Tag Archives: reading

Searching for Sanity – a book excerpt

8 Jan

 

Chapter 1

Mondays were the worst. He would rise from bed, and after a brief period of noting his aching joints, his general malaise of having to shake off the morning lethargy to face the day, he realized it was another work week – a long endless parade of assignments he dreaded, and the overall feeling that something might go wrong, a foul-up of a story, a sudden pink slip.

But that was his life, at sixty-one, the wall he faced, until that door to retirement would creep open in a few years, that is, if he could afford it.

Steve Sloan didn’t ask for much. Thoughts of stardom, fame, riches he’d long assigned to that dusty bin of youth, when anything was possible, before reality creeped upon him, and life’s miseries had smothered him.

What he wanted, perhaps like every human being, was the feeling, that wonderful high, of late adolescence. To be eighteen again, when the world appeared as a carnival, when everything was there to taste and sample and partake, when anything really was possible.

He saw them come and go in the newsroom, where he sat at his cluttered desk, the twenty-somethings freshly sprung from colleges, eager, wide-eyed, hopeful of careers. He wanted to tell them, to shout at them, that it was all a myth, that careers, perhaps especially in journalism, were over-rated. But who was he, a miserable, frustrated old man, to issue such opinions? Let them dream, let them live, let them be crushed by reality. Was it not the best way to learn?

And yet, he too remained hopeful. Rays of sunshine penetrated his dark and depressed thoughts, and lit his soul. He could get fired up. Every day, the internet was filled with stories of outcasts and wanderers and even fools who shook off their demons and became rich entrepreneurs, reality TV stars, Tony Robbins-like cheerleaders, and even celebrated authors. He felt it silly to fall prey to such dreams. And yet …

For months the story obsessed and haunted him. Steve had come across another one of those stories of an otherwise obscure writer, a scribbler of short tales, who had suddenly crashed through the literary barriers, and emerged as a success.

Tom Waiter. Yes. That was his name, a heavy equipment operator, living out an otherwise anonymous life in some tiny town in North Dakota, for God sakes, when his book had become this literary sensation.

He was fifty-nine, nearly as old as Steve, when he’d caught his big break after years of scribbling out stories in longhand on his kitchen table. The story Steve pieced together from various sources he’d read on the internet was that Tom Waiter had tried unsuccessfully for many years to sell his stories to publishers.

Literary agents, those cruel gatekeepers to the publishing world, had informed him time and again that his stories, while perhaps good, were just not right for the reading public. Short stories didn’t sell, they said, especially tales of blue collar people and other unremarkable folks living out their lives on The Plains.

Waiter was a bachelor, who, until his recent success had never been farther east than Des Moines. As he told one interviewer, he had no mentors, and growing up as a farm boy, no real visions of being a writer. “There were no books in my home,” he stated. He hated farming and saw how farmers like his hardworking parents struggled and were forever at the whims of Mother Nature. He perceived his only hope out, and perhaps of gaining some degree of security in life, was to join the Air Force.

He had hopes of becoming an electrician, though he had only vague notions of such a job. It seemed to him a solid, perhaps viable means of launching a kind of career. But he scored too low on the military aptitude test to be considered for such training and was instead placed in the security police career field.

For four years, he lived out his life on Air Force installations, in Texas where he stood sentry next to B-52 Airplanes loaded with nuclear weapons, and later, reporting to work at a missile site in an underground bunker in his native state of North Dakota. Working security was lonely, boring, unchallenging work.

“I had a lot of time to think,” he told yet another interviewer. “Many times, I would just stand there in front of a plane in Texas while the wind was blowing off the flight line, or when I was down in that bunker, and just make up stories in my head.”

After his four-year military hitch was up, Tom Waiter returned to his parents’ farm.

“I was only home for two weeks when the tragedy happened,” he told an interviewer on a podcast.

It was the first recorded interview of Tom Waiter that Steve had come across. Tom Waiter’s voice was that of a plain, shy, soft-spoken man, of someone truly reared in a lonely, cold, unforgiving and altogether forgotten place such as North Dakota.

He went on to explain how his parents had been in the barn milking cows early one windy morning when the roof collapsed on the two of them, crushing them to death.

“Things kind of changed for me after that,” he said simply.

Tom Waiter went on to explain how he sold off the dairy cattle. As an only child, and few relatives living in the area and no one to take over the farming, he didn’t relish the thought of milking two-hundred cows every morning. “I hated farming. That bit of family misfortune, you might say, was my way out of agriculture.”

He found jobs on construction crews, doing just about any of the work that needed done. Eventually, he got familiar with driving bulldozers and other heavy equipment, but he grew tired of working for other people and started his own business, contracting his services out to companies. He built up a small fleet of bulldozers and dump trucks and half-loaders and added a few employees, working out of the family farm.

“I got restless,” he said.

The rest of the story Steve pieced together from different interviews Tom Waiter had granted to magazines, newspapers and other sources. A podcast, and it turned out, the last interview Tom Waiter gave anyone, filled in the rest of the story.

He was tired of the daily routine—of talking to customers, and heading out to worksites to move around dirt, and dealing with the hassles of bills and employees and maintaining the equipment. Many days, he wanted to quit. But what could he do? He had no training or any formal education beyond high school.

On his thirtieth birthday, he decided he was going to get drunk. It was a story he had told time and again to interviewers. He was not much of a drinker at all. He really didn’t like the taste of beer, and he’d only ever been drunk once in his life, when he’d downed too many Budweisers at a keg party next to the softball fields back at the Air Force Base in Texas. A couple of his fellow airmen got him back to his barracks and put him to bed fully clothed, where he fell into a drunken stupor and spent much of the following day throwing up into a latrine toilet down the hall.

He had vowed after that to never get drunk again. But now, years later, he felt that he deserved this night of revelry, this little misadventure, so contrary to his reserved nature and sober, uneventful life.

There was a roadhouse out on the highway, a place that drew a variety of locals—ranchers, farmers, young blue-collar workers. Basically, a shot and beer kind of place with a single television set at the far end of the bar where Tom Waiter took a seat and ordered a beer.

He had a plan: To drink slowly, and carefully. He figured, as a non-drinker, it would take just a few beers for him to get drunk anyway. He wouldn’t again make the mistake of slamming down beer after beer as he had foolishly done a decade ago back in Texas.

But after ordering a draft, he sat before it, staring at the yellowish, brown liquid in the mug. He recalled the day following his single drunken night, the churning of his stomach, his vomiting into the toilet. Beer, he thought, looked like urine.

He looked around him. It was early in the evening–happy hour–and the bar was mostly filled with drinkers well on their way to getting drunk. He touched the outside of the mug with a single index finger, noting the chill of the glass from the beer. He noted the foam from the beer and the tiny bubbles rising in the glass. Yes, he concluded, there was something perhaps to this idea of having a beer. Something altogether romantic.

He slowly lifted the glass to his lips and took a sip. Immediately, he was repulsed. He set the mug down on the bar and stared at the beer. Maybe he needed something to go with this foul drink, to perhaps neutralize the awful taste. Spotting a small bowl of peanuts nearby on the bar, he scooped up a handful of them and stared at his beer. He put a few of the peanuts into his mouth, chewed them up and swallowed before lifting the beer once again to his lips. This time, he took a good healthy gulp of beer. Once again, it tasted bitter, foul.

Bringing the mug down on the bar a bit too hard, some of the beer spilled from the rim of the glass. He looked furtively about him, wondering if anyone had spotted this fool who obviously couldn’t drink. He heard a man’s loud voice from the other side of the bar: “And I told that son-of-a-bitch I ain’t working for him no more.” And then laughter.

He sat staring at the beer, concluding that it was perhaps time to get the hell out of this barroom, where he clearly didn’t belong, when out of the corner of his eye, he saw someone slowly edge onto the barstool next to where he sat.

“Going through a divorce or just plain miserable?”

Tom Waiter turned.

An old man, well into his seventies, perhaps older, was turned toward him with a faint smile. He was dressed in a suit and tie, clearly out of place among the younger people in the bar in their blue jeans and plaid shirts and work boots.

“Nothing like that,” Tom Waiter said.

The man turned to the barmaid who had appeared before him. “Bring me a scotch and water,” he said.

“So,” he said, staring ahead. “Is this where everyone comes after their days of toil?”

Tom Waiter had already made up his mind that this old man was a man of means, someone important, but clearly nobody he knew, and likely not someone from around here. It wasn’t just the suit he wore, which seemed a bit big for him. He noted the cufflinks and the big ring on one of the fingers of his right hand. His thick mane of gray hair was neatly trimmed.

When his drink came, he brought the whiskey to his lips and took a small sip before bringing it down on the bar. He turned to Tom Waiter once again and studied him with a kind of calculating look that made him feel uncomfortable.

“What’s your business young man?” he said.

At first Tom Waiter wasn’t sure if the old man meant what he was doing here in this bar or if he meant his job. He decided on the latter.

“I have a small heavy equipment business.”

“Ah. And are you happy doing that?”

The old man was looking straight into Tom Waiter’s eyes. He was, Tom Waiter, concluded, someone who got right to the point.

Tom Waiter stared at his beer for a few moments. “I guess so,” he said.

The old man smiled. It was a disarming, knowing sort of grin.

“No. You’re not.”

“I’m not?” he said.

The old man shook his head. “Your response was vague, and it took you too long to answer.”

Tom Waiter wanted to take his beer and find another seat. He was not at all used to such direct dialogue. Clearly, this was a man who relished getting into other people’s heads. Perhaps he was a psychologist or one of those sociologists making a study of human nature.

The old man took another sip of his whiskey and turned once again to Tom Waiter.

“Okay. I’m not happy.”

“Now. That wasn’t so hard. Was it?”

“Look. Who are you?” Tom Waiter swiveled around on his bar stool and threw the old man a challenging look. Take that, he thought.

But the old man clearly was up to this challenge. “Most people don’t like to talk about their lives, at least with respect to their feelings and those tied to happiness.”

Tom Waiter said nothing. Hell. He wasn’t happy. He was clearly aware of that. The business did okay, at least well enough for him to pay the bills. It kept him busy.

“I’d say you’re what? About thirty-five. Thirty-six years old?” The old man sat now with his chin resting in a hand studying Tom Waiter.

“I’m thirty,” Tom Waiter said, feeling a bit miffed at the thought of someone thinking him older.

“Excuse me. You just look a bit older. Maybe it’s your face. I guess you’re outside a lot. These hot summers and cold winters in this part of the county. They can age a fella.” He continued studying Tom Waiter.

“I guess,” Tom Waiter said. “Listen, what do you want? Are you selling something? You’re asking a lot of questions.”

“A lot of questions? I suppose so, but I enjoy talking to people, finding out about them, learning about their lives.”

“Why?”

“Why? Why not?” he said in a slightly annoyed tone.

Good, Tom Waiter thought. Perhaps now he would go away, find some other bar patron to bother with his probing questions. But Tom Waiter clearly misjudged the man.

“Do you have a family young man?”

“No. My parents are both dead.”

“Oh. Well that’s a shame. But what I meant was, do you have your own family? Are you married?”

“No. Not married.”

The old man shook his head and looked out toward the dining room. He seemed to mull this little bit of information in his brain for a few moments. “You’re not married. You’re not happy in your chosen avocation.”

And now it occurred to Waiter that perhaps this guy was one of those—someone out to spread the gospel. Sure. They turned up now and then at the farm, usually earnest and pleasant young men or women, sometimes young Mormon men in pairs, out to find converts.

“Listen … if you’re trying to …”

But the old man raised a single hand. “No. I know what you’re thinking and I’m not peddling religion.”

“Then what?” Tom Waiter nearly shouted.

“I was a businessman too,” he said. “I made good money selling insurance. But I was never happy doing it.”

Tom Waiter stared at his beer.

“I had a number of offices in the Dakotas and Iowa and in Kansas. People say I’m a born salesman, and I can’t disagree with that. But like anything, selling insurance, which, let’s face it, is not exactly the sexiest kind of business, grew stale for me after a while.

“I got caught up in the whole treadmill of trying to make increasing amounts of money. I was demanding, even cruel at times with my employees. I didn’t like myself and I certainly wasn’t happy.” The old man paused to stare across the barroom. “I finally cashed out. I sold everything. With my investments, I easily had enough money for my wife, Margie, and I to live comfortably for the rest of our lives. But there was a problem. I was only fifty years old. What was I going to do with the rest of my life?”

Tom Waiter saw the twinkle in the old man’s eyes. He took a sip of his scotch and slowly put it down on the bar, as if warming up to the story’s conclusion.

“Do you know what I did young man?”

Tom Waiter shook his head and waited for him to continue.

“I was looking for answers, and what better way, I figured, than to go out on the road and seek them. I bought one of those big recreational vehicles and Margie and I set out in search of America. Well sir, it was wonderful, for a while. We saw all the great parts of the country we’d never had a chance to see in those years I was far too busy with my businesses.

“I remember we were heading north through Oregon on that road that runs along that beautiful coastline. It was a gorgeous summer day. The ocean was shimmering from the sun’s rays. I pulled the RV over at a roadside café where we had lunch. At one point, I looked out from the window overlooking the sea. Sea lions were perched on the rocks sticking out of the ocean. ‘Margie, I said. ‘Why is it people are so unhappy? In this wonderful, beautiful and bountiful country, where there is so much to see and do, why can’t most of us find that elusive thing called happiness?’ Margie didn’t have an answer.

“And so, I decided right then, that would be my mission. I went back to school and picked up a degree in sociology. I flew through those courses. I loved the assignments of going out and talking to people and find out things about their lives. For a few years, I taught courses at a community college. I took groups of students to inner cities and Native American reservations, to poor Appalachian communities. I found out that people really are the same everywhere, that we all have in us this burning desire to be happy. But often, our direction, our goal, is misplaced. We become like rats in a maze running around in desperate search for that elusive brass ring.”

The old man had become animated now, flailing his arms to make different points.

“I only taught for a few years. The academic life can be a drag, and I grew tired of the routine of classroom teaching. But that’s fine. I decided I could do what I really wanted to do without the structure of teaching. And that’s what I do many days. I come to places like this, where I find regular people, and I talk to them, just like I’ve been talking to you. I find out a little bit about them. Mostly, I want to know why they aren’t happy.”

Despite his initial resistance, Tom Waiter had warmed up to the old man. He liked his philosophy, his honesty. “But you must find some people who are happy? Don’t you?”

At this, the old man shook his head. “Not many, I’m afraid. Far too few.” He looked hard at Tom Waiter. “And what is it that would make you happy young man?”

He sat studying Tom Waiter, waiting for an answer. “I know,” he finally said, in a soft tone, leaning toward him and patting him lightly on his arm. “It’s not easy.” He took one last drink of his whiskey before slowly climbing out of his seat. He reached into his suit pocket and put a business card on the bar.

“You have time on your side son. Don’t waste it.”

With a wink, he turned and left Tom Waiter sitting at the bar with a lot to ponder.

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Colorado blues

29 Aug
depth of field photo of two pilsner glasses

Photo by Matan Segev on Pexels.com

 

Ritter and Reuther trudged up the hill, dog-tired, but elated to be finished. It had been a long hike, following three days of camping along the river, just south of Dock Gulch. The sunshine, the scenery, the negative ions from the rush of the stream made for a perfect few days. And Reuther had caught some fat trout too.
“Smokey’s is just down the road,” Reuther said, wiping his brow as they both stopped next to the Ponderosa Pine at the trailhead and looked down Route 18.
“God yes,” Ritter said. Already, he could envision the neon sign of SMOKEY’S blinking in tiny downtown Dock Gulch, beckoning him. Hell, he could taste the burger he planned to have after they hopped into Reuther’s rickety old jeep and arrived there, pulling up stools at the long bar as if they owned the freakin’ place, the rustic joint existing for their own pleasure. He was going to treat himself to a big fat burger with fries and wash it all down with a beer. A cold one. Shit, maybe two or three cold ones. He wondered if Candy was working, the feisty fetching blonde with the alluring Southern accent who always flirted with Reuther and him. Hell, maybe he’d even work up the courage to ask her out this time. She was one of those outdoorsy types, like everyone else around these parts. Hell, maybe he’d ask her to go shooting with him. Heck yeah. He had two Glocks stashed away in his car he never used, but he had them ready per chance some gal wanted to go shooting. Or he could take her fishing. He had one rod in the car too, even though he didn’t fish. A guy had to be ready for anything when it came to women. What the hell, he could always fake it if she wanted to cast flies to trout.
All at once, there was the sound of bicycle tires skidding to a stop. What the…? Ritter noticed the legs first, long shapely and tanned legs of a young woman. A fine lass alright, astride a sporty looking mountain bike, a blonde ponytail falling out of a helmet. She was smiling. “Jon?” she said in a puzzled tone, a cock of her lovely head.
“Millicent?” Ritter couldn’t freakin’ believe it. How long had it been? Ten years? His mind reeled with memories of a shy girl, a freshman in Professor Moran’s Journalism 101 class. God, he’d been smitten with her. Of course, he had. Problem was, everyone else was too. He’d been an overage grad student then, finding excuses to steal away from his crappy job as an errand boy at the dean’s office to talk to her as class ended. Heck. There had even been a connection between them, he thought. She was so pure, so innocent, so … gorgeous. Freakin’ Moran, that bounder, had made a play for her. And to his joy, had struck out. Rumor had it that there had come a bit of sexual harassment afterwards. That unethical play chased her away from the university … for good. And now, here she was.
“What are you doing out here in the wilds of Colorado?”
“I was going to ask you the same thing.” She pulled off her helmet and shook her head, the ponytail swishing, like the tail of a horse. God. She looked good, Ritter thought.
“Er … ah. Where are my manners? Reuther, this is Millicent. Millicent … Reuther.”
“Pleasure,” Reuther said, with a grand bow.
Millicent giggled. God. That sweet infectious laugh Ritter remembered so well.
“I say … I say … Millicent.”
Reuther and Ritter turned left to see a puffy man in biking attire, hunched over the handlebars of a mountain bike, pedaling toward them with significant effort some thirty yards down the road. Ritter shielded his eyes from the sun. Egads. Ritter thought he resembled a turnip, his flesh bulging against the tight biking outfit that he had no business wearing. The bicycle drew nearer. Shit. Was that Ryerson? Ryerson Marks? No, it couldn’t be. One-time dean of the school of journalism and seducer of young co-eds.
“You two … are together?” Ritter said.
Millicent shyly bowed her head. God. She was still an innocent.
Huffing and puffing, Ryerson dismounted uneasily from the bicycle, clearly a novice to pedaling such contraptions, stumbling before righting himself. Still out of breath and clearly out of his element, he managed to walk the bike up to where they stood. “Jesus,” he said. “Mountain biking Millicent? Are you bloody kidding me?” He was sweating profusely, his face beat red.
“I tried to go slowly so you could keep up honey,” Millicent said sweetly.
No. No. It was wrong, all wrong Ritter thought.

 

“I know what you’re going to say,” Ritter said as they sat on barstools at SMOKEY’s a bit later.

Reuther shook his head. “Jon …”

“No,” Ritter said, raising his hand from his beer after slamming it onto the bar. “Don’t say it.”

They sat staring at the row of liquor bottles lining the shelves behind the bar. Reuther wished to hell they hadn’t run into that dazzling young girl … and Ryerson … the fuck. Another middle-aged, out-of-shape successful guy but admittedly, a charmer, who always got the girl. Of course, this one particularly stung Ritter who clearly still had a thing for this Millicent gal – a real looker.

“What the hell,” Reuther said. “We got beers in front of us and burgers and fries coming. “

“Yeah. Right,” Ritter said bitterly. “Living like kings we are.”

“Jon. Geez.”

It occurred to Reuther that the bar was strangely empty on this late afternoon in August.  And it was a Friday too. Normally, fishermen from up Denver and Colorado Springs way and God knows where else had long ago spilled out of offices to flee to the river for the weekend. Why wasn’t Smokey’s rockin’ and rollin’? Even the jukebox, normally filtering some mournful country and western tune or bluesy song was still. It appeared Luke, the bearded thirty-something bartender who also did gigs as a fishing guide out of the fly shop next door, was running the place solo today.

“You guys need another beer or anything else?” Luke said.

“A freakin’ gun,” Ritter said. “Put me out of my misery.”

Luke brought his head down close to Reuther. “A girl again?” he whispered.

Reuther shook his head and waved Luke away.

“Yeah. A girl again Luke,” Ritter snapped. “Now mind your own damn business and bring us those burgers.”

Luke straightened. “Easy guy. I know how painful these things can be.”

“Er … sorry,” Ritter said. He stared at his beer. Shit. Maybe he should just get drunk. Yeah. That was the ticket. But no, last time he did that he made a complete ass of himself right here in SMOKEY’S. Belting out several renditions of Take Me Out to the Ball Game as he danced jigs around the barroom.

“Where is everybody?” Reuther said.

“You didn’t hear?” Luke said. “Place is closing.”

“What?” Ritter said.

“Damn you say?” Reuther said.

“That’s right. This is the last day. The finale. Didn’t you see the sign out front?”

Reuther and Ritter looked at each other. “No,” they said in unison.

“Someone buying the place?” Reuther said.

Luke turned up his palms. “Some retired college professor from back East, I heard.

“Shit no,” Ritter said.

“Yeah. In fact, the guy was just in here yesterday with his hot girlfriend poking around.”

“Freakin’ Ryerson,” Ritter shouted confirming his initial suspicions. “Can you believe it?”

“I do believe that’s the guy’s name,” Luke said.

“What are they going to do with the place?” Reuther said.

“Don’t know. Rumor has it they want to turn it into a brew pub. Take advantage of the weekend crowds that come here to fish and hunt and ski at that new place those rich dudes from Jackson Hole are building down the road.”

Luke stood on the other side of the bar staring past the two of them. “I’m moving back with my mother in Durango. Nothing here for me.”

“What about guiding?” Reuther said.

“They bought out the fly shop too,” Luke said, shaking his head. “I lose big time.”

“Jesus,” Reuther said.

“Your burgers should be about ready fellas.” Luke walked toward the kitchen.

“Candy around?” Ritter called out.

“She quit last week. Went back to her hometown in North Carolina.” Luke slowly turned and looked at Ritter. “Sorry fella. I know you always had a thing for her.”

“We both did,” Reuther said.

“Right,” Luke said. “Well … nothing stays the same.”

They both watched Luke disappear into the kitchen.

The books of Mike Reuther

23 May

Mike Reuther
Do you like fiction, humor, baseball, fishing? How about books on writing? Mike Reuther is a longtime newspaper journalist who has a special fondness for books and literature. Check out the link below and explore his world.

https://www.amazon.com/Mike-Reuther/e/B009M5GVUW

A couple of baseball books to start the season

31 Mar

Image

 

Can’t get enough baseball? When you get done watching your favorite team on Opening Day will you still be hungry for more baseball?.

There’s always plenty of books on the national pastime. Some of my favorites include “A False Spring” and “Dynasty.”

“A False Spring” is Pat Jordan’s mostly autobiographical book of his minor league days as a struggling pitcher in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Jordan was a flame-throwing right-hander who got a nice bonus from the Milwaukee Braves, but unfortunately was unable to fulfill his promise.

Jordan’s story isn’t a particularly happy one, but it’s interesting how he tries to make sense of how it all went wrong. And Jordan paints just marvelous descriptions of some of the backwater bush league towns where he spent lonely summers of his late adolescence learning about himself and struggling with his baseball life.  .

“Dynasty” was Peter Golenbock’s first baseball book, and it was a gem. It covers the great era of the New York Yankees from 1949 to 1964 when the Bronx Bombers were truly a dynasty. Golenbock traces each of the seasons and later catches up with the ballplayers, and not just the stars such as Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford, but the mostly forgotten players as well.

Anyway, those are just two books I would recommend among dozens of others you can read. Hey. It’s great to have spring here finally and another baseball season. Now let’s play ball.