Showing posts with label death. Show all posts
Showing posts with label death. Show all posts

10 January, 2020

"Give me things that don't get lost*" (Why retirement is a myth)

I never really noticed Dad's age, even when he got sick. He still went to work. He still attended Cincinnati Bengals home games. He was still both deeply loving and sometimes deeply intractable. There were lines that should not, could not, would not (not on his watch) be crossed. My brother and I both knew what those lines were without being told. But he loved my mother with a tenderness that could sometimes be embarrassing for little boys and he was never afraid to tell us he loved us to demonstrate his love, sometimes in generous and sometimes in terrifying proportions.

As far as I was concerned my old man was God's Hammer, and just as immortal. He wasn't afraid of anyone and didn't kowtow to anybody.  I watched him stand resolute against church elders who questioned his faith and against family members who disagreed with my mom going to college instead of staying home. He wasn't progressive, but he was pragmatic... almost to a fault.

When he and my mom talked about him retiring early after my brother and I were both out of high school, I didn't question it. Dad had always love Florida and them talking about moving there made sense. Mom would retire from teaching early and they'd go spend their days on the white sand beaches around St. Petersburg.

He'd already taken up cooking. He was learning photography. He was endlessly curious, endlessly forward thinking in his unsentimental and pragmatic way. He was an early adopter of most things technological and never once expressed nostalgia for "the good old days." My old man was a man of his time and his place and he always seemed just fine with that. He wasn't what you might think of when conjuring up an image of someone living in Zen…. as a matter of fact, he would have vociferously argued why he wasn't -- but he was the only person I knew who seemed to know his place and know what he wanted. He'd traveled enough to know.

He wanted the Florida sun and my mom and to see his sons make their way in the world -- which made him endlessly critical of both of us, though in very different ways. He wanted for us what he didn't have and hadn't achieved, though it took me a long time to understand that.

Experiencing my father's death taught me that certain "facts" I'd taken for granted during the whole of my very inexperienced 17 years were wrong, because my dad did everything right. He worked. He made plans. He had his somedays all lined up.  Seeing God's Hammer dead nearly killed God for me and it made me question the point of having somedays. By the time I graduated high school, I'd already stopped planning anything. There wasn't a someday. There was now. And now. And now.

I'm turning 47 next month and whatever anger I've wielded against God and the universe has become something else.  No matter what anyone tells you, that demon in the belly never really goes away. But it has taught me how to counter the fear I was raised embrace. Dad would maybe put it different. I don't think he wanted his sons to be afraid of the world, but maybe to be wiser walking through it. 

But I'm a slow learner. 

The one thing I know, and know for sure, is that somedays don't mean anything. I want to live now, in this moment. It took me more than 20 years to find the love of my life and while I could wait to live fully when we're retired, the fact is I don't want to waste time. When the hour glass runs out on this life, it runs out. And yes, I have faith that something passes on after we ditch this skin suit, but I refuse to let anyone use that against me by telling me it's a someday. My most fervent hope is that whatever of me survives after death will melt into everything else. 

And when that happens, I want to take the fullness of a life lived with me to share.... much in the same way I share it now.

*Neil Young

26 December, 2018

On meditating with your demons

Learn to meditate with the monsters.
Sit down and sup with the demons.
But don't let them feed you.  - from Field Notes: 26 December 2018

Zhong Kui, the Demon Queller
One of the things you hear in the rooms is that holidays create resentments, which end up leading alcoholics back to the bottle. My family is pretty supportive and not as dysfunctional as other family situations I've heard about in the rooms and on the streets. But there are times when life jams up and somewhere between the anxiety of trying to be a good guy, a decent husband, and an empathetic listener, it's only with the grace of God, a loving wife, and a good sponsor that I managed to stay sober.

Coming home from my latest trip west, on another failed trip to find the real Los Angeles in the glitter that is LA, I threw myself into the list of Things That Needed Doing. It fell sometime while I was traveling eastbound through Missouri that the wife and I were going to host Christmas dinner with my family. Now, this isn't exactly a stressful thing, in and of itself. My immediate family is smaller than some and none of them are particularly taxing. But it falls at a time when there is a lot going on.

Specifically, my father-in-law is dying. 

This spreads out in several different ways. Everything is being done to keep him comfortable and right now, he's doing as well as can be expected with Stage 4 Large Cell Carcinoma. In other words, lung cancer -- the kind not brought on by smoking, but as a side effect of the anti-rejection drugs he takes so his body doesn't reject the kidney transplant he received 6 years ago. My mother-in-law is approaching the whole thing with as much stoicism as she can, which is in her nature, and my wife is trying to follow suit, though stoicism is not in her nature at all. 

For me, Christmas is mostly about keeping things moving -- 10,000 wheels all in motion going in different directions -- through the season. I'm trying not to focus on my own issues wrapped up in all this, or the feelings it brings up about my own father's death and my general anxieties about people I love dying. 

Yes, I know it's natural for people to die. I can intellectualize that all I want, but that doesn't change how I feel about any of it at the moment.

But I am learning how to sup with my demons. There really isn't any choice. And one of the people teaching me how to do is, oddly enough, my father-in-law. I don't want to dismiss his experience -- an experience I know nothing about, really -- but I do think of all the people I have seen in the process of dying, he is probably the strongest person I've seen. He doesn't always bear up well. He gets tired and cranky and I think he's probably as tired of being fussed over as he is of the cancer. But he doesn't just give up, either. He's resigned, I supposed as much as anyone can be. But there's a resilience to it all, too. He's waiting. He's tired, but he's waiting. He carries it all because that's where he is right now.

 I was asked as recently as today if the holidays made me want to drink. I can honestly say they don't. I don't miss drinking as much as I miss not feeling. But I know what happens when I try to manage my feelings with artificial means. So I pick them up, my little demons, my little monsters.  The ones that used to hound me minute by minute of the day. That's where I am right now. I pick them up, and take them with me and hope we all learn, them and me, how to get through this world that seems so much more appealing in the absence of feeling.

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25 May, 2018

Memorial Day: For all the Fallen Fathers (and Mothers), Real and Imagined

On leave in Florida. 
I am 45 years old and I'm still coming to terms with the impact my father's death had on my life.
Just when I think I've caught all the ripples and echoes created by the absence of gravity Dad instilled in my life, I end up finding just one more thing. One more ripple. One more echo. And it never stops.
The impact of his death on my life when I was 17 has been and is incalculable. It set into motion virtually all the circumstances that my life now is built upon, from my own fatherhood that has long defined the geography of my life to my writing which has long been the compass I've used to make my way through map I draw with every step I take and every line I write, to the deep anger that drove me towards self-destruction,  the weight of guilt and obligation that tore me away from self-destruction, and the imparted wisdom that eventually drew me back to the greatest love I could ever imagine. 
My father was a complicated man, though I don't think he wanted to be one. Then again, it's possible that men placed on pedestals always look complicated. Through the years of learning more about myself, I've been able to humanize him a little more... especially as I am now the age he was when I was small and  I was in and out of the hospital -- the age he was when he became my hero and the archetype by which I still (whether I mean to or not) judge all would-be heroes, real or imagined.
It also happens that my father was a veteran of two wars (Korea and Vietnam)  that America has
consistently overlooked. I would say that he part of the ignored generation of American Veterans -- but the truth is that our government has historically ignored those who risk life and limb in defense of the ideas embodied in our Constitution and Bill of Rights. Our government breaks bodies and spirits, but it does not buy what it breaks. And while my father was fortunate enough to come back physically intact and mentally steeled, it's impossible for me to say exactly what the impact of his military service was -- which started when he was 17 and continued until he was almost 40.
It's impossible for me to understand the impact it had on him because I have never served and because he died before he felt like he could share those stories with me. 
I feel the absence of those stories almost as acutely as I feel his.
It's also impossible for me to understand the loss felt by sons and daughters whose fathers -- and whose mothers --did not come home alive or in one piece. And although I've long held the opinion that war is a travesty perpetrated by cowards too far removed from the devastation to feel its impacts, as time goes on I find that I see it even in starker terms. War is a sin, and a tragedy with an impact so devastating that it's easier to make more war than it is to examine the impacts.

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20 September, 2012

Southern Jaunt: Intermezzo - Useful

It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society. - Jiddu Krishnamurti

He has a right to criticize, who has a heart to help. - Abraham Lincoln

The Parsons family are all about working hard and doing what is needed to get ahead in life and be the best we can, and making a good life for our children, and serving our Country. what in any of that have you done or are doing? - Screechy Mary, Gun-running Cousin

The autumnal tinge in the air is telling me it's getting time to move on, and so is the calender. This time next week, the local magistrate will have backwards genuflected and any reverse broom-hopping will have been done. My return tenure at the paper will be more or less done --much to the glee of the grumps who are content to strangle the town into the nitrate poisoned dust. As the song goes

The chilly wind will soon begin and I'll be on my way....

As much as I've enjoyed seeing my friends here, listening to some great music, and getting the chance to tell a story or two, I'm ready to shake some the dirt off, stretch my legs, and get back out on the road. I plan on staying in the Midwest for a bit before jumping down to Albuquerque, New Mexico for Mothpocalypse and The Happy F%$^^in' Endings  on November 2nd-4th.  After that, back up to the Ohio Valley, for some Turkey Day celebrating with My Dear Sweet Ma, and then, another run through Kentucky, hopefully to visit friends, to the East Coast, where I'm hoping to see The Kid in between her school and work and generally impatient insistence on trying to be a GROWN-UP. And then, down the coast, to Florida, down to Port Charlotte -- where the beaches are warm, the water is beautiful, and there will be no snow.

At least, that's the plan. For now.

Because I'm still pondering flying against common sense and my own inclinations and going NORTH, to the Bakken Oil Fields in the Northwest corner of North Dakota to see what a boom town looks like... particularly in far off off OFF chance that Mitt Romney wins the election, since he would have us drilling even more than we are (even though Obama has allowed more drilling than GW Bush and we're taking so much coal out of the mountains that we've graduated from mine shafts to strip mining to mountain top removal ... that's TAKING THE TOPS OFF MOUNTAINS THAT HAVE BEEN AROUND LONGER THAN WE HAVE.) 

To be fair, it probably doesn't matter who's sleeping at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue -- they're both backed by  big banks, big business, and big pocketbooks. 

Please don't take this an opportunity to flood me with the virtues of Ron Paul. You want to see his virtue, look at his son, Rand -- named after Ayn "Fuck the Poor" Rand -- and listen to him after he's finished telling you he would abolish every government agency that you think is making your life miserable. He's a mook of the highest order -- a Libertarian who's too scared to use the label, his idea of America would effectively take us back to the dark ages.

But... North Dakota is still on my mind, yes. And so is the fact that I hate cold weather. But I am (re)learning -- constantly -- that the universe will blow me where ever it damn well pleases, and not always to my preference.

A motif that has been coming up... well...  since January ... is What I Plan on "Really" Doing. And even though I have, at various times, stated pretty clearly what I intend NOT to do... and even what I intend to do --which is travel, write, not buy into the dead myth of Pax Americana, love my country, question the government, meet good people, find stories worth re-telling, and (re)learn to play the guitar --  the question keeps cropping up, though in different words.

Mostly, people want to know what I'm going To DO... as in, what respectable job will I get. I feel I've been perfectly clear on this one as well.  But if anyone is confused, I plan to avoid anything that might cause me to be respected. To be respected in this society is to acquiesce to the rules and machinations of said society... regardless of how screwed up it is.

Fuck all that.

My hope is to be useful, though. And in spite of one recent Letter to the Editor which referred to what I do as "spinning lies for pocket change" (thanks, Nina for that. Sorry that you're such a lousy writer yourself and a miserable, bitter hag to boot.) I do think there is merit in paying attention. Because, if I'm being honest, that's pretty much what I do. I pay attention. To people. To stories. To poems. To songs. To events. To history. To you. 

I was also called out recently for shaming my father's memory and for not following one particularly bitchy relative's notion of what my family tradition is. Then again -- it seems like the Parsons family tradition has more to it than money grubbing and exploiting misinformation to make more money selling bullets to people who believe Obama is going to take away their guns. My dad didn't keep guns around. He didn't need them. One tongue lashing / lecture from him and you'd rather be shot. Believe me. My Dad DID tell me some stories, try and get me to think right about some things, and tried to keep me out of jail (Which would have been preferable to any of his punishments.)  He did things his own way more or less. He told me about my grandfather -- who did things his own way. From what I can tell, the only thing anyone on the Old Man's side of the family has in common is that we have nothing in common except that we do things our own way.

In this, then, I am not far off the mark, at least.

With any luck, I will find ways to be useful -- and not in some way defined by someone else. Generally I find that most problems, personal and otherwise, arise from language barriers. Useful is one of those words that people tend to define narrowly and with very little imagination.  When you begin defining language for yourself, when you begin defining the elements that impact your life in your own way, you cease being useful to a lot of people. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. 

What can be a bad thing is when you stop short of redefining for yourself what it means to be useful. Or, in the process of defining what it means, you forget that humanity is more important the terms people often use to define it.


03 September, 2012

Southern Jaunt: 22 Years and Counting (Memoriam) /

But the love of adventure was in father's blood. -- Buffalo Bill

I wore his name like armor. - Elena Bell

22 years gone and I still remember
that though some are set above 
given higher rank, higher status, more prestige,
they are not better people --
just blowhards with brains of butter. (partial poem draft from Travel Journal)

I woke up this morning with a knot in my stomach. I've felt it coming on for several days, like the onset of a flu. Like standing in the tracks in the path of an oncoming train. The last time I remember hearing the sound of my father's voice was in a dream, maybe 5 years ago. I was so unused to the sound of it, so accustomed to the idea that he's dead, that it frightened me awake.

My first real bout of insomnia happened not long after his death. My senior year of high school is blur, primarily because I was a shell-shock zombie. What I do remember involved my daughter's mother ... which, being candid, I would rather forget ... and very little else. My reaction to my father's death was to run. I ran from the hospital room because I couldn't look at his fresh corpse in the ICU. I ran from sleep because I couldn't escape dreams that condemned me for being  weak son. I stayed away from home because I couldn't stand to watch my mother mourn, take the emptiness of the house in my father's absence ... though the house itself started to take a shrine-like place in my mind. When my mother sold the house and moved, I felt (at the time) like something was being taken from me, even though I didn't live there anymore. Now I understand that shrines are only useful when they help us live better, not when they enable us to envy the dead. Now I know it's possible to remember without worship. Now I know the voices of the Elders are not dreams that frighten us awake in the middle of the night. We are the voice of the Elders; their words and ours  combine into the stories, the songs, the poems that record our personal and our collective histories into the consciousness I like to think of as The Long Memory.

And in spite of everything the GOP'ers tell you about the evils of the estate tax, the only thing we can pass on to the future generations that any real value or any real meaning is The Long Memory... because it is ours to continue and pass on, and it is theirs too -- whether they know it or not -- from the moment they are born.

My bouts of insomnia are infrequent these days. When I have a night or two when I can't sleep these days, it's usually tied to the fact that I'm in one place too long... a built in alarm clock tied to my itchy foot. According to My Dear Sweet Ma, I get the itchy foot from The Old Man. He was able to soothe his in his relative youth, and settled down in his middle age.

As you might have noticed, Dear Reader, my trajectory has been a bit different.

Today I am mindful of The Old Man and of the many other Old Men -- and Old Women --  who ought to be remembered this day. Of the lessons my dad tried to teach me that actually stuck, the one I always seem to come back to is embodied in the phrase

Every man's a VIP.

I thought about that quite a bit when I was out on the road these last 7 or 8 months.  And while I'm not entirely sure that he would agree with my interpretation/assessment of what that phrase means, I do know that he was less interested in how much people had squirreled away than he was in how they behaved.  For his part, he treated people decently until, in his opinion, they did something to deserve harsher treatment. He could be temperamental, and knew how to hold a grudge. His reaction to his own physical decline colored most of his reactions to everything else -- anger and determination. He would be the first person to point out that life is almost always unfair; but he never seemed to stop expecting that fairness would win out.

There is no greater example of this than his love of football; specifically, the Bengals. Any Bengals fan -- any real fan, at any rate -- will tell you that being a fan is about more than painting your face and screaming like a banshee when they're playing good. It's about holding your head in your hands when they're playing really, really BAD... and then watching them again the following week, find hope where the talking heads, pundits, and spineless, gutless bandwagoneers insist there is none.

One overly concerned individual, in regards to my name changing/identity politicking in my online life, made mention of the fact that in changing my name -- or in expressing a desire to change my name -- that I am, in essence, spitting on my father's memory.

I thanked him kindly, not pointing out the only thing I spit on are flags, sacred cows, and -- whenever possible -- in the coffee of certain local political figures.

Regardless of my nom de route, (that's s pronounced 'root' from the French meaning path, and sounds like the English term for the underground  inner workings that make trees grow tall.) I could never erase The Old Man. And the only way I could ever disrespect his memory is to live in such a way as to abdicate my ability to think and to live to anyone or anything that does not deserve my fealty. And although my dad was, in the traditional sense, very much a patriot, I like to think he would understand that I am, in my own way, a patriot. I love my country, because a country is made up of people, not institutions. I despise the institutions and machinations that are undermining it. He might disagree with every belief I have come to hold as true based on my life experience; but he would absolutely prefer me to reach my own conclusions than to trust something so important to mediocre machinations. He would prefer that I retain my right and my ability to determine for myself who my enemy is, rather than listen to people who value their opinion over my experiences.

And for the record, the only union strike I ever heard my dad be critical of was the 1984 MLB strike. And he was a Republican most of the time.

07 January, 2011

Death Head Cheerleaders

They marched into the room one at a time
shadows from the valley of death
every long hair atop their heads wound
tight and high and kept in place
with heavy duty hair lacquer –
the kind marketed only
to Southern Baptists and Drag Queens –
their faces dried out
their eyes full of recently applied tears
legs swishing under the layers of clothes
and ankle length denim skirts
hands shaking from years of clutching bibles
and fresh from the freezer casserole dishes
murmuring the prayers taught to them by elders
who, too, were afraid of the dark. Leaning over
carefully, each one whispering only
so everyone could hear, asked
the only question they knew to ask:

                                                         Are You Right With God?

Accepting the dying woman's moans
for the answer they were looking for,
they shuffled out and back into the shadows
in the manner that they shuffled in –
shaking heads made heavy with hair pins
and fearful restraint ,silent as the grave
they try to hold at bay
using wooden crosses, family hymnals,
and worn out bibles listing the names
of the dead in the front and back cover
like a list of pious all-stars who,
like the savior whose name
they have all laid claim to
was revised over countless years
of enforced transubstantiation
in a way that in no way
contradicts the fire and brimstone preview
their pastor gives them each
and every Sunday.

05 January, 2011

The Copper's Report

I was drinking in a town I'd never heard of in a bar that I wasn't familiar with when I overheard a group of men talking down bar from where I was seated mulling over my scotch and trying to catch some warmth. My purpose for being in an unfamiliar place? Story hunting. I was writing an article for a travel magazine of miniscule circulation about antique shopping in down state Illinois – down state meaning every place that isn't Chicago, for those not familiar with the gravitational truths of living in the Land of Lincoln. If you're not in Chicago, you're not anywhere, and never did that truth present itself more than when I sat in that bar, in town whose name I didn't bother to read on the sign, in a bar whose name I didn't bother to notice. The town was one of the more significantly sized towns I'd been through, a little southeast of my final destination, North Eustacia – known for it's antique shops, pleasant small town folk, and as the once world capital of hickory smoked lard. (That particular title still stands, though I understand that the town no longer uses it as a bragging point or in any of it's tourist literature.)

“Tell us about it again, Jasper.” So said one of the men, an older, grizzly humpty-dumpty shaped individual wearing engineer's bib overalls (and matching cap) that were near worn out in the ass over top a bright red flannel shirt that was crusted with the remainders of several long forgotten meals. “Tommy here hasn't heard the story.”

Tommy was apparently the much younger man in the group. Given his looks and general disposition, he was clearly related to Humpty; I would venture to call Tommy the man's son, but I couldn't help but wonder what happened to the poor woman who was undoubtedly too drunk to know better than to spread her legs or blind, deaf and dumb as to her lover's true nature. The resemblance was undeniable, though. From the size of his gut, though, Humpty could have birthed a slightly smaller version of Tommy and still made it to the bar on time.

Jasper was also a younger man, though clearly no direct relation to Humpty or Tommy. Jasper Cullen, as I later found out was his full name, was a part-time Police Deputy. His head was square the way most cops' heads are square … probably just the choice of hair cut … but his shoulders were narrow and he had a slight hump in his back. At first I thought maybe Jasper had had too much to drink; I soon realized, however, that the slight slur and the way he sometimes ran his words together had nothing to do with booze. It would be unfair – or at least, politically incorrect – to call Jasper Cullen the town idiot. It would be fair to say that his mother held the record for the most drinks consumed in a single evening, a distinction she achieved during the fourth month of her pregnancy. And if that didn't explain the pointed head and wide sloping forehead attached to entirely too small a face and nonexistent chin, the fact that he was birthed in womens' underwear section at JC Penny's 30 miles away might. At the time of her son's birth, the woman claimed to not only be unaware of her pregnancy, she also claimed emphatically that she was virgin; she had also “forgotten” about several panty and bra sets she had stuffed into her purse to purchase.

Either because of his parentage, or in spite of it, the men in town had always taken care of him; as I was to discover later, the women all took this personally, since any one of their husbands or fathers could have been the divine instigator. As such, when he wanted to become a cop after watching a three day television marathon of TJ Hooker reruns, it was generally agreed upon to let him hang around the police station; and maybe because the mayor at the time was high on the list of people who might actually be the other half of Jasper's genetic soup, it was agreed upon that Jasper could be a part-time deputy. It was a more or less harmless position: one that garnered more respect than dog catcher and put him in far less danger of being hurt.

Jasper smiled and laughed a slurry laugh. He seemed almost embarrassed. But after some more encouragement, he took a drink of his Shirley Temple and started in.

A call had come in while he was sweeping up the gun room and preparing to empty the trash cans. A teenage girl – someone everyone knew, but did not to mention specifically by name – called the station, crying. Her mother – someone all the men in town were well acquainted with – had locked herself in her bedroom and would not come out. Jasper told her he needed to call someone else... though why the girl didn't think to dial 911 was beyond Jasper... and that he would send them as soon as possible. But the girl was hysterical. Something was wrong; it wasn't unusual for her mother to be nodding out on the couch half drunk and wacked out on her prescribed pain killers in the mid-afternoon when her daughter came home from school. But it was very odd that she locked herself in her bedroom and refused to answer the repeated yelling and banging on the door. The daughter told Jasper that she had pushed something in front of the door and she couldn't open it at all.

Jasper tried telling her again that he would call someone; the chief was out of town on at policeman's conference and the other deputy was on vacation in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Jasper, as a general rule, didn't go out on calls; he had a driver's license, and was cleared to drive a squad car, and to even carry a gun – though it generally didn't have bullets in it and the chief let him wear the holster to make him feel more like part of the department. But it was generally understood that Jasper himself didn't answer calls; and if any came in... mostly they didn't because anymore people dialed 911... he would call someone more appropriate. But the girl, who at that point was so hysterical that Jasper could hardly understand what she was saying, begged him. Please, she cried. Please come save my Mommy.

At this point in the story, while he was imitating the girl's voice, the men at the bar all guffawed.

Well, whether the young girl's crying pulled on his heart or whether he imaged what TJ Hooker would do in that situation was unclear; but it was at that point that Jasper … who himself had a mother he loved dearly … dropped his broom and told the girl he was on his way. He took the keys for the squad car – it was actually the K9 vehicle, but the dog had recently died from Parvo and had not been replaced – got in, started it up, turned on the siren (something he said he had always wanted to do) and went at high speed to the girl's house. He arrived in less than 2 ½ minutes and found the girl standing in the yard, crying and pacing. She had been crying so much that her eyes were near swelled shut.

Jasper said he didn't know a girl could cry that much.

She led him to the bedroom in the back of the small house. Jasper found that the door was, indeed blocked as the girl had told him. He drew his unloaded fire arm and announced himself as he had heard it so many times on television. “THIS IS TH' PO-LICE! OPEN UP!” Of course, there was no answer. Jasper tried pushing on the door. It was a little open, enough that Jasper could see the bed. There was no one on the bed. He pushed on the door a little harder, but it was blocked by something. He pushed a little harder, but the door seemed to push back. Then he put his shoulder into it and it seemed to give a little more. But not enough to get into the room.

Either out of desperation or frustration, the girl – who had just turned 16 – helped him on the next attempt. At this point in his story, Jasper got a little dreamy eyed and started to stutter a little. The girl, apparently, was very pretty and had a nice shape and was pushed right up against him – which was probably as close to someone of the opposite sex as he had ever gotten. Humpty asked him how it felt to have a pair of nice young tits pushed up against him and what she smelled like.

Jasper smiled, shifted uncomfortably on his stool, turned a little red in the face, and took another drink from his Shirley Temple to finish his story.

The door finally gave way enough for Jasper to get inside; before he did, though, he turned to the girl, making sure to look her in the face and not in her heaving jail bait breasts, and told her to go call the fire department. He told her to dial 911. And then, after taking a deep breath, Jasper, fire arm pulled, announced himself again, and pushed his way into the room. The bed was indeed empty,but it had been laid on recently. There were two empty fifths of rum, and a pile of little blue pills on the night stand. There was a funny smell and a muffled buzzing sound; but upon first glance, the room appeared empty. Jasper heard the fire truck sirens coming, and he was unsure of what to tell them when they arrived; he didn't want to look like fool for calling them out for an locked and empty room. And then he thought of the door, and how it was blocked and how there was no furniture in the middle of the room. Then he turned around.

The woman herself had been blocking the door; not a small woman, she had fallen and blocked the door, presumably after drinking too much and taking too many of her prescription pain killers. And there she was, jammed between the door and the wall. She was naked with a self-massager, the kind you can buy in most drug stores, stuck up in her. Her head was bleeding – probably from being banged when Jasper and the woman's daughter pushed the door open.

When the emergency crew arrived, they walked into find Jasper staring at the woman's naked body, his fire arm drawn. After they finally turned off the massager and removed it – the EMTs drew straws and the short straw lost – they attempted CPR. But it was no use.

At first, it was supposed that the head trauma had killed her; it was later discovered that she had been dead before she hit the floor. Apparently, the woman suffered from depression and chronic pain, and had decided to end her own life; but sometime between downing the pills with rum – her drink of choice – and dying, she decided that she wanted to go out smiling, which explained the clearly unorthodox use of the massager. At that point, the coroner could only theorize, and he supposed that maybe after achieving a mechanical climax, the poor woman decided she had something to live for after all, and she left the bed in an attempt to call for help; but, sadly, it had been too late.

“So what did you think, Jasper?” Humpty asked with a smile that showed all five of his teeth. “You ever see a woman like that before? Huh?” The men laughed and guffawed and shook their heads. They all knew the woman, each in their turn. And while she would not be missed, her death was considered a tragic inconvenience.

“So what DID you think, Jasper?” Tommy spoke up. Everyone had supposed – correctly – that the closest he had ever come to a naked woman was in a late night movie or one of those magazines they sell behind the counter at the corner gas station. Jasper took a drink of his Shirley Temple and smiled, his eyes wide and empty.

His pronouncement was met with laughter and fresh drinks all around. “Big titties,” he said.  

17 May, 2010

The Day After

She hated the panicked feeling of gasping for air. But the pain that shook her body down to the bones whenever she coughed and spit up pieces of her lungs was worse; and even with the oxygen, the cough never really stopped because her lungs never stopped filling with liquid. Whenever Loleen Bausendorfer took off her oxygen and tried to remember what it felt like before her body turned against her, tried to drown her in her own fluids, she couldn’t sit for more than two minutes. She couldn’t take more than a step out her wheelchair or off her bed without getting dizzy and feeling like she was about to die. Annmarie, her daughter-in-law, was always giving her a difficult time and insisting that she leave the oxygen on and that she not move around so much; but Loleen was tired of the noise the tank made and tired of the plastic itching under her nose and tired of being stuck in her son’s house. She was particularly tired of Annmarie, who Mitch had married in spite of his mother’s objections; but living there was better than being in the hospital, and at least Candice the hospice nurse came in the evening to check on her.

Not that being in a hospital would do her any good. Loleen knew she was dying. So did everyone else. Mitch knew she was dying and insisted she move in. Annmarie knew she was dying and resented that she was doing it in her house. Her grandchildren knew she was dying, but didn’t have any patience with her anymore now that she was too sick to make her famous double chocolate cookies. Loleen knew that the only reason she was living with her son and his family was that there wasn’t enough money to put her in nursing home – and that would have almost been better, if she didn’t know that people got stuck in nursing homes so that their families could learn to forget about them.

The day before had been a busy day. Annmarie drove the 80 mile round trip from Mt. Arliss to Silverton to take her shopping at JC Penny’s. It was an important trip. They’d gotten up early. The kids didn’t want to go and weren’t silent about their displeasure. Annmarie wasn’t all that excited about going, either, but Loleen had impressed its importance upon her and promised to pay for the kids to eat at McDonalds. Loleen didn’t like that she had to nag and bribe her family – the people who should want to take care of her. If it were Annmarie’s mother, there would have been no question; but Annmarie’s mother lived out of state. Loleen understood that it was a maudlin reason to go shopping. And while it was true that Loleen still had some nice dresses, none of them suited the purpose.

None of them was a dress she wanted to be buried in.

And since her death was, according to Dr. Sims, imminent she wanted to make sure all the details were taken care of. Mitch wouldn’t have a clue what to do and she didn’t trust Annmarie to put in the kind of care and attention to detail that it deserved. Loleen had already picked out her casket, her headstone, and had chosen the songs and even the preacher. All that remained was the dress.

Annmarie was forced to push Loleen around in the wheelchair; this didn’t bother Loleen much except that she had to keep reminding her to slow down. Deciding how she wanted to look for all eternity was a serious task. And it was a detail most people would take for granted. It was bad enough that she’d heard Annmarie talking to her son about cremation. Cremation! Like they were some aboriginal tribe on some backwards subcontinent! And who would visit her in the cemetery if all that was left of her was a pile of ashes? Annmarie would just as soon have her cremated and put the ashes in an old coffee can and bury her in the backyard next to the dog.

Loleen didn’t like the first seven dresses she looked at. Well, she’d liked the fifth one okay; but she said she didn’t like it because Annmarie was sighing and hemming and hawing like her time was being wasted. All the woman did was work at Mitch’s bar sometimes and watch Spanish soap operas. She didn’t even really take care of Loleen. If Mitch hadn’t rebuilt the downstairs bathroom so she could use it herself, she was sure Annmarie would have let her sit in her own mess until Candice arrived. And Candice was a sweet girl; but she wasn’t family.

So she made Annmarie wait through the sixth and seventh dresses – both of which were fine, she supposed. But by the time she got to the eighth dress, Loleen was getting tired, and she was getting a headache because the grandchildren refused to behave.

The dress was a deep purple dress with a gold and silver floral design; the fabric was soft. It struck Loleen as almost royal – maybe because of the purple. And while she would have never bought a purple dress before, she knew it was the perfect one.

Propped up on pillows as she was because she couldn’t lie down and sleep anymore, she took the oxygen tube off and stared at the dress hanging over the closet door. She lay there watching the dress while her lungs filled up with fluid and her breathing became more labored and her body instinctively prepared for another round of coughing. What a beautiful dress, she thought. Then she closed her eyes and tried to imagine what it would be like to be perfectly still forever, clothed in that purple dress and removed to a place far away from the sounds of her grandchildren, her son’s wife, and the pain that woke her up every morning.

01 February, 2010

Moose Head

Madge just shook her head and waddled over to the three lever tap with Bill Watson’s empty glass. She made her way like someone who had worn out long before her body had; but when her body finally did wear our, it was still a bitter disappointment. She’d say time and again to anybody who’d listen that she never intended to be a bar owner. The Moose Head was her husband’s deal; he’d wanted to open a place even before he retired from the mill; and after the fiasco with the pension fund, since he’d have to go back to work anyway he figured he might as well work for his damn self. Madge had been okay with it primarily because he only wanted her help with the books and she rarely had to work the bar. It also got him out of the house and out of her hair, and gave her time to spend with the grandchildren and work on her sewing. It also helped that their son, Harold Jr, was sending them money once a month from Minneapolis; he was successful and he wasn’t married (though Madge still didn’t understand why), so he didn’t care to help out. Madge had never told her husband about the money, of course; and he never asked since she was in charge of the family finances.

“Poor bastard,” Bill Watson repeated like he was talking aloud to himself. “That’s just what he is.”

Madge filled his glass from one of the two working taps and waddled back across the length of the bar to where Bill was sitting. Most days Bill was her one and only customer. That was especially true in the winter, when the farmers had no reason to come into town and it was too cold for anybody else to linger longer than they had to; sometimes it got busy on Thursday or Friday afternoons – which meant that maybe a handful of people showed up instead of just Bill – but the bar had long been a place where old men (who were all friends of her Harry’s) could safely sit and talk the way bullshitting way old men talk without having to worry about the interruption of their wives or the impatience of the younger generations. The younger and noisier crowd went up the street to Mitch Bausendorfer’s place. She was tired and knew she would only be more tired by the time she closed the bar for the night; in fact, she hadn’t felt right all day. Normally, she would have had somebody cover for her; but there was no one who could. She’d had to let go of Thom, who tended bar for her husband. She also had to let go of one of the cooks; the only one left was that underage girl Kimmy – who had the night off – that Madge kept on account of her condition. The girl was pregnant, unmarried, and not even out of high school. The father, naturally, was nowhere to be found. And after Kimmy couldn’t work anymore, Madge figured on closing the kitchen.

“He knew what he was getting into with her,” Madge sighed and set the glass down in front of Bill; she was self-conscious of her hand shaking and spilling a few drops on the worn wood counter top. She wiped her hand on a bar towel and continued. “That woman wasn’t nothin’ but trouble from the word go.”

“Yeah, sure was,” Bill nodded. “But wasn’t YOU the one hired her?”

“HARRY hired her,” she corrected him. “Right before he couldn’t run things no more.”

“Ah, yeah,” Bill agreed and took a penitent sip of his beer. He’d been Harry’s oldest friend and best customer; once upon a time Madge even thought of marrying Bill. But that was years and years ago, when she was younger and Bill wasn’t such the crusty old drunk. Besides, she’d stood as Maid of Honor for Hilda, his wife and her childhood friend. They’d all grownup together, the four of them, in Havensham. That was a lot of years. Sometimes she thought it was too many, considering what she had to show for them. “But YOU fired her ass, didn’ ya?”

“I never wanted to own no bar,” Madge announced. “But I ain’t about to let some whore turn Harry’s place into a brothel.”

“Oh, don’t I know it.” Bill smiled like he was remembering something with great fondness. “But what’s wrong with a pretty girl trying to make a living?”

“Hah. That’s just like you Bill. Dirty old goat; you get a sniff of somethin’ young and you lose what little brains the good lord gave you. What if I told Hilda what you said?”

Bill snorted and chuckled. “She’d appreciate the break. She don’t like me hangin’ ‘round the house anyway. You know,” he paused to take another drink. “I wish somebody’d TOLD me retirement was so damned DULL.”

“Poor, poor you,” Madge spat. She didn’t try to cover her bitter tone.

”So,” Bill changed the subject, “you gonna close the place or what?”

She shrugged and didn’t answer. Her son had been telling her when he called earlier in the day that she needed to either close the place or sell the place. Her daughter Coletta, though, wanted her to keep it open and wait for business to pick up. But Madge knew that business wasn’t going to pick up; all the younger men who drank all the beer and all the liquor wanted to be where all the young pretty girls were. And all the young pretty girls were up the street at Mitch Bausendorfer’s, because he didn’t care what anybody did as long as there wasn’t a big mess to clean up and as long as nobody called the cops. Every day that she got up to open the bar, Madge thought about closing it down; but Harry’s bar gave her someplace to go and something to do and it also gave her something to bitch about.

“Have you seen Ricky lately?” Madge asked.

Bill shook his head and frowned. “Nah. He don’t go out much. Well he CAN’T really, unless somebody drives him. And since Lizzy, he hasn’t really had anybody.”

“He can hire somebody,” Madge said. “His insurance’ll cover a home health aid. It’s good insurance. He got it through the mill.”

“Huh. Ain’t as good as it used to be.” Bill drained his glass and held it up, signaling that he wanted another. “She still shouldn’ta done him thataway.” He shook his head and grimaced. “Cruel. It was just cruel.”

Madge picked up the glass and started towards the tap. “Everybody knew she was after his disability check,” she said. “Even Ricky knew that.”

“He said he loved her.”

“Good lord! Love. Maybe so. but that don’t mean she loved him. And that don’t give him the excuse to take leave of his senses.”


“Still nothin’. He should of knowed better. He knew what kind a girl she was. Hell. Before she sunk her claws into Ricky, she’d a laid down and spread her legs for anything with button fly.”

But still…”

“Still NOTHIN’.” Madge filled the glass and kept an eye on it as she made her way back to make sure she didn’t spill too much. “And even after she moved in with Ricky, she was still whorin’ around with those boys down at Bausendofer’s.” She snorted. “That ain’t no kind of woman to move into your house.”

“You know what I heard,” Bill leaned in like he was telling a secret when Madge arrived with his mostly full glass of beer. “I heard he got him one of them … pumps ... you know?”

“Good lord. All the good that done him.” Madge scoffed. “He wasn’t gonna feel nothing anyway.”

“But still…”

Madge shook her head and didn’t answer. Men, she thought. Don’t know nothin’.”

Bill drank two more beers before he left. Madge carefully washed the glass he’d been using and put it away. There were no other dishes to wash. She wiped off the counter top and went around to the other side of the bar to make sure all the stools were straight. She cast her eyes around the empty bar room and sighed. The cloth on the pool table was still torn from New Year’s Eve when Mary Taylor’s husband (The durn fool, Madge thought) drank too much Evan Williams and decided to dance on it. Of course Mary had apologized the next day and promised that her husband would repay the damages; but he’d been laid off from the chicken plant for a year and hadn’t found steady work since. The juke box was lit, but still broken. The walls were covered with hunting trophies: deer heads, a fox, some raccoons, and the above the bar, the big moose head that had given Harry the idea for the name. Sometimes all the dead eyes staring down at her gave her the heebie jeebies. Moose Head. She’d always hated that name; but it was useless to argue with Harry. He’d gone off on one of his hunting trips and when he came back he announced to Madge that he was going to sink their money – what little they’d had – into a bar. “It’ll be great,” he’d told her. “Things are going to be fine. You’ll see.”

Things were fine too, she supposed. Until Harry came down with the cancer. She watched him die for a year; towards the end, he wasn’t even awake and the doctors had to tell her when it was time to pull the plug and let him go. Sometimes when she was alone in the bar, Madge allowed herself to feel the things she didn’t normally let show; like anger. Some days and nearly every night she was so mad at Harry she could barely see straight. Mad because he’d opened his stupid bar with what little money they’d had left. Mad at him for dying first. The anger well up in her and caused to shake uncontrollably; she shook so much she had to sit down until it passed. A few times she allowed herself a shot of peppermint schnapps – just to settle herself down. But when the anger subsided, all she wanted to do was cry and cry and not stop until there were no more tears and no more emptiness and no more her to sit around and worry about whether she should have the hardwood floors of The Moose Head stripped and revarnished.

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this, Harry. Not at all.” Madge looked at her watch. It was only 8:30. She was supposed to keep the bar open until midnight; but she wanted to go home. Well, not so much go home as much as she was tired of sitting in the bar. She told herself she’d sweep the floors in the morning and maybe look for a realtor. Or maybe she’d let Harry Jr. handle it.

She locked the cash register even though there wasn’t enough money in it to worry about. As Madge waddled out from behind the bar, she pulled on her coat. It had been Harry’s old field coat, but the cancer shrunk him so that towards the end it fit him more like a large tent. Walking past the bar, she noticed the small brass plate where Bill had been sitting. The plate read “In Memory of Skip ’07.”Skip Saunderson had been one her son’s friends; he had died in Iraq. When news of the death hit Havensham, her husband decided to put the plaque there, hoping that might convince their son to come home and help them with the bar. It didn’t, of course. Young Harry liked his life in Minneapolis and he could mourn Skip just as well from there. Madge thought of Skip’s mother, Carol Ann; she’d been devastated by the death of her only son. For a moment, Madge allowed herself to feel lucky; she had only buried an old man, not her son. After Skip’s funeral, Carol Ann sold the house and moved in with her daughter, who lived in Florida. Madge thought about closing the bar, selling the house, and moving to Minneapolis. She didn’t want to live with Harry Jr. permanently; only until she found her own place. No grown man would ever find a wife if he lived with his mother; and she sure thought it was past time for him to get married and have a family. But things worked different in the city, she supposed.

Madge braced herself for the cold and switched off the lights on her way out the door. Then she walked out into the February night. Before she turned to walk to over to her car, she looked up the street at all the life going on at Mitch Bausendorfer’s bar. The rest of Main Street was quiet and the laughter and music emanating from the bar echoed through the streets. “Good night, Harry,” Madge said. Then she waddled to her car, not bothering to lock the door behind her.

19 January, 2010

Pendleton Underground: Part 7 of 7

Linda came home and found me muttering in the dark. When she switched on the lamp, the illumination was blinding.

“I’m glad you were able to have a good time tonight,” she said. She wanted to sound cross, but was too tired to really pull it off. I tried to apologize, but she went into the bedroom before I could muster the words into a cohesive sentence. Oh well. There was always tomorrow. There’s more than one way to say you’re sorry and I’ve discovered most of them. When you spend most of your life (it seems) apologizing, you find ways to get creative.

She walked back out of the bedroom wearing her favorite pajama pants – the pink ones (she insisted they were peach) with the Rosie the Riveter print, and one of the t-shirts she got when she joined a Smoking Cessation Program. The t-shirt was white with NO SMOKING ZONE printed on the chest in black capital letters. The t-shirt – along with the same exact t-shirt except the message was in Spanish instead of English – and a truck load of free Nicotine gum she couldn’t use because it raised her blood pressure went a long with membership. I never said anything, but I always wondered if the meetings went the way AA meetings went in the movies and on television. Did she have to stand up and proclaim “Hi, my name is Linda and I’m a smoker.”? Did they hold hands and chant the Serenity Prayer? I had often thought of asking her, but I didn’t want to sound unsupportive. I started smoking outside instead.

Linda sat down and lit a cigarette; the t-shirts lasted longer than the group, which had lost funding and had to disband two months before.

“Kind of defeats the purpose doesn’t it?” I asked, nodding to her t-shirt.

“You should appreciate the irony,” she said.

I didn’t answer.

“How much have you had to drink?”

I shrugged.

“What’s wrong?”

“What makes you think something’s wrong?”

“I can tell,” she blew out a trail of smoke and rolled her eyes. “I can always tell. Don’t you have to teach tomorrow?”

Ugh. “Yeah.”

“You’re gonna hate yourself in the morning.”

I already hated myself, but there was no point in saying so. She knew that already.

“What’s wrong?”

So I told her about my evening; about Red calling and informing me of Pendleton’s death; about how he’d been dead a month and nobody saw fit to tell me; how the sound of Red’s obligatory tone pissed me off down to my bones; how I wanted to yell and scream and punch something really really hard. I hadn’t thrown a punch in more than a decade; but I knew that if Red or Brenda were standing in front of me, I could’ve beaten either of them into a bloody fucking pulp. I told her how I could close my eyes and imagine their faces mashed and smashed and pouring with blood, and how thinking about it made me laugh.

But Linda knew it didn’t mean anything. She knew it because I knew it. “I can’t believe Brenda would keep something like that from us,” Linda said. Though by her tone, she was clearly not too surprised.

“I should call the bitch,” I growled. “I should call that fat inbred cunt and tell her what I really think about her.”

“She probably already knows what you think about her,” Linda said. “Besides, that wouldn’t help anything.”

She was right. As usual. The last time we’d seen Brenda was right before we left the hospital after Pendleton’s surgery. He’d come out of it okay, and there was no reason for us to stay. Brenda had been polite; conciliatory even. She asked if I liked teaching. She asked if I was still writing. She gave Linda a disingenuous hug and said, “Don’t be strangers.”

“I should call Red back,” I said. “Tell HIM what I think.”

Linda stood up and moved next to me on the love seat where I was slouched. “Don’t,” she said. “You’ll regret it tomorrow.”

“Doubt it.”

“He didn’t give you a reason?”


“For not telling you sooner?”

“Not one that matters. Not one that explained anything. The lack of clarity would’ve pleased Pendleton.”

“Don’t do that,” she said. “Don’t take it out on him, either. Then you’ll REALLY feel bad tomorrow.”

“Well, he’s not here for me to take it out on,” I said. “What the fuck ELSE am I supposed to do?”

“Did Red say where they buried him?”

I knew the place; Pendleton took me there once on one of his junk jaunts. It was a small cemetery in a small town along the river in Kentucky, where he was born. Both his parents were going to be buried there, and so was he. It was the town he’d lived the first nine years of his life in before his old man sold the farm and moved to Cincinnati. In the narrative of his life, he’d been a happy, normal kid until he turned nine. And he liked the symmetry of knowing he’d end up there in the family plot.

“Do you want to cry?” Linda asked.

I wanted to cry, but we both knew I wasn’t going to. “It won’t do any good.”

“It might.”

“Fuck that.”

She sighed and put her arm around me. She let me lay on her. She was warm and safe and loving. She ran her fingers through my hair.

“You shouldn’t drink when you’re upset. It doesn’t help.”

“Nothing helps. Nothing matters.”

“Some things matter.”

I knew she was right; but I wasn’t about to say anything. She let me lay on her until I started to pass out. I didn’t remember going to bed; but the next morning when the alarm went off, that was where I woke up, with Linda laying next to me, holding my hand.

13 January, 2010

Pendleton Underground: Part 6 of 7

I’ve always hated the smell of hospitals. The particular odor of death, urine, and bleach that’s unique to all hospitals and nursing homes fills me with what I can only describe as preternatural dread.

“We have to go,” Linda told me. “We really SHOULD go.”

“Is it a ‘have to’ or is it a ‘should do’ kind of thing?”

“Don’t be that way.” She rubbed my shoulder and kissed my cheek. “If you don’t go and something happens you’ll regret it.”

I couldn’t argue with her; but part of me still wanted to. It’s hell sometimes when a woman knows you well enough to make you do what you really need to do but don’t want to do.

We’d gotten a call from Red. At least half the time I just didn’t pick up the phone when the caller ID flashed his number; mostly he called when he wanted to complain. Sometimes he called to brag – but that was rare. Our conversations never lasted more than a few minutes because I always ran out of things to say. This time I answered because I was in a particularly good mood. I’d picked up a couple of classes at a community college and was bringing in a little money for a change; Linda was still working too much overtime, though, and I was looking around for other opportunities. I’d also had some luck publishing – a poem and short story were going to be published in two different small journals with an even smaller distribution. There was no money involved, of course; but it was nice to be noticed and appreciated, even if it was only by a few people.

Red’s call sucked all the air out of my lungs and all the good energy out of the room. He called to tell me Pendleton was in the hospital, that the doctors weren’t optimistic. Surgery would definitely be involved and because of all his health problems – high blood pressure, bad heart, kidney and liver problems (a side effect of the blood thinner) – one tiny problem and Pendleton wouldn’t wake up.

“You should be here,” Red told me. He was barely holding himself together. “In case… something… happens.”

It took us two hours to get there, driving at night in late October rain. Linda drove because I don’t like driving at night. When we got to the hospital, Red met us in the lobby and took us up to the ICU waiting room. It was full of exhausted, worried people living on vending machine coffee and bad cafeteria food. I didn’t see Brenda, but Red told us she’d gone home for a change of clothes and would be back.

“We should wait,” he said, “until she gets back before we try and see him.”

“Have you seen him?”

Red nodded.

“How’d he look?”

Red shrugged, trying to be unemotional and manly. He was trying not to cry.

“Can’t we just see him now?” Linda asked. “There’s no harm in seeing him now.”

Red sighed and nodded. He was being very solemn. “You need to prepare yourself,” he intoned. Like a fucking undertaker, I thought. “He looks… ah... different… from the… last… time… you… saw him.”

I wanted to tell Red to shut the fuck up and cut out the dramatics. I wanted to tell him I wasn’t some dumb ass kid who’d never seen an ICU or visited someone on the edge of death. I wanted to tell him that I wasn’t the pussy standing in the middle of the waiting room crying. Mostly, though, I think he was talking to himself; so I didn’t say either of those things. His calling me was simply a courtesy – one that Brenda probably hadn’t agreed to, but Red had convinced her that Pendleton would want to see me. Linda took my hand and gave it a squeeze; she knew exactly what I was thinking and was telling me it would be okay.

I found out later that he’d been in the hospital for three weeks. That was when I figured out that calling me wasn’t a reaction; it was an afterthought. I was an afterthought. I’d been out of the loop for so long that it was only Red’s sense of propriety and obligation that prompted his call. For some reason, that hurt more than the possibility that Pendleton might die and leave his bitch of a wife in charge of his memory.

Truth is I knew my exclusion was my fault. When Linda and I moved out of the cabin, I cut off all contact with Pendleton and Brenda. If there’s one thing I can do well, its hold a grudge. And hold one I did. I still did. This has been called different things over the years; my parents, friends, ex-girlfriends, my ex-wife and my ex-mother-in-law all called it stubbornness. I was too bullheaded. I was too drunk. I was too deluded. I was too proud to admit when I was wrong. I was too arrogant to consider the possibility that I might be wrong. About something. About anything. About everything.

What the hell do they want from me? I thought. I’m here. Linda and I came here and now I have to stand here and listen to Red tell me to ‘Prepare myself.’ What did he think I was doing all the way there in the car? Singing show tunes? Linda must’ve felt my muscles tighten, because she latched onto my arm and wouldn’t let go. If ever there was a woman whose love I didn’t deserve, it was hers. Maybe I wasn’t a nice guy; maybe I drank a little too much and maybe I was a stubborn son of a bitch. But Linda loved me. She understood me. Even if Red, Brenda, and Pendleton had their little goddamn sewing circle, I had Linda. The only bad part of that deal was that Linda had me.

Red was still dragging his feet when Linda asked him again if we could go back and see Pendleton. He kept talking about stupid shit. Cars and his job and his soon-to-be ex-wife and how she was using the kids against him. He made a joke about the cafeteria food and bitched about having to go outside to smoke. He told off-color jokes about some of the nurses. Red was always good at small talk; he could talk for hours and not say anything worth remembering. I was never good at small talk. Attempting it was torture. In most social situations I came off awkward or weird. First impressions have never been my forte. It wasn’t unusual for me to enter a light conversation and end up taking it somewhere serious. For years people told me I needed to relax and develop a sense of humor.
Pendleton always understood that about me. He didn’t mind when I didn’t talk, or when I inevitably led the conversation into some serious or odd direction. “If you’re going to talk,” he told me, “it ought to be something important, anyway. There’s too much static that passes for conversation.”

When I asked to marry his daughter, he eyed me carefully. It was an uncomfortably long silence. I’d expected him to smile and be happy about it. My family was in a state of shock, which wasn’t surprising; but her mother had been thrilled. Looking back, I realize she was hastening the union, almost from the beginning. She needled and prattled on about us, talked about us like we were already married. She used to let me spend the night when she knew there was more than sleeping going on in her daughter’s tiny back bedroom. I had more or less extricated myself from one family and inserted myself into another. They attended my high school graduation. They took me to college. I used to sneak back and visit without telling my family. I skipped out on holidays to be with them as much as I could. When Pendleton’s daughter graduated from high school, I transferred to her university to stay with her. We’d been attending the same university for a semester when her mother bought up (in the guise of a joke) the idea that we could get more financial aid if we got married. My ex kept saying, “We’re getting married ANYWAY, right? What’s the difference if we get married now or four years from now?”

Finally, after staring at me for what seemed like forever, Pendleton asked, “Do you know what you’re getting yourself into?”

“I think I do.”

He shook his head. “Is this what YOU want? Are you sure?”

I told him it was and he nodded his consent. Six months later I was his son-in-law. A year and half later, she moved out. A month after that, he moved in.
Red was stalling, trying to keep us waiting until Brenda got there. But when Linda mentioned it for a third time, Red looked at his watch and nodded. I noticed the hint of resignation, but didn’t say anything. Brenda would not be pleased. He led us through the doors that led to where the patient rooms were. It wasn’t a private room. I guess it was the poor man’s ICU; but the other beds were empty. Pendleton was hooked up to monitors in both arms and an oxygen machine. I noticed the piss and shit bags on the side of the bed with tubes disappearing under the sheet. His breathing was labored. His skin was so gray that it seemed almost translucent under the dim light above his bed. His hair and beard were long, mostly gray, with twisted strands of white. His eyes were puffy and his lids were closed, like he was thinking.

“Look,” Red said to him. He talked to Pendleton in that loud voice people use with the very sick, the very old, and with retarded kids. “Look who’s here.”

Pendleton opened his eyes; it took him a couple of seconds to focus. Was that surprise I saw spread across his face? Or was it pain? Maybe he farted.

“Hey,” he huffed.

“Hey,” I answered.

Linda smiled and touched his hand. “How are you feeling?” She spoke to him like we were sitting around the kitchen table playing cards. Such a sweet woman; she was always good at knowing how to talk to people. I was trying not to look at all the tube and block out the monitor sounds and keep myself from puking because that smell – that fucking hospital smell – had permeated the inside of my mouth, nose, and throat. Linda made more small talk and flirted with him in the innocent and adorable way she used to – which wasn’t all that different from the way she talked to little old men. Red stood there, arms folded, feigning machismo and still trying not to cry. I stood there, waiting.

I didn’t have to wait long. We weren’t there five minutes when Brenda’s heaved her way in. I didn’t think it was possible for someone that big to get even bigger. When she entered the room, it was clear from her body language who was in charge. She squinted at Red, who moved out of her way. She approached the bed, put her bible down on the tray next to the water he couldn’t drink and the food he didn’t want, and then she leaned over Pendleton and kissed him on the forehead like she was marking her territory. This is mine. She was wearing a small silver cross pendant around her neck; I’d seen it advertised in late night commercials; it had a gem in the center that, if you looked through it, you could see the Lord’s Prayer. That was when I noticed the framed picture of Jesus on the bedside table; it was one of those paintings where he looks like he was born to an upper class family in Connecticut.

“You can pray if you want,” Brenda said. “Everything helps.”

I didn’t answer. I hadn’t prayed in years and I wasn’t about to start at the behest of a church channel watching cunt. I wasn’t about to appeal to her god or her Anglo-Saxon savior.

“How you doing?” I finally asked him. “The nurses treating you nice? I guess with all these tubes, that limits your ability to harass them.”

Brenda shot me a hateful glance, Red held his breath, and Linda shook her head. Pendleton chuckled and coughed.

“I’m … ok…” Pendleton breathed. “I’m…”

“Of course he’s ok,” Brenda finished. “We’re just waiting for them to come and take him for surgery.” She looked over at Red. “I kind of thought you’d get here after it was over.” She went over everything the doctors had told her with the accuracy of a tape recorder. His kidneys were on the verge of failure. His heart lining was thin. His intestines were in knots. They were going to change his meds. “Gawd willin’,” she said, “he’ll be around for another 50 years.”

The sickness and Brenda’s voice were getting to me. I needed to smoke a cigarette. My stomach was turning and I was sure my complexion was going green.

“Do you want to pray?” Brenda asked again. This time she was clearly talking to Linda more than me. Linda wasn’t anymore of a believer than I was. She was about to answer, and I was curious about what she’d say, when the nurse came and told us we all needed to leave so they could prepare him for surgery. Brenda kissed Pendleton on the forehead again. Red wiped his eyes. Linda took my hand and led me out of the room. When Red and Brenda walked out, Linda and I followed him through the labyrinth of pastel walls and ugly floor tile to the outside lobby, where we could smoke and not talk about the dying man upstairs. I smoked slowly, trying to prepare for the long night ahead.

17 November, 2009

Pendleton Underground: Part 5 of 7

The final trouble came down to one hundred dollars.

To call Brenda a vampire would be giving her too much credit; that would bestow on her a predatory instinct she fundamentally lacked. Even classifying her as a leech is an overstatement, though that would be an apt enough description. The thing that motivated her was fear – fear of rejection, fear being laughed at, fear of being alone. She’d been heckled and put down her entire life, which, instead of giving her something to overcome, merely shaped her into a spineless lump of insecurities. She didn’t think beyond what other people told her to think. Before she met Pendleton, she took her cue from her narrow-minded religious father, her self-righteous martyr mother, and her dimwitted brothers whose success in the world was admirable only because of its improbability. After she met Pendleton, her thoughts and words echoed his thoughts and words; then she gradually dug in and the relationship took on truly parasitic proportions. She gained strength and he, proportionally, began to diminish.

True, his health had been poor. Losing the ability to work and suffering under my ex-mother-in-law’s harpish and vindictive nature had worn him down over the years. His first heart attack happened when I was still married to his step-daughter. That heart attack changed everything; and even though it was subtle at first, I noticed how he just seemed to … slow down. He blamed the additional medications. The blood thinner made him bruise more easily and it also made him more sensitive to sunlight. The gray in his hair started to stand out in contrast to the hawk feather black it had always been. He gradually lost interest in things –even his junk jaunts. His reading habits changed and took on a more theological bent. Not being someone who felt the need to explain himself to anybody, he said nothing about any of these things.

The break up of his marriage seemed to rejuvenate him. He stopped taking all the medications and read up on homeopathic and herbal medicine. Vidalia onions, he told me, were good for blood pressure. Garlic was a natural anti-oxidant. Certain fruits and vegetables, in combination with the right herbs, could control heart disease.

I didn’t know that I believed him; but it seemed to work for him, so I didn’t say anything.

By the time he married Brenda, he’d managed to regain most of his former self, though his physical strength had continued to steadily decline. That was one of the reasons Red was so handy to keep around; he could pick up the slack whenever Pendleton got tired, and he thought nothing of it. He was nothing if not reliable – and Brenda always made sure he felt welcomed.

At the time of his marriage to Brenda, he lived in small A-frame cabin in the lower Appalachians, near the edge of Daniel Boone National Forest; that had been his dream for as long as I’d known him. And while the cabin wasn’t much to look at, it was everything he needed: a ten thousand gallon cistern and a simple kitchen. He took out the wood burning stove that came with it and had the old iron belly refurbished and installed. It was the primary source of heat in the winter and a constant source of satisfaction. “She always said it was a piece of junk,” he told me, referring to his ex-wife. “Well, look at it now.” With the right kind of planning, a person could live out there and avoid going into town for months at a time – even during the winter when it wasn’t uncommon to be snowed in for days and weeks on end.

Brenda liked the idea of the cabin, but the lack of certain creature comforts – like central air and heat – quickly got to her. After the first winter there she convinced Pendleton to leave the cabin and move into a nice modular home closer to town with city water, city gas, and weekly garbage pick up. The cabin then became a large storage shed for all of Brenda’s things that they didn’t have room for in the new place. But Pendleton didn’t like leaving the place empty. When Linda and I were between places (after making the mistake of moving in people we considered good friends) we all struck on the idea of us moving into the cabin. Pendleton told us (much to Brenda’s chagrin) that as long we took care of the place, kept the grass mowed, and paid our own utilities, we could live there rent free.

The mistake we made was actually moving in.

Life was okay for a couple of months. Linda and I settled in and cleaned the place up – which was no small task, since Pendleton and Brenda had let it go since the move to town. We moved things around, put a lot Brenda’s things either upstairs or in the airtight prefabricated storage building Pendleton had erected with the intention of using it as a workshop. Linda planted a little garden of peppers and tomatoes. I chopped wood to stock up for the winter and tried to keep the grass under control. That was mostly a futile effort. The mower was shot and the weed eater didn’t cut. Deer and rabbits decimated our tomatoes. Hornets moved in under the front porch. That summer it didn’t rain and the cistern nearly dried up.

Brenda began dropping by unannounced. At first, she brought Pendleton with her. Then she started showing up alone. She’d poke around the cabin and want to dig some stupid thing or another out of the attic or the storage shed. She made catty comments about the grass. When I pointed out that the mower was a piece of shit, she shrugged her oxen shoulders and said “You knew that when you moved in. Why don’t you fix it? It’s not like you pay rent.”

Naturally I understood the subtext. She knew damn well why I hadn’t tried to fix the mower; I wasn’t mechanically inclined. When I did try and fix something, it all when to shit and I ended up fucking it up worse than it had been to begin with. What she was REALLY saying was “Why don’t you act like a man and fix it?” I wasn’t sure how she had any real conception of men. The only other man to touch her before Pendleton was probably a drunken redneck who did it either on a dare or out of the same desperation that would have been equally served by a hole in the wall. Her dad wasn’t all that handy and none of her brothers especially liked getting their hands dirty. But because Pendleton was increasingly allowing her to conduct his business, I had to suffer her moralizing and condescension. Then Linda told me Brenda came around when I was gone, too, just (it seemed) to put me down.

One day, fueled by frustration, I tore into the mower. The piece of shit ended up in several pieces and I had no idea how to fix it or how to put the damned thing back together. So much for my manliness. After that I went to Pendleton and told him Brenda was dogging me to Linda behind my back.

“Relationships are hard enough,” I told him, “without OTHER PEOPLE making them more difficult.”

He nodded in agreement and said very little. All I really wanted him to do was say something to her about it. Or at least pretend he had some interest in how she was running his affairs. But he didn’t seem all that concerned. His complexion was going gray, and so was his hair. I didn’t know it then, but (at Brenda’s insistence) he started taking the meds again. The rest of our conversation was trivial. He was growing his hair and beard, which made him look even older. When I stopped by I had interrupted his reading; he was pouring over apocryphal texts and making arcane notes on yellow legal pads. I made sure to leave before Brenda got home in order to avoid a confrontation.

One week later, Linda and I came back from a grocery run and found an envelope stuck in the screen door.

“What’s that?” Linda asked, setting her bags down.

I had set mine down to open the envelope. It contained a letter:

“Dear Nick and Lynda,

“As you know, when you moved in to the cabin, you agreed to take care of the property and pay your own utilities in lew of rent. This was a very genrous offer, since you know we could rent it out for quiet a lot of money. But since you were family, we decided to extend our hospitality to you and Lynda and alow you to live there.

“But you have not lived up to your part of the agreemint. The grass hasn’t been cut in more than a month and when we have tried to get you to do something you find excuses not to.

“For this reason, we have decided to start charging you rent. You will pay us $100 on the first of each month, starting with this month or you will move so we can rent to someone who is more responsible.”

It was already the fifteenth; that meant we had to pay them immediately or get out. Pendleton’s signature was at the bottom of the letter, but I knew he hadn’t written it. It didn’t sound like him; besides, he knew how to spell Linda’s name. He’d been schooled to believe – like public schools used to teach but don’t anymore – that misspelled and misused words were an insult, only to the language but to the person who made the mistakes and the person forced to read them. It was clear that Brenda, whose abuse of the language was not only common but engrained through generations of neglect, had written the letter and the Pendleton had signed it. I wondered if he bothered to read it.

“What the fuck?!” I showed Linda the letter.

She quickly read it. “What the fuck?” she echoed, handing it back to me. “Where the hell is this coming from?”

“You know where,” I answered. “Give that dumb bitch a little power and she acts like she owns us.”

“But he signed it.”

“He didn’t write it.”

“How do you know?”

“I just KNOW.”

“What are we going to do?”

“We’re moving,” I said.


“Somewhere. Soon. Let them try and find somebody else to live here who’ll take care of it. Bitch. Cunt.” I turned to walk back out the door.

“What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to tell them both to shove this letter up her fat ass!”

I walked out the door before Linda could talk me out of it or calm me down. As I was getting in the car, I heard her tell me not to do anything I would regret later. Not likely, I thought. After everything we’d gone through – the years of friendship in spite of my ex, his ex, and everything that had passed in between us since I had turned eighteen – after almost ten years – all of it meant nothing, now that Brenda bent his ear and dug her pudgy claws into him.

I didn’t have to go far. Just as I was getting ready to pull out, they were coming up the drive. They brought Red with them. I guess Brenda wanted to make sure we saw the letter and she brought him along as a witness. Stupid twat. When I approached them, Red didn’t greet me with his usual smile and over wrought badly timed joke. Pendleton nodded at me, which was all he ever did anyway. Brenda was the first to talk.

“Red’s here to fix the mower,” she began, sounding glib.

I ignored her completely. Pendleton was still sitting in the passenger seat of the truck. When approached he rolled the window down. “What’s this?” I demanded.

“Did you read it?” he asked.

“Yeah, I read it. I tried to, anyway. What is this? If there was a problem, why didn’t YOU come and talk to me?”

“We tried,” Brenda broke in. “But every time…”

“Shut up,” I said, not looking at her. My eyes didn’t leave Pendleton’s face. He didn’t react; there was a time he would have at least tried to scare me. But there was none of that left in him. “I know you didn’t write this,” I said. “She did. And you signed it. Did YOU read it?”

He shrugged. “Yeah.”

“Yeah,” I repeated. “If you had a problem with me, you should have come to me. But instead, you let HER write me a goddamned letter? Really? After everything?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said.

Red was standing off to the side, watching. He was tense. He would want to jump in soon. I didn’t care, but I didn’t feel like dealing with anybody else. There was only one person who mattered. I tore the letter into four pieces and dropped them in Pendleton’s lap. “That’s what I think about that,” I said. “We’ll be out of her by the end of the week.”

“You don’t have to move,” Brenda tried to cut in.

I didn’t answer her. I was still looking at Pendleton for some sign. Something. Anything. There was nothing. I turned and walked back inside. Linda was sitting on the couch reading. I opened the fridge and took out a beer.

“How’d it go?” she asked.

I didn’t answer.