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2. carl krebsbach, carpenter 3. daryl tollerud, farmer 4. marilyn tollerud, conference facilitator 5. clint bunsen, co-owner, Bunsen Motors 6. irene bunsen, tomato grower 7.
8. wally kreuger, barkeeper 9. evelyn kreuger, barkeeper’s keeper 10. father wilmer, priest 11. lyle janske, biology teacher (ret.) 12. gary keillor, radio show host
Science and mathematics and more recently
And say a prayer for God’s abundant grace.
And that was to warm her husband’s heart
But they have not read St. Matthew’s gospel,
To win his heart and bring him home.
The fi rst of the pilgrims through the International Arriv-
als portal at Leonardo da Vinci was Margie Krebsbach,
face scrubbed, fresh, grinning, towing her husband Carl
who looked stunned as if struck by a ball-peen hammer, and then
the others came slouching and shuffl ing along, jet-lagged, brain-
dead, and right away she spotted the thin, spiky-haired man in
the blue blazer holding up a sign—lake wobegon—
in one hand,
high, and she let out a whoop and let go of Carl. “This is so
!” she said, meaning the sign—the words “Lake Wobegon”—
here!—in Italy!—Great God! “We have to take a picture.” So she
pulled out her little PikClik as the other pilgrims groaned. Please.
No photography, please. And no whooping. Please. No enthusi-
None of them had slept much on the fl ight from Minneapo-
lis to Amsterdam thanks to a small child named Rose who
wandered up and down the aisles pinching people with slimy fi n-
gers and then the fl ight to Rome had hit turbulence over the Alps,
a death-envisioning experience (12 minnesotans among those
lost in plane crash; en route to rome to honor fallen war
hero, they perish in fl ames on snow-capped matterhorn) and
now they were hoping for a soft place to lie down for a day or
two. Lyle looked as if he’d been held hostage aboard a fi shing
trawler, lying on a pile of deceased halibut. Wally and Evelyn
appeared to be under the control of aliens. Clint and Irene looked
as if they should not be allowed to operate motor vehicles. Daryl
had a weird smile on his face, as if he’d come to Rome with a
sackful of dough from the church-building fund. Father Wilmer
looked very bleak, as if he had seen unspeakable things up close.
Eloise looked as if she had just eaten a plateful of boiled thistles.
Carl appeared heavily medicated, and in fact was. A double dose
of Placidol. Mr. Keillor was lifting his feet, fi rst one, then the
other, left, right, left, right, and trying to remember the word
(English) for what he had taken two of on the plane to help him
sleep. They were all off-kilter except Margie, standing arm in
arm with the man from Columbo Travel. She looked simply ter-
rifi c. Never better. Big smile, hair in place, stylish in black warm-
up pants and green satin jacket, a brown fedora on her head,
classy new black horn-rimmed glasses. She’d bought the hat in
the Amsterdam airport. An impulse. A hundred euros. What the
hell. She was stoked. Pumped. “We’re in Italy! Italy!” she cried.
The spiky-haired man smiled wanly, having been born in Italy,
descended from Italians. He wore gray slacks and a blue blazer
with a gold crest on the pocket, columbo tours. She wanted to
hug him but he stepped away, so she hugged Carl instead. “We
made it, sweetheart. Good job!” And to the porter pushing the
cart of luggage behind: “Avanti!
Carl had been afraid of fl ying since a trip to New York three
years ago to see Carla after she had phoned home to ask if she
was covered by their health insurance (no) and he sensed preg-
nancy and fl ew out to see her (she wasn’t but she read to him
from a book about girls who grow up with emotionally distant
fathers who are unable to form lasting relationships, and she
cried and cried) and he went to the airport feeling dark and grue-
some and on the way home, the plane hit teeth-shaking turbu-
lence over Lake Michigan. An overhead popped open and an
enormous black bat fl ew out and Carl screamed and threw up his
hands and broke its neck and it fell on him, dying, fl apping its
great leathery wings. He jumped out of his seat and the fl ight
attendant yelled at him to sit down, dammit. And the woman
whose bat it was, a noted Berkeley bat researcher seated next to
him, took the corpse and screeched at him for fi fteen minutes
that bats are harmless and any ten-year-old child knows that and
he had gone and killed a rare specimen from the upper Amazon
and upset the balance of the ecosystem and pushed the Earth
closer to extinction. “Killer,” she hissed. “You. You’re a killer.”
As a result, Carl hadn’t fl own until now, a ten-hour fl ight from
Minneapolis-St. Paul to Amsterdam and a two-hour fl ight to
Rome. He had been inert with terror the whole time, silent, stiff,
eyes open, respirating, refusing food and drink. “I’m proud of
you, sweetheart,” she said. He did not seem to recognize her.
“I’m your wife, Margie,” she said. “The mother of your babies.
Mr. Columbo got to work organizing the bags and Margie
beamed at her group. “A historic moment deserves a group pic-
ture!” cried Margie. “Come on, squeeze together like you know
each other,” she cried. She pointed to Mr. Keillor at the rear.
“Take a picture,” she said. She thrust the camera at him. He
didn’t understand—he was accustomed to being the photo-
graphee. “Take it!” she said. “The camera. Take the camera.”
“We want you to take our picture with the tour guy.”
“Couldn’t we—“ And then it dawned on him. He was not part
of the “we”—he was him
, a big cheese in the radio world maybe
but an outrider among his landsmen, an addendum, a curio, a
cigar-store Indian. He took the camera from Margie, or almost
did, and it clattered on the fl oor. She picked it up. “Are you okay?”
she said. “I thought you had traveled overseas before.”
He looked at the little silver camera. “Doesn’t this have a
“No,” she said. “It doesn’t. Just shoot.”
And the eleven of them, fi ve in front, six in back, squeezed in
tight. “Tighter,” she said. They squeezed some more. “Cheese,”
said Evelyn. “Ovaries,” said Margie. Mr. Keillor pushed the but-
ton and nothing happened. “Lens cap!” cried Eloise.
“My Uncle Will was the fi rst one to get a Kodak box camera
with a timer,” Evelyn said. “He was so pleased with himself for
fi guring out how to use it. He took hundreds of self-portraits.
Pictures of himself, you know. Him with his old Packard. Him
at the jigsaw. Him mowing the grass. Him lying in bed with
Miriam. Oh, that upset her! She thought he’d lost his marbles.
But there they are in that little double bed and his eyes are closed
The word he was looking for was Dramamine: he’d taken one
when the plane lifted off from Minneapolis and it hadn’t kicked
in. He was wedged into seat 33J because Irene Bunsen had bullied
him into giving up his fi rst-class seat to Lyle Janske who she said
was in bad shape having gotten the bad news that he had Al-
zheimer’s. “This may be his last trip as the Lyle we know,” she
said. “Let’s let him have the shrimp cocktail and lamb chops on
jasmine rice and Merlot and you
have the box lunch.”
Well, how could you argue with that? So the radio man wound
up sandwiched between a large embittered man and his angry
wife with a fretful child on her lap, a couple from Rapid City,
South Dakota, and no, they did not want to change seats with
him so they could sit together. She was going to Rome to take up
a fellowship at the American Academy and he was going along
to provide child care. The child had colic. Mr. Keillor took an-
other pill over Newfoundland. The child slept for an hour and
resumed screaming on the descent into Amsterdam—meanwhile
the woman had recognized Mr. Keillor and chose that moment
to tell him that she used to listen to his radio show. She empha-
sized the “used to” as if it were some odd aberration like being
addicted to butterscotch. “I have one word of advice for you,” she
said. “Don’t sing. Someone should’ve told you this years ago.
You’re not a singer. Don’t sing.” The pill kicked in as the plane
pulled up to the gate in Amsterdam and he was awakened by the
cleaning crew, tiny Indonesian women with backpack vacuums.
He thought he had landed on another planet. All of the passen-
gers and crew were gone. He had to jog through the terminal to
catch the plane to Rome and it was not lost on him that nobody
in his group had come looking for him. Nobody. He hurtled
down the Jetway as the lady gate agent was about to swing the
plane door shut and she muttered something in Dutch that
sounded like dummkopf.
He sat down next to Daryl who said,
“We were all discussing whether you’d gained weight or not. It
He had come on the trip because he thought he could get a
book out of it. A little comic novel called Veni Vidi Vickie
a Minnesota divorcée who goes to Rome to fi nd the meaning of
life and falls in love with a tall, dark stranger who turns out to
be from Minnesota. The stranger is in public radio and yet he is
a comely man with terrifi c abdominals and (as she discovers one
evening) a terrifi c dancer and fabulous lover, so together they
climb the heights of ecstasy on a fi ne king-size mattress in a
four-star hotel. The Chopin etude “Tristesse” is playing, chil-
dren laugh and play in the courtyard below. They lie quietly in
each other’s arms and he says, “Life is insurmountable and yet
we mount up again and again and ride, glorious and free, across
the river and into the golden uplands, hoping against hope, long-
ing for that for which there are no words.” And she whispers,
“Thanks for being so wonderful.” Something like that. The next
thing he knew, the plane had touched down in Rome. Daryl said,
“What’s it like, being famous? You enjoy strangers coming up to
you and fawning over you? I wouldn’t, but I suppose some people
eat it right up.” And then he was standing in the terminal with
a camera in his hand. “Just take the lens cap off and point and
And so the fi rst record of their pilgrimage to Italy was a pic-
ture, slightly out of focus, of the eleven of them, large white
sleepy people from the northern prairie leaning against each
other, exhausted, vertiginous, smirking at the lens-cap mishap
The anxious and earnest Carl Krebsbach, president of Krebs-
bach Construction, husband of Margie, father of Carla, Carl Jr.,
and Cheryl, and now the owner by default of a half-fi nished
three-bedroom chalet on a two-acre lot on Lake Wobegon, built
for a wealthy Minneapolis investment banker named Ladder-
man who is now in the midst of a bitter divorce on account of
a dalliance with a 26-year-old receptionist whom he promised
to take on a 21-day cruise to New Zealand.
Ruddy, genial Daryl Tollerud, partner with his old man in a
six-hundred-acre hog-and-corn operation. Father of four. Farmer
of the Year in 1988 and 1997. In 1974 he missed two free throws
and cost Lake Wobegon the District 47 basketball trophy. Score
tied, one second left on the clock, all he had to do was make
one free throw. He didn’t. St. Agnes won in sudden-death over-
The gracious and kindly Marilyn Tollerud, wife of Daryl
and owner/operator of Mid-Country Meetings & Conferences
Inc., which organizes public events such as the recent two-day
Revitalizing Rural Minnesota Through Diversity, fourteen
hours of earnest Lutheran discourse about (1) the need to cel-
ebrate who we are and (2) joyfully embrace those who are
The likable and capable Clint Bunsen, head mechanic at the
Ford garage and former chair of the Fourth of July parade,
now, after a fl agrant love affair with the young Angelica (who
marched as the Statue of Liberty), more or less reconciled with
The plainspoken and observant Irene Bunsen, gardener,
mother, Girl Scout leader and camper (against her will but
someone must do it), perpetual grand champion of the Mist
County Fair Tomato Sweepstakes, committed to Clint, “in for
The brave and beleaguered Eloise Krebsbach, four-term
mayor of Lake Wobegon, mother of three, brokenhearted now,
having been dumped by longtime lover and volunteer fi reman
Fred Peterson, after all she’d done for him, including getting
him into AA, where he met someone younger and perkier.
The sagacious and steady Wally Kreuger, owner of the Side-
track Tap, and long-ago batting champion (.324) for the Lake
Wobegon Whippets, which you would not guess by looking at
him. A pillar of the Legion and the Knights of the Plume Co-
lumnar, but also a bartender, sympathetic to man’s failings.
The watchful and matronly Evelyn Kreuger, née Schoppen-
horst, wife of Wally, cousin of Margie, famous for her Nutty
Nougat Coconut Caramel Bars, and longtime president of Cath-
The patient and soft-spoken Father Wilmer, pastor of Our
Lady of Perpetual Responsibility, a voice for tolerance and
mercy (which leads some to suspect he has dark secrets, per-
haps a lover somewhere, a gambling addiction, a faith prob-
lem). In November he was seen entering a storefront in St.
Cloud that houses a tanning salon, a women’s crisis center,
and a psychotherapist’s offi ce. Father has no tan whatsoever.
The laid-back and long-suffering Lyle Janske, newly retired
biology teacher at Lake Wobegon High, married to Carl’s sister
Ardis. He thinks it is a hormone defi ciency, not Alzheimer’s,
having researched it online, and is taking large gelatinous cap-
sules purchased from a source in Costa Rica. Ardis couldn’t
“Okay!” cried Margie. “Your bags are in the van! Let’s add ‘em
up and move ‘em out! Let’s go have fun!” And turned and
marched out to the curb and they slouched along behind and
onto the white van, a 12-seater, as Margie sang:
And run past them—up the center!
It’s the leader’s job to be positive and she was the leader now. She
had never been a leader before in her entire life.
years old and she’d always trotted along like a good girl, helping
the nuns, clapping the erasers, a very quiet good girl who got
good grades, joined clubs, wrote poems, married, raised kids,
never a leader, and when Carl’s sister Eloise moved back to Lake
Wobegon from Minneapolis, her with her booming voice and
confi dent clear-cut sentences, and was elected mayor, Margie de-
ferred to her, but now Eloise was cast down by the loss of the
treacherous Fred, and the torch had been passed. Thrilling. Ab-
solutely thrilling. Having spent decades tolerating dopes and
bores and obeying braggarts and petty tyrants, to at last emerge
from her cocoon as a Benevolent Leader of Her People on an
In the Amsterdam airport, she’d spotted a book called How
to Deal with Impossible People
and snapped it up.
The fi rst
rule was “Always Be Confi dent.” “Start every endeavor with a
surplus of Positive Energy.” “Be a Builder-Upper.” “Do not an-
ticipate failure.” Which struck her as profound—the sort of
wisdom you’d never learn in Lake Wobegon, a colony of doubt-
ers and backbiters. And then, moments later, she saw Eloise
weeping afresh over Fred and sat down and patted her hand. And
Eloise was holding a sheet of paper that a strange woman had
Rome remains a hotbed of terrorist activity in the Mediter-
ranean, with daily car bombings, knee-cappings, abductions,
assassinations, and random killings. Most events go unre-
ported in the mainstream media, which derives a good deal of
If you must visit Rome, follow a few sensible guidelines.
1. Do not wear American clothing. Buy Italian clothing as
soon as you arrive, to reduce the chance of your becom-
ing the target of a political shooting or bomb explosion.
2. Do not speak English. Gesture with hand signals.
3. Do not fl ash large amounts of cash. If you must use an
ATM machine, fi nd one on an isolated street, or one that
4. If you feel you’re being followed, go to a police station
and be prepared to pay a fee (in cash) for protection.
5. Do not ride in cabs or on buses. Walk. Stay close to build-
ings. Never cross a street except in a throng.
7. Avoid bathing, if possible. Strong body odor has been
shown to be effective in warding off terrorist attacks.
8. Avoid tourist attractions, such as the Colosseum or St.
9. Avoid eye contact. Look at the ground. Smiling is not a
good idea. Terrorists are offended by laughter and may
lash out at people they perceive as lighthearted.
10. Do not drink coffee except in tiny cups. People with cof-
fee mugs are presumed to be Americans. Drink tea, with
Eloise thrust it at Margie. “Oh my God,” she said, “we are in
trouble now. See what you’ve gotten us into. A nun gave this to
“Listen,” Margie said. “This is hogwash. Pure idiocy. We’re
perfectly safe.” She tore the sheet into tiny pieces.
“You don’t think we should talk this over?”
“Damn it to hell, Eloise. Just pull yourself together, willya?
Eloise was stunned. Margie never cursed—never ever. “You
don’t think we should—“ Margie took hold of her shoulders and
shook her. “Listen to me. Just grow up! I mean it! Get over it!”
And right there was where Margie took command, pushing
Eloise around, telling her to grow up. Anyway, the trip had been
her idea from Day One. It was she who called them up in Janu-
ary and said, “Guess what? Carl and I are going to Rome. Want
to go?” Where?
Italy. Kind of expensive, isn’t it?
Hey, a person
only lives once. I’ve heard that. How much does it cost?
than you’d think. So she bought the plane tickets from a web
site called Cheapskate.com and booked the hotel and phoned the
pilgrims with regular helpful reminders (Passport. Cash card.
Adapters for electric shavers.) and shepherded them onto the
plane in Minneapolis (What if someone else has taken our
) and through Schiphol in Amsterdam (Why do we have
to wait so long at Passport Control when the Europeans go
scooting on through?
and into Rome (Was it okay that I packed
some Nut Goodies in my suitcase? What if they search my bag?
I see the sign about not bringing food products into Italy—is
Nut Goodie a food product? Should I tell the police or should I
sneak into a restroom and fl ush it down the toilet?
had dealt with Evelyn who sat there in Amsterdam holding a
small cardboard box someone had given her.
“I don’t know. He just asked me to take it on the plane
So she grabbed the box and threw it into a stairwell. And she
herded them away to a coffee bar where Marilyn had a meltdown
while looking at a chicken salad sandwich and burst into tears
and said, “Why didn’t I bring Mother along? She would’ve loved
to come. I never even thought to ask her. Oh my God. She was
probably just waiting for me to say something and I never did.
She’s still hale and hearty, she could’ve come and enjoyed this. It
might be her last chance.
And I didn’t even think to mention it.
It didn’t even cross my mind!
” And she wept. “I am a bad per-
son,” she said. “God is going to punish me, I know it. I just hope
he spares my kids.” Oh, it was the old Midwestern ritual of bru-
tal self-accusation—out of pure vanity people lashing into them-
selves—how worthless I am!
—and thereby dragging sympathy
and praise out of you—No, you are not
a bad person, you are a
person, and no we don’t hate you, not at all, we all love
Indeed, we do. So she had comforted Marilyn and rounded up
the sheep and moved them to the next plane and on the fl ight to
Rome she had reminded Lyle why they were going to Rome—to
put a picture on Gussie Norlander’s grave—and at the Customs
counter she said Buon giorno
to the policeman who checked her
passport and Grazie
when he handed it back—and at the baggage
carousel she had spotted a porter and tapped him on the shoulder
and said “Per favore, signore,”
and so well, with rolled R’
all, that his face lit up and he poured out his heart to her in Ital-
ian and she simply raised her hand and said, “Sono Americano—
I’d rather speak English. Thank you. Grazie.”
And the man
grinned and squeezed out some English. She handed him ten
euros, he brought a cart for the bags. So cool. Eloise whispered,
“Where did you learn that?” “In the movies,” she said.
True. Roman Holiday
starring Audrey Hepburn as a princess
spinning around Rome on the back of a Vespa, her arms around
Gregory Peck. Margie saw it in high school and Audrey became
her patron saint whom she tried to emulate, her ballerina ele-
gance, her bubbly demeanor, though bubbliness did not come
naturally in Lake Wobegon. People tended to be dry. A woman
who bubbled was considered ditzy. You were supposed to be a
little dark. Treat yourself to dark scenarios about your kids, the
schools, the elms, the future of the bluebird species. Any effer-
vescence was a symptom of unreliability. If you bubbled, people
didn’t want their kids to ride in your car.
She took a deep breath and put on an Audrey smile and cried,
“We are going to have such fun
in Italy! Fun such as you cannot
even imagine! Boy O boy O boy. This is one for the history
books! C’mon, let’s see some happy faces! Smile, darn ya! You
people look like somebody peed on your sugar bread. Lighten up!
We’re on vacation! Seven glorious nights and six fun-fi lled
days!” She poked Carl. “Right?” “Right,” he said. She got in the
shotgun seat in the big white van as Mr. Columbo loaded the
bags in back. Enormous bags. The others had packed like refu-
gees who might never see home again. For her: two carry-ons.
Underwear, jeans and pullovers, one black dress, one pair of
walking shoes. “If I need more, I can buy it there,” she told Mar-
ilyn. “It’s only a week.” Marilyn admitted she had brought four
sweaters Four sweaters?
Four sweaters. Just in case.
Marilyn, Eloise, Evelyn sat in the second seat; Wally, Irene,
Lyle, in the third; Carl, Daryl, Clint, Father, in the backseat.
Mr. Keillor stood by the open door, waiting for someone to
scootch over. “Jump in,” said Margie. “Where?” he said. “Any-
where.” The seat with the three ladies was full and so was the
second, what with Irene parking her carry-on bag next to her.
Father Wilmer said, “I’m afraid there’s no leg room back here.
It’s tight for me and you have longer legs.” Finally, Irene heaved
a sigh and moved the carry-on bag onto her lap and Lyle swung
his legs out to allow the radio host to squeeze in between him
and Irene—“I have to sit on the outside on account of my
knees,” he said. So Mr. Keillor found himself wedged in tight,
trapped, like a caged animal. He slipped his left arm around
onto the seat back behind Irene—to make more room—and she
said, “Don’t.” So he had to sit crooked, Lyle’s elbow in his kid-
neys. When the van pulled away and bounced in a pothole, it
sent shock waves up his spine. Just last Friday, a black limo had
picked him up at LaGuardia and taken him to Town Hall for A
Prairie Home Companion,
where he shared a dressing room
with Yo-Yo Ma who was gracious and treated him like Some-
body, and now here he was back in the fourth grade among
cruel bus mates. “We may need a bigger van,” he muttered.
“Some of us may need to lose weight,” said Irene. She sighed a
long articulate sigh. Which he remembered suddenly and very
They were juniors in high school. It was May. She and he, sitting
on the iron rail by the side door to the gymnasium. Under an old
wounded elm tree split by lightning and still alive. Sun pouring
down, she in her white blouse and denim wrap skirt, a half circle
of sweat under her arms. He, not daring to look at her:
“I was thinking about going to the Prom but I don’t know.
I might have other plans. It’s hard to tell. Were you planning
And then he realized that she did not want to go to the Prom
with him nor anywhere else. She did not want to be sitting there
beside him. There was magnetic repulsion going on. She was
about to throw up her arms and scream, “Get this person away
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said. “I just realized, I can’t go, I told some
people I’d do something else. Sorry.”
“That’s okay,” she said. She gave him a sidelong glance and in
that glance he withered like a delicate shrub in a hard frost. Here
he had almost asked her to the Prom, had opened the door to the
possibility of his perhaps asking her, and then withdrawn this
non-offer. Then she cried, “Hey! What took you so long!!” to
some guys in a souped-up Model T pulling up and she ran and
And now, years later, he was that kid all over again, seventeen
years old and six three, 150 pounds, high-water pants, size thir-
teen shoes, horn-rimmed glasses slipped down on his nose, short
hair shaved up high in back, pipsqueak arms, solemn voice that
broke into adolescent duck quacks. Why
had he come on this
trip? Some dark lust for punishment had driven him to travel
And he was subsidizing the trip! Oh God. The ultimate irony!
Fifty-seven thousand dollars he was paying!
You escape the cold steel bars of high school and go off to a
happy life in radio broadcasting as the host of your own show
and then, through weird circumstance, you donate money to pay
for your old neighbors to visit Rome and you go along for the
honor of the thing and they punish you for your good deed.
What a dope! Dumbhead! Stoopnagel!
You could’ve spent that
money on a fourteen-day luxury cruise on the Baltic and instead
you are jammed into a van with the Jealous & Resentful!
The van hurtled down a ramp to the freeway, hit another pot-
hole, which drove a nail into Mr. Keillor’s spine, and fl ew past
construction sites, piles of concrete slabs and logs and gravel, and
then a grove of palm trees and twelve-foot rosebushes. They
drove through a little village, tangles of fencing and bungalows
perched on hills, clinging to steep rocky slopes. It looked like
California. Apartment buildings and every apartment with a
balcony that overfl owed with billows of fl owering vines. Margie
leaned forward and tried to commit it all to memory. She had
expected Italy to be exotic, swarthy men sitting on wine barrels
under arbors strumming mandolins, singing in plaintive tenor
voices as big-hipped ladies swung their skirts and old nuns
laughed and old men argued, hands in the air waving, but of
course Italians go to offi ces too. They have dental appointments.
They must go shop for toilet paper and put it on the roller. And
then she saw a burst of bougainvillea growing out of an old de-
crepit apartment building, fi ve stories high. One enormous plant.
And then gigantic wisteria plants that looked like they were eat-
ing a three-story house. “Look,” she said. And someone said,
“What?” And then it was gone. A string of bicyclists crossed an
overpass as they sped under and then Carl said, “How long until
we get there?” Like a child on a car trip. “Fifteen minutes,” said
“What if our rooms aren’t ready?” said Carl.
“Then we’ll walk around and look at the sights,” she said.
“Won’t they be ready?” said Lyle in a pained voice. “Did we
Mr. Columbo hit the brakes and took an exit off the freeway—
thought Margie. “Scenic route, very historic,” he
said—and now they were speeding through vineyards, the slen-
der gnarled trunks and canopy of intertwined vines webbed
above. “Best wine in Italy comes from here. Ghirlandaio. Only
two hundred barrels a year and they leave it in the wooden casks
for fi ve years and it costs a hundred euros a bottle and it is said
to have special powers”—he glanced around, decorously—“to
restore the lib-
i-do.” He pronounced it in a whisper.
“Sign me up for a case,” said Margie.
They came along a street of houses in pastel shades, coral,
pink, pale yellow. A golden house with green shutters. He pulled
over in front of a mud-colored building with pockmarked walls.
“Artillery shells,” he said. “Americans thought there were Ger-
mans inside and they blasted it with mortars and couldn’t knock
it down and then a child came running out waving a white bed-
sheet and they held their fi re and then fi fty or sixty more kids
came out. And then two clowns in whiteface with big fl oppy
shoes and little ooga-ooga
horns on their belts. Luigi and Carlo.
They were from a circus whose wagons had been destroyed by
bombs and their trained dogs had run away and also a llama and
an old spotted horse. The two of them got caught in the Allied
tank assault and ran for shelter in the castle and found the cellar
full of terrifi ed schoolchildren. So they painted themselves up
and got into costume and put on a show, whacking each other
with the slapsticks. When they heard an incoming shell, Luigi
bent over as if to let a great fart and when the shell hit, Carlo fell
down and waved his arms to disperse the smell. It was very
funny. They did some of their act for the Americans who sus-
pected the clowns might be booby-trapped. They made them
drop their trousers right there in front of the schoolchildren,
which the clowns did, clowning around, their hands clasped over
their privates, eyes rolling, heads bowed. And then a shot rang
out. A German sniper on the roof. An American raised his
rifl e and blasted away and the sniper fell four stories to the pave-
ment and landed with a big crunch and that was the end of
Mr. Columbo slowed down coming through a piazza and
pointed off to the left—“There’s the balcony Mussolini came out
on when he spoke to the crowds”—and they looked up at the
little balcony. “After the war, they went around and shot people
they called collaborators, but hell, almost everybody collabo-
rated. If you wanted a nice life, you went along with the Nazis.
“Well, we came here to celebrate a hero,” said Margie. “An
American by the name of Gussie Norlander. He was from our
town. He died in the liberation of Rome.”
Mr. Columbo shrugged. “All dead men are heroes, and the
They drove on across the Tiber, a shallow snot-green river,
with stone walls and broad footpaths on either side, the dome of
“Will we have the opportunity to see the Vatican?” said Fa-
“I am at your service,” said Mr. Columbo. “I am here for you.
Whatever you want, I am here to provide.”
“Assuming that is acceptable to Mr. Keillor,” added Father. “I
don’t wish to dictate where we go. Probably he has seen it all
many times.” He turned to the author. “I heard you had been
The author shifted uncomfortably in his seat. His legs were
numb and his bladder was about to let go. He told Father Wilmer
that at the Vatican, VIP stood for “Vastly Ignorant Protestants”
and that his tour guide, Father Reginaldo, had an aversion to
crowds and so the tour skipped the Sistine Chapel and the Mi-
in favor of the Vatican kitchen and a warehouse
where shards of statuary were glued back together.
“What’s that I smell? Chicken?” said Daryl, and some of the
In Minneapolis, Irene had read a story about chicken fl u in
Europe that caused nausea, loud whirring sounds in the eardrums,
hallucinations, vomiting and diarrhea—as much as four gallons
in one outburst—followed by shame and depression. She had
passed the story around to the others, and while they pooh-poohed
it—still, the thought of four gallons of poop suddenly blowing
out of you was hard to get out of your mind. “What if it’s true?”
said Irene. “Better go easy on the chicken until we can test it out.”
And she and a few of the others agreed that Mr. Keillor could be
the guinea pig. The man had a strong constitution. Let him chow
down on some chicken and then keep an eye on him.
Irene had purchased what she believed to be a chicken sand-
wich at a food stand in the Rome airport and then noticed the
brain. It was fried like an egg, between slices of
bread. She unwrapped the tinfoil and looked at Mr. Keillor who
was resting his eyes. “How about some breakfast?” she said. He
looked at the sandwich. It was the fi rst kind gesture anyone in
the group had made toward him, it had been one insult after
another—Clint Bunsen saying, “People keep telling me to read
your books and somehow I never fi nd the time.” Lyle suggesting
he see a doctor about nasal blockage. In the Minneapolis airport,
Marilyn Tollerud going on and on and on about Mr. Keillor’s
radio rival Ira Glass, Ira Glass, Ira Glass, idol of urbane young
women from coast-to-coast, and how much she enjoyed his writ-
ing, his mumbly style, and how she listened to podcasts of Ira
over and over and over and over. Even Evelyn had let him have
it: she said, “I heard you stopped drinking and I thought, Thank
God.” (This, from a woman who had tended bar at the Sidetrack
Tap and seen men plastered, loaded, bombed, stewed, fried to the
gills, falling down shit-faced. He had gotten drunk in the classic
WASP style, quietly, alone, at home, late at night, straight whis-
key in a glass, listening to Bach organ chorales, weepy, no trouble
to anyone. . . . How did he come to be the goat here?)
The chicken sandwich looked good. “Thank you,” he said to
Irene. “That’s very sweet of you.” And he ate it, all of it, aware
that everyone in the van was watching him. “Delicious,” he said.
“My grandma raised chickens and I used to catch them when she
needed to slaughter a few. I don’t know if I ever told you this
story—I used a wire clothes hanger to catch them by the ankles—
they could run really fast—it was a wire hanger that you unwind
to make a long straight wire with a hook at the end—they’d run
into the lilac bushes and I chased them—I was probably seven or
eight at the time—my dad cut their heads off—anyway, this one
Margie listened to his convoluted tale as the van slowed in
rush-hour traffi c. How did this man ever come to be telling sto-
ries on the radio? Finally, thank goodness, the van pulled up in
front of the Hotel Giorgina and she disembarked. Stood on the
. Sunny and warm. A brick-paved street, little
Fiats and scooters parked. A broad yellowish concrete walk with
marble curbs. Two women approached, arm in arm, in dark heavy
coats, one of them walking a little brown dog in a red plaid
sweater. Handsome well-put-together women who strode past,
paying her no mind, inviting no comment from anybody.
she thought back to January, when the idea of the
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