I flew up to Grand Forks, N.D., last week on one of those little regional jets that put you into an intimate relationship with your seatmate. Mine was a slim young man in black horn-rims who was studying a legal pad with math formulas on it. Halfway to the Forks, he asked the flight attendant for aspirin. He had an accent. "What is he saying?" she asked me. "Aspirin," I said. I guess she thought we were friends, since we were in each other's lap. So she found some aspirin.
"Did I say it wrong?" he said. I told him he said it just fine, she was busy, that's all. The plane was descending toward Grand Forks and he was staring out the window, fascinated by the flatness of the terrain and also the whiteness. "Do people live there?" he said. "They try," I said. He asked if I lived there. No, I live in Minnesota. He was Italian, from Rome. His name was Maurizio. He was interviewing for a job teaching math at the University of North Dakota. He had interviewed in Singapore and now he had come to Grand Forks.
He asked about North Dakota, so I told him. Yes, the winters are long and the land is flat, but the people are the salt of the earth. Decency and humor. No pretense. Nobody lives here to show off. The man in the greasy jacket and barn boots might be a multimillionaire farmer, and he will be friendly without patronizing you, and you can tell him what you think, and -- I got sort of rhapsodic, though I am not considering moving to North Dakota myself.
A man choosing between Singapore and North Dakota has opened up a broad range of options. I saw him again the next day -- Grand Forks is the sort of town where you keep running into people -- and he had a big grin on his face. The cold weather seemed to energize him. And he had met other members of his math tribe. He looked good, a free man, the world his oyster, nothing to hold him back.
I am a domestic animal myself, fond of routine, and not considering a big move. I like any morning that begins in the marital bed at the old manse, and leads to the faded jeans, the newspaper on the porch, the well-worn coffee cup, the child doing her homework at the kitchen table, the green car in the driveway, the hoop on the garage, the Hooleys next door, all of it good. The choice between white and blue shirts is drama enough: no need to consider stripes or patterns. And though one hates to be thought monolingual, I always choose English. A good businesslike language and yet you can mess around with it if you want. And at the end of the day, I slip back into the envelope of white sheets on the mattress in which my body has made a slight hollow.
The mattress came from a warehouse furniture store in the suburbs, and like a fool I insisted on hauling it home on the roof of my car. I tied it with baling twine, thinking that somehow twine would hold it, or maybe inertia. My wife questioned this. I assured her it would be OK. Things have generally been OK for me over the past 60-some years, so statistics are on my side.
We headed for home on the freeway. It was about 9 p.m. We got two miles, at 65 mph, and then the laws of physics kicked in and the mattress flew up like a big bird. A car honked, I pulled over to the side of the road and jumped out and saw where the mattress lay in the center lane of the freeway 50 yards back. An oncoming truck swerved to miss it. And then there was a gap in the traffic. And I dashed out toward the mattress. I heard my wife scream. I grabbed hold of the mattress handles, and headlights were bearing down on me, as if I were a frog or raccoon, and I dragged the mattress off the roadbed, and a semi whooshed past, blowing its horn. I got to experience the Doppler effect up close and personal. We horsed the mattress back up on the car, and I retied it, and we drove slowly home via country roads. She said nothing about what had happened. She thought about saying something and then did not. We got the mattress in the house and set it up. So big, so luxurious.
When you've risked your life for your bed, why would you give it up to move to Singapore or Grand Forks?
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(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)
© 2006 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc.