Only in hindsight would that summer of borrowed things appear full of disaster—at the time, we experienced it as a series of hilarious anecdotes. That night at the end of June, for instance, how the bumper of a borrowed car kissed Mrs. O’Rourke’s mailbox and sent the thing toppling over into the wash. Or that night, end of July, how we tossed the burning nubbin of a cigarette into that very wash to set the prairie grass ablaze. There was bad drought that year, we might’ve set the whole Front Range on fire, but that’s what garden hoses are for (we borrowed the neighbor’s, who never missed it).
There were three of us—MicahDevinMe—and we were about to become college dropouts. Devin had stumbled into some kind of inheritance, and Micah had stumbled into this sweet house-sitting gig, and I had stumbled into unemployment. We borrowed our cigarettes from perfect strangers and our booze and our pills from the cabinets of houses we didn’t live in. As for our accents, we’d flat-out stolen them from such films as Patriot Games and Far and Away. Twisted on secondhand Percs and pillaged wine, we relished the taste of borrowed words in our mouths:
“How much do you reckon it’ll cost us, loik? Replacin’ the toil an’ all?”
That night we cracked the tile—toil, I mean—we were down to our last shreds of self-respect, down on our hands and knees in Mrs. O’Rourke’s kitchen, picking up the anvil-heavy mortar we used to crush the pills, sweeping the Percocet powder into our palms, giggling at our phony Irish accents:
“Tee hee, ho ho! What’d ye drop the mortar for, ye bleemin’ eedjit?”
“Ho ho, tee hee! It were an accident, loik!”
Now I know we’d been begging for something ugly to happen, begging to be set straight. Burn me, we must’ve been pleading, that I might rise up from the ashes. Do you know that thing we’d been hunting? That giddy terror that attends the moment of reckoning?
For an entire summer, I’d been waiting for my dad to realize I didn’t have a job. Nights I didn’t crash at the O’Rourke place, I slept in the house Dad had bought with GI Bill money, the same house he left at five every morning to beat rush hour. I’d never seen his office, a warehouse in South Denver where he spent ten hours a day (I found out later) watching his business go belly-up. To me, he was what he’d always been: a tall, lean stranger rubbing carpal tunnel from his wrists, an inventor of chores and an asker of inconvenient questions.
“How’s work going?” he wondered one July afternoon, between drags on a Marb wide.
I was scraping carbonized burger off the grill he’d asked me to clean, onto the grass of a lawn he’d asked me to mow. It would be weeks before Mrs. O’Rourke returned and found that three pillheads had knocked over her mailbox, had set her lawn on fire, had done horrible violence to the tile in her kitchen.
“How,” Dad repeated slowly, “is work going?”
He’d grown up in the Ozarks, but twenty-or-so years in Colorado had sanded the edges off his accent. When he got angry, though, his gerunds lost their gs, his vowels grew vowels.
“Work’s fine,” I mumble-sulked.
A silence blurred by. From the corner of my eye, I watched Dad work the pack loose from his breast pocket, fetch out yet another cigarette, light it with the still-burning nubbin of the one he’d been smoking. Funny, it never crossed my mind, that summer of borrowed things, to borrow one of Dad’s smokes. I don’t know why I never did it, exactly, though it would’ve been easy enough: the pack was on the kitchen table at the end of every night, the place he discarded it before slouching off to bed. Maybe I worried what plain theft would signify—some final cordoning-off, some separation of the three of us, MicahDevinMe, from anything like normalcy—Abandon hope, all ye who filch Dad’s cigs. Because meanwhile, everybody else we knew was up to something interesting that summer—or anyway, something noteworthy, which is maybe different. My high school girlfriend had dropped out of Emerson and moved to Madrid, where she tutored for under-the-table cash. Ben, one of the few friends I’d made in college, had joined the Marine Corps. He was headed to Iraq in the fall.
Not that either of these options sounded so hot to me. I’d taken French in high school, for one thing, so Spain was out of the question. As for the military, I’d inherited too much of my dad’s skepticism about all that flag-waving bullshit, of which there was a great quantity in the summer of 2003. Dad had been lucky, of course, got drafted in ’72, just in time for the wind-down: he ended up in Germany, where he saw the Dead at Jahrhunderthalle. Either way, my father knew what happened to kids like me, when they went off to fight in places like Vietnam.
“Funny,” he was saying now.
“You working outside all day, and still you’re just pale as paper.”
I don’t remember how I answered him—maybe I mentioned something about me ma’s fair Oirish skin? My point is: Dad must’ve known all along.
Mike, the groundskeeper of the poshy North Boulder apartments where I’d been briefly employed as his assistant, was a broad-shouldered, square-jawed, sun-tanned Alpha. Before he fired me, Mike had addressed me in a SoCal drawl that curled statements into questions, that turned questions into answers to themselves:
“Dude?” he’d say/ask, “don’t put the weeds in the compost bin, y’kay?”
Practically everybody I knew in that town—everybody apart from MicahDevinMe—was a refugee from some other elsewhere. My dad, for instance, had fled his hometown, where they still knew him by first, middle, and last name and where, if you believe the news, there is some kind of opioid crisis going on. I wonder now: what singular misery had Mike been fleeing? Gnarly waves? Toxic vibes? Probably he’d pictured my little Podunk mountain town as the last unpaved paradise—and how strange it must’ve been, to be joined in this paradise by an acne-riddled pseudo-junkie, still half-stoned from the night before.
No, Mike and I didn’t get along. My scant memories of that job are a series of excuses I conjured out of thin air—a dentist’s appointment, a doctor’s appointment, an appointment with my shrink—a daisy chain of Sorry-Mike-I’ll-need-to-leave-early-again-todays. Maybe it was a sense of entitlement—Devin and Micah didn’t have to work that summer, why should I? But the more I think about it, the surer I am that I knew what was rearing up out of the Percocet fog, reality like an iceberg headed straight for the prow of our gaily painted yacht.
“Dude?” Mike had wondered that morning, his eyes darting from side to side.
“I, like, ended up hiring somebody from the building? To help me out with the lawncare? And I won’t be needing you to come in anymore?”
I was confused—was this a question? A directive? A hypothetical? Before I could even make up my mind to argue, Mike was holding up his hands, warding the argument off:
“Look?” he was asking me firmly. “It’s nothing personal? It’s these freaking temp agency fees?”
Weeks later, sweeping the patio under my father’s butane-blue gaze, I was sure it would all come loose: the job I’d managed to lose in a matter of weeks, the late Mr. O’Rourke’s stolen Percocets, the cigarette butts we’d left scattered over the lawn like memento mori, the mailbox Tower-of-Pisaing over the draw.
But the moment of reckoning would never quite arrive. Second week of August, the Widow O’Rourke returned. I found out later she’d been touring her late husband’s native Ireland and, among other things, scattering his ashes there. How or why this took nearly three months is a mystery—perhaps she’d scattered them all across the island? A pinch ’pon the Blarney Stone? A wee dash from the Cliffs of Moher? A sprinkle, loik, over the Giant’s Causeway? When she came home, anyway, she called Micah on the telephone to explain calmly that one of the tiles (toils!) in her kitchen was cracked, and did he know what happened?
I don’t know how he explained it to her—how he explained the empty medicine cabinets, how he explained the black scab across the xeriscaped lawn—I doubt he even tried. By then, we all knew that lies had a way of finding you, drifting back like letters returned to sender, tucked in among the bills and tardy Christmas cards and broadsides from the Sierra Club. My dad called me the day my W-2 from WorkSmart arrived at the house he bought with GI Bill money. He wanted to know how it was possible I’d worked all summer and only made $547.38? Of course, there was no explaining it—I doubt I even tried. In my memory is something like a faint ocean whirrrrrrrrrrrr, the 18.5 minutes missing from Nixon’s reel-to-reel.
In NA, I would learn, it’s called the Geographical Cure: the idea that you might short-circuit an addiction by changing your location on the planet. That fall, Micah bought a one-way bus ticket to New York City. Devin did more or less the same thing, except it was a plane ticket, and he went to Paris. I simply went back to college.
I spent a year reading breathless emails about adventures in the Great Elsewhere. My best friends were partying like crazy, working like crazy, getting cast for TV commercials and once, a photoshoot in Elle magazine. They were living in third-floor walkups in the XVIIIe arrondissement, or fourth-floor walkups in Williamsburg—I mean to say, they were living.
A year after the summer of borrowed things, I moved to Belfast, Northern Ireland under vague auspices of writing an honors thesis on the poet Seamus Heaney. I wouldn’t understand until much later what had compelled me to that strange city for a “study abroad”—even now I can only sense my reasoning. Let me be more specific: I’d spent an entire summer talking in a phony Irish accent, and now, here I was, in a city where the wrong Irish accent could get you curb-stomped.
I had a couple hundred quid a month to spend on groceries, but I seemed to spend most of it on phone cards: the year I lived in the North of Ireland was also the year I discovered the wisdom of the borrowed phrase. Phrases like: Wherever You Go, There You Will Be, and its corollary/inverse, Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder. Suddenly, I was calling Dad weekly in order to deliver doctored updates on my progress in Belfast.
Every detail of this strange city seemed to appall and amaze my father, whose globe-trotting, by and large, had been prescribed by the movements of the 54th Artillery Group. When I told him the story of two slatternly teenagers chucking rocks at the constabulary van from a pedestrian bridge, he was like: “They were doing what now?” He giggled patiently at the imitations of my flatmates, performed sotto voce so they wouldn’t overhear. If he’d listened carefully, my father would’ve recognized his sad cowboy music playing in the background, from the tinny speakers of my laptop: Gram Parsons, Jerry Jeff Walker, Townes Van Zandt.
And I’m thinking my father must’ve known that the Geographical Cure was a temporary one. It’s like Townes said: “We all got holes to fill, and them holes are all that’s real.” It’s like that delay on an international phone call, that three-, four-, five-second pause between question and answer and question. Everything abides and persists. Shame, for instance, sure as death and W-2 forms: shame of stealing, shame of lying through your teeth.
Who could have known that shame was just another pill to be popped? Who knew it was nothing but a little red button, something to perk you up before the drive home? After that summer, I’d sworn off pills altogether; I’d sworn off cigs, too, surmising correctly that they were slowly murdering my dad. In and after college, perhaps as a sort of penance, I worked a series of odd, yet demanding, jobs: line chef at a pizza joint, interior carpenter, door-to-door environmental fundraiser.
The best among these odd jobs was “client intake specialist” at a men’s shelter in Seattle, where I came to think of that summer of borrowed things in the way I still do: as the hallmark of three paper-pale boys of privilege and means. It was hard to see it any other way. I suppose it would’ve started by then, the opioid crisis, meaning there would’ve been guys at the shelter for whom pills were not a pastime but an imperative; guys who’d gotten hooked in jail, or in Vietnam, or in Iraq; or as Wards of the State of Washington; guys who’d gotten hooked by their parents; guys who were born hooked; guys whose habits could not be mistaken for anything other than a vague and half-realized wish for death; guys (two of them, the year I worked there) who OD’ed in the bathroom. They spoke their own language, these guys, the queer argot of the Anonymouses, Alcoholics and Narcotics: Denial, they said, and Sponsor, and Detox, and Enabler. These men had accepted long ago the wisdom of the borrowed phrase: idle hands, it was often observed, are the playground of the devil.
And this became the trick, a trick of staying clean, an elaborate sleight of hand: to rise early and to work until you were tired again. After I worked at the homeless shelter, I worked as a paralegal, and after that I sold tickets to the Seattle Symphony, and after that I worked at the front desk of a technical college, and after that I worked as the groundskeeper of some poshy apartment building. No kidding.
Even when I wasn’t working, I was working. The year I worked at the shelter, for instance, I’d woken up at five every morning, and written until my shift at ten, and when I came home I went back to my desk, writing until bedtime. The year I moved to Houston for graduate school, where I worked as a “teaching assistant,” I wrote the first chunk of a novel about work, and drugs, and wasted potential.
Happens that was the year Dad got sick. And the ridiculous truth occurs to me now, that I must’ve thought of taking care of him as a part-time gig: parental caregiving specialist. And this by way of saying, maybe the hardest part of that year was an abiding sense of my own uselessness: there simply wasn’t much work to be done. Sick as he was, then half out of his tree with “chemo brain,” my father still preferred to do things for himself. He always rose before me in the blue-black cold of Colorado morning, washing down the feel-good pills with the coffee he’d made himself. I don’t mean to say I was bored—bored isn’t the word for it—but that sometimes I’d catch him giving me an embarrassed look, the look of a barman surprised to find it’s gone four and his customers haven’t yet left the pub.
And then there was the winter to contend with. Years on the West and South Coasts had made me forget how cruel a winter could be. That winter was dry but hostile, a season that coincided unhappily with my dad’s decline. It began in October of ’14, with his second round of chemo, and it wasn’t over until May, when he died.
For a year and a half, lung cancer had brought a great retinue of pain marching through our lives, like some dark Lord of Misery: aches and fevers and moanings and groanings and sharp pains and dull pains and pains that linger and pains that come and go and pains that are described on a scale of one to ten as “at least a seven-point-five.” And Oxycontin and (after he couldn’t keep down solids) liquid morphine had swelled the progress of my father’s pain, and so had radiologists and oncologists and, finally, Janet.
Janet was the hospice nurse. And no sooner had she offered her condolences than she was going through the house and collecting all the feel-good pills for immediate incineration, and dumping the liquid morphine into a Ziploc baggie full of kitty litter. As I watched her work, annoyance puncturing the delicate film of my grief, this small but insistent voice urged me to snatch the go-easy pills from her well-intentioned fingers—
Run, it told me: run, run, run.
JP Gritton’s awards include a Cynthia Woods Mitchell fellowship, a DisQuiet fellowship and the Donald Barthelme prize in fiction. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Greensboro Review, New Ohio Review, Southwest Review, Tin House, and elsewhere. His translations of the fiction of Brazilian writer Cidinha da Silva are forthcoming in InTranslation. Wyoming, available now from Tin House Books, is his first novel.