114 / 365 – Monogram


Mom has been saying my dad and I should talk. I say, About what? Well, we’ve talked now. My dad talked, anyway. Yelled. Maybe I yelled too, I don’t know. We always seem to get to yelling. More than talking about stuff.

My dad told me how he sees things. That’s kind of how it works. He has an important perspective on things. Because he runs the biggest business in town. It must mean his opinions are smarter than everyone else’s. He gets to explain how things are. I get to listen. We’ve been doing this since high school. Only we get to the yelling faster since Ben’s been gone.

The other casualty was one of my father’s favorite drinking glasses. Monogrammed with his initials. I don’t know why people would want to put their initials on a drinking glass. Is that how you make sure everybody knows you’re here? “Hey buddy, that single-malt scotch you’re enjoying, that’s out of my fucking glass.” Or, “Look how much I matter in the world! There are glasses here with my initials on them. Thomas James Tillary.” I had a couple of friends growing up and in their kitchens they only had plastic drinking cups. I guess you can’t get those monogrammed.

Anyway, he broke a jelly glass. That’s what he called it. I don’t know why they call them that. It’s not like there’s some kind of drink you have in them with jelly in it. Maybe there’s something in the experience of enjoying whiskey from a glass with your own initials on it that is like jelly. I don’t know. What I know is that it’s apparently my fault that it’s broken, even though it was his arm that raised it high and then threw it at the kitchen floor as hard as he could. Because I wasn’t listening to his important views on things.

So apparently the problem is that I’ve had the easiest life anyone has had and I have done nothing with it. My dad has given me everything he has and I’ve made nothing of it. Plus I’ve made him break some glasses. I’ve been given everything my whole life and I’ve just wasted it. What’s the sign that I’m such a failure? That I’m not in big city Chicago, wearing a coat and tie and flying around as a fancy consultant. That I live in the little dead-end town where, by the way, he lives and thinks he’s the most important guy. 

So I guess somehow those three years of college that were paid for by an athletic scholarship, that was his doing. All those long afternoons that Chris and Cross and Timms and I ran drills and sat and shot free-throws and threes over and over and over, that was all his hard work that I’ve wasted. He knew so much about it he used to tell me it was all about “spirit,” and “determination” and “character.” No, dude, you don’t have a clue. It was about coming out here day after day, month after month, and just working at it, the same things, over and over, when nobody was watching and nobody who supposedly had sense thought there was any point. “It’s never going to matter. Jericho has never had a good team. The bigger schools always win.” 

And then you didn’t have to sit there for three years on the bench, watching your teammates blow plays you might have helped them make if the coach hadn’t had some second thoughts about recruiting and playing you. You think you know stuff but you don’t know a thing about humiliation, what it’s like to sit there and seem like a failure, just because doing that is paying the bill for your education.

And now you’re mad because after that I decide to come back this town where you’ve been lording it over everybody for fifteen years? Because it’s the one corner of the world that matters to me — the people, the country? Do you think you’ve established some track record that lets you judge?

I’m sick of his fucking lectures, and his yelling. He’s always been a little like that, but it’s gotten worse now. I feel like saying, I know you miss Ben. We all miss Ben. Go yell at the fucking wall. Go out to the northwest quarter, to the shelterbelt out there, and yell at the trees. The wind will blow away all the noise and no one will have to remember the shitty, small things you say and all the bluster when you got so wound up you threw your drink at the floor. And then got so wound up about that, like a drinking glass with your initials on it is such a goddamned important thing. With everything else that’s going on around here.


113 / 365 – Thrashers

When did the birds come? Did they all arrive unseen, in the dark of night? You can hear them in the cottonwoods early in the morning, well before first light. Robins. Bohemian waxwings, gray-white birds with orange caps, trilling in the trees. Brown thrashers calling their kiss-kiss and chattery song from one branch to the other in the willow. There’s light in the morning now when Finn heads out to the shed for his bike. Yesterday he saw green buds on the willow tree. It is always first. There was warm hopeful glow in the east over town as he pedaled the gravelly ruts on the road in to work.

The spring has stayed dry, the season askew. April is usually the month when the thaw in the soil and the dark fall from the clouds turns from snow and ice to cold rain. Windblown but wet. It unsticks the black earth beneath the hard grasses, bent in the breeze. The air heavy with the smell of the rich black soil.

It’s dry this year. A cold breeze out of Sasketchawan blows dust before it, heavy soil lifted from somewhere. It drifts across the state highway in brown swirls. Along the county road a sudden gust twirls up a slow brown funnel of dust, waving over the road like a dusty ghost, billowing and then dispersing.

In the cafe the farmers talk of planting. It’s early for it. “I know if I plant now, a late snow will blow in and burn off the shoots. Or freeze the roots. It happened so many times when I was a kid, whenever I got too anxious. Or greedy.” Others nod. The first one gets up, pours another cup of coffee from the pot on the burner that sits up by the cash register. He goes back to the booth where he had been sitting, flips back to the page with the comics and the crossword puzzle and thinks about doing it again. He never does crossword puzzles.

He looks out the window. A gust of wind heaves up the street, carrying a stray shard of cardboard from a large box. It’s late morning and there are no cars out now. The box heaves up on gusts and falls again, up and down, up and down, like the slow step down the street of an unseen giant, heading south and out of town.

Back in the store room Finn takes down a shiny round tin of flour from the metal shelf. The back window is slid open. A bush obscures the glass but he hears the wind gust through it. And from a tree opposite in the alley, a kiss-kiss call again of a brown thrasher. And an answer from the crown of the building opposite: kiss-kiss-kiss.

112 / 365 – The Expatriate


There was this guy we met, an expatriate. I didn’t really know what that meant. I think I had heard the word before. I had imagined guys who went overseas to fight wars and then stayed behind. I must have gotten this from a book about Viet Nam. Maybe a story I read somewhere along the way. Guys getting time off from the fight and going to a resort somewhere, maybe Bali or an island like that, and just sitting on the beach. And maybe it was the most fun they ever had, so after the war they went back. Just to stay in that easy life, because where else is life going to be like that? Not back home, where once you go back you’ll have to sign up for a shitty job in a factory, something like that, or you have to go study something at college you don’t care about. I imagined an expatriate being a guy who spent all his afternoons sitting in bars. Sitting in a sunny bar with buzz on, drinking just enough to keep it going, and talking to all the pretty women who might wander in there. Who might be interested in the foreigner who’s rich enough to spend his afternoons sitting in the sun, drinking beer and rum.

This guy – his name was Greg – was not like that, not sitting in the sun drinking all afternoon. For one thing, we were in Sweden and it was hardly tropical, although it was a lot more warm and sunny than I would have thought. And the day lasted so long that even when it was evening and he was out of work, it was still sunny out. But he was sort of like that. He told us he liked to sit outside in one of the places down by the water. He had a place he went to regularly — he took us there. It was down right on the water. There was a sort of promenade along the water where people walked along. Boats were tied up there, and a most of the places facing it were restaurants or cafes. He always went to the same place, “the best place,” he said. The tables were crowded with people, people who looked like they worked in the offices down there, or maybe they took the tunnelbana, the metro down there from another place. Came down to the water to sit and watch the sun slowly sink toward the northwest. He liked to get a table near the front, where he could see people walking by and watch the harbor. We had to stand and wait awhile and when some people stood up he pounced on the table, fended off a few other people who swarmed over too. He spoke at them sharply in Swedish. It’s a funny language, but he seemed to be able to speak it well. We sat there for hours, until the late day turned orange pink and into blue twilight that stayed in the sky a long time and we watched the lights on the harbor.

So Greg was not like what I had thought an expatriate was, but he was sort of. He told us he had come over four years before, from a big bank in New York. He was supposed to be there two years, but he liked it so much he kept figuring out ways to stay longer. I said, “So you’re an expatriate.” He said, “Nobody says ‘expatriate.’ It’s ‘expat.’“ He said, “There are a bunch of us here. You end up meeting each other.” I asked him how, in a big city like that, spread out around the water, you would end up meeting the few other people there who weren’t from there. Would you see each other on the street and just know? Just see each other and say, That couldn’t be a Swede, and walk over and talk? Because I’ve seen people who look like this back in North Dakota, people whose great-grandparents or something came from Sweden and Norway a long time ago. I could imagine some of these people back at home, even though I’m sure they would probably hate it there. He said, No, it wasn’t that. You ended up living in a part of town where a lot of the homes were for rent to foreigners. He said if he had had children they would have ended up at the same school, a school for expats. And a lot of neighbors wouldn’t bother spending much time getting to know the expats, “since they figure they’ll be gone in a little while. So you just end up meeting each other.”

But some of his friends said you could tell an American when you saw one on a street. One of Greg’s friends, a Swedish guy who worked at a government office, he said, “You have this way of walking. Loose.” He stood up at the table and tried to mimic it, walking in place and kind of swinging his arms arms around. Kate said, “That’s not a person, that’s a gorilla.” Everyone laughed. Kate was being her charming self. People, even if they’ve just met her, fall in love her. Like this guy Greg. Somebody else said you could tell by the clothes, they were looser. There were six or seven of us crammed around this tiny round metal table, covered with beer glasses, and they were all trying to think of how they could recognize an American, but they all insisted they could.

Even Greg must have been able to do it, because we were standing in a crowded street, a street just for people, no cars, and they all seemed to be leaving work, all headed somewhere. We were trying to find an internet cafe so I could check my email. We had just gotten to town that morning and we had left our stuff at the hostel and were trying to see a little of the city but I was having trouble paying attention to anything. I just wanted to check my email. I didn’t think I’d be able to think until I had. Kate was getting annoyed. Ever since Prague, when I had first heard that Laura was missing, I had gotten kind of obsessed with checking my email. I wanted to know what was going on, some news, and I was halfway across the world from New York, where she had been, or North Dakota. I think Kate was starting to get annoyed that it was getting in the way of our trip. And that it was so important for me to know where Laura was. So we were standing there in this beautiful old street, with people pushing past us, talking in this funny language, Swedish, and Kate and I were trying not to have a fight, at least out there in public, when this guy, Greg, walked up and said, “Hi! Can I help you find something?”

Kate looked relieved to hear good clear English, American English, not the British sounding variety that most Europeans we had met usually spoke. In Stockholm, most people we had met switched into English when they heard us talk but sometimes it was hard to tell it was English they were speaking, with the vowels all mangled up and the accent all sideways. But this guy spoke like he’d grown up in the US, which he had. I told him we were looking for an internet cafe so I could check my email. Did he know where one was? He said he did, he’d be happy to take us there. He was talking to me, but he was smiling at Kate the whole time. He said, “Sure, I can take you there. First, though, can I buy you a drink? I was just going to stop and have a drink. Come, come.” He grabbed Kate’s elbow and turned her around toward the water and motioned for me to follow.

We ended up sitting in that place by the water for hours. Never made it to the internet cafe. He kept buying us more beers and we just sort of floated through the rest of the evening. People he knew came and went, there were always three or four packed around the little table with us. They were all beautiful, the guys and the women. Stunning. Some of it was the clothes. Everyone seemed so stylish, they’re clothes all fit perfectly like people in a magazine. People stopped by on their way home from work. Nobody seemed in a hurry to go home. He said it was a long, dark winter and people wanted to soak it up as much as they could.

It was a beautiful afternoon and evening. We seemed to talk forever, and a lot of that is blurry. I remember feeling like I was floating just above things, just above the noisy chatter where we were sitting, above the city, the harbor, watching the light fade and the colors deepen and the lights of night come on and reflect off the water like stars.

Somehow they got on the subjects of accents. One woman told Greg he had a funny accent. “If you didn’t speak such good Swedish I couldn’t understand you.” Greg didn’t have an accent at all. I have an accent, you can tell I’m from North Dakota or Minnesota. I make those long o’s. Kate’s from outside Chicago and she makes all her vowels through her nose. But Greg sounded like he could have been from anywhere. They insisted all of us had accents, “American accents.” I thought that was funny, that people thought of us as having accents. I asked Greg where he was from. “You sound like American from anywhere. Maybe California,” I said. He said, “Yeah, that’s about right.” He had moved around a lot as a kid, east coast and west coast. He said, “So I’m just generic American,” but you could see he wasn’t really anymore. Not even just American. He wasn’t really from anywhere. Later I asked him, “Do you miss the US? Do you want to go back? Where would you go back?” I haven’t traveled that much around the US, but I’ve never seen anything like that life he had going there. He said, “New York?” But even New York is not like that, with that peaceful view of the water and so many nice people, beautiful people, coming and going. He said, “I know. That’s why when it’s time to go back, I keep figuring out a way to stay longer.”

But it was just a kind of limbo. That’s why I said it was like what I had thought being an expatriate was. He wasn’t starting a family there. We were talking about that and there was a very attractive woman squeezed in next to me at the table and I said, “Why is he still single? Aren’t there women who would love a successful guy like this?” She said, “But he will be gone. He is not staying forever. So you might start to be together and then he would have to leave.” I had always thought of expatriates as solitary guys, but I hadn’t thought of how lonely it might be.

We never did find our internet cafe. I think he just wanted to talk to Kate. We were sitting there in the twilight and I looked at my watch and said holy crap, we had to get back to the hostel before they locked the doors. Some of them seemed a little shocked that we were staying in a hostel. Like we should have been in a hotel or something. Earlier in the evening Greg had given me his card with a telephone number on it, but when we stood up and said goodbye he didn’t mention it so we never called him again. And it was good that we had had a day without me checking my email. Kate seemed more relaxed the next day, even though we went first thing to a place the hostel keeper had told us about. It’s funny how the next day we were thinking totally different things about it. I was thinking about Greg, all dressed up in a sleek-fitting suit, and thinking about how maybe that could be me. Maybe that’s how I would end up if I did well at the job I would soon be starting. But then I wasn’t sure about it. Even though he was having a good time, he seemed so alone. Kate seemed all excited by it. “Just think, getting a job in a place like this and being able to meet all these interesting people you’d never meet in Chicago.” It was like she’d had a completely different evening than I had. Nothing like sitting so close to someone all evening, the woman you had not so long ago asked to marry you, and what you remember from the evening is totally different. Like you weren’t even together. Maybe it was just the beer. And that’s what I remember about Stockholm now, how beautiful it was but at the same time how totally alone I was, even though we held hands as we walked around by the water and the sun was warm on our backs.

111 / 365 – Paths


Lives follow a path. They’re supposed to follow a path. Like the sun arcing across the sky. You get up on a sunny summer morning and you expect to have that beautiful day. The sun is not supposed to suddenly fall out of the sky just as you’re getting ready for lunch and leave you in darkness for the rest of the day.

Maybe a person could live through that if they knew it was coming. If they knew there was not going to be an afternoon and they weren’t looking forward to it all morning.

If you knew your boy was only going to live until he was twenty, would it be different? Some parents know, don’t they? Their child is born with difficulties, something wrong. The doctor says, “This child won’t have a long life. His heart will fail. Her kidneys will fail.” Whatever it might be. Does the parent think about their time differently? Their childhood? Do they love that child differently? When they hold them as infants, as toddlers. When they are tying their shoes, teaching them to throw a ball, playing basketball out in the drive. Is it different to listen to the boy in high school, all shy and worrying about who to ask for a date to the prom? If you know it might be the last time he dresses up and asks a beautiful girl to dance? Do we say, “I know everyone else is worried about these things but please don’t worry, you, because you’re going to be gone soon and you should have a good time?” Would a mother of a child like that be more awake if she knew this was going to be the last time she could unscramble the collar of his shirt, straighten his bow tie? Would she have remembered to take more pictures?

At Thanksgiving I almost asked Tom’s brother to take a picture of us, Tom and I and Finn and Christine. But then I didn’t, because I thought, I’ll be imagining Ben there too, in the blank space on the side of the picture. There’s no blank space there but I see blank space. Just behind Tom’s shoulder. Of in front of Finn, where maybe he would have stood. If someone had told me we could only have him for a short time, would I see this hole where he is missing, everywhere I look?

It’s a mean trick when the life is cut short. It’s as if I settled into a good book, a summertime sort of good book, that part of the summer between the weeds and the harvesting when the days are a little easier, when school is still out. You’re getting cozy in your summer chair, and the sun is warm, and the book is so good. You’re glad it’s a big, thick book because every page is wonderful in an unexpected way. And suddenly, just partway into it, you turn a page and it’s blank. And then next page, and it’s blank too. And the next and the next. You grab the rest of the pages by the end and shuffle through them quickly, like through a deck of cards, and you see they’re all empty. The rest of the book is a blank. It was so good, but it was only a short story.

Sometimes I feel like I’m wandering in my house like a ghost. I look back and think of all the times I was with Ben and yet not really there. Not all the way awake. And now I wonder that I’m not awake now because I’m trying to go back and retrieve all the memory that’s almost lost. I don’t seem to know how to live my life because the map I had to the path made me think it was different. This is not the path I thought I was on. If I had known, maybe I’d have chosen another one.


110 / 365 – Home


It all seemed different when this was the place to come to, the place we longed to visit in summer. When even as children we were eager to drive five hundred miles, across farmland and woodland as it unrolled into prairie. Different than when we came to be here, be from here.

Down in the draw where spring rains ran, in August the dry bed gave up arrowheads, glints of metal, sometimes a cracked bone. We knew these things, but not their names. Then it was Indians and settlers. We didn’t know Dakota, Ojibwe, Mandan, Cree. Although nobody knows who had walked here then, who left those things in the dirt.

Sometimes we helped hoe in my grandmothers garden, around the beans, or on the hills where the shoots from the melons and the squashed slowly snaked out their long fingers. We looked at the dirt more, saw the ladybugs on leaves. Beetles and crawling things whose names we didn’t know, who seemed more frightening when not known. There were big worms in the rich black soil and we gently worked them loose and tried to drop them down the backs of the girls’ shirts.

My sister always wanted to organize. Games. Hide and seek. We slunk down low along the sides of the house, in the garden. The voices of the adults, aunts and uncles, words wafting disembodied from the screened-in porch. Talk about mysterious adult things. The voices rising and falling, occasionally sharp. Some of us whispered on the far side of the house. “Who is arguing? Is someone mad?” Thinking we should stay out of sight.

Flowers grew beneath the kitchen window. Sometimes we sat under it, hearing the clinking of dishes coming from the cupboard. The scrape of a spatula on a skillet. Thick smells, dinner. A roast perhaps. We ducked down there, waiting to be called in. Sometimes my grandmother rang an old dinner bell that you could hear out across the fields. We went inside to wash, inspecting each others’ arms for ticks, our clothes for signs of dirt.

The tire swing hung from a low limb of a cottonwood. The youngest kids wanted to swing again and again, forever and ever. When the game got too long my older cousins flung the tire as hard as they could, in wide arcs, tire and kids sailing up in a blur into the branches, falling hard on the late summer ground. Frightened calls and then crying, Christine running up to the screened-in porch to tell the parents, but my aunts already coming at the sound of their cries.

Later, when the house was ours, I sat in that swing. Usually still, staring out at the quiet prairie. Staring but not seeing, my mind away in other worries, fears, sadness. Before Laura, about Laura.

The old windmill still stood, with only three twisted blades. Sometimes catching a gust, slowly turning, the rusty bearings groaning. My grandfather said once, “I should take that down. Some day a bad gust will catch then and it won’t be able to spin and that’ll be the end of it.” A storm blew it over when I was away at college. The yard seems empty now. Somehow it always seemed more empty after it became my yard. My cousins still visited, we still ran around the lawns in the late summer. But it was never the same.


109 / 365 – Rumors


I suddenly remember the feeling, why we couldn’t wait to get the hell away from this town as soon as we finished high school. My sister is calling me from Fargo. “Why aren’t you home at night? What are you up to?” Crap, how the hell does she know? And if she knows, from a hundred and fifty miles away … This could turn out ugly.

Ben and I used to call her “princess” when we were young and she was in high school. She was always complaining about us to our mother. “They’re picking on me!” Or, “They won’t leave me alone when I’m in the bathroom.” She was always in the bathroom, seemed like.

Really, she’s mad because nobody’s coming down to look at her baby. We’ve seen her. I stopped and saw her on the way up here last summer. And then what did she do? She calls my mother. “Mom! Finn is coming home! What’s up?” We saw her at Thanksgiving, at Christmas. I stopped and saw her with Lars, on the way to New York. I guess that’s not enough. We have to come and bow down more often. What are we supposed to do? It’s not like the baby can even talk yet. Chris says she can sit up now. Wow! I bet that is exciting.

The one good thing about the baby is that now she doesn’t talk about Ben all the time. It used to be Ben, one thing after another. Nobody was talking about it. “Why don’t you talk about Ben? Don’t you miss him? Doesn’t it hurt when you think about him?” I told her she should move out to California. I’ve heard people out there like to talk about their feelings all day long.

She’s always been worried about everybody else. She’s like the herding dog for our family, keeping us together. It’s probably why we can’t manage even a decent conversation with her gone, seriously. I mean, you sit around at the house in the evening and there isn’t a sound. Except for the televisions on the family room, the kitchen, my parents’ bedroom. I don’t think I know anyone else in town has more than one television. We not only have three, half the time they’re all on at the same time.

If she knew how bad things are around the house now, I don’t think Chris would wonder why I’m not at home in the evening. Why I ended up making a friend. I wonder how she’s hearing stuff, so far away, though. Who would be spreading rumors to her? What rumors is she hearing?

108 / 365 – Forgotten


I’m worried about my mother. I’ve called a few times lately to see if she’d like to come down here, see her granddaughter. She always sounds drunk. She says, “I don’t know what we’re doing the next few weekends.” I say, “Well, do you have a calendar? Look at your calendar.” She says, “I don’t have it in front of me.” I’m thinking, “Well, can you get up off your ass and look at it?” I don’t say that, of course. It would hurt her feelings and I’d be hearing about it for years. And her feelings are hurt beyond repair for the rest of her life. I get it, I guess. I can’t imagine what I would do if anything happened to my daughter.

As usual, my brother is clueless. I asked him about this and he said, “I don’t know. I’ve been working a lot of night shifts at the Uptown. She’s always asleep by the time I get home.” Who is he kidding? What is he doing at night? It’s not like there’s anything to do in that town at night. That guy has had so many chances, so many doors opened for him. And he manages to stumble through every one of them, or slam them in his own face.

My mother’s definitely been worse lately. I’ll be talking about the baby and all of a sudden she’s talking about Ben. She came down here last summer, right after Ally was born. It was summer vacation, so she could stay awhile. She was with us three or four weeks — I don’t remember that time all that clearly, actually. It seemed like a good distraction for her. Since then, though, it’s like she’s stuck at home. Ever since Finn came home from Chicago. Maybe she’s worried about him. Over Christmas, over spring break, I keep saying, “Why don’t you come down here and stay with us again?” And she says, all distracted, “I can’t. There’s too much to do here.” Like what? She always sounds a little drunk when she says it.

Everyone seems lost in the past. I think that’s why Finn is back there. Why would you give up a good job, after you spent all that time working in school, to go back to that little town and cook burgers and scrambled eggs? And it’s a crime, because when I talk to him, he doesn’t seem to be thinking of his brother, just his dead friends. Maybe that’s why my mother has gotten so crazy lately about Ben. Because Finn seems to have forgotten him. But everybody’s caught up with the dead. Sometimes I feel like screaming at them, “Hey! I know people have died, people have always died. Meanwhile, life goes on, and there’s new life here. You have a new granddaughter, a new niece. How about caring about the family you still have? About life up ahead?” But it’s no use talking.