We stayed at the motel that night, and the night after. I slept through the night, curled next to Billy, the kids sharing a bed, got up, had another shower. And another. And another. I turned on the TV and put up with the glares and watched travel channel mindlessness, pawn shops, hot rods, Guy Fieri eating junk and some determined guys sifting through junk trying to hit gold and turn a buck. The next day I felt like I might live, so we pitched into the camper, cold late spring Minnesotan air hitting us hard, right in our west coast namby pamby lungs. I purchased three hats, three pairs of gloves and tucked a blanket over the kids’ laps as we drove. It was cold, bright but cold. Billy was telling me about humidity in the summer, horror stories of mosquitos the size of plates that sucked your blood until you required a transfusion, and wistfully remembering the Fergus Falls of his youth. We camped at Lightning Lake. As long as the North Dakotan homogenous landscape goes on and on, it ends as just as suddenly as it starts, the land gets a bump and a hillock, then fast opens into lake after lake after lake. Water everywhere, large and small, inventively named. Little Cut Foot Sioux. Lightning. Leech. Lake of the Woods. Ottertail. Burnt Shanty. Little Sugar Bush. Whiteface. Lakes and tall healthy looking trees, and a lush, green wet explosion of vegetation. The people were a open, kind, friendly bunch – far different to the standoffish coolness of Oregon. Lightning Lake was primitive and mostly empty, though thankfully the camping was seriously cheap and on an honor system: you paid when you left town, at the local bank that was staffed by two elderly ladies who gave me an envelope to hand the money back to them, that they then opened in front of me, and issued a receipt. Polite futility and curiosity.
This is the thing, I know what it is like to be pre-judged, and these small towns with their small town hospitality and their small toan midwestern manners might not be the most sophisticated people you have ever met, but when they ask you where you are from, it is generally not to chase you out of town, or insist you speak English to your children, nor ask for their genetic heritage. I found out pretty fast, in Minnesota people have the decency to be polite to your face, at least for the most part, and will only stab you in the back once they are sure you can’t pin it on them personally, and for that I was grateful. Manners still have value, they still are the grease by which society runs along. I’m sure it doesn’t work quite so smoothly in the cities, and the vehemence of the pro-Trump sentiment in the small towns horrified me, giving full rein to petty dangerous prejudices and culminating in that terrible summer where hatred and brutality bubbled over into horrific murder. The only state I ever felt my children might actually be in danger was Idaho, in the southern portion, confederate flags and ultra right wing affiliations flying high in the site next to ours, I dragged them back into the trailer and demanded we just go straight to Oregon. Free speech be damned, those flags are a threat and a promise of trouble and I was not messing with it.
On Lightning Lake the boats had started to come out, people fishing like all good Minnesotans do once it thaws. Thinking about it, the ice and the freeze doesn’t actually stop the fishing. I never knew such a thing as ice fishing existed before I met Minnesota and their excuse for a drunken winter party on the frozen lakes with their ice castles – little trailers with a hole you can unplug to let a line into a hole that is auger-ed through the ice. These ice castles are basically winterized RV’s, some of them the height of luxury. I pulled the old fishing tackle box from under the RV, and started to clean it out, rotting old bait, filthy lures, poisonous and barbed, a mess of fishing line, a spare reel. I caught my hand on the metal hinge and feared I might well have caught lockjaw or some other blood-borne disaster. Pulling out the old rods, and fixing the reel as best I could, I walked to the lake, minus a fishing license, putting the line in my son’s hand. I was pretty sure he was too young to need one. We practiced casting a line onto dry land, before I sat with him on the banks and sat catching nothing. The next morning insects filled the air, buzzing around dangerously, then the air force arrived, purple martins by the hundreds, huge flocks converging for an opening spring time feast, not one of them hitting another in midair, some preternatural display of wild sonar and navigation, darting between each other like fighter jets, not slowing, not landing, not pausing, just eating in mid air. The sky blue against the their dark bodies, shadows cast onto the day, filling the space with the sounds of wings and buzzing and swooping and hunting. It was masterful. It also told me that Billy was not entirely spinning tall tales. I had a few weak bites already, the air thick with gnats and no-see-ums and mossies, but it was nothing. Walking in the tall grass of an overgrown baseball diamond Billy and I held hands, like the two twin stars we once were. He looked peaceful, calm. We chatted about Che Guevara and fishing lures, we talked about driving to the cemetery to visit his Grandma. We talked about the cold and the heat to come. We talked about the children. The same slow easy pace of conversation that we had fallen into over the years.
Driving up to Pelican Rapids, he pulled over and bought a bottle of rum. He drank it. He drank all of it. He sat in the campground and fell over, breaking his ribs. He scared me. He scared the kids. He insisted on walking to a McDonalds, then could not walk his way home, me carrying all 200 pounds of him, draped over my shoulder, dumb and unhelping, the kids scurrying on ahead, scared. He tipped onto the sidewalk again, the Boy catching his head. He was drunk, dead drunk. He was heavy far too heavy for me to help back to the campground. He was raging at nothing, spinning at windmills. I was not sure I could take any more. I started to call around to women’s shelters, seeing how to get to Minneapolis. I should have gone, I should have gone right then and there. Incontinent, uncaring, let me down, put me through hell when I had been trying to run away from it, bastard.
My heart was straining, struggling to keep me hauling him, my muscles ached. We got as far as Pelican Rapids bridge, when I just couldn’t. He would not move his legs, I had dragged him three miles, taking all his weight on my shoulders. A group of rough looking men were drinking by their campfire. I yelled over. They flashed a light my direction, it was dark by now, and asked me what I wanted. I asked if one of them would be able to help me carry him back to our camper. The guy introduced himself with some purely Finnish tag, and told Billy he would have to help himself, steadied him, and the prick started not leaning but walking! He started co operating. He helped this huge Finn by mostly taking his own weight. I wanted to drop him in a pile of dung and lock the door on him. I opened the door, let him into the camper, he turned around, walked out under his own steam, the Finn turned around and pushed him back in. I thanked him embarrassedly. Once into the trailer he started trying to cut my handbag off my shoulder with a sharp knife making me nervous as blade flashed against my neck, he got out his guns and started talking about jungles and tigers. He continued to do this until he collapsed demanding various people talk to him who didn’t want to. When he woke up he declared none of this had happened. Convenient blank out, baby. Every time.
I called his old friend, lets call him Aaron. I called him and told him Billy was drunk. “Oh no,” he declared breezily, “he can’t drink!” I told him I knew, and asked if he would mind coming over to the campground to help me with him. He hadn’t seen Billy for twenty five years. The last time he saw him he was driving him to a rehab. He was there in five minutes. The two of them were childhood friends, they had grown up together, school and church and parents were best friends kind of friends. Aaron had had a normal good kind of life. Billy had not. They were delighted to see each other again. There was no thank you to me for finding him and his phone number, tracking him down on my phones meagre internet, no recognition he had put me through hell, I felt like I had gone ten rounds with an ogre, and now dismissed. My input was not needed. I was superfluous. Billy informed me that we would be going to Aaron’s house for a few days, parking up the camper outside, but we would sleep in the house tonight. We drove over, the solenoid still not wanting to start up reliably, and pulled under a tree. There was a big red barn, and lake access, a nice house, and boats, and despite Billy risking me by taking weed across state lines, Aaron had a nice little row of pot plants hidden quietly in a shed. If I didn’t laugh, I would have cried. I don’t even smoke weed (well perhaps you should, I hear you say, I know, I know…I just really don’t like it, boring at best, nightmarish at worst). The two old friends hauled out guitars and amps and set up in the barn. I was dismissed. I bought some stuff to the barn for Billy, dragged in my guitar. They didn’t even think to invite me to plug in, I was told that he would “look after” him, and wished goodnight. Didn’t let me play with them. The boy’s club in full effect. I was sent to be with the children and his wife. My kids were sleeping, so I just sat there quietly feeling totally used and discounted. Thin strains of Secret Agent Man wound out from the barn. I was kinda glad not to be there.
His wife told me how lovely Billy’s ex wife was, how darling his (now adult and not far off my age) kids were, and how I would never be a patch on her. She told me how long suffering she was, and informed me quietly and firmly, that I was, in comparison, shit. She told me my kids were sleeping in HER house tonight, and me and Billy could sleep outside in the RV. I went calmly to the barn, unplugged Billy’s lead and told him we were going. I told Billy either he could come with me, or else I’d be getting a taxi and he would never ever see me again. I packed up the RV quietly. I was feeling silently furious. How dare he leave me with this. Get drunk, get dragged off, disrespected, hurt, and now this. Furious. Billy saw the way the wind was blowing and after a small argument in which he ascertained I had certainly had had enough, some vague attempt at smoothing things over, protests that old friends were coming to visit, we headed off down the road.
Minnesota was not getting off to a good start.