April Fools wine
Friday, April 1 2011
location: five miles south of Staunton, rural Augusta County, Virginia
A couple years ago I'd set my brother up with his own computer, hoping he'd use it to listen to music and watch movies. But by last August it was just taking up space, like so many of the other things accumulating in Creekside. I couldn't even get it to turn on. So on this visit I'd brought a new Pentium IV motherboard and a hard drive loaded with filez for it. But last night when I'd tried to install it, I found that the power supply was incompatible. It was missing that little four pin connector that Pentium IV motherboards require. So, among my various errands today, one would be to buy a power supply. My first destination was Staples, where the cheapest power supplies were $44, which seemed like a lot considering that cheap power supplies cost $12 from TigerDirect and high-end "silent" power supplies can be had for around $25. So I decided to go see what, if anything Walmart charges for a power supply.
Mind you, I haven't been inside a Walmart in years, but the last one I visited was definitely the one in Staunton. Walmart represents in one place all that is wrong with Staunton's attempts, such as they've been, at urban planning. Among other things, Walmart's vast parking lot was crudely carved into the flank of one of the two majestic hills that constitutes Staunton's natural skyline. Today when I went to Walmart, I was surprised to see that it had been given something of a facelift. In an attempt to make the supercenter look like something other than a collossal box made of concrete blocks, the facade had been painted a sandy beige and little low-relief concrete details had been added along the roofline and as vertical divides at irregular intervals so as to break its apparent mass into pieces, giving it vaguely the appearance of a prim commercial street in a historic Italian village. The illuison was crude, but I have to admit it was an improvement. But nothing could be done to rid this Italian villa of its population of American land whales. I'm used to the kind of unphotogenic corndog-fed types one sees at the Hudson Valley Mall, but the population at the Staunton Walmart was a couple standard deviations beyond that. I'm pretty confident that I was the only vegan in the building for the short time I was there. Walmart does not sell power supplies.
At this point I needed to purge myself of as much community-destroying commerce as I could, so I made an effort to look for a local computer sales and service business Hoagie had told me about. It was at the intersection of Old Greenville Road and Greenville Road in a drab brick building that had once housed the Staunton Pizza Inn. Strangely for a business of this type, its indoors were broken into cubicles and offices surrounding a windowless hallway with a single service window. In other words, it was a classic 1970s-style service shop. At first I didn't see anybody and I wandered back and forth until a plump youngish guy found me. I asked about power supplies and he went in the back, eventually finding me one for $53. Jesus Christ, for a power supply. But at this point I needed to somehow wash the Walmart stink off me, so I said sure, that sounded okay to me. It took a good five more minutes for the guy (with the assistance of his boss) to get all the paperwork right; clearly part sales were not a common occurrence here.
No matter how frazzled Staunton gets me feeling, it's always relaxing to go into Coffee on the Corner on Beverly Street, order a cup of coffee and a bagel with hummus and tomato. Today the everything bagel tasted like Playdough, the tomato was mealy, and the coffee tasted burlapy in a bad kind of way, but for the time I was there I felt like I had risen like a luftballoon above the clutter and boneheaded redneckitude of Augusta County, Virginia.
The motivation for coming down to Virginia this time was that my father had taken a few nasty falls and ended up yet again in a nursing home, this time in the one occupying the old facilities of King's Daughters Hospital (the place where most of my schoolmates were born). My experiences at King's Daughters had been few (I'd been taken there several times by ambulance, once or twice for a Bumble Bee sting, once for a hemorrhaging Meckles Diverticulum, and once for pneumonia), so I only had a vague sense of where it was. Part of the problem was that an upscale retirement complex called Bentley Commons had been erected in front of it. I had to ask for directions at a cluster of medical offices even further to the north, where the woman told me the place I was looking for would be "a little run down." But it actually looked like it had been recently renovated.
The setup was similar to the last place my Dad had been. He had an wheelchair-bound roommate with a television that played constantly. The roommate's name was Bill, and he had both his legs but depended on a steady supply of oxygen from a very noisy machine.
As for my father, when I came upon him, he was sitting listlessly in bed staring vaguely at the teevee past whatever has made his eyelids red and inflamed for the past five or six years. His hair was long and white and he had a full beard and mustache, all of it shiny and much cleaner than it is when he lives at home. The teeshirt he was wearing proclaimed "According to my wife, I AM VERY HAPPY" (I suppose that inadvertently depressing message is one of the techniques they use in nursing homes to keep lonely gentlemen from fooling around). On this particular shirt were numerous crumbs from the meal my father had just finished eating.
My father seemed pretty glum and depressed at first, but gradually cheered up during the nearly two hours I was there. It definitely helped that we talked about something other than himself even if it wasn't especially cheerful (the ongoing catastrophe in Japan as well as the looming end of Walmart-centered civilization as we know it). For the most part my father seemed the same as always, though clearly a certain about of dementia had begun to eat around the edges of his neural network, and it was making him say things that seemed just a bit kooky. For example, he spent a good five minutes telling me about his two most important ideas of late: the value of "self healing" (using saliva to treat wounds) and "preservation" (the drying of fruits and vegetables using passive solar power). It wasn't the content of these ideas that were especially kooky, it was just the importance he seemed to be attaching to them.
I haven't spent much time with the elderly, so I hadn't been aware that inflating the importance of trivial ideas is a common form of low-level dementia. My father's roommate Bill demonstrated this trait in its purest form, seemingly untainted by depression about his situation. Bill spent his days cutting cardboard boxes into little squares or thin strips. At first I just thought it was compulsive craziness, but no, Bill was convinced that he was inventing a newer, better way to start fires without the risk of burning your fingers. He also had an idea for a new kind of handle for trash cans.
One other somewhat unpleasant thing about my father's present condition is the degree to which it is robbing him of his dignity, combined with the extent to which he doesn't care. Now that he depends on a walker to get around (something he wasn't using at all as recently as last August), bathroom breaks have become more of a chore. So when he has to piss, and he has to a lot, he simply stands up, drops his pants around his ankles, and starts to piss in a plastic container designed for this purpose. He doesn't worry about privacy or what passersby can see; he just does it. If the nurses catch him doing it, they're horrified and quickly try to rush him into his bathroom. His response is to plea like a bratty child, "Why do I have to do that?"
For some reason I always like to unwind by going to Young's Hardware on the way back from visiting my father (it's on the way from both nursing homes where I've visited him). Young's has a huge plumbing section with lots of things that one cannot find in the Home Depot, including plastic hose bibs that I can use to give drains to rain barrels and trash cans.
Back at the house, I cooked up a meal of simple burritos stuffed with lettuce, beans, eggplant, and green pepper. Gretchen dislikes those last two ingredients, so I was taking advantage of her not being there to so I could cook stuff she would find unpalatable.
Years ago we'd bought a number of milk goats from the Knopp farm on Middlebrook Road at the Staunton City limits. In subsequent years the city limits were moved out, Middlebrook Road was greatly widened (destroying one of the few crud-free entrances to the city) and a completely unnecessary bypass put through ("the southern loop" — southern cities not really feeling like they've come of age unless they've acquired a limited-access ring road). Perhaps the Knopps remembered that we'd spoken out at planning meetings about these roads. The speaking out was futile, of course, fossil fuels being so cheap and planning boards so averse to æsthetics. But recently Don (a multi-decade phenomenon trudging back and forth into Staunton on Middlebrook Road) struck up a friendship with one of the Knopp sons. So this past Christmas, he gave Don a number of gifts including a bottle of red wine. It bears mentioning here that Don has never drunk alcohol and has he same musty view of alcohol and drugs that you'll find in an ernest eight year old. This has been Don's thinking on the issue since the 1970s and seemed unlikely to change (along with his obessession with Hitler, flatworms, and dinosaurs). But at the same time, he seemed awefully eager to crack open that bottle of Christmas wine. It wasn't so much for him as it was for us. So tonight we busted into it. It was a screw-top California merlot called Twin Fin (vintage 2007). As I was pouring myself a glass, I jokingly asked Don if he wanted some. "I don't know," he said, which seemed almost like a chink in the armor. But the thought of Don actually drinking an alcoholic beverage was so absurd that it was as if he was setting up an April Fool's joke (though all of us had forgotten about that). "It's good for you, Don! Studies have shown that people who drink wine live longer than those who don't." I knew that immortality arguments are the most likely ones to work when it comes to Don, who (until recently) used to believe in a kind of personal exceptionalism (a kind similar to the one Republicans preach about for this nation of land whales and strip malls). Finally Don said, "Okay, I'll have a little!" Hoagie and I were stunned. If we hadn't both been there, there would have been no way we would have believed it, particularly on April Fool's Day! So Don poured himself about an ounce and a half and put it to his lips. "Oh my God it's horrible!" he spat, which is precisely the reaction one would expect of a person whose beverage choices don't stray outside the milk-Coca-Cola axis. "You're not going to let that go to waste, are you?" we asked of the half inch still in his glass. So he choked down the rest in a single gulp, contorting his face into an anguished grimmace as he did so. Evidently he's not a Mormon after all. I have to hand it to my brother. Here is a guy who is a living showcase of how life's ruts can eat up all of life's highways, and yet here he was, at age 46, taking the first sip of alcohol since the one put into his baby bottle to get him to stop crying.
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