Monday, December 17, 2012


Like a lot of people -- most people, I suspect -- I've spent the better part of the last several days immersed in a tragic story from which I couldn't easily avert my eyes. As you may well imagine, I have a multitude of thoughts about what happened, but I feel as though they are for another time and perhaps another place. After untold hours of refreshing my browser, seeking every raw and fresh nugget I'd hoped, on the most basic level, might draw me closer to grasping some tangible shred of sense out of the chaos, I finally did shut it down, looked away, and found what felt like meaningful ways to pass the time. These were my diversions.

I don't remember how this book first came to my attention -- I must have stumbled upon a review of it somewhere, and I recognized the author's name because I'd read his debut novel, An Underachiever's Diary, shortly after it came out in 1998. I was living in Portland then and still adjusting to the particulars of my life at the time, the most profound of which were these: I worked forty-plus hours a week in an office, I made barely enough to survive on, I had most definitely stalled in my ambition to be a writer, and I lived alone a few blocks away from where my daughter lived with her mother. I say I lived alone, but in truth I shared my narrow apartment with an aging fluffy orange cat I would describe as tremendously needy and occasionally churlish. I was trailing the remnants of four remarkably difficult years then, like a big old American car dragging its muffler and tailpipe down a long road with no service station in sight. One afternoon on my lunch break I ducked into a bookstore in the Old Port and found myself holding this spare little hardcover by a writer I'd never heard of. I think there was a blurb from Ann Beattie, a writer I've always admired, and so, in spite of the fact that I wasn't earning new-hardcover money by any means, I bought it and took it home and read it. I remember that I enjoyed the book, perhaps in part because it was heartening to see someone roughly my age write a book and get it published, but now, almost fifteen years later, I can't say I recall much about it. With the exception of the times I spent with my daughter back then -- commonplace, everyday activities that are nonetheless etched on my mind -- most of what I did and saw in those days is, in my memory, dimly illuminated by the sort of bitter grey-yellow light cast by a low-wattage bulb nearing the end of its filament's life. I was mostly just going through the motions. However, the name Benjamin Anastas stuck with me, and so when I saw he'd written a memoir, and when I learned precisely what form this memoir had taken, I decided I needed to read it.

The title is Too Good to Be True, a reference you'll understand if you read the book. In the briefest of terms, I'll tell you that circumstances and his own failings conspired to make Anastas' life an unsettling and noteworthy mess. With two well received books to his credit, his writing ebbed. At around the same time, he cheated on his fiancee. As their wedding date neared, he sought to unburden himself of the guilt his affair had engendered, and so told his fiancee what he'd done. In spite of the indiscretion (a word I despise, especially in this context, but I use it for economy's sake), she forgives him and they proceed with the wedding. Less than six months later, she has stepped out on him, and she is also, it turns out, pregnant with their child. In the months that follow, Anastas moves out and is, by his account, quite literally immediately replaced by his wife's new man. All of which is terrible, of course, but things get much worse in short order. His writing career now entirely stalled and his employment prospects bleak (as he points out in an interview, the spotty work history of a once full-time writer does not present the sort of resume that screams "Hire this guy!"), he slides deep into debt and, eventually, relative poverty. Against this backdrop, of course, falls the bittersweet reality of part-time fatherhood, rendered, I can assure you, with painful honesty. The book, overall, is a good story and Anastas is an outstanding writer. My one lingering criticism is that he seems to try to claim a peculiar slab of moral high ground after his wife cheated on and then essentially left him. He is at first incredulous that she has not, as she'd assured him before they were married, actually forgiven him: that, to me, is simply naive. As time passes and he is forced to accept this new reality, his bitterness, I would argue, exceeds its limit by giving insufficient weight to the fact that he had, after all, cheated on her first. He acknowledged this fact, I just don't think he was capable of absorbing it in the context of that with which he was left. Whether or not anything would have made a difference to these two people's relationship, the fact remains, it is far easier not to cheat on someone you claim to love than it is to live with the consequences of doing so. And if you do stray, you've relinquished your right to the high ground. Period.

Much of this story, of course, cut pretty close to the bone for me. I've found myself, in my early forties, floundering miserably, broke to the point of impoverishment much of the time, having to shuck and jive my way through more situations than I care to recall, with brief instances of joy separated by long stretches of morbid discomfort. As I mentioned to a friend, it takes little effort on my part to imagine how Benjamin Anastas' shoes would feel on my feet. It's interesting to me, though, that I responded less to his accounts of a brand of poverty I recognize all too well, but instead to the more substantial role we share in common: far-too-infrequent dad. There is unmistakable warmth and joy and affection in the way he talks about the time he spends with his son. In fact, the voice of those scenes is notably different from the rest of the narrative, and I recognize it for what it is: a whisper. The network of invisible strings that holds together these brief, isolated bursts of time with your child is so tenuous, your inclination is to speak of them in hushed tones. I used the word "bittersweet" earlier. I've known no other experience in my life that more starkly crystalizes the essence of that word than Sunday evenings after my daughter returned to her mother's -- to home, it's fair to say, because home is where you live most of the time, and every other place in the world is simply a place you visit. Benjamin Anastas captured that aspect of being the other parent, and if for no other reason than that the book succeeded in my eyes. I recommend.

The other satisfying distraction from my weekend was a movie I'd been meaning to see for years, a film written and directed by a man who happens to own the film rights to a fine book written by my very good friend, a fact that pleases me even more now that I've seen this film. It's called The Lives of Others, and I'm not going to tell you any of the particulars of the story because I don't want to sully even a moment of it for any of you who (wisely) choose to see it. Suffice it to say that it is a perfectly wrought piece of film art, charming and compelling and heartbreaking, beautifully shot, stunningly performed, expertly told. I sat frozen in front of the screen after it ended. Do yourself a favor and see this film. You will not be disappointed.

And so, as you can see, I went far afield from the story that has been on everyone's minds since Friday. I'm glad I did because, of course, when I woke up this morning, that story was still there, as it will be for days and weeks to come. There is no language adequate to the sorrow and confusion and anger we are all left with in the wake of such ruinous madness. Which is precisely why it's important to be reminded that there are places to seek solace, if only for a little while. For me, it was a book and a film. I hope you have found yours, too, or will soon.

Monday, November 26, 2012

If a Bear Shits in the Woods . . .

This afternoon as I trekked down my parents' long, sloping driveway with my backpack slung over my shoulder, not quite three hundred yards into the two-mile walk to the public library, I looked down just in time to keep from stepping in a pile of bear shit, dead center in the middle of the driveway. Now, shit is shit, and I'm glad I didn't step in it, but shit though it be, the sight of it delighted me because it was bear shit. I've seen neither a bear nor any sign of a bear around here in almost thirty years. I must have been fourteen or fifteen, a friend was giving me a ride home on a late summer evening, and as we crested the hill there he was, a big ole black bear, ambling across the road between the two blueberry fields that used to sit at the top of the hill. He was a handsome sonofabitch.

We moved up to the hill in 1976, when I was seven years old, and it's fair to say that for everything home lacked -- lights and indoor plumbing and space and comfort -- the land where home squatted lacked for absolutely nothing. The particulars of our home certainly contributed somewhat to the fact that we spent so much time out of doors when I was a kid, but to a larger extent that's just what kids did back then. We didn't have cable or Atari or computers or smartphones, all the things that entice this generation's kids to kill their days indoors in chairs and on couches or sprawled on the floor with handheld electronics. Not that I'm passing judgment: if those things had been available to me, I would have gotten sucked in with the best of them. I'm glad they weren't, though. Knowing what I know now, I don't believe I'd trade those wild days even if it had meant a much more comfortable life.

It's amazing to think how much pleasure we got out of so little. Snowy days we'd cart our shitty plastic roll-up sleds out into the field and spend hours sliding down and trudging back up. Summers we spent more accumulated time on the seats of bicycles than we did with our heads on our pillows. The only reason we had bicycles at all is because our father, who was the keeper of the town dump, brought home the bicycles people had thrown away, and there were dozens of them, which my brother and I harvested as needed to construct our Frankenbikes. Flat tire? No problem, this tube's still good. Sick of that seat? Here, try this banana seat with the flames down the sides. They looked like shit but they rode like champs, until they didn't, and then we'd just dig through the pile for usable parts and start over.

What I remember most about those days, though, is the landscape, and the time I spent in it alone. There were plenty of occasions when my brother and I would wander off together, deep into the woods behind the house, or skipping rocks across the pond that sits just below my parents' field. But I was even then content with my own company, and often enough I would strike out on my own. There was an ancient oak tree that stood on the property where my grandparents' farm once was, a thick branch jutting out parallel to the ground about five feet long before it curled upward at almost a ninety degree angle -- the perfect spot to lounge and gaze out across the field. That's almost certainly where I was sitting when I first contemplated what I came to know as existentialism, a dozen years before I encountered Sartre and Camus. I also spent hours sitting beside the pond, watching turtles sunning themselves on rocks, frogs poking their heads up between the lily pads, the rare catfish scurrying through the shallows. And of course the great blue heron, for which I developed an affection that remains to this day.

I was thinking about all this as I walked down the hill to the library. The bear shit got me started, but there was more: as I walked that familiar road, my eye took in all the spots I used to know so well. The pond, which is a shell of its former self. My best friend Terry Gwazdowski's house, which for two years was my second home. His parents divorced, and his mother moved them to Windsor, which isn't so far, really, but back then it might as well have been the moon. The house where my aunt used to live, where we played war and tag and cowboys and Indians and everything else for hours with my cousins and the other kids who lived on the road. Between my aunt's old house and the house where she lives with her second husband, there's a wagon path that leads to what was once an apple orchard, land that, like half the land on the entire road, was owned by my grandfather. I remember the day I learned it was my grandfather's property, I wandered down the wagon path, plucking crab apples off the ground and hucking them at the rock wall as I went. It was deep and secluded and felt like I'd stepped into a secret world that had been hiding there in plain sight all along. Of course, when I came out I caught hell from my mother: it was hunting season, and like a knucklehead I wasn't wearing a speck of orange. Only my idiot uncle hunted there anyway, and he was crazy enough so that draping myself head to toe in orange and not being in the orchard wasn't necessarily a guarantee he wouldn't shoot me. I had no regrets.

Anyway, it's all still there, if somewhat diminished. The pond is a tragic swamp. The houses are decades and multiple families removed from the memories I have of them. The orchard is overgrown with scrub brush and devoid of apple trees. Yes, it's all there, but yes, it is less than it was. Still, I can imagine my long-ago self finding there now what I looked for then. Except not only is there no more long-ago me, there doesn't appear to be a present-day anyone: there are no kids. No kids running around, digging holes, skipping stones, riding bikes, building forts. No kids daydreaming in trees. I don't know where they are, but I can guess: they are being held close, so that little Timmy doesn't wander off into the woods and get lost, or little Susie doesn't catch a cold. And that is how a place truly dies: all the magic and wonder, if there's no one there to take it in, slowly but inexorably fades, and in time is forgotten. What a waste. What a terrible waste.

And yet, today I stumbled upon the unmistakable sign that a bear -- mythical, haunting, solitary beast -- crossed the path I'm on these days. He probably dipped a paw in the pond I loved so well. He probably climbed up into the field along the same track I used to slide down on a piece of blue plastic, and quite possibly curled up and slept in the seclusion of the ring of pine trees I planted with my brother when I was nine. It is a strange but not unsatisfying comfort to think it. And it all came from a walk on a cold day and a pile of scat.

You can take the bear out of the cave, but there will always be bear shit. Always.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


It's Thanksgiving, and I am, in my way, thankful. I'm thankful I got to watch my daughter in a performance of Guys and Dolls this past weekend, and immensely thankful for the sound of her voice. I'm thankful I did some good writing the last ten days. I'm thankful I was up on a ladder swinging a paintbrush the last couple days. I'm thankful for the remarkable array of great and true friends who surround me. I'm thankful that I have clean socks -- lots and lots of clean socks. I'm thankful for the last dozen books I read. I'm thankful that I have enough money in my pocket right now to go get a cup of coffee. I'm thankful that I'll never have to see Bobby Valentine in a Red Sox uniform again. I'm thankful that there is such a thing as gravy, and that it frequently flows with abundance. More than anything else, though, I'm thankful that today isn't November 22, 2010, and furthermore I'm thankful I wrote about that day and to some extent did it justice. See below. Happy Thanksgiving.

Punchlines Without Jokes

Monday, November 12, 2012

Requiem for a Bad Book

I didn't realize this when I posted it, but yesterday's bit of bad fiction was based on something that happened two years ago tonight. But for some minor details, everything that happened in that story happened in real life, a factor, no doubt, in why the story ultimately fails. Hewing too close to events as they actually occurred will almost invariably make for a poor story. Telling a story is like trying to discern a shape in the dark: if you look directly at it, all you'll see is an indistinguishable hole in the night. But if you look at it obliquely, let the corners of your eyes sort it out, perhaps you won't necessarily see it for what it is, but you're less likely to see it for what it's not. For a small handful of probably not very complicated reasons, I wrote that story, and another twenty-five just like it, gaping through almost total darkness, my eyes fixed hard on their targets, adamantly, stupidly unyielding.

I've posted a few of those stories here at the Bear Cave, not because I thought they were special or worthwhile, but, well, for two reasons, I suppose. The most obvious and true reason is that I know if the girl about whom those stories were written ever got wind of them being out there, it would most likely chap her ass. Everybody wants to be the hero of other people's stories, nobody wants to be the scourge. A woman I used to be quite close to recently asked me why I am so full of spite. I suspect the answer involves a vitamin deficiency, either vitamin D, or whatever the name is for vitamin give-a-fuck -- riboflavin, maybe? Of course, the question is flawed: I wouldn't say I am, generally speaking, full of spite. There is, however, a tipping point to all things, beyond which there is a reckoning of one sort or another: either you swallow it, or you spit it out.

The other reason I've posted some of the stories -- and this is the more meaningful of the two -- is that I'm just sort of done with them. No, not sort of. I am. I wrote all of them -- more than three-hundred pages in total -- in the span of seventy days, starting about a month after I had to go away for my brief stay in the bin. The stories came so relentlessly, I couldn't have stopped writing them if I'd wanted to (and considering what I was writing, there were many days when I did want to stop). Those couple months were the clearest my head has been at any time in the last five years -- in fact, for the most part, more like the last fifteen years. Some small part of me understood that what I had on my hands was nothing more than a book of sad, desperate pleas to a girl who had stopped listening before I even started talking. It was much less an opus than an exorcism. But goddamn did it feel good to write it, and the day I knew I was finished I sobbed like I had only ever done when my daughter was born. But it's a bad book, a pointless, myopic obsession with moments that, after the fact, I was desperate to imbue with more meaning than they'd ever possessed. Don't get me wrong, that is most definitely one way to do it, and when it's right, that's the kind of book I want to read. It's the kind of book I think a lot of people want to read. But this wasn't that book. And in a sense dumping the stories onto the blog was a way for me to bid them adieu. "I printed my name on the back of a leaf, and I watched it float away." Points if you can name that song without looking it up.

So why am I full of spite? Well, because two years ago right now I was sitting in a cold apartment believing alternately that it would still work out and that nothing would ever work out or feel right again. Alone and half-crazy, I spent the evening chucking teacups and saucers against the wall of a narrow room, watching them shatter against the yellow walls, the pieces scattering across the floor. Tonight, two years gone by, I doubt that room is even yellow anymore. And tonight, I have not even a single teacup to call my own.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Requiem for November

"The past is never dead. It's not even past."
William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

I found the cupboard full of teacups and saucers a few weeks after my last tenant moved out. There were thirty or forty cups and as many saucers, no two alike, adorned with everything from roses and peonies to ornate patterns in red and blue, from plain white with gold rims to solemn cherubs and soaring dragons. Stacked inelegantly in the lower cabinet to the right of the sink, they defied the impression of fragility in spite of the fact that they were so obviously delicate.

I was slowly migrating in the direction of my third floor apartment, pressed to new heights as the utility companies cut off power and water first to the ground floor, where I had lived for almost seven years, then the second floor, which had been empty for almost a month by the time I began squatting there. Finally the top floor was all that was left to me. Through some delightful oversight, the last tenant to jump ship had neglected to have the utilities switched into my name, even though I’d instructed her to do so, and thus the lights continued to shine and the water flowed unabated. I’d rather be lucky than good every day of the week.

It had been ten months since I’d made my last mortgage payment. Notices arrived almost daily apprising me of the actions the bank intended to take. I stopped opening them eventually, knowing I could do nothing to stem the tide, knowing also that one day I would likely climb my steps to find a notice taped to the door and a shiny new padlock dangling from a hasp screwed to the doorframe. I put it out of my mind. I had larger concerns, had at long last laid my hands upon the one thing I genuinely wanted, and nothing as mundane as bankruptcy or foreclosure or even homelessness was going to get in the way of it.

The tenant who had moved out of the third floor was a friend and so, a year earlier when she asked if she could paint, I said, “Sure.” She had done a purely amateur job, slopping paint all over the woodwork and the ceilings, missing spots here and there, but I have to say, relative to the array of off-whites covering every other wall in the house, at the very least the variety of colors gave the tiny apartment a warmth and charm the rest of the house resisted with practical stoicism. There was the orange kitchen, the blue bathroom, the red dining room, the purple living room, and my personal favorite, the unqualified yellow room – favored not for its yellow walls but because no one had ever managed to distinguish the room with a name. Too narrow for a bedroom, too big for a closet, it was simply and unequivocally the yellow room.

Kate promised to stay with me the first night on the third floor. It was a Sunday and she would be making her way back to school, an hour north of me, from a weekend at her father’s place, an hour south. “You’ll need to get me some tea, and help me grade lab reports,” she texted. Then, a little later, “I want to sleep in the purple room.”

No one I knew appreciated whimsy more than Kate. It would be easy and insufficient to say it was because she was much younger than the rest of us, not yet jaded by the years. There was a quality to her sense of wonder that defied obvious explanations. I remember Easter Sunday a year and a half earlier, when she was still living with the Farmer. Dispossessed of our families, the bulk of us had converged on the one good restaurant for a long, cocktail-filled brunch, after which Kate and the Farmer invited us out to walk their land. It was a sunny late April afternoon, a bit blustery, but under blue skies on the back end of what had been a considerable winter, and with our healthy collective buzz, a long walk over rolling fields felt like just the thing. When we got there Kate pulled me away from the group, saying she wanted to show me something. “Let’s see if there are any voles.” Only Peggers, Kate’s dog, followed us, her bum leg swinging behind her like a stiff and awkward second tail. Kate led us away from the group, striding with her shoulders back and her head high, but the flickering grin on her face revealed that this was something new and special and in her enthusiasm she stumbled twice, laughing at herself, her cheeks flushing a shade just shy of crimson.

Next to the lone utility shed a few sheets of corrugated metal lay scattered about. In a low spot beneath the first piece of tin Kate flipped over lay a family of rodents, curled tight and pressed close. Peggers barked and pounced as the voles scattered. She caught one in her mouth and tossed it end over end into the air, then pinned it to the ground with her paw and bit its head off. “Ah!” Kate shrieked, howling with laughter. “What was I thinking?” The dog paused and looked at her mistress to find out if she’d done something wrong. “Circle of life,” I said to Kate. The wide smile never left her face as she rocked back and forth, her body fairly humming with joy.

“And you wonder why I love you,” I whispered.

She lowered her eyes.

“Dumb words,” she said in a voice that didn’t sound like hers, or that version of her. It was the voice of a much younger Kate.

“It’s all I’ve got,” I said.

“Do better,” she replied, sounding like herself again. “Those are just dumb words.”

When I didn’t speak, she said, “Come on. I want to show you the stone wall.” She started out across the field and after a moment’s hesitation Peggers and I followed. “It’s still early for salamanders,” she called over her shoulder, “but maybe we’ll get lucky.”

That was a Sunday in another life. This Sunday I found a set of clean sheets and tossed them on the back of the fold-out couch so there wouldn’t be any time wasted digging around later when it was time to crawl into bed with Kate. I walked downtown and bought two cans of food for the dog and a box of Lipton tea bags for Kate and called it good.

I spent the afternoon at my parents’ house, a rare visit, perhaps the third or fourth time I’d visited with them in the past nine months. Of their five children, I’m the one who lives the closest, and yet the one they see the least. Turns out I’m a worse son than I am a landlord, which is quite an accomplishment. Of late it was mostly a function of wanting to avoid the disheartening details. It’s one thing for your parents to worry about you because they haven’t seen or heard from you in too long. Letting them in on the particular mess you’ve made of your life is an entirely different sort of worry, the kind you don’t want them to have to bear when you’re already into your forties and should be getting more right than wrong by now.

My mother baked a chicken and a batch of her incomparable biscuits. For as long as I could remember she had been making biscuits from scratch, and in nearly forty years I’d yet to experience anything other than one perfect batch after another, in spite of the fact that she’d never once used a measuring cup. I’d known her all my life and still couldn’t comprehend such grace.

With Kate on my immediate horizon I was unusually ebullient that day, more so than I had been in a shamefully long stretch. In the houses of the poor, somebody has to be a comedian because everyone wants to laugh. I’d always been the comedian in our shabby home, and when I wasn’t, as I hadn’t been for too long, whole platoons of concern would lay siege on all sides of me, sending wave after wave against the walls of my uncharacteristic reserve. And so that day I made my little jokes – about the weather, about my father’s ill-fitting new dentures, about the topless coffee shop that had set up camp near the edge of town, rankling my mother in a way I’d never seen.

“It’s ridiculous,” she almost spat. “Who needs to see that?”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “I hear they serve the best doughnuts around. Right, Dad?”

The old man snorted and played along.

“Can’t be beat,” he said. “Or so I hear.”

“It’s all in the presentation,” I concurred.

“You’re both idiots,” my mother said behind a poorly concealed smile.

My father probed around the topic of my unemployment, my house and tenants, but I deflected and he didn’t push. The afternoon rolled along, a satisfyingly light affair, so much so that I let my guard down and found myself telling them about Kate.

The women in my life were not a topic I shared with my parents. Not only had I not brought any women home to meet them in more than a decade, I hadn’t even mentioned anyone to them in the dozen years since my last big love Lucy and I split up. There were plenty of women, some of them appropriately and undeniably wonderful, but nothing ever rose to the level of meeting the parents. They were transient affairs intended to scratch a temporary itch, and although my folks must have wondered, they never asked, and I never brought it up.

“So are you going to send me home with some biscuits?” I asked my mother.

“Don’t I always?” she replied.

“Just making sure,” I said. “I want to impress a girl.”

Based on the look that crossed her face when I said that, I knew for certain she’d wondered, and most likely often worried.

“She’s unique,” I said.

“She must be,” my mother said.

I told them she was in graduate school, told them about Peggers the four-legged three-legged dog, about the year and a half we’d spent getting to know each other, about the Farmer, about the last two months. To my surprise I found myself describing the way Kate tilted her head almost imperceptibly when she bestowed the smile that was just for you, how the corners of her eyes turned up at the same time, reshaping them into identical smiles that emulated the one on her lips.

“She does sound special,” my mother said.

By the time I left, she looked happier than I’d seen her in years. She passed me a large plastic storage bag containing the last of the biscuits and said, “I hope she enjoys them.”

Kate and Peggers arrived shortly after I got home. I stood to hug her, but she had an armload of books and papers and a plastic shopping bag. I settled for hugging the dog instead.

“What’s in the bag?” I asked.

She pulled out a cast iron steeping pot and a small paper sack.

“Tea,” she replied.

“Ah, good,” I said, making a mental note to hide the Lipton.

“Please tell me you have food,” she said. “We’re both starving.”

“You are both very much in luck,” I said. I pulled one of the cans of Alpo Prime Cuts out of the cupboard, opened it and plopped it into a dish for the dog.

“Looks delicious,” she said. “Is there enough for both of us?”

“You get something special,” I told her. I pulled the biscuits out of the cupboard, then opened the fridge and took out ham, provolone and pickles and set everything on the counter. She walked over to me and put her arms around me. I kissed her on the forehead.

“Go make yourself comfortable,” I said. “I’ll bring you a plate.”

“Could you put water on for tea?” she asked.

I started digging around in the cupboards. Except for a few bare necessities, I hadn’t brought any kitchen items upstairs from my apartment. Tenants always left things behind for one reason or another, and so I fully expected to find an old, dented pot that would be sufficient for boiling water. I opened every cupboard and in the last one, instead of a pot of any description, I found the teacups.

Perfect, I thought.

“Be right back.”

I grabbed a flashlight and bounded down the stairs. The first floor apartment had an ominous air at this time of night. Most of my assorted belongings, accumulated and arrayed over seven years of occupying that space, now cold and only dimly illuminated by a flashlight with a dying battery, left me with the sense that I was creeping among somebody else’s things, surrounded by the remnants of a stranger’s demise rather than my own.

It had been so long since I’d bothered to cook anything, it took more than a few minutes to find a small saucepan. As unlikely as it seemed, I found it under the counter where it belonged, clean and ready to be useful.

Upstairs I put the water on, sprinkled tea into the strainer in the teapot, then set about making half a dozen ham, cheese and pickle sandwiches on biscuits.

“Beer?” I called to her.

“Water, please,” she said. “If I have a beer now, I’ll be toast.”

I carried the plate and a glass of water into the living room and set them in front of her on the coffee table.

“I’ll have you know these are the most amazing biscuits you’ll ever taste.”

She looked at me, her eyes wide.

“You baked biscuits?” she asked.

“You’re hilarious,” I said, “but no. These are my mother’s biscuits. Try one.”

She picked up one of the little sandwiches and took a bite. I could tell she was prepared to be polite, but the look that crossed her face after the first bite was unmistakable.

“Oh my god,” she said.


“You need to learn how to make these,” she said.

“Pretty tall order,” I replied. “Many have tried, none have succeeded.”

“I can see why,” she said. “Wow.”

“My sister tried to make them when we were kids,” I told her. “She ended up with something just slightly less edible than hardtack. My brother and I used them to destroy a bees’ nest in the garage. She never baked again.”

“You’re mean,” she said.

“I was six.”

In the kitchen the water was boiling. I poured it slowly over the tea leaves and let it sit for a few minutes. Peggers stood by the door.

“Taking Peggers out,” I said.

“Mm-hmm,” she said through a mouthful of biscuit.

I smoked while the dog wandered around the yard. I looked up and saw that the stars were out. It was almost October and the nights were growing decidedly crisper. Sometime in the next few weeks the first trace of a typically fast approaching winter would settle upon us and it would be too cold to stay in the unheated house. A few weeks seemed very far off at that moment. “Come on,” I called to the dog as I tossed my butt into the driveway.

She was where I’d left her, a green pen in her hand and a stack of lab reports in her lap. She sat with her legs stretched out in front of her, her feet resting on the coffee table beside the now empty plate. I brought the teapot into the living room and poured for her. I opened a beer for myself and settled in beside her.

“Here,” she said, passing me a lab report. “You just worry about the grammar, I’ll grade the science.”

An hour later I was only on my third lab report. I kept pausing to commiserate about the relative illiteracy of college freshmen. Her responses grew more and more brief. Finally I took a long sip of beer, turned to her and asked, “What’s up, kid?”

She stared straight ahead and didn’t say anything for a few minutes. When she finally spoke, she said more or less what I’d been expecting to hear for weeks.

“Ben called me,” she said.

The Farmer. The fucking Farmer.

“He said he was calling to see how I was.”

I nodded.

“What did you say?” I asked.

“Nothing,” she said. “I mean, I don’t know. We just chatted for ten or fifteen minutes, mostly about nothing.”

“That happens,” I said. “Doesn’t sound so bad.”

She sighed and shook her head and then, still not looking at me, she said, “I kind of think I want to marry him.” The look on her face was remarkably devoid of expression.

I nodded, then reached for my beer on the coffee table, rattled it and found it was empty. I stood and picked up her empty teacup and the beer can. “Do you want more tea?” I asked. She shook her head and I said, “Be back in a minute.” She didn’t move or watch me walk away.

The dog followed me into the kitchen but I told her to stay. I descended the stairs to the first floor and let myself in to the dark apartment. I realized then that I still had the beer can and teacup in my left hand. I dropped the can on the floor and kicked it into a corner. The cup dangled from my index finger by its thin, dainty handle as I paced back and forth in front of the door that led from the enclosed porch to what had once been my dining room. It was a beautiful door, solid oak, more than forty inches wide and seven feet tall, a door that in its day, before its essence had been muted by decades of immoderate paint jobs, must have inspired a sense of warmth and a certain invulnerability. I could just make out my reflection in the beveled glass, illuminated weakly by the streetlight on the corner. It really was a beautiful door.

I cradled the teacup in my hand, turned it over and wrapped my hand around the open end, gave it a light squeeze. In that moment I had no doubt I could reduce it to dust if I chose to. I tossed it lightly into the air, made my hand soft and caught it just as lightly. Tossed it again, let it land softly in my palm. Then I eyed the door, eyed the cup in my hand, contemplated the foreseeable consequences of the intersection of the two. I raised my arm and prepared to make that catastrophic confluence of the delicate and the durable a reality.

Sound had an uncanny knack for traveling in that house, and I pictured Kate sitting on the third floor, looking up from the page she was grading, tapping the pen against her bottom lip as she considered what she’d just heard. I paused and held the cup close to my face, tried to locate the precise spot where her lips had touched it as she raised it to her mouth and sipped the steaming tea. That image, Kate drinking her tea, came to me obliquely, existed literally in my memory’s periphery. At my end of the couch I had sat studiously maintaining the impression of someone who was focused on the task in front of him, all the while letting the corner of my eye take her in. For a year and a half that was how I constructed pictures of Kate in my mind, banished as I was to the opposite ends of bars and tables and rooms, constantly under observation for anything that might contribute to the whispered speculations, and so relegated to surreptitious, momentary glimpses. Hers would always be a face that came to me as the sum of a thousand stolen glances.

When the truth finally reveals itself, it is very much like the fat salamander discovered under the flat rock beside the stone wall, the family of voles under the sheet of tin: it wiggles away or scatters in every direction, but not before your eyes take it in, not before your sense of the moment has been altered in some slight but irrefutable way. It hit me with the force of a revelation I never sought: all this time she had, with unfathomable purpose, placed herself precisely where I could see her, where I had to see her. She could have chosen to sit or stand in any number of places, could have concealed herself behind any number of other bodies or simply turned her back entirely, and yet she always chose a spot that put her at just the right angle so that her image, her face, remained effectively in my periphery. Always.

I stepped outside and smoked a cigarette, the teacup once again resting in my free hand. The night had grown colder just in the hour we’d been sitting quietly grading horribly written lab reports. Only a few weeks before we had slept on top of the covers in my first-floor bedroom. She had slept, while I lay awake contemplating the lump in her breast. She had taken my hand and pressed my fingers against the lump and said, “I may be toast.” I smoked slowly, looking up at the stars. In time I made my way back upstairs. I set the teacup on the counter and grabbed myself another beer from the fridge.

“Back in a minute, eh?” she said.

“I got lost,” I replied.

She patted the couch beside her. I sat and she put her arm around me, laying her head on my shoulder.

“They change minute to minute,” she said. “My dumb feelings.”

“Terrific,” I replied.

“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “I’m a mess.”

I took a deep breath. Then I put my arm around her and pulled her close, kissing the top of her head, smelling her hair.

“I know,” I said.

We slept that night under a pile of blankets, Kate on one side of the fold-out couch, me on the other. I didn’t stir when she woke in the morning and got dressed. She sat on the bed and took my hand in hers.

“Dumb words,” she said.

“Dumb words,” I replied.

She leaned down and pressed her forehead against mine.

“Do good work today,” she said.

I didn’t see her again for a week. She came to town the following Sunday morning to meet some friends who were going to the agricultural fair, and she wanted to leave the dog with me for the day. I stood on the steps with Peggers and watched her drive away.

“Come on, Gimpie,” I said, leading the way upstairs.

Peggers and I spent the day in the apartment. I wrote a couple thousand words, but they read like the same sentence written fifty different ways. I finally gave up late in the afternoon, put on a movie and promptly fell asleep with the dog curled up on my feet.

I didn’t hear her come in and, when I opened my eyes, had no idea how long she’d been standing there smiling at us.

“I think she likes you more,” Kate said.

“Than she likes you?” I asked. “Or than you like me?”

She frowned. “Maybe both,” she said.

I sat up and stretched.

“Do you want to get some dinner?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “I’m pretty tired. I think I’m just going to pack up Peggers and head back to school.”

I stared at her for a long time but didn’t say a word.

“Too much work,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

I held up a hand and shook my head.

“Did you write today?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said, although of course that wasn’t entirely true.

“Can I see it?” she asked.

“It’s rough,” I said. “I’ll send it to you tomorrow.”

I walked them to the door, got the sideways hug, and stood at the top of the stairs, listening to them as they descended the stairs, stood there until I heard the downstairs door close behind them.

After she left, I sat at the kitchen table for a while, smoking cigarettes, working my way through the thirty-pack in the fridge, and flipping through songs in my music library on the computer, trying to find one that matched my mood. I didn’t move for hours except to go to the bathroom or grab another beer. It was well after dark and I was plenty drunk by the time it occurred to me to eat something. I opened one of the cupboards and was greeted by the bag of loose tea she’d left behind a week before. I glanced toward the teacup still sitting on the counter. She must have poured the remains from the pot into the cup before she left, as half an inch of murky amber liquid sat in the bottom, shreds of tea leaves floating on the surface. I reached for it, poured the remains down the sink, then held it in my hand as I had that night. It felt like absolutely nothing. I took a step back and threw it as hard as I could into the yellow room. It exploded against the wall, the shards scattering so profusely it was impossible to imagine they had once comprised an entire cup. I nodded my head, opened another beer and sat back down at the table.

I couldn’t sit still. Empty beer cans were scattered among the table, the stovetop, the kitchen counter, the floor. I grabbed those within reach and tossed them, one at a time, into the yellow room. In another minute there wasn’t an empty can standing. Then I opened the cupboard full of tea cups, wrapped my fingers around the first one I came to, one with a lovely red rose in full bloom, and I heaved it against the wall of the yellow room. One by one, I threw every teacup in the cupboard, leaving a sea of shards fanning toward me like a tide coming in. When I’d finished with the cups, I did the same with the saucers. I was breathing hard and my hands were shaking by the time the last saucer spun through the air and blew apart in the next room. I sat in the middle of the floor with my beer and stared at what I’d done.

I stayed like that for some time, struck by something I couldn’t put my finger on. In the low light from the single overhead bulb, viewed from that low angle, the tiny pieces of bone china, set against a couple dozen beer cans of various stripes, looked less like the remains of a cupboard full of cups and saucers than like a thousand flower petals sprinkled across the floor. They suggested a strange sort of hope I found instantly and unbearably distressing.

I stood and walked over to my laptop, unplugged it and carried it to the doorway of the yellow room. It took several tries to get a picture that took in the entire scene. When I was satisfied, I saved the picture, named it “Self-Portrait with Room,” and uploaded it to my Facebook page.

Because most days now we’re all so interconnected, there is no abyss in which to shout.

Because tomorrow the abyss might be all there is.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Foolish Fire

Here's the story I mentioned in the last post. It's an early draft, rife with flaws, but so it goes.

At one in the morning Kate discovered her neighbor’s internet connection, which she’d been poaching for months, had gone down. It was a regular occurrence with no predictable rhyme or reason other than it always seemed to crash when she needed it most. She still had a few hours’ work ahead of her and needed to go online to confirm what she thought she probably already knew before she could finish grading lab reports and call it a night in time to sleep four or five hours and be at least somewhat coherent in class. She closed her laptop with a sigh, packed a bag and climbed into the car.

She pulled into the Tim Horton’s parking lot and, in spite of the usual fatigue, which weighed more heavily than usual on her tonight, and the constant discouragement of dealing with frighteningly lackluster students, she considered her good fortune at the availability of this refuge of sorts. Such nice people, the Canadians, offering a twenty-four hour a day oasis for insomniacs and graduate students and the desperately lonely.

Surprisingly there were only two other customers at that hour, both of whom sat alone far from each other, leveling identical blank looks in the general direction of their coffee cups. She chose a table near an outlet, plugged in her laptop and went to the counter.

“Medium coffee, please,” she said. “For here.”

The girl behind the counter looked momentarily puzzled, then started to walk away before turning and asking, “Cream and sugar?”

“Milk, please,” Kate said.

Half a minute later the girl returned with the coffee. “Here you go,” she said.

Kate took the cup and, holding two one-dollar bills in her left hand, waited for the girl to tell her how much it was. When the girl continued to stand there with a blank look on her face, Kate said, “Well, here,” and passed the girl the two dollars.

“Thank you,” the girl said. Kate waited another few seconds for the girl to ring up the sale and give her change, but that started to seem less and less likely, and so she gave up and returned to her table. She sat down, took a sip of coffee and clicked the icon for her web browser. The window opened, but nothing happened. What the fuck, she whispered. She stood and walked back up to the counter.

“I’m sorry to bother you,” she said, “but do you know if the wi-fi is working?”

The girl behind the counter cocked her head to the side like a pure-bred golden retriever, the sort of animal that is no more or less than half as dumb as the stick being thrown for its amusement. She shrugged.

“Could you check it?” Kate asked. When the girl didn’t respond, Kate went on, “Maybe reset the router?”

“Um,” the girl said, “I don’t have any routers.”

Kate nodded her head and frowned as she turned to go back to her table. As frustrating as it was not to be able to get online, she decided she was no worse off here without an internet connection than she had been in her cheerless apartment, and so she pushed the laptop out of the way, grabbed the stack of lab reports from her bag and set them on the table in front of her.

Although it had been months since she’d seen or talked to him, she found once again that it wasn’t possible for her to be in a Tim Horton’s without thinking about Miller. They had sat together like this with their laptops open on numerous occasions, when he was visiting her or when she was visiting him, TimHo’s being the new ubiquitous outcropping in every small city she knew. Their respective pirated internet connections were constantly going down, and so they would climb into the Flying Dumpster and find themselves drinking weak coffee and taking advantage of the free wi-fi late into the night and early morning.

As hard as she tried to focus on the pages in front of her, her mind nonetheless kept wandering back to him. The last she’d heard from him directly, he’d texted to ask if she would return some books of his she had borrowed but never read. She’d meant to read them, but as it turned out she didn’t even have time for everything she was supposed to read for her classes, and so the guilty pleasure he’d reintroduced to her life once again slipped away. The only other time his name had come up in the intervening months was when Sophie told her she’d gotten a strange text from him telling her he’d used her name for a character in a story and he hoped she didn’t mind.

“I texted back and said of course not and wished him luck with the story,” Sophie said. “Then it got weirder. He said ‘Luck’s for the Irish, Soph, but thanks.’ I’m guessing he was drunk.”

Probably, Kate thought, but she smiled just the same. Luck. Oh, Miller kid.

For an hour or more she willed her eyes to follow the lines of text on the pages in front of her, commanded her brain to follow the eyes’ example. The students, of course, were no help: every misplaced modifier, dangling participle, random smattering of commas, and sentence that was not a sentence recalled for her the night he tried to help her grade, correcting their abysmal grammar while she graded the science. It was one of the last nights they had spent together. No, it was the last night. It didn’t seem possible, but just then she understood that it was true.

She felt herself beginning to slip toward the sad, dark place in her head that particular realization was bound to take her, when the girl from behind the counter walked up to her table.

“Can I get you anything else?” she asked.

“No,” Kate said. “I’m fine. Thank you.”

The girl fidgeted, attempting to slide her hands into the pockets of what she quickly remembered were pocketless pants, and shifting her considerable weight from one foot to the other. “Are you sure?” she asked.

“I am,” Kate said. “But thank you just the same.”

“Well,” the girl said, “they told me if people sit here for more than an hour not ordering anything I should tell them to leave.”

“I beg your pardon?” Kate replied.

“Because of the internet,” the girl said. “People just use the internet and don’t buy anything.”

“But your internet isn’t even working right now,” Kate said.

“That’s what they told me,” the girl said.

Kate stared at the girl for several seconds before asking, “So you’re telling me I have to leave?”

“Unless you buy something,” the girl said. “Sorry. That’s what they told me.” She turned and waddled in the direction of the counter.

Kate stared after the girl for several seconds, watched her walk around behind the counter and busy herself rearranging cups and stirrers. Finally she gathered her papers and her laptop, stuffed them hastily into her shoulder bag, then walked purposefully to the counter. “May I have a customer comment card, please?” she asked.

The girl’s eyes grew wide and her mouth twisted in a way that made Kate wonder if she might cry. Then she realized the girl didn’t know what she was talking about.

“Right there,” Kate said, pointing to a stack of printed cards next to the register. The girl’s eyes followed Kate’s finger, and she passed over one of the cards. “Thank you,” Kate said.

She dug through her bag and found a pen – appropriately enough, the pen Miller had let her borrow the night they graded lab reports at his house so many months ago. She held the pen above the card for a moment, considering, then wrote, “Your coffee is weak, your wi-fi doesn’t work, and your employees are too dumb for words.” She paused again, held the pen to her lips, then finished with a flourish. “Go fuck yourself, Canada.”

She folded the card in two and dropped it into the box emblazoned with the hopeful words, “Tell us what you think!”

In class that morning she struggled so hard to keep her eyes open that at times she felt them crossing. Her inability to focus left her so agitated she began plucking less than consciously at her left eyebrow, a habit she’d been trying to shake for as long as she could remember. When she realized she was doing this in a room full of earnest graduate students, some of whom, she was sure, couldn’t help but notice, she immediately dropped her arm below the table and as surreptitiously as possible began pinching her thigh at irregular but continuous intervals. That seemed to keep her awake and free from the dreaded eyebrow plucking, but it did nothing for her drifting thoughts. Although her addled mind offered no answer to the question of what she wanted to be doing just then, it did seem determined to make it abundantly clear that what she did not want was to be sitting in a seminar on methods for teaching math.

“Why are you doing it?” Miller asked her once when she’d told him she thought she should run off to Mexico instead.

“I want to save the world,” she said.

“How?” he asked her. “By teaching?”

“By changing the way we teach,” she said.

“There’s your answer then,” he said.

He would say that, of course. He would always tell her she was doing the right thing, even when what she was doing was stomping mud holes in his heart. She had known all along she was bewitching him, but she fooled herself for a long time into believing he was along for the ride no less than she was. While at first she’d done it for the thrill and the attention and the satisfaction of turning a head, in time she found her motives growing unreasonably complicated, at least for her: some days she did it because she felt she owed it to him and didn’t want to hurt him; other days she simply couldn’t stop herself, and damn the consequences.

“You drink too much,” she told him one night in a critical rant intended to explain why they could never be together, “you don’t care enough about the world, you don’t cook, don’t have a job, and you own a cat.”

“Nonetheless,” he replied, “I do love you.”

“You have tragically bad taste in women,” she said to that.

“Almost certainly,” came his reply.

“Besides,” she said, “They’re just dumb words anyway.”

“Dumb?” he said. “Dumb words? You say that to a writer? How would you like it if I said salamanders are just dumb amphibians? Or that moths are just dumb insects?”

“They are,” she answered.

He stared at her for a long stretch of seconds during which she willed herself not to look away. This felt like a moment to her, an occasion for making some sort of progress, whatever that might mean.

“Do with this what you will,” he finally said, “but I don’t think anything that brings you a measure of joy can be considered dumb.”

The scraping of chairs being pushed back from the table woke her, and when she opened her eyes she had the sudden sensation that everyone in the room, as they packed up their belongings, was studiously avoiding looking her way. How long could she have possibly slept, she wondered. Reaching for her things and stuffing them into her bag, she sighed and shook her head. With the back of her hand she wiped a smear of drool from her chin.

With time to kill before lab she wandered across the dreary campus to the Union for a sandwich and a place to sit. She chose a table in the corner and opened her laptop. Because she was already thoroughly preoccupied, she opted for continued meaningless distraction rather than a potentially constructive solution and logged into Facebook.

Miller’s status updates still popped up on her news feed from time to time, and when they did she would, without a moment’s hesitation, click through to his page, even though what she found there often felt like she was dragging a serrated blade across her knuckles. He had defriended her sometime before Thanksgiving, the same weekend she had come to his house and found a bag of her belongings – plus everything she had ever given him – sitting in his hallway. The next morning she had logged into Facebook intending to post something oblique on his wall, something that would show him that she still loved him, that it was completely and utterly about her own temporary loss of balance. She’d keyed his name into the search pane and, when his profile popped up, was about to type something when she noticed the icon suggesting she add Miller as a friend.

But he had an open page – so very Miller, she thought, unguarded in an unexpectedly guileless way – and so she could see everything that went on there. After she had left him the previous night, he had uploaded link after link to video clips of songs that had once meant something specifically to the two of them: “Skyway,” “Hold On,” “The Moth,” “Cello Song,” “Stay Or Leave,” “Waltz #2” and on and on. Each clip he introduced with some version of the sentiment “Fuck you.”

He went along in this vein for another two days, quoting song lyrics with a particular bite, lines of poetry he knew she’d recognize, snippets of texts and emails she had written him over the last year and a half. And then he just stopped cold. For weeks he didn’t post a single update or link, didn’t comment on anything anyone else had to say. He disappeared. When a few days had passed with no sign of him, she considered the possibility that he was embracing the philosophy she’d learned as a child from the movie Bambi, which she tried so hard to live, and which she had reiterated in his presence so many times, particularly as they found themselves more and more frequently under the stern glares of meddling acquaintances: “If you can’t say anything nice . . .” But she knew Miller, knew that if that had been his aim, his last post would have been one simple word: Thumper. No, there was something terribly wrong. She considered the possibilities and grasped for a way to check in, but she suspected the only two people who would know for certain what was going on were Peaches and Hank, and she understood without having to ask that neither of them would speak to her, about Miller or about anything. And so she buried herself in work, spent weekends with her father and, occasionally, her sister. And she held her breath.

More than a month went by before she finally saw a sign of him. It was the week before Christmas, and he posted a quote from French writer Francoise Sagan (she’d had to look it up): “I have loved to the point of madness, that which is called madness, that which to me is the only sensible way to love.” She noticed that a handful of the many women in Miller’s life “liked” the post. The lone comment came from Big Puma, who wrote simply, “Bullshit.”

That afternoon as she killed time waiting for another pointless lab section, she went to Miller’s page and scrolled through the most recent posts. She hadn’t been here in weeks. There were the usual assorted music clips, some sad, some angry, mostly from bands she didn’t recognize. He quoted song lyrics from Wilco, Elliott Smith, the National. More than a week ago he’d written, “I give up – so go ahead, surprise me.” He took a shot at Blind Melon, a band he’d teased her about because Ben was a fan. Miller must have found himself trapped somewhere while “No Rain” played in the background. He posted a quote about moths that she didn’t recognize and wasn’t able to find when she googled it: “We were moths, and we were flames, and we could have danced like that, unceasing and curiously insistent, until the last match flared and died.” She considered the possibility that he had written it himself. His most recent post said simply, “Then keep your light on.”

She was about to click through to her own page when Facebook refreshed and a new post popped up. It was a quote from The Great Gatsby, posted seconds ago: “I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.”

Her breath caught in her throat for an instant, and she leaned forward with her elbows on the table and held her head in her hands. She sat like that for several minutes, then closed her laptop, dropped it into her bag, and went out to the Flying Dumpster to smoke and doze until it was time to be somewhere. She rested her head against the back of the seat and watched through the windshield as a light but steady drizzle began to fall.

It felt like just her luck that the Friday afternoon lab section she instructed – her third of the week, while no other T.A. had more than two and most only one – was top-heavy with the utterly challenged. Each lab was scheduled for two and a half hours, but the requirement was to stay until you’d completed the day’s experiment, which for more than a handful of the Friday afternoon students meant a lab that started at two o’clock rarely saw her exiting the building before five-thirty. When, mercifully, the last little creep put his test tubes away and found the exit, Kate waved goodbye to the room, turned out the lights and locked the door behind her.

After lab she drove straight home to get the dog, didn’t linger in her apartment any longer than it took to gather enough clean clothes to get her through the weekend, then got on the highway and headed south to her father’s house. Fifty minutes later she passed Miller’s exit, and her eyes drifted over the familiar beacons at the edge of town: the Holiday Inn, the Volkswagen dealership, the McDonald’s arches, the big-box cluster of Walmart and Home Depot and Staples. It would have been so easy to point the nose of the car toward the exit. But she was too certain of what she would find there to take that chance.

When she finally did exit the highway, instead of driving up to the West End to her father’s house, she drove down toward the water and parked near the pier where she and Miller had sat after staying up all night talking on Elizabeth’s couch. Toward sunrise they realized Peaches and Elizabeth had disappeared, and so they gathered themselves and wandered down to the waterfront in search of breakfast. They took a booth in the back, far from the few early risers who sat perched on stools at the counter, drank weak coffee and wolfed down runny eggs and soggy bacon and burnt toast. When they’d finished he offered to walk her to her father’s, but she still wasn’t ready to leave him and so suggested they go down to the pier. They sat with their legs dangling over the edge, gazing across the bay, smoking cigarettes. She couldn’t remember which one of them saw the harbor seal first. Probably him, he was usually the one to spot the unexpected. While the seal bobbed in the swell looking back at them, she asked him if he knew about selkies.

“I don’t,” he said.

And so she told him the Irish folktale about the fisherman who came across a beautiful woman sunning herself on the rocks, about how he stood and watched her, captivated by her beauty. He was still gazing at her, enraptured, when she stood, wrapped herself in some sort of skin and then dove into the icy water. After several seconds, instead of her lovely black locks breaking the surface, he saw the head of a seal. The fisherman returned day after day to watch her emerge from the water as a seal and remove her skin to reveal the beautiful woman underneath. Then one day he crept up on her as she slept, stole her skin and took her home. He locked the skin away in a chest, married the woman and raised a family with her. She was a loving wife and mother, but always there was something in her eyes. Then one day one of the children stumbled upon the key, opened the trunk and discovered the skin. When she showed it to her mother, the woman wept, then gathered up her skin, kissed each child, and returned to the sea.

“No wonder seals have such sad eyes,” Miller said.

She loved him for saying that, loved that he understood. She tried to tell him that with her own eyes, but after a night without sleep in the midst of a stretch during which she had gone sleepless far too often, she feared her eyes gave away little if anything more than her ongoing weariness.

“This,” she said, “is part of why we Irish will always be such a sad and tragic people.”

“Not so tragic,” he said, patting her knee. “You’ll always have that particular, peculiarly Irish luck thing going for you, right?”

“It’s only good if you wish it on others,” she’d told him.

“You keep it,” he said, smiling. “I’m already pretty lucky.”

Except for Peggers sniffing around one of the stanchions, she stood alone at the end of the pier, the evening already far too dark for her to see a seal or anything else floating in the water. It had started to rain again, softly at first, but rain that time of year, soft or not, always had more weight than it seemed it should. She heard a fishing boat chugging past halfway across the bay, going the wrong way to be returning to port after a day in open water, only its green starboard light visible from where she stood. She didn’t know what she thought she’d find, but there was nothing for her here. She smoked one last cigarette, then whistled for the dog, returned to her car and drove up the hill to her father’s.

They ate a quiet dinner, after which she left him alone with his wine and sad songs and retired to her room. She closed the door behind her, pulled her laptop out and climbed into bed.

The usual hodgepodge of new emails greeted her: students complaining about their grades or pleading for extensions, amnesty, mercy; an update from the department chair; a gripe about the update from one of her fellow grad students; the ever-present announcements that she had been reached out to in various ways via Facebook. There were messages from two women from the old crew who still spoke to her – the ones who had never liked Miller to begin with and so were glad to see her done with him. They wondered how she was, why they hadn’t heard from her, hoped to see her soon. As she read the second message, the one from Cakester, she noticed a green dot pop up just below her own name in the sidebar and glanced to see who it was.

Miller. She stared at the dot, checked to ensure that there was a similar dot beside her own name. She bit her lip, took a very deep breath, and slowly plucked at one eyebrow. The dot didn’t go away, and half of her wished that in the next moment she’d hear a plip and see a few words from him pop up in the corner of the screen, even though more than half of her knew that wouldn’t happen.

She was reminded again of The Great Gatsby, a book he’d recommended to her not long after they’d first met – in fact, he had let her read his own dog-eared, marked-up copy. She loved it, loved the story, but especially loved reading the passages he had underlined, loved stumbling across the notes he’d written in the margins. She loved seeing Miller’s younger self through the pages, younger even when he had first read that book than she was when he had handed it to her. She lay in bed with the laptop open in front of her and thought about Gatsby standing at the edge of his blue lawn, casting his eyes across the water to the green light that glowed at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock. He’d convinced himself it was a beacon of hope, but in truth it was like following the will-’o-the-wisp into the swamp. She considered how things might have gone differently for Gatsby had the green light never appeared, or if, at some point before he’d hopelessly mired himself in the morass, the light had simply vanished, flickered and gone out. Would his life have been spared, or would the sudden absence of the green light have hastened his end? Impossible to know, and because she was a practical girl, a scientist ultimately, she could only base her conclusion in this matter on known outcomes, of which there was only one: Gatsby’s hopes clung to the green light, which was never extinguished, which shone on even after Myrtle Wilson’s cuckolded husband staggered through the hedge to find Gatsby floating in the pool, and poor doomed Gatsby met his tragic, untimely death. The only concrete evidence she had was that which resulted from the green light’s unending presence, and thus Kate believed – fairly knew – that her own hope would have to rest upon an admittedly weak hypothesis that followed the opposite path. His name on the screen and the green dot beside it blurred as tears welled in her eyes. She tipped her head back and let the tears slide down her cheeks and down the back of her neck.

An instant later she sat upright again, shook her head, steadied her breath, then clicked on the drop-down arrow beside her name. With her eyes she scrolled down the status options until she saw the word “Invisible.” She inhaled a slow, deep breath and let it out just as slowly and evenly, her hand poised above the touchpad, then with her little finger she moved the cursor and pressed down, extinguishing the green light forever.

Saturday, October 20, 2012


Some days I feel less like a writer than a patient and accomplished solitaire player. In the last two hours I've played a dozen or so hands of a complicated variety the name of which I don't recall -- it involves two decks and a willingness to accept that you're going to lose much more often than you win. I think I've won once, lost half a dozen times and abandoned the rest. That's the thing about solitaire in general, and solitaire in particular when you're just trying to fill the spaces between sentences that don't want to come: it's easy not to have a dog in that fight.

I'm sitting in the front window of Cohill's Irish Pub in Lubec, Maine, staring alternately across the water at Campobello Island and at the seals bobbing in the shelter of the breakwater. I can't remember the last time I was this close to Canada. Or harbor seals. The rain finally let up about half an hour ago, but it's still heavy and grey, and the wind coming off the water from the south shows no signs of shifting or dying down. Even the seagulls lined up along the jetty seem perturbed. It's late October, and I suspect that means something to them just as it does to me.

It's probably fair to say that the fact that it's October has contributed as much to the tone of my mood the last few weeks as has my current state of being between homes. Time creates the impression of distance, but it takes more than an accumulation of weeks, months and years to diminish the effects of cruel dark days: it requires the sort of resolve that won't be shaken by turning the page of the calendar or watching seals dive for their dinner.

This time a year ago I was about a year separated from what had become in many ways the worst time of my life. In the course of those twelve months I'd written a book's worth of stories, kept myself mostly employed, found a shabby cave to call home, and managed to convince myself that I had, for all intents and purposes, put the hard times behind me. I was writing, chasing women and cracking wise like a reasonable facsimile of my old self. Not bad. But it was almost certainly a mistake to anoint myself the reinstated master of my domain before all the votes had been counted. You live, you learn -- or at least you'd better, or else why bother.

So it's October again, and I've spent unacceptable amounts of time every day for the last several weeks staring at the ceiling and sighing like someone's sitting on my chest. And the hell of it is, that's a lousy way to be when you're trying to write. Or do much of anything, actually. But then I sat down in a pub in the easternmost town in the U.S., looked up and saw a bunch of seals, and I remembered an Irish girl with green eyes who one evening in a bar almost two-hundred miles west of here regaled me with the legend of the selkies. It's a delightful story, typically Irish-heartbreaking. I wrote a short story about it once, and I like that story for a handful of reasons, but mostly because it was that rarest of instances when I wrote about that particular girl and allowed for the possibility that she had a conscience. In the month of October, it's hard for me to believe that could be so. But that's okay: October's only ever thirty-one days long.

A bald eagle just swooped across the bay and descended upon the jetty, scattering the three dozen witless seagulls like Polish cavalry before the blitzkrieg. The tide's coming in, and the seals are still at it. I'll play one more hand of solitaire -- because right now I don't feel like having a dog in anyone's fight, not even my own.

Sunday, September 23, 2012


Well folks, this is it: the last full day of the Bear Cave. The belongings are stuffed into bags and boxes, ready to be stashed in a secure location. It’s mildly startling to see how little really does remain from the halcyon days of the height of empire. Six small boxes of books, three large garbage bags of clothes, a box of photographs (mostly of my daughter), a duffel bag’s worth of shoes and assorted nonsense (water bottle, coffee cup, blank CDs, a Red Sox Magic 8-Ball, the chili pepper lights that died but which I won’t leave behind because they were a present from my daughter the first Christmas after her mother and I split up), a shoebox of knickknacks, a sorely lacking tool tote, two cigar boxes I’m not going to look in until I have a home again, half a dozen jackets (one, the down jacket I would be wearing this winter, with a broken zipper), a printer, an iMac, a desk, a mattress, a fifty-foot extension cord, two power strips, a tote containing a remarkably strange assortment of bathroom items, two blankets, two pillows, and the backpack I carry pretty much everywhere. I can practically throw the entire mess right on my back.

I’ve spent so many nights the last thirteen months, as I attempted sleep, reflecting on what I came to call the “things that were lost in the fire.” Some of what stayed behind I never think much about: the two TVs and affiliated DVD players, the three fairly nice suits, an array of kitchen items that might reasonably suggest that I actually can cook, couches and chairs, desks and tables, bookcases. The scattered last days I found myself in that building, well into a genuinely cold winter, it wasn’t the fact that there was no heat, no lights, no running water that compelled me to skirt past all those items without even for an instant caring whether I ever saw them again. Other things I did intend to salvage but ultimately failed. Every pair of shorts I owned. A handful of impressive gargoyle statues. My daughter’s guitar. Dozens of quality pens. Hundreds of books of all sorts. The stamp collection my grandfather gave me when I was eight. Every time I walked into that house during the winter of 2010-11, it was like being under water. I grabbed what I could carry before my breath gave out, and then I made a desperate lunge for the surface. Weeks after the last dive, the bank took the house, and though there was never any real fire, what was left was consumed nonetheless in the flames of two years very badly spent.

Now just what’s on my desk remains to be packed. Five pens. Two not quite dead lighters. A cup of water. And dozens of index cards. I’m a notorious note taker. Anyone who’s ever seen me pull one of my ubiquitous black notebooks from my pocket to scribble a line or two in the midst of a conversation can attest to that. The card on the top of the pile is a timeline of my school days from kindergarten to twelfth grade, listing the years and my age in each grade. On the back of that card is a list of my homeroom teachers, as best I can remember them. I was trying to recall a particular teacher, the one who compelled me to master my mother tongue. Another card notes the date of death of the grandfather I never knew, the one who blew his own brains out three and a half years before I was born. There are quotes from people I admire, song lyrics, brief descriptions of ideas for essays and stories. I wrote the opening paragraph of an essay eviscerating the dimwitted Jennifer Weiner for her comments about Esquire magazine publishing men’s fiction. I jotted a quick description of a once beautiful woman I used to admire: “. . . now she has the sunken cheeks and bulging eyes and gaping mouth full of over-large teeth of a Tim Burton character.”

It’s true, she does look like a Tim Burton character. She was much more attractive, at least physically, back in November 2010 when I took another sort of inventory: I wandered around what was then my house and gathered up everything she’d left there, threw it all in a bag, left it in my hallway and told her to please pick it up by the next day or it was going in the trash. She picked it up, and if she ever bothered to look inside, here’s what she found:

one surf clam shell
(left to be found)
one snail shell
(just left)
one piece mica
one pair grey wool socks
one chemistry textbook
(won in a card game)
one pair fake pearl earrings
(lost in a card game)
one can Alpo Prime Cuts dog food
(for the three-legged dog)
one pouch loose-leaf green tea
(for the girl)
one paper plate
(suggestive birthday art)
three short stories written by her in college
(her only copies)
one precocious child’s self-published school newsletter, No Recess Anonymous
(wrapped in an issue of the New Yorker)
one mix CD
(18 songs)
one St. Christopher medal
(found on the street)

And now she looks like a Tim Burton character. Who would have guessed.

The one thing I inadvertently kept from those days was a dried aster she left in my mailbox three years ago, back when she was failing miserably at being entirely faithful to her then boyfriend, the beloved Farmer. I had propped it in the funky piece of sculpture that used to hang on the doorframe in my former kitchen, functional art from which my keys dangled. When I deserted that house, the goofy sculpture came with me, hanging from two nails tapped into the doorframe in the Bear Cave. The aster sat on my desk that entire time. I was a little amazed it didn’t crumble and fall apart somewhere along the way. Pale and innocuous, I rarely noticed it was there. But packing and sorting, especially this brand of packing and sorting, leaves me feeling bitterly sentimental, and bitter sentiments usually lead to unequivocal gestures. The aster, the last dry reminder of days dark with longing and misguided purpose, floated briefly, then swirled swiftly in that tempest in a toilet bowl, descended into the muddy maelstrom, and disappeared. And good fucking riddance.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Au revoir, Bear Cave.

It's a room roughly twenty feet long and fifteen feet wide with dark paneling on three walls and, mercifully but inexplicably, one accent wall of off-white mottled panels, the sort you find in value-priced pre-fabricated homes. There is a sizable foyer and a walk-in closet, and there is an afterthought of a bathroom (toilet and sink, but no shower). In one corner of the exterior wall, an air-conditioner occupies what might once have been a window but which is now simply a cutout that gives the AC access to the outside. Other than the cutout, there are no windows. The only way to know if it's day or night is to have faith in what the clock tells me; the only way to determine whether I'll need a jacket or possibly an umbrella is to descend the stairs and step out onto the sidewalk. It is strange and occasionally insufficient and frequently surreal, but for the past thirteen months it has also been home. It is the Bear Cave.

How and why I came to be living in the Bear Cave is a less than inspiring story: I went broke, as a wise guy once said, gradually and then quite suddenly, lost my marbles, lost my house, and then spent the next ten months living off the largesse of friends. I finally managed to scrape together a few bucks, but only a very few, and in a stroke of what felt like genius it occurred to me that I didn't need a big, fancy apartment: what I needed, quite simply, was four walls and a ceiling, with a lock on the door, and this being Waterville, there was plenty of low-rent, no-frills office space available. The lack of a shower has certainly been less than ideal, but just as necessity is the mother of invention, it is also fair to say that poverty decides the relative value of convenience. My friends Chili and Smurfette gave me a mattress and a desk, I lugged my remaining belongings up the stairs, and for the time being I had most of what I needed.

Not unexpectedly, living in a windowless cave has its downsides. The lack of ambient light considerably screwed with my sleep patterns. Stretches when I was flat broke saw me hunkering down in the cave for a day or two at a time, not venturing out for any reason. The walls, already close, crept in, casting a pall over already dark days. A couple months after I moved in, I scratched "RIP GB," very faintly, into the desktop. With the overhead fluorescent lights on, you can't even see it's there, but if I turn out the lights, illuminating the room with nothing more than the glow of my computer monitor, the inscription jumps right out at you.

It wasn't all bad, though. There was a reliable unsecured wifi signal. There were distraction-free hours sitting at my desk typing away. For a few months there was a long, tall dame who dared to cross the threshold from time to time. And there was a roof, and walls, and a lock on the door.

At the end of my first summer after college, I moved with my girlfriend to Seattle. This was 1991, and Seattle was an outstanding place for kids like us to go for an adventure. The day after we arrived, though, she announced that she didn't think we should live together. She wasn't entirely wrong: it didn't really fit her sense of herself, this shacking up with a dude she was sure even then would never become her version of husband material. Of course, she had no sense of how or why this was devastating to me: she didn't know because I'd never really talked to her about my own sense of the precariousness of HOME. She was a nice upper middle-class girl from Winchester, Massachusetts, and as intriguing as parts of my story were to someone like her, that part I was still keeping to myself. We were staying with her sister and broth-in-law for the first few weeks in Seattle, and when she made her announcement about our future living situation, I walked out the door and made my way up to Capitol Hill, where my friend Q was living with his mother. It was a long walk, and I made it longer, pausing frequently to ponder the terrain, sizing up benches and discreet corners where, as far as I knew that day, I might soon find myself holed up. I was twenty-two years old and three-thousand miles from home and scared shitless. And I hated my girlfriend's guts a little bit right then, not because she didn't want to live with me, but because she could have told me that before I got on the fucking plane.

But it wasn't her fault: I put myself there in that distant city with a girl who was, ultimately, a placeholder. Just as I put myself here, in the Bear Cave which, a week from tomorrow, I'll have to vacate. In spite of the fact that my landlord is kind of a dick, this isn't his fault -- he's been patient. Plus, I wasn't really supposed to be living here in the first place. Even a dick is entitled to his money, and a cave is no place for a man. There are things I'll miss about the place, but they are the obvious things. I can't say I feel at all sentimental about it. Anyway, until further notice, the view from this particular Bear Cave will be cloudy at best. I'll leave you with a little Twilight Singers for your Sunday pleasure. You can dance to it if you want.

Underneath the Waves -- Twilight Singers