Tag Archives: Personal Essay

The Problem of Pain

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad, with code forked from Munchen He.

Leslie Kendall Dye | Longreads | November 2017 | 10 minutes (2,770 words)

The onset of a southern California rainstorm, as seen from the back seat of my mother’s Toyota Corolla: A single raindrop lands with the sound of a bullet against an armored car. A splash across the windshield — heart stopping. As the sky shifts from pearl gray to dense slate, the fusillade comes faster, staccato, rapid fire. The car is engulfed in water, great pooling streams slide across the windshield; the wipers can barely keep up. The rainwater mixes with oil drops on the road — a hazardous blend: The tires struggle to gain traction and the car swerves on the suddenly slick pavement.

I awake tonight to a first bullet in such a cascade, but it is not rain.

It is pain.

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The Itch and the Touch

(Alessia Pederzoli / Getty)
 Evan Lavender-Smith | The Southern Review | Fall 2017 | 37 minutes (10,132 words)

I.

Mom called last night to say that when she and my brother went to Good Sam’s yesterday, they found Grandpa John totally naked in the bathroom, his butt basically stuck in the toilet seat, unable to get up, and it was a good thing my brother was with her, Mom said, because dealing with her father when he’s naked is one thing she just can’t bring herself to do. “I can’t deal with his penis,” she said. I told her that I understood, which I do, as often, in recent years, when I’ve been in the position of having to deal with his penis myself, I’ve thought the very same thing, viz., “I can’t deal with his penis.” Mom said that she went into the other room — Grandpa John’s bedroom / dining room / living room — while my brother and a nurse hoisted him from the toilet seat, cleaned him up, and got him dressed. Mom was trying not to cry while describing this scene to me, I could tell; I believe Mom fears crying while talking on the phone with me, worried that if she were to cry, I might get annoyed. Apparently, I am content allowing her to believe that I would get annoyed were she to cry, so she doesn’t. When Grandpa John dies, a death which his GP has suggested is now imminent, I have no doubt that Mom will cry while relating the news to me, but it remains to be seen whether I will or will not get annoyed.

***

Over the past few years I’ve spent a lot of time at Good Sam’s with Grandpa John. A primary topic of discussion has been Grandpa John’s so-called itch.

“How are you feeling today, Grandpa John?” I’ve often asked him.

“Not good,” he’s often replied. “It’s this damn itch again.”

We’ve taken him to several doctors to see what can be done about the itch. When the doctor asks Grandpa John to describe his symptoms, Grandpa John replies thus: “I itch!” And when the doctor asks him to elaborate, thus: “Everywhere! All the time!”

We took him to a dermatologist who told us we ought to see a neurologist. We took him to a neurologist who told us we ought to see a dermatologist.

Grandpa John’s GP finally told me there’s no reason he should be so itchy all the time. She pulled me aside in the exam room to say, “I’m convinced that the itchiness is all in his head. You might consider taking him to see a psychologist.”

“A psychologist!” Grandpa John said, riding shotgun in the minivan on the drive from the GP’s back to Good Sam’s. “But it’s an itch!”

“I’m just telling you what the doctor told me.”

“Do you know what doctors do? Evan, do you know what doctors do?”

“They practice.”

“You’re goddamn right they practice,” he said. “And that’s all they do.”

I suggested that maybe we should give the topical route another go, maybe stop off at Walmart and try to find something there, as none of the various pills he’d been prescribed had seemed to have any effect on curbing the itch.

In the Walmart parking lot, Grandpa John turned to regard me with his amber fit-over sunglasses. “I’ll wait here,” he said. He fished in his wallet, handed me a one-dollar bill.

“Generic, then. Travel size. Good. We’ll see how it works and go from there.”

In his lenses my reflection remained still for a long moment. He fished in his wallet again, pulled out a hundred. “Don’t bring back any change.”

Standing shirtless in his kitchenette later that afternoon, with his arms raised as high as he could get them, Grandpa John said, “You’ve got to get the whole back. And get it low. Yes, like that. Get it lower. Here.” He unbuckled his belt, pulled his pants and underwear all the way down. “Get the cheeks. Get all over the cheeks and then hit the tops of the legs, the fronts and the backs. Get everywhere. And get the crack. Get it good. Yes, like that. Use the whole bottle, we’ve got ten more. We’re going to snuff out this itch if it’s the last thing we do.”

“Grandpa John told me you cured the itch,” Mom said to me on the phone that night. “I can’t believe it. All those doctors! What’s this special itch ointment you found? He said it was expensive.”

“Johnson’s Baby Oil. I bought a hundred dollars’ worth. No itch-relieving properties whatsoever.”

“I don’t understand,” Mom said.

“I think he just wants to be touched.”

“Touched?”

“He’s already got me penciled in for an hour and a half tomorrow, between church and poker.”

“Gosh,” Mom said, struggling to suppress a laugh, “it must be hell getting old, right?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. “Nude massage sounds pretty good to me.”

“Evan, I appreciate you so much. And so does he. And so does the itch, I’m sure.”

“Yeah, right,” I said. “The itch.”

***

On the days I drive over to Good Sam’s I always take a few minutes to come up with a list of things to talk about to which I can later refer while Grandpa John sits in his reclining chair staring at me blankly. Driving over earlier today — the A/C on full blast, fending off yet another sweltering New Mexican early-November afternoon — I considered the possibility of discussing the Republicans’ foreboding sweep of the midterm elections; my predictions for the upcoming Panthers-Eagles Monday Night Football game; my son’s lack of progress at piano; my daughter’s enrollment in hip-hop dance class; the Yankees’ qualifying offer to D-Rob and the likelihood that he would turn it down; the comical nature of our family’s recent trip to the annual Renaissance Faire; the comical nature of our family’s continued failures to housebreak our new puppy; and, if Grandpa John seemed up for it, Mom’s newly established plan for moving him from his assisted-living place at Good Sam’s over to long-term care at a local nursing home called The Aristocrat. My mental list of conversational possibilities would generally consist of even more items, maybe a dozen or so, but my son and daughter, who’d agreed to accompany me to Good Sam’s this afternoon, would serve, I hoped, as they had during past visits, as readily available means of conversational diversion were things to get silent and awkward between Grandpa John and me, or, were Grandpa John in an especially bad mood — were things to get combative between us, as they occasionally do — as conversational wedges, conversational shields.

“So,” I asked the kids, lowering the driver’s side visor to spare my eyes the afternoon sun’s harsh glare, “what are you guys going to talk about with Grandpa John?”

“Probably politics and stuff,” my son said.

“Probably just football and stuff,” my daughter said.

“Not good. Instead, I should like for you,” I said to my son, “to talk to him about stuff besides politics, because I’ve already decided that I’m going to talk to him about politics, especially about the midterm election results, and, besides, you don’t really know anything about politics. And you,” I said to my daughter, “I want you to talk to him about something besides football, because everybody knows you hate football, and because I’ve already got some stuff planned to talk to him about, about football.”

“So what should we talk to him about then?” my son asked.

“Yeah,” my daughter asked, “what should we talk to him about then?”

“What you guys should do is try to think of stuff to talk about that’s going to make Grandpa John feel better about dying,” I said. “Try to come up with stuff about what it’s like to be a kid, to encourage Grandpa John to conjure up images from his childhood and reflect on them with feelings of satisfaction and contentment about a life lived completely. Maybe think about something that happened recently on the playground at school, or in the cafeteria, or in the classroom, or at PE or something. Poignant interactions with other kids, your frustration with curricular requirements, the developmental travails of prepubescence. Something you did that got you in trouble. I know Grandpa John used to get in all sorts of trouble when he was a kid.”

“He did?” my daughter asked. “Like what sort of trouble?”

“Yeah,” my son asked, “what sorts of things did Grandpa John do to get into trouble when he was kid?”

“Talking in class, forgetting his backpack at home,” I said. “Not taking the puppy for long enough walks in the evening.”

“What kind of puppy did Grandpa John have when he was a kid?” my daughter asked.

“Yeah,” my son asked, “what kind of puppy did Grandpa John have when he was a kid?”

“I don’t remember. Maybe a Yorkshire terrier?”

“A Yorkie? You mean like Bucky?”

“That’s right. His puppy was the exact same breed as Bucky.”

“Cool,” my son said.

“Yeah,” my daughter said, “cool.”

“Not so cool, actually. If I remember correctly, Grandpa John’s Yorkie died at a very young age. Nobody ever took it for long enough walks in the evenings so its muscles atrophied and it just sort of withered away. Please don’t mention that to Grandpa John, though. I know he’s worked hard to forget it.”

A stoplight ahead of us turned red. I decelerated, bringing the minivan to a halt. None of us spoke for the duration of the red light.

After we’d started moving again, my daughter said, solemnly, “I’m going to take Bucky for a really long walk tonight.”

I scanned the rearview mirror to find that my son’s face had flushed red. “Dad,” he said, also solemnly, “I think we ought to take Bucky on a really long walk tonight.”

***

the old man and the outhouse

(as recently narrated to me, for the umpteenth time, by Grandpa John)

Can’t remember who he was, some old geezer from the neighborhood. I’m ten, see, eleven, still in my short pants. The old man’s trudging up the hill to the outhouse on his way to take his morning dump, newspaper in one hand, roll of tissue paper in the other. And I’m in the mulberry bushes with my buddies, see, watching, hiding out. And then I says to them, after the old man shuts the door behind him, I says to my buddies, real quiet-like, “OK, boys, now let’s tip the shit house over with the old man inside.”

***

Did Grandpa John have a dog as a kid? The image I have of Grandpa John’s father, given the former’s disturbing tales of abuse suffered at the latter’s hand, the intensity and immediacy of which has always been compounded by Grandpa John’s fondness for the historical present, does not at all jibe with the image of a yapping puppy running around the house. I guess I could imagine them owning a Doberman pinscher or a pit bull, maybe a German shepherd. I suspect that Grandpa John became a serious dog person only later in life, after his wife, my grandmother, the mortally emphysemic Grandma Blanche, died. While Grandpa John is not the type of man to admit of such a correlation — I can’t hear him saying, “Daily cuddles with this shih tzu eases the pain and anxiety associated with the unfortunate early passing of the love of my life” — it seemed obvious enough: during the twenty or so years intervening between Grandma Blanche’s death and Grandpa John’s matriculation at Good Sam’s, he was to be found without a canine cuddling companion for never more than a few days, that being the amount of time it took to have someone come in and dispose of the old dog’s dead body and then have someone else come in with an assortment of new puppies from which Grandpa John would proceed to make an unceremonious and often ill-advised selection.

What you guys should do is try to think of stuff to talk about that’s going to make Grandpa John feel better about dying.

No pets allowed at Good Sam’s, however. With Grandpa John’s escalating depression and his fondness for super cute dogs near to our minds, we decided, a couple of weeks back — associating Grandpa John’s contentedness, even Grandpa John’s happiness, with Grandpa John’s proximity to a real puppy’s wet nose and a real puppy’s rough tongue and a real puppy’s real soft puppy fur, as opposed to these things’ mere photographic representation all over the walls of Grandpa John’s bedroom / dining room / living room — to smuggle our new puppy into Grandpa John’s apartment at Good Sam’s. But, alas, Bucky’s little contraband nails kept puncturing the heavily bruised, grotesquely translucent, tissue-thin skin on Grandpa John’s hands and arms and cheeks. “Your puppy’s claws and my old-man skin aren’t the best of bedfellows,” Grandpa John said. He sat in his recliner, lesions along his arms oozing dark blood, Band-Aid wrappers strewn across his lap.

“They’re not claws, silly,” my daughter said. “They’re fingernails.”

“They’re not fingernails, stupid,” my son said. “They’re pawnails.”

“Nails, claws, whatever. Words don’t matter,” I said. “What matters is Buck’s tearing the shit out of Grandpa John’s old-man skin. Now, you two, put down your iPads and get him off.”

Grandpa John, bleeding, said, “Buck.” He stroked Bucky’s back, giggling.

“That’s right,” I said. “Buck. We named him after you.”

“No we didn’t,” my son said, playing on his iPad. “You said we named him after Starbuck from Moby-Dick.”

“No we didn’t,” my daughter said, playing on her iPad. “We named him after Star­bucks. Dad took me there to get a cake pop right after we got him from the breeder.”

“You got a cake pop?” my son asked, incredulous, looking up from his iPad. “Dad, is that true?”

***

blind par three

(which often follows “TOMATO” in the manner of a coda)

So me and my buddies, we’re twelve, thirteen, see, and we’re hiding out in some bushes, right beside the green, waiting for a threesome to tee off at the bottom of the hill from where they can’t see the flag. As soon as that last ball hits the green, we all of us scramble to gather them up. They trudge up the hill, the golfers do, take about five minutes searching around for their tee shots. Then somebody thinks to check the hole. The looks of disbelief on those men’s faces, Evan, I’m telling you, their hoots and their hollers. Dancing around the green, hugging each other, kissing. They’re over there crying real tears of joy.

And we’re in those bushes crying a few of our own, too.

***

While driving over to Good Sam’s this afternoon, we approached a stoplight. Although we were the only car at the intersection, the stoplight still turned red.

“How come we have to go to Grandpa John’s all the time, anyway?”

It used to be that Grandpa John could drive himself around. A few days before Mom’s official revocation of Grandpa John’s driving privileges, the kids and I found ourselves in the harrowing position of having to trail Grandpa John in our minivan as he drove his own car, a Toyota Solara, across town, from Mom’s house all the way back to Good Sam’s. It reminded me of watching my son play a racing video game called Gran Turismo shortly after we first got it for him: dashed white lines on the asphalt signifying nothing, other cars on the road existing not in relation to the lives of humans and human families but only to that of the POV car’s maniacal caprice.

Grandpa John’s driving privilege coup de grace occurred after we pulled up behind him at a red light and the sound of a police cruiser’s siren issued from somewhere beyond the intersection. I suspected that Grandpa John wouldn’t be able to hear it, given the recent debacle involving his $5,000 hearing aids, the result of which was that he’d been left with only the left-ear one. As the police cruiser came into view, I flailed my arms wildly in the minivan and repeatedly mouthed the word no, hoping, I guess, that Grandpa John might look up at his rearview mirror and see me, causing him to pause long enough — curious as to why his grandson was acting the fool in his minivan — to allow the cruiser to pass through the intersection unimpeded. The light turned green; Grandpa John stepped on the gas. The police cruiser’s tires screeched; its front bumper came to rest only inches before the driver’s side of Grandpa John’s car, which continued to slowly, nonchalantly traverse the intersection. Aghast, I looked on as the officer flailed his arms inside the cruiser, as he repeatedly mouthed what I presumed to be the word no. Beyond the cruiser, off in the middle distance, the driver’s side tires of Grandpa John’s slow-moving Solara left a dashed white line in their wake.

“Yeah, how come we always have to go to Grandpa John’s? Why can’t he ever drive over to our house?”

Grandpa John sometimes says to me, “It’s hell getting old.”

“You know what my biggest problem is?” Grandpa John sometimes asks me. “What’s that?” I say. “Old age,” he replies.

“Today the doctor finally gave me some information I can work with,” Grandpa John says to me. “Oh yeah?” “Yeah,” he says to me. “She told me that I’m old.”

“Evan, I have some advice for you,” Grandpa John says to me. “Don’t ever get old.”

“Don’t worry,” I says to Grandpa John. “I won’t.”

I lived with Grandpa John and Grandma Blanche for a summer back in high school. Grandpa John was a senior VP at Waste Management, Inc., and he procured for me summer employment at a local dump.

I recall a torn wrapper from a packet of peanuts lying on the living room floor, Grandma Blanche telling Grandpa John to pick up the wrapper and put it in the trash. “What do I look like to you?” Grandpa John asked, watching televised golf, popping peanuts in his mouth. He wore an immaculate dress shirt, pleated slacks, ribbed socks, sparkling shoes. “You’re a garbage man, John,” Grandma Blanche said. “Do your job.”

When I returned home from work in the evenings, I was not allowed to enter the house until I had stripped down to my skivvies in the garage, placed my reeking work clothes in a trash bag, and cinched it all the way closed. I deposited the bag in the laundry room and raced across the house in my underwear — fearful that Grandpa John would catch a glimpse of my bean-pole figure and make a gibe about it — to the bathroom, where I showered and then sat on the toilet for twenty or more minutes enjoying the bathroom’s cleanliness, its spaciousness, its austerity . . . a far cry from the state of our cramped and often filthy bathroom back home, let alone that of the Porta-Johns at the dump. I would listen expectantly as the soles of Grandpa John’s oxfords tapped toward me from the hallway, as he knocked on the bathroom door to inquire as to whether I’d fallen in, as Grandma Blanche averred that teenagers require privacy of toilet and he really ought to leave me alone.

There was a rumor going around the dump that all of us worked for the mafia. “You mafia?” we’d ask each other, knee-deep in mounds of trash.

I was supposed to be saving up all my paycheck money for college, but I put aside a little each week for a portable CD stereo, which, maybe halfway through the summer, I finally purchased, positioning it on the marble-top dresser well beyond the foot of my bed. In the evenings, after Grandpa John and Grandma Blanche had released me from further familial obligation, I popped Nasty Nas’s groundbreaking Illmatic into the CD player’s tray and kicked back on that glorious California king with my elbows splayed out on either side of my head as it rested comfortably against the bed’s massive mahogany headboard. My hairless legs were crossed, my bare toes wiggled. In the huge gilt-framed mirror hanging above the dresser on the far side of the room, I studied an image of myself rapping along with Nas. Grandpa John’s house in Palm Springs was immense, palatial, nothing at all like his place at Good Sam’s; the guest room was in a whole other wing from where Grandpa John and Grandma Blanche’s bedroom was, so I was afforded the luxury of appreciating Nas at such a volume as Nas was intended to be appreciated: loud. “The World Is Yours” became my anthem. I recall lying on my bed in the guest room, slipping an eager hand beneath the elastic band of my boxer shorts as I watched myself in the mirror — the world was mine. I immersed and projected myself into the music of black culture, spending every weekend afternoon poring over the hip-hop CDs in the music section at the Palm Springs Barnes & Noble, memorizing track listings, taking assiduous note of rappers’ wardrobes — the world was mine. The large metal label on the back pocket of my Karl Kani jeans had scratched the absolute shit out of one of Grandma Blanche’s Windsor armchairs — the world was mine.

A loud banging issued from the other side of the door. Grandpa John entered the guest room, nude, livid. “Turn down the jungle music!” he yelled. His penis looked like a miniature human being.

We watched a movie together, something racy. During a sex scene, Grandma Blanche briefly removed the oxygen mask from her face to ask Grandpa John, “Why don’t you ever make love like that to me?” She returned the mask to her face; I listened to the cadence of compressed oxygen being released into my grandmother’s lungs. Grandpa John steadied his gaze on her. He replied, “Why don’t you ever make love like that to me?”

When I returned home from work in the evenings, I was not allowed to enter the house until I had stripped down to my skivvies in the garage, placed my reeking work clothes in a trash bag, and cinched it all the way closed.

I remember Grandpa John’s forearms resting on the dining room table, straddling his dinner — as if protecting it from some phantom threat: theft, mice, the swaying of a boat — fork in one hand, knife in the other, or, when not grasping cutlery, his fingers in loose fists, his thumbs pointing ceilingward.

And Grandpa John whiffing a three iron, swearing. Grandpa John repeatedly whiffing a wedge, chipping the ball with his foot.

Grandpa John kneeling in the pew, fingering a rosary, supplicating, trembling, the skin above his socks showing. Grandpa John smelling of Brut cologne, shoe polish, dry cleaning.

Grandpa John muttering curses under his breath while steering Grandma Blanche’s wheelchair up the ramp to the pulmonologist’s.

Grandpa John placing a finger above his left cheek, pulling down the skin, widening his eyes, asking, “Do you see anybody in here who cares?”

The three of us watched Jeopardy! together. Alex Trebek said, “He takes a green group of cowhands, prepares them for the drive, and then leads it.” Grandpa John and Grandma Blanche shouted at the TV, simultaneously, “Who is James Cagney!” Alex Trebek: “He watched the eighteen fourteen bombardment of Fort McHenry from a British ship and wrote a poem about it.” Grandpa John and Grandma Blanche, simultaneously: “Who is James Cagney!” “The name of this two- or three-toed mammal comes from Middle English for —” “Who is James Cagney!”

Grandpa John awoke at 4 a.m. every morning and set to work at doing the dishes, as Grandma Blanche no longer possessed the strength required to load the dishwasher without breaking stuff. The kitchen was on the other side of the house, and yet, as I lay in the guest room bed vying for more beauty sleep before having to get up and get going to the dump, it was as if the racket Grandpa John made in the kitchen sink was happening in my ear. I now believe that the cleaning of those dirty dishes was Grandpa John’s cross to bear; he was announcing his frustration with the conditions of his life — viz., the unassailable fact of his wife’s imminent death — via an exaggerated clanging of pots and pans.

On my last day of work at the dump, Grandpa John insisted on picking me up, giving me a break from the long bus ride home. He rolled up to the chain link entrance in his DeVille, all the windows rolled down, the back seat plastered in thick plastic sheeting.

My coworkers, eyes bulging, mouths agape, looked on.

“He mafia,” one of them said.

***

happy birthday

(specially requested on the kids’ birthdays, in hopes they will better appreciate all the good things in their lives)

My old man, that would be your great-grandfather, he says to me, “No way, Buck.” He says, “Buck, you are fifteen years old.” The old man says, “I seen some war myself and it ain’t pretty. No way am I sending a son of mine off to that hell.” But his answer doesn’t go over too well with me, see, so every day I get up out of that bed and I sit down at that table and I have another go at him. “Don’t forget my birthday’s coming up,” I says. “You gotta sign for me.” And every day the old man says back to me, “No way, Buck, I’m not signing it.” But I don’t let it go, no, you bet your ass I don’t. “Ask your mother,” the old man says. Evan, you did not know my mother. If you’d known that woman you’d know there’d be no chance of her ever signing it. So I keep pestering and pestering the old man every day, see, and when my birthday finally rolls around I get out of bed real early and I head over to him with the form and the pen and I says, “Sign it.” The old man looks up at me, it’s the one time in my life I ever seen that man scared. His hands are shaking, like this. The old man looks down at that form, takes up that pen, signs his name to it with tears in his eyes.
“Happy birthday,” he says to me. I grab the form and I run out of that house as fast as I can.

“Yes, it’s true, I got her a cake pop. In fact, I take her there to get cake pops all the time. Whenever you’re not looking, we hop in the car and go to Starbucks for cake pops. Now, I would kindly ask you to get your puppy off your great-grandfather before he skins the old man alive.”

Grandpa John giggled. Bucky sat in his lap chewing on a Band-Aid wrapper.

“Buck’s named after Grandpa John,” I said. “End of story. Another word about it and no screens for a week. Now, Grandpa John, explain to these two rabble-rousers why everybody used to call you Buck.”

Grandpa John dabbed at crimson blood on his arm with a monogrammed hankie, set the hankie down, returned to stroking Bucky’s back. He cleared his throat. “I believe it was on account of my teeth. But then they gave me new teeth in the navy, better teeth. The name stuck.”

“Did you guys hear that? Grandpa John was in the navy. He fought in the Pacific to preserve the freedom and the way of life you two so enjoy today.”

“Thanks, Grandpa,” my daughter said, without looking up from her iPad.

“Dad, can you sign me in?” my son said, handing me his iPad. “Yeah, thanks, Grandpa. It’s a free app, Dad, I swear.”

II.

The first episode of Ken Burns’s 2007 WWII documentary, The War, is entitled “A Necessary War.” Despite having watched this entire documentary three, maybe four, maybe five or six or maybe even seven or eight times — I watch documentaries on my iPhone to help me fall asleep at night — I can remember little of it beyond what the episode titles call to mind. “A Necessary War”: the United States’ entrance into WWII was necessary, unlike so many other wars in which we’ve found ourselves embroiled, because, in the case of WWII . . . but I’m unable to paraphrase Ken Burns’s argument as to why the U.S. involvement in WWII was necessary; I can’t remember it. Although I can, if put to, knowing Ken Burns’s politics as I do, attempt to fudge a summary, with no small confidence in my attempt’s resemblance to Burns’s thesis as I imagine it’s laid out somewhere in the documentary’s first chapter. Thus: Hitler, the persecution of the Jews, to preserve the way of life all of us so enjoy today; contra Vietnam, contra Persian Gulf, contra the so-called War on Terror, wars that involved the U.S.’s largely unnecessary engagement, viz., there was no Hitler involved, there were no millions of Jews being murdered, and, most importantly, there was no actual imminent threat to those many existential comforts afforded the U.S.’s middle and upper classes by means of our country’s hegemonic, globally oppressive late-capitalist regime.

One morning, a couple of weeks back, after a night spent watching and/or sleeping through the first few episodes of The War, I arrived at Good Sam’s eager to pick Grandpa John’s brain about his necessary involvement in WWII’s Pacific theater. Upon arriving, I found him asleep in his recliner with his mouth wide open, the TV on full blast, his raucous snores duking it out with exclamatory constatives from obnoxious local TV ads. I have been repeatedly admonished by both Mom and Grandpa John to wake up the latter whenever I arrive at Good Sam’s to find him sleeping, as they believe that the palliative effects of family interaction trump those of beauty sleep for Grandpa John, but, as I consider sleep a precious resource, one that should never be squandered, doing so remains rather difficult for me. My first recourse is to lower the TV volume and sit down on one of Grandpa John’s barstools in his kitchenette, pretend to play with my iPhone, simply wait it out. If only I possess the patience to wait long enough, Grandpa John will eventually wake up, I know; but, despite possessing great patience, as Mom’s often told me I do, I do not possess such patience as to sit contentedly amid the sound of Grandpa John’s sporadic grunting, the sight of his spittled chin, and the stench of his apartment’s moldy carpet for very long. My next recourse is to silently approach sleeping Grandpa John, kneel down beside the recliner, and whisper sweet nothings into whichever of his ears contains a hearing aid. My next recourse is to pat him gently on the leg. My next recourse is to grasp him by the shoulders and gently shake him. My next recourse is to pull his hair, gently. My next recourse is to yell at him, gently, or to gently pluck out one of his few remaining eyebrow hairs. My next recourse is to dispose with all gentility and retrieve from one of the cupboards in his kitchenette a pot and a pan, which was my final recourse on this day, the morning that found me eager to pick Grandpa John’s brain about the U.S.’s necessary involvement in WWII.

Standing above an openmouthed Grandpa John, studying his fake teeth, I clanged the pot and the pan together. He awoke, scanned the room to get his bearings, assuring himself that he was still alive. “Evan,” he said, wiping spittle from his chin, “thanks for waking me up.”

“Not a problem.” I sat down beside him. “So, Grandpa John, there’s something I’ve been wanting to talk to you about. In my opinion, World War II is the only truly necessary war the U.S. has ever been involved in, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Horseshit!” he replied, spewing saliva in the direction of my mouth.

I placed the pot and pan on the carpet, retrieved a hankie from my pocket, wiped my lips. “What I mean to say is,” I said, “it was necessary for the U.S. to get involved in World War II, in order to preserve the way of life we so enjoy today, in contrast to our engagement in other wars, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, the so-called War on Terror, wars which posed no imminent threat to our way of life. But, in the case of World War II, Hitler was on the march, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, so it was necessary for us to get involved, wouldn’t you agree?”

“You bet your ass it was,” Grandpa John said.

“And so you fought in the Pacific, then?” I said. “At the age of sixteen? And so that’s how you lost your teeth or what?”

Grandpa John did not immediately reply. I’ve often attempted to bait him into telling me about the time he spent, between the ages of sixteen and nineteen, fighting in WWII’s Pacific theater. I’m not sure why this interests me as it does. It may be that the details concerning a teenage Grandpa John fighting for his life in the Pacific feel important to me because they contrast so starkly with details concerning my son’s enjoyment of his life: affixing brightly colored plastic interlocking bricks together, depressing buttons on remote controls, gesturing on touch screens. Could it be that I harbor a secret desire to learn of the horror of Grandpa John’s Pacific theater existence if only to project it, in my imagination, onto an imaginary mode of existence suffered by my son, transferring onto my son’s chubby preteen visage the horrors of war as once experienced by Grandpa John, in order to bring tears to my eyes, in order to watch as my son, in my mind, struggles in the face of wartime atrocity to retain some semblance of continued attachment to the peace of mind he so enjoyed back home while playing with his Legos, playing with his PS3, playing with his iPad mini? Yes, it’s true, I am very eager to place my young son’s life in jeopardy, in my mind. Or could it be that I want to know about Grandpa John’s life, to know as much as I can, before he dies? Grandpa John is dying, he’s been dying for some time, but Grandpa John once lived, too, and it’s important that knowledge of his life is given an opportunity to live on, at least for a time, in someone’s mind — in mine.

“Maybe the itch really is psychological,” I said, “maybe it comes from holding in all that stuff about World War II for all these years, never telling anyone about all the innocent people you killed or whatever, ever think of that? Maybe you should tell me about all of those horrible atrocities you witnessed in the Pacific, Grandpa John, and then maybe the itch will finally go away and I won’t have to keep giving you those full-body nude massages all the time.”

“I may be eighty-eight years young, Evan, but I’m not in short pants anymore.” Grandpa John motioned toward the urine- and spaghetti-stained heather sweat pants covering his legs. “Your parenting tricks won’t work on me.”

It could be, also, that I’m eager to hear Grandpa John tell his war stories simply to afford me an opportunity to throw on my narratologist’s cap and study his use of the historical present a bit more. I’ve always been especially attracted by Grandpa John’s manner of narration; while I’ve never considered myself a particularly gifted storyteller, hearing Grandpa John tell his stories evokes in me a hopeful sense that the gifted-storyteller gene yet resides dormant within my genotype, and perhaps the cadences and the colloquialisms and the excessive use of detail associated with Grandpa John’s historical-present narrative delivery will finally trigger the gene’s phenotypical manifestation in me, in my writing, and at long last I will enjoy that role so often fulfilled by Grandpa John over the course of his eighty-eight years — viz., the life of the party — as I will that of the commercially successful novelist whose gruff, vernacular, and largely transparent prose style finds his reader tearing through pages, having fallen inescapably into the world of story.

‘Maybe the itch really is psychological,’ I said, ‘maybe it comes from holding in all that stuff about World War II for all these years, never telling anyone about all the innocent people you killed or whatever, ever think of that?’

“Grandpa John,” I said, “you’re dying, you’ve been dying for some time, but you once lived, too. And it’s important that your life is given an opportunity to live on, at least for a time, in someone’s mind. Ever think of that?”

“In whose,” Grandpa John said, “yours?”

“That’s right,” I said, “in mine. And then I can later transfer memories of your life, as you’ve related them to me, to my kids’ minds, and then they can later transfer those memories to their kids’ minds, and so on, affording you and your memories a kind of immortality. Ever think of that?”

“Here’s what I think,” Grandpa John said. “Let’s cut out the middleman. Bring those kids of yours over here and I’ll tell them my stories myself.”

“Even better,” I said. “To be honest, the itch stuff and the immortality stuff was all a ruse, you’re right. What I really want is for the kids to hear your stories of wartime atrocity and have the shit scared out of them. I want those kids scared straight, Grandpa John. They need to start appreciating all the good things they have in life. And, moreover, I think it’ll be good for my writing to have one last opportunity to carefully scrutinize your use of the historical present.”

Grandpa John asked, “You’re going to do what to me?”

***

tell carl arenz

(a companion piece to “Happy Birthday,” which I’d heard only dribs and drabs of over the years until a few weeks back when Grandpa John, feeling magnanimous after my curing of his itch, finally agreed to narrate it to me in its entirety)

It’s my sixteenth birthday, see, I already got the form signed by the old man, I’m standing in line at the recruitment office in Ottawa, Illinois. “Army or navy?” the officer asks me. “Marines,” I says to him. He looks me up and down. Back then I was a bean pole, Evan, just like you. “How about we go with navy?” the officer says to me. “That’ll work,” I says to the officer. They put me on a train to boot camp up in
Michigan that same day, I don’t even go home for my things or say good-bye.

(“What?” I says to Grandpa John. “Is that true?”)

You bet your ass it’s true. Six weeks later my mother and the old man show up in Michigan, come by the barracks, but it’s already lights-out so the old man tells me through the window they’ll be back the next afternoon to take me out for a steak dinner. I can see my mother out there weeping, she can barely stand to look me in the eye, she’s got both her hands on the window, moving them around like, trying to get at me through the glass. My folks head on back to the motel. Come morning word arrives we’re shipping out that same day, nobody knows where to. My folks show up to get me
that steak but I’m already long gone. For all they know I’m on my way to France.

(“Are you kidding me?” I says to Grandpa John. “That’s crazy!”)

You’re damn right it’s crazy. From the age of sixteen and one day to the age of nineteen and one day I saw my parents’ faces for exactly two minutes’ time. So now I’m on the train, see, and word is we’re headed to Californy to catch a boat to the Pacific, nobody knows where to, and I’m seeing in my mind my mother standing outside those barracks banging on that window, weeping up a storm, falling to her knees and praying to God, “Don’t let it be true, my baby boy’s headed off to war and I didn’t even kiss him good-bye.” Evan, you did not know my mother. That woman’s heart was bigger than . . . that whole refrigerator there. So I’m on the train a few hours, feeling real sore about it, all tore up inside, crying my eyes out, and then, all of a sudden, I start recognizing places I know, some familiar landmarks out the window. “We’re in Illinois,” I says to myself, “and we’re coming up on Ottawa.” I can’t believe my eyes. We pass through Joliet, Morris, then head down into Streator. You know Streator. The train pulls in at the station to pick up some folks, it’s the dead of night, and I’m home, see, we’re just down the road from Ottawa, but what can I do about it? I’m looking out the window, and right as the train’s fixing to go, I make out in the distance this old hobo strolling through the grass. So I calls out to him, leaning as far out the window as I can, with my hands cupped around my mouth like this, I calls out to the hobo, “You know Carl Arenz?” And he calls out back to me, the hobo does, like this, “Sure I know Carl Arenz, who don’t know Carl Arenz?” See, everybody knew Carl Arenz, even the hoboes, he owned the only automobile dealership for miles around, and he’s also my uncle, see, my mother’s younger brother. So then I calls out to the hobo, like this, “Tell Carl Arenz tell his sister John Lavender’s headed to Californy where he’s gonna catch a boat to the Pacific and fight them Japs!” “OK, will do!” the old hobo calls out to me. And then I calls out to him, I calls out to the hobo like this, “And tell Carl Arenz tell his sister John Lavender misses his mother!” “OK, you got it, no problem,” the old hobo says, “anything else I can do for you?” So then I calls out to him, right as the train’s pulling away, I’m choking on my tears because I’m headed off to war and I didn’t kiss my mama good-bye, also because I can tell the old hobo’s already four sheets to the wind and he probably won’t remember any of what I’m saying, so I cup my hands around my mouth like this and I calls out to him as loud as I can, in a mean, threatening way, like he’s in big trouble if he don’t do it, like I’m a real soldier, like this. “You better tell Carl Arenz tell his sister John Lavender loves his mother! You better tell that Carl Arenz give his sister my mama a kiss good-bye from her baby boy John Lavender!”

That old hobo’s eyes go real wide. I think he gets the message that time.

(“Grandpa, that’s incredible. That’s amazing!”)

You bet your ass it’s amazing. Now, I want you to guess who’s sitting on that porch rocking in that rocking chair when my mother gets home from Michigan.

(“Seriously?”)

My uncle quits his rocking, stands up, and the minute she’s stepped onto that porch he places his hands on his sister’s cheeks, gives her a kiss. “From John,” Carl Arenz says to my mother.

III.

When we finally arrived at Grandpa John’s this afternoon, we found him in his reclining chair, earsplitting shrieks from the TV bouncing between his bedroom / dining room / living room’s four walls, his mouth wide open, his body unmoving. My son and daughter stood before him awhile, heads lowered, arms at their sides, trembling hands precariously holding on to their iPad minis.

“Should we go tell a nurse?” my son finally asked.

“Yeah,” my daughter asked, “shouldn’t we go tell somebody?”

“Guys,” I said, “come on. He’s just not snoring for some reason. It’s nothing to worry about.”

“Dad, it’s totally obvious. Look at him. He’s dead.”

“Yeah, Dad, look at him. He’s totally dead.”

He did look very dead, they were right. And yet often I’d arrived at Grandpa John’s to find him thus, absolutely certain of his death until such time as he’d awaken with a start and call out my name, to ask — as I pilfered his drawers for hawkable keepsakes and spare change — why I was going through all his stuff.

I leaned over Grandpa John, listening for his breath, examining his fake teeth. “Sweetie,” I said, extending my hand toward my daughter while training my eyes on Grandpa John’s shriveled uvula, “take your barrette out. I need to borrow it for something.”

“No way,” my daughter replied. “My hair looks fabulous today.”

“Yeah, Dad,” my son said. “Her hair looks really great today.”

“Do you guys still have that dog whistle app on your iPads?”

“But Grandpa John’s human,” my son replied. “He won’t be able to hear it. And even if he could, it wouldn’t matter anyway.”

“Yeah, Dad,” my daughter said, “it wouldn’t even matter. Dead people can’t hear things.”

“He’s still got his hearing aid in.” I pointed toward Grandpa John’s droopy earlobe. “Turn up the volume all the way and position the iPad’s speaker directly against it. I guarantee you that’ll wake him up.”

“From the dead?” my daughter asked.

“Yeah,” I replied.

My son flipped the cover from his iPad mini and swiped to unlock. He opened the dog whistle app, placed the iPad mini’s Lightning port against Grandpa John’s ear, fired up the inaudible whistle. After a few seconds, Grandpa John’s eyelids fluttered — and then they opened very wide.

“It’s just like in that book,” my daughter whispered, “with the guy.”

My son whispered, “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.”

“How are you feeling today, Grandpa John?” I asked Grandpa John.

“I’m alive, aren’t I?” Grandpa John replied.

I shot the kids a knowing glance. They raised their palms and shrugged their shoulders. Grandpa John wiped the spittle from his chin. The kids sat on the floor, crisscross applesauce, positioning their iPad minis in their laps.

“Guys, Grandpa John is more interesting than an iPad,” I said. “How many more chances are you going to have to come over here and socialize with Grandpa John, on the one hand, versus the other hand, the hand which holds not just these iPad minis but which will, doubtless, hold many future-gen iPad minis? There are no next-gen Grandpa Johns on the horizon. Put them up or else. I’m serious.”

The kids grudgingly closed their smart covers. Embarrassed, Grandpa John fake burped. And then he said: “Evan, today’s the day I’m going to tell your kids my war stories.”

“Kids,” I said, turning to the kids, “today’s the day Grandpa John is finally going to tell us his stories of wartime atrocity.” I grabbed the iPads out of the kids’ laps, sat down on the love seat, pulled my pen and notepad out of my pocket, licked my finger. “Grandpa,” I said, “why don’t we start with the story of how you lost your teeth. Do you need some water? Are we good to go here?”

Grandpa John cleared his throat. “The only thing I need, Evan, is for you to get the hell out of this room. I’ll tell these kids my stories on my own.”

“Yeah,” my son said. “Get the heck out of here, Dad.”

“Dad, out,” my daughter said, “right now. Or else.”

“Grandpa John,” I said, “seriously?”

“Hallway,” Grandpa John said to me. “Right now.”

“Out,” Mom said. “Right now, you two,” by which she meant Grandpa John and me. “I’d like to have a minute alone with her,” by which she meant her mom, Grandma Blanche. “Wait in the hallway,” by which she meant the hallway at the hospital, outside Grandma Blanche’s room.

Grandpa John and I shuffled out. We sat on folding chairs beside the door.

“Don’t you ever smoke,” Grandpa John said to me.

“I won’t,” I replied, pretending to massage that portion of quadriceps beneath the right pocket of my jeans in order to assure myself of the continued presence of my pack of cigarettes.

“Those two women in there,” Grandpa John said, turning to me. “They’re the loves of my life.”

He regarded my slightly askew baseball cap, my XL hoodie, my unlaced Timber­lands. His eyes teared up. He patted the leg of my Karl Kani’s, right near where my cigarettes were.

“Those two, plus you,” he said, gripping my hand, “are the three loves of my life.” He squeezed my fingers really hard. “Plus your brother. That makes four.”

I remember sitting in the hospital room after Mom told us it was OK to come back in, receiving eyefuls of the afternoon sun’s harsh rays as they made their way in through gaps in the window blinds. I remember Grandpa John kneeling bedside, fingering a rosary, trembling, supplicating, and I remember Grandma Blanche’s body beneath a long white sheet. I remember her rhythmic, cartoonish jaw movements, like a goldfish breathing.

I remember the window blinds. Crazy knots in the drawstring, bends in the slats, a couple slats missing. I remember Grandpa John getting up to futz around with the blinds’ drawstring, Mom telling him to cut it out or else. As Grandma Blanche inhaled one last time, Grandpa John was still over there at the window trying to coax the mess of slats into place, as if darkness were more amenable to life. After silence greeted Grandma Blanche’s final exhalation, Grandpa John let go of the drawstring. I remember him turning toward us to say, “To hell with it. It doesn’t matter, anyway.”

After returning home from Good Sam’s and eating dinner, the kids suckered me into accompanying them on their walk around the neighborhood with Bucky. We took him all the way to the stop sign at the top of the street, then turned to make our way back home, west — and there was the horizon, and there, atop it, a big fat setting sun, and everywhere a regal New Mexican sky with quilted streaks of lavender, orange, and green.

“Guys,” I said, pointing at the horizon, “there’s no app for that.” I pulled out my phone, snapped a picture. “Eat your heart out, Apple,” I said.

“Yeah, Apple,” the kids said. “Eat it.”

As we began to make our way home, I instructed the kids to relate to me every­thing that Grandpa John had said that afternoon at Good Sam’s concerning his experience in WWII’s Pacific theater, when I’d stood outside in the hallway with my ear pressed against the door attempting and mostly failing to discern the familiar cadences of Grandpa John’s historical-present narrative delivery.

The only thing I need is for you to get the hell out of this room. I’ll tell these kids my stories on my own.

“No way, Dad,” my son said, zipping up his lips. “Grandpa John told us we had to keep it under lockdown.”

“Yeah,” my daughter said, throwing her arm forward, flicking her fingers. “And he told us to throw away the key.”

Bucky stopped, sniffed at some petrified dog poo, maybe his own. I offered to make the kids a deal. If they would be willing to tell me what Grandpa John told them, then I would be willing take Bucky on his nightly walk, sans their accompaniment, for one week’s time.

“Nope. You’re going to have to do better than that.”

“Something way better, Dad.”

We continued walking. A quarter or so of the sun left above the horizon, I told the kids that if they told me every last detail of what Grandpa John had told them, then they could have an additional hour of screen time on Saturday of the upcoming weekend.

“Are you kidding? That’s practically nothing!”

“Yeah, that’s not a good deal at all, Dad!”

Bucky stopped to sniff at a discarded condom. I offered the kids a final deal. If they didn’t tell me every single last detail of what Grandpa John had told them, not only would they lose all their screen time for the upcoming weekend, but I would never again, for as long as they and/or Bucky lived, accompany them on their walks around the neighborhood in the evenings.

“OK, fine, we’ll tell you. But are those other deals still on the table?”

“Yeah, we’ll definitely tell you, Dad, but what about those other deals you offered us before?”

We stopped at the top of the driveway. The other deals’ continued validity was contingent upon the narrative quality of the story they must now proceed to relate to me, I told them. We sat down together on the short crumbling rock wall athwart the drive, and what little light remained at the horizon illuminated Bucky’s tiny teeth and the kids’ lips and cheeks and eyes as they proceeded to relate Grandpa John’s story of orthodontic wartime atrocity, culminating in an instance of highly questionable divine intervention, thus:

***

how grandpa john lost his teeth

(as told to Bucky and me by the kids last night, at the top of the driveway, right as the sun was setting)

So Grandpa John’s job on the boat is to help aim the big gun at the sky and try to shoot stuff down.

Yeah, Grandpa John’s a gunner’s assistant. His job’s to help gun down them Japs.

(“Don’t say Japs, guys. Please call them the Japanese.”)

And he’s out on the ocean in that boat, in the Pacific Ocean, in the ocean near to where the Japanese live, the island of Japan.

Yeah, he’s out on that ocean, Dad, and then all of a sudden these planes start coming in. Bam bam bam bam bam! It’s crazy! There’s planes everywhere. And those planes are shooting at Grandpa John and his friends. Grandpa John is only sixteen years old during this story. That’s barely five years older than me! Isn’t that crazy?

(“That’s totally crazy, yes. I hope that makes you appreciate all the good things you have in life.”)

So everybody’s running around on that deck and everybody thinks they’re going to die.

Yeah, Dad, everybody’s super scared. Everybody thinks they’re totally goners, even Grandpa John.

And so then a bunch of them boys start heading belowdecks. There’s just too many planes in the sky, see. When you look up at first you think all those planes are birds, like seagulls, because you’ve never seen anything like it before, because the only thing you can think it can be is a bunch of seagulls flying around.

But they’re not seagulls, Dad. They’re Japanese fighter planes trying to kill Grandpa
John.

Yeah, and all of Grandpa John’s buddies, too! All them boys!

And so then Grandpa John’s buddy, the main gunner guy, he, like, totally bails.

Dad, the main gunner guy gets so scared he pees his pants. He has to go below­decks to get a new pair of pants.

No, that’s not what happened.

But that’s what Grandpa said. He said the main gunner guy had to go change his pants.

He was just joking about that part, stupid.

You’re stupid!

No, you’re stupid!

(“Guys.”)

So Grandpa John is all alone up there with the big gun now because his buddy got scared so he has to start shooting the gun himself. Dad, we’re going to have to tell you all about how those guns work because you won’t understand this story if you don’t know anything about how those big guns really work.

Dad, there’s this thing that can get super hot on the gun, see, and it’s the assistant gunner’s job to take that thing off the gun when it gets hot and replace it with another one of those things that’s not super hot so that thing doesn’t get too hot and explode the whole gun.

But Dad, now that the main gunner guy peed his pants and Grandpa John took over the main gunner’s job to shoot, there’s nobody to take off the thing when it gets super hot.

Yeah and Grandpa John’s aiming the gun up in the sky without any help and shooting it all on his own!

And he’s shooting them seagulls down like crazy!

What? No. He’s shooting them Japanese.

Yeah, he’s shooting them Japanese. That’s what I said.

No, you said he’s shooting the seagulls.

No.

Yes.

No.

Yes!

No!

(“Guys, come on. This is important. Please.”)

And Grandpa’s shooting so much that the thing on the gun starts getting super hot, but there’s no one there to take the thing off now because that was Grandpa’s job but now he’s shooting the gun on his own because everybody else totally bailed and went down belowdecks.

He’s shooting that gun at those Japanese planes so much and the gun starts getting super hot and now it’s burning his hands off but he has to keep shooting it or else we might lose the whole war out there!

Yeah, Dad, we’re about to lose the war out there in that Pacific!

And then the gun starts turning bright red like the bottom of the fireplace. But even redder than that, Grandpa John said.

Yeah, way redder. But he still keeps shooting that gun even though his hands are getting totally burned.

His hands are totally on fire, Dad!

Yeah, Grandpa John’s hands are on fire for real now then the whole gun explodes right in his face because there’s nobody to take off the hot thing and that’s how he lost his teeth.

Dad, the gun exploded right into Grandpa John’s mouth! It melted all his teeth!

Not melted them. Knocked them out.

Yeah, that’s what I said. It knocked out all his teeth.

But then this is the really crazy part.

Yeah, this is the really crazy part, Dad. You’re not going to believe this part but it’s true.

Dad, Grandpa John died for a little while out there in the Pacific.

Yeah, Grandpa John died for a little bit. He went to heaven. Did you know about that part, Dad?

(“No, I don’t think I was aware of that.”)

Yeah, Grandpa John totally died. Isn’t that crazy?

(“Totally.”)

Grandpa John totally died and went to heaven and that’s when he had a little one-on-one with God.

Yeah, Dad, Grandpa John had some face time with God, for real, up in heaven.

But Dad, now this is the part that Grandpa John made us swear never to tell you.

Yeah, our lips are totally sealed on this part. You’re going to have to offer us something really good this time.

Like new iPads.

With retina displays.

And not minis.

Yeah and not minis. With expensive cases, too.

Deal?

Yeah, Dad, deal?

(“How about I take away your current ones only for an evening, rather than a fortnight?”)

Deal.

Deal and so Grandpa John says to God, “I sees what’s going on here, God, I sees what you have in mind for me, and I’m not too happy about it.”

Yeah and Grandpa John says to God, “God, listen up. I’ll make you a deal.”

Grandpa John says, “I’m not too happy about any of this because I’m only sixteen years old, see, and I haven’t even barely lived yet and already you have it in mind for me to die.”

“And so here’s the deal, God,” Grandpa John says to God. “You let me live today and I promise I’m going to do something real special for you.”

Yeah, Dad. Grandpa John says, “If you let me live, I’m going to marry a woman named Blanche, and with this Blanche I will have a daughter named Gail.”

He meant Grandma Gail, Dad. That’s your mom!

Yeah, Dad, totally! And listen to this. And then Grandpa John says to God, “God. And my daughter Gail will have a son named Evan.”

That’s you, Dad! Grandpa John was totally talking to God about you!

Totally, Dad. And then this is what Grandpa John says next. This is for sure the best part. Grandpa John says to that God, “OK, God. And then my grandson Evan will have two children of his own. And their names will be Jackson and Sofia.”

That’s us! Grandpa John totally told God about us! Can you believe it?

But now wait, this is totally the most amazing part. Grandpa John says, “Now you listen up, God, and you listen good. I’m making you a real good deal here. If you let me live, there are going to be two kids in the world named Jackson and Sofia, and that Jackson and Sofia are going to be just great, they’re going to be the best kids in the history of the world, even if they fight a lot. So what do you say, God, because this is my final offer. Deal?”

And Dad, you’re not going to believe what happened next. You’re not even going to believe what God says to Grandpa John.

God puts his hand on Grandpa John’s shoulder, like this. And then God says, “Deal.”

Dad, God told him he’s got a deal! And he even touched Grandpa John on the shoulder! Like this!

Yeah and then Grandpa John woke up in a hospital somewhere on some boat.

Yeah, but Grandpa John totally died, Dad, for real.

Dad, it’s true. But Grandpa John totally lived, too.

***

This essay first appeared in The Southern Review, the venerable quarterly journal of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry published by the Louisiana State University Press in Baton Rouge. Our thanks to the author and The Southern Review staff for allowing us to reprint this essay at Longreads.

My Half-Sister’s Half a Life

Illustration by Wenting Li

Jeannie Vanasco | The Glass Eye | Tin House Books | October 2017 | 2,543 words (10 minutes)

In the Memory Game you’re expected to find two matching cards. My dad’s left eye and his right didn’t perfectly match. The i and the eye don’t perfectly match, but they sound the same. Jeanne and Jeannie sound the same, but we don’t perfectly match. I could write this story chronologically and divide it into three parts titled “eye,” “i,” and “I.”

But I worry that I lose authority as a storyteller if I recall memories from age four. I could preface some of those memories with “I remember.” Or, in memoir, is such subjectivity implied? Like “I see” and “I hear,” “I remember” is almost always an unnecessary filter. Maybe I can preface the more detailed memories with “I remember” — a defense against any reader who thinks, There’s no way she remembers playing the Memory Game when she was four, or It couldn’t have been the Memory Game — its so symbolic. It feels forced.

Do I need to be more selective with direct dialogue, or introduce hindsight perspective, or lean on my mom’s memories? I’ll keep some of her in the present tense. I’ll show how I often ask her questions, such as: “Did it happen this way?” “What was his illness called?” “Did Dad accept the loss of his eye?” But if I excerpt conversations with her that concern only him, then it looks like I care less about her life stories.

I’ll write another book after this, a book for her.

Jeanne

Not once did my dad say Jeanne’s name in my eighteen years with him. My mom did when I was eight.

I was dancing in my bedroom with an unlit candle when she called me downstairs. My teacher, Sister Paulina, had asked three second-grade girls to lead our First Communion ceremony with a dance. The dance required me to hold a candle above my head, and I was terrified of setting the church on fire. I practiced at home almost every day for a month.

When I walked into the living room, my dad was in his chair, holding a small white box. As my mom explained that he had a dead daughter named Jeanne (pronounced the same as my name) “without an i,” he opened the box and looked away. Inside was a medal Jeanne had received from a church “for being a good person,” my mom said. My dad said nothing. I said nothing. I stared at the medal.

Later that day, in the basement, my mom told me Jeanne had died in a car accident when she was sixteen. I sat on the steps as my mom folded clothes and confided what she knew.

Two other girls were in the car. The car could seat three people in front. Jeanne sat between the driver and the other passenger. The driver tried to pass a car, then hesitated and tried to pull back into her lane. She lost control and the car crashed. Jeanne was the only one who died.

“Your father blames himself,” my mom said. “He can’t talk about it.”

“Why?” I asked.

“He gave her permission to go out that night.”

Jeanne had asked him if she could see a movie with her friends. He asked what her mother had said. “She said to ask you.” He said it was fine, she could see the movie. He had no idea his first wife had already said no. He and his first wife weren’t speaking.

“Did you know his first wife?” I asked.

“No, he was divorced long before I met him. All this happened in New York.”

It happened near Newburgh, where he and his first family had lived. I knew only Ohio. In my mind, all of New York was made of skyscrapers, taxicabs, and car accidents.

“What did Jeanne look like?”

My mom said she’d never seen a photo.

***

I painted portraits of Jeanne in watercolor. I titled them Jeanne. My art teacher told me she was disappointed that “such a good student could misspell her name.” From then on, I included an i.

***

“I wanted to tell you about Jeanne before that,” my mom says after I ask why she told me when she did. “But your dad, he worried that you’d misinterpret his intentions. I told him, ‘She’s going to find out someday. Don’t you think it’s better she hears it from us?’”

“Did Dad have any photos of Jeanne?”

“No. He told me his ex-wife wouldn’t let him have any. But for some reason, she gave him the medal.”

***

Throughout my baby scrapbook, I’m referred to as “Barbara Jean,” “Jean,” “Jeanie,” and “Jeannie.” In one letter, my dad calls me “My Darling Daughter Barbara Jean.” In a letter to my mom, he calls me “Jeanie” and “Jeannie.” My parents had planned to name me Jeanne.

“That or Jean Marie, actually,” my mom says. “Her given name was Jean Marie. She went by Jeanne. Your father simply saw the name as a sign of respect. He even spoke with a priest about our naming you after her, and the priest encouraged him to do so, provided he never compare you. ‘I would never do that,’ your father said.”

But while my mom was asleep after having just given birth, he named me Barbara Jean, after my mom. When he told her what he’d done, she said, “That’s no name for a baby.” She thought Barbara was too old-fashioned. That, and two Barbaras in one house would be confusing.

“When I told him I wasn’t calling you Barbara, he got this sad look on his face. He meant to do something sweet,” she says. “He always had good intentions.”

Legally my name remained Barbara Jean, but my parents called me Jeannie. My dad added the i.

“Just said he was adding an i,” my mom says. “He never explained it.”

***

I remember the spring day that I stood alone in the corner of the school playground, thinking about Jeanne. Cars passed by with their windows open. I often wondered if my dad thought about Jeanne every time he drove our car. A classmate, another second-grade girl, asked what I was doing.

“My half-sister died,” I told her.

“I have a stepsister.”

I tried to explain the difference between a half-sibling and a stepsibling.

“We share the same dad,” I said.

“I didn’t know you had a half-sister.”

“Four of them,” I said, or maybe I said “three.” I didn’t know if Jeanne counted, or if she counted more because she was dead.

***

I have no clear memory of learning about Jeanne’s sisters — Carol, Arlene, and Debbie — but I know my parents told me about them before I learned about Jeanne. Arlene is the only one I knew throughout my childhood. She lived in New York. She visited us four times in Ohio — five if you count when our dad was dying.

“Arlene is beautiful,” I told my mom after Arlene’s first visit.

Arlene’s dark brown eyes matched her hair. Thick and wavy, it fell just past her shoulders. Later I’d show photographs of Arlene to boys I liked; I wanted them to think that I’d be beautiful someday, like her.

“She was a model once,” my mom said. “I think she modeled wedding dresses for a catalog.”

Arlene often called, wrote letters. She mailed me unusual presents: hangers with illustrated wooden cat heads, vials of sand from Jerusalem, a pair of earrings that looked like pale orange pearls. She even trained her cockatiel to say “Happy birthday, Jeannie.” She sent a video of it. I wrote thank-you letters; they went through several drafts. I wanted my cursive to look perfect.

Carol and Debbie I’d never seen, not even in photographs. Debbie was a hairdresser in New York, and Carol owned a candy shop in Rhode Island. Carol, the oldest, was my mom’s age. Beyond that, I knew nothing.

Once, while my dad was on the downstairs rotary, I listened through the upstairs rotary. I was in the second grade and often eavesdropped. I could hear one of his daughters — not Arlene, I’d have recognized her voice — yelling. My dad mentioned me, and she yelled more. I quietly set the phone on my bedroom carpet. I could still hear her. When no more sound came from the receiver, I looked through the grate in my bedroom floor. My dad was at the dining room table, his head in his hands.

“They were mad your father had his first marriage annulled,” my mom explains. “It was after your First Communion. You asked him why he couldn’t take Communion with you. He said it was because he was divorced. It’s a man-made rule — that you can’t take Communion if you’ve been divorced. If you annul the marriage, the church basically says the marriage never existed. His daughters took it personally. He didn’t mean anything against them. He wasn’t disowning them. He did it for you.”

***

Jeanne would come between me and almost everything I did. I studied harder. I researched the lives of the saints and how I might model their behavior. I sat before my bedroom mirror with a notebook and documented my appearance and what exactly I needed to fix. I needed to be a smart, kind, beautiful daughter.

I tried not to hear her name when he said my own.

***

I followed my parents to their graves. Rain made it difficult to find our way.

“Where do I walk?” I asked, afraid of disrespecting the dead.

My mom told me to follow her. We passed a smaller fenced-in area where fresh flowers and toys were at almost every grave.

“The children’s cemetery,” she explained.

My dad stood farther ahead of us, underneath a tree. He motioned us toward him.

I looked down at two headstones printed with my parents’ names and birth years: “Terry J Vanasco, 1922,” and “Barbara J Vanasco, 1942.”

“Where do I go?” I asked.

“You might have a husband someday,” my mom said. “You’ll want to be buried next to him.”

“But I want to be with you and Dad.”

***

I call my mom, ask if she remembers that day in the cemetery.

“We took you to see the graves?”

“That’s what I remember,” I say.

Dad

After Jeanne died, my dad bought burial plots for himself and his wife next to the plot for Jeanne. When he and his first wife divorced, she demanded that he forfeit his plot because she didn’t want him buried next to their daughter. He agreed. Soon after the divorce, he went to court again, this time for beating up “a bum” on the street.

“Why should you be alive?” my dad asked him. “You’re not working and my daughter’s dead.”

The judge remembered my dad and let him go.

My dad’s sister Anna told all this to my mom, who at some point shared it with me. I don’t know if I learned this story before or after seeing my parents’ headstones, but the two stories juxtaposed together make sense, writing-wise. Still, I call my mom, ask if she remembers when she told me about my dad losing his burial plot.

“I don’t,” she says, “but did I ever tell you: when I went with your dad to his father’s funeral — this was a couple years before you were born — the funeral director told me about your dad losing his cemetery plot. The director said, ‘In all the years I’ve worked here, I’ve never heard of anything like it — denying a man burial next to his daughter.’ Your dad’s ex-wife eventually did offer him the plot — this was when you were a little girl — but your dad refused it. He said, ‘I have a family here.’”

Mom

It was my parents’ twelfth wedding anniversary. I was ten. A snowstorm swept through Sandusky. We had plans to celebrate at home that night. We were in our car leaving the grocery parking lot when my mom abruptly told him to stop the car.

She left it, slammed her door, and opened mine.

“We’re walking home,” she told me.

My dad looked back at me.

“Come on,” she said. “I’m teaching you a lesson.”

“What did I do?” I asked.

“I’m teaching you you don’t need a man.”

I told her there was a snowstorm. It was too cold to walk home. Our house felt far away.

“Stay with him if you want,” she said and began to leave us.

I apologized to my dad and ran after her.

My dad slowly followed in the car with the front passenger window down.

“It’s a blizzard,” he said.

She ignored him.

I asked her why she was angry, and she ignored me.

He pleaded for us to get in the car. Home was at least two miles away.

She yelled at him to leave us alone. He looked at me, and I looked down at my boots. When I looked up, our car was disappearing into the falling snow.

“What if he dies in a car accident?” I asked.

“He’ll be fine.”

“But there’s ice.”

“He won’t die.”

I watched my breath chill before me and disappear.

We walked in silence along the shoulder of Milan Road. When I looked behind us, snow had already covered our tracks. Snow plows rumbled by. A few cars came and went. A man offered us a ride and my mom waved him off.

“We’re almost home,” she lied.

The man drove away.

“Your father doesn’t trust me,” she said.

The friendly man who worked in the checkout at the grocery store, my dad thought was too friendly, she explained.

My dad often told us to wait in the car while he checked out. I always thought he was being a gentleman, bringing the groceries to us.

“Your father doesn’t trust anyone,” she said.

“What about me?”

“You’re different.”

***

When we reached our house, he was at the kitchen table, his head in his hands.

“Dad,” I said.

I yanked off my boots and ran to him.

My mom walked past us and into the basement. He followed her, and I went into the bathroom and lifted the door to the laundry chute. I heard my dad apologize.

That evening at dinner, they smiled at one another and held hands.

***

“Sometimes he drove me nuts with his possessiveness,” my mom says when I ask about the snowstorm. “His father was the same way, apparently. Your dad’s mother would go to the grocery store, and your dad’s father would time her. Your dad thought it was horrible, but then he went and did the same sort of thing to me.” She pauses. “After you left for college, your dad and I were on the back porch — and he asked if I regretted our marriage. ‘Of course not,’ I told him. ‘Why would you ask me that?’ He said he knew how unreasonable he’d been. He said he was sorry. He said he was afraid of losing me. Your dad would have been happy, just the three of us, in a cabin out in the woods. He said you and I were all he needed.”

***

From The Glass Eye by Jeannie Vanasco. © 2017 Jeannie Vanasco. Used with permission of the publisher, Tin House Books. 

Mr. Throat and Me

(RICOWde/Getty)

Arnold Thomas Fanning | Banshee | Spring 2017 | 17 minutes (4,695 words)

I love to smoke.

I think it’s important to state that right at the beginning so there can be no equivocation about what follows, in case there is any doubt.

Smoking is one of the greatest pleasures in my life, if not the greatest. It subsumes me, and consumes me. I have been smoking, on and off, for over twenty years and it has at times reached levels of obsession that even I know are unsustainable. Over and over I vaguely register that the time has come to quit. But it takes a long time for me to actually follow up on this idea and act: smoking takes precedence over stopping smoking.

I simply love it too much.

Last thing at night before I go to sleep I am thinking of all the cigarettes to be smoked the next day. The prospect cheers me. On waking, before showering, before coffee, before eating, I put on my dressing gown, go downstairs, stand outside, and light up the first cigarette of the morning. It is the harshest of the day, the smoke rough and burning on the throat after eight hours without, and harsh on an empty stomach too. Then I drink some juice and brew some coffee. I eat cereal while the coffee is brewing and then it is ready to pour: just in time for the second cigarette of the day, arguably the most enjoyable.

This is more smooth, the coffee on the palate a buffer for the smoke, and is smoked at a more leisurely pace, sitting outside this time on the step with my cup. These two cigarettes are the most physiologically necessary of the day: to get some nicotine into the system after the depletion of sleep, to get the equilibrium going.

Conversely the last cigarette of the day is smoked almost regretfully because for the following eight hours or so there will be no more, and there is a vague anxiety that I won’t make it through the night without. It is smoked after everything else is done with: the evening meal, TV, reading in bed, bathroom ablutions, everything except brushing my teeth. In dressing gown again I stand outside, as late as possible and shaking with cold, and suck in the day’s final smoke. Usually I follow with a second cigarette to be sure I won’t be craving one before I go to sleep; sometimes I have a third for the same reason. Only then do I brush my teeth, a small sop to freshness, and go to bed, anticipating already the first cigarette of the next day in the morning.

This routine — cigarettes as soon as I rise, cigarettes last thing before I succumb to sleep — means that for all of my waking hours I reek of cigarette smoke, not only my breath, but my clothing, my hair, and my skin as well. I am a walking, waking, fug of smoke. No doubt I reek of cigarettes in my sleep too.

The sensations that come from smoking: the first cigarette of the day, there is a definite head rush, a clear hit of a high, a spinning lightness. The next one is merely a settling of accounts, a restoration of normality and getting comfortable. Later, if there have been notable gaps between smokes, there is the relaxing cigarette that takes the edge off of absence. Then there are the cigarettes taken after breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the smoke burning off and replacing the flavors of food in the mouth, cleansing the palate. Cigarettes with beer, refreshing and frivolous; with wine, studied and reflective; with green tea, delicate and palatable. There are many sensations that come with smoking, and I love every one.

There are images on the back of the cigarette packs that try to dissuade me from smoking. There is the one of the wrinkled apple (signifying the wrinkled skin a smoker gets if they don’t quit), the one of the drooping cigarette ash (impotence), the one of a bared gummy mouth (tooth loss), and several more. But none of these have the same effect on me as does the image of Mr Throat.

Mr Throat is the name I give to the man whose photograph appears as a health warning on many of the cigarette packs I smoke from. His image is accompanied by the message, bold and chilling in its simplicity: ‘Smoking can cause a slow and painful death.’ As if to demonstrate the truth of this, there is the picture of Mr Throat, which is truly stomach-turning.

A young(ish) man, age indeterminate, photographed from the bridge of the nose down almost to his clavicle, mouth shut in seeming determination, has a tumor growing on his throat. And what a tumor. The size of a deflated football, it is the color of raw chopped liver, and bulges, shapeless, under his chin, covering his Adam’s apple, spreading each side as far as his ears and down over his neck. Above the tumor Mr Throat is mostly expressionless, apart from that grimly set mouth, although it is hard to determine his expression given the absence of eyes from the portrait. He has a florid but wispy mustache, and has made a half-hearted attempt to nurture a goatee; truth be told Mr Throat does not have a very strong facial hair growth.

Mr Throat’s appearance is nauseating, shocking, and terrifying to the smoker. No one wants to end up like this. But that is what will happen to us, the health warning implies, if we continue to smoke: we, too, will look like a monster. Mr Throat is there to tell us, in earnest, that smoking can cause a slow and painful death, and he delivers that message well.

Nonetheless I continue to smoke, and go on loving it.

Brands are important, and only some will do for me. It has to be either Lucky Strike Silver (‘It’s Toasted!’) or Camel Lights, the ones in the blue pack. These are both a mid-strength (6mg) cigarette. Anything milder has no effect on me, no kick at the back of the throat, no nicotine rush; anything stronger is nauseating and too strong to inhale deeply. Occasionally I find Gauloises Bleu which are a nice change. While travelling I sometimes come across the brand I smoked while living in the States, American Spirit Yellow, a good alternative to Luckies (and supposedly free of ‘additives’).

But I still keep coming back to my two favorite brands: Camel and Lucky Strike. I smoke the 6mg level exclusively, feel it is just right. The only times I smoke other brands is during those brief, periodic episodes of attempting to ‘quit’ in my twenty-odd-year smoking career, during which I inevitably bum cigarettes off strangers incessantly so as to feed the habit that my attempt at ‘quitting’ has only put on temporary hold. At these times my choice of brand is at the whim of the smoker I bum from: I may end up with a Major (un-inhalable due to the strength), a Marlboro (unpleasant taste), a Silk Cut (not strong enough), or worse of all, a Kent Menthol (simply nauseating).

Inevitably I get back to buying my own brand again and I joyfully open and smoke from a pack of Camel Lights or Lucky Strike Silver once more. Back, finally, to my own brand and strength. It is one thing that could be said in my favor: I am nothing if not loyal.

I never quite get to the stage of being a chain smoker, but do I smoke my cigarettes in couplets, one cigarette followed by another, before leaving an interval until the next one (which is actually two); which makes me a chain smoker of sorts. The intervals last anywhere from thirty to sixty minutes depending on what I am doing. Sometimes they last a bit more, on occasions when it is unavoidable. Frequently, however, they last less. I am going through a lot of cigarettes every day, needing them more often.

So it is I begin to dread going to the cinema to see long movies, one of those occasions when the gap between cigarettes is longer than strictly bearable. Any movie over ninety minutes is a real strain to get through. I sit through it growing increasingly anxious as I wait for it to end, for the moment I can smoke again. Then, as soon as the film is over, as soon as the credits roll, I am up and out of my seat, out the door, and outside, grasping at a cigarette and smoking. I often leave whatever cinema-going companion I am with to come find me. It occurs to me that roughly speaking I now need a cigarette every thirty minutes, minimum, or I grow agitated.

I meet an American girl at a busy bar. She is nice. We have a lot in common. We click. She says, See you in a bit, and goes to the bathroom.

I go for a smoke, resolved to talk to her on my return. When I come back, she is standing by the bar waiting to order and I go join her.

When I speak, leaning in close so she can hear me over the bar noise, she visibly recoils.

Do you smoke? she asks, startled, as if she has never heard of such behavior in an adult: she has caught my smoky breath, and ends the conversation.

The encounter has led nowhere; she has no interest in hanging out with a smoker. Needless to say I don’t bother asking for her number.

It is imperative never to run out, never to be in a position where I have no cigarettes on me or in the house. To this end I always make sure I have two packs about me at all times. One pack is the previous day’s leftovers: the final cigarettes remaining from a pack of twenty begun the preceding day which I use to begin the day’s smoking, and rapidly finish. Then I open a fresh pack which I bought the previous day and start that. Thus for a brief period I have only one pack on me; the imperative takes over now and I make sure as soon as possible to buy pack two. Buying this second pack gives me a sense of security. I continue to smoke pack one, getting through perhaps sixteen or seventeen (I have already consumed two or three from the previous day’s pack two). I have thus two or three left over for the following morning, plus the fresh unopened second pack to start once I have got through them.

The system ensures I always intake a minimum of twenty cigarettes a day; but also means that if, for example, I am out late, or get up very early, that pack two can be opened earlier and begun ahead of schedule, though still leaving some aside for morning consumption. On these days consumption goes up to twenty-five or thirty cigarettes, and always, always, the imperative to have two packs on me is fulfilled and justified. It means, in practice, that every day I need to monitor consumption levels closely, stop somewhere and make a purchase, and thus reassure myself that stocks are good and I do indeed have enough, because the thought of running out fills me with dread. I obsessively stroke pack two unopened in my pocket to calm myself at these moments of anxiety.

I can’t help wondering, as I’m handed a pack in the newsagent and am unable to avoid seeing the image on the health warning: Who is Mr Throat really? Does he have his own story, biography, experience, somewhere? In the past, or even now, living or in the memories of those living? How did he go from being an individual, a man, to being an image, dehumanized, on a pack of cigarettes, used as a health warning, merely a function? Did he consent to that photograph being taken and distributed or was it taken as part of some health screening program, or test, and then used at other times, in other contexts, without his knowledge? Is he actually alive in that photograph, or is this an image of a corpse? Is Mr Throat alive today?

These are the thoughts that go through my mind every time I am unlucky enough to see the nauseating image of Mr Throat. Then I try and forget him again.

I go to a country wedding, pocketing two packs of cigarettes as usual. I idly wonder, as I get dressed and prepare to board the hired coach that will take me to the wedding venue, would three packs be better; but in my wedding outfit I don’t have enough spare pockets to carry more than two, so it will have to suffice.

The reception is held out in a remote rustic estate in the countryside; there are no shops nearby, nor vending machines within. My two packs will have to get me through the night. It is a long night and inevitably I run out. What follows is an orgy of begging for cigarettes fueled by increasing panic as I realize I will be on this estate, out, awake, away from any source of buying cigarettes, for several more hours and I will, in no way possible, make it through this without smoking.

Other smokers have now realized the same thing: the coaches back to town won’t arrive until dawn. There is now a finite and unrenewable quantity of cigarettes available to smokers on the estate and they are being rapidly consumed. Rationing begins, and it becomes harder and harder to bum a smoke. More and more smokers refuse me, waving their packs at me and demonstrating they only have two or three forlorn cigarettes left to get them through the rest of the night. I begin to feel a sense of utter fear as the anticipation of withdrawal symptoms kicks in.

Finally dawn breaks over the misty fields of the estate and I am able to catch the coach and return to the hotel in the regional town where I am staying. There the hotel bar is open for breakfast, and selling cigarettes also; sweet oblivion overcomes me as I open my own pack at last and can smoke my own cigarettes, in control of my nicotine intake once again.

There have been – there actually continue to be – intermittent attempts to quit for good even as my career as a smoker progresses. In the course of the two-plus decades of being a smoker, these attempts have resulted in me quitting for periods ranging from a few hours to a few years. Always they have ended in the same way: me bumming cigarettes off strangers to satisfy cravings, on the streets or outside pub entrances:

— Excuse me, spare a cigarette?

Followed by the humiliating refusal:

— Sorry bud, it’s my last one.

— Sorry, I don’t have any more on me.

— No.

Sometimes no verbal reply at all, just a physical brushing off, even more humiliating in its casual brusqueness.

Then, the occasional hit:

— Spare a cigarette?

Followed by:

A barely perceptible eyeroll, a silent acquiescence, the slow drawing out and offering of the pack (inevitably followed by my slight disappointment that the brand is not one of my favorites, tempered by the relief that at least I am getting a hit), the giving of the light, then my furtive walking away from the bummee, inhaling the cigarette with glee, perhaps the first one I’ve managed to acquire in an hour if the bumming hitherto has gone badly; but, a successful bumming at last, after several humiliating failures.

Eventually it is this constant recurring humiliation — of asking and being rejected or patronizingly given to — that gets to me and drives me back to buying my own cigarettes. And so, once again, I quit quitting. I give in. I go and buy a pack of cigarettes, my own brand again, my own supply. And that is that: I am a smoker once again.

I conjure up a life for Mr Throat. He has the air of someone used to the wide open spaces, the prairies, the high plains about him, but he seems too winsome, not rugged enough, to be from the American West. He is Canadian, I conclude. He is a bit of a dandy too, evidenced by that attempt to grow that florid mustache, the wispy goatee. I think of him as a dreamer and a schemer and an optimist (look at the determined set of that mouth), and that all his dreams have become derailed by this gigantic carbuncle growing on his throat. He wanted a future and now thanks to his smoking his future has been cruelly curtailed.

In this he is a warning to me.

In this, he could be me.

It isn’t always the experience of bumming that brings me back to the smokes.

I start to smoke again, and in earnest, so as to deal with the effects of emotional turmoil: periods of stress, or distress, or duress. To deal with a low mood brought on by relationship breakups, job loss or change, bereavement, sickness, sheer having-a-bad-dayness. Indeed the only reason smoking began as a serious component in my life at all was to ‘deal’ with the ‘stress’ of completing my Master’s thesis.

Sitting in the café of the University Arts Department, I admit to a group of fellow postgraduate students that I am getting increasingly anxious about all the work I have yet to do, when one woman in the group opens up her handbag, takes out a pack of Marlboro Red and offers me one.

— You should really try one of these. They really help me with the stress.

I take one, light it, and inhale. Get the rush in my head, the euphoric feeling, and yes, for a moment I get the sense that my anxiety has abated. I thank the woman, go buy a pack of my own, and in that moment become a smoker.

If I had only known the history of smoking that early cigarette would kick off, maybe I’d have considered another form of relaxation.

Since then cigarettes have always been my fallback curative of choice when going through hard times: buy a pack, rip it open, light up, smoke whatever feelings I am experiencing away in a rush of nicotine, let it calm the nerves (even as I know, rationally, that nicotine is a stimulant and is doing the exact opposite of relaxing me). Feel a momentary twinge of regret that I have, once more, failed to quit and returned to being a smoker. Then feel a sense of what can only be called homecoming: a sense of this is where I belong, and how.

During one particularly heavy day of smoking, during which I manage to consume two full packs and make serious dent on a third, resulting in me feeling seriously nauseous and wired, I take stock of my life, my situation, my future. I can’t help conjuring up the image of Mr Throat, and make a resolution: yes, it is time to try to quit for good again.

So I sign up for a series of one-to-one smoking cessation counselling sessions, held once a week in a local health center. These are basically therapy for smokers, and give me the opportunity to let off steam and talk a lot about smoking. This I enjoy doing so I continue to go to the sessions for a long time. Throughout this period I keep smoking between sessions however.

Then, amazingly, I actually manage to stop. This is mainly guilt-driven quitting: I can’t bear seeing my smoking cessation officer week after week and admitting to him I am still a smoker. There is no use denying it: he makes me blow into a tube every week that shows the nicotine levels in my blood.

I quit through the simple expedient of wearing two nicotine patches at all times, as well as pulling on a nicotine inhaler any time I have a craving. I struggle through the week without actually smoking with this method (apart from the occasional bummed cigarette which in my mind doesn’t count, as they are smoked in times of dire emergency withdrawal symptoms).

Then the London Olympic Games begin.

I’ve been anticipating them for years, and sit down to watch them on TV eagerly that weekend. But there are a lot of gaps in the action: pundits chatting as the athletes stand around in tracksuits apparently doing nothing. Then there is finally a brief burst of activity followed by another gap, another period of waiting.

It is during one of these gaps that I grow impatient, and this impatience leads to restlessness that develops into a growing agitation, an agitation I know can only be relieved by nicotine, and not the kind that is delivered by patches or an inhaler, but by smoke. So immediately after a fleeting heat on the TV, I skip the commentary, don shoes and jacket, and head for the local newsagent, there to buy a pack of cigarettes which I smoke with relish and appreciation.

Somehow, perversely, the sight of the most physically fit men and women on the planet has driven me back to the unhealthiest pastime legally available.

I have lasted all of four days, and return to my next smoking cessation session a smoker once more. Sure enough, when I blow in the tube my smoking cessation officer proffers me, the nicotine levels in my blood are sky high.

Every time I toy with a pack of cigarettes, idly looking at the health warnings (or avoiding looking at them if it is Mr Throat), the same questions go through my mind: when did this all start, this health warning thing, the slogans, the photographs? Who picks the particular images, how and why? Where do the images come from – was the guy with the gummy teeth happy to be photographed, for example? And should I try and actually understand more about my nicotine addiction so as to help my attempts to deal with it?

These are the thoughts that pop into my mind as I rip off the cellophane from a fresh pack of twenty, pull out the tinfoil, take out a cigarette, light up and smoke. Again and again and again.

Friends assure me that hypnotherapy is the way to really quit smoking. I locate a hypnotherapist in the city center and make an appointment. Just before going into his office, I smoke my last cigarette and throw the rest of the pack, half-full, rather optimistically into a bin outside.

The hypnotherapist – bearded, swarthy, otherwise unremarkable in appearance – sits behind and just to one side of me as I sit back in a divan. He urges me to close my eyes, relax, and just listen. Then he begins to speak, his voice a low but clear mumble, the words quickly falling into a repetitive pattern:

– You are going to stop smoking, Arnold, you no longer need to smoke, Arnold, when you wake up you will not want to smoke, Arnold, you have no need to smoke, Arnold, cigarettes have no control over you, Arnold, you are going to stop smoking, Arnold, when you wake up you will not want to smoke, Arnold, you have no need to smoke, Arnold, cigarettes have no control over you, Arnold, you are going to stop smoking, Arnold, you no longer need to smoke, Arnold, when you wake up you will not want to smoke, Arnold—

On and on and on in a low monotonous hum until —

Hang on.

‘When you wake up?’

Am I meant to be asleep for this? But I am wide awake, fully conscious, aware of every word.

It occurs to me that this is not working.

Sure enough I leave the hypnotherapy clinic and walk not ten meters before I stop, turn into a newsagent, buy a pack of cigarettes, rip it open ravenously, and smoke. The hypnotherapist’s words come back to me: obviously they have not sunk in.

I have lasted less than an hour and a half without a cigarette.

The hypnotherapist phones me to follow up on our session, and when I explain it didn’t work he offers me a free second consultation.

I return to the office. I sit, I relax, I close my eyes, and I listen once again as he rumbles on, telling me, assuring me, but failing to persuade me, that I will no longer want to smoke. As soon as I leave I again go into the newsagents and buy a pack of cigarettes. The failed exercise in hypnotherapy has cost me €350 and a dent in my pride: obviously I am not hypnotherapy material.

I buy and read two books on quitting smoking; I return to the one-to-one smoking cessation sessions; I try a program of nicotine patches, gum, pills, spray, inhaler. I try cold turkey.

Nothing works.

I still smoke.

I still love it.

Then, one day, all the pieces for quitting actually fall in place.

There is a day, for example, that it really gets to me: I get a pack with Mr Throat and realize I am sick of seeing the grotesque lurid bulge jumping out at me from the back of a pack every time I reach for a smoke. I realize not only am I afraid of this fate I seem destined for — to develop a painful and incurable throat disease — but I am also weary.

Weary of the constant fear of running out of cigarettes, weary of going outdoors into the cold for a smoke, weary of leaving conversations and company behind when I do so, weary of people being repulsed by my smoker’s breath, weary of the expense, weary of the shortness of breath I am developing, weary of the increasing nausea that accompanies my habit, weary overall of the fact that cigarettes control me now: they control my routine, my very life at this stage. I realize, genuinely, that I have had enough of all this.

I resolve to quit.

For keeps this time.

And I do. But this is a story of smoking, not quitting, so suffice it to say here that the weeks go by, and then the months, and then the years, without a smoke.

I don’t remember my last cigarette now, although at the time it was loaded with significance and I thought I would remember it forever. Perhaps I can’t remember it because there have been so many ‘Last Cigarettes’ in my past and they have always been followed, sometimes after a gap of many years, by yet another cigarette. Maybe I don’t remember because deep down I didn’t really believe that this was going to be the last cigarette.

But nonetheless I do know how that last cigarette would have been.

It would have been a morning cigarette, sitting in the garden with a coffee, my favourite combination. I would have already consumed two or three cigarettes from the pack, the leftovers from the previous day. And then I would have rattled the box, looked down, and seen it: The Last Cigarette.

I would have picked it out reverently, with appreciation and relish, and I would have acknowledged to myself how much I enjoy smoking. Then I would have lit it, inhaled deeply, and smoked it with as much attention as possible, slowly, and fully present to its pleasures. Finally, regretfully, and with loaded significance, I would have finished the smoke and stubbed it out.

And so I would have left that part of my life behind.

For good, it can only be hoped. But I know that I will always have a love of smoking, that cigarettes are my weakness, and that deep down, no matter how many years pass, I will always struggle with that addiction.

The fact remains: I currently do not smoke: but I am, and always will be, a smoker.

Because I love to smoke.

***

This essay was published in the fourth issue of Banshee. Co-edited by three writers in three Irish cities, this biannual print journal is a vocal part of Ireland’s thriving literary culture and print renaissance. 

The Whistleblower in the Family

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Pearl Abraham | Michigan Quarterly Review | September 2017 | 18 minutes (5,007 words)

“The power of narrative stems from the narrator’s ability to be there and then, as well as here and now.”

— C. Fred Alford, Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power

1

In 1974, the year Richard Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment, my father, a man with rabbinic aspirations, was deep in his own pickle, indicted for conspiracy and fraud in the federal summer school lunch program.

Nixon was brought down by Deep Throat, the pseudonym given the informant who passed information to Washington Post journalists about his administration’s involvement in what came to be known as the Watergate Scandal. My father got off somehow.

With him in court for one of his hearings, I suffered his ashen face, then his palpable relief when the case was deferred or dismissed, I’m not now sure which. I also don’t know whether his case made headlines the way rabbinic and priestly scandals do these days, “Five NJ Rabbis Arrested for Fraud and Conspiracy” a recent one.

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Reflections of an Accidental Florist

Althea FannCrazyhorse | August 2017 | 19 minutes (5,375 words)

But something always went out from me when I dug loose those carpets
Of green, or plunged my elbows into the spongy yellowish moss of the marshes

─Theodore Roethke, “Moss-Gathering”

The memory of one of my favorite floral arrangements still comes to me sometimes, when afternoon sunlight starts to take on that funny gold color signaling the end of summer. I made it in a romantic, September-y mood the week after I met the man I would later marry. Black-eyed Susans spilled from a crackled glass vase, their papery yellow petals arrayed from darkest brown centers (the name being a bit of a misnomer). I didn’t notice the ants crawling over each yellow plane until it was too late. The flowers had already settled, each into its own place. I still think of those stolen blooms as one of the few real arrangements in my floral portfolio.

My first flower shop job was supposed to be what my dad would call a “Joe job,” one last stint that required a name tag before I finished my art degree and became a legitimate painter, whatever that might have meant. I didn’t plan on a floral career, or even consciously care much about flowers at first. I was hired by chance. On a whim I took a class in flower arranging with my mom at Trident Tech, our local community college, and the teacher stopped me a few weeks in to ask if I wanted to work at her shop. Arranging flowers seemed way better than my previous position, assembling sundaes at a kosher ice cream parlor, so I started right away. I intended to quit as soon as my art career took off somehow. This felt less naïve than it probably was at the time. Being an artist ran in my family, and I felt it had always been assumed I would wind up in the arts. My mom is a writer, specializing in lyric essays recently, and my grandmother is a watercolorist at whatever the semi-pro level would be called for watercolorists. The flower stuff would just be a stop along the way for me, until I found my own artistic path.

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Can Love Sparked at Burning Man Last in Everyday Life?

Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP

Maria Finn | Longreads | August 2017 | 18 minutes (4,403 words)

 

There’s an adage that you should never make major life decisions right after Burning Man. Once back in your “default life,” wait three months before moving in with the man you met atop a giant rubber duck art car, quitting your job in tech to become a trapeze artist, or getting a shark tattoo. This is considered enough time for the exhilaration of spontaneous love, boundless possibilities, and radical self-expression to subside.

I didn’t meet Danny at Burning Man, but I fell in love with him there. We were introduced at a mutual friend’s birthday party the previous spring. My older brother had recently committed suicide, but our friend encouraged me to come and try to take my mind off it. I went, still a stunned, open wound of a person.

I vaguely remembered talking with a nice guy, and when someone went to take a group picture, he flung his arm around my shoulders and for just a moment, I was not adrift in sadness and shock.

Danny had told me that he and a couple of friends were going to Burning Man that year for the first time to celebrate their birthdays. I promised to show them around if I went. I had a ticket, but didn’t know if I could do it.

My older brother, Bill, had lit himself on fire in front of the Veteran’s Hospital where he was being treated for a damaged knee sustained when parachuting in Panama during our “War on Drugs.” He was also being treated for alcoholism, and diagnosed with PTSD. For treatment, the VA mailed him 1,000 pills of Vicodin (actually generic Hydrocodone) each month, whether he finished the previous prescription or not. My brother Steve had called the VA and asked them to stop giving Bill the drugs. Already troubled, Bill crashed. Steve, who had once studied to be an actuary, later noted, “Someone in the military probably ran the numbers and figured out it was cheaper to send the drugs so these guys overdose or kill themselves.”

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The Sun Was Going and the World Was Wrong

The February 1979 solar eclipse as seen from Glasgow, Montana. (Bill Wunsch / Getty Images)

At The Atlantic, Ross Andersen excerpts Annie Dillard’s classic 1982 personal essay, “Total Eclipse,” from her new collection, The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New.

Dillard writes in exquisite detail about the haunting, surreal experience of witnessing the last solar eclipse to have been visible on the mainland of the United States on February 26th, 1979, after driving with her husband five hours inland in Washington State to catch the view from a hill top.

The full text of the essay will remain on the site for free until next Tuesday, August 22 — the day after “The Great American Eclipse,” which is inspiring eclipse tourism, and lots of astrological predictions.

Now the sky to the west deepened to indigo, a color never seen. A dark sky usually loses color. This was a saturated, deep indigo, up in the air. Stuck up into that unworldly sky was the cone of Mount Adams, and the alpenglow was upon it. The alpenglow is that red light of sunset which holds out on snowy mountaintops long after the valleys and tablelands are dimmed. “Look at Mount Adams,” I said, and that was the last sane moment I remember.

I turned back to the sun. It was going. The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on Earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a 19th-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded. All the people you see in the photograph, distinct and detailed as their faces look, are now dead. The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver. All the distant hills’ grasses were finespun metal which the wind laid down. I was watching a faded color print of a movie filmed in the Middle Ages; I was standing in it, by some mistake. I was standing in a movie of hillside grasses filmed in the Middle Ages. I missed my own century, the people I knew, and the real light of day.

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Forever Yesterday: Peering Inside My Mom’s Fading Mind

Fauzi Anna Md Salleh / EyeEm

Kevin Sampsell | Longreads | August 2017 | 15 minutes (3,752 words)

 

Every time I talk to my mom on the phone, just as I’m getting ready to say goodbye, she slips in an abrupt update about her parents — my grandparents. Sometimes they’re in Switzerland. Sometimes they’re in Loma, Montana. Sometimes they’ve gotten “mixed up with bad people.” Sometimes they’ve completely disappeared or died mysteriously. Sometimes it sounds like a government conspiracy — a murder plot. At first, I didn’t know what to say in return. I’d ask how they died or what they were doing in Switzerland. In more recent conversations, I tried to place her back in reality. I’d say, “Mom, your parents have been dead for forty years.” I’d ask her how old they were and she would say 60, 70, or 75. She’s not sure. She says that all the time: I’m not sure. “How old are you?” I ask, and she laughs and says, “Oh, I think I’m about 25.” Once she said she was 18. She’s actually 88 years old.

For about two years now, my mother has been fighting with Alzheimer’s and the dementia that comes from that disease. She’s had years of struggle with diabetes and epilepsy — but her mental condition was always sharp. A lifelong democrat and the mother of six, Patsy loved sewing, making quilts, reading mystery novels, and watching Seattle Mariners baseball while enjoying a Pepsi (never Coke). I am her youngest son.

In 2015, she fell off a street curb and hit her head. She didn’t tell me about this until a week later. She prefaced the story of this accident by insisting that she was fine and only suffered some scrapes on her face and arm. I asked if she went to the hospital to make sure she didn’t break any bones or have a concussion. She said my brother, Mark, her main caregiver, took her to the emergency room but she left when they wanted to do some tests on her. She has long believed that doctors were just trying to take her money — which she has very little of anyway. I tried to chide her for not staying for the tests, for some kind of care, but she was stubborn and said it wasn’t necessary.

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I’ve Found Her

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad

Martha Baillie | Brick | Summer 2017 | 17 minutes (4,882 words)

This essay first appeared in Brick, the beloved biannual print journal of nonfiction based in Canada and read throughout the world. Our thanks to Martha Baillie and the staff at Brick for allowing us to reprint this essay at Longreads.

* * *

1.

“I have found her,” announced the email sent to me by a close friend, H, who was working in Paris. The attached photograph showed a person I recognized—an elderly woman standing on a street corner and clutching a notepad. Her abundant white hair was gathered into a loose knot at the back of her head; she had a fine nose, an open face lost in thought, and on her feet flat shoes. Her white dress, more coat than dress, I could picture a shopkeeper wearing half a century ago or a modern lab technician. A large, unadorned purse hung from her wrist. To the right of her, the glass wall of a bus shelter exhibited a map of the immediate neighborhood, the Fifteenth District, portions of which became legible when I enlarged the image by sliding my fingertips over it. Across the street behind the woman the name of a café could now be read: Le Puit. Read more…