Five years ago, today, my dad passed away. Though I’ve tried, there aren’t enough words to vomit onto paper what I went through in his wake. If you’ve been around for any time, you’ll know that we lost our son, Caleb, about a year prior, and have lost unborn children before, after, and in between these cataclysmic events. As hard as it is to heal from one blast to the chest, the magnitude only compounds when many triggers are pulled, and yet I can say that from these cosmic impacts I have healed – at least, to the extent that one can heal, this side of heaven. Yet it wasn’t family or friends, community or support, self-help books or prayers that really did it for me (though I’m not downplaying the significance of those).
It was in putting my pain to paper and transforming my grief into living stories that the magic of healing began to flow through my veins. Have I not told you? We were created for stories, for stories reach us in ways that words alone never could, like a secret language, a taproot into our soul.
This, dear reader, is our birthright.
Story Unlikely is days away from turning two. We’re young, to say the least, but old in so many ways, and growing - so fast that it’s a bit unsettling and hard to keep up. But a work is being done here that we have not seen for an age – a work that you might not believe if told; a work that speaks of more than mere human hands and points to something bigger, grander, and far more frightening.
You know, something a bit like a lion.
There was an apple orchard in the middle of town. Sometimes, when your mom was stuck endlessly browsing the aisles of Walmart, and you’d hopped all the tar lines on your ten-speed for the thousandth time, and all the neighborhood kids were gone and your sister was at your aunt’s, and there was nothing but crappy Cheers or Murphy Brown episodes recycling on your 24” tube TV, and your dad was buzzed and grilling unseasoned hamburgers or working on his miniature train table in your jungle of a basement, you’d angle that ten-speed out of your safe little Sahara, towards the apple orchard.
Not long ago, there was a thin line of gravel that hooked Farmland Drive into greater Maquoketa, and when you rode down on your green Huffy the corn would creep in like an audience reaching towards the stage, slicing little lines into your arms. The gravel path is gone now, blown out and paved and adorned with an overpass that keeps watch over your neighborhood like a sentry on a castle wall. The concrete is fresh, unblemished, perfect under your tires, and for some reason you kind of despise it. You don’t yet understand what melancholy means, have never tasted the word nostalgia on your teeth, but you look upon this great patch of asphalt with your child’s eyes, see it as a harbinger of change, an unwelcome messenger, reminding you that spring never lingers, that the lions of life are ever prowling. The corn is still here. In a few years, when you ditch the tires and traverse the concrete in sneakers, a CD player clutched between teenage fingers, houses will bubble up between the rows of corn, and you’ll run past them, noticing how they come together, one stud, one brick, one sheet of drywall at a time.
For now, the road is vacant, quiet, a concrete desert but for the grasshoppers that take flight, their wings snapping like high-voltage power lines. You ride onward, and when you crest the hill, you see it – the orchard. Even in childhood, it strikes you as both odd and beautiful, something out of place, not where it should be, like an untold secret, a magical wardrobe hiding in plain sight, waiting for the right hands to test its squeaky gates, open like a wormhole, tumbling you into a new world full of good and evil, centaurs, dragons, and talking rats.
A pasture parallels the orchard, where several horses stand, tails flicking. They are oblivious to you, intent on the world fenced around them, nothing more, but maybe less. Hello! you will through your mind. It makes no difference; they are unreachable. You move on.
The road transitions to a sidewalk and you feel your tires biting the grooves in the cement, rolling past Romer’s house with his sweet basketball setup in the backyard where you never see him shooting, but you know he must because he’s a good shot, but he’s even better on the nearby tennis courts where you’ll both play on the high school team in the years ahead, smashing serves on the cracked cement at 5th Ward Park, traveling greater Jackson County at meets by van or bus, celebrating victories and drowning your losses in Whoppers at Burger King. Decades later you will catch up at weddings and reunions - far removed from your small town pasture where you once grazed - adults with careers and kids, swimming in your own cosmic jokes about the next generation, their inane fears and vampiric rejection of competition, or masculinity, anything with an odor of risk – the very juice that fueled both of you - just glad that someone else can laugh alongside, at the absurdity of it all, that you're not alone on this strange and foreign landscape that no longer resembles itself - like a petulant, misunderstood teen going through a goth phase - where you came from, crawled out of the primordial goo of adolescence, and those roots, so old now with lines and wrinkles and rust – memories like faded tattoos - anchor you in place.
But for now, you ride on, catch the wind downhill, dare to release your grip from the handlebars, if but for a moment. You breeze past the Catholic Church and its parking lot, where you’ll gather every December in the years ahead with your group of charming, idiot friends, all cramming in a van, human sardines heading to McDonald’s to order comic levels of food: hundreds of McBurgers or McChickens, peeling back the wrapping and laying them out on warm car hoods in the frigid winter temperatures, stuffing your faces because this is your way. There are dormant abilities brewing inside you, just now waking from slumber, and you array and examine them, much like the greasy morsels at your fingertips: to rally and unite under a banner of laughter and youth, testing the keys of conquest simply because you can. You’re young and invincible; there are no lions lurking that need to be driven off or tamed, no burdens of Atlas yet laid upon your shoulders, no deeds of death demanding signature.
That’s all much later. For now, you’re content to pedal your 10-speed with but a cursory glance at the church parking lot, on towards the little brick building, where the glass and steel door opens with a distinct DING, and the aroma of popcorn hits you like high tide. You move past Schwarzenegger and Van Damme, past Farley and the Farrellys. It’s not a movie you’re after, but a game. You pluck the ticket off the shelf and lay it at the counter, where an employee disappears into the back room and returns a moment later.
The door DINGs your exit, and you hop back on your bike. If you’re feeling adventurous, you’ll take the scenic route back home, cutting through ALDI’S – the grocery store where you have to punch a coin into the handle to release the cart. You come here often, with your dad. He always bypasses the quarter-carts, snatches a cardboard box somewhere in the can aisle – because at ALDI, bags are like shopping carts: not free – tosses in cheap hamburger buns, ketchup he stores at room temperature, thick, doughy, chocolate chip cookies that last all of 30 minutes in the plastic orange jar on the counter in your small kitchen. Many years from now, ALDI will close down, and when you drive past – this time in your F-150 – you can still hear the phantom blip-blip-blip-blip-blip as the checker scans the items, a gatling gun of produce and pasta.
Now, on your bike, you pay no attention. You ride through Rottman’s Auto, coasting under the stoplight until the golden arches hover above. In high school, McDonald’s will introduce a life-changing event - the dollar menu - and it’s here you will retreat to with your crew on the weekends, at any and all hours for late-night double cheeseburgers. McDonald’s is run by the mother of your classmate Mike, and you won’t realize until you test your mettle as a young adult how tight a ship she ran. When you’ve moved out of town and are single with roommates, you’ll keep that rhythm of midnight burger runs, and before you slam the front door shut, you’ll holler at the roomies, “Heading to McDonalds, I’ll be back in half an hour,” even though it’s a four-minute drive, because the competency level drops off significantly down here – like a coastal shelf on the ocean floor - and you never knew how good you had it back in your small town, when fast food was actually fast food.
Mike’s mom knows how to manage a business. She’ll hire (and fire) your friends and acquaintances. You’ll catch them in the kitchen, relishing in the safety of (or shaking with fright) knowing your burgers are in good (or suspect) hands. One of them, Nick, whom you’ll play chess with in study hall and kick around hacky sacks together in the hallways of high school, will be the first of your class to declare checkmate in the greater game of life. You won’t keep up much after graduating, but you’ll chat with Mike a bit after Nick’s death, and you’ll remember concluding that this somehow cements your adulthood. So we’re dying now, you’ll think bitterly.
Right now, though, a burger and fries would hit the spot, but you’re out of cash, and pedal on, stopping to walk your bike up the massive hill on Western Avenue. At the apex, a road shoots to the west, leading to a Methodist church, where one day they’ll throw a battle of the bands in the basement when Mark Delarm will win (of all things) a Saturn, and the retirement home, Crestridge, whose entrance leads to a large, round room and feels only slightly less like encapsulated death than its counterpart, Maquoketa Care, where your own grandmother slowly wastes away. The smell, however, is identical: musty clothing, drool stains, adult diapers, swallowable food preheating in the kitchen, disease and death smothered by a smokescreen of bleach. You know this because your 6th grade English teacher, Mrs. Schmidt, got this idea to risk a field trip up there. You and Mike were paired up with an ancient man named Ben who recounted tales of his youth - it was like a dusty book talking: living in a cabin, chopping wood, no amenities, no nothing. At one point he gets all choked up about a particular memory he had dredged up. You and Mike exchange a look – two kids at a loss for what to do next. In the moment, you speculate that an adult would know precisely what to say next.
As an adult, you will revise that sentiment.
What you find interesting is that Mrs. Schmidt had the audacity to make this a recurring event. You recall one pair of students discovering that the gentleman whom they were assigned had kicked the proverbial bucket between visits. Huddled in the corner of the classroom, the girls wept freely as Mrs. Schmidt relayed the grim news. The pragmatic part of you thought, cynically, You hardly knew the guy, c’mon, and yet the other part was in awe of the whole experience - the tail ends of life and death colliding like a meteor angling off course, the trauma and the rawness of the impact - and was moved, for the girls and their empathy, and for the fragility of the human experience, of which you had not the words to describe, but merely the budding emotions.
Upon your return visit, you note how the morning sun shone through the windows beautifully, the rays cutting past the stench and smog, a stark contrast and reminder that light pierces even the darkest, saddest corners. You and Mike come prepared with pre-written questions. Although you have closer friends in the class, you’re glad to be paired with him. Years later, you’ll talk fringe theories, oddball bands like Weezer, and the impetus for Ozzy Osborne’s Crazy Train. Your senior year, he and two others will form a band and play in the school talent show. You find their original song so compelling that its name will be etched into the stonework of your memory – Wake.
Mike has a wisdom about him, comforting in such a place as a nursing home, where the lions of death are always pacing, waiting for the right moment to pounce. Perhaps he gets it from his older brother, Adam, who will grow his hair out come high school, where a freshman named Aubrie will remark - in good cheer - that he looks like Jesus. Thorson will laugh regally at this – after all, who among us ever met the Son of God in the flesh? Despite the humor of it all, you’ll quietly agree, Adam does resemble Jesus a bit, doesn’t he?
Count the decades by ones and by twos and you’ll learn through the information highway that another lion – these powerful creatures we think are beyond mortality - has been slain, that Adam will get his chance to meet the real Jesus, having not even turned 40. The unexpected weight of it will just hit you, and you’ll feel the salt water burning down your skin, leaking onto your keys – feeling a kinship with those 6th-grade girls in English class from so long ago - helpless to watch as your fingers take to typing:
It doesn't seem like it was 20 years ago when they unleashed us on those roads, wild with our driver's licenses, full of youth and instinct and innocence. They never warned us, later, as we walked off the stage with our cap and gowns, never told us about the harshness of life and the sudden finality of death. Sometimes, I wish they would have, even if it wouldn't have made a difference.
Sometimes, I wish I could just snap my fingers and go back: to Xbox (or D&D), to late night Mcdonald's runs, to dial-up internet and landline phones, where the worst thing you had to fear when waking up in the morning was male anatomy plastered all over your windshield, sparkling in the morning dew. And then you take a breath, and it's gone - all those years slip by like a thief in the night. You grasp for words, and they elude you. You grasp for meaning, and it all seems so antiquated, or improper, or ill-fitting, like it was meant for somebody else, or a different you, one that isn't ready to exist yet - maybe another 20 years and he'll be ready, but not now; it feels like this game of life in which we all play, there aren't really any winners, only people who lose less.
And even if it isn't true, you still feel it.
Now, you simply pedal on, past the Methodist church and Crestridge retirement home, where death is but an alien, a stranger dwelling in distant lands. For you, Western Avenue is the back way into that magical wardrobe, where the apple orchard and the pasture parallel the road. You look upon the horses with fascination. They are an anomaly, a herd of majestic creatures dwelling in the heart of human industry. Do they ever look beyond their barbed wire? Do they know that in singularity there is beauty, that they are the envy of the world? Do they even understand what they truly are, that they’re not mere horses, are they? Oh, but they are so much more – lions, if only they knew.
One day this wilderness will be overrun by construction and pavement, expansion and progress, and it will leave a small hole in your heart. You’ll think back to your youth, and the enchanted road that leads to Crestridge, and wonder whatever happened to Mrs. Schmidt. Did she stay the course? Did she keep shuttling kids back up to that dismal nursing home, year after year, releasing the cubs in the shadows of death, infusing darkness with light? Did she understand the role she played, the impact that she had, and the significance of colliding two different worlds like some mad, benevolent, heart-breaking scientist? Did she even realize what she was teaching: not stale platitudes about respecting your elders, but the soul-wrenching significance of inhaling stories, and the value of human life?
The sun is setting above the overpass by the time you reach the end of Western Avenue. You plant a foot on the sidewalk and stare down the road that winds back to your house. There’s a red bench they recently anchored into the cement not far from the highway bridge. In all your years ahead you will never witness a soul sitting there, but for one instance: your neighbor Timmy, who, in grade school, will steer his bike all over town, even as far as Canton. And your dad – whose life will wink out as sudden and tragically as a shooting star lost amongst the cosmos, only a few years ahead of Nick and Adam - idling down the road in his Robin’s egg blue Ford Ranger, will speak over the static of the radio, pointing out a silhouette seated at the base of the overpass, which, as the recognition melts over his face, he will forever christen Timmy’s Bench. And on occasion when you’re back in town, rolling past in your work truck, feeling the stubble on your cheek, the smooth skin atop your skull, the hole in your heart, you’ll spot Timmy’s Bench and think of the man – the lion - who named it.
But for now, you’ll return to Farmland Drive, to your mom endlessly browsing through the aisles of Walmart, to your dad running the shop vac over the model train tracks, to all your neighborhood friends, those older cutting their teeth behind the steering wheel while the younger ones stamp around blissfully in the mud, but you, caught somewhere in the middle, that awkward transition between childhood and adolescence, in the shifting ground, sensing the tide turning, the eventuality of cataclysm, and feeling a pang of regret, like remembering something in the future, or crying for a reason you don’t know and will never comprehend - over everything you had, everything you were, everything you will become.
One day you will understand how we get cornered into this notion of being strong, showing no fear, moving on courageously despite the wake of death and destruction we’re all drowning in – after all, we have our claws and we have our pride – never realizing that we are the lions, if for all the wrong reasons.
But for now, a breeze picks up, and you catch the scent of autumn in the air, of things dying, seasons changing. You clutch the videogame tightly around the handlebar, stomp your feet to the pedal, and fly, screaming down the hill like a banshee, over the fresh, unblemished concrete, past Timmy’s Bench and the new houses that are for now nothing but wild ideas, blueprints, paper dreams; feeling your lion’s heart pounding with youth and adrenaline and the innocent hope of tomorrow, listening to the sound of the wind in your ear - a sound that, if you were to stop and think about it, even for one moment, might strike you a bit like a roar.
About the author:
Danny Hankner began penning stories about himself and his idiot friends as a teenager. Now, masquerading as an adult, he lives in Davenport, Iowa with his wife and three children, working as a master electrician for his own company. In his spare time, Dan rides and builds mountain bike trails, guzzles copious amounts of Zevia ("It's good for me!"), and runs Story Unlikely, an award-winning monthly literary magazine where he floats around self-important titles like 'Editor-in-chief'. His work has besmirched the good reputations of Downstate Story, SQ Mag, Bending Genres, Memoirist, and many more unfortunate publishers, as well as being awarded semi-finalist in Writers of the Future.
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FundsforWriters was founded 22 years ago by award-winning mystery author C. Hope Clark, prior to her publishing success. Unable to find concise lists of writing contests, markets, or publishers, and not finding any resource listing grants, she started a writer's newsletter with that focus. It rapidly grew into a readership of thousands and quickly gained recognition by Writer's Digest that chose FundsforWriters for its 101 Best Websites for Writers. Writer's Digest has continued recognizing FFW on that list for 22 years in a row.
The website and free weekly newsletter lists guidance for writers wanting to earn a living at the craft. Through features, editorials, and calls for submissions, FFW gives writers opportunity and motivation to keep going. This business is difficult, and Hope attempts to educate writers on the options available to them. Each week the newsletter offers contests, markets, grants, and publishers/agents with current calls for writers, with the readership currently at 24,000, and she pays writers to write her features, keeping true to her mission that writers ought to be paid for what they write.
Hope not only freelances for Writer's Digest, Chapin Neighbors Magazine, SC Wildlife and more, but she also writes mysteries with 16 books under her belt in three series, two of them award-winning. Her biggest seller is the Edisto Island Mysteries consisting of nine books to date. She is published by Bell Bridge Books. She speaks at writers' groups, book clubs, libraries, and schools, and has presented at many a writers conference. Without a doubt Hope loves what she does and hopes to never retire. She can be reached at www.fundsforwriters.com / www.chopeclark.com / firstname.lastname@example.org and is on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
IVORY TOWER PASTOR
“Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.” Ephesians 5:11
Seven months ago we published a memoir,Ivory Tower Pastor - a twisted affair about an abusive clergy and the Gallon Drinkers (think Gallon Donor, except we're talking Kool-Aid, not blood) he has surrounded himself with.
The new year is upon us. A great time for a fresh start, or perhaps just owning the wrongs you've done to others, and, you know, turning from said behavior. That would be the logical, decent thing to do. But of course that's not what we're witnessing. So maybe, instead of a New Year's Resolution, we'll make a few predictions?
Until these men are finally held accountable - removed from their positions of power and suffer the necessary consequences for their perverse behavior - we will continue to follow this story. There are people who know intimate details - who have witnessed or experienced abuse (some of which may land people in court, might get others barred from their practice) who need to step forward. And there are those (cough Acts 29 Network cough), who need to - for once - start taking abuse within their church network seriously and deal with this. Once and for all.
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