Suzy hadn’t wanted to go for a walk. She’s a kindergarten teacher, and has been at Phalen Elementary for 27 years, in which time she’s learned a few words in five languages besides the English and Spanish that she knows – useful words like “thank you” and “please” and “bathroom” and “he did it.” Her students used to be Todd and Charlie and Mary and Kay. This year she has Shavani and Baako and Ajit. Some are dangerous to pronounce – Fuk and Fartuun, for instance – but she learns them and what they mean, and brags that her classroom – what I call the U.N. – could teach governments a thing or two about playing well with others. She’s probably right. But the job wears her out. Kindergarten used to be about blocks and naps and milk in little cartons. The only thing you’d learn was how to line up. Now it’s math and reading and writing and going on field trips to the science museum and the Minnesota Prairie Farm. She’s tired when she gets home, always has more work to do, and on a Tuesday evening, even one as pretty as this with the autumn sunset and the smell of football in the air, she’d just as soon curl up on the couch.
“Besides,” she says, “it’ll be dark soon, Tommy. I don’t know that I feel safe.”
But I do. She’s overreacting, I think, to a couple of high profile crimes that happened near the lake – a fight by the picnic area that blinded a guy; a cop ambushed on Shore Drive as he was writing up a speeding ticket. They’ve beefed up security, I tell her. It’s our lake. We have a right to our lives, our liberties, our pursuits of happiness. The fate of the free world hangs in the balance!
When I say fine, I’ll go alone, she puts on her walking shoes.
But leaving our house is about as easy as pulling troops out of an occupied country. When the kids were home – we have two, Jenny, now married and living in Des Moines with her lawyer husband, and Thomas Jr., who’s spent the last two years working on an organic farm in Oregon, which is, apparently, what philosophy majors do – when the kids were home, I blamed them for our troubles getting out the door. Jenny would scream and hold herself stiff if there was the slightest wrinkle in her socks or she could feel the seam on her toes. Thomas was always shocked we were going anywhere, even if you’d reminded him every five minutes for the last hour, and one or the other would forget something, which we’d realize after about a block, and we’d return for a swimming suit, a tennis racket, a pillow, pants. Now it’s all on Suzy. First she breaks a shoelace, which sends us combing the house, Suzy swearing she just bought some. Then she can’t find the sweatshirt she wants, a hand-me-down hoodie from Thomas with North Polars on the front and a bear that’s supposed to look fierce but actually looks drunk.
“The cuddly one,” she says.
We’re barely out the door – the laces were in with the Tupperware, the sweatshirt in the bathroom cupboard (who organizes this house?) – when Lynette, our neighbor, pops up from behind her shrubs like one of those whack-a-moles – which, come to think of it, she strongly resembles: wild hair, kind of thick in the cheeks and around the middle, while the rest of her – arms, legs, nose, chin – is as sharp and angular as her personality. “About those day lilies,” she says, and I’m wishing we’d gone out the back door. “You going to do something about those?” and I’m fantasizing that I have a big whack-a-mole mallet.
Lynette means well, Suzy always tells me. I don’t believe it. I think she tries to be annoying, gets some sort of pleasure out of it, like Iago or Rush Limbaugh, enjoys when others suffer. How else do you explain that she spends half her day listening to a police radio and announcing the latest crimes to the neighborhood? How else do you explain that she called city hall when we were remodeling a bathroom to check if we had the right permit? When Jenny was two and throwing a fit, she called the cops to report abuse. After she left Thomas’ graduation open house, she called them again to report too many people in our house. She’s complained about our lawn, our flowers, our patio, and the color of both my car (she found the blue “offensive”) and the walls in my study – which she could only see by looking in the window. Her own property she guards like it’s the border with Mexico. She must have 20 baseballs that once belonged to my son, and every fall she rakes the leaves from our maple back into our yard. She’s a nut job, I say, certifiable. She’s just high strung, Suzy says, and lonely. I say that I can see why.
“They’ll take over my yard too,” Lynette says, and Suzy transforms into kindergarten teacher before my eyes and starts ticking off behavior management strategies:
— “Oh, my lilies are beginning to spread, aren’t they?” (listen actively).
— “Your roses sure have held up well” (redirect attention).
— “Prettiest on the lake, I’d say” (reinforce positively).
— “Well, we’re going for a walk” (keep eye contact), and Lynette looks like she’s been sent to timeout.
Suzy does that to me too.
# # #
Phalen’s a public lake on the upper-east side of St. Paul – the unfashionable side, which is why we can afford to live there. It’s beautiful, really, surrounded by parks and a biking/walking path about four miles long. In the summer: golf and kayaking and beach volleyball; in the winter: ice fishing, ice-skating, ice palace – and, every January, car races on the ice, the only motorized vehicles allowed on the lake. Still, Phalen suffers low self-esteem. It’s neither as hip as its little cousin to the west, Lake Como, with its neat little brick houses and zoo, nor as wealthy as White Bear Lake to the north, which banned F. Scott Fitzgerald in the 1920s for being naughty but welcomed the likes of Ma Barker and Pretty Boy Floyd in the 1930s (gangsters, apparently, make better neighbors than writers). It doesn’t help that the lake gets its name from Edward Phelan, an Irishman who settled here in the mid-1800s. His claim to fame? Committing the first murder in St. Paul.
Suzy and I are rounding the north shore by the St. Paul Cabins, square little red shacks that look like Monopoly houses except for the black shingles and the junk in the yards – rusted-out campers, a few motorcycles, a sofa. They used to be vacation rentals, but now they’re low-income homes, and we’re talking about our kids – or more specifically, our fears for our kids – because this is what you talk about when you’ve been married for thirty years and your kids are in their 20s. I’d like to say we talk about our hopes for our kids, what great things they’ll do and challenges they’ll conquer. Instead, Suzy says what kind of career can Thomas have? Itinerant farm worker? He can’t do that when he’s older. I say, what about Jenny? Can you really be happy in Des Moines?
And this is what parenting is. By my calculations, in the 26 years since our daughter was born, Suzy and I have enjoyed a total of 17 minutes free of worry – all of them coming just after Jenny was born, before we realized what we’d gotten ourselves into. Is this the best formulae? Is his head too small, his ears too big? Will she be too thin or too fat? Are her friends a good influence? Is this the right school, the right class, the right major, the right husband? Will he be bullied or bully? And what, dear lord, will make them happy? We’ve worried not just about their behavior, but the effectiveness of our responses to their behavior. And then we second-guess our responses. Freud was wrong: it’s not your parents who screw you up; it’s your children.
“I mean, anyway,” says Suzy, “what sort of health insurance does that organic farm offer?” We’re rounding the swampy area that connects Phalen to Round and three other small lakes – you can kayak through there when the water is high – when she points over to the weeds and says, “hey, invisible dead guy, right?” and I say, on cue, “too bad he never showed up.”
This is one of our comedy routines, one of those worn family anecdotes that you haul out every Thanksgiving or something, knowledge of which proves your membership in the tribe. There’s nothing too it, really – a few years ago a guy stopped me while I was running and asked me to check out what he thought was a dead body over in the trees – but you dress up a story like that in jokes and mock heroics and it’s good for a laugh. What I don’t say, but think again now, is just how spooky that whole thing was.
Like I said, it was a few years ago. It was later than I usually run, and I was startled when this man appeared from the trees in front of me. The sun was about as low as it is now and setting behind him, so for a moment he was just a dark silhouette beside dark evergreens, and he was walking fast and looking first behind him and then at me, a two-dimensional figure in an abstract landscape. “Please,” he said in an accent I couldn’t place, and as he approached, the shadow became a person, a young black man wearing a stocking cap and Vikings jersey and the kind of shoes that I associate with nurses. “Please,” he said, “can you help?” He gestured toward the woods. “There’s something back there, a person, I think, in blankets.”
So I walked into the trees with this guy, who stayed a few feet behind me, and I was thinking that I don’t have my wallet – I’m in running shorts and a t-shirt – so there’s nothing he can steal, but I do have my house keys, and if this guy jumps me, what will I do? About thirty yards in there’s something on the ground in front of some long cattails, but I couldn’t make out what it was. I was thinking this would be a good setup for an ambush and looked around to see if anyone was hiding behind a tree or something, and then I thought, geez, I’ve seen way too many television shows. “There, right there,” the guy said, and pointed at what I was already looking at. “That’s someone, yes?” It was all shadow, but I thought I could make out blankets, maybe in the shape of a body.
Remember when you were little and convinced something was in your closet and it was late and your parents were sleeping? Remember how slowly you walked to that closet door, how you crouched just a little with each step, and the familiar world, your room, filled with magic and terror and you could feel the carpet under your feet and hear yourself breathing and it’s all you could do to keep from shaking? It was like that as I approached, convincing myself I’m brave just long enough to nudge that bundle on the ground with my foot like I’m eight years old and turning the doorknob to my dark bedroom closet, waiting for something to spring.
But it didn’t. It was just a pile of blankets. When I turned around to show the guy, though, he was gone. I mean, vanished. No trace. No sound. And the sense of relief turned into a cold creepiness, the park having morphed into something out of The Brothers Grimm, and I dropped the blankets and sprinted back to the path. Thankfully, there were people walking the lake and biking. I started feeling silly when I stopped shaking.
“Never showed up,” I say again to Suzy. But I have the shivers now thinking about it, and I wiggle my shoulders like my son used to do when he’d eaten something sour.
Suzy is dealing with her own species of shiver. She’s had hot flashes for going on a year now, and they’re meeting, I tell her, exactly none of my needs. They usually attack at night. I’ll be sleeping, the outside air cool, but toasty under our comforter, when Suzy, in a move Romanian gymnasts envy, throws every blanket we have to the floor in one fluid motion. Menopause, apparently, has given my wife the strength of ten men. “Oh, my God,” she’ll say, “I’m so hot I can’t stand it.” Two minutes later she’ll be freezing.
She’s passed the flash stage now, and though she’s still sweating, she’s scrambling to get her sweatshirt back on before the chill sets in. “Worse than being pregnant,” she says, and I agree. When she was pregnant, she was also … well, amorous. Now she can’t stand to be touched. Like I said, meeting none of my needs.
“Come on,” I say, “we’ll walk fast,” and we go to it like it’s a race – which is a good thing, because there’s only a sliver of sun left in the sky.
If you were watching us from, say, the picnic tables or from the beach further down the path – which no one is; the park is nearly empty now – you’d think what you were seeing was unremarkable, just another couple walking together. You’d be wrong. What you are actually seeing, but not noticing, is success, one negotiated over many years, the lessons of which I have developed in my theory of marriage – a theory Suzy refuses to take seriously, but which I think worthy of a book, maybe a Nobel Prize, certainly an appearance on Oprah. The key to a lasting marriage, I contend, is not shared interests, goals, friends, values; it’s not patience or respect, forgiveness or fidelity, commitment or communication, or even the three L’s of relationship: love, luck, lowered expectations – none of the usual suspects. The key to a lasting marriage? Pace.
At least that’s the key to ours. That other stuff is crucial, no doubt – who’ll stick with an impatient cheater who holds a grudge? But everybody knows that. What the counselors and marriage books don’t tell you is how annoying it is if your spouse is always either five steps ahead of you or ten steps behind. This has been the great challenge of our marriage. Suzy, you see, is soothed by stillness. She is thoughtful, deliberate, happy to arrive late, smell the begonias, immerse in the moment. In other words: slow. Me? I live my life as if I have a plane to catch. This means, I argue, that I have a healthy respect for time. Suzy says I have ants in my pants.
Want your marriage to reach old age? Walk at the same speed.
Which Suzy and I are doing. We’ve passed the picnic area and band shell and we’re not talking now, just climbing the slow incline toward the boathouse when I spot three guys fishing off the walking bridge up ahead. They’re mid-20s, as far as I can tell in the dim light, jeans, v-neck undershirts, one with a baseball cap turned backwards and what looks like a liter of whiskey in his left hand. And as we start across the bridge, he turns, puts his elbows on the railing, and takes a long look at Suzy. Then he grabs his crotch and says, “whoa there, babe,” and I think, oh, shit, what now.
Suzy is a city girl. She grew up on the south side of Chicago, taking the crowded el to a public school that had more gangs than it had sports programs. She knows how to handle male stupidity. They’re like wild dogs, she’ll explain. Don’t escalate the tension. Avoid eye contact and hurry past – which is what she is doing when baseball cap says, “what, you don’t even say hi, bitch,” and I feel my shoulders tighten and a cold wave moves from my lower back to my scalp, and I stop and look at him. See, I’m not from the city. I grew up in Bigelow, Minnesota. Population 231.
I’d like to claim that I said something cool here, maybe something reasonable that would show I was unflappable, or something friendly and amusing to defuse the situation through humor, or I’d even take saying something witty, if only to make it a better story for my friends later, like correcting his grammar or pronunciation or asking if he’s accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior – that would at least throw him off. Truth is, I am feeling more annoyed than I am sensing danger – though I’m protecting my family, I know – and what I do say is, “What, we can’t even walk around the lake?” in the same disgusted tone I used on my son when he was 14 and heaved a baseball through the picture window.
This delights baseball cap. “We got a live one here,” he says and raises his hands and shakes his head like a dog that’s just come out of the water. For a moment I think maybe he’s drunk, unstable on his feet. Then he smiles at his buddies, who smile back, and he walks up to me slowly like a gunslinger in a Western, lose-limbed and menacing, sticking out his chin and chest, keeping the bottle at his side like he’s going to draw. “Real tough guy,” he says.
Two things instantly become clear to me: 1) baseball cap is bigger than I thought – or I am smaller. He’s not offensive-lineman big, there’s no slow pudginess to him. He’s more like a guy who’s worked road construction, who handles a jackhammer for eight hours in the sun every day, all lean muscle and sinew, with skin that looks like leather. 2) Some people like to fight. They are not full of threat and bluster, like I am, but genuinely enjoy violence, the feel of fist on face, and they are willing to risk taking a few blows for the amusement of the thing or the challenge of it or the power it gives them. Some people like to fight the way others like to play tennis or cards or Yahtzee. I am not one of those people. Baseball cap is.
I take a few steps back and turn to look at Suzy. She’s about 10 yards down the path, looking back at me, and clearly scared. “Tommy,” she says, and I can hear the pleading in her voice, the way it wavers, not the sharp voice of the teacher. “Let’s go, Tommy.”
Baseball cap thinks this is hilarious. “Oh, Tommy,” he sings. “Tommy, Tommy,” like we’re on the playground, like he’s stealing my milk money. He’s dancing around now, knees high, arms swinging. “Let’s go, little Tommy,” he chants. “Poor little Tommy,” and he shoves me from behind.
I stagger a bit and then start walking, fast. Suzy’s walking too, glancing over her shoulder at me, staying a few yards ahead. I’m praying he lets us go. “Tommy, he’s coming,” she says, and then “Tommy,” she says, pleading, “he’s –“ and I cover my head and turn to face him.
Baseball cap stops. His friends are still back on the bridge – he doesn’t need them – and he’s not smiling or chanting now. He takes a few steps back and sets his bottle on the ground. “Yeah, Tommy, let’s go,” he says.
It’s dark now. Individual trees have become a solid black canvas in the background, and the moon and stars and streetlights reflect off the lake. There’s no one else around. It’s so calm, the air so still and clean that I’d call it beautiful if it weren’t for a kind of ringing in my ears and the problem I’m having perceiving things. It’s like when you’re in an accident and some things move in slow motion, when the car first begins to skid, and other things move in a fast whoosh that takes your breath and leaves you numb. It’s like watching a quick pan in a movie where everything’s distorted to a blurred line of light, and then you focus on one thing or another that you can’t really put in context. I can see the guy’s belt buckle. It’s silver and black, with a motorcycle riding out of the mouth of a skull below the words “fear no evil.” I can see a park bench made of concrete with wooden slats that need painting. I can see the house lights from across the lake, one of them mine, and they look miles away. I am 52 years old. I haven’t taken a punch since 7th grade, when Billy Lenz, my best friend in the whole world, took a swing at CJ Stevens in the lunchroom, and when he missed, his fist landed on my cheek. Billy apologized like crazy while I sat down on the floor and tried not to cry.
Baseball cap is prancing now, like a boxer in the ring, loosening his shoulders and juking in and out, like a parody of violence, like a Saturday Night Live skit gone bad. I’m standing there, hands at my sides, thinking how stupid this whole thing is. I haven’t a clue what expression is on my face because I haven’t a clue what to feel. “Oh,” he says, leaning in towards me, “what are you, scared?”
And yes, I think, I am scared. But I’m scared by far more than a punk kid in a park trying to prove himself to himself, by more even than my own helplessness. I’m scared of the whole fallen mess, of all things mean and cruel and petty, of everything that did and did not and everything that will and will not happen, scared for everyone else who worries and frets about the time when the blankets aren’t empty. I’m scared of it all, in fact, of all the monsters – every last one of them – that have ever hidden in a child’s closet. “Yes,” I say, and then louder, “yes, I’m scared, ok?”
And the whole thing screeches to a halt. It’s like a freight train hitting the brakes. You can almost hear metal on metal.
“Oh, God,” he says, and his whole body deflates. He stands there for several seconds, kind of stooped, hands on his knees, like he’s trying to catch his breath, and he’s looking down at the ground or at his feet or something, and then he looks up at me and he’s not a belt buckle now or a baseball cap, and he shakes his head slowly as he straightens and walks up to me. “I’m sorry, man,” he says quietly, and he pats me on the shoulder like he’s trying to console me. “I didn’t mean to – I just – ” He takes my hand awkwardly and shakes it. “People like you, you shouldn’t be out this late. It’s dark. You guys need to be careful.”
“Yeah,” I say, and I’m wondering how to respond. Is this some trick? He doesn’t need tricks to win this fight. Do I tell him it’s all ok, that I don’t mind being threatened? Do I wait for a hug? A punch? More advice? What? I’m more confused now than I was before. In what universe does it makes sense to feel fine about hitting a guy, but bad for scaring him?
“I’m Mike,” he says, and he shakes Suzy’s hand too, like they’re meeting at an office party. She’s looking at him funny, like she’s figuring out a crossword puzzle. “This isn’t safe. Some bad people here. You have any problems, I live just over on Sherwood. Blue house. Ask for Mike.”
I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t laugh. I’m less sure if it’s ok for me to leave now. Do I ask permission? Do I thank him? Are we going to exchange phone numbers, plan a dinner date?
“Not Mike Tesdahl,” Suzy says from behind me, kind of surprised, and for the first time I really do want to punch someone. I don’t want Mike’s protection. Or his friendship. I just want to get out of there.
“Yeah,” he says.
“Mikey Tesdahl,” Suzy says, all perky like it’s parents night. “I had you and your sister in kindergarten.”
# # #
In 1839 Edward Phelan was accused of killing his partner John Hayes, who was found beaten to death and floating in the Mississippi River not far from Phelan’s land claim. A particularly gruesome murder. Phelan was kept at Fort Snelling before being moved to Wisconsin for trial, and nearby settlers, who had often heard the two arguing and Phelan threatening, testified against him. Hayes was well liked, Phelan wasn’t. The jury, though, wasn’t convinced by the scant evidence, and Phelan was acquitted. When a Dakota Indian then confessed to the murder, few in St. Paul believed him.
Some years later, having lost his first claim but having made several others in the area, Phelan was again in trouble. He was indicted for perjury by the first grand jury in Ramsey County, Minnesota. Phelan fled before he could be arrested. He headed west with some prospectors, and it was on his way to California that he was murdered – by those travelling with him. They claimed self-defense. Phelan had been acting strangely, and they became afraid of what he might do.
And you tell me what it all means.
Front page image of Lake Phalen in 1905 from the Minnesota Historical Society.