We got a dog yesterday. I drew a picture of it.

January 29th, 2010

James Stowe illustration of dog for Letter Off DeadDear Dad,

I hope you’re gone. And I hope you come back. And I hope you’re still there. And I hope I never hear from you again. And I hope I hear from you again every day.

I hope you get this letter and I hope you never get this letter.

If you get it, you’ll know that we got a dog yesterday. I drew a picture of it.

Mom picked me up after basketball practice and had Rhonda in the car with her. We went straight to the animal shelter. The shelter is split up into two sections—cats and dogs. We were let in by a woman named Cassandra—she had like three piercings in her lip, but still talked mostly normal. She took us behind a counter and then opened a big metal door. As soon as the door opened, the room behind her exploded in barking. The room was long and narrow, lined in three levels of wire cages on both sides. Cassandra told us to take our time, look around, and ask questions.

Rhonda had her book of dog breeds with her. She would walk up to a cage, look at the dog inside, then flip through the book as if she were some kind of botanist or something. No, wait. A botanist is a plant scientist. What do you call a dog scientist? A doganist?

I’m pretty sure there weren’t any purebred dogs in there. They all looked like different kinds of mutts to me. Some were little and hairy. Some were big and hairy. They were all loud, as if each one thought, “If I’m the loudest one, maybe they’ll pick me.”

One thing that’s weird about mutts is that they all have tails that curl upwards. There must be some kind of dog breed with upward-curling tails that gets around a lot, if you know what I mean.

We looked around for about half an hour and finally got the choice narrowed down to two—one was a black dog with pointy ears that was kind of medium-sized. The other was a little, dirty white dog with hairy legs. Mom didn’t like that one, because he had one goopy eye. Cassandra kept saying, “Don’t worry about his eye. That’s just a temporary condition.” Mom would nod and smile, and then whisper under her breath, “How does she know it will go away?”

So we picked the black dog. The lady referred to her—it’s a girl dog—as a shepherd-lab. A schlep, for short. That’s what I call it. I wanted to name it, “Schlep.” Rhonda said we should name it Cassandra, because I’m pretty sure Rhonda thinks of herself as someone who will get piercings when she gets old enough. We argued about names the whole way home. The dog sat in the back seat, between Rhonda and me. First time I can remember that we didn’t fight over who got shotgun.

I’ll write more tomorrow. Right now, I want to go play with Schlep or Cassandra or Dog X or whatever its name is.

Your son,

Trevor

It’s time for me to cram my ears with wax and get the hell out of here.

January 27th, 2010
sungheeDear Trevor,
I’m sitting here at The Laughing Gull again, trying to get up my courage to go into the woods.
No, courage is not the right word. I’m trying to break through my walls of inactivity. Gordon would call my state The Modern Malaise. I’ve been wallowing in this meaningless existence for so long that I don’t how to step out of it. I’m going to, though.
Do you have these kinds of days? I remember as a kid getting together with a friend and asking the inevitable question: “So what do you wanna do?” And he’d say, “I dunno. What do YOU wanna do?” We’d swap that question back and forth half a day without doing anything. Every option, no matter how stupid, would have been better than sitting there doing nothing. Drawing hand turkeys. Making toast. Trying to break the record for standing on one foot. Sometimes it doesn’t matter so much what you do, but just that you do, right?
I’m starting to sound like a broken record. Or how would I say that in a way that makes sense to you? I’m starting to sound like a parrot. Or a repeating sound bite.
I pretended that the reason I came down here to the Laughing Gull was to ask Sung-Hee precisely which direction Martin and Julia headed when they went into the woods. She told me that in the first 60 seconds. Right past Martin’s cabin and straight through into the shadows. Since then, I’ve been here for what would probably equal many hours in your world, trying to figure out how to get off of my ass, onto my feet and into the trees.
Instead I’ve been sitting here painting a portrait of Sung-Hee with her own awful coffee. If the picture is imperfect, it serves her right. I’ll include the picture with my letter to you. Hopefully it will be a going away present, as I go away into the woods.
Sometimes—today is one of those times—Sung-Hee sings while she cooks. She has a love of awful, old, pop songs and she sings them in her rickety voice with a Chinese accent. “IF-a you want my baw-dee AND-a you think I’m sex-eee, COME on sugar, let-a me knowwww…” She’s like a siren. I don’t mean a police siren, although that’s about how bad she sounds. She’s like an ugly mermaid, wooing me into her crummy restaurant with her warbly voice.
It’s time for me to cram my ears with wax and get the hell out of here.
Hopefully, you won’t hear from me soon.
Dad

James Stowe illustration of Sung-Hee for Letter Off DeadDear Trevor,

I’m sitting here at The Laughing Gull again, trying to get up my courage to go into the woods.

No, courage is not the right word. I’m trying to break through my walls of inactivity. Gordon would call my state The Modern Malaise. “We’re too separated from necessity,” he would say. “We don’t need anything. We don’t go hungry enough. We don’t fight for survival enough. No one’s trying to burn our village or kill our family. We’ve got nothing worth fighting for, worth working for.” I’ve been wallowing in this meaningless existence for so long that I don’t how to step out of it. I’m going to, though.

Do you have these kinds of days? I remember as a kid getting together with a friend and asking the inevitable question: “So what do you wanna do?” And he’d say, “I dunno. What do YOU wanna do?” We’d swap that question back and forth half a day without doing anything. Every option, no matter how stupid, would have been better than sitting there doing nothing. Drawing hand turkeys. Making toast. Trying to break the record for standing on one foot. Sometimes it doesn’t matter so much what you do, but just that you do, right?

Speaking of broken records, I’m starting to sound like one. Or how would I say that in a way that makes sense to you? I’m starting to sound like a parrot. Or a repeating sound bite.

I pretended that the reason I came down here to the Laughing Gull was to ask Sung-Hee precisely which direction Martin and Julia headed when they went into the woods. She told me that in the first 60 seconds. Right past Martin’s cabin and straight through into the shadows. Since then, I’ve been here for what would probably equal many hours in your world, trying to figure out how to get off of my ass, onto my feet and into the trees.

Instead I’ve been sitting here painting a portrait of Sung-Hee with her own awful coffee. If the picture is imperfect, it serves her right. I’ll include the picture with my letter to you. Hopefully it will be a going away present, as I go away into the woods.

Sometimes—today is one of those times—Sung-Hee sings while she cooks. She has a love of awful, old, pop songs and she sings them in her rickety voice with a Chinese accent. “IF-a you want my baw-dee AND-a you think I’m sex-eee, COME on sugar, let-a me knowwww…” She’s like a siren. I don’t mean a police siren, although that’s about how bad she sounds. She’s like an ugly mermaid, wooing me into her crummy restaurant with her warbly voice.

It’s time for me to cram my ears with wax and get the hell out of here.

Hopefully, you won’t hear from me soon.

Dad

At the seventh line, your head explodes. Then you start over.

January 26th, 2010

Dear Dad,

My school is kind of lame sometimes.

So after all that crap about cutting kids from the team, Mr. Schick said that he has decided not to cut anyone. Everyone who tried out made the team. 15 kids in all. I’m not sure if this makes me feel good or not. It’s like being on a team where every kid gets a trophy, even the kids who suck.

Even so, I don’t mind not getting cut. I get a jersey with a number on it and the shorts are long and pretty cool looking. I can see why hip-hop guys wear so much basketball gear. It does look pretty tight.

Mr. Schick said I’ll be playing guard, so I need to work on my dribbling, defense and outside shooting. I think I’m a pretty good shot from outside. And if that means I don’t have to do layups, I’m all for it.  I still have to do them in practice, though. That stinks. I stress out every time I run toward the basket.

Nothing in basketball comes naturally for me. “Keep your head up when you dribble, Trevor!” shouts Mr. Schick. “Keep your eye on the ball, Trevor!” shouts Mr. Schick. How am I supposed to do both? And whenever you don’t do both, you have to run these things called “lines.” Did you ever have to run lines? I bet if you ever figure out where hell is up there, you will find Satan making the really evil people run lines. I suppose it’s good for me. That’s what Mom says. But it doesn’t feel good for me. It feels like I’m going to die.

You start at one end of the court, which, by the way, is covered in painted lines. Then you run as fast as you can to the first line, bend down and touch it, and run back to the end. Then you run as fast as you can to the next line, bend down and touch it, and run back to the end. You keep doing this until you get to about the fifth line. At the fifth line, you also start cursing Mr. Schick under your breath. You can only do it under your breath, because it’s impossible to actually talk. At the sixth line, you start grabbing your side, because it feels like weasels have crawled down your throat into your stomach and are trying to eat their way out. At the seventh line, your head explodes. Then you start over.

Anyway, Mom says we can get a dog tomorrow, to celebrate. I’m pretty sure that if I hadn’t made the team, she would have said we could get a dog tomorrow to help ease the pain. Mom’s kind of a genius sometimes.

I hope you get this letter. I hope you’re not lost in the woods. But I’m glad you’re going for it. Funny. You wanted me to go out for this stupid  basketball game. I wanted you to try to go somewhere. We’re both doing it, for better or worse. Hopefully for better.

Your son,

Trevor

They gone. Went into the woods just today.

January 25th, 2010

Dear Trevor,

I’ve been wondering if I hope you make the team. Would it be good for you to feel the joy of being accepted into the tribe of basketball players? Or would it be better for you to experience the pathos of rejection, so that you can empathize with others in their moments of isolation?

Who am I kidding? I hope you make the team. Rejection sucks.

I wandered down to the Laughing Gull this morning for a cup of coffee. Not to drink, but at least to sit over. At least Sung’s Hee’s coffee is warm enough to produce a little steam. I can pretend that it would taste good, as long as I never forget myself and actually drink it.

Business was slow at the gull, so Sung Hee sat next to me at the table. “Have you heard?” she said.

“Heard what?”

“About Martin and that woman.”

“Julia?”

“That her name? They gone. Went into the woods just today. Martin stopped in to say goodbye. He said, ‘You’ll never see me again, This dear lady and I are traveling to the great beyond.’ Then he dragged that woman straight up into the trees.”

I’m writing to you now to let you know I’m going after then. I don’t mean you’ll never hear from me again. I’m going to follow them, though, and see where they go, how they go, whatever. Not that I think Martin knows what he’s doing. But if there were, say, rabid bears in the woods, I’m pretty sure they’d try to eat Martin before they’d eat me.

Wish me luck, as I wish you luck. Whatever that means. I’m doing something, simply because it’s better than doing nothing.

Dad

My main job is to wave my hands around a lot.

January 22nd, 2010

Dear Dad,

Today is the last day of basketball tryouts. Next time I write, I’ll let you know if I made the team or not. So far this week, I think it’s pretty clear I’m not the next LeBron James. I’m pretty fast and I feel like I’m working pretty hard, so I’ve got that going for me.

I still do pretty good at foul shots. I suck at layups. I have no idea if I’m any good at defense. From what I know, my main job on defense is to stand in front of the other guy and wave my hands around a lot. In that sense, it’s not that much difference than taekwondo. When I wave my hands around, I feel like yelling, “Ha! Hiya!”

When I’m on defense, I also feel like going into my boxing stance and right-crossing the guy right in the face. That would draw a foul for sure, but I guarantee it would keep him from making his shot. And it would feel good. Especially if the other guy was Dirk Fossler. He thinks he’s so hot. He’s an eighth grader. His dad is some kind of fancy basketball coach somewhere. He’s also got about the dirtiest mouth you’ve ever heard in your life. No matter what you say, Dirk can make a sex joke out of it. He can even do it with numbers. It’s kind of creepy, but kind of amazing, too. Who knew numbers could be dirty?

Brian Haase also went out for the team, like I told you. I’m glad he’s here, because he’s worse than me. He’s tall, though. He must be almost six feet. But he’s skinny as a rail.

At home, dog fever has struck my sister. Rhonda has this book about dog breeds and she’s been sitting around looking at it all day long. She has all these pages dog-eared (ha!) on her favorite breeds, like standard poodles and Dalmatians and girly dogs like that. I bet those purebred dogs are pretty expensive. If mom doesn’t want to pay for me to get a taekwondo suit, I don’t know why Rhonda thinks she’ll pay for a purebread dog. I mean purebred. But a pure bread dog would be cool, too. If your dog was pure bread, and you didn’t like him, you could just eat him.

You sound really glum in your letters lately. I guess I get that, because you’re dead and all. But I never really pictured you as a glum guy. Mom always talks about you as kind of happy and crazy. She never mentioned you being depressed.

If I was in your situation and you were giving me advice, what would you tell me to do? You already know you’d tell me to go. Do something. So that’s what I’m telling you. If you don’t want to get on the bloody boat, go check out the woods.

I mean, if nothing ever changes, then what are you waiting for?

Tom

Lots of people go there and never want to come back.

January 21st, 2010

Dear Trevor,
I don’t know who this Mrs. St. Claire is. I know your mom had a whole bunch of friends from church that I never knew very well. I’m glad for that. Some of them seemed all right.
I never had much use for the whole church thing, as I’ve told you before. It wasn’t that I had anything against it. I just found it boring. And stuffy. Everyone gets in one big room for an hour and a half and acts holy. And Sunday was always the best day for sports. I probably didn’t give it much of a chance, though, much to your mother’s dismay.
My other main problem with church was that as soon as I walked in the door, I felt guilty. It seemed like church was designed to make a man think about his sins and I’d rather forget about mine. What is the point in reminding someone that they don’t measure up? I know I don’t measure up. Stop telling me, for God’s sake.
I always kind of liked the Bible, though. Church seems to work hard to be G-rated, even though it’s all about a Bible that seems more R-rated to me. Because life is R-rated. Both the Bible and life are full of sex and violence. In the Bible, David kills Goliath then cuts off his head. That’s not a scene in a G-rated movie. Then David grows up, falls in love with Bathsheba, who happens to be another guy’s wife, so David has that guy killed. And David was one of God’s favorites.
If God could like David, I wonder if it is in any way possible he could like me. I need to figure that out, Trevor. I need to do something to get out of this place. That means I have two choices: the woods or the boat. I feel like the choice should be clear to me, but it doesn’t feel anything like clear. It feels like mud.
Sung-Hee shared a little gossip with me today. She told me that Martin is thinking of going into the woods and he plans to take Julia with him. “He’s been telling that lady how wonderful the woods are,” said Sung Hee. “He’s been saying that lots of people go there and never want to come back. He’s been saying all sorts of things. He’s a mighty good salesman, that Martin. He almost makes me want to go, too.”
“Why don’t you?” I asked.
“I can’t leave. I got this restaurant to run. Who would make the food if I wasn’t here?”
I thought, who would care if you didn’t?
Dad

He told us we were all winners just for coming out.

January 20th, 2010

James Stowe illustration of Mr. Schick for Letter Off DeadDear Dad,

I like your drawing of Julia. I’ve got a picture for you, too. Here’s another drawing of Mr. Schick, blowing The Whistle of Satan, as I like to call it. You’ve never heard a sound so shrill as that shrieking whistle.

I started basketball tryouts yesterday. They go this week. Then, at the end of the day on Friday, Schick will tell us who made the team and who didn’t. Yesterday he told us we were all winners just for coming out. Then he had us run a set of lines and told us we were the most pathetic bunch of slackers he’d ever seen. He seemed more sincere on the last statement than the first.

I’ve already resigned myself to not making the team. When I’m cut on Friday, it will be a relief and I won’t have to come to these stupid practices anymore. Then I can go home after school and play X Box. Or maybe I can finally start taekwondo lessons.

I know all about your Dad dying at the gravel quarry. Mom’s dad died when she was a kid, too. Burst appendix. According to Mom, her dad was a real jerk. All this dying doesn’t feel so much like a joke to me as a curse. Sometimes, I wonder if it means I’ll die when I have kids. I also wonder if it means Mom is gonna die soon. Then I’d be an orphan. What would happen to me then? Rhett is a senior, so he’d probably just live on his own. Me and Rhonda would have to live with someone, though. Maybe Aunt Fredi, but I think she’s an atheist, so Mom would probably never let us go there. She probably has in her will that we go to live with some church friend. Hopefully it would be with someone whose house doesn’t smell weird.

Some of the houses of church people have weird-smelling houses. Like Mrs. St. Claire. She’s got a really fancy house, as jammed full of knickknacks and doilies as a house can be. If there’s a flat surface, you can bet Mrs. St. Claire has put a doily on it. And there’s not a doily in the place that doesn’t have some porcelain ballerina or glass elephant on top. You can’t walk into the place without breaking something. Last time we went there, Rhonda pushed me and I knocked a glass clown off its doily. It’s little umbrella broke off. The grown-ups were all in another room, but I still I freaked out and started looking through drawers for some glue. Rhonda told me to relax. She opened a window and just chucked the broken clown into the bushes. Then she took a little glass panda from a group of other glass pandas and put it on the bare doily.

“Mrs. St. Claire will never notice,” said Rhonda. “Let’s go get some chips.”

Rhonda is the smartest person I know. Or at least that’s what she tells me.

Your son,

Trevor

It makes me wonder if God ever kills people simply as a joke.

January 19th, 2010
Dear Trevor,
Maybe your mom just wants to get you a dog. I’d like you to have a dog. Maybe your mom senses that you are kind of lonely and that a dog would help. Maybe it’s not about her at all.
By the way, Chairman Mao was the leader of Communist China back in the 60s and 70s. You’ve seen pictures of him wearing a little cap with a red star on the front. And no, I never worked for him.
I drew a picture of Julia. She always looks like she is about to realize something, but never quite does. As if she’s thinking, “I just realized—oh wait. No, never mind. I guess I didn’t.”
I think that Julia waited all her years down on earth for her life to get started. And then, just when it did—just when she got married and became part of a family—she died. It makes me wonder if God ever kills people simply as a joke. I don’t think He does, but there does seem to be evidence that He has a dark sense of humor.
Here’s an example: My father died when I was young—just like you, I guess. He immigrated to the States as a young man, because work in the coal mines back at home had dried up. He worked in mines in Montana, but the work was so dangerous he wanted to stop before it killed him. So he moved to Tacoma and got a job in a gravel quarry, where he was crushed to death in a small landslide. Funny, eh? A real knee slapper.
I had a full life up until I died, but it was only half done. And there were many parts of it that were only half lived. I had a mess of wonderful, noisy children. I loved and was loved by a happy, bossy, beautiful woman. I started a business and had it going in a direction I was beginning to like. And all along this thing was waiting right outside of my peripheral vision. One day, I turned my head a bit to the left and there it was. And six months later, here I was.
I’ve got to get out of here. I need to get on with things again somehow. What should I do, Trevor?
Dad

julia (1)

Dear Trevor,

Maybe your mom just wants to get you a dog. I’d like you to have a dog. Maybe your mom senses that you are kind of lonely and that a dog would help. Maybe it’s not about her at all.

By the way, Chairman Mao was the leader of Communist China back in the 60s and 70s. You’ve seen pictures of him wearing a little cap with a red star on the front. And no, I never worked for him.

I drew a picture of Julia. She always looks like she is about to realize something, but never quite does. As if she’s thinking, “I just realized—oh wait. No, never mind. I guess I didn’t.”

I think that Julia waited all her years down on earth for her life to get started. And then, just when it did—just when she got married and became part of a family—she died. It makes me wonder if God ever kills people simply as a joke. I don’t think He does, but there does seem to be evidence that He has a dark sense of humor.

Here’s an example: My father died when I was young—just like you, I guess. He immigrated to the States as a young man, because work in the coal mines back at home had dried up. He worked in mines in Montana, but the work was so dangerous he wanted to stop before it killed him. So he moved to Tacoma and got a job in a gravel quarry, where he was crushed to death in a small landslide. Funny, eh? A real knee slapper.

I had a full life up until I died, but it was only half done. And there were many parts of it that were only half lived. I had a mess of wonderful, noisy children. I loved and was loved by a happy, bossy, beautiful woman. I started a business and had it going in a direction I was beginning to like. And all along this thing was waiting right outside of my peripheral vision. One day, I turned my head a bit to the left and there it was. And six months later, here I was.

I’ve got to get out of here. I need to get on with things again somehow. What should I do, Trevor?

Dad

Mom has not started dating anyone, but I think she’s thinking about it.

January 18th, 2010
Dear Dad,
Who is Chairman Mao? Is that someone you used to work for?
Mom has not started dating anyone, but I think she’s thinking about it. I mean, this is pretty much just theory on my part. And on Rhonda’s. But I think there’s something to it.
Here’s why: We don’t have a dog right now. We had Val when you were alive. Based on all the stories Steffan tells, Val the German shepherd was The World’s Greatest Dog. I’m pretty sure Steffan thinks Val could levitate at will and poop gold. Supposedly, you trained the dog remarkably well and never did a wrong thing ever.
After you died, we got another German shepherd. I guess they figured the last one was so wonderful, they should stick with the breed. Mom or someone named it Floyd. I hated that dog. Or feared it, I guess is more accurate. Whenever I went outside, it would jump on me, stand on my chest, and bark in my face. I remember being about five years old and trying to run from our house to Barry Barton’s house before Floyd could catch me. I rarely ever made it. Luckily, Floyd ran away. Good riddance.
Then we had Horace, which was an ancient beagle that some crazy lady gave to Rhonda. The crazy lady lived in a beach rental and when she moved, she asked Rhonda if she wanted a dog. Rhonda was eight years old, so of course she said yes. So she came home with this gray-muzzled, half-blind old dog who barked at anything that moved. I guess Mom couldn’t bring herself to take the dog away from Rhonda.
The best story about Horace, which is the same name as Mom’s brother, Uncle Horace, was that one summer, Uncle Horace was coming to visit all the way from Minnesota. Mom warned us kids, “When Uncle Horace is here, don’t call the dog by its name. Uncle Horace would be very offended if he found out that old dog had the same name as him.” On arrival day, we were all steeling ourselves to stay steady, when we saw Uncle Horace’s rental car pull into the driveway. Horace the dog saw it too and started barking like mad. Uncle Horace, who looked about a million years old, stepped out of the car. Mom opened the front door. Horace the dog was barking like mad. Uncle Horace was walking toward the house. Then Mom yelled, as loud as I’ve ever heard her yell anything, “Horace! Shut up! Horace! Shut up!”
Uncle Horace was really confused.
Anyway, Horace the dog died after just a few years and we’ve been dogless ever since. Recently, Mom’s been talking about how we should get another dog. This surprises all of us, as Mom doesn’t exactly love the beasts. But she’s been saying all this stuff about how important it is to have a companion and how bad it is to be lonely and Rhonda says Mom isn’t talking about us. Rhonda is pretty smart about this stuff, or so she tells me. She said, “Just you wait. Mom’s gonna start going out on dates.”
That’s all I know for now.
Your son,
Trevor

Dear Dad,

Who is Chairman Mao? Is that someone you used to work for?

Mom has not started dating anyone, but I think she’s thinking about it. I mean, this is pretty much just theory on my part. And on Rhonda’s. But I think there’s something to it.

Here’s why: We don’t have a dog right now. We had Val when you were alive. Based on all the stories Steffan tells, Val the German shepherd was The World’s Greatest Dog. I’m pretty sure Steffan thinks Val could levitate at will and poop gold. Supposedly, you trained the dog remarkably well and it never did a wrong thing ever.

After you died, we got another German shepherd. I guess they figured the last one was so wonderful, they should stick with the breed. Mom or someone named it Floyd. I hated that dog. Or feared it, I guess is more accurate. Whenever I went outside, it would jump on me, stand on my chest, and bark in my face. I remember being about five years old and trying to run from our house to Barry Barton’s house before Floyd could catch me. I rarely ever made it. Luckily, Floyd ran away. Good riddance.

Then we had Horace, which was an ancient beagle that some crazy lady gave to Rhonda. The crazy lady lived in a beach rental and when she moved, she asked Rhonda if she wanted a dog. Rhonda was eight years old, so of course she said yes. So she came home with this gray-muzzled, half-blind old dog who barked at anything that moved. I guess Mom couldn’t bring herself to take the dog away from Rhonda.

The best story about Horace, which is the same name as Mom’s brother, Uncle Horace, was that one summer, Uncle Horace was coming to visit all the way from Minnesota. Mom warned us kids, “When Uncle Horace is here, don’t call the dog by its name. Uncle Horace would be very offended if he found out that old dog had the same name as him.” On arrival day, we were all steeling ourselves to stay steady, when we saw Uncle Horace’s rental car pull into the driveway. Horace the dog saw it too and started barking like mad. Uncle Horace, who looked about a million years old, stepped out of the car. Mom opened the front door. Horace the dog was barking like mad. Uncle Horace was walking toward the house. Then Mom yelled, as loud as I’ve ever heard her yell anything, “Horace! Shut up! Horace! Shut up!”

Uncle Horace was really confused.

Anyway, Horace the dog died after just a few years and we’ve been dogless ever since. Recently, Mom’s been talking about how we should get another dog. This surprises all of us, as Mom doesn’t exactly love the beasts. But she’s been saying all this stuff about how important it is to have a companion and how bad it is to be lonely and Rhonda says Mom isn’t talking about us. Rhonda is pretty smart about this stuff, or so she tells me. She said, “Just you wait. Mom’s gonna start going out on dates.”

That’s all I know for now.

Your son,

Trevor

Why are you asking what I would think about Mom dating?

January 15th, 2010

Dear Trevor,

Why are you asking what I would think about Mom dating? Remember our agreement to be honest with each other?

First of all, no one dates up here, but that doesn’t mean there’s no pettiness, misery, jealousy, gossip, self-doubt or any of the other benefits of dating. There are only three women regularly in our little town. One is Sung-Hee, who is hard to recognize as a woman. She claims she was married and raised children back in your world (she says they all worked for her at her hamburger stand), but she looks more like Chairman Mao than anything resembling a female. As far as I can tell, she has no breasts at all.

On the other hand, Sung-Hee loves juicy gossip. I think she longs for scandal as much as she longs for life itself.

There is also an old woman who lives down at the end of the row of shacks. I’ve never heard anyone call her anything but The Woman At The End. She has white hair down to the middle of her back and wears a dress that looks like it was made of burlap. I’ve never spoken to her. I see her drift in and out of the fog every now and then. She gives me the willies.

Then there’s Julia, who just got here but honestly doesn’t feel all here. Carl says to give her a chance. Maybe she’s still recovering from jet lag, which is what he calls the post-traumatic stress of realizing you’re dead. Martin gloms onto Poor Julia every chance he gets and she seems undecided on whether she likes the attention or not. I’m pretty certain Martin will drop her the next time a group of newcomers arrive.

If I were alone on a desert island with Julia, back on earth, I suppose I would, ehh, do something with her. Date, mate, call it what you will. Here, I just find her another vague annoyance. Like a fly. Not a mosquito trying to suck your blood. Just a fly bouncing its head against the window while you’re trying to get to sleep.

I guess you can count the ship captain as a woman as well, or as a living nightmare. I can’t think about her.

But I do want to know about your mom. Is she seeing someone? Tell me.

Dad

I can’t imagine that I’ll make the team.

January 14th, 2010

Dear Dad,

I’ve been trying to figure out who else is going out for basketball. Some of them are easy to figure. Donnie Joad is going out, because he does anything that’s free. Skip Hendrickson is, because he’s good at everything and likes to make sure everyone knows. Rick Jarvis isn’t, because he plays soccer year around on his fancy club team. Mudgett isn’t. He doesn’t do regular sports. Just taekwondo, which seems way cooler than basketball to me. I hear that Rusty Foster is. I hope I don’t have to get dressed next to him. Yikes. A bunch of eighth graders are and I hope like heck that Gilman isn’t one of them. I still haven’t seen him around school since the fight.

Brian Haase is going out for the team, which I never expected. He’s not much of a sports guy. Maybe him and I will get cut together. It would be a relief to not be the only kid to get cut.

Because, you see, I can’t imagine that I’ll make the team. I mean, I’m gonna try and everything, but I’m just not very good at this whole basketball thing.

Dad, I have a question for you: that Julia woman up there with you. Are you, like, interested in her? I mean, would you ever date her or anything? Do people do that sort of thing up there?
 
Here’s another question for you: If mom were to date, what would you think about that?

Your son,

Tom

That poor asparagus would be a soggy, flavorless mess.

January 13th, 2010

Dear Trevor,

It’s funny, because you don’t want to go out for dinner with just your mom, while I would cut off my right arm for the chance.

I know what you mean about how restaurant food can’t compare to your mom’s home cooking. She was always an astonishingly good cook, as long as you could keep her away from making casseroles.

When it came to basic food, roast beef, fried chicken, biscuits, apple pie—no one could come close to your mom. A chicken dinner on a Friday night, maybe with baking powder biscuits and a steamed vegetable. I would burn down Sung-Hee’s shack for a meal like that.

I loved to watch your mom cook. She was a master of efficiency, which she probably learned by growing up on the farm. Farm girls have a natural desire to avoid work, because they do so damn much of it.

Here’s how I remember it: First, Evelyn would turn on the oven. It didn’t matter what it was, she cooked every single thing that ever went in that oven at 350 degrees. Then she’d fill a bowl half full of flower, with a good dose of salt and pepper mixed in. She’d take the chicken pieces and douse them in the flour, then she’d lay the white, powdered pieces in a pan, all packed in together like babies in a hospital nursery. That was it. No extra spices. No secret sauces. Just flour, salt, pepper and chicken. She’d slide the pan onto the top shelf in the oven and shut the door.

Then she’d use the leftover flour as the base of her biscuits, so there was no waste. She’d add a little more flour, then pour a little baking powder into the palm of her hand and tip it into the bowl. She’d cut in some butter. Or lard if she had it. Then she’d pour in some milk. No measuring cups. No measuring spoons, other than the cupped palm of her hand.

“How do you know how much to put in?” I’d ask.

“Oh now,” she’d say, as she was kneading the dough onto a breadboard, “you just pour in enough so that it looks right.” She’d have flour on her forehead, looking all farm-girl beautiful without knowing it in the least. She’d cut the biscuits from the rolled-out dough with an upturned water glass and slide the circles onto an ungreased cookie sheet. One that was all black and burnt from so much use. Then she’d sneak the cookie sheet on a rack under the cooking chicken and start washing the vegetable. Let’s say she was making asparagus, since we’re dreaming here. She’d plop the spears in a pot of water and put it on the stove. Then she’d boil every living bit of life out of those spears. The chicken would be both crispy and tender at the same time. The biscuits—flaky and light and dripping in butter and jam. But that poor asparagus would be a soggy, flavorless mess.

Two out of three ain’t bad.

Dad

I was at a table for two with my mom.

January 12th, 2010

Dear Dad,

I guess I’m going out for basketball. How’s that for commitment?

Last night for dinner, just me and Mom were home, so we went to Round Table and ate pizza. It’s weird going out for dinner with just your mom. I saw Brandy Saylor there from school and she was with a group of girls I didn’t know. No parents in sight. And there I was at a table for two with my mom.

Mom must have noticed my pain, because she said, “Honey, you’re not embarrassed to be here with me, are you?” I lied and said no. I hope no one heard her call me honey.

Anyway, the pizza was pretty delicious. I like eating out in restaurants, even if the food isn’t as good as Mom’s. I’m convinced there is no such thing as bad pizza.

Mom asked me about basketball again. She said she thought I should do it for the exercise at least, if for no other reason. I said I was going to do taekwando lessons and wasn’t that exercise enough? She asked how much it would cost again and I said I still hadn’t figured it out. She said I needed to do that before we signed up and that there was no reason I couldn’t do basketball and taekwando.

“Boys need to be active,” she said.

“I’m pretty active already.”

“Video games don’t count.”

There is a rule among all moms everywhere that all video games are inherently evil. It’s funny, because Mom bought me a BB gun, no problem. If I told her I shot a bird, she’d probably think it was cute in a farm boy sort of way. But if I tell here I shot a zombie, which is a way better thing to kill than a bird—she acts like I just kissed Satan on the lips.

Anyway, she said, “So it’s settled? You’ll go out for basketball?”

“I guess.”

Tryouts aren’t until next week. So I’ve got a few days until I have to spend more time with Mr. Schick.

Say hi to Carl for me.

Your son,

Trevor

It’s a helluva heaven, but it’s all we’ve got.

January 11th, 2010

Dear Trevor,

My life up here is like a cup of warm water for a teaspoon of yeast, with a little sugar added in for good measure. The yeast is dumped in, and now we’re all waiting to see if it’s still alive. We’re all waiting for a little foam in the cup. So far, nothing.

As I told you in my last letter, I’ve been walking crazy-haired Julia back and forth in front of Carl and Gordon’s cabin, hoping to lure one of my neighbors out of their hibernation and into the dim light of outdoors. Alas, my plan has backfired and I’ve only succeeded in attracting Martin, that big, bitter bastard. I can’t imagine how Martin ever managed to get elected to a city council position back when he was alive. He’s such a bully. I almost wonder if he’s happier here than he was in your world. He seems like someone who must have hated life.

“Welcome to heaven,” he said to Julia, huffing his way out of his cabin as we walked out front. “It’s a helluva heaven, but it’s all we’ve got.” When he reached us, he grabbed Julia’s hand and pumped it up and down, a bit too enthusiastically. He ignored me completely, except to bump me farther away from Julia with his right buttock.

Julia managed half a thank-you and half a smile—she tended to complete most of her acts only halfway before seeming to get distracted by another movement or another thought. She ran her fingers unsuccessfully through her pile of hair and glanced back and forth between Martin and me.

“If this shrimp is done boring you with stories of his kids, why don’t you let me show you around? I could certainly use your company. Whaddaya say?”

“I, uhh…” muttered Julia, as Martin herded her down the dirt path in front of the cabins. I stood and watched the two of them walk away, their walk punctuated by Martin’s big butt cheeks shuffling up and down inside his slacks and Julia’s confused backwards glances.

There I stood, alone again, wondering how Martin had managed to take away my only company and suddenly understanding why he’d managed to get elected to public office back on earth. Then irony struck when Carl spoke behind me, “Lost the girl, eh, you Welsh dwarf?” Julia’s presence hadn’t lured Carl out, but my loss of her had been more than he could resist commenting on.

I smiled grimly as Carl walked up beside me. Perhaps he was only willing to be in my company when he was sure I was suitably miserable.

Enough of that—let’s talk about your basketball dilemma. Your mom wants you to play. You don’t want to. She thinks you’re good enough. You don’t. I tend to side with your Mom, but I have no idea if you’re any good. You may indeed suck. So go out for the team. If Schick tells you you’re lousy, you can blow off his opinion as that of an idiot.

Easy for me to say, right? I don’t have to deal with your mom or Schick’s judgment.

I’ve got judgment of my own to deal with.

Dad

Basketball is a stupid game. I suck at it.

January 8th, 2010

Dear Dad,

Mom is still harping on me to go out for basketball. I really don’t want to.

In sixth grade, I actually got a basketball hoop and backboard for my birthday. I remember the conversation about it before. “Trevor needs a place to play basketball,” Keith said. By which I’m pretty sure he meant, “If we put up a hoop, I’d have a place to play basketball.” Neither one made much sense to me. Basketball is a stupid game. I suck at it. I don’t really need a reminder of that hanging above the driveway. And Keith doesn’t even live at home anymore. What’s he gonna do? Come home on weekends just to kick my butt in a game of horse?

Anyway, they got me a hoop and a real backboard and Rhett put it up on the garage. Only problem is that our driveway is gravel. So when you try to dribble the ball, it always hits a weird rock and goes shooting off in a random direction. When Rhett notices me playing, he says, “You better not hit my car.” Then, as soon as I start to dribble, boing! The ball hits a rogue piece of gravel and smacks into his passenger door.

“I told you not to hit my car!” Rhett yells.

“Don’t park there if you don’t want me to hit it.”

“Hit it again and I’ll hit you.”

“You’re the one who put the hoop on the garage. What am I supposed to do?”

“You’re supposed to stop hitting my car.”

I play anyway, mostly by myself when no one is watching. I can’t dribble real good, mostly because of the gravel. And I suck at layups, because I can never remember which foot to go off of. I spend way too much time thinking about it. “I’m making a right handed layup, so does that mean I go off my right foot? No, my left foot.” But by then, I’ve already missed the shot and it doesn’t matter.

If you were here, would you make me go out for basketball?

Your son,

Trevor

Friendship is often more a matter of distribution than of fit.

January 7th, 2010

Dear Trevor,

Julia is missing more than just her lipstick. I think she may be missing a good chunk of her brain as well. She’s nuts.

She has a hard time completing a regular sentence without saying, “There must be a decent drugstore around here somewhere.” For the first few days, I kept saying, “What you see is what you get, I’m afraid.” Now I’ve taken to saying, “Yes, I hear that Walgreens is very interested in the vacant property next to the post office. It’s just a matter of time.”

My guess is that Julia was on some pretty potent prescription drugs. She hasn’t come to terms with the fact that her new body—or the lack thereof—doesn’t have much need for any medication. I think for her, it’s more a matter of habit than actual need. Or perhaps force of habit is just as strong as force of need.

I’ve convinced Julia to leave her bench in front of Sung-Hee’s and go for walks with me. Not because I particularly enjoy her company, but because I figure if I walk her back and forth in front of Carl and Gordon’s cabins, her presence may entice one of them to rejoin me in some form of conversation. I miss their company. That’s all I have up here—other than your letters—the company of these crusty men.

I would likely never have chosen to be friends with either of them, were I back in your world. But, you now, it’s often availability that creates relationships. Friendship—too strong a word, but it will have to do—is often more a matter of distribution than of fit.

Julia, I fear, is inadequate bait to lure these two old fishes from their holes. But she’s all I’ve got.

Dad

Mom thinks TV—except for nature shows—is of the devil.

January 6th, 2010

Dear Dad,

Sorry to hear you’re in such a funk. I guess I was in one, too. I kind of dreaded going back to school, but I think I’m actually happier now.

I’ve always liked going back to school after Christmas, because you get to ask each other what you got and teachers are usually pretty easy on you, it being your first day back and all. That’s what happened today. I had a pretty flawless couple of hours. No one beat me up or anything. I didn’t see David Gilman at all. I also didn’t see Will Mudgett, which made me strangely nervous. I mostly hope nothing happened to him.

Lots of kids got new cell phones for Christmas. I don’t have a cell phone yet. I guess I should feel like I’m missing out on something, but I don’t really. If I had a cell phone, I’m pretty sure people would call me on it. I’m lousy on the telephone. I’d like one for the games, I guess.

In P.E., the evil Mr. Schick came in to tell us he’d be holding basketball tryouts starting next week. I have no desire to play basketball. But when I got home, I just happened to mention it to Mom. She says I need to tryout. “You should give it a chance,” she said. “Your brothers all played basketball. It’s what boys do. And if you don’t do it, what are you going to do? Sit around and play video games?”

Mom thinks video games are of the devil. She thinks TV—except for nature shows—is of the devil. She thinks all movies made after The Sound of Music are of the devil. The funny thing is, she thinks that all reading material comes straight from God. I read Mad Magazine and Stephen King and she doesn’t even blink. I can read books full of sex scenes and stabbings—even if they’re happening simultaneously. Mom never even bothers to read the covers. If it’s a book, she figures, it must be good for you.

Who knows? Maybe Mom is actually right this time.

Your son,

Trevor

I’ve taken to visiting with Julia, she of the unkempt hair.

January 5th, 2010

Dear Trevor,

I wouldn’t worry too much about the bird you killed. Death, it turns out, is a part of life. I’m glad it affected you, though. I’d hate to think that you were one of those kids who killed animals for fun.

I also understand about your post-Christmas funk, if that’s what you were trying to say. I fell into one of those most years as well. Used to drive your mother crazy. I’d drop out of work to stay home with the family, then end up just laying around. Perhaps us Griffiths do better with a tighter schedule.

Wherever I am now, I feel like I’ve fallen into one of those funks and can’t climb out. I’m pretty certain everyone here feels the same way. Gordon is still closed up in his cabin like some sort of sardine in a can. Martin is even more acidic than usual, flinging dirty insults at whoever walks by. Sung-Hee sits at her window table, looking out into the fog and probably wishing for customers. Even Carl, who is typically the most positive of all of us—even though he thinks we’re in hell—has refused to visit with me.

So I’ve taken to visiting with Julia, she of the unkempt hair. Whenever I see her, Julia tries to smooth her bird’s nest down and reaches around her as if she’s just lost her wallet.

“Looking for something?” I asked, the first time I noticed this.

“Oh, lipstick. I seem to have left it on the plane. I don’t suppose a lady can get lipstick somewhere around here…”  He voice trailed off. I shrugged, not wanting to be the one to give her the bad news.

As I told you before, Julia was a guidance counselor in her former life, or her only life. She didn’t marry until she was 37, when she connected with a husband with three teenage kids from a former marriage. His name was Steve. Or Ernie. She suddenly can’t remember. It’ll come back to her in time.

Julia still sits on the bench outside of Sung-Hee’s all day long, although she’s begun spending her nights in one of the small cabins to the far left of me, four cabins past Martin. She’s a nervous woman, always fidgeting with her clothing, tapping her fingers and saying things like, “well now” and “Oh, for the love of God.”

Oh, for the love of God. That one might take on a new meaning for her, once she’s stared into the fog for a year or two.

Good luck at school.

Dad.

I killed something a couple of days ago.

January 4th, 2010

Dear Dad,

I know I haven’t written in a while. After Christmas, I got sort of, I don’t know.

Now it’s back to school today. I haven’t gone yet. I’m writing this in the morning before I leave.

None of my friends got in touch with me over the holidays except for Will Mudgett. And he’s a creep, right? I can’t believe I even list him in the friends’ category. I got a few text messages from girls who can’t help themselves, but Donnie and Brian and my other guy friends all seem to have disappeared off the face of the earth for two weeks.

I guess I didn’t call any of them, either. I wonder if we were all sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring.

I killed something a couple of days ago.

You know that new BB gun I got? I was shooting at trees from the deck. Every now and then, I’d actually hit what I was aiming for, but most of the time I’d miss. That’s why I didn’t even pause when it came to aiming at a teeny little bird sitting on a bush. I don’t know what kind of bird it was. Mom just calls them tweety birds, but I don’t think that’s the real name. Anyway, I aimed at one for about a tenth of a second and then pulled the trigger. Without a sound, the bird just fell over, into the ivy below.

I kind of freaked out right then. I dropped the gun and ran down there as fast as I could. I started digging around in the ivy, looking for the bird, to see if it was still alive. I couldn’t find it. I was saying, “Oh no, oh no, oh no,” over and over again. I kept looking for another ten minutes until Mom noticed me from the dining room windows. She came out on the deck.

“What are you looking for, honey?”

“Umm, nothing. Just, uhh, poking around. You know.”

“You’re not wearing your school shoes in there, are you?”

That’s the kind of thing Mom worries about. I was trying to save a dying bird, and she was worried about me getting a little dirt on my shoes.

I finally realized I was never going to find the bird and came inside with the gun. “What’s up, Tex?” said Rhett as I passed him. I told him I killed a bird. “That’s cool,” he said. I pretended to agree, but felt sick to my stomach.

So now it’s back to school. I don’t have to worry about Mudgett anymore. Hopefully, Gilman doesn’t kill me. I just wish things would be, you know, different.

Your son,

Trevor

    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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