This past weekend, at the Tennessee Mountain Writers 28th annual conference in Oak Ridge, I was honored to have spent two-plus days among nearly a hundred of my fellow wordsmiths. Together we learned from such gifted writers as Courtney Stevens, Judy DiGregorio and Michael Knight (along with master storyteller Saundra Kelley).
Moreover, at the Saturday-evening banquet, I felt further honored to have won two literary awards: second place in the Joy Margrave Award for nonfiction; and third place for the Patricia Boatner Award for fiction.
My winning nonfiction piece, “Xena’s Adventures in Doggy Hell,” is a distillation of this post from March 2009. The fiction entry is Chapter 4 of my forthcoming novel, Glimpse of Emerald. Below is that winning entry. But first, some backstory: Seventeen-year-old Gary Sheldon has had a hell of a year. Last September, his mom abandoned him; since then, his alcoholic father has been beating him. The only people in whom Gary can confide are his grandfather, Edward Sheldon, and Father Justin Maynard, dean of St. Joseph Academy.
I hope you enjoy this piece. Please feel free to offer feedback, and to share this post with others.
(16 June, 1981 – Tuesday)
Edward welcomed Gary that bright June day and promptly solicited his help. He’d bought the cottage on the Milford shore in 1950, to enjoy summers with the family. Now, thirty-one summers later, it was time to make it a permanent haven.
Gary savored the invitation.
Too old to do it all himself, Edward was glad of the help and the company. Besides, it’d keep Gary’s mind off his troubles at home. He afforded his teenage grandson ample opportunity to hang out on the beach. Gary usually declined, saying he’d rather help with the renovation project.
For ten weeks, morning to night, grandfather and grandson worked side by side. They measured and cut, hammered, drilled, sanded, rewired and painted. They laid insulation in the attic, hung windows and installed new plumbing and heating. Every night, Gary fell into bed exhausted, lulled to sleep by waves lapping at the shore. Each morning, he awakened to the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee – and with a sense of purpose. After supper, they’d sit on the porch to talk. Anything was open to discussion: the future, the past, work they hoped to accomplish; whatever was on their minds. Edward related stories of his early years with Josie. And occasionally – reluctantly – Gary talked about his troubled home life.
“I don’t wanna go back,” Gary confided in August, staring out over the water as darkness crept across the shore. His shoulders sagged under his lingering depression. “He makes me feel so insignificant. Like I’m not even there. Know what I mean?”
Edward nodded. “I do.” He wondered whether this was his cue to take Gary out of there, reunite him with Diane. “But, Gary, it’s only another year ’til you graduate; then you’re off to college. And you can spend summers with me. You’re always welcome here; this is your home, too.”
They watched the last pinks fade to blue, then grey. It was a long time before Gary spoke. “I never told anyone – not even Ellen…” He studied the weathered floorboards. Edward leaned close. “It got so bad” – he sighed with the weight of secrecy – “last Christmas I… almost killed myself.”
Edward’s eyes widened in alarm and concern. “Gary! Why would you even consider that?”
Cries punctuated the teen’s words. “Have you ever felt so desperate and so – alone… that suicide seemed like the only escape from the pain? D’you know what that feels like? Do you?” Edward was silent a moment too long. Fists clenched, elbows gouging into his knees, Gary spat the words. “Well, I do. It feels like emptiness and failure!” He dropped his head against his fists.
“Oh Gary…” Edward pulled Gary to his feet, enveloped him in a mighty hug. “Why didn’t you tell me it was that bad?” He tried not to sound like he was scolding. Fear took hold as reality seeped in: He’d lost a son too soon, and that had triggered Josie’s depression. He couldn’t bear to lose his grandson. “Gary, you’re seventeen – you’ve got your whole life ahead of you. What would make you feel like you had no other choice than that?” Edward’s embrace was too much to fight; the tears won. Sobbing, Gary clung to him; tears soaked his grandfather’s shirt. Finally, Edward spoke again. “Let me get you out of there. I can get you into Milford Academy. You could live here.” He wasn’t sure Gary had heard, because he didn’t answer right away. Gary shook his head, mumbled something about not wanting to leave Ellen. Edward figured as much, but he had to offer. He promised to stay in closer contact; then he posed the question he dreaded asking: “Is your father hitting you?”
“N-no,” Gary stammered. “Of course not! Why would you even ask that?”
He’s lying… telling me to mind my own business, Edward mused. I have to respect that. If he wants out, he’ll tell me.
Gary crumpled back into his chair. His chest ached from crying – and his ribs hurt from Grandpa’s embrace. And now he’d just lied to him! It felt awful, but he didn’t think he had a choice. If Grandpa knew the truth, he’d tear me away from Ellen. I can’t risk that!
Patting his grandson’s shoulder with a giant hand, Edward fetched him a glass of water. Gary accepted it gratefully, drinking the cool liquid in great, rushing gulps. It felt refreshing, but it couldn’t soothe away the guilt over his lie.
Edward set the empty glass on the floor. “C’mon. Let’s walk.” Obediently, Gary followed. The night sand felt cool and soft against his bare feet. “Tell me about it,” Grandpa persuaded, draping a comforting arm around his grandson’s shoulders.
For a second, Gary thought he meant, Tell me why you lied. Then he realized Grandpa meant, Tell me why you wanted to kill yourself. Reluctantly, he discussed his anger at Mom and the insecurity, inadequacy and loss that led up to his thwarted suicide attempt.
“Holidays are rough when you’re depressed. Grandma struggled with depression herself, years ago. I understand how overwhelming it can be.” Gary turned toward Grandpa in the moonlit semi-darkness, his eyes asking the question he couldn’t find the courage to voice. “It was a deep depression that lasted a long time – back when your father was a little boy,” the old man answered the unspoken query.
“It took a long time, but she eventually came out of it.”
“No, I mean: What caused her depression?”
Edward chose his words carefully. “When your dad was little, we learned Grandma was expecting,” he said. “About six months along, she lost the baby. She couldn’t have any more. We’d always wanted a large family and that news was devastating. Our friends were having second and third babies, and she couldn’t give me another child.”
“I never knew that,” Gary said soberly.
“I never meant for you to. But I figured you deserved to know now.”
“Because of what I told you?”
“In part,” Edward said. “I wanted to be honest with you. I understand how destructive pain can be.” Gary nodded. His deception twisted in his heart. “Whatever pain you feel, there’s nothing so deep, so awful, you can’t share it. There’s no reason to suffer alone.” Edward slipped an arm around him. “I love you, Gary. I couldn’t stand it if anything happened to you – especially if I could’ve done something and you didn’t reach out to me. Capisce?” That was Italian for “Understand?” Edward managed to pick up a few words in Josie’s native tongue during their marriage. He ruffled his grandson’s hair.
“Yeah.” The near-darkness hid a hint of a smile.
The Gary who returned to Pine Cove at the end of August was markedly different from the one who left in June; not just because of the auburn highlights in his hair, his deep tan and well-defined muscles. His confidence was buoyed and he carried himself with a certain self-assurance.
Edward phoned Gary weekly. And prayed for him daily. Within a few weeks, those prayers had begun to bear fruit. By October, Gary’s depression seemed to have lifted. He began attending Mass regularly and paid more attention to his studies. His grades picked up to Bs and a few As. And he and Ellen talked fleetingly of marriage.
In December, Gary was accepted at Boston University. He expected to be congratulated when he told Dad. Instead, he got, “Great, another twelve grand a year I’ll have to shell out for you.”
Like her mother and grandmother before her, Ellen applied at Wellesley; she was accepted a week before Christmas.
When her family went away over New Year’s, Ellen invited Gary over. He arrived with a bottle of Asti; she greeted him in a skimpy bathrobe, which she quickly shed. They made love in her parents’ bed, using the only condom he brought. A champagne-tinged midnight kiss ended sometime after two. Gary couldn’t be sure if it was the bubbly or the absence of a condom that made the resulting sex so intense. In the morning, they made love again, then quickly made up the bed before her folks came home.
Five weeks later, a weeping Ellen approached Gary in the library with the unsettling news.
His heart pounded crazily. “Are you sure?”
“Gary, I’m never this late,” she insisted.
“Maybe you counted wrong.”
“Or maybe I’m pregnant,” Ellen hissed.
When her fears were confirmed, they agreed to keep it a secret while they figured out what to do. They tried to keep up appearances, but soon they stopped sitting together at lunch and study hall. When they had to work on class projects together, they bickered constantly. He stopped going to her house; her parents and sisters began to wonder why. Even the guidance counselors asked what had soured between them; but Ellen and Gary revealed nothing. By the end of March, they’d stopped speaking altogether. By mid-April, she’d begun showing.
In the privacy of his office, Fr. Maynard counseled Gary gently about the sanctity of marriage and the seriousness of his actions. Deeply ashamed, the teen hung his head and said nothing. “I can only imagine what you’re going through, Gary; but, it isn’t the end of the world; and ohh, our Lord is forgiving! All you have to do is ask Him.”
Remorseful, Gary nodded. “Forgive me?” he whispered.
Laying his hands on Gary’s bowed head, Fr. Maynard prayed. “Dear heavenly Father, hear our cries for forgiveness; show us Your mercy and kindness. Send Your Holy Spirit upon Gary, cleanse him from his sin, and grant him Your pardon and peace. We ask this, as we ask all things, through Christ, our loving and compassionate Savior.” Giving him a mild penance, the priest offered Gary absolution. Then he embraced the teen. “Your sins are forgiven, Gary. Go in the peace of Christ.”
Gary left Fr. Maynard’s office with the boulder lifted from his heart.
Next day, it seemed the young priest had somehow talked Msgr. Streng into letting them finish their course requirements with tutors; they’d get their diplomas, but wouldn’t be allowed to attend graduation.
To stave off his guilt, Gary put in long hours at the station, filling in on air whenever he could. He also tried to fix things with his dad, who remained angry and aloof. Making things worse, Ellen refused to see him, even threatening a restraining order
Three days before they would have graduated, Gary’s boss called him into his office. “I don’t want you thinking I don’t appreciate your work,” Paul Ramsey began. “We all do. You’re talented, dependable and we love working with you. And I said if anything full time opened up, I’d hire you.”
“I remember,” Gary said expectantly, nodding.
He laid his palms flat on the desk, fingers splayed. “Unfortunately, I have nothing to offer you.”
“Are you letting me go?”
“More like pushing you out of the nest.” Paul slid a business card across his desk. “Here; give Steve Reynolds a call. He’s interested in talking to you.”
“Why would he wanna talk to me?”
“’Cause I sent him your ‘New Music Monday’ demo.”
“Not that!” Gary groaned, appalled. “Paul – I did that as a joke!”
“Well, he liked it enough to want to meet with you.”
“Really?” Gary took the card, smiling for the first time in weeks. “Thanks, Paul.” Now he studied it. “Hey, wait a minute – he’s in the City!”
“Yes he is; it’s the big time.” Paul’s air of confidence both encouraged and terrified Gary. “Or, at least, it could be. One kid in a million gets a break like this. And if it’s gonna happen, I can’t think of anyone I’d rather see it happen to.”
Gary called Steve Reynolds that day. They scheduled an interview for Thursday at ten.
It was 9:47 Thursday morning when Gary poked the call button in the mid-Manhattan office building whose address was embossed on the business card in his jittery hands.
Steve was amazed Gary was only eighteen. “You’re very talented. Great on-air presence, quick wit, a terrific voice – and a good ear for music. That’s important in this business.”
“Thanks,” he replied self-consciously, not knowing what else to say. He still couldn’t believe Paul had sent that tape. It was just a goof!
Steve stood. “C’mon. I’d like to see you at work. Let’s go see what you’re made of.”
Gary’s nervousness got the best of him during his production audition; he criticized himself silently all the way back to Reynolds’ office, where Steve handed him a card. “Here. Pete Donovan’s got an on-air opening; I think you’re just who he’s looking for.”
Gary stared at the card. Middlebury, Connecticut. So much for the Big City. “Thanks.” He tried not to sound too defeated. “I’ll give him a call.”
“Don’t look so down. Know how many other kids I’ve referred to my PDs in the last three years?” He held up two fingers. “You’re the third. Most folks I see aren’t good enough. But if I had an opening here, Gary, I’d snap you up in a second!”
(2:37 p.m., 4 June, 1982 – Friday)
“Listen. I know things have been rough lately… but I know we can work through it – I still love you.” Gary gripped the receiver. “Marry me, Ellen.”
“You must be joking. Why would I want to marry you?”
“Because I love you – and you’re carrying my baby.”
“What makes you so sure it’s yours?”
Her question ground Gary to a nauseating halt. “Whaddaya mean? Of course it’s mine… Isn’t it?”
“At least let me help financially. I – I don’t have much, but I can help you wi–”
“You’re too late,” she interrupted. “I got an abortion.”
Gary felt the color drain from his face. “No!” The topsy-turvy feeling returned; the phone nearly fell from his hand. “Ellen, no…”
“I didn’t want that baby, Gary; and I don’t want you. I never want to see you again. If you come near me, I’ll have you arrested! I mean it. Now, leave me alone!”
Didn’t want that baby… don’t want you… got an abortion. Ellen’s words hammered in his brain. Dizzy and weak, Gary curled into a ball; he couldn’t absorb her words. Ellen loved him – he knew that! But she said she didn’t. And aborted the baby? Mom would’ve known what to say. She’d have sat on his bed, stroking his hair, soothing him; she’d have held him and wept with him over her lost grandchild. But she wasn’t here. She’d left him. And he was left to mourn his baby alone.
That night, after tossing back a hefty scotch, Dad confronted Gary about his impending fatherhood. “You’d best be planning to make an honest woman of her. Though I can’t see why she’d marry a no-good bum like you!”
“I asked her. She said No.” He didn’t mention the abortion. He won’t care anyway.
Sneering, Dad refilled his glass. “Well, who could blame her?”
Gary had never openly opposed his father before. “I dunno. I can’t understand how I turned out so awful… after the terrific example you set.”
“Why, you lousy little–” Dad slammed his scotch glass down on the coffee table. With a soft hiss of leather through fabric, off came his belt. Doubling it, he lunged at Gary, sputtering.
Gary winced as several blows landed across his back. Then something snapped. Ellen’s rejection and news of her abortion were already too much. He caught the belt as it lashed toward him. Wrapping it around his hand, he reeled Dad in. “Stop it!” he roared, eye to eye with his father. He hurled the strap across the room. And for the first time, Gary hit back. “I’ve taken enough of your shit! It stops now!”
Dad stumbled backward against the table, fell onto the couch. The amber liquid sloshed. Scrambling to his feet, he charged, giving Gary a mighty shove. “You ungrateful little fuck!”
Before he could say more, Gary struck again. Dad staggered and fell; by the time he got up again, his son had the upper hand. He fought fiercely, retaliating for years of humiliation and beatings. Rage fueled his determination. “You bastard! How’s it feel to be on the receiving end?” A left to the jaw; a right to the midsection; a left jab to the face. Gary felt more than heard the crunch as bone gave way. Shaking off the pain, he watched in smug satisfaction as Dad wiped at the blood streaming from his broken nose.
“You lousy little shit!” he snarled. “I want your worthless ass out of here! Now!” Grabbing for the sticky glass, he gulped his scotch, then poured another.
When Gary arrived, heartsick and empty, dim light still glowed from the study at 52 Field Court. He gave a hesitant rap at the door.
“Gary!” He’d grown since Edward had last seen him – he was nearly six feet tall – but the old man still towered over him.
Grandpa had been an imposing figure when his grandkids were young. His great “tallth,” as they called it, frightened them. They said he was like an oak tree. They’d been right. He was sturdy and dependable. “Dad threw me out,” Gary blurted out. “I didn’t know where else to go.”
Edward hugged him. “You came to the right place. Welcome home, Gary.”
Gary needed that hug. Home. What a nice feeling! It’s good to be welcome somewhere.