The main reason large families exist is free labor.
I double-checked the address I had written down on the piece of paper. My brother lived in a condo in a subdivision where all the houses looked and were painted the same. I did not want to be stomping around some complete stranger’s snowbound yard, out of fear that the police might get called.
The thought of throwing a birdbath into the SUV I was driving, only to look up to find guns drawn by the men in blue had crossed my mind. I even pictured myself in a jail cell with rapists and murderers, rather large men with large tattoos of spider webs, teardrops for the people they killed and their mothers, asking me what I was in for. “Grand theft birdbath,” I would reply.
After that, I would be running the cell block.
I should note here that my brother and I are Norwegians. I had only been to his place once in the last decade. It is not that we don’t love each other, whatever that emotion is. It is simply that he is a Hawkeye fan and I root for the Cyclones. So, sports is not a topic we can broach. We both hate the outdoors. This means the weather is not of interest to either one of us. This would mean, after asking how he was doing, we would end up staring at each other’s feet for the next hour. That is not a great reason to drive more than an hour anywhere.
On this occasion, I was here for a birdbath. My brother had taken a new job in Virginia that fall. His wife had remained behind to clean up, paint and do various improvements to their place in order to increase the sale value. At least, that was the plan. Just after putting out the Christmas decorations, she traveled to the east coast to spend sometime with him and look for a house together. While there, she would job-hunt. So, when she moved she would already have a head start.
She was offered an extremely lucrative job on the spot. The only hitch was she had to start in a couple of weeks. What was to be a leisurely move turned into throwing things into boxes and crossing state lines with more pets than anyone should have to be in a car with.
It was only after arriving in Virginia that she realized she had forgotten the birdbath. It was a family heirloom. It had been in her mother’s mother’s yard or something like that. It was a connection to all that she held dear about her family. It sat right outside their front door since the day they got married.
Now, much like a Jewish or a Catholic mother, a Norwegian mother understands the power of guilt when it comes to her children. Our culture is built on it. Only it is more passive-aggressive and involves less hugging than the others.
I listened several times about how much the birdbath meant to my brother’s wife, how heavy it was, and how heartsick she was to leave it behind. Before I could stop myself, the words came out of my mouth, “I’ll stop by and see what I can do.”
I want to make this clear. No one asked me to retrieve her birdbath. That would be a direct request. Norwegians don’t do that. Instead, the guilt that makes you volunteer to do such things is already there, churning inside of you until you do what needs to be done, or it comes out in the form of chest pain for the next couple of decades.
I love my brother, whatever that emotion means. He loves his wife. So, of course, I volunteered to get her birdbath. On the positive side, I get the joy of being resentful about it for three or four decades. No one will ever know that this resentment is there. It will just come out in the form of Ole and Lena jokes.
No good deed ever goes unpunished. Here is what no one told me. Getting out of the SUV, I walked over to where I was informed the birdbath was and my jaw fell open. The birdbath was more the size and weight of a bird Jacuzzi. It was a lot larger than anyone had told me. A flock of birds would need an ordinance to reside in it. It was built back when Americans cared about craftsmanship and wanting things to last forever. If a nuclear war happened, the only things left would be cockroaches, Twinkies, a few divorce lawyers, wait, I already said cockroaches, and that birdbath, which had sunk into the thawing tundra.
Now, a normal person, aka a smart person, would have looked at it in its bed of snow and walked away. Sadly, I am not that person. Surveying the situation, I thought I had a real shot of moving it. Pulling the SUV as close to the birdbath as I possibly could, I opened the tailgate and reminded myself that I am still one of the strongest people I know of. I have a long list of accidentally breaking supposedly unbreakable things over the years to justify this belief.
Squatting down, circling my arms around the bowl, I thrust upwards as I reminded myself how strong and powerful I was. Although, at that moment, my back, left knee and right shoulder expressed their disagreement. What sounded like someone popping plastic bubble wrap, and a sucking noise I thought was the bowl separating from the soggy, still partially frozen earth that had been its cradle for several years, was my back.
Don’t quote me on this, but I heard my back say, “Remember how you had to be taken to the hospital because you injured me a couple of decades ago? How the doctor was shocked you walked in under your own power? How your friend, Tony, said he had never seen anyone look that ghostly white because you were in such pain? What did you do then? Oh yes, lifted up the back end of a Volkswagen to impress a girl. Then you fell zip lining a few days later trying to impress that same girl whose name you cannot remember now. Just wanted to remind you.”
I am sure my back had a lot more to say, but my right shoulder kept piping in about how I used to snap 4x4 posts with it for bar bets. How much money had I made in such feats of tomfoolery? Was it five or six hundred dollars? No. It was about the price of an aspirin in the hospital when I had it reconstructed a decade later. It wanted to ask me how many times I had dislocated it playing sports and simply asked my best friend to pop it back into the socket so I could keep on playing, but my left knee kept drowning it out. At least, I assume it was my knee that sounded like popcorn popping. I could not see it underneath the bowl. So, I cannot say for sure. The tearing and throbbing pain? It was my knee.
Even as I heaved the bowl into the back of the SUV, causing the shock absorbers and springs to collapse, these body parts continued conversing with me. The whole way home my back wouldn’t straighten out. I must have looked like one of those elderly drivers, just hands on the wheel and a pair of eyes peeking over the dash, to anyone that passed me on the highway. Caked in mud, I pulled myself into the house, took a couple of muscle relaxers, and laid down on the couch. I don’t know how much time had passed when I woke to two realizations.
First, my brother has a son in his mid-twenties who is into weightlifting. He and his buddies are always talking about how much iron they press and their amazing workouts. He, along with two or three of his buddies, could have moved the darn birdbath with little or no problem. No one had bothered to ask him to do it? Maybe he had not inherited those good Norwegian guilt genes? Second, it is not a good idea to fall asleep on a couch after moving a mammoth birdbath. Every muscle in my body tightened up while I slept. I was going to die there.
Then I heard another voice, well, not a voice, more like a whimper. It was my dog. He needed to go outside. It is amazing how fast you can move when white carpet is at stake.
Trevor Soderstrum was born and raised in Story City. He’s been writing columns for about a decade and attended the summer session of The Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He can be reached at email@example.com.