There’s something about this place that really captivates me, and well after this trip is over, when I’m back home re-examining the highlights of my trip to Wisconsin, it is this very place that will absorb my memory the most.
Stilted at the base of the fork, where the Rock River converges into the Crawfish, a panorama of folksy anglers amid shards of pine and pontoon boats, below slowly passing by, begs from me, not a glimpse but a stare. Looking in the other direction, historic downtown Jefferson, with the Puerner Block Building anchoring this vista, I find reason to rejoice with this fine architecture.
“Italianate,” says Leah to me. “Built around Eighteen Fifty.”
Leah, our waitress, is not only knowledgeable but very, very pretty. Long blond hair, big blue eyes, a smile that gleams as white as fresh snow.
I have a crush on her now and I think I’ve had one on her since the first time coming here. She helped her parents then on the weekends as she is now and I’m glad of that.
She’s starting to develop, and I mean really develop, and when she comes back to our table with our cheeseburgers with raw onion and soda pops and a tall stein of beer for Papa Joe I’m going to ask her if I could play her a game of pinball or something later on. I hope she says yes. I hope she doesn’t mind that I have a crew cut. Or that I’m from the big city. Or that I’m only in the seventh grade while she just started her first year at Jefferson High.
Donnie Iris -“Ah Leah”
Nee, she can tell that I have this crush on Leah. Don’t ask me how. Maybe it’s grandmotherly instinct. She looks at me then blinks at Leah and now Leah’s face is turning red. Now Leah has to go back into the kitchen with our order and a red face and what’s her mother going to think. Maybe her mother will come out here in her apron and hamburger flipper and warn me not to make passes at her lovely daughter, especially now that she’s past the stage of wearing a training bra.
Maybe Leah’s mother doesn’t want her daughter associating with boys from Chicago; maybe she’s another mother who thinks all boys who come from Chicago are junior Al Capones or John Dillinger’s.
“Now Nee,” I say, “if Leah’s mother comes out here, don’t you say anything, okay? Let me do the talking.”
Nee looks at me like she doesn’t understand what I’m talking about, but she knows because now she’s got Lenny involved and now the both of them are sitting across from each other doing that one-eye blink thing and then they do a pantomime number of Leah and me blowing kisses at each other. And if that’s not enough, Lenny disguises his voice, trying to sound like me and says to Nee, who is pretending to be Leah, “Leah, I love you” and then blows another kiss and Nee blows one back and says to Lenny, who is pretending to be me, “Oh Ricky, would you marry me?”
Out of the kitchen comes Leah with the tray and under the table I elbow Lenny and warn him that he better stop it, that he’s going to embarrass Leah and if he does, I will take him outside.
“Okay, okay,” Lenny says and both he and Nee stop their charade and I am really glad because I don’t need any more interference. I love this girl; I really do and maybe later I will tell her so.
The lunch before us is a feast. It’s certain, that when we “kids” come up here every so often, once or twice a year, Papa Joe and Nee take good care of us. Not only do we put on a few pounds but usually go home with a couple of new items to add to our wardrobe, and that is good, because I’m down to two pairs of Levi’s, one flannel shirt, two tee shirts and one pair of sneakers, and they too, have holes in them. Nee says that later this afternoon she’ll take us to the department store while “Papa Joe goes and gets his car refreshed.”
Lenny laughs at this. “Nee, do you mean a tune up?”
“Yes, Lenny. That’s what it is—a tune up—and Papa Joe won’t have anybody else tune up his car but that guy in Fort Atkinson. Papa Joe says he’s the only mechanic he ever trusted. Been going to him before you kids were even born. As a matter of fact, the first time he took me up here, right after we got married, his car broke down and—”
“And Larry fixed it,” Papa Joe adds as he sits down, just returning from the men’s room. “And charged me next to nothing. And my car had never driven as well after that either. Ain’t that right, Mag?”
“Believe me you, he’s right,” Nee says, pushing her plate away, signaling that she has had enough. On her plate, three quarters of the cheeseburger is left plus the entire heap of fries.
Hating to see food go to waste, I urge Nee to ask for a doggy bag. Besides, it may hurt Leah’s feelings when she has to take back her momma’s cooking and throw it in the trash. Nee tries to tell me that cheeseburgers are a “one-time only food” and they aren’t “good for doggy bag carrying” because the bun will get all soggy and the hamburger meat will get hard and the French fries will get stale and “Ricky, it will be better if we let Leah take it back.”
I can’t let it happen. No way am I about to let this three-quarter of a cheeseburger get carried away by my lovely Leah only to have her agonize having to through it in the trash. That is unthinkable. There is no way, breaking Leah’s heart and so, although I am as stuffed as a carnival’s throw the ball at the milk-bottle doll, I pretend that I am still hungry and will do Nee a favor and finish what she is determined to leave behind.
“Pass me your plate,” I say to Nee.
Nee looks puzzled and amazed at the same time. I’m sure, with my frame, she doesn’t understand how I could, possibly, still be hungry. But for the sake of Leah, I am.
I ask Lenny if he’d like to share with me the rest of Nee’s cheeseburger, but he doesn’t answer me, he’s too busy trying to unloosen his belt. I don’t know how he got that goofy thing on in the first place. Especially with that silly marijuana leaf buckle. Lucky thing, Nee thinks it is some kind of exotic fern. Lenny has her convinced that he has developed a keen interest in botany and horticulture. That explains his country walks along the weedy patches.
Needless to say, I am having a difficult time trying on the pants. Everything that supposed to fit doesn’t! Five pairs already, the next one tighter than the last. If I go up to the next size, the waist may fit but the butt and legs will be too baggy, and I just hate that. I’ve always liked my pants to fit the entire bottom half of my body snugly.
Aw, it’s not as bad as it was right after leaving the restaurant, but I still feel as though, I need to heave. Nobody can believe I ate nearly two half-pound cheeseburgers and the equivalent of a quarter bag of Idaho Red. How I regret it, especially after it wasn’t Leah who bussed our table, but it was her brother.
When I asked him about Leah, he told me, “She had to go home -a very bad toothache all of a sudden.” Right there, I wished that I could go to her and comfort her, but Papa Joe made it clear that it was time for us to go.
Once we got to the car, I asked him if it would be okay that I ride in the trunk. I really needed to lie down. Instead of lying down on the way to Fort Atkinson I was stuck in between Lenny and Trish in the back seat, while they were swaying back and forth singing some goofy song I never heard before. Oh brother, that hurt. Oh sister, keep it up and make me barf.
Nee knocks on the fitting room door. “How do those fit?”
I can’t try on any more pants. “Fit me great,” I tell her. Maybe after refraining from solids for a week they’d fit me fine. I open up the door a nudge and hand Nee the pants. “I’ll take these.”
“Golly gee, Mother, Mary and Joseph, it’s about time we got the right fit.”
Papa Joe, with his “refreshed car” tuned up and ready to go. We pile in, with bags of our new clothes—for me, the tight pants and a new shirt. The shirt is rather fancy, has long sleeves with buttons. Nee says, wear it only for school pictures and the like. Didn’t want to tell her usually can’t afford school pictures. I guess I’ll wear it for the “like” and whatever that means, don’t know, didn’t ask her.
Wendy picked out a “Peter the Rabbit” overall ensemble after giving up on something, Cinderella, although she did come close. Nee, with all her grandmotherly charm, convinced Wendy she just wouldn’t look right in the Ball gown that was draping the mannequin in the women’s section.
Lenny, becoming a bit more sophisticated than the rest of us, didn’t like any of the clothes at the department store, too cheap and gaudy for his tastes, I guess. Told Nee, “Everything here is for dupers.” I guess that makes me a duper, and whatever that means, don’t know, didn’t ask him.
Trish, grateful for her new pair of bell-bottoms with daisies running up and down the legs told Nee she owes her one. Nee tells her, “My sweet grandchild, believe me you, wouldn’t catch me dead wearing pants with flowers running down the leg.”
Back on the country road, Papa Joe is in command and dying to test his tune-up. He guns it and now we’re doing sixty and then seventy, eighty and Nee is starting to freak. “Joe,” she says, “Slow it down.” But Papa Joe doesn’t hear her, because now we’re doing ninety. But that’s not enough. Maybe Larry the mechanic missed a spark plug so further testing brings us up to one hundred and ten. In the rear-view mirror, Papa Joe smiles; he knows that, once again, Larry did his job. And well, very, very well!
“Slow it down, Joe.” Nee is ready to jump in the driver’s seat and do the decelerating because Papa Joe has no intention of doing so as we pass the cows and horses at one hundred and twenty, maybe more.
In a wink of an eye, the cows and horses and chickens are behind us, and that is too bad, because usually when we pass by, the cows and the horses wink at us, and I find it amusing, Wendy thinks maybe they have a crush on us. Papa Joe tries to say that they’re not winking at us, they just got flies flying around their eyes but of course, Wendy and me know better.
The road is becoming hilly, and Papa Joe is ready to test his suspension. That’s fine, but at one hundred and twenty? I am ready but I don’t think anybody else is. I know Nee’s not. She decides to move the front seat back, so she has enough room to, oh my god, slip down to the floorboard. And here we go, up the hill. And . . .
Yeeeeeeeeeeeeee haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa, we’re airborne. Reminds me of the time I almost flew out of my seat on that huge roller coaster at River View. Man, was that fun!
After the roller coaster, the parachutes. Supposed to be fourteen to ride the parachutes, but since I was only ten, I fibbed and said I was fifteen. They let me on, although I’m sure they knew I couldn’t have possibly been fifteen. At ten, I looked nine. They just wanted my ticket, well, that’s what Uncle Gino had said.
And he also said, as long as I don’t fall off who’d ever know anyway. Also, I think Uncle Gino had an ”in” with the amusement park people, bet he gave them a couple of his clown paintings. Looked like one of his hanging in the bumper car room. Big red nose and everything. And what about Clarion the Clown, half in oil, the other in charcoal, a sure trademark of Uncle Gino. Saw that one in the fun house. Right after getting lost in the maze of mirrors and seeing myself out of shape and deformed for the thousandth time, it was a delight seeing Clarion on the way out.
She’s trying to control the gas pedal, but he has too heavy a foot. On the floor, trying to pull his leg up, Nee is serious about slowing the Buick down. It’s not working, we are riding the curves, still at one twenty and with the disruption of gravity causing Lenny, Trish and Wendy to throw their weight around, mostly on me, the cheeseburgers are starting to come back up. I don’t want to mess up Papa Joe’s interior, so I grab the bag with my new pants and shirt but it’s too late. I make the bag but not before removing the clothes. Oh boy, what a mess. Now what? Return them? Tell the department store clerk, wrong style?
We’re slowing down, the cows out the window are winking again and Papa Joe has an idea. First, he tells Nee to return to her seat and begrudgingly, she does and tells Papa Joe, “Wait to we get home.” I wonder what she means by this.
What is she gonna do, ground her husband, spank him? Take away his television privileges? Papa Joe’s idea is pulling to the side of the road so we can get out and get a real close look at the cows. I like this idea; Wendy does too, but Lenny, “Do we have to?” he says. Trish, she likes to go with the flow so if the river flows to the grazing area of The Neumann’s cow pasture, she’ll be aboard, no doubt.