Tag Archives: fiction

Ouch.

30 Oct

The New Yorker accurately skewers my writing life:

ouch

So excuse me while I stay true to form and go drown my sorrows in a wine bottle.

Anyway, I took the past week off from writing after finishing my marginally autobiographical plot-lite exploration of driven-yet-wandering teens who later become twenty-somethings who express their wants and needs in fits and starts. (See? I’m not totally typecast!) It was strange, and somehow resulted in me having no more free time than I normally do. I couldn’t see it when in the middle of that week, but I was directionless.

I think I can officially declare myself an addict. I write to make sense of the world, but for all of the sense-making I do, I’m not happy unless I continue to write and continue to make more sense of my world. Except in rare spurts of stream of consciousness, or when I write about topics that require less mental exertion like hockey or horse race politics, I’m an exacting writer. My process is slow, choppy, and full of long tunnels of frustration punctuated by very rare spurts of certainty and inspiration. (Somewhere in here is yet another obnoxious metaphor for life.) Rarely would I call myself happy as I write, but one of my characters did have a pretty good quote about happiness in that last installment in my story, so maybe he has some wisdom for me there.

The busier I am in my day-to-day life, the more value I place on finding time to write. I suspect this is because a hectic life gives new value to opportunities for slow thought. The instant reaction, the hot take, the sound bite or Tweet: so many demands of contemporary punditry militate against the slow, careful reasoning necessary to parse through different arguments or reflect on the past. (For a take on why this is important, revisit this Joseph Epstein quote factory on what it takes to be cultured.) Writing, which forces me to put care into thoughts, is the perfect vehicle for working toward that pursuit of understanding.

Fiction is the most satisfying writing I do because it is in many ways the slowest. There was no timeline on any of the posts in that series, and no need to come up with my own quick response in the dialogue. Not once did I slide something into one of those stories in response to some recent development in my life; many of the thoughts had been forming for years, while many dealt with things I have never experienced. It was patient, exacting, and had no need to answer to anyone or anything other than my own curiosity over how certain debates and situations could plausibly play out. Fiction is a playground to explore realities like our own without actually living through them.

None of it happens in a vacuum, of course. This latest installment had handful of guides, including books like Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, Peter Matthisen’s The Snow Leopard, and William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days, and films like La Grande Bellezza and Y tu mamá también and The Grand Budapest Hotel. (Film weighs heavily here, I suspect, due to the episodic nature of the story; curiously, I can’t name a single novel that directly influenced my efforts, though I suppose there are hints of Gatsby and Wallace Stegner lurking in there.) Deep in my memory, I can probably recollect some stray conversation about Havasu Falls and the tale of John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt, and while only one of the eleven installments had any direct autobiographical undercurrents, my own life certainly courses through much of it in subtle ways.  Fiction can come to seem like an incoherent hodgepodge of influences, or an author’s attempt to show off a vast knowledge. My previous efforts often came across that way, so this story collection tried to rectify that.

Beginning with that first story about Evan on his surfboard, which still might be my favorite of the bunch, there was a deliberate attempt to strip away all artifice and focus only on the world inhabited by the two characters. “Less is more,” I told myself time and again, purging away useless details and chopping out aimless dialogue. I intentionally avoid most all markers of time; other than establishing their use of cell phones and perhaps some of their slang, there’s very little in the stories that can pin the characters at any point over the past fifty years. I used some descriptive language to set scenes and interrupt long runs of dialogue, but I tried to live in the characters’ minds and in the tasks immediately before them that consume their thoughts. If I haven’t put readers directly into their minds instead of some obvious extension of my own, I haven’t succeeded.

When I was fully invested and writing well, my fiction almost becomes an out of body experience. Mark and Evan have existed in some form since my undergraduate days, but they took on new life over the past year and a half, when they became two influential and sometimes warring factions in my head. As a writer of fiction, I sometimes feel like I’m living four or five parallel lives, and if I ever seem lost in some other world, it may be because I’ve wandered down one of those other paths that I’ve invented, at least for a little while. I tend to reject strict methods of categorizing people or a sense of a “true self” because I can inhabit several different, sometimes conflicting selves, and I don’t see this inherent tension as necessarily problematic. If anything, it expands horizons, and makes the rich variety of the world and human experience possible, if only in a fleeting way, to someone who otherwise can get bogged down in the lurches of emotion of day-to-day life. Fiction, in its ability to transport readers, makes us free.

So, perhaps in that spirit, this blog will now move on to some very different ways of being. I have to offer up some bread and circuses to go along with the invented worlds, so we’ll gear up for elections in my next post, and hockey season is just around the corner, too. Thanks, as always, for bearing with all of this eclectic slow thought.

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Amor Mundi

21 Oct

This is the eleventh, and (probably?) final, piece in a fictional series that began here.

Evan always dreads the end of his travels with Mark. It’s not because he’ll miss the places he’s visited, or even the increasingly rare time spent with a friend whose infectious charisma still entrances him after all these years. He’s lived to the fullest, and these brief windows can’t go on. That would defeat the point. Instead, Evan fears his inevitable lapse when he’s back to his humdrum routine. His mind will be elsewhere this week, part the product of exhaustion, part the wistful wonder over other lives that could have been or could yet be. His mind opens to different possibilities, and he will dwell longer than he should.

This time, however, Evan suspects his own comedown has nothing on his friend’s. Mark jabbered most of the way down to Havasu Falls about his ongoing exploits in New York, and they’d bonded with their fellow travelers and Havasupai guides on their night beneath the falls before the two of them escaped for their customary bout of moonlit, bourbon-fueled philosophy. He’d seemed as self-satisfied as ever. But this morning, Mark is a different creature entirely. His moodiness is not in itself a strange development, but Evan’s usual tools to coax him out prove useless.

Frustrated, Evan hangs back with the chatty Mormon couple they’d dined with the day before. He needs human companionship, and stray stories of hiking adventures are ample fodder for fellowship in these circles. He rhapsodizes over their night in a tent deep in Zion eight years earlier, and his fellow hikers nod in delight at this story of friendship sustained over time and distance. But his words belie the growing gap between them as they plod up out of the canyon. When he sees Mark accelerating, he knows he too has to turn on his jets and keep up, and the Mormons know to let him go. Mark may not want to talk, but he clearly wants Evan’s presence, and Evan answers the silent call.

Evan trudges along at Mark’s side in the baking heat, but Mark remains intent upon his feet. Even in a state of melancholy, Mark still pulses with power. He’s barely even perspiring. Despite his lighter complexion he somehow manages to bronze instead of burn, while Evan already knows he has a date with a bottle of aloe upon his return to civilization. If this were a week-long trek, Evan could likely outpace Mark, but on a long weekend with just two ten-mile bursts into and out of a canyon, Mark is in a class of his own. Evan feels strangely inadequate, as if he must bring Mark to heel.

“Quit thinking about Indira,” he says. “It’s done.”

“I’m not on Indira at all. I’m actually thinking back to Jackie.”

“Woah. Back to the start?”

“Sure. Just…let me process for a bit, okay?”

“Of course. Here for you, bro.”

Mark’s nods to show his appreciation of Evan, but his mind is already back in high school. It’s the summer after his junior year, and his erstwhile girlfriend, Jackie, hosts a few friends in her back yard on the day before she heads off to college in Chicago. They’d long since given up any pretension of romance—though they weren’t above servicing one another from time to time—but while their friends bubble over with heartfelt high school farewell clichés, Jackie keeps casting significant glances his way. Finally, Mark retreats to the kitchen and Jackie steals away for one last moment with him. Mark grumbles about another year in Duluth without his graduating friends, but Jackie reminds him it’s worth playing the game, keeping up the illusion. He is the best there is at playing that game, and it would be a shame to waste his skills.

Somewhere along the line, Mark thinks, the illusion became reality. He really is something resembling the boy he’d pretended to be: poised, powerful, an old money heir who’s nonetheless built his own formidable reputation. He’s achieved his dreams as well as anyone he knows. He’s made his world his own, collected its wealth and eaten its best food and gone to some of its most beautiful places with the best friend he has. And yet where has it left him? Still searching, still restless, still unsure what the final destination may be.

In his more brash moments, Mark tells himself this is exactly the point. The pursuit itself is the goal, the wisdom to know he’ll never get there yet continue to push with all he has toward that destiny he’s always known is his. That drive is the secret behind all his success, and he must love it for what it is. Camus had it right. Or did he?

The moments when that mindset takes hold are all too rare, and the sheer effort he needs to sustain it wears down even his nonstop motor. Half the time Mark fails to notice his lapses, and even when he does, no number of canned lines can always break him out again. He’s not sure if he’s bipolar, or if he’s settled on a philosophy of life that is too demanding for any human to reasonably attain; one that will leave him rich, attractive, and utterly broken by the time he turns thirty. He’s in too deep to quit now.

Evan is relieved to see Mark perk back to life when they reach the parking area. Mark volunteers to drive, and throws on a series of underground rap albums as they rocket back to Vegas, educating Evan on the nuances of the New York scene that he samples on his free weekends. They make good time, and still have a few hours before they diverge on separate flights. Evan expects Mark to suggest a detour down the Strip, but Mark assures him he has no interest in crass postmodern pastiche, and heads straight for the rental car return. Evan doubts he would have been so dismissive of the Vegas party with his friends out east, but appreciates the gesture nonetheless.

“Let’s find ourselves an airport bar and get some class into this cesspool,” says Mark. “They gotta have some top shelf shit for all the rich fucks trying to live it up on their way out of town.”

“Eh, I’ve gone through so much money on this trip already.”

“It’s on me.”

“But you pay for too much—”

“Forget about it, Evs.”

Evan follows along in tow as they return the car, shuttle to the airport, and work their way through the security lines. Mark researches their beverage options during the wait and leads the way down the slot-filled concourses without a sideward glance at any distractions. Once they arrive, he pulls himself up into a barstool and reaches down to massage his aching knees, battered from his hike on top of a lifetime of goaltending and trail runs. It’s a price worth paying for what he does, his more vivacious self says as it takes back the helm. He has no choice but to push through the pain.

“What’s the best thing you’ve got?” he asks the bartender.

She laughs at him. “Got a twenty-seven year old bottle of—”

“Younger than me? Sad. We’ll take two anyway.”

The bartender looks Mark over as if to ask if this still boyish-looking kid, scruffy after a few days without a shower, won’t drink and run. Mark levels a stare so scathing that she swiftly delivers the drinks as promised. Evan shakes his head.

“What?” Mark demands.

“I’m just thinking back to that wide-eyed goalie we pulled in from Silver Bay who showed up and needed a home. He’s come a long way.”

“Whatever you say.” For once, Mark resists the urge to disagree, as he knows disagreement won’t paint him in the most flattering light. He’s not sure he’s aged a day since that chat with Jackie in high school. He still operates in the same exact way.

“Wow, this is good.”

“Drink it up, Evs. We’ve earned it. After all these years, we still know how to live.”

“Remember that first time we drank Scotch, when you snuck that bottle into the Boundary Waters for us?”

“How could I not? I’ve still got some mosquito bites on my legs from that trip.”

“Damn, Marky. You did more to get me out of my shell than anyone ever did. Even after all we’ve been through, I’m not sure you know how much I owe you.”

“Eh. I’ve always felt like I’m the one in debt here. You’re my rock, man, and you know it.”

Evan sets down his glass and turns away. He is unworthy of Mark’s praise. Bridget wasn’t thrilled that he’d planned this vacation, and Mark has chastised him repeatedly over the course of the hike for his frequent check-ins with his wife and one-year-old son. This trip has prompted alarm on several fronts: his body aches more than it used to, his upper-body strength isn’t what it was, and when he looked in a mirror in the airport bathroom for the first time in days, he realized he can’t pretend otherwise: his hair is thinning. He’s the one who supposedly lives the more stress-free, slower-paced life, but he’s not sure anything Mark has ever done can possibly approximate the life-and-death immediacy and nonstop demands of parenthood.

It has tested Evan more than he can ever tell anyone. His life over the past year has been a blur of his son’s incessant demands and Bridget’s fraying nerves. The two of them fell into spells of silent brooding, unable to say much beyond the necessary acknowledgment of their son’s needs. He can’t quite remember what inspired him to start swiping, or to propose a date to that girl with a summer job leading canoe trips up north. He hadn’t been drinking, nor was his day particularly bad. Baby Brendan was out cold, Bridget was curled up in front of the TV, and life had come to lack that imperative to treat every second as borrowed time.

He didn’t show up to the date, and erased any trace of his sins. Revolted, Evan declared war on anything in his life that might let him lapse again. First and foremost, his own father’s abandonment loomed over him: he’d strapped his son to his back and gone for a long hike along the shore, complete with long time at prayer. (He didn’t tell Mark that he’d gone up the driveway to cast a skeptical glance at the new owners’ renovations of the Brennans’ old home, and whispered Brendan some tales of Uncle Marky.) He’d started a book club with a smattering of other closet intellectuals he’d found around town. He got a key to one of the local rinks from an old friend who now manages it, and skates at odd hours of the night. And he and Bridget have purposefully started scheduling date nights in stray sections of woods to make sure they can always bring back the fire.

One other event had compelled Evan into action: Indira and Mark, after two years together, had broken up on the steps of St. John the Divine some three weeks prior. Evan had provided immediate therapy while Mark rode the subway home that night, but only on this hike did he get the full story. They’d gone to the opera together and then set out for a late-night drink with some friends at Columbia, but they’d never made it that far, and devolved into a vicious war of words beneath the old church. To hear Mark tell it, the split was mutual, the only sane outcome after repeated collisions of two high-strung egos. But Evan suspects Indira was the one to cut and run, and Mark has spent the past three weeks justifying it to himself. Mark, for all his wanderings, is unflinchingly loyal when he does choose to commit.

“I should do something for Duluth,” Mark muses. “What do you think about me buying a stake in the paper? It’d be small. But I’d be hands-on, at least.”

“Newspapers are dying.”

“Sort of. But we can keep em alive if we work at it. You control the story, you control the world.”

Evan finds himself deep in an unexpected well of derision. “That really true? How much did we put into telling this story about progress for everyone, this dream of a better world we were building? And what’s come of it? People don’t trust anyone anymore. No one controls the story, unless you can buy it with enough money, I guess.”

“Well shit. All the more reason for me to buy it, then.”

Evan rolls his eyes, and Mark sighs and tries a different tack.

“I guess it does kinda feel like the barbarians are at the gates every day these days.”

“At the gates? They’ve been living right next to us for a while now. We’ve sealed our own doom. Didn’t need any help from barbarians to get there.” Evan’s eyes bore into Mark, but Mark gazes back with firm resolve.

“Sure, we may have fucked up. But look what we built before that, though.”

“It was incredible, yeah. But we lost something along the way. I’m scared of the world I’m raising my son in, Marks. That cabin in the woods that Bridget wants is sounding better and better every day.”

“Eh, you’d never be happy there.”

“No, you’re right. I’ve got a job to do. I wish I had more to work with.”

“Well, pretty soon you’ll have an in at the paper, I can tell you that much.”

“I wish you’d just come home. You could be the best weapon in our arsenal.”

“You think Duluth would take back an elitist asshole like me?”

“You’re an asshole, but you’re our asshole. And the two of us together, we could figure out how to play the game.”

“You know how to work my ego, that’s for sure.”

“Marky Mark, I know how to work your soul.”

Mark and Evan stare at one another in mutual fear of the other’s reaction. They both avert their eyes. Evan has penetrated Mark to his core: as he always does, he has found a way to twist in beneath his myriad defenses, perhaps never deeper than this.

“Sorry,” he says.

“Don’t be. It’s true.”

“I mean it, though.”

“I know you do. But I’ve got a good life for myself, girl thing aside, and I’m gonna work that out eventually.”

“Are you sure you’re not…you know…digging your own grave?” Evan chances.

“By being so cynical about love?”

“Not quite. By…sleeping around as much as you do.” Evan gulps. He’s wanted to level this critique for ten years now, so many times has come so close to sharing his fears over his best friend’s excesses. Some combination of envy and a rooting interest has kept him from ever saying a word. He looks up carefully, worried Mark will lash back at him. But Mark is cool and collected, and speaks with icy precision.

“Look at it this way, Evs. Remember Landon? That roommate I had before Indira moved in? Dude’s in tech, loaded family, getting his Columbia MBA so he can keep climbing that ladder. He works full time, he’s in school, he’s got no time to date. Know what he did to put himself to sleep every night? Jerked off. Same old porn every night. You’ve been with the same girl since high school. Not sure you realize how fucked up our generation is, drowning itself in alternate reality. Hour after hour, day after day. Dudes don’t know the first thing about intimacy. I wasn’t gonna let that happen to me.

“So I’m not sorry if I’m a fuck-up in your eyes. I’m damn proud of myself for having the guts to go out and do this, get the real thing again and again. It takes actual skill, gives ya real pleasure. I might not be the easiest to handle all the time, I’ll admit that. But I always ask what they want, I never cheat, and I always make sure we’re on the same page. I’ll never apologize for that.”

“Oh, it’s all noble, I see,” Evan laughs. “Is that really what it’s come to, you twisting yourself like that? Nah, Mark. I’m not saying you’re wrong to be cynical. I’m saying the way you live’s made you a cynic. You don’t need to keep doing things this way. This isn’t healthy.”

“That’s the world I live in now.”

“Come home, man. Just come home.”

“To what? All due respect, Evs, there ain’t much for me there. My dad’s dead, my mom’s running around with her redneck boyfriend and we’re not close. My dad was a dick, but at least he was on my level. She can’t get me at all. You’ve got your mom, your in-laws…don’t get me wrong, Minnesota made me who I am, but there’s nothing left there now. It was always more yours than mine.”

“You’ve got me, dammit. And what’s yours instead now? Chasing the finance life? Really? Thought you didn’t want to turn into your dad.”

“Fuck it. I’ve got friends there, and there are actual marriageable girls…”

“I remember a kid from high school who plotted for half a year to lure in Jackie Donovan. Went after that cute, real smart girl a grade ahead of him. Worked her carefully, got her to let go of her old ex, made her believe love could be real again after she’d been burned. Lived a dream for a few months. Where’d that kid go?”

“Jackie left him for her ex, that’s what.”

“Aw, you still crying over the one that got away junior year? Come on. That wasn’t the point. The point was that I know you know how to make that effort.”

“That was a long time ago. I’ve seen a lot more of the world now. Buried some people, seen those couple happy years we had in high school fade. It’s just a memory now. I can’t be sixteen again, and I never will. I’m not going to try to bring that back. You call my methods spin, okay, it’s all spin. But I’ve gotta find something here.”

“I thought you had something going there with Indira.”

“I did, more than I ever have. But, what’s the best way to put it? I had a sense of loss that she just didn’t. Our lives were motivated by different things.”

Evan’s brown eyes pierce through him, and Mark has the uncanny feeling that his thoughts are no secret.

“More than you ever have? Even with Jackie?”

Mark nods. He’s never told Evan the story, but he knows Evan has pieced enough of it together.

“She was the only girl I ever loved for who she was. The rest? It’s always been chasing something or other.”

“Like what?”

“Status, beauty, some idea of a life I wanted for myself. I’ve never found that.”

“You just sound so…defeated.”

“Me? Defeated? C’mon, man, do you know anyone who’s done more to get what he wants than me?”

“Because it’s all you know how to do!”

“Bullshit.”

“Seriously, where’s the belief in something better?”

“Look at this world, bro. How are you optimistic? You, of all people, should know the darkness around us. You’ve seen it in your own life, you’ve seen it in your travels, you see it in the news every day…”

“And that’s all true! But Marky, I know what I can control. I’ve decided I can settle down with the girl I love in a place I love and we can do it all right out there.”

“Evs, I love you, I get it. But someone like you, who’s taken me places I never would’ve gone otherwise…I think that’s you at your best. You can change this world, Evs. You sure you’re not running from it when you head to the woods like that?”

“I don’t really know where I’m going, Marks, but I do know that this place I’m going is a hell of a lot healthier than the one you’re running toward.”

Mark calls for a second round from the bartender, who has edged her way to the far end of her fiefdom to avoid the bickering men. Evan glowers, unsure if the intended audience for his anguished cries is Mark or himself. He needs to believe it. He searches their fellow travelers in the airport for some humorous hint of Vegas excess to distract him from all this self-important blather. Down the bar, an Irish tourist has made friends with two young women with Southern drawls. Behind them, two parents with five children in varying states of obesity struggle to find an acceptable meal option for their charges. There is nothing particularly Vegas about this scene; just the typical placelessness of a place designed strictly to move people to other places. He’s ready to go home.

“What kills me about you, Evs, is that you could’ve had power, but you don’t. You work a decent job, live a decent life, cool. I just think you were cut out for so much more than handing out a few scholarships here and there. And I know you’ve got that drive somewhere in you to want it.”

“I do! Look at the life I’m living. Everything thought out, lined up in this great big idea of how to live that we’ve been arguing about for a decade.”

Mark closes his eyes and nods slowly. “See, that’s it. I’m the same way, man. I know you think I’m some shitty corporate raider, but I’ve got power and I’ve used it.” He stops, looks around, and lowers his voice. “I sabotaged a merger that would’ve killed a few hundred jobs in Detroit. I spent that summer there—those are my people. I put my job on the line and won. You wanna make this world a better place for your kid, you need some people on the inside. Not even your cabin in the woods is safe these days.”

Evan’s eyes bulge. He takes a drink and taps the counter as if sounding out some answer in Morse code. “I’m impressed. I really am. But can you honestly say that everything you’ve done is right and good?”

Mark stews and Evan nods, knowing the answer.

“This isn’t easy,” says Mark. “I have to make hard choices sometimes. But it comes with the territory. Gotta take the fight to the arena. Do what you can to change that narrative.”

“It’s rotten. Rotten to the core.” Mark has no answer, and Evan is again afraid he’s gone a step too far. Is he losing his filter as he ages? No, not really; they have both become hardened as they go their separate paths, and have always been stubborn in their own ways. Gone are the shared stages of school and growth, and now they are on their own, their freedom to travel their own roads a threat to undermine everything that has gone into their bond. Evan hates his era, and the only way to gain the power to fix it comes through complicity and corruption.

More and more, Evan sounds to Mark like some of the people caught up in the evangelical church he’d attended before his parents’ divorce killed whatever belief he had. Those committed believers had been so earnest, so convinced of the world’s perfidy and their own righteous ability to resist it. Mark wonders if he could find a Biblical way to justify his life to Evan, tap into that last relic of a fading faith to speak a language that makes sense to a believer. He has little memory left of it, not that it wouldn’t come all back to him if he put in a little effort. There are always answers in the wilderness.

“Honest question,” he asks. “Are you really as happy as you sound?”

“Happy, not always. But I’ve always thought happiness is a byproduct of a well-lived life.”

“Are you living your life as well as you want to, then?”

“Yes and no. I love my wife, I love my kid, I love my city, I do good work and like the people…but yet.”

“But yet what?”

“Sometimes I just feel…”

“Shit, this is like pulling teeth.”

“It’s hard to describe.”

“Is it work-related?”

“Yeah. Though it’s more than that. It’s vocational, you might say.”

“Existential Evvy at his finest yet again.”

“What I’m here for.”

Mark stirs his drink with a finger and fixes his lips together to force Evan to go on.

“It’s hard to stay motivated,” Evan chances. “And when I am, too often it’s because of fear, or anger at other things around me. If you’re looking for panache amid the ruins, I’m looking for panache through gratitude.”

“What the hell does that even mean?”

Evan takes a moment to collect his words. “All of the love of life with none of the angst.”

“Even after all this, all your listening to me, all the doom and gloom…you still manage to stay so…pure.”

“Having a kid helps.”

“Sure, but you were like this before that.”

Evan again takes his time to answer. “I waver a lot. I think you know that. But I also remember what it was like to be pure, once. And now I can see that in Brendan, every time I look at him.”

“A faith, sort of?”

“I know you won’t like that, but sure, yeah. That gets there.”

Mark shrugs. “It is what it is.”

“Do you feel it too, then?” Evan asks.

“Not really.”

“Think back to the early days before we were aware of everything. When the whole world and everything in it was sacred, in a way.”

“I’m not sure I ever had that.”

“You did, at least for a moment, somewhere, sometime. Just think.”

Mark opens his mouth, but Evan silences him with a flick of a finger. Mark reaches back into him memory and tries to find some hint of childhood delight that he can’t filter through a lens clouded by everything that has happened since. He fixes on a wedding for one of his father’s associates in his elementary school years, a glamorous affair on a sprawling Westchester estate, lush gardens and terraces galore. But for young Mark, none of those trappings matter: he just runs out and tears up the dance floor with the flower girl, and smile on his mother’s face as she bounces over to join him is forever seared in his mind. Delighted, Mark dares cast a glance at his father, who stands watch from a terrace balcony above. Preston Brennan musters up a thin smile, one of those three or four moments in his life when Mark felt his father’s love. It was possible, if only for a moment, a rare star that Mark can name.

For his part, Evan is back in San Onofre, fresh off his first surfing lesson, drenched but proud that he’s managed to stay upright for a few seconds. He and his parents settle in at a beachside diner for a seafood feast, and Evan boasts of his ride and regurgitates facts from the book on marine life he’s been reading the whole trip. His dad, a few beers deep, pokes fun at Evan’s nerdiness, while his mom grumbles about how she married a philistine. In retrospect Evan will notice how his dad tensed up when his mom tried to make those jokes, and how she would swiftly backpedal as if she’d never meant them. But at that time he’d just laughed along, and soon he has them all laughing along, back in the thralls of happily ever after. He wants nothing more than for Brendan to believe in that possibility.

“What are you thinking of?” Evan asks.

“Hockey,” Mark lies. But it isn’t a falsehood, not really: there he’d been allowed to pour unbridled passion into everything he did. It all feels like child’s play to Mark now, while Evan has the task of convincing his wife that a childhood of checks and tournament road trips is a good pursuit for their one-year-old boy. Evan wants Brendan to have that passion, even if he has to find ways to ease him into the knowledge that it cannot last. Mark simply wishes he could have it back.

“Can you believe what we had there?” Evan asks.

“That’s all over now,” says Mark. “What are we left with, once we can see the world for what it is? Everything that comes after…it’s in the shadow of what we’ve lost.”

“To lose it, someone had to build it in the first place. And me and you, we’ve been part of some great things that we built together.”

“That we have.” Mark drains his glass. “When we were sober enough to remember them.”

Evan laughs. “Left our own legend, in our own little way.”

“Evs, my man, we’ve lived well.”

“And we’ve got a full life of good living ahead of us, if we know where to look for it.”

Mark’s thoughts range far and wide, from Emma to Jackie to Indira to fifteen others in between, from backyard rinks to New Haven to Rome to a gorge high in the Himalayas, from his dying father’s words to Brendan’s fumbling first steps. He smiles up at Evan. “Since the day I met you, I’ve had some idea where. And I know you’ve got it, too. There’s your gratitude.”

Evan and Mark go quiet. Their argument has exhausted itself.

“Well, I’ve got a flight to catch,” says Evan. “Thanks for the drinks. And for everything. Seriously. And think about what I said…just remember if you ever want to come home, you know I’ll move heaven on earth to make it work for you.”

Mark closes his eyes and smiles. “Love ya, Evs. Keep bein you.”

Evan and Mark embrace in silence. Evan hoists up his backpack and makes his way down the concourse without a backward glance. He’s given it his all, and finally said was he’s meant to say to Mark for years. He is at peace with his efforts, at peace with his wanderings, and now he’s headed home to see the loves of his life. He is blessed, here amid strangers in this no-place of a concourse, and while he’ll no doubt lapse again, he has more than enough to carry himself through. He is happy.

Mark watches Evan go until he’s out of sight. “I’ll take one more,” he tells the bartender, and tosses his card on the counter. He takes a sip from the drink, swirls his glass, and raises his eyes to the bottles along the top shelf of the bar. A smile starts to play along the corners of his mouth.

He knows what he must do now, and the rest will follow. He is only beginning.

A Celebration of Literature

20 Sep

PBS is currently running a series that seeks to identify Americans’ most beloved novels. I haven’t watched it, but as the son of a Duluth librarian who is coordinating several panels on the series with local literature professors, I’ve been lured into attending a couple of events. This is the sort of thing I would probably attend anyway: by my count I’ve read 35 of the 100 short-listed novels, and have also seen film or TV adaptations of another 13, and read other works by nine authors who make the list (each could make the list only once). These events, which feature good discussion with (disappointingly) small groups, pose the vital questions that surround any such effort: what does it mean to develop a literary canon, what and who gets left out of a canon, and whether these things should be popularity contests or if some cadre experts can decree what constitutes good fiction and what does not. (While there were some limitations, the PBS series is largely a popularity contest, with works like Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight making the short list alongside War and Peace and Great Expectations.) Whatever the masses end up choosing, it’s a good launching point for discussion, and a chance to spill my own thoughts.

I have little trouble naming favorite works or authors of non-fiction, but find it a much greater struggle to do so with fiction. Still, the PBS series compels me to offer up a few. One Hundred Years of Solitude sits near the top of my list for its layers of allegorical power, and Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World still wows for its ability to recreate a world and the full range of people within it. I reread The Great Gatsby in the past two years, and it resonated far more than I remember it doing in high school, perhaps in part because I’ve lived a slight flavor of the Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby journey, drifting from Minnesota to East Coast money and trying to find my way between those two worlds. As a literary work, though, it is near-perfect: so tightly wound, so well-constructed, and yet still so easy to access eighty years later. If anything can claim the ‘Great American Novel’ title, Gatsby is probably it. If forced to choose one book, though, I still might lurch back to the novel that began all novels, Don Quixote. It does help when one takes an entire class on a book in one’s undergraduate days from an awesome professor to get the full historical context behind a book of brilliant social commentary.

There are other works I would not put on the same pedestal as those few, but have changed how I live my life in one way or another. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was a marvelous blend of people in places I have lived, all trying to make some statement on contemporary American life, and inspired my own fictional attempts. Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country came to me as I contemplated a life of foreign service of some sort, while the dry iconoclasm of Graham Greene fit the mood of a more jaded, older kid. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse gave me a metaphor that still informs many of my pursuits, and at a later stage, the criminally undervalued Wallace Stegner came along with Crossing to Safety to shower some wisdom on someone wrestling with both career ambitions and a love of place. I read them all at the right time.

Before we go any further, I’ll confirm my credentials as a literary snob: my list of great novels will all fall somewhere within the realm of realism, or at least magical realism. Even though I thoroughly enjoyed both as a kid, I have some reservations at the appearance of things like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings alongside Dostoevsky and Adichie. My literary tastes have progressed since then. I’ve done little dabbling in science fiction or fantasy as an adult, perhaps because I’m the sort of person who, upon discovering the burdens and frustrations of life, goes running for the most depressing and heavy stuff to try to find out how other insightful people have wrestled with such questions instead of looking for escapes. Some books in those genres do go in this direction: for example, Frank Herbert’s Dune downplays the tech side of science fiction and offers a rich commentary on society (and may yet inspire me to launch a Butlerian jihad), and the study of mythology and imagination behind Tolkien’s world-building has had an overwhelming influence on literature. They build complex plots, and it’s easy to fall into their worlds.

As someone who writes, however, I often find that my fondness for good writing overpowers my identification with the story. While I want to read novels that are both good stories and well-written (duh), if forced to choose, I’ll take good writing about topics that don’t fascinate me over an entertaining story. I’m not a lover of Hemingway, but he has glimmers of some of the most pristine prose I’ve ever read when he takes readers along on a fishing expedition in the Spanish countryside in The Sun Also Rises. A Prayer for Owen Meany is a fun book, but John Irving is capable of making paint drying sound amusing, and that turns a good story into a great novel. The prose of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead perfectly pairs with the heartland Protestant austerity of Reverend John Ames as he writes his letters to his son, and other writers, from Wendell Berry to Flannery O’Connor to William Faulkner, blur language with a sense of place in our minds. Perhaps this love of well-wrought prose is at the root of my dismissal of science fiction and fantasy as great literature: so often, even when they do manage to be insightful about human nature, those novels fixate on plot over structure and artistry, or devolve into sequels and expanded universes instead of standing on their own very real power. Their worlds fall in on themselves, instead of cycling back out to the one we live in.

I enjoy fiction that inhabits worlds similar to my own, and my world is a very large, rich place. While my defense of a concept of good writing makes me broad-brush defender of some sort of literary canon, I certainly believe in an expansive version of said canon that captures the written tradition of any number of societies. The Great American Read list is fairly thin on books translated from other languages; it is confined to a couple of Russian and French giants, Don Quixote, and One Hundred Years of Solitude. This is a mild source of frustration for someone whose literature consumption, especially in his college days, was driven by Latin American Boom authors, and expanded from there. It started with García Márquez in high school but soon wandered over toward the delightful absurdity of Julio Cortázar, the stunning range of Vargas Llosa, the posthumously beloved Roberto Bolaño, and a number of other lesser-known masters of Spanish prose. I didn’t confine my voracious reading to writers in one language, either: my reading list has often been populated by the likes of Arundhati Roy, Orhan Pamuk, Hiroki Murakami, and Edwidge Danticat. In an era of vogue scorn for the dead white men who traditionally dominated many lists of great literature, my reaction has often just been a shrug: I’ve never had any trouble incorporating a lot of people who are not like me at all into my own expansive idea of a canon. I can learn from all of them.

Despite all of this love for different worlds, the novels that affect me most tend to be coming-of-age stories. I have a deep fondness for angst-ridden teenage boys, and this has not waned even as I move further away from that phase of my own life. Thankfully, one can get a lot of mileage out of Holden Caulfield’s search for authenticity in The Catcher in the Rye, the competitive fire that makes and breaks Finny and Gene in A Separate Peace, and the question of destiny that motivates Owen and John’s friendship in A Prayer for Owen Meany. Even Harry Potter becomes a good bildungsroman when one can look beyond its magical trappings, even if it has diseased an entire generation with an overuse of adverbs.

Perhaps my favorite novel of the past ten years is The Art of Fielding, which falls into the same genre. While it bears many of the telltale signs of a debut novel in Chad Harbach’s attempts to show off his range, that flaw almost made me love it even more. It had so much in common with some of my own stumbling attempts to write fiction, and is exactly the sort of debut novel I would have been satisfied to produce. As long as they can attain some measure of distance in its perspective, youthful writings about youth resonate the best. I have little memory of reading The Outsiders in seventh grade, but suspect it would hold up well upon a second reading. (Fun aside: one of my hockey colleagues turned S.E. Hinton into a diehard St. Cloud Apollo hockey fan when he asked her for permission to play off the book while doing a story on the program’s fight for survival a few years back.) Alas, teenage boys are not a large literature market these days, which is problematic for my own stillborn writing career. If I do ever get around to publishing something, though, it will likely fall somewhere in this genre.

Speaking of which, I had a spurt of fictional inspiration this week, so I’m going to finish this blog post and stay up even later to head back to the nearly-complete story I’ve been spitting out on this blog for the past year. Long live the novel as an art form, and may all of my readers continue to read fiction for fun, even if it is trashy smut not worth the paper it’s printed on. (Actually, that sounds like it might be kinda fun. Pass along your recommendations.)

Byzantine Nights

22 May

This is part ten in a fictional series that started here.

Mark clambers up the stairwell to the fifth-floor Manhattan apartment. He loves his city, but this is still a sad substitute for what he grew up with. Here, there are no good trails to run, and he must settle for stairs, mindless stairs. He bolts to his floor’s landing before he decides this isn’t nearly enough. He plows onward, up to the fourteenth floor before he careens down to the lobby and then back up again. He’s had too much emotion over the course of one day, and Indira will only stir him up further. She’s always peevish on Thursdays, when her team at the U.N. meets and the Bangladeshi envoy will make a minimum of five passes at her over the course of their refugee resettlement talks. (To date, she’s declined Mark’s offers to meet him in a back alley with a cricket bat.) He knows this, and yet somehow he’d let her take dinner duty tonight, which will only mean she’s even more peevish. He should have just told her to forget it and picked up takeout on the way home, but that would have required a much more ordered state of mind than the one he now inhabits. Enough with this disorder garbage, he tells himself. Enough running up and down and anywhere but straight into his problems. He burst out of the stairwell, takes three deep breaths, and presses into his apartment.

“You look exhausted.”

“Took the stairs.” He pitches his shoulder bag on to a minimalist couch and offers his girlfriend a quick peck on the cheek.

“I assume the tears are just onion-related?” he asks.

Indira gazes down at a mangled array of vegetables on the cutting board. “Just mourning my life of domestic servitude.”

“If you wanna trade and be the kitchen wench tomorrow when we’re having everyone over instead…”

“Oh, forget it. How was your day?” she asks.

“Hard.”

“Do tell.”

“First off, I fought with my boss.”

“I thought you had a thing for Empress Theodora.”

Mark rolls his eyes, but this is as much a tactic to avoid making eye contact as it is an expression of angst. His managing director, Dora, is fond of him because he was the first underling she’d slept with who’d immediately recognized he wasn’t the sole object of her affection. She is exactly Mark’s sort of boss, jaded and casual in her use of her sweeping power. Indira, however, has posed an unexpected challenge in keeping up that rapport.

“They fired one of my analysts. I told them weeks ago he wasn’t getting much done. Didn’t hear a word, so I worked my ass off to get him up to speed. Coached him, took him out for drinks so we could talk outside of work…then boom, gone.”

“Did they tell you why?”

“Yeah, it was my complaint way back when. They’ve been monitoring him since.”

“But they didn’t say anything about it to you?”

“Not a thing.”

“That is crappy,” says Indira as she dumps olive oil into a pan on the stove.

“Yep. That’s what I told Dora.”

“So you went up and told her that they made the wrong choice? What, do you want to get fired?”

“No, that wasn’t it at all. I told her right away that I was fine with letting him go. He’s a mediocrity. I’m just pissed I worked my ass off for him and no one even thought to ask me about how he was coming along. I was stonewalled. Do you know how that feels?”

“I still think she should have fired your ass.” Indira realizes she is still pouring out oil and fails in her attempt to act as if she meant to pour out a full cup’s worth.

“Nah. She plays tough, but she knows right from wrong. I could see it in her. They know what I’m capable of. But they’re not gonna keep me if they don’t prove they trust me.” Mark frowns at the vat of oil but decides now is not the time to say anything about it.

“How much leverage do you actually have?”

“Hell if I know. Just mixed messages, all day long.”

“I thought you liked that sort of thing.”

“Not when my professional future’s in the balance.”

“Well, sorry your day sucked. I—”

“That was only half of it.”

“Oh?”

“I had lunch with my brother Matt.”

“Right, you told me about him,” says Indira, intently filling a garlic press. “This was the first time since, what, high school?”

“Middle school,” Mark replies. “He’s a good family guy, so he’s not an ass like John. He’s willing to listen. Not willing to forgive and forget like Lucy, though. Still bitter at Dad. Didn’t feel much sympathy when I told him how Dad died.”

In a way, Mark thinks, Matt’s reaction was the worst of his three half-siblings. He’d greeted Mark with a warm, burdened smile, chatted eagerly about Mark’s travels from Yale to Wall Street and around the globe with Evan for most of a lunch. Only when the talk turned to Pierpont Brennan did Matt clam up, and when Mark broached the possibility of meeting Matt’s wife and children, the lunch had come to an abrupt end. At least when John blew him off, he felt perfectly justified in blasting a string of epithets back at him. But this arm’s length respect, this refusal to accept reality despite an outwardly rational display: this is rank hypocrisy he cannot quite bring himself to call out.

“I…sorry, I wish I could say I get your family dynamic. I just don’t.”

“I can’t either. That’s why I’m trying.”

“I don’t know why you waste your time.”

“Listen, I might come from a fucking disaster of a family, but I’m gonna do what I can to make things right. I did with Lucy, and I’m gonna with Matt. There’s enough there that I can’t let this go.” Indira nods and turns her attention to her drowning fajita fixings.

“What I really want to do,” he adds, “is set up a date with my dad’s ex-wife.”

“Really? Why?” Mark senses her interest waning.

“She knew him better than anyone, and from what I hear, she’s still real sharp…way easier to talk to about my dad than my mom. I want to know all about him. About what he was like before he met my mom, about how it all went downhill. And beyond that, just a little more about who he was and what little things he did. He had to be more than what I saw.”

“You could just let the dead rest.”

Mark starts to head toward the bedroom to change clothes, but stops in his tracks and wheels back into the kitchen. “No. If there’s one thing about me, one thing that defines me more than anything else, it’s that I want to know. I want to fucking know,” he snarls. “Look at the analyst thing, look at my family, look and my entire freaking life. I’ve always been searching, always want answers. I’ve run to every corner of the planet trying to find them. And if anyone tries to hide anything from me…”

It is Indira’s turn to roll her eyes at Mark. “You take yourself so damn seriously.”

Mark lets his scowl block out his hurt. “Sorry my family matters to me.”

Indira sighs in consternation, but wrestles up a response. “Sometimes you just need to cut the bait. My Uncle Rajiv is a Hindu nationalist nut, it was drunken conspiracy theories every Thanksgiving, and sometimes he talked about grabbing his gun and blasting away all the Muslims who didn’t get it. So we just cut him off, and don’t even bother thinking about him anymore. It was liberating.”

“Maybe there’s a point where you have to do that. But losing a family, that’s a terrible thing. I’ve seen it so many times. This is why this country is freaking failing, cuz there’s all these broken families, and if someone doesn’t figure out how to pick up the pieces, it’s all going to hell.”

“You don’t need to put the burden of America’s future on your own family’s shoulders, you know.”

“Hah. Thanks for that.” Mark laughs and cuts himself off, but plays out the response in his head. No, whether or not he makes peace with his half-siblings will not change the fate of his country. But it is the final proving ground for himself. He’s done what he’s set out to do in hockey and in school, is getting there in his career, and even finally has something resembling a stable girlfriend now. But this is the last battle he has to fight to close the book on his childhood dreams and demons, the last war to prove he really does have the power he believes he does. He must win over the people whose lives were jolted irreparably by his own existence. If he can do this, he can conquer the world.

“You’re making my grandma’s korma for your writer friends tomorrow?”

“Yeah, I’ll be home at a reasonable time for once,” says Mark. “Sugar daddy’s gotta make sure he gets the details right.” And uses responsible amounts of oil, he thinks as Indira concedes and siphons some of it off into an empty can.

Mark has taken to hosting his salon at the apartment once a month, his effort to inject some culture into a life otherwise spent in the dreary, cutthroat world of finance. It probably says something about him that he has zero friends without benefits in his own business, and instead prefers the company of struggling writers and artists. He may earn six times their salaries, but at least they can carry on a conversation, and Mark takes more than a little pleasure in starting to dole out a little largesse. My patrons, he muses before starting to wonder if there will ever be any relationship in his life not defined by imbalances of wealth, or the pursuit of it.

“I’m going to tell the super feminist one you called yourself that,” Indira chides him.

“You make fun of Grace, yet you do more to call me out when I’m an asshole than anyone I’ve ever met.”

“And you’re the one who wants me.”

“I’m a masochist like that.”

“You’re ever the romantic, Mark Brennan.”

“Oh, I’ll make it up to you when we fuck later.”

Mark narrowly dodges the zucchini that flies over his head.

“Still got my goalie reflexes. There’s a green mark on the wall now, though.”

“If your landlord knows anything about you, she’ll know it’s justified.” She nails him in the face with the leftover onion.

Mark does his penance and collects the onion from the floor. Yes, he deserved that. His task complete, he leans in to dole out another kiss, massages Indira’s shoulders, and lets his arms wander downward. She reaches up and musses his perfect hair out of place before pushing him back so she can toss the vegetables on the stove.

“You’re a mess. Go wash that onion off of you and take off that sweaty suit. Put on some decent clothes.”

“Do I really have to do the decent clothes part?”

Indira allows her glare to answer for her. Mark makes a show of stripping his suit off and throws on a pair of pants and a shirt that he buttons halfway up.

“You’re such a child,” Indira says without lifting her eyes from her quickly blackening fixings.

“And you’re the one who wants me.”

“I’m running out of vegetables to throw at you.”

“You and me, we’re the King of Wall Street and the Queen of 42nd. This world is ours.” Mark dances out of the kitchen, chooses one of the two wine bottles left on the rack, and rummages through a drawer for a corkscrew. He’ll need another case or two for tomorrow night.

“Flattery has never been your specialty.”

“I must be doing something right to be a VP at 25.”

“Or maybe you’re just the best asshole in a world of assholes?” Indira says as she decides to solve her simmering vegetable crisis by dumping on a load of meat.

“Glad I’ve got you in my life to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world,” says Mark as he fights with the cork.

“Aristotle?”

“RFK.”

“I didn’t know you could quote anyone born after 1654.”

“I try to stay relevant, you know?” Mark hands her a glass, and she takes an immediate sip.

“Carménère?” she asks.

“You’re learning.”

“There you go, civilizing the world and making me refined.”

“See, you’re such a good influence on me.”

“God knows I try.” Indira pushes her glass away and refocuses her efforts on the meat.

“The power of love, or something like that.”

“You sound so sincere.”

“You really think a little love can change the world?”

“It sure wouldn’t hurt. Back it up with some sane laws and you’ve got a start.”

“Nah, that gets it all backwards,” Mark pontificates. “Don’t get me wrong, there are a few sincere people out there trying to do some good cuz they believe it all the way through—missionaries in Africa or whatever. But I’m not sure what pisses me off more. All the people who talk about love and caring and then spend their nights at home watching movies and living out sad little lives? Or the love and hope libs who treat anyone who disagrees with their methods like shit? Spare me. You want to change the world, you need power. Real power. Be the one who writes history. Maybe then you can build a safe little world where you can pass on some love.”

Indira narrows her eyes at him, but seems to pull back with her response. “You’re worse than those walking disaster Texans in Disaster Assistance. Just another ugly American cowboy.”

Mark swallows his retort and brushes his hair back into place. “I sure look the part, don’t I?”

“I suppose not. You with your perfect suits and baby face cheeks. I’d think you were gay if weren’t such a relentless womanizer. Unless that’s just your cover?”

“Way to stereotype. But I do think Evan and I would make pretty good lovers, don’t you?”

“Now there’s a real man on the frontier,” says Indira. “In his happy little cabin the woods with his happy little pregnant wife, working his happy little job. Living the dream, I guess.”

An unexpected defensiveness arises within Mark. “Just cuz Evvy decided to live somewhere other than the five acceptable cities for talented people doesn’t mean he’s not doing important work.”

“But—” Indira catches herself, and backs off: this is the rare battle she can tell Mark will not fight willingly. “Oh, never mind. Sorry. You know how Thursdays make me.”

“No worries. Need me to fuck up that Bangladeshi for you?”

“No, he wasn’t bad today. But the whole meeting was just painful. Five hours of talking in circles, and I’m just surrounded by grandstanding and bureaucrat-speak. I get why other people think we’re wasting our time.”

“I get what you mean. Sometimes I just want to blow shit up and watch it burn.”

“And I don’t doubt that you could. But you don’t.”

“No, not really.”

“For all your talk, sometimes you’re…just that. Talk.”

“Ouch. Thanks.”

“I wasn’t kidding.”

Indira levels a knowing stare at him. Mark loves this about Indira, her brutal honesty with him, but it still stings in the moment. He tries to muster up an expression that conveys all these thoughts at once, fails, and mumbles something about checking up on the markets in Asia. He retreats to the bedroom in defeat.

He shouldn’t force all of his shit on her, though he never thinks to apologize when he’s in the same room as her. He didn’t even follow up on her sudden and unexpected burst of career doubt. He just blathered self-righteously about his own problems, and ignored her as the dinner she didn’t care to cook descended into culinary chaos. Failure again.

No, he doesn’t fail. He needs answers. He’s searched for long enough now, and surely he’s stashed away something, somewhere that can be of some use. He pulls a desk drawer open and fishes out the notebook he has filled with details on all the couples he’s ever bothered to know in any detail. It’s his attempt to make sure he never becomes his own parents. He does what he can to analyze each of them to understand why the successful couples work and the failures fall apart. He stops on the longest entry, the one on Evan and Bridget, and reads it for the hundredth time. As much as he admires them, they just aren’t the comparison he needs. Their lives are too stable, their ambitions too different, and the vagaries of love are too fluid for his relentless analysis to bear. He slams the notebook shut and throws it back on the desk.

Mark glances up to his photo-covered walls, here in this one part of the apartment that he and Indira deign to decorate in pictures of real people instead of reproductions of great works of art or trinkets brought back from their travels. His eyes alight on a photo of himself and Evan at the Villa Adriana outside Rome. He sees two brash kids, one who’d just articulated a conquest of death, another who strove for panache in any situation of life. If Evan aspired to be St. Benedict, living his monastic life in a safe haven away from the forces of history, he aimed to be Constantine: the savior of civilization from debauched paganism, builder of the renewed empire.

Why this need to shepherd nations, to think of himself in such grandiose terms? Some of it just stems from his faith in his own ability to do it, faith tempered by knowledge of his own shortcomings. If he were made partner at his investment bank or put in charge of a government agency, he has no doubt he could mold it into whatever image he chooses. He’s been trained for this, an achievement machine, the perfect cog in a ruthless economy to plug in and achieve extraordinary productivity. He knows how to tailor his approach to every person who crosses his path, knows how to manage them, playing off their strengths and weaknesses to either get the most out of them or shunt them aside when they no longer serve him any purpose. Mastery is within his grasp.

He knows how arrogant it all sounds, knows that only with Evan and his most meatheaded finance bros can he crack jokes about how he was born to rule. Indira teases that she isn’t sure how she fell in for the poster child for the privileged patriarchy, and his tales of childhood woe only go so deep now that those sufferings are long in the past. He could easily just cut the cord. But what else could he do? He knows he’s been given many gifts, and whether through luck or fate or hard work, he’s now in a position to put them to some use. Or, he will be: he can do some things now, but imagine what he could do if he climbed into a c-suite, or perhaps made the jump over to the Fed or Treasury when he has the credentials to do so.

No one has ever pushed him to the brink, at least outside the confines of a hockey rink—how he misses that rush—and he feels somehow inadequate, not because he hasn’t performed up to expectations but because no one has ever tested his full potential. He almost wishes for crises so he can prove his worth.

There is no flaw that Mark cannot correct. He spends long nights stewing over his seeming shortcomings, his inability to reach the heights that only grow higher with each passing achievement. He records all these minutiae in his daily life, always in search of solutions. When he steps back to look at the sweep of the past few weeks, he sees it’s not all for naught. His careful cultivation of Dora, his interactions with his siblings, his dates with Indira, his dinners with his salon: he’s starting to get some things right here and there. He really has come some distance.

Just how far? Well, it’s all on the walls before him. He traces his full progression into manhood, from grinning high school kid with a boy band model look to a college jock with an explosion of dirty flow pouring out from beneath his cap to clean, professional Mark with his impeccable wardrobe and a glint of steel in his eye. He says he disdains the act and lives for himself, yet in every single one of these pictures he sees an act, some attempt to uphold some dual standard of class and conquest. He could scold himself for hypocrisy, but no, he should be proud of himself. He has set a standard, and time and again he meets it. The ruthless climber has, unwittingly, built a mission-driven life.

Mark’s eyes settle on the picture at the far end of the row of framed photos on his windowsill. It’s an old, candid shot by Bridget. Evan is a senior and he is a junior in high school. Evan runs a hand through his flow, and Mark looks on in a ridiculous all-white ensemble, head thrown back in laughter. Maybe he’s laughing at Evan’s vanity, maybe he’s laughing at Bridget’s insistence upon documenting everything; he can’t quite be sure now. But in this instance, he wants something that no amount of money or power or civilization will ever be able to get him. He wants it back.

This series continues here.

Ordinary Faith

24 Apr

This post is the ninth in a fictional series. It starts here.

“Marky’s flight’s delayed. Thunderstorms in Chicago.” Evan tosses his phone down on the couch next to him, leans back, and closes his eyes.

“First he misses the rehearsal dinner, and now this?” Bridget yells from the bathroom.

“Eh, he’s always been fine operating on two hours of sleep,” says Evan.

“That’s not the point. You all doing anything in the morning?”

“We rented some ice, so we’re gonna skate for a while.”

“Oh, great, you’ll have a chipped tooth for the ceremony.” Bridget emerges with an overflowing cosmetics bag and rummages through it for the third time in half an hour.

“Anything wandered off since you last checked?” Evan teases.

“Oh, shut up.”

“I will still love you if you have an eyelash out of place.”

“You can be the one who explains to our kids why we look awful in the pictures.”

“I wasn’t stressing out, but now you’re stressing me out.”

“You’re stressing me out with how calm you are!”

Evan laughs, climbs to his feet, and plants a kiss on his fiancée’s cheek.

“Shameless flattery,” Bridget grumbles.

“Let’s go down to the lake.” Something, anything, to get her mind on to something else, Evan thinks.

“You still need to shine your shoes.”

“If I’m gonna be picking up Mark after midnight now, I’ll have some time to kill.”

“You could make someone else do that. Or just pay for his ride.”

“Nah. I’ll be there for him. Nobody sleeps tonight anyway.”

“Fine. Let’s go down to the damn lake.” Bridget snaps her bag shut, collects herself, and marches toward the door. Evan trails after her, leans in the doorway, and levels his best bemused stare as she forces on a pair of shoes. Bridget ignores him as they walk out to the car, but she softens up within minutes, as he knew she would. She blasts a soundtrack of corny nostalgic pop music as they make toward a beach on the edge of town, and Evan allows her nostalgia to take control of him.

The Buddhist monk at Tengboche had exhorted him to find his own true self, but sometimes Evan wonders if his own true self isn’t a chameleon of sorts, always finding ways to blend in wherever he is. If he’s with his hockey friends, he’s a brash boy talking a big game; if he’s with Bridget or his mother, he’s a modest and loyal family man. If he’s with Mark, he finds his intellectual bent; if he’s alone, he’ll just compound that solitude and wander into the woods somewhere, thinking simple thoughts.

Commitment, it seems, is anathema to the chameleon. And now here he is, making the biggest commitment he’s ever made with a walk down the aisle. He’s not ready for this. He’s so far from where he needs to be, so inadequate in so many ways, so unworthy of the label of adulthood. And yet is anyone ever worthy of it, really? He’ll be where he needs to be.

Not that he knows exactly what that means. Is home a physical place, here in Duluth whose dark streets had given him solace in his teenage wanderings, and where he’d met the most important people in his life? Is it in those people themselves, wherever they may travel? Or is it just in a place where he can clear his mind and release himself back into that world beyond? The answer is at once both impossible to know and an immediate instinct, a sense that he blindly finds from time to time that assures him he has things right.

The road to the beach takes Evan and Bridget past their old high school, and Evan stops the car alongside it to gaze down at the place where it all began. He knows Bridget is a sucker for such memories, and she settles her head into his chest. He lets her nestle in and thinks back to their prom night, and all the dates in their group. Somehow they are the lone survivors, the only couple that has made it all the way through. They are the ones who, through power of will and careful negotiation and one desperate plea for forgiveness on the steps of the St. Paul Cathedral, have found it only natural to drift into the hereafter in one another’s arms.

“Remember when we skipped English that day we had that sub and made out behind the bleachers where no one could see us?” he asks her.

“Vividly. That mark you left on my neck only got me grounded for a week.”

“I was such a little shit. I can’t believe you put up with me.”

“You were, sure. But you were the sweetest one of them, and you actually learned, too.”

“Yeah, can’t say I didn’t put in the effort.”

“You wanted it so bad, it was hilarious.”

“Ahem. As if you didn’t want it as badly as I did.”

Bridget sneers at him, and they steal a quick kiss; fleeting but sincere, as if the liaison officer might yet wander by to scold them and send them on their way. Evan reluctantly puts them in motion again, and they leave behind one old haunt for another. They arrive at the beach and wander along wordlessly for a spell, arm in arm, looking away from one another only to pick their way across the rocks. It is a clear, moonless night, and the stars glitter down on a glassy Lake Superior. All is still save for the two of them scattering rocks with each step.

“God, this is beautiful,” says Evan. “I live for this.”

“And me too, right, Mr. Husband-To-Be?”

“Oh. Yeah. Guess so.”

“Sometimes I wonder why I put up with you.”

“Still got time to pull out if you want.”

“God knows you don’t ever pull out.”

Evan grins. “Always been a finisher, on and off the ice.”

“I feel like I’m marrying a fifteen-year-old.”

“Forever young, baby.”

“Which is funny, because you can be such an old man when you whine about how technology is ruining the kids these days and talk about how we’re all doomed in the end.”

“Past, present, future, it’s all one. Hey, speaking of pasts, think we’ll see any sparks between Marky and Jackie?”

“She moved on when we were still in high school.”

“I know. Ya never know, though. The best man and the maid of honor, it’s all set up for them…”

“Don’t tell me Mark is actually going to make a play there.”

The darkness keeps Evan’s blush from revealing his friend’s intentions. “The problem with having an incredible mind is that you can’t forget the past very easily.”

Bridget comes to a stop atop a rocky ledge and frowns down at the lake. “What good is having an incredible mind when all you use it for is making money off other people’s problems and treating women like disposable objects?”

“Hey now.”

“Sorry. I know what he means to you. But he’s changed with age.”

“Give him some credit, he thinks about what he does. And he’s only ever treated you with respect, right?”

“He has. But probably only because he loves you more than anyone in his life.”

Evan cocks his head at Bridget. She’s right, of course. Mark is a loyal son who comes home to visit his mother, but they are never anything more than perfunctory trips. He doesn’t know his half-siblings, he’s never kept a girlfriend, and his friend network beyond Evan is wide but shallow. Nor had his father’s death made Mark any less certain in his pursuits. If anything, he’s a more intense version of his old self.

For his part, Evan supposes he is much the same. He’s gone home, just as Mark always said he would, and has latched on to his anchors in a world adrift. His mother and his sweetheart since sophomore year, his two rocks, are here for him. He’s settled into a very Evan job at a local foundation, coordinating philanthropic efforts for college scholarships. It’s not remarkably lucrative, but is stable and honorable, two words that he’d like to think describe his every move. And, as he never ceases to remind Bridget, he’s told the local high school girls find him a considerable upgrade on the past holder of the position.

“One of my scholarship girls is working for the caterer this summer. Ran into her today,” Evan says to change the topic. “Sounded almost disappointed I was getting married.”

“Sounds like trouble. I hope she’s going to college on one of the coasts.”

“Nah, she’s gonna be a Gopher. Gonna go follow my legendary hockey career.”

“I’m sure you told her all about all five of your college goals.”

“Good thing I’m better at scoring in other parts of life.”

“In your dreams, boy.”

“In my dreams,” he muses. Evan has always been a vivid dreamer, both in wakefulness and in sleep. His alternate lives impose their will upon his hours of rest, often in nightmarish thoughts of what could have been if he’d followed different courses. Lately, they have shifted, and offer not just a different past but a potential future. He sees himself in old age, sees a copy of a travelogue with his name on the cover, and, most frightening of all, sees himself with his children, terrorized by his lack of control over them. Yet again, he’s humbled by forces beyond his control.

Life, after weeks and months of monotonous toil, now happens in sudden bursts. They’ve known this wedding was coming for years, but that has done nothing to diminish the sudden rush of anxious energy. Within twenty-four hours it will all be over, and in a few weeks he and Bridget will move out of their cozy apartment and into a well-tended midcentury ranch in a sedate neighborhood. Their purchase is neither one’s dream: Evan had his heart set on fixing up a decaying old, grand home near the center of the city, while Bridget was taken in by a quaint log cabin on five acres out in a township. For this stage in life, at least, they decided neither would win. How quickly those promises became compromises, the fuel to the same old cycle of little spats and make-up love the two of them have endured since Evan first snuck her into his room during sophomore year. Once it was over lunch table seating or post-prom plans; now it’s over dining room paint schemes and the selection of national parks to visit on their honeymoon. The stakes seem higher, but maybe it isn’t so different after all.

Bridget checks her phone and rolls her eyes. “My mom says your Aunt Cathy has a cold. She might not be able to sing.”

“Everything is ruined.”

Bridget cackles. “You’ve never been on great terms with Aunt Cathy, have you?”

“I do like my cousins, you know Colin and I are tight. But as for Aunt Cathy…well, I did once overhear her telling my mom that she deserved her amoral prick jock of a son for the way she’d let me go after my dad died. I don’t think she ever forgave my mom for marrying my dad.”

“Holy shit! What did your mom say to that?”

“She asked Aunt Cathy what she’d think if she told Colin to shove his cello up his ass.”

“I can’t even picture her saying that!”

“My mom can be a badass when she needs to.”

“And they still talk to each other?”

“Aunt Cathy’s on better meds now.”

Bridget cuts short her laugh. “It’s amazing how fragile we can all be, isn’t it?”

Evan nods and once again trails off into his memories. He thinks back to the wake he and Mark had held for Mark’s father at the ridgetop fortress up the shore. Evan had gone expecting a breakdown, but Mark kept his calm as they cleaned out the liquor cabinet, poised as ever as he recounted his lurching family saga. He was at turns bitter and regretful, but Evan could tell he was steeling himself to make good on what he could, to never make the same mistakes. There was a master plan, as there always is with Mark.

Only once did Mark’s simmering anger with the Brennan family legacy boil over into a true tempest. He’d launched into a soliloquy on the ills of modernity, both a defense of his responses to it and a load of self-loathing over the systems that brought his family to the top of the heap and kept them there. He lamented how the march of progress drove people to cut off old ties and retreat into sorry little republics of themselves, all in pursuit of base satisfaction. It didn’t quite amount to coherence, but Evan has lingered over its brightest glimmers ever since.

His father was a lonely man, Mark had said. One who always put up walls, incapable of showing weakness, incapable of being a host or welcoming in anyone who wasn’t of immediate use to him. He’d even admitted as much at the end. For all the desires he’d satisfied in his life, he was bathed in misery, a solitary soldier who limped along to his lonely fate. He aspired to love, but knew nothing but sorry substitutes for it. He sought refinement, but had no one left at the end to share in his tastes. He looked for easy escapes, but never took the time to ask why until it was far too late. That unreflective loneliness killed his family, and at his lowest points, Mark worries he’s inherited it. He needed to break those chains, he cried. Hugs and toasts had followed, and for that night, at least, Evan had assured Mark that he had the power within him to resist the trend toward ruin.

Evan has seen this loneliness in his own life all too well. He sees it now in retrospect in his own suicidal father. He sees it in his travels, where all too often he gets people of all shades and sizes to pour out their souls to him simply by being a polite listener at a bar. He sees it in the kids at local high schools whom he interviews for scholarships; he’s not even ten years out, yet he feels a generation away from them. His coworkers report on the misery of so many of the elderly, who fade away into nothing in lonely rooms with loud TVs. A coworker, probing the local dating scene, was horrified by the broken people who seemed to aspire to nothing save sex via desperate swipe. If even Mark thinks there’s something wrong with all of this, he may not be the dinosaur he thinks he is after all.

Evan recounts the tale to a half-interested Bridget. “You’re the nurse here. Do you think all this loneliness is killing us? Because we’re living alone, or in twos and threes and staring at screens every night instead of living the way we’re meant to live, in little tribes with other people?”

“I don’t think we can say anything for sure. But it sure doesn’t help.”

“See, this is why I wanted one of those big houses. We could entertain all the time. An open door, just have anyone we know come through for dinner or drinks whenever. Board game nights, sports in the backyard, nothing formal but always something going on. Space for our parents to move in when they get old, and so they can help with the kids. Wouldn’t that be awesome?”

“It would be. It would be such a money pit, though. And raising kids in that neighborhood…”

“Think how much fun you could have on the remodeling projects.”

“Don’t tempt me. Or at least not until after we’ve signed the papers.”

“You could still change your mind…” Evan grins, and Bridget stomps off to walk a few feet ahead of him again.

“For now, I need you to myself a little more than that. But, tell you what. If we both still think this sounds fun in a few years, I’m all in. We could afford a bigger, grander house then anyway.”

Evan tries to buy down his sense of urgency. “Right. No need to rush when we’ve got it made ourselves.”

Bridget comes back to his side, swelling with pride, and Evan puts an arm around her shoulder and eases them down to a seat on a convenient boulder. He isn’t sure if he should trumpet his triumph from the rooftops, or merely acknowledge it and continue on his steady way. His immediate instinct, as always, is the latter. But it would be a shame not to share his story if someone else out there might find something valuable within it, and he needs to find some way to tell his story to show that it is the culmination of a quest to a higher calling, so much more than just the satisfaction of his own ego.

What is it, then? A tale of faith? Evan has been through his phases of religious experiment. He’d picked up Kierkegaard and John of the Cross in college, and dabbled in Rumi and Camus. He’d followed his mystical mother into flirtation with the Buddha, too. He wants to believe anyone can be saved, yet wants to believe in the certainty of his own path to salvation. Mark always blasted the ‘spiritual but not religious’ impulse as something sorry and watered down, and quietly Evan agreed that it often did little to translate its feel-good tingling into an ordering principle for life. He’s always wanted that structure, and yet all his efforts to collect wisdom across faiths and ages still seem woefully incomplete. Through it all, he’s just left with an inadequate resignation: he does not know. Maybe, he thinks with a jolt, the real lesson is that humility can take more courage than the boldest righteous stand.

“What?” Bridget complains. He’s disrupted her resting place.

“Can you believe what we’ve found here?” he asks. “Me and you.”

“You made it look easy, most of the time,” Bridget assures him.

“Looks can be deceiving.” Evan wonders if he’s hidden too much from his bride-to-be, stowing away his angst in a well-curated image of a man in pursuit of enlightenment. He let hints out to Mark, but even there he has too much pride to let on the full extent, or to ever fully admit that Mark is right when he needles him about how he wants more. If Mark has one thing on him when it comes to coping with existential anxieties, it’s that he’s always willing to express himself, honest and unvarnished—even, Evan laughs to himself, beneath all those layers of varnish in which he slathers himself. Evan avoids such sincerity and just says he is fine, or trades in a thoughtless language of faith and transcendence. But in the moments when he stops to think, when he finds himself cold and alone, perhaps run into the ground after a bad skate or a night with one too many drinks, his rational side tells him that he is only deluding himself.

And what for? Adulthood, he thinks, has not been what was promised. Sure, there was a formal graduation ceremony at the end of college, but it seemed an inadequate transition to both the uncertainty of life options that followed and the rigid structure of employment. He and his friends were all grappling in the dark, none of them worthy of any level of responsibility, and he found himself clinging to the ones who thought they had some idea of what they were doing, even if that idea was just a headstrong commitment to barrel ahead without any thought for the consequences. But what should he have expected, anyway? Maybe this could have been easier if he’d followed the Mark path, majored in something with a quick and easy pipeline to prestige, or at the very least a lot of money to support the family he’s about to begin. But he hasn’t wandered to the end of the earth and back because he believes in easy transitions. Whether he was conscious of it or not, he’s known from the start that this would never be easy. He’d endured years of mournful underemployment, his bank account propped up by his nurse of a wife. But he is in a good place now, and more than anyone he knows, his future has written itself.

All of the authority figures he’d admired as a child were just as clueless at this stage in their lives. His mother was pregnant with him when she was his age, scraping along in an administrative job; his dad wouldn’t get his break into management for another six years, either. Bridget’s parents hadn’t even met yet, while Mark’s father was just starting his first marriage and his mother, twenty-three years later, was plying her trade in New York. And they all were better-off than most, all things considered. Nothing is obvious, and too many choices came to pass with no conscious path in mind, either chosen for all the wrong reasons or drifted into for no reason at all. Some of them worked, some of them didn’t, but they all must find their ways in spite of them.

The weight of his commitment becomes real. This is his life now. He can still run off with Mark when it pleases him, but it will only ever be temporary. Mark, as is his wont, probably already knows this: the bachelor party had degenerated into some drunken anguish after everyone else had passed out and it was just the two of them wandering a ridgetop over Duluth. Mark had gone from boasts about how he owned the city to sudden sadness over his impending loss, and while the two of them always milked their gay lover jokes for all they were worth, Evan knows there’s something in their bond that doesn’t quite fit within the bounds of normal male friendship. It’s not a sexual tie, but it is charged with a shared erotic drive, and he’s not quite sure what marriage will mean for it.

The two of them can’t quite be boys again, even if Evan has begun plotting a backpack trip in South America that he plans to foist upon Mark. It is only a temporary escape now, and Bridget has stolen that wandering life away from him. He wants to tell her to leave him in peace, to bellow at her to let him go. But that’s just it: she isn’t clinging desperately. She may not share in his fervent formless faith or his desire to wander off and hide in a tent. She knows he needs his space, lets him have it, and can snap him back to reality if he ever meanders too far off into the recesses of his own mind. She attacks any task before her with the same verve he does, and he, too, has something to offer her, as he pushes her out of her comfort zone and gives her blind, loving hope a much-needed dose of doubt.

“I should get back to my mom at some point here,” says Bridget. “She’s still panicking over the centerpieces.”

“C’mon now. Maybe now that she’s pushing sixty she can learn to take something in stride.”

“In your dreams, maybe. You saw how she was this afternoon with the caterers.”

“Thanks for leaving me to deal with that while you hid out with my mom.”

“Lot of fun we had, cleaning all your old junk out of the basement.”

“She taking this okay?” Evan’s mother tries not to show him her worries, but he’s never been sure how she’ll take signing away her baby to another woman.

“She’s as great as ever. Made me tell her stories about what a little brat you were. She showed me that old wooden penalty box your dad built for you as a kid where she sent you for timeouts.”

“That old thing! I didn’t realize she still had it. Good thing we weren’t still using that when she learned what we’d do during that half hour between school and hockey practice.”

Bridget cackles. “Would’ve been a major penalty?”

“Game misconduct at the very least.”

“It’s the cutest thing ever. And it’s good wood, I was thinking I might make some nice lawn chairs out of it. If you can bear to part with it, of course.”

“I’ll trust your judgment when it comes to being crafty. It had a good run.”

“There was an old surfboard down there too. I might cut that in half it and use that as backs for chairs. We could sit out in the yard in your childhood toys.”

Evan freezes. “Woah, hang on. You never know when I might need that.”

Bridget laughs, but gives him a searching look. “You, on a surfboard? You wouldn’t even go in the water at Kara’s cabin because you were scared of the algae or whatever!”

“You never know.” Evan blossoms into a smile, and chances a sly smirk. No, he need not worry about marriage being some end to his dreams. He and Bridget still have a few secrets to extract from each other, and he will always have a few outlets to still catch the waves. He is humbled yet again.

This series continues here.

Ridgetop Requiem

3 Apr

This post is the eighth in a fictional series that began here. The previous installment is here.

At least his father had the good sense to bite it in summer, Mark thinks as he drives up the rutted gravel road toward the clifftop villa overlooking Lake Superior. He can only imagine what would have happened if the diagnosis had come in winter. The hospice nurse probably would have gone over the edge in that puny little Volvo parked at the gate, or maybe no one would have found the body until the snows melted. Perhaps not an inappropriate end for the Ice King of the North Shore, Mark muses before scolding himself for his impropriety.

Mark had always known he’d likely lose his father at an early age. Pierpont Brennan conceived his youngest son at age 56, an unhappy side product of a tryst with a woman twenty-three years his junior. But when Mark pushes the lodge door open and announces his arrival, the feeble welcome that bleats out in response jars him. He greets the nurse and makes the perfunctory small talk before asking for some privacy. She wobbles between her practiced pity for children of the dying and a dose of fear at Mark’s coolness: bespoke suit sans tie, perfectly windswept hair, no outward betrayal of emotion. Mark suspects she diagnoses some stage of grief, and he is content to let her believe he is in shock or denial, not blithely indifferent to death.

He wonders how hard it would be to seduce her. She looks to be early thirties, cute in a weather-beaten sort of way, very much the motherly type. The sort who tells herself she has standards, but most likely will let them crumble when faced with a louche, exotic East Coast boy. Right in his wheelhouse, he thinks. She offers him some reassuring clichés on her way out the door, and he berates himself for this lapse into his basest desire to just fuck everything. This is why he shouldn’t go home. It brings out the worst in him.

After a resigned sigh, Mark goes to stand before Pierpont Brennan. His father rests in the recliner in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows in the lodge’s great room, free to gaze out at a complete panorama of the shoreline 500 feet below, if he ever manages to lift his eyes. Just six months ago, when Mark had last visited, his father had casually boasted about his hikes down to the lakefront and back again. Now, he’s a fading wraith, his skin drawn thin and his once sleek silver mane rendered a patchy mess.

“Kind of you to come back from Shangri-La to see your father die.”

Even in a terminal state, he still can’t help but take digs.

“Evan and I go off the grid when we’re hiking. Didn’t get the message until two days ago, and, well, here I am.”

“Better than nothing.”

“None of the others…”

A derisive snort interrupts Mark’s words.

“Apparently not?”

“You know full well what they think of me.”

“Considering that only one of them even talks to me, I’d say so.”

“My family, loving to the end.”

“Hey, some of us try.”

“You want a medal?”

“Don’t your people have some story about the prodigal son or something? About how the father welcomed him back with open arms?”

“‘My people.’ Hmph.”

“Aw, are we really going to do this now?”

“Why change at the end?”

Mark grumbles, but manages a retort after a pause that is only slightly too long. “You changed. You broke totally free after you had me, lived a totally different life.”

“The last few chapters of my life haven’t been all that happy.”

“Glad you enjoyed your time with me.”

“Shut up with your goddamn smart mouth.”

“What, I’m supposed to take this lying down?”

Mark’s father pauses before retorting. His precision is fading, as sure a sign of decline as any, but he fires up the engines once again.

“It’s not about you. It’s about what I did…loyal and God-fearing for all those years. Finally breaking out to stop living in misery. I got nothing in return. Maybe this is all I deserved.”

“You know, when my last girlfriend dumped me, she said I somehow managed to be arrogant and always self-pitying, all at once. Guess I know where I got it from.”

“Quit sniping and take a seat next to me.”

Mark nods and nestles into the Spartan wooden chair next to the recliner. Silence reigns in the chalet, save for the rumble of a braking truck that echoes up from the highway at the base of the cliff. Clouds wander in and out of their line of sight, darkening the lake below them in scattered patches. Every silent second feels like an eternity.

“I will miss this view,” Mark chances. His father doesn’t reply, so Mark keeps his gaze outward on the lake. He shies from looking at this frail remnant to his left, his formidable father reduced to a shell of his former self. Even the hint of vulnerability in his most recent utterance feels wrong: this isn’t how Pierpont Brennan should go. The two of them should be fighting to the last breath, playing out their vicious charade, the two narcissists’ simple acknowledgement of their intertwined fates. It’s the closest thing they can muster to a declaration of love.

Only once before has this façade cracked, that back when Pierpont lamented his affair with Mark’s mother, only for Mark to remind him that without it, he wouldn’t exist. For the first time, Pierpont had acknowledged that his last son was very much his own, unsure of whether this was a point of pride or not, torn between his desire to justify his late-life dalliances and his regret that they never brought him the satisfaction he sought. Pierpont, ever an agent of his own happiness, his love life’s value cast in the utilitarian terms that made him so ruthlessly successful on Wall Street.

Mark barely knew his father in his prime. His three half-siblings hold him in thinly veiled contempt for what he brought into the open. His father, diminished by the collapse of his ever-so-perfect family, had resigned his presidency of a multinational holding company and settled for an obscure consulting position at a mining plant on the shores of Lake Superior, where his new wife had come from before her ambition led her to the world of New York’s escorts. Pierpont Brennan’s early exploits are legend to Mark, vague rumors of past glory that he can believe but never has fully seen. His gravitas never faded, however, and Mark suspects his father courses through him when he coolly swats aside his own emotions to project the power he knows is his destiny. It comes as no surprise when his next ask brings out that dismissive leer.

“Tell me what you’re thinking about all this now.”

“I’m not sure it’s a story worth telling. I made a lot of money. It didn’t buy me happiness. At least it’s bought you a good education, even if it’s made you ask too many questions. What more is there to say?”

Mark mulls any number of things he wishes his father would say, but nothing can quite bring itself to issue from his lips. He settles for standing before the window and gazing out at nothing in particular.

“You always used to say you felt closer to God up here,” he says.

“I did say that.”

“You believe it?”

“Depends on the day, honestly.”

“And you wonder why I’m not a believer.”

“No, I know exactly why you aren’t. And I don’t blame you.”

“Appreciate that.”

Mark’s lower lip wobbles. His father first cheated on his mother when he was ten, was caught when he was thirteen, divorced at fifteen. Not once in the eight years since has there been any mention of what transpired. Now, on his deathbed, his father concedes some of the damage done by that festering wound. Twenty-three years, hidden in darkness.

Mark cannot stay at his father’s side. He turns his back without a word and wanders the house one final time. The last time in which it is intact, at least; he’s sure he’ll be back here overseeing some estate sale and ushering it on to the market, with no one else to do the job. It may sit there for years. How much demand can there be for a multi-million dollar home at the end of an eroding gravel road in northern Minnesota?

He starts his tour downstairs in his old walkout bedroom, still cluttered with the detritus of stray weekends spent back here during high school. Some trophies, a pile of hockey programs, the empty vodka bottles stashed in the dresser, the summer clothes that are now out of fashion and were always too preppy for rural Minnesota anyway. He’d weeded out anything of sentimental value years ago, in an attempt to purge this house of any semblance of his old life. Now he almost wishes he could find something that could spark an old twinge of happier days. But who is he kidding? There were no such days. He was miserable from the day they moved here in a futile attempt to save his parents’ failing marriage.

He wanders back upstairs, skirting the great living room to slip up the staircase to the lofted bedroom. This was supposed to be the guest room to showcase the North Shore to his parents’ friends from back East, though few of them ever came. Instead, it became the site of his father’s liaisons, and also where Mark enjoyed his first blowjob from Emma, his obsessive middle school girlfriend. He has his phone out of his pocket to learn what became of her before he remembers he never has any service here. This is symbolic of something, he figures.

The room is coated in dust, cluttered with his father’s usual poorly ironed clothes and empty nightcap glasses. Once he had the place to himself, Pierpont had taken to sleeping up here until he could no longer manage the stairs, and Mark doubts anyone has been up here since. The view is as magnificent as it ever was, and he can still hear Emma’s gasps in awe when she saw the twenty-mile shoreline panorama. His teenage conquests now leave him both proud and repulsed, unapologetic but afraid that he is nothing more than a sleazy sex addict who’s never learned a thing, despite all his pretentions of truth-seeking and intellectual growth.

Mark looks down from the loft at his unmoving father and wonders vaguely if he is the sole heir, or if Pierpont has thrown some bones to his estranged older children. If his father were a generous man, he would have just left it all to charity to spurn his ungrateful offspring, but he has no such causes left to earn his loyalty. Pierpont was eternally short on compassion for the downtrodden, grumpy about the internal politics of his alma maters, and stopped going to church after his second divorce. Even the Republican Party ceased to be worthy of his largesse after it started to turn against the free trade policies that let Pierpont make millions off of various offshoring maneuvers.

Mark has played his cards ever so carefully. He started the game even in high school, right after he moved out with his mother, and endured long weekends back here to ensure a future payoff. He suffered through tales of old board room meetings and leveraged buyouts, and made sure his patron knew he was using his old network as he made his way in New Haven and New York. He brought in the lawyer to make sure Pierpont had his affairs in order, always pulling strings from a distance. The more cynical part of his brain is pleased with how well he’s pulled it off, but on those scattered occasions where his father’s humanity does pierce through, he feels a pang of guilt over how shamelessly he’s plotted for this day.

Mark heads back down the stairs and goes to his father’s side. No acknowledgement. He settles into a crouch; his father always preferred talking to people when he could look down on them. He whets his lips and tries the first words that come to his mind.

“Can I get you something? A snack? Water? That bottle of absinthe I know you have in the pantry?”

Pierpont laughs. “I’m scared for you, Mark. I always have been.”

“Scared? Why?”

“You have too much of me in you.”

“I won’t deny it…but, shit.”

“Same ego, same vanity, same sense that you always deserved more. After doing everything in my power to make a clean break from my old life…my youngest son was more like the old me than any of my other three children. Seeing that? It was the beginning of the end with your mother. I saw that running away with her was all a sham.”

“You seriously gonna try to pin that on ten-year-old me?”

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t…you see how confused it all is? Why I’m not dying in peace?”

“Is this really the way you want to go out? Like this?”

“Do I have any choice?”

“Yes. You’ve got to. Where did it go wrong?” Pierpont averts his eyes, cowed, and Mark feels another twinge of guilt. He shouldn’t abuse a dying man like this. But if not now, when? Mark knows this is his own greatest sin: he must know. His appetite knows no bounds. He cannot linger in doubt, even for a second. And that awful doubt that has hung over the entire story of his life, that both he and his father see perpetuated in him, may never see an answer on this earth.

“Answer me.”

“You’re cruel.”

“I have too much of you in me.”

The two share a wry laugh.

“The mistake, I think, was in thinking I could break free. I believed it, and it was convenient when your mother came along, to think I could flush down that past. I couldn’t. And yet I can’t say it was a mistake, either…as you always remind me.” For the first time since Mark’s arrival, a smile crawls on to Pierpont’s face. “It was always me, all of it, the good and the bad, and every shade of grey in between. We’re complicated creatures.”

Mark nods. “I feel that. We want it all to make sense. Be the hero. And some days I am. Look what I’ve done with my life. But then…”

“You fall right back into the gutter that you know all too well.” Pierpont closes his eyes and settles back into the chair. For a moment, Mark fears this is the end, but his eyes suddenly bulge open with new life.

“I wish I could have told my kids that the world isn’t the way it is. That we’d all find ways to live happily ever after. Both of my wives thought so, in their own way. But I couldn’t lie to you. I may not have said it right, but I do think I taught you how to fend for yourselves. And you all do.”

“Is that what it’s all about? Being able to fend for yourself?”

“I don’t know. Some book I read once probably said that, but I don’t know that it’s worth all the philosophical babble anymore. I wanted you to be confident in who you are. I don’t think you can find any fault in that.”

“Maybe not. And I am, usually. But…I’ve always felt torn. Between the East Coast and Minnesota, between you and Mom, between all this wandering curiosity and all those questions, and then that side of me that wants to cut through all the bullshit and get things done and make bank.”

“It all adds up to you as you are.”

“I’m not sure how I feel about that.”

“It’s a burden to bear. Not one that I’ve always done a very good job of. Though…maybe I’m salvaging something at the end here.”

Tears begin to well in Mark’s eyes.

“Don’t cry for me, kid.”

“I’m not. Not really. I’m crying for what could have been.”

“Don’t dwell.”

“That’s rich.”

“I am rich, and I’ve earned the right to say what I please.”

Mark laughs. “That you have.”

“Help me up.”

Mark’s first urge is to dissuade his father from exertion, but he suppresses this sorry impulse and lends Pierpont Brennan an arm. The two make a slow, lurching walk along the full length of the wall of glass, then step out on to the side deck. Mark puts on his sunglasses to hide his swimming eyes and tosses his hair in the soft lake breeze. His father takes deep, rasping breaths as he sucks down the cool air, collects himself, and gazes up at his son.

“You may miss this view. And I’m glad you feel some nostalgia for this place. But don’t miss it too much, you hear me?”

“No?”

“This place…it’s beautiful in its solitude. But it’s never had enough life in it. You know this.”

Mark nods.

“When are you headed back east?”

“There’s no timeline.”

“I don’t know how long this will take, you know. I did take pretty good care of myself, booze aside. And I’m stubborn.”

“Got your genes on all those fronts, too.”

“I am afraid for you. But I will admit that I’m proud, too.”

“Thanks, Dad.”

“I know you’ve been looking for answers. Trying not to make the same mistakes. You don’t need to tell me if you’ve found something, but…promise me you won’t ever stop.”

Mark blossoms into the most genuine smile he’s ever known. “That I can do.”

That evening, Mark will make a simple meal for his father, and they will trade some tales of their early days on the trading floor. After they share some of the absinthe, Mark will tuck Pierpont beneath a blanket in his recliner, and his father will expire in his sleep. The next morning, Mark will tell some of his father’s story to the nurse, though he will neither cry in front of her nor make any effort to woo her. He notifies the lawyer and the undertaker, and he calls Evan to invite him up the Shore so the two of them can have a wake, the only memorial service that will be held in his father’s name. Content, Mark heads back down to his old bedroom’s closet and finds one salvageable item: a battered old pair of running shoes. He laces them up and heads out on to the trails on the property to run them one last time.

Evan tells him he will never truly find closure, and he has no reason to doubt his friend’s hard-earned wisdom. But he can take time to process, and to sear certain lessons into his mind so that he never forgets them. Yes, Mark thinks as he picks himself up from a fall in the mud and keeps on running. For now, that will have to be enough.

This series continues here.

Continuity Issues

25 Mar

Over the past seven months, I’ve released six posts in a fictional series, which have followed two boys from high school and now past college graduation. Chronologically, the next piece in this series was, in fact, the first one I wrote. I posted it on this blog back in 2016, before I had any designs of putting additional stories involving its characters on this blog. As I think this story is best read in chronological order, I’ll direct anyone who’s following along back to that post, which you can find here. It has undergone some mild revisions to make it consistent with the six that precede it within the arc of Evan and Mark’s stories. At least four more will follow.

This post is so short it feels like cheating.