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Bitter Medicine

Copyright © 1998 by Tim Merritt

This article appears in Vol. 1 #3 (Summer/Fall 1998) of Men's Voices journal.
 Men's Voices: So men can find their voices and speak their truths


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I looked up from the pile of bills on the table. How had this happened? There was no way everybody would get paid. I was going to have to make one of those damn phone calls. Ask for some time.

Honestly, I did know how it happened. Neglect. I wish I had a good excuse this time but the truth is we had just stopped paying attention to this aspect of our lives. There's always something. Some crisis. Some fire to put out. But just because you stop attending to your financial life doesn't mean it goes away. Why is it that it takes such a short time for things to break down and such a long time to fix them?

I stood up and walked over to the phone, thinking about what I was going to say. God, I didn't want to make this call. I didn't want to feel the way I knew I was going to feel. Sometimes you just can't take it one minute longer. You won't. So I just boxed everything up in a little corner of my brain and forgot about it. I can make this call later. I'm going for a walk. I didn't even bother to close the door behind me.

She was waiting in the field out back. My wife had taken the day off so we could have a little time together. We've been fighting a lot lately and not having the same days off doesn't help matters. Fresh air and a chance to talk was just what we needed now.

We held hands as we walked down the gravel road to our neighbor's house. The scotch broom was in bloom, brilliant yellow clumps lining the fields of the farmland that surround our house. We talked a little, mostly just walking quietly. Comfortable silence. She really is my best friend. It seems we're always in a hurry lately. But with our son at the sitter's and a quiet day ahead it began to feel a little like it used to.

There was a time when her face would light up when she saw me enter the room. I think that's what I miss most. I was always reminded that she loved me. I can't read her anymore. I never know what she's thinking about.

Pushing that thought away I stopped to admire the wildflowers running rampant along the roadside. For a month or two, there is nothing like springtime in Oregon. The purple camas were up, as were the early larkspur. Daisies were beginning to bloom along with wild roses and a dozen others I've never learned the names of. They made soft blankets of color, yellow, white and red flowing around the border areas where no one walks or drives.

Our neighbor is an elderly lady living alone on a 300 acre farm that she and her husband bought during the depression. It's kind of overgrown and wild with a small river running along the far end. I always knock at her door to let her know we're on her property, and to chat a bit.

When she came to the door she looked a little tired, I don't think she felt much like talking. But she did say "Take the road that runs down by the pump house. There were some elk down there yesterday, it's something you should see." We never did see any elk, but as we wound our way down the steep trail past the grass seed fields and old maples, we watched a small deer bounding effortlessly through the brush alongside the path up ahead. It went down the path that led to the pump house. Guiding us.

Everyone should have a place like this to go. A quiet place with warm air and cool shade. Cold water flowing into a lazy pond. We sat on an old log that had blown down. Looking at the firs climbing the far bank to the clouds. Enjoying each other's company.

I picked a long blade of grass, chewing it as I leaned back. She bent forward, hugging her knees to her chest, gazing into the pool. "Look, you can see the fish!" For a long time we watched the dark shapes ripple through the clear water. Could be salmon. The wealth of the distant sea swimming upstream to spawn.

"I'd love to buy this place." I said looking around expansively, picturing myself as the steward. I've spent countless hours dreaming about what I'd do if I owned it. More than just a home, there's something special I want to happen here. I'd build a little village. I know what kind of buildings I want, and how they should be laid out. I can hear the music playing and see the children running through the woods. A modern place with a lawyer, accountant and tax guy to keep ahead of parasites that drain the good out of peoples lives. Nothing like it has ever been built. A society so small it's free to be wild. A part of nature, not its destroyer. Microtopia.

And on that hill I'd put a small stone tower, like the ones they have in Scotland. Just to tell the neighbors that the guy who's been living in the old mobile home isn't white trash. A lookout where I could gaze over the trees and watch the sun rise on the snowcapped mountains and set on the glittering lights of town. I've never told anyone about the tower. It's just too vain, even for me. But now seemed like a good time. My hands shook a little with passion as I searched for the right words.

"Yeah, right." The harsh edge cut through the magic. This happens a lot lately. Ever since her mother died, things just haven't been quite right. I pushed it away. Her death was so long and painful... damn cancer. My wife gave so much of herself. I've never seen anything like it. Quiet selflessness. She took care of everything. But at what price? She's changed and I've been trying to let her, to give her space, to find a new balance.

"It could happen" I mused cheerfully, "when my book sells-"

"God, you ruin everything!" She snapped. "I'm sick of hearing about that damn book. It's all about money to you isn't it?"

"You've got some nerve." I growled, barely choking back the anger rising in me. "Money is just a component, a tool to me. How can you believe that? You don't know me at all." But she did know me and I knew it. I gritted my teeth and shut up. This was not how I wanted to spend the day. The comfortable silence had grown stifling.

It's hard to be a dreamer, and it must be hard to live with one. Especially when things get tough. My, how I can spin out endless hours of fantasy. All about this place. I can turn any subject into this one. Who was I kidding? A village? I don't even have any friends! No one shares this passion with me. No one understands what I'm trying to say. No one can see how it is the solution to countless modern problems. It's an idea that could change the world. Since she cut off this line of communication, my sense of isolation has grown to nearly overwhelm me.

"What's happening here?" I asked, not really wanting to hear the answer.

She was quiet a long time, "I just don't believe in your dreams anymore." I couldn't blame her for that. She's endured countless schemes, hogs, dogs, an in-home bakery. I even designed an airship. They amounted to nothing.

"Are you leaving me?"

"I don't know, maybe if we were away from each other for a while..."

"So, do you think I'm some kind of loser?" Don't ever ask a question if you can't handle the answer.

Uncomfortably, she stuttered around the words "kind of..."

That was enough. I had to leave. Without saying a word I stood up and started walking blindly away from the pond, through the wood. My pace quickened even as the brush thickened. Brambles tore at my clothes and skin as I crashed along overgrown deer trails.

So it's over. Seven years to get here. I punched dead branches out of my way, cutting my hands and arms. Fine. Bitch. Love turns to such a vile anger. If she wants to go, she can go. My parents were divorced. Her parents were divorced. They all remarried people who had been divorced. All the guys I know are divorced. Now I'm divorced too, it's my turn.

I can see myself sitting in a bar, balding and lonely. Trying to pick up a woman who's fat and desperate. My life will be as grim and pathetic as everyone else's. And my son-

The thought of living without him knocked me to my knees in howling, wrenching agony. I know the drill. Weekends, summers and holidays. Some other man would get to be there full time. Watching him grow up. Fucking her...

My heart broke that day. The pain from it doesn't go away. It consumed me so that I didn't feel anything else as I tore through the wood. Running as fast the briars would allow. Hurting myself trying to outrun the pain.

It was too late to stop when I saw the pit. It was the kind they dig to put a septic system into. I tried to jump it but my foot caught on something and I plowed headlong into the bank, tumbling down the side. Funny how fast the mind works at times like this. I remember wondering who was moving in. How deep was this thing?

I rolled to a stop, in a heap at the bottom. I was covered in dirt. My nose was bleeding. The grit was in my hair, my shirt, down my pants and in my shoes.

Only a few times in my life have I had to check gingerly to make sure I wasn't injured. It's scary. Yes, I could move my toes, arms, neck...

"I've been waiting for you, Tim." I nearly jumped out of my skin, spinning around, my back against the dirt wall. Debris cascading down on me.

It was his voice that frightened me. It was charred and menacing. Deep. He sat in the corner amid a pile of trash. An old blanket, empty bottles and cans of food. A transient.

"Do I know you?" I stammered. The sound of polite conversation sounding hollow and stupid as I hoarsely croaked out the question. Why would anyone sleep in here?

He grinned through his long, tangled, gray beard. Rotting teeth. The noxious smell of b.o. and vomit wafted towards me.

"Yes... " He said slowly, grinning maliciously. I stared at him blankly, absolutely no recognition at all.

"I'm the guy who's been holding you back." What? I thought. What's this guy talking about?

"I'm the reason you've been fighting with your wife." He must have heard me crying. I don't remember saying anything, but who knows. This wasn't funny. He was probably mad. He was definitely mocking me. Laughing at my pain. Today is the wrong day to piss me off, pal.

"I'm the one who's taking your boy." That was enough! He had gone too far. Something in the way he said it. Like a bully tormenting a little kid. Simple solution. I was going to kill him. I scrambled to get off my back and put my hands around his scrawny neck.

Then he said quietly, "I'm the one who won't let you have your tower."

How could he have known that? I've never told anybody. My rage evaporated and my guts curdled with cold terror. Who was this guy? Where the hell was I?

"Oh, do you recognize me now, baby?" Speechless. Terrified. "You should. We've been together for a long, long time."

I licked my lips, trying to moisten my parched mouth. Trying to speak. "W-why? What did I ever do..."

"Oh no." He leaned forward, leering. "You don't get any answers from me. I ask the questions here." His tone changed from arrogant to angry. He barked "Do you want me to go away?"

I was too afraid to answer. It was some kind of set up. Oh yes, I wanted him to leave, but I was doomed. His toxic eyes consumed me, stripping me of my identity, exposing me utterly. Reading my thoughts.

Then he leaned back against the dirt wall, "that's what I thought." He held out the bottle he had been holding, offering. "Do you want some advice?"

The lip of the bottle glistened wetly where he had been drinking from it. Defeated, unable to resist the simple gesture, I reached out my hand. I felt the morbid coldness of his fingers. I hesitated only briefly, looking into his eyes, "sure."

Then I poured my mouth full. The vile liquid burned to the back of my head. Choking, coughing, gagging I pulled he bottle away from my lips. Gin! I hate gin anyway. But this was noxious, bitter, rancid. Horrible beyond description. I thrust the bottle back toward where he sat laughing at my misery.

When he reached out to take it back he wrapped his clawlike hand around mine and jerked me near. I could smell the carrion on his breath, his whisper roared in my ear "You have no idea what the future holds. Learn not to be so extreme!" He ripped the bottle from my hand and swung it in a viscous hurtling arc against the side of my head. My mind shattering with the glass.

...Not my eye! Rolling onto my side reaching for my ruined face. But there were no lacerations, no horrible disfigurement. Just a nasty bump and a thick covering of red mud. Flinching upright, I thought to call the police. But I knew he was meant only for me.

I sat still. Enjoying the peace of exhaustion. That was some tantrum. I'm glad no one was around to see it. Well, almost no one. I looked around but he had left. His blankets and belongings were gone. He had even taken his trash with him. I checked my ring and my wallet. Still there.

Clambering out, slipping to the top. Brushing off. Emptying the dirt out of my shoes. What a sight I must be. We'll have another hard talk about this when I get home, or a fight. Maybe I'll get that agonizing silence. Maybe she'll be gone. None of it sounded good. I should have just paid that bill and stayed home. What a day this has been. Not what I had planned at all. Stillness. Just a little while longer. I'm in no hurry to go home.

As twilight began to thicken, the sounds of the approaching night coaxed me to a path leading back. How could I face a future with so little hope? I wanted to run...

No. What I wanted was my family. But that doesn't seem to count for much lately. My brain began churning with ideas. Enough. The idea factory ground to a halt. All I can do is go tell her I love her and that I want her to stay. What she does is up to her. That's all there is to it. Everything else is beyond my control.

Is this what it means to be married? Is this the all I can expect? I'd heard that love hurts sometimes, but nothing ever prepared me for this. I can't believe the reality I'm seeing. I can't believe that all that has passed between us over the years amounts to no more than this. I spend most of my time confused, I'm not very good at this stuff.

All I really know is that I can't go running through the wilds like a madman anymore. Somehow I need to work my way between all the anxieties and joys, the heights of my aspirations and the depths of my despair, and cultivate a new balance to my life.

Up ahead, the porch light was on. Her truck in the driveway. It's a start. I coughed and spit, trying to get rid of the taste of gin.

Tim Merritt lives near Astoria, OR.

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