“Nature is a revelation of God; Art is a revelation of man.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
After our tour of the abandoned Lyman high school (which will someday be “Paul’s Brewery/ Concert Hall / Apartment Complex/ Campground/ Baseball Diamond/ Center”) we walked back towards John’s place. On the way, we stopped at the only bar in the area, also the only beer retailer in town. Located right next to the bar were three coolers. We scoured the small selection of brews, yearning for the great dark concoctions we enjoyed the past few weeks, but there were none to be found. Paul decided we should get Coors. He claimed it tastes better since we were so close to the brewery. I agreed to his logic and lunked a 20 pack onto the counter. Fully stocked on beers, we walked across the lot to John’s place.
John’s dad was already at his trailer setting up the cream can. We exchanged handshakes, his father looking like an older version of John but with a long grey beard and rosy red cheeks. He opened up the cream can (which is exactly that, an old style metal cream can) and showed us how he filled it to the brim with corn on the cob, potatoes, cabbage, carrots, red peppers, broccoli, asparagus, sausage, and anything else you can imagine. He then walked me through the cream can process. With a couple cans of skunky beer, he filled the container. He placed the lid on top, set it onto a propane burner, and turned the flame up to full to get the beer boiling.
“In forty five minutes we’ll have ourselves some cream can to eat,” his dad proudly announced, taking a seat in a lawn chair nearby. I liked John’s dad; he seemed so calm and easy-spirited. Soon, more and more people showed up, the familiar faces I’d met in the past (Doug, Eric, Wes, and Carl) and people I’d heard about in Paul’s stories of growing up (both John’s brothers, Crazy Jimmy, and Frano). It was a strange experience finally meeting all the crazy characters I heard about in Paul’s stories. It felt a bit like the funeral scene in “Big Fish” when the son realizes his dad’s stories were all true.
With the beers flowing smooth and easy, the cream can finished boiling before we had the chance to get hungry. Jon Jon came out with an aluminum baking pan, and his dad poured the contents of the cream can out. It looked like a shark getting his stomach cut open, with a menagerie of vegatables and chunks of meat spilling out.
We all lined up and dumped the buffet of beer baked food onto our plates. Once seated, I took my first bite from a sausage and couldn’t believe the burst of flavor within my mouth. A minute later the entire sausage had been devoured, forcing me to move on to the vegetables. I’ve never been the biggest fan of veggies, so I cautiously approached. To my surprise, the veggies tasted amazing, challenging the godliness of the sausage. Why I doubted veggies boil in beer and sausage grease, I’ll never know.
(As a testament to the greatness that is cream can, that summer I told my friends in Iowa about it and they decided we should give it a try one night after golfing. We used Tony’s turkey fryer, and it did the trick, although not up to Papa John John’s standards. My friends loved it so much that we ended up having a cream can a week later when another friend came to visit.)
After eating and filling our stomachs to bloated conditions, a bunch of us guys took seats on the back porch letting the food settle. I’d heard so much about Paul’s friend Frano, and he lived up to the tales. He had all of us cracking up with his stories. For some reason I envisioned Frano as a fat little dude, probably due to all of Paul’s stories of going to his house to gorge himself on quality Mexican food. In reality, Frano had the physique of a stocky wrestler, and even talked of his exploits in mixed martial arts.
Once our food had settled we returned to our drinking. Many of Paul’s friends who had kids had left already, which seemed kind of rude since Paul rarely comes back home. Some wives allowed their men to stay, including one of Paul’s best friends Carl, so I couldn’t completely denounce all wives as “evil hags”. The living room became party central with the bugs getting nasty outside.
I talked with Wes for a while, a friend of Paul’s who lived in Omaha during the couple years I also lived there. We always seemed to get along great when Paul tried mix-and-matching his friends. After getting his degree at Creighton, Wes returned to his hometown to work in the local hospital. Paul never understood this move. He always asked, “Why would anyone want to return to small town life when you’ve lived in a town like Omaha?” I could see Paul’s point, although part of me will always miss the simple-ness of small town living.
When Paul noticed us talking, he joined in and began berating Wes for moving. Wes tried defending himself, but his defense of saving money didn’t float. I began thinking about Paul’s future – where he would end up. I knew he would like to stay in Omaha, but I’d already moved away and then Wes followed suit. It had to be tough seeing all of his friends jump ship just as he finally got his diploma.
After a few more beers, a case of the dizzies began to haunt my weary head. I approached the tray of left-over cream can and began grazing the cold, slimy vegetable chunks. It still tasted pretty damn good. When the left-overs didn’t stop me from seeing double, I somehow moseyed into John’s spare room and passed out, leaving Paul and his friends to their reminiscing.
The next morning I awoke with a major hangover. I laid there for a while, still in my t-shirt and shorts, dreading the long bike ride home that lay ahead. I thought back to how rough the drive to town had been when I was completely sober. Then Wes, my knight in shining armor, burst into the room with glorious news.
“Paul’s going to ride his bike back to the farm. Do you want me to give you a ride? We can just throw your bike in my trunk.”
“Yes!” I shouted, jumping up from bed. Suddenly, my hangover didn’t seem so dreadful.
“We have to find my brother’s glasses first though.”
“What?” I asked.
“Oh, you missed the fight. My brother and John’s brother got into it. Crazy Jimmy’s glasses are somewhere out in John’s lawn.” Obviously I had missed a lot of action while passed out, but I was hurting too much to endure a long-term conversation about what happened. We wandered around the lawn for a while, squinting and shielding our eyes from the sun’s harsh morning glare. After 10 minutes, the glasses turned up, slightly bent and covered in chunks of grass like a football cleat.
We loaded the bike into the trunk and headed back toward Paul’s.
Once there, I thanked Wes for the ride and wished him luck with his new job. Back inside the Peterson household, I headed straight to my sanctuary downstairs and fell asleep as Jesus glared down at me with disdain. I hibernated for a few hours. When I heard stirring of the farm family upstairs I realized I wouldn’t be able to fit in any more of my nap. I grabbed Dharma Bums and began reading once again. As Kerouac talked of finding God within the nature of Desolation Peak, I looked up at the traditional version of Jesus staring back at me with his baby blues. When I prayed as a child, I always envisioned God as the same long haired bearded hippie tacked on Josiah’s wall. But no longer. I knew what Kerouac talked about as he said goodbye to Desolation Peak:
“I don’t know when we’ll meet again or what’ll happen in the future, but Desolation, Desolation, I owe so much to Desolation, thank you forever for guiding me to the place where I and I’ve grown two months older…God, I love you.”
The hour I spent on the top of the Sphinx mountain was the closest I’ve ever felt to God. I saw his face in all of the splendor around me. I don’t know if what I saw was Buddha, Christ, or an eight armed elephant – the denomination didn’t matter. But I have no doubt that I saw God. In each wild flower, in each jagged rock, in each green valley at my feet. And as I sat looking at the blue eyed Jesus printed on a piece of manufactured cardboard, I thought about how no artist could capture what I saw with my own eyes – who I saw with my own eyes.
I went upstairs to find Paul’s mom slaving over the stove, cooking chicken fried steak. Out in the living room Paul and his siblings sat around busting jokes on each other (mostly Paul making fun of Caleb and his hippie hair). Paul’s dad sat at the computer, occasionally chuckling at the banter coming from his children. Soon after, mom appeared from the kitchen with a plate of sizzling fried steaks. My grumbling stomach yearned for grease to coat its aching walls, easing the drunken sickness churning below. I’d never had actual homemade chicken fried steak, but I think I have the authority to profess Paul’s mother’s as the best. The steaks quickly remedied my stomach ache, and I even went in for another half of a steak.
With lunch finished, we began packing up the car, preparing for the final leg of our drive. We had eight hours of blacktop ahead of us, so we knew we had to hit the road soon. Before leaving, Paul said his final good byes, hugging each of his siblings. His dad came over and gave him a big bear hug, wishing him good luck on his job search. As the family wishing Paul off, I wondered where his mom had gone. I knew she had to clean up the kitchen, but during the entire visit, she had been cold toward Paul, speaking only a few words to him and rarely spending time in the same room as him. Just as these questions crossed my mind she came out from the kitchen and approached Paul. She gave him a quick hug, then stood back and smiled. As she looked at him, I could see she did care a lot about her boy. Sure, he caused a lot of stress and mental anguish over the years, and he was far from being the obedient young man her other sons had become. Maybe she didn’t understand her son and his love of “devil music”; maybe she couldn’t comprehend his penchant for the unexpected. Despite all that he had done wrong over the years, she still deep down cared about her son – I could see it in her eyes.
I thanked the family for everything, and we headed out, back up the gravel road that led us to what Paul once knew as home. Our drive across Nebraska would be one of exhausted reverie, thinking back on all of the experiences we had the past few weeks. We kept ourselves entertained for a while practicing “rock screams” while listening to Iron Maiden, but nothing seemed quite as fun as our foray through the mountains. We both knew the end of our trip would come alongside with sun down.
At one point Paul put in Destroyer’s latest “Trouble in Dreams” and let Dan Bejar’s nasally voice and morose tunes drive us down the final stretch of endless corn fields, all waiting to be detasseled in mere months. As the album came to its final song “Libby’s First Sunrise”, ironically during a sunset, I caught myself listening to the lyrics, and quickly realized how fitting they were with the lights of Omaha in the distance ahead.You’ve been wasted from the day
of wandering, boozing and sleeping outside
Playing the idiot all of your life
and this is what you get
Master of all you survey, but today
You’ve been wandering around
You’ve been fucking around
You’ve been wandering around
You’ve been fucking around – oh And this is what you get
Now the light holds a terrible secret
The light holds a terrible secret
The light holds a terrible secret
The light holds a terrible secret
The lights of Omaha did hold a secret, although I hoped they weren’t as terrible as Bejar had foretold. What did Paul’s future hold for him? This thought prompted me to ask Paul what his plans were for his job search, and his response was exactly what I expected from him, ” I have no clue.” I didn’t know what would become of my friend Paul. I mentioned he could move to San Antonio and substitute for a year, but his silence told me he had little interest in Texas life. I wondered if he’d stay in Omaha now that so many friends had left the city he loved so much. With the sun setting on the plains of Nebraska, I looked out toward the horizon and wondered what the future held for my comrade. A semblance of a smile grew on my face, realizing he would be fine, regardless of what happened.