“There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” (W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Reunion Pt. 3(final)

Pt. 3 –if you have not read pt’s 1 & 2, please go back and do so…

      When the service is over, Jack finally manages to get a look around. He notices some familiar faces in the seats behind him. As everyone rises, silent gestures are communicated to meet downstairs in the coffee room. Jack goes to pay his last respects to Kevin Wilkowski then heads downstairs. His old classmates are collecting in a small room below the parlor. Jack finds it odd that the first time he is seeing these people again is at a funeral. He steps into the room and immediately takes stock of the situation. To his left sits Ryan Packard, the celebrated soccer player. During their senior year, Ryan led his team to the city championship. Jack can’t believe it but seated next to Ryan is his high school sweetheart, Stacie Bergman or Packard now, he assumes. Seeing them together after all this time makes Jack feel nostalgic and nauseous all at once. Jenny Maclin, a cute girl who was always kind of hyper, was flitting around the room filling everyone’s cups with coffee. The twins Kelli and Kerri are there, flashing their all-American smiles as they converse with the others. They had this little thing they did, Jack wasn’t sure if it was a conscious move or not, but they would flip their long blond hair in opposite directions simultaneously, causing many an onlooker to do a double take at the mirror image they created. Donny Adams, always a bit of a loner, sat, slightly pushed away from the table with a brooding look not saying much, unless directly spoken to. Even then, offering only, quick, short responses, usually in the form of a grunt or growl.

      Then there’s Vikki. Victoria Campbell. Jack and Vikki were in the same language program and had many classes together, so they became good friends over their four years of high school. The kind of friends that know things about you that most others do not. Jack found it easy and comforting to talk to Vikki, she was smart and funny and forgiving. By senior year, they had developed this little game they liked to play. They would walk the halls arm in arm, pretending they were married. Vikki enjoyed introducing Jack as her husband. Well, as the guy inevitably does in these situations, Jack started to develop feelings for Vikki, strong feelings, beyond friendship. She played the game too well though and Jack never disclosed his feelings to her for fear of losing the relationship they did have.

      Jenny is the first to see him enter. She bounds over, coffee pot in hand, embraces him and kisses his cheek. Next, Ryan approaches with an extended hand. He can’t resist getting in the first dig,
glad you could stay awake for the service, Jack.”

The small assembly of thirty- somethings gets a good laugh out of this. His wife, Stacie apologizes for his rudeness.
It’s been fifteen years since we’ve all been together and right away you start with the ribbing, I mean honestly.”

She sounds more like Jack’s grandmother than a contemporary. She puts her delicate hands on both of his shoulders and leans over to kiss his cheek. The twins direct their practiced smiles his way while Donny gives a nod as if the last time they saw each other was yesterday. Jack takes a seat at the table and Jenny instantly pours him a cup of coffee. He thanks her and then looks across the table at Vikki. She sits there with a slight smile and her head tilted down, eyes looking up to meet his. After a few awkward minutes it’s as if time melts away and it is 1989 again. The group starts reminiscing which leads to laughing, perhaps a bit too loudly. Plans are made to meet at a restaurant after some disgusted looks are shot their way from grieving family members. The twins, unable to make it due to some family function, say their goodbyes and exchange numbers with the other girls. Donny also tries to back out, but with no reasonable excuse, he is dragged along. Jack is glad for this. Donny seems to be able to outwardly express what Jack feels inside. Jack and Donny were not necessarily the best of friends in school, but they often ran around in the same circles. Jack is hoping to make some kind of connection tonight.

      Just as the group is being seated at the restaurant, Jack notices Vikki hesitate, pretending to attend to a heel on her shoe. Then as Jack chooses his seat, she makes a daringly balletic move around Donny, making sure she was positioned across from Jack at the table. Donny, not caring one way or the other simply moved on to the next chair. They order appetizers and Ryan chooses a bottle of wine, an expensive Cabernet. Jack secretly hopes that Ryan plans on picking up the tab, at least for the wine.
      Stacie begins the conversation saying how sad it was to see Kevin lying there so still and quiet. Everyone nods in agreement, echoing her sentiments.

Jenny says, “that lady you were talking to when we came in, Kevin’s mom?
Yeah,” Jack replies. “Nice woman,” is all he can think of to say.
Well, what’d she say?’ ’About you know… Kevin,” Vikki asked.
He retells the story of what Kevin faced after high school and how he died.
                That’s really fucked up, man,” Donny suggested.
Everyone nods in agreement. Ryan wants to know if anyone had seen Kevin since graduation. No one can remember any such encounter, but they relayed other chance meetings with former classmates over the years. These accidental rendezvous seem few and far between.
                What happened to everybody?” Jack wonders aloud. “Milwaukee isn’t that big of a city.
                Seems like they all just scattered,” Donny mused
Everyone nods in agreement once again.
At this the waitress comes and collects their orders. Seeing the wine is nearly gone, Ryan orders another bottle. Jack hopes he has enough money to cover his portion of the check. Jenny wants to know what everyone else has been up to.

      Ryan had gone to work for his father, who owned a construction company, of which he was currently the vice-president. His father planned on retiring to Arizona in a couple of years, leaving the company in his hands. Ryan and Stacie married just three years after graduation. They now had three children, two boys and a girl. They ranged in age from six to twelve, the girl being the oldest. Right after school, Stacie went to college for accounting. Ready to be a full-time mom, she quit after getting pregnant with Amanda. Not long after came Jeremy and finally Aaron. They seem very happy. Maybe he isn’t used to the good wine, but suddenly Jack feels nauseous again, but it soon passes.

      Jenny, like Jack had been married and was now divorced. She never had kids of her own but following her split with the “jerk,” she went back to school and was currently working as a kindergarten teacher. Jack imagines her scurrying about the classroom keeping twenty little five year olds busy until they collapse with exhaustion. Being a new teacher doesn’t pay very well though, so she also works a part-time at a little coffee shop near her east-side apartment.
 You should all stop in,” she bubbled.”I’ll give you a freebie.”
Jack makes sure to get the name and location of this place. Free coffee is something Jack is in no position to pass on. Besides, he wouldn’t mind seeing Jenny again. She retained the cuteness he remembered from school.

      Neither Jack nor Donny offer up any information, so Vikki chimes in. Jack always imagined Vikki doing something in the arts or interior design. He is surprised at her choice in careers. She went to business school in Chicago. After getting her degree, she went to work in an ad agency and became quite successful. She recently broke away and started her own company with a colleague, they are trying to establish a client base presently. She has never been married, but was engaged for a short while, coincidentally to her current business partner. Jack can’t be sure but he thinks he feels Vikki’s bare foot brush up against his leg, not once but twice and lingering for a while as she finishes her soliloquy. Jenny, realizing what is going on below the table, is not about to be outdone. She slows her busy hand enough to let it come to rest on Jack’s fore arm, rubbing it ever so gently.
So Jack, tell us what’s been going on in your life,” she coos.
She holds his gaze for a few seconds before releasing him. Stacie lets out a little chuckle, as Vikki shoots Jenny a look of dismay. At least she is keeping her flirtations discreet.

      Finally Jack finds his voice,
Ahem, well…
he stumbles, before managing to say,
                I’m divorced too, 
almost proudly. He recovers himself and goes on to mention his kids, passing their pictures around the table. He talks briefly about his job as a ward clerk at a hospital not too far from Jenny’s coffee shop. Jenny’s smile widens at this and Vikki shoots another dagger her way. Jack then says, almost as if trying to convince himself that he is a struggling writer.

                Anything we may have read?” Ryan asks with a snort.
Jack re-emphasized the struggling part. They all laughed, even Jack who didn’t really find it that funny. He feels Vikki’s foot again.

                Please tell me you brought some of your work with you,” Vikki pleaded.
I know some publishing people in Chicago.’ ‘I’d be happy to pass it along for you,” she went on. Feeling trumped, Jenny withdraws her hand from Jack’s arm and leans back in her chair, openly sulking. Jack can only manage an enthusiastic,
Vikki, sensing victory, leans over the table and takes both of his hands in hers. In a breathy voice, she says
                I’d love to, it’s no problem.”

      Now with two bottles down and their food nearly gone, Ryan orders yet another bottle of wine.  -O.K. he better plan on picking up the tab Jack thinks to his self. A little prodding from Stacie or maybe all the wine got Donny to loosen up a little and he starts to tell his story. He got through a semester of college before he decided it wasn’t for him. He kept up with a few friends from school after graduation, guys that the rest all knew but didn’t really associate with. Donny and a couple of the guys got the bright idea to knock over a liquor store one night after smoking some weed. Inevitably they got caught and all served some time, Donny served a little more than the others though since he was the one with the gun in his hand. It was just a cap gun but the judge didn’t care, he came down harder on Donny because he was the only one who had a record, some stupid little shoplifting incident. Anyways, he never saw those guys again after he got out. He was working with his cousin doing some freelance roofing and siding gigs.
Never married, no kids, end of story,” he finished.
A moment of awkward silence is interrupted by Donny pushing away from the table.
                I need a cigarette,” he spat
                                Wait.” Jack offers.”I’ll go with you.”
                Whatever,” was the reply

      Outside, the two men light up and stand quietly enjoying the first long drag of their cigarettes.

                I can’t stand all this happily skipping down memory lane bullshit,” Donny admits.
                                Yeah, pretty lame, huh?” Jack relented.
                At least you got something to show for your life, I got nothing,” Donny goes on.
                                Look Donny, I don’t think anyone wanted to make you feel bad in there,” Jack offers.
                Yeah, I know.”
They stand in silence again before Donny speaks up,
I gotta go man, I can’t deal with this.”
He flicks his half- finished smoke out into the parking lot. Jack watches the sparks scatter as the cigarette skids across the concrete. Jack sucks down the last of his own as he watches Donny cross the street, only turning to go back inside once he sees him disappear into the liquor store half a block down.

      Stacie lets Jack take his seat before asking after Donny.

                He had to go,” Jack offers with an apologetic shrug of his shoulders.
                                Is he alright?” Jenny wants to know.
                Yeah,” Jack claims, “he’s fine.”
The friends are nearly through their third bottle, when Stacie says they should get going. Her mother has the kids and isn’t used to having them for so long. Everyone agrees it’s time to call it a night. They exchange numbers and addresses while Jack finishes off the wine. Ryan gets the waitresses attention and hands her a credit card. Vikki quickly claims the next check to be hers. Hugs and handshakes are followed with false hopes of keeping in touch.

      Later that night, Jack sits at his computer, trying to get some of the day’s events jotted down. He feels like there may actually be a story in there somewhere. His mind, swimming in alcohol, begins to wander and he thinks of Vikki. He just finishes typing her name across the top of the otherwise blank document when there is a buzz at the door. With a cigarette hanging loosely from his lips, he gets up angrily, wondering who could be interrupting him while he is writing and at such a late hour. He unbolts the lock and throws open the door. There is Vikki standing in his doorway holding a bottle of wine. His cigarette falls from his mouth and singes the little hairs on his bare foot, causing him to jump back. Vikki, laughing at this, steps inside and closes the door behind her.

The End

Monday, March 14, 2011

Reunion Pt. 2

This is the 2nd pt of a story, so if you are confused by the jumping off point, it is your own fault, please go back and read pt. 1.

      Arriving early to the funeral home, Jack sits in his car flipping through the pages of his yearbook, trying to memorize the faces from his past. Feeling tired he closes the book, then his eyes. Remembering the reputation he is trying to shake, he jumps up and exits the car. Lighting a cigarette, he slowly walks towards the entrance, looking around cautiously before extinguishing the butt and entering. He was unsure of what to expect inside. It was now a couple of minutes before the scheduled start time and there was hardly anyone around. What few people were there are concentrated around a woman of slight stature, maybe fifty years old. She has bundles of tissues laying everywhere. A wad in her right hand is balanced by an empty Kleenex box in her left. She had some sticking out of her little black purse that was on the coffee table next to another pile of used tissues. Jack assumed this was Kevin's mother.

      He made his way to a photo collage near the casket. There he saw shots of the deceased with a deer, freshly killed and gutted, hanging on a hook. Some showed him with a child Jack later learned was Kevin's nephew. He settled on one of Kevin in the god-awful yellow cap and gown they wore together at graduation fifteen years ago. Jack recalled his classmates grumbling at their misfortune of graduating in an odd numbered year. The school's other color -the more regal maroon was worn only in the even numbered years.

      His reminiscing is interrupted by the placement of a hand on his back, startling him a bit. He turns, half- expecting to see some girl or another from school. Instead he is confronted by the weeping face of Kevin’s mother. Through her tears and tattered tissues she asks how Jack knows her son. The worn look on her face makes him think of a waitress that has served one too many coffees. Jack introduces himself as a friend of Kevin’s, explaining rather apologetically that he has not seen her son since graduation. She seems very touched that he found the time to come. With her hand still on Jack’s back, she guides him to the casket. Seeing his face up close brings back memories of conversations and dealings with Kevin. There was a skip- party they were both at which came to mind, in fact Jack just now remembers that he and his friend Tommy (who had a car) gave Kevin a ride home that day, since he was too drunk to walk. Jack decides to withhold this memory from Kevin’s mother.

      She escorts Jack to a seat, and sitting with him she explains how Kevin died, all the while holding his hand in hers. The notion that Jack is the same age as her son is impressed upon him. Kevin’s death was brought on by heat exhaustion. It seems that Kevin had taken some medication that helped him sleep at night. If she knew her son… and she assures Jack that she does… he probably knocked back a couple of beers as well. Either the thermostat in his apartment was busted or he forgot to turn it down that night, Jack can’t quite discern through the sobs and pauses in her story. The next day she was supposed to meet her son for a bagel and coffee. Something they did once a week for the last couple of years. She tells Jack this was not only to spend time with her son, but also to keep tabs on him.

      Jack doesn’t say anything, he just sits there, listening and handing her more tissues with his free hand. She goes on to explain that the medication was to help him sleep, a problem for him since he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Kevin was diagnosed sometime after graduation. He was taking some courses at UW-Milwaukee, just basic studies. He had not yet figured out what it was he wanted to do with his life. He found a little one room efficiency just off campus, and seemed very excited to be starting a new chapter in his life. Shortly thereafter, his behavior became erratic. He frequently locked himself out of his apartment, and had to bother the manager to be let in. He would show up at the wrong time or day for his classes, or he would skip classes altogether and wander the campus aimlessly. It was during one of these seemingly directionless walks that an Army recruiter caught him in a weak moment. The young officer simply walked alongside Kevin, gently guiding him into his office just across the street from the school. He lauded all the benefits of serving one’s country, as Kevin listened. At this time Kevin was having trouble determining the difference between everyone else’s reality and the “reality” being played out in his head. The voices were just starting to make their presence known to him and he felt powerless to resist. Whether he knew it or not, Kevin enlisted in the Army that day. The young officer, feeling very proud to gain his first recruit so easily, shook Kevin’s hand and gave him a slip of paper telling him when to report for duty. When Kevin failed to show at 0900 two weeks later, the recruiter went to look for him. He wasn’t in class or his apartment or the commons area or the campus coffee shop. Unsure of what to do next, the officer reported back to his immediate superior. The older officer was not about to let a new recruit dodge his sworn duty. The two men went back out in search of Kevin. They finally found him later that night sitting in a corner of his apartment, rocking back and forth with his hands cupping his ears. He was shouting out nursery rhymes he remembered from childhood mixed with heavy metal lyrics. His TV and radio were both turned up to max volume, he was trying anything to drown out the voices in his head. No longer deemed fit for the Army, the officers contacted the school psychologist in an effort to get Kevin the help he obviously needed.

      From then on, she watched the disease slowly take over her son’s life. There was little she could do to help. She tells Jack of the ups and downs; the slow progress derailed by inevitable set backs that were part of the territory. Jack imagines every moment not spent with her son is spent in research, either in the library or on the internet. She carried the burden of this affliction along with her son and it showed in her face. Recently, she says Kevin seemed to be slipping away from her. Not two months ago he lost his third job this year, a little stint at a local record store. He would only drink beer around her, but she was sure that he had been into more than that lately. She could see the effects of it on his body, his skin was pale and seemed paper- thin, he rarely showered anymore and he looked as if he never slept. He conferred to her that the voices in his head were getting louder and harder to ignore, and confirmed that he was sleeping less. A recent visit to his doctor brought on a heavier dose of medication to hopefully make his nights a little easier.

      The day he didn’t make it to the bagel shop, she began to worry. She stood outside the little eatery for an hour, smoking one cigarette after another. When she finally worked up the nerve, she went to Kevin’s apartment. The same little one-room efficiency he began renting a decade and a half ago. As soon as she opened the door she was knocked back by a wave of heat and the odor of sweat and near-empty beer cans doubling as ashtrays. The smell combined with the sight of her son, slouched tellingly in his easy chair caused her to re- experience the cheese danish and vanilla latte from earlier that morning. After she composed herself, she dialed 911 and calmly explained to the operator that she had just found her son dead in his apartment. Waiting for the ambulance, she started to straighten up her son’s humble dwelling. No tears were shed by her at that time, she had expected to find him like this one day. The scene before her now had been played out in her dreams often. Guiltily, she admits that she’s almost relieved, at least he would no longer be haunted by all the voices.

      As she finishes her story, Jack can’t help but wonder if this was not an accident on Kevin’s part.  When she stops talking, she lets go of Jack’s hand and stands up. Jack stands with her and she hugs him and thanks him again for coming. A man up front mentions that the service is about to begin. Kevin’s mother strides off to take her place among family, leaving Jack standing there, dumbfounded. After a moment, he takes a seat near the back. Symbolically, and quite literally leaving space between himself and Kevin’s family. He feels like an intruder to this very personal ceremony.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Reunion pt. 1

                Since his divorce, little over a year ago, Jack finds many ways to take up the hours he used to spend trying to avoid his family. Besides his full-time job, he also has a part-time job to help fill the time and the extra money doesn’t hurt since he’s now faced with another thirteen years of child support. On the Saturdays that he has his kids he usually goes to his mother’s house. There he is surrounded by family. His sister lives there with her boyfriend and their two kids. His brother, also a recent divorcee is often there with his four children. Jack’s mother, Jillian always cooks a big dinner for everyone in between her doting on all of her grand-children. Jack watches his mother sometimes in her interactions with her grand-kids, he can’t remember her being any happier than when she is looking into the face of one of her “angels.” Jack and his brother can usually be found sprawled out under a sink or hanging drywall or hunched over the hood of Jillian’s old car. The house was a fixer-upper when she and her husband bought it. It was still a fixer-upper when he left. You couldn’t say he never left her anything, the house, the kids, the dog, the old beater of a car, not to mention all the bills and mounting debt. She never bothered looking for him, she always said “what would be the point?”

                Sundays with his kids are spent at the park or the zoo or museum or anywhere he can take them for free or at a discount. Jack enjoys these days the most, just him and his two children. He feels like he can only truly be himself when he is with his kids. He makes silly faces and sings funny songs with his daughter and he talks very seriously with his son about the shapes of clouds and their origins or destinations and how far they may travel before breaking into smaller pieces and what those shapes might turn out to be.

                On the opposite Saturdays, if he doesn’t have to work his second job, he spends all day cleaning his tiny apartment while watching whatever sport is in season. In the evenings he turns on the classic jazz station, dims the lights and opens a cheap bottle of Merlot. The rest of his night is spent staring at a blank word document on his computer screen until his six- dollar wine is gone. The computer is the only thing his wife, Vanessa let him keep when she left. His writing being the main reason (at least in his mind) he is now divorced. Vanessa claimed she didn’t have a husband, she had a roommate. He would say that she just didn’t understand. All the time he spent “scribbling” in notebooks and “playing” on the computer was for them. Once he sold his book she could quit working and pursue whatever her passion may be if only she could find one. Finally after about two years or more of arguing over the same thing, Vanessa had had enough. One day Jack came home from work to find his computer in a box near the door. He could take a hint. He grabbed the box and turned around and walked out the door. Six months later, he was divorced.

                Sundays without his kids, Jack wakes early, often with a headache and puts on a pot of coffee. After the first cup, he walks down the street to get cigarettes and the Sunday paper, early edition (he hates all the coupons and sales ads that always fall out on the walk home.) He likes the Sunday paper, the weight of it in his hands makes him feel as if he would be accomplishing something that day. He sits at the pub table in what his old, Russian landlady calls a “keetchenette,” slowly draining the pot of coffee and reading the entire paper, not skipping any article, no matter the subject. By now he has the names and e-mails of all the various reporters and columnists committed to memory. This will come in handy if he ever gets around to responding to any of the articles he either agrees with whole- heartedly or vehemently opposes. Luckily his lack of motivation keeps him from becoming the guy who responds to everything, usually just to see their own name in the paper. By the time he finishes the paper, it’s usually around noon and he takes great satisfaction in knowing the day is half over.

                It is during this ritual that he makes the discovery of a classmate’s recent death. Kevin Wilkowski was not necessarily a friend but he was a guy he knew. It is shocking not only to see someone so young, but someone he knew staring back at him in black and white from the pages of the obituaries. A brief little passage remembering those he is leaving behind, followed by perhaps his greatest accomplishment in life; class of ’89 Vincent High School in quotations. All of this is under what Jack is sure looked like a school picture. He thinks about how sad it is to use your senior picture in a death notice, realizing for the first time that all of the pictures were probably from each person’s happiest times. Jack wonders how these people would feel knowing that probably the one shining moment in their life was being used to let the world know that they were now dead.

                That Sunday, Jack goes to his mother’s house in an effort to dig up his old yearbook, he can’t remember seeing it since graduation. He wonders to himself why he never kept in touch with anyone from school, finally settling on the idea that he was all too happy to leave it all behind. Its funny how it seemed like such a living hell at the time but in looking back over the past fifteen years, he seemed to be at his happiest then. He finds the yearbook stuffed in a box with some little league trophies and a cub scout badge that never made it onto his uniform.  It creaks when he opens it the way some of his text books did when he returned them to the bookstore. The yearbook is filled with signatures and outdated passages, letting him know that at one time he did have quite a few friends.

                As he continues perusing the faux leather- bound tome, he realizes there is not one single picture of him inside. He forgot that he never submitted a senior picture. He is also noticeably absent from all of the clubs, groups and teams that many of his friends belonged to. A fear starts to well up inside of him of being completely forgotten. Reading on, he notices a pattern to all of the scribbling in the margins and blank pages reserved for adolescent graffiti.  It seems he would be remembered after all, to Jack’s regret though it would be as the kid who slept through senior year. Nearly every signing from his peers in different classes referred to this phenomenon. He didn’t remember being so tired, but he did recall many of his classmate’s surprise to see him walk across the stage that June. Closing the book, he decides to go to Kevin’s funeral, convincing himself that it was to honor a fallen classmate but knowing in his heart that it was to show his old friends that may be there that he no longer sleeps through life. He wants to show them pictures of his kids, maybe bring some of his writing along. He needs them to know that he has done something with his life since they had all parted ways.

To be continued…

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

William Meredith 1919-2007

I have been told that when writers are experiencing a "block" or dryspell that it is good to wite anything, especially other poets' works( One must always remember to give credit though. ) This past Christmas my mother gave me a book that I very much wanted and probably would not have bought for myself due to the price. It is The Poets Laureate Anthology by Elizabeth Hun Schmidt.(thanks mom) This book is a compilation of every American Poet Laureate from the first: Joseph Auslander in 1937 to the current: W S Merwin 2010. For each, there is a brief description of how the poet felt about the post and what they did while appointed, followed by what is considered their signature piece as well as other significant works by that poet. What follows is a poem by William Meredith who served from 1978-1980.

Winter Verse for His Sister

Moonlight washes the west side of the house
As clean as bone, it carpets like a lawn
The stubbled field tilting eastward
Where there is no sign yet of dawn.
The moon is an angel with a bright light sent
To surprise me once before I die
With the real aspect of things.
It holds the light steady and makes no comment.

Practicing for death I have lately gone
To that other house
Where our parents did most of their dying,
Embracing and not embracing their conditions.
Our father built bookcases and little by little stopped reading,
Our mother cooked proud meals for common mouths.
Kindly, they raised two children. We raked their leaves
And cut their grass, we ate and drank with them.
Reconciliation was our long work, not all of it joyful.

Now outside my own house at a cold hour
I watch the noncommital angel lower
The steady lantern that's worn these clapboards thin
In a wash of moonlight, while men slept within,
Accepting and not accepting their conditions,
and the fingers of trees plied a deep carpet of decay
On the gravel web underneath the field,
And the field tilting always toward day.