From the terrifying new Stephen King horror to a millennial anti-romcom set in New York, here are BBC Culture’s books to read.
And to think, I never got through BBC Culture’s 2021 books to read…
Rather than thrifting, napping, or just blowing off lunch, Leo and I had begun a weekly ritual of sharing lunch on his newly reconditioned redwood picnic. This always occurred on Tuesdays. Under the circumstances of my life at the moment, this seemed apropos.
As is the natural evolution of things, I was tasked with ordering, fetching, and paying for lunch. This was totally OK, however. At his age and value, the cost was a pittance for the wisdom these sessions yielded. I was beginning to realize how much he’d given me despite myself.
I’d managed to navigate his harrowing drive with a pair of subs from Erbert & Gerbert’s, which had fortuitously opened a smattering of locations in MSP. Their expansion was both welcomed and evocative of too much collegiate nostalgia.
As I walked around the corner of his strangely geometric home, I found him perched atop one of the reconditioned benches. When I spotted him, I paused. He was sitting just over the X-shaped strut that held up the end of the bench. He was gazing into space like there was something there. From my vantage point, there was nothing. Capturing him there like that was akin to spotting a wild turkey in its natural habitat—you just linger and observe.
“Hey,” I announced.
Leo swung around, “Hey!” he echoed.
“What’s out there,” I pointed.
”Not sure,” he offered, “Maybe turkeys, but I can’t tell yet.”
“You are surrounded by wildlife out here for sure,” I made the sort of master-of-the-obvious observation I loathed.
“Yea,” Leo waived me over as he resumed staring into space.
I took a moment to assess him as he was. His feet were still swollen, at least up to his ankles. He was wearing some odd slide-on slippers that I swear he’d stolen from the hospital. But under the circumstances, I wasn’t about to critique his choice in footwear.
While his feet appeared to have expanded, the rest of him seemed withdrawn. Every time I’d seen him, he looked somehow diminished. He was not the robust Leo that played my father in so many memories, which were feverishly jockeying for position in my consciousness at that moment.
“So, what’s REALLY out there?,” I asked in an effort to snap myself out of my own head.
“Everything,” he answered.
I ventured a rejoinder, “The past and futire and the whole nine yards?”
“Maybe…” was all I got in response.
“Well, if you spot it, point me in the right direction.”
“I will,” he assured, more upbeat as he maintained his thousand-yard stare.
I proceeded to gingerly unload the paper bag containing our meal. I was careful not to make too much noise so as to scare off whatever snipe Leo was stalking in his mind’s eye. I nearly silently placed his wrapped sub and bag of chips near his resting elbow.
This was reminiscent of so many moments from my childhood where Brandon and I were just too terrified to bother the old man. He was so obtuse that we generally didn’t know whether to shit or go blind. But we knew not to bother him when he was in one of his various fugue states.
As a kid, I once woke him from a nap because someone was knocking on the door. Leo didn’t dispense much verbal advice. Most of his conveyances were non-verbal in the manner of monkey see, monkey do. But when his eyes blinked open, he scared the shit out of young me when he barked, “Never wake someone up by shaking them. You’ll give them a heart attack.”
This advice stuck with me. It was one of those seminal moments where fresh knowledge hits you so hard, it never forgets you.
I repeated the almost silent outlay of food on my half of the table.
Rather than crinkling up the bag, I placed it at the end of the table. As Leo was still staring into the mystic, I whispered, “I’m going to grab some water.”
He nodded and added, “There are Diet Coke’s in the fridge.”
“Thanks,” I acknowledged.
Nothing had changed inside. The place was floor-to-ceiling stuff. At some point after his split from Mercedes, Leo had decided that he was no longer going to be beholden to convention or neatness. The clutter accumulated at an alarming pace. Either this was always his dream, or he was doing it out of spite and protest. Regardless, he was undeniably a hoarder.
Despite his contention that everything was worth something, most of it looked like vintage dime-store junk. Gazing at it all, it seemed like the sort of stuff that would be scattered all over Wollworth’s in the ‘80s—the shiny trinkets that would draw Brandon and I like magpies. Unfortunately, Brandon and I would have to deal with all of it at some point in the near future. And it had long since lost its luster.
I grabbed the handle of Leo’s ancient fridge and flung it open. I expected to see the usual contents. What I actually saw staggered me. There was nothing in the fridge but cardboard containers of leftovers in various states of decay and enough Diet Cokes to give Nessie a brain tumor.
“Fucking hell!” I exclaimed to no one, as I shook my head.
It’s not like I expected the guy who once regularly procured nearly-expired discount ham to fry up for dinner to shop at Whole Foods. But clearly he’d abandoned any notion of grocery shopping, much less nutrition. I grabbed a pair of Diet Cokes, took another long look at the fridge, and I flung the door shut.
I tucked the cans behind my left arm as I glided the door open.
For his part, Leo remained a fucking statue. He’d yet to move a millimeter. At least the weather was perfect: 72 degrees with a dew point in the 40s. Many wonder, rightfully so, why anyone would live in Minnesota. Days like this were the answer.
I deposited Leo’s Diet Coke close enough to him, yet gently enough, to slowly jar him from his reverie. He gingerly turned toward me and swung his leg over the bench so that he was facing forward. He looked ashen and his face had sunken a bit. I hadn’t seen him in a week, but the change was somewhat unexpected. It was like his face was draining into his feet.
I tried to lighten my own mood, “What’s new here at the zoo?” I called it the zoo because any and all manner of wildlife could appear out of nowhere at any given moment.
He chuckled a bit, “Ah, you know, pretty much the same.”
Even though I didn’t want to, I contemplated asking the fucking stupidest question anyone could ask someone who was clearly dying slowly. Mainly because no one ever answers the question truthfully, I spat out the words, “How are ya doin’?”
He began to unwrap his food with some difficulty.
“Let me,” I said as I unwrapped his sandwich and tor open his bag of chips.
“Oh, you know, I’m fine most days. Just the usual issues. I have trouble sleeping, because I have to piss about every other hour, and these damn swollen feet.”
“But otherwise, you’re doing OK?”
As we both bit into our sandwiches and chewed, there were a million things going through my head. Paramount among them, I wanted to ask what the fuck was going on in his fridge. I also wanted to how the hell he was getting along alone in his condition. I really wanted to know if he was lonely or scared. But most of all, I wanted to know what thoughts were rattling around in his head.
I knew all too well what a fucking terrifying place one’s own mind was. And I couldn’t imagine his current situation was doing anything to ameliorate that spectacular hell. But way too long ago, we’d carved our rules of engagement in stone. I never confronted my old man, and he gave up absolutely nothing. If I got anything authentic from him, it was a complete happenstance.
Logically, under the circumstances, none of this made any sense. He was old and becoming increasingly childlike. I was obviously the adult at the table. And yet I could not seem to find any clear path out of the jungle that captured me and separated us from having any meaningful conversation. It was as ridiculous as it was frustrating. All I had to do was speak the words—I knew how to speak at least.
Although I couldn’t pinpoint the moment it happened, by every possible measure, I had surpassed my old man. This was a strange and unnerving realization. I was now physically bigger and stronger. I was intellectually equal if not superior to him. At the very least, I was more adept at operating in modern times. I had accumulated some hard-won wisdom through my own divorce and midlife struggles. As a parent, I felt like I was much more loving and tender than he ever was. I’d long since bested my old man to stand atop the mountain.
And yet there I sat, silently chewing on thoughts I could not articulate.
I felt like I was under some spell cast way back in time that should’ve long since faded. Everything seemed to stem from that seminal moment when we listened to “American Pie”. I was sitting in his lap, and he was so clearly the father lion with his little cub. But it wasn’t just the music, it was the circumstance. We could sit there and enjoy Peter’s record collection, but we could never talk about what happened to Peter.
By any measure, the current version of me that was sitting across from my old man was a father lion in his own right. But in my head, in his presence, I was forever a cub.
It was ironic that Brandon, the younger cub, seemed to have found a way out of the jungle that had forever sequestered me. As the alpha cub, I was supposed to be the one to take the helm. I was the heir apparent. And yet I desperately wanted my little bro sitting next to me at this moment. He bolstered my spirit. He doubled my confidence by simply being in my orbit. He had an uncanny ability to clear me straight out of my head. I could be the king of the jungle when he was around. But now, I found myself just staring into space.
Leo snapped me out of it, “How’s work?” he asked as he reached for his soda.
This was one area where we were uniquely coupled. Leo and I had somehow managed to have parallel professional lives—something that Brandon could not claim. I was over 20 years into my corporate American dream. Leo was cut loose a month shy of 30 years, a casualty of a pension cost savings initiative. But we’d both spent considerable time in the corpora trenches.
“Oh, you know, just a bunch of self-appointed management types rearranging the chess board to their advantage. Us pawns just occupy our little squares waiting on their next pointless move.”
Leo guffawed at this analogy, “Well, at least nothing’s changed. I used to say, new manager, new desk.”
It was my turn to guffaw, “Why do managers love to rearrange desks in your day and cubicles in mine?” I asked.
Leo wasted no time in responding with a mouth full of sandwich, “It’s in their nature! It’s all they know how to do—rearrange the chess board,” he set down his sandwich and circled both hands around the table top as though he was rearranging chess pieces. It was the most animated I’d seen him in a couple weeks.
With a mouth full of sandwich, I pointed back at him and nodded vigorously, “Hell yes! It’s like the manager’s handbook reads, #1: rearrange staff, #2: just look generally but not specifically busy.”
Leo laughed righteously at the truth of this observation.
“It’s like management by rearrangement,” Leo yelled through a mouthful of sandwich, launching a small piece of bread that hit me in the cheek.
I brushed it off the table and replied, “It’s rearrangement management at its finest, godammit!”
We both took a moment to absorb the absurdity of our respective professional lives. Like nearly everything else, the parallelism remained unspoken. Still lost in the jungle and without Brandon to assist, I choked on the words to express it. I took another bite of my sandwich instead.
Excerpt from Finding Fidelity, the forthcoming novel from Blake Charles Donley
I hiked the parking lot, climbed the stairwell, and traversed the nondescript grayish industrial carpet squares leading to my cubicle. As I snuggled into my perfectly ergonomic chair, I glanced at the vintage analog clock frittering away time just below my dual monitor cleavage. It was a miniature brass Dunhaven mantle clock with a ticking second hand. The narrow brass sliver rhythmically lapped the roman numerals second by second, minute after minute, hour through excruciating hour.
In its previous life, the clock was perched atop Leo’s desk at the Valentine Lake home. I recalled staring at it—eyeballs fixated on the second hand—as I did homework. When the hand perpetually stepped clockwise, it emitted a satisfying clunking noise which instantly soothed me into a near meditative state.
The bright white Dunhaven face was registering almost 2:00 PM. I had a few more hours to kill with no weaponry in sight. I leaned back as far as my chair allowed and just marveled at the spectacular inefficiency and gammon that were the cause of corporate American bloat.
In an office where all 600 employees ostensibly worked 40 hours a week, only 25% of them were present on Friday afternoons during fleeting Minnesota summers. And only about 10% of the MIA were actually using PTO. The balance were just shaving a little silver for themselves off the edge of the mighty corporate American coin. The ironic flipside of the heavily nicked coin was that even when all 600 employees were in the office, the average efficiency level of the typical employee waivered around 25%.
There were plenty of reasons for this: coffee + smoke + bathroom breaks, pre-meeting technical difficulties, mid-meeting technical difficulties, post meeting malaise, co-workers showing up late to meetings, sports + weather + traffic hallway + “pantry” + “watercooler” discussions, extra-long lunches eating, extra-long lunches exercising, extra-long lunches napping, extra-long lunches thrifting, “brown bag” lunches featuring guest speakers on a myriad of superfluous topics, detours for early-morning caffeine, extra-long trips for mid-morning caffeine, extra-long trips for mid-afternoon caffeine, “private” appointments of all varieties + flavors + colors, company-wide meetings that were nothing more than glorified pep rallies, division-wide meetings that were nothing more than glorified pep rallies, department-wide meetings that were nothing more than glorified budget updates, workgroup meetings that were nothing more than glorified coffee klatchs, on-site conferences, in-town conferences, out-of-state conferences, mandatory safety training, mandatory security training, mandatory first-aid training, mandatory fire + tornado + active shooter drills, wellness initiative annual check-up days, wellness walks, AM group stretching (for wellness), on-site seated chair massage events, on-site flu shot clinics, bloodmobile donation opportunities, software vendor sponsored outings (mostly to sporting events), consulting vendor sponsored outings (mostly to sporting events), company sponsored outings (mostly to golf courses), sponsored 10K fun runs, sponsored 5K fun walks, sponsored 26.2 mile rollerblading races, all manner of company picnic events during work hours, all manner of extra-long celebration lunches, all manner of extra-long quota-achieving pizza parties, costume contests (Halloween), pumpkin carving contests (Halloween), pot lucks (Christmas), teambuilding days that generally involved some sort of pseudo sporting activity like laser tag or whirlyball or bowling, volunteer days that generally involved feeding some manner of starving child, sick days that generally involved faking illness after a disappointing Vikings loss and accompanying fierce hangover, washing coffee mugs in the “pantry”, making coffee in the in the “pantry”, just hanging out and/or chatting in the “pantry” while fetching more coffee, answering unsolicited (spam) phone calls, responding to unsolicited (spam) emails, opening a slew of unsolicited (spam) snail mail. and engaging in a whole slew of unnecessary and irrelevant co-worker interactions that chewed up at least 10% of any given day.
By my assessment, as long as the majority of aforementioned pork could be trimmed from office work, 75% of the employees could be safely cleaved, and the company would still operate swimmingly.
As I stared at the metal lattice that kept the drop celling panels from crashing down on me, a new thought struck me. Ironically, pondering corporate American unproductivity was itself unproductive. Also, I would need to add “literally staring at the ceiling” to my exhaustive list of unproductive work activities.
I stood up to groundhog a bit—also unproductive. There was someone at the corner of the farthest away row from Deadpan Alley talking on the phone. Besides him, pretty much no one else occupied the vast expanse of space where our group was temporarily incarcerated.
I sat back down and looked at my trusty clock. It was 2:12 PM. I’d managed to kill off a whole twelve minutes pondering inefficiency, staring at the ceiling, and groundhogging.
Excerpt from Finding Fidelity, a forthcoming novel from Blake Charles Donley
It was sheer sensual blight. Up to this point, it was something literally unimaginable for Sam.
There were blinking, spinning, and undulating lights, there were screens showing all manner of everything, there was music pouring from everywhere and everything. It was lousy with a frenetic vibe that would overdose even the most Zen humanoid. It definitely warranted a warning label about flashing lights and seizures.
Without proper guidance, the space alone could scrambled the brains of the uninitiated. One did not just dive into the world’s most meticulously cluttered basement, one dipped a toe, then a shin, then a kneecap, and so on until full immersion was advisable. One didn’t just march down the stairs. Like frogs in pots of boiling water, one had to condition oneself to the intensity.
There was nary a spot or nook or cranny that didn’t illicit some sensual reaction. “Taking in all in” was out of the question. The 900 (or so) square feet took months to properly absorb.
As she stood at the landing of the raw wooden staircase adorned with rainbow landing pads obviously purchased from the local big box hardware emporium, she marveled at what hinted from the periphery. But, she was transfixed by that stared back at her from dead ahead—a neon guitar clock in the shape of Fender Stratocaster with a functionl second hand that was ticking away the seconds of her life.
And this was just the hors devours. She dared not peek around either corner for fear of being overwhelmed by the visual buffet. From her vantage point, Jaye’s basement was a psychedelic, schizophrenic, bonkers Smithsonian rock ‘n’ roll salon the likes of which she’d never imagined.
Excerpt from All or Nothing Girl (part 3), the forthcoming novel from Blake Charles Donley
The way the ice cubes glided, swooned even, around the bottom of the glass made Sam both happy and sad. Those final dance moves were special, sublime even.
But when she took the last sip of the magic elixir that suspended the dancers, they began to simply collide at the bottom of her glass. Without the viscous fluidity, they moved clumsily.
This made her sad—it inspired a desire for more lubricant.
She ordered another.
And again, the cubes appeared to float in thick air, gliding around her glass with ease and grace. Sam was, like the ice cubes, happy.
Excerpt from All or Nothing Girl, the forthcoming novel from Blake Charles Donley
I recently completed one of Kathy Ver Eecke’s GetABookDeal101.com courses. It was five days of instruction on crafting the perfect query letter in order to pitch your book to literary agents.
The course was both wildly informative and utterly demoralizing.
I learned, among other things, that my first novel is likely a romance!?!?!? Based on the comps I selected, it would seem All or Nothing Girl would be found in the stacks along with other “beach reads”.
I additionally learned that at 110,000 words, my novel is about 25,000 words too long. This was staggering news mainly because I worked on it (writing and editing) for the better part of four years, and I cannot even begin to imagine where I’d cleave that much content. In its current state, and me as a brand new author pitching, I’d never get a book deal. It would simply be too risky (expensive) to grant an unknown commodity that many printed pages per book.
This revelation sort of rocked my world.
And not in a good way.
To add to the dismal news, at 105,000 words, my current work in progress Finding Fidelity is already too long for the literary fiction category. Hilariously, I’m only 2/3 finished. It appears that I’m doomed to write bloated novels.
At this point in this lifetime, the plan it to finish book two and commence a third book to be written “on spec”, which I will subsequently pitch to agents. Maybe book three will land me that elusive book deal. This notion is both frustrating and exhausting. But as “they” say, “It’s the bit.”
Wish me luck…
© 2022 – ∞ B. Charles Donley
“Jezuz!” I exclaimed out loud to no one in deadpan alley.
I remembered why I hadn’t eaten, and why I was so fucking hungry—blood draw day for the “corporate wellness program”. Apparently, one is at the pinnacle of health when one has not eaten for at least 12 hours (or longer). I posited that there was a fine line between vigorous and emaciated. I was straddling that line as I pulled up the building floor plans to figure out where the goddam Quartz conference room was. As it turned out, if I began jack-hammering in the center of my cubicle through all of the subsequent floors below me, I’d land dead center in the Quartz conference room.
I opted for the stairs.
The annual bribe for two vials of blood and a litany of measurements required a period of fasting to ensure none of our “numbers” were askew. There were also “activity” and “nutrition” requirements, but simply forking over a pound of flesh (or in my case, 20 ml of blood) would net me half the $1.000 bribe. Lord knows I had a few pounds of flesh to spare. The “activity” and “nutrition” aspects that yielded the $500 balance were a problem for future Jaye.
As there was no chance of being ass-eaten descending the stairwell, I lazily meandered downward. I was passed by a pair of go-getters, and that was fine with me. Since I was descending toward a blood draw, I was in no rush.
The triage for this HIPPA-questionable corporate endeavor was …questionable. There was of course a check-in table where I was treated like Leo at the Mayo Clinic: there were copious amounts of paperwork despite the multipage online questionnaire that was filled out weeks prior. Unsurprisingly, said online questionnaire already covered the exact same questions on the clipboarded paper questionnaire I was handed. The number of times I was asked for my birthdate nearly impelled me to get it tattooed onto my fucking forehead.
As I glanced toward the row of chairs to which I was directed by clipboard-hander-outer gal, I noticed a familiar desirous form occupying the chair nearest to the room full of blood drawers. Custom would dictate that I sit right next to Addy, but the chairs were arranged impossibly close to one another. Occupying the chair next to her seemed tantamount to sidling up to the urinal next to the sole occupied urinal in a bank of a dozen empty urinals.
I rapidly, clumsily, evaluated my options.
I nearly dropped my clipboard.
The clipboard-hander-outer gal asked, “Mr. Holst, are you OK?”
I swung toward her a bit too violently a nodded a bit too vigorously, likely underscoring her concern rather than quelling it.
I swung back around hoping against hope she had not been called into the vampire’s chamber.
She hadn’t. She sat patiently with crossed legs and a black patent stiletto dangling off the edge of the sexy toes of her right foot. Her foot rhythmically bobbed in time to some invisible melody. Unlike most of humanity, she was staring off into the space just beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows rather than space between her pinky and thumb at her phone.
I was struck stupid and hypnotized by her bare foot pumping the black patent leather pump up and down.
I had to go in for a closer examination.
I composed myself to the best of my abilities, which were lackluster at that moment.
I approached the seat next to hers casually.
She looked up for a second, and I returned her glance with an insouciant smirk.
She reciprocated with a half nod, and resumed her thousand-yard stare at literally greener pastures.
I lowered myself onto the seat next to her. As I did, I realized there was no avoiding her prodigious left hip which was spilling over the edge of her chair onto mine.
I decided to venture the connection and lowered myself gracefully, slowly.
She wiggled a bit to the right as my bony hip grazed her luxuriant hip.
“Sorry,” I muttered.
She looked at me for a brief second and smiled the sexiest kissable smile I’d ever know.
I refocused on the clipboard at hand.
She unfocused somewhere in the distance.
I immediately wondered what she was wondering.
Was she lamenting the annoying troll sitting adjacent who’d waylaid her reverie?
Was she pondering the remainder of her bullshit day in corporate American hell?
Was she regretting all of the bad decisions she’d made that led her to this lugubrious scene?
Was she psyching herself up for the needle that was about to pierce her sexy forearm?
Was she dreaming about her dream guy who quite obviously was not sitting next to her?
Was she wracking her brain in a futile attempt to remember her cat’s birthday?
Was she looking forward to an impending vacation in Tahiti?
Was she replaying her entire high school epoch rife with stories, tales, lies and exaggerations?
Was she plotting her escape across the street to Nordstrom Rack during lunch?
Was she thinking about what she was going to binge watch after work?
Was she thinking about what she was going to binge eat after work?
Was she thinking about what she was going to binge drink after work?
Was she plotting her takeover of the entire Finance division?
Was she replaying her entire college epoch rife with sweet sounds coming down on the nightshift?
Was she looking forward to a weekend with her BFF who was flying in from Topeka, KS?
Was she wracking her brain in a futile attempt to wrack her brain?
Was she dreaming about the closet makeover she had saved for and planned for over a year?
Was she psyching herself up for the update meeting she had with her boss later in the day?
Was she regretting not pursuing her dream of a career in photography more vigorously?
Was she pondering whether or not to purchase the matching red pumps?
Was she lamenting the interminable wait to get this ordeal over with?
“Addison Tattersall,” announced a tiny man in pointless blue head-to-toe scrubs.
And with that, her toes disappeared into her black patent leather pump, and her hip grazed mine as she bounded out of her seat to comply with the requirements of the MVT “Pay-for-blood-test-results” program.
I watched her hips as they sashayed into the vast conference room now broken up by slapdash cubicle walls to afford us victims of the corporate blood extraction a modicum of privacy. They were the most perfect hips I’d ever seen…then they were gone.
“Jaye Holst,” announced a squat Smurfette.
Excerpt from Finding Fidelity, a forthcoming novel from Blake Charles Donley
We both sat silently leafing through our respective magazines for what seemed like a half dozen eternities. The whole scene struck me as absurd. At least half of the people in the vast waiting zone were terrified about the forthcoming tests and test results. Even in their own tiny support groups, everyone was isolated inside of their racing minds.
I began to wonder if I should ask Leo if he was scared. But I was secretly afraid of his answer. I felt completely inadequate and superfluous. I felt like I did at the funeral when he reached out for support and Mercedes held us back. I sorta hated myself at that moment.
“Leo Holst,” A heftier middle-aged woman heralded from the opposite end of the waiting room. She was standing in the threshold of a heavy maple door with a large aluminum handle. In the typical medical costume of powder blue hospital scrubs, I could make out nearly every curve and bulge of her squishy frame.
Leo folded his magazine and discarded it on the table in front of us, “That’s us!”
I folded mine and tossed atop his. I leapt from my seat with more gusto than was necessary, “Yup.”
“Leo Holst” the squat Smurfette bellowed again.
“Yea!” Leo bellowed as he hobbled unsteadily toward her.
I looked in her general direction, “We’re on our way,” I assured, as I patted him on the back a couple of times for encouragement.
She looked down at the clipboard cradled in her left arm, and looked back up with an expressionless expression. Clearly, she was having…a day. And as we slowly made our way toward her, we were in its crosshairs.
“I’m Carol, I’ll be your nurse,” a resigned smile threatened cracked her rigid face wide open. We both nodded as we sauntered past her into the hallway.
“Just step over here,” she gestured toward a contraption that measured both weight and height.”
Leo walked toward the contraption and looked at his swollen feet.
“You can remove your shoes,” she assured.
Leo stepped on the back of his left shoe with his right. As he tried to step out, he became a bit unsteady, and both of us grabbed an elbow. He stepped out of it. He and we repeated this maneuver on the opposite foot. He stepped on the scale. Carol noted his weight on her clipboard.
I was shocked that the gray digital numbers on the LCD screen read 183. I couldn’t even remember that last time he was that svelte. It was not in my lifetime. I recalled a number of Mercedes’ rants about how slender he used to be, but I was used to the 220-lb version of him that had occupied the vast majority of my lifetime. It was surreal to see those numbers. For the first time in my life, I felt like I could scoop him up and cradle him in my arms, if only for a few seconds. The truth of this hit me like a meteor strike.
Carol extended the long steel ruler that protruded from the rear of the scale and instructed Leo to, “Stand up straight.”
When the perpendicular portion came to rest atop Leo’s head, he was 5’9”.
“How tall am I now-a-days?” he asked.”
“5-9,” Carol responded coldly as she recorded the measurement on her clipboard.
He made a half smile and looked at me, “Huh, still shrinking,”
I gave my head a single shake, “I guess that’s what happens, right?”
“Apparently.” he agreed.
Not only was Leo exactly my height at my age, he was my shoe size, waist size, and lord knows what else. Other than my looks—I resembled Mercedes, while Brandon resembled Leo—we were fraternal twins of a sort. All of the vintage suits he’d managed to hang onto fit me perfectly. His swanky vintage shoes fit me as well.
I was not until he hit 50 that he began to expand horizontally and contract vertically. I was not looking forward to suffering a similar fate.
“This way,” Carol directed us down the long hallway.
We were ushered into a typical exam room. It gave me the shivers. All exam rooms gave me the shivers. There was something so terminal about exam rooms. No one was ever in an exam room in hopes of receiving excellent news. Other than finding out you are not dying of some horrible imagined malady, which was a sort of excellent news, nothing good ever happened in this foreboding setting.
Carol proceeded to take the rest of Leo’s vitals. For the most part, the numbers were as good as could’ve been expected under his current circumstance. Before her exit, she assured us, “The doctor should be with you shortly.”
This was spectacular bullshit, and we both knew it. But the inevitable delay forced us to endure the rare occasion of being alone together in a small room.
Accordingly, I small-talked him, “So, do you know what tests they plan to do?”
Leo rolled his eyes, “Probably the same ones that were already done back at home: x-ray, MRI, EKG ECG, stress test, we’ll be here all day.”
“Sounds exciting!” I said with a healthy dose of sarcasm.
“For me, yes. You get to sit in this room all day,” Leo swept his right arm from side to said, “All this is yours, all day.”
I smirked and chuckled a bit, ”So, you already had all of these tests done?”
“Isn’t the infinite redundancy of the medical industrial complex exhausting?”
“It’s infuriating,” he corrected.
“You know this is how your grandfather died,” Leo said soberly.
“Waiting all day in an exam room?”
Leo chuckled briefly, “No, from congestive heart failure.”
“No, I didn’t know that.”
“Yeah, it was pretty dreadful watching him struggle.”
“I remember that part, but not a lot.”
“Yeah, I kept thinking, please don’t let this be my fate,” Leo fanned his hands outward, “And here I am.”
I exhaled deeply in an effort to ground myself before asking the question to which I really didn’t want an answer, “Yeah, but how bad is it really?”
“Really? No one knows.”
I nodded with a look of resignation.
“One doctor tells me I could live another ten years. The next one says five. Today I might find out I have a couple of weeks to live.”
Again, I wanted to make some sort of move toward him and provide physical comfort. But that vision of him at my grandmother’s funeral, and the force of Mercedes’ arms held me back, even now.
“That has to be maddening,” I offered.
Leo shook his head, “It was at first. But now, frankly, I don’t give a fuck. These doctors have proven one thing to me, and it’s that they have no idea what the fuck they are doing.”
I nodded in solidarity.
“They have all of this training, and equipment, and technology, but they can’t tell me, give or take a decade, how much time I have left. And frankly, they are slowly torturing me during the time I do have left with all of these trips, and tests, and ominous meetings about the results.”
All I could do was continue to nod.
“I barely care anymore. I just want to go home and sort postcards. If I have a bit of difficulty breathing, or my heartbeat goes screwy, or I get light-headed, I’ll just pass out in my chair for a bit. Then, I’ll go back to sorting postcards.”
“That makes sense to me,” I agreed.
He continued, “This bullshit—tests, tests, and more tests, with different doctors every month,” resting his head in his hands, Leo paused for a long moment. When he finally looked up, he seemed on the verge of tears.
There is something about someone about to cry that is universally reflexive. As the result of some deep empathy that runs through all living things, you want to join them. It’s akin to the infectiousness of laughter. And seeing him with that pained expression on his face twisted my insides abruptly. It triggered an instant reaction which I battled fiercely, despite the fact that I wanted to sob.
“I feel like it’s all killing me faster,” he continued with a crack in his voice that I had recalled from that fateful day.
I nearly lost it.
I wanted Brandon’s huge paw on my shoulder like at the picnic table when Leo originally announced his diagnosis. But this one was all me. I had to be the strong one.
“Hey, listen, you’re right—you don’t have to see another set of specialists. You’re entitled to just sit in your house and sort postcards until you keel over at the dining room table.”
I paused for effect, and a little humor, “We’ll find you eventually, right?”
He chuckled a bit.
“Why are we here?”
“You know, it’s the Mayo Clinic, there could be some experimental treatment that could extend my life by six months while it cuts the quality in half.”
“Ha, there surely is. But is that what you want?”
“Honestly, no. I thought I did at first. I thought I wanted to be around to see Josie get married, or Drew graduate from college, but who am I kidding. I’m never going to live that long—not this time around.”
“Then let’s go home.”
Leo looked shocked, “Now?!”
“Yeah now—we ain’t at the intake facility for Stillwater State Prison for Christ’s sake!”
Leo contemplated this for a moment, “Yeah, let’s get the fuck outta here before they toss me an assless gown to put on for my first test.”
“Great, and let’s hope we don’t get farted on in the elevator to the parking ramp.”
Leo guffawed at this.
We stood up in unison. Leo swayed a bit and I grabbed his arm with all of the stern force I couldn’t muster when he was about to cry. I lead him proudly out the door of the exam room.
We retraced our steps toward the waiting room and past the height/weight station.
Carol was there weighting the next victim and pointed at us hollering, “Where are you going?”
“To sort some postcards,” Leo fired back.
We reached my car without incident and hit the road toward home.
Before dropping Leo to sort postcards, we stopped at Sunffy’s Malt Shop for cheeseburgers, home fries, and chocolate malts.
I walked him into the hovel he called home. He hobbled toward his trusty recliner, fell into it, and popped the leg rest.
“Ahhh, so good,” he moaned.
“I’m gonna head home, but I’m glad we sorted that all out,” I chuckled.
He laughed, and then said, “Thanks honey.”
This statement stuck me sideways. “Honey” is what he used to call Brandon and I when we were kids. It was the only term of endearment he’d ever used. And I hadn’t heard it since I was in high school. I wasn’t sure if it was a lapse or done intentionally. Either way, it was nice to hear anything endearing coming from my old man.
Excerpt from Finding Fidelity, a forthcoming novel from Blake Charles Donley
I stood in the sparsely adorned basement with my new Springsteen album spinning away on the turntable. About all I had accomplished was to assemble the modular crates that held my record collection, stack my stereo on a rusty metal cart I’d snatched from the city dump, and set up a table I’d grabbed off Craigslist for the kids to use as a LEGO workspace.
Although the cement floors were painted a shade of institutional gray, the 2×4 framing was in place, and the outlets and lights were installed, there was not much else in the cavernous space. A pair of flat-screen TVs I’d managed to talk Mercedes out of sat in one corner on the kid’s half. Boxes of old VHS tapes, my old VCR, and my vintage red spherical TV sat in the corner of my half.
As I downed beer after beer and spun “Born in the U.S.A.” over and over, I hauled boxes of screws, sheets of plywood, and every possible dimension of lumber from the garage to the basement. I didn’t want to waste any of Brandon’s time on tasks that I could handle alone. As a cost-saving measure, we decided to finish neither the walls nor the ceiling.
While the basement at Valentine Lake did have finished walls and ceilings, the floor was a cement slab in all rooms except the bedroom Brandon occupied. I liked the idea of a “finished” unfinished space. It evoked strong feelings of nostalgia for our old fort under the stairwell. And it seemed like an apt metaphor for my life at that moment.
After hauling down the three area rugs I’d scored on Craigslist, and vacuuming them vigorously with a vacuum in my right hand and a beer in left, I stood and surveyed our future most awesome hangout. It was likely a combination of the alcohol and music, but I started to feel very omnipotent.
I took a long pull from the bottle in my hand and thought about everything I’d overcome since the divorce. I scanned the space that Brandon and I were going to transform, together, again. I envisioned a subterranean amusement park of sorts where Josie, Drew, and I could all be alone together. A lair of wonder and possibility where all of us could explore our interests, indulge our passions, and just be kids again—we’d all been forced to grow up way too fast.
As I flipped the record for the fourth time and dropped the needle, “No Surrender” burst forth from the speakers. I gave the HPM-100s about as much gas as my eardrums would tolerate. I twisted open another beer. I took a longer than necessary swig as tears began to stream from the corners of my eyes. I looked upward toward the ceiling, toward the heavens, and bellowed, “This is mine—you fucking owe me this at fucking least you fuckers!”
I was overcome by the deluge of emotions that had silently tortured me almost daily. Emotions that I subconsciously refused to acknowledge. Emotions that I stuffed into the deepest darkest corner of my pathetic existence. I then shook my beer bottle at the universe in a show of defiance showering myself with beer in the process. In that moment, this felt like a recalcitrant demonstration that proved I was unbroken despite everything. A failed marriage had not broken me. Single fatherhood had not beaten me. A chi destroying job had not destroyed me. And a roughshod childhood had failed to murder me by my own hands.
All of that was not nothing.
The universe owed me this oasis for the rocky journey and rotten surprises it had dropped at my feet. I would build this sanctuary as a refuge—a retreat from the ridiculous existence I’d orchestrated and survived. This would be the space where all of us could eschew real life at the top of the stairs and escape as we descended into blissful solitude, together.
At the last chorus of my redemption song, I loosed a primal scream that emanated from the deepest darkest corner of my soul—that secret space where I’d always stashed all the loathsome emotional shit. It was one of those cleansing screams that washes the body, mind, and soul. It felt so amazing that I holstered my beer and let out another one. This time, I put my whole body into it, my legs, my arms, my hands,.
For a split second, I considered whether I was having a nervous breakdown. But it felt much more like a cathartic revelation. accordingly, I unholstered my beer, guzzled the last foamy vestiges, and screamed one more time before I flung the almost empty bottle through the framing at the laundry room wall propelled by all of the ancient unacknowledged angst. Predictably, it shattered into a thousand tiny pieces. The feeling of utter destruction was utterly salubrious!
Chips and bits of brown glass exploded from the laundry room in every conceivable direction. They bleed into the living room, storage room, and my future office. A tiny shard, having ricocheted a ten feet from the laundry room wall right back at me, was resting on the tip of my right shoe. A few sticky slivers of glass were even plastered onto the cinder block wall.
The band played on, unabated.
I stood in a daze, empty, momentarily,
Amid the ruins of this most cathartic beer bottle sat this large rectangular piece, broken but not destroyed, defiant despite the surrounding massacre. The label from the bottle was still clinging to this largest remaining shard of the glass bottle.
I became fixated on this anomaly. As glass crunched under my shoes, I walked over and snatched it from the carnage. In my mind, it was a nearly perfect Pink Floyd-ian tetrahedron. And. that was obviously a sign. There was more crunching as I proceeded toward the laundry tub to wash off my trophy. I rinsed it and slid it into my pocket. I pledged to clean the rest up in the morning after coffee.
I then died…in bed.
Josie and Drew had suffered a slew of white-trashy daycare providers. It occurred to me that Brandon and I had as well. In Minnesota, white-trashy daycare providers were a rite of passage for latchkey kids. Most of them were divorced women with deadbeat ex-husbands, multiple kids, and shitty jobs. As such, they could barely afford daycare for their own kids. To remedy this, they quit their shitty jobs and turned their homes into daycare centers. They got paid to watch other folks’ kids while keeping their own little angels at home—two birds obliterated with a single stone.
Our first daycare provider, Ruth, was more like an asylum warden. Her home was a hovelish rambler in a lower-middle-class suburb near Mercede’s salon. It was situated just off a trunk highway on-ramp. Clearly, Ruth had triumphed in the eminent domain battle, Thus, the highway was retrofitted around her hovel. From her fenced in backyard, a scant 50 yards from the traffic, a boy could tally the endless procession of cars whizzing past—I oft did.
After parking in Ruth’s gravel driveway, you had to ascend a flight of crumbling cement stairs. At the top of the crumbling cement stairs, was a crumbling cement path. As you traversed the crumbling cement path toward Ruth’s front door, you couldn’t help but notice the pair of rusty wrought iron railings. The railings seemed planted in the unkempt flower bed, which encircled the house like a moat. Due to their unconventional placement, the railings were useless as railings, yet neither were they attractive folksy decor. They looked as though they had fallen from space and landed right where they ended up.
The crumbling cement path ended at a second shorter flight of crumbling cement stairs. At the top of the crumbling cement stairs, was a crumbling cement landing. The passageway into Ruth’s living room lay at the end of the crumbling cement landing. The crumbling cement stairs and crumbling cement landing had once held the wrought iron railings. This was evidenced by the rusty wrought iron stumps that jutted up from the crumbling cement. After too many harsh Minnesota winters, and the passage of too much time, the railings had rusted their way to freedom; they had escaped as far as the dirt moat.
The smell of stale cigarette butts was the first thing that slapped you upside the head when Ruth swung open the creaky storm door. Her dull yellow-toothed smile was the second. Seeing her at 6:00 AM was always a jarring and somewhat terrifying experience. At the time, she looked to me like Velma Dinkley after splitting from Scooby and the gang to prostitute herself at the far end of the Vegas strip for a decade or three.
What Ruth lacked in comeliness, she more than made up for in ambivalence. Daycare providers in the late ’70s were held to a much lower standard than modern counterparts. If Brandon and I weren’t burnt, bloody, or broken when Mercedes picked us up, Ruth had met expectations. And although I’d seen my share of tetherballs to the face, fights over the best Matchbox car, and kids tripping over the single step that lead from the kitchen up into the living room—or stumbling from the living room down into the kitchen—I never witnessed a major medical emergency during my stint in Ruth’s toddler gulag.
Ruth was a master of doing what was barely necessary to keep a dozen kids alive for eight or so hours. She perched herself atop a barstool at the counter that separated her living room from her kitchen. From that vantage point, she could simultaneously monitor both rooms and periodically glance out the sliding glass door toward the fenced backyard. Unless she was feeding us, putting us down for naps, or tending to a bawling child, she’d mount one of the barstools and chain smoke Virgina Slims. She’d dash out the nub of each spent coffin nail and adroitly extract a fresh one in a single left-handed motion. She’d do this while flicking her Bic to light it with her right hand. She was truly the Chrissy Evert of smoking Virginia Slims.
Besides smoking, Ruth spent a copious amount of time on the mustard-yellow rotary phone mounted on the wall near the bar. When she did this, the mustard-yellow phone cord stretched across the step between the living room and kitchen. This made what was already a perilous transition even more so. I was awed by her ability to concurrently rest the receiver between her shoulder and ear, hold up her end of the conversation, fire up heater after heater, and file her nails. I imagined the part of her brain responsible for multi-tasking was exceptionally muscular.
Besides surviving, at Ruth’s, I mainly missed my mother. The fact that Brandon was there didn’t allay my longing to be back in her orbit. Ruth was gruff at best and abrasive at worst, but never abusive. For a woman, she could man-handle kids with precise efficiency. I’d marvel at her ability to extract a toddler hugging her leg and strap them into a high chair in under 10 seconds. But I’d cower in my chair awaiting the almost violent motion she employed to push us up against the table edge to prevent us from dribbling saltine crumbs onto her floor.
Everything about the experience at Ruth’s was institutional. The meal times never varied by more than a minute regardless of hunger. Nap time always lasted exactly two hours regardless of restlessness. Outdoor play time always lasted one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon regardless of weather. And TV time always featured the same channel with the same shows regardless of preferences. If nothing else, Ruth was a stalwart of consistency. And the routine was depressing at best and demoralizing at worst. Without knowing it at the time, I knew what it was like to be incarcerated. My years at Ruth’s would prepare me well for the public education I’d subsequently endure, and later my indentured corporate service.
As I pulled up to the home of one of Marie’s slightly white-trashy neighbors, I couldn’t help but flashback to my days at Camp Ruth. Sheryl—the trashier spelling of Cheryl—was the twenty-something gal who had provided summer daycare for Josie and Drew. She also provided daycare for many of the other kids in the neighborhood where I used to live.
Excerpt from Finding Fidelity, a forthcoming novel from Blake Charles Donley