Scene From a Waiting Room

Two of my favorite hobbies have always been people watching and eavesdropping, long before I declared myself a writer and could claim such behavior as “research.” In fact, if I watch people long enough I’ll usually give them names, and sometimes even backstories.

For instance: I have a neighbor I named Jim, who I decided works for the water department and recently went through a nasty divorce, after he caught his ex-wife cheating on him with a 19 year old from the Geek Squad. Of course, I have no way of knowing if any of that is true (although it certainly could be), but that’s what I came up with one day, when I saw him standing outside his apartment angrily smoking a cigarette.

So, it is with great delight that I share one of the best conversations I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening in on. This was Friday morning.

A crowded waiting room, full of mostly miserable people. The morning is stormy on and off; many in the cramped sitting area still have rain drying on their clothes. Across from me sit two people appearing not to have much in common: One a young black man, mid-twenties. He’s clean shaven, short hair, wearing beige cargo-style pants and a gray hoodie. He’s holding a hardcover book with a library barcode across the cover. Specifically, it’s The Widow by Fiona Barton. I decide he looks like a Kevin.


A book that, I find out later, is a New York Times bestseller and came out just five months ago, which leaves me feeling a little embarrassed that I hadn’t heard of it.

The other, a fifty-ish white guy who looks like he’s seen better days. His hair is greasy and slicked back. He has a bushy mustache, his cheeks look like salt-and-pepper colored coarse grit sandpaper. Grease stains and paint spot his jeans up and down the legs. He’s quite tan, with pronounced crow’s feet and deep wrinkles in his forehead. Despite being  rather small, I decide he worked construction when he was young and verile, and wonder if he works now. Possibly a house painter, I think, judging from the paint. I name him Larry.

Kevin initiates the conversation, which for some reason surprises me. It starts, as most conversations between strangers seem to, with the weather. Larry replies amicably, and they exchange observations about the rain that had fallen and what that means in regard to the heat and humidity once the sun eventually comes out (spoiler alert: miserable). Before long, however, it becomes clear that Kevin has a bit of a one track mind.

“I’m reading this book, The Widow, have you heard of it?”

Larry says he hasn’t.

“It’s pretty good so far, I like it. What do you like to read, fiction or non-fiction?”

Larry mumbles something I can’t make out, then says non-fiction. I wonder if his answer is an attempt to politely indicate to Kevin that this is not a subject to which he can easily contribute.

“Oh yeah, non-fiction?” Kevin says. “I don’t like non-fiction too much. I love fiction, though. What’s your favorite book?”

Larry again mumbles something incomprehensible, perhaps as a stalling tactic. I wonder if he has a favorite book. He finally comes up with an answer, which I don’t hear, that apparently is about space travel. Kevin shows interest and asks him a follow up question about science fiction, and Larry remarks how incredible it is that things that seemed futuristic in books when he was a kid are becoming reality.

Kevin nods, then moves on to describing the plot of The Widow, which he likens to Gone Girl, but without all the big plot twists. It’s clear from the look on his face that Larry is not familiar with Gillian Flynn’s bestselling book or David Fincher’s film adaptation.

Larry seems clearly uncomfortable with the topic at hand and manages to turn the conversation back to the weather, saying he rode his bike in the rain to get there. Kevin says he used to ride his bike a lot but turned to running instead. I wonder for a moment if Kevin realizes that for him biking was recreational exercise while for Larry it’s apparently his primary mode of transportation.

There’s a slight look of relief in Larry’s eyes, though, perhaps because he thinks there might be a chance of turning the conversation back to a subject (bikes or weather) he can more easily speak to. There’s a beat of silence, then Kevin asks another question. The relief leaves Larry’s eyes as quickly as it had arrived.

“So, which do you like better, ebooks or printed books?”

At this point I smile, stifling a laugh.

Larry replies with something about “real books.”

Kevin agrees, stating that in his opinion, while ebooks provide a convenience that is unmatched, there is nothing quite like the feel of a printed book in your hands (an opinion I happen to share). He then gushes about the smell of books, and how, above all else, it is that smell which makes printed books superior.

Not long after this (perhaps due to Larry’s increasing lack of response) Kevin finally relents some. He steers the conversation away from books and reading, telling Larry a little about himself. He says that he works full time in the evening and goes to school full time during the day. He’s just gotten his Bachelor’s Degree and is now pursuing his Master’s, with hopes of going on to get a PhD. (I desperately wish I could’ve heard what he does for a living and his field of study at school–for once these are two items I’d rather not make up.) He says he goes to school, goes to work, then with what little free time he has–I’m assuming somewhere around 1 or 2am–he enjoys some form of entertainment, typically a movie or (big surprise) reading. The conversation dwindles, then Kevin’s number is called. He bids Larry good day and walks off. I feel a little tinge of sadness as he goes.

It wasn’t a long encounter, definitely less than ten minutes even with awkward pauses sprinkled in, but it had a pretty big effect on me. I can’t remember the last time I saw an adult–male or female, black or white–show that much enthusiasm for books and reading. It almost thawed the cold, black stone in my chest that passes for a heart (almost). It wasn’t just that he had such passion, it was that he unabashedly shared that passion with a perfect stranger, in the form of Larry. That’s awesome. I wondered if after Larry left his appointment he might think about his conversation with Kevin and ride his bike over to the library to look for a book to check out. I wonder if he’d like The Martian.

Surely there’s something to take away from this encounter, right? There must be.

I guess it’s this: Don’t be afraid to share your passion with people, whatever it is. Don’t worry about what other people are going to think about the stuff you like. Don’t stop yourself in the middle of what you’re saying and apologize, or say “I know, it’s dumb.” It’s not dumb. Who knows, you might make an impact on the person you’re talking to, or the introverted weirdo who appears to be staring with serial killer intensity at his phone but is actually listening to everything you say. Either way, don’t be shy about it. Let your freak flag fly–spread that passion around, and liberally. Be a Kevin.


Stull Cemetery: Of Course Kansas Has a Portal to Hell

I’m a sucker for urban legends. Ghost stories, haunted houses, monsters, you name it. So when the chance came along to visit a somewhat famous “haunted” cemetery touted as a portal to Hell frequented by THE DEVIL HIMSELF, I jumped at it.

Stull Cemetery is located in the postage stamp-sized town of Stull, Kansas–approximately 10 minutes from Lawrence, home to the University of Kansas, and a half hour from Kansas City, though it could be pretty much anywhere; acres and acres of farmland, scenic as it may be, tends to be interchangeable after a while, lending a sense of desolation as you wind your way along Highway 40.


Stories of Stull Cemetery abound on the internet, most sticking to the same handful of “facts”: Tales are documented going back to at least the ’70s, when a professor at KU regaled his students with tales of a speck of haunted land outside town where witchcraft was practiced in abundance going back as far as the 1850s, the witches were hung from trees in the churchyard, and, to top it off, Satan himself made a personal appearance every Halloween at midnight (or Spring equinox, depending on the version you find) to dance with all who had succumbed to violent deaths in the previous year. There was also a hidden staircase if you looked close enough around the foundation of the decaying, vacant church that led straight to Hell—a staircase which, upon descending, there was no return.

Over the years, more incidences were added to the legend—the crumbling brick church was mysteriously leveled, supposedly to stop trespassers from trampling graves and vandalizing the cemetery, though no one in town would admit to knowing who did it; a tree that grew up through a tombstone, splitting it in two, (and was allegedly one of those used to hang witches) was cut down in the (possibly futile?) hopes of eliminating some of the stigma surrounding the property; rain allegedly never falling inside the walls of the church before it was razed (after its roof had fallen in); and perhaps most famously, Pope John Paul II reportedly once refusing to fly over Kansas, citing his desire to fly around the oft-called flyover state due to not wanting to pass over the “unholy ground” of Stull Cemetery. Playing a major role in Season 5 finale of the show Supernatural only added to the Stull legend.


So it was with great anticipation that I pulled off the highway and onto the supposedly unholy final resting place of perhaps a few dozen dearly departed, judging by a rough look at the markers. I was struck by something right away, before even getting out of the car. Something I couldn’t shake. Something that immediately unnerved me to my very core: it was so…pretty. Portals to Hell should be dilapidated, grungy, dark, gray, decaying places, wouldn’t you think? Instead of finding rotting headstones and being flooded with a sense of overwhelming dread, I was greeted by rows upon rows of green grass and well-maintained tombstones adorned with flowers and wreaths. It probably didn’t help that it was also Memorial Day, so the small lot was actually full of visitors paying their respects. Lush, green grass, flowers everywhere—it barely seemed unholy at all. A travesty, if you ask me.





And such began my dilemma, which I debated right up to the moment I started typing this: do I tell the truth—that it is, by all appearances, just a plain old (very old) run-of-the-mill cemetery—or feed you all a few little white lies to keep the legend of Stull Cemetery alive and kicking? I considered writing a mostly fictional recap of my visit, but decided against it.

Instead, I’m planning on a return trip later in the year. October, maybe. When the grass has gone dormant, the leaves have mostly fallen from the trees, there are no visitors, and everything seems a little less…alive. Maybe on that visit I’ll be overcome by the creepiness, the unease—maybe something supernatural will actually happen!—the grounds possess, and when I tell you about it I won’t have to make anything up. So as of right now, I’m considering this unfinished business.




Hi, I’m a self-indulgent hypocrite

There might be a little bit of hyperbole in that title, but not much.

I’ve been busier so far this year with creative/artsy stuff than I have been in my whole life up until now, and I have to say it’s been pretty cool. So get comfortable while I talk about myself and clumsily humblebrag about things I’m not very good at for a few minutes, because well…*points at title*.

Self Indulgence # 1: My filmmaking partner and I finished shooting the principal scenes for our horror short, which consisted of a late night at a cafe we were given unlimited access to after hours thanks to the place’s very cool owner. It took several hours to shoot, with me spending much of it holding the boom mic over the actors’ heads (and out of the shot!) and trying to keep things moving along so we didn’t have the cast and crew out too late. There were about 10-12 of us, and when no one is getting paid for their time you want to try and keep everybody happy.

We did a fairly good job of it, I think, until the wind and rain kicked up right before we shot our final scene, which (naturally) was outside. Watching our lead actor and actress shivering between takes and trying to keep the feeling in their hands was humbling and definitely surreal. They were out there freezing their asses off at 1:00am, doing take after take until we got it right and they were reciting lines I wrote. Me. And to top it all off, I will be (with a little help, of course) shooting a scene for the film myself, which is territory I didn’t see myself delving into so soon and that really excites the hell out of me.


The paparazzi wouldn’t leave us alone


Self Indulgence #2: I always liked photography but never really thought about doing anything with it—cameras are freakin’ expensive, you know? But since meeting my new directing buddy and being back in touch with an old friend who’s also a kick ass photographer, it got me thinking about how much I always wanted to get into it. Then it hit me: I have a pretty decent quality camera in my pocket (via my cell phone) all day long, but I also have an okay point and shoot digital camera, so why wasn’t I getting out there and taking pictures?

So that’s what I did. I started going anywhere with decent scenery, trying to figure out how to take pictures that weren’t complete yawns. I also now typically spend my lunch hour (usually between 2:00 and 3:00 am) driving along the empty streets of the small town where I work looking for cool stuff to shoot. Another thing dawned on me, too (pun intended)—working the night shift has me driving home right as the sun is coming up. Now I’m always pulling off the road on my way home wherever the light looks right and snapping pictures of anything and everything that seems remotely interesting, with admittedly mixed results. (side note: I’m also now using Instagram on a regular basis, if you want to see what else I’m shooting click here)


Is it better now…


or now?

Self Indulgence #3: The other artsy-type thing I did recently was decide to try my very shaky hand at yet another hobby: drawing. The thing to emphasize here is that I’ve never had any kind of talent for it whatsoever. Absolutely none. People who have a knack for painting or drawing frustrate the shit out of me. It’s one of the only things I’ve ever been interested in that I could just never get the hang of (also on the list: skateboarding and getting dates). But now, armed with a sketch pad and a bunch of pencils, I aim to change that. One thing is for sure—I won’t be sharing any drawings on here (or anywhere else for that matter) for quite some time. While I’ve managed to go from completely awful to pretty terrible rather quickly, it’s still a whole boatload of suck.

Which brings us to hypocrisy. I realized what a hypocrite I was just today. I have a friend who I think could have a very successful blog, if he chose to pursue it. He expressed interest but never quite took the bait when I urged him to do it a while back, so I got an idea the other night and went ahead and registered a domain name for him here on WordPress. Now the ball is in his court, and I’m curious to see if that gives him a nudge or not.

Either way, it got me looking at my own precious blog. The last time I wrote anything here was over two months ago. What kind of arrogant fuckwhistle preaches at someone else to do something they aren’t doing themselves? So I’m resolving to try and keep this a little more up to date, a post or two a month seems reasonable. Also, I’m done trying to stick to any certain topic or theme. In other words, this is no longer a “writing” or “pop culture” blog (if it ever was one to begin with). I’m sure I’ll still touch on those things here and there, but from now on it’s more of an “I-no-longer-give-a-shit” blog. I have no idea what I’ll post about and I have no idea if any of it will be of any interest to you—I’d like to think so—but I guess if you’re willing to indulge me a little longer we’ll find out the answers to both of those questions together.




A Somewhat Verbose Shout Out to My Fellow Dispatchers

I’ve always been hesitant to talk about my job on here. I work directly with law enforcement and people are extremely passionate about the issue on both sides. Discussing it (as with many other political or hot-button issues) doesn’t really interest me. I’d rather debate which was the best season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer than talk about politics with someone (it’s season five, by the way, and anyone who thinks otherwise is greatly mistaken). But when a mass shooting happens in the county where you work, you feel the need to address it.

Working at 911 is amazing. Anyone who works there will be the first to tell you it’s definitely not for everyone—some people aren’t able to do the absolutely insane multitasking it takes to be good at it, and some just aren’t wired to handle the enormous amounts of stress you have to deal with on a daily basis. In other words, most dispatchers are pretty dark, weird, fantastic people. A few of them also might happen to be normal, but they’re the exception.

As luck would have it, I happened to be off last night when the shootings began, so I won’t get firsthand accounts of what it was like at dispatch when it all went down until I go back tomorrow. But even though I’ve only known these particular dispatchers a month, I know them well enough to know that they rocked it and handled their business, keeping all the responders informed and organized. That’s what dispatchers do: step up at a moment’s notice and do whatever it takes to get the job done. In that regard it’s not unlike the officers, deputies, paramedics, and firefighters we dispatch for.

We generally deal with people at their worst. Accidents, robberies, fights, medical emergencies, all the way down to the crotchety old man who just wants his neighbor’s dog to shut up. It takes a toll, and requires both the ability to deal with the stress in the moment and let it go and decompress during your time off, otherwise you’ll go crazy. This is not work you want to take home with you.

I don’t personally know Hesston Police Chief Doug Schroeder, the man who went in with no backup and took out the shooter, but I’ve talked to him on the radio. There’s a fair chance I might’ve even rolled my eyes or sighed loudly when he called in a traffic stop while I was busy with something else. But he stepped up and did what had to be done, which is what we as dispatchers do on the other side of the radio, too.

So while praise is being given to Chief Schroeder and all the other responders from all the agencies involved (and rightfully so), I wanted to take the opportunity to acknowledge my fellow dispatchers in Harvey County, Sedgwick County, and everywhere else. What we do is hard work and you have to be a little crazy to like it, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.  And for the record, there will be no more sighing or eye rolling when someone calls in a traffic stop.

What is this? Is this a cusp?

I’m not a huge sports guy, but when I think about my 2015, the most fitting term I can think of to describe it is a sports metaphor: It was a rebuilding year.

I know vague Facebook and blog posts are annoying, but I’m also somewhat guarded about my private life—I’ll go into a little detail, but for the most part either you know what I’m talking about or you don’t. If you’re that curious, you can email me via the contact form on the right side of the page, but suffice to say it was one hell of a year, mostly in bad ways.

Among other things, I had a self-initiated change in relationship status, which led to incredible financial strife; I made some friends and lost some friends, and the year culminated in a change of jobs. I had a few nice bright spots and more lows than I would’ve liked along the way. And for three-quarters of the year, I barely wrote a goddamn word of fiction.

I kept submitting stories for publication, and kept getting rejected. That’s par for the course and doesn’t bother me that much, but when it felt like everything else was going wrong the added rejection sure didn’t help.

Then, something happened: I found myself again.

It started gradually—I was especially mopey the last half of December, but had been slowly  starting to pick up the guitar again. By the day after Christmas, something had reawakened in me and I had written a handful of new songs. And I do mean new, as in they didn’t sound like anything I’d written before. I dug up a few old songs and reworked them some and now I have almost an album’s worth of music and am chipping away at lyrics for them. That felt great, but the nagging voice in the back of my head grew louder.


I’d had an idea for a new novel bouncing around in my head for quite some time, and even though I didn’t have it completely thought out yet I knew pretty much what it would be. I thought the time was right to start it, and the ending would come as I wrote. I forced myself to hit that writer status quo of 1,000 words a day for a while, playing my guitar and working on my new songs as well. Once my creative juices really started to flow again, I also decided to start final edits on the novel I get sick of telling people is 90% done.

I wondered if playing my music with others would help me finish the songs or maybe tweak them into something even better than what I already had. I decided for the first time in probably three years to go on Craigslist, to look for musicians. I didn’t find any, but an odd thing happened: I noticed the link to the section for writers and found an ad that captured my attention. “Filmmaker seeks writers/storytellers for collaborative project.”

A wise man told me  recently that people need to get out of their comfort zone more often and amazing things can happen. I’m sure at a different time in my life I may have ignored that ad and went on about my business—after all, I already had enough on my plate, and who knew if the person behind the ad was even legit? But I answered the ad, and after exchanging emails with the filmmaker I sent him a couple of stories and we decided on one we thought would make a great short film. Suddenly I was also adapting a short story into a screenplay on top of everything else.

I’m trying to be as involved in the film project as I can be, because I love movies and have always wanted to learn about the filmmaking process. As the two of us corresponded, the discussion of finding actors came up, and I reached out to a former coworker through Facebook that I knew had acting experience. Not only did he assure me he could help us find actors willing to work for what we could afford to pay them (peanuts), but he also let me know he was involved with a friend in a fledgling movie production company. They have their first short debuting at a horror convention in a few months and begin filming their first feature this summer. He suggested meeting with his friend to discuss our project and possibly get some help from them to get the film made and make it the best it can be.

That, my friends, is fucking amazing.

I also reconnected with a good friend (the aforementioned wise man) who is stepping up to offer assistance and much needed equipment for the project as well. Things are falling into place in a crazy way and it’s getting me excited.

As for the job? I’m still doing the same work, 911 dispatcher, but for a neighboring county. Less stress, less drama, more pay, and less overtime, i.e. more time to be creative and do the things that make me the person I am? Yes, please. While I can’t stress enough how much I liked the last place I worked, the overtime (much of which was voluntary but necessary, mind you) got overwhelming and left me too drained to want to do anything when I was home. Now it looks like I may finally find the balance I so sorely lacked.

So while most of 2015 sucked a truckload of monkey dicks, it’s looking more and more like 2016 has me on the cusp of some really exciting things ahead. I can hardly wait.


Demon House

A change in my schedule has landed me temporarily on the night shift and allowed me a relatively large amount of free time during the hours when most people are dead to the world. I’m trying to use that time to get back on the proverbial horse in regard to my writing (of which I’ve done woefully little this year), and started with this relatively simple story. Anyone who knows what I’ve been dealing with the past few months—and the last week in particular—should have no trouble spotting the metaphor.


The foundation had cracks. The floorboards were warped and swollen from moisture. Shingles were missing from the roof and there was a hole over the kitchen where a hailstone the size of a baseball had broken through during  a storm the previous spring.

None of that phased Doug. Nor did the termite damage, the poor insulation, or the rusted old pipes that jetted brown water out of the faucets before clearing up. The first time he looked at the house, the realtor’s apologetic tone fell on deaf ears as Doug gazed at the small patch of blue sky visible through the hail-born skylight.

“It’s perfect, he said. “I’ll take it.”

The realtor’s jaw hung open momentarily. He blinked. “You’ll take it? You want to make an offer?”

“I want the house.” Doug found it difficult to put what he was feeling into words. He looked at the scuffed up wall where an old refrigerator had presumably stood for decades, crying for a fresh coat of paint and gestured around the room. “It’s got character. This is the house for me.”

The realtor was smart enough to keep his mouth shut and get Doug back to the office to start the paperwork before he changed his mind. Fourteen days later, Doug had the keys.

It went smoothly enough, to start. Doug patched up the hole over the kitchen and replaced the missing shingles on the roof, then began slowly replacing floorboards and installing new plumbing. He adored the house in spite of its imperfections. Possibly even because of them. It was about a month after he moved in that the real problems started.

At first it was little things—a faint puff of air that sounded like a whisper but was probably just the wind, things falling off of shelves that he must’ve left too close to the edge—Doug didn’t think much of it. Soon doors started slamming behind him and the faint whispers became moans and groans. Doug got less and less sleep, spending much of the night picking up broken knickknacks, the rest of the time forcing himself to keep his eyes shut while he lay in bed and ignore what was happening around him.

He soldiered on, fixing what he could and picking up the pieces as more broke, never asking himself what he should do about it. Things were just the way they were. He dealt with the issues as they arose and carried on, slowly realizing he was absolutely exhausted. Months went by until one day he mentioned his woes to a coworker who asked him a question profound in its simplicity.

“Why do you still live there?”

Doug frowned. “What do you mean? It’s my house.”

“There are houses everywhere. Literally, everywhere. You can find another. It sounds to me like the one you’re living in has some ghosts—demons.”

The notion hung in Doug’s mind. Was that really all there was to it? Could it be a matter of just finding another place? Something about it seemed to him like cheating, like he was taking the easy way out. Was it really that simple?

Over the next few weeks Doug began to seriously consider moving—usually when he was somewhere else, lest the  house know what he was thinking—and the idea started taking hold, putting down roots in his brain. His co-worker was right, his house was haunted, and he’d gotten so used to dealing with the moans and groans, the slamming doors and breaking knickknacks, that it had become commonplace. The thought of living in a house where those things didn’t happen seemed almost too good to be true.

Doug began mentally taking stock of what he would pack up first and and browsing through the real estate section of the newspaper. Excitement and anticipation grew in his belly as moving out of the ghost-riddled pit that had been his home became closer to being reality.

As if it knew, things began to escalate at the house. One night as Doug was padding into the kitchen for a glass of water, the cabinet door opened and slammed shut hard enough to rattle the windows and the chef’s knife that had been siting on the counter teetered and fell point down, stabbing the top of his foot. Doug shouted a wave of profanities, knowing it was no accident. It wasn’t a coincidence. The house was actively trying to hurt him.

After his second time tripping over and stepping on things in the night that hadn’t been there when he went to bed, Doug slept with all the lights on. He started parking in the driveway after waking one morning to find his car running in the garage and the house filling with exhaust. The house wanted to keep him there, all to itself.

With a lot of searching and a little luck, Doug found a new place. It wasn’t as big or nice as the house he’d be moving out of, but he could feel the different energy in the new place. No ghosts. No demons. Nothing but walls and a roof and a floor.

On each subsequent trip back to the house to pick up the last of his things it got a little harder for Doug to leave. Not necessarily for sentimental reasons but because the house made it physically difficult for him to get out. A bookshelf falling over, blocking the door; his car battery somehow going dead despite being brand new; the couch sliding in front of him when he had his arms full in an attempt to trip him.

The last time Doug was in the house, he was having a look around seeing what was left to be taken out. There were still some things he wanted to grab, but most of the essentials had already been taken to the new place. As he was walking down the hall, Doug noticed a chunk of drywall that had fallen away at some point since he’d been there last, exposing a stud full of rot and mold. Frayed electrical wiring hung haphazardly along the the board. Doug stared wide-eyed at the potential disaster, wondering how he’d lived there as long as he had relatively unscathed.

He reached up instinctively with a pointed index finger to touch the frayed wire then hesitated and took a step back, something telling him to use caution. As if on cue, the wire sparked and Doug recoiled. A second spark shot out and the wire began to smolder upwards. A chunk of the stud crumbled away and a puff of dust floated down from the ceiling, surrounding Doug’s head, and the ominous feeling grew inside him. Something bad was about to happen. Something worse than bad. Another piece of the beam crumbled and the ceiling above him buckled. Doug took a step back and a piece of tile crashed down, landing where he’d been standing five seconds earlier. A faint rumble carried through the house and the rotted, exposed stud gave way. The ceiling fell in a domino effect through the room and Doug took off in a sprint. The house collapsed behind him as he ran. At first he thought it was chasing him out, then he realized he was wrong—he was outrunning it as it tried to trap him inside.

Doug burst through the front door to the driveway, the house quaking on its foundation. He made it to his car before turning back to look, just in time to see the place he had called home collapsing in on itself like it were being consumed by a black hole. A small mushroom cloud of dust plumed up from the rubble, and for a moment Doug considered trying to go back and sift through the debris for anything left that could be salvaged, before wisps of smoke wafted up from the heap. The stuff went up like tinder; flames licked at the dry, brittle wood that had made up its frame, engulfing it all in under a minute. Doug leaned against his car and watched it burn as he called the fire department. He could hear the sirens but there would be nothing they could do. It would be little more than ash by the time they got there.

When he thought back, he had mixed feelings about the time he spent in the house. Although it ended in a flaming pile of rubble he would still always have fond memories of those early days—gazing through the hole in the roof over the kitchen, thinking about all the potential, how much could be done to turn it into the house of his dreams. It didn’t turn out that way, of course. As far from it as you could get, actually. But in the end one thing went through his mind like a gunshot in an echo chamber:

At least he got the fuck out of that godforsaken house before it collapsed and trapped him inside forever.

Remembering Rolonda

Has this ever happened to you: you’re minding your own business, thinking about whatever perfectly normal thing is passing through your head, when next thing you know you’re thinking about someone or something you haven’t thought about in years? Without even realizing what took you there, you’ve somehow been transported to another place and/or time in your life that hadn’t come up in ages? That happened to me yesterday when I found myself thinking about my old coworker Rolonda.

When I worked for my previous employer, I was pretty unhappy. I can be good at hiding it (dare I say a master) so a lot of people never would’ve guessed, but I was depressed and unsatisfied with almost every aspect of my life. The only real bright spot that came from the years at that previous employer was that I rediscovered my writing. Other than that, things were pretty glum. I made a couple pretty good friends that I’ve managed to keep in contact with (and coincidentally or not, we all work somewhere else now–what that might say about said previous employer I’m not sure but I have an idea), but most everyone there were acquaintances at best who I tolerated to various degrees. There were exceptions, of course–people who I didn’t talk to outside work yet enjoyed seeing every day–and one of them was a ball of light and positivity named Rolonda Menifee.

Rolonda was born and raised in Kansas, lived there her whole life, I believe. She worked for a loan company prior to coming to work for the utility company I called home for just over five years. She was practically a walking smile–every time you saw her she was either smiling or about to smile. It wasn’t one of those phony, “Hi, good to see you!” smiles that coworkers get so good at giving each other and don’t really mean. She always seemed genuinely interested in the well-being of whoever she was talking to. A warm smile, a small joke, and a big laugh: the one-two-three combo that could stop any grumpy asshole dead in their tracks.

She complained now and then, like we all do. Show me someone who doesn’t complain about their job from time to time and I’ll show you someone predisposed to keel over with a brain aneurism. She was human. She had a sharp tongue after (or sometimes during, thanks to her phone’s MVP, the mute button) interactions with troubling customers, having those of us within earshot in stitches from her barbed jabs at their expense, but the vast majority of the time she was genuine, polite, pleasant, and just plain kind. I told her once she was nice to customers on the phone even if they didn’t deserve it, to which she laughed that big laugh of hers and told me life was too short to be nasty to people.

Our cubicles were only two down from each other, and we were both notorious for being the last ones on the phone at the end of the day–the two who customers seemed to latch onto, wanting to talk and share way past the point of us caring but us too polite to cut them off. That put the two of us usually being the last two out of the office every day, walking to the elevator together and trekking out to the parking garage chatting about our day, maybe a small amount of idle chit chat about what we were going to do with the rest of our night after we left. Those short walks and pleasant conversations meant a lot to me. They helped me decompress and unwind from my soul-crushing day in mere minutes as much if not more than anything else I did the rest of the night. She really brightened my day every time I saw her

One random Wednesday I walked into the office and could feel something off. There was a weird vibe, a sour feel to the air I could almost taste, that made me uneasy. The supervisors were avoiding eye contact with everyone as much as the could, coming to people’s desks and having them step into their offices in small groups of three or four. Upon leaving the offices, my coworkers’ faces were blank and expressionless, impossible to read. After about twenty minutes of wondering what the hell was going on, I was called into my supervisor’s office with two others.

Rolonda had called in sick on Monday, which, while rare, was not completely out of the norm. She didn’t come in on Tuesday, either, and I didn’t find out until later that she hadn’t called in–she just plain didn’t show up, which was odd. A friend was supposed to meet Rolonda at the gym on Tuesday night and when she was a no-show and not answering her phone, her friend go worried. On Wednesday morning when she didn’t show up for work yet again, the friend called the police to do a welfare check on Rolonda. They found her cold and stiff in her bed, where she’d been somewhere between 24 and 36 hours. She was 46.

Everyone at the office was stunned, of course. It was like we’d collectively been punched in the gut. I have no recollection of the rest of that day. I could’ve told someone I was King Fractoid from the planet Jobinius and would’ve had no memory of it. It was all a blur, almost not real. There’s a certain surreal quality that surrounds truly awful events that’s always fascinated me. Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, you name it–they all have a not-real-ness that is hard to describe. The death of a friend or loved one has that same quality for me, just on a somewhat smaller, more personal scale.

It took about two weeks. Two weeks of hanging up with my final customer of the day and lifting my head to look around the office and realize everything was quiet and I was alone. In my head I could still hear Rolonda’s voice, as loud and clear as if she were still sitting two cubicles down, finishing up with her own last customer before she joined me for our walk to the elevator.

Two weeks of walking to the elevator alone, feeling like I should be waiting for her–she was simply gathering her things, she’d be along any minute–not wanting to leave the office without her.

Two weeks of plodding out to the parking lot and seeing my truck sitting sadly by itself, a lone speck of metal in a sea of asphalt. Two weeks before the uneven feeling inside, the off-kilter pull at my guts, the voice in my head, her voice, began to fade. Those two weeks are among the loneliest times of my life.

I know how depressing this sounds, and I didn’t intend for it to come across that way. The fact is it’s been over five years since Rolonda died, and as clear as that Wednesday in July of 2010 is in my head, it pales in comparison to the mental images burned into my brain of Rolonda smiling, making a joke, and laughing loud enough for the people across the office to know she was there. She probably didn’t know how much she was helping keep me stay sane–she was just being her. But she did help me, and every time she pops in my head seemingly at random like she did yesterday, I can’t help but smile. She was a light for me in a pit of darkness, and I never stopped appreciating it. I never will.