“The blood was the mountain and the mountain was the bear” by Rachel Yoder
Welcome back to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing. We at TMR hope that you are all safe. Winner of the 2012 Editors’ Prize in fiction, “The blood was the mountain and the mountain was the bear” by Rachel Yoder delves into the insanity of generational patterns, and the difficult undertaking of trying not to repeat the past; it is also today’s selection.
The blood was the mountain and the mountain was the bear
By Rachel Yoder
Eliot had wanted to hike in deep, but the trails were all closed that day and clouds were blowing in fast from the west, whole countries of weather that slid over Whitefish and roiled there in the sky. Even the mountains felt small.
He was hungry. It had been weeks of beef jerky and trail mix from the panniers on his bicycle. His legs had stretched out taut and ropy from the miles of pedaling through the Montana mountains, and then the early spring prairies filled with pink flowers, past a river jammed with logs, on that stretch of road where it seemed as though his bike would nose up from the pavement and fly him over the meadows and mountains and, further south, to the red soil of the canyon lands. He carried with him a pinecone big as his foot and a smooth white rock he’d pried from the mud at the edge of a clear lake. He carried with him the space of big sky country. He had taken it into his body. But come Whitefish, come the national park signs and printed regulations and asphalt, come the Ponderosas spiking up into the expanse of blue, he had, against his will, shrunk back down to the size of a common man. By the time he reached Osha on the porch of the visitors’ center, he fit perfectly inside a familiar idea of himself.
“Can’t believe you didn’t read about it, hear someone talking, something,” Osha had said as they stood there on the porch of the visitors’ center looking out over the near-deserted parking lot. “Took the hand of one hiker and the thigh muscle of another. Protecting its cubs, they think. They got it today but still have to confirm it’s the right one. A team is coming over from the university in Bozeman for the dissection.”
“Can I see it?” Eliot asked. Osha laughed a little. He squinted at the sky.
“Yeah, but we should go now. Before they get here,” he said. They walked around the building and then down the back stairs to a service road that cut through the trees and further back into the woods.
Eliot hadn’t seen Osha in ten years, not since college. He’d only heard updates from time to time, Scandinavia at a Norse shipbuilding school. Traveling with sherpas to the Tibetan interior. A month-long hike through the Chilean rainforest for a single day with some neural science guru. He ran the ecopsychology program now at the park, dressed in cleanly pressed government-issue beige-on-green.
“Never thought I’d see you in a uniform,” Eliot said.
“Right?” Osha said, laughing and touching the metal on his chest. “I get a badge.”
Eliot tried to run his hand through his hair, which had clumped in dark, greasy hanks. Stubble sanded his neck and sunken cheeks, and it was almost as if he could feel his skin wrapping around the contours of his ribs and the ropes of sinew running through his legs. As if he’d been shrink-wrapped. As if all the air was being sucked from him by an invisible machine. He could smell himself. He knew there was an insanity to the way he appeared. His thoughts that day had been of blood and damage.
“So you started in Idaho, man?” Osha asked. “How long have you been riding? And why? I mean, just for fun?”
Eliot made a laughing sound. They walked in silence, watching the long legs of light stretch between the boughs.
Before the bike trip, he’d been on vacation with Becca. Idaho, at his dad’s cabin. A last go of things. One more honest attempt. Canoeing and long afternoon walks, lovemaking in and out of sleep, late breakfasts with small white cups of strong coffee and runny eggs. But it hadn’t worked, hadn’t even been meant to work if Eliot was being honest with himself. More like leave things on a high note. More like Eliot had been hopeful, but he just couldn’t anymore.
She had gotten on a plane back to Arizona, silent as he hugged her in the airport. She wouldn’t look at him and turned, stripping herself of her belongings, sliding her belt out of the loops with one hard pull. Her long hair swung blackly as she walked away.
He rode over a hundred miles that day and then stepped off his bike to feel his knees bend, muscles voided of strength. There was a soft give to the earth as he landed and stayed that way for some time, unable to rise.
“I’ve been planning it for a while, but then Becca and I broke up, and I extended it,” Eliot said. He rubbed his palms over his eyes and felt the grease on his face. Osha leaned back and turned his face to the sky, letting out a ribbon of breath.
“What was it, ten years?”
Osha nodded. They walked in silence. The day was sunny but held an undertone of coldness left over from the long winter. “I don’t know where I’m going. I just know I’m headed south. Is that crazy?”
“Sure,” Eliot said. The sounds of birds rang like bells far above them, and in the darkness beneath the trees, the way the clean light sliced and flickered in blinding lines held the feeling of water, of a cold church.
Osha unlocked the door and swung it wide for Eliot as he entered.
Eliot had ridden all the way out to the park because he wanted high, thin air, to hike up to the edge of a cliff and then have one of those moments where you find yourself stunned by what’s spreading out for miles and miles all around. An unplanned moment. Proof of grace. He had needed to feel the acid burning in his muscles and to walk beyond it, to keep going until all that mattered was breath and a rhythmic thud, until his thoughts became soft and muted, summer clouds suspended far out at the horizon.
What he got, though, was a musty little outbuilding, fluorescent lights, a metal table pulled in from the staff kitchen, the pungent smell of hair and oil and something more, something sweet and rotten. A blue tarp barely covered the body.
Its hind paw slipped from beneath the tarp, and Eliot paused. The pads were calloused and dirty and black like worn shoes. Its claws had the look of something prehistoric, something made more of rock and ore than of flesh and blood. This was a creature forged from the remains of other animals, from beaks and teeth and hides. It could not have not been born.
“So in Scandinavian folklore, they think people can turn into bears,” Osha said, standing at the head of the covered pile, motioning to Eliot. He raised the tarp to show him the bear’s face. “They used to have these ceremonies after a bear was killed where the fur was treated with herbs and oils and then given to warriors. It was supposed to make them able to chew through shields, stuff like that. That’s all I can think about when I see something like this. Such a shame.”
Eliot turned to the body as if in a dream. Its head rested on a pile of dirty towels seeping gore, the fading edges of which formed a pink corona around the animal’s skull. A clean hole broke through the head just beneath the ear in layers of dark fur and bright bone and, further in, shades of red and gray and beige. The fur covered it, shiny and thick and soft like a toy. The bear looked nothing like the idea of a bear.
“Could you imagine if this were a person?” Osha said. “Imagine.”
Eliot nodded. The claws. They could go straight in your arm and out the other side.
“It doesn’t really seem . . .” Here Eliot paused. Could a mountain die? Could gold? “It doesn’t really seem dead, in a way.”
Osha looked at him, then took the tarp in silence and raised it higher to reveal the trunk of the animal.
“They’ll cut into it and try to find the remains,” Osha said. “But the body has to be under lock and key, you know, since there’s such a demand for black market gall bladders. Like any of us would do such a thing.”
Black teats peeked through the fur. Eliot took a step back.
“What about the cubs?” he asked. Osha winced.
“They’ll fend for themselves as best they can, I suppose. Worst case scenario a male finds them and eats them. But that’s worst case.”
“Jesus,” Eliot said, staring at the animal’s coat, which shone almost red in the downing sun. The luxury of its colors and furs and snout and tongue all descended on Eliot at once, and quite suddenly it was as if the queen herself had been laid out here before him in her heavy pomp. It was the end of everything. The kingdom was set to storm, or at the very least turn dark and strange.
This. All this. And somewhere in Arizona, Becca was bleeding on a couch. “Pregnant,” she had said in the message that morning as he held the grimy pay-phone receiver away from his face. He listened to their old answering machine play her voice with all the resonant emptiness of a woman calling from the bottom of a dark well. “Abortion” reverberated toward him, the sound waves almost visible. “Two pills and then it’s done. Come now. I’m fucking serious.”
Osha insisted he stay the night, but Eliot wouldn’t.
“Beer,” he said to Osha, who nodded.
“But before you go . . .” He motioned to the cluster of cabins set back in the woods as he locked the shed door. “I actually can’t believe I still have it, this letter I wrote you when I was in India. I didn’t have a mailing address—I think you had just moved or were going to, something. It’s a good letter, man.”
Of course he had an old letter. Osha of the late-night stories and wrinkled letters from around the world. Eliot waited outside as he rustled around in his cabin. Early season birds called to each other. Through the trees, the cabin with the bear pulsed with a sickening gravity.
Osha emerged with an envelope in hand, striped blue and red around the edges.
“This,” he said, holding it up in the air with one hand. “I’ve been carrying it for, what, six years? Not until this very moment was it supposed to reach you. That’s how things work.”
Eliot took the letter and grabbed his hand, pulling Osha to him and slapping his back.
“You are a goddamn hippie,” he said. They laughed, and Eliot thanked him, thanked him for showing him the bear and thanks but he needed to go, he needed to be gone, and he went as quickly as his legs could manage, back to his bike and then pedaling on the hard asphalt, away from the park and the bear and out into the cold, clear air where he could finally breathe again. He had been holding his breath for what seemed a very long time so as not to awaken whatever it was that was sleeping, and now he breathed and pumped and breathed and breathed and breathed.
He was overcome by his hunger. Even though he couldn’t afford it, he wanted a steak, purple rare, with cheap beer he could buy by the can. Back in Whitefish, he wound up at the Moosehead, where a jukebox played songs about sangria and perfection over and over again as he folded himself into a booth.
He ordered from a burnt blonde with a long braid down her back.
“Rare,” he said.
A few minutes later she put a beer down in front of him.
“First one’s free,” she said without smiling, then turned and, as she walked away, moved her ass in a manner so as to suggest she knew he was watching.
He sat and he drank. Two dusty cowboys murmured at the bar as a young, freshly-washed couple in expensive belts and ugly ergonomic shoes politely examined photos on the walls, then the cowboys and the longhorn skull behind the bar. They sat with their hands clasped in front of them on the table and held themselves in deliberate postures.
Somehow all this—the day and Becca and those clean, happy people—he blamed on his father. Actually, it wasn’t the day exactly that he blamed on him, but what he would do next, go to Arizona and be with Becca, even though the bike trip and the distance had all been to finally get away from her, make the break, end the hulking thing that had been their relationship, a thing they had both counted on as being forever but which had finally turned heavy and dark.
He wasn’t like his father. His father had left his mother with five kids and a teetering house at the ocean’s edge in the cold and the wet of Washington state winter. His father was a cliché, off with the legal secretary to leave Eliot, the youngest child, the only one to listen as his mother rambled to herself behind her bedroom door night after night. All the others were off at college or married. Eliot had been the mistake and remained the mistake, the awkward giraffe of a boy who watched silently as his mother folded and unfolded cloth napkins at the kitchen table for hours.
“Mom,” he would try.
“I had no idea I’d be this busy,” she would say.
He switched to whiskey. The steak tasted of blood and he ate.
Some places, people could really respect a piss shit of a mood on a man. Some places, a man could actually feel like a man instead of the memory of one, where the meat was cooked right, which was nearly not at all, and beer was cold and shitty and canned and you could open a door and walk outside and everything spread away from you like a beautiful goddamn kingdom.
When he was done, he pulled the crumpled letter from his pocket with a wave of nostalgia and warmth and brotherly love. He should have stayed at the park with Osha, should have stayed with him and shot the shit, played cards, listened to his stories about bear men. The light of the bar had turned golden, and the blonde moved silently among the tables, bending across the wide planks of wood to move a cloth slowly against the grain, her long braid rubbing against her back and falling over her shoulder in a choreography that made something deep in Eliot move and stretch.
Trails of blood pooled in the ring of his plate, swirling with grease. His focus sharpened and blurred, sharpened and blurred, until the blonde was there and smiling, can I take your plate? He wanted more whiskey, and she brought him one along with a tall glass of cold water. He looked down, and the letter was still in his hand.
Osha’s longhand was elegant and faded, and Eliot blinked and then blinked again to focus on it. Eliot, he wrote. I have to tell you what just happened.
He said he was in India, on his way home after a year studying at a monastery. He had been on retreat, translating Sanskrit texts. He’d lost his confidence in the modern world, in the idea of personal agency, in technology, in free will and family. I don’t even know how to think about love, he wrote. But the translating hadn’t really worked. He was still miserable, way out in the western hills of India. Cosmic darkness he scrawled at the bottom of the first page.
Over the mountain in the next valley, there was this tribe of wild monks and they were, you know, dirty and naked and had these unbelievable dreads. I never actually saw the monks, but I heard enough about them. They were devoted to overcoming disgust. That was their pursuit, to not be disgusted by anything, and they spent their whole lives doing this. The main way they practiced was by eating human flesh. Acolytes would walk for hundreds of miles to get there and be sacrificed. I saw a few of these guys walking past the monastery on the road that ran over the mountain.
So I’ve been silent for three months and watching these guys walking to get sacrificed and trying to dig out from this feeling of being buried, and then I come to Delhi for a week before going home (tomorrow), and in the market tonight, with all these smells and the lights. How can I explain? There was no comfort there. And I’m walking back to this shitty room I’ve rented on a narrow, dark street—I’m sure I’m going to get killed—and I just happen to look down through a bright basement window. Inside there’s a woman who’s naked and bathing. She was washing her hair, I think, with her back turned to the window. I stopped and stared at her, because it was the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in a year, in my whole life. She brought me back. This just happened moments ago.
He lowered the letter to the table with an unsteady hand.
He’d caught a fish. It was in Idaho. A silver flash of scale and sunlight breaking through a cold stream. But it wasn’t the fish. It was air becoming water then movement then scales then light. Alchemy, he had thought. And now he knew there was not some sort of separation, that estrangement was not essential. He could nearly touch this thought, so palpable and plain. He would never be able to explain it to anyone else.
He wondered if he was too drunk. He decided that he simply couldn’t be. Everything was at it was, as it should be. And the blonde. He was certain she wanted to fuck him.
She watched him from behind the bar, drying pint glasses with a dirty towel.
“All good?” she asked, approaching the table to take his plate. “Another drink?”
“What are you doing tonight?” he said.
“Oh, you know.” She glanced at the front door.
“I’m on a bike trip,” he said. “A long one.”
“Sounds fun,” she said.
“My body is eating itself,” Eliot said, clutching his hands to his chest. He meant this as a joke or banter, as lightness. “I can feel it eating everything away.”
She shifted her weight to one hip and pointed again to his empty glass.
“You know, my friend, he used to live in India, and one night he saw this beautiful naked woman through a window, and it restored him. I mean it was this miraculous experience. She was so beautiful.” He held the letter out to her.
She tipped her head to one side. “You’re saying your friend was leering at some naked chick through a window?”
“Well, yeah,” he said, drawing the paper back to himself. “I mean, no.”
She tilted her head back. She laughed.
“You don’t get it,” he said.
“Dave,” she said, turning to the bartender, and it was over then.
Outside, he stared at the pay phone across the street with the wavering concentration of profound drunkenness. Chin tucked, breathing through his mouth, he swayed like a white aspen in a high wind. He could hear his mother. Not his fault—no one’s fault really—but definitely his responsibility. She had always been his responsibility.
And then he was on his bike. The air was cold and awoke in him another person. He tried to think but soon forgot the question. Soon, all that mattered was speed and darkness. He pedaled blankly. At some point he became chilled and began shivering. He had to piss, so he did. It coursed hotly down his white legs.
It was late and the moon was nearly full when he stopped by a sloping tallgrass meadow. He bent in the ditch and vomited.
“Fuck,” he said, running a hand through his oily hair.
The ride had not done him well, especially the last sobering leg of it, as Becca edged her way back into his mind, their final year together living in an Arizona hotel her father owned, an Old West place that perched on the very top of a mountain in a tiny, defunct mining town-turned-tourist trap. One narrow road wound through the galleries and knickknack shops and biker bars crowded on the narrow, tilted skid of rock. Eliot had thought this would work. Becca could make her jewelry to sell to tourists and work part-time at the one diner in town, a precarious place built on a wedge of land.
It had started off fine, with Eliot driving down the steep switchbacks each day to any number of odd jobs, temporary construction or lawn care, whatever he could find, Becca making shimmering necklaces and coming home with a pocket full of tips. But soon enough, she couldn’t leave the hotel without him.
“This is the kind of town you can fall off of,” she had said, ripping at her nails and cuticles, her face wet from crying.
“Stop,” he had said, putting his hands on hers to calm them. “Just stop.”
The steep stairs, the supposedly haunted houses propped on the side of the mountain, the road that threatened long, arcing descents at every turn. It would be so easy to just keep your foot on the gas and launch, a slowly turning body against a wide swath of blue. She was in bed when he left in the morning, and she was in bed when he returned in the afternoon. The velvet curtains stayed drawn. She became the very idea of weight, a statue of a woman, something too heavy to live in such a high place.
“You need to imagine you’re a cloud,” he would tell her, stroking her head as she leaned into him. “A bird.”
He was responsible. For the good days, the bad, and she did not disabuse him of this thought that yes, he was responsible, for everything, always. “Eliot, I mean it,” she would say, pleading with him from bed, her hair mussed and T-shirt falling from one shoulder. Pleading don’t go and stay and I’ll make you breakfast, then jumping from bed and pulling eggs from the mini fridge, turning the dial on the hot plate. Just stay with me and stay and stay. . . .
It all came back to him with a moment of thought, a moment of lapsed discipline, and then he could feel the pall of it enshroud him. He loved her.
The light from the moon cut deep shadows in the ground around him. He pitched his small tent there in the grasses and, inside, sipped water from a bottle that smelled of citrus. He had no strength.
On the ground he turned and turned and fought his way into a restless, half-drunk sleep. In the twilight between the night outside himself and the night within, a picture materialized of a pale acolyte, barefoot, walking a dusty road through green hills that rolled and extended inside a lushness that made him want to cry out. He understood the desire, pulsing and horrible, a near-sexual urge to be consumed for the sake of something outside yourself, for this wisp of color and light. Against the darkness of half sleep, the wisp moved like breath.
When he finally fell away, he dreamed he was riding his bike back and forth between two distant dark canyons. He kept leaving behind his food, and he’d have to turn around to go get it only to realize it was ahead of him, so he’d turn back around and try again. All the while he felt his body shrinking and worried he would become desiccated before he ever found something to eat. He pedaled harder, but the shrinking only sped up. And then his mother was serving him oatmeal with no taste in a chipped bowl, and he was back in the cliff-top house in Washington, and she told him about the placenta that came out after him. It looked like a tree, she said. It was thick and deep red, laced through with veins. She held both her hands up in front of his face with her fingers spread: a tree, Eliot. A beautiful tree.
He awoke cold, in the deepest part of the night. He watched his breath billow in the full moon light filtering through the thin tent, trying to will the urge away. His head was thick and eyes smeared with the dregs of drink. He felt his way to the tent opening, crawled out with his eyes closed, a hard thunder of pain swelling in his head. He stood and pressed his palms to his temples. Gently, he opened his eyes, then froze with the ice of adrenaline.
There, so close he could see its filmy breath, an elk, steaming in the moonlight, its black eyes reflecting lakes of mirrored ice. It stood even stiller than the night around it. A calf moved between its legs, bucking its head against the underbelly.
In the meadow behind it, an entire herd, lit with the light of the full moon in a tableau otherworldly and terrifying, so beautiful for its strangeness he wondered if it was possible this was some hallucination: a message or a sign. The hundred elk had been feeding, all of them now perfectly still in the sloping meadow. A massive bull stood at the edge of the herd, its rack spread above its head like giant hands. His skin rippled, and the muscles between his front legs tensed.
But it was the mother that made the wave of cold roll through Eliot. Beads of sweat bloomed on his forehead and lip. He’d heard stories of springtime mothers charging and trampling men trying to take photographs, brash men who had edged too close without understanding the danger.
He did not move, nor did the mother. The calf suckled beneath it, nosing its face into the musky warmth there, then turning to look at him. He could see the foggy breath of the beast moving around its nostrils, could see the contained chaos in its eyes, its head turned just so, ready to run at him, or away.
But it wasn’t the mother. It was the bull. The animal took off in a moment so swift and wild it was as if the entire world around Eliot was pulled up by the roots and launched into the sky. The herd lumbered away from him, the sound of them hitting deep inside his chest. They disappeared into the pale trees, the beat of their canter growing soft, until Eliot was alone again in the meadow, shivering, cold with sweat.
Eliot awoke with one thought that started softly as he sat up and remembered the elk, then grew rapidly, like cells multiplying in the air. A flight to Arizona would more than max out his credit card. He had no money for an abortion. He had already borrowed money from everyone else, owed more than he’d ever be able to repay. Christ. He was going to have to call his dad.
He unzipped the tent and stretched his legs in the grasses of cold dew. His head balanced heavily on his body, and the coldness of the morning stung his eyes. A train would be cheaper. Slower, but cheaper. And maybe deliberateness was what he needed. A purposeful movement with a sense of an ultimate direction. He would need to call Becca, pack up his bike, get a ticket, figure out the train schedules, find the goddamn depot itself. He had a sense of the right direction, so that’s where he went.
Smokestacks rose in the distance against a pink early morning sky painted with still, white clouds masquerading as mountains, what looked like a faraway range brought into being as if by a giant, long-felt yearning. A chill breath of vertigo swung through him: this false range of mountains, a sense of distant protection that, all at once, became nothing more than a beautiful illusion. He pedaled toward it, toward Becca and the blood.
As he pedaled, though, his thoughts turned not to Becca but again to his father, a father who had not wanted to be with Eliot’s mother, and still he’d stayed. She’d gotten pregnant and then they had Eliot and his father stayed, for thirteen unlucky years he stayed. Eliot closed his eyes and felt the wind. You have to imagine you’re a bird. He pedaled and breathed and thought and couldn’t place what it was, the feeling he had, something about his father. It kept rushing away from him.
Rachel Yoder grew up in a Mennonite community in the Appalachian foothills of eastern Ohio. She now lives in Iowa City with her husband and son and is a senior agent at The Tuesday Agency. Rachel earned an MFA in Fiction from the University of Arizona and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Iowa, where she was an Iowa Arts Fellow. She currently serves as the Literary Programming Director for Mission Creek Festival as well as a board member for the UNESCO City of Literature. She is a founding editor of draft: the journal of process, which features first and final drafts of stories, poems, and essays, along with author interviews about the creative process. Her work has been awarded with The Editors’ Prize in Fiction by The Missouri Review and with notable distinctions in Best American Short Stories and Best American Nonrequired Reading. Rachel’s short story “On Innocence” was a runner-up for The Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award.
“Exit Seekers” by Tamara Titus
Welcome back to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing. Our staff here at TMR hope that you are all having a good start to the new week. We are kicking off this Tuesday with the 2018 Editors’ Prize winner in fiction, “Exit Seekers” by Tamara Titus. In this piece, Titus’s clever characters learn lessons on friendship and forgiveness, and the struggles of aging.
by Tamara Titus
Even before I open my eyes, I smell smoke. At first I think I’m still dreaming—too many memories of my time under the stars, when everyone smelled like smoke or sweat—but then I see Cecil’s outline over by the open window. He’s sitting in his wheelchair with a blanket over his legs, and I can hear the oxygen machine chugging even as the haze from his cigarette settles around us.
“Cecil,” I whisper. The digital clock on my nightstand reads 2:13, and the hallway outside is quiet.
His head is bowed, and he doesn’t answer. While I watch, the orange tip of his cigarette falls into his lap.
“Cecil!” I hiss, and his head jerks. He mumbles, and I pull my chair over to the bed. When I’m fully awake, I can transfer without assistance, but even then I like to know there’s someone within shouting distance, just in case. I set the brakes and hoist my ass into the seat. Then I settle my left stump onto the pad. It only takes five seconds, but it’s too long. When I look back at Cecil, his nightshirt is already on fire.
Cecil screams, and I press the call button clipped to the bedrail and wheel over to the door in nothing but my undershorts. The corridor outside is empty.
I yell Fire! twice before rolling back into the room and grabbing a couple of hand towels at the sink. Cecil flails with his good hand while I soak the towels. I’m wrapping them around my fists when the bedspread catches, and I have just enough sense to switch off the oxygen before I grab the blanket from Cecil’s lap and press my arms against him.
At some point there is noise behind me—people yelling over the fire alarm. The light comes on, and someone blasts us with a portable fire extinguisher. Cecil howls. I hold up my right hand and squint. My skin is splotchy, and pain moves like lightning across my synapses. “Don’t let them take us to Grady,” I say to the nurse closest to me, but she’s not listening. She wraps a clean towel around my hand and wheels me out the door.
When the ambulance pulls up at Grady Hospital, all I can think is it’s a good thing they’ve already shot me full of morphine. Before I moved into Cedar Grove, I spent my share of nights in the ER here. Winter nights, mostly. I lost my foot to frostbite, and they tried hard to talk me into going to a nursing home. But I knew I’d have to clean up, dry out. And I wasn’t ready for that. Not then.
Once we get inside, I can hear the EMTs bringing the staff up to speed. Cecil’s next door in room seven, and I know they’ll work him up first cause he’s bad off. I close my eyes and see the blue print of the dressing gown seared into his flesh. Then my brain misfires, and pain licks me in places I no longer possess. I’m drifting when I hear the one voice I do not want to hear tonight.
“Ben Gibson. I thought you were done being a frequent flyer.”
It’s been almost four years since I broke Dr. Loflin’s nose. I was high on a little bit of everything that night, and I had a seizure in the middle of Briarcliff Road. Apparently, when I woke up in the ER, I woke up swinging. I don’t remember any of it, but I’m sure she does. “A little bird told me you’d been missing me,” I say.
Dr. Loflin pulls up one of those rolling stools and takes a seat beside the gurney. “And a little bird told me you were smoking in bed.”
I’d like to pinch her, grab the tender flesh on the back of her triceps and squeeze like my sister Angie used to do. But I know what that’ll get me, so instead I flip the blanket down and point to my stumps. “I’m a diabetic, not a dumbass.”
“In your case, Mr. Gibson, one diagnosis does not necessarily preclude the other. But I’ll make sure your objection is noted in your chart.” She touches my wrist with one gloved finger. “In the meantime, why don’t you tell me what happened.”
“Cecil set himself on fire, and I was trying to put him out.”
When she lifts the dressing from my hand, I hear her suck in a breath. She scoots closer, and I examine her face while she examines my hand. Whoever fixed her nose did a good job; you can’t even tell it was broken. She’s changed her hairstyle, too. There’s silver at her temples now, fine hairs that almost disappear into her blond bob.
“Are you burned anywhere else?” she asks.
“I don’t think so.”
“Okay,” she says as she rotates my hand. “Okay.”
I can tell by the lack of ill will in her voice that it’s not okay, and for the first time in weeks, I feel a panic attack coming on. It only happens when I’m in close quarters.
“On a scale of one to ten, how bad is your hand hurting now?”
My palm is puckered, all bright red and weeping. “At least an eight.”
She stands and presses a button on the wall. “Not for long,” she says. Then a nurse steps in and hands her a syringe, and it’s Dr. Loflin’s turn to make my world go black.
When I get back to Cedar Grove the next afternoon, I notice right away that Cecil’s things are gone. The big picture frame that said family. His wall calendar, his clothes. I’m lying in bed staring at my hand, which is wrapped so thick it looks like an oven mitt, when Marianne taps on the open door.
“Knock, knock,” she says, and she waits.
Marianne looks a little like Liv Tyler, only with brown eyes, and she’s wearing a dress that falls to the floor. It suits her frame—it softens her elbows and hips—but I withhold the compliment. Her smile is too tense.
I nod at the chair by the bed. “Is Cecil dead?” I ask as soon as she sits down.
“No.” She glances at the empty side of the closet. “But they’re going to keep him at Grady for a while. He needs skin grafts.”
“I take it I’m in for a new roommate?”
Marianne pulls the tray table over to her and sets a folder on it. Normally we discuss my care in her office, which is really just a windowless closet at the end of the West Unit hallway. The folder is bad news.
“Cecil’s daughters have filed a grievance with the state licensing agency. They want to know how their father, who is wheelchair-bound and partially paralyzed, could have gained access to cigarettes that they did not provide.” She folds her hands in her lap, and I wonder for the thousandth time how she can do this. How she can come to work, day after day, with people who are batshit crazy, and not wind up that way herself?
“Maybe he lifted them,” I say.
“Ben.” She peers at me over her glasses. A strand of hair slips across her shoulder and rests against the side of her breast.
“I shared a smoke with him twice out in the courtyard. That’s it. Both times I gave him one, and he smoked the whole thing outside.”
Marianne opens the folder. “We’re instituting a new smoking policy.”
I don’t move, but the room does. It shrinks around us like something out of Alice in Wonderland.
“From now on, your cigarettes will stay in my office. You can smoke three times a day, but only with supervision. I need you to pick one time in the morning and a couple in the afternoon.” She pulls a form from the folder and turns it around so I can see it. “On the weekends, you’ll have to get the shift supervisor,” she says as she sets a pen on the table.
“I’m grandfathered,” I say. Smoking is the one vice they let me keep. I had to give up booze and drugs, but they promised I could keep smoking as long as I lived at Cedar Grove. It’s written in my resident contract.
“That hasn’t changed,” Marianne says.
“Right. I’m just restricted to three a day, with you as a babysitter.”
She pulls something else from the folder. “Maybe you could tell me what this is,” she says, and as soon as I see the handwriting, I feel my sugar spike. She’s got my list. Normally I keep it on me at all times, but at night I stick it in the Bible in my nightstand.
She points to Rose Green’s name and reads aloud: “Wears Mardi Gras beads and a bad wig. Always has lipstick on her teeth. BSC.” Marianne looks at me. “What’s BSC?”
Keeping tabs on the people here is how I stay sane. It’s how I stay separate from them. I pick up the pen with my good hand. “Batshit crazy,” I say.
“That’s not how we refer to our residents with dementia.”
“Tell that to the CNAs.” Cedar Grove has a politically correct term for everything. When somebody falls out of his chair and busts his head it’s a bad outcome. And the nut jobs who try to escape are exit seekers.
I push the release form away and turn to the last page of my list, to the newest admissions. Under Cecil Carter it says Emphysema. Stroke. I add the word moron in all caps.
Marianne closes the folder and leaves the form on the table between us. “I’m sorry about your hand, Ben. Angie said she’d be in tomorrow to check on you.” She delivers that bomb so smoothly, it’s like she’s opening the cargo doors of a C-130 from an altitude of twenty-five thousand feet.
I tuck my list into my shirt pocket and press the nurse call button. “Do me a favor, Marianne. Come back when you have good news.”
Cecil’s departure means I have a room to myself until they get another male admission. There’s a lot to be said for privacy, especially in this place, and I briefly consider masturbating. But I’m right-handed, and the pain is stronger than my desire to get off. That night, my hand wakes me up at three am, and I watch National Geographic and Pawn Stars until I can’t stand it anymore. Then I hit the call button and ask the nurse for more pain meds.
“You’re not due for another dose until seven. I can bring you a couple of ibuprofen,” she says.
I rest my burned hand against my stomach and imagine the night sky. Orion in winter, Centaurus in spring.
“How about a smoke break?” I say. “A quick one.”
“I’m sorry, Ben. You know I can’t.” A minute later she brings the ibuprofen in a tiny white paper cup. She watches me swallow it before she steps back into the hall, and when I’m sure she’s gone, I roll over and stare at the empty bed.
Cecil was a good roommate; he just got desperate. Right now he’s probably alone in a third-floor room at Grady, staring at a window he can’t see out of. I tuck my hand to my chest and wonder if he hurts as bad as I do. And if there’s a part of him that would jump from that window if he could.
I’m still dozing the next morning when I hear someone settle into the armchair beside me.
“I brought coffee,” Angie says. Waking up to my sister’s voice is a little like waking up naked under a streetlight. When it happens, you know some seriously bad shit has gone down. Angie’s thighs press against the seams of her slacks. Now that she’s pushing fifty, she’s starting to pack on the pounds. She sets the Starbucks cup on the tray table between us.
I take a sip of the coffee, and it’s almost as good as the drugs they’re giving me. She even put real sugar in it.
“Marianne said you had second-degree burns.” She tugs on her earring, a nervous tic she developed when we got sent to foster care. Angie protected me back then.
“That’s what they tell me.”
“She also said your roommate’s daughters are pretty upset.”
I close my eyes and count to ten. I know what she’s thinking. She’s worried somehow she’ll get sued. Angie’s never screwed up in her entire life, and even now, even after I’ve been clean for two years, she still keeps me at arm’s length. “He’s not my roommate anymore.”
“Did you give that man cigarettes, Ben?”
I didn’t, but she won’t believe me. Angie hasn’t believed me since I took her Honda and totaled it when I was fifteen.
“I should have,” I say, and I hold up my bandaged hand. “I’m paying for it anyway, aren’t I?”
The West Unit corridor feels a thousand miles long now that I’ve only got one good hand. I tried to talk the physical therapy department into giving me a motorized chair, a hot rod to cruise around in till I heal up, but they said it would allow my upper body strength to degrade.
I pass Ella on the main hall. She’s got one hand on the rail and one hand on the collar of her nightgown. “Bring me a drink of whiskey,” she says, and for the first time in months, an ache comes over me, a need so strong it nearly blisters me inside.
Marcus is loading the vending machines when I get there, and he hands me a 3 Musketeers. “Your friend’s back,” he says.
“I try not to make friends in this place,” I tell him as I hand him my dollar. “Everybody’s got one foot in the grave already.”
Marcus laughs. “Not you.”
We both look down at my stumps. “No, not me.”
“Seriously, though,” Marcus says. “He’s back.”
“Who?” I ask.
“Your roommate. Sparky.”
I’m pretty sure Marcus is the one who bought cigarettes for Cecil, and I’d like nothing more than to lay him out. Unfortunately, I can’t even reach his head. “Where did they put him?”
“Over on South. Right next to the nurses’ station.”
I look down the corridor to my right. South is the dementia ward, a hellhole full of old women who scream and cry at all hours. Rose Green, of the Mardi Gras beads and the bad wig, lives on South. Cecil will never sleep again.
“The Dr Pepper’s been empty for two weeks,” I tell Marcus. “I’m about ready to call the ombudsman.”
He laughs, and when I don’t join in, he quits stocking the drink machine.
“What crawled up your ass?”
“Nothing. Open that door for me,” I tell him, nodding toward the courtyard. When it slams shut behind me, I wheel myself along among the flowers: salvia and snapdragons, bergamot and butterfly bush. Plants I know only because Angie teaches me their names on Sundays when she visits. She could take me out of here if she wanted to, but she’s never offered. She just brings plants and talks to me while she sets them in the dirt.
I stop when I get to the gazebo and tear open the 3 Musketeers bar. That’s when I notice Cecil at the far end of the courtyard, on the patio, where I’m still allowed to smoke. He doesn’t look too bad, considering. His face is swollen, and he’s got bandages on both arms. I take a bite of the candy. The sweetness is excruciating; it reminds me of the phantom pain in my feet. When Cecil sees me, I wheel over to the patio and turn my chair so we’re parallel to each other.
“You know you fucked us both pretty good,” I say. I glance at him, but he’s staring at his hands. They’re wrapped in gauze all the way to his fingertips. “Marianne’s got my cigarettes now. I can only have three a day, and she has to sit with me while I smoke.”
“I’m sorry, Ben,” he says, but on his tongue the words have too many syllables.
“Yeah? Well, at least they didn’t move me to South.” I turn my chair around and tap on the window until one of the CNAs opens the door. Inside, Marcus is closing the drink machine, and when I roll by, I give him the finger.
The next morning, Marianne is late. I’ve been sitting on the patio for ten minutes, watching Marcus drill holes in the brick wall, when she finally shows up with her hair still damp. “Morning,” she says, and she hands me a giant gray bib.
She puts on her sunglasses and pulls one of the rocking chairs off about ten feet so she won’t catch the brunt of my smoke. “Part of the new regulations,” she says. “It’s fire retardant.”
The bib is heavy. Not as heavy as a flak jacket, but I know I’ll be sweating before I can take two drags. Marianne pulls my Camels and my lighter from the pocket of her dress. “We’re admitting a new resident this afternoon. His name is Gus.”
I take my time lighting up. This is her backassward way of telling me I’m getting a roommate. “Is he a lifer?”
“I hope not. His family wants him home before Thanksgiving.”
I pull smoke into my lungs while Marcus hangs a bright red bag that says Emergency Fire Blanket on the hooks he’s just installed. It’s got a black strap at the bottom that you can pull to release the blanket. I exhale toward the sky. “When are the state inspectors coming?”
Smoke drifts Marianne’s way, and she makes a face. “They won’t tell us. But I’m sure they’ll want to talk with you when they get here.”
I turn the lighter over in my hand. “If you bump me up to four a day, I’ll sing your praises.”
Marianne’s perfectly sculpted eyebrows rise above the top of her sunglasses. “I’ve heard you in choir practice, Ben.” She holds out an ashtray. “Let’s leave the singing to someone else.”
After lunch, I figure I’ll take a quick nap before the new guy comes in, but when I get to the end of the hall I hear people talking in my room. They’re not speaking English, and I notice the nameplate by the door says Konstantinos Papadopoulos.
I start to back up in the hallway, but it’s too late. One of the women sitting on the bed has spotted me. “Come in. Please,” she calls. Inside, there’s a kid—seven, maybe eight years old—using my bed as a trampoline, and an old guy in a wheelchair over by the sink. His English isn’t any better than my Greek, so his daughters and granddaughter fill me in. They talk over each other, and the granddaughter keeps grabbing her son by the collar, saying, “Park it, Nick!” It’s all I can do to get out of the room before I hyperventilate.
“Leave the door open,” I tell Marianne when I get to her office.
“Okay.” She smiles calmly, like a veteran teacher on the first day of class.
“There’s seven people in my room right now,” I say. “That’s got to be a code violation.”
“It’s his first day, Ben. Give him time to get settled.”
“I won’t even be able to turn around with all those people in there. Much less take a piss in private. And you know how I feel about tight spaces.”
Marianne folds her hands together. “Yes, I do.”
“It’ll never work. I already need a Klonopin.”
“Well, there’s a private room available,” she says. “Do you want me to talk to Angie about it?”
We both know it’s an extra thirty dollars a day for a private room, and Medicaid won’t pay for it. Angie can afford it, but I’d rather eat broken glass than ask her. “I’ll get someone to pick me up a Powerball ticket,” I say. “But thanks anyway.”
Marianne opens the file cabinet and takes out my cigarettes. “How about we go sit in the courtyard awhile,” she says, “and I’ll walk you back to your room when you’re ready?”
Outside, I chain-smoke three Camels, and Marianne sits by the herb garden, running her hand over the rosemary. She brings her palm up and inhales, and when she sees me watching her, she looks away. “Catnip,” she says, embarrassed. “For people.”
“Careful,” I say. “That stuff will make you crazy.”
“Batshit crazy?” Her smile takes her from pretty to knockout, and just for a second, I imagine touching her nipples. Feeling them harden under my hands.
I want to stay pissed at her. I really do. But I stub out my cigarette and grin.
The only time I see Cecil is at dinner. He sits on the other side of the dining hall, and it takes him forever to eat. I nod at him on my way out each night and hold up my bandaged hand in solidarity. But Cecil is no longer my problem.
I’ve got new stressors thanks to Gus and the Greek chorus. People from his church come in and out all day, and his granddaughter shows up every morning to supervise his physical therapy. She brings her son, and while she’s in PT with Gus, the kid wreaks havoc. He’s supposed to stay in the activities room, but the minute she walks out, he’s off climbing the medication carts and pushing buttons on the photocopier behind the nurses’ station. Marcus even busts him eating Klondike bars from the freezer in the staff lounge. “And they think I’m trouble,” I say when he tells me. “That kid’s a Tasmanian devil. On speed.”
On Tuesday I catch Gus’s grandson on his knees in front of the vending machine. He’s got one arm up inside the plastic door, angling for a pack of Oreos, and his face is beet red from the effort.
“It’s a long road to juvie, kid, but you’re off to a great start.”
He pulls his arm out of the machine and walks over to me. “What happened to your legs?” He stares at my stumps.
“Same thing that will happen to your arm if you don’t keep it out of there.”
Cecil rolls out of the therapy room, inching along with his good foot, and I meet him halfway. The kid follows me.
“First you leave,” I tell Cecil, “and now I have to put up with this hellion.” I gesture beside me, but I’m pointing into space. The kid is over by the fire extinguisher, sizing up the glass cabinet.
“Nick!” his mother yells from the door to the PT room. “Don’t touch that.”
“Gus’s grandson,” I tell Cecil.
The kid takes off down the hall, and I follow as fast as I can. When I get to my room, he’s going through Gus’s dresser. “Find anything good?” I ask.
The kid squeezes past my wheelchair, sizing me up as he slinks out the door. He’s wondering if I’ll tell on him. And I’m wondering if I’ll ever have a moment’s peace. I pull the top drawer out of Gus’s nightstand and flip it over on the bed. Taped to the bottom is Cecil’s pack of Marlboros. Right where he left them. I bet Marianne never even thought to look. I tuck the cigarettes into my fanny pack and take out my list. At the bottom, I’ve written Gus Papadopoulos. Fought with Greek resistance in WWII. Hip fracture. Has night terrors.
When I pass the therapy room a few minutes later, I stop and watch Gus through the window. He’s doing weight-bearing exercises while his granddaughter takes notes. The kid is in the corner, pedaling the little device they use for diabetics with foot ulcers. Gus waves, and I give him a thumbs-up. At Cedar Grove, half of the admissions with hip fractures are dead within a year. If nobody tells him that, he’ll be home eating baklava before Christmas.
Gus’s family takes him out early on Sunday. I feel like I’ve won the lottery, and I spend the morning watching American Pickers and reading a Carl Hiaasen novel. Angie shows up after church, bearing the Atlanta newspaper. “Coupons,” I say. “Just what I need.”
“You want me to take it back?”
I roll my eyes. “It’s a joke, Angie.”
She sits down on the edge of my bed. “How’s your hand?”
I rotate it for her inspection. “Not bad,” I say. “Another week and I’ll be back to popping wheelies in my chair.”
She shakes her head, but I can tell she’s trying not to smile. “And how’s your roommate?”
I look over at Gus’s wall of pictures. “He’s great, actually. It’s his family I can do without.”
Angie picks at a spot on the bedspread. “Some people actually like their families, Ben.” Her expression is part hurt, part anger. It’s a look she’s perfected: she’s been wearing it since we were kids. “And I meant your old roommate,” she says. “Cecil Carter.”
I’m about to say “He’s alive” when Angie reaches for her earring and presses her thumb to the back, checking it.
“I didn’t give him the cigarettes, Angie.”
“I know you didn’t,” she says softly. “He told Marianne he got them from one of the maintenance guys.”
It’s as close as she’s ever come to saying she’s sorry.
I busy myself with the newspaper, flipping through the sections like I’m looking for something. I want to beg her to take me out of here. Anywhere, even if it’s just around the block. As long as we’re moving and the windows are down.
I set the brake on my chair and slide into it. “Let’s go outside,” I say. “The lantana looks terrible. Maybe you can tell them what to do about it.”
I take my last smoke break after dinner, and when I get to my room, Gus is back. With his entire family. There are four people sitting on my bed, and there’s a Dr Pepper and a 3 Musketeers on my tray table. “Who left that?” I ask.
Gus’s granddaughter hands me the candy and soda. “The man with the bandages.”
I back out of the room and head toward South. This time of night it’s deserted, and for once, it’s quiet. Cecil’s got a private room, and I’m thinking he’s a lucky bastard when I find him half out of his chair, clutching the bathroom doorknob. “Cecil?”
The look on his face is pure anguish, and there’s a broad stain across his lap. “Hang on. I’ll get somebody.”
At first I think there’s no one at the nurses’ station, but then I see the guy sitting behind the desk. It’s the second-shift supervisor. The one Marianne has a crush on. “How long has that call light been blinking?” I ask.
He glances at Cecil’s door. “I have no idea.”
Saliva floods my mouth. “Christ on a fucking cracker. Cecil’s pissed himself because y’all just let him sit there.”
“Language, pal,” the man says. He pages a CNA, and a minute later, an aide comes around the corner, swinging her hips slow and easy. “Twenty-two needs attention,” he tells her.
I’m trying to decide if I should wait for Cecil to get cleaned up when I notice Rose Green at the end of the hall. She’s wearing two strands of Mardi Gras beads—one red, one purple—and when she stops by the door to the parking lot, I hear it click, locking in response to her ankle monitor. “Let me out,” she says, leaning over her walker to push the door handle. She’ll be at it all night.
“Could you have someone bring Cecil down to the main hall?” I ask the supervisor.
“Tell him I’ve got something for him,” I say, and I pat my fanny pack just to be certain.
When the big-hipped girl rolls up with Cecil, I’m finishing off the 3 Musketeers. “Thanks for the present,” I say, and he nods. Then we both go quiet. Cecil stares out the window, and I watch Gus’s grandson ricochet like a pinball from one doorway to another, looking for entertainment. He stops in front of the fire alarm, rocking heel to toe while he reads the instructions.
“Hey, Nick!” I yell, and he jumps like I’ve popped him with a pellet gun. “Come here.” I tell him to push Cecil to the courtyard door, and he licks his lips, considering it. His tongue is purple. “Help us and I won’t tell your mom you’ve been trying to rob the vending machine.”
That gets him. He pushes Cecil and comes back for me. “Now hold the door open. It’s heavy.” Cecil inches his way through, and the kid makes a face when I reach the threshold, his purple tongue snaking out to touch his chin. I put a hand on his shoulder. “You ever pull the fire alarm at school?”
He squirms away. “Nope.”
“I did.” I make a show out of glancing up and down the hall, like I’m about to divulge classified information. “The firemen let me sit in the truck while we waited for my mom to come. I got to work the siren and the electric ladder.”
Outside, the air smells like ozone and scorched concrete. I pull Cecil’s Marlboros from my fanny pack. “I believe these belong to you,” I say.
Cecil looks at me like we’re seventeen and I’ve just handed him the keys to my Camaro. Then his head overrides his heart. “They’ll catch us,” he says.
“And do what? Take away our bingo privileges?” I turn off his oxygen and roll over to the red bag that Marcus screwed into the wall. When I yank the black Velcro strap, a blanket falls into my arms. It feels like steel wool against my skin.
“What’s that?” Cecil asks when I hand it to him.
“A smoking jacket.”
Cecil takes off his nasal cannula. “This is a bad idea,” he says, huffing, as I unfold the blanket and tuck it around him.
“You got a better one?”
Cecil shakes his head.
“Me neither. We can smoke one before they miss us. And I have a feeling they’re about to have their hands full,” I say, pointing inside at Nick. I light two cigarettes, and we smoke, and watch, as the kid swoops up and down the hall with both arms out like an airplane. With each pass, he gets a little closer to the alarm.
“You think he’ll pull it?” Cecil asks.
“God, I hope so.”
The wind kicks up, and everything green bends and bows around us as Cecil takes a drag and taps his cigarette carefully into a plastic ashtray. “Not much left without this,” he says, laboring over each word. He stares at the Marlboro between his bandaged fingers. “What do you miss?”
Bourbon. Barbeque at Fat Matt’s. Lullwater Park in winter. My vision blurs, and I tell myself it’s just a sugar spike. I nod at the long wall of windows. Inside Cedar Grove, Gus’s grandson steps up to the fire alarm.
“Being him,” I say, and we both lift bandaged hands to our ears as the kid reaches out and pulls the lever.
Tamara Titus’s short fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, Sou’wester, Emrys Journal, and other publications. She is the recipient of a Regional Artist Project Grant from the Arts & Science Council of Charlotte–Mecklenburg, as well as a North Carolina Arts Council fellowship in fiction. She co-edited This is the Way We Say Goodbye (the Feminist Press, 2011), an anthology of women’s essays on caregiving, and in 2013 she received an Honorable Mention from the James Jones Fellowship Contest for her novel-in-progress, Lovely in the Eye. Currently, Tamara spends her time writing and editing, caregiving, and serving on the Charlotte Historic District Commission.
“Helpline” by John Hales
Welcome back to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing. Our staff here at TMR hope that you all are well and staying sane. Today’s essay by John Hales won the 2010 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in nonfiction. In his essay, Hales writes about the challenge of keeping one’s sanity and stability in the face of stressful circumstances–a subject that’s especially relevant to readers today.
By John Hale
Although we weren’t exactly drug-dependent, at least in terms of how drug dependency had been defined in the mimeographed packet we’d been handed while undergoing volunteer Helpline training, and we weren’t stoners compared to some of our friends who toked even more than we did, most of us who worked shifts at the university’s telephone crisis line smoked a lot of marijuana. We joked that it was an occupational hazard. All that stress. All those panicked calls from people not right at that moment enjoying the effects of their own drugs of choice, or telling us at great length the ways their lives truly and deeply sucked. We lit up the second our shifts were over, often on the way to our cars in the union building parking lot, sharing a joint and, if someone had thought ahead, a bottle of something, anything, alcoholic. And then, weather permitting, adjournment to a nearby city park to smoke and drink some more. All that drug talk on the phone; all that human misery we couldn’t avoid ingesting a fair amount of as it cascaded over the phone: fears of where bad trips were heading, thoughts of suicide, more mundane yet really depressing narratives of loneliness—I’m so ugly, I’m so alone, I’m so pathetic I’m calling you.
Adding to the stress was our twenty-four-hour stretch of professional sobriety, begun (like airline pilots) no later than midnight the night before, a Helpline rule we took seriously. Even though most of us didn’t spend the week stoned anyway—our drug abuse mostly began the moment we were off the phones for the night and for us with Friday shifts continued only through the weekend—we understood that we needed to arrive for work straight and sober because in contrast to our relatively inconsequential daily lives, our work here had real consequences, and we didn’t want to fuck up. I was only twenty; I needed all the focus I could muster. But the second we were off the clock, we found release in weed.
We probably would have benefited more from prescription pills for anxiety or depression—pharmaceuticals that targeted the symptoms we’d caught from our callers. But marijuana, the opiate of the Helpline people, had to do, combined with nature in the form of the nearby park we’d head for. Or maybe it would be straight home for sex with a loved one, or somebody at least willing—once almost with a really nice volunteer I’d shared a shift with, she as stressed and stoned as I was.
My most anxious shifts were Friday nights, four P.M. to midnight—shifts I was assigned routinely for reasons probably having to do with the fact that I seldom had plans for the weekend anyway—spent enclosed in the tiny too-bright windowless union building office Helpline had been allotted, just big enough for two small desks, three volunteers and four telephones. One phone was kept available for reality-check calls to Poison Control, or, scariest of all, last-ditch calls to the Salt Lake City Police Department when it looked like our efforts were failing to keep folks from offing themselves or falling off some horrible edge only they could see. We were amateurs, after all, volunteers trained during a frantic pre-semester week of day-long orientations, and so we basically just took in what callers had to say, our responses limited to what the professionals who’d oriented us called “reflective listening.” As in:
“I’m so depressed. I have no earthly reason to keep living.”
“I hear you saying that you feel depressed and that it’s difficult for you to find reasons to continue living.”
Sometimes we were allowed to ask questions that might lead to useful answers: “What did you take? Do you know how many? Can you find the pill bottle and read what the label says?” Sometimes we’d offer referrals, phone numbers of helpful organizations we read off a ragged Rolodex. Sometimes we’d offer sympathy or even suggestions, both of which we’d been told in no uncertain terms not to provide but did anyway. Sympathy was unprofessional, suggestions beyond our competence, and both were beside the point for the average caller. Even so, we couldn’t help reaching out in more personal ways—it was called Helpline, after all, not Reflectline. And because our orientation hadn’t given us much instruction in maintaining professional distance, we were touched more often than you might think, which made our work harder, the dope smoking more necessary. We wanted to help. We cared.
Sometimes we did help, a little. It was easy to mock reflective listening, but I learned that being listened to was not something people experience much, and even our idiotic line-by-line rephrasings occasionally nudged people’s spirits to lift so they finally hung up with a nice “Thank you, I feel a little better.” But too often our clumsy efforts simply weren’t up to the task. When the hallucinations were literally overwhelming—a voice speaking from a really bad trip, saying that the walls were closing in and the caller’s heart was actually stopping (I can feel it! It’s stopping! )—saying, as we were authorized in these cases to do, “Listen to me. Your heart isn’t really stopping. It’s just the drug” was the answer to a question the caller had tripped far beyond asking. And when I heard myself saying into the handset something like, “I hear you saying that you’re holding a gun to your head,” I knew I was way in over my own head. And then the dropped phone, the ominous silence: far worse than the dial tone of a hang-up. By then we’d called the cops, our last resort, which we hated to do.
Most late spring nights, after shifts both harrowing and ho-hum, after the first joint or two, those of us not heading home for the comfort of sex could be found inhaling more quantities of illegal substances, well past the legal hours of one of Salt Lake City’s smallest parks, just off campus and built around a reservoir paved over for tennis, with swing sets and picnic tables and trees that shadowed the streetlights. We talked shop, alas, but only in the brief fragments of attention good marijuana allows, and then gradually switched to subjects not tethered to human tragedy. I wonder today why those of us without love lives wanted to keep hanging out with the same folks we’d just spent eight hours with in what was basically a bunker, and a not very well-defended bunker at that. Maybe that’s why marijuana was our drug of choice. It offered the perfect balance of community and isolation; you share a joint, you sit in a circle, you try to carry on a conversation, but weed carries you deeply into yourself. And after all those strangled connections over telephone lines, and a room that closes in with stress and anxiety and sweat that trickles down your neck during the worst calls, it’s by yourself you finally want to be. Marijuana allowed us to withdraw into ourselves communally, in the proximity of people who understood.
Maybe that’s why my one post-shift assignation was a failure. Either too much smoke, or not enough, the joke went, and we hardly knew each other. But earlier that night Nicole and I had worked through a really bad call, didn’t know the outcome, and so along with being stoned, we’d done way too many straight shots of callers’ despair, and we desperately, and impossibly, needed both connection and withdrawal from human need of any kind. So we—kind of—connected, but I felt somewhere else, and I think she did too. We joked about it later, were less awkward with each other with time, but never tried again.
By late April that year, the first and only year I’d grapple with mental health challenges other than my own, finally it was warm enough at two A.M. to allow hours of outdoor dope smoking, although even during the winter, we’d sometimes huddle in the snow, so anxious were we to get as far as possible from the room’s four close walls echoing with human pain and need. But in the deepest winter we’d more often circle up in someone’s small apartment, and when well stoned and hungry, brave the bright neon lights of Bill and Nada’s, an all-night diner that somehow, in the polarized early seventies, catered to both heads and cowboys, who’d seat themselves according to their outfits in booths on opposite sides of the long room: a United Nations of otherwise mutually antagonistic types seeking late-night comfort without the complication of eye contact or conversation. Outside was best, though—smoking herb in nature, sprawled on the park’s new-grown grass.
One night that spring, the park wasn’t nature enough, so we headed south toward Moab. Apparently we needed sandstone. We’d finished our shift on time. Some nights calls would continue beyond midnight (we tried hard to not think about crises that undoubtedly occurred after hours: phone calls met with a soothing but unhelpful recorded message), and because we cared about the person on the other end of the line, we kept talking until we could hang up gracefully and politely, albeit without solving any problems. But that night, all was quiet at midnight, and we headed out, lighting up as we locked the union building door behind us.
“I want the desert,” Kenny said. “I just need to fucking get out of Salt Lake.”
“So do I,” I said, not having felt any such need until Kenny mentioned it, but immediately recognizing how right he was.
“Let’s get Sal. He’s gonna want to go too.” Sal was Kenny’s roommate, a political science major heading for law school, once he got his grades up. Kenny was a psych major, and Helpline credits actually counted toward graduation. Nice guys—not good friends, but easy to hang with and funny, and Kenny and I had been through some tough shifts. I was an English major. I wasn’t sure why I was volunteering. I kept forgetting to register for the class, so I never got the units.
“Plus, we need his car,” Kenny said. We knew that my piece-of-shit Fiat gave us a place to do a number and might get us back to our apartments but probably wouldn’t make it to Moab. Kenny had a Jeep, but with a ratty, leaky top, and it was a four-hour drive through some mountain passes, and cold, high desert at the end. Also, we needed Sal’s stash, something that went without saying.
Sal was watching TV, half asleep, but he too thought Moab was a great idea. As we knew he would, he volunteered his car, a ten-year-old Plymouth Valiant that he called the Blue Val. It had long since faded beyond something you might have been able to call blue, but it was dependable, and Sal and his car were inseparable.
We stopped at my apartment long enough for me to grab my sleeping bag and a coat. And a war-surplus poncho I’m pretty sure had done a tour in Vietnam, and a bag of cookies and a couple of cans of chili. We chipped in to fill up the Blue Val at an all-night gas station, launched ourselves on I-15 and headed south, lighting up a thick joint for the road. Sal—there was never a question of who would drive—reclined against the angled back of the driver’s seat, inhaled deeply and manipulated the column shift with dignified slow-motion ease.
I passed out before we hit Provo, too often the first to go under, finding in unconsciousness the best escape I seemed able to make that year. I woke in Price a couple of hours later, stirred by bright service station lights and more demands for cash, and stayed happily awake while we sped south. The Blue Val would hit maybe ninety, and with no traffic and the Utah Highway Patrol apparently home in bed, we made it in a couple more hours to the Arches turnoff, a mile or two before Moab, past the dimly lit but unmanned National Park pay station. We drove the curvy road until we turned off on a short dirt track, then motored far enough away from the pavement to keep the Park Service from noticing that we were where we shouldn’t be: far from the official campground, beyond the law in so many ways.
This is the part of the trip I remember, the last leg from Price, the narrow dirt road, our illegal, makeshift camp. Whatever the night sky looked like had been lost in the headlamps, the tunnel of yellow light the Blue Val barreled through, but when Sal switched off the lights, the sky just pounded us with dark. Our eyes slowly adjusted to blackness, then stars, the broad, moonless expanse of what would become in a month or two the summer Milky Way, stars from horizon to horizon, those famous sandstone national-park formations now simply looming black cutouts against all those points of light, each star a cold piercing distance from the others. I remember the eastern horizon, just a little pale, the barest beginning of sunrise, the sun still hours from finally putting those stars away.
We threw down our sleeping bags on the sand and watched the sky as we lay limp, taking it all in.
“Oh, wow,” someone said.
“I hear you saying, ‘Oh, wow,’” somebody answered.
But finally we didn’t anything, just passed one more joint from hand to hand. It was completely quiet, no wind at all, no traffic, no harsh campground Coleman lights. Although Arches had long since ceased being the anonymous outpost presided over unevenly by Edward Abbey in the ’50s, it was a long way from the busy recreational destination it is today, and that night in 1972 it felt like we had the place to ourselves.
I surprised myself by not immediately falling asleep—in spite of the long drive, the stressful shift and my habit of never staying awake long enough to truly enjoy the drug I’d ingested. And by not thinking very much. I lay there on my sleeping bag for a long time watching the sky, feeling the sand shift beneath my neck and shoulders as I made myself completely comfortable.
I remember one thought coming to me that night, at that moment: I don’t care. I just don’t care. I’m not sure I even cared about the beauty we’d driven hours to behold. Other than being somehow beyond caring, I’m not sure what I was actually thinking that night. But I’m pretty certain I’d stopped thinking by then about the dropped phone, the deadly silence on the other end, the long, detailed narratives of abandonment and betrayal and aloneness.
Although I don’t remember exactly how my shift had gone that night, the one I wasn’t thinking about just then, I’m tempted to remember it as a hard one. Today, I recall all too clearly the details of some really bad shifts, when the voice at the other end stopped being merely sad and self-pitying, stopped giving me helpful answers to questions that we were allowed by training and policy to ask, and started sounding at once both matter of fact and slurred, with longer pauses between short, monotone fragments of just giving up.
We hated to call the authorities, but we’d be genuinely scared about what might be happening to the person we’d been listening to for an hour, who’d finally stopped talking, standing beside the open window, we’d imagine, or collapsed beside the phone. We knew the police dispatcher would trace the call, cops would race to the address (or, alternatively and unpredictably, take their own sweet time), break down the door, and assess the situation, calling an ambulance or the coroner. Or possibly they’d just search the place for drugs, having been given probable cause. By us. This was bad enough—the jackbooted-thug approach to mental health services, the drug bust we’d so helpfully narked. But also this: once we’d made the call, we were completely out of the loop. We’d never know what they found. Policy prevented the authorities from telling us, so we consistently imagined the worst. Either way, there were consequences to the decisions we were too young, and not wise or experienced enough, to make.
More likely that night it had been the usual: voices telling stories of simple, awful loneliness, ten o’clock Friday night completely alone. The suicide calls made me crazy with worry, but the routine calls, all those voices connected to all-too-ordinary lives of meaninglessness and just simple profound sadness, in some ways took the heaviest toll.
Tomorrow, like it or not, we’d be up with the midmorning sun, too bright to ignore. There would be a drive to a place with picnic tables, the realization that other than a bag of chocolate chip cookies, we had nothing to eat—no can opener for the chili, let alone anything to cook it with. We’d drive into Moab for supplies, mostly beer, and pay the uniformed ranger on our way back in and find a legal campsite for the night, which we’d pay the Man for too. A nice beer buzz, maybe some more weed, then the afternoon hike to Delicate Arch, that hard, dry sandstone horseshoe, graceful and fragile and literally above everything, above the complexity of green, the danger of drowning. It’s simple up there—just rock and sky.
Maybe that’s it, about that night: it was simple. Nothing to untangle, no bodies to pull from the depths, no frustration with the routine insufficiency of mirroring human tragedy, hours operating on the failed theory that understanding one’s place in the great scheme of human desire and disappointment is the first step toward happiness. Many years later, I can say I wished it worked that way, but I’m still pretty sure it doesn’t. I’m not sure I believed even then the theory, having observed its routine irrelevance in Friday-night practice. So maybe a fleeting sense of one’s place amid all that unfeeling, uncomplicated landscape is possible, when stoned enough, literally miles from what troubles the world you’d been having a professional one-way conversation with, in the company of a couple of guys you liked okay, each in your own stoned fog.
About the sandstone, though, and nature—the all-night drive that still makes all kinds of sense to me. When somebody—probably Kenny—said, “Oh, wow,” I wish the person who’d reflected humorously (okay, probably me) had said something smarter, less smartass, more true, or at least useful.
“I hear you saying that being in this landscape, stoned, at four in the morning, feeling the chill desert air, smelling sagebrush, watching the eastern sky pale behind distant desert mountains, satisfies a deep need, provides clarity, supports the best kind of spirituality, answers at least a few of the hardest questions and makes us all happy.”
Of course, nature isn’t any simpler than anything else humans negotiate their way through. Trust me on that—I’ve read Emerson. And as I think about it, maybe it wasn’t nature at all, or even the drug that helped disengage my frontal lobes. That night, it was partly where I wasn’t. It wasn’t the place I had done time in and driven miles away from. Space, for sure, the open black sky, stars bright pinpricks, the distant mountains—no sweaty armpits in a tight, floodlit room. Responsible only for my own pathetic self. Not much in the way of consequences, no complicated connections with despairing strangers or even good friends.
I was happy, I think. Or, as I keep thinking about that night, maybe I wasn’t thinking. Or for that matter exactly happy. For example, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t thinking about my own sense of not knowing who I was—at all—and where I was going, and come to think about it (which I didn’t right then) my own low-grade loneliness, my anonymous student life, my having no one to go home to, not even the meager hope of some future, less strained hookup with Nicole, the kind and beautiful Helpline volunteer. But I knew this much: I’d put real time-and-space distance between myself and that windowless room of phones and white walls, connected by telephone lines to other bare rooms of despair and heartbreak, the bright, cold city, everything I was running away from that night. It wasn’t exactly that I didn’t care. Care was simply not required. Morning was coming, neither called for nor begrudged, but with creeping slowness all its own that may have been just what I needed.
He has published essays in Georgia Review, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Southern Review, Hudson Review, Ascent, and in the anthology On Nature: Great Writers on the Great Outdoors. His work has been cited numerous times in Best American Essays and in Best American Science and Nature Writing, and has been a finalist twice for the Missouri Review Editors’ Prize. He has also earned a Pushcart Prize, and he has been profiled as one of Twenty-Five Nonfiction Writers to Watch in Writer’s Digest.
“Rachel’s Wedding” by Rose Smith
Welcome back to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing. “Rachel’s Wedding” by Rose Smith won the 2017 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize for essay. Through recounting her longtime friendship with the titular Rachel, Rose Smith examines female friendship, as well growing past societal labels such as “outcast” or “misfit.”
by Rose Smith
The early September light on the lake is unreliable. It’s late afternoon; clouds race on the wind and the water laps the shore. Flashes of sunlight glint off restless waves in quick succession. The surface of the water changes from gray to bright blue as the clouds pass over the sun. I am looking out the window over one of the small lakes near our home in upstate New York. This is after I get married but before I get pregnant. I’ve spent the summer waiting for a baby to quicken: a baby I know is close but elusive. Beyond the lake is a cornfield, stretched out across the hills. The tips are turning brown. The corn gathers sweetness, waiting to be cut.
Standing here in the “Perla Suite” of the Glass Lake Inn, I feel a cool breeze coming off the water. I am wearing a white strapless top with boning in the bodice. My white pants stretch snug across my hips. Draped over it all is a sheer white sheath that I made yesterday. My friend Rachel is wearing a white wedding gown with a train and bell sleeves. The cut of the bodice shows off her long, straight neck and pale shoulders. Her golden hair is swept up into an elaborate twist. Behind me, gathered around the bride, are the two Megs and Rachel’s college roommate, Nazeera, who flew in from Prague to be here. I took the train up from the city, where I had been working. Rachel wanted us all to wear white: something breezy, flowing, and all white at her wedding. Nazeera is wearing an ankle-length peasant dress. It’s perfect.
One of the Megs calls me back from the window. “Did you design your dress?” she asks me.
“Yes,” I tell her, even though it’s really just two rectangles of fabric sewn together. “But it’s pretty simple.”
“I wish I could sew.” Her name is Meg. Her best friend since first grade is named Meg too. We are almost thirty, and the two Megs still look alike: short and pear-shaped; blond, close-cropped wavy hair; intelligent glasses. In fact, they both look just like they did in high school. Rachel and I, on the other hand, are unrecognizable from our teenage selves.
Rachel’s mom comes into the room, and a jolt of electricity runs through our little group. It’s time. We follow her out of the inn and onto the lawn leading down to the shore. The groom, fifteen or so years older than we are and born and raised in the city, waits for us on the other side of the lake. Rachel’s mom hands each of us a large silk scarf. The Megs get royal blue and emerald green, Nazeera a deep gold; mine is peach. We drape them over our shoulders so they hang long in the back, flapping in the wind behind us as we walk. Rachel’s mom kisses her on the lips and hurries off to her car. She’s driving around the lake to the other side, where the wedding tent is set up. The “gaggle of girls,” as Rachel calls us, will be traveling by barge, called like sirens across the water by the groom’s saxophone. Rachel is marrying a Jewish jazz musician named Saul. She even converted for him. A chupa and a glass to break and a rabbi all wait for her in her new life on the other side of this water.
I am sure we are a beautiful sight from the shore, but the wind is rough, and the barge is really just a raft with a motor that some teenage boy is steering from a crouch behind us. My hair stands straight up, and my eyes water from the cold. Our scarves whip frantically as the raft motors through the water. I watch as a long ribbon of golden silk lifts high into the air. It hangs suspended, almost still, in the chaos of wind and mist. The setting sun rests in its folds, a kind of floating origami light box. I think of my husband, standing near the shore with the other guests. I can’t make him out yet in the distant crowd. The scarf lands on the surface of the lake and is subsumed in an instant. Nazeera turns and lunges as it disappears. She almost falls overboard, and we scream and cling to each other, laughing and holding each other up, until Rachel’s dignity gets the best of her; she straightens up and faces the music.
I can see Saul standing on the shore now. He stands erect in his black suit, blowing on his horn. Snatches of the music carry on the wind, and the disjointed song is haunting and sad to me. Rachel’s jaw is set, and her back is straight, as always. Her eyes are wide with her smile, and her beautiful hairdo is a mess.
I’m in my new bedroom, with the new yellow bedroom set we bought when we first moved here. Two twin beds, for if I have a sleepover, and a matching dresser and vanity. I lie in my bed, reading Little Women again. Lots of the pages I already know by heart. The other yellow bed sits there all made up. There haven’t been any sleepovers. No one has even sat there. I’ve thought about messing up the covers just so I won’t feel so bad when I see it.
My mom pokes her head around the doorway. “Go outside,” she orders me.
“Quit reading and go outside. Enough is enough.”
“I don’t want to go outside.”
I look at her.
I put my book down and pull on my shoes. This new town couldn’t be more different than home. First of all, it’s mostly forests here, and so quiet. At home there were sidewalks and streetlights and always, at night, the noise from the go-go bar on the corner. Our new house is at the top of a steep hill, on a curving street lined with wooden houses. It’s the summer before I start sixth grade at a new school. I’ve been here almost two months, and I still don’t know a soul. I’m getting pretty nervous.
I walk down the impossible hill, feeling the rubber soles of my running shoes grip the slanted asphalt. There are no sidewalks here. A few miles down the highway are the 4 Corners Market and a post office and a dance school. At the bottom of the hill is another cornfield. Viewed from above, it looks like a giant patchwork quilt. The corn is so tall it is like a forever forest of waxy green stalks, millions of them, standing in a row. There’s a patch of grass before the first rows of corn and a big shade tree. I sit under the tree and lean my back against the trunk. I’m feeling pretty sorry for myself. I imagine I am Jo in Little Women, when Amy sets off for Europe. I don’t have any hope at all of going to Europe. Two girls come out of the house across the street and start toward me. I stand up when they step on the grass.
“You moved into my grandma’s house at the top of the hill,” says one of the girls.
“The blue one?” I ask.
“Yep. That’s my grandma’s. You didn’t buy it, you’re just renting.” She’s a pretty girl with blond hair that curls around her shoulders. She has boobs, too. I can see the outline of her bra under her T-shirt.
“OK,” I say. The other girl is hanging back. Her hair is long and straight like mine, but hers is golden and shines like silk. She has a straight nose that makes her face look as though it belongs to a woman, not a girl. Her body is like mine: skinny and childish.
“I’m Kristie,” says the pretty girl. “And this is Rachel.”
The room is mostly dark, our faces pale and luminous in the moonlight. Rachel’s house is far from town, an old farmhouse at the end of a long lane, and the stars out here are always the brightest they’ll ever be on earth. The Megs are here, and me and Rachel. We’re sprawled out on pillows and blankets in the downstairs living room. Her parents are asleep upstairs.
“Have you seen Kristie since graduation?” Rachel asks me.
“No. Not a word. She doesn’t call back or write. I even stopped by yesterday, and her mom told me she wasn’t home yet. But I think she was there.”
“I never understood why you were friends with her,” says Meg.
“She was so mean,” says the other Meg.
“She was my fiercest defender.” I say it with bravado, to make everyone laugh, but really I feel bereft and confused.
“Well, maybe she’s disappeared because you don’t need her anymore.” Rachel says it in her mom voice, but her tone is also kind of sad for me. I look at her white hands as she gestures in the faint light. She stretches her neck back and forth, popping the bones into place, crack-crack-crack. Rachel’s hair is cut. After we graduated from high school, she cut all her hair off, short like a boy’s. I can’t stop reaching over to touch the back of her neck. As ever, Rachel sits erect, back rod-straight, among the rest of us with our slumping, curled frames wrapped around pillows. She has grown into her woman’s face, and she is beautiful like a runway model, gaunt and rare.
“Ok . . . boyfriends,” I say. We are home for the holidays after our first semester of college. I still don’t recognize myself in the mirror, but my confidence is growing.
“I have important information for you girls,” Rachel starts. I am alarmed by her instructive tone. She definitely did not know anything about boyfriends three months ago. She went to school in Montreal. We visited the college together during the fall of our senior year. We wandered around that campus with her dad all day, and I left feeling inadequate and out of place, but Rachel seemed galvanized. In the car, I sat in the back, leaned my head against the seat, and stared out the side window while Rachel and her dad talked all the way home.
“I’m telling you right now not to do anal.”
“What?” squeaks Meg, sitting up.
“You know, sex in the butt.”
Oh, my god, I didn’t even know that was an option. “I thought only gays did that.”
“No,” says Rachel. “My roommate and her boyfriend decided to try it, and she started bleeding everywhere and I had to take her to the emergency room and she had to get stitches. Stitches. Up there!”
I breathe a small sigh of relief that she is only talking about her roommate. As far as I know, Rachel has never even had a boyfriend. She went to the prom with the Flemish foreign exchange student who was like twenty or something. Of course I didn’t go at all.
“Oh, my god, Rachel. That sounds horrible.”
“Consider yourself warned.”
“OK. OK.” We all look horrified for a few moments, and then I start to laugh. And then we are all shrieking and laughing and falling in a pile and clutching at each other to keep from rolling off the mountain of pillows.
When we can breathe again, I say, “Chip and I never even thought of that.”
“Oh, maybe Chip did,” Rachel suggests. She raises her eyebrows at me. We have a suspicion that the nice boyfriend I got at the end of our senior year is really gay.
“Oh, shut up,” I tell her. “And anyway, it was enough for us the regular way.”
“You and Chip had sex?” Rachel.
“Oh.” Other Meg.
“Yeah,” I answer. I surprise even myself that I admit this.
Everyone is silent for a moment. I feel intensely embarrassed.
“Oh, honey. I didn’t realize that you were going through that back then.” It’s her mom voice again, and she’s so full of love for me, and caring, that she suddenly even looks like my mom. I hate it when she does that.
We want to ride down the impossible hill. We go through the options, eliminating the ones that seem too dangerous or dumb. Bikes? Too out of control. Tire? No one wants to be upside down. Roller-skates? Only Kristie has them. I have a red wagon that belongs to my brother. The pinstriping is peeling up in places, and there is a dent in the front corner, but if we put a blanket in the bottom to make it soft and cushiony and hold the handle so we can steer, it seems like the best choice.
Rachel and I climb into the wagon at the top of the hill and stare down the asphalt incline. I’m in front, and she’s wedged in behind me. The cornfield below is brown and dry; the stalks have all been chopped low to the ground, and the rows of brown dirt make stripes in the land that stretch far into the distance. The air is cold, but it hasn’t started snowing yet. Soon, the snow will cover everything, as far as I can see. Soon, this will be the best sledding hill in town, and everyone will be here on snow days. We’ll have to wait our turn to slide down our own hill. For now, though, Rachel and I are about to drop. This is when Rachel still thought of her body as reliable and strong. Before she had to be careful.
Rachel steps off the barge and gingerly places her satin shoes on the wet, sandy bank. The Megs hold her train up away from the water. Nazeera and I climb gracelessly down into the spongy grass. I hold her arm as she hops down, and I realize: Nazeera is the roommate. With the stitches. I am wearing my new heels, a fancy designer pair that I bought in London when I was working there. They look more like art than shoes. The photographer snaps, snaps, snaps.
Once we are away from the water, the evening feels calm and familiar. Early fall in upstate New York. The sky goes from a cool blue to a pale pink and settles finally into a charcoal. I keep getting the sensation that there is someone nearby, watchful and waiting to join me. The stand of weeping willows by the shore is black in silhouette, a group of old women bent over their work: veiled, gnarled, intent, immobile. It’s a waxing moon; the stars are stealing the show, and it feels like home.
I move through the crowd, looking for my husband. He’s a big, gregarious type, tall and broad shouldered, with a heavy brow and dark eyes. I spot him talking to Rachel’s dad. He’s gesturing wildly, telling a story. Rachel’s dad is jumping up and down, switching feet, bobbing his head. He’s a lanky man with a long beard and graying hair that curls around his ears. He’s wearing a tie and a vest. When her dad sees me, he puts his arms around me in a big bear hug. As he lets me go, he pokes me in the ribs and says, “Quite a man you’ve got here.”
My husband winks at me. Rachel’s dad is pleasantly stoned. The three of us stand peacefully, looking out over the party.
The guests are a mix of old hippies (Rachel’s parents’ friends), hip jazz cats and intellectuals (Saul’s friends), a few upstate farmer types (neighbors), old Jewish New Yorkers (Saul’s family), and us (Rachel’s high school friends). Rachel’s Aunt Helen walks over to us. She’s wearing a pillbox hat trimmed with pearls. She looks smaller than the last time I saw her and so frail my breath catches as I say her name. She pulls me in and puts her palm on my cheek. “Oh, look at you,” she says. “You take my breath away.”
“This is my husband,” I tell her. She laughs as she pats his arm and gives me a told-you-so look. In a way, I love her like she’s my own.
Rachel’s mom comes by to tell us to find our seats for dinner. My husband pulls me to him as we walk, his hand firm around my waist. He fits his fingers into the shape of my rib cage. He likes the sharpness of my bones. How close to the surface my frame is. He likes to feel the elemental structure that holds me together. Once we find our table, I tell him I’m going to find the bathroom. “Be careful in those shoes,” he tells me, his lips close to my ear.
Near the bathrooms, I run into two guys from high school. Jonathan is about five foot three, and Sev must reach six foot five. They were the tallest guy in the school and the shortest. And they were inseparable. Jonathan married one of the Megs last year. I’m happy to see them.
“He looks like a guy you would marry,” says Jonathan.
“Your husband. He looks like a guy you would marry.” An awkward moment ticks by while I try to figure out what he means by that, and what I should say.
Sev steps in, “You look beautiful. You really do.”
“Thanks, Sev. I’ll see you guys after dinner.”
Rachel put us at a table with some of Saul’s friends from the city. The guy on my right is telling us about his job as a puppeteer on Sesame Street. I start to tell him about the dream I’ve had a thousand times, where Big Bird takes me flying over the red cliffs of southern Utah, but someone is beginning a toast, and we all turn in our seats.
It’s one of the hip jazz cats, and he speaks almost as if he is singing:
“O Saul, you lucky, lucky man.
O Rachel, you happy, happy girl.”
The school nurse opens her door again to let the next kid into her office. Rachel’s last name begins with G and mine with H, so we are always next to each other. Lines, lockers, assigned seats. The Heffner twins are making fart noises, and Kelly Ferraro is giggling stupidly at them. I roll my eyes, and Rachel tosses back her hair. We thought about wearing makeup today, but I decided against it. I don’t like to draw attention to my face. Makeup certainly won’t make it better. I told Rachel on the phone last night that she doesn’t need it anyway. She said maybe we’ll try it for the seventh grade dance on Friday.
The door opens, and Kelly goes in. We are all wearing undershirts today, so the nurse can do her tests and not embarrass anyone who doesn’t need a bra. Like me. Like Rachel. Kelly definitely wears a bra. The Heffners stop farting when the door closes. The lights on the ceiling of the hallway drone like summer insects. When Kelly comes out and Rachel goes in, I stand alone and try to appear disinterested. The twins lean against the wall, yawning and blowing spit bubbles. Rachel comes out with her hair shining and her shirt all rumpled. I want to smooth it for her as she passes, but the nurse is calling me in. The nurse’s office is small with beige walls and a metal desk. There are a couple of cots and some curtains for when you have a headache during class. I pull off my shirt. I’ve been through this before. I fold at the waist and put my forehead against my knees. The nurse puts her hands on my back and feels up and down my spine. I know why they do this in ballet auditions, but I can’t imagine what this has to do with school. She tells me to put my shirt on and go back to class. The Heffner twins look bored as I walk by.
The first day Rachel wears her back brace to school I am surprised. Not by the fact of it. I knew it was coming. It’s the metal and hard plastic that throw me. There are metal rods on the front and back of her body rising up her spine, straight and cold and ending in a plastic rest to hold her chin up, to pull her neck long and erect. The molded plastic that encases her waist and hips is vaguely pelvis-shaped. She is wearing her sister’s clothes because they are a size larger and button over the brace.
We stand at the mirror in the girls’ bathroom. It’s time for PE, and we are hiding out. Not for the whole class. Just to get our bearings. I look at Rachel. She’s brushing her hair, letting it hang like a waterfall down her back. From behind, with her hair down, you can’t tell she is wearing a brace. I catch a glimpse of my own face. It’s getting worse as I grow. I was only three when we had our car accident. Riding along the dusty road, windows down, dry air blowing our hair, sitting in my mother’s lap: that is the moment I am thinking of when I look in the mirror. The moment before. Next came the moment after.
Here’s what happened in the space between: My mother’s arm slammed into my ribs as she pulled me tight to her body. We were both hurled forward. Her face hit the glass of the windshield. Shattered. Shards finding purchase in her left cheek. Body arced into a grotesque shape. No arm thrown up in fear, hands still firmly wrapped around me. Below, as the shards fell, was my face. Smashed. Between the metal dash, and her stomach: blouse, skin, muscle ribs tendons uterus placenta amniotic, my brother, his beating heart.
There was blood everywhere. My mother lifted me out of the seat and set me beside her on the road beside the truck. The car in front of us was folded in on itself. The driver stood by, her tongue worrying at a cut on her lip. Her hands were at her sides like caught fish.
My mother was wailing. What she was saying didn’t make sense but it got under my skin and into my flesh and stayed there like a warning.
“Just live, she screamed. Just live!”
At the hospital her cheek was sewn up, a five-inch seam from jaw to temple. I was taken into surgery. The bones in my face were broken. Shattered. The university surgeon contemplated mending the bridge of my nose, my destroyed cheekbones, my broken jaw, my caved in sinuses. He had the skin pulled back to assess the damage. Defeated, he carefully sewed up my flesh, covering the chaotic mess with neat, loving stitches. That night, speaking softly to my mother, he attempted to explain: complex craniomaxillofacial trauma . . . soft-tissue injuries as well as multiple fractures to the underlying skeleton . . . growth will lead to secondary deformities needing surgical intervention. “You’ll have to wait until she’s grown,” he said.
“For what?” she asked.
“To fix her face.”
From behind, with my hair down, I just look like a little kid. In art club I am learning to make stop-motion animations after school. Rachel and the Megs are working on self-portraits. They sit at tables with mirrors in front of them and sketch in the lines of their features. Mrs. Reed tries to get me to start on a self-portrait, but I won’t relinquish the 8mm camera. I love the world it contains inside its glass lens.
After months of phone calls with the insurance company, my mom has made an appointment with a surgeon in the city. She says it is time we find our doctor. The operation to fix my face is still many years away, but the process is beginning. The long wait until I am “done growing” is almost over. Looking at myself in the bathroom mirror—the concave center where it was smashed in the accident, the flat nose, the hollow cheeks—I suddenly feel close to Rachel. We are like sisters now. Odd. Separate. Undesirable. Then, as she spins around to go change out for gym, I realize that she may not want to stay friends with me now. Before, we just ignored the fact of my face and instead complained about our flat chests and skinny legs. With me as a friend, she becomes half of a pair of misfits. I’m not even sure I should stay friends with her.
She walks through the door ahead of me, stiff and erect, her neck pulled long by the silver rods. I think of her like that while I am in dance class in the afternoon. My own neck is long and straight, but free. As I step out onto my new toe shoes, I balance there: my back arches, my leg rises in a high arabesque behind my head. I no longer take for granted the way my body curves and bends at will.
It is a May weekend, and we are in my mom’s baby-blue Bonneville. I’m at the wheel. Rachel is shotgun. The Megs are in the back. They are singing the harmonies of some show tune. One of the Megs is the lead in the high school play. I roll the window down all the way and look over at Rachel. Her hair whips around her face until she catches it in her hand and twists it all into a golden knot on top of her head. The seat belt stretches across the metal bars of her brace. I wish for her straight nose and fine high cheekbones, her perfect jaw. The sounds of the wind and road drown out the warblers in the backseat. I am wearing a white button-down shirt and black pants. So is Rachel. The Megs have their clothes with them. They’ll change when we get there. Where we are going is Aunt Helen’s wedding. She has asked us to be the waiters at her “dinner under the stars.”
“My Aunt Helen is getting married,” Rachel says to no one in particular. We are all a little shocked by this fact. Aunt Helen always seemed like one of us. A grown-up version, but still one of us: a woman too strange for anyone to love.
When we get to Rachel’s house, her mom puts us straight to work setting the long wooden tables out in the garden. There are lanterns hanging from tree branches. Cut flowers stand in canning jars. They’ve rented folding chairs, and someone has already placed them at the tables. Meg and I lay the plates out while Rachel and the other Meg arrange silverware.
“Fork on the left,” calls her mom. Rachel rolls her eyes. I pretend to stab myself in the chest with a butter knife. Rachel holds up a fork and pretends to throw it at her mom’s back. “Stop laughing and get back to work, girls! The guests will be here any minute.”
I need to pee, so I sneak inside the house. It’s a farmhouse like ours. At least a hundred years old, two stories, wood siding, steep eaves. Everyone enters through the mudroom on the side of the house. I don’t even know where the front door is. The downstairs bathroom is occupied, so I go upstairs. Helen is standing on the landing. Her ivory dress is trimmed with antique lace at the collar, cuffs, and hem. It’s fitted at the waist, and the narrow skirt falls just below the knee. Her ivory leather shoes button across the instep. Her hair is gold, like Rachel’s, but short and shaped into finger waves around her head. A small piece curls in front of her ear into a spiral on her cheek. She takes my face in her hands and cups my cheeks in her palms. Her hands are warm and dry. “I hear from Rachel that you’re having your operation this summer,” she says.
I feel the heat and color rise under her palms. No one else ever mentions this to me. Other than my mom, only Helen is willing to talk about it directly.
“What will they do?” she asks.
I move her hands so I can show her. I hold my finger up to my lower jaw, “They’ll cut bone out of here,” I move my finger to point at my upper jaw, “and then insert bone up here. Then they’ll put in cheekbones carved from my hip. They’re still deciding what to use for the bridge of my nose. Maybe a rib,” I tell her.
“Oh, it is amazing what doctors can do, isn’t it? I can’t wait to see how beautiful you are. And just when Rachel gets to take off her brace. What a pair you will be then!” She’s feeling romantic. I’m starting to get embarrassed. She looks around us at the narrow wooden staircase and runs her hand over the smooth, dark banister. She’s just remembered what we are doing here.
“It is my wedding,” she says. “I better put on some lipstick.” She has Rachel’s face, just thinner and older. Her skin is so white, it is almost translucent. Her trademark red lipstick always seems too much to me on her pale lips.
“I’m so happy for you, Aunt Helen,” I tell her. “Congratulations.”
My husband holds me close on the dance floor. Rachel and her new husband dance by. I do a little hop to avoid stepping on her train. Our eyes meet, and she raises her eyebrows at me. I know she’s as surprised as I am that we are here. With husbands. Rachel’s parents dance up and grin at us. They are happy. Soon they will fade into the dark outside the tent’s glow to get high, but for now they are present and accounted for, dancing the first dance. The next run around the dance floor, Saul is dancing with Rachel’s mom and Rachel’s dad has Rachel spinning and laughing.
The band, full of famous jazz musicians I’ve never heard of but that my husband is impressed by, ends the song with a bang. There’s an expectant pause, and then I see Aunt Helen walk slowly across the riser. Her husband has his hand on her arm as she takes her place at the microphone. She’s thin; her dress drapes over bony shoulders, blade-like forearms, jutting clavicles. Her bald head is pale in the twinkling lights of the tent. She has left the pillbox hat behind. Earlier she told me, “I just don’t have the energy for wigs anymore.” She moves carefully, and she is so fragile that I expect her to whisper.
We breathe a collective sigh as she begins to sing, a cappella. Her voice is strong and clear, “Like a bird, on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried, in my way, to be free.” At that, the band strikes up, and she swings the tune, just a bit, while we all smile up at her. In her hands, the song loses its ponderous tone and skips lightly, hopefully, toward freedom. She has been in remission before, but the news about her lately has been pretty bad.
My husband gets called to shoulder the chairs, and as the Hava Nagila builds, Rachel and Saul are lifted above the crowd. Rachel’s mom grabs my hand and pulls me into the circle. Her sister fits in on my other side, and we begin the spinning, circling dance that gets wilder and more frantic as it goes on. We are singing and stomping and kicking our legs in the air. Rachel is laughing. Saul has his hand on her arm across the gap between their chairs. My husband is holding the leg of her chair high in the air, but his other hand is on her waist, holding her firmly in place. I feel the heel of my shoe clip off the back of the dance floor, and the whole scene tips backward. And then I am on my back in the grass, just outside the reach of the tent’s light. Rachel’s mom and sister clasp hands to close the gap I’ve left behind, and I watch them spin away.
I try to stand, but my foot gives way in a burst of sharp pain and heat. I crawl over to a chair nearby and pull myself into it. The tent is glowing and pulsing with energy. The song is reaching its crescendo, and Rachel’s cheeks are flushed bright pink as she drifts past, lifted high above the crowd of dancers. The band transitions smoothly, and it doesn’t take long for my husband to find me sitting on a folding chair with my bare foot propped up on a table. “Do you have a broken wing, tender bird?” he asks me. He calls for a doctor. Two psychiatrists and an ophthalmologist tell me that my foot is definitely not broken. Their wives all disagree. My husband says we are going to the hospital for an x-ray.
“Just let me sit a moment,” I tell him. Out here on the lawn, it is dark and peaceful. Inside the tent, children slide across the floor in their socks, and old aunts dance arm in arm. We sit together watching Rachel’s dad: his tie is loose, his waistcoat unbuttoned. He’s got both of his daughters, one in each hand, dancing with him. He’s grinning like mad and hopping from foot to foot, waving his arms in the air. The girls are laughing as he spins them away from him and back in again.
“Look how happy he is,” my husband says. “So happy with his daughters. So much joy he can’t stop dancing and smiling. It’s utterly goofy. Totally free. That’s me out there someday,” he says. “That’s me, so happy.”
The lake sends a breeze over the lawn. A cloud moves, and moonlight flashes over us, illuminating the trees all around. There it is again. That feeling that someone is watching, waiting. We’re ready, I think. Come on.
Rose Smith was born in Utah and raised in Arizona and upstate New York. She is the winner of The Missouri Review’s 27th Annual Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. Her story, Idaho, was named a finalist for Narrative Magazine’s 2018 Story Contest. Rose lives in Austin, Texas with her husband and their two children. She is currently at work on a novel.
“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.
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 statement—as 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?”
“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. 
Interview with Managing Editor Kate McIntyre
This week on The Missouri Review Soundbooth Podcast, the Spring 2018 audio team interviews Managing Editor Kate McIntyre.
Kate McIntyre (Ph.D., University of Missouri-Columbia) worked at the Missouri Review from 2008 to 2013 and returned in 2016 as Managing Editor, after several years as a visiting assistant professor of English and creative writing at Allegheny College. She holds a BA from Harvard University, an MFA from Oregon State University, and a Ph.D. from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Her stories and essays have appeared recently in journals including Denver Quarterly, the Cimarron Review, The Normal School, and Copper Nickel. She has a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2014 and a Special Mention in the 2016 Pushcart Prize anthology.
Hear us talk with Kate about her role at the magazine, how working at TMR has influenced her own prose, the way Kate balances life as a writer and also an editor, and, perhaps most importantly, her opinion on cake versus pie.
Interview conducted by Audio Editors Bailey Boyd and Traci Cox, and Audio Interns Bennett Jacobs, Kelsey Hurwitz, Sarah Beard, and Emily Standlee.
The Miller Audio Prize – Currently Accepting Submissions!
Our 11th Annual Miller Audio Prize is now open! $4000 in prizes across four categories: prose, poetry, humor, and audio documentary. Enter today! Deadline: March 15, 2018.
TMR Soundbooth Podcast: Poet Christopher Citro
Blurred Words: Weird Al & Colliding Worlds
By Allison Coffelt
If you’d asked me a week ago about Weird Al Yankovic, I would have said it was time to give up the ghost. Weird Al is one of those seminal (artists? singers? comedians?) people whose work has spanned generations. He’s iconic. Most of us under the age of 40 have a Weird Al song they remember from when they were growing up. Maybe it was “Eat It” or “Pretty Fly for a Rabbi.”
Weird Al hadn’t been funny to me for a while, but that just changed. Here are three things that drew me back to Weird Al – a sentence I never thought I’d write – and they all have to do with his new video “Word Crimes.”
1. Weird Al: Normalizing my behavior since 2014.
Last Sunday, while sipping coffee, listening to Weekend Edition, and gazing out at the crappy lot of the body shop behind my apartment, Tamara Keith’s interview with Weird Al began. I was reaching to switch the radio (could Weird Al possibly have anything new to say?) when he started talking about correcting grammar. He said he would be driving around, see a road sign, and fix the wording in his head. I, too, do this. When I’ve asked other friends who love words if they slip into this habit, they look at me like I’m sick. I’m not sick. And thanks to Weird Al for being the one to prove it.
Let’s not look too closely at that logic.
2. Your Dad sends you the video.
Another reason you may, like me, need to give Weird Al some credit for his spot-on-ness with this video is when friends and loved ones send you the link: “Literacy’s your mission!” the song says, “There are dancing question marks in the video!” your friend says, “I thought of you immediately!” your dad says.
There’s also a section in the song where Weird Al discusses the Oxford comma, which I dearly love, regardless of what Vampire Weekend says. This viewpoint, I understand, is contentious. If someone thought to send you the video, you probably have your own opinion on the matter and you probably begrudgingly admit that either/either is acceptable.
An added bonus: Weird Al’s word rules make an exception for Prince. As they should.
An added added bonus: You can finally explain what you’re going to do with that English degree. I quote: “You should hire/ some cunning linguist/ to help you distinguish/ what is proper English.”
3. The music video is in kinetic text.
Man, I love the design of this video. Kinetic text, or a fancy way of saying those videos where the text becomes the movie (like ShopVac ), is not only cleverly done in this video, but also fitting. Animated words: how better to show the emphasis on the right syllable?
Well Weird Al, you got me.
Like the terribly catchy beat of that song, the thing I can’t get out of my head now are questions of what is permissible, what is stickler, and how our language —the thing that unites and binds and evolves with us— is changing.
I’ve been thinking about this because the other day at The Missouri Review, we were discussing the role of blogs and social media in the literary world. One person likened blogs and to pop music— they’re fun, fast, digestible, and have a short shelf life. It can be great and it’s its own thing. Literature, we said as we swirled our brandy in embossed snifters, is like classical music. It takes time. But in the weird space that is the internet, these things are colliding, and we’re still figuring out how they feed and harm each other.
I’m fascinated when pop culture concerns itself with words, language, or literature because it’s a collision of the instantaneous and the ancient.
The challenge to offer curated, thoughtful, unrushed content is steep. It takes a lot of resources and time. That doesn’t mean, though, that readers don’t also want something salient, quick, and fun.
I think there’s room for both. Just as we’ve seen a boom in articles-as-lists and computer-generated material (think Buzzfeed and financial market data), we’ve seen an uptick in long-form reporting and the slow reveal of stories (think The Atlantic and Breaking Bad). It’s a trend that’s crossing media sectors, as John Borthwick points out in his recent article on Medium.
So, the question becomes one of sourcing. Who will provide each? Can some outlets provide both? What will be the effect on and for readers? We’re still trying to figure out the answer. I think the experiment where pop and classic cohabitate is worth watching. In some instances, it’s a question of what happens when proper grammar gets a remix.
Saw Georgeanne Nixon and Governor Nixon at the movies yesterday. Georgeanne is a serious and involved supporter of the arts. Didn’t get a chance to talk to them after the show but wonder what they thought of Winter’s Bone, which might be interpreted as a “negative” portrait of drug dealers in the Missouri Ozarks.
At The Missouri Review, we published Daniel Woodrell’s story “Woe to Live On” in 1983, before it was expanded into a novel and then turned into the movie Ride with the Devil by Ang Lee. Daniel has been to visit and read for us, as well.
The movie is being hailed as the best of the year by many critics and is fascinating both in how melodramatic and sentimental it is. Protect the Children in a Heartless World! Fight Against All-Encroaching Evil! Daddy’s Dead, What Will We Do?! It’s a flick that could almost have been made in 1916 on a rooftop in New York.
That’s not to put it down. On the contrary, Winter’s Bone is evidence of how primitive and get-back a good movie can be. How with good detail and actors, with thoughtful choice and handling of a heroine (the movie makes her slightly purer than the book) and scenic veracity, one can tell a wonderfully compelling story.
Thematically, both the book and the movie rise above simple melodrama with one particularly interesting idea: the self-ordering of social groups—even a group of outsiders. The druggies in Winter’s Bone finally resolve their own conflict because they really are the only ones for which it makes any difference.
It’s a dark story but oddly uplifting. I recommend it.
Speer Morgan is the editor of The Missouri Review. His most recent novel, The Freshour Cylinders (1998), was awarded an American Book Award.