Just received word I received an Honorable Mention from Glimmer Train Press for my short story, “The Trail”, which describes a father’s grief upon losing his son.
SHORT STORY AWARD FOR NEW WRITERS
EXCERPT FROM "THE TRAIL":
Wilson is sitting on a folding-chair in his musty basement, surrounded by boxes of his son's belongings he brought down from Denver to Santa Fe weeks earlier. He is staring at photos. There is Matt in his Oshkosh overalls playing with his toy Coca Cola truck, the sun glinting off his blond hair…Matt standing straight and tall in his black mortarboard and gown, proudly smiling into his Dad's camera…Matt with his arm around his last girlfriend, Ginny.
One color photo catches his attention—of his son when he was seventeen. He has on khakis and a blue shirt, and is wearing a backpack. They had taken a trip, the two of them, to Moosehead Lake in Maine. Matt was on vacation from boarding school, where Wilson had sent him when the marriage was breaking up. Evenings the two of them sat on the front porch of that cabin at Maynard's-in-Maine, drinking bottles of Sam Adams, getting to know each other more as men than father and son.
Wilson had taken the photo at the foot of Mt. Kineo, a steep hill that rose like a monolith from an island in the middle of Moosehead. The idea was to climb it and eat lunch at the top. Matt looks patient but uncomfortable in the photo, as if his father is attempting a Hallmark moment. Did Matt resent that his father was trying to make up for the little contact they'd had when Matt was away at school? Did he understand that Wilson hadn't been much in touch because he wasn't sure he was going to survive the end of his second marriage and couldn't find in himself anything to give his son?
They had rented a small motorboat and crossed a broad bay of the lake to reach the island. They tied up the boat and waded through tall grass and buzzing insects, reaching sparse stands of birch at the base of Mt. Kineo. They followed a trail that wound its way up to the hill's piney crest, then sat down to eat the sandwiches and fruit that Maynard's had packed into the box lunches. Wilson told his son how hard it was getting the house ready to sell, with all those memories. Matt was silent, as if he perhaps had his own opinion of the marriage, and why it failed. Annie had after all been a more real mother to him than the mother he'd been born to.
Wilson remembers his son describing a crush he had on a girl at school, as they ate lunch on the mountain. Her name was Nancy. Matt described how she and he eyed each other for weeks without exchanging a word. One Saturday evening all the students were in the auditorium watching a movie when Nancy came over to Matt in the semi-darkness, sat down on the floor next to him, and nonchalantly rested her elbow on his knee. She continued watching the film that way, as if what she had done was nothing special.
"What'd you do?" Wilson remembers asking Matt.
"Nothing, Dad. I was paralyzed. Here was the girl of my dreams resting her arm on my leg. I couldn't speak. I couldn't even move."
"After a while she got up and went back to her seat."
"I understand," he'd said. "I had a crush like that on a girl when I was a teenager. It was a killer. Couldn't say a word to her."
Wilson remembers the words as if Matt is sitting with him now, staring at the photo with him.
They had put the empty sandwich bags, napkins and cardboard lunch box in the backpack and made their way back down the mountain to the boat. A strong wind had come up, and the expanse of the bay was filled with whitecaps. It was only four miles to the Maynard's pier, but Wilson hadn't handled a boat in rough weather in years. Once he got the motor cranked and the light aluminum craft underway, he knew to steer her into the wind, straight at the rows of whitecaps coming at them. Under no circumstances could he let the boat go sideways, or they would roll and capsize. Trying to ignore the crash of the waves against the boat's bow, he strained to keep his heading. He and Matt were good swimmers, but had they gone under those three-foot waves they might have stayed under.
Yes, Matt could have died, with his father, that summer, on Moosehead Lake, a chance thing they didn't. His son had twenty-three more years, time enough, had fate willed it, for Matt and Nancy to have fallen in love, married and had children—his grandchildren. Wilson had often thought of that. But his son hadn't wanted any of it. He'd probably seen enough of his father's marriages and divorces. He had seen his father, stressed from his sales job, act so unaware of his family, letting off steam by playing tennis and doing projects around the house. Matt didn't want to go down that road.
Wilson puts the Mt. Kineo photo aside. The image has made him sick to his stomach. Who will inherit his house, alone as he is? He has no living relatives. Who will take care of the furniture that has been in the family for three generations? The paintings, the car, his books—who will own these things after he's gone? No one will know the identity of many of the people in the pictures he has been holding in his hands—how and where they lived, what they did, why they were photographed. Over the years he had meant to set the photos in albums, carefully penning in the names. It no longer matters. At the estate sale these proofs that his family once existed will be given a brief glance and thrown out.
The shock of months of watching his son die has slowed his ability to move his seventy-three year-old body. He feels torpid, everything an effort, as if he has been walking underwater. At times his mind tells him his legs must be gone below the knees, his feeling of them gone. He is a torso with thighs, floating. When you lose your only child, the loss becomes physical, he realizes, measured in feet and inches.
He has fallen twice in the house over the past month. He has forgotten to turn off the flame on the stove, ruined pots and pans. He has narrowly escaped two fender-benders. His doctor warned that grief would make him vulnerable. Yes, he is depressed and exhausted. He knows that. He has to recover body function, reassert a semblance of routine. He needs to get his legs back, needs to work them so they can carry him toward some future purpose he cannot imagine.
Mt. Kineo has made him think of his own mountains nearby, the Sangre de Cristos, the Blood of Christ range. Wilson feels the need to hike the trail. He has known it well—every yard— over the years he has lived in Santa Fe. He used to hike it every afternoon before he left for Denver to help Matt fight for his life. Not that he expects the trail to assuage his grief. But moving his leaden legs might help him find a sliver of a reason to live another day. The mountain trees would shield him from the July desert heat. The monsoons that usually soak and cool the desert this time of year are absent. Clouds keep gathering, dark and threatening, from the north and from the east, but they pass over, rainless, teasing. Only the chamisa, the cactus, the juniper and the Siberian elms seem to thrive. The hardy mulleins struggle, half their usual thrusting height.
Matt hadn't been an outdoor person. His fair complexion made him burn even through the glass of a car window. Did he agree to go to Moosehead Lake just to please his Dad? Wilson will never know. The sun was not an issue thirteen months ago, when Matt stepped outside the Denver Family Practice Center, four hundred miles north of Santa Fe, to call his father on his cell phone.
"Dad, I came to the clinic on my lunch break. Trouble sleeping well…can't sleep on my side—you know, the way I usually do. The doctor took an x-ray. He put the film up on the screen and…I couldn't see my left lung. It was nothing but a shadow. I looked over at the doctor. He was staring at the x-ray with this serious expression. The shadow, Dad," he said, his voice faltering, "was a huge tumor."
Nothing in Wilson's difficult and complex life—the divorces, the near-bankruptcy, the loss of his parents—had prepared him for the shock and helplessness he felt at hearing those words from Matt, his tall, thoughtful son.
T-cell lymphoma they called it when the lab work came in. Triggered by infection from a retrovirus named HTLV-1. A disease transmitted by way of mother's milk—or sex. Wilson now knows that Matt caught the virus from Betty, the young woman Matt lived with for four years. Cute, smart, vivacious Betty, the manic-depressive who kept a shotgun handy for those she assumed were out to get her. Matt met her in a bar, where he met many of his women. "That's where people my age meet after we get out of college, Dad." That's what Matt had said when Wilson asked him why he only met women in bars.
It has been eight years since Betty and Matt split up. Wilson remembers the day his son called him, saying he was in a world of hurt, his voice desperate. Betty was inviting street people up to their Colfax Avenue apartment to do drugs with her. Matt's hopes that he could turn Betty around and have a decent life with her were gone.
Wilson had driven up and helped his son move out of the apartment while Betty was elsewhere, searching for more drugs. Two years after the split, Matt heard through the grapevine that Betty had died. It was said to be cancer—that at the end her body was covered with tumors. At the time Wilson had told Matt that didn't sound right. Tumors formed insidethe body, not outside. Didn't they?
Years later, in the hospital ICU, Matt's T-cell lymphoma kept coming back. A new and debilitating chemo would explode the millions of cancer cells swimming in his blood, and two or three weeks later the cancer would return, like some zombie disease, in a different form. Each time that happened Matt had to have painful dialysis to clear the phosphorous and other toxic materials the dying cells had spewed, threatening his life yet again. Right after a second-to-last chemo known as PAME, red lesions broke out all over his body. A switch clicked in Wilson's head: Betty had had lesionsall over her body, not tumors. It was her farewell gift to Matt.