Night Ghosts Riding Down the Pilgrim Wind

by Serge Bielanko

“Then they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other's world entire.” 
Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Henry is a blur.

He shoots out of the doors behind a couple of other kids in his class and he's running like there's a beast at his heels. 

Pharrell's 'Happy' kicks out across the gym. There's just me and about eight or ten other parents and grandparents scattered in these vast bleachers as the music slaps off the cinder block walls and spins all up into the high lights.

I try and imagine what it's like for my boy in that moment.

It must be Pamplona.

Shuttled down darker corridors, walking single file/doubling up/tapping up against each other, young hearts pounding at the mystery of what lies ahead. The antiseptic waft of school halls, a whiff of cafeteria mac-n-cheese or meatloaf. A long drag of impatience when you're 5 and you know you're about to be given the green light to just do it, to be set free to bolt. That isn't a feeling all that common in elementary school.

It can't be.

No one would get behind it.


This is a fundraiser thing; Rams on the Run; raising money for the PTO. Collect pledges and every class runs around the gym for 15 minutes. Nothing fancy. Foolproof. We were supposed to go door-to-door, I guess, show up at dinner time and smile and ask for loot, me reminding him and his sister to say 'Thank you,' while people ducked back inside to get their pocketbooks or wallets, but it didn't work out. I fell behind with work and chaos and I let it slide.

I tucked a twenty in the envelope instead and sent it back with the names of family members as donors. 

No one cares. No one cares where the money comes from.

The history of a five-dollar bill is not something people give a shit about. It's in your hands, that's all that matters.

And then it ain't anymore and you'll never cross paths again. 


Henry runs hard, his hair flapping in his own breeze. He gives high fives to some dad standing down in the corner of the orange cone course every time he passes him. The high five dude. I wonder who he is. I won't ask him though, so I'll never know. 

I can't help myself in situations like this, man. My eyes get all fucked up. I feel my face twitching and I pinch my thigh through my pants. 

"Stop it, you fucking Emo idiot!," I tell myself.

Look at that grandfather over there, the one with the Korean War ball cap. He probably fought with a bayonet. He probably stuck his bayonet into dudes' faces on hellishly cold mornings along the frozen roads of another planet. He's probably a farm boy who had to hold his friend's guts in his hands as he tried to shove them back into a nineteen year old body.

He's looking at me, I know it.

He knows I'm on the verge of crying and for what? For what!? He knows I know he knows too, that's what so torturous here. He knows that I know that he knows that he's not tearing up watching his grandson or granddaughter run around a gym on a Tuesday afternoon even though he has eaten War with a pie fork and has all the reasons in the world to cry at freedom and love and blood hurling itself at him from his grandkid's smiling face down on the court, but here I am, Emo Dad, and he doesn't want to hear it. 

I think he wants to wrestle me.

There's heat coming off of his soldier skull, lasers beaming into the side of my fat face.



I bite my lip and wave at Henry who, so far, has not looked at me even once. I know he knows I'm here. I'm impossible to miss. But he's doing his thing and there's a certain kind of pride that comes along with not waving at your dad every time you pass him by.

It's Old Testament. Shakespeare. Hemingway. Punk rock. It hurts. It's wonderful.


I can feel the old man trying to lift me up with his stare now and things are getting out of hand. The more he glares at me the more I feel this crying trying to get out of my head. I'm overcome by something moving me and I have no clue what it is. I've been a certain kind of mess lately. I've been down on myself and scared as hell, trying to feel my legs under all this rubble of debt I'm trapped in. 


A thing I should note:

I've been reading The Road, Cormac McCarthy's tale of the deepest love between a dad and his son wandering around post-apocalyptic Tennessee. 


The old veteran is growling something at me as I try and see him out of the corner of my eye but I can't because I'm also trying to watch Henry and catch his eye at least once. What does this guy want with me? Why is he messing with me of all people? Because I'm crying a little bit? Doesn't he get it at all?

Maybe I'm a sensitive dude.

Maybe I'm blown away at how big my boy is getting.

Maybe I'm fighting tears of pride, you ever think of that you cold-blooded bayonet-thrusting grenade-chucking ancient marauder?!?!

Fuck you, I mumble under my breath. I'm still too scared to look at him though. I wish his wife would tell him to knock it off.

What's he saying anyway? I can barely make it out?

I open my ear.

"Stop crying, little baby. Be a man for once instead of a goddamn baby bunny rabbit jacking himself off to the beat of his own baby bunny rabbit heart." That's what I think I hear him rumble at me, low and slow, I swear to god. 

He's trying to hurl my body out onto the gym floor with his eyes. I know that now. I can feel myself moving, raising up a little bit and then falling back down on my ass. His powers aren't up to snuff.

But he's trying.

And that's enough to rattle me for the rest of my life.


This past week, Violet on one side of me in her purple kitten pjs, Henry on the other in his Dino Snore ones, falling asleep/thumping hearts I helped make/inches from mine/I have no answers/I need fucking answers/Korean War bayonets of action/forward motion/making shit happen/but I've been so scared and quiet and agitated until my guts double up on themselves and I'm not even a human being anymore except a little bit at night, lying here for an hour or so/watching them fall to sleep beside me. 

I read The Road as my son drifts off, his head on my legs heavy like a stone. 

I watch the words float by me and it's all breath-taking and moving and horrifying at once. Like me. Like my life. The dad in the book watches his son sleep in the very real cold dark woods while I lay here watching my son fall asleep in the very real cold dark woods of my blues.

It's entirely different, but it's exactly the same.

McCarthy knew that, I figure. He still knows it. He can't unknow it either and he tells me that in his soft southern drawl.

I run my fingers across Henry's head, feel his warm scalp, a scalp I would die to let live. I am so much more than I let myself believe.

We all are. 

Someone is trying to throw me across a gymnasium with telepathy. 


'Hit the Road Jack' starts playing. The Ray Charles version. I connect the dots. The session is over and Henry's teacher holds her hands up in the air and flaps them around and the kids stop running and line up behind her out there in the middle of the cones. 

Henry looks at me finally and he's panting from running his tiny ass off. But he smiles at me too. 

I wave at him from the bleachers while his class moves as a snake. They exit the gym. "Anddontchacomebacknomorenomorenomorenomore!" He waves the last wave, my son does.

Then he's gone.

They're all gone.

Back into their meatloaf halls. 


Fuck it.

I look at the guy.

He ain't looking at me. 

He's old. He's smiling, waving at his granddaughter. She's waving back and I watch them connect. No words. Smiles. Gestures.

His hat isn't Korean War Vet either. 

It's woodland camo with an eight-point buck leaping across the front of it. 

He and his wife stand up and move down the bleachers slow, holding onto one another for balance. 

I get up so I can beat them to the door/so I can be first/so I can hold it open for them/and I do/and they thank me/ two casual smiles/three if you include mine/the three of us moving together from the artificial gym out into the bright freezing sunshine of the world. 

I light a smoke on the school grounds because fuck it.

I might have misread the entire situation.

The wind bayonets my face as it dawns on me that I might have misread everything up until now. 


Tomorrow is Thanksgiving and what do you want me to say? You want me to tell you to be thankful for what you've got? You want me to tell you that it all goes by so quick so, listen man, try and dig through the muck and see yourself clearly for a second or two every now and then, okay? 

I can't do that. That's not my job. I can't remind you to remind yourself of certain enlightening higher-consciousness shit, dude. 

I'm dying as I write this. So are you. You're dying too. We all are. 



Okay, whatever. It's Thanksgiving. 

Remind yourself. 

There, I said it.


I built a Fat Lego castle with Henry last night. It was just me and him, one of those rare nights when we're together alone. Me and him/him and me. I put on the Sinatra Christmas record on the YouTube and made him this chicken that he likes for dinner and the whole house smelled like mashed potatoes and gravy and chicken and the pumpkin pie candle I got at Walmart as we built this castle from the ground up, the whole thing teetering on the edge of collapse but never collapsing out of mercy. Or respect. For me. For him. For our night together, I guess.

Later I let him play computer games on my laptop up on the bed. I went downstairs to eat my salad and watch a little bit of The Crown on Netflix and the whole time I'm down there I keep getting blindsided by the money thing and my stomach rolls around and I ended up putting the salad in some Tupperware and fridging it for tomorrow. 

Upstairs I peek into the room at my boy and he's  all animated and talking to himself as he plays a game. Animal Jam. That's the game. I don't know what happens in it. There's no cursing from what I can tell, or bad killing or horrible shit, so I let him play it. I'm in the dark hall and I watch him for a minute or two and I swear to god I feel it all welling up inside me again.

I don't get it. But there you go. I wanna cry looking in on the kid who has no idea I'm looking in on him. 

I hear a noise behind me and I spin around and it's the old man from the gym, from the school earlier. He doesn't say a word, he just comes at me fast down the hall and before I can holler or hit him upside his old man head with my bottle of seltzer water he shoves me through the door and I forget about the tears and my heart is racing. I'm Pamplona bull before the run.  

Henry hears me/senses me, says, "Hi Dad!" without peeling his eyes from his game.

"Time for bed, dude," I tell him. 

"Awwwww! Just five more minutes! Please?! I need to finish this!"

I don't answer him as I plop my bottle down on my nightstand and throw some more blankets on the bed. Sometimes no answer is the answer. He plays on.

So I just stand there above him, like an angel, like a cloud.

Like the moon in the dark cold sky. 


“The frailty of everything revealed at last. Old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night. The last instance of a thing takes the class with it. Turns out the light and is gone. Look around you. Ever is a long time. But the boy knew what he knew. That ever is no time at all.”

― Cormac McCarthy, The Road


I see The Road sitting there on the nightstand waiting for me to pick it back up. I see the box fan by the bed. I see the beat up comforter from the old married days. I see my phone charger waiting for my phone. I see the big rainbow trout pillow flopped along my son's ribs. I see my middle boy making his way down through some easygoing computer jungle, happy music bopping along. 

I see his back rise slightly with the air in his lungs. 

I see my old Vans kicking off my feet.

I see the empty crib over by the wall where Charlie still sleeps when he's here.

I see Violet's owl plushy on the floor by the wall.

I see the old man from the gym peering at me from the crack in the door.

I see the barn wood headboard I made once upon a time.

I see the bills downstairs haunting me through the ceiling.

I see the shadow of a man cast upon my wall.

I see everything.

I see all of it.

I hear the wind blasting at the panes outside.

And I smile my tired smile as the long day winds on down. 

Strollin' Struttin' Out the Ass-End of a Freakout

by Serge Bielanko

I smoke a cigarette in the parking lot behind the therapy joint.

I'm sliding-scale fucked up.

I smile as I think up that line, blow a beam of smoke up at the thunderstorm hanging tight to the sky. 

I look around and wonder which car might be my therapists' car. I've never met her. I don't know who she is or what she drives. I don't know anything about her at all.

Jetta, I figure. Maybe a newer Pilot, came with the satellite radio. Heated seats. Heated fucking seats. Whatever. She has no idea. She's gonna ask me the same stuff they always ask you at the start, the things I guess they have to ask you. How do you start it all out, you know? How do you get to know a person who desperately needs you to get to know them as quickly as possible.

"Do you ever have thoughts of hurting yourself or others?"

I stand out there in all that college town humidity and I drag so much smoke down into my lungs that a year falls away from my life just like that. I get cancer right then and there. One drag/boom/done deal/I can feel it kicking in. I exhale and this time I let the smoke come out of my face all astronaut puke. It falls out of my nose and my mouth and rises up slow, gravity free. For a second there I think to myself that I should have taken a selfie. That would have been a cool catch, me and all that smoke in my eyes. 

I've got three minutes. I'm a little early for the first visit paperwork. That one question keeps popping off though. 

"Do you ever have thoughts of hurting yourself or others?"

Christ, what a zinger. What an M-80 lit up in my hands. No one answers that the right way. It's impossible. You say no, you're lying. You tell the truth, you're messing everything up before you even kick it off. There are levels of truth in this world, and most of them are way beyond standard human capability. We talk mostly jive. We don't say anything to each other for years on end, until the mere idea of saying something honest or real, of revealing ourself in a moment of raw truth is enough to make us crazy in the eyes of someone else forever.

"Yeah, I do," I should tell her. "Sometimes I crawl up into the warmest blankets of a shotgun blast to my skull. I know that sounds a little wonky and all, but c'mon. You know how it is! You hear the damage. You listen to the honest lies for a living. People talking, blah blah blah, getting off on their own voices and the kick of release."

She'll just sit there, twirling a pen, straight face covering up the loudest OMG in the history of the world.

"This guy is fucking CRAY CRAY!" That's what she's screaming back behind her Master's smile. And I get it. My God, that's the whole point, isn't it? The money is exchanged/the deal is done. There will be no straight-up telling you you're nuts. It will be so much more subtle than that. There is a dance to be danced and it will never end. 

"Sometimes," I'll tell her/my eyes boring into her nose bridge, "Sometimes the most relaxing beautiful thought in the world to me is the embrace of the out. I think long and hard about the crossover point. A shotgun shell. My childhood memories. The little bass I caught. The baseball I used to keep in my glove to form a pocket. Looking down from my Huffy/looking down at the street flying by underneath my body/I remember everything/the swish and the whir/blind rider racing down the 9th Avenue hill/the brief cool of my sweat in reverse/the heart in my chest/my heart/my young awesome heart/pounding/free/pounding/free/no one would ever understand/forward/into the mystic/into the biscuit/me kissing this girl/me kissing that girl/the money I spent on the internet/the moment I saw her crown/my little baby being born/my promise to stop smoking on the day she arrived/me smoking a week after she arrived/I'm headed towards the curb in a flash of pale evening chrome/I have no friends/my body is so gross/I wanted so much more/how could you leave me/where is my father/why am I doing this/why have I waited so long/why now/why not/I remember the deer in the spotlight cornfield many years before you ever saw a deer's eyes like that, motherfucker/I was young and wonderful/I am older now/and wonderful in all the wrong ways/I raise my head and I slam my brakes/and I'm 11 again and I'm swerving the curb and the air is so clean and clear, so much oxygen slamming up into my brain as the buckshot moves at the speed of light and I scatter myself like autumn leaves across the interior of my dumbass CRV/everything at once/Jackson Pollack/stop calling this number/he can't pay off your credit card, dude/he took the easy way out/he took the hard way in/he is gone gone gone/so fuck you/stop calling/he is out riding his bike until the sun burns out/at least that's what he told us/so we gotta go with that, I guess."

Then I'll take a big old autumn morning out on the deck fuck you sip of my Starbucks and smile at her gently. 

Your ball.

I might even light up a smoke right there in the office.

Because, like, honesty- real honest to God honesty- it cancels out all the other rules. No smoking means no smoking until you're really speaking the truth. At which point, let's be honest, it means:



I don't trust my own heart.

Do you trust yours? 

I can't hear your answer because I'm not listening. But if I could I know what you would say. You would smirk at the question. 

Or you would change the subject. 

Or you would tell me you do. Or you don't.

And none of it would make any sense to me. 


At Macy's I buy a couple shirts for the fall. They're cheap enough and my old shit has holes, stretched out necks. I need new duds. I take that plunge.

The girl at the counter is young, 20's, and right away we're flirting. This comes as a surprise, but you have to roll with this stuff when it comes your way. You can live for years sucking on the tit of a moment in time. I recognize that as soon as she starts asking me stuff. We talk about Philly. We laugh and we smile. 

I decline the offer to open up a Macy's credit card account which would give me 20% off my purchase today. She gives me the discount anyway. She could get fired, I figure. She's a good person. I imagine spending my life with her. But we'd crash that plane in a matter of weeks and we both know it. 

This is all we've got. This right here, right now. Some shirts and all this super-charged electricity and my discount and her brown eyes that hold each look for that extra second or two. 

I walk out of there feeling sick about spending the dough. I can't escape that one, man. But I also have this feeling of invincibility for a few minutes. 

Crossing the parking lot, I am many miles away from anything sad or mean. 

I light a smoke and smoke it by my open car door. I stare up at the green summer mountains and I understand that I am going to be fine. 

You'll be fine, FuckFace.

You're so alive it's scary. 

Now what?


The four of us are out in the sunshine of the yard. Charlie wraps his two-year-old paws around his broken green watering can and he dumps the water I gave him to dump on the flowers all over his grubby sneaks. He doesn't give a damn. He's fluid/I meant to do that/he misses no beats/and he looks up at me and smiles.

"More water! More water, Dad!"

He thrusts his can my way and I slam some more water down in there from my Hawaiian Punch jug. Charlie wastes no time. He has no regard for plants or flowers. He tips the water all over his kicks and is back asking for more. 

I light a smoke and sit down on my block of wood. Henry and Violet are doing the swings, using their feet to launch them, using their feet to drag them down. We are in a pool of light right now. It's a little after 5 and I'm killing time because I'm kind of tired and it's too early for dinner. 

Mowers buzz in the distance. There are vultures floating out past the woods behind the crick. I'll probably microwave some potpies. Pretty soon, I think to myself, I'm gonna be done with all this microwave bullshit. I want to feed them better stuff. I need to make them casseroles or bake a damn chicken in the oven or something. The tired will go away, I tell myself. But it could be more lies, me saying that.

I don't know if the tired ever goes away. Once it starts, I have no idea if it ever stops. People probably tell themselves what they need to tell themselves just to survive. Who knows. Who cares.

The sun is shining down. 

The sun is making us all look so perfect out here in the yard. I don't know what I'd do without them. 

The sun is always lighting up their faces, you know? They've got smears of ice cream down their cheeks. They've got dust from the car doors war-painted down their noses. In the crooks of their lips: Cheez-It crumbs: tiny boats/hidden coves. 

I take a drag. Holy shit. My smoke forms a word as I blow it out my nose.



Okay, two words. 


I don't say any of that crazy crap I was talking about before to the therapist. I don't need to. It's gone by the time I hit the AC of the lobby and start filling out my paperwork. Everything is clean and cool in here and I roll with it. I'm here because of love. I'm here to be better for them, for the kids. And for me. So I can step outside my self a little bit, maybe take the edge off of some lingering blues.

She's great. I'm great. I'm sliding scale great, anyways. But whatever. I'll take it. I'm happy to swing low. I'm happy to swing at all.

We laugh.

We have to. It's me in here, you know? 

There's a lot to laugh at. 


The kids are gone, over at their mom's. 

I sit on my block of wood after I water the flowers by myself. I kick it solo. I light a smoke, lean back against the wall, and in the darkness of my squeeze-shut eyes I can smell the dinners rolling out of all the houses I blow by. I never touch the pedals, remember. I don't have to. The hill is all you need.

The rush and the buzz. 

I smell pork chops. Corn nibs. I smell salisbury steak. I smell pizza from Tony and Joe's. I smell big plastic cups of Pepsi/I hear them fizzing in their final moments/the ice cubes cracking and popping/the TV set to the news.

I slam through the shimmering walls of long ago meals and I can feel my handlebars wobbling at the edge of safe. Even an old spark pug or some fat stone, even some rough and tumble dog piss stain in the street would probably hurl me to my death.

But I don't care. 

I am speeding towards the park at the bottom of 9th Avenue. And I have been here before. And I will be here again. Even if that's not really true at all. 

Look at me go!

Look at me! 

Look at me taking that hill!

Through spaghetti steam, I fly with the quickness!

Through burnt lasagne smoke, I'm blind but I smile!

Down through cheeseburger grease/through fried chicken heat/through ten thousand miles of scalloped potatoes/I whizz past the doors of strangers/some long dead/some still out there/hurling myself at the curb that could kill me/just for one last chance to swerve it one last time at the very last second possible!

And I do. 

I kill it.

I swoop back in a slow circle, the cheap Huffy in flames under my ass as I open my eyes and look out at the park, look back up at the hill, look down at my Nikes resting on the pedals, look at the birds in the sky, look at my brother on his bike behind me, look at the years to come/the mad and beautiful years that will try and wreck me as I try and wreck myself, and once again, in my slow, loose arc, I am a kid on his dirt bike, and I am heading for home with a satisfied mind.

Whatever that means. 

Whatever that means. 

Whatever that means, through the steam of green beans. 

Naked and Afraid

by Serge Bielanko

This is a chapter from a book I started writing about two years ago. I haven't finished it. I will someday. Or I'll die trying. Either way works for me. 

In the Valley of the Deerfoot Lamp.

That's the title.

It's a memoir, non-fiction thing, a book about this dude trying to figure his life out during the hardest, strangest days he's ever known. The story unfolds across the very first months of my separation from my Monica, who was my wife at the time, and who was pregnant with our third kid. We were headed for divorce, but I couldn't bring myself to believe or understand that at the time. 

I moved in with my mom and my stepdad for like six months right after New Year's. I was lost in all the ways you could possibly imagine. 

They didn't flinch though. They weren't leery of letting me and all my drama come around.. The two of them took me in and showed me so much love that I still don't even know what the fuck happened there.

In their guest bedroom, by the light of this musty lamp from the 60's made out of three real whitetail deer legs, I'd lie there awake at night staring at my two older kids. My older two crashed out across my legs; brand new Charlie, alway ten always minutes from waking up crying in a Pack-n-Play six feet away . 

The confusion and the overriding hopelessness was too much. I thought about killing myself every ten or fifteen minutes until it was internally embarrassing. I mean, killing yourself is one thing. But killing yourself over and over again up in your head is an entirely different kind of sad.

Looking back now, I know it was my mom who saved me. Sometimes she did it with long blasts of hot-winded hard luck wisdom, sometimes with a single word that grabbed my hand as I was going over the falls. I'm so lucky to have her. I always have been. I always will be. 

My kids are really lucky too. Their mom loves them so much. I can smel her hugs/kisses all up in their hair when they first roll into my joint from hers. That's a sign, I figure. All is right with what matters most. Or something like that. 

Anyhow. Happy Mother's Day to my mom. I love you so much, Mama. Thanks for always being there and believing in my sorry ass. And Happy Mother's Day to all you moms out there. And your moms too. 

There are no words, but whatever.

That's never stopped me from trying before. 


Naked and Afraid


In the evening, we sit in front of the TV.

It’s George to my left down the couch, a bowl of Butter Pecan on his lap, my mom to my right in the recliner that used to be George’s spot, but ever since her shoulder surgery she claimed it for her own. He let her have it, I figure; George knows how to treat a lady.

What we watch isn’t always a big deal since my mom can’t stop talking no matter what’s on. You could be watching that whole epic scene towards the end of The Godfather, when all those mob guys are being assassinated to the haunting sounds of that opera singer and my mom would just start saying stuff. 

“Oh my God, they’re killing all them guys?!”

“Ugh! I could never shoot someone with a machine gun, George!”

“Cannolis! Oh my God, I love cannolis! We used to buy them at the Italian Bakery on Saturday afternoons when I was a little girl. My Uncle Hap would take me down there in his big Plymouth and we’d get cannolis and eat them outside the bakery sitting on the front bumper.”

She can’t help it and as the years have rolled by, I’ve come to appreciate her random blabbering as a thing of beauty. It’s almost impressive, her ability to talk all over key moments of culture and art and breaking news and other people trying to talk. She can pummel you into dust with the herd of wild horses that rumble out of her mouth every time she has a thought, which is all the time.

Marlon Brando could be out there stumbling around in his tomato garden and my mom would explode with one-sided conversation, lightning bolts unleashed and flashing across her mind.

“Serge, whatever happened to that Italian guy that used to play the bass with you in the band? What was his name? Johnny? He was a nice guy, always so polite and smiling!”

Marlon Brando is falling down. 

The Godfather is dying.

“Is he dying?! Or is he dehydrated? Oh my God, last summer I was outside on one of them really hot days hanging some sheets on the line and all of the sudden I got so dizzy and everything started spinning around and the sweat was pouring off of me like a waterfall…”

The Godfather is dead. 

He’s fucking dead. 

“…and I hollered, ‘Geoooorge!’, but he was up in the garage and he didn’t hear me and I thought I was going to collapse, but luckily I made it into the house alright and the whole time I was just praying, Dear God, don’t let me have a heart attack today because everybody’s coming up here for the Fourth of July and…

She has no idea that she’s even talking. I think my mom might actually be able to watch stuff real intently and talk at the same time. I know that seems like a stretch but I’m totally serious. It’s multi-tasking, I think. She might be the original multi-tasker. The credits are rolling up the screen on one of the best movies ever made, but it doesn’t matter to her.

“… I don’t want to be stuck in the hospital or be frickin’ dead when they all get up here! Christ, they’ll be having my funeral the day after the bar-b-que!”

She pauses, considering her own demise.

“Hey, maybeyouse can bar-b-que me!? That’d be cool, huh, Serge?!  You like to cook. I’d feed everybody, I bet. There’s enough of my fat ass to go around! Hahahaha!”

She can’t help it and so it’s not even annoying to me at all, really. If she were to try and go, say, ten or fifteen waking seconds without speaking or singing to herself or whatever, I think her mind would pop.

So we sit there, the three of us, never in silence. The sound of their voices pulls me in. This is their house and they’ve opened it up so wide for me to walk right in here, heartbroken and confused. So hearing them talking to each other, and to me, and to Pete, their 12-year-old yellow lab who catches popcorn on the fly and stares at you like a hawk the entire time you are either preparing food or eating food or walking by the fridge where there is food and he knows it and he knows that you know it, it’s comforting in ways that are both ancient and welcome.

Tonight we’re watching this reality show called Naked and Afraid. It’s one of our favorites. The gist is that they take two strangers, always a man and a woman, and they drop them off out in the middle of nowhere, in the jungle or the desert or some God-forsaken place like that, and they have to depend on their own survival skills to live out there for three weeks.

It’s a good show. I get a kick out of watching it with my mom and George because it’s basically three people who are about as comfortable and set-up as anybody in the world could be watching two other people fight for their lives in the worst places on Earth. 

George eats his second bowl of ice cream as my mom and me work on our second glasses of cheapo boxed Cabernet Sauvignon. The two people on the TV pull leeches off of their privates and get all excited when they find a couple of grub worms that they straight-up gobble down raw while they’re huddled under a leaky lean-to and being attacked by twenty million stinging gnats. 

“Jeez, I wouldn’t stay out in that rain like that,” my mom says. “I’d go find a cave to sleep in.”

George lets his spoon drop into his bowl.

“Oh yeah, well where you gonna find a cave if there are no caves, Marian?” he says to her. “They’re in the rain jungle. They’re might not be a cave for thousands of miles down there.”

My mom’s body is half-covered by her favorite blanket, her end of the day -recliner-sitting TV-watching wine-guzzling blanket. It’s a leopard skin pattern, which I think is kind of funny. It s something Keith Richards might sit down on the backstage floor on to smoke a thimble full of crazytown hash. It hangs off both sides of her, the tarp on the firewood, and it covers a lot. You can see her head and whatever shirt she’s wearing and her arms, but from the middle of her chest down, she’s a husky leopard. 

“I’d be afraid to eat them worms like that,” she comments as the people on the screen try and get a miniscule amount of protein in their starving bodies. 

“Why?” asks George, ice cream dribbling down his chin.

“What if they’re poisonous? These people don’t know anything about poison worms. Before I went there I’d have to really Google that.  I’d Google ‘poison worms and worms you can eat whatever forest or jungle they’re going to’ and then I’d memorize what the ones you can eat look like.”

She says this matter-of-factly, as if there was even the slightest chance that someday she might decide to take the plunge and find herself packing her suitcase for three weeks of Naked and Afraid adventure. 

What the hell. I see an opening and I go for it. I chime in. 

“I’m sure they probably do some serious Googling before they leave home, but still, the truth is when you’re out there in the middle of nowhere and you’re actually IN THAT PLACE and you’re super hungry, you probably don’t even remember what the hell the right worms or plants or anything even look like, you know?”

They both show me massive respect by pondering my thoughts in silence for a second or two and I feel a tinge of love for both of them. I’m their 42-year-old son/step-son who is going through a hard time and they want me to feel comfortable here and to understand that they will do whatever they need to do to make sure that I’m as okay as I can be through all of this. That’s the thing that wells up inside me while they consider my ideas about Googling poison worms. 

But the TV is the TV and the show is the show and the conversation is the conversation and that’s all separate from the rest of the world as we sit here in this warm American house downing big calories and judging other people’s survival skills.

“I’d print it out.” That’s what my mom says. “I’d print out the pictures of the good worms so I could tell.”

This isn’t a bad idea at all, but I don’t think it’ll work.

“I don’t think they’re allowed to take anything with them, though. That’s the whole point. They drop them off out there totally naked and they each only get one burlap sack and one tool of their choice to take with them, like these two took a sharp machete and a fire starter tool.”

My mom struggles a little to get her wine glass back onto the lamp table between me and her. There’s hardly any room on the thing because most of its surface is covered with the lamp anda short stack of old issues of Country Living magazine and some random mail and I’ve got my small juice glass of wine wedged in there a little wobbly, half on a piece of the white doily and half off it, so there’s not much room to land her glass up there at all. Plus, she is more horizontal in her chair than verticle so the very act of actually getting her wine glass from out of her hand and landing it in the small clearing she had cleared for it a little earlier requires a bit of sitting up and motivated movement. 

She grunts and twists and tries not to spill any and finally she gets the glass to the table and then flops back fast into position with a slight tug of the leopard skin, making sure that it’s not bunched up anywhere. 

“Well, I’d find a way to take them,” she says. 

“No you wouldn’t, Marian.” George tells her in his tired I’m-Going-Up-Pretty-Soon voice. 

My mom lashes back with fake fury. 

“Yes I would, George! Don’t tell me! I’d make copies of those pictures of the poison worms and the good worms and I’d stick ‘em right up my ass and keep them there when they dropped us off in the forest and no one would know it!”

She’s looking over at him now and as she does that she catches my eye and her face is flushed and alive and she smiles a little at me through her frustrated façade. George knows how to play this game though. He loves winding her up and so he just doesn’t even meet her glare. He lowers his spoon into what thin film of Butter Pecan soup is left in his bowl and he rubs it around down in there and then raises it back up, flipping it over halfway so that the bottom of the dripping spoon is now the top, and he sticks it into his mouth with the sly grin he gets when he’s got her going.

“No you wouldn’t, Marian,” he tells her. He taps my ribs with his elbow when he says that. “You wouldn’t survive ten minutes in one of these places.”

“Whatever, George!,” she hollers at him. “I’d freaking survive longer than you would, I know that! I’d drink the other person’s pee if I had to and I’d find a cave somewhere and kill a fucking bird or a snake with a stick and I’d survive!”

George is giggling and tapping my thigh like, ‘Watch this!”

“I doubt that, hon” he says. “You’d take three steps in your bare feet and you’d get a pricker in your foot and you’d have to come home.”

I am laughing now, caught up in this show which is even better than the real show. If this show were on TV right now, people would dig it, I think. We’d be famous, probably. 

My mom is all worked up and she ruffles her fleece leopard skin to help calm herself down and she sighs like an athlete, resigned to the fact that this guy who she loves so much and who loves her so much back, this man who treats her like a queen has been messing with her mind just because he really enjoys the back-and-forth of this daily pageant of faux bickering they pull off at least two or three times a day. My mom loves it too. I can see it all now, same as I always see it, as I take a chug of wine and spot the curls of the grin she’s trying to hide away as part of the game.

The dog is on the floor, uninterested in their raised voices. He’s totally comfortable with all of it and so am I. To any stranger who might have wandered upon us, the whole last few minutes might have seemed Crazy Town, but I know better.

There is this defused moment of calm in the air now. The three of us don’t say anything as things settle back into place, the show moving along, the wine glasses pretty empty, the melted ice cream all but gone.

I try and pick back up on what’s happening to the people in the rainforest, but I don’t really care. When this is over I’m going up, up to my room in somebody else’s home. I sit there on the couch and look at the clock on the wall and it’s almost nine and I think about my kids back at the house. I think about how they’re probably in their bunk beds now and wearing their pajamas which they only put on after Monica had to tell them to put them on for like five or six times.

I figure that Monica is probably in her room, her TV on, just like us. But she’s probably watching some other show and not the same one we’ve been watching. I try and picture her sitting there on her bed, her back against the barn wood headboard I made her a couple years ago, tapping away at her laptop, at her Facebook or whatever. 

I picture Charlie sleeping silently down in his little nest of pillows by his mom’s side and I imagine that Monica probably leans forward and hisses, “Lay down!” when one of the dogs hops up on the bed, so that they don’t wake up the kid. 

Naked and Afraid ends and there’s a sense of finality now. The show is done and the party is breaking up, that’s the feeling. George stands up and walks over to kiss my mom goodnight. I can’t remember the last time me and Monica kissed like that, or at all really. It makes me sad to have that pop into my mind, but it’s the way things are and so that’s it. I’d kiss her again if I could, but she probably wouldn’t want me to; I’m sure she wouldn’t. And it would be awkward as hell anyway. 

I guess there’s a really good chance we won’t kiss each other ever again, huh? That seems so weird to me, even if kissing each other wasn’t something we’d done much of for a long time. 

George says his good nights and now it’s just me and my mom. 

“Did you write today?” she asks me. 

I did, I tell her. I wrote a lot. 

I wrote tons. 

I feel so alive out there in the garage, just writing and writing and writing.

“That’s awesome, honey!” she says, and I know she’s really happy for me.

Then, after a few last minutes of chit-chat, I start to head up to bed myself, but before I make it up three steps she’s calling me back.

“Hey, come here, Serge,” she says and I stop and wander back over to her in her chair, the remote control in her hand and her legs all up under her leopard skin blanket.

“What?” I say.

She props herself forward as much as she can manage spreads her arms out, still holding the remote in her one hand, and she says,”Gimme a hug, honey. I love you so much and I want to just give you a hug.”

So we hug. She pulls me in hard and I can feel the rolls of her back bubbling out from under her bra strap and she smells a tiny bit like wine and thirteen hour old perfume.

“I love you sweetheart,” she tells me as we finally let go. “You’re a good man. I want you to know that.”

And with that, I smile at her and tell her goodnight and then I head slowly back up into my room and shut the door. Then, without even thinking about it, I take off my shirt and stare at my abs in the antique vanity mirror that cuts off my own fucking head.

This book is writing itself.