Dan Chaon is enjoying more success than ever with his new novel, “Await Your Reply” (see our coverage here), and we at Three Guys couldn’t be happier about it, because, well, the dude deserves it. Great book, great guy. And for those of you who don’t know how to pronounce his name, it’s pronounced /Shawn./ Last week, JC and I threw some questions at Mr. Chaon, who was so gracious as to field them. The results, the first batch, anyway, are after the jump. Look for a second round with Dan Chaon soon. In the meantime, go out and read Await Your Reply.

JE: Okay, so this is something I’ve been dying to ask you about, given the narrative structure of AYR,which required so much finesse in order not to tip your hand: how did you approach this trio of stories? It has the polished feel of a narrative which has been scrupulously plotted and outlined, and yet I sense there must have been a learning curve, and a lot of discovery along the way, resulting in a lot of reverse engineering, and editing, and shuffling, and re-plotting, and re-allocating of information.

DC: This started out as three separate short stories. I often write groups of stories that are connected by theme and certain narrative tropes, but in this case I had a presentiment that they were somehow part of the same (longer) story.

For most of the first draft, I didn’t know how they were connected. I was just writing forward with each of the three narratives, nervously feeling my way into blank space. A lot of the time during the first draft I was anxious because I thought I might have to throw the book away, and when it started to come together toward the end, I was surprised to discover that a number of the characters weren’t who I thought they were. It’s cool when you can manage to fool yourself.

Of course, you’re absolutely right that the “plot,” as it is now, is a work of reverse engineering–once I figured things out in the first draft, I had to go back and make a lot of the earlier chapters fit into a jiggered timeline, and a reorganized concept of who was who. But it was surprising to me how much was already there, too, as if I had left clues for myself without even knowing.

One of my personal favorite stories that I’ve written is a piece called “Thirteen Windows” (in Fitting Ends, my first collection.) That story came out of an exercise that one of my teachers gave me. She pointed out that I repeatedly wrote scenes in which characters looked out of windows, and she gave me an assignment in which I had to write a story where every single scene featured a window. I think she thought she was going to break me of a bad habit. Ha!

In any case, I think this novel is a little bit like that. Ultimately,a lot of the architecture is not so much “scrupulous,” as it is simply obsessive-compulsive. I run along the same tracks in my mind over and over, and I do the same thing here: versions upon versions of the same idea, which luckily ended up suiting the plot and theme.

JC: You spend a great deal of time dealing with the concept of identity in this novel — not just identity theft, but identity abandonment, as well. One of the great lines is “who would you be if you were not yourself?” which opens a whole boatload of interesting philosophical questions. How did that theme come about in the writing of the book, and what do you make of this identity shell game?

DC: Tonight my younger brother and I happened to be driving through Twinsburg, OH, and I made note of the fact that Twinsburg annually hosts a“Twins Days!” Festival. Twins from all over the country come to celebrate their special connection.

“Ugh,” said my brother. “Twins are creepy.”

And I was silent for a moment. “Hmm,” I said.

“I would never want to have a twin,” my brother said. “I would always be nervous that he would try to kill me. “

I laughed at this–it’s kind of non sequitur, right? But actually there is something serious at the bottom of it, which is the idea that we have that we are unique. But what do we mean when we conceptualize a “self,” a “me?” Why is it so important to believe that a person exists as a single continuous unbroken narrative through time, as an “individual? ” I pointed out to my brother that most of the twins I have known began to distinguish themselves from one another from an early age. By adulthood, even the identical twins that I have known look remarkably different from one another.

We like the idea that the individual self is a snowflake, inimitable, and that having a twin could be somehow unnatural and even dangerous.

But wait! Why shouldn’t you have more than one life, more than one self– why not dozens? hundreds? With the internet, we now have at our fingertips the ability to try out any number of avatars, to play act any number of different personas. And yet we still like to hold on to the idea that there is some essential, true core that exists.

At the end of *Await Your Reply, *one of the main characters thinks: “You could be anyone.” And it might be the ultimate freedom, but it also might be a terrible negation: if you are anyone, then you are also no one.

It strikes me that the central theme in this book is actually quite conservative. The characters are all at loose ends, adrift, and it would be harder for them to transform if they had other people who knew them, who held them in a stable grasp. It occurs to me that we are us because of the people we love–our family, our friends, our community–who hold us to a consistency.

JE: Identity being the major theme of AYR, I’m curious if (or how) the fact that you were adopted has impacted your own sense of identity, and how this might possibly color your fiction.

DC: the simple answer is that adoption has deeply affected my sense of self from a very early age. I remember, for example, a picture book for adopted children that my parents used to read me, which explained that my parents had “chosen” me because I was “special.” And I remember fantasizing about the lives of my biological parents, in a way very similar to the way that Ryan and Lucy fantasize about the Other Lives they want for themselves.

For me, the adoption stuff has continued to complicate my life in a whole variety of ways well into adulthood. I met my biological father when I was in my late twenties, and I’ve had a very close relationship with him and his family ever since. (In fact, my biological half-brother, Jed, who is 24, has been living with me here in Cleveland since my wife died last year–so I have truly, for all intents and purposes, moved into a different life.) At the same time, I have a separate, and complicated, relationship with my adoptive family (my adoptive parents both died in 1996;) and there’s also my biological mother, who I have only spoken to a couple of times, and who has kept my existence a secret from her own family.

Whew. Did that even make any sense??

All that being said, adoption wasn’t at the forefront of my mind when I was writing this. More pertinent, I think, was the fact that my wife was gravely ill when I trying to finish the book. Her impending death ultimately colored the emotions of the book a lot. That last chapter, and that Carlyle quote that Hayden uses,and just the general sense of loss and finding oneself alone. The longing for that one person and the certainty that they will disappear.

chaonJC: In your acknowledgements you give a hat tip to a number of writers who have influenced you, including, surprisingly to me, a number of horror and fantasy writers like King, Bloch, Lovecraft. What is it about those genres, or those authors, that you’ve found so influential in you’re own writing.

DC: I’m kind of surprised that you’re surprised, JC. As an avid consumer of fantasy and horror, the connections seem really apparent to me; but of course that’s looking at it from the inside.

On the one hand, I rarely work in a mode that is overtly supernatural, but I feel like a lot of the moods that I’m most attached to–dread, and a sense of uncertainty about reality, and the difficulty and dangers of trust–are all tropes that find their most vivid roots in horror. I’m friendly with the horror writer Peter Straub, and he once told me that he thought that most of my stories struck him as like ghost stories, even if the ghost never appears. I think that’s a good assessment.

In **Await Your Reply**, I found that I was being drawn into a world that was peppered with iconic dark fantasy stuff–evil twins,hypnotists and magicians,mysterious disappearances,past lives and dismemberment.

There are a number of fairly direct citations within the text. The house in Nebraska where Lucy and George stay looks a lot like the house in * Psycho,* for example, and George’s mother has a Hitchcockian quality, though she’s less like Norman Bates’ mom and more like Bruno’s mother from* Strangers on a Train. *Patricia Highsmith’s *Talented Mr. Ripley *stalks around the edges, as does Daphne Du Maurier and Shirley Jackson. To some extent, I conceptualized Lucy as a modernized Du Maurier or Shirley Jackson character.

Miles and Hayden’s relationship draws on all kinds of stuff, from Jekyll and Hyde to Frankenstein to the old 1970’s Thomas Tryon bestseller *The Other, *which features a pair of twins called Niles and Holland. Meanwhile, Peter Straub’s *Ghost Story *features a mysterious woman who appears in the lives of the main characters in various guises, under different names, and Lovecraft’s sense of unspeakable ancient societies and secret worlds underpins a great number of Hayden’s obsessions.

The idea behind this was that the “real” world of the novel would be shot through with a kind of eerie artifice, that real locations would also have the quality of a dream, or a stage set, or a certain deja vu. All the characters are in the process of reimagining themselves, and this is always, it seems to me, an act of confabulation.

I had some fun with this. Hayden, I think, is a true Fortean. He truly does believe in a world full of cryptohistories and conspiracies, asdo his Russian compatriots, who (if you translate the Russian in Chapter 5) are eager to talk about recent breakthroughs in telekinetic research.

But the other characters–Miles, Lucy, Ryan–aren’t so secure about what’s real and what’s not, and I was interested in the way the fantastic intruded in their realist lives.

The “Russian Mobsters” who Ryan encounters in Chapter 14–straight out of central casting–are actually real guys. The conversation Ryan has with them is taken practically verbatim from an encounter I had with a trio of friendly, drunken tourists I met when I was in Las Vegas, and the sense of “threat” comes from the movie cliches that Ryan (and, perhaps, the reader) imposes upon them.

On the other hand, one of the big supposed villains of the novel is a horror movie nerd who freaks out at the sight of real blood and carnage.

In short, I was attracted to the idea that the real and the fantastic would share the same space in the novel, layered upon one another. And–as in all the best ghost stories–we never know how much is just a reflection of the characters’ psychological states.

JE: Okay, everything you just said illustrates one of the reasons why your fiction is great: because there is so much going on beneath the surface, so many ideas, so much intertextuality, and awareness of what came before you, the sum of which could very easily result in work that was convoluted, or heavy-handed, yet your story is so crisp and focused and efficient in its execution, that the effect is a kind of electricity that pulses beneath the work, palpable but invisible—charged, the whole work is charged, like each sentence has the energy of all the sentences which were cut in order to arrive at the one that remains. And yet you’ve stated that you were groping in the early stages of composition. Don’t you get the feeling sometimes that our stories exist somewhere already, fully formed, and that our unconscious mind (or perhaps even something outside ourselves) just leads us to them through a distillation process? Almost like the act of composition—the rough, rough, rough drafts—are just an act of faith? Or am I just too stoned again? Fuck, I think I’m too stoned again. Does that make sense?

DC: Yes, you’re probably too stoned again. But join the club. There’s a big stoner in practically every book I write. I love you guys.

I truly believe in the power of the subconscious. I don’t outline, and I don’t know what is going to happen when I begin a story or a novel. I have images, and characters, and glimmerings of plot, but no real outline.

There is something suicidal about this approach, because it means that you can get to the middle of a book and realize that you have nowhere to go. I’ve had this happen a couple of times, and it is a terrible experience.

But at the same time, I find that I’m not really interested in a narrative in which I already know what is going to happen. The problem with outlining is that it seems to me that the characters become flat, that there’s a kind of determinism at work in which you’re basically reiterating what you already know about the world. The thing I like about fiction is that it offers this chance of discovery.

Have you seen this new TV show, *Flashforward? *It’s not particularly great, but I’m interested in the premise. Basically, there is an Event in which everyone in the world has a Vision of the Future. The big question of the show is whether you can change this vision, or whether is it fated to happen no matter what you do.

To me, that’s my big question. What does free will mean? And that is why I write the way I write. With the hope that the characters will somehow show me the way….that I’ll be able to grope through based on imagery and situation. And I suspect that actually I came to this method based on watching television, rather than on reading novels. I’m embarrassed to say that I probably learned novel structure from the episode arc of shows like **The Soprano*s and *Lost** and *Dexter. *The classic structure of books like *The Great Gatsby *or *To the Lighthouse–*two novels I love–don’t realistically have much influence on how I actually work. * *

As it happens, the next piece that I’m working on might be a television series. I’m working lightly on a possible television pilot about a medical process which allows you to bring the dead back to life, at a cost. It’s sort of ER meets Six Feet Under meets Dead Like Me. The Resurrected are kept in a kind of medical ghetto, in cold storage, where they can be visited by their loved ones. The main character is a guy who tries to commit suicide in the first ep. Only to find that his wealthy wife has had him resurrected…to his dismay.

Ha. Ha. Ha.


A big hello from the Fiction Editorial Team–Stacy Bierlein, Alex Chee, Shya Scanlon and yours truly.  We’re all so excited to unveil this section of the new-and-improved TNB that if we told you how thrilled we really are, you might be a little alarmed.  You might even suspect that we have too much time on our hands . . . which is so far from the truth it would be comical.  So suffice it to say that we’re really, really glad you’re here, and both proud and humbled to be on this journey through the terrain of contemporary fiction with you.

First, a little story:

This September my son Giovanni, who is three-and-a-half, started preschool.  The plan was that once he was in school, I would finally have enough hours “to myself” to get all my work done.  On that list: running Other Voices Books‘ flagship Chicago office (well, flagship may be a rather grand term for a desk in my basement), teaching at two universities, raising three small children–and then, in my nonexistent spare time blogging for both TNB and HuffPo, in addition, of course, to writing my own fiction and prepping to market my second book coming out in 2010.  Oh, I think I recall that I was also going to kick up my yoga practice this year in all my “free time,” and start reading some books that weren’t: a) fiction, b) submissions to OV Books or c) by writers I know.

Um, yeah.  Sometimes the best laid plans go awry.  Or maybe it’s just that sometimes the best laid plans are not really all they’re cracked up to be.

Giovanni had been at his first day of preschool for exactly four hours when my phone rang.  It was Brad Listi, who at that time (this now seems like a distant memory) didn’t frequently call me.  He proceeded to explain his idea for a TNB Fiction Section.  Then, to my surprise, he asked if I would consider editing it.

Absolutely anyone who knows anything about what my life looks like would tell you that I should have run for the hills.

Instead I was ecstatic.  I think within a minute and a half, I had basically signed away not only my own name in blood, but that of my longtime business partner Stacy Bierlein, Exec. Ed. of OV’s Los Angeles office, who is now my co-Editor in this venture too.  I recall buzzing around my house for the rest of the workday making lists of all the writers I couldn’t wait to let know about TNB.  When Shya and Alex joined the fray soon after, the conference calls and barrage of emails that commenced were dizzying.

If you care anything about contemporary fiction (and you wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t), you know that review venues are shrinking by the day.  Books sections in papers and magazines are closing or radically reducing space; longtime literary magazines are losing funding and folding.  Corporate publishers are spending less on book tours and indie presses often can’t afford to spring for them to begin with.  It is harder and harder for writers to market their work in traditional ways.

This is where TNB’s Fiction Section comes in.  Our aim here is not only akin to that of all good literary magazines–to showcase some of the most vibrant writers working today–but also to help provide these writers with a vehicle to market their books.  This is why we provide links to authors’ websites and sales pages: to help directly connect the writers we love with their audience–TNB’s large, loyal and growing readership.  We also aim to provide you insights into these authors and their work that you can’t get just anywhere, which is what’s behind the “self-interview” concept.  Here, authors answer all the questions they were always afraid to answer in other interviews, or that they wished all those other guys would’ve asked instead of asking what time of the day they write and whether their desk faces west or east.  TNB’s Fiction Section is a tantalizing triple-threat on that week’s Featured Author, so that by the time you’re done, you should be as smitten as we are.

Some writers we’ll be showcasing this year include Stuart Dybek, Steve Almond, Stephen Elliott, Antonya Nelson, Jonathan Evison, Joshua Mohr, Aimee Liu and Terese Svoboda . . . among many, many more!  Please stay tuned.  New work goes up every Sunday night.

Finally, on behalf of Stacy and myself, I’d also like to say how truly fun it’s been to work with such a wide variety of writers again.  When we closed Other Voices magazine in 2007 to focus on book publishing, we gained many exciting opportunities to champion indie books out in the world, but we considerably narrowed the pool of writers we were able to champion, since Other Voices Books publishes only two titles annually.  So it has truly been a joy to be able to reach out to more writers again, to consider so much new work, and to merge our passion for book and magazine publishing here at TNB.

We hope to hear from you soon and often.  Onward, and go TNB!

JE: One thing we hear at Three Guys a lot (usually from women) is how refreshing it is that we offer four very diverse (but all very “guy-ish”) perspectives on the literary and publishing landscapes. We deal mostly in the currency of literary fiction, which is a market overwhelmingly dominated by middle-aged, college educated women. Why is this? Why is it most of my dude friends stopped reading fiction in college? In the past year-and-a-half, I’ve made over thirty (you count ’em, thirty!) personal appearances at book groups for All About Lulu. On average these groups are attended by anywhere from eight to twenty-five women, and they’re almost invariably gracious. But I’ve yet to see a single guy–once or twice, a nervous husband in the foyer with two leashed dogs, trying effect his escape before the wine and cheese hits the table, but other than that zilch. If the novel is dying a slow death, how can we get the male readership back? We’re talking about a huge, untapped market, here—how do we reach them? Personally, I don’t think price wars are going to do it. I think there’s a certain type of story that’s gonna’ win these readers back– one where something happens!

JR: This price war is total bullshit; a way to get the dwindling reader into the store, and gives retailers a chance to get into Ma and Pa’s pocket, it’s a buzz thing, and a scam. Who the hell is going to read Sarah Palin’s mashed potato life? Is Glen Beck the co-author? $9 for hardcover, for how long, what happens when the discount period ends, Dan Brown for $30? Are women readers reacting to books in an insightful
way, more so than men, is it the nurturing effect? So now what do male readers actually read, Under the Dome, the hardcover version of the Simpson movie? Cut the time a hardcover is on the shelves to 6 months. Promote the trade paper, sell it, and get it into hands faster/easier,move backlist to downloads or POD. (check out Harvard Bookstore, and their Espresso Machine for books) The latest entry into the download world is something that sounds vaguely pornographic, but it will compete with the Kindle, both still pricey. Lower advances, increase royalties on the trade paper, use the internet as a tool to promote. Book publishing is offering a high class/priced product to the middle class, and wondering why it’s not selling.

JC: I disagree that the so-called price wars are bullshit. I think that the way the industry develops is fascinating. Publishing got itself into a rut, magazines, books, newspapers, and this is a seismic change. Whether for better or worse, of course is yet to be determined. I was reading Scott Esposito’s bit on Conversational Reading the other day, where he mused about the European price fixing of books, and I wondered — what will be the results of these two philosophically opposed views of bookselling? Will the indy bookseller be better off in a price-stabilized environment? What about the consumer? My MBA says that price-fixing is a pox on the free market, which is bad. (Really. It says it right there at the bottom of the diploma in little gold leaf calligraphy.) But does the reader lose more in knowledgeable recommendations, service and communitarian (they’ll take that degree away, they will) values than they gain in price savings. As a dedicated reader, I say yes.

But I really wanted to talk about guys. Why the hell don’t guys read like women do? Anyone who reads this is probably closely tied to the publishing community, or certainly has a vested interest in it, so you probably know some, but once you get outside that circle, it’s hard to find the casual male reader. So what gives? Is it the lack of male reading role models? Obama sold some books when he gave out his summer reading list, but — and we’ve considered this before — the charismatic writer, the cowboy living on the edge, the Mailer and Hemingway and Kerouac, even, is gone. We’re stuck with Dan Schmuck Brown. That’s a sad inspiration, my friend. Is the missing man the result of a massive industry wide marketing and editing misfire? How do we get them back? I believe only Dennis has the answer.

DH: I’m the gay guy on Three Guys with three straight best friends. The problem isn’t with the books. It’s with the guys. Since the age of Hemingway, guys have been in denial about feelings. As for the subject of marriage, most guys don’t want to read about it. That’s because a lot of guys think marriage should look like something out of Lucy and Ricky. As for the price wars, every bibliophile should get a bargain on a book once in a while. But I worry that if you get your art on the cheap, then the respect that should flow both ways between the reader and the writer runs dry. Something would have to be done then, to restore that respect. That might not mean higher prices but some other form of shared sacrifice. My rules for better book clubs: All books selected should have been published in this century. Make your book club into a great date night if you want 20-somethings to attend. If you want guys, free beer wouldn’t hurt. Maybe guys would be attracted to books by the idea of shared sacrifice. Think of what writers, booksellers, publishers and readers have to sacrifice. Let’s talk about that sometime. I can testify that all four Three Guys know what sacrifice is. We’re a band of book brothers.

Today is the official release date of Totally Killer, my first novel.

That’s what my oh-so-brief bio leads you to believe, anyway. “This is his first novel,” it says, as if I’d suddenly decided, after floundering about for the first thirty-five years of my life, to bang out a book, and a few months later, voilà.

As Hemingway concluded in his first novel, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

These are my grandparents, Grandma Sweetie and Papa Owen, standing on their porch in Inglewood, not eight blocks from the Forum, where they lived for thirty-odd years. Allegedly, a white picket fence once stood in front of the house. But as far back as I can remember, the white picket fence just sort of laid there. And it wasn’t white. For the last ten years or so, their house had no front door. Don’t ask me why. Just a screen. No lock. This is Inglewood we’re talking about! But nobody ever gave Sweetie and Owen trouble, and I’m pretty sure that had nothing to do with the fact that Papa Owen looked like a juice man for Santa’s mafia.



I don’t even know my grandmother’s real name. Everybody called her Sweetie—her family, the neighbors, the mailman. I’m pretty sure her mail said Sweetie. She may have looked like an old bag lady, she may have smelled like stale Old Golds and freezer-burned ham, but Sweetie had the soul of a swan. She was the loving driving force of our family, a tender locomotive, who drank twelve Hamms a day, popped Tums like Tic Tacs, and ate nothing (and I mean nothing) but Swanson frozen turkey dinners, scrupulously avoiding the peas and carrots. If Sweetie was a tender locomotive, Papa Owen was a runaway train. He was ten longshoremen trapped in a phone booth. He was fifteen Cossacks crashing a retirement banquet. Papa Owen had a little dance which he often performed on weekends, which led from the sofa to the bathroom. It was choreographed by Jerry Lewis and a fifth of bourbon, and went something like this: He would lift himself from the sofa, pirouette, trip over a chair, knock over a lamp, laugh, and fall flat on his face. He would then stand, stumble to the bathroom, and hurl the contents of his stomach into the sink. Encore performances would follow, in intervals, until he passed out.

My lifelong love affair with baths began at Sweetie and Owen’s house when I was just a runt. They had this metal contraption that looked like a vacuum cleaner that you could stick in the bathtub. It would shoot out jet streams of hot water. It amounted to a portable, low-maintenance Jacuzzi. I would sit in the tub for hours. Every so often Papa Owen would stumble headlong into the bathroom to finish his dance. He would say: “Feels good on your little pecker, don’t it?” Then he would say: “Aaaawoooolka. . .pfff. . .pff. . . eeeeeeeyaaaaaalka. . .pfff. . .pfff.”

It did feel good on my little pecker.

The photo you see here is technically the only photo I have left of Sweetie and Owen—the only photo anyone has left of the two of them together. But there’s another image of them which is indelibly burned into my mind’s eye, an image which is nothing less than my grandparents’ story. The third act, anyway. In this other image, the one that no longer exists outside my mind, Papa Owen is slumped at the kitchen table with Sweetie, who is wearing her customary nightgown (agoraphobic, she never got dressed or left the house). Her hair is the wasted gold of a burnt lawn. It got that way from cigarette smoke. Her eyes are downcast. Not from wounded vanity, but from what appears to be a long preoccupation with something doomed and oppressive. Her hands are hidden beneath the table. You get the feeling she’s wringing them under there.

Papa Owen is seated to her right with one elbow propped on the table, which appears to be the only thing holding him up. He looks waxy, slightly transparent, embalmed. He’s wearing a light blue shirt, which is too tight at the arm pits. The collar was probably stiff once. Yet, somehow, Owen manages to make it look like a white shirt with no collar at all. He wears, as always, his elfin beard, coarse and wiry. On top of his beard sits a handlebar mustache which, like Sweetie’s locks, is tobacco stained. His hair looks unkempt but upon closer inspection one notices that it’s in fact combed. His eyes are beady, blue-gray, and laughing. Not the impish laughing eyes of mischief, rather the pointed laughter of a small but hard to swallow defeat. Still, there’s an unmistakable glimmer of determination in those laughing eyes that is only enhanced by his smile which, though half obscured by beard and mustache, seems clearly to have dirty jokes leaking out the side of it.

Taken together, these two venerable, slumping personages strike a balance that is not symmetry.

The kitchen is murky, but lighted just well enough to discern Owen’s shadow, though not Sweetie’s. Behind them, fastened to the faded floral wall paper above their heads is a bulletin board. There’s all manner of cards and papers fixed willy-nilly to it, although looking at Owen and Sweetie and the general state of things, it’s hard to imagine the significance of these artifacts.

They’ve just finished dinner. Owen has cleaned his plate. Sweetie’s plate, pushed to the side, is still half full. The table is riddled with dirty platters, coffee cups, a disproportionate number of forks, and a sticky bottle of salad dressing. In the very center of the table, the dramatic center of the photograph itself, as though it were placed there like a statement, is a heaping bowl of spent chicken bones and gristle.

I think about this picture often, and from time to time I hold it in my hand. Recent years and a number of circumstances have allowed me to penetrate this photograph in greater depth, to identify nuances so subtle as to be invisible to the outsider. And the more I am able to distinguish within this picture, the more I am haunted by that damn bowl of chicken bones.

Writing caregiving essays recently, has put me in the mind of my first marriage, and its disastrous conclusion (recall the surfing Buddhist who happened to be my best friend), which in turn got me to thinking about its disastrous beginnings, which got me to wondering how we ever made it six years in the first place.

In a future post, I hope to treat you all to a little archaeological expedition of my former life, wherein together we will sift through the rubble of my first marriage (laughing at my sadness and folly), its rapid decline, and my subsequent foray into to bikram yoga, hair dye, and ragtop convertibles.

But today, kids, I want to talk about foundations, and how not to build them. In the spirit of non-fiction, I’ve changed only the name of my former wife, who will not kill me if she reads this. I hope. She’s pretty fair in that respect.

Molly got pregnant two months after we met. The next week I left for Greece.

You see, there was this other girl, her name was Sarah. She had freckles and a big messy head of hair and she liked to drink red wine and get naked and paint bowls of fruit. Sarah once loved me madly, a long time ago in Tucson, but I hadn’t loved her back. She was living in Athens now, where she drank red wine and got naked and painted bowls of fruit. I don’t know what made me change my mind about loving Sarah, but I did. So I bought nonrefundable tickets to Greece, and I bought them months in advance, before I’d even met Molly, let alone got her pregnant.

So you see, I wasn’t running from anything.


When I arrived in Athens, I wasted little time in
informing Sarah that I loved her, that in fact I’d always loved her but hadn’t known it, and that I was prepared to keep on loving her until the industrialized world were in ruins, or the Chiefs won the superbowl, and that I hoped, I prayed, that she still felt the same way.

Sarah said that I hadn’t just said what I’d just said, or at least that she hadn’t heard it, and how dare I say it, and that I was never to say it again ever. And that I was welcome to stay so long as I understood this.

I took that as a no.

And from that moment forward, her studio apartment began to seem awfully small. What with all those bottles of red wine and all that fruit, there wasn’t much room for the two of us. I didn’t want to stay, yet the prospect of leaving that apartment was among the most desolate I’d ever known. I couldn’t afford a hotel or even a hostel if my money was going to hold out, but fortunately ouzo was well within my means, so I took to the streets, getting lost nightly, falling down stairs, pissing on ruins, speaking my six words of Greek to anyone who would listen.

Nobody listened.

I was heartsick and homesick and I ached in my belly with a hunger for something vague and incomprehensible, something that either had been and was no longer, or never was, or perhaps something I’d only tasted. Maybe it was food, maybe it was more ouzo, but I doubt it. The latter seemed like a reasonable solution, if nothing else.


So I drank ouzo until I was flat on my back and I howled at the spinning moon and nobody howled with me. I kicked cans down empty streets at dawn and turned my collar up against the chill and tucked my hands up under my arms and plodded on with purpose and determination through the Grecian night to absolutely nowhere.

I begged the Gods for a sign and one fine afternoon they delivered me an alley cat half-crazy with starvation, and I watched the wretched little creature fight for her life and give birth squeeling beneath a porch, only to die with a whimper. And I watched a barrel shaped old woman in black knee socks and orthopedic shoes snatch up the litter with expert dispassion, and stuff them pink and squirming into a pillow case and drown them in a nearby fountain in the name of mercy.

And I walked on.


And the only thing that brought me comfort, the only thing that offered me ballast in these mutinous and uncharted seas was the thought of Molly and I together, six thousand miles away.

And so it happened that I was half a world away when I fell in love with Molly MacDonald and her silver tooth caps and her books about Entomology and the tiny pink scar running diagonally across her forehead. And I was six thousand miles away when I fell in love with our unborn baby.

And from six thousand miles away I could see our future. We’d be poor, but that was okay, because Molly could always smile and illuminate the world with the flash of her silver teeth, and we could push the stroller down to the park together and loll around in the grass in the shade of an alder and have picnics, with peanut butter sandwiches cut into tiny squares and cold canned green beans in little plastic bags, and the whole world would be beneath the shade of an alder. And when we were done we could stuff the sticky bags into the sticky plastic pocket in the back of the stroller, and go home and put the baby down for a nap and make love and read E.E Cummings aloud and eat dinner for the rest of our days.


What I remember most about Athens, more than its crooked streets and billboards and crumbling walls and eight million cats, is its phone booths. The fact is, I’m nothing less than an expert on the subject of Athenian phone booths. For, not only did I sleep standing in phone booths, I started calling Molly collect at all hours of the day and night, from all quarters of the city, so that thumbing through my psychic photo album now, I find nary a shot of the Acropolis, nothing of the blue Agean.

Just phone booths.


Here I am in a booth on a windy back street near Plateia Karaiskaki, where I’m begging Molly not to have the abortion. But I’m too late.

There I am in a phone booth amidst the chaos of the Plaka, with its smell of cat piss and onions, where Molly’s telling me she’s met a guy from Los Angeles named Sal who owns a bar.

Here I am in a port authority booth with a spider web crack in the glass and the initials Chi Epsilon carved into the reflective metal above the keypad, where Molly is telling me she’s moving to Los Angeles.

That’s me in the shadow of the Parthenon, where tourists from Edinburgh and Boston and Yokohama are mulling about, while Molly tells me she’s slept with Sal, and I imagine him with a uni-brow, stinking of Leather cologne, emptying himself inside her with a grunt.

And there I am a day later in a murky hotel lobby in Psiri, beneath the watchful eye of an Albanian clerk, where Molly confesses that she hasn’t really slept with Sal, that she’d only been saying it. Either way, I believe her.

Here I am on a side street off Athinas near the Hotel Attalos, outside the scariest Chinese restaurant ever. The guy behind me in the wool cap is wheeling about the booth like a turkey buzzard trying to hurry me off, as I beg Molly to forgive me for leaving, and for not having said a few simple words in time. The phone reciever smells like my grandfather’s aftershave, as I beseech her not to move to Los Angeles, not to move anywhere, without me. I beg for forgiveness, for absolution, for a future with or without babies.

For two weeks in Athens the phone booth was my confessional. For two weeks I called Molly collect. For two weeks she accepted the charges.



I’m no fashion maven, but I know what I like. And it’s not paisley dresses. Molly was wearing a paisley dress when she picked me up at the airport. We clumsily embraced. There was no kiss.

At first we drove in silence but for the rain and the swish of the tires and the thrumming of the wipers. Somehow the conversational fare reserved for such reunions simply wouldn’t do. How was your
abortion? Fine. How was your lover?

Thanks for picking me up, I said at last.

Sure, she said, staring straight ahead.

That was it for awhile. Gazing goggle-eyed out upon the luminous sprawl of Renton, I began to wonder if my optimism had not duped me again. From six thousand miles it all looked manageable.

You look great, I said. I like your dress.

I hate it, she said.

We drove on. The wipers started squeaking.

As we rounded the back side of Beacon Hill and the skyline burst upon us, I felt somewhat at ease. I was home. I never wanted to leave again.

I’m leaving next week, she said. I’ve got a job set up.

You mean–

No, something different. Something through Kelly.

You mean the one that pisses her bed? I said.

No, the one with the big tits, she said.


I had a dream you fucked her, she said matter of factly.

Fucked Kelly?


Uh . . . okay.

You like big tits, right?

Well, yeah, I guess.

Does Sarah have big tits? Did you fuck her big tits? Did you get her pregnant?

And how about Sal? I said. Does Sal have a big dick?

I wouldn’t know.

Didn’t that hurt? Two days after the–

I said I wouldn’t know, she said.

We drove on. She stared straight ahead, gripping the wheel fiercely.

I didn’t touch Sarah, I said. She’s just a friend. I told you that.

Friends, she said.

The rain was letting up as we hit downtown. Molly killed the wipers. I cracked my window some. The fresh air was good. We took the Seneca exit and came out on Sixth Avenue. It was still early.

You wanna get a drink? I said.

Where? she said.


Molly swung a right onto sixth, and we headed north from there. For awhile, anyway.

Part Two: Clusterfuck In Quito; JE In Ecuador

I am inspired by Ecuadorian inefficiency. The average Ecuadorian citizen spends roughly forty percent of his life standing in line. If I went into the postcard business, and I was going to design a postcard for Ecuador, it would be a bunch of poor schlubs standing in line at the Mega-Maxi. And maybe a couple rich people cutting in front of them. And grocery carts stacking up everywhere.

We went to a Christmas Eve banquet in Quito with Lauren’s folks. Pretty nice spread—one that got cold awfully quick when the priest dumped his motorbike getting to the hotel. The little dude arrived a half-hour late, sweating profusely, though otherwise intact, and wrestled his robe thingy over his head. He began placing all his sacrosanct goodies about—his bible, his candles, his music stand, his ghetto blaster. We were looking at forty-five minutes time he got to praying.

And praying.

And  praying.

My blood-sugar was getting low, so I had no problem being the gringo ice-breaker when they gave the green light on the vittles. Here’s the deal: they’ve got like twenty-five steam tables stretched out across the room as far as the eye can see, and one poor dude standing behind steam table number one. No  problem, you say. Must be a self-serve deal like that $7.99 Sizzler buffet—that guy’s only there as courtesy, in case someone drops a spatula or has a question about the sauce on the pork loin. Oh no. That guy is the server. Singular. He serves everybody everything, one steam table at a time. You want this? This? How about this? Papas? Pescado? Curly fries?  Meanwhile there’s at least seventy people in line— little old ladies, squirming kids, one guy who looked like Brando. Do the math. Some of these people were waiting for an hour and a half to eat, and that’s after an hour of praying. Ouch. And I’m telling you, there was no shortage of help. They had one guy just for mineral water. They had a whole staff of bussers standing around restlessly in white aprons, practically itching for plates to bus— plates that were coming off the line at a rate of one every five-and-a-half minutes. Papas? Pescado? Curly fries?

So there’s just one of many examples of your Ecuadorian efficiency, right there.

What else? The smog is unbearable, everywhere you look there’s a dog with a tumor, or a dirty-faced kid trying to sell you Chicklets. The drivers are insane. And the building construction is something along lines of paper mache. Perfect for earthquakes and volcanoes and the like. But give this spunky developing nation the right set of tools, and they will build you the biggest, longest, clusterfuck line you ever stood in.

Now the good stuff about Quito. Situated in a narrow valley at nearly ten thousand feet of elevation, the city is besieged by Andean peaks in every direction, including some active volcanoes (fuck if I’m going to try and spell the names of them, though, so you’ll just have to trust me on that one). The vistas in Quito are breathtaking. There are many lovely churches. Beer is cheap. Really cheap. I already told you the beer sucks, but its beer, right? And its cheap. So Quito’s got that going for it.

A few days before I left Quito I went to something called a “hash” where we “hashed.” Hashing is apparently some big global sub-culture that I’ve never heard of. You know you’re old when you start missing whole sub-cultures. Hashers have a motto: they call themselves “drinkers with a running problem.” They do hashes every place imaginable– Fiji, Taipei, Trenton, fucking Godzilla Island. There were people who had done hundreds of these things all over the world. A hash, as far a I can comprehend, is when one guy—in this case an old hippy reprobate with purple socks named “Mother Hasher” runs off into the woods with a tennis ball and a bag of flour, and everybody else runs after him. Without exception, all the hashers wind up getting lost out in the woods, until they happen upon a beer drinking station, where they get tanked and run around some more looking for the dude in the purple socks.

Eventually, everybody finds their way back to the parking lot where the real drinking begins. This portion of the hash quickly devolves into something akin to a fraternity hazing, in which participants (including my father-in-law, along with all virgins, and one child, are forced to drink beer out of their tennis shoes, and in the case of one unfortunate fellow, persuaded by threat of further hazing, to extemporaneously compose a song about how he likes horse cocks. And the guy wrote one. I’ll bet I could have written a better one, though. At least mine would’ve been sincere.

Read Part One: I’m No Travel Writer, but the Galapagos Were Cool

Part One: The archipelago.

I’ve decided I wanna come back as a Galapagos sea lion. Seriously. They’re livin’ the dream. Bountiful food, no predators, plenty of companionship. They loll around in the sand most of the day lounging all over each other, waddle around looking for shade, or a good meaty ass to rest their head on, do a little fishing now and again, take an occasional dip just for the hell of it—seriously, they’ve got it dialed in. They are truly joyful creatures to watch. The bulls are a little surly at times, and downright scary when you get too close to them in the water,  but the mothers and the babies are nothing less than playful when you swim with them—and they’re amazing swimmers, too, totally graceful and athletic. The penguins are amazing swimmers, too,  kinda sprite-like in their quickness, now-you-see-them-now-you don’t. Manta Rays freak my ass out. It’s like somebody ran over a shark with a steamroller then mated it with a flying saucer.

Talk about stealthy. Tiger sharks are lazy fuckers from what I observed. They just kinda hang out under rocks floating there in the shadows like turds. Not exactly man-eaters —though, to be sure, you won’t find me swimming around down there in the shadows. I’m no fishologist, but damn there’s some garish colored fish down there. Bright orange and hot purple and bright blue. Some skinny fuckers, too. They’ll be swimming right at you like a sheet of paper, then bingo-bango , they turn a corner and your looking at an Italian flag with lips. There were these other schools of fish I’d swim through that were almost transparent. You could swim right through the middle of them and they’d swish aside like silk curtains. Fuck if I know what they were called. You’ll just have to believe me. I thought I saw Nessie, too. But it was just a penguin head.

It was pretty cool to see a pink flamingo without a mobile home behind it.

I saw A LOT of giant sea-turtles humping. A LOT. Not all that sexy, really. The dude just sort of hitches a ride on the female as far as I can tell. And they hump for a long time. Longer than I’ve ever humped. Which isn’t saying much. Saw giant land tortoises humping, too. What can I say, there was romance in the air. Not that I got humped. Okay, maybe once. The cabins on our boat weren’t exactly conducive to humping. Or sleeping, for that matter. The food wasn’t exactly conducive to shitting, either. But I loved the cook, Victor, anyway. He was a sweetheart. He had a genius for dry meat. He cooked me a t-bone that would have made a pretty decent catchers mitt. And for the record, hot dogs are the breakfast sausage of choice on the equator. Victor slathered them in an orange sauce reminiscent of Spaghettios. Nobody ate them. But old Victor never got the hint. Can’t fault him for that.

Yadida the bartender was my buddy. Go figure. She had a way of tying a napkin around a beer that was inspiring. By the way, if you’re a beer aficionado, go ahead and skip Ecuador on your brew tour. The local swills are nothing to write home about, but they’re pretty tasty on the deck of a boat after you’ve been snorkeling and hiking all day. And did I mention Yadida’s superlative napkin work? Every beer looked like it was wearing a prom dress. The second mate Pedro was in love with my wife. Poor guy. Speaking of my wife, she was a pleasure the whole trip. Even if she didn’t hump me all the time. I’ll bet you old Pedro got something for the spank bank. Don’t worry, my wife never reads my blogs.

I love my in-laws to death. We spent eighteen inseparable days with Lauren’s folks and it was a joy every minute of the way, seriously. They’re the best. Not too many people I could get along with for that length of time under those conditions.

Other cool animals I saw in the wild: frigate birds, pelicans, albatross, blue-footed boobies, masked boobies, marine iguanas by the hundreds, lava lizards, fur seals, sting rays, eagle rays, and my favorite animal of all, fat ladies from Texas. Can you believe they have fat ladies from Texas with hair like Bill Parcels in the Galapagos? When you think about it, that’s way weirder than lava lizards.


One of my favorite moments in the Galapagos involved a fat lady from Texas. She had hair like Bill Parcels. Positioning herself behind a baby sea lion for a photo op on Isla Santa Fe (okay, I admit it, I don’t remember which damn island it was—its all a blur of colorful fish and napkined beers), this fat lady from Texas was standing on the beach with a big shit-eating grin, looking like Bill Parcels after a third down conversion, totally unaware that the mother had waddled up behind her. She took a step backward and tripped over the mother sea lion and fell flat on her big Texas ass. I know it’s wrong, but I almost pissed myself. You should have seen it! The sea lions were laughing.

My own crowning moment as a gringo involved six margaritas and a hollowed out tortoise shell in a bar on Isla Santa Cruz (and I know what island it was, cause it was the first night). This particular scenario pretty much sums up all of my ambivalence about human impact on the Galapagos. Let’s face it, that’s fucked up. But wouldn’t you wanna get inside a hollowed out giant tortoise shell after six two-dollar margaritas and walk around a bar like that if you had the chance?

As I was saying, I’ve been catching flashes of you today, curlers in hair, pushing that ancient lawn mower over our ancestral land (an acre of swamp), when there was nobody else to do it, so that I might muddy myself in it–playing football, groping neighbor girls, and whatnot. I’ve been catching sour whiffs of your dreaded stuffed bellpeppers today, your inedible spaghetti sauce—oh, and that other gruel, the one with the lima beans—and it actually smells good all these years later. Okay, better, it smells better.


There’s a certain way you talk to Georgie if you want results, and by results, I mean cooperation, I mean if you want to avoid a black eye, or if you don’t want him fleeing out the basement window when your back is turned, or biting your thumb off at the knuckle, or throwing one of his celebrated fits in the pizza aisle of QFC, or pushing you through a sliding glass door.

For a ten-year-old with the adipose cheeks of a cherub, speckled blue eyes and a heart-shaped mouth, Georgie can be a holy terror.

Georgie’s problem is that he knows exactly what he wants at any given moment. In this respect, you might call him lucky.

The doctors have another name for it.

Georgie likes lists. Detailed lists, lists like roadmaps, invariably leading to his desired destination. Talk to Georgie in lists, and you’ve got a chance.

“First, Georgie and John the Boss go to school and see Miss Deb. Next, Georgie and John the Boss go to library. Georgie picks out one video. One. How many videos does Georgie pick out?”

“One video.”

“Good. Next, Georgie and John the Boss go to the—”

“No go to! Cheese pizza!”

“No, not quite. First Georgie and —”

“No first! Cheese pizza!”

“Almost. We’re getting to that, I promise, but first—”

“No almost! Only cheese pizza!”


“Noo! First Georgie have cheese pizza!”

I said you had a chance, I didn’t say you’d succeed.


Then there’s another way I talk to Georgie, those times when he’s stationed like a mushroom in front of the television in a dead-wall reverie, entranced by Sacred Planet or Springtime with Roo, his speckled eyes wide, the crust of his pizza scattered all around him on the soiled carpet like a fairy ring, dried tomato sauce caked to his face.

Those times when he’s not wanting.

“Georgie,” I’ll say. “What if we all went about screaming and biting every time we didn’t get what we wanted? What then? What if John the Boss decided to escape out the window? Who’d buy you cheese pizza, then? Daddy Serge? What if your mommy never came home? What if Vera and Willie never came home? What if one day I just up and quit being a caretaker because, you know Georgie, I never wanted to be one in the first place, never wanted the black eyes and the bruises and the nine-hundred-and-forty-three dollars a month, never wanted all the shouting matches with Daddy Serge, never wanted to give Willie my old shoes that weren’t really old, talk to sweet humble Vera in closed quarters and wonder why she smells like fish, why everything smells like fish, never wanted to buy cans of dog food for someone else’s dog, or buy a used refrigerator for someone else’s food, never wanted Daddy Serge to accost me down at Doc’s on a Friday night and force me to shoot vodkas and look into his steely grey eyes as they cut me to ribbons, and tell him for the third and fourth time just what it is I see in Georgie, and why it’s not weird for me to take such an interest in someone else’s boy. What then, Georgie?”

Georgie’s not much of a listener, though.

Lists, maybe. Details, yes. But only on his terms.

When I talk like this, Georgie only shushes me.

I am many things to Georgie, he just doesn’t know it. To Georgie, I am only John the Boss, purveyor of cheese pizza, provider of details, chauffeur, keeper of the coveted library card.

Georgie does not know, for instance, that I am Walt Disney, or Sterling Holloway, or Shir-Kahn, when every afternoon like clockwork we phone Walt Disney Studios in Orlando, Florida (same phone number as me, go figure), and I duck down into the fetid air of the Federov basement, where Tolstoy has just finished fouling the floor, and whimpers sharply like a wooden gate on its hinges. And with my cell phone I proceed to personify Mr. Walt Disney himself (who sounds exactly like John the Boss with a slight echo), enumerating the minute details of the Federov family trip to Orlando that will never happen, because last summer became this summer. Already this summer has the look of next summer.

And in between lay a lot of cheese pizzas and a lot of yelling and biting.

But mostly a lot of lying. Because the only thing there’s not a lot of is money.

Cheese pizza costs money.

We won’t talk about library fines.

Says Daddy Serge: “Orlando, Florida! Ha! Focking bullshit! All za time, Orlando, Florida! Fucking cheese pizza! Who pay for cheese pizza? Georgie pay for cheese pizza?


But never mind Daddy Serge.

“Well, first,” Mr. Walt Disney of Orlando, Florida says, “Georgie and Mommy and Vera and Willie and Daddy Serge will come to visit me and my family at—”

“No Serge! John the Boss!”

“Very well, John the Boss. Georgie, Mommy, Vera, Willie, and John the Boss will come visit me at Walt Disney Studios in Orlando, Florida. We’ll have pizza and sodas for lunch.”



“Details, details!”

“Cheese pizza. And Pepsi cola. Icy cold, with little dew drops racing down glass.”

“What glass?”

“The kind that’s fat on top and skinny on the bottom.”


“And after lunch, we’ll go to Universal Stu—”

“No, no Universal Studio! MGM studio!”

“MGM Studio. And then to Gatorland for—”

“No, no Gatorland! Next to Sterling Holloway’s house!”

“Yes, yes, Sterling Holloway.”


Here, Georgie produces a rendition of his own, the aged Disney announcer at the end of two dozen Winnie the Pooh tapes. “Beloved voiceover talent Sterling Holloway. Voice of Winnie the Pooh, Kaa, Amos the Mouse, Cheshire Cat, and many more of your favorite Walt Disney characters.”

As far as I know, Sterling Holloway is dead as a stump. But it might please his ghost to know that he’ll never have a bigger fan than Georgie Federov. Never. Georgie has destroyed countless Winnie the Pooh tapes in the name of Sterling Holloway. So many in fact, that his library card is on probation, a point of violent contention in recent days, which has resulted in a broken rearview mirror and some soiled underpants (his).

First, he deftly breaks out the little plastic window on the middle of the tape. Next, he stuffs the tape in the machine. Next, he forces his sticky fingers into the slot of the VCR and manipulates the little spools, accounting for five busted VCRs (all used or donated) in the past three months. But Georgie achieves his desired result. Sterling Holloway’s Winnie the Pooh arrives in a warbled underwater tenor which Georgie refers to as “slow motion camera.”

I am often forced (by virtue of Georgie’s hair-raising decree), to speak this language myself for hours on end.

No, no, Slow motion camera! John the Boss say, ‘Walt Disney Studio presents’ with slow motion camera. Again! With slow motion camera!

Some evenings I come home hoarse.

My waning moments in the Federov homestead are always the same.

First, Willie and Vera arrive home on the bus. Willie is slump-shouldered under the weight of something besides his backpack. And Vera, God bless her, always clad in some hand-me-down dress with a floral pattern or fraying beadwork that’s tired at the edges from mending. She totes three dirty book bags and a used clarinet.

She’s got a song in her heart in spite of everything.

Next, someone invariably leaves their shoes in the hallway, their book bag on the kitchen table, tracks mud in the dingy foyer, or commits some other transgression which never fails to escape my notice.

Next, Daddy Serge arrives home at dusk, his truck headlights sprocketing the treeline as he rounds the corner.

Next, the truck door slams with a little too much reverb.

Next, squishy footfalls up the muddy walkway.

Next, four clomps on the sagging steps.

Next, Daddy Serge’s grand entrance. With drywall in his hair, sounding and smelling like three beers, he issues his standard one word greeting to Georgie—Out!, before berating the offending boarder like a drill sergeant for whatever shoe, bag, or musical instrument has strayed from its station.

Next, the questions: Why your mozzer not here? Why all za time she is late?

And last, John the Boss takes flight in his dented red Suburu wagon with three hubcaps. Down and around the bumpy driveway. Into and away from the gathering darkness.

Always with a sense of relief.


At dusk Georgie likes to shut his grimy curtains with pizza crusted fingers and squat in the corner on his tired mattress under the window. He turns off the lamp and holds his transistor radio right up to his ear and tunes it in between stations so that it hisses and crackles like a theremin in hot oil. Here, in the half-light, his speckled eyes are at their widest, his little red lips are parted slightly. But when I ask him what he hears, he only shushes me.

If I’m going to be honest with myself, financial necessity delivered me to my present occupation as a caregiver more than any humanitarian impulse. I was broke when duty called me to minister those less fortunate than myself, so maybe I’m no Florence Nightingale.

But I’m wiping butts.

That seems like the important thing.

Don’t get the idea that anyone can be a caregiver. The state requires certification classes. Everything I learned about proper caregiving, I learned from The Fundamentals of Caregiving, a twenty-eight hour night course I attended at the Abundant Life Foursquare Church right behind the Howard Johnson’s in Bremerton.

There, in the impossibly stuffy environs of a church basement, accompanied by the belching of an ancient radiator, I consumed liberal quantities of instant coffee with non-dairy creamer as I (along with fourteen middle-aged women), learned how to insert catheters and avoid liability. But mostly I learned about professionalism.

I learned how to erect and maintain certain boundaries, to keep a certain physical and emotional distance between the client and myself in order to avoid burnout.

I learned that caregiving is just a job.

Trev is my only client. I spend anywhere from twenty to thirty hours a week with him.

We eat together, shop together, and even go to the bathroom together, sort of. He’s twenty years old and currently unemployed and doesn’t really want to go to college. Trev’s already enrolled in the college of life. He still lives with his mother, who juggles three jobs and ought to wear a cape.

His father ran off when he was three years old, two months after Trev was diagnosed.

Funny how that works.

There are a thousand questions I’d like to ask Trev– Are you scared? Are you bitter? Why not?— but somehow I can’t. Perhaps because my professional credo forbids it. If I should overstep my boundaries, I need only recall this helpful mnemonic:




Or this one:





If there’s one thing you should know about Trev before I tell you anything else, it’s that he’s very particular about his shoes. The shoes make the man, he insists. He’s not so particular about his shirts and pants. In fact, all his pants are green and all his shirts are blue. But not his shoes. His shoes are a different matter entirely. They’re aligned neatly on three shelves running the length of his double closet: footwear for every conceivable occasion, from clam digging to salsa dancing. He even has cleats.

Shoes are the nexus of our morning ritual.

“What’ll it be for shoes today?” I’ll say. “Wingtips?”


“What about the white Chucks?”

“Not after Labor Day.”


“They don’t breathe.”

“Beatle boots?”

“Not in the mood,” he’ll say.

I reel them off. He declines them. It’s our daily exercise in independence.


Trev has never salsa danced. The fact is he stopped walking ten years ago. Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy is tying him in knots, twisting his spine and tightening his joints so that his ribs all but rest on his hip bones now, and his legs are bent up toward his stomach and his feet point downward and his toes curl under and his elbows are all but locked at his sides. A pretzel with a perfectly healthy imagination.

“Look at the turd-cutter on her,” he says. “How would you like to throw a snot on that?”

“Hell yes,” I say. “I’d tap that. But I could do without the poodle hair.”


We’re sitting in the food court at the mall, where we’ve come for the express purpose of engaging in such hypotheticals. We never eat here; we always eat up the hill at Red Lobster. We just come here for the sights.

Tall ones, fat ones, black ones, brown ones. Trev and I are both a little girl crazy. Me, because no matter how hard I try I can’t forget the thrill of being sheltered in Molly’s arms, and Trev, I suppose, because he’s yet to taste the thrill. But we never really discuss it in those terms.

“Would you bang her?” I say.

“Sure, I’d bang her.

“You think you could handle all that woman?”

“What do you think?”

“I’m asking you.”

“Should I ask her out for a pizza and a fuck?” he says.

“A fuck and a pizza,” I say.

“How about just a fuck?”

“No, the pizza’s classy. Trust me.”

Poodle Hair breezes by toting two Cajun corn dogs and some curly fries, with a boyfriend trailing in her perfumey wake. They take a table in front of Quiznos and begin eating together silently, as though they’d been eating together their whole lives. I’ll bet Molly and I used to look like that when we ate together. I know we were silent, anyway.

“What is she doing with him?” says Trev. “What a tool.”

I wave them off. “Screw it. She’s probably a psycho.”

“Yeah,” he says. “Probably.”

We lapse into silence, alone with our hypotheticals.

I once asked Trev what he’d do if he awoke one morning with all of his muscle functions, which is about as hypothetical as it gets since his condition is progressive and incurable. I was thinking: climb a mountain, run a marathon, chase a butterfly down a hill.

He said: Take a piss standing up. He grinned, but he was serious.

Poodle Hair and I exchange a brief glance. Or maybe I’m imagining it. But it felt like a glance. As a rule chicks with poodle hair dig me. It sounds arbitrary, and I don’t know what it says about me, but I swear it’s true, chicks with poodle hair almost always dig me. When I go fishing for a second glance, Poodle Hair is evasive. She’s getting cuter by the second. She has nice teeth. She looks good holding a corn dog. I’m now convinced I could spend the rest of my days beside her. Even if she got a little fat. But first she needs to look at me again.

Bingo! We lock gazes. But what’s this? Now she’s whispering something to her boyfriend who lowers his corn dog mid-bite. Now he’s staring holes in me. Now I’m looking at Trev, now at Trev’s shoes, checkered Vans.

“What?” says Trev.

“Movie?” I say.

“Yeah, all right.”

And without further delay, we stand to leave, well, I stand to leave, anyway. Hunching his shoulders to buttress the weight of his head, Trev clutches his joystick with a knotted hand and whirs around in a semi-circle, piloting himself toward the exit.

“Regal or Cineplex?” I say.



Trev loves movies. Until recently, when he started losing some of his finer digital functions, he was a ticket taker at the Regal Ten, where he still enjoys free admission. We see at least two movies a week together.

He likes action adventures the best, because of “All the ass-kicking and cool exploding shit.” But secretly I think he likes the heroes because their strength always begins and ends with their weakness. Or maybe I’m projecting.

Today we see Hulk. Every time Dr. Bruce Banner gets mad, he turns green and swells up to double his size, and starts kicking ass. He gets mad a lot. Hulk has no interior life. I guess that’s his weakness. As is our custom, Trev and I discuss the film afterward on the walk up to Red Lobster.

“If he’s angry, why doesn’t he turn red?” says Trev.

“Got me,” I say.

“And what happens if Bruce Banner is banging a chick and he gets angry? Like, if he’s balls deep in a chick, and she scratches his back too hard?”

“I guess he’d probably start crackin’ some ribs with his fat hog,” I say.

“That’s fucked up,” he says.

I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever grow up. It often occurs to me that Trev never will.

As we work our way up the hill past Home Depot and Target and Red Robin, the conversation turns to Molly. I turned it there. I’m still trying to order certain events in my life, particularly events concerning Molly and a certain surfing Buddhist, who also happened to be my best friend. I have a lot of questions. Trev is less philosophical.



“Fuck her,” he says. “She was a slut.” He knows it isn’t true.

“I wish it were that simple,” I say.

“Mm,” he says.

“You gotta understand, I thought I was gonna grow old with Molly.”

“Fuck her,” he says.


According to the Fundamentals of Caregiving, Trev doesn’t need to know that my wife ran off with a surfing Buddhist who just happened to be my best friend, or that I’m a grad school dropout, or that I’ve practically never had a job that paid more than $8.43 an hour, or that I can be reduced to this helpful mnemonic:





Born loser



We’ve arrived at the Red Lobster, where we’re standing in the foyer. The hostess appears, clutching a pair of oversized crab-shaped menus. She wears a red polo shirt with big boobs inside. Trev’s looking them right in the eyes.

“Two?” she says.

“I’ll say,” says Trev, a grin playing at the corners of his mouth.

The joke’s lost on her.

Trev orders the fish and chips like he always orders the fish and chips. I order the surf and turf.

“Did you see the funbags on her?” he says.

“Yeah. But think about it,” I say. “For years I broke bread with the guy. We went surfing, camping, you name it.”

“Get over it,” says Trev. “Pass me a straw, please.”

“I just don’t get it,” I say, passing him a straw. “How could he do that?”

“Fuck him. Could you take the paper off?”

I unwrap the straw and pass it back. “What the hell did I ever do to him?”

“Look,” says Trev. “Here’s what you do. Ask yourself what Hulk would do if his wife had an affair with his best friend?”

“Hulk doesn’t have any friends,” I observe bleakly.

“Whatever,” he says, an edge of impatience in his tone. “Get in touch with your inner Hulk, dude.”

“It’s a little late, don’t you think?”

He shifts ever so slightly in his wheelchair; his heavy head lolling to one side, his forearms dangling out in front of him like a tyrannosaurus.

“Poor you,” he says.

My old man in a nut shell: he’s too proud to wear a hearing-aid, yet he has no qualms whatsoever about donning a Donald Duck visor with two squares of cardboard fastened behind his ears, and strolling down Viking Way on his afternoon errands.



His errands consist of things like buying a piece of sheet-metal that he can bend into a box for the prototype of the sonic ant-deterrent he recently invented.

He calls the cardboard squares behind his ears his parabolic reflectors. They actually work. Try it sometime.

My old man’s a tucker. He tucks everything in– his fucking jacket. He’s also got what I consider to be an unhealthy relationship with Velcro. He wears it everywhere. He fastens his shoes with it, his jeans. He fastens the curtains in the old Nash station wagon he drives with it—and that’s so he can use the porto-potty he installed in the back, which he practically has to fold himself in half in order to utilize, because there’s only about three feet of vertical space back there.

And believe me, he utilizes it.

Sometimes while he’s driving, he has to pull over to the shoulder and fasten the curtains and drop a trout, even as traffic whizzes by. You see, he’s got a self-diagnosed diverticulum. It’s like his esophagus runs straight through to his rectum, I swear. He’s got his crap chute timed like a station master. He’s already eyeing the bathroom halfway through the salad course.

He refers to the whole process, invariably in a matter-of-fact tone, as passing his bowels. He refers to it often. After all, it’s just a metabolic function, right?

My old man pretty much ran out on me when I was eight or nine years old. I still don’t consider him a deadbeat, though. He always paid his child support and the rest of it. My sister’s death really took a toll on my parent’s marriage, so I’m willing to cut my old man some slack for flying the coupe.

Like most kids, I looked up to my dad. But I knew from square one he was certifiable. Other fathers didn’t teach their children Morse code, or get them squirrel monkeys for pets. Other fathers didn’t invent humane pest control devices, or make ice cream out of soy beans.

Over the years, my old man has worked as an aerospace engineer, a Methodist minister, a professional bodybuilder, a videographer, and finally, a naturopath. And like Frank Norris, he never “truckled.”

That’s enough for me.

And I’m not even certain what truckled means, but I’m pretty damn sure my old man never did it, or he probably wouldn’t be wearing parabolic reflectors right now.

I’ve always had a pretty good relationship with my father, in spite of the fact that we’ve spent so little time together. Until recently, he’d been living (quite happily) in the back of a cube truck in the high dessert of south-central Oregon, where he spent his days inventing shit in the sweltering heat– eating carrots, reading the scripture. Fastening shit with Velcro.

But two months ago—upon the behest of my older sister, who was beginning to worry about him alone out in that godforsaken desert in a Donald Duck visor— my father relocated to the island my sister and I live on.

He now lives 4.8 miles away.

So, for the first time since I was eight or nine years old, I’m seeing my father daily. We walk in the woods every afternoon with our dogs– me in my sweat pants, with my hangover, and he in his Velcro-fastened shoes and parabolic reflectors. I have to talk REALLY FUCKING LOUD, because I’m usually in front of him, and parabolic reflectors—in spite of their many attributes – are decidedly uni-directional in their function.

During our walks, my dad frequently says things like:

“Old Laddie is getting ready to pass his bowels.”


“Good Laddie. Good dog. Boy, you really had to pass your bowels, didn’t you, old boss? He hasn’t passed his bowels since yesterday morning. He really needed to pass them.”

But you know, the old dude is pretty interesting—my dad, I mean. He speaks a little Latin, a little Greek. He knows his theology and engineering and nutrition inside and out. And he knows volumes about the human excretory system. We have some good talks.

Last night, was my old man’s 75th birthday.

My sister and her family are up at Whistler for the week, and my brothers live out of state, and my wife was working– so it was just me and my old man for his birthday dinner.

He’s a pretty finicky eater– not because he’s got a sophisticated palette or anything, just because he’s a health nut.

So I made a salad with organic spring greens, goat cheese, walnuts, and blueberries, with a light drizzle of vinaigrette. I grilled some Japanese eggplant. I made some farfalle with wild mushrooms, kalamata olives, and sun dried tomatoes. I bought a carrot cake.

And I bought two bottles of the only alcoholic beverage I’ve ever known my father to imbibe– Manischewitz Blackberry Wine.


My old man is a cheap date, I guess. I generally can’t drink Manischewitz, or I start feeling like I’m slipping into a diabetic coma—and I’m not even diabetic (though I’ve been told my piss tastes sweet – ah, but that’s another post, perhaps).

Well, last night, in spite of my aversion, I drank Manischewitz Blackberry Wine, and it agreed with me for the
first time.

My old man loved the dinner.

He passed his bowels between the farfalle and the carrot cake.

Old Laddie passed his bowels, too– in case anyone’s wondering.

After his second glass of Manischewitz, my old man got a little woozy and sentimental, and began talking about his mother, whom the rest of us knew simply as Sweetie. She was a gem.

I lived with Sweetie in a senior citizen mobile home park in Sunnyvale, California the last two years of her life.

I was going to college.

She was agoraphobic—hadn’t left the house in over fifteen years. She smoked two packs of Pall Mall Golds and drank a half case of Hamm’s a day.

She liked Ironside better than Perry Mason. I’d say that’s a pretty rare quality.

She spent the better part of her days lounging in a bile-colored lazy boy, popping Tums antacids like tic-tacs. She ate nothing but Swanson’s frozen turkey dinners. Two per day– noon and six.

In fact, when I found her dead– with Tums antacids bubbling out of her mouth– there was a Swanson’s frozen dinner on her bedside table. And I swear to God, the thing was untouched except for the cherry cobbler.

She ate the fucking cherry cobbler and checked out! How cool is that?

We buried her with a Hamm’s and pack of Pall Mall Golds. You may think that’s disrespectful– but then, you don’t know shit.

My father started getting teary as he talked about Sweetie, last night.

Sweetie was the only parent he ever really had.

His father died when he was four.

He grew up in a one bedroom flat in Oakland during the depression, with Sweetie and Grandma Rae.

He said they had a single naked light bulb in the middle of the room, and Grandma Rae tied a button on the end of the chain. And my old man said that pulling that chain and watching that light bulb go on and off as a kid was the thing that made him become an engineer.

He said that things were so lean growing up in Oakland, there was only enough money to feed two people most of the time.

And so my father breast-fed until he was four-and-a-half years old.

He said he can remember stomping around the flat banging pots and pans and complaining he was hungry, until his mother took him in her lap.

He had a mouthful of teeth.

Last night, my father started weeping as he talked about his mother.

He just couldn’t seem to get past all the nutrition he’d deprived her of by all that nursing. She lost all her teeth by the age of forty, he explained, due to calcium deprivation.

His doing, of course. She finally weaned him by drawing spooky faces on her breasts.

Poor guy. Poor everybody. There was my father– on his 75th birthday– gooned on Manischewitz, weeping
like a baby about his mother’s milk.