There was a day. It was spring. It was warm, surprisingly warm. A gift of a day, one of those where you knew, you just knew, the chill would return, but the day, like a pop-up shower, was a good eight hours of summertime warmth, square in the middle of early spring, nearly too good to be true – well, probably too good to be true. Good things so often are.
At any rate, it was a day. A Spring Break sort of day when March could be July could be outside of time. And you drive south. On country roads and into the hilly parts of southern Indiana where myths could be real and time becomes a sticky, taffy-like thing. Driving in southern Indiana is like daydreaming by a lake: sure you're looking at the ribbon of highway, but the damp green shade is overhead and fragrance fills your car and your head; time loses its precision. The morning spins into afternoon, and if you're lucky, it will hit evening and there will be dew. And there's the road again: a loop of memory and non-thinking and feeling but mostly leaves and hills and places you've never been but know anyway. Southern Indiana can be a gift.
And you drive yourself through- or past- a waterfall and find yourself in an 1820s kind of town: Madison, Indiana. The buildings downtown are brick, multi-story. Brick walks and crumbling brick buildings. And ferns. On a riverbank. And history pulses in the shutters hanging on the walls, in the cement lions which flank every other house. It blinks in the reflections from the river. It glances off pewter and iron and old buildings trying to remain young. Sometimes with ferns.
It's like visiting the past, for a second, and your car and your clothes are out of place. But you. You fit in, sort of. You are friends with things you have never known but still have met; the moldy bricks, the damp cement, the waved, mouth-blown glass.
So into an antique store you go. You buy a tea cup. But this is a spot for true antiquers and the river is calling. Walk on.
And there, in the unseasonable bright warmth that is this day, is a floating barge, disguising itself as a restaurant. With a white peacock hanging around the dock. Obviously this is the only place to eat. For you. For anyone. For everyone on this day in the languorous bend of the river.
It's a cross between a pontoon and Gilligan's Minnow. It's Steamboat Willie with moldy carpeting and run-down Bingo chairs and leftover Chinese Buffet tables. The tables have ketchup-crusted baskets with Captain's Wafers and Melba Toasts and Saltines. The menus are sticky and misspelled, the plastic glasses stained with the ghosts of lipsticks past and everything about your order feels like a mistake, like a haunted house you should run from, like possible ptomaine.
Nevertheless, the dip-dyed and raspy-voiced server brings you a plate of “alfredo.” This is a plate of pasta, doused in cold milk, sprinkled with green-can shake-cheese. And it is, there is no other way to put this, inedible.
And you think to yourself, looking at the nearly solid iced tea you couldn't possibly drink, and at the plate of seriously inedible food, and inhaling the fumes of forty years of neglect and mildew, as the floor of the boat-restaurant rocks with the waves, you think: this is, without doubt, the worst dining experience I've ever had.
You don't eat. You don't complain. You pay your tab. You do, however, eat a couple stale Melba Toasts— you always had a thing about melba toasts.
And you leave a tip you can't quite afford, with a growling stomach, and bizarre feeling of bereavement. History is just history. Moldy bricks are just old, not picturesque. And it's not like you really needed that chipped tea cup.
So, with your tail between your legs, you walk away from the pontoon on a swaying, rotted dock. You spend a couple minutes befriending the albino peacock. He's not having it. And so you hang your head, drive away, swear off the past, and hit the drive-thru of the first McDonald's you see.
And twenty-ish (a little more, a little less) years later, you will think of that decrepit barge, with its old crackers and its pet white exotic bird. And that restaurant will attain a luster it doesn't quite deserve.
Everything falls into place. New ferns and old brick. Cherub heads of stone and reproduction fountains. The smell and sound of a river, which has been there long before you and long before me.
And a barge with stale crackers and really bad food, saved by a peacock, in old days, a symbol of the redeemed and the redeemer. Or of vanity. And maybe, with the past, both apply.
Sometimes things are like that. Bad at first. And redeemed by memory, redeemed by time. Redeemed by an ill-tempered peacock and the capital “E” of “experience.”