Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Great Whatever (blog story) 14

     You wanted to give Heather the ring right away. It was jingling next to the change in your pants pocket. Every few minutes you’d check to make sure it was still there, so afraid that it’d fall through some previously unknown hole and be lost forever. You’d already proposed once, informally. She wanted the real proposal to be exactly as she had planned.
     The next day she made you drive her to her favorite childhood spot, deep in the woods near her house. She instructed you to get on one knee and you obliged even though the ground was damp. You asked her to marry you and presented her with the ring. She acted surprised and you went along.
     When she put the ring on her finger she made a peculiar face.
     “Did you pick this out?”
     “It was my mother’s. She wanted you to have it. I hope we are as happy as my parents are.”
     “Oh…” she said inspecting the ring as if she were an experienced jeweler.
     “Is it okay?”
     “I can’t keep it.”
     When a person is trying to be delicate they always cross their eyes. Maybe it's easier to find the right words when everything is out of focus. What they don’t realize is that their body language has already spoken for them so there is no point in being delicate.
     “Well, for one thing it’s too big. It’ll fall right off. And, it’s your mother’s ring. I can’t take it from her. It means so much to her, I’m sure.”
     “We can fix the size and she gave it to me to give to you so that means something to her.”
     Her hand had been touching your arm, but now she pulled it away. What had been a soft caring tone in her voice became sharp and abrupt.
     “I just want my own ring. I don’t want someone else’s ring. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”
     This startled you. She seemed so ungrateful. Then again, she must have her reasons for feeling the way she does and you do love her. Her father’s words are still clear in your mind. You acquiesce without hesitation.
     “No. Of course not. When we get back we’ll go to the stores and find you a ring you like that’s just for you.”
     With that said she was back to her loving self immediately. All the way back home you kept replaying that conversation in your head. You wondered what it said about your future together.

Monday, February 27, 2012

A Great Whatever (blog story) 13

     The drive to Heather’s parents was long and tedious. Your nerves were so shot you found it hard to keep the car on the road. Crashing through a guardrail and into a ravine is one way to avoid the inevitable. It was only sixty miles, but it felt like six hundred. When you arrived your legs were shaking and you had tunnel vision.
     Then Heather’s mom greeted you with a hug. It was a long forceful embrace. It was unexpected and filled with emotion that she had never displayed to you before. It put you at ease and you wanted it to last forever. You could tell right away that she had accepted you. Heather’s father shook your hand like they do in church, friendly but not personal. One down, one to go.
     Dinner was cordial. It was mostly filled with small talk but eventually it drifted to politics. The wealthy always believe that they know everything. The only thing they really know is their own lives. They are completely blind to the difficulties of others. There is tangible arrogance when a rich person decrees that the only reason the poor are poor is because they do not have the will to be rich. Your own father had pulled himself up, but even he would have trouble making such a judgment. You did your best to agree with his proselyting. This was no time to disagree. You considered yourself grateful that everyone at the table was Episcopalian.
     Afterwards, as the ladies met in the kitchen, you found yourself alone with Heather’s father in his study. He had been an athlete, an avid outdoorsman, and a colonel in the army before retiring when Heather was ten years old to become a captain of industry or something like it. Your eyes kept scanning the trophies and medals, but it was the mounted animal heads that made you especially uncomfortable. You kept trying to find a way to begin the conversation. You may have even started muttering.
     “I know why you are here.” He decided to begin for you.
     “You do?”
     “The people in this family believe they are good at keeping secrets. They aren’t.” He looks you square in the eye and begins the interrogation.
     “You want to marry my daughter. Is that correct?”
     “Yes, sir.”
     “You want my approval?”
     “Yes, sir.”
     “She won’t marry you without it?”
     “Yes, sir.” A sinking feeling overtakes you. You can never tell what this guy is thinking.
     “Do you have a job?”
     “I do.”
     “Does it pay well?”
     “I’m new.”
     “Will it pay well?”
     “If not I’ll get another one.”
     “Will you be able to provide my daughter with the lifestyle she is accustomed to?”
     “Yes. I think.”
     “Do you love her?”
     Why did it not occur to you that he would ask that question? You were ready to answer anything he might ask. You could even rattle off all fifty states and their capitals upon command. You know there is no turning back once you say it. The gravity of what you are doing becomes apparent. This isn’t just between you and Heather. It’s with her folks and your folks and everyone in between. If you make this commitment you have to stand by it. You take a deep breath.
     “I do love her, sir.”
     “Then you have my blessing.”
     That was it. It was simple and relatively painless. You let out a big long sigh. You wanted to hug the man, but there was no way that was going to happen.
     “You are going to have to be good to her. Heather is willful, just like her mother. If she wants something the only thing you can do is give it to her. Never cross her because you won’t win. I know you think I’m a hard ass. I don’t run this house. I don’t run my own life. Heather’s mother does. Hers was the only consent you needed and she already gave it.”
     You find his honestly enlightening and listen closely.
     “The key to a successful marriage is to accept that you are not in control. It is a partnership, but it’s not equal. You may be right some of the time. You cannot be right all of the time. Always put her happiness before yours. If you do she will return your affection. If you don’t you will wind up like all those couples who are too proud to realize that the marriage itself is the important thing. All else is distraction. Delores and I have been married a very long time. We’ve never been to counseling and we’ve never really had any fights. I hope that you trust what I’m saying.”
     You want to tell him that Heather has been calling the shots since day one and this is a lesson you already know. This is his story though and you want him to know that you’ve heard his message.
     “I understand and will follow your advice.”
     You think maybe someday the two of you will be friends. You won’t go hunting with him. Hunting is gross. Fishing would be fine.
     “You’ll be sleeping in the guest bedroom tonight. I expect that you will stay there all night, alone.”
     Progress may be eventual. It is certainly slow.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Great Whatever (blog story) 12

     The next two weeks of work were exactly like the first day had promised they’d be. Awful. You were an outsider. No one ever talked to you. They might tell you to do things, but no one asked about your personal life or shared theirs. You were accorded all the familiarity a tax auditor or loan officer might expect. Actually, people are usually nice to loan officers.
     During this time you had made and delivered coffee. You picked up lunches and dry cleaning. You emptied trash cans even though they have someone to do that. You got to make copies, which was fun. Every time you got to leave the building you stayed out longer and longer. Once when you had to go to the printers you dropped off what was needed and stopped to catch a matinee before heading back to the office. Your presence was not missed. You tried to help with some actual work, but people would not even attempt to hide their frustration when you asked questions. You wonder how a person can possibly be chastised for not knowing what they haven’t been told.
     The job was a dead end and you wanted out as fast as you could, but your father obviously pulled a lot of strings to get you in. There was no illusion that they were going to keep you on after six months. The only thing to do was to suck it up and ride it out. At least you could say you tried.
     If there was no progress being made at work, at home things were moving at a fast and furious pace. 
     Now that you were employed, the engagement to Heather was definitely on. She had everything planned out to the smallest detail. You believe that it is true that even the most jaded girl spends her whole life secretly planning for her wedding. Heather certainly did. You know this because you caught her looking through a wedding dream list she had tucked away in a notebook from high school.
     You mentioned, “I don’t think we can get Boyz 2 Men to play at our reception,” causing her to elbow you in the ribs. “Maybe we can get one of the cheaper, lesser known Boyz . Tell you what, I’ll sing. I’m practically free and easy to book.” You started to sing “I’ll Make Love to You”, but she shoved her whole hand in your mouth to make you stop.
     Heather had done so much. She had the floral arrangements and color patterns worked out. She even managed to potty train Milo and teach him to sit. All you needed to do was buy a ring. You hadn’t even looked.
     During a visit with your parents your mother had given you her engagement ring. As far as you could remember she had never taken it off her hand and you felt guilty accepting it. She looked so pleased you could not say no. It wasn’t the biggest or the prettiest ring, but your parents have been married for thirty years so it must carry some luck.
     As far as you could tell, everyone in both families knew about the engagement except for Heather’s dad. Before you could give her the ring you needed his blessing. It was a conversation you were not looking forward to. He was intimidating and he never seemed to really like you. You and Heather were going to stay with her parents that weekend. Before putting it in your pocket you rubbed the ring like it was a rabbit’s foot. You hoped all the magic hadn’t been used up.

Friday, February 24, 2012

A Great Whatever (blog story) 11

     Some people love the kool-aid. They like the taste. They swirl it around in their mouths before they gulp it down like it’s fine wine. Others use it to brush their teeth and wash their hair. The real fanatics bath in the stuff. Your co-workers at 3B marketing have been baptized in the shit. You are thinking it was the purple flavor. That stuff is good.
     You can’t help but notice that no one here smiles. Not really. They all have a forced semi-serious grimace. It is as if a light in their brains went off advising a forced facial expression for the purpose of appearing pleased. They don’t seem unhappy. They just don’t have a lot of use for happiness.
     As Bob walks you around to meet everybody you are trying so hard to be likeable. Every handshake is accompanied with a pat on the back. You make a little small talk. “Like your hair.” “Awesome tie.” That kinda stuff. You’re smiling big and showing a lot of teeth. It’s coming across like you are the doo-fus at a cocktail party no one invited to join.
     Eventually, Bob shows you to a little desk at the end of a hall. It’s not an office. It’s not even a cubicle. There is no phone and no computer.
     “This is where you’ll be sitting, but you should never actually be sitting here and I should never come in and find you at this desk.”
     You are confused, but nod in acknowledgement anyways.
     “Your job is support for everyone you just met. When you come in drop your personal items here and then touch base with everyone here until someone finds something for you to do.”
     “What if they don’t?”
     “In that case you will wait patiently until needed, but you are not to sit in this corner and hide out waiting for someone to come for you. Remember, your job is to make yourself a valuable member of our team. You need to prove that you are useful.”
     “How about a laptop or a phone?”
     “The company will not issue you those things. It is not anticipated that you’ll need them at this time. If you feel you have to have them you can provide them for yourself. “
     A wave of insecurity begins to crest inside your mind. You feel like it is your first day and you’re already in trouble.
     “You can take the rest of the day off. I will expect you here at 8a.m. sharp tomorrow. Do not be late. Punctuality is demanded of all employees. Before you leave I need you to stop by Ms. Chase’s desk and fill out some paper work.”
     “Okay.” You feel already like this is not working out and need to make a gesture to try and rectify the situation. “I am really happy to be here. I am going to give it my best.”
     You think maybe Bob will warm up to you. He can’t be this stern and matter of fact with everyone. At least not all the time. You press your luck.
     “Everyone here seems so serious.” You observe sheepishly.
     “People around here take their jobs seriously. This is a career. It is supposed to be serious. They have their lives invested in the success of this company. If you want to succeed you’ll need to be serious as well.”
     Bob has a look of satisfaction like people often do when they think they have bestowed great wisdom on the unknowing. You already know about the kool-aid. You know that people only drink it because they are thirsty, because they need to believe in something to give meaning and structure to their lives. You look closely to see if there is a purple ring around Bob’s mouth. You wonder if he knows there are other flavors.

Monday, February 20, 2012

A Great Whatever (blog story) 10

     When you’re the new guy the two most important attributes to have are eagerness and humility. These people already have something going on and they neither need nor want you hanging around. It’s a pack thing. You need to tuck your tail between your legs and beg them to let you join. Heap praise on your new co-workers and downplay any accomplishments of your own. Do this and you’ll be welcomed. Ignore it and you’ll soon be the guy where everyone stops talking as you walk into a room. You have often wished that wisdom did not require hindsight.
     It’s probably because you’ve never had a job before that you are much too relaxed and casual for your first day. Everyone is dour and attentive. You walk around like you are the starring in an antiperspirant commercial. It’s no sweat.
     Barry, Beacham, and Brothers is a well respected firm or so you’ve been told. You should be a lot more excited, but you’re really only doing this so your father doesn’t cut you off and Heather doesn’t break up with you. When you meet Mr. Barry you shake his hand like he’s an old chum. He shakes your hand like he is being polite to someone who just asked to borrow money.
     “I hope you appreciate what an opportunity it is to work here.” He begins in a firm and serious manner. He will end the same way.
     “Oh, I do.”
     “We do not have a need for any more staff at the present time, but your father is a valuable client so we created a position for you. You will need to make yourself available to everyone that works here. You will be extra help for anyone who needs it so you’ll need to get in good with your peers. There is no one who reports to you. You report to everyone. If they need coffee you’ll get it. If they need you for a project you’ll do it. If after six months you’ve found a way to become a valuable member of our team you will be offered a contract for permanent employment. Does this sound like something you can do?”
     He looks you over to see if you can handle it. He wants to know if you’re going to crack. You are completely cool.
     “You bet.”
     It’s the right response, but the casualness is all wrong. He has no expectation that you are going to stick around. Even so, he puts the ball in your court.
     “Whether you succeed or fail is up to you, Mark. Your father is a good man. I hope you have been cast in his shadow.”
     You have known your father all your life and you have met all his friends, but you have never once met Mr. Barry so you wonder how he thinks he knows your father so well. This guy must owe your father a lot of favors.
     “We have the same chin.” You think a little levity might ease the tension. It doesn’t.
     “My secretary, Ms. Chase, will put you together with Bob Thermin. He will show you around and get you started.”
     You sit there for a moment not sure if the meet and greet is over. It was faster than you expected and it is definitely over.
     “Okay.” You get up and head for the door. Before you leave you make sure to turn to him smile and say, “Thanks a lot.”
     He does not respond. Not a good luck or anything.
     While you wait by Ms. Chase’s desk you try to make a little small talk.
     “Mr. Barry is one serious guy. I hope Mr. Beacham is funnier.”
     “Mr. Beacham is semi-retired.” This is all you're going to get from her.
     It would be three months before you realize that Brothers is Herb Brothers. Somehow you thought the Brothers meant Mr. Barry and Mr. Beacham’s brothers worked there as well. You didn’t ask and no one offered clarification.
     The five minutes it took for Bob Thermin to walk to Ms. Chase’s desk were long and excruciating.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

A Great Whatever (blog story) 9

     You always figured that if someone was going to squash your plans it would be Heather. Somehow you hoped she’d just let you go. After all, you’d already purchased the tickets. Bad ideas usually need someone to either acquiesce or ignore for them to succeed. Your father coming to visit never occurred to you as even a remote possibility.
     You grew up in a middle/nearly upper middle class household. As an only child you always got what you wanted and were never pushed too hard. Your mother didn’t work. You got plenty of attention. Life was soft. Life was good.
     College was like high school without rules. As long as your grades were good you could do whatever you wanted. Your credit card had your father’s name on it and the bank account you withdrew money from to pay rent and bills was regularly replenished by him. You didn’t really understand all the work he had to do to make that happen.
     Your father was type A all the way. His upbringing was meager. Since the age of twelve he had worked nearly every day. He represented that segment of the population that is always striving to get ahead. He read self-help books like they were bibles with graphs. The only time he ever raised his hand to you since you were a child was when as a teenager you mocked him and hid cheese all over the house. That actually angered your mother more as she was finding little yellow cubes of cheddar for months afterwards.
     The knock on the door is unexpected, but thanks to Heather, your place is clean and you’re dressed at four o’clock on a weekday afternoon. Your father makes with the usual pleasantries and takes a genuine liking to Milo. His remark about having a dog will teach you responsibility completely escapes you even though you are desperately trying to figure out why he is here.
     He says the two of you need to talk and the butterflies in your stomach begin to stir. You start to imagine worst case scenarios. Is he sick? Is mom sick? Were you adopted and this is how he’s going to break news?
     “I see some new stuff in here and I think I smell perfume.”
     “It’s Heather. She’s moved in, kind of. I hope that’s okay.”
     “That’s great. Your mother and I really like her.” You are relieved. “Is it getting serious?”
     “We have talked about maybe getting married. So, I guess it is.”
     He seems pleased. “I guess we all have to grow up sooner or later. Nothing does the trick like marriage.”
     You wonder if he and mom are getting divorced.
     “I bet you’re wondering why I’m here.”
     “Shouldn’t you be at work?”
     “I took the day off.” He never does that. You brace yourself for the bad news.
     “I came by to talk about your future.” A wave of relief passes over your body.
     “Thank God. You had me scared for minute.” You crack a big smile that he doesn’t return.
     “This is serious, Mark.” He leans in. “I have been very easy on you. Probably easier than I should have been, but I have had a tough life and I wanted to make sure my son didn’t have to struggle like I did.”
     As a child you learned that the only way to survive a lecture was to sit perfectly still, make eye contact, and nod appropriately. If you follow these guidelines it will pass by quickly and painlessly and things will soon return to normal.
     “Have you found a job?” He asks.
     “Not yet.”  You reply with the earnestness of a witness at a murder trial.
     “Have you been looking?”
     “Yes Sir.” This is true if you consider ice cream taster and bungee jump operator as jobs.
     “Craigslist doesn’t count.” You’ve been found out. You try to not show any weakness.
     “I have found you a job. It is with a marketing firm my company does business with. What they need fits in with your major. They want to meet you on Monday. You’ll need to wear a suit and tie.”
     This ruins your whole summer plan. You need to wriggle off this hook. All you can think to say is, “I can’t.”
     “Why not?” He does not like your response.
     “I have plans.” You don’t want to whine, but you start to anyways. “I was thinking I’d do a little traveling. See the country. Catch a few shows. Clear my head before I, you know, grow up and get a job.”
     “How long is this supposed to take?”
     Negotiating is good. You might be able to pull this off. “Till Labor Day. First week after.  I’ll be pounding the street with my resume in hand. I just want a couple months. A career is a lifetime.”
     “Just what is it you are going to put on your resume? You have never had a job. You didn’t intern last year so you could chase nin all over the country so you have already seen the country.”
     This isn’t going well, but you decide to correct him anyways. “It was Nine Inch Nails.”
     “I don’t care who they were.”
     You lose. The only thing to do now is sit back and take it.
     “It is time to grow up now, son. I have been footing the bill for twenty two years. I can’t do it forever. If you don’t take this job I’ll have to cut you off. I don’t want to, but I’ll have to. Do you think Heather is going to marry someone who can’t take care of himself? As far as I can tell the only plan you have right now is to get a job and get on with your life as an adult.”
     “You’re right. I’ll do it.” You were never going to win. The best you can do is be magnanimous in defeat. “Thank you. I know you are looking out for me. What do you want me to do?”
     “Get a haircut.” He smiles when he says this and you feel like you can relax again.
     “I want you to know this is not a permanent position. They have only agreed to take you on for six months. You are basically below starting level so you are going to need to kick some ass if you want them to keep you. The money is not going to be very good, but I don’t want you to focus on that. Better pay will come with better work and I will continue to support you as long as you are working. Are you up to it?”
     “Absolutely!” You try to match his enthusiasm.
     “I just got done reading a book called Carving Out Your Future. I’m going to loan it to you and I want you to read it. Basically, it is a cook book for success.”
     “Sounds interesting.” You are playing along.
     “It’s bullshit. But, the one thing it does is that in each of the recipes for maximizing potential is that they all include greatness. You need to add greatness to everything you do. Whether baking a cake or exercising stock options. If you add greatness all your dreams will come true.”
     You figure that it is harmless pop psychology and you grimace at the pun you just made in your mind. “I’ll read it.”
     He stays for dinner that Heather makes and the three of you get to spend some quality time together before he leaves. He is wise enough not to get too involved in the whole engagement discussion and instead talks about your new job and embarrassing childhood memories. You begin to think that it was lucky for you that he came along when he did. There is no way Heather would let you fly around the country with your drinking buddies. You’d lose that fight too and it would be a lot uglier. It’s a good thing you can use Craigslist to unload the tickets before she ever finds out.

Friday, February 17, 2012

A Great Whatever (blog story) 8

     The next couple of weeks saw little change in the current arrangement. Heather stayed over more often than she didn’t and she did start to move some items into your apartment. Milo enjoyed having new things to sniff and chew. He also appreciated having someone else annoy. You just didn’t have enough energy. Other than that she hadn’t told her parents and you hadn’t told yours. You had not even bothered to shop for rings. You certainly hadn’t looked for a job.
     The job was the lynchpin in the whole plan. Heather would remind you to look and you would lie that you had. The truth is that you want to take it easy. You just graduated from four years of college and the last thing you want to do was go out and find a job. You need to decompress, or so you rationalize. Besides, you have bigger plans.
     People have many different names for God. They call him Jehovah, Yahweh, Jah, and Allah. Your God is named open air concert seating. The previous summer, when you were supposed to be interning, you chose instead to see sixteen Nine Inch Nail concerts in two months. Yes, they were all pretty much the same, but that’s not the point.
     As far back as you can remember you’ve been a music junkie. Your compact disc collection is so large it takes up an entire corner of your living room even though most of the music you own is ripped online and exists as digital files. The first thing you did when you got Milo is built a pen around your ensemble. You had nightmares of him chewing through your Nirvana boxed set and it left you completely unnerved.
     This summer was going to be all about outdoor festivals. You bought tickets to all the big ones and a couple of the smaller ones. Your similarly irresponsible friends were all onboard. Heather does not care for music at all unless it’s on the radio and all her girlfriends are singing to it. It never ceases to amaze you how girls can remember the words to ever bad song ever written as well as their choreographed dance moves. You always said the girl you’d marry would have to love Led Zeppelin as much as you do. That didn’t quite work out. You think you told her about Coachella. You might have left out the others.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Great Whatever (blog story) 7

     Heather hates being touched while she sleeps. Every time she has spent the night you have been relegated to a tiny swatch of mattress that leaves you precariously close to the edge. When you do manage to fall asleep your dreams are about clinging to the side of a cliff. It’s not restful. You have considered reclaiming your space but she kicks in her sleep. She punches too. Once she poked you in the eye and you had a black bruise that took a week to heal.
     This morning though, she is lying on top of you in the middle of the bed holding on like you are a giant novelty county fair won stuffed animal that she does not want to part with. You can’t help but think about how cool this is. There is a part of you that hopes you can stay this way forever. There is another part that knows sooner or later you are going to have to pee.
     Over breakfast you decide to test the waters to see exactly how deep you are getting.
     “I really like waking up with you.”
     She acknowledges your statement with a muffled grunt while slurping her coffee.
     “It’s the intimacy. I crave that. When you start the day with someone you love it’s gonna be a good day.”
     By now she is concerned that you have gone soft on her. She gives you a puzzled look because she can tell you are trying to say something but she isn’t sure what it is.
     “Let’s take this relationship to the next level.” You hang your words out there in the wind and pray she doesn’t blow them away.
     She seems a little stunned, but in a who farted manner and not an oh my God kind of way. “Are you asking me to marry you?”
     “Let’s live together.” You are beaming as if this is the best idea any man ever came up with.
     “I can’t.” She replies as a matter of fact.
     “Why not?”
     “My parents will cut me off.”
     “You have a job.”
     “You don’t.”
     “My parents don’t care.” You are trying to close this loophole in an otherwise perfect plan.
     “Mine do.”
     You start scrambling. You begin to wonder how you can either make this work out the way you want it to or go back in time five minutes before you opened your mouth. You remember the first thing she said and decide to use that.
     “What if we’re engaged?”
     “Really?” She is genuinely surprised.
     “Heather we’ve been doing this for a long time. I want to believe that we’ll keep doing this forever.”
     She puts her now shaking cup of coffee down on the table top and says, “Okay.”
     That’s good enough for you, but you need to clarify whether or not you have sealed the deal. “Can we live together if we’re engaged?”
     “Of course we can.” You can see that she is either panicked or happy or both. You hope for happy but will settle for both.
     “You need to get a job. And a ring. And my father’s blessing.” Her mind is racing at a million miles an hour. “We can drive up this weekend. No, next weekend. Until then we’re just engaged to be engaged. I need to call my mother. I’m late for work.”
     She gets up, gives you a long wet kiss, and walks out the door. She left behind her coat and purse. Her shirt was untucked and her hair undone. She wasn’t wearing any makeup and you are not sure if she was wearing any shoes. She runs back in to grab her cell phone and laughs at her forgetfulness. She's insane and you love her.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Great Whatever (blog story) 6

     When Heather returns it is as if she is a beacon of light from an outside world. You have been trapped alone for days with your furry companion. You long for human interaction. You had even started talking to Milo like he is a person. You are afraid the neighbors will have you committed if they find out you are having lengthy discussions with a dog. You tell Heather about your cabin fever because you need to tell someone who doesn’t wag a tail.
     You ask her about her trip home and her parents and anything at all on her mind that she wants to share. You have always prided yourself on a kind of lone wolf mentality, but at this moment you need to hear her voice like you need air. You hang on every word she says, no matter how mundane, and pay attention in ways you never had before. You pick up on every inflection. You notice a curled smile when she says something she finds interesting. When she is bored you can tell because her brow is placid so you change the subject.
     She can tell that you are staring at her. You want to hide it, but you can’t. You trace every strand of blonde hair as it curls around her face. You count the grey-green spokes in her blue eyes. You follow the slope of her nose to a gentle hook that leads to a perfect mouth. You don’t know if you have ever felt this way about Heather before. You are enraptured and it is obvious. The realization causes both of you to blush.
     You are overwhelmed with the desire to make some sort of true love ode. You want to be gushing and sentimental. It is an ache swelling up inside of you, but before you can get the words out Heather changes the subject.
     “Have you taught him any tricks?” She asks.
     “Milo? No, he’s self-taught.”
     “I saw a book.”
     “He read it already. He’s a savant. Well more like an idiot savant. I’m hoping he grows out of the idiot phase.”
     She bends down to rub his furry head.
     “I did teach him one thing, but I’ll need you to stand up straight.”
     Heather complies and while you point at her you tell an already very excited Milo. “Sniff the panties!”
     Milo jumps up and buries his head between her thighs. She squeals and pushes him back down.
     “You would teach him that.”
     “He’s good at it and it’s what he likes to do.”
     “I can see that.”
     “I must admit I’m a little jealous. I could never get away with something like that, but you know we always want our children to succeed where we fail.”
     Heather gives you a sly look and says, “I don’t think you are a failure.”

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Great Whatever (blog story) 5

     The next few days are bonding time for you and your new best friend. He pees, you clean. He poops, you clean. You tell him no and he bites your feet. You wish that behave software could be uploaded to your dog like he was a computer. You know where you’d stick the flash drive.
     Pets are like children who don’t grow up and move away. They are also immune to television so you can’t just turn on some Sesame Street and sneak away to get that much needed alone time. They need constant supervision when they are young. You are tired from hovering over him twenty four hours a day.
     The one time you snuck out to meet some friends Milo destroyed your apartment. You were only gone four hours. He knocked over a table, chewed a corner of the couch, and used the whole place as a latrine. You think you might be over feeding him. You decide you need help and go to the bookstore to see if you can find a manual for your dog.
     People love dogs, especially when they’re puppies. Complete strangers come up to you and ask to pet Milo. He loves getting felt up and it always makes him pee a little, but people think it’s cute. As the man in the man/dog relationship being the center of attention wears thin quickly. Milo likes to have new things to sniff. He sniffs everything.
     You tuck him under your arm at the door and walk him in. If anyone complains you decide to tell them you’re blind. You find the book that has the glossiest pictures and seems to be the easiest to understand. You don’t need him to do tricks. You need him to stop urinating everywhere.
     At the checkout you make small talk with the cashier who can’t keep her eyes off Milo. She is enraptured by his canine charm. When she puts her hand out he likes her fingers and she squeals like a little girl. You mention that you were looking for the easiest dog training book you could find. You say that you didn’t want anything too dogmatic. It was a bad joke and it failed miserably. She only has eyes for Milo.
     Once home you thumb through the pages of the book. It occurs to you that you never really had a dog as a child. When you were young your parents had a dog, but he was already grown. When he died they didn’t get another one. This is all foreign territory for you. As you drift off to take a nap with the book on your chest you realize that you’re not going to actually read it. While Milo licks your toes you hope that somehow things just work themselves out.

Friday, February 10, 2012

A Great Whatever (blog story) 4

     You stand under the porch light at your apartment door looking at your watch. You can hear Heather inside, but you know not to enter until exactly 9:30. At the right time you turn the key and slowly enter making sure to announce your presence. Out of nowhere she jumps you.
     The girl may run hot and cold, but at least when she is hot it makes up for the rest of it. You start fumbling with her clothes. There are too many of them. People should all wear Velcro body suits that come off with one pull. Your hand is all the way up her back when she stops you.
     Wait for what? You think this is as good a place as any.
     “I have a surprise for you.” She leads you into bedroom.
     The bedroom is good. That works too. You start to untuck and unbutton as you make your way. She sits on your bed next to a big wrapped box.
     “I got you a present. Open it.”
     You skip the box and head straight for her. She pushes you back.
     “No. I’m not your present. Open the box.”
     That is when you see it move. That freaks you out and you take a step back.
     “What is in there?”
     Heather is so giddy with excitement you think she might pee on your bed. This might be a joke. By now you know there is something alive in the box. Don’t let it be a snake. Maybe she captured a squirrel and stuffed it in a box. Maybe it’s a snake and a squirrel and the snake ate the squirrel, which would be good because then it would not want to eat you. Slowly you lift up the top and…
     “It’s a puppy!” She squeals with delight.
     Inside is a little yellow puff ball with a black nose.
     “He’s a lab and his name is Milo.”
     “Why Milo?”
     “Because, he looks like a Milo.”
     You know better than to argue with logic. You pick Milo up and hold him to your face so you can look him in the eye. What are you going to do with a dog? It’s so much responsibility. You don’t even own any plants because you know you won’t remember to water them.
     Heather introduces the two of you. “Milo, this is Mark. He is your daddy and he is going to be the best daddy ever. He’s going to take you for walks and play fetch with you and you are going to be the happiest dog ever!”
     Milo pees on your bed. You hand him to Heather.
     “Did you make a boo-boo?” She starts making baby talk to the puppy.
     You have never seen her like this before. As you go to fetch the only clean towel you have to sop up Milo’s boo-boo it occurs to you this is a test.  Obviously, something has changed dramatically in your relationship. What is with the daddy talk? Is this thing going to the next level?
     As much as you lament the fact that you only see each other once and a while you actually enjoy having your own space. You don’t have a toothbrush in her bathroom and she doesn’t have any feminine products in yours. You wonder if you are ready for this. Whatever this new phase is, Milo is the gatekeeper.
     After cleaning up and playing with the puppy you pin Heather to the bed which is now just a mattress because the sheets are in a pile on floor.
     “I have to go.”
     She gets up and starts to straighten herself out. “I’m staying with my parents at the hotel. Then we’re all going to drive home together in the morning. I really shouldn’t have stayed as long as I did.”
     You are stunned and too disappointed not to let it show.
     She gives you a goodbye kiss. “I’ll be back, Friday.”
     You do the math. That’s five days.
     Before she leaves she asks, “Do you like the puppy?”
     “I love the puppy. Milo and I are going to be best buds.”
     When she leaves, Milo pees on the door. Some things don’t change.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

A Great Whatever (blog story) 3

     There are two truths when it comes to men and alcohol. Men only get sentimental when they are drunk. Men always get sentimental when they are drunk. Anytime you hear an elongated “Maaan,” it is likely to be followed by a “Remember that time…” or a “I love you guys.” Even the rowdiest drunk will spontaneously break down into a sniveling mess with little provocation.
     Everyone is hammered, but Eric is by far the worst. He cannot shut up about how he is going to miss everyone and what a great time college was. He had started getting a little huggy after his fifth shot. By his tenth he was the poster child for inappropriate contact. Whether it was men or women, he didn’t care. Everyone is laughing at the spectacle. You wonder how the hell this guy keeps getting served.
     It is true that everyone is going to go their separate ways, but it isn’t going to happen overnight. Even during dramatic upheavals people tend to fade out of each other’s lives. They aren’t automatically relegated to memory. You know that your important friends will stay in touch, regardless of where they are.
     You’re sipping on a light beer trying to take in all the action. You have plans tonight that don’t include whisky dick so you are trying to pace yourself. Eric comes over and sits in your lap like you’re a mall Santa.
     “Maaaaark!” He throws his arms around your neck and buries your head in his chest. “Maaaan, I am going to miss you so much!”
     “Gonna miss you too man.”
     He is sweaty and gross. He pulls back so he can look you in the eye but each eye seems to be pointing in a different direction. “You are the best. I mean you are the fucking best Dude! Do you know that?”
     “I’m alright.”
     “Can I tell you something man?”
     “Only if you promise not to puke on me.”
     “I love the chicas!”
     “Is that why you’re giving me a lap dance?” He doesn’t understand a word you say.
     “Where are all the honeys?” He seems sad for a moment. “There are too many dudes here. Let’s go somewhere else!”
     You motion to his girlfriend to come over. She has been following him around taking pictures. She makes you pose for the camera. You know this is going to wind up on Facebook.
     “Can you take him home before he tries to hump me or someone else?”
     She lets out a big snorting laugh and grabs his hand. Seeing them make out in the doorway to the bar is both ridiculous and tender. You can’t wait to go home and get some clown action of your own.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Great Whatever (blog story) 2

     You worry sometimes about your cynicism. You were never a really happy child, but as far as you can remember, you weren’t miserable either. Perhaps, cynicism is born in this middle ground. Sad people are depressed. Happy people are optimistic. The rest of us live knowing things could always be different than they are.
     Smile like you mean it is something your father always said to you and when you meet your parents it is on full display. They want to savor this moment. They really are pleased. Between your mother’s tears and dad squeezing the feeling out of your shoulder you do feel like a success. Even so, you jump at the chance to sneak away when your girlfriend shows up.
     You and Heather have been dating for two years. Sometimes it seems serious, sometimes it doesn’t. The truth is you don’t really call the shots or any shots in the relationship. It was Heather that picked you. You were minding your business, drinking a beer on the porch at a frat party, when she approached you. Maybe you’d smiled at her once or twice before, but nothing that would be considered flirting. That she is beautiful made yes a very easy option.
     She seduced you that night and you got together a couple times a week for the next month or so. Then she would disappear for a while. Then she’d show up unexpectedly and the whole thing would repeat itself. You’d slept over, but never more than two days at a time. You’d been to her parent’s house, but not stayed over. You had gone on vacations, but only when other couples were going too.
     She could be very demanding. It’s not that she knows what she wants. She does know for sure what she doesn’t want. You cannot talk her into doing anything. She wouldn’t do it in the outdoors. An empty locked conference room is okay if it’s her idea. She can be a freak and sort of kinky. She is always the aggressor. You are the damsel in distress.
     You don’t know if you love her and you don’t know if she loves you although you both say it often enough. The thing is you aren’t really sure about the whole love thing and maybe this is what it means to her. A lot of couples stay together because once they’ve had sex a few times with the same person they know that if for no other reason to be in a relationship at least they have an outlet for that. It’s a lot easier to sleep with someone you know than someone you don’t. Besides, if you break up with her and wind up in a five year dry spell trying to get laid again you’re an idiot.
     As you walk with Heather to meet her parents she straightens your hair and fixes your tie. They came for her graduation and not to see you. They have always seemed a bit frosty towards you. Her father is a big man and he always looks at you like you are a potential serial killer. You imagine that he is obsessed with the sorted and vile things you make his daughter do to please you. Her mother is polite but very guarded. You have trouble seeing her ever call you son.
     You make small talk and keep smiling. Your observations always include the words nice or great or wonderful. Your arms begin to tire from the shit you are shoveling. Just when you think you can’t take anymore Heather looks to you and says, “We’re going out to dinner.” With emphasis on the “we” meaning she and her folks. If you had been invited she would have said, “Let’s go to dinner.” You don’t know whether to be relieved or insulted by the exclusion. Relief is the likely winner.
     As you say your goodbyes with as much earnest feeling as you can muster Heather whispers in your ear, “Be home by 9:30. No later, no sooner.” 
     You were hoping to get some tonight and now it’s been confirmed. The smirk you wear is genuine. There is little time to fantasize though because somewhere a beer keg has been tapped and in need of a good drinking. All in all, you begin to think that this is going to be a pretty good day.

Monday, February 6, 2012

A Great Whatever (blog story) 1

          The sun is so bright in late May mornings. You can feel it cooking you as you sit on a cheap rented chair. Why can’t they do this inside? Forget the steam engine or the written word. Air conditioning is the greatest invention known to mankind.
          Everyone here smells like a flower or a used bar rag. It’s borderline nauseating. Last night’s bourbon is leeching out of your pores. The worst part is you’re wearing a dress and lousy piece of cardboard on your head. Imagine how pissed you’ll be if you need to have this thing dry cleaned because you sweated through it.
          There are three types of people at a graduation. There are the overexcited gushing ones. They cannot shut up about how they worked so hard and are so happy and they have such big plans. Then there is your type. They would be the hung-over crowd. They want to sleep in and have their diplomas mailed to them. You could care less about pomp and circumstance, the tune and the spectacle.
          Egging the whole thing on are the family type. This is really about them and their sacrifice. College is huge money pit. They want to believe it’s going to pay off and now they think they see light at the end of the tunnel. They will digitize every moment on their Sony’s and proudly replay the instant they stopped paying your tuition. The whole lot of them look like the paparazzi at the Oscar’s.
          The worst part is the seating arrangements. You sit with fellow students from your department. Next to you is the brown nosing girl who asked twenty questions in every class you had with her because she wanted to make sure the professors knew she was paying attention. Not tough questions, stupid ones.
On the other side is the guy who would never let you see his notes. He actually told you once, “How we rank upon graduation determines our ability to find work afterwards. It’s not personal, but I don’t want to lose out on a good job because you used my notes.” He said this with a smile, as if you would understand his logic. He used to wear a tie to class. You ranked one spot higher than him. Guess you didn’t need his notes after all. Douche.
If it were up to you there would be concert seating, an opening band, maybe even a mosh pit. When they called your name and you got your diploma they would let off a little pyro. You struggle to see where your friends are at. If only you could share this revelation with them. They would be totally in to it.
When they call the name “Mark Davis” you get up in front of everybody and shake some old guy’s hand. Remember to smile big and face the crowd. It feels like the Grammy’s. What’s the point?

Friday, February 3, 2012

A Great Whatever (blog story) Introduction

So, here is the new story. I’m calling it A Great Whatever and it’s about a character named Mark Davis. The narrator of the story is you. Actually, it is told from the perspective of Mark in the second person. There are going to be lots of yous and yours. Hopefully, it will allow you to inhabit Mark’s life from a different viewpoint.
       The story starts with Mark’s graduation from college and follows him to age thirty. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but things do not turn out the way he thought he would. They never do. I want to say it’s a journey of self-discovery. That is such an overused term. When in your life do you ever consider something a moment of self-discovery? Maybe when you realize you shouldn’t mix wine and tequila. Anyways, at the start Mark is like any of us were, twenty two and completely ignorant.
       This one is going to be fun. Conflict was a good story, but it is difficult to inhabit the space of such flawed characters. I hope you enjoy A Great Whatever. It starts tomorrow with daily updates until it’s done. Thanks!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Conflict (a blog story) The Whole Thing

     Jonah and Derrick were born thirteen months apart to Judy McInnis. The boys shared their mother’s last name because she was never sure who the fathers were. They lived in a small house on the outskirts of a small city in a neighborhood that may have been beautiful when it was new, but by now had become overgrown and neglected.
     Jonah was the oldest. Born with a thick batch of brown hair, he was large for his age, but docile and rarely ever cried. He would lie quietly in his crib watching Judy intently. Wherever she went his eyes would follow.
     Derrick was blonde, premature, and colicky. When he screamed it seemed to be as much out of anger as it was need. When he raged Judy would come running and as she tried to calm him down a bond formed between the two that did not exist with Jonah. Judy talked incessantly to Derrick while she carried him around. She shared every detail of her life with him and although he could not understand it explains why Derrick began speaking long before Jonah every muttered a word.
     It was taken for granted that Jonah was slow and a doctor confirmed the suspicion before he attended his first day of school. He was not retarded, but try as he might he would always struggle to keep up with his peers. For his own benefit, he did not start school until a year after he was eligible so that he brother could attend with him and provide him the support he was deemed to need.
     Derrick, on the other hand, was sharp. Aggressive by nature and curious to a fault, he took pleasure out of blurring the lines of acceptable behavior. He would often con the other children of whatever he wanted and then once caught he reveled in the art of talking his way out of it. He bullied and swore on the playground all throughout grade school. Even Jonah was a target when there was no one else to harass. Although short and wire thin, Derrick was fearless. His classmates were wise to befriend him to avoid becoming victims themselves.
     Home was much of the same for the boys. Derrick was the center of attention, reciting his acts of guile while Judy ate up his exploits and at times seemed to encourage them. Jonah sat alone on the couch, silent. He did not read or play or watch television. He quietly observed the back and forth between Judy and Derrick as if it was some great drama unfolding before his eyes.
     For her part, Judy rarely spoke to Jonah except to tell him to get ready for school or dinner or bed. It was shameful, but Jonah never asked for much. Also, Derrick took up so much of her time. Then again, some effort should have been made, but that is in hindsight and in that moment Judy saw nothing wrong in how she raised her sons.
     As the boys navigated their teenage years Derrick became more and more unpredictable. By high school he had begun using drugs and drinking, sometimes with his mother, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone. His penchant for violence cost him much more than he made. People avoided him. His wanton vandalism kept him in the constant gaze of school administrators and police. Judy always rushed to his defense and to the psychologist he was ordered to see he was honest when he claimed to have no idea why he did the things he did.
     Derrick took to crime before the age of ten, breaking into houses to see what was inside. Eventually, he began to loot these houses for drugs, money, alcohol, and anything of value. Jonah’s job was to watch for trouble, but it was not a partnership. Jonah was just used to doing what was asked of him. Judy knew what her son was up to and did not care so long as she got her cut. Derrick would display his bounty on the kitchen table and he and Judy would divide the proceeds.
     He began to notice girls early on. His temperament though was unpredictable and kindness would often turn to cruelty. He didn’t care how they cried because he knew there would always be someone else and there always was. A mother could have taught him the proper way to treat women, but Judy was as enamored of Derrick as the little girls he toyed with.
     Judy had become desperate in the face of her approaching middle age. No longer able to rely on her looks to secure the things she needed from men, she clung tighter and tighter to the sorry few foolish enough to stay. Eventually, they too would run and this made her lean even heavier on Derrick as her sole confidant. When she couldn’t dance, she waited tables, and when she lost that she looked for the easy dollar. Derrick was her protégé and partner.
     Jonah in turn had become more steady and self-reliant. He no longer needed to watch Judy and Derrick act out their pantomime of madness. He was content with himself. He could focus, which in many ways made up for his deficiencies. He did well in the school’s remedial programs. He was never late, always polite, and always gave his best effort. He was not outgoing, but he had friends.
     Hailey was Jonah’s best friend. She lived a couple blocks away and was raised by her grandmother. Like Jonah, she was slow and they took many of the same classes together. From an early age they were inseparable. Each would follow the other around like there was a string attaching the two of them. As close as they were neither said much to the other. What they had was a shared experience.
     Hailey was attractive, blonde hair and blue eyes. There is no doubt that Jonah noticed her in that way, but unlike Derrick he was not impulsive and not articulate enough to express his intentions if he had been. She gave little of herself away and that further encouraged Jonah to keep his feelings to himself, but he did love her.
     By the time Jonah was a senior in high school Derrick had long since dropped out. When Judy discovered methamphetamine she introduced the drug to Derrick and he had become lost in a world of ever intensifying criminality. The addition of paranoia to his already reckless behavior made it impossible for him to function in the non-high world. He and Judy would spend days at a time awake, locked in their little house, simultaneously destroying it and putting it back together.
     If Jonah was afraid he never let on about it. He could always find a quiet place for himself. For Hailey though, he was frightened. She did not see the danger Derrick and Judy presented. She was too trusting. Jonah took pains to move her around the house to avoid them or leave with her if he could not.
     It was Hailey’s naiveté that precipitated the great tragedy about to unfold. She thought Derrick was funny. He always talked fast and made faces. She knew him as Jonah’s brother and she trusted Jonah more than anyone. That doesn’t mean she always listened to him.
     When Jonah and Hailey arrived at the house they found Derrick alone. Judy was busy pawning items Derrick had stolen the night before. He was in a miserable state, alone in the kitchen, smoking meth, talking to himself. Jonah and Hailey sat on the couch in the living room, took out their homework, and began to study.
     Derrick usually liked to tweak by himself, but he wanted company today and took his pipe with him to the living room and sat across from the two of them. He took a deep drag and blew out a large white puff of smoke.           
      “Look, a cloud! Oh, no. It’s gonna rain in here and get your books wet.” He knocked the book out of Jonah’s hand and began to laugh.
     Hailey smiled so he turned his attention to her. “He is so clumsy. Why do you have such a clumsy boyfriend?”
     “He’s not my boyfriend.” Her face turned red in embarrassment as she replied. “He’s Jonah.”
     “I know my own bro, yo. What do you know bro. Hailey says she’s not your girlfriend.”
     Jonah stood up and tried to take Hailey with him. “Let’s go.” But, she was having fun. Derrick was inches away from her, staring with a big goofy smile that made her giggle.
     “I think that’s a no, bro. Hailey, does my brother know no?” He was caught in a loop. He reached out and touched her face. “Look, I got your nose.”
     Hailey let out a loud, wild laugh that made Derrick sit back in his chair. Jonah too sat back down, visibly agitated.
     Derrick reached for his pipe. He stared at it for a moment, as if trying to figure out what to do next. Then he leaned in again towards Hailey. “Do you want to make clouds?”
     “No!” Jonah blurted out. He had never been told to stay away from drugs. He certainly had not been told at home. It was instinctual. He had never been offered or asked to be a part of the things his mother and brother did. From what he had seen he should know enough to be afraid.
     “I didn’t ask you, bro. I asked Hailey.”
     Hailey had no idea what she was agreeing to when she said yes. Jonah was speechless as Derrick showed Hailey how to smoke from his pipe. Afterwards she was stunned as if hit on the head.
     “See, you can make clouds too.” Jonah took some more for himself. “Do you like it?”
     She said nothing and looked as if she was trying to focus on some far away object she could not quite make out. Derrick took a moment to size her up then reached for her hand and walked towards his bedroom. She went willingly, docile, and stoned.
     A panic overtook Jonah, as if the worst possible thing he could imagine was happening right before his eyes. His hands shook and the nausea in the pit of his stomach swelled. He went outside, sat on the front step, and wept silently.
     Judy arrived home and saw Jonah outside. She saw that he was crying. She felt compelled to ask why but thought of it as a burden she did not want to deal with.
     “What’s wrong, Jonah?”
     He collected himself and replied, “Hailey.”
     “What’s wrong with Hailey?”
     “She’s with Derrick.”
     A glimmer of recognition crossed her face as she knew exactly what was going on and gave him a sly smile. “Well, if you wanted her you should have done something about it.” With that she brushed him aside and walked into the house.
     When Hailey opened the front door she was disheveled and confused. She did not say anything and Jonah did not ask her anything. He followed her all the way home, a step behind in single file. She never returned to Jonah’s house.
      Afterwards, Jonah spent less and less time at home. He was not even aware that Derrick had been arrested for burglary. A startled home owner had awoken to find him unplugging his home computer and shot him in the leg. Jonah visited him briefly in the hospital because his mother told him to, but he was not there for the trial.
     Jonah was staying with Hailey and her grandmother, who thought of Jonah as a son. She knew he was good for Hailey and that she cared for him deeply. She was not sure whether or not Hailey and Jonah were romantic, but was not opposed to the idea. She was very old and it was important to her that Hailey have trustworthy people in her life after she was gone.
     When Hailey began to show obvious signs of being pregnant she naturally assumed Jonah was the father. Before confronting the two of them she decided to talk to Jonah’s mother. She wanted to make sure they had the support they were going to need.
     Hailey’s grandmother knocked on the door to Jonah’s house for several minutes. She could hear noise coming from inside, but there was no response. Eventually, she decided to try the door knob and with that the door flew open and Judy was standing before her. She introduced herself and Judy let her inside.
      Judy was a mess. Her hair was clumped and unkempt. Makeup that had been on her face for days was smudged and streaking. Her clothes looked as if she had been sleeping in them, but she had really been up for days.
     The house was no better. There were scorched marks on the walls and places on the floor where the carpet had been pulled up. It was cluttered and filthy. Hailey’s grandmother was shocked. She had to pull herself together to talk about the matter at hand.
     “I am here about Jonah.”
     Judy took a moment to shake her head and clear her thoughts. “What has he done?”
     “He hasn’t done anything, not really.” She wanted to ease Judy into the news she had. “He has been staying with us for a while. Both Hailey and I are very fond of Jonah. In fact, I believe Hailey and Jonah are in love.”
     Judy’s face was emotionless like someone was reading her the phone book.
     “As sometimes happens…” She paused for a minute then blurted it out. “I think Hailey is pregnant.”
     Once Judy realized what she was being told, her eyes lit up and she started to snicker. Judy cackled, “Your Hailey is pregnant and you think my Jonah is the father? Hailey may be pregnant, but Jonah is not the daddy.” Hailey’s grandmother was taken aback. “Derrick is the father.”
     “Who is Derrick?” She asked.
     “That’s my other boy. Look, if you want some money he’s going to be in prison for the next couple of years so Hailey is on her own. Hell, he probably won’t be much of a provider when he gets out.” Judy was tickled and could not hide it.
     Hailey’s grandmother knew there was something wrong with Judy and did not know what to believe coming out of her mouth.
     “Hailey and Jonah want to be together.”
     “If Jonah wants his brother’s sloppy seconds I’m sure Derrick doesn’t mind. He can have her.”
     She was appalled by Judy’s coarseness. “I want Jonah to stay with us.”
     “Keep him. I don’t care.” She didn’t. “I he wants his stuff though, tell him I sold it or it got stolen. Make something up. There’s nothing for him here.”
     As far as Hailey’s grandmother was concerned it was the only thing Judy said that made sense. During the walk home her face was so red with anger that her cheeks burnt to the touch.
     Hailey and Jonah were married shortly before the baby was born and Hailey’s grandmother died soon thereafter. She lived long enough to see the circle of life complete and left in peace. Jonah worked full time as a bagger at the local grocery store and was well liked by everyone. The pay was not good, but Hailey’s grandmother had left her the house so they did not have many expenses. They were the perfect example of a young couple, happy and in love.
     Jonah never questioned whether he was the father to their little girl and he was listed as the father on the birth certificate. Though the timing of the birth may have suggested otherwise, it was something neither he nor Hailey cared about. The prospect of seeing Derrick again, or that he would even care, never crossed their minds.
     Judy cared. Her life spiraled out of control after Derrick got locked up, not that it was so great before he left. She no longer had anyone to confide in. Paranoia began to tear at her psyche. She thought people were following her. She heard voices. She became bitter.
     She and Jonah rarely ever spoke, but she was aware of the life he was leading. She was filled with envy. She felt Jonah’s quaint life of domesticity was one that he had stolen from Derrick. The son she didn’t care about was living the life she wanted for the son she loved. The idea that Jonah should raise Derrick’s child as his own infuriated her. Jonah was a usurper.
     In the three years Derrick was incarcerated Jonah did not visit him once. Judy went once a month. At first, their conversations were of the typical sort. There was plenty of I miss yous and hope you’re alrights. Eventually, as Judy’s madness became more pronounced, Jonah was all she talked about.
     Derrick didn’t care about Jonah or Hailey or the baby, at least not at first. He had his own problems. He missed out on early release because of frequent fighting. His impulsive behavior was a liability in prison. He spent much of his time in isolation.
     Soon enough, Judy’s ranting began to take root. When the only person you talk to has only one message that they repeat over and over it soon becomes brainwashing. By the time he was released, Derrick was as obsessed she was. The only difference was that he knew how to hide his envy when he needed to.
     Jonah was standing alone at the foot of the checkout line when Derrick approached him. He did not smile upon seeing his brother for the first time in three years. Jonah gave little of himself away. He had the same placid expression he always carried, but his eyes did light up.
     “Hey bro, I’m back!” Derrick gave his brother a quick hug.
     Jonah did not know how to react. Derrick had never hugged him before. It confused him.
     “It’s been a long time.” Derrick tried to express sincerity. “I’ve done a lot of thinking bro. I’ve had the time to do it. I just want you to know that I’m sorry if I was ever mean to you. I don’t know who that guy was. I’ve changed. I’m a new man. I came to tell you that I’m here for you.”
     “You don’t say much. That hasn’t changed. How are you doing?”
     “I hear you’re doing great! You got a job. Everybody likes you. You’re married and you have a kid.” He grabbed Jonah’s fingers firmly. “Look, you have a ring on your finger!”
     Jonah pulled back his hand. “It’s nice, bro! Is it gold?”
     “I don’t know.”
     “It looks like gold to me.” Jonah was becoming anxious. Derrick decided to wrap things up. “I know you’re working and I don’t want to take up too much of your time it’s just that I want us to be a family again. I’m staying with mom. You should come for a visit. I’m sure she’d like to see you.”
     “I should come over to your house too. I’d love to see my niece.”
     Jonah felt all the air sucked out of his body. He did not make a sound and there was an awkward silence between the two.
     Derrick laughed it off. “We’ll do that sometime. Nice to see you, bro. You haven’t changed a bit.”
     With that, Derrick was gone. Jonah did not know what to make of the encounter. In some part of his mind though there may have been a glimmer of optimism.
     While he claimed to be a new man, Derrick began using again as soon as he got home. Judy scrounged up every penny she had to throw him a party. It was for two people. Judy talked for days, she was so strung out. She recounted every day since Derrick left back to him. She had been so alone.
     Derrick was too blissed out to really care or listen. Every now and then he would jump up unexpectedly, scream at the top of his lungs, and break something. The he would laugh maniacally and sit back down as if nothing had happened. The only time he paid attention was when Judy talked about Jonah and Hailey and the baby. This meant something to him.
     Judy knew what buttons to push. Before Derrick left to see Jonah at the store she told him, “You have got a lot of anger in you, boy. You need to put that anger to good use. You have got to let it out or it will ruin you.”
     As they embraced in the doorway she whispered in his ear, “Make your mother proud.”
     When Derrick wen to see Jonah, it was really to check on his whereabouts. As soon as the two parted Derrick went to Jonah’s house. Hailey didn’t get the door open enough to see who it was before Derrick kicked it in. She was panicked and crying. Derrick was smiling as he pummeled her. He attacked her savagely. Somehow he blamed her for everything. His incarceration, his terrible life, his rage, were all her fault and he needed to rectify the situation. He would torture her as he felt tortured, but he was not angry.
     The baby screamed uncontrollably as Derrick first attacked her mother then destroyed the house in which she lived. He broke anything that had any value. He put holes in the walls.
     When he grabbed the baby, Hailey begged him to leave her alone. She could not stand. Only her outstretched hand was able to plead with Derrick. Sociopaths have a convoluted sense of right and wrong. He saw himself as completely justified. The idea of consequences never crossed his mind.
     He laughed as he held the child. “It’s my baby now. You had yours. Now I get mine. Tell my brother if I see him he gets double.”
     Jonah did not suspect anything as he walked home from work. He was in a good mood. He didn’t know what to tell Hailey about seeing Derrick or how she would react, but for once he could think about his family and not be filled with dread.
     As soon as he walked through the front door he knew what had happened. He found Hailey in the dark, crawling on the floor. He held her in his arms and tried to wipe the blood from her face. His heart broke looking at her. She kept calling for her baby.
     Jonah placed a pillow under her head and ran next door to ask them to call the police. Then he took off to find Derrick. He knew where he would be.
     Jonah was a large man. He stood over six feet tall and weighed about 220 and would be intimidating if he wasn’t so docile. As he ran through the streets towards his childhood home a fury coursed through his veins. Derrick was much shorter and skinnier, but was able to take advantage of his slower brother and had tormented him. Jonah never fought back. All Jonah wanted was the child, but he was prepared to kill Derrick if he needed to.
     When he walked in the unlocked door he saw Judy holding her sobbing grandchild and Derrick doing lines of drugs off the table.
     Judy looked at him, red faced and trembling as he stood before her, and sneered, “What do you want?”
     He could barely speak the word, “Baby.”
     “It’s my baby now.” She squeezed the child, which caused her to cry even louder. “Derrick’s the father and not you. This is my grandbaby.”
     “You can’t do this.”
     “I did it.” She tapped Derrick on the shoulder. He had not even looked up from the drugs before him. “We did it.”
     “You don’t get to have it all. You think you’re better than us.” Judy’s eyes stared right through Jonah. “You are us. You always kept to yourself. You never wanted to have anything to do with your mother and your brother. We loved you. The first chance you got you ran away. You abandoned us.”
     Judy could not grasp the irony of her statements. She wholeheartedly believed every word she said. Jonah arms were outstretched to the child who was reaching back to him. Derrick snapped out of his stupor and jumped up.
     “You should have stayed away, Bro.” He said has he stepped towards his brother with his fist pulled back and ready to strike.
     Jonah dropped him with a single punch to the jaw and Derrick crumpled in pile on the floor.
     Neither Judy nor Derrick ever foresaw that Jonah would fight back. As Jonah reached to take the child out of Judy’s arms she grabbed a knife. She cut a wide gash in his open hand. He took hold of her wrist with the other hand and squeezed until she shrieked, releasing her grip and dropping the blade in his bloody palm.
     Judy was horrified and gave up the child without a fight. She clung tightly to the father she knew. As he turned to walk away Derrick rose to his feet and attacked him. Jonah desperately tried to shield the child with his body. Still holding the knife he took from Judy he waived it in the air, but Derrick was unfazed and began to taunt his brother.
     “What are you gonna do, Bro? You gonna cut me with your little knife? Don’t you know retards aren’t supposed to play with sharp knives?”
     Derrick lunged at Jonah. He deliberately and with force sunk the knife deep in Derrick’s chest. Derrick gave out a loud gasp and died almost instantly. Judy screamed and ran to her son.
     “My son. My little boy.” Her years dripped onto his lifeless face. “You can’t leave your momma. Momma loves you.”
     Jonah, in shock at what had happened, stood nearby holding the child. For once he spoke up, albeit meekly. “I am your son too, momma.”
     She looked back at Jonah. He was crying now as he had never done as a baby. He wanted to see some tenderness, some recognition in her eyes. Instead she moaned, “You are a monster. How could you do this? You killed your brother. You are a murderer. You are marked for life. I hope they fry you in the electric chair.” There was no forgiveness here.
     When the police arrived, both Judy and Jonah were placed in handcuffs. Jonah went peaceably, but Judy fought with the officers and had to be subdued. She swore and told them it was all Jonah’s fault. Then she blamed Derrick. She said she was a kindly old grandmother who just wanted to see her grandchild. The scene in the house told a different story and no one was listening to hers.
     As Jonah was led to the police car he knew that he could never reconcile the pain he felt. For all the abuse and torture he endured, Judy and Derrick were his family. He could not bring his brother back. He could not make his mother love him. He was alone and dejected.
     Then he saw Hailey. She was badly beaten but alive. She held her baby in her arms, kissing her over and over again. She did not see Jonah watching her. He wanted to call out. The love and affection she flourished upon their child rendered him mute. He felt a great warmth rise up inside of him. While this great conflict had torn one family asunder he knew he had found another and within it he was complete.

The End