Level 12: North Dakota

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Marcus likes animals, so much so that he has seen every video with an animal in it on youtube. Seriously.

Marcus Maurer.

After the memorial service Marcus came over.

“How’s your family?” He lowered his head to avoid hitting the top of the doorway.

“Sad,” I led him into my mom’s kitchen. “Want some water?”

The giant, blue-eyed soldier looked at one of the many nick-knacks hanging from my mother’s walls, “Is it filtered?”

“Of course,” I went to the sink and poured two refreshing glasses.

Marcus sat down at the kitchen table, “You brought Catan?” He opened the lid of my 15th anniversary commemorative set.

“Looks like it,” I handed him a glass and sat down on the opposite side of the table.

“Your grandma was dying and you brought Catan with you.”

“I didn’t know she was dying. Besides, Catan is the best.” I took a drink of water.

“That’s because you’ve never played against yourself.” Marcus spun the glass in his hand, watching the light bend as it passed through the water. “You wanna play?” He drummed his fingers on the table.

A vicious smile spread across my face, “Yes I do.”

We set up the board and began rolling dice, neither of us saying much. Outside, the sun went down and crickets began to chirrup.

“What are you guys doing?” My mom bustled through the kitchen carrying luggage for the next morning’s flight.

“Catan,” I said absently, placing a road into the heart of my big friend’s empire. It was a risky play, but Marcus was winning. I had to take chances.

“What’s Catan?” My mom paused next to the table and looked at the board.

“An omelet,” I handed the dice to Marcus, hoping my non-sequitur would drive her off.

“Oh,” she turned and headed back up the stairs, “Don’t stay up too late.”

“When is the funeral?” Marcus rolled the dice. They came up 5, which was great for him and terrible for me. He collected a pile of resources, built a second city, then bought a card.

“I don’t know,” I was notoriously bad with dates, and times, and life in general. “I leave for North Dakota tomorrow.”

“They have good fishing up there.” Marcus handed me the dice.

“They used to have good grandmas.” I rolled the dice. Another 5. “Fuck,” I hit the table with my fist. Marcus drew another massive stack of resources. I waited for him to finish, then offered a trade. “I’ll give you three wheat for one of those ore you just drew.”

“No,” Marcus began sorting his cards. “I like my ore.”

“Three wheat and a brick.” I showed him the wealth.

“I don’t trade with Satan.”

“I’m not Satan,” I fiddled with one of the unused tiles. “Three wheat, a brick, and a sheep,” I upped the ante.

Five cards for one card. It was a stupid trade, a suicidal trade. There was no way I could win if Marcus accepted. It would put me too far behind. My giant friend squinted suspiciously, trying to figure what I was up to. His eyes scanned my side of the table, but I had casually set my hand on top of my development card. If he asked, I would reveal it, but he didn’t. “Fine.” Marcus handed me an ore. I gave him half my hand, then flipped the previously hidden development card, revealing monopoly, “Give me all your wheat.”

“Piece of shit!” Marcus looked at me angrily. I was forcing him to give back most of what we’d traded. In addition, he had to give me the handful of wheat he’d collected at the beginning of the turn. “This is why no one plays with you!”

“Everybody plays with me,” I held out my hand, waiting for my cards.

Marcus chucked his wheat at my chest. I built a city and another road. It was a good start, but I was still behind.  In the end, Marcus won by two points.

“That’s the first time I’ve beaten you,” he leaned back in his chair smiling. Marcus remembered things like that. He could tell you about football games from 5 seasons ago, and kept a running tally of all the Magic games we had played.

“Wanna sit on my mom’s deck and look at the stars?” I asked.

“Sure.” He stood, still glowing with victory, and ducked through the exit into the back yard. The summer air was perfect, neither hot nor cold. I laid down on the wooden bench that ringed my mother’s deck. A Globe Willow towered above the house like a giant head of broccoli, its limbs waving back and forth at the slightest breeze. Between the leaves stretched a purple sky, dark and rich and full of secrets.

“I don’t want to move here.” I sighed. It was becoming obvious that I would have to move to Grand Junction. I was out of money and my family needed help.  “At least it will make a good end to my book.” I took off my hat and held it above my head. “It starts with my mom driving over the mountains to help me when I was sick, and ends with me moving over the mountains to help her recover from surgery.”

“That’ll be beautiful.” Marcus was a poet. He recognized the art in simple things.

“Too bad this town is the worst,” I put my hat over my face to hide my eyes.

“This town is the best,” Marcus fiddled with a leaf that had fallen from the Globe Willow.

“How?” I asked from beneath my hat. “Name one good thing.”

“First,” Marcus held up a finger, “I live here. So that’s awesome.”

I peeled a strip of paint from the wood of the deck.

“B,” Marcus held up a second finger, “it doesn’t smell like bums.” Marcus was always complaining about the way that Denver smelled.

“And D,” Marcus held up a third finger, “it doesn’t smell like asshole.”

“I like asshole,” I looked up through the mesh of my hat, through the branches of the Globe Willow, and out into infinity.

“It’s gonna be great,” Marcus leaned back and joined me.

• • •

The big boards at airports had always been a mystery to me. In 32 years I’d never looked at them, and until the day I flew to North Dakota, it had never been a problem.

Denver International Airport was a bustling hub of concourses and people, with airy ceilings that rose 200 feet into the sky. As I exited the plane from Grand Junction, I looked at my printed boarding pass. It told me to go to Gate C47.

I sat down in the terminal, fired up my laptop, and began to write. It had been a week since I took prednisone, but Shelob’s venom still clung to nerve endings and fatty tissue, whispering in my ear, forcing me to write. I disappeared into the fog. My fingers few over the keys, lost in a world of my own devising, a world where I was stuck on some stairs with knees that refused to bend. Something inside was broken and my knees wouldn’t bend. Half-shaved head and dirty shorts. I was a crazy person. Trendy music played on speakers. Everyone stared at me, or was that paranoia? Pain and fear and pain and fear, the words poured out of me, anchored to reality by a story I could hold. It was real. It had happened. I survived. Shivering, I looked up from the screen. More than an hour had passed.

“What do you mean it already left?” I asked angrily. “I’ve been sitting here the whole time!” I gestured at the seat with my laptop and baggage.

“I’m sorry, sir,” the desk attendant looked at my ticket stub, entering the data into her computer. “Your gate was changed to C46.”

“They can do that?”

“You should always check the departure board,” she handed my ticket back to me.

“The departure…?” I turned and looked at the terminal, realizing what the big board with all the numbers was for. “Why didn’t you announce it?”

“We announced it three times,” She typed on her keyboard. Apparently I had been too entranced to hear. “The next available flight is in three days.”

“They’re burying my grandma tomorrow!” Panic filled my voice.

“I can put you on standby for tonight at 9 p.m., but there are no guarantees.”

I spent the next four hours in a desperate panic, attempting to align rental cars with flights into neighboring cities. The plan was to fly somewhere close then drive the rest of the way. Unfortunately, North Dakota was in the middle of an oil boom and every flight, rental car, and hotel was booked. The state was swarming with roughnecks, engineers, and site bosses; and all of them needed plane tickets and rental cars. At the center of the frenzy stood a ranch. The Diamond C. It was where my grandma used to live.

“Mr. Carson, we have a seat for you,” a friendly attendant handed me a pass.

I looked at the ticket. “I thought the flight was sold out.” For four hours I had been operating under the impression that it was up to me to find a way to North Dakota.

“It’s your lucky day,” she smiled.

I put my bag into the overhead bin and looked around at the unfilled seats. The plane was almost empty. Maybe all those oil companies had bought up the tickets just in case. Maybe the angels had made it so they wouldn’t need them today.

“Can I get you something to drink?” The flight attendant stopped her cart next to my seat.

“Mr. and Mrs. T’s tomato juice, please.” I put down my seat tray.

Airlines kept the tomato juice on hand in case someone wanted to buy a Bloody Mary, but I liked it by itself. The best part was that no one ever ordered just tomato juice so they usually gave you the whole can.

“I’ll just give you the whole can,” the flight attendant handed me a cup with ice and the unopened beverage.

I smiled and thanked her.

Bryan is a proud, wealthy man. The summer of this story, his son died of a heroin overdose. He was also diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and his mother got into a brutal car accident. I would love to ask him what he thought about that, about how easily his expensive armor was pierced by tragedy, but we don't get along.

Bryan Dvirnak.

When the plane landed, Bryan was waiting in a car outside the airport terminal.

“How was your flight?” His broad face considered me stoically.

“Fine,” I slouched into the passenger seat of his black sports car. The dials and knobs glowed angry red, and a trendy after-market stereo blinked and flashed in the dashboard. It was weird to see my old uncle driving a young man’s car.

“Buzz cut, huh?” Bryan commented on my hair.

“Yep.” I had been shaving my head all summer. I didn’t want people to think I was trying to hide my receding hairline.

“I keep waiting for mine to fall out,” he laughed, “but it just keeps growing.” It wasn’t the first time he had told me this.

“Better bald than old,” I fired back.

“It’s not so bad,” he turned out of the terminal and onto a proper street. “You get so nothing surprises you.”

So you knew your son was going to die of a heroin overdose? I looked out the window, trying to ignore him.

“They’ll be developing that land soon,” Bryan pointed towards a grassy hill with a trembling hand. Atop the hill stood electrical towers, like sentinels guarding tomorrow.

“Wow,” I fiddled with my seat belt, not looking at the hill.

“Right now you get deer and pheasants out there, but that’s going to change.” He sped over a bump, sending the car into the air. “I tried to fight it, but the developers won. It’s the oil strike. Bismark is growing up.”

We turned into a suburb full of expensive homes, the kind of place an insurance salesman would like to live. Bryan’s house had a wide driveway that ended in a four car garage. As we pulled up, one of the automatic doors began to rise. The garage itself was enormous. It stretched back and back, and was filled with A.T.V.s, riding lawn mowers, power tools, and the mounted heads of trophy game. Elk, deer, and moose gazed blankly at shelves stacked high with the accumulated detritus of a lifetime of wealth.

“Home sweet home,” Bryan’s sports car came to a stop next to an S.U.V. which sat next to a Cadillac which was parked beside a full-sized hunting truck. The full-sized hunting truck had fake deer antlers attached to either window and below the trailer hitch dangled a pair of metal testicles. Bryan had covered various parts of his deer truck in camouflage so the animals wouldn’t see him coming. “You need help carrying anything?”

“No.” I climbed out of the car and grabbed my back pack and laptop. The floor of the garage was swept spotless and every tool and piece of equipment was in its proper place. Two massive chest freezers lined one wall, no doubt full of ice cream and frozen meat.

“Cindy will show you where to sleep,” Bryan pushed into his living room and headed towards the television.

“Nathan!” Bryan’s wife trundled towards me.

Cindy and her daughter Anya recently visited me in New York City, which is where I live now. She took us on a horse and carriage ride through Central Park. It was very romantic which was weird because I was with my family.

Cindy and her daughter Anya recently visited me in New York City, the place I now call home. She took us on a horse and carriage ride through Central Park. It was very romantic which was weird because I was with my family.

“Cindy!” I wrapped her up in a hug. Bryan’s wife’s name was the same as his older sister’s, which could get confusing at times.

“Look at you!” She gazed up at me with adoring eyes. “You’re all grown up.” I towered over her like a giant, my tiny, happy aunt. Her hair was permed and large glasses framed sparkling eyes.

“You have a lovely home,” I looked around. The place was massive, packed with leather couches, wooden furniture, hardwood floors, tile, and thick, comfortable carpet.

“Are you hungry?” Bryan’s Cindy waddled over to the refrigerator. She was as wide as she was tall, a motherly soul who constantly worried about other people’s stomachs.

“Yes,” I set down my bag.

“Show him where to put his things,” Bryan hit power on the television and leaned back in his Laz-E-Boy.

“We’ve got you set up downstairs,” Bryan’s Cindy headed towards the lower level. “Dave and Cindy are already asleep so we’ll have to be quiet.”

I followed her down the steps and into the basement where Bryan and Cindy’s son had died.

“The sheets and blankets are freshly washed,” she whispered, pointing towards the air mattress. “And I gave you an extra pillow.”

Next to the fireplace stood an exercise bike. Earlier that summer my mom found Brett flopped over it like a dead sea lion. His skin was purple and he was naked. He’d shit himself and the shit had run down his leg. Opposite the exercise bike stood the door to the bathroom. When my mom found her nephew, the shower was running. When she went to shut it off she discovered needles and a spoon sitting next to a butane torch.

“What can you eat?” Bryan’s Cindy whispered as we walked back up stairs. “Grandpa and your mother already had supper, but I can make you something.”

“Where is the old scoundrel?”

“In the master bedroom. Can I make you a sandwich?”

“I only eat vegetables and fruit.” It was a slight exaggeration, but easier than listing everything I couldn’t eat.

“I’ve got a casserole,” Bryan’s Cindy opened her massive refrigerator, “can you eat casserole?”

“Probably not.”

“I could steam some cauliflower or green beans, bake you a potato, peel some carrots—”

“­—Green beans,” I cut her off.

“How about lettuce?” She continued to rummage, “I could make you a salad.”

“Green beans,” I held my ground.

Bryan’s Cindy steamed green beans while we talked about my summer. Bryan sat in the living room and watched a home video of men in camouflage hunting elk. He was learning their techniques, discovering how to be a more efficient killer.

“Thanks,” I said when she handed me the plate of green beans.

“How are they?”

“They’re green beans,” I forked a bite into my mouth, “which is delicious.”

“Can I get you some bread? Do you eat bread?” I shook my head. “Something to drink? I have milk and Hawaiian Punch.”

“Water is fine.”

“You need to eat more,” she shook her head. “You’re too skinny.”

She was right, but I was growing. Every morning I woke up and ran through a yoga sequence. I was getting bigger. Someday I would be strong. Someday I would be whole.

“What have you been up to?” I took another bite.

“Oh, this and that,” Bryan’s Cindy fiddled with a Tupperware container stuffed with Organized Things. “I run the Vacation Bible School so that keeps me busy, and I help out with the family business…” She trailed off. There was yearning in her voice, a desire for adventure that had never been fulfilled. Bryan’s Cindy was wild, but also full of fear. The latter had become her master, training her in the ways of civilized society. So I told her about my exploits, about fishing in Alaska and how it made me sick— about the terror and the struggle of an artist adrift in a sea of misfortune.

“We need to go,” Bryan stood up from his chair after his hunting video had finished. “Anya’s plane just landed.”

“I’ll get my jacket,” Bryan’s Cindy folded the dish towel she had been using to scour her already spotless sink.

“You coming?” Bryan looked at me.

“Sure.” Anya was great and it had been a while since I’d seen her.

We walked into the garage and climbed into the sports car.

“We’re taking Brett’s car?” Bryan’s Cindy asked as she climbed in.

“Why not?” Bryan shrugged.

Before he died, Brett delivered pizzas in that car. When he wasn’t at university, he lived at home. Brett was lazy, and smart enough to know that his parents would never throw him out. Bryan paid for his son’s college, bought him cars, and supplied him with enough money for rent and food. Still, it hadn’t been enough. Brett needed more. It takes a powerful demon to kill a comfortable man.

Bryan pulled down the driveway, the seat belt alarm dinging as he did. He began driving down the street.

“Are you going to buckle in?” Bryan’s Cindy asked, fidgeting uncomfortably.

“No,” Bryan turned right on one of the quiet streets. “Why?”

“You’re so silly.” Bryan’s Cindy laughed nervously. “What are we going to do with you?” She was timid, unable to muster any true defiance.

We drove through the neighborhood in awkward silence. Eight dings, then a five count of nothing. Eight dings, then a five count of nothing. Bryan’s Cindy sat quietly in the passenger seat. I sat seething in the back. We stopped at stop signs, slowed to navigate drainage ditches, then pulled out of the sub division and on to a main street. The obnoxious alarm continued to ring.

When the barrage of dings stopped getting a response, Bryan turned on the radio, adding music to the obnoxious chimes. Eight dings and then a pause. Eight dings and then a pause, all over the top of Bismark’s Christian radio station.

“Bryan, buckle in,” Cindy finally broke down, allowing frustration to creep into her voice.

“Why?” Bryan laughed. “I like it.” He took the long way to the air port, stopping outside his office building and looking up at the sixth floor where the felons he employed cold-called delinquents who refused to pay their bills.

“I like this new building,” He said, his hands trembling slightly.

“Why did we take this way?” Cindy slumped into her chair. The seat belt alarm continued to ring. The radio continued to play.

“I just wanted to see the office,” Bryan shrugged innocently. Bryan owned a collection company. He was in the business of ruining people’s day. It made sense that he enjoyed annoying his wife and nephew. I glared out the window, knowing that someday I would write about this moment, that it would be an interesting character study for my book.

At the airport, Bryan’s Cindy and I went inside to get Anya. On the way, we passed uncle David and his wife, Krysten.

“How you doing, brother?” He gave me a hug. “Anya was sitting near the back so she won’t be out for a while.”

When aunt Cindy and cousin Anya visited me in Manhattan, they took me out to dinner. We had soup dumplings at Joe's Shanghai, which is something you should definitely try if you ever visit the Big Apple.

When aunt Cindy and cousin Anya visited me in Manhattan, they took me out to dinner. We had soup dumplings at Joe’s Shanghai, which is something you should definitely try if you ever visit the Big Apple.

We made idle conversation, discussing the particulars of their flight from San Francisco, and then Anya bounced through the terminal and ran towards her mother giggling. Bryan’s Cindy’s daughter was a bubbly cherub, full of life and vigor. We walked down to the car and loaded her suitcase into the trunk. “Bryan,” she addressed her father by his first name as she climbed in. “Why are you driving Brett’s car?”

My uncle pulled away from the curb, “I wanted to give it one more spin before I put it on the market.” He said over the seatbelt alarm.

“Buckle up.” Anya commanded sternly. “What is wrong with your husband, Cindy?”

“I like the sound,” Bryan laughed.

“Now!” Anya barked. Her father obeyed, a joyful glee in his voice. Anya had always been the apple of her father’s eye, and her brash command delighted him. “Honestly, Cindy,” Anya scolded her mother, “Why do you let him behave this way?”

“I tried to stop him,” she replied sheepishly.

“Bryan,” Anya trained icy blue eyes on the back of her father’s head, “are you being nice to my mother?”

“I’m always nice,” Bryan chuckled.

“How is your residency?” Bryan’s Cindy asked.

“We can only miss one shift a semester or they kick us out of the program, so this funeral had better be worth it.”

“Anya!” Her mother said, aghast. Bryan laughed.

“I’m kidding, Cindy,” Anya rolled her eyes.

“Kids these days,” Bryan’s Cindy shook her head.

“How’s cousin Nathan?” Anya turned her bubbly attention to me.

“Terrible,” I replied, staring at her teeth. She had the most dazzling smile.

“I love your blog.” Anya was an early reader of Confessions of a Diarrhetic. When I was at my worst, buried under a mountain of delusion, she left a positive comment about one of my posts. That comment was enough to convince me that I was the greatest writer of the postmodern era.

“What did you think of Level 11?”

“I stopped reading  a while ago,” she dug through her purse. “I think I made it to the part where the monster comes out of your toilet or something. I didn’t really understand what was going on.”

“Level 3,” I nodded, “when Sauron manifests as the all-seeing eye.”

“That’s the one,” Anya popped a breath mint into her mouth. “Definitely Level 3.”

“He tells me that he wants to live,” I continued.

“What does that mean?”

“You’ll find out if you keep reading,” I put my head against the window. “In the last chapter I have a showdown with the embodiment of my disease. He reveals the purpose behind all pain.”

“I need to catch up,” she said resolutely, but we both knew she wouldn’t. Anya was the kind of girl that made a million plans, then broke them and watched movies on her couch instead. She lived life like a hurricane, going where and when she would. She was selfish and honest. It was why everyone loved her. “What chapter are you on now?”

“Level,” I corrected. “Robbie told me to call them levels because there’s so much nerdy gamer stuff in the story.”

“What level are you on?”


“Wow, you’ve been busy,” she dug through her purse and found some lip balm.

“You have no idea.”

All summer I wrote furiously, a madman unhinged. Even as my grandma lay dying, I slammed pages, recorded podcasts, designed t-shirts and uploaded everything to the Internet. It wasn’t me, it was prednisone. Shelob was in control. The steroid turned me into the person I’d always wanted to be. On steroids, art came easy. I was compelled to create. That’s the thing they don’t tell you in motivational books; the secret to success is obsession. The greats didn’t have to try. The work came easy.

Back at the house, Bryan’s Cindy showed me the password to her computer. “I need to update my blog,” I said.

“You’re going to write tonight?” She asked, a little confused.

“No,” I sat down in the desk chair. “Before I left for North Dakota I wrote three chapters and recorded three pod casts, then I created the pages in WordPress. I just have to publish the next one so people can read it.”

“I don’t understand the Internet,” Bryan’s Cindy shook her head, “but it sounds like a lot of work.”

My grandma had just died. It was the perfect excuse to stop writing. No one would fault me. But I didn’t. Heinlein said that writers must finish their stories no matter what. Bukowski said you should wait for your muse, and drink in the mean time. I was a maniac who no longer had a choice.

I logged onto Bryan’s Cindy’s computer and began putting the finishing touches on the latest chapter. Bryan’s Cindy unrolled an inflatable air mattress behind me. “I thought I was sleeping downstairs.” The house was full of people, but all of them had rooms. I was the only one who needed to sleep on the floor.

“This is for me,” she plugged an electric pump into the wall.

“You and Bryan are sleeping in the computer room?” I swiveled the chair to face her.

“Bryan is sleeping in the guest bedroom,” she looked down at the ground, “Grandpa is sleeping in the master bedroom.”

“You don’t sleep together?”

“I sleep in the guest room.” She said it timidly, as if revealing a secret. “But the house is full of people so I got pushed out.”

“Bryan took your bed and moved you onto an air mattress in the computer room?”

Bryan’s Cindy didn’t say anything. She she just stood there with the deflated mattress in one hand. It was a weird moment.

“That sucks,” I said sympathetically.

Bryan’s Cindy shrugged. There were words in her throat, but she was too tired to say them, exhausted by a lifetime of quiet subservience.

“Divorce him.” I said. Bryan was an asshole. He thought it was funny to drive to the airport with the seatbelt alarm chiming. He had no problem letting his wife sleep on an air mattress in the computer room. “Take half his money and move somewhere warm.”

“Oh, Nathan,” she shook her head. I had never been married. I didn’t understand.

Bryan’s Cindy was afraid. Like most people, she made decisions based on predictions of an unknowable future; slowly building the walls of her comfortable prison. Fear is safe and courage costly, but all roads lead to death. Cindy knew that and chose the life of a businessman’s wife.

I posted my blog and let my friends know they could read it with a link on Facebook. “Sleep good,” I hugged my aunt and left her to her air mattress. Downstairs, Anya was in her childhood room, removing a pile of stuffed animals from the bed. Cindy, my mother’s sister, not the one married to Bryan, and her husband Dave, not the one that was her brother, but the man with the same name whom she had married, were already asleep in the second basement bedroom. I waved at Anya. She smiled and waved back silently. I laid down on the air mattress and looked at the elliptical machine where cousin Brett died. What was he looking for when he swallowed that balloon full of heroin? Bukowski said you should find the thing you love and let it destroy you. Heinlien said you have to finish your stories. Both were successful in the end.

to be continued

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