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John Albright

© 2005

Blues for O’Brien

I remember this joke: A rabbi, a priest and an atheist walk into a modern art museum, and the curator assigns each of them a different piece of art to write about. The rabbi is dropped off at a painting of some caged chickens. The priest is led to a room with a plastic cube. It’s a translucent charcoal color and sits on a pedestal waist high, which right there tells you all you need to know about the Venice Beach School from 1962 to ‘74. The atheist is relieved that that’s not his assignment because then he’d be compelled to make the translucent prism a metaphor for the world, and make God the air molecules—made visible with eyes of faith—rocketing back and forth, slashing up against the walls, holding up the walls of the universe. Except that the cube, due to the intelligent design of its creator, is a vacuum. 

So the atheist (that’s me) is led to a room with all sorts of elegant botanical paintings, and all of a sudden I’m wishing I got the cube or the poultry barn, doesn’t matter to me which one at this point. The curator sets me down in front of a painting of mushrooms, and smiles. Does she know? And so all three of us sit in the museum with clipboards, letting the art speak to us, letting it move us, breathe through us. I’m looking around, wishing she’d at least let me write about the Willow Bark watercolor to my left. With the Willow Bark you’ve got China, aspirin, herbal medicine, all sorts of fruitful jumpstarts. I tell myself: just shut up and let the mushrooms speak. All I hear is a sweet American ballad, and I’m in the backseat of the 1977 Cutlass Supreme driving down 169 from Lake Mille Lacs. That plastic upholstery, ripped and brown, still raining, dried leaves caught on the windshield wipers as they swoosh back and forth.

Song, sung blue,
Weeping like a willow.

Neil Diamond I think. I could be wrong. Once, during a talk I was giving, I attributed the slogan, “Orange juice—it’s not just for breakfast anymore” to Annette Funicello. A couple people in the audience came up to me afterwards to tell me that it was, in fact, Anita Bryant who made those ads. “Not that it matters,” they added. You’re right: it doesn’t. The point is that orange juice is not just for breakfast anymore. Had they heard anything I’d said? Does it somehow make it less true if a Mousketeer said it? Clearly, the truth just gets in the way sometimes.

Song, sung blue,
Everybody knows one.

The problem, you see, is that it’s all still too close, the shame, the regret. I need some distance. Or maybe there is no sufficient distance. I tell myself: just write it down, say how it feels, don’t make it harder than it is. And so right there in the Weisman, finally, I do it. I lift my head and look the mushrooms right in the spores. 

As a child I abhorred mushrooms. Couldn’t stand to be in the same room. Then slowly, secretly, I came crawling back. At some point in my twenties, I came to understand fungi, came to love them, and then acted as though my love had been there all along. Those vile thoughts I entertained as a child, the loose talk I let fly about mushrooms behind their backs, the lies I told myself, the vicious lies. All the memories summoned a dreadful shame inside me, even as I enjoyed butter-browned button mushrooms stuffed with blue crab and red pepper, or a slice of Italian sausage and mushroom pizza from the Savoy. What a duplicitous fraud.

You know, if it were asparagus I had disparaged, I could forgive myself, those stringy fibers compressed like shale over tens of millions of years beneath the overwhelming force of a large inland sea weighing down on all that detritus, the decomposing body parts of freshwater crustaceans, blue-green algae, Pteranodon flesh, the sediment piling up like so many boys in the elephant grass, layer upon layer of life and death, truth and lies, death and life. That’s what asparagus actually are: fossils of some prehistoric aquatic grass. I remember once my grandpa sent me to my room simply for not wanting to eat antediluvian, petrified plant matter. What kind of man could ask that of a child? I was just a boy. They’re just boys. But I see no legitimate reason why a kid shouldn’t like mushrooms. They’re not a vegetable and they grow inside caves, which in and of itself is pretty cool if you really think about it.

I remember. I remember my dad and Uncle Jim sipping a strong red wine. I remember thinking at one point in my youth that the world was a conspiracy, a charade designed by adults and as soon as I became old enough to drink they were going to pull the rug out from under me, and say, sorry, that was all an experiment, and, to be frank, it didn’t work out all that well. This is the end of the line. That part about getting married, having sex whenever you wanted to, the “you can live by your own rules when you live on your own” speech, it was all a joke. Oh, and by the way, asparagus are actually hydrated fossils.

Song sung blue
Every garden grows one

I remember my dad and Uncle Jim drinking red wine while laying in their sleeping bags. I remember it being pungent and fruity, but how would I know? Maybe I smelled it on their breath. Maybe I took a whiff of the open bottle after they had passed out. I was around ten or eleven, I’d guess, and knew nothing about wine except that liquor of any sort was the root of evil (only money was worse because it was the root of all evil, including lies). I also knew that we were all cold and that dad and Jim wanted something warm. The night on the lake had been rough, cold, choppy—a lot like the ocean in a Winslow Homer painting (Art reference. Good.) 

It was the fishing opener, that day in late May when you could pull in a walleye and keep it without getting fined. Few anglers wait until sun up to strike at the walleye, so by ten-thirty, eleven the night before, the boat launch is bustling with male activity: men in waders and flannel jackets standing along the water, some knee-deep, others sitting in line in their cars or trucks, trading projections about hot spots, comparing night crawlers, waiting to back their boats in. We too went fishing, and hoped that we pulled in our first walleye as the clock struck twelve and not a minute sooner. We never cheated.

I remember nothing about fish that year, nothing about little pieces of fish fried up in corn meal and butter. Out on the lake, fishing by an old gas lantern, the winds intensified sometime after midnight and a tolerable Spring rain began to fall. The men kept fishing and I curled up in the bow wrapped in a blanket, the orange lifejacket a pillow. By the time we pulled the boat up onto the rocks and I crawled into the tent, damp and cold, it was sometime in the middle of the night. I fell asleep to my dad and his favorite brother drinking and laughing like brothers again. I fell asleep to the sound of rain ransacking the tent, the waves buckling under the weight of stones nestled just below the tent. We fell asleep knowing that the boat had been dragged high up on the rocks that adorn the shore of Mille Lacs.

Song sung blue
Sleeping on my pillow

That morning I woke up to my dad cussing, half-whimpering, half-moaning in disbelief. The fishing poles, the tackle boxes, everything was gone except for a bucket of leaches. The lures, bobbers, knives, sinkers and other angler’s knickknacks accumulated over the years, each with their own true stories, pilfered from the boat as we slept like men and boys do on a fishing trip. Not only was the weekend ruined, but Uncle Jim left his glasses and all his medication in his tackle box overnight. And that’s all I remember. 

That day, or maybe it was the next day, I don’t know; it would be nice if could just say, “the next day we got a call,” sure of myself, but I can’t. At some point, both tackle boxes were found. Some farmer found them in the woods outside his house, so he dug around and found a phone number and called home, where my mom answered. Somehow, we got word and hopped in the car to recover the loot.

I don’t remember doing any fishing. We drove home in more rain down Highway 169. No words, just the weeping willow song. My dad was silent, like the way he would get if you asked him about his dad Herschel. Several years earlier, Grandpa Herschel had a heart attack and died in front of my dad. The two them were fishing in Whitefish Bay on Lake Superior and he died right there in the boat. My dad came back to the cabin and wept like the fall of the western world.

All I remember is the song; I remember trying to sing along with Neil Diamond under my breath. I don’t know if they could hear me. Jim was silent, like the way he got if you asked him about Vietnam. I never tried it, but people always said that he’d just up and leave the room; didn’t get mad, didn’t smile, didn’t throw anything, just up and left. My dad got out of the draft because he was a doctoral student in Madison. Jim didn’t. The Cutlass, the windshield, the pillow that smelled of wet tent, I remember being groggy and succumbing to sleep in the backseat.

But when you take the blues and make a song
You sing them out again
Sing them out again

Now what I have written here is a little story about my life. Stories are not for telling you the way things really happened—they’re about telling truth. I write non-fiction. I like reality. The part about me and the mushrooms, it’s true; the sweet chunks of walleye fried up on the Coleman stove that we never caught much less ate because some punks took everything, all true. The world-as-conspiracy hypothesis, yes, it’s true; heavy winds on Mille Lacs, yes; Song Sung Blue, yes, I think, although it could have been Cracklin’ Rosie; the farmer who lived in the woods, yes; Vietnam for my Uncle Jim, yes; three years of his life pinched in the middle of the night, yes. I don’t mean to claim that it all happened, but in order to get to the truth, you may have take a detour.

Now I’ve never known a rabbi, but I did go to school with a couple Jews. I remember Will Weinstein. In ninth grade we had social studies together, and then he moved away and I never saw him again—until last year, when I met him at an educators’ conference. He was in one of the restaurants across the street from the convention center eating tapioca pudding. Still stout but balding, a couple patches of that blond hair the girls loved to touch grasping on to the side of his head the way rock climbers do when they ascend Devil’s Tower and their toeholds snap off from underneath them, and they cling to the red rock with every bone in every finger. He’d become a guidance counselor in a junior high in Wisconsin. Will Weinstein, a goddam guidance counselor. Part of me could only laugh out loud, another part of me didn’t believe it for a second. If you don’t believe me, I don’t blame you. We all believe way too much.

And that’s how it is when you read stories: you shake your head in disbelief or you choose to believe. I mean the best stories are not entirely unlike a pack of really beautiful lies. When you really believe, you go inside. You climb inside belief itself. The red horde from the north, the Gulf of Tonkin, it was all beautifully constructed. But all of history’s very best transgressions are carried out with an absolute moral indifference that you almost have to admire, the absolute purity of indifference, it sucks us in hook, line and sinker. We believe for the beauty of it, like the perfect lie: you came to believe it yourself because you lived through it. You pulled it off. You lived it because it really happened that way. You became the truth. 

I may not have been within 200 steps of the Weisman that day. Physically, sure, I was there. Check the attendance records. But it may be more true to say that I was playing a round of mini-golf with my son. Maybe Uncle Jim wanted to fight gooks and defend freedom for all I know. Maybe the chickens chose to live in cages and we just don’t get to see all the ones who are out there running around in the field playing like boys. I may not have been on the boat sitting next to my dad when Herschel died, but it may be more true to say that I was.