It’s Come to This

St. Paul: 2020

Courtesy of the author
Courtesy of the author

All night, thunder. Low mutters rumbling from Minneapolis, like a neighbor’s angry spat through a flimsy wall. This has nothing to do with you, lucky you. Then whole minutes of reassuring quiet—entirely phony, as it turns out. The calm before the …

The first cracking fusillade hits, slams. The window sash judders.

The basso voice of existence smacks up close and personal. The world is enraged. Has its reasons. Take that—and that—and that.

Lightning rips the navy night.

The rain is loud, metallic. On the corner, the great hackberry is struck, all its trembling leaves. It splits to the creamy core we’ll touch and marvel at in the morning, cool like any dead thing. It is—was—more than 100 years old. The hackberry can live 150, even 200 years, a neighbor reports, having Googled. She sounds angry, as if the haggard thing, already in decline, had betrayed her, a suicide.

The rage doesn’t stop, the storm just moves on, past Stillwater, before dawn across the St. Croix into green Wisconsin. The air, freshly ionized, is buoyant after the night’s grand mal seizure.

This I love, the Midwest doing summer.

You still driving? It took a moment to understand the question. At your age, he says, are you still …

He’d come to remove the frayed boxwoods from around the electrical transformer in the little courtyard, a heavy job, too much for me now. Fresh morning after the wild night. I was admiring the sharp, tidy way he worked. He reminded me of my father, never a speck of dirt on him, like a surgeon at his potting table in the old glass-paned greenhouse.

Still a daughter, still measuring things, men especially, against my Depression-era good guy, the steady worker. What was he like, my dad? Decent. There is no better word to describe a man. Decent. Modest prewar word. How lucky was I? That lucky, to have him as a father, born more than a century ago, over 20 years gone to glory, as people used to say.

Still a daughter, lifelong ingénue.

You aren’t that much younger than me—I almost said that, squeeze of citrus to my voice. Defending myself against the insult of age. I liked him less now, this deft worker. I’m nobody’s daughter anymore.

But I just mumbled, Yes. Still driving. His reasonable question, my neutral answer, pretending no offense taken.

On to brooding, the new vocation. It takes up much of the day and night’s desert landscape. Insomnia keeps a person busy, regrets and vexations scrolling across the burnt field of the past, a few astonishing flowers still blooming here and there, everlastings.

Still driving?

The real question: … for how long?

It’s come to this.

I live alone—but who doesn’t feel that way, this summer of pandemic distance, eyes popping above masks, helicopters thwacking overhead after the murder, and then the mayhem in Minneapolis that inevitably made its way, like the early summer thunderstorm, over here to St. Paul, blocks of broken store windows boarded up, looted shops. Two weeks of curfews—no, three it was—inside by eight p.m. Sirens.

The knee on the neck described over and over in the news. Nine minutes and 29 seconds. One phrase—I can’t breathe—stamped on T-shirts and hoodies. But he said something else, face slammed to the pavement—I’m not a bad guy …

Admit it: I didn’t watch the video to the end, couldn’t. It doesn’t matter, you see it all anyway. I’m not a bad guy. Knee, neck. Neck, knee.

A few days later, a woman up the street, my age, reported to the dog walkers gathered around her, He said gimme your purse, Black Lives Matter, I got a gun.

I’m a liberal, she told him, baffled, handing over the purse. He and his pals tore off in the Lexus they’d carjacked in a suburb. When they were finally caught, their ages were reported—11, 12, the oldest 13. In another carjacking the youngest was 10. The driver, 12, crashed into a telephone pole, the 10-year-old was flung out, no seat belt, dead at the scene.

The marches streaming down Summit half a block away, headed to the state capitol—I didn’t go. At your age—don’t go, I was told. I drove around to see the crowds, mostly young, mostly white around here, carrying handmade signs, masks over the fresh faces, shorts and sandals, smooth shoulders, spaghetti straps drooping. They might have been going to homecoming. They didn’t look as defiant as their signs. They seemed eager. They’ve found their meaning—it’s their turn, I say aloud in the car. Much talking to myself now.

Then home I go to act my age. Stay home, stay safe. I who marched and carried signs. I’m a liberal, as the woman up the street said.

I grew up in this leafy neighborhood, educated by a French order of cloistered nuns—trained was their word. The convent—long gone—had a soaring campanile. A white-and-gold chapel was lodged like a sugared fondant at the end of a glossy marble hallway of woody classrooms, we girls on the glowing altar side, the nuns indistinct behind a filmy black curtain that sometimes rippled in a draft. Some days you could make out a figure prostrating herself flat on the marble floor over there, arms out. A human Cross laid flat. That meant, someone whispered, she had done something wrong and had to do penance.

What could a nun do wrong?

Laugh, someone said. Or talk.

But they laugh and talk with us.

It’s different over there, the girl in the know said.

The Enclosure, their side was called.

The whole property, almost a city block, was surrounded by a high wall, smooth brick with a rare violet-rose patina. Within that precinct a reflecting pool, a small greenhouse, orchids and bromeliads tended by the mild music teacher, a blue plumbago improbably blooming there in February. Winters, the softball field was flooded to make a skating rink. There was a warming house with a fireplace, hot chocolate was sometimes offered. Some of the younger nuns skated, their severe gowns gliding over the gray ice, the heavy veils hardly moving, big smiles on the good faces.

We took fencing lessons on the lawn in springtime, and learned to hold a bow and shoot an arrow straight. There were statues—St. Jeanne de Chantal, an alabaster Virgin Mother by the reflecting pool. The fists of water lilies opened wide, and goldfish the size of walleye lumbered in the dark water. The pool was emptied in the fall, the fish wintering in galvanized tin tubs in the greenhouse. The Virgin was left outside, wrapped in stiff canvas bound with lashings of duct tape.

I wanted none of this enchantment. I wanted out. The World was what I wanted, and the World, I understood, was Elsewhere. The convent did feel faintly foreign, which was encouraging, and I admired my French teacher, Sister Péronne Marie, who said it was natural to be an atheist at my age. She had us reading Camus and Ionesco and Michaux at 16.

So of course—it feels like of course—I’ve lived most of my adult life in this old brownstone of apartments turned into condos with a view to a back courtyard garden surrounded by—what else?—a high brick wall.

I came in my 20s when the neighborhood was “unsafe,” as people said, ramshackle, the big barny showoff houses abandoned, the rents cheap. Many of the old mansions had slumped into rooming houses. You could hear the tubercular coughs of caved-in men smoking alone in the dark as you walked by.

I stayed through romantic mistakes and miseries, and then floated into a long, lucky marriage as the scary old neighborhood regentrified itself—it had been grand before, at the turn of the old century. And now it became, if not exactly grand, proud of itself again.

I’m still here, five years a widow. I seem to be going nowhere. But who’s going anywhere, this lockdown year?

It’s come to this. After all.

I did get away. Years of tearing off, writing my way across destinations. Calling it “my work,” prideful about being on assignment, having a deadline. Bye-bye. Really it was the disorder of desire flinging itself abroad. The World was out there, and I had to get myself into it. Why? Don’t ask. It’s the Midwestern birthright, the desire to be somewhere else.

Where you going now? someone always asked, exasperated. And me, proud to be off to the next wherever. Travel was a secret lover, my life absconding on a jet, window seat, gazing into the abstraction of freedom, all those clouds. My happy home was behind this rosy brick wall, but really, home was a launchpad. Off you go, the sweet husband would say. All these farewells and reunions are romantic, he said once. Laughing, kissing me.

But now the brick wall clamps its cloister grip. The white mask you put on like a novice’s veil for the weekly trip to the grocery store, the four walks a day with the old dog who looks up in dismay—out again?

All the lost destinations—Prague, first, most enduring foreign love, then on to Sister Péronne Marie’s Paris, the TGV to Cassis and the fathomless blue expanse, Africa beyond. Always hoping to leap there, mal d’Afrique in the heart. And, of course, London. And New York, always New York, the Midwesterner’s first, abiding Elsewhere. Just to name the obvious contenders.

But where—where on earth—can a person go now? I have all the time in the world. Time is not the problem. And don’t say the Internet connects us to the whole wide world. Spare me the Internet. It is not a walk over the Charles Bridge at dawn, not Blackfriars or the Pont des Arts. No scent, no light breaking on dark water. It’s airless, that virtual place, crowded with crazies full of opinions. Fake news, as the mad king says on the Internet nearly every day.

Life is a journey—no wonder it’s our most ancient metaphor. A platitude, but only truth can harden into cliché.

This pandemic year we seem finally to be proving Einstein’s theory: Space and Time aren’t separate. They—it—are one thing: SpaceTime. We’ve had more than a century to get this in mind.

Time (my time, my lifeline) was always leading me forward into the beguiling Space out there, the next destination just waiting to be “achieved,” as the 18th-century travelers said, arriving at last at Cathay.

But if travel is ruled out (oh, it is—and for how long?), what has happened to Space—the longed-for Elsewhere, the location where hope resides? Months, a year of staying put. Lately they’re even threatening two years. At your age, a year is a serious percentage of what’s left. Still driving?

You begin to sense where this is headed. The destination now is not a place, you’re touring Time itself. At your age, that means the past, the vast real estate that begins to fill the mind more than the future’s bright skyscape ever could.

A surprise—to feel this slippage from the romance of Space into the elegy of Time.

But back to—or on to—the present moment (5:45 a.m., Wednesday, late August). I’ve awakened, yet again, with that hermetic phrase beating away, not a complaint, but a knowing murmur. A soothing there-there.

It’s come to this. It’s come to this.

All day it repeats, as the teakettle rumbles, as the helicopters circle and the sirens whine in the night. I say it as I hook the laundered double-ply cloth mask behind my ears to enter the food co-op with my list, as I walk the dog, and walk her again and again. It’s come

I’m trying to make sense of disruption—that’s what I thought at first when I couldn’t stop this loop repeating like a jingle from the radio. But I’ve been at this for months now, this new abnormal. Still, the jingle repeats at every turn.

The crickets have started up at night (a late-August thing here—how did it get to be August in so few pages?). The repetitive crickets are part of it too, something almost musical as we walk, the dog and I, in the soft dark.

What, exactly, has come to what? What is this It  I sigh into, what is the This I keep falling upon? What distress and what comfort does this muttered mantra express?

We have turned the corner, her preferred spot, under a ginkgo tree. We’re on our final walk of the day, the crickets hard at it. I mumble my mantra aloud, and she angles her old, patient face toward me. She’s on the verge of speech, I see that, a bare chromosome away from articulation.

Then it’s September. October clicks by, dropping bright leaves on the sidewalk. Some are even pink. I never noticed that before. Walking and walking, reinscribing our circuit—there is so much to consider with your nose (her) and eyes (me).

Then into November. The marches on Summit are heavy now, a darker sensation before it’s clear that an entirely different crew is out there. On weekends they claim the street as we stick to the sidewalk. But they want the sidewalk, too, so we retreat to our own side street, modest little Laurel.

They march from the governor’s mansion to the state capitol (or sometimes, the reverse). The earnest young beauties of June and July have been swapped out for these beefy figures striding in camo. Mostly men, and the women, sometimes in leather, all seem to have extreme manicures, many with the flossy hair of the ’60s. No masks, of course not, what am I thinking? They gun their tank vehicles draped with massive flags. Black pickups roar along with infuriated, professionally printed signs propped in the truck beds, some with insignia I don’t recognize. They wave and holler, aggrieved, whooping mirthless laughs, red hats low on the brow of Proud Boys. Proud of what? I ask another dog walker.

Where have I seen these people before, this furious derision meant to convey freedom?

Prague, after the Velvet Revolution. The soccer-loving boyos from Britain had discovered how cheap the beer was, and they arrived in droves on quick budget flights, carousing on the modest streets behind the theater where Mozart premiered Don Giovanni. The Czechs, still tamped down from decades of police state life, looked on in dismay from the little sidewalk tables. But these marchers on Summit aren’t drunk on pilsner. Contempt, vengeance—whatever it is—has been pent up, blistering within, and now finally, finally …

There are pauses, but the helicopters are back, the crowds and dark SUVs most weekends. Stop the Steal, Open the Bars, no way am I wearing a fucking mask. If I get Covid, I get Covid.

And so on.

Then Thanksgiving, alone, making a social effort, a chicken breast shamming as turkey, lit candle, second glass of wine, the dog delirious at her dish with a dried lamb heart. The weather continues to behave bizarrely, faking summer (no snow after a brief dump in early October, melted and long forgotten). The spindles of the leafless trees—they seem to be beseeching. What do they want from me?

I am going seriously crazy.

How about flying somewhere? C’mon—people do get on planes and go places. You see them on TV, masked with plastic head shields, lined up for TSA screening. Where are they going? And why? Does TSA demand a good reason to leave your assigned place, some kind of permission slip? I have my reasons, but are they good enough?

A first-world complaint, but don’t try to shame me. Nothing stops the gnawing urge to get out. I could go for the sympathy vote and say I miss my family, my friends. And I do. But really it’s the anonymous World I pine for.

What about a road trip? Motels rise up, their pastel walls dripping Covid, the sagging mattress alive with viral loads from the poor soul who preceded me in this terrible cell. Maybe I could sleep in my car. At your age?

The track I retrace in the neighborhood has become the convict’s daily measure. Why didn’t I memorize more poems, the way members of the Resistance survived in solitary? Why didn’t I move to a Major Capital when I was young? Never mind that New York is in lockdown again, London even worse. At least you wouldn’t be nowhere.

December arrives, snowless, trailing the vampire summer that refuses to die and bestow upon us the bracing cold that is our boreal birthright. Positive news about vaccines. But that’s way off somewhere in the next year. It’s been endless, this featureless season—yet how absurdly fast the months have swept by, like newsprint caught by the wind, scattered, old business, nothing worth reading.

Now, this mid-December Wednesday, I find myself at the river. How did I veer off the doggie track I followed day after day for months, block by block, patrolling the same precinct up the hill? How did I get down here to the river?

I know how, but must I say?

It was my guardian angel.

The seraphic couplet came out of nowhere (which is to say from heaven):

You live on one of the great waterways of the World
Go There

Sister Julia, with her pre-Vatican II tonic of faith and fantasy, predicted this might happen. If you need help, children, think of your guardian angel on your shoulder, close to your ear. Note: she was not telling seven-year-olds that an angel was perched on our shoulders. She did not lie. She invited us to conjure—first real imaginative act.

An organizing angel serves as well as saying I had a “brain wave.” Another lost midcentury concept, the brain wave, this one my mother’s, she who read Jeane Dixon’s newspaper horoscope for me—watery Pisces—every morning, encouraging a mind open to occult directives.

One of the great waterways of the World. The World, the World. Go There. Nothing had commanded as surely since the early-summer storm thundered in, delivering these months of confinement and mayhem to the leafy streets.

Standing at the river, finally I am … going somewhere. Not exactly traveling, but the river is. Look at it, the placid dark business on its implacable passage. Coursing with underwater sludge, its aspect serene, but in fact, churning and tugging under there, headed somewhere far away and foreign, taking with it what it can.

A boy in our class, Sister Julia’s, was lost larking around Raspberry Island with his older brother, fell in, couldn’t be saved. Jimmy Jack, a name out of a fairy tale. He was a boy a girl could play with. That was rare. He had the best smile, one front tooth was chipped, which was adorable. A card, a cutup. First love, I suppose, first loss.

Don’t go down to the river. That was then, when all forms of travel were forbidden. Don’t cross the street. Stay on the block. Stay home. Play with your dolls. Think of Jimmy Jack.

But it wasn’t Jimmy Jack that kept me away. A closed mind, not a fearful one, erased the river as a destination, confined me to the circuit of the residential blocks I call home. Like the old dog, I was keeping my head down.

Every late afternoon, I’m here now. The watery pastels and pearl grays give over to the black light of disappearing dusk. Sometimes the sky is orange, garish, sometimes a bruised rose. It’s been purple, aqua—name any shade.

You could walk and walk along the river—forever comes to mind. I’m aware of New Orleans at the end of this. Also downriver, Cairo, where Huck and Jim, lost in the fog, failed to turn into free territory. Sinclair Lewis opens Main Street with his girl, Carol, standing near here, On a hill by the Mississippi where Chippewas camped … a girl … in relief against the cornflower blue of Northern sky … a rebellious girl … the spirit of that bewildered empire called the American Middlewest.

I give it an hour or so—about four miles, from light into dark, the city winking downtown traffic red and green in one direction, and the planet-colored globes of the pedestal lamps marking this walkway headed north. Most evenings, no dog—she’s too old for this distance. And, forgive me, I’m losing patience with all your snuffling and rooting around in the fascinating, fragrant dirt.

Encampments, tents pitched along the path, overlook the river’s edge. You never see anyone outside, but they must be there, huddled inside the poly cocoons, the flimsier nylon fabric snapping, some nights, in the wind. Bundles, some of it trash, some possessions, a grocery cart as a vehicle parked near one tent. Once I heard someone singing. Or maybe a radio was in there. Much talk in the paper about “clearing” the camps. There have been fires. A propane heater went up, a woman burned to death, her tent fused to her body. The long-deferred winter is bound to show up, it always does. You can’t leave people outside, not here. But evening by evening, there they still are, the homes of those called homeless.

Set farther back, new condos and apartments built safely (they think) above the floodplain—expensive views from the big windows, monstrous TVs mounted on the walls of some places, a fitness center on the ground floor with cruel-looking machines in ranks, but no one there these lockdown months.

Across the water, pleasure boats are mounted on stilts in the Harriet Island boatyard, shrink-wrapped in ghost-white till spring. Grain barges and the tugs that push them are long gone downriver. The river is low, cottonwoods grip the exposed riverbed with arthritic roots. Everything that was alive in summer is bound up now and silent. Deathly it all seems, even the moonglow on water (it’s almost full moon). Why is this beautiful?

I head toward the Art Deco Robert Street Bridge. The lower loops, holding the cement span, give the bridge a romantic, unnecessary grace. A medallion, visible only from down here, reads Anno Domini 1925.

Two years later, in May 1927, Lucky Lindy came barnstorming back to Minnesota after his solo flight to Paris. He streaked along the river in St. Paul, and just here dipped the plane not above but, in a risky gesture, under the new bridge, skimming above the water. My father and his buddies, the Korlak boys, climbed the trestle to witness history. They somehow slung themselves onto the lower loops, holding to the sides of the stone as the Spirit of St. Louis swooped by within inches. They were 10 years old. “He wasn’t smiling,” my father said, who had heard about the famous shy smile. He became some kind of Nazi later. Still bemused by how things can turn out.

It seems only fair today, winter solstice, to bring her along just this once, for the late-afternoon river walk. Still keen for a squirrel, but she doesn’t strain at the leash as much as she once did. I’ve explained about pulling, and she finally seems to get it: At my age—I mustn’t fall. She’s old too, in fact older than I am, in her way of counting.

We walk along nicely, good dog.

Then, a gentle tug, not a pull, just a courteous request. We move off the path, closer to the river, to the patch of earth she has selected for her reasons. She crouches by a paper birch. The jingle comes on again. It’s come to this—she’s heard me say this aloud how many times this endless summer?

And then, surprise in my voice, I hear myself say as I look past her to the water, I get it. The dog turns from her crouch, regards me with the inquiring patience she practices after all these years together. I get it, I say again, marveling.

She looks up with some interest—finally something new from me. I can’t explain, I can’t spell it out (spelling it out, that’s writing). I can only pronounce the words that descend on us in the dark :

It’s come to the end.

I don’t say the other word—why bring death into it like that? Jimmy Jack is not the only one pulled under, though he was the first. He was the beginning, and now here we are at the river’s edge, where he introduced the subject.

The streetlight sheds so little light here, and the ground is dark. The river is a sheet of something shiny, glinting. And yes, it has begun to snow, finally the first big heavy flakes, massing into the work of winter. This is ending with a storm, as it began with one.

This she adores—snowflake and blowing leaf are as alive as squirrel or rabbit. Why can’t I understand that? The leash goes taut. I should speak to her, but I see her point, and let her pull us forward to the next lamppost, nearer the riverbank.

The river swallows everything, pulls relentlessly down but also out, out, far away. Oh, it will happen. We have no idea where we’re going. But where we find ourselves isn’t that extinguishing instant—not yet, apparently. You’ve arrived, at your age, not at the end exactly, but at the ending, the last chapter, maybe two?

As if life were a story. Well, it is, every life is. Think of the obits you scan every morning, noting the ages with some alarm, how everyone seems to go “peacefully.” Do they? Also, they “battled bravely.” Can both be true? Each a fiction?

Every story, we learned in school, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s the ending streaming before us now, and then headed out of sight at the turn that opens past the Art Deco bridge to the passage all the way down and out to the Gulf. Which is to say to the World, the place I’ve longed for.

And the nuns of my youth? True, most of them are gone, along with the walled convent school. But take this: a group of them moved from that lovely enclosure more than 30 years ago, and set up their monastic shop on the near north side of hard-luck Minneapolis. They chose the toughest part of town and settled in to be neighbors. Not teachers, not nurses or social workers. Neighbors who pray. Cookies figure in it. There they were, the nuns, this summer of murder and mayhem. Holding steady while the streets burned around them.

Life—It—has its stages here in SpaceTime. And now, standing by the side of the moving water, we have apparently achieved our destination, the ghostly This. We’re well launched into it, the final part of the story line, you and I.

I get it.

Really, truly, it has come to this.

Why so surprised, your head cocked at an angle?

Because I was immortal, old friend, until quite recently.

Shall we gather at the river,
Where bright angel feet have trod,
With its crystal tide forever
Flowing by the throne of God?

Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river ;
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God.

Soon we’ll reach the shining river ;
Soon our pilgrimage will cease;
Soon our happy hearts will quiver
With the melody of peace.

Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river ;
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God.

—Robert Lowry, 1864

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Patricia Hampl is the author of numerous books, including The Florist’s Daughter, A Romantic Education, I Could Tell You Stories, and The Art of the Wasted Day. She is Regents Professor of English emerita at the University of Minnesota.


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