Monday, July 31, 2006

Post Holes 2

Fifteen post holes. That's the penance I got for wishing a similar fate on Ben. But as I lifted the post hole digger and thrust it at the ground, it didn't seem so bad.

As I dug each hole, sweat ran down my forehead, and I thought of digging post holes in the limestone and caliche of Central Texas. And I heard the sawing and pounding of Burt and Jenny and Colin in the attic. And I thought of Tom running power cables up walls and across rafters and coaxing hot, twisted wires into junction boxes and outlets and switches.

I stood there with my back to the lake, a cool breeze blowing off the water, the sun dancing at my feet from the forest canopy above. With each thrust of the digger, I pulled up large, damp, cool clumps of yellow Western Michigan sand and made fifteen little piles.

No, fifteen post holes in that place wasn't hard justice.

I got off way easy.

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 Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Tree I Planted

The heat beat down from the sky this afternoon as the patch of shade I was working in moved inch by inch away from me, leaving me in the direct sun digging and chopping at the dead roots of a Redbud tree. I would swing a few times and then dig with the shovel and finally scoop with my hands, and then I would retreat to a chair in the shade of the Arroyo Sweetwood I planted near that spot more than 15 years ago.

I planted this Redbud 18 years ago. From a skinny sapling, it had grown tall and reached to the branches of the Oaks that surrounded it, but it rarely blossomed, and last year it gave up the ghost. Now it was an eyesore, for the house is on the market, and who wants the dead stump of an 18 year old Redbud in front of the house you're trying to sell?

And so because I planted it those many years ago, I offered to chop it down. And while I did so, the sun sought me out and beat down on me from the blue sky above, and the tree clung desperately to the caliche and clay with a persistence I had not expected.

Inch by inch. Root by root. Rock by rock. As the sun beat down. I cut down the tree I planted.

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 Thursday, July 27, 2006

Grandma's Cafe

1. Waiting

Grandma's Cafe is on Bathhouse Row, across from the row of refurbished spas. It's just the kind of restaurant you'd expect to see in some town pulled out of 1950s mid-America — a narrow room filled with tables, hustling waiters and waitresses, a busy cash register.

Grits. They had grits. Cheese grits. And they had hashbrowns. So after looking at the menu, we smiled.

We were seated quickly, but it took forever for a waitress to appear. Someone did get us coffee, but our cups were dry immediately, and she never returned. We sat there with drained coffee cups waiting to order.

We sat there, and we sat there. And as we sat, we looked around and noticed that we were not the only ones waiting. The place was full, and the staff seemed to be hustling (in some cases, literally running), but half of the people in the room had no food.

2. The Scowling Couple

A couple nearby sat in silence. She was scowling. He was also scowling and staring blankly out the windows at the front. At first, I thought this was a marriage on the rocks. Then we thought it was one of those couples who go out but never seem to speak. Then we realized that it was simply that they were waiting, too.

When their food finally did arrive, there was something wrong with her dish, and it had to be sent back. Her scowl did not go away.

3. The First Large Family

A large family, three or four women and many kids of various ages, sat at the table next to us. They had been waiting when we sat down, and they were still waiting when we ordered.

All the kids were restless, and the youngest were getting hard to control. When their food did arrive, not a single order was correct. Where was her toast? I ordered scrambled eggs. The grits are coming — they had to make some more. Where's our bacon? Here's a plateful of bacon for all of you.

4. Our Order

Our spirits were raised by visions of hashbrowns and cheese grits, but after watching the large family, I turned to Trudy and said, There's no way our order will come out right. Sure enough it didn't.

The toast didn't show up until our eggs were eaten. We got no hashbrowns. We got no cheese grits. And we still couldn't get any more coffee!

Are you ready to pay? our waitress innocently asked.

Um ... we never got our hashbrowns or grits, I said.

She was horrified and ran to the kitchen and soon returned with huge, hot helpings of hashbrowns and grits.

(It must be said, however, that all the food was wonderful. In spite of the waits, in spite of the food and coffee fiascoes, in spite of the messed up orders, the food in Grandma's Cafe has no peer.)

5. The Other Large Family

In the meantime, the large family next to us had been replaced by another large family (again, women and many kids). We had noticed them waiting inside the door, where they stood for a very long time. When they were finally seated, something remarkable happened.

The kids ordered eggs and pancakes. The ladies ordered eggs. All of them were relieved to be seated, and were clearly looking forward to finally eating.

At this point, the waitress said, I'm sorry, breakfast is closed.

Imagine the kids' faces. Imagine the womens' thoughts. Imagine the utter disbelief. After having waited for more than a half-hour to be seated. After having waited again for menus and a waitress. Imagine all that and then being told that the kitchen has closed.

The woman closest to us thought it was a joke. Then she thought it was a mistake. Then she asked for the manager.

6. At The Cash Register

The manager had arrived late and was now running the cash register. We happened to be next in line (and indeed had never been given our check, so he was busy searching for it) when that woman came up to explain how they had waited and waited and were now being told that the kitchen was closed.

He said there was no mistake. She was speechless. And frankly, I don't know what she did next, and I can't tell you what that family did (whether they got up and left, or whether they ordered hamburgers), because the spotlight now turned to the counter in front of us.

One of the staff was standing next to the manager.

I've had enough, she muttered. I'm going home. She was nervously stacking and restacking a pile of menus.

I looked up at her, thinking that she was joking, but there was no hint of humor on her face, far from it. The manager had tracked down our ticket (I think he found it in the kitchen), and he was punching at the register. He didn't seem to notice the woman's comments.

She tapped the counter percussively and repeated (in a louder tone), I'm going home.

This time, he heard her.

Don't do this to me, girl!

Trudy paid our bill, and we turned around and walked back out into the heat.

It was almost lunchtime!

Grandma's Cafe
Hot Springs, Arkansas USA

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 Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Hot Springs Hike

It started out as a grueling hike up the steep Dead Chiefs Trail. Now we were descending down the other side of the mountain on Hot Springs Mountain Trail.

This wasn't quite wilderness, for our switch backing path took us across a paved road that climbed up to the mountain ridge and then (so the map told us) to an overlook on North Mountain. But the air was fresh, and the quiet forest enveloped us so that it felt like we had left our world far away.

After Hot Springs Trail, you come to Dogwood Trail. If you follow this long enough, first the upper loop and then the lower, you reapproach the city from the northeast. So after a while, the solitude of the forest receded and the sounds of hubbub got louder until finally we heard the honking of cars in traffic and the sound of children laughing and the splash of people swimming in a pool.

The path narrowed and the sounds of the city grew. The path narrowed further, and we found ourselves walking on a wooden walkway lined with hoses and cords and mops and buckets. The trail had deposited us smack into a maintenance corner of the Arlington Hotel and Spa outside swimming pool. The floor of the deck surrounding the pool was level with our faces, and we could see kids in the water and other people sunning themselves. We wondered if any of them was aware of the escape opportunity lying just beyond their noses.

The walkway became a bridge which jutted out from the hillside and entered the third floor of the hotel from the rear. We opened the doors and walked in, admiring the plush carpeting and gentle lights of the hallway.

This is what a fancy hotel should be like, I mumbled, thinking how it so put to shame the cookie cutter luxury hotels so common today.

We gazed into the rooms as we walked by, doors open to the halls by the cleaning staff. And I suppose the both of us thought for a moment about how those rooms differed from our motel room a half-mile up Park Avenue. And I suppose further that together we both realized that although this was what a fancy hotel should be like, that we preferred the sincerity of the place where we had spent the night before.

We took the elevator down to the hotel lobby. We walked past people coming and going. We walked past people eating and drinking. And we walked out onto the verandah past people standing and waiting and sitting and relaxing. Then we set out to find a place to eat.

Ooh, ice cream for lunch! a girl said to her father as he walked up with hand-scooped ice cream cones in hand.

Yes, he said. As I said yesterday, meals for today: breakfast, ice cream, and linner!

We had found the place we were looking for.

Hot Springs National Park
Hot Springs, Arkansas USA

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 Saturday, July 22, 2006

Dead Chief Trail

The Grand Promenade is a broad walkway just behind and up the hill from the old spas along bathhouse row. It runs for some distance in the shade of tall trees with benches for sitting, and there are even a few places where hot water seeps out of the side of the hills.

According to the map, if you climb further up the hill and take a couple turns, you will find Dead Chief Trail, which climbs up Hot Springs Mountain. We found the trail and started hiking.

The angle was steep enough in places that I wondered that my shoes didn't slip on the gravel and stones. Within minutes I was breathing hard, and not long after that I had broken a sweat. We weren't walking particularly fast, but my huffing and puffing was humbling.

Just at that moment, a young couple passed us, smiling as they briskly went by. We smiled back and gave the sort of greeting you give to smiling strangers on a walk. My thoughts turned inward. There was now no escaping the facts: my years had finally caught up with me.

We kept walking up the trail. From time to time we would stop and look at something in the woods — a clump of moss, or a tiny blooming wildflower. We'd catch our breath and then continue. And then we came to a bend in the trail where the slope diminished.

There on a bench sat the young couple who had passed us earlier. Their faces were red, and their hair was matted to their foreheads. They smiled as they saw us, and mumbled something about the steepness of the trail. We nodded in agreement and kept going.

At the top of the ridge, when we came to the picnic tables at the base of the lookout tower, we sat for a while to rest and drink and have a snack. Trudy got out the map, and we talked about which trail to follow next. As we sat there, I periodically glanced back down the trail, but the young couple never appeared.

The facts, of course, are the facts. Our years always catch up with us, and frankly mine caught up long ago. But as we folded the map and I fastened the pack about my hips, I decided I don't need to feel bad about it ... yet.

Dead Chief Trail
Hot Springs National Park
Arkansas, USA

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 Thursday, July 20, 2006

Things of Significance

For heavens sake, big brother is rising, Congress is corrupt, entertainment is king, the Gilded Age has returned, the Middle East is exploding, Africa is spiraling into the abyss, the ice caps are melting, and you write about what, a spa!?

Yes, with soap bubbles.

Have you no shame? Have you no words for things of significance?

I do. I keep them to myself.

But why?

Because you just said them for me, and anything more I cannot bear to speak. I am tired. May I go now?

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 Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Arlington

1. The Arlington

We climbed the stairs of the Arlington Hotel and Spa and walked into the lobby. There were people coming and going with suitcases, people seated at tables, some talking, some eating, and people sitting at the bar.

The hotel clerk behind the counter pointed us the elevators and told us to go to the third floor. The dials above the doors counted up and counted down, and eventually a bell rang and one of the doors opened.

The elevator stopped on the third floor, and we passed thru a double doorway into a kind of foyer. We looked around the room while two women behind the counter checked in clients ahead of us. This place was from another time — the radiators, the moulding on the walls, the tiny closet that could hold nothing today.

When we were checked in, they gave Trudy a loofah with her name on it and me one with mine. Trudy was directed to the women's door on the left, I to the right.

2. The Rooms Behind the Door

The men's spa was a linear series of two or three narrow rooms. There was the changing room with chairs and lockers for your clothes. There was the massage room, with tables neatly set between curtains hanging from stainless steel rods. And there was the hydrotherapy room. This latter was why we came.

On the left there were doors to rooms that I never discovered, door after door. On the right there were shower and tub stalls. Down the center there were tables, more than 20 one after another, with only several covered with sheets and pillows.

The long room was painted white, and there was plaster falling from the ceiling in places. There was plumbing coming out of the floor and walls, with pipes and elbows and valves with big brass knobs in pairs for cold and hot. No matter where you looked, this place shouted sanitarium, and I half expected Nurse Cratchit to appear from behind one of the closed doors.

3. Waiting My Turn

Take off your clothes here, an attendant said, pointing to the chairs and lockers. He handed me a wrap-around terry-cloth skirt with an elastic waist and velcro fastener, figuring I'd know what to do with it. Then he mumbled something about sitting on one of the tables and the far end of the room. I looked to where he pointed and saw an old man sitting alone, his back to me, his head bent, a wrap-around skirt about his waist.

The old man at the end was sitting quite still and seemed to need no company. It wasn't obvious what the protocol was — do I sit next to this guy with nothing but terry-cloth skirts on us, or do I sit on another table? I chose the latter, which meant moving several tables back, since three tables immediately behind him were made in clean white sheets and had towels squarely folded at one end.

So I awkwardly sat down several tables back, wondering what would happen next.

Soon, an attendant came out from behind one of the doors and escorted the old man into a stall in the far corner of the room. Before long after that he came and got me.

4. The Tub

The attendant's name was Matt. He led me to a different stall in the corner of the room and told me to take off my skirt and step into the tub. I took the terry-cloth off from around me and stood there in all my glory as Matt tested the water temperature, periodically turning the great brass knobs.

The tub was a huge porcelain thing, long enough for a tall man to loose himself in. It had high sides and sensuous curves. The finish was worn from years of use.

I lifted one leg and then another over the edge as Matt made some final adjustments to the water, turned off the valves, and then left the room. Relax, he said.

The water was warm, not hot. Frankly, I expected hot water — this was Hot Springs, after all. Still, after several minutes of sitting there in silence, listening to Matt talking to the old man (who seemed very far away), I began to sweat and had to lift my arms out of the water. It was plenty hot enough.

Matt came back and turned one of the valves, filling a paper cup with hot spring water.

Drink all of this if you can, he said.

I did.

Then he reached for my loofah, which was on the shelf next to my discarded terry-cloth skirt.

Lift up your right leg, he said.

He put some kind of blue lotion on the loofah and scrubbed my right leg and then my left and then my right arm and then my left and finally my back. This was no Nurse Cratchit. It felt divine, even though it was only a few brief moments.

5. Soap Bubbles

When we had finished scrubbing, Matt tossed the loofah into the water, turned on the whirlpool, and left. The water started swirling, and my arms fell back in. My eyes rolled back in my head, and I let my body slide down the tub so that only my neck stuck out.

As the water swirled, it began to bubble. For more than twenty minutes, the swirling continued and the bubbles climbed higher and higher until at last I had to push them away from my face so that I could breathe. Certainly Matt would return soon, I thought, but he didn't, and the bubbles climbed yet higher, ignoring the rounded edges of the tub and advancing instead toward the ceiling.

This would have made a fine image, I think. A rounded porcelain tub with a man's head sticking out of the water at one end and bubbles dwarfing him. Picture my arms extended out of the bubbles — my right draped over the edge of the tub, my left extended up the tiled wall.

Sweat was streaming down my brow.

6. The End

Of course, Matt did eventually come back and rescue me from the advancing bubbles.

Then there were hot towels laid on sore muscles. And there were sheets wrapped around me with only my head sticking out. And there was the old man lying next to me, telling me that the last time he did something like this he was much younger and it was in Japan and the attendants were young girls. (A much different experience, if you know what I mean, he said.) There was the three-dimensional cool shower with water coming from all directions. And there was the massage.

Alas, there was no cold ice cream. That would have to wait for another day. But there was the lovely vision of my wife smiling and chatting and waiting for me as I emerged, and that's better than any ice cream I could ever hope for.

The Arlington Hotel and Spa
Hot Springs, Arkansas

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