“Right now. I’ll pick you up at your place.”
“Fun. Where are we going this time?”
“Never heard of it.”
“River town. Lots of antique stores. General Grant used to live there. You’ll like it.”
“We’ll spend the night in Winona and arrive early tomorrow afternoon.”
“No, no, no, wait a sec, McKenzie. I’ve gone on these impromptu road trips with you before, and they’ve always been a great time. In the past, though, it was let’s go catch the Cash Box Kings at Buddy Guy’s place in Chicago and since we’re there, we might as well take the Red Line to Cellular Field to see the White Sox. Or the time you said we just had to fly down to Kansas City and decide once and for all who served the best barbecue in town…”
“It’s Oklahoma Joe’s.”
“No, it’s Arthur Bryant’s. Anyway, we ended up at Kauffman Stadium watching the Royals play Detroit. San Francisco…”
“San Francisco was your idea.”
“Yes, but it was your idea to get tickets to watch the Giants at AT&T Park. My point being, there is no professional baseball in Galena, Illinois. Is there?”
“Then why are we going?”
“It’s kind of a long story.”
“Involving Riley Brodin?”
“You can tell me on the way.”
Nina must have been watching for me, because she came out the front door of her house just as I pulled into her driveway. She was carrying one bag and pulling another, both of which were bigger than my single suitcase. When I exited the Jeep Cherokee she asked, “Where’s the Audi?”
“It’s in the shop.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Catalytic converter,” I said.
“We’re not driving all that way in this thing, are we?”
It sounded like a question, yet it really wasn’t. I was about to protest—what’s wrong with my SUV?—only she said, “We’ll take my car,” and tossed me the keys before I could. “You drive.”
Truth be told, I liked driving her Lexus even though it was an automatic, so I said nothing while she punched a code into the keypad next to the garage door. The door opened, we swapped vehicles, and a short time later we were on Wisconsin Highway 35, also known as the Great River Road, heading south. The plan was to drive the east side of the Mississippi down to Galena and then take Highway 61 on the west side back home.
I suppose it was possible to fly, but if you didn’t have to, why would you? Flying used to be fun, at least for me. Now it was one long exercise in personal humiliation and tedium, starting with the officious and mostly ceremonial TSA and including flight attendants that oh-so-prettily forbade you from using your cell phone yet were happy to rent you one of theirs.
The thing about Nina’s Lexus, though, was that it was old—built without a voice-activated navigation system, Bluetooth mobile phone, backup camera, remote ignition starter, seat warmers, or even an MP3 port. At least she didn’t pay extra for those options. I complained. Nina said that some people buy cars simply to get from Point A to Point B in relative comfort.
“We don’t need gadgets that rival the starship Enterprise,” she said.
I complained some more.
“If my rich boyfriend decides to buy me a new car, I’ll get all the thingamajigs he wants,” she said.
“Actually, I’m not as rich as I thought I was. I’ve been telling people I’m worth five million dollars, but it’s closer to four million.”
“I’m just saying.”
The truth was, I didn’t care all that much. I had everything that money could buy, or rather I had everything I wanted that money could buy, which, I suppose, isn’t the same thing. My needs were small and easily fulfilled by the $140,000 or so in income that my admittedly medium-to low-risk investments realized each year. The folks who lived on Lake Minnetonka, on the other hand, to them money was a magic lamp. They rubbed it to make their wishes come true.
The Lexus had a six-CD player, and Nina fed it from a cache that she kept in a shoebox on the floor. The first CD belonged to an artist I had not heard before, Sophia Shorai, channeling Oscar Brown Jr. with a startling clear and vibrant voice—“Sample and savor all of life’s flavor.” She was backed only by Tommy Barbarella’s solo piano.
“Why don’t you play the piano anymore?” I asked.
Nina’s eyes seemed fixed on something in the sideview mirror.
“I never seem to have the time,” she said. “Switch lanes, will you?”
I signaled and moved from the left lane to the right.
“I remember when you played the blues at the governor’s charity thing a couple of years ago,” I said. “That was beautiful.”
“It was only fair. Truth is, I’m not very good. Switch lanes again.”
“I thought you were sensational,” I said.
“You’re prejudiced. You do know that we’re being followed, right? A black car behind the pickup?”