Book Recommendation of the Week

This week’s book recommendation is a two-for-one. Old School and This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff.

First is Old School. This book is one of two full-length books of fiction by Mr. Wolff (the first being The Barracks Thief), and is an expansion of his short story “Smorgasbord”, which was adapted and used as a chapter in the book. I greatly enjoyed this book for the same reason I enjoy all of Mr. Wolff’s work. He captures human moments and makes us think about our own actions and the way we interact with others.

This book is written as a fictional memoir of a man who recounts his senior year at a preparatory school that is highly influenced by the writing competitions it holds because of the famous authors who come in to judge the stories, which include Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway.

It’s an interesting story that spirals out of control near the end but, as many of Mr. Wolff’s stories go, the ending packs an unusual punch that makes you think about the importance of things and why we act the way we do.

I also thought this book was even better after having read Tobias Wolff’s actual memoir (and the second part of this recommendation), This Boy’s Life, which details his youthful years growing up. He has another memoir that recounts his time in Vietnam which I also enjoyed. It is called In Pharaoh’s Army. This Boy’s Life is not only compelling, but also shows how Mr. Wolff became the prominent person he is today (he is currently teaching at Stanford University). I also recently discovered (a few minutes ago in fact) that a movie was made from This Boy’s Life in 1993 starring Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio.

I don’t want to say too much because saying almost anything about a memoir, outside of general information, could be considered a spoiler. So all I’ll say is that I think Tobias Wolff is one of the best short story authors America has ever had. He writes primarily short stories and the books mentioned in this recommendation are the full length works he has produced. The two memoirs and the two books. He is well-known for his memoirs and I think that is what makes Old School successful (having been written as a fictional memoir). His work is naturally highly influenced by his own life. I won’t give you an order to read any of his work. I’m just suggesting you read anything he’s written. If you like it, as I have, you’ll want to read more.

 

Happy Reading.

Arithmetic

Luke laid down on the couch with a sigh. He waited a few seconds then began.

“It all feels like a constant countdown, you know? Like I’m constantly calculating how much time I have before I have to be at work next, or how much time before I should go to sleep so I can get a decent amount of sleep before I have to work. I even calculate the hours I have free or try to guess how long an obligation is going to take. I’m constantly figuring my life into blocks of time. I know it sounds stupid and doesn’t make much sense, but I feel like I do it in an attempt to get the most out of the time I have for myself. In the end though, I feel like it does the opposite. That I set up an expectation about what time I have and try to figure out if I can fit what I want into that time block. If I can’t, I often give up on that task altogether. Even if that task was something dumb like watching a show. If it’s an hour-long show and I only have an hour, sometimes I don’t watch it because I know I’ll have to go do something else before it ends.

I feel anxious all the time about stupid stuff. When I realize I don’t have the time to do what I want to do, even if it’s just sit down and read, I get sad because I feel like I’m not in control of my life. I feel like everything is constantly tugging at me and I can’t shake it off. Between work, helping my parents, my relationship, yard work, hanging out with friends, even talking to you sometimes feels like too much, which is absurd. I talk to you because I do feel better afterwards and things don’t seem so glib, but I’m always trying to figure out what is happening next. What should I be doing besides what I’m doing right now? I’m doing it right now. I’m thinking I should not be laying on this couch talking to you, and that instead I should be cutting the grass or catching up with someone I haven’t hung out with in a while. This all seems crazy. Right?”

He heard a few clicks behind him and waited. A second passed and he felt the need to fill the silence so he continued.

“I mean. That isn’t normal is it? At the same time, I feel like it is. Everyone is constantly trying to fit more in their schedule. They are always connected. Looking at their phones. Checking all the notifications. That’s another thing too. Sometimes I feel like I have to check my social media so I don’t miss anything. I’ll always answer texts as quickly as I can. But that’s another thing. I feel like I don’t hang out with my friends that much anymore. Yeah, we talk sometimes on the phone and text a lot, but we don’t meet up like we used too. I understand the few that have babies now and that takes up a lot of time, but it should be easier, right? I mean, there is only so much you can do with a baby. It just sits there. Why can’t it sit there while we hang out?”

He paused. This time there were three clicks, but still no answer. He sighed again.

“Maybe it’s just that I’m getting old,” he said, “Maybe I feel like I should have accomplished more by now. I know what you’ll say. That I shouldn’t compare my accomplishments to others, but I can’t help it. I have dreams, but I can’t find the time to work on them. Maybe it’s because I don’t really want to. Or that I’m afraid to fail. Or even because it’s simpler to have the dream and think about than to actually do it. And what happens once you achieve that dream? Then you have to come up with another one. Doesn’t that seem weird? Wouldn’t it be easier to just not have one? To just live life with no aspirations and enjoy where you are and in the moment? But that would just be existing, and I can’t just sit there and do nothing. Yeah, TV and video games can help pass the time, but you don’t get any real feeling of accomplishment from those. I’m not going to wake up one day and think ‘Man, I was really good at that one game. I totally nailed that match that I won online against a stranger,’ you know? That stranger could have been a little kid. I’d never know, but I’d think it and then get sad because then I’d believe that I beat a little kid at a video game. Who would feel proud of that?

Sorry. I got a bit off topic there. What were we talking about? I guess it doesn’t really matter,” he sighed, “I just get so stressed out. I know it’s about dumb, small things too, which makes me stress about stressing out. I appreciate you letting me vent. It does make me feel better just to get this stuff off my chest.”

He looked over and into the eyes of a beagle. The dog placed one paw on Luke’s shoulder as he laid on the couch and shuffled, clicking its nails against the hardwood floor. Luke smiled. “Thanks buddy. You want to go for a walk?” The beagle’s tail started wagging. Luke got up and grabbed the leash.

They went outside and walked for an hour. The entire time they were out, he never once thought about anything he’d said on the couch. He simply enjoyed the sun setting on the horizon and the fresh air. He was able to forget about time altogether. He enjoyed the calm and quiet of the twilight hours. He let himself forget about everything, despite knowing it would all be there again tomorrow.

 

A New Life

Humans often speculated the meaning of their existence. They knew life on the planet had begun in the form of plants and fish and smaller mammals. Life itself was pondered by many humans because it seemed near unfathomable that they were the result of extreme chance; of being on a planet that held an atmosphere and was the perfect distance from a star whose orbit did not deviate enough to prevent conditions that encouraged life. This chance, however great, created a rift between many, causing humanity to segregate itself into different sects of ideology. However, all of them were correct in a way that neither could comprehend. They were allowed to grow and populate the planet because the planet itself allowed it. The human population grew and grew until it reached ten billion inhabitants. It was around this time when the tremors began.

Earthquakes became consistent. After the first year, when the earthquakes grew in frequency, many governments dedicated teams to study the cause of them and provide insight into the changes the planet was undergoing. Arthur Denali was recruited by the Chilean government to study the earthquakes and provide insight as to how they might alter the nations landscape. The main concern centered on how the quakes would impact the mining industry.

Arthur took the job for several reasons. He had been studying earthquakes for over ten years and knew his field, he needed the money to support his two young boys who were both starting their teenage years, and he was genuinely interested in what was causing the quakes themselves. He was certain there was a cause, and he wanted to find it first.

Leon and Christian were on the couch watching the game when Arthur walked in. They were sharing a bag of chips and never tore their eyes away from the screen.

“Did either of you make dinner?” he asked. Leon shook his head without looking away from the game. Arthur sighed, put his bag in a chair, and turned on the stove. He grabbed a pot and a pan and made a simple pasta with meat sauce. When he was done, he divvied the meal onto three plates and took two of them to the boys.

“The last one to finish does the dishes,” he said before returning and grabbing his own plate. They tore into the food, occasionally eyeing each other’s plates as they raced to finish. Arthur watched the game while he slowly picked at his own plate.

“Done!” Leon yelled and slammed the plate down on the coffee table.

“There are still noodles on your plate,” Christian objected.

Arthur pretended to look over their shoulders before saying, “Sorry Christian. He finished first.”

“But…” The younger boy began and turned toward Arthur with sad eyes that were growing too old to draw much empathy.

“You can wait until after the match,” Arthur said. Christian smiled and turned back to the game.

Arthur finished his plate then grabbed his computer before sitting down in the chair next to his boys. He opened the laptop and logged into an international database established to share information regarding the earthquakes and speculate the cause of their increasing frequency. Arthur primarily logged in as an observer. He rarely posted more than the day’s readings at his location. He scanned the readings from other parts of the world hoping something would come together from the information. After gathering what he could, he set up his seismometer and settled in to watch the final twenty minutes of the match with his boys.


 

The rumbling woke him. He sat up and looked around for Leon and Christian. The later opened the door of their room letting Arthur breathe before turning his attention to the seismometer. This quake had been greater than any previous ones. It stopped after nearly three minutes. He scanned the readout. It had maxed at 6.0. As he began his calculations to predict the next cycle, he was surprised by another quake. This one was softer, measuring in at 5.4, but also lasted nearly three minutes.

“What’s happening dad?” Leon asked, more curious than scared.

“I’m not sure,” he answered. The quakes had never been back-to-back before. They were consistent but spread out over several hours. If his new calculations using the previous time-frame and the new data was correct, the next one would come in roughly four hours. He packed his equipment and loaded the car. He returned and gave the boys his usual speech. Go to school, do your homework, clean up the kitchen, and try to make dinner that was more than simply chips. When he left, another quake occurred. He kept his eye on his watch as he waited until it was over. It lasted three minutes and had happened only forty-five minutes after the previous two. A second quake followed, just like earlier, and his phone rang as the trembles subsided.

“Yeah,” Arthur answered. “I know, I know….Yeah….It may be too soon to tell….Tell you what,” he pulled out his notes from the morning quakes and looked them over, “If we get another round….Yeah, two in a row….Yeah….If we get two more in the next hour, let’s call it….Okay?….Okay.” He hung up.

“Everything all right dad?” Christian called from the doorway.

“We will see,” he saw the concern in Christian’s face, “Go pack a bag and tell your brother to do the same. You two can come with me today.”

“What about school?” Christian said, trying to act genuinely concerned about missing his education and failing miserably.

“You can skip today.”

Before Arthur finished his sentence, Christian had bolted back inside the house. Arthur packed extra provisions for a worst-case scenario that he couldn’t shake out of his head.

The boys had loaded into the car and Arthur was driving toward the office when the quakes began again. Again, there were two, lasting three minutes each with a five-minute pause between them. Arthur’s phone rang.

“Yeah…Yeah…Okay.” He spun the car around and headed toward the ocean. After an hour, they were safe from any areas at risk of landslides. His phone rang again and he answered it. “Denali……what do you mean underground?………..Okay, okay, send me the coordinates and I’ll meet you there.” He dropped the phone in the cup holder and adjusted his course yet again.

“Dad…” Leon started from the backseat.

“Everything’s okay,” Arthur cut him off. He was too panicked to worry about lying and he didn’t want either of them to know how worried he really was.

They drove for hours. The rumbling of the quakes stayed consistent but increased in magnitude. Arthur had Leon pull out the seismometer and place it in the empty seat. Taking readings in a moving car skewed the results, but it provided Arthur with the information he needed. The quakes were increasing gradually. The last one had been a 6.8 give or take a few decimals for the road conditions.

The steady frequency of the quakes gave people an expectation and allowed their fears to subside a little. Many had gathered out in open areas. Only a few had packed up and gotten on the road. Arthur weaved through them on his way to a place he’d never been. The sky was growing dim when they pulled up to the gates. It was still midday, but dark clouds filled the sky. Two guards approached Arthur and asked for identification. He provided his badge the government had issued him and they let them through. He drove into a hangar and they were all then escorted into a small transit car that took them below into a bunker.

Arthur was greeted by his boss who walked him down a hall. They passed a series of glass windows and Arthur saw the president sitting with a group of men in heated discussion.

“Was that-”

“The president? Yeah. They brought him here this morning after the second set. I need you to give me updated after each grouping. They have been consistent so far. Your boys can stay with you. In fact, they won’t be allowed outside the room.” Arthur was led into a room full of equipment. “Use this phone,” his boss showed him an old landline receiver, ” to contact me.” Then he left.

Arthur surveyed the room and rolled up his sleeves. “Leon. Look after Christian. Don’t leave this room.” He bent down and placed a hand on each boy’s shoulder. “Everything’s going to be okay.” He pulled them in for a hug.

He ran from machine to machine for the next several hours, calling his boss after every set of quakes. The quakes were growing stronger. The last set registered at 7.6. They were also beginning to grow in frequency. Arthur predicted the next wave would come in seventeen minutes. His boss came in twenty-three minutes later when the next wave subsided.

“Arthur,” he said, “It’s over.”

“What’s over?”

“Everything. The president called a national emergency four hours ago urging everyone to get below ground. The first volcano erupted two hours ago, since then-”

“Volcano?”

“Yeah. There have been hundreds, maybe even thousands, erupting all over the globe. Spewing ash and gas into the atmosphere. No one can survive outside. The earth is cracking to pieces and-”

“Hold on,” Arthur stopped him. He grabbed papers from all around him, scanning the information, processing the meaning within it. He was on the edge of understanding what it all meant. Then it clicked. “Oh my god,” he whispered. He looked at his boys.

“Arthur! What is it?” his boss nearly yelled as the next set of quakes began.

“They’re not earthquakes,” Arthur said, “They’re heartbeats.”

Former Strangers

The rattling faded away into nothing as Gerard finished his third drink. He’d never been fond of traveling, but he found the train entirely tolerable with a tumbler of whiskey. It helped him relax and let his worries fade away as well.

Gerard preferred to travel in solitude. He’d found an empty cabin and pulled out a book to distract him further. The luxury of his loneliness was lost when a woman entered his cabin. He was miffed she hadn’t asked his permission but didn’t want to invite conversation so remained silent. He stole glances from behind his book. She paid no attention to him and he began to resent silence.

“Who are you?” he finally asked, putting his book down.

She smiled. For better or worse, Gerard found himself smiling back. Silence was no longer an option, and he was surprised to find he preferred it that way.

Valley of the Shadow

The end of the world. At least, that was what it looked like. All around there was nothing but homes and buildings leveled. Belongings once safely tucked away in a bedroom were strewn across the open grass along with the wood and drywall and insulation that had kept the harsh winds out. But the harsh winds had turned into fury, and now there was nothing but debris and death strewn across the once pleasant patch of earth. The town that once existed broken and tossed across a few square miles.

Anthony had volunteered. He’d been a paramedic for fifteen years and was no stranger to disaster or death. He’d seen things first-hand that he would never wish upon another human being, which is one reason he volunteered. He felt an obligation to do what was needed to not only help those in danger, but to spare his colleagues the surreal experience of what had to be done. He drove six hours straight through the night after hearing the potential damage the storm would bring. No one could have predicted this.

He stepped out of the truck, pulled the mask over his mouth and nose, and began walking. Starting sooner was better and it was always best to start at the most populated area. This meant where the hospital had been. He shouldered his backpack of tags and started on the southern end of the foundation.

His bag contained little medical equipment because he wasn’t here to save lives. He was here to determine which lives could be saved.

Anthony tried to prepare for the task ahead knowing he could never really be ready. The first two corpses he came across were still in their hospital beds. He dutifully placed a black tag on each of their bodies in a visible location so those who came to provide medical assistance knew they were deceased and no valuable time would be wasted trying to reanimate the dead.

The third body he discovered below a pile of boards. He shifted them aside. It was an older man, maybe sixty. He was unconscious but breathing. No external wounds aside from some nasty bruising forming. Anthony thoroughly assessed him and pulled a tag out placed is on the man’s wrist. He ripped the green label off leaving the yellow “Delayed” tag. The man would live without immediate attention.

Anthony moved on, searching. He came across a young girl. Her gown was dirty and soaked through. He assessed her breathing and checked her pulse. A nasty cut on her forehead matted her hair with blood. It hadn’t yet clotted so he pulled a packet of gauze from his pack and applied it before wrapping a tag around the young girl’s wrist. Delayed. She would live. He grabbed a torn blanket from several feet away and covered the girl so she could retain some warmth. It was also wet but it was better than only the gown against the open air.

An hour passed and he tagged fourteen more bodies. Seven black, two green, five red. The five red needed immediate attention. The young man he’d tagged red he wasn’t sure would get help in time but had given him a chance.

“Help,” a weak voice called, “help….”

Anthony made his way toward the sound. He lifted a mattress and found an old lady underneath.

“What’s your name?” he asked as he sat carefully laid the mattress next to her.

“Ruth.”

“Alright, Ruth. I’m going to look you over, okay? Help is on the way but I’m going to make sure you’re alright.”

He was surprised to discover she was find except for a peripheral edema she informed him had been present for a few days.

“Ruth, I have to go now. Hold onto this,” he said as he placed the tag around her wrist. He would have left it green had she been able to walk, but considering her mobility, he had designated her as yellow.

“But, why won’t you help?” she asked as he walked away.

“Help is on the way,” he called behind him fighting the urge to sit with her longer. He knew if he stayed any longer, she would try roping him in to staying with her until the others arrived. It was human nature to mass together during times like this. No one wants to be alone when there is nothing else around for comfort.

The hours passed and he bag became lighter as he tagged each body crossed. He was glad to leave more green than black the further he went from the destroyed hospital. He convinced himself it was logical, but he knew there was more to find. All around him he could see nothing but the aftermath. Somewhere within all the remains before him was the real reason he had come.

The sky remained overcast and the sun was nearing the horizon when he finally found his answer. He thought it was another stranger’s body. He knew she was dead. A splintered two by four protruded from her back. It wasn’t until he stepped around and saw her face did he realize it was his wife. Her brown hair tainted black by dirt. He knelt by her and reached for her face. Wiping the wet hair back from her face. Her once vibrant eyes stared at him vacantly. They were supposed to be at the hospital. They had been admitted two days ago. They….

Anthony finally pulled his eyes away from his wife. Wrapped in her arms was their two-year-old son. His young face was pale and his eyes were closed. As if he were sleeping back home on the couch. Minutes before his father picked him up and take him to bed. Anthony quickly checked for breathing but knew deep down they were both already dead. They had been for some time.

He stared at them. The exhaustion of working through the tattered landscape wore down on him. He was too tired to cry. Too tired to think. His heart beat but no longer felt. He knelt in front of them and stared. His mind trying to comprehend his new reality. A noise broke him from his trance of memory and dread. He hadn’t realized he was muttering or even what it was he had said.

“Somebody,” a voice called in the distance, “Help.”

Anthony took in his surroundings as if for the first time.

“Help.” The call came again.

He tore his eyes away from his family and looked toward the sound. It was coming from behind a refrigerator half stuck in the ground. He turned back to his wife and son, reached in his pack, and pulled out two tags. He carefully attached them then stood.

“Help.”

He made is way toward the sound leaving behind two black tags. His pack was nearly empty. He pulled out his flashlight and clicked it on. He rounded the refrigerator and found a boy maybe eight-years-old. The boy’s eyes were wide and red-rimmed.

“It’s okay,” Anthony said, “It’s okay. I’m here to help. What’s your name?”