I was rummaging around in the My Documents folder for something, and I came across a short story that I wrote back in 2004, titled The Nod. I read it and took some comfort in the fact that, even now, my feelings haven’t changed. For your enjoyment and (constructive) criticism, here is:
Yosemite National Park is my absolute favorite place to take a vacation. Everything is on a different scale while you are in the valley, surrounded by huge granite walls and towering trees. The distant sounds of waterfalls seem to make everyone, including children, cognizant that this is a spiritual place.
I was sitting on the Yosemite Valley Shuttle when we pulled up at the Happy Isles stop and he got on board. He was a young guy, maybe 21. He was unwashed, unshaven, and his hair was long and unkempt. The duct tape on the knees of his pants was evidence of his poverty. On his back was a gigantic, red backpack that looked like it weighed more than he did. The massive backpack swayed as he stepped to a spot on the bus and took a handrail. No way could he sit down without taking the pack off.
Clearly, this guy was hardcore. He was a mountain climber – the battered carabineers hanging on his pack were evidence of that. Not like the clowns that pay $40,000 to have someone hold their hand to the top of Everest. This guy was real. He was living it.
As the bus started up again, he noticed I was looking at him, and he quickly averted his gaze. I may have had a disapproving look on my face, but I don’t know why that mattered. Maybe he felt inferior. My corporate haircut, or maybe my clean Columbia shirt and new North Face hiking boots with nary a scuff on them betrayed me as a tourist of the highest magnitude. I was a poser. I tried to hide my digital camera. I felt inferior to him.
I work an entire year, sitting in a cubicle in front of computers, looking forward to spending five days in Yosemite. This kid saw this place and made it his home. Home is a broad term to use, as I doubt that he has any actual place he slept regularly. But The Yosemite Valley was his home. Probably everything he owned was in that pack.
When he looked up at me again, I nodded approvingly. It was a nod of recognition that he could do something I could never do. Were I his age and without my obligations, yes, I could have been a vagabond mountain climber, but that opportunity is long past me now. I never seized it when I could. But this kid did. It was a nod of admiration.
He didn’t look away, and he smiled a little. Not a smirk, not a grin. He didn’t say anything and neither did I, and he got off at the next stop.
I think he understood that I was trying to communicate that I respected his life choice – the sacrifices he has made to stay in such an incredible place and embrace it so fully. Either that or he thought I was offering him a blow job. In which case, he was sorely disappointed that I didn’t follow him off the bus. But I chose to think he understood what I meant.
It’s interesting and frustrating how we overcomplicate things. We accept the reality of some things without question. Do you want to get wet? You’ll have to get in the water. If you want to get warm, stand near the fire. Are you hungry? Eat. Problem – solution. We accept these things, but when it comes to happiness, joy, or peace… oh, these things are so elusive. I’m not happy and don’t know how to fix it. I’m grieving, and it hurts so much, and I can’t make it stop!
Perhaps, this is never truer than with someone mourning the loss of a loved one. It was certainly true of me when my wife of 31 years died from cancer in March of 2020. I was inconsolable and in so much emotional pain that I could not see anything but that. My wife had been taken from me, and I would never see her again. It was so unfair, and I’m in pain and anger: repeat, ad nauseum.
Two months after Lynn died, I started seeing a grief therapist. The visits were virtual, once a week. As the time grew nearer, I dreaded it more and more and would have canceled every time were it not because I would still be charged for the visit.
My grief therapist was a young guy in his 30’s, very clean-cut. We’ll call him Good Guy. He lived in San Franciso, and I was pretty sure he was gay, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I thought that his and my life experiences had to be so different; I was a 56-year-old man grieving the loss of his wife. There was no way he would be able to empathize or understand what I was going through, but he did. He just let me talk and sluff off my emotional baggage, and yes, cry. Something about how he didn’t judge or rush to offer solutions brought me comfort. He just listened and acknowledged what I said. I liked him.
We continued the therapy visits. On the first visit, he asked me what my goal of doing therapy was.
“To get out of pain,” I said. “As soon as possible, because if I am still feeling this way two years from now, I’ll kill myself.” Honestly, I felt like I couldn’t last even one year, but I said two.
Now, there was a period of PTSD after Lynn died, where my life was centered around caring for her. Once she was gone, I was a moon with nothing to orbit. So going to bed without her there was too heartbreaking to attempt. Waking up and reaching over to touch her, and she wasn’t there, put me in tears and set the tone for my miserable day. It was over four months before I felt I had adapted to the New Normal, as they say, and I hated it, but therapy helped.
The weekly sessions continued, and I dreaded them, even though I felt better afterward. Sometimes it was just a little, and sometimes it was a lot. My first six or seven visits were me opening up and bleeding all over the place. Then an epiphany came. At least, it seemed like an epiphany to me at the time.
All the grief and pain – I was doing this to myself.
No one was causing me to feel this way. It was me and my unwillingness to accept my reality that was causing me so much turmoil and pain. Yes, it was unfair that my wife was only 58 years old and died, but that happened. I was so caught up in the loss I couldn’t see anything else, and until I found peace with accepting it, I never would. I was the only one who could fix it. That, however, was easier said than done. As G.I. Joe will tell you, knowing is half the battle. But only half.
Something I discovered about grief, which may only be true for me, is that it becomes familiar over a long enough time. Not comfortable, but like any chronic pain, you get used to it. I could see this becoming a habit, one that might go on for years unless I intervened. I had to stop it, but how?
Good Guy suggested that when I start to have a “grief attack,” I change my line of thought and try to think of something else; something happy. Don’t push away the sorrow or try to bury it, but think of something else. I didn’t think that would work, but I agreed to try. So when the next grief attack hit, and I was thinking about how much I miss my wife, I forced my mind to think about my two dogs playing together. This was much more difficult than I expected. I had been down this path of grief so many times; it was, as I feared, a habit. A habit I had to break.
It was consistently hard to force my mind to less distressing thoughts, but it made me feel better. I think the reason I felt better was that I was taking control. I wasn’t just letting this horrible thing happen to me, over and over. I was stopping it, and that felt good.
I also had to reconcile some things that weren’t clear in my head. I had to acknowledge that continuing to grieve neither benefited nor honored Lynn in any way whatsoever. It was okay to stop being destroyed by these feelings. I meditated on this many times over the next couple of months. And I continued to fight the grief attacks. Sometimes I couldn’t do it, but most times, I could change my thought process to something else.
Around the six-month mark, I was to the point that I no longer dreaded another day of living. I was doing some things that I would do before Lynn died. I was cooking again and not just heating things up in a microwave, cooking! I played board games again, too, though getting with friends was difficult due to the pandemic. These are things I enjoy and that I would do in The Before Time, yet I felt different. I was altered and changed and would be forever. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, and it’s just growth.
Shortly after this, I started dating and eventually met Kathy, and we had so much in common. I fell madly in love with her, and in January of 2021, we married. I have promised myself that I will never let her feel taken for granted or unappreciated. I remind her frequently, “I see you.” It’s my way of saying I love her the way she is, and I do, and I’m happy.
Grief attacks occur once in a while but are much less frequent and not so severe. I will always love Lynn, but she is gone, and I’ve accepted that. I don’t resent it. I’m no longer angry about it. It just is the reality.
So, recapping my experiences here, what were the things that really helped me?
I got a grief counselor to talk about my feelings openly and without expectations. In retrospect, I think this probably saved a few relationships with my friends and family, to whom I would try to vent my grief and were simply not equipped to deal with it. That I found a compatible counselor on the first try was just dumb luck on my part.
I acknowledged and owned that I was the only one who could stop the overpowering waves of grief. If I wanted it to end, I had to end it, and I actively took steps to do that.
I reconciled that continuing to grieve for Lynn neither benefited her nor honored her, and it was okay for me to continue my life and feel happy about things. So I accept that she is gone and do not resent it, nor am I angry about it. It just is.
This is only what I did. Your path may be different. Your mileage may vary. I’m not a professional. But if any of this resonates with you or you found it helpful, I’d like to know.
I value being a reasonably well-rounded person with many interests. Therefore, I try to be conversational on most topics and appreciate others who can keep up. Yes, you can stump me with a deep dive into chaos theory. I’ll be able to go about as deep as the scene in Jurassic Park. Still, I’ll be able to ask intelligent, compelling questions that hopefully sustain discussion and, in the process, edify myself. Conversation is a honed skill I practice, and I seek out others who do as well.
Having many interests means that I also am open to trying new things within reason. I’m not interested in going skydiving (unless the plane is crashing, in which case, I’m very interested, indeed!) or climbing Everest (“Because it is there,” is not a compelling reason). I’ve never gotten so overstimulated that I needed to risk my life to feel alive. Instead, I appreciate the everyday moments that are beautiful, even magical. A baby’s smile will always make me smile. A puppy blissfully playing with a toy will always make me laugh. I am comforted by the steady sound of breathing coming from my wife as she sleeps next to me. Seeing a small, unexpected act of kindness like someone helping an older person carry her bags will always give me hope that compassion is not dead and humanity still has a chance.
Some may call these “small things.” I do not think they are small at all, just overlooked. Underappreciated. Undervalued because they don’t have a wow factor. We’ve turned up the volume so high on life, we can’t hear the music. All we hear is loudness. Turn it down, even unplug. Stop. Breathe. Put down the phone. Sip a cup of coffee or tea and savor it. Smell it. Take in where you are and what is happening right now. Live in the moment.
At the same time, our world is devolving. People have so much distrust of each other, of the government, of the media. People have become hateful. Angry. Violent. It’s ugly and unpleasant to look at, but I’m compelled to watch it all because I want to be informed. I have to watch the sources, too, and not lock myself in an echo chamber, where all the news I get aligns with my current viewpoints. I need challenging and different ideals to check myself, but I can’t waste my time on factless liars with slanted agendas and will weed them out. I have to consume this information in measured amounts, though. It really is bad for the soul to consume too much negativity—small doses only.
I try very hard NOT to assume I am always right or that I have the absolute truth. I do believe it is so, but I am open to hearing a reasonable, factual, scientific argument to the contrary. I have no time for people who think saying the same lie over and over or screaming it makes it the truth. I have no time for those who gaslight or belittle anyone who doesn’t agree with them. People like this are malignancy in our society, and they are so ignorantly pious, so close-minded, so fortified by others like them, most are beyond saving. Sometimes, you have to cut losses. Sterilize the infection to protect yourself.
In short, I like who I am and the person I try to be every day. Our experiences are formative of who we are, but ultimately, we decide how we act, talk, and treat each other. We own our behavior. I surround myself with others who are also striving to be better, which helps me concentrate on what’s important. I like to think I have a positive influence on them, too.
And I always look for kindness in others. It is out there and so evident if you turn down the noise of an agitated world and listen. It’s beautiful and gives me hope, and we need hope now, more than ever.
Mind you, “smart” is only in reference to the rest of them. Smart zombies can open doors and figure simple problems out. The average zombie can’t even get out of a car if the door is closed. It will just try to chew its way out, breaking teeth and bones in the process. Still it won’t stop; broken fingers and no teeth, it will still keep trying.
Smart Zombies will call others; a raspy, horrible screech. They will organize mass assaults on locked doors or barricades and stand in the back, ordering the hordes of others on to attack; zombie generals of the War on Humanity.
The siege has been going on for three days now, and we have retreated to floor eight of the Madison Heights Apartment Building. Floor after floor as they kept coming, we lost ground, defending the stairwells until we couldn’t anymore. Then we would abandon and go up another floor. The undead were like water flooding a sinking ship, and we were fleeing up and up, until there was nowhere else to go. There were only eight floors in the building. We were making a last stand before retreating to the roof, and if we did that, I’d jump to my death before I became one of those things. I swear I would.
As we nailed them down the stairwell, the bodies mounted up as they fell on top of each other in the confined space. This would give us a few minutes of relief as the zombies behind cleared the bodies away to try a new assault. They didn’t rest, and we have been doing this for forty-two hours straight. My vision is blurry, and sometimes I pass out, only to be awoken to the horror we faced and to pull the trigger again and again and again. Only head-shots would put one down. Thank God, we had ammo.
A hand on my shoulder pulled me back. “Relief, Corporal!”
Major Jensen took my place at the top of the stairwell, and I staggered back, exhausted. Jensen had been moving the civilians up each floor as we lost ground, and he hasn’t had any more sleep than the rest of us. Still, I would take the relief. Just for five minutes, then I would be back at it. I closed my eyes.
When I awoke, it was daylight, punctuated by staccato gunshots. While asleep, I had heard the same sounds, but I guess I was too tired to notice. It was daylight and we had held them off through the night.
“Back ‘em up!” That was the yell from the Sergeant Major, and the urgency stirred me to fully awake. This meant we were losing the floor and only had the roof left. Since I was the only non-civilian who wasn’t engaged in combat, I hurried the frightened residents up the final flight of stairs to the roof. I pushed a boy who couldn’t have been ten years old, “Hurry!”
He walked a few steps and said, “Why don’t you shot a car? The alarm would distract them, wouldn’t it?”
Zombies hated loud noises like alarms, and when they went off, they attacked the source with a horrible vengeance. It was a good idea. It might distract them from the smart zombie’s orders.
“Move, son!” I shoved the boy along towards the stairs leading to the roof and maneuvered to a window inside one apartment. Looking out, the streets were filled with the undead; packed with stinking, animated corpses that were intent on attacking our building. The zombie general was out of sight but calling them on with his scream. I aimed my M-16 and shot out the windshield of a PT Cruiser; nothing. It didn’t have an alarm. I focused on an Infiniti G-37 and fired. The alarm blared into life, and the zombies around it turned, refocused on this new target that was making so much noise.
I shot out the windshield of a Ford Explorer, and it also erupted to life with an alarm. I did the same with a Mazda RX-7 and a Chevy Tahoe parked on the street, each blaring and attracting more attackers.
Then I saw the general emerge from the building cattycorner to ours. He was wearing a blood-stained lab coat, but the way he walked with purpose drew my attention, despite the thousands of other zombies shambling around the crowded street below. He jumped up on a car and started to scream again, pointing at our building – a siren to call the others to attack his target. I’ve heard that scream for the last three days and I knew it well. He’s the guy.
The ten-year old boy said, “Here, stop it here. Stop it now.”
I looked at the gun he held – a sniper rifle, equipped with a scope. Checking that it was loaded, I pulled it up and drew a bead on the general zombie’s forehead, using the windowsill to steady my shot. I fired. His screech silenced, and he fell backwards. The hoardes turned their focus to the alarms and began attacking the cars.
“They are retreating!” said the Sergeant Major, shocked. Then he fell backward and laughed out loud for a moment before he passed out from exhaustion.
The waters receded, and we took back the top four floors that day. Outside, the streets swim with the undead, but we live… for now.
This story was originally published in 2012 in an anthology, It Didn’t Happen This Way, Untrue Stories, Volume One. I’ve touched it up a little, but the story remains the same. I hope you like it.
“Why do you feed the damned bird meat?”
“She likes it, and don’t use foul language. I’ll wash your mouth out with soap.”
“Sorry I swore, Mom. I’m not seven years old, you know.” Even as I said the words, I felt like I was still a child, still living with my mother and still being told what to do.
Mom was always fawning over her stupid Macaw, Jezebel, teaching her to say something new or just carrying on about how she was such a pretty bird.
“Pretty bird! Pretty bird!” Jezebel would mimic back in that creepy, ventriloquist voice that parrots have. My skin crawled every time the bird spoke, its head cocked sideways with its eye on me, seemingly dead but still seeing me. Watching. I shivered.
“What happened to fruit? The thing used to eat fruit!”
“She likes hamburger more.”
“Fucking freak show, if you ask me.”
“Such language! Go to your room!”
As I closed the door behind me, it was one of the many times I was grateful for my aged mother’s Alzheimer’s. She wouldn’t remember that exchange ten minutes later. As for Jezebel, she was like a volatile, feathered tape recorder that might repeat anything that was said and reignite otherwise dormant synapses, sparking the discussion anew. Damned bird.
Even when I was a kid, my mother loved that bird more than me. “Jazzy Jez,” she would call her, referring to the way she would bob up and down on her perch when music played. Birds like this form an attachment to one person and barely tolerate anyone else. The bird hated me, and I reciprocated. Mom would enter Jezebel in shows, often winning some prize for plumage or… whatever. The ribbons are displayed proudly on the walls of her room. There were no pictures of my father or me; rest his soul.
Mother’s Alzheimer’s had grown worse over the last couple of years, and with my mother’s advanced Alzheimer’s, she couldn’t live alone. I insisted that she move into my house, along with Jezebel. It was the right thing to do. She needed supervision, and they wouldn’t let Mom keep Jezebel in a nursing home due to the strict rules about pets. It would have killed her to lose the bird, so Mom moved into the guest room, and so did Jezebel.
Jezebel behaved differently after the Northwest Texas Macaw Foundation’s Bird Show two weeks ago. I drove Mother there, her fussing over the bird the whole way. The show was canceled; something about the virus everyone is talking about and public gatherings not being allowed, but not before Jezebel got into a fight with a mean-looking Cockatiel at the show. Jezebel didn’t seem injured, but she acted weird afterward. She wouldn’t speak and clawed angrily at the mirror in her cage. Mother obsessed with getting her well, and a trip to the vet did nothing to make things better. That’s when Mom started feeding her hamburger. Jazzy Jez calmed down then and seemed more like her old, capricious self after getting some McDonalds’. She liked raw meat even more, and she started speaking again.
“Where’s the beef?” Mom taught her to say.
Now that they have shut down the schools and my workplace due to the virus, I’m stuck at home with both of them. Most stores have closed, too. It’s hard to find an open gas station, and vegetables are in short supply. Apparently, the virus spread from Mexico, and since most vegetables for the Southern United States come from Mexico, tomatoes, lettuce, and other produce were rare if not completely unavailable. Last week, Houston was quarantined entirely; no one allowed in or out. That could happen here. I’ll have to stock up on whatever supplies I can find. The newly enforced curfew said you had to be indoors before sunset.
I left Mom alone with the damned bird, and the next morning, I went out looking for an open store. They were all closed, and the roads were oddly absent of cars, but I stopped at a roadside stand selling Tyler Roses and bought a dozen for $5. My father used to bring yellow roses home to Mom from time to time, a demonstration of how much he loved her. “Despite your craziness, I love you.” It always melted Mom’s heart, and whatever troubled her about the day seemed to fade for a bit. I hoped it would have the same effect if I gave them to her.
“You been into town?” the kid at the stand asked.
“Not yet. Hope I can get some food.”
“You’ve got a gun, right?”
“Sure,” I lied, getting back into my car with the flowers. “This is Texas. Who doesn’t have a gun?”
“Shoot for the head. It’s the only thing that works.”
I peeled out and went to the nearby store. I could pick up some hamburger and soda at the grocery store, but they didn’t have much else. The shelves were picked over; ransacked, really. The sign outside said, “No bread, milk, or produce.” Or much of anything else. Several Armed National Guard were outside and they looked nervous. One approached me and handed me a flyer that had ‘NOTICE” printed across the top.
“Have the riots quieted down?” I asked. The guard didn’t look at me, but I noticed his knuckles whiten a little on his M-16. I didn’t press him for conversation and continued out to my car.
“Go home, sir. Lock the doors and stay there.”
I turned around and asked, “Is it really that bad?”
He glanced at me sideways, and the look in his eyes told me it was. “Got a gun?” he asked.
“Find one. Wait,” he said, upholstering his pistol and handing it to me, grip first. “This is the safety; leave it on until you need to fire it. Use both hands and aim for the head. It has twelve rounds.”
I gawked at the gun being handed to me. “Why are you doing this?”
“Thank you,” I said, grabbing the grip and feeling the weight of the weapon. “I really don’t think this is necessary…”
But the guard had turned and was already walking away. I don’t have a license to carry a gun, I thought.
I had collected flowers, meat, Cokes, and a gun—none of the things I set out to pick up when I left this morning. Reading the notice I had been handed, all things we’ve heard over and over for the last few weeks now: Avoid crowds, beware of people or animals acting strange or violent, stay indoors at night, lock the door, and drink only boiled or bottled water. And it had a new one – don’t try to leave the city. It didn’t say quarantine, but that’s what it meant. I better get home.
Pulling into the driveway, I carried the food and flowers into the house and locked the door behind me. There was no one outside for as far as I could see. Putting the supplies down, I went back to see how Mom was doing. I didn’t tell her I was going out because she never remembered, anyway.
I took the roses and knocked on the door to her room. “Mom, are you up?”
“Mom, are you up?” quipped the parrot voice inside. I hate that bird. Turning the handle, I pushed the door open.
The first thing I noticed was the dark brown stain around my mother’s still body. The gashes torn into neck and face made her unrecognizable except for the nighty that I knew was hers. Perched on her chest and ripping at the flesh was Jezebel, blood covering her brilliantly colored breast and face.
“Where’s the beef?” Jezebel said, spreading her wings and then laughing, “hah hah hah hah!”
“Mom!” I screamed, but I knew she was dead and had been for a while. The blood had dried into the carpet and turned brown. This had happened sometime last night. You just had to feed her hamburger, didn’t you, Mom?
Jezebel flapped her wings and flew towards me, bloody and rasping, “Play that funky music, white boy!” She cawed.
Instinctively I swung at the bird and slapped her down to the floor with the bunch of roses, but she came back at me as I stumbled out into the hall. I held up the roses to cover my face, and the bird landed on the flowers, flapping wildly and crying, “Kiss! Kiss!” The thorns raked my cheek, and I swung wildly, slamming Jezebel into the wall with the roses. I turn and ran.
As I turned the corner and ran through the living room, I heard Jezebel singing the theme to Golden Girls, one of Mom’s favorite shows. She hopped around the corner and cocked an eye at me.
“Thank you for being a friend. Traveled down the road and back again. Your heart is true. You’re a pal and a confidant.”
I rounded the counter into the kitchen. Gun! The gun is in the car! Jezebel spread her wings and flew up and over the counter, landing on the faucet over the sink.
“Who’s a pretty bird?” she cried happily.
I grabbed the two-pound package of hamburger and swung down, knocking her into the sink. I had her trapped beneath the meat, and her wings beat wildly in the basin, but I continued to press down. I heard bones cracking, but still she fought back with more strength than I would have imagined. Jamming down harder with both hands, her head moved to the garbage disposal drain, and I mashed her into it.
“Where’s the beef?” She cawed from inside of the drain. “Son! Help Me! Help me!” she mimicked my mother’s last words, and I flipped the garbage disposal switch, and the blades powered to life, grinding the head off of the shuddering animal.
I held down firmly until Jezebel stopped twitching. When I let go, I left the disposal running, grinding away at nothing. The bird’s legs still stuck out of the drain at impossible angles, splayed by the package of hamburger.
Quarantine or not, I’m out of here! Running to the car, I pulled the pistol from the glove compartment and turned the safety off. I had enough gas to get me out of town and maybe to Oklahoma. Maybe things are better there. I made it as far as the city limits, behind miles of other cars, also trying to leave.
The officer came around to my car and told me to turn around, but then he saw my face and pulled his gun. “Infected!” He shouted, and two other police ran over with guns drawn.
“Out of the car. Out of the car!”
I complied, and they shoved me to the ground and bound my arms, taking the gun.
“How long ago did you get those injuries on your face?”
“These? They are from some roses. Just scratches. An hour ago, maybe?”
Hoisting me up to my feet, they shoved me to a fenced-in area with a bunch of other people, also bound or handcuffed.
“It’s just scratches from thorns! That’s all. That’s all.” My voice trailed off as they locked the gate and walked away.
“Thorns on roses! Just thorns!” I shouted anew, but they weren’t listening. Before nightfall, the pen was full of people they deemed ‘infected’, and they started executing us methodically.
Written in 2011, it’s amusing to me to look back to that time and see how I thought I was really old, ten years ago. Man, do I feel old now.
About three weeks ago, I read this weird drink recipe that involved soaking gummy bears in alcohol. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find the original blog now, but it was on WordPress. Anyway, the gist was that if you allowed gummy bears to soak in alcohol, you wound up with… drumroll… wait for it… alcoholic gummy bears!
I have been a big fan of Haribo gummy bears since I was a kid. Even now, if I have a layover in Germany on a business trip, I always buy a big bag at the airport. And no, they don’t taste different in their country of origin. It’s just a thing I do.
So, loving Hairibo as I do and loving vodka as I do, well. It almost seemed a spiritual denial if I didn’t follow through on marrying these two loves. So, in short, I put a bag of gummy bears in a Tupperware container, covered the candies with Kettel One vodka, and put it in the refrigerator. And then I forgot about it until last weekend.
There was no vodka visible when I pulled them out, and the gummy bears had doubled in size. I took one moist and rubbery bear and popped it in my mouth. It was exactly like taking a Jell-O shot, except I am a lot older and not slurping it off some drunken chick in a bar. It was not bad as far as flavor or kick, but it was a complete fail for me in the flashback department.
It did give me an idea – what if you soaked Hairibo gummy-cola candy in bourbon? I just so happened to have both ingredients required for this and quickly poured Crown Royal over the cola bottle-shaped candies. Crown and Coke gummies! A week later, I tried one.
You know, as much fun as it sounds – it was just slimy and gross. It was like I wasted great liquor on great candy. Back in my early 20’s, I had this same feeling. It was when I realized that cartoons weren’t entertaining anymore. It was the feeling of the world making me grow up. Be mature. I was changing my ideals.
So am I saying that no one should try this? Absolutely not. If you are above the legal drinking age and less old than I am (and largely, most people are), I suggest you give it a go. Just know that no matter how you fight it, you will grow up. To ultimately date myself, I now link you to The “Logical Song” by Supertramp.
I suggest you put off maturity as long as you can. Bottoms up… or gummies up, or whatever. I get so cranky if I don’t have my warm milk before bedtime.
This piece is unpublished until now, and was originally written in 2012, using the “sticks” from The Writer’s Toolbox by Jamie Cat Callan for the “First Sentence” and two non-sequiturs. These are marked in bold. I also did one stick for “The Last Straw” which is supposed to introduce a dramatic arc, but it said “the hole in his sock” and though I could have wedged that in somewhere, I already had a dramatic arc that I liked and I almost hated “hole in his sock.”
I won’t sing the praises of such gimmicks to induce creativity, but on this occasion, I hadnothing to write about and it gave me something to write about. I hope you like it. – ML
Gustav sat down in the middle of the road and began to cry. It wasn’t an unusual thing for him to do, not if you knew Gustav. “Emotional and poorly equipped for the stresses of secular challenges” was how his last employer described him. While that might sound particularly harsh, what pained Gustav most was that it was true. Mostly.
Girls cry and the world rallies around, consoling and empathizing about… whatever. A man cries, and the world judges him. He’s weak. He can’t cope. He’s a Susie Sissy-Pants. So be it, Gustav sobbed. He’s had happier times.
Seven months ago, we were drinking champagne and losing our shirts in Vegas. Gustav wasn’t a big drinker, so by the time we cracked open the second bottle, he was blitzed. The blackjack table wasn’t kind to us, but we didn’t care. It was our honeymoon, and we were in love. We left Vegas the next day before we were completely broke.
The plane was two hours late taking off. Sitting on the tarmac and baking in the desert sun, Gustav’s hangover got the worst of him. Even though we weren’t in flight, they wouldn’t let him get up and go to the restroom, so he had to throw up in one of those little puke bags they stick in the seatbacks. Still, it was a happier time for him than now.
Gustav misses me. When he turns on American Idol, he gets this vacant look. He always had a vacant look when watching American Idol. You know, he hated that show, but he watched it because I liked it and he wanted to be with me. Now that I’m gone, he still watches it, so that’s how I know he misses me.
I’ll never forget the panic in his face. His unblinking eyes wide as the distance grew between us; hand reaching out, his mouth gaping as I fell. I saw my reflection on the glass building, falling in tandem as I slid down, down, down to the pavement. I think the horror of that moment shorted out something in Gustav. He was never the same after that, prone to emotional outbursts and, often, tears.
It’s been almost seven months now, and the pull of the light is strong. Soon, I will have to leave Gustav. It’s not like I can help him, but I think he knows I am near and somehow is comforted by it. Maybe just a little. Maybe I don’t help at all, and what he needs is to move on. I could be holding him back. I probably am.
Time and distance will grow and blur the memory of me and that fatal moment you tripped, falling forward, knocking me over the balcony. You never could hold your champagne.
I am cold here, and the light is so warm. It’s time to forge on without me, my dear Gustav. Soon, but not yet. Very soon, but I am not ready to leave you, my dear wonderful, clumsy husband. Now, get out of the road before you get run over.
This is a short story I wrote in 2011 that was first published in “Report,” an ezine. I polished it a little, but the story remains the same. I always intended to expand on it and never did. I hope you like it.
The rapping at the closet door started just after midnight, as it always did. Who – no, not who – what could it be, inside the closet?
Erika had been repeating the steps of jumping out of bed, grabbing a crayon from the nightstand, and running to the door to redraw the strange symbols around the door’s frame before they faded entirely. Then, quietly running back to the bed, pulling the covers up to eyes, and watching the door with fear. She did this every seven minutes, and each time, she was careful not to disturb the intricate design she had laid out so carefully on the wooden floor. It was made of lines of carefully poured, pure white sand, and she knew that stepping on it or severing one of the lines might unseal the lock.
Rap, rap, rap.
Not like someone beating on the door and not even a full, adult knock. It was just the whisper of a knock, barely audible but still there, then a pause of maybe twenty seconds, then coming again. Patient. Determined. Firm.
The magical cryptograms on the floor and door frame were the only things that kept – whatever – from entering her room.
Six minutes more passed of this, and she needed to decide on a new crayon color to use next. The Aquamarine worked well, but now just a nub. She could use Salmon or Bittersweet Orange, but she was afraid. She had never used colors in the red spectrum to lock the door, and they might not be effective.
Pulling a light blue one from the box of 64 colors, she read the name written on the side: Blizzard Blue – it was close to Aquamarine, but lighter and lighter colors seemed to work best. The Robin Egg Blue was great, sealing the door over eleven minutes at a time, but she had used it up the other night. Sky Blue was another good one, almost nine minutes for it. It might have lasted longer, but Erika was afraid to test it. When the seals started to fade, she couldn’t let them disappear entirely, or the lock would fail. The lock on the floor was the last defense, and she would have to stand in the center of it to be protected.
She got out of bed after seven minutes, tip-toed over the sand pattern on the floor, and began retracing the symbols on the door frame again. It was 6:53 AM, according to her clock, and sunrise was just minutes away. Then, she could sleep.
The Rapture had taken Mommy and Daddy, and she was alone. Now, the demons prowled the night hours, and it wasn’t safe after dusk. Her closet was the only entrance to this hemisphere, but she didn’t know that. She only knew she was keeping something inside from getting out, and in the daytime, there was nothing to worry about. She could open her closet and even play in it if she wanted.
She had already decided she would use violet next, that upcoming night, and see how that works. After the sun was up and she slept, she played with Barbies and went out to swing. She collected the manna that fell from the sky, and while it was bland, she could dip it in honey or pour sugar on it, and it tasted better. When the sun started to set, she took her bath and dressed for bed, violet crayon clutched tightly in her hand.
Erika’s father had read the bible to her before he was taken up. She knew the story of Job in the bible and how God allowed him to be tested by the Devil so that Job may demonstrate his faith. He also read to her of Lot and his family in Sodom and Gomorra. If only one faithful person was present, the destitute cities might be spared.
At only nine years old and still fancying Barbies, she didn’t know how she knew to make the lock or that she was The Guardian of Mankind still on earth. She did not know this was her test. Wherever she moved, whatever room she was in; that was where the portal would be, and she must guard it, or all of mankind would be forsaken. This was her tribulation; this was her cross to bear. She didn’t understand, but she had yet to curse God, so the rapping at the door would continue again tonight.
Someone thought it was a good idea for me to watch the Netflix series, After Life.
Here’s a brief summary of the show:
After Life follows Tony, played by Ricky Gervais, whose life is turned upside down after his wife dies from breast cancer, he contemplates suicide. Instead, he decides to live long enough to punish the world for his wife’s death by saying and doing whatever he wants. Although he thinks of this as his “superpower,” his plan is undermined when everyone around him tries to make him a better person. The show is set in the fictional town of Tambury, where Tony works as a journalist at a local free newspaper, the Tambury Gazette.
The show has a brilliantly dark sense of humor, punctuated with chillingly familiar events to me, having just lost my wife to cancer only two months earlier. The moments where Tony doesn’t see any point in going on and contemplates ending his life, only to realize he has a dog that needs him; that was me. The moments he is with his aged and infirm father and trying to do his best to hold it together for him, I’m in that place. The moments where he’s utterly unmotivated in his job; me. All of that and more was me.
It was too soon, and I couldn’t do it. Watching the show reduced me to a sobbing idiot in a matter of minutes. It hurt too much. I also resented the person who suggested it to me, though not as much as the asshat who, when I told him my wife had stage IV cancer, suggested I watch Sophie’s Choice.
Anyway, while still grieving a couple of months later, I try to watch After Life again. Nope, no good. I couldn’t handle it. Blubbering mess, pathetic, really.
Then, another two months later, around six months after Lynn died, I tried to watch it again. I don’t know what it was about this series that kept me returning to it after repeated bad experiences, but I did. I guess I thought it had some wisdom to impart. I thought it might have something to bring me a little peace, or solace, or something. Maybe I was inducing the most suffering I could or trying to lance a boil to get the puss out. I don’t know, but I came back to try to watch After Life again, a third time.
This time, it was different. Oh, I certainly cried, but it wasn’t the gut-wrenching, pitiful sobbing like before. I watched and identified, and most importantly, I listened. Between all the jokes were genuinely inspirational moments – nuggets of wisdom. There were things I needed to hear; hopeful, little things:
“I Still Have My Downs, But Then Life Throws You These Interesting Little Things, Doesn’t It?”
“A Society Grows Great When Old Men Plant Trees Whose Shade They Know They Shall Never Sit In.”
“It Is Everything. Being In Love, I Mean.”
“Nothing’s As Good If You Don’t Share It.”
Those last two quotes resonated with me at the time. I had achieved some peace with the fact that Lynn was gone and wasn’t coming back, though it left me empty inside. I also came to terms with the fact that my ongoing grieving was something I was doing for me, not Lynn. I was grieving that I missed her so much, but this benefited her in no way. It made me a burden to those around me and who cared about me. I was determined to do a little better every day at carrying my grief without spilling it all over those around me, and I got stronger. I didn’t stop grieving, but I wasn’t breaking down in tears every day, and that was a marked improvement. I just carried it forward better.
It was then that I recognized something that was there all along – I was lonely. I wanted to be with Lynn, but that could not be. She was gone, and I was still here. It was that emptiness, and the loneliness that I was feeling now.
I will say this – from my experience, I learned that you never appreciate someone like you do when you know the day is coming that they won’t be there any longer. The last year with Lynn, as sick as she was, I loved her deeply and cherished every moment I had with her. That’s something I should have been doing all along, but I took for granted she would always be there. And then she wasn’t.
I was determined that, should I be fortunate enough to fall in love again, I would do my best to appreciate that woman with my whole heart and soul every single day, as if she won’t be there the next day, because one day, she won’t be there. Or I won’t.
We all die, eventually. I don’t want to focus on that depressing thought, but I want to emphasize that the time we have is finite. We should appreciate it, appreciate the people around us that we love and who love us. We should make the most of the time we have. Be the kind of person that makes the world a better place just by the way we live their lives.
Watching After Life helped me arrive at that conclusion. More than that, that I was able to watch After Life was a litmus test, the yardstick by which I could measure how ready I was to re-enter life and pick up the pieces. Even the ability to find someone to love, which I did, and I do.
The core message of After Life is this:
“Good People Do Things For Other People. That’s It. The End.”
Being self-absorbed and rude gets us nowhere. Being nice, spreading love, offering a helping hand, and committing the occasional random act of kindness are the way to make our time on this Earth count, and if you have someone special to do it with, all the better.
One time, my son, Spencer, and I walked on the beach in Pajero Dunes, near Monterey, CA. My son must have been about five years old at the time, and he had a plastic bag he was using to collect shells and rocks as we walked. After about two miles, we turned around and headed back. By this point, the plastic bag was full and heavy. The bag was so heavy, Spencer couldn’t carry it and was dragging it along the beach, which caused the bag to tear open, rocks and shells spilling out, so we stopped.
I sat down on the beach with him, and we looked through the bag together. He was visibly upset and near tears that he was losing some of the treasures. I reached into the bag and pulled out a rock.
“OK. Why did you pick up this rock?”
“It’s shaped like a turtle,” he said, and so it was.
“OK, that’s special. Let’s keep it. What about this one?”
“Because it is a pretty white with sparkles in it,” he replied.
“But you have lots of white rocks with sparkles in them, here. Do you think you can let some of them go?”
“I like the sparkles.”
“Right. And what about this one?”
We went through the bag, selecting which rocks to keep and which to leave. When finished, the bag only had shells and sand dollars. I tied off the hole in the bag and gave it back to my son.
“How heavy is the bag, now?”
“It’s super light!” He said, swinging the bag around in such a way I thought it might tear open again, so I stopped him.
“That’s because the shells and sand dollars are much lighter than the rocks. Now, pick which rocks you want.”
Spencer chose seven of the more than fifty he had initially picked up; two white with sparkles, one turtle-shaped rock, two black, oblong rocks, and two nearly round rocks. He put them gently into his bag, and we carried on back to the beach house. I noticed that he only rarely stopped to pick anything up on the return trip, and he often put it back down.
We still have some of those shells and rocks he collected on that day. Some are even framed and hanging on the wall.
Now, I told you that story so I can tell you this one.
It’s an understatement to say I was grief-stricken when I lost my wife of thirty-one years to cancer last year. I had some very dark nights in the first few months of the loss where the only reason I saw daylight was because I had dependents counting on me. I was living entirely as an obligation to others.
The thing about grief is that it’s something we do to and for ourselves, even though it might feel like it’s for the lost loved one. I had to think about it, but my grief benefitted my deceased wife in no way whatsoever. It was merely me, processing the loss and coming to terms with what my life looked like without her. Neither does my grieving benefit anyone around me; in fact, it makes me a burden to them. Yes, it’s painful, like lancing a boil, but adapting to the loss and getting better is the goal. Grief and mourning are not places I could dwell in for a long time without it consuming my soul.
It’s said that time heals all wounds. It does take time, that is true, but it doesn’t just take time. You don’t just suffer, and then it magically gets better one day. It was around five months after my wife passed that I realized I was the only one who controlled my grief. I was the only one who could make it better, and it wasn’t just going to happen without effort on my part. This does not mean you have to do it alone! I certainly didn’t – I leveraged close friends and a grief counselor, who helped me greatly. But when it came down to it, I was the one who could make it better and no one else.
The thing about this new enlightenment that I was the only one who could control my grief was that I didn’t know how to control it. If anything, I felt like it controlled me. I floundered with this for weeks, and then I realized something else: While grief is entirely a self-centered act, remembering our lost loved ones is a way to honor them. They live on through our memories of them.
So, I focused on my memories of over thirty-two years I had known my wife. I remember when I proposed and she said yes. I remember when we agreed to adopt our son, I remember hundreds of small, special, wonderful moments I enjoyed with her.
As you might imagine, in that amount of time, not every memory is a treasure. I have chosen to let those memories fade. Like the heavy rocks in my son’s bag that were not notable, I dropped them, lightening my load in the process. It wasn’t easy at all; doing an emotional inventory of my memories was draining, and some days, I couldn’t face it, but I felt better afterward when I did. I slowly reached a place where I could appreciate all the memories without mourning the loss. Yes, I still miss her, and I always will, but I no longer mourn the loss.
Since then, I have even remarried a wonderful, loving woman, and I’m truly happy again. I’ll have my moments where I feel bittersweet when an old memory surfaces, but it doesn’t rob me of the enjoyment of life like it once did.
We all do this in our way, at our speed, but if you are grieving, I wish you to find your way through it as quickly and painlessly as possible because I know it’s a miserable existence. Grief does not have to be a chronic condition, and life is short. Please, do not misguidedly think, as I initially did, that it honors your lost loved ones by continuing to mourn them any longer than you need to get to a state of peace. They have moved on, and we have to do so as well. When you’re ready, drop your rocks.
If you’re grieving the loss of a spouse, I’m so sorry. There is no grief, no emptiness, no pain I have ever felt like it. All through the grieving process, I was looking for some relief, something to make it better. What I learned was, for me, the only way out of it was through it. While everyone does this differently, I’m going to relate the process where I turned the corner and finally started living again, with the hope that it may offer you some insight, or hope, or a sense of not being alone. I’m not saying this is the way you should do it – it’s just what I did.
It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that Lynn was gone and was never coming back. She lost her fight with cancer on March 6, 2020. For months after that, I was overcome with grief and depression that left me incapacitated and barely able to function. I was surrounded by constant reminders that she was gone.
One thing that continued to worry me was, if there is an afterlife, and Lynn is in that place, I don’t want her hanging around here because she thinks she needs to look after me, or worse, wants to be with me but can’t. That would be profoundly sad. If she is in some unlikely afterlife, I sincerely want her to move on with her new existence, knowing that I loved her dearly. And I need to do the same. So, that was a strange conversation I had with a dark, empty room one weird, inebriated night, but it gave me peace when I was done.
Then, about six months after Lynn died, I got an offer from my Sister-in-Law and her husband to help me clear out Lynn’s belongings. This is something I had not been able to face alone. It was three months before I could even pick up her shoes left beside the bed, much less clean out drawers or closets. I gratefully accepted the offer, and as it turned out, they did all the real work, and I just pointed at things that needed to go, and they took care of it. Still, I was reduced to tears several times a day during the process, and it was emotionally exhausting. I felt like I was throwing away what I had left of Lynn, but then I would remind myself, rightly, that these are just things, and Lynn is already gone. I can’t throw away what is already gone.
When it was over, the closet, bedroom, and bathroom had been cleaned out, and most of Lynn’s belongings were gone. It was a huge load lifted from my shoulders, and it felt good not to have this unpleasant task hanging over my head, waiting for me to address it. I couldn’t do it alone, and I’m very grateful to Joe and Karla for the help.
For me, cleaning out Lynn’s belongings was a seminal event. It was when I began to accept what was. I even started looking forward to what might be, and this was when I began to regain my love of life again. I could relish the memories rather than mourn the loss, and for the first time in a very long time, I could see the possibilities for my future.
Over the next month or so, the loneliness began to take hold. I had emotionally released myself from my previous marriage, but I missed having someone special to share life’s moments. That’s when life is the richest – when it is shared. So I began actively seeking someone, but it turned out that I was not quite ready, and I backed off. I let myself grow into being single for a while. That was when I really found myself and became determined to enjoy my life again.
When I was ready, I began dating. In the age of Covid, that meant lots of phone and video calls. It was pretty surreal at times, not only the virtual aspect of meeting new people, but dating at my age was just odd. Eventually, I met Kathy, fell in love, and I am going to marry her. We’re really good together.
So that’s where I am, now, over ten months later. It may take you more or less time. It just takes as long as it takes. Your seminal moment may be from something completely different. Whatever it is, whenever it is, whatever it takes, just get through it and hang on until you do. That’s the tough part. Just get there.
This is chapter five of an unpublished story I’m working on. I thought it would be fun to post a short chapter every week or so. I’d like to know what you think.
The guy leaned back in his chair, crossed his legs, and continued, “As I told you earlier, I’m a video technician at Boiler Hospital in Dallas. My job is to digitally record the operations that take place in the hospital. They are used as teaching aids or as evidence if a malpractice lawsuit comes up. Of course, this evidence is only disclosed if the video shows the operation was performed competently. If any asshattery was caught on video, it is destroyed. Some of my best footage has been lost this way.
So about ten months ago, I was recording the video of an operation to remove a brain tumor. It’s a kid who looks like he’s maybe 15 years old. Sometimes, brain surgery is laparoscopic but not this time. They sawed all the way around his head – so the top would come off.
And when the top did come off, the tumor wasn’t a tumor at all. It was a very pissed-off brain crab. Everyone in the surgery room died horribly. Me? I wasn’t in the room. Hell no. I was in the video control room, on a different floor. The cameras are all operated remotely. This keeps me from possibly contaminating something or getting in the way of the surgeons.
Once all the screams and chaos subsided, I panned the cameras around the room, looking for the crab. I saw it hop the length of the room so it could be anywhere. By the way, the inside of the kid’s head was almost completely empty. The crab had eaten most of the kid’s brain.
Before the operation, I took a handheld cam and shot a few minutes of video with the parents and kid. They wanted it, you know. The kid was functioning normally – talking and moving around normally. He even told me a joke.
Did you hear about the crab that went to the seafood disco? He pulled a muscle.
I didn’t say it was a good joke but in that 20/20 hindsight sort of way, it’s really funny, now. The brain crab was making an inside joke. What I do wonder is, if the brain crab was in control – and it had to be because the kid had almost no brain left – why didn’t it try to stop the operation? The only thing I can think of is – I guess it wanted out. Do you think he wanted to kill everyone in the operating room? A psychopathic, serial killer, brain crab – who would have seen that coming? Or maybe after the boy’s brain was gone, it was still hungry and this was the only way to get out to get more brains? Who knows?
So anyway, the hospital went into emergency lockdown. The brain crab destroyed the lights and two of the three cameras that were in the room. The camera that remained was recessed in the ceiling and had a fisheye lens. It didn’t look like a camera – more like a light that wasn’t turned on and I guess that why the crab left it. Still, with no lights in the room, it was completely dark and I couldn’t see anything, though I could hear it scuttling around and what sounded like someone chewing wet food.
When two policemen arrived, they opened the door to the operating room with big flashlights on and guns drawn. The flashlight beams danced around the room and settled on a nurse in scrubs, standing among the bodies of other nurses and doctors. She had the mask and protective eyewear on. Her gloved hands and outfit were bloodied but it was a surgery room, so that’s not unusual.
“Freeze!” The police yelled, both training their shaky lights on her and probably their guns, too.
The nurse didn’t move, except her head. She looked up and said, “It’s on the ceiling!”
The flashlights swung upwards and around the room, and then there was pandemonium—the sound of rapid movement, grunts, and gunfire. Something was knocked over and clattered across the floor. The flashlight beams swung erratically around the room and, within a few seconds, lay on the floor – pointing towards the closed door. The two policemen were dead.
The nurse walked slowly to the door, illuminated by the crossed flashlights, and just before she opened it to let light spill in from the outside hallway, you could see the back of her head and the brain crab, clamped to her neck, manipulating her like a puppet.
I switched to viewing the security camera in the hallway, following her out of the room and past people, pressed against walls, or standing in doorways looking out. As she passed, thin, translucent tentacles shot from her open mouth, striking each person and then quickly retracting. Each victim reacted as if they were stung by a bee but promptly fell to the ground, motionless.
Finally, a doctor pulled a gun from a holster under his scrubs and fired, blowing the crab on the back of the nurse’s neck to bits. The nurse fell to the ground, and the doctor who was packing saved countless lives that day. He was later arrested for carrying a concealed weapon in a hospital.”
The guy casually stopped talking to take a sip from his coffee cup.
Doug was transfixed. I think he was buying it, but this sounded fake to me, and I had to say something, so I did.
“Why wasn’t this on the news?”
The guy lowered the coffee cup and said, “Shortly after this incident, two black helicopters landed on the helipads on the hospital roof, and four men in black suits came out. They took the video I recorded and the bodies in the operating room. In fact, they took all the videos recorded anywhere in the hospital, parking lot, or from surrounding businesses near the hospital.
They also took everyone on the second floor away to be inspected. Black vans pulled up, and men in hazmat suits took them away. I was on a different floor, so they didn’t take me.”
The guy leaned back in the plaid chair back again, not relaxed but still reclined.
He said, “The thing is – no one said, don’t talk about it. I mean, they took all the video and the bodies and stuff but didn’t say to keep quiet. So, people called news shows and were interviewed. Each story differed a little from the others, and most people only had seen a small part of what happened. They haven’t watched everything unfold via video cameras as I did. Most of what they said involved the Men in Black from the helicopters and vans more than anything supernatural or… crabby, and this is why you didn’t hear about it on the news – because most of it wasn’t about crabs, and none of the crabby stuff was credible.
I didn’t want to get involved in the circus, so I kept quiet, sort of. Instead, I posted it online. Disinformation.org picked it up and ran with it, but it’s all the conspiracy theorists and nut-jobs that keyed in on it, forming their theories and extrapolating the facts to a great extent.”
The guy seemed to notice my nano-reaction to his comments and looked directly at me, over my tented fingertips.
“See? You do remember the news stories about the black helicopters at the hospital, don’t you?”
The guy put his hands behind his head, fully reclined in his chair, but he kept talking.
“There’s a lot more to tell, but this is usually enough. Either you will acknowledge the brain crabs, or you won’t. So let’s make it easy. If you don’t believe me, leave. I’ve got the check. If you do believe me, then stay, and I’ll give you what you paid for.”
Check? We waited. Apparently. Doug said nothing.
“OK. My name is Benson Doyd. That’s my real name. No convictions. I’ll tell you why I’m telling you anything.”
Good to know. Boyd pulled the recliner forward, put his head in his hands, and rubbed them over his face as he looked up.
“So here it is – it’s because of my dog.
Buddy, my dog – he was a sensitive animal. I don’t mean that he is a wuss or anything, but he is a sensitive dog and can tell when I’m sad or upset. He’s a Rat Terrier, and they are thoughtful, independent sages.
The thing about Buddy is he’s a good judge of character, but he gives everyone a chance. He’s a thinker, wise in a canine sort of way. Yes, he drinks from the toilet, but he knows when someone has an alien brain crab up in their noggin, steering the ship, you know? He knows, and he won’t have anything to do with them. You might remember – he didn’t like you at all, Doug.
That’s when I asked you to leave, said I didn’t feel right – I would call you later. And didn’t. Of course, I wasn’t going to have sex with you. You have crabs!”
That made me do a double-take. It was one of those, looking back and forth between Doug and the guy over and over until I blurted out, “What?! No!” Like Homer Simpson, seeing the last donut eaten. Neither Doug nor the guy seemed phased by my cartoonish reaction.
“I know,” Benson said, glancing up at me but down at the floor, quickly. “How do I know Buddy didn’t have a brain crab too? I’ve had other experiences outside of that day at the hospital. I don’t think the crabs like dogs or cats. Not sure about monkeys or chimpanzees – but they prefer people.”
He looked solemnly at Doug. “Don’t look so sad. You knew it couldn’t work out. Me, a big city dork with commitment issues and you, a scaly brain-eating crab. Star-crossed from the beginning. You are from another dimension, after all.”
My Homer Simpson impression of, “Ahhhhhhhh!” continued with little notice. Boyd, however, kept talking.
“Where was I? Oh, yes. You’re from another dimension. I found your portal – the one in the back of the Starbuck’s on McArthur Blvd. The one behind the bags of espresso beans. I shut it down. I have no idea why a double-tall caramel latte can sever the connection, but it did. If coffee defeats you, it’s a real bummer that you opened the portal in a coffee shop. Anyway, that portal is gone, but I bet you have others, eh?
I also stomped four of your little cousins who had just popped through. They squish easily when they are small. I’m guessing everyone who works at that Starbucks is crabbed. I got out. That was this morning, right before I came home, to meet your crabby self.
I’m not saying you have a brain crab, Doug. I think the crab has fully taken over, eaten the entire brain, and everything that made you Doug is gone forever. I think you are all crab, looking at me with little crabby eyes, thinking little crabby thoughts, right now.
I have dominated the conversation, haven’t I? Why don’t you talk for a while?”
Drool plopped quietly onto the table as my mouth hung open, witnessing this exchange. Doug took a deep breath and then spoke.
Is there anyone who would disagree that 2020 has been one of the worst years of their life, if not the worst year? I don’t think so. Here’s the thing – while we’re all going through 2020 and the constant hell it pitches at us, it’s not the same for us all.
It’s like we’re all in the same storm, but some of us have yachts, some have canoes, and some are just trying to tread water. Yes, and you know which one you are. I certainly know which one I am, and I would have gone down if it was not for others’ love and kindness.
Sometimes, this empathy came from close friends and family. My sister-in-law and her family were fantastic support during Lynn’s illness and treatment. A friend threw me a line when I looked down a long dark tunnel that was my lonely future without Lynn, and I saw no light at the end, whatsoever. I’m so glad I have people like this in my life. But I was helped by other people. People that may not even know they helped me.
I have Facebook friends that continued to bolster me through bad days with a few words of encouragement. I belong to a closed Facebook group for those who have lost loved ones to cancer, and we help each other through the horrible days and nights as we transition into being widows and widowers, sharing experiences and sympathizing in ways no one else could.
I bet when these kind folks wrote the replies, they thought nothing of it, but it helped me. When you are drowning, you will grasp at anything that floats.
That’s what I want to emphasize here: In such shitty times, being kind where and when you can will make a difference in someone’s life. You may not know what or how much, but it helps. I know your life is probably no bed of roses, no pleasure cruise (a nod to Freddie), which makes your effort to be kind all the more thoughtful.
Even as I was barely keeping my head above water, I would see someone else floundering as I was, and I’d reach out to them, and somehow, we were able to help buoy each other, comfort each other, if for only a little bit.
Now, I have personally come through the worst 2020 could hurl at me, and I’m still standing, but that is thanks to others’ kindness and support. I couldn’t have done it alone. But this pandemic will extend into the next year until most of us get vaccinated. The political divisiveness and hatred that troubles America now will continue beyond the current administration, possibly for a long time. The unemployment and businesses that didn’t make it and will take a long time to recover. And people we love will continue to die. None of that stops because of the year incrementing. We must keep being kind to each other.
People, 2020 was no good for any of us. It was worse for some, and still much worse for others, and for that, I’m sorry. I know what it’s like to be entirely overwhelmed by daily responsibilities. I know what it’s like to wake up and not be able to think of a single reason to get out of bed. I know what it’s like to look into the future and see nothing but pain and loneliness. If this is you, I say this specifically for you:
Keep Fucking Going.
You won’t see why you should, and that’s okay. Just keep fucking going.
You won’t think it matters, and that’s okay. Just keep fucking going.
You might think the pain is too much or the love in the world is too little, and it’s not worth it, and that’s okay. Just keep fucking going.
Just keep fucking going, because one day, when it’s time, you’ll turn a corner, and you will see things differently. You don’t have to believe me; just keep fucking going. Just hang on. Please.
This is chapter four of an unpublished story I’m working on. I thought it would be fun to post a short chapter every week or so. I’d like to know what you think.
Let me back up and fill you in because, you know, you don’t know how I wound up in Toledo, do you?
On the day Doug called and told me to stay out of the dumpster in Toledo, which I fell into two days later, I woke up. Since it was around one in the afternoon, I ate some Fruit Loops on toast – a proper brunch if brunch was ordered by an eight-year-old. Then, I put on pants (very important) and went over to Doug’s to play Scythe. Scythe is this cool board game with plastic miniatures of badass robots that roam a map of the countryside, fighting for resources. Anyway, Doug had other plans and we didn’t play at all.
We wound up driving forty miles to Fort Worth, to the Spanish Meadows Apartments, which looked neither Spanish nor like a meadow. In fact, it looked every bit like a dozen or so tan cinderblock buildings with brown roofs amidst a tarmac and mostly dirt landscape. Picturesque, I think, is the word I would use if I didn’t know what picturesque meant.
Anyway, Doug knew a guy here he wanted to talk to. We climbed the cracked, concrete stairs to the second-floor apartment and knocked firmly on the door of 41B. The door swung inward and we were greeted by a man with uncombed hair, wearing a t-shirt with the slogan, “Sworn to fun, loyal to none,” in a gothic font. Classy. He urged us to enter and hurriedly closed the door and locked it.
Once inside, the stench of cat box caused a slight, involuntary gag reflex in the back of my throat but I fought the bile back down and began breathing through my mouth. Then I looked around at the awful, dark brown carpet and saw the lines where something had been poured and faded the color to off-white. I think it was ammonia or bleach. It made a circle in the living room area where a plaid recliner sat, facing an old Sony rear projection TV. It was the kind of TV they haven’t made in over 20 years.
“Douglas Newborn! Thank-you-thank-you-thank-you for coming! Who is this?”
He looked at me like I would look at a dung beetle sandwich.
Doug said, “He’s cool. He drove me over here.”
And there it was – I’m Doug’s chauffeur.
Doug said to the man, “You had something important to tell me?”
I’m not introduced. After all, I’m only the driver. I’ll wait here by the door while you gentlemen have your important discussion.
The guy had more manners than I gave him credit for and he asked me to join Doug on the couch, outside the ring on the carpet, I noticed. Still, we sat. The guy sat in the plaid chair in the middle of the room, hit the lever and kicked it back into a full reclining posture. I’d hate for him to not be comfortable in this almost toxic atmosphere we were invited into, er… Doug was invited into and I came along because… I don’t know why.
Doug sat on the couch, put his elbows on his knees and tented his fingertips. I’ve never seen Doug do this in his entire life. Then, Doug says, “Start from wherever you like. Please don’t leave anything out, even though Ed is here.”
Nice to be included.
The guy, fully reclined in the plaid chair, changed his gaze from Doug to the ceiling and then closed his eyes. He took a deep breath and started talking.
“Have you ever been talking to someone and knew exactly what you wanted to say, but couldn’t seem to find the word? The more you try to remember it, the more it seems just beyond your reach. Hours later, the word suddenly comes to you but it’s too late. That happen to you?”
Doug and I nodded.
“That’s the alien brain parasite adjusting itself inside your skull, somewhere near the temporal lobe.”
The guy smiled, glancing at me and back to Doug.
“Now, I see the look on your faces and I know what you are thinking. ‘I don’t have an alien brain parasite,’ you will say.
Let me ask you this: How do you know? Have you seen a CT scan or MRI of your head, recently? No? Yet you are sure, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that you do not have an alien brain parasite residing in your cranium.”
The guy leaned the plaid recliner forward, looking at Doug, then to me, then back to Doug as he spoke.
“You see, once an alien brain parasite takes up residence, initially around the back of the head – in the area of the cerebellum and occipital lobe, it spreads its tentacles to the other areas of the brain. Using a powerful neurotoxin it produces in a small sack that hangs below its pincher-jaws, it stimulates the part of the brain that controls skepticism.”
The guy put his elbows on his knees, his fingers templed, and said, “My point is, the surer you are that you do not have an alien brain parasite but have no solid evidence to support that conclusion, the more likely it is that you actually do have one.”
Doug didn’t move, he just took it all in. I squirmed a bit though I’m sure it wasn’t noticeable.
The guy continued, “You aren’t alone, and I don’t mean that in the, me and my alien brain parasite, we go everywhere together kind of way, though that is kind of funny. I mean there are a lot of people who are partnered. So… misery loves company? I don’t know. I thought you might find that, you know – comforting.”
I did not. He continued.
“They look a lot like crabs if you were wondering, except they have jellyfish-like tentacles. They have a mouth on the underside with multiple rows of wire-like teeth. The shell is pretty soft when they are little but once they get inside someone and start eating their brain, they grow and the shell hardens.
The thing is, they grow, even if they don’t eat brains. I had one in an aquarium and I swear, it went from the size of a pinhead to the size of a deflated football in two months, and I never fed it anything. This thing was smart. I mean, he was like The Professor on Gilligan’s Island smart. I named him Jeff. He broke the aquarium and ran off. Haven’t seen him since.
Anyway, I expect you are wondering how someone who has an alien brain parasite gets rid of it.”
“Wait! Jeff is loose? How long ago? Could he still be in here?” I said, peering around the room. Doug didn’t seem concerned.
The guy said, “Relax, friend. Jeff is long gone and probably found a host by now. By the way, ‘alien brain parasite’ is quite a mouthful, which is why I named him Jeff. From here on, I’m just going to call them crabs, OK? So once you have a crab, how do you get rid of it? It’s a logical question.”
Now, I found myself putting my elbows on my knees, tenting my fingers.
The guy continued, “There are several solutions. Icepick to the temple or a bullet fired from a gun placed in your mouth but pointed up usually works. And I do mean pointed up, towards the brain. Not straight back, where you’ll blow out your medulla and spinal cord, but leave the crab. I also heard of one guy who jumped head first into a wood chipper, but it has to be a really big wood chipper, and most people don’t have access to such a thing.”
He noticed the alarmed look on my face and perhaps, my jaw hanging open like I was the mask from the movie, Scream.
“How do you get rid of a brain crab and live? Oh. Well, you don’t. No, there isn’t an operation you can have to remove it. That does remind me of a story. Look, I’ll tell you how I learned about brain crabs, OK?”
This is chapter three of an unpublished story I’m working on. I thought it would be fun to post a short chapter every week or so. I’d like to know what you think.
CH 3 – Anti-Popular
Another thing I’ll tell you about Doug that’s less amazing but still freaky is that he loves the crap out of the Soundtrack to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a glam-rock version of Beatles music from a subpar, 70’s movie starring the talented but miscast Bee Gees. Before Doug died, he only listened to Kiss, AC/DC, and Alice Cooper (and there ain’t nothin’ wrong with that), but after TMI, it was the Sgt. Pepper’s Soundtrack, every time, all of the time, on an endless loop. I don’t know why, it just was.
People began to think Doug was, you know, weird. I think it was the Sgt. Pepper’s Soundtrack that did him in, in the public’s opinion, I mean. Truth be told, Doug was strange before TMI, like me.
Take a look back to before TMI, and before people were interested in him – Doug had a tough go of things. I knew Doug in high school. He wasn’t a popular kid, but neither was I, so… so what? Right? So what. Yeah. Anyway, we would walk home from school together because our houses were on the same block, not because bullies on ten-speeds would beat us up if they caught us alone. Neither of us had girlfriends, but we could have if we wanted to. We weren’t athletes or on a team because sports are dumb. We did play a lot of D&D and Xbox. My Drunken Ranger, Zekedt (pronounced with no silent letters, “Zekedt”), was level 17 and a force to be reckoned with. Zekedt had many girlfriends all over the Four Realms, so I had that action going on.
Even now, I’m 31 years old, and Doug and I still live on the same block, except that Doug is in an apartment over his parent’s garage, and I’m in an apartment behind my parent’s home so, you know, we’ve grown in that way. Matured.
This dumpster, though. This dumpster. Doug should have told me more about it.
I curled up into a fetal position as I fell, bracing for an impact as the blackness of the open dumpster raced up to meet me. I don’t remember feeling the impact but do recall a loud, “KA-BONG!” noise and then nothing.