Tag Archives: relationships

A new book from Mike Reuther

14 Apr

Searching for Sanity – Chapter excerpt

14 Jan


Happiness considered 


man standing on brown rock cliff in front of waterfalls photography

Photo by Oliver Sjöström on Pexels.com

Chapter 3

“You want to what?”

Sam Sneed lowered his head and ran a single hand over his nearly bald head. His eyes narrowed, forming a frown on his face. He looked up from his desk in his small office at Steve.

“I want to write some stories about happiness,” Steve said. “A long series.”

“Happiness?” Sneed said.

He shook his head. Sneed was a small man, close to retirement age, who’d been editor of the Meckleysburg Times Tribune for more than twenty years. He’d worked his way up to the position after many years as a reporter. He oversaw a paper that reported on the usual happenings that many papers serving small cities captured—local government, crime, happenings in the community. And, of course, there was the sports section, a department, separate from the general news-gathering operation.

“I want to interview all sorts of people. What makes them tick. Why they do what they do with their jobs, their off time. Where they see themselves in the grand scheme of things.”

Sneed was now staring at Steve, like he was deranged.

“Steve. I mean … happiness?”

“It’s an important topic. Maybe the most important issue of our times.”

Sneed continued staring at Steve. He lurched back in his chair and looked through the big window of his office that afforded him a view of the newsroom.

“The newspaper needs to do something different once in a while,” Steve said.

“Oh, here we go with that again.”

“It’s true.”

Sneed came forward in his chair and shuffled some papers on his desk. “Seems to me like you got enough to do with other stuff.”

“I can handle it.”

Sneed raised his brows and blinked. He looked down at the floor. “What about those novels you write? Don’t you get into that stuff in your books?”

A good point, Steve thought. “Sometimes … sure.”

“Then why this?”

“I want to talk to actual people. I want to really explore this topic of happiness.”

And now Sneed smiled. “You know what would make me happy? Standing on the first hole at Green Valley with a driver on my first day of retirement.”

“So. That would really make you happy. Huh?”

“Throw in a cold beer waiting for me at the eighteenth hole and I’ll be ecstatic. At least for that day.”

“Interesting. You want to retire?”


“Why? Aren’t you fulfilled in your job?”

Again, Sneed leaned back in his chair. The question, Steve realized, seemed to amuse the editor. “You always were a little bit different Steve. You’ve done some good work over the years, although sometimes you seem to get bored, off track with things. Like that time you led the reporters revolt and you all walked off the job for a day.”

“We hadn’t had a raise in six years,” Steve said, still seething from the memory.

“Okay,” Sneed said, raising a hand. “Let’s not dredge up old bones. Go ahead if you want and do your series on … what is it? Happiness? Now leave me alone. I got work to do.”



“Really. He’s going to let you do a series on happiness.”

Frusty looked intently at Steve as they sat across from each other at the small table of the Chinese Wall restaurant. He took a bite of his egg roll and shook his head. “Who will you talk to?”

Steve gestured with a hand toward the window behind him. “Hell. Out there. The people are everywhere. Living their miserable lives. Sitting in their homes wasting it away in front of the boob tube holding their TV flickers. Making that death march to work every day.”

Frusty stopped from biting into his egg roll. His eyes widened. “Hey. That sounds like my life.”

“No offense,” Steve said. “But … well.”

“Nobody is going to open up to you about their inner self.”

“Oh? Let’s try it out. Are you happy Coy?”



“Are you?”


“Well there you go,” Frusty said, crossing his arms and throwing Steve a smug look.

Steve poked at the noodles floating in his bowl of Won Ton soup. He looked off into the kitchen rich with the aroma of Chinese food cooking where he could see people furiously busying themselves with preparing meals.

“You think these people are happy?”


“This Chinese family working their tails of every day. The same routine over and over.”

Frusty’s eyes squinted toward the kitchen. “I think they may be too damn busy to give it much thought.”

“Really?” Steve said. “So, you’re point is that keeping busy is the solution to happiness?”

“Well, kinda. Yeah. I mean … work keeps your mind occupied, free of all the other crap going on.”

“And that’s why you work so damn hard?”

“I think we already established that I’m not happy.”

“But you’re content with your job and your big screen TV and NFL football package and your nice house and a wife.”

“You were going good there till you mentioned the wife,” Frusty said with a grin.

“So, I guess you are kind of miserably happy. Coy Frusty, a victim of inertia, unwilling to change, settled in and counting down the days till retirement.”

“Something like that Steven. Something like that.” Frusty pushed his plate of rice away and looked at Steve. “And what about you?”

“I can’t say I’m happy either. I’ve never been crazy about having a job with a boss. Writing about stuff that doesn’t get me fired up.”

“But you have a job.”

“I have a job. You’re right. And it does pay the bills.”

“Right. I guess that’s my point. I mean …. What can you really expect out of life? Hardly anyone gets the life they really want. That’s just reality.”

Frusty stared at Steve.

“What?” Steve said.

“The divorce. It was tough on you. Wasn’t it?”

Steve sighed. “At first. Yeah. Kind of a shock really. I mean … I think we were like a lot of couples. We kind of drifted apart after so many years of marriage.”

“Wasn’t she always complaining about money? How you didn’t make enough of it at the paper?”

“Yeah. Sure. That was part of it. And she had always wanted kids.” He thought of the miscarriages. After all these years, it still hurt. “But then we got into our forties and that ship had kind of sailed.”

“Yeah. Marriages aren’t perfect. That’s for sure. But I think there is more good than bad with them.”

“For some people maybe.”

They exchanged smiles.

“Was it Freud who said if you’re happy in the bedroom and happy in your work, you’re a happy man?”

Frusty laughed. “Well. He just might have been on to something.”

They walked out of the restaurant. It had been a wet summer, one of the wettest in memory, and the fall foliage that Steve always looked forward to had arrived late this year. Off in the distance, the trees on the hills across the river that swept past the small city were aflame in bright fall colors on this brilliant warm autumn day.

“What a great day huh?”

“Makes you glad to be alive,” Steve said.

“So. Am I your pilot test case?” Frusty said as they walked the two blocks back to the newspaper.

“I didn’t think about it, but I guess you kind of are.”

“What the heck. Use anything I told you, but don’t include my name.”

“Well. You know how we both feel about anonymous sources in stories.”

“Oh hell Steve. Do what you want. In this age of social media and everyone bearing their souls to the world, what the hell does it matter?”

Another excerpt – Searching for Sanity

12 Jan

Chapter 2

“Look Steve. I don’t read books. I do enough reading sitting here every day going over my copy.”

“But it’s a great book. This Tom Waiter is a wonderful writer. You can really identify with these people he writes about.”

Steve watched Coy Frusty roll his eyes from his seat in front of the computer screen. It was mid-week of another late afternoon in the newsroom. Sitting before a couple of other computer terminals nearby were Sue Karinsky and Larry Moran.

Karinsky was an earnest young woman several years out of college, who dreamed of working for a big city newspaper, but couldn’t seem to break the ties of home. She was very close to her family. Moran was a kind of introvert, somber and serious, a quiet bookworm, who often engaged Steve in conversations about fiction.

“Who is that author?” Moran asked, peering around his computer screen at Steve.

“Tom Waiter. Check him out.”

“How do you spell his name?”

“Like waiter in a restaurant.”

Moran nodded and peered back into his computer screen.

“Has anyone read All the President’s Men?” Karinsky said.

“Yeah,” Steve said. “Long time ago.”

“I saw the movie,” Karinsky said. “Woodward and Bernstein. Pretty cool stuff. How they broke that story and stayed on in it like bulldogs.”

“Brought down Nixon,” Moran added.

“Really cool,” Karinsky said. “Do you remember that Steve?”

“Sure. I was born before the internet.”

“More like before automobiles,” Coy said. “Ha.”

“Look who’s talking Frusty. Those AARP magazines have been piling up on your desk for the past five years.”

“Ha. Good one Steve,” Moran said.

“Seriously,” Karinsky said. “You guys remember Watergate? That must really have been weird. Seeing the President get impeached and actually get tossed out of office.”

“Actually. Nixon resigned,” Frusty said.

“That’s right,” Steve said.

He leaned back in his swivel chair and looked at Karinsky then Moran. Jesus, he thought. The two copy editors were so young. Nineteen seventy-four, when Nixon flashed those peace signs before boarding the jet and flying off—his political career having crashed and burned for good. It was all so long ago.

“Do you think something like that can happen again?” Karinsky was peering around her computer screen once again.

“Ha. With the looney we got in the White House now, it’s possible,” Frusty said.

“Trump? Aw c’mon. He’s not so bad. Just a deranged narcissist.”

“Listen to Steve here,” Frusty said. “A liberal defending our president.”

“I’d love to be a reporter who breaks a story like that,” Karinsky said. She looked past Steve through the window behind him.

It was one of those bright, blustery November afternoons, a day to be outside where the wind could whisk you away someplace—far from this damn newsroom. Steve often paused from banging out stories to look out the window. From his desk he could take in part of the small city of Meckleyburg’s downtown, which of late, had undergone a kind of renaissance with restaurants and stores and artist galleries opening. The economy was booming right now, with no signs of slowing down. Unfortunately, the good times didn’t seem to help the newspaper’s revenues where Steve and his co-workers were stuck toiling away at full-time jobs, working odd hours and pulling down janitors’ wages.

“Not at this newspaper,” Frusty said. “You need to go somewhere else. Washington, New York, maybe even Philadelphia, where they do investigative reporting.”

“That’s my dream,” Karinsky said. “Maybe not those cities, but somewhere … a real newspaper.”

“And now you’re on the copy desk.” Moran said with a smile.

“I needed a break from reporting on school board meetings and fluff pieces that the local chamber of commerce hangs on its walls.”

“Ah well,” Steve said. “You’re young. You got your whole life ahead of you. As for me and Frusty here, we’re screwed. Too old to find other jobs …”

“And too old to give a shit,” Frusty added.

Frusty turned his attention back to his computer screen and resumed tapping away on his keyboard. Frusty was a grinder, the workaholic of the newsroom, constantly banging out stories seemingly for no other reason than he felt duty-bound to do it. Or maybe it was the boss, Sam Sneed, who wielded this kind of power over him. If Sneed needed someone to stay late and cover some meeting or make a few phone calls to get a story he felt was badly needed for the front page, Frusty was his man.

The few other reporters, Steve included, didn’t usually get hit up for the extra work. They were more eager to get home to babysit a kid or God knows what else. Steve had submitted to the extra work that came up too. That is, until the past few years, when he’d decided he’d had enough. He didn’t care about the overtime, basically a pittance anyway. Time was running out on his life, the gas tank was emptying, and he wanted to spend as little time as he had left not working.

“Oh. You guys aren’t that old,” Karinsky said.

“We’re old enough,” Steve said.

He turned to Frusty, who fought a smile, as he sat poised with his fingers for another attack at the keyboard.

“What?” Steve said, leaning across his desk toward his longtime newsroom mate.

“Not too old to still get it up now and then,” Frusty whispered, throwing the two of them into fits of near uncontrollable laughter.

“What?” Karinsky said. “What did he say?”

“Nothing,” Steve said. “Get back to work.”

Steve needed to get back to work too. There was that feature due on the soup kitchen’s closing. He had already done the legwork for that one, attending the last meal there with a couple of the nuns and the volunteers who ran the place and the poor, miserable folks who showed up for free meals there several days a week. Where were his notes for that story?

He also had phone calls to make. A guy no one had ever heard of was running for political office on the Green Party ticket. He wanted the same coverage for himself as the Republican and Democratic candidates. Fair enough. He had to have that story turned around by tomorrow too. Shit. There was always something. He asked himself again? Why had he ever gone into journalism? Hell, he knew the answer.

Steve picked up his iPhone from off his desk and tapped into the website. For the fourth time that day, the numbers were the same. No book sales. Seventeen books he had written over the past seven years and not a single sale since mid-October. Oh, so depressing.

He had started writing novels more than thirty years ago. This had come right after losing his first newspaper job. The reasons for his firing were vague. Something about a bad attitude, the boss had told him after summoning him into his office one bleak winter day.

He should have taken the dismissal as a sign. Maybe it was time to get out of the newspaper business. Why be a reporter when he didn’t enjoy being one? Sure, it was a job where one could make a small difference, challenging authority and making the powers-to-be squirm a little now and then. He’d never liked authority either. But, if truth be told, he was a bit diffident to ever be this hard-nosed, brash reporter, which in Steve’s mind, was the way the job should be done.

Instead, he’d played it safe his whole career (if a career is what you could call a low-paying, thankless gig), dutifully carried out his assignments and collected his paychecks. But he kept telling himself through the years: That was okay. He was marking time really, as he banged out stories in his spare time at home toward his real purpose of becoming a novelist.

But after all these years what had it really added up to?

His ex-wife, Gloria, had been supportive. For a while anyway.

“It will happen honey,” she said. “That New York publisher will send a limousine and we’ll be whisked away to the city for a weekend of literary parties and craziness.”

But as his thirties turned into his forties and he still found himself sending out query letters and manuscripts to agents that inevitably came back with the same “Sorry, not for us” message, he wondered if perhaps he had wasted his life trying to write the great American novel.

The divorce could have been blamed on any number of things. The miscarriages that aborted dreams of children and Gloria’s battles with depression, the fights over money and her nagging about him finding another job, “one that pays a living wage.”

And, well, he had tried other things—peddling janitorial supplies, driving a cab—but he’d always come back to reporting, which he knew best, and yes, somehow became miserably comfortable doing.

He knew what he was up against trying to write fiction. Hardly anyone ekes out a living at it, and yet, he continued to hold out this false hope that somehow, one day, the gods would look down benevolently upon him and declare one of his books the greatest literary achievement of his generation, at which point he’d quit his miserable, soul-sucking job forever and do what he was meant to do.

After all, it happened for Tom Waiter. This obscure blue-collar guy from The Plains had found literary fame at fifty-nine. Steve found himself thinking more and more of Tom Waiter. For a time, it seemed like every other day he was tapping the guy’s name into Google to find any little nugget of information about this literary wonder until he exhausted all sources.

Eventually, there was nothing new about Tom Waiter. All the magazine interviews and podcasts were dated. The internet search engines turned up nothing. Tom Waiter became like a murder case gone cold.

And yet, it kind of figured, Steve thought. There was something mysterious about the guy. The story about meeting the old man in the bar had been the last thing he read about Tom Waiter. Who was that man? And how had he changed Waiter’s life. Was the story true? Or, was it just a means of Waiter adding to his already mysterious and elusive persona. Perhaps his agent had concocted up the whole story to help Waiter further peddle his book.

The book, Dakota People, had been out for five years, and while it failed to become the number one book on the New York Times bestsellers list, it had nevertheless done quite well and been critically acclaimed. The stories resonated somehow with a great segment of readers, including Steve. But what had Tom Waiter been up to the past few years, and when would he come out with another book?

Steve returned to his desk and pulled the paperback copy from beneath the papers on the corner of his desk. He loved the front cover of the book: barbed wire stretching seeming into infinity across a Dakota wheat field at dusk. A lonely and desolate and mysterious landscape. Perfect. Tom Waiter’s mug shot on the cover revealed a man in a dusty ball cap, the words on the front of the hat indecipherable, the weathered and lined face of a working man, unsmiling, the somber eyes looking off in the distance.

And the stories. There were twelve of them. People, small town and rural folks, desperate souls, crying out for something. Perhaps meaning. Steve had read Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio many years ago, in his eighteenth summer. These stories reminded him of those same misunderstood folks with longing and hunger in their souls. The very essence of Tom Waiter?

Steve had devoured Dakota People in two furious nights of reading. All two-hundred-fifty-one pages. The stories haunted him. The people of Tom Waiter’s world, hardworking and often tough, but so often beaten down by life, both physically and emotionally, part of it from relentless farm work and the raising of families, but perhaps more from an inability to articulate and quench a deep thirst or desire for something.

Tom Waiter had tapped into something that other writers had tried, but few had successfully managed to somehow portray: Mankind’s utter, futile struggle for not just meaning but happiness.

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 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.

Standing on a bridge watching life go by

12 Oct
brown mountain under blue and white sky

Photo by John Horrock on Pexels.com


“The thing is,” Reuther said as he stared off at the scraggy mountain top, “I’m past my fertile period. Making it as a fiction writer is out of the question.”

“That again,” Ritter said, rolling his eyes. “Every time you hit a wall with your writing you go on about being past your fertile period.”

“Well, it’s true.”

“It’s not true. C’mon. Let’s check out the Deckers Bridge and see if any trout are rising.”

“Since when do you care about trout rising?” Reuther said.

Ritter hoisted up his backpack and started off toward the bridge some fifty yards away. “I don’t, but it will get your mind of your stalled writing.”

“It’s not stalled. More like done … over, finished, kaput.”

Ritter didn’t want to hear it. Just that past winter, Reuther had come out with a dozen short stories that had wowed the literary world. What had followed had been the kind of success and attention that anyone would kill for – glowing reviews in the New York Times and Publishers Weekly, interviews on CNBC and the major networks, even a bit part in some silly reality show. Sure, it was October now, and much of the hoopla over Reuther’s book was in the rearview mirror. And that, as Ritter saw it, was the real problem.

“You’ll just have to write another book,” Ritter said as they stood on the bridge and peered into the roiling waters of the South Platte River. Ritter liked it here, particularly in the fall on weekdays, when it was quiet and the summer vacationers were long gone.

“I guess so,” Reuther said.

“You guess so. Shit. Just do it,” Ritter said, turning now to face his longtime hiking buddy. “I mean, God sakes alive Reuther. When you got into this writing business, you knew it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park.”

“But I’ll never write anything as good as Misfits, Dreamers and Mad Poets again,” Reuther said, referring to his book.

“Probably not,” Ritter said, as they both watched a blonde woman in a skin-tight kayaking outfit suddenly emerge from the Ponderosa pines on the far bank.

“Wow. Not bad,” Reuther said.

“Er … not bad at all.”

“Boyfriend is probably right behind her somewhere.”

“Of course,” Ritter said.

Sure enough, a young, svelte and sturdy man clad in his own skin-tight kayaking outfit, the lightweight water craft balancing upon his back, emerged from the forest.

“You see Mike. We all have our time in the sun.”

“Guess so ol’ Bean.”

They watched the couple move quickly down the embankment and to the water before climbing  into the two-person craft. All at once, the man looked up toward the bridge where our two heroes stood, giving them a thumbs-up, a gleaming toothed smile, before using a paddle to nudge the the kayak into the swirling water. The woman, sitting behind him in the kayak, smiled and waved as well. They two of them appeared, Reuther thought, to be the very epitome of youth, and beauty and vigor. They were, he realized, the kind of people that could be found everywhere in the West anymore. And just like that, the kayak was heading downriver and then under the bridge and past them.

“There’s a rise over there,” Ritter said, pointing to the spot behind the boulder known as Elephant Rock that formed a deep pool.

Reuther had been watching the kayak carrying the young couple grow smaller down the South Platte. He turned to look where his buddy was pointing. Sure enough, a large ring slowly expanded from near Elephant Rock. “Guess I should have brought my fly rod,” Reuther said.

He thought back of a few years ago, when he first came out here from back East. Back then, he’d been fishing four and five times a week – when he wasn’t writing his brains out that is.

“You need to quit moping around and get back to it,” Ritter said as if reading his mind.

“Guess so,” Reuther said.

“You guess so. Hell.”

They stood for a while on the bridge not saying anything. A breeze carrying the hint of winter blew against their faces. The sun disappeared behind some clouds.

“A cold beer wouldn’t be bad right now,” Ritter said. He was leaned over the bridge’s iron railing watching a cluster of fall leaves drift below him. He straightened and smiled at Reuther.

They both turned to gaze across the two-lane road feeding into the village at the blinking beer signs of the tavern.

“Shit yeah,” Reuther said.

The Bargain

6 Sep

Ritter poked at the campfire as he mulled over the question.

“What if I had choice between giving up hiking and rock climbing or spending the rest of my life with Annie Klondike?” He furrowed his brow and looked quizzically at Reuther.

“Right. What would you choose?”

“But that’s absurd,” Ritter said, tossing down his stick.

“Just work with me here Jon,” Reuther said.

“I would never give up hiking and rock climbing. I mean … those are my passions.”:

“Okay,” Reuther said. “I get it. But what if giving them up would mean being with Annie … the gal you’ve long pined for … for the rest of your life.”

“But it’s not going to happen,” Ritter said, throwing up his hands.

“No. You’re right. It’s not going to happen. Unless you believe in magic and such possibilities, no one is going to suddenly appear and offer you such a bargain.”

“Right,” Ritter said.

“Still … what would you choose?”

“Jeepers. You’re not going to let this go. Are you?”

Ritter studied Reuther’s smiling face as his longtime hiking buddy moved closer to the fire, his face lit up crimson from the flames.  He appeared almost otherworldly. Ritter had a fleeting thought that perhaps Reuther was a kind of supernatural being who could indeed make such a thing happen. A chill ran through him that even considering an answer would involve him in a sort of Faustian bargain.

“Well … Reuther said.

“Who do you think will win the World Series this year?” Rutter asked, a nervous lopsided grin crossing his face.

“Jon. C’mon.”

“You c’mon,” Ritter said. “This is just stupid.”

“Maybe,” Reuther said, rocking back on his heels and looking skyward. “Then again …”

Ritter poked some more at the flames. “Well what about you Reuther?”

“What about me?”

“Let’s say you had a chance to have your book be a bestseller and make you a boatload of money, perhaps a movie deal. You even win a Pulitzer. You gain worldwide fame.”

“I … don’t follow Jon,” Reuther said.

“Sure. Let’s say that happens, but only if you agree to spend the rest of your life unplugged, off the grid, in some lonely, one-room cabin in say … Greenland? Cut off from everyone you know and love … forever.”

Ritter watched Reuther consider the question as he chewed on his jerky.

“Interesting proposal Jon.”

“Yeah, it is,” Ritter said with a laugh, jumping to his feet.

He watched his buddy consider it for a few more moments. “I wouldn’t take the deal.”

“Why not?” Ritter said.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Reuther said.

“But you’d have everything you always wanted … a bestselling book, fame, immortality.”

“And no one to enjoy it with.”

“Er … right,” Ritter said.


“So what?”

“I guess you’d give up your outdoors pursuits if it meant you’d gain Annie.”

“Never,” Jon said.

“But she’s your dream girl.”

“Dream girl?” Ritter considered the very words. Dream girl? A buxom outdoors gal who piloted prop planes around the Northwest and Canada. A sharpshooter and trapper, who drank her whiskey straight and could more than hold her own with any man. Surely not a gentle lass, and yet …

“She’s promiscuous,” Ritter said.

“And your point is?”

“No … no I wouldn’t even consider such a foolhardy notion of giving up hiking and climbing. Besides, this whole dialogue has been ludicrous.” Rutter got to his feet. “I’m going to bed.” He headed toward his tent.

“Funny isn’t it?”

“What?” Ritter said. With his back to Reuther, he stopped halfway between the now-dying campfire and his tent.

“These gals. They sure do funny things to our heads.”

“They sure do,” Ritter said. “They sure do.”

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.