MUIR WOODS OR BUST (Coffeetown Press, 2017)
Gil saw his dead wife all over town, often in her regular spots. The back booth at the Maroon Spoon Lounge, the bench in Bryan Park, her trampoline in the backyard. As if some residual lifeblood presence still lingered in the places she’d inhabited so intensely. Melody Moss was all about presence. She drank her ginger ale flat because it tasted like rain.
As a condition for a first date, she’d made him promise never to ask questions about her childhood. A ridiculous vow, especially for a young therapist-in-training. At the time, Gil rationalized, okay, worth it for the sex. Some information leaked out. She was a failure-to-thrive baby who eventually became a force of nature. She grew up near Kansas City. Early years strapped into a rolling, plastic device she called the “Neglect-o-matic.” She adored her Aunt Raelene, who jumped on a backyard trampoline for exercise, thus spawning Melody’s habit. Aunt Raelene, an emergency room nurse, also championed a variety of home remedies, including nail polish on chigger bites. As a teenager, Melody ran away twice, the second time ending up in Bloomington during the Brown County commune era.
Shortly after Gil and Melody became an official item, she instituted a new calendar that began with their first date. She’d wake up and warmly announce, “Welcome to Day Four Hundred and Seventy-Three.” Right up until the last one. “Day Nine Thousand Two Hundred and Ten.”
Gil’s hallucinations were disconcerting, but gradually became a secret pleasure. During the monthly poker games at Benny Karst’s house, a ghostly Melody stretched out on the couch, catching up on the newspapers. Having been voted “one of the guys” in gratitude for performing designated-driver duties, Melody had regularly attended her husband’s poker nights and blithely parried their crap about keeping Gil on a short leash. An amateur seamstress, she’d taught herself to speak through the pins she often held in her mouth.
MELODY: Honey, you give it all away with that grimace.
GIL: I never could hide anything from you anyway.
MELODY: You’re going to have to learn.
GIL: Why? Doesn’t matter now.
MELODY: Part of the stages.
GIL: That’s a crock. It’s all one big pit.
MELODY: Especially if you keep telling yourself it was just an accident.
GIL: Your bike—the twisted frame—I took it into the shop.
MELODY: No, please. There’s really nothing to fix.
GIL: Chum suggested keeping it as a lawn ornament.
MELODY: Don’t let him make me into a fetish.
GIL: Should I go for the straight flush?
MELODY: Only if you can smile a little.
Originally formed as a Men’s Group in 1998, this assembly of Bloomington’s best-and-brightest devolved into a penny-ante crew of homebrew beer drinkers. Daniel, a klezmer bandleader, and Rex, an ex-priest turned real estate agent, and Ed, a retired fireman and morel hunter, and Morris, an HVAC tech, and Benny Karst, the lawyer.
As kids, Benny and Gil were friends in Indianapolis—Benny being one of many unhinged individuals who attached themselves to Gil over the years because he didn’t freak out over weird behavior. Such as Benny’s grade school penchant for shoplifting. Benny’s mantra, age ten: “Let’s go do something, even if it’s wrong.”
None of them played poker well, other than stone-faced Benny, who fancied himself a card counter and a master of the tell. The games served as an emetic for male trash talk.
“Gil, what’s the old lady wearing tonight?” Ed teased.
“Give the guy a break,” Morris said, always attentive to Gil’s widower state.
“Benny, any word from the mobile phone pimps?” Rex prodded.
“They promised something next week,” Benny huffed, an inveterate mouth-breather.
Gil cringed at the mention of Benny’s potshot lawsuit. In a weak, angry moment after Melody’s death, grasping for any target, Gil made the mistake of green-lighting Benny’s lawsuit against the manufacturer of the cellphone that the driver was using at the time of the accident. The poor guy had been driving and dialing while he ran a red light at the intersection of Third and Elm and broadsided Melody’s bike. His lethal call had been to a doctor about his cancerous brain tumor and the possibility of the brain tumor being caused by extensive cellphone use. An odd coincidence and a gift, according to Benny Karst. The cellphone manufacturer would surely settle quickly, to avoid negative publicity about the possible brain tumor causation. That was how long ago? Always something due next week.
“Earth to Moss! Pick up your cards,” said Daniel.
“He’s seeing her again,” Rex, the ex-priest, intoned.