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The Marriage Bus"Where is everybody?"
By Ken Hokeness
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 Ken Hokeness
All right reserved.
Chapter OneComing Home
Grant remembers the afternoon he returned to Minneapolis, so he could live close to his family. He'd shouted out the window of the rental truck in a muffled voice, since he didn't want to offend the sensibilities of his new, respectable neighbors, "Hello everybody! I am Grant Nordland. I am your new neighbor." Driving down Shady Oak Lane, winding casually around the south shore of Crystal Lake, he entered a dark grove of gigantic oak trees with thick, tangled, black, bare branches, which formed a shroud over the half-hidden mansions. He thought these Tudor homes with steep, shake roofs were transplants from Jolly Old England.
Crystal Lake lay only a hundred yards behind these majestic homes, but the thick woods and tall bushes crowded their back doors and blocked their views. All of the mansions faced the winding lane at different angles; their distance from the street depended on the number of oak trees that dominated the lot. The largest homes squatted the farthest from the lane, while the smaller ones were nudged closer to the curb.
He'd staggered backwards when the real estate agent told him the values of these homes. He'd sold his rambler in Madison, Wisconsin, for the same price that he'd paid for his "handyman special" on the south shore of the lake. His future "estate" was cheap, his realtor explained, because it lacked "curb appeal," and it had been badly abused by its previous owner.
He planned to have his older brother, Victor, a highly-skilled, building contractor, remodel his kitchen. His home would surpass its former glory, when it had been the first and only modern rambler on the lake. Feeling exhausted, he drove into a cul-de-sac that led down to the shore of the lake. With a mild curse he admitted that his new home did lack "curb appeal," but that's because its ten-foot-wide picture window faced north towards downtown Minneapolis and Crystal Lake instead of the street. He was now the proud owner of an oak-filled, triple lot, his own isolated nature preserve, right in the heart of a bustling metropolis.
He stopped close to his garage and peered up at his dining room windows. When he stepped down from the cab, his knee ached. An injury in college football had ended his stellar athletic career and altered the course of his life. He had been the top dog in the family, but, now, everyone admired Victor. Grant didn't feel jealous, because he knew that if he were loyal to Victor, and played his cards right, Victor would be his savior and remodel his "new" home.
A few weeks after Grant and his wife, Sonja, and their young daughters, Amanda and Erin, moved into their new home, Grant was pulling his two daughters along the path that circled Crystal Lake. Their rusty Radio Flyer wagon squealed louder than a covered wagon. His bright blue eyes kept squinting at his "handyman special."
Amanda and Erin were picking wildflowers for Grandma Nordland and hiding them in a brown, paper grocery bag.
"Jump in the wagon, girls. We have to go home. I have to do some more painting before we go to Grandma's."
"We want to pick more flowers," Amanda protested.
"Yeah, we want to pick more flowers," Erin agreed.
The girls wanted him to pick cattails, which he thought were protected, so he said he'd pick just one. As he twisted the reed, it bent but wouldn't break without a struggle. After freeing the fuzzy brown tail, he told the girls to hide it in their bag.
When Amanda and Erin saw their mother reading the news paper at the picnic table in their front yard, they ran to her and began arguing over which flowers to keep and which to take to Grandma's.
After laying a sheet on the oak floor, he applied a layer of clam-shell white paint to cover the dark-green wall that separated the dining room and the kitchen. He was filled with an unexplainable urge to knock down the wall that blocked the afternoon sunlight from entering the gloomy, wretched kitchen. Waiting for Victor to tear down that dark-green wall was agonizing.
As he rolled on a thick coat of paint, the phone rang.
"Hello, Brother. This is Chris. I have some really bad news." He paused. "You won't believe it. Are you sitting down?"
"No. I'm painting. What could be that bad?"
"Well." He paused and sounded as though he were crying. Then, he muttered, "Mom died this morning."
Grant's comprehension was scrambled, as though he'd been hit on the head with a hammer.
"Did you really say that Mom is dead?"
"It's true, Brother." Chris cried softly into the phone. "Our dear beloved mother died this morning. Her doctor said she had a heart attack. The good times are over. No more wild and crazy parties at Mom's house. No more Christmas dinners around her big table. No one can keep us together like Mom did."
Grant couldn't answer because his throat was swollen shut with stabbing pain. "This hurts too much," he whispered. "I can't talk."
"That's all right. I know how you feel. I feel the same way myself."
"He raced down to the lawyer's office to read Mom's will. He's boasting because Mom named him as her executor. He said he'll be back as soon as he can. He wants all of us to meet at Mom's house."
"Who found her?"
"I'll tell you when you get here." Chris paused. "She was a beautiful woman. She had more strength and courage than anyone I know. Not many women would've stayed in their house and raised four little devils like us. I have to admit that I was the worst. But she always used reverse psychology on me and straightened me out. Now, I really feel terrible about giving her such a hard time."
"She really loved all of us," Grant replied. "Don't get down on yourself."
They agreed that their mother had given her whole life to them. She'd always been extremely proud of her four boys. She'd held them together. She'd been completely unselfish.
"How's Peder taking it?" Grant asked.
"Not good at all. I wouldn't be surprised if he cracked up. We'll probably have to take him to a shrink."
"What about Victor?"
"He's completely calm and dry-eyed, as though nothing has happened. He's totally in control. I don't understand him. He's all business. Maybe you and me and Peder loved Mom more than he did."
"Maybe he thinks he'll look weak if he cries. He thinks we won't respect him. Now, Victor and Anna will have to take Mom's place and hold us all together."
"I wonder if they can do that. First, they'll have to earn my respect. It'll be interesting."
"For some strange reason last week, Mom said, 'You can always trust Victor to be fair to you boys.' I wonder what she meant by that. Maybe she knew that something was going to happen."
"We'll never know. We'll meet you this afternoon at Mom's house."
With tears streaking his cheeks, Grant staggered across the living room, stumbled down the front steps, and tottered down the hill to the picnic table.
Sonja lowered her newspaper and stared at him. "Why are you crying?"
"Chris just called. He had some sad news."
"What could be that sad?"
"Mom is dead. She died this morning."
"Oh, my God. No." She rose and hugged Grant, and together they stood there crying.
"Chris said that Victor wants us all to meet at Mom's house this afternoon. He told me that Victor has already gone down to Mom's lawyer to read her will. Chris is pretty strong, but he thinks that Peder might crack up. We'll have to discuss Mom's funeral arrangements and stuff like that. It's going to be sad. I don't want to take the girls."
When Sonja explained to Amanda and Erin that Grandma Nordland died, and they had to stay home with a baby-sitter, they ran into the house crying.
While he was cleaning his rollers and brushes, Grant's tears fell into the basement sink, and he recalled standing in the cold snow on the corner of Church Street and Washington Avenue, outside of the University of Minnesota Hospital, holding his mother's hand. Grant didn't know that the doctors had told his mother that her husband had pancreatic cancer and had only six months to live. On the morning he died, Grant's father wanted Grant to hold his hand. Grant's once-muscular father was now a skeleton with sunken eyes, hollow cheeks, and a swollen stomach. Grant wanted to tell his father that he loved him, but he couldn't speak.
After driving south for an hour on Interstate 35, Grant rounded the exit and followed the frontage road to Nordlandville, his nickname for the three houses on the bluff. In the center stood a gray-stucco, two-story house with green shutters and a green roof that belonged to his mother. To the south, with a field-stone exterior and a shake roof stood the home of Chris and Adele. To the north stood a two-story, Colonial with white vinyl siding and a black roof that belonged to Peder and Megan.
Chris met them wearing white-painter's-pants, a paint-spattered white shirt, a heavy gold necklace, and a leather head band. He blew his nose into a painter's rag, stuffed it in his shirt pocket, and hugged Grant, crying on his shoulder.
"We loved Mom so much," he sobbed. "We're all going to miss her."
"It's a pisser," Adele said, hugging Grant. Her red plastic bracelets clattered as she reached around his neck, and her red tank top nearly fell off as she stretched on her tiptoes. Her belt-less jeans hugged her shapely hips.
"She was a great gal," Adele said, "and much too young to die."
Tears glistened in Chris's eyes. "When my friends came over to our house, do you know what they said? They said they liked my mom better than their own. That's a hellava compliment to Mom, if you ask me."
"No more house parties," Adele said. "She always loved family parties. She'd have a few brandies and start singing and telling stories. She was really a party girl. That's what she lived for. She never complained about the hard times, and Lord knows she had plenty of those."
"I'll never forget Peder's wedding," Grant said. "We were howling like wolves. Mom's rugs were soaked with beer. We had more darn fun. Which reminds me, where's Peder?"
"We have to talk to him," Chris said. "The last time I saw him he looked horrible."
"You two talk to him," Adele said. "Sonja and I will stay here and visit."
Strolling in front of his mother's house, Grant shivered at the sight of her old-fashioned flowers: pink peonies, tiger lilies, ragged ferns, and untrimmed bridal wreath. The forty-foot elm that had shaded her lawn was gone; her grass was thin and brittle.
Peder and Megan's lawn was lush and green; the young maples in their yard would soon change to orange; the pines and spruce were shades of green and blue; a dozen pots of blood-red geraniums dotted the railing of their cedar deck. The steady roar from the freeway sounded like a waterfall; the cars and trucks looked like toys on a track, snaking through the farmers' fields. The smell of skunk mixed with the fragrance of fresh manure and the faint scent of swamps and silage wafted up the gentle slope.
When he craned his neck to look at the peak of his mother's roof, Grant recalled being a teenager, and climbing the shaky, wooden extension-ladder to change the heavy storm windows and paint trim and clean leaves out of the gutters. He'd felt gut-wrenching fear when he looked down, but his mother had given him orders to climb.
Standing on Peder's deck, Chris knocked on the screen door until Megan yelled, "The door's open."
Grant ambled in behind Chris, expecting to see Peder and Megan seated at their kitchen table sipping coffee, but Megan was slumped in her chair, alone, wearing gray, fleece sweatpants and a baggy, gray sweatshirt. Her black hair was tightly curled, and her green eyes were focused on a glass of lemonade.
"I suppose you're looking for my hubby. Obviously, he's not here. Don't ask me where he is."
"Did he go for a walk?" Grant asked.
"Who knows? The big dummy reverts to the behaviors of a two-year-old when he gets depressed. If you find him, he won't talk to you anyway. He never talks to me."
"We're his brothers," Chris replied. "That's why he'll talk to us."
"Bully for you. Go find him, then, for Christ's sake. Tell him he's acting like a toddler."
"We will," Chris replied. "We're not going to sit around sipping lemonade while he's out in the barn hanging himself."
Suddenly, Chris said, "Come on, Grant. I know where he is."
They circled Peder's house, looking across the rolling pastures at the wooded bluffs in the distance. Grant felt a sense of panic as he followed Chris through the tall grass. The small, stucco barn behind his mother's house had deteriorated over the years. Above the sliding barn door dangled a rusty basketball hoop. This was where Grant had spent endless hours, days and nights, summers and winters, shooting baskets.
Mildew, spider webs, and flyspecks covered the windows of the decrepit-looking barn. When Chris pulled open the creaking doors, they saw a huge, hulking figure bent over the steering wheel of a squat, gray Ford tractor.
"Shut the goddamn door and leave me alone," Peder yelled. "I don't want any of your goddamn help. You two bastards can go to hell as far as I'm concerned. You didn't love Mom as much as I did. You don't know how I feel. Get the hell out of here." He threw an empty beer can that hit their father's rusty table-saw.
Wearing a black, nylon running suit, which was stretched tight across his massive, broad shoulders, Peder looked like an Olympic shot putter.
"Hell, we loved Mom just as much as you did," Chris replied. "You're not her only son. So don't give us any shit. She gave her love to all of us equally."
"Don't talk about her, god damn it. She's dead. She's the only person who ever really loved me."
"We know that," Chris said. "But now we have to live for each other."
"She didn't have to die. She killed herself."
"You're crazy," Chris replied. "She had everything to live for. She'd never kill herself in a million years. That's a really stupid thing to say."
"She did. I saw the goddamn, anti-depressant pills she spilled on the bathroom floor. There were only a few left. She took the damn things and killed herself. I flushed the rest down the toilet."
"You're making that up," Chris said. "Where's the pill bottle?"
"I got rid of it. I didn't want the rescue people to find shit like that. They're all her friends. I wanted to protect Mom's reputation. So don't say anything to anybody. I'll kick your ass if you do."
"I don't believe you, but I won't say anything," Chris replied.
Chris talked to Peder in soothing tones about how much they all loved their mother. Grant said that he loved their mother as much as Peder did.
When Peder tried to stand, he lost his balance and fell back onto the metal tractor seat. After several tries he climbed down and placed his arms around Chris and Grant's shoulders. They helped him into their mother's house and sat him on their mother's couch to wait for Victor.
"Where in the hell is that goddamn Victor?" Peder kept yelling. "He's our big brother, for Christ's sake. He's supposed to be here. Where in the hell is he?"
Chris calmly reassured Peder that Victor was engaged in important legal business. But Peder wasn't satisfied. He continued yelling, "Where in the Hell is Victor when we need him? Tell him to get his ass home and tend to his family. Where in the Hell is Victor?"
Grant wandered around his mother's house, reflecting on all of her great parties. In the dining room hung a plaque showing Jesus holding a lamb with the caption, "Trust in the Lord." Victor said that the plaque inspired him when he was young. There was, also, a trophy-case that Victor made for Grant. Inside, there was a photo of his mother, beaming with pride and holding a huge bouquet of roses, when he had been honored as the outstanding high school athlete in Minnesota. Behind Grant's trophies was a photo of Victor and Anna, a perfect married couple, young and smiling. A photo of Brenda, Victor's young daughter, showed her seated on a boulder, in the front of Victor's country home, five miles south of Fairfield. Grant climbed the stairs to Mom's apartment, which she rented out to help pay her bills. Her renter had died the month before from a heart attack. When their father was alive, the boys had lived in the apartment. Victor's model planes had hung from the ceiling. They had played hide-and-seek inside the kitchen cabinets. They had their own bedrooms and bathroom. Grant remembered sitting on the stool, two days after his father died, telling himself not to cry, or his mother would think he was a sissy.
Excerpted from The Marriage Bus by Ken Hokeness Copyright © 2011 by Ken Hokeness. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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