19 Oct

Ghost in the Valley

We had a white barn cat named Ghost who disappeared when I was six. Mom said she saw a hawk take him away. I pictured the two of them—the cat and the hawk—soaring over the valley like a couple of tandem hang gliders. I told Mom I bet Ghost liked flying. “Oh, honey,” she said. She covered her mouth with her hand. And then my older brother Jason, who’d been eavesdropping from across the room, laughed and said, “You’re the weirdest little kid.” I could see Mom’s smile spilling around the hand covering her mouth.

I ran out the door to the barn where Ghost used to hunt mice. Mom called after me.

I climbed the ladder to the hay loft and meowed, hoping to see Ghost emerge from some dark corner, arching his white back in anticipation of a scratch. Over the bales of hay I crawled, with stray spires pricking my palms and knees. And then I opened the loft door and sat at the ledge, letting my legs dangle.

The barn looked out over a valley that years later would flood when torrential rains made the rivers swell. I squinted into the distance, willing superpower vision to reveal Ghost stalking mice in the fields or soaring over treetops with his buddy the hawk. But it was a foggy morning, and no hawk’s vision would help me find my lost cat.

There were so many things I couldn’t see in those days—like the liquor Jason stole from the kitchen cabinet or the late night conversations between Mom and Dad over the piles of past-due bills. So many things weren’t ever going to come back. But what did I know? I imagined flying over the foggy treetops, gripped by a hawk who I thought was my friend, and stretching my padded paws earthward toward home.

25 Aug

Paternity Test

Need something new here, so I decided to post this fun little experiment from last year. I gave myself the challenge of writing a story in interview format.

If you don’t mind, I’d like to record this rest of this consultation.
Right on.

You’ve made some very interesting claims, Mr. Travolta.
I have.

Is your name really John Travolta?
Sure it is.

Okay. Why don’t we start from the beginning.
Good idea. It’s all pretty crazy, I know. I mean, I never thought this thing would be as complicated as it turned out to be. It was your basic stealth operation. Sneak in, grab the goods, sneak out. I figured I’d dress in black, spray myself with fire retardant, put on my fucking ninja shoes, make Steinman happy.

Steinman is . . . ?
He’s my, uh, employer. From time to time. AKA, my uncle. He helped me and Mom out after our house burned down that one time.

And he told you about this so-called dragon’s lair?
Not right away. He just said there was a cave somewhere in Ecuador that held an ancient treasure. Don’t get greedy, he said. Just bring back a coin or two or you’ll get yourself killed. “Killed?” I said. “What’re you getting me into, Steinman?” That’s when he mentioned the dragon. I almost walked out, but then he told me no one’s ever succeeded. I’m a sucker for a challenge.

You know what’s funny? When a job really excites me, I get a craving for grape Bubblicious.

Grape Bubblicious?
Yep. It was the first thing I ever stole. I was in fifth grade and I’d just gotten glasses. You should see my school pictures. The frames were tortoise shell and they were enormous. They were the size of those ridiculously large sunglasses that celebrities wear nowadays. At recess, this kid named Zach Hardacre kept making fun of me. Called me four eyes and shit. I told him to fuck off. Some teacher heard me and pointed to the door, which meant I was supposed to go inside for detention. Zach laughed and pushed me down. The teacher was scolding another group of kids. She didn’t see. Zach spit on me and ran. Man, that kid was a twat.

At home, I told my parents about it and my dad called me a pansy. He said I had to toughen up. “You, of all people, shouldn’t be scared of some pre-pubescent dildo.” He was pretty foul-mouthed. He jabbed me in the ribs a few times, trying to piss me off. I told him to stop and he started jabbing my head. He didn’t appreciate it when I told him to fuck off. I ran.

I ran out the door and down the street to the Stop-N-Go. Wandering up and down the aisles, it occurred to me that I could take things. I had pockets! So I stole some gum and paid for a small Coke. That’s a good technique, by the way. I’m surprised I did that my very first time. Most amateurs go into a store and then leave without buying anything. Dumb shits.

Why are you telling me this?
It’s a distraction technique. Thieves are a lot like magicians. We get our victims to believe in our innocence or naivete while we steal their cellphones and wallets.

Hey, give me those back.
You ever hear about the Picasso heist in Switzerland? The paintings that got stolen and then showed up at the Children’s Museum of Lucerne?

Or what about that high-end, prototype laptop that got boosted from TGM Microlabs?

In college I used to take kitchen appliances from Sears and sneak them into Macy’s. I picked the pockets of opera-goers and swapped their tickets with symphony-goers. See? I live for the challenge. I’m not out to take what isn’t mine. That ain’t right.

Nowadays, I get hired by rich guys to steal diamonds or rubies from other rich guys. And this dragon, I figured he was just another rich bastard sitting on too much money, you know? I’ve never been caught, by the way.

Impressive. So how did you get to the cave?
Steinman gave me the GPS coordinates. I took a commercial flight to Quito. Had to fly through Houston, where some TSA a-hole confiscated my fire retardant because it was more than three ounces. I stole his wallet but then felt bad later and put it in the lost and found. He was just doing his job, right?

In Quito, I met Abner Greene, Helicopter Pilot. He flew me to within a couple miles of the dragon’s lair, landed on some plateau just outside the tourist town of Baños. I hoofed it from there.

Might this dragon’s lair simply have been a crevasse in the side of some volcano?

That’s the volcano. Near Baños. Apparently, it’s illegal for foreign dignitaries to spend the night in Baños because if Tungarahua exploded, they’d have 45 minutes to get out of town, and, you know, they’re too important to die. You know what my real calling is? I just figured this out. Abolitionist. I should have smuggled slaves out of the South. Wouldn’t that be sweet? You could rob the important people of their source of income: unimportant people.

Did Abner Greene accompany you to the cave?
No. He wanted to stay with his baby, he said. He meant his helicopter. He took a sandwich and a couple of beers out of a cooler and got to work on killing time.

So you were completely alone at the cave?
I know what you’re getting at.

Well. It’s all somewhat hard to believe, you know?
Yeah. It’s also hard to believe that the CEO of TGM Microlabs makes a million dollars a day. It’s hard to believe a Jackson Pollack painting sold for 150 million dollars. It’s hard to believe a lot of things.

So you got to the cave. You saw it. Was there a dragon inside?
No. There was a man.

A man?
Yes. A man I hadn’t seen in 13 years. My father. The asshole. He was sitting in front of a campfire, making origami swans. We’re talking about the guy who was gone on business trips for 20 days out of every month before he finally left me and Mom altogether, and now he shows up in some fucking cave in Ecuador? Shit.

Did you speak with him?
Oh yeah. Here’s where shit gets really weird.

He had a stack of origami squares and as he folded each one, it felt like a pair of hands were tying my internal organs together, making balloon animals out of my intestines and lungs. I told him to stop, but he didn’t listen. I could tell he heard me ‘cause he smiled, but he kept on folding that paper. He smiled that shit-eating smile he used to smile when I told him he wasn’t being fair or when he’d hidden my favorite stuffed animals. You know, all throughout my childhood, the man was under the impression that I idolized him, that I was in awe of his importance and status. I was a kid. I didn’t give a shit that he had more money than God. I didn’t care that he could pull puss like Tom Selleck. But his fucking smug confidence was unshakable.

I told him to stop a second time and he just smiled again. He finished his swan, flapped its wings, and threw the thing into the fire. It felt like a punch to the gut. “See?” he said. “This is kind of fun.”

I knew what I had to do. I clenched my jaw and walked inside the cave. I sat down next to him and started folding my own origami square, knowing it was going to hurt like hell. I made an airplane. It didn’t take as much time as a swan. When I threw it on the fire, I doubled over in pain. “Don’t be such a pussy,” my dad said.

I forced myself to crawl. I heard the crackling fire and tasted bile. My knees dug into the stony ground.

“It doesn’t take much, does it?” my dad said. He laughed. “Too bad you’re not as strong as your old man.”

I kept crawling. He threw the last swan on the fire. I could feel it. It was like a hernia, a kidney stone, a burst appendix. Shit hurt. But I kept moving.

Then I heard him shuffling around. “Hey!” he shouted. “You stole my paper. Bring that back here!”

I was close to the mouth of the cave. I crawled for my life. I knew I wasn’t going to make it, so I threw the stack of origami paper. It fluttered in the air like a swarm of butterflies. A hot wind scorched the back of my neck. And then everything went still.

Were you hurt?
No. Half an hour later, I came to, and I found the ground covered not in origami squares, but in money. Large bills from all over the world. The cave was dark. I didn’t stick around for long; I stuffed my pockets and returned to Abner.

And your theory. Did you come up with it immediately?
No. Not at all. Abner and me were up in the copter probably halfway to Quito when I told him what happened. “Holy shit!” he said. “Your dad’s a dragon.” And I was like ha. Good one. But fuck! It explains some things. Like the house fire after Mom divorced him. Why he liked his meat rare. His restlessness. His superiority complex.

So that’s why you came to us?
Yeah. You do a DNA test on me, maybe I can find out the truth.

And if you find out your father is a dragon?
Well, it’s better than the alternative.

Which is what?
That he’s just a man.

28 Apr


Janey and I were in our snowsuits, just outside the pasture, on the Lund’s farm. It was one of those warm winter days when the fog rolls in from who knows where and everything’s white—the trees invisible, the snow-covered cornfields infinite beyond the near fence.

“Did you know,” Janey said, “that if you shut your eyes, it’s impossible to walk a straight line?”

I was eight, maybe nine. I didn’t believe her. So I closed my eyes and took a few unsteady steps forward. The thick, damp air cocooned around me, absorbing all but the sound of my heavy footfalls in the snow. My course felt guided by some invisible tunnel heading straight toward the fence posts at the border of the cornfields. After ten sure steps, I opened my eyes.

Everything had disappeared.

I watched my breath float into the air and join the fog as it drifted past my face. I turned a full circle. “Janey?” I said.

But she was gone. Five years had passed. She’d moved out, headed west for college.

And there I was, her little brother, stranded in a winter field, wondering how I’d lost her.

23 Oct

The Magic Lamppost

Remember that time when we decided to meet by the lamppost. And you said which one? And I said, the magic one. And you said okay and walked away to class, and later we met by the lamppost and kissed?

You knew which lamppost was the magic one even though none of them were magic. And I knew how to kiss you even though I’d never kissed a girl before.

And later, when we graduated, and I took you down to the lake and you said yes before I proposed, I couldn’t speak because I was so happy. Do you remember that? I never got a chance to ask the question.

We got married, we got jobs, we had our first baby, we moved, we had a second baby. We never had a clue what we were doing. But somehow we always found our way.

I loved every minute of it.

Nowadays, I wake before dawn. The sky is clear with winter’s approach, and the stars are as bright as they ever were. My bones ache and the bed is cold, so I walk in the dark to the kitchen and put the kettle on the old gas range. I watch the blue light flare and hold my hands to its warmth. And in the glow of that first flame, I think about magic lampposts and your silvery touch.

I miss you, my love.

But I trust you’ll know where to meet.

20 May

Hilter Rd; or, Anyhwere Else

Hilter Rd.

Just looking at the name of the road, you expect some evil intention. And when you get there, you see strange beasts scurry behind the house. Someone lowers the shades. You think you see devil horns behind a tuft of grass. And those eyes peeking at you from the second story window remind you of the monster you used to imagine hiding under your bed. Is this house Pandora’s box? Holding all manner of evil inside? And are you the hapless Pandora, who will unleash horrors upon the masses?

You bite your lip, take tentative steps forward, and try to talk yourself out of your paranoia. But then you hear something as quiet as the rumbling of a hungry belly, as soft spoken as poverty. It’s a shushing that, on any other day, might remind you of wind rustling through trees in spring or the collective settling-in of an audience before a symphony. But today, it evokes authoritarian teachers and knees scraping on gravel. It’s gone now, but you heard it coming from within the house. You’re sure of it.

You cannot enter. You simply cannot. So you turn to go; you gaze out at that horizon of possibility and tell yourself that you can be anywhere else. And just as you’re pondering why any road would have such a horrid name, you realize your mistake. The door creaks open behind you. “This is not that road,” you say. And your friends shout surprise and jump from their hiding places. They’re carrying cake and paper plates and balloons and noisemakers. And now, funny enough, you don’t want to be anywhere else but here.