In The Darling, Chekhov tells the story of a woman who is somewhat of a serial lover, losing herself to whomever she loves. When we first meet Olenko, we admire her utter devotion to the man she loves. When he dies, she repeats the pattern with her new love. And when he dies, she repeats it again with her new love, and we begin to have questions about her. We begin to see the flaws in her character. And yet, her biggest sin is loving too much and too easily.
In his book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, George Saunders offers this about Olenka:
“I feel about Olenko the way I think God might. I know so much about her. Nothing has been hidden from me. It’s rare, in the real world, that I get to know someone so completely. I’ve known her in so many modes: a happy young newlywed and a lonely old lady; a rosy beloved darling and an overlooked, neglected piece of furniture, nearly a local joke; a nurturing wife and an overbearing false mother.
And look at that: the more I know about her, the less inclined I feel to pass a too-harsh or premature judgment. Some essential mercy in me has been switched on. What God has going for Him that we don’t is infinite information. Maybe that’s why He’s able to, supposedly, love us so much.”
A publisher has expressed interest in my novel, Heather Girl. They like the story and the primary characters; however, they feel that I have too many sub-plots and secondary characters that take away from the main focus of the novel. There are a couple of sub-plots and secondary characters that I have no trouble eliminating. There are others that I’m hesitant to lose.
I’ve been reading a book recommended by Mr. Larry Ellis, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders. In the book, Saunders examines short stories of Russian authors so that writers may learn and hone their craft. Saunders just told me something that is helpful in evaluating Heather Girl. It is this:
Imagine we’re bouncers, roaming through Club Story, asking each part [of the story], “Excuse me, but why do you need to be in here?” In a perfect story, every part has a good answer. (“Well, uh, in my subtle way, I am routing energy to the heart of the story.”)
Our evolving, rather hard-ass model of a story says that every part of it should be there for a reason. The merely incidental (“this really happened” or “this was pretty cool” or “this got into the story and I couldn’t quite take it out again”) won’t cut it. Every part of the story should be able to withstand this level of scrutiny…
The second paragraph confirms what I think needs to be cut.
The first paragraph makes me hesitate on other parts, those that I believe are routing energy to the heart of the story.
And it’s running down my arm, dripping onto the dirty concrete, pooling like cherry jello next to the steps where I’m sitting, hoping someone has called for a wagon, but then I realize the closest ambulance sits idle at the hospital twenty miles away. It’s a long, deep cut and it’s all I can do to keep the pressure on.
Apologies to Dylan. He wrote that song, what, fifty years ago? Sixty, maybe?
Ma’s been gone a while.
Nothing good happens after midnight, she used to tell me. It’s 1:37 and all self-respecting people in this godforsaken town are fast asleep. Truth is, there’s not too many of them left.
There’s this photograph, a grainy black and white, probably taken about the same time Dylan wrote that song. I would have been about eight. Ma sitting at table with her sister-in-law, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother. Looks like they had been working, or maybe getting ready to work. They all look tired. They’re all at rest now.
It seems to be slowing down a little. Maybe if knot my shirt around the cut. Kind of hard to do with just one arm, but if I can take one end with my teeth and pull tight. It’s cool out here but it was muggy in that closed-up building and I was starting to sweat before I went through the window so taking off my shirt feels pretty good. And there’s nobody around to see my soft, pasty flesh.
Ok. That’s better. But it’s hurting now. Not just stinging from the cut but real pain. The muscle’s been cut. I’m probably going to need surgery. I can’t stay on this stoop.
It’s alright, ma. I’m only bleeding.
Ma and her sister-in-law were young women with their glorious lives ahead of them. Later I would see the color photographs they were proud to show, their hair just right, their smiles beaming. But in this old black-and-white they looked tired. Just beat.
Kennedy was assassinated around that time. Then Martin Luther King. Then the other Kennedy. Death was all around. So when I came home one day after a nasty fall in the creek, blood streaming down my leg, ma looked at me like I was going to die.
It’s alright, ma. I’m only bleeding, I told her back then.
Dylan had nothing on me. If I could have just come up with the other existential verses and the complex rhythms and rhyming patterns and a hundred other songs I could have been another Dylan.
I’m walking now. Not to the hospital. I couldn’t do that under the best circumstances. And not home.
Just about every storefront I walk by is empty. More than a few with the glass busted out. So when Decker tossed me through the plate glass window of the old hardware store, it was kind of like if tree fell in the forest and nobody was there to hear it, would it still make a noise? If anybody heard, nobody would care. That’s how it is here.
And I can’t blame Decker. He had to do it.
I’ve always been an under-achiever. Ma had more faith in me than I deserved. Maybe it was just hope. My sisters were something else. Intelligent, outgoing. Honor roll. And my cousins, the kids of the sister-in-law in that photograph, they were the best at everything. And then there was me.
I don’t know. I tried. Sometimes. Most of the time I just didn’t care that much. Went to the university after high school but didn’t last a semester. Nothing good happens after midnight. But I had fun.
It’s alright, ma. I’m only bleeding.
He never even sings that line in the song but in my head he does and I’m singing it over and over because that’s the only line I know and the rest of the song is beyond my comprehension.
I haven’t had a drink in ten years. Not since Ma’s funeral. I don’t know if I was ever an alcoholic. I drank a lot, but never on the job. But there was a lot of stress and the drink softened the edges.
Been married twice. Neither marriage lasted long enough to build a family. First one was peer pressure. Everyone was getting married and it seemed like the reasonable thing to do, but we were way too young. Didn’t know who we were. Second marriage I blame to an out-of-control libido. And when the flame died down there was nothing else.
My dad died when I was thirty. Hardly ever see my sisters. They’ve lived out of state most of their lives. They’ve got family. And their families got families.
There’s a safe house about five miles away. Little cabin about a mile off the hard road back in the woods. I’ll stay there and call Decker in a couple of hours. Have him run me over the mountain before dawn.
I shouldn’t be doing this. Not at my age. I should be at a desk. There’s younger guys that could have taken the assignment. It didn’t have to be me. Didn’t have to be good old Joey.
But Joey, he’s got no kids. No grandkids. No wife. Not even a regular girl. Evenings are bad. Weekends worse. I got to find something to fill the time. And so here I am out here after midnight, when nothing good happens. Right, ma?
I had to talk the captain into letting me do it. He didn’t come right out and say what I already knew, that I’m too old to be chasing bad guys and getting thrown threw a window. He’s right.
But I’ve seen what the pills do. And if it was just killing the ones who used it, I might be ok with that. But I’ve seen the kids, the ones I never had, and they end up being raised by their grandma. Or maybe their great-grandma. And I think of that photograph. And I’m glad ma lived in simpler times and I’m glad that those ladies in that simple kitchen never had to see what things have come to. And maybe I can save a family. Maybe I can do some good.
So Decker’s the middle man. He sets up the meeting between the docs and pharmacist. That’s me. At least that’s my role. We talk to the docs and convince them that it’s all safe. They can write the scripts and I’ll fill them at the pharmacy, no questions asked. Then we get a some of our younger plain clothes to pose as patients and when the doc rights the scripts, we start building the case. They wear wires and everything. Once things are set up, we move on to the next county. It’s usually low risk with meet-ups in a diner or sometimes at the doc’s house. But his was different. Should have known better.
The docs are usually forty-something. Maybe they realized they’re never going to be the hot-shot surgeon they thought they’d be in med school. Maybe they see they’re not going to have that big house on the hill, or the condo in Florida, so they see the chance for easy money and what they felt was their destiny. Or maybe it’s just simple greed.
But Doc Varney was different. He’s in his seventies. Everyone in the county knows him and there’s a cloud of fear that overcomes folks when you talk about him. He’s been involved in the drug business since before the opiates took over. So he’s a prime target.
He wanted to meet after hours at the hardware building. Bad move by me and Decker to agree to it. Should have been neutral turf. Supposed to meet at ten, but he called and put it off till midnight. Then one. Nothing good, I told Decker. Nothing good.
Varney shows up and he’s not alone. There’s another guy, body guard or some such thug. Varney’s probably around five-eight and his thumb-breaker, a neanderthal for sure, is maybe six-two and probably weights two-fifty, hair cut close to the scalp, belly puffed out beyond his windbreaker jacket. He looks at me. Eying me.
Decker’s talking to Varney, the usual patter. I hear my name mentioned. Joey will take care of everything he says. Plenty of money for everyone. And best of all, it’s legal. Well, that’s a lie. And if it was legal, it’s completely immoral. I see Varney smiling.
And then neanderthal pulls a gun. He points it at me.
He’s a cop, he says to Varney.
Decker looks surprised. No way, he says. He runs the pharmacy over in Herndon.
He was in the task force that took me and Gilley down, what was it Joey, six years ago?
Yeah, I’m thinking. He’s right. Six years ago.
You’re a cop? It’s Decker. He gives me a backhand across the chops.
Varney’s left the building and is sitting in his car. That’s when Decker takes me by the collar and heaves me through the window. I hear a gun shot and see a puff of concrete dust where the bullet hit beside me.
Varney yells something and the goon gets in with Varney and they take off. Decker does, too. He’s staying in character. Too much invested in all of this just to give it up. Besides, I just crashed through the window. How bad could it be?
It’s alright ma. I’m only bleeding.
Another mile and I’ll be off the hard road. Feeling tired and thirsty but there’s food and drink at the cabin. And a real bandage.
I don’t hear the car and it surprises me as it came around the curve. I try to step back into the edge of the woods but I’m too slow. The car throws gravel off the shoulder as the wheels lock up.
I reach for my Glock but I’m too late. He’s leaning out the window, firing. I take a shot in the shoulder, then my stomach, then my chest.
I’m on the ground, looking up at the stars. I can’t move. I hear the car throwing gravel again.
I can’t move. I’m gurgling blood. I know what that means.
I’ll be dead afore the ground thaws in spring. So be it and amen.
The house is full of people come to tell me goodbye. And I’m laying in bed, alone in this dark room. Oh, they been here, said their hellos and moved on to the kitchen, I reckon. I smell a roast or something. Doubt that Mom cooked anything. She can still do eggs in the morning and maybe some beans and cornbread of the evenings, but she can’t cook for a whole mess of people like has come here today. She ain’t that much better off than me. She ain’t my mom, you know. She’s my wife, my help meet, as the good book says. All these years.
I can hear them in the back room, too, watching that danged television. Football, football, football. Ever now and again they let out a whoop.
They didn’t have football in my day. Well, maybe they did, but it wasn’t like it is now. Sure fire didn’t have no television. They don’t live like we used to. Now days they watch other people live. We did things. Went out on the river. If I could get out this bed I’d take them down to my museum one last time. Show them that alligator I got down in the bayou. Got that on the second trip down the Mississippi. That was back when you made your own boats. Flat boats. No motors like they got now. Just float down the river with the current. We’d hunt all the way down and when we got to the bayou, we’d sell the boat and send our haul back by rail. Except on that second trip, the Eugene – that was the name of the boat – got caught up in the trees and rocks and such and sank in the shallows. We tried to pull it out but we lost ever thing. Saved just enough to get a train ride home.
Those were good days.
One of them rug rats came in. Red-haired kid. Cute little thing, wearing a girly white dress. She stayed out in the hall at first, peeking in through the doorway. I told her come on in. She stood next to the bed, didn’t say nothing.
What’s your name?
How old are you?
I’m ninety two.
She had nothing to say to that. Kind of tickled me.
Did you get you something to eat?
She looked around the room. The wallpaper had started peeling off the walls. Been that way for a while. Plaster on the ceiling is brown from water stains and ever few weeks a chunk will fall to the maple floor and Blanche or Hubert will come in and pick it up. If they’re feeling special industrious one of them might bring a broom and a dustpan. I think Hubert drinks. I know Blanche does. But they do enough round the house to keep me and Mom from doing harm to ourselves.
The house was built by my daddy. He was fairly well off and kept the place pretty good, but if I’m being honest, my hunting and trapping didn’t bring in enough money to keep up the house proper. I refinished the floors once. Probably fifty year ago. You can’t tell it now. Worn down to bare wood between the bed and the door. Hubert put tape on the cracked window glass. No sense in doing any more than that. My time is short and Mom will be close behind. When she’s gone, the power company will finish the job that time and mother nature started and take the house to the ground. I hate it that it has to end that way, but no one else cares much.
So be it and amen.
Is this your home?
The red-haired girl. Guess I drifted off. Happens like that when your last breath could come any time. Forgot she was in the room. I opened my eyes and took in a deep breath and let it go in a long, slow whistle.
She didn’t mean nothing bout the question, she just wanted to know if I was the one who lived in that shamble of a house. Just a rug rat asking a question. But I pondered on it a spell.
Home? Maybe once. When I could get around. I’d hunt, and Mom would cook up whatever I brought home. Pheasant. Squirrel. Turkey. Deer. We’d have a feast. And family would come in on Sundays. My regular family. Brothers and their kin. And we’d tell stories and plan our next trip. We’d share a bottle or two in those days and my brother Aaron would have too much and start to bragging about his shooting skills and before the day was out we’d be back behind the kitchen shooting bottles off the fence post.
We hadn’t used that cabin in the back as a kitchen for as long as I can remember. I used it to cure pelts. And tobacco, them few years I tried my hand at farming. Hard tell what’s back there now.
Yeah, honey. This is my home. For a spell longer, anyways.
I laughed a little at that, which started me coughing and wheezing and I couldn’t stop. Blanche heard me and came in and pulled me up in the bed. Nearly pulled my shoulder out of its socket. She pulled my pillows up then pushed my head back down and flattened my hair to my head. She yanked the covers up over my shoulders, not even asking me if I was cold. She sure treats an old man rough.
Red stood there watching and Blanche gave her the stink eye, and when Blanche headed for the door, I managed to give Red a wink.
She kindly smiled.
Don’t get old, honey.
I laughed again but seems my coughing spell was over.
I used to keep gumdrops in a glass bowl on my nightstand but the jar was empty. Sugar stuck to the sides of the bowl. On the dresser is a picture of Mom, all young and pretty in her red dress, cepting the picture is black and white. Maybe more brown. But I remember that dress. Beside her picture is one of my daddy. Not as mean as he looks. He was a good man. Died when he was forty-two. Consumption.
She looked at me, not getting my meaning. I reached for my cane. Always keep my cane with me, even in bed. I picked it up, the worn oak so familiar in my hands. Oak maybe as old as me. I told Mom to make sure they put it in the ground with me.
I picked it up, held it up to my eye like I was sighting a rifle, and aimed at the dresser.
She knew what I meant but she wasn’t sure.
She walked to the dresser.
Open it up.
It stuck at first but she gave it a strong pull and it squeaked as it opened.
She looked inside, then back at me.
Look under the handkerchiefs.
She pulled them back.
The wood box. Bring it to me.
I thought she would hesitate but she didn’t. She picked up the box and walked straightway to me. She stood next to the bed and held the box out.
I took it and she stared at my hands, gnarled and bent out of shape by age and ever thing I had done in my life. Can’t remember how many times I broke one of my fingers. Life on the flat boat ain’t for the faint. And when you skin an animal, you’re just as likely to skin yourself. Then there’s my fingernails. Blanche aint’ cut them in a while.
I gave Red a smile and a wink and she smiled back.
I lifted the lid, half expecting the box to be empty. Figured Hubert would have found the box by now. Maybe he had. Wasn’t really worth that much. Ten dollars. Ten silver dollars.
I picked up a few and hefted them in my hand. I love the way silver dollars clink against each other. Kind of heavy and muted. Makes you feel like you have something worthwhile.
I looked through them, trying to find the newest, shiniest dollar. Not that they were new. Like ever thing else in this old house, they were at least fifty years old. But I found one in pretty good shape. I picked it out from the others and held it up, letting the dim light through the cracked window do what it could to show its shine. Not much.
I held it out to Red.
She took it, stared at it.
It’s a silver dollar. It’s only worth a dollar.
I want you to keep it. Something to remember old Sid by. Will you keep it?
She nodded again.
Don’t lose it.
She closed her hand around the coin and put her hand in one of the pockets of her dress. I closed the lid on the box and closed my eyes.
When I woke again it was dark. The house was quiet. I could hear Blanche and Hubert in the kitchen talking to Mom. Couldn’t tell what they were saying. Making plans, I reckon. I’ll be gone soon. It’s only right.
So be it and amen.
There’s no way he knew what he gave me back then. It was just a dollar. They don’t make money like that anymore. It’s different. It’s real. Like Sid.
I didn’t know him. Barely even remember that time in his room, in that old house. But when I see the pictures, like the one with his birthday cake, it all comes back. The fading wallpaper. The crumbling plaster. The smells. The old gas furnace with fumes not quite burned. The mildew coming from the wood just beginning to rot inside the house and far enough along on the front porch that bumble bees and yellow jackets had taken over.
Sometimes I have dreams that I’m back in that house that seems to ramble on forever and I’m lost upstairs or in a room I didn’t know existed or trapped in the kitchen out back. It’s terrifying.
My kids are grown with families of their own but when they were growing up I told them about Sid. Showed them the pictures. I’ve even taken them to what’s left of the museum in Point Pleasnt. The kitchen was restored and moved to wide spot beside the highway. Every fall – football, football, football – they open it to the public and make apple butter. I’m sure Mom made apple butter for Sid.
It was an 1884 Morgan Silver Dollar. S series. Last time I had it appraised it was worth about $200,000. He had no way of knowing how valuable it would become. Just a shiny coin for little girl.
I keep it in a box in the top drawer of my dresser, under my scarves. I know I should put it in the safe deposit box. That would be the prudent thing to do. But I like to take it out and hold it, feel its heft. There’s more to life than money.
Sid knew that. Sid lived it.
The house – his home – is long gone. Hard to even see where it used to be. Doesn’t matter. Because I remember the kindness a gentle man showed to a small child so long ago.
This story is a work of fiction, though certain aspects are true. Albert Sidney Morgan lived a life of adventure and did indeed built flatboats, including the Eugene, and floated down the Mississippi on hunting expeditions. He lived across from the John Amos power plant near Winfield and some of you may remember his Morgan’s Museum. In his last years, there was in fact a gathering at his house and Sid was bed-ridden, but I don’t know if he was in his last days, as he is in this story. The guests were watching football, and Sid did utter the immortal words, “football, football, football.” Some of you can relate. I don’t know that there was ever any drinking at the house. Maybe, maybe not. I’m claiming artistic license on that. The red-haired girl in the story is my sister, but the encounter described never happened. She doesn’t have a silver dollar worth hundreds of thousands. Really, she doesn’t. So while some of the characters are real, the story is fiction.
More discoveries in the closet. This from a collection of about 30 t-shirts from races I ran in my running prime. The Charleston Distance Run is 15 miles, including some brutal hills. I loved running it.
So I’ve got shirts from a lot of races. Some of you may remember the Carbide 10k, another really hard race in the hills behind the Tech Center in South Charleston. Then there’s the Poca River 15K along the beautiful Poca River. The 20k from Fayetteville to Oak Hill, again in the rolling hills of West Virginia. The Coonskin Park 10k, maybe the hardest 10k race I’ve ever run. Back then everything was 10k. I went to California one year and ran the Brentwood 10k. That was cool.
But what do I do with all the shirts? Put them back in the box and take them out again in another 30 years? Remember the old days when I was a real runner?
In 1985 (before many of you were born) running was big. There were over 1400 runners in the Charleston Distance Run that year, including the Norwegian legend, Greta Waitz. She won the New York City Marathon nine times, including 1985. And there she was in Charleston. That year I ran the 15 miles in 1:37:50. That’s a little over 6.5 minute miles. Out of over 1400 runners, that was good enough for 160th place. My neighbor across the street, Dave Kline, finished in 1:25:14. Now Dave was a runner. But if I had run that same time in 2019, I would have finished in the top ten. In 2019 there were less than 400 runners.
Times change. Now all the races are 5k. And nobody wants to run hills.
I still do. I may not be as fast as I once was. I’m not interested in the 20-mile training runs it takes to run 15 in a race. I still do a little speed work, because, yeah, I get a kick out of winning the old man’s division.
And the truth is, the longer I can do that, the longer it will take me to get old.
This is what happens when you clean out a closet. I came across this hand-written list from years ago. Not sure when, but most likely from my junior high school days. All the things I wanted to accomplish in my lifetime.
1. Learn to snow ski. I did. Even made my own pair of skis. I used old belts for the binding. Seriously.
2. Visit St. Albans, Vermont.I’m from St. Albans, West Virginia. Haven’t made it to Vermont. I guess there’s still time.
3. Build an underground hut.I don’t know why. Never did it. Never will.
4. Learn to pick padlocks and combination locks.Because that would be so cool. I still want to learn to do this.
5. Perform magic in front of a large audience.I learned a few card tricks in my day, but I’ll be happy to let this goal slide.
6. Master escape tricks as Houdini did. I once made my own wooden stocks to escape from, but I never became a great escape artist. I’ll let this one go, too.
7. Learn to scuba dive. I actually considered this a couple of years ago. May still do it.
8. Explore the Atlantic Ocean in a submarine. That’s a big step from scuba diving. I’m surprised I didn’t say I wanted to build my own submarine.
9. Learn to fly an airplane. The company I work for used to have an airplane. I flew in the co-pilot’s seat many times. I learned enough about flying that I was confident I could crash the plane within sight of the airport.
10. Learn to fly a glider. It’s just an airplane without an engine. Piece of cake.
11. Build a hovercraft.This is classic Joe. I figured I could do it with an old lawnmower.
12. Build a man-powered glider and/or a regular glider. What’s a man-powered glider? Yeah, I can build anything.
13. Go into space and/or visit the moon. It was the middle of the space race. Every kid wanted to go to the moon.
14. Learn to play the banjo.I can play the guitar. And I’m still thinking about the banjo.
15. Find out all possible about the Lost City of Atlantis. I know nothing more today than I did back then. Must have been a passing interest.
16. Live to the year 2000. Seemed so far into the future. Now it seems so far in the past. Time, it swallows everything. From the Amos Lee song, What’s Been Going On.
17. Get patents an at least three inventions.That’s just too much like work.
18. Write a book. Yes! I’ve written five! Six, if you count carnival dreams, my collection of stories, now available on Amazon (shameless plug).
That’s it. Guess I’ve always been a dreamer. Still am. And I think that’s a good thing.