A cross, my son, is the most powerful punch in boxing.

November 30th, 2009

Dear Trevor,

Time to work off all that Thanksgiving food. Get back to that heavy bag and keep boxing. We talked about your stance and how to jab. Now, to keep it simple, let’s just focus on one other good move that you could perfect. The one-two punch.

All you need here is to throw a right cross after a jab. And a cross, my son, is the most powerful punch in boxing. It follows a left jab as naturally as boys follow a dogfight. A right cross is just a straight punch, full force. So you’re in your stance: Knees bent, back straight, left foot forward, elbows in to shield your body, fists relaxed and up to shield your chin. You’re working that left jab, feeling out your opponent, getting your distance down.

Jabbing with your left keeps your left shoulder forward where it should be. While you’re jabbing, look for an opening. When you see one, jab hard. Pop! Your left hip is forward now, too. Then, as you bring your left hip and your left fist back, you use that momentum to slam out that straight right, in hard at Mudgett’s chin. All that movement—your left side coming back and your right arm going out, will make that right cross hit like a jackhammer. Bam! Hit that chin with all you got, then pull that right back up to your chin, back to your protective stance and ready to do it again. The one-two punch. Pop! Bam! Back in position.

Get that down, Trev, and you can lick Mudgett. Work out on that heavy bag. Keep that stance. Stay on your toes.

Dad

It’s sweet and sour and leaves tiny seeds between your teeth.

November 27th, 2009
Dear Dad,
I’m thankful for four-day weekends and Aunt Fredi’s pie. Her pie isn’t any better than Mom’s, but it is just as delicious. She brings more than we can eat and she brings a quart of whipping cream in the carton and then mixes a huge bowl of it so that we can slop it all over the pie. Last night, I had a piece of pumpkin, a piece of rhubarb, and a piece of blackberry. That blackberry pie might be my favorite thing to eat in the whole world. It’s sweet and sour and leaves tiny seeds between your teeth.
I’m thankful I don’t have to go to school today. It’s one of those cold, wet days here. I think I’ll go find a neighbor kid to hang out with. Someone disconnected from school. I wonder what Barry Barton is doing these days? We don’t see much of each other any more. He goes to the public school.
I’m thankful for your letters, too, but honestly, I wish they were more help than they are. Since we’ve been writing to each other, my life hasn’t exactly taken a turn for the better.
I’m thankful for books. And video games. I got the latest version of Left For Dead. You probably don’t know what that is. Basically, you walk around and kill zombies. There’s nothing to take your mind off troubles like killing a few hundred zombies.
I know I’m supposed to be thankful for my family, and I probably am, somewhere, down deep.
Your son,
Tom

Dear Dad,

I’m thankful for four-day weekends and Aunt Fredi’s pie. Her pie isn’t any better than Mom’s, but it is just as delicious. She brings more than we can eat and she brings a quart of whipping cream in the carton and then mixes a huge bowl of it so that we can slop it all over the pie. Last night, I had a piece of pumpkin, a piece of rhubarb, and a piece of blackberry. That blackberry pie might be my favorite thing to eat in the whole world. It’s sweet and sour and leaves tiny seeds between your teeth.

I’m thankful I don’t have to go to school today. It’s one of those cold, wet days here. I think I’ll go find a neighbor kid to hang out with. Someone disconnected from school. I wonder what Barry Barton is doing these days? We don’t see much of each other any more. He goes to the public school.

I’m thankful for your letters, too, but honestly, I wish they were more help than they are. Since we’ve been writing to each other, my life hasn’t exactly taken a turn for the better.

I’m thankful for books. And video games. I got the latest version of Left For Dead. You probably don’t know what that is. Basically, you walk around and kill zombies. There’s nothing to take your mind off troubles like killing a few hundred zombies.

I know I’m supposed to be thankful for my family, and I probably am, somewhere, down deep.

Your son,

Tom

I’m not sure if I’m thankful for anything else.

November 26th, 2009
Dear Trevor,
Thanksgiving? That means we’re near the end of November? Or you are, at least. I never would have guessed as much. For some reason, I thought it must be February or March by now.
What am I thankful for? I’m thankful for your letters. I devour them when they arrive. I’ve read them all a dozen times at least. Your quotes roll around in my mind like a bit of beach glass in the surf. Your words get less sharp and more luminous the more I think about them.
What else am I thankful for? Hmmm…I suppose I have friends here, if you could call them that. Carl is a sort of friend. But if he were gone tomorrow, I don’t think I’d miss him. He’s like a human end table. He serves a function, but one I could easily live without. Gordon isn’t any better, although I am thankful for his Latinisms. The other day, Martin, Gordon and I were gathered around a plate of Sung-Hee’s soggy French fries and Martin started raving about the poor quality of the food. Sung-Hee told him to shut up. Gordon said, “audacter calumniare, semper aliquid haeret,” which translates as, “Slander boldly, something always sticks.”
I’m definitely not thankful for Sung-Hee’s food. Is it better than nothing? Only in the sense that a rolled up ball of paper is more fun for a child than no toys at all.
Martin, that bitter man—I could do without him completely. I always think of him as a former city councilman. He is former. In the present, he is nothing but sourness in size 48 pants.
I’m not sure if I’m thankful for anything else, other than my memories. Memories are not enough.
Happy Thanksgiving.
Dad

Dear Trevor,

Thanksgiving? That means we’re near the end of November? Or you are, at least. I never would have guessed as much. For some reason, I thought it must be February or March by now.

What am I thankful for? I’m thankful for your letters. I devour them when they arrive. I’ve read them all a dozen times at least. Your quotes roll around in my mind like a bit of beach glass in the surf. Your words get less sharp and more luminous the more I think about them.

What else am I thankful for? Hmmm…I suppose I have friends here, if you could call them that. Carl is a sort of friend. But if he were gone tomorrow, I don’t think I’d miss him. He’s like a human end table. He serves a function, but one I could easily live without. Gordon isn’t any better, although I am thankful for his Latinisms. The other day, Martin, Gordon and I were gathered around a plate of Sung-Hee’s soggy French fries and Martin started raving about the poor quality of the food. Sung-Hee told him to shut up. Gordon said, “audacter calumniare, semper aliquid haeret,” which translates as, “Slander boldly, something always sticks.”

I’m definitely not thankful for Sung-Hee’s food. Is it better than nothing? Only in the sense that a rolled up ball of paper is more fun for a child than no toys at all.

Martin, that bitter man—I could do without him completely. I always think of him as a former city councilman. He is former. In the present, he is nothing but sourness in size 48 pants.

I’m not sure if I’m thankful for anything else, other than my memories. Memories are not enough.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Dad

What you’re talking about, Trevor, is The Other.

November 25th, 2009
Dear Dad,
Dang it, this whole advice-by-mail thing totally sucks. I come home from school after trying to hide my black eye all day, after trying not to talk about it, after getting called a wussy-boy by Mudgett. Then I open a letter from you that says, “Don’t hide your black eye. Tell everyone how you got it.”
Our timing stinks.
I talked to my English teacher, Mrs. Henry, today. I’m not sure she believed me when I told her I got the black eye boxing with my brother. I think half the school figures that Mudgett creamed me in a fight. Heck, he hasn’t even fought me yet and most people already figure I’ve lost.
Mrs. Henry tried not to stare at my eye when we talked, but she failed on that one. She was having a conversation only with that corner of my face. My black eye has its own gravitational pull.
“If you were trying to learn about life aboard a ship, I’d have you read Melville or Jack London,” she said. “If you were trying to learn about, oh, I don’t know, bullfighting, then I suppose Hemingway would be your man. But what you’re talking about, Trevor, is The Other. It’s Heaven and Hell and God territory. There’s only one kind of writer for that—a theologian—which is literally someone who studies God. Unfortunately, very few theologians died, came back from the dead and wrote about it. Lucky for us, some of them were smart enough to speculate. To try to fill in the gaps with both logic and intuition.”
The Other—that’s what Mrs. Henry calls everything religious. She talks about it like it’s science fiction. In The Other, there are laws that control how things happen. And, according to Mrs. Henry, these laws are on a higher level than our regular laws.
“I know space and time don’t matter to God,” said Mrs. Henry. “if they do, he’s not much of a god, is he? When we pray for others, we pray that God will intervene in their lives the next day, or in a different place. We pray to a single God, asking him to insert himself into our lives, knowing that a few other million people around the globe are asking the same of him. God could only answer these requests if space and time do not matter to him. If he lives outside of it. In The Other. And if he does, then past, present, future, are all the same to him. So are heaven, hell and earth.
“Death? Well, that shouldn’t matter either, because God conquered death a few thousand years ago.”
I was going along with Mrs. Henry. And all she said sounded pretty encouraging to me, until she sucked all the air out of my tires with just a couple of sentences.
“Before we go farther down this road, Trevor, we need to be completely clear on something. This is speculation on my part. This is conjecture. I don’t begin to pretend to know what happens when we die. Those who do claim to know are almost certainly wrong.”
I protested. She just got done talking about how clear everything looked. How logically laws operated in The Other. She said that she’d be getting input from the smartest guys who’d ever lived. Then she says that even they don’t know. So what’s the point?
“There are only a few tiny things I know for sure,” Mrs. Henry said. “I can tell you those with utmost certainty. Those are the things that matter. These other things—how was the world made? What happens after we die?—we can only make educated guesses. And that’s OK, Trevor. We don’t have to know everything.”
“I’m not asking to know everything,” I said. “I just want to know about my dad. Can he help me or not?”
“Ahh,” she said.
I hated that “ahh.” Even Mrs. Henry could be annoying sometimes. That “ahh” meant, “I have just figured you out.”
But she hadn’t. Not a chance. I walked out.
By the way, tomorrow is thanksgiving.
Your son,
Trevor

Dear Dad,

Dang it, this whole advice-by-mail thing totally sucks. I come home from school after trying to hide my black eye all day, after trying not to talk about it, after getting called a wussy-boy by Mudgett. Then I open a letter from you that says, “Don’t hide your black eye. Tell everyone how you got it.”

Our timing stinks.

I talked to my English teacher, Mrs. Henry, today. I’m not sure she believed me when I told her I got the black eye boxing with my brother. I think half the school figures that Mudgett creamed me in a fight. Heck, he hasn’t even fought me yet and most people already figure I’ve lost.

Mrs. Henry tried not to stare at my eye when we talked, but she failed on that one. She was having a conversation only with that corner of my face. My black eye has its own gravitational pull.

“If you were trying to learn about life aboard a ship, I’d have you read Melville or Jack London,” she said. “If you were trying to learn about, oh, I don’t know, bullfighting, then I suppose Hemingway would be your man. But what you’re talking about, Trevor, is The Other. It’s Heaven and Hell and God territory. There’s only one kind of writer for that—a theologian—which is literally someone who studies God. Unfortunately, very few theologians died, came back from the dead and wrote about it. Lucky for us, some of them were smart enough to speculate. To try to fill in the gaps with both logic and intuition.”

The Other—that’s what Mrs. Henry calls everything religious. She talks about it like it’s science fiction. In The Other, there are laws that control how things happen. And, according to Mrs. Henry, these laws are on a higher level than our regular laws.

“I know space and time don’t matter to God,” said Mrs. Henry. “if they do, he’s not much of a god, is he? When we pray for others, we pray that God will intervene in their lives the next day, or in a different place. We pray to a single God, asking him to insert himself into our lives, knowing that a few other million people around the globe are asking the same of him. God could only answer these requests if space and time do not matter to him. If he lives outside of it. In The Other. And if he does, then past, present, future, are all the same to him. So are heaven, hell and earth.

“Death? Well, that shouldn’t matter either, because God conquered death a few thousand years ago.”

I was going along with Mrs. Henry. And all she said sounded pretty encouraging to me, until she sucked all the air out of my tires with just a couple of sentences.

“Before we go farther down this road, Trevor, we need to be completely clear on something. This is speculation on my part. This is conjecture. I don’t begin to pretend to know what happens when we die. Those who do claim to know are almost certainly wrong.”

I protested. She just got done talking about how clear everything looked. How logically laws operated in The Other. She said that she’d be getting input from the smartest guys who’d ever lived. Then she says that even they don’t know. So what’s the point?

“There are only a few tiny things I know for sure,” Mrs. Henry said. “I can tell you those with utmost certainty. Those are the things that matter. These other things—how was the world made? What happens after we die?—we can only make educated guesses. And that’s OK, Trevor. We don’t have to know everything.”

“I’m not asking to know everything,” I said. “I just want to know about my dad. Can he help me or not?”

“Ahh,” she said.

I hated that “ahh.” Even Mrs. Henry could be annoying sometimes. That “ahh” meant, “I have just figured you out.”

But she hadn’t. Not a chance. I walked out.

By the way, tomorrow is thanksgiving.

Your son,

Trevor

I always had a pretty humble goal: just land one good punch.

November 24th, 2009
Dear Trevor,
Oh, my son, I am sorry. Mostly.
I am jealous, too. What I wouldn’t give for a chance to spar with someone. To feel battered and out of breath. You shouldn’t wear your black eye with any kind of shame at all. Wear it with pride. Patton—he was a general in World War Two and kind of a jerk—was shot through the buttocks during World War One and was famous for dropping his pants to show his scar. If Patton took pride in a butt scar, you can certainly take pride in a black eye.
Let Mudgett know how you got it. Tell him you were boxing with your brother who is five years older than you. Tell him your brother retaliated after you rang his bell. Give Mudgett something to think about.
Stick with it. Here’s lesson number two—the jab:
Remember, you’re jabbing with your forward hand—your left hand. So you got your hands up about chin high, palms facing each other, formed into fists, but relaxed. You’re on your toes, with your right foot back.
In one motion, you’re going to push off from your right foot, step forward with your left, then do a quick punch with your left hand. As your hand goes forward, you’re going to twist your hand so that the punch lands palm-down. As soon as you land that punch, push back off your left foot and get out of reach. Land on your right foot and get ready to do it again.
Once more: Push off from the right foot. Step forward lightly with the left. Quickly punch your right hand straight forward, landing the punch palm-down. Push back with your left foot and get back into position. You’re popping forward and back. Pow. Pow. Pow.
Do that for a while on the heavy bag. Don’t even worry about your right hand yet.
When my neighbor Carl sees me shadow boxing on my porch, he comes over to give advice and to watch. “You’re flat-footed again, you old Welsh bag of bones,” he yells. “Put your chin down. Don’t give ‘em so much of a target.” “Keep your elbows in.” He and I were lucky enough to grow up in an era where a little friendly boxing was a pretty stress-free rite of passage. It wasn’t that big of a deal if you won or lost. It was more about if you could take a licking. At least, that’s how I remember it.
Think about this, Trevor. You got socked right in the eye by a kid five years older than Will Mudgett. Sure, you got a black eye. But you survived just fine. Bags of peas, embarrassment—you can handle those. Throw in a fat lip, a bloody nose and maybe even a chipped tooth. You can handle those as well.
When I was a kid and got into a fight, I always had a pretty humble goal: just land one good punch.
Dad

Dear Trevor,

Oh, my son, I am sorry. Mostly.

I am jealous, too. What I wouldn’t give for a chance to spar with someone. To feel battered and out of breath. You shouldn’t wear your black eye with any kind of shame at all. Wear it with pride. Patton—he was a general in World War Two and kind of a jerk—was shot through the buttocks during World War One and was famous for dropping his pants to show his scar. If Patton took pride in a butt scar, you can certainly take pride in a black eye.

Let Mudgett know how you got it. Tell him you were boxing with your brother who is five years older than you. Tell him your brother retaliated after you rang his bell. Give Mudgett something to think about.

Stick with it. Here’s lesson number two—the jab:

Remember, you’re jabbing with your forward hand—your left hand. So you got your hands up about chin high, palms facing each other, formed into fists, but relaxed. You’re on your toes, with your right foot back.

In one motion, you’re going to push off from your right foot, step forward with your left, then do a quick punch with your left hand. As your hand goes forward, you’re going to twist your hand so that the punch lands palm-down. As soon as you land that punch, push back off your left foot and get out of reach. Land on your right foot and get ready to do it again.

Once more: Push off from the right foot. Step forward lightly with the left. Quickly punch your right hand straight forward, landing the punch palm-down. Push back with your left foot and get back into position. You’re popping forward and back. Pow. Pow. Pow.

Do that for a while on the heavy bag. Don’t even worry about your right hand yet.

When my neighbor Carl sees me shadow boxing on my porch, he comes over to give advice and to watch. “You’re flat-footed again, you old Welsh bag of bones,” he yells. “Put your chin down. Don’t give ‘em so much of a target.” “Keep your elbows in.” He and I were lucky enough to grow up in an era where a little friendly boxing was a pretty stress-free rite of passage. It wasn’t that big of a deal if you won or lost. It was more about if you could take a licking. At least, that’s how I remember it.

Think about this, Trevor. You got socked right in the eye by a kid five years older than Will Mudgett. Sure, you got a black eye. But you survived just fine. Bags of peas, embarrassment—you can handle those. Throw in a fat lip, a bloody nose and maybe even a chipped tooth. You can handle those as well.

When I was a kid and got into a fight, I always had a pretty humble goal: just land one good punch.

Dad

Thanks for the boxing idea. Now I have a black eye to wear to school tomorrow.

November 23rd, 2009
Dear Dad,
Thanks for the boxing idea. Now I have a black eye to wear to school tomorrow.
I did find one and one-half old pairs of boxing gloves. The half-pair is only a left glove. Rhett showed me where they were, down in the basement, stuck up in the rafters by an ancient coconut that was shipped from Hawaii. Jeez, Dad, these must be the oldest boxing gloves in Washington State. The liners are all torn up inside, so it feels like I’m sticking my hands into bags of stuffing. It takes about five minutes to get my thumbs in the thumbholes. Rhett found the heavy bag, too. It looks homemade—like a big army duffel bag stuffed full of clothes and sand or something.
We used some rope and hung it up back by the washing machine and took turns pummeling it. I was trying to get in the stance you described to me, but Rhett kept getting impatient, waiting for his turn and yelling at me to hurry up, so I’m not sure I did it right.
Then Rhett said he’d box me one handed. I put on the full pair of gloves and he put on the extra left and kept his other hand behind his back. I was poking at him with my left, jabbing like you said. And it worked, kind of. I was jabbing at his stomach and he kept bringing his one hand down to block it. So one time when he brought his hand down, I brought my right around and hit him pretty hard in the side of the head.
He was surprised all right. He stared at me and his eyes watered a bit, then pow, his ungloved right hand came out of nowhere and caught me right in the eye. I fell down and Rhett said it served me right and how did it feel and great, now he was going to get in trouble from Mom for giving me a black eye.
Boy, did he ever give me one, too. It swelled almost all the way shut by the time Mom came home. Rhett said I should put a raw steak on it, but there was no way I was going to listen to him after what he did to me so I watched TV with my one good eye while my other one was covered in a bag of frozen peas.
When Mom came home, she asked where we got the idea to box. I lied and said I didn’t know, so you owe me one for covering for you.
I really don’t want to go to school with a black eye.
Your son,
Trevor

Dear Dad,

Thanks for the boxing idea. Now I have a black eye to wear to school tomorrow.

I did find one and one-half old pairs of boxing gloves. The half-pair is only a left glove. Rhett showed me where they were, down in the basement, stuck up in the rafters by an ancient coconut that was shipped from Hawaii. Jeez, Dad, these must be the oldest boxing gloves in Washington State. The liners are all torn up inside, so it feels like I’m sticking my hands into bags of stuffing. It takes about five minutes to get my thumbs in the thumbholes. Rhett found the heavy bag, too. It looks homemade—like a big army duffel bag stuffed full of clothes and sand or something.

We used some rope and hung it up back by the washing machine and took turns pummeling it. I was trying to get in the stance you described to me, but Rhett kept getting impatient, waiting for his turn and yelling at me to hurry up, so I’m not sure I did it right.

Then Rhett said he’d box me one handed. I put on the full pair of gloves and he put on the extra left and kept his other hand behind his back. I was poking at him with my left, jabbing like you said. And it worked, kind of. I was jabbing at his stomach and he kept bringing his one hand down to block it. So one time when he brought his hand down, I brought my right around and hit him pretty hard in the side of the head.

He was surprised all right. He stared at me and his eyes watered a bit, then pow, his ungloved right hand came out of nowhere and caught me right in the eye. I fell down and Rhett said it served me right and how did it feel and great, now he was going to get in trouble from Mom for giving me a black eye.

Boy, did he ever give me one, too. It swelled almost all the way shut by the time Mom came home. Rhett said I should put a raw steak on it, but there was no way I was going to listen to him after what he did to me so I watched TV with my one good eye while my other one was covered in a bag of frozen peas.

When Mom came home, she asked where we got the idea to box. I lied and said I didn’t know, so you owe me one for covering for you.

I really don’t want to go to school with a black eye.

Your son,

Trevor

How about if I teach you how to fight?

November 20th, 2009
Dear Trevor,
Mrs. Henry sounds like my kind of folks. There were so many days that I sat in the realty office, wishing I was teaching high school or college English instead of showing houses or filling out forms. I don’t know if you like books as much as I did. I really do think I would give an arm for a little bookshelf full of some of the authors you mentioned in your last letter. I was always a sucker for Mark Twain, that closet socialist.
But it sounds like our current assignment demands someone with a bit more theological bent. I’m hoping you keep the conversation going with Mrs. Henry and try to figure something out. We could experiment from both sides of the pale.
I had another idea for you to try as well. Something a bit more practical, or at least more physical.  How about if I teach you how to fight? Specifically, to box. I know this could be a bit tricky to do by mail, but just think of it as a correspondence course.
When I was still down there, we had a heavy bag and a couple pairs of boxing gloves down in the basement. Any idea if those are still there? If so, we’re ready to get started. If not, we’ll have to improvise.
Boxing was a big deal when I was a kid and it was one of those sports I really connected with. Probably because or your Uncle Gwyd. He and I used to get together to watch every big fight.
I figure you don’t have time to learn all the subtleties, so here are some basics:
First comes the stance. Boxing is more about speed than power. Your job is to get in, land a blow, and get back out of harm’s way. That means you have to stay on your toes, literally. Never box flat-footed. Always keep your knees bent a bit and keep your back fairly straight. Lean forward just a wee bit.
And don’t face him head-on. If you’re right-handed, put your left shoulder forward. Position yourself sideways toward the target, so that you lead with the shoulder opposite that of your strong punching hand. If you’re a right-handed boxer, point your left shoulder toward the target so you’re diagonal to him. Your left foot should be forward, too.
I asked Carl, my neighbor, to help me out with this, to help me remember if I’m telling you correctly. We got into such an argument about which hand should be forward that we almost came to blows. Carl finally agreed with me. I was actually a bit disappointed. I would have liked to take a swing at him.
Anyway, get your fists up about as high as your chin with your palms turned inward toward each other. Your fists and your arms are not just your clubs. They’re your shield, too. Keep your hands formed into fists, but don’t clench until you punch. Every time you jab, you should be clenching your fist right when it strikes your opponent. Every time you throw a cross or a hook or an uppercut, same thing. Relaxed fist then Pow! Clenched fist.
I could go on and on about this. And I will if you want me to. But that’s plenty for today. Get the gloves. Get into your stance (left foot and shoulder forward, on your toes, knees bent, hands up, elbows in, fists relaxed). Then just start shadow boxing away.
Let me know how it goes.
Dad

Dear Trevor,

Mrs. Henry sounds like my kind of folks. There were so many days that I sat in the realty office, wishing I was teaching high school or college English instead of showing houses or filling out forms. I don’t know if you like books as much as I did. I really do think I would give an arm for a little bookshelf full of some of the authors you mentioned in your last letter. I was always a sucker for Mark Twain, that closet socialist.

But it sounds like our current assignment demands someone with a bit more theological bent. I’m hoping you keep the conversation going with Mrs. Henry and try to figure something out. We could experiment from both sides of the pale.

I had another idea for you to try as well. Something a bit more practical, or at least more physical.  How about if I teach you how to fight? Specifically, to box. I know this could be a bit tricky to do by mail, but just think of it as a correspondence course.

When I was still down there, we had a heavy bag and a couple pairs of boxing gloves down in the basement. Any idea if those are still there? If so, we’re ready to get started. If not, we’ll have to improvise.

Boxing was a big deal when I was a kid and it was one of those sports I really connected with. Probably because or your Uncle Gwyd. He and I used to get together to watch every big fight.

I figure you don’t have time to learn all the subtleties, so here are some basics:

First comes the stance. Boxing is more about speed than power. Your job is to get in, land a blow, and get back out of harm’s way. That means you have to stay on your toes, literally. Never box flat-footed. Always keep your knees bent a bit and keep your back fairly straight. Lean forward just a wee bit.

And don’t face him head-on. If you’re right-handed, put your left shoulder forward. Position yourself sideways toward the target, so that you lead with the shoulder opposite that of your strong punching hand. If you’re a right-handed boxer, point your left shoulder toward the target so you’re diagonal to him. Your left foot should be forward, too.

I asked Carl, my neighbor, to help me out with this, to help me remember if I’m telling you correctly. We got into such an argument about which hand should be forward that we almost came to blows. Carl finally agreed with me. I was actually a bit disappointed. I would have liked to take a swing at him.

Anyway, get your fists up about as high as your chin with your palms turned inward toward each other. Your fists and your arms are not just your clubs. They’re your shield, too. Keep your hands formed into fists, but don’t clench until you punch. Every time you jab, you should be clenching your fist right when it strikes your opponent. Every time you throw a cross or a hook or an uppercut, same thing. Relaxed fist then Pow! Clenched fist.

I could go on and on about this. And I will if you want me to. But that’s plenty for today. Get the gloves. Get into your stance (left foot and shoulder forward, on your toes, knees bent, hands up, elbows in, fists relaxed). Then just start shadow boxing away.

Let me know how it goes.

Dad

I said, “Can I ask you a really weird question?”

November 19th, 2009
Dear Dad,
Yeah, Mom sold the lots. I don’t think they give us much money, but I suppose every little bit helps.
I always figured we’d be richer if you hadn’t died. Probably better not to think about that too much.
I did talk to Mrs. Henry today. I said, “Can I ask you a really weird question?” When she said yes, I said, “If someone were dead, but you know, still alive. Like up in heaven or wherever, would they be able to do anything to help people here on earth?”
She smiled and raised an eyebrow at me, but she didn’t laugh or call me an idiot. She said, “Why did you choose to ask me?” I told her I didn’t really know, but I figured she was just smarter than other grown-ups. She seemed to like that. “I’m not smarter,” she said, “just better read.”
Then she explained that when she has questions she doesn’t know the answers to, she goes to others to get her advice. “Like who?” I asked. “I consult the great thinkers—Shakespeare, Dante, Plato, Cervantes, —oh, there are dozens more.”
“You mean books?” I asked. Of course she meant books. And she threw in a couple of the Bible writers then as well. She explained that when it came to most questions, these great thinkers usually disagreed. For example, she said, Plato seemed to think of the Underworld as an actual place. Shakespeare, James and others seemed happy to believe in ghosts. Chesterton and Lewis believed in some form of heaven and hell. While others, such as Hemingway and Twain, seemed sure that God, heaven and hell were pure fiction.
She sure knows about a lot of writers.
“So how do you figure out what the truth is?” I asked.
“That’s the fun part,” she said. “You find out what others—particularly others smarter than you—have to say on the subject. Then you do something remarkable. You use your brain.”
It was a pretty cool conversation. It almost made me forget Mudgett. Almost. Except for the fact that he showed me his taekwando outfit in his backpack, then he said, “You know what I do everyday after school, wussy-boy? I go to the Y and take lessons in kicking your butt.”
Great.
Your son,
Trevor

Dear Dad,

Yeah, Mom sold the lots. I don’t think they give us much money, but I suppose every little bit helps.

I always figured we’d be richer if you hadn’t died. Probably better not to think about that too much.

I did talk to Mrs. Henry today. I said, “Can I ask you a really weird question?” When she said yes, I said, “If someone were dead, but you know, still alive. Like up in heaven or wherever, would they be able to do anything to help people here on earth?”

She smiled and raised an eyebrow at me, but she didn’t laugh or call me an idiot. She said, “Why did you choose to ask me?” I told her I didn’t really know, but I figured she was just smarter than other grown-ups. She seemed to like that. “I’m not smarter,” she said, “just better read.”

Then she explained that when she has questions she doesn’t know the answers to, she goes to others to get her advice. “Like who?” I asked. “I consult the great thinkers—Shakespeare, Dante, Plato, Cervantes, —oh, there are dozens more.”

“You mean books?” I asked. Of course she meant books. And she threw in a couple of the Bible writers then as well. She explained that when it came to most questions, these great thinkers usually disagreed. For example, she said, Plato seemed to think of the Underworld as an actual place. Shakespeare, James and others seemed happy to believe in ghosts. Chesterton and Lewis believed in some form of heaven and hell. While others, such as Hemingway and Twain, seemed sure that God, heaven and hell were pure fiction.

She sure knows about a lot of writers.

“So how do you figure out what the truth is?” I asked.

“That’s the fun part,” she said. “You find out what others—particularly others smarter than you—have to say on the subject. Then you do something remarkable. You use your brain.”

It was a pretty cool conversation. It almost made me forget Mudgett. Almost. Except for the fact that he showed me his taekwando outfit in his backpack, then he said, “You know what I do everyday after school, wussy-boy? I go to the Y and take lessons in kicking your butt.”

Great.

Your son,

Trevor

Is my body still laying in the ground at Washington Memorial?

November 18th, 2009
Dear Trevor,
Would you ever tell Mrs. Henry about our correspondence? Would you ever show her my letters?
I’m not sure I’m helping you. I wonder if the burden of our secret relationship is just one more thing to weigh you down. Secrets, for the most part, are not good for the soul.
Soul. Is that the right word? Is that what I am now? Is my body still laying in the ground at Washington Memorial while my soul is sitting on this cabin porch, staring down the hill into the fog?
I do think you should talk to Mrs. Henry about your struggles with Will Mudgett. I wouldn’t think of it as tattling. You’re just looking for advice. You don’t even have to name names if you don’t want to. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the teachers already knew something sinister was going on between you two. Adults, for the most part, are smarter than kids give them credit for.
Don’t let Mudgett get to you, Trev. He’s just a kid like you. Deep down, he’s probably as scared as you are.
In general, people are scared almost all the time. When you’re a kid, it’s more personal things, by which I mean that you tend to be afraid of what will happen to you, personally. Will a girl like ME? Will a boy beat ME up? Will I fail a test? Will I look stupid? When you become a father, it’s worrying about your family that keeps you up at night. Will my sons find good friends? Will my daughter find a good husband? Will my wife cope after I’m gone.
When the cancer was winning its battle against me, worrying about your mom and you kids just about did me in. While I was alive, I tried pretty hard to provide for you all. I drove your mother crazy with my thriftiness. She went without whole seasons of new clothes so I could buy all the property I could afford that seemed like good investments to me. Thinking about it now, I wished I’d let her buy a few more dresses. I’d trade my cabin for one chance to see her in a red dress, with her hair all done up.
I’m pretty sure most of my speculations were spot on. Those waterfront lots would have turned into serious money if you all had been able to hold onto them. But I knew that as soon as I died, things would get hard for your mom and you kids. She’d have to sell the lots for you all to live on. I told her to do so. I told her the order in which to sell them. In other words, I gave her a bunch of advice. Lying there in bed, trying not to cough up blood, there was nothing else I could do.
That’s how I feel now, in this in-between place, hearing about your struggles. Death has separated me from the ability to provide a solution.
Dad

Dear Trevor,

Would you ever tell Mrs. Henry about our correspondence? Would you ever show her my letters?

I’m not sure I’m helping you. I wonder if the burden of our secret relationship is just one more thing to weigh you down. Secrets, for the most part, are not good for the soul.

Soul. Is that the right word? Is that what I am now? Is my body still laying in the ground at Washington Memorial while my soul is sitting on this cabin porch, staring down the hill into the fog?

I do think you should talk to Mrs. Henry about your struggles with Will Mudgett. I wouldn’t think of it as tattling. You’re just looking for advice. You don’t even have to name names if you don’t want to. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the teachers already knew something sinister was going on between you two. Adults, for the most part, are smarter than kids give them credit for.

Don’t let Mudgett get to you, Trev. He’s just a kid like you. Deep down, he’s probably as scared as you are.

In general, people are scared almost all the time. When you’re a kid, it’s more personal things, by which I mean that you tend to be afraid of what will happen to you, personally. Will a girl like ME? Will a boy beat ME up? Will I fail a test? Will I look stupid? When you become a father, it’s worrying about your family that keeps you up at night. Will my sons find good friends? Will my daughter find a good husband? Will my wife cope after I’m gone.

When the cancer was winning its battle against me, worrying about your mom and you kids just about did me in. While I was alive, I tried pretty hard to provide for you all. I drove your mother crazy with my thriftiness. She went without whole seasons of new clothes so I could buy all the property I could afford that seemed like good investments to me. Thinking about it now, I wished I’d let her buy a few more dresses. I’d trade my cabin for one chance to see her in a red dress, with her hair all done up.

I’m pretty sure most of my speculations were spot on. Those waterfront lots would have turned into serious money if you all had been able to hold onto them. But I knew that as soon as I died, things would get hard for your mom and you kids. She’d have to sell the lots for you all to live on. I told her to do so. I told her the order in which to sell them. In other words, I gave her a bunch of advice. Lying there in bed, trying not to cough up blood, there was nothing else I could do.

That’s how I feel now, in this in-between place, hearing about your struggles. Death has separated me from the ability to provide a solution.

Dad

That whole Whitman Massacre thing is crap, anyway.

November 17th, 2009
Dear Dad,
“So you wanna set a date?”
That’s what Will Mudgett asked me today in Social Studies. He had that dark color around his eyes when he said it, even though he wasn’t looking at me. Before I could answer, he grabbed my social studies book and wrote his name on it, in these kind of creepy primitive letters.
Will Mudgett
That’s all it says, but I swear, every time I open my backpack, the cover of that book somehow comes into my sight. His name stares at me.
When he was done writing my name, he handed the book back to me and said, “What’s it gonna be, ya wuss?”
I hate this.
I didn’t answer him. I didn’t give him a date. I couldn’t really talk at all. Good thing Mr. Anders didn’t call on me, because I don’t think I could have said a word if I tried. He would have asked me what year the Whitman Massacre happened and I would have just sat there, croaking silently. Mudgett would have loved that.
That whole Whitman Massacre thing is crap, anyway. The Whitmans move to Walla Walla and spread measles to the Indians. We never hear how many Indians die, but I bet it was a bunch. Then the Indians kill the Whitmans. Who can blame them? It was the Whitmans and their measles who first killed the Indians. And then the white people hang five of the Indians. Mr. Anders makes it sound like the Indians were all to blame. I bet if Mrs. Henry taught us this section, the Indians would be the good guys. It’s kind of like you said, about how it’s hard to tell who is the hero and who is the villain.
Donnie Joad told me that he heard that Will Mudgett was taking taekwando lessons at the Y. Great. I swear, if he kicks my butt in front of the school, I’m pretty sure my life will be over.
The worst part is that he knows he’s got me. As soon as I see him, I can feel my face turning red. Other people are starting to figure it out, too. I can see them elbowing each other and hear them getting quiet whenever Mudgett and me approach in the hall. Mudgett does that stare thing, too. He looks so creepy when he does it.
I’ll talk to Mrs. Henry like you said tomorrow.
Your son,
Trevor

Dear Dad,

“So you wanna set a date?”

That’s what Will Mudgett asked me today in social studies. He had that dark color around his eyes when he said it, even though he wasn’t looking at me. Before I could answer, he grabbed my social studies book and wrote his name on it, in these kind of creepy primitive letters.

Will Mudgett

That’s all it says, but I swear, every time I open my backpack, the cover of that book somehow comes into my sight. His name stares at me.

When he was done writing my name, he handed the book back to me and said, “What’s it gonna be, ya wuss?”

I hate this.

I didn’t answer him. I didn’t give him a date. I couldn’t really talk at all. Good thing Mr. Anders didn’t call on me, because I don’t think I could have said a word if I tried. He would have asked me what year the Whitman Massacre happened and I would have just sat there, croaking silently. Mudgett would have loved that.

That whole Whitman Massacre thing is crap, anyway. The Whitmans move to Walla Walla and spread measles to the Indians. We never hear how many Indians die, but I bet it was a bunch. Then the Indians kill the Whitmans. Who can blame them? It was the Whitmans and their measles who first killed the Indians. And then the white people hang five of the Indians. Mr. Anders makes it sound like the Indians were all to blame. I bet if Mrs. Henry taught us this section, the Indians would be the good guys. It’s kind of like you said, about how it’s hard to tell who is the hero and who is the villain.

Donnie Joad told me that he heard that Will Mudgett was taking taekwando lessons at the Y. Great. I swear, if he kicks my butt in front of the school, I’m pretty sure my life will be over.

The worst part is that he knows he’s got me. As soon as I see him, I can feel my face turning red. Other people are starting to figure it out, too. I can see them elbowing each other and hear them getting quiet whenever Mudgett and me approach in the hall. Mudgett does that stare thing, too. He looks so creepy when he does it.

I’ll talk to Mrs. Henry like you said tomorrow.

Your son,

Trevor

Your burden bends you down. Let it be mine to bear.

November 16th, 2009

Dear Trevor,

If I could take your fear from you and carry it for you, I would. If I could take your burdens from you, I would carry them gladly. All the weight that bends you down, let it be mine to bear. Your burden bends you down. Let it be mine to bear.

If I could, I would declare today a holiday for you. A holiday from all your fear and all your worries.

What if you were to ask that pastor—Pastor Drew—if he knows anything about how people in heaven can help people on earth? The Catholics pray to dead saints. I know I was no saint, but it can’t be all that different. I’ve known people that others called saints, but they generally only look that way from a distance. Once you get to know someone—anyone—up close, we’re all jerks.

Who is it that prays to their ancestors? The Chinese? Do you have any Chinese friends?

Maybe you should just ask that teacher of yours, Mrs. Henry. She seems wiser than most.

When my own mom – your Grandma Griffiths – found out she was dying, she was more worried about being forgotten than she was about death itself. Or maybe that’s what death meant to her. I suppose being forgotten is the great fear of all mothers. Or all parents.

She made your Uncle Floyd and me promise to visit her grave. Even at the time, I remember thinking that I might as well promise to do whatever she wanted, because once she died, she’d never notice if we visited or not. I’m not saying I intentionally lied to her. My motivation was to comfort her, not to lie to her.

We stopped by her grave every Memorial Day without fail. Funny, it was always one of my favorite days. Uncle Gwyd and Aunt Hazel always came with us, and Floyd and his rowdy cabal. We’d make the rounds at the cemetery and then hit some restaurant on the way home and swap family stories we’d all heard before, but loved hearing and telling again. Gwyd’s stories were the best, because he kept in all the dirt, especially his own dirt, but everyone else’s as well. More than anything else, I loved hearing about him growing up in Butte with my dad. Has he told you any of those stories? Real crazy, frontier-town stuff.

With all the family we had around the Puget Sound, funerals always felt pretty common to me. And death seemed pretty natural until it came to my own. That one still feels unnatural.

Check with that teacher of yours to see if she thinks there’s any way someone who is dead can help someone where you are.

Dad

These pills are the only real help I’ve gotten so far.

November 13th, 2009
Dear Dad,
Yeah, I went to the doctor this morning. Dr. Bruell said I have a “nervous stomach.” He gave me a prescription for the world’s largest pills. They’re pink. I have no idea how I’m supposed to swallow them.
He asked me what I felt like. You know, like “where does it hurt and all that.” I said I just felt generally nauseous and sometimes I threw up. He asked me if I had a test at school today. I said no, but I knew what he meant. He meant that there was something making me feel sick—something that didn’t have anything to do with my body.
He’s a pretty smart guy. I thought he was going to start lecturing me about being a man, but instead he wrote out a prescription and said, “These pills will help. Take them whenever you feel queasy.” Except when he said it, it sounded like, “Take zem venevah you veel qveezy.” He’s got a really strong accent. He sounds like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s grandfather.
I’m about to take one right now. Hold on.
OK, I figured out why they’re so big. I’m supposed to chew them. Duh. They kind of taste like Pepto Bismal. Kind of minty and chalky. It’s funny, because I actually feel a little bit better already, which is good, because Mom says I have to start going to school everyday, unless I’m really barfing up a storm.
These pills are the only help I’ve gotten so far that’s made a lick of difference. No offense, Dad.
So I guess that means tomorrow I’ll see Will Mudgett. Any advice would be appreciated. Or anything you can do to take my mind off it. I’ll take what I can get.
Your son,
Trevor

Dear Dad,

Yeah, I went to the doctor this morning. Dr. Bruell said I have a “nervous stomach.” He gave me a prescription for the world’s largest pills. They’re pink. I have no idea how I’m supposed to swallow them.

He asked me what I felt like. You know, like “where does it hurt and all that.” I said I just felt generally nauseous and sometimes I threw up. He asked me if I had a test at school today. I said no, but I knew what he meant. He meant that there was something making me feel sick—something that didn’t have anything to do with my body.

He’s a pretty smart guy. I thought he was going to start lecturing me about being a man, but instead he wrote out a prescription and said, “These pills will help. Take them whenever you feel queasy.” Except when he said it, it sounded like, “Take zem venevah you veel qveezy.” He’s got a really strong accent. He sounds like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s grandfather.

I’m about to take one right now. Hold on.

OK, I figured out why they’re so big. I’m supposed to chew them. Duh. They kind of taste like Pepto Bismal. Kind of minty and chalky. It’s funny, because I actually feel a little bit better already, which is good, because Mom says I have to start going to school everyday, unless I’m really barfing up a storm.

These pills are the only help I’ve gotten so far that’s made a lick of difference. No offense, Dad.

So I guess that means tomorrow I’ll see Will Mudgett. Any advice would be appreciated. Or anything you can do to take my mind off it. I’ll take what I can get.

Your son,

Trevor

This is how you got that scar on the side of your nose.

November 12th, 2009
Dear Trevor,
By the time you get this, you’ll be home from seeing Dr. Bruell. That old German must be a million years old by now.
Quick story about Dr. Bruell. I’m sure someone has told you how you got that scar on the side of your nose, but since it was my fault, I think you should hear it from me. It was an Easter morning, when you were about three years old. We were driving in that Dodge Caravan your mother talked me into buying. I hated that thing. Anyway, you were in the back seat with your sister. One of the seat belts back there was broken. Your mom wanted me to get the belt fixed before we allowed anyone to sit there, but I convinced her it was perfectly safe, it being Sunday morning and all.
We were on our way to church, of all places. Easter was the only time I ever went to church, other than weddings and funerals. You want to know why I went? Don’t tell your mother, but it was because I wanted to go out to eat afterwards. If we went out for Easter brunch without going to church first, it would be a tense meal. But if I went to church, your mother would glow like a 100-watt angel at least until the next morning.
We were driving along 312th when the car in front of us suddenly came to a stop. I slammed on the brakes. The tires screeched. Everything not tied down in the Caravan went flying. That included you. You hit your face on the headrest in front of you and blood came spurting out your nose. Your mother was hysterical, but I kept telling her it was just a bloody nose. No big deal. Put a couple of napkins on it and we’ll still get to church in time to hear the choir’s big number.
Then Keith started shouting, “I saw it flap! I saw it flap!” He was talking about your nose. Turns out that you cut the side of it wide open on a broken piece of plastic on the headrest. The skin on the side of your nose was flapping open and closed.
At 9:15 on Easter morning, I called Dr. Bruell. At home. He met us at his office and stitched up your nose right there, without a single nurse on site. We missed the entire church service, but still made brunch. All in all, it worked out pretty well. The scar was pretty small, last time I saw you.
Let me know what the doc said.
Dad

Dear Trevor,

By the time you get this, you’ll be home from seeing Dr. Bruell. That old German must be a million years old by now.

Quick story about Dr. Bruell. I’m sure someone has told you how you got that scar on the side of your nose, but since it was my fault, I think you should hear it from me. It was an Easter morning, when you were about three years old. We were driving in that Dodge Caravan your mother talked me into buying. I hated that thing. Anyway, you were in the back seat with your sister. One of the seat belts back there was broken. Your mom wanted me to get the belt fixed before we allowed anyone to sit there, but I convinced her it was perfectly safe, it being Sunday morning and all.

We were on our way to church, of all places. Easter was the only time I ever went to church, other than weddings and funerals. You want to know why I went? Don’t tell your mother, but it was because I wanted to go out to eat afterwards. If we went out for Easter brunch without going to church first, it would be a tense meal. But if I went to church, your mother would glow like a 100-watt angel at least until the next morning.

We were driving along 312th when the car in front of us suddenly came to a stop. I slammed on the brakes. The tires screeched. Everything not tied down in the Caravan went flying. That included you. You hit your face on the headrest in front of you and blood came spurting out your nose. Your mother was hysterical, but I kept telling her it was just a bloody nose. No big deal. Put a couple of napkins on it and we’ll still get to church in time to hear the choir’s big number.

Then Keith started shouting, “I saw it flap! I saw it flap!” He was talking about your nose. Turns out that you cut the side of it wide open on a broken piece of plastic on the headrest. The skin on the side of your nose was flapping open and closed.

At 9:15 on Easter morning, I called Dr. Bruell. At home. He met us at his office and stitched up your nose right there, without a single nurse on site. We missed the entire church service, but still made brunch. All in all, it worked out pretty well. The scar was pretty small, last time I saw you.

Let me know what the doc said.

Dad

You’re a million miles away or floating in some other dimension.

November 11th, 2009
Dear Dad,
You can’t do anything. You’re a million miles away or floating in some other dimension.
I went to school today. Kind of. It was actually after school. Mr. Anders, my homeroom teacher, called Mom and asked her if the three of us could meet. Mom got off work early and drove me up there in our Nissan wagon. She asked me if I knew what the meeting was about. I said I didn’t know, because I didn’t.
When Mom sat next to Mr. Anders, he looked about 16 years old. I’m not saying Mom looks old or anything. It’s just that she looks like a regular grown-up and Mr. Anders looks like a kid. He has rosy cheeks. I bet he couldn’t grow a beard if he tried.
Anyway, Mr. Anders avoided the subject for a while. He asked how I felt. He asked Mom about work and where we lived. He seemed kind of interested and surprised when Mom told him we lived on the water, because usually only rich people live on the water and we are definitely not rich.
Mom answered every question he asked, super politely. I think she secretly hoped Mr. Anders had just wanted to have a little chit-chat. She hoped he just wanted to talk about the weather for a while and then he’d send us on our way.
“Hello, Mrs. Griffiths. Lovely day we’re having, isn’t it?”
“Why yes, Mr. Anders, it is lovely. Such a warm fall. Unusual, don’t you think.”
“Indeed I do, Mrs. Griffiths. Well, nice to talk to you. Have a good day. Hope to see you at a basketball game this winter.”
That didn’t happen.
Mr. Anders finally pulled a folder out from under a history book. It had my name on it. He opened it up and showed Mom my midterm progress report. All my classes—even English—had i’s next to them.
“Is Trevor getting bad grades?” Mom asked.
“That’s the thing, Mrs. Griffiths. It’s hard for us to tell. None of Trevor’s teachers was able to assign him a grade, because he’s missed so much school.”
“What do the i’s stand for?”
“Incomplete.”
“Ah.” Mom just sort of looked at Mr. Anders then, waiting to see what he recommended.
“Trevor’s a bright kid…”
Mom nodded enthusiastically at that one.
“…but if he doesn’t start showing up for school every day, he’s going to get in some real trouble, academic-wise. Have you taken him to a doctor?”
“No. I don’t think it’s anything that serious.” Mom has some sort of natural aversion to doctors.
“I think you might want to take him,” Mr. Anders closed the folder, “because the farther behind he falls, the harder it’s going to be to catch up. OK? Are we good here?”
That last sentence really got on my nerves. It was like Mr. Anders figured he’d done his little bit and everything would somehow take care of itself. No one asked me what was wrong. No one asked me why I might be staying home from school. All we had to do was go to the doctor and everything would magically turn out right. Little Trevor would go back to school and Mr. Anders wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore.
Mom and me piled back into the Nissan. Mom called Dr. Bruell on her cell phone and made an appointment for the next morning. Thank the lord she listened to the radio on the way home so we didn’t have to talk about it.
Tom

Dear Dad,

You can’t do anything. You’re a million miles away or floating in some other dimension.

I went to school today. Kind of. It was actually after school. Mr. Anders, my homeroom teacher, called Mom and asked her if the three of us could meet. Mom got off work early and drove me up there in our Nissan wagon. She asked me if I knew what the meeting was about. I said I didn’t know, because I didn’t.

When Mom sat next to Mr. Anders, he looked about 16 years old. I’m not saying Mom looks old or anything. It’s just that she looks like a regular grown-up and Mr. Anders looks like a kid. He has rosy cheeks. I bet he couldn’t grow a beard if he tried.

Anyway, Mr. Anders avoided the subject for a while. He asked how I felt. He asked Mom about work and where we lived. He seemed kind of interested and surprised when Mom told him we lived on the water, because usually only rich people live on the water and we are definitely not rich.

Mom answered every question he asked, super politely. I think she secretly hoped Mr. Anders had just wanted to have a little chit-chat. She hoped he just wanted to talk about the weather for a while and then he’d send us on our way.

“Hello, Mrs. Griffiths. Lovely day we’re having, isn’t it?”

“Why yes, Mr. Anders, it is lovely. Such a warm fall. Unusual, don’t you think.”

“Indeed I do, Mrs. Griffiths. Well, nice to talk to you. Have a good day. Hope to see you at a basketball game this winter.”

That didn’t happen.

Mr. Anders finally pulled a folder out from under a history book. It had my name on it. He opened it up and showed Mom my midterm progress report. All my classes—even English—had i’s next to them.

“Is Trevor getting bad grades?” Mom asked.

“That’s the thing, Mrs. Griffiths. It’s hard for us to tell. None of Trevor’s teachers was able to assign him a grade, because he’s missed so much school.”

“What do the i’s stand for?”

“Incomplete.”

“Ah.” Mom just sort of looked at Mr. Anders then, waiting to see what he recommended.

“Trevor’s a bright kid…”

Mom nodded enthusiastically at that one.

“…but if he doesn’t start showing up for school every day, he’s going to get in some real trouble, academic-wise. Have you taken him to a doctor?”

“No. I don’t think it’s anything that serious.” Mom has some sort of natural aversion to doctors.

“I think you might want to take him,” Mr. Anders closed the folder, “because the farther behind he falls, the harder it’s going to be to catch up. OK? Are we good here?”

That last sentence really got on my nerves. It was like Mr. Anders figured he’d done his little bit and everything would somehow take care of itself. No one asked me what was wrong. No one asked me why I might be staying home from school. All we had to do was go to the doctor and everything would magically turn out right. Little Trevor would go back to school and Mr. Anders wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore.

Mom and me piled back into the Nissan. Mom called Dr. Bruell on her cell phone and made an appointment for the next morning. Thank the lord she listened to the radio on the way home so we didn’t have to talk about it.

Your son,

Trevor

Perhaps life is such a gift that it’s worth the shame of cowardice.

November 10th, 2009
Dear Trevor,
I think you might have been half joking in your last letter. Sorry, but I don’t know you well enough to be sure. That kind of knowing—joke knowing—only comes with time.
I used to drive your mother crazy with my sarcasm. It took her years to recognize when I was joking and when I was serious. Then she eventually just got mad at me for not taking anything seriously. Oh, God. Dear, God. It was nearly the end of us when It happened. My shame.
I was about to say that you should fight Will Mudgett. I was about to tell you that if you examine the three choices—avoiding him, fighting him or turning him in—and if you really do die in all three, then number two—where you fight him—is clearly the best option. Because if you’re going to die anyway, the pleasure of getting those couple of punches in may just get you through a few millennia up here.
But now I find myself reconsidering. Perhaps you should run, hide, do whatever it takes to stay alive. Perhaps life is such a gift that it’s worth the shame of cowardice.
What was it Caesar said in the Shakespeare play? “Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.” That’s the kind of thing is so easy to write about. But even in the context of the play, Caesar dies and Marc Antony lives, then goes on to have sex with Cleopatra. So who is the smart one?
I probably shouldn’t be talking about sex with you when you’re in seventh grade. Your mother would definitely not approve. But we are men. Or at least, I was a man and you will be, soon. Right now, we live on both sides of the state. If manhood was Oregon, you’d be Washington and I’d be California.
I understand you are afraid, Trevor. What can I do to help you with this?
Dad

Dear Trevor,

I think you might have been half joking in your last letter. Sorry, but I don’t know you well enough to be sure. That kind of knowing—joke knowing—only comes with time.

I used to drive your mother crazy with my sarcasm. It took her years to recognize when I was joking and when I was serious. Then she eventually just got mad at me for not taking anything seriously. Oh, God. Dear, God. It was nearly the end of us when It happened. My shame.

I was about to say that you should fight Will Mudgett. I was about to tell you that if you examine the three choices—avoiding him, fighting him or turning him in—and if you really do die in all three, then number two—where you fight him—is clearly the best option. Because if you’re going to die anyway, the pleasure of getting those couple of punches in may just get you through a few millennia up here.

But now I find myself reconsidering. Perhaps you should run, hide, do whatever it takes to stay alive. Perhaps life is such a gift that it’s worth the shame of cowardice.

What was it Caesar said in the Shakespeare play? “Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.” That’s the kind of thing is so easy to write about. But even in the context of the play, Caesar dies and Marc Antony lives, then goes on to have sex with Cleopatra. So who is the smart one?

I probably shouldn’t be talking about sex with you when you’re in seventh grade. Your mother would definitely not approve. But we are men. Or at least, I was a man and you will be, soon. Right now, we live on both sides of the state. If manhood was Oregon, you’d be Washington and I’d be California.

I understand you are afraid, Trevor. What can I do to help you with this?

Dad

No matter what I do, I still end up dying.

November 9th, 2009

Dear Dad,

Should I fight Will Mudgett? Should I hide from him? Or should I turn him in?

Here are the pros and cons of the three options:

Keep avoiding Will Mudgett

Pros: I stay alive, at least for now. No one stabs me. I don’t get bloodstains all over my shirt. I don’t go to social studies anymore. I don’t bleed all over everything in front of half the school. Misty Lee doesn’t get to smile and flirt while she watches me die.

Cons: I have to work hard to find ways to avoid Will Mudgett. I have to listen to Donnie Joad bugging me to be a man. Since I can’t avoid him forever, Will Mudgett eventually catches up to me and stabs me in the face.

Fight Will Mudgett

Pros: Maybe I can get in a sock or two before Will Mudgett stabs me in the face. Since I’ll still die, I still don’t have to go to social studies.

Cons: I still get stabbed in the face. I still die. Misty Lee gets to watch. I never have another summer vacation.

Tattle to a teacher

Pros: Assuming they believe me, Will Mudgett gets booted from the school. I live.

Cons: I’m branded for the rest of my life as a tattle-tale ratfink. Donnie Joad clucks like a chicken whenever I walk by. My brothers and my sister all sneer at me and make me sit in the back of the van forever. Will Mudgett has even more of a grudge against me and stabs me in the face while I’m sleeping and I die anyway.

No matter what I do, I still end up dying, so what difference does it make?

I didn’t talk to Mrs. Henry today. I didn’t go to school.

Your son,

Trevor

I think that’s what death is more than anything else: separation.

November 6th, 2009

Dear Trevor,

What can I do for you from here? So little. I can’t fight your fights for you. I can’t take you to the doctor. I’ve never felt as dead as I feel right now, realizing how separate from you I am.

I think that’s what death is more than anything else: separation.

As far as I can tell, I still have matter. My body, for what it’s worth, still is made of something. I can see it and feel it, although it does not feel as solid as the body I recall on Earth.

You’ve gone swimming in the Sound, right? You know how you feel when you come shivering out of that cold water and you can barely feel the rocks beneath your feet? Someone wraps a rough towel around you, but it barely feels scratchy, because your skin is so numb. That’s close to how I feel up here. Feeling acts more as a point of reference than an experience.

It’s hard to hear from you down there, unwilling to go to class because of Will Mudgett. It’s hard to know you’re suffering and that I can do nothing but write you a letter. Hell, by now you may have gotten into a boxing match with the kid while our letters are crossing in the mail.

I hope you talk to Mrs. Henry again. I like her. I wish you’d tell her about me, but maybe that’s just my ego talking. Maybe I just long to be included. I’ve always longed so. Who hasn’t?

Here’s the thing, Trevor. You may think me irresponsible, but boys like Mudgett rarely stab people. I know what you’re thinking: It could happen. Boys pulled out guns in that high school in Colorado back when you were a toddler and I when was still alive. So you’re right. It could happen. But it almost never does. Your fear is not completely unreasonable, but what you are afraid of is unlikely.

You could also tell a teacher that the boy is threatening you. If schools continued changing like they appeared to be doing when I was still alive, just the threat of a knife at school is enough to get a kid yanked.

Perhaps that’s what you could do: Perhaps you could write out a pros and cons list of all the options you have. They seem to be this:

  1. Continue trying to avoid Will Mudgett.
  2. Face him and fight him.
  3. Tell a teacher about his threatening you.

If you do this, I’d like to see the results.

Dad

I should have known that Mrs. Henry would even know about stuff like soccer.

November 5th, 2009

Dear Dad,

Thanks for all the great advice and everything, but I don’t think it’s helping much. I went back to school today, mostly to avoid getting bugged by Rhonda for staying home. But I went to the nurse’s office to avoid going to social studies. Will Mudgett. He’s in there. If I go in the class, he’ll turn those dark eyes on me.

I tried to speak to Mrs. Henry today. I asked her if I could talk after class. She said sure. Then, when I walked up to her desk, I just stood there. She said, “What’s up?” All casual and friendly-like, because she’s really good at making kids feel comfortable. Like how she shows us stuff she wrote when she was a kid even though she knows it was bad, just so we feel more comfortable writing our own stuff. She read us this one story she wrote about these birds. The birds had dorky names like Hawkwing and Windrider. They talked to each other in this kind of pseudo-Lord-of-the-Rings-language. “Hail, Hawkwing. Thou art mighty of feather, with beak of stone.” We all laughed and she laughed along with us, which is so different than Mrs. Fletcher or Mr. Schick, who I bet would never admit to doing anything stupid in a million years, even though they do stupid things every single time they come to class.

So I stood there in front of Mrs. Henry’s desk, feeling like a total dork. What was I going to say? “Mrs. Henry, I wanted to tell you I’m pretty sure that total nerd, Will Mudgett, is going to stab me. My dead dad thought it would be a good idea if I talked to you.”

She said, “What can I do for you, Trevor?” I still just stood there. It was like when Eugene Tinkham gets up in front of class and then freezes. The whole class gets embarrassed, not just Eugene, because it’s so weird watching someone be that uncomfortable. Except Mrs. Henry didn’t seem embarrassed. I could tell her brain was working, behind all those smiley wrinkles. She was trying to figure out how to get me to say something. She was gearing up for her next technique.

“How’s the soccer season going?” she asked.

“Fine.”

“What position do you play?”

“Defender.”

“Ah, the most important position on the team.”

“How do you figure that?” I asked.

“Well, of course, it depends on your strategy. Did you watch the Italians in the 2006 World Cup? If your defense is strong enough, you only need one goal to win.”

I should have known that Mrs. Henry would even know about stuff like soccer.

“Of course,” she continued, smiling, “I’m not sure our Mr. Schick is quite up to the same level as the Italian coach.”

“Yeah, my brother Keith thinks he’s a dork.”

“Remind me again how many brothers and sisters you have,” she said.

“Three brothers and one sister,”

“And you’re the…”

“Youngest.”

“Ah. How old were you when your dad died?”

“Five.” See, this is the thing about Mrs. Henry. She doesn’t get all uncomfortable when she talks about tricky stuff like dead dads. She doesn’t start saying how sorry she is. She just jumps right in and talks about it.

“Do you remember much about him?” she asked.

“Kind of. Well, it’s sort of confusing, because I think I remember things about him or things we did. You know, like camping trips or going out in the boat. But then Rhonda or Rhett will tell me that I wasn’t even born then. So I think that sometimes when I think I’m remembering him, what I’m really doing is remembering stories about him.”

“That makes complete sense,” Mrs. Henry said. “William Wordsworth—he was a writer, like you—has a famous poem about how memory and imagination are the same thing. Trevor, you’re going to be late for class if you don’t go now. And my next class is going to start in one minute. But we could talk after class again tomorrow, if you like.”

That was it. It’s funny with people like Mrs. Henry, because we didn’t talk about anything, really, but I still felt better afterwards.

Your son,

Trevor

We agreed early on to be honest with each other, right?

November 4th, 2009

Dear Trevor,

We agreed early on to be honest with each other, right?

I think you are acting like a chicken. I don’t think you are a chicken.

You may think this is one of those workaround phrases that grown-ups like to use to avoid their true feelings. It’s not. I’m just trying to be precise. Even with our beautiful English language, saying what I feel is an awkward, stumbling exercise. When words connect to thoughts, it’s usually by accident.

I have acted out of fear so many times in my life. Fear is intricately wrapped up in so many of my days. Fear is part of my great shame. I am no hero.

I mostly joined the service as a way to pay for college, but like every guy in there, I knew I might actually see some action. I was fortunate enough to be in between any wars of note. I don’t think the government had much of a clue what to do with us at that time, so they stationed us on places like Johnson Island, where I ended up. We patrolled the thoroughly unthreatened shores, kept the never-used equipment running, and occasionally practiced fighting against each other, just to stay prepared for the real thing, should it ever happen.

A few times, a USO tour would come to our base with some tier-four starlet from a movie none of us had ever heard of. Or they’d fly in an unfunny comedian or fresh-out-of-the-minors ball player. And these guys or girls would get up on our little plywood stage and tell us how proud they were of us, how we were willing to sacrifice ourselves for our country, how we were the real heroes, not them.

I’d just sit there in my folding chair stewing. Thinking, if they knew what kept me awake at night. Thinking, if they knew how scared I was every time I went on patrol, even though there was no enemy to even be afraid of. Heck, even in World War II when the Pacific was hopping, Johnson Island never saw any action.

It didn’t matter. I was still afraid.

You’ve got these fears that seem to make you sick. The couple you’ve mentioned that I recall are Will Mudgett and jumping off the marina. I never jumped off that marina, by the way. Trevor, don’t let the way you act in these couple of moments define you. Unlike me, you’re still alive. You’ve still got a string of moments stretching out ahead of you. No single moment defines you. If it did, all your remaining moments would have no choice. Your actions would be preordained. They’re not.

Each moment of every day, you choose. If you let Will Mudgett make you piss your pants on Tuesday, on Wednesday, you can rush into traffic and push an old lady out of the path of a city bus.

I don’t think you’re a chicken.

I wish there were someone you could talk to. Maybe that Pastor Drew guy you mentioned before. Nah, I’d skip him. Maybe your English teacher. If she teaches English, she must be a reader. She’s got to have picked up a little wisdom in all those books.

Dad

I’m kind of a barfer, I guess. Did you throw up much when you were a kid?

November 3rd, 2009

Dear Dad,

You never answered my question. Do you think I’m being a chicken?

All I know is that when I think about Will Mudgett, it makes my stomach turn. Mom made goulash for dinner tonight. It seemed spicier than usual. Right before we were done, she asked me how school was. All I could think about was Will Mudgett. And that spicy goulash started jumping around in my stomach. I ran from the kitchen, down the hall to the bathroom. I barely made it to the toilet and barfed all that goulash right back up.

I’m kind of a barfer, I guess. Did you throw up much when you were a kid?

Mom came in and said, “Oh, honey,” and “poor dear” and put her hand on my forehead. I’m always surprised how this generally makes me feel worse. I know she thinks comforting helps, but I think I could tough it through times like this better if Mom didn’t get all gooshy on me.

Sometimes when she starts talking that way, I imagine I’m a soldier in Call of Duty Four and that I’ve got to be really tough. It’s tough to be tough when your mom is patting your head and saying, “There, there, honey.”

And I’m not tough, anyway. If I was, I’d tell Will Mudgett to kiss my butt and I’d punch him in the face. I’d probably get suspended, but I think it would be worth it. I don’t want to go to school, anyway.

In fact, I didn’t go to school today. I’m home. Rhonda thinks I’m faking. “I threw up!” I said to her, when she called me a faker. “You throw up from a long car ride,” she said. “You’re fine. You’re just too big a baby to go to school.” I don’t think Rhonda actually knows what’s going on with me and Will Mudgett, but I could be wrong. She’s got kids in her class that have brothers or sisters in my class. And Rhonda always seems to just know things, anyway.

So I’m laying at home, pretending to do math homework, watching Cartoon Network, and writing letters to you.

You think I’m a chicken, don’t you?

Your son,

Trevor

The kid hit me in the cheek, almost knocking me down.

November 2nd, 2009

Dear Trevor,

I don’t know if I’ve ever had anybody want to kill me. I never saw any action when I was in the military. My longest stretch in one place was when I was stationed on this tiny South Pacific base called Johnson Island, which was about as exotic as you’d expect a place named Johnson to be.

You want to know the real fighting that happened in your family? It was between Steffan and Keith. Keith was a thorn in Steffan’s side from the moment he appeared in his crib. As soon as Keith was old enough to stand up, Steffan was happy to knock him down. By the time Keith was three, he was tough enough to knock Steffan down, too.

Here’s the thing: You talk a lot about what great athletes Steffan and Keith are. I never thought it was because they were particularly gifted. It was because neither one could stand to let the other win. It didn’t matter what the sport was—football, baseball, basketball, soccer, swimming, waterskiing, hiking. As long as it wasn’t academic, they were at each other like two cats with their tails tied together. Rhett was always happy to sit back and watch. Maybe that explains why, as you say, he’s not all that good at soccer. There’s no one he’s trying to overshadow. Contentedness is bad for athletics.

I got in a few tussles when I was a kid, but mostly just playground dust-ups, where the worst you could expect was a bloody nose or a fat lip. It was more like kittens fighting with each other–more about learning to be a man than any kind of deep hatred anyone had for each other.

Being a Griffiths, I was always skinny as a rail and never exactly a big kid. I could hold my own, I suppose, mostly because Uncle Gwyd taught me and Floyd how to box. And for Gwyd, boxing meant more coal miner rules than Queensbury. Below the belt, above the belt, thumb in the eye—it was all OK with Gwyd.

One time, when I was about eight years old, Uncle Gwyd and Uncle Joe came in the house after dark and pulled me out into the front yard. There were two other young men out there and a boy a few years older than me. I never knew his name. All I remember about him was that he had this mop of black hair on his head that fell over one eye.

I was waiting for someone to tell me why we were all standing there, when the black-haired kid took a swing at me. Gwyd and Joe started yelling at me. “Come on, Hugh! Knock him out!” The kid hit me in the cheek, almost knocking me down and I finally realized I was supposed to fight him. So I started swinging back, hitting him in the stomach and on the arms. The four men were all yelling and cheering. I was landing a few decent hits when all of a sudden the black-haired kid slipped a right cross through and hit me right in the Adam’s apple. I started choking and coughing. Gwyd and Joe just stood there, grumbling. “Awww, Hugh! What’d you stop for? You had him!” I couldn’t breathe and for half a minute, I thought I might die.

But I didn’t die. That’s the point, this time. I didn’t die. I just got beat up for the stupidest reason in the world.

I thought there’d be some helpful advice in there. Maybe I was wrong.

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.

    Twitter
    Facebook
    Blogroll
    • Amish Robot Amishrobot is a website by my friend Josh Penrod, a User Experience Manager of substantial talent, with a wacky view of the world.
    • ART by Stowe Featuring the illustrations of the masterful, ahem, illustration editor of Letter Off Dead, Mr. James Stowe.
    • Beautiful Angle Beautiful Angle, a letterpress poster project by Tom Llewellyn and Lance Kagey.
    • Feed Tacoma Tacoma blogs, all in one place.
    • The Angsty Writer Tacoma writer Megan Bostic sharing her angst in her distinct, sassy voice. Check her out.
    Admin