Tag Archives: fiction

Panache amid the Ruins

28 Feb

This fictional collection begins here.

Evan tosses his backpack on his bed and exhales, drained after a long day. “Can we spend a night in? Just me, you, and a bottle of wine?”

Mark stares at him with narrowed eyes. “But, bro. Roman girls.”

“Can’t you keep it in your pants for one night?”

“Fine. Know how hard this is for a married man.”

“Tied down or not, I don’t know why you’ve gotta go chase it every single place we go.”

“Because it’s my birthright?”

“God you’re awful sometimes.”

Mark grins, goading Evan into further critique, but Evan knows not to take the bait. He leads Mark up to the rooftop of the hostel, which gazes out down a narrow Roman street throbbing with nightlife. They exchange pleasantries with some festive Germans at the rooftop bar and settle in at a small plastic table in the corner where they have some space to themselves. Evan pulls out a Swiss army knife with a corkscrew and goes to work on the cork in a bottle of wine while Mark idly plays with the two plastic cups he’d gotten from the Canadian kid they’d been traveling with for the past three days. Their Quebecois companion schooled them in Tuscan wines and they’d schooled him on the top nightclubs in Rome, though he left his regrets that afternoon and set out on a pilgrimage of sorts to Monte Cassino, where some ancestor had served in a Canadian armored division in the Second World War.

“Think Jean-Claude managed to hike all the way to the top?” Mark asks as the cork crumbles amid Evan’s efforts.

“He’s got the energy to do it, that’s for sure.”

“For a fat kid, he sure knows how to keep moving.”

“Oh, come on. He’s just kinda bulky. A lot of that’s muscle.”

“Sure, sure. I just gotta say, we’ve met people from like 20 different countries on this trip, and his English is hands down the worst of anyone’s.”

Evan concedes, punches what remains of the cork down into the bottle, and doles out the drinks. “Maybe,” he says, “but he was still the most fun of any of them.”

“Damn right. He gets it. To Jean-Claude,” Mark toasts. “To the pursuit.”

“To tracking down history.” The boys both sip and share a synchronized frown as they down the cork-filled Chianti.

“Good thing I don’t have standards when it comes to booze,” Mark muses. “Chasing history, though? Never thought of you as someone who dwells on the past.”

“Me either really, till we came here…seeing a city like this, it’s just something I never got as an American.”

“Maybe they’re all about the past cuz they suck at the present. Can’t believe how much trash and shit there is all over this city.”

“Well, they did peak a couple thousand years ago. But, guess we Americans have something to learn from them.”

“Oh, here you go again.”

Evan beams at Mark and sets his cup down on the table. Since the start of this trip, Mark has endured several attempts by Evan to explain a series of convoluted theories on how human adolescence and the American Dream somehow coincide. Despite his high tolerance for pop intellectual debate, Mark finds this version of his friend grating: Evan, he thinks, is much more effective as a witness for a way of life than as a lecturer. Evan knows who he is and where he comes from, and no number of days in Paris or Barcelona can change that. Why are people compelled to be more than they are? But that, he supposes, is why he was drawn to Evan in the first place. He knows Evan’s humility is a convenient lie, and he plans to expose it.

The very same thought has troubled Evan since the previous morning, when he woke in a tangle of sheets in a Tuscan villa and basked in the birdsong and sun. This was what it meant to drink the milk of paradise. He wishes he’d spent a semester abroad in undergrad instead of chasing hockey pucks, wishes he could stay here and come to know it in a meaningful way, instead of breezing through and snapping pictures. Maybe he could talk Bridget into some sort of post-grad adventure before they settle into real jobs, though he knows as soon as he begins to ponder it that she’s far too staid to ever make that leap.

Perhaps she’d just need a taste to get sucked in. Evan is still marveling at how the Forum had drawn out Mark’s inner nerdy kid. Away went the blasé dismissals of his theories, and out came a buried knowledge of emperors and classical battles that bubbled up before each temple. For Evan’s part, the most moving part of Rome had been St. Peter’s, where he stood before the Pieta for a good ten minutes and lit an offertory candle, a wishful prayer to both his father and his Father. Nothing much had come to him then, but he knows the memory won’t fade, and who is he to deserve some immediate answer from above? Nothing should be easy, and his freedom to take this trip is just another reminder of what a blessed life he leads. What right does he have to ask for anything more?

“It’s funny, I almost feel sad, looking at all the ruins,” says Mark. His words jolt Evan to life. “Really? Sad?”

“Yeah. I guess it’s good that something’s left for us to think about. But all the people who built that, the most powerful empire in the world…all that’s just, well, gone now.”

“Why does that have to be sad? Things come, things go, time goes on.”

“That’s just how the world works, you mean?”

“Right. Empires rise and fall, people are born and die, the world keeps moving. We get used to it.”

“Or do we just get so beaten down that we get used by it?”

Evan pauses. “Sometimes you do just have to make peace with things.”

“I’ve never been very good at that.”

“Oh, I know.” The boys laugh, and Evan turns his gaze up toward the stars that manage to fight through Rome’s urban haze. He feels small, dwarfed both by the world around him and by his best friend’s ambition. Mark, meanwhile, senses an opening.

“I’m serious, though. If we wanna build things that last, build something real, we can’t just sit here making peace.”

“Fair enough,” Evan concedes. He registers Mark’s disappointment, and knows Mark wants him to argue back. Instead, his mind turns closer to home.

“You think America’s gonna look like this someday? The ruins and all? Are people gonna wander around our hockey rinks someday the same way we wandered around the Colosseum today?”

“Shoulda come to visit me in Detroit, bro. It’s already here.”

Mark had spent the first half of his summer working an internship for an investment bank with a branch in Detroit. It was strange venture for a Yalie; most of his classmates are down the road on Wall Street, but his dad’s old ties had led to connections in the Detroit office, and Mark, saddled with his unending fascination for dying lost causes, had gone along to the Motor City. He’d taken more than a little pride at being the primly dressed white boy with perfectly coiffed blonde hair who’d work later than anyone to prove his worth and then venture in to the all-black bar down the block. He did it more to unnerve his peers, and perhaps above all his father, than out of any commitment to bridging divides. But how he’d lived for those few months, slamming shots with the 40-year regulars and spitting some rap to the delight of the younger crowd. He’d won them all over.

Forget these travels through past ruin: that was what it meant to be alive. He’d never felt a rush like that, not even that one time he’d tried snorting a line. But it also isn’t a life he can sustain. By the end of the night he was always exhausted, too foreign-feeling to ever ask a girl back to his place, his debonair front hiding his terror that he might get jumped on his way home. He never was.

“True, I don’t have to go far even in Minneapolis or Duluth to find ruins,” says Evan. He stares off at the laughing Germans at the other end of the rooftop, oblivious to the weighty ruminations at this table in the corner. “It’s amazing just how shaky it all feels sometimes.”

“That’s because it is. Takes special talent to break through that.”

“Ego much?”

“I’m not saying it’s easy, even when you mostly get things right,” says Mark. “I mean, sometimes it even feels like that path I just took for granted for so long is just falling apart. Dominate in school, get into a great college, set yourself up for a great job, and it turns out over half the country actually thinks you’re an elitist asshole for achieving goals in life.”

“To be fair, you do sometimes sound like one, and if anything I think you’re proud of it.”

“Why shouldn’t I be proud of my life?”

“You should be. But that doesn’t entitle you to more than other people.”

Mark stews for a moment. “I didn’t say that.”

“Not in so many words.”

“But…dammit, Evs, if you’re scared of how shaky our world can be, if you want to do what you can to keep it all alive and out of the ruins, you need people who get that to take charge. Not many people do. Even at Yale, not many people get how it all fits together…we need grand strategy. We need to play the long game. We need to get how economics and politics and culture all work, and how you pull all the right strings to get to where we need to go.”

“I mean, yes. Of course. But history’s just a graveyard of people who thought they could do that. A lot of them couldn’t. Just because you know more than most people doesn’t mean you can make decisions about other people’s lives.”

“I thought you liberals liked making decisions about other people’s lives.”

Evan stares Mark down as he gathers himself. He’s surprising himself with his own honesty. He’d learned to just shake his head at Mark’s self-confidence long ago, but as life after college becomes less and less certain, he has less and less faith in any well-worn path through life.

“The more I see, the less faith I have in anything big, government or business. Too big to fail is too big to exist.”

“Alright, I’ll just give up on all my big plans now.” Mark downs a deep sip of wine, pushes back his chair, and climbs to his feet. His eyes follow a crowd of revelers down on the street, and the bar across the way cranks up its thumping dance music. There are no signs of ruin here. He doesn’t need to care about the moral case for his life, or aspire to any grand strategy beyond his own happiness. He could simply take the Wall Street job waiting for him, make heaps of money, enjoy the finer things in life, and build himself a world free from inquiring Evans. He has the power to cut that cord, and has the belief in his own righteousness to do it. And yet he doesn’t.

“I’m not saying you’re not qualified,” Evan says in measured tones. “I’m just saying…maybe you’re not as special as you think you are. I don’t mean that in a mean way, but…intelligence shouldn’t necessarily mean power over other people. You know there’s a lot about life you don’t know, and never will. And for everything your path did right—I mean, I agree with you about education and I admire your chase, agree you need that ambition—at some point, you gotta ground it in something, or somewhere, or someone.”

“Like what?” Mark asks, though he keeps his back to Evan.

“Like a place, like a family, like a faith in power beyond you…because the second you think you’re in control, the second you set aside the things closest to you because you believe in some ridiculous destiny…that’s the moment you lose. You can’t let that happen.”

“So that would be what you’re doing, I suppose?”

“Well, yeah,” says Evan, warming to Mark’s interpretation after a moment’s thought. “I do kinda like my life choices.”

“I dunno, Evan. You’re a smart kid, and you’ve got some restlessness deep in there. We wouldn’t be here if you didn’t. And you’re trying to tell me that you just wanna go settle down and pump out some kids with Bridget back in Duluth? You’ll be happy with some social services job that pays you tens of thousands less than what you’d get somewhere else, just cuz you think that’s the right thing to do instead of using all your potential? I know you too well. You’ll go insane.”

“When have you ever seen me crack like that?”

“So what are these trips we take, then? Your little freaking rumspringa?”

Once again, Evan is left marveling at how swiftly Mark diagnoses him. He grabs on to his defensive reflex lest he show any signs of fading. “My personality’s allowed to have more than one side. I’ve got my outlets. Maybe that’s enough?”

Mark snorts in derision.

“Well, you got things figured out any better?”

“I think you know I’m still working on that. But you can’t cut that side of yourself off. You’ve got the disease, man. Can’t separate the angels from the demons.” Mark swings around and paces up and down the roof while Evan swirls his glass and averts his eyes.

“Maybe you’re right. It’s hurt me sometimes, though, so I’m trying to pull it in. But as much as I love living it up with you…what’s the endgame here? Honestly. Best you can say right now, what’s your goal in life?” Evan turns his gaze back to Mark, who stops in his tracks.

“Kicking ass.”

“For someone as smart as you, man, that just sounds so fucking crude.”

“Maybe it is. But, what else do I got? I spent just as long staring at that ceiling in the Sistine Chapel as you did, but it’s not gonna make me believe. Respect for other people, all that decent shit, going through the motions? That really gonna give your life meaning?”

“I don’t know if it’s meaning, but it’s grounding. Seeing what other people did, motivated by faith…”

“That’s just so…weak. Where’s the power in that? You’re denying yourself, and you know it. You gotta go get it. Like I did in Paris.” Mark folds his arms and smirks as he recalls the look on Evan’s face when he’d asked him for an hour in their room so he could enjoy his ménage a tois in proper Parisian style. It wasn’t a look of annoyance. Evan is a loyal friend, and wanted some time to himself for journaling anyway. It was a look of regret, an admission he couldn’t join in on the fun himself. He stares Evan down and waits for the chance to drop the hammer he’s held since he started them on this debate.

“So what are you even saying? This world is so wrecked that all you can do is just chase after…what?”

“Panache amid the ruins.”

Evan stops short.

“You always could turn a phrase.”

“I am kind of proud of that one.”

Mark drains his cup. He’s in his element in this intellectual battle with Evan, and pours himself a second helping to keep the neurons firing. He picks out the largest chunks of cork and smiles to himself. He’s found a healthy number of sparring partners in his travels; those capable of debating the merits of late-stage capitalism or the most effective ways to influence government or the virtues of the neutral zone trap straight through the night until dawn. And yet good old Evan still does more to help him make sense of all this mess than anyone he knows. Struggles like this, probing toward a truth they cannot see yet seek out anyway: yes, this is how to live, and the answer to Evan’s question lies somewhere in here.

Evan, meanwhile, stares at Mark, and feels a sudden surge of fear. It strikes him how eerily it sounds like Mark is tempting him into a life of delightful sin, of brash self-love that ignores any higher calling. Could his best friend on earth be the one who derails him?

“God, I love this,” Mark says with a grin. He throws his arms wide open and drinks in the full sweep of Rome at night.

Evan gazes upward at his friend. The fault, dear Evan, is not in the stars, but in our hearts, he muses. He cracks a grin in spite of himself.

“There you go, using his name in vain again. Maybe Rome’s gonna make a believer out of you.”

“Old habits die hard. And you saying it every other sentence doesn’t help the cause, either,” Mark sniffs.

“I know, I know. It’s just never far from my mind…even if I forget it in the moment all the time.”

“You know you can’t escape my world.”

“Just like you can’t escape mine.”

“Aw, fuck off.”

“Screw you, too!”

“All good? May I help?” an Italian asks them in broken English from across the rooftop. The dance music thumps on, but the hostel’s other guests have all stopped to stare at the loud Americans in the corner. Evan blinks at the surreal scene for a moment, then doubles over in laughter.

“Todo bien,” Mark replies with perfect poise. “Simplemente dos amigos, llenos del amor mundi.”

“Wasn’t that Spanish?” Evan asks as the other rooftop revelers roll their eyes at them and return to their previous pursuits.

Mark shrugs. “With a dash of Latin. Close enough that she got the picture. It’s all in the act, Evvy.”

“You’ve never had any trouble with that act.”

“Maybe too little.”

Evan nods and gives Mark a wry smile. Mark certainly knows how to diagnose his own ills without ever letting his self-criticism rise to a level that requires action. Evan laughs to himself, knowing he is much the same way. But his willingness to ask these questions shows the possibility of something, and that, for Evan, is enough.

“What?” Mark demands, trying to parse Evan’s serene smile.

“Ah well. Let’s toast.”

“Damn right. To my bro for life, wherever I wander.”

“To the smartest damn kid I know.”

“To us.”

“To life well lived.”

“To God and country.”

“To panache amid the ruins!”

“To the freedom to live out our dreams.”

“To death!” They finish their cups.

“To death? There’s a downer.” Mark doles out the last of the bottle and narrows his eyes at Evan.

“Only if you make it be that way. Death, well, it’s an old friend of mine,” Evan says.

“You creep me out when you talk that way.”

“I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it. What more can I do?”

“You telling me you’re not scared of it? That you know about what’s gonna happen when you go?”

“Not exactly. That’s not what I mean. It’s more…we don’t think about death. Not really. We talk around it, talk about people who have died, sometimes. But when it comes to leaving a legacy, figuring out how you’ll be remembered yourself…”

Mark frowns and pushes his hair off his forehead. “I dunno. I’d like to think my life’s kind of been a middle finger to death, no? You know it’s there, but you go and live life to the fullest anyway. You know you don’t have much time, so you might as well go for it.”

“Sure. But that just seems like such a, I don’t know, juvenile response. It’s what you say when you think you know what death is, but you really don’t. It’s what you say when you don’t respect it. That’s what I mean when I say I know death. I’ve met him in battle and I know what he can do. I wouldn’t say he scares me, but he does make me stop and think about what he means, how he touches us all.”

Evan takes another cork-filled sip and swells with a strange pride at the authority he conveys. For once, he sounds like the learned one. Mark has no words, so he settles for gazing into Evan’s eyes, searching his soul for some of that wisdom in the face of unreason that remains so foreign to him. The music and revelry all fade away into oblivion.

“All these statues, all these memorials…sometimes I think all we build is a monument to resist death,” says Evan. “To keep it off, to remember it, to build things that make us forget it. Fly in the face of it.”

“I guess it’s like you say. Gotta find the beauty in what we’ve got. I know I do.”

“You are a beauty, Marky. You’re already there.”

“Hah, preciate it. And, know what? I’m starting to feel it, even when it’s in ruins. It’s everywhere. I am surrounded by beauty. Especially on that beach in Barcelona.”

“Leave it to you to reduce beauty to girls…”

“I mean, what’s beauty if not that?”

“There has to be something more to it. Something more…transcendent. Something—”

“Please don’t tell me you’re going to be a pedant about this.”

“A what?”

“Oh, just keep going.”

“Seriously, though. Beauty in the service of a higher power. Beauty that makes you believe that all of the muck we slog through is all worth it. Beauty that kills any doubt that there’s a purpose here.”

“Yep, you’re a pedant.”

“God, shut up.”

“Fine, fine. But I finally buy in and you just give me…this?”

It’s not that easy. You’ve got to build something strong that can last.” Evan flashes back to his waking thoughts in the villa the previous morning. “A fortress, you know? Those monasteries we saw in Tuscany, they’ve stood the test of time. They’ve endured, even as everything else rose and fell around them…some things can guide us through all the ruins and death.”

“Unless it’s Monte Cassino, cuz we blew that to hell in World War Two.”

“They rebuilt it, didn’t they?”

Mark stops short, and smiles at Evan. “Did they?”

“They did.”



13 Feb

One of the unexpected delights of my writing life has been the occasional opportunity to make real-world connections with readers who share some of the same scattered interests that motivate this blog. This past weekend, one of those connections became real through Jim Richards, whose life story takes him from a childhood in Edina to his hockey-playing days at Dartmouth to a professional life before he and his wife, Mary, decided to go back to the land and move to 350 acres north of Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. They started out with a maple syrup operation and eventually ramped it up to a resort, which now hosts weddings and Concordia language villages in the summer and has become a cross-country skiing destination in winter. The resort, Maplelag, has now been in operation for 45 years. Jim and Mary’s son Jay and his wife Jonell are also involved in its operation, and their four sons have divided their athletic talents evenly between skiing and hockey. They found me through the latter and learned of my interest in the former through my blog, and were kind enough to invite me to spend a weekend in their company.

Maplelag is a little slice of cross-country heaven, with untold kilometers of maze-like trails meandering their way up and down rolling hills and around small ponds and lakes.  The hills are more modest than my usual haunts in the Duluth area, but one never knows what lies around the next corner as one glides along the immaculately groomed narrow tracks through the woods. Despite the frigid temperatures I put in three lengthy skis over two days, at one point even heading back out and putting my skis back on for another loop shortly after I thought I’d finished for a day. It was an ideal escape. Even at a resort full of guests, one can slip out and find solitude on a lonely stretch of trail, and I can’t remember enjoying so many spells of silence and peace in years.

This is not to say that Maplelag is an altogether tame place. The meals are all communal, as guests are thrown together in the dining hall; on this weekend most of my acquaintances were extended families or siblings or parent-adult child combinations escaping for a brief reunion. The age range of the guests went from grandparents to 12-day-old who could practically fit in her mother’s hand, and 3-year-old Ben was among the stars of the weekend as he rode about behind his parental sherpas in a carrier. Maplelag also hosts groups such as high school cross-country ski teams, a sure source of energy, though on this weekend the only large party was there for a yoga retreat. When I wandered into the hot tub on Saturday afternoon, I found myself the lone man among ten wine-drinking women, all of whom were just slightly too old for me. C’est la vie.

The Richardses are a family that seems to have found precisely the right place in life, and in turn share their little slice of happiness with a new crew of visitors every weekend. There are no TVs at Maplelag, and only a handful of the rooms have attached bathrooms. They are simple lodges that take care of the basic comforts and turn the focus back on to the people who occupy them. On the first night we’re all feeling each other out, but by the second we’re sharing beers and the tables are rolling in laughter and we’ve made ourselves a bunch of short-term friends. Who knows, we may run into each other again next season: Maplelag does not seem like the sort of place a person visits only once. Cross-country skiing welcomes all comers at all times, and repeated retreats become tradition.

Tradition is a part of Maplelag’s lifeblood. The rhythms of resort life become routine here. The walls of the main lodge bear bear the fruits of Jim’s explorations to learn the histories of ethnic settlement across the Midwest, with signs from small towns all over the region littering every open space. This being a Nordic skiing resort, the Scandinavian influence is obvious, with a Sunday morning smorgasbord rolling out a delectable array of cheeses to go with the lefse and those delicious little cookies. There is a piping hot sauna, of course, and a hole in the ice down on Little Sugarbush Lake where people with a higher tolerance for cold water than myself can purify themselves. Maplelag pays homage to the best of Minnesotan culture, that inheritance that us children of this state are charged with passing on: simple beauty, restorative escapes, a culture of diligent craftsmanship, and, once the work is done, the freedom to both delight in the sports afforded by a harsh climate and to huddle around a hearth and find warmth in one another once the sun has gone down. There are many other sides to Minnesota, but this life on a lake still captures the best of it, and is something we ought to continue carrying forward for as long as we can.

*    *   *

I chose not to enter the Saturday evening talent show; I would have been upstaged by the young musicians who took the stage, anyway. But if I had, I might have been compelled to do a brief reading from an older piece of fiction I spat out a few years ago. In this scene, the protagonist, a high school senior named Alex, has just moved (much to his dismay) with his father from a fairly cushy childhood at a private school in the Twin Cities to the fictional town of Arcadia, which sits on a lake somewhere in northwest Minnesota, likely not too far from Maplelag. This being my fiction, nothing is ever as simple as it seems, but I don’t think that the looming complications of my characters’ lives do anything to diminish the truth in this passage:

Of Alex’s three new friends, Anders stays in the trouble-free indifference of the present better than any other. Anders Andersen lives two miles north of Arcadia, on a property where his parents own a small cluster of lakeside log cabins designed to welcome in those visitors seeking a sleepy sojourn in the Northwoods. The youngest of three children, Anders took on a healthy share of the property upkeep after his sisters moved out, and as his parents grew older and more sedentary. More than any of his hockey teammates, Anders has to work to balance his various interests, and his schoolwork nearly always takes a back seat to chopping firewood and shooting pucks. But he’s bright enough to scrape by, and he does not feel the parental pressure his teammates do; he simply plods along, and does his weight training with an axe instead of a barbell.

In truth, Alex struggles to relate to Anders; hockey aside, they don’t have much in common. Anders is an avid outdoorsman, while Alex was raised in a germ-fearing bubble; Anders has few reservations, while Alex is careful never to rock any boats; and on a more fundamental level, Alex relentlessly pursues opportunities that come his way, while Anders lets everything come to him. But, as he explains to the half-interested Blake, he needs an Anders in his life to snap him out of his uptight, nervous self. His future may not be any clearer, and he certainly hasn’t made peace with his past; with a father he ignores and friends who barely know him, his present isn’t a dream come true, either. But even so, the tumult of these past few months is a bit less oppressive under the starry Arcadia sky, and Alex goes to bed every night with a feeble smile on his face.

Alex and Blake spend the last week of summer doing odd jobs around the Andersens’ cabins. The quaint log lodges along the lakeshore have all been given names like Loose Moose or Fat Goose or Crooning Loon, and though they exude a timeless rustic charm, they require constant upkeep, especially with the winter looming. The boys patch up the holes between the logs and clean out the wood-burning stoves, and with the tourist season winding down, they also paint some of the boats moored along the dock just below the Clever Beaver.

“They know that doesn’t rhyme, right?” Alex asks Blake.

“Meh. Ya see…hey, what number are you, anyway?”

“What number am I?”

“In hockey.”


“Perfect, we don’t have a ten. From now on, you’re Ten.”

“Um…okay. Anyway…”

“Right. Ya see, Ten, that’s the sort of thing you gotta stop caring about, if you want to let Arcadia do its thing.”

“Alright, but what if I’m not sure if I do?”

“It’s gonna do it whether you like it or not.”

“Well, that’s reassuring,” Alex grumbles.

“It can be, as long as you let it. Seriously, Ten. No shame in taking a shift or two off to get your head back in the game.”

The Andersens pay Alex and Blake in cash, and by ignoring anything that disappears from the extra refrigerator in the lodge. At the end of the day they often slip down to the dock with cans of beer and dangle their legs in the lake, washing away any soreness after their labor. And sore they are: there is nothing simple, nothing relaxing, in the endless caulking and log-rolling under the August sun. At the end of the week Alex’s skin is bronzed, his cap caked in sweat, and he barely has the energy he needs to shoot pucks in the basement after dark. He and Blake gripe about the work as they go, but with generous compensation and school starting next week, they can also laugh at it, knowing their work is not their life.

From their perch they can look across a large bay back at the town, where cars crawl along Lakefront Drive and the Johnson House’s green-gabled roof peeks up above the treetops, lording over the boats edging out of the marina. Sometimes the resort guests will join them, fishing rods in hand, and the ease of anonymity lets them make light of most anything in life. As the distance in time comes to match the distance in miles, Alex is freer to think of St. Ignatius not as some identity stolen away from him, but merely a well of old stories from a different life. In some ways a better life, certainly, but also one he’s lost somewhere out in the murky waters of Lake Arcadia, and for the time being it seems best not to dive in after it, but to simply sit on the dock and remember the one that got away.

Leaving the Garden

18 Jan

This is the next installment in what I’ve been calling a short story collection, but is really coming to resemble more of a serialized novella. I recommend reading the rest first, beginning here.

Mark rises from his bed as quietly as he can. His roommate is already snoring lightly in the next bed, but he can’t sleep. There are too many emotions, too many complicated feelings running laps around his brain. He stands before the window of his hotel room and gazes down on downtown St. Paul, dead at this hour of the night. His jersey lies strewn over the chair in the corner, carefully arranged to show off his school’s name. He’d finally taken it off two hours after the game ended, and even now is half tempted to pull it back on and sleep in it so as not to let it go. So much for all those illusions of his senior year ending in a state championship. He’s failed. But his old impossible standard for himself doesn’t have the same power anymore: he knows he’s fought valiantly, put his team on his back, made 37 saves in a losing effort tonight. He checks his reflection in the window and chances a smile for the first time since the final horn sounded. He’s done alright for himself, all in all, and even he might yet fall for all those clichés about glory days. Now, he just needs one last confirmation of his pride. He checks his phone again. The call comes on time, as it always does.



“God, thanks so much for doing this.”

“Always for you. How’s the team?”

Mark glances at his stirring roommate and pauses. Yes, this conversation is more important than the curfew. He throws on his shoes and heads for the hotel hallway.

“Down, but proud. Exactly how I want them to be,” he says as he slips out the door.

“They know their captain.”

“Did what I could, telling em I was proud of em. Even if I was pissed for all that blown coverage. Should’ve had the second one, too. But, hey, we gave it our all and I think I can accept that.”

“You’re playing for third in the state tomorrow. Hardly any shame there.”

“I know. Course I’m proud of us. And like you said at the start, it was worth coming back to be a leader, pull all those boys along. Even if it wasn’t the same without you.”

“Aww. You gonna miss it?”

“Hard to say, honestly.” Mark gathers his thoughts and finds words he knows Evan will like. “I’m ready to move on. Duluth saved my soul, but it was never entirely me, either.”

“I get that. Didn’t realize how much of a Duluth boy I was until I left.”

“Ha. It was obvious to some of us all along…”

Evan lets out a loud laugh before covering his mouth. He, too, is the only person awake now: his Fargo billet family is sound asleep, including their eleven-year-old who shares a wall with the junior hockey player he worships. Evan is sore from an hour of evening knee hockey on top of the nicks and bruises that bedevil him late in a long season, but the look on the kid’s face makes it all worth it.

“What did you tell them afterwards?” he asks.

“There wasn’t much to say. I just said thanks, said I’ll have my thoughts sorted out a little better by the banquet. I mean…God, you know how much a lot of them drove me insane. I had to learn to hide that. Had to learn your Minnesota Nice shit. But…I love em all for it, even now. It taught me a lot, how to deal with a group. Even when you’re the goalie, you’re not all alone back there. I was telling that to Carson after the game and he just sort of smirked at me like I finally figured something out that I should’ve known years ago. And maybe I did.”

“But it took this to make it real,” says Evan.

“It’s been a strange feeling. I’m just…kind of reflective about it all now. Nostalgic, you know?”

“I know exactly how you feel. It hit me hard toward the end of my senior year.”

“I even behaved myself and didn’t sexile Reuben tonight. No postgame pussy like last year.”

“I take that all back. You’re the worst.”

“I know.” Evan can picture the evil grin on Mark’s face and smiles at the thought. Prior to this year, Mark was the aloof goalie par excellence, and couldn’t be troubled to comment on his teammates’ performance unless they’d hung him out to dry. He had one job, and it was to stop the puck, to the point where he could seem indifferent to wins or losses so long as he performed to the level he expected of himself. He’d never exactly been a model teammate. Now, though, Evan can tell he’s completely invested. He’d particularly enjoyed the sequence caught on camera after the first period when Mark hunted down the referees and looked to have sent them into peals of laughter.

“What did you tell the refs at the first intermission?” he asks.

“That one kid should’ve gotten an embellishment call after Austin bumped him. I said that I could hook them up with someone from the Yale Drama School if they wanna learn how it’s done right.”


“Your chirp game’s never been your forte, Evvy. Gotta know how to work em.”

“There’s nothing worse than a chirpy goalie.”

“Hey, the team loves it, hearing that from me.”

“I don’t doubt it. Maybe that’s what made you all so good this season, just knowing how to stay loose.”

“I wasn’t always great at it, but I learned not be picky. If you can relate, relate, even if it’s on their level.”

Evan marvels at this version of Mark he’s hearing. “Next thing I know you’ll be turning down Yale and playing for UMD so you can stay with your boys,” he cracks.

“Let’s not get too carried away. Some of them didn’t even realize this was the end, you know? Most of em will never get it the way that we do.”

“I don’t think high school’s formative for everyone as it was for me or you. We both went through a little more than most.”

“Me, you, and our daddy issues.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” says Evan. He sighs, unwilling to say more, and Mark waffles on whether to press any further. A door down the hall clicks, and he jumps in shock before recovering his poise. He slips into an alcove next to the ice machine, makes sure the coast is clear, swallows, and asks a question he’s always longed to ask.

“Evs, if you don’t want to answer you don’t have to, but…did you have any idea? Did you get a chance to say goodbye?”

“I didn’t. No.”

“Was there a note?”

“No. I didn’t see any of it coming. There was some stuff here and there maybe, looking back he probably wasn’t himself for a month or two before, but…no. Nothing. No final words. He just said bye to me that morning when I left for school like I always did. I probably didn’t even look at him, it was just…” Evan trails off, but Mark remains silent, and he can’t help but go on.

“It’s stupid. We don’t think these things matter until they suddenly do. Hell, I’m not sure he’d even made up his mind at that point.” Evan cracks, and appreciates the time Mark gives him to collect himself. He’s done everything in his power to pick up the pieces over the past five years, accept the loss of his father and give that loss a place in a well-organized life. He’s made peace as well as he can.

But one nagging worry lingers. Now that he knows loss, he can’t ever fight the sense that he’s wasting time. Every minute is vital, and every moment not spent in full pursuit is just waste on top of waste. He’s nineteen and yet he already feels like he’s let far too much time go by without doing every possible thing there is to do, without telling all the people in his life what he needs to tell them. He lives in eternal fear that his debts will come due before their time.

“Whatever you do, Marky, don’t make that same mistake,” says Evan. He doesn’t say exactly what the mistake was, but the silence on the other end of the line assures him he’s made his point.

Evan’s words weigh on Mark. He knows Evan means this broadly, but in most spheres of life this isn’t much of a concern for him. Mistakes are a rarity in his life. But his mind can’t help but turn to his father’s fortress up the shore from Duluth. He dreads every visit there, and goes only often enough to meet basic obligations. Hockey, at least, gives them something to talk about. His father does push him on colleges, and as a Yale graduate himself, that legacy tie certainly set the table for Mark. In his own way, his father’s terrifying iciness is a necessary antidote to his permissive, weak-willed mother, who only ever aims to give him exactly what he wants. If only there was some middle ground instead of these two polar extremes.

“My dad sent me a text that said ‘good job’ today. Invited me up to have dinner with him at his place next week.”

“That’s good to hear, I guess.”

“I’m not sure you get how crazy that is. He’s never said anything like that. Ever.”

“Why is it that the things we most mean to say are the hardest things to say?”

“I’m not sure how much he actually means it.”

“He does. Trust me. Whether he knows it, whether you know it…I know it’s there.”

“If you say so.” Mark wants to disbelieve Evan, but he can’t quite do so.

“I do.”

“Sorry to drag you down that road.”

“No. It’s good for me.”

“Seriously, how you doing beyond all that? How’s junior life lately? Wait, hang on.” Mark pokes his head out of his alcove to investigate the footfalls down the hall. One of the assistant coaches makes his way toward him with an ice bucket, stopping by each of the players’ doors to listen as he goes. Mark tenses, poised, and waits until the coach puts his head just far enough into one of the doorways that he can’t see the ice machine. He bolts for the stairwell opposite him in four bounding strides, edges the door open, and slips through. Sneaking around the homes of love interests late at night is a specialty of his, after all. Safe and back in control, he exhales and invites Evan to reply.

“Honestly? It’s been frustrating lately.”


“It’s not my style. And…I just, I don’t know. It’s kind of like what we were just saying. If I learned one thing from the shit with my dad, it’s not to take any day for granted. To always make sure I’m building toward whatever comes next. The other kids, they don’t get that. They think they have all the time in the world. I know I don’t. And too often I just feel like I’m spinning my wheels here. All for what? Just a game?” Evan surprises himself with his own fervor, the ease with which half-formed thoughts start pouring out.

“The things we do for hockey. You know you love it, though. This time we boys all get together…can’t trade that for anything. You taught me that more than anyone.”

“Right, I know. But, juniors isn’t high school…it’s a business now. Not that it wasn’t some there, but we had well-rounded lives. You don’t get that when you’re stranded on a junior team in freaking Fargo. You’re such a lucky bastard, heading straight to Yale next year.”

“You might find some willing takers if you looked east, you know.”

“Nah. I can’t leave. I’m too much of a Midwest boy, and I’m smart enough to know it.”

“You just don’t want to be too far from Bridget.” Mark pauses, expecting a rejoinder, but when none comes, suspicion sets in immediately. “She was at the game tonight, you know.”

“Yeah, we were going back and forth as it went along. Wish I could’ve been there next to her to freak out through it in person.”

“You two are such rocks,” Mark probes. Again, silence.

“Something up?”

“It’s…shit, Mark. I hate this place I’m in. Hate it with a passion.”

“What happened?” Evan has never heard such alarm in Mark’s voice.

“I did something really fucking stupid, that’s what.”

“Oh God. Does Bridget know?”

“Not a clue.”

“You just…”

“Yep. Got drunk, was feeling starved, knew I could find someone…so I did.”

“That’s…that’s not what you’re supposed to do.”

Evan sniffs. “I’m a piece of trash!”

“When was this?”

“Yesterday, after watching you win in the quarters.”

“Did you know her?”

“We’d met.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“What I said. She’s been around the team. We’d made small talk in a group. Nothing more.”

“Talked to her since?”

“That I did. Told her I’d made a horrible mistake and that was it.”

“That’s…well…at least you did that.” Mark cannot ever remember being this lost for words. He feels violated, as if Evan has killed some sacred trust that he’s pushed upon him ever since they first met. Evan is the saint who does not sin, the compass who orients everyone he touches toward some moral pole.

It’s laughable, now that he realizes how much he’s idolized him. Their first meeting had been at a party designed to welcome Mark, the goalie recruit with a conveniently timed divorce in the family, to Duluth. It was a debauched affair that became the subject of legend, and ended with Mark setting the reputation for licentiousness that would follow him through high school. Evan had been complicit in its creation, and was never one to avoid the party. But the morning after, with Mark feeling woozy and for once somewhat regretful of his exploits, Evan had taken him aside and grounded him on a walk through a silent, dewy ribbon of park along a dancing stream. Mark had recognized a kindred spirit instantly, and his sophomore self had the wherewithal to latch on and never let go, even if he couldn’t quite articulate why. That Evan who’d taken him under his wing was far too modest, far too responsible, to ever do what this Evan has just done. His world is broken.

“You think you’ve been bad,” Mark says. His hollow laugh echoes up the stairwell, but he refuses to cut it off. He’s forcing this too much, and he isn’t blind to the irony of a serial philanderer coaxing someone like Evan off the ledge. But he is here in this moment, and he must find a way to fill this emptiness somehow. “Remember when we went for that walk the morning after we met? When you told me relax, to not feel pressured, that you’d always have my back and we’d find a way to map out where we were both going next?”

“I was mostly just in awe of you and how you went for it the night before. I knew I couldn’t live that way, but I wanted to get to know someone with the balls to do that in my life.”

“Goes both ways,” Mark says. “You were my hero, Evs. Seriously, you did so much to ground me here. And this team’s been the world to me for the past three years. Wasn’t the same without you this year, but knowing I could pass on what you gave me on to a few of the other boys…it’s an incredible thing you did there. Don’t forget that.”

“Thanks. I needed to hear that. And I needed to tell someone this. I need to figure out what I’m going to say to Bridget now.”

“You could just…let it go. I know you won’t do this again.”

“No. I’d never live with myself. Hang on, the light just went on down here. I’ll call you back in a few.”

“Don’t mind me, I’m just standing in a freezing stairwell. Call back soon.” Evan hangs up on Mark without responding, and Mark sticks his nose back into the hallway. The coast is clear, and the hotel is silent. He rubs his forehead in shock as he tries to register everything he’s heard in the past ten minutes. If it had to come, though, this was the time. This is a moment for weighty affairs, one of those nights where he can step out of the daily drift and feel the full force of the passage of time.

Mark learned early on not to rely on anyone. His father is a mercurial tyrant, his mother a sycophant. His half-siblings ignore him. As a goaltender, he grooms himself mentally by assuming his teammates will screw up everything in front of him, and that he must rise to every occasion. He’s earned his share of vicious social media detractors over the course of high school, both for his cold dismissal of boys who can’t keep up with him and amid circles of girls for his refusal to commit to anything beyond instant gratification. He tells his friends he doesn’t care what the critics think, even as he hones in on their every critique and plots ways to prove them wrong. He always does.

And yet, through it all, he’s found himself a home here in high school, if only for a little while. More than a few people have earned his gratitude, in spite of his moody swings and high demands. He’s grown over these past three years, and Evan has, too, even if he’s just made a colossal mistake. Evan was there for him in his darkest hours, and now it is his turn to return the favor.

Evan, meanwhile, quietly assures his billet mother that everything is fine, that he’s chatting with one of his old high school teammates after the game, that Mark kid he’s told her all about. She smiles at his loyal friendship and wishes him a good night, and he breathes a sigh of relief to know she hadn’t overheard any of his angst. He can’t let them think he’s anything less than perfect. A fool’s errand? Perhaps, but Evan will never apologize for setting standards for himself. It’s who he is. He really is the decent, reliable one. The one who’s adopted their kid as the younger brother he never had. The one who shovels the stoop for them without being asked. The one who goes to parties only out of a sense of duty to his teammates, who always comes home sober and safe. The one who calls his high school sweetheart every night.

Even though he knows Mark is waiting, he doesn’t call back right away. He needs a moment to collect himself, to get over his instinct to recoil in horror as he again probes the depths of the male sex drive, this crude desire for conquest that can consume even his well-ordered mind. It’s always loomed there, ready to take control of him whether he wants it to or not. Not for the first time, Evan thinks this ethical high ground he’s tried to carve out is a wishful illusion. He was timid with Bridget, careful to do it right, and worried about the consequences, but never on any profound level did he judge his acts as immoral. He wanted to have it all, just as Mark said he should, and now he’s not sure he can ever make it.

Where has he made it? A basement bedroom in a nondescript split-level somewhere out on the prairie, hours from any of the people he values above all else. Maybe he should just hang up his skates and move on with life, scholarship chase be damned. He can go back to his people, back to the cradle in Duluth where everything had been fine before it wasn’t. But that’s all gone now. He has to soldier on. He can already guess what Mark will counsel, but he needs to hear it anyway.

“Okay, I’m back. Host mom didn’t hear any of what I said.”

“Good, good. Now, what are we going to do about you?”

“I don’t know. I just feel like I’ve been…ejected from the womb or something. I’m not a kid anymore, Marks.”

“You don’t think your childhood died with your dad? I always thought mine did when my parents’ marriage fell apart.”

“Maybe it did. I wasn’t exactly innocent…but I felt like there was always this sense of direction to what I was doing. I never felt bad about screwing Bridget because that was genuine. But then that became normal, and the appetite just got bigger, and…”

“You don’t need to tell me that story.”

“Can you really separate that our ambitions out from…that?”

“I honestly don’t know.”

“God, humans suck.”

“Well, I don’t know if you can separate it. But you can probably channel it.”

“Like into sports?”

“Exactly. Put all that testosterone to good use.”

“Maybe. I like that. But I also don’t think I would’ve jumped in so quickly if I hadn’t been around all that locker room shit and teammates who were getting it before I was.”

“Maybe not, but you would’ve gotten there eventually. We don’t stay kids forever.”

“I’ve always had this side of me, but I thought I could control it. Turns out I can’t.”

Mark pauses in frustration. This isn’t going the way it needs to go. He paces up and down the stairs and makes a few false starts before he finds the words he wants.

“You sound like you’re drowning in guilt. Guilt and shame. That’s not healthy. There was a lot of that in the world I grew up in. You’ve gotta move past that.”

“Are you trying to say I shouldn’t—”

“No, no. You dug yourself a grave. But it is what it is. We fall, but then fuck it, we get back up and find a way to keep going.”

“I can’t just shrug this off.”

“No, you can’t. You’ve gotta atone or something. But…whatever you do, don’t be a victim. Don’t ever let yourself think you are one, even if you are. Suffering isn’t a virtue. Learning from it is.”

Evan smiles to himself. He can hear the fire in Mark’s voice, and bathes himself the righteousness he preaches. He’s not sure if the voice he hears is some philosopher off of Mark’s reading list or just the unrelenting ego of a kid who knows how to push his mind and body to their utmost limits, but either way, it has set him ablaze. He will make things right. He just needs to settle it all, to ground himself and remember everything he stands for.

“Appreciate that,” he says. “You’re right, of course. But…what do I fall back on? I think I should know how to do things, but I don’t, and when I fail, I can’t even say why I’ve failed, or how I can fix it. My mom spent half her days meditating after my dad died, my aunt tried recommending Bible passages…I don’t have anything like that. I believe in a God, you know that, but not one who gives me easy answers. I just feel alone.”

“Some things you gotta handle alone. As for the Bible, I’ve read the whole damn thing, and you know what I think of it. But you know what the one bit of good advice is in there? The whole ‘be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it’ part. It’s what we do. We take control. And, know what, the fall has to happen when you say that. And wrecking the garden is fun.”

Evan laughs. “Of course you’d say that. I’ve fallen alright.”

“Let Bridget be the judge of how far. Getting through that would be its own conquest, wouldn’t you think?”

“She deserves better.”

“Lovers are never deserved. They’re earned.”

“It’ll take a while for me to trust myself again. I feel so alone here.”

“You’ve got me anytime you want. And I guess if I’m not good enough, you’ve got your God for shit like this, don’t you?”

“Don’t be too respectful of my faith now.”

“I’m serious, man. Shouldn’t you go to confession or something?”

“I’m not Catholic…”

“You know what I mean. Go sit in a church somewhere and clear it all out. I mean it. It’s what you do.”

“I’ll do what I can.”

“All I ask.”

“Love ya, Marky. Thanks so much for this.”

“Likewise. Let’s talk again tomorrow. Night.”

Mark heads back to his room, more awake than ever but certain he’s done his duty in a way that not even his performance in goal tonight could account for. Two-hundred fifty miles away in Fargo, Evan turns off his phone and wanders his bedroom in his billet home as he flows through rapid cycles of despair and anger and resolve and love, over and over again.

He flashes back to a rainy summer day in high school, a moment when he’d wrestled up the courage to admit to his mother that he and Bridget were copulating with some regularity. He’d paced around the house for half an hour before he found the courage to track her down on the front porch. He’d brought them both some tea and for a while they just stood and listened to the tinkling on the wind chimes, a sound forever seared in his mind. He could tell she knew he was about to say something she didn’t want to hear, but she hadn’t forced it. Evan’s confession poured out of him in a few quick lines. He steeled himself for disappointment or anger, but was in no way prepared for the breakdown that followed, his mother lamenting the end of her son’s innocence. She’d cried into his shoulder and he’d stood there and taken it, offered what little hollow consolation he could, and that had been that. She’d conceded his adulthood and welcomed Bridget into her life.

‘Love you,’ he writes in a quick text to his mother. It seems woefully inadequate, perhaps even cause for concern on her part to get this sudden expression of emotion at two in the morning. But he can’t help himself. He can’t go back to the cradle, but so long as he knows this, he needn’t fear the wisdom that comes with the instinct. That woman had moved heaven on earth to protect and guide him after she’d lost her husband. She was the one who’d always ordered him to treat girls with respect, to resist the base instincts that consumed so many of his friends and be the model young man he knew he could be. He can’t fail her again.

He’s tempted to send Bridget the same message, but that’s not nearly enough. He’s going to drive to the Twin Cities tomorrow. He’ll pick her up from their dorm at the University of Minnesota and take her for a walk around the St. Paul Cathedral, say whatever he can say, and if she has some mercy within her, they’ll go watch Mark play in the third place game together. He’ll miss a game, but no matter. He could tell his coach he’s sick, but no, there will be no lies. He will either understand or Evan will pay the price. This is a cross worth dying on.

Mark said he needed a church, but this bedroom seems sufficiently spare to lay himself bare. Whatever deity may be out there, he will hear now from his haunted sinner, and will have to deem whether to offer some counsel or leave him in silence. Evan sinks to his knees at the side of his bed, clasps his hands in front of his forehead, and renews his search.

Mark makes his way back to his room and slips in, but he’s too restless for bed. He has far too many thoughts to ponder, so much of this night to commit to memory. It’s as if his body knows not to waste one second of this day, one of the few when he’s lived to his fullest extent. He brushes his hand over his jersey again, and turns his eyes to his soundly sleeping sophomore roommate. The kid is a Mark disciple, a charmed natural who’s barely known a day of adversity in his life. He’ll learn before long, though. Nothing lasts forever, and all he can do is keep fighting his way forward toward some unseen doom.

Mark grabs a pen and paper from the hotel desk and lets his thoughts flow forth. He writes by the light of the urban glow at the window, and doesn’t bother to re-read any of it. He knows it will all flow out exactly as it should. ‘Open after the last game of your senior year,’ he writes on the outside. He tucks it into the kid’s bag and settles into bed, his normal pride replaced by something much warmer, a gentle tingling sensation that flows through his whole body. Is this what Evan feels when he talks of his god? he wonders. No matter: he’ll milk it for all it’s worth. This sensation can carry him through to the morning, sleep or no sleep, and carry him it will.

Continued here.


My Professor and My Prose

12 Jan

I’m compelled to write a quick post to acknowledge the publication of a new book by Patrick Deneen, a college-era professor of mine now at Notre Dame. I’ve written approvingly of his take on human nature in the past on here. He was certainly a contributor to the philosophical framework that now roughly guides my worldview, and when he told an uncertain Georgetown senior that Duluth needed people like him, he also may have given a dithering kid a necessary kick in the butt.

His book, which effectively distills many of the topics we covered in a Georgetown seminar named “A Humane Economy,” comes with the provocative title Why Liberalism Failed. (Note here that he is not talking about Democratic Party liberalism, but rather the broader definition that includes not only those liberals, but also most of what we in the United States call conservatives.) Not that it’s failing, or might fail in the future: he thinks it is dead. The thrust of Deneen’s argument, as summarized in a recent interview with Rod Dreher, suggests that liberal society is slowly devouring itself as it chips away at the moral and ethical foundations that propped up early modern societies. The left claims that stronger state support will guide people toward freedom while the right believes open markets will do the same, but those two narrow ideologies only tend to reinforce one another, and leave people with less and less control over their own lives. The Trump administration is merely a late stage symptom of a decline set in motion long ago. The solution, though it will not be easy, lies in a return to local cultures; his overarching philosophical framework will help, but is useless without the necessary work on the ground to cultivate something that can last.

Like Dreher, his interviewer here, Deneen is a religious conservative, and that comes out in places in the interview. They’re both following the same strain of political thought as they try to imagine a post-liberal society, but Deneen, I think, may be a better vessel for that message. He acknowledges the remarkable successes of liberal society, and is not about to pine for some lost past era. Dreher’s Benedict Option had very little to say to people who are not already members of committed religious communities, but Deneen, having spent most of his days trying to impart his worldview to skeptical children of the winners of the liberal system at Princeton, Georgetown, and Notre Dame, understands what he’s up against in the broader culture. Of course, he’s also an academic, not a prolific journalist, so we’ll see if this book gets the exposure it deserves beyond a certain corner of the intelligentsia. While I do not share Deneen’s religious views, I think recent events only confirm that he and his fellow travelers have been on to something all along. If people who are honestly trying to grapple with the direction of this country aren’t entertaining this sort of argument in good faith, they’re missing the boat.

The questions Deneen asks are also, believe it or not, the motivating themes behind the collection of short stories that I’m chipping away at on this blog. Sometimes fiction seems a more effective way of making points about the reality we inhabit than writing a philosophical treatise ever could. Ideally, it can also be much more accessible, and much more fun. Grand theory falls away, and we are left only with people, trying to make do. With my characters, who are often gifted but flawed, I seek to give an all-too-human face to the questions that people like Deneen have forced me to ask. They negotiate tensions between self and community, ambition and rootedness, faith and reason, agency and destiny. I tend to write about adolescents and young adults because they, more than anyone, have to confront these questions before they inevitably settle in to the selves they become. My recent arrival into undisputed adulthood has only confirmed this sentiment.

If we’re going to find a guide for how to live in this world, whether we accept Deneen’s post-liberal diagnosis of our current condition or not, we need ways to explore different approaches. Telling people’s stories, real or imagined, is the most effective way to do this. The people in our lives can be superb guides, but humanity’s more impressive achievements often come through imagining an alternate reality, or telling stories of how things could be. These stories can be dangerous; the stakes are higher than we might think. But unless we are perfectly satisfied with what we’ve got, failure to explore different options is a defeat. This is why I write.


Always Running

10 Dec

This is Part 3 in a short story collection. Here are Part 1 and Part 2.

“Alright, this is pretty simple. You’ve got the tent. If you need more water, catch up with me. I’ve got a filter pump in my pack. It’s thirteen miles to the campsite. Whoever gets there first wins.” Mark chances a half-smile to his charge as he deftly lifts a large pack to his knees, swings it on to his back, and snaps a belt buckle into place.

“Why do I have the tent? It’s heavy,” Austin gripes, stumbling as he tries to haul his own pack to his shoulders in one graceless motion.

“Weigh your pack against mine if you want. We’re even, unless you threw in anything else back home.”

“Nah, just some Cope.”

“No, dump the chew. None of that shit.”

“Mrs. Johnson said the Mexicans chew it to keep them going when they’re hiking.”

Mark suppresses a violent groan. “That would be the Incas, bro. And they chew coca, not tobacco.”

“Goddamn, you’re lucky you’re a goalie. I’d pound you so hard in practice if I could.”

“This is what you wanted, right? You wanna get your life back in line? This is how we’re gonna do it.”

“Didn’t realize you were a torturer. Can’t I at least take the water pump?”

“Guess you might need it more than I do. Should be right in that outside pocket.” Mark turns so Austin can reach the zipper and cringes when he hears Austin’s pack go crashing to the gravel parking lot. “I’m keeping the bourbon bottle, though.”

“You brought booze? Thought you were trying to clean me up.”

“I am. Never said I was trying to clean myself up.”

“Fuck you.”

Mark shrugs. “Hey, I’ve got my vices. But they haven’t kept me from getting anywhere I want to go.” He makes a show of taking off his Yale snapback to throw back his hair, the one flourish he’s added to his otherwise spartan trail running attire.

“Some help you are.”

“You said you wanted help, I’m giving it to you my way. You’re in deep now. Hope you can keep up, cuz I don’t let up.”

“You think I can’t keep up? You know how much ice time I was getting last year?”

“You smoke shit and you don’t work out, Breyer. I’m gonna kick your ass.”

Without another word, Mark sets off up the hiking trail at a brisk trot. After a few yells, he hears Austin hoist up his pack and come stumbling after him. Mark decides to toy with him and lets him barrel on ahead. He hangs back for the first two miles, just close enough to hear Austin trundling up the path ahead of him. He closes the gap around the muddy stretches so as to watch in amusement, and tries not to laugh too loudly as he watches Austin stumble through the slop with all the elegance of an obese walrus. For the most part, though, he hangs back, lest he become too distracted by the kid lumbering through the woods in his bulky boots and wife-beater. He should enjoy this, after all. Mark drinks in these woods he’d hiked in his younger years, even takes some time to admire the lowland stands of aspen in a way he doesn’t when he careens down trails. He should have brought along that tree ID book he’d picked up to annoy his ex. He’s forgotten how fun this can be, but another instinct sets in before long.

Mark waits until he gets to the first serious climb up a ridge, and then turns on the burners. He flies past Austin in no time, and while he hears a string vulgar yells and the loud footfalls of an inexperienced trail runner trying to keep pace, he blocks out his feeble follower with a passive smirk and pushes harder. No matter if flying up the first hill is bad trail running form: it’s all a psychological game, and this is where he can destroy the competition. He always does.

Not only that, Mark muses, but he has home ice advantage. He is back in his element, back in his home along Lake Superior’s North Shore, and he could shut out everything else and keep on like this until the end of time. When the trees fade into scrub on the upper reaches of a ridge, he chances a glance backward. He can see Austin laboring a quarter of a mile below him, and the gap widens with each step. But this is no time for cruise control.

He comes to an overlook over a pair of inland lakes, mildly regretting that he can’t linger if he wants to humiliate Austin as thoroughly as he does. Middle school Mark wandered these hills when he found himself desperately out of place in Silver Bay, snuck up to this very spot to steal a first kiss with the ever-so-eager Emma. They didn’t have much in common, but at least she had some understanding of how alien an East Coast blueblood felt in a mining company town. That lost kid seems so far removed from this cynical bastard who now inflicts pain on Austin for his own pleasure, so innocent compared to this craven and compulsive high achiever who simply can’t restrain himself.

But no, he tells himself as he barrels down the next slope as quickly as he dares: he was always like this. He was just as troubled as a fourteen-year-old, grumbling his way through dark and bitter thoughts. Above all, the bitterness: a function of his pride, he supposes, his insatiable ego that even now has him humiliating someone out of some noble quest to save him. Austin is as skilled a defenseman as his high school has ever produced, but with lackluster grades and a fondness for illicit substances, he’s failing to live up to his hype. Mark had lashed out at him in front of the entire team in a summer captains’ practice, and Austin replied by calling Mark a spoiled daddy’s boy who hadn’t had to work for anything. In response, Mark offered to teach him a lesson on what a work ethic could do, and to his shock, Austin took him up on it. That was all the spark he needed to know there’s something worth saving beneath a kid who otherwise struggled with anything beyond monosyllables. He’d like to think he’s in a different league from this bumbling hick with his souped-up truck littered with empty cans of chew, but in the end they’re both vain, horny boys whose athletic exploits are their claim to fame. This, of course, is too close for Mark’s comfort.

And so he’s hatched this ridiculous trail run to make his power clear. Not that it won’t tax him some, too. The next descent is so filled with choppy rocks that he doesn’t move any faster than he would if he’d been hiking. He stumbles, and scrapes his hand as he catches himself on the trunk of a birch tree. A few more mornings at the gym and a few less wine-and-deep-thoughts nights with Evan would probably have made his dominance that much more thorough. A slight price to pay, he supposes, to steal a few final nights with his departing best friend to confront life’s great worries. Evan may have left Duluth, but he still has a question to debate with him the next time they talk: is he leading Austin on this run because he truly cares about the kid, or is it just to prove to himself that he can capture anyone, make them bow down before him as he shows off his control? Mark Brennan: egomaniac, his every maneuver a ruse to win at another slice of life.

Mark begins to mount the largest hill on the route, a gradual but unending 700-foot climb, and shuts out his meandering mind to focus on his ascent. He surges with energy and finds another gear, even as his lungs struggle to keep up with his legs. Finally, he summits the hill. He comes to a rocky outcropping over a complete panorama, both inland lakes nestled among the hills to the north and Superior, lost in a light haze, to the south. The fog will come rolling in before long, he expects; hopefully Austin doesn’t do something stupid and wander off the trail, or, worse yet, bail on him when he gets to the state park and hitch a ride back to his truck, which they’ve stationed at the tail end of the hike.

He does some rudimentary math, decides he has some time. He nibbles on a granola bar and cracks open the bourbon, sips lightly. The fog rolls in even faster than he’d expected, and suddenly even the inland lakes begin to fade. He’s caught in a cloud. Symbolic of something, he figures, laughing to himself. His younger self had loved the metaphor of running up hills, always in pursuit; it had become sort of a credo for him and his closest friends, all Type A athletes who push themselves to the brink in every aspect of life. Even now, he still gets that runner’s high. But it doesn’t take long now for it to lapse into frustration. All this running, but for what?

He hypes the chase, but he’s not sure when he’s ever done much that wasn’t expected of him. He’s been an utterly conventional all-American boy, a straight-A student and a hockey star who’s always had his choice of girls. His one failure, he figures, was with Jackie, the unrequited lover in Evan’s grade who’d strung him along for a couple of years when he always knew he was merely a Plan B. He’d come away hardened, content to view love as a cynical pact between himself and anyone who would open up her legs for him. This past week, that meant a college-age friend of some ex-teammates, one willing to take a ride with the smooth high school senior who knows just how much he can drink before going over the edge. She’ll blur in with the rest before long.

And where has it all left him? Alone in his monumental solitude, and for all the culture and knowledge he’s accumulated, for all of the accolades, he is still no better than anyone else at controlling the impulses that flow through him. He should be able to pause and think clear thoughts like this at will, to step back and play a long game, master tactician that he is. Instead, he just pushes harder. His meeting of goals has only grown more relentless and the thrill he gets from them only shrinks, perhaps because they all seem so instrumental, merely another line on a résumé that cannot be anything less than perfect.

Is he just an achievement machine, incapable of intimacy? No: he’s had it, both in fleeting moments with Jackie and of course with some of his boys through those male bonds he cherishes. But that’s all disappearing now. Jackie is going to college in Chicago, and Evan is off to junior hockey in Fargo. Mark, meanwhile, is left behind in a dead end Rust Belt town where all the girls seem to fall short somewhere on the three-legged stool of ambition, attractiveness, and brains. And despite his seeming status as the big man on campus, his list of close male friends left is also vanishingly small, a frustrating collection of sexually desperate and dim jocks, insufferable self-seekers who think they’re cultured because they own guitars or read Kerouac, and decent people whose idea of fun somehow involves sitting in the cold for endless hours with fishing rods or guns. His family, forever trapped in its infighting, is no fallback, either.

Mark hates himself for how uncharitable this all sounds. All his urges to diagnose and analyze leave him estranged from anything resembling intimacy. He scolds Austin for being an addict, but sometimes he thinks his own addictions are far worse. He has that insatiable hunger, the same desperate search for everything that led his father to make millions and dump both his first wife and Mark’s mother. He doesn’t want that life. How he’d like to build something of his own, find some way to resist all the entropy around him and marvel at something beautiful for more than a few fleeting seconds.

Tears well up in Mark’s eyes. It’s an alien sensation, one he can’t remember happening since some preschool playground injury. His parents’ protracted divorce, those crushing season-ending losses, the end of the affair with Jackie: they had all inspired bitterness, self-flagellation, wistful wishes of what could have been. But never this. Is this really sadness? he wonders. These are spontaneous tears, and he’s not sure quite exactly why they come. He sinks to his knees on the hard rock, shivers slightly now that he is fully swathed in this blanket of fog. He reaches up to wipe his eye, but decides he should just let the tears flow. Evan would be proud of him; he’s been trying for years to draw this sort of raw sincerity out of his best friend. Mark won’t say a word about this to him, knowing he’ll get a full lecture on the power of the world beyond him or some such nonsense. And yet, here he is: he can still break through the cynical shell when he pushes himself to the limit in some new way. Half a laugh escapes his lips, and a smile forces its way across his face to divert the tears sideward.

Now, finally, Mark reminds himself who he is. The Yale-bound renaissance man, the most formidable goalie in the state. The Platinum Curtain, a nickname for the rich kid with sweeping blonde hair that he must outwardly disdain but secretly loves. He may not have a girlfriend, but he knows what he wants in one, and he’s had no trouble finding mutual pleasure in the interim to satisfy his cravings. And above all, he knows he has the wisdom to continue a search for meaning through all of this, that his dithering and dwelling on his past need not be a weakness. He runs to cleanse his soul, to bring new clarity to his many pursuits, and the aches in his knees just purge his pent-up frustration. There you go, Evan, he thinks to himself: he’s a believer after all, even if that belief never quite goes beyond his own self. He hops to his feet and careens down the next slope faster than ever before.

Mark feels a pang when Austin stumbles into camp two hours after nightfall. He is a disheveled wreck, leaves caught up in his shoulder-length hair and one leg dragging behind him and in obvious pain. Doing his best to keep up a businesslike front, Mark offers him a first aid kit, a hairbrush, and a few sips from the bottle. Austin is so drained he cannot even muster up any anger at Mark for his death march, even though Mark suspects he would deserve it. Proof he isn’t as soulless as he pretends he is: he feels guilty, not only because he knows how vicious he’s been, but because he’s known it all along, and never done a thing to change it. He must repent now, somehow, even if his audience is a woeful meathead who won’t understand a word. No matter how hard he tries, he can’t kick that Christian instinct.

“Goddamn, you can run.”

“Been running all my life, one way or another,” the sinner confesses.


“I’ve been running from losing. Afraid to lose. Afraid of losing more than I already have…which is plenty.”

“You, lose? You’re the golden boy.”

“You don’t know…no. I’m not going to rant about that.”

“Shit, I’m sure you’ve had it rough.”

“Fine, you wanna know why I did this to you? It was cuz you called me a daddy’s boy. Well, try having a dad who tells you that having you was a mistake. That he wishes he’d never slept with my mom. Wanted her to get an abortion. Who can’t manage one word of praise for his kid who’s only ever done everything right. Or try having a mom who’s sweet to you but who’s so fucking clueless cuz she doesn’t get your dad’s world or any of this drive he’s infected me with to never lose. Or maybe try watching your brothers and your sister never answer you cuz they hate you for ruining their family. Try getting forced to move to a place that feels like the end of the earth filled with shits like you.

“And you know what I did? I made myself a home. Home in a dead end city in a fracturing world…but, god, I love it to death. It was the only place I could do it. The golden boy figured out what he meant to do. And you wanna tell me I’ve never worked?”


Mark laughs.

“You think you’ve got something you’re meant to do?”

“Yeah. A destiny.” The words sound almost hollow to Mark; it’s the sort of thing Evan or some of those athletes who slap Bible verses in their social media profiles would say. But he loves the taste of them as they roll from his lips, and figures he could get used to them.

“You’re fucking crazy.”

Mark purses his lips, manages to hide any sense that he’s been struck dumb. He casually stretches out his legs, knowing Austin has no such dexterity left after his run.

“Crazy enough that you’re here with me cuz you know I know something you don’t.”

Austin looks at him in incomprehension, but Mark doesn’t care: he pulses with power, and loves every second of it. But he has to bring Austin along. What good is his power if he doesn’t use it? Everyone in his life has a lesson for him, if only he can unlock it. Those cruel dismissals of other people in his life? That’s his father talking, not him. He is not that man. That isn’t what Mark Brennan does. He rises above.

“Sit back and relax, man, let me cook ya some food and tell ya what I know. I can’t guarantee I’ve got answers, but at least I know I’m asking the right questions.” For once, Mark even believes it.


Muir and Roosevelt

5 Nov

The small lake’s resident loon eyes the sudden disturbance to its serene waters with suspicion. The dull clunks of paddles on aluminum echo across the darkening waters as a pair of tired canoers ply their way toward a low-lying peninsula. After five lakes, a beaver dam-filled creek, and seven portages, the paddlers are alone in the midst of the wilderness. A sudden wind picks up tosses their canoe from side to side, an ominous reminder of how alone they are if something goes wrong.

Evan had hatched this journey just the week before. He’d imagined it as a restorative trip before the start of his senior year, a chance to be alone with his favorite confidante, a rising junior named Mark who’d moved to Duluth the year before. Mark is an outcast in northern Minnesota, the precocious child of a family that had accumulated vast wealth on Wall Street before a string of affairs and divorces had driven them to attempt a refresh along the shores of Lake Superior. His father had paid Evan’s freight to an exclusive hockey camp earlier in the summer, so this invitation seemed the best way he could pay Mark back, even if a canoeing permit pales in comparison to a week with a host of ex-NHLers. But Mark, he knows, appreciates the gesture, and welcomes a chance to escape the juvenile locker room antics that bore him.

What he did not count on was Mark’s complete disinterest in stopping to gaze up at the eagle in the tree on the second lake, or to study the flowers and listen to the birdsong along the creek. Evan had hoped to revisit a couple of lakes he’d paddled with his dad five years earlier, but instead, they’ve pushed themselves to the limit, traveled about as humanly far from civilization as possible. But while Mark has set the pace, Evan finds himself drunk off his longing for ever greater solitude, and takes a perverse pride when Mark is the first one to suggest they bring their day’s journey to an end.

“Okay, would really like to find a campsite before dark, bro.”

“It says there should be one here.” Evan grimaces as he stares down at the sopping wet map while still halfheartedly paddling the canoe forward.

Mark surveys a rock-strewn shoreline that fronts a dense thicket of tamaracks. “There isn’t.”

“I’ve noticed.”

“Give it here.” Mark leans over the bulging packs in the center of the canoe, stops to stabilize the rocking craft amid the chop, and snags the map.

“Oh, come on. Learn to read. It’s on the next point.”

“Fine, fine. Maybe wanna help me out here?” Evan paddles frantically to guide the canoe away from the rocks. Their chatter, incessant all afternoon, dies as they swing their bulky craft back outward into the lake and steer it into the next bay, where the waves return to a manageable level.

“The mosquitoes are getting me even with all this wind,” Mark grumbles, his paddle strokes reduced to feeble splashes as he slaps at his barren knees. “I need more bug dope. God, why did we think this was a good idea?”

“You’re cute when you’re angry.”

“Oh, shut it.” Mark resists the urge to pile on. It’s the sort of thing his dad would do on one of their family vacations to the Caribbean when he inevitably lashed out at his mother for being late for dinner or forgetting to buy enough rum. He is not his father. For that matter, Evan is not his mother. Mark’s dad sometimes had a point, even if the way he expressed it usually led Mark to hide in his room, where the goalie-in-training would bounce tennis balls off his wall and try to stop them from getting past him. His release had the added benefit of making an obnoxious racket that would occasionally distract his parents from their yelling. Occasionally.

“Damn, now we’re going straight into the sunset,” Mark complains.

“You could, you know, actually wear your cap forwards to shade your eyes.”

“C’mon Evs, you know I’m too vain for that shit.”

“I’m sure you’re gonna pick up a lot of girls out here.”

“Little sympathy here? Not all of us can have perfect girlfriends like you.”

“I tried to get Bridget to come, but she won’t sleep in a tent. And I don’t think my mom would’ve gone for that anyway.”

“I love how your mom thinks she’d be a bad influence on you, but just loves me.”

“Well, you are scary good at fooling adults into thinking you’re not the little shit that you are.”

“You’re not half bad yourself.”

Evan grumbles but settles for channeling his mixed emotions into a few powerful strokes. Mark is right, of course: compared to much of the hockey team he’s the quiet and articulate one, the one who’s seen a bit more in life than most. He’s built himself an image as the saint. But when he looks at his own conduct over the past year—sneaking out to surf when he can, the stolen moments with his girlfriend, lying through his teeth at those events where role model high school athletes tell younger kids to stay away from parties—he hardly thinks he deserves that reputation. The simple fact that he’s drawn to the likes of Mark instead of some more modest friends, he suspects, shows where his true loyalties lie. No regrets, he tells himself, or at least not any glaring and lasting ones.

“Heyo…look, there’s a campsite,” Mark announces, breaking Evan’s reverie. “Amazing what you can find when you can read a map. Nice big rocks, should block out all this wind.”

“Means we’re gonna get eaten alive by bugs.”


“It’s this or another portage at dusk. Remember how much you hated the last one?”

Mark swats a mosquito on his arm and eyes the flies circling his head warily. “The portages only suck when you’re on them. Easy to bounce back from. Just like going over the boards for another shift, right?”

“Like you’d know, ya damn goalie. We do that next one, you’re carrying the canoe and doing the cooking in the dark.”

“Actually now that you mention it, this site here looks just fine.”

“That’s what I like to hear.” Evan guides the canoe into a rocky landing, and a few clunks of the canoe on the rocks again shatter the silence on the lake. Mark hops out and maintains some measure of grace as he pulls the prow into a small bite in the shore. He dances a mosquito-directed jig as Evan methodically clambers over the bags and on to dry land. They haul their bags and the canoe up on to an embankment and collapse on to the log alongside the fire ring.

“Well, considering how far we came, we made damn good time,” says Evan, tracing their route on the map. “Course it helps when your travel partner only has one speed and is getting D-I scouts looking at him…”

“Would’ve been faster if those dicks at the second portage didn’t take up the whole landing.”

“Not sure if they were more bitter about how we went blasting past them or what you said to them.”

“It needed to be said. Might be my first time in here, but at least I know my freaking etiquette.”

“Glad you paid attention to that Leave No Trace video.”

“Or I’m just a model of decency. East Coast class, baby.”

Evan’s eyes roll into the back of his head, but the buzzing mosquitoes distract him from a retort. They’re out for blood, so he picks out a tent pad and sets Mark to staking it out while he fumbles for the cooking gear.

“Where’d you get all this stuff?” Mark asks as he admires the little-used tent.

“It’s left over from my dad.”

“He was outdoorsy?”

“In a good, Minnesotan way. Camped, fished, hunted. Learned it from his dad, taught me enough to get by.”

“You did all that, too?” Mark asks. Evan has surprised him before, but he has yet to get him to join in one of his trail runs or early morning swims across the lake at a mutual friend’s cabin. For good or ill Evan isn’t ever one to rebel against a group, even as he stays in careful control of himself. He is an utter conformist, if at least a thoughtful one. This invitation into the wilderness was a shock, the closest thing to a risk he’s ever seen. Unless he’s hiding more? Mark has seen Evan’s brooding look just often enough to believe his friend may be capable of things he doesn’t let on.

“I know, I know. Never really liked fishing, thought it was boring. I was way too much of a mama’s boy to ever kill anything. My mom’s sold off the guns now anyway. Your dad ever do much like that?”

“My mom’s family did, actually, but nah, you can’t catch my dad sleeping on anything other than Egyptian cotton. He likes his nature, but from a safe distance. And he’s pro-Second Amendment since he’s a good Republican, but god forbid he actually pull a trigger himself.”

“Figures,” says Evan. This is either the seventh or eighth time Mark has bemoaned his father’s hypocrisy since the start of the day, a habit that long ago wore thin. “Hey, you know how to use a water filter?”

“No freaking clue.”

“Here, I’ll teach you. Come on down here…just watch, it’s not hard.”

“Emma tried to get me to drink lake water straight once. That was a red flag right there.”

“That was your Silver Bay girlfriend?”

“Yup. Total granola girl.”

“Somehow I don’t see that being your type.”

“Eh. Fun to fool around with, but so damn flaky.”

“Now that I can see.”

“We’d go on day hikes so we could make out in the woods and smoke some pot. Or, mostly, she smoked pot and I played along just enough to seem cool so I’d get what I want.”

Evan groans. “Don’t know why you’d need an altered state what you’re already sort of in one just being out here. God, I love it. Or, I guess it would be more of an unaltered state. Untouched by man, cept for us campers.” He smiles, hoping to draw at least some momentary appreciation for their surroundings out of Mark.

“And the loggers who clear cut the whole thing and gave us the forest as it is now. Or the natives who managed it forever before that. Or—”

“God you always ruin things.”

“Plus I hope you don’t mind a little altering after dinner.”

“Shit, man. What’d you bring?”

“Whiskey.” Mark fetches a bottle from his pack and slams it down next to the sputtering camp stove. “Hauled that over all those portages, it better be good.”

“Damn. You ever had Scotch before? Where’d you get it?”

“Nope. But divorce has its pluses.”

“I should’ve known,” Evan says, shaking his head. “Your mom’s little prince gets everything he wants.”

“She’ll do anything to make me like her after what she put me through. Kinda sad, but I’m gonna milk it for all it’s worth.”

“And I’m sure the kind that comes in a plastic bottle is the top shelf stuff.”

“Here, let’s take a swig. Worth celebrating that we made it this far.”

“I’m game.” Evan suppresses his natural fear, cracks the bottle, and knocks it back. “Woah. That’s fiery. Way better than most of the cheap stuff we normally get.”

Mark follows suit. “Yeah, this I can do. Good call, me.” He kicks back and takes a second sip, freed from momentary mosquito annoyance and mustering up his cockiest smile.

“God, we’re terrible.”

“Come on Evs. You and me, we’re some of the most responsible people out there. I’m not gonna feel guilty that I can handle my shit.”

“Good way to put it…but I’m gonna remember that line next time I have to babysit hung over Marky.”

“Harsh, harsh. What’s for dinner, anyway?”

“Pasta. Only thing I know how to make, so I hope you like it.”

“Well, we can wash it down pretty easy.”

“Only then we’ll have to pee when the bugs come out.”

“‘When they come out?’ They’re already draining pints.”

“Oh, just wait till dark when it gets totally still.”

“So much for campfires and marshmallows.”

“I’m sure you’re real sad we’re not gonna get to sit around and tell ghost stories.”

“You know I love my alone time with my Evs. Gotta steal you away from Bridget every chance I get.”

“She does say you’re the best third wheel she knows.”

“What an honor. Real fun for me to hang at your place when you’re banging however many times a week.”

“Oh, shut it. As if you don’t wheel with the best of them.”

“Just…nah. Doin my best not to moan. I’ll get there.”

“That’s my Marks. Hey, we’re boiling here.”

“Thank God.”

Dinner is a rushed affair, one punctuated by the steady staccato of mosquito swats and a chorus of curses from Mark, interspersed by the occasional grumble from Evan. After the dinner Evan washes the plates as rapidly as he can while Mark surprises himself by successfully hanging a bear bag on his first attempt. Confident that he’s completed every task on his checklist, Evan deems their evening a success. The Scotch bottle then heads straight into the tent, where the two boys take long pulls during their search-and-destroy mission aimed at the mosquitoes who have made it in the doors.

“Ah, damn, this one’s inside too. How are we supposed to sleep with all this buzzing?” gripes Mark as he smashes another bug into the mesh door.

“They’ll die down. Maybe if we’re lucky we can go out and look at stars later. Can you grab my book from the bag?”

“Yeah, what you got…a John Muir bio? Hah. Someone’s stickin with the theme.”

“What do you have, backlogged Wall Street Journals?”

“Close enough. Last four copies of The Economist.”

“God, you’re predictable, you tool.”

“As if you aren’t, ya damn hippie.”

“I read one book about Muir and now I’m a hippie?”

“You do kinda have that vibe.”

“What vibe? Like I smoke pot and drive a flower bus?”

“Nah. Just okay spending time with yourself in the woods.”

“Huh, wonder why I’d have that after what’s happened in my life.”

“Not everyone goes that direction when the shit hits the fan.”

“As you always remind me.” Evan smirks at Mark to show his dig is all in good fun, and Mark shrugs in concession and returns to his magazine. His eyes travel across the text, but retain little: the light is bad, and even he has to admit that a bunch of sarcastic Brits’ thoughts on inflation in sub-Saharan African nations doesn’t quite fit the mood of the moment. He takes another swig from the bottle and casts a sidelong glance at Evan, composed and buried in his book. Annoyed, he looks away, and makes the mistake of turning his gaze up toward the mob of mosquitoes trapped between the tent and the rain fly.

“God, that buzzing doesn’t stop.”

“Kinda makes you think you need to pee, doesn’t it?” Evan flashes a grin.

“You’re evil. You’re actually evil.”

“I thought I was the saint in touch with nature.”

“You had your chance up until now. Now, no chance in hell.”

Evan returns to his reading material and Mark reluctantly follows suit, and the two strain their eyes as the sunlight slowly fails. Evan pulls out a mini lantern for a spell, but he can see Mark fidgeting out of the corner of his eye, and suspects he needs to provide some entertainment. Before long, he shuts off the light and gazes out at the emerging stars.

“John Muir was kind of a mystic, you know. Felt like the trees and the waterfalls spoke to him, in a way. Basically all the wilderness people were like that, Aldo Leopold, Sigurd Olson up here when they made the Boundary Waters. It was a big fight to get it. You need some kinda conscience to make that movement happen, some deep faith. You gotta believe in what you see around you. But when I’m out here, just looking out at that sunset and that still lake…I get it.”

The darkness hides Mark’s scowl. Is this Evan taking a poke at his militant atheism, or just him trying to one-up him with his more appropriate reading choice, always-perfect Evan yet again made one with his environment in a way that Mark, for all his worldliness, cannot?

“When people start talking to me about their chats with trees,” he says, “well, we’ve got hospitals for that kind of thing.”

“You’re so joyless.”

Mark shrugs. “Just think the world can be a pretty place without throwing in gods under every little rock.”

“Maybe. But it’s more than that, you know? Out here, all those things we worry about every day just seem…small.”

“Matthew Four.”

Evan shakes his head, unsure what this means. Mark mumbles something about years of brainwashing and Evan doesn’t press it, knowing it will invoke Mark’s typically vulgar reaction to the Evangelical childhood his philandering parents tried to force upon him. Mark is relieved that Evan lets it go, but, knowing Evan, he’ll tuck this away, look it up when he gets back to technology, and subject him to conversation when he drives him home after hockey practice next week. Mark knows all of this; why, then, this need to murmur that verse? Instinct, he figures, and the knowledge that Evan will understand when he does look it up. Evan plays the humble game, but Mark knows that a god complex lurks beneath. Would they be friends otherwise?

Mark knows it because he lives it. He usually took advantage of his mother’s inability to instill discipline in the Sunday school class she taught at their Silver Bay church to play cell phone games with the closest things he had to friends there in the back of the classroom. But, being the overachiever he always is, he’d still memorized all the Bible verses they studied. He’d enjoyed Matthew Four because it was Jesus at his most badass: going straight into the wilderness and thrice thwarting the devil himself. He’d wanted to be tempted in that same way, to prove his worth. For Mark, the allure of wilderness isn’t in the promise of solitude: it is in its war with temptation, a war he must prove he can win. He always wins.

“I still say getting out of tents and into AC was a win for humanity,” he says. “How many freaking people are gonna die in Africa tonight cuz they get bit by the wrong mosquito, and here we are going into the woods to do it to get away from our first world problems.”

“You thought it was a fun idea to come here…”

Mark collects himself before responding. “I did. And I still do. But because I love to conquer shit and push myself, and this is an easy way to do it. And, like I said, gets me some alone time with my Evs.”

“Let’s save the kissing for later. But—how bout this. I just read this chapter on Muir and Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy’s like you, East Coast money, total boss, all about conquering the world. But he got it, he knew why we need to do this. When he went to Yosemite, he and Muir snuck off and just spent three nights in the wilderness, deep talks the whole time. Talk about living.”

“That’s awesome, I’ll give you that. Hell, I think anyone we elect President should have the balls to go out and do that. Still…goes to show you can love this without becoming one with the trees or whatever shit like that.”

“But Teddy loved being with Muir. He understood what he was talking about, even though he couldn’t stay. He had this…this feel for things beyond him.”

“What are you trying to say?”

“It’s…” Evan struggles. “It’s like this. Why do you always have to play the hardass, man? I get it and I love it when you do it. But sometimes…I just think you’re so sure that you think you know all there is to know that you just get a little…blind.”

Mark collects himself, again talks himself down from a vicious rebuttal. “Wouldn’t doubt it. You’re not the first person to tell me that. But wonder alone ain’t a gospel.”

“No, of course not. Not sure it needs to be. Still really hurts to lose it.”

“I believe that. And I need to piss.”

Evan cackles. “Have fun! Don’t let too many mosquitoes in when you get out…”

“Gonna leave the door open for a while just to spread the love.”

Evan purposefully kills the unwanted entries as Mark takes his leak. He can lead a friend to wonder, but he can’t force him to see it. It’s a pity; who knows what a god-driven Mark would be capable of? Instead he meanders, forces the issue when he sees fit and practically always wins when he does, but Evan senses no underlying strategy or logic, not even from the smartest kid he’s ever met, the closest thing to a kindred spirit he has. Is there one for anyone? Perhaps not; not entirely, at least. But there can at least be some guiding maps across the portages between these lakes. This is what he seeks in his releases; this is what Evan DeBleeker lives for. Contentment wafts over him, and he lets loose a sudden laugh: somewhere in here is his college admissions essay.

Mark returns, cursing up a storm. Evan joins in the silent slaughter of mosquitoes, but isn’t sure how to convey his sense of serendipity. He arranges a ragged old PeeWee State Tournament sweatshirt as a pillow and zips his way into his sleeping bag. Mark, however, stays sitting upright.

“Do you think it’s good to go chase the wonder on purpose like this?” he asks. “Or should we just let it come when it’ll come?”

Evan sinks further back into his sweatshirt-turned-pillow and closes his eyes. “I dunno that you can force it. You’ve at least gotta be open to it, though, right? And willing to wait, or find it in places where it’s not always easy. Travel does that for me, usually.”

“I get that. Seeing new stuff and all.”

“Yeah, that’s it. And…maybe places that bring out memories, too. Nostalgia.”

“Your dad?” Mark asks. He takes Evan’s silence as assent. “It’s tough for me to feel nostalgia much, honestly…maybe I just gotta build it where I am. Least I’ve got the people to do it with now.”

“Aw. Best way I’ve heard it.”

“Bro, you’re the best there is at breaking me down.” Evan once again stays silent, sure that Mark can read the necessary message from it. Satisfied, he begins to drift off. Sleep does not come as easily to Mark; it never does, his mind still racing along at breakneck pace, trying to make sense of his best friend’s simultaneous poise and lingering grief before his mind wanders off to his old girlfriend Emma, his parents’ failed love life, and whether he should play his senior year of high school hockey or run off to juniors once Evan, one year his senior, has graduated and he loses the only person he’s ever felt comfortable telling the full story of his family. In time the drone of the mosquitoes starts to wane, and the loon resumes its mournful lament. Mark shivers and huddles up in his sleeping bag, but the cool night air only invigorates him. The soft wind pouring through the tent door reminds him of the breaths of breeze through the windows in his father’s ridgetop fortress up on the North Shore of Lake Superior, a place that brings him no joy but still carries the air of some simpler time.

“You awake, Evs?”


“Shit, sorry.”

“I’m awake now I guess. Was having this dream, though…”

“What kind?”

“Don’t remember. It was good, though.”

“Damn. Sorry.”

“Nah. Dreams are fun, but they’re not real.”

“Not unless we make them real.”

“Anyone can, it’s you. Go get it, Marks.”

“I will. But man, let’s make sure we keep doing this. Once a summer, once a year, in our backyards or off in some other country when we’ve got the time and the cash…just me and you, getting out and escaping so we can see it all.”

“Just keep the search alive. Ya got yourself a deal, Marky,” Evan mumbles. Within seconds, he’s issuing the deep breaths of sleep. Chagrined, Mark settles back and looks toward the stars. He tries to pick out constellations, but his memory for such trifles isn’t what it should be. What a shame, he thinks. He’ll have to fix that.

Here’s the next piece in this series.


A Wave of Purity

27 Aug

Thanksgiving morning finds Evan driving alone up the shore of Lake Superior; alone, save for the urn of ashes riding shotgun. He’s had his license for three weeks now, and every acceleration in his mom’s old car still feels like a new burst of freedom, one mile closer to some reunion with an unseen destiny. Not that he can drive without some anxiety. His nerves rise when he crosses the patches where the road, coated by spray from this November gale, glistens in the car’s headlights. This all still has the feeling of a forbidden pleasure, one of which his dad at his best would have no doubt approved. Those moments were rare toward the end, and as depression consumed and defeated Evan’s once vibrant guide. For now, though, he can choose what he remember of the man whose ashes ride along at his side. His old man will inspire him. The rush only grows as he swings on to a puddle-strewn gravel road out toward a point some ways north of town.

He didn’t want to spend this holiday with his mother’s family, not after what they’d said about his dad at Thanksgiving a year ago. He is too loyal to his father to blame him for leaving him behind, and the inundation of pity from the extended family was too much to endure. The visit over the summer had been even worse: didn’t his mother think Evan was letting himself go, they’d asked. He needed a haircut, he was far too young for that dating app, and he could probably use some friends who got him back in touch with that artistic side he’d used to show. This is what she got for letting her late husband turn him into a jock instead of making sure he followed in his cousins’ footsteps to choir and cello scholarships.

His mother, to her credit, stood up for his freedom to live as he pleased. She understood the adolescent impulses at play when he said he’d rather stay home for Thanksgiving, enjoy some personal time and feast with an accommodating friend’s family later in the day. He feels vaguely treacherous as he surveys the shoreline here, in full betrayal of her faith in his good decision-making. But somehow, he knows he’ll have no trouble drowning the guilt.

The stormwaters hammer away at a rocky beach. A few gawkers are on hand to admire the swells, but Evan makes sure to park as far from anyone as he can. He stops to admire himself in the mirror: yes, all this effort he’s put in to make himself look good over the past year has paid off. He smiles at himself, then reaches beneath the surfboard jutting through the middle of the car and fishes out the wetsuit at the feet of the passenger’s seat. It will be tight on him; he’s grown a few inches since he got it for Christmas two years ago. But he forces his way into it, an unwieldy dance between himself and Neoprene and the steering wheel at his knees. He’s in no rush, takes measured pride in his efforts. Every move is steady, deliberate, dripping with certainty. As it should be.

He pops the trunk throws open his door only to have the wind nearly blow it shut in his face. He struggles out into the elements, makes his way to the back of the car, and scans the road: no, no one can see him. He pulls out the board, fights the wind as he closes the trunk, and picks out a path down to the rocks. A heat wave the previous week melted all the snow, but thin layers of ice carried in by the lake force him to fixate on each small step down to the shore. He’s seen big waves before, knows the danger they bring. But the steely grey sky and the bone-chilling cold reveal a malice he’d never known in the Great Lake before. If he picks the wrong waves, he’s most certainly dead.

Evan is not a veteran surfer. His résumé is limited to a series of vacations on the California coast, all of which started with noble intentions of conquering waves that swiftly dried out when his mediocre swimming skills ran up against the endless need to paddle outward. His mother dissuaded him at every chance she got, but his dad was always the trusting soul who knew his otherwise religiously risk-averse son ought to catch a wave when it rose up before him. As far as his mother knows, the surfboard is still gathering dust in the basement, a forgotten relic of happier days when they’d escape to San Onofre for spring break. But he’s put in his time to plan for this day. He’s researched this shoal meticulously, made three drives out this fall when he only had his permit, the closest thing his mother’s little saint has ever come to rule-breaking (whatever his worrying aunt may say). He chose each of those visits to survey the waves in prime conditions, to watch a couple of locals in action. But on none of those occasions had the winds approached this vicious pummeling power. His knees are quaking as he stares out at the roiling waters, his tremors in no way related to the cold.

His face clenches up into a grimace. If he can’t deliver now, when will he ever? Evan fixes the tether to his leg and marches out into the surf, lets the first wave break around him, gains some confidence that those that follow won’t bowl him over. He shuffles his way past the dashing rocks and then launches himself in, struggling to paddle out through the vicious breakers and toward a takeoff point that looms on the horizon. He labors intently, thankful for those long hours in the gym of late, his arms now just powerful enough to pull him out into the open lake.

The rest of the world ceases to exist. Evan, alone amid his unrelenting swells, all life reduced to himself and these crashing monsters that have swamped vessels sixty times the length of his little board. His mother, his father, his friends, his family: they all are gone now. His mind has no choice but to lock in on his singular purpose. He exhales, shuffles his body forward on the board, waits for a set that will suit him. He lets two passable swells roll by before he musters up the courage to clamber to his feet.

He lasts all of three seconds. He topples, battles back his panic to a level he can more or less manage. The waves come so much faster here than on the ocean, a relentless barrage of punches that land blow after blow. His mouthful of water may not be salty, but it chills him to the bone. He struggles back on to his board and forces himself back out, determined to ride one in with some measure of competence. His arms groan amid this unrelenting slog, though they’re afterthoughts compared to the protests in that ever-so-rational corner of his mind. A sudden howl of wind has the waves rising up as high as eighteen feet: true monsters of the lake, enough to challenge even the experts. He shouldn’t be here, yet here he is. He climbs to his feet for a second time, but the wave fells him immediately. Eternal seconds pass as he flounders in hapless misery. His ice bath plunges him into the depths of his fears, a cold, dark terror that instills a new wish for life within. He wrestles his way back on to the board and pushes back outward, ever outward.

Evan struggles out four more times, each effort deadening his queasy stomach. Fear becomes routine. He never lasts upright more than four seconds. This is far beyond his pay grade, far beyond a couple of halfhearted lessons from some stoned-out beach bums at Laguna Beach. Did they ever tempt death in the way he now does? If they did, they never said as much. Not that he’d blame them. This urge isn’t something he could explain, either.

The next wave has a different feel to him. It catches his eyes with a mysterious greenish tinge, something that marks it as different from the rest. This one, he knows, is the one. Eyes wide with delight, Evan surges with strength, picks out his line, and shoots down the tunnel in full control. He pulls back and rides the crest, and for the first time in his life nails a turn. He cruises the length of the wave for another five seconds before he crumples down to the surface of his board. He flounders, then resurfaces, pitching violently as the waves carry him in. His eyes are swimming, though not just from the spray: triumph and loss overwhelm him at once, sudden oneness with a sheer awesome force capable of destroying him. He’s done what he set out to do.

His moment of victory makes him complacent. The waves carry him in to toward a vicious reef, and he’s reduced to another sloppy and fearful paddle back to safer waters. For a fleeting second he imagines he can repeat that triumphant ride. No, no, he immediately tells himself: to even try would be to tempt a fate he does not dare imagine. This is enough.

By the time he coasts back into shore he has a small audience bending in the breeze to watch him. An older couple eyes him with worry and awe, and a mother with three preteen boys shepherds her flock away when she realizes this phantom emerging from the waves can’t be out of high school. She doesn’t want them getting any ideas. The old man politely applauds his performance, and Evan’s taught nerves burst into a wicked grin.

“You seem awful young,” offers his wife.

A cocky voice that Evan does not know responds for him. “Age doesn’t matter if you can ride like that.”

“No fear here!” the old man wheezes.

Evan shuts down his defensive impulse and chooses the right words. “Nah. It’s all fear, all the time. But that’s what makes it worth it.”

He smiles and picks his way back along the beach to the car, where he stashes away the surfboard and turns to face the wind. He lingers a few minutes, puts on a show of paying his respects to the beast he’s conquered. Once the couple has turned its backs on him, he collapses into the driver’s seat, hyperventilating as he cranks the car’s heat as high as it will go. He peels off the wetsuit, pulls back his hair, and closes his eyes so he can kill the terror and sear the triumph into his memory. That’s the only record of his ride: no pictures, no videos, hurried accounts dashed off to friends. No one will ever need to know save himself.

He pats the urn next to him, feels a swell of something within, some god or primeval force surging through every thundering beat of his heart. In this moment Evan believes as much as he ever has, knows he must continue to find this force that pulses through him in these rare pinnacles of raw reality. What this belief entails or asks of him he’s not entirely sure, but that does nothing to diminish his certainty.

He knows he’s not alone in seeking it. The potheads try to tell him he can achieve this state with a few quick hits, but that seems like a cheap and safe shortcut; an escape, not a deliberate rush to the brink of fate. A friend who’s smoother with girls says sex is much the same; this, Evan can probably buy, the wonder of losing oneself in another in a rush of sensual ecstasy. He really should find himself a girlfriend so he can compare notes. But this? This is just him alone, or him made one with everything, most importantly that thing in the seat next to him that he can’t have back.

He pulls out his phone to call the friend who’s hosting him for dinner, his hands still trembling as he finds the number.

“Hey Evs,” the friend says, surprised by the call.

“Yeah. Listen, I’ll be a little late, just gotta…” he trails off, omits the details on how must head home to dry himself and replace the urn where it belongs.

“You okay?”

“I’m…” Evan pauses and returns his gaze to the waves. “I’m where I need to be.”

Here is the next piece in this series.