“Ronaldo” by Andrew D. Cohen

Welcome to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing.  Andrew D. Cohen’s essay “Ronaldo”, which won the 2014 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in nonfiction, is today’s selection. In this piece, Cohen profiles his relationship with his eccentric father-in-law, exploring the complicated endeavor of loving the “black sheep” of the family.

Ronaldo

By Andrew D. Cohen

My wife and I have this running joke about my father-in-law, Ron, a blind-in-one-eye, seventy-nine-year-old retired golf pro with a penchant for canines, Carl Jung and awful stock picks—about how he might have survived the Holocaust if he’d been there. In one version he’s waiting in line for the gas chamber, working on his golf swing, shifting his hips, talking to himself as he tends to, when he draws the attention of an SS guard and his trusty German shepherd. “Vat do you sink you are doink, vermin?” screams the guard, who happens to be a long-suffering golf fanatic, over the barking, lunging dog. Before long, Ron is critiquing his swing (“No legs! You gotta move the legs!”), analyzing his psyche (“You’re afraid. That’s why you’re not bringing the club head back.”), even offering up a casual analysis of the Führer himself (“A few issues there, wouldn’t you say?”), all the while cozying up to Oskar, his new favorite dog.

In another version, “Ronaldo,” as I’ve called him for years, is standing naked in the showers, everyone around him dropping dead from the Zyklon B pumping in through the vents, enjoying the warm steam, when he realizes that his perennially clogged sinuses are miraculously clearing out. When the Nazis finally open the door, he walks out, breathes deeply and shakes his head in disbelief. “First decent breath I’ve taken in forty years,” he announces, making a mental note to find out the stock symbol for the company that makes the stuff. “It’s going to be big,” he tells the dumbfounded guard.

In yet another version, Ronaldo, whose remaining teeth look like they’ve been through a stump grinder, gets brought in by none other than the Angel of Death, Joseph Mengele, who immediately gets to work, pulling, prying, ripping up his gums and teeth, causing Ronaldo, famously stoic, to groan as his head is yanked to and fro. When the procedure is over, Ronaldo slowly stands, turns his head right then left, works his tongue around his mouth, puckers his lips a few times and shrugs. “You did for me in five minutes what those crooks in Beverly Hills couldn’t do in fifty years,” he says, shaking Mengele’s hand. “And for free!”

They’re tasteless jokes, I know, especially because Ronaldo actually lost some of his family in the Holocaust. But they make my wife and me absolutely keel over with laughter, partly because of just how over-the-top they are and, too, because, as my Polish grandmother, who sustained her own losses in the Holocaust, would say, “Every joke has a little truth.” But mostly, I suspect, we laugh because, as the Yiddish proverb notes, “Better to laugh than to cry.”

Which is to say, if we weren’t laughing so hard, we’d probably weep.

 

The story of Ronald Irving Weiner begins in an apartment in Northwest Chicago in 1934, but the first time I met him, the place our story begins, is West Los Angeles in 1991, when, as a college sophomore, I ventured across the country with my first-ever girlfriend to meet her parents over spring break. Back then Ronaldo was still head pro at the city’s largest public course, giving lessons, overseeing the other pros, managing the driving range, organizing fundraisers and running the shop; for a while he also ran the restaurant, but after a few months of real chaos, with employees doing drugs in the kitchen and cooks sending out burgers without meat on the buns, he wisely called it quits. The shop’s handwritten posterboard sale signs and florescent lights reminded me of those stuffed bargain-basement stores on the Lower East Side my mother schlepped us to as kids. Only instead of gray and navy Bar Mitzvah suits and winter coats, it was crammed with boldly patterned Polo shirts (“Two For One This Week!”); obscenely colored pants and shorts; sweaters, pullovers; caps etched with logos for Dunlop, Titleist, Ashworth, Ping; racks of Foot Joy socks; stacked boxes of spiked shoes (“20% off Last Year’s Styles!”) in an array of hideous color combinations; display cases filled with balls, tees, gloves, grips; and, of course, lots of clubs, club-head covers and bags. In the back, past the register and repair counter, where you could have your club regripped for a few bucks, down a hallway and beside a gated emergency exit, stood a beige, windowless cell with two wooden desks scarcely visible beneath the cascade of receipts, invoices, newspapers—any filing cabinet in that office surely stood as some sort of ironic statementas well as a money counter, several leather briefcases, half-a-dozen adding machines and a warehouse worth of office supplies that Ronaldo shared with his mother, Mildred, an irascible septuagenarian who’d managed his books for twenty-five years.

All of this was both disorienting and a little exhilarating for a young man from New York City who’d never set foot on a golf course or, for that matter, been to Los Angeles—a young man accustomed to visiting his own father in a polished office high above Wall Street. Also disorienting was the small, tunnel-like building out front, just past a busted fountain, where the automated ball-dispensing and washing machines that had replaced Ronaldo’s father after his heart attack during the 1978 Sunstar Classic clinked and clattered like something out of an old sci-fi movie. And, just beyond, the range itself, a bustling double-decker affair with forty-six stalls teetering over a few hundred yards of mesh-enclosed grass across which a white, caged ball cart rumbled.

But what you really had to see was the cast of characters: the outcasts, misfits, perverts, criminals, ex-criminals, future criminals, schemers, crackpots, Hollywood castoffs, depressives, loonies, loners, oddballs, drunks and recovering drunks and miscellaneous hangers-on milling about, teeing off, ducking in and out of the shop, making small talk, fast talk, any kind of talk, virtually all of whom would eventually borrow and/or steal money or other material goods from Ronaldo (if they hadn’t already), including Saul, an addled Jewish man who wore a wide-brimmed hat on which someone had stuck a “Chief Advisor” pin as a prank too many years ago to remember; Tito, the shop manager, for whom Ronaldo had recently posted bail after he’d been caught “carrying a huge gun”; pros like Rich Johnson, who wanted to take over the place and to that end had secretly gotten the city to audit Ronaldo; Bill Knoll, a chronic gambler whom Ronaldo twice caught stealing gloves from him and who would eventually kill himself because of all the money he owed the syndicate; and Ed Roberts, AKA “the lover,” who slept with the older ladies at the local Jewish club until the husband of one saw Ed driving his own Mercedes down Wilshire Boulevard. There were also a few families of Hispanic gang bangers who worked in various capacities when they weren’t serving jail time.  Did I mention the homeless guy living under the range? I mean, there should have been a sign over the front door that read, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses . . . The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. . . .” For a while I figured that harboring the “huddled masses” was just a function of a public course in a city teeming with personality.

Only later did I realize it was mostly because Ronaldo always loved a loser.

 

Ronaldo’s populist roots were established in the West Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, a Jewish enclave where his German forbears started arriving back in the 1880s. A small, handsome, coordinated kid who allegedly didn’t talk till he was five, he lived with Mildred, widely known for her temper (“They heard her screaming down the block.”); his father Jacob, or Jules, an overweight, semipro ball player-turned-insurance salesman, a gambler who was the primary object of his wife’s fury; and his sister Joane. Much of his extended, lower-middle-class, very unobservant (they kept a Christmas tree) Jewish family lived on the same street. They organized informal get-togethers involving music and cards—gin rummy for the women, poker for the men—and “official” family meetings where they’d decide, among other things, which charities to donate money to (“Five bucks here, five there. We were broke.”) For the adults, there were golf outings at the public course, where Ronaldo showed up after his baseball game was canceled one Sunday in his sixteenth year.

Even now Ronaldo can’t say what he liked about the game, though it was more than the fact that, a natural athlete, he “could hit the ball pretty good.” There was something else, something “interesting,” something that in its very elusiveness compelled him. And over the following months, while his friends were going to parties, Ronaldo spent his evenings sneaking into Edgewater Country Club, a goyish club six blocks from the apartment, where the fence had a tear wide enough for him to squeeze through with a shag-bag and some clubs. But he admits that had it not been for Jules winning a few hundred bucks on a game show that spring and Millie giving an executive decree that they were moving to Los Angeles, nothing might have come of it. “It was probably the worst thing she ever did,” Ronaldo says about his mother’s decision. “If we’d stayed, I might have had friends, maybe gone to college. Then again, maybe I wouldn’t have had the golf.”

That winter, with no friends, no direction at school (“No one encouraged me.”) and no rain or snow to interfere, Ronaldo would sneak into Wilshire Country Club, where the lights from the parking lot cast enough light to see one of the greens, and hit balls. Though he joined the track team in the spring, once he realized that the coach only showed up for Friday meets, he’d skip practice and take the bus to the public course to make a few bucks caddying and practice his game. Two years later he enrolled at L.A. City College, where he played on the team for five terms before realizing that academically he “didn’t know what the hell he was doing.” To avoid the draft, he enlisted in the army and was sent to Fort Lewis in Washington. A few days before he shipped out to Alaska, his sergeant set him up to play a round of golf with the general. He came up one stroke shy of the course record. “You’re not going to Alaska,” said the general, who kept Ronaldo around for two years as his teacher.

Ronaldo still likes to talk about how the general would pull up with his chauffer in his Cadillac each morning, flags blowing, everyone standing at attention except Ronaldo, who would be leaning against a jeep smoking a cigarette. “Let’s get to work,” he’d tell the general.

 

Ronaldo is the rarest of rarities: a Jewish golf professional with a blue-collar sensibility. He has the sort of deep faith in work of people who have worked since they were old enough to earn money. And not just any work, but hard, physical work. Ronaldo prides himself on his ability to get his hands dirty, do the heavy lifting. To listen to him talk about his postmilitary life—taking the bus seven days a week from his parents’ apartment to caddy and, once he turned pro, to teach; and later, after winning the contract for the range and golf shop from the city in 1965, not just teaching and managing the shop but cleaning machinery, unloading inventory, digging up the range—is to listen to someone who understands his experiences first and foremost as a laborer. In his telling, the reason he quit drinking in the ’70s was not, God forbid, because it was affecting his home life with his wife and young children but because he couldn’t function at work. Even when I came to know him in his late fifties, Ronaldo was on the range at 5 AM after a storm, ankle deep in mud, digging out balls.

It’s not that Ronaldo has anything against having money or, for that matter, being a successful businessman. He just can’t stand the pretense and entitlement that usually come with it. You should see him walking around the country club that he and his wife joined a year before I arrived, a concession to his desire to play somewhere people wouldn’t hock him for lessons. All these well-heeled men approach him, saying, “Ron, so nice to see you” and, “Hey, how ya doing, Ron?” and Ronaldo shakes their hand and mutters, “Prick.” “Jerk.” “Cheat.” “Fake.” “Phony.”

I mean, if there’s one thing Ronaldo hates it’s the know-it-alls, the self-satisfied, the smug, the neat or otherwise put-together. “Ego,” he’ll say about such people. “All ego.” When Ronaldo says this about you, you might as well have been condemned to the lowest level of hell.

Nor is it just successful people he doesn’t like. The only companies Ronaldo will even consider investing in are those so beaten down by the markets, so inundated by lawsuits, that it will be a genuine miracle if they ever recover. And while he has by most counts a deep, even profound love of all things canine, the truth is, his feelings for them only extend to mutts, mongrels and crossbreeds: the scrappy, the abused, the borderline demented. He’d sooner let a purebred walk off a cliff than let it into his embrace.

In many ways, I was just the type of person Ronaldo loves to hate. My parents were lawyers. I’d gone to private schools; I’d hardly worked a job in my life. And I could tell he was studying me when he took me to hit balls soon after we arrived—that it was a test, not about whether I was good enough for his daughter but about whether I was good enough period. But he must have sensed my own distaste for pretense because later that evening, his wife, Pat, told me, “Ron says you have a high level of being.”

I didn’t know what the hell he meant. But we got along pretty well after that.

 

Ronaldo has always been a befuddling conglomeration of Eastern philosophy, mysticism New-Age hucksterism and psychobabble, most of which he’s picked up over the years from the frantic, peripatetic reading of someone trying to make up for a missed education. I mean, his bookshelves are filled with psychological texts, philosophical tracts, spiritual and metaphysical manuscripts, most of which are so dense, so impervious, that my eyes glaze over any time I attempt to read them. And while his mastery of the ideas in them might be considered a work-in-progress, his assimilation of their language is complete. You can’t get through a conversation with Ronaldo without being peppered with words like “psyche,” “being,” “awareness,” “soul,” “unconscious,” “persona” “spirit,” “false self” and “human potential.” And it doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about a Caesar salad, or the Lakers, or the latest scandal in Washington, either. He’s a sort of maddening mosaic of ideas whose pieces at first glance seem orderly, comprehensible, even appealing, yet, upon closer inspection, don’t quite come together.

The closest thing to an anchor in this raucously fluid universe of his knowledge is the work of Carl Jung, which he stumbled upon not long after he sobered up, a few years after my wife was born. He was by then already knee-deep in the ideas of Krishnamurti, whose skepticism of knowledge confirmed Ronaldo’s distrust of know-it-alls, and Gurdjieff, whose faith in the power of work to transform the individual more or less approximated his own. But it was Jung’s idea of “the shadow”—that beneath our egos lies this dark, insidious underbelly—that really struck a nerve, not just validating something Ronaldo had long sensed about the world but also giving him the language to speak to it. Moreover, Jung wasn’t some highflying academic: bullied as a kid, depressed as an adult, he’d dived into the mess of his psyche, battled his demons and come out, the archetypal hero, transformed.

It’s difficult to overstate how profoundly Jung’s ideas have influenced Ronaldo: they’re the closest thing to a belief system, a personal mythology, he’s ever had. They inform every aspect of his life, and he is constantly analyzing people in their context. And while he seems open to the possibility that people can, like the Swiss psychiatrist, transform themselves, he takes palpable pleasure in their missteps and failings, those moments when they reveal just how fucked up they really are. “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” he will intone at these moments in an ironic nod to the radio show of his youth.

And then he’ll growl, with something approaching glee, “The Shadow knows.”

 

There’s always been something of the cave man about Ronaldo, and by that I don’t mean he’s barbaric, violent or emotionally primitive, let alone crudely shaped or unattractive—he’s a very handsome guy. Rather, it’s his way of moving through the world. He grunts and he groans and doesn’t always speak in coherent sentences. He’s disinclined to wash his hands after using the bathroom. His jaw, chronically clenched, has reasonably been compared to a pit bull’s, and his shoulders and back are a tangle of muscles that befuddles the most experienced masseuse. His physical strength is as remarkable as it is unassuming—his handshake can bring a large man to his knees—and he is capable of startling bursts of athleticism. And then there is what I want to call his stunning tolerance for pain, though to refer to it that way suggests he actually feels.

I mean, there’s something quite literally sense-less about Ronaldo: he can’t register smells or, thanks to a botched root canal, feel his chin or bottom lip, let alone taste much of anything. He won’t hear you unless you shout, and a minor stroke has left him all but blind in his left eye. On those occasions when he does feel something, he feels in the extreme: a debilitating reaction to dust, a feverish reaction to beef, a frantic fear of the cold. Even his attempts at self-care have a distinctly prehistoric flavor: he dutifully takes vitamins but swallows them by the handful; he eats a healthy, high-fiber cereal each morning but devours half a box per sitting; his first course of action for a boil on his abdomen is to grab the closest needle; and his daily fitness routine consists of limping around the block after his dog, intermittently pedaling his stationary bike while reading the paper, doing a dozen sitting-arm push-ups on the diving board, pumping a couple of rusted dumbbells, and squeezing those hand-grips that came of age in the’60s.

Then there was the incident years ago when his daughter had a fledgling skin-care line and she walked in on him dipping his morning bagel in a bottle of her hand cream.

When she told him, he shrugged and kept right on chewing.

That year the city put out a formal request for proposals for the golf range and shop concession.The winner would be awarded a new five-year contract. This wasn’t the first time Ronaldo had faced this situation since he and his then partner, Jimmy “the Scotsman” Fairburn, beat out thirty-five other bidders in 1963. But for most of the previous decade, Ronaldo had had a steady if informal month-to-month arrangement with the city, so the announcement caught him off guard. Still, he was successful and, to his knowledge, well-liked among the powers-that-be, and he had no reason to think this was anything but a formality.

So he put in his bid and did what he usually did: grunted and got back to work.

 

I’d be putting it mildly if I told you Ronaldo has a long history of atrocious investments. If there were some kind of lifetime record or Olympic event for bad investments, he’d have won it ages ago. It’s always the same, too: he becomes infatuated with some oddball company; he studies its reports, talks to its reps, listens to conference calls; he does a thorough psychological analysis of its senior officers—and then he invests every last penny he can find. Over the following weeks, he watches the stock’s every tick, devours every headline and message-board posting; he becomes nearly prophetic in his conviction about the company’s future. Even when the stock falters, he maintains it’s just the “shorts” screwing around, and when allegations emerge against the CEO, causing the price to tumble, he insists they’re baseless. Just to prove his point, he doubles-down on his investment. Only when the company files for bankruptcy and the CEO is safely behind bars—only when he’s lost everything—does he entertain the possibility that he made a mistake.

I shiver to think about the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of dollars Ronaldo has lost in stocks over the years. Which is to say nothing of the money he’s poured into pockets of corrupt consultants, fink lawyers, shady contractors, crooked handymen, fast-talking salesmen, scheming employees or former-employees, freeloading relations, losing causes of one sort or another. “They all want my money,” Ronaldo will say. To which a fair reply would be: “That’s because they know you’ll give it to them.”

I mean, for someone who considers himself such an expert on the human psyche, Ronaldo has exercised some exceptionally poor judgment when choosing whom or what to get involved with. So when he hired a flamboyant civil rights lawyer, radio personality and aspiring golfer—let’s call him Calvin—to help sue the city for underhandedly awarding the previously mentioned contract to a large, Asian corporation, we braced for the worst.

By then I’d known Ronaldo for a decade. I was engaged to his daughter but liked him in his own right. Though I didn’t want him to lose the range, I was concerned: “He’s a civil rights lawyer, Ronaldo: What does he know about this?” But Ronaldo insisted he was “sharp” and had “no ego,” and they got to work, filing motions, subpoenaing files, generally gumming up the works at City Hall. They talked constantly, plotting their next moves but also wading into personal matters. Calvin, with no family of his own, became a de facto life coach for Ronaldo. “Buy your wife flowers,” he’d say. They also played golf, at Calvin’s insistence, for money, which, due to Ronaldo’s huge skill advantage and Calvin’s huge personality, resulted in more than one flare-up. Before long, however, they’d patch things up and pick up where they’d left off.

It was by most standards a curious relationship—more so, I suspect, because no one could remember the last time Ronaldo had had a friend. More than once I worried aloud to my soon-to-be-wife about where it might lead. But Ronaldo really seemed to like Calvin, in whom he had found something of a kindred spirit, a partner in fighting the world’s “evils.” And whatever they were doing vis-à-vis the city seemed to be working: that spring the courts made the city throw out the contract and restart the process, giving Ronaldo at least a couple of more years on the job.

Still, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think it would end badly.

 

One of the many lost souls who showed up at the range over the years was an eighteen-year-old kid I’ll call Jeff, who came in looking for a job in the early ’70s. Handsome, just out of high school, he seemed honest and eager to work, so Ronaldo hired him, first as a range worker, later as a salesman and, eventually, as store manager, a position Jeff kept for several years before heading off, with Ronaldo’s blessings, to find his fortune. Now and then Ronaldo would hear about some new business Jeff was trying and failing at until the day, five years later, when Jeff called to say he was opening a massage parlor and needed fifty grand to complete construction.

This was 1984, when for most people the words “massage parlor” still brought to mind AIDS, prostitutes, seedy affairs of one kind or another. But Jeff said it would be high-end, nothing illegal, and Ronaldo liked him, had practically raised him, so he gave him the money. “I didn’t think about it,” Ronaldo recalls. “He needed the money. I had it.” He figured he’d never see it again.

As it turned out, the business took off. There was nothing like it at the time. The economy was great, and the locals had plenty of disposable income. Over the next decade, Jeff expanded services, hired more people, opened half-a-dozen more locations. Somewhere along the line, thankful for Ronaldo’s support, he made him a general partner.

After a lifetime of disastrous investments, Ronaldo had finally picked a winner.

And this softened the blow when, after three years of court appearances and who knows how much paperwork, Ronaldo, just shy of his seventieth birthday, learned that he and Calvin had lost the fight to the city. Sure, he was being screwed by a bunch of money-grubbing politicians. Sure, his life’s work was being co-opted by a multinational corporation. Sure, he’d been given thirty days to pack his stuff and leave. But at least he wouldn’t be broke.

So he did what he had to: he sold off the carts, the ball cleaners, the buckets, all the tools and machines and as much inventory—pants, shirts, sweaters, shoes, caps, bags, clubs, grips, socks—as he could; he stuffed the rest, along with the vast contents of his office, into his three-car garage. He attended a surprise party at which every living misfit, loony and hanger-on who’d ever showed his face at the range appeared to give their thanks and make an impromptu speech. He gave who knows how much money to his now former employees. And then, forty years after he’d started, he walked out.

And for a while it went okay. I worried he might fall into a depression or even keel over like his father, but whenever I called, he was in his office watching television, screwing around in the market, seemingly unperturbed. Each day he’d meet old Saul and his former manager, Tito, for lunch and then visit Millie in the nursing home; afternoons he played golf with Calvin who, out of a love of irony or out of sheer idiocy, invited Ronaldo to be the “Stock Guru” on his radio show. One night, while out walking old Zaharias, he even found and took in an abandoned mutt he named “Lucky.”

For a guy who’d just lost the organizing principle of his life, it could have been worse.

What went wrong with Jeff is hard to say. Maybe he started skimming off the top or doctoring the books. Maybe he felt sick of sharing his profits with someone who didn’t do the work. Whatever the case, soon after our wedding, Ronaldo concluded that Jeff was stealing from him and, with Calvin’s help, sued him. A protracted legal battle ensued, which in the short term deprived Ronaldo of most of his income and in the long term ruined his peace of mind. Occasionally, because I hated to see him spending his retirement like this, I suggested he try and talk things out with Jeff. “No, no, I’ll get him,” he’d say. “You’ll see.”

By then Millie was dead, Saul was in a nursing home and blind Zaharias had walked into the pool and drowned. Ronaldo’s sister, Joane, was dying of emphysema, and Tito was smoking crack again. Ronaldo was spending his time studying legal documents, devising ways to reduce his household budget and generally counting the days till justice would be served. To add insult to injury, it became readily apparent that the Asian corporation that had taken over the range had no plans to do what it had promised in its bid. “They’re so bad,” he’d say when the subject came up, though to be honest I was beginning to wonder who “they” referred to.

Then one day Calvin borrowed fifty grand and promptly stopped answering his phone.

It wasn’t the money that upset Ronaldo; he’d lost plenty of that before. It was the shame, the disappointment, the deep sense of betrayal. He’d trusted Calvin, given himself over to him, not just financially but emotionally and psychologically. And the betrayal, along with everything else he’d recently been through, seemed to confirm what he’d always believed about the world: it was a bad place filled with fucked-up people, and he was a fool for believing otherwise. “It was my fault,” he said. “I misjudged him. I was dumb.”

 

My eight-year-old son, Ezra, who, in addition to being crazy for his grandfather, is an astute observer of human behavior, once noted, “Grandpoppy just sits wherever you put him.”

It’s true: set Ronaldo down in a coffee shop, on a park bench or living room couch, and he’ll usually keep sitting there until someone tells him to get up. On those occasions when he moves of his own accord, it’s not at all clear why. Watching him is a bit like watching my dog, who, after hours of lying around, will for no obvious reason get up and move to another room.

This has always been the case. Ronaldo’s wife, Pat, admits they’d never have started dating (she approached him in the elevator of their building), gotten married (she got pregnant) or bought a house (Pat insisted he put in an offer, so Ronaldo lowballed it, assuming the offer would never be accepted) had his hand not been forced. It’s reasonable to assume he’d never have put in a bid for the range in 1963 had his mentor, Jimmy Fairburn, not taken the lead. And it’s a safe bet that had the city not screwed him, Ronaldo would have died running his shop.

Sometimes you really have to wonder how Ronaldo has accomplished anything in his life. To say he is a creature of habit is a gross understatement: left to his own, he’d keep doing whatever he is doing for all time to come. He has an almost pathological fear of change and quickly becomes enraged in the face of new or unforeseen situations. And I’m not exaggerating much when I say he hasn’t thrown anything away in fifty years. If you don’t believe me, check his office, packed with yellowed golf magazines, decaying files and dust-covered, broken desk supplies. Or his garage, still filled with everything—hundreds of used clubs, balls, rusted tools, shoes, shirts, caps—that he couldn’t sell from the shop; or his medicine cabinet, a recent inventory of which revealed a dozen tubes of Ben Gay, half-a-dozen bottles of Bayer, ten tubes of Preparation H, a split, leaking tube of Prell, several bottles of St. Joseph’s baby aspirin, too many tubes of toothpaste to count, four bottles of Pepto Bismol, God knows how many packages of single-blade razors, five canisters of Colgate shaving cream, half-used and rusting, an array of partially used Dr. Scholl’s products, hundreds of golf tees, piles of discolored change.

I didn’t realize just how stuck Ronaldo was until a few summers ago when my wife and I spent several days trying to clean out his clutter. By then Ronaldo had found another lawyer, a young Jewish guy (“Very bright,” Ronaldo said, which meant he didn’t charge too much), who helped him negotiate a staged though pitiful buyout—thanks to the recession—from Jeff. He insisted he never thought about Calvin anymore. But you could tell it was all still eating him up: the mere mention of Jeff or Calvin or the golf course was invariably followed by a rant about the “evils” of the world and wild vows to expose their corruption. “The things I’ve got on Jeff,” he’d say, shaking his head. “I’ll sue him again when he’s done paying me.”

Sometimes, I confess, I felt embarrassed listening to him. He sounded like a crazy man. I even began wondering whether he’d somehow concocted all this “corruption,” whether the dramas with the City, Jeff, Calvin, were just the paranoid fabrications of his fucked-up psyche—whether on some level he wanted to lose, to be betrayed, stolen from, left alone. “Ever wonder why you’ve been ripped off so often?” I asked him once. “I mean, don’t you think it’s strange?”

Ronaldo, predictably tone-deaf, shrugged: “Maybe they know a dummy when they see one.”

Which might explain my reaction that summer when, after spending the better part of two days loading up his driveway with junk from his garage, we returned from lunch to find him moving it back inside. “What the hell are you doing, Ronaldo?” I said to him.

“Good stuff,” he said. “I’ll use it.”

“Use it?” I said. “You haven’t used it in forty years!”

As I watched him heave a busted dresser back into the garage, I wanted to scream at him, tell him how stubborn, small-minded, pathetic he was—how he deserved everything he got and worse. But I knew I’d regret it. So I just said, “You’re fucked up, you know that, Ronaldo?”

He didn’t object. He just kept dragging stuff back inside as though he hadn’t heard a thing.

 

The case against Ronaldo as reliable father, trustworthy husband, responsible member of the adult community, is both long and well-documented. Catch a family member for a moment and he or she will tell you about his irresponsible investments, his emotional absence, his inability to remember family milestones, his habit of turning on people, his stubborn attempts to negotiate by himself situations he’s ill-equipped for, his generally messed-up priorities. With more time, they’ll regale you with colorful tales of how he once dropped his oldest son off at the wrong preschool, or how he had his teenage son welding without eye protection, almost blinding him in the process, or how he used to send his sons out to collect balls on the range with mattresses tied to their backs while the golfers used them for target practice. And while everyone agrees that Ronaldo isn’t so bad anymore, no one is rushing to put anything of value into his hands.

Over the years I have had ample opportunity to observe his shortcomings and to develop my own case against him—for leaving my eight-year-old at a public putting green in L.A. while he went to browse the local Jung Library; for playing chase with my sons with no regard for the street; for clomping around our house in his muddy shoes and knocking up the walls with his suitcase; for convincing me to invest in a biotech company that promptly went bankrupt. Yet no matter how compelling the evidence seems, no matter how furious I get, something about all the criticisms and judgments feels misguided. Even, at times, dishonest.

I mean, in a lot of ways, Ronaldo is as reliable as they come: he ran a successful business for forty years; he put his kids through private schools; and his irresponsible investing notwithstanding, he’s paid all his bills on time, all the while bailing out many people who needed help because they couldn’t put their lives in order. And while he can turn on people abruptly, he’s shown the ability to come around to a more considered perspective over time.

Even on the domestic front, Ronaldo has, in his own, idiosyncratic way, proven himself to be quite capable. As, for instance, when he set my wife straight when she was depressed back in college and thought she was losing her mind. “Nothing wrong with you,” he said. “I feel like that all the time.” Or when he showed up at the last minute to extricate his younger son from a doomed wedding; or when he walked in on his forty-fifth wedding anniversary with flowers for his wife and a card in which he’d scrawled, “It’s been wonderful”; or when, after lots of hemming and hawing and only because the baby was asleep, my wife left him in charge while she ran errands. Predictably, the baby awoke and Ronaldo, unable to find baby food, took out a jar of jelly, tied the baby in the booster seat (he couldn’t figure out the clips) and fed him.

Sometimes I think the reason Ronaldo gets such a bad rap is because he just won’t stand up for himself. On the contrary, he seems perfectly willing to absorb all the judgments, accusations and rebukes anyone wants to heap on him. “Go ahead,” he seems to say. “I don’t mind. I’ll bear my failures and disappointments and all yours too.” He’s up to the task: hang around with Ronaldo long enough, and you get the sense he’ll endure just about anything. And rather than diminishing him, it seems to be a source of real strength—a well-spring of patience, even compassion that those around him actually rely on even as we continue to dump on him. “The truth is, I wouldn’t know what to do without him,” his wife confesses. “I’m the one who needs him. He’d be fine without me.”

Ronaldo hangs on to his stuff and we hang on to him.

A few years ago, tired of stuffing my younger son into a bike seat he’d mostly outgrown, I rigged him up a piece of wood on the rack on the back of my bike. At one point as we were out cruising along, the bike hitched and slowed, and then my son screamed. When I looked down, I saw his foot wrenched in the spokes of my wheel.

I went into a sort of shock: I couldn’t believe what I’d done. How stupid! How reckless! How completely irresponsible! Even after I learned it was a relatively “good” fracture, that he’d fully recover, I couldn’t talk to anyone, not even my wife. Then I remembered Ronaldo and picked up the phone: “I really fucked up, Ronaldo,” I told him, gushing with shame.

“We’ve all done that,” he said. Then he laughed. “Some of us more than others.”

I took the first decent breath I’d had in days.

 

Four or five days a week I call Ronaldo on my way to work. I talk to him more than I talk to anyone except my wife. He’s always in his office, his dog Lucky at his side, watching his stocks, reading the news, “organizing” his stacks of files and papers and magazines. One day he comes across Millie’s love letters to his father; another day he finds the minutes to the family meetings in Chicago; still another day he stumbles on an article about him nearly breaking the course record at Fort Lewis. We talk briefly about my sons, two uncommonly bright rays of light in his world (“They are good!”), before digging into the latest scandal in Washington (“Bunch of egomaniacs.”), the opera his wife dragged him to (“Makes her feel rich to go.”), the Jung book he recently dusted off (“Very deep.”), the old range worker who called him recently (“Needs money.”), the theories of his old mentor, Gene Andrews (“Lost the 1959 North/South Tournament to the Jack Nicklaus.”). For a guy who seems so completely out of touch—for a guy who starts singing Purim songs during Hanukah—Ronaldo has an uncanny ability to recall miscellaneous information; sometimes, just for fun, I’ll quiz him: “Who starred in the 1932 All Quiet on the Western Front?”

“Lew Ayers?”

“Who won the first Masters Tournament?”

“Probably Horton Smith.”

“What’s the speed of light?”

 “One hundred eighty-nine—no, 186,000 miles per second.”

“Who was the twenty-fifth president?”

“McKinley? Not sure.”

At moments like these, I realize Ronaldo’s mind is a lot like his office: everything is in there; it’s just a matter of finding it.

Invariably he tells me about his latest stock—a two-dollar Chinese coal stock that was trading at sixteen a few years ago. “You’re going to lose your shirt again, Ronaldo,” I say.

“No,” he says. “Not this time.”

“That’s what you said last time.”

“This one is different,” he says without irony. “You’ll see. A little more time.”

“A little more time,” he says about organizing his office.

“A little more time,” he says about figuring out his psyche.

“A little more time,” Ronaldo says about nailing Jeff to the wall.

In this regard you could say Ronaldo is one of the great optimists: he really seems to believe that, given enough time, he’ll eventually get everything sorted out, fixed up, organized, accounted for. Yet I can’t help wondering how much of this is fueled by a fundamental sense of failure—a basic refusal to accept himself for who he really is.

Sometimes I want to tell him: “Ronaldo, you did good, you know that? You really did.” But I have the sense he wouldn’t quite believe it, that to acknowledge as much would be to undermine most of what he understands himself to be.

It’s as though he’s dedicated himself to a lifetime in the land of failure.

 

It’s a beautiful summer evening in Los Angeles, and I’m standing with Ronaldo at the local pitch-and-putt where he hits balls when he doesn’t feel like putting up with the schmucks at the club. He hardly plays anymore—he just hits balls, two, three hundred a day, as many as his stiff legs will allow. Whenever we’re down for a visit, I go along, not because I have aspirations as a golfer but because I enjoy the time with Ronaldo.

For the better part of an hour he puts in a determined effort, giving me pointers (“Your wrists! You broke ‘em!”), psychological insights (“You think too much.”), and mostly unmerited encouragement (“You could be a player.”). Before long, however, my back begins to ache, my hands blister, and I find my way to the nearby bench.

“I’m working on something new,” Ronaldo calls, tossing a few balls onto the grass. “Something I never quite thought about and very few teachers even know about, and if they do, it’s unconscious, so they don’t teach it.”

As I watch him loft one ball after another into the air, I realize it’s been almost twenty-five years since I first went out with him during my spring break. His hair is white now; he’s smaller, somehow, but in his cap and khakis and collared shirt, he cuts much the same figure he did all those years ago.

“Nice shot, Ronaldo,” I call as a ball rolls just past the pin.

“Still going left,” he mutters like he can’t figure it out.

The park lights snap on; we’re the only ones out here now. But Ronaldo continues to talk to himself, debating, grunting, moving his weight like he’s banging up against life’s great mysteries. Then he shrugs, lines up his next shot, and swings again.

 

 

Andrew D. Cohen teaches English at Portland Community College in Portland, Oregon, where he lives with his wife and two sons. His essays have appeared in Confrontation, Under the Sun, the Saint Ann’s Review and elsewhere. A graduate of the MFA program at the University of Michigan, he received the 2007 Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Award. [2009]

“Serpentine” by Ember Johnson

Ember Johnson’s essay “Serpentine” was a finalist for the 2018 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. In this piece, Johnson masterfully evokes tension and anguish through her poignant exploration of her experience as a military wife and widow, offering a unique perspective on the burden of carrying on alone.

 

Serpentine

by Ember Johnson

At the funeral home, they tell me to slide the partition door open, so I do, just enough to angle my body through, and I enter the room alone. I approach where my husband’s body lies inside a cardboard box, on top of a wheeled gurney, and I see that a white bed sheet covers him to his chin. There is a chair in the room, and I drag it across the floor and sit next to him. His lips, glued together, have dried into the faint shape of a kiss.  Eyelids, too, glued shut. A ragged zigzag of sutured skin reaches from his eyebrow into the receding hairline above his temple, and a dark purple bruise the size of a salad plate has settled beneath the skin in the center of his face. His neck tilts to the side. I untuck the sheet from around his neck, draw it down his naked body, and begin.

First I trace each branch of the deep Y carved into his chest by the medical examiner. Then I touch each short dash, each stitch, that had closed him back up. All I’ve been told is that he was hit head-on, that it was not his fault, and that he died instantly. Still, I am looking for clues. Answers. I’m a military wife. And he’d come back from a combat zone alive. Twice.

I consider the dragon tattooed on his upper arm and trace a finger along the green hairpin curves of its spine, from the tip of its snout to the tip of its tiny, forked tail. His skin is cold. Refrigerator cold. A deep gouge presents between two knuckles of his hand and a large flap of torn skin with a thick maroon edge lies over his hand bones, not sutured.

I remember his eyes are gone. Donated. But the closed lids with their delicate lashes whisper against his face in the concave curvature of two small smiles. Warm tears drip from my chin onto his bare arm. I close my eyes and begin to search inside the dark recesses of my living body for a doorway. A lamplight. A path. Something—anything—to tell me which direction to go tearing after him.

“Where,” I say, frantic now that I know what I truly want, “where did you go?”

Whether he was going off to the war in Iraq or to specialized training for his army job or to VA appointments at the hospital here in Minnesota, I accompanied him, always, as far I was allowed. This meant being left in a lot of waiting rooms, hallways, and parking lots. Behind roped-off areas and security gates. And now a funeral home. And Earth.

 

The waiting room at the VA hospital is an upper-level atrium with large skylights and plastic plants. It’s easy to know if the sun is up or down, but not whether it’s doing any good. Rows of sectional couches with thin, worn cushions make a semicircle around a monster console television that plays the Military Channel on mute. World War II tanks silently rumble down a rutted, European road. This is what I remember from the last time I waited for my husband there, only a week before he died.

It was early enough to still be dark outside, and the large Plexiglas windows that lined the walls streamed the only light, a dim florescence from the adjoining hallways, where earlier I had seen Authorized Personnel Only lettered across a set of heavy steel doors. For a long time during the morning of his surgery I sat and watched those hallways for hospital workers to push empty gurneys by, imagining the click of the wheels as they passed from one window frame to the next.

Earlier, before I left him in his pre-op recliner, a surgical nurse issued him a tall brown paper sack with Jacobson scrawled in black marker across the front. She flicked her hand toward it as she turned to leave, closing the curtain behind herself. It was for his clothes. And I was to help.

He tossed his boots into it with a thunk and crumpled his T-shirt into a basketball, which he shot from an imaginary free-throw line. He stripped off his underwear.

“Seriously?” I asked. “You can’t leave your drawers on?” The surgeon wasn’t operating anywhere near there.

“Believe me,” he said, “I’ve tried.” And his glance toward the curtain said it all. VA hospital nurses are a harassed and hardened breed.

I unballed the socks he handed me and added them to the sack. He slid his arms through the sleeves of the papery blue surgery gown and flailed around his waist for the ties.

“Here,” I said. “Lemme get those.”

I tied two bows, and he stepped back to give me the full view. “I don’t care what anyone says,” he said and licked a finger that he ran across an eyebrow. “I wear this well.”

Two nurses returned, pointing him to the recliner, and covered him with a thin white blanket from the waist down while they began prepping his IV. They hustled me out and pulled the curtain closed one last time, asking, “Do you know your way to the surgery lounge?” I hoisted my backpack over my shoulder. This was our third surgery for the same ear that had been blasted by an IED in Iraq. Yes. I knew the way.

Now, as I get ready to leave the funeral home, the director hands me a similar paper bag. Nearly identical to the one from the hospital. The medical examiner who autopsied my husband’s body has filled it his clothes. Jacobson, B. is scrawled across the top in black marker.

“Are you waiting for your father?” was a common question I got asked in the surgery waiting room. “No, my husband,” I’d say. And then to clarify that I wasn’t married to someone twice my age, I added, “He served in Iraq—well, still serves.” None of his injuries eliminated him from a deployment rotation schedule, so he was always somewhere in the process of going back to war. Instead of making small talk, I usually sketched new layouts for the garden or our farm’s pasture. One year during a surgery wait I added fruits—apple, pear, and cherry trees, as well as blueberry bushes and strawberry plants. The trick would be keeping the chickens out. During another surgery wait, I devised a new rotational grazing system for our lot of horses, goats, sheep, and llamas. But I’d also figured a way to temporarily block the entrance of the driveway to allow them to graze the yard.

Once I actually encountered another Iraq War vet. He was several years younger than my husband and had a large, irregularly shaped dent in his skull where part of his brain should have been. The verbal abuse that this soldier hurled at his nurses traveled easily through the thin walls to where I sat waiting for my husband in the MRI waiting room. “Bitch,” he spat. “Cunt.” He didn’t want to get on the exam table. “Michael,” one nurse’s voice cut through the wall, “You lie down—and then tell me if you want Johnny Cash or Elvis—I’ll give you headphones.” A no-choice choice. A fake choice. Designed to redirect someone’s attention away from what he really wants, which is always the one thing he can’t have. In Michael’s case, I imagined it was to have his mind and body back the way they were before the war. In my case now, my husband is dead and never coming home again. So, my no-choice choices: Burial or cremation? Family cemetery or Fort Snelling? Coach or van?

 

Traumatic brain injury is tricky because every injury is different, and so is every brain. VA doctors had concluded that the blast that took out my husband’s eardrums also sent a concussive force through his head. Combined with the sustained stress of living in a combat zone for two tours of duty, each an entire year in duration, this had caused him to come back from his last one with short-term memory problems, severe neck and shoulder pain, headaches, and a sincere desire to kill people who irritated him: mostly strangers, but sometimes his boss. At the National Guard’s Army Aviation Support Facility (AASF) in St. Paul, he worked as an electronics mechanic on Blackhawk helicopters, but his boss, a first sergeant, had never deployed to a war.

To cope, he didn’t turn to drugs or alcohol. Instead he built a castle out of wood, set it up on the floor in the middle of the living room, and he and our three-year-old son staged epic battles between Transformers, X-Men, vintage GI Joe action figures, and all the Marvel superheroes. They played for hours at a time. Day after day. Until one evening, as I washed the dinner dishes and listened in, it finally hit me: this wasn’t normal. What appeared to be a loving, engaged father was a loving, engaged father but also a man who wanted to avoid paying bills, helping with farm chores, making decisions, and having an adult relationship with his wife. He would wake up at night and not know where he was. He looked for IEDs in the road during his commute to work. And while we used to banter with ease and tease each other over money or day-to-day living decisions, now there was no playing around. He simply stalked off.

He’d run out of space inside himself. He could no longer hold his two lives together: the one we’d built together, with a large vegetable garden and a lively barnyard, and the one he’d made out of sand and Kevlar. Animals got sick, needed shearing, or we ran out of hay. Their babies came breech or young ones got stuck in a snarl of fence wires. His career was a dizzying array of schematics for helicopter systems. Circuit diagrams. Training modules. His performance could determine the outcome of a life-and-death situation for the crews that flew them.

“We’re going to start over,” I declared. “I’ll sell the animals and we’ll get back to where we started. We’ll wipe the slate clean.” It was a grand gesture. I knew that I was the only one who saw that places of waiting were also places that were mostly empty. And bland. A skylit room with plastic plants. A television on mute. I could give him all that I had learned of patience and liminality. I could create his space. In return, I hoped, the debris of war stuck inside him would break loose and float to the surface. Maybe even float away. “But tell me,” I said after I explained it all to him, “are you going to go through the VA for therapy or will you look for a civilian psychologist?”

 

And I was right. One day my husband called me, breathless, from a place where he had pulled off the highway. He’d been at the VA for a therapy appointment. “I always thought it was weird that the checkpoint was empty,” he said without preamble. “Only a couple of Iraqis stood by a shack on the next hill over.”

I heard him light a cigarette, and he inhaled its smoke through his words.

“The mortars started coming—”

He exhaled.

“And I saw them hit a couple hundred feet away—so I nailed the gas to get through the serpentine—but they weren’t coming from the hill where I saw the two men—”

I tried to picture it. A serpentine checkpoint is a snake-like path built out of concrete road barriers, a path that folds back in on itself, meant to slow vehicles down to a crawl. A convoy stuck in the middle of one would be like fish in a barrel.

“I couldn’t figure it out—and the dumbfuck LT—I saw the trucks behind us still trying to get through the serpentine—so I yelled at him to radio back and tell everyone to just go around it and get the hell outta there—but that’s when the dirt and sand hit the windshield,” he stopped and took a deep breath. “It was an IED.”

Several seconds of silence breathed between us. This was what he had been searching for. A memory of the actual blast that had taken his eardrums. What we’d learned from his psychologist and occupational therapist at the VA was that our brains have a way of protecting us that can sometimes only be described as “parental.” Sometimes, when they don’t want us to see scary things that could immobilize us, they redact them. Which erases a stream of potential reactions—potential choices—that could imperil us further. This gives us a no-choice choice.

“I passed it on the opposite shoulder,” he said in a much slower and calmer tone. “Until now, I only remembered the mortars because they were farther away.” He exhaled a long stream of smoke, and I heard a shiver convulse his body. “My brain didn’t want me to see how close I was to dead. It had to lie to me so I wouldn’t get scared. So I’d get out of that serpentine alive.”

 

I leave the funeral home and drive home. First I set the medical examiner’s sack on the kitchen table. Oils have seeped through the outer paper layers and bloomed, a meadow of dark spots. Then I slide it off the table and set it on the seat of a chair. I unroll the top, open it, and reach inside.

First his underclothes. Then his pants. Next his tan T-shirt and long-sleeved camouflaged shirt. He called this uniform his ACU’s, but I don’t know what those letters mean, only that they describe the army’s new pixelated camouflage pattern. Last, I pull out the fleece jacket he’d worn to cut the early morning chill and his combat boots. None of the clothing items have been folded, and bits of shattered glass shake free of the fabric and patter all over the floor. It’s then that I remember it all.

That morning I was sitting at my table in the corner of the kitchen when I heard the staircase boards squeak against their nailed joints. His leaden steps echoed off the walls in the back of the house. It was five o’clock in the morning, and he let his full weight drop through each foot. The steady scrape of his wedding ring against the wooden handrail unzipped the night’s veil, and he rounded the corner through the living room and came into the kitchen. “Mornin’,” I said with my back to him, but I hadn’t turned around.

I smooth out his pant legs that lie before me on the table. There is no blood on them. Not one drop. And I hear things again. As though I’m hearing them for the first time.

The ceramic mug of coffee that I’d brought to him in bed that morning clatters sharply against the cast iron sink; he rummages in the dish drainer and slaps the lid of a travel mug down on the counter next to the coffee maker. And, as though he’s standing right next to me, he jerks the glass carafe from its hot plate, pours, and rattles it back into place.

But that morning I didn’t pay him any attention. Not until the refrigerator door sucked open—a giant jaw that flooded the dim kitchen with light—and snapped back with bottles clanking against each other. A magnet slid off, and the school calendar fluttered to the floor. I sat up straight and watched his reflection in the darkened window in front of me. His movements, everything, suddenly felt hard and extra loud. Abrasive. Chair legs scraped against the oak floor, his combat boots thunked to the floor, and he grunted as he sat.

A cold draft seeped behind me. It was from the broken mudroom door. I rose from my chair to slide his heavy farm boots in front of it. During his last deployment, it had stopped latching properly, and the official doorstop became whichever pair of boots he wasn’t wearing.

“Are you okay?” I remember asking him.

“Fine,” he said, crouched over, tucking one camouflaged pant leg into the high upper of his combat boot. He zipped the laces through the top holes as he pulled and tucked with callous, mindless efficiency.

I stood by the door and waited.

“You know,” I said, “if you’re not ready to go back to work today, then you’re not ready.” It had only been a week since his ear surgery. The boys at the AASF could certainly make do without him one more day. “Fuck ’em,” I said with a shrug.

He switched feet and tucked and zipped and pulled. As he reached down, the fabric of his uniform buckled in starchy folds under his armpits and along his ribs. “No,” he said and sat up, slouching against the back of the chair. “I’m ready.” Bright white cotton balls protruded from his ear, still catching some drainage, and I wondered if he was lying to himself.

“Just stay home one more day,” I said.

He stood, zipped his fleece coat to cut the early morning chill, and slung his lunch over his shoulder. He picked up his coffee mug and paused and looked into my eyes.

I stole a glance at the clock. He was way ahead of normal. He never ran this much ahead of schedule. But his eyes never broke from their path and I turned back to meet them again.

“What,” I whispered. It was a statement and a question.

He fiddled with the knob to the broken door.

 

I had to leave the house that morning too. But before I left, I heard the mud room door open again. I turned in expectation, thinking he had changed his mind and come home, but no one was there, and the broken door remained closed. I headed upstairs to rouse my son.

As we left for town, I braked hard on the hill that drops into the valley below our farm, just in time for a group of wild turkeys to cross the road in front of us. I waited and switched on the radio.

A fatal accident occurred this morning around 6:20 and shut down the Hastings bridge in both directions. Authorities hope to have it reopened in the next couple of hours. In financial news the rate of foreclosures continues to increase—

Without thinking, I did the math. There were two different routes my husband could have taken to work that morning. One was under construction, and the other was that bridge. Every military wife knows how to do this type of math. My hands started to shake. I honked the horn at the slow birds bringing up the rear, and my son startled in his seat behind me. “I’m sorry,” I said to him. “I’m sorry.”

 

On impulse I chose a shortcut to town that was a minimum-maintenance road. I hadn’t used it in two years and bit my lip and hoped the spring thaw hadn’t made it difficult to navigate. After a one-lane bridge, tight, steep curves with an uphill on one side and a deep-cut ravine on the other, showed signs of washout. Ragged root systems protruded from the tumbled rockside, and worrisome chunks of earth had broken from the ledge and fallen into the ravine below. A green canopy of untrimmed branches arched low overhead and blocked out the clear morning sky. I took it forty feet at a time, craning my neck around every curve, while keeping an eye on that ledge. The truck’s engine dug in against the grade, and we climbed.

Suddenly a low-slung branch heaved toward the windshield and sprang back.

I slammed the brake, and giant black wings raised up in front of me.

A vulture—a big bastard—labored against its own heft and lifted, pushing itself through the thick canopy overhead.

I did the math again.

 

I walked my son into his preschool class and left my husband voicemails with forced vocal inflections that made me sound casual. I ran errands and chatted with people in store aisles. Chunky peanut butter or creamy? Call the local hospital or the one in the town where the accident had occurred? I took a brisk walk around a city park. I imagined the scene of confession later that night, when I would tell him how all day I’d thought he was dead.

When my phone finally rang, it was my husband’s mother. She never called me.

“Where are you right now?” she asked without saying hello.

“Just pulling into home after preschool,” I said. And waited through an awkward silence. “What’s going on?” I finally asked.

“We’ll be right over,” she said.

Ice and adrenaline flooded my bloodstream. The hand that held the phone began to tremble uncontrollably.

“What’s going on?” I said again, this time louder. “What is it?” I said louder still.

“We’ll be right over,” she repeated. And hung up.

I snapped at my son’s slowness in getting out of the truck, three times in a row, until I heard myself yelling at him. My hands wouldn’t stop shaking. “I’m sorry,” I said to him. “I’m so sorry.”

I settled him in front of the television with his lunch and went straight to my laptop on the table in the corner of the kitchen. News websites had already posted pictures of the bridge accident. They showed the front end of a Toyota pickup resting precariously on top of a highway guardrail and a dented maroon BMW behind it, sideways across two lanes. My husband’s dark green Saturn wasn’t there.

I chain-smoked outside on the front porch, waiting for my husband’s mother. I thought about calling someone. I called my husband. It rang until it went to voicemail, and I hung up without leaving a message.

I hated waiting, I realized. I had always hated waiting.

I leaned into the frame of the open front door and stared at our silent, empty pasture. All of its gates stood open. Big black water tanks sat overturned beneath the shaded overhang of the barn.

“Show me everything,” I said to him every time he left. Because he was always leaving for places where I could not follow, and because I was afraid that I would lose him to all those things I would never see. All of those things he experienced without me. “But I bring you with me,” he said in return. He didn’t understand what it meant to be the one left behind.

At that moment, I felt him pace the porch boards in front of me. He walked its length and abruptly turned and put his hands on his hips. “This is not ideal,” he said.

A declaration. Almost funny. The half smile; the half panic that skimmed the upper edge of his deep voice when a plan was about to go south. And maybe he saw me recognize him. Because my eyes widened and welled and darted to the side. I held my breath. He hadn’t gone anywhere, I thought. He’d been trying to tell me, since I heard the front door open that morning, that he died and came right back home.

“No,” I finally answered him. Out loud. And my heart threatened to give way. To simply stop beating. “It’s not.”

 

The sound of ripping Velcro tears a hole in the silence of our kitchen where I have been standing and staring at his clothes laid out on the table before me. There are creases of dried blood and bits of soft tissue that cling to puncture tears in the fabric. But only to the left sleeves. Where something nearly ripped his arm off. I am pulling the patches off every breast pocket and shoulder—his name, his rank, all the insignia of his career and our country; they belong to me now. When I finish, I go straight to my laptop and punch up the same accident pictures that I saw the day he died. I want to see what I saw the first time I looked at it—the Toyota’s front tires on top of the guardrail, the red BMW sideways across the lanes—but I know that I won’t see that, because I know what happened.

The front tires of the Toyota pickup are on top of my husband’s green Saturn. They sit inside the jagged mouth of its shattered windshield and look as though they came to rest on my husband’s lap. The Saturn is crumpled like a pop can against the guardrail. Its trunk is popped open. And the toys that he had hidden in there for our son lie scattered across the highway. A white sheet drapes its smashed rear window, meant to cover my husband’s dead body. Which, along with the part of me that he said he carried with him, has not yet been extracted.

 

***

This essay began as an assignment to use a first-person voice from the position of witness. It was an assignment designed to challenge what it means to tell another person’s story by forcing a writer to contend with her own subjectivity, experience, and ego. Still, it’s always a huge surprise to me how some essays come together. “Serpentine” I wrote in pieces: scenes, images, bits of reflection that I loosely strung together like so many buttons of different sizes and colors. With the pages spread across a long work table, I stood and stared for a long time. What connected the parts? What bigger thing beyond the simple narrative were they trying to say? I saw the hairpin curves of the dragon’s tail tattooed on my husband’s arm, I saw my husband’s Humvee snaking through the concrete barriers of a checkpoint in Iraq, I saw a brown paper bag appear, disappear, and come back into view. This serpentine form repeated itself through imagery. And for the first time ever, I saw how a structure of switchbacks could move a reader through a serpentine of memories, and how those memories could travel alongside a lived experience, but in the opposite direction. Which is how I ultimately defined my role as witness to my husband’s life.

 

Ember Johnson lives and writes in Center City, Minnesota. She was a winner of the 2013-14 Loft Mentor Series in nonfiction and most recently was awarded a Minnesota State Arts Board grant for 2020. Her work has appeared in Georgetown Review, Fourth Genre, and The Missouri Review. She completed her BA in creative writing at Metropolitan State University in 2016 and is in her final semester of an MFA degree at the University of Minnesota.