Trip to the Moose Yard

A naked silver lady always perched on the hood of Grandpa’s VW beetle. She had magnificent wings that stayed poised for flight as he carried her from one hood to the next, after an engine or carburetor finally petered out. The color of the VW changed, white to cherry to black, but the flying lady ornament kept her perch. In summer, we’d all pile into the back seat. Grandpa would jimmy the engine to life, a tinny whiz-grumble-pop, and we’d set off for the Moose Yard, our flying lady leading the way.   

The beetle, like Grandpa’s tool drawer and his flannel shirts, always carried a comforting whiff of motor oil and wood shavings, notes of lacquer and Irish Spring soap. It wafted through our clothes and hair, slid up our nostrils and in and out of pores. Soon we were all lightly scented with Pennzoil.  

On one of these trips, we were bobbing along on the red leatherette, hands and heads out the window, coasting toward Main Street in Shawano, Wisconsin. Just past the fudge shop, the road began to flatten and stretch. Here, unfettered by the usual cause-and-effect relationships imposed on other drivers, Grandpa would often switch gears without ever popping the clutch. His hearing was spotty on a good day, but he could still intuit that finite point when the rotation aligned, in millisecond harmony, with the speed of the next gear: “Ope, yep.” His hand, rosy and work-worn, slid the shift over without a hitch. Now the silver lady was really soaring. 

Grandpa took the road that cuts behind Rama Behera’s cult compound. We sailed by woody stretches, fields where a lone cow scoured the sunburnt grasses, and mailboxes gathering post for homes unseen. August had dabbed the grassy banks on either side of the road with goldenrod and spikes of purple blazing star, spots of color that streaked and faded as we vroomed by. A whisper scent of manure slid in and out the open window. 

As we pulled up to the Moose Yard gate, Lori and Libby and I scrabbled out while Grandpa slid his key into the rusty lock. The long fence arced open, and we launched out on our ramble, skirting out of the way as Grandpa meep-meeped ahead of us in the beetle. We charged through oaks and aspen, leaping over fallen logs and kicking up mossy clumps on a sprint to little Lake Delmar, named after Grandpa. 

I spied his blue flannel shirt through a row of gangly pine. Grandpa had already hauled his sack over to the feeder, one of twin poles flanking the lake. The other carried a hand-carved wooden sign saying “Sorgen Frï,”—worry free. From across the lake, I could see him standing in a patch of stippled sun, his ruddy face radiating up to the afternoon sky. “Chicka-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee,” he crooned in bird voice, the sound weaving through the trees. Gray-and-white feathers whirled around him like a vapor—twittering an urgent response. The birds screeched and scattered as we raced up.  

After filling the feeders, we helped Grandpa put out salt lick for the deer, then hunted for puffballs. Each prized papery spore, when squished, would send a magical poof of cocoa smoke shooting through the air.  

At last it was time to go, and we begged Grandpa to drive past Rama’s house on the way back. The fact that small-town Shawano was home to its very own cult was—by that time—news to no one. But the town itself was far enough out of the way, and the place where Rama and his brethren lived at the edge of town, even further. Few gapers ever drove by or were rewarded if they did. Folks there, “Ramas” the locals called them, mostly kept indoors. But not this day. 

Our flying lady hit peak speed by the time we careened around the country road where Rama lives. A chain-link fence barricaded the 90-acre compound. As the beetle slowed, we could see three lone figures in the normally vacant yard. Two women stood near each other, one holding a small child. They had long hair tied back in a tight ponytail. Each wore a blouse buttoned to the neck, and dark, ankle-length skirts. I watched their heads turn in unison toward our noisy beetle.  As we drew closer, they drifted toward the fence.  

Grandpa was surprised to see them, too, because the beetle chig-chigged to a slow crawl. The woman with the child on her hip reached her hand up, and I wondered if she was going to wave at us. But instead, her fingers curled around the wire, grasping onto it as she leaned forward. Her round eyes bored into us with owl-like absorption. Lib was still hanging out the window, so I had to peer around her to get a good look through the enclosure. I noticed the little boy wore a buttoned-up shirt, and he, too, was gaping at us as if seeing, for the first time, some mythical creature. 

Soon Grandpa realized with a start that we best be getting home. The beetle leaped forward to regain momentum. One of the women turned and began to walk back toward the buildings. The other, the one with the child, kept her place—silent and unblinking. Her head went on a slow pivot as she watched us drive past. We clambered to our knees so we could see out the back window. Soon the flying lady picked up speed, and Rama’s place passed out of sight.  

Lor and Lib and I sank back into our seat. It was hot and we were tired. The breeze felt good through the open windows, and we bounced quietly, listening for Grandpa’s “yep.” Air lifted our hair.

Photo by Tolga Ahmetler on Unsplash.

Ellyn Ruhlmann

Ellyn Ruhlmann is a Ph.D. student studying and teaching literature at Western Michigan University. Her scholarly interests include the American New Woman, immigration studies, and literature of the Midwest. She has written for American Libraries magazine and will soon publish an article with the peer-reviewed journal, MidAmerica. This piece is her first published creative nonfiction work.