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Authors: Garrison Keillor

Pilgrims

BOOK: Pilgrims
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GARRISON KEILLOR

 

Pilgrims

A LAKE WOBEGON ROMANCE

The Pilgrims
  1. MARJORIE (MARGIE) KREBSBACH
    , English teacher
  2. CARL KREBSBACH
    , carpenter
  3. DARYL TOLLERUD
    , farmer
  4. MARILYN TOLLERUD
    , conference facilitator
  5. CLINT BUNSEN
    , co-owner, Bunsen Motors
  6. IRENE BUNSEN
    , tomato grower
  7. ELOISE KREBSBACH
    , mayor
  8. WALLY KREUGER
    , barkeeper
  9. EVELYN KREUGER
    , barkeeper's keeper
  10. FATHER WILMER
    , priest
  11. LYLE JANSKE
    , biology teacher (ret.)
  12. GARY KEILLOR
    , radio show host

F
rom our small town the group had come

To view the glory that was Rome

Wellspring of art and poetry

And so much of our curriculum,

Science and mathematics and more recently

Pizza whose richness our pilgrims knew

Quite well. Now of this company

Of twelve citizens, good and true,

Was one named Marjorie Krebsbach

Who had assembled the crew

(Though she was shy and slow to talk)

To carry out a mission: to place

A photograph upon a burial rock

And give to grief a proper face

Of a young man lost in the Great War

And say a prayer for God's abundant grace.

But something else she traveled for

And that was to warm her husband's heart

Which had turned cold. For more

Than three months they'd slept apart

And she intended, if the truth be told,

To reignite his passion and to start

A new romance out of the old,

Which some say is impossible.

But they have not read St. Matthew's gospel,

The promise of the resurrection—

Mortality may change direction.

And that was why she flew to Rome,

To win his heart and bring him home.

T
he first of the pilgrims through the International Arrivals portal at Leonardo da Vinci was Margie Krebsbach, face scrubbed, fresh, grinning, towing her husband Carl who looked stunned as if struck by a ball-peen hammer, and then the others came slouching and shuffling along, jet-lagged, brain-dead, and right away she spotted the thin, spiky-haired man in the blue blazer holding up a sign—
LAKE WOBEGON
—in one hand, high, and she let out a whoop and let go of Carl. “This is
so
neat
!” she said, meaning the sign—the words “Lake Wobegon”—here!—in Italy!—Great God! “We have to take a picture.” So she pulled out her little PikClik as the other pilgrims groaned.
Please.
No photography, please. And no whooping. Please. No enthusiasm
. None of them had slept much on the flight from Minneapolis to Amsterdam thanks to a small child named Rose who wandered up and down the aisles pinching people with slimy fingers and then the flight to Rome had hit turbulence over the Alps, a death-envisioning experience (
12 MINNESOTANS AMONG THOSE LOST IN PLANE CRASH; EN ROUTE TO ROME TO HONOR FALLEN WAR HERO, THEY PERISH IN FLAMES ON SNOW-CAPPED MATTERHORN
) and
now they were hoping for a soft place to lie down for a day or two. Lyle looked as if he'd been held hostage aboard a fishing trawler, lying on a pile of deceased halibut. Wally and Evelyn appeared to be under the control of aliens. Clint and Irene looked as if they should not be allowed to operate motor vehicles. Daryl had a weird smile on his face, as if he'd come to Rome with a sackful of dough from the church-building fund. Father Wilmer looked very bleak, as if he had seen unspeakable things up close. Eloise looked as if she had just eaten a plateful of boiled thistles. Carl appeared heavily medicated, and in fact was. A double dose of Placidol. Mr. Keillor was lifting his feet, first one, then the other, left, right, left, right, and trying to remember the word (English) for what he had taken two of on the plane to help him sleep. They were all off-kilter except Margie, standing arm in arm with the man from Columbo Travel. She looked simply terrific. Never better. Big smile, hair in place, stylish in black warm-up pants and green satin jacket, a brown fedora on her head, classy new black horn-rimmed glasses. She'd bought the hat in the Amsterdam airport. An impulse. A hundred euros. What the hell. She was stoked. Pumped. “We're in Italy! Italy!” she cried. The spiky-haired man smiled wanly, having been born in Italy, descended from Italians. He wore gray slacks and a blue blazer with a gold crest on the pocket,
COLUMBO TOURS
. She wanted to hug him but he stepped away, so she hugged Carl instead. “We made it, sweetheart. Good job!” And to the porter pushing the cart of luggage behind: “
Avanti!

Carl had been afraid of flying since a trip to New York three years ago to see Carla after she had phoned home to ask if she
was covered by their health insurance (no) and he sensed pregnancy and flew out to see her (she wasn't but she read to him from a book about girls who grow up with emotionally distant fathers who are unable to form lasting relationships, and she cried and cried) and he went to the airport feeling dark and gruesome and on the way home, the plane hit teeth-shaking turbulence over Lake Michigan. An overhead popped open and an enormous black bat flew out and Carl screamed and threw up his hands and broke its neck and it fell on him, dying, flapping its great leathery wings. He jumped out of his seat and the flight attendant yelled at him to sit down, dammit. And the woman whose bat it was, a noted Berkeley bat researcher seated next to him, took the corpse and screeched at him for fifteen minutes that bats are harmless and any ten-year-old child knows that and he had gone and killed a rare specimen from the upper Amazon and upset the balance of the ecosystem and pushed the Earth closer to extinction. “Killer,” she hissed. “You. You're a killer.” As a result, Carl hadn't flown until now, a ten-hour flight from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Amsterdam and a two-hour flight to Rome. He had been inert with terror the whole time, silent, stiff, eyes open, respirating refusing food and drink. “I'm proud of you, sweetheart,” she said. He did not seem to recognize her. “I'm your wife, Margie,” she said. “The mother of your babies. Isn't this romantic?
Italy
.”

Mr. Columbo got to work organizing the bags and Margie beamed at her group. “A historic moment deserves a group picture!” cried Margie. “Come on, squeeze together like you know each other,” she cried. She pointed to Mr. Keillor at the rear.
“Take a picture,” she said. She thrust the camera at him. He didn't understand—he was accustomed to being the photographee. “Take it!” she said. “The camera. Take the camera.”

“What do you want?” he said.

“We want you to take our picture with the tour guy.”

“Couldn't we—” And then it dawned on him. He was not part of the “we”—he was
him
, a big cheese in the radio world maybe but an outrider among his landsmen, an addendum, a curio, a cigar-store Indian. He took the camera from Margie, or almost did, and it clattered on the floor. She picked it up. “Are you okay?” she said. “I thought you had traveled overseas before.”

He looked at the little silver camera. “Doesn't this have a timer so we can—“

“No,” she said. “It doesn't. Just shoot.”

And the eleven of them, five in front, six in back, squeezed in tight. “Tighter,” she said. They squeezed some more. “Cheese,” said Evelyn. “Ovaries,” said Margie. Mr. Keillor pushed the button and nothing happened. “Lens cap!” cried Eloise.

“My Uncle Will was the first one to get a Kodak box camera with a timer,” Evelyn said. “He was so pleased with himself for figuring out how to use it. He took hundreds of self-portraits. Pictures of himself, you know. Him with his old Packard. Him at the jigsaw. Him mowing the grass. Him lying in bed with Miriam. Oh, that upset her! She thought he'd lost his marbles. But there they are in that little double bed and his eyes are closed and hers are open.”

 

The word he was looking for was Dramamine: he'd taken one when the plane lifted off from Minneapolis and it hadn't kicked
in. He was wedged into seat 33J because Irene Bunsen had bullied him into giving up his first-class seat to Lyle Janske who she said was in bad shape having gotten the bad news that he had Alzheimer's. “This may be his last trip as the Lyle we know,” she said. “Let's let him have the shrimp cocktail and lamb chops on jasmine rice and Merlot and
you
have the box lunch.”

Well, how could you argue with that? So the radio man wound up sandwiched between a large embittered man and his angry wife with a fretful child on her lap, a couple from Rapid City, South Dakota, and no, they did not want to change seats with him so they could sit together. She was going to Rome to take up a fellowship at the American Academy and he was going along to provide child care. The child had colic. Mr. Keillor took another pill over Newfoundland. The child slept for an hour and resumed screaming on the descent into Amsterdam—meanwhile the woman had recognized Mr. Keillor and chose that moment to tell him that she used to listen to his radio show. She emphasized the “used to” as if it were some odd aberration like being addicted to butterscotch. “I have one word of advice for you,” she said. “Don't sing. Someone should've told you this years ago. You're not a singer. Don't sing.” The pill kicked in as the plane pulled up to the gate in Amsterdam and he was awakened by the cleaning crew, tiny Indonesian women with backpack vacuums. He thought he had landed on another planet. All of the passengers and crew were gone. He had to jog through the terminal to catch the plane to Rome and it was not lost on him that nobody in his group had come looking for him. Nobody. He hurtled down the Jetway as the lady gate agent was about to swing the plane door shut and she muttered something in Dutch that
sounded like
dummkopf
. He sat down next to Daryl who said, “We were all discussing whether you'd gained weight or not. It looks to me like you have. Have you?”

He had come on the trip because he thought he could get a book out of it. A little comic novel called
Veni Vidi Vickie
about a Minnesota divorcée who goes to Rome to find the meaning of life and falls in love with a tall, dark stranger who turns out to be from Minnesota. The stranger is in public radio and yet he is a comely man with terrific abdominals and (as she discovers one evening) a terrific dancer and fabulous lover, so together they climb the heights of ecstasy on a fine king-size mattress in a four-star hotel. The Chopin etude “Tristesse” is playing, children laugh and play in the courtyard below. They lie quietly in each other's arms and he says, “Life is insurmountable and yet we mount up again and again and ride, glorious and free, across the river and into the golden uplands, hoping against hope, longing for that for which there are no words.” And she whispers, “Thanks for being so wonderful.” Something like that. The next thing he knew, the plane had touched down in Rome. Daryl said, “What's it like, being famous? You enjoy strangers coming up to you and fawning over you? I wouldn't, but I suppose some people eat it right up.” And then he was standing in the terminal with a camera in his hand. “Just take the lens cap off and point and shoot,” said Eloise.

And so the first record of their pilgrimage to Italy was a picture, slightly out of focus, of the eleven of them, large white sleepy people from the northern prairie leaning against each other, exhausted, vertiginous, smirking at the lens-cap mishap and the word “ovaries,” namely:

The anxious and earnest Carl Krebsbach, president of Krebsbach Construction, husband of Margie, father of Carla, Carl Jr., and Cheryl, and now the owner by default of a half-finished three-bedroom chalet on a two-acre lot on Lake Wobegon, built for a wealthy Minneapolis investment banker named Ladder-man who is now in the midst of a bitter divorce on account of a dalliance with a 26-year-old receptionist whom he promised to take on a 21-day cruise to New Zealand.

Ruddy, genial Daryl Tollerud, partner with his old man in a six-hundred-acre hog-and-corn operation. Father of four. Farmer of the Year in 1988 and 1997. In 1974 he missed two free throws and cost Lake Wobegon the District 47 basketball trophy. Score tied, one second left on the clock, all he had to do was make one free throw. He didn't. St. Agnes won in sudden-death overtime.
St. Agnes!

The gracious and kindly Marilyn Tollerud, wife of Daryl and owner/operator of Mid-Country Meetings & Conferences Inc., which organizes public events such as the recent two-day Revitalizing Rural Minnesota Through Diversity, fourteen hours of earnest Lutheran discourse about (1) the need to celebrate who we are and (2) joyfully embrace those who are different.

The likable and capable Clint Bunsen, head mechanic at the Ford garage and former chair of the Fourth of July parade, now, after a flagrant love affair with the young Angelica (who marched as the Statue of Liberty), more or less reconciled with his wife. …

The plainspoken and observant Irene Bunsen, gardener, mother, Girl Scout leader and camper (against her will but
someone must do it), perpetual grand champion of the Mist County Fair Tomato Sweepstakes, committed to Clint, “in for the penny, in for the pound.”

The brave and beleaguered Eloise Krebsbach, four-term mayor of Lake Wobegon, mother of three, brokenhearted now, having been dumped by longtime lover and volunteer fireman Fred Peterson, after all she'd done for him, including getting him into AA, where he met someone younger and perkier.

The sagacious and steady Wally Kreuger, owner of the Sidetrack Tap, and long-ago batting champion (.324) for the Lake Wobegon Whippets, which you would not guess by looking at him. A pillar of the Legion and the Knights of the Plume Columnar, but also a bartender, sympathetic to man's failings.

The watchful and matronly Evelyn Kreuger, née Schoppenhorst, wife of Wally, cousin of Margie, famous for her Nutty Nougat Coconut Caramel Bars, and longtime president of Catholic Mothers for Decency.

The patient and soft-spoken Father Wilmer, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility, a voice for tolerance and mercy (which leads some to suspect he has dark secrets, perhaps a lover somewhere, a gambling addiction, a faith problem). In November he was seen entering a storefront in St. Cloud that houses a tanning salon, a women's crisis center, and a psychotherapist's office. Father has no tan whatsoever. Never did.

The laid-back and long-suffering Lyle Janske, newly retired biology teacher at Lake Wobegon High, married to Carl's sister Ardis. He thinks it is a hormone deficiency, not Alzheimer's, having researched it online, and is taking large gelatinous capsules
purchased from a source in Costa Rica. Ardis couldn't come: she needed a break from Lyle.

“Okay!” cried Margie. “Your bags are in the van! Let's add 'em up and move 'em out! Let's go have fun!” And turned and marched out to the curb and they slouched along behind and onto the white van, a 12-seater, as Margie sang:

BOOK: Pilgrims
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