It just says two words: “Your dead.” He didn’t even spell “you’re” right.

October 30th, 2009

Dear Dad,

You’re right. Misty Lee is definitely the villain in this story. You’ll never guess who the victim is.

Misty Lee told Will Mudgett that she still liked me and was hoping we could get back together again. That’s what she was saying when she smiled at him.

Guess how I found out. In social studies, Will Mudgett slipped me a note. I have it here. It just says two words: “Your dead.” He didn’t even spell “you’re” right. He’s the creepiest bad speller I know.

At the end of class, I showed the note to Donnie Joad, who asked Sharon King about it, who then told Donnie what Misty had said to Will. Donnie told me, all wide-eyed like he gets when he’s excited about something.

So now I’m back on Will Mudgett’s hit list. I do NOT want to get back together with Misty Lee. And I’m pretty sure she doesn’t want to get back together with me.

I could tell Will Mudgett that I don’t like her, because I don’t. But he’ll probably think I’m saying that because I’m a chicken.

I could tell Misty Lee that I don’t like her, but I’m pretty sure she’d figure some way to twist that around in a way that would still mess me up. She’s smarter than I am, at least at this kind of stuff.

I think I’ll tell Donnie Joad to talk to Will Mudgett and set him straight. Tell him I have no interest in that frizzy-haired girl. Is that chickening out?

Your son,

Tom

Women are more polite. More sweet, as they murder you.

October 29th, 2009

Dear Trevor,

Oh, poor Will Mudgett. I’ve been on the end of one of those smiles. What I’m wondering is how you know what it meant.

Are there creatures other than girls who smile like that? Maybe crocodiles, but when they rip your heart out, they don’t hand it back in that gentle, bloody way. I’m not saying that boys—or men—are any better. We’re all just as cruel. But men, I think, are more direct in their cruelty. Women are more polite. More sweet, as they murder you.

When Frances Wilkson kissed me, I thought that meant we were in love. I figured she was my girl and pictured her decorating my side when I walked into a room. The next weekend, I asked her to go with me to our school baseball game. I didn’t so much as ask, as tell her that was what I’d scheduled for us. I pictured myself walking into the bleachers with that velvety-dressed girl at my side. She’d be there, just as sure as shoes would be on my feet or a collar would be on my shirt. It was an inevitability.

But she didn’t come with me. When I asked her, she gave me one of those smiles. Actually, she worked her way up to that smile, first with a downward glance, a wringing of her hands, a tucking of her red hair behind one ear. Then she looked up from beneath her bangs and stabbed me with that smile, right in the eyes.

“I’m sorry, Hugh,” she said to me, through her upturned lips, “but I can’t go with you. Howard Castle asked me to go with him and I’m afraid I’ve already said yes.” Then, when she saw the look on my face, she went in for the kill. “I hope you didn’t think I was your girlfriend, just because I kissed you.” I think she said some other words after that, but by then all I heard was ringing.

I didn’t go to that game. In fact, I don’t think I went to a single baseball game for the rest of that year. I knew if I went, I’d see Frances sitting next to some boy who wasn’t me. And I knew she’d smile at me as if I was there. That smile would tear open the wound.

But here I am, making you afraid of girls. And I don’t want that. I want you to be one of those rare people who is not petrified by the opposite sex. I want you to be one of those people who can walk up to anyone–stranger, girl, president, king—and strike up a conversation without fear. There are such people, or so it appears.

My secret belief is that they are just as afraid as the rest of us. Fear is a universal experience, I think. Perhaps fear is even a friend. Perhaps we just have to get to know it better.

Dad

I stood in the corner of the cafeteria today to watch the carnage.

October 28th, 2009

Dear Dad,

I stood way over in the corner of the cafeteria today to watch the carnage. Only a few girls giggled. The rest of us stood there like we were witnessing a car crash.

Misty Lee had two friends with her at her table—Sharon King and Candice Bello. They didn’t look like they were leaving. Will Mudgett came through the door about ten minutes after lunch started. His face was all red like when he was mad, only he didn’t look mad. Misty had her back to him, but as soon as he came in, Sharon and Candice—who were facing the door—leaned in to her and started whispering. Misty Lee had a sour cream and onion potato chip halfway to her mouth and froze just like that, her mouth wide open to receive that chip. Candice said something and Sharon started laughing, but Misty didn’t laugh. She closed her mouth and set that chip back down on the table.

A few of the people were watching Misty, but most were watching Will Mudgett, who was still standing in the doorway. Someone would come through the door and knock into Will Mudgett, but he’d manage to keep his eyes in Misty’s direction. He’d straighten himself back up and regain his position in the doorway, just in time for someone else to come through. This went on for about fifteen minutes. And lunch is only a half our long, so he only had about five minutes left before it was over. Finally, he walked over to Misty Lee’s table. He said something to Sharon and Candice and they started to get up, but then Misty said something and they sat back down. Then Will Mudgett just stood there without saying anything for like 60 seconds. I swear, there must have been a hundred people watching every breath he took.

Finally, he said something. I couldn’t hear what. Then Misty smiled at him in a way that made me sure she’d just turned him down. Every single person in the room knew what that kind of smile meant. Will said something to her then. She gave that smile again, touched him on his arm, and said something back.

Then the weird thing happened. Will Mudgett just kept standing there, looking at her. His face was still all red, but the skin right around his eyes grew all dark. Man, that kid can sure look scary when he wants to. Then he sat down at the table. I swear, I think he forgot Misty Lee and those other girls were even there. I think the room disappeared for him.

The bell rang, like at the end of a round in a UFC match, and Misty and her friends went back to their corners. Will Mudgett just kept sitting there. I left with everybody else to go to math class. Will Mudgett was supposed to be in that class, but he never showed.

Your son,

Trevor

I watch others come in and go out. They go on. I stay.

October 27th, 2009

Dear Trevor,

As for watching, I fear that I was a watcher too much of my life.

As I read your letters about this Will and Misty, I’m not sure who is the villain and who is the hero. I guess from my point of view, as the third-hand reader of your second-hand narrative, that Will is the obvious villain—the one you’d expect to be the bad guy in a movie. But I think Misty Lee may be the real villain.

The trick is, she’s only the villain in this little chapter. In the next chapter—and that turn of the page from one chapter to another happens second by second—she may be the hero or the damsel in distress. One moment, she may be playing one boy against another like a kid poking ants with a pin. The next moment, she may be in the class of that teacher of yours, Mr. Schick, where he’s shaming her for some harmless part of her nature.

When I got out of the service and went to school, I was sure as could be that I wanted to be a writer or an English teacher. That’s what I was meant to do, I’m pretty certain. I’d saved enough in the service to go to college and I made it three-and-a-half years through Seattle U before my uncle talked me into going into the real estate business with him. So I did that. Opened up the office, started signing papers and scratching out a little money one weathered house at a time.

I spent as little of the money I made as I could. Like your mother says, I am naturally thrifty. But I always managed to take a little money to the bookstore and buy books. It drove your mom crazy when we’d go weeks at a time without stepping into a restaurant, but books would show up in the mail. Faulkner, Stegner, Greene, Roth, Vonnegut, Bellow. I would cut off my left arm for a little case of their books right now, where short, sharp sentences nearly set the book paper on fire.

My own rambling writing in these letters here always works shyly around the corners, taking these four paragraphs to get to the point. Here it is: Those men—certainly greater men than me—they did what I wanted to do. They put pen to paper and made their living at it. I only dreamed about it. I only watched them do it. The only writing I did was real estate closing documents and believe me, no one ever reads more than a few words of those.

I’m still a watcher. I sit here in this seaside village of watchers. I watch others come in and go out. They go on. I stay.

Let me know what happens with Will Mudgett. If I was there, I’d be watching, too.

Dad

I can’t imagine that she’ll say yes, but what do I know about girls.

October 26th, 2009

Dear Dad,

The big news today is that Will Mudgett is supposedly going to ask Misty Lee to go with him tomorrow. I can’t imagine that she’ll say yes, but what do I know about girls.

Whenever I saw Misty Lee today, she was surrounded by about five other girls, all whispering and shaking their heads. Whenever I saw Will Mudgett, he was either by himself or with his only friend, Chuck Klein, who wears these huge, fake diamonds in his pierced ears.

It’s kind of a relief to have Will Mudgett moving his focus off of me and onto Misty Lee, because he was still freaking me out on a regular basis. He still sits by me in social studies, when he decides to show up. Sometimes, when I look over at him, he is just staring at me like he wishes I was dead. Donnie still thinks I should just punch him or something. Like Donnie would ever do anything like that. I spent half of fourth grade fighting for Donnie when a fifth grader would pick on him.

I don’t know how everyone knows what Will Mudgett is going to do. My guess is that he told Chuck and Chuck told someone else and then, about 5 seconds later, the whole seventh grade knew.

So now I’m on this side. I’m a watcher. And Will Mudgett is the performing monkey. Misty Lee—I would never call her a performing monkey, because she knows what she’s doing and loooves being the center of attention. It doesn’t matter if it’s because of a freak like Will Mudgett. If it meant that she’d be surrounded by a crowd of other girls all day, Misty Lee would probably go out with Hitler or something.

Anyway, it’s all supposed to go down tomorrow at lunch. I’ll be there watching.

Your son,

Trevor

I’m definitely not resting in or on anyone’s bosom, Abraham or otherwise.

October 23rd, 2009

Dear Trevor,

I wish I had a Bible here, so I could look up some of those passages you mentioned. You’d think if I was in Heaven or someplace near it that there’d be Bibles all over the place. Clearly, the Gideons haven’t passed through yet.

I’m definitely not resting in or on anyone’s bosom, Abraham or otherwise. That said, my neighbor, Martin, has got quite a bosom. If he were a woman, he’d probably wear about a D cup. On Martin, his bosom just looks like a high-riding roll of fat. I don’t know how he stays so fat when we all eat so little. The only woman I know up here is Sung-hee, the waitress, and she is so manly she has no bosom at all. Even if she did, I think it’s pretty unlikely she’d let me rest anywhere near it.

I don’t know of any gullies around here, but to be honest, I haven’t explored much past the immediate neighborhood. There certainly might be a gully in the woods.

Drew said that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. I don’t know how that applies here. Like you said, I haven’t seen God. No old men with white beards. No floating bright lights. No one surrounded by angels or sitting on a throne. Then again, I don’t seem to be absent from my body. My body is not much to speak of, but it doesn’t hurt all the time like it did when I was there at home, all run through with cancer.

The one verse that you wrote of that jumped out at me was that one that said something like, “you die and after that, the judgment.” Maybe that’s what this is. Maybe I get a mediocre eternity because I lived a mediocre life. My hands shake as I write such a thing.

I asked Carl, my neighbor on the opposite side from Martin, why he thought he was here.

“We’re in hell,” he said, plainly. “We brought this on ourselves.”

“Yeah, yeah,” I said to Carl, because we’re all sick of him going on and on about how this place is hell. “But what did you do to end up here?”

“It’s not what I did,” said Carl. “It’s what I didn’t do. I clearly didn’t do enough.” Then Carl told me that he was a Presbyterian elder back in the old place. Turns out he knows quite a bit about the Bible, as he attended church most of his life. I read your letter to him, and he kept interrupting me to give more color.

That sheep and goats bit? Carl explained that Jesus was saying that sheep are those who helped those less fortunate. They make it into heaven because they looked after the poor, it seems. The goats are those who turned their backs on those in need, so they went to hell.

That one makes my hands shake, too.

Dad

When a kid with a dead dad says something like that, it always shuts everybody up.

October 22nd, 2009

Dear Dad,

 

Drew just left and I’ve escaped to my room so I don’t have to listen to Mom drill me about what a wonderful guy he is.

 

He was nice as pie. In fact, he makes me think of a piece of pie. Not homemade like Mom’s, but more of a store-bought pie like other kids’ moms always bring to potlucks. Generally sweet and filling. Drew smiled a lot and told mom what a beautiful home we have, which is basically not true. I mean, it’s fine and everything, but our carpet is old and none of our furniture matches. He was definitely getting carried away.

 

When we first started talking, Drew seemed excited. He smiled in that store-bought pie kind of way and said he’d found the best verse that explained what happened when you die. It is in Second Corinthians, chapter five. Drew said that it says, “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” I looked it up after he left. What it really says is, “We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.”

 

I asked Drew if that was the only verse. He said, “No. Of course not. But it’s the most clear.” It doesn’t seem clear to me, because Dad, you don’t seem to be present with the Lord. I mean, you haven’t seen God, have you?

 

I pushed Drew to tell me about some other verses and he reluctantly told me about how God says that one day he’ll separate the sheep from the goats, meaning that sheep are good and goats are bad. This made no sense to me, because goats and sheep both seem about the same to me. I mean, goats give milk and sheep give wool. My friend Paul is lactose intolerant and he can only drink goat’s milk. And I always get goat cheese on my gyro at It’s Greek to Me and it’s delicious.

 

Then he talked about a story called The Rich Man and Lazarus. Jesus tells the story, and in it, a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus both die. The rich man goes to hell, but he can look across this gully and see Lazarus all happy in some place called Abraham’s Bosom, which is weird. Abraham had a bosom? I guess it must mean his lap or something. But it would be weird to spend even a day in Abraham’s lap. I wouldn’t want to be in his lap for eternity. I suppose it’s just symbolic.

 

The rich man calls across the gully, asking Abraham to send Lazarus over to him with a glass of water. I suppose if I was in hell, I’d want a glass of water, too. But Abraham says that no one can cross the gully.

 

Here’s probably a stupid question: Are there any gullies up where you are?

 

When I asked Drew if Abraham’s Bosom was just another word for heaven, he rubbed his eyebrows with his finger and said, “I don’t know. Some people think it’s more of a purgatory.”

 

He showed me a couple of other weird verses, too, like where a guy was caught up into something called “the third heaven.” He said that in the book of Revelations, it says that heaven is described as a place where Jesus will wipe every tear from your eyes and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. I liked that one quite a bit. Oh, and one other one said, “It is appointed to man once to die and after that the judgment.” That one doesn’t tell you much, but at least it’s pretty straightforward.

 

I kept trying to interrupt him and ask him about what actually happens when you die, like on a minute-by-minute basis. He said no one knows that. He said that since the Bible doesn’t have much to say about it, he doesn’t think it’s the point.

 

“It is to me,” I said. “And I bet it would be to you if your dad had died.” I knew that would shut him up and it did. When a kid with a dead dad says something like that, it always shuts everybody up.

 

After a minute of silence, he asked me if I was worried if you were in heaven or not. I said that yes, I was. He asked me if you’d asked Jesus into your heart. I said I’d already told him that Mom said you did. He said, “Then you don’t have anything to worry about.” Then he recited John 3:16 to me, about how if you believe in Jesus you have everlasting life.

 

“Yeah,” I said, “but is it a good life or a bad life? Because if you have everlasting life that’s bad, isn’t that basically hell?”

 

Drew said he had to go, but that he’d be happy to keep talking to me about this, which I thought was nice, considering how much he’d kept rubbing his forehead the whole time he’d been there.

 

Personally, I’m more confused than ever. I guess I think that maybe I know more about what happens when you die than Drew does. Not because I’m smarter than him, but just because of your letters.

 

Even with your letters, I still don’t really get what’s going on where you are. Isn’t there someone you can ask?

 

Your son,

 

Trevor

 

P.S. What do you mean when you say “my unbearable shame?” I thought we were being honest here. Can you please just explain it to me?

I think that going backwards would be the wrong direction

October 21st, 2009

Dear Trevor,

 

I remember that trailer. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

 

I loved Popular Mechanics. I suppose I was a cheapskate, but I also loved the idea of making something myself from scratch. It was this feeling of process. Of starting with nothing but a sheet of instructions and a materials list. Of going to the hardware store and coming home with a stack of lumber, boxes of screws, and a new cordless drill. Of filling the basement with sawdust. Of dripping wood glue on the floor. Of stretching out a sore back and rubbing callused hands.

 

You and I, Trevor, we come from blue collar stock. Your grandpa worked in a gravel quarry and his father was a coal miner, both in Wales and here in the states. When I sat in my desk at the real estate office or drove around showing houses, a big part of me wished I was making something with my hands, instead of just transacting sales for other people. Right now, as I sit here on my porch in this half land, I miss the sawdust and the screws so much more than I miss the printing and signing of stacks of papers.

 

Today, when I picked up your letter from the post office, the postman actually spoke to me. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard his voice. He said, “What on earth could you have to talk about that requires this much mail?”

 

I laughed out loud at the way he phrased it—“what on earth?” I don’t think my laughter helped our relationship much, as he just frowned at me again, so I made a quick apology and said I hoped the letters weren’t too much of an inconvenience. He shrugged and turned his back, to do what I have no idea, as his tiny post office is completely bare. The little shack has a wall of post office boxes, but I’ve never seen one in use other than mine. There are no wanted posters on the wall, no papers on his counter, no mail in the little cubbies behind him. Nothing but a postman on a stool, waiting. I think mine is the only business he gets and would think he’d love the distraction, if nothing else.

 

If I was him, I’d probably steam open our letters and read them, out of sheer boredom.

 

Perhaps he’s jealous. He probably longs for his old life on earth as much as I do. Or, is long the right word? I’m not sure I want to go back to living down with you, as much as I miss you all. I think that going backwards would be the wrong direction to move. But there should be something more than what I have now.

 

I don’t understand why I alone should be getting letters. It feels like such a luxury in this place. Why me? Why don’t the others here have kids that reach out as you do? I’ve certainly done nothing to deserve your attention, as I barely even got to know you before I left. I deserve punishment more than pleasure, after what I’ve done. Maybe your letters are meant to remind me of my shame. As if I’ve ever needed a reminder.

 

Dad

It’s better than watching one of Mom’s dumb PBS shows.

October 20th, 2009

Dear Dad –

 

I looked up the definitions of psychologists and psychiatrists. I’m not sure I really understand the difference. The dictionary says that a psychiatrist is an M.D. and a psychologist is a Ph.D. I don’t know if that will help Dr. Jones. I could look up more if you want me to.

 

Your story about Mom freaked me out. I guess I forget that she misses you, too. She always seems to be keeping it all together. I mean, she’s not perfect or anything. She can get really cranky sometimes and some of the stuff she does drives me crazy.

 

Almost every night she falls asleep on the couch in front of the TV. She snores in this annoying, snuffly way, more of a gargle than a snore. If I change the channel, she opens her eyes and yells, “I’m watching that!” If Rhonda or I tell her she’s asleep, she’ll yell, “I’m just resting my eyes!” Then she’ll nod off again and start snoring away.

 

Rhonda’s pretty skilled at changing the channel. She slowly lowers the sound so that Mom doesn’t wake up, then switches it over to something she wants to watch, then slowly raises the sound, but not as loud as it was before. She and I have to sit close to the TV to hear it, but it’s better than watching one of Mom’s dumb PBS shows.

 

Mom tells lots of stories about you. I like to hear them, but they get all mixed up with my memories. I can’t figure out if my memories of you are real or if I’m just remembering a story Mom told me.

 

She tells this one story about this camping trailer you made. The whole thing was made of plywood, built from plans you bought from Popular Mechanics. She says you were too cheap to buy a regular tent trailer. The trailer you made folded flat so you could tow it behind a car and then was supposed to fold out into the size of a regular camper once you got to your destination. The first time you went out to try it, Mom says, the whole family drove for hours and arrived at the campground right as it was getting dark. Then just as you began to fold out the trailer, you threw out your back. Mom had to set the whole thing up with you groaning on the ground in pain, barking instructions at her.

 

I don’t know if she ever managed to get the camper setup, but she says you never used it again. I wish I’d seen it. It sounds pretty cool to me.

 

Oh, I finally heard back from Drew—Misty Lee’s pastor who promised to find out what the Bible said happens to us when we die. He was wondering if he could get together with me in person to share what he found. I thought that would be kind of weird, so I asked if he could just tell me over the phone. He said that would be fine, but that he’d have to call me back the next day when he had more time to talk. I told Mom about it when I hung up the phone and she called him right back and invited him over. So now he’s coming over and Mom is all excited that I’m interested in something about the Bible. This freaks me out, too.

 

Anyway, he’ll be here tomorrow so I’ll let you know what he has to say.

 

Your son,

 

Trevor

As you get older, you get more comfortable being uncomfortable.

October 19th, 2009

Dear Trevor,

Was it hard to be me? It IS hard to be me. The only wisdom I have for you is that I think it’s hard for each person to be themselves. As you get older, you get more comfortable being uncomfortable.

There’s another guy who lives up here that goes by the name of Dr. Jones. He’s not sure if that’s his real name, but he thinks it is. He was either a psychologist or a psychiatrist when he was where you are. He can’t remember which and he can’t remember the difference between the two. In fact, if you could look that up and let me know, I could pass the information on to him. I bet old Jones would appreciate it.

Anyway, Dr. Jones does occasionally remember some really specific things about his area of expertise. A while ago, he was telling me about this idea of his—that we’re all at the center of our own universes. And that feeling of being the center—of having the whole of existence focused on us—is strongest during adolescence, because that’s when we’re most focused on our identity.

Stick with me here.

Jones said that right about at your age, two feelings occur. The first one he called “imaginary audience.” That is the feeling that everyone you know is intimately interested in just about everything you do. This is why when I was a teenager, I used to get so upset when I got a zit, because I thought that the whole world noticed. Nobody did. Why? Because each person is so focused on their own faces that they rarely notice flaws in others.

The other idea is what Jones called “imaginary fable,” which is that no one—not even any of these people interested in your zits—ever understand you. No one does. They don’t know what you’re going through. How could your parents or teachers understand you? They’re so old, right?

I don’t mean to get in the least bit preachy—what right have I?—but you are not alone in your experiences—in your suffering. Life is hard for everyone. Hell, even this existence I have is hard for everyone up here, including me. Even now I struggle with the stupidest of vanities. So I check my kitchen-shear-chopped hair before I venture out. I sweep off my porch in case of visitors. I check my breath before I visit Sung-Hee at the Laughing Gull and Sung-Hee is just about the manliest, most sexless woman I have ever met.

Even someone as foreign to you as—dare I say it?—your mother, probably understands what you’re going through far more than you would guess. She was a girl once, who worried about what boys thought of her. Once upon a time, a million years ago, she moved to a new school and put up with all the uneasy stares of other kids.

I know your mom tends to try to make everything all right. I know she wants you to always look on the bright side. Believe me, there is more value to that outlook than you may understand right now. But believe me about another thing as well: your mom understands pain. She understands hard times. She understands loneliness.

There was a day there at the end, when I was at my weakest. I’d finished a round of chemo and had come back home. We were in the middle of a conversation. I was talking to your mom about a piece of real estate property we owned—down the dead end road on the end of our street. I was giving her advice on how long to hold it before selling it, when I just nodded off to sleep right in the middle of a sentence. Of course, I don’t remember going to sleep or much at all about the conversation, but I do remember waking up and seeing your mom there. She was bawling. What I mean is she wasn’t just crying. She was racked with sobs, shaking away. Her face was all puffy. Her hands were buried in her hair and she was hanging on by the roots.

When she noticed me awake, she quickly wiped her face with a sopping wet Kleenex, pulled her hair back into place and tried to smile at me. She apologized for crying and asked if she could get me a glass of water or a sandwich.

When I try to remember what your mom looked like, I see her at a dozen different ages. I see her when we first met, when she was still in high school and skinny as a fencepost. I see her in her wedding dress, with the little pillbox hat and the veil that came even with her chin. I see her in a pair of clam diggers down on the beach, with your sister pulling her by the hand as they turned over rocks, looking for families of crabs. And I see her sitting on the side of the bed, sobbing away when she thought I couldn’t hear. I don’t mind the image, because she was feeling so much and now I understand how much feeling matters—how much I miss it. Your mom let it all loose, all alone when she thought no one was watching.

Would you ever open up to your mom, the way you’ve opened up to me in these letters? I never did with my mom, your grandma. And if you did, I have no idea how she’d react. She’d probably want to pray for you.

If she did, you’d survive just fine.

Dad

I love Mrs. Henry. Not like a girlfriend or anything.

October 16th, 2009

Dear Dad,

 

You sounded so down in that last post. What could you have done? When it comes to your past, Mom talks about you like you were a saint. Or a superdad. But you talk like you’ve killed someone. I want to know what you have to feel so ashamed.

 

About the woods. Sure, I’d like to know more, but I don’t want you to do anything you don’t want to do. Mom still takes us that place on Mount Rainier you’re talking about, with the huge trees. She gets all gooey about it, because the trees are so old. Grown-ups always get gooey about how old things are. The place you were trying to remember is called the Grove of the Patriarchs. It sounds like a name of a place you should go after you die, so I guess it fits for your woods, too. If you go in, let me know more.

 

Changing subjects now.

 

What is it with teachers? I swear, 99 percent of the time, it seems like their job is to make me feel stupid. I feel stupid in Mr. Schick’s stupid Bible class. I feel really stupid in the Math Troll’s math class, where I have no idea what she’s talking about.

 

Last year we did math in our heads. This year it’s all quadratic equations.

 

I feel stupid in P.E., because Mr. Anders thinks it fun to ask me to do impossible things like chin-ups and rope climbing. He knows I can’t climb that damn rope, but he asks me to do it in front of everybody, just so I’ll feel stupid. I don’t feel stupid in his social studies class, mostly because I think Mr. Anders is stupider than I am. He’s a dumb jock at heart. I think he knows it.

 

We had to do chin-ups on the bars outside, which are made for giants, so we climbed up a step stool just to reach the bars. We were each supposed to do 10 chin-ups. When I couldn’t do even one, I told Mr. Anders it was because we were too high off the ground and the gravity was stronger, but he wouldn’t buy it, even though a bunch of other guys agreed with me.

 

The only class I don’t feel stupid in is English. My teacher there is Mrs. Henry. Her class is like an island in a sea of stupid. It’s like the only part of the day where I can catch my breath. I love Mrs. Henry. Not like a girlfriend or anything. More like the way I love mom. Not like I think Mrs. Henry is more important than Mom. But she seems to get how hard it is to be me.

 

Was it hard for you to be you? In all your pictures, you look so sure of yourself.

 

 

Your son,

 

Trevor

If you are slacking off, revel in the glorious idiocy of the game.

October 15th, 2009

Dear Trevor,

 

 

I’m not certain what the term “Rhino” means, but I don’t care much for this Mr. Schick, so I wouldn’t assume it’s complimentary.

 

Excuse my dishonesty. I do know what he means. I’m done with any courtesies that require lies to accompany them. He’s calling you a rhino, because you’re charging the ball to hard. Do you blow past attackers? Don’t. Square off with them. Play on your toes. Wait for the attacker to make a mistake.

 

When I was alive, I thought that when I died that games and hobbies would reveal themselves as irrelevant. I was wrong. Every moment is relevant. I long for a run on a soccer pitch as much as I long for a child being born. At every moment, I wish I’d gone for it. Do you know what I mean?

 

I’m not trying to sound like a coach—do your best and all that. I’m trying to say that my hope for you is that you suck every bit of juice out of every moment of life. If you are playing soccer, be aware of every blade of grass under your cleats. If you are slacking off, revel in the glorious idiocy of the game. Feel every bit of the sting when a drop of sweat rolls into your eye. If the other guy beats you, go ahead and feel humiliated. The fact that you’re feeling means you’re in the game. You’re a player, not an observer. I think that may be all that matters. That you play. That you jump in.

 

Meanwhile, I sit on my porch and watch. Others get off the train and wander off into the woods. A few get on the bloody boat.

 

You asked about the woods. Let me describe them to you. The edges are full of brambles and shrubs, but once you get under the trees, the ground is mostly clear. The trees are huge—mostly firs and cedars, if I guess correctly. Huge ones. Reminds me of a place on Mount Rainier. I don’t remember the name, but your mom loved it. Huge old trees. Boardwalks to keep the tourists off the ground.

 

These trees are even bigger. My guess is that the constant fog makes them grow like that. Under trees that huge, the forest is always dark. Almost none of the dim light that we get around here makes it down to ground level in the woods. The dirt there is spongy from the countless inches of needles.

 

There’s not much else to tell. I’ve never gone in very far. I’ve never heard a bird or seen any creatures in there. It’s all trunks and shadows. If I can get a bit of gumption, I’ll try to explore further. Maybe I’ll take a bit of paper and a pencil with me and write you a letter while I’m there.

 

As far as Mr. Schick being disappointed in you for chewing gum, don’t beat yourself up over it. You’re right. You were only chewing gum. He’s trying to use guilt as a motivator and he has no right. He is not God. He does not sound like a worthwhile role model. He does not sound like a just judge.

 

Nice drawing of him, by the way.

 

God, I fear, is a just judge. I fear that’s why I’m stuck here. I’ve done far worse than you, Trevor. I hope you’ll never bear the shame I bear.

 

It’s one of the few hopes I have left.

 

Dad

He spoke as if I’d just shot up heroin. All I did was chew a piece of Hubba Bubba.

October 14th, 2009

mrschickDear Dad,

 

I don’t think you should get on that boat, if that’s what going onward means. It seems like that boat must be going to hell.

 

I would like to hear more about the woods. You make them sound scary, which is weird to me, because of all the stories Mom tells me about hiking trips you took my brothers on, I can’t ever imagine you being scared to go into the woods. What are you afraid of?

 

We had our fifth soccer game yesterday, so the season is half over. We’ve won four games and lost one. I’m still playing on defense, which I like, because I get to see the ball coming before it gets to me, so I have time to think about what I should do. I don’t think I’m the greatest player or anything. I don’t start. But I think I’m OK. I’m pretty fast. Keith thinks Mr. Schick should play me as a midfielder and says Mr. Schick doesn’t know how to make use of my speed.

 

Mr. Schick calls me Rhino. I’m not sure if that’s good or not. Do you think it’s good? Is that some kind of soccer term I don’t understand? Mr. Schick is also my Bible teacher. Today in class I was chewing gum. He was talking about the prophet Samuel choosing David to be the king of Israel, then he stopped all of a sudden and looked at me.

 

“Trevor, are you chewing gum?” he asked.

 

“Yes,” I said. I could feel my face getting hot.

 

Mr. Schick just stood there and stared at me without saying anything for about 15 seconds. The whole class got really quiet. Then he said, in kind of a whisper, “I’m very disappointed in you, Trevor.”

 

Geez! What a total dork! “I’m very disappointed in you, Trevor.” For chewing gum? He spoke as if I’d just shot up heroin or murdered his wife. All I did was chew a piece of Hubba Bubba.

 

I bet his wife is a hag. And not a sea hag. Just a regular, unhappy hag who never gets to chew gum.

 

But the thing that bugs me most of all is that I can’t stop thinking about it. I mean, Mr. Schick really is a dork. His hair is always greasy and he’s mostly bald anyway and he wears these glasses that ride way up on his nose. But if all it takes to be disappointed in me is for me to chew a piece of gum, what hope do I have?

 

I included a drawing of Mr. Schick. Ick. I’ve got to stop writing now. More tomorrow.

 

Your son,

 

Trevor

I long to long for a cigarette.

October 13th, 2009

Dear Trevor,

 

Do I have dreams? Not in the sense you think of them, as that would require me to sleep. I don’t sleep. If I recall correctly, I rarely slept well when I was where you are, but I loved the feeling of a good nap.

 

There is night here. It never gets fully dark, just as the foggy days never seem to get bright. The nights here remind me of the summer I spent in Alaska as a young man, where the sun seemed to tease the horizon more than dip below it. I have an old couch in my cabin, and when it gets too dark to sit out on the porch, I go inside and lie on the couch. Sometimes I close my eyes. Sometimes I lie awake and stare at the ceiling.

 

Gordon says that nights are hardest for him, as the quiet and dark make him long for his pipe and some decent tobacco. Once I picked up a pack of cigarettes from the store, but I’ve never opened them. I still recall the pain and loss that came from the cancer that took me from you. I had to give up cigarettes along the way and whether it was that act or the fact of coming here, I’ve lost all taste for them. It’s strange, but I still desire to have the desire for them. I long to long for a cigarette. Funny.

 

I do imagine and I do remember. I’m not certain dreaming is much different than that, although dreams seem to happen much faster than waking thoughts. I can vaguely recall dreams that seemed to last a lifetime, although I know they happened during the nine minutes between snooze alarms.

 

What do I think about? That’s more to your question, I suppose. I think about you more and more, as your letters have given order to my shiftless life. I have become the envy of all the residents in my little town. I think about how much I wish I was there to guide you through this part of your life. I think about how I missed the chance to raise your brothers. I wonder about how they turned out—what kind of young men they are. I think about your sister and how I’ll miss meeting any of her boyfriends for the first time. That was something I always wanted to do—to make a boyfriend wait nervously on our porch.

 

I think about your mother. I wonder if she was heartbroken when I left. I hope she was, I suppose, selfish as that sounds. I think about my brother, your Uncle Floyd. I wish I could tell him how he should be living, but I doubt it would make a difference, even if I rose out of the grave to speak.

 

I think about food in the same way I think about cigarettes. I’m not sure what I long for more, a great, thick steak or the hunger for one. I would love to feel hungry and then I would love to eat something savory to smother that hunger. I’m never hungry here.

 

More than anything else, I think about the boat and the woods. Those are the two ways out of this town that I can see. Most newcomers seem to go into the woods. I’ve tipped my toe into those shadows from time to time, but haven’t seen much that draws me further. Fear and not much else at all—except maybe the post office and your letters—holds me back.

 

Should I stay? Or should I go “onward.” That black woman Crazy said that’s where the boat goes. Onward. If I go into the woods, does that count as going onward, too?

 

All my thoughts seem to be questions.

 

Dad

Rhonda and Rhett think I’m faking it. They’re right.

October 12th, 2009

Dear Dad,

 

 How do I feel about Misty Lee? Definitely not heartbroken. I guess I feel mostly confused and ripped off. I feel like a jerk for ever having asked her to go with me. I think she takes the whole thing about as seriously as choosing which TV show to watch. And I think Rick Jarvis is a jerk for asking her to go with him on the same day, but I guess he doesn’t take any of it seriously either.

 

I wish someone down here would take something seriously.

 

The one feeling that stays with me are the little hairs on her stomach.

 

And I now return to my original opinion: Misty Lee is not that cute.

 

What pisses me off even more are my friends, who sat by and watched the whole thing like it was some kind of show.

 

I guess I don’t have to worry about Will Mudgett trying to kill me anymore. I’m assuming he won’t want to kill me now. He’s hardly ever at school these days.

 

The whole world here is just one fake after another. No one means what they say, except my teachers, who say they’re going to give me bad grades and then do it. I’m almost grateful to them.

 

By the way, I stayed home from school again today. I told Mom I didn’t feel good. Rhonda and Rhett think I’m faking it. They’re right. But why should I go back?

 

Rhett said, “You’re scared of something. That’s why you’re staying home. You’re just being a pansy. Just like when you wouldn’t jump off the marina.”

 

I wish he would stop bringing that up.

 

Drew called again to tell me he is still working on answers to my questions. That’s all. He’s a pretty nice guy.

 

I felt sick to my stomach reading your description of the woman captain. She sounds like something out of a horror movie. I don’t think I would go and see her each time if she is so awful to look at. But I guess you always wonder about her. Does she have a name?

 

You stopped talking about her so that you wouldn’t give me nightmares, which made me wonder—do you have dreams? If so, what about?

 

Your son,

 

Trevor

There are no calendars here. No clocks. No seasons.

October 9th, 2009

Dear Trevor,

I don’t know what day it is. I don’t know how long it takes your letters to get here. I go to the post office and pick them up and go back to the post office and drop off a reply. That’s all I’ve got for you.

There are no calendars here. No clocks. No seasons. My hair grows, but that’s about the only way I have to track time. I should start keeping track of how many times Carl and I have cut each other’s hair with the kitchen shears. No daily newspaper. No monthly bills and no checks to write. No paydays. No weekend football games and no church on Sunday. No Sundays, as far as that goes. Nothing happens on a regular schedule except the train and the boat and honestly, they might not be regularly scheduled either. I really have no idea how often they come, just that they both come every now and then and when the train pulls in, the boat pulls in.

When the boat does pull in, that woman captain is always onboard. What does she look like? My God, it is hard to look at her and almost as hard to make a record of it now. You ask, is she covered in blood? She is dripping in it. I think she is likely the source of all the blood around the boat, but it’s hard to tell if the blood she’s covered in is her own. It may well be the blood of her victims, if that is how it works. Or she may be the victim herself. Is she the butcher at the slaughterhouse, or the cow with the slit throat? Either way, she is covered in blood.

It’s strange to sit in this little town, with its quiet fogginess and then see this bloody hag come creaking in on her tub. If the water is especially calm, her blood actually stains her wake. That’s how much of it there is.

It’s hard to see beneath the blood, because it is black and crusted in her hair like so many meat drippings. But every now and then I do see. Her face is a mess of scars. And not just scars, but open wounds. From week to week they change. One day her left eye may be swollen shut. The next time it may be her right. Her ears are cauliflowered and cut. Her lips are swollen and bleeding. Her mouth never opens, which is honestly a relief, because I’m sure it would either be a howl of madness or a howl of pain.

Hers is an image I will never get used to, but after countless viewings, I began to notice other surprising things. Her face is so covered in blood that it’s hard to see, but it is not an old face. It was likely well-formed once. Her body is bloody mostly, but the elemental shape of it is the shape of a young woman, with curving breasts and hips. To see such pain or wickedness in one that seems so young may be the hardest thing of all.

Excuse me for such language, but between us as father and son, she looks mostly like a whore, one that was pretty once, but has been savagely used and savagely beaten. Believe me, if you were to see her, you would not want to board her ship. If she is treated so miserably, what must happen to her passengers? She must be coming from hell and going back there, because she looks to be living in constant hell, covered in constant blood. And who treats her this way? They must certainly be waiting on the other end of her journey.

Enough of that. I don’t want to replace your dreams with nightmares.

It surprised me to hear that Pastor Mel died, as you say. I have not seen him come through our town, or if he has, I’ve not recognized him. That’s possible. I thought by now I’d have seen at least someone I know. But I don’t understand who comes this way and who does not. It is not the whole population of the world, to be certain.

I don’t recall that evening at the Robbins, but I can imagine it, I suppose. Honestly, Dorothy and her husband were two of the most uptight people in the neighborhood. They lived up on the hill, like that gave them some special position. I can’t remember her husband’s name. It has slipped away from me. But the two of them always used to look at all you kids as if you were a pack of wild dogs, as if you were our burden to bear, instead of our joy. If we spent an evening at their home, you have to forgive me for getting drunk, but it likely helped me get through it more pleasurably.

I have no desire for drink now. My mind is foggy enough as it is.

But you’re right. I could never carry a tune. A sad thing for a Welshman to be a poor singer.

How do you feel about Misty Lee? Are you heartbroken?

Dad

Misty Lee dumped me today.

October 8th, 2009

Dear Dad,

There is no way I’m talking to Mom about her razor stubble. But I did ask her where your funeral was held. I was pretty sure it was at Pastor Mel’s church—Grace Baptist. It was. She said she doesn’t really remember that much about it either, but that more than 300 people showed up. That’s pretty cool, I guess. I have a vague memory of sitting in the front row, I think. Or maybe that’s a memory of when I was baptized. They all blur together for me.

Pastor Mel’s dead, by the way. One day he was healthy and the next he was dead. I think something burst inside his brain, but if you ask Mom about it, she’ll say that God took him home like Elijah. Like Pastor Mel was so beloved by God that God couldn’t stand not having him in heaven. I think that’s a stretch. I mean, I liked the guy and everything, but let’s not get carried away.

We stopped going to church there after Pastor Mel died, because they brought in some guy from out-of-state to take his place. Reverend Howard B. Dapple from Wichita Falls, Kansas. He pronounced Washington with an R. Warshington. He sweated a lot when he talked and always held a hankie in one hand to swipe across his face. Now we go to this dumb church right up on Dash Point Road, about a half mile from the grocery store. I don’t like it. The pastor reminds me of Mrs. Fletcher at school, because I think he hates kids. He gives me dirty looks right from the pulpit if he catches me doodling during his sermons. What am I supposed to do? Just sit there? The guy thinks he is a good speaker. He’s not. He tries really hard to get himself all worked into a frenzy, but all it does is get these creepy pockets of white foam forming at the corner of his mouth. Gross.

Misty Lee dumped me today. She wouldn’t say that she dumped me, but she pretty much did. She gave me a note on heart-shaped paper. I have it right here in front of me now. It says, “Dear Trevor, I’m sorry I can’t be the kind of girlfriend you want me to be. I hope we can still be friends. You’re a great guy! Love, Misty.”

She had Sharon King give it to me. Sharon stood there while I read it. When I didn’t say anything, she said, “That means she’s breaking up with you.” I said, “Oh.” She said, “Do you want me to tell her anything for you?” I said no. “Nothing? You should say something.” So I said she could tell Misty to have a nice day. She thought I was being a jerk and she said so.

By the end of the day, Sharon King got dumped by Rick Jarvis. Serves her right. All three of them are complete dorks.

Mrs. Fletcher the math troll sent a note home with me to get signed by Mom, which says I’m getting a D in math. Mom asked why. I said I didn’t know. Mom asked what she was supposed to do. I said she had to sign the note so I could prove that she knew about it. She said that it was ridiculous that they didn’t trust me. She told me not to worry about the D, because she said she knew I’d figure it out because I was such a smart boy and a good student and all that, because we both know Mom only believes her kids are perfect, even when they’re not. She acts the same way about you. Even when she tells stories about things you did that she didn’t like, she has this way of surrounding the facts in a kind of glow that still makes you sound so wonderful.

Mrs. Robbins, one of our neighbors, dropped by a cassette tape on Monday when I was home from school. She asked me to give it to Mom, but I hadn’t yet. I tossed it in my room. Mom asked about it, saying that Mrs. Robbins had called and asked if Mom had heard the tape yet, because you were talking on it. They’d recorded it at a party. I went to get it, but decided to listen to it before I gave it to Mom.

So I popped it in the cassette player and you and Mom and Mr. and Mrs. Robbins were singing “I’m an Old Cowhand.” None of you sounded very good. One guy’s voice was really off key and warbly. Then when the song ended, that same voice yelled, “Let’s do that again!” and started singing all alone. Horrible and really drunk. Then the other male voice said, “Hey Hugh, don’t quit your day job!” There was laughter and then the tape ended. That was it.

So that was you. I’d never really thought about what you sounded like before. Now at least I know what you sound like drunk. Your voice is kind of high and froggy. Not what I’d imagined. I rewound the tape and brought it in to Mom, asking her what it was. She said she’d listen to it and let me know. She took it upstairs and I haven’t heard about it again.

I haven’t heard back from Drew yet, so I have no answers for you about what the Bible says about where you are. In the mean time, I totally understand why you don’t want to get on the boat. It sure sounds like it must be going to Hell. I can’t imagine something that creepy would be the way you get to heaven. I’d love to hear more about the captain. You said it’s a she and that she’s really creepy. Is she covered in blood, too?

 

Your son,

 

Trevor

 

P.S. What day is it there?

She had persistent razor stubble. I liked it.

October 7th, 2009

Dear Trevor,

Your story about Misty Lee reminded me of your mother’s legs. I know you don’t want to hear this sort of thing about your mother, but we’re being honest here, right? I mean, if a dead dad can’t be honest with his son, then what’s the point, right? From where I am now, there’s no sense in being anything less. Lies fall away up here. Almost everything does, I suppose, eventually. There’s not much left, but honesty remains.

My memories of my time there, where you are, have mostly fallen away, although writing to you is bringing many of them back in a rush. There are only a few memories that really stick with me and most of those are just tidbits—like individual slides that fell out of the slideshow carousel.

About your mother’s legs: I don’t remember the look of them all that much. I think they were really quite unremarkable, as far as legs go, and quite pale. I also remember goosebumps. But she was my wife, and so those legs were mine, in a matter of speaking.

Your mother was not what I would call a passionate woman, but we shared a queen-sized bed for 20 years. I loved to reach my leg over across the sheets until my leg touched hers, especially on a cold night when the sheets were cool and her skin was warm.

She had persistent razor stubble. I liked it. I never told her that. Maybe you could, some time, somehow, mention that I liked the stubble on her legs. It took her out of the realm of fantasy and into reality for me. A movie starlet would have smooth legs. A touch of your mother’s stubbly leg made me know I was touching a real woman, in bed, with my own bare skin.

There is nothing like that here. Nothing nearly that tactile. Your letters are wonderful, but they are—what would a lawyer say—hearsay? I’m not sure that’s right. They bear witness, but they are not my eyewitness. Do you understand me?

The closest thing that comes to sensory experiences here are the times I see the boat. And as awful as it is, I never miss it. I’ve never missed it once. The boat is horrible to look at and horrible to smell. It overcomes the salty, slightly fishy smell of the sea with the stench of iron and its own salt—the odors that only come from bloodshed.

At times, I think it would be worth getting on that ravaged boat, with its ravaged captain. What is the worst that could happen? I can’t die again, can I? If I were to suffer, would that mean I might feel something? Even pain would be a reprieve now.

Where does it go? What happens to the passengers? Where does it leave them? What is the source of the blood? Why does the mystery of it frighten me so? Because it does. It frightens me into paralysis and I stay behind and watch it motor away into the fog. Then I haul my heavy heart back up to my porch and I sit and look out into the fog, wishing I could get a glimpse of the boat and where it goes. I never do.

I hope you hear back from Drew. I’d like to hear what he has to say. And I have a sincere respect for clergymen, because of your mom’s pastor, Mel Landgren. I regret having never set foot inside his church—at least not a living foot–except on Easters. I suppose my funeral was held there. Was it? It is strange to think about such things.

I think one of the reasons I did make a deathbed confession to Jesus was because of the persistence of Pastor Mel. He was a very ordinary man. If you met him on the street, you would suppose he was a dentist or an insurance man before you’d ever think he was a pastor. In fact, I believe he may have actually been a dentist earlier in life. No matter. As your mother told you, he came nearly every day to visit me during the end of my time there. That persistence struck me as a deep kind of faith or perhaps a level of mental instability. I mean, he believed that my salvation mattered and that there was a reality to it and he believed it enough to invest his time in it every day.

I was doing quite poorly and getting sicker every day. Your mother always tried to put a smile on and pretend I was OK, so my best barometer to how I looked was Pastor Mel. I could tell my worsening condition weighed on him, because I had still refused to say the words and make a confession. His looks decayed along with my own. The only difference was that once I said the prayer and told Jesus I believed in Him, he returned to his apple-pie self and I continued decaying down toward the grave.

In a way, that response really pissed me off. In another sense, it was further proof of his faith in the process.

Honestly, I had more faith in the faith of Pastor Mel than I did in God Himself. Perhaps that’s why I’m here, in this annoying place.

Dad

This guy thought I was thinking of killing myself.

October 6th, 2009

Note – This is post is a bit more adult, in  Judy-Blume kind of way.

Dear Dad,

I went to school today and somehow really freaked out Misty Lee. And then her pastor called me at home. The two events were totally unrelated, at least as far as I can tell.

When I showed up for school, I found out that all the junior high students were having a picture taken together that day. They stacked us up on the bleachers in the gym and a photographer climbed up on a stepladder on the other side of the gym and clicked away. All the students were standing on the bleachers. I was right next to Misty Lee and because the photographer had us stand sideways, she was leaning right back into me. The photographer kept asking us to cram closer together, so Misty Lee was really jammed into me. Everyone was looking forward, so I slipped my arms around her. She didn’t seem to mind that. Then I slipped my hands down inside her jacket and put them up inside her blouse.

I didn’t grab her boobs or anything. I just touched her bare stomach with my hands. Boy, did she ever stiffen up at that. Wherever I ran my hands, I could feel her muscles tighten. I just kind of let my fingers dance over her stomach. Misty Lee is covered in these tiny little hairs. I can still feel them under my fingers right now. I can feel the curve of her skin as it dipped in toward her belly button. I could feel when Misty Lee tried to pull away from me, but there was nowhere she could go. We were so crammed together that she couldn’t even reach my hands with hers. I was free to roam.

I sound like a perv. I’m not. I swear, I never touched anything other than her stomach. I wasn’t trying to take advantage of her. I honestly thought she would like it. Heck, I thought she was liking it at the time.

But as soon as the crowd broke up, she turned around with this terrified look on her face. She said, “I hope you—” and then she just ran off and left me. I didn’t see her for the rest of the day. I was pretty sure I freaked her out, but honestly I don’t know why. I mean, all I did was touch her stomach. She’s the one who stuck her tongue into my mouth. When your girlfriend is a French kisser, wouldn’t you think they’d want you to touch their stomach? That’s what I thought.

I was stalling over my math homework after dinner when Mom said the phone was for me. It was Drew, Misty Lee’s pastor. I thought for sure Misty Lee had called him, after she freaked out from the stomach touching. But he said he was just calling to talk to me more about my questions from the Friday before. He got my number from Misty Lee.

Anyway, Drew asked me why I was so interested in what happens when we die. Before I could answer, he asked if I’d ever considered committing suicide. That freaked me out. This guy thought I was thinking of killing myself. I said no. I knew it would shut him up if I told him about you dying, because it always shuts everybody up.

“My dad died.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

“It wasn’t your fault.” That’s what I always say when people say they’re sorry. It always kind of pisses me off when they apologize like that.

“I know it wasn’t my fault. But I mean, I’m sorry for you. I mean, I’m sorry it happened. And now I can see why you’re interested. Was you Dad a believer?”

“You mean a Christian?”

“Yes.”

“Well, he became one before he died.” And then I told him how you never went to church with us unless someone was getting married or had died. I told him how you would sit hunched up in front of the TV set and ignore all of us Sunday morning, even though you never ignored us the rest of the week. I told him how you had gotten cancer and how Mom had asked Pastor Mel to come and visit you and how he had come, almost every single day, for the last few months of your life. I told him that Mom said you had asked Jesus into your heart before you died and that she said you were up in Heaven now, with Jesus.

“Your mom is right, Trevor,” said Drew. “If your dad asked Jesus into his heart, then he is in Heaven right now.”

And then I told him that I didn’t think that’s true. And I don’t. Because heaven does not sound like what you are describing to me, Dad. I mean, I don’t want to insult your little town, because some of the people there sound pretty nice, but you don’t seem to like it much and you say the food is pretty miserable and you say it’s kind of boring. I guess I have often imagined that Heaven could be pretty boring, because if you ask Mom what we’ll do in Heaven, she’ll tell you that we’ll worship Jesus all day long.

Even when church is really good, I can only stand it for an hour. I can’t imagine worshipping Jesus, all day long, forever. But I don’t think Mom’s got it right.

Anyway, I don’t think you’re in Heaven. But I wasn’t going to tell Drew that you were writing me letters from beyond the grave. He already thinks I want to kill myself. If I told him about the letters, he’d probably drive over. Drew asked me why I didn’t think you were there. Was it because you only asked Jesus into your heart right before you died? I couldn’t tell him the real reason, so I said yes. Drew said that wouldn’t matter to God, because eternal life is a gift, not something we earn.

I asked him what the Bible says happens when a person dies. He admitted that it doesn’t really say much. “Don’t you think that’s a little weird?” I said. “I mean, the whole point of the Bible is to make people Christians, right? And the whole point of being a Christian is going to Heaven isn’t it? That’s the offer, isn’t it? Then don’t you think the approach could benefit from a little more info about what we actually get?”

Drew kind of laughed and said if I was really interested, he’d do a little research. Which is fair, I guess, even though I expected a pastor to be able to rattle some of this stuff off. I thought he’d get questions about death all the time. Maybe not. But I thought it was pretty cool of him to offer to do the research, and I wanted to know what he would find out, so I said yes.

If you’re not in Heaven, I don’t know where you are, Dad. Hell? Your town doesn’t sound bad enough to be Hell. It sure doesn’t sound as bad as junior high.

Your son,

Trevor

The boat was called Violence.

October 5th, 2009

Dear Trevor,

Misty Lee is definitely not doing it right. But give her a chance. She’s in seventh grade. She’s a beginner. At least she’s enthusiastic. You should go to school tomorrow. You should kiss her. Kiss her once for me.

Sung-Hee would probably give me free meals for a month if I shared your letters with her. Especially if she knew they covered the subject of French kissing. No one likes a bit of steamy gossip as much as Sung-Hee, and there is so little to gossip about around here, steamy or otherwise.

Before she moved here, Sung-Hee ran a hamburger joint off the Interstate, between Centralia and Rochester. It was basically a drive-up stand and she took orders, flipped burgers and tried to pedal teriyaki to the rednecks. Now she does the same thing, plus waits tables, with lousy fish instead of lousy burgers, but like she says, at least she’s indoors. And there are chairs for the customers instead of just a walk-up counter.

What was it like to die? I don’t know. I don’t think of myself as having died, because nothing stopped. I just moved from one place to another. It felt more like moving—like changing jobs and houses—than it felt like anything even close to dying. Dying sounds so final. I don’t feel like anything final has happened.

Before the move, as I’ll call it, I remember having a couple of rough days at home. Evelyn—your mom–relocated me from our upstairs room down to the bedroom on the main floor. The one right next to the one you shared with Rhett. I was back in the original bedroom your Mom and I shared before we had the second story added to the house. God, I miss that drafty old place. I especially liked that downstairs room, because the windows faced west and I could see the sunset behind the Olympics through most of the spring and summer.

So I’d moved down there, partly because I couldn’t do the stairs anymore and partly so your mom didn’t have to keep walking up and down them all day every time I needed a glass or water or had to pee. I’d been there for a couple of weeks and Dr. Bruell—is he still alive?—finally convinced me I wasn’t going to pull out. Then the pain got so bad that I went from wanting to survive to wanting to die. Pain can be your friend in that way. It can help you come to terms with passing. Pain is your final friend on earth. It’s funny, but now that I’m up here in this foggy land where I feel next to nothing, I miss that pain almost as much as I miss your mom. O to feel something! Anything!

I remember having one really bad night. Your mom had to help me out of bed to go to the bathroom, and with one good grunt I filled the toilet bowl with blood. I flushed it quick so Evelyn wouldn’t see it, but I wasn’t quick enough and she started crying. She cleaned me up and helped me back to the bed. I remember that we laid there together as I struggled to catch my breath. I cussed a couple of times and she asked me to stop. Your mom never could stomach rough language. So I gritted my teeth and said nothing and fell asleep like that.

When I woke up, your mom was gone. The house was gone. I suppose I was gone, because I was at the airport here, walking up the jetway toward the terminal as if I’d just gotten off a plane. I had no luggage and I was wearing the same clothes I’m wearing right now. A white, short-sleeve dress shirt from JC Penney, a pair of dark brown slacks, dark brown dress socks, brown shoes and brown belt. I don’t know where the clothes came from and don’t know how I got from my bed to the jetway, but there you have it. Maybe it was magical or maybe I just don’t remember.

I followed the crowd down to a shuttle bus that took us just a few hundred yards to a train platform, where we boarded the train. I got on the train with everyone else. All the other passengers looked just as confused as I did, except for the Crazies. There were probably 25 of us on that train and five of those were Crazies. Of course, I didn’t think of them that way at the time. They looked as calm as they could be and stared out the window as if they were in the most wonderful place imaginable.

The train rode along for about 20 minutes and then stopped here in our little berg. I stepped off and followed the Crazies through town and down to the dock. I figured we went from the plane to the bus to the train, so why not to the boat? But when I saw the boat, I stopped.

It was the most rundown fishing boat you’ve ever seen. It sat low in the water and leaned so far to one side that sea water actually came over the starboard rail. Its nets were torn and patched and torn and patched again. The surfaces that weren’t covered in seaweed or barnacles or gear were all stained with blood. There was blood on the bow hatch and blood on the bridge and blood on the windshield and blood along the portside rail.

I read the name dug into the bow. It was called Violence. And there was no way in hell I was getting onboard.

I wandered in a bit of a daze into the Laughing Gull and Sung-Hee set me down and gave me a cup of her miserable coffee which was as bad then as it is now. Not bad enough to be interesting, but not good enough to be enjoyable. I drank a cup and asked her about the boat.

“No one knows nothing about the boat,” she said. “The lady captain can’t or won’t talk—not a word—and none of them passengers ever come back. I’ve been here for—oh, I don’t know how long, but I never met no one who knows nothing about the boat.”

“What about those people lined up to get on board?” I asked her, pointing to the five people who I’d come with on the train.

“Ya can’t trust what them people say,” Sung-Hee said. “They’re Crazies. That’s what we call ‘em. Look at the way they stare at the boat, as if was beautiful.”

Sung-Hee was right. I finished my coffee and wandered back out to the dock. The Crazies looked like they were waiting to get onboard a cruise ship. They cooed and pointed and stared, with their mouths hanging open and hungry.

“Look at the blood,” said the woman closest to me, with a voice full of wonder. “Look at all the beautiful blood.” She was an older black woman, dressed for church or for a fancy night out. She had on a bright red dress and red hat, finished with a pink veil that would have hung over her eyes, but she kept flipping the veil up so she could see unobstructed.

“Where’s the boat go?” I asked.

The woman looked at me with a startled smile, as if a toddler had asked her how breathing works. My question was too basic for her. She understood the boat at such an elementary level that she’d never had to articulate its purpose or its destination.

“Why child,” she said, in a very gentle voice. “It goes onward.”

“Onward where?” I asked. When she realized that I really didn’t know, her joy-filled face broke. A tear formed quickly and ran down her cheek.

“You poor, ignorant creature. I’m sorry,” she said. “I am so, so sorry.”

But as soon as she turned her head back toward the boat, her joy returned and she forgot about me. Tears of joy overwhelmed the other lone tear and washed it off her chin.

I haven’t thought about that day or that first meeting for a long time. Now the coming and going of the train and boat seem so much like the regular rhythm of this place that I don’t consider them much. They come out of the fog and return into it. The fog remains, like me.

Write again, please. I depend on your letters now.

Dad

In case you haven’t figured this out yet, Letter Off Dead takes weekends off.

October 3rd, 2009

No posts on Saturdays and Sundays.

If that’s what French kissing is, I don’t think she’s doing it right.

October 2nd, 2009


Note from the editor: The day is off on this post. Sorry.


Dear Dad,


It’s Monday and I’m writing from home today. I told Mom I didn’t feel good and she said I could stay home. We all figured out years ago that Mom wants to believe what we tell her. Either that or she just doesn’t want to hassle with disagreeing with us. I bet if you were here you’d just make me go to school. Anyway, here I am at home.


I like your stories about your neighbors. I get that you think it’s a boring place, but it still sounds kind of nice. I’d like to meet Gordon and hear him speak Latin. And I’d like to see the boat. What is it about the woman captain that you don’t like? You never said.


Also, if the boat really does go to Heaven, wouldn’t that explain why no one ever comes back?


I need to tell you about my weekend with Misty Lee. I went with her and Rick Jarvis and Sharon King to Misty’s church sleepover. It was actually pretty fun. They have a pastor guy named Drew. One of those guys who wears black t-shirts and jeans and thinks it makes him look young and cool. It doesn’t. Drew hung out with us and told us funny versions of Jesus’ parable about the prodigal son. It was pretty funny. When the prodigal son was out spending his money, he acted it out like Homer Simpson. Doh!


At the end, Drew asked if we had any questions about the story. No one said a thing. I think all the kids just wanted the talking part to be over. Then he asked if we had any questions about God or the Bible in general. I did, so I said, “What happens when we die?”


Drew got pretty excited about that question, because it gave him the perfect chance to get all preachy to us. Rick Jarvis groaned when I asked it and laid on his back and put his arm over his eyes.


“That all depends, Trevor,” Drew said. “The Bible says that if we ask Jesus into our hearts, then when we die we’ll go to Heaven and be with Him. But if we don’t we’ll go to hell.”


I said that was all fine, but wanted to know how it works exactly. Do you just appear in Heaven as soon as your heart stops beating? Do you just pop up there, like one minute you’re laying in bed, dying away and the next minute you’re standing on the streets of gold? Or do you go someplace first?


Drew didn’t know. He said that those kind of details aren’t the point. I said they that they were to me. He said that maybe it was time to play some games.


Then we started playing this big game of hide and seek and we were running all around the church chasing each other in the dark. I went running down this long hallway that was lined with doors and all of a sudden Misty Lee jumped out of one of the doors, grabbed me and pulled me into a dark room. “Come here,” she said and she guided me over to a couch. It was dark, but I could barely make out a desk and a bookshelf.


“Is this someone’s office?” I said.


“It’s Drew’s,” she said, pulling me down onto a couch and kissing me on the lips. We kissed for a while like that, with her hands on my face and my hands at my sides. I liked it.


“Do you think Drew reads all these books?” I asked.


“I don’t know,” Misty said, between kisses. “Why do you care?”


“Do you think he has any books about heaven?”


“Probably,” she said. “Do we have to talk about this right now?”


Then she put her tongue in my mouth. I didn’t like it. It felt like some kind of sloppy creature sliding around in there, like a muscular slug. If that’s what French kissing is, I don’t think she’s doing it right. I think if she was doing it right, I would have liked it more. I didn’t put my tongue in her mouth, because she had enough tongue for the both of us. But I did put my arms around her to pull her closer—like people do when they kiss on TV. As soon as I did, Misty Lee jumped up from the couch and said, “Come on,” and ran out of the room.


That was it. We were back in the game of hide and seek and Misty Lee acted like the whole kissing thing had never happened.


Another thing I know about Misty Lee. She is in charge. I just follow along. She kisses me and not the other way around. Maybe I should try to be more in charge. She seems to really like kissing. Maybe I should kiss her more. Maybe I’ll try that at school, if I can find a chance and not chicken out.


So now back to the subject of what happens when you die. You know this, right? Drew doesn’t. But I mean, you died. Can you please tell me exactly how it worked for you?


Your son,

Trevor

A new group of travelers came into town today.

October 1st, 2009

Dear Trevor,

 

I like your drawing. Where’d you learn to do that? Definitely not from your mother. I loved that woman, but she was never very artistic. One of these days I’ll try to draw a sketch of what it looks like from my porch swing.

 

It’s so easy to give advice from up here, where life is now something I just read about in your letters every day. It’s easy for me to tell you that you should not stay home from school, that you should work hard on your math and do your best. It’s easy for me to say you should not let Will Mudgett push you around. But who am I to talk? What do I do, other than sit on the porch and look out into the fog?

 

Visiting the silent postman every day to check on your letters is the most exciting part of my day. Martin, the city councilman and Sung-Hee, the waitress at the Laughing Gull, both ask me every day if they can read your letters. I tell them, no, it’s between a father and a son. Sung-Hee says she’s not surprised that I don’t share.

 

“Why should I expect any joy in my life?” she asks. “There’s never been any before, so why should it change now?”

 

 Martin, a very fat man with a flattop haircut, complains that his own kids—twin boys—have never written him since he came here. “I put them both through that snooty Jesuit college,” he says. “You’d think the least they could do is write a frickin’ letter.” He says frickin’ all the time. Everything is frickin’. Frickin’ cheap cocktail sauce. Frickin’ fog. Frickin’ librarian. I expect better swear words from a politician.

 

A new group of travelers came into town today. They come in by train from the airport. Did I mention we have a train station, too? We’re the terminus. The other terminus is the airport, which is only a few miles away, and the trains don’t take passengers that direction. Anyway, a couple of dozen people came in today. This happens about once a week. I don’t know where most of them go. They walk along the shore or wander off into the woods behind the cabins and you never see most of them again. Of course, there’s always a few that get on the boat. The Crazies. That’s what we call them.

 

I always walk down to the train station to watch them unload. Nearly all of them step off in a daze, unsure of where they’re supposed to go. Only the Crazies seem to have any sense of purpose and that is clearly a misguided one. There’s always others that follow them down to the dock, because the Crazies walk like they know where they’re going. The others watch them get on the boat, but once they see the old scow and the woman who runs it, nearly all of them give up on that idea.

 

If any of them ask me if they should get on the boat, I always give them the same advice. “What’s your hurry? Why make a rash decision? There’s no shortage of time here and the boat comes in every week.” I suppose my secret hope is that one or two will stick around in town and give me someone new to talk to and swap stories with. Goodness knows we could do with a few new stories here, or at least a new person to listen to our tired old tales.

 

My next door neighbor, Gordon, was one of those folks I talked into waiting. Gordon came here a couple of years ago. He was a college professor down in your area. In fact, he taught at Seattle University, my old alma mater. Taught the classics, Greek and Roman stuff. He loves to spout off old Latin phrases that I’ll admit are a little annoying, but sound so pretty that I put up with them. I suppose I’m a bit jealous of his education. Gordon has bad teeth and wishes like mad that someone in town sold tobacco for his pipe. That’s his biggest complaint. No pipe tobacco. The little store only sells one brand of cigarettes and according to Gordon, they are not good.

 

Gordon was just about to step onto the boat, but he hesitated for a second when he saw the lady captain and the condition the boat was in. I talked him back onto the dock and eventually into the cabin next to mine. Now we sit on our porches and look out into the fog together.

 

Gordon is what your mother would call a double-minded man. One day, he’ll watch the tug come in and say, ‘veritas odit moras,’ which he tells me means ‘truth hates delay.’ He’ll get up off his porch and run down to the dock like he’s ready to climb aboard. But once he’s there and once he sees the boat up close, he’ll mumble, ‘de omnibus dubitandum,’ which he says is an old Karl Marx quote. It means, ‘be suspicious of everything.’ Then he’ll buy me a cup of coffee at the Laughing Gull and point out the fact that the boat always goes out with passengers and always comes back empty.

 

“Where do they go?” he asks.

            “I don’t know,” I answer. “Some say heaven.”

            “Ignotus,” he says, which simply means “unknown.”

 

There is so much we can’t know. So much you can’t know. But we still have to get up every morning. So you might as well go to school.

 

Dad

    About

    Letter Off Dead is an actual transcript of letters sent between a 7th grade boy and his dead father. It covers the subjects of life and death, faith and doubt, fathers and sons.

    The textual transcript has been edited and presented here by Tom Llewellyn, a writer from Tacoma, Washington. The illustrations have been edited and presented by artist James Stowe, also from Tacoma. None of the content has anything to do with Tom's or James' beloved and very separate employers.

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