Jack’s Homecoming

(I’ve been working with a professional editor on polishing up the manuscript for my second novel, “I Don’t Know Why.”  One of the things she’s pointed out is opportunities to fill in some gaps in the narrative. I wrote this scene to describe what the main character, Jack, felt upon returning home from seven months in the psych ward)

Dad steered the boat-like Matador through the cold and unending sea of darkness that flooded the flat farm fields and wooded lanes of the countryside east of Orchard Depot. Our conversation had quickly faded into a familiar silence, all of the easy small talk having already been consumed. I sat alone in the back seat, peering over the dashboard through the front window at the narrow beams of headlights that illuminated the thin white and yellow lines painted on the fading gray asphalt. Then the big S curve that always announced the impending exit onto Vicksburg Avenue came into view. The sudden familiarity of where I found myself and the knowledge of, even in the darkness, the presence of the landmarks, both seen and unseen, that we passed, was jarring. I felt my chest tighten and I wondered if I was ready for what was to come in the next few minutes, when we’d pull into the driveway and I’d walk through the front door into our house for the first time since I was carried out if it on a stretcher more than six months before. This was the risk, the downside to keeping me at the Hanover for an extra four months after Kelly’s death. I finally understood what Dr. Rudolph and Gladys meant when they told me that the longer I was away, the more difficult coming home would be.

We pulled into the driveway. The outside light by the front door was on and cast a yellowish glow on the cement porch. I held the screen door open while Dad unlocked the door and he and Mom passed through, turning on living room lights as I closed the door behind me. The tightness in my chest gave way to a pounding sensation, and I thought my heart was going to explode as the sights and smells and the sounds of being back home overwhelmed me. Mom was talking, saying something about having to heat supper up, when I saw, on the dining room table, the cake she’d baked for me, with candles in the shape of the numbers two and one sticking out of its white frosting.

I walked down the hall to my bedroom. A new door had been installed, and I opened it and flicked on the light switch. The room was spotless, the bed was neatly made, and all of my things were put away. I stood in the center of the room, taking it all in, when I heard, from the doorway behind me, my mom say, “Good to be home, Jack?”

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, it is.”  It was all I could do to stop myself from bawling like a baby.

The evening wore on, the three of us eating dinner and then, for dessert, cutting in to my birthday cake.  We talked, and laughed, sticking to safe topics, old stories and gossip about distant aunts and uncles and cousins. There was more we didn’t talk about than we did, avoiding topics like depression, suicide, Sam Richter, and Tom Musgrove. They remained unmentioned, the air heavy with their invisible and weighty presence. But for that evening, at least, none of that mattered. There’d be time for all of that later, and as I realized how much I was enjoying the company of my mom and dad and the familiarity of my surroundings, I felt the pounding in my chest subside, and I felt good, glad to be home.


Cemetery Music

(Still working on my novel when I came upon a couple of paragraphs I’d completely forgotten writing more than a year ago …)

The Orchard Depot cemetery sits on a ten acre hillside plot just south of the town limits on state highway seventeen.  The headstones are laid out in neatly aligned rows and columns that rise with the hillside until, just short of the top of the hill, they abruptly stop, halted by a woven wire fence that marks the beginning of a large hay field that belongs to Driscoll’s farm. For most of the year, the mature oak and elm and maple trees that break up the neat rows of headstones provide cool shade and whisper in the westerly breeze, and in early August, when the uncut hay is long and golden and the wind is out of the west, you can watch it make the hay dance, a gentle and golden ballet, swaying to the hushed and whispering symphony that the wind and the leaves and the hay composed and performs for the dead.

In the depths of winter, though, only the wind remains, icy cold, and with the leaves gone and the hay cut, in the gray absence of sunshine, the ballet becomes a dirge, a melancholy and empty meditation on death. Its audience, the dead, sleeps cold and restless beneath a blanket of snow, haunted by the bleak winter music.


(I’m having so much fun working on my novel that I’m going to post the chapter that occurs immediately before the sceneI posted last night – it’s still pretty rough, but I kind of like how it’s coming together.  The setting is the fictional south eastern Wisconsin town Orchard Depot, and it’s November of 1979)

Right before our eyes the town was changing. Sometime in early November, suddenly and without warning, the giant green brontosaurus that marked the intersection of State Highways 17 and 47, was gone, replaced by a CLARK sign. Richter’s Sinclair had become a casualty of the late seventies oil crisis, one of many Sinclair stations across the country to be sacrificed.  Roman Richter still maintained ownership of the franchise, and he still ran his mechanic business out of his garages, but Richter’s Clark would never come close to the Orchard Depot landmark that the green brontosaurus and Richter’s Sinclair had been.

There were other changes, too, starting with the sudden departure of the town president Frank Cornish two years earlier. If the downtown sidewalks seemed emptier, it’s because they were, more people choosing to do their shopping at the plush shopping malls and non-descript strip malls that were popping up on the swollen edges of Racine and Milwaukee, nibbling away at the flat farm fields, moving ever closer to Orchard Depot and offering national chain hardware and grocery and pharmacies that the owners and operators of the downtown businesses couldn’t compete with.  Even Frank Cornish, before he left, sold off the Orchard Depot lumber yard to a regional conglomerate.

The old Cornish home, the grand Victorian mansion that stood on the hill next to the high school, had already been sold and foreclosed upon, and was starting to sag under the weight of its age, while weeds took over the front yard.  Cornish Park, the forty acres across the street was the big donation Frank made to the town he loved so much, and was the one landmark that bore his name.

It wasn’t just the town that was changing,

Days after I turned twenty one years old, Angela Pollard, of Michigan City, Indiana, became the first steady girlfriend I’d ever had.

This was also the time that I started a new job, working evenings, two to ten P.M., unloading delivery trucks and packing orders on the loading dock of a company called Open Pantry in Racine. Our schedules were such that I’d get off work an hour after Angela started the overnight shift at the Town Friar, so after its tumultuous start, we were forced to slow down the pace of our romance. Which was just fine with me.

I’d make a point of stopping at the Town Friar every night on my way home from work and ordering dinner.  Angela would serve me, and, as it was still in the slow time of night, usually be able to break free to sit with me for a few minutes, when we’d discuss the events of our days. I found myself looking forward to these moments, mentally logging things that happened during the course of the day as things I’d have to tell Ang about. It was a new experience, having a friend that I could share the details of my life with.

Nights Angela was off, usually Tuesday and Wednesday, I’d drive straight to her apartment and spend the night. I was making up for lost time by engaging in Olympics gold-medal worthy sexual gymnastics. I was a quick learner and an enthusiastic experimenter.

None of that got in the way of our mission to find Matt’s body. Angela made sure of that. I, on the other hand, would have been happy to finally forget about Matt for a while/. I was enjoying working my $4.25 per hour job and my first real relationship with a living, breathing woman, one who not only looked great but was able to make me feel things I’d never imagined feeling. I was falling in love, both with Angela and with the idea of falling in love. It’d been so long since I’d allowed myself to even dream of these things coming true that I was willing to let them take me where they would.

It was Angela who kept us tethered to reality, and the fence post she kept us tied to was Matt, and the search for his body. I recognized a determination and drive in her to uncover the truth that was waning in me. She’d have to be the driver, and I’d be a willing passenger.

The subject of Tom Musgrave and why he lied about seeing Matt became the point of focus, with Angela becoming obsessed with the question, why did he lie? She became convinced, and in turn convinced me, that once we understood Tom’s motive for lying, the answers to the remaining questions would fall like dominoes.

The years after we discovered the lifeless body of Matt Pollard couldn’t have turned out more differently for Tom Musgrave and me.  Where I began my downward spiral and became an object of derision and fear and perhaps the most reviled individual in Orchard Depot for what I did to Sam Richter, Tom, on the other hand, became a source of pride and something of a cherished Orchard Depot celebrity. It was basketball that did it, as Tom starred first on the middle school team, then the high school team, where he shattered all of his older brother Jim’s  scoring records, making the class C all-state team and accepting a scholarship at one of  the state schools, UW Stevens Point. He was the team’s starting shooting guard, averaging twelve points a game his junior year and, at Thanksgiving, just  a week before the 1979-80 season was to start, was listed by the newspapers as a possible all-American candidate.

As I observed my one-time best friend’s ascension into sports stardom, I couldn’t help but feel that the fates were rewarding him for lying about the body and punishing me for insisting on the truth. It also became apparent that the more successful he grew, the bigger of a dick he became. This was more fact than opinion, as I’d overhear classmates talking about what a snobbish cunt he was, and watch them roll their eyes in disbelief over yet another example of his arrogance.

When we were still best friends, in the seventh grade, he was only a slightly better basketball player than me, and we’d wage epic one on one battles against each other. Then after the body and the lie, after we split and went our separate ways, Tom blossomed and pushed his way out of the shadow Jim cast, while I was left to shoot baskets by myself in the driveway.  Where Tom progressed, I digressed.

It wasn’t just basketball, either.  As high school bled into college, I retreated inside of myself, spending most of the time alone, reading and watching television. I fell into a lonely rut, and I put on a few pounds. While I wasn’t fat, I was well on my way to becoming just another pear shaped late twenty or early thirty-something idiot.

Then I attempted suicide and failed, and spent nine long months in the state psych ward in Madison. Bored out of my mind, I quickly discovered the gym and running track, and ended up spending a large portion of my waking hours on their treadmills and weight machines. I ran a minimum of three miles every day, most days going five or six. By the time I was released, I was in the best shape of my life.

So it was that on Thursday, Thanksgiving morning, I looked out the picture window of my mom and dad’s house and saw Tom Musgrave, home for the holidays, in his sweats, jogging down Vicksburg Avenue in the chilly grey morning, and decided that I’d go for a run, too.  But first I called Angela up.

“Ang,” I said, “meet me at the grade school playground in about fifteen minutes.  And bring the photo of Matt.”

I slipped on my running shoes and exited our house out the back door, and started running, heading due west through the back yards for two blocks, until I got to Highview Avenue. Figuring I’d intersected Tom’s route and gotten the drop on him, I slowed down to a jog and headed north on Highview, toward where it ended at Thirteenth street, toward where Tom was.  As I approached Thirteenth Street, I looked to my right and sure enough, jogging west on the sidewalk, was Tom Musgrave.

I timed my exit from Highland and entered the Thirteenth Street sidewalk so that I ended up by Tom’s side.

“Hey, Musgrave,” I said. “Mind if I join you?”

“Go fuck yourself,” he said, not even looking at me.

“I’ll take that for a ‘go ahead, Jack.’”

“Leave me alone,” he said.

“I will, I will, I promise,” I said.  “Right after I ask you one question.”

Tom didn’t say anything, he just kept on running. I stayed right there at his side. I was having no difficulty maintaining his pace.  We got to the corner of State Street, and I slowed down and let Tom choose which direction we went. Luckily, he chose left, toward the elementary school, where I’d told Angela to wait for us.

As we headed towards the elementary school, I said, “I’ve got just one question for you.”

“Fuck off,” he said, louder his time.

Ahead of us the school playground came into view, and I could see Angela, sitting on one of the swings, waiting for us.

“Why did you lie about the body?”

Tom didn’t say anything, we kept running. I wouldn’t leave his side. We were just about even with Angela when I reached over and grabbed him by his unzipped sweatshirt, stopped and said, louder, “Answer me!  Why did you lie?”

“Get your fucking hands off of me,” he yelled, ripping my hands off of his sweatshirt.  They were free for only a second, then I grabbed him again. I could see him reaching his right arm back to throw a punch at me. Before he could launch it, I stuck out my left leg and pulled him over it.  He fell hard on the sidewalk, and I was on top of him, the same way I was on top of Sam Richter when I hit him with the tire iron.  From my periphery, I could see Angela, running over to us, with the Polaroid in her hand.

“Get off of me,” Tom was yelling, flailing about, but I still had him pinned down when Angela got to us.

‘Not till you tell us why you lied,” I said.

“I didn’t lie.”

Angela was bent over, holding the photo out in front of his face. “Look at this.  Look at it.” Tom at first wouldn’t look at the picture, jerking his head from side to side, but then he caught a glance of it, and recognition sparked across his face.  “That was my brother, asshole.  Thanks to you, whoever killed him is still walking free.”

Tom’s expression softened and he stopped resisting. I still held him, pinned down, when we could hear the sound of a police sirens, at first distant but getting closer with every second. Tom lifted his forehead but I grabbed him by his scalp and shoved his head back down on the hard sidewalk.

“Why, fucker?  Why did you lie? ” I said. The sirens were getting louder.

“I don’t know! Ask Jim,” he said.

“Your brother?”

“Yeah, Jim,” he said. “He told me to.  I don’t know why.”

“Jack, the cops!” Angela said.  A squad car had just turned down State Street, the siren louder and approaching. I got up, leaving Tom laying on the sidewalk, and grabbed Angela’s hand, and we ran across the playground into the small grove of trees on its eastern edge.

We stood there, in the trees, catching our breath, hiding from the cops.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“I’m fine,” she said.  From across the baseball field and over the playground, we watched the scene on the State Street sidewalk.  The police car was parked on the side of the road, its lights silently flashing.  Tom was standing, dusting himself off. Two officers were there on the sidewalk, talking to him.  Angela and I watched as they got back in the car, leaving Tom on the sidewalk. The lights on the squad car went dark, and it slowly pulled back out on State Street and drove off.

“They’re leaving,” Angela said.

“Yeah, my guess is that Tom didn’t want to press charges. Not with his brother involved in this whole thing.”

“Do you know his brother?

“Yeah.  Jim’s always been a great guy.”

“Do you think Tom’s telling the truth?” Angela asked. “Do you think Jim killed Matt?”

“Yeah,” I said.   “I mean, no.  Yeah, I think he’s telling the truth. But no, I don’t think Jim killed anyone.”

I was trying to process what had just happened. Angela was distracting me with all of her questions. It wasn’t as much what Tom said as it was the way he said it, the expression on his face. His entire demeanor softened after he saw the picture.  It became apparent to me that, despite his lying, the corpse of Matt Pollard had left just as indelible a mark on Tom as it had on me. The expression on Tom’s face when Angela showed him the photo was of instant recognition.

I started walking Angela home. It was going to be a big enough day without the altercation with Tom, as Angela had accepted my invitation to Thanksgiving dinner with my mom and dad. It was going to be nerve-wracking enough, as we’d also decided we’d use the occasion to tell mom and dad about Matt, and that it was more than random coincidence that brought Angela to Orchard Depot and into my life.

But none of that mattered as we walked across town. All Angela could talk about was Tom Musgrave, and his admission that he lied, and that we’d have to get to his brother Jim to find out why.

“So you don’t think Jim killed Matt?” she asked.

“No, there’s no way,” I said. “There’s just no way Jim killed anybody.”

“But can you be certain?” she asked. “Maybe he has a dark side.”

“Jim?” I couldn’t help but laugh. “A dark side? You’ve obviously never met Jim. One of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet, even if his little brother did turn into a dick head. Did you know he was there the night I hurt Sam Richter?”

“At the gas station?”

“Yep. He witnessed the whole thing.”

“Then that proves he was involved!”

“How does that prove anything?”\

“Well, how do you know it doesn’t?  We’ll just have to talk to him this weekend.”

“Oh, he’s not home.  Don’t ask me how I know this, my mom must have heard it and told me. He’s with his wife’s family in Texas, her folks retired down there.”

She stopped in her tracks. “Texas?”

“Yes.  So what’s the big …”

“Does he have two kids?”

“Yeah, a boy …”

“And a girl. Does he work at the Plastics factory?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Holy shit,” she said. “I know this guy!”


(I’m up at my cabin, working on my novel. I wrote this short scene tonight – the setting is an all night diner in a small mid-west town.)

Shortly after midnight on Angela’s first night waitressing at the Town Friar, a late twentyish man with dark bags under his blue eyes and dishwater blonde hair neatly parted on the left side walked in alone and took a seat in the last booth.  It was a Thursday night, officially having just rolled over to Friday, and as it was a week night and still almost two hours before the bars closed, the restaurant was nearly empty.

Angela approached the table with a coffee pot and a menu in hand.  She handed him the menu and asked, “Coffee?”

He didn’t look up as he turned his cup upright and took the menu. He muttered a “thanks” and buried his nose in the menu as she poured.  When she was finished with the coffee, she asked “Do you need a couple of minutes?”

“No, I’m set.”  Then he ordered bacon and eggs, sunny side up, not lifting his eyes until he was done, when he saw her for the first time.  “Say,” he said, “You’re new, aren’t you?”

“First night,” she smiled.

“Well, nice to meet you,” he replied as his eyes dropped down to her breast, where her uniform proudly displayed her name plate, “Angela.”

The following Monday, shortly after midnight, he stopped in again. This time, when she bought the menu and the coffee pot, he looked straight at her, and smiled.

“Hi, Angela.  Do you remember me?”

“Yeah, I remember you.  You were here Thursday night. Bacon and eggs, sunny side up.”

“That’s right. You must have a good memory, or else I really made an impression on you.”

“I never forget a face.  Or a tip,” she said.

“Well,” he said, “I never forget anything. I have what they call a pornographic memory.”

She laughed. As she poured his coffee, she said, “I suppose next you’re going to tell me you like your coffee like your women.”

“Not my coffee, my eggs.  I like my eggs like I like my women. Sunny side up.” She smiled and shook her head.

Once Angela settled into her schedule, the night shift Thursdays thru Mondays, he became a regular, always stopping in at about five past midnight every Monday and Thursday, always at the same booth, always with some new cheesy lines for Angela. She found something endearing about the way he delivered them. He was just self-effacing enough not to take himself too seriously, and at the same time, there was something sad about him, a sorrow that seemed to settle in his shoulders.

She learned a little bit about him, that his first name was Jim. When she asked him what his last name was, he answered, “Nasium.”

“Nasium,” she said. “You’re name is Jim Nasium.”

“That’s right,” he replied. “And trust me, I could put you through a real workout.”

She learned that he worked 2nd shift at the plastics factory. When she asked what he did there, he answered, “I’m the foreman, because I’ve got the sexual stamina of four men.”

“You’re wife is a very lucky woman,” Angela frequently replied, reminding him of the wedding band on his finger, and trying to preemptively douse any sparks that might have been igniting between them.

He’d say things like, “You must be exhausted.”

Ever the trusty straight man, she’d reply, “Why’s that?”

“Because you were running thru my dreams all night.”

The cornier the lines were, the harder she laughed. She appreciated that he came armed with the lines, touched that he’d thought about her outside of the Town Friar even if only for a moment or two. She found herself looking forward to his visits.

As reliable as his business was on Mondays and Thursdays, he was never part of the weekend bar closing scene that was the busiest time for the Friar.  Angela only saw him once on a weekend, on a Saturday night in September. He came in and sat at a table in the center of the room instead of his usual corner booth, and then she saw he wasn’t alone.  There was a woman with him, seated across the table from him, and it couldn’t be clearer that it was his wife.  The table was still Angela’s to serve.  As she approached them she saw him wince. Rather than the customary greeting she gave him the nights after work, she went the generic route, pretending she didn’t know him, and he did the same.

Angela recognized Jim’s wife as one of the many same small town girls she’d gone to high school with back in Indiana. She was still pretty, but early childbirth had expanded her hips and added a shapeless softness to her waist and face.  As she watched the two of them, an image became clear, an image of what their lives were like. This was a big night out, a birthday or anniversary, long awaited and eagerly anticipated. They’d gotten a sitter to leave the kids with, and now, at 10:30 on a Saturday night, their big evening was already winding down, and they sat there, wordless and tired, with nothing to say to one another. As Angela served them, Jim couldn’t even look her in the eye, and the source of the sadness she’d always observed in him became clear, and a part of her felt like crying.


(I’ve recently taken the first draft of my second novel, “I Don’t Know Why,” off of the shelf and started working on re-writing the second half.  Thanks to my wife for the idea that might just save the whole thing from the trash can. What follows is a brief excerpt:)

Vindication had been a long time coming.. It’d been something I dreamed of for so long that at some time, I stopped believing it’d ever occur, and  in the lowest depths of my despair I’d even joined in with the chorus of the non-believers in questioning the veracity of my recollection.

Now that it was here, in the form of the fading and weathered image of the rail thin kid with the wavy black hair and the bright blue eyes, the same eyes that were missing, that had been taken from him on that first day we met, the moment I’d so eagerly anticipated for so long filled me with an overwhelmingly heavy sense of sorrow.

Sorrow for the kid, for Sam Richter, for my parents, for Kathy Harris and Tom Musgrave and the people we all would have, should have become. Nine years came to a head and culminated in that moment on the entrance to the Orchard Depot Public Library.

I tried to speak to answer Angela, but I couldn’t. Instead I started choking on the tears that were forming in my eyes and throat. I looked at Angela, and I knew from the expression on her face that even though I hadn’t said a word I’d answered her question, and I knew this was the end of a long journey for her, too, and while the moment may have represented vindication for me, for her it was the realization of her deepest fears, and the destruction of her last and fragile frayed threads of hope.

I looked at the photo again and I looked at her, and I recognized the same high cheekbones, the same nose and chin, and the same color hair.

‘Your brother?” I asked.

She was wiping tears away from her eyes with the back of her hand, “Yeah,” she said,

“I’m sorry,” I said.


(another excerpt from what will be my second novel, “I Don’t Know Why”)

I found him tucked away on the top shelf of my Mom and Dad’s closet, in an old shoebox, with, among other things, a tiny pair of socks and a little pair of one-piece pajamas, a rattle, and a yellowed newspaper clipping affixed to a fading sheet of green construction paper.  It was from the Racine Journal Times.  The date was April 17th, 1954.

“Gerald Anderson” was the simple headline. It was an obituary.  I instantly recognized the name of my paternal grandfather, but then I remembered, he died in 1966, when I was seven years old.  This was twelve years earlier, four years before I was born.

The text beneath the headline began with “Gerald Thomas Anderson was born sleeping on April 14th.  He will be forever loved by his parents, William Anderson and Laura Jordan Anderson, of Orchard Depot.”  Then there was a quote from something:  “For what is to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?  And what is to cease breathing but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?”*

At that precise moment I heard car doors slam in the driveway, and I knew mom and dad were home.  I quickly put the shoebox back where I found it, and made it to the hallway just as I heard the front door opening.  Dad’s arms were full of brown paper bags filled with groceries. I met him in the living room and took them from him, placing them on the counter in the kitchen.  Mom trailed behind with a single bag in her arms.

“What I could never figure out,” dad started, “is why the hell do they have eggnog only at Christmas time?”

“You bought eggnog?” I asked.  My dad and I both loved eggnog.

“Yeah, but why only at Christmas time?   What if I had a hankering for eggnog in July?”

“And who could blame you?” I added.  “It’d be refreshing any time of year.”

“That’s right,” he responded.  “It’s so damn refreshing.”

“You guys with your eggnog,” mom chimed in as she started unpacking the bags.  “Every year I have to listen to this.”

“I’ll tell you who’s behind it,” dad added.  “It’s that god damned pope.  It’s all part of this whole Christmas racket he’s got going.  And believe me, he’s making millions off of it.

Dad didn’t affiliate himself with any religion, he just hated the pope.  While his conspiracy theory about the pope controlling and manipulating global eggnog supplies may have been distracting, my mind was still trying to process what I’d just stumbled upon in their closet while looking for wrapping paper to wrap the University of Wisconsin Whitewater sweatshirts and coffee mugs I’d bought home the day before in my duffle bag.

I’d never been told about Gerald, never been told that I was supposed to have an older brother.  “For what is to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?”  For some reason, these words from the obituary stuck with me, I couldn’t get them out of my head, even as a thousand questions entered my mind.  Did they bury Gerald somewhere?  Why and how did he die?  Why didn’t they ever tell me about him?  Why did he die, and I lived?   So many questions that I’d decided I wouldn’t ask.  There had to be a reason they hadn’t told me.

“For what is to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?”

I tried to imagine, tried to conceive the pain and anguish my mom and dad must have felt.  They both seemed inadequate for such a tumultuous event.

And then I came along.  Was I strictly a replacement for my older brother?  Was his death the only reason I was conceived?

I’d been an only child my entire life, and all the time it was just me and my mom and dad.  But now there was another, and, as we sat that night and ate dinner, Gerald was there, in the empty chair next to me, and I wondered if mom and dad could see him.  Of course they could, they’d been seeing him for the past 24 years.  The question was what else had been unseen?

I thought stupid, trivial things.  Things like, would we call him Gerald or Jerry, and if Jerry, should it be Gerry, with a G, because that’s how they spelled Gerald.  I thought about what it’d be like to have a big brother, and it occurred to me he’d be twenty four years old by now.  He’d probably be finished with college and married to a beautiful young wife.  In all my visions he was movie star handsome and endlessly successful.  In short, he was everything I wasn’t, but that didn’t bother him, because he looked out for me.

I was home, even if it was just for Christmas break, in the house I grew up in, in my room, laying in its familiar darkness, sleeping in my bed again.  But I wasn’t alone.  Gerald shared my room with me (it was actually our room now), and as I laid awake in the darkness, my eyes could trace the shape of Gerald’s bed, across the room from me, and I could make out the shape of Gerald under his covers.  One night, I said softly, just above a whisper, “Good night, Gerald.”

“Good night, Jack,” he replied.  “See you in the morning.”

Soon I began thinking about the dead boy in the woods in the cornfield again.  He was the first dead boy I’d found.  Gerald was the second.  I’d learned my lesson from the first boy, to keep my mouth shut and not tell anybody about it.  The thought of asking my parents about Gerald never crossed my mind.

It didn’t take long for Gerald to become real to me. I felt his presence, just like I still felt the presence of the kid with no eyes and the hole in his chest I saw that afternoon eight years earlier.  Soon I couldn’t think of one without being reminded of the other.   The dead guy in the corn became Gerald, and Gerald’s obituary became the dead guy in the corn’s obituary.

In the day, when I was alone, the house would press in on me, just like it had before I started college, when I was still in high school.  I felt the same claustrophobia that I’d felt before.  I was alone, and in the day, with Mom and Dad away at work, it became suffocating.  Every day I’d get bored and I’d go into Mom and Dad’s room and pull the shoe box down, examining each item.  One day I walked to the library and looked up “stillborn babies” in the World Book encyclopedia.

I didn’t know where Gerald was during the day, he was off doing whatever he did, but at night, before falling asleep, he’d be there, in his bed in our room, and we’d talk, whispering.  We talked about everything a big and little brother would talk about.

One night we were talking about Julie McMillan’s breasts, when Gerald said something about them being “breakfast, lunch and dinner” and I started laughing, under my sheets, when I heard a knock on my door.

“Jack?”  It was my mom. I pretended I was asleep.   She knocked some more.  “Jack?”

When I still didn’t answer, she slowly opened the door, flooding my room with light from the hall.  She stood in the doorway, wrapped in her bathrobe, and she seemed a little apprehensive, like she was afraid to get too close to me.  “Jack?”

I rolled over and pretended I was just waking up.  “Yeah, Mom?”

“Who were you talking to?”  She was wearing her yellow bathrobe, and her hair was up in curlers. She had that concerned look on her face, a half frown that wrinkled her face into a road map of lines that all ended at the pensive ocean of her deep blue eyes

“Talking to?”  I looked over at Gerald; he was quiet and motionless under his covers.

“I heard your voice.  You were talking to someone.”

“I was?”

“Yes, you were.”

“I must have been talking in my sleep.  I’ve been having some weird dreams lately.  Oh, well.”  I rolled over and pretended to go back to sleep, but she didn’t leave.  I could feel her sit at the end of my bed, by my feet.

“Jack”, she said.  “Who is Gerald?”  There was soft fear in her voice.

“Who is who?”

“Gerald.”  There was a heavy pause.  “You were talking to someone named Gerald.”

“I was?  But I don’t know anyone named Gerald.”

‘”Are you sure?”  Her voice was trembling.  “Are you sure you don’t know a Gerald?”

“No.  Wait, I’ll bet I was saying ‘Harold.’  There’s a guy in my dorm named Harold.  Real piece of work.  I must have been dreaming about Harold.”

“Okay,” she said, and she got up, but it wasn’t clear whether she was buying it or not.  As she got to the door, before she shut it, she said, “Jack, are you okay?”

“I’m fine.”

“I worry about you, Jack.  Promise me you’ll tell me if anything is wrong.”

“I’m fine, mom.  Don’t worry about me.   And I’d tell you.  Honest, I would.”

“Okay, good night, Jack.”

“Night, mom.”  She shut the door and it was dark again.  Gerald and I lay still for the longest time and didn’t say anything, as we both knew how mom was, and that she’d be up all night worrying about us, waiting for the slightest sound to come from our room.  Neither one of us wanted to disturb her.

I laid there in the dark, on my back, staring at the darkness that filled the space between my bed and the ceiling, my dead big brother in the bed across from me, and the words came back to me, and I repeated them, softly, lower than a whisper, to myself, over and over again:

“For what is to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?”


* – taken from The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran

Helicopter Seeds

(Just a quick paragraph I wrote today from my novel-in-progress.  Kind of like the images it conjures up for me.)

It was only a half day, the last day of school of my third grade year.  We had early dismissal and as we ran out the doors into the early afternoon sunlight, a strong wind kicked up out of the west and blew thousands of helicopter seeds off of the gigantic maple tree that bordered State Street.  They filled the early afternoon sky, some travelling hundreds of feet as they silently took flight, spinning and whirling, landing on the asphalt of the playground and the dark green and freshly mown grass of the neighboring lawns.  And we all ran, all the kids from the old grade school, as if we were helicopter seeds, too, set free from the walls of the school by the warm June wind into the early summer air that was never before and would never again be as pure and clean as it was at that moment.  It was the most perfect expression of pure freedom I’ve ever known, the helicopter seeds and we children, none of us caring about where we’d end up when we finally landed, just lost in release and flight, happy to go wherever the warm wind sent us.


Everything is Right There

(I’ve been so head down working on my new novel that I completely missed the 2nd birthday of Drivel by Dave … so with nothing else prepared, here’s an excerpt that I wrote tonight)

It was about 11:30 when I walked home, through the back yards.  The night was dark and cool.  There was a hint of impending autumn in the air, even as the night choir of crickets sang its ode to summer.

I found the far end of our backyard and stopped for a moment and looked at the house I grew up in.   A light was on in the kitchen, I couldn’t tell if anyone was still awake or if they’d left it on for my benefit.  The curtains over the sink were drawn, casting a yellow glow to the window.   The grass was long and already damp with night dew.  I’ll mow it tomorrow, I thought, just like I mowed it so many times growing up.  It was the same back yard, the same grass, the same dew, the same house, the same yellow glowing kitchen window. It was all so familiar.  It was all the same as it’d been all those years growing up, but standing there, gazing into my past, I knew that inside was the present, and in the present, inside that house, my father, who’d always been so strong, so funny and so formidable, lay dying, a hollow shell of his past self.  It occurred to me that in all probability the next time I gazed upon that same scene my father would be gone, and at some point after that, my mother would be gone, too.

I started across the back yard, walking to the back porch, and I thought of all we’d been through together, the three of us, in this house, in this town.  Orchard Depot was a small town, but for all those years growing up, it was the universe, where life dwelled and where death was felt.  It’d always been a presence, death had, first as little more than a rumor, then as a nightmare in the form of an eyeless corpse in a corn field, and now as an inescapable and unavoidable reality. And if it was big enough to house both life and death, it was big enough to encapsulate all of time and memory, too, and I looked at our little house in our little town and realized everything that is and ever was is right there, behind the yellow kitchen window.

On the Way Home

(This is a couple of paragraphs I wrote for the new novel I’ve been working on – I don’t think I am going to keep the scene this was part of, but I kind of like this part)

I found my bus and boarded it, with four minutes to spare.  I settled in with the other passengers, and was relieved when the bus lurched forward with no one sitting next to me.  Still cold from the short walk to the station, I leaned my head against the window and watched the lit up skyscrapers and the slow streams of headlights on the expressway.  I could feel the warmth from the registers as I listened to the murmuring whisper of the blowers.  I started nodding off, my head against the window, in the reflections of the buildings and the headlights, in the warm hum of heat.  I was on my way home.

When I woke I was warm and the bus was out of the city, on the interstate, deep into the vast blackness of the flat county terrain, interrupted only by the occasional barn light or yellow front porch light some late arriver forgot to turn off.   Frost was forming on the top outside of the windows.  Moonlight shone on a blanket of snow.   Every now and then we’d pass a farmhouse lit up enough to reveal smoke pouring out of its chimney.  It was a bitterly cold night.

As the bus approached the exit, I could see, in the distance, the faint yellow lights of my town glowing in the midnight black, twenty minutes of cold darkness away from the interstate.   The flat and empty and darkened winter farm land looked cold and barren, making the glow of my town on the horizon seem warm and inviting.  It’d be two o’clock on a Wednesday morning when the bus pulled into the Sinclair station on Main Street; from there it’d be about a five block walk through the sleeping town until I was home.