January 14. Two weeks into the new year. By now, I should’ve removed all the decorations and shoved them back, back, back to the dark hinterlands of the attic. Instead, I’m lying on the floor before a gas fireplace that ignites with the simple flip of a switch, staring over a blank computer screen at an aging tree with limp branches and losing its balls.
I’m losing mine.
I’ve decided to keep Christmas alive for one more day. A half-converted old Scrooge struggling with booze who’ll need at least two more nights (possibly three) with the evangelistic ghosts so that maybe, just maybe, they can finish the job.
At the beginning of another new year, I’m reviewing my life and forcing myself to watch instant replays of wrong choices in high definition, all those game-changing moments. It might be too late to win at anything. I might have to punt again. No more time outs. No stopping the clock.
The once beautiful tree in front of me is symbolic. The majestic pine has aged rapidly in recent days and I feel a kinship with it: weary, saggy, best days behind, out of place and in the way.
The tree requires sugar water. I require eighty to one hundred proof of anything.
I’m afraid to check on the dog: a German Shepherd Husky mix with a snow-white wolfish face and heterochromia iridis. The eyes are more than exotic—they’re hypnotic. I thought of naming her either Marilyn or Manson after the shock rocker, but the first name reminded me of a bitter ex and the last of a satanic killer, so I decided on Bowie.
Bowie is seventeen years old (119 in dog years). For some reason, she labors up the steep stairs only whenever I enter my writing room—I don’t know why—but her inexplicable routine is endearing. Maybe she’s my backup muse. She’ll plop down with a weary sigh and stare up at me with a divine knowledge she has yet to share. Just like Christmas, I want to keep that sweet old dog alive—even if only for one more day—but I’ve no control over such matters.
Something happened yesterday, something bad. Tumors have been crawling up Bowie’s elderly spine for months and maybe they’ve finally reached her brain. I don’t know. What I do know is that this will be my woolly friend’s last Christmas and new year.
At 4:10 a.m. I’m sipping a fresh cup of coffee with a generous amount of the International Delight brand of French Vanilla, stirred to a nice tan color—never white because that would be too much—and no sugar. A shiny red glass Christmas ball has detached from its assigned position and landed safely onto the velvet skirt; there’s another ball across from it—a big swirly purple plastic one purchased from a Walmart basket of balls that is dwarfing yet another—a tiny, compact rubber ball speckled with color, one of those crazy bouncers; there’s also a green tennis ball next to the couch, with a single puncture wound from a canine fang; my imagination has transformed each into different sized planets and the five hundred white lights above them into a host of stars. The tree has now become a galaxy and I am full of wishes.
I’m a squatter, unemployed, and penning a novel that may or may not ever sell. Though money is never the goal, it would be nice. Most of my friends and family have never understood the peck-me-to-death compulsion to write. Honestly, I’m not that good at it but I can’t help myself. One time, when I was several days in jail due to a drinking binge, I almost lost my mind because—for me—true freedom is found in the wide open fields of pages yet-to-be-written and I wasn’t offered a sheet of paper or a sharp object to scratch a line. That was, I think, the very essence of hell (THAT and the constant unintelligent chatter of my cell mate and his wicked farts as thick and strangling as the brimstone of Sodom and Gomorrah). Upon my eventual release, the first thing I did was enter a gas station across the street and purchase an Ice House Edge (a disgusting beer with the satisfying higher proof necessary for dizzy writing), a clean notebook, and a pack of pencils. Soon I was pleasantly buzzing again and kept repeating the line, Peter Piper picked a pack of pointy pencils, faster and faster, like an auctioneer (or a madman). I was overcome with joy to be free and the endless possibilities of creating another chapter after nonfiction had just punched me, brick hard, in the face.
I love the woman in whose house I live. Damn, I love her.
Last night, I was drunk on gin, stumbling around, creating a fictional story with an unknown ending while, at the same time, foolishly destroying a nonfictional story with an unavoidable happy ending. If only I would get a real job, she always says.
Katarina opened the door to my writing room. I was midstream, pissing on a potted plant that she’d purchased. With eyes more blue and divine than Shepsky’s, she lasered me with a look of disappointment and a prolonged glare of undisguised disgust, maybe even hatred. I don’t know. She didn’t say a word but only released the longest sigh I’ve ever heard. The light went out of her eyes. I believe that actually I witnessed the death of her love.
5 a.m. Gazing up into the electric stars. Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree… I wish, I wish…
I wish to keep Christmas alive, the dog alive, Katarina’s love alive.
Respectability. Sobriety. Stability. Her request is simple, maybe impossible.
I need a refill. This time I spike the large brown mug with whiskey, measured strong, half and half, and then add some more creamer. Sort of an Irish coffee.
Kat and I were served double shot Irish coffees at the allegedly haunted Mills house one snowy morning in Charleston, South Carolina. We were late for breakfast but the bar was open. We asked Lucy for something hot and that’s what we got. With whipped cream mustaches, we sipped one, then another, and another. The bill was high, our BAC’s were high, our spirits were high. An hour into it, the whole place started rocking like a ship at sea. Dizzy and swaying on high wooden stools, we held hands and stared out the window at a running fountain that had frozen into a crystal ice sculpture. Isn’t it beautiful, she said. You’re beautiful, I said. Lucy smiled. Kat kissed me with passion. Her lips tasted sweet as they glided over mine, hot with coffee. Both of us were heated up. She led me by the hand to the elevator and up to our room where she took the lead in love, shoving me onto my back and climbing on top. A perfect way to start the day.
5:07 a.m. Josh Groban is singing Panis Angelicus. I bow my head for the first time in a long time. My eyes fill with genuine tears. Bread of Angels. Latin, in my opinion, is the language of angels and of God.
I check my e-mail, my WordPress stats (all two readers), Twitter (Stephen King is being extra nasty about Donald Trump again and I can’t understand why—perhaps a Langolier has eaten his brain), and Fox News.
I’m lollygagging. An unfinished novel awaits. But…
I fear so many things these days.
The insidiousness of time, on the downhill, picking up speed on tracks greased with regret.
There’s a single shoe—Katarina’s—overturned and abandoned on the living room floor, the other is nowhere in sight. There’s something about its emptiness that catches in my throat. The lack of her foot inside sends a biting wind of sorrow through my heart. Because I know what I’m about to do.
In my mind, her sad blue eyes are looking at me the way Christ’s must’ve looked at Judas, the father of all betrayers. What thou doest, do quickly.
The whiskey burns my throat (the doctor warned that I’d develop throat cancer if I didn’t return to righteousness and go teetotal as a Baptist preacher), but my brain feels as comfortable as a heated car seat on a chilly winter’s day (Kat calls them ass warmers). I almost laugh until I ponder the shoe from a more vulnerable drunken perspective.
Jeff was a childhood friend. He never looked before crossing the street. On the first day of summer, he smiled and waved at me in the flash of a second before a car struck him. The driver locked her breaks and four tires screamed and screeched with rubbery fear. There was a horrible thump of contact, crumpled metal, shattered glass, the jingle, jangle, and mangle of chains, spokes, sprockets, and pedals skipping like a rock on water down Turner Road, and—worst of all—the limp flop and slapping sound of broken flesh onto the oven-hot pavement. Somehow, Jeff was knocked right out of his shoes. His body shot impossibly high into the air, lifeless as a rag doll, his blonde curls suddenly dyed red. Dyed. Died. I remember his empty Keds on the bloody street, never to be worn again.
Some of us never learn until it’s too late.
Kat promised she’d leave if I didn’t stop drinking…
Even as I’m reminded of this, I take another swig straight from the bottle. What a loser.
An unfinished puzzle beckons from the sticky surface of the coffee table, representative, I think, of an inexplicable incompleteness in my life, holes that need patching. But the ultimate outcome remains a messy mystery. Key pieces are missing. Maybe I threw them away. And yet…
Kat has never gone missing. She’s the safe and defining corners, the unexpected frame. Her stubborn love has formed a protective border around my emptiness. I peek up at the ceiling, needing her. She’s upstairs, right now, cozy under the covers. I wonder if I’m still the hero of her dreams. I highly doubt it.
Two more damaging swigs of eighty proof, some liquid courage to open the cage of a dying dog and another page of a novel in it’s final trimester (possibly stillborn upon arrival). Or maybe I’m just manning up for an unavoidable conversation with Kat about the incessant call of the road screaming in my ear and the raging conflict between my free spirit and a heart that is bound by genuine love for her. I feel the nasty breath of the necessary, boring predictability of adult responsibility and the lethal threat to my limited time and creativity. I’ve reached an impasse. I’m split in half. At war with myself. An inward and outward contradiction that will destroy—is destroying —Katarina. I’m a romantic schizoid. An ingrate who’s never deserved the long-lasting love of anyone.
A deadlock of fiction versus nonfiction has me in a strangle hold. A decision must be made.
I stand to my feet. Another ornament falls to the carpet. I scratch some circulation back into my testicles which have been smashed and numbing against the hard surface of the floor for almost an hour. (And there it is again: the weird theme of balls on the floor.) I grab mine and proceed to the pet room.
Bowie’s still breathing but her head is disturbingly cocked to one side. She appears to be intoxicated. Yesterday, she started stumbling and toppling over, becoming confused and restless, circling around and around, like someone had hit her between her pointy ears with a baseball bat. Her left eye is twitching like crazy, like an old lady who’s suffered a stroke. It might be something as simple and curable as an inner ear infection or something as final as cancer. The vet will determine which. I already know, but one can always hope.
I think of the new year. I think of my parents. I haven’t seen them in a while. They’re teetering, too.
I open Bowie’s cage but don’t pull her out. She’s lost bladder control.
Inserting my head into the smelly cage, I kiss the soft bridge of the dog’s nose and a dozen memories flash through my mind: Frisbees, tennis balls, green grass and piles of shit (fiction and nonfiction, respectively), whiskers howling at sirens, the opportunistic stealer of hotdogs at family picnics, snapper of flies and lightening bugs, woolly warmer of winter ski cabins, muscled protector who sleeps with a stuffed toy. But it’s the memory of Bowie’s happy fits that makes me smile the most. Whenever Kat returned home from work that crazy pup would zip and zang and lickety-click at lightning speed, around and around the kitchen table, heavy tail wagging and thick as rigging line, knocking things over, slobbery tongue hanging out and slapping like wet bologna. I swear that dog wore a silly grin.
Now, she’s all screwed up and can barely stand. If I were Jack London, I’d be forced to shoot her.
After a minute or two of telling her what a good dog she’s been, I pull out of the cage. Bowie grunts and squirms and does her best to exit, loyal to the end. It’s unbearably sad to watch and she makes it only halfway. The precious dog is flat on the mat, almost to the ten count. In my mind, I become the fictional character Mickey Goldmill in Rocky V, leaning into the fight ring and screaming, Get up! Get up you son of a bitch cause Mickey loves ya!
Squatting like a catcher in a baseball game, I take her lopsided bobble-head between my hands and rest her fuzzy chin on my upper thigh, steadying her, comforting her, providing stability. I think of Kat’s need for the same and feel an overwhelming impulse to sprint upstairs and press her princess face into my strong chest and tell her that home will always win over the road, nonfiction over fiction, sacrificial love over selfishness—because true love takes prisoners. But I resist the urge. There’s something broken inside of me. Or maybe it’s because I see life with two different eyes. I shake my head like Bowie, hemming and hawing. Circling.
Only days ago, Kat kissed me on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. It wasn’t a normal kiss. She inhaled my soul. That night. In the falling snow. Almost to the river. Across from the Tribune. Suddenly, I could no longer feel the bone-chilling wind, only the spiritual heat of her love, dispelling my roguishness and locking me deep inside of her pure heart.
I can’t leave her. I won’t.
Same old battle, different day, but exponentially more difficult.
Writing is a calling that doesn’t guarantee success, but it does require the same commitment as a marriage. For richer or poorer—sure —but especially in terms of forsaking all others.
Solitude is vital. Self-centeredness is unavoidable. Loneliness is the price.
Maybe I’m just stupid.
Whenever I hear Bruce Springsteen’s, Secret Garden, the lyrics remind me of love’s passionate chase and I ponder Kat’s generosity, mystery, and value. I will never love another. This morning, I play the song on my iPhone in honor of her, realizing that I’m the luckiest man in the world. She’s given me access to her sacred place and has bolted the door against anyone else.
She’ll let you in her house
If you come knockin’ late at night
She’ll let you in her mouth
If the words you say are right
If you pay the price
She’ll let you deep inside
But there’s a secret garden she hides
She’ll let you in her car
To go drivin’ round
She’ll let you into the parts of herself
That’ll bring you down
She’ll let you in her heart
If you got a hammer and a vise
But into her secret garden, don’t think twice
You’ve gone a million miles
How far’d you get
To that place where You can’t remember
And you can’t forget
She’ll lead you down a path
There’ll be tenderness in the air
She’ll let you come just far enough
So you know she’s really there
She’ll look at you and smile
And her eyes will say
She’s got a secret garden
Where everything you want
Where everything you need
Will always stay
A million miles away
I offer the Shepsky a sausage doggy treat. For a moment and maybe for the last time, she focuses enough to snap it out of my hand. For Bowie’s pitiful sake, I fake excitement.
“Good girl! Yeah, you’re a beast! Still in the game!”
But I’m slightly encouraged. If Bowie can think clearly for fifteen seconds in her condition, then maybe I can, too.
A dying man should never reject a glass of cold water, especially if it’s offered in the name of Christ, the saver of souls. And a living man should never reject a woman’s love, especially one who is willing to climb into his smelly cage when he’s at his worst.
For the next hour and a half, I add almost two thousand words to my novel. Every paragraph see-saws between hope and despair. It’s a terrible feeling. There’s no story, I tell myself. I have nothing to give, nothing to offer, nothing to leave in my pathetic wake. But it’s only the whiskey speaking.
I click the save button, close the laptop, and walk away. The coffee pot is empty; I measure another for Katarina and leave a note: Coffee’s ready—just click the ON button. I sign the simple message with a red heart. She always keeps my little notes; I find them hidden throughout the house and it touches me every time —especially since she’s not the sentimental type.
I almost ascend the stairs, but the closed laptop is eye-fucking me. I take the bottle of whiskey, turn it straight up, empty what’s there, wipe my mouth and chin, then add one more page, typing furiously, blindly, disregarding grammatical atrocities until later. I can’t help it—especially since the main character is me. I’ve given myself another name, a more handsome face, a better body. I’m also a highly educated, holy priest of God. I’m a very good man on paper. It’s easy to raise the dead in the land of make believe.
Me. Me. Me. Methinks too much about me.
Kat said she wouldn’t love me if I were anybody else. That makes comforting sense—but what doesn’t make sense is why she ever loved me in the first place. I’ll bet she’ll have a difficult time answering that question today.
I need to make things right.
I always start rhyming whenever I’m tipsy.
At the last minute, I stumble up the stairs, knees popping like my father’s, leaning on the side rail for support. The long hallway is spinning. The beautiful hallway. Her hallway.
I belch. There’s an acid fire in my throat.
Katarina’s standing naked and godlike under the shower. Normally, I’d drop to my knees and add a hot tongue and fingers to her soapy routine. This morning, however, buzzing and unrealistically optimistic, I imagine a tantric slow dance partnered with the water massager until her body trembles against the cool surface of the tiled wall and rattles the glass stall like a powerful earthquake. Yeah. Oh, yeah. And, and, and, afterwards, Kat won’t care if I type all day in my underwear and never get a real job; she’ll just smile contentedly, catching her breath, face and neck splotched red. I’ll bring her a fresh cup of coffee while she’s drying off with a towel.
But she’s wailing like a storm—for the dog, I’m sure—so I leave her alone.
I close the door, the sound of a funeral at my back, stalking me down the hall.