Andrew Barnett wipes his tired eyes, pushes and rolls away from his study desk, stands, stretches, and peeks out the window. The graveyard is there and the boy’s father again, standing over the loose soil of a freshly turned grave. For several weeks, and every single day, Mr. Conrad stares at a stone in sorrow, anger, and disbelief. Eventually, he will lay flat on his face, pounding his fists into the ground, weeping without restraint, his shoulders shaking. “I love you, boy! Come out of there! Do you hear me? Please God, make him live again!”
When he finally wears down, he brushes himself off and flips two middle fingers at the sky and walks away. Shoulders stooped. A forty-four year old who just turned ninety.
The young Anglican priest longs to approach the suffering man but no honest comfort, if any could be found, can be provided for a father who did everything wrong. The clock had stopped ticking in the life of nineteen year old Brian. Who followed the drunken example of his father. Who flipped his car into the Great Dismal Swamp. Who couldn’t be cut from the wreckage. Who drowned in front of an unqualified small town rescue crew. Who became conscious right before his death, eyes wide with fear and confusion, as water entered his nostrils and choked out the breath of life.
His mother’s fingers brushed back his long black hair as it floated and fanned out in water and blood, “Oh, Brian, baby! I love you! Oh Jesus God! Oh Lord! DO SOMETHING DAMMIT!” Her firstborn died locking his hollow lifeless eyes with hers and she collapsed into shock as the incoming tide carried his spirit away to who knows where.
Huddling together, a crowd of watching people wept and wailed and howled under a crushing avalanche of grief. Holding each other. The collective sound of profound loss is something no human ear should ever have to hear. There’s no getting over it. Andrew knows.
He is crying at the window right now. His warm palm to the pane, he reaches out with his spirit to touch the man.
“What God has bent, no man can straighten…” he whispers, shaking his head, not understanding the lack of divine intervention in this case.
Tim Timmons woke from a dreadful nightmare, mumbling the phrase, “What God has bent” repeatedly. The Great Dismal Swamp. He hadn’t thought of what happened there in a long, long time.
Jack bit Tim’s nipple. “AAH! Shit! What the hell, Jackass!”
A minute later he was peeing into a posh DoubleTree hotel toilet, totally pissed off and poisoned in his mind over some recent news. A name. A date. The actual time of death for his and Kat’s years-long passionate relationship and the beginning of another for her. A marriage certificate. Faster than a fucking shotgun wedding. His head was reeling. He thought it was all a dream. But no.
The giddy new couple’s lifelong happiness would be his lifelong sorrow. The permanent loss of a best friend.
She believes in all of that self-help bullshit and tells him, in her YouTube coaching voice, “Choose joy! Choose happiness! Take a deep breath–BREATHE–and choose not to be sad!”
He wanted to tell her to shut the hell up but she was drunk and he still loves her and she probably wouldn’t remember her silly words in the morning. No human being can choose not to be sad. Tim’s heart had been ripped out and stomped upon. His pain was real. Genuine grief was seeping from every pore. His Kat had died.
This is his final weekend in Colorado. He leashes Jack and exits the hotel lobby where the handsome puppy with the glowing Kerouac eyes squats and waters the flower bed with golden urine. It is a gray day, fifty-nine degrees drifting on a chilly mountain wind. He drives to the 7-Eleven and purchases a large coffee but keeps it black as he has been fasting for several days and is now into deep autophagy. The plan is the closest thing to crawling back into the womb and being born again. Stem cells would heal his liver, his brain, his heart, and other things. This morning his phallus is thick and veined and throbbing, a beautiful tingling sign of returning youthful health for the first time in a while, after a long and serious drug and alcohol bender in a self-hating effort to forget about the easy betrayals and the emptiness of modern love–where an Internet connection is made, two strangers meet, they skip the courtship and get straight to the fucking with a shrug of the shoulders and naked is no longer sacred. Worst of all, the simple but powerful declaration, “I love you” becomes anemic and pale and weak, bled empty of all its meaning.
No one has a good love story anymore. Just the same predictable hookup. Welcome to Shallow World. Love me Tinder.
The dog park is an instant cure for depression. Canines of every size, shape, color, and quirky personality, all stampeding and tumbling and flipping toward Jack the moment they hear the shrill squeak of the entrance gate, wagging their tails, drooling, grinning, growling, and greeting the newest arrival with a prolonged sniff up the ass.
Tim sits on a bench, sipping his coffee and staring at the curious beauty of the Flatirons in the direction of Boulder, becoming more and more aware of what might be considered a sub-sub-culture (like brackets within parentheses), listening to the neighborly conversations of the dog owners, so passionate about their pups. A gathering of the dog philosophers.
Everyone turns and focuses on Jack. The new kid on the block. His beauty. His playfulness.
Someone finally speaks to Tim. “What breed?”
A maligator. A destroyer of boots and computer cords and notebooks.
Two weeks ago, Jack ripped up room 251 at a Super 8. After having returned an hour and half later from a spaghetti and cabernet dinner, Tim opened the door with his magnetic key card (Make your stay SUPER!) and fastened his eyes on a catastrophe, where little white fangs had done their destructive work, starting in the far corner and ending with a fat pillow for dessert.
“What in the absolutest of all fucks, Jack!”
The dog was sitting calmly in the midst of it all, a long carpet string dangling from his half opened mouth, the bottom row of his straight teeth showing like a comic strip grin, one ear down, one up, greenish eyes of innocence, and an impressive shiny red boner.
Dog parks come with a risk of injury. Tim was searching his phone desperately for reliable statistics on failed quickie marriages and fantasizing about the fast approaching days when the honeymoon would be over. He imagined the new man snoring so loud that Kat had to sleep in a different room, that he picked his toes and collected his navel lint in a mason jar and afterward sniffed his fingers, that he crunched his salad loud and long and slopped his food and talked with his mouth full, that he barely wiped his nasty hairy ass crack after shitting, and that his pepperoni pecker would develop Peyronie’s disease. Pleasant things like that, when out of nowhere, a huge mongrel attacks Jack.
Tim’s reaction was instantaneous and without any forethought, he stands and delivers a swift boot to the rib cage of the big dog. The skin on Jack’s beautiful mouth is broken and bleeding. Poor frightened baby retreats beneath the bench, whimpering, eyes watering, and licking his fresh wounds. Jack’s first altercation in life. The owner of the other dog is a handsome young man with anger in his eyes and fists balled. Tim apologizes. “I’m sorry, man, I didn’t think. I just acted.” Dude mumbles something, leashes his dog, and moves on.
Out of habit, Tim reaches for a mini bottle hidden in the front pocket of his Levi’s but remembers that he gave that foolishness up weeks ago. His stomach hurts, hunger pains mixed with sorrow for everything and everybody, for the mean dog that he kicked, for his owner, for Jack, for Kat, and for himself.
An elderly woman with scoliosis, and a crooked arthritic dog to match, enters the gate with a gap tooth smile and Jack greets White Bear with a hearty sniff at the sphincter of a willing and lifted tail. The two romp and nibble and roll while the old lady talks Tim’s head off, looping for a moment with nonsensical things, which made his stomach knot even tighter as he recognizes and silently diagnoses the very beginnings of dementia, the first waves hitting the shore. He felt an emptiness wash over him and he wanted to hug Janine tightly in his strong arms and tell her everything is going to be alright. But that wasn’t true. Soothsayers are like many YouTube coaches, full of shit, making people feel better with lies big and small and sometimes downright outrageous.
The words of Thomas Wolfe came to him, “O, lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.”
(O lost! Kat! I need you. Please, please come back again.)
Lost because Kat has always been home to him. His resting place. His peace in a troubled world. His idol of worship. His damn fucking religion.
Fifteen minutes later, Jack is off in the distance, taking a dump, and maybe twenty five feet away, a man with a long ponytail and wearing a ball cap (not a good look) starts screaming at Janine in an abusive and violent, deep-voiced, drill sergeant tone, “Get control of your dog!”
The man was over-the-top angry that his poodle was being sniff-checked by big old loveable White Bear.
Janine, more bent over than ever and obviously frightened, begins muttering frantically and turning in circles, her hands clutching a leash, as she stumbles and almost falls toward her dog in obedience to the bullying man. She calls for White Bear in a barely audible and wheezing voice and attempts to whistle through dry lips. Her two front teeth are missing and Tim is overwhelmed with sympathy for her.
Other people in the park, men and women, turn away and ignore what is happening. Tim stands to his feet, approaches White Bear, pulling him by the collar over to Janine and clipping the leash for her with a reassuring smile. After which, he turns to Mr. Vietnam Vet and eye fucks him, lasering in on him with eyes blackened with hot indignation and the sure threat of a coming storm.
“What?” The man says. “The fuck you stare’n at?”
Kat’s sweet voice speaks inside of Tim’s head again, Take a deep breath…
“You owe her an apology.”
“Nah, man, I don’t. She needs to control her dog.”
“You need to control your temper. What the hell did you expect when you came here today? Canine social distancing at a dog park?”
“Shut the fuck up and mind your own business.”
“I can only promise that if you say one more word to her, I will yank your sorry bitch ass out of this park by your stupid looking ponytail. Do you understand?”
“Man I served in Nam…”
Tim interrupted what was likely a lifelong victim speech. “I could care the fuck less about your past. I’m concerning myself only with the present moment.”
And, thankfully, that was the end of it.
As Tim was attempting to leave, a lady in a floppy sunflower hat approached and offered him a plastic King Super shopping bag. “Scuse me, sir, scuse me. Didn’t you forget something?” Tim stared at her for a moment. “Oh, right.” He took the bag and scooped up Jack’s hot poop while secretly entertaining the idea of launching it at the back of the nosey woman’s head as she waddled and shuffled away.
An interesting day at the dog park.
There was no place to park last night. The entire lot was packed out and for some reason the second floor of the garage was orange coned off limits. After circling for almost twenty minutes, Tim parked in an Avis parking spot, risking a ticket and a tow, and walked away with a pleasant rush of adrenaline pumping into his veins.
He escorted Jack to room 264, down a very long hall, his own ears trying not to invade the privacy of strangers who were watching television, laughing, arguing, or moaning under the sheets behind closed doors.
Poor puppy’s face was swollen. Extra sad. Extra cute.
“We’re two fucked up men in a hard world, boy. Might as well make peace with it.”
Tim decided it was time to break his fast but he wasn’t hungry anymore. He just wanted to get buzzed and felt that he deserved it. So he ordered a beer and a double shot of bourbon in the hotel bar and watched highlights of an Avalanche hockey game and tried not to think of wedding bells. He sniffed the bourbon and almost vomited. He sat staring at both drinks, nauseous at the thought. Maybe he was indeed being born again in the midst of this miserable autophagy, ketones raging, stem cells forming and fixing.
Two women sat down next to him at the bar, one on either side. A tall attractive brunette brushed against his left shoulder and the other one with a shaved head and many piercings against his right, squeezing into his personal space.
“You just gonna stare at that or are you gonna drink it?”
“Be my guest.”
The brunette went for the beer and the bald girl the bourbon.
“No. I’m with Jack.” Tim points to the ceiling. “He’s upstairs taking a nap.”
“Oh, you’re gay. My bad.” The two women departed and moseyed on over to the pool table, thongs showing, flirting with two willing fellows.
What’s with strangers drinking his drinks?
Three weeks ago, at Tony Romo’s beneath the Delta Hotel in Thornton, a salt and pepper haired businessman slid closer to Tim from two stools down, picked up his beer, and took a big gulp. “I’m Dan,” he said with an extended hand. Tim shook his hand but didn’t offer his name in return. A huge hint that he didn’t feel like talking, business or otherwise.
“Wanna go outside for a smoke?”
“No, thank you, Dan. I’m calling it a night. I have an early day tomorrow.”
He stared at Tim’s scrubs. “You a doctor or something?”
Putting a hand on Tim’s thigh, Dan leaned in way too close to whisper something, whiskey was strong on his breath and he was slurring, “If you want to know who I really am, come with me to the fourth floor and I’ll show you.”
Tim removed the man’s hand, offered him the remainder of his beer, and politely declined the offer. He paid twenty bucks cash on six and walked away. Before ascending a flight of ballroom steps to the first floor and the elevators of the hotel, he looked back over his shoulder and Dan was stumbling fast toward him but fell on his face and busted his nose. Hotel staff rushed to help and Tim left the scene, locking himself inside of a cozy room on the second floor where Jack was chewing a toilet roll to shreds.
Today, as Tim parks the truck closer to the lobby, he realizes that he can’t wait to leave Colorado. The whole experience has been a weird fevered dream. An amalgamation of heaven and hell. He’ll likely never return.
A Denver narcotics cop approaches Tim in the parking lot. For once without cuffs.
“Is that a Mal?”
“Aw, man, he’s beautiful. How much ya want for him?”
“He’s not for sale.”
“Here’s my card. Let me know if you change your mind.”
His last night in Arvada, Tim gives himself permission to loiter one more time as a sad ghost on the hill immediately behind Kat and his first and only apartment together. There’s a car in the driveway every evening–someone else living in their former home–but the lights are always out. When his Kat girl and he lived there, every window was bright. She was the light. There was no such thing as night whenever she walked through the door. She was the very sunshine of his life.
He remembers her late night phone call again and disbelief seizes his entire body. It was like she had called from the other side and happily announced her own death.
Almost panicking, he says out loud to no one, “I’ve got to get out of here before I lose my mind.” Somehow start over. Somewhere down the road. Make fresh memories. This obsession isn’t healthy.
And so, all alone on the hill, Tim Timmons allows himself to cry. The two had once sat up here together, bundled, mittened, smiling, sipping coffee, either greeting the day or closing it. It was still winter back then and snow covered the ground. Her dogs ran crazy and cute, crunching through the snow with powdered noses and sometimes yelping in pain when it became too cold for their paw paws. In those Christmassy days, Tim would often stop to listen and watch the neighborhood children sled down, down, down to the Apex ball fields at the Lutz sports complex far below. The sight and sound touched some distant part of his childhood innocence, now long gone. Tonight, however, the air is pleasant and with a grassy sporadic breeze lifting his hair and the mountains are shadows against the twilight sky.
“Don’t you damn marry him! Please don’t!”
For three days in a row, he kept driving by a fortune teller but the doors were always closed. He wanted to see if a psychic with no knowledge of his situation might give him hope. You have lost someone recently but she’s coming back.
Plan B: if the Colorado Avalanche wins the Stanley Cup, she’ll come back. If this traffic light turns green, she will come back. If the next car I see is red, she’ll come back.
After the sun had set behind the Front Range of the Rockies and after the games, the gigantic lights over the empty ball fields clicked off one by one. There was a buzzing sound as they cooled down. Tim thought of a heart monitor. A flatline. The final sign is no sign. Nothing else can be done. It’s over. Bag it and tag it.
With a sad resignation, he arrives back at the hotel and ignites the very three wick candle that flickered and danced on the walls the final time he and Kat made love. It is pumpkin colored with an undefinable scent.
In the background, a song is playing, the ongoing theme of his life.
There are times I fear I lose myself
I don’t know who I am…
(Oh Kat. Darling. Come back to me. Live again. Love me again.)
Freedom on the run…
(Monday is coming. Where do I go from here? Any damn where.)
I can see the future killing me
On a misbegotten highway
Of prophecies and dreams
A road to nowhere and eternity…
The room takes on the scent of their love. Making a wish, he extinguishes the three wicks with one breath and watches the ascending smoke as it spells out her name and disappears against the ceiling.
Tomorrow, he and Jack will drive further into the unknown. His shattered heart will dissipate into the wind.
Years ago and a thousand miles away, Andrew Barnett blew out the pine scented candle on his desk and called it a day. Three wicks. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
He dropped to his knees before the Throne of Grace, forming his fingers into the sign of the Trinity, and placed it at the center of the rising smoke.
Almighty God and Everlasting Father
May this prayer rise before you
Sweet as your lovely pines
Mr. Conrad and all of the broken hearts of the world
This kind of pain that no man can take
This cup that no man can drink
This permanent heartbreak
This loss of faith
This level of hopelessness
This deep abyss of sorrow that strangles the soul
Bear it upon the strong shoulders of your son
Carry this weight of death for him
Shine a light in his darkness
I’m pissed off
Increase my faith
In the name of Christ your son and my Savior and through the blessed Holy Spirit