A.W.: A Story Backwards
The Night A.W. Thought He Won the Megabucks
he flicked on a small lamp in the corner of the room and rushed a Yuengling from the fridge. After a clack, fizz and slurp, after a warm flood through the gut that settled the tremble in his arms somehow, he turned on the TV: numbered ping-pong balls shot through a tubular cage like popcorn – as though popcorn could be what was, after all these years, summoning his fate – he chuckled. When the last sphere spun, slowed, and tilted to a pause, locked behind silver bars, A.W. almost lost the Yuengling. He stood, thoughts stunned as though nailed to the floor of his mind – which is how he would later describe the sensation of winning (“Sounds crazy, I know”). Then: “I’m glad!” He was giddy, confused, elated, and shouting to no one, to an empty house: “I’m glad!” – letting the strangeness sift through him, with the words. He said them again, a variation: “I’m so glad!” And again, feeling his smile set: “I’m glad, but not surprised!” Soon, his lips were pressed to the plastic receiver of a telephone: “We did it! Like being struck by lightning twice! Finally!” His breath mixing with the cold in the room slickened the mouthpiece, “I told you!”
She didn’t know what her father was referring to, so she said nothing, until she said, “We did?” Her freshly cleansed hair was coiled into a white towel that tilted when she leaned her cheek against the phone. She had been memorizing a soliloquy of Hamlet for school. And she’d been watching American Idol. And she’d been waiting for her fingernail polish to dry into a rich, crimson red, while sitting in an old recliner chair. But, later in bed, her drying hair curved like a fan behind her, the words echoed: I told you.
Earlier, That Morning Had Been
like every morning lately, promising. He swung open the door of The Moose Crossing. The convenience store served the best chocolate chip pancakes in Downeast, Maine and the largest muffins, the tops spilling over crimped paper like deflated tires. It was also famous for an assortment of lottery tickets and a kind-faced clerk. Scraping together callus-frost palms, A.W. surveyed the peanut butter cookies and jumbo whoopie pies. Finally, he requested two Megabucks, lifting a pack of Yuengling to the countertop. His seasonal work, landscaping gigantic cottages, could not accommodate his yearlong Megabucks routine, but A.W. was very hopeful. I have to be, he said from time to time, speaking to no one, speaking to himself. He had to look up – to prioritize possibility before regret, the future before the past. It was time. He smiled at the store clerk and hurried into the shelter of his rusty Volvo, a car that choked when he turned the key, but it was a warm car.
“I’m a Hoper, Not a Sweeper,”
A.W. informed his daughter in the car in the driveway of her mother’s home. He had just retrieved her from soccer practice. These were the only slivers of time to be together, just the two of them – moving from A to B, or, given the chance, sitting in the car – and they almost hurt. How much he hoped these moments reached perfection. It almost felt good – how much it hurt. This was one year before he thought he won the Megabucks.
She had watched a documentary in school that day, which bothered her and so bothered A.W. The documentary presented a culture of working class Americans who earned an unreasonable amount of money but squandered it anyway. They were addicted to sweepstakes, games of chance. “Even though they hardly ever win,” A.W.’s daughter said. Many were insomniacs always scanning the Internet for new contests, she explained with strained sophistication. Some formed clubs on strategizing: colored packaging of prize applications would surely do the trick, doodles, hearts, puppy-dog faces. What the daughter did not tell A.W. was that the moral of the film was really this: These people are foolish. Another way of saying: These grownups are children. Don’t grow up to be like them. Be smarter.
When the documentary ended that day in school and the screen snapped from color to black, a static haze filled the classroom of teenagers gathering books to leave, as if the correct amount of knowledge could take them away from this small town. As if smallness were ever the problem, and maybe it was – the oasis of insularity.
A.W. shook his head and said, “Hope is the thing, honey,” reaching for something else his daughter could have learned in school, literature, something she could relate to, to make her relate to him. He was an English major once. When she did not respond, he saw that his daughter’s class hadn’t gotten to Dickinson yet and – who knows – maybe never would. He replaced the silence: “Well, wait. I got a little something for ya’,” providing, with some shame, a Megabucks ticket. She smiled, kissed him, and ran to the house.
From her vantage point of just outside the kitchen door, she thought he resembled a backwards Santa Claus: globe of snow-white hair, dirty jacket, ripped jeans. He was always presenting the idea of magic without the ability to employ it; say, fly.
“We could get a helicopter, fly our own private jet!” he called from the car window, face stretched, wind-burnt smile. “If we win!”
She turned to speak, to say something smart, but knew suddenly she was too young to know anything. Not knowing that even as she grew older – old – she would use the same excuse, except invert it in a way to avoid expressing anything directly, anything that could be true, or wrong. The older I get, the less I know is what she would say when she grew old. Like an adage hanging on the wall of a home it would have hung in her mind long enough to have been solidified from words to what felt like truth. Long after that particular day in the driveway, she’d realize it was something A.W. had always said, and that’s how she knew it. And what it was she wished she knew that moment standing at the kitchen door when she was just a girl in high school would fall away: That it was wrong to hope so much? Or want so much? Or was it need so much? She’d said to her father once: I wish you were dead. She meant to keep the thought inside, but something had slipped. Then: anger toward him slackened to pity. Then: she saw it in his face – a flash of pain replaced by a little smile.
She’d be decades older than her father ever was when the epiphany eventually dawned – that her silent mantra was his spoken one (“The older I get….”); she’d realize and re-realize this in fits of memory, or what could be called wisdom, that often seized her those years before her death of old age, which she would see coming like a psychic, or a person reading the book of her own life and feeling the pages thin; something he had always said when she was small. And something else: “Hope is the thing,” she’d try to recall. How had Emily Dickinson put it? She’d buy a book, an antique, to remember. She’d find the poem in the middle of its many parted pages. “The thing with feathers.” She’d think the poem was supposed to be uplifting, but it would instead feel cliché, and the disjunction between what she felt and what she thought she should feel would compose a pain like a hand gripping her stomach – twisting – that would make her wish to be a child again, memorizing Shakespeare from an overstuffed chair. Back when even old words felt new. Instead, she’d be this: a woman pointing down at a poem with an index finger, holding all those pages apart with pinky and thumb, lest it all collapse together. She would miss her father terribly then, wondering why he left so soon. “The older I get,” she’d have absorbed his mantra like second-hand smoke, without realizing, without minding, almost gladly come to think, “the less I know.” It made her feel a part of him.
The young daughter waved as the Volvo lurched away.
Three Years before A.W. Thought He Won the Megabucks,
one sweaty summer afternoon presented a kind of humidity not to be expected in mid-coastal Maine. It crept between where things existed, connecting all objects and people and thickening the world, A.W. suspected, into a solid orb, a heavy ball in the sky that would one day find itself too fat to spin, and drop. He was without hope and hopeless. He phoned his ex-wife. His voice projected the shrill desperation of his inner thoughts: “I’m going to do it this time [because there had been other times]. I’m going to kill myself.”
She was watching Law and Order: SVU, an interesting episode. It had been a long day. Dinner was made, dishes were done, and the daughter was busy with homework in her room. The last thing the ex-wife wanted was to comfort A.W. So: “If you’re going to do it, don’t make a mess.
“Remember the bad thing? I can’t stop thinking,” he paused to clear his nose. “Maybe I don’t deserve to live.”
The ex-wife remembered many bad things but knew the one sticking to A.W.’s mind was the one that had instigated divorce. She muted the television and listened for clues that her daughter was listening, too, but there was only the trickle of music from down the hallway. She hissed into the phone, just in case: “You have your daughter to think of.”
A.W. dialed a new number, spoke to a new voice, relived the bad thing through words, and became a voluntary patient at “Acadia,” an institution known through this and the neighboring counties as the only one of its kind. He did not kill himself then, but it soon became clear to him that the odds of someone with bipolar disorder, paranoid schizophrenia, and a history of domestic abuse finding contentment were to be equated only with winning the Megabucks.
The Day A.W. Did Something Really Bad
occurred ten years before he thought he won the Megabucks. He awoke in the morning with a headache that extended to the pit of his stomach, instigating heartache along the way. Lying in bed, he searched the cavern of his mind for why he felt this way – pain for no reason was not worth having – and found nothing. He searched harder, still nothing. Then something. He sat up, back jerked straight as though postured by a wooden board; there was maybe just one reason for feeling so terribly bad, sad. The old horse. Their old horse had died last week. A.W. found him in the pasture, in the snow, up on the highest hill and nearly frozen in the shifty wind of morning. A.W. stood there beside the mound of soulless body, watching and wondering how to tell his wife her favorite thing was gone.
But, he knew it wasn’t the horse that was making him feel this way. The death, though never to be admitted aloud, had brought relief. And so, pain without reason, and so – the invisible wound seethed. The mind had become a set of dominoes on the breezy ledge of a world where everything is connected to everything else; where one small incident leads to another, and if something, a single moment, collapses, all moments, past, present and future, crumble; a world where everything breaks eventually.
In the bathroom mirror, while brushing his teeth – he thought he could “center” himself with daily ritual – he noticed his neck pulse, which reminded him of blood and the inner workings of his body and the possibility of a heart attack. He spat the chalky juice into the sink and rushed to the bed where his wife slept. He pushed her head with the palm of his hand. He hissed her name, but she rolled away; he raised his voice, so she groaned.
“Help me!” he said.
She looked at him, blinking with the oblivion of the newly awoken, of a child, until she awoke completely, her eyes large and glistening as silver dollars. A sphere of hope, like A.W.’s pain, unraveled down the back of her throat. “Please don’t kill me,” she said. She knew this was not the first time someone had awoken in fear, and she felt as though she embodied every person who ever had. Trillions of worlds of dread inside her, bursting, one by one, like soap bubbles, leaving her insides scraped new and raw. Trillions of worlds of dread, including A.W.’s. She wanted to fold into herself, to protect everything inside. He held his deer-hunting rifle to her temple. She thought she could read his mind: I have to.
She thought she could read his mind, and he sensed her doing it: I have to blow away the place where thoughts come from. He aimed right at that place.
“Please,” she said like a child; the word had regressed to a whimper, but he understood what she meant; he could read her thoughts, too. “Please don’t kill me.”
Of course he wouldn’t. He was only realizing now – he didn’t have it in him, a thought so good it felt like milk spilt on his mind. The best thought: I don’t have it in me to kill someone else. It was now so clear what had gone wrong: he’d been mistaking his thoughts for hers, a problem he’d fight for years to come, conflating his thoughts with so many others’. His wife was sweating on the bed, white nightgown wet, blonde hair stringy from sleep, and he thought: She looks like an angel.
He was glad when she moved out, even with the daughter. Even as a grown man, there was so much about himself he didn’t know, and on bad days it was so embarrassing he could almost die.
“What Is the Point?”
A.W. wanted to know. His bride wanted the horse, bad. “But what is the point of buying a retired barrel racer?” They were starting their own farm together, and this was what she wanted: an orange piece of broken hide, scarred, too scared, and so too scary, for use, nearly twenty hands high and twenty years old, this walking, giant corpse – if he could walk. “He’ll waste all our feed.”
“They’ll turn him to glue.” She clung to A.W.’s hand. She was always wanting to save things, which he had to respect.
That Friday, they arrived home late after celebrating their recent purchase. These days they celebrated every chance they had, because life was a celebration. They’d been told theirs was the mindset of the newlywed, but to them it all seemed so infinite, nothing could ever end, no feeling so strong, of happiness especially.
A.W. pulled his truck up by the pasture. Their horse stood in the headlights, a statue behind the new barbed-wire fence but for his blinking eyes. A.W. let the radio play Neil Young as he went to open his wife’s door. A warm mood was setting with the sun. The autumn air was fresh. He wanted to dance with his wife beneath the stars, but instead he just stood at her door, shaking his head. She was so beautiful she could have been an angel. The music played and a harvest moon rose, just like Neil said. She looked up at him, and, although embarrassed, although flattered, although filled with the knowledge of everything about him, his past (because he had told only her), she was hopeful.
That night, the horse came to her in a dream. In the dream, he was dying, ancient body peeling away. He was a ghost slipping from the sleeve of skin, hair falling from flanks with each swell of motion. He was in her room. He was leading her to the door, up the hill, away from the pasture, far away from everything here toward somewhere and anything else. She didn’t know where.
“When I die, you will leave this place,” the horse turned and said suddenly, though not surprisingly (as is the way with dreams, she’d sigh, thinking years later on the strangeness of the situation and watching Law and Order: SVU, after a long day, on mute). Pure ghost now, what awaited her response was a whisper of being, a sliver of mist, almost nothing at all.
“Uh. Okay. But, I don’t trust talking horses,” her dream-self countered. Then something hit her, a strange truth: When I die, you will leave this place. She wanted to tell him that didn’t make sense, to remind him: “You’re already so old.” But something shifted, changed; she was awake now and found herself alone.
A.W. was a Very Bad Child.
When he was four years old, trouble came easy. One day, he taught himself to swim. Finding pleasure in companionship, he brought the barn cats. There they all were: Smokey Gray, Smokey White, Kitty Black, and A.W. in the horses’ water trough that afternoon, mewing. The trough did not present the depth of water necessary for danger. The pockets of A.W.’s overalls filled with liquid, and the way his pant legs expanded into balloons when he sat pleased him. He had a child’s cup of milk and liked the way it stained the murky water white when he poured it all in.
Then he saw his father moving toward him from a distance, and there was the first flicker of fear; it spoke in the meter of heartbeats, nervous, fast and faster, saying: “Go, A.W. Go-go-go.” Warning: “A.W., this is your chance. Now!” But he didn’t know fear. Nothing bad had ever happened. He was excited. Signals crossed – even then, he barely understood what his self was telling him. It seemed a game. With a chuckle – the laughter of someone much older – he picked up Smokey Gray, who hissed and scratched. Then he scooped the other kitties from the trough to begin his race, howling. It felt like a game, it really did.
A.W.’s father had, upon noticing the swim, broken routine, dropped a bag of horse feed to the ground, pulled a loose two-by-four from the rotting fence, and begun to run. His action came from adrenaline not thought, so if he did think one thing it could only have been: “This will never happen again.” But he was not a man of words, and words would falsify his character. Simply, he was the period that plugged each sentence, the stopper in the throat of discussion, the end to every story.
A single nail, jagged and out of place, stuck from the board. A.W.’s father caught A.W. – because a four-year-old outrunning a man was just so very unlikely. In hindsight, the adult A.W. wondered why the boy A.W. had not thought this through, dear Lord.
A.W. had tripped in the grass. Staring up at the man, the boy blinked with the oblivion of the newly awoken, until he awoke completely, his eyes, like his wife’s in later years, were large as silver dollars, reflective as polished money. It didn’t take long to see that the nail was actually a tooth and that the wood from the split-rail fence was another animal on the vast Ohio farm, ready to snap.
In the years to come, the punctures in his neck began to resemble pale, pink bites. They had transformed A.W., whose story could never be as easy, as straightforward, as he’d always hope. A boy did not transcend childhood one day, becoming a man.
He lost it.