Growing up in a small town in Oklahoma, my friend Marc and I used to entertain ourselves by making up stories on the fly and recording them on a tape cassette recorder. We were seven or eight years old. On our less inspired but rambunctious days, the stories were simple and action packed, usually involving some indescribable yet inherently hideous and menacing beast chasing us through the neighborhood or our homes until we finally got away or killed it. We would dive to the floor, crash into the walls, or hurdle over the sofa to simulate our evasive maneuvers. Then, panting from our efforts, we’d whisper into the tape recorder how frightened we were as we pretended to hide. On other days we would attempt more intricate mystery stories—Scooby Doo type adventures—that routinely failed to reach a resolution before one of us was called home to dinner. When we’d meet up again, we never picked up where we left off because listening to the previous day’s recording always revealed some fatal flaw with our plotline. Before Marc moved away sometime around my third-grade year, we had compiled several cassette tapes worth of unfinished stories.
But the storytelling bug had bitten. For school, we had to write a story. Mine was called The Dog and the Bird. I don’t remember what it was about. It probably featured a dog and a bird working together to achieve some noble outcome. Whatever it was about, I just know I put a whole lot of effort into it and was really proud of the finished product. My teacher gave me some encouraging feedback which immediately inflated my writing aspirations. I asked her about getting it published.
She said, “Ok. But you’re going to have to type it up really nice.”
So I did. I typed it up, checking it multiple times for errors and letting my parents proofread it. I told them I had to get it ready for publication. The Dog and the Bird would be my breakthrough as an author. The story had to be flawless. I took it back to my teacher.
She read through it again and agreed that it was much better typed out. “But you’re going to need to bind it,” she said. “So people can read it like a book.”
That night I three-hole punched it and put the story in a report folder with a clear plastic cover. Now someone could read it like they were flipping the pages of a book. I gave it to my teacher.
Again she was impressed. “Now, you just need some cover art. Every book has a cover.”
I was stumped. I was an author, not an artist. I was also growing impatient. I wanted to be done with it. I knew drawing with crayons or pencils would look amateurish, so using the computer technology available before the days of clip art and the internet, I drew a rudimentary picture of a four-legged animal that might have resembled a dog, at least to the type of person gifted at locating constellations and finding images of animals in clouds. Next to my dog, I drew a faceless, two-stroke picture of a bird—essentially a ‘V’ with curved tips. I centered the title in big bold letters above the drawing and printed it out on my dot matrix printer which made the big letters and the drawing of the dog look hideously pixelated. It didn’t matter. I had completed a book. My book. The next day I presented it to my teacher who promised that she’d share it with all her future classes. I promised I’d work more on the artwork. I never did. But I was satisfied. I was as published as I needed to be. The project had taken all my energy for two weeks, and I needed a rest.
I owe so much to that teacher who recognized and cultivated that creative spark in me. She didn’t give me a cold dose of reality by informing me of the cruel world of publishing, or by telling me to expect a pile of rejections, or that being a published author is extremely difficult. This would have been the truth, of course, but at that age, if faced with these mountains of obstacles, I would have given up before even starting.
I think we forget sometimes that one of the primary goals of teaching is showing someone how to set a goal and complete a task. Everybody wants to achieve something. Guiding a student to find their true bliss is part of the process.
We should never forget this function of teaching. Performing well on a standardized test is an admirable goal for a school but falls way short of being inspirational for the student. If we simply grade teachers by how well they show someone where to place a comma or how to turn the remainder of a long division problem into a decimal, then we are truly selling ourselves short.
Because of my teacher, I experienced a wonderful sense of accomplishment. It was my first completed story. I’ve continued to write stories. Some have been published but most of them shared only amongst a small group of friends and fellow writers. I would have forgotten about The Dog and the Bird except that recently I was sifting through an old box of schoolwork and came across the cover art that had been hidden beneath the rubble of my life like a lost puzzle piece. I hadn’t thought of it in years. I honestly don’t recall which teacher was responsible for encouraging me to continue on the story; otherwise, I would gladly give her credit here. Until now, I didn’t recognize the value of that lesson in publishing.
The most profound moments in life are often not recognized until the moment is long gone. Insignificant and untethered memories reappear and unexpectedly reveal their importance upon distant reflection. But this, I’d argue, is where the true substance of living resides. In the end, when we sum up our histories, our purpose or meaning in life will not be perfectly articulated like a corporate mission statement but will instead be buried deep beneath the subtext of a thousand little moments and scattered memories.
It’s 2:30 a.m. and the diner is so packed we have to wait to be seated. A large painting hangs in the foyer. I know it well because it was the cover of Chance’s first album, Arcade Plush. The subject seems innocent enough, though quirky—stuffed animals jammed inside an arcade plush machine—but something about the scene is disturbing. Maybe it’s the slightly askew perspective that seems to suggest it’s worth no more than a passing glance. But I think it’s the dire situation of the stuffed animals that makes me feel queasy. I didn’t notice it in the glossy, diluted form that I’m more familiar with, but in this one, I can see the bulging eyes of the animals are pleading, not so much with a “pick me, pick me!” anticipation but more of a sullen, please-get-me-the-hell-out-of-here look you’d find on a crusted-lipped, starving child in some far-off, impoverished area of the world. And then the bodies of the animals aren’t light and fluffy but instead seem weighty and imposing as if they share a common purpose to crush and disfigure each other—a giraffe’s neck in the stranglehold of a purple elephant’s tusk; a unicorn’s head positioned between a monkey’s legs, putting an unsuspecting velveteen bunny in the immediate foreground in a precarious position. The overhead grappling, grab-o-matic prongs seem so spindly and useless that they don’t even earn a glance from the animals, as if they know better than to expect help from above.
Chance turns down the first two available tables to get the booth he wants. He recognizes a waitress. He points her out to me and says, “Those eyes are like a bass groove that you can’t get out of your head and will creep up on you in some pretty random moments.” And then I realize why he came here.
Those eyes belong to Mazie Allen, and when she sees him, she quickly approaches. “Stanley Goldstein!”
He doesn’t stand, forcing her to stoop to hug him. “I’m still Chance Casper until I leave this place,” he says.
“I heard you were in town. I would’ve come to the show if I could’ve gotten off work. It’s our busy time. Four days till Christmas. How was it?”
“Same. Automatic for the last five years. You know, this was our last—”
“Hold that thought. We’ll catch up when things die down in here a bit,” she says.
She rushes away to check on other customers.
“She used to come to all of our gigs,” Chance tells me. “She bought into the myth of rock ‘n’ roll glory, thinking that just a taste of that counter-culture elixir might free her to some kind of deeper illumination. Imagination freed is illumination achieved, I’d tell her. Girls will believe anything you tell them as long as it’s blended with the right mix of poetry and booze. She was a good lay.”
I’ve never known Chance to talk this way. This isn’t how he was back when he was Stanley and we were a couple of college students with crazy perspectives of the world. There’s some bitterness and resentment built up inside of him. He won’t stop talking about Mazie; I realize she was something more.
“You know, she did the art to our first album cover. That one out front. That got her art more exposure to the world than she would have ever gotten doing anything on her own. She was an artist, self-taught, but a total hack. The problem with her was that she was blind to original perspectives. She spent all of her time going over the masters trying to copy their techniques and producing half-witted composites always a shade off. Guess it’s no surprise she’s waitressing now.”
“So she was more than just your average groupie.”
“The ultimate road warrior, you know. She had the enthusiasm of a religious disciple. My parents hated her.”
I ask him how he felt about her. Really.
He responds with several minutes of silence. “I loved her. And then she left—hitched a ride and came home to Fargo. My mom knew about it before I did. How the hell does that happen? They hated each other. Women don’t get it, but they bond in their confusion. They have this notion of how things should be, and if things don’t fall between those two narrow lines, shit, everything falls apart. Everyone gets bored traveling down the same highway, and women, they just freak out if you detour for some sightseeing. And most people have to create this illusion that even though we’re bouncing off the walls, we’re somehow staying within the lines. Not me. I put it out there like it is. I am about truth. If people can’t handle it, they don’t belong in my life.”
Out of the original band, only Simon (the drummer passed out with his head on a bongo) and Chance remain. I ask him about the rest of the original band. He knows I’m asking specifically about Sal, the guitarist who many considered the life of the band, the one with the flare and million-dollar smile.
“After nine years of jamming with us he got amped on the fantasy that if you got married and went to school to get a business degree and had a life where you work inside an accounting office punching numbers into a computer and pressing compute and then turning it into your boss with a big juvenile grin on your face like you want a gold star or something but really you’re just begging for money like any guy on the street, that somehow that would make you happy. And he took that route. You know what happened to him? He got married. He got his job. He got a promotion. He got fired. He got divorced. Now he’s living in a shack up in Portland and working in a bookstore. And the only reason I know this is because he randomly Facebooked me and sent a message that said, ‘Hey man, you still playing in a band? I wanna get back.’ Fuck that. We’d moved on.”
“So how do you really feel about him?” I ask.
He laughs. “He’s probably happier than me.”
The crowd finally thins. As cars back out, their lights cast a diffused glow through the snowfall. Mazie returns and chooses my side of the booth, forcing me to scoot over.
“So how long ya’ in Fargo?” she asks him.
“Plane leaves tomorrow night.”
“I dunno. Boston.”
“That’s nice. Visit the folks for the Christmas holidays. How are they?”
“Hey listen,” I say. “You think I could crash at your place? I left the keys to the van with Simon.”
“Ah, Simon. How is the little drummer boy?”
“Still a sucker for love but keeps a steady beat.”
“That guy. He hardly says a word but gets any girl he wants.”
Chance puts his hand on the table and his fingers do the same unconscious crawl across the surface that I’ve seen many other musicians do—the body never relenting in its desire to make music—but here I feel like his fingers are doing a courtly dance, hoping that she might make contact with them. “He didn’t get you,” he points out.
“He didn’t want me.”
“So listen, about the place to stay. You think I could crash at your place? I don’t mind waiting until you get off.”
The smile she gives him in response looks motherly. “Stanley, I’m married.”
“I’ve been married for five years now.”
“But online you’re listed as Mazie Allen.”
“The miracle of Facebook. Is that how you found out I’m working here?”
Chance takes a slow sip of coffee in response. “I’m not stalking you. You can turn around and walk away, and I won’t follow.”
“I kept my name because I had a following…with my artwork.”
“You still doin’ that stuff? Why are you working here then?”
“Aw, come on. You know how it is with art, never knowing when the paychecks will come. This gives me a steady income and it gets me out of the studio to draw on some real-life inspiration.”
“What does he do?”
“The guy. The one you married.”
“Well, he’s in music, too.”
“In a band?”
“Actually, he’s the band director at the high school.”
He bellows out in laughter. “What a pathetic, pointless job.”
She clenches her teeth. “He’s spreading the joy of music to ordinary people.”
“Band students are not ordinary people. They’re just pimpled kids too awkward to do sports, too dull to do theater, and too tone deaf to sing. So you give these kids a hunk of metal to blow into and just pray to God they don’t bop someone on the head and hurt ‘em.”
He covers his ears. “You don’t have to say anymore. I’m already insulted. You have kids?”
He sighs in satisfaction. “I miss you,” he says.
“Ok,” she says before disappearing into the kitchen. There are only a few customers in the diner now, but we don’t see her for another twenty minutes before Chance waves down the manager and asks him to track down our waitress. She comes back to our table with her notepad covering her eyes.
“Look Mazie, I’m sorry. Sometimes I come across as brash and tactless. That’s Chance Casper talking.”
“You can’t hide behind a name. You weren’t suddenly reborn as Chance Casper. The same old Stanley Goldstein lies behind those eyes. A new name and a fresh shave don’t give you a clean slate.”
“Look, I haven’t slept well in days, and I’m feeling emotional now, thinking this might be my last time in Fargo. You know, this was our last show tonight.”
“And you picked Fargo of all places.” She places her hand over her heart. “On behalf of the citizens of Fargo, I’m honored you chose our city to be your final resting spot.”
He makes no secret that he’s livid, and I feel caught between an ex-lovers’ quarrel, a witness to his self-annihilation.
She lays her notepad on the table. “I’m sorry I missed it. Really. How was it? Did you play The Well?”
“Really? That was my favorite.”
“Mazie, it was pretentious crap.”
“Oh my God, how can you say that! ‘Your perception is in the angle of the reflection that meets your eye.’ I love that line.”
“For Once then Something. Robert Frost. You showed me that poem. All I did was twist his language around a bit.”
“Under the surface is a glimpse of something—maybe nothing—but it bends your mind.”
“Stop!” he snaps.
“What do you have against your early stuff?” she asks.
“Because it wasn’t me. And you should have been able to tell that the chord progression of The Well followed the one in the old tango we used to listen to. You remember the one, Por Eso Me Siento Mal, from our Buenos Aires days?”
The Well basically consists of a bass hook and a whiney keyboard that repeat endlessly until the chorus that is nothing but “Ohs.” It was his only commercial hit, but it came at a price. People wanted more of that hooky pop. Chance didn’t want any part of it.
She stares back towards the kitchen as if searching for some impending crisis. “I didn’t know any better. But I still love those songs from your first album.”
“I could’ve written a thousand tunes like that and retired with a mansion in The Hills.”
“Why didn’t you? Nobody needs to know how you came up with the songs, and even if they did, they wouldn’t care.”
“I care. And I didn’t do this just for the money. That first album was to get us in the mix. Mindless ear candy for the masses and the musically ignorant. All artists have to sell out a little to pay the bills. After that, it was all about the music. I had to break free from the template of the past. You’ll never understand. Most people don’t get my music, and I can’t help that. It’s the price you pay for originality and freedom. I had no fear. I could write rockin’ rhythms, stilted rhythms, 5/4, 7/8 time, tk-a-boom-boom-chahh. I could layer melodic lines with slowly diverging contrapuntal phrases and make atonal beauty. Pure originality is hard to appreciate.”
She drops her head and speaks mostly to her Adidas. “There’s no such thing as pure originality. You can’t escape the past. It hangs on.”
“I broke free.”
“It hangs on to us. Being interesting to yourself doesn’t make you anything. Art doesn’t exist without people to share it with. All that matters is how you affect people.”
“My music will be important. If no one clears the table and starts over, how does anything change? We’ll go on recycling old tunes until creativity is sucked right out of our consciousness. That’s why I threw it all out there. Each song contains a little bit of everything. If you could just understand—”
“I don’t, Chance. You can’t suddenly decide to redefine music.”
“Why not? Sounds have no inherent meanings. Music needs no bounds because it recreates life, and life is not contained within an octave, and it doesn’t follow a particular scale or stay within a dynamic range, so why should music?” He’s almost out of breath. “I know you’ll argue—”
“—each song is just a moment, like one of your little paintings, but within one moment can’t a man be helplessly in love, stricken with jealousy, mad with rage, slightly wistful…soundly defeated?”
“I’m sorry if I hurt you.”
“I was speaking hypothetically.” He gathers his breath. “Look, I’m only here for a short time. My plane leaves late tomorrow night. You wanna go do something?”
“He won’t let you have friends?”
“He’d be fine with it. I’m the one who’d have the problem.”
Chance looks like he’s about to choke. “You really hate me that much, don’t you.”
She glares at him.
Several inebriated Santas stagger into the diner and slump into a corner booth. They’re all too young and too hardened to be convincing. They each have their Santa hats on, but they’ve unstuffed their bellies and pulled their beards under their chins making them look a little Amish except for their obvious disdain for their seasonal job. It’s a short-term gig, the Santa thing—two weeks tops—but their caffeine-craved faces are more than a pair of rosy cheeks from being jolly. One of them passes by us on the way to the bathroom and glances in our direction, which I’m sure Chance will misinterpret as recognition.
“I don’t hate you,” Mazie says.
“Maybe the three of us could do something,” he says. “I’ve gotta meet the guy.”
“And what? You and I would reminisce about the past?”
“I thought you’re the one who loves the past.”
She picks up her notepad and jots something down.
He tries get a look at what she’s writing but she conceals it against her chest. “What did you write?” he asks.
“Don’t want to forget what you said, so I wrote it down.”
He grabs her arm, but she pulls away fiercely. “Read me what you wrote.”
She runs her fingers over the words a few times before she reads them aloud. “Eggs. Toast. Bacon. Make you fat. Anything else?”
“More time with you.”
She shakes her head in disgust. “What world do you live in?”
“Well, you and I are talking here. How does that fit with your enlightened morality?”
“You’re my customer.”
“In that case, have you ever thought about investing in gold? It’s the safest investment in these financially uncertain times. Come be a customer of Goldstein and I’ll tell you all about it. Lunch at noon?”
She turns to walk away. “Do-I-take-that-chance,” she repeats like a mantra as she laughs and shakes her head.
He finally acknowledges my existence again and asks me, “What did she mean by that? ‘Do I take that chance?’ Or did she mean ‘Do I take that Chance?’ Or ‘Do I take that, Chance?’ I swear to God, I really need a middle man to explain her little riddle that’s probably nothing more than just a joke, but it makes me feel small.”
The santa passes us on his way back to his table and laughs. He’s caught the tail end of Mazie’s performance. Chance threaten him with a spoon as the santa joins his friends. “Do you know who I am!” he calls out. Every head turns to look at Chance, but the one he’s concerned with doesn’t flinch. She continues on her path and disappears again into the kitchen. She doesn’t return.
We’re stuck at the airport the next night since all the evening flights have been delayed until morning. I’m accompanying Chance back to Boston. I have family I need to see there, too. The sun eventually rises and we’re allowed on the plane along with other weary-eyed passengers bundled up in scarves and coats. My first attempt at doing an interview was a complete failure. A wasted flight for an unpublishable piece. I find my seat and immediately check out the on-flight music selection. There he is. At least one of his albums made it—his first one, Arcade Plush. As we ascend into the white sky, I can see the virginal snow expanding across the land until it merges at the horizon with the stratus clouds. There is so much beauty on that vast, frosty canvass. Whiteness closes in until I can no longer see the wings. When exactly that happened, I’m not really sure. It’s a thousand miles to where we’re going, but I won’t be sleeping anytime soon.
“Your perceptions are in the angle of reflection that meets your eye.” – Chance Casper
Closing time. Fargo’s arctic chill blasts through the bar’s propped doors. Bright lights flood the room alerting the remaining stragglers that it’s time to go. They trudge out into the snow. I’ve come to Fargo to see an old friend play his last show. It is a different crowd and a different time here at The Cauldron, the hottest live music venue in Fargo if you believe their radio ads, but there aren’t any flashing cameras, or backstage groupies, or even a real backstage at this venue. The only noise comes from a trickle of beer seeping out of a toppled bottle and falling from the table to the concrete floor with a sigh. There’s a stench of alcohol and smoke advancing toward the stage, but it’s not going to arouse the drummer who’s passed out at his set, his head planted on a bongo. Seated on a wobbly stool in front of the drummer, too sore to stir, is the man I’ve come to see. Chance Casper.
Dried blood coats his leathery fingers. His angel of pain lies facedown, unplugged at his feet, the snapped E-string wrapped around the neck. He looks up and recognizes me. His expression is both of embarrassment and relief that I held true to my promise to interview him after his last show. I counted thirty-two people in attendance tonight, and I know this isn’t how he wanted to go out.
His last song of the night, appropriately titled This is Goodbye, would seem to be a fitting farewell between an artist and his followers at his final show, but it is unmistakably clear the lyrics are directed inward, the singer saying goodbye to the artist.
Musicians (and writers) talk frequently of writing only for themselves as if writing for an audience would be a massive sellout. While it’s true that people can write simply for themselves as some sort of cathartic experience, art itself does not exist in a vacuum. The whole point of art is to communicate something that can affect an audience in such a way that can be achieved only by the medium the artist has chosen.
Great art is religious in the way that it touches truth or achieves a sensation that resides a level below conscious awareness. It doesn’t matter how much effort and craft went into the production of the art; if it doesn’t communicate its message, how can it be appreciated? Was it even a worthwhile effort? Art that gathers an audience of thirty-two might be interesting, but it will never be important.
This is Goodbye, despite its stubbornly simplistic groove and arrangement, is a complex yet forgettable song where the melody and lyrics have this very discussion about art. Lyrically, the song is about looking back and reflecting on the journey that sacrificed happiness for a greater goal. Melodically, the song is interesting because while it is in the key of G, the melody never touches that root note. In the verse, which is patient and plodding, the phrase feels like it’s building to the G but gets hung up on F# before falling back down to the B. In the chorus, the music intensifies, the intervals become more bold, and the melody once again battles all the way up to the F# before retreating once again without tasting the tonic G. Finally, when the melody climbs and reaches the G in the dissonant bridge, it hits it not with a bang but with a whimper. The payoff is anticlimactic, like an artist toiling for years before calling it an end in front of an audience of thirty-two. This is Goodbye.
“A glorious plane crash ten years ago would have been a better end,” he tells me.
I laugh until I realize he’s actually serious.
Instrument cables slither across the stage under Chance’s gaze as Paul, the young bartender/stagehand, loops the cords around his shoulder. “You think you can move?” Paul asks him. “I need to get the barstool off the stage. We’re closing.”
“Did you know this was my last show?” Chance asks the kid.
“Well, can I have my paycheck?”
Paul pulls it out of his pocket and hands it over unceremoniously.
Chance unfolds it, sees the total and hands it back. “No. This isn’t right. This is only two hundred. The deal was for five.”
“We only had thirty-two tonight. You promised you’d fill the place. We’re taking a loss as it is.”
“I can’t help it that the blizzard kept people away!” Chance stands and confronts the tired kid. “Don’t you know who I am?”
Paul takes the opportunity to snatch the stool and disappears quickly into the back.
“Look at me. Fighting for pennies!” He then offers to buy me dinner at a diner down the road.
We step outside and are hit with a choke-the-life-out-of-you cold that makes me feel like I’ve been face-planted into a snow cone. It’s my first time in Fargo since the 90s and can’t say I really miss it. But this is where Chance wanted to end it. Concertgoers in Fargo are pretty savvy, and they depend on music in the worst way, since the wet chill can make life pretty harsh. Maybe it’s this seasonal brutality that keeps people trapped here in this valley, but then again, even on those odd days when the weather clears and the wind forgets to blow, people just can’t tear themselves away from Fargo and its grid-ordered streets, stubbornly symmetrical buildings, and imported elms that line the curbs like obedient school kids.
The generic sign for the Woods’ End Diner burns its neon glow into the darkness. I’m prepared for a long night. Every night with Chance Casper is a long night.
“Why is it that genius is never recognized until we’re dead and the Mozarts of the world have to lie in pauper’s graves?” he wonders aloud.
I can never tell if his unabashed conceit is just part of his Chance Casper persona or if he’s just testing my reaction.
“The reward for greatness is never prompt,” I answer to placate his ego. “But maybe someday they’ll have good things to say.”
He stops suddenly. I try to do the same but I slide on the icy pavement and have to grab his arm to keep from falling. I’m losing control of the interview.
He holds my arm to his chest like it’s a guitar and says, “They’ll say I could make rain with my voice and thunder with my guitar. That my music dripped with an awareness of all that is pure and true, baptizing chaos.” His voice is lyrical but raspy, like a radio song fighting through static.
I try to take back my arm, but he holds it tighter.
“You know, they have computers now that tell you what songs are good, what people will listen to. I’m not shittin’ you. They take stats of every hit and computers track the characteristics of these songs so they can tell you ahead of time whether your work is crap.”
It’s true. The first company to do this successfully was Spain-based Polyphonic HMI and was followed by Music Xray. Both use sophisticated algorithms that use data of past hits and analyzes beat, melody, and chord progressions to determine what songs will be hits and to allow record company execs decide which songs they’re really going to push. It predicted the success of Nora Jones’ Come Away With Me when music critics had already written it off. This is scary. Computers are better at telling us what is good than we are. I think of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball and wonder if art, like athletic potential, will be assessed by complex algorithms before it ever reaches human consideration.
“If you only look at the past to shape future behavior, you never go anywhere. Just wait until this software is available to young musicians on their home computers. They’ll just be writing songs that achieve the highest scores in the program as if artistic expression were some game.” He winks at me. “Maybe computers will decide whether your writing is worth a shit before letting people see it.”
As we arrive to the diner, he studies his reflection in the window. His face has gotten a little chubby and he’s shaved the mane of hair before his receding hairline could conquer it first.
“I’m not so sure about this late night snack,” he says. “Last thing I need is to look like I’ve got a taiko drum stuffed under my t-shirt. Besides, who knows what kind of people are gonna be there.” He gathers courage and pushes open the door.
“Whatever you do, no climbing any trees while I’m gone,” my mother had said before she left the house to go shopping. The simple warning had slipped out of her mouth, fallen to the floor, wiggled through the carpet, squeezed behind the TV set, crawled up the wall, wafted over my head out the window, and caught up with me thirty minutes later as I was shimmying up the largest oak tree in my neighborhood.
Dressed in my Spiderman suit—which were really pajamas with sleeves that no longer reached my wrists and tattered bottoms that extended just beyond my knees—I stopped just as I reached a broad, upwardly expanding limb. I watched in wonderment as Steven carefully eased himself away from the trunk, avoiding prickly branches as he neared the end of the limb. His Superman suit fit him perfectly, and the falling sun cast a phosphorescent glow on the red cape tied neatly around his neck.
“I don’t think I’m supposed to be climbing trees,” I called out as I made the critical mistake of looking down.
Steven remained focused on the branch supporting his broad chest. “You don’t have to. I just want to see how high I can get. I’m Superman, remember?”
I looked up. We weren’t even halfway to the top, but we were higher than I had ever climbed. I timidly followed my friend out onto the limb, hugging it securely and ignoring the pricks on my forearms and ankles.
I had a sinking feeling. With our combined weight the branch bent until it was nearly horizontal. But it didn’t break. Steven sat upright and flung his cape proudly over his shoulder. He watched with compassionate concern as my fragile frame inched closer to him. A semi-circle grin rounded out my elated face, and I was beginning to maneuver myself upright, to sit beside greatness, when I heard the crack. The geometry on my face reversed itself as I whipped my head around to see what had happened. The limb remained securely attached to its trunk, but my reaction had been too abrupt, and I lost my balance. The world flipped as I swung around the limb, my arms flailing but catching nothing but empty air. My legs, though quivering, held strong, and I hung upside down staring at the hard ground that awaited my head. I cried out in fear.
“Grab my hand,” said Steven. I strained my neck to find his silhouette framed in a flare of sunlight. Reaching out my arm, I swung it until I found his hand. My fingers wrapped around his, and I sighed in relief as I began to be pulled upright.
What happened next was one of those rare unexplainables, like biting into a salad fork or poking an eye while putting on a t-shirt. My feet suddenly lost their grip, and though I tried to hang on to Steven’s hand, I flew—miraculously feet first—toward the ground. Impact sent a violent shock throughout my entire body. Pain had no identity, but it overtook me. I squeezed my eyes and rolled on the ground in anguish. I needed my mother to absorb my pitiful groans. Burying my head in the ground, I let the tears puddle beneath the bridge of my nose. It was my own fault. I couldn’t let Steven see this—my defeat.
Even as I suppressed my barking breaths, they lingered, orbiting around my head. After what must have been almost a minute, I took a deep breath and held it, but the gasps continued. I realized they weren’t my own. I cautiously lifted my head, and my eyes climbed the tree and followed the limb to the red cape firmly in the grasp of prickly branches. Dangling several feet below, his head in the noose of the cape, was Steven. His strong fingers struggled to untie the knot around his neck. His legs thrashed the air as raspy whimpers escaped his throat. My tears hardened as I watched in horror. I was going be in trouble if my mom found out where I’d been.
Months later, standing on the stage in front of my classmates, I accepted the wooden, shield-shaped plaque amidst the chorus of cheers. My mom had taken off work to be there for that day, and my eyes teared when I saw her smiling proudly at me from the back of the auditorium.
I stood uncomfortably beside the principal of our school as he gave my little hand a firm shake. He put his hand on my shoulder and spoke into the microphone. “Steven Keller wanted to fly like Superman, and for a brief time he did. He was a model student and this award, in his memory, is given to a student who best exhibits exemplary behavior. You should be very proud, son.” He handed me the award and pushed me forward to the front of the stage to accept the applause.
I didn’t know what “exemplary” meant at the time, but in my mind it was something horrid. My refusal to speak since Steven’s accident had been mistaken for good behavior.Exemplary behavior.
But to this day, every time I hear the word, I remember the scared little kid who ran home and cowered in his bedroom while his friend dangled from a tree.
Also made it in the latest issue of the Sagebrush Review.
MR. LIN’S FAMILY
Mr. Lin awoke before sunrise, jabbed his arms through the sleeves of his stitched-up winter coat, slung his burlap rice sack over his shoulder, and opened his front door to the cold rush of air and the sound of cars whisking over the Manhattan bridge. A spark of moonlight lingered in the sky basking in the urban glow. Fall had been unseasonably temperate, but luckily, on this day the wind was from the north, blowing the stench of rotten garbage and excrement back towards the East River. When Mr. Lin arrived to New York City a few years before from the humid climate of Guandong, China, he found the winds irritating and more nimble than even the rats at burrowing through unseen openings and interrupting sleep, but now he welcomed the fresh air with open arms and smiled at his good fortune.
His home was the marvel of the Canal Street shantytown. He had built it without the traditional tools of nails, hammers, hinges, and saws. Mr. Lin’s specialty was knots. Discarded packing cords held together the mattresses and bedsprings that made up his walls while dusty rugs and sheets of canvas tied over wooden pallets formed his roof. On the outer walls, hanging along streamers of bright florist ribbon were fresh oranges elegantly secured in yellow plastic bows labeled “CAUTION.”