31 / 365 – Invisible


One of the things I wasn’t sure I would be able to handle coaching in this town were the parents. The dads, especially. Even when we were good, back then, if anybody made a mistake some dad would be yelling about it, yelling at the boy on the team, yelling at Coach Olson. If something wasn’t perfect then it was somebody’s fault. Kids are here to learn the game. They don’t need that kind of craziness.

Well, so far, I haven’t had it. I think I’m invisible sometimes. We have a kid on the team, Timms, who is tall but awkward. He must have grown all of a sudden, his legs won’t get out of the way of his body. Trips over himself. He must have it terrible at home. The first couple of games last fall, I heard a man in the stands yelling at him. I couldn’t hear what he said. We were talking on the bench, I was talking to him about his coverage in man-to-man, and the guy starts yelling. I said, “Is that your father?” He just nodded, he looked terrified. I turned around and looked up in the stands. I wasn’t sure which guy it was, just looked in the direction where I had heard the voice. Never heard it again the rest of the day. I guess nobody wants to fuck with the Indian coach. Sometimes I think people must think I talk a different language, they get all quiet and tongue-tied when I’m around.

Last weekend we played a team from Glasgow and when I walked into the gym they all got quiet. The guys on the other team stared, even the coach stared. Like we must be the wrong team, showed up in the wrong place. They were quiet the whole game. I don’t let my guys trash talk with the other team, and I think that made it even worse. We were too quiet, menacing. I guess I shouldn’t say I’m invisible. I’m maybe too visible. But I’m not sure when people look at me they see another man. I don’t know what they see.


30 / 365 – Protector


I grew up west of here, but it wasn’t a lot different. Wheat country. Just outside a little town of about 200 people, Norge. It was the house my great grandfather had homesteaded a hundred years before. Came out from Norway with almost nothing. They came from Stavanger, and I think that may have been his name, or at least where my name came from. He wasn’t Stave. He changed it to that when he registered on the property. The story is that he thought Stave made it sound more American. Sounded like part of an American barrel, anyway. He was trying hard to fit in.

It wasn’t a rich piece of land, but we did well on it, even in the lean years in the 30s, when I guess they had some years of drought. People didn’t have much to eat. My dad was just a boy then. You would have thought he would have learned better.

When I was a teenager, back in the 1970s, they started telling everybody to plough up every last foot of their farms. Fencerow to fencerow, my father would say. He was a guy to follow orders, or at least suggestions. You didn’t want to have a guy like him around a television, he’d have the house full of junk that different people on ads would have said would make your life better. He liked to believe people. He was a good guy and he trusted, like he trusted the guy from the farm bureau who told him to buy a bigger combine and plough up every bit of land he could. Prices were terrible, and I remember one year he had all his grain in the elevator for more than a year. Said he wasn’t going to sell it till the prices went back up. Never mind that we didn’t really have food to eat except what my mother had canned, and that wasn’t lasting much, especially since I was a teenager. Next thing you know all our stuff is up for auction and we’re out of our house and living in a single-wide on a neighbor’s property. I didn’t even understand what was going on. I was a senior in high school but I was just a dumb jock, playing football and basketball and I didn’t see the freight train coming until it had smashed into us and taken everything.

My dad was broken. Eventually he went off to the Twin Cities and found a dumb job, took my sisters and my mother down there and started over. I was so angry and ashamed for him I couldn’t face it. I had no idea what to do, I was just blind angry. I ended up in the army, went over to Germany. Ended up serving in the military police. I was surprised. I had been a troublemaker in high school, when I was just goofing off all the time and didn’t know how serious things were, how they could go to hell in a heartbeat. I never could have imagined myself a cop. But there I was. I also got to visit Norway while I was over there, got to visit the village near Stavanger where my great grandfather had come from. It cooled me off a little. Even though it still seemed like my father had thrown everything away, going back to where the family had come from, I had a little peace about it. Everything seems to go in a circle. Bad things happen but it’s all right in the end.

When I came back I decided to go to school so that I could be a civilian police officer. Not just an officer but someday run a department. And here I am. Jericho isn’t my home town, but it’s like my home town. Feels like I never left home.

I like the feeling of protecting people. I like knowing they trust me, and being the guy they can trust. I didn’t trust much after we lost of our house. Sometimes I think the reason I like to protect people is that I want to protect them from the bad things that happen to me. You would think after how many people lost their farms fifteen, twenty years ago that people would have learned a lesson, but no, they keep going and doing dumb things, buying too much expensive equipment, plowing too much, laying up too much in the elevators even though they can’t get the price for it. I can’t really protect them from doing all those stupid things, but some days, on good days, I go home feeling like I’ve stopped something stupid from happening, and that maybe some kid somewhere won’t have to go through his whole 20s being blind angry with the world. Maybe I could protect a few people from that, it would be a life worth having been lived.

29 / 365 – Birthday Wishes


For the record, it was the kind of restless weather that gives birth to those unexplainable, nutty ideas. Wind blowing, hard cold out of the northwest, light snow swirling down on the gusts. For some dumb reason I went out in it on my bike. I had the wrong gloves on and the cold was blowing right through my riding gloves. I couldn’t feel my fingers. Not a half mile down the road from the house a gust nearly blew me off the bike and I realized it was so dark with the clouds hanging low and the snow blowing that I could barely see the lights from town. I could barely see the gravel road right in front of me. I could have taken the truck, should have turned around then, but I didn’t. Instead, I just made it worse. As I got into town and I wasn’t sure I was even holding the handlebars I turned down the street toward the Uptown. Told myself I needed to get warm.

So when I arrived at her door an hour later, I was now a little tanked up on top of being cold. I think I surprised her, not really in a good way. She wondered what I was doing out there, maybe a little too much alarm in her voice. And I said something stupid — of course I was going to say something stupid in that circumstance — what else could one say when the windchill is below zero and it’s dark and snow is billowing around and anyone smart would be at home, curled up in bed or by a fire or something?

I was hoping she would invite me in, and she did finally, but by then I realized that instead of this being a nice surprise — somebody was thinking about her birthday and showing up keep her company — it was just jarring and maybe even reminded her even more that she was alone on her birthday with no friends or family around. I had just made it worse. So by the time she did invite me in I felt terrible and felt even worse for hurting her feelings — which I’m sure I had done — and was trying to beg off and just get away on my bike. And she said don’t be crazy, you can’t ride home in this, I’ll drive you, but that just underlined how wrong this all was. So finally I agreed to come in and warm my hands a little but the whole time I couldn’t wait to get out of there. We were sorta making small talk but it was awkward all over and I just wanted to scream, I was so mad at myself for being so stupid.

And then I think she got mad when I suddenly put my glove and my hat and my jacket back on and zipped out of there. It was freezing but I didn’t even notice until I was on the country road just a couple of miles from the house, when I hit a rock and fell off my bike. I lay in the road for awhile, breathing like crazy. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I just wanted to make the night go away, erase it. I might have laid there and froze to death except I thought I saw a car coming and I got up. For a second I think I hoped it was her coming after me, but it wasn’t. Wasn’t anything.

Happy Birthday, Sarah. And it’s not like it will go away: it will be awkward as hell to say hello tomorrow morning at the cafe.

28 / 365 – Empty Birthday


Tomorrow is my birthday. Leah is with Erik, so I’ll probably spend it by myself. I thought about saying that I wanted to switch days so that we could be together for my birthday, at least have that. Erik never said anything. I couldn’t tell whether he doesn’t remember — it would be like him to not remember — or whether he’s just not saying anything because he would like knowing that it’s my birthday and I won’t see Leah all day. That would be like him, too — he often forgot the things that were important — but he would remember something when he wanted to make it hurt. So I thought about asking to have her, and then I realized that if I brought it up it would just end up being an ugly struggle, for one ugly reason or another.

So I’ll spend it alone. I don’t know that it matters any more anyway. I’m not sure what I’m celebrating. Another ring on the old tree, but one gets to be just like the others. An anniversary or a birthday is like a marker, development in a story, but now that I’m no longer part of a family, there’s no story there. I used to feel like I was on a road that went somewhere. Even though Erik and I struggled with things for years, it still felt like we were heading toward something, it felt like we were building a family. Building a history. Now … I feel like I’m randomly writing things on a wall and who cares. There’s Leah, I’m still her mom, she’s growing up, she’s really becoming her own person. There are these amazing times we have, sometimes, things we’ve done together or been through together. But she’s getting older, becoming more independent, moving away from me. If she weren’t so lost in this nowhere town, I’d probably see her even less than I do. When she was younger, there were the other parents, moms mostly, who you’d get to know, waiting for the kids at dance, waiting for them at the pool. It was a little like a circle of friends, a community. When Erik and I were first having trouble, back in Boston, when he’d disappear, people would invite us out for dinner on a Friday night, or maybe to a picnic or a weekend trip out to the Cape. I don’t know if it’s because it’s so isolated here, or maybe because I’m such an obvious outsider. He’s the local boy here, not me, and everybody knows that. But I can see these little threads of community falling away as Leah gets older. I don’t get to know the other moms. When Leah gets invited to a friend’s house on Friday night, she’s just off by herself. So more and more I have no idea what my place will be. I mean, it’s not like I’ll ever get married again. People say, “Well, you’ll meet someone,” as if going on a date (it makes me gag thinking about it) would magically clean up all these torn threads. Not that I even am interested. Thinking of myself as a sexual person — I mean, it’s unthinkable. I’m coming up on fifty now. That’s definitely gone.

Maybe that’s why I started this silly cafe. Because it would be a place where threads would come back together. Looking at it now I realize how stupid it was. I didn’t have money to do this. I mean, I was lucky enough to start it with next to no money, but keeping it going, especially now that we’re in this stupid competition with the other restaurant in town. Maybe it was a good idea. I don’t even know that it was even a thought-out idea so much as it seemed like something positive to do, to set down some roots, make the best of this, of coming here. Now it just seems like one more thing I start doing that is impractical and crazy and goes nowhere.


27 / 365 – Young and Old


Tom is off to Lake of the Woods to ice fish. Same weekend every year, all the guys from the plant go. It’s only guys, I’m pretty sure, even though Lizabeth Haraldsen is the head of purchasing. I don’t think she goes. I don’t think she’d want to go, I don’t think. She doesn’t speak to us anymore anyway. I’ve never asked about it. I’ve always imagined it like a bunch of guys pretending they’re in college again. I don’t want to know the details.

Where I grew up, there was a lake like Lake Vermillion. More woods around it, though, since it was in Wisconsin. My Dad took me out to his hut a few times. Mostly it was just guys that went out and fished, but my dad wasn’t like a lot of other dads, mostly spending his time with his sons. He liked to say, “Get too many guys together, just guys, and all you have is a big group of stupid.” I think he had been kind of a loner growing up. But that was great for me because it meant I got to do a lot of things growing up — hunting, fishing, camping — that girls I knew didn’t do. If my dad were around now, he’d be one of those guys with a little hut out on Lake Vermillion. Sometimes in the winter when I drive out that way I see those huts out there and I think of him.

Tom asked Finn if he wanted to go. Finn said he had to work, which probably wasn’t the thing to say. Just another reminder of what does he think he’s doing with his life? He got that great education and now he’s flipping eggs and burgers in a little town in North Dakota? After Tom left, I asked him why he hadn’t gone and he said, ‘That’s the last place I’d want to be right now.’ And then he said, ‘Besides, I did my duty. I did both hunting trips.’ At this rate they won’t be speaking to each other at all in a few months.

It’s strange in a way because Finn reminds me so much of his father, back when I met him. Smart, funny, a guy with a lot of heart. They’re so alike in those ways, and yet Finn seems like he can’t stand to be in the room with his father. When they argue I feel like I’m looking at the younger Tom arguing with the older Tom and saying he doesn’t like him. I wonder, if Tom had been able to say into the future, all those years ago when we met, if he’d looked at himself and said that, ‘I don’t like you.’ Maybe that’s part of getting into middle age, we have to grow into ourselves and understand ourselves. From a distance, from youth, maybe we don’t look very good.

26 / 365 – Ice Fishing


It was late this year because the winter had such a warm start, but I finally pulled the ice house out to the lake yesterday. Some guys had pulled theirs out with their trucks, but I wasn’t so sure about the ice. There were a lot of fracture lines in it, where it’s heaved up and moved. My house isn’t all that heavy, so I pulled it off the trailer and set it on some runners, hooked a tow rope up to it, and just pulled it out. I have a favorite bay I usually like to go to — it’s around a bend in the lake, away from the road, and there’s a point where the reeds and grass grow tall enough they keep it hidden. But that’s way too far for me to pull the shed, so I just found a little spot in a little bay that has a little shelter from some cottonwoods. It’s a place we came to a few times when I was in high school and we wanted to get away from our parents, a place to bring a case of beer where you could get left alone and maybe even go swimming. I don’t know if kids go there any more. I don’t remember my boys doing it, although maybe that’s because I never caught them. Hopefully the fish like it too, even though by this time of the winter they’re not biting much. Just kinda slowed down and drifting. I didn’t catch anything yet, but I augured a hole and dropped a few lines and lit the stove and leaned back on the cot and it was a good afternoon.

My wife, Shirley, said, Well, if nothing’s going to be biting, why go out there anyway? Why drag that same old beat-up fish house around on the lake and go sit out there in the cold? We’ve been at this thirty years and she still asks that question. She shouldn’t, because we probably wouldn’ta been at this thirty years if it weren’t for that, as she said, beat-up old fish house that my Dad and I built when I was a teenager. You’re going to be needing one of your own, he told me, and we put it together from some wood we found at an old homestead site north of town, that and some junk plywood from somewhere. But put that red paint on it and you don’t know it’s junk plywood, do you? Anyway, there were years when the kids were, oh, getting into high school, when I practically lived there half the winter. It’s big enough it’ll fit a cot, and that stove keeps it plenty cozy. I’d come into town to go to work at the plant, stop by the house sometimes for dinner, but I lived out here about two months. I caught enough walleye and pike that when I went home for dinner I wouldn’t get too much static for being gone. And it would take just one dinner, with the kids fighting with each other and Shirley mad about that and about every other little thing but just sitting there, stewing, saying nothing, just looking at me and saying with her eyes that I was completely neglecting the family and look how bad things had gotten. One dinner like that and I’d sneak over to Sullivan’s for dinner the next night (the Corner Cafe was closed by then and the Pie Creek hadn’t opened in its place yet).

Some people come to town and see the houses out on the lake and they think people are crazy to want to sit out there in the cold, or they think the men are irresponsible to sneak away to their little huts, it’s like having a bunch of little Eagle Aeries out there on the lake. They don’t understand how doing that year after year is one of the things that holds families and the town together.

25 / 365 – Unhappy Birthday


Today was Laura’s birthday. It might seem strange that I’d remember it so well, since it’s been give years since we split up, but I’ve marked that birthday for more than fifteen years. It starts to stick to your calendar, like Christmas or the Fourth of July. Her dad came into the cafe, a little later than usual. I knew why he was there. I saw him come in and he sat down in a booth. Didn’t get himself a coffee by the door or anything. I saw Jackie getting ready to take him a cup and a menu and I motioned to her that I would do it. I didn’t have anything urgent on the grill, just a couple of french toast I had just turned. I pointed at those and she nodded and I went over to his booth and sat down. We didn’t even say anything at first. He looked at me and I looked at him. I said, “Can I get you anything?” He shook his head and he said, “Not really hungry.” So I said, “Coffee?” And he said, “OK.”

Jackie was flipping the french toast when I walked past and I went and got him a cup of coffee and his two creams and went back over. Two guys I didn’t recognize walked in just then and sat in another booth. Jackie went over and I knew I’d have to go back to cooking pretty soon.

I sat down again and I said, “How are you doing?” He shrugged his shoulders and sorta shook his head, like he was trying to shake off bad thoughts, or like he’d just remembered a bad dream and was trying to shake it away. And maybe I was making him remember it. I said, “Have you heard anything?” He shook his head. He said something about talking to the police again, her roommate, but there was nothing. I asked him if he was still sending rent and he said yes. That has to be more than his rent here.

He said, “I don’t know why I keep this up. I’m going to have to go out there and collect her stuff.” I said, “I’ll go with you,” just quick like that, without thinking. He smiled and said it was good of me to say that, but I had jobs here, if I was even staying here long — was I really going to stick around here any longer? He said it would take awhile. He would drive. I said, “If you’re gonna go, then I want to go.” And of course then I thought, Crap, how am I going to do that? But we’ll figure it out.

We didn’t say anything after that. I used to have this feeling about her. No matter where I was, I could think of her and I knew she was out there, doing whatever she was doing in New York or wherever she was. Like we were connected. But I haven’t felt that for a long time, since last summer I think. I thought about saying something and then I thought there was no way I was going to say that. On her birthday, especially.

Jackie was taking an order and motioning to me that she was going to need me in a moment. I got up and he said, “Well, we’ll see.” And I said it again, “I’m coming with.” I told him he should come by the Uptown tonight, since I was working, but he said no, he didn’t like going there. Going to a bar would just remind him he had sorrows to drown.

I’ll bet he did something like drive out to the old homestead and sit in the dark. That’s more his way.