South Appalachian Yoga…a craze to follow!

Jan, my very fit and lovely wife invited me to do some Yoga this morning. I elected to focus in relaxation techniques in the bed as she worked out. (Guys, what’s better than watching your wife do Yoga?) Yes, yes, I know I need to exercise. And I do exercise. Sometimes. But Yoga? Well I don’t think my ancestors (or I) were meant for it. It simply hurts too much. I rarely hurt my muscles lying in bed, you see. But as I listened to the smooth, silky voice of the instructor Jan was streaming on her i-Pad, I imagined something. I imagined the wonders of Southern Appalachian Yoga!

Stand with your feet one shoulder width (or muffin-top) apart. Now, reach up to the sky! This is called lighter at the Skynard concert. Slowly wave your lighter back and forth. Watch your balance and try not to capsize. Now, reach slowly down, down and pick up your imaginary burger. Hold it in front of you at arm’s length. It’s a Triple. Feel the weight. Put the burger down. Pull up your pants; nobody behind you needs to see that.

Legs two muffin-tops apart, now sit on your ATV. This is called ‘riding the trail.’ Grasp the handlebar. Work your wrist muscles as you drive down the trail in your mind. You hit a limb. Lie down on your back, arms and legs out. This is called ‘911.’ Relax and check every limb for injury. Breath deeply and contemplate this: did I take the roast out of the oven?

Roll over. Imagine the rifle in your hands; breath quietly as you sight that enormous eight pointer. This position is called ‘opening day.’ Good shot. Stand up. Reach behind you into the cooler, stretching for the beer to celebrate that shot! Reach for two; Bubba wants one as well. Hand it to him. He’s sitting on the ground.

Now, lie down again. Raise your back and hiss. This is called ‘copperhead at dawn.’ Bite your friend for good measure. Roll quickly onto your back and hold hands and legs in the air, with your mouth open and tongue out.

Then tip to one side, holding the position. This is called ‘road kill.’ Lie there a while and think about lunch. Or dinner. Stand up and take an Advil. You’ll be in shape in no time at all! Reward yourself with fried chicken. That’s Yoga!

Hunger Games and the voyeurism of death

My children and my wife turned me on to Suzanne Collins’ book, The Hunger Games.  The original and the sequels have become family favorites, right up there with Ender’s Game, Skullduggery Pleasant, Harry Potter and many others.

We saw the movie today, which was remarkably true to the book.  I was impressed.

But afterward I began to wonder, as so many do, about the meaning.  I’m no literary critic, and I have no idea if the author intended this or not.  But I found myself thinking about the way we view war.

Now, I don’t think The Hunger Games is an anti-war novel by any means.  Slaughterhouse 5, by Vonnegut, is an anti-war novel.  Catch 22 is an anti-war novel.  Even ‘All Quiet on the Western Front,’  is, in its own way, an anti-war novel.  Heck, any true representation of war becomes a de-facto anti-war novel if we grasp the suffering of the characters fully.

But watching The Hunger Games, and the way a fictional society gathered around screens to view death, the way they assessed and worshiped the ‘players,’ made me think that we do this a little.

Please realize, I’m no dove.  I believe war is often necessary, though always terrible.

But we so love to adore soldiers, don’t we?  We watch them, study them, make movies and television shows about them. We dream of being snipers.  We are fascinated by SEAL teams.  We love the political value of a good assassination, a proper invasion.  On both sides of the political aisle, thank you very much.

And most of us do it from the cozy safety of our living rooms, before fires and too-large televisions, our own sons and daughters safe by our sides.  Our own bodies well-hydrated and well-fed.

We would do well to remember, as Katniss and her fellow Hunger Games characters remind us, that those entertaining us, those fighting for us, those suffering horrors and spending lifetimes trying to cope, are more than characters. They are humans bearing burdens we can never fully comprehend.

And we would all do well to wish for war far less than we do.

Trash man

A little Thanksgiving gift.  I give you a short story.  I’m not trained to write fiction.  But I see lots of stories, so I wanted to try.



The Trash Man

The trash rose all around Caleb, who watched it with constant fascination. Bed-frames and plastic bags, tires and toy-chests, mirrors and dry-wall and everything small and large. When he wasn’t helping someone unload, or directing a truck to the correct pile, he sat in his office, at his desk, watching the mountain of garbage that rose every year, higher and higher. The desk where he sat was neat, with no hint of disarray, as if in revolt against the chaos outside.

Pencils and pens were all in the right places, though the office was so small that any extra things, any bits of trash in his own space would soon have overwhelmed him. So, the waste-bucket sat always empty, purged every day. The few books on the shelves were well aligned, and it had been agreed five years before that when all the work was done, he could read. For his manager, a man who would read was at least better than most, who wanted to have computers and computer games, and who invariably spent their days using the office computer to find porn sites, where they ignored their work until they had to be fired.

Caleb was a find, and Richard Delmore knew it the minute he hired him; his suspicions confirmed every time he visited the tidy office beside the mountains of trash.

‘Busy day, Caleb?’

‘Yes sir, 50 private vehicles and 5 trucks from that new construction site on Highway 97. Amazing, sir, what gets thrown away’.

‘Yeah, Caleb, it is’.

This was what amused Richard. That Caleb stood and watched the garbage fall. Something about it entranced him. Richard had checked; the boy was no simpleton, no treasure hunter. Unlike too many of his past (and present employees), he had no criminal record. He could have done anything; his parents still tormented him because he hadn’t gone to college. ‘It isn’t time’ he told them, and that was five years ago. Five years and a million tons of garbage that the boy had watched slide by, rain or shine; a million tons of smells the boy had endured. And always, the office was as neat as a pin, and when the day was over, Richard would find Caleb reading something that he himself would never imagine human beings read. At least, not anything they would read at a land-fill. Caleb read history and physics, he read the Bible and theology. He read anything that he could find. He read books he found being thrown in the trash, and more than once took them home after expressing gratitude to his employer. ‘Mr. Delmore, do you know that someone almost threw away an entire collection of Greek classics today? If you don’t mind, I’ll take them home.’ His employer would hand him his check every two weeks and shake his head.

‘Son, if you find something you want, you remember to take it, alright?’

‘Yes sir, I will. I’m still looking.’ He always said that. And when he said it, he looked away, as if the object of his quest were an image he could call up, but never reach. And Richard, as well as the boy, wondered what he meant. And still he showed up day after day, in his gray/blue work-clothes, his name on the left chest, to help care for the garbage.

Roxanne lived in a beautiful home, in a suburb of Charlotte. Her home, her education, her family, all spoke of elegance and grace. Though her family had desired for her to study art, or literature, as her cousins in Virginia and New York had whiled away their college years, she insisted on counseling. In truth, they did not care what Roxanne Blackwell studied, for she was (in essence if not in fact) betrothed to a family friend. Sometime in college the family introduced them, as if introducing an ambush and pretending it were unplanned. You know Martin, don’t you? His father and your father were fraternity brothers. Us old folks will have a few drinks, you kids play some tennis or take a walk.

Roxanne was initially overwhelmed. The young man before her was perfectly polished. His brown hair was shaped like an aspiring Senator, though an aspiring Duke University surgery professor was more on his path. ‘My father and mother said you were beautiful. They were right.’ He was genteel and kind. ‘My father and mother said we were making barbecue…I have never heard of you, Martin. I’m sorry if that’s rude.’

‘Hardly. Parents are all conspirators, and each has his or her specialty. Mine is the calculated assault, yours the sneak attack. Do you want to take a walk?’ She assented, and looped her slender arm in his. They walked around the spacious lawn and chatted the evening away. And Roxanne was, if not in love, certainly intrigued.

In one year, filled with the stuff of princess stories and furtive diary entries, she had accepted his ring. Her mother encouraged her to marry as soon as possible, for Martin was several years her senior, and set to begin residency in Durham. It was well known that his training would be nightmarish. ‘He’ll need you nearby, Roxie, to help him. To encourage him.’

‘Mother, I have only one more year and I’ll have my degree. I don’t want to change schools.’

‘Well, dearest, you don’t want this one to slip a way. You do know how predatory women can be in hospitals. Is that what you want?’

‘No, I love him, but I want to be able to help…’

Her mother turned red. ‘You can’t help her, though I love you for wanting to. Your sister is in the hands of the Almighty, and your counseling or psychology or whatever will never bring her back. She has chosen her life and she is, by her own desire, dead to us. Do you understand that, beautiful daughter?’

‘Mother, Haley is beautiful. She just needs, something, she needs…’

‘Stop it. She needs something she will never find and she will never allow me, or you with your degree, to help her.’

‘I can’t give up on her, mother, I can’t. And for some reason, my education is part of it. I don’t know how. But Martin will have to spend a year without me; you do know I’ll only see him about every third day anyhow, don’t you?’

‘Yes, dear, but I know he’ll be seeing the charge nurse every day. Don’t be stupid and throw your life on the garbage pile the way your sister threw hers. Use your brain.’

‘I have. And I do.’ She said to her mother, who spun and left the room. And after she had gone, Roxanne whispered to herself, and to God and to Haley who would not hear, ‘she’s not trash, she’s my sister.’

Mrs. Rabun, Caleb’s mother, sat in her living room, drinking coffee. Hers was a neat house, a larger version of her son’s office, where her husband Henry, Caleb’s father, was allowed to live and have a few things. There was nothing here about garbage or waste, nothing about disturbing smells or sights. Mrs. Joanna Rabun was a woman of faith and breeding. And on the walls around her were photos of the family from which she had come, and of which Caleb was the latest generation.

‘I swear, I don’t understand. I think sometimes he’s crazy. That something is wrong with him. I made him see a counselor before he took that ridiculous county job. And the counselor said he was the most sane young man his age he had ever known! Anna, he had a college scholarship to Emory and turned it down! Now he unloads trash all day!’ Her eyes turned red, and she dabbed them with a tissue.

‘Well, maybe it’s a kind of rebellion. You know, my Cassie left for college and had a tattoo in one week. They all make a mark of their own!’

‘I’d pay for his tattoo if he’d go to college.’

‘My brother Dan went to college when he was forty, after the army. He’s doing fine. I’m sure Caleb will find his way. Just be patient.’

‘Be patient. While my son is a trash man. Listen to me, my grandfather was a missionary, and my grandmother a teacher in the finest girl’s school in Nashville. Henry’s grandfather was a Colonel in the Marine Corps and won the Silver Star. Henry’s own father was an evangelist who preached to probably 500,000 people in his life, and my own father owned ten cotton mills by the time he retired. We (and here she pointed to her own chest, poking herself in anger) are people of accomplishment. And none of us, do you hear me, none of us…not one of us was a trash collector! This is killing me.’

Anna hung her head, reproached by her friend, and received with humility the unspoken reminder that her own family had worked for Joanna’s father for decades. ‘I’m so sorry. You’re right, I know. My heart would be broken too.’ She reserved for herself the fact that her daughter Cassie was starting law-school at Washington and Lee, fairy tattoo and all. Take that you self-righteous hag, she said and smiled to herself.

Caleb stood by the latest truck of trash. Mostly household garbage; great plastic bags of empty food containers and rotting egg shells, bags of bacon grease and paper-towel rolls. Worn and torn clothes and broken toys. Bags spilled open sometimes. He had cleaned them up, and always felt like he was going through human lives, like a voyeur. Sometimes, he pretended he was investigating a crime. TSI! Trash scene investigator! It reminded him of why he was here. He felt like he had something to find.

No one understood that; sometimes, he didn’t get it himself.

It wasn’t as if his dream had been to work here, but he needed to. The day he saw the job advertised, the summer before he was to go off to Atlanta to become the latest, greatest member of the Rabun clan, he knew it. The feeling hit him, and he didn’t feel a need to fight it. Maybe he was just afraid of school, he thought at first. But he had never struggled to learn. He had always loved to learn. That wasn’t it. There was something more. And so he applied on a whim, thinking it might be a job he could do for the summer. He was hired, and Mr. Delmore told him he could leave in the fall. But he soon began to realize he was looking for something, but didn’t know what. So he wrote to Emory, a nice, apologetic letter, and declined. His mother wept, and his father stormed out. They sent the pastor to pray with him, and his sister to talk to him. They asked his friends to convince him. He wouldn’t budge. Hidden in the piles of old clothes and night stands, broken lamps and worn shoes, was something. So his mother and father told him he was on his own. It didn’t matter. He had a job, and he asked his family for nothing. He had a small apartment, and he paid his rent. He had insurance and could pay for his car. And even though he wasn’t at school, he could read, and he did read, in between searching for something unknown. And every night, before leaving, he stood by mountains of things deemed worthless, and prayed in his heart to find the thing for which he ached, and for which he had placed his life on interminable hold.

People came and went and Caleb, who had lived a life of relative ease and wealth, came to know them all. Their lives were displayed in the contents of their vehicles, whether the beds of trucks, where prosperous contractors building lake houses brought construction site refuse, or in the tidy trunks of widows who brought small bags of garbage while Pekingese dogs yapped in the back seat. He saw Mrs. Curtis bring the belongings of Mr. Curtis, who had decided to sleep with Mrs. Atchley. She stormed over and said, ‘Caleb? I thought you went to Emory?’

‘Plans changed a little ma’am. Can I help you?’

‘You can help me get rid of my cheating S.O.B. husband’s things. He moved to California and won’t be back’.

So Caleb took golf clubs and gun racks, running shoes and a stereo, and asked if he could give them away, instead of throw them onto the pile of garbage.

‘Son, I don’t care if you sell them. I just want his things out of my house!’

And Caleb put them in the building his employer had allowed him to pay for, and where he stored the salvageable things that came through; high-chairs and playpens, tree-stands and picnic tables. The place he allowed people to browse for things they might need. ‘Caleb’s discount house,’ his co-workers called it. And in the last box she handed him were books. ‘Can I have these?’

‘Absolutely. Now, you read those books and remember that you need to go to college.’

‘Yes ma’am. As soon as I find something.’ She turned her head and said, ‘You’re odd, but you’re a good boy.’ You know, you’ve broken your mother’s heart.’ She said it in the off-hand way that only one Georgia woman can say to another. It said, ‘I like you, but you are not right.’ She climbed into her Yukon and drove away in a cloud of summer dust, bent on further revenge and contemplating how to bring a pontoon boat to the land-fill under cover of night and set it on fire..

But he saw other things. Poor families with nothing; comfortable families with healthy, happy children. Old lonely men cleaning house, it turned out, before moving away to be with children or grandchildren. He saw grieving families and eager Mexican men working to pay for dresses for their daughter’s Quincenero parties. He realized, as the bags of trash passed by, and the men and women paraded before him, that he had been given a gift his friends in their dorm rooms and libraries, fraternity parties and ski trips never would have.

He watched a load of old wood being pulled out of a dump truck. ‘Renovating that big house on Cherokee Mountain Road. You know the one, don’t you boy?’

‘Yes sir. Lots of old wood, there. How old?’

‘Maybe 150 years,’ said the old man who was huffing in the heat of the sun, pulling rotten timbers and throwing them down into the mass of garbage, so that in the evening the bulldozers could turn it all under and move it all around. That was the thing. Caleb saw the things come in, and knew that the next morning, they’d be moved elsewhere in the piles, to make room for more.

As the last timber went across, he saw the scribbles on it and said, ‘I’ll get this one!’ The old man thanked him and climbed back into his truck cab. And on the side of the timber, which had clearly been inside a house, was a faint series of notches. As he looked at it, Caleb realized it was a record of a child’s growth. Tiny dates were carved there. The last one said June, ’08. June 1908. Caleb touched it and wondered. He tried to feel and hear the memories of it. The beam, that had sat in a corner, did not go into the trash pile. But it went into the back corner of ‘Caleb’s discount house’. He wondered if he had been sent here to find just that; but he felt no release from his quest.

The next day his sister Cecilia came by to visit, and brought him lunch from the Ingles grocery store. Cecilia was always his confidant, who loved him and never questioned his decisions. She believed he was too bright not to be correct about everything; a conviction he could not accept, but which he accepted from her as a sign of love. Tanned and lithe, Cecilia was a day at the beach, embodied in a woman.

She hugged him, sat down and said, ‘Mother is coming. Be on guard’.

‘What do you mean?’

‘She’s found a new preacher. He’s going to lay it on hard. I’m staying here with you.’ Sure enough, mother pulled up in her sensible sedan and stepped out, looked around with disgust at the mountains of trash, and waited as a man in a suit jacket, carrying a Bible, walked with her to the door of the office building. No one was there in the midday heat, so there was time for a visit. Cecilia opened the door.

‘What are you doing here, young lady?’ Her mother asked, annoyed.

‘Why, I’m wasting my life, haven’t you heard?’

It was the joke that she and Caleb shared. Cecilia had wasted her life already, at age 26, according to mother. She had wasted it by teaching dance when she could be serving mankind. Cecilia once told her that she had served, personally, a large portion of mankind, and mother told her it was nothing to be proud of, to be easy. But in truth, Cecilia’s dance students were the pride of the county, and were becoming known all over South Carolina. But to mother, daughter of greatness, it wasn’t enough. She wiped at her daughter’s lipstick and turned to her wayward son.

‘Dear, this is Reverend Harwood. Reverend, this is my daughter Cecilia. When she was a little girl, she wanted to be a missionary. Now she teaches dance.’

‘It’s a pleasure, Cecilia,’ said the Reverend, who was younger than she or Caleb had expected.

Caleb rose to kiss his mother’s cheek. ‘Reverend, I’m Caleb. What brings you here with my dear mother? Cecilia and I were just having a little lunch. Can we offer you something? Oh, before I forget, I just retrieved a beautiful pine book-shelf from the truck of a retiree. You probably need a book-shelf, don’t you pastor? By the way, have you read the biography of St. Paul, by A.N. Wilson?’

His eyes widened at the suggestion of a bookshelf, and he smiled at the book recommendation. ‘Well no, but I’m sure it’s excellent. He’s a wonderful writer…’

Mrs. Rabun coughed, slightly. ‘Still,’ he said, ‘your mother asked me to come and meet you, and frankly, to try to encourage you. It sounds like you’re a talented young man. Not many men get scholarships to major universities. I’ll be blunt. The devil wants to keep you from serving the Lord. He wants you to use your talents, just like your ancestors did. You know the parable of the talents, don’t you?’

‘I do. But I’m looking for something, and something tells me it’s here. I have, Reverend…’ and here he scooted his chair across to look the man in the eye, ‘I have the peace that passeth understanding. Have you ever felt it? Ever in your short life?’

‘Well, I think that, once I, when I was in seminary, I….’ he stumbled to find a memory of something sublime (in a vocation he had chosen as some chose plumbing), some moment of utter rest and purpose, and he faltered. ‘just remember to honor your father and mother. God gave them wisdom so that they could guide you, and they think you’ve lost your way. Come down to my office sometime, and we’ll talk about it.’

Caleb was patient, and had endured this no less than ten times with ten different psychologists, counselors and pastors. His mind was not swayed by it; he had no guilt or remorse. He was looking, and until he found it, he would stay. ‘I’ll be right back’. He brought into the office the piece of timber with the date and the notches. ‘Reverend, not all trash is trash, you know? Even Jesus would have agreed, since he was friends with lots of folks we’d call trash now. Right?’ The young pastor ran his hands over the wooden notches, and tried not to look at Caleb’s sister who had let a strap of her top fall down and who was fanning herself and looking at him, as if assessing his potential for temptation.

Reverend Harwood smiled and said, ‘Yes, you’re right.’ Mrs. Rabun huffed and stood. She pulled her daughter’s top back in order, kissed her, kissed Caleb and walked out. The Reverend smiled back at the siblings and nodded. ‘You’re right’. Reverend Harwood was not invited back by Mrs. Rabun, but when he brought his trash out, he often sat and talked with Caleb, and found him as exceptional as everyone said. And he knew, in his own heart, that Caleb had a mission. And he decided to protect him as much as possible, for he knew that the mission was a great one, and that it revolved around a small mountain-chain of garbage. And that perhaps, his job was to uncover a talent long buried in garbage by someone else.

Roxanne kissed Martin goodbye, and helped him move into his apartment and buy the things he would need to survive; sheets he would never see and Ramen noodles for those rare evenings when he could eat at home before collapsing on the bed, in order to rise again at 4:30 am the next day. ‘I’m sorry I won’t be here, Marty, I’m proud of you. You’re amazing, like some big, Southern Ken Doll. Except of course, you have…’

‘I’m happy you noticed, my dear Roxie. I’ll miss you. And as often as I can, I’ll call. The first two months, well you know how they say things go here. Dr. Sabiston is still a force of nature. I love you.’

‘Don’t leave me for a nurse; mother warned me.’ They laughed and reminisced, promising one another beautiful times and beautiful things in the future. She drove home. It wasn’t far, from Charlotte to Durham. But with every mile, she felt her fiancee disappear in more than distance and time. And in her dreams, Haley wept and called to her.

The year went on. Caleb watched as tires and bedspreads, old computers and photo-frames, toy castles and flattened pillows came and were deposited in the vast graveyard of human belongings. He often wondered if things took on life, or took on the memories of the people who used them. Though trash was what he managed, it became painful to watch things being thrown out. He wondered how many people in the world would have used these things far longer than their owners had. He still rescued a few items. A toy that reminded him of his childhood; a chair someone might use. He stored them in his building, and every now and then he took them to the Salvation Army store, or to Goodwill. He always left the beam with the notches, however. He was meant to find it, and finally took it to his small apartment. He touched it softly now and then.

Winter came; the mountains of trash smelled less, though the wind blew more. In the mornings, puddles of mud were sometimes frozen, and items sticking out of the mud with ice-crystals on them, surrounded by rising steam in the morning all gave an impression of something from Dante,, who would not look at him.

One morning, as day broke on the image of hell that the dump sometimes seemed to portray, a broken down old Dodge truck, well-worn, pulled up to the edge. A woman climbed out; she was younger than the trash-man, she was swollen with pregnancy, and her husband, or boyfriend, was angry. A few times, Caleb wondered if the man were a thief, since he was throwing out things that seemed too new.

They came weekly after the first day, when the young woman had seemed to Caleb the saddest, most broken item in the entire world; visiting a trash heap because that was where broken things go, drawn inexorably to their resting place.

She did not appear bruised or beaten, for those marks would have suggested at least attention. She appeared a prisoner of disdain.

The young wife, or girlfriend, would help unload things. She would drag out drapes or old rugs, boxes of shoes or a printer. Every time he saw her, her belly was swollen more, maybe too much. Caleb offered to help, but the man said, ‘She’s fine!’ Which meant, in Southern, ‘Stay away from my woman’. Her eyes were desperate, but said ‘thank you for trying,’ in a well-spoken language of sorrow They also said, ‘you can’t help me. Can you?’

Once, when she slipped, her skinny, disheveled husband or boyfriend (or pimp) called out, ‘Roxie, you stupid bitch, get in the truck!’

Caleb looked reached her first to help her up, and the man rushed towards him, standing at his full height, threatening and clenching his fists. Caleb stood as well, and was a head taller, a foot wider and more massive from hard work. It was a redneck standoff for a moment, when the man lifted her and backed away, almost hurling her in the truck.

Caleb wondered if he were here to find her, since he loved stories and she was a tragic one, waiting to be read, and over which he could weep from merely glancing at the cover.

He watched the mountains of trash change shape. There was a snow-fall in February, so heavy that all the piles were covered, and he could pretend that he worked in the mountains of North Carolina, or in the West. At least until the next pile of garbage came late in the morning, and until the next day when, like clockwork, the temperature rose to 75 and the mountains of snow became wet trash, wet piles of things formerly useful or meaningful or at least with purpose. The man and woman came and went again, and her eyes were red from crying. Caleb saw what they unloaded; metal pipes and pots, bits of tubing, empty medication bottles that fell from the boxes they threw into the pile of trash. The man had sores on his face and arms; he looked worse every time. His wife grew heavy, her body and her heart, as far as he could tell. Caleb did not want to touch the things they brought, except for one. One day, the man threw a child’s high-chair into the pile, as the woman screamed in the car and held her hands. After they were gone, he climbed down, over the cross ties and into the mud full of plastic wrappers and soda cans, food boxes and grocery bags. He pulled the chair out. It was dented a little but not too much. He put it into his building after he hosed the mud from it. When he touched it, he felt pain. Six years here to find a high chair seemed unlikely. But it was connected. He did not know how.

It was no surprise to anyone, especially Roxanne Blackwell, that half a year into residency, her fiancee broke their engagement. Duke had long taken pride in the divorce rate of its residents; but Martin was too independent to follow the crowd. It was proximity, and Roxanne had known it when she first moved him into his room and left. Love, to be useful to the struggling, and to avoid degenerating into the toxicity of loneliness and frustration, required proximity. Love required that they be together, and she had refused that idea on her own, the previous year, hoping somehow to reach her lost sister, to change her, to heal and redeem her. Martin left her for a woman who worked for the Duke Foundation. She was a fundr-raiser, and in truth, her pedigree was far more impressive for Martin’s life than hers had been. And she knew the drill of life at that esteemed place of learning. To top it all off, Katherine called and elegantly apologized to Roxanne, and sounded genuinely sorry.

Roxie wept in her mother’s arms, but her mother could not know that she wept from relief as much as from hurt. She had loved the perfect man, the dream of debutantes across the South. But she had someplace else to be.

‘Well dear, I’m not going to say I told you so. I’m sure there’s someone else out there for you. An administrator! Who saw that one coming! At least it wasn’t some therapist or secretary that humiliated you!’

Cecilia came by to see Caleb one day with her new boyfriend; the Reverend Harwood. He was not married, it turned out. She was holding his hand, and beaming. The good pastor had never before dated a dancer, much less one quite like Cecilia, it seemed. Caleb laughed at that. Maybe, he was here so that these two would find each other. That would be funny. That would be perfect, in fact, for he loved his sister more than even she realized. If he had delayed his life, or simply taken an entirely different path merely to give her happiness through the fractal geometry of unexpected connections, well then, God does work in odd ways, thought the trash man, as he had come to call himself. ‘Mother and father are fighting. Father says to leave you alone, you’ll be fine. Mother says you’re off your rocker.’

‘You should see what I see, guys. I see so much. I see what people love and don’t love, and need and don’t need, and the way their eyes look day after day. It’s amazing’.

‘You would make a great preacher,’ the reverend said, smiling; ‘better than me.’

‘Hush!’ Cecilia reprimanded her new love ‘You’re amazing. You make me want to repent of all the fun I had until I met you. You might make me a scandalous preacher’s wife one day, you know!’ The holy man blushed and turned to Caleb.

‘I pray every day that you find what you seek. I feel like I’m part of the quest. Is that odd? You’re kind of an axle, and we’re all moving around you. I even have my parishioners praying for you…the ones that aren’t praying for you because your mother asked them to pray you back to college. Do you feel it? Do you feel your calling now?’

‘I don’t know what I am or what I feel anymore. I’m just here, watching it all get thrown away, along with the people.’ He told them about the man and woman, his eyes, her eyes, and the high-chair. They chatted about it all, the pastor shook his hand more warmly than ever, like a brother. Cecilia kissed him and they left him a basket of food for later. Caleb ate in silence, reading a novel that had once belonged to Mr. Curtis, who had returned to his wife after Mrs. Atchley decided she was a lesbian.

He directed some cars, and pointed, telling them where to put things. Six years in the trash piles, and suddenly, he didn’t want to touch anything. He didn’t want to consider anything. He wanted an answer.

He finished the day, a cool, windy mid-March evening. The sun hinted, on the horizon, that soon pools would open, and schools would graduate hopeful students, the flowers would bloom and the piles of garbage would smell incredibly bad, at least to those not accustomed to their bouquet. A truck he had never seen pulled up and a man threw a rug and some bags into the piles of paper and wood, amidst the hills of mud, empty cigarette cartons and broken wine bottles. The truck spun it’s wheels, flinging mud and left, while it’s driver, in sun-glasses, strained to look away. He looked vaguely like someone he had seen before, but his hood covered him too well.

Caleb gathered his things, and as the sun set, went to his car to leave. Wondering what to do next, he opened the car door and heard a sound as faint as a whimper. He knew all the sounds of the place; the scratch of rats, the howl of coyotes. He knew the sound of pressurized cans exploding and of unbalanced boxes of worthless papers falling down hillsides of refuse. This sound was not any of those, nor was it a cat or dog, a bird or the dying, desperate, final sound of an electronic toy. It was alive. He stood on the edge and listened, and there was the whimper again. And with it, a cry, and more than a cry.

It hit him like a hammer, like thunder and lightning, like a vision of an angel; like God speaking to Moses. He jumped into the mess of empty worthless things, of items discarded, of material dead for lack of human connection. He jumped down, next to the rug and the bag, and opening the bag he found two newborn babies. Two blood covered infants, a boy and a girl. They were shivering, they were blue, but they were breathing and whimpering and beginning to cry as loudly as they could. Caleb snatched them up and held them inside his coat, which immediately was covered in blood and fluid, and in what little bits of urine they could make. He took them to the office and turned up the heat, sitting with them in his coat as he called 911. He rocked them, and cried, with grief that someone would do this, with joy that his mission was complete. He knew that another hour in the spring night and they would have died. The would have been covered up in the mountains of nothing, forgotten forever when the bulldozer pushed them into the rest of the things thrown away; that they would never be seen again until the resurrection.

As he waited, he knew what lay in the rug. He heard the ambulance in the distance. So, setting the now warm infants on his coat, the one his mother had purchased for him to wear to university, he walked into the cold air and climbed down to the rolled up rug. Opening it, he found her, her sad eyes blank, saying, ‘You couldn’t help me; help them. And remember me.’ The hole in her temple obvious.

It took a few minutes to explain the blood, on him, on the babies, and to show that it was not the same blood as the blood on their mother, who lay waiting for a proper examination and burial, in a grave Caleb Rabun would purchase himself, with money he had earned by working here.  But at least she would not rest in that vast mountain of waste.

It took a few hours for the law to find the pock-skinned man, who had discarded his meth lab, his wife’s only hope of a future with her little ones which was embodied in the form of a high chair, then his wife, children and himself. He was as dead as the woman in the rug, from the same pistol.

At the hospital, Cecilia ran in and listened to the story, along with her boyfriend, along with mother and father. She wept out-loud, her mascara streaming down her face and covering the good pastor’s coat jacket as he held her between sobs. Mother saw the babies in the nursery, alive, clean and perfect.

She cried quietly as she leaned against the glass. ‘If you had listened to me…they’d be…’ she choked back a hard sob, as her daughter pulled her close. ‘You found it, didn’t you. You found what you were looking for. I’m so sorry…’

‘Yeah, I did. Mama, I found it. I mean, I found them’

Roxanne was finishing her senior project, studying and writing in her apartment when the call came. It was her mother, who despite her anger, despite the frozen surface with which she had covered her mother’s heart, screamed into the phone. It was Haley. Roxie dropped the phone, grabbed a bag and left, driving through tears to a small town in North Georgia.

Richard Delmore never found another trash man as good as Caleb. Caleb himself moved on. The children had family; an aunt and grandmother and grandfather. He was sad; he felt he was meant to raise them himself. Their father, whom Caleb had wanted to confront (and thankfully had not), was wanted in five states, and either he was orphaned or no one would admit any connection to him. His parole officer, finally located in Texas, said ‘good riddance to bad rubbish…thanks for the call.’

On his last day at the dump, Caleb packed up the few treasures he had collected. His college application was in order, and he was about to start; his apartment in Atlanta was waiting. The children had been with his mother and sister, but their aunt was coming to take them home. They were the greatest treasure he had ever found; they were the reason he haunted the land-fill so long, enduring the humiliation of family, the punishment of words, of being (for a while) a disappointment. They were the reason, and their mother, who he was finally able to help after all.

As he drove out the gate, a car pulled up; an expensive sedan, clean and sleek. As a young woman stepped from the driver’s seat, Caleb also stepped out and apologized. ‘We’re closing, sorry. Open again at 8 am.’

‘Are you Caleb? Are you the one who found my, who found the children?’

‘Yes ma’am,’ he wiped his hand and offered it.

‘I’m Roxanne Blackwell. Haley was my sister. And she looked away, with a hand to her mouth.’

‘I’m sorry. I wish I could have known her, or helped her.’

‘Oh, you did,’ she said, and displayed the smile that well-bred, broken women can always muster when protocol demands.

I’m here for the children, you know. But would you talk to me a while?’

Roxanne felt something here. She saw before her the reason for every delay, the purpose behind her hesitations, the man who was the reason for her relief at her broken, perfect engagement.

‘I’d love to. Do you like roadside cafe’s?’

‘Yes, but my mother often warned me of men who do.’

Caleb later was often seen on the campus of Emory University, with two children, beautiful and devoted, running along behind him as he moved with grace through college and graduate school, and where he became (as all expected) a faculty member loved by all.

He married a gentle, elegant woman who lived to comfort and be comforted. Both of them bore the lovely scars of something larger than themselves; of a fire that had swept over them and through them. She wept, like everyone did, when they recalled the story that was their own epic. And they both were ever silent when taking out the trash; wondering how anything could be called trash in their lives again.

And she knew she, too, she had found her place and her calling with the trash-man, turned academic.

In their apartment, in Buckhead, the heights of the children were measured on an old piece of lumber, with June,’08 at the top of one side; their progress through the years marked on the blank faces of age-worn oak, as precious to Caleb as mahogany.

A highchair, slightly scuffed, sat in the corner long after they were too old to use it.

copyright 2011  Edwin Leap

Graduates: devote your lives to becoming a benefit

This is my column in today’s Greenville News


              Dear graduates, congratulations on your accomplishments!  Whether you are leaving high-school, trade-school, college or graduate school, you have done something.  You have, unlike many others, persevered to the end of your course of study, whether two years, 12 years or 18 years.  That’s a good first step; but only a first step.  Your certificates, awards and accolades, your grades and honors are testament to your effort.  But you have to accomplish more.

            So, first of all, I charge you, I ‘knight you,’ to go and do something great.  There are those who genuinely believe that there is no greatness left.  That all noble achievements have been attained.  This is an bold-faced lie.  And it can only come about in a country so used to comfort that it believes other people will still strive while we sit back and rot our brains with reality television and junk-food.

            What great things are there to attain?  Well, from my standpoint, you can go and cure cancer anytime you want.  Cancer is bad.  And someone needs to discover a cure, manufacture the cure, market the cure, and apply the cure.

            Or you can develop and implement new energy sources, or better ways to use old ones.  We don’t want to pay five dollars a gallon for gasoline.  We simply have to drive.  Please make better fuel, better cars, more efficient trains and planes.

            We have more than enough political consultants, ‘leaders,’ policy-makers.  We need fewer chiefs and more braves.  We need people to take their minds and hands and for heaven’s sake, do something!

            The possibilities are vast.  Go forth and risk, create, produce, defend us from enemies, explore the oceans, visit the planets, save us from injuries, manufacture the things we need, write soaring literature and inspiring screen-plays, develop new products and business models to put America at the top again.    The top is good!  Success is good!  Which brings me to another point.  Wealth is good.

            When you see someone who is successful, don’t hate them.  Ask yourself how they became successful. Ask them for advice.  Offer to work for them.  The President of the United States is fond of suggesting that wealthy people are fortunate and poor people are unfortunate.  He is incorrect.  Wealthy people, by and large, worked hard for years before they were wealthy.  They took risks, believed in great ideas, studied, learned, tried, failed and tried again.  They did not get to the money tree first and take all the large bills.  A few became wealthy illegally; these are rare and almost always lose in the end.

            Poor people are not unlucky, since I really don’t believe in luck, but may have suffered from adverse situations like lack of family resources, lack of support, loss of jobs, loss of spouses, diseases and injury.  Sometimes they, like the few wealthy, are bad.  They refuse to work, they lie, they steal, they ‘sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.’  But as a rule, the poor are striving for more.  Ironically, if they get more and become wealthy, they will be considered lucky and therefore cheats.  It’s a crazy world, isn’t it?

            Remember, too, that reatness is more than work.  Your greatness may be summed up in the words ‘father’ or ‘mother.’  If all you do is raise healthy, happy, productive children, then your life will have been a tremendous, odds-defying success.  If you make one husband or wife safe and happy for life, you will have been an example and encouragement to others. Furthermore, your job may merely be the way you support your calling to greatness, which might be working with youth, the elderly or the impoverished.

            Whatever you do, remember to do it for more than merely your own benefit and retirement.  If your entire goal is a nice house and lots of money, when you are old and decrepit those things will be small comfort when death circles you.  Philosopher Peter Kreeft says that we fail when we don’t educate our children in ‘how to die.’  He doesn’t mean suicide.  He means facing death with hope eternal, and having lived life with purpose.  Strive to succeed, and be prosperous, so you can bless your family, your friends, your children and their children, your church, your neighborhood.  Live so that your life is a legacy of both goodness and greatness. 

            You are only limited by your imaginations…and your willingness to suffer, work and delay gratification in order to achieve wonders that shock and enrage the bleary-eyed couch-sitters, the cynical web-site lurkers and comment-posters, who live in bitterness, wondering when someone will do more for them. 

            Spend your lives, dear graduates, not in search of better jobs with better benefits, that Holy Grail of modern life.  Spend your lives becoming a benefit to all of us.  We need what you have to offer.  Get to work and show us something great.

Invincibility Syndrome!

The video lives!  Our nursing staff helped me to film this years ago, and now I present it to you.  Invincibility Syndrome concerns our patients who just can’t die, no matter how hard they try. And whose motto is:  ‘I gotta get outta here!’

No actual drunks or patients were harmed in the making of this film.  Kudos to Frank Mason, RN, the star of the production.

The Suffering Prevention Act: a social fiction story

I wrote this piece, and published it in Emergency Medicine News, in 2001.  Since that time, in the last 10 years, federal regulations (that is, obligations) have caused the closure of hundreds of emergency departments.  Physicians are being subjected to censure by CMS for treatment failures (even if the failures are due to patient compliance).  Hospitals are constantly watching out not to violate government mandated treatment guidelines.  Physicians are expected to see many patients in hospitals either for free, at markedly reduced Medicare rates or criminally reduced Medicaid rates.  Patient satisfaction scores, the Holy Grail of administrators (and soon of Medicare) cause physicians to do whatever they are told by patients, in order to attain good scores and maintain their jobs and incomes.

Maybe I wasn’t so far off in 2001!

The Suffering Prevention Act

Dr. Sam Fisher walked into the small exam room with chart in hand. He looked up, and extended a tired hand to the well dressed gentleman on the exam table before him. Mr. Mason, I’m Dr. Fisher. What can I do for you? he said for the 35th time that evening. Without a pause, Roger Mason looked at him, and said the words that had become so common. I claim the right to free care and to your voluntary effort as guaranteed by the Federal Health Care Rights Charter. Sam Fisher knew that he was required to reply in one manner and one manner only. I am here to serve you. What is your need?

Roger Mason looked at him with a disdain that seemed to ask if there were any other doctors available. I’m in pain, as if you shouldn’t know by now. He looked down at his manicured nails, straightened his silk tie, and returned his gaze to the physician who stood before him.

Where is your pain, Mr. Mason? Can you describe it?

I have a hangnail in my left thumb, for one thing. Because of it I am using my right hand far too much, and my shoulder and neck ache. I work in marketing, and sitting at a desk all day with my arm on the armrest is causing me terrible discomfort. Furthermore, I have a pain in my knee from playing racquetball at lunch yesterday. But that’s nothing compared with the pain of my life in general. My wife expects far too much of me. I’m in love with my new secretary, who thinks I’m ancient. My job is dull, and there’s little room for advancement past vice president. I have bad memories of my childhood. My hair is thinning. I’d like to be numb, if you think you’re capable of doing it.

Numb? For how long?

A few days. But I demand a nicer room than this. Now run along and get my drugs.

I haven’t examined you, sir. I’d just like to make sure that you don’t have any life-threatening emergencies.

Do you think I’m stupid? I’ve researched my problems on the web. Don’t play high-and-mighty doctor to me. The law says that you are required to treat my pain. And the Suffering Prevention Act defines pain as whatever I tell you it is. Are we clear on this? Do I need to file a complaint with the Institute of Medical Regulation?

Dr. Fisher felt his heart race. The institute was composed of private and government agencies committed to the oversight of physicians. It had enormous power, and could suspend licenses, seize property, or imprison doctors on minimal evidence. It wielded the power of a high court, without a jury or representation of defendants. He recalled his friend Kristen from residency. One of the first cases the institute had prosecuted, she had refused to give a work excuse to a well-placed patient with a hangover. She spent three months in jail and three more in re-training.

That won’t be necessary, really. I’ll send a nurse in just a moment.

That’s better, said Mr. Mason.

Leaving the room, Dr. Fisher walked to the main desk to enter his orders. Years ago he would have complained about this man bitterly. Now, as he walked past the uniformed privacy monitor, he bit his tongue. He knew that it wasn’t worth the risk. He had children to raise, after all. He and his wife wanted to travel a little someday. Losing his job wouldn’t be worth it.

He logged onto the orders computer. A message waited for him. Dr. Fisher, you are scheduled for a review of your medical errors at 0600 tomorrow. Be prompt. The Commission on Hospital Function conducted reviews of all physicians. He wasn’t sure who scheduled the meetings. He would be working until 0700. If he left his post, he would be fired for certain. If he were late to the review, he would be censured and fined. He realized he would have to send some apologetic e-mails to rearrange things. First things first, however. He ordered the standard Morphine PCA pump, with the hallucinogenic additives whose contents were known only to government researchers. They were used in everyone with complaints of unhappiness, everyone who desired the numbness that Mr. Mason wanted. He arranged for him to be admitted for five days, with re-evaluation at that time by contentment consultants. Dr. Fisher then filled out the templates that gave his patient temporary disability, suspended his credit payments, and activated the Social Services Corps to go to the Mason home and help with the children. Rights are rights, he thought to himself.

He had heard of physicians who claimed that they were in pain, who claimed that they deserved the same protection and rights as everyone else, and that they needed to be freed from the weight of their many duties for a while. He knew of one who worked for housekeeping. A brilliant surgeon, he now emptied kick-buckets in the OR. No, there was no recourse. Retirement was the only hope, but that required diligence. Physicians who retired too early donated half of their retirement accounts to the Fund for Fairness in Outcomes. The rest were reviewed, and their money taxed according to how well they had complied with the regulations explained to them every week of their careers. The free-thinkers, the big shots ended up with barely enough money to avoid soup kitchens, their dreams broken by their arrogance. It wouldn’t happen to him.

He dreamt of the day he would walk out for the last time. Of the last time he would hear the invocation of rights, the last mention of oversight, error, or the institute. He heard, in his troubled dreams, the reminder from medical school. You have been chosen to serve mankind. Be grateful, and keep your mouth shut. He had really wanted to be an astronomer, but the Civil Medical Conscription Service contacted him at 18, and it was all history from there. But it couldn’t last forever.

Doctor, are you asleep? said the soft voice of the unit secretary. Doctor, may I remind you that I am required to report any dereliction of your duties as well as any attempts to avoid patient contact? Mr. Mason has summoned you.

No, Beth, just daydreaming. Thank you for the reminder. He rose to walk to Mr. Mason’s room, as Beth said behind him, Use of first names is a form of sexual harassment, sir. He turned the corner to find his patient standing in the hallway, angrily tapping his foot.

What do you call this? This dose you gave me? My records clearly indicate that I require more medication to achieve numbness. Don’t you realize that?

Mr. Mason, I’m sorry, but the Prying Eyes Act does not allow me to view your records without you being present and consenting. You were anxious for your medication, so I went to order it and fill out your forms.

Lies and excuses. If only you had asked me, I would have told you. I’m filing an action against you.

For what?

Disbelief, of course!

Sam Fisher shuddered. Disbelief was the worst complaint of all. It implied that the physician did not believe the patient, and was in effect calling him a liar. It implied that care was compromised by a physician interjecting his own opinions into the encounter, rather than acting as a conduit of services to the person in need.

But I did believe you! I did! Please don’t do this! I’ll go and order more right now!

Now you’re lying to me. I’ve already filed over the monitoring camera. You’ll learn your lesson now, Mr. Pompous Doctor!

Dr. Fisher glanced behind him, and saw one of the cameras that recorded all patient-physician encounters. Every one was permanently stored and retrievable. He hung his shoulders and turned. The inquiry would come. He would lose, as physicians always did in these things. Maybe he could hope for a simple loss of income for several months. Maybe he would be sent away. Mr. Mason laughed out loud and began to hallucinate pleasantly as his medication warmed his mind. Before he returned to his room, he remembered something he needed to say. Doctor, what do you say?

Dr. Fisher looked over his shoulder, and breathed deeply. Thank you, sir, for pointing out my error.

He left to await the investigators, as Mr. Mason slumped into his bed, and exercised his rights in multicolored dreams.

Date night romance revisited

Those of you who read my blog know that it has been a tough winter.  My wife Jan has gone through a rough patch with cancer, as well as a pulmonary embolus.  Well, we’re on the sunny side of things and she’s doing wonderfully.  So, last night we went on our first, official evening date in several months.  In honor of that, I’ve pulled an old column/post out of the archives.  I hope you enjoy!

The point is this:  we all have to learn to take our romance and intimacy where and when we can;  and always with a bit of levity.

shopping cart

Edwin’s hand brushed against Jan’s as he reached for the shopping cart. She smiled, and tossed her purse inside. As they walked into the store, her mind raced with a million thoughts. ‘Does he feel the same desire as I do? Does he find me attractive? Does he want…a huge bag of M and M’s?’ With a coy turn of her head, she looked at him. ‘We need cereal’.

Edwin felt his heart race. Cereal. The words he had longed for her to say. There’s only so much Special K a man can endure, week after week. He wondered what sort of cereal this fiery woman would pick. Would she be practical? Would it be Cheerios? Would it be, heaven forbid, some kind of granola freshly scraped from a grain silo? NO! She traced her slender finger along the boxes as his breath quickened. Her red nail polish was bright against the assorted colors of cartoon characters. She lingered over Rice Krispies, she paused at Muselix. Then she grasped the box of Lucky Charms with passionate intensity and tossed it into the buggy. Edwin felt himself sweat. Lucky Charms! Joy of joys. This was a real woman.

He reached for her, needing to pull her close, when he heard the scraping sound of a large cart. ‘Excuse me please’, said the young man stocking the shelves. Jan slipped from his reach and disappeared around the corner.

‘I love the way you pick breakfast food’, he whispered when he caught up to her. ‘I know’, she replied, and she leaned forward, breathing in his ear. ‘We need milk; can you get some?’ Edwin kissed her hand and left for the dairy aisle, trying to locate the 1% milk while Jan made her way toward boxed pizza. He returned to her with three gallons of milk, which made the relatively small muscles of his forearms bulge under their combined weight. ‘Nice forearms’, Jan said.

‘Thanks. I work out at least once a month.’

She flirted back. ‘You can tell. You can definitely tell’.

They walked further and loaded the cart with the various items they needed, and also the things they desired. Thinking about the rest of the evening, Edwin suddenly remembered the powerful effect that Diet Coke had on Jan. The way it kept her from dozing off in the mid-afternoon from sheer exhaustion. He loaded a 12 pack onto their cart. ‘How much?’ She asked him, looking over her sunburned shoulder. Edwin could see that this woman was both beautiful and practical. ‘$3.88’. ‘Just get one’. He obeyed, and slipped next to her, putting his arm around her waist.

‘I love this. I love our time together. This place, your dress, the smell of freshly opened boxes of produce, it’s intoxicating!’ He wondered if she felt the same, or if she was simply humoring him as she flipped through the coupons in her hand, her silver bracelet glinting in the soft glow of fluorescent lighting, its hum like background music for their interlude.

Looking up at him, her eyes became deep with emotion, and she casually pushed the buggy away, nearly wiping out an elderly shopper with a walker. ‘Sorry!’ she cried as she retrieved the nearly 150 pounds of groceries.

‘Where were we?’

‘Right here,’ he said as he kissed her, fiercely and briefly, before tripping into a display of canned vegetables.

She helped him up, barely able to control her laughter. ‘I can’t take this anymore! Edwin, you have to take me…you have to take me right now…to the stationary. The kids are starting school, and we need, well, school stuff.’

She was beautiful when she said ‘school stuff’, and when she mentioned the children. She was elegant when she called the babysitter to make sure that she wasn’t tied in a corner.

Jan was everything Edwin could want. And as she swayed off to the other side of the store, Edwin realized that he was the luckiest man alive. Because there was the woman he loved, there was the cereal he wanted, and dead ahead was the magazine rack, where she had been temporarily distracted. There was food in the cart, a beautiful woman by his side, children sleeping at home and now, chick magazines with relationship quizzes to take.

What a night it had been. What a night it would be.

Jim Bob's Terrible Confession

Breakin’ Mama’s Heart

aka Jim-Bob’s Terrible Confession

Cast:  Mama 40, Daddy 42, Chastity 19, Jim Bob 17

Setting:  The family is sitting around the table in their subsidized housing, discussing the future.  Mama is microwaving dinner, as Daddy pops an Oxycontin, which Chastity eyes with interest.  Her back has been hurting too.

Background:  Jim Bob, ever the Black Sheep of the family, is on edge.  He has news to tell the family, but he knows it won’t go well.  Chastity knows about it and is being typical big sister.  A typical big sister, that is, who refuses to work, loves to party and has seriously considered a career in government sponsored child-birth.

Mama:  How’s your back pain, honey?  Any better?

Daddy:  Naw, I think them Oxycontin aren’t gonna help anymore.  I need something a little stronger.  That lousy ER doctor offered me Lortab.  Can you imagine?  Might as well give me Pez!

(Laughter from all.)

Mama:  He tried that on me and I called the patient advocate.  I got him in all kinds of trouble!  By the way, you’re Aunt Treena’s birthday is coming up.  Next time someone offers you Lortab, think about the family before you storm off, OK?

Daddy:  As always, honey, you’re right.  (Turns and smacks her on the backside, but winces in pain from the effort).

Chastity:  My boyfriend has some Methadone.  You want me to ask him if you can try it?

Daddy:  Sure, sugar; there’s a nice girl!  See if you can borrow a couple for your old man.  What’s Ricky take them for?

Chastity:  Well, you know he fell out of that tree stand a few years ago.  Ever since then, he has headaches.  And pretty bad…

All:  BACK PAIN!  (Laughter, but nervously from Jim Bob.)

Daddy:  How’s his application going?

Chastity:  Lawyer says he’ll have disability in no time. Then we can think about…

Jim Bob:  Getting married?

(More laughter from Chastity and her parents.)

Chastity:  No stupid.  You’re such a goody-two-shoes!  We can think about having a baby!  I’ll get Medicaid and he’ll get a check. Why, the sky’s the limit!

Mama (beaming):  I always knew you were the one who could find her way in the world.

Daddy:  Good job sugar.  He’s a low-life, but I think ya’ll can make it work!  I got arrested with his daddy one time.  His grandpa knew how to file a lawsuit.  What a man.  (Whistfully, with admiration.)  How about you Jim Bob?  Graduation is almost here.  What are your plans?  You recovered from that car wreck?  I mean, that’s your ticket right there, you know!

Jim Bob:  My ticket?  Chastity was driving!  And she was stoned on Xanax and Adderal!  It was her fault!

Daddy:  Well there’s fault, and there’s fault.  You know that soccer mom that hit her will settle up, just to stay out of court.

Jim Bob:  (Appears disgusted.)  I do have a plan, but…

Chastity:  I know a secret, I know a secret….

Mama:  Hush you, and let your baby brother talk.

Jim Bob:  I…it turns out I got a scholarship to go to the university.  I want to study construction science and build stuff like great-grandpa.

Silence, as Chastity snickers and plays with her nose-ring.

Mama spins around and wipes a tear from her eyes with the dish towel, then rustles in her apron until she finds, and takes, a Xanax. She repeats it a minute later.

Daddy:  (Looks hard into his son’s eyes.)  Did I hear you right?  You thinking of going to college?  (He tries to stand, but can’t due to his medication and back pain).  I ought to walk right out of here.  Look there!  You’ve made your mama cry.  (Looking into his son’s eyes)  Just what makes you think you’re better than everybody else?

Jim Bob:  Daddy, it’s nothing against you. I love all of you!  But I just want more than disability, Medicaid and pain medicine, can’t you see that?

Chastity:  He wants Hannah, the checkout girl at WalMart.  She’s going to nursing school.

Mama:  (Sobs.)  Her papa is a preacher…I can’t face this!  They’ll bring…casseroles!  And there won’t be anything but punch at the reception if you get married!

Daddy:  Why don’t you two just go shack up?  Or get hitched if you have to?  WalMart is a fine job for her.  And you can, well, you can just go work until you get hurt or something.

Jim Bob:  I can’t!  It’s dishonest!  Can’t you see it?  Grand-dad would have agreed with me.

Daddy:  Grand-dad never knew his place.  Why, he kept working years after he could have quit! Stubborn fool!

Jim Bob:  But he died happy, didn’t he?

Daddy:  Chastity, get the car.  I’m going to the ER.  My nerves are tore up, and your mama’s is too.  Now, remember, you got pelvic pain, Mama heard that somebody was dying and I got hurt in Iraq.  We have got to have something else to get us through this trial.  What we did to deserve a son like you, I’ll never know!  I knew you were different, boy, but I never took you for a prodigal.

Chastity:  Told you they’d be mad!  (Sticks out her tongue, with tongue stud.)

Mama:  Jim Bob, please think about it.  You don’t know what might happen to you, to our family, if you take such a sordid path!  Oh, and if you’re out, can you get me some smokes?

Jim Bob:  I think I’m going to the library.  Sorry to be such a disappointment.

The family storms out and lays rubber on the road in leaving.  Jim Bob, resolved, opens a book to read.

Sure, it seems harsh.  And it’s fictional.  But it’s based on years of observation.  Anyone who has worked in an ER for any period of time, actually seeing human beings, will at least understand how this came to my mind.  People seem to choose disability, addiction, dysfunction and generational incapacity.  Does it seem as if it’s focused on rural America?  Maybe, but that’s where I practice.  I grew up, and practice, in Appalachia.  And sadly, this sort of life is all to common.  I fear that those kids who want to rise up, who want to escape, often face an uphill battle against ingrained culture and a mind-set that diminishes the value of success and education unless it comes by luck…for instance a lottery; or by deceit and crime, as in false disability or illicit drug sales.  Is this only in Appalachia?  Hardly.  The inner cities experience similar problems.

But the greater problem, and perhaps the greater tragedy, is that many of those in positions of influence, in medicine, in politics, in education, know it.  But they’re afraid to point it out for fear of being branded judgmental or unkind.

I think that not telling the truth is the most unkind cut of all.

Only half remains

This is an excerpt from a book of ultra-short fiction I’m writing.

Gene spent all of the time he could by the bedside of his wife of, well, his wife of all the years he could remember. Esther had suffered, and dissolved, bit by bit since the stroke first took her speech three years prior. Then it was a a hip fracture, then another stroke and a heart attack. Her kidneys died then, and she received dialysis a while until the day her intestines were shocked by a low blood pressure and then they died too. Gene held her hand all the way until her last breath slipped out the next day, lovingly refusing any other efforts to prolong the life he knew was ending. And oddly, he felt something slip out of himself.

None of Gene’s doctors understood what had happened. He did not set out to quit, or to become ill. He was not depressed, or angry. He was not bitter. He did not scream at God, but thanked him every day. He simply was less. Although it would not show up on the scale immediately, he knew that he felt less substantial.

But his family thought that he needed medicine, and took him for pills. He took the pills to make them happy, but had no more strength, or interest, than before. And he went to the therapist as they asked, but continued to become weak and sleepy. He sat in the chair, by the chair where Esther had spent so many years with him, and he slept in sweet dreams of peace, until someone else dragged him off to the hospital, to the doctor’s office.

His heart began to pump erratically and he was often dizzy. So he went to the cardiologist where, using sound waves (which he had used to locate German submarines), they found that his heart was pumping far less than it should.

‘Interesting,’ was all he could say. And he thanked the children and grandchildren for their love and concern towards him. And he was always gentle to them when they had meals together, or reunions, or when they came to cheer him up. But he was not without cheer. He was simply without her.

One day, the family was called because he was found in the yard by a neighbor. He had fallen in the night and was not found until morning. He had suffered his own heart attack and survived.  But all he could say was, ‘bless her heart, this is what she felt!’  And he felt, deep inside, that they were still sharing things, even if the timing was (temporarily) out of synchronization.

His heart, barely beating, grew less capable. And he smiled through shortened breath. And as daughters and sons and nephews and nieces swirled around, only one granddaughter understood. She smiled at him and winked from the far corner. He had confided in her, and only her.

He was dying, and would die, not for lack of passion, not for depression, not even so much for emotional loss as for the fact that only a half of him remained. He was not strong enough to continue as only half of the whole.  He knew that he was the remaining fragment of ‘what God hath joined together.’

And his little grandchild wiped away tears of joy as Grandpa Gene left to find the rest of himself.