Archive for the Work in Progress Category

Chapter 7

Posted in Work in Progress on June 28, 2014 by timtrue

Chapter 7

Dad learned to play the carillon in Sewanee. I didn’t know what a carillon was until living there; maybe you don’t either. It’s a collection of bells in a bell tower, controlled mechanically by a series of rods and cables. On one end of these rods and cables is a clapper, a metal ball that strikes a bell. On the other end is a large wooden lever which the carillonneur (the person who plays the instrument) strikes in order to produce a sound from the bell. But what makes a carillon distinct from a mere bell is that there are many bells together, tuned to the western chromatic scale; and there is a console with many, many levers—in Sewanee’s case, forty-eight—to correspond to each bell, set up to look something like a cumbersome keyboard.

Dad took me up into Sewanee’s bell tower many times—which is really a part of the larger structure of All Saints’ Chapel. Near the top is the cabin where the carillonneur plays, something like a hundred twenty-six steps up. A parapet gives the best view anywhere on the Cumberland Plateau. One of the coolest things about it, at least for me, is that the chapel was built according to the purest Anglican tradition, meaning that the so-called east wall actually faces directly east; and so from the parapet of the bell tower you know exactly which direction you’re facing without the help of a compass.

But Dad couldn’t practice in the bell tower—not without everybody on the domain hearing him anyway. For this he’d go instead into the carillon studio, a room at the back corner of the building where all the printing jobs were done on campus. In this room stood a full-size console, just like the one in the bell tower except that it struck metal chimes, like those of a xylophone, instead of bells. “Great practice tool,” Dad would say, “except the action isn’t quite the same. But I can work around that.”

Anyway, he’d practice at night, after he’d closed his books for the day and finished up with whatever chores needing doing around the house. This usually meant he’d leave about nine o’clock and be home by eleven, walking the half-mile to and from the studio, home in time to catch the seven or so hours of sleep he desired.

That’s probably why he didn’t mind so much when I went to Elena’s house for a sleepover rather than the other way around, rather than if she were to come to our house. Dad felt like he had to stick around whenever a friend was visiting, like he was a self-appointed entertainment committee or something. But whenever I spent the night away, well, that meant more free time for him to do things like practice the carillon; or, later, especially during our third year, to tinker on a motorcycle project or pursue a paranormal rumor.

You might wonder why he didn’t spend much time with Mom on these Sewanee nights. I don’t mean to convey that they didn’t get along. They actually got along quite well. And they did lots of stuff together on the weekends. But Dad’s an active person. He always seems to have a surplus of energy no matter the situation. So when he’d arrive home at the end of his work day, a day spent sitting and studying or listening to lectures, the last thing he wanted to do was sit around some more. Add to this that he has no need or desire for television. So a typical night for him in our Sewanee years included dinner with me and Mom, cleanup, helping me with homework, taking a mile or so walk with Mom and the dog—I always stayed home to give them some uninterrupted time with each other—Mom and Dad I mean, not the dog—followed by one of those activities mentioned at the end of the last paragraph while Mom watched some TV.

One typical Wednesday night in the spring of our first year, after Dad had gone off to practice the carillon, I asked Mom, “Can I spend the night at Elena’s on Friday?” Wednesday, I’d learned, was just about the right day to ask about a sleepover. Sunday or Monday was too early; Thursday or, worse because it was the day of, Friday too late.

“Um, isn’t there something on the calendar?” she asked.

I was ready. “Yeah,” I answered; “you and Dad have some kind of dinner.”

“Oh, yeah, that’s right. Well, I guess so then. You wouldn’t have to go to childcare this way. Let me call Elena’s mom tonight.”

“You don’t have to, Mom. I already asked and they’re good. You know I don’t like childcare anyway.”

Okay, then,” she answered; “it’s okay with me if it is with your father.” Which was enough to say yes.

Truth is I liked going to Elena’s more than inviting her over anyway. I knew that Dad would become too involved if she were to come over. But there was this too: her parents were very hands-off, meaning we could stay out late doing our own thing and sneak out even later if we liked without too much fear of being found out. Besides, I was an only child—boring!—and Elena had three older sisters and a little brother. Her house was always a hub of exciting activity.

A favorite Friday night activity is taking in a movie at the Sewanee Union Theater, affectionately called “the sut” by students, faculty, and residents of the domain. Movies shown are often between theater showings and DVD release, meaning they’re relatively new. But admission is only $3 with $1 popcorn and snacks—just perfect for seminary families on a tight budget. The theater itself sits right in the middle of campus, across University Ave. from All Saints’ Chapel. This was Elena’s and my plan, to walk to the sut and catch whatever was showing that night at 7pm.

And so Friday came.

“What’s the movie?” I asked as we walked home to Elena’s house from school.

“Something called Sunshine from a Spotless Brain I think,” she answered, “or something like that anyway. Jim Carrey’s in it; should be funny.”

“Yeah, I think I know the one you’re talking about. Mom and Dad saw it a while ago, I think. But isn’t it rated R?”

“Oh, don’t worry about that. My friends always let me in.”

And so it proved true. It was called Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, actually; and it was in fact rated R, the first rated R movie I ever saw; and Elena’s friends, a local Sewanee family, ran the theater and let her and me in, no questions about our age. And it was kind of weird, about a boyfriend and girlfriend who wanted to forget about each other after they broke up so they went through some sort of medical procedure that actually gave them slight brain damage in order to forget about each other. I don’t want to give too much away, so I won’t tell you how it ends. But it left me feeling weird. That’s the best I can describe it.

That, and I knew Mom would never have approved. I never did tell her, incidentally.

“Do you want to see college students make out?” Elena asked me after we’d left the theater and were sitting on a rock wall just outside the sut trying to decide what to do next.

“Um,” I hesitated, “aren’t we going back to your house now?”

“C’mon,” she persuaded, “it’ll be fun. It’s barely out of the way; it’ll only take a few minutes. Our parents will never know.”

“Is it near a frat house?” I asked.

If there’s one thing Mom seemed nervous about in Sewanee, it was the frat parties on Friday nights. “Don’t ever go near them,” she’d insist. “Promise me! You never know what drunk college kids will do.”

“No,” Elena answered. “That’s not a bad idea. But I was thinking of another place. C’mon! Let’s go!”

Elena took me across University Ave. towards All Saints’ Chapel but veered left across the quad to what looked like a tower you’d see at the corner of a castle. Lots of buildings in Sewanee looked like that, so it wasn’t anything surprising, not yet anyway. But then she led me inside this tower where I saw a spiral staircase leading upward. Of course I remembered Dad’s story of his boyhood home and Polyphemus’s lair.

“Ssh!” Elena turned and warned as we began to ascend the steps. “Don’t make any noise,” she whispered. “We’ll probably see some couples at the top.”

She was right, by the way. I spotted at least three couples “making out,” as she called it, when we exited the door at the top of the tower. I say “at least” because it was very dark, and it looked to me like a fourth couple was farther down the parapet but I wasn’t sure and I didn’t want to stare too hard too long. In fact what I could see for sure of the three couples was rather embarrassing. They were really into each other, like literally, face into face. I don’t think they would have noticed Elena and me if we had been laughing and talking loudly all the way up those stairs instead of acting all stealthy.

Seeing this live display of passion brought that same weird feeling from the movie back in a fresh way. Naturally then, feeling weird and embarrassed, I quickly turned my head. When I did, I saw something that instantly cleared my head of these and all other thoughts; and now I was glad we’d been stealthy.

For there, below, some fifty feet away in the light of a streetlamp, walking deliberately and with a pained look on her profiled face—maybe even crying, I couldn’t be sure—was my mom.

“Elena,” I nudged and pointed, whispering, “look!”

She did. Then she turned to me with a look somewhere between sympathy and sadness. And without another word we took leave of the college lovers and descended the stairs quietly to follow in the shadows.

<We follow her to the building where Dad practices the carillon, but the lights are off.

<Mom breaks out in sobs.>

Book Idea: Chapter 6

Posted in Work in Progress with tags , on May 15, 2014 by timtrue

Danny, that imagined tough boy who quailed at the sleepover with Dad and Uncle Artie, the one who’d said “seven foot man!” and cried inconsolably until his dad came and got him, well, his spook sightings didn’t end there.  Even though he never tried a sleepover again, Danny’s friendship with Dad and Uncle Artie continued.  He continued to come over to Dad’s, especially on lazy summer days, to play.  But he preferred to stay outside.

Dad had set aside most of the memory of Danny’s anti-sleepover, as he calls it.  You know, he was willing to let bygones be bygones.  Dad’s cool like that.  You mess up, reveal your worst to him.  But no matter.  Your secret’s safe.  He doesn’t tell anyone about it, no matter how unusual, embarrassing, or funny—or all three—it is.

So one afternoon in late summer Danny was over, along with some other neighborhood boys, playing a favorite neighborhood game, Ditch-’em.  It was a variation on Hide-and-seek.  Except once the “It” found someone, that someone would then join the hunter to find the hunted, and so on until everyone was discovered.  Boundaries were the property lines—staying outside of all buildings, of course—a generous few acres of mostly avocado trees.

It was here, then, in this setting, when Dad began to make room in his mind for the possibility of the paranormal.  For it was here that Danny revisited his earlier scare.

“Danny, you can come down,” Dad shouted; “I see you.”

The way he tells it, Dad was “It” and was going through the usual rounds in his usual methodical way: starting at the top of the property and moving his way, one row of avocado trees at a time, towards the bottom.  Dad was savvy at this game and knew the best hiding spots.  He had the home team advantage.  And there, near the top of one of the best of the climbing trees on the whole property, Danny sat still as a bird.  He was looking away, up the hillside north of the property line.  And he made no response to Dad’s call, visibly or audibly.

“Come on down, Danny,” Dad said again, louder this time.  “I see you at the top of the tree.”

Still Danny said nothing.  But quietly and quickly he moved his right hand, first in an open-palmed position toward Dad, as if to say halt; then, more slowly, he raised an index finger above his other cupped fingers, as if to shush Dad or to say wait a minute.

Dad humored him.  Another of Dad’s traits is patience, or stubbornness, depending on how you look at it.  He’ll outlast anyone when he wants to.  Besides, this was where all the action was at the moment.  The other boys—the hunted ones—could wait in their respective hiding spots all afternoon for all Dad cared.

Anyway, after a few minutes of this patient stubbornness Danny began to inch his way down.  Another minute or so Dad said, in a conversational volume, “Bird watching?”

“Ssh!” Danny whispered loudly, if that makes sense.  “I saw him again.  And I don’t want him to hear us.”

“Okay,” Dad whispered back, “I’ll play along.  Who’d you see?”

“The seven-foot-man!”

Apparently, according to Danny, the seven-foot-man was bearded, very dirty, greasy-haired like he hadn’t bathed in weeks, wore an olive-drab jacket, and was hungry.  He’d been eating a squirrel, Danny said.

“How come I don’t smell him?” Dad asked.

“You don’t believe me, do you!  You want to see?”

“What, the seven-foot-man?  Yeah!”

“No, not him.  He left.  That’s why I came down.  I figured it was safe.  But the squirrel.  You want to see the squirrel he was eating?”

“Uh, sure,” Dad said, “I guess.”

And so Danny led Dad up the hillside a little way until he thought they were at about the correct spot.  After looking around for a bit, here and there, sure enough they found a fresh squirrel carcass.  And, though Dad said nothing about it, he did actually notice a faint smell to fit Danny’s description–aside from the matted carcass and fresh blood of the squirrel.  Something like rancid milk; something that he’d actually smelled before, distantly, under the spiral staircase.

“See?” Danny said, still whispering.  “What’d I say?”

“Okay,” Dad said, not caring to whisper now.  “But how do you know it wasn’t a—”

Dad was going to say dog.  “But how do you know it wasn’t a dog?”  But before he could get the word out two significant things happened in quick succession: a cause and an effect.  The cause was a rotten avocado hitting Dad squarely in the back—pffft-splat!  And the effect was Danny pointing in the direction he’d been looking earlier, screaming seven-foot-man, and sprinting away, back down the hill towards Dad’s property.

Dad followed , sprinting too, temporarily ignoring the pain in his back, now genuinely frightened, at least a little.  He was skeptical about Danny’s story.  But Danny’s behavior was rather convincing.  And that smell!  Still, the avocado had come from the other direction, the very direction, in fact, into which they now ran.

Up till now Dad thought that perhaps Danny had been making it all up, that the crying and sobbing of the anti-sleepover had actually been some kind of act—albeit a darn good one—to cover up something else; that Danny actually wanted to go home because he merely missed his mommy or something, and feigning fright was worth it, was somehow better in his mind than admitting he was a mama’s boy.  That’s what Dad had come to conclude in his mind since the anti-sleepover.  But now!  No, this wasn’t mama-boy material.  This was something more, something to take more seriously.

On the other hand, there’s something about being outside in the daylight.  Back on the night of the anti-sleepover the boys had been down in a creepy, dark basement, near the mouth of a cave-like undercroft.  (Could this possibly be the lair of the seven-foot-man?)  But today they were outside, in the broad daylight, playing in the avocado orchard, a place that felt more like their turf and therefore somehow less threatening, less fearsome.  Danny and Dad slowed to a walk and then stopped to catch their breath.

They were back at the north end of Dad’s property, at the foot of the same climbing tree in which Dad had first spotted Danny.  But now sounds of puerile laughter erupted all around them.  They were the apparent butt of a joke.

“Nailed!” Artie declared, jumping out from a thicket.  “Man, you shoulda seen your face—” which makes no sense, since Artie had pegged Dad in the back, meaning there’s no way he could have seen his face “—grimacing all like a guppy.”

Two neighborhood boys, Mitch and Jeff, followed Artie out of the thicket laughing loudly and obnoxiously as only middle school boys can do.  Instead of calling them all a bunch of a–holes, as would have been perfectly understandable, Dad decided to laugh it off.  Not before noticing the anxiety still on Danny’s face though.

Some five minutes later, now on the south half of the property with the memory of the seven-foot-man growing distant in direct proportion, and still looking for a boy named Curt, Dad hatched a plan to smooth things over with Danny.

“Artie,” he called, “you, Mitch, and Jeff scope out the east half; Danny and I will take the west.”

Sounding good, they split up.  Then, as Danny went on a little ahead, Dad grabbed an avocado and lobbed it to the right where it hit the ground unseen but not unheard.  Predictably, Danny turned his head in the direction of the sound.

“What was that?” he asked, turning his head quickly but trying to appear composed, as Dad tells it.

“Seven-foot-man!” Dad said tenuously, smiling.

Danny glared at Dad briefly.  But apparently Dad’s smile disarmed Danny; for his glare suddenly softened into a smile.

Then, with Danny looking on, Dad picked up a soft, rotting, graying, stinking, overly ripe avocado; and beckoned Danny to follow.  Quietly they sneaked toward the others.  Danny caught on by now and selected a missile of his own, similarly ripe for duty.  Soon enough they had the other three boys in their sights.  And, wouldn’t you know it, serendipitously Curt stealthed up from behind, having surmised from his hiding spot what was about to take place.  He too had a soft avocado in hand.  So,

“On the count of three,” Dad mouthed, “1-2-3 . . .”

The screams of pain must have been quite gratifying for Dad–I can only imagine.  They certainly seem to have been in his retellings.  But my point is that when Artie, Mitch, and Jeff faced their three assailants, they found two of them pointing in a different direction with scared looks on their faces and shouting, “Seven-foot-man!” entirely unsympathetic to their cries of foul.

And so in time it became a part of their boyhood routine.  Any time they’d hear a strange noise or see something out of the ordinary or find something out of place someone would shout out, “Seven-foot-man!”  Once Dad even shouted it after a bird pooped on Curt at school.  That made everyone laugh.  Even Curt.  Even Danny.

Even so, Dad knew he’d deflected.  He’d turned the fright of his friend into something of a playful joke, a game for the neighborhood kids to play, an addition to Ditch-’em, a variation to a variation of Hide-and-seek.  But he suspected now, and deep down he knew it just had to be true, that something—whether material, phantom, shadow, or spirit—something in fact did live under his creaky spiral staircase.

Book Idea: Chapter 5

Posted in Work in Progress with tags , on May 15, 2014 by timtrue

Sewanee turned out to be all that Dad had promised, and more.

We moved there so that he could attend seminary, to become a master of divinity after three years of full-time study.  It was a thousand miles away from south Texas, where I’d spent my entire life, in a Hill Country town called Fredericksburg.  And it was a different world.

Taking coursework online was not an option.  “There are some seminaries that do it,” I overheard Dad tell Mom one night after I’d left the dinner table, “but the bishop doesn’t send anyone to those schools.  Not yet at least.”

Mom hadn’t liked the idea of relocating, I could tell.  But I also knew that Dad had wanted to go to seminary since his college days, since before Mom and Dad had even met.  I know because he reminded her of this often.  And apparently he’d had the foresight to bring this desire up before they ever got married.  So now Mom really couldn’t get out of it.

She’d always wanted stability above all.  But Dad was determined to go, to disrupt the equilibrium they’d established together over the past fifteen years, as she put it.  Divorce was an option, I suppose, and perhaps if she’d been able to foresee the future she would’ve chosen it.  But I guess she figured that keeping a family together was a better option than staying rooted to a place.  That, and she had no way to see what actually was coming.  Thankfully.

Whenever I thought about it, the unraveling of the braid of friendship with Haley and Veronica made me sad.  At first anyway.  Dad seemed more sensitive to this than Mom.  He assured me we’d make an effort to see them whenever we returned to Texas, at least once a year for the next three years.  In the in-between times, he said, he’d let me use e-mail to write them pen-pal messages and call them on the phone.

Dad was certainly in his element.  He really is an academic at heart.  No doubt he’d longed to get back to such a setting since his college days.  To sit in class a few hours a day, to study and research, to work at his own pace without the stress of supervising employees or teaching students, to stay up late at night discussing the intricacies of historical theology—these things pleased Dad profoundly.

On top of this, Sewanee’s School of Theology was a small part, a graduate program, of a larger university.  For him that meant resources.  He is a true lifelong learner, reveling in all that a liberal arts college has to offer—plays, concerts, chapel services, even a carillon which he soon learned to play.  Not to mention, Sewanee is a huge parcel of land, more than ten thousand acres if my memory serves.  The university buildings and campus-owned housing—the entire village, in other words—takes up maybe a thousand of those acres, meaning there’s a vast amount of naturalness left over.  One Saturday in September in fact, the one just at the beginning of Dad’s third year, he and I hiked the so-called Perimeter Trail, a twenty-something mile footpath that takes you around the parcel’s perimeter—and thus the name—in a single day.  The beauty is some of the best anywhere, with a thick forest canopy eighty feet high and breathtaking views all along the way; the whole place sits atop the Cumberland Plateau, some eight hundred feet in elevation above the plain below.  Thick fog is common; Sewanee sits in the clouds.  Anyway, we left at sunrise and finished up at just before five o’clock with an hour lunch stop along the way at Shenanigans, a local favorite restaurant.  Mom met us there with some friends.

Dad bought an awesome bicycle just before we moved there, a Cannondale with twenty-nine inch wheels and only one arm on the forks, called a “Leftie” by those who care.  “It’s transportation,” he argued.  “I’m thinking we can get by with just one car for our three-year sabbatical.”

In this he was right—that we could get by with one car, I mean; not about it being a sabbatical.  He proved a man of his word too: he rode his bike to class pretty much every day, rain, snow, or shine—until he bought the motorcycle anyway, which I’ll discuss in due time.  We lived a little more than a mile away, so it took him only five minutes or so.  He often rode home and back for lunch too, for exercise, he said.

My school, Sewanee Elementary School, or SES as we all soon always called it, was only a stone’s throw from the seminary.  So, “Guess what, Amelia,” Dad announced one day as he entered the front door a week or so after the first school year had begun; “you’re my riding buddy.”

Yeah, he’d bought me an awesome bike too, a Trek with twenty-four inch wheels, green and black with anodized rims and disc brakes, sized perfectly for me.  I ended up riding with him most mornings in the fall and spring—unless it was raining.  But once the morning low dipped below forty I depended on Mom for rides—until year three at least, about which you’ll hear more later.

When the weather warmed enough in the spring, by that time Mom and Dad were comfortable enough with the place—they felt it safe enough—that I could pretty much ride my bike anywhere I wanted.  Awesome freedom for an eight year-old!  By then, too, I’d made a new bestie, Elena.

She lived a few blocks away.  I rode over to her house a lot during our first full summer; from there we’d ride together to Lake Cheston where we knew the combination to the lock on the university canoe.  We lazed away many a summer afternoon on this small body of water, whether lying on our backs on the floor of the canoe staring up at the blue sky or swimming in the murky warmth, lost in the pleasantness of the moment, lost to the reality that another school year would soon be upon us, lost even—more and more anyway—to the memory of former besties.

So, I don’t know.  What with the paradise of the new environs, the bonding Dad and I experienced most days riding our bikes to school, his omnipresent joy with the place, and the truly fairytale-like life we were now living, again, I had to side with Dad on this one.  We were right to relocate.  Even if it would only last for three years.  Even if I would soon forever lose my mom.

Book Idea: Chapter 4

Posted in Work in Progress with tags on May 15, 2014 by timtrue

I don’t know why I always seemed to take Dad’s side.  I mean, when I sit back and really think about it, Mom always seemed more grounded, to make more sense.

She craved stability.  It’s what her child needed in order to grow into a healthy, well-adjusted adult, she’d say.  “Routine and predictability produce loyalty and integrity,” was just one of her stability-supporting mantras.  It’s a very sensible approach to life in general, granted.

Dad, on the other hand, was a bit of a wild man.  He’d grown up in southern California on a small avocado orchard, skiing, surfing, motorcycling, hiking, and skinny dipping in his spare time.  And if these weren’t enough in their own right, he possessed a certain inherent riskiness, like when a poker player places a great deal of confidence in keeping a straight face—and it pays off more often than not!  Or like when a surfer takes out a board that he knows is slightly too small for the size of the day’s swell because it’s the only one at the ready—but he’d rather be in the water, where the real action is, than posing on the beach.

Now, if you were in a position of discipleship—as all children, students, and employees are wont to be—whom would you want leading you?  Someone determined, resolute, and stable, like my mom?  Or someone risky, even comfortable with a regular high level of chaos, like Dad?  For whatever reason, I prefer the latter.

Even so, all things considered Dad had a way about him that inevitably disarmed me.  Maybe that’s why I’ve always had the utmost sympathy for his causes, convictions, passions, whatever—even when I don’t get them very well.

But that’s just it: whenever I don’t get them, I want to!  But whenever I understood Mom’s schemata, on the other hand, which was most of the time, I actually didn’t want to!

What generosity I felt for Dad, then, well, invert it and that’s how I felt towards Mom.  She was more grounded.  But for me she was too even-keeled, too pragmatic, too practical.  I certainly regret this about myself—that I was never able to be more charitable to Mom.  But I’m wired that way, and you can’t change your wiring, can you?  You can’t change the past either, sadly.

The end result was that Mom often complained of being “the bad guy.”  But, I wish I could tell her now, it never was a competition, as if life was always Dad versus Mom.  Instead, we were always a team—a team, perhaps, that needed some conflict management at times; but a team nonetheless.

Anyway, “It’s called Sewanee,” Dad began.

“Swanny,” I asked, “like that old song?”

“Not ‘Swanny,’ but Se-wa-nee,” he enunciated, “three syllables.  And it’s perched on a foggy mountaintop, a true modern-day fairytale land.  Here, let me show you.”

And he took a folded glossy piece of paper from his back pocket, unfolded it, and set it before us on the coffee table, smoothing it until I was genuinely curious.

“Where’d you get that?” I asked.

“Diocesan library,” he smiled.

He pulled his hands away at last and what I saw impressed me.  A castle-like building built of stone and stained glass, a giant, rose-like window above two oaken doors, thick and solid.  What roof I could see was slate.  All at once I sensed history, mystery, and sacredness.  It almost overwhelmed me.

“They call it All Saints’ Chapel,” Dad explained, “and it’s the centerpiece of the whole town.”

“Damn!” I whispered.

The word exited my mouth almost without my awareness.  It certainly came as an automatic response.  But I was only seven years old, and seven year-olds weren’t supposed to say things like this.

Somewhere along the line, as I became increasingly aware of my gaffe and the awkwardness of the silence became stifling, I gave Dad a stealthy sideways glance only to catch him smiling a little.

But that’s just my point.  I slip up in front of Dad and he smiles.  Mom, on the other hand, would have verbally whipped me over such a slip, no doubt.  And then she’d turn on Dad, for it would somehow be his fault that they had raised such a trash-talking daughter.  Truth be told, I’d actually picked up the habit—for that’s what it was by now—from Haley, not Dad.

Anyway, Dad won the day.  Soon—after a good, long cry on my part—despite my sadness at leaving my two besties behind, probably forever, I was ready to face the adventure ahead.

Book Idea: Chapter 3

Posted in Work in Progress with tags , , , on May 13, 2014 by timtrue

By then I was old enough to have made a couple of really close friends, Haley and Veronica.  It might not seem to adults that kids can make super-close friends.  But these were my besties.  Sure, I couldn’t drive yet, and they lived too far away to walk, and so I was at my parents’ whims as to whenever we could get together outside of school.  But there was a bond of friendship here deeper than most I’ve experienced since.

One day after school, waiting for our parents to finish up and playing on the swings as was typical, I began to suspect that this special braid of a friendship was about to unravel.  It was a Friday, I remember; Haley, Veronica, and I had plans for a sleepover.

“I saw your dad talking to Principal Sheldon today,” Haley said.

“Oh yeah?” I asked, planting my feet in the gravel and stopping my pendulum motion.  Something unusual was in her voice, a tone of urgency.  “What about?”

“I saw them too,” Veronica added, “and I think Principal Sheldon was actually crying.  I didn’t think he ever cried.”

“Yeah, weird,” I answered.

Dad had taught Latin to middle school and high school students for the past three years—and maybe more, but I don’t remember much about school that far back—at St. Augustine’s, where Haley, Veronica, and I attended school.  We were in second grade.

Haley’s dad taught Latin too; and Veronica’s mom was a science teacher.  Which explains why we typically hung out on the playground after school, while our teacher-parents finished up with their daily obligations.

It was a K-12 school, meaning Dad was on the other side of campus most of the week.  But he and I carpooled together every day; and he made an effort to eat lunch with me once a week or so—usually with Haley and Veronica inseparably tagging along.

I appreciate these things a lot now, miss them achingly at times even, occasionally wondering why they had to end at all, why Dad had to be so eager—or restless—to pursue his paranormal musings.

“And I’m not sure,” Haley continued, “but I think Mr. Sheldon might have said a bad word: ‘bastard.’  That’s what I think he said, anyway.  And I think he said this to your dad, Amelia, like he was calling him a name.  But your dad just laughed.”

I don’t really remember any more of this conversation, or even what took place that night.  We probably had our sleepover.  And, if so, I’m sure we had a great time.  But for some reason I remember this conversation—the urgency in Haley’s voice, the unusualness in Mr. Sheldon’s crying, Haley saying bastard so matter-of-factly, like a grownup—and the abrupt change to come over my feelings, like it was yesterday.

It was like I’d just drunk a tall glass of rancid milk.

I also remember how vividly these feelings surfaced again a few weeks later when Mom told me that we’d be moving at the end of the school year.

“But why?” I asked, fighting desperately to hold back the tears that were so quickly rising.

“So that Daddy can complete his education,” Mom said, trying to sound reassuring, I’m sure, but actually sounding patronizing.

“But why do we have to move away for this to happen?” I asked.

“It’s just the way the Church does it, dear.  A three-year program.  Then we’ll come back.”

And all at once I was thoroughly annoyed.  “Three whole years!” I shouted.  “Then I’ll be in sixth grade.  That’s middle school!  That’s my childhood!  What about Haley and Veronica?”

“Listen, I knew this would upset you.  I told your dad it would.  But the decision’s been made.  Let’s try to make the most of it, yeah?”

“I need to talk to Dad,” I demanded and stormed out of the room.

Book Idea: Chapter 2

Posted in Work in Progress with tags on May 5, 2014 by timtrue

That was Dad’s profound boyhood experience.  Or part of it anyway.  Other significant elements from his boyhood will surface in time.  But as far as setting the stage for the discernment interview, this will be enough.

So, “Tell us why you’d like to be an Episcopal priest,” they asked.

It was the why that troubled him, he says.  “Why couldn’t they have asked something simpler, like, ‘Outline your faith journey,’ or, ‘Can you explain the priestly vocation?’  But they had to ask why.”

See, one of Dad’s faults—if it is a fault—is that he’s too honest.

His answer to the question, his honest and true answer, the answer he wanted to give, the answer he almost gave, in fact, stems from his profound boyhood experience.  For of course this experience had led him into a lifelong quest of the paranormal.  And along the way he’d become convinced that ghosts are merely souls separated from physical bodies.

“That’s why there are ghosts in the first place,” he says.  “Think about it.  What characterizes all the stories you’ve ever heard about ghosts?  It’s trauma, isn’t it?  Something traumatic happened at the time of death—a murder, or a car accident, or fighting in a battle, or whatever.  The soul gets separated from the body—that’s what death is, after all—suddenly, unexpectedly.  It’s caught off guard, taken by surprise.

“And something in the surprise keeps them here; something about it makes it so they can’t pass into the realm of the afterlife.  And they end up forever restless.

“They want to go to a place of rest.  But they can’t.  So they’re miserable, wretched, uncomfortable, even haunted by the memory of life and by still inhabiting this material world, this place where they don’t belong.

“They’re the ones who are really haunted, after all, not us.

“So what I want to do is help them find a way into the afterlife place, that place of peace; to help them to heaven, if you like.”

But he couldn’t tell the discernment committee that, could he?  He didn’t think so.  “They’d have just looked at me like I was crazy,” he says, “more in need of mental help than someone cut out to lead others spiritually.”

In the end, then, he told his interviewers that he desired to minister to needy souls.  Not the whole story, sure; but the truth nonetheless, or enough of it to satisfy his conscience.

Book Idea: Chapter 1

Posted in Work in Progress with tags , , , on May 3, 2014 by timtrue

I’m thinking I should start our story with Dad’s discernment interview.

Somewhere along the line he decided that he wanted to be a priest. But by this time, the time of his interview, he was already married to Mom—may her soul rest in peace. And I was seven years old. So, because he was married, the Catholic Church was out. That left the Episcopal Church.

“Not that those are the only two options for everyone, mind you,” Dad says; “but they were the only two for me. I wanted something ancient and mainstream. And in America, that doesn’t leave many options.”

Not that I really understood any of that then, when I was seven. And I’m not even sure I get all of it now that I’m seventeen. I think I do. But more importantly, I’ve learned a lot in the past decade—about a lot more than I’d like to admit. And I realize now that it doesn’t really matter all that much. Whether a person is ancient, mainstream, conservative, progressive, evangelical, catholic—with or without a capital C—it doesn’t make much of a difference. For that matter, I’m not sure Christian, atheist, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist matters much either.

Oh, there is something, alright. There’s more to it all than what we can see, hear, smell, touch, and taste. That’s certain! I don’t care what Madonna says, we’re not living in a material world; or, rather, we are living in much more than a material world. The past decade with Dad proves that beyond the shadow of any doubt.

But, after traveling the world in pursuit of ghosts and zombies, one thing I’m certain of is that, yes, like it or not, there’s not just one way to access the metaphysical world. You don’t have to hold a certain faith, keep certain convictions, say specific incantations, or even go through explicit routines to get there. It’s just—

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The way Dad tells it is that he’d always wanted to be ordained, “or since boyhood anyway, when I experienced something that was, well, profound.”

“What was that, Dad?” I’d always ask. See, I liked to hear this tale. Not only was it good, but each time he’d tell it I’d pick up on some new detail, some subtle nuance that would add to the meaning and to my respect for the man.

“You remember, don’t you?” he’d say. Inevitably, however, if I stayed silent for a moment or two anyway, he’d elaborate:

“We’d just moved into an old house that had this wrought-iron spiral staircase leading down into the basement. The whole thing was painted black with some worn, wine-colored carpet loosely wrapped around each step. Each time you took a step the whole staircase would creak and groan, straining under your weight, tempting you to test it—even if you weighed only thirty-five pounds, like me—to jump up and down on it, as if daring you. And it led down into the darkness. And if that wasn’t already frightening enough, it spiraled in such a way as to form a cave underneath, a yawning mouth stretching back from the bottom step into yet darker darkness to a wall hidden some indiscernible distance away, dark wine on black on black. It’s how I’ve always imagined Polyphemus’s cave.”

Anyway, as the story goes, Dad and his older brother Artie were always a little skeptical about this stairway. Some unusual things had happened around it. Once Dad swears Artie pushed him from the top. It was just the two of them on the landing. And he says he was distinctly pushed, no question about it. So Dad somersaulted all the way down to the bottom, picking up not a few cuts, scrapes, and bruises along the way.

Fortunately he was okay otherwise. But to this day Uncle Artie swears up and down he didn’t do it. “It was more like he jumped,” Artie says. “And ever since I’ve always been like, ‘Whoa, that was weird.’”

Grandpa used to keep a small wine cellar under the stairs too, in that Polyphemus-like cave. On several occasions they found broken bottles; and one time they found an unbroken bottle that had been emptied and put back in place. “No one ever admitted to drinking it,” Dad says, “but your grandpa held me culpable till his dying day. Sheesh!”

Then one night, when Dad was seven or eight, he and Artie invited a neighbor kid over to spend the night. This kid, Danny, was tough. Both Dad and Uncle Artie looked up to him. A lot. So you can imagine how overjoyed they were when he said yes.

But there was a problem.

Long about dark, the three boys decided to play hide-and-seek in the basement. As they descended the staircase, step by creaky step, Danny seemed to quail. This tough neighbor had never seemed to fear anything in the past; but now he was pale in the glare of a flashlight, and sweaty.

“What’s the deal?” Dad asked.

Danny gulped and tried to shake it off, then said, apparently as casually as he could, “Oh, nothing” (pause and gulp); “it’s just that I want to be ‘it.’ How about you guys go hide and I’ll count?”

Dad and Artie said sure and ran off to hide, but not before the scared look returned to Danny’s face.

“What’s the matter with him?” Uncle Artie whispered to Dad a minute or so later, after the brothers had settled into adjoining hiding spots.

“I don’t know,” Dad said, “but at least he gets to hold the flashlight this way.”

At least that’s what Dad intended to say, the way he tells it. But he only got to the beginning of the word flashlight before his own hair was standing on end. For right at that point Danny pierced the darkness with a bloodcurdling scream.


At the same time the flashlight jerked and moved suddenly wildly; it briefly shone in Dad’s face, blinding him. From the sounds that followed—tired creaks and groans, the thudding of flesh, more screams, but painful sounding this time, and a bump-roll-bump-roll-bump-roll pattern—Dad guessed that Danny had sprinted upward, stubbed his toe on the landing, and dropped the flashlight.

“Artie and I looked at each other,” Dad relates. “We were both very frightened—what I could tell in the dim light anyway. And I’m sure we were both thinking the same thing. Like mirror images, we slowly turned our focus from each other to the yawning maw under the staircase. ‘Do you see anything, something moving or whatever?’ I asked, still whispering. Artie said nothing. So I glanced his way and saw him just shaking his head, open-mouthed and wide-eyed.

“And I know it was probably less than a minute, but we just stayed where we were, unmoving, for what felt like forever, until together we got the courage to grab the flashlight and run upstairs.

“‘One, two, three, go!’ I said. And off we went, right up the scary, spiral, creaky stairs, right up and over Polyphemus.

“And of course nothing happened.”

The brothers found Danny in their bedroom, face buried in the pillow on the trundle bed, crying. Yeah! This so-tough kid!

After some coaxing, he stopped sobbing long enough to say three words: “Seven—foot—man!”

“What?” Dad asked. But it was too late. Danny had slipped into uncontrollable sobs again.

Several minutes later he caught his breath enough to say, “I want my dad,” which my grandpa overheard. And so it was over. The neighbor kid packed up his overnight bag and went home, never to spend the night at Dad’s house again.