Tag Archives: fiction

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.)

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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.

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.

Panache amid the Ruins

28 Feb

This fictional collection begins here.

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

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

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

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

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

“Because it’s my birthright?”

“God you’re awful sometimes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, here you go again.”

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

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

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

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

“Really? Sad?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ve never been very good at that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ego much?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Not in so many words.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark snorts in derision.

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

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

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

“Kicking ass.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Panache amid the ruins.”

Evan stops short.

“You always could turn a phrase.”

“I am kind of proud of that one.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know you can’t escape my world.”

“Just like you can’t escape mine.”

“Aw, fuck off.”

“Screw you, too!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe too little.”

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

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

“Ah well. Let’s toast.”

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

“To the smartest damn kid I know.”

“To us.”

“To life well lived.”

“To God and country.”

“To panache amid the ruins!”

“To the freedom to live out our dreams.”

“To death!” They finish their cups.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I mean, what’s beauty if not that?”

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

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

“A what?”

“Oh, just keep going.”

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

“Yep, you’re a pedant.”

“God, shut up.”

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

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

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

“They rebuilt it, didn’t they?”

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

“They did.”

This story continues here.

Maplelag

13 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

*    *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What number am I?”

“In hockey.”

“Oh…ten.”

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

“Um…okay. Anyway…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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