Red Lodge Part Four: All the Rest

The last few days have been filled with a bunch of stuff. I’ve eaten at different restaurants every day and done my best to walk off the calories to mixed success, for one.

Tommy and I also traveled to Yellowstone National Park, a trip that started at 8:30 in the morning (I had four hours of sleep by the time I woke up and I wasn’t in a great mood) and ended 13 hours later. It had been years since I had been. I was a kid, traveling with my uncle and his wife, and I remember very little about it beyond him clipping a deer with his car on accident. The deer ended up being fine. So did the car.

I recall geysers and hot springs…or rather the smell of them, that acrid smell of sulfur and the volatile mud and water that made them such a spectacle. Still, I needed a refresher course and Tommy had never been. The Beartooth Highway had only just opened the day I arrived in Montana. As it has hits lists to be known as both one of the most beautiful drives in Alaska and one of the most dangerous, we had to go that way. Of course.

The drive wasn’t terrible. Though we hit elevations where snow was still present in great amounts, the road itself was clear of ice. Lack of visibility in some areas and a variety of tight curves made attention necessary, but between that and a cautious speed, there wasn’t much to worry about.

I made friends at the lookout point…

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And enjoyed the view…

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And once we got up high enough, I found out winter wasn’t quite over for me. I also found an abandoned ski lift post that I had to climb, fear of heights and safety be damned.

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God, and when we got into the park, there were just so many different sights to see. We drove all over that place. The craziest thing was that there was such a monumentally diverse level of scenery. All in the same state you’ve got towering mountains, open fields, rolling hills, rivers, waterfalls, forests and canyons. You’d think you had traveled to any number of places. It was breathtaking. On several occasions, it made me speechless, an amazing thing in itself.

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We saw a lot of animals. The most heavily populated seemed to be the bison.

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Pebble Creek:

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We went up and checked out Mammoth Hot Springs.

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Sheepeater Cliff:

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And even Old Faithful, driving up right as the magnificent bastard erupted. I wasn’t quick enough to snap a picture, but it was a sight to behold.

Fuck, I only just now realized I didn’t even get a picture of the geyser while it was sitting dormant. Ah, well. I did get pictures of a mud volcano, Dragon’s Breath Cave, a sulfur lake, and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.

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And though we decided against going back the Beartooth Pass way, opting instead to return to Red Lodge through Cody, Wyoming, the drive out was no less beautiful. We saw sprawling, tranquil waters.

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And beautiful mountains.

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In fact, though we were road-tired as all hell by the time we stumbled into the house, I think it would be fair to say our spirits were invigorated by the sheet beauty we had been witness to the whole day.

Then I stayed up that night and spent some time to myself. In the quiet, there, everything else started to slip away and the gravity of my whole vacation kind of hit. Where I was, why I was there, and what it meant to me. All the emotions I had suppressed came out in a fucking rush for a couple hours. I reached out to the first person who came to mind and they talked me through everything, helped me work through things and swapped stories with me. Eventually I was able to fall asleep.

The next day I made it a point to visit my grandparent’s grave site. It was the first time I had been able to in the nearly three years since my grandmother passed, in the two and a half years since my grandfather passed. I elected to go by myself, and I walked, a good 45 minutes to an hour, up a winding hill and past houses so old they have historical signs out front telling how they came to be.

When I reached the cemetary, the sky was starting to grow overcast, but it wasn’t raining. I was the only one there and, save for the mostly muted sounds of passing traffic, it was deeply quiet. A mountain raised up in the background of where their remains were laid to rest. They were in a family plot, a handful of Mayers and a bunch of Hickoxes, just to the right and back from an old mausoleum. Red Lodge being the one-time wild West town that it is, there were many graves from the 1800s and early 1900s that I walked past. My grandparents’ seemed too new. It didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel fair.

I wept there, alone but not, with them but in a capacity I couldn’t decide on. I wanted so desperately to believe in the Heaven my grandmother believed in, but I was also reminded by what she said: when you pass, it’s like a deep sleep. When the second coming of Christ occurred, you would wake up as if from a nap.

Which means that even if there is a Heaven, she wasn’t there. Not yet. So I was there with memories and ashes, surrounded by the dead and wishing so desperately I had spent more time with them when they were alive. I’ve never felt so alone, I don’t think, than standing in front of them wishing I could ask their advice. Wishing they could tell me things would be alright.

I thought, too, then, about the last time I spoke to my grandmother. She had had a heart attack and I didn’t get to speak to her long. A minute, maybe? Maybe a minute and a half. It wasn’t long. Her first questions were to make sure I was alright and to tell me she loved me. And I lied to her. One of the very last things I said to her was a lie. I told her I was fine. That my books were being published, that I was going to be set for life. That she didn’t have to worry about me anymore, and I told her I loved her, which was true, and we hung up, and she was gone within a couple hours.

I didn’t even get to speak to my grandfather. He was too feeble and delirious to handle a phone. My uncle relayed my love and says he believed my grandfather understood and he let go.

I couldn’t be there for either of them. It had been over a year since I’d even seen them, and I thought about how my grandmother would call me when I was living in Los Angeles and Seattle and want to ask a million questions and I would get impatient and cut the conversations short. I thought about that and I fucking wept again.

That was not an easy day for me, and it isn’t easy now to write about it. I miss them so much. I love them still, so much.

So.

Anyway.

Tommy and I slept in yesterday. I leave tomorrow, so I started gathering up the souvenirs I bought and the things I’ve decided to save. I mailed off one box of old things to someone I think will appreciate them with the love they deserve and I’ll mail off another one to myself a little bit later. And then Tommy and I drove out to a little town maybe 5-10 minutes from Red Lodge, got a steak and a few beers and watched some pigs race. And let me tell you, unlike racehorses, these pigs had awesome names. I mean, look at this shit:

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And I thought they were going to be big ol’ hugs snuffing around the track. NOPE. THEY’RE THE BEST.

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I have a traumatic pig story. This is the exact fucking opposite. Pig races. Montana, you are the best.

I’ll be back in Alaska tomorrow night and blog posts will return to whatever other nonsense I write about. Love and art and angst.

Rest in peace, Jean Marshall Burnside Mayer and Richard Thomas Mayer. Thanks for giving me a life.

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Red Lodge Part Three: The Town

The title of this post is a little inaccurate, as I also go over the rest of the house. After my last post, Tommy and I finished going through the upstairs drawers and closets. There were a few more letters, a few more pictures, but the big find of the day was a box containing hundreds of old pennies dating back as far as 1909. Maybe they’re worth something, maybe not, but we spent the bulk of the day separating them by year and mint mark. It… was not an easy task.

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Or rather,  it was easy enough but time-consuming. Tedious. It took several hours, but we finally did it, and we sorted them all into their own individual envelopes. The amount of glue I ingested sealing them probably wasn’t healthy, but those are concerns for tomorrow me.

The only spots remaining to look through were the basement and the brown shed outside. The basement had a lot of boxes, a lot of empty suitcases. There were some old records (mostly Christian music, but also Barbara Streissand) and old books, but I didn’t root around too much. There were spider-webs everywhere, with spiders who wove them. I instantly began feeling things crawling all over my skin, paranoia out to get me. And yeah, har har, grown man scared of spiders, but they have black widows (not Scarlett Johanssen) and shit out here and homie don’t play that.

I would have taken pictures, but I left my phone upstairs to charge at the time and I’m not keen on going back down. There are probably some hidden treasures in those boxes. I’ll never know. I did make out with one thing though:

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Because, duh.

The shed outside was also probably filled with spiders, but it seemed safer. The contents of the house were pretty straightforward, though: loads and loads of old magazines and newspapers. Loads of them.

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I wouldn’t be able to save it all, and I didn’t know where to even start. I left it pretty much alone.

And that was that! The house has been pretty well sifted through. I found some knick knacks to keep, some to give to friends. I realized there was a cuckoo clock missing. It was a broken thing you had to reset by hand by adjusting the chains that hung below it; I was hoping I’d still be able to remember how, but no luck there. I found more personal memories and looks into the past than I think I had prepared myself for. It’s been a good journey. It was time to take to town itself.

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There are a few roads that cut through Red Lodge but most are more for residential zones. There’s one that cuts through the back and has a school, and a pool, a hardware store and a general store. Those two pictures there are Main Street, looking both ways. Most of the gift shops, stores, restaurants and the like are along this road, and you can get pretty much anywhere you need to be by walking. Plenty of people drive, of course, who don’t want to (or can’t) walk, tourists coming in and out, people leaving for other cities for work or coming home. Even so, the traffic isn’t bad, and the exercise is welcomed. Still, if I get tired, there are always free horse-drawn carriage

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rides from 7PM-9PM.

Now, it’s still early in the year, so when I passed the pool by, it wasn’t in great shape. It hasn’t been opened yet, so the water is the kind of green you want your ninja turtles to be and not much else. The diving board had been removed, probably so the heaps of winter snow didn’t wreck it. I took a picture anyway.

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When I vacationed here as a kid, I spent as much time in this pool as I could. I love swimming, love it, and I got to hang out with kids my age and flirt with the teenage lifeguards and pick up a tan. I look good with a tan. I also haven’t been tan in probably twelve years, so you would never know it.

Anyway, pool closed, I thought I would wander around and see what else I could find. Like, for example, a theater playing one movie. Which movie? Do you really need to ask?

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I found an antique store with helmets from WWII, guns from all eras, Native American artifacts, brothel tokens, badges, misfired bullets from Custer’s last stand, and so many skulls.

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Did I mention the jackalope? There was a jackalope.

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I continued on to the library. As a kid, I was always in there, reading every volume of the Hardy Boys mysteries I could find and re-reading the Indian in the Cupboard books. Remember the bathroom I showed a picture of in the last article? I opened up the medicine cabinet and there was – no shit – a plastic cowboy and Indian in there. They never came to life. Magic is bullshit.

I’m not bitter.

I’m a little bitter.

But I was stoked all over again when I found the Candy Emporium. This candy shop is ridiculous. Not only does it have all kinds of traditional candy bars and chewy snacks like 100 Grand and Starbursts, they have dozens of buckets filled with all kinds of taffy and hard candies and fruit candies. Grab a bag. It’s $7.99 a pound. I spent $43 fucking dollars and I don’t even feel a little bad.

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Once I was loaded up on diabetes fuel, I decided it was far past time for an ice cream sundae. I’ve talked about this before, but directly above the candy shop was an old-school ice cream parlor filled with tons of old photographs and Coca-Cola merchandise, a lever-action cash register and a machine that dispensed Coke in glass bottles, something I had never seen in Alaska. My grandfather and I used to go there all the time. I go outside and look for the staircase next to the candy shop that would take me up.

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What…what the hell?! They closed?! And I had given myself a hankering for ice cream that now was plaguing me. I was deeply dismayed. I wanted to sit on the little stools again and buy Coke in a glass bottle just for the hell of it and take a picture of the cash register.

I kicked at the street and headed back home. There was a shop called Scoops that sold ice cream, so I decided to head in there.

There were booths and tables, but no stools. I saw the ice cream selection and got Cookies and Cream from the nice young lady working. Then I… I looked around a bit.

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They had stools after all! And Coke in glass bottles! And that cash register! It turned out they hadn’t closed, but simply relocated and a shock of childish glee coursed through me.

I took my candy home, and my ice cream, sat at the table for a while and listened to the thunder storm I had just missed being caught in (I love listening to the rolling thunder down here), and just relaxed. It was a good day.

After a while the weather calmed down. I started writing this. Now I’m on my way to take a young man up on a drinking contest at the bar. There will be live music and good times, and even though the sheriff side-eyed Tommy and me pretty hardcore our first night in there, it should be fine.

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I think I’m gonna buy me a t-shirt from this place, something I almost never do.

And finally, for putting up with my posts about little ol’ Red Lodge, a place with overwhelming family and personal history, here’s a red-breasted robin, singing spring/summer in and generally not giving a damn.

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Red Lodge Part Two: Upstairs

If you missed the first part in the adventures of my grandparent’s old place, you can read it here: Red Lodge Part One: Downstairs.

My buddy Tommy arrived the next day (yesterday) after a long drive from Alabama, through lightning storms, wildlife and Kansas. I gave him a quick tour of the house, we got everything unpacked and he gave me a gift.

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Now I need to buy a record player. Or date a girl with a record player. Or do an elaborate Ocean’s 11-style heist.

Anyway, we went out for burgers (he got buffalo, I got elk; we both opted in for the homemade potato salad), and then after a short jaunt around town, got to work on the upstairs.

Here are the (definitely haunted) stairs leading up. There’s a little string winding along the rail to pull that turns the light at the top on and off.

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The mirror at the top is so you can see the phantom following close behind. Here’s the hallway at the top.

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To the immediate right is the bedroom I stayed in as a kid. There’s a tiny twin bed and a dresser. Absent now is a glass case that used to be against the wall at the foot of the bed. At the time, it was filled with the creepiest goddamn dolls I had ever seen in my life. It’s a miracle I didn’t develop a complex of some kind. A couple of the dolls made it into the closet, but the room is mostly bare now, save for some boxes filled with old books.

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To the left is another bedroom. It’s the one Tommy is staying in, hence the definitely not-antique bags piled on top of the bed. There was some old sewing equipment in the dresser. In the closet, though, was where the good stuff was. I was only able to go through a bag full of magazines…

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…and one of three or four boxes, but the box I went through had literal hundreds of photos I had never seen before. It was jarring, honestly, and it affected me more than I led on with my friend there sorting through it. I was adopted into this family, right, and my parents have been absent for most of my life, so I spent the bulk of my life living with a couple that had already raised three kids. It’s both stunning and heartbreaking to see the full lives they led before I came into it. It made me feel… I don’t know. Separate. I know I shouldn’t, but seeing how my uncle, aunt and dad grew up (and I mean literally, from baby photos to graduation pictures, to Thanksgiving dinners with first wives and my great-grandmother), seeing my grandparents as a young couple, it made me feel like there wasn’t a part of me in their life.

That’s ridiculous, of course, they were a huge part of my life and I of theirs, but with most of my family dead now, distant or gone, there’s a loneliness in me that was compounded by seeing this childhood and sibling camaraderie that I never fully got to have or understand. My grandparents were loving people and essentially parents who guided me through a large chunk of my life, but they were still an entire generation removed. We played, but never tossed balls. We didn’t go fishing or camping or much of anything, really.

And another part of me sees my dad as a young kid, my uncle teaching him how to play the guitar. Graduating high school, going to the zoo, goofing off, sporting the worst mustache ever. I’m seeing this youthful, cheerful version of him smiling, and it hurts my heart to think of the broken shell of a man waiting to get out of prison – again – next month with dreams of running away to Mexico where no one can hurt him anymore. I thought of him there, in a cell, hurting from a broken back he endured when I was a kid, and I thumb through the  Western Union telegram that my grandfather sent his mother the day he was born: “JEAN HAD SEVEN POUND MINE OUNCE BOY THIS AFTERNOON BOTH DOING FINE BABY LOOKS LIKE JEAN AND CAN OUT YELL DAVID. DEBBIE WANTED GIRL BUT SETTLED FOR BUSTER AND A MILK SHAKE DAVID AND I HAPPIEST FELLOWS IN ALASKA WISH YOU WERE HERE LETTER FOLLOWS LOVE”.

It was sent at 8:30AM, just over an hour after he was born (I found his birth certificate as well). He was so ecstatic and excited for his third child that he rushed as fast he could to let his mom know about it.

These photos were a peek into a history I never got to hear about. Peeks into the past, childhoods of the people who took me in and have tried to ask about me at least over the years. I flipped through countless pictures, setting aside some that I want to take home and hopefully someday share with kids of my own, but I kept going through this massive box of pictures because I knew if I stopped in the middle of it, I might be overwhelmed.

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Further down the hall on the right is the master bedroom, I guess. I suspect it’s the same size of smaller than the room Tommy is in, but it’s where my grandparents stayed and it’s where I’m staying for the duration of my visit. It’s a bed, a nightstand and an (empty) wardrobe. The bed is cozy. Of course it is.

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At the head of the hall is the bathroom, complete with old school red bathing basin with fucking legs hell yeah. Oh, and a too-small toilet that I’m only bitter at because I’m used to more accommodating porcelain thrones these days.

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And to the far left of the hall, across from my bedroom, is a storage room where most of the extra furniture has been moved. There look to be a few things go through there, too. I’ll try to get to that today.

After the photo business, Tommy and I got a bottle of Big Horn bourbon whiskey, which I purchased on the recommendation of the clerk after asking for the best locally brewed dark whiskey. Tommy and I started working through that while catching up on each other’s lives and telling old stories. We hadn’t seen each other in 8 years, but it felt like no time had passed at all.

Eventually we headed to the bar to listen to some live music and try the local beers (which were great). The bartender’s name was Tanner, but I thought it was Nick at some point, so we just called him Nick Tanner the rest of the night and he gave us water so the sheriff wouldn’t think we were being overserved. I gave my number to the other bartender, a fun, flirty, beautiful woman named Megan. I invited her to come over and sort through old shit with me. Why? Big Horn bourbon whiskey, that’s why.

Anyway. I still have some rooms to go through, as well as a basement and a shed. There will be a few more of these, I think. One for the whatever else I find, one for the city, and I think we’re going to try and head to Yellowstone at some point. Hope you’re continuing to enjoy this peek at history and my childhood.

Red Lodge Part One: Downstairs

Around 12AM today and for the first time in 14 or 15 years, my plane landed and I set foot on Montanan soil. I was in Billings, destined for Red Lodge, headed to my grandparents’ home, my grandfather’s childhood home, the house I would visit every summer for a month for several years.

Red Lodge is a small town about an hour, hour and a half outside of Billings. The road there is surrounded by collapsed and abandoned mines and fields full of cows. When the taxi service picked me up to drive me in, he almost hit a baby deer on our way in. It’s old country out here still. Not a lot of people, not a lot of noise. I like it.

The town has just over 2,000 people as permanent residents. It was founded in the late 1800s and had a riotous nature for many years due in large part to an excess of saloons and coal miners, and an uneasy truce with the Crow tribe of Native Americans. The first marshall had a nickname of “Liver-Eater”. It was that kind of place.

My grandfather was born in Red Lodge in December of 1921. That meant he lived through the Great Depression that devastated Red Lodge’s population by around two-thirds, miners packing up and leaving once their mines got shut down.

The population seems to have hovered around 2,000-3,000 ever since, and large chunks of the city remain in the past. Old houses, old furniture, old styles. It’s why I loved coming here as a kid. It was like traveling through time.

I got to the house around 4:30AM. Couldn’t sleep. Decided to walk around, grow familiar with this old building again.

Here’s the house from the outside, along with two sheds I’ve never been inside of, will probably never be inside of, and probably contain lots of cool, old stuff.

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That last picture is kind of awesome. The main door, the only one my uncle has a key for, pulls outwards. It’s  also got a big-ass tree growing in front of it. If anyone ever wants entry, they’ll have to cut the poor thing down and cut the padlock off of the double-doors next to it.

I entered the house and stepped into, uh, a closed veranda, would be the closest way to describe it.

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My uncle and aunt have already tossed or sold a bunch of stuff in the house. In the righr corner,  you can sort of make out some boxes that they’ve packed up. In the white cabinets, there wasn’t a whole lot left. I found a 10 cent novel installment from 1926 that was in excellent condition,  save for some tears at the creases, as well as a mint container from 1907 and holy shit? Prince Albert in a can? I get that joke now.

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I took my prizes (and my suitcase, natch) into the house, which opens up into the kitchen.

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Above the door in the second picture, you can see a little sign that says, “Welcome home, Dick and Jean”. They were married for 63 years.

On either side of the sign, you can see a black and white cow. My grandmother loved – specifically – black and white cows. Our house in Anchorage was lousy with them. Figurines. Plates. A cover for the lightswitch that always made me feel like I was flicking the poor animal in the udders.

There used to be a little table in this kitchen. We would always stock up on cereal. I had many a breakfasts here.

I turned to the right instead of going straight and walked into the dining room area.

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I never spent much time in this room, but my grandmother used to have people over sometimes and they would sit and chat for hours in here. The door you see in the top picture leads down to a basement. Since it’s probably dark and full of spiders (but also fossils), I’m thinking I’ll wait until Tommy gets here before trying to hear down. The little table next to the door used to have a rotary phone on it. My uncle must have tossed it once the phone service was disconnected. Too bad. I’m pretty sure some of my friends and readers have never seen one before.

The cabinet seen in the last photo has a bunch of old, old dolls and some china. My grandmother used to collect all sorts of things like that. I also found a newspaper from 1918, right near the end of World War I, talking about the war. In the bottom of one of the glass dishes, I found a pair of matching matchbooks, one with my grandfather’s name on it, the other with my grandmother’s. I left them there. It seemed the right thing to do.

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This is the living room. The lights are burnt out currently, but my phone apparently has an amazing camera. You can see the piano that has long since been used (but still works and is in tune). The desk next to it with the photos on it used to have a box television with rabbit ears. I sat on that musty looking orange couch and fought against the static to watch the Chicago Bulls beat the Utah Jazz in 1998. Could have been 1997, but I’m pretty sure I recall it being Jordan’s sixth championship.

Lastly, this room, which connects both to the living room and the kitchen.

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That is, indeed, a toilet with a curtain around it. I felt awkward using it as a child and feel awkward about it still as an adult. I’ll stick to the upstairs one.

You can see the bed and the bookcase behind it. That’s where I really found some interesting things. A lot of the stuff on the bookcases were meticulous record-keeping logs. It looked as if my grandfather’s mother may have been a teacher at some point. His father may have been in charge of a store. There is a shop list of how much of a product  (corn, shelled; flour; coal, etc.) was going to which resident at what weight and for how much. There is a log of which residents have how many inches of water to pan from in the river. If you like shows like Deadwood, it’s incredibly interesting stuff.

I also found about a hundred, maybe two hundred old photographs. I mean photographs from the 1890s-1940s. They were in pristine condition. Absolutely stunning, but I began to feel incredibly invasive. Some of these photos were of family members I’ve never known or heard of, whom I would never know or hear of. Others were of… okay, did you know that people would get pictures taken and then put on postcards to send? Because it looks like that’s exactly what happened. I’m not even sure that people were sending postcards of themselves. It’s the equivalent of you going to a store, finding a postcard with a picture of the guy who mows your yard and sending it to your sister in another state with a completely unrelated message on the back.

Then you get cool little peeks into the past like this:

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That last was printed on what feels to be a thin copper sheet. Incredible stuff.

And you know, that’s just the beginning. This town has a lot of little memories. There’s still half a house for me to cover, but this is a lot already. I’ll save the rest for a couple more entries. Hope you’ve enjoyed a little peek at my childhood and the history around it.

The Story Man

I can’t recall the origin of the nickname. I think I may have pompously referred to myself as such in a rum-fueled haze of confidence, high on one of my rare book sales, and a few people clung to it. It’s a decent moniker, if only in it’s accuracy: I tell stories – it’s my passion, in fact – and I am a man. I tell stories about life and death, killers and thieves, flower girls and friendships. I write poetry for women who have never existed, telling a story about a romance that will never be.

Lately, I’ve been telling a lot of stories about myself. There’s a conceit in that, an assumptive arrogance that anything about my life or me is worth reading about. It’s a promise I feel I often break, when I write a thousand circuitous words or more about my feelings or my soul-searching that usually ends the same way it begins: that I am listless in life, confused about my purpose, and generally dissatisfied with my output in virtually every way.

Yet I can’t stop. If I tried, I think I’d go mad. Well, madder.

I’ve never seen a blank piece of paper I haven’t wanted to write on. Something about the emptiness of it, the void, screams out to me to be filled, and when I do, when I write, it’s not as simple as “the ink of my blood flowing” as this bucking beast that’s been slamming against the cage in my gut finally finds itself a refuge to cavort to its heart’s content.

Of the page itself, it appears not as a canvas, not quite, but a gate. A window to a multiverse, endless possibilities to pull from and when I find the one I want (something with science and fiction, perhaps, or a poem about homesickness, or an echo of my own heart), a flash comes from behind my eyes and a dageurreotype is left in the form of words.

The page is a lover, of sorts, one whose every inch I want to explore and tease and fill to the brim with passion. Sometimes the process is more aggressive. Sometimes we argue. Sometimes I’m left on the edge of tears. The page listens, and I endeavor to explain.

I do that with anecdotes. Stories. Tales.

I remember several years ago, a six-issue comic book mini-series came out called Taleweaver. It was a story about warring factions that had the addition of a protagonist who could change reality by writing what he wanted to happen in the form of a story. It was a concept that never had much sustainability, but I thought it was cool as hell anyway. And “taleweaver”. That sounds awesome. I could be a taleweaver.

The Story Man, though? That sounds so… well, I get two visuals out of it. On one hand, it feels ominous. The Story Man feels like a character ripped straight from King or Koontz. A mysterious figure with unclear intentions. Is he a monster? The last sword of God? A being of grayness, indifferent to the concept of morality? Stephen, if you write it, I will read it.

I also see, however, the old man at the beginning of Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman’s Dragons of Autumn Twilight. Though he becomes a major character further on in the book, we’re introduced to him as a traveling storyteller, scraping the floor with his chair as he takes his place by the fire in a quiet tavern. It’s he that sets the group on their adventure. He puts things in motion.

Do I do that? Lord, I kind of hope not. Here’s where I tell you not to take advice from someone who fucks up as often as I do.

And here’s where you realize if you listen to me, you’ve already taken my advice. Gotcha, sucker.

You know, part of me appreciates that the mistakes I’ve made, and the rash decisions and the ill-advised traveling, all of that has led to a number of stories. While I wouldn’t mind being rich and successful and having those upbeat kinds of memories to write about, the things I’ve done and gone through have allowed me to have a deeper – if still flawed – understanding of myself and the world and some of the people in it. I get the grime, I get the shattered windows and ripped photographs and discarded shoes. I also get the solitary rose growing through the cracks, the letter from a loved one fading from repeated readings, the stuffed animal sewn back together countless times.

I try to write my stories – fiction and nonfiction – so that they’re full of imagery and emotion. I want my readers to see what I see, to feel what I feel, so that they can understand me and maybe see a part of the world that might normally be hidden from them. I don’t know if I’m successful at that, but it also serves to get it out of me, get it onto the page I love, and trap it there.

If it stays in me too long, I get to thinking too much. Case in point, last night I stumbled across a picture of someone’s text post. It was a woman talking about how she was raising her daughter alone and how she would make something up about the father who left her behind. This got me thinking about my biological father, who left, and my adopted father who was unable to take care of me due to his own addictions.

I’ve talked about this at length before, but I’m going to do so again for a second. See, I came across Danny’s Song again. My adopted dad is a huge Kenny Loggins fan, and he loved this song (and I’m Alright, but that’s neither here nor there) in particular. I like the song, and Loggins, but it makes me think about what must have been going through his head in the 80s. In love and married to my mom, ready to raise and love me as his own. The idyllic life. And I think about how that all crashed and burned. How the marriage fell apart because of substance abuse and rampant blame. How he fled the state and I didn’t see him for two years or talk to him for a year and a half. How this perfect, picturesque family lifestyle has turned into being shut away in prison in different states and cutting almost all contact from his family and all contact from me.

Of course that leads me to my biological father, who couldn’t be bothered to even pay for the paternity test, so few fucks did he give about possibly having a son.

I am grateful for the grandfather I got, the one he raised as a third son and fourth child, though I shared no blood ties to him. I will always be grateful.

Even so, for as many years pass and as often as I tell myself and others, I still wind back around at dad and abandonment issues.

It’s sort of a weird topic to bring up in an article about being The Story Man (capital t, naturally), but I’ve been doing some soul-searching lately, and I haven’t been liking some of what I’m seeing.

Am I the man my grandfather wanted me to be? The one he felt was worth raising from the age of five even though he had put in his dues? Or was John right in running away from me before he could get to know me? Am I just a broken man like Rick who is set to have his idea of a happy family wrecked by my decisions and weakness?

I think about it a lot, because that feeling of duality drives me in a lot of different directions. The bulk of my stories seem to be rooted in the complex and very intense emotions that I’m absolutely convinced came from a loving but somewhat traumatic and confusing childhood.

Of those three options, I know which one I try most to be. I try to be a good guy. I try to build up and inspire others (the only way I know how, for the most part, being through stories), but I know specters of the other two haunt my life daily. I won’t even touch Terry, who I wrote about in Santa Wears a Black Hat, and who I learned a lot from – both good and bad – but whom I also spend far less time obsessing about.

So try as I might to be someone worth raising, someone worth being around, someone worth loving, I’m not always strong enough, I feel, to pull it off. Writing those thoughts out, the pain I’m feeling, the love I feel for beautiful things, my love of love, my longing for people that make me feel alive, my desire to strengthen connections with people and my anxiety that I did something wrong or am horribly deficient when that connection seems shaky… writing it out is the only way, the only *healthy* way I can keep my knees from buckling.

Sometimes that manifests itself in imaginary worlds, hard and beautiful and varyingly interesting places I’ll never be able to see; or characters who embody different aspects of myself. Sometimes it will be in fictional love letters, poetry that struggles to capture the romance I see and feel in the currents of the wind and the flight of autumn leaves, or whatever.

Sometimes it’s just me getting shit out. Telling stories, because stories are what I’m left with. The arrows in my quiver, the sword in my sheath, the A-4 KU Skyhawk on my aircraft carrier…. this metaphor got away from me.

I arrive in Montana on Saturday. I suspect I’ll have more stories pretty soon.

“To be alive
To be alive: not just the carcass
But the spark.
That’s crudely put, but…
If we’re not supposed to dance,
Why all this music?”

-Gregory Orr

La Petite Mort

With a soft moan
The door
Opens
Like a lover and
With a breath,
The breadth of distance
Closes
She is there like warm smoke
Filling my lungs, clinging to my clothes
Bright and bare as the moon
Searing as the sun, hot to the touch
We become cartographers
Mapping trails across each other’s skin
Hands grip and knead
Unraveling knots
Caught up in the moment, we
Fall
For the moment
For the other
To the floor
Tightly wound, bound around one another
Pressed lips slip, drift
Across and down
The sounds of fire’s desire cut through the room
A knife and
Life thrums under every inch of skin
Crackles down every vein
Thunders in each chamber of the heart
We find our places, begin our paces
The walls around us become a temple
Cries to God sanctify it
Nails dig scripture into flesh and
Breath comes quick and heavy
Heavenly
Our coils twist and tighten
Senses heightened and
When release comes, it is as
A flash of light in a storm

No one ever told me a little death would taste so sweet

My Birthday Was a Thing

Anybody who knows me remotely well knows that my birthday stresses me out. A lot. As a child, I got used to my dad never showing up, and my mom occasionally showing up just to borrow birthday money I got so she could take a cab back to wherever she was staying. As I got older, it wasn’t always as simple a disappointment as having to work on that day. Instead, I’ve had to attend funerals, be stood up for dinner, have nobody show up to celebrate with me, no matter what kind of arrangements I try to make.

My birthday is lonely and reminds me of lonesome things. I’m significantly more sensitive on May 10th, and because of that, I try to keep it as quiet and low-energy as possible. If I get one day, one single day that is supposed to be mine, supposed to be my celebration of my own life, then I choose to do so by being around a very select group of people. People I care deeply about. People I feel I can trust and who won’t thrust me into something I don’t feel comfortable or compelled to be in

Yesterday, I feel I did a pretty good job.

I started the day with an influx of love and well-wishes from my friends. It always surprises me who remembers or takes the time, and it always surprises me when some people leave more heartfelt messages. It isn’t that I think I’m disliked, but rather that I seldom know how people feel about me at all.

I met a friend, her husband and mom for lunch. The friend was visiting; I had no idea she was in town, let alone for mother’s day/my birthday weekend, and she was quick to suggest we get lunch together. It was really great catching up with them, and getting an update on the cat her mom is taking care of. That cat was mine for a while, and we were best buddies. He weighed, like, 15 pounds and loved to sit on my chest with all the grace of a dumbbell. He’s a good cat, and they are good friends, and it was a good lunch.

I spent a couple hours at work after that. I didn’t do work (and knowing that I didn’t have to worry about returning to work after, say, a lunch was relaxing in and of itself), I just killed time and watched a little television. Lazy Sunday, indeed.

I followed that with dinner with a small group of people. Chicken, twice-baked potatoes, salad, corn, so much vodka and Uno. I took a gander out at the city from the deck, enjoying the sunny day, a pleasant break from the rain and gloom.

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I did not win at Uno, but I was winning pretty hard at life.

My friend picked me up and drove me out to Kincaid park. We walked down a winding trail, densely packed trees on either side and came out to some sandy hills and a waterfront. The day was winding down and the wind was picking up, so we tucked ourselves in between two mounds and sat, watching the water flow.

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This was peace.

She pulled some wine from her bag and we poured it into a couple cups. We did our best to cover it but still wound up drinking more sand than is probably doctor recommended. Still, being there, a good drink in hand, sitting next to a beautiful woman, the two of us alone with the mountains beside us and the world ahead. We talked, quietly, about our families.

I missed my grandmother a lot. This girl, she’s the only other person who calls her grandmother Tutu, a fact that certainly brought us closer in the early stages of our friendship. So I sat and thought of my Tutu, a woman who chose to adopt and raise me in her sixties, and my friend sat with me. It was probably the most perfect moment I could have asked for in the last year. Just a moment away from the city, away from everyone but this woman who ignites a creative fire in me, just a moment so I could be.

And I was.

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Of course I risked ruining it when she swung me by the bar to see some friends, both of us staying far later than either of us had planned, with me drinking far more than my body wanted. I turned full confessional, not for the first time, with flowery words and extravagant feelings. She sat and she smiled and she listened with far more patience than I had any right to expect, while I sat and talked and talked, too dumb to lie, too drunk to keep it all to myself, but I was drunk on her, too, and on the moment,  and if any time was the right one to get it all out, get everything off my chest, wouldn’t the right time be my birthday?

Fuck, no. Ridiculous. I should have never put her in a spot where she had to listen to someone rant about their feelings. And in an obnoxiously poetic way. Look at this:

“I could compare you to sunrises or sunsets, to the way the tide smashes against the sand in the depths of the night, I could compare you to deep breaths and the sharp tone of a piano key asked to perform after an intensive repair. But it wouldn’t be enough. You hoard my words.”

For Christ’s sake, what windbaggery.

And then, right before heading home, for some fucking reason, probably because I trust her and probably partly because I think I’m hurting somewhere deeply, always, I confessed that it’s hard for me to meet people because I’m emotionally erratic and I feel broken, and nobody wants to get too involved with a broken man. And she told me that I wasn’t broken at all. And then she gave me a hug for as long as I needed. And then she made sure I got home alright.

At the end of the day, from midnight to midnight, I received a ton of love from a ton of people. Hundreds, from all over the world. I got to see people I haven’t seen in a while, I had people checking up on me to make sure my birthday was going well. I had good food, good drinks, games. I had time to reflect, with good company.

At the end of the day, I came out and verbalized the biggest demon rattling around in my head, and a woman I respect and care for very much, one who inspires me in a way very few people do, didn’t even flinch.

I fucking needed that, so bad.

I’m very blessed to have the friends and family I do. I’m blessed to be loved by them and to be able to love them back.

Also, today I got this, which is the goddamn best:

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FISH POLICE