Category Archives: Biographical

Cake By The Lake

Back in the 80s, a popular photographer roamed the hills and valleys of NWA. One of his spots was a spot off E. Lake Road in Elm Springs, not too far from the post office and cemetery entrance. Because I know better than to trust my memory, I can’t be sure his tradename is as I remember it, but it was close. He was popular for senior pictures. One of the spots he used wasn’t too far from the road, in part because of the dense trees, foliage, and sloping once you stepped off the side of the road. It used to have a short section of lateral fencing there. Many seniors, especially girls, found themselves at this spot posing. The people I’m going to mention had nothing to do with this photographer, at least as far as I know. I mention him only because of what happened. The photographer I crossed paths with did use one of the senior photographer’s go-to spots, though.

I lived next to the Willis Shaw lot, near what is now the Police Department on Jayroe Avenue, on the other side of Highway 112. Many days, you could find me running, sometimes biking, and often walking the miles of roads in the area. It was a beautiful place to be able to do so. Those familiar with the area need no convincing.

One summer evening, I walked several miles and was coming back home on E. Lake Road after walking to Springdale. It was about 8. I can’t be sure because we didn’t have cellphones and I certainly had no watch. The sunlight was fading, and the valley there was dense and beautiful in a backroads way. Even though I was wearing a cheap radio, the batteries went dead a few miles into the walk. I’m sure I listened to KCIZ FM-105 for most of my walk. The insects were deafening. Over them, I could hear voices shouting and laughing. Their voices carried surprisingly well. I walked at least a couple of more minutes without being able to see them. I realized that their voices had shifted and that I had probably passed them. Even though I was exhausted, I turned around and walked a few feet down a horribly-maintained side driveway. The laughter that I heard was raucous and fun. I didn’t see a vehicle. As for my curiosity, youth usually overrides caution.

I stopped in my tracks. About twenty feet from me stood a naked man holding what appeared to be a large, expensive camera. In front of him and to the right was a naked woman. To get this out of the way, the woman was beautiful. She had black hair down to her shoulders. Although no one remembers her now, I’d say she looked like Phyllis Davis. She was teasing the photographer about taking too long with the shot. She stopped talking momentarily when she saw me. And then waved and smiled, as if I were expected at any moment. The photographer turned and laughed. “Hey bud!” he said, smiling.

It seemed like I just stood stupefied for a few seconds. “Hello,” I said, much too loudly.

Then, I turned and sprinted away from the driveway and up the road, all the way to the highway. I could hear the two of them laughing with strange merriment as I bolted away from them.

I ran past that spot at least five hundred more times. While I didn’t run past to see the woman, I did look to see if she was there. She never reappeared, though I did see a lot of unexpected people and things on those backroads. Walking quietly at any hour of the night often yielded people in places where they were expecting privacy. The cemetery there in Elm Springs certainly gave me a list of stories I could share.

Thirty-five plus years later, I sometimes wonder what the story was with Phyllis Davis’ doppelganger. She had the looks to be a model, and she didn’t seem surprised by seeing me magically appear from the roadside.

P.S. She is the only reason I remember Phyllis Davis or her name.

Humor’s Acolate

“As sorry as I was to hear of my brother’s passing, I’ll bet the news bothered him a LOT more.” – X

There’s a considerable risk in people misunderstanding you on a good day. Many of us tend to judge others with the worst possible filter. I’ve found that good people can understand and appreciate contradictory and sublime behavior. Those who don’t just aren’t my people. Old age and experience, if we’re lucky, gives us more latitude in recognizing this.

The greater danger is people hearing what you actually said, and you having no defensible context to mitigate it. So much of life is context, and much of that isn’t immediately explainable. “You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t” is a cliché for a reason.

The joke that started this post? I’m sure people can and will get angry if they choose to. They’ll claim I wrote it as an insult to Mike. It’s not. He would laugh his ass off reading that joke. About one hundred times over the years, I threw one of Woody Allen’s jokes at him: “I’m not afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Years later, I threw in another one: “My relationship with death remains the same,” he said. “I’m strongly against it.” When Mike and I were young, we both read “Death Knocks,” a story (turned play) by Woody Allen. It was a sometimes topic of hilarity, even though Mike did not like Woody Allen as he grew older. Mike and I both made many bargains with imaginary devils and deities when we were young.

Only those who can imagine hiding in the space between the bed and the wall in the dark and waiting for a parent to come for them in a drunken rage might be able to understand the connection between bargaining and gallows humor. I have a list of stories about these incidents, and some of them surprise me by being funny. If you’ve read my blog, you can see that I’ve largely refrained from identifying some of my family by name. Despite this, I still infrequently find myself at the receiving end of hateful criticism.

When we lived at City View Trailer Park in Springdale, Mike swallowed an incredible amount of tobacco juice. Several of us had played and fought down at the retched pond that once stood at the end of City View. Mike spent much of his time between punches proudly with a mouthful of tobacco. He puked violently on the floor for what seemed like a full minute. That black juice stained the purple carpet deeply. No amount of cleaning could remove it. We’ll talk later about how someone thought purple carpet in a tinderbox trailer might look attractive. When the trailer burned, the stain obstinately remained. The carpet was dark, of course, but the underlying stain plainly stood out. Years later, when Mike and I spent the night at Mom and Dad’s house on Highway 49, Mike compared that stain to dealing with being helpless all those years, or nearly so. That was the same night we discovered that a nest of yellow jackets inhabited the other bedroom’s west-facing window. That’s a story for another day. As for the tobacco, despite attempts to make Mike stop, he dipped most of his adult life. I have at least three dozen pictures of him spitting into a bottle, cup, or a family member’s potted plant to prove it.

After Dad died, my cousin jimmy recommended that I watch a particular Billy Bob Thorton movie. Most people have never heard of “Daddy And Them.” You’ll be shocked if you take a look at how many stars joined this movie. Because it was set in Arkansas, it accurately grabs the absurdity of white trash living and wraps it in comedy. (A difficult feat.) After Jimmy twisted my arm and made me watch it, I did the same to Mike. In it was one of the jokes my brother and I shared as hilarious. Here’s the joke:

“Hey! Do you know what Dad would say if he were alive today?” One of us would reply, “No, what?” Dramatic pause. “Let me out!” With the last line, we scratch the air in front of us with both hands as if we were clawing our way out of the coffin. Last year, an Irish veteran stole the joke and shocked funeral attendees by having a pre-recorded tape of his voice shouting to be let out played during his service. Mike thought it was hilarious and an excellent way to separate the humorless from the good people in a crowd. “Can you imagine how tightly wound up Aunt Elsie’s panties would get if someone did that?” was part of his reply.

I have to say, though, that despite the immense teeth-gnashing my brother and I often shared, our deplorable and macabre sense of humor was unrivaled. Marines and serial killers alike cringed if they accidentally overheard our nonsense.

No matter what you’ve read and heard on sitcoms or dramas about the impossibility of confining an involuntary laugh at a funeral, my brother and I separately were a disaster; in combination, we probably deserved the death penalty. Some of the fault lies with my Dad. Even when he wasn’t drinking, he could say some of the most outrageous things devised by a human being. He once called the preacher a “co$$su$$er” in front of about 50 people just to get a leg up on him. In a twist of fate I’ve written about before, Dad and the preacher somehow became friends.

My brother Mike once unknowingly used an open mic at a funeral home in Brinkley to improvise a bit of comedy regarding our Grandma’s teeth. The funeral director sheepishly ran into the outer area to grab the mic from my brother and tell him that it was a ‘hot mic.’ It’s essential that you know that my Grandma was one of the two closest people I ever loved. Despite that, I laughed. I cannot think about that incident without losing a little bit of my soul to laughter. I’m convinced each chuckle puts me a foot further into purgatory.

There’s no greater or sublime pleasure having someone who is both smart and willing to go the extra mile for a laugh, joke, or smile – even if it burns down a few villages on the way there. I give Mike the win, though, because he could tell jokes that I wouldn’t. That’s saying a lot.

Not too many months ago, I sent my brother a collection of hand-written postcards, each with a joke from comedians we both loved. As with index cards in my back pocket, I’m also a fan of prestamped postcards for quick notes. Even while we were uneasily bickering, I wanted him to know that humor was still a big part of my life. (Even if I’m old, boring, wear a lot of black socks as leisurewear, and get too excited by an early buffet.)

Mike would see these words as a compliment.

Because of our relationship, I tend to expect someone to emerge with poison in their hearts to attempt to silence me for joking. Those who know me also know I’ve written multiple times about the fact that they have my permission to mock me to the end of the world when I’m gone, especially if it is funny or creative. Mike was not someone to pull back from a bastardly comment. The same quick and violent tongue he sometimes used to wound me also created some world-class humor. For everyone who knew Mike and watched him in action on solemn occasions, the Bobby Dean in him could not be confined or controlled. Trying to do so was just catnip for his enthusiasm to up the ante.

It’s not reasonable to accuse me of glossing over or attempting to sugarcoat Mike’s life. Equally so, I have to tip my hat when it is merited. Both of us emerged from childhood with a scorched-earth comedic streak. It probably saved us as many times as it caused us grief.

As it turns out, Mike was indeed there when death came for him. His birthday would have been November 1st, the day after Halloween. For some, it is All Souls Day. When I sat to finish Mike’s ancestry record, I noticed that his two children are the same age I was when our Dad died. Mike was 20,062 days old, the mentioning of which would irritate him due to my occasional reminder that I still keep a tab of how many days old I am.

My job is to remember the Mike who put a fish under the driver’s seat of my 1984 Oldsmobile in the middle of summer during a visit to Aunt Barbara’s. (Without telling me.) Or the Mike who read “Lord of The Rings” in almost one sitting back in the early 80s.

Please don’t fault me for taking refuge in contradictory stories about Mike. But if you do, I’ll accept that charge. Given the arc of my origins, I find this potential sin to be minuscule.

P.S. The word “acolate” is mine, one devised to denote eulogic remembrance, perhaps a day too late.

McNamara And Mike

This post is a portmanteau of lives. One was a dedicated writer, and one was a policeman; both failed to adequately recognize their afflictions.

My wife’s eyes sometimes glaze over when I hear tales of “writer’s block.” I don’t know what that is. I can’t help myself: I always say, “What’s that?” half-jokingly. It’s the same way with me regarding boredom. Reading, writing, genealogy, humor, photography, and just scrolling the window of the internet could entertain me for fifty consecutive years. I’d be ideally suited to be a vampire.

This time, we were watching “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” on HBO. Michelle McNamara had her deadline pushed forward a month and struggled to realize her ambition of finishing her book. It was her lifelong dream. She died before DNA solved the case of The Golden State Killer. Michelle and I share many attributes regarding writing. I don’t put myself on her level, though, so there’s no need to remind me snarkily. But I don’t understand the inability to plow through. She resorted to drugs to keep her up and allow sleep when necessary. The thing she relied on to help her achieve her ambition also undid her life.

I can’t walk the street, work, or sit and listen to music without wanting to research a hundred different ideas. Things breeze into my mind at a velocity that I cherish. The satisfaction of an overactive mind isn’t diminished by the value or result of the ideas. I’m able to divorce content from needing a goal. This allows me to produce dozens of things that never see the light of day or end up in the ‘delete’ file simply due to happenstance.

Had Michelle raised her hand and admitted she was overwhelmed, Patton Oswald and their mutual daughter would still have her in their lives. Instead, her book and ambition fell to uncertain others to complete, and Michelle lost a presumable thirty or forty years with family.

While I wrote the first part of this a few weeks ago, it still is on my mind. Not just because it was a great show, or a peek into a writer’s life, but also because a piece of it parallels the life of my brother. He was ridiculously smart. He could have worked to be a writer. As I do with anyone I recognize as innately great at writing, I repeatedly tried to convince him to spend a portion of his life writing his stories. I do not doubt that he easily had several books of material in him. Much of his writing might have derived from his professional career as a policeman and detective. Even his Army career was as an MP.

Michelle McNamara’s life revolved around crime and its intricate tendrils. My brother Mike spent his career investigating and collaring criminals. While Michelle’s ambition always included being a writer, Mike could have done the same, and just as expertly.

The contradiction is that his job itself was one of his biggest impediments. It put a wedge between his personal life and his ability to live it. The schedule, the demands, and the danger of having a job that perilously exaggerated his tendency toward authoritarianism. People often ask whether the job makes the man or the man gravitates toward it. I’m not sure. As much difficulty as my brother had coming out of his youth, the job exacerbated his personality defects. It’s no secret that police are more likely to be abusive and susceptible to addiction. My brother chose alcohol to appease his conflict. Michell McNamara chose prescription medications. Anyone who gets angry at me for saying so doesn’t understand me. In Michelle’s case, her husband Patton capably framed her turmoil in a very public and touching television show.

My brother’s intentions to retire as a detective after a full career collided with his inability to stop drinking. He was forced to retire. Even still, he could have turned that blow into a blossoming retirement. Had he stopped drinking, he might have lived to be seventy instead of dying before his fifty-fifth birthday. Because he was smart enough to work in the north, his pension was protected by a formidable police union. He had the option to pursue any interest he desired.

I was envious of that and his ability to work a job that allowed it. It’s a fantasy for most of us to round fifty and shift to do whatever interests us.

In the last couple of years, I sent Mike books, starting with “The Accidental Salvation of Gracie Lee.” I knew it would ignite his interest and recognition of what writing about the South could do. It was my hope he’d begin to leave the alcohol to the side, even if it cost him herculean effort to do so. He’d be able to careen into another career writing feverishly. Whatever else Mike did or didn’t do, he also loved books and libraries. That’s something that can’t be said about many police.

Mike’s death not only closed the door on his gift of writing, but it also cost him a couple of decades with his family. They’ll each struggle with the legacy of his big personality and choices. As Mike declined, I couldn’t help but get irritated at him for the waste of his life. Instead of pivoting to change his course and take advantage of the privilege of a chosen life, he furiously wasted his and his family’s energies to dedicate himself to drink. As bad it was, we were all lucky a few of the circumstances didn’t cause greater harm to others.

Now, silence. What could have been a rejuvenated family and life is now a complicated and unenviable path to an uncertain future for all of them.

As in my mother’s case, I know that much of the harsh words I shared with my brother were a result of alcoholism. Knowing it helps more now that they are passed than it ever did while they lived. He recognized the danger, just as I always did, but relied on his devious inner voice to convince himself he could overcome it. The same personality that made him loud and larger than life also participated in his fall. Many of our family and ancestors did the same. None of our ancestors who knew they were alcoholics successfully pulled out of it. It’s a sobering thought. I’ve written about the infection of my family. While I cannot adequately describe it, the trajectory of those around me gives proof that my theory must have some validity.

Mike loved that I wrote stories. Some of them caused him grief, especially before he could come to terms with the magnitude of the shadow that our dad and others left behind us. He vested energy in secrecy while I opted to throw open the windows. I was often a terrible brother. The only safe harbor I had at my disposal was separation. Mike had trouble seeing that my life was not one punctuated by drama. He also hated that I told him more than once that were I in his shoes, I would do anything and everything to break my addiction. It wasn’t because I felt superior to him in that regard, but that I never fooled myself into believing that any of us have magical skills that preclude us from behaving stupidly. Behavior that is obviously hard-wired into our DNA is that much more insurmountable.

The shelf that could have held Mike’s books will be forever empty.

The lives he could have intersected with for the next twenty years will now bounce obliquely off someone else.

The silences and subsequent shouts of confused recrimination will echo in his vacant place.

A life lived short of its possibilities.

And The Story Both Ends & Begins

The first picture is my sister, my brother Mike, and me laying like a lump of coal. This picture was taken at Grandpa and Grandpa Cook’s house in Rich, when they lived near White Cemetery. The second was taken when we lived in Springdale for a short time.

*

My brother recently died as he neared 55. Our dad died before he turned 50.

The military was not Mike’s first, second, or third choice. But it’s the choice that got him out of Arkansas and into a career in law enforcement. Whatever else the military does, it spectacularly solves a multitude of problems when people join. It may present others, that’s true, but those are unseen and delayed when you decide to join. No matter how old we get, option fatigue is paralyzing.

Out of high school, my brother recently returned from a very brief stint at Arkansas State University. He convinced me that the military was the worst possible choice for me, even though I was being offered an incredibly cushy spot in the Army music program. As it always does, hindsight paints a panorama of choices and chances for me in the Army.

Mike then turned around unexpectedly and went directly into the Army and off to another life, leaving me with a wtf-face beyond description. He went to Germany while there were still two of them and then to Northern Illinois, where he remained.

My brother with me, before he left Springdale to join the Army. We standing in the driveway at the house on Cottonwood. Many years later, I bought a house right down the street from that spot.

Over a decade later, I seriously considered the option of the military again. I had my physical and background check, and also signed up for delayed entry. He got me out of that idea, too.

Because of our upbringing, I often wonder what would have been the course of our lives if he stayed in Springdale and I had left for the Army as a musician. Would his tendency toward drinking and anger blossom so fiercely. Would mine, had I untethered from family?

In those early years, he publicly held the family honor, even as it continued to vex him. Me? I changed my name and kept my distance. Being poor helped me in this regard. Being ignorant didn’t hurt, either. Mike gave me a lot of grief for my dislike for most of the family’s ideas of politics and how to behave. In my defense and as I increasingly learned, racism often disguised itself as politics. In part because he was the big brother and in part because he thought he was indeed the authority, he fought and lectured me to stop sharing family secrets. I often called him Mike O’Reilly, even though he wanted to break my fingers for it. As time passed, it became evident to anyone paying attention thought although I was the weird kid with the weirder name, I was dead on regarding our biography. Mike favored the Terry family while I loved the Cooks. Both had an equal measure of mishap and heartbreak. The Terry family just had a bigger rug they used to sweep everything under.

As late as last year, I was still uncovering skeletons from our family. People make movies and write books about such strangeness. Had I followed Mike’s insistence to let it go, I would have never picked up genealogy or pursued DNA trails.

Who we once were does not determine who we will be; however, its aim is so undeniably true that those who manage to escape their fate are miracles at work. A lot of smart people know their arcs. Few see themselves in the shadow of their choices. I’m often as guilty as anyone. I’ve never doubted that I inherited the infection of whatever ails my family. I’ve felt its breath to varying degrees for my entire adult life.

Mike was smarter than me. It’s unquestionable. There must be some magical sliding scale and accounting that would prioritize other things over intelligence. I would have cashed in a bucket of compassion and a dose of deafness for a lower IQ. When you are as under-prepared for adult life as we were, it is folly to follow our trajectories and assume success.

Somewhere in those years, that shared biography and its litany of grievances overtook my brother. While I arced into a middle-aged life, he let his guard down to how human he was and how inescapable the dungeon of the lesser can be to us.

While I was still talking to him at length, I asked him at least fifty times to take his time and energy and sit and write his stories. He loved to read and had lived a life stuffed with unusual characters. He told several book that he was excited about the book I was going to write. He didn’t take me up on my enthusiasm. So many stories passed with him.

No matter what anyone else said or will say, one of the things I consider a gift is to often recognize the universality of a good story. Mike had many of them. As I’ve often echoed about my youth, though Mike and I often were at odds, I’d be the first to line up to read a book of stories from his life, whether they were darkly shadowed or humorous.

I’m ready to rush ahead to the magical time when our memories shift and shuffle and lose their harsh edges. Nostalgia is one of those things that’s hard to define yet bangs a gong in all of us.

Though my dad died over twenty-seven years ago, I’m still pondering his choices, his secrets, and his pathology. I still find new revelations.


I suspect it will be the same with my brother.

We fought bitterly a few times in my life. As hard as it was for him to understand, I usually fought for quiet.

Some will exit onto the revisionist road, believing that one’s life and echoes end with death and that those who remain can change the stories of a person’s life. Others will individually have their own stories to tell and questions to ask. It is our way as human beings.

As for me, all judgement laid to rest, all I see is a reservoir of memories and stories. Whether they are told or not is not a valid question. They’ll be told, whether in whispers or shouts.

My dad, standing on a horse. Mike liked this picture.
My brother, with mom when she was Budweiser happy, in Aunt Ardith’s back yard.
Me, Mike, cousin Ricky, cousin Jimmy.
Mike, mom, dad, me. We were at Lutheran Church in Rich, near Brinkley – at mom and dad’s second wedding.
Me, with siblings, at Xmas at Aunt Ardith’s house.

Carolyn’s Mashed potatoes

This is my mom standing in Aunt Ardith’s (and Uncle Buck’s) kitchen. Note: I think it was physically impossible for her to be in a kitchen unless she was smoking.



As we learned in “Like Water For Chocolate,” the emotions experienced while preparing food can significantly affect the culinary experience. (If you haven’t read this book or seen the movie, I will wait while you do so. You can read it in English if you need to.) The book on which the movie was based is separated into twelve sections, much like the months of the year. Each era is associated with particular foods that define the protagonist’s life.

It was important for her to unexpectedly inflict a bit of terror (or at least a sense of dread or apprehension) in someone in her vicinity while cooking. In part, it would explain the tendency for someone to wail, cry, or whimper while we ate supper. You might presume we were whimpering from the flavor otherwise. In mom’s defense, she didn’t need to concern herself with food. We were trained to eat anything without an audible complaint. In my case, I loved macaroni and any vegetable, even if coming directly from a can. Because I trusted my Grandma, I’d eat anything she offered. While there were times I didn’t like something she made, I never questioned whether it SHOULD be eaten. With my mom, this definitely wasn’t the case. There were exceptions. Because of my youth’s craziness, people often overlook the exceptions that were not characterized by the lesser human emotions I experienced growing up.

While it may not come across as funny, dad often did have a humorous way of driving mom bonkers about food. “What’s cooking,” he might shout. Or, “What in f$$$ is that smell?” Mom sometimes would scream back at him – and sometimes be funny in her response. It’s hard to explain how shouting and annoyance are funny, but it was. “Whatever the g####mned f### I want to make is what you’re eating,” she might scream. It probably sounded like WWII from outside. While they were often angry about it when their ability to tease back and forth emerged, it was obscenely sublime.

More than once growing up, we’d wake to the horrid smell of a burned cast iron skillet. A couple of times, mom did it. But it was usually dad who left the skillet on the stove. He’d arrive home drunk and cook a chunk of meat or fried bologna on the stove. There were a dozen times he’d try to cook frozen meat – and eat it anyway. It wasn’t unusual to pass through the kitchen and see an array of meat, grease, and a mess left there. Because mom usually got up insanely early, we knew dad left her a mess because mom would be in the kitchen cursing and banging every metal surface possible with pans, metal spoons, or by slamming the stove repeatedly. I’d generally not recommend this behavior if you have someone with both anger issues and a hangover in the house. By the way, a scorched cast iron skillet leaves a stench in the house for DAYS.

Much of the drama could have been sidestepped if someone had just asked us what we wanted. They could have fed me incredibly cheaply and often without the need for any actual cooking – and no ritual sacrifice of animals. In my world, kids were not asked what they wanted. Such a thought was heretical nonsense to people such as my parents. They didn’t need to tell us about starving kids in other countries; we knew that they wouldn’t be bothered with such an explanation when a good backhand said a thousand words. Note for those who don’t know: a backhand can be rendered at twice the speed as a forward-motion slap. Mom certainly could have handed me a can of tomatoes, corn, or green beans and sent me outside to eat in peace. Sitting at the table brought unseen battles to the front. By the 4th grade, I could expertly tip an opened can and eat the contents without utensils. Or without cutting myself.

We were lucky mom didn’t poison us, even if her target was my dad. Like most women in her class, she had no choice but to work full-time and perform all the other menial but necessary tasks of living for the household. Obviously, a lot of mom’s cooking stress was anger and resentment at being married to a lout. Mom didn’t have ‘signature dishes.’ I don’t remember her being romantic about cooking or the subtle art of gastronomy. To her, cooking was limited to the practical necessity of getting it done. It was a bizarre sight to witness her in the same kitchen with other people cooking. It might as well have been alien races sharing cooking space.

On another note, mom could have easily taught us to make one or two meals each. We would have willingly learned and helped had we been shown the attention—anything to avoid potential stress and drama of a ‘family’ meal. I know I couldn’t have been trusted to prepare any meal with meat. My recipe would have consisted only of tossing the meat carcass directly out the door and into the jaws of our succession of German Shepherd dogs named Duke.

Looking back, I’m still surprised that so many supper meals blur together into one indistinguishable mass in my memory. Few at-home suppers were devoid of distrust, dread, or unease. More importantly, I have no memories of meals wherein we gathered to eat where we shared our day, laughter, or happy moments. This was not part of our DNA. I like to think it must have happened accidentally. If it did, my treasonous brain has erased most of these memories. Exceptions tended to happen if dad arrived home drinking without his surliness or if extraordinary circumstances were at play. Watching sitcom families verbally teasing and laughing during dinner were Twilight Zone episodes for me.

On a typical day, mom had to read the tea leaves and decide when or if dad might come home. She was obligated to prepare some horrid slab of meat, partially cooked on the stove in a frying pan if he did. Dad was one of those absurd men who proudly pretended that the meat he consumed could indeed be eaten half-alive. “How in the hell can anyone eat that smell?” was a thought I often had. Along with the immutable truth that you don’t want to see sausage being made, the other is that no one should witness my dad eating meat. He was proof that our ancestors once jumped on wild walruses and ripped their ears off with their bare hands.

As you would guess, I generally wanted no part in the meat process. Given a choice between the meat prepared and eating live crickets culled from the underside of the trailer, you could find me with a mouthful of insect legs protruding from my mouth. Note: crickets thrive under trailers if you happen to be in the market for a truckload of crickets. If a vegetable were offered, I fought to eat an excessive portion of that and be happy. Truth be told, many of my supper experiences revolved around trying to be small and avoid my dad’s gaze. Though I’ve mentioned it before, his barbaric streak often led him to force me to eat things that should never pass the lips of a human being. If he noted I didn’t want meat, I often found myself chewing the fat off a bloody half-cooked ‘steak’ or the dark meat near the bone of an unidentifiable piece of chicken. (I shudder.) Or worse, the skin of a piece of chicken. I ate chicken skin quite often when I was very young and without dad around. It didn’t occur to me to think of how horrible it was. Later, though, I ate a mile of poorly-cooked or unappetizing skin that ruined me for the rest of my life.

It happened so often that I still have no desire to eat such meat. People underestimate how true this experience was. I was the youngest child; as such, dad felt offended by the lack of overt masculinity. He spent much of his life committed to ensuring that I consumed an array of inedible pieces of animals. His alcoholism is probably the single biggest factor that helped me escape his scrutiny. Unless mom was at his throat, dad’s drinking made him magnanimous at times, and his insistence on forcing me to eat things I didn’t like vanished. Some of the Terry family cooked very well and with love, so I didn’t understand how dad could be so barbaric in his approach, and other members of his family could prepare a wide selection of both meat and vegetables. My Uncle Buck cooked a few things extremely well. He also enjoyed cooking and preparing dishes. Especially gumbo and fish.

While I noted I disliked an increasing number of poorly and inexpertly cooked animal carcasses, it did at least drive home the idea that who and how something is cooked can often be 75% of whether you’ll like something you are about to eat. I felt like a medieval court taster who was anxiously waiting to feel his throat constricting against whatever poison had been inserted into the king’s food.

Despite all the instability in our house, mom spent a sizeable chunk of her money from her SW Bell operator’s paycheck going to the meat shops. It seemed strange to me that her dedication to doing this was so pronounced. Dad often could not discern the difference between a decent cut of meat and something found in the dumpster and fried in a pan for 30 seconds. Dad’s nutrition plan included chunks of meat, cigarettes, whiskey, Dentyne gum, and Brach’s peppermint candy. If I accompanied mom to the meat shop, I stood in amazement that there were more than 2 cuts of meat or 3 types of sandwich meat. It seemed odd that anyone needed something except bologna, salt pork, or bacon for a boy who loved mustard sandwiches. Mom was an impatient customer at such shops. It’s hard to believe that smoking was permitted inside them. And smoke she did, tapping her feet as she moved from one foot to the other, expecting her choice to be hurled toward her in less than 3 seconds. It seems strange that the building that currently holds the Las Margaritas Mexican restaurant in Springdale once was mom’s ‘go-to’ meat shop. I doubted my memory so strongly that I once searched for proof in the old phone books at the library and then matched the addresses against old maps.

Between errands, it seemed like mom was always buying cigarettes and alcohol. Much of my Springdale geography command resulted from the infinite trips to liquor stores and places to buy cigarettes. I could walk from Uncle Buck’s house to the liquor store that once stood at the intersection of Gutensohn and Highway 68/412, but wasn’t sure about the route to one of the grocery stores.

My access to the larger world and food expanded only because of my cousin Jimmy and infrequent visits to other people’s houses. Everything seemed exotic to me. Things like bbq sauce, olives, flavored pickles, and lemon pepper ignited my imagination. At home, we didn’t have these things. If such a store existed, my mom would have gladly shopped at “Bare Minimum Essentials.”

This impacted my brother Mike much more than me. He enjoyed eating meat. He also was a bigger boy, more athletic when we were younger, and had an expansive appetite. This annoyed the hell out of my dad. Unlike me, Mike loved grabbing a handful of dad’s prized sliced deli ham and stuffing it into his mouth as a snack. It was a perilous day to hear my dad holler, “Who ate all the g$$$amned ham!?” In turn, it annoyed Mike that I loved mustard sandwiches and was happy to eat basic food. If I annoyed him, he sometimes would take a piece of ham, roll it menacingly into a ball, and stuff it into my mouth, laughing at my cries of torture. I detested ham so much that I might as well be Jewish. Don’t get me wrong; I’d eat it sometimes but never with any enthusiasm and certainly not as a first choice. Having been in my brother’s ham hock of a hand, I liked it even less.

When the grocery store opened across from Johnson Road, my cousin Jimmy went to get Ron Calcagni’s autograph. Mom later went to the store and scoffed at the incredible selections, after listening to my Aunt Ardith list its array of food. I was mesmerized by the dozen types of bread and the endless row of assorted pasta. I wanted to live inside that store and stuff myself with gallons of marinara and spaghetti. Other kids could be seen getting politely or angrily admonished by their moms as they begged for treats from the candy aisle, special cereals, or ice cream. So dedicated was my mom’s brutality regarding asking, this simply didn’t happen with me. I didn’t touch – and never asked. It was a sin akin to peeing on someone’s head while riding the bus. There were a couple of memorable times I forgot myself and vocalized my desire to have something. Because I was a little strange. one of those times was when I saw Mexicorn, the kernel corn in a can with peppers. I didn’t want sweets or chips. I wanted that exotic can of corn. Not only did mom swat me with the wrath of Khan, but she waited to ensure that dad could put his 5-knuckles-worth into the equation. By the way, I had my first can of Mexicorn at my cousin Jimmy’s. Aunt Ardith bought several cans. She watched in amazement and then horror as I ate all of them, at once. When she put butter in them and stirred it, I felt as if Heaven had descended upon me and wrapped its arms around me. While I don’t know for sure that Aunt Ardith treated me to endless Mexicorn because of how my mom behaved, it seems likely. She smiled at me like Christmas while I ate. “You’re going to be sick,” she kept repeating, her voice growing more amazed as I emptied the cans one by one.

My Aunt Ardith on the left, mom on the right.



It was sometime in the summer of 1st or 2nd grade that I discovered that canned corn and green beans were delicious. Heating them was a needless step for me. Being able to skip steps to eat was a revelation for me. Soon enough, I learned how to make macaroni and spaghetti. Though I’d seen it made one thousand times, I was stupidly surprised by the fact that cooking it only required boiling water and waiting long enough for it to soften. A monster was born, one that still resides within me. While I could eat noodles plain, if tomatoes or tomato sauce were available, I would dump it into the water and noodles. We didn’t use strainers; we had to risk burns over the sink using the pot’s lid to drain spaghetti. I think the lack of good strainers is one characteristic that most poor kids share in common. Skipping all those steps was a benefit. Regardless of the size of the package of pasta, I cooked it all. And then ate it. Wasting it wasn’t a consideration.

All of which brings me to the Golden Macaroni Era at City View trailer park. Infrequently, mom would recover from the cyclical violence with dad. She’d violently clean the trailer and then later that evening make a pot of macaroni soup. Instead of simply making macaroni and adding tomatoes or sauce, she would cut up potatoes, onions, and a few other things and boil it into submission. Mom and I would sit at the table and eat. She would watch me eat a gallon of it in one sitting. Though it was simple, it was delicious beyond measure. While she made this after City View a couple of times, I’ll never forget the period at City View when she often did it. Usually, only she and I would eat this soup. She must’ve realized from Grandma that this was one of my favorite things in the world. Over one summer, my Grandma made a version of this for me at least every other day. Weirdly, I didn’t mind that mom had magically used at least 2 large onions in the soup. I count these nights eating macaroni soup as one of the few ways and times that mom tried to have a selfless connection with me, even if only through food. One of the other memorable times was her return from alcohol rehab in Fort Smith after I graduated high school. She made a mammoth pot of macaroni soup, and we ate the entire pot. I can’t see this moment as accidental. Mom returned from rehab, a completely different person.

When our trailer burned at City View and we moved to Tontitown’s fringe, this tradition died. My “cousin” Leta, who owned the house in Tontitown, where we moved, worked at the Venesian Inn. Because she could bring home endless food, it was from there I discovered my love of Italian dressing. Even as dad and family and friends had endless drunken cookouts, I found that salads with huge cut-up tomatoes and a bottle of Viva Italian salad dressing were available. I consumed truck loads of rolls and salad.

Me, dad, mom, and my brother Mike, aka “The Infamous Picture” at Leta’s house in Tontitown. I use this picture as the perfect embodiment of how perception thwarts reality.



In closing, I’ll finish with mom’s secret Mashed Potatoes recipe. This recipe has been sought after for years, so share it only with trusted friends and family.

You’ll need whatever kind of potatoes are on sale, a bit of milk (canned if you have it), a bit of pepper and salt, and access to non-menthol cigarettes. You’ll need to smoke constantly while boiling, mashing, and mixing the potatoes. Also, don’t knock the ashes from the cigarette as you cook. Allow them to fall freely into the potatoes. If you’re adventurous, coarsely cut a large onion into preposterously large pieces and throw them in the mashed potatoes. If the potatoes are lumpy, don’t notice. Hungry people don’t notice, much less comment, that the potatoes are lumpy. If you get a particularly large chunk of onion, spit it into your hand and keep eating. If anyone notices something that looks like ashes in the potatoes, tell them it’s pepper. Fun fact: it is almost impossible to taste cigarette ashes in mashed potatoes, no matter how much is present if you add pepper and onions to them. It’s for that reason that I mentioned that you shouldn’t smoke menthols – which are easily detectable.

Note: I was pleasantly surprised to learn that no one else puts onions in mashed potatoes. In 2017, I wrote about “Newport Potatoes.” Many people thought I made it up, even after citing the episode of “Master Of None.”



My mom and dad sitting at the bar at Uncle Buck’s house. We have no pictures of each other or us at our own house – and not just because we didn’t own a camera.
My brother Mike enjoying mashed potatoes at Aunt Ardith’s table on Ann Street in Springdale.
One of my favorite pictures of Uncle Buck. He was cooking up a storm and stopped long enough to present me with a fruitcake.

They Could Have Called Me “The Streak”

Jimmy isn’t the one in the long dress. He’s the one wearing a white jacket, wondering what he’d got himself into.

One of my regrets is that I didn’t streak naked around Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs during my cousin Jimmy’s first wedding. His first wedding was in August of 1995 to a woman named Lona Heckle. In 1995, I still had the body to allow me to run fast – and, if caught, not feel too badly about my picture being on the nightly news after my arrest for streaking. Camcorders were common but it was still possible to just be a blur on such cameras. Regular cameras were unwieldy and snapping flash pictures inside a giant glass rectangle tended to yield less-than-stellar photos.

Coincidentally, one of my other regrets is that I did not get to perform Jimmy’s other marriage shortly before his death. I overcame my inertia to become ordained due to the possibility of this marriage. I understand the particulars of why someone else was chosen but still remain a bit uneasy about it. Personally, I can’t understand why more families don’t have someone ordained so that the family member doing the ceremony will forever be part of the memory, too. After all, standing with the two people in love is the best seat in the house, so to speak.

Were Jimmy still alive, he’d join me in laughter if I told him, “Yes, I was going to perform your second marriage naked, Jimmy. No need to streak if I’m standing in front of everyone.”

He’s been dead for more than 7 1/2 years now, which itself seems alien to write.

I wrote much of this post a few days ago, before the other shoe fell and my brother died. I don’t recall why Mike wasn’t at Jimmy’s wedding. Fittingly enough, Jimmy and I didn’t make the trip up to the Chicago Metro area to attend my brother’s wedding. Our excuse wasn’t personal; we were both just young, poor, and unaware that we could reach out and find a way to get there.

My cousin was a bit crazy himself. He was prone to get whiskey courage and do some outrageous things. We inherited the tendency from our ancestors.

For whatever reason, Jimmy was very nervous about the wedding itself. All the family he’d ever known was attending. When I first started teasing Jimmy about potentially streaking during his wedding, he laughed and said, “You’ll never do it. You’ll say you will but you don’t have your dad’s crazy streak.” So I told him, “Exactly. NOT having it gives me the courage to do it precisely because no one will expect it.” As the days passed, I could tell I had got into his head.

For those unfamiliar with the Thorncrown Chapel, it’s made of glass and steel and sits in the middle of an expanse of trees and forest. I’ve witnessed people become overwhelmed by emotion while sitting inside. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of being inside during heavy snow or while the sun is beaming through at an oblique angle, you undoubtedly can imagine it again.

Now add the idea of me running around the place naked with dozens of horrified onlookers trapped on the inside watching me do it.

I made the short video cut of Jimmy standing at the altar. It captures his unease at being the center of attention and spectacle. I took it from a VHS tape I had digitized several years ago. It was one of my few chances to be able to see videos and images from lives overlapping mine. Much of the bulk of such photography was lost to me due to the odd lack of sharing many of the family members seemed to inherit.

And because it’s one of the few relics of me on video, here’s a short one of me the day of Jimmy’s wedding. We were milling around outside the motel waiting for the hurry-and-wait part of the afternoon to commence.

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I wanted to post this picture of Jimmy and Lona a couple of years after they were married. I mean no disrespect but I always remember wrong how long they were married.

The Mooch

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What is the polite way to tell someone that people refer to them as “The Mooch” behind their backs? Answer: “There isn’t one.” Even if you’re right, trying to tell someone this can only result in anger. Even expert mooches don’t seem themselves in this light, much in the same way that prejudice blinds the holder from its influence. Such behavior becomes background noise for them .

I’d been at the fringes of this experience before, usually informally and always with one or two other people. Mooches tend to evolve into the habit. They learn the subtle ways to misdirect people or to convince them they’re being unfair.

I was in South Dakota with my wife, Deanne, long deceased. She had a huge Catholic family. Being with them in a group was at times like attending a party with gregarious and funny people who were always one joke ahead of you.

Several of us gathered at a bar/eatery in a mall in South Dakota. One of Deanne’s uncles made a comment about money and tipping. Another one piped in and laughed. He said, “Man, that makes me really miss -James-.”  (I changed his name to protect his anonymity.)

An Aunt immediately said, “What a mooch!” As she pronounced the last word ‘mooch,’ 4 or 5 other people at the table said the word ‘mooch’ in unison with her. It was a hilarious and jarring moment. I looked around the table and most of them noted the incredulity on my face.

They sang it in the same way that the characters on “Letterkenny” say “To Be Fair…” each time the phrase is uttered.

-James- wasn’t a blood relation to them. He’d been around the family often, though.

An uncle said, “I guess X here didn’t know we all call -James- “The Mooch” anytime we mention him?” I shook my head no. “Well, let me tell you some stories…”

For the next 15 minutes, all of them told an increasingly incredible series of “Mooch” stories. Forgotten wallets, lost $20 bills, requests to pay them back later, extra pizzas added to orders without asking and never repaid, one-night stays that turned into weeks, requests for double meat tacos, siphoned gas ‘because what mine is yours,’ among others.

The oldest uncle said, “X, watch out. He’ll trick you with his niceness and you will be trapped in an ever-larger cycle of loans that aren’t repaid and a helping hand that will get bitten. He’s done it to us all. We have all been marks at one point or another. Weirdly, he can be a fun guy, but it’s always about the angle with him.”

Over the years, I compiled quite a list of equally ridiculous mooching behavior from -James-. The uncle wasn’t wrong.

The Mooch in question grew older to become a conservative who bitterly complains about rich people, poor people living off the government, or anyone who was getting something he wouldn’t. A long series of jobs, a long series of financial missteps, repossessed vehicles, and unexpected involuntary moves from one place to another punctuate The Mooch’s life.

There’s no moral to this story and not much of a narrative. Perfectionism is tiresome to me. I was thinking about -James- today and hoping his bitter attitude had evolved.

I’ve not heard the word ‘mooch’ in the last 20 years without thinking about -James- and the eagerness with which people who knew him shared stories about it.

I cringe a bit, knowing that in a way I can’t see, I’m probably a little bit “-James-, ” too.

If -James- were to read this, he’d be very angry.

I’m certain that he’d be violently upset to discover that an entire clan of people equate him with the living embodiment of “The Mooch.” It’s not the most enviable way to be remembered.

 

Burns of Denial

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When my wife died suddenly several years ago, I opted for an awkward visitation after her cremation. I know it was awkward; such things were not common, especially in the Venn diagram of the converging families affected by her death. Many of her family were Catholic; a few of those hid behind their Catholicism to attempt to blame their dislike of cremation. To be fair, I didn’t care. In my case, I was lucky. The death of a maternal uncle about a month before had crystallized any doubts what my wife wanted if she died. She loved the Catholic church through her grandmother’s eyes; she rejected in the world at large. Her displeasure with it took on its own life when she observed some of her family members use it as a disguise for the things that infected them.

Though it strays from the theme of this post, one of the first serious conversations I had with her involved her dad. Her youth was punctuated by heartache. Both parents were not appropriately tuned in to their kids. She was the youngest of a series of children born to a mix of fathers. Both misbehaved; the mom especially led a promiscuous lifestyle. I convinced my wife that she would almost certainly reach a point where she could sit in a room and laugh with her dad. That day came before her death. It wasn’t perfect, but it was miles from where they’d started.

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Deanne with her dad Ralph…

Even though it made some people uncomfortable, for the visitation I had a table with letters, photos, and both mementos and moments for people to see. Like it or not, none of us are prepared for the unreasonable demands of sudden death, especially when young.

Someone familiar with my story and the players involved told me a story I keep forgetting. Her accounting of memories and happenings is much stronger than mine – though she would not agree with me saying so.

When she attended my wife’s visitation, the wife of my biggest critic turned to her and mentioned the cigarette burns on her husband’s back, ones earned during his abusive childhood.

I wasn’t a part of the conversation. Although I was told the story before, it slipped out of my mind as things do.

It was such an odd time to bring it up.

It was an odd and unrequested topic, too.

Given the recent uptick in unsolicited criticism, it echoes in my mind as a benchmark for so much.

I felt like I should share this story.

Because the story comes from someone unimpeachable, it seems important that the wife would later attempt a hard right turn into becoming a revisionist regarding any abuse.

The abused themselves do this with an astonishing frequency.

A Forgotten Monday

a forgotten Monday

Moments before, I’d been crouched against the dry, brittle earth as I pried it loose in a 16″ square, throwing the depth of removed dirt into a large bucket. I’ve been engaged in a methodical war with the ground along the back fence since I started my infinite project. Stone by stone, my bites of the earth growing larger as the squares I use become heavier and thicker.

The virus has involuntarily trained me to tolerate being hot and uncomfortable. At work, it is for safety; at home, it is for the war I declared on the ugliness left by my neighbors. Today, I stayed in my work clothes. Often they get so filthy that I must wash them unaccompanied in the washer when I’m done.

Though it was late in the day, I went outside and began the slow process of gouging rectangular templates in the ground. The work for Monday at my job was relentless. As contradictory as it may sound, working on the infernal yard project has probably saved me from a bit of insanity. My job does not reflect who I am and leaves me bone-weary some days but unsatisfied that I’ve accomplished anything real. I suspect it is a malady shared by many of my contemporaries, and one amplified by the virus intruding upon us.

Though working in the dirt tires me even further, it also rejuvenates me. There are no conflicts, no agendas, and no uncertainties.

After finishing my first large stone, drops began to hit me in the head and neck, dissipating instantaneously. I left my hat in the house, where I’d left it last time to dry and harden back to normal shape. A breeze lifted from the void and billowed my work shirt around me.

I walked over to the remainder of the old chain link and barbed wire fence and leaned against it. I stood there, my face upturned into the advancing rain and wind. As the droplets increased, dozens of dragonflies began their dance of pirouetting into the air to catch gnats, flies, and other insects as the rain brought them from the dense grass of the neighbor’s lawn behind me.

Because my clothes and shoes were already dirty, I stood for several minutes as the rain advanced and peppered me. The temperature dropped, and goosebumps rose along my arms and back. The dragonflies scattered from the other yard and began to circle around me and through the links in the fence.

I couldn’t help but smile.

The Monday accumulated behind me disappeared completely as I lost myself in the simple pleasure of the dragonflies and rain.

 

The Broken Record Is Renewed

For those who wanted a simple timeline, instead of my endless commentary. Names have been changed to protect whoever wants such protection.

One part of my motive for this blog was to share my stories and cement my stories so that revisionists couldn’t later do what they do when attempting to silence someone doesn’t work.

This isn’t going to be perfect. I’m leaving out huge gaps of nuttiness and drama.

People who read this blog won’t know who is being discussed unless they have a Ouija board or an exceptional dossier on the thousands of people in my life.

Earlier this week, my family member (who I will call Mark) created more identities and emails to attempt to interact with my blog. I already have a large list of blocked IP addresses, aliases, and emails he’s used previously. Though I can screenshot them, only people in denial would claim I’m making it up. I’ve shown it to a couple of people, ones who are familiar with the long pattern of anger and addiction that I’ve dealt with.

Mark was always a blowhard. When he was younger, his wit and intelligence were formidable. As his personality hardened, he became a victim to his own assuredness and secrets. We had a lot of great moments. To talk about the ones that diminish him does not negate that great moments occur. Mark hated my outspoken nature, especially when it walked over family honor. (Or dishonor.) Throughout most of his adult life, he was angry. Addiction did not help him in this regard. Whether anyone wants to hear it or not, his legacy will be one of anger and discord. There will be those who point the finger at me. Those who know me know that my life isn’t punctuated by this sort of addiction or constant refueling of anger and drama. It’s pointless.

When Mark resurfaces and starts in on me, he usually has a commensurate reaction in his personal life. When people get out their flamethrowers, they tend to scorch everyone. Previously, I let his wife know. (I’ll call her Jolene.)

I wrote Jolene a simple email to let her know Mark was at it again.

She responded angrily and with a swatch of allegations regarding my motive, character, and credibility.

I replied back, saying I wasn’t going to reply in anger, given that it wouldn’t help anyone, much less either of us.

She replied again, doubling down on her accusations. The email was boiled in anger. I could post the email chain here with names edited. It’s obvious when reading them who is suffering. And although Jolene wouldn’t want to hear it from me now,  I still feel a profound sense of loss and empathy for her and those who grew up in Mark’s sphere.

It has nothing to do with morality, superiority, or any of those accusatory defenses. It’s simply a matter of life not well-lived.

I replied a final time, using a short 3-sentence reply, one absent rancor, or accusation.

I went a long time without interacting with my Mark. In 2013, while I was helping to care for a cousin who was dying of cancer, Mark launched an all-out campaign to threaten me. It was effective. He worked in a job that gave him great ability to follow through on his threats and had a long history of alcoholism and anger issues. Instead of pressing charges, I tried to get someone to get him some help. I nearly lost my sanity for a bit.

As he does, Mark flipped it on me and told everyone that I was trying to get him fired. I still have the emails with his bosses that easily prove I’m telling the truth. Having perfected his skills over the decades, he told his bosses that I was bipolar and his family that I was out to ruin his life and get him fired. It took me forever to make him stop contacting me. My cousin died while I was dealing with Mark. Afterward, I had to endure the interference of family members who tried to paint it as a disagreement, despite that Mark had threatened to kill me – and that I believed it. People who knew me and who had heard his voicemails and calls knew it. While I might have been guilty of being an asshole, a charge I must confess to, Mark was guilty of an actual crime, one which I contributed to me trying to get him help instead of arrested.

In the intervening years, I dreaded the other shoe dropping. I knew that it would.

Not terribly long ago, Mark was forced to retire from his job due to alcoholism. I didn’t know that for quite some time. I didn’t know that he had been forced to get treated before, either. How could I know?

He began to call me intermittently and I answered. I was cautious. During one of my trips to Hot Springs, Mark called me. I’ll never forget telling him that he broke something in me in 2013 and afterward and that I might not ever regain it.

Mark began calling me more frequently. I tiptoed around his issues, wanting just to reconnect.

Many of us foolishly try to keep a relationship alive, even while swallowing huge parts of ourselves in exchange for doing so.

I sent Mark books, encouraged him to write his stories down, and made him personal gifts to encourage him. I tried to put in an effort.

Later, his wife Jolene wrote to me using an alias on social media, asking me to please call her. It’s important to note that I did not reach out to her; she asked me to talk.

Much to my surprise, we had an instant rapport, after so many years of not communicating. She shared with me that Mark was suffering badly from alcoholism. We talked many times and at length. I can’t stress enough that it was rewarding. We found out that Mark had told us differing stories to keep us from comparing notes. He had constructed a huge web of deceit and was continuing to victimize those around him.

At some point, Mark called me and told me he was another state to confront an ex-brother-in-law who slept with his wife Jolene. He was going to come back through Arkansas afterward. When I called Jolene, she said, “What are you talking about? He’s outside the house right now.” And she sent me a picture, which I still have.

Suddenly, all the things that Mark shared with me were called into doubt. He had told me a 1,000 stories, many about how evil Jolene had supposedly been to him. Most of them weren’t true. Jolene and I shared a lot of stories and compared notes. Mark had lied about his injury while drinking, as well about so many others. I won’t recount the list here. Suffice it to say there was a staggering amount.

My heart broke for Jolene and her children. All those years of assuming she hated me washed away. Mark was the spider in the middle of the web.

I tried to continue to talk to Mark. We talked many times, usually reminiscing. I tried to avoid mentioning the disparities or anything that would crash his fantasy world. It became harder and harder to do it – as well as to be nice to Mark. The longer I interacted with Jolene and her children, the more I tried to make him get help. I also worked hard to convince Jolene to get as much help as she could and to leave Mark if he wouldn’t do everything possible to get better. We talked many times about these issues.

I can prove it all, not that anyone reasonable would doubt what I’m saying. For those that do doubt, I can prove it. I’d hope that no one would make me. It’s needlessly traumatic.

During one episode, I recorded Mark at Jolene’s request. I emailed her the audio of the conversation. It laid bare to her how deeply Mark’s pathology extended. I’ll never forget that conversation we had. There was no escaping how deeply Mark’s addiction had advanced or how far he’d go to protect his choices.

At one point, Jolene sent me a picture of Mark passed out inside the garage, between the car door and the car. He wouldn’t stop drinking and driving. He was hiding alcohol everywhere.

I spoke with Jolene and one of her children.

I didn’t do it to refuel my drama cart. I did it because I was concerned. That concern grew to be anger at Mark for refusing to get help – as often as it took and for as long as it took. I discovered that he’d been misbehaving for a long time. I already knew it to be true due to a combination of observation, instinct, and passing comments from friends and family. Families traffic in gossip, truth, and innuendo.

It’s true that toward the end, I grew to be disgusted with Mark. I had to avoid him for long periods because I couldn’t peacefully maintain the facade of deceit or pretend I approved of his life. It would have been different had he not been so evil to his own family.

At some point in all this, he was caught driving drunk and endangering a lot of people. It was mishandled and because of his profession, he was not required to be accountable like a normal person. And so, he continued to drink and drive. I won’t share those stories which were shared with me.

He threatened his family and did and said things that were truly malicious.

Jolene told me to let it out and tell him how I really felt. I finally did.

Naturally, Mark waited until the day of the funeral for another family member. I’ve never participated in a conversation so ugly, even those involving my Mom. The level of pathological lying and misdirection was beyond what I’d dealt with before.

For me, the worst I behaved during all of it was during the phone call on the day of the funeral and later texts I traded with Mark In October 2019. I hit him in the jugular to try to get him to admit his issues and to get him to talk with me and Jolene simultaneously so that I could ask questions with her listening and gauge his response.

 

 

 

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Screenshot_20191028-163332_Messages without names and numbers

 

There are other screenshots in which I’m chasing Mark to be honest, to talk to me with someone else, etc. Truth be told, I wanted nothing except to have Mark and Jolene on the phone with me at the same time.

 

Ultimately, Jolene stayed with Mark, even though the children wanted her to leave. Jolene tired of talking to me and said she thought it would be easier if she didn’t keep me informed anymore. I agreed. I couldn’t be nice to Mark anymore and I realized that Jolene reached her endpoint.

I talked to her another time, as well as to one of her children, who told me that it was still terrible at home.

I knew the risks of talking to someone so close to Mark and that the likelihood of it being spoiled given enough time would be a certainty.

I traded texts back and forth with someone earlier this year – and it was worse than I had left it. It killed me to know that Mark not only had angrily refused help but had tightened his grip on those around him.

Each time I asked Mark to stop calling me, texting me, etc., he took great pains to go out of his way to ridicule me and do it even more. I have screenshots of pages of his calls. If I blocked his number, he’d leave nasty voicemails. For a time, I had to leave my voicemail full just to keep him out of it.

A few years ago, I had changed my email and phone number to avoid talking to him and my Mom. An allegedly well-intentioned family member gave him my new phone number.

No matter what Mark’s mental condition, he was together enough to employ complicated and ongoing efforts to create identities, use IP addresses, and continue to bother me when he knew it wasn’t welcome. His addiction and anger worked together to continue to convince him that I had no right to keep him at arm’s length.

I missed being able to talk casually with Jolene. We all shared a common battle and it shaped all of us and all of our lives.

But even that is gone now, probably forever, another casualty in the addiction war. Mark won. He’s poisoned us.

I have a mass of notes and records from all the craziness. I don’t like to peer into it for too long or look up details to understand. There’s nothing to understand. It’s just another wasted life being brought to a withering end.

Because Jolene called me a victim and insisted that I love washing in it, I’d agree I’m a victim in the sense that Mark perfected part of his skill at angry manipulation on me. I was stupid for returning to the scene of the crime. I failed Mark – and I failed Jolene and her children.

I knew there was a good chance that I’d end up on the wrong end of anyone conected to Mark. He’s gaslighted so well and so consistently his entire adult life that it is a rare person who escapes unburned.

As for that, there are more footprints on the internet that Jolene may realize. Not from me; rather, from those who were close and shared bits and pieces in their own way. They too shared parts of their stories, whether Jolene realized it or not. I didn’t go out of my way looking for them. They were offered voluntarily and at their own pace. They prove that the carnage was real and much worse than what is willingly admitted to. A lot of people eventually tell their stories. They validated what we all knew and whispered about. It’s no shame that someone had an addiction or couldn’t get their loved one to make amends.

We all failed. I wasn’t equipped to deal with it. I learned my own way and mostly avoided the craziness that Mark did. I didn’t escape it entirely, though.

As to whether I wrote too much about it, I only wrote about it when it dramatically crossed paths with my life. That’s my right. I can’t help it that some of those involved wouldn’t escape it. I understand that they have to paint a different picture, choose another villain, and ask someone else to pay their price on their behalf.

If you think I’m the problem, you need to take a long hard look across the internet. The truth is out there.