Short Stories

 I have two collections of short stories now as an E-Books.  One’s called: The Cashmere Sweater and Other Stories.  The other is: The Beautiful Couple and Other Stories.  They’re on the Kindle page with the rest of my e-books, and like the others, download to about anything.  The Cashmere Sweater is about children, about childhood–all the main characters are children, something I’ve never done before.  

-Men Like White Elephants, in The North Carolina Literary Review, Summer 08

-Leslie Gets Married in Arkansas, in Shenandoah,  Fall 08

-A Boy, circa 1954, and the Hero of the War, in The Raleigh Quarterly, April 08

-Simple Gifts, an essay about my favorite dog, an ex-wife, and when I was living in Mexico and Maine.  Winter ‘09, in Garden and Gun, a glossy, classy magazine that combines living the good life in the South along with actual literary stories and memoirs and essays.  gardenandgun.com

Revolutionaries:  A short story about an upper middle class college couple in the 70s who are temporary populists in love with old Paul Robeson recordings—his life and voice inspires their revolutionary zeal.  To be published in the anthology:  Long Story Short in Fall 09.

Excerpt from the actual story titled, The Beautiful Couple, Everyone Says So, is in the anthology titled 27 Views of Chapel Hill.

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Short Stories and other things.

 

       

 

 

The Experimental Boy

 

            Leslie is 15 and in the tenth grade.  It’s 1961 and Kennedy is president.  The Edsel has already failed and Playboy magazine has recently shown up on neighborhood newsstands.  None of his friends have a car or even their license, so they walk to school each morning.  Breakfast is required in Leslie’s house and by chance his family has been chosen to participate in a cereal tasting experiment an unnamed company is conducting.  He has two sisters and his mother has miscarried twice over the past few years.  He is certain both of them were boys. 

            The cereal arrives in plain boxes with numbers on them.  They gray normal sized cereal boxes except there is nothing printed on them and no illustrations, only an industrial looking number stamped across the front like a convict’s mug shot number. Each week they get a different mystery flavor.  They are sent two of the same boxes each week, enough for all the family members.

             Leslie does not know what kind of cereal is inside and each week is a new discovery of shapes and colors and tastes.  He does know that no one has ever tasted it before it is sent out to them on the experiment.  His friends are not allowed to eat any of it.  The family fills out questionnaires at the end of each week and send them back.  It’s an eight week trial.

            Leslie sometimes takes the cereal upstairs with him and eats it dry out of the box.  One time there is a chocolate flavored cereal.  No one has ever heard of chocolate cereal before.  He eats a lot of this while reading the articles in Playboy, and learns that the new James Bond book, Thunderball, will soon be published and that Rock Hudson sleeps in the nude. The next morning Dr. Evans asks if anyone has been snacking on the experimental cereal and everyone says no.  His mother looks at Leslie, waits a moment, and then tells her husband that Leslie has.

           She says the maid told her there were pieces of it all over the bedroom carpet.  Before he can get out of the house his father pushes him against a wall and holds him there and tells him it’s time to grow up and it’s a coward who’s afraid to tell the truth and on and on and then he pops him across the face.

        On the way to school he tells his friends about it and they discuss whether you can call the cops on your father if he hits you and they decide you have to be 18 before you can call the cops on your father, or maybe 21.

            His fourth period class, just before lunch, is algebra.  It is impossible for him to imagine how anyone could tell how tall a tree is just by looking at it while standing in a field, and be accurate.

           It is also impossible for him to understand that you can add numbers that are less than zero; clearly a number less than zero doesn’t exist.  On the test today is a question about what time a car will arrive somewhere and he writes that it won’t arrive because it has wrecked and everyone has been killed. 

            The next day the teacher returns the test. He makes a 58 and the car question is circled in red and there is a note attached for his father.  Leslie has to get him to read and sign the test and send the note back.  He is failing this class and no one in his family has ever failed a test or a course as far back as anyone has ever gone to school.  There seems to be no way he can explain to his parents what algebra does to his mind and his sisters not only will not help him, but the one time one does help him, she intentionally gives him the wrong answers.

            Dinner that evening is a fish called pompano that Leslie likes, creamed corn which he uses to dip his fish in, Italian bread sticks and iceberg lettuce with Russian dressing. He has the test and note from his teacher in his pocket and is going to give it to his father at the table.  He imagines spilling something on it as he hands it over, and a few minutes later imagines his father hardly paying any attention to it he is so busy eating, and that he will tell him it’s nothing just sign it you don’t even need to read it.

            By the end of the meal he still has it and the family goes into the den and watches the Huntley Brinkley news show.  His mother brings in the form to evaluate the cereal, which this week has been a rainbow of colors so sweet it tastes like little pebbles of  cotton candy.  While the family is discussing what to say on the sheets, Leslie gives the cereal all A’s in big check marks that are three times the size of the squares.  He floats the paper onto the table and into the middle of the family discussion and heads out of the room. 

          His father asks him where he is going he says to my room and his father tells him to sit back down we’re not finished and Leslie says I am and the room goes dead quiet as he is half in and half out the doorway and even quieter as he walks backward to the table mimicking his departure moves like a film run reverse. He loses his allowance for the week and then won’t leave the room even when everyone is finished.  His parents go out for the evening and his father tells the children that he’s not to be called unless it’s an emergency and to ask his patients who call if it is an emergency and if they say yes take the number and call the club.  His father has taken a round hat that is sizes to small for him so that he looks like a cartoon character and his sisters think it’s funny and take a picture of him.

            Leslie’s friend comes over and they play poker up in his room and discuss running away, a conversation he and his friends regularly have and they talk about a boy at school who actually did run away at sixteen. His parents never even went after him or cared. Someone has seen him at the beach working at the pier and this sounds so much better than school or living with parents. 

            Sunday night while his father is at the emergency room sewing up a man’s arms from a car wreck, he puts the note and the test on his father’s dresser and goes to sleep.  Sometime later, Leslie has no idea what time it is, he senses the light has been turned on in his room and he has been jerked by one arm from under the covers and onto the floor, and then told to stand up and it happens so fast it’s like lightening has struck the room and has thrown him out of the bed.  He stands up.  He is naked.  He has been trying it out because Rock Hudson says everyone ought to try it.

             His father screams at him about the test and his smart mouthed answer to the question and Leslie sees his mother standing in the hall and while his father continues to yell at him about being sneaky and not to ever leave a note on his dresser again and have the guts to give it to him man to man, face to face, he sees his sisters come out of the room and join his mother in the hall and cannot even cover himself up or turn away because his father his him lifted halfway into the air by the wrist and Leslie is strong and on the tennis team and he and his friends have discussed that they think they could probably, by now, beat the crap out of their own fathers if they had to. 

            At breakfast time, his father is already gone to make his morning rounds at the hospital, and Leslie finds the test and note he has signed on his place-mat beside the cereal bowl.  Today they are starting a new box. He pours it into his bowl and looks at the test and the note laying there.

            He says to his sisters who are eating across from him and to his mother, who is standing at the end of the table with a dishcloth in her hand, he says this to them:

            I don’t ever want Dad to leave a note like this when I come down for breakfast, doesn’t he know any better than that, at least he could have the guts to give it to me face to face, man to man.

            One of his sister’s tells him he’s going to be in such trouble when Mom tells Dad about this and they look at her and say, isn’t he, and she stares at her son like she not only doesn’t know who he is but has no more way of understanding why he did what he just did and how he thinks he can get away with it, than Leslie has, how three plus minus four is minus one, because there is no such thing on earth as something that is less than nothing, or how anyone thinks they can figure what time and place two cars leaving two different points and heading toward each other at different speeds will meet, because certainly, along the way, anything could happen.

            This cereal tastes like dog food Leslie says, and his mother and his two sisters continue to stare and when they begin, in unison, to shake their heads like what is your problem can’t you shut up he leaves the table and gets to the street corner early where he will meet his friends and they will walk to school and discuss how they will be able to make it until they can leave for college, and one of them will say get drunk a lot and they will all laugh harder than usual and agree it is a good plan.

 

  

 

 

 

 

                                    Spiritually Advanced Walking for Dummies

 

Charles’ wife, Be, returns from a 2 week retreat.  She is a convert to a religion that doesn’t believe in doctors, which has, ironically, come full circle because nowadays, who does?  They do believe things like: If you name something, it has power over you–such as, “I have the flu.”  Don’t say flu!  Then it becomes real.  You didn’t have it until you used that word.  You just thought something was wrong with you, you thought you ached like you’d fallen off a ten story building, just thought you had the chills, and so on.

They believe if someone tells you, “you’re insane to think this,” that the person is “mental malpracticing” you.  Trying to make you believe it.  His wife believes all that she reads in the book written by the founder, believes all of it literally and fanatically.

            She has gone to the retreat with 20/400  vision.  She returns with “perfect vision.”  She has driven from RDU’s long term parking lot, home to Chapel Hill, without her glasses.

            “She healed me,” she tells him. “Wearing those glasses all these years forced my eyes to retreat into illness.”

            “ Uh huh.”

            “Now without the glasses, I’ve liberated my eyes from the false belief. I threw the error away.”

            “Uh huh.”

            He is hoping their 4 year old son doesn’t hear any of this in a way that might influence him, if he understands any of it in some way. There’s not much he can do about it, actually.   He married her.  Why did he do that?

            “Mrs. Duckee says I might become a healer someday.”

            That is actually the woman’s name.  She doesn’t even blink when she says it.  Maybe she doesn’t have to blink anymore.  It’s tacky to laugh at someone’s name, but it is remarkably childlike, or if not that, then like something W.C. Fields would call a 14 year old girl with ringlets and large, dark eyes and a short dress with ruffles around the hem and sleeves and little Dorothy wizard of oz shoes. 

            Be, which is the new name she is using now, changes how she moves, and begins to walk as if she were stepping between tender souls, precious babies everywhere and she has to be(her name is everywhere now) so careful not to hurt anything.  Charles tells his friend Max that she walks like she’s trying not to scare the earth.  She has to be so careful not to land with any force at all, to put her toe down first, and to somehow transfer from that foot to the other as if she were floating, but moving forward in a futuristic, spiritually advanced way. 

            She is so peaceful now.  Something really has happened. She has changed. She doesn’t scream anymore, doesn’t cuss at him anymore, she was so good at it, could string 4 or 5 together and have them make sense, like “you fucking shit eating prick faced cock sucking ass hole.”   She was good. She doesn’t shove him from behind anymore, so that he’s slammed forward without warning or reason, like in a sucker punch in a cheap, bar room brawl, and she doesn’t stay in her attic dormer studio studying all day anymore–she really has changed.  

            She cooks vegan that night, and all Sunday she looks up recipes for foods that promote peace in the world, and within, by eating them.  He drives the family to Whole Foods and they stock up. She stays home all week.  Friday, when Charles, an art and drama teacher, leaves for work, she tell him she plans to go out on Monday, confident her movements won’t upset the new perfect harmony of the world.

            “I’m not going anywhere yet.  I feel so good, here.  I’m am so meant to be a mother and a wife, it was right and good that we married as we did,” she tells him.  “Alex’ll be fine.  I called his play group, and I’m going to start him back on Monday.”

            Married as we did refers to the miracle of birth, that Alex was born 6 months after they married.  Full term. 

            “Okay.  See you around 5.”

            The weekend is good.  There is much to celebrate.  Life is smooth, sparkling, like a stream glistening on a bright day.  He relaxes with her, and realizes this is the first time he hasn’t been on guard, in some way, since they married. 

            “Listen,” he says Monday morning as he goes out the door, “be careful driving with Alex in the car. You still have your prescription sunglasses if you think you need them  Get him some lunch somewhere on your way home, he’ll like that.”

            She crashes her car coming out of the Burger King parking lot, with a mouthful of Whopper, not the Whopper Jr., but the big one, which is on sale at two for the price of one.  She is trying to get in another bite without the shredded, papery lettuce spilling out of the bun, and doesn’t see the sign on the earth-tone post, which falls onto the trunk of her car in an explosion of plastic B.K. letters and logos.  No one is hurt, of course no one needs the EMT’s, the embarrassing sirens, doctors, ER’s, they don’t need them, they are fine.

            Charles meets his friend Max for drinks after work on Tuesday.  He tells him how he forgot to watch what he was saying and mental malpracticed Be by suggesting she might need her glasses again.  By suggesting her conversion and healing weren’t complete.  By suggesting that she go to Burger King. 

            “I never said Burger King,” he tells Max.  “I never suggested anything.  I just said lunch and be careful.” 

She has discussed the accident with him, at length. Afterwards, he feels as if he has been blasted with a shotgun full of salt.  And pepper.  His skin tingles and is pitted from the force of her rage, which bends him backward and deforms his face like he is in the cockpit of a plane diving downward into Hell at 7 times the force of gravity.  She stomps off after she’s finished, trampling all the flowers covering the earth that used to exist in front of her wherever she walked.

            By the time he gets home from the restaurant bar, it’s after midnight.  She has cut off her hair, and it is on the floor as he walks in the door, a two foot long braid, still tightly wound, snipped off at the hairline, quietly on the floor all by itself in such a way that it’s as if the head that went with it, is gone, and all that remains of Be is this long braid of hair.

            “Hi,” she says.

            She is in a chair in the dark.  He thinks she will now kill him, that this is it, she owns a pistol, her father gave it to her when she moved to New Orleans, and she will now shoot him.  It makes him sad, that he will die, and he is curious that he does not run, but waits to be killed right where he is.

            “I’m sorry about getting so upset,” she says.  “That wasn’t me.  That was error and fear and illness talking.  I’m so glad you’re home.”

            She takes his hand and leads him out of the room.  She says nothing about the braid, and it remains on the floor until the next morning when he comes downstairs and sees Alex holding it out in front of himself and frowning, his little brain wide open, trying to figure it out, and he looks at his father as if to ask, is this Mommy?

            He has discovered his mother on the floor of his house, it is her.   It is even more terrifying when she actually comes into the room and he sees more clearly than he did the night before, what remains, a smaller face with chopped off hair that is matted like she’s dipped her head into the bag of pale, Burger King lettuce and it has stuck to her.  She looks like a clown with a painted smile. 

            Now it has happened, she’s revealed her dark side to their son, and Charles walks him out the door into the dewy grass, they are barefoot, both of them, and they sit on a fallen tree at the edge of the yard and he tries to explain it, making it funny, like a goofy thing to do, nutty, that’s his mom, a real character, you never know what she’ll do next.

 

End

 

 

 

 

 

 

           

 

 


My Walker Percy Novel 

 

Opening pages of my new novel about a man who pretends to be Walker Percy. 

Percy was my literary hero.

It’s called:  “Girl Roofer”, or, sometimes I call it “The Simple Language of Belief.”

It’s not finished, hasn’t been bought  yet, so has no pub date, of course.

It might be years before I finish it. I can’t make the middle work.

It’s based on Percy’s novel, The Second Coming.

 

           First Pages of Chapter One:    Holly McGee was a girl roofer, and a carpenter, and she was working on a  house that belonged to a man who had just told her his name was Walker Percy.  He had said this name, which was not his, with no prior plan, probably because he had just finished reading Percy’s The Second Coming, but the name meant nothing at all to her, anyway.  He could have said Scott Fitzgerald and she would have made no connections, either. Had he said Fitzgerald, though, she might have thought, yeah, this guy is kind of on the fitz, meaning fritz, but would not have known she had missed, because words  comically and sometimes confusingly tangled up in her mind and always had.

            “Walker?” she asked.  “I thought it was Walter all this time.”

Except for her hands, her skin was smooth as cream and tanned Polynesian bronze.  She was neat, appeared sane, and liked to talk.  Asleep, she had the shadowy, softened face of a silent screen star.  Awake she was neither silent nor soft nor innocent and did not intend to be.

            “By the way, sorry I’m late.  I’m a wreck today.  I might even have caused one on the way over.”

            She was on the roof.  It had a seven/twelve pitch, which was as steep as she could comfortably work on without a toe board.  She sat on the edge of it on this cool and clear day in North Carolina, a good day to repair a leaking skylight.

            “What did you do?” he asked.

            He was below and might have climbed up with her if he’d practiced before she arrived.  Not ever having been on a roof that steep before, he did not want to make a fool of himself in front of this competent woman.

            “I got in a hurry.  I got rude.  I acted like people do me, the kind of people you want to give the finger to.”

            The roof had commercial grade asphalt shingles, which weighed about 300 pounds per100 square feet.  Everything on this house, as far as she’d seen, was tip top stuff. Every roof she’d seen that had originally been installed this well had never leaked, anywhere, except around a skylight.  They all, eventually, leaked there.

            “What started it?”

            She wore shorts and a tee shirt that had been cut off a few inches above her waist.  She was five-three and weighed 110  pounds and seemed to be, when she was not in motion, too petite to do the kind of work she did, or even drive the truck she owned, which was high enough off the ground to drive over a dog without touching it, or over a person, on hands and knees, the same.

            “I was behind an old man in a Chevette.  They got a motor the size of six-pack of beer, and even on a good day they wouldn’t pull me out of bed in the morning.”

            “I’ve seen those.”

            “I know he was doing all he could, but he couldn’t get it going and I was in a hurry.”

            In motion she moved like a gymnast, like a spring uncoiling, light and powerful and sure.  The man, who’d been sedentary all his life except for  jogging now and then, felt like he’d stepped in a tub of taffy around her, as if his feet were stuck to the ground and his hands and arms were in casts.

            “So I waited for him to get up some speed and when he didn’t, poor old guy, I went past him so fast and so close to his door I saw him flinch.  I mean, I went past him like I meant to run him over.”

            Her hair was short and straight and she’d colored it yellowish-blond since she was sixteen.

            “He flinched?”

            “Like he was going to have a heart attack and by the time I got back in the lane in front of him I felt so bad I tried to signal him I was sorry but he thought I was doing something else and the last I saw he’d pulled over onto the shoulder and stopped.”

            “You did kill him.”

            “Don’t even joke about it.”

            “Yeah.  I shouldn’t.  But you know he’s all right.  Of course he is.”

            “Sometimes I get so sad at people.   Don’t you?  There’re times when you can almost see a person’s whole sad life just by looking at them.”

            He was close to being in love with Holly.  Madly in love.  He had never shown it and as far as he knew, she was unaware of this.

            “Not in children, so much, but in old people.  Sometimes in kids, too, but mostly old people.”

            She had been working on his house for 7 weeks.  Soon the job would be over and she would be gone. The ritual of meeting her each morning and talking to her and watching her at work opened up each day like a series of surprise packages, and every one of them marvelous.  His wife, his ex-wife, would not have felt the same, would not have seen it.

            “Old people in rest homes are bad to look at.  That’s hard on me.”

            “I know what  you mean,” he said, although he did not.  He had trouble with faces and had actually re-introduced himself to people at parties he had just met.

            “I need to get to work,” she said.  “I wish ya’ll had never put this thing in.  People in the south ought not to have skylights.  We have too much rain and too much sun glaring down through them in the summer.”

            “I’m glad you can fix it.  It’s been leaking a long time.”

            “Water, you know,” she said as she moved up the roof a bit further, “can run uphill.  People don’t realize that.  On roofs with all that water running down so fast, it can go sideways and then start back uphill if it hits something.”

            “I didn’t know that.  That’s interesting.”

            “Throw me that caulk gun and tube, would you?”

            “This?”

            He had no idea what it was, a caulk gun.

            “That’s it.”

            “Kind of looks like an insemination device,” he said and was immediately embarrassed at the pathetic attempt to be cool and amusing.

            She completely ignored the joke.  Weak efforts to make her laugh came out of his mouth like handing her plates of stale cookies.  Normally a good man with words, he found himself intimidated by the physically brilliant woman, who moved in and out of proper grammar like someone picking chocolates out of variety box.  She used whatever she wanted. He admired her command of words as sounds and put together in any combination.

            “They don’t never install these right,” she said.  “I’ll do what I can.”

            She had a waistline that looked as narrow as the pinch on an hourglass.  Nail aprons and tool belts were not manufactured for waists that small and though this one was cinched up all the way, it remained loose and swung from her hips like a gunslinger’s holster.

            As lively and sprightly as she could be at times, almost like a nymph in leather boots or Thumbelina with a work cap on backwards, there were days when she did not smile at all.

            “Guys used to call me squirrel when I worked on roofs with them.  I hated that.”

            “What did it mean?” he asked, wondering if there was anything at all about her that looked like a squirrel.

            “Running around like I do.  They were jealous.  Count yourself lucky you didn’t never have to work with bad rednecks, and I don’t mean working people, but trash.  You what trash like ‘at does?”

            Like ‘at, he thought.  Better.  Why not make it one work.  Likat.

            “They leave the house in the morning, some woman’s making the payments on it, not them, you know, and pretend to go to work but all they do is show up for a couple of hours and then drink beer the rest of the day while it’s that woman or their wife with the real job what supports them.”

            Her uneven use of language thrilled him as thoroughly as if he’d just heard a piece of good news or had listened to the reading of a clever and surprising poem.  The idea of language without the pretense of regulation was pure and true.  He was a charlatan compared to her.

            “I know a lot of men likat.  Not none of them are going to change, neither.”

                     *                          *                                 *                         *

 (Below is my version of a “travel piece,” about a place on the Blue
Ridge Parkway; and then a story, kind of sad/funny; and then a memoir piece about a saintly old man and writing and how to disappear.)

*                              *                                      *

Doughton Park and the Bluffs Lodge on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Imagine being in a painting. It’s an American painting, like Andrew or N.C. Wyeth, and you are the figure in the grass, not Christina, lying at rest, because you are standing, and you are standing  because you have been unexpectedly and happily struck dumb by what you see.
You could also imagine, and this would be true as well, that you are in a Thomas Hart Benton landscape, in all its lush realism, and below you is not simply this open land called a meadow, and not just mountains in the distance, but mountain and meadow in some new way that redefines them for you, the way Benton did in his paintings.
The land you see falls downward into a cove, and then up toward the sky and off into a dreamy distance, but it is even more dramatic than simply that. Imagine that this is the farthest you have ever seen, the way a child, long ago, would have crested a hill in what is now Doughton Park and suddenly see the world, the whole world, it would seem, as far as imagination could go.
You have landed here from another planet, and that other planet is so crowded that you breathe everyone else’s used air, and you cannot see beyond the person in front of you, and you cannot see the horizon–in fact, you don’t even know there is an horizon, you’ve never heard of such a thing–and then imagine you have touched down in Doughton Park and you step off the ramp and see this dramatic panorama, and read the tragic history of the Caudill cabin, and while it is tragic, you begin to romanticize it, right away.  It’s far down in a cove, 1,500 feet below you, and though you have heard this word, “cove,” before, you have never seen what it really means, until now.
Someone has asked you to come along on a trip, to see this, and has shown you a picture of the Bluffs Lodge, a place so ordinary and plain that it makes the two people from the painting American Gothic by Grant Wood, “look like Angelina and Brad.” That is what you say to someone, you tell them that, you make a joke out of it, and you’re not interested in staying there, because you are a bit cynical, in some occasionally amusing way, because life has made you this way.
Or imagine that you are not, not at all cynical or unimpressed with life, but the person you are with, is.  You may get to see that person be transformed.  No, not like mysticism or crystals, but by simple wonderment, and you may see, just around the edges of that person, what he or she was just a while ago, which is now long ago.
You will remember what it is like to be surprised and inspired when you thought you could not so easily be taken out of yourself anymore, when you thought that was long over.
If you have been like me, at some time in your life, you will, in spite of yourself, take the trails into the primitive mountains in Doughton Park, when you’ve never gone hiking before, because just the idea of hiking makes you think of the word, “boring;” or you will, in spite of yourself, walk all day to the Caudill cabin, an entire half a day to get there, and then a half a day back out, and then you will come back to the lodge, changed.
Sometime after you get back, then, it’s that time of day when you turn on the TV, so you’ll watch television?  No, because there are no televisions in the rooms in the Bluffs Lodge.  But now you don’t care.
You’ll eat at the Bluffs restaurant, because in all this beauty and absolutely pure air, so clean you sleep like you haven’t in years, you’ll think, this restaurant is right here, it’s got to be special, even though it does not look it, and you’ll eat there because suddenly you realize that everything might be so very much better than it was, just awhile ago.
You will then have the first test of your “new happiness,” because the food is dreadfully plain, as if no one there has ever heard of spices or seasonings and the vegetables taste like the canned asparagus did when you were a child in the 50s or 60s.
And just to test your cynicism, at some point, that evening, everyone at the lodge will be standing on the lawn above this divine vista, truly divine, as if Divinity has been made visible right there, and you will be with them, and then for a moment–the test of your cynicism moment–it will seem that you are part of the crowd of people hearing the music and waiting for the craft to show up in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
But I promise you, or I almost promise you, that this trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway, where you stop off at this lodge in Doughton Park, at what looks like it can’t be worth your time, that you will have an amazing few days, even if you never thought you would, even if the only hiking you have ever done is to the refrigerator, even if the idea of being in the mountains reminds you only of yodeling and Heidi and her Grandfather, even if you tried but couldn’t finish Cold Mountain, or Thirteen Moons, you will get it now, just when you thought you didn’t even care.

               *                                 *                                    *


 

 

 Story:

                                    Father Dies, Son Not Charged

 

                                               

 

            Leslie’s youngest sister tells him that their father is dying.  He could not be happier.  The old fellow, such a wise man to his patients in his legendary medical practice in Charlotte, “the longest continuous practice in North Carolina,” cannot die soon enough for Leslie.  An asshole his entire life.

            “You have to come,” she says.

            “Yeah, I guess I do.”

            She puts another sister on the phone.  There are four sisters.  All of them are in the hospital room.  He hears the intercom and assorted buzzer and beeping sounds along with whatever this sister is saying, part of which he hasn’t heard because he put down the phone to let the dog back inside.

            “He wants to talk with you,” the sister says.  “Don’t you want to talk with him?”

            “No.”

            “You can’t say that.”

“Okay, then, sure.  Sure I do.”

            He is 35 years old and has read that a person must make peace with the dying parent no matter what.  This seems to be a cultural mandate, maybe even a spiritual truth, that is undisputed.  It’s hard to believe.

            It is a short drive from his rented house to the hospital.  The wooden arm on the parking gate is snapped in half because he has just driven right through it and broke it off.  The wood is splintered and does not remind him of the time his father hit him with a piece of wood, and does not remind him of the time his father beat their cat to death with a piece of wood, because none of that happened.  

            “Yes, I am in the parking lot.  Tell the old guy to hang on.  I’m almost there.”

            So far no one has seen what he’s just done, or stopped him.

            The moment does remind him of the time when his father was stuck behind a gate like this, late at night, when he’d gone to visit one of his patients, and he had ridden with him, and they could not exit the lot. 

            “Break it,” Leslie, twelve years old at the time, had said.  “Drive through it, Dad.”

            “Want me to drive through it?” the man had asked.  “That’s what you want?  Break it?  Maybe that’s not the right thing to do.  Maybe you can think of the right thing to do.”

            He had refused to think.  They sat at the gate in the lower level garage of the condominiums, and they waited almost an hour, until 3 a.m.  There was no talk.  There was no lecture.  There was only the waiting. Then, after not one of the longest hours of Leslie’s life, because there had already been many, a security guard drove up and opened a metal hatch and clicked a button and the gate lifted.

            “Re-set button,” the man said, as they drove through.

            Leslie’s mother is already dead.  She made the mistake of complaining, a lot, to her husband, about stomach trouble.  Doctors’ wives complain, because they have learned a lot about symptoms over the years of marriage.  He doesn’t listen to her, not like he should.  She dies of colon cancer that spreads to her liver and lungs.  His father calls the day she dies.

            “Your mother is almost dead,” he tells him.  “She has no pulse.”

            “She has no pulse?  Then she’s dead, right?”

            “No,” he says, “her heart is still beating, but without enough force to make it felt in the pulse at her wrist.”

            The four sisters, eight years ago, received the same call. Now they are waiting on their brother, are at the hospital, without the husbands. 

The husbands are: 

            In rehab(he had been a poet, with such promise!); working on the launch of the space shuttle that will be intentionally exploded in front of the entire world; closing the deal between Time and Warner, as chief corporate counsel; somewhere in Africa trying to convince people about AIDS.

            The sisters have similar teary eyes and skin tone but otherwise do not look the same.  Leslie has wondered if they have the same father, and if not, how did he miss out on realizing his mother might have been heroic, finding ways to live with what she’d married and what he’d become.  He looks like his mother, who had auburn hair, good cheekbones, was slim and tall. The sisters look like the father’s side of the family, Mediterranean, heavier and shorter, and buxom, as their mother used to say, but they do not look like sisters, to him.

            “How is he?” he asks.

            “Go in and let him know you’re here.”

            The number of tubes is startling, even for Leslie, who worked in a vet’s hospital one summer(the drugs, there are so many, and they are species interchangeable), and even though as a writer he has to have the courage to imagine everything, the number and placement of tubes is creepy.  He hasn’t seen the old man in 2 years.  The old man has  lost a ton of weight.

            “Well, you finally found a way to lose weight,” he says, and then hears his sisters moan and one of them says something like, oh my God, did he say that, and the youngest is sent in and touches him on his shoulder and keeps her hand right there, like a guardian.

            The old man is 84 and has only two years earlier closed his practice.  He travels.  He returns from trips with photos of vast, open spaces, like a view of the ocean off the side of a cruise ship, just the water and the distant horizon, or an Alaskan mountain range at the very back of a photo, and nothing but snow in the foreground.  There is, Leslie notices, never a human being in any of the pictures.

            “Looking good, though,” Leslie says and feels his sister take his hand and literally move it toward his father’s and place it on top of the boney, purple composition of skin and needles and clear plastic tubing, the very hand, the right hand, that beat the living hell out of him dozens of times.  His father opens his eyes.

            “I don’t believe you’re all that bad off,” he says.  “It looks like you’ll be out of here pretty soon.”

            The old man nods.

            Near his legs another tube comes out from somewhere under the bed sheet in the vicinity of bladder and intestines and drips into a container, and why, he wonders, would anyone make such a tube out of clear material. 

            One of the doctors arrives and Leslie now has a reason to remove his hand from his father’s and shake the doctor’s.  There are many physicians in attendance throughout the days, as the old man is something of a legend.  The doctor gathers the children outside.

            “He’s bleeding internally.  His kidneys don’t work.  His is breathing on his own, but we can’t stop the internal bleeding.”

            “Ever?” one of the sisters asks.

            “We tried last night. We tried surgery and thought we had it, but we did not.”

            “So what does that mean?” Leslie asks.

            “That he can stay like he is, for some time, but he won’t improve and he’ll always have to have a tube inside him for the internal bleeding, and one coming in, replacing the blood.”

            “Maybe you could re-circulate it,” Leslie says. “Going out, coming right back in.  That would save some money.  Saving money makes the old guy mighty happy.”

            The joke falls flatter than anything his sisters can remember their brother saying.  The doctor looks at him with a composed neutral expression, and time stops for everyone there.  

            “It’s your call,” he says to the sisters.

            They cry and move away from the doctor and at the last moment, just before Leslie is out of reach, two of them, not just one, but two, simultaneously, in perfect synchronization, reach for him and drag him with them for the family consultation.

            “Dad has instructions about this,” one of them says.

            “He doesn’t want to live this way.”

            “He’s suffering so much.”

            “What are we going to do?” the sister who the father used to, even when she was in her early teens and sick with the flu or something, pull her pants down and, pissed off at her, give her an injection of penicillin or one of the mycin drugs right into her buttocks.  He hated for his children to be sick, man oh man, that pissed him off something awful, imagine getting sick and worrying him about it, but now, that same sister asks, “What are we going to do?  I don’t want him to suffer.”

            They turn toward the wall and cry.  They cry  hard.  It’s dramatic. It’s real. This is it!  One of those family moments!  They lean against each other and weep and try to stifle the noise and are so swept away by the perfect sorrow they have all been waiting months for, Leslie is sure, that they forget about their brother and he says nothing, remaining a few feet to the side and looking around.  The same doctor waits in the doorway of the room. 

            “Hey, sorry about that,” Leslie tells him. 

            “Not a problem.”

            The halls are painted in three colors, a wide beige band at the bottom, and then a narrow pale blue in the center, and a wide band of off-white above it.  Signs stick out high above at every corner, and a painted trail, like a yellow brick road, runs down the center of the floor.  The air conditioning is too cold. 

            “We have to do what Dad wants,” the sisters say.  “We have to.  It’s in his living will.”

            “No extraordinary measures, it says.”

            “Oh, this is so horrible.”

            “We have to decide if he dies?”

            “And when that will be?”

            Leslie says nothing, but stands close by and watches his sisters prepare to kill their father.

            They hold hands.  They walk to the doctor.  They tell him.  The doctor says something.  They nod.  He goes in the room.  He comes back out.  They go in.  The youngest sister finds Leslie a few minutes later.

            “They’re giving him something and slowly turning off things.  He’ll be dead by evening,” she manages to say.  “Probably by five or six o’clock.”

            “I’m so sorry,” he says and they hug. 

            He leaves the hospital when she goes back into the room.  He goes to the delicatessen that has been in the same location for a half a century.  It used to have good corned beef.  It used to have excellent lox and bagel.  It is the only place in North Carolina that always had the real New York stuff.  Even though it’s been years, everyone there knows Leslie from childhood.  They haven’t seen him in so long.  How is your father?  He’s all right.  Tell me him we all want to see him back in here soon, and he’ll get a free sandwich.  Any kind, one of the counter men says. Yes, any kind.  Two or three.  That man can eat a lot. 

            Leslie orders the corn beef on rye with yellow mustard, then changes his mind and asks for brown.  The inside of the delicatessen has the same advertisements for their Halvah. That was always good.  Sesame and honey candy.  It’s probably from biblical times.  The sandwich is good.  As good as ever.  He finishes it and leaves.  It’s been a half hour since he got there.  It’s 3:30.  Three-thirty is when school lets out.  Once, years ago, there were too many students and the schools had to do a split schedule. 

                 

   *                                 *                                    *

 

            It’s years ago, and his father doesn’t like the split schedule.  It messes up everything.  Leslie remembers that year, and a particular day when he was eleven years old and his father called him in to the den.  Everyone was in there.  An old bachelor friend who was a podiatrist was even there. 

            The father told him he had to draw blood for some tests.  He took out a huge syringe, like something used on a horse.  He swabbed Leslie’s arm and stuck the needle in.  Leslie watched it go deep.  He saw the blood, so red, filling up the reservoir.  It hurt.  It hurt a lot.  A needle that big would hurt.  He felt dizzy.  Who could lose that much blood and not feel dizzy? 

            But wait.  It was a joke!  The syringe had a retractable needle, and the blood in the reservoir was just a trick with a painted tube.  A pharmaceutical rep had given this to his father.  It was very funny.  It was just a joke, see.  It didn’t really hurt.  He thought it did, but it didn’t.  It couldn’t have.  It was a joke that doctors could play on their children.  It was the only time he recalls hearing his father laugh in his presence.

                                *                                    *                                   *

            Later that day, Leslie is home from the hospital and the phone rings and he lets the answer machine get it.  Then, a few days later, after the funeral, the family lawyer tells the heirs that their father has appointed Leslie the executor of the estate.  None of them can understand why.

            “At least now we’ll find out how much he had,” he says.

             They have never known how much money their father had.  He never said.  It’s got to be a lot.  He was a doctor for 55 years.  Some of them need it badly, but the old man never gave any one of them a cent once they left home. 

            “Tell us when you know,” his sisters say to him.  “We hope it’s a lot.”

            He spends much of the next year with paperwork, phone calls and attorneys.  At the end of the year, he has to write a check for more than one million dollars.  It’s for the taxes to the federal and state government.  His father has left the estate in a mess and the tax burden is 50% after the first $600,000, all the attorneys tell him, as he asks again and again how this can be. 

            He looks at the check, on the desk.  He has to sign his name.  He can’t move the pen.  It’s like a scene in a movie.  Everyone’s watching.  When he signs it, most of the money will be gone, the remainder split five ways, and the old man will have won. 

            “There’s no way out of this?”  he asks the attorney.

            “No way.”

            The old man has out waited him again.  He signs his name.  His sisters think he has messed up the estate.  They cannot imagine their father doing this to them, that he could have been that much of a bastard. They blame their brother.

            In spite of that, and all of it, he feels good.  He gets a new dog.  He names it Clonny, short for Clonazapem.  He sees a show late one night about grieving.  Oh man, they’re crying.  Everyone up on stage is crying like mad.  His own new girlfriend has been expecting him to cry.  He doesn’t.  He wonders how long you can hate someone.  Why not forever?  Because Oprah tells you that you cannot do that?  Because that moron Dr. Phil says it’s bad for you.

            Clearly, they are wrong.  He’s never felt better in his life.

End

 



                 

           

                       

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                                          Memoir:                    The Writing Life

Saint Lawrence of Something or Other
This man chewed tobacco and used snuff, at the same time.  He built houses and had all his life when I went to work for him in the early 1970s.  He lived somewhere I won’t name because he’d never had a social security card, or number.  That meant he’d never paid taxes, and all this caught up with him toward the end of his life.
He kept the chewing tobacco going all the time, and kept the snuff tucked inside his bottom lip up against his gums.  At one point, he also simultaneously sucked on Tootsie Pops, and when we, his crew, made fun of that, he bit off the end of the sticks so we wouldn’t know they were in there along with everything else.
His extended family mostly lived off him. His wife had cracked up when she’d had her second child, and she then came to work with him everyday, for years, and sat in the truck for 9 hours until he drove her home.  He was also a saintly man, in many ways, and seemed as if he’d stepped right out of the 19th century, or, at least, how I romanticized it, and I was into the simple life back then, and anything pre-20th century seemed cool.                                                                                                                If something ever went wrong with a house he’d built(anytime, even years later) for the farmers around him who’d been his and his family’s friends for generations, he’d fix it free, saying, “My fault, I should’ve known better than to vent that fan out into the boxing like that, my fault,” or, if the floor rotted around the tub, he’d say, “My fault, I don’t believe I caulked that just exactly right, my fault entirely.”
When he died, he apologized to the man who’d found him, saying, “I’m sorry, mister, I didn’t mean to wreck my truck, I sure am sorry about that, I don’t know how I got flipped upside down,” and then he died about a half hour later.  He hadn’t been upside down, he was found parked on the shoulder of the road, dying, and there he was, apologizing for causing anyone any difficulty.
He had about a dozen things he could eat, and nothing, and I mean, nothing else would stay down.  For supper, he had potato soup, made by his daughter just like his mother had always made for him, and bread, ice tea, and various beans from the garden that had been canned.
For lunch everyday, he had:
1. An ice cream sandwich.
2.  A Snicker’s bar.
3.  A small bottled Coke.
4.  A cream filled oatmeal cookie.
I was the youngest one in the crew, an educated counter-culture type, classic 70s style, who he treated as if he’d known forever.  I was also the gopher, so I picked up that lunch for him each day at the store, and brought it to the job site.  Everyday.  I also had to get an old man who drank 12 beers each day, (and 24 each day on the weekend), a certain cellophane wrapped Made-Rite ham sandwich, which he would open up and sniff and if it was wrong in some way, he would throw it at me.  This was funny in a carpenter-job-site sort of way, and made for real drama each day at lunch. Actually, it’ s surreal experience to have a sandwich thrown at your face.  I can’t explain it, but it’s very weird. You can’t put your hands up and block it, because it’s only two pieces of white bread and a little ham and mayo. Weird.  Anyway, that man, Walter was 70 at the time, but looked 100, and is famous (with me) for telling a story about a woman that has bothered me forever and it went like this:
“So I was f……ing that old gal, and she said, well, Walter, won’t you kiss me sometime while you are a doing this, and I said to her, Hell no, I won’t kiss you, and she said, well, then, if you won’t kiss me, would you pull my hair a little while you do it.”
That got a big laugh, except from me, because the statement was and is so loaded I can’t get it settled down in any part of my brain and it haunts me like having seen somebody slap a child right in the face.
A few years before the man died, his wife, still disturbed but able to be at home now, was taken off her medication by a nurse practitioner who thought she’d been on it too long(20 years), and within a few days of being off it, the family had to drive her to the hospital.  Albert wouldn’t get in the elevator and had never ridden an escalator, and the family saw the sign at the stairs saying, “Emergency Exit,” and they couldn’t use that, they thought, so they made him ride the escalator, which he did by leaning against the wall and studying it and how people got on and off(this from a man who could build the most complicated house you could imagine, without any architect or engineering plans at all, just by sketching out what the homeowners wanted). After he figured it out, he jumped onto the step and made it up, leaping off at the top the way a person might if he had seen a coiled copperhead right in front of him.
They had to put his wife in the psychiatric wing.  They had no health insurance, but he told them he could and would pay, so they let her in.  He had saved up $10,000, over 40 years–it had taken him 40 years to save that much—and it was all gone in less than 2 weeks, and then they brought her home, put her back on the same meds, and she was fine, in her own way, from then on.
Having had to fill out all the paperwork in the hospital set something into motion, and the feds and the state realized there was this man who’d been living(productively and saintly, but that didn’t matter) that they didn’t know about.  They made him agree to pay some of his back taxes and social security, and he began to work about 80 hours a week, at the age of 65, and that’s when he just worked himself to death and died on the side of the road.
His hero was a man in the community, who, years earlier, had disappeared and never returned.  He had told someone, “I just can’t take it anymore, and I’m a leaving and starting all over again,” and he disappeared.  He told this story to me a lot, and speculated constantly where the fellow, who he’d known all his life, was, and what he was doing. It made him so happy to think about that man.
And that was him, and I, myself, think about him a lot, and I think about myself turning upside down and no one else being able to see it, or running away like his hero, and starting over, with a new name, but instead, I write fiction, and re-invent myself every time I do, and become someone else, and that seems to work.  And that’s why it’s a cool thing to be and to have been a writer all my life, or for anyone, because you get to disappear and no one knows, for sure, where you’ve gone.