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How We Become Men
June 30, 2007 - 4:25pm

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We’ll be traveling for a few days, and I expect my posts to be intermittent next week, so here’s a long tale about how we’re educated into responsibility.

A few years ago, Miss Wallace and I were backpacking around Europe and took the train up to Scotland to meet her family. When we left Inverness, her Uncle Lou took us for a long walk down the Caledonian Canal and was near tears to see us go—or was it that he wished he could go with us? His wife, nearly old enough to be his mother, was fighting cancer, and Lou had been unemployed for a decade, not uncommon in Inverness. “Glad to have you in the family, son,” he told me, gripping my hand, and the word rang in my ears until we got back to London.

Three years passed. Lou’s wife died, as did Miss Wallace’s father. Miss Wallace and I moved to Inner Station, got married, bought our house, and Mrs. Churm got pregnant. I tried to stay in touch with Lou and sent him occasional parcels of books. He was a great reader and a nut for older American pop culture, especially noirish detective novels, cowboy stories and other things of the mythical West, and bourbon.

Suddenly he announced he would come to the States for a visit, on the eve of Starbuck’s birth, and be here to help us after the baby was born. We were thrilled. He’d stay with my mother-in-law, his sister, who lived a few miles from us. Like most of the women in his life, May was older. She had helped raise him and retained the right to treat him like a child, despite the fact that he was approaching 60 and had served in the Royal Navy, been a lorry driver, and was once chief of security at Blackpool Airport.

Lou had always wanted to see the Mississippi River, and I thought that he and I might drive out to St. Louis and Hannibal, a last blast before fatherhood. I bought him one of my favorite books, Life on the Mississippi, which Mark Twain wrote as a warm-up to Huck Finn, and after searching everywhere found him an old map of the lower River on ebay—not exactly contemporaneous to Twain, but close—so he could reference the places Twain mentions. I spent an hour in the best liquor store in town perusing bourbons and finally chose for Lou a bottle of small-batch from a distillery known for quality, not quantity. It set me back 75 bucks, but it was worth it.

While he was here, Lou couldn’t drive. Mrs. Churm was still working, her mom was helping prepare the nursery, and my semester was three weeks from being ended, so Lou walked a lot, from May’s apartment in a complex just built on the fringes of town. We felt a little guilty about this, but walking is a great point of pride with the Scots, and Inverness is built on rolling hills, so Lou was as healthy as a bear cub and easily walked three miles to campus and back, six miles to the mall. Sometimes he rode the bus around town, “to get the lay of the land.” He was gone hours each day, returning with funny tales about his perambulations. You’d have thought he was exploring Rome, not some banal Midwestern town. We were happy he was happy. There were so many things to be done.

Lou and I could see the road trip wasn’t going to happen—the baby could come any day now—so we went to a little bar in Inner Station, at the suggestion of May, who after 50 years in the States still believed men should head down the pub sometimes without the company of women. (She has the beliefs of her generation and culture; she’ll insist on paying for our meal in a restaurant, but if we allow it, she makes me take her money and pay the bill myself. That’s what men do.)

Lou loved the place and quickly ordered for both of us, something very American, he said: Jack Daniel’s, and some beer called Wisconsin Club. He paid over my protests, so I said I’d get the next round, which he ordered before we’d finished the drinks in front of us. He kept them coming. Pint and a shot. Pint and a shot. Say it a dozen times. Somewhere in there he told me the problems of an empire that had collapsed in on itself—“those people” coming to the UK from the former colonies to take native Britons’ work. Never mind, he said, that he’d lost his job as a trucker due to a DUI. He expounded on race. I planted my feet on the floor in case I had to get out the door quickly, even though Lou was an older man with the comical good looks of a young Walter Matthau , and no doubt many townies would share his views, if they understood his thesis. He somewhat aggressively demanded to know what was wrong with academics these days, why Rudyard Kipling wasn’t being taught to young people. He started quoting “Gunga Din.” I managed to turn the conversation to military service, and in our comparisons of that life he made me promise not to tell his big sister he’d gone to naval prison for a time. We staggered home, holding each other up like regimental chums. My wife and his sister were waiting for us.

I woke the next morning, unfortunately. When I thought how I could have missed the birth of my first son by acting so stupidly, I started throwing up and didn’t stop for 24 hours. Lou was fine. Lou made a proper Scottish cooked breakfast on our stove—the smell nearly killed me—and took our dog for a long walk, in part to get away from his sister, who wanted to know what he’d done to me. He said he couldn’t imagine what was wrong; we’d only had two beers.

Now, having had our fun, it was time to get to that work he was to help me with. We started with cleaning the rain gutters, 30 feet off the ground. Lou almost dropped the ladder through one of our eight-foot antique windows, so I said I’d set it up myself. He admitted he had a little fear of heights, and I said I’d climb up if he’d just hold the ladder steady. We talked for a while, me up high, him far below. I had my hand in the gutter and felt the ladder list in a wind gust. I looked down to see if he had me, but he’d wandered off to look at the front of the house.

When he helped me spot-seal the roof, he tracked black tar onto our white Berber rug. And so on. I couldn’t imagine that a man of his age and experience could be so inept, but that would mean he was calculating, and that was impossible. We relegated him to dog walking, since he loved it as much as our hyper Black Lab did. Even then, something always went wrong—the dog cut its foot, and we discovered in the inquiry phase that Lou had been walking it in the abandoned lot by the railroad tracks; another time, he allowed Count Tolstoy to chew his expensive retractable leash until it broke, and it had to go in the garbage.

My wife was overdue; her mom was focused on her. Much work fell to me, on top of teaching and grading. I’d be cutting the grass and see Lou sitting on a picnic bench in front of an apartment complex a block away, our dog at his feet, chewing its new leash, and Lou sipping from a big bottle of what looked like soda. He became more open about stopping for lunch on his daily rambles and reported on the fascinating people he met in those bars. If May said she needed dish soap or a loaf of bread, he walked two miles down a five-lane highway to the Wal-Mart. I suddenly remembered they sold beer and wine there, and maybe liquor. Once he returned with a quart of vodka. May asked what he was going to do with that. He said it was made in Russia, and he’d only had to pay $15 for it. What was that, nine quid? America was amazing, really.

Starbuck was born, and I’m afraid I forgot about Lou for a week or two. But like any story, this one needed a conclusion, and Lou was a good enough storyteller to provide one. As a going-away gift, May spent the entire last day of Lou’s visit preparing a traditional feast—roast lamb studded with garlic, vinegary mint sauce, mashed potatoes, mashed rutabaga, Yorkshire pudding and gravy, good wine, better sherry, a trifle for dessert, and little plum puddings with brandy butter. She was sweating, even panting, under the cross she chose to bear, and maybe she snapped at Lou, who wasn’t allowed to help because he was the guest of honor. In any case, he was about to saddle up Count Tolstoy and head out the door, when Mrs. Churm, Starbuck, and I came back from somewhere. In the confusion, Lou or May threw open the front door and left it, and the Count ran out into the traffic in front of our car. Mrs. Churm shouted some things at her mom and uncle that made me blush.

But the dog was eventually caught, the howling baby put to nap; May returned to her cooking, and it was only then we noticed that Uncle Lou had snuck off without a word. When he’d been gone about four hours, and dinner had begun drying out, I was tasked with looking for him. I was the man, after all. If my being a man didn’t work, we’d start calling the hospitals and police.

The question for me was simply which bar he was in. There were four or five within blocks of our house, but after that, the others were miles away. Lou knew the lay of the land by then, and I knew that he was hurt and peeved and wouldn’t have wanted to wait for a drink. He wasn’t in the first three I checked, but when I drove to the one across from the hospital where Starbuck was born, I saw him. Lou was pissing on a sycamore tree on the grounds of the Catholic Church in my neighborhood.

It was a fair summer evening, and the sun wouldn’t be down for hours. When I pulled up to the curb, Lou hid against the trunk of the tree, like a little boy who thinks if he hides his face, you can’t see him. I called and called to him, and he finally peeked out at me and dissolved in laughter. He got in the car only after I said the police were likely to come.

“Why, lad?” he said. “All I was doing was answering the call of nature. Are Americans so priggish they can’t stand for that either?”

I assured him our police would beat him within an inch of his life for it. I also told him he’d better sober up, best he could, in the two minutes it would take to get to our house, because May was mightily displeased. He was surprised at that but said it was no bother.

It was a bother, of course, especially after he fed his lamb and mashed to our dog with his fork. No one but Count Tolstoy enjoyed the dinner. May, grim-lipped, got him in her car, and I felt a little sorry for him as the doors shut and she started in on him, silently, behind the windshield. I had to go clean up.

The next morning, even though the baby had kept us awake all night, we got ourselves over to May’s place to see Lou off. They’d made up, evidently, and Lou didn’t apologize. He looked fit and was happy to be embarking on another journey. I presented him with the Twain book and the map, and he glanced at them then began to tell me where he’d gone drinking the night before, as if I didn’t know. I just nodded, and this seemed to irritate him slightly.

“There’s some really good people down at Leon’s Lounge,” he said pointedly. “Really good, down-to-earth, genuine people.”

I took this to mean that they didn’t teach in a university. They’d appreciate Kipling as he did. They wouldn’t shirk from a road trip with their mates on account of some baby, and they could hold their liquor. They liked to have fun. Something in me snapped. I did have a baby boy now, and Mrs. Churm was having postpartum issues, and Baby Louie here got to waltz in and out like some 60-year old fool. Maybe I was a little jealous. I’d never be allowed to be a baby again.

I’d hesitated with the bourbon, since it wasn’t doing his health any good, obviously, and I could probably return it, but of course he’d seen the bag. I handed it to him, told him where it came from, what made it special, and said, “Here you go, you son-of-a-bitch, I hope you choke on it. I hope you chug it down before your flight leaves the ground, and the air marshals put you in irons. And by the way, I hate your politics.”

Obviously, what I really said was, “Great to have you here, Lou. Please, plan to come back again soon.” I shook his hand warmly and smiled.

“I’ve never heard of this one,” he said, inspecting the bottle. “I know they don’t serve it at Leon’s Lounge.”

 

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