A bit less than an hour ago, I returned to Mondoville after having spent about 40 or so hours in the environs of Lexington, KY. The occasion for my travel was not one I would have chosen, but it was not without its sweetnesses as well.
Friday morning, I took Mrs. M’s car to WalMart to have the tires checked — the low pressure light has come on a few times lately, and she and I have both put air into them. Since we got the tires at WalMart, and had the road hazard protection as well, I thought I’d invoke it. Alas, the WalMartians told me that while they could check for a leak, their tire repair gun (which is something I didn’t know existed, but which I recognized once I looked up the term — thanks, Google!) was out of commission. So instead I took the car a little further down the road to my regular mechanics. They couldn’t find a leak, but went ahead and pumped them up to appropriate levels, and they’ve been copacetic for a couple of days now, so touch wood.
I needed to check the tires because I was taking Mrs. M’s car up to Lexington that day in order to attend a memorial celebration for my friend Amy “Ellie” Kolasa, of whom I wrote recently. The drive was basically uneventful; I stopped in Knoxville to have lunch with the Mad Dog at one of my favorite fast-food places, which stretched the six-hour drive (per Google) to about seven — my hotel was on the far side of Lexington.
While I snarfed my little cheeseburgers, the Mad Dog mentioned that he had tickets to Saturday’s game between the Kansas Jayhawks and my beloved Kentucky Wildcats (the Mads have season tickets), but that he wasn’t going to be able to make it. He had put the ducats into some sort of exchange, but there was no action on that front, so he asked if I might like them. I said I didn’t know if I’d be able to use them, but that if they were just going to lie fallow, I’d be happy to take them. And then I was northward bound again.
The hotel was in a neighborhood I knew pretty well — once. But Lexington has changed drastically since I lived there in the early 90s, and even since my last visit in 2011. I drove around campus, past the place where my grad school apartment used to be. It has been replaced by a couple of sizable residence halls, and I’d be willing to bet that unlike my old cinder-block studio pad, the new building comes with air conditioning. Stretches of road I used to drive are now closed to vehicular traffic, and I had to do a little exploration to find my way to one of the town’s principal arteries, where I found my hotel.
As suits my usual budget, the accommodations were spartan but comfortable enough, so after settling in for a bit, I decided to head to a favorite bookstore and then find some dinner. In the process, I discovered that I’ve grown unused to urban driving. I think I had more horns honked at me on Friday night than in the preceding ten or so years. Nearly all the old landmarks were gone, but all the other drivers knew where they wanted to go, so beep, beep.
I made it to the bookstore, and realized when I got out of the car that 1) it was pretty cold (in the teens), and 2) I had left both my coat and my heavy sweatshirt in South Carolina. At least I had on long pants, but I found myself taking a brisk walk (in more ways than one) across the parking lot. I spent a half-hour or so looking around the store — the first large bookstore I remember visiting, decades back — and found a relatively new novel from Peter Swanson for below cover price. Then I decided to get some dinner.
But when I got to the car and started looking for a place to eat, a strange thing happened, a feeling I’m not used to. It may have been a kind of anxiety attack. I didn’t feel like I was dying or anything, but just kind of spontaneously felt intensely nervous and got hit with a big dose of Goldengrove unleaving — “The city and life you knew is now changed, changed utterly, and you are alone in the midst of it, and you may be this alone for the rest of your life.” I felt unstuck in time, like a middle-aged, over-educated Billy Pilgrim.
Doubtless, some of this was driven by my reason for being in town, but I was sufficiently rattled that I got out of the traffic and into a small shopping center — were it linear, it would be a strip mall, but it is L-shaped, so I guess it’s a shopping center. It sits about a block from the apartment in which Mrs. M and I spent our last two years in town, but again, the passage of time has rendered it almost unrecognizable. The supermarket where I’d get doughnuts and a newspaper on Sunday mornings is gone, as is the arcade where I spent ridiculous sums of money mastering Zangief in Street Fighter II — the space that held the arcade is now occupied by a GameStop, giving the experience a kind of alternate-universe quality for me. The one surviving business from my days there? A pizza joint, where a friend of mine polished her acting chops by looking forlorn and bedraggled when delivering pizzas, in order to get better sympathy tips.
But there was also a Chinese buffet in the center, inventively dubbed “#1 China Buffet.” (Lexington seems to have a thing for weirdly generic restaurant names — a fast-food place from my undergrad years was called “Burgers 50¢ Shakes.” — and it still exists!) It was open, and I felt a sudden need for comfort junk food, so I went in and watched small groups of friends and the occasional family tuck into their meals as I went through some fried rice and eggrolls. I don’t know if they were #1 all-time, but they were quite good. When I had finished, I went to a Walgreens (which had replaced the local restaurant that was my favorite date spot with Mrs. M, back when she was still Miss W.) and picked up a couple of drinks and some other things I had neglected to pack. When I got back to the hotel, I talked to Mrs. M and the Spawn, read a little, and slept fitfully, both from the adjustment to a new/hotel bed and from the general sense of disorientation that had come over me.
The next morning, I found my way to another part of town, to a Frisch’s Big Boy, for breakfast. Because I grew up in the greater Cincinnati area, Frisch’s has been a source of stability for me over the years (I had breakfast there every day during my brother’s trial, for example), and I was glad to see that it has expanded farther into the Kentucky market. The restaurant chain makes a couple of appearances in Broken Glass Waltzes (as does Mrs. M, who helped pay her way through college by working there), and it remains a consistent experience almost 30 years later. After the previous night, I welcomed that. I also heard from the Mad Dog; did I still want the tickets? I said “Sure,” and he e-mailed them to me. I contacted my friend (and James’s college roommate) Will (whose blog is worth your attention as well) and asked if he was interested in joining me at the game. Indeed he was, and we planned to attend.
But then it was time for the reason for my trip, as I turned onto Harrodsburg Road and made the 20-mile drive to the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. The Kolasas live not far from the site, and as James said during the memorial, he and Ellie basically used the place as their park for days out with the kids and such.
In fact, I pulled into the parking lot about the same time that James did, but because he knows where things are and I didn’t, he made it to the Meeting House (the site of the memorial) before I did. When I got in, I gave James a hug and reintroduced myself to the kids — they hadn’t seen me since that 2011 trip, after all, and had no reason to remember me. In fact, they may not remember me now, and who can blame them? I remember my similar experience; it’s hard to keep track. But they seem to be very good kids, and I can see both parents in both of them. Cailleigh in particular looks very much like a brunette version of her red-haired mother.
I helped James set up an easel for one of Ellie’s artworks — a self-portrait — but beyond that, I basically tried to stay out of people’s way as they set up a table with food and drinks. James had asked me to read a poem for the occasion, so I had brought a copy of Archibald MacLeish’s Collected Poems, and set it down on one of the plain benches that filled the room. Ellie’s close friend Judy (an English professor at a college with some resemblance to Mondoville) was helping set things up, but we made time to say hello.
Later, I saw a number of other folks from Transy: classmates of James’s, classmates of Ellie’s, classmates of mine. If you’ve followed this blog over the years, you know that my relationship to the college is a complicated one. My two years there were filled with challenges — some self-inflicted, others less so — and the loss of my scholarship after my sophomore year feels both like a failure on my part and the result of . . . inflexibility? on the administration’s. But mainly the failure stuff — I can always find an abundance of that. So with the exceptions of James, Ellie, and Will, I really hadn’t seen any of those former classmates since 1991 or so, although of course we maintain the electronic simulacrum of connection on social media. One person I saw was Tammi Arnett, who had lived up the street from me in high school and had followed me to Transy a year after I went there, on the same kind of scholarship I had. She kept hers, and is now a librarian in Denver, but she flew in for the memorial. We talked about families — I had seen her mother at my brother’s trial, and she told me about her brother, who somehow got to be 42 when I wasn’t looking. Funny — I seem to recall him as a seven-year-old.
There was a sense of class reunion to the occasion (as I think tends to happen in these situations); in its own way, that was a fine memorial to Ellie in itself. And as we shared embraces and updates, stories and pictures, I was reminded that we were all weirdly beautiful now, as we saw each other both as we are now and somehow, simultaneously, as the people we were then.
But at two o’clock, it was time to begin. James greeted everyone — making it almost through the first sentence before having to pause, a motif that would recur for all of us through the afternoon. But he made it through, with grace, humor, and the fundamental sweetness that has led so many of us to love him. Judy delivered a eulogy — Ellie was her best friend, and although Ellie wouldn’t have cared for all the fuss (a point many of us noted wryly), Judy’s words and thoughts were loving, accurate, funny, and thoughtful, perfectly suiting their subject.
A friend of theirs played a solo guitar version of “In My Life,” and a couple of people told stories. James talked about how he and Ellie had met and how he had figuratively and literally waited out the guy she had been seeing in order to build a relationship with her. I mentioned an early conversation with Ellie when she mentioned being interested in James, and I had said (meaning it as a recommendation, but expressing it perhaps less enthusiastically than I meant), “You could do worse.” Fortunately, that didn’t derail anything, and they had a lot of good years together.
Then it was my turn. I went up to the lectern, opened the book — and went utterly off the rails. I just was hit by wanting to say everything, wanting to talk about how I love my friend and how I hurt for him, wanting to talk about all the things that Judy had said and how right they were, wanting to talk about the rotten deal we had gotten through all this, even though this was supposed to be a celebration. I wanted to talk about the love in the room, and the beauty I had seen in James and Ellie, and that I saw in Jake and Cailleigh, and about a million other things. But instead, it all piled up in my throat and my mouth and my eyes, and I sobbed some and fumbled around, in a way I haven’t since the trial. And finally, I futzed my way through the poem I had brought. And I went back and sat down.
Finally, James told a story from Ellie’s last days, a story that was human and humorous, a little raw and a little lovely, and all that seems to me like a perfect description of the terrific, irascible, creative, passionate, loving person that we now have to miss. And there was a toast, and then the program was finished and we went back to mingling and I ducked behind my usual facade of wisecracking and self-deprecation as I talked to others of my friends from a long time ago. It’s a place I know.
After a while, Will and his wife, two of our other classmates, and I headed back toward Lexington for dinner at one of my favorite places. We agreed to convoy there; I led, followed by Stacey Garrick (a tech writer who now lives in Oak Ridge), with Will and Martha next, and finally Michaela Besold (a physician now in Indianapolis.)
As we got rolling, I made a discovery. Remember — I was driving Mrs. M’s car, which is remarkably smooth and quiet. The drum hauler, on the other hand, sounds like a B-24 coming in on a bombing raid over Schweinfurt once it gets to about 65 miles an hour.
So at one point, I was tooling along when I happened to glance at the speedo. Which said I was doing 80. In a 55. Oops. Fortunately, there were no law enforcers around to call it to my attention, but I slowed down anyway. To her credit, Stacey kept up just fine. Unfortunately, Michaela made a wrong turn, and we lost her. However, once the Harrises got there, we went ahead and got our table, continuing to play catch-up with each other.
I ordered what I think might very well be my choice for a Last Meal (and if I ate them more often, likely would be my last meal — it’s an infarct on a plate.) But I figure that with an eight-year gap between sandwiches, I can manage. We were nearly done when Michaela finally made it, having been given the runaround by her GPS. However, this gave us a wonderful opportunity to order dessert while she had her dinner. I went for one of the restaurant’s signature items: the chocolate brownie pie a la mode.
As I ate it, I thought of a moment from Judy’s eulogy, when she talked about Ellie offering baking advice: “It’s chocolate. It’s good.” And it was.
And somewhere around there, Martha asked Will, “Don’t you guys need to get to the game?” We glanced up at the TV. The game had started about a half hour before.
“It’s OK,” I said. “This is better.”
But even better things have to end, and Michaela and Stacey both needed to get home that evening, so they had long drives ahead. We made our way to the parking lot and said our goodbyes as the two ladies headed out. Will and his lady, meanwhile, went to my hotel so Will could take his car home; they had left it there when Martha had planned to drive home alone while Will and I went to the game. Martha was leaving the hotel lot when I arrived. I gave Will another hug and sent him on his way. From there, I went to a convenience store and bought a couple of bottles of tea, while I listened to the end of the game on the radio. I got back to the hotel, talked to Mrs. M, and finally fell asleep around 11.
This morning, I showered, went back to Frisch’s, and made my way toward the Interstate at about 10. I took a different route to the Interstate — going down Newtown Pike, the road I would take to get to the Interstate when I would go to Northern Kentucky to visit my parents in those grad school years. Along the way, I saw the street where my grad school band used to practice. It looked much the same. So that was one.
The drive home was easy; I pulled into the garage at 5:32.
As we spoke to one another at the memorial, I heard people saying over and over that we need to meet more often for happier occasions. And it’s true, and it would be pretty to think that we might. But if we don’t, seeing each other again was a blessing both of smiles and tears, and it’s another reason to be grateful for having known Ellie.
And since I did a lousy job reading it, here’s the poem.
by Archibald MacLeish
There is no dusk to be,
There is no dawn that was,
Only there’s now, and now,
And the wind in the grass.
Days I remember of
Now in my heart, are now;
Days that I dream will bloom
White peach bough.
Dying shall never be
Now in the windy grass;
Now under shooken leaves
Death never was.
Carry your Now with you. Talk soon.
Fantastic experience! Sometimes hanging with friends and family is priceless.
This was a beautifyo expression of the day. Thank you for writing it.
I meant to say “beatiful”. A good example of why editing is so important.
Just beautiful. I’m sorry for your loss, Smitty, but happy for the joys you shared from this past weekend. I have a feeling that both versions of the poem were equally lovely.
You got me choked up with this one, man. I’m so sorry for the loss of your friend.
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