The Iron Writer
2014 Winter Solstice Open
The Jennifer Egan Bracket
A grieving boy
Growing up and growing old
An imprisoning life
An adventuresome journey
The nursing home called just before 5am, and we were on the road as sunlight outlined the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Little sister Kelly sat beside me in my rental car and her eight year old Jack sat in the back. I could tell he was already grieving the loss of his Nana, my mother Marney.
“She had another episode,” said Kelly, who had taken the call. “I knew the rock ‘n roll lifestyle would catch up with her.”
By “episode” she meant stroke; the “lifestyle” had begun exactly one year after Dad died back in 2010.
“Mom made up for lost time,” I added.
“It was embarrassing,” said Kelly. “She was dating maybe two or three different guys, and had the blue hair set buzzing. It was, I don’t know, undignified.”
“I liked her more when she was having fun,” said Jack from the dark. “Nana was all serious when Pappa was alive.”
“Jack, what a terrible thing to say!” said Kelly, but we knew he was right.
We drove a while in silence. Taos was dreamlike in the misty dawn, the cloudless cobalt sky and Abbeyesque landscape devoid of human trace.
“You didn’t know Mom’s parents,” I said. “Granddaddy and Grandmom were pretty stern, even grim people. They were both scientists who came out from Chicago to build the A-bomb and stayed after the war. They really hated Richard Feynman.”
“Who? And how does that explain acting like a teenager in her early seventies?” asked Kelly.
“Mom grew up begging for her parent’s approval, and she always came up short,” I explained. “After she enrolled at Columbia, she went kind of hippie. Did she ever tell you about partying with Trudy Morgal at Woodstock?”
“Nana told me about Woodstock,” interjected Jack. “She also told me I had to grow up, but I didn’t have to grow old.”
Kelly gave me a sharp look, so I continued.
“So when her parents found out, they made her drop out and move back home. Mom tried everything to earn their forgiveness, until finally she brought Dad home. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Charles McDougal, Las Cruces blue-blood, and, you know, mister no-nonsense. They loved him.”
“Dad wasn’t so hard core,” said Kelly.
“Dad had his soft spots,” I said, “but he was controlling, and sometimes more imprisoning than her parents. Remember how she always wanted to go on a cruise, and he always said that’s for “hourly” people? It was mainly about appearances … the right friends at the right country club.”
We finally arrived at Los Piñones, where the reception nurse told us Mom was feeling better but acting a little “queer.” Walking into her room, we were surprised to find her sitting up in bed, attended by a doctor.
“Oh children, I’m so happy you came to see us off,” she said, beaming. “I’m so excited about seeing Alaska by the Inside Passage, and the captain has graciously invited your father and me to dine at his table this evening. Everyone has been so nice since we came aboard.”
Happily, Marney McDougal stayed on that cruise for the rest of her life.
Jason T. Carter
It was an image I will never forget. My little Henry, only six years old, crouched against the building with his head between his knees, his hands covering his ears. He sobbed, tears falling to the hard pavement. He could not understand what was happening, and frankly neither could I.
The man in the suit dropped to the ground, and soon a pool of blood surrounded him. How I wrestled the gun away from him I will never know. He was bigger and stronger than I could ever dream to be, but the thought of him taking Henry away from me stirred up a rage within me. I punched him in the face, he staggered back but did not fall. He reached for a revolver from his jacket pocket, and I lunged as soon as I saw the silver handle.
Taking him to the ground, we exchanged blows. He fired off two shots, both going into the ceiling, and by some miracle I struck his arm just right to jostle the gun free. Instinctively I grabbed it, cocked it, and fired.
I could hear nothing for several moments after the gunshot. Then sounds began to come back, slowly at first, and then rushing. My son crying. Someone screaming from the window above. A woman’s voice—Mrs. Carrington’s voice—pleading, “Alistair, are you okay? Henry? Alistair?” Police sirens wailed.
The smell of blood reached my nose. The man would not take Henry away, but someone else would come. Someone else would try.
I would live the rest of my life in a prison cell for murder, though I would argue self-defense. But no one else saw the struggle. Not even the six-year old boy sitting against the wall, his face down.
I grabbed Henry and began to run toward Orchard Street. I could not bear the thought of this boy growing up without me, while I grew old in prison. He was my son, and we had so many adventures planned for our lives. We wanted to ride elephants, run with bulls, tame lions. Now those hopes, those dreams, those adventures, diminished as the sirens blared behind me. The red and blue lights illuminated our path, getting brighter.
I ducked behind a dumpster in the alley, and one car passed. I peeked around and saw another, and ducked for cover again as it roared through the alley. Staying still for a moment, holding Henry close against my chest, I listened. No more cars coming this direction. I bolted back to Rosina Avenue, hoping to see my car undisturbed on the street only to see a cop guarding it. The volume of police radio traffic made it clear there was no escape.
I crouched behind the neighbor’s car with Henry. “Son, I love you very much. You need to always remember that. Your daddy loves you.”
Tears streamed down his cheeks.
“Go ride those elephants, Henry. Go run with the bulls. Tame those lions for me, son.”
He shook his head no. I kissed him on his forehead, tousled his blonde hair, and stood with my arms stretched in the air.
Danielle Lee Zwissler
I could feel my breath hitch in my chest, my heart race, and the tears as they came down my cheeks. I put my head in my hands and thought back to that day 22 years ago while I sat in the waiting room waiting to see my dad.
I was 16, and it was the winter of 77’. I had just gotten my license, and I wanted to drive home from church. I will never forget what I had taken away in that one moment. I wish I could go back, take the keys from that eager boy’s hands, and whisper in his mother’s ear to not give in to her baby so easily.
“Mr. Sanders, the Dr. will see you now,” an RN spoke softly. I followed her down the hall to Dad’s room.
“Are you okay?”
“It’s time, Eric.”
“But I’m not ready yet.”
“We both knew this time would come. I’m just sorry that I can’t be around to see you become a father. You’re going to be a great dad.”
I shook my head. “It was because of me, all of those things,” I interrupted furiously.
“No, no, son, it wasn’t. If it wasn’t for…well, if I wasn’t in this chair, I’d have been working all the time, and…well…”
“I put you in that chair! I killed Mom!”
“No!” Dad shouted. “You were a kid. We gave you the keys! If it didn’t happen then, it would have happened another time. She didn’t feel pain, Eric. It was instant. She was here, and then she wasn’t.”
That day would live forever in my mind. “And, you, have you felt no pain?”
“Pain is a state of mind. The only pain I’ve ever felt was losing your mom. I loved her, love… her very much.”
“And I took her away from you.”
“You gave me a second chance. The morning of the accident, your mother and I decided something. She didn’t like my working all the time, and I didn’t like having no money. I chose my job over family. We were going to get a divorce.”
I gasped, hardly believing what my dad was saying.
“When the accident happened, it changed my life. I would have given anything to save your mom. That chair was the best thing that happened to me. The best thing in my life, the most important thing… has always been you. Your mother knew it, and if there is a God, which your mother had always believed that there was, I think she got through to him. There are no accidents, Son. I believe that Fate had intervened, and as a result, I got to be the father that you needed. You, son, are to not grieve anymore.”
“But you’ve lead an imprisoned life, stuck in that wheelchair.”
“No, I’ve had an adventurous journey because of you. Raising you was enough.”
“Please, don’t go, Dad,” I cried.
“I don’t think we ever really leave, Eric.” Dad patted his heart and then looked at me. “I will be with you…always.” He closed his eyes one last time.
“I love you, Dad.”
I’m staring hypnotized at blinking multi colored screens and numbers: pretty certain I have been lulled into some sort of numb trance, where there is no time, no nothing anymore. Except the large man on the bed, seemingly shrinking within himself as I wait and watch. A powerful man in intellect, in stature, size, and accomplishment. He is the finest, most moral man I have ever known. He is my father. And he is Schuyler’s grandfather, the only male figure Schuy’s ever known in our tiny family.
I am nervous, frightened, terrified, sad, already lonely and lonesome for this Dutch Daddy of mine; I am poleaxed into idiocy thinking of Schuyler’s grief. My nephew his first seven years; my son the past seven. I think of the grief stricken boy I inherited from my oldest sister and wonder if she would be pleased and proud of the job I’ve done. I used to think “ah hah! Bet I surprised you, Ceil…as well as everyone else in the world of mine!” I am the baby of the family, have declared loudly and ever since always that I never wanted a life of marriage and children. Did not want that kind of imprisoning life. It took a grieving boy, thrust unexpectedly into my solitary, sophisticated life, to show me how freeing total unconditional and absolute love are. The real prison was my utter self-absorption. Only lately have I realized my sister always knew this would happen, knew I could do it. And when I listen, really listen as the wind rustles, I hear Ceil saying “Not surprised at all…I’m always right, you should know that by now.” And my heart smiles.
But, there is no way on this planet, I could have done it without Daddy. The three of us struggling through grief, shock, disbelief and soul crunching loss, trying to find our way and trying to learn how to be this tiny family of three, and then that moment, mundane as most all life shifting moments are, when in a shared spontaneous fit of laughter and joy with Daddy and Schuy, realized “We aren’t trying anymore to be the family Ciel would have wanted, we are that family.” And finally I understand that growing up doesn’t mean growing old; and that to grow old without ever growing up is best left to Peter Pan. But when Schuy pulls away just the tiniest bit, as a healthy 14 year old boy should, how will I know how and when to hold tight, , without suffocating him with care, tenderness and worry? We need you way more than death does Daddy. Please don’t go.
How will I manage our long, excitedly planned trip to Holland, our ‘Journey of Adventure’ as we dubbed it? A trip conceived especially to give our boy, a sense of connectedness to his heritage and a bigger world….And how in the world am I ever going to tell him who is father really is without you, Daddy?