Excerpt from NaNoWriMo 2015

The following is a portion of an in-progress novel. Comments and feedback are appreciated.

Denise Fox’s sister, Haley, has recently been murdered.

My earliest memory involves my sister Haley. 

When I was three, I had a ceramic piggy bank sitting on top of my dresser, a pastel green, totally-70s number that probably came from a yard sale. I must have wanted to play with it, because I pulled my miniature wicker rocking chair over to the dresser’s edge and stood on it, arms outstretched, reaching desperately for that pig. I was able to crook a finger around one of his front legs, but as I shifted my weight to get a better grip, the chair moved beneath my feet and I fell. My finger pulled the bank, which tottered on the side of the dresser for a moment and then dropped, shattering on the thinly carpeted floor of my bedroom. Coins and shards of painted ceramic scattered.

My mother, summoned by the noise, began fluttering around, brandishing a broom and delivering a high-pitched monologue that began as concerned inquiry, morphed into parental rebuke, and then settled on frustrated self-pity. I watched her quietly, my face hot and wet with tears, waiting for her to reassemble my bank, knowing she would make everything whole. When Mom dumped the broken pieces into a garbage bag, I realized for the first time that some things, once broken, can never be repaired. I began to wail.

Mom sat me on my bed and spoke softly, telling me that I was okay. I hadn’t been seriously hurt in the fall; the mess was all gone. I didn’t have the words, at three, to express why I was really upset.  
Haley stood in the doorway watching our mother attempt to console me. She had been in the dining room, working on her kindergarten homework, coloring a large letter E. She said nothing. I saw the twirl of her skirt as she ran back to her work.

Two days later, Haley called me into her room. She had gone directly there after school, ignoring our usual routine of watching DuckTales and Chip ‘n’ Dale: Rescue Rangers. Her floor was covered in scraps of construction paper and on her bed sat scissors, Scotch tape, and a black marker. In her hands, she held a shoebox wrapped in green paper. A roughly drawn face hung perilously on one of the box’s narrow ends. It was a pig, or at least Haley’s re-imagination of one. There was a hole cut roughly from the top of the box–a place for me to deposit my money–and after I squealed with delight, we put all of my coins in to the pig and placed it on the dresser.

“This one won’t break when you try to play with it,” she reassured me.
I used that shoebox piggy bank until I went away to college. My mom threw it out during my first semester, and I could have killed her for it. The green paper had long since faded to a dull grey, and the hole in the top had grown large enough that I could reach inside to scoop up the change I needed, but that bank was love, above all else.
Haley was a good playmate–attentive and giving, willing to follow along with my suggestions. The typical older sister/younger sister dynamic never applied to us. She treated me as an equal, not an underling. I don’t remember fighting over toys or getting my hair pulled or being told to mind my own business. All of those things probably happened–she wasn’t the Second Coming of Christ, after all–but nothing traumatic jumps out at me.  
It wasn’t until I started attending elementary school that I realized what a pain in the ass Haley could be. Not that she had changed, mind you. No, she remained cheerful, kind, loving Haley. But now I found myself traveling in the wake of her reputation, always held up and examined for comparison to my older sister and always found lacking. 
The school year would begin with the teacher paying extra attention to me, always smiling, a slight lilt to her voice. I was special for a time, the new Fox girl who looks so much like her big sister. And then, after a quarter or so, the smiles were gone and the voices were flat, and I was moved away from the teacher and to the middle of the room. I wasn’t bad, or stupid, or lazy. I was just ordinary, a B-plus kid stuck with an A-plus sister. I loved Haley, but I began to look for chances to vent my frustration towards her.  
When I was in second grade, my parents allowed her to buy a Siamese fighting fish with her allowance. She named him Groucho and talked about him as if he were another sibling. She bought a plastic castle for him to hide in and kept his bowl clean and clear. One Sunday, I overheard my parents bragged to their friends about sweet, responsible Haley and her fish. When they spoke of me, their praise was qualified with adverbs like Usually and Mostly and Almost. That night, I snuck into her room while she practiced piano downstairs, and I overfed her fish. She found him dead the next morning, and she wept bitterly for ten minutes, then pulled herself together and flushed Groucho in a toilet paper shroud that read “A Good Fish.” She never replaced him.
Looking back, I realize that my parents were wrong. If you were comparing me to Haley, I wasn’t an Almost. I was a Nope, a Failure, a Disappointment. I view the young me the same way my teachers did–as an unworthy follow-up.
My therapist tells me I’m too hard on myself, that the murders have colored my memories, erasing subtleties. I am, she says, remembering my own judgments about Haley and myself as common perceptions held by everyone who knew both of us. Maybe she’s right, but I can’t forgive myself, not when I never apologized to her when she could hear me.
And I don’t mean the fish, either. I’m talking about Alvin.
She started dating him her freshman year at Johns Hopkins. His mother had died when he was young, and his dad was not in the picture, so when the Thanksgiving break rolled around, she brought him home to stay on our couch. He was handsome, with curly brown hair that coiled out in all directions and a closely trimmed goatee. He must have weighed less than 150 pounds then, a bit too thin for his height, which was over six feet. The top of her head barely came up to his shoulder, but they looked good together. Haley wore her dirty-blonde hair long then, tucked behind her ears to frame her soft, warm features. She had the body of a gymnast, thin and compact, not an ounce of fat. (I, on the other hand, had an ass rounded out from eating too many cookies.)  
After dinner, the three of us drove to the Blockbuster and rented a movie, some piece of crap horror film about a snowman who kills people. My parents went to bed early, leaving us to our movie. 
“You wanna smoke?,” he asked Haley, pulling a small bag of weed out of his pocket. I waited for her to throw him out, but she giggled and nodded. I hadn’t expected that response from Perfect Haley, but perhaps I should have. They looked at me.
“Well, yeah,” I said. It wasn’t my first time. Being a disappointment isn’t all hard work, after all.
Alvin rolled a joint while Haley grabbed a lighter, and then we took turns hitting the trees in the bathroom with the exhaust fan running. I was good and baked before we put the movie on.
Weed makes me prone to laughing fits–always has. It’s perfect for a B-level horror movie, where I can revel in bad acting and terrible effects. Haley, though, tended to prefer more solitary trips, sitting in the dark with her headphones on, riding the music. She wasn’t enjoying the movie, so halfway through she apologized to her boyfriend and kissed him goodnight, heading off to her room and her own head-space. I barely noticed her leaving.
The two of us kept watching the movie, which got worse and worse. Alvin has a sharp sense of humor in the most sober of moments, and it is only enhanced by marijuana. My body convulsed with laughter, it rocked and fell over, and the back of my head ended up in Alvin’s lap. I was laughing so hard that I could barely breathe. I stayed there, on top of him, trying to catch my breath.
He wasn’t trying to do anything. He kept his hands to himself and his eyes on the television, but I could feel him getting hard, which made me laugh even more. I rolled over to examine his hard-on’s outline. I poked at it, the way a child might poke a hornet’s nest with a stick. I couldn’t stop laughing.

“Don’t do that,” he said, but he was chuckling, too. I poked him again. He was really hard now. “Denise, come on…”
“Well, what do we have here?,” I asked, unbuttoning his khakis. He tried to brush my hands away, but I already had one hand inside his underwear, stroking him. He gave up.
This was not the start of a life-long affair. It was a one-time fuck on a couch twenty years ago, quick and dirty. We didn’t get fully undressed, didn’t kiss, didn’t cuddle afterwards. He pulled out and came on my thigh, and I wiped it up with a sock, and then we finished the movie.  
In the morning, I slept in and came down late for breakfast. Haley and Alvin were sitting together and she was forcing him to try quiche, holding out a forkful and making airplane sounds as she maneuvered it into his mouth. She saw me and smiled.
“Alvin said the end of the movie was better than the beginning,” she said. “Sorry I bailed. I just wasn’t feeling it.”
If Alvin had been just another guy, someone she dated for a few months and then cut loose, maybe my stomach wouldn’t drop out every time I see her picture. Betrayal is not a simple Yes or No concept. It varies in intensity, from killing a pet fish to fucking your sister’s future husband.  
I should have told her that morning,while his mouth was full of quiche. I should have faced the consequences, but I was scared. Not physically frightened–Haley wasn’t violent. No, what I was scared of was the idea that the truth would make me a Disappointment to her, too.  
And that first moment of dishonest silence bred the next, and the next, until I found myself toasting their marriage as the maid of honor and I thought the time for honesty had long since passed. Only years later, when the phone rang in the middle of the night and my father was crying on the other end, did I realize what Too Late really meant.

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In an Unknown Room

Part 9 of the Northern Minnesota Project.

The sight of policemen at the cabin’s door frightened Paul.  He had never experienced a negative interaction with law enforcement, of course, but he knew enough to understand that the police do not come calling after midnight with good news.

He would never remember the names of the two parka-clad officers who upended his life, even years later after reading every bit of documentation in the case file.  The moment was all dread and palm sweat and dry heaves by a smoldering fireplace.  Abstract sense memories.  Disorientation.  Someone–Paul?  The officers?–collected a few of his things into a grey duffel bag, and they all climbed into a police cruiser and headed to the station, where Paul spent a sleepless night sitting on a wooden chair in an otherwise empty interrogation room.  The officers urged him to rest, and they turned off the harsh fluorescent lights before closing the door, but nothing about his situation suggested sleep.

After a passage of time he could not quantify, Paul saw the door open and discerned the form of a tall, thin woman backlit by the hallway.  The flash of lights turning on blinded him momentarily, and before his vision returned the woman was sitting next to him, her hand on his knee, attempting to soothe him in a voice too bird-like for the task.

On behalf of Pennington County’s social services, she would help him, she promised, would make sure he found his family and established a new home.  She just had a few questions, she said, though her definition of few departed widely from Paul’s.  When he began to tremble under her probing, she excused herself and left the room.

Hours passed.  No one had indicated the nearest restroom or where he might inquire as to its location.  Nor did he feel motivated to leave his seat in any event.  He did not consciously choose to urinate, but once it started, he welcomed the warmth spreading around his thighs like an embrace.  

This is how Paul appeared when he met his grandfather Stieg for the first time:  scared, exhausted, and steeped in piss.  The old man considered him for a moment from the doorway and clucked his tongue, muttering, “You are your father’s son.”

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The Square Circle: A Sermon on Boxing

The following is a service I delivered on August 16 at the Towson Unitarian Universalist Church.

PRELUDE:  “Mama Said Knock You Out


The last song on Ben Folds Five’s self-titled debut album is a delicate piano-driven waltz called “Boxing.” Folds, whose father was a fan of the sport, imagines a conversation between an aging Muhammad Ali and the broadcaster Howard Cosell. The two had, in fact, done a number of memorable post-fight interviews, although none quite like this.

Howard, the strangest things

Have happened lately

When I take a good swing

At all my dreams

They pivot and slip

I drop my fists and they’re back

Laughing Howard

My intention’s become not to lose what I’ve won

Ambition has given way to desperation and I

Lost the fight from my eyes

Boxing’s been good to me, Howard

Now I’m told, you’re growing old

The whole time you knew

In a couple of years I’d be through

Has boxing been good to you?

Howard, I confess I’m scared and lonely and tired
They seem to think I’m made of clay

Another day, not cut out for this

I just know what to say, I say

Boxing’s been good to me, Howard

Now I’m told, you’re growing old

The whole time you knew

In a couple of years I’d be through

Has boxing been good to you?

We’ve seen this from athletes across a variety of sports—that moment when age overtakes talent, when the greatness is gone. Brett Favre in his second year with the Vikings, or Michael Jordan during that last season with the Wizards. Professional sports are not kind to people who move too far past 30. And, as Ben Folds notes, all of us who watch sports know that the people we cheer have a limited shelf life. And it’s not just the standard aging process. We’re talking about blown-out knees and torn ACLs and destroyed rotator cuffs and worse, all suffered because we want to be entertained.

The song lays out a central question I want us to think about today. What is the relationship between athlete and spectator? What responsibility, if any, do we as an audience have for the people on the field or the ice or the court and what happens to their bodies, their minds, and their spirits? I chose to focus on boxing because unlike football or hockey, violence is not a side effect caused in pursuit of victory. In boxing, violence is the main event. And, unlike team sports where injured athletes are replaced and the game goes on, in boxing injury for one combatant ensures victory for the other. In other words, boxing allows us to examine ethical questions at their most glaringly obvious point. This service is about boxing, yes, but it’s bigger than that. It’s about all of us, and the way we treat each other.  

Despite what LL Cool J would have you believe, most parents do not recommend that their children go into boxing. We cringe at the thought of someone hitting our child, and the post-fight image of fighters with their eyes swollen shut and their faces a grotesque caricature of their normal state terrifies us. In his poem “Don’t Stop Boxing,” JC Lucas explains why some people, be they parents or coaches like the poem’s narrator, hold a contrary opinion.

“Don’t Stop Boxing” by JC Lucas

“Why do you box?”

I asked one of the gang bangers I coached at the gym one day.

“To stay out of trouble, I guess,” he replied.

And all of a sudden I got kinda mushy over this kid and realized he really was in a


Place, trying to make the best of a 



And I said,

“Listen to me. Don’t ever stop boxing. 

School, whatever, 

Work, whatever,

But whatever you do, 

Keep boxing.”

He looked at me kind of funny and

He said “why do you box?”

And I said,

“I’ve been doing this a while now.

Boxing’s fixed me up through some 

Serious shit. 

So above everything else, above women and money,

Whatever you do,

Do not 



I’ll probably never know if boxing 

saves him 

like it 

saved me. 

But I do hope it keeps him out of trouble.



From “Fight to the Death” by David Davis

ON MARCH 21, 1963, two boxers entered Dodger Stadium to fight for the featherweight championship of the world.

Davey Moore, the champ, had held the title for four years. Many considered him to be the best pound-for-pound boxer in the sport. Approaching 30, he was planning to fight for a couple more years, long enough to earn serious money. Then he was going to retire and enjoy his wife’s delicious cooking without having to worry about making weight.

Ultiminio “Sugar” Ramos was the challenger. He was young, just 21. He was in exile from his family and his homeland after Fidel Castro took power and banned professional boxing in Cuba. He was doing the only thing he knew how to do to make a living: fight with his fists.

Moore was knocked down in the 10th round. The back of his neck snapped against the ropes when he fell. He never recovered and died 75 hours later. He left behind a young wife and five children.

It was an accident. It was a tragedy. It became a political issue.

Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown called for the abolition of boxing, as did Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray. A similar entreaty came from Pope John XXIII.

A year passed, then two. Those who had usurped the moment — the politicians and the pontiffs, the sportswriters and the songwriters — were consumed by other matters. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the March on Washington, Vietnam.

The two people most affected by Davey Moore’s death had to get on with their lives. Moore’s widow, Geraldine, took a job and raised five children as a single mom.

Sugar Ramos, the new champion, kept fighting.

Fifty years have passed. The memory of Davey Moore lingers like a whisper


OFFERTORY  “Who Killed Davey Moore


SERMON  “The Square Circle”

Davey Moore has been on my mind a lot lately. A young man—younger than me by four years—killed in the process of doing his job. He wasn’t a police officer or a soldier or a fireman. He was an athlete, a person whose job is to provide the people at home with an hour’s worth of entertainment—entertainment achieved by dispensing and absorbing physical punishment. That his death was caused not so much by the force of a punch as by the misfortune of falling onto a steel cable in the corner of the ring as the result of a punch makes little difference. Either way, he was killed by boxing.

For many of you, this is an obvious fact. Boxing is a brutal sport—just two men (or women) beating each other until someone falls to the mat, bloodied and barely conscious. Even the Romans—they who fed prisoners to lions for amusement—banned boxing. Those of you with a working sense of empathy chafe at the idea of supporting such a thing.

Not me, though. Boxing is my sport of choice, more than baseball or football. I actually find it more relaxing than team sports, where my rooting interests are controlled by a sense of local pride and any loss by “my” team feels like a personal affront. This is not to say that I have no rooting interests in boxing, but rather that I am willing to shift loyalty mid-fight if my fighter is losing. I will yell at the screen, urging my newfound hero to destroy my previous favorite. I like swollen eyes and bleeding gashes and slow-motion jabs that snap back heads and make spit and sweat fly. Like many fans, I want to see two brawlers standing toe-to-toe and swinging recklessly, rather than two defensive geniuses stalking each other cautiously and trying to score points with calculated shots.  

I want blood.

And that troubles me. Generally speaking, I consider myself a pacifist. I’m opposed to war. I hate the death penalty. I want our country to have a much smaller supply of guns. I don’t spank my children. But if it’s Saturday night and HBO is televising a fight, I grab a bag of chips and sit as close to the TV as these bad eyes require so I can see the carnage.

Davey Moore died 18 years before I was born. And while boxing was not eliminated, or even substantially changed, small improvements in safety have occurred. The steel cables that in Moore’s day were exposed near the corners of the ring have been padded, for example. And referees are now expected to step in and stop fights where one fighter is obviously taking a tremendous amount of abuse, particularly if he is unable to throw punches. It’s safer now, I tell myself. And maybe that’s true.  

But in November of 2013, I watched a fight between two heavyweights—Mike Perez and Magomed Abdusalamov. The two men fought ten hard rounds, each landing punches that would knock any of us to the ground, as they stood in the center of the ring. No one ran or clinched. When the fight ended with Perez claiming victory by a decision, I couldn’t have been happier with what I’d seen. This was why I watched boxing, for the thrills.

After the fight, Abdusalamov took a taxi to the hospital, where it was determined that he had a blood clot on the brain. He was placed in a medically=induced coma, and he remained comatose for over a month. His career is over, and, while he is progressing, he is still at a point where his ability to speak using complete sentences is seen as a triumph.

I watched that fight. I saw a man essentially punched into a coma as I cheered and munched on snacks. And then, after hearing about the horrific aftermath to the match I had so enjoyed, I still tuned in the next week for more Saturday night fisticuffs. I probably even came here to TUUC the next day and thought about the dignity of my fellow man.  

I called this service “The Square Circle” not just because it’s a common way to refer to the boxing ring, but because it’s an oxymoron, a symbol of confusion.  I want to understand the contradictions between my humanist beliefs and my lizard-brain attraction to boxing, and I’ve spent months digging through articles on the sweet science and thinking about Davey Moore and Mago Abdulsalamov. I have weighed our Unitarian Universalist principles—where we affirm our respect for the inherent dignity of all people—against the pleasure of seeing Gennady Golovkin drop a man with a left hook to the liver. And I’m lost. I really am. These things are so compartmentalized in my mind that, if asked, I would say with confidence that I am not a hypocrite, because my mind wouldn’t even take my taste in sports into account.  

Of course, saying I am no hypocrite does not make it true. And if I really slow down and examine myself, I know that something is amiss. My hope today is not to prove to you that boxing is compatible with being a Unitarian Universalist. And it’s not an act of therapy wherein I open myself up to scrutiny so the harsh glare of sunlight will heal my wounds. I’m not pointing you towards uplift or offering a condemnation of sport. What I want to do is raise questions in your mind. I want you to join me in shining a light in the cold, dark corners of our brains that define entertainment, and I want you to examine, rather than run from, what you find there. Because, as I noted earlier, boxing is not the only pastime that presents suffering as spectacle—it’s just the most obvious example.

What is it about boxing that draws fans in? Why are we compelled to watch others pummel each other? Such inclinations can be traced back to ancient Greece, where boxing was an Olympic sport. And surely it’s deeper than that. Our earliest ancestors grouped themselves into small bands for protection from a world of predators, both human and non-human. Tribal leadership was often decided by strength. A person hoping to take power would need to be stronger than the current ruler. The other members of the tribe would have an obvious interest in the outcome of such combat. 

 We like to believe ourselves distanced from the rest of the animal kingdom by virtue of our intellect, but we have never fully escaped the mentality of dogs determining the order of the pack through violence.

Yes, we’ve come a long way. We vote for our leaders now, rather than having them assault each other. Reverend Clare was chosen by this congregation through a democratic process. She did not achieve her position by knocking anyone unconscious. (To the best of my knowledge, anyway.  I wasn’t here in 1999.) But as a society we have not fully stepped out of the shadow of our past, either.

Combat sports have always drawn their competitors almost exclusively from those groups at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid. In Rome, the gladiators were often prisoners or slaves. They might win public acclaim for their feats in the Coliseum, and personal freedom could be conferred on those who survived.  

We shake our heads at the thought, ignoring the reality that our own athletes are also largely from lower-income neighborhoods or from groups with little social power. Our athletes make large sums of money, yes, but their paychecks are nothing compared to the value of their promoters or team owners, who are usually the products of wealthy families of European heritage.  

And, if we’re being honest in our look at race as it connects to the brutal spectacle of boxing, we find echoes of racial hatred, sometimes barely muffled by propriety. At the turn of the 20th century, crowds of white people would gather to cheer the torture and execution of African-American men. Photos were taken to commemorate such events, and souvenirs were kept. In that climate of hate, Jack Johnson became the first African-American heavyweight champion, defeating a white man named Tommy Burns and then, in the so-called “fight of the century,” the Great White Hope, Jim Jefferies. The film of these fights was so incendiary ro white audiences that many cities banned local theaters from screening it, though shortly thereafter D.W. Griffith’s pro-Klan film The Birth of a Nation played to packed houses in those same cities. Black men could be killed for entertainment, both on- and off-screen. If they managed to succeed, they would need to be brought low, as Johnson eventually was when he was convicted of violating the Mann Act, which forbade taking a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. His crime had been driving his white girlfriend from one state to another.

Johnson was a source of pride for the African-American community, a symbol of defiance against the racist order, much like Muhammad Ali fifty years later. And here’s where the morality of boxing gets complicated. Because it’s not just an unending history of degradation and broken bodies. Fighters often represent more than just themselves. They are symbols that larger groups of people rally around, much like the tribes of prehistoric times.   

Ali, whose cultural impact exceeds not just other boxers or other athletes, but even that of most political leaders, rose to such prominence for more than his skill, which was admittedly considerable.  No, he had a mouth which was even more formidable. Like Johnson before him, his brashness earned the ire of the US government, who put him on trial when he refused to fight in Vietnam. He was stripped of his heavyweight title and banned from boxing during what should have been his prime fighting years. 

 This only solidified his international support, and when he eventually got a shot at the title in a fight with George Foreman in Zaire in 1974, the local citizens chanted Ali boom-ba-yay, which translates to “Ali, kill him.” Ali fortunately did not kill Foreman, but he did knock him out in one of the most surprising moments in sports history. (Twenty years later, Foreman regained his title in similarly surprising fashion, becoming, at 46, the oldest-ever heavyweight champion.)

George Foreman is himself a contradiction. A devout Christian, he acknowledges that boxing goes against the teachings of the famously peaceful Jesus of Nazareth. Foreman, however, feels that boxing offers young men full of pain and rage a safe way to release their violence. Like JC Lucas, he wants to keep these kids out of trouble. Boxing is dangerous, but in some cases it may be the best chance a troubled youth has. Like a Roman gladiator, he can rise from a life of misery to one of fame and wealth, if he can survive. Maybe that’s enough to justify the continued existence of boxing, and maybe it isn’t.

I don’t know who killed Davey Moore or how much responsibility I should bear for the injury that irrevocably changed Magomed Abdusalamov’s life. I remain a devoted boxing fan and a staunch proponent of secular humanism. As Unitarian Universalists, we believe that each person has their own search for the Truth, a search that lasts for the entirety of our lives, and I’m still looking.

As the Flaming Lips song says, I don’t know where the sunbeams end and the starlight begins. It’s all a mystery. I don’t know how a man decides what’s right for his own life. It’s all a mystery.  And that’s where I’m leaving you, somewhere between the sunbeams and the starlight, considering the mystery of your own contradictions, on your own search for the Truth. And I hope that search keeps you out of trouble.

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The Newspaper

This is a long-overdue installment of my Northern Minnesota Project.

The winter of Paul’s twelfth year, less than a month after President Kennedy’s fateful trip to Dallas, his father did not come home to the cabin on Lake Ayers.  It took some time for the boy to realize something was wrong, because his father often worked late at the drugstore and then went by Freddie’s for a tumble with one of the girls.  (Lars had stopped taking Paul on the ice a few years earlier, when the child’s school had sent home a paper the boy had written entitled “What I Want for Christmas.”  It described how one-armed Irene had lost her limb fighting the bear that ate her child and how Paul wished more men would choose to take her to their trucks so she could buy an artificial replacement for the missing appendage.)

Lars had, in fact, not gone to Freddie’s that evening.  He had no plans, other than to cook dinner and read by the fire, which is why he stopped to buy a newspaper at the stand on Norman Avenue.  

As he approached the stand, he passed old Mrs. Augsburger, the druggist’s wife and exchanged a smile with her.  It was the briefest of shared moments, one that he had already forgotten when he leaned down to grab a copy of the Thief River Gazette-Republican.  He folded the paper under his arm and reached into his coat pocket to get the dime required for purchase, and then he heard her scream.

A scrawny teenager tugged on Mrs. Augsburger’s purse.  The thin black leather strap hung diagonally across her back, taut as she tried to hold her ground, pulled haltingly forward by the thief’s attempt to flee.  Lars took his first step toward them just as the strap broke, spilling the elderly woman onto her backside and causing the delinquent to twirl and then take off in a sprint.

Lars gave chase, the paper tucked in his armpit.  He had never been an athlete, and his speed and endurance were further compromised by age.  He followed the mugger for a block and a half, slowly losing ground all the while and finally slipping on a patch of ice and landing hard on his right knee.  The paper he’d been carrying fell onto the damp sidewalk.

He crouched there for a moment, sucking in great gulps of bitter air through his clenched teeth. The pain in his knee was incredible, like it was sitting on a stove burner.  He rolled over onto his back, clutching his leg, which he stretched gently in an effort to prepare himself for walking again.

Mrs. Augsburger was with him then, offering her hand, as if she, in her mid-80s, could steady herself enough to counterbalance him as he hoisted himself upward.  He took it out of politeness, but did not pull on it as he rose.  He scooped the newspaper up, brushing sidewalk from the wet front page.  Together, Lars and Mrs. Augsburger limped back toward the newspaper stand, where a policeman now waited.

“I heard you scream, ma’am,” he said, nodding at Mrs. Augsburger.  “You didn’t have to chase him down yourself.”

Lars shrugged.  “I just thought–”

The policemen turned to Lars,  “I know what you thought.  You thought you’d get away with it.”


The officer was an older man with eyebrows thick as cocoons sitting above his Coke-bottle glasses.  His lips were chapped from the cold, and his tongue flicked out occasionally to moisten them.

“That newspaper,” the cop pointed. “Did you pay for it?”

“Not yet.”  Lars laughed nervously.  What the hell was going on?

“I saw you take it.  You took it and bolted, and you made this good woman run after you.”

“But, Officer,” Mrs. Augsburger tried to intervene.  The cop waved her off.

“You’ve more than done your duty, ma’am.”

Lars shook his head firmly.  “I didn’t steal it, pal.  I picked it up to buy it and–”

“And then you didn’t,” the cop answered.  He gripped the handle of his billy club reflexively.  He did not like to be contradicted.

“Because I was being–”  Mrs. Augsburger moved in between the men.

“Ma’am, I am ordering you to step back.  This is no longer your concern!” 

“Can I just pay for it now?,” Lars asked.  “I have the dime.”

Mrs.  Augsburger didn’t budge.  “You listen to me, you ignoramus” she commanded.  “This man is not a criminal!  In fact–”

“I told you to move,” the policeman snarled, shoving her aside with his left arm.  Mrs. Augsburger stumbled backwards, barely able to stay on her feet.  He laid a brisk slap on her cheek for good measure.  “Get the hell out of here, or I’ll arrest you, too.”

Lars loved Mrs. Augsburger, who had stepped into the void Rosie left behind.  She taught the boy to read, baked him cookies, and patched the ripped knees on his pants.  Lars’ views on pacifism had not changed since the war he had refused to join, but he maintained a strong sense of justice nonetheless.  When the policeman turned back to face him, Lars punched him hard in the mouth.

He could not remember ever hitting anyone, and he had not expected it to hurt so much.  The blow had broken one of the officer’s teeth.  A small white tooth-chunk rose out of the knuckle of his ring finger.  Lars shook his hand, and the shard flew off.  He cursed sharply and closed his eyes from the pain.  Before he could open them, the policeman removed his service revolver and fired two shots into Lars’ chest.  

The official police report that followed did not mention Mrs. Augsburger at all. It began with Officer Erik Bernson approaching suspected thief Lars Keillor and jumped straight to catastrophe.  Lars’ death was described officially as instantaneous, though Mrs. Augsburger told anyone who would listen that Lars had bled out slowly with his head in her lap as the Thief River Falls PD smoked cigarettes nearby.  The ambulance took more than forty minutes to arrive.  They had been told the subject was already dead.  As a result of the report’s findings, Officer Bernson was given a medal for bravery.

In the cabin on the lake, Paul sat alone by the fire, feeding it logs until his eyes grew heavy and sleep overtook his fear.  No one thought to come for him until well after midnight.

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Adieu, Adieu (Day 16)

Gate E19 is relatively empty an hour and a half before departure.  Kristy is off buying a magazine for the flight.  There are a few couples talking about forty feet from me, but otherwise I’m alone.

We’ve been in Europe for just over two weeks, although it feels longer.  In some ways, it seems like we’ve been here forever, like we are the sort of wealthy folks for whom travel is a lifestyle and home is a hotel room.  I could get used to that, although we don’t have anywhere near enough money to make it work.  As such, I’ll have to accept that our trip is over, and who knows when we’ll be back to Europe, if ever.

Peering into the past here is very different from doing so in the United States.  Going two millennia back through history is not an active possibility in the U.S.  If studying American history is like looking at the river of time, examining European history is like standing at the edge of the ocean–deep and overwhelming.  We learned a lot on this trip and will hopefully retain a small portion of it.

One of the things I noticed is the general redundancy of travel.  Every site is a castle, church, or museum.  By my count, we saw: 4 castles, 5 churches, 11 museums, 3 cruises, 2 monuments, 3 walking tours, 1 musical, 1 battleship, countless subway stations, and the Happiest Cat in the World.  

In the end, Kristy and I agreed that Amsterdam was our favorite of the cities visited.  The relaxing atmosphere, temperate weather, English speakers, and charming canals make it a perfect location for our retirement.

Finally, we want to thank our families, who contributed to the cost of the trip and who watched our children and the dog.  Also, thanks to our friends who kept our cat company.  

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The Importance of Tolerance (Day 14)

Amsterdam exists where no city should.  Over centuries, Dutch engineers have dried out marshy land, built a series of canals and dikes, and developed architectural innovations to enable construction in the area.  Today’s tour guide tells us that a full 60% of the Netherlands sits on land reclaimed from swamps and marshes.  The most important company in the country is the water company, he said, and they are paid accordingly.

We did a seven hour tour through the city today.  That sounded daunting, like some sort of endurance test, but the guide offered numerous stops and various breaks to keep things relaxed.  We saw a few churches, a synagogue, a half-dozen canals, and a coffeeshop called the Dampkring.

While we did not enter the coffeeshop–and please note that this is the local term for “place to buy and consume weed and hash”–we did see Harry, the Happiest Cat in the World, who lives there and is, by our guide’s account, “very chill.”  Harry is a very old cat, so old that no one knows his real age.  The guide noted that the medical benefits of marijuana could be the reason.  

It’s a misconception that drugs are legal here. Soft drugs–weed and hash–are “tolerated,” meaning that you can smoke them in certain places and no one will bother you, but they are not legal.  Sort of like jaywalking, which is a crime that no police officer will ever ticket you for.  “Hard drugs,” like heroin or cocaine, pose far graver societal consequences and are therefore not given the same exemptions.  Also, hard drugs, unlike their softer counterparts, cause cats to do terrible things.  Give your cat PCP if you don’t believe me.

We finished our tour at the Anne Frank House, which has been converted to a museum.  It presents the Holocaust in microcosm, on a very personal level.  I have not read Diary of a Young Girl, but I am obviously familiar with its general outlines.  It was haunting to walk through the annex where her family (and others) hid for so long.  

Prior to the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, the Jewish community had gotten along fairly well in Amsterdam.  Unfortunately, Dutch Jews were removed and exterminated at much higher rates than in neighboring countries, because the Dutch royal family fled to England, leaving a power vacuum eagerly filled by the Nazis.   Anne and her family were sent to Auschwitz six months before liberation, which did not come soon enough.  Only her father survived.

Even in a city of tolerance and openness, there are reminders of the foul bitterness that divides people.  This can be found anywhere, if you’re looking for it, of course, but the juxtaposition with the modern city, where a majority are non-Dutch natives, is stark.  The city seems to have the right idea, though, preserving symbols of the past’s shortcomings as a guide for creating a better future.  Here’s hoping it works.

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Stairway to Heaven (Day 13)

Before we left for Europe, I asked a friend of mine–a co-worker from Italy–what nice things I could do with my wife in Amsterdam.

He shook his head.  “Your wife?  Already you have ruined Amsterdam.”

And I can kind of see what he means.  Kristy is an excellent guide to places like the Rijksmuseum.  She takes me safely through crowded streets, up and down stairs, in and out of alleyways, and around piles of dog shit. But I’ve noticed a certain selectivity in what she points out to me as we travel.  She mentions bakeries, souvenir shops, and old churches.  So far, in Amsterdam, we have passed no coffee shops, sex shops, or gentlemen’s clubs.  Perhaps the city, once home to many English Puritans, has retained a heritage of restraint and temperance?

Either way, the city is adorable, with its canals and tall, narrow buildings.  Kristy wonders about the possibility of moving here.  I am open to the possibility, even if my Italian friend’s words suggest that it might be a bad idea.

Our hotel–Hotel Clemens–is lovely, and it’s staffed with the friendliest people we’ve met on the trip.  These are the steps just inside the door to the hotel.  (There is no elevator.)

Notice how the stairs curve sharply at the top and grow steeper?  Good times!  The concierge carried both our suitcases up these stairs, plus another (similar) set to the second floor, where we have our room.  He refused a tip, saying, “You will be here three days.  We [the hotel staff] must take care of you.”

Almost everyone here speaks impeccable English–better, in fact, than many people from the United States.  We asked our waiter about it after dinner, and he credited American pop culture, noting that you pick up a lot by listening to American music and watching American movies.  Cultural imperialism at work!

Tomorrow, we have a seven hour walking tour, which includes a canal trip and the Anne Frank House.

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