Brief instructions on how to be a novelist.

"Man With Head in Hands," Guy Noble


First, make coffee. Better yet, go get some. Public places better for some reason anyway. Observe people. No TV to watch. Something like that. Pack up the computer, power cord, notebook containing scrambled junk you’ve taken down in the guise of notes. Don’t bring anything else. Phone is necessary unfortunately. For emergencies only though. Got everything. Check again. Don’t leave anything behind else if you come back you won’t leave again. Think of a place to go that has accessible power outlets, good parking, not too crowded, few distractions. Absolutely no TVs. No shortage of Starbuckses around. (Side note: figure out plural of Starbucks eventually. But not now. Too distracting. Stay on target.) Those’ll do in a pinch, but local would be better. Connect with the city in which you live. Got it. Nearby, quiet, unknown. Grab bag. Lock door. Drive there. Use this time to plan few blessed hours of writing. Leave radio off. Distracting.

Parking is easy. Place is not popular, which is good because no one is ever there but bad because it will probably go out of business soon. For now, it is the hideout. Tables are scarce, small, nearly inadequate, but almost romantically so. This will do. Order coffee. Make yourself go to the bathroom first like a toddler just to get it out of the way. Don’t want an interruption later. Plug in computer. Open Word. Avoid habitual tendency to open the internet first. Browsers are black holes. Only use for reference later. Like the phone, emergencies only. Get out alleged notes. Start typing.


Take two seconds. Breathe deeply. Close your eyes. Hear it. Let it come. It will burst into your mind, into your heart, it will erupt through your body into your arms and out through your fingers in wild blue sparks, in wordstorms, sentenceriots, pagequakes. It will possess your hands. Words will flow like rain off of rooftops. They will scream at you and pound the inside of your skull. They will be so ecstatic and forceful that you wlil hardly be able to record them fast enough. Soon. Inspiration, muse, call it what you will. You have touched it before, felt it’s fire, it’s divinity. You have rubbed elbows with it’s opulence, consorted with it’s trusted companionship, been held by it’s loving embrace. Nothing like it in the world.

Only wait. Any moment now.

Any moment.

Something in you says, just start typing. But typing what? No, it must be right. Must be glorious and flawless. Miraculous. Candid and astute, spewing verve and panache, wit and patience, demonstrating unequivocally that you are the writer that was destined to come. It must be this, and nothing else. Merely good will not do.

So you must wait. As long as it takes.

(While you’re waiting, open the internet. See what’s up. Won’t hurt. Just for a moment. Get right back off. Really, you will this time. Promise yourself.)

Dark outside. Time’s up. Frown. Close Word document. (Select “No” when it asks if you want to save.) Close notebook. Close computer. Close your eyes. Sigh audibly.

Try again tomorrow.




A Happy Home, finale


The next day it was as if the incident had not occurred at all. Miles came down for breakfast, apologized for having lost his temper, and the Youngs smiled knowingly at him. Nothing a little sleep can’t take care of, they thought separately and yet together. He had just had a hard day, they knew. Everyone was prone to occasional fits of temper when circumstances were trying, so they were able to easily excuse his behavior. They instructed him to tell someone if Billy started to bully him again, to which he calmly replied that telling someone usually only makes it worse. As long as Billy was merely insulting him, he said, he would be able to take it. They smiled at this, at the resurgence of the old Miles, the patient, dedicated, virtuous Miles, and asked him to report it if the abuse turned physical, which he agreed to do. Miles and his mother gathered their things and headed off to school, leaving Mr. Young to finish his coffee and morning reading in peace. Once the steam of cooking and bodies had vacated, Mr. Young noticed a slight chill in the house. The noise of cars rushing by and school busses squealing to a stop was unusually acute that morning, seeming to rain down from above him rather than seep in from around the walls as it usually did. For some reason he could hardly wait to get out of the house. As he pulled out of the driveway, he still felt minutely disturbed about the previous evening, and as he drove away had the vaguest sensation of relief, as if he were leaving the scene of a crime.

At recess that day, Mrs. Young noticed that Billy was not present at the basketball court. She wondered if there had been some disciplinary action against him, either from his parents or from the school, but soon dismissed the idea. Had he been suspended she surely would have heard of it, and certainly the Millers were not silly enough to think that keeping a boy out of school was in any way punitive. Perhaps he is just sick, and his absence is merely a coincidence, she thought.

She started to question her assessment when he wasn’t there the following day either. His cohorts still played basketball, but on the opposite side of the court from where they typically played. Perhaps Mrs. Young had put a scare into them and they were just keeping their distance from Miles, not wishing to stir up any trouble. Miles, for his part, was as peaceable as a sleeping puppy, reading each day in his usual spot, undisturbed, smiling secretly to himself about whatever his imagination conjured up.

That weekend Mrs. Young ran into Mrs. Miller again at the grocery store. She was greeted curtly, detachedly, absently.

“Hello, Mrs. Young.”

“Well, hello, Laura. How are you?”

“I am fine, thank you.” Obviously Mrs. Miller was upset with her, and she suspected it had to do with how Billy had been treated. Mrs. Young felt compelled to make sure the air was clear, so rather than make small talk, which Mrs. Young was clearly not in the mood to do, she plunged right in.

“Laura, I don’t mean to pry, but it seems that you are upset with me, and I can only think it has do with what happened the other day.”

Hardly had she gotten the words out than they were trampled upon. “It has nothing to do with that.” She paused briefly. “Is this really the place where you want to have this conversation?”

Mrs. Young was taken aback at the other woman’s aggression. “I suppose that depends. What conversation are we having?”

Mrs. Miller’s eyes narrowed like sword blades. “The one about Billy’s dog.”

Mrs. Young was stupefied. “I’m sorry?”

Mrs. Miller was sizing her up, gauging her sincerity. “You have no idea what I am talking about? I assumed you had heard.”

“I’m sorry, Laura, I truly don’t. Did something happen?”

Mrs. Miller looked down, then furtively around to see if anyone was nearby. When she spoke, her throat sounded suddenly raw and swollen, her voice quavered like a rickety porch, and her complexion was like ghosts.

“Someone killed Billy’s dog.”

Mrs. Young could only gasp in horror and raise her hand to her mouth. “How horrible! How do you, I mean, are you sure?” was all she could manage, a stupid question.

“I’m pretty sure, yes.” It was spoken sardonically, almost spittingly. “We found him…” The words stuck in her throat, and she had to swallow before continuing. She glanced about again, then, “Someone…stabbed him with a pitchfork…twice. We found him Wednesday morning.”

Mrs. Young could hardly move. Miles and Billy had had their run-in on Tuesday. “Surely you don’t think…”

“I don’t know what to think. I can’t imagine who would do that. I mean I know Billy has always been…” And suddenly she was weeping. She buried her head in the curve of her arm. A mother and her young toddler came by. The mother whispered something to the child, and they turned promptly down the nearest aisle. The boy was looking back at them intently. His mother scooped him up and placed him in the cart and spoke softly to him as they moved on silently and quickly.

Mrs. Miller looked up, her eyes desperate and pleading. “Who would do such a thing?”

Mrs. Young had no response except for the shaking of her head, a touch to the arm of Mrs. Miller, and horrified, chilling silence.

She could not shake the image from her mind on the drive home: some fearsome teenager, grinning fiercely and despotically, pitchfork in hard, poised ready to strike an innocent, sleeping animal. It wasn’t until she entered the quiet of her home that she was finally able to think of something else.

She found her son lying on the sofa, reading his favorite book, chuckling softly to himself, his face as round and ruddy as a cherub’s, his laughter bouncing off the yellow plaster walls, sounding as clear and free as it had when they had first heard it.


Billy never returned to school, and a few weeks later there was a sign in the Millers’ yard. The house was for sale. Mrs. Young noticed it as she and Miles drove past the house on their way to school. Winter had come upon the neighborhood as subtly as age, slow and unseen like senility. It was a frigid morning, and frost was conquering the corners of every pane of glass.

“I can’t believe they are moving! That’s so sudden!” she expressed. It wasn’t directed at Miles, nor intended to start a conversation, but said absently into the air, like snowflakes flung from a cloud of thought. For a long time, Miles said nothing in response, instead simply staring out of the window at the passing scenery, and for a few moments his mother thought that he might have actually sensed that no response was required.

But then he spoke, softly, coyly, as if he were coaxing a baby to sleep.

“They won’t be troubling us any more.”

No. It couldn’t be. Her head wheeled around to look at him, trying to catch a glance of his face, but he hadn’t moved at all.

“I told you,” he said, “I can take care of myself.”

When he finally looked at her, she thought he must have been freezing; his face was monochrome gray, the gray of ashes, the gray of ancient statues. Then he smiled, and she knew. She had seen that very smile before, but never, oh never, did she think she would see it on him.


A Happy Home, part 4 of 5


Ok, i lied. Sue me. i thought it would only take one more segment to conclude, but i vastly underestimated. Don’t mistake this for the end. Also, sorry for pulling a George R.R. here.


From time to time the Youngs would encounter the Millers around the neighborhood, at school functions or PTA meetings, but the families rarely exchanged more than a brief greeting, and never visited one another intentionally again. Years later, when Miles was in the fourth grade, Mrs. Young ran into Mrs. Miller at the grocery store. Both were retrieving milk from the cooler, and suddenly it seemed conversation was unavoidable, even though the couples had spent years casually avoiding one another. This was not born out of spite, at least not for the Youngs. They had no reason to hold a grudge against the Millers, and in fact rather pitied them for their struggles with Billy. In their eyes, the whole incident had long ago passed into the realm of harmless, humorous memory, relegated strictly and solely to the past. What instead perpetuated the Youngs’ tacit participation in this game of social evasion was not bitterness, but fear: they could not be certain that the Millers were as ready to forgive as they.

Mrs. Young’s first inclination was to turn and pretend she hadn’t seen the other woman, but courtesy demanded that she say something; it would only be more awkward if she didn’t. She flashed a bright smile that reflected the glow of her bright yellow blouse, and mustered up her friendliest hello.

Mrs. Miller only seemed to look up from her list for an instant, just long enough to know who was speaking. “Karen, hi. How are you?” Her tone was polite yet distant.

“We are quite well, thank you! How are you? How is the family?”

“We’re good,” she said flatly, then repeated it as if it needed further proof. “We’re good. Frank is getting promoted soon, we think, so that will hopefully give us some regularity at the house, finally, maybe allow me to spend a little more time at home or, I don’t know, work a little more regular hours.” The implication was clear. Mrs. Young wondered if she should press the issue, and very nearly decided against it, but she had a concerned curiosity at this point, and it got the best of her.

“And how is little Billy?”

Mrs. Miller’s response was delayed, and measured when it came. “He is…doing better. Actually, we got him a dog. I know, I know, it seems like a silly thing to do on the surface, but we read…somewhere, I don’t know, that it might help children develop a sense of responsibility if they have a pet. So far it seems to be working quite well.” She gave a single thin laugh, accompanied by a wispy thin smile. “He loves that dog more than anything, actually.”

Mrs. Young was genuinely pleased. “I’m so glad! Very happy to hear that. I hope that gives you guys a little relief.”

“We do too! Absolutely.” She was looking back at her list, seeming anxious to be off. Mrs. Young took the hint.

“Well, it was great seeing you. Tell Frank we said hello.”

“I will. Good seeing you too. Take care.”

She wheeled her cart around and then turned it down the nearest aisle, not looking back. Mrs. Young watched her until she disappeared, then turned back to her own shopping. She had mostly forgotten the encounter by the time she got home, where Miles greeted her with an enthusiastic hug, as if she’d been gone for weeks.


Miles’s school career was predictably, almost mundanely, successful. His early propensity for learning paid dividends of continued excellence throughout elementary school, but what pleased the Youngs most was not his aptitude but rather his appetite; he had a genuine hunger for education. In the evenings after dinner, Miles always volunteered to do his homework, which he would finish promptly. At first the Youngs had offered to check his work and help him where he was confused, but it was not long before they realized that these offers were quite superfluous. His work was always flawless. The first few times he had come home with a report card containing only A’s, they were unsurprised, but ecstatic nevertheless. The cards had immediately achieved prominence on the refrigerator, winning out over old Christmas photos and favorite family recipes. By the time Miles reached the third grade, however, it became apparent that his grades were never going to falter, and not only did the Youngs stop displaying his grades, they stopped even checking them. He attended the same school where Mrs. Young worked, and this enabled her to stay well-informed about his activity, but truly there was no need to keep tabs on him. His teachers had nothing but glowing remarks about both his scholarship and his behavior, and his achievements were recognized with every possible award during those years. In what had become their typical fashion, the Youngs received compliments about Miles with an air of grace and humility, pointing always to divine grace for their good fortune, refusing to take any of the credit for the child’s behavior. Inwardly, though, they beamed with pride.

A few weeks after her encounter with Mrs. Miller, Mrs. Young noticed her son talking to Billy at recess. Or rather, he was being talked to. Miles mostly spent his recesses reading, usually sitting against the wall near the basketball court. Billy usually played basketball with some other boys, and could often be heard arguing with them about whether or not he had fouled them during their shot. Mrs. Young suspected that he probably had, in most cases. Generally she afforded Miles his privacy at recess, rarely even saying hello to him, because, like all children, he was squeamish about talking to his mother in public. But this particular day, she happened to glance in his direction and noticed Billy standing over him, talking and laughing.

She had seen that laugh before, and the memory of it brought her heart into her throat for a moment. Not wanting to make unwarranted assumptions, but also wanting to protect her child should anything be amiss, she discretely made her way towards the boys until she could overhear the conversation.

“Miles is a bitch. Bitch bitch bitch.” Billy was laughing, and his friends were doing the same. Miles was saying nothing yet, which was reassuring to his mother, who leaned against the wall around the corner. Her natural instinct as both a mother and an educator was to intervene immediately, but she also had a slightly morbid curiosity about how Miles would handle the situation when unsupervised, so she hesitated just a few more moments before revealing herself.

“Look at him. Who reads at recess? Bitches.” Billy laughed jeeringly again, and his friends followed suit.

Mrs. Young could hear Miles close his book. “A bitch is a female dog,” he retorted. “I am obviously not either of those. I thought you had a dog. Shouldn’t you know that?”

As reasonable as his response was, it only elicited more guffaws from the boys. “Only a bitch would say that!” Billy exclaimed, and at this Mrs. Young decided she had heard enough. She appeared from around the corner and called out Billy’s name.

“That is quite enough of that mouth!” All the other boys went running back to the basketball court, attempting to appear as if they had no part in what was going on.

“Mom!” Miles expressed, incredulous at being rescued by his mother. “Geez, I’m fine! I don’t need your help!”

“Miles, this is not about you. Billy needs to learn how to respect others and mind his tongue. Billy, come with me right away. You are going to sit out recess today, and your mother will be hearing about this.” She grabbed him by his wrist, and proceeded to guide him inside. He dragged his feet the whole way. She glanced back once at Miles, who was hiding his face in embarrassment as the other boys laughed again. Her heart sunk.

That evening, when the family was at dinner, Miles was ruffled and silent, and picked at his food sparingly. It was obvious that the incident was still bothering him. Mr. Young, who had heard the story while his wife had prepared dinner, gave his wife a silent nod, then motioned to the boy with his head. They had agreed that she would talk, since she had been present. She began haltingly, opening the door just a crack.

“Miles, honey, would you like to talk about what happened today?”

Miles sighed profusely. “I’m fine, mom, geez. I told you. They do that all the time.”

Her eyes widened at this. How had she been so oblivious? She was out there every day. How had she not seen this before? Mr. Young was looking at her intently, his eyes asking the same question of her. “What do you mean, all the time?” she asked.

“Gosh, it’s no big deal, mom. Billy calls me…he says the b-word, but it’s not true, so it doesn’t bother me.”

Mr. Young chimed in. “Maybe it is not a big deal to you, son, and I am certainly glad that you maintained your composure today, but it is an inappropriate way for a young man to behave, so something must be done about him.” He sighed. His temple throbbed at the thought of getting involved with the Millers again, and he closed his eyes and massaged it with his thumb. Mrs. Young could see his strain, and frowned.

“I can take care of this, Jack. Don’t concern yourself with it. In fact, it is my responsibility, not only as Miles’s mother but also as the teacher on duty. I already spoke to Billy’s teacher, who spoke to Mrs. Miller today. I will monitor the situation closely, I assure you.”

Abruptly Miles slammed his fork down on the table and shot out of his chair. “I don’t need your help, mom!” he shouted, in a voice they had never heard from him before. His outburst shocked the couple, who sat with wide eyes and dumbstruck mouths at the table, their bodies pressed against the back of their chairs. Miles inhaled hugely, nasally, dropped his chin to his chest, and leaned on the table, arms taut and fists clenched. He stayed that way for a moment, his exhale slow and soft, his eyes closed; it seemed for a moment as if he were praying. When he looked at them again, he seemed to have regained his composure, and spoke to them in low, haunting tones. “I can take care of myself,” he said coolly. It sounded like it had come from an adult. “Now I have homework to do.” He shoved himself away from the table and walked up the stairs to his room.

The Youngs sat motionless and speechless for a minute, gathering their thoughts. Their faces looked to one another as if they had just found out someone had died. Brows furrowed and lips pressed tightly together, they stared in abject disbelief, alternately at one another and up the stairs towards Miles’s room. They fully expected that any minute their sweet, patient, loving son would return unbidden to apologize for yelling at them. When he did not do so after a few minutes, Mr. Young decided to go check on him.

When he entered the room, Miles was standing by his window, staring out silently. “Miles?” he began. The boy did not respond. “Your mother and I…we were a bit concerned that you got so upset just now. Is everything ok?”

“I told you, I’m fine. Just leave me alone.” He did not turn around.

Mr. Young was at a loss for what to say. His son’s gaze was fixed firmly on something outside the house, down the street, elsewhere in the neighborhood. Mr. Young stood at the doorway for a moment, then crossed over the room to him. Every step seemed to be sluggish, laborious; it seemed to take several minutes to walk just a few feet. He placed his hand gently on Miles’s shoulder. The boy did not pull away, but crossed his arms across his chest. His father followed his gaze out the window. Down the street, where the Millers lived, he could see Billy running around in the yard, chasing and wrestling his dog, laughing in utter ecstasy. Not the derisive, hateful laugh they had heard before, but a new one; a purer, gentler one. The night was still, clear, virginal; utterly soundless except for the songful peal of Billy’s mirth, which seemed to resonate in almost perfect harmony with the clean, playful yips of the pup.


Part 5 will be the end, i promise. Forgive me if i don’t feel like going back and changing the titles of the other posts. If you are following, you will figure it out soon enough.


A Happy Home, part 3 of 4


The following Friday was to be the first visit from Billy, and in preparation the Youngs, who had a few weeks left of summer vacation, spent the entire day disaster-proofing the house. This was in part because the couple had no idea what to expect as far as Billy’s behavior was concerned, and all they had to go on was what they had gleaned from the rumor mill, but also it served to simply release their nervous energy in a constructive way. The doorbell rang a few minutes before two in the afternoon, and by that time the Youngs had succeeded in moving vases and lamps off of low end tables to higher ground if it could be found or, if not, then into rooms with closed doors. The living room resembled a staged open house once they were done: there were no family photos remaining, no plants sunning on windowsills, no books or magazines or lesson plans scattered about the coffee table as there would generally be. It could have been anyone’s house, or no one’s. Mr. Young had taken the opportunity to move his large trash can of yard tools from the back patio into the garage, in case the kids wanted to play out back. Miles had helped, of course, without even being asked, offering to clean his room. The Youngs had been pleased by this, and gave him a few instructions as far as what could be left out and what couldn’t. He obeyed dutifully and followed the instructions to the letter. When he summoned his mother in to check the work, she knew it had been done properly, and expressed with confidence that she didn’t need to come look.

It was twenty minutes after their expected arrival time that Billy and his mother finally reached the front porch of the Youngs’ house. Mrs. Young answered the door with Miles at her side, since this was still ostensibly a play date. Mrs. Miller stood in the door in scrubs, her car still running in the driveway, trying to seem as if she were nonchalantly resting her hand on Billy’s neck but actually gripping his collar. Her hair was disheveled and she hadn’t put any make-up on. Billy was frowning and his arms were crossed over his chest.

“Billy, say hello to Miles and Mrs. Young.” He didn’t, and though Mrs. Young wouldn’t have thought it possible, his frown became even more severe.

“Thank you sooo much!” Mrs. Miller exclaimed. “Frank should be by to get him a little after six.” She gave Billy a fingertip nudge to encourage him to go inside. He ran from her as soon as her hand released his collar, shouldering his way past Miles and Mrs. Young in the doorway, and fled into the living room, throwing himself on the couch face first. Mrs. Miller sighed. “He will be fine in a minute. This is just new to him. Thanks again! You guys are life savers!”

“Miles, honey, can you go sit with Billy?” Mrs. Young asked him, and almost as if he knew better, he hesitated for a second, but then slowly turned and headed into the house.

Mrs. Miller handed Mrs. Young a slip of paper. “This has all of our contact info on it. They can page either of us if we aren’t available to answer, but obviously it may take some time for us to get to the phone.  I also put Mr. Miller’s mother’s number on there, in case…well, in case you need it.”

Mrs. Young smiled faintly, glancing back into the living room, where Mr. Young was already attempting to console Billy and get him to sit up properly. Miles was sitting on the opposite end of the couch, his eyes wide, hands planted on the couch beside him as if at any minute he might need to spring up. “I am sure we will be just fine,” she said, probably trying to convince herself even more than Billy’s mother.

When the afternoon was over, and Mr. Miller had retrieved Billy, the one positive thing that the Youngs could say about the experience was that it had been mercifully brief. They would not have known this before, but five hours went by surprisingly quickly when engaged in the task of keeping track of a restless, fiercely energetic and endlessly defiant child. Billy had managed to find his way into all manner of trouble in a very short time. At first the Youngs had attempted to serve the boys a snack of carrot sticks and a glass of milk. Miles had eaten three carrots, politely leaving the fourth sitting harmlessly on his plate, and had drank calmly without gulping 2/3 of a glass of milk. Billy, on the other hand, had declared immediately his hatred of both milk and carrots, and, as if this needed proof, had demonstrated this dislike by immediately spilling his glass of milk onto the floor and smashing one of the carrots into a fine wet pulp under his foot. Two others he decided were good projectiles and were hurled across the room. The last, after some chastisement by the Youngs, he did attempt to eat, but his palette rejected the flavor abruptly and he spat it back out onto his plate. The Youngs, that they might have time to recuperate from this destruction, sent the boys outside to play. While they were still attempting to scrub the floor clean of carrot pieces, Miles could be heard shouting outside. Mr. Young ran to the back door to find Miles bundled into a ball close to the house while Billy was pelting him with a tennis ball he had found. Mr. Young rushed out, snatching the ball from Billy, and attempted to explain the difference between playing catch and being a bully. Billy, quick as a cat, snatched the ball back and threw it forcefully into Mr. Young’s face, which promptly earned him several minutes of time-out sitting in the corner of the living room while Miles got a single scoop of ice cream.

By the time that Mr. Miller had arrived, predictably later than expected, Billy had incurred three more time-outs, two for hitting Miles and one for kicking Mrs. Young in the shin.

Mr. Miller didn’t even need to ask how the afternoon had gone. No sooner had he knocked on the door than Mr. Young opened it, Billy’s backpack in hand already extended out to Mr. Miller, grasping the child’s collar in the same manner that Mrs. Miller had done.

“I really do appreciate it, Jack. You can’t know how big a help you are to us.”

Mr. Young smiled disingenuously. “I can imagine, I think.”


Billy came to visit a few more times, and the Youngs were not without hope each time that something they did for the boy might make a difference to his demeanor. They tried everything they knew to do, and Billy hated it all. Miles had never used the word hate before. It was not a word that the Youngs allowed to be used in their house, by either themselves or their son, but apparently the Millers tolerated it. Given Billy’s profuse usage of the word, had the Youngs not known his parents they would have thought the word was even encouraged. He applied it to reading, napping, healthy snacks, playing, resting, sitting, watching TV, and even to the toys and entertainments that he had chosen to bring from home.

On the fifth visit, which would come to be his last, he applied the word to Mrs. Young, who was trying to figure out a snack that Billy would like to eat. She offered him crackers, celery and peanut butter, and even finally ice cream. Though she was reluctant to give the latter to him, as it might seem to reward his insolence, she was at last ready to do anything to just get him to behave.

“I hate ice cream!” Billy shouted, when it was offered.

Mrs. Young’s patience was hardly embers at this point, and yet she maintained composure, solely through the self-discipline that years of teaching children had produced. “Well, Billy, you said you were hungry, and I am trying to find something you would like to eat. Is there anything that you would like?”

“I don’t want it from you! I hate you!”

Mr. Young heard this from the other room where he was reading to Miles, and came rushing in to aid his wife. “Young man, we do not say that to adults, ever! Do you understand?!” He, too, was finding his patience tested with these visits.

“I don’t care! I hate you!” Billy screamed, and then threw a spoon at Mr. Young. The boy darted from the table and before the Youngs even knew it, was at the front door trying to leave. They had of course deadbolted the door, having learned from his second visit that if they did not do so then they would spend half an hour chasing him around the neighborhood street. He began kicking furiously at the door, screaming, “I wanna go home!” repeatedly. Mr. Young tried to grab him, but the boy simply whirled and ducked between his legs, coming up behind him and shoving him. Mr. Young, crouched down in an attempt to gain control of the boy, was off balance, and the shove sent him plummeting forward, where he struck his head on the front door. Mrs. Young came around the corner from the kitchen just in time to see her husband sprawled on the ground in the entryway, bleeding from his temple, and Billy standing over him laughing.

The Youngs did not feel even the slightest bit guilty when they told the Millers that they could no longer keep Billy. Their consciences were clear: they had given it their best effort, and if they could not succeed in helping the boy change his behavior, then in their estimation he was beyond help. They explained as much to a weeping Mrs. Miller over the phone a few days later. Her tears, though pitiful, did nothing to sway their resolve.

When Mrs. Young hung up the phone, she embraced her husband, the two of them laughing softly with eyes closed. When they parted, they stood silently together for a moment, his arm around her shoulders, gazing into the living room at their son. He was curled up on the sofa, breathing softly, having fallen asleep reading his favorite book.


Part 4 coming soon. Almost finished. Jumping the gun a bit on posting, i guess…


A Happy Home, part 2 of 4


The summer before Miles started kindergarten, the family was invited to dinner by the Millers, a couple who lived a few houses down the street. Mr. Miller was a police officer and Mrs. Miller a nurse, which often required them to work strange hours, even late into the evening or overnight at times. They had a young son, nearly identical in age to Miles, who would frequently be left with a babysitter or a family member all night. According to the stories, age was about the only thing the boy had in common with Miles. It was no great secret around the neighborhood that Billy Miller was a monstrous child, prone to violence and fits of temper that were nearly impossible to predict or control. The Millers had quickly burned through almost every available teenage girl in the neighborhood, and there were very few left who were willing to take on the task of sitting for Billy Miller. The boy had also been booted from every day care facility in the town, and now they were at the mercy of asking Mr. Miller’s somewhat aged mother to watch him each day. She too was beginning to wear under the strain, and soon, the Millers felt, one of the two of them would be forced to leave their job in order to watch the boy, as they were nearly out of options. The Youngs were not exceptionally close to the other family, and thus when they received the invitation to dinner, they suspected a hidden motive, a desperate plea for help from the Millers. They dutifully, but not joyfully, accepted the invitation, agreeing in advance that their help would extend no further than advice for the couple, and that they would have to decline should they be asked to watch Billy.

The Millers greeted them at the door. If they had just looked at their mouths, the Youngs would have seen smiles on the faces of the couple, but looking into their eyes they saw instead ache and weariness.

“This must be little Miles!” Mr. Miller said, roughing up the boy’s hair. Miles winced and began fussedly repairing the damage. “Welcome! Come on in!” He extended a hand to each of the Youngs in turn as they passed the threshold of his house, and Mrs. Miller did the same.  Once the Youngs were inside Mrs. Miller began hustling about, making last minute preparations to the seating area, fluffing pillows and neatly arranging coasters on the coffee table that were already neatly arranged. She scurried off to the kitchen, offering drinks to the Youngs.

“Wine? Beer? Iced tea? Mrs. Young?”

Mrs. Young smiled politely. “Karen, please. And just tea will be fine for me.”

“And for you Mr. Young?”

“Please, call me Jack. And I will take some tea as well.”

She had already disappeared into the confines of the kitchen., and the sound of eager glasses clinking with eager ice could be heard in the entryway.

“Jack, Karen, come in, make yourselves at home!” Mr. Miller instructed, so the Youngs found their way into the living room and sat close together on the edge of the couch, legs together and feet on the ground, backs away from the sofa. Hardly had they done so when Mrs. Miller was arriving with glasses of iced tea for the pair. She set them gingerly down on the coasters and slid them toward the Youngs, ruining the arrangement she had made just moments before. The Youngs thanked her politely and smiled, and Mrs. Miller hurried back into the kitchen to make final preparations for dinner. Miles had meanwhile sat down on the sofa as well, assuming the same posture as his parents, and was looking at the ground silently.

“Dear,” called Mr. Miller, a bit too sweetly, “perhaps Miles would like some lemonade or a soda?”

“Oh my!” she exclaimed from the kitchen, and flurried back into the living room. “How could I forget! Miles, would you care for anything to drink?”

He looked first at his parents. “May I have some lemonade, please?”

The Youngs smiled at their son, and Mr. Miller noticed something different in it than the one they had offered to him and his wife, but he could not place what it was. “Certainly, you may, son,” said Mr. Young.

“Well!” exclaimed Mrs. Miller. “What manners for such a young boy!” Rushing off again, she repaired to the kitchen to fetch the boy a drink. “Frank?” she called. “Anything?”

“A beer would be good. No glass.”

The Youngs waited patiently for her return while Mr. Miller settled into a recliner that nearly faced the sofa. He leaned back and crossed his ankle over his knee and sighed.

Mr. and Mrs. Young looked about the room in silence, eyes moving but not their heads. It would be rude, of course, to appear to be assessing the home, though in fact that is exactly what they were doing. Mr. Miller was himself staring off to the left, towards the entrance of the home, as if by watching he could make the night go faster, or at least make his beer arrive sooner. The home was tidy, spacious, and well decorated. Across from the pale grey microfiber sofa was a large ornate red brick fireplace, and above it a mantel topped with recent family photos. Each of them seemed to be from some exotic location, and in them the Millers were always having some sort of adventure. There were photos aboard cruise ships, photos of the couple on horseback, and photos of the couple hooked up to ziplines. Billy was in only one of the photos, an obviously staged Christmas photo from a studio session, the couple standing behind him wearing red and green, their hands placed gingerly on his shoulder the way one would carefully touch a student, or a cadaver in a lab. Above the photos hung a large painting, a nature scene of a beach and a small fishing boat far out in ocean, vaguely impressionist in style, but clearly painted within the last few years. To the untrained eye it looked elegant but to the Youngs it seemed gauche and out if place. They each knew the other would have the same opinion, though they certainly would never express such a thing in the presence of the hosts.

Mrs. Miller was soon back with the requested drinks, her face beginning to look tired from smiling, and just as soon had ghosted off to the kitchen to finish dinner. Mrs. Young offered courteously to assist in any way she could, but Mrs. Miller just as courteously declined, and thanked her for the offer.

Something was missing. The house was quite silent, the awkwardness hanging in the air as detectable as the scent of the roasted pork loin and rosemary potatoes that Mrs. Miller was preparing. It occurred to Mr. Young then that Billy had not made an appearance.

“Where is Billy this evening?” It was spoken with as much genuine curiosity as Mr. Young could muster, though of course behind it lay the intent to cut through the unspoken tension and expose the true meaning of the visit. Mrs. Young patted him gently on the leg, her eyes sending covert messages that aimed to discourage him from bringing this up before dinner, but he did not even glance in her direction.

Mr. Miller chuckled, almost inaudibly. “Well, he’s…well, we decided it might be best this evening if he stayed at his grandmother’s.”

“I see.” Mr. Young paused. It was important that he be blunt but also delicate. He did not favor pretense very much, so in his eyes the sooner the subject of Billy’s behavior was broached (and thus what role the Youngs were to play in the remedy thereof), the sooner it could be put to rest. He did not get the chance to continue, however, because while he was still formulating his next sentence Mrs. Miller declared ringingly that dinner was served.

The dinner was quite delicious. Mrs. Miller was a wonderful cook, though the Youngs secretly wondered how she ever had time to learn the craft. Wine was brought out with dinner, and the Youngs, not wanting to appear stiff or snobbish, each accepted half of a glass. Miles ate his food without significant mess, and never once asked to be let away from the table. When he needed something, he said please and when he received it, thank you. When he was finished he thanked Mrs. Miller for “a very lovely meal,” to which Mr. Miller responded with more chuckling and Mrs. Miller couldn’t help but laugh. Throughout the meal the Millers never ceased lavishing compliments on both him and his parents for his behavior, all of which were modestly deflected.

“We truly are just very fortunate,” Mrs. Young would say, though inwardly she was welling with pride. “He has just been a perfect little boy.” She reached over and patted his head, at which he bristled and frowned, and began combing his hair with his fingers feverishly. All of the adults laughed then. “Well, almost,” quipped Mrs. Young, and they laughed some more.


When the plates were cleared, and Mrs. Miller was busying herself with the work of cleaning the dishes, Mr. Young sent Miles off to read the book they had brought for him. The boy returned to the living room, leaving the adults seated around the dining table.

“Forgive me if I assume incorrectly,” Mr. Young began, “but I can only suspect that this dinner was not entirely for social purposes.” He saw no need to postpone the inevitable. Under the table, his wife placed her hand gently on his thigh.

Mr. Miller chuckled softly, and sighed, shaking his head slightly, looking down at the tabletop. “No, you’re right.” He scratched his head. “Laura and I actually wanted to talk to you guys about…well, it would be best if my wife were here for this. Laura, honey, could you come in here please?” The water in the kitchen shut off, and Mrs. Miller removed her apron as she returned to the table and sat next to her husband. “Why don’t you tell them what we were thinking, dear?” Mrs. Miller smiled at her husband, not quite affectionately this time, sending her silent gratitude for the passing of the buck.

“Sure, honey.” She turned to face the Youngs, and her words came out slowly, carefully, with a marked precision. It was clear she had rehearsed this in her mind already dozens of times in the days between the invitation and the engagement. “Well, as you may know, our son Billy has been…well, Frank and I both have to work very late sometimes, and we have not had much luck finding a decent babysitter. I’m sure you know how that can be!” The Youngs nodded, even though they had very rarely had to use one, and had very much liked the one they had found. “And Mrs. Miller, that is, Frank’s mother, has been watching him recently for us, but her health is not wonderful, quite frankly, are we are…well, we were wondering if there were any chance Billy might be able to come play with Miles sometime.” It was a half question, with an almost imperceptible lift in tone at the end. When the Youngs didn’t respond immediately, suddenly her words began to flood out rushingly, pouringly, as if she were already deflecting their inevitable refusal. “It wouldn’t have to be very often, and, well, if you can’t do it then I understand, but, well, Billy doesn’t have any friends really, and we thought that maybe he and Miles would get along, and, well, that…” She paused extensively, laboring over the next sentence. The Youngs noticed that they had cleverly avoided asking them to watch Billy, framing it instead as a play date. They had been equally elusive about the subject of Billy’s behavioral problems.

Mr. Miller stepped into the void left by his wife, leaning forward in his chair and gazing intently at the Youngs, resting his forearms on the table and clasping his hands in front of him. “Frankly, Jack, Karen, here’s the deal: Billy is…how can I say it? He’s…well, he’s pretty much a little asshole all the time.”

“Frank!” blurted Mrs. Miller, but he patted her leg to reassure her. Almost inaudibly he said, “They already know. Everyone in the whole neighborhood knows. There’s no sense acting like it ain’t so.” He let out a big nasally sigh as she blushed in embarrassment and cupped a hand around her eyes. “The thing is, you guys have raised an absolute marvel of a kid, and, well, honestly, we can’t seem to figure out how to do the same.” Mrs. Miller was shaking her head in disbelief at his candor, but he continued. “We were hoping that maybe if Miles and Billy became friends, or at least if he spent a little time with you guys that he might, well…that some of that might rub off on him I guess.”

A brief silence followed as the Youngs considered the proposition. Mr. Young, firmly convicted upon arrival that they would unequivocally refuse to bear the burden of this child, now felt that conviction wavering. The Millers weren’t bad people, they were quite sweet in fact, and had been very hospitable hosts. But more importantly, they were just regular people, a couple of neighbors in a bad spot. And after all, what sense was there in raising children to be wonderful and sweet and polite and helpful if you yourself didn’t exhibit the same characteristics when it was required? Mrs. Young was beginning to feel the same way. She had taken up teaching not, as many do, as a fallback, but because she had a genuine passion for wanting to help children develop into smart and well-mannered young people. How could she now refuse the opportunity to help a boy in need of some guidance? The Youngs looked at each other, and simultaneously felt the last strongholds of their prior resolve melting away. They knew, without speaking, that they had to at least try.

Mrs. Young spoke first. “I don’t see why that would be a problem. We would love to have him.” That was probably an exaggeration, everyone knew. “If it gives you a little peace, then it will be nice knowing that we were able to help.”

“Plus,” Mr. Young interjected, “as you say, who knows but that it might do the boy some good? Many times ill temper is a result of loneliness. Perhaps it will be just the balm he needs.”

Mr. Miller threw his arm around his wife, and they smiled together at the Youngs in genuine appreciation. “You have no idea how grateful we are,” he said, then burst into one of his signature chuckles, “nor how scared shitless we were to even ask! I mean, everyone has heard horror stories!”

Mrs. Miller spoke through clenched teeth and a fake smile. “Not too late for them to change their minds, dear!”

The foursome laughed, somewhat awkwardly and somewhat cathartically. It held inside it the memory of other laughter, like the nervous giddy giggle the Millers had let out when they found out one month into their marriage that they were pregnant, or the time Mr. Young had borne home news to his wife that a student had falsified accusations of sexual harassment against him. It was a communal and yet an incredulous laugh, tense and disbelieving, and faded quickly leaving the group sitting in stunned silence.

Miles never once looked up from his book, utterly oblivious to events in the dining room, content to simply exist in the peaceful world of his imagination.


A Happy Home, part 1 of 4


Everyone who knew Miles Young agreed he was a remarkably good boy. His parents had of course heard the stories from friends and family members: sleepless nights, infants constantly demanding attention with chilling cries and incurable restlessness, homes filled with tension and fury and tears, sometimes even into the second and third years of the child’s life. But Miles had never exhibited any of this behavior. Of course occasionally he would cry, but he was easily consoled with just a pat on the back or a tickle. He had begun sleeping through the night early in his infancy, mercifully allowing his parents to do the same. Weaning him from his mother’s breast was nearly effortless, as was the transition from bottle to baby food, each requiring only a day or two of mild tears before he was accustomed. When guests would visit or when the couple relayed their tales to friends, the reaction was almost always stupefied disbelief, as if Miles were writing out calculus equations or reciting poetry instead of merely not crying. Those who were parents would shake their heads and smile incredulously when the Youngs expressed their gratitude at their good fortune. Laughter was also a common response, but not necessarily out of sheer joy. Often it was laughter that was flavored with dashes of jealousy, pinches of covered sadness, sprinkles of faintly detectable bitterness at their own ill-behaved infants.

Early on, Miles began showing signs of exemplary intelligence as well as good humor, and the Youngs couldn’t help but be grateful. In prayers each night, they thanked God that He had blessed them so richly with such an atypical child. By the age of three he was already beginning to read complete sentences, much to the amazement of babysitters and friends who had the pleasure of keeping him. Mr. Young took a special measure of pride in this accomplishment; he was a high school English teacher, and struggled at times to arouse even the faintest interest in reading among his students. Most, it seemed, were concerned only with the social realm, and though this was certainly not a new development among high school students, the rampant proliferation of digital communication made it nearly impossible to stifle. He had confiscated more phones engaged in sending texts and running Facebook apps than he could count. He frequently came home sad, having yet again failed to elicit even a single enthusiastic response from his students regarding a work about which he was intensely passionate. In recent years, he had even begun to steer toward the margins of the approved reading list, trying desperately to select options that would engage and inspire his students. He had long ago, as much as was possible, given up on antiquated titles like “Wuthering Heights” and “Great Expectations,” (which, frankly, he found lacking in concision anyway) and had incorporated as many modern texts (and as many short ones) as allowed, titles such as “The Old Man and the Sea” and “Catcher in the Rye.” Nevertheless he felt that with each passing year, his students became increasingly apathetic, increasingly unable to grasp the importance of even the most relevant and fresh of novels, and he frequently contemplated giving up the task altogether. He wondered often where he should place the blame: was it the students, who, because of the increasing availability of digital distractions, who were at fault? Was it the system that had failed them, by means of sacrificing challenge and accountability for the sake of artificially inflating the numbers of passing students? He hoped, prayed in fact, that one or both of these were at fault, because the alternative was that it was he who was to blame. And as each year passed, and he found his connection to students ever diminishing toward some asymptotal nothing, he began to suspect, in the deepest untouched unspoken regions of his heart, that this was in fact the truth.

From infancy he had read to Miles, hoping that on some subconscious level, the words were taking root, forming a sapling love of the written word that, when watered by time and education, would flourish into robust flowers of uncontainable passion, just as it had happened to him when he was younger. Thus when Miles began reading very early on, an exhilaration sprang up in Mr. Young’s chest like he had never known, and he saw in the boy the potential and the promise that he was beginning to feel had disappeared entirely from the younger generations. He fed this promise eagerly, reading to Miles continually throughout his childhood, not from children’s books about talking giraffes and silly shapes and brightly colored block numbers, but from carefully selected works of literature. Each night, as Miles was drifting off to sleep, Mr. Young would read to him from “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” or from “Life of Pi,” knowing full well that the boy did not fully grasp the themes and nuances of the works, but hoping nevertheless that he was building the foundation for a literary life.

Mr. Young’s attention to Miles’s intellectual development was matched if not exceeded by Mrs. Young’s fervor to instill proper behavior in the boy. Truly he seemed to be a sponge, soaking up every bit of etiquette and courtesy that Mrs. Young could provide in his moral education. This was to her a great relief, as her own occupation as a first-grade teacher brought her into contact with all manner of horrid little scoundrels. Of course, she did her best to encourage her students to treat one another kindly, to ask politely for things instead of grabbing them forcefully, to respect her decisions instead of throwing tantrums when they did not get their way, but her efforts were largely in vain. She was not naïve, of course, and knew that young children had always been prone to fits of temper, but nevertheless it seemed to her that they grew just a bit more volatile and reckless every year. There were many possible reasons for this gradual shift, but Mrs. Young suspected it resulted from increasingly dissolute nuclear families. It was rare that parents and children ate together anymore, even at dinner. (She, of course, made a point to do so every day with her family, breakfast and dinner.) Sometimes every member of the family was rushing in a different direction, from tee-ball practice to ballet to Scouts to swim team, slicing up the week into indigestible crumbs of minutes, few of which were spent together. Other times, it was not the activity of the children causing this division, but that of the adults. Increasingly it seemed she had students with two working parents, who dumped the children on babysitters or in after-school programs almost every evening. In such cases, parents were often just too tired and too disconnected to muster up interest in what their kids were doing. Mrs. Young was starting to believe that, particularly in the eyes of many of the wealthier parents, school was merely daycare without the nap. As long as their kids made it home each day alive, the parents were free to play golf or tennis or go to social events in the evenings without the burden of investing any effort into their children’s education. Perhaps all of this was merely speculation, but nevertheless she felt almost powerless to keep her students from being unruly, and much of the time thought she was more like a zookeeper than a schoolteacher. But with Miles, it was different. When she asked him to say “please” and “thank you,” he immediately obliged, and rarely needed reminding. When she explained to him that he should not hit, or that he should not wail, he seemed to understand instantaneously, and would assimilate the instructions into his conduct immediately. When he played with other children at the park, he would always wait his turn for the slide or the swing, even if other children were clawing and elbowing their way past one another like sewer rodents fleeing a fire. When the Youngs would take him to friends’ houses for dinner parties, the friends were frequently astonished at his table manners and his ability to avoid conflict with other children. Each night, they would put him to bed, tell him they loved him, and he would say it back. And somehow, they knew it was true, and not just empty parroted words.