Natalie Goldberg is the author of Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, excerpts of which appeared in Issue 143.
“Lakestone, Minnesota” is a chapter from her soon-to-be-published first novel, Banana Rose. She writes:
“It’s the story of Nell Schwartz, alias Banana Rose, who is a hippy in Taos, New Mexico. She meets Gauguin, falls in love, leaves Taos, moves to Boulder and then to Minnesota where she marries Gauguin, and divorces him. Both Nell and Gauguin study Zen. Nell is a teacher; Gauguin a musician. Anna is Nell’s best friend. She is from Nebraska, 6 foot 1, a lesbian, and a writer.
“It is about the great awakening of a generation, the Sixties kids and what happened to them. My agent puts it more succinctly. He says, ‘It’s about growing up.’ ”
I sipped Constant Comment tea. One cup of it. Another cup. I didn’t even like the taste, but it had caffeine. I could have ordered coffee, but if I drank coffee from those white styrofoam cups, my blood would turn to black boiling water and I would rise out of the Croissant Express, turned to vapor. I couldn’t do that, because my heart was too heavy. Actually, I wasn’t sure how I’d carried it the eight blocks from my house to the corner cafe. I thought it would rip out of the casing in my chest and fall like a bowling ball to my feet. My only work in the two days since the divorce was to lug around my heavy heart. It wanted to go nowhere. I finished my second cup of Constant Comment and took the third bite out of my second chocolate croissant.
I read the National Enquirer. The way I felt, the National Enquirer seemed true. A man in Arkansas changed his nagging mother-in-law into a milk cow. That was a good idea.
A bat in L.A. flew into the bedroom of Liberace and made love to his favorite purple pet poodle, named Hector. Why couldn’t bats and dogs make love together? It never worked out between two human beings.
Alice, a waitress in Kansas, found out she was six months pregnant with an apple tree. After that, she refused to serve the apple turnovers the Grant Diner was famous for. Her boss said, “I don’t care what you do with apples after hours, but on my time you serve those turnovers.” I liked Alice’s boss. He made a lot of sense. Business was business, after all.
I finished my croissant and eyed the muffins. It was 10 in the morning. People left the Tribune on the cafe’s round tables. If I had laughed while I read the National Enquirer, people might have thought it was camp, but because I read it dead serious, they thought I was a pervert and circled far around my table when they passed.
I looked up with the saddest eyes, not because of the tragedies in the Enquirer. I was divorced. My whole past was cut off. Every place I looked — the man holding coins waiting for the red public bus, the young girl climbing onto the bench, the sparrow in the street — I saw death. A stone-cold taste was in my mouth. I couldn’t believe that half of America had gone through this and the country was still surviving.
I put down the paper. Anna, I thought. Anna. I’ll call Anna. It was the first thought I had had besides death in forty-eight hours. I stood up. My heart bristled a little around the edges at the mention of Anna, but it was more like the wings of a bird, hit and dead on the highway, whose feathers flutter a moment from the movement of a passing Chevy. My heart got up with my body, but it didn’t want to. I hauled it up, paid for the tea and croissants, and then dragged it out the door. I went home and dialed Anna and didn’t care about the long distance rates after 5 p.m.
The phone rang, loud and buzzy over the wires. It rang four times. I waited. I was going to let it ring until Anna answered, and I didn’t care if that took half a day.
She answered on the sixth ring. She was like that. She didn’t like phones.
“Hello,” she said.
“Anna,” I screamed. “I’m dying. I divorced Gauguin two days ago.”
She didn’t hesitate. “Get a road map right now. I’ll go get mine.”
I didn’t ask any questions. I ran and got one from the bookshelf. “Now, let’s see which town is halfway between Minneapolis and Dansville.” I could imagine her head bent over her atlas. She was quickly flipping pages.
“Nell, it’s Lakestone, Minnesota. Do you see it? In the southwest corner.”
“Yeah, yeah. I got it.”
“OK, listen carefully.” Anna then talked in a slow and determined voice. “Today is Thursday. This Saturday we are both going to leave our houses at 9 a.m. and drive to Lakestone. It will take each of us approximately four hours if we go about fifty-five. Don’t make too many pit stops. Lakestone is small. Let me see. Population: 3,140. Write this down, Nell. Look for the Standard Station. If they don’t have a Standard Station, look next for a Shell Station. Then a Seven-Eleven, then a Conoco, then an Amoco. If they have none of them, stand in the middle of Main Street and scream until I show up. Do you have the order down? Nell?”
I kept nodding, but I forgot to speak into the receiver. “Nell?” Anna asked again.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Tell me the order,” she demanded.
“A Standard, a Shell, a Seven-Eleven, a Conoco, an Amoco, and then scream,” I repeated.
“Good. We’ll spend the weekend together. There must be a motel there,” Anna said.
“Anna, aren’t you surprised about my divorce?” I asked feebly.
“Nell, last time I spoke to you — what was it, a year ago? — you were having a hard time. I knew even when you stopped here on your way to be married four years ago. It just had to play itself out.”
“Well, Anna, I did love him,” I said defensively.
“Shit, Nell. I know you did. You still do. I know you’re suffering.” She talked more softly. “I want to help. I know how deep it was between you.”
“You do?” Suddenly I got scared and paranoid. “I can’t make love with you, you know.”
“Nell, you’re an asshole. I don’t want to make love. I’m your friend. What did you think, that’s all I want to do?” Anna was hurt. She had a right to be. It never even came up after that one time in Dansville. It was just that I didn’t trust anything.
“Anna, I’m sorry.” I started to cry. “I don’t know where to turn.”
“I know,” she said on the phone. “You need to be with people who’ve known you a long time, who know your history, so you don’t think your life is all broken up.” Anna was so smart. I didn’t quite know what she meant, but I knew she was right.
I said her lines to myself over and over again as I drove to meet her. The sky was a deep gray. I was on a two-lane highway. There was no snow, but everything looked soaked. Colors came out better. The bark on the elm trees was darker, the concrete grayer, the red on the barns redder. It was vivid sadness for me. Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco. I thought of chewing gum, but desire fell through my feet. There wasn’t anything left. There was the car, the wheel I gripped with my two hands, the heat pouring out of the slots on either side of the dashboard, and the jerking of the second hand on the clock. The car carried me through the land of sorrow. I knew that day, more than any other, that Minnesota would always be that for me. It would be about dying.
I drove through lost Lutheran towns. One after the other. I think the Devil abandoned these towns. There wasn’t enough pizzazz. He left the cows and the cats to fend for themselves. He knew that this kind of cold, this kind of gray, did not produce evil, only alcoholism; it was not the true darkness that glints off a black Cadillac, but a dead haze; it was a place where people have given up and surrendered. In December, people here didn’t have the energy to work for the Devil, and the heat of hell was a dream. All they knew was that winter was here for six months.
I pulled into Lakestone, Minnesota at 1 p.m. The digital clock on the bank blinked the time and you knew it was correct. Lakestone, with its two-block strip of brick stores, ran parallel to the two-lane highway; to pull in, all I needed to do was make a left.
I looked for the Standard Station. No Standard Station. I saw an Amoco at the far end of the street, but I had to go down the list. No Shell — I asked a woman in a green parka with fur around the hood. No Seven-Eleven — I asked a teenager who looked at me as though I had rabies. He was wrong. I was heartsick. The smell of death was in my whole body. I lifted my hand to push open the glass door of the five-and-dime store. It felt like Halloween. I had just walked into a perfectly normal American store in a gorilla costume at the end of the wrong month. Everyone stared at me. Yes, I wanted to say, I’m Jewish. I’m dark. I do not live here.
I went over to the redhead behind the cash register and asked if there was a Conoco Station in town. She shook her head. In human language, it meant “no.” I wanted to tell her I was supposed to meet a lesbian there who was 6 foot 1. Anna with her gray eyes was gorgeous wherever she went and she hid her height under a wool cap.
Well then, Anna and I were going to meet at the Amoco. I parked my car and walked down the sidewalk to the other end of town. I leaned against a sign telling you to get your car lubricated. Anna would enter Lakestone from this end. All the while I waited for Anna, I smelled dying roses. I wasn’t waiting in anticipation. I just waited. If she had come the next day, I would have just stood by the lubrication sign. It didn’t matter what I did. I hurt.
I saw Anna’s gold Subaru enter Lakestone. The road was empty and she drifted in like a dream. She pulled up in front of me. She wore a long, gray wool coat. She brushed the hair off the side of her face and got out of the car. She stood opposite me and the tears fell down my cheeks. She didn’t hold me. She just was there, facing me. My mouth filled with mucus from my runny nose, and my collar was getting wet from the tears running down my neck. I stood with my arms by my side. I didn’t lift them to wipe away anything or to hide. I was a flower naked in her own rain. Anna was silent.
“Anna, I loved him so much.” There were no visions of peyote or mountains or tepees. There was just a midwestern town I was crying in with an old friend who appeared from no place. I don’t know how long I stood there — maybe my whole life. There was one other line I said while my mouth filled with what was running out of my nose and eyes: “I don’t know what to do.”
Anna said, “You stand here. I’m going to the gas station for Kleenex.”
“They won’t have any,” I cried. “Don’t leave me.”
She shuffled in her front seat and found a crumpled paper towel she had used to clean her window. She handed it to me and I rubbed it across my face.
“You are beautiful, Nell.” I didn’t know what she meant by that. “C’mon, we have to find a place to stay,” she said. I reached out to hold her hand and I gripped it tight. I was thoroughly helpless.
We found a hotel called The Brickman. It was three stories high. In the lobby there were three old men sitting on a yellow plastic couch. One had on green striped socks. You could see the skin above his ankles before the gray flannel pants came down to cover his leg. The second one talked about arthritis, and the third pulled at his ear lobe and didn’t listen. A calendar with a grain elevator photo was on the reception counter.
I stood behind Anna. “We want a room for one night, please, for my cousin here and me.” I thought Anna was a goddess, because they handed over the key for room 302. She signed her name on the register.
“Thank you,” Anna said. Anna knew how to talk human language. We went up in the elevator that had a limit of 2,000 pounds. I was fearful that my heavy heart made us over the limit.
The room had one window overlooking a silver grain elevator near the railroad tracks. Beyond that were trees. Lots of them, snarled up together. When I looked straight down, I saw two pickups and one station wagon parked at an angle to the sidewalk. This is a bustling town, I thought to myself. I was learning to be sarcastic.
Anna was in the bathroom. There was a picture of a white farmhouse over the bed, and the bedspread was yellow with threads hanging from the hem. The carpet was gold with a flower design and the walls were pale yellow. Cheery, I thought, and threw my eyes to the ceiling.
Anna stood by the bathroom door. “Nell, do you want to wash your face?”
“No.” I could start a fight with Anna. No, I couldn’t. I went into the bathroom, picked up the white washcloth, ran it under hot water, and rubbed it across my face. I looked in the medicine chest mirror. My eyes were all swollen. I didn’t care. I was the ugliest person in America.
Anna was sitting in the one-armed armchair when I stepped out of the bathroom. I’d never seen her so soft-looking. I think she was worried about me.
“Anna,” I said out of the blue. “Tell me about forgiveness.”
“What do you want to forgive?” she asked.
“I don’t know. There’s this tight square in my brain.” I pointed to the tight square. It was by my left temple. “If I could open it up, I think it would pour out all the darkness I carry around.” I paused, turned my head, and looked up at Anna. “I don’t know what happened with me and Gauguin.”
Anna was quiet for a moment. “Let’s go for a walk.” That’s all she said. She picked up a green canvas satchel.
We walked along the sidewalk, past the feed store, the sewing machine store, and the drugstore. The drugstore had a display of sunglasses that had fallen on its side and had been lying that way for a hundred years. Across the street I noticed Kay’s Luncheonette. I could get some meat loaf there with mashed potatoes and gravy. Then I could run up to our hotel room and vomit in the toilet.
I held Anna’s hand as we walked. Anna was my mother. I looked up at her. The sidewalk came to an end, just like that. It fell off and after a parking lot there was prairie. Tall dried weeds and rolling hills. Anna and I walked and I talked.
I told her about how Gauguin’s mother died and how I never got a chance to love her. I would get these urges to visit her grave, because she was a person I had known and she was dead. I told Anna about the peyote I tasted, its bitterness, while I sat in the divorce courtroom. I told her a little about Peter, the man I dated after Gauguin and I split up. I talked all around Gauguin. There was nothing left to say about him. My whole body ached about him. I told her how crazy he had become with the death of his parents, how I knew I could no longer help him.
We went up and down three hills. We climbed the fourth, stopped, and looked around. The sky was gray. Occasionally, the sun peeked out and the hills became golden for a moment, then they went back to fields of dried weeds in December, but it wasn’t Minnesota-cold yet. That was Minnesota’s gift to me.
Anna nodded her head toward two flat rocks and we went over and sat on them. In the distance we could see a river, a thin one, snaking through a pasture, and there was the town of Lakestone. Our hotel was the highest building.
Anna dug into her canvas bag. I thought, Uh oh, now she’s going to read me one of her short stories.
“Anna,” I said. “I can’t listen to a short story now.”
“Nell, I have no intention of reading you my work. I brought some poetry and you can listen to it half-heartedly. It’ll help you.” She smiled.
I looked at her. “Anna,” I said, “I never realized you were so sweet.”
“I’m not.” She brushed it off matter-of-factly. She opened a book of poems by Pablo Neruda. “Here, listen.” She read me something about goodbye. I listened to it as though it were the wind blowing over me. There was something about those who return never having left. Next she read me a poem by César Vallejo. He was going to die on a Thursday in the rain in Paris.
“How did he know that?” I asked. I was stretched out on my back; my head was on Anna’s knee.
“How did he know what?” Anna asked.
“When he was going to die.” I answered.
“Poets know everything.” She pushed an old fly from her face. That fly couldn’t believe he hadn’t died yet. After all, it was December.
She read me something by a poet named Linda Gregg. She was divorced, too, and was picking apples.
“Anna, I don’t know what to do with my life,” I told her after she finished the poem.
“Me neither.” Anna looked down at me.
“No, really. You’ve been alone all these years — how can you stand it? I can’t even sleep at night alone. I wake up around 2 and toss and turn for two or three hours.”
Anna pushed the hair from my forehead. “I’ve always been alone. I don’t know anything else,” she said.
We went back to the hotel. In the lobby was an old red Coke machine that I hadn’t noticed before. There was that white fancy script that said Coca-Cola and a long thin glass door in the middle of the machine that you opened and pulled out your old green Coke bottle filled with that dark, fizzy liquid that makes teeth and iron nails rot. I pulled out two bottles. They were cold and wet in my hands.
We went up to our yellow room. I took a bath. Anna poured in soapsuds. She sat on the toilet seat and drank her Coke and I sat in the hot water and drank my Coke.
I talked and Anna listened. I could talk all the way back eight years ago to another life and Anna knew that life. I told her about Eugene — how I met him at the ashram; how he made love funny; how, when he came, he sounded like a crow. I told her about the kids I taught at the Red Willow School — how we built a greenhouse one spring, and went to orchards in Velarde, and learned about apple blossoms turning to apples. I told her how, when I was living in Taos, I visited my parents in New York, and cried in their basement without knowing why. I thought maybe it was because my life had become so different from theirs, and I was happy in mine. I told her how my mother visited Gauguin and me one May, and she bought us an electric blender. She had to go to the bathroom in the outhouse and she got constipated. I told her about everything but Gauguin. I had no words anymore for Gauguin. We had already died and now I was just the wind blowing over our grave.
I told her how I thought it must hurt when you die, because we hold on so hard and our life is being pulled out of us. I told her about Rip and how we never understood his death. I didn’t tell her about Gary Blake. She already knew all about him. He was a gay poet and they had corresponded.
I washed my underarms and then I stood up in the tub. Anna held up a raggedy beige towel.
We went to Kay’s Luncheonette in the late afternoon and I didn’t vomit. I had a club sandwich. Anna had a bowl of oatmeal. I could never figure out Anna and her tastes.
Anna told me that last month she almost went out with a man she met at the Dansville Library. When she heard he hunted a lot, she decided she couldn’t do it.
“What makes you a lesbian, anyway, Anna?” I was suddenly curious.
“I’ve always been. I slept with one man once when I was eighteen — my brother’s friend — just to check it out. It wasn’t for me. I love women.”
I said, “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I even had crushes on my female babysitters when I was eight.”
“Did you like your father?” I asked. I thought maybe I should become a lesbian.
“Sure. My father is a good man. Very reserved, though. He didn’t talk much. I think I never bonded with him,” she explained.
We crawled into bed early. Anna fell asleep immediately and I rocked in the dark world, lying on my left side, facing the window overlooking Main Street. There was a square of street light coming in between the half-closed yellow curtains. It ran along the floor and up the side of the one-armed armchair. That night I understood that stones, especially smooth ones, never slept. They were just stone-cold and awake. That is how I felt, but there wasn’t any peace in it. My hands and feet were cold. I knew no socks or mittens would warm them. I kept looking at the square of light. I blinked. No, I wasn’t a stone. I was a stone-cold salamander that looked dead but was cursed with being alive. I blinked again. I whipped out my long tongue. I could hear Anna’s steady breathing. I was glad she was there, even though she was asleep.
Somewhere in the middle of the night, I slept and dreamed that I was completely white, even my eyes and hair. I was at the edge of a woods and the place was full of moonlight. Dead people walked past me. There was my grandfather. He hardly noticed me. There was an old janitor who used to work for my father, and a person I met two years ago in Hopkins, Minnesota. He was seventeen and had just joined the carnival. All their faces were black. They had come out of their graves.
Suddenly, I awoke. My fists were clenched and my heart was a muscle that squeezed tight and closed. I let out a soundless scream and Anna woke up and grabbed me. “What’s wrong?” she yelled, frightened.
“I don’t know. My heart hurts.”
“Nell, are you having a heart attack?” She asked what we both feared.
“I don’t know.” I paused. “No, I don’t think so, Anna.” I reached out for her, “I’m scared. I’m doing the best I can. I don’t think my heart can take it. I miss Gauguin.” Saying those last three words, I tumbled over a waterfall and went under. I went out where there was no one, where there never would be anyone, the place I was always afraid of. As my body cried, my mind traveled through rock and desert. My mouth became dry. My hands were a thousand years old. My face was in Anna’s shoulder. She was a skeleton.
“Nell?” She called me back. “Where are you?”
“Nowhere.” I lay in that place, clutching Anna until, sometime before dawn, we both fell asleep.
Late the next morning we left each other. The sun tried to come out as I drove back to Minneapolis. It didn’t make it. Sunday stayed gray.
“Gary Blake,” another excerpt from Banana Rose, is published in Issue 173.