This Monkey's Gone to Heaven

Why do kids torment guinea pigs? Whose guinea pig are we?

Two weeks ago, Kevin Kling sat on the stage of the Woman's Club Theater in Minneapolis. Backed by a spare band, Kling told stories about the absurdity of life, the profundity of death, and vice versa. With his right arm resting limply in his lap and his "disabled"-at-birth left arm gesticulating like an eggbeater, Kling talked about his motorcycle accident on the intersection of Lake and Lyndale four years ago. He recounted the near-death experience that brought him to the white light, and his decision not to go to the place of peace that beckoned, but to come back here and deal with the "consequences" of this world.

The next day at Turtle Park by the bandstand at Lake Harriet, a huge Italian family picnicked in the afternoon sun, a few teens smoked dope in the shade, and a gaggle of goofing-off professional women and child-free young moms played a lazy game of bocce ball. Two kids tortured their pet guinea pigs. This attracted more kids, who wanted to see how much the pigs could handle. In the end, all the swinging, sliding, and heat was too much for one of the rodents, who wilted and looked as if he might be headed for the great laboratory in the sky. A few hours later, though, he rallied and the experiments continued.

 

Everybody is wonderin' what and where they all came from
Everybody is worryin' 'bout where they're gonna go
When the whole thing's done
But no one knows for certain, and so it's all the same to me
I think I'll just let the mystery be.

 

Later that afternoon, this entry appeared in the online support journal for Raine Snyder, an Eden Prairie woman battling ovarian cancer:

 

Raine had her pericardial centesis Thursday afternoon, and had a large amount of fluid removed from the area around the heart. This brought immediate relief to her, and made her breathing easier, as well as lessened the burden on her heart. A follow-up chest X-ray indicated that she also has a large amount of fluid in her left lung, which will be drained Friday in a thoracentesis procedure. She is disappointed because this is the first time she has had to drain fluid from the left lung. She continues to drain the right lung with the Pleur-X system she had installed some months ago. Assuming she feels well after the thoracentesis procedure, Raine hopes to be able to have chemo later today.

 

That night, Dan Israel stood on the stage of the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. "This is about the size of the crowd I normally play to...over the course of a year," he deadpanned to the crowd of about 1,500. Then he told the roomful of strangers that, 16 hours earlier, he became a father for the first time.

Israel was followed by the magnificent Iris DeMent, who sang songs about Mama, God, and love, rendered with a bad summer cold she tended to with an utter lack of self-consciousness. Tissues fell from the piano bench like toy parachutes or used doilies at a Sunday brunch. "I spent the afternoon with the makeup lady at Marshall Field's, because I got my first black eye in 44 years," she said in her clock-stopping mountain drawl. "My husband didn't give it to me, though I've given him cause a few times. I always wanted to be a mom, and so we adopted a five-year-old from Russia. First thing she does is punch me in the eye."

The next morning, resting on an altar in a Bloomington church, was a blown-up photo of 85-year-old Wilbur "Windy" Winstead. The deceased wore a dirty-joke smirk and a country-gentleman hat. In his hand was a mint julep. Next to that picture was a marble box containing the man's ashes. And next to that was the man's hat, which one of his handsome young nephews doffed at the end of the funeral before strolling up the aisle to the sound of a Dixieland band doing "When the Saints Go Marching In."

 

Some say once you're gone you're gone forever
And some say you're gonna come back
Some say you rest in the arms of the Savior
If in sinful ways you lack
Some say that they're comin' back in a garden
Bunch of carrots and little sweet peas
I think I'll just let the mystery be.

 

A few hours later, outside a cornfield near Cannon Falls, longtime Minnesota music mavens Wendy Lewis and Brent Sigmeth danced their first dance together as a married couple. The roast pig had been devoured. The cakes were next. The crackle of a campfire sang backup harmonies to the sound of whooping kids, drinking adults, and screaming cicadas. The song was "I Only Have Eyes for You," and when Trailer Trash singer Nate Dungan crooned the opening line, "Are the stars out tonight?", one check of the heavens answered in the ultra-affirmative.

The following afternoon at the dog park by the Mississippi River, canines of every size and breed frolicked on the beaches, sand bars, and waters. They made like the wild pack animals they are: They galloped with each other, bounded over the woods and sand, and tore at each other's ears, noses, and throats. The pooches' owners made small talk, skipped rocks, watched the paddle boats, barges, and speedboats chug by, and pretended not to be disheartened by the whiff of fall in the air, or the death-and-taxes guarantee that the dog park will soon be a dog ice castle.

On the same river the next morning, in the shadow of a burping refinery and a sleepy downtown, two three-year-olds twirled to the sound of a rock band at the Minnesota Irish Fair. One of the toddler's fathers was onstage, hungover from three weeks of nonstop gigs, day jobs, and new fatherhood. As his golden-haired son did an interpretive dance beneath him, the father sang, "Let your soul and spirit fly into the mystic." Sweat poured from the singer's work shirt. His wife and infant son napped a few miles away. His mother, brother, sister, and niece beamed from the cheap seats.

All the while, a faux debate swirled about creationism, evolution, and Intelligent Design, and the words of the only ID that matters (Iris DeMent) echoed out across the prairie:

 

Some say they're goin' to a place called Glory
And I ain't sayin' it ain't a fact
But I've heard that I'm on the road to purgatory
And I don't like the sound of that
I believe in love and I live my life accordingly
But I choose to let the mystery be
I think I'll let the mystery be

 

A coda to that song: Five days after the park experiment, one of the kids found the guinea pig dead in his cage. A shoebox was located. A hole was dug. A funeral was held. A fresh guinea pig was purchased ($35). With so many unanswered questions flying about, it was difficult then or now to just let the mystery be--or, as Iris herself sings it, "Easy's getting harder every day."

Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or jwalsh@citypages.com.

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