Two Sides of the River (conclusion)

if you missed part one, you may want to begin here


In all the years under his roof, I never heard Uncle Roe disparage his brother Ben. Not even when Ben let his hair grow wild and started wearing a kilt. Roe simply shook his head and chuckled, “Guess the trees told him to do it.”

The truth was less mystical. Our ancestors rode the tides from the Scottish isles, and Ben was a man drawn to the old ways and the old land. Roe understood this. A respect for weathered truths was another quality these brothers shared, even if they each wore it their own way. Pigs would crow before you’d catch Roe in a man-skirt or a man-tail. However, a couple days a month, Ben would walk into Skyline Hardware or the Dairy King with red plaid hanging from his waist down to his bony white knees.

Ben appreciated the Scots’ music and their customs and their drinks, but it was the fire of the people that beckoned him. “Those old Scots were alive,” Ben said. And if there’s anything Ben admired, it was a woman or man who excelled at the craft of living.

Uncle Roe was just as keen on living, but the life he imagined took a vastly different shape. Roe believed Ben was an idealist, a disposition only suited for “giggly girls, priests and senile old men.” Roe believed idealism dangerous, that it kept a man from inhabiting the hardship and the joy right in front of him. It wasn’t that Roe lacked high principles, he simply believed they were naked facts, chiseled straight from the stone of hard, cold truth. Roe loved the woods and the sod ever bit as much as his younger brother, but he loved them differently. They both peered into the world, but they often gathered distinct visions. Roe had the eyes of a father. Ben had the eyes of a lover.

This schism explains why I dreaded the conversation Uncle Roe and I needed to have. Two months previous, Uncle Ben invited me to make the thirty mile ride to Renton to kick the tires on a truck for sale. On the drive, he asked if I would like to apprentice with him in his design firm. He knew I was considering an architecture degree, and he wanted to help. I was surprised at my immediate yes. Ben had barely finished the ask before I shot out my answer, and my visceral response had little to do with architecture or my career path. I was overcome by desire I hadn’t known existed only a minute previous: I longed for my Uncle Ben’s voice. I’d always admired him, but I didn’t really know him. I wanted more of him, from him, and Uncle Ben had just welcomed me to take it.

I wasn’t sure how Roe would receive the news. Since he’d always hoped I’d step into the family landscaping business, there was sure to be disappointed. Since I would be abandoning his dream in order to work with Uncle Ben, he’d probably see it as a defection. Roe wouldn’t try to change my mind, that wasn’t his way. But I expected a flash of anger or worse – the silence of grief. When we sat at the kitchen table, he asked me what was on my mind. I wanted to work my way up to it, but nothing irked Roe more than a man who wouldn’t say what he needed to say. “Uncle Ben has asked me to be his apprentice,” I said.

Roe took this in, considered it for only a moment and said, “Well, that’s an honor and you’ll be good at it. When do you start?”

I watched his face. All I found was generosity. “I thought you’d be disappointed or mad or … something.”

Roe put his strong arm on my shoulder and squeezed several times. His eyes were moist and kind. “Son, this is a hard world we live in. There’s no time to waste begrudging a man’s joy. I say you’ve got to find grace anywhere and everywhere you can find it.”

He gave me another long squeeze and poured me a cup of coffee. We sat at the table for another long while. I don’t remember most of what we talked about. Only that both of us were slow to get up. I do remember he asked my opinion about a big job he was bidding on for the new hospital in Thompson County. And I remember us laughing. I remember him asking if I planned to wear a skirt.

Two Sides of the River

I was too young to remember, but both my father’s brothers beat the ambulance to the hospital. Those three had many a scuffle over the years, but when a crisis hit, they lined up shoulder to shoulder. Neither my mother nor my father survived, but due to luck and the fastidious way my mom always strapped me into the car seat, I didn’t have so much as a bump on my noggin. Ever since, they’ve called me Tank.

Uncle Ben and Uncle Roe both wanted to take me into their family, and though I haven’t been able to get clear on all the details as to how they came to a decision, I ended up with Roe and Aunt Lucy and cousins Ron and Lilly who couldn’t have become any more of a brother or sister to me than if we’d all popped out of the same belly whistling three-part harmony.

Uncle Roe and Uncle Ben shared genes and certain family traits: wit, loyalty, broad shoulders and an ornery streak. But in most every other way, they were oil and water. Roe was Republican and Lutheran. He liked his coffee black. He lived east of the river. When the community split over the big Co-op that moved into town, Roe sided with those who believed the benefit of a couple hundred jobs outweighed the harm of outside money. I’ve never heard Roe utter a cross word to any living creature, but I’ve also never seen him back down. Once Roe drove up on the Fentson clan, along with two or three of their drinking buddies, manhandling a couple migrant workers. Roe was outnumbered, but that was no concern. As I’ve heard Roe say my entire life: “Right’s right, wrong’s wrong.” Roe grabbed a PVC pipe from the bed of his truck and went to work making things right. When the fracas concluded, he had a shattered shoulder but received a string of effusive gracias. To Roe, this seemed a fair trade.

Uncle Ben was a Democrat and a Baptist. He only drank tea, called coffee the bitter brew. He lived west of the river. Ben believed the Co-op would pervert all he knew and loved about this town of his. When the Co-op made an outrageous offer for Ben’s 103 acres, an offer that would have meant neither Ben nor his great-grandchildren would ever know another care in the world, he asked the big wigs if they’d throw in a couple pairs of flame-retardant Levis because signing that contract would mean selling his soul to the Devil. Then Ben struck a match and tossed it, with the contract, into the waste basket. Uncle Ben meandered through the woods talking to the trees. He wrote poetry and read Steinbeck. With the Co-op as a rare exception, Ben had a wide capacity for paradoxes and truths that exist in tension.

Roe and Ben shared Christmas and Easter dinner, diligently (happily, even) honored the annual July 4th family gathering and never had to guess whether  the other would be at their side in those moments when a brother must be a brother. Short of that, these two men lived at opposite ends of the county, but it might as well have been at opposite ends of the universe.


(part two)

Traveling with Ben

It was January and cold and the beginning of a new term. The class was Early Shakespeare. Early because we were reading the bard’s first works, early because the class summoned us at godawful 8:00 a.m.

A tall, muscular fellow walked in, easy. His navy flannel shirt opened to a grey thermal and fell over weathered denim. A scuffed leather bag hung from his shoulder, and he carried a coffee mug from O’Sullivans, the Irish pub on the other side of town. The females in the room watched his movement, furtively, with faint suggestion of their newfound interest in Taming of the Shrew. Several had an empty seat near and were glad for it. The women were, suddenly, wide awake. I noticed how the room’s energy perked. I noticed my sharp edge of envy. But what I noticed most was his grin, like he’d finished a fine meal and was ready to prop his feet up and enjoy a smoke. He didn’t arrange his smile at the door. He wasn’t selling anything, certainly not himself. He simply eased into a room the way he eased into life, with curiosity and a heart that harbored no guile. I know these things because I’ve come to know this man who walked in on Shakespeare. We became brothers. A package of brawn and genuine goodwill had just entered my world.

After college, we spent a spring and summer tramping West. We slept outdoors and ate canned beans warmed on a single butane burner. We spent two days in Vegas, which is more than enough. We spent a week in the backcountry of the Canyon, which is barely enough. Late July, funds grew sparse, and we stopped in on a family friend who owned a gas station a few miles outside of Jackson Hole. Sven Diedrich gave us the guest room in his house and odd jobs at the station. We ate well and padded our wallets and then hitched a ride into Idaho.

Wherever we arrived, folks watched Ben. The women, of course. Some would talk silly or act scatty. Some were downright bold and made him blush. But even the classy women noticed Ben. Men took notice too. Some sized him up. Shifty men grew louder or coarser in his presence; but good men welcomed him. Most every man who shared words with Ben quickly dropped his shoulders and began trading stories.

Don’t misunderstand. His name’s Ben, not Gabriel. He didn’t sprout wings or glow. Once, in a grimy alley, I pulled Ben off a whimpering 300 pound railroad worker. The blustering drunk, threatening and cursing, made the mistake of throwing the first punch. If he’d known Ben had buried his mom a week before, perhaps the whole evening would have happened differently. The beating was thorough, ugly. Once, Ben rang me from jail in Hattiesburg. There was a girl involved – and a dog, but the affair concluded with one phone call and a couple nights pissing in the corner commode of a cinder block cell. Every man has his vice, but few men have a friend who will carry you four miles into town, slung over his back while you’re puking, because your fever rages and he’s worried. On our summer trek, Ben did exactly that.

Together, Ben and I figured out what kind of men we wanted to be. Better, we helped each other get some of the way there. Ben would have to tell you what I offered him, that’s his story. But Ben gave me a vision for life generous, trusting. To live strong and wise, but not careful. To live with laughter. And a grin.

image: Michal Zacharzewski

Nothing Wasted

While writing last week, I bumped into a character I wanted to know, a man I wanted a conversation with. That’s how I met Rainie.

The conversation took shape from bits I’ve gleaned from other characters, real flesh-and-blood types. In several places recently, I’ve been reminded of our very powerful fear of failure, of making such a mess of things that nothing (or no one) could ever pull the shattered bits back together again. I see this in myself, my fear that I’m going to screw something up or squander something or get something or other irretrievably wrong. I see this obsession in others as well: on the back side of life, it can be an unrelenting regret that murders the soul and on the front side of life, it can be an unyielding drivenness that, well, murders the soul.

We are convinced that if anything is to happen with our life, we are to make it happen. We are convinced that mistakes are the grand enemy, those dementors of our best laid plans. I believe these bewitching notions are as lecherous as they are common.

However, if Scripture tells us anything, it tells us this: God, ever the creator, makes much of little. Sometimes God makes much of almost nothing. We can live foolishly by flittering our life away. We can also live foolishly by always fearing how we might be flittering our life away. I’m tempted to provide the expected caveats to this line of thinking, but I won’t. Not here. Sometimes, words need to stand alone. Sometimes we need to fret less about how we’re living and get on with actually living.

I believe this: with God, nothing is wasted or ultimately ruined. Nothing.


Gravity had done a number on Rainie’s soul. Rainie’s shoulders were desperate for the ground, sagging, groping to heave onto the earth and cease their labor. It’s a mighty burden to carry a life’s worth of disappointment and failed attempts and outright foolishness. It’s a mighty burden to look back and see clearly what might have been, what should have been.

For years, Rainie made excuses. For more years, he promised a fresh start. But here he was, broken-down and worn out. Even Rainie, the man always concocting a fanciful story, had no stories left to tell. The years had slipped away, and the far-away horizon now stood close, staring him down.

Rainie came by the house last Fall, asking for work. “Anything at all,” he said. He painted the garage, then fixed our back deck. I’ve handed him odd jobs whenever I could. We became friends and began to meet for coffee once or twice a week. Rainie has plenty reason for his heaviness. A shattered marriage, a distant daughter. A string of blunders. More ruined schemes than I can count. He’s broken promises; and he’s had promises broken. He’s not so different from anyone else – only most of us land just enough success to keep playing along. Rainie, on the other hand, was only dealt cards from one side of the deck.

One morning, Rainie stared into his coffee mug, looking for something he couldn’t find. He never looked up, but he found the words he wanted. “I’ve wasted my life, thrown it away. And now it’s done.”

Do you know that rare moment when you discover you believe something — fervently, absolutely — that you weren’t even aware of previous? You discover you believe something so powerfully you’d stake your life on it, so violently it will explode in your gut if you don’t let it loose?

“Rainie,” I said, waiting awkwardly until he looked up. “Nothing is wasted. Nothing. Not a damn thing.”

Third Week of Advent: Thaddeus

His soul followed the sun. Every spring, with days longer and brighter, life crept into his bones. With summer, he welcomed the ruggedness he felt, the hope, the way his gaze always returned West, remembering. But every winter, as the cold and the dark swallowed more and more of the shining light, Thaddeus felt a grayness settle over him. Each season of his soul brought him a different kind of gift, but he hadn’t always seen it this way.

When he was young and ambitious, Thad fought the gray. Spring and summer were no trouble, of course, but gray doesn’t help a fellow get along with any of the things enterprising people are supposed to get along with. Gray, so far as I know, never gets a mention as a career builder. Not one of his Ph.D. supervisors ever added, “Thad does gray really well,” on his recommendation letters. A few girls liked the brooding type for a bit, but they eventually they would find an excuse to move along.
Of course, you can only push something down so long. During winter break of his first year teaching, Thaddeus surrendered and allowed the gray to run wild. The episode concluded with Thad halfway across the country, huddled in an icy corner of an abandoned gas station 50 miles east of El Paso with 2 gallons of stolen Mexican moonshine in his backpack and a weathered copy of Letters to a Young Poet in his pocket. Thad learned a few things during that jag.
On December 24th, Thad stood by the empty road in front of that wasted shelter, with a couple frozen shrub bushes as company. Thad had never been in a more desolate place. And yet he had survived. Thad had met the gray full-on, and he was still standing. Limping, but standing. Inside the station, you could see the scribble on the wall next to a shattered windows: Thad was here – all of him.
Thaddeus took a deep swig of moonshine, stuck his thumb out and smiled.

A Conversation with Thaddeus

Thaddeus sat silent and still, watching the gnarled oaks drape their rusty-gold canopy over the cool earth. Thaddeus hadn’t spoken for a nice long while. If I didn’t know better, I would have assumed he’d dozed off. But I did know better. If you spend time with Thaddeus, you grow accustomed to awkward silences stretching so long you sometimes forget what exactly you were talking about before the quiet, back in all the noise when everything was so damn urgent. More than once I’ve forgotten a question – or had an entirely different question take shape – while sitting with Thaddeus doing nothing but wasting time.

The leaves waved slightly, and the crisp breeze refreshed me. Thaddeus sat next to me, watching and resting. Every so often, he would sigh contentedly, like he had just enjoyed the final note of a piece of fine music or finished the last word of a conversation with an old friend.

Eventually, he spoke. “Why are you running?”

“Running?” I answered, incredulous. “I’m not running. She left me. I’m still there, in the empty house. You can blame me for a lot of things, but not for running. I was too stupid to run.”

Quiet, again. Thaddeus watched a brown squirrel stuff an acorn into his swelling cheeks and scamper away. Then he looked straight at me. “Pax,” he said, “you know as well as I do there are a thousand ways to run – and you’ve tried most. Ailla only left last week, but you left a long, long time ago.”

The words sliced. I hated them. I feared them. They angered me. “So, what am I supposed to do?”

“I don’t know, Pax, ” Thaddeus said as he stood and stretched. “I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m grabbing my pipe and taking a walk.”

if you are so inclined, you can discover more snippets with thaddeus bogert

Indigo Bloom

Two beefy fellows grunted as they lugged me into Harris & Sons Fine Furniture. I strained for a look, but my plastic-wrapped cocoon allowed only hazy glimpses. Unfortunately, I smelled everything. The moist armpits hugging me added a vinegary fetor to the fog of stale cigarettes and salami I’d inhaled the entire trip. Every stinky, bumpy mile from Hickory, North Carolina.

A bony man maneuvered me to the prime perch, the front window display. Apparently I was all the rage. The previous spring, a New Yorker copyeditor whose desk (so far as anyone knew) squatted among the clanking boilers received a last minute assignment to produce filler for an issue on nouveaux home décor. He had only twenty minutes to figure out what exactly home décor entailed before he sat down and banged out a title: “Return of the Blues.”

I once heard that most fashion crazes trace back to a rich, 70-something hippie in Topeka, stoned out of his mind but laughing his ass off. All I know is that here I was, soaking up the sunlight and enjoying a stream of women walking in to rub my indigo fabric. No complaints by me.

My arrival bumped an emerald green couch, a classy little import from a village on the French Riviera (or the Côte d’Azur she insisted), back to the showroom floor. I offered an olive branch, explaining how that of all the couches I’d known, her delicate curves and silk buttons were most exquisite. She only grew more livid. I’m a chaise lounge, you ninny!

A woman with grey-flecked hair and tired, kind eyes purchased me; and I arrived at the house where the years clicked by. The years and the people.

There was the boy who used me for a springboard. Cape attached, he bounced mercilessly until (sweet relief) he would catapult across the living room. The adults were convinced he needed meds. I think he just needed people to stop telling him what to feel. His grandparents cared for him best they knew, but what could ever make up for all the love he’d lost?

The young, giddy couple, bright for life. Many Saturdays, they’d collect the lingerie and underwear that landed on me the night before. Eventually they split up because she wanted more, while he could never say what it was he wanted.

Decades passed. The faces faded. I faded. Eventually, someone suggested a trip to the dump. Long ago – the show-window, that sexy chaise lounge.

But Thaddeus, retired now from the university, would hear nothing of it. Just gettin’ comfy, he said. Thaddeus had a couple college boys cart me onto the oversized porch, near the old Japanese maple. Most mornings, Thad comes to sit. He tamps his pipe, and together we watch the world and smile. We both think our upholstery is just fine.

This piece was written for the Life With Objects project brilliantly architected by my friend and fellow word-crafter Hope Voelkel. You really should hop over and check out what they are doing and some of the other writers. 


I can’t say it surprised me when she left. I would have thought we’d have a final conversation, an argument at least. Maybe sit on the floor of the living room and drain a last bottle of wine while she would cry and tell me again how much I’ve changed, how she doesn’t know me anymore. We’d let loose with all the regret and sadness and rage and then send it all up in flames with the sex we hadn’t had since God knows when. At the least, she’d leave a letter, the tired words of a woman lamenting what should have been.

But I came home to a yellow post-it stuck to the refrigerator: Goodbye, ~L. And that was that.

I don’t know where I was going, but I drove and drove and banged my fist on the dash and drove some more. Morning found me in a diner, seated in a faded red booth next to the window. At least it was quiet. Only me, a couple farmers and a waitress named Iva. The eggs and bacon grew cold on the greasy plate while I watched the rain splash off the asphalt and stirred two Splendas into my coffee. I stared and stirred and stirred and stirred, a clinking cadence of spoon and cup.

An hour later, I drove north on a familiar stretch of road. I didn’t know if I’d still find Prof Bogert at the university, years since we’d talked. I hadn’t planned this route, but of course this was where I was going. This drive was the most predictable part of the whole drama. When you’re lost, you’re desperate to be found. And Thaddeus Bogert was the one man who had never stopped looking for me.

After graduation, Thaddeus and I shared a farewell tea on his porch. “Good days are ahead,” he said. “Just remember – doing good isn’t the same as living good..”

“Alright, Thad. But you can stop scratching around for something. This is Yale. I made it!”

“You are on your way, well on your way, and I am crazy proud of you.” Thaddeus smiled at me until he knew I’d noticed. Then he tamped his pipe with a rhythm, a cue he was thinking more.

“Prof, you worried about me?”

“Worried?” he said, looking up and chuckling. “No, not worried. Hopeful.”

“You obviously have something else to say.” That’s one of the things I admired about Thaddeus. He never offered words uninvited.

“I’m still wondering what kind of man you want to be. And I’m curious if you are still wondering what kind of man you want to be.”

The conversation ended awkwardly. I loved that old man, but he didn’t always know the way the world actually works, how to get things done and make things happen. I was aiming for answers, but he was only getting started with the questions.

The wipers sloshed the rain back and forth. I could use one of those steaming cups of tea. I think I’d finally run headlong into the questions.

If you’d like, you can read an introduction to Thaddeus.



Thaddeus Bogert

A certain character has visited enough times for me to begin to think of him as a friend (at the least). I’d like to introduce him to you

We rambled into Groten Hall, room 347, at a couple minutes to two. For the rest of our university career (except for this class), we would perfect the art of late, frantic arrivals. However, we were first year students, and this was our first day of classes. Most of us knew each other from freshman orientation, and now we would share First Year Seminar – a bland title for a bland two-credit course, with a bland catalogue description to match: “An introduction to the essentials needed for successful integration to academic life, Tuesdays and Thursdays / 2:05-2:55 / Groten Hall Room 347 / Dr. Thaddeus Bogert, D. Phil.”

Groten Hall was the second oldest building on campus, brownstone brick with weathered white Gothic pillars and trim. Because the campus had developed north, out from its original parcel, Groten Hall was now the most remote building on the university grounds. Room 347 was an ample space with windows stretching almost ceiling to floor and offering a view of the old oaks. Amazingly, the room still enjoyed its original dark cherry wood floor, buffed nicely though showing the character of its years.

As we entered (not quietly) and took our seats, Professor Bogert hunched over his heavy desk, baptized in whatever he was reading. Unruly, grey hair spilled over his ears. His glasses hung at the end of his nose, defying gravity and refusing to tumble over the edge. The elbow patches on his brown cardigan were nearly worn through. Prof Bogert never looked up, not so much as a flinch or a grunt. He sat dead-still, as if entranced by some other world. Our laughter and boisterous chatter crescendoed, still nothing. Proffessor Bogert seemed unaware that there was a single other person in the universe. The only hint that he wasn’t a wax character was the slight – ever so slight – motion from his lips, like some inward thought escaped in silence. A time or two, we caught a glimpse of what I would now describe (though I could not have described it then) as the crack of a quiet grin. I’ve now come to know this expression now – the moment when something beautiful catches you by surprise, like the crisp whiff of Fall or an unexpected kiss.

But there he sat.

And then, at precisely the moment when the clock on the back wall clicked 2:05, Professor Bogert stood up. He stuck his pipe in his mouth and walked slowly around to the front of his desk. He leaned back on the front edge and took a deep pull from his Virginia tobacco. And waited.

The second hand on the clock clicked in rhythm. The wood floors creaked with our slightest movement. The walls groaned quietly, thanks to the old boiler-heater. Professor Bogert took another pull. And waited.

Then, beginning at the back lefthand corner of the room, the old professor caught Levine’s eye – Levine, the one who sat as far away as possible. He locked on the poor boy and for five or six seconds held his gaze, smiling wide and deep, as if he was pouring a smile into poor, nervous Levine. Then, one by one, Prof Bogert went down the back row, generously peering into each person’s eyes for a few seconds, seconds that felt like days. The clock ticked, the floors creaked. And the old man with the kind, steel eyes took his sweet, sweet time with every single one of us.

We sat spellbound, unnerved but drawn in, while Professor Bogert took another long pull, exhaling hickory smoke. For the first time, he spoke. “The world is more beautiful than you’ve imagined. The world is more terrifying than you’ve imagined. What should we do with this truth?”