Sunday, September 25, 2016

Lucky To Have Her: Chapter One

The following is Chapter One from my new novel, Lucky to Have Her. I hope you enjoy it enough to buy a copy and read the rest. Thank you.

You can say I failed. I won’t disagree with you. But life is a story told after the fact. At what did I or
does anyone else fail? Among all the flesh and bone, bodies mixing and drifting apart, is failure even possible? Or, it is just a safety line, an anchor into an orderly past?

My boots sink into the soft brown soil. The field ahead curls slightly as it rolls up to meet the skyline. Stubble, dried and cracked, laced with threads of ruin, and discolored corn stalks protest under the weight of my heavy old boots. “Clodhoppers” we used to call them when we were boys running in sneakers, the age I am now a place out of imagination’s reach.  I’ve worn the same pair for years. They became too comfortable to give up.

Tired of asking, “You still wearing those things?” Gail now just looks and twists her lips in dismay.
Boys will be boys, I think, and it only gets worse as you get older.

The crops, ravaged through a long winter, are dead, destroyed by cold, wind, snow and ice. A pale sky struggles to gather vigor, its blue diluted, smudged with a scattering of unimpressive clouds. The sun’s angle begins to answer a call for spring.

It’s early April, and I remember when my brother Tim, excited by a contrary view of the world discovered in The Waste Land, recited the opening lines from memory, Eliot’s strange idea that April, a month, any month, was cruel, not just grids of seven numbers on a calendar. 

Snow built up from the last thaw in early January melted and the ice beneath lost its grip a week ago. Gusts of warm, humid air pushed into this valley, rolling downhill from the crest on the far side, then bursting back up again to where I’m standing. It’s an anxious time of year, waiting with rational uncertainty for summer. 

I have never liked it. When Tim went around our house giving voice to Eliot’s griping, so many years ago, the first line infected me. My soul can no longer be convinced that summer will come. Knowing it will doesn’t help, partly because I now know that time is a contrivance, a thing made up and adjustable, like fat pants, for the occasion. Maybe it’s all those newspaper stories I read, growing up, about atomic bombs. A catastrophic end that words stood no hope of reducing to digestible fact. 

When was it going to happen? What would be left smoldering in a dead or near dead world left behind? Would it be enough to make survival, crawling out from shelter into a scorched universe, reeking with poison gases, worth it? Probably, it would be so bad, you’d take a deep breath gladly and have your spirit taken out to wherever God would have you, an angry as hell God too, you know, aware you participated in the detestable train wreck in formal apparel known as civilization.

I recall that ridiculous pissing contest among men in suits over who had the most terrifying annihilation options to shove at the other, our crazy generals versus those pledging allegiance to the late Soviet Union, in the chilly decades in shadow after World War II. The players were overheated juveniles old enough to shave, the adrenaline of imagining mass murder addictive, both superpowers, not to mention an envious China, determined to convince the world it had the biggest bombs and greatest willingness to drop them, if anyone was asshole enough to push them too far.

Yet, people are nostalgic for the Fifties.

I read that, between the world powers then, there were enough warheads to wipe out the planet a hundred times over, more if the weather cooperated. And yes, we still said Neanderthals were stupid and believed chimpanzees are not our cousins.

What kind of man drove to the office or the factory to work in this field of mutually assured obliteration? Did they sleep at night or did they chew gravel, just to stay mean? What must the psyche of the CEO be like? Gears and switches, maybe a little grease, but no blood, no internal heating mechanism, no viscera reacting to every touch…?

I smile, alone, as I push my heals one step after another up toward the tree line, picturing Dick Cheney in my head. The prototype has been around since Dr. Strangelove. We just didn’t have to look at it every day in the 1960s.

I used to stop along the road on my newspaper route to read reports in the Binghamton Press. The worst horrors always got real estate on the front page. That’s what newspapers do. If you’re not scared, you’re probably not going to be handed over to their advertisers. Fear pulsed through my skinny preteen frame like a third system, competing with blood and lymph. 

But those days are over. I no longer expect a nuclear holocaust and even wonder why it bothered me at the time. Why didn’t I know that when you are gone from this earth, you are gone? What was there to be afraid of? Does it matter so much which vehicle picks you up when you catch your final ride? Nuclear holocaust has the great advantage of being, at root, democratic. We all get blasted to hell, kings and peasants alike.

Up along the horizon, an acre above me, a border of young trees waits for leaves locked inside to break free. Branches once so frail they got whipped by the wind all the way down to the trunk broke through the surface a decade or so back, after the farmer who owned this land gave up and moved to North Carolina. No one could be found willing to take over milking cows and harvesting fields of wheat twice each summer. So, with its dairy cattle sold off, the farm sat, and nature continued its work unfettered, roughing things up with weeds, then ruder bushes. 

When I walk up here, I see easily across the shallow valley. Patterns show me where farms were mapped out as the Erie Canal spurred Upstate New York into a thousand gardens of prosperity. Old growth was enthusiastically clearcut. Wheat was shipped to feeder canals where pioneers’ produce was launched on a journey across the state, down the Hudson and over the Atlantic. Along the way, everyone made money. Two centuries later, the canal, once a wonder of the modern world, now little more than a ditch alongside the State Turnpike, draws hikers and a few recreational boats, barely a hint that it was once a wonder of the engineering world that destroyed pristine environments for profit.

Contrary son of bitch that I am, I mourn instead the old growth forest and the natives who wore paths through its shelter before greedy Europeans crashed ships full of religious zealots into the shore.

“You’re a crazy man,” my wife Ginny used say to me. “You never see things the way other people do.”

“That’s my thing,” I assured her, and it was, although I hesitated to tell her that I wasn’t all that original. I let her embrace the story she liked.

But that was so long ago I can barely see it. I can’t feel it at all.

Beating all bettors, Ginny and I stayed married for more than forty years, until death did us part. Measured by changes, it seemed longer.

We weren’t happy every day, and whole years went by that were rarely punctuated with satisfaction. But consider that we were kids — she just fifteen and pregnant, I seventeen and too bold to steer clear of disasters — on the day we got married, and you have to agree that we did better than anyone had a right to expect. Shotgun weddings, as we called them then, didn’t often result in marital bliss.

Ginny died three years ago. She did not get to retire with me or enjoy the free time we used to talk idly about after dinner, time not so much for travel or playing golf as others we knew did, but to sleep in on weekdays, share a leisurely breakfast and read the newspaper, front to back. We grew simpler with our lives. I don’t know why we never changed. Simple was all we could get our hands on in the beginning, but not really after that. Others from similar backgrounds became so acquisitive that their idea of a good time meant going to the mall to be surrounded by things to buy, need them or not. 

Neither Ginny nor I caught that bug.

Breast cancer won the war waged against her body, tactically springing up with lethal adventurers in new places whenever one battlefield was cleared. It took a couple of years to beat her. Ginny was resilient. She never quit. 

I should amend that. The last few weeks, she accepted her fate, but I wouldn’t call that quitting either, more like that old saying, going with the flow. 

We talked, opening up as we never had. We closed some chapters. But before relaxing into the homestretch for her exit, Ginny still got up in the morning with her usual happy to be alive smile, as she had the first day I rolled over and found her in the same bed with me, and repeated her kitchen routine. There was no doubt that a future awaited, at least for that day.

I walk these fields regularly, and I often think of Ginny. I wonder if she’s there, you know? Ginny was a Christian. Although she gave up on getting me to go with her, she drove to church every Sunday until she was too sick to sit in a pew. The minister and some parishioners brought the faith to her when that was all she had left. They prayed with her in our living room. I tried to stay out of their way.

“Brother McCarthy,” Reverend Singleton said softly, stepping into the kitchen where I was unsuccessfully hiding behind a newspaper, “why don’t you join us? I know you don’t believe, but there’s nothing to fear. Maybe a prayer would help.”

Singleton was a big man, fat but also hearty, with a reasonable amount of gray beginning to salt his nicely cut black hair. I found his piety phony enough to be annoying, a fact I shared with no one. But I was grateful that he blessed Ginny with a power I couldn’t deliver, let alone believe in. She wanted it. He gave it to her.

“I’m not afraid of anything,” I felt compelled to say. “Making believe just gives me the willies, man. You wouldn’t want me to crack jokes about Jesus, would you, you know, to relieve the tension?”

“I guess not.” He smiled. “If you don’t mind, we will still pray for you.”

“No, I don’t mind, but if you’ve got extra prayers, give them to my wife, okay? If Jesus’s got any miracles up his sleeve, she could use one.”

“I understand.”

Before they all exited and piled into their van, I heard the traveling congregation singing, low but resolute. 

Religion aside, I love gospel songs, the spiritual melodies, the warmth of the voices. I could enjoy a hundred different versions of Just a Closer Walk with Thee and still sit through one more. What the reverend would not understand is that feeling it does not equate to believing it. My love for gospel songs hooked into mysterious territory in my soul. It did not incline me toward Christianity.

“You are a crazy man,” Ginny informed me, not for the first time, when the traveling church was going in reverse out of our driveway, turning with a little hitch into the road.

It was warm, late spring, as it was when my father died. A memory popped up of walking from the small, white church to a dirt road curling toward the cemetery. Beside me was my oldest brother, Mark. I curled my arm over his shoulder, and I was thinking how satisfied Dad would have been to be sitting at home, watching the Mets on TV, one more day.

“Crazy for you,” I reminded Ginny.

Four decades were shared, and she always knew I loved her.

“Lucky me,” she whispered, smiling, tired now.

She was so sick with cancer and all the drugs and, we both knew, close to the end that day, a cry stalls in my throat every time I wander back to being there. 

The mourning has to stop somewhere. And then, I have the craziest thought… What would I give to have some of our years back, to live them again and not to fail her as I did so many times…?

“Pete’s a frigging tomcat,” my sister-in-law Gail hissed at Ginny after we were married only a few years. “Guys like him never change.”

Ginny shared this conversation with me, a few days later. Gail wanted her to kick what she called my “sorry ass” out.

“Gail’s full of shit,” I shot back. “I love you. Maybe I’m not the best man in the world, but I’m not the worst either.”

“I know,” Ginny said. 

She always gave me more clearance than I earned.

What, I asked myself, did people expect from a seventeen year old who got married with a firestorm of wild oats still burning in his veins, whose dreams weren’t simply put on hold but were, instead, kicked aside like useless excess? My infidelity issues were legendary — and by legendary, I mean exaggerated out of all proportion — but I always came home to the bed I shared with Ginny. There were days, years, when I felt empty, that my days were repetitive marches down a series of monotonous corridors, but I still came home. I came home because she waited, steady with assurance that, one day, the lights would blink on again and fresh air would flush out the emptiness.

What I wish is that I hadn’t wasted so many of those days resolving the civil war inside me and had, instead, made the better use of the time I had with her, but let’s be honest here. Reverse perspective is bullshit. Any man can look back at his life and beat himself up over his fuckups. If he’s lead any kind of a life, he’ll have plenty to work with. The trouble is, mistakes never look like fuckups they are while the crimes are being committed. They look like possible trees in the surging jungle where you search for yourself.

When did we start oversimplifying our understanding of ourselves? Somewhere during the march into modern times, we began fitting ourselves into role models and stereotypes, freakish to outsiders. Even the concepts are insulting.

Here I am, my insulated boots sinking into soil softened as south winds blew winter away, a hundred trillion or so cells in collaboration as intricate as the stars, building, healing, cooperating to be a vessel for all that transpires behind my eyes. Complexity beyond comprehension, and deep into my seventh decade — how could the capsules of modern culture begin to describe me? Or anyone else?

And yet, it’s the kind of story we all buy into.

Once Jerry, Molly and Brent were adults themselves and out of our house, Ginny and I sat with coffee after supper and talked. Forty years together, watching nature, our sparse neighborhood, our family, our friends, our nation rewarded us with mountains of material to kick around. When she was angry with me or annoyed in general, Ginny accused me of making speeches, of thinking I was superior, a know-it-all who wouldn't shut up. Long marriages afford us the best and the worst estimations of each other. But mostly, we kept things between us in balance.

“I’ve always had the same problem,” I told her. “It never really goes away.”

She was in bed most of the time by now. As long as it was only her and me, she didn’t wear her unconvincing wig. She didn’t seem to be in any discomfort, although she must have been, her body a battle zone of drugs and disease, too many muscles idled too long, joints stiffening.

“You mean, like, that you don’t believe in anything…?” she offered.

“Ginny, I believe in everything. There’s a difference.”

“Sorry. I shouldn’t have guessed. So, what’s the big problem?”

I hated telling her this.

“When I look back, it’s so clear to me that I’ve never gotten far away from being such a loner. It’s like I’m out here by myself. I can’t get away from it. It’s hard to explain. We’ve been together so long, and the kids… Why they moved so far away…?”

“If you were young, starting out, would you want to raise a family here?”

“Well, I did, didn’t I?”

“Things were different then… For one thing, we didn’t have a choice,” Ginny reminded me of the obvious. “We had babies right away and never any extra money, but I’ve been thinking, if we did, we would have moved, long ago, maybe to someplace warm with better jobs.”

It was a characteristic of my being a loner that the topic had a greasiness about it. It just slipped right out of the grasp of this and every other conversation, as if God preferred it not be discussed.

Walking across the field, this spring morning, a little breeze chasing the sun… A room not far from here was where I wrapped my arms around Ginny after we got into bed on the evening of the day we got married. She was rich and warm and pregnant, and I can still feel how wonderful it was to be joined, even after years of physical changes between us.

That old house was now as torn down as Hollywood. The land where it stood had fallen into waste. If you didn’t know what had once stood there, you’d pass by without a blink.

It had been a tense, disorderly day, emotions misfiring and connecting in every direction. Our parents, mostly Ginny’s two dominating my one, devoted the day to moving us around like chess pieces confined to a board with a rigid outline, from unsteady vows before a small crowd to getting our license witnessed by my brother and her sister and on to a dinner her mother prepared, just the immediates invited and really not enough room for them. My immediates were my father, my sister, one brother and his wife; hers, a full set of parents, a grandmother and a swarm of brothers and sisters dispatched with trays to the living room while the rest of us bunched up in the kitchen like dried fruit.

The new in-laws bubbled with courtesies rarely taken down from the shelves. Through nods and tiny smirks, Ginny and I conspired to stay out of their way. Wedged in at the table, she whispered that she felt sick all day, from nerves mostly, but also from the rearrangement of everything her body was used to doing.

“Should we let your mother know?” Ginny had asked while we were waiting for enough people to show up at the church to get the ceremony rolling.

“Someday, maybe,” I answered from the remotest corner of my thoughts.

Another two years would pass before they met, and that only happened because Mom snapped the tether holding her to the middle class in California.

Although our families celebrated Ginny and me, our marriage, which I doubt any of them thought would last, I couldn’t wait for all that to go away. Ginny and I had our own bedroom set aside upstairs, and I just wanted to be with her there, shaking free of all this phoniness. They were not in spirit with us. They had no idea what our love was like.

Give Tim, the least clueless in the congress of in-laws, credit for proposing a toast to Ginny and me — we had Pepsis — that eased my family into a graceful exit. 

That night, undressing together without caution for the first time, awkwardly, and putting on pajamas, my new wife and I were too exhausted to talk about the border we crossed. We were now, legally and forever, family. Uncertainty about everything else spilled out across our bedroom like a crossword puzzle, pieces that might end up representing almost anything.

Ginny slept on her side, her swollen abdomen still unbelievable. She fell asleep instantly. Through thick and thin, she never lost that ability. She was, all her life, what we would later call “centered.” I laid on my back and looked toward the ceiling. It was pitch black. I was not quite eighteen, but I had a claim on a sizable collection of crazy acts bulking up my story to date. I had never once felt so awash, so completely taken by the tides in a sea I believed, just yesterday, I knew how to swim.

Our first year, everything went fast, as if some manual demanded that, useless or not, each detail must be worked through without engaging much of your brain. You blinked, it was next week. 

Weekday mornings, I got behind the wheel of Ginny’s mother’s car and drove the old Indian trail winding across the county to Windsor. I still had to finish high school. To speed up the process, I’d persuaded my teachers to give me credit for classes I never took but for which I could pass the final exams as proof of competence. None of them had to do it, but all of them did. Most knew my story. I was the only kid in school with a wedding ring. And they were kind and flexible, mostly in ways not possible today. 

One teacher, Mr. Kurkle, who’d once taken time to carefully show me how to navigate the twists and turns in E. E. Cummings’s beautiful and funny poetry, took me aside.

“Don’t give up,” he said. “Whatever else happens, all the responsibilities you got yourself into, make sure you take time for what matters to you.”

I thought he was talking about writing, but later, I knew it was more. You can get lost within yourself, and for some of us, there are no roadmaps, which I had yet to learn.

Afternoons, I drove back across the county to anarchy, too many people in one house, too many of them radically unstable or halfway drunk.

“And I thought my family was fucked up,” I kidded Ginny.

“Well, they are,” she jabbed back.

We were cuddling in bed. It was early autumn, chilly enough to make us shiver at night, not chilly enough to get Ginny’s father to crank up the heating monster occupying a corner of the living room downstairs, even with his pregnant, now sixteen year old daughter in residence.

“Should we say something about we’re freezing in here?” I asked.

“You better not. I’m pretty sure he’s still mad at you. But I will, if I catch him in a good mood.”

“He’s still mad at me?”

“Look what you did…”

She took my hand and patted it on her belly.

We celebrated our first anniversary with Jerry drooling like he was training for an Olympic event on Ginny’s lap. Ginny sipped her first public beer with her parents looking on. Her mother, who had forgiven me temporarily, cooked steaks, and we made opaque jokes about the situation in which we found ourselves boxed, my father-in-law observing as much as anything, his arms folded across his chest. Ginny’s brothers and sisters rioted in the living room, television blaring…

Ginny and I wrapped up Jerry and took the first opportunity that came around to move out. We didn’t go far, just across the untrained yard to the trailer where Ginny used to babysit and make clandestine telephone calls to me in what now seemed the good old days. The family living there moved up to shelter that was not on wheels, and we got the place, including furnishings, for a song, which was considerably more than it was worth. But it got us off to a good start. Young couples later recall their struggles like this: “We didn’t have much, but at least we had each other.” For Ginny and me, there was truth in it. We had each other — and Jerry.

“You’re a gas, kiddo,” I used to tell him.

He didn’t understand a word yet, but he got it.

Among many things I never had time to anticipate before my sudden adulthood, the sweetest was how much I enjoyed being a father. Holding Jerry in my arms the first time… Even wrapped up like an Eskimo when a nurse carried him out from the delivery room, he felt weightless.

Gail, who didn’t hate me yet and had hung out with me all night, smoking and pacing in the maternity wing lounge, asked for a turn.

“Oh my God,” she said. “He really doesn’t weigh anything…”

“Over seven pounds,” the nurse reported through her mask, “pretty close to normal, and look at his color. He’s going to be the healthiest baby in town.”

The nurse’s prediction turned out to be right on. Other than the usual routine of colds and flus, Jerry breezed through childhood without ill health ever holding him back. It was part of what made him confident, a leader who let everyone else share his belief that nothing of consequence could ever go too far wrong.

Years later, I lost him, of course. I don’t mean that in a bad way. We lose our children in the instant in which we notice they have slipped out of childhood. We can hang on, they can hang on, but the thrill of being a kid’s father is, by then, the stuff of memories. Pride comes next, but that belongs to them.

Ginny was always better with our children, probably because her raucous family stayed together long enough to learn to love each other naturally while mine fumbled and bumbled along like we were escaping quicksand. Mine learned to survive, and hers learned to love. This, as I recall it today, was the basis for what made Ginny and me so unalike, of what made it possible for her to hang in there while I spent so much energy maintaining balance, half in and half out.

David Stone
Find all my books on my Amazon Author Page

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Introduction: Ultimate Reality, All Of It

Ultimate Reality, All of it

from Amazing Truths About Conscious Awareness

Life surprises. Surprises are sparks.

Rain falls from a sunny sky. Streets and sidewalks are speckled. You look up. A small, ragged, roiling cluster of gray to black slides under the blue. Displaced, you think. Sunny or cloudy skies, few things are as clear as a theory or a slogan.

Refusing shortcuts to certainty, keeping our eyes wider open, always benefits us, maybe not as painlessly as we’d like. The moment itself, the “now” New Agers keep talking about as if it’s a thing, may be overrated, even impossible, a tempting illusion that can’t last any longer than it can make itself true.  The moment has a chance to be real, but we’d have give up past and future, both of which we need for knowing who and what we are.

It’s like uncertainty in quantum physics. If we know one thing, we’re forced into ignorance about something else, something vital. We can’t be inside an infinity of past and future, real and irrefutable, and an anchored moment simultaneously. If one thing is real, the other can’t be more than fuzz.

Reality is a fluid, an all things everywhere in motion kind of concoction. Viscosities vary. Speeds change. Degrees of mix shuffle up and down a scale. Pause it never does.

We will never see reality pause because, when it does, it collapses instantly into indistinguishable fodder for some next something else.


Everything gone, and you’re out the door with it. No post game analysis. No fingers to point. Motion is essential, forcing definitions to declare themselves by creating realities, sort of like a convention where everyone has a different favorite candidate but you have to vote anyway, exposing a universal tie. The television networks can’t even break for commercials.  There are as many balloons as not-balloons. The anchors have a terrible time, and the commentators babble like idiots.

Without definition, it can’t be matter. Rules are rules. Without matter, no reality. Sim- ple, yes? How about this? Matter itself is illusion. Actually, it’s more like magic, and tracing that magic, such as why it occurs at all, is something that can wake us up in the middle of the night in a very strange place. We’re living perilously in the God or not-God neighborhood.

It’s profoundly unsatisfying to know that there is nothing to hold onto. There’s no rock where you can attach yourself, which is why religion and myth are so successful in offering moorings. As if the proselytizers owned some real estate they can share.

We evolved belief systems because they make us feel better when the truth is impossible. We’re told that belief in God, by one name or another, requires faith. In reality, it demands separation and a set of brakes.

God isn’t interested in comforting beliefs that deny what we know. How could It be otherwise? God wants only knowing. 

“For that is the truth of it,” as Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler acknowledged, praying for Ilya Gruner, “that we know, we know...”

I’ll be using that popular noun, God, for convenience. We need a common point of reference, but please discard any ideas about old, ornery pricks on thrones where gravity is optional. Throw out ideas about gender of any kind. The creator of gender can’t have one. Dismiss kindly spirits who dispatch angels to guide us toward convictions against our will. Cart out like garbage the maker of rights and wrongs, the arbiter of morals or taste. Let go of the heavenly intermediary’s hand.

It’s not that these are less than true. It’s that they’re only references, mostly weak ones, incomplete, and while it’s always helpful to observe signposts, it’s more important not to forget what they are: indicators, pointers, icons – limited. Arrows aim at a greater presence. In this case, much greater, the signposts becoming dwarfs.

Reality, I suppose, is a term much more easily left out of the conversation. Nobody knows what it is, although we’re always immersed in it. Ultimate reality is everywhere and everything, the thing itself. On a small scale, we all know what it’s like to step back and have an objective look at a container, a subject or a structure. The cliche, thinking outside the box, feels natural. But ultimate reality is a box out of which we can never step, even for a casual curbside smoke.

Reality permeates, boundlessly energetic. It’s essence trickles down from the wing of a bird to an unobservable point of energy and ramps back up to infiltrate what we see as a uni- verse. It does so in steps so tiny and powerful, human brains of this millennia will never see them. The increments are so inconsequential, we can’t even honestly call them steps. More like virtual steps disguised as quantum leaps.

When we talk about mountains, moons, cells, even quanta, we’re talking only about chunks of reality identifiable with the limited tools evolution has given us. We aren’t talking about reality itself because reality can’t be isolated or made up of parts. Reality is the ever- changing fluid we’ve adopted by creating our own symbolic version.

Symbolic versions are allowed to have parts, making them both neatly convenient and not really truthful. Our minds are creation’s greatest tools for awareness, but they can fairly be compared to the first aquatic creature that struggled ashore in evolution’s march into complexity. We find a long beach full of hazards that must be crossed before we sprout wings, let alone all the other tools we’ll need. Our tools always tell us where our brains are going. Tools never deviate too much from the base or they become useless, unable to continue as prototypes for evolution.

Reality is God’s own splash into what we’d otherwise call nothingness. (As we’re only beginning to get a handle on ultimate reality, imagine how tough to define nothingness is going to be.)

Splashed into space was a composition of rhythmic energy, vibrations everywhere. Pollack, Jack the Dripper, got close to that moment. Ineffable knowing might have driven him crazy. In the initial outburst of rhythmic energy, complete in itself, variations erupted into clumps of cosmos, representations we call matter. Density and heat differentiated into the variations we call color, taste, sound and temperature. God has no limits. The universe expanded with infinite variation.

Eventually, life sucked together enough chemistry to make something new. Fluids can’t pause. Life keeps moving, definitions swelling, until presently we have you, here, now, looking at this book. The only mistake you can ever make is in forgetting you were and are some of that initial splash. You are the splash becoming aware of itself. You are not alone.

You imagine extrasensory perception or the wholeness of conscious awareness being shared. Ultimate reality is ripe with these things. How could it not be? If reality has no holes, you can never escape or stumble into one. You might as well embrace awareness and claim some of the fun.

Imagine yourself a single young man at a party. The room is densely populated with at- tractive women. Your only dilemma is about which one to ask. But you must ask, that’s the thing. The alternative is sloth and infectious disinterest. Infect yourself with indefatigable interest by making choice after choice after choice.

Ready to get started? 

from Amazing: Truths About Conscious Awareness

David Stone
find all my books on my Amazon Author Page

Monday, February 29, 2016

San Francisco, March 1976 - Free Chapter from "Traveling Without A Passport"

San Francisco, March 1976

...following is free chapter from Traveling Without A Passport

On the morning after I moved into my apartment on Ashbury, wet snow dropped over parts of San Francisco, mostly on Portrero Hill, the boyhood neighborhood of O. J. Simpson. It was an event I was not alone in believing could never take place. Waiting for a phone company installer to arrive and hook me up, I looked out at the giant, disappearing flakes mixed with rain as they fell between branches, and I imagined portents. Was I entering a channel marked by strangeness and inexplicable experiences?

While the installer from Pacific Bell wandered around, extending and crimping wires with connectors, my standard issue, olive green phone jutting awkwardly and inertly out of its box on the table, he talked about the political crisis in his home country, El Salvador. People generally seemed to enjoy political crises, I’d noticed. This tended to dishearten me, because I had little interest in them myself. And the farther away they got, the less interest I had. If they didn’t have a crisis, most people would like to stir one up or find someone else’s to get excited about.

After they killed Bobby Kennedy, my interest in politics had eroded like sand off a watershed, save my unquenchable, visceral dislike for Nixon who I assumed would one day be unmasked as Satan. Politics looked like a big, impoverished game with intrenched facets, and that included the peoples’ revolt in El Salvador.

Within a week of the day I watched snow falling out of that rich gray sky in San Francisco, I received the biggest royalty check I’d ever earned as a writer. It was buried in my first forwarded mail, stuffed into a tan, eight and a half by eleven envelope among a collection of other things from Alex who’d also inserted his own cryptic note on a slip of scrap paper:

 ...many people asking for you... 

It was written boldly in felt tip, his style, and clipped to an unrelated envelope. I took it as an advisory to continue laying low or, maybe, a hint that, as expected, I’d gotten out just in time. I hadn’t yet been awarded the disgrace of being completely forgotten in Buffalo.

But, then, even after pauper-like scrimping and having started out with more cash than expected, I’d quickly run out of resources as well as wonder. No more snow had fallen. No more checks had arrived, and, Goddamn it, I was losing Marcie. Things happened fast in California, faster than I’d imagined. 

I’ve become a spectator, I wrote in a letter to Alex. It never feels like I’ve got my hands on the wheel.

What, he wrote back, have you got your hands on? What happened with the girl?

“The girl? Use her fucking name” was my unhappy, gut response. 

“She has one,” I added aloud to the walls in my non-objecting studio apartment.

Alex had been too lazy to get out my last letter and be reminded, I concluded. The girl was too abstract for her in any context. Marcie was flesh and bone, a hectic mind, an athletic ass wrapped in perfectly tight jeans, angular expressions, beautiful hair and, for me, an exercise in emotional turbulence. 

What the hell went wrong between me and Marcie? Her family, dominated by proper women, hated me the minute they heard our story, was my first guess. They’d probably been warned by the intrusive Sausalito guardian of the female anatomy. I knew I lacked obvious promise and never made any bones about it. My lack of stature was right out there, like a physical feature. Equals gigolo to them, I suspected. Imagine, me?

“He writes what?” at least one of Marcie’s sisters, a grim panel of lookalike judges, must have asked.  “And he went to San Francisco with no job and no money either? What’s he running away from?”

Plenty, really, but Marcie didn’t know about any of that, but by the time she came back, distrust had been firmly planted in her head.

We’d been like lab rats, thrown by coincidence into an intimate cage, was how I described it the first (and only, as it turned out) time we went on a date in San Francisco. I worded it more nicely, of course. We’d been free, solo passengers on a not full bus and could as easily have disliked each other and moved away. We did the opposite. Voluntarily. I engaged her in conversation while we were waiting, lining up to get off at a rest stop, and she asked to join me after we returned to our seats a half-hour later.

“Maybe we were both just horny,” she kidded, and we laughed then because there was still some life in our connection.

“I know some of you girls are that way,” I responded, “but I’m more into relationships. No shit, honest.”

I flashed on, but kept to myself, my old friend Dan’s lament: “I wanted to make love, but all she wanted to do was fuck.”

I thought women’s not infrequent habit of referencing things back to sexual basics was a form of evasion and most men played the game out of ignorance of what was happening. We were supposed to be blissfully incapable of intimacy, a treasured female trait.

Now, just a month later, Marcie and I were lab rats again, evicted from our cage, made stupid and overconfident by happiness under conditions impossible to repeat. We were talking quietly in a darkened park near her apartment, a valley congested with streetlights below us. She was on a swing, and I was pushing. Every time she glided back, I spread my fingers across the curl of her ribs and guided her in a steady rhythm. I touched the upper construction of her pelvic bones. This was the only time in San Francisco when we were able to return to the vicinity of that shared, comfortable trance we’d found on the bus. I didn’t understand how we got there the first time anymore than I now knew how we’d gotten back. There was a chemistry that surged when we mixed it a certain way. It seemed like there was a space close-by, a membrane to penetrate, where we had a choice to step in or step aside.

“I don’t think we can ever be like we were again, Peter,” Marcie whispered.

I wanted to shake her, to disagree and sensed that she was braced for an argument, but everything that mattered about us was too abstract for a successful discussion, too ineffable to be reconstructed with verbs and nouns. If I couldn’t explain it to my alter ego back in Buffalo while sitting at my table with a pen and paper and all the time in the world, then what were my chances under the gun of so much intensity? Besides, what she seemed to be preparing to do was to dump me. Gently. It was breaking my heart, I can tell you that, and it was very immediate.

“Maybe we can just be in it temporarily and see how it feels,” I suggested.

We kept swinging and didn’t say much more. Once you get to the point where you have to debate the details, it’s poisoned anyway, and you’re just doing an early autopsy. 

She later sent me home with no option for a sleepover, and by morning, all of it was gone again.

...from Traveling Without A Passport

David Stone
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Monday, February 22, 2016

"Is It Always a Love Story?" Free Chapter One

Is It Always a Love Story?

...following is Chapter One from Is It Always a Love Story?

On the day I came home from the war — a phrase still tossed around like iceberg lettuce in the cultural salad, in spite of its saturation — the shock was not unexpected. Both the country that sent me and a million others into battle across the Pacific and the warrior lucky enough to live through it had changed clothes. I’d been at least as dizzied when I tumbled head-last into boot camp and, again, when I struggled to get my bearings on the ground in Southeast Asia.

This was 1970, a new decade in a country rubbed so raw by the last one you couldn’t drag it in front of a mirror and expect to see the same image twice. What once was bright and sure scrambled into confused and angry. 

I never saw any of the disrespect people now say peace activists chucked at returning vets. I saw more of the opposite, really. When they noticed your close to shaved bare head and your upright posture, even strangers seemed deferential, sadness in the mix too. Every American silently seemed to see that we’d lost so much. Nobody spit at me or anyone else that I knew. Unlike The Best Years of Our Lives, the world had not passed me by on its cheery jaunt to the future, and I did not indulge in public regrets. Yes, there was a universal wariness, but coming home from the equivalent of centuries away on a distant planet, you need time to feel your way around until the lights come up again.

It wasn’t the angrier, disillusioned America I saw when I returned or changes in Binghamton, my hometown tucked between hills in upstate New York, that demanded adjusting. It was me. I may have returned to a place that froze in time, unchanged myself, but I’d never again walk down the street with my hands in my pockets, idly whistling, feeling sun on my neck. Awareness had rushed in with lumps of spiritual gluttony, an appetite impossible to satisfy. Maybe exploded is a better word for what happened when I digested the extremes any war forces on its fighters.

We pull on uniforms assigned us as young guys, kids really, plastic, molded into shapes and colors that are completely new. Our heads are shaved, our bodies toughened. But nothing prepares you for slaughter or the relentless stew of fear, guilt, dread, anger and anxiety from which there is no escape until you are killed or maimed or someone leafing through a stack of papers finally reaches yours and stamps “Discharged” on it.

The Witch Next Door

You come back to, roughly, the same world, if you survive, but everything you piece together as you put on your pants, comb what hair has returned and step out the door slants toward strange in your eyes.

I expected that, the alienation, before I landed in San Francisco and knocked off a couple of days before catching connecting flights on to New York. First day in America, again, I took a city bus that rattled up to The Haight and got off before it crossed Stanyan Street into Golden Gate Park. Hippies hanging out under ancient trees like musty clouds of unnecessary humanity seemed to know my story. I was in street clothes, but my hair…and probably my expression…

One of the dudes, a guy propped up on one elbow, his beard, streaked with gray, sent strands onto the middle of his chest, raised a rolled cigarette in my direction. He might’ve been lifting a funky salute, but I assumed he was offering me a hit. I smiled, shaking my head enough to decline gently and kept walking under the trees and into the meadows. My mind wasn’t ready to let down its guard the way it had when Jon and I knocked off lunch hours at school with a joint and bottle of Thunderbird. Maybe it never would be, this planet more fearsome than we knew then.

During the Summer of Love and the next where I tried to grab strands of freedom and Selective Service geared up to escort me down the road to Southeast Asia, I read as much as I could about the counterculture’s hopes for changing the world. We had some spirit but were far from the mainstream in Binghamton. I agreed that things should be changed but not necessarily to what. Hippie daydreams contrasted the depressing mechanism of physicals and interviews and dread about what was inevitable on the bloody horizon. Thanksgiving break, the year before, Jon and I drove down through the Catskills to wander around Greenwich Village, once we found the jumble of unnumbered streets under the towering city. Hippie culture had been overwhelmed by invaders. The music clubs were too loud, the head shops on Bleecker too obvious, the girls from Long Island panhandling for bus fare in Washington Square Park too young and uninteresting. The movement hadn't held its ground very well in the big city.

But all I read about Haight-Ashbury implied that some legitimacy lasted. Peace might prevail, hope defying the reality of what I was going through on my way to induction. Two years later, on the ground in The Haight, all I saw in the free clinics, hippie shops and lost souls standing on corners were relics of a burned out hallucination. The best of hippie culture, the passions for peace, freedom and expanding awareness, had gone political, meaning mainstream, gobbled up by process. It probably had to. How long could you survive inside the bubble, outside the endless parade? Kicked back lifestyles retreated into tiny urban pockets, communes and hopeful, subdued retreats. I hoped to find something else in the park.

No historical markers with funky logos had been erected where the first love-in took place or where Jerry Garcia sat under a tree and strummed a banjo, singing Zen songs about the universe. The park was as it had been when my one-time idol, Rod McKuen, wrote about his troubles on Stanyan. The meadows rolled and old growth trees held their breath on a sunny afternoon. Sooner than expected, I walked by the surprising Dutch Windmill, wondering what the hell it was doing there and, before any good idea came to me, crossing over onto the beach, the Pacific, pretending to be endless, stretching in front of me.

I hadn’t talked to anyone since handing over my key at the Y where I woke up to the Bay Bridge rumbling with traffic out my transient window, and I didn’t know what I was going to do. 

Rolling, washing waves brought a soothing pulse along the mostly empty beach, certain and consistent. I walked toward the Golden Gate, Tamalpais hazy across the bay, focused roughly on a building up on a cliff, certain I wasn’t going to walk that far.

It was confusing to feel so divided about continuing my travel home. I’d expected no such uncertainty. But I kept thinking I could stay right here or veer off to some interesting sounding place, like Denver or Chicago, and settle without ever crossing the Mississippi again. Binghamton was not for sure. As much as I loved the place, all my life so far, being there now, being me, felt hard.

And it wasn’t just the standard veteran returning home reluctance about being lost in an invisible sea of change, as the world kept turning, the chemistries mingling, in your absence, or the unavoidable conversations that got one and all off the hook. Relationships I’d deferred resolving had not melted away. As the years passed, I’d learn that they never do. Loose ends stay loose ended. But now, as I was just beginning to tangle with any of some consequence, I accepted the truth reluctantly. 

Finding a place to live and work in the valleys and flatland carved by the Susquehanna and the Chenango meant dealing with things mishandled when I was much more able. Hardened emotions offered less effective tools. 

Maureen wrote me when she knew I was close to being discharged. Probably, she’d probed my family for details. Everyone liked her. They thought she was “the one,” as the saying goes.

“Well, you don’t have to deal with her being so fucked up though, now do you?” I said to the imagined crowd in my mind, each individual looking at me with suspicion and curiosity.

My family, assembled like a jury in my mind’s eye, huddled together as the first persons I talked to in hours, however virtual. Now, they shrank back, partly in disappointment, partly disliking the casual profanity.

“Jesus,” I hissed out loud, and they vanished like vapor. After two years of war, they could still get up my ass.

Here I was, back in America, and I realized I could laugh with some innocence again. That settled one immediate doubt. I might as well go on home as long as there was still enough of me left to tango.

I found a pay phone at the house up on the cliff that I thought I’d never walk to and called my brother’s number.


It was Tim’s wife, Margaret, Marge, Margie. I liked every one of her incarnations.

“Hi, Marge. It’s me, Pete.”

“Peter! Oh my gosh, we were wondering when we’d hear from you. Where are you? Are you in town? Are you okay?”

Pete, I whispered, turning away from the phone to look out at the sea.

Too much to answer in a single phrase, I picked the easiest piece.

“I’m in San Francisco. Just flew in last night. Still adjusting to the time zones,” I added, filling up the empty space. “What’s it, late afternoon there?”

“Actually, I’m just starting supper. Your brother will be home in a little while. He’ll be so happy you called.”

As I’d so often been reminded, I talked too much, didn’t know when to stop. Actually, I dreaded a wobbly silence more than I loved the sound of my own voice.

“San Francisco? So, you’re back. When will we see you in this neck of the woods?”

Neck of the woods? There was a gentle phrase that would never be the same for me again.

“I need to check on the flights, but if I can get on a plane tomorrow, I think I will. No reason to stay here all by myself.”

And who was that message for? Me? Or them? Did I want my family to believe I was hankering for a reunion, an anecdotal sit-down where I’d give in to telling war stories that left the blood and mud behind at the door?

I’d already decided on the ones I would never tell, not in full at least.

“We can’t wait to see you. You won’t believe how much we worked about you.”

“I think I might have some idea.” 

“This call must be costing you a fortune, and I’ve go food on the stove. We better say, ‘Goodbye,’ for now, but let us know when you’re coming, and we’ll come out to the airport to get you. But call collect, next time. You won’t have to fill your pockets with coins.”

Marge laughed at the picture of me jiggling dimes, quarters and nickels in a phone booth.

To be honest, the nickels, dimes and quarters I needed to pay for the call were not in my pockets, and the lingering juvenile delinquent in me laughed again when I heard the public telephone protesting to an empty booth as I walked back toward Golden Gate Park.

“You fucking owe me,” I said to Ma Bell and added to myself, “You may be coming around.”

Walking back past the inexplicable windmill, I thought that coming around was not something I necessarily wanted to do, if coming around meant getting back to normal, back to neutral. That would not be possible. I had so much more than a duffel to carry through the rest of my life, normal would never do.

Easy enough to remind myself: If I knew then what I know now… But nothing could be more futile. The meaning of life is in the journey, right? Why hanker to land when you’ve barely taken off?

It wasn’t the next day, but the one after that, when I caught my first flight east. Because my hometown was not considered of any consequence in the American march toward world domination, it took two connections in pinball game directions to get me to the little airport parked alone on a hilltop.

I’d spent my last day in California on a trek through hippie places that still had resonance, nostalgia not completely washed away. I walked all the way up Columbus to North Beach where I ate pizza for lunch before spending an hour in City Lights, hoping Ferlinghetti would show up and strike a conversation. Maybe Brautigan? Then, I wandered through the Embarcadero and on to Fishermen’s Wharf. Out in the bay, Alcatraz was defiantly soaking up sun. And up on one of the hills, I spotted Coit Tower, saluting firemen. I wasn’t going to bunk there either. Finally, I clung to the rail on a cable car along Powell all the way to Union Square. Then, I was done with it. 

That was enough of being alone in an unfamiliar city. It was time to be alone in one more familiar.

...from the soon to be released Is It Always a Love Story?

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Friday, February 19, 2016

November 22, 1963 - Free Chapter from The Garden of What Was and Was Not

November 22, 1963

...following is an excerpt from The Garden of What Was and Was Not

I generally enjoyed Miss Izak’s class, brightened as it was by her effervescence, even though I was failing, just as I’d previously failed Latin. Gene, a born smart ass, and Billy, his frequent target, were involved in something silly in front of me, and I was tuning out Miss Izak’s instruction to watch. This memory may be misplaced in time, but I believe that, out of nowhere, Gene reached across the aisle to hold hands with Billy. Billy reacted in three distinct phases: first, pleased with the touch; an instant later in homophobic shock; then, finally, in panicked, comical withdrawal. This stuff eased the monotonous days of high school repetition. You might say Miss Izak didn't have her class properly tamped down and under control. Tiny, inclined to dress young in short tight skirts that cheered me with a view of her legs, only a few years older than some of us, she sometimes laughed along. 

A few years after this and while I still lived in Binghamton, the local newspaper headlined a story about her body being found in some underbrush at the bottom of a ravine along the Adirondack Northway. Her car had been abandoned on the side of the road above. An investigation showed that a New York State Trooper had stopped her for speeding along the Interstate on her way to Montreal. He took her down the embankment before raping and strangling her. 

As we sat in her classroom now, however, nothing predicted that killing. She was still short and cute and bubbly and hopeful that guys like me might still learn the language of love. We all still took for granted, then, a certain assurance about the benignity of the future. Bad things, in the world we’d been shown, actually didn’t happen to good people until after November 22nd, 1963. This was Camelot, and scripted. We believed in King Arthur, George Washington and Jesus Christ. Things turned out okay. 

At my high school on the East Side, the public address system had never called us to attention in the middle of a day. I don’t recall even being aware that we had a working speaker. The wooden box with its fabric cover, mounted on a wall behind our teacher’s desk, tilted forward and painted the usual institutional green, crackled to life. I'm not sure anyone really knew what it was at first, brittle sounds popping out from the anonymous wall. The first recognizable voice came up midstream in a radio broadcast. Miss Izak froze and the rest of us with her. No one prepared us. 

Downstairs, in the Principal’s Office along the main corridor, the staff, usually occupied with papers, typing and files, reacted mechanically to an event raining down unlike anything before it. In a shock that hobbled rational thinking, they defaulted, hooking a radio up to the public address system and letting the details flow like gravel down a calamitous mountainside. 

Gradually, the message came across that someone shot President Kennedy. In Dallas. There was a motorcade. Bullets ripped over the crowd. Limousines sped toward a hospital. Others were wounded, but there was confusion over who and how many, the Governor of Texas, for sure. In class, a few looked around the room for some sort of confirmation as facts tumbled out, raking reality. Most, including Ms. Izak, sat looking straight ahead, listening. Our teacher had a blank, almost puffy look. Even the goof-offs, like Gene and Billy and me, shut up. 

As the live newscast kept coming, my skin tingled. I felt fear, cold and amorphous, like in a horror show just before the danger identifies itself. 

Then, I think it was Cronkite: “Our beloved President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, is dead...”  

The impossible had happened. In ways we seldom recognize, the profound and comprehensive damage, healed only along the edges, endures to this day.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Holy Shit - Free Chapter from "The Witch Next Door"

Holy Shit 

following is a free chapter from The Witch Next Door

Christmas Eve, snow finally fell from an infinitely gray overcast, hovering since dawn and hanging motionless into the afternoon. Still coming down hard after dark, it resolved the village below us in a pinkish haze, a fog-shrouded pool with fuzzy streetlights struggling to pierce through. There was probably a foot on the ground by now. Fluffy, it kicked easily away from our shoes as we tramped away from Val’s house.

Val spread her long coat to help keep my ass dry. The one I’d wrapped myself in for the trip to Endicott wasn’t long enough for sitting on the ground, watching the snow, which we decided to do almost as soon as I got there. 

We picked a bank on what might one day be a lawn in a vacant corner lot on the hill where she lived. 
Heavy, drifting flakes forced a misty silence. Our heads were topped with white.

“I should’ve worn a hat. It’s melting and running down my face.” 

“I don’t remember ever seeing you with a hat,” Val said.


She nodded in the dark.

“It’s really beautiful.” 

She drew her hood closer to her face. Strands of wavy hair leaked out around the contours of her cheeks and alongside her neck.

Streets congesting with snow, edges rounded or eliminated like romantic poetry, Endicott looked as soft and gentle as the flakes showering it, make-believe in the valley below us. 

“Like a dream,” Val added. She looked at me with a smile. “I’m glad you came out to see me.”

“Maybe I’m crazy, hitchhiking all the way out here in this weather.”

“Crazy about me?”


“I appreciate it. Most boys would never come all the way out here in this weather.”

“Love will do that to you,” I said.

“I know.”

Traffic thinned with the holiday, I’d been lucky to make it across the cities fast. I might need to spend the whole night walking back home. Cars might disappear as the darkness swarmed toward Christmas morning. I still hadn’t inhibited my routines with any habit for planning. Life would come, and I’d grab whatever events I saw skating by. 

“Maybe I’ll freeze to death before I get home again,” I added, “but I wanted to see you. What else was I going to do, sit home and wait for Santa Claus? Nothing, absolutely nothing was going on. I was bouncing off the walls.”

On an impulse, after calling her to say, “Merry Christmas,” I decided to ignore the storm for a chance to see her. She was willing, and there was time.

“Do you still believe in Santa Claus?”

“I never stopped. What else have we got? God?”

“Me, too. I don’t know what we have to believe in now.”

In the year gone by, an emotional scrub brush scraped away my faith in the positive direction of the world. Eighteen years old felt like balancing on a pivot without any specific gravity or momentum in any direction, like my beliefs had been racked and a cueball struck them, scattering them in a chaos so wild only a magic physicist could yank them back into order.

“I think we need to figure it all out from scratch. I don’t even know where to begin.”

“At the beginning, one step at a time, that’s the only way…”
I had a feeling her remark was off the cuff, something she said without having thought about it before and may not agree with tomorrow.

“No shortcuts,” I added, “like ‘All you need is love,’ that kind of thing.”

“Yeah, but how do we find them?”

 “I know I love you,” I said. “That’s always there. It’s a start when you have one thing you know is true.”

“I love you too, but what have we ever been able to do about it? Together, I mean. We’re such a mismatch.”

“Are we too loose?”

“When we’re together, we are, yeah,” Val agreed. “There’s no place for us. We have different lives in different places, and then, every once in a while, we have this time together when we connect, but then, it’s gone again so fast.”

She gestured at the snow softened cityscape below us, as if she created it.

“I wish you’d let me change that.”

The intensity of the snow, the cold air, the fluffed fantasy, dreaming in unison.

“How? What are you going to do? Carry me off somewhere?”

“I wish. I can hardly carry myself, as you know.” 

“I think we should just stay like we are,” Val suggested, sweeping a dark, mittened hand through the falling snow. “You’re different for me. You make me look at myself in a different way. Maybe you keep me honest. Maybe we’d lose that, if we aren’t careful.”

Her voice lifted into a laugh. 

“Maybe we’re in-betweeners, Val. We meet in the seams between the rest of our lives.”

“I’m not sure what that means,” she said.

“I hope you’re not counting on me to explain it.”

“Never. have”

“You always knew,” Val reminded me now, “whether you wanted to know or not. It was all there.” 

“Sure, in a foreign language, it was all there. Really, I didn’t know what I knew. We were so different. There wasn't any other couple like us, you know, as much as we were friends. I didn’t know what was happening between us or what, if anything, I could do about it. I didn’t have any examples. 

You were just always there, the continuum, you know?”



“That brings us to the point,” Val changed the subject. “You asked a question I think I can answer. 

You want a bigger picture. You want to understand how you got here, where you are now, from way back where we were or before, right?”

With an exaggerated gesture, she added a wisp of comedy to the mix.

“Always, I do. I’m kind of a mystery to myself. There are things I can’t explain. Maybe I don’t remember enough.”

“You can start with Ginny, but that’ll just make you feel guilty. Why not go back to where your parents turned you into an emotional gymnast. That’s what happens if you want to survive after your parents kick you into the gutter before you’re old enough to tie your own shoes. You learned to lean on yourself, to be alone and self-reliant. Didn’t it seem odd when Emerson got your attention, even when everything he wrote was way over your head? You kept looking at Self-Reliance like it was Chinese algebra. That’s been your style ever since. You absorb before you know.”

My brother let me ride along and hang out at the university library when he drove to Vestal to study on Saturdays. I always treated libraries the same way, like I was on a treasure hunt without much of a map, and I remember pulling Emerson’s essays off a shelf and getting scrambled trying to weed my way through his paragraphs.

“I have a style, Val?”

“Well, you left everybody, didn’t you — I mean, up to that point? To you, self-reliance meant independence. You took what you wanted out of Emerson, but that wasn’t what he meant. Emerson believed in community. You believed in staying out of it. When you tell your story, you make yourself out heroic, but let’s be honest. We’re friends. You weren’t heroic. A gambler, sure, but sometimes, you were a hurtful person to know. When mothers warned their daughters about you, they were right. You were dangerous.”

“Mothers usually liked me, at least a first.”

“Yeah because you were so cute and sweet. They didn’t get the whole picture right away.”

Got a pile of sins to pay for and I ain't got time to hide, Bob Dylan wrote. 


“For example…?”

For Val, pictures were not hard to paint. 

“Let’s forget for a minute that you were so careless with the girls’ feelings that you played around with Ginny’s little sister, the one time she was too sick to keep an eye on you, but what did you do when the big moment came, when you had a chance to be strong for her? You loved her, right? But you found it easy to cut her loose, didn’t you? Bing! You were gone.”

In a sharply pitched moment, Ginny ran across the room and disappeared into my arms, tears streaming down her cheeks, afraid, shattering. 

“Take me with you,” she pleaded.

“‘I can’t.’ That’s what you said,” Val reminded me.

“I couldn’t take her with me. That was true. She was underage. I’d go to jail.”

“Cover story,” Val waved me off. “You made that up for the book. You were underage, too. You didn’t really know anything about statutory rape, and you sure weren’t worried about it when you took her pants off. If you told the whole story, you’d talk about waiting at your apartment, hoping she’d make it there on her own, but you knew she wouldn’t, didn’t you? Of course. Besides, who but you and Ginny knew you had sex? Anyone?”

I shrugged, not remembering for sure, embarrassingly confident that I probably told at least my best friend, Bruce, but he’d already shipped out.

“Her parents didn’t know,” Val insisted. “What would they get you for? Trespassing? All they knew is you were sneaking around with their daughter, and they wanted to protect her. From you. Imagine that. But you didn’t stand up for her or even for your own good intentions. You ran. If you stayed and confronted them, it might’ve changed both your lives forever. As you already know, things didn’t go great for her after you left her, not for a long, long time, I mean, decades.”

“I can’t be responsible for what happened to her after we broke up.”

“Really? Are you sure? Because if you’d figured out a way to stick with her and made good on your promises, you’d sure take credit for that, wouldn’t you?”

“Well, we can’t undo the past, can we? But I paid for what I did, as you also know, in a way I never imagined.”

My architecture fell apart pretty quickly without Ginny floating the joists. An emptiness washed in like some barren dam broke. It lasted long enough, I wondered if feeling so little was going to be permanent. Fate finally lent a hand, one late winter day, sending a pair of rescuers named Doug and Boyd to pull me out. I’d been stunned.

“I knew I loved her, but you don’t have to remind me I held something back. I always had one foot out the door, but I didn’t realize my heart didn’t come along with me. My heart was still fused with hers. It’s a funny thing to say, and it was a discovery that nothing I’d ever seen or heard prepared me for. Our hearts plug in, hard and deep, no matter what our boots do.”

Val leaned away to pull me off the subject. 

“What the hell? I can’t fix it now, anyway.” 

“You remember how you learned to hold so much back, don’t you?” she asked.

Was she pulling strings to surface memories or was it my own psyche?

In my earliest memories from my life as an escape artist, we were, all five of us, waiting like refugees on heavy wooden benches outside the office into which a social worker lead Mom and Dad. Two days on the train from Florida left us dirty, tired and smelly. Set aside Mom’s radical violation of visitation rights, our appearances alone might been enough to bury her claim to competent parenting. 

Mom was, as I saw her later, a child raising children, a grown up who never grew up. That’s why we loved her so much and also why she failed. She was our great big sibling with keys to the car.

The door with the frosted glass opened. Mom ran out ahead of the others, a handkerchief pressed to her reddened face and, just like that, escaped down the stairs without a word. She didn’t as she usually did, sweep us up with, “Let’s get going, kids.”

All five of us turned to look at Dad and the social worker, now a temporary couple. The only detail I remember about the social worker, besides her gender, was how explicitly she, not Dad, explained the realities ahead of us. Toward Dad, my feelings had improved from resentment when I saw him waiting on the railroad platform to indifferent.

“You’re going to stay with your grandmother for a week or so until we can straighten things out with your parents.”

Mom was gone, down the stairs. What was she going to straighten out?

I noticed my brothers and my sister crying beside me.

“I saw that, Val, and I remember thinking, I better cry too. So, I did.”

“You faked it?”

“I faked it.”

“You see now? You were already out. It wasn’t that incident that did it. You were already detached, at that age, more like broken off, damaged goods, adapted for survival.”

“I wish I knew how I got there…”

“Does it really matter?” Val interrupted. “The thing is, if you think about it, you stopped opening your heart to anyone, not completely, right there, when your mother ran down the stairs and left you by yourself, disconnected. You can’t ever have another mother.”

“Holy shit.”

“How did you miss that?”

“I don’t know. I wasn’t even seven, and I sure as hell hadn’t heard of Freud. I must not have wanted to see it. Even knowing it now feels horrible.”

“The thing you have to remember is, your loving people never stopped, just your willingness to open up to it. You buried that core instead, for safety. You couldn’t trust anyone with it. You loved your father, your mother, especially your older brothers you relied on for so long, your sister, of course, and others, but it was risky. You buried it. Survival first.”

“Those were some cold, fucking years, Val…”

“And what ended it? What happened?”

“Ginny happened.”

“By then, you were good at surviving, with a lot of help you didn’t know about, but you’re were a real mess with love. You hadn’t stretched those muscles enough. Your heart was a wreck.”

“Wait a minute, Val. What help I didn’t know about?”

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