Ordinary Faith

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

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

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

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

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.

God and Evan at Yale

This is the next installment in a fiction series that began here.

“See, Evs, the point of a Yale degree isn’t to say you have a degree in economics or English or political science,” says Mark. “It’s to say you have a Yale degree. It’s all about finding your ticket, wherever it is you want to go. Same for any school like it. It’s the fast track to the top.”

Evan has just spent an entire day wandering Yale’s quads. He’s eaten up the university’s mystique, and felt the proper reverence for the great things that have been and will be done on this campus. In their more raw conversations over the past two years, Mark has conceded some discomfort at no longer being the big fish in the small pond. But as he holds court from the end of a dinner table in a modernist box of an apartment in downtown New Haven, Evan can’t help but think his best friend has found his kingdom here.

“So much for learning things because there’s actually value in learning them,” he sighs.

“We do that, too,” says the blonde Boston girl as she slops another helping of risotto on to Evan’s plate. “Well, some of us. But one of my professors literally wrote the book on gender theory.”

“No reason we can’t have it all,” says Mark as he flips his hair back out of his eyes. Evan thinks he looks preposterous in his pink button-down and the roguish new stubble adorning his cheeks, but here, surrounded by people who know nothing of their rapport, he can’t muster up his normal snarky retort. He instead makes a show of refilling his wine glass, and pours the rest of the bottle into those of his two neighbors around the table. The three of them toast to one another, and Evan lets the boozy warmth distract him from his best friend’s wanderings.

“I don’t know shit about wine, and I know this is good,” says Owen, an apartment-mate of Mark’s. He’s a fellow Minnesotan from a Twin Cities suburb Evan hadn’t heard of named Deephaven.

“Brought that one back from Sonoma when me and Evvy were out there last week. Wine Country was freaking awesome,” says Mark.

“You said you threw up in the cab,” says the tall, chiseled boy with salmon shorts and a hair parting that Moses would envy. Evan thinks this is the one Mark told him is a Vanderbilt descendant, though he loses track. He certainly has a noble air down to perfection as he leans up against the kitchen counter, safely removed from the peasants around the table.

“Not exactly Marky’s finest moment,” says Evan. The table cracks up at Mark’s expense, though he just grins shamelessly. When Evan tells this story to their high school friends, their immediate reaction is bemused horror at what the bill must have been, especially when they learn that Healdsburg is an hour’s drive from San Francisco. But here, no one even blinks at the thought.

“The two of you road tripped out there all the way from Minnesota?” the blonde asks.

“Yep! Badlands, Wyoming, three nights in Zion, Tahoe, then the Bay, all in ten days,” says Evan.

“We do a trip like that once a year,” Mark says. “Our little way to keep ourselves sane.”

“Shit, that’s awesome,” says Mark’s backup goalie, a bulky, affable, racially ambiguous New Jerseyan. “What was the best part?”

“Gotta be San Francisco,” says Mark. “Goddamn, the food, the wine, the girls…” Evan would have said Zion, but he’s too uptight about how that would play with this crowd. He did sneak out and watch the surfers on Ocean Beach the morning Mark was hung over after the visit to Sonoma, though, and that had been sublime.

“Best city on earth!” says the Salvadoran girl who Mark says comes from some politically powerful and potentially questionable family. “Maria and I were there for Pride Weekend last summer. It makes New York’s look like a county fair. Just a little slice of everyone there, together, all for unity…it’s what the future looks like.”

“Ugh. Cosmopolitan bullshit.” Mark adds a yawn for effect.

“You’re such a damn contrarian,” gripes the roommate, Owen. Evan had taken an immediate liking to Owen, as he’d welcomed in another Minnesotan and offered whispered agreement that the East Coast seemed so pretentious compared to modest and sensible Minnesota, where everyone enjoyed a pleasantly above average childhood that opened doors to the full range of possibilities. Then Evan had looked up Deephaven, and learned how much more above average some communities are than others.

“That’ll happen when you grow up in a place that’s whiter than all the snow that’s on the ground there all year,” the Salvadoran jabs, adding a none-too-subtle eyelash flutter at Mark. Yes, Evan thinks, she’s just his type: petite, precise on the details from her eyeliner to her heels, and clearly no rookie.

“Not like there aren’t heaps of evidence showing that we’re not very good at getting along with each other,” says Mark. “It’s just humans being humans. Not that I won’t do my part to spread the love…”

“But you said you loved San Francisco…”

“Personally, yeah. I like nice things. But not everyone can afford nice things.”

“You’re saying only rich people can enjoy cities like that?” asks the Boston blonde.

“I mean, look at the evidence,” Mark shrugs. “The world’s splitting apart. Rural-urban divides, racial divides, American power in decline, grand narratives getting drowned out in endless noise…we’re not living at a happy time, kids. Doesn’t mean I won’t do what I can to fix it—”

“Speak for yourself,” laughs the backup goalie.

“—But I’m not gonna let myself get left behind, either. And if anyone in this room isn’t the same way, you’re either a saint or a goddamn hypocrite.”

The goalie nods in approval, while the Boston blonde frowns and looks to Evan for a response. He can only shrug; he’s long known Mark’s stand, and while he’d like to aspire to sainthood, he’ll concede that he is in no way ready to renounce any measure of material comfort to make a point. He’s just doing a much poorer job than his Yale economics major friend to make sure he actually attains that material comfort.

“Gotta take care of our own first,” says the goalie.

“There’s a lot we can do, though!” says the Salvadoran. “And have done…look at all the progress just in our lifetimes. We need people who can see everything that’s wrong with it but still go and fix it.” She gives Mark a significant look and plays with a stray strand of hair across her chest. Evan isn’t sure if she’s flattering him or really does think he has a political future. Both seem equally plausible.

“Yeah, we do,” says Mark. “We’re gonna rule all this someday. But for now, I’ll take my nice things. Me and Evs, we’re headed out to Nantucket tomorrow. My sister said no one has my dad’s first ex’s place for the weekend. She got it out of the pre-nup.” The group laughs, Evan again marvels at the collective lack of awe at this privilege, and how easily Mark speaks of his family’s wealth here in a way he never does in Minnesota.

“Awesome,” says the backup goalie. “That the half-sister you met up with last spring?”

“Yep, hadn’t seen her since I was ten. She’s the black sheep of the three my dad had with wife number one, so we actually hit it off. She can out-drink me, no problem.”

“I’m scared for my life. Or at least my liver,” Evan quips. “But hey, it’s worth it to live in that world for a weekend.” He’s not entirely sure he believes this, but it seems the appropriate thing to say.

“You take a cross-country road trip together, and now you’re out here visiting a week later, doing a romantic getaway to Nantucket?” asks Owen. “When’s the wedding?”

“Yeah, fun partying with you kids, but Evvy and me need some space to whisper our sweet nothings to each other on the beach for a couple days,” says Mark.

“Hard to time it otherwise with hockey,” Evan sighs.

“Evvy’s a walk-on for the Gophers. Gets decent minutes,” Mark explains. He shoots Evan a look that shows he’s annoyed he’s not playing along.

“Damn,” says the backup goalie, the one other person in the room who understands the reputation of the University of Minnesota’s hockey team. “You actually play?”

“Fourth line.”

“Dammit, take some credit, Evs,” Mark chides him. “He dressed way more games than a whole bunch of scholarship kids last season. Shameful they haven’t given him a ride with the way he works. I keep telling him to transfer out this way, but…”

Evan shrugs again, at a loss for words. He’s a Minnesotan to the core. He wants to tell them that Duluth is his own little slice of heaven, the Lake Superior Riviera, with air-conditioned summers and magically crisp autumns and open skating rinks all winter long. If only they’d come to visit, they’d understand.

“We need people like Evan who stay loyal to Minny,” says Owen. “Can’t drain out all the talent, no?”

“I know, I know,” Mark concedes. “Someone’s gotta fight the noble fight against people who never want to change…”

“Duluth’s actually pretty far to the left,” Evan says by way of explanation to anyone who might assume it’s full of rednecks or whatever else it is Coastal people think of small Midwestern cities.

“In a stupid, backwards way that never lets anything new happen,” Mark retorts. “That part’s got nothing to do with politics.”

“You’re really selling them all on Duluth, bro.”

“Reality is reality. I don’t have any gods. Did good things for me and I can always go home there, but c’mon, man, you know it’s not my future.”

“I could go back, but I wouldn’t live outside the Twin Cities metro,” says Owen.

“What is there beyond that?” the Salvadoran asks. “I mean, I saw the pictures of Mark’s dad’s place, but that can’t be normal…”

“Rural flyover country’s basically a third-world country,” says the Alleged Vanderbilt. “We just don’t see it that way because we’re so used to seeing America as all the same.”

“Guess that makes me a refugee or something,” Evan grumbles.

“You sort of are,” says the Alleged Vanderbilt. “You might have more stuff than a starving Mexican, but the culture’s all gone to shit out there. Bunch of single moms cuz their trashy men hopped themselves up on meth or shot themselves, all the factory jobs are gone so they’re just being sad nurses cleaning up the dying old people and hoping their kids don’t do drugs or knock up their girlfriends in high school. And we’re surprised when they vote for big, tough men they think are gonna tell them like it is and keep them safe.”

Evan, the son of a single mother who very much fits this description yet remains a bleeding heart liberal, struggles to resist his urge to throw a punch. He gives Mark a significant look, and Mark gives him a little nod.

“Careful now, Evvy’s doing field work on Elis in their natural habitat. He’s gonna think all those stereotypes are right.”

“Don’t lump Minnesota in with the rest,” says Owen, rising to the occasion like any good Minnesotan. “It’s like the last hope for the American Dream. Maybe you won’t get rich, but you can still get yourself a nice house with a decent public school and have a nice spot on a lake for a weekend.”

“It got us here,” says Evan. “Wouldn’t trade my high school time for the world. I just hope that path’s still there for my kids, too.”

“To Minnesota!” says the Salvadoran. “To finding the spot on a lake in all our lives.” Those who still have some wine left drain their glasses.

“Alright, cool talk. We actually going to do something tonight?” asks the Boston girl.

“Yeah, enough of this wine shit, get out the Natties,” says the Alleged Vanderbilt. Owen heads for the beer fridge and begins handing out cans.

“Make sure Evvy gets a Narragansett, he’s gotta have the best we’ve got,” says Mark.

“Yeah, sure. Hang on, bathroom.” Evan scrutinizes the tall can Owen hands him and heads for the toilet to collect himself.

Well, there you go, he thinks. There’s the Ivy League at full blast. Sheer cognitive dissonance: Mark’s friends show flashes of brilliance and lulls of stunning ignorance, both deserving of their status and perfect exhibits of how status can make people blind. One or two of them probably have secret burdens, secret traumas they’re hiding from him. Most do, in one way or another, especially those who come into Mark’s orbits. But they are still people from a different world who enjoy perks Evan never had, and the Alleged Vanderbilt’s jab about third-world countries cut closer than he’d care to admit. He wasn’t poor by any measure growing up, though they had downsized after his father died since his mother couldn’t bear the mortgage on the old house by herself. Still, he thought he’d done enough to become the inheritor of a promise, one his mother had made explicit: if he carried himself correctly and kept up his work rate, he’d have all the support he needed. But here in New Haven, he’s learned he never had a prayer of making it to the top. He’s been lied to. The class and power that some of Mark’s friends radiate—and even Mark, when in their company—terrify him, though he’s almost more annoyed by the Owens of the world who can’t even recognize their own good fortune.

He doesn’t like this judgmental person he’s become on this trip. He gazes at himself in the mirror, his face still boyish, especially with his hair fanning out beneath his cap with the Gophers’ 1970s hockey logo. He feels like a boy among men. But when else will he ever have a chance to pretend he’s an Ivy League student, however fleeting it may be? When else will he be able to get what this means for Mark—Mark, who’s doing everything in his power to make Evan at ease here? He owes it to him to make this work. He cracks the beer, slams a sip, and marches back out into the incipient party.

The night degenerates from there. The blonde repeatedly demands trips to the bars; how else will they show Evan New Haven at its finest? As Evan is the only 21-year-old in the crowd this is a questionable plan at best, but once the group achieves a collective volume of liquor, all practical concerns disappear. They head to the bar that is lax in its carding, but the Salvadoran girl’s foreign ID tips off the bouncers, and only Evan, the Alleged Vanderbilt, and Mark make it through. Evan mumbles something about the friends they’ve abandoned, but Mark has already ordered a round of tequila shots for the three of them, and Evan settles in at the bar, resigned to his fate. The Alleged Vanderbilt clearly has no interest in him at all, and while Mark steals Evan’s cap and starts reminiscing on their high school team’s greatest hits, he seems most interested in out-drinking the bulkier Alleged Vanderbilt. The two of them go back and forth, buying round after round. Evan feels guilty he never buys one himself, but this trip is taxing his shaky finances enough. He settles for doing what he can to keep pace, and tips some of the later beers down the toilet when he makes periodic bathroom runs.

The night drags on. Mark rhapsodizes over the Salvadoran girl, and the Alleged Vanderbilt offers Evan the blonde’s number (“didn’t you see how she was falling over you, bro?”), but Evan sighs and explains that he has a girlfriend back in Minneapolis. He usually enjoys playing counselor to Mark’s girl problems, but he’s no fan of this interloper in their relationship, much less one who keeps pressuring him to cheat on his girlfriend. Exhausted and drunk, Evan decides to cut off this conversation and guide his two compatriots on to the dance floor. The three of the cut a wide swath across the bar, and here Evan can play off of Mark, whose moves always make him the center of attention. Finally, he starts to feel like he fits in. But Mark never stops guzzling rum and cokes, and when he and the girl he’s grinding up against both collapse in a heap on the floor, Evan takes this as his cue to bring a long day to an end.

The walk back to Mark’s apartment takes at least double the time it should, as they meander lawns and stop twice to pee in bushes. Mark, his crisp shirt coated in the primordial ooze of the dance floor, is long beyond any semblance of coherence, and makes the occasional attempt to wander off toward some other bar. Once they finally reach the lobby of the apartment building, Evan has to coax him out of a confrontation with two students on their way back from the library who make the mistake of expressing strong opinions on postmodernism in front of him.

“Dammit, man, we’re done here,” Evan insists.

“You’re a beauty, Evs.” Mark tries to plant a kiss on Evan’s cheek, misses, and smacks his ear instead. “And fuck Jacques Derrida!” he yells after his studious peers.

“You should probably just go to bed.” It’s the only thing Evan can think to say. The Alleged Vanderbilt is giving him a side-eye as if to ask if there really is some substance to Mark and Evan’s homoerotic jokes, but Evan has no patience for that line of inquiry now. He bids the Alleged Vanderbilt a less-than-courteous good-night and steers Mark, who is still grumbling about the dangers of deconstructionism, into the next available elevator. Once in the apartment Evan pours them both glasses of water, but Mark ignores him and stumbles straight for his bedroom. If only he’d set up the air mattress in the common area, Evan thinks as he trails after his wasted friend.

“Dude. I’m gonna call Emilia,” Mark says, trying to fish his phone out of his pocket and take off his shirt at the same time.

“That’s probably a bad idea.”

“You saw her. She’s a goddess, Evs. A goddess.”

“Goddesses don’t think much of kids who are too drunk to take their clothes off right.”

“Shit. You’re right. Evs, I’m drunk.”

“I’d kinda noticed that.”

“I should sober up. Wanna order food?”

“No, I want to go to bed. And you should, too.”

“Fine. You’re the boss,” Mark slurs. He flops over on his bed and closes his eyes.

“You sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fucking fine.” Mark pulls the sheets over himself, pants still on, Evan’s hat slowly falling off his head and into the pillow. Evan sighs and fills another cup of water from the bathroom sink. He leaves it on the bedside table, but Mark has passed out already. He picks up Mark’s shirt and undershirt from the floor and tosses them toward the closet. He pulls the sheet back on his air mattress, but a sudden urge overtakes him. Enough of this, he grumbles, and slides his shoes back on. After ten days on the road with Mark a week ago and now two nights of this in New Haven, he needs some time to himself.

Just as he locates Mark’s keys, though, Owen stumbles back in through the door with a girl Evan does not recognize. He tucks himself in a closet while Owen and the girl make a scene of turning on the TV and attempting to cook omelets, but when she runs to the bathroom and he announces his intent to search his bedroom for condoms, Evan slips past them and out the door. He shivers when he heads outside; a chill breeze has picked up, and he notices how cold it is now that he’s not occupied with guiding Mark home. If only he’d brought his sweatshirt. Nah, he’ll endure.

Evan quickens his pace, his longer strides stomping out his bitterness. Mark has play-acted as his guide here, and he always regales him of the joys of pushing life to its limits and staying there. But yet it always ends up like this, with Mark plowing straight over those limits and devolving into an incoherent blackout, his ambitions with girls thwarted by his own excess. Once again, he is left guiding this stumbling drunk home, his own happy state wasted by a need to babysit. So much for his brilliant guide.

Perhaps tomorrow Evan should demand that he be the one who goes overboard, and make Mark be the responsible one who takes care of him. It would only be fair. But somehow he’s not sure he’s capable of this sort of honesty. And, once the surge subsides, he admits he needs this version of Mark in his life, both to drive him from his comfort zone and serve as a foil. Mark has pushed him to enjoy life in a way he never could have without him. Yet he can’t escape a sense that it doesn’t have to be this way, perhaps some vague guilt that his own adventures enable Mark’s descents into a semi-regular stupor.

He worries too much, another voice tells himself. He’s making Mark sound like an alcoholic, but just a week before the two of them had spent three days in Zion without any drinks, and they’d had that magical chat over beers at Tahoe before they’d gone out with the snowboard bums and come home back to their tent in a sloppy but satisfied state. Only here and in Wine Country had Mark truly gone over the edge. Still, his traveling buddy’s flaw is undeniable: what pushes this kid whose intellect surpasses that of anyone Evan has ever known to abandon it all? Is he just hard-wired that way? This is too simplistic, though there may be a hint of that, and Mark certainly went through enough as a child to drive him to the bottle. But this version of Mark doesn’t come out when he’s down on himself. On the contrary, it’s his moments of joy that seem to invite his excess.

Evan tries to make his way back toward Yale’s aesthetically pleasing quads, but the streets that would carry him there still have some late-night life to them. He’d rather avoid unnecessary human contact. He wants to escape for himself for a bit, reflect on the jumble of America he’s seen over the past two weeks, wonder how well Mark’s famously bulletproof fake ID will hold up on their trip to Nantucket. But he can’t take his mind off his wasted friend: this, he thinks, is the natural outflow of a philosophy of life with no limits, of belief only in one’s own ambition. Mark will claim there’s more to it, but the nihilism beneath is undeniable, and it’s slowly poisoning him. This is why he believes the way he does, Evan pontificates to the audience in his mind, murmuring beatitudes to himself that he’s only right in all he does.

It’s all an insidious lie, though. He’s no saint. He’s enabled Mark and countless others for years now, and has no intent of giving up his own love for that game anytime soon. He’s just the lucky one who knows when to stop. Nor would his sexual ethics earn him much respect from the conservative Christians he reads on occasion, those loyal men and women of faith whose commitment he admires but cannot bring himself to copy. He believes what they say about the power of a steady family and a supportive congregation, but for all that respect he’s never felt a need to apologize for his many years of love-making with Bridget. His appetite, while perhaps more healthily channeled, is no less intense than Mark’s. And when he does toe the line from time to time, he always had the ability to recognize it and admit it and confess, often without any lasting pain. He has cycle of purification down, something so smooth that it sounds more like a mechanized filtration system than a soul-cleansing human ritual. Is his own success a standard too impossible for others to meet? It would certainly soothe his ego to think so.

He’s reducing the source of his desires to his sex drive, and this seems wrong. Human triumph, he would like to think, comes from transcending those basest instincts. This is something that people of faith know well, and the reason he will always respect them more than he does Mark, no matter how well he seems to be pushing his way into a select circles here, always worming his way into the front row at guest lectures or sneaking into donor events to shake hands and flash that winning smile. He loves watching Mark in his pursuit, can’t help but root for him, but he could never do it himself. Unlike Mark’s passel of cocky friends, he’s not so pretentious as to think he can rule the world. But he can make things right in his own little slice of it, and that he will. He needs to purge away that ambition, free his soul of that impatience, and accept himself as he was meant to be.

He stops before a colonial era Methodist church and searches the façade for answers. Simple and austere, just as he likes it, with some Gothic hints of mystery in the spires towering above it all. This is a worthy hall to seek absolution, or at the very least an understanding. He tries the door, but it won’t budge. Figures, he muses: he’s always been curious, but never can make his way in.

God has not been easy to find lately. Evan believes with all his might, knows there is something out there, but could never concede to Mark the degree of doubt that lingers beyond that. He plays up platitudes of leaps of faith, resorts to Pascal’s wager and other such half-assed attempts to impose rationality on something whose sole purpose is to supersede it. He joins his mother at church when he goes home, and feels right in doing so, but it rarely comes off as more than a pleasant but formless nostalgia. Too many of his mother’s fellow Congregationalists are vapid moralists, or instead seem to be social justice fighters at prayer, a cause he supports but finds oddly empty: where’s the need for God in all these appeals to love and community? He vaguely suspects a church more devoted to ritual and liturgy might speak to his fondness for beauty and order, but that level of investment seems a bridge too far, the sort of leap taken by some struggling person facing an existential crisis. For all he’s been through, he isn’t that.

Why not? he asks himself. He has a right to be, after his childhood was wrenched from him by his father. He certainly could have in those early years, but he had enough good friends and hockey to distract him, and then along came Bridget, whose steadfastness ever since has gifted him with an idyllic second family. Evan musters up some pride: he had conquered that fear that he could never make things normal again, won over a girlfriend’s skeptical parents, and through it gained access to her family, which so often met that ideal he had lost. Evan laughs, knowing his mother was over at his girlfriend’s parents’ house for dinner tonight, bonding as their children travel the world. What more can he ask for?

Evan finds a late night taqueria and decides to grab a bite. He settles into line behind a troupe of wasted lesbians and spends a moment pondering Mark’s sloppy kiss before zoning back in. Whatever it was meant to be, there is no future there, and they both know it. Instead, he’s pulled in by the eyes of haunted exhaustion in the girl behind the counter. He chances a smile as he requests his tacos, wonders if she’s American or Mexican by birth, what stories she might have to tell. She’s probably his age, though looks far more tired than he can ever remember being. She has a cross on her necklace; perhaps she could teach something to a white bread Minnesota boy about her faith. Or maybe it’s just for show, a gaudy gift from a boyfriend or a standard she holds up for herself but never meets. He’d like to imagine it’s the former.

Maybe the party in front of him isn’t all lesbians, despite all appearances: one is eyeballing him as he leans up against the condiment counter and awaits his order. He’d like to think he’s just their type: attractive in a conventional and athletic way, but his Minnesota wardrobe plays down any hint of pretension, and his scraggly hair suggests a hint of rebellion. If he had a little more energy he’d summon up some game, but he’s still absorbed by the girl behind the counter, and this seems a pointless exercise for any number of reasons. But no, she turns away: no doubt he’s just being a stupid horny boy, starved after two weeks on the road. His taco inexplicably comes before those of the young women, and he offers the girl behind the counter an apologetic look as they start to hassle her for it. Evan hurries toward the door. A hasty retreat, exactly what he deserves for thinking those thoughts. He misses Bridget.

Two blocks along, Evan finds a quiet set of steps where he settles in to wolf down his late-night meal. Never has he felt this far from home. He’s always had a little wanderlust, an instinct spurred along by his mother, a yoga dabbler who could be drawn in by any product or menu item that had some foreign-sounding adjective slapped on the front of it. Part of him wonders how she ever married such a staid, pure Minnesotan as his father, but beneath her occasional flightiness is a profound dedication to order, and he cannot picture her raising a child outside of the careful world she’d built for Evan—carefully crafted until his father’s suicide ruined it all.

Not that it had been all happy and carefree. Evan, ever precocious and timid, was much more his mother’s son. Did his father resent this? The question hadn’t occurred to him before. He can certainly see how, in her self-absorption, his mother would have missed his father’s warning signs. He’d been a sensitive child, in retrospect can now see the dark cloud hanging over his father, but couldn’t quite put two and two together at that age. His father had no one to turn to. How Evan wishes he could have been that person.

It strikes him suddenly that, unlike ever-questioning Mark, he’s never really asked why. He wonders what went through his father’s mind, certainly, and wishes he’d had the power break his fall, been given some insight into the sickness that plagued the man so that he could have expended every ounce of his energy into saving him. Easy to say now, he thinks, but he does like to believe he could have done so, and even if he couldn’t, would have been able to make peace knowing he did all he could.

This is his style, he thinks to himself, a smile growing on his face. He is comfortable in reality, knows his limits, all guided by his faith. Faith in what? It almost doesn’t even matter since it just works for him, day in and day out, the lows never too low.

He wishes he could talk to his dad again, yes. He knows he carries some part of him inside him. He will never know what could have been. And yet, there it is: from the start, he’s managed to accept that nothing he can do can change what is done, and that it is his solemn task to take tragedy and turn it into something that can empower him. It seems almost cold. He can picture himself trying to explain this to his mother or Bridget and coming off as robotic, the self-improvement machine moving on with no need for pity. Perhaps this is why he can’t say a word about it.

He is fine. And yet he isn’t: a well-adjusted person, he figures, would have crashed in bed alongside Mark when they got back from the bar. He’s not quite sure if an unburdened Evan would have no inhibitions in joining Mark in drunken oblivion, or if he’s just hard-wired to know his limits and would have settled for closing his eyes and dozing off, content to keep watch over his friend. It takes a different form, but he’s just as much of a seeker as Mark is. He must chase meaning in an entirely different way, must not make unending demands of a distant and unknowable force, but instead lose all his fighting instincts and become one with it.

Satisfied, Evan hops to his feet and trots back toward his home for the night, though he wishes he had a chance to better prove his freedom from the conformity around him. A long-dormant longing stirs up within him: he wonders if he can track down a surfboard on Nantucket and sneak out some morning before Mark wakes, ride the waves and purify properly, with a rush of fear that his normal cycle of highs and lows has dulled into nothing. He’d spent some time learning up on the waves when Mark was passed out in San Francisco. As quickly as it came, though, it fades: he has a duty to his friend, and above all he senses that the time for reckless rushes is past. Is this the wisdom of a man who’s now seen all that those adrenaline surges have to offer and is ready to move on? Or just a meek kid giving up on his one outlet for greatness?

He isn’t young anymore, whatever his mother may say. He has two years of college left, and with Bridget a year ahead of him and safely en route to her nursing degree, adulthood will be upon him before he knows it. His mother can’t stop dropping wedding venue hints, and, at Mark’s behest, he even has a list of Duluth employment connections that he’ll need to start exploring sooner or later. All he’s ever wanted to happen should come to pass.

Why, then, all this uncertainty? He is nothing if not committed, but commitment, he now realizes, exacts a toll. He glides into the atrium of the apartment building, eyeballs its angular modern furniture with skepticism, and jabs repeatedly at the elevator button. This stage in life feels like it only brings the closure of doors, and he isn’t sure he likes this. Maybe he hasn’t ventured far enough outward. Maybe he’s too quick to commit himself to Bridget, and she’s just a safety blanket for a scared kid who’d had his life torn apart. There’s a much larger world beyond good old Duluth, and everything that once seemed large there is now small.

Evan slumps into the side of the elevator, runs a hand through his thick mess of hair, and gazes at himself in its mirrored walls. Sorry, Mark, he thinks to himself: this is who he is, and no matter how hard his friend pushes him to make the world his toy and nothing else, he can’t quite follow him to the edge. He needs his moments like this, his time with just him and God, wherever he is, when he can lose his soul. It’s a side not even Bridget is allowed to see. He needs his secrets, his own little war to win, to prove his worth to himself and his maker alone.

Maybe not quite alone, Evan thinks as he swings open the bedroom door and wanders past the bed. He has one person in his life who he can talk to about this and who just might get it. He smiles down at Mark, his mouth agape and breathing heavily in the exact same position Evan had left him when he set out. Nantucket will give him a chance to articulate all these convoluted thoughts, and even if they don’t quite get there, the search will be worth his time. As long as he has a fellow traveler, he can go to bed content.

This series continues here.

Leaving the Garden

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

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

“Evvy.”

“Marks.”

“God, thanks so much for doing this.”

“Always for you. How’s the team?”

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

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

“They know their captain.”

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

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

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

“Aww. You gonna miss it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Goddamn.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Me, you, and our daddy issues.”

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

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

“I didn’t. No.”

“Was there a note?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s good to hear, I guess.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I do.”

“Sorry to drag you down that road.”

“No. It’s good for me.”

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

“Honestly? It’s been frustrating lately.”

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Something up?”

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

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

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

“Oh God. Does Bridget know?”

“Not a clue.”

“You just…”

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

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

Evan sniffs. “I’m a piece of trash!”

“When was this?”

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

“Did you know her?”

“We’d met.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

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

“Talked to her since?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I honestly don’t know.”

“God, humans suck.”

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

“Like into sports?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you trying to say I shouldn’t—”

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

“I can’t just shrug this off.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She deserves better.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not Catholic…”

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

“I’ll do what I can.”

“All I ask.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continued here.

My Professor and My Prose

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

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

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

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

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

Always Running

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

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

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

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

“Nah, just some Cope.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck you.”

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

“Some help you are.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Goddamn, you can run.”

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

“Huh.”

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

“You, lose? You’re the golden boy.”

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

“Shit, I’m sure you’ve had it rough.”

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

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

“Shit.”

Mark laughs.

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

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

“You’re fucking crazy.”

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

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

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

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

This collection continues here.

Muir and Roosevelt

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

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

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

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

“It says there should be one here.” Evan grimaces as he stares down at the sopping wet map while still taking halfhearted paddle strokes.

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

“I’ve noticed.”

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

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

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

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

“You’re cute when you’re angry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re not half bad yourself.”

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

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

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

“Crap.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s left over from my dad.”

“He was outdoorsy?”

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

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

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

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

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

“No freaking clue.”

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

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

“That was your Silver Bay girlfriend?”

“Yup. Total granola girl.”

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

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

“Now that I can see.”

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

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

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

“God you always ruin things.”

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

“Shit, man. What’d you bring?”

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

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

“Nope. But divorce has its pluses.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“God, we’re terrible.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So much for campfires and marshmallows.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank God.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“God, you’re predictable, you tool.”

“As if you aren’t, ya damn hippie.”

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

“You do kinda have that vibe.”

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

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

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

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

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

“God, that buzzing doesn’t stop.”

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

“You’re evil. You’re actually evil.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re so joyless.”

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

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

“Matthew Four.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you trying to say?”

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

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

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

“I believe that. And I need to piss.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aw. Best way I’ve heard it.”

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

“You awake, Evs?”

“Mmm.”

“Shit, sorry.”

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

“What kind?”

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

“Damn. Sorry.”

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

“Not unless we make them real.”

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

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

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

Here’s the next piece in this series.