I have reemerged from my writing rabbit hole, as I’ve finished my current project, 5th & Hope. I’ve decided to share the opening. It tells the story of a middle-aged man’s journey to reconnect with his grandparents after his mother’s death.
As the gray evening fog had billowed across my vantage point, I stood near the jagged cliff edge as a red-tailed hawk squealed its high-pitched warning. I leaned against a waist-high, custom crafted stone wall that separated me from certain death. I slowly peeked over the side and down into the cold, frothy gloom. For some odd reason as I blinked to clear my eyesight, it occurred to me at that very moment that Hazel was the one who had made a leap of faith. Not me, my faith was in money. Her faith had been in Sewell. And Sewell’s faith had been in God, whatever that was or is. He had gotten convicted by the Holy Spirit early in life after his brother’s tragic accident. But even so, I could not see my feathered hawk friend within the mists, or along the meandering beach line, or above me in the swaying trees. I stumbled back against the stone wall. The half-full crystal wine glass that I grasped in my right hand bopped and weaved for its life. But then I quickly held it close. I had regained control; I steadied it like a cargo ship’s captain fighting a white squall, certain from years of experience that the navigation point would emerge from darkness. It had, as Rebecca sat next to a blazing fire. She just amusingly nodded over at me. I gripped the rough edged stone wall with my left hand fingertips. I sucked in moisture as my eyes wobbled, bobbled in their sockets for clarity. But then I had regained control as I pressed my feet against the concrete slab. I always maintained control. I stood up straight, put my left hand over my mouth as I sucked in oxygen and then took a proper sip from my wine glass. It had an emerging fragrance with a peppery finish. It had an acidic tingle down my throat.
But I had known the bird was out there, near me, with its feathered wings out as it glided within the salty air. I had wished I could have flown with the predator bird. If only I could have fearlessly soared into the unknown. But that night the darkness seemed to encircle me, it crowded me; the wind nudged at me like I was an overmatched boxer and as if it had measured me for a final, fatal blow. My mind trapped like Typhon, I could not escape myself. If only I could have looked at me from outside of me. Thankfully I had Rebecca, she watched over me. She made sure I had not worn mismatched socks; assured me colorful bowties were cool for a man my age. I had glanced over at her.
Rebecca had stoked the fire. She silently allowed me to roam about the backyard like a drunken tourist. Why had I felt like crying? I don’t cry. I blankly stared forward curious if my grandparents were somewhere beyond me floating above the tidal surge in their own space and time, holding hands as they watched me from their relative position within heaven. If so, I was certain they were disappointed in me; I would have been labeled a backslider, a drinker, a man of the world. But I could not get their angelic images from my mind, and what made them so sublime to me? I wish I had known them in their youth, I thought it cruel we tend to only remember someone from old pictures, funerals, or the last time we saw them. It was strange to randomly remember someone. I had an old high school friend that had died young, under fifty, and now that was young from where I had stood contemplating the universe. I had found out years later, long after the funeral from a social media post from another high school friend that had marked the date and had gotten a large number of drive-by stamps of approval – Likes. His image transported me back in time to when I had red pimples, drank cheap beer, and had enough testosterone to keep my circus tent open for business 24 hours a day. I had found out by accident as I quietly spied into their lives. They all seemed so happy going on vacations, pumping out grandchildren, and they shared photos of their fried chicken dinner. Why? It was so odd, and yet it fascinated me. I had preferred to remain hidden. It had more to do with my family safety, but even so I was not real interested to engage with people that likely would have thought me a pariah. I set the wine glass down on the re-purposed cast iron table, gulped for air that oddly smelled like a forest fire thanks to Rebecca. I stuffed my hands into my warm bubbled nylon jacket pockets. I had been tempted to consider scooting down the stone pathway that traversed down to our private beach and then to have disappeared into the darkness. All I can remember of my deceased friend was his sunshine splashed face inside a high school football helmet telling us how often he was getting it on with Kendall. We all had known he was telling the truth. At the time we all wanted a Kendall doll, too. I squeezed my moist hands, thankful that my memory of him was not crowded out by staring down at his corpse pumped full of preservatives. I hated being near the star attraction at a wake when some random knucklehead decided to tell anyone that would listen that the corpse looked good. What does that mean? To me, they all looked as dead as Chairman Mao. I hated funerals. My grandfather had taken me along to enough random funeral services that he had conducted to last me into the next Pope’s lifetime.
The American Indians had it right; I had my two-inch thick will, written with quite specific instructions. Once I went into temporary cold storage on a metal bed, after a licensed facility performed a ritualized burning of my dead carcass to ashes, Rebecca would spread the remains of my carbon footprint in the Nebraska and Kentucky soils like a farmer’s fertilizer. At least she would profit from my demise, and she would take great comfort knowing I would have approved her choices. I thought cemeteries were a waste of valuable real estate and a form of humanities attempt to control death. It was absurd. I knew exactly the spot where my grandparents were buried. When I was sixteen, I had stood there on a hillside in the Eastern Kentucky cold being pelted by thick snowflakes at the moment the pallbearers had deposited my grandmother’s casket into the dark brown soil. They even had sealed her coffin with another metal thing that looked like the lid for a giant butter server. Why? Would my grandfather want to dig her up for a special occasion?
It was the one verse from the Bible that I had agreed with, and it was from the front of the story book, “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return”. But after that the Noah guy and his homemade wooden Ark showed up because earth-babes had been getting impregnated by giants, which God was none too pleased about. And then the book got into the hands of mankind, translated and published in the form they had chosen from being inspired. Why had they excluded certain chapters? When I was a boy, I had asked my grandfather if he had read Hebrew. He told me he had not learned it at BIOLA, but he had learned some basic Greek. But he understood what I had asked him. He had patted me on the head. At the time my hair was cut with a random Raggedy Ann method. He was not threatened by a little kid’s question. The reason being was my grandfather was always curious about the Bible, too. He had told me straight up he had not fully understood the Bible. And he knew man was flawed. He was flawed. But that he simply trusted God. He encouraged me to have a simple faith. He told me he was a sinner, too. He thought he had lived a blessed life, but to keep life and faith, simple.
I had not listened to him. I failed him.
But blessings come in such odd ways if we simply listen. I had not often listened to anyone else, but for my own instincts and math, because I thought math ruled the universe.
My grandparents were never rich; they had lived anonymous lives deep in the Appalachian forests that would have never been chronicled by a fancy historian. But for the most part, I guess, I remembered they had something you cannot buy with all of King Solomon’s gold, put simply, they had possessed happiness. As long as they were together, they appeared happy to me. In fact, I had known that was true because Sewell had told me so as I tested fate with my learners permit driving him away from the cemetery after Hazel’s funeral. Growing up, they were the two people I had always felt safe being nearby. I had rarely felt safe. After they died, I had forgotten what happiness felt like. I had gotten used to feeling under a constant pressure, the pressure to survive from a beating, or avoiding the regular domestic fights. The screaming, the lying, it was like a constant thumb pushed into the base of my skull that told me I was a disappointment. But I learned not to feel, to only focus my mind and determination to succeed so I could get as far away from them as possible. And I had learned well. But as I matured, I had learned to let the hate float from my inner being. It was toxic, and I finally realized it was my choice to like or unlike them. I had easily chosen the later. But then there are certain thoughts learned in youth that are hard to shake. They are like dark shadows, whispers that remind you you’re really a loser, you just got lucky in life. But don’t ever forget, you’re a loser, you can’t hide from us. We know you.
As my deep breath released from my lungs, I clutched my jacket lapels closer to my neck as the evening’s memories had chilled me down to my toes. The jacket made me feel like I was hidden within a protected cocoon. And the sensation reminded me what if felt like to be alive, to compete, to calculate beyond myself. I wondered about Hazel, in 1926 she had been standing at a Los Angeles street corner surrounded by a growing city, when her life randomly intersected Sewell’s. I was curious if Hazel had adjusted her wide framed eyeglasses and had calculated that Sewell was her best option, or if she had been that desperate to escape from her mother. I had known what that felt like. She was smart; I always wondered what was going on behind her brown eyes. The same eyes Sewell would glance over at during a church service for reassurance, she would nod back at him as she played an out-of-tune upright piano. Years later, it was the same look Rebecca would give me before a Board of Directors meeting. She gave me the courage to vanquish fear. I had already experienced a worst case scenario and had lived to tell the tale, even though I was clueless at the time. Thankfully, my emotional scar tissue was as thick as an African elephant’s hide.
But the one thing I was certain about, life was an adventure if you took a step forward without knowing where your foot would land. If you feared that ledge, you’re already dead. I clenched my jaw line as I inspected my vast estate. We are creatures created by a God with the self-awareness that had stamped our DNA to instinctively hunt to survive, to compete. I hunted for money; my grandfather had hunted for souls. It was a simple calculation, if we do not feed, our bodies, our souls died. If we do not challenge our minds, we rot from the inside out. I guessed it depended on what you are hunting for. Of course these days, I hunted for nourishment at the local specialty market in a wimpy gatherer fresh or frozen food method, while the hawk used its sharp claws for the fresh, organic hunter method. We happily coexisted on the same exclusive property. I had the big Mediterranean style house with a clay tiled roof, and paid the maintenance bills and the idiotic California property taxes that only someone like me could afford. The hawk had built a large wooden freeform family nest high above me in a protected live oak tree, and it covered the rent by acting as a natural exterminator. I grasped the wine glass at the stem and sipped the wine again. I blinked my eyelids as particles of moist residue cleansed my pasty-white face. Thanks to Nikola Tesla the nearby estates had cast enough electrical light that allowed for the shadows of the irregular tree line to emerge from across Carmel Bay. But nature had not blessed me with the hawk’s eyesight, as it was likely seeking its next meal skimming atop the frigid submarine cannon, past humpback whales that swam near clusters of seaweed, and the playful sea lions that were likely slapping their flat tails against their rocky night time island refuges.
Each day we had a perfect perch to observe the human and animal goings-on atop the land and within the oceans currents. I glanced down to barely make out the sea water that foamed across our beach. Ocean’s spanned more than two-thirds of the planet and supported all life forms, fish, bacteria, even mammals, but it would not support my oxygen breathing carcass. Unlike the hawk I could not fly. If I had drunkenly fallen from my custom made stone and steel perspective without a life-vest, I’d drown after bobbing briefly like a smashed blowup doll before taking on water, and becoming fish food. And then I’d be forgotten at the bottom of the salt water with the other shattered SOS bottles. But it was my choice to drink wine; it was my life choices that might get me killed. I guess Hazel had made her choice, and then she was not afraid as she traveled east in a Model A Ford with her man, and then they lived together until breast cancer had caused them to part. But they believed death would be a temporary parting, and then they would live together in paradise with sweet Jesus. I had my doubts. I just thought after my pulse ceased it all went black.
Death scared humanity, it scared me. I thought it was because we fear being forgotten. But I distinctly remembered Sewell welcomed death after Hazel died. Even though I was a boy, I could tell the pilot light behind his blue eyes had gone out. I had wiped a tear from my eye, and held the cold glass against my pug nose. Why was I crying? Stop. I had all the financial resources a man could dream for; I had any adult toy I wanted, I had jets waiting to fly me anywhere I wanted on short notice, and I had a loving life partner. But I would have been a failure in their eyes. It had nothing to do with money; it had everything to do with living the missionary life, a life of service to mankind. And yet, I had stood within the Monetary Bay Peninsula listening to the wave’s crash and recede. The news I had been expecting for years had finally come to pass, and at that very moment I missed my grandparents counsel like I would have missed breathing oxygen.