Our last night in South Carolina, like the first, we spent sleeping on the floor of an empty house. Next morning, we hit the road in our stuffed VW. A jubilant, rude celebration as we crossed the South Carolina line, then over the lumpy spine of the Appalachians. Next day the dying Beetle limped into Milwaukee at 40 mph, and at midnight we staggered into an East Side hotel that had seen better days.
Be careful what you ask for, they say, because you might get it. Milwaukee had what we asked for, and it turned to ashes. But we also found what we didn’t ask for, and that was pure gold.
Omigod. No grits for breakfast. No red dirt. Everything ahead of us. A boost in salary, a theatre department with masses of drama majors, and a flashy new theatre equipped with hydraulic lifts— under platforms that never quite stayed flush with one another.
We found a decent apartment within walking distance of the campus. And two blocks away, there was Sendik’s— magnificent fresh produce, including fruit and veggies I’d never seen even in California— and a great wine shop without that large red dot that marked South Carolina liquor stores where state law forbade signs saying “Liquor Store.” I subscribed to Time-Life’s Foods of the World, we took a whole day to go wardrobe-shopping, and we bought a new Beetle. This could be all right.
I never imagined that there would come a time when I’d cook my own grits as a special treat, when the sound of a soft Southern accent would make me smile, and when the memory of that wild, fearless, crazy bunch of actors would make my heart go bump. All I knew was that this was a Big Improvement.
We visited my parents in Michigan, and I survived. Then Conrad’s mom came to visit, the first time in two years, pleasant as always, until we got a letter. He had grown a mustache, lending a little gravitas to his 26-year-old face, but now he’d added a small chin beard. It almost did her in. She wrote a nightmarish letter of grief, convinced that drugs, mental illness or socio-political degeneration had seized him . . .