The young bartender at the Trempealeau Hotel looks like he could have worked at the place when it was first built in 1871. A crooked ravine parts his black hair down the middle. Beautiful, pain-filled brown eyes make him look like he's about to cry. Either that or pull a gun on you. Or himself. Peggy and I dub him Wyatt Earp.
If you've ever been to this Mississippi River landmark, then you know it's like the proverbial step back in time. There's one big-ass difference; no smoking, and we couldn't believe our good luck with that, as Wyatt slid two pints across the oak bar.
We've come to western Wisconsin to pick up our old van that we loaned to our UW-La Crosse student to transport his unfolded life back to school. Why not make it an overnight, we thought. The Trempealeau rents out eight little rooms over the bar-restaurant for $40 apiece. One bed, one window with a view of one river, one shared bathroom, no TV.
But what is it with the American desire to upgrade? Why is good never good enough? From the road we phone the hotel and ask if the private, $60 suite on the river is available. It is. Peggy presses off the phone and we fist-bump a salute to our success.
The sun is low. Humidity takes its last summer lap around the track. We move to a long Formica table in front of a row of screen windows. Straight ahead is the river and then Minnesota. A train races by on our side of the water. It's so close that the foam of our beer quivers on the tabletop.
"Looky there," says Peggy, pointing to a couple on the back deck wearing matching golf shirts. "Well, what do you know?" I say. The shirts say "Madison Memorial Spartans."
These Spartans are of the smoker-drinker variety. Quaff, puff, quaff, puff. The woman looks like she played a little high school sports herself in the day, but all that remains is a sports arena voice. Hoarse and husky, cooked to a booming, Marlboro croak.
The shot of her laughter launches a flock of cranes from the riverbank. Diners look up from their walleye, convinced that a train has derailed. Mrs. Spartan accepts a fresh beer from the server and pinches out another smoke from her soft-pack.
Soon, as the sun sets, the back porch pair rise. They say so long to people they'd been gabbing with and move out. A few minutes later we decide to head over to our river suite to watch darkness settle over the water's edge. Wyatt Earp, he of sad, steel eyes, shows us on a hand-drawn map how to make the short drive.
We're glad we left before dark because the "suite" is hidden within a jumble of cinderblock buildings under the Trempealeau Dam. You can't judge a book by its cover, but if our suite's building was a book it would be titled "Murder and Decapitation by the River." We leave our gear on the cracked sidewalk and walk up the creaky exterior steps.
There are loud voices, nearly as loud as the television, coming from behind the door across the hall from ours. But that's not all. The space is a gauze of blue cigarette smoke, and it follows us into our room when we key open the door.
By now you must think that we're all freaky obsessed about the smoke stuff. We're not, but we're nave enough to believe brochures that promise smoke-free rooms and a fine of $75 for noncompliance. Where's Wyatt Earp when you need him?
"You think they still have our room at the main hotel?" Peggy asks. "Let's hurry." We race down the steps, scoop up our stuff, and then I notice it.
"Looky there," I say, pointing to the bumper sticker on a blue sedan. "Oh my God!" Peggy says.
"Madison Memorial Spartans."
We spray gravel on our way over the dam like Starsky and Hutch.
The rooms at the main hotel are tiny and clean as a pin. Wyatt directs us to number 4. We drop our bags on the wide-planked wood floor and return downstairs for dinner.
After supper we amble over to the well-lit basketball court, where we lock horns in a ferocious game of Around the World. The trains whiz by in a whooshing roar that vanishes as soon as they do.
The weight of the world shifts dramatically when you're old enough to have children in college. The futility of parenting at this stage is a bitter pill to swallow. Back in our room, we lie down, and we're overtaken with the idea of why we're here in the first place. In the morning we'll say hello and goodbye to our son Tucker, who, through a torrent of temptations and the handicap of our very own genes, is still searching for the meaning of his life.
The river air carries a crust of frost. The breeze that finds us through the screen is a tonic. It's nearing midnight. Wyatt is still serving a small scatter of locals downstairs. After nearly 25 years together, Peggy and I are able to have a very intense conversation without speaking. And so we lie there together, reading our books and answering one another's unspoken questions, feeling a little out of control of a big, changing world.
We hear the back patio door bang below. And as the tobacco smoke rises and enters our room, we look at each other and smile. We silently agree that it's good to give up control of things you can't change. Down on the deck, the Trojan party horse opens and the Spartans emerge.