Late one winter evening…
So the love of my life and I went to a winter solstice celebration at Saint Brigit’s, because of course WTF else does one do the longest dark night of the year?
And it was a beautiful thing, with the singin’ and the music and the dark and the light and the bonfire at the end and I imagined meeting Niall Noígíallach in a stone hovel in Donegal.
And feelin’ holier than we’ve felt in months, with a full moon lightin’ the way, we made our way to a local establishment and bellied up to the bar…
…and I asked the young man behind the bar what he had in the way of an Irish whiskey as I saw none on the shelves behind him…
…and he says to me, he says, “We don’t have Irish whiskey, but we have 47 craft beers and a list of other spirits that you don’t really want and what can I getcha ta eat?”
Now there was a time I’d have stood up and left, but we made the best of a bad situation and drank some bourbon with milk stout and bitters and orange peels and whatnot and had a nice solstice evening after all was said and done.
And what did you do on the last Friday evening before Christmas in 2018?
No one has asked me yet, but I have the answer.
The question has to do with the title of my new Detective Red Shaw novel: North of Grand.
Why that? I’m glad you asked.
Much of Des Moines, Iowa, is north of Grand Avenue. It cuts through the city east to west – or west to east, depending on your point of view.
I was born there, grew up there, and lived there for a long time. I worked there. Mrs. Smith and I bought our first house there, a block north of I-235 in a neighborhood known as North of Grand. We lived there when our son was born.
South of Grand was another world. It’s where my mother took me and my five siblings on occasion to marvel and gawk at big, beautiful, expensive homes when we were kids. They were especially awe-inspiring when lit up for the holidays. She took us to a different neighborhood on the southeast side sometimes, too, to see how the truly poor people lived.
We were somewhere between rich and poor, a family of seven in a three-bedroom home on Merle Hay Road. (Why seven? One divorced woman plus six kids. She slept on the sofa.)
In high school I worked at a pharmacy just a block north of Grand Avenue, delivering prescriptions to old ladies in the neighborhood, driving a car with a manual transmission that I learned to operate in a panic on my very first day on the job.
The same little store housed the best soda fountain around, with real ice cream made right in the store. I served malts and shakes and cherry cokes and lime phosphates and great sandwiches and other treats to pretty Catholic girls from the nearby high school, to the friendly florist from across the street, to other people that I don’t remember quite so well.
I was a drug-running soda jerk. Last time I checked, the soda fountain was still there.
The people and the crimes portrayed in North of Grand are purely imaginary. Really bad things do happen in Des Moines, of course, but none that I’ve witnessed.
A young guy did threaten to kill me and a friend when we were in high school, but we managed to talk him out of it. One night years later someone reached in our son’s bedroom window at our little house on Iola Avenue and took off with a diaper bag, but that’s the closest thing to crime that came our way.
All things considered, Des Moines is a pretty good place to live or to be from. We’ve been away for years now, but it never seems that long ago.
North of Grand is in my blood. It’s in my bones.
The Smith Compound has taken up temporary residence in far northwestern Montana. We are surrounded in our little borrowed cabin by pine forest, the faint smell of smoke, and a fence high enough to keep hungry deer from eating the neat flower gardens that decorate our well-watered grounds.
The first thing you see inside the cabin’s front door is a canister of bear spray on a window ledge. As I sit here on the front porch typing, I can’t help but wonder if it is there just in case a grizzly decides to ignore the fence and the massive gate in the driveway, or as a courtesy for us to borrow when we venture out for a hike. We did bring our own, and I will not hesitate to use it should my hiking companion prove able to outrun me.
Mountains are a rumor to the east through haze that lifted but once yesterday on our trip from Pacific time in and around Coeur d’Alene, which is widely known as CDA in the lingo of northern Idaho.
A road trip gives a body time to think, as I was doing yet again just now until a pine cone bounced off the deck a few feet from where I sit. A barely perceptible rustle in the branches 30 feet above me gave away the perpetrator, who I swear gave me a squirrelly scowl as he came head-first down the trunk of the pine a couple of minutes later.
If I remember correctly, I’d been thinking about loose ends, of which there are many in every life of any length. They multiply as time goes by. Earlier this morning, back when the cabin’s wifi was within reach, I came across some true words about fiction and how we don’t always get the endings we want. An author can surprise us, disappoint us, confound us. Sometimes characters surprise the author and do or say things their creator could not or did not foresee.
Nonfiction is much the same. Characters surprise and disappoint. Body parts and murder weapons are not always found. Bad guys go unpunished. The innocent go to prison. Things we should say and do go unsaid and undone. We can confound ourselves.
Looking back, with open minds, we see loose ends dangling here and there like fishing lures caught on a wire by the lake road. With luck, we see tidy resolutions somewhere back there, too.
As someone who just acknowledged* the passing of yet another year since my birth, I couldn’t help but reflect a bit on how long I’ve been around.
I suspect some think I’m kidding when they hear me say I’m surprised to be here. While I am happily surprised, I am serious nonetheless. I would never have predicted this.
My written reflection will be brief, but the day and its inexplicable milestone status had me thinking more than usual about family and friends who died far, far too young.
I miss them. I hope to honor them this year by making it one of my best as a husband, father, grandfather, brother and friend.
* Celebrated would be an exaggeration. My actual age in human years is irrelevant unless you’re going to offer me a discount on something.
I mentioned recently that I know what to do when my nemesis comes skulking around, wrecking my mood, sapping my energy, and sometimes rendering me grouchier than usual. It took me a good while to figure it out some years ago.
Your own path back to the technicolor world is unique to you, but these things help me:
- Bicycling. I’ve said before and it proved true for me again over the weekend, exercise always helps. You don’t have to ride fast or far, but ride — or run or walk or do something else that suits your capabilities and makes you feel good.
- Talk about it or write about it. I’ve done both, the first with Mrs. Smith and with professionals on occasion, the second right here and elsewhere. Great combination for me.
It isn’t always easy to act. Getting results can take time.
Now, back to the final edit of my new crime novel.
My nemesis had not stopped by in many months, maybe years, to remind me that it was still there, waiting. It returned almost imperceptibly.
The thing arrived in recent days like Sandburg’s fog, on little cat feet, while my attention was somewhere else. By this morning all the vibrant colors of the world had faded to black and white and then to drab shades of grey.
Sleep is a haven and waking unwelcome. Numbness is a blessing.
Now that I recognize the old signs I’d almost forgotten, I know what to do, what help I need to send this depression back to its dark lair. Maybe someday it will remain there.
For now, a little patience. Soon it will move on, and so will I.