My kid and I are driving west on the highway when she pipes up.
“What is Missouri famous for?”
It’s the kind of random question she asks a lot these days, but it hits me because I’ve been thinking lately about the fact that she’s from here, and I’m not. She was born right here in St. Louis at a hospital called Missouri Baptist, which is a funny thing for me, a Jew from New Jersey, to tell the folks back home.
New Jersey is famous for a lot of things, not all of them positive. Okay, most of them not positive. But I’m proud of being from there, at least as far as one can take pride in something they had nothing to do with. I like that I grew up in the shadow of New York City, that from the northeastern corner of my suburban town you could make out the Twin Towers in the distance if the air was clear. I like that the roads and towns of my youth are memorialized in Springsteen songs. I like that my commute to the industrial park in the Meadowlands where I worked in my twenties featured several of the landmarks from The Sopranos opening credits. Not to mention the pizza, the pizza, the pizza. And the Jersey attitude, even if I’ve never really been able to pull it off. Sometimes by way of argument, or explanation, I’ll say to someone, often with a shrug, “I’m from New Jersey.”
I want my kid to have the same sense of pride about the place she’s from.
“Well,” I tell her, “there’s The Arch.”
“Hmmm,” she says, considering this. “I guess?’
The Arch isn’t enough for her, it’s just that thing we bid farewell whenever we leave town, a family ritual. “Bye-bye Arch,” we say, crossing the bridge to Illinois we’ve dubbed The Ugliest Bridge In the World.
“Chuck Berry is from here,” I say.
She nods in approval, though I know this is for my sake, because she knows how much I care about rock and roll.
We’re out past the city limits now, west enough so that Missouri starts to look like Missouri. Fields, big sky, megachurches, warehouses advertising feed and tractors. Limestone pokes out of the ground here and there. Over the Missouri River to our right, high above, a flock of white pelicans banks and their wings catch the sun.
“There’s that,” I say, pointing.
“Yeah, but those birds are probably from Louisiana.”
Maybe the reason I’ve been thinking so much about here and there is because my parents are still in New Jersey, and my dad’s not doing well. His memory is almost gone, and my mom’s heart is broken over it, and the distance between me and my parents, between my parents and the grandchild we’ve decided to raise out here in the middle of the country, can no longer be calculated only in land miles.
Our errand for the day is to check out a sewing stool someone is selling out in Wentzville, which to me has always sounded like a town made up by Dr. Seuss.
“It looks okay in the pictures online,” my wife told me. “But make sure there’s nothing wrong with it.”
There’s something wrong with it. One of the plastic castors is cracked and will need to be replaced. But we’ve driven an hour, and the old guy who’s selling it to us is so nice. He wears a Cabela's trucker’s cap high on his head and a plaid shirt over a prominent beer belly. If he were forty years younger you could mistake him for a hipster. He details the finer points of the item, tapping his thick fingers on the vinyl upholstery to show me how sturdy it is, pulling it open to show us the plastic tray that fits inside.
“There’s a place for pins and bobbins and whatnot here, and you put your spools of thread on these little pegs here.”
We both avoid looking at the broken part, as if it’s a secret we agreed long ago not to mention. My kid’s poking around the guy’s garage, which smells like sawdust and motor oil and tools, an essence no room I’m associated with will ever acquire.
He closes the lid and gives the stool a little poke to send it a little closer to me, which I recognize as a closing tactic. It wobbles. I suppose Home Depot carries castors.
“It was my wife’s” he says.
The way he says it I assume his wife is dead, but almost as if in response the door to the house opens and a woman comes into the garage. She’s pretty, with white hair, wearing a quilted robe incongruously with a pair of duck boots.
“Erin!” she exclaims. “John, why didn’t you tell me Erin was here!”
She’s looking at my kid, who is standing there holding a fly lure she was probably going to ask if she could purchase for herself to wear as an earring or around her neck. She looks caught and not a little afraid under this woman’s beaming scrutiny.
“Aren’t you going to give your grandma a kiss?” says the woman. Her robe is slightly agape at the chest, and all of us in the garage want to look anywhere but at her cleavage.
“Jude, that’s not Erin,” he says. “These people have come to buy the stool. This is…another girl.”
“What stool?” asks the woman, her smile falling. “My stool? Why would you give away my stool?”
She turns to me.
“He’s always doing this.” Her voice has turned bitter. “He gives away all my nicest things.”
The old guy decides it’s time to usher her back inside.
“If you want it, just leave the money,” he says, putting his arm around his wife’s waist, turning her toward the door. “Or just take it, I guess, either way.”
I press a twenty onto the workbench and weigh it down with a rubber mallet. It was only supposed to be fifteen, but I don’t want to wait around for the guy to make change. I hold out my hand for the lure, which my kid passes to me regretfully. I put it down next to the money.
As we’re pulling out of the driveway, the couple come out onto their front porch. The woman’s robe has been refastened, chastely, up to the neck. The guy puts up a hand, and the woman waves wide, then blows kisses, one from each of her fingers. It’s clear she’s saying goodbye to someone who isn’t her, but my kid rolls down the window and puts out her arm to wave back.
We drive in silence for a while. My kid has only recently gotten big enough to sit up front, and neither of us is quite used to traveling this way. She sits formally, her hands on her knees, observing the road ahead as if she’s got a new responsibility to do so.
This morning, my mom told me over the phone that my dad had been denied participation in a promising trial. The problem, she told me, is that he’d need to get weekly MRIs. “He forgets where he is and he sort of comes to inside the chamber and gets scared. They told me he kept on trying to sit up in there.” I consoled my mother with something from an article I’d read, which, while heralding the trial as the cutting edge of Alzheimer’s research, cautioned that it had insofar only shown promise in mice. A researcher quoted in the article said, “When it comes to Alzheimer’s, it’s always good to be a mouse.”
Eventually the city comes into view. The eastern approach to St. Louis on Highway 40 is like landing a plane. It all stretches out in front of you; the suburbs, the green swath of Forest Park, the giant grain silo rising over the railyards, the modest skyscrapers of downtown. And in the furthest distance, like a handle you could use to peel the whole thing up, The Arch.
We both take it in, just driving.
Then she turns to me and says, “I like it here.”
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