Weekend Update

Music-wise, it was a slow week. I did a little reading and a lot of listening this week. Here is some of what I discovered…

Incendiary by Chris Cleave (novel, audio) – The back cover calls it “emotionally raw” and “alive with grief, compassion, and startling humor.” Not only that, the entire novel is a personal letter to Osama Bin Laden. This one is bold, haunting, and written extremely well.

Moonlight Mile by Dennis LeHane (novel, audio) – This guy can definitely craft a story. And most of the dialog is pitch perfect. However, some of the exchanges with bad guys come off sounding like tired movie dialog. The overall plot did test my capacity to suspend reality. But it was entertaining enough.

A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins (novel) – The story feels a bit disjointed, but I’m only a third of the way in. The writing, however, is downright enviable in places. And the patches of dialog between man and machine are really starting to grow on me.

Etgar Keret (stories) – I would trade two of my favorite guitars for this guy’s imagination

October Baby (DVD) – It may not be fair, but I have to view these kinds of movies through two separate lenses. If I judge it on its own merits as a film, I’d have to give it an average score. The filmmakers did a lot of things right but the cast was unbalanced, there a few indulgent scenes, and they tried too hard to make sure we got the point. We did not need the scene with the priest telling our hero she needed to forgive everybody. It would have been much more effective (and less cheesy) to have her figure this out on her own, then act. And the obligatory turn-around-at-the-last-moment-and-run-back-for-another-weepy-hug scene was downright cringeworthy. However, as far as Christian films go, this is one of the best I’ve seen. The writing, cinematography, and storytelling was WAY better than anything else I’ve seen in the genre. And Rachel Hendrix was outstanding.

Here’s The Thing (podcast) – Andrew McCarthy – This one caught me by surprise. I’m neither fan nor foe of the former brat pack actor. But I was captivated for his 35-minute interview where he tells of his journey from punk kid to renowned travel writer and family man. Yet another excellent interview.

This American Life (podcast) – Overall, TAL is my favorite podcast ever. This week’s entry wasn’t so hot. But maybe that was my fault. The episode was all about the recent election and I think I’m just tired of hearing about it.

Decompose (blog) – I followed a rather heated discussion that ended up pitting progressive Christians against their more conservative brethren. And although it was no one’s fault in particular, the whole thing makes me sad. Like most online debates, the majority seek first to be understood, to make their point, or to lob some snarky grenade into the other team’s camp. Healthy discourse occurs when everyone makes a genuine effort to understand the other guy first, then offer a thoughtful reply. Too much assuming, stereotyping, and too much of a premium on winning the argument. And for the record, the comments I left in the thread were probably no mover helpful than the ones I’m critiquing here.

 

Normal People

1-

We went to the prom together. We ended up in the hospital. In the decade between, we somehow managed to form a family without ever making much of a life. We were normal people, pretending everything was okay.

Maria blames the doctors. I blame God. Secretly we both blame Hailey for dying on us. When we feel like hurting each other, Maria and I blame each other for not giving our baby girl something more to live for. When we feel like being honest, we don’t blame Hailey at all. We envy her.

2-

We’re in Room 419; Maria is sleeping now despite the machines and tubes and nurses. When I’m sure she can’t hear me, I apologize for things. I practice telling her goodbye. No matter how hard I try, the sad tears won’t come. All I can manage are tears of frustration for not feeling sufficiently sad about my dying wife. And that makes me cry harder. But it’s not the cleansing kind.

3-

Maria was looking right at me when she died. I think she tried to tell me she didn’t blame me any more. I didn’t mean to resent her but I did. I envied her too. Not her death, but her belief.

In her version, all she had to do was quit breathing and wait for Jesus to take her up in the clouds to push Hailey on some heavenly swing set. Hailey loved to swing.

4-

Tony says he wants to cheer me up so I let him try. It turns out I’m Tony’s excuse to drink. He already knows I’m beyond salvage. The gin just makes him feel better about having to spend time with me. So I sit and watch my kid brother fail to cheer either one of us up. Later, I drive him home.

5-

They tell me I fainted at the funeral. The more generous mourners gave me the benefit of the doubt, blamed it on exhaustion and grief. Those who knew better blamed it on the sleeping pills that, at least until the graveside service, hadn’t done a thing for me. My personal opinion is that I was still frustrated about not crying. Not since Hailey was born. I wept the first time I saw her, but not the last. That’s not an easy thing to admit.

6-

I finally slept last night. But not because of the sleeping pills.

I took every picture out of every frame and out of every photo album in the house and spread them on the bed. I cinched Maria’s bathrobe around me, then draped Hailey’s baby blanket on my face like a robber’s bandana. It smelled like formula and warm baby skin. Eventually I fell into bed with the lights on.

I think maybe I prayed some too.

When I woke, the blanket smelled more like my breath than Hailey’s.

7-

I’m not Catholic so I don’t know the rules. But the priest is young and willing to play along. The booth smells like Grandma’s closet, which I used to pretend was Narnia.

I kneel and confess everything I can think of until my knees ache. The priest assures me I did a fine job, but I get the feeling he wants to be rid of me. Or maybe it’s me that wants to be rid of me.

8-

When I can’t sleep I get up and call the hospital. I asked to be connected to Room 419. The groggy switchboard nurse tells me she’s sorry, that there’s no one in Room 419. I wonder briefly if she’s really sorry, and why?

Packing a duffel makes me feel a bit like Oswald or Ruby, making final preparations and wondering if I have the nerve.

Just like the sleepy nurse said, the room is empty, the bed made. I pull the privacy curtain, careful not to make noise, then climb into bed. Maria’s scent is gone, but I still have Hailey’s blanket.

There’s no cop there when I wake, just a different groggy nurse. She says, “You can’t stay here.”

“I know,” I say.

She thinks I’m talking about the room.

9-

I can’t live. And I can’t die. So I sit and wait for whatever is supposed to happen next. I do this every day until I run out of coffee.

There’s no money any more because there’s no job any more. I tell myself that I’m not really stealing, that I’m simply servicing my caffeine addiction. I check my conscience, but my conscience doesn’t seem to care.

Stealing is easy, easier still to justify. I’m poor now, hungry and confused. I’ve been wronged and abandoned. It’s not my fault. A man’s got to eat.

The cop disagrees.

10-

I walk now. I talk a lot too. Out loud. Mostly to myself, sometimes to God. All the good smells are gone. There are no more kind eyes either, no more Tony’s or groggy nurses. I do have my photographs though. And Hailey’s blanket. I bartered away Maria’s bathrobe for a pair of Pumas that don’t fit. When I get good and desperate, the priest will feed me or give me a coat. He tells me to keep talking to God, to say it out loud if I have to, no matter how the normal people look at me or move to the other side of the road. He says my decrease is Jesus’s increase, which sounds like total crap to me. Still, I continue to testify about the things I have seen and heard and smelled and done.

The Only 2 Questions

According to the inimitable Steve Almond, the only two questions readers care about are these:

1. Who do I care about?

2. What do they care about?

“It doesn’t especially matter what your heroine cares about. as long as she cares a lot. Love and death are the usual suspects, but a great novel just might arise from a nun’s thwarted effort to remove dental floss from between her teeth (to borrow an example from Kurt Vonnegut). As long as her passion places her in peril, you’re in business.”

Sure, style matters. As does voice and technique and talent and all sorts of other writerly stuff.

But I think there’s a boatload of wisdom in Almond’s distillation.

So, what do you think?

Interviewing Naked

My PR lady emailed and said that an east coast radio station wanted to have me back on air to talk about my third novel. This was particularly cool because I remembered the guy doing the interview had actually read my other novels prior to asking me questions about them on air.

We agreed on the time and date and I put it on my calendar.

The fateful morning arrived and I double-checked my email to make sure I had the time right. I did, but my very nice PR lady had forgotten to factor in the time zone difference.

That’s not me. Nor is it my shower.

So…I was just finishing up my shower when I heard my cell phone vibrating on the sink. I hurried out of the mist and checked the number. The unfamiliar area code sure seemed east coasty.

I debated for a second, but it’s not like they were going to call back at a more convenient time. So I answered it…au naturel.

At some point I think I did wrap myself in a towel. But for the most part, I spent the next five to ten minutes talking to thousands of people in the nude.

The takeaway here?

Conventional wisdom claims that if you’re nervous about talking in front of a crowd, you should picture your audience naked. I can now tell you from personal experience that having them picture you naked works too.

What about you? Any embarrassing situations you’d like to share? (For today at least, clothing is optional…)

Truth + Beauty = A Story Worth Reading

For me, an artful story consists of truth plus beauty plus…?

That’s it, really. Everything else should serve the truth and beauty of the stories we’re trying to tell. That’s not to say that all that craft we study and slave over isn’t important; it is.

But that stuff is nourishment. The rules are just first aid. Plot and structure provide clothing and shelter. Style is the result of our sitting down and transcribing truth and beauty, not the other way around. We cannot force it by trying to be clever or cute.

“Style is doomed, to the exact extent it implies a conscious effort to shape the language,” says Steve Almond. “There’s a simple reason for this: your artistic unconscious is about ten times more powerful as an imaginative tool than your conscious mind. But it only comes out to play when you forget yourself and focus on your people…Style, in other words, is the residue produced by the dogged pursuit of truth.”

We don’t get to create truth or beauty. They are ours to observe and enjoy. We get to borrow them, arrange them in new or interesting ways. On our best days, our experiments with light and shadow may reveal some new facet of truth or peel back the curtain to reveal some previously hidden beauty. But we’re not really creating anything new under the sun.

God provides the raw material. We simply curate.

So what do you think? Agree? Disagree? Would love to hear your thoughts.

Diaphanous

So many questions. And even more bad smells. And popping sounds that don’t always hurt, but probably should. In the silence between the questions, water drips on stone. It’s a torturous sound, not unlike the intermittent screaming and whimpering and all that incessant stretching and popping.

“Didst thou or didn’tst thou not stealeth the Prince’s potatoe?”

“There’s no E at the end of potato,” I reply.

My interrogator nods to the toothless mongrel working the crank. The mongrel’s an oafish man, bald in all the wrong places. He uses both hands as he ratchets, smiling, obviously pleased with his job.

I imagine his business card (six thousand years hence, when they’ve actually been invented)…

Lurch McDurkle, Senior Rack Operator
One Exeter Castle Way
Devon, England

 

The sounds subside, but not the pain. They keep asking about the Prince and his missing potatoes. But my mind is set five-and-two-thirds centuries away, to a hip little town called Atlantic City, specifically, a quaint shop on the Boardwalk and that first ever batch of delicious saltwater taffy.

When I think I’m finally dead, I hear Lurch McDurkle ask, “How did he hear the E?”

Pediculous

Ours was a secret society, government sanctioned, FDA-approved, accredited. Individual achievement was encouraged, homogeny enforced. It was all code—zip, dress, conduct, Morse, silence. From our cinderblock cubicles, we learned reading and writing, history and math, rumor and innuendo.

Afternoons were a groggy waste. Recess, then lunch, then lectures about Americans killing each other. Our classroom faced west. As the minute-hand lumbered, the air grew thicker and hotter with pungent things—pencil lead, peanut butter, little kid sweat.

When the final bell finally tolled we fled our communal incubator in bunches, then assembled in neat cliques to talk about cartoons and teachers and Essie Bolinger.

Essie was famous for all the wrong reasons. She wore the same dress every day. She smelled like turned milk and someone else’s cigarettes. She was a little too skinny, a little too tall, and a little slow. All of which made her the perfect target.

We trivialized the important rumors—the missing father, the shiftless step-father, the drug-addled brother and sex-addicted mother, the eviction notices and missed meals and Essie’s attempts to buy cigarettes with food stamps. Instead, we focused on the one rumor that could wreak the most emotional havoc.

Essie’s head lice was never substantiated. But we didn’t need proof. What we needed was something cruel to rally around, to sing about, to inflict. And when we put our collective mind to it, we were pretty amazing.

The lice rumor survived middle school, then finally died in high school when Essie just stopped showing up. Most of us forgot about her. Some felt bad. A precious few cared enough to try and find out what happened to her. Only two from our class attended her funeral.

The minister said that Essie had a heart condition and that it finally gave out. I think I may be the only one who knows what really killed Essie Bolinger.

All Healed Up

“Kill the toad, man. Before it kills you.”

That was the last thing my record producer ever said to me. He didn’t die or move away or anything. Like everyone else I know, he just got fed up and stopped talking to me. That was four years ago. I’ve been driving ever since.

My current travel companion smells like yeast and somebody else’s cigarettes. His name begins with a K but I gave up trying to remember it about a hundred miles back. I picked him up on I-65 at sunrise and he hasn’t stopped picking paint flecks off his jeans since, slipping them into a zippered pouch on his backpack. Had to ask him twice to stop singing. And I suspect I’ll either have to keep asking or shut the radio off. He’s telling me his story, how he wound up thumbing rides in the middle August, casting blame like breadcrumbs. Problem is, he still believes he’ll find his way home, oblivious to the defeat in his own eyes and the fact that he’s already booked passage on the orphan train. If not for a brainless supervisor, a lazy ex-girlfriend, a dismal zodiac reading, and some uppity negro named Tayshawn, my new friend would be the mayor of earth. His life is everyone’s fault but his. You can hear him working his tale out in fits and starts, repeating parts with added fervor, as if convincing me will somehow make it true.

He must realize his story’s out of gas so he decides to involve me. “So, Jeremy, is it? What do you do for a living?”

“You’re looking at it,” I say, eyes still on the road.

“That’s it, you just drive?”

“Pretty much.”

“Jeremy the driver, eh?” A few seconds pass in silence, then he cocks his head like an overly curious basset hound, “So, you like an escort driver or whatchamacallit? A courier?”

I consider his original question again, vaguely aware of the underwater effect of heat shimmering on asphalt. What exactly do I do for a living? The question implies an exchange of some kind, a sacrifice maybe. But I don’t ask for much and I forfeit even less. I’m a nomad. Gas stations and ATM’s are my oases. And I’ve narrowed my addictions to exactly one. So I don’t really do much of anything. And I’m not sure what I do do actually qualifies as living.

K obviously reads too much into my silence. He snaps his dirty fingers and says, “I shoulda known, man. You’re running dope, aren’t you? Or is it guns? Just my friggin’ luck, hooking up with a damn drug smug—”

A familiar turbulence works its way through my system. I recognize the sound first, then the emotion. Laughter. My body and my brain are wracked with it. And when I realize how long it’s been since the last time, I laugh even harder. I can’t stop. Hell, I can barely drive.

The spasms subside when I narrowly miss sideswiping a tractor-trailer, sobering me up enough to make the exit and park alongside an antique gas pump. K is out of the car and heading toward the convenience store, either afraid or offended or both.

If he only knew how close to right he was.

***

I gave my sister cancer when we were nine. The adults in my world tried to convince me otherwise, but I knew what I knew.

The leaves were browning and the air reeked of exhaust from a nearby tire factory. I was Peter and she was Tinker Bell, dueling imaginary pirates when I knocked Katie out of our tree fort. The ambulance carted her off with a broken collarbone. She came home three months later with leukemia and died six months after that, on our birthday. We shared the same womb. She got the looks and brains. I got the attitude and all the healthy cells.

The shrinks talked about displacement, said that I was transferring blame and withdrawing to a dangerous place. Katie called me a silly boy for blaming myself, said that we were lucky that the broken collarbone helped them find the cancer so that God and Daddy could get her all healed up. That’s what she’d say, all healed up, with a pink-and-green inflection that made you believe it. I loved her even more for that.

We buried Katie two days later, along with the best of what was left of our family. My mother pretended that nothing happened. My father quit meeting my eyes. My brain told me I killed my twin sister.

Eventually they tried to replace Katie with a new baby. But it felt cheap, like buying a new hamster because the dog ate the last one, as if affections were disposable. Turns out, maybe they are.

Tink lost her light. Peter grew up, bitter and filled with regret.

***

I’m a little surprised when K-man returns from the men’s room, munching a Slim Jim and sipping chocolate milk. He leans one shoulder on the truck, trying to look casual but missing badly. It’s obvious he’s anxious about something but can’t figure how to broach the subject. Another attempt at small talk fizzles on his tongue so I point the neck of my Coke bottle at the tarp-covered truck bed and say, “Feel free to have a look around. Might put your mind at ease.”

His neck turns pink and his hands fly up, miming surrender. “Hey, you say you ain’t carrying any shit, then I guess you ain’t carrying any.”

He climbs back into my truck and I follow. Once we reach cruising speed I say, “Just to be clear, you know I never really said that.” I watch his eyebrows flirt with his hairline. “You know, that I wasn’t carrying.”

His face and hands morph into the sign language equivalent of Say what?

I shrug and hit the seek button on the radio. His fidgeting turns chronic and his eyes scan every crevice of the cab. He scratches phantom itches and keeps stretching his back to mask his curiosity. The radio dial pauses to preview the strongest signals, teasing us with snippets of rap, country, talk, metal, and sports until I hear an all-too familiar voice. As it too disappears, K’s hand shoots forward. “Go back, man. I love that tune.”

I manually crank the digits back until the familiar voice returns, my voice from another lifetime. For once I don’t ask him to quit singing.

***

The assumption early on was that I would follow in my father’s lucrative footsteps. Lord knows I had the training. In the early days, Dad used to make Katie and me travel with him to hick towns all over the southeast. He’d drop us off at the local ice cream shop with a pocketful of quarters while he drove to the big tent to begin his reconnaissance, shaking hands, praying, re-inspecting his hair, and choreographing the transitions between music, healings, and offering plates. Katie and I would mingle with the hordes of religious nuts, cripples, and thrill seekers before taking up our posts on the front row. Our job was to feed the kitty, to prime the pump, to get the ball rolling, or any number of clichéd synonyms for warming up the crowd. “Nobody likes to go first,” he’d say, as if our pretending were perfectly normal. “You two are like movie ushers for the Holy Spirit.” I hadn’t learned the word pimping yet. With Katie as my escort, I hobbled and grimaced onto the stage. After receiving my holy antidote, Katie would grab a microphone and testify to my previous afflictions and subsequent healing.

Dad eventually graduated from backwoods revivals to local religious programming, and from there to a national platform—the higher the profile, the more conservative the ministry. Once he massaged his Katie testimony into a tear-inducing spectacle, he gave up the healing routine altogether.

When I was fifteen I worked up the courage to challenge him on this. “Don’t you think it’s…I don’t know, sacrilegious to use Katie’s death to make money?”

“Is that what you think this is all about?” He looked shocked, hurt even. “Son, your sister’s death is the single worst thing that’s ever happened to me. But it’s like, like a casualty of war, unfortunate but necessary. It wreaked havoc on our lives, but God is using it for a greater good. Just like He’s going to use you.”

“You can tell God to keep his grubby hands off me.”

Dad smirked and shook his head. “You’re just like the Pharaoh, son. Your heart is as hard as your head–and that’s saying a lot. But mark my words, God is going to use you whether you sign up for eternity or not.”

“You mean like how you used us? In your healings?”

Dad flinched. He made a fist and I think he meant to use it. Instead he showed me his back, feeding the murder in my heart.

From that day forward my religion became the formation of a new self, the antithesis of my father, pursuing every god but his, indulging every whim into a fresh addiction. I moved in with communists, overdosed on jazz, and slept with blacks and Mexicans. Even forced myself to learn to write left-handed. The outlet for my cancerous existence was music, my own gritty brand of alt-rock. Rolling Stone christened me “an angry poet for a legion of disenfranchised misfits”. But I still couldn’t escape my father’s shadow. Art was not enough. I needed fame too, just to rub my father’s nose in it. Somewhere along the way I sabotaged my career, my passion, my one good gift, all for the empty pursuit of glory. I turned into the thing I hated most.

***

The Tennessee State troopers are out en force, tucked into blind spots on the median. The sight of them cranks on K’s curious fidgeting like a ratchet. His demeanor has sunk to just south of paranoid.

“You okay, man?” I say. “You don’t look so good.”

“I’m fine, man. I’m fine. I mean, well, on second thought I guess I could use a tissue.” He leans forward and opens the glove box, then yelps like a little girl when Prince jumps into his lap.

“Calm down,” I say. “You’re gonna scare him.”

“Get him off me.” K tries mightily to shrink away from the hideous fist-sized toad resting on his thigh. “I think he freakin’ peed on me.”

“I think he thinks you peed on him.”

K’s feet keep backpedaling uselessly on the floor board until I scoop Prince into my own lap and caress his knobby brown flesh with my thumb. He blinks at the panting man in the passenger seat.

***

I was sober when Amanda told me she loved me—not a good combination at all.

“Wait,” I said. “You’re serious aren’t you?”

Eyes glistening, she bit her lip and nodded.

“We had a deal, remember?”

“What, you don’t think I know about you slipping out at night for cheeseburgers?” She meant this to be funny, making light of our ground rules—no hard drugs, no meat, and no falling in love. But it just hung there between us. Until the first tear fell, clearing tracks for others. I could never stand the way she looked like Katie when she cried.

“You know,” I said. “That’ is the single most unattractive quality I can think of.”

“What? Crying? Or the ability to actually fall in love with someone?”

“No, falling in love with me. I could never respect you for that.”

That same afternoon, I drove past public restrooms until I could hear her bladder scream for mercy. When she duck-walked into the ladies’ room at a rest stop in Colorado I crammed two thousand dollars and a hand-written note into her purse and gave it to the security officer at the information desk. The note said: Sorry.

And I was.

That was 2002, the winter I spent with the hippies. These were the real hippies, the grow-your-own types, Manson family throwbacks, free love enthusiasts, not the rich kids with smelly dreadlocks, $300 sandals, and corporately sponsored jam band festivals with working toilets. They adopted me into their community as one of their own. It didn’t hurt that I had money. Or that I evened out the guy/girl ratio. Or that I was half their age. Or that I was a bit of a celebrity.

We practiced a nightly ritual which included bonfires, guitars and tambourines, reefer, and something they called The Chosen One, although I never observed any actual choosing. It was more of an even rotation. When his or her turn came up, the chosen one would select from an assortment of modified crack pipes, load it with what looked to be flecks of dried paste, and commence to leisurely toking.

By the time the hallucinations commenced in full, we were all primed with marijuana and ready for a show. And the chosen one rarely disappointed. Our communal intoxication left us with the profound impression that we’d finally partaken in something real.

After my third stint as the chosen one, I left $500 in the community money bag and snuck out of camp with Prince and a handful of loaded baggies.

***

We find an abandoned campground at the base of the Smokey Mountains. It turns out that K is less jumpy when given a job to do. He doesn’t talk any less though, recounting his mother’s battle with lung cancer and her subsequent memorial service in excruciating detail while he twists a can opener around a can of baked beans. He’s done most of the work, as I’m too anxious to help. Tonight I’m the chosen one.

We devour multiple helpings of sausage and beans while the gray sky fades to black and the forest chatter finds its groove. K rekindles our flame; sparks spiral skyward like the sparks in my veins. With no preamble I retrieve Prince from the glove box, then forage through my gym bag to produce a blue plate wrapped in tissue paper. To K’s horror I hold the toad with one hand and press my thumbs against various glands, squirting milky venom onto the dry plate. As it dries, it turns the color and texture of rubber cement. Minutes later I scrape the residue into the pipe I stole from the hippies.

I offer K a toke and am secretly pleased when he declines.

After an awkward silence, he says, “A toad named Prince, huh?”

“Just so you know.” I say. “I was groomed to be a preacher. Sometimes it comes out when, you know, I’m seeing things.”

“You ever turn violent?”

“Not yet. But feel free to kill me if I do.”

“Sure thing, boss.”

And so it begins. The smoky nectar burns in my mouth, my head, and my lungs before I feel it leaching into my bloodstream. I’ve only ever had one bad trip on this stuff and thankfully this doesn’t feel like another one. The first wave turns the forest into a kaleidoscope of grays and greens. The second wave is jazz, snippets of Coltrane bopping through the second movement of A Love Supreme, my heart keeping time with the inimitable Elvin Jones. Then I can smell a mixture of Katie’s skin and mom’s spice rack. Diamonds wink in my peripheral vision and I have the sensation of sifting endless mounds of dry soil with my hands. A voice not unlike mine alternates between laughing and whimpering, sometimes both together. My bloodstream teems with warm chlorophyll, my legs take root in the soil and spider out in every direction, my arms multiply and sprout impossibly-hued leaves. My last cognizant impression is one of me towering over a wide-eyed semi-stranger with a sermon welling up inside me. I think the stranger’s name begins with K.

***

My relationship with my father devolved into a series of nods and grunts and public pleasantries. Somewhere along the way, he’d lost the ability to distinguish between the mission and the ministry. Arrogance and the almighty dollar blurred the lines between the sacred and tacitly profane. This became clear to me on my seventeenth birthday when he excused himself from my party to take a phone call in his office. Shoulders touching, mom and I cut the cake and dished the ice cream for a gaggle of friends and aunts and cousins assembled to exaggerate yet another meaningless milestone. Ten minutes later I was dispatched to Dad’s office to tell him his ice cream was melting. But as I raised my hand to knock I heard Katie’s name. After a wave of guilt—I’d failed to pause even once that day to stop and think about my sister–I craned my ear and listened.

“I know, Stan. I know. But we can’t keep borrowing money just to save a few employees. We either need a new bag of tricks or the layoffs are inevitable.”

Stan Ewing was Dad’s business manager and maybe the only decent human being in their waning religious empire. He was a whiz with numbers and knew more dirty jokes than the drummer in my band.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Dad said. “But as much as I hate to admit it, we’ve milked the whole Katie angle dry. It’s got no traction any more.”

He went silent for a few beats, then laughed.

“Unless you know any lepers we can heal or any more dead daughters to—”

The first blow missed the target. It caught Dad in the ear and sent the phone skittering across the hardwood. Between his shock and my momentum, his cordovan chair flipped backward and I was on top of him, showering fists into his miserable face. My tears mixed with his blood and skewed cartilage.

Mother found us sprawled on the office floor, Dad unconscious and me flailing impotently with my broken hand and weeping.

I don’t remember, but mom swore I kept repeating, “You promised, Daddy. You promised Katie you’d get her all healed up.”

***

I’m flat on my back, basking in the hallucinogenic afterglow when I smell coffee. The sky is a big blue bowl of popcorn clouds. A twin engine prop plane buzzes somewhere above and behind me. The best part of abusing Prince’s venom is the sweet, velvety hangover—no nasty headaches or heartburn, just lapping waves of melancholy and a few twisted memories.

“You okay?” I recognize the voice, but still can’t place anything but the K.

“Yeah,” I say, my tongue pasted to the inside of my mouth. “So far so good.”

“That was some show you put on last night. Kind of like fire-and-brimstone with a dapple of honey.”

I respond by grinning and moaning.

“Tell me something, is the Repo Man supposed to be Jesus?”

“I guess so. I don’t know, maybe.”

He’s quiet for a while, then says, “Thanks.”

“For what?” I say, although I think I know the answer. I can see the change in his eyes. He’s not my first convert. And frankly, if not for the lingering effects of toad venom, it would really piss me off.

“I can’t explain it really,” he says. “I guess you could say I found Jesus, or he found me or something. Either way, you introduced us and now I got my walking papers, so to speak. So, like I said, thanks.”

“Great, my life’s calling. I’m pimping for a God I have no use for.” But that’s not entirely true and I know it. Dad was right; my heart was hardened, but more like glass than iron. And behold, when the Repo Man stood at the door and knocked, he used a tire iron and shattered it into million pieces. And as hard as I rail against it, I sense my own conversion metastasizing in bits and pieces, patched and pasted and quilted with only minimal and begrudging consent from me. But my inner cynic refuses to concede or admit anything. “Hate to break it to you partner, but you’re about to trade the best years of your life for a few cheap, religious thrills.”

He’s quiet again, then says, “Listen, just so you know. I took your toad down to the creek and let him go. I think he was killing you, man.”

I stare at my shoes, resolved to press my rage through the fog in my brain. A twig snaps somewhere in the distance and I realize I’m alone. “Hey man, what’s your name again?”

But he’s already gone.

Henry

The lunch crowd has thinned, providing a bit more elbowroom, better access to electrical outlets, and speedier wi-fi. Without thinking, I watch you push your tray to one end of the table, clearing a spot for your writing tablet and steaming mug of tea. You click your ballpoint several times and I stare at the ceiling for inspiration.

We’re the same, you and me. We frequent the same bookstores and coffee shops, have even roundtabled each other’s work at a local conference. We know each other by name, by reputation, by genre. We’re not friends exactly, just writers.

You see the man first. I see you see him and follow your gaze. It’s obvious he used to have a story. And now he’s lost. Not directionally challenged, but rather detached from everything he used to know and hold dear. Save for his bottle. His hair is dirty and wild, the clothes frayed and too thin for the weather, his shoes two sizes too big. Manicured sideburns have migrated over skin that’s red in all the wrong places, his exposed hand trembles, his eyes on the brink of something. The hairline fractures that divided his once perfect teeth have now yellowed and are surrounded by sores.

He’s hungry too. Not that we’re close enough to hear his stomach growl. He just has that look, that sense of aching from the inside out. I watch you watch him some more and the right word just seems to float from your head to mine. The man we’re studying is hollow.

You squint, then scribble something. I aim my laptop at the man and we do wat we do best. We observe scraps of humanity, then fill in the gaps. We transcribe what can be seen and invent the rest. I don’t have to look at you to know you’re engaged in similar telepathy. Neither of us asked for these roles in the literary caste system; most endure life, others of us bear witness. If all goes well this unfortunate stranger will inspire me to inspire others. I can turn his misery into something useful, multiply it on the page to teach us all something about ourselves, about humanity, about the existence of a loving God in the face of abject despair.

I name my man Henry. I endow him with a cancerous son and a wife who poured herself into the young, dying vessel. His career in sales withered like the boy, his bills eclipsing his ability or motivation to pay them. I take a mental snapshot of a graveside ceremony and infuse it with life. I wait until I can smell the dirt, hear the quiet sobs, and taste the despair on the back of my throat before I allow my fingers to dispatch the words to the screen.

Now that I’ve ensconced him in a past, I take another quick inventory before sketching in his future. I glance in your direction and have to grin. You’re packing your things, no doubt unable to conjure the necessary words. Competition is beneath the serious writer, but I can’t help feeling like the winner. You collect your backpack, fleece jacket, and wrap up the half-sandwich you ignored for later. I have to wonder if your failure stole your appetite, then I feel guilty for wondering it. I watch you go, then turn back to see Henry hug himself against an unseasonably cold breeze. I decide the actual transition from fall to winter is the perfect metaphor for the rest of Henry’s story.

After a few quick paragraphs I regard him with fresh eyes. Henry is no mere puppet and I’m not his hero. I try and see past the man, or perhaps into him, for the fertile ground, the emotional fodder, the conflict, maybe even a few punch lines.

I can feel the story spilling out of me. I’m in a panic to type it all up before it gets away from me. That’s when I see you again from the corner of my eye and have to smile. It seems I’ve underestimated you yet again. You’re not giving up, but rather daring to experience your subject’s misery firsthand. It’s a brilliant stroke and fills me with envy. Where I’ve conjured nameless whiskey, you have the audacity to climb down from the writer’s perch and smell the man’s breath. You won’t have to guess if he’s high on cough syrup, bourbon, pot, or rat poison. You can stare up into his blinking eyes for any sign of sanity. In fact, it appears you’re willing to risk disease for your art. Or could it be that you just don’t have the chops to write about chapped hands without first shaking them?

Fresh insight floods my brain and I’m about to transcribe it when I see you hand over a warm cup of coffee and uneaten sandwich. When you shrug out of your fleece jacket and offer it to Henry, I realize there is no competition. And I have to second-guess my thoughts on inspiring potential readers. Henry’s broken face flickers as he leans down toward you. Then it dawns on me that we’re nothing alike, you and me.

When you don’t shrink away from his grateful embrace, I delete my open file and close the lid on my laptop.

My Name Is Russell Fink (chapter 1)

My conscience must be out of order.

Otherwise I’d feel at least a tinge of guilt as I consider making this call. Only two reasons exist for dialing this number: first, to inform Max Hengle, III that I’m about to land a big sale, and to say this is rare would be an understatement. It’s happened exactly twice. And neither transaction was the result of any Herculean effort on my part, more like fortuitous timing or dumb luck. But this did not prevent me from taking full credit. Sales is a tough business.

The second reason for dialing this number—the egregiously more common reason—is to call in sick. One could argue hypochondria, but I prefer preventive maintenance. Still, I contend that over the life of my career, these measures will have made me a happier and more productive employee. And who wouldn’t want a whole stable full of happy and productive employees?

I hear a click, followed by a habitual throat clearing, then the voice.

“Max Hengle speaking.”

“Good morning, sir.” I pause to adjust the timbre of my voice to a spot between grogginess and pain, careful not to overdo it. “It’s Russell here and I’m afraid I won’t be able to make it in this morning.”

“Uh-huh,” he says, fingers clacking on a keyboard in the background. Mr. Hengle prides himself on his ability to multi-task, but the reality is that he’s terrible at it. For all he knows, I just told him I saw his daughter on Springer. When his brain catches up he says, “Pardon?”

“That’s right, feeling pretty lousy, sir.” And this is not entirely untrue. Fact is, the more I talk, the worse I feel. The causes range from indigestion to pre-cancerous moles. I cough twice and add, “Pretty lousy.”

“Doesn’t this make your third absence this month?”

“March has never been my month, you know, health-wise.”

“Nor sales-wise. My patience is wearing thin, son.”

“As well it should, sir.”

Mr. Hengle sighs long and loud, purging himself of all things Russell.

I’ve always dreamed of making history, but I pray this isn’t it. In the sixty-year history of Hengle’s Supply, no one’s ever been fired. Although firing me would make Mr. Hengle’s life much easier, he’s convinced that doing so would create some bad mojo or throw his karma out of whack, mainly because he owes my dad a pretty big favor. Still, I feel bad. So I silently and solemnly swear to resign as soon as I can claw my way out of debt, come up with the security deposit and first-and-last month’s rent on my own apartment, and move out of my parents’ house.

“There’s going to be some changes around here, Russell. I just don’t see how we can continue on like this, do you?”

Since I’m hardwired to respond to rhetorical questions with sarcasm, I remain mute, save for the sound of my stubble scraping against the phone’s mouthpiece. It sounds like static.

“Tell you what, Russell.” His weary, patronizing whine is nothing new, though the trace of sincerity is. “Why don’t you take tomorrow off as well? Then you’ll have the whole weekend to recuperate.”

“That’s very generous, sir.”

“I was aiming for sarcastic and condescending.”

“Oh, well, thanks anyway, I guess.” I should just hang up and stop the bleeding, but pangs of self-preservation urge my vocal cords into action. “Did I mention to you that Tyler, Billingham, & Sneed is right on the cusp of issuing a huge purchase order?”

“About a week ago, as I recall. The last time you called in sick. I fully expect to see you at Monday morning’s staff meeting where, by the way, you’ll get to meet our new office manager.” He makes office manager sound ominous, as if Charles Manson will be handling payroll and implementing office policy. “Are we understood?”

Over the dial tone, I say, “Hardly ever, sir. Hardly ever.”

***

On the way to Dr. Kozinski’s office I decide to stop in to Tyler, Billingham, & Sneed and see Geri—typically my first call of the week. It’s a routine boon for my flagging confidence, but this is more of an emergency visit. If I’m going to hide behind my potentially career-defining order, I guess it makes some sense to check on its status. As usual, I bring along two giant vanilla lattes from the Bean Bag.

Geri’s on the phone when I get there so I set her coffee down in front of her and scan the pastry tray. I select a bloated éclair, take a bite, and wait. The reception area is done up in blocks of mahogany, with haughty magazines and rental plants. I suspect the pretension is piped in with the Muzak.

Geri’s voice has barely trailed off when I hear a loud slurping sound. I turn around and grin in expectation of a hearty thank you.

“Ack. I can taste the caffeine.”

“Is that a problem?”

“I’m temporarily off caffeine. Except for an occasional dark chocolate of course.” She pops the plastic lid off, uses her finger to spoon out a dollop of whipped cream, and pops it into her mouth. I watch her freckles dance as she talks, trying not to be too obvious. “So, what’re you doing here on your day off?”

“How did you know I was off today?”

“For starters, you’re in jeans.” Geri absently straightens a small framed photograph on her desk—a formalwear shot of Geri and some guy, presumably her former fiance. But he’s been scratched out. “Plus I called your office looking for you earlier and they told me you were out sick.”

“What if I said I came by here to check on the status of that big order?”

“What if I said that’s why I called your office this morning?” She motions me forward and glances around as if we’re being watched. “One of those new sales girls from Office Something-Or-Another called on us last week. And she really got Mr. Billingham’s attention.”

“That’s no great feat.” Billingham is an ogler par excellence.

“I think the partners might be seriously considering her offer.”

My salesman’s smile remains intact while panic leaches into my bloodstream. Geri’s law firm plans to replace over a hundred thousand dollars worth of copiers, scanners, and swanky office furniture, and until this morning I had no competition. The commission check’s already been earmarked for a down payment on a new apartment and my two loudest creditors.

“Must be your imagination, Geri. What could one of those big box conglomerates possibly have to offer that I don’t?”

“The sales girl looks like a supermodel.”

“There’s always that.”

“And she brought the pastries this morning.”

So much for the éclair tasting better than normal. “I thought you said she came by last week.”

Geri uses the photograph as a shield. “She did. She dropped in and introduced herself last Friday. Then she came back yesterday, then again this morning. Now she’s in there meeting the other partners.”

I stare at Baxter Billingham’s office door, mushed éclair coating my tongue.

“Sorry to have to be the one to tell you. But I thought you at least ought to be aware. So you can plan your strategy.”

Even if I were capable of devising a strategy, I couldn’t compete with the image of a swimsuit model galvanizing a trio of salivating attorneys with a sultry Power Point presentation behind Billingham’s door. This is not an account that I prepare for. Rather, I perform routine maintenance, stroke egos and make small talk with the partners—the Braves and bad TV sitcoms with Tyler, UT football and sailboats with Billingham, the stock market with Sneed.

This account is mine. Or at least it always has been.

I take another spiteful bite of the éclair and a cool glop of Bavarian cream squirts out onto my chin. Geri laughs at me and hands me a Kleenex.

And then the supermodel emerges and makes some comment about the quarterback for the White Sox. The partners all guffaw and slap each other on the back. Suddenly, I feel like I’m on a bad sitcom, where she’s the starlet and I’m the hapless, beer-swilling cousin who lives over the garage.

Geri rolls her eyes and for a few brief moments, we’re bound together by mutual disgust. She has no patience for vacuous stick-women, even less for the men who do. My issues are less noble—plain old-fashioned fear and greed.

***

The waiting room at Nashville City Medical Clinic is much less pretentious but the magazines are several months out of date, with pages bent and crusted with all manner of bacteria. So I ignore them and steal glances at the other patients, making sketches of them on a legal pad. It’s an old habit, inventing imaginary ailments for complete strangers, then rendering their symptoms with flurried pen strokes. Normally, I show my work to Alyssa and see if she can accurately diagnose the afflictions. I draw the burly guy in coveralls with a puckered and humiliated look on his face, with cartoonish motion lines implying constant shifting as if he can’t quite get comfortable in his chair, and tiny flaming tendrils rising from his nether regions. When I can’t think of a way to portray itching, I move on to the young girl in the opposite corner.

She is staring up at the TV bolted to the wall, but it’s obvious her mind is viewing her own private soap opera. She’s pretty but mousy, and keeps telling herself she has the flu, but her brain is an adding machine counting the days since her last period. I’m darkening the wrinkles on her forehead when my phone erupts.

The patients all glance up at me, the observer observed. It rings again and I study the number.

Alyssa.

My greeting is polite but terse, a funeral whisper meant to convey urgent business. A tone that Alyssa completely misses. Or chooses to ignore.

“Hey babe.” Her voice is too loud, too happy. “Good day so far?”

“Not bad.” I get up, walk toward the door that opens into the hallway and narrowly dodge a zombie-like toddler with two streams of green goo on his upper lip. “I’m kind of in the middle of something here.”

“Well ex-cuse me. I guess you’re in some big meeting—selling what? Packing peanuts? Desk blotters?” My fiancée has reduced my livelihood to hawking trivial gadgets that fuel the corporate monoliths responsible for starving Third World kids, botching the environment, and exploiting generations of Asian laborers.

In the hallway now, I pitch my voice just above a whisper. “Do you need something? Or did you call just to make fun of my job?”

“Touchy, touchy.”

Someone’s calling my name through the closed door; it sounds like Cassandra, my favorite nurse. But the voice is garbled, like Charlie Brown’s teacher.

“Seriously,” I say. “What do you need?”

“Ooh, you sound so sexy when you’re mad.”

“Listen, Alyssa. I really do need to go. They’re waiting.” The implied subject of they is on the darker side of honesty.

The nurse calls my name again, louder and more clearly this time, definitely Cassandra. I silently count to ten before I push back through the door into the waiting room.

“Alright, I can tell when I’m not wanted. But I need you to knock off a little early tomorrow. I need some assistance setting things up for Saturday.”

It irks me the way she assumes that I’ll just blow off work whenever she asks. As if her whims automatically trump my responsibilities. Never mind that I am, in fact, blowing off work; one could argue that I’ve trained her to think that way. I guess I just resent her attitude about it.

“I’ll see what I can do. But I’ll have to call you later and let you know if I can break away.” Another half-truth, which I camouflage by changing the subject. “Are we still on for dinner…sometime?”

A spooky presence just over my left shoulder interrupts Alyssa’s answer. I turn to find Cassandra, six inches from my face and smiling.

“Oh, there you are,” she says. “Dr. Kozinski will see you now.”

I hear an angry intake of air in my left ear. Busted.

“What was that?” Alyssa yells. “Are you at the doctor again, you lying—”

I scrape stubble across the mouthpiece in a lame and desperate attempt to simulate static.

“Sorry, must be a bad cell.” I snap the phone shut.

After a moment’s deliberation I power it all the way off and follow the squeaky-shoed Cassandra into the bowels of modern medicine.

***

My bare feet are sticking to the cold tile floor as I strip down to my skivvies. The room (a glorified closet, really) reeks of antiseptic and is chilly enough to infringe upon my civil rights. Medical implements stand at attention; swabs, syringes, secret potions, and all manner of probes and invasive thingies meant to invoke fear and vulnerability in the paying customer—an insidious ploy unique to horror movies, amusement parks, and doctors’ offices. Sure, there’s the illusion of sovereignty when the nurse guides you to your lofty throne atop the padded, overly high examination table. But then it dawns on you that your feet are dangling like a toddler on the toilet. You’re in your underwear. And you had to use a stool to get up there in the first place. All this after sticking you with needles and making you pee in a plastic shot glass. No, you’ll do as instructed, as if you’re working for the doctor instead of the other way around.

I climb up on the stool, perch myself on the crinkly deli paper, and absent-mindedly swing my feet. Cassandra was all business this morning when she escorted me to the examination room. Despite the enormous diamond on her finger, I think she has a crush on me, so I practice clenching my stomach muscles in case she pops in. The trick is to avoid looking intentional or vain about it: overdo it and you look hollowed out, creepy; not enough and a six-pack of abs can look like a jumbo pack of hairy dinner rolls. By the time she barges in ten minutes later to tell me that the doctor will be right with me, I’ve abandoned my posing to inspect various moles on my shoulders and back. At the sound of the opening door, I flex everything at once and try to smile nonchalantly. The effect is likely a cross between a deranged Chippendale and a serial killer with a toothache, but it happens so quick that I doubt she even got a decent look, thank God.

When Dr. Kozinski strides in moments later reviewing my chart, I hear the demoralizing sound of laughing nurses through the open door.

“Well, well. What’s it been, Russell? A whole week since your last visit?”

“A lot can happen in a week.”

Instructions are no longer necessary to get through this part of our routine. It’s been choreographed to the point where simple nudges or gestures are all that’s needed to have me blow deeper, look this way or that, lie back, sit up, turn my head and cough. In the old days he would even breathe warm air on the business end of his stethoscope before he slapped it on my chest. Now he seems to take pleasure—a little too much pleasure, if you ask me—from inflicting small discomforts. Like holding the tongue depressor down until I gag. Or giving the blood pressure pump a few extra squeezes. He flips the light switch off and jams his fancy pupil-dilating flashlight into my left eye.

“You using the high beams there, Doc?” I say this every time. He never laughs.

He turns the lights back on. “So, what brings us here today? Another mole, I presume?”

“Right here,” I say, turning my left shoulder toward him and pointing it out with my right hand. “I’m pretty sure it’s turning colors.”

“We’ll get to that in a moment.” Dr. K refuses to break routine. I’m not sure if it’s habit, or if his conscience won’t allow him to charge me for a full examination unless he performs his entire complement of invasions. He makes small talk while probing my ears, nose, and throat, then asks about my parents’ welfare while feeling for lumps or hernias. It tickles like mad and he knows it.

Finally, he leans in and shines his light on the mole in question. “Oh yeah, you’re right. It is changing colors, like a mood ring. Or maybe a disco ball.”

“Seriously. I think it looks different.”

“That’s because you’re stretching the skin.” He places both his thumbs on my forearm and applies outward pressure. “See, your skin turns white.”

“Ouch.” He’s pulling the hair on my arms, probably on purpose.

“Now back to pink,” he says, ignoring my outburst. “And if I keep doing this long enough, it will eventually turn an angry red.”

“So I guess I’m not dying then.”

“Don’t put words in my mouth.” He grins at the temporary panic in my eyes. “My professional opinion is that you’ve only got five or six decades left. Seven tops.”

“Your bedside manner could use some work.”

“You still selling copiers?”

“In theory. You need a new one?”

“No, Russell. I was just working on my bedside manner.”

“Because we’re running a killer special on HP models for—”

He turns me so I’m facing the wall while he runs his hands across my shoulders and spine.

“Have you given any thought to our last conversation? About looking for another line of work? Something you don’t hate?”

“There’s nothing else I really want to do. Nothing that pays benefits. And whether you admit it or not, you’d miss me.”

“I’m surprised Hengle doesn’t just fire you. As much as you hate that job, you couldn’t possibly be any good at it.”

“It’s a long story.”

His fingers return to a spot in the middle of my back. “Humor me.”

I should know better than to delve into all this, especially with him. But before I can change the subject I feel my body heave a protracted sigh followed by the sound of my own voice. “My old man healed his kid several years ago.”

“Bernie?”

“Nah, he’s beyond help. His other kid, the war hero.”

“Ray,” Dr. K says, clearly distracted. He mumbles something and scribbles in my chart. “Nice kid.”

And it’s true, at least as far as I can tell. Ray Hengle returned from the Persian Gulf with a leg full of shrapnel and migraines that seemed to last for weeks at a time. Too many metal fragments to operate, the doctors had said.

Finally Max brought Ray to my father, who had agreed to pray for the boy.

My father extended his hands toward Ray’s head, tentative at first, as if warming them over a fire. His prayers were whispered, calm and lilting, devoid of his usual histrionics. But it was intense, like a lover’s quarrel in a library. He worked his fingers into the man’s scalp, then began kneading the injured leg. When Ray roused and started moaning, I had to get out of there.

I thought the story would be bigger. The newspaper devoted a few hundred words about the local hero’s improved health, but no mention of Gary Fink. The CBS affiliate ran a feel-good piece, complete with before-and-after X-rays of the restored shrapnel-less leg. They even used the word miracle. But I’m not sure anyone believed it as much as Max Hengle, III.

“Something wrong?”

“No, just making some notes. You were saying? About your job?”

“Yeah, Dad healed his kid about ten years ago and Hengle’s been bugging him ever since to repay the favor. I guess tolerating me is like his penance or something.”

“You don’t really believe that your father actually heals people.”

“Technically, I think God gets credit for the actual healing.”

His amused look falters a bit. “Does God even want the credit? Just last week one of those 60 Minutes or Primetime shows did an expose on Christian miracle workers and the gullible followers they supposedly ‘heal.’”

“It was 48 Hours, actually.” I know this because the show spent the better part of ten minutes rehashing the decade-old shenanigans of Reverend Gary Fink—my father. In the weeks following his arrest, Reverend Fink became a punch line. Then a prison nickname.

“It’s obviously the power of suggestion. Either that or they’re scam artists bent on…” He remembers who he’s talking to.

“Trust me, Doc. I don’t want to believe it either. Dad and his cronies deserve all the bad press they get.” I pause, barely able to believe the words coming out of my mouth. I stopped defending my father in grade school. “But he’s actually healed people too. I’ve seen it.”

“Thought you said God did the actual healing.” If it’s possible to infuse a wink with sarcasm, the good doctor pulls it off.

“You know what I mean.”

I feel his fingers plying the now vulnerable skin in the middle of my back. He makes a small laughing sound through his nose and says, “You know, you could save us both some trouble.”

“How’s that?”

“You could quit your job and find something you love to do. That should solve most of your problems…” He allows this last line to trail off, a set up for the punch line he’s been waiting for. “Then maybe your father can work his hocus pocus on the rest of your phantom maladies.”

“Won’t work.”

“Please,” he says. “Do tell.”

“Because I think I don’t believe anymore.”

“You just said you saw it with your own eyes. Now you say you don’t believe it? Which is it?”

“It’s complicated.”

He shakes his head and hands me the form he’s been scribbling on.

“What’s this?” I say.

“Looks like you finally got your wish.”

“How’s that?” I scan the tiny form in my hand. One word leaps out from the page—biopsy. The translation in my head: cancer.

“I’m sure it’s nothing,” he says, “but we’re going to need to remove that mole there in the small of your back. Quick procedure. You’ll be in and out in an hour or so.”

Then he leaves me in my underwear, alone with my darkest thoughts.

***

My first trip on an airplane was to New York City. The plan was to visit the NYU campus, complete all the registration hoopla, then hang around long enough to watch the big New Year’s ball drop in Time Square. I loved looking down on the clouds, wondering if Katie ever got her wish—to wake up every morning on a pink fluffy bed of cotton candy. I wasn’t crazy about the turbulence or the salted peanuts or the way the air inside the cabin smelled like the bottom of a stranger’s closet. The pilot’s voice crackled over the PA system and told us all to stay in our seats, that we would begin our initial descent into JFK as soon as we were cleared for landing. After circling the airport twice, the tipsy know-it-all in the seat behind me began floating unsolicited theories about iced-over runways, terrorist threats, and running out of fuel before smashing into the Hudson River. Finally the grizzled businessman in the seat next to me turned around and told him to shut up. I peered through the tiny window as several other jets emerged and disappeared in the gray mist. For some reason, I really wanted to see the look on the other pilots’ faces.

We kept circling the city. No one slept. Our captain chimed in periodically to reassure us. But the know-it-all had predicted we’d be out of fuel in forty-five minutes. That was nearly an hour ago. Conversations dried up, except for an occasional nervous whisper. I closed my eyes and tried to remember how to pray.

But my thoughts drifted. It dawned on me that since Katie’s funeral my whole life had been just like this, a holding pattern. I’d spent the last decade-and-a-half going in circles, hovering, marking time, waiting for tragedy to strike. All the while, life happened on the other side of the clouds. I jolted awake when the plane’s tires thumped onto the tarmac. Somehow I’d managed to stave off my date with destiny by nodding off.

So I wasn’t shocked when Dr. K told me about the mole. Nor was I surprised that he didn’t mention cancer. I knew this was coming. I’ve been expecting it.

But I’m going to need to talk to Sonny about it.

***

After making me sign a stack of insurance documents and scanning my credit card for the $30 co-pay, Dr. K’s office manager hands me a folded note. “Someone called and left you message. Sounds like she has anger management issues.”

The handwriting is foreign to me, but the tone is pure Alyssa: “Our relationship is like a geometry proof. IF you ever want to see this engagement ring again, THEN you better show up in the parking lot of …As A Jaybird. Saturday morning. 9:00 sharp.”

I tell myself that this is it, that I will not succumb to another of her ridiculous demands. But of course, my resolve will disintegrate and I’ll show up. I always have. It’s what I do.