Garrison Keillor’s Valentine’s Day Show
Dappled, dimpled plumes of white, undulating plains of soft, cotton water, rays of grey and risen light; the blanket, rising, rolls away, and reveals the smiling din of space, lit up pale and blue from the sunlight. The solidness of the world, life-giving, and moving to the hearts of men; the splendid width of the universe…
The day before Valentine’s Day my father invited me to lunch. After we had eaten, he coaxed me into talking about my life, and then suddenly into confessing all my anxieties, doubts, and depression, in a way which I have rarely, if ever, done with him. But then I became heavily philosophical and proved to him I was doing fine, despite everything, because I realized he was probably misunderstanding me, and for the worse.
He praised me but he told me I needed to focus, that I needed to get out and meet people. He told me that I need to go out more, and I told him I was in fact going out later that night. I told him that the great American legend Garrison Keillor himself was coming to town, and I had reserved seats for myself and for someone else, if I could meet anyone to go with me (I couldn’t). Garrison Keillor is the voice of a nation, a national treasure, a hero of radio and the spoken word, one of the leading rhetoricians, poets, and monologists of our time, and I have listened to him my entire life, late at night, since I was a very, very young boy. I used to lay awake at night and listen to a cassette tape of him speaking, telling jokes I did not understand, and was comforted.
I could imagine what it would be like, seeing him live, alive, on a stage, speaking before me, addressing me, indirectly, as he was. I was hoping to go and sit somewhere quiet, in the shadows, close to the stage, nearly invisible, and listen to the old man talk, and talk, and talk; and I would maybe even meet a girl, because there would be many pretty women there. But – as soon as I mentioned Garrison Keillor to my father he grew ecstatic, and said he would be going, too. And so would my mother. I said Oh, yes, good, that will be good, while I sighed over the irony.
Two nights later I drove through the baleful, raining countryside, a thin silt of mist beginning to settle over the road, to the performance house. I walked through the rain, twirling an umbrella over my head, feeling baleful. This is something one does not alone, I think, imagining the times I had come with my girlfriends, or even my friends, close friends, with our heads leaning in close together. But then I see my mother, standing outside the front doors of the theater, waving to me.
She ushers me in to the very middle of the very back row, where my father is waiting, and they sit on either side of me, sandwiching me in. There is a strong light directly behind my head and it burns the back of my neck like a halo. I feel incandescent. I don’t say a word; I try to blend in, but it is impossible. My father is talking to me on my left and my mother is saying something on my right, and I am trying to say something, but I can’t bring up the nerve to say anything. I nod or shake my head as seems appropriate, and sometimes I struggle to make an expression with my eyes, because I know they are looking; meanwhile I stare off into the distant, at the stage, which is so far away from me. I will hardly be able to see Garrison Keillor from here. And closer to him, in the front rows even, there are open seats, solitary seats between solitary women. I gaze upon them, vacantly, sad, and then I look away, and I linger on something else.
My mother abruptly tells me that she is going to court soon. Oh, god, I think. I was afraid of this; this is exactly what I never wanted to talk about. It is all she ever talks about now, because it is of a great concern to her, but it is a great moral ambiguity for me, and I fear I have corrupted into some daring, indefinite crusade on a bodiless justice. I do not want her to spend her life fighting on my behalf, punishing this man, wicked though he just may be, this man that hurt her darling boy, this man that cost me all those years I lost by him. She tells me she will not let it rest until something is made right. “20 years in prison,” she is saying, something I am hearing for the first time now.
It hurts me to hear her the venom in her voice and to know, deep inside, that I am not quite innocent. She is working herself up talking about it, raising her voice while, for my sake, trying not to raise it; and I nod, and I nod, much too afraid to disagree, much to supportive to do anything other than nod; but my throat is parched dry, I cannot say a word, all I can do is nod, and nod, and try to cloak myself in an invisible shield of silence and meditation. Now and then my father interjects, usually just to agree, and both of them are leaning in on me; the light on the back of my neck smolders; I am decidedly uncomfortable. What the hell am I doing here? I feel bad; I wish my parents could understand. I nod sympathetically to my father; he is telling me, in fact, some very big news. My mother has stopped talking now and he is going over some business. I do not want to talk about business, although I am in fact curious about it, and I even have a question to ask; but I cannot find the way to ask it. I nod and once I even wink, as it is easier to wink than to smile, but I am losing energy as it is. I am starting to think I should feign sickness and leave; obviously something is wrong with me, maybe I am really sick. I find myself wishing that I were sober, only so that they would know I was weird and unhappy because that’s how I am, and not because I’m doped up, because doping up has got nothing to do with it. I’m not even that doped up tonight.
And then Garrison Keillor comes on stage. The lights go out; my spotlight vanishes, and suddenly I am lapsed in peaceful shadows. His socks are red and he’s wearing red trainers. He looks just like the pictures, bulbous, in his suit, with his molten, folksy, prophetic voice. He speaks to us, all of us fellow Americans, good men in the shadows, and he talks in his ancient, Homeric way about the South, about literature, about romance and victory; all of the things that I know, that I love, that I find comfort in; Hesiod, the entertainer; wholesome, optimistic, soothing, even traditional; a true and faithful poet. He tells a wild anecdote about Lake Wobegon itself, a situational comedy powered by biblical and classical Greek allusions, naked men and hot air balloons and a very subtle innuendo about bowling balls, and then he begins reflecting, in his poetic, tempered fashion, practiced and practically perfect, familiar in every word and syllable, the voice of generations, the stories of humanity, the same token wisdom and parables that define the western world; and then he is accompanied by a pianist, on a grand piano, and his monologues take on an altogether different key, as like when I, alone late at night, recite my sonnets while playing Satie; and then he is singing, a duet with a woman, one of the most beautiful songs in the world, the song I have so often found refuge in, “How Deep Is The Ocean,” and I am even tempted to sing along. I sit back, resting my head on the back of my chair, and I enjoy the wonderful gentlemen as he speaks so assuredly about America, and I have good feeling about America, and faith for our people. He is talking about love; his entire program is about love tonight; but I am not so badly hurt to hear him speak of love, although when I see a woman sitting a few rows before me, alone, beside an empty seat, I do begin to suffer…