And no one was ill, and everyone was pleased, except those who had to mow the grass.
—Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
About three years before I got sick I stopped talking to my mom. We had never gotten along. Cutting her out of my life meant fewer arguments and never having to cross the mountains to visit her in Grand Junction. I also didn’t have to buy her presents for Christmas or her birthday. It was a real win, win situation. Our two years of silence began when I took a job with the Sweeneys, Colorado’s nepotistic niche newspaper tycoons. At the time they owned seven papers all over the state. I started my career as a graphic designer at their Fruita offices working as an intern, secretly hoping that if I toughed it out, there would be a job waiting for me at one of their Denver papers. Tough it out was not an accurate term, survive was closer to the mark. The Fruita offices were inhabited by a crazy spider queen named Vera, who wrote, edited, sold advertising for and delivered the weekly paper to a town of about 10,000.
During one of our many fights, Vera told me she was recording our conversation on a little device reporters used to keep track of their interviews. Vera hoped that telling me this would get me to shut up for fear of what I might say. It had the opposite effect.
“Help! Help!” I yelled. “Vera Mulder is trying to kill me. That’s Vera Mulder from the Fruita Times and she is threatening me with a knife. I’m so afraid. Help, help!”
The dispute was over whether or not Vera should tell me which ads were running that week. As the graphic designer it was important to know what to include in the paper. She was mad because I’d been pissing her off for months. Not intentionally, but I refused to take any of her shit.
Deadline was the same every week and when she turned in half the paper two hours late, I said, “Sorry Vera, I already filled the space with news wire content, the files are uploading to the server, your stories will have to run next week.”
“But they can’t,” she said, “these stories won’t matter next week.”
In truth the stories wouldn’t matter any week, but I held my tongue. “I’m sorry, Vera, deadline is the same every week. When you didn’t turn in your stories and didn’t answer my phone calls and didn’t return my messages, I didn’t know what to do, so I laid out the paper with filler and sent it to press.”
“You have to place these stories.”
“No, I don’t.”
In the early days I would place the stories, ruin my Tuesday night and piss off the printer when the publication went to press late. Once I figured out this would be a weekly ritual, I put my foot down. If Vera turned in stories after I laid out the pages, it was too damn bad.
“Then I will,” she said with a crazy look in her eye. “I’ll layout the pages myself, yes, yes! That’s what I’ll do!”
That was fine by me. Vera was a white haired old lady who could barely send an email. Every time she turned in a story she needed help getting the pictures off her camera. The fact that she thought she could run the programs used to layout a newspaper was about as funny as it got. She fired up her machine and pretended to work while I egged her on.
“Don’t forget to set up your style sheets,” I said, “and I’ve changed the kerning to .167 so make sure it reads correctly in all the display fields.” I didn’t know what kerning was and the style sheets were already set up. I was just techno-babbling to distract the old battle-axe whose computer was too slow to run the software anyway.
She pretended to lay out pages and I made knowing comments that slowly deteriorated into insults and pretty soon we were screaming at each other. This happened every week.
Vera eventually retaliated by not telling me anything I needed to know and not turning in any stories. I didn’t care. We were subscribed to all sorts of services that churned out terrible filler content for papers bold enough to use them. The articles were basically advertisements for different products disguised as newspaper stories. Fruita’s paper shifted from the mad, unedited ramblings of a crazy old crone, to a giant advertisement for irrelevant products.
“The paper looks terrible since you got here,” said Vera, “nothing but filler, nothing but filler.”
“As opposed to the informative articles you make up every week?” I asked.
Near deadline Vera would often make up stories about things that had not happened around town. The abominations went to press with names of people and places that actually existed. She’d sit at her computer writing and reading the articles out loud while babbling to herself about how clever she was and how no one would possibly guess that she had cheated.
“Let’s see, sandwich shop gets new awning.” Vera read aloud to no one.
In my more provocative moments, I would take her to task, “But the sandwich shop didn’t get a new awning.” I said.
“Nobody knows that.”
“Everybody knows that! There’s only one sandwich shop in town and we all drive past it every day.”
Vera continued, “The green and yellow striped covering cost almost $300, and was installed by Dave’s Signs. They’re advertisers, so it’s good to mention them.”
“But Dave’s didn’t install a new awning at the sandwich shop, if they read that they’ll pull their ad!”
“I’ve known Dave since he was in junior high,” this was her counter to almost everything, “he won’t pull his ad so long as I’m running this paper, yes, yes!”
“Whatever,” I said. You couldn’t argue with crazy, “I still need the list of ads that are running this week. How many times do I have to tell you that I can’t layout the paper until the ads have been placed?”
“Well,” said Vera in her sweet old lady voice. When she used that tone it meant she was about to be a bitch, “I guess you won’t be laying out the paper this week, will you?”
“Are you telling me you’re not going to tell me which ads to run?”
Vera smiled knowingly and continued making up her story, “New anchors had to be drilled in order to affix the bigger awning to the exterior of the shop.”
“How am I going to layout the paper if you don’t tell me which ads to run?”
“You don’t have to layout the paper this week,” she said. “I’m going to do it myself.”
“Vera, you don’t even know how to use Google (I had recently tried to teach her, it was a disaster) how are you possibly going to manage InDesign?”
“I know Google,” replied Vera, “I google all day. InDesign is easy!”
InDesign was a program used to layout books, magazines and terrible local newspapers, and it was not easy. It was awkward and weird and almost no one knew how to run it because it was 2007 and print was dead. I was the one asshole who took the time to learn the thing and there was no way this old cunt could manage.
“Vera, you’re not Superman. You can’t do everything.”
“I am Superman, I just jumped over a building!”
“No, Vera, you didn’t and if you tried you’d break your hip.”
“Oh you’re good,” she said. “You’re real good. Well, I’ll have you know I’m recording this conversation and sending it to Bob Sweeney and he’ll fire you quick as that.” She snapped her fingers.
To which I replied, “Help! Help! Vera Mulder is trying to kill me. That’s Vera Mulder, the newspaperwoman from Fruita, and she is threatening me with a knife. I’m so afraid. Help, help!”
The conversation deteriorated from there and ended with her threatening to actually kill me and me crying out in mock terror all while she recorded the interaction. She played the recording (including the part where she actually threatened to kill me) for our boss at one of our many reconciliation meetings and cried the whole time. My boss knew Vera was crazy and just let it go. Four years later sickness drove me insane and I began crying and recording everything just like Vera. Life had a cruel sense of humor.
So I toughed it out, endured the rigors of Vera and eventually landed a job at the offices in Denver, which had been my goal all along. Unfortunately, this put me into a working relationship with a family full of people every bit as crazy as Vera. I had traded a spider queen for a bunch of Sweeneys.
How the Sweeneys got their money was a mystery to me. They sat atop a crippled publishing empire which churned out seven weekly newspapers. They appeared to be rich, but the money hadn’t come from ad revenue. By the time I reached Denver it was 2008 and we were witnessing the end of traditional media. Each Sweeney lived in a mansion and drove a fancy car. They were constantly buying new things. Where the money came from I did not know.
When I first moved to Denver, my girlfriend and I lived with their youngest son, a 40-year-old man boy with a drug habit the size of Texas. His name was Patrick and we shared a birthday.
Patrick lived in the nicest condo in the nicest building in Denver. The view of the mountains from his patio was breathtaking and if that wasn’t good enough, you could walk over to the enormous rooftop pool and watch the sun set behind the Rockies while submerged in water. Unfortunately, there was a downside to living with a madman.
Trashed opulence was the best way to describe the décor of this castle in the sky. Two floor-to-ceiling mirrors with ornately carved 10 inch frames leaned against the wall instead of being properly mounted; a refrigerator full of rotting fillet mignon and seafood stank up a kitchen inhabited by flies; Patrick’s leather couch acted as a surrogate ashtray for cigarette butts when everyone was smoking inside; half-painted walls rounded out the composition complete with missing light switch covers; and piles of unused electronic equipment made it hard to find a flat surface to set down your vodka tonic. The place was a messy, expensive frat house run by a lunatic.
Patrick claimed that there was only one electronic key fob to get in and out of the building and he wasn’t giving it up. This meant my girlfriend and I were forced to go through him in order to enter the building and Patrick wielded this fact like a weapon. I had it pretty easy because I was working for Patrick’s mom and he had to let me out in the mornings. Kim wasn’t so lucky.
Kim was my girlfriend and the hottest female I had ever seen. She looked like Penelope Cruz if Penelope Cruz had been created special by God as a gift to King David. I was always confused as to why she was dating me. Patrick didn’t have to let Kim in and out of his condo because Kim didn’t work for his mom. So he didn’t. The electronic key fob was required to access the front door, elevators and garage. Kim could leave any time she wanted, but to get back in she had to go through Patrick. Those first few days Kim spent a lot of time crying in her car, waiting for me to get off work.
Patrick wasn’t evil, just insane and lonely. At night he could buy all the friends he needed with cocaine and bottle service. After last call these party kids piled into cabs and came back to his condo where he regaled them with private showcases of his exotic golf shoes. He was the most popular guy in Denver until the sun came up. After that, the party went home to sleep it off and Patrick was left alone with his thoughts, and Kim. He just wanted a buddy. He also had no idea how to interact with someone who wasn’t high. Kim was not the type to accommodate. It got pretty ugly.
Between the sleepless nights spent asking Patrick and his drug addled pseudo-friends to keep it down and the creepy way he held Kim hostage, we moved out, preferring to pay for hotels until Kim found us apartments. That meant Kim no longer had to deal with Patrick. I wasn’t so lucky.
Patrick’s job at his parents’ media empire was to keep the computers running. That meant he had to keep about 10 machines in working order and fix them when they broke. In return, he was afforded a lifestyle only dreamed of by most people in the first world. Unfortunately for myself and everyone in the office, Patrick was very bad at his job. He had managed to screw up every computer in one way or another and the workarounds employed by the staff in order to avoid contact with their one man wrecking ball of an IT department were hilarious to say the least. On three separate occasions Patrick managed to crash the servers on deadline day, wiping out a week’s worth of work with the touch of a button. On three separate occasions the team rallied and got the papers out. They were late, but they were published.
At one point Patrick and I were in a shouting match and I told him he should man up and quit. To which he replied, “That’s what you think.”
“Yes, that’s what I think!” I yelled back, “I’m telling you exactly what I think and I think you are a worthless leach who destroys my day for a living!” I was yelling in an office full of people. His sweet old lady of a mother, and my boss, heard every word and never said a thing about the incident. Sweeneys were excellent at ignoring elephants in rooms. Ignoring elephants was OK in certain situations, but when your son was a drug addict who stole computers from your family-run newspaper to sell them for dope, you probably wanted to at least take his key so he couldn’t do it again. Mrs. Sweeney disagreed. She had a different parenting style. It hadn’t worked out so well.
I eventually quit that paper and started a freelance design company out of my apartment. Gerri, the kindly matriarch of the Sweeney empire, begged me to stay, “But you won’t have insurance!” She said with true concern in her voice.
Graphic designers were a dime a dozen. The economy was tanking and she could have replaced me that afternoon. Her fear for my health was genuine; she wanted me to stay for my own good. I had become a part of their family and once you became a part of the Sweeney family, you didn’t get to leave. It was part of the sickness that had destroyed her children. She loved them too much.
Three years later Sauron wrecked me physically, emotionally and financially. Seems Gerri had been right about one thing.
“I can’t stay,” I said. “It’s just not for me. I don’t get along with any of your kids. Everyone will be better off if I leave.”
She begged and pleaded like my mom had when I was heading to Alaska to be a fisherman, making up reasons why I should stay as well as dangers that were eminent should I leave. In the end I won the test of wills and struck out on my own. Only to be hired back a few months later at my ridiculous freelance rates. The elephant in the room named Vera had come home to roost.
I don’t know what happened or how she pulled it off, but somehow Vera got the entire staff at three different newspapers to quit simultaneously. The three papers in question were on Colorado’s western slope. That meant there were mountains in between them and the rest of the Sweeney empire. When Vera quit and took the entire staff with her, it put the Sweeneys in one hell of a bind. They had to hire a new staff immediately, sight unseen, or find someone who could single handedly pump out three weekly papers while interviewing and training a team of reporters, salesmen and designers to do the job once he was gone. Because of the dire circumstances they ate crow and called me. I bent them over a barrel, packed up my computer and headed over the mountains. The entire situation was too sweet for words.
My mom and I had recently been through a rough patch. Actually things had been pretty bad between us since birth. My sickly fetus had almost killed her during delivery and we’d been at each other’s throats ever since. Our fights were as legendary as they were commonplace, but this one had been especially bad. It involved a vacation to North Dakota where my grandfather was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame. We decided it would be a good idea to travel there and back as a family. It wasn’t.
At one point I was in the back seat holding the electric windows down while screaming at my mom. She had pulled over to the side of the highway and was yelling right back. My sister was caught somewhere in the middle. I was holding the windows open because it was cold outside and the pressure difference messed with my mom’s inner ear. She couldn’t drive with the windows down. The vacation ground to a halt until I got my way.
Because of the Hall of Fame fiasco, I had arranged to stay with friends while in Grand Junction. Grand Junction was the biggest town on the western slope. Fruita, Palisade and Clifton were satellite communities and each had a Sweeney newspaper delivered to its sleepy front porches every week. Accepting the job meant I would have to write, design and deliver those papers until staff could be found to take over. My mom begged me to stay with her. I told her it was a bad idea. She said she’d make me my favorite chocolate cake as dessert for the prime rib she was cooking. I told her I’d see her later that night.
It was a bad move, but my mom was a really good cook, and her chocolate cake was out of this world.
“Good,” she said, “when you get here we can talk about how you’re going to pay for the food you eat while you’re in town.”
I hung up the phone before her final comment led to a fight. She was going to charge me for food while I was in town?
Things went all right that first night. I set up my machine, unpacked my things and ate my mother’s delicious cooking. We didn’t talk much, but we never talked much. I went to bed early knowing the next few days were going to be hell. They were. All the newspapers were in horrible disrepair. One of them didn’t even have working Internet. The only bright spot came in the form of one Hannah Odneal.
Reports that Vera had gotten the entire staff to quit had been exaggerated; slightly. Everyone had quit except this little red head named Hannah. Hannah was too young to drink, but she could write like the dickens, use a computer and take a good photograph. This made her over qualified to work for any of the papers, but I wasn’t going to tell her that. Together we made a pretty good team. One of our feature pieces took 1st place at the Colorado Newspaper Association’s yearly competition. It then went on to take 2nd place nationally. We were a pretty good team.
Hannah and I made progress but there were a lot of 16-hour days. I was pushing myself hard, but I liked to push myself hard. It proved I was tough. In the midst of the chaos, Easter rolled around. My mom was very religious so I let myself take half a day of rest to go to church and eat Easter lunch with her. In between church and the restaurant my mom made a stop at her house. As we pulled into the neighborhood she pulled the trigger on her Master Plan.
“The new youth pastor at the church said he wants to mow my lawn this summer.”
“Wow, that’s great,” I replied, “you hate mowing the lawn.”
“But I told him you might want to do it as a way of working off the food you’d be eating while you were in town.”
“What food?” I asked. After her comment on the phone I had been careful not to touch anything in the refrigerator. Now I realized it wasn’t about food, it was about mowing the lawn. The only reason she wanted me to stay with her that summer was so I would mow her lawn.
“I haven’t eaten anything of yours except the prime rib and cake you made me three days ago! Are you gonna charge me for that?”
“Well, you’ll be using water and electricity while you’re here and I’m on a budget.”
My limbs went numb. This was getting out of hand. I had to bail, I had to get out, but if I didn’t go to Easter lunch there would be hell to pay. I felt the beast rising. I felt my anger swell. The hurt of a thousand childhoods spent cowering in fear, abandoned by a mother who was working double shifts so we could maintain the appearance of wealth in a ritzy Denver suburb, came boiling to the surface.
“Are you kidding me?” I turned to face my mother.
“No. It’s true. You’ll use more water and elec—“
“Are you kidding me!?”
We pulled into her driveway, “Nathan, I don’t need this disrespect. You are in my home, eating my food, using my electricity with the computer I bought you—“
“AAAAAAAAAAUGH!” I jumped out of the car, slammed the door and went inside to pack my things.
It wasn’t long before my mom figured out I wasn’t coming back. She came inside and found me dismantling my computer, “Nathan, I jus—“
“Mom. I need you to not talk to me right now.”
“Nathan, if you continue down this road of destructive behavior the Enemy will—“
“The Enemy?” My mom was always trying to blame my actions on the Devil. “This has nothing to do with Satan and –”
“Oh yes it does. Satan has a hold on your mind and I will not tolerate this level of disrespect. If you think for one –”
I finished packing then pulled a 20-dollar bill out of my wallet. “Here’s for the water and electricity I used while I was here.” Suddenly my mom turned into Mother Theresa.
She held her hands in the air like I was pointing a gun at her, “Oh no, that’s your money. You worked hard for it and I don’t nee –”
“What are you talking about? You just tried to charge me for the water and electricity I’d be—“
“Put your money in your pocket, I don’t want it!”
I dropped the bill on the ground and walked out. The next day when I showed up to the Fruita offices there was an envelope shoved under the door. Inside was my $20 with a note explaining to me that until I apologized for my actions, we were no longer on speaking terms. That sounded pretty good to me.
Two years later we still had not spoken but I was going back to college and needed a cosigner for the loan. My sister wouldn’t do it so I was left with no choice but to call my mom. She also refused and instead offered to give me $500 a month while I was in school. My family hated debt.
We tried to patch things up but my mom had decided to forget the entire event. “I never tried to charge you for water and electricity.” She said in a hurt tone.
“Then why did I give you the 20, mom?”
“I don’t know why you did that, it always confused me.”
So we were left at an impasse. She wanted to give me $500 a month but in exchange I would have to forgive her for something she would not admit to doing. Fortunately I wasn’t too proud for anything. I’d even pretend to be wrong if it meant $500 a month. For the next year I acted like I loved her while cashing the checks she sent. Now I was about to pay dearly for that decision. The elephant in the room was about to start smashing things.
to be continued
Why are there always songs at the end of your stories? These songs were either recorded or performed by me, the author of this story, and they bring listeners in and out of the podcasts which you can listen to by clicking ‘listen’ on the pink navigation bar above this message!
This song was written and performed by Jordan and produced by me during that magical summer in Cincinnati. I had to leave early to visit other invincible weapons in the mid west. I promised Jordan I would finish the song but never did. This download is an unfinished song, but I like it any way. Hopefully you do too.
When I was a kid I loved the book Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The main character was a noble kid named Almanzo who wanted nothing more than to own a horse. He ate apples by the bushel, went sledding in the winter, cut ice with his father and trained a team of calves to pull a plow. He was very adaptable and clever and I always wondered how he would handle things if we could switch places. Who would be better off? Was it easier to travel back in time to a harsher but simpler life, or to go forwards where modern convenience created a world wholly alien? From that thought experiment sprang this song. Instead of switching places with Aristotle, what if you gave him a cheap, plastic mirrior? A trivial gift in our day and age, but a source of wonder to an ancient greek. This then, is that story. Excuse the recording quality, I was young and full of heart when I recorded it.