Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The End

I drove down to Hastings on a warm autumn day in 1998 to sign divorce papers. My buddy Vinny had been an invaluable friend to me that whole summer. I called in a final divorce-related favor. I asked him to come along for the trip. I couldn’t do it alone.

We drove past countless good family law attorneys to get to Hastings.  But my friend Stacy, who had just begun her first year of law school, lived in Hastings and worked a little for an attorney there. She drafted the papers to save me some money. And she was there on that warm autumn day. She showed me where to sign. We chatted a little after I had. It was nice to see her.

After he died, one of Kurt Vonnegut’s daughters wrote of the best advice he had given her. She’d gone to him when she was a teenager with some question about the world, about the Way of Things, and he’d responded, “What are you asking me for? I just got here too.”  She wrote that she’d been reassured by that answer. It told her what she was beginning to suspect: that no one knew what the fuck he or she was doing; everyone was making it up as they went along.


My friend Stacy and I got married in 2001. Now we’re getting divorced because neither of us knows what we’re doing. We just got here too.


I know people who think I should be angrier than I am, who think I deserve to be treated better than I have been by, well by life I guess. I am not one of these people. Here’s how I see it: I think my parents had sex circa July 6, 1973. They’d been married just over two years at that time so I imagine it was just garden-variety sex. Listen kids: sometimes when a man and woman have sex his sperm meets up with her egg and nothing magical happens. Very garden-variety science happens, has been happening for millions of years. Yes so on April 6, 1974 a garden-variety boy (who I’ve been told looked a bit like a bald turkey) came screeching onto a garden-variety planet called earth, born of garden-variety sex and boring as shit biology. He didn’t ask to be there but there he was and there he’d be until biology quit happening in what was now him. So there. I think I am here and I’ll get what I get or can take and that’s that. And it’s enough. But I’m not more than I am. I am some (too many) pounds of flesh who just happens to be here and who deserves nothing, bad or good.


I texted my buddy Vinny this morning. “I signed the papers this morning, Vin. I like to do these things in Hastings, you know. Stacy was there this time too! I think she’s bad luck.”


I drove a few blocks in Hastings this morning, a bitterly cold winter day, to sign divorce papers.  My old friend Stacy was there. She’s been a family law attorney for 12 years now. It was her office. She drafted the papers to save me money. She showed me where to sign. We chatted a little after I had. It was nice to see her.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Cheer

Can I take another pain med yet? I’ve been up an hour and I’m beaten. Another pill might get me through a shower but then what? I’m going to see the kids today. It’s Christmas Eve. It’s not fair to be in tear-inducing pain on Christmas Eve! I’ll take two extra today and take less tomorrow. Maybe I’ll feel better tomorrow.  No.  I won’t. And tomorrow is Christmas.  It’s not fair to be in tear-inducing pain on Christmas.  Maybe I’ll feel better the next day.  No.  Maybe the doctor will understand.  I have permission to take two extra on flare up days.  Maybe if I run out early this month he’ll approve an early refill.  Is this a flare up?  Can I honestly say it is or am I talking myself into it?  What if he doesn’t approve an early refill?  Then I’m going to run out of pills and be fucked.  That’s happened before.  Remember how miserable that was?  Isn’t it better to stretch out the pain now to avoid two days of agony later?  Yes.  But fuck! I’m hurting from my groin to my armpits.  It’s shooting out my back! And it’s Christmas Eve and it’s not fair to feel this way on Christmas Eve!

It’s not often that a guy knows for certain that this is his last Christmas in his home.  But this is my last Christmas at my home.  My wife asked me to leave on October 15th.  I went down to Iowa and have been staying there with dear, generous friends since, seeing the kids when I can.  She told me two days ago that she wants to be done with us.  I had been invited to go “home” for Christmas and to stay there Christmas Eve night so I could be there when the kids wake up on Christmas.  That’s nice.  But I’m moving into an apartment next week.  And next Christmas I won’t be there when the kids wake up on Christmas.  That makes me sad.

We’re not separating because I’m sick.  Then again maybe we are.  I can’t work; I can’t keep up with a healthy family.  There’s so much I can’t do.  If you’re more or less healthy you don’t understand this.  Maybe you think you could.  Or you would if you were in my position.  By God you would’ve kept up.  Maybe you think, “What is wrong with you?”  Not all of you are thinking this. But some of you are and I forgive you.  Honest truth:  It’s what I’d think.  I’m fairly sure of it.

No one gets a flower delivery on day 2,555 of chronic pancreatitis, or chronic anything else.  Days 1-7 the people are all around making dinners and sending books and crosswords.  Visiting.  People come to see you in the hospital the first time you find yourself there.  It’s nice.  People ask what you need, what they can do.  But those people have problems too and they get back to them by and by. 

The human mind cannot understand the scale of the universe.  Did you know that there are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on earth?  I know that. But I can’t imagine it.  Yes and the human mind doesn’t understand chronic illness.  We evolved to understand rules that no longer exist.  For almost all of human existence when one of us got sick he either got better or he died.  And if he was still lying there moaning after a month he was a nuisance, a fraud.  And he needed to get the fuck up and pitch in. 

Good news!  The doctors won’t let me die.  Bad news:  I’m still lying here moaning on day 2,555 (or so) and no one really knows what to do with me.  Shouldn’t I be able to get up and pitch in?  What is wrong with me?

Guess what?  I’m more sick today than I was six years ago.  The meds don’t work as well as they once did.  Mostly I want to do nothing.  Strike that.  I want to do everything.  But I feel like doing nothing.  And doing anything hurts and is damn hard.  But there will be no parades.  There will be some pity and a lot of lost respect for the guy who sits there like a lump

Friday, October 25, 2013

39: A Not-So-Magic Number

My parents separated and divorced in 1988, when my dad was 39.  As I’ve written before, my dad was untreated bi-polar, unmedicated epileptic and probably a few other things.  He was verbally abusive and between his frequent abusive episodes and his seizures, he was awfully dramatic.  You never knew if he was going to scream and call you names or drop to the ground and flop around for a while.  Anyhoo, when my mom kicked him out (He finally did hit her. I came home from school to hear him screaming from the end of the hall and to see something flying from there too, which my mom blocked with a couch cushion.  She went for the phone; he beat her to it and ripped it out of the wall. She ran for the back door, I backed out the front door. Cops eventually came and took him away.  That was the last of him living with us.) he went back to his parents to live.

I saw him for the first time after their separation when he came to pick my brother and me up for a weekend visit. My mom had kept the family car so he drove my grandpa’s car, a maroon Buick LeSabre.  We went out for supper at Burger King, where he paid with quarters, and went to my grandparent’s house.  He wanted to spend time with us alone so we went up to his old/then-current bedroom in the attic.  It had creaky wood floors and, I imagine, looked much as it did when he’d left it 17 years earlier.  There was a coffee can on the dresser, half-full with change and it quickly became clear that that can held my dad’s money.  All of it.   The rest of his earthly possessions were in the suitcase on the floor next to his bed. 

I hated my dad then- red-rage hated him.  But I felt so sad for him up there in my grandparent’s attic.   He was my dad for christ’s sake! And he had some clothes and a few coins! He tried so hard to make those weekends pleasant, tried so hard not to be “sad dad.”  He took us to movies and fast food dinners; he took us to swim in a river and to museums.  But he lived in his parent’s attic and drove their car.  It was so desperately depressing.

I am 39 years old.  In an hour I’m going to pick my kids up and bring them down to Iowa, where we will spend the weekend at my friend’s, in the bedroom where I’ve spent the past week.  I hid my bucket of change. I can’t bear for my kids to see it.  My clothes are in a suitcase on the floor though.  And I am desperately sad but wearing the “I’m Not Sad Dad” smile.  Ain't that some shit? 

Friday, May 17, 2013

To Dad, With Love

May 16, 2013

To Dad, With Love:

I pulled the oldest out of school today.  We needed to do something different.  I needed to do something different.  I’ve been stuck in a depressive rut for the last, I don’t know-months.  I’m crabby times 100; I’m walking through days on the edge of insanity; I’m nearing a nervous breakdown; a powder keg primed and itching to blow.  (Sorry…I don’t know how else to write it except with that rubbish).  Today was the day because last night was the night.  Last night I blew over nothing.  I yelled at her and she cried.  She panicked, would have done anything to please me and make it stop.  It didn’t last long; I was back in control in a minute.  But it will haunt me for a long, long time.  And I know you know what I mean. 

You probably aren’t surprised that this episode reminded me of you.  But I want to tell you that it wasn’t for the reason you may think-I wasn’t ashamed that I had repeated what must be some of your more humiliating episodes.  I thought of you because I understand you.  I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately and this reinforced what I had assumed:  there but for the grace of god go I.  Or rather:  there but for a few small but key circumstances go I.  I’m on two anti-depressants and I acted like a fool.  What could you have done had your illness been addressed?  You were so close to pulling it off.  What could you have done with the freedom I have, the freedom to explore your mind?  You had the suffocating burden of this illness and had to provide for a family.  What would I be now if I was staring down the barrel of a lifetime of that responsibility?  You’ve said you are proud of what I’ve become.  Am I not what you could have been if a few zigs had zagged instead?

Anyway, here I am now, needing to do what you couldn’t.  I need to fix myself before I lose the only things that really matter.  And of course I have what I like to think is a better than fighting chance because I have all those things that you didn’t.  Listen to this now…I’ve said it before and meant it but I REALLY mean it now.  I forgive you.  I know that our past had nothing to do with me and everything to do with you; that you were yelling into the yawning, starving mouth in your soul, “You are a piece of shit!  You are a fraud!  You can’t do this!  You’ll never make it!”  One of the things that makes my situation different than yours is that I know that’s what I’m now yelling and I don’t think you did.  And because I do know that I was able to take the kids out to lunch and say, “Daddy did a terrible thing yesterday.  I scared you and I’m supposed to protect you.  And I’m more sorry than you can possibly imagine.  I want you to know this:  my yelling was about me, not you.  You did nothing wrong.  I did.  And it’s my job to fix it.”

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Second Book

Today was my daughter’s library day at school.  She’s in first grade and has discovered Pokemon.  Every week she can check out two books and every week lately one of them is a Pokemon Ready-to-Read book.  She and I read most every night and the Pokemon books only provide one night’s reading.  The other nights we read from her personal library.  This because the second book she brings home is usually unreadable.  It’s usually a big hardcover arts and crafts kind of book.  Or a cupcake cookbook.  At any rate, it just sits on the nightstand until it’s time to return it.  I’ve asked her before why she chose this or that book and she never really answers me.  So now I don’t even say anything.  I actually have a good reason for ignoring the “second book”:  it makes me dreadfully sad.

Why?  Well, I never really knew until last night.  Here’s the thing:  when I see the “second book” I get this terrible, sad sinking feeling in my stomach; I have a vision of a sad little kid standing alone in the library, and I very nearly cry.  This all happens very quickly and the feeling is gone almost as quickly as it comes on.  I look away from the book and- poof- it’s out of mind.  But what the hell right?

For obvious reasons I haven’t explored this feeling very deeply in the past.  In the little time that I have spent thinking about it I’ve decided that I must be feeling sad for my daughter because she brings home a book that we never look at.  But that’s never been a satisfying answer.  So last night I told Stacy about this overwhelming sadness I feel over the second book.  As I was telling her what I “see” in the fleeting vision it became clear to me that the child in the library is not my daughter at all.  It is little UW.

Little-guy me is standing all alone in a library.  He is looking at the shelves of books.  On the other side of the library my classmates are loudly and excitedly Library Whispering about this book or that.  But I am silent and still.  I’m only pretending to be choosing a book because I know it does not matter which book I choose.  I don’t care about anything and I’m still too young to read anything even if I did.  And I know that no one at home cares what I bring home either.  No one will be reading to me.  Not tonight and not ever.  The librarian doesn’t know this of course and she won’t be hearing it from me.  So I make a show out of picking out a book way above my level.  And when I check this book out she will know that I’m bringing it home to a parent who will hug me and read this book to me and tuck me in to bed with a kiss and a smile. 

She does not know that I will bring this book home and hide it so no one sees it.  If anyone sees it I’ll be embarrassed because I know that they will know I’ve checked out a book no one is going to read.   If my dad sees it, he may tell me that checking it out was a stupid thing to do.  He may not.  Either way I know he’ll be thinking it.  And every time I see it, I'll just feel sorry for myself.  So I'll bury it good.  I know I'm good at that.

So there we have it- the second book unearthed memories I’ve apparently done a good job forgetting.  I was tempted to let this end on a sad note because I never do and thought it might be interesting.  But I find I’m unable.  I’m not able to because I’m not sad anymore.  Today when my daughter brought home her books I grabbed the second book right away and I held it in one hand has I rubbed her head with the other.  “You know, honey,” I said, “if you want to leave this book on the nightstand all week that’s fine with me.  But if you want to look at it with me, tell me.  Nothing would make me happier.”

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Willie, Part II


Willie hung up the phone.  More fuck, fuck, fucks.  Willie looked back at his reflection.  He was more and more disappointed at the man he saw there. 

“You never were courageous were you?  Every time you jumped you hoped that was the time the chute failed.”

Willie’s focus shifted to the man in the photo.  Actor or not, he thought, he’s hanging in there, going to work.  This pussy in the polo shirt is more of a man than I ever was.  Willie closed his eyes and eventually drifted off to sleep.

“Dad.  Dad.  Dad!” 

Willie woke with a start.  He saw Billy standing outside his side window.  He would have been less surprised if he had seen God himself standing there.


“Dad.  Are you ok?”

“Well, no, not exactly.  I’m, ha, well, I can’t get up here.”

“Can you move? Can you get to the door?”

“Yeah I think so.”  He tried a sort of crawl.  “No.  Christ.  No I can’t.”

“Can I break in somewhere?”

“The back door.  Lean into it, it’ll open.”

Billy walked around to the back door.  As he climbed the two steps up to it he realized he’d never been back here before.  The yard was otherwise unremarkable- it was a remarkable yard for what it wasn’t:  a family gathering spot; a place where grandkids played.   Billy leaned on the door and shoved.  It opened.  He walked through the kitchen and into the living room, where he found his father rolled over on his back, head propped up on an accent pillow he had taken off the sofa.

“So- well before we get to it, you’re going to need to get that door fixed.  I guess you know that.  So… what happened?  Are you alright?”

Willie was silent for a moment.  No, he thought, I’m not.  But how do I say that? 

“The nurse always tells me to wait for her.  I didn’t this time.  I, uh…well shit, Billy, I fell.”

Billy bent down to help him up.  “Are you hurt?”

I’m hurting!  God, Billy, I’m hurting!  I’m so sorry.

“No.  I’m fine.  Let’s get me up and over to that chair there.”

Billy helped him up.  Once back on his feet, Willie remembered why he had gotten up from his chair in the first place.  He asked Billy to help him to the bathroom.  Billy was relieved when he learned that the only help his father needed was with the travel; safely delivered to the far end of the bathroom he could handle the rest with the help of the bars on the wall.  Billy left him there- pants still up thank god- and went out, closing the door behind him.  He leaned against the wall across from the bathroom door, waiting to be called back in.  When did my dad get so old? 

“Okay, Billy. I’m ready.”

Billy went back into the bathroom and saw that his dad had been able to get up too.  He had been willing to lift his father off the toilet of course, but he was more than a little relieved that he wouldn’t have to.  

“Well, that turned into a long trip,” Willie said as he sat down in his chair at last.  He looked over at Billy, now seated in the sofa across from his father.  “What are you doing here?” he asked.

“You called me.  Do you remember?”

“Yeah. But…”

“It’s called caller i.d., Dad,” Billy said.

“Okay. But still, I…”

“When I answered I heard you breathing.  Then the phone went dead.  It was odd enough seeing your name on the caller i.d.  When you didn’t say anything I guess that made it odder still.  I tried calling back.  Which reminds me…” Billy got up and walked across the room to the phone.  He was not surprised to find it slightly off its base.  He slid it into place.  “…The line was busy.”

“So you drove over to see if I was okay?”  Willie asked as though he was surprised.  He was surprised.


“Huh.”  Willie chuckled.  “Thanks for your help Billy.  I can’t say I deserve it.”

“Hmmm,” Billy chuckled too.  “Maybe not.  But here we are.”

This was the silence Willie had been worried about.  This wasn’t small talk; this was getting real.  And he had no goddamned idea how to do this, how to talk to his son about anything that really mattered.   The silence became uncomfortable.

Willie looked at his son.  “In ’82 or maybe ’83 a bunch of us were down in Texas…”

“Yeah I know dad.  You’ve told me this story.  You BASE jumped from a skyscraper in Houston.  Are you sure you’re ok?”

Willie couldn’t tell if his son was impatient or worried.  Probably both.

“I’m fine,” he said, “that wasn’t the part of the story I was going to tell this time.  Do you mind?”

“No.  Go ahead.”

“Ok.  Like I say it was ‘82 or ‘83, which would put you at, what?  8 or 9?”

Billy nodded.

“Anyway, there were 10 of us who made the jump.  But there was an 11th guy there.  Irish guy.  I forget his name if I ever knew it.   He was there for all the planning and as gung-ho as anyone I guess.  We had a guy who could get us in- we had to sneak up the stairwell you know.  So we’re walking up the stairs with all of our gear.  The Irish guy was right in front of me and he kept pulling something out of his front pocket, looking at it for a few seconds, and putting it back.  Finally I slapped him on the back and asked what the hell he was doing, a rosary?  And he said, and I’ll never forget this, ‘Looking at a picture of my son.  His 10th birthday next week.’  I’ll never forget it because your face came out of the back of my mind and slapped mine.  But…goddamn, Billy, this is hard.  I, ah, ahem, I pushed you out of the way and went on.”  Willie paused to collect himself before adding, “We got to the roof finally and as you know I jumped.  The Irish guy didn’t.  He turned around and walked back down.  Never saw him again.”


“Yeah.  And that jump was a blast man.  It really was.  We spent the next few days- it takes days or weeks even to come down from something like that- making fun of the guy who couldn’t do it you know?  Laughing about the scared look on his face when he turned around.  But he wasn’t scared Billy, not for himself anyway.  He missed his kid and wouldn’t take the risk.  And I would.  And, Billy, I’m really so fucking ashamed of that.”

This is my second entry in a fiction challenge I'm participating in. The prompt this week was:
To go for something your character has been putting off.  1500 wd max with 50% dialogue. 

Please check out the other entries, and as always, thanks for your time:


Friday, March 29, 2013


Feats of daring were once so awesome.  Climbing Kilimanjaro was daring; skydiving was daring; running with the bulls was daring.  But now here Willie was on his living room floor, not two feet from his sofa, and he allowed himself his first laugh at his situation.  He had “dared” to walk from his chair to the bathroom before the nurse came and he had failed spectacularly, taking a plant stand and his phone crashing down with him.  Yes, he thought, he had fallen and he couldn’t get up.   And because he now knew why he shouldn’t have, why his nurse had always looked him in his eyes and told him not to be a “daredevil” there was no way in hell he was going to let her come and find him like this. 

Willie had picked up the phone that had, thank God, fallen by his face, and dialed the nurse.  He’d told her Alex the Neighbor, as she and Willie referred to him, had come over and taken care of him.  All is fine, my dear, I’ll see you tomorrow.  But of course he had no intentions of letting Alex find him this way either. 

Willie had spent a few seconds considering calling his son for help.  He understood that calling one’s son would probably be one of the first things an old man in his position might normally do.  But the kind of person- the kind of dad really- that Willie was, was not able to make that call.  At least he was not able to expect a happy response if he did make that call.

So here lay Ol’ Willie looking at his reflection on the television screen.  The years looked back at him.  He had never expected to live this long, to be an old man, to need his son’s help.  He figured he was leaving for good so long ago.  He knew it was cowardly, he knew there’d be consequences and ruined relationships.   But it had never occurred to him in all those years that one of the consequences of running away like he had might be that one day he’d be back and need help from someone on the other end of one of those relationships.

I could call, he thought.  He’d take my call.  I could pretend that all was well and I was just calling to see how he was.  And then I could simply sort of mention that, geez, I’m sure sorry about running away.  Then I could call back later and say, Hey boy, you’ll never guess what happened to the old man!  He smiled again.  Sure.  I’ll erase all that pain in one phone call.  Jesus Christ.

Willie looked around the room again for something that might help.  He saw the picture frame again- the one Nurse Ann had bought for him, “for a picture of the kids”- and this time his gaze fixed on the image.  It was the image that had come with the frame, a boy and father flying a kite.  The boy and father were looking at each other with huge exaggerated smiles on their faces.  Willie had always thought they were models, not really father and son.  He found himself staring at the photo now and caught himself thinking about Billy.  Well, Bill but Willie had always preferred Billy.

His thoughts surprised him.  He realized he was gazing tenderly at the photo and actually wondering how Billy was.  He was not consciously scheming; he seemed to be caring.  What had Billy’s boyhood been like?  Had he ever flown a kite?  Gone to the library and checked out adventure books?  Spent hours in his room flipping through an atlas and daydreaming?  Now Willie knew he was thinking about his own young years and the ancient anger he felt towards his own father began to well up.  He looked away from the photo.

But it didn’t help.  A thought was now forming in his head that he’d never shake.  Billy was not a secondary actor in the movie of Willie’s life.  Billy was his son and Willie had really done a number on him.  He felt sick.  I became what I hated!  How did I not see that?  Feelings he had never known were pouring down on him now. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.  Fuck me! 

I’ve got to see Billy right now.  I have to apologize!  His mind was racing now. One more adventure! He went to get up…and remembered that he was lying on the goddamn floor like the broken man he now understood himself to be.  One more fuck!

Hold on, Willie, he told himself, you can still call.  Yes, I can still say “I’m sorry” and if things go ok I can even ask for forgiveness.  Forget help. I can lay here until tomorrow.  God knows I’ve spent time lying in worse places than this.  And with a smile growing on his face, he reached for the phone.

This is my first entry in a fiction challenge I'm participating in. The prompt this week was:
to be deflated, belittled or humbled after the failure of a daring or boastful act.  1,000 words max and no dialogue, all description. *Show* not tell: how your character has softened, deflated from the beginning of his/her intro to now.

Please check out the other entries, and as always, thanks for your time: