This is a continuation of Ryan’s Rollicking Recap – Part I.
We’ve found Grandma’s old necklace (glad; it was valuable). We’ve found the armoire, the old coins I collected as a kid. Blues Brothers poster? Ripped to shreds; no matter. Let us dig in the past a little more… see what we can find.
My Aitkin Back!
Fitting we were in Aitkin (pronounced ache – in), MN, still over 200 miles from the Twin Cities, and my back and forearms were achin’ like crazy. Phil and I were looking for our next big adventure with our next batch of cool people. Almost on cue: “Heeeyyyy, you guys want a beer!” Noooooo, we’re Christians! “Yes,” Phillip said. “Hell yes,” I said. Shelly and Jack (crap, it’s been so long now I hope I got that right, was it John? we’ll go with Jack for now, correct me if I’m wrong) had all 473 members of their family on the river bank. The quiet one, the loud one, the other one – a whole lotta ones. Jack cracks open a Bud Light, hands it to me. One of his sons cracks one open for Phillip. We drink long and slow.
Suddenly: “What the hell are you guys!” A drunk woman emerges from the woods. Her name is Shelly. “What’s your name?” I say. “Shelly,” she says but I hear “Sherry.”
“…we’re paddling down the Mississippi River.”
“Ooooohhhh, neato. You guys want a beer?”
We already have beers in our hands. They have a community sized tent set up. It houses 19,00 people. Kids start pouring out from every corner like ants. Some ask questions. Some don’t. Some tend to the 11 fishing poles they have set up on sticks along the river bank. Jack has massive hands and is cleaning a fish. “Neeeeeat, guyyyys,” he says. He has a voice that could put you to sleep – in a good way. A lullaby, a radio man’s voice. “You ever think about doing voiceover work?” Phillip asks. “What’s a voiceover?” he says.
Shelly stumbles into the picture but is remarkably poised. She is one of those who can control her drunk and is controling it well: “Ooooohhhhh shit,” she says. “You guys smell awful, ha ha ha ha.” She laughs. Jack quietly smiles and continues talking about the river and turtles and fish and whose boys are his, whose boys are Shelly’s, and whose are theirs. Like I said, all the kids were there. Shelly is not done. “Pfffft!” she says. “He don’t know half the kids I ain’t told him about, ha ha ha ha!” “You guys need showers,” Jack says. “There’s a hotel in town where you can pay 5 bucks; you get a hot tub…” Phil and I look at eachother and nearly die. “…You get showers, clean towels, there’s a TV…”
“Direct TV?” Phil says nearly falling over.
“Yeah, yeah, I think so.”
Phillp died right there. That’s what really happened. He’s not back in Nashville editing video; he died and we buried him in Aitkin.
“I think that sounds wonderful,” I say. Phillip has had 3 beers by this point; I have had one (I like to nurse). Shelly pipes up, “Look! I’m gonna take you to the hotel; you smell like ass, ha ha ha ha, an’ if you’re gonna camp here, you gotta smell nice like us, ha ha ha.” “Mom!” one of the little one pipes up, “eat a worm for ’em!” This could make good video, I think. I’ve heard of people eating worms, but decide to give Shelly a little encouragement via a challenge: “She doesn’t eat worms,” I tell the little one. “Ha!” she screams. “Where ar’ them crawlers!”
“No, nooooo,” I say. I’m half not wanting her to do it. I mean, I was just joking. Too late. The kids have brought a syrofoam cup full of live bait. Shelly takes an especially juicy one out. “Here goes,” she says.
“Aren’t you gonna clean, uh, er, wash it…” Slurp! Gone! Adios. She chews it a bit and washes it down with a Bud. (Yes, this is on camera.) “That was fuckin’ cool,” I say and slap her a high five. Phil is holding the camera smiling as the kids cheer. Jack is smiling quietly tying a new hook on a line a turtle chewed through. “I gotta pee,” I say. I trudge back into the woods. Right before I’m about to expose myself, I look down. Holy crap! I walk back. “Uhhhhh, Jack, there’s uh…”
“There’s, uh, these like, I think they’re turtles with…”
“Their heads chopped off?”
“Yeah we caught them today. You can’t really throw those back, so you kill ’em.” Where are the heads? I think but I don’t ask.
“Can you eat ’em?” I ask.
“No. Well, yes. We gotta guy who makes turtle soup, best soup in the world. He starves them in fresh water for a week to get all the sand out of their system. Then the meat tastes kind of good. You have to load it up with other stuff though. “Oh,” I say still wondering where the heads are.
“You guys ready to gooo!” Shelly yells. She’s already in the truck waiting to take us to the hotel where there will be hot tubs and babes and showers and chocolate and action films and rocketships. Phil and I run to get our shampoo and run to the truck. Shelly is drunk (I think we’ll wait till the statute of limitations has run out before premiering the movie :)) but, I think, is hamming it up for us as she revs the engine. Despite the levity, Phillip and I still a bit scared. Then, she gets scared, not of her ability to drive with chemicals in her system but of something else. She exits quietly. Two seconds later she and two of her boys get in. Ahhhhhhh, I think. I’m a killer again! I chat with the boys. Phillip turns to me and says under his breath, “We’re not makin’ it to the hotel. No hot tub for you.”
“Huh? What do you mean?” I ask.
“Hey!” Shelly says. “What’re’you guys sayin’ back there?”
“We’re talking about how beautiful you are.”
“Oh.” She smiles and is flattered though she knows I’m joking.
Phil continues,”I’m tellin’ ya.”
“Just, have faith in people. She knows we’re tired and dirty and want showers. We’ll…”
“Hey!” Shelly shouts again, her car a little too close to the center line. “We needa go to the bar first.”
Crap, I think. “Told ya,” Phillip says. I deflate like a baloon. Shelly has decided to show us the town of Aitkin with its one stoplight. “This is Aitkin’s one stoplight,” she says. “Um,” I try, “can we see the hotel?”
“Yeaaah! But what do you want to go there for?” She rips the steering wheel around and flips a U-ey in the middle of the street. “This is the library!” “Um,” I try again. “And this,” she says is the liquor store. “Let’s go in!” I turn to Phillip: “We ain’t gettin’ showers.”
“Told ya. ;)”
I resign myself to the fact that we are going to have to be at the whim of a drunk person. This, as most of you know, is never fun. They are irrational, irrascible, while being too fun and innocently stupid for you to be able to do anything about it. After the liquor store, we go to the bar. The image of Sports Center, doughnuts, coffee, Direct TV, hot tubs, showers, and clean clean soap fades like the aurora borealis. “Hum,” I say. “Let’s get drunk.”
I don’t get drunk, but Phillip does. Shelly’s older son is buying him pitchers of beer and chatting with him about life. “Duuuudddeee,” he says, “it’s like, it’s like this is life! You know? This, me you and everything is life, us running into you is life, and this, all this, is life!” Phillip and drunk son cheer glasses. Shelly is talking to an old man who looks like Santa Claus. Santa Claus, however, is anything but nice; in fact, he’s rather naughty. “Well, I would do that,” he tells Shelly, “if my tallywacker worked like it used too.”
“You don’t even have a tallywacker,” Shelly says with her arm around him.
“Well you’re aunt sure knows I do.” Shelly’s uncle-in-law, I think.
“Yeah but she probably bit it off, the old hag.”
I turn the camera on but Santa Claus is too smart. He turns immediately stoic and well-behaved once he knows he’s being filmed. I get him to tell me that he drives a truck for a living, that the Santa Claus look was intentional, and that Shelly’s brother is doing the siding on his house. That’s it.
“Can I get you to say ‘tallywacker’ one more time for the camera?”
“Nope,” he says. “Tallywacker!” he shouts when the camera’s off. Bastard.
Back in the car I’m holding out faint hope for actually being dropped off at the hotel where I’m sure Michael Jackson (before he died) and Robert Earl Keen are playing a duet while chicks in bikinis make you root beer floats and banana splits. “Sherry, um…”
“Shelly!” she shouts.
“Oh crap, I’m sorry, you’re name is Shelly?”
Phillip has given up on the shower long ago and is still chatting with “this is life!” son. Phil even adds, “Like dude, I know, like, this, like this… is life!”
“Shelly,” I try… One last time for the gipper! “Can we…” she’s listening now. She has beer for Jack, beer for her friends who will be joining the group once they get off work. If I ask her to turn around now, then we’ll have to coordinate getting a ride back. She has a look of extreme contentment in her eyes, and I know I can’t ask her to turn back. “Nothing,” I say. “Thanks for taking me to the bar.” “No problem!” she says smiling.
At the campsite three more families have joined us. “See those two real young kids?” Jack says cracking open a new beer for me. “Shelly and I pretty much take care of them. Their mother killed herself right before Christmas and those kids found her body at home. Their dad is a real deadbeat.” I look at the kids. They seem okay. The boy comes over and hands me a flower. “Will you take this to New Ord-lins?” “Yes,” I say and put it in my hair. “Ha ha ha ha,” he starts laughing. “Don’ do dat! Ha ha ha ha!” “Why not?” I ask laughing. “Ha ha ha ha ha,” he says and runs off to play. Had Jack not said anything, I never would have seen him as a traumatized child. Maybe he’s not. Maybe giving a stranger a flower is more representative who he really is than witnessing a horrible death. Maybe that kid is okay. I drink again.
I’m hungry now. I have not showered – okay I can take that. I have not hot-tubbed – okay, that’s fine. But take my foooood away????? Back off lest ye die! “I’m hungry,” I tell Jack.
“Oh, well, we’ve got all the fish we caught in those buckets. We’ll probably have a fish fry in about an hour or two.” How ’bout a minute or two? I think. “You’ve never had anything till you’ve had fresh fish,” Jack says. “I mean fresh fish, or eggs from a farm, a freshly picked apple; it’s all just so…” My mouth is watering. Is this man the devil??? “…It’s the best. I remeber this one time we fried up walleye. These aren’t walleye; they’re smallmouth, but they’re gonna be good; just wait…” Waaaaaaiiiiiitttt?????? AAAAARRRRGGGHH!!! I consider eating his head. “And,” he continues and then stops. “You’re hungry now, aren’t you?” Wow, I think. This gentleman, this stranger with a melodic Minneota accent, who could have been Andy Griffith if he didn’t elongate his “ooooooo”s and say “aaaaan” instead of “on” perceived my need. What a great guy. “I really am, Jack,” I say.
“No problem. Hey kids!” he whistles. “We’re gonna fry up the bass now!” “Yayyyy!” they shout. “Yaaaayy, rrrrggmmmearardhhskjkssjaaaarrrrrrmm,” my stomach shouts.
Jack deftly cleans and cuts the fish. I was surprised to see that only 30% or so of the fish is edible. Two-thirds of that baby is goin’ in the water. (No wonder so many turtles were haning around.) “Can I try?” I ask.
“Sure,” he says. “You ever done this before?”
“When I was really young. We’ll see how much I can remember.” Jack chucks the “leftovers” of the last cut fish and hands me a new one. “Just direct me,” I say.
“Okay, just take the knife… good. And you’re gonna put it. Okay that’s too close. Move back…” I stick the knife in and am cutting. Ewwwwww, I think. “Look, bastard,” my stomach says, “the sooner you cut these guts up, the sooner we can eat!” My stomach wins out and I rip through the flesh like a surgeon.
“Yeah, you kinda missed a good chunk there,” Jack says. I turn the fish over and do much better on the right flank. I’m just about to go back to the left flank when Jack grabs it and chucks the mess into the water. “Plenty of fish,” he says. “Let’s eat.”
Jack cuts the steaks up into cutlets. He then breads them and places them in a deep frier filled with oil. He puts it on the fire and the sizzle and smell of fish is everywhere – ffffffffrrrgggggzzzzzzshhhhhh! “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god!” I’m so freaking excited. The kids have gathered around like vultures. I will personally buzz-saw the first person who tries to take my fish! I think. “Why don’t one of you kids go first?” I say. “Nooooo, you’re the guest!” they say. I look at Phil. As you may have learned from a previous post, he’s a vegetarian. “Gonna take a crack at some fish, Phil?” I say. His eyes tell me the answer; he’s as hungry as I am. “Ha ha ha ha,” I laugh out loud.
I pop the first chunk of fish meat into my mouth which explodes in drunken celebration of goodness. It’s the best f—ing thing I’ve ever had in my life. Phillip is munching on his breaded chunks of flesh like popcorn. I take a second helping. Candor and social conditioning are the only thing that save me from taking a third. “You want some more, don’t ya?” one of the friends says. “Yes!” I say. “But I’m good. I’m glad everyone got some.” And that, I think, is what makes us human. We are not dogs fighting over a piece of meat. Though I joke it was only the memory of my mom slapping my hand every time I tried to take more than my share, that it was only my socialization that kept me from taking more and more; I know that is not the whole story. I look around. People are happy. This was community. This was people… together, eating, frying, fishing, just being. I had 3 breaded cutlets left on my paper towel. The kid who gave me the flower was dancing around. “You want some?” I said. “Nope, I want one!” He grabs one and pops it into his mouth. “Now you eat two, ha ha ha ha!” He dances off. I felt good now. I was still a bit hungry, so I retained that hunger for myself. This hunger, I said to myself, is mine. It means we are homo-sapiens. It means we are people; we can but we don’t lie, cheat, and steal food from children because… we choose not to. I was glad I was hungry now, still hungry when I went to bed. Hunger would be my bedfellow. It would remind me of the goodness of people like Jack and Shelly and everyone who had given us something along the way. It would remind me that I too have that capacity – the capacity to share.
I walked past the headless snapping turtles to pitch my tent. Phil pitched his tent 100 feet away. “Looks like it’s you and me tonight,” I said. Fuckers didn’t even respond! Ruuuuu-uuuuude! As I was dozing off, I was content that I had gotten to eat, gotten to fish, and gotten to spend time with our new friends in Aitkin. Suddenly, cutting through the shadows, I heard a voice: “Hey, Phil, Ryyyaannn… Youuuu guyzzz still wanna go to the hotel?”
Present Location: Clinton, IA
I’m going to have my Davenport relatives pick me up somewhere between here and Davenport tonight. Yes it’s cheating, but if you don’t like it, grab a paddle and show me how it’s done! Davenport is a big milestone. Thanks to my ex-boss in London, Jess Greatwich, for the shout out via voicemail! I got it! Anyone else who wants a shizzle izzle: (512) 828 2471