At 28, I made 16 grand teaching hundreds of kids as a first year teacher 20 minutes from my place in Minneapolis. I had a duplex with my sister, bought in ʼ84 at $86,000, and lived with two roommates where I slept in the attic. I rode a college 10-speed to work, grew kale, and cut a slender path through town at 145 pounds, my high point since 16.
On June 8th, 1989, the Sunday after school went out, after smart-ass and unruly Catholics made it plain I needed more training, it would be a stretch for me to think the world my oyster. That, in fact, with paint peeling on the duplex, a falling down porch, and temperatures ranging between 43 and 127 degrees in the attic, it was time to add a series of run-down buildings to my portfolio. Or that, on a pauperʼs salary, I could play a prince at real estate, convincing bankers and lawyers that, in fact, I was a man of means, credible and credit worthy despite the acne. And especially that morning, it would be a stretch to think my entire life balanced on a precipice of profound transformation. That every tiny step and choice that day would lead inexorably toward a chasm, a fall into fate so full and profound that the balance of my life could be spent pouring into it, minute by minute, all my energies, filling it, day after month after year, as long as I live.
But happily, mercifully really, that day 20 years ago wasnʼt about logic or reason or any of the careful Cartesian coordinates we know and expect going from point A to point B. It wasnʼt about numbers or appearances or practicality. And to this very moment, I am not sure what parallel universe, alternate reality or separate physical laws operated—but I know this: everything that happened mattered, every moment connected intricately to the next, each tiny thing conspired so the sum total of my hapless wanderings on Earth, even if I did nothing the rest of my born days, would allow me to say that, once, for one time at least, I experienced something akin to perfect grace. I was shown, in this one wild, precious life, which comes and goes too quick, how magic, intuition and spirit govern more than things we are certain we know for sure.
8:00 a.m. 3200 Block, Columbus Avenue, Minneapolis, Minnesota
An early start on a beautiful June morn. Iʼd finished most of a wine bottle the night before. I am at Katherineʼs house—my gal. We met at a 12-Step group in a local church. She liked to gab, care for cats and knew all the neighbors, and without her, there would be no magic. Sheʼs making sandwiches in the kitchen, putting a lunch together.
I step to my 1980 Chevy Citation—my car—to mount a bike rack. A couple of black kids are at the walk.
“Where are you going?”
“Oh, ah, weʼre headed out today.” The rack rigging is a mess. The other kid is confused. “Why?”
“Ah, we are… just going to look at land. Farm land. Woods. Lakes.”
“Because, we are, because there are some awfully nice places out there. You canʼt even imagine, with birds and frogs and creepy-crawly things, like snakes and lizards and worms.”
“Oouuhh.” One grimaces.
“I ate a worm once.” Says the other.
“So did I.”
“No, you didnʼt.” They shove a little.
“Where this place at?”
“Weʼre going to Wisconsin today. You know Wisconsin? That state.”
“Where ʻdat at?”
I point as I head back in. “Toward the sun. Just follow the sun.”
9:00 A.M. Western Wisconsin
Katherine is shotgun, reading David Sedaris. We exit the freeway 15 miles past the border and head north, sort of. I look fitfully every direction. A rumpled map in my lap adds preliminary notions: miss cities, hit blue routes. I wend back and forth, and at stop signs, check locations.
I did mention this was improvisational.
What I didnʼt mention was provenance. I grew up in cities in Minnesota, Indiana and Vermont, in neighborhoods with clean yards and square homes, where I played baseball, threw frisbee and liked being out-of-doors, especially woods. At one point, I camped in the Boundary Waters 17 straight years, but closest I ever got to country was helping my mother weed garden at a lake cottage near St. Cloud. In college, I read a ton of literature and philosophy, traveled abroad, kept journals—and no where, no where in any of that did I consider finding a piece of ground and staking a claim to be a more exemplary life than say, writing all day at a cafe.
That changed when I went to Guatemala in 1987, two years earlier and ended up writing at a cafe. Thatʼs how this whole damn thing started. The farm, friends, growing food—all of it really. It was a shaman town. Randy Hansen and I were back-packing the Gringo trail, through Chiapas to Panahachel and Santiago Atitlan, headed for the ruins at Tikal, where we ended one night on a Mayan temple singing folk songs with Aussies and Europeans while draining a bottle of Mezcal. I really have eaten a worm.
Shaman town was Chimaltenango, and it was not pretty. Frontier feeling, dirt roads, horses, cattle, dogs—lots of dogs and dirty children—bustling place. Randy had a friend in Antigua and took a bus to visit. I stayed behind, walking rutted roads, lunching at a cafe, reading and writing as a young me was want to do—working on answers without knowing the questions. Except this time, like lightning on a dark night, I got an answer—or really, a question—during an afternoon nap. Iʼve lost most details, as dreams do, but remember the feeling, how it stayed with me that trip, for months and years after, and led me to the one place that might hold my oversized thirst for being alive.
The gist of the dream was this: All the searching, all the fulminations at the bar of life, the fancy drinks, tapas, dessert—the ribaldry and gluttony of it all—what value is any of it without some kind of on-going grounding for it, like friends, like a home. What we really need is a place to laugh, party, sing, love, grow old and grieve together—thatʼs what we do. It hit me like a foundation stone dropped from a high Cathedral: unity was in finding a patch of ground that held everyone, that fed and could feed, a center to the only things that meant anything. Or everything.
This was the question. Why not get some land in the country? What else is there? Through the long journey of Western philosophy and Eastern wisdom, the Kama Sutra, common weal and Gay Nineties, Paris in the the Spring, Nirvana, Mecca, Machu Pichu… wherever you go, there you are, still needing friends, wanting good food, and seeking a place that holds them together, that binds love.
I woke up. It was a long nap, disorienting, even more because our room was a thin wall off one of the rutted alleys that passed for roads. While I dreamt, the train of Guatemala had been rolling by, on two legs and four, mud and flies and excrement. I felt unclean, worn out from travel, alone, even beaten, but, at least I had something, for once, after 18 years of education and a slog through adolescence to young adult. And that essential question lingered long enough, and felt rich enough, to search after back in the States.
9:30 a.m. 140th Street, St. Croix County, Wisconsin
“Here we are.” I cruise the Citation to a stop. I had pulled randomly into a drive, turns out to be an abandoned farm. There were a lot of them in 1989, the Reagan Recession, when 19% interest rates backed up by Sheriffʼs sales had scraped clean the Midwest of thousands of homesteads.
Katherine puts her book down, looks around. “Oh, brother.”
I “X” the map. “Weʼre here. 140th looks like the middle of nowhere.”
“Okay.” She steadies in. Katherine has a funny voice, clear, but clear to achieving a kind of maniacal humor, an under-intended irony—sometimes by accident, as if it were all a childlike wonder at the ridiculousness of life. She looks at me direct: “I need to pee.”
I work the bikes off. Up the drive comes a guy, maybe forty, unkempt, laboring on an old three-speed, looking for all the world like an outtake from Wizard of Oz before it hits technicolor.
“You looking to buy this place?” Heʼs out-of-breath.
I examine the wobbly barn, shaggy house, unmowed grass, and the paint-flecked pumphouse, a leaner.
“They want thirty thousand for it.”
“Huh?” I hunch.
He launches into how he wants to buy it, rent more land, another go at farming. He knows the owners, they have this uncertain relationship, thinks maybe they donʼt want him to have it. Heʼs gone bankrupt once, not his fault, wife had a cancer.
An idea forms that I took a wrong turn back somewhere.
“Well, weʼre just here to bike, you know, get off the road. We donʼt know anything about buying a farm.”
The man talks us through the readying of bikes, packing gear and locking up. Katherine is quiet for once, persevering at great personal turmoil, until, as we head down the drive, she turns back: “So, which way are you headed?” He points. “Well, thatʼs just odd, isnʼt it? Weʼre going this way. Have a great day.”
“When you be back?” But we donʼt hear him.
The first hour is a descent into country. A couple of deer break across the road and are visible a long minute, their hindquarters alternate between graceful leaps of white tail and muscular sprints to the far tree line. We pass small lakes, sparkling blue with June, geese and ducks dipping in waves. Barns and silos rise up, hills too, long furrows sprouting tiny corn and bean plants, hopeful of summer; then they all disappear into scattered woodlots, another pond, some pasture-land.
Our route is a structured zig-zag within random, what looks good, north, now east again, all in a maze of green. The map is in the gear-bag. And in truth, at that point, out of the hustle of city life, of teaching and bells and hallways, free and young to enjoy it, it felt perfect, the ultimate release into summer, where nothing about time or schedule applied.
11:30 a.m. County Road C, Town of Alden, Polk County, Wisconsin
“Look at that sign.” A silvery steel fence comes into view surrounding a cemetery. “Wagon Landing.” Katherine says flat. Without a decision, we turn in. There are rows of headstones, not in great shape, with overgrown lilacs, long grass and forest edges pressing in.
“Mavis Dalrymple. Huh? And two children, didnʼt even get six years old.” Katherine is working on headstones. “1889. Exactly a hundred years ago. Born in England.”
I stick my nose into a wreath of bridal veil. It is summer. Again. I hold my face to the sun. Warm. Itʼs one time of year where, if I close my eyes and just feel the sun while a distant plane drones, I cascade down an elevator shaft of memory and can step out on any floor of my life—three, nine, twenty-two—with no sense of being older or younger or different, just alive, right now, as if on a beam of light.
We walk in different parts of the cemetery, holding water bottles like alums at a reunion. Then I get out the frisbee and we throw, long toss, running in uncut grass, the wind carrying the disc up high, way over there. Laughing after another. We sweat, then find a path down to a lake, wade in water, I strip and swim, then step gently through poison ivy back up. We muse over more headstones, elaborate about frontier life, childbirth, what takes a man at 49—losing all sense of being tethered to the year of our Lord 1989.
It was only later I come to discover that Edmund Gove, the man who first came to Wagon Landing in 1857 from New Hampshire, before there were towns or roads or churches, and later built a very sturdy log home and mill along the Apple River, not far away, was quietly resting that day, under our feet, where we ran and laughed and played as if nothing mattered but sheer joy.
3:00 p.m. County Road F, Deronda, Wisconsin
“Peter, Iʼm hungry. Iʼm starting to shake.” This was well-known with Katherine and required immediate attention. Her metabolism was set with a trip-wire, a central nervous system that could rage out of control and kick out pieces of raw emotion, chewing up her equilibrium like a tire shredder—with implications for everything from getting back to town to the viability of our relationship.
“Here. Letʼs eat on these steps.” Thereʼs a church, I pull in. The sun is burning, no shade or place to relax. And, of course, Jesus is looking down at us. Katherine demurs. Another thing about hunger: hard to make decisions.
“Letʼs ask in here.” I point to a wobbly building at the corner, low-slung on a dirt pull off. “Live Bait—Minnows, Crawlers.” To this day, I donʼt understand why or how a bait-shop existed there, with no lake or local fishing. But it was, and that matters as much to me now as anything.
I ask a guy in there if there were a park nearby. He shakes his head. I explain that we want to picnic, maybe find some water. Any lakes? Boat landing maybe? “Nope” He couldnʼt think of nothing. I put a candy bar down, pay, then open the door. “There is one place.” An after-thought on his part. “Yeah?” He explains, shows on the map. Three miles yet. A little park, not really a park, a pull-off, site of an old dam, people fish there sometimes. On the river, in Little Falls. “They keep a table there. Probably in shade by now.”
Katherine and I sit on ramparts from an old dam, busted cement chunks strung with iron. The water is low. Been a dry year. Very dry. Again. Year before, ʼ88, 37 days above 90, no rain. Looks like a re-run at this point. But, sandwiches are good, and Katherineʼs blood sugar is making a come back from needing to bludgeon someone with a dull object. How she agreed to push on, biking up some pretty fine hills, is one of those mysteries that have, against all odds, shaped me even more than my best conscious decisions.
From where we sit, with water passing all sides, I can see up under the branches of some fir trees to a quaint looking cabin, white with a green roof and trim, cute like a painting of someplace in Iowa.
“Look at that. How idyllic. Right on the river.” Katherine swishes her hands in the water, looking at tiny fish. We talk about our future lives, whether to go on with teaching, and if so, where and how.
Later, we lolly-gag along the river. Thereʼs an old bridge downstream. A general store on the road; closed now. The town is forgotten, or just ignored: some houses, hills leading away, a place left behind on one of Americaʼs spurts into affluence. But, there is a riverʼs steady wash running through it, and it has a quiet dignity, steeped in history.
Weʼre a good twelve miles from the car, maybe fifteen, and though Juneʼs days are long and our bodies strong, itʼs time to head out. We mount up, our butts sore, cross the bridge upstream and I look left. Thereʼs a dirt road running back, fully canopied, curves at the top. Somehow, and strangely, itʼs not just a road to me, but more like an invitation. In my imagination, a small seed has already germinated, years ago, and I am merely the outward growth of it, reaching up through me toward a thing I can only sense as being bright and warm, as basic as sun. I think to myself: This leads to that place on the river.
“Hey, letʼs go up this road Katherine.”
“Letʼs just, you know, I want to see what this place looks like. That little farm across.” She makes a frown, stops and looks. I roll up the drive, get to the top of the yard. Pretty all right. A red barn stands tall in the middle, a second small red barn, an old but proud white building to match the white tin on the house. All of it manicured like a golf course and nothing in the yard. No lawn chairs, cars, no nothing. Katherine is still out by the road. I wave my arm.
She rides up. “Look at this place.” I say admiringly. Katherine grew up in Bloomer, sixty miles east, so this is not something unique in her panoply of human experience. “Nice” she nods.
“Do you think we should look in the window? Maybe itʼs empty.” Then I consider more carefully: The thought of someone being in there as we cup our hands to the glass is the kind of impropriety that gets people shot dead.
“No. No. Peter, we need to get going. Really, this is enough already.” She does a wiping motion with her hand—meaning “done”—and inches forward on her bike. Itʼs true, afternoon is lagging. I turn around. But then, for some reason, probably because I know I will never have this chance again, I push to the cabin and press my face at the old storm window.
“Hey, Katherine, itʼs empty. No furniture or anything.” Katherine gives me one of her patented “Huhs?”
“I wonder whatʼs going on?” Still no response. “Do you think? Maybe the place is up for sale or something?”
“Yeah, maybe. But, no oneʼs home, right?” She hopes thatʼs a clinching point. I survey the yard. “How much land? All right on the river.” Katherine seems uninterested. “Do you even remember lunch?” Katherine is on her bike, heading down the drive, but I think I detect her spine loosen just a little. I give it a last look and follow after. She pauses for a car and I catch her.
“What if we ask at the neighborʼs?”
“You know, place is empty, whatʼs going on, that kind of thing.”
“Peter. Itʼs like 5:30 already…”
“Just one stop. One question. Less than a minute.”
I ride to the corner as Katherine waits at the road. A lady answers. Yes, she tells me, thatʼs the old Route place. The man died in April. Auction there last weekend, believes the house sold, at least thinks so, but if I want to know for sure, I have to ask Joyce Anderson at the stucco house across the river. Sheʼd know.
Katherine grudgingly, but now somewhat affably, follows me back across the bridge. At least there are other people involved now. Another lady answers, Joyce, invites us in, but we just talk from the doorway of the large stucco house. I refine my story a little: looking for a nice farm, sure fits the bill, wondering if that Route place is available.
“Well” Joyce says, “I didnʼt see Arnie and Evelyn at church this morning but maybe theyʼre home by now. Let me give them a call.” She disappears, then, after a hard minute, comes back to announce. “Yeah, theyʼll be down to show you the place in about 10 minutes.”
My head swells so fast my eyes bug out. Even Katherineʼs voice achieves an extra level of engagement as we thank off and walk bikes across the river to wait at the drive. A few minutes, an elderly couple emerge from a burgundy sedan. Arnie has thin air, brushed over the top and big round glasses. Evelyn looks pretty much the same but more hair. Both are thick-boned and slightly stooped. They start in on their stories: August Route was Evelynʼs father, died at 103, right here at home, retired since 1940, had been a local merchant, married to Clara who had grown up in this house as a young girl, the two of them loved animals and used to feed them by hand, Clara gathered herbs and made remedies, August caretook at the Little Falls Church.
Then they opened the house, which took a skeleton key, revealing a series of tiny doorways, boxed in and finished in every room like a miniature doll house. Evelyn has inherited and is selling it through the estate. Itʼs old, a frontier cabin, and smells of it, used in early days as a logging camp, a mill house, a church, a school–then a series of farm families lived there and kept it from falling apart. Clara did sewing and had dolls upstairs, Augustʼs bedroom had been on the main floor.
As I walk around, it feels like 1940, buffalo board walls, painted woodwork and dreary windows. The kitchen is tiny with an electric stove jammed against a wall, painted cabinets throughout and cracked vinyl flooring. The floors are wavy in spots, a space heater dominates the dining room, stairs run up through the tiny kitchen.
But, none of this matters. I donʼt even give the house a thought. Iʼm totally intoxicated by the land. The river can be heard washing in the distance, there are purple flox in bloom. A grass road runs on the high ground along the river into what Arnie refers to as the “Park”, a flat terrace just above the water, where couples would sit at the picnic table, throw horseshoes and drink beer.
Arnie shows me the well, and the septic, which is not up to modern standards. Evelyn and Katherine stand to one side and chat about flowers and sewing and odd neighbors. Arnie takes me into the house once more, to a back closet, flicks on a light bulb and points at the darkish walls. “This house here is made of log. Those are hand-hewn boy.” I reach and touch this kind of oily, uneven surface. Logs alright, ancient ones.
I turn to him at a certain point and exclaim, “Wow, a place like this, right on the river, all these buildings and history… this must be worth, what? $75,000?”
“Oh no, no man. Not even close.” He chuckles happily to himself, and I prepare to have my fantasy of finding a country place crushed. “Not that much. Not around here. Weʼd be happy if we can get $30,000 for it.”
“Really?” My mind expands outward like the plume from a massive explosion, and for the first time, rather than just holding on to part of a crazy, far-off dream, I think to myself. ʻThis is actually doable. This whole crazy day has arranged itself so that … ʻ I canʼt even finish the thought.
Katherine and I huff our way back to the Citation, barely able to contain ourselves. Iʼm going through financing scenarios—how I can get some dough in a hurry. Katherine talks glowingly of being able to use the cabin as a writing retreat, maybe even teach workshops.
We get up the drive and on the dust of the Citationʼs back window, someone has scrawled “Stay out!” The hairs go up on my neck, and we load and start to pull out. Sudden like, a Cadillac pulls in tight up to us. Husband and wife. Owners. Their window comes down. They look at us with concern, the lady tilting her head to see. They live down the road, good and decent people who just want to know whatʼs going on. Katherine assures them how normal we are, breaks out her Wisconsin brogue. And we end up discussing their farm, the kind of talky guy who bothers them about it, and how farming is these days, namely, poor. Lots of empty places and people just getting by.
We nod. Then we back out and drive straight to Little Falls, ostensibly to measure mileage to Minneapolis, but also because, at that point, I really needed to know that what happened to us wasnʼt just a dream. We put it at sixty-two miles into Minneapolis that night. The farm was still there. It was real. And a real wing and a prayer.
July 12th, Minneapolis, Minnesota
I walk into my apartment in Minneapolis around 5:00 p.m., just home from North Americaʼs largest Folk Festival in Winnipeg. I canʼt remember if it was the year that Mojo Nixon had 20,000 people chanting “Nancy Reagan sucks donkey dicks” as he stood atop the speaker tower or whether it was the time the Park Police stormed Pope Hill with tear gas because revelers were conducting a drunken hootenanny, but no doubt I was exhausted from five days in prairie sun and nights of dawn too soon. There was a long, carefully composed message in the phone log from my roommate David Lieberman. Very well-written. David did teach workshops. The gist was that Evelyn Olson had called from Wisconsin and wanted to sell the farm to me, as soon as possible.
I rubbed my blurry eyes and read it a second time. My heart came up to my throat like it had been struck with a mallet at a circus booth. “Oh. My. Fucking. God!” I yipped and hollered, jumped up and down, and punched pillows for about ten minutes. “I got it! I got it! I got it!” Then calming myself, sat down and thought. “How the hell am I going to pull this off?”
I was not a wealthy man, three years removed from swallowing a duplex mortgage and still owing on college loans. My salary was crap. On paper I had some retirement funds somewhere and I had two roommates renting, but I was not a red carpet bank customer by any means.
Since that day in June, I had been playing a pretty good hand of poker, given a lack of face cards. I had been back to visit the farm with Arnie and Evelyn—and Katherine worked really hard to “bond” with their Wisconsin-ness; talked to a banker in Amery about prospects for a loan—securing a letter of credit; made one low-ball bid on the place to the estate attorney—figured out there was one other bidder out there who was requiring a $2,500 boundary survey; waited until the last possible day, then submitted my top offer of $31,000—making it clear I would buy the place “as is” with no survey or any other requirements of the seller.
Liebermanʼs note made clear that Evelyn wanted to sell, but, there was the estate attorney involved, another bidder, and that they wanted me to act quickly. I called Nick, a college buddy working as a realtor in Minneapolis, and he told me how to do it: drive to Wisconsin, get the Olsons, go directly to the lawyerʼs office, and have the Olsons tell him they want to sell to me. Then have the lawyer draw up a Purchase Agreement. Not a complicated process. Should be a snap.
Wednesday, July 14th, Amery, Wisconsin Law Office of Cwayna and Burns
The Olsonʼs red Buick pulls to a stop on Ameryʼs main street and four of us shuttle into an office building. Katherine and I are considerably out-dressed, but what we lack in style we make up with cheerfulness. After a wait, weʼre ushered into some padded chairs behind a door marked Attorney Michael S. Cwayna. Turns out heʼs a former County Judge and highly respected: graying temples, a nice suit—the epitome of a small-town king-maker. “Drinks?” He offers; we decline. He helps himself to a decanter on a credenza in front of some windows. He muses about traffic in town this year, how dangerous driving is getting to be, all the drunks. Some terrible accidents.
Without much prompting, he sits down and launches into a story, a long one, about a dear friendʼs young daughter. How she grew up in Amery, all the awards she won in high school, off to college on a scholarship, highly successful graduate, then working at a law firm in Colorado, just got engaged, very athletic, more beautiful than ever, and what a dear, dear family and friends they have been over so many decades. Twenty minutes on, the story reaches its apex at a railroad crossing somewhere in Minnesota, alcohol involved, the girl gets killed, the dear friendʼs family devastated. Cwayna pulls a silken kerchief from his suit pocket and dabs at his eyes. The Olsons are straightbacked in their chairs.
“So, we are here to talk about the Route Property in Little Falls, that cute little farm along the Apple River, just a neat, neat place. Is that right?” He recomposes quickly.
We nod. He picks up my last offer, sent in June, reads it silently. Then picks up another piece of paper next to it and punches a button on his phone. “Jane, get me Dale on the line, please.”
“Mr. and Mrs. Olson, Mr. Henry has a decent offer here, as far as it goes, but, thereʼs a gentleman in Clear Lake who is also bidding on the property. So, what we are going to do is conduct a kind of phone auction, you know how auctions run, where each bidder can hear the other, and then weʼll see what your property goes for.”
“What….?” I stammer. The bank letter on his desk states I am good for $25,000 and even that had been a stretch. Katherine had pretty much emptied her account into mine to build me up as a loan candidate. A voice breaks into the room over a speaker, “Dale, on the phone, sir.”
Cwayna brings him up. “Dale, do you hear me?” A muffled yes comes into the room. “Weʼre sitting in my office here in Amery, Mr. and Mrs. Olson, owners of the property you wish to purchase are here and there is a Mr. Henry, and…” he pauses and looks bothered “was it Karen?”
“Katherine.” She is not pleased.
“What weʼre going to do to start the bidding for the Route Farm in Little Falls is choose the highest bid price received so far, $31,000, that by Mr. Henry, and Iʼll give you each a minute to think about it, and weʼll see who is willing to come up with the highest price. Does each party understand the terms of the sale process?”
I look wide-eyed at the Olsons, but they are docile and compliant as if under a spell. Katherineʼs voice cuts in to the room with child-like simplicity. “Wait a minute. This is not my understanding of what we were going to do here today. Arnie, Evelyn, is this what you understood we were going to do today?”
Arnie pipes up. “No. Fact is, we want to sell to Henry here.” Cwaynaʼs eyebrows screw up into a tangle, and he reaches for his temples.
“Dale. Dale. Hold on just a second.” He snaps a couple of buttons on the phone, asks the Olsonʼs if they understand they could get more money for the property, maybe a lot more. Arnie repeats his line: “Weʼd just prefer that Henry here gets it.”
Cwayna leans back in the chair and picks up my offer. “So, Mr. Henry how are you proposing to pay for this.” I tell him that, as the letter says, the bank will be giving me a mortgage for $25,000 and that, my down payment will cover the balance. I no sooner say the word ʻmortgageʼ than Cwayna jumps on it like a weak alibi at a murder trial. “Did you hear that Mr. and Mrs. Olson, Mr. Henry is proposing to pay by mortgage. Thatʼs not the same as cash. We clearly stipulated the buyer is to pay with cash only.”
“A mortgage is cash.” I say incredulous. “The sellers get cash at closing. The bank pays them.”
“Thatʼs it. Mr. Henry, Karen, I want you in the lobby please. This is a privileged conversation with my clients.” Cwayna stands and opens the door. Katherine and I smile politely, fairly biting our tongues and take seats outside. Now, Iʼve had some moments in life, times when I could barely stand to be the person inside my skin, times when I would give anything to be someone somewhere else because of excruciating pain. But few rank higher in sheer irritation, anxiety or flat out anger than sitting outside Cwaynaʼs office knowing he was in there, using every trick and half-truth, trying to snake-oil the Olsons out of selling me the farm.
The door re-opens after fifteen minutes and the Olsonʼs look exactly as before. Straight and proper and resolute, not a hair has moved. Katherine and I sit down, anxious for a sign. Cwayna renews his line of questioning, looking for cracks to get his bony fingers into and pry the farm away: whose signature on the bank approval? what about earnest money? proposed closing date? who to pay closing costs? was it going to be a rental property? what about insurance? I had answers, and the Olsonʼs never stirred. As my credibility firmed, Cwaynaʼs bluster diminished. He tapped a pencil against his hand, wandered into discussions about sports, fishing, the weather. Eventually, a document sailed in from the secretary, a Purchase Agreement. Figures got inserted, signatures fit on appropriate lines. Later, at the door, Cwayna softened and came in all confidential, his job and billing pretty much having run their course, “You know, thatʼs a place where, if you put up the houses, there will have bluebirds down there like nobodyʼs business. I mean lots of them. You like bluebirds, Peter?”
August 8th, 1989, First National Bank of Amery
A big beautiful sunny August afternoon. Still summer vacation, but now, itʼs closing day on the farm, and I am weeks from being a second-year teacher. Katherine and I are better dressed, but, there is no drama, nor surprises, except that Arnie and Evelyn take us to the dining room at Wayneʼs Lounge and pay for our meal. Prime rib. Really big.
Hadnʼt had one in years. And, all the old stories of the farm come spilling out over a bottle of wine. Evelyn adopted at a year and a half, growing up in Little Falls. Only child. Clara couldnʼt bear children as a result of polio but kept a notebook of plants and cures and tinctures, made dioramas of the property using moss and tiny twigs for trees. And, made a full-scale replica of the church with a lift-off roof and hand-sewed every congregant as a doll, with the minister at the lectern. She mounted pictures of wild mushrooms and varnished them to the cupboard doors in the kitchen with little hand-typed labels of their common and scientific names.
August, well Arnie said, ʻheʼd split a wiener on youʼ. Meaning, as a merchant, if you paid for a pound of hot dogs and it ran a little over, heʼd take a clever and cut that last one in half. He fed chipmunks and deer by hand, rang the church bell Sunday mornings and swept the sanctuary clean after everyone left.
We laughed. We even cried. At least Evelyn and Katherine did. And the Olsons were happy for us, understood they could come back and visit any time.
And they did, except Arnie had a heart bypass in St. Paul in 1990 and didnʼt make it home. Evelyn remarried and visited many times with her new husband, Merlin, but heʼs dead now too, and she went blind last fall and lived in the home in Amery for awhile before passing on herself.
Time has moved on, and how. And so has the farm, rolling in change, gracefully and gradually, but sometimes in giant lurches of pain and transformation, fires consuming whole buildings, and work parties where a veritable army of amateurs finish an entire project in a single day. The farm has filled with stories, and people who tell and remember them, just as imagined all those years ago.
I stayed at the farm seven straight days that August, cleaned out buildings, burned things like the 1940s Wheaties cartons—nailed to the ceiling of the chicken coop soon to be a sauna, cut down scraggly trees, busted out cow stanchions. Worked for a week, ignoring the outside world, the Sabbath, even rules for basic hygiene. And, when dirty, cleaned up by swimming in the river. It was 10 years before I spent such a long chunk of time there again.
I didnʼt know what I had, or where it would lead, or whether I could even make the mortgage payment, but every couple hours, I remember distinct, I would come out from some dusty interior, take the dirty cotton mask off and look blankly to the sky as if unsure where I was. And one thing kept me in the here and now, no matter my confusion over what I was doing or whether it was worthwhile: the wash from the Apple River running over the busted dam remnants, where, because it was a low water year, because we waited for the right spot to eat, because a guy in a bait shop told us, because we stopped at a cemetery, because we turned left not right, because some black kids asked, because I had a dream in Guatemala once, because everything aligned on a single magic day—we were able to eat lunch twenty years ago exactly where, because Arnold Olson kept himself so damn busy clearing brush and branches off the hill, we could spy a charming farm up under some pine boughs. Like a clear dream upon awakening, the sound of that river is pure and new and full of promise, even now, after so many years, and never fails to inspire.