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.

image

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:

h

image

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.

image

image

image

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.

image

image

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

image

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.

image

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?

image

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.

image

image

image

image

image

Did I mention the jackalope? There was a jackalope.

image

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.

image

image

image

image

image

image

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.

image

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.

image

image

image

image

image

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.

image

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.

image

Advertisements

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.

image

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.

image

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

image

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.

image

image

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…

image

…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.

image

image

image

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

image

image

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.

image

image

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.

image

image

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

image

image

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.

image

image

image

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.

image

image

image

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.

image

image

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:

image

image

image

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.

Things I Love: The Malazan Book Of The Fallen

In the 90s, Canadian writers and archaeologists Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esselmont created the Malaz world to play a role playing game in. Erikson would go on to take the characters and history of the world and craft a novel out if it, Gardens of the Moon, the first in a ten book series collectively known as The Malazan Book of the Fallen.

Since then, Erikson has written a couple novellas also set in the world and Esselmont has joined him as an author by penning some novels of his own detailing other events and characters that help flesh out the world and the thousands of years of lore that define it. But I haven’t read those yet.

The ten giant tomes that Erikson scribed, however, are some of my favorite pieces of prose ever written. Often overshadowed by George R. R. Martin’s hugely popular A Song of Fire and Ice (another grim fantasy epic with a complex and well-defined history), the 3 and a half million words composing TMBotF are every bit as steeped in realism, every bit as filled with legacies and lore and ancestries, has characters every bit as conflicted and nuanced and evolved, and does as great a job of world-building in a fantasy series as any else.

It does also have the advantage, though, of being complete. All ten novels tell one story, starting with a motley soldier crew called the Bridgeburners in the aftermath of a failed siege at the city of Pale and a counter-attack by Moon’s Spawn, the massive floating city that rested above it, and ending with a multi-army battle to prevent the extinction of mankind and redeem the souls of those who fight for it.

I don’t need to tell you about how amazing A Song of Ice and Fire is. It’s the most-watched show on HBO, shattering records every year.

I do need to tell you about Ganoes Paran, the green commander who takes over command of the Bridgeburners from Whiskeyjack and his men, to their chagrin.

I need to tell you about stocky assassin Kalam Mekhar and his shifty mage friend Quick Ben, whose relationship is much more trusting and full of far less bickering than that of sappers (saboteurs) Fiddler and Hedge.

I need to tell you about the tragic stories of expert spear-fighter Trull Sengar the shorn and Toc the Younger who lost an eye when a piece of flaming rock fell from the sky and melted it out of his face.

I have to tell you about Coltaine and his army of tribal horsemen leading thousands of slaves across a desert for an Empire that hates him while being attacked by an army that dwarfs his own, and of Itkovian who brings peace to others by absorbing their souls into his own, and of Anomander Rake, who wields Dragnipur, a sword that collects the souls of those it kills and binds them in another plane to forever drag the carriage they are chained to.

And that’s just scratching the surface. Let’s go over a few things that make the series so great:

1. The World and Its History

Steven Erikson has worked for years as a professional archaeologist and anthropologist and he utilises both of his professions to resounding success here. There is a tremendous difference between the Malaz Empire and the Letherii Kingdom, with the first being an expansionist, disciplined culture and the latter centered around greed and debauchery. Each of the tribes have distinct rituals that they perform, from color-coded armors to masks where the number of black marks showing denotes their prowess as a warrior.

Each of the armies are different, from the mercenary and seemingly immortal Crimson Guard to the religiously devout Grey Helms.

Not to mention the varying races. There are humans, yes. But gone are traditional fantasy races like elves and dwarves. The closest things to the elves would be the towering, ebon-skinned Tiste Andii, the honor-hungry and shadowy Tiste Edur, and the righteous-minded, arrogant light-skinned Tiste Liosan. There are the elder races: the ogre-like and powerful Jaghut who have a surprising dry sense of humor; the T’lan Imass, an undead army that can dissolve and reform itself at will; the K’Chain Che’Malle and the K’Chain Nah’ruk, a matriarchal society of lizard creatures with bladed hands; and the terrifying Forkrul Assail.

There are the barbarian Toblakai and the Trell who descended from them into a powerful but more human culture.

And with ALL of these, these races and empires, kingdoms and villages, there is thousands of years of history. Civilizations that have risen and fallen, cities that are patchworks of different times, deserts that were oceans. Rivalries and genocides. And over it all, a complex pantheon of gods (Ascendents) that rule different warrens, each for a different kind of magic and some more unruly than others.

2. The Realism

Like A Song of Ice and Fire or any of Joe Abercrombie’s novels, these books are not for the faint of heart. There is murders borne of passion, and rape, and slaughters, and tortures. There are large-scale battles that dart from character to character as they fight and bleed and die. Victories come at a cost, and losses are felt deeply. There is emotional turmoil and character growth. Karsa Orlong, Ganoes Paran, Onos T’oolan (Tool) and many others are virtually unrecognizable at the end of their journeys from the characters they were when they started.

There is beauty in these books as love is found and friendships are forged. There is anguish in these books as lovers are driven apart or characters are brought to their mortal coil. You will find yourself caring more about a character in scant paragraphs than some characters in an entire novel written by a lesser author.

The humor is real, and the panic. The fear and relief. The jokes cracked in the middle of a desperate situation because what else can you do? The incredulity at the task before them or the miracles that save them.

There are hundreds, if not thousands of quotable lines that capture the human spirit perfectly, and others that echo the uncomfortable sentiments from cynics or zealots or the hopeless.

These books are compelling because though the settings are fictional, and the races are fictional, the world feels real and familiar. And a huge chunk of that is because of…

3. The Characters

There are a LOT of characters throughout the Book of the Fallen. A handy Dramatis Personae in the front of each book, organised by faction, helps keep them familiar and manageable. Each of these characters are unique amongst each other still. Take a look at two trios of brothers: the Beddicts and the Sengars. Hull Beddict is the eldest of his siblings and is a sullen man who feels betrayed by his city. He seeks to turn on his own people in order to make up for the ways he failed the more tribal peoples he had parlayed with. Tehol Beddict is homeless, sort of. He’s a quick-talking, ambivalent soul who seems to have no direction or purpose, which suits him as it masks his brilliant mind. Brys Beddict, the youngest, is firm with discipline and an unparalleled swordsman, but his youth makes him naive. The three brothers love each other.

Instead of just being carbon copies, the Sengars are different. Fear Sengar is proud of his family and holds to tradition. He tries to bring his younger brothers to heel. Trull Sengar, meanwhile, is outspoken and crass, railing against the traditions of his people. Rhulad, meanwhile, holds Trull in contempt. He is brash and impetuous and quick to action before thought.

From familial relationships to differing ideologies, from the changes these characters go through upon meeting the peoples they had long hated or disrespected or held in low regard, from the brash and hilarious commentary amongst the marines in the Bridgeburners, each character is given life. It easy to love and to hate, and thus to invest yourself in these men and women.

You’ll find yourself hurting for ever-loyal Mappo, chortling at fat man of mystery, Kruppe, cheering for jaded mercenary Gruntle, oohing and ahhing at assassin-god Cotillion the Rope, reviling Kallor, the immortal destroyer of empires, and being bewildered by the necromancer and serial killing duo of Korbal and Broach.

4. The ‘Holy Shit’ Moments

I have talked often about those moments that stand out in books and films, the moments that make you gasp and swear and that stick in your mind. The moments you tell your friends about or can’t wait until they get to so you can talk about it together. This series is FULL of them.

From the opening of Gardens of the Moon, surveying the burnt and bloody landscape in the aftermath of the siege of Pale to Coltaine’s labored Chain of Dogs, to massive battles in Letheras, Coral, the blue city of Darujhistan, to Ygahatan, a city that already held a dark military history. There are plenty of awe-inspiring moments, moments of bad-assery and displays of power, shocking deaths and betrayals and sudden routs and pained victories. There are moments that will make you weep for these characters and other moments that will make you pump your fist. I don’t want to go any further into detail. These are moments that should not be spoiled but experienced with fresh eyes.

5. The Complexity

These are not books that will spoon-feed everything to you. Steven Erikson has faith in the patience and intelligence of his readers and in his own work. With a world as rich with history and filled with deities and power structures and differing cultures, there is a lot left unsaid or only alluded to, or teased before paying off much further down the line. There are relationships that spur snippets of conversation that might seem strange or out of place until a piece of history is further revealed down the line. There are mysteries in the first book that aren’t solved until the tenth.

There is also a load of symmetry throughout the novels, and a lot of symbolism. The series is rife with details you might only notice on a second or third read. It can feel a little overwhelming.

Also potentially overwhelming is how his books skip around some. The first book introduces you to loads of characters that you become invested in over hundreds of pages. When the second book begins, you’re introduced to an entirely new cast with only a handful of exceptions. Your mind will want to wander, wondering what became of the survivors of Gardens of the Moon, but before long, you will have new favorites and be invested in this new story. As you continue through the series, it all draws together neatly.

Still, that seems like a lot, which is why I always recommend the novels but waited until now to write a blog post about it. Why now?

6. The Read-Through

The lovely people over at Tor publishing house do read-throughs of varying series. They take it a book at a time, one chapter at a time, updating one to three times a week. It’s read by Bill Capossere, who checked the series out for a second time, catching things he missed the first time around; and Amanda Ritter, who read it for the first time with fresh eyes, and whose reactions are as new and genuine as many of yours will be.

They went through all ten of Steven Erikson’s main Malazan novels (and three of Ian Esselmont’s: Night of Knives, Return of the Crimson Guard, and Stonewielder), and you can find the entire archives of their recaps, reviews and discussions here. Now you don’t have to wait until the next update, or feel pressured to catch up immediately. You can read at precisely the pace you want.

I implore you, if you love fantasy, or war, or great characters, or intriguing settings, or history, or reading to pick up these novels, read them a chapter at a time, and then check out those recaps. They’ll help you pick up on things you missed, appreciate the parts that stood out, and keep your head from exploding. Do yourself a favor.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen novels in order are Gardens of the Moon, Deadhouse Gates, Memories of Ice, House of Chains, Midnight Tides, The Bonehunters, Reaper’s Gale, Toll the Hounds, Dust of Dreams, and The Crippled God.

Kisses Have Pictures Beat

I was on my way home, riding in the back of a cab and staring out the window at the downtown lights in the darkness of night. I don’t know why, but my mind found itself thinking about the last woman I truly opened myself up to, the one that, two years ago, destroyed any notion of trust I had and brought me to my lowest point during one of the most tragic periods of my life.

I don’t know why I thought about her. She broke a promise to be there when my grandfather passed away. She didn’t so much as send me a text when I was dying in the hospital, nor after. We tried to be civil for a while. I reached a point where I decided, after six years of friendship and love, I couldn’t – rather, shouldn’t – have her in my life anymore. When I cut my ties without a word, silence was my response. Well and truly done, then.

You know what I think it was? A couple weeks ago, I saw her at the bar. She was with friends and she was drunk. We walked past each other and someone jostled me on my right just as she put her left foot forward. Our elbows bumped into each other. I flinched. She didn’t. She kept going forward, never noticing me. I kept going forward, quietly relieved.

In the back of the cab, I went from thinking about the shitty parts to the last time it was good. Before she lied, before she left. We had rented a hotel room just for something different
We had sex. It was good, but it was always good with us. Afterwards, we turned the television on but kept the volume low. We lay there, curled around each other, talking for hours about everything and nothing.

She got up before I did the next morning, ready for work. I blinked awake and called her over. I sat on the edge of the bed, arms around her waist, and we kissed. Passionately. Desperately.

I knew it was the last kiss between us that would ever mean anything. It was a farewell and I felt my heart breaking as the door closed, though it wouldn’t be complete for a few months further.

People like to talk about their first kiss. Their first kiss ever, as if more often than not it wasn’t a bumbling, awkward thing. But that very first kiss isn’t the only special one. It isn’t the only one with a story. Often times, it’s hardly even the best story.

I have kissed a lot of women, and I’ve kissed many more times. I haven’t always remembered them. It hasn’t always been women I liked. There have been instances when alcohol or grief or anger has driven me into the arms of a woman who would receive me.

One time I spent an entire evening trying to hit on a girl and when it didn’t go anywhere, I kissed her friend – who I had known for years and worked with – at last call. And while I was attracted to the second woman as well, that was still a really shitty thing to do.

First kisses are weird. They can be bad. They can be great. They can be awkward.

Not too long ago, I finally got to take a woman out on a date that I had fancied for quite a while. We spent eight hours together. Dinner, movies, drinks, karaoke, back to my place to relax. We kissed for the first time and despite how many hundreds of times I’ve kissed someone before, this time I had no idea what to do with my hands. The kissing itself was fine, enjoyable and Lord, she was beautiful, and maybe it was because I liked her so much and I psyched myself up, but as she pulled away from my house, all I could think was that I had fucked it up.

We’re just friends, still, if you were wondering.

The first kiss is something special. Not just the first kiss ever, but the first kiss with each person. The first time you and someone else decide maybe there’s enough chemistry to lock lips. It’s different with everyone.

I had a first kiss with a woman in Texas while Katrina raged around us and Black Sabbath played on stage and that’s the most metal fucking thing that’s ever happened to me. She and I still disagree about a lot of things (mainly my attitude), but I still hold so much fondness for her as a woman, an artist, a musician, and an animal enthusiast.

I had a first kiss with a woman in a Bed, Bath and Beyond. Who the fuck knows why? We weren’t dating long. I liked her a lot, but our relationship was full of whimsy and randomness and so we were surrounded by towels and mattresses and we kissed and it wasn’t spectacular. No fireworks went off. No parade marched through. But it was cute, and it was our kiss, and we’re still close. We had Easter dinner together this year.

My first “girlfriend” was when I was in 4th grade. She was two years older, a black girl, and while I didn’t and still don’t give a shit about interracial relationships, there were some boys in her grade that felt a white guy shouldn’t be hanging around and I got my ass kicked a handful of times for it. Which didn’t stop me for a second because I have more balls than brains sometimes.

We played Spin the Bottle, she and I, and some other kids in the neighborhood. We kissed. That was nice. But then she wanted to “French” and I chickened out. I did. I didn’t want to be bad. Now we’re introducing tongues?! What is that madness?

…I don’t…wait a second.

I have no fucking idea who the first girl I kissed with tongue was.

I do, however, remember being in Germany. After a night of drinking through Oktoberfest, I wound up drinking at a party hostel and dancing on a table with an American girl from the Midwest. We laughed off demands to get off the furniture, we drank our ass off, we stayed up til sunrise. I never actually went to sleep that night, so we ran into each other again as she checked out of the hostel to move on, on to her next destination. I remember she kissed me. I had one hand on her hip and she had her hands on my shoulders. It was a sweet moment, and we both smiled as we separated and she moved out the door.

First kisses and last kisses can be the same, sometimes, and they can be worthwhile.

I have kissed sober and drunk, clean and sloppy. I have kissed with passion and pecked with disinterest, and kissed with a hunger, a need for a connection. Sometimes I got it. Sometimes I didn’t.

I did a theater show once and afterwards, after I had signed some kid’s copies of the program and said hello to my friends and family, a girl cornered me and shoved me against the wall and plunged her tongue down my throat. She said seeing me on stage was just, MMM, yeah.

Which is ridiculous,because I’ve seen recordings of my shows and I’m a terrible actor.

I was in a show with another woman,one I had a small, nothing-serious crush on, and instinctively, we kissed gently before the show started. We both smiled, she said, “We just kissed”, we both laughed and then nothing ever happened again.

First and final kisses can be the same and be completely pointless.

Final kisses…

The last kiss on the lips of someone you care about can be a haunt.

That fucking hotel room.

The doorway of a three-story mansion, my birthday, good food, good sex, good movies but my ex is distant and I ask if she wants to break up and she insists she doesn’t, and we kiss so goddamn tightly and I find out two days later that she got drunk and confessed to a mutual friend that she did, in fact, want to end things.

That wasn’t the last time we kissed, but it was the last time it meant anything.

That kiss with the Canadian girl in the back of a cab in Barcelona where I’m pulling back and desperately cranking the window open because I’m convinced one or both of us is going to vomit at any moment.

Kisses, man. A picture may say a thousand words, but a kiss will tell stories, and it will pull inside parts of you that you didn’t know you had, emotions positive and negative that have no goddamn names.

Physical intimacy is a beautiful thing. Being close with someone, being accepted by someone and having a mutual need or desire for each other is enticing. That moment where two people feel each other out – does it work, does it not – and you get that heat and that taste, and their hair is in your face or your hands and their clothes are twisted in your fingers and people are watching, or maybe they’re not, maybe there are candles, maybe it’s Bed, fucking Bath and Beyond, and there’s just a moment. A moment where nothing else matters. Whether the kiss is good or bad, there’s that one moment.

I look back on my past with lucidity, and I view the good with the bad with the embarrassing. I’ve had kisses that are forgettable. I’ve had kisses that I miss. Ones that are checkered and that shouldn’t have happened and ones that should have happened much sooner than they did.

Hell, there are kisses that never happened that haunt me for the sake of never being known for sure.

And there will be kisses to come, I’m sure. Good and bad, both with stories. Hopefully, too, one of those will be the start again of something truly special. Something that makes the rest of it just a footnote.

Blondie

This post is not about the band, though I have a soft spot in my heart for them as well. Instead, it’s about my friend Amber, whom I’ve known for a solid decade now and who remains one of my best and most trusted friends.

After graduating middle school, most of my friends went to what was generally known as the “rich” school. I was saddled on a boundary line and ended up at a school that wasn’t quite the most infamous for fights and general dickishness, but it was up there. I spent my freshman and sophomore years there and while I didn’t have many friends, the friends I made counted for something.

My junior year, a new high school opened. This one was higher up in the mountainous region we called “the hill”, and it fucked up the zoning system for schools. I ended up getting sent to the school most of my middle school friends went to just in time for those friends to move to the new school. I was angry, lonely and displaced. I was partying a lot then, too. I wasn’t very friendly and I didn’t want to be friendly. I had friends. Like I gave a flying fuck what anyone else thought.

I mean, I did. I was super sensitive about a lot of things. I just hid it behind a veneer of sarcasm and rage.

I met Amber that year. We shared Marine Biology later (this has some weird relevance). She was dating this kid at the time who was into some sketch shit and who I probably should have been more cautious of than I was, but I always had a problem with common sense. I liked her. A lot. But she wasn’t single, so I turned my eyes towards her friend, instead. That didn’t go well, either.

Romantically, shit just didn’t work out for me there. Truthfully, it didn’t work out for me in high school much at all. But where Amber and Amanda weren’t love interests, they were decent lab partners and really good friends. I remember saving their ass with some poster board project on sea life I drunkenly cobbled together and walked them through because I was a functioning alcoholic at 16. I was and remain a terrible sculptor, though, and our paper mache whale (it was supposed to be a bowhead, I think. Maybe a fin) somehow had no head. It just…tucked into its chicken wire rib cage. We got a shit grade, it got hung up on the ceiling anyway, and when the electricians crawled through the ceiling (that wing of the school was scheduled to be remodeled the next year) some wires got crossed and out of thirty or forty whales, ours was the only one that caught on fucking fire.

Good times.

Amber and I talked on MSN messenger a lot. Do you remember that? It was a solid messaging system for many years. She spoke to me despite her boyfriend’s raging jealousy and even when he made her stop talking to me online, we would catch up in class. Amber is a beautiful girl. Gorgeous, even. She was a sophomore with friends in every class. I was a loud-mouthed loner asshole.

She never judged me. She never truly got mad at me. She never ignored me. She never betrayed my confidence. She was my friend.

At the time, I knew that I had been adopted on my father’s side. I hadn’t talked much about it outside of my closest group of friends,who I lived and worked with at the time. It was my junior year, though, that I opted to try and reach out to my mysterious biological father via an old address my mom had.

I wrote and sent a picture of myself and my date from junior prom. I said some shit about myself. School. Hobbies. That sort of thing. He sent a very basic letter back about how he liked golf and owned a bicycle shop in Sacramento. No picture. Asked for no further correspondence. He was a marine biologist at some point, which makes it weirdly hilarious because in Marine Biology class:

Amber was the first person I told when I sent my letter and she was the first person I told when I got that shit letter back and she gave me a long hug and made sure I was okay and never, as far as I know, breathed a word about it to anyone.

Our friendship branched out some from that class. We would run into each other at parties she got invited to that I would crash. We wrote emails to each other, long ones, in computer class, about our weeks. About our lives. She dated some shitty guys that I told her she was better than. I dated some shitty girls that she told me I was better than.

I graduated. She graduated and invited me to her graduation barbecue. I met and befriended her parents who I still deeply care about. She gave me an old t-shirt that I think used to belong to her brother.

After I graduated, I planned on going to Europe for a few weeks with a friend. I took several photos of Amber before I left and didn’t tell her why. When I got to Paris, France, I found the artist’s district with the most amazing landscape, portrait and caricature artists in the city and when I found the right one, I had him do two portraits (one of Amber and one of another close female friend) from photos. He used only black and white chalk and did an incredible job. It wasn’t cheap, nor should it have been.

My friend and I lost those portraits on the way from Paris to Amsterdam. Of course. So we went back, and I found the guy again and he was packing up his shit and getting ready to go and I begged him to stay and do it again. I offered to pay him double. He looked me in the eye, saw my desperation, did the portraits and only took maybe ten bucks more than he had the first time.

Amber liked it. Her mom loved it. I was happy I could give anything back to one of the few people that helped me get through high school.

College was rolling around. I initially hadn’t planned on going, but something struck the right nerve. I applied to the University of Nevada, Reno and got accepted. I scouted the campus out and fell in love. Before I realized I couldn’t afford it and withdrew, I implored Amber and her mom to check it out based on the fact that it was one of the few campuses that offered in-state tuition rates for Alaskan students. I did not end up moving to Reno. Amber did, and loves it.

Then my 21st birthday ended up rolling around. I had had some pretty hardcore birthday parties (my 20th is notable for many things, none of which were good decisions), and Amber and I got to talking. I didn’t have the money for Vegas. I didn’t have the energy to stay at home with local friends. I wanted to be around someone I loved and trusted who I knew wouldn’t pressure me to do anything.

Hahaha.

So I flew down to Reno for a few days. Right off the bat, we got invited to a Risky Business party, so Amber, her roommate and I ended up at a house party in dress shirts and underwear. Beer pong was raging, I was drinking Jack Daniels from the bottle. At a certain point in the night, my eyes settled on a guy who had tried to play two of my female friends at the same time and had seemingly lost both. But both of those friends were at the party. And one of them leaped on him, in love all over again.

In my drunken stupor, I couldn’t handle it. Fuck this, fuck that guy. I took my bottle of Jack  in one hand and steadied myself with the other and loudly proclaimed “You’re a piece of fucking shit.”

Ladies and gentlemen: do not ever pick a fight with someone in a state you’re not familiar with in a house you’ve never been to with a guy you barely know in the middle of a crowd of people who either like him or are indifferent to you, especially if you’re in your underwear.

I was in no position to fight that night, nor were the circumstances remotely survivable even if I were. Amber and her roommate dragged me out of the party into a car driven by…someone that appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Amber and I got in a yelling match when we got back to her place. She broke down in tears and walked away, inside.

Honestly, I’ve rarely felt worse than I did that night.

I had always held myself up as the one person that would never make her cry, never make her feel shitty, and here I was in her state, with her friends, taking her away from a party she was invited to and being an entitled asshole after she invited me to spend my birthday at her place. I still hate it. I felt and feel awful.

She didn’t even mention it the next day. We carried on. We had a solid day, we got dinner at my favorite restaurant, Olive Garden (this was 5 years ago. Alaska didn’t have an Olive Garden,so this was an exotic treat for me) during which her mom and I split a bottle of wine. We played card games and drank margaritas and went on the town for my 21st and I have no idea how four people drank so fucking much but I almost went home with a stripper Amber convinced to pull me on stage (this was the nice strip club) and I lost an entire unopened bottle of vodka (this was in the very much not nice strip club) and I was hung over for like three days after that.

But it was worth it and that birthday ranks with my favorites.

I don’t get to see a lot of Amber anymore. We text when we can. We see each other in bursts when she visits. I know no matter how sad or angry or hurt I am, no matter how much I fucked up, I know she’s there for me. I know she won’t judge me. I’ve done my best to try and keep her knowing the same in reverse is true. That I’m always there.

She has kept some of my darkest and most personal secrets. She has been a support through my hardest times. She has been an inspiration for my art and to continue my art, and she has been present for some of my most incredible memories. I have a love for this woman that is deep and uncompromising and it means our friendship, at least on my side, is inarguable. When my own biological father blinked at the idea of writing letters, this popular girl made sure I knew I had value.

I’d say I’ve got maybe five people in my life I’d trust with anything. Two of them are women. One of them is her. Blondie. Amber. I don’t know what I’d do without her.