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Notes from the Small Pond...Now that you mention it

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columns Cloquet, 55720
Pine Journal
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Cloquet Minnesota 122 Avenue C 55720

…speaking of addiction, since we’re talking about it, there was this old guy, when I was a kid, who used to wobble around town spitting in the street and talking to himself. He wore green work pants. My mom used to tell me to not talk to the guy, that he was “a drunk” and that I and my brothers should stay away from him, and so we did, mostly. But now and then Wade and I would talk to him and ask him what his name was and he’d never tell us, but he did talk about other things and sometimes he had really good stories. Once he told us about the time he crashed his car on the way out to Big Lake, swerving to miss a dog, and nearly got his head torn off, so that’s why he doesn’t drive anymore. And then he’d wipe his mouth with the back of his hand, his elbow all pointy through his flannel shirt. He smelled like sweat and cigarettes and when he looked at you, he’d have a way of catching your eyes and in them you could see a thousand years of “I’m sorrys” and a thousand more of “help” but nothing came out of his mouth except “screw you” and “It’s everyone else’s fault” and “If only…”  And when Wade asked him, once, he said he had a daughter somewhere.  And a mom. Somewhere else.

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One sunny Saturday morning in the summer, the guy ended up sleeping on our lawn and the cops came and picked him up, with the siren lights spinning but not the siren sound and my brothers and I were a little disappointed about that. The cop with the Elvis sideburns lifted the guy off the grass; the old guy mumbled about “Tillie’s.”  And that was about the most dramatic thing we’d ever seen at that point in our lives, my big sister twisting her bottom lip like she still does when she’s nervous or knows something that no one else does, like the way she knew then that my dad drank too much, too, and that he, himself, our heroic dad, last Christmas Eve, had been like that guy on our lawn, helpless as a baby, drunk and stupid, unable to talk, wetting his pants, crying and sorry and sorry and sorry until, finally, it wasn’t a secret anymore and that felt better and worse at the same time like secrets revealed always do.

And then it seemed like the lid came off and nothing was ever secret ever again and that our Perfect Family wasn’t perfect anymore, but instead was perfectly imperfect and finally everyone could breathe. And when we did breathe, in and out, it turned out that the guy in the green work pants sleeping on our grass had more in common with everyone in our family than we dared believe and that’s probably why my mom told us to stay the hell away and why my sister twisted her lip and why, all these years later, the old guy asleep in his grave, along with my handsome, imperfect dad and my sweet, sweet perfect mom, me and my sweet, sweet wife and our perfectly imperfect kids still struggle to know what’s secret and what’s not and what’s out there that can kill that doesn’t taste like poison but is.

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