Writer Dreams and Stranger Things

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I’ve always wanted to be a writer. And by “always,” I mean after I stopped wanting to be a paleontologist (ages 4-8) and shortstop for the New York Yankees (ages 8-12), I have wanted to be a writer.  In contrast, I never wanted to be a pastor–though I did put it in our “Class Prophecy” in 8th grade, that I would become a wino pastor, imagining that both of those things were equally unlikely.  I’m long been curious if any of my classmates remember that.  

I first thought about writing when one of my teachers, John Knox, told me I was good at it.  Up until then, I loved to read and spent some of my happiest hours getting lost in novels, sometimes all nighters, but I hadn’t given much thought to anything beyond  getting an “A” on an essay.  Mr. Knox was sarcastic, even a touch cynical at times, and he conveyed through that language, which I already spoke fluently, that I had something.  I took an extra semester of grammar instead of American Literature because he told me if I wanted to be a writer, I needed to have my grammar locked in.  He was the first person to tell me that you need to know the rules before you start breaking the rules. John Knox changed the direction of my life by identifying a gift I had and helping me to believe in it.  

Mr. McAvoy taught the junior and senior English classes at our high school.  He was hilarious and insightful and ridiculous and honest.  He confirmed for me what John Knox saw, and pressed his conviction that I could become a writer.  Mike McAvoy died several years ago.  This will sound funny–or maybe it won’t–but in addition to grieving his death, I felt like I had failed him, because I wanted him to see that I had achieved what he believed I could.  He wrote me a letter at the end of my senior year in which he told me that I was the most gifted writer he’d ever had in class.*

“All beginnings are hard.”  Chaim Potok

I went to college all pumped up to become a famous novelist who would write profound, world-shifting books which would, incidentally, make me rich.  I majored in English Literature–then was too afraid to take a single creative writing course.  Not one in four years.  Even though I’d gone there partly because they had such a strong English department and offered creative writing as its own major.  

How does that make sense?  

If you’ve ever attempted to write something that someone else will read, you’ll likely have experienced what I’m about to describe, at least to some degree.  The inner conflict between “I have the urge to write so people will care about my words” and “NO! Don’t look at it!”  Writing school essays can feel like this, but since they are assigned, there’s a sense of “Well, you asked for it.”  But writing in the hope that what you say will matter to someone, that it will connect with another person’s life, that’s scary.  Intimidating.  And then there’s this:

WHAT IF I’M NO GOOD?

That’s what stopped me for a long time.  Years.  As a wonderful, damaged, cynical and grace-filled friend of mine taught me, “Nothing ventured, nothing lost.”  He was pointing out a truth most of us live by.  There are, by some estimates, 200 million people in the United States who believe that they could write a book.  Safe to say, there aren’t that many published authors, even if we count loosely those folks who have blogs, write for anything that appears as a publication in print, including Hallmark, and the people who can crank out killer office memos.

It’s much easier to imagine you might be great than to find out you aren’t.  It’s much safer to believe that you’ll be a writer “someday,” or to tell yourself you would become an author “if only…”, than to write and try to find readers who care anything about what you’ve written.

Writing is scary almost exactly to the degree that failure is scary.  I am not a successful writer by most reasonable definitions, which suggests that I have no grounds to be telling of these things–except that I am a writer who is still trying and thus, every day, risking failure.  Facing failure.  Dealing with failure.  And writing more words.  So perhaps I can say this as Everyman.  

Back to my chronology, I got a little side-tracked from my rich-and-famous dreams by this lifelong obsession with grace.  But I also had to overcome my fears in order to write.  It took me many years past college to find the courage to try.  I found out what I was terrified, and, for a long time, paralyzed to know–I’m not as great as I imagined.  Publishers and agents did not weep, fall to their knees, and rejoice to their God above that I had deigned to send my genius-disguised-as-prose to them.  Mostly, they sent form rejections, or just ignored my offerings entirely.  

That’s a special feeling.  To labor on a short story–not a novel, a short story, not a work that could by any stretch of the imagination earn any meaningful money, but to invest a year of spare hours on a few thousand words that you compose and refine and edit and sharpen and shorten and tighten and polish and send…into the void.  Into the silence.  Into the indifference of a publishing world that doesn’t notice your work, or your words, at all.

Do you cry then?  Go back to watching football?  Tell yourself they are oafs and ignoramuses who wouldn’t know a great short story if it was attached to a two-by-four and thunked against their skulls?

Here’s what I learned:  you do whatever it takes to get back to writing, to keep writing.  Every time I started a new story, article, novel, or scribble, I used to write at the top, “A writer writes.”  I pray all the time that God will use what I write, but if I don’t actually write anything, then I’m burying my coin in the ground.  Jesus told a parable about that.  Self-doubt probably accounts for a high percentage of that backyard “banking.”  

I spent several years building up momentum.  I had a short story praised and considered by the New Yorker.  Flattering.  In the end they rejected it but never gave me a single negative about it–the equivalent of getting an essay back with only positive comments but also a “C-.”  Huh?  I found an editor at a great literary journal who showed interest in my work, I submitted a story and finally got back the words, “I love this”…and then she resigned.  And the journal failed to honor their commitment to publish the story.  

And then ceased publication.  

I consider that time period Round One of my match against myself and the world to become a writer.  It took years to muster the courage to try, more years to write a bunch of lousy stuff, then to slowly develop my voice and learn to recognize what was lousy and what wasn’t, and then yet more years–actual years, measured in full calendars–to recover from those disappointments.  l didn’t acknowledge to myself that I was stopping, I just “got distracted.”  I “focused on other things.”  But coming back to our handy definition, I wasn’t writing.  A writer writes.  

Round Two started about four years later.  I was puttering around, scribbling a little here and there.  I had a short story I’d worked on and completed years before, but nothing is ever really  finished when you can open the file and start fine tuning again.  As I was tinkering with the ending, suddenly the horizon opened up.  In all the time I’ve spent writing, it was perhaps the best feeling I’ve ever had.  Up until that moment, I’d never made serious progress into a novel, not for lack of trying, but for lack of finding a sustaining idea.  As I’d learned to sort the lousy from the potentially-not-lousy, all of my fits and starts of novels revealed themselves as the former.  Now, the vista spread before me of where this story could go.  

I should mention now that when I write fiction, I’m not an outliner.  Heck, when I write a sermon I’m not an outliner; even then, I simply begin to compose and let the ideas expand.  When I’m writing fiction, I “get inside” the story and watch it unfold.  It’s almost like viewing a movie in my mind and then transcribing what I see.  Almost.  Editing is an utterly different experience, more like tightening all the bolts and trying to figure out where the rattle and squeak are still coming from, over and over.  But the first draft is simply flowing along with imagination and intuition.  It’s being the character and thus knowing what he or she would say.  

“I think the hardest part of writing is revising, and by that I mean the following:  a novelist has to create the piece of marble and then chip away to find the figure in it.”  

Chaim Potok

Completing my novel took about five years. Or so. I did not break any land speed records.  Of course, I was raising four children, pastoring/running a non-profit, and oh, yeah, moving to Nicaragua.  Distractions.  But all seriousness aside (as my father loved to say), the hardest part, after untold hours of writing and editing, cutting and revising and screaming, was forcing myself to ask people to read it.  Eventually I identified faithful, long-suffering reader friends, including one superstar who would read chapters as I felt brave enough to send them and give me great feedback.  

Round Three began October 9, 2015, when I finally committed, after years of talk, to starting my blog.  Again, not wildly successful, I haven’t gone viral nor even bacterial, but I’ve written, and that’s what a writer does.  I’ve been able to express some thoughts, challenge some ideas, spread some hope, and, I pray, express light and love where too much is dim and hateful.  I’m not going to get all self-congratulatory here (because that’s probably the one thing worse than the writer talking about writing), but I am grateful for everyone who has read and commented and especially those who have encouraged me.  A writer writes, but when enough people say, “Hey, you’re good!” or, “Yes, that’s exactly what it’s like for me!” somehow that makes being a writer seem more real.  Validation matters.  I believe for nearly everyone who aspires to write, the battle is morale.  

As long as I’m doing shout outs, I had a group of young adults (younger than me, for sure!) who expressed enthusiasm as I started posting the chapters of my novel–which was, by far, the scariest part of doing my blog thus far.  I thought I might just put up a couple chapters as samples of my work.  But buoyed by their insistence–sometimes verging on demands/threats–to see what happens next, I continued through about half the book. We even had a few round-table discussions.  They gave me precious feedback, which I really needed to get over the proverbial hump and get my novel out into the world.  

So, today, writing this, begins Round Four.  As of now, Something Like Faith is available and I have all the expected queasy, second-guessing, maybe-I-should-edit-it-for-ten-more-years thoughts.  But I’m not going to do that.  I’m going to focus on the pastoral book that I’ve also promised, I don’t know how many times, will be coming out.  I’m actually fairly close on that, I simply need to put the pieces together.  And I’m going to eat a lot of ice cream…although it’s 7:20 AM.  

Thanks, Mike McAvoy.  Thanks, John Knox.  Thanks, Laura and Paul, for letting me abuse our friendship so much while I sought reassurance, and for your patient and thoughtful feedback.  Thanks, Julia, Peter, Natalie, and Chasen, for being young and adult and letting me see the story through your eyes.  And thanks for being so demanding–I needed that!  Thanks, Kim, for enduring with me so graciously.  

 

 

*Of course, it’s entirely possible that he said this to 52 other students, to encourage all of us.  But his are the words I’ve held on to, literally.  I still have the letter.  

Tad

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Me with Tad celebrating his birthday

My friend Tad turned twenty-nine today.  It astounds us, Tad’s friends, that Tad is still alive to celebrate twenty-nine years.  Tad is one of my favorite redemption stories.

I’m not going to tell Tad’s story in detail, because I don’t have his permission (though if I asked, I’m certain he’d say, “Sure! What the *bleep*!”).  I’m not going to tell you about riding a longboard fifty miles an hour without a helmet or crashing a motorcycle in the middle of Western Nowhere (or did it break down that time?).  I hope he writes his own story someday.  He’s a gifted writer, and you’ve never heard a story like his.  I promise.

I am going to tell a couple of the things I love most about my friend Tad.  For context, I started mentoring Tad about 10 years ago, plus or minus.  Tad was abused as a child, Tad was kicked out of his home as a teenager, and our time together in earnest began on a phone call:  “Hey, I need to come live at your place soon.  The place where I’m staying, they’re throwing pots and pans at each other.”

Not sure if you’ve been in a pots and pans fight.  I grew up with some serious complications in my home, but I never have.

The ministry I was doing at that time involved having a group of young adults come live on the fifteen acres we had bought and were turning into a retreat center.  This first group was helping us develop the property and “trying out” the program.  Thus, we dubbed them the guinea pigs.  So Tad really was coming to live with us, just not for a month or so yet.  But we made it work, because it’s awkward enough staying at someone’s house without witnessing a pots and pans fight.*

If you think I’m describing serious things too jokingly, you should hear Tad tell his stories.  The first thing I love about Tad is his sense of humor.  I have never, ever known anyone who is better at laughing at himself, at life, and at the junk life throws at him than Tad.  Tonight he described riding his long board, trying to cut through some sidewalk construction (when they have a section of sidewalk enclosed with metal bars and plywood, that sort of thing) but though one end was open, the other end had one of the bars at his face level.  He slammed into it with his face.  And he described this event with “Yeah, my black eye just went down.  Even as I was getting hit, I stopped my board with my foot, and saved it from going into traffic!  I said, ‘Oh, Man!  Come on!’  But my first thought was really, ‘Those are some good cheekbones I’ve got!'”

By “rights,” if you heard half–no, one quarter of the things that have happened to Tad, you’d say, “There’s a guy with good reason to be bitter.”  But he’s not.  He’s the opposite.  He’s mirthful.  I don’t know if I’d describe more than a handful of people in my life with that word, but Tad is.  He finds the laughter.  He makes fun of himself.  He is, by the way, the12196087_10153698899026322_3188363402865772954_n reigning World Champion Oyster Shucker.  Nope, not kidding.  Mind you, Tad can’t stand oysters.  Wouldn’t eat one if you paid him.  Okay, maybe on a dare.  The whole thing is hilarious, especially to Tad–though he did win a lot of money and that huge trophy (well, he gets to keep it for the year).

This might sound like Tad takes nothing seriously; I would say Tad laughs at nearly everything but still takes some things seriously (though himself, not so much).  Tad is a Christian. He is no one’s stereotype of a Christian.  He defies those stereotypes. He has a cross tattooed on one arm and a Romans reference on the other, yet his girlfriend (also an awesome human being) at first thought he was being ironic.  But Tad is a servant.  Tad looks after the least.  Tad is the one many people call when they’re in trouble–and I mean, people who would never call a church, or, frankly, someone like me–for help.  He rescues lost people, because he’s been a lost person and he knows both sides.

All that, a heart strikingly similar in some respects to how I understand Jesus’ heart, and yet no one would pick Tad out of a crowd, or out at a party, as a Jesus follower.  He doesn’t look like one.  He doesn’t sound like one.  But what I really mean by that is he doesn’t look or sound like standard expectations for one.  That’s ironic, don’t you think, when Jesus himself didn’t look or act or sound like the standard expectations for…himself.  For the messiah.  Drunkard?  Glutton?  Friend of people who would never call a religious person for help.

You might have guessed, this is another of the things I love most about my friend Tad.  He’s following Jesus as Tad.  He’s messed up in a bunch of ways–he’d be the first to admit it.  He’s made many…interesting choices.  He takes very poor care of himself (Tad, if you’re reading this: GET SOME SLEEP!**) and moderation is not his strong suit.  But he gets grace.  He gets it for himself and the people around him and even for the people who judge him.  He lives out being Jesus-like in a sphere of people who don’t hear much about Jesus, who don’t read Jesus books or listen to Jesus radio or go to those places where certain folks (ahem) talk about Jesus come a Sunday morning.  And he can do that precisely because he defies all those stereotypes.

I’ve discipled Tad a long time, taught him about the Bible, shared my wisdom, bailed him out a few times (not literally…that I remember) and held out hope for him–and held onto him–when it looked like he was going over the cliff.  In return, he’s shown me Jesus.  Jesus in Tad.  Mirthful Jesus.

I love the guy.

 

*Of course, if you can catch a pan, you can catch a ball.

**I know that sounds ironic, coming from me, but trust me, I’m like a male lion compared to Tad.

Something Like Faith, Chapter 10

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(Photo by Sean Hudgins)

Forced to choose among Mountain Dew, Pepsi, and coffee at 7 AM, I take coffeeout the door with me and, after two swallows, pour it on the ground. How do people drink that?

Jeff shrugged off our talk in the car as too bizarre to consider. He gave me a big hug with about seven pummels on the back when I stepped inside to get my drink and said I had to go. I’m almost sure he wasn’t taking any irritation out on me with those thumps. Emily had found the restroom; I didn’t wait for that “goodbye.”

Another of Jeff’s strengths is his ability to let go, rather than gnaw problems he can’t fix.Uncle Pete says, ‘Kicking the tires won’t move a dead car.’” Jeff just shrugs and uses some expletives, smiles and uses a few more, and then he’s done with it.

I’m not Jeff. Before I leave the parking lot I’m chomping this bone for all it’s worth, sucking the marrow out, though not exactly the way Thoreau suggests. I’ve got about two hours, driving at legal speed in sober daylight, repeating and reframing questions with no answers. Some sound like they must have originated from fever dreams.

There is no way that Emily-she-must-have-a-last-name could know about Trinket. I’m not even playing theHow Is That Possible?game, because it ISN’T. The end.

Except I’m not Jeff and can’t just leave it there.

God, how about you help me do that? This once?

When I come through the door, Mom looks up at me from her chair. Her eyes are too big.

Hi, Mom.

Is he home?Dad calls.

Did you just hear him?Mom answers, still watching me.

He walks in, ready to return fire, then sees me.

You look bad. Go to bed.” her

Okay.

Was Jeff hurt?

He’s fine. The car’s going to–

Like I give a damn about his car. Go to bed.

Thus ends a touching moment with Dad. I’ll take it.

*

When I open my eyes, it’s dark. I’m in bed. But I didn’t go to bed. What happened to Sat—oh. I didn’t dream Jeff’s “rescue.” Or Emily. Yesterday felt like sleepwalking. Now that I’ve slept, it’s real.

Three o’clock Sunday morning. How useful. I just took a sixteen-hour nap. I needed to get in some work hours at the school, but even I’m not going to run there at this hour…am I?

Guin’s probably a little unhappy that she never heard from me. I’m not going to call her now…though again, I’m tempted. Dump it on her right now to see what she makes of it. Do I leave out the Emily-flirtingwithme part, or whatever the heck that was? I didn’t do anything wrong, but I feel guilty.

Isn’t that for Catholics? I don’t get the benefits of believing in God, but I get the drawbacks?

Okay, let’s try this:

God, if you’re there, explain to me how Emily could have known about Trinket, or even known that there’s someshe.And don’t tell me Emily guessed. That wasn’t a horoscope. She knew what she was talking about. I gave no hints, dropped no clues, didn’t let any stupid words slip outI was exhausted, but not babbling. She just added it up that I reversed my position on the violin player being alive when I found out it wasis!her uncle? But two plus two doesn’t equalI felt bad therefore I also have someone, a female,missing.’

Not that Trinket’s missing, exactly. But neither is Emily’s uncle. They’re just gone right now.

And since you’re going to answer me from up there, tell me this: Is what Emily ‘thinks’ rightIs Trinket okay?

Paxton. Paxton? There’s some breakfast, if you want to get up now.

From my bed, I can see my mother standing outside my doorway, peering in. This might be stranger than the dream that wasn’t one. Does she really mean she made breakfast?

I slept four more hours. Wow.

When I get to the kitchen, there are scrambled eggs and toast on a plate. I’m famished.  I think I just went twenty-four hours without food.

My mother is standing in the far corner of the kitchen, done cooking but still here, pinching at the skin on her neck with her left thumb and forefinger.

Thank you for breakfast. Mom.

You’re welcome.” She says it stiffly, like you might to a stranger in a grocery store who’s asked for something off the shelf in front of you. Shouldn’t that stranger have just waited for you to move?

She lives here. I mean, of course she does, but it’s her home and she lives in it like this. No, usually more distant. I never think about how we relate from her point of viewam I supposed to, when I’m her child? I just figure it’s her fault because she chooses to be like this when she’s supposed to be a mom.

Maybe it’s time for me to stop being the child.

This was really nice of you.I say, between bites. I’m going to wish there was more, but I don’t want to seem discontent in the slightest.

There’s more,she says.

I know this sounds pathetic, but I choke up for a second.

Thanks,I say, really meaning it.

It’s okay,

She flicks the rest of the eggs on my plate with her spatula, drops the pan into the sinkliterallyand flees. The spatula bounces out and lands on the floor. She’s gone before it stops.

I probably screwed that up. But it was something while it lasted.

*

I go to work immediately after breakfast so I can get in as many hours as possible, although it’s a slow jog with my stomach full of eggs and my head full of…I won’t say. Guin’s going to be at brunch with her parents until noon, so in four hours I’ll call her from the payphone.

*

I’m working as hard as I know how, as hard as if Phil were standing next to me. He’s not. He left me a a long list and a gently-phrased reminder that, while he’s sure I had something important to do yesterday instead of work, getting all these tasks done is also, and perhaps equally, important. I’m not quoting verbatim.

I wish he were here today, not for advice, or help with work, but because talking to him, or listening to him talk, or just having him tower over me might yank my thoughts out of the track they keep spinning around. Over and over. And over.

There is no way that Emily knows anything about Trinket, and if she did somehow have a glimmer of something, she already told me. I’ve heard it all. There is no reason to go back and talk to Emily. No reason in the world. It’s a bad idea on so many levels I can’t even start to list them all, and how would I get back to God-forsaken Culver?Hey, Jeff, glad you got your car out of that river and back safely home. You mind if I borrow it to drive back up there and see your girlfriend? What, you come along? No, thanks, I want to go by myself.Or I could repeat my request to borrow Dad’s car, because lightning often strikes the same place twice and he’s likely to be reasonable twice in a row, even though I can’t explain why I need to go this time. Or (this is my favorite), I could ask Guin if she could take one of her folks’ cars so I could borrow it from her.

Going with her actually makes a lot of sense, though, right? I mean, if I’m going back to see Emily, I should take Guin along. She’s the only one who knows about Trinket, it would keep my visit from looking weird to Jeff, we’d have all that time to talk...

So why am I rejecting this idea?

The last, most obvious, and so-vile-I-can’t-even-say-it reason to take Guin: maybe the issue is more than whether things look weird. (I didn’t say it.)

Here’s what makes sense to me when I say it in the empty hallway:

Emily has been through somethingsome thingskind of like what I have, and it would be–‘nice’ isn’t the word…not ‘helpful’–a relief, it would be a relief to talk to someone who gets it. I don’t think that’s bad to want.

Even in the privacy of my own brain, I’m not allowing for the possibility that something might happen, because that’s not why I want to go. It isn’t. And it’s not that I don’t want Guinevere to come along because she would prevent that possibility. (I’d like to say this as a positive, butpreventing that possibility is why I do want Guinevere to come alongsays something different. Different and more like what I should say.) There’s also the chance that Emily would say something—awkward? unfortunate? graphically inappropriate?—to me in front of Guinevere, or to Guinevere about me, and I know I’m not making that up.

These thoughts make cleaning the bathrooms a manic exercise. I’m scrubbing the toilet so hard I’m spraying my legs and I don’t even care. My head says, you’re not going to do this; it’s not worth risking your relationship.

My gut, or somewhere down there, says, If you had a car, you probably would.

Screw this.

I call Guin.

Hi, you have reached the Kintons. Thank you for calling. Please do leave a message at the beep. Have a great day.It feels like a long time since I’ve heard Gretchen Kinton’s voice.

Hey, Guin. Sorry I never called yesterday. It was an extremely, um, unusual day. I’m working, so I’ll call you again later, okay? Bye.

That didn’t accomplish anything, of course. But I feel a little better. Less like I’m scheming something that isn’t cheating on her, but…

But what, Kingsley?

Next lap, here we go. It’s 10:15 AM. I’m going nuts.

I finally decide to rearrange Phil’s prioritized task list and promote a “sometime when we’re not busy” job to the top. The storage room adjacent to our locker room has a pile of old-style desks made of wood and steeland maybe iron and granite, as heavy as they are. They’re strategically between a one- and two-man carrying job. Of course, Phil could carry two, except that they’re so wide and awkward you have to jockey them through a normal doorway.

Sometime, our principal told Phil that we shouldclean those up and donate them.” It was a passing comment, probably more of awouldn’t it be nice if…than a serious work instruction for the school and its custodial staff.

There are forty desks, they weigh about 110 pounds each, and they’re jumbled in a room whose only purposes, so far as I know, are to 1) serve as torture chamber for seniors who mean to get serious about freshmanorientation(i.e. hazing), and 2) store these antiquated desks. I can’t clean them unless I can get at them, so I have to move each one out into the middle of the locker room, scrub it down, chip off the old gum, sand off any major rust, and then haul it back, since we haven’t yet arranged anywhere to donate them or someone desperate enough to take them.

This work is hard enough, plus it requires intense self-control to keep from cursing these useless old monsters every time I crack my shin on one or slam my elbow trying to get one through the doorways so I can work on it.

Two hours pass much quicker this way, and I have cleaned sixno, partly cleaned, because I realized they need new industrial gray paint to cover their heavy metal. I even sand down parts of the wooden desktops to remove the more prominent graffiti, but now they need a new stain finish. I am not mentioning to Phil that I tried to start this. Good thing I’m working frantically, because I’ll need to make up for two hours that will look like I haven’t done anything.

It’s 12:23 when I emerge, dripping sweat, my back torqued, but a little closer to sane.

She picks up on the first ring.

Hello?

What the hell was I thinking? Spell broken.

Hi, Guin.

Hi, Paxton. I heard you helped Jeff rescue his car yesterday.

How did you hear that? We were the only ones who…

It’s a small town, Paxton.

I know, but still. That’s absurd. Who did Jeff tell?

I think his dad told, actually. But it made you look good. For whatever that’s worth.

I’m glad you’re not mad.

Honey, rescue your best friend, I won’t be mad. Start rescuing damsels in distress, we might have to talk. Especially if they’re scantily clad and insist on repaying you.

I’m sweaty and smell foul and am covered with dirt and sawdust and cobwebs and grease.

Do you want to come see me here?

At school?

Phil’s taking the day off, and none of the teachers are showing up on a Sunday afternoon.

You want me to wear work clothes?

Sure. That might be smart. Hey, is there any chance you could drive?

I’m strategizing how I’ll describe this whole thing slowly, throughout the hours we’re together. Emily is…different, not bad except that she scares me to deathno, she’s actually beautiful.

Probably not.

Then Guin tap-taps on the plexiglass of the front door like she’s afraid the wrong person will hear. I pull her inside, we kissa few timesand everything that happened yesterday cascades out of me.

So ‘damsels in distress’ was a fine choice of words,she says. Her self-satisfied grin doesn’t sit well, since it’s more justified than she knows.

She’s Jeff’s damsel. I just chauffeured them.”

Yes, but Jeff didn’t rescue her. And she thought you were cute. She’s right, by the way.” Guin winks at me. Not exactly jealous. I told her everything that happened; I didn’t tell her everything I thought.

She knew about Trinket.

Paxton, my love, I know you want that to mean something—how could you not?—but she was just playing with you. She happened to hit a nerve.

No. She was manipulating before, but not when we talked about missing people. Then she was serious.

Or maybe then she was conning you but you didn’t recognize it. I don’t know about the self-doubts over your seething, dormant racism, but I do know how girls can play guys. I’ve been one for a while, remember, and I’ve seen our kind at work. I think she was making sure she had Jeff on the hook. You think he really likes her?

“He does. He didn’t even blink about his car.

She shakes her head. I see this going the wrong direction and I don’t think it’s going to turn around.

Guin, I want to go back and talk to her.

You’re kidding.” We’re still intertwined, since I started the second I could breathe again. Now she disentangles and steps back to look at me.You want me to review that thing abouthelping damsels’ again?

Guinevere, I think she might get it a little bit, what it’s like. Having someone gone.

Maybe. But that’s not why you want to go, is it? You aren’t just hoping to talk to someone who can relate, right? Truthfully? You want to believe she knows something. Paxton, I don’t even pretend to get how this has been for you with Amethyst, but I’m not letting you set yourself up. She got lucky. It was a male or a female; she had a fifty-fifty chance. Paxton, I love youlook at me!I love you and we’re going to find your sister or she’s going to find us. This won’t help.

I open my mouth to agree or argue, or both. Instead, I start crying. You’ve got to be kidding me! She steps toward me and slides one arm around my back, but I spin away and stalk down the hall.

Get your ass back here!

I freeze. For two seconds, I’m stunned. That’s all it takes her. By the time she gets to me, I’m laughing. Only a touch hysterical.

I beg your pardon?

She doesn’t want to laugh, tries to clench her jaw, but it’s too late. So she’s choking and contorting her face as she starts rebuking me.

Listen, I want to make this clear right now: I’m not marrying your parents or their relationship. That stuff about six people in the marriage bed, I’ll have no part of that. We’re going to do whatever it takes to separate or, or, or exorcise them. If you need to cry, then cry. But don’t be stomping off from me like you’re two. You’re older than your father; don’t act like him.

All that would have sounded a lot worse if she hadn’t been whiffling and trying pathetically to keep a straight face. I’m just gone by now, whether laughing or crying. Jeff would tell me I’m such a girl; I don’t even want to know what Dad would say.

I guess that’s the point Guin’s making.

*

We’re halfway to Culver when it hits me. I kind of pfff a breath or two. Guin’s driving, and she glances away from the road at me. She knows without a word.

I say it, anyway.

This is stupid, isn’t it?

Probably.

Do you want to turn around?” 

At least a minute passes. The landscape here looks just like at home: breathing life, crops starting, everything fertile. I had assumed our whole state looked like this (except the cities, of course). Now that I know what to look for, I’m trying to see where it starts to turn.

Nope, I don’t. Two reasons: I want you to know you did everything you could, even chasing a crazy lead, so that later you don’t wonder,she nods, then tilts her head toward me so that her chin grazes her right shoulder and her hair falls toward me. She rolls her eyes up to look at me, then keeps her head close while looking out over the steering wheel.I also want to meet this chica for myself.

Why?

You know why.She moves her beautiful head back away from me, but takes my hand and folds her fingers into mine, then presses our hands into my thigh.

She cannot read me that well. No way.

Dang, I am in trouble.

We don’t know how to find Emily. I thought about calling Jeff, but since Emily made it clear she didn’t want him to drop her off, I doubt he knows any more about where she lives than I do. And even though this will weird him out, I’d rather explain it afterward than before. Who said,It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission?They were right.

First stop is the Texaco station.

We stand in line at the mini-mart. Emily said the guy who works there isHenry.” And Emily’s name isEmily.” That’s all I’ve got.

Okay, I could have asked Jeff her last name. But we’re here now.

Here, this idea seems ridiculous.

Whatcha need?the man asks. He’s a smaller, paler version of Phil: huge round shoulders, dark brown skin, eyes sunk into cheeks that must weigh five pounds each. I wonder how his face would look without those massive cheeks? Probably still scary. He has a snake tattoo on his neck, maybe homemade, and he looks as if he tried to shave without aid of a mirror or light. Or a sharp blade. Stubble might look better than criss-cross patches. I’m not telling Henry that.

We’re looking for a girl–

Why?

We just need to talk to her.

He gives no answer, just blinks. The folds close over his eyes, then let them out again. I’ll bet his eyes would close without eyelids. Get a grip, Paxton.

Her name is Emily. We were just here with her yesterday. I mean, my friend Jeff and I were.

He’s staring me down.

Do you know an Emily or where she lives?

Do you?

I don’t know where she lives. That’s why I’m asking you.

If you don’t know her, why would I tell you?

I just met her. I’d really like to talk to her again.

Why?

I look at Guin. She gives me a tiny shrug.

It’s about my family.

He looks me up and down, then smirks.

You don’t look to me like you got native in you.

No, not like that. I’m hoping she knows somebody.

Well, you don’t know anybody, or you wouldn’t have to ask me where Emily lives. Next time you see her, ask her yourself.He turns away and starts to arrange some magazines in a wooden rack behind the counter, the kind that come in plastic to veil their covers.

Guin leans into me.

We could just go out to the Reservation and see if we can find someone more willing…” she says.

My insides feel like soup and I’d really like to walk out and drive back home with Guin and…

Nope.

Hey, I’m sorry, I didn’t introduce myself. I’m Paxton. This is Guinevere. You’re Henry, right?I stick my hand out to him.

He rotates his huge neck and scowls at me. We had his friendly face before.

You got any idea how stupid it is walking in here, calling me by my name, asking for a girl you obviously know nothing about. Yeah, little lady, why don’t you just show up out there and start asking around for Emily. I bet people love to see you.His scowl turns to a leer. Maybe I get to die here defending Guin’s honor?

I do know Emily. She told me about her uncle.

His expression blanks out like he’s just sat down for poker.

No, she didn’t.

She did. He plays the violin and travels everywhere. II’m hoping that…

I’m stuck, both on what might work and what I’m willing to say. No one knows where her uncle is, so I can’t say he’s going to help me find someone, and how messed up to tell Henry, of all people, about my sister?

He’s turned all the way back toward me and is pressing against the counter. From here I can see the shape of each grease and oil stain on his service shirt. He’s maybe an inch taller than me, but easily twice as broad. Henry smells different than Guin.

I’m looking for someone, and Emily might be able to help me. We don’t…we’re not going to do anything to her.

He snorts. “Yeah, I can see that. Although this one and Emily might have a nice catfight. Can you fight, little girl?

Nope. I can play the violin.

You better keep an eye on her,Henry says to me, gesturing toward Guin with his head,Violin players like to disappear.

Then Henry pulls a stubby pencil like they use at mini-golf from under the counter and draws me a map. His fingers seem too chunky even to hold something that small, much less draw with it, but when he hands me the old envelope, he’s got landmarks and houses and trees and a dog on a chain. There’s a dog in his map. It’s like a cartoon world.

I don’t want the police showing up, asking me what I told you and why you disappeared,he pauses and eyes me,wouldn’t be the first time. Okay, follow this exactly, don’t take any wrong turns, don’t go sightseeing, and if anyone stops you, tell them Henry sent you with a message for Emily.

I nod, then look up at him and wait.

There is no message, dumb shit. You need a reason to be there. Unless you want to tell them you’re missionaries.

No, this’ll be great. Thank you.

Yeah. I’m gonna ask Emily, so she better enjoy your visit. Otherwise, you won’t want to come back into my store. You probably won’t want to, anyway.He looks over at Guin.But she–

Okaythanksbye,I say, pulling Guin’s hand before he can finish his thought.

We’re out the door and unlocking the car when she says,You handled that well. I’m thinking you better drive. In case someone wants to talk to us or tries… It’d be better.

We drive through town, Guin taking it all in while I replay the encounter with Henry. How much of his warning was posturing? Lacking any point of reference, I hope it was a bluff but am treating it as a caution from on high until I find out otherwise. When I’d pictured talking with Emily, we were sitting in my car (alone) somewhere like the road where Jeff’s took its plunge. Stupid.

I think I also imagined that she would be hanging around the gas station, or maybe I’d just run into her at the casino. Ditto.

Henry’s map leads us straight there.

The Reservation doesn’t look much worse than some parts of the town to me, but it has less. A few rusted-out cars sit under scraggly trees or next to the road but without wheels. Houses have mismatched parts, random boards sticking out unpainted, clear plastic covering windows, and front porches with gaping holes and chairs arranged around the perimeter, as if a little thing like that wouldn’t keep people from sitting there. If the houses in town are big and broken down, these look like they were constructed from the pieces that have fallen off. The roads are packed dirt, deeply rutted. What happens in thunderstorms?

Everyone stares at us. Mothers with babies attached to their fronts, grandmothers with sunken mouths also carrying babies, teenage boys walking with teenage girls, dressed in jeans and t-shirts like we are, every single person watches our car move past. I drive slow enough to keep the dirt from enshrouding them, which gives them more time to study us. Nobody waves or smiles or nods, but no one looks threatening or even that curious (including the dog on the chain, which is some kind of Pit Bull/German Shepherd mix, like in Henry’s picture). They just gaze, apparently indifferent, then go back to their lives. Our presence has nothing to do with this place.

Emily’s home sits last on a dead-end offshoot from the main road.Cul-de-sacdoesn’t fit. It looks a little nicer than the others to me, but maybe that’s wishful thinking. There’s no porch to cave in, and the windows have their glass panes intact. It retains a hint of greenish-blue paint, but not from this decade, and the roof doesn’t quite sit straight, no matter how you tilt your head.

As we get out, I realize Guin and I haven’t spoken since we entered the Reservation. She comes around and takes my handsqueezing hard enough to gouge me with her class ringand we walk up to the front door. I lift my other hand to knock, then notice the door stands open six inches. I check swing and knock on the door frame.

What?” a woman’s voice demands,Brina, I told you I’m not going today!

Um,I say.

The door swings in hard, wwssshhh, and we’re staring at a woman. She wears a faded dress of some coarse material that might have been red. She has her mouth pinched closed and lines run from its corners downward. Keep it up and your face will freeze that way, Mom used to say before Trinket left. Mom was right. But the scowl doesn’t hide that this woman is as beautiful as Gretchen Kinton. Or was. She has long, dark braids past the middle of her back. Her eyes have the same gold flecks as Emily’s. She has cheekbones set so high and cut so sharply that she looks haughty, even here, even with dark circles under both eyes and her dress covered with yellow grit that looks like cornmeal.

Guinevere breaks the silence.

“We’re sorry to intrude. Is Emily home?

“I thought the missionaries didn’t come ‘til Thursday.

We’re not missionaries,Guin says, shaking her head.We’re, um, friends. I mean, Paxton is, and I’m his…fiancé.

No response.

We talked to Henry. He told us how to get here.

The woman stares at us another moment, then steps back.

Do you want to come in?she asks.

The house has a kitchen/living area the size of my bedroom or smaller, and what look like curtainedoff sections that might pass for walls and separaterooms.I see one inside door.

That door opens.

Emily walks out with a baby on her hip. She’s wearing jeans and a second-hand t-shirt. Unless she ran a ten kilometer St. Patrick’s Day race in 1981.

Pax! I didn’t expect you! And this must be Guinevere.She laughs like we’ve made her day. The woman turns away without comment and returns to her oven. She starts pounding a big lump of the yellow stuff.

Emily hoists the baby girl over one shoulder, studies each of us, similar to how her mother did—assuming it’s her mother—then turns away.

Let me set Rosie down and I’ll be able to talk. I think she’s ready for her nap. If not, we’ll walk with her.” The girl’s brown eyes droop as she nuzzles against Emily’s collarbone. We watch them disappear back into the room.

Guinevere finds my hand again and we stand still, looking around without turning our heads. The woman in the kitchen area keeps thumping and takes no more notice of us. Minutes tick by.

When Emily comes back out, she’s changed into a white-ish blouse (Guin might call itcream) with half sleeves and a dark blue skirt that stops above her knee. They’re not immodest, but they play well to her advantages. Jeff would like them.

Okay, she’s out. She’s a good sleeper. Mama, if she wakes up, please give her a bottle. I should be back before that, though.

Hmm,the woman says, not looking up.

Do you mind walking?Emily asks, passing through the stillopen front door, leading us out.store

No, that’s great,I say.

We return to the road, Emily pausing for a moment to appraise Guin’s mom’s new Honda Accord, then arching her eyebrows at me. I’m glad Guin didn’t drive Noel’s Audi.

Everyone we pass murmurs some greeting to Emily, which she returns. Several also glance at us, as if seeking introduction or explanation, but Emily walks on. We pass a tiny post office, a  convenience store, a grocery that looks smaller than her house, and a squat brick school whose construction reminds me of the casino without neon signs.

Behind the school, she finds a path that leads away from the houses and into more of the scrubby, ankle-high plants I trampled on the slope down to Jeff’s car. We walk almost a mile and then I see what might be the same river, running through this part of the Reservation, though here it‘s more creek-size.

Emily walks about three steps in front of us the whole way without saying a word. Finally, when we get to the water, she looks in every direction, then gives us a quizzical smile, like shes missed a joke.

To what do I owe this pleasure?she asks.I’m pleased to meet you, Guinevere, and I’m glad to know Paxton didn’t invent you for his convenience. Also, congratulations on your upcoming wedding. When was the date again? I guess I haven’t yet received my invitation.She smiles again. You would almost believe her sincere and gracious. Or, considering what Guin said earlier, maybe only I would.

Emily, I’m sorry we just showed up like this. I hope you didn’t get in trouble for the whole thing yesterday.

She tilts her head toward me and opens her eyes wide.

Not exactly, no. Thank you for asking.

Okay, good.I’m nervous, which makes no sense except that she’s playing this strange Miss Manners role. “Our visit has nothing to do with that or Jeff. It’s about your—well, kind of about your uncle, and mainly about what you said to me.

I wondered if it might. I’m glad to get to know you both better, of course, but you seemed a little more urgent than merely pursuing our friendship.

Guinevere is not enjoying this. I can feel her simmering.

I don’t get how you knew what you did, but the first thing I need to ask is: what do you know? About my situation, I mean.

Nothing!She smiles as if I’d hoped for this answer.

But you told me you think she’s okay.

I did,she confirms.

How can you know she’s okay if you don’t even know who I’m talking about?

I don’t know.

How did you even know there was somebody? Just how I reacted to your story?

No, it had nothing to do with that.

Then how did you…?

She smiles identically, like she can’t wait for another round of circular questions. Then she shrugs and drops the whole act.

I get things sometimes. I don’t know why. I think it’s probably God; I can’t control it and it doesn’t work on command or anything. I’ve no idea why God would pick me. I sure don’t live some holy life, at least not like your missionaries describe it.

Guin glances away. Emily catches the look and smirks.

Is it like that? Should God have picked you for his virgin messenger?

I didn’t say that, I’m just not sure He picked you.

I didn’t ask you to believe it. Come to think of it, I didn’t ask you for anything. Not to come here, not to judge me, not to drive your Daddy’s-Money Car in and stoop down for us.

We came here because Paxton hopes you can tell him something else about his sister.

My sister. Hearing Trinket referred to ashis sister,out loud, that sounds bizarre. I do have a sister. We hadn’t talked about whether one of us would tell Emily. Guinevere doesn’t even glance at me; she and Emily have locked eyes.

Emily takes a step toward Guin. The sister news didn’t soften Emily’s mood.

…this one and Emily might have a nice catfight.

Expletive. Warning, not bluff.

So you want to sniff at me and you want me to help your boyfriend?

I don’t know you. I don’t know anything about you, except what you’ve said and what Paxton told me. I get that you don’t like me, but I’m not what you see, either. We’ll leave right now if you want, but if there’s any way you can, please help him, even just to tell him again that she’s okay. She ran away ten years ago. Everybody else thinks she’s dead. But she told Paxton she’d come back.

Then Guinevere does something stupid: she lays her hand on Emily’s bare forearm. Emily is breathing so hard I can hear each exhale. I’ve never broken up a fight before. How do you? Just force yourself in between? I’m not going to grab Emily. Anywhere.

What’s her name?Emily asks. She’s still huffing, still mutilating Guinevere with her eyes, but she’s talking to me.

Amethyst.

But you don’t call her that, do you?

Ice down my back.

No.

I got ‘Trinket is okay.’ Tall, dark-haired girl. Big hips. Smiling. I don’t know where she is or what she’s doing.

I can’t think or breathe or move. If they fought now, I’d have to watch.

Guin turns to me, her hand still on Emily’s arm.

Jeff doesn’t know, does he?Then she faces Emily again.How could you know that?

I told you. I never ask for it, it just comes. That’s how I know my uncle is still playing. I saw it.

Like visions?

What’s that mean? They just feel like my own thoughts, the same way I imagine or picture anything. Except sometimes they don’t fit. You know why I told you the story about my uncle. But while I was telling it, I got this. You said your family was screwed up, so I thought she might connect with something.

But how did you know she was missing? You didn’t ‘get’ that?Guin asks.

I put together Paxton’s reaction to my story with ‘she’s okay.’ If he knew where she was, he would know if she was okay or not. Right?

I guess so,Guinevere says. She takes her hand off Emily’s arm and sidles my way but doesn’t touch me.

Thank you, Emily,I say when my tongue works again.

Emily nods. The fight’s out of her now. She looks smaller.

I’ve had these all my life. I used to just ignore them, thought I was making things up like kids do. When they’d tell about imaginary friends, I figured it was the same. You want to know the ironic thing? It’s when the missionaries came around and left a Bible that I started to think I might have…something different. It happens to the people in there all the time.

She starts walking back and we follow. Now Guin holds my hand, very gently. She keeps glancing at me. After I saw that kid have a seizure, I studied about them. From what I’ve read, that’s how I feel, cold and hot and not quite on the ground with some current buzzing through where my brain used to live.

People around here hate those missionaries. They bring food and sing songs and play with the kids and tell us about this God who loves us so much. Then they jump back into their big vans and drive away. They don’t live like this. Everybody says their book is just a white people’s trick to subdue us and keep us in a stupor, like a tranquilizeras if most of our people don’t do enough of that for themselves. But I’ve read some of it. Have you?

We shrug and nod a little.

Some,Guin says.

I wonder if the van drivers have. It says God is pissed at the people who have too much and keep it all for themselves. That’s in there a bunch of times. The parts I’ve seen would make our people more angry, not less. But some of it I don’t understand, and I guess people pick and choose, right?

I guess so,I say.

Or maybe they’re trying to keep God from being angry at them.

Aren’t they just trying to help?Guin asks.

Emily eyes her, then studies the house we’re passing, where two toddlers are playing with a dried up can of paint, then turns back to Guin. They’re never going to be friends.

So Jeff doesn’t know about your sister?Emily asks.

She made me swear not to tell anybody.

Except your girlfriend and me.

I shouldn’t, but I say it:Guin’s my fiancé.Then, as a make-up, I add,Jeff really likes you.

That’s nice,Emily says.

Guinevere clamps my hand but keeps her face neutral.

How old is Rosie?Guin asks.

“She‘s my sister’s baby,Emily answers.

We’re back to her road now. Part of me wants to stay and ask more about her uncle and talk about Trinket with the two people in the world I can, mismatched as they are, and maybe Emily will get another message. But I know it won’t work that way (as much as I understand howitworks, which is nada). The rest of me wants to drive while the getting is good and we’re all civil.

Emily walks us straight to the car.

By the way, how did you find my house? Folks here aren’t big on giving directions,she says.

Henry at the gas station told us.

She raises her eyebrows and inclines her head, as she might to a child trying to get away with a stupid fib.

I told him we’d talked about your uncle. And that I hoped you could help me find someone.

Resuming her initial behavior, Emily holds the car door open for Guin and nods in a courtly gesture. Full circle.

Then she turns back toward me and drops her facade. Man, she does that fast.

Oh. There’s something else to tell me! She was holding out, because of course she has to do it her way, when she’s ready–

Henry is my cousin. You were talking about his dad.

She looks me up and down one more time and shakes her head. I doubt we’re hugging goodbye, so I get in.

Bye. Thank you, Emily. Thanks.” There should be more, but I don’t know what.

Thanks a lot,Guin says.

“Farewell, you two. Do stop by next time you’re in town, will you?She gives me the smile that must have gotten Jeff’s notice to start all this, and even leans in my window a bit. Then she grins at Guinevere and she’s gone, back in the house, and we’re pulling away.

We’re silent again until we drive off the Reservation. I wave at a few young kids playing, who smile and wave back.

As the car’s front tires touch the highway, Guin turns to me.Before we talk about any of the rest, I would bet you a hundred dollarsno, washing our first year’s dishesthat if you had come without me, she would have gone after you.

You mean beat me up?

No. And you will never, ever be alone with that female.

You mean, until you two start naming your babies after each other.

Exactly. Never until that happens.

Got it.

We drive for a while.

Oh, my God,Guin says.

Maybe,” I say.

We start and stop conversation a bunch of times.

I’m scared for Jeff. I don’t think he stands a chance against her,Guin says.

Plus, the girl who just helped me in a way no one else in the world could also just became more dangerous to me than anyone else in the world.

Yeah, I don’t imagine we want to introduce her to your parents.

I can’t even think about that.

She may have no interest in seeing him again. Do we just hope Jeff gets distracted and forgets, if he can’t contact her?I don’t see this happening, but the alternatives suck.

You mean, other than that we know where she lives?Guinevere asks.

Right. Exactly what I mean.

I think our best strategy might be to sit down with him, tell him everything, and try to convince him that she’s a really bad idea,Guin says.

That wouldn’t have worked on me,I tell her.

“Because I’m not a bad idea,she retorts, smacking my chest with the back of her hand.

Do you think there’s any possibility she might not be so bad, like she’s just messed up by all that’s happened to her?I ask.

Uh, I think the second part. If you try telling me that she was nicer the other night when I wasn’t around, we’re going to have a talk.

I shut up.

We’re about ten minutes from home when I can finally say it.

She’s alive, Guin.

You knew that.

I did, but it’s different. You tell yourself so often, it’s like the words lose their meaning and become only sounds. When I really think hard about her and all the things that could have happened—seventeen, and she didn’t have… This is sort of proof. I mean, not definite proof, it’s crazy proof, but what kind of screwedup God would give Emily whatever-her-name-is my sister’s name and picture and say that she’s okay if she’s not?

Yeah,Guin agrees. Another long pause. When I’ve sprinted too long and lights start to flash behind my eyes, I feel exactly this way. I’m thinking a thousand things and can’t say any of them.

Do you believe in God?” she asks.

Today I do. Yeah. But I don’t get Him. Or it. At all.

Yeah,Guin says.

We drives back to the high school. It’s 8:30.

“You want to just grab your stuff and go home?she asks.

No, I can’t let Phil down. I’ve gotta get this done.

Do you still have homework?

I bark a laugh.Yeah, you might say that. It’s been a weekend.

“It was a pretty sneaky way to get out of wedding planning.

“Ain’t I a genius?I ask, getting out of the car.

Wait. I’m still dressed for work. I don’t even have blood on my clothes. What can I do?”

You need to get home. I don’t want to get you in trouble with your folks.

I think it’s time we started working on this together more, since we’re in it together. Remember?She flashes her finger at me (the one that doesn’t yet have a ring on it).

I’m pretty sure it’s considered unmanly, having my woman do my work.

I’m pretty sure you’d rather have me breathing in your ear than live up to that standard of manliness all by your lonesome.

How’d I get this lucky?

You haven’t gotten lucky yet,she smirks.I’m gonna call my parents from inside. Show me what to scrub.

As we’re walking in, I get it.

Your homework’s done?

What, did you think I paced the floor and chewed my nails while waiting for you to call yesterday? I didn’t even know then I had a vixen to worry about.

You don’t.

Ten hours ago, you were going by yourself.

Yep. Thanks.

FLOYD

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(Photo by Tony Smallman)

 

This is true: in a concrete parking shelter behind the Portland Central Post Office, a seventy-two-year-old man named Floyd slept under a government surplus blanket. Floyd had worked on the assembly line at International Harvester in Rock Island, Illinois for forty years. He was married for forty-two years. I heard about Floyd from Dan. Dan runs a nonprofit called “Blanket Coverage;” he covers people with blankets for his vocation.

I do not make my living helping people keep warm. You might say I “cover them,” but that phrase would end “for a paycheck.” I write an obituary column.

I learned more about Floyd than about the deceased I memorialize. Six years of summarizing people’s lives in two-to-five paragraphs—exceed one column, you’re Section “A”–had given me a school yearbook view of the dead: “What’d you do? Who’d you know? Why’d you go?” Our staff (of three) prefers not to dissemble about our subjects, but we select which parts of the truth to report. Coroners and undertakers (as “funeral home directors” hate to be called) develop thicker calluses because they handle the bodies, but maybe that contact bestows a little honest humility. We’re more like newscasters who never move on to the human-interest story.

Obits sounded like a simple job: people die; I write about them. Pros—adequate pay, secure, home every night for dinner. Cons—slightly macabre, minimal prestige.

Turns out I missed some crucial points. Continue reading

Time Down Here

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It’s never that easy. Other people make it look easy, and I watch them with envy and chagrin and, when my heart can manage it, admiration. Some days I even feel joy, this ball of gratitude and pleasure that inflates my chest, one bike tube pump at a time, when I watch their eyes and their hands and their cheeks and I can almost, almost feel what they feel. They seldom glance at me. I’m not really there. Not in the same sense they are. I am incidental. When people look at me, they don’t see me, and they certainly don’t see me seeing them. If we make eye contact, they avert. They sometimes react as they would to a homeless person. I’ve seen buskers have conversation with people. I once saw a young man sit down on the concrete and chat with the old woman who plays her five-string guitar here. I saw him reach out his hand to her and grip her palm, squeeze her fingers as if he were greeting his own mother. Maybe he was. But no one talks to me.

I’ve often thought I could pick their pockets. They don’t see me, they barely register me, why would they notice if I took their wallets? Would my hand even take physical form if I reached into their purses, their overcoats, their jackets? Would they suddenly feel me and the sensation would race to their eyes? Or would their blindness travel down to their nervous system and numb any awareness of that tug?

I sweep. I mop. I don’t have disinfectant but I have a bucket. I pick up dropped cell phones. I’ve lost count how many. Sometimes, if I can get to a listing and find “home #,” I will call and try to tell them where they can retrieve their property. But now almost every phone is locked and I don’t spend hours trying to guess security codes. I just leave them at the newsstand where the gal who works the pre-dawn shift gets to decide what to do with them.

I empty the trash cans into the dumpster. I go through trash. I eat. I find things to help me. Continue reading

Something Like Faith, Chapter 9

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Spring. I love Spring. I love breathing the chill air that somehow hints of warmth. I’ve always wondered if that hint is in my head because of the calendar or if something in the green coming-back-to-life sneaks out. Trinket left on a sickly, below-zero day. I remember the light of the sun warmed nothing, even magnified through the window. I sat reading her letter in my room, shivering. When Spring came, I knew she was okay. I knew she loved me and would come back for me. I even started imagining how she had gotten a place of her own—I was too young to grasp that she couldn’t buy a house and I pictured this brick home, tiny but sturdy and safe. Every Spring since, I start looking for her. I don’t imagine I see her in every brown-haired girl. But I look.

This Spring, I will see her. Somehow we will find her and she will have her life together and maybe she’ll even be able to help me a little. I know I’m fantasizing, but it comes to me in April. Continue reading

Something Like Faith, Chapter 8

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You want to know how this works? I can tell you.

First, find a beautiful girl. I mean turn-your-head, stop-your-heart, get-run-over-while-staring gorgeous. Make sure she’s out of reach.

Hang around enough, without exuding stalker, creep, or pathetic wanna-be vibes, to figure out who she is beyond stunning. This means you have to get past being stunned (or learn to function while stunned), make interesting conversation, find out what she does, likes, thinks, and believes, and somehow be interesting enough that she wants to know about your life, too.

Fall in love with her. You can also do this step first. You likely won’t have a choice.

Then spend about a million hours, give or take thirty, trying to figure out how you could approach her, get to know her, demonstrate that you’re not just another guy who thinks she’s hot. You have to become friends with her without having her think of you asonly a friend.I know that sounds impossible. It gets worse.

Listen to her. Support her through difficult times, make her laugh after she finally dumps the loser you knew was rotten even before he started eyeing her friends (or mom, or both). Tell her she deserves better. Now, somehow switch fromI’m your friend and I will always be here for youtoI’m in love with you and want to be that better guy you deserve.It’s a lot like jumping from a train and trying to stick your landing through the window of another, running in the opposite direction.

If you survive this transition with minimal fractures and retain the ability to be in the same room with her, proceed to get to know her better in this capacity. DO NOT make moves or do anything else to undercut your message that you are different from all the scumbags you battled through to get here.

Next, somehow let her know, without freaking her out or completely losing her, that you want to marry her. Ideally, you will work this into an argument or some other volatile interaction. Make sure she knows that you’re serious but don’t scare her off by having her take you seriously. If that sounds contradictory, you’ve got it! This move feels akin to stripping naked and streaking across the White House lawn without getting arrested. Don’t worry, it’s harder than it sounds.

Assuming you’ve made it this far, somehow you need to take the next step by proposing marriage. I can’t really offer good advice here, because I doubt my experience translates. But if you also can find the means to have her initiate, or charge forward when you drop a hint, let me know and I’ll clarify this step. I’m presently working under the assumption that I had lottery-win-level good fortune and telling you to try it would be the same as suggestingyou have to play to win.Technically true, but a cruel hoax nonetheless.

If you’ve made it this far intact, Congratulations! One step remains:

Tell her you’re not ready to get married. See how that goes.

*

Hi, Guin.

Hi, Paxton. I was hoping you’d call early. Want to walk by the river today? I was thinking about packing a picnic. What time do you have to work at the school? Or are you taking today off?

Ummm…how many questions was that?She sounds excited. I still have to resist the urge to ask her what’s going on that she’s so happy. The first few times she just laughed at me. Then she asked me if I were fishing for compliments. It took me a minute to work out that she hadn’t given me a non-sequitur.

Oh, you’re talking about me! You’re glad to be with me!

Yeah, I didn’t say that. How long until I grasp that she likes me?

Three, I think. The picnic statement could be taken as a question, since I wanted your response. But I think four questions in a row sounds needy.She giggles.

Needy Guinevere. Right.

I’d love to walk by the river and have a picnic with you. What do you want me to bring?

Oh, don’t worry about that, I’ve already started getting food together.

So I guess that one wasn’t a real question.

No, it wasn’t. Unless you have some other fiancé offering better plans. And even then, she’d have to be a better fiancé.Guin has been dropping thefword almost as often as she mentions sex.

I guess it would depend on how much better the plans were. Or she might have just asked first.

Oh, my God, she’s totally putting out, isn’t she? That’s why you’re picking her offer over mine. I’ll kill the tart! What kind of sandwich do you want?

Anything’s fine.

Liverwurst and sardines? With sauerkraut and jalapeños? We have anything, so you might want to rethink that. I think my parents have sushi packed away here somewhere.I can hear her clonking around in their fridge. It’s smaller than a barn but bigger than a tool shed.

Peanut butter would be great. Or turkey.

Turkey and Swiss? Turkey and provolone? Turkey and cheddar? Or turkey and cream cheese?Have I ever eatenprovolone?Swiss has holes, but I’m not certain I’ve tasted that, either, unless I have at her house.

Provolone. And just lettuce. Thanks, Guin.She likes piling exotic (to me) vegetables on sandwiches. I’ve got to get used to all this. Or do I?

You’re welcome, Sweetie. Do you remember that I asked you two other legitimate questions?

I do. I put in extra time yesterday, so I was waiting to see whether today or Sunday would be better not to work. I’ll go in early and get everything done so I won’t have to be there late. Sounds like today will be long, what with our picnic and having to wait until later to see her…

Who? Oh.Click.

She hung up on me. Over my imaginary other fiancé. Maybe she makes up reasons to be jealous to try to keep us balanced, since I have constant actual reasons.A few of the guys at school have decided that Guin just needs the right offer. Or maybe they’ve set up a pool to see which of them can sway the engaged girl.

I hate high school.

But no one has laid a hand on her, I suspect because Jeff made a joke about putting a price on the head of whoever tried. Or maybe it’s my proximity to Phil. Plus, Trash punched a guy last week who made a comment about her being pregnant. Trash. Somewhere in the Guys’ Manual (or maybe one of Dad’s lectures) it says I’m supposed to fight my own battles. But I’m a school employee and bloody well cannot afford to lose that job, which I would if I were caught fighting, on or off school property. That’s the main reason I’m not fighting. I believe myself.

Plus, Guinevere just laughs and tells them she’s got more than she can handle in me, usually delivered with her sneer. That helps.

The sky looks like it wants to pick a fight when I get to the river. She’s waiting for me on the rock where we always meet. It’s a small enough town and we’re doing enough walking that we have all our meeting places set. That makes me feel like we’re really in a committed relationship as much as anything.

She smiles when she sees me, so I scramble up the rock and kiss her. She kisses me back for a while.

Hi,I gasp, trying to get my breath.

Hi, Hon,she says. Gretchen often calls Noel by affectionate names. Expectations.

Hi, Guinevere.

You hungry? What would you like to do first?She wiggles her eyebrows. So I kiss her some more.

I usually hold her hands while we kiss. I don’t know exactly why she’s so taken with our chastity, but one way or another I’m in this boat and hoping to stay in, even if I’m the one about to make waves, even if we capsize or plunge over a waterfall. Sometimes she pulls her hands back, which means I’m crushing her fingers. That’s a good sign I’m done kissing for a while.

Today, she’s gripping harder than I am.

You okay?she asks.

Oh, yeah. Great. You?

You didn’t meet up with her earlier, did you? She better not have tired you out already.This smile means she wants to joust more. I’m tempted to tell her it wouldn’t matter, since my real-life fiancé’s not planning to use any of that energy, anyway. But really I’m okay that we’re not having sex. Mostly.

Sweetheart, I’m savin’ all my love for you. You know that.

She grins.

Want to walk now? Or…?She pulls out a sandwich and waves it under my nose.

Let’s eat something while we’re walking, and we can finish the rest on the other side.The path by the river has a pedestrian bridge. The view from across the river is a little better and there’s a section with some trees that feels a lot more secluded than this.

She hooks two fingers through one of my belt loops, pulls me me over to her, and nibbles on my earlobe. For about thirty seconds.

Now I can’t walk.

We could just eat here.

She laughs.

Any progress on our Treasure Hunt?she asks. We don’t say Amethyst’s name in public, even when we think we’re alone. A couple of guys snuck up on us to see if they could catch us in the actdid I mention I hate high school?—while we were talking about her. I did almost hit one of them, but they ran away. At least that felt manly. She said they were band guys. Semi-manly.

No, nothing. I have to get back to the library and find more contact info. You know, even if I called the right workplace, they might not tell me. That means we can’t even narrow down which haystacks we’ve looked in.

She leans her head on my shoulder. Sometimes her non-answers help more, especially when I’ve spun around the same circles eighty-five times since breakfast.

Okay, turkey and provolone. Want a peach?She hands me a fuzzy ball. Until I ate one at Guinevere’s, I thought peaches tasted like corn syrup. I also thought green beans were brown and peas were mush. The benefits of a school cafeteria education.

Thanks for bringing lunch.

You want to talk about plans?she asks. Wedding plans, of course.

Guinevere?

Yes, Paxton?She’s back leaning on me again and we’re both staring at the water. The river is running high today and looks like it could take out some houses with one good rain. It often looks like this and it could.

I think we need to talk about, um,and I’m stuck.

You want to just start by telling me her name?Guin asks.

Don’t split your infinitives.

Do you want merely to tell me her name and allow me simply to wring her neck?

This is going to be serious.Oh, Bloody Living Hades. I’m Dad starting atalk.

She gets up, turns to face me, and sits down so that we’re staring at each other a foot apart.

Let’s do it. What are we to seriously talk about?Her eyes look like they did when I first asked her out. Waiting. Even though she just mocked me again, she’s ready.

Guin, do you think we might be rushing this?

Paxton, do you think you might have cold feet?

No, that isn’t it.

You’re not sure you want to marry me?

I am sure. I want to marry you more than I want anything else.

You’re parents and my parents have both agreed. What am I missing? You don’t think I want to marry you? You need me to convince you?She’s straining not to make fun of me.

It’s not that.

Is it about the Treasure? You said that wasn’t a deal-breaker, but I get it’s complicated. I mean, how could you even know how you’d feel about it? Are you discouraged about not finding…’it?’

No, well yeah, I’m discouraged, but I’m notthis isn’t about Treasure Hunting. But thanks.

All right, then I’m lost again.

What if we’re too young to be ready and we’re too young to know that?

She nods a few times and rocks forward and back like she does when she’s working out a math problem. Is there anything that isn’t sexy about her?

Okay, that makes sense, except: how would you ever know if you’re ready, if you can’t know if you’re right about knowing? When do you figure out that you can trust yourself for real?

I don’t know. Don’t you think at some point you know for sure that you are finally mature? I mean, it can’t feel like this when we’re fifty.

Feel like what? Not knowing or knowing? Is your problem that you aren’t confident or that you’re too confident and so you don’t believe it?

I just don’t want to make a big mistake that will hurt you.

She studies me. I have to turn back to the choppy current.

Do you think we’re making a mistake?she asks quietly.

Come on, think, Paxton! This is serious and she’s taking you plenty seriously now. Do you want to talk her out of marrying you?

Okay, let’s walk,” I say.  We stuff plastic sandwich bags into the basket and I grab the handles.Guinevere, I’m just trying to figure out what’s best for both of us?I mean to state it, but it comes out a question.

Really? That’s what my mother keeps saying. She wants to help me figure out what’s best for both of us, me and you, except it sounds a lot like figuring out what’s best for me, from their point of view, which also happens to make them look good.

It’s not the same thing. I’m justI mean, I’m trying to–

Nope, I don’t know what you’re trying. But tell me this: do you think my parents would have gotten married if some older, wiser, more mature counsel had directed them? I don’t. I think they would have been told to wait. Then, who knows? Maybe it worked out, or maybe they forgot each other and went totally different directions and I’m not here. I keep asking them this and they don’t have any response except ‘that’s different,’ which by the way, is a bullshit answer.

Well, that was a small window. She was taking me seriously.

What if we don’t know each other well enough to get married?

Paxton! What don’t you know about me? You think I didn’t notice that while my ‘boyfriends’ had no clue and paid no attention, you picked up everything? Do I know you well enough? I know what’s important. You want to tell me more horror stories from your childhood?” I look away.I probably don’t know all the specifics, but I think that can wait, if you ever decide you want to tell me.

Children? We haven’t talked about how we want to raise kids or how many.

How many children do I want, Paxton?

Three.

And you want two. I always thought that was because you didn’t like being an only child.She shakes her head.We want our kids to go to college. Do I know what kind of toothpaste we’ll have them use or whether we’ll try to get the girls interested in ice skating or dance or gymnastics? Crest and seems like each of those has some danger of eating disorders, so maybe soccer or girls’ rugby. Not basketball, unless you coach.

How about this: do we know if we’ll get along, spending that much time together? Because my parents can’t stand each other,” I say.

She pulls in next to me so that our hips touch and we’d have to crank our necks sideways to see each other. Then she rests her head against mine so that her hair is spilling down on my cheek as we walk.

Oh, Hon, we’re not going to be your parents. Is that what we’re talking about?

I don’t know. Maybe. They didn’t start out like they are. Maybe they were like us. Maybe they thought they knew what they were doing and wouldn’t listen to anyone who told them to wait.

She sighs so deeply I can feel it wuff throughout her whole body. She’s walking pretty close to me.

Maybe. But you told me she got pregnant. It’s hard to imagine they actually liked each other much. Do you really think they were in love once?

I think some people whose marriages fail were.

But…why would that be us?

Because we don’t know what we’re doing?

Paxton, isn’t you’re reasoning circular? You’re afraid we’re too young to get married, and the reason people shouldn’t get married young is that they might not be ready to be married because they’re young. Maybe we’re more ready to be married now than your parents ever have been. Sorry that sounds bad.

Okay, do you think it’s at all possible that we don’t know ourselves well enough yet? What if we change a lot over the next few years and realize that we want to do things completely different?

You mean like you decide that you want a harem? You’re going to go polygamist on me? Think you have the stamina for that, young man?

No, I mean what if one of us wants to travel and the other’s ready to settle down and start a career? Or a family? Or both?

Aw, Paxton, don’t you get it? We just decide together. I don’t see one of us being so hell-bent on something that the other doesn’t want, but we’ll work it out, whatever it is. You know I want to travel and so do you. I don’t want kids right away. But I do want kids with you.That makes me hot in my chest and I don’t even mean about the sex part. “Darling, I think you need to give us more credit. We’re better at making big decisions than you recognize. You’re not wearing a mullet. There are no pictures of me in neon pastel clothes. Even though those have been huge, we aren’t falling for looking ridiculous just because people pretend they don’t.She’s gauging our marriage readiness on our fashion sense. Do I answer this argument?

Not being able to decide becomes not answering.

Think about this: right now we’re arguing. Are you enjoying spending time with me? Is there something else you’d rather be doing?” Her eyes flood with innocence and curiosity.

It might help if you weren’t so absolutely confident,I say.

In what? That you love me? Do you know how good a job you did of convincing me? A little late to regret that now. You know what I think?

Nope. That only works one direction.

So you are only thinking about sex!

I can’t help it, I’m laughing with her. This was supposed to go differently. Wasn’t it?

Tell me, Guinevere, what do you think?

I think getting what you want scares you. I think you don’t know what to do with having things come out the way you hope. Well, you might have to get used to it, Hon. Because as long as you want me, I’m not going away.

Okay, I tried. I hope I did my best.

No. I hope that I didn’t need to win that argument for Guin’s sake.

Something Like Faith, Chapter 7

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My life changed in a weekend and I’m sprinting to catch up, trying to leave behind the guy who couldn’t handle two minutes in the state tournament game, because seriously, who gives a flying flip about that now?  Guinevere and I are getting married.  High school no longer makes sense or fits my place in life.  But I’ve got no plan for college, either, even less than the no-plan I had before, because now it’s a no-plan for two.  She hasn’t contacted Stanford.  I applied (borrowing money from Jeff and Nill, God bless ’em), and haven’t heard anything yet.  We’re talking about whether we could go to one of the local schools.  The Catch-22 is that the more affordable they are—which mostly correlates inversely with academic standing—the  more I feel like I’m proving the Kintons right that our getting married will undercut Guin’s opportunities.  She can afford to go to Stanford or any other school she wants…as long as she’s not attached to me.  I can’t afford to go anywhere, with or without her.  But if we both got accepted at a school that only cost three or four thousand in tuition, maybe with some financial aid and my job (the one I’m hunting for), we could both enroll and get a cheap place together.

None of the guys know what to do with me.  If someone is getting laid, you give them crap.  Three classmates have gotten pregnant and kept the babies, and that’s a whole different level:  everyone encourages those girls and tells them how brave and amazing they are and how good they look, and everyone pats the guys on the shoulder and tells them tough break, could have happened to anyone (though they don’t believe that’s true) and it’s not the end of the world (ditto).  But Guin and I, we’re in this nether region.  Most of the guys either avoid talking to me or ask bizarre questions, like “Are her parents forcing you to get married?”  Of course, people assume she’s pregnant.  That’s more disturbing, because they’ve heard we haven’t had sex.  She just tells them “no” and that they can wait and see.  I hope she’s less emphatic with her explanation than she was with her parents, but why should that matter?  Caring what my classmates think of me is another part of my past tense life.  I wish I’d been able to grasp this before; at least now I can live up to what Jeff thinks of me.

 

Even Nill doesn’t get it.

“So why can’t you finish college first and then marry her?”

“Nill, we haven’t even started college yet.”

“Sure, four years, but why not wait?”

“Because she wants to marry me now.”

“If she loves you, won’t she still want to marry you four years from now?”

“Probably, but why risk it?”

“Because of college.” Continue reading

Something Like Faith, Chapter 6

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Guinevere and I are eating breakfast with her parents.  Normally, they eat about seven, but she asked them to wait until I arrived.  Dad told me to drive our car.  I’m five minutes early.  I don’t think I slept last night.

I’m wired.

Guin made waffles and Gretchen made homemade blackberry syrup, but not syrup.  Compote, she called it.  Way too thick for syrup.  Noel Kinton must exercise hard to stay in shape the way they eat, though being six-twelve probably helps.  He’s got a lot more territory to spread it out.

“Have you read Chaim Potok, Paxton?  The Chosen and My Name Is Asher Lev are two of his best and most widely read, though Gretchen favors Davita’s Harp.”  Noel Kinton has decided that he and I can talk literature.  I know few of the authors he suggests, but I’ve gone to the library for every book he’s recommended.

“No, I haven’t.  Did they make a movie of The Chosen?”

“I would not be surprised, though I haven’t seen it, personally.  I tend to find theatrical adaptations of books disappointing.  Do you enjoy them?”

I’m chewing waffle and compote, trying to frame an adequate answer to another question that sounds like a test, when Guin says, “Paxton and I wanted to talk to you both.  Didn’t we, Paxton.”  A cue, not a question.

I take a large swallow of milk, taking care not to choke (which is harder than you’d guess, when you’re consciously trying) and nod my head several times.  She’s waiting for me to continue.  Her father, who does not like being interrupted, is also waiting for me.

“Um, Guinevere and I had hoped to talk to you because, we, uh…well, we’ve been talking, and we decided we think it’s time to—I mean, we feel ready to talk about…” come on, one more word, “marriage.”

Pathetic, but I did it.

“You want to talk about our marriage?” Gretchen asks, half-joking, but she’s not laughing.

“No.  We want to get married.  I would like to marry your daughter.”  So much better.

In the silence, Noel Kinton cuts another bite and puts it in his mouth.  Trying not to avoid their stares, I count his chews.

“You’re pregnant?”  Gretchen asks, but it comes out a statement.  She wants confirmation.

I start to shake my head, but Guinevere says, “Hardly.  We’re not even close to having sex.” Continue reading