By P.D. Walter
The black leather biker jacket had been a gift from his ex-wife, Josephine. She gave it to Jake right
before she left him. At 16, their daughter Katie was old enough to decide who she wanted to stay
with. Now 26, she wondered if she’d made the wrong choice.
Her dad was limping through another physiotherapy session. Aftermath of a motorbike accident.
‘Who does that?’ she was thinking. ‘Who takes up motor-biking at 61 years of age?’
And who wears a leather jacket in hospital, as a patient? Only someone who wants to assert that, unlike the rest of the oldsters rotting in the rehab ward, he had plenty of life left to live.
“A motorcycle?” she’d said to him when he bought it—with more than half his life savings. “Don’t people just ride motorcycles until they have an accident scary enough to stop?”
Jake’d had his the first time out. Bike totalled, smashed against a signpost on a hairpin turn. He was lucky his corpulent torso hadn’t taken the impact. A bum leg was an inconvenience. A missing
kidney would take five years off your life.
Up on the parallel bars, favouring the leg that didn’t have pins in it, Jake grunted, groaned and sweated, while Katie held his arm and steadied him.
“Go slow, dad. Don’t force yourself.” She looked forward to the last of these visits.
He took a break, gasping for air. His shoulders weren’t in much better shape than his legs. “You know, as much fun as this isn’t, it’ll make a great story…”
A great story. Katie wasn’t sure any of the stories they could tell about their lives were ‘great’.
“For a song, like. Maybe a whole album,” he said.
She’d spent her entire childhood sitting cross-legged at her father’s feet, listening to him lament his real and fictional sorrows in an endless string of grimy, beer-smelling blues bars. She’d adored him, thought he looked like Odin with his big scratchy beard, seated on his throne, guitar in his lap, in a halo of blue smoke. By the time she was 12, she’d very likely done enough passive smoking to kill her thirty years hence.
Josephine had waited tables to hold the family together, while Jake toured, drank, partied, probably cheated (she didn’t really want to know), or ran down their little savings to book and then fritter away expensive studio time, until she couldn’t take it any more. Katie wanted to go with her, but she worried her dad wouldn’t make it on his own. So she stayed, and soon found herself waiting those same tables and struggling to pay those same bills her mother refused to pay.
Katie used to love the sound of his pedal-steel guitar. Now it just sounded to her like failure. He’d never made it. His break had never come. But Jake wasn’t giving up on his music. And his dreams were so big, there wasn’t hardly any room for hers.
When she got home, Nick was on the couch, binge-watching the story of some anti-heroic white male doing despicable things no one would forgive if he were anybody else. Nick sat up straight and tried to make it look like he hadn’t wasted his day smoking pot and eating carcinogenic snack foods, which he had.
“Hey, sweetie,” he said, running a hand through his unwashed hair, smoothing over the evidence of a nap. “How was your visit?”
She said nothing. Went into the kitchen. Found a mess.
“That good, huh,” he mumbled.
“The fuck is this?”
She came out holding up the charred remains of his attempt to bake brownies.
“Oh, that was, uh… I wanted to—”
She tossed the pan into the sink with a terrible crashing of metal and glass. The cascade of soapy water was just for effect.
“Are you okay?” he stood up, switching off the TV.
“Yeah, tough day, Nick – what else is new?” she said, hands pressed flat against the lip of the sink, shoulders tight. “You know, just once I would love to come home and find that you’d made something for dinner. Why is it I’m out working while you’re here doing the fuck knows what, and I still have to figure out what we’re gonna eat?”
He didn’t have an answer for that, other than the usual:
“You wanna order something in?”
It was twenty minutes of angry crying on her part and guilty silence on his, punctuated by ‘I’m so sorry’s and ‘It’ll never happen again’s, before he could call.
Thirty minutes after that, the pizza arrived.
“D’you wanna watch some TV?” Nick asked.
“Maybe…” she surrendered to the comfortable familiarity of their otherwise deadening routine. “What have you been watching?”
“Oh, man, this amazing series. You gotta see it. It’s totally groundbreaking. It’s about this high school chemistry teacher who has cancer and decides to start making crystal meth to pay for—”
“Nick, you know I don’t like that stuff.”
“No, but this one’s different, Katie.” (Sure. They always were.) “You see, what it’s really about is…”
She hated drug movies—drug anything. Refused to watch them. Whatever they had to teach her, she’d learned at first hand in the bar. She wanted to see people fixing their lives and getting somewhere, not screwing them up like…
“I mean, there are only so many ways people can fuck their lives up, right?” she said. “Drugs, drinking, cheating on your taxes, cheating on your partner…”
“Or sleeping with teenagers, that’s a good one.”
Her half-scowl had him wondering if he shouldn’t have volunteered this.
“Only so many ways you can kill people and try to hide it,” she went on. “Only so many ways you can abuse people while you try to get rich, or famous, or to finish your great work, or whatever the fuck it is.” (She said all this through a mouthful of cheese and dough. The easy calories, the soothing lipids had given her back some vital strength.) “Only so many ways you can betray people. It just gets so boring. I’ve seen it, heard it, and watched it so many goddamn times. I’m sick to death of it.”
“Okay… It’s just, you know, for me it’s research.”
He’d been over the moon when she—in truth, reluctantly—agreed he could quit his dead-end office job to work from home and, finally, get his career as a screenwriter going. But maybe, he thought, hers was not the right personality to support any kind of ‘artist’.
“I have to keep up with what’s out there,” he insisted. “What’s popular, what’s saleable. You know, the industry moves so fast. The same old formulas just don’t work anymore.”
Story of her life. The old formula wasn’t working for her either.
“So, did you get any writing done today, at least?”
“Yeah, I wrote what I think is a pretty decent therapy scene,” he said. “Not sure where it fits into the larger script, but – you know – baby steps.”
INT. PSYCHOTHERAPIST’S OFFICE – DAY
KAREN (20s) lies on the sofa, mid-session, while DR. BLEDSOE (40s, wears glasses) takes notes on a yellow legal pad, occasionally glancing over her steely frames at Karen.
…And this layabout wants to start a family with me? Like, what the fuck?
Dismayed–but not surprised–the doctor takes off her glasses and sets her pencil down.
Now, Karen, we’ve talked about this. When you put a label on someone, you stop seeing them in all their complexity. Your thoughts become written in stone, and you can’t help but betray them in your actions…
(rolling her eyes)
I know, I know… But, Dr. Bledsoe, I’ve been in narrative therapy for exactly 4 months, and all I’ve learned is that I’m a ’caretaker’ and I’ve crippled myself by trying to please others.
That’s good. Unearthing that old fossilized narrative is the first step toward rewriting it with a happier ending. But only you can do that work, Karen.
Karen lets out a grunt of bone-weary exhaustion.
Can’t I just outsource it? I’m not much of a writer.
The doctor takes up her pencil and legal pad again, shaking her head ever so slightly.
Today’s lunch was a pair of triangular sandwiches in cellophane from a cafeteria vending machine and liquids that were all too sweet (ruby red fruit punch and blood-pinked chocolate milk). She’d waited until they were almost ready to head back up to the rehab ward before nearly blurting out:
“Dad, Nick and I are thinking of having a baby.”
A flake of turkey and smear of mayo on his beard, he stopped mid-chew. “A baby?”
“Thinking about, or…?”
“Well, trying, actually. But, no luck yet.”
He didn’t look impressed.She raised a napkin to his chin, trying to help him recover the turkey from his beard. But he waved her off, like an insect.
“We wanna make you a grandpa.”
“I’m not sure I’m ready to be a grandfather. Or you a mother. Isn’t Nick unemployed?”
“He’s working, he’s just not getting paid. It takes time.”
Funny, she thought, how his expectations for her bore no relation to what he demanded of his own broke ass.
She took the straw in her mouth one last time. The contents of the waxed carton came to a noisy finish. “Aren’t you happy for me?”
“ ‘Happy’?” he scoffed. “Does anybody know how to be ‘happy’?”
He had a go at wiping his own beard. All it did was add little shreds of paper to the other detritus collecting there.
“That’s it? That’s the sum total of wisdom you have to offer your daughter after 61 years on the planet?”
“Wisdom? Jesus Christ, where is this coming from? All I know about being human is we all got a soul, sweetie. What you do with it is your business.”
A ‘soul’. An ego, more like—for he was not a religious man. He poured the sum total of whatever he meant by ‘soul’ into his music. She couldn’t help but feel like he was sucking it out of her at the same time.
“Well, I gotta talk to the insurance man and see what I can get for that bike,” he said. “Maybe it’ll pay for a little studio time, so I can get some of these new tracks down on tape. My leg may be broke, but everything’s got a silver lining, ya know?”
She let out a sceptical puff of air. There was no silver lining for her.
“Is that… funny to you?” he glared at her.
“Dad,” she said, gripping her plastic tray, “the culture is flowing past you in great torrents, and you’re over in a dusty corner with your guitar saying, ‘Isn’t it clever what I’ve done with this old riff?’ No! Nobody cares, because you don’t pay any attention to what people do actually care about. You’re completely out of it.”
“Is that how it is?” he said, his mouth sagging grimly at the corners.
She cast her eyes anywhere but at him.
He sniffed, went for another napkin, then decided he didn’t need it.
She’d found the locus of his power, and was tempted to press it further, to wound him. But no— her inability to hurt him was inversely proportional to his ability to hurt her.
“I don’t know much,” he said, “but I know enough not to let a girl barely out of her training bra school me about life.”
He got up and limped over to the trash, still in his leathers.
INT. PSYCHOTHERAPIST’S OFFICE – DAY
Karen sits upright in a chair, poised, self-possessed. The doctor, behind her desk, is typing quietly on her computer.
…So I left him. I left them both.
Stunned, Dr. Bledsoe stops typing and turns to Karen.
That’s… that’s a big step, Karen. How did you arrive at that decision?
Easy. The test strip turned up blue and I thought–Fuck, I am not raising a child with these two in the picture.
How does Jason feel about that?
Karen’s eyes fall, guiltily.
He doesn’t know.
Well, I… I’m here to support whatever decision you make.
There’s a glint of the doctor’s eye. Dollar signs stretch to the horizon with the mess Karen’s about to make of her life.
DR. BLEDSOE (CONT’D)
Oh, that reminds me…
She turns to her computer and calls up her calendar.
DR. BLEDSOE (CONT’D)
…I’m not going to be able to see you at our regular time next week. I’m off to a conference for 3 days, so I wondered if we could–
That won’t be necessary. I’m finished with this.
(looking at her)
You told me to rewrite the ending. This is the new ending. I’m done.
Karen, I think that’s rather rash.
Well, it’s my soul. What I do with it is my business.
Nick was puzzled when he opened his laptop, the cursor blinking in the middle of his script. He found the new scene snuck in there amidst the others, most of them incomplete. But it worked. It pointed a way forward. He couldn’t wait for Katie to get back so he could thank her.
It was the best gift she could ever have given him.
The dinner he sweated to make from scratch (coconut-crusted cauliflower and popcorn chicken) was three hours cold before he realized just exactly what kind of gift it was.