Chapter 6 – The Things We Cannot Keep

“Remember the hideout?” I asked, mostly to Hank because Robbie never really spent much time there.

“What hideout?” Robbie replied.

I stared at Hank for a long moment hoping that recollection would prompt him to respond, but he remained propped stiffly in the Adirondack chair with his eyes closed.

“Hank.” I nudged him with my elbow.

“What?” he mumbled.

“Do you remember the hideout?”

Hank forced open his eyes as if he were wrangling over control of his eyelids. “Not really.”

“How could you not remember it? We spent so much time playing there when we were kids.”

He looked confused like he had just seen an image that didn’t make any sense. “I don’t know…I just don’t remember it.” He closed his eyes again and shifted in the chair to a supposedly more comfortable position.

I sighed heavily. “Robbie, do you remember that old shack near the lake we used to play in?”

Robbie scrunched his face and looked up into the sky as if he were trying to pluck the memory from the air. “I think so. Didn’t it have a loft?”

“Yes.”

“And didn’t it have big warped door that we could never get open?”

“That’s the one.”

“I wonder if it’s still there.”

I left Robbie with that thought and turned back to sleepy Hank. “Hank, you don’t remember it?”

“Nope,” he replied after a delay.

I turned back to the lake, exasperated. Robbie’s float bobbed out of sync with the breeze.

“You might have something,” I said, nodding toward the float.

Robbie reeled the line in a bit, and then he jerked the rod. The float sank under the water, and he began to reel it in quickly. The rod bent toward the lake as the reel whirred. Robbie stood up and braced himself against the floor of the deck as the rod bent further and further under the weight of whatever was on his line. In the excitement I stood up from my chair and watched the water as the line and the submerged float came closer to the edge of the dock. Just as the tension reached its greatest, the line released and fell loose again.

“Damn it!” Robbie said. He reeled it in the rest of the way revealing an empty hook. “The fucker got away.” He pinched the hook between his thumb and forefinger and stared at it intently as if he could discern how the fish removed the bait and itself from the hook. He clipped the hook onto one of the loops on the rod and sat it down on the deck next to his chair.

“You’re not going to fish anymore?” I asked.

He shook his head. “Not now. I will later.”

“You never were good at fishing,” Hank interjected.

Robbie smirked. “That, you remember.”

Hank let out a half-hearted laugh, but the smirk didn’t leave Robbie’s face.

“We should go see if the hideout is still there,” I said, changing the subject before my brothers butted heads again.

“Why?” Hank asked. He still hadn’t opened his eyes.

I looked at him and then to Robbie. Robbie seemed uncommitted but willing to give it a go, which encouraged me to push my curiosity upon them.

I stood up from my chair and patted Hank on the knee. “Come on, let’s go.”

Robbie stood up behind me, and Hank finally opened his eyes into narrow slits as he looked up at me from his reclined position. “Do we have to?” he mumbled. His response immediately transported me across our collective childhood when our parents forced Hank to do something he didn’t want to do. Although his voice was deeper now, I still heard the preteen Hank.

“Yes, it will be fun.”

Hank groaned and I could feel the tension rising in Robbie behind me. He emanated his annoyance like a beacon, but to be truthful, he was looking for a reason to be annoyed with Hank. He wanted to confront him right away and get it all over with, but I stood between them, as I always had.

Hank stood up wavering like the breeze was too much for him to bear. He wobbled in place and I put my hand on his arm to steady him. “Are you okay?” I asked.

He nodded, forced open his eyes, and said, “Yup.” I held his gaze for a moment before I stepped past him and walked toward the porch at the edge of the cabin. I glanced back at him, oblivious, hopeful.

***

When we were kids, the hideout felt like it was deep in the woods. Hank and I crawled around the lake like seasoned explorers once our parents allowed us to wander off on our own. Dad would always warn Hank to look out for me when we trampled down the steps at the edge of the porch and stepped onto the soft patch of grass that separated the cabin from the woods that huddled around the lake. Mom, sitting on the sofa on the other side of the big, open windows in the cabin, would yell for us to stay away from the water, which seemed impossible given the size of the lake. Once we stepped into the thick underbrush, hacking our way through, we were in a different world, or so it seemed.

Hank always chose the path we’d take because he was older and knew more about the trails than I did, so I’d follow him. He’d decide that we’d climb a tree or build a fort out of old logs and fallen tree limbs. He’d take us to the lake’s edge to get closer to the ducks that glided along the grassy edge, and he’d lead me through knee-deep mud so that we could get to the other side for some mystical destination convincing me that it was worth our mother’s unyielding ire when we returned to the cabin with filthy, ruined shoes.

In the woods that surrounded the cabin, Hank and I were closer than we’d ever be. I felt like I was one of his best friends there because it was just the two of us. He talked to me like he wanted me with him. His whole demeanor changed. Back home in Portland, he often ignored me and hung out with his friends, who were his age. I was just his annoying younger brother who was too little to keep up and too dumb to participate in their games. Mom tried to appeal to him on my behalf to get Hank to include me, but he never did except when we were at the cabin. Obviously, he had no choice when we were at the cabin because it was just us. Mom and Dad were adamant that it was family time, so none of us were ever allowed to bring friends along for the trip. Hank was too social to wander the woods alone, so he had to hang out with me by default.

We didn’t discover the hideout until one spring when Dad decided to take an early vacation. Normally, our trips to the cabin occurred in the summer when the vegetation was at its thickest. Despite our wanderlust, we probably never made it very far from the cabin itself because the underbrush dragged us down, not to mention that there were many interesting divots and meandering trails to distract us from pushing further away from the cabin, but that one spring revealed a side of the woods we’d never seen before. It looked almost bare in the delayed bloom of that just-arrived spring. We could see further into the woods than we’d ever seen before, and that piqued our curiosity.

As Hank and I wandered along some nondescript trail that we didn’t recognize from our previous summer’s visit, he came to a sudden stop in front of me. My feet skidded on the trail as I almost bumped into him.

“Do you see that?” he asked.

I tried to follow his line of sight, but I couldn’t see anything but the dull gray of the tree trunks. The sparse foliage felt disorienting despite the preponderance of pine trees that surrounded us. “No, what?”

“Between those two trees.” Hank pointed to his right. I followed his finger until I could see something rust-colored between two large deciduous tree trunks whose limbs were still mostly bare.

“What is it?”

“Let’s go see.” Hank stepped forward with a look of determination, but a chill of the unknown slithered down my spine. I fell in step behind him after he got a few paces ahead of me. I feared being left alone in the woods more than I feared whatever was on the other side of the big trees.

We descended a slight hill that was still slick with wet dead leaves from last fall, and I almost fell trying to keep up with Hank whose longer legs made his stride much quicker. “Wait up!” I yelled as he ducked between the trees. He didn’t stop, so I quickened my pace. A hollow feeling simmered in my stomach. The hairs on my neck stood up. I felt like we were being watched.

At the foot of the hill stood, or, more appropriately, leaned this old building. It looked like an old barn, but it was small for a barn. Made of weathered gray planks covered with splotches of moss that crept up its sides and down from its roof line, the barn moaned from the weight of its age. The two gaping holes in the front that passed for windows had once been rectangular I imagined, but now, they were more like rhombuses. The big front door that probably swung open at one point had been pinched and warped so that it would no longer budge from its frame. The rust color came from the tin roof that was mostly covered with moss and dead vegetation.

When we first happened upon the old shack in the woods, it frightened me. The whole scene look foreboding. The shack itself looked like a decrepit old person with pits for eyes screaming for us to stay away. I wanted to run back up the hill as soon as I came to a stop next to Hank.

“Cool,” Hank said as we stared at the old building. “Let’s check it out.”

“It doesn’t look safe.” I tried to sound cautious, but my quivering voice betrayed my innate fear.

“Are you chicken shit?”

“No,” I lied. I was scared out of my wits, but I didn’t want Hank to know. He’d tell all of his friends back home and they’d make fun of me to no end.

“Then let’s go inside.” Hank looked at me as if he wanted me to go first, but there was no way I was going anywhere near that building unless I was pinned behind Hank.

He took a step forward and looked back at me. I quickly sidled up behind him. He sighed to convey his annoyance and then walked up to the shack like he lived there. He pulled at the crusty, old handle on the door, but the door just whined at his effort. He put his foot against the frame and pulled with all of his might. Nothing.

When we discovered what became the hideout, Hank was already 12 years old, which to me seemed big at the time since I was only seven then. He’d already experienced a significant growth spurt that made him about as tall as our dad, so when he couldn’t open the door, I knew it was permanently fixed in its position. I secretly hoped that’d put an end to our adventure, but Hank wouldn’t be deterred.

“It’s stuck,” he said, stating the obvious. He stood up tall again towering a good two feet above me. He looked to his left and then his right. “Why don’t you crawl through one of the windows?”

“No.” I shook my head for emphasis. I’m sure the fear flashed from my face like a spotlight.

Hank laughed. “Come on, Buster. It’ll be fun.”

“No. I want to go back to the cabin.” I took a step back in that general direction.

“This could be our new fort.”

I looked up at the ominous-looking structure, wilting under the weight of so many seasons. “I like our other fort better,” I replied referencing the one we had built the previous summer.

“I doubt that one is still there after the winter rain and snow.”

“Let’s go check it out.”

“No. I like this one better. Now, are you going to go in or not? Or are you just a baby?”

Hank knew how to push my buttons. I was forever searching for ways to prove that I could hang with Hank, and he was always saying I was a baby. The very word “baby” raised my cackles, and he knew it. I took a deep breath and swallowed all of my fears. “Okay.”

Hank bent down and I put my foot in his hands. He pushed me up to and through the window frame. Once my elbows were on the bottom of the warped frame I looked inside the shack.

Light filtered through the cracks between the planks of the walls. Hank’s attempt to open the door had stirred up some long-dormant dust that filled the air and floated through the beams of light like mist rising from the lake in the morning. I inhaled the dank, organic air and sniffed decomposition both of the building itself and whatever had crawled into it to die. Rusted hooks hung from the wall boards and some unidentifiable garbage gathered in the corner barely visible from the overgrown plants that covered the floor. A crooked ladder missing its bottom steps hung from a loft in the back of the old shack. It appeared that it was a barn at one point, just a small one.

“What do you see?” Hank asked from below. He had let go of my foot once I had propped myself into the window. I held myself firmly in place, but I suddenly feared falling into the barn.

“Nothing. Help me down.”

“No, let’s go inside.”

“No.” I could feel Hank climbing up the side of the wall beneath me. The barn creaked and whined with his added weight.

“Come on, stop being a baby and move!” Hank yelled. I feared his reprisal more than anything that lie in wait inside the barn, so I reluctantly pulled myself into the window and dropped down onto the other side. My footfalls stirred up more dust. I could feel the spores inside my nose. I coughed.

Hank pulled himself up and into the barn quickly landing squarely next to me. The beams of light cut lines across his face, but I could clearly see his smile as he panned across the barn.

“This is cool,” he said without looking at me. “Let’s see what’s up there.” He pointed to the ladder and before I could protest, he already had his foot on the first solid rung. I didn’t want to be left below alone, so I followed him up to the loft.

The floor of the loft felt unstable. The planks gave way to our weight as if we would crash through to the space below, but Hank didn’t care. He bounded from one end of the loft to the other, peering through the cracks in the walls as he did. He found something on the far wall and began yanking on it. The barn shimmied and whined against his effort. I thought he was going to send the whole structure clapping to the ground. I grabbed one of the ceiling beams to support me as he stepped back and kicked the wall. After a few swift kicks, a small, square board flew away from the wall and clattered onto the ground below. A rush of sunlight brightened the loft, and it didn’t look so scary anymore. Hank smiled at me and leaned out the window. I walked over to see it for myself.

We probably weren’t that high up, but to a seven-year-old, it felt precipitously high. I saw the board Hank had kicked laying on the throngs of dead leaves below, and I felt dizzy. I stepped back from the window suddenly fearful again that the barn would collapse and we’d fall to the ground.

“Let’s go,” I said. I knew my voice sounded shaky because it felt like it.

Hank just shook his head as he sat down next to the window. He scanned the woods around the lake as if he were seeing them for the first time. “This will be a cool fort,” he said without looking at me. And so it was.

***

The hideout stood just as we had left it, which is to say it looked exactly the same as it had the last time I remembered seeing it many years ago. The wood had darkened, but it remained the creaky, old structure it had been in my memory. Seeing it after all these years left me flabbergasted. The thing had to have been built in the early 1900s, so it quite possibly was over a hundred years old.

“Holy shit,” I said because there was nothing else to say when we descended the hill and arrived at the foot of the old barn. “You still don’t remember this, Hank?”

“Nope.”

“Seriously?”

“I’m sorry, okay.” Hank went from laid back to annoyed in no time.

“I’m just surprised. We spent so much time here.”

The hideout didn’t seem scary at all now. Even after I had grown accustomed to its shadowy appearance as a kid, I had still feared the dark spaces within it. Now, I struggled to see what had been so fear-inducing. I walked up to the big, warped door and tugged on the handle. The wood groaned and whined. I heard a few cracks at each tug, but I could feel the door sway a little.

“Don’t hurt yourself,” Robbie warned. “I’m not dragging your old, injured ass out of these woods.” He smiled mischievously at me. I smirked back at him.

I placed my foot firmly on the weathered frame and gave the door another forceful tug. The cracking noise sounded like a tree falling after it had been cut down, but the door popped loose from the frame and swung open. It didn’t open more than a couple of feet before the edge jammed into the damp earth beneath it. I couldn’t open it any further, but it was open enough for us to squeeze into the building.

I stepped back and looked at Hank. Robbie stood just behind him. “All of those years and we couldn’t get that door open,” I said. Hank just looked at me, dumbfounded.

I shook my head and stepped into the opening to check out the hideout. Nothing felt the same. The loft wasn’t as high as I remember. I reached up and touched the edge of the loft floor without using the ladder. It wasn’t as dark as I remember either. Maybe the wall planks had decayed more and now more light filtered into the hideout, but there were fewer dark spaces than I remember. Neither Hank nor Robbie followed me.

“Hank, you want to check it out? Maybe that will help you remember?” I yelled outside to them.

“No thanks,” Hank replied.

“That can’t be safe,” Robbie said.

I thought about calling them a couple of babies, but I doubted it would have the same effect it had on me a few decades ago. I looked at the ladder to the loft, which was missing a few more rungs. A couple of the planks in the floor of the loft had broken and now hung down from the ceiling of the floor below. The familiar, old smells still permeated the place. I couldn’t help but smile at the many fond memories I had of Hank and me playing games in the hideout even if Hank didn’t remember any of it. I took a deep breath and then stepped back through the small opening in the door.

Hank leaned against a thick tree in front of the hideout. He seemed out of it. Robbie seemed relieved to see me again.

“A lot of great memories here,” I said, looking pointedly at Hank.

“If you say so,” Hank said. He pushed himself off the tree and started walking up the hill back toward the cabin. I watched him walk away for a moment. Robbie fell in line behind him. I looked back at the hideout. I thought a stern push would probably bring it crashing to the ground, but something inside of me wanted to preserve it, keep it the way it was in my childhood memories. I stared a bit longer before I turned and joined my brothers on the path back to the cabin.

My New Favorite Book

Over the past decade, if anyone asked me about my favorite book of all time, I’d tell them about Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. The story, set in Bombay, India, is about an Australian fugitive who flees to the country and gets involved with the local mob while making life-long friends and falling in love with a beautiful woman. On the surface it sounds as cliche as a story can be, but Roberts’ narrative style and masterful use of language takes the reader away to India and leaves him wanting more by the time the book comes to an end almost one thousand pages later. I loved that story from its poetic opening to the last heart-breaking pages, and it stayed as my all-time favorite until this week.

A week ago I began reading Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing, a story about a little girl who is eventually abandoned by her entire family in the marshlands off the North Carolina coast. She is forced to grow up on her own and learns resilience and self-reliance in the most extreme circumstances. It is equal parts heart-breaking and inspiring. Owens not only brings to life a beautiful, full character, but she paints the picture of the marshland so vividly that I can feel the Spanish moss whisking across my face as I float through the water with Kya, the main character.

The book follows Kya’s life as she struggles to survive and comes of age with no constant adult presence other than the sweet store owner, nicknamed Jumpin’, who mans a store/shack on the pier in the nearest town. Jumpin’ and his wife Mabel become surrogate parents for Kya. To make the relationship even more interesting, Jumpin’ and Mabel are black and Kya is white in 1950s and 1960s North Carolina. There’s a symbiotic relationship between Kya and the couple because both are ostracized by the locals since neither is accepted or understood. The locals derisively refer to Kya as the “Marsh Girl” or swamp trash because she lives in a rundown shack, never attends school, and prefers to avoid contact with people. The reason the locals show disdain for Jumpin’ and Mabel needs no explanation in this unfortunate era of American history.

Despite all of the odds stacked against her, Kya survives and eventually becomes an expert on the creatures of the marshland. She falls into and out of love, and there’s an intriguing accidental death/murder that occurs in the marsh, which Owens expertly weaves into the narrative of her life. Just when you think you have it all figured out as the climax of the novel happens, there’s a twist and one final release that will leave you reeling at the end. I’m purposefully being very vague about the story line because I don’t want to ruin it for anyone. It’s best read unimpeded by explanations. The beauty of the story is how it unfolds and toys with your emotions. I loved it. I felt sadness when I had to say goodbye to Kya after I read the last few words of the book.

I absolutely love books that paint a vivid picture of the setting and bring the characters fully to life as living, breathing people practically sitting next to you as you read. Owens’ prose is efficient and spare, not quite Hemmingway-esque, but certainly not as flowing as Roberts’ prose in Shantaram. Nevertheless, the narrative voice gives the reader plenty to like. The story stands on its own, somewhat complicated but not so much so that I had to flip back pages to keep it straight. Owens is a scientist and it shows in her efficiency. What she has created is a wonderful novel worthy of all of the praise she has received. I add to that the dubious honor of being my favorite book of all time. I’m sure she’ll take it to the bank. In all seriousness, thank you Ms. Owens for this beautiful story.

The Long Game

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As a writer I can appreciate the importance of patience and perseverance. I can think of no other field where these traits are needed more than in writing. I joke that you don’t become a writer to boost your confidence unless you’re a masochist because writing is the field where confidence comes to die. Let’s face it, the arts are subjective no matter how you slice it. One person’s masterpiece is another’s worthless junk. That’s just the way it is. The only thing that separates a successful writer from an unsuccessful one is the ability to stay in the game long enough to get read by an audience larger than your beta readers.

While I’m still working toward that goal myself, I’m no stranger to the long game. Over eight years ago, I set a goal to run a marathon in every state in the U.S. before I turned 50 years old. On my 48th birthday on Saturday, I finished my 36th state when I crossed the finish line at the Rehoboth Beach Seashore Marathon in Delaware. It’s been a long and challenging journey to this point, but I can almost see the big finish line now that I’m within 14 states of completing my goal.

This journey has not been without its challenges. Training for and running a marathon is no small feat when you’re just an average Joe runner with a family and a day job who also happens to be an aspiring writer. Luckily, writing and running are somewhat symbiotic since I find myself with hours of time to think about something other than the fact that my feet are pounding the trail. I’ve worked through many a plot twist while running, and creative lightning has struck more than a few times in mid-run. Thankfully.

Nevertheless, this journey across the 50 states has required copious amounts of patience and perseverance just like my writing journey has. I’ve improved, regressed, and improved again. I’ve had good times in races (hello, Georgia Marathon) and bad ones (yikes, Route 66 Marathon) just like I’ve had good and bad times in my writing. There have been times when I thought I’d have to quit these journeys. In 2014, I suffered an Achilles injury that luckily did not require surgery but has hampered me since. I didn’t know if I would make it back to the marathon level, but I did. I kept going, and now, I’m at 36 states. Here at the end of 2018, I’m no further along in my writing journey than I was in 2012 when this all began, but I’m going to keep moving forward. I feel compelled to do so because just like that elusive 2:55 marathon time, I think I can be a writer.

The good thing about my running goals is that I have concrete race finish times to track my progress. Finishing is the goal. I have a medal board with a map of the U.S. (pictured above) that lets me see my progress at any point. I like having this physical reminder of where I’m at and where I want to be. I wish there were something similar for my writing goals, but often, there’s nothing more than silence. I won’t let this deter me. I’ve been writing for most of my life, and I certainly won’t stop now.

Awakening

The ambient light filtered through my bedroom windows in the dark of the early morning. A street light and a lone outdoor light fought the darkness not far from the corner of my house. To my gaping irises, the light seemed impossibly bright, enough to give shape to the furniture in the bedroom.

I raised my wrist toward my face and my watch brightened displaying the time: 3:10 A.M. Normally, I’d be in deep sleep at this time, but my brain had things to say and it wanted an audience. I tried to shush it, but it kept insisting that these words could not wait. I turned one way and then another as if the position of my body would lull my brain to some semblance of sleep, but it remained adamant that I listen. A few more tosses and turns made me wonder if I should get up and start my day, but my body pleaded with me to stay put.

I rolled over on my back and stared up at the subtle glow on my ceiling. Shadows played across its screen rippling like the tiny waves from a pebble thrown into a calm lake. My brain had my attention. The words flowed. I don’t know if my slumber made them more than what they were, but as I listened, they sounded elegant and enthralling. The first stanza in a song or the first chapter in a book. I held the words in my hands. They felt soft and warm, comforting. My brain continued to chatter until the first pages became very clear.

I sat up and swung my legs over the edge of the bed debating whether to go downstairs to my office and type the words I saw in my head. Instead, I trudged to the bathroom. Maybe I did drink too much coffee before bed, or maybe this was my body’s way of interrupting my brain. No doubt the rest of me is passive-aggressive.

I dragged my feet across the carpet toward my bed and returned to the warmth of its heavy covers. My brain still screamed for an audience. I promised that I’d do something in the proper morning, not at this ungodly hour. We argued. I won, and eventually I fell back asleep.

When I awoke again, the words still pressed against my skull begging to be released. My brain stood, hands on hips, eyes rolling at me as if to say “I told you so.” First, I started the coffee. Then, I put the words on the page. They flowed like water from a faucet, smooth and even. The page filled up, and my brain exhaled relief. The words needed to be freed from the confines of my head. Now, they have a life of their own unencumbered my sleep preferences.

Episode 2: Standard Ink

On the Monday after the career fair, I showed up at the address on Bert Mullen’s business card as Julie had instructed. My classes were winding down as I prepared for my fall graduation. I was basically coasting to the end, so I didn’t think it’d matter if I skipped my sole Monday class to meet Bert and learn about what I’d be doing once I graduated.

As the Uber pulled up in front of the office tower at the address, I examined the slim building wedged among a slew of gleaming, new office towers. Standard Ink’s office tower looked more like an eyesore than a beacon of commerce. It had probably been built in the 1970s when, apparently, architectural design had reached its nadir of inspiration. Its sandstone-colored exterior with an emphasis on vertical lines gave it a boxy, cramped look, especially with the narrow windows that promised very little natural light on the inside.

When I walked through the doors of the lobby, it smelled old like that historic theater where I had seen Hamilton or my grandmother’s house. The drab carpet leading to the receptionist’s desk had numerous stains and marks from the endless traffic through the lobby. Even the dark walls moaned like old men sitting up in their recliners.

The cavernous lobby yielded to two elevator banks at the back behind the receptionist’s desk. I followed the strip of carpet to the desk where an affable woman with a big smile sat. She watched me as I approached from the throng of office workers hurriedly making their way to either elevator bank. She kept her big smile even as I told her that I had an appointment with Mr. Mullens.

“You’re a trainee?” she asked. Her sing-song voice sounded warm and inviting.

“Yes,” I replied, although I wasn’t sure what I was.

“Please sign in,” she said, nodding to the clipboard on the desk between us. I grabbed the luxurious pen next to the clipboard and signed my name on the first blank line I saw. The pen felt substantial in my hand, and the ink flowed flawlessly from its tip. I had never used a pen so nice before.

The lady turned the clipboard around so that she could read my name, and then, she looked through a stack of folders in front of her. She pulled out one and handed it to me. “Welcome to Standard Ink, Mr. Potter.”

“Thank you.”

“Please take the elevator to the second floor. It’s this one on your right,” she said extending her left arm behind her and pointing to the crowded area around the elevators. “Tell the receptionist there that you’re here to see Mr. Mullens, and she’ll tell you where to go. Good luck!” Her smile radiated from behind the desk. She seemed genuine, but I had the feeling that her smile was forced for some reason. In that instant, I felt something strange about the building and the people moving anxiously across the lobby. I shook it off and merged into the crowd around the elevators.

On the second floor, another smiling receptionist greeted me at the end of the tunnel-like elevator bank. No one else had exited the elevator to join me on the second floor, so it was just me standing in the dimly-lit corridor. I felt like I had entered a dungeon.

“Good morning. May I help you?” the receptionist asked. Her automatic smile belied her temperament. A more sinister character flickered beneath her toothy grin.

“I’m here to see Mr. Mullens.”

“A trainee,” she said more to herself than me. “Please sign in.” She nodded to a clipboard on the rim of the desk.

I smiled and grabbed the fancy pen to sign in. Before I signed my name, I rolled the pen between my fingers. It had the company name and logo on its side, and like the one at the first-floor receptionist, it felt weighty and significant in my hand. I signed my name on the log. This company may have had an outdated office building and a dying business model, but it sure had nice pens.

“Mr. Mullens’ assistant will be here shortly,” the receptionist said. Her smile quickly disappeared as she returned to her reading behind the desk. I stood back away from the desk because I felt like I needed to give her some privacy.

I expected Julie to come through the doors to greet me, but instead, an elderly woman with a substantial turkey neck plodded through the doors. She stood no more than five feet tall and had teased, thin hair that encircled her head making her look like a lollipop in a business suit. Her suit, whose color suggested that it was probably a few decades old, hung stiffly on her feeble frame. She didn’t so much as walk as shuffle across the floor as if lifting her feet required too much effort.

“Travis Potter,” she called as she opened the door. I was the only one near the receptionist, but she seemed surprised when I sprung to life to greet her. I shook her frail hand, which felt limp and delicate in mine. “Welcome to Standard Ink. I’m Fran.” Her gravelly voice suggested she’d spent most of her life in a smokey room. “If you will please follow me.” She didn’t wait for me to acknowledge her instructions. She turned in the doorway and walked back into the office. I grabbed the door and walked in behind her.

We walked in silence down a dark hallway that was truly tunnel-like, even worse than the elevator landing. The dull light at the end of the tunnel opened up into a sea of drab cubicles as far as I could see. As I suspected the slim building with narrow windows didn’t let a lot of natural light inside. Even the glass of the windows was cloudy and almost opaque giving the office an artificial feeling with the buzzing fluorescent lights overhead. I had never been to a mental institution, but I imagined it looked like this office.

Fran dragged her feet toward a cubicle at the corner of the office, and I followed her. A dreadful feeling churned in my gut. The thought of working in this office for any amount of time depressed me. At the cube opening, Fran turned toward me. “Have a seat. Mr. Mullens will be here shortly.”

I stepped into the cube and sat down in the lone chair at the mouth of the cube, and Fran walked away without another word. I put my bag between my feet and pushed it under the chair waiting for Bert Mullens. It didn’t look like he had arrived at work yet because his chair was still pushed under the desk, but it was hard to tell with the mounds of paper on every available work space in his cube.

After a few minutes, I relaxed and sat back in the chair when it became apparent that it would be a while before Mullens arrived. I tried not to look at his desk, but I couldn’t help it. The stacks of paper, some of which looked like they would fall over with the slightest provocation, made it seem impossible to do any work in the space. His computer monitor, an old, bulky one from the late 1990s huddled in the corner of his desk among the stacks of paper. A stained coffee mug that said “#1 Dad” sat in the one available space near his keyboard, and a framed picture of a baby of indeterminate gender smiled back at me from the furthest corner of his desk. The faded picture suggested that its subject was likely an adult by now.

I turned away from the desk and leaned outside the cube opening hoping to see someone, anyone, walking down the corridor, but the floor was remarkably quiet. Despite the crowd at the elevator bank in the lobby, it felt like no one else was on the second floor other than Fran and the receptionist. I sat back in the chair and pulled my iPhone from my pocket. If Mullens was going to make me wait, then I would play some games at least.

I had finally made it to the third level of this game I had bought on the app store over the weekend when Mullens arrived, huffing and puffing from some apparent exertion. He stopped short of his cube and eyed me with suspicion like he was surprised to find me there. I clicked off my phone, slid it into my pocket, and stood to greet him.

“Hi, I’m Travis Potter.” I extended my hand toward him. He looked at my hand like he was confused. “Julie White told me to come here about a job.”

“Oh, yeah. That’s today?” He shook my hand but his grip misfired and it felt like he simply pinched my palm between his fingers. He released my hand and squeezed past me into his cube. “Let me get settled here…” He put his briefcase by the desk and began shuffling stacks of paper around with his back to me. I sat back down in the chair behind him.

Mullens stood about a foot shorter than me but made up for it in girth. I was certainly no expert in business attire, but from what I gleaned from my dad’s bantering on the subject, I could tell Mullens needed a refresher course on business dress. He looked rumpled and unkempt in his cheap suit. His shirt had come partially untucked and flailed down the front of his pants, which were about an inch too short. The white shirt he wore had turned a grayish white and a cloudy stain peeked out from the edge of his limp tie, which was visibly frayed.

After he shuffled the stacks of paper into some indiscernible order, he re-tucked his shirt and tightened his tie before he turned to face me again.

“Well, Mr. Potter. Welcome to Standard Ink. I’m Bert Mullens, the Senior Vice President of Standards, Conduct, and Training. I’ll be providing you with an orientation before you can start your training. Did you already complete your new hire paperwork?”

“I gave Julie some information, but I haven’t done any paperwork.”

“Oh.” Disappointment rippled across his face. He turned and scanned his desk until he found a bundle of paper clipped together. He handed me the bundle of paper. “Well, first things first, please complete these forms, and then, we can get started on the orientation.”

I looked at the substantial bundle he had handed me. There were probably 30 or so pages of paper in the stack.

“Oh, and you’ll probably need this,” he said handing me a pen similar to the one I had used at the receptionists’ desks. He stood up to lead me out of his cube.

The thought of filling in all of these forms by hand made my fingers cramp. “Is someone going to type all of this information into a computer somewhere?”

“What?”

“I mean, don’t you have to input this information into your computer system once I fill out these forms?” I held up the bundle of paper to help him understand.

He still looked confused. “I don’t know. I just get the forms completed and then I drop them in intercompany mail. I don’t know what happens after that. That’s a different department.”

“Wouldn’t it be more efficient if I just typed my information directly into the computer system?”

He looked as if he had never heard such a suggestion before and it took him a moment to process it. A stern look crossed his face. “Mr. Potter, Standard Ink is a serious company. We’ve been around for almost a hundred years. Serious companies need documentation to hire employees, so if you could complete these forms, we can get started on your orientation.”

Without another word, he stepped out of his cube. I grabbed my bag at my feet and slid the bundle of paper into a side pocket before I followed him down the narrow corridor of cubicles, none of which seemed occupied.

“Where’s everyone else?” I asked.

Mullens stopped abruptly and I almost collided with him. “Who?”

“Where are the others that work on this floor?” I waved my free arm across the sea of cubicles.

“Oh, not many people work on this floor.” He left it at that and continued walking down the corridor. I followed him into a cube that was completely empty except for a chair that was tucked under the desk and an old, hulking phone that sat on one end of the desk. He pulled the chair back and offered it to me. I sat my bag on the desk.

“When you are finished, please bring the forms back to my desk. If you have any questions, there’s a phone number on the front page. You can call our HR department and they will help you.” He pointed to the phone. “You can dial the four-digit extension directly on the phone.”

He turned on his heels and walked away without another word. I felt like I had been left alone to take some standardized test except with pen and paper instead of a computer. I watched his bulky form grow smaller down the long corridor until his head ducked beneath the cube wall when he reached his desk. I sat back in the chair and took a deep breath. The walls of the cube closed in on me, and a sense of dread clenched at my chest. I desperately wanted to stay in college.

Episode 1: Standard Ink

My dad always told me that I had to make good grades if I wanted to get into a good college and that gaining admission to a good college was half the battle in landing a good job, but I didn’t listen. He’d lecture me so frequently about this that his delivery is forever etched in my mind. He’d get this serious look on his face, arching his eyebrows inward as if he were concentrating on something productive. He’d spread his arms out wide and say “All of this…,” meaning the house in which we lived, “…is the result of your mother and me going to college.”

He had been reduced to appealing to my tangible and superficial side after his noble appeals to my intellect and logic failed miserably. I don’t remember the first version of this lecture too much, but the one where he talked about all the things I could have if I went to a good college stuck with me for some reason even though I didn’t take to the inherent message. At the time I didn’t think I needed to get into a good college to get these things. I had them already. It was only years later that I discovered the flaw in my logic.

For what it’s worth, Dad’s life didn’t seem too enviable. Sure, we had these things he liked to point out, but he worked long hours, traveled endlessly, and rarely spent any time in the house he was so proud of. What was the point of working so hard for stuff he didn’t enjoy? That’s what I wanted to ask him, but I never had the gall to ask him that. Instead, I just stared intently at a spot on the wall above his shoulder until the lecture was finished, and then, I’d mope off to my room to play video games.

My grades weren’t failing, but they weren’t the stuff of legend either, not by a long shot. My biggest claim to fame in my entire school career involved a hook shot of a wad of paper from the back of my eighth-grade classroom that threaded through my exasperated homeroom teacher’s hands and landed squarely in the waste basket to the stunned amazement of my thirty or so peers. I earned detention for that careless shot, but my place in the annals of school legend was assured because of my brash stupidity.

By the time my senior year in high school rolled around and my peers were making big college decisions, I was relegated to the community college route, hoping to get my grades up so that I could sneak into a big-time college. After spending a couple of years at a community college not far from my parent’s house, I managed to squeak into one of the lesser state colleges to finish my four-year degree. It was there that I realized how true my dad’s words were.

The state college was nothing more than a degree mill for the less-capable among us, which I had become by default. Everyone graduated as long as they gave a minimum of effort, and if I’d proven anything in my life, it’s that I was good at giving the minimum. I was just a few weeks from graduation with a major in business, not marketing, finance, or accounting, just business, which as far as degrees are concerned might as well have been basket weaving because nothing says “aimless” like a broad, nondescript degree.

The state college had a rudimentary career placement office, mostly because no one of substance recruited from the school. The state itself practically owned the meager career fair held late in the fall semester hiring wannabe bureaucrats for its endless array of departments and agencies. Nothing depressed me more than the thought of rotting in some mindless state bureaucracy for the rest of my life. The few companies that did show up for the career fair were mostly has-beens in their industries, old or failing companies that were one innovation away from death or were in industries that had been completely disrupted by the future but had failed to recognize it.

With nothing better to do, I walked the languid, makeshift aisles among the tables at the career fair eyeing the men and women in cheap suits suspiciously. My dad had warned me that I would have to start paying him rent once I graduated, and I had no intention of doing that, so I decided I had to get a job so that I could move out on my own. I stopped at a few tables and talked to rotund, middle-aged, balding men about their boring state jobs. After each conversation I felt a sense of gloom so great that I wanted to run screaming from the conference center until I noticed a gleaming jewel in the gray sea of the career fair.

At the far end of one haphazard row of tables, I noticed a beautiful, blonde woman standing behind a table smiling and greeting passersby. I quickened my pace to get to her table, almost running past tables for the State Treasury, the Office of Corrections, and some state agency responsible penalizing people for no apparent reason. A small crowd of mostly male students had gathered around her table. I listened as she talked to one particularly listless student who hadn’t even bothered to dress appropriately for the event. Even I had replaced my usual t-shirt, board shorts, and flip-flops with a reasonably appointed suit my dad had bought me for graduation.

I waited eagerly for the student to finish his conversation with the woman. He gave her a gummy smile as she talked and sort of snort-laughed after he said something. I could tell she was a little disgusted, but she kept flashing that big smile. Finally, the student moved on realizing either he had no interest in whatever agency she was pedaling or that he had no chance of asking her out.

The woman didn’t even watch the student leave. She simply turned in my direction, and I stepped forward and introduced myself, cutting off another male student who had probably been standing there longer than I had, but he was too feckless to protest.

“Hi, I’m Travis Potter.”

Her smile broadened and her eyes brightened as she took my hand, “I’m Julie White. I’m here for Standard Ink.” Her handshake was warm and comfortable but firm. I liked her immediately.

“Standard Ink? What does that agency do?”

“It’s not an agency. It’s a company.”

“Oh. What does it sell?”

She looked at me like I had missed the joke. “We sell ink, as in ink pens.”

“That’s it?”

“Yes.” A worried look flashed across her face as if she thought the conversation had taken a turn for the worse. For my part, I couldn’t believe there was a company dedicated to selling ink in a world that had mostly converted to digital. I barely used a pen in class, and my school wasn’t known for being a trend-setting educational institution.

“Do you sell ink for printers?”

“What kind of printers?”

“Like the ones attached to computers.”

She shook her head as if I had just asked her to have my child. “No. We’re a very focused company. We do one thing, and we do it very well.”

I must have had this incredulous look on my face because she immediately followed that up with “We’re the best in the industry. We’re a leading producer of ink. Our ink is in all of the leading pens around the world.” She seemed confident and self-assured by this. “Would you like to learn more about the positions we’re hiring for?”

I shook my head mainly because I didn’t want to leave her just yet. Her radiating beauty held me into an orbit around her, and I found myself willing to endure anything, even the inane idea of an ink-focused company in 2018, just to hold her attention. She leaned down across the table and opened a glossy brochure with lots of pictures of people doing serious stuff in offices. All of them were focused on writing something on paper with an ink pen. There was even a photo of a classroom of students, all with ink pens, writing notes in notebooks at their desks. Even in my community college, all of the students had laptops in class. I don’t remember a single Luddite taking notes with a notebook and pen.

She flipped to the last page of the brilliant brochure. Some high-quality ink had been used to produce it for sure. “Does your company produce the ink used to create these photos? I asked, hopeful that this company was at least trying to be part of the modern era.

She shook her head. “We believe focus is the key to success, so we only do one thing. We’re the best in the industry.” She smiled proudly. I must have stared at her dumbly because she kept going. “You’ll find we have that same focus in terms of career development. All of our new hires go through an extensive training program to teach them the Standard way. What’s your major?”

“Business.”

“Great! You’d be perfect for Sales.”

“Me?”

“Yes. You have that look of determination that we seek in our sales staff.”

I looked around us. The crowd of fawning young men had dispersed as if they had intruded upon two necking lovers in a public place. A large, lumpy student who wore jeans, sandals and an un-tucked white shirt with a red, paisley tie looked at me from across the aisle and then looked at Julie. He shot me a look of envy. I felt like a dull bulb in a box of burned out ones.

“What do you think? Julie asked. I felt despondent. Nothing looked good at this career fair. I was either destined to work a dreadful, boring job or live at home with my parents for the foreseeable future. Most of my friends had jobs at exciting companies, startups, or consulting firms. Many had already moved to bigger and better places. I was stuck and in decline already at the ripe old age of 21.

“When do I start?” I said jokingly, smiling back at Julie.

Her eyes brightened and, if it was even possible, her smile grew bigger. She pulled a business card from her suit pocket and handed it to me. “You are going to love working at Standard Ink. Here is the business card for our sales trainer, Bert Mullens. I just need to get some information from you.”

Julie pulled a clipboard from beneath the table and handed me an ink pen (of course). “Please fill out this form and sign at the bottom.” She pointed to the lines and rested the tip of her well-manicured finger near the edge of the signature line. She had leaned closer to me to explain the form, and I could smell her intoxicating perfume. I didn’t care if this was the right choice for me. I just wanted to work with Julie everyday. I looked up from the form at Julie. She kept smiling for me.

“The training center’s address is on Bert’s card. Please be there at 9 AM on Monday. If you have any problems, just call the number on the card.”

“That’s it?”

“Uh-huh,” she said through her radiant smile.

I had been prepared for a much more grueling process or at least a few tough questions. I wasn’t prepared for this. I apparently had a job. I relaxed a little, probably a little too much.

“What do you do at Standard Ink?”

The smile on her face flipped off like a light in a dark room. “What?”

“What’s your job?”

She paused for a moment. “Oh, I’m the Senior VP of Outbound Communication, Inquiry, and Recruitment.”

“Wow, that’s a mouthful.” I chuckled at my joke. Julie did not.

“Hi!” she said as she ended our conversation abruptly and greeted another student who had survived the perilous sea of damnation and boredom to make it to Julie’s table. I watched for a moment as she interacted with the student. Her approach seemed like a recording of our conversation, and I realized I wasn’t so special after all. Deflated, I walked away from the table and directly toward the exit. Outside, the day had turned cloudy and drizzly, much like my future, but at least I had a job.

The Scene of the Story

Inspiration isn’t sequential, predictable, or convenient. Oftentimes, when I’m writing a novel, an idea for a scene will strike, and I’ll get very excited about writing it. I’ll spend hours crafting it and honing it to capture the emotion of the moment, and then, I’ll realize that it doesn’t belong at that point in the novel, that it’s likely a scene for much later after I’ve written other scenes. This happens repeatedly until I end up with a jumble of scenes that all belong in other parts of the novel. It makes for a discombobulated mess.

As much as I would like to think writing a novel is a linear process, it’s not. It quickly goes off the rails if I try to organize it in such a fashion. I’ve attended writing classes and seminars where the instructors try to put the writing process into little boxes that you fill up and move along an assembly line. I have this spreadsheet template I was given at one very good writing program, but when I use it, I feel like my creativity is being stamped out like a campfire that is no longer needed.

I’m at my best when my ducks are swimming fancifully all over the lake. When they’re in a row, I feel stilted and uninspired, yet how can I put a bow on the resulting mess? Too much backstory, convoluted plot points, unlikable characters, and other problems nest in the nooks and crannies of a novel in utero. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on perspective, this is the result of an organic approach to writing. I like to let the characters evolve themselves and point me in the next direction. It feels more believable with this approach, but like real-life people, characters are full of contradictions, which either make a story intriguing or doom it to the proverbial draft desk drawer.

In my mind, the straight-laced, anal retentive side battles constantly with the laid-back, come-what-may side as I write a novel. I’m constantly re-reading what I’ve written where the straight-laced side corrects and tidies up as I read along. The laid-back side sighs “Whatever”, but when it comes time to create the next chapter, the laid-back side powers my fingers across the keyboard like a virtuoso piano player banging out a complicated Beethoven concerto.

The result is that I write by feel, which means I write what I’m inspired to write on any given morning. When I feel in the groove, I can knock out two thousand or more words in an hour or so in the morning. If I let myself get too hung up on the structure, I’ll stifle myself and spend more time reading and staring at a blank screen than writing. This approach has yet to prove effective. I have six completed novels, but none of them are at a point of publication. All of them sit in the virtual draft drawer, but I keep writing, scene by scene, and one of these days, it will all come together. Somehow.