Does It Matter…

Even the boulevard of broken dreams is just an illusion; the road was closed all along.

Pouring out the last drip-drops of what my soul will permit me to spare is a task too burdensome to perform and I don’t feel I owe it to any of you.

Hope? Despair? What of them?

A car careens into a crowd of merry wanderers, but is anyone really paying attention? Are those tears salty?

Once upon a time there was nothing. Here, now there is nothing. Tomorrow; nothing.

But we exist. My faint reflection in the window is proof. But now the window is broken. Who cares?

Blink and you’ll miss it. Miss what?

The coldest summer I’ve ever spent was a summer inside my own head.

Those flowers aren’t even real.

And don’t ask me again.

Tea cup, ink well, dark matter, tin alloy.

The circumference of my racing mind can be found on page 27.

Wicker baskets make lovely urns; scattered, shadoobie.

Dark Window (In Progress)

“What time is it?” asked Andy.

“9:30.” she replied.

“Goddammit it’s late. How long have I been asleep? I feel so fucking depressed.” he said as he yawned, attempting to rub his sleep strained eyes in mid-stretch.

“So now what?” she quipped, ignoring his question.

“I don’t know! Stop asking me that. I need some time to think.”

She snickered and rose from the couch, walked over to the window and stared out into the darkness as if she could clearly see what lay beyond it.  He righted himself from his prostrate position and buried his head in his hands in an attempt to summon some kind of clarity. When he opened his eyes he saw her standing near the window.

“What the fuck are you looking at? It’s pitch black out there; nothing but woods and God-forsaken empty darkness. I hate this fucking place!”

Andy slid his hands across his face and grunted in frustration. “Why did I ever allow her to convince me to come here to begin with? It was all her fault. If it weren’t for her constant bickering and complaining, we wouldn’t have been here in the first place and I wouldn’t be in this fucking predicament.”

“Oh?” she replied. “It was her fault that this happened?”

He waved her off and walked to the sink to pour himself a glass of water. He ran the faucet to allow the brown water and spurts of musty smelling air to run their course and swore under his breath. The small window above the sink overlooked the lake and he could see the distant lights of a few small craft on the foggy waters of Lake Memphremagog.

“They’re out there, Andy. It’s only a matter of time before they figure it out. The clock is ticking and you just continue to say that you need time to think. Time is running out.”

He turned and hurled the half-filled glass of water across the living room at the brick fireplace. Shards of glass exploded violently, the water causing the fire to flare and smolder.

“Why the fuck are you here anyway? Just to taunt me? To make this hell I’m living just a little more unbearable?”

She stared at him, smirked and then looked back out the window into the nothingness beyond. “You know why I’m here. You don’t want to admit it to yourself, but you know. Time is running out and you know what you need to do. The question is whether or not you will do it.”

Andy glanced down at the floor, noticing the knots in the old hardwood. “I put so much work into this place. My sweat, my blood; tireless backbreaking work because this is what she wanted and what did I get in return? Huh? Can you tell me that?”

She said nothing, waiting for him to continue.

“Oh, now you’re a fucking mute! You’ve got all the answers but when I bring up the wrongs that she committed you say absolutely nothing!”

“Andy, I’m not here to judge her actions. That’s for someone else to do at another time. I’m here to discuss your actions and to help you make the right choices going forward. That’s my only job at this time. Anything else is just you attempting to deflect the blame that is rightfully yours and to ignore the grave reality of this situation here and now.”

“So what am I supposed to do? Give myself up? Spend the rest of my miserable days caged up in some six-by-eight shithole in constant fear of being raped or beaten or worse?”

Andy pondered his own words and let out a hopeless chuckle. “Ha! Worse? Who am I kidding? They’d be doing me a favor. In fact you could do the honors and just kill me now.” Andy made a sawing motion across his own throat. “Please, I’m begging you!”

“No dice, Andy. You won’t be let off the hook that easily.”

“What you’re asking me to do is just not going to happen. I’m obviously crazy but I’m not stupid. And anyway, her family is all estranged or dead and he was a recluse. There’s always the chance that nobody will even know they’re missing.”

“Yes, Andy, there’s always that chance. There is also the chance that someone somewhere saw them when they were en route to this cabin. All it takes is for one person to file a missing person’s report and a simple run of the license plates on his vehicle will send the VSP scrambling to obtain surveillance records from gas stations and truck stops all over northern Vermont. Sure Andy, you might be right. Maybe, just maybe, nobody noticed them. But right now, you’re living in denial of the fact that you have the dead corpses of your ex-wife and the man she left you for underneath your back porch and blaming her for that is not going to get you out of this jam.”

“Leave me alone! Please, for the love of God just leave me be and let me work this out on my own!” he shouted, flailing his arms and crouching down in frustration. He tugged at the collar of his flannel shirt which was still twisted from his couch nap.

Andy walked over toward the fire place, feeling the crunch of broken glass beneath his worn out boots.

“What should I have done? I loved her. We had a great life in Boston. I gave her everything; a beautiful house, new cars; but that wasn’t enough for her eccentric tastes. She had to have this place in the boonies, away from everything we had known and she repays me by betraying me and abandoning me for some dime store novelist? How the fuck is this my fault?”

The woman gazed at him from across the room with a look he had not seen from her since her arrival. “You loved her? Really Andy? Do you recall your business trip to Chicago in 2002?”

Andy turned pale as he revisited the memory of that event, a memory he had tried to put out of his mind for many years. It was a mistake; a one-time indiscretion in the wake of a telephone argument with his wife which was followed by a half-dozen too many Jack and Cokes at the hotel bar. He had always had a short fuse and would often make foolish decisions in the midst of his own anger. In this case, he became too friendly with a cocktail waitress at the Talbott and one thing lead to another.

“I made a mistake! I have always regretted that event. If I could go back…”

“Well you can’t go back, Andy. You were a fool then and you are a fool now. You cannot go back and change things. You can be forgiven, if only you choose to repent for your actions and there is one very easy way to do that. The choice is clear.”

Looking at her as she remained standing near the dark window, Andy noticed headlights, two sets of them shining through the pines, coming up the long driveway. She turned and looked out the window and then back at Andy.

“The choice is clear, Andy. Time’s up.”

Andy could see the unlit strobe light bars sitting atop the vehicles’ rooves.  She watched as he walked towards the front door. He reached for the doorknob and then froze. He glanced over at the coat closet just to the right of the door. In one swift motion, he opened it and pulled out the loaded short-barrel .12 gauge which sat upright behind a few empty plastic bins. Before she had the chance to say anything, he racked it, inserted the barrel into his mouth and pulled the trigger.

 

 

Mid-summer in the Green Mountains can be a volatile time of year. The stagnant, humid air can make any material heavier than linen feel like a saturated, enveloping burden to be carried. The past week had been one of the warmest weeks of an already steamy summer. Rain was a rarity, though on the few occasions when it did fall, it fell in droves. The most recent system had washed away the old barn just up the road at Hugh and June Bisselman’s property and flooded some of the shops in Morrisville. Today, however, would be a break from the seemingly endless mugginess.

As Jerry slowly awoke, heavy-headed with the after effects of one too many drinks the previous night, he was surprised to hear the wind chimes swiftly clanging just outside the screen of his bedroom window. The breeze was constant and filled his room with an air that was almost chilly. He was in no rush to remove the blankets which he had unconsciously pulled over himself during the middle of the night; blankets he hadn’t used in months. Through watery eyes he looked over at the clock. Barely able to make out that it was only 6:00am, he contemplated rolling over for a quick snooze—he still had two hours before he had to meet his brother Sean for breakfast at the Bee’s Knees in town. The persistent breeze continued to brush up against the aluminum siding of his small cottage and the cool air swirled into and around his bedroom. His curiosity regarding the long-awaited change in the weather finally got the best of him and he reached over to the nightstand to find his glasses. He sat up too quickly and took a moment to allow the hangover-induced vertigo to subside. He stopped in the bathroom to rinse the stale, sugary taste of El Dorado rum from his mouth, then shuffled his way into the living room toward the patio door, which he had left wide open in his nocturnal inebriation.

The cool air carried with it the faint scent of pine and lavender as Jerry stepped out onto his back porch and he reveled in the novelty of a long sought-after cool mountain morning. His property extended far beyond the mahogany post-and-rail fence he and his brother had installed a few years prior. It was more for aesthetics than anything else seeing as it did little to deter the deer from eating the chard and bush beans that he planted every year—they simply jumped it and helped themselves to a fine feast. The grass glistened with the morning dew, stretching all the way to the woods just beyond the single lane dirt road that ran along his property line. It was the kind of morning he had always pictured in his mind prior to moving to Vermont from Florida ten years earlier. He closed his eyes for a moment and breathed deeply, cherishing the crisp, clean air. As he started down the four short steps onto the emerald green grass, the phone rang. There was only one person who could be calling at such an early hour.

“Good morning, mother.”

“Jerry, what are you doing up so early? I thought you’d be asleep?”

“Well, if you thought I’d be asleep, why did you call?” he responded as he shook his head and scoffed.

“Jerry, how is everything up there?” she asked, ignoring his question. “I worry about you and your brother constantly. Why couldn’t you have just lived normal lives with real jobs? Couldn’t you just come back here and work for your father for a while instead of living out there in the middle of the woods?”

“Mom, how many years has it been since I left? And yet, you still harp on this issue. I like it here, and so does Sean.”

“You convinced him to move there. He was doing just fine down here working for your father and you had to go and fill his head with all that silliness about moving there and becoming a writer. He never calls us. You know, he looks up to you, Jerry. He’s very impressionable and so naïve. Why couldn’t you have just stayed home like normal, dutiful children do?”

“Mom, please, we’re not children. Sean is a grown man and has made a good life for himself with his writing. He’s 40 years old for Christ’s sake! I didn’t have to do much convincing. He came up to see the place for himself, something that you and dad haven’t bothered doing yet, and he fell in love with it. Whattaya’ want me to say? Ask him yourself if you don’t believe me.”

It was the exact same conversation he had with his mother Claudia every time they spoke on the phone. She and her husband Roger owned and operated a multi-million dollar freight shipping company based out of Tampa, a business that neither Jerry nor Sean had even the slightest interest in. Both boys were outdoorsmen and both had attended remote northern colleges—Jerry having been a Fish and Wildlife Management major at Lake Superior State in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Sean, an English major at the University of Montana. Claudia and Roger had each grown up in well-to-do families and in their minds their sons were crazy to shun the bon vivant lifestyle they were raised with in favor of a life of secluded weirdness.

“Oh Jerry, I just wonder when you’ll outgrow this, this…phase of yours.”

 

“Well, mother, let’s see, I’m 42 now and I’ve been this way, whatever that means, since, oh, well, since-“

 

She cut him off and changed the topic. “Your father is playing golf this morning with Ray and Godwin. You remember Ray’s son Philip? You went to school with him. Oh, what was his name?”

“Scott?” he chimed in.

“Oh, I forget his name. Anyway, he started his own business and he has this bee-yoo-tee-ful house on Davis Island. I mean it is really something. He has his own private movie theater and his garage can hold ten cars! It is just something, let me tell you. He wasn’t even that bright, Jerry! He just knew the importance of financial security and he worked hard to make something of himself. Why can’t you apply yourself the way he does?”

“Mom, he’s a fucking glorified insurance salesman. His wife is a gold-digger and a bitch to boot and they hate each other’s guts. Sounds like some kinda’ life.”

“Jerry, you’re too idealistic. Life isn’t like the movies. Sometimes you just have to do things you don’t necessarily want to do for a greater good.”

“Like what, mom? Whore myself for money? More and more money? When does it ever become enough? I mean, how do you know when you’ve finally made enough money mom?”

“Jerry, there’s no need to use that tone. You’re getting all riled up.”

“You were the one who brought it up, just like you always do mom, just like every time we talk. Do you just call to aggravate me or do you actually have something to talk about? Can’t we just have a normal conversation, just once?”

“I was thinking, maybe you and your brother could come down and visit for Labor Day. We’re hosting a charity event at the Yacht Club and it is really going to be something. You boys really should come down for it.”

 

“Mom, I gotta’ go. I’d love to stand around and listen to you talk at me all day but I really have more productive things to do.”

 

“Just think about it Jerry. It is really going to be something, I mean, just fabulous.”

 

“Yeah, righto’ mom, you betcha. Gotta go. Love ya.”

He hung up and tossed the phone onto the couch, sighing loudly. It was the story of his life. Neither he nor Sean had ever really fit in among the highbrow crowd that their parents ran with. It wasn’t that they had a problem with financial success. Both had done quite well for themselves. Sean had published a slew of fairly successful crime novels and Jerry made a very lucrative living as a purveyor of illicit herbal pharmaceuticals. Since moving to Vermont, Jerry had only gone back to Tampa twice; once for his father’s 60th birthday and another after his grandfather had passed away. The longer he lived away from there, the more distant and foreign it seemed to him. His brother Sean considered it another planet; he hadn’t even considered going back for a visit in the eight years since his departure. The truth of the matter was that Sean really didn’t talk much to anyone, including his brother. They had a good relationship but Sean was an exceptionally private, reclusive kind of guy. Months would pass without Jerry hearing from him.

It was somewhat out of the blue that Jerry received a call from Sean asking him if he wanted to meet up for breakfast at the Bee’s Knees. Sean said he would be going away for a short weekend but he’d be passing through Morrisville on the way back. Jerry hadn’t seen Sean since Christmas when they both went down to Manchester for the weekend. He was looking forward to seeing Sean who sounded eager to tell him about a new lady friend.

Jerry fired up his old 65′ Dodge D-100 and made the 10 minute drive into town. The sun shone celestially upon the hills off to his right as he approached Morrisville on north 100. He got to the Bee’s Knees at five minutes to eight and went inside to grab a table. It was already buzzing with locals and a few passers-through. He ordered a cup of coffee and watched a young couple with their two elementary school-aged kids at the booth across from him and smiled.

Staring out the window, he gazed at an older gentleman sitting in a rocking chair outside the little bakery across the street and reminisced for a while about his grandfather, Rocky.

“Are you waiting for a few more?” said a pretty young waitress, rousing him from his daydream.

“Uh, yeah, sorry. Um, yes, just one more. He should be here any minute.” Jerry replied.

“Okay, I’ll give you some time to enjoy your coffee. Let me know if you need anything, otherwise I’ll leave you be until your company arrives.”

Jerry looked at his watch and saw that it was already twenty five after eight. It was not like Sean to be late. Sean was famous for saying, ‘If you’re not fifteen minutes early, you’re late.” Jerry checked his cell phone to see if he had missed any calls; nothing. He dialed his brother, but the phone went straight to voicemail. This was most unusual. Sean never turned his phone off. Publishers and editors were constantly calling him and he never missed their calls. Jerry checked his text messages to make sure that the follow-up text Sean had sent after their phone conversation had read the correct time and location:

Tuesday, July 17th 9:17am: Jerr…Will be at a friend’s lake house this weekend. Coming back Monday; leaving 7am sharp. See you at 8am at Bee’s Knees in town. Over and out. 

 

 

Josh Riley grew up in the small town of Monroe, Washington, about 40 minutes northeast of Seattle. His was a rather ordinary upbringing in a quaint, if not unremarkable town. His father Lester was a self-employed carpenter and his mother Judy was a receptionist at Tom Jacobson’s law office. Josh was a good student in high school; good enough to gain him early acceptance into college at Gonzaga in Spokane, though he dropped out after one year. His father had always encouraged him to study a trade and his mother thought he’d make a good salesman; he had a unique gift of gab, the kind that enabled a person to come off in a very honest, and personable way; nothing fake or sordid. She always said that her son could not only sell someone ice in the winter, but could also make that person believe that they truly needed it.

 

After leaving school, Josh spent much of his time working odd jobs with no real long-term goals in mind. He had traveled as frequently as funds would allow, usually working months at a time with a specific destination in mind and then quitting his job when he had saved enough money. Most of his travel had centered on national parks and wilderness areas and he had a special interest in wildlife photography. He’d amassed quite a portfolio of photos that he had taken of rare birds and mammals; he was especially proud of the shots he had managed to get of a wild red wolf.

 

It was on a camping trip to Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont when he was 25 that Josh met his wife Rebecca. She was a Forest Ranger who had mistakenly responded to Josh’s campsite after a neighboring camper called in a complaint about a loud radio. Upon encountering Josh and discovering that he didn’t even have a radio, the two struck up a conversation about his book collection which was stacked neatly in the corner of his tent. She was particularly intrigued by his Edward Abbey books; Abbey was a favorite amongst Park Rangers, having been a Park Ranger himself. Josh had a natural charm; he wasn’t the type to strut or brag about himself; he didn’t need to. The mere act of being himself, coupled with Rebecca’s grounded intellect and attractiveness enabled the two to immediately click. What had started as a planned month-long trip would become a permanent relocation.

 

Now at 28, Josh was three years into Vermont living and two years into a career with the Vermont State Police. He and Rebecca had married shortly after they met. It was a small, private ceremony on Grand Isle, on the Vermont side of Lake Champlain. After joining the VSP, Josh was stationed at the St. Johnsbury Barracks in the Northeast Kingdom; they moved into a small farmhouse just outside of town after she managed to obtain a transfer to White Mountain National Forest in northern New Hampshire in order to work closer to home.

 

“Hey babe, whatcha’ up to?”

 

“Me and the guys are having lunch. This new deli just opened over on Main and Central. Their subs are out of this world.”

 

“Wow, the life of a State Trooper sure is rough. How do you live with the constant fear that your life might be in danger? I mean you could choke on a piece of salami or drown in a cup of iced tea.” she joked.

 

“Well, sweetie, it’s a job that only a select few are cut out for. But it’s not nearly as perilous as chasing after renegade squirrels and making sure that degenerate campers pick up after themselves.” he jabbed back.

 

They had a mutual respect for one another’s jobs, and were well aware of the inherent dangers in their line of work, but that didn’t prevent them from taking delight in poking fun at the other’s seemingly endless abundance of downtime.

 

“So are you just eating sandwiches all day or do you have any actual work on the agenda?” she said with a more deliberate tone

 

“Nothing major,” he said dismissively. “Had a couple of minor fender benders to deal with this morning but mostly bullshit. We’ll see what the afternoon has in store. How bout’ you?”

 

“It’s been busy. The break in the heat has turned this place into a madhouse. Seems like half of New England got up here in record time to enjoy the weather and I’m probably going to have to hold over; as expected, most of my coworkers mysteriously came down with the same 48-hour flu. Funny how that always seems to happen on nice weekends.”

 

“You’re not alone. Half the tour banged out this morning and word has it that more than half of the Derby Barracks did the same. My coverage area extends all the way to the border now thanks to those pricks. In all likelihood, I’ll be holding over too. I guess a little extra coin can’t hurt.”

 

“I suppose.” she said. “More money in Uncle Sam’s pocket.”

 

“The American way.” he said in jest. “Keep me posted.”

 

“Will do babe. You too. Love you.”

 

“Love you too.”

 

So far it had been a routinely quiet day for Josh. Being about as far removed from any major New England tourist attractions as was possible in Vermont, his daily routine was typically uneventful. Although patrolling the highways was their primary detail, VSP was also the only police force that patrolled the small towns of the Northeast Kingdom, as most were too small to fund their own departments. Josh spent a fair amount of his time reading; he always carried a paperback with him in his shirt pocket whether he was manning the desk or in his cruiser. For Josh, being a State Trooper was a job that afforded him a comfortable living in a place that he truly loved, but ultimately it was just a job. He could talk the talk when he needed to and he was well liked by his fellow officers, but he was by no means a cop’s cop. He enjoyed citizen interactions in the small towns and when he was required to perform speed enforcement, he rarely cited any but the most reckless drivers.

 

After lunch, he went back to his desk to finish some minor paperwork from the previous day. He was nearing the completion of a Tom Brown Jr. book on Native American spirituality so he hustled through his filing to get back to his book. He had barely managed to open it to the dog-eared page when he saw his tour commander coming down the hallway.

 

“Riley! Time to work. Got a job for you up north.”

 

“Lemme guess? Filling in for the Derby slackers…I mean, sick calls?”

 

“Don’t be a smartass, rook. You’ll get to partake in the shenanigans when you’ve been doing this as long as they have. Meantime, you gotta’ pay your dues. Let’s get serious. Transfer call came in via Middlesex dispatch from a guy in Morrisville saying his brother was up at Lake Memphre this weekend and hasn’t been answering his phone all morning.”

 

“So?” Josh replied with no intended sarcasm. “Maybe his phone is dead or maybe he just doesn’t want to be bothered. Seems a little overzealous to me.”

 

“Riley, the guy says his brother never turns his phone off. He’s some hot shot writer or something and always keeps the line open for business purposes. They were supposed to meet in Morrisville this morning and he never showed up. The brother was vacationing for the weekend on the lake.”

 

“Where? There are dozens of little towns and unincorporated areas up there. Does this guy even know where his brother was staying?”

 

“No, but a highway cam captured the license plate of his brother’s vehicle on 105 at 3:30pm Friday afternoon in Newport. Another one recorded the plate near Holebrook Cemetary on Lake Rd. a short while later at 5:00pm. Since then, there has been no sign of the vehicle and there are only a handful of houses up there. Lake Rd. terminates before the border so there’s only one way in, one way out. Car belongs to a Sean Moreland. It’s a white 06’ Subaru Outback Sport, Vermont plate CKR935”

 

“I know the name.” said Josh. “Writes those suspense novels you see on the shelves at local drugstores. The kinda’ shit lonely housewives flock to.”

 

“Whatever. Just get up there and check it out.”

 

“Seriously sarge? Derby is that short-manned that I gotta’ drive 50 miles to play detective?”

 

“Look, Riley, I don’t know what the situation is in Derby and honestly I don’t care. You’re the low man on the totem pole down here and by the looks of it” he said as he playfully slapped the book out of Josh’s hand “you ain’t doin’ anything productive. Now get the hell outta here!”

 

Josh picked up his book and gathered his belongings. He figured he’d have the chance to stop for a bite to eat on the road and he could finish the book over dinner. The sky was stunningly blue and he knew it would make for a pristine afternoon drive through one of the prettiest parts of the state. He gassed up his cruiser and made his way out of St. Johnsbury shortly after 1:00pm.

 

 

Sean Moreland was not the marrying type. Despite being 40, he had the appearance and demeanor of a 25-year old libertine. Rugged and handsome—he resembled a dark-haired Robert Redford in Jeremiah Johnson—Sean was a successful suspense novelist and as a result he was never short on money. Being single and having bought everything he owned with cash, he wasn’t bogged down by the burdens of hefty debt or familial responsibilities and so he spent freely and lived life without a care in the world. He enjoyed the companionship of ladies, but had no interest in monogamous commitments and he made that very clear with every woman he met.

Sean had relocated to Vermont when he was 32, after spending the better part of ten years working for his father in Tampa. He didn’t have any particular role or title; he was simply paid a comfortable wage to do whatever was needed to be done at any given time. It was his father’s intention to have him learn the ins and outs of the business with the goal of eventually transferring the company into Sean’s name. His brother Jerry had made it very clear from a young age that he had no desire to ever partake in his father’s operation and he left Tampa straight out of high school, returning for occasional visits which became farther and fewer between as the years passed.

Although Jerry was the more recalcitrant of the two, Sean was more calculated and deliberate in his wayward decision making. Sean had spent five years at the University of Montana; not because he was a bad student, but because he had lightened his course load in his junior and senior years in an effort to extend his college stay and stave off returning to Tampa. After graduating with a degree in English, and lacking the desire to pursue teaching for a living, he was left with little choice but to return home. His hope was to become a writer but until that became a reality, he needed to earn a living and the easy choice was to work for his dad.

The idea of inheriting his father’s business was never something Sean seriously considered. For Sean, working there was just a temporary means to an end and so he placated his father for a while, putting on an act in order to make some dough while pursuing his writing career. Sean learned the business with a great degree of ease and performed very well; so well that his father privately set a timetable to hand over control of the operation once Sean had been there for ten years. That milestone was drawing near when Sean received a phone call one afternoon from Jerry, who’d been living in Vermont for a little over a year. Jerry spent some time in California and Oregon learning the intricacies of marijuana horticulture, a trade that he decided to take to Vermont after his friend Fisch, a native Vermonter convinced him to become a partner in a business venture that he had devised. Fisch was a good salesman but didn’t know the first thing about growing his own product. Knowing that Jerry was an expert green thumb, he figured the partnership would be mutually beneficial. Jerry bought the Morrisville property that Fisch had previously owned and the groundwork was set. The business itself was relatively low risk when considering the clientele; Fisch was an artist and had a lot of well-to-do yuppie friends in the Burlington area who he had been selling to for years. They tended to buy in large quantities and lived mainly in wealthier areas; not exactly the kind of folks local law enforcement paid much attention to. It didn’t take much more than a year before business was booming.

“Jerr! How’s mountain living treating you?”

“It’s sure as shit better than slaving away in that god-awful warehouse all day.” Jerry replied. “I can’t believe you’ve been there almost ten years now. How the hell do you do it day in and day out?”

His question contained equal parts facetiousness and incredulity. The mere thought of working for his father, a man who ran his business with an iron fist and would sooner see an employee starve to death than have to part with a single penny more than was required by law, seemed like the closest thing to hell that Jerry could fathom.

“Just biding my time brother. All things must pass; it’s just a matter of time.” Sean lazily shot back.

“Well why don’t you come on up for a little R&R? It’d do you some good to get back into nature, you know, so you can remember what real living is like. Unless, that is, you’ve become corporatized. Please tell me my little brother hasn’t become a shill?”

“It’s the busy season, Jerr. If I’m not here, this place doesn’t run. Dad is busy playing golf and fucking around with his buddies all day.”

“Fuck that and fuck him. If he wants to live the good life, let him earn it by actually doing some work. You sound just like him, little brother.” Jerry was becoming audibly disgusted. “Sean, seriously, if this is what you’re turning into, let me give you some advice: go out to the garage, seal all the windows and doors, start your car and run the engine for a few hours. Or if you prefer something quicker, just hang yourself. You’re already dead; you just don’t realize it.”

“Aww, c’mon bro. I still know how to enjoy life.”

“Yeah? Then fucking prove it and come up here and spend some time with me. It’ll be fun. There are some great bars in town and the ladies love new and exciting guys. They’re so used to seeing androgynous, hipster douchebags and bumfuck yokels that they’d swoon all over a sophisticated and manly dude like yourself. That is, if you still like things like fun and ladies.”

“Alright shithead. You’re on. What’s your schedule like next month?”

“My schedule, Sean? Let me check with my personal assistant and see if I have any important corporate swinefests to attend. Ummm, nope, I’m all clear.”

“You’re an asshole, but I love ya. Alright, I’ll book it today and I’ll come up for a week, okay? I’ll text you my flight details when I know them. And hey, save some of your finest harvest for my arrival.”

“Ahh, now that’s more like it little brother. There’s hope for you yet. And bring your laptop. Maybe you’ll find your muse and get serious about writing again and with any luck, you’ll find your way out of that wasted existence you call a life down there.”

“We’ll see. I’ll talk to you soon, Jerr. Peace.”

It didn’t take long, upon arriving in Vermont for Sean to see what he had been missing out on for the past ten years. It was abundantly clear that Jerry was living a good life. Jerry’s illicit business venture was bringing in a boatload of cash and his property was so large and off the beaten path that his pot-growing operation was virtually undetectable. Sean didn’t know the first thing about that industry, nor did he have the inclination to get involved but he could certainly see how life in Vermont was simpler and more conducive towards a better quality of life. Jerry always admired his brother’s abilities as a writer. He felt that Sean was wasting his talents by not earnestly pursuing writing as a career. Their conversations during Sean’s visit had ignited a spark of creativity for Sean and he did in fact start writing again before reluctantly returning to Tampa. He continued to write during his downtime and became more removed from his job at the warehouse as he gradually started to sell some of his short stories. His big break came when a SciFi magazine offered him $5,000 for a hastily-written zombie story he had written and submitted as a goof after a night of watching C-grade Japanese horror movies. In his mind, it had been some of the worst writing of his life, but far be it from him to argue with that kind of financial compensation; he accepted the offer and for the first time in his life, saw a career in writing as something that was feasible. It was also the deciding factor that inspired him to tender his resignation to his father, who was not only devastated, but angered by the surprising turn of events, as he was only a few months away from offering the business to Sean. This lead to a falling out between the two that would last for years to come. Sean was far from emotionally sensitive and as a result, paid no mind to his father’s acrimonious behavior, figuring he’d get over it someday. His focus was on making his move to Vermont to pursue his writing career full-time. Between the money he’d saved up living at home while working at the warehouse and the money he was making from the stories he was selling, he had more than enough financial cushion to make his way up north to dedicate all of his time to his new labor of love.

In less than two years after moving to Vermont, Sean had sold dozens of short stories and had procured a publishing deal with Harlequin Enterprises which had already seen four of his suspense novels attain Mass Market Best-Seller status. He was writing with such voracity that they had signed on for 10 more books in the next five years. Although Sean’s writing schedule wasn’t conducive towards a great deal of downtime, he and Jerry made it a point to at least try to spend holidays together and if time permitted, the occasional dinner or breakfast rendezvous. Sean lived fifteen minutes south of Jerry, just outside the small ski-resort town of Stowe. He made it a strict policy to take one day off from writing per week, in order to afford himself the luxury of enjoying and appreciating his new home state, as well as to sow his proverbial wild oats. He was never married; he hadn’t so much as lived with a woman. His longest relationship had been a tumultuous ten month ordeal when he was in college and the juvenile bickering and constant neediness on the part of the other half of that relationship had left him jaded and reluctant to get involved in such an emotionally time-consuming partnership again. His self-chosen Sabbath was always on Thursdays-a day chosen because he felt it was close enough to the weekend to contain a festive vibe minus the traffic and crowds that he’d have to contend with on the weekend itself. He would usually do some travel research and plan a day trip a week or so in advance. It was on one of those trips to the small town of Stanstead, Quebec, just across the border that his life would change in ways he could not have imagined.

While having a light snack at La Vieille Douane, a small french bistro spitting distance from the U.S. border, he noticed that a rather attractive middle-aged woman who was sitting in the corner near the window kept looking over at him and then averting her eyes when they would make eye contact. He returned to his crème caramel and café noisette and decided to pay her no mind. The waiter came over and asked if he wanted anything else and he declined, asking only for the check. He was fumbling through his wallet for exact currency when he heard a woman’s voice over his shoulder.

“Excuse me, aren’t you Sean Moreland?”

He looked up and saw it was the woman who had been staring at him.

“Among the many names I’ve been called, yes, that’s the one I usually answer to.”

Sean always had an alluring, if not somewhat eccentric way of talking to women. Despite his unfettered promiscuity, he was by no means sleazy in his approach to the opposite sex. He was honest and forthright about his aversion to commitment and if a woman was okay with that, then things would proceed as normal.

“I’m Kylie Dunning. I know this sounds cliche, but I’m a big fan of your books.”

 

 

“The house has a bizarre past. That’s all I’m tellin’ ya.”

The old man was nuts, Andy thought to himself. He was the same old fisherman that Andy had encountered a number of times along the shore of Lake Memphremagog. He first noticed the man shortly after he and Kylie moved into the lake house; he was usually out on the lake, fishing from his dilapidated rowboat and talking to himself or to the birds that flew overhead. The old man talked a lot to most anyone or anything that came within earshot, most of it nonsense; he was unkempt and he wore the same haggard old blue raincoat regardless of the weather. Andy paid little mind to the man’s comments about the house, dismissing them as the ranting of a local lunatic.

Andy Dunning and his wife Kylie had been living in the house for just over two months. It was true that at times Andy would notice some things that were strange, though by no means inexplicable; doors left ajar, picture frames slightly off center, the occasional item that had fallen off of the mantle; one time he returned home from a day out on the lake to find that a brown pelican had flown through his sliding glass back door and its bloody, broken body lay in the middle of his living room, still writhing in pain. Andy bent over, grabbed the bird and snapped its neck to put it out of its misery.

Andy didn’t view such events as being anything other than natural occurrences. He was not prone to giving credence to superstitions and wives tales; he grew up Catholic in South Boston but had stopped going to church when he was in high school. In his mind, anything that happened in life could be explained through reason; the hocus pocus stuff was for lazy and simpleminded people who lacked the intellect or desire to investigate and research, opting instead to concoct fairytales in order to create quick answers to tough questions.

Oftentimes when Kylie would notice that certain items in the house were misplaced or missing altogether, she would blame him for moving them. This frequently led to arguments, which were not altogether uncommon for them. Andy and Kylie had been married for 26 years; they met during their junior year at Boston College and were married two years later. Both of them were Marketing majors and both had obtained lofty positions with the same advertising agency after graduating. What had started with a fierce attraction and genuine love had slowly deteriorated into a partnership of mutual convenience as the years passed. Andy became more distant and driven by professional pursuits and Kylie, having quit her job after Andy took an executive position, which carried with it a seven-figure salary, spent much of her time alone, searching for exotic home furnishings and planning vacations.

It was on a boating trip they took to Lake Memphremagog that Kylie had noticed the “for sale” sign on the shore of the lake house. She convinced him to pull their rented boat up to the dock to have a look around. A seventy-something looking gentleman happened to be in at the time replacing a floorboard in the kitchen. He saw them through the window and called for them to come around to the front door. Walking around the side of the house, Andy took note of Kylie’s glowing eyes taking in the simple, yet elegant beauty of the house.

“Afternoon, folks.” the old man said cordially.

Kylie took the lead. “Hi, I’m Kylie Dunning and this is my husband Andy. We saw the “for sale” sign near the dock and the place looks magnificent.”

“It’s quite a place. Built it myself.” he replied, looking around and modestly admiring his own handiwork. “Still needs some work, but its move-in ready. Oh, sorry, I’m Tom.”

“Nice to meet you Tom.” Andy responded. “If you don’t mind my asking, why are you selling it?”

“Well, I just ain’t as young as I once was. Not worth the headaches anymore. The winters have become too much for me to handle on my own. The wife died a few years back and after trying to make a go of it on my own, my son and daughter-in-law finally thought it’d be better for me to move in with them down in Portland. The house was my wife’s baby anyway.”

“Why not give it to your kids?” Kylie asked.

“They ain’t all that interested in the place. Never liked it up here. They always thought it was too removed from civilization. City kids don’t know what they’re missing, but nevertheless, they ain’t interested.”

Kylie asked if she could have a look around and Tom encouraged her to do so. Andy took an immediate liking to Tom; he reminded him of his own father. They chatted about life on the lake and spoke at length about the Sox’s chances down the stretch. Tom told Andy the asking price but mentioned that he’d be willing to come down on it if they were interested in making the deal sooner than later. He seemed like an honest enough fella and Andy was impressed with the condition of the house. After a few minutes, Kylie returned to the kitchen and asked Tom to excuse them for a moment.

“Andy, I absolutely adore it.” she whispered, with a glimmer in her eyes he hadn’t seen in years. “It would be our own little slice of heaven. This is our chance to start over and get things back to normal. Whatta’ ya say?”

They were in their late forties and despite the distance that had grown between them, Kylie was hoping that a change of pace and scenery might somehow save their marriage. Andy didn’t need to work anymore; they had no children and their nest-egg was already far more than they could have spent in two lifetimes. Andy rarely gave much thought to retirement but at his wife’s insistence, he said he would give it some consideration. They told Tom that they would mull it over and they’d be in touch in the coming days.

Andy loved his wife and she still loved him back, though neither was fully certain how or why things between them had gone awry. He admitted his share of the blame, recognizing that he had allowed himself to become obsessive over his job and increasingly neglectful of his wife’s emotional needs. She in turn became less vocal and more resigned to the fact that he was a workaholic, choosing to compensate for the lack of attention by becoming more independent minded. She would drive the rural roads of northeastern Massachusetts in search of country stores and quaint antique shops.

After the trip, Andy did as he promised and put a lot of thought into the idea of retiring. He enjoyed spending time out in the country but he was not terribly elated with the idea of leaving Boston. In 49 years he had never lived outside the city limits. He saw places such as Lake Memph as vacation destinations; places that were meant to give people like himself a short break from the rat race, but not necessarily where someone of his background and upbringing could live full time. Yet he too saw the strain that had been plaguing his marriage for quite some time and seeing how lively Kylie had become over the possibility of buying the lake house and living there full-time, he felt optimistic that his marriage might somehow be salvaged. He thought it over for a couple of days and decided it was in their mutual best interests that they move forward with the plan. Needless to say, Kylie was elated. Selling their home in Boston wouldn’t be a problem; it was already paid off and if need-be, they could rent it out if finding a buyer proved arduous. Andy called Tom and told him he’d drive up to Portland the next morning to handle the paperwork.

Kylie stayed in Boston to meet with the realtor who had planned to show the house to what she referred to as a very serious buyer while Andy went up to Portland to get all the financials squared away. When he arrived, he was surprised by the small size of the home that Tom was living in; it seemed to be a tight living space for a guy and his grown kids, but he figured it was perhaps a temporary stay until he sold the lake house and had some money for a place of his own. Tom hadn’t listed the lake house with a realtor, hoping instead to deal in cash, which Andy had no problem with.

“Andy, you folks are gonna’ love living up there. If I were younger, I’d still be there.”

“Anything I need to know about the place, Tom? I mean any issues with the structure itself? Plumbing? Roofing? Things like that?”

“I think you’ll find that everything is in fairly good working condition.” Tom replied. “Place is almost 50 years old but I’ve really put a lot into it over the years. Appliances are all new. You might want to update some things for cosmetics. Only thing that is different from when I first built it is that I filled in the cellar some time ago. It constantly flooding after the winter thaw and I finally said ‘to hell with it’ and had it filled in. Wasn’t worth the hassle.”

“Tom, I appreciate it; we both do. I must admit, it wasn’t my idea to move up there. I’m a Boston boy through and through but the missus wants it and well, things haven’t been great between us for quite some time so I’m hoping this might help improve things.”

“Son, I moved there for the same reason. Had lived in Portland all my life, aside from the few years I spent in the Army. My wife wanted out of the city in the worst way and our marriage was on the rocks because of it so off we went. At first, it wasn’t my cuppa’ tea either, but I got used to it. Hell, I could get used to most anything. All a matter of perspective. And things sure did work out. You’ll see.”

After the deal was complete, Andy shook Tom’s hand and bid him farewell. As he was about to drive away, he heard Tom call out his name and he stopped the car.

“One more thing, son. About that cellar; I filled it in with hardcore about 5 years ago but the dampness still manages to seep in there. It can get a little musty sometimes but it shouldn’t be anything that will keep you up at night.”

“Not a problem. I’m sure it won’t be an issue. Take care of yourself and thanks again.”

 

 

It was raining the day that Andy and Kylie moved into the lake house. It had been raining all week. Some of the northbound lane of Lake Rd. was flooded, but they forged ahead slowly through deep puddles until they finally reached their new home. Any apprehensiveness that Andy was harboring leading up to the move had given way to cautious optimism. In the few weeks since purchasing the house, they had made all their moving arrangements and sold their house in Boston; all of this contributed greatly to a noticeable resurgence in the happiness of the marriage.

The house looked very different in the rain. Everything was much greener and lusher. Kylie immediately went inside to start unpacking the few boxes they brought up with them; the rain had slowed the movers who were supposed to arrive the same day, but were delayed until the following day. Andy told her he was going to have a look around the grounds of the property to make sure nothing was flooded or water damaged. As Tom had promised, things appeared to be in very good condition. Some of the wood on the back patio needed to be weatherproofed and the stone walkway which lead down to the dock had become slick with moss. The dock itself was in excellent shape, though with the week of heavy rains, the lake had risen considerably and one of the moorings was coming loose. Andy tied it down as a quick fix and made a mental note to come back to it when the rains subsided. As he walked back towards the house, he noticed that the area under the patio appeared to be flooded. Peering under the patio, he saw the door to the cellar that Tom told him about. Trudging through four inches of water, he made his way over to the cellar door and attempted to open it, to see if the hardcore filling was still in good shape. The handle was rusty and presented quite the challenge to pry open. He could feel it starting to give and finally it turned. The door too was rusty and seemed to be stuck as well but as he began to pull and wiggle at it, it slowly started to budge. He gave it one last mighty tug and as the door opened, the musty smell that Tom warned him about was far worse than he anticipated. He immediately slammed the door back into the closed position and placed his arm over his face, gasping. It was clear that a hell of a lot of water had seeped in there and who knew what kind of mold, mildew or critters were calling the crevices in between the hardcore home. Andy caught his breath and made his way out from under the patio and back into the house.

“Good God, that cellar smells like a goddamn open grave!” Andy said as he stumbled back into the house laughing.

“Well why did you open it? I thought you said Tom filled it in.” Kylie replied as she tried in vain to light the damp firewood in the fireplace.

“He did, but it looks like he just poured a shitload of hardcore into it and either never filled in the voids or he filled it with dirt and the water and dampness carried it all to the bottom.  Hard to say for sure but I’d say we probably have some water or mud in there and the smell is fucking horrendous. Fortunately you can’t smell anything unless you open the door so I’d advise against doing that again.”

“The thought would never have crossed my mind.” she said, mockingly.

“Once we get settled, and everything else is in order, I’ll tackle that beast;  but first I’ll need to buy a goddamn gas mask. Maybe we’ll just pour cement in there and seal it for good.”

“Whatever you think is best, buster.”

It finally stopped raining three days after they moved in. After the movers arrived with the brunt of their belongings, Andy and Kylie wasted little time unpacking and turning their house into a home. The weeks became months and in the early going, their relationship had in fact improved. Andy’s anxiety levels had been reduced drastically since retiring and Kylie was more apt to ask him to take drives with her into town or along the lake. They bought a small boat and spent quite a bit of time out on the lake, fishing or just cruising. As winter drew nearer, Andy winterized and shrink-wrapped it to keep it in good shape until the spring thaw. Winter proved to be a strange time of year for the both of them, especially as the snows began to fall. Snowplows didn’t come out their way too frequently and most of the neighbors didn’t live there year round so after a big storm, they found that they were housebound until their SUV was able to make its way through the drifts that covered Lake Rd. As a result, they were spending more time together than they had since college and this was both a blessing and a burden. Andy preferred silence to chattiness, whereas when Kylie got bored or a little stir-crazy, all she wanted to do was talk; even when she was watching TV, she would talk at the program she was watching, driving Andy insane. He would occasionally take walks in the snow along the side of the lake where he would almost always see the crazy old man ice-fishing when the lake had frozen over.

“Helluva’ house you folks bought there. Place has a bizarre past though.”

“Yeah well, I’m still not sure what you mean, but we like it. It’s comfortable. By the way, I’m Andy.”

“Good for you, young fella. All I’m sayin’ is that the house has always had a peculiar vibe about it. Can’t quite place my finger on it.”

“Well, like I said, I don’t really know what you’re alluding to. Care to elaborate?”

“Do I care to what?” he said as he eyed Andy suspiciously.

“Elabor…nevermind. Forget it. Do you have a name old-timer?”

“Well I don’t know you from Adam so no offense but that’s none’a yer’ goddamn business.”

“Right. Yeah, well, it’s been good talkin’ to you.”

“You too young fella. Don’t be a stranger now.”

Andy didn’t quite know what to make of the old man. He seemed unstable and tended to repeat himself. He mumbled a lot and when he did talk, it rarely made much sense. The old guy had been making reference to the house’s bizarre past since he and Kylie moved in and although Andy was reluctant to entertain the ramblings of someone who appeared to be somewhat unwell, it certainly made him wonder why the man kept saying it.

The darkness came early during winter on Lake Memph; by 4:30pm you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face without the aid of a flashlight or lighter. Most nights Andy and Kylie stayed in and read, watched TV-when the satellite wasn’t down-or played cards. During the daytime hours they would do minor work on the house; refinishing the floors, re-grouting the tile around the cabinets and shower, replacing a few of the older, more weather-beaten windows. But as time progressed, and the inevitability of cabin fever started to infiltrate their psyches, they started to resort back to their old familiar tiffs over minutiae. Kylie found that a vase that she had placed over the mantle when they first moved in was now across the room on the coffee table and what started as a simple inquiry turned into a full-blown argument. A few weeks later, the vase was shattered in the middle of the kitchen and she accused him of breaking it on purpose. Andy was genuinely baffled and yet, as he often did when falsely accused of something, he reacted angrily. The honeymoon 2.0 was wearing off quickly and by the time spring rolled around, they were growing distant once more. Andy spent much of his time alone on the lake or doing work around the house and Kylie resumed her solo excursions. All the while, Andy continued to notice that items in the house would either go missing or end up broken and she always blamed him for it, calling him childish and spiteful. He would go online to see if it was possible that there was perhaps some seismic activity in the area but they never felt anything and nothing showed up on the USGS website for the Vermont area. The old man continued to spew crazy talk at Andy, but as the unusual things continued to happen—which always resulted in him taking the blame from his disgruntled wife—he started to wonder if the old man really knew something.

One mid-July morning while Kylie was in the shower, he saw the old man fishing from the shore of the lake and walked over to talk to him.

“Hey old timer, got a minute?”

The old man angrily looked at Andy and launched into a tirade. “Oh it’s you again you Kraut bastard. You ain’t gonna get any info out of me. You’ll have to kill me first; screw you! I ain’t talkin!”

Andy stood there speechless, wondering what on God’s green earth the man was ranting about. He had never asked his age; he still didn’t even know the man’s name, but it appeared that he was likely well into his 80’s.

“I beg your pardon, sir?”

“You heard me goddammit! You and all the rest of the Heinies can stick it. I’m done playin’ your games, Fritz. You wanna’ round up the other goons and put me before a firing squad, that’s fine; I ain’t scared of none of you.”

Andy stood there with his jaw open and tried to make sense of what the old man was saying. It started to dawn on him that perhaps this old-timer had been a POW during the war. He didn’t want to antagonize him or escalate the situation.

“Sir, I’m Andy. Andy Dunning. I’m Irish and I live right over there in that house. We’ve spoken dozens of times.”

The old man stared at him, then looked him up and down.

“Bullshit! Prove it!”

“Well if you’d like to see my driver’s license, I’d be happy to show it to you.”

The old man straightened himself up and grunted audibly. He cleared his throat and looked out across the lake.

“How’s that house treatin’ ya, young fella?”

Andy was taken aback at how seamlessly the old man shifted from his prison camp flashback to resuming his normal banter.

“Uhh, well, that’s kinda why I’m here. I’d really appreciate it if you could tell me what you’ve been referring to. I mean, what is it about the house that claim is so bizarre?”

The old man smiled at him with a mocking gaze as if to convey that he knew something and he wasn’t about to give it up so easily.

“Why are you askin’ young fella? Been seein’ some things?”

“Well, uh, no. I, uh, well, I just want to know what you know.”

“I know a helluvalot more than you’ll ever know you stinkin’ kid. You damn kids think you know everything but you don’t know a goddamn thing about anything, now do ya?”

“Ummm…yes? No? What the hell do you want me to say?” Andy replied, frustrated and a little confused.

“Shutup with all that yappin’ and listen for a change, goddammit.”

The old-timer looked at Andy and for the first time, it seemed like he was firing on all cylinders. His eyes were focused and his voice steady and clear. He told him that he lived in the house just across the small lagoon from Andy’s house and that when the previous residents, Tom and his wife Ingrid lived there, there was always a great deal of noise coming from their property. He would see lights on in the house at all hours of the night and the loud grinding of heavy machinery. One night, a few years back, he heard what sounded like a woman screaming. It was windy that night and the buoy was clanging something awful but he knew the sound of screaming when he heard it. He told Andy that he made his way around the lagoon towards the property on foot to see if everything was alright but before he could even cross the property line, he heard gun shots and it was clear that the shots were being fired at him. He immediately turned around and ran back as fast as his old body would take him. From that point on, he never visited that part of the lake again; that is, until Andy and Kylie moved in.

Andy thanked the old-timer for his time. The old-timer brushed him off and apologized for being so cranky.

“I’m 92 years old young fella. When you get to be my age, you get to thinkin’ that you shoulda’ been dead a long time ago. Sometimes I wonder what the hell God is waiting for. The surliness is just a byproduct of that. Name’s John Everett.”

“John, it is truly a pleasure to finally ‘meet’ you. I guess I should be getting back. My wife is probably wondering where I went. Thanks for the information about the house. I just wanted to know the history of the place I’m living in, that’s all.”

“Well, young fella, don’t hesitate to call on me if you have any more questions.”

Andy walked back to the house and saw that Kylie’s car was gone. He went in through the patio door and saw a note on the kitchen table:

                Andy, taking a ride up to Stanstead; be back tonight; don’t wait for me to eat dinner.-K

_____________________________________________________________________________________

 

 

Family Isn’t Really Everything

I have never been one to shy away from addressing controversial topics. I’ve probably made more enemies than friends in my life and I have become something of an expert on the art of burning bridges. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a sadist or a narcissist; it’s just that when I learned in elementary parochial school that lying is a sin, I took that to heart, perhaps to a degree that most people are not comfortable with. I’d rather be honest and hurt someone’s feelings than fraudulently lead them to believe something that isn’t true. With that being said, I’d like to comment for a few moments on the topic of family; more specifically, I’d like to make it clear that in my 36 years of living and observing, I have come to a rather indisputable conclusion that the phrase “family is everything” is a complete fallacy, bordering on the idolatrous.

I love my family; most of them. Well, that’s not quite true. I love some of them and I tolerate most of them. Even that isn’t quite true. I love enough of them to count on one hand and I endure the presence of the rest of them during obligatory get-togethers. I have long said that I wouldn’t associate with most people in my family if they weren’t related to me. I don’t think I’m saying anything that most people wouldn’t agree with privately—and those of you who are feigning outrage by that statement are completely full of shit. You know damn well that if you thought of ten people in your family and imagined that you weren’t related to them, you would never intentionally associate with at least seven of those ten people. It isn’t that we need to hate or despise these people; it’s just that they are perhaps so fundamentally different from us that we would never have reason to converse with them outside of obligatory settings.

I’m a native New Yorker; like most people who grew up in New York City, I’m a private person. I wear sunglasses in public, day or night, and I almost always have earbuds in when I’m confined to public spaces such as airplanes, trains or ferries. I’m not a small-talker. I rarely strike up conversation with strangers. I just don’t have that much to say. Aside from deep philosophical conversation, what is there to say that hasn’t already been said a thousand times over? I apply this same approach to family members. The concept of gathering a whole slew of people who are arbitrarily related by blood into a finite space for the sake of celebrating an arbitrary occasion (annual holiday, birthday, Hallmark events i.e. weddings, funerals) and engaging in the exact same conversations/reminiscences of old times that have taken place countless times prior is bordering on the definition of insanity, and in my opinion, borders on the definition of hell. It serves no cosmic purpose, it doesn’t even serve an immediate gratifying purpose; it is simply rote, tired and futile. It requires exhausting effort, fake smiles and for those of us who have the cerebral capacity to think and ponder concepts beyond feces jokes and football scores, the act of bringing one’s conversational capabilities down to the level of primates. So why do we do it?

As a spiritual person, I think part of it is due to a superficial attempt by non-spiritual people to fill a void. This void could never be filled by the aforementioned incessant drivel and contrarily, it is frequently worsened by the fact that the conversation almost always leads to conflict via political debate—often with people who are too misinformed to know what they are talking about, but insist that they are right because their favorite Fox News pundit told them what they should say. I am a Christian in that I subscribe to the Christian creed, but I am an existentialist at heart and as such, I tend to see the absolute absurdity of nearly everything. It isn’t a conscious effort; it is simply the result of keen, innate and constant observation. Some might call me an elitist, even a snob for writing these things and I have reached a point in my life where I’m at peace with being called such things because to some degree, I acknowledge that I am those things. Hey, at least I’m honest.

When I see sappy plaques or hear someone say “family is everything,” my immediate thought is “how sad.” From the viewpoint of an existentialist, I suppose family being “everything” for someone would give that person a far more optimistic view of the world than I might have, in that they have something immediate and tangible to give them the sense that their world is complete, while I see the meaninglessness and nothingness of everything around me. But when you really observe the practice of “family” by those individuals, the reality is not so convincing. Conflict, addiction, excessive materialism, rivalries, resentment, hatred of jobs; all of these things are abundant, negating the “everythingness” that family allegedly brings these people. Essentially, they hate their lives but they put on a good face about it. Score them a moral victory for faking it? Not a chance. It is a grand attempt at denying reality, and not even a good one. We, as a society, have erected a system around us that is so fundamentally fucked up and that has been in place for so long that we haven’t a clue how to undo it, so we instead pretend to embrace our self-made prisons. It is a societally-collective version of Stockholm Syndrome.

I will acknowledge that I have been the recipient of assistance from many-a-family member over the years, including some of the individuals I referred to as being merely tolerated by yours truly. I am thankful for their benevolence and I would–and have–returned the favor on occasion. I’m not declaring war on them; I’m simply stating the fact that I can appreciate the actions of a person, as well as their sanctity in the eyes of God, without feeling a need to associate with them. I have no conclusion for this little memorandum because, as I said, I’m a consistent existentialist. We’re all already ashes and dust; we just refuse to acknowledge it. Alas, I’ll end on a positive note in that the Christian in me also acknowledges that despite the utter lack of meaning in all of the nonsense that we consume ourselves with in this world, our souls transcend all of it because our Creator willed it to be so.

What Are You Looking For?

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In John 1:38, Jesus asks a question of two young men that I believe we all, at one time or another have asked ourselves. “What are you looking for?” So many of life’s greatest artistic and intellectual metaphors and allegories revolve around this very basic, yet very existential question.  From the Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia in literature to popular songs like U2’s appropriately named “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” those of us with any degree of spiritual intuition whatsoever have found ourselves asking ourselves this question; some of us, like yours truly are consumed by it.

What are we looking for? What does any of this mean? For many of us who have traveled extensively and lived in myriad diverse places, our travels and life experiences provide us with the insight that is needed to more holistically discern the fact that the answers do not lie in the places themselves. Those of us who have the added bonus of a solid spiritual foundation also become aware that true happiness will never be found in this world. It is easy to see how questions such as these can drive men to madness. In extreme cases it has led brilliant individuals to take their own lives. Perhaps it is the fact that we are created in Imago Dei that renders us incapable of avoiding obsession over wanting to understand and perceive the world as God does; this is what leads many people towards what is known as gnosis—the desire to pursue and comprehend deep spiritual mysteries. Ultimately, this too is a futile pursuit because, try as we might, we can never achieve this noble, though nevertheless inefficacious goal.

So, again I ask, what are we looking for? What is the purpose of life? Is it the pursuit of money? Careerism? A nice house, a car, a spouse, children and a household pet? I’m certainly not going to get on my soapbox and belittle these concepts. Only the individual can answer that question for themselves. But when Jesus asks the question, I have to wonder how one could answer it to His liking when it is evident to the casual observer that the priorities in that person’s life are material, rather than spiritual? Again, I am not looking to condemn anyone, rather I am merely challenging people to look inward as Jesus would have us do, for the sake of our eternal souls. When politics takes precedence over human decency and Christian charity, we become a ship lost at sea as a nation, morally speaking. When saving a few tax dollars is more important than providing basic human needs like food and healthcare to our fellow man, we are abandoning the Gospel message, whether we want to admit it or not. What we do with our lives holds great meaning–at least it ought to. How do we treat our neighbors? Are we quick to offer a helping hand, or are we quick to avert our eyes and walk away? Are we willing to give up everything to follow Jesus and have we even contemplated what that would truly mean?

Jesus asks each of us, “What are you looking for?” Bono acknowledged that Christ “broke the bonds, loosed the chains and carried the cross” to redeem us. He reaffirmed it by saying “you know I believe it,” but then followed that immediately by saying, “but I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” I think all of us find ourselves in that position on a daily basis. Intuitively—and for some of us, intellectually—we know that what we are looking for is never going to be found in this world because it simply doesn’t exist in this world. Yet for some reason, we continue to delude ourselves into believing that the happiness that only exists in Heaven lies just around the corner with a new car, a new pair of shoes, perhaps a new house, or in a new city; then we conquer those things by acquiring them and what happens? Do they bring us the bliss that we were certain they would? Never! Because they cannot. Jesus is found in each one of us; we were created in the image of God and He did not mince words when He told us that what we did to the least of His people, we did to Him. We can see Jesus in the faces of our brothers and sisters. Who are our brothers and sisters? All who do God’s will, Jesus tells us (Matthew 12:48-50). The stranger; the homeless man; the immigrant; the non-believer; even those who would allow Satan to work through them. They, too are our brothers and sisters and while we are still breathing, we have an obligation to show them love, compassion and kindness, for one never knows when they might be entertaining angels (Hebrews 13:2).

“What are you looking for?” If we do not see the answer to this question staring us in the face when Jesus asks it of us, we need to reassess our priorities and further contemplate the purpose for our existence.

A Savior in Our Midst

It is no secret that the world around us is seemingly falling apart at the seams. Our communities are as bitterly divided as they have ever been, as evidenced by the almost daily headlines depicting protests, civil unrest and riots. Politically, our nation appears to be rapidly approaching a dangerous tipping point, as battle lines are being drawn everywhere we look. One need look no further than basic comment sections of social media posts to see just how vitriolic and combative we are becoming as a people. I fear that this anger is beginning to seep into the very fabric of who we are as a nation. Working in a faith-based facility, it would be logical to assume that I am sheltered from this type of behavior, but such assumptions would be incorrect.

What has happened to us? Why have so many of us embraced such a hard, indifferent and cruel worldview? Even as Catholics, so many of us have taken a warped sense of pride in wielding our unkind and uncharitable words like swords. Christ tasked us with being the salt of the earth and yet all too often, we appear willing and eager to partake in the poisoning of our social compact. We, as Americans are a political lot; we always have been. In and of itself, this is neither wholly good nor wholly evil. But when it becomes evident that Jesus is being forced to take a back seat to our political allegiances, we’ve gone way off course. To make things worse, too many of us have tried to convince ourselves that Jesus was something that he wasn’t in order to serve our own political agenda. We employ “alternative facts” in an effort to redefine who Jesus was so that he fits neatly into our politically-biased box of convenience. This is dangerous because it has the potential to turn people away from Christ, what we Catholics refer to as “giving scandal.”

In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul stated, “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”(Romans 12:2) I write this not as an advocate for one political party or the other, but as a Catholic and as a servant of Jesus Christ who is concerned that too many Catholics have elevated their political loyalties to a status that takes precedence over their loyalty and fidelity to God. Some would even go so far as to claim that their political loyalty is a result of their loyalty to God, to which I must humbly cry out: “rubbish!” Our Lord implored us to carry his torch, to effectively be His light in the world to others. We cannot serve as a light when our words and actions reek of darkness and surliness. If our demeanor does not emanate love and compassion, then we are not accurately representing He who is the very essence of love and compassion, Jesus Christ.

Our world is clearly in peril. This should certainly give us pause and open our hearts to more frequent occasions of prayer and meditation. But it should also instill in us the wisdom and motivation to accept our collective vocational role in all of this as Christians. We have an opportunity, perhaps greater than any generation has had before us, to shine as the light of Christ in a world that is hellbent on sowing the seeds of its own demise. We have an obligation to carry His torch and to rise above the pettiness, the vulgarity and the ugliness of our modern world. Failure, quite simply, is not an option. Our Savior is with us; we must let the world see Him.

…what reward will you have?

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There seems to be a disturbing trend plaguing our society that instills in me a fear far greater than any fear that I might derive from the thought of terrorists or active shooters or any other kind of boogeymen that the talking heads on TV might try to force feed our already-weary psyches. Charlotte Bronte wrote that “conventionality is not morality.” Our society, however seems to be embracing the most dangerous aspects of conventionality and conformity. Pack mentality, particularly retributive populism has become something of a new religion in the United States and it is manifesting itself in a collective sadistic indifference towards death.

Too many of us jump at the opportunity to boast about the United States being a “Christian nation” and yet when push truly comes to shove, we do nothing to back up that claim. We applaud the incoherent, saber-rattling rantings of our political leaders; we wave flags and cheer at the notion of our warships launching missiles at other human beings; we vilify victims of legitimate police brutality; and perhaps worst of all, we seize the opportunity to dance on the graves of recently deceased individuals who have been labeled as “evil” by the court of public opinion.  As Catholics, we are taught from a young age that actions, not people, are evil. Especially in our modern age of advanced scientific and medical wisdom, it would be irresponsible and vacuous to dismiss a person as being evil without fully understanding the emotional and psychological background of that individual. Yet in the aftermath of the deaths-by-suicide of former NFL star Aaron Hernandez and “Facebook killer” Steve Stephens, we didn’t miss a beat in jumping all over their respective demises. The commentary I saw on social media this morning was shameful. Have we really become a people who relish and rejoice in the deaths of other human beings?

Hernandez was convicted of murder and the evidence in his case was fairly convincing. Stephens never saw the inside of a courtroom, but his own video evidence would indicate that his guilt for the crime of murder was self-evident.  As someone who works in mental health, I cannot emphasize enough how surprised most people would be to know how little we really know about mental illness in the broad sense; it might not seem likely or plausible to the average person that a seemingly stable individual would suddenly snap and turn into Mr. Hyde, but it is not unprecedented.  Could Hernandez, like so many other football players, have been suffering from some type of CTE-related brain damage? We are only uncovering the tip of the iceberg in terms of understanding just how damaging the sport of football is to the human brain. As for Stephens, we know very little about him at this point, other than the fact that he has had no previous legal troubles or manifestations of violent behavior.

For those of us who call ourselves Catholics, it is only natural to pray for Hernandez’ victim Odin Lloyd and Stephens’ victim, Robert Goodwin; the harder part, and I would say the obligatory part that truly makes us Christians is the fact that we must pray for the souls of Mr. Hernandez and Mr. Stephens, even if–and especially if–it hurts to do so. Jesus made this painfully clear. Praying for those who are nice is easy; praying for those who appear to embrace evil is much harder, and yet Jesus does not make this optional. Those who choose to exhibit such a blatant and boastful disregard for human life by essentially celebrating death—regardless of the acts committed by the recently deceased—are a source of deep concern to me because they have chosen to essentially play God by either judging the souls of others or by failing to even recognize the fact that the individuals had souls to begin with. Please understand that in no way am I expressing any condonation of the terrible acts committed by both of these men and my heart certainly goes out to the families of the victims. But we cannot combat evil with evil. Romans 12:21 makes it plain that we must fight evil with good. To actively ignore the very real fact that the lives of the perpetrators were no more or less sacred in the eyes of God than their victims’ is to miss the entire point of what makes us Christians. A society that is so willing to turn a blind eye to what is right promotes a moral bereftness that is far more frightening to me that any damage that can be inflicted by a man with a bomb or a gun.

On Vocations

 

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When you’ve attended Catholic schooling your entire life as I have, there are things that are engrained in you from an early age that non-Catholics or public school Catholics might not fully grasp in the same manner. Along with terminology—monstrance, vespers, narthex, sacristy, adoration and scapular, just to name a few at random—we learn the meaning and the concept of “vocation” quite early on. As an altar boy who took his job seriously, the idea of the priesthood was something that was always at the forefront of my mind. I was well known for my willingness to serve multiple Masses on a Sunday morning—including the 10:00am Italian Mass which was one of my personal favorites. I loved being in Church. I loved the incense, the music, the fact that as an altar boy I could enter the sacristy while “regular” parishioners couldn’t. I felt important.

Shortly after college, I began strongly discerning the possibility of entering the priesthood. My uncle had been a priest at the Cistercian, aka Trappist monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts, St. Joseph’s Abbey for over 50 years and I had been a frequent retreatant there for many years. There was something otherworldly about the silence, the prayers, the inner peace that I experienced when I was on retreat there. It was the brilliant writer and monk, Thomas Merton (Fr. Louis) who brought the Trappist order into the American mainstream back in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s. I was fortunate enough to have been granted permission to spend a weekend in the remote hermitage on the grounds there during a particularly intense period of my discernment. In many ways, it was my “dark night.” That experience will stay with me for the rest of my life, as I went through the entire gamut of emotional and spiritual struggles over the course of three full days. It is something that I cherish and I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that it solidified the foundations of my faith.

In the end, the Lord led me to the vocation of marriage, rather than Holy Orders. Much like the military, the monastic life is not for all men (or women). But the men and women who are in fact cut out for that life are a varied lot, eclectic and as different as snowflakes, but possessing a clarity and an understanding of oneself that few people in the outside world can fully comprehend. Upon moving to Northern California, one of the first things my wife and I did was to visit our local Trappist monastery, the Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina, CA. It came as no surprise that the feelings I got when I arrived there were reminiscent of the feelings I would always receive at St. Joseph’s. The monks who call it home possessed a very similar joie de vivre to the monks at Spencer and the peace and tranquility of the monastery grounds is equally inspiring.

Monasteries are inherently self-sustaining, or at least they attempt to be so by having a specific trade in which to support themselves by. While Spencer produces acclaimed jams, jellies and preserves as well as world renowned altar vestments, Vina’s niche is their wines which, as a chef, I must say are exquisite. They are currently in the process of reconstructing an 800-year old monastery Chapter House from Ovila, Spain; the stones were brought to the United States by William Randolf Hearst in 1930 and eventually found their way into the hands of the Trappist order. It is this very appreciation of the rich spiritual and artistic history of our Church that has always endeared me to the Trappists.

So what exactly is a vocation, some might ask? To put it quite simply, it is the pursuit of one’s purpose for living, as intended by God Himself. All of us have been created by our God with a purpose. We have all been given talents and skills that God has instilled in us for the sake of making the world a better place. Though it is a small part of the whole, it goes beyond simply what we do for a living. Vocation is the full picture of who we are and what we do. For some of us, it is getting married and having a family while supporting that family by using our God given talents in our daily labor. For others it is a life of active service in one capacity or another. But in most cases, when we hear petitions for an increase in vocations at Mass every Sunday, the vocation we have in mind is to the priesthood or religious life. It is no secret that these vocations are dwindling compared to a few decades ago. Why this is the case is the topic for another discussion, as entire books have been written about it. What I will say, however is that for men who are in fact considering a vocation to the religious life, the Trappist life is something truly worth looking into.

It is a life that is immensely different than life in the outside world. For starters, the day begins at 3:30am and ends around 7:30pm. While the day is in fact centered around prayer, make no mistake, work is an equally important aspect of life. St. Benedict, the patron of the order, preached the equal importance of Ora et Labora, prayer and work. It is a humble life to be certain. But as I have seen in my personal experiences, as well as through my uncle, it is an infinitely rewarding life. And what so few people seem to understand is that it is a vocation whose importance goes far beyond the individual who lives it; it is we, the laity and the world at large who need the prayers of those living the monastic life. Their prayers are our direct line to heaven. In a world that has grown so fast and so disconnected from God due to our collective preoccupation with ourselves, we’ve reached a point where the continued prayer and work of the global monastic communities is needed more than ever. I would implore any man who is even remotely considering a vocation to the religious life to take a retreat to the Abbey of New Clairvaux and see for themselves the beauty and the importance of this particular vocation.

If you live on the West Coast and you would like to take a retreat for the purpose of vocational discernment, please contact Brother Christopher, Vocation Director at the Abbey of Our Lady of New Clairvaux at godseeking@newclairvaux.org  or (530) 839-2161.