Conrad Johnson decided to go north to Minnesota even if he had to walk to get there. He locked up his mobile home, took $800 cash from under his mattress and walked out the gate of the Paradise Palm Leaf Resort Park for mobile homes and RVs. His car was in the shop. He was 81 and suffered from arthritis but still rode his bike in the park. He was a man of medium build with silver hair mixed with two or three other shades and kept his face clean shaven. His body was brown and wiry.
The air felt moist but a Gulf breeze buoyed his spirits. What a great time of the morning to strike out back to his home of origin. Home. Conrad walked along the highway not minding the 80 degrees. It was summer in the Valley, but he longed for the cool sting of lower temperatures, of that hint of a seasonal change he had known as a child. He was dressed in slacks and a short-sleeved cotton shirt. No luggage. Wouldn’t need anything he couldn’t buy on the way. He thought of the word home and he had had many. He and his twin sister Marlene took pride in their ability to adjust to frequent moves as military brats from the time they were twelve. Now she had left and the word took on larger proportions. It loomed in front of his face like a word on a screen or a sign. He decided then and there that home was not a place. It was worn inside. He wanted it desperately and when he got to Minnesota he knew he would feel it again. It would find its place like when his mother’s hands rubbed his chest when he was sick or when he went out for the first time to ice fish with his father and Marlene and they witnessed a city of sheds on the ice with sofas inside and a hole to drop your line while you sat on your own sofa, and when they came home there was hot chocolate and raisin cakes their mother baked in saved tin cans.
Conrad and his sister had shared the mobile home for twelve years and one day she died. She had decorated the outdoor shelf that looked over the rock garden of cactus in the 12 x12 foot “front yard,” and kept up two large stuffed dolls, a boy and a girl, in swings that hung from the live oak in the real yard of their corner lot. She brought them in when it looked like rain and sometimes changed their clothes. Conrad mowed and tinkered in the shed. After Marlene died, he let things go like the people in the swings, but the knick-knacks on the outdoor shelf overlooking the cactus survived. They gave Conrad a sense of balance, if not permanence.
Marlene had been a very organized person and Conrad didn’t have the faintest idea how his clothes always appeared clean and folded in his drawer, or how stuff stayed fresh in the refrigerator. He began to attract attention around the park when he said things like, “There’s going to be another war and I’m going to be ready.” Everyone knew he owned a rifle and a pistol. He spoke about his childhood in Minnesota, and things began to get out of hand when he spoke as if Marlene were in the kitchen making noodles.
The Office called his only living relative, a nephew, George, who said he couldn’t do anything about it. George, the son of Conrad and Marlene’s only other sibling, Grace, had come to live with Conrad for a time after Grace died of cancer, but they fell out, and George had left in anger.
At 4 am, the hour before 5 am when most humans have had enough sleep without being sleep deprived, Conrad walked out of the gate and headed for the bus station. He picked up a ride from a young man who washed dishes in a local restaurant. After all, Marlene was not coming back he told the young man, and he had nowhere else to go. His nephew was a self-centered, selfish young man with no real prospects. And he knew that George thought that he was just a grumpy old guy. Hadn’t he given George a chance to find a job and a place to stay, free room and board? Kids. Didn’t have much going for him in Ohio, but didn’t like Conrad’s way of doing things. So what, thought Conrad. So he had his ways and he didn’t want George changing anything. Better than George playing mechanic and not being able to keep a job because he wasn’t a real mechanic.
Bus stations are dismal places Conrad thought, but he didn’t mind because at last he was on the way. The screaming child next to him made his ears ring. He bought a hot dog and a newspaper. Soon he would be in Minnesota. Turns out the bus didn’t go to Minnesota.
Two men got on the bus just outside of Nuevo Laredo and demanded everyone’s watches, jewelry and cash. Conrad had lined his underwear and shoes with cash except for what was left of a fifty dollar bill after the bus ticket, hot dog, and newspaper. “Please. My sister gave the watch to me.” The hooded man pulled the watch from Conrad’s hairy arm and slapped him down in his seat. Conrad muttered a curse and the man hit him again. The hooded man was the same build and maybe the same age as George. His voice sounded like George.
The police came and Conrad and the rest of the bus riders were back across the border. Conrad had only a driver’s license, no passport, and two nasty bruises swelling on each side of his face. After innumerable conversations with various officials and an unusual amount of confusion, and a call to George in Ohio, Conrad was allowed to come back onto U.S. soil. A Border Patrol agent helped him to find a Greyhound bus.
Brenda Ellen Mayfield came out of her Iowa home on Sunday morning to find Conrad sitting on her porch swing. Startled, she asked, “May I help you?” Conrad, disheveled, with even purple and black spreading over his face asked her if he could have a cup of coffee, black. Before she could answer, he asked about the fishing. “How is the fishing this year?”
The Office got a call from Brenda Ellen Mayfield from Davenport, Iowa. Yes, his name was Conrad Johnson and he thought he was in Minnesota. Could someone please fetch him? The Office contacted George. George said that he could do nothing about it. Conrad had no children and some thought he had never been married. George, under pressure from the Authorities, allowed that Conrad be put in a nursing home until things could be worked out.
Three months later, Conrad’s mobile home and car were still sitting empty and forlorn. The swings were empty. The Office contacted George to no avail. “But everything was left to you. He has no one but you. Would you please come down and take possession of the property, or sell it? We can help with the sale if that’s what you want to do.”
“I don’t want anything to do with my Uncle or his property. The heck with him.”
Mary Ann in the Office contacted the county, then the state and the property went up for public auction. Soon a wrecking crew came and removed the mobile home. Neighbors wondered what had been in the refrigerator all that time. The lot looked so much bigger.
Conrad watched a movie called Grumpy Old Men and leaned forward in his chair when Jack Lemmon was ice fishing. He made friends with a man who had been in the Navy. He insisted on calling an attractive woman, prone to craft-making, Marlene.