74 / 365 – A beautiful place

SARAH BERGMAN

It was late afternoon when I got Leah to Erik’s. She had been sleeping over at a friend’s house Friday night, so he had lost one of his nights. He had been hard about it on the phone all day, while we were trying to arrange picking up and dropping off, and when I got there, he didn’t say a word, just glared. When he was looking at me — of course he was all smiles when he was talking to her, taking her backpack. I didn’t say anything. It wasn’t my fault that she decided to have a sleepover on one of his nights. It wasn’t like I got an extra night with her. And I knew if I said anything, he’d find some sharp way to twist it, point it back at me, jab at me with it. I walked back to the car.

But I was feeling restless. I drove slowly up the street, and then turned down another. Just drove here and there through the streets. There’s an old guy, I don’t even know his name, he drives an old tan minivan through town a lot of afternoons, back and forth. I see him going for hours, like he’s patrolling the streets. I catch him looking sometimes and his eyes are hard, like he’s suspicious that something is going on and he should report it. He must be losing his memory, because anyone with a long memory would know that nothing seems to happen in this town.

I drove past the Uptown twice. I thought about going in. I think Finn was working. But I’ve been in there too much lately. I don’t know what to think about that. Or maybe I worry that I don’t know what other people will think about that. Or what Finn must think about that, even though he always seems glad to see me — an old woman coming in to sit at his bar and talk about things you don’t talk about in bars in little towns in North Dakota.

I drove by the Leah’s school. Such a little place, although it’s kept up better than the one she went to in Boston. Then down onto Main and up past the Jericho Theater, which still has “Independence Day” up on the marquee, which it did when we first arrived here. It was summer and I thought they must have some great festival or something on the fourth of July, but it turned out it was just the last movie they ever played. People often come and photograph that theater. I guess it’s quaint when you don’t have to live here and you look at it and see decline, or failure. I pulled over and parked and got out. It was biting cold, the breeze kinda funneled through the brick buildings there, and I realized I was underdressed. But it felt good in a way, woke me up. So I got out and walked.

Half the buildings are empty, or just used sometimes, like the one where the Catholic Church holds its rummage sale twice a year. The drug store is still there — I guess there are enough old people around to keep up the pharmacy counter in back, although the shelves between the front door and the back are full of such useless old junk — bad birthday and anniversary cards, homey tchatchkis to hang on your wall, the kinds of dish towels and doilies and things that not even your grandmother would have any more. There’s a shop next door that I guess was a hardware store, now it’s just piled up with shelf fixtures and sheet metal and old lumber. Finn seems to know the history of all of these places, not only from when he was growing up, but from before that. He likes to keep all the old stories, like all the ones that guy in the nursing home, Fred Vanek, tells him. We’ve walked along them and he’s told me a lot of them. From back at the beginning, when the town had some hope of grandeur someday, people building it up out of the prairie, out of nothing, land that had been buffalo country but I guess was a little empty then. You think about it, there’s no such land that’s empty. There’s always something in it — animals, people. There must have been Indians here, the plains Indians or the Ojibwe, who are over in Turtle Mountain now. But they’re not in the story. Still, it’s amazing to hear that the Eagles Aerie, which is really a pretty stone building, when you look at it right, was once an opera house. I don’t even like opera but thought of opera in this town is almost breathtaking. I imagine a singer, a soprano, out in the middle of an unplowed field of tall prairie grass that’s billowing in great waves in the summer breeze, and she’s belting out an aria, right into the face of the wind. It’s kind of amazing to imagine.

I was walking along and I came to the door of the cafe, and without thinking, I unlocked the door and went in. It’s not quite Spring yet, but there’s a lot of light in the late afternoon. The red brick buildings across the street were reflecting the orange from the sun as the day was turning toward sundown. I didn’t turn on the light. The room was so quiet — no fan over the stove humming and bellowing, no clanking of dishes in the sinks in the back,  the metal rattle of silverware in the trays, no murmur of talk in the booths or at the counter, people talking and it rises and falls in waves, breaks into laughter and sinks again. Just quiet. I heard a car door slam up the block, and then a pickup truck drove past slowly, turned a corner and faded away. It was so peaceful.

Finn and Jackie keep telling me we should open for dinner, take on the steakhouse, but I don’t think I have the energy to do it. We’re finally barely making some money. But still, there’s something in the idea that keeps coming back to me, pulling me. I stood in the door and tried to imagine the place, with lights on, people maybe dressed up a little more for Saturday night, having dinner. I could almost imagine it, and it made me smile. I remembered when I first walked into this place, two years ago. I had been walking past for awhile, thinking, what a pretty little place, it’s too bad it’s not open. Yeah, the colors are a little outdated, the turquoise vinyl upholstery in the booths and on the seats of the chrome barstools, with the orange bits of trim. In a city, this would seem wonderfully hip and vintage. It’s certainly prettier than the steakhouse, where everything is brown, tattered brown, with calendars and stuffed deer heads and old wood panelling everywhere. But when I actually got inside the building, you could see how caked with dust everything was. There was a sound of an animal up in the ceiling which almost made me run out of there. You could see that the walls were yellowed from years of frying, the clock was cloudy, plaster grit had fallen all over the countertop, and on the grill. The fridge was old and its door was ajar and a faint ripe smell came from it. Somebody had stolen a couple of the table tops. The sinks and the bathroom fixtures were full of rust. I wanted to run out of there. It hit me then how foolish it was, thinking I could re-open this place, trying to make something cheerful about it. Another bright idea killed, I thought. I thanked Mr. Hamer, the realtor, and went back home.

But I kept thinking about it. I thought through all the work it would take to clean it, thought of how I might replace the table tops, how I might be able to hire someone to help me clean it. And I went back. I always go back. Hope brings me back. It’s why I stayed in my marriage so long, why I ended up here. I go back, and I make it work. Except for my marriage. I go back, and I find people who somehow share in the thing I’m doing. Finn, Jackie. This place is a good place now, not just because of me, but because of all of us. We wanted somewhere beautiful to come to, someplace that would feel like home. If you work at that, try to make that, people will come to it. You just have to keep hoping and coming back.

 

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