Monthly Archives: July 2014

8 – Wes

The phone rang while I was changing an album on the stereo. It was Becky, wife of one of my most congenial drinking pals.

“V, Wesley is dead,” she said. “He died Tuesday.”

“Jesus, Beck.”

I paused. “You’re not kidding.”

“No, V. He hung himself. I found him in the backyard. Behind the backyard, actually. In the woods. I cut him down, but it was too late.”

“Oh, Becky,” I said, “I’m so sorry. I knew Wes wasn’t happy… You and the girls… Can I do anything? Is there going to be a service?”

Something bi-polarish had plagued Wes since college. He was the most studious person I knew, but if you were able to convince him to go get fucked up, a great good time was guaranteed. I could tell his temperament was unstable; it was unnerving how dark he could get sometimes, but I never knew exactly what troubled him. And, truthfully, I didn’t care. We were twenty: we were all moody. All I knew, there was no one more fun to drink with.

The two of us had been friends for fifteen years now. He got married around the same time I did and hanging out as two couples was easy and brilliant. The wives just seemed to go with the goofy, drunken flow. We visited regularly and sometimes shared vacations, like a rented cottage on the lake in Maine. By this time we both had small daughters.

I drove up to Massachusetts alone. Tru decided to stay home with Claire. I missed the funeral, but the interment was to be held immediately afterwards. The cemetery was not hard to find. From the parking lot, I could see the cluster of the stricken, a patch of black on the brown winter hillside. I made my way to the edge of the group. The afternoon was cold and late, with pinks and oranges tingeing the gunmetal overcast from a crack at the horizon. Moments after the minister stopped talking, the people scattered, needing to collect themselves, to comfort or be comforted. I found Becky. Her face brightened at seeing me. We held each other at the shoulders for a second, then we embraced and held tight.

“Good-bye, Wes,” I said over her shoulder.

“Yes,” she said, “Good-bye, Wes.”

I kissed her and walked back to the car.

The adhesive vacuum that had been Wes stuck to everything. I had never lost a friend before. I didn’t pick up a beer or search for pot. That never really crossed my mind, not as a solution anyway. I moped for a while. I took it to AA and I commiserated with our mutual friends and with Tru.

Time went by. I didn’t call Becky. She was on one side of the hole he left and I on the other.

7 – Default Setting

I leaned an extension ladder against the great maple tree in the front yard, shinnied along a bough twenty feet off the ground, and rigged a rope swing to it. Pushing Claire through the dappled air enabled both of us to escape the gravitational pull of everything. A child’s contentment sprinkles pixie dust on the commonplace.

She had a bath routine that rarely varied. After a scrub-a-dub round of cleanliness, I would read to her, always from the same little book consisting of eight or ten puffy, waterproof pages. Entitled Ernie’s Bath Book, it described Ernie’s bath time, accompanied by a series of bubbly drawings. The book’s very, very minimal text took about ninety seconds to read aloud. The best we saved for last. I cleared my throat and started all over again, but from the final word, running it backwards, and closing solemnly – Book Bath Ernie’s. This exercise never failed to elicit squeals of pleasure from both of us.

And yet…

We got out the yellow wading pool one sweltering day and filled it with icy cold water from the garden hose. Claire stepped in with her pink and yellow plastic roller skates on. Instead of shooing her out or ignoring the wet, impervious skates, I laid into her. “Oh, sweetheart, look. You’re in water up to your big ol’, wobbly ankles.” Her expression crashed with the impact of a watermelon thrown off a roof. “Oh, honey. Oh, honey. It’s fine, fine, just fine, you there in the water.” I scrambled to backtrack and distract, but the imprint had been made.

She probably has no recollection, but I do. I do because I was fooling around with my brand-new, state-of-the-art, two-part videotape contraption; a camera the size of a small bazooka wired to an accompanying videocassette recorder with the heft of a phone book, which you toted along via an over-the-shoulder strap. My commentary, disembodied nastiness, its tone one of exaggerated cruelty, only heightened the impact of Claire’s dismay. The tape would get played every couple years, every time we searched for the one marked, Puppies.

The wallop of remorse all out of proportion to the transgression knocked the stuffing out of me. I was a fucking asshole. So what about the generous, compassionate, humorous guy, the guy who was trying. What happened to kicking self-loathing to the curb? In the final analysis – Fucking Asshole.

Living with contradiction was what sobriety was all about. But the flip side of Fucking Asshole – Okay Guy – was so easily obliterated. I had to learn to live with the balance inherent in contradiction, with uncertainty, and do the best I could with the materials at hand.


Bennington Writers – Poetry

Monday, August 25th – 6pm
Cornelia Street Café
29 Cornelia Street, between Bleecker & West 4th
Subway Stop – West 4th Street

E. Ethelbert Miller is Monday’s featured reader. Joining him will be Elaine Fletcher Chapman, Miriam O’Neal, and Joseph Tobias.

E. Ethelbert Miller is a writer and literary activist. Born in 1950, he grew up in New York City. Miller chairs the board of the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank located in Washington, D.C. And he serves as editor of Poet Lore, the oldest poetry magazine published in the United States. The author of several collections of poetry, Miller has published two memoirs, Fathering Words: The Making of an African American Writer (2000) and The 5th Inning (2009). Recently, He has begun hosting and producing the television show, The Scholars, which airs on UDC-TV. Miller has taught at UNLV, American University, George Mason University, and Emory and Henry College. For several years, he was a core faculty member of the Bennington Writing Seminars, where he endowed the Annual Poetry vs. Prose Softball Game. Miller can often be heard on National Public Radio.

$8 cover includes a drink

6 – Other Exotic Suburban Diseases

 One misty fall morning, I padded out to the driveway in my bathrobe and moccasins to pick up the Sunday New York Times. And then I padded back inside, evidently with a tiny arachnid affixed to a tender spot behind my right knee. Those critters are very small, and, when tucked out of sight like that, they are detectable only by touch or by somebody else with reason to peer into a cranny or nook. As luck would have it, I discovered the bloodsucker during an extra-thorough shower. “What the fuck is this?” I asked Tru, dropping my towel, twisting my leg behind me, arching my back, and looking down over my shoulder in the general direction of the rear of my knee.

Tick removal is an exercise fraught with motion and emotion.

“V, stop moving.”

“I’m not moving.”

“You’re bouncing up and down. Just stop it. I have to get close to its head with the goddamn tweezers.”

“Okay. There.”

“Oh, V, it would be better if you lay down.

I flopped on the bed and buried my head in a pillow.

“D’ow!” I hollered. “Jesus Christ, Trudi!”

“I got it. I got it.”

“You ripped my knee out.”


“Is there a lot of blood? Put alcohol on it. Let me see the fucker.”

“Uh-oh. It was here a second ago.”


This first aid melodrama vanished quickly in the household ebb and flow, then about three weeks later, I began to feel a peculiar achiness in my wrists and elbows. I had been going to the gym now like a good sober person, however, nothing I did would have been strenuous enough to engender non-specific joint pain. I was a staunterer of health club treadmills where Oprah could now be found dispensing puffery and the occasional newsworthy discussion. Newspapers and TV were just starting to give traction to Lyme disease. It was occurring in the suburbs more and more. A bacterium caused the disease and the deer tick was its primary vector, transporting the microbe to humans. I didn’t have the telltale rash, the bull’s eye of redness, but I figured – what the hell; I got aches. It could happen; we lived in a wooded, very Bambi-friendly area. Ipso facto – self-diagnosed Lyme disease.

General testing had recently been introduced and was performed only at Westchester Medical Center as part of a study. I went, had blood drawn, and waited the requisite week to ten days for the results. Yes, I had it. A two-week regimen of amoxicillin wiped out the infection and restored me to customary limberness. I felt proud to be in the vanguard of exotic suburban diseases.