09 February 2006

Dancing With the Wolf

I was fourteen the first time I fantasized about my dad’s funeral: It was a hot day and we all wore shorts and Hawaiian shirts. The casket was closed. Dad had been attacked by a wolf he’d been trying to tame and there was nothing left of his face. We lowered him into the ground, next to where we buried Mom just after I was born, and Jimmy Buffet played from the speakers set-up behind us. We drank Mai Tais. Then I came home, the place all to myself. This fantasy got me through my teenage years. That and the one I had a couple of times about leaving: I’d stand in the kitchen and tell Dad, “I’m tired of your shit. All we do is fight. You’ve never got nothing nice to say to me. I’m leaving.” But I was the first sophomore to make the varsity tennis team so me leaving didn’t make too much sense.

Dad hardly ever talked to me back then but he’d spend the weekends at ball games with friends telling them whopper stories that began, “When I was working in The Blue Café in El Paso, Elvis Presley came in and left me a one hundred dollar tip on his way to Hollywood.” If anyone stopped and thought about it they would’ve realized two things: Elvis flew to Hollywood when he made Blue Hawaii; and even if he did drive, El Paso is in no way on the road from Memphis to Hollywood. When I figured these things out I said, “Those guys are stupid enough to believe you? Or are you just making an ass out of yourself?” Then we tied up for days.

You can only take so much bullshit before it all hits the fan and spatters back at you. It wasn’t until a long time passed that I got tired of being covered in Dad’s shit. But instead of moving out, I started figuring out how to kill him.
The fall after high school I took a job at the JCPenny loading dock. I was under qualified but they hired me because their stock was three months behind and the holidays were sure to make things worse. They had trucks and trucks of boxes off somewhere and everyday they drove up three or four of them for unloading. I spent my time tossing boxes from the trucks to the conveyor belt that took them into the stockroom. It was a cold dock; I wore two pairs of socks and the women in the stockroom had heaters at their feet. Three times a day we took a break. It was the only time I talked.

Because I was always reading—a novel, the paper, Newsweek—they called me College. “You’re a quiet one, College,” they said.

I shrugged. “Not much to say, I guess.” They all smoked cigarettes and drank Pepsi, throwing their butts and cans into the box crusher. “Smoking will kill you,” I said.

“Well if that’s what you’re gonna say every time you open your mouth, keep it shut.” This was Shelby—a longhaired, Native-American woman who wore flannels and gold boots. Like most of the women in the stockroom, she was in her late thirties and had never been married. If I had a friend, she was the only one.
Dad’s emphysema diagnosis came that fall and afterward there wasn’t a day that went by I didn’t plan on his death. Every morning I’d wake up and the first thing I’d think was today could be the day. I’d spend my time in the shower thinking about what casket to buy. There were days I was okay with him dying and I’d picture myself at the podium delivering a eulogy to a crowd of his old pals from the Phone Company and the ballpark. I’d say profound things about Dad and get everyone crying on each other’s shoulders. Someone would play “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” on the organ. On other days I’d be pissed and I’d tell myself there was no way I was going to go to the funeral, helping with the flowers, or picking out slacks to bury him in. I wished he would die that day, just so I could protest, boycott his funeral procession with a sign that read He Never Met Elivs! I imagined an empty mortuary, a big hole in the ground with no headstone. I even thought we could just cremate him—something he was afraid of.

But I thought—maybe even hoped a little—that something in Dad might change after the official diagnosis. That while he said he only had asthma he’d cut back on smoking, and start to exercise. I thought I could get him out of the house more, put him on the diet his doctor thought was best for him. I bought a pillbox with a timer. I fixed the garage opener and got the oil changed in his Lincoln. And for a while things were okay. He was breathing better and I was able to bring home enough money each month to buy things he really liked—like Tapioca pudding and Lays potato chips.

Our honeymoon period ended when I came home and Dad was standing in the middle of the living room knee high in cardboard boxes. “Where in the hell is Dances with Wolves?” he asked me.

“What?” I tossed my keys on the table. “Dad, how’d you get all these boxes out of the garage? It took me two days just to stack them.”

“Answer me dammit. Where is that Kevin Coaster movie where he plays with the Indians.”

“Costner, Dad. It’s with the rest of your movies in your room.”

“No it aint. I looked there first, Smarty Pants, and it’s not there. I want my movie.”

“You sound like a twelve-year-old. The movie’s in your room. Let’s just go in there and—”

“You stay the hell out of my room! I know you’ve been in there. Trying to get up in the crawlspace. Climbing up in the attic! I can’t leave the damned house for one day!”

“I haven’t gone into your damned room!” I shouted back. “Why would I need to go in there!”

“To steal my tapes!” he yelled back.

I couldn’t help myself and started to laugh. “Dad, if I wanted to watch a movie I’d go rent one.”

“Yeah, with my money.”

“I have a job, Dad,” I said.

“Moving boxes. Jesus! I preached college for what!”

I felt the ball in my throat. I’d never been the best student in the world, but I had some college offers. I just didn’t take them. I wasn’t ready. I knew I couldn’t explain this to Dad, knew my voice was weak, but I managed to say, “So I should quit my job then, Dad? Is that it? You want me to sit around the house all day, counting your videos?”

“No you smart ass I want you to stay the hell out of my room. I don’t give a shit what you do out of this house, but here you stay out of my stuff. I don’t begrudge you of anything. I just want you out of my things.”

I spent the rest of the night stacking boxes back in the garage, looking for the movie I knew wasn’t in there. For some reason the memory of my middle school graduation came to mind. I was eleven, a year younger than everyone else, and Dad rewarded me with a BMX bike that I’d thought was a bunch of crap. I didn’t want a bike. But Dad made sure to keep an eye on what was going on around the neighborhood. It got into his head I needed one and that was the end of it. Even though I tried to convince him a membership to a book club was better, he wouldn’t have any of it.
At JCPenny we were only supposed to take three breaks, but working on the dock there was no way for our supervisor to know when we went outside. That dock was a strange place—dark, windowless, and cold. But it was more comfortable than home. We each had a locker back there and some radios. The sales room doors squeaked badly, so when any salesperson made their way back, we could hear them coming and get back to our stations in plenty of time to look busy.

“What do you do all day, College?” Shelby asked one day. We were on our second morning break. The other women and dock boys huddled in a circle, lighting their cigarettes.

“Move boxes,” I said.

“No shit? I thought you were here with the union.” She snorted. “You’re too quiet, College. You don’t talk to the other guys.”

“Not too much, no.”

“You don’t think your shit don’t stink.” It was a statement not about my character, but something she’d gathered from the way I worked. She wanted me to know it. “You just don’t like to talk.”

I didn’t know how to tell her I spent most of my time thinking about Dad. I was on the dock from six to three and most of the time I thought about coming home and finding him dead, choked on a piece of bread. I’d been thinking of ways I could put him out of his misery without anyone finding out. The only thing I could think of would be suffocation, since that was what the doctor said would kill him anyway. But there was something about offing Dad with a feather pillow that didn’t sit well with me. Poison was out, so were the obvious shooting and stabbing.

“Hello?” Shelby moved her gloved hand back and forth in front of my face. “You in there?”

“Sure I am,” I said, shaking it off.

“You’re doing it again. What the hell you thinking about?”

“Nothing,” I said. “Just worried we’re gonna get caught back here. And about you smoking.”

“Don’t worry about me. We work damned hard,” she said, stuffing her hands into her flannel jacket. “Those suits can give us a break once in a while.”

She was right. I moved more truck that fall than I would for the rest of my life. I still think of that time as the most honest work I’ve ever done.
Dad had all his front teeth capped years before I was born, and plates replaced his missing back teeth. He hadn’t worn his plates in months, complaining they kept falling out, so he’d chew his food with his front teeth. At dinner they’d be covered in food when he tried to talk.
One night I said, “Did you go out to the ball park today?”

Just as he opened his mouth to answer, an incisor, no bigger than a pinkie nail, tinkled onto the plate.

This was something his doctor warned us would happen; with a loss in body mass, his gums would shrink. “Shit,” he said. “Dentist told me these would only last fifteen years. Seems like it’s been twenty-five, at least.” He picked up the cap and inspected it, then ran his pinky finger along the row of top teeth until he found the rotted hole. “Shit,” he said again.

He wouldn’t leave the house after that and sent me on his errands after I got home from work. He said he was too ashamed to go out in public and smile with a rotted tooth. “Lots of people are missing teeth,” I told him. “Especially older people. I doubt anyone would even notice.”

“I’m not just another person, I’m me dammit. How am I supposed to smile like this?” He grinned and where the cap had fallen out a greenish-black nub of a tooth was exposed.

“Just don’t smile.”

“I swear, son. No wonder you work a shitty job. You probably never smiled a day in your adult life.”

“Let’s not start this up, Dad.”

“I’m not starting anything. You’re the one telling me not to go out.”

“No, you made that decision. I’m just the errand boy.”

“Errand boy. Ha! Every time I send you out you come back with the wrong thing.”

“I won’t buy you cigarettes.”

“It’s my money!”

“The doctor told you to stop—”

“To hell with them, what do they know? A little ash-ma and they think I should stop smoking? I’ve been smoking my whole life. Besides, I don’t inhale.”

Another tall tale, akin to the El Paso Elvis. Dad liked to say he smoked Lucky Strike Non-Filters but the reason he didn’t have cancer was because he only puffed. Sometimes I caught myself wishing he did have cancer just so the doctor could make him wrong about something.

“Dad,” I said, “if you want to buy cigarettes, if you want to buy anything, go do it. I don’t mind, but don’t feel like you have to stay in the house all day.”

“You don’t mind. I’ll decide when to stay in the house. I’m the father, remember. You’re still the child, no matter how old you are.”
“I’m going with my dad to the ballpark this weekend,” I told Shelby. “I’ve got an extra ticket.”

“You asking me out, College?”

The rest of the stock workers were huddled again, laughing and talking loud about the bonus they weren’t going to get again this year.

“It’s the end of the season, you know? Dad has box seats every year. Some of his pals from work will be there. Dad hasn’t been a lot this season. So I thought you’d go.”

She took a long drag from her cigarette. “Sure,” she finally said.

We picked her up that Saturday afternoon and Dad was having a good day. He didn’t smile and tried to hold his lip over his top teeth when he spoke. “You know anything about Elvis, girl?” he asked. So began his stories and Shelby listened all the way to the park.

Some of his pals were in our seats. “You guys never thought you’d see me again, huh?” Dad joked. I didn’t know their names, or if I did I didn’t remember them. They were all Dad’s age—hairless, wrinkled, age spots on their hands and necks. And all four of them had a look on their faces as if to ask me Why the hell did you bring him here?

“Get your butt out of my seat, Harry,” Dad said to one of them. “I want to sit down before they throw out the first pitch. You always did want that seat because it’s the best. Every time I’d use the john you’d be in my seat when I got back.”

“One time,” Harry said. “One time.”

“We thought you’d died,” another of them said, half laughing, half asking when he would die. Shelby and I exchanged glances before we sat down next to Dad.

“No, no, boys. I’m here. Been taking care of my son. You all remember Walter?” I shook their hands, trying not to notice how none of them looked at me while they did it.

Two of the men smiled, forcing it. “Yeah, yeah,” one said. “We’ve all heard about him.”

“You want anything?” I asked Shelby.

“I’ll take a Coke,” Dad said. “And bring the boys here something too, Walter.” He handed me money, as if I were a child.

The men declined, still not looking at me, watching the game as if at any moment it might disappear.

I didn’t make it back until the top of the third inning. Shelby was watching the game much like the men by then and Dad was saying, “Tommy, you still chasing after that little gal who works here. The one with the popcorn?”

“Chasing? You mean you were chasing her, like a damned fool. I’m married, Max. You know that.”

“Oh, now, Tommy. We all know you’re not the most faithful man.”

“Dad,” I whispered, handing him the Coke.

“Thank you son.” He took a long swallow and for the next two innings remained quiet. Shelby didn’t talk either. Then out of the blue Dad said, “Your boy still working the plant, Harry? Did his wife get smart and leave him?”

“He’s doing fine,” Harry said.

“I ever tell you guys about the time I worked at the plant with Johnny Cash?”

Shelby sat up, smiling for the first time since we’d arrived. “The Johnny Cash?”

The four men looked at her as if they’d not noticed she had been there before. “Oh god,” one of them said. “He’s got a new audience.”

“What is it this time, Max? You write I Walk the Line and he took all the credit?”

“Or did you get him and that wife of his back together?”

“No, this time he’s gonna tell us how he taught him to play the guitar. Right, Max. Which is it?”

My ears burned. The smile fell from Shelby’s face and she was scowling at them. The ballpark seemed filled with silence. The pitcher finished off the inning, striking out the final batter. Then Dad said, “Well boys, I guess these seats will be yours.”

He got up and Shelby and I followed. We didn’t talk on the way to Shelby’s house except when Dad said, “I did know Johnny Cash. I did. I remember knowing him. It was Cash, wasn’t it, Walter?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know Dad.” Shelby looked out the window.
There were times growing up I thought the world was a perfect place. Like the summer when I was ten and everyday it was almost one hundred degrees in the shade. Dad would turn on the sprinklers—even in the drought—and I’d lay in the grass letting the water tickle my stomach. I’d close my eyes and breathe in deep the smell of grass and dust, and almost feel the earth turning beneath me. It was a time when the house seemed to be normal and we weren’t fighting. I tried to remember that quiet stillness in those last few months with Dad.

When two more caps fell out he finally made the decision to see a dentist. On the night before his first consultation, Dad stormed out of his room throwing a dozen videocassettes on the floor in the living room. “I want to know where the rest of my videos are!” he yelled. “Goddamned if I haven’t given you everything and now you’re stealing from me!”

“What the hell is wrong with you, Dad?” Most of the video sleeves were empty. “Where’d you put the movies?”

“Don’t play innocent with me,” he said. “You know damned well where my movies are. You’re the one stealing them.”

“Why would I steal your movies?”

“I don’t know. You’re just greedy. Haven’t I always given you whatever you wanted?”

I wanted to say At the cost of constantly reminding me about it but held my tongue. I fought back the urge to push him down, to hurt him in a way that could be blamed on an accident, but that might actually make him die. I squeezed my thoughts closed and managed to say, “Dad, when did you last see these movies?”

“I don’t ever watch them. You’re the one who watches them.”

I got up from the couch and walked down the hall. Inside his room the air was thick with smoke. His television blared and when I tried to turn it down, the channel changed. “Need to get those buttons fixed,” I said.

He stood in the door. “It’s fine when I use it. Just what in hell do you think you’re doing in here?”

“Looking for those videos.”

“They’re probably with the dancing wolves one I’ve been looking for.”

“I told you I don’t have that movie. I went through the boxes in the garage and it wasn’t there.”

“Just like you didn’t take Young Guns.”

It was just like him to have a moment of lucidity when it came to remembering something I’d gotten wrong. “Okay, I had Young Guns,” I said. “But I checked my room. I don’t have Dances with Wolves.”

Instantly, he was completely calm. “Is that the name of it?”

“Jesus, Dad!” I choked back my anger again then flung open the drawers to his video closet and rummaged in the very back of each row. It wasn’t until I got to the last drawer, where he hid a dozen Reeses peanut Butter Cups and two cartons of Lucky Strikes, that I found the videos. I tugged them out and threw them on the bed. “There! Now the next time you want to accuse me of stealing something you better damn well be sure you know you haven’t hidden them somewhere.”

“I didn’t put those there.”

“No, Dad, of course you didn’t. The movie elf did.”

“Don’t be an ass.” He picked up the movies and returned them to their cases. I stood in the door and watched where he put them—into a cardboard box in the corner of his closet. When he was done he said, “That wolves movie wasn’t in there.”
He was becoming so much like a child. He was every kid in the first and second grade who lost their teeth and got a complex about it. But instead of putting his caps under the pillow for the Tooth Fairy, he hoarded them after the dentist pulled them all and stored them in a jar atop his bedside table. He put the plates in too, insisting, “I’m gonna melt down all that plat-knee-um and make a money clip or something.”

“Platinum, Dad.”

“Maybe a nice plat-knee-um ring.”

“And who would you give it to?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Some pretty young gal I find down at the ballpark. There was one there who always flirted with me. I think I have her number somewhere. When I get me my teeth I’m gonna call her.”

His favorite pastimes became grinding food in the processor and belittling the East-Indian dentist responsible for pulling his teeth.

I fantasized about Dad’s funeral even more. I pictured a small casket, the size of a baby’s, and a tiny headstone. I saw myself like a tree, standing next to the grave. It was always raining at that funeral and there were only a handful of people there. Water would run into the hole and people would shift their weight under the muddying ground. Everyone wore galoshes. The preacher would be the only one standing under the awning, everyone else would have umbrellas. Except me. I’d stand in the rain. I wouldn’t cry. I’d be the pillar. The pillar that fell on him in the middle of the night and choked him to death. I’d gotten it over and done with.

But once all his teeth were out he calmed down. We didn’t fight as much. I didn’t mind going to the store for him every night. He ate pudding and soup, softened crackers in milk and boiled chicken until it was mush. The dentist told him it would be a month before all the swelling went down in his gums. Then he could be fitted for a full set of dentures. Dad took antibiotics to ward off a mouth infection and I think they helped with his lungs. He was lucid most of the time and remembered who he talked with on the phone and when they called. He even cut back to half a pack of Luckies a day and got used to wheeling around an oxygen tank. Then one morning he came into the kitchen and started to fry himself some eggs and bacon.

“You sure you can eat that, Dad?”

“I’m hungry dammit. I haven’t eaten anything in days. Damned doctor, what does he know? He damned well better give me my teeth this week or I’ll sue him.”

“It’s only been two weeks. You have to wait a month. He told you that.”

“I’m starving, can’t you see that? I’m wasting away. Look at me.”

He’d been skin and bones for years. It’s why I first thought he might be sick, why I thought it was cancer, why I took him to the doctor for a check-up in the first place. The only thing about him that was large, that looked normal for a man his age, were his broad shoulders. And what made his shoulders so broad were his lungs expanded inside his ribcage, pushing out in front and back. They were filled with brackish goo.

“Let me get you some applesauce,” I said.

“A man can’t live on applesauce, son. I need some real food, dammit. I’m starving. I could eat a whole cow if that doctor’d give me the teeth to do it with.”

“We’ve got the check-up today at three. We’ll see what he can do.”

“Damned foreign doctors. I should’ve known better.” He cracked three more eggs into a bowl and started to stir them. He took out another pan and began to scramble the eggs. “Now get out your plate and eat these eggs.”

“I already had cereal.”

“Then what did you fry these eggs for?”

“You fried the eggs.”

“I did?” he asked, staring at the two pans popping on the stove. The bacon was reduced to four black strips.

At that moment, and for the first time, I was afraid he’d hurt himself—that while he rummaged through boxes and movies in his room he’d set himself on fire with a cigarette he’d left burning. Or that he’d forget to turn on the cold water with the hot before taking a shower and be covered with third degree burns.

I wondered what he thought about all those hours he spent smoking at home while I went to the dock. I wondered if he fought everyday not just to breathe but to remember what he’d done the hour before, the morning before, the day before. But I didn’t ask him. Instead I plated the eggs, threw out the bacon, and sat down to breakfast for the second time.

I watched Dad eat his eggs, pulsing his gums to grind the little bits even finer. He didn’t say anything, concentrated on putting the eggs into his mouth without poking his gums with his fork. He lit a cigarette halfway through the meal and let it burn in the ashtray. I wanted to ask him if he was worried about anything, if there was anything I could do for him while I was out that day, but I didn’t.
It took me a long time to apologize to Shelby about the ballpark. I took my breaks without the rest of the stockroom, retreating to the JCPenny break room, surrounded by suited and skirted salespeople. I imagined what they saw when they looked at me—a dirty stock guy covered in cardboard debris and dust. Someone hired right off the street to do nothing more than get their product on the floor for them. No one spoke to me. No one even asked my name; they already knew me.

The holidays came and went. Dad and I didn’t put up a tree because he was convinced I’d hidden the Christmas decorations. The only thing Dad wanted for Christmas was teeth. The dentist still told him his gums were too swollen for plates and even I was beginning to disbelieve him. I made a small dinner on Christmas day. The next morning I went to work. Hanging on my locker was a stocking with the word “College” stitched across it. Inside were pens and a leather bound notebook. The card from Shelby read Maybe you could write down some of your Dad’s stories for me. Still, it took until the new year before I apologized and thanked her for the gift. By then I’d gotten my walking papers.
Shelby was outside with the others. “You worked yourself out of a job,” she said.

“It looks that way, yeah.”

She snorted. “You know, College, I never met someone like you before. Most people want to talk your ear off back here. It’s so noisy.” She puffed her cigarette. “I didn’t get it. But I think I do now. You’ve got a lot on your mind.”

I thought I could trust her with the truth, that I could maybe even ask for her help with how to kill dad. “I’ve been wanting to tell you—” I began, but she cut me off.

“You think about your dad a lot,” she said with finality. She cupped her hand to her mouth and turned to the others. “It’s College’s last day. Should we get him something?”

“How about a carton of cigarettes?” another woman laughed.

“Yeah, that oughtta do it,” Shelby said. “What do you think, College?”

I shrugged.

“You sure do have a lot to think about,” she said again. Then she put her hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “You’re a good kid, College.”

That afternoon my mind wandered again to Dad’s funeral. I thought I’d come home and find him in his room, propped up on a stack of pillows, the television turned off. The windows would be closed, the blinds drawn, and the smoke in the room would be like molasses cotton candy. I’d wave some of it aside and make my way to the bedside. At first I’d think he was asleep, taking a nap before his dentist appointment. But then I’d smell him and see how blue his face was, how his eyes bulged, the vomit and drool running from his mouth. He’d choked. Exactly what the doctors told me would happen.

He’d have soiled himself somewhere along the way and the room would stink of piss and shit. I’d open the window but leave the blinds closed, afraid of looking at him in the half-afternoon sunlight. I’d go into the living room and dial Dad’s doctor. I’d go back into his room to wait for the paramedics. The smell will have dissipated. I won’t want to move him but I won’t want them to see how dirty he is so I’ll take a blanket from his closet and cover him with it.
Then I’d open the cardboard box in the corner of the room. Inside would be all the movies Dad claimed he’d lost. One of them would be Dances with Wolves. I’d feel like hitting myself in the face with the black case, or throwing it at the bed, to show Dad he was wrong. Then I’d remember he’s dead.
I don’t remember much about the real funeral at all. I don’t remember how I found him dead in the bathroom the same afternoon I lost my job. I remember opening the door after he didn’t answer me. The house was filled with smoke and I thought he’d left a cigarette burning and it’d caught on his mattress or a blanket or something and he was embarrassed about it. The fire department told me later it was the oxygen tank that exploded.

The crowd wasn’t large, but most of the people from the ballpark were there when we interred Dad’s body. There was no headstone yet.

I can’t help thinking all these years later that Dad wanted to die. He chose that day to do it. He made his bed, put on a coat and tie, put in his old back plates so he’d have some teeth in his head, wheeled his oxygen into the bathroom and lit up a cigarette. End of story. He’d figured out a way for it to look like an accident. He knew if he flubbed things up and the explosion didn’t kill him he’d have time to get a story all figured out. He’d say, “That damned tank shouldn’t be so flammable. Like I’d stop smoking from a little ash-ma.”

“Asthma, Dad.”

“Damned doctors, what’d they know.” He’d spend the rest of the night in his bedroom, the reserve oxygen tank next to the window and an extra long tube running across the floor, to the bed, and ending at his nose. Over the next few days, he’d be careful not to have an open flame anywhere near the tank and if I tried to cook while he was in the kitchen he’d say, “Caint you wait until I’m outta here? You wanna set me on fire?”

Then I’d picture him blowing himself up. How I’d come home one day and the house would smell like an electrical fire. I’d yell from the front door and race around the house looking for him. The doorknob to the bathroom would be cool, but when I’d open it the smoke would leap out and he’d be lying between the toilet and the tub, pants still up, a pack of Luckies next to the bar of soap on the counter. The towels would be ash, the bathmat gone, pieces of metal from the tank lodged in the walls and floor. The mirror would be black and broken, the shower curtain a plastic mass melted around the tub basin. Dad’s face would be pink and black, his feet melted to his shoes. I’d pick up the phone and, without dialing a number, scream and scream, for help.


Blogger Jean Louis said...


I remembered this one because of the videos. Was this a workshop piece, way back in the day?

In the end, I'm, as always, a fan of your prose style, but there's something lacking here I can't quite put my finger on. Let me deal with some specifics, and maybe by the end I'll have a clue.

1. First paragraph - no hypen in "set-up."

2. Second paragraph - take out "them."

3. "You don't think your shit don't stink." Why do we need the explanation of this that follows? I understand it's a surprising thing to say, not what one would expect. Maybe you could give us the explanation through some visual, i.e. a cocked head, a look of puzzlement on Shelby's face re: Walter.

4. I can't help wondering, what else WOULD this narrator think about? Why does he read books, for instance, or why would he take "Young Guns"?

5. Shelby at the ballgame seems to only give Walter one more reason to dislike his father. Surely the entire game wasn't ruined for them; surely something good (or at least un-father-related came out of the date).

6. The moment where Walter first admits fear of his father hurting himself--when he burns the bacon--should be BIG, but we almost read right over it. It's because the narrator tells us, instead of showing us. Have him REACT to the burned bacon, DEMONSTRATE his fear, betray it to the reader.

7. The ending paragraph. Why not something more surreal, like that opening funeral sequence with the wolf, the Jimmy Buffet, the Mai Tais? I don't understand why we have to end on this graphic, violent image. It doesn't seem to me that kind of a story. Yes, it obsesses over the father's death, but mostly in fanciful ways, seems to me. There's nothing fanciful at all. Maybe that's the point, but it doesn't seem appropriate. I don't know. Like, what if the father's shooting through the air like a rocket or something (that's terrible). Some image to emphasize the final sentiments: loss, regret, horror even, without giving in to the grossout.

Overall, I think the problem for me is one of structure and repetition. I don't really know why Walter dislikes the father, but I'm told repeatedly how much he dislikes him. I get that they both invent tall tales, one about the past, the other about the tall-tale teller's death. Like father like son, which is cool. It's just that Walter's seems limited as a character because he repeats himself regarding his father so much. I think his attentions toward Shelby might merit a little more focus, less focus on dad. As for structure, that's part of what I'm getting at. You've got this neat organizing device of the fanciful funerals. You might, if you're willing, take it in a whole new, absurdist direction, Fellini meets Joy...but maybe not. Still, this has the potential--even wants, I think--to be a much lighter story than it really is. Walter's such an angsty, broody guy. Shelby, I sense, has the potential to draw him out of that and give us another aspect of his character.

Rambling now. Will stop.


4:27 PM  
Blogger The Damned said...

yeah, this was a piece from the coffee-house days, revised to play up walter's (father-like) tendancies to daydream

i'm not sure i understand what you're getting at though about making it more playful...i wasn't trying to make the father out to be a bastard, to make the audience sympathize with walter...i was trying to point out their abilities to "hid things" from themselves (the videos/failing health on the dad's side; the fact that his father is dying on walter's side)...in a sense, i guess i was just writing about denial on different levels

i think you're right about playing up walter's concern with his father when he finally realizes he is going to die (the bacon scene)

i realize this story is failing...it's rigid structure is part of that failure...it's one i've been having great trouble with...still, i don't know how to make it more playful...anything, even if it's off the wall, i'm open to discuss...in the end though i want to keep this story dark, dismal, exposing ultimately walter's inability to control the situation even though that's what he really wants

8:54 AM  
Blogger The Damned said...

okay...i just read my post back to myself and i sound really defensive...i'm not trying to be...i just honestly don't understand

9:36 AM  
Blogger The Damned said...


Wanting to kill the father is not believable until we get the first real scene about Dances With Wolves. Then he really seems like a bastard.

“He Never Met Elvis,” is pretty funny

Awkward, change: “Brackish goo.” Goo doesn’t seem right here, not bad enough.

Begin the paragraph, “He’d have soiled himself,” in future “He’ll have soiled himself.”

How can a narrator tell us what they don’t remember?

The last sentence is great because it’s exactly what the Dad is doing, without realizing it. He’s getting everything wrong, in the panic over knowing he’s old and dying, but he can’t stop screaming for help even though he’s doing it in the wrong way (by hiding stuff and complaining about it being stolen; by blaming Walter for his own mistakes). And it’s also great because this is the moment when Walter realizes that, although now it’s too late. I wonder if the father shouldn’t die yet, or if he should at all—if we should never see his actual death and burial. I don’t want him to die, I want to see Walter reach the moment he reaches at the end, when he imagines how he will react when faced with his Dad’s death, and he realizes his reaction will be somewhat similar to the way his Dad reacted to his own impending death.


1:11 PM  
Blogger The Damned said...

And the only way to control the situation is to realize neither of them are in control. That's what they're both denying, refusing to admit. And, again, I think that's why the ending works, because it's the moment Walter realizes that when his father actually does die, he's going to be just as helpless as his father is now, and the reaction--backed by real and honest emotion--will be nevertheless incongruent with what the situation calls for (screaming into the phone without dialing first).

1:15 PM  
Blogger The Damned said...

so do you guys think it would be helpful to put the scene with the videos first, before we get walter saying "the first time i fantasized..."? would this established the dad's bastardliness?

10:38 AM  
Blogger The Damned said...

You could definitely move that scene to the front. I think that is part of the problem, that there's no setup (aside from general Freudian patricide) for Walter to feel as he does until after the lunacy.


9:44 AM  
Blogger The Damned said...

blog gods:
okay guys, i've got some specific questions i need feedback on:
1: if i move the scene with the movies to the beginning, will this be ENOUGH to make the dad seem like a dick right from the start, but a pathetic dick?
2: should the relationship between walter and shelby be more romantic/intimate? i didn't really see them this way, i saw her as more of a big sis/mother figure for him
3: is the scene at the ballpark contributing anything to the way we see the father and walter's frustration toward him?
4: is there anything you thought should be in this story that wasn't here--in other words, did i set you up for a scene/event and then not deliver it?
5: i would like to put a bit more humor in here...i think andy is right about it needing to be a bit more light, but i still want the dark, helpless ending

thanks you guys...maybe this will help me hate this story less

8:21 AM  
Blogger Jean Louis said...

Well, in answer to your questions, maybe I'm off on my initial criticism about playfulness. Maybe the tone is fine.

But in regards to the other questions, Walter and Shelby does need to be a more intimate pairing, if not necessarily a more romantic one. I think the scene at the ballpark is about them (because it is, essentially, their first outing together), not about Walter and the father--at least, it's more about how Walter's father taints everything for him, including his relationship to a girl.

If you want Shelby to be a sister/mother figure, then having them be intimate would certainly complicate the parental issues at the heart of the story.

1:31 PM  

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