Ma’iingan came by to look at the snowblower, a 2001 Cub Cadet 926 SWE 8-horse, at noon on an early November Saturday a year ago. The last backyard maple, birch, and popple leaves had fallen overnight. Around 11:45 I brushed a few from the engine with my hardware-store work gloves before starting the machine and testing the controls. After he got there we crunched around in an ankle-deep layer of leaves while discussing the blower’s features and flaws.
I was selling the Cub Cadet for Frasier’s Mom. She and he (a nifty brindle pit-bull-mix with sweet chocolate eyes) lived next-door to us for about five years. They moved to southern Wisconsin last October after an unexpected decision by her landlord. Frasier’s Mom had bought the snowblower new. While showing me how it worked she recalled how the rural sales guy had treated her better — just talked to her like an actual equal human being — than she had been treated by any other man while buying power equipment. She also told a couple stories about hard work she and the machine had done during winters in small cities and tiny towns and out in the sticks. I don’t think she wanted to sell it or leave Duluth. I do know she and Frasier seemed to be having a blast every time they left for and returned from Chester Bowl trail walks.
Frasier’s Mom isn’t on social media and doesn’t use Craigslist. I offered to help her sell a pile of things she couldn’t or didn’t want to fit into the U-Haul (which her brother was driving), her car, and a couple relatives’ SUVs. By the time they drove away I had sold six ash chairs, a set of cross-country skis, poles, and boots, and a pair of snowshoes for fair prices. On the day Ma’iingan came over I still hadn’t sold the three antique (or maybe just old and beat-up) metal garden gates Frasier’s Mom said she’d been keeping for climbing-plant projects that never came about. I was asking $30 for each gate. Seemed like a steal compared to some nearly identical ones I’d seen on Etsy. While tidying the back yard before he showed up I leaned the gates against a firewood crib. They stayed there all winter. In April or May I propped them against a cedar at the foot of our driveway on the 19th Avenue East curb. They were gone in a day or two.
In the 20 years we’ve lived in this house — the front door is on Chester Park Drive, and the back door and driveway are on 19th Ave. — the only thing my wife, Ms. LaCount, and I haven’t been able to give away on the driveway curb is a toilet. It had been out for two days, in 2004 or so, before she said, “Please just take that thing to the dump. We are not going to be the people who leave an old toilet sitting on 19th Avenue.”
“It’s clean,” I said. “I cleaned it really well. It’s in good shape. Someone might want it for a cabin or …”
Someone would have snapped it up if I could have kept my nerve. But I get it.
We’ve unloaded scrap lumber, kitchen cabinets and countertops, bathroom sinks, vanities, mirrors, and medicine chests, pots, pans, and other kitchen accoutrement, vases and flower pots, books, a table saw with no stand, a router with a few bits, a couple job-site lights, and some hand tools, an antique (but not valuable) wood stove I wish I could have figured out something to do with, stray chairs and other furniture, a bicycle from Ms. LaCount’s childhood I should not have given away without asking her first, a Trek I rode for a few years after finding it in a trash pile, some early-’90s inline skates, some of the house’s original windows, and a lot of other stuff. Usually I just put it out there and it’s gone before I remember to check on it. Sometimes I’ll cut a flap off a Chewy or Blue Apron box, use a marker I stole from the UMD Statesman office in like 1992 to write FREE in the same block letters I used for writing textbook titles on grocery-bag book covers in junior high and high school, then duct-tape the sign to the free thing. The Cub Cadet is the only thing I’ve ever tried to sell there.
Something I still don’t understand about the combination of the gates and the leaves and the snowblower and the chill on that November day got my mind remembering how good cigarette smoke smelled to me when I was a kid and Grandpa Russ (my mom’s dad) had one going outside — puttering around his garden in McGregor; relaxing at the cabin on French Lake just off 210 on the way to Aitkin; walking a trail the one time I carried a .410 next to him during partridge season; a bunch of other times. One of the more disappointing experiences of my life was when I tried smoking in ninth grade and it tasted and felt nothing like I thought it would. I’m grateful for how sick I got. A few nights ago I walked one of the dogs around UMD a couple hours after dinner. The air was classic autumn-crisp. We passed a guy who had one going and the smoke that wafted over still smelled so good — kind of toasty and rustic and almost like incense — but I could also smell and taste the truth.
On Thanksgiving Day 1990, my sophomore year at UMD, Grandpa left home early enough to drive Highway 210 East to I-35 North to 8C Village Apartments on campus to pick me up then get us back to French Lake before the big dinner. Three hours or so round-trip. I can’t remember who all among Mom’s siblings and their spouses and kids was there that year. The only things I remember about the day are him picking me up, a little bit of the drive, and being hung over. He was two or three years younger than my dad is now. I’m more than a decade older than Dad was then. They both had taken on responsibilities and a type of adulthood by their early 20s that I never will. I didn’t have a car at school that year. I think it was easier for him to drive over and get me than it was for my parents to do it on their way to McGregor from Rochester. Mom and Dad must have driven me back, but I can’t remember. Versions of “I don’t know” and “I forgot” might be the phrases I’ve said most in my life.
When Grandpa showed up to get me I was feeling beers from the night before, but not in a miserable way. The mellow little hangover probably helped deaden the pre-drive anxiety I promise I’d been feeling. I didn’t fear or dislike him. We just didn’t know much of anything real about each other, and I’ve never felt at ease with the normal human process of visiting, especially when it’s one-on-one with men who know and have done things I haven’t figured out how to learn or do or figure out. I’ve also been generally anxious and depressed since I was a little kid. And at 20 my conscious mind was starting to notice what my subconsciousness had been knowing for a while about extended-family relationships on both sides. On Wednesday night my roommate Top Dog and I had checked out a party at 12th and 7th that felt pleasant and holidayish. It was full of people we knew and liked, and who liked us, including some we didn’t usually see at parties, but it wasn’t packed. There was no tension. Never a line at the keg. Beer still mostly tasted bad to me then, but I drank a bunch of it anyway.
I was waiting outside for Grandpa when he showed up in what I remember to be a brown Buick. He got out and told me to drive. The moment I sat down my whole undercarriage was soaked, and I didn’t have whatever I would have needed to just ask him about it. I couldn’t even muster, “Hey Grandpa this seat is wet. Is everything OK?” I wish I could have just spoken honestly: Grandpa! [laughing] What the hell? Why is the seat all wet?” He and I didn’t have a relationship like that. Or if we did I didn’t know about it. So I just sat there in mystery moisture while we chatted or listened to the radio or looked out the windshield. He probably smoked. Sometime before Cloquet he mentioned he had spilled a cup of coffee on his way over. I don’t think we talked about it any more than that, but like I said I don’t really remember.
He died a week before Christmas the next year, a few weeks after his father-in-law, Great-grandpa Beck, died. I wish I would have handled myself differently during that time. And during a lot of other times. Versions of “I wish I’d have done that differently” are in the top five phrases I’ve thought or said the most throughout my life. After a couple years of therapy I’ve amended it to, “I wish I’d have known how to do that differently.” But the frequency and self-reproachful gist remain.
I posted the Cub Cadet on Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist in early October. By mid-month I’d only received a couple responses, from scammers. I looped a long cable around a driveway cedar and through the blower’s frame, secured it with a Master Lock, and taped on a homemade box-flap sign that said FOR SALE | $500 | Call or text Chris at 636.555.3226. It felt weird to conduct commerce in that space. I’m a bad capitalist. Usually excited to give stuff away. But I was motivated to get Frasier’s Mom as much cash for the machine as possible.
Ms. LaCount and I discussed buying it, but I wasn’t ready to give up the part of my identity that’s based in shoveling. I’m still not, even though by the end of last winter I’d had tendonitis in both elbows and a shoulder since December, my back was in a vulnerable state, I regretted missing a bunch of ski days because I’d spent all my energy clearing our driveway and our neighbor’s — the plow berms! — and I generally felt wrecked. After a week I crossed out $500 and wrote $450. I knew Frasier’s Mom would be OK with it, but 50 bucks is 50 bucks and I felt like I was letting her down.
Ma’iingan texted to ask about looking at the blower a week or so later, after I’d crossed out $450 and written $400. That was still in the range for similar snowblowers online. While texting he used his Zhaaganaashimowin name and I didn’t realize he was the guy I’d come to like and know a little bit during two semesters of Ojibwemowin class taught by Niib at UMD in 2016-2017. He got the name Ma’iingan through relationships with fellow Ojibwe people. I chose the one I used for class — Wiigwaas — because Niib asked everyone who didn’t already have an Ojibwe name to choose one based on a word in the language that meant something to us. When I was still trying to show up at language events and build relationships with speakers and keep working on my skills I saw Niib out and about a couple times and got flustered and could barely find words when he asked me how I was doing. “Ooohh. Wiigwaas! Aaniin ezhi-ayaayan noongom.” I knew what to say. I’d said it hundreds of times while walking through the Chester Bowl woods with a dog, listening to and reciting phrases from the Pimsleur Ojibwe course. On my own, in response to the people in my earbuds, I could respond clearly and confidently. Standing next to Niib my face got hot and my eyes darted about and I kind of mumbled, “Miigwech. Nimino-ayaa.” He smiled and nodded.
Neither Ma’iingan nor I were even basic elementary-school-level speakers by the time he showed up to look at the blower. We could have stumbled through an awkward back-and-forth of questions and declarations about ourselves and the weather, but I was glad we didn’t try. After seven or eight years of dedication that had left me with pronunciation good enough that it seemed to surprise people, a very slowly growing vocabulary, a super-fundamental understanding of parts of speech and grammar, almost zero conversational skills, and potential relationships I didn’t know how to foster, I had stopped studying in summer 2021. I still feel pretty sad about it. I feel pretty sad about a lot of things. But I feel way more sad about giving up on studying the language than about most other things. It’s complicated. I still have all the books and handouts and saved links. I think about starting back up all the time. Hearing it spoken and trying to speak it still feels uniquely meaningful in my body and brain in warm, confounding ways I don’t understand and am very careful about trying to explain. Being in places where people are learning and speaking and trying to speak it was the same but more. And I quit.
When Ma’iingan showed up I told him how I came to be the person who was selling the machine. I showed him the controls and pointed out owner’s manual pages that gave instructions about how to start and operate it. Everything was working exactly how it was supposed to. It started right up and the levers powered the wheels. The chute turned left and right and up and down. Then we realized one side of the auger — the part that churns the snow into the blower — wasn’t spinning. Argh. I wanted him to have the machine. He seemed excited about it and its vibe seemed to fit his. And I wanted Frasier’s Mom to get $400. Then we figured out the problem, everything worked properly, and I asked him what he was thinking. He offered $350 and I accepted. Turned out she was pleased with that.
The temperature was around 30 and the sky was November grey. We’d gotten chilly while chatting about the snowblower and what we’d been up to. Four years had gone by since we’d seen each other, but in COVID time it felt like a few months. I had changed jobs twice. He’d known loss.
He was wearing a stocking cap and a thick cotton flannel over a grey hoodie and jeans. I can’t remember if he had anything on his hands. I had on jeans and a couple wool shirts and a knit cap. My hands got cold without gloves while working on the auger, and it felt good to put my gloves on before we lifted the blower into the back of my pickup.
He left to hit a cash machine on his way home. I went inside to let Ms. LaCount know I’d be gone for a few minutes and ask if she needed me to pick up anything on my way back. When I got to his place we moved the machine into his garage and he showed me a ‘70s Schwinn LeTour he was trying to sell. It was handsome and I wished I had room for it. He told me to call him if I’m ever looking for someone to hike or camp with. It meant a lot.
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