by Mary Jane LaVigne
I’m pretty sure a human being left the poop on the stoop of the new House of Balls. It was springtime. We had owned the building on the tattered edge of downtown Minneapolis for a few months. The clock tower on old City Hall was still visible through the girders of the new Viking’s Stadium that rose like a turkey carcass across 35W. This is our studio, and a place for us to stay in the city. My husband Allen makes found-object sculpture. He’s known for carving faces into bowling balls, and that’s the origin of the name House of Balls.
Built as a gas station in 1931, our building squats on a quarter-acre of asphalt, fronted by freeways that veer and merge like a sketch by Escher. The studio is on a cul-de-sac, across the light-rail track, a fingernail clipping of 7th Street, once a major route out of downtown, swathed by the exit from westbound I-94, an isolated crossroads alone at the center of everything.
Parked in our lot is a ‘66 Ford truck named Elmer, a travel trailer painted like a loaf of Wonder Bread, and a polar bear the size of a furniture truck. The bear is a cross between a parade float and a puppet. The wind off the exit ramp animates its cantilevered head, and ruffles the shaggy plastic strips around its neck. Out back there’s a small garden with a snake sculpture and a log bench. The House of Balls is a modest paradise, but next to my children, it’s the best I have to show for my life.
I took the shit at the door too personally. In the tidy suburb where I’ve lived for the last 30 years we bag dog droppings. I pondered whether the feces was a statement about gentrification, or a stunt from the punks who ran the defunct underground club that last occupied this address.
Most likely a drunk, Allen said. Soon after the stoop pooping he told me that somebody had drawn on the garden bench. What the heck? In a nettle I went out to take a look. I found a sketch, pressed by Sharpie marker right into the big split pine that makes the seat. Just bigger than my open palm, it was a picture of a man in a top hat, holding a sign that said thank you. We never determined who left the shit, but the drawing was from Chester.
Chester rides a bicycle in a tailcoat and top hat, and carries a 40-ounce bottle of beer in his rear wire basket. He has red cheeks and a gray beard. He lives below the 10th Avenue Bridge in a compound formed by a construction shed and a derelict station wagon. Presided over by cats, decorated with plastic flowers and magazine pictures of Queen Victoria, his residence is on a bike trail, aside the freeway, adjacent to a parking garage, a postage-stamp-sized holdout in the march of high-buck condos.
Now it is summer. Across the freeway, plywood sheathing blocks the view of the clock tower. The new stadium looks like a vacant-lot fort built by little boys. It is a Tuesday morning. Allen has left for his day job as an electrician for a mechanical contractor. I am headed out too. I’ve locked the door to the studio and pause near the big bear.
The House of Balls is tucked into the underarm of the exit, separated by a chain-link fence from the morning crawl of traffic. I make a game of reading faces lit by windshields, imagining lives I wouldn’t swap. In the rear-view mirror of an Audi, I catch the eye of a woman my daughter’s age. For an instant I see myself, and my daughter, up and down the ladder of time, and then it’s just another car on Tuesday.
“Allen here?” a voice behind me asks. It’s Chester on the bench. I didn’t see him until now. His Victorian clothing is vaguely spectral. “Can you spare a beer?” He smells like damp leaves. I go back in and get him a bottle. Why deny him his morning brew? He sips. His eyes twinkle like gum-wrappers. He tips the lip of his bottle toward the puppet-float. “I come here to talk to your lion.”
“It’s a bear,” I say, feeling dumb because it matters. No one on the ramp even sees the giant creature. Years ago, I used to take this exit. I was trading currency options for US Bank and dreaming of working in London. I would have had no reason to notice this non-descript building, though I passed it every day. Had I known I was passing my future, I would have judged it paltry.
“The neck, that’s a lion’s neck,” Chester persists.
“I can see that,” I say. He reaches in his coat and hands me a homemade comic book, photocopied, quartered, with a stapled spine. I open The Fate of Millard Fillmore. “Read it,” says Chester, taking a pouch from his breast pocket and treading a rolling-paper with tobacco.
“Now he’s up in heaven playing bridge with the Roosevelts,” I read to Chester. When I’m done, I don’t ask why it’s about Millard Fillmore or tell him that there’s only one “l” in Roosevelt. I squint to recall the woman I was once, exiting here in my red Mustang, the button-down collar, the manly tie, with legs, I’d been told, like the legs of Marlene Dietrich, my eyes set on fortune, eschewing the society of morning drinkers.
Now I see genius in a life as free as Chester’s. Imagine never taking a personality inventory test, having an email address, opening a bank account, paying a cable bill, renewing your car insurance, or your license tabs, shopping for a cell phone, or worrying about identity theft. Chester lives outside of that.
Before a car crash killed his mother and sister, Chester was Bruce Nelson from Sherburne County. His father remarried a woman he did not like. In his teens he started living on the street. Every dime he got went to smoking pot. It was the early 1970s. He panhandled in front of the old Dayton’s on Nicollet Mall and seduced U of M co-eds for a spot to flop. He may have spent time in Haight-Ashbury, but mostly it was Cedar-Riverside, the counter-culture corner of Minneapolis.
Eventually, he staked out a plot at the junction of jurisdictions, and made himself useful shoveling snow in front of restaurants and keeping watch on parking lots. In 2007 the 35W bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed right next to Chester’s place. Chester endeared himself to the construction crew and was rewarded with a shed for his homestead. He’s a living leftover of the Flower Power era, like the macramé plant hangers you still see in some neighborhood picture windows.
On the west bank of the Mississippi, just below St. Anthony Falls, Cedar-Riverside was an immigrant neighborhood, outside the city limits. Beer gardens and dance halls sprouted where the metropolitan policing district ended. In the 1920s, boozy Norsemen spit so much snooz (that’s wads of chewed tobacco) Cedar Avenue became known as Snooz Boulevard.
In the 1970s I was a Catholic girl from Saint Paul. I remember coming over to the West Bank on a Sunday drive after Mass to look at the hippies, my father at the wheel of the station wagon that we called the Green Giant, my sisters and I riding unstrapped in the way-back through the incensed air wafting from head shops, making peace signs at the long-haired college students who looked so different from the boys we knew. As we stopped for a light on Riverside Avenue, we watched them paint a mural on the side of a building. “What’s that supposed to be selling?” I asked. “I think it’s supposed to be art,” my mother said from the front seat.
Now people regularly ask me what things are supposed to be. Is that truck supposed to look like a monster? Is that ductwork supposed to be a snake? Why do you have that giant bear thing? How come it’s called the House of Balls? Is this some kind of business?
“You’ve got legs like Marlene Dietrich” is the first thing Curt Sloan ever said to me. Right then and there I decided he was a man of rare discernment. We were on the north shore of Lake Calhoun. We had been windsurfing, which was a new thing in the early 1980s. I’ve hung on to that compliment for 33 years.
I’m smiling about it right now as Curt and I talk at a gathering of old friends. The garage doors of the House of Balls are open to a beautiful late summer night. The Minneapolis nightscape unfolds like a pop-up book. They have begun to hang the sign on the east face of the stadium. Curt and I are having a laugh, because although it will say US Bank Stadium, so far it says US Sad. We talk about complexity and Chester’s un-tethered life.
Curt is my ex-husband’s childhood friend and business partner at Quicksilver Courier. He was an artist with hair like Jesus when I met him in the early 1980s. A founding member of In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater, Curt once led the May Day Parade on stilts. After forty years, focus on business, a wry tone and interesting facial hair are the principle clues to his artsy past.
Curt has a way of seeing you as you want to be seen, a talent for asking about what you most want to discuss. He seems to share my arcane enthusiasms, like the history of stock speculation, or the writing of William Least-Heat Moon.
His wife Helen is my close friend. We held each other’s babies on the days they were born, car-pooled, vacationed, and hosted sleepovers together. There was a Twin Peaks party in the brick bungalow on Midland, a surprise party with Curt kidnapped by pirates, and triumph in the Shady Lane Bike Rally, where Curt insisted that the plastic loving cup he’d won be displayed for a year on their mantle. Curt is not a poser, or given to flattery. He asks good questions. He knows how to keep his own council.
When my first husband and I divorced, Curt and Helen managed to keep both friendships. Neither my ex nor I made that easy. I think this was a reason the split turned out okay for me, and also for my children. Curt and Helen were there when Allen and I married and helped us move to the new House of Balls.
They have little in common, my friends Curt and Chester. Caution and planning, follow-through, and regular work hours are at the center of Curt’s world. I don’t think that’s part of Chester’s life. Curt earns and manages money, and smoothly attends to details of insurance and law.
Curt has planned for retirement, and put children through college. Curt rides a lightweight bike, wears a sleek bike suit, and carries only water in his bottle. He’s fit and trim as moderation and good fortune are apt to make you.
Planning and good choices aside, one morning not long ago, Curt was found dead in his bed.
It was after a night of wild thunder and a Republican primary debate, though it’s only me who connects these. It’s only me who’s connecting Chester’s life to Curt’s, one from the city and one from the suburbs, lives that started the same year, and diverging greatly touch again at the end, when all is leveled.
Chester died a week after Curt. I like to think that at the end he was stretched out in the way back of the shipwrecked station wagon, a purring cat cuddling his cooling body, while overhead on the 10th Avenue Bridge, a Quicksilver Courier van passed in unknowing memoriam. Unknown to each other in life, but remembered together by me, I picture them together, at a card table in heaven, playing bridge with the Roosevelt’s.
The first snow of winter has covered the stoop and Chester’s drawing on the bench. The bear’s head nods and creaks beneath the cold blanket. A new ramp is being built. Next summer the last car will arc down the exit to 5th Street. Against the white snow the dark stadium is a ship of souls. I step out on the stoop, where once I worried over unexplained poop.
We are all immigrants in the land of the living, asking for an explanation. We cross, and enter, and exit, whizzing over, under, and past, like the interchange in front of the House of Balls. Someday I will be lost to death, alone at the center of everything. I will leave behind a pile of shit, with sketchy explanations.
Mary Jane LaVigne is a fifth generation Minneapolitan whose stories have appeared in Water~Stone Review, The Sun and other publications. A past winner of The Loft Mentor Series, she teaches writing at the White Bear Center for the Arts and serves on the editorial board of Burning Man’s Black Rock Beacon. She is learning to speak the Dakota language, and helps her husband, Allen Christian, run the House of Balls.
SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 3 • May 2017
All photographs by Allen Christian, with the exception of the photograph of Curt Sloan and his bicycle, by Jack Sloan.
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