-City in tennis, an honor student, adored by his girlfriend, Valerie.
Tony and his mother, an actress still beautiful at forty-one, and his
father, the famed microbiologist, live happily together in their art-filled
duplex apartment on the twentieth floor of the San Remo, overlooking
Central Park, and solve crimes as they go about their elegant lives,
hanging out in swank restaurants among high-rolling dudes and
chantoozies, knowing who is real and who is from New Jersey. The
neighbors across the hall, Elena and Malcolm Strathspey, a Scottish
laird and his ballerina wife, come over for gimlets and to talk about
ballet, opera, the O'Connell sculptures
at the Guggenheim. For a boy whose dad ran the grain elevator in a
small town where nobody had ever seen a ballet or knew a gimlet from
a grommet, the Flambeaus were an inspiration. They were my secret
family. Nobody else took out the Flambeau books, especially after I
reshelved them under Foreign Language.
Sometimes, descending the steps of school, I would raise my hand
as I came to the curb and imagine a taxi screeching to a stop and a
bald man with a cigar clenched between his teeth saying, "Where to,
mac?" "The San Remo." "Yes, sir."
I put the Flambeaus aside as I got older. The miseries of
adolescence somehow did not jibe with the Flambeau life, but in the
back of my mind, I reserved New York for later consideration, after the
tumult died down. Mother said, "John, you are not the first person
who ever had hormones, so don't picture this as a great tragedy. Get
over it. You're okay." And I was okay. Mother and Dad were
un-Flambeaulike; they were reserved and didn't praise me for fear of
spoiling me, and they didn't hug me beyond the age of six except
sideways once or twice, but I was okay. I grew up and minded my
manners and learned to be useful and didn't feel sorry for myself, and
in my heart, I imagined myself possessing an Eastern elegance. And
when I was thirty, I finally made it.
It was a desperate move. I was escaping from a girl in Minneapolis
who wanted me to marry her and fulfill her dreams and secure her
happiness. Her name was Korlyss, she was small and dark and of a
mournful disposition, we met at the University and clung to each other
for ten years, afraid to give up on a bad investment, I guess. We lived
in Prospect Park, a sort of intellectual pueblo east of campus, in a tiny
walk-up apartment with scarred tables and gimpy chairs and pine
plank bookcases crammed with paperbacks. I was a bartender at The
Mixers on Seven Corners, a grad-student hangout, and I sold ads for
Minnesota Orchestra programs and did an all-night classical music
show on the University station, WLB, and spent a dreary year in
graduate school, and Korlyss sold lingerie at Dayton's. She was
waiting for me to get my feet on the ground so we could marry and be
happy. I kept almost marrying her for ten years. She was an extremely
nice person. And then, walking along the West River Road
one October day when the Mississippi gorge was a carnival of red and
orange, she announced she might be pregnant. It just happened, she
didn't know how. "Don't you love me?" she said. Maybe I did, but I
didn't want to marry her. I offered her all the money I had, about five
hundred dollars. She said, "I don't want your money." And the next
morning, she packed a suitcase and three shopping bags and went to
leave and the doorknob came off in her hand. "Maybe it's a sign that
we're supposed to stay together," she said. I fixed the doorknob and
opened the door. I offered her a ride. "No," she said. "I prefer to walk."
I looked out the kitchen window and there she was on the sidewalk
below, looking up at me, her baggage at her feet, as if she were Mimi in
La Boheme. If only I would stick my head out the window and yell,
"Okay! I'll marry you!" then all the neighbors would stick their heads
out of their windows and wave their arms and cheer, and the mailman
would dance a jig, and the orange school bus would stop, and out
would pop a children's chorus to sing "When You Wish Upon a Star."
But I didn't.
I was racked with guilt over Korlyss, believe me, especially when her
friends called to say, "She really loves you," and her mother called,
weeping, to suggest counseling. It was the absolute rotten worst thing
I had ever done to anybody. I felt sick. I knew I had to leave town.
Through a Mixers patron, an Episcopal priest who was fond of Rusty
Nails, I heard that St. James College in Red Cliff, New York, on Cayuga
Lake, had gotten an FM radio license and needed a manager to build a
station. I flew out with a glowing recommendation written by the priest
and another by me myself on the WLB letterhead, using the name
Myra Groetz, and on the basis of the letters and a confident manner
and a breezy interview over lunch and a good bottle of Beaujolais, I
was hired for the job by Paul Burton, dean of students, a sleepy man
with no chin, who for some reason was delegated to oversee WSJO. "I
don't know the first thing about radio except that I don't care for it," he
said. "It's noise, and it's one big reason why most people in this
country go around without an intelligent thought in their noggins."
St. James College is an Episcopalian outpost heavily endowed by
Christian bandits of the nineteenth century, a liberal arts school that
administers a light coating of education to students lured by fine
architecture and low admission requirements. When I saw it that fall, it
smelled of richness. The groomed lawns, the oak trees with stone
benches close around them, the trimmed hedges, the masses of ivy,
the Georgian pillars of the administration building, Gilman Hall, and
the curving stairs to the grand entrance, the lobby, a showroom of
thick green carpet and rose-patterned sofas, and the dean's office, a
large sitting room carpeted in crimson, with a small Chippendale
desk--it all spoke well for the college's fund-raisers. The college lay
on the crest of a ridge like a royal park, a golf course hugging the
campus on the south, the arboretum on the north, and, below it, the
town of Red Cliff (population 2,271), on a gentle slant near the lovely
blue eminence of Cayuga Lake.
Among financially gifted parents of academically challenged
students along the Eastern Seaboard, the college is known as St.
Jude's, after the patron saint of hopeless causes, a place where you
can pack off your SPASM child (Simply Pray And Send Money) and
feel that, barring a felony conviction, he or she will get to wear a black
gown and attend graduation and receive a sheepskin with the St.
James crest ("Omnibus Omnia") on it. Tuition at St. James is
equivalent to that at Harvard or Yale, on the theory that charity
should not come cheap.
Oil paintings of benefactors hung in the lobby of Gilman--"the
idiot children of the rich," said the dean, as he gave me a quick
tour--and in the Bush Library, a four-story circular structure,
concrete and brick and of a sturdy Bauhaus demeanor, with high
beamed ceilings, the stacks dotted with study carrels, the building
eerily empty, devoid of students. "They're all watching reruns of
Gilligan's Island," he said. I glanced through the stacks and saw six
shelves of Dante's Divine Comedy, four of Plato's Dialogues, the
Variorum Shakespeare, Goethe, Chekhov, Macaulay's complete works
five times over, all beautifully bound, all apparently unread. An entire
room was devoted to atlases, another to rare books, both rooms
majestic, with long oak tables and green-shaded lamps, both rooms
deserted. "This is the place to come if you were looking to have an
assignation," he said. "You could romp naked in periodicals and
copulate on the carpet, and the librarians would be grateful if, after
climax, you took down a magazine and
thumbed through it." He gave me a baleful look. "We don't need a
radio station--we need a literacy program."
I walked down the hill toward the lake. The grass really was greener
here, and the foliage was denser, the trees and shrubs more various,
than in Minnesota. The yards were more lush, and the standards of
yard-keeping more relaxed. No Prussian horticulture, no home owners
kneeling and trimming the borders with fingernail clippers. The lawns
were clumpy, vegetation was allowed to loll, to spread, to luxuriate. I
liked that. The houses were big, with big porches, vines climbing up
the sides, here and there an American flag fluttering. The lots were
deep. There were some dirt driveways with mud puddles--another
good sign--and some leaning fences, and weather-beaten garages, a
relief from the Scandinavian fastidiousness of back home. Here, people
seemed to be appreciative of old things and could let them age and
molder and crack. The old brick storefronts along Main Street that
housed the usual college-town pizza parlors and sandwich shops and
beer halls looked old, and the stoplights were old, from the forties, and
hung over the intersections. Amazing, I thought. In Minnesota,
county highway engineers would have torn those down long ago,
replaced them with four $30,000 semaphores at each intersection,
widened the street, and torn down every tree for a hundred feet, all in
the interest of highway safety. Engineers run Minnesota, they
designed it, they teach its children, and engineers are merciless men
bent on the nullification of art and the worship of functionalism.
The only new building in Red Cliff was a small brick box of a post
office, which sat next to the grand old post office, which housed a
bakery, a Native American crafts store, a shop called Kathy's Kitchen
that sold very expensive jams and jellies, a candle store, and a
massage therapist. The Red Cliff Inn occupied an old Greek Revival
mansion on the lake side of Main Street, and the Red Cliff County
Trust Company faced it, in a granite temple with four pink marble
pillars. Next to it was the Embassy Bar and then Parker's Antiques and
then Colonial Laundromat and then a shallow creek flowing through a
narrow rocky gorge. I stood and looked down the street and tried to imagine
living here. The public library sat on the hill side of Main Street, in a
crotchety brick mansion, and opposite was the Catholic church, St.
Patrick's, a cross atop its small, square belfry, and down the street was
a prim white Methodist chapel and the gray stone castle of the
Presbyterians. A Genesee Beer truck sat double-parked in front of the
bar. A pretty young woman in a Doris Lessing T-shirt, with an
enormous bosom, passed by and smiled, and a young man with a wisp
of beard, wearing a top hat and a paisley shirt and red-striped
trousers--obviously a drama student--looked at me with a practiced
sneer. Hey, I thought. Home at last.
Two weeks later, I was back, in a rusted-out pink 1978 Oldsmobile,
my clothes in the back seat, my books in the trunk. I rented an
apartment ("Carriagehouse: Elegant 1BR w EIK, oodles of charm") in
what had been a garage, and went to work in a converted storage
room in the college chapel, a refectory table for a desk.
The college chapel was a long Gothic pile that seated a thousand,
with stone stalactites and high ribbed vaults, flying buttresses
adjoining the apse, dark timbers and stone carvings and pennants
and banners, the goddesses of Art and Science and Literature peering
down, and you felt as if footmen and courtiers might enter, followed
by fawning gentry, plump lords and powdered ladies, sallow-faced
princes, and the monarch himself, dour and vast in his purple silk,
limping from the gout, come to kneel in prayer before attending the
The Episcopal congregation of St. James was tiny, a few old ladies
and a few hairy bison and me--I began attending almost every
Sunday, trying to make up for the dirty deed I had done to Korlyss. In
this cathedral we Christians would be like BBs in a boxcar, so it was
reserved for convocations and academic events and Christmas. We
huddled every Sunday morning in a tiny basement chapel for Mass,
celebrated by Mother Sally, a hearty, sixtyish woman, who marched
down into the congregation during the Exchange of Peace and
hugged everyone as if testing us for ripeness. She raced through the
prayers to allow extra time for her homily. She seemed to believe that
God spoke in an elaborate code intended to get Her message past St.
Paul and the patriarchy of the early Church: the gist of it was that the
Word is Womb, and the Womb is the Word. She was big on
My first year in Red Cliff was nothing but good. First, there was the
great relief of not marrying Korlyss, of leaving Minnesota, the
divestment of accumulated regrets. I joined a coed volleyball league
and acquired a pleasant girlfriend named Jean, a librarian, who was
enthusiastic and came and went at convenient times and never
mentioned marriage. Dean Burton was a great boss. If I could catch him
in his drowsy time, after lunch, he would sign anything put in front of
him: extradition papers, a check for a million dollars, a death warrant,
anything. The radio antenna tower was built on a hill west of town, the
studios were constructed on the fifth floor of Gridley Hall--deep gray
carpets, six-inch-thick soundproofed doors, cantilevered windows to
reduce echo--and staff was hired (a gloomy bunch, I thought, rather
Eeyorish, but okay for public radio) and WSJO went on the air on
Labor Day, 1985, with a Mozart Marathon. President Postlethwaite
came to switch on the transmitter, there were deans and faculty in full
regalia, Mother Sally flung water on the microphones, and afterward, I
sat in my big office and raised a glass of champagne to our business
manager, Marian MacKay. I liked her. She was from Houston, she had
that hands-on-her-hips Texas Woman style, she was young and smart
and black, and she could do black if she liked and play African
queen--and she also could whip through ten pages of budget figures
and explain them to me in one sentence. On her resume, she listed the
Sam Houston Institute of Technology. I like jokes like that from a
"To radio," I said. "To Mozart."
"He's the Moz." We clinked glasses.
"So how long you going to last here, baby?" she said.
I said that I was going to become a beloved old fart and stay until
my eyebrows were as big as laboratory rats.
She gave me a sad smile. "You remind me of that Sorry Mutha
song, 'Why Do You Try So Hard to Get What You Don't Even Want?'"
I told her it was a better job than what I had before. She said,
"Baby, you and me are just passing through. The difference is that I
know it and you don't."
One Sunday morning that September, before Mass, a man slipped
into the pew next to me, a beefy man with a big head of permed
brown hair, wearing a blue double-breasted suit and a blue shirt with
a white collar.
"Hi. How are ya doing?" he said in a loud voice, reached over to
pump my hand. Heads turned.
I whispered: "Fine."
"Something wrong?" he whispered.
I shook my head. Just then the organist cut loose with the prelude,
something harsh and loud and medieval.
The man jumped. "Jesus Christ," he said. He grinned at me and
He seemed never to have attended an Anglican service before,
didn't know a hymnal from a prayer book, stood when he should have
knelt, and when I rose to go forward for communion, he leaned over
and whispered, "Where are you going?"
"Should I go too?"
I thought about this for a moment. I didn't want to have to give him
instruction on how to receive the wafer, how much wine to drink.
"Not this time," I said. "Next time. Catch you later."
After Mass, we shook hands again. "Howard Freeman is the
name," he said. "New to town. Just started a law practice. Thought I'd
find a church." We walked out into the sunshine and stood on the
steps, looking across the lawn.
"Interesting sermon. She seems to like the word 'context,' doesn't
she," Howard said.
"She is very much a contextual person," I said. "She can
contextualize with the best of them."
"I must admit, I'm here looking for more of a spiritual dimension in
my life," said Howard. "I've always meditated, but I thought maybe I
needed something more disciplined." He looked at me confidentially.
"Dumb-question alert: okay? Christianity believes in an afterlife,
right? Or am I getting it confused with something else? Like
I tried to explain about heaven. The Last Judgment. It was
interesting to catechize a man my own age. Like explaining baseball to
a European. We walked to Howard's car, and I invited him to play
racquetball sometime at the Faculty Club. In Minnesota, you can issue
invitations knowing that people will politely decline them, but Howard
said, "Sure, how about tomorrow?" and he turned out to be a bull on
the court. He won three games by wide margins, and I couldn't very
well turn down his offer of a rematch without looking like a wimp, and
so we became Monday regulars.
One day, sitting in the steam room, he told me about a house on
Green Street two blocks from campus that was for sale, cheap.
"The owner is a lady drama professor named Sanders, who got
canned for seducing a student," said Howard, "who happens to be
the daughter of the guy who donated the money for the math
building. They're hoping he'll give them a science hall too."
"I never heard about her being fired," I said.
"She was given a nice severance package. I negotiated it for her.
One year's salary and a year on leave at half salary. Better than a
"How much is she asking for the house?"
"However much she can get, to be perfectly frank, which is a lot
less than she thinks. It's October, and who is in the market for a fancy
house? Nobody, that's who. If you're interested, I'll see what I can do
So I went to inspect the seductive lady's house. A two-story white
Greek Revival manse, with a front porch and a terrace in the back.
Excellent condition, newly renovated, said the lady agent who showed
me through the place. There was a kitchen with Finnish cabinetry, and
a living room with a blue ceramic Swedish fireplace and cherry
wainscoting, and an oak staircase, and three upstairs bedrooms
replastered and papered, with new oak floors, and two upstairs baths
all marble and glass, one with a whirlpool.
"It's a peach," she said. "Bring your wife to see it."
I said I wasn't married.
"Well," she said, "I'm sure you would be very happy here."
Howard handled the whole deal." Let me do this," he said, and he
did it. He made an offer somewhat less than half of the asking price,
and he withstood the fury of the agent, and he reported back almost
daily. To him, it was like war. "There are no other prospective buyers.
I know it. They are desperate. The agent is lying through her teeth
about the college wanting to buy it for faculty housing. No way. The
elephant is down, the tigers are circling."
And the next day he called and said, "They have surrendered!" He
whooped over the telephone. He'd actually gotten the house for less
than the original low offer. Something about a zoning variance that
the seller hadn't disclosed. The agent was livid, but she capitulated.
And a month later, I unlocked the back door and walked into the
kitchen. It was a truly extraordinary kitchen, part science lab, part
lounge. A cooking island and a ceiling rack for pans and two ovens, a
stainless-steel refrigerator big enough to hold a hog carcass. In
protest, Miss Sanders had left the place filthy and littered with
packing materials; there was an arc of dried coffee on one wall where
she had flung it from her cup. But compared to the dismal apartments
I'd lived in, this was a fine home indeed. It cast a kindly charm on you
as you walked from room to room. The master bedroom was long, with
a ten-foot ceiling. One could imagine delightful things happening
there. And then I saw on the master-bathroom mirror, written in
foot-high red lipstick letters: THIEF. And underneath, in small letters:
"someday someone will do this to you."
Nobody had ever put a curse on me before. Motorists had sworn at
me, ex-girlfriends had called me names, but this was a specific curse:
"As you did to me, so it shall be done unto you." I had sicced my
gladiator on a defenseless woman and plundered her house, and now
what would be a just desert? Probably something like prostate cancer.
What goes around comes around. One morning, I'd get up and take a
leak and the bowl would be bright red with blood, and I'd go to some
specialist in the city and sit in a beige waiting room, listening to
soupy music, thinking about my crumbling innards, pleading with
God for a miracle, perusing tattered issues of People, thinking, I am
spending some of my precious last hours on earth learning more
about Tammy Wynette. And then proceeding to the examining room.
Disrobing. Waiting for the arrival of the prostate potentate himself,
Dr. Oh, and his various benedictions and incantations, and then the
presentation of the posterior for the digital exam.
Yes, it seemed utterly clear to me. Cancer would be a fitting reward
for having snookered poor Professor Sanders. I would enjoy a few
months of the good life, and then the hand of death would tap me on