The Illusionist

In this post, I’m sharing a short story I’ve written on the subject of disillusionment. Disillusionment takes many forms but, on its own merits, it is a very worthwhile endeavor. It is only when the process of recognizing that reality can be very different than our perceptions (i.e., illusions) fails for a variety of reasons that our minds lead us into the dark regions, which are entirely of our own construction. This story is about a boy who grows into a man, never realizing that he is constructing new illusions as fast as old ones are demonstrated as being false. It is not an autobiography, although I freely admit, as do all authors, that my own experiences are a natural part of the writing process.

The Illusionist

THE EMPTY SLATE

The skinny four-year-old boy played with some cans and pieces of metal his brother (who was four years older) and he had found in the trash cans and enjoyed the solitude—and quiet. His brother and two sisters, all of whom were older than him, were at school and there was no one to bully him and, since his father was at work, there were no voices raised in anger or jealousy; or maybe his parents just liked to shout at each other. To him, his parents’ arguments sounded like the fights he had with his siblings, but they were louder and lasted longer, until his father would leave the house and drive away in the car. He didn’t really like his mother or, for that matter, his father but, at least when it was just her and him, she left him alone. Sometimes his father would go away for a month or more and another man would move in. But these visitors didn’t fight with his mother and they left him alone, barely acknowledging his existence. He was used to that as the youngest child.

Sometimes, after a lunch of mayonnaise or margarine on a slice of white bread, she took him for rides in their car and he could play someplace besides the yard in front of the dilapidated two-bedroom duplex they lived in. He enjoyed those trips because she would leave him outside in the car while she visited with some friends inside the same whitewashed building she always went to, and she didn’t get mad when she would come outside to bring him a glass of water and find that he’d gotten out of the car and was playing with the toys he was allowed to bring. She was always in a good mood after a few hours visiting with her friends, and sometimes one of her boyfriends would come out and say hello to him and kiss her before she got in the car. His mother had a lot of acquaintances, and they were all friendly, even to her youngest child, James Walsh, although everyone called him Jimmy—he didn’t like that name, but no one cared what he thought.

Inevitably, the rest of the family would return in the afternoon and his life returned to misery, at least for a few hours. First would be the insults and punches from his brother, then taunts and pushing from his sisters, and then his father would return from work. Sometimes his parents would wait until after dinner to start their daily routine but, as often as not, his father would enter the apartment cursing about something Jim didn’t understand. But he sure did get angry. Jim’s brother and sisters would have released their pent-up energy from sitting in class all day by the time dinner was over and they would play board games together while their parents’ ongoing feud would simmer for a little while, with brief flare-ups in response to an angry glance or ill-chosen word. Bed time was usually quiet but he could hear his parents starting up again, once they thought they were alone. Jim accepted that this was how life was and didn’t give it much thought and he never thought about the future.

Jim Walsh started first grade at only five-years old without having attended kindergarten, after his mother confronted the principal, and insisted that he was capable of keeping up with the other children. His birthday fell after the start of the school year and she persuaded the meek, middle-age man that it would be a shame to prevent him from getting an education on a technicality. Apparently, she was as excited as Jim at the idea of his getting out of the house and beginning his education. He soon discovered that the other students were no different from his siblings except that they weren’t as physical; the teachers discouraged fights among the boys, which occurred anyway, but Jim was never involved in those.

Sometime during the second grade, his family moved a couple of hundred yards and into a different world. They now lived in a house with three bedrooms—he shared one with his brother—and a back yard, and some of the kids he went to school with were his neighbors; in fact, his best friend from the second grade lived only a couple of houses away and they played together every day. Part of his enjoyment of this new life resulted from his siblings getting older; his sisters now fought with each other and his older brother, who was eleven, was no longer interested in pushing Jim around. He also learned that not every family lived in the same style as his, with the parents constantly fighting and arguing. He wasn’t allowed to bring friends home to play but he could go to their houses, which he did as often as possible, and thus Jim learned that his friends’ families were often very different from his, usually in a positive way.

During this formative period, Jim Walsh had a couple of ideas growing in his young mind, like seeds that had just germinated, nourished by his growing awareness of a world which now included more than his family. He had already realized that he disliked his parents and wanted nothing to do with them; furthermore, he felt a growing sense of alienation from his siblings, who had always treated him poorly. He wanted nothing to do with any of them but, lacking an ability to see the future, he accepted that this was his lot in life; and he would bear the burden as well as he could. Another concept that was taking root in the deepest parts of his brain was that he had an obligation to his parents and siblings, although he didn’t know what that meant—it was too soon to identify the source of this sensation, and he didn’t have the vocabulary to allow him to express this feeling, even to himself. Still, having the inability of children his age to be concerned about the future, he trudged along the path he could not diverge from.

It was during this interval that something extraordinary occurred, which changed Jim Walsh’s life forever, in ways no one could have foreseen, although he had no inkling of its impact on his future at the time. And it was all caused by the interaction of factors beyond the elucidation of science or even religion. It was in the realm of metaphysics—perhaps astrology.

By this time, Jim Walsh, at the age of ten, was disillusioned with his family, of that there could be no doubt, but his young mind lacked the tools to grasp the meaning of this subconscious condition; nevertheless, he had devised a coping mechanism—self-delusion, as a temporary state reflecting his incomprehension of reality. He would accept whatever happened and play his part, even if ineptly, in the unfolding drama.

A STRANGE INTERLUDE

Jim’s siblings and he were introduced to a new board game, which was designed for older children, those with strong imaginations and good eye-hand coordination, by their mother. The Ouija Board game was a lot of fun, but he wasn’t very good at it, not nearly as good as his oldest sister who seemed to have a talent for moving the plastic pointer between the letters. In fact, in the hands of his sister, the game took on a personality of its own and began to speak as if it were a mysterious person who claimed to be an angel of God.

His family had been halfheartedly religious but, at the insistence of his mother, they had attended Sunday worship services and even Sunday school at a local Southern Baptist church for several years. Jim was even baptized there, submerged in a pool of water built into the altar on the dais where the pastor gave his boring Sunday sermons, even though he had no idea what baptism meant. He had been born again.

Apparently, his family’s shallow but sincere religiosity was why God had decided to contact them through an angel and send them on a mission to spread His word to the forsaken of the world, but He had failed to say which heathens were to be saved. Jim accepted this mission along with his parents and siblings, except his brother, who expressed skepticism about the entire enterprise. His father was convinced by a coincidental revelation, involving the illness of his oldest daughter, and reluctantly went along with the program. Jim accepted whatever he was told by the Ouija Board, which had by now declared itself as being God Himself. Jim accepted this proclamation as well because he didn’t care anymore.

Jim Walsh found himself in Kabul, Afghanistan, with his siblings, his mother, and a mongrel dog that God, speaking through the Ouija Board, had insisted they should adopt. His father had declined to join them on their quest to save the heathen of the world, a sentiment shared by his brother who, for reasons that were never disclosed to Jim, had joined them on their international voyage of discovery despite his open disbelief; probably because he wanted to get out of the northern California city where they had moved temporarily before continuing their journey. He’d had a difficult time in high school there because he tended to express his opinions whether they were asked for or not.

It should have occurred to Jim, even if he were only twelve years of age, that this voyage had nothing to do with God, but it didn’t; he had suspended disbelief to the point that he felt as if he were living in a science fiction story, which was becoming one of his favorite literary genres. The fantasy underlying their journey to the other side of the world was revealed to the light of day when they discovered, upon arriving in Kabul (the capital of Afghanistan), that there was a church and missionaries already on the scene. God must have overlooked that fact. Jim didn’t care because he had buried himself in reading and drawing, interests that were encouraged by the private schools he attended in what turned out to be a hub of international diplomats and business people. He had lost interest in what his family did with themselves.

Despite the melodrama playing out with his mother and oldest sister, young Jim Walsh learned something during the year he spent in Afghanistan that reinforced what he had discovered when his family had moved out of the ghetto they had lived in: There were people who didn’t live like his family, and he wanted to become like them. He actually went to the home of the United States Ambassador to Afghanistan and watched a movie with his friend in a home theater and met people who had been to college—this was a phrase that had only been used as a pejorative by his father, who had never attended high school. Despite such pleasant diversions, his family had failed to disappear as he’d come to wish for although, apparently, they thought he had, even while he was living with them.

During the one summer he spent in Kabul, he was left with his mother several times, while his older siblings did things with their friends. On one particular day, his mother was oblivious to his presence in the room when she had a conversation with a beautiful woman with slightly dark skin. Jim was reading a science fiction book as his mother’s guest described her bout with schizophrenia, as if it were a cold she had recovered from. Oblivious to his presence in the room, sitting in an armchair, his mother told of her experiences with hearing voices and having visions. The two women were practically hugging as they shared stories about a behavior pattern Jim would later learn was called schizotypal personality disorder while he listened without showing an interest. The encounter had no immediate impact on him because he had learned not to pay attention to what his family said or did, but he would never forget that conversation.

Jim’s sojourn in Afghanistan ended as he would have predicted it, had he not been young and uninterested in the peculiar behavior of his family. And he had buried his disillusionment so deep in his mind, in fact turning it into an illusion, that he couldn’t find the right string to pull on to retrieve it, as if it were a fish on a hook. So many illusions were floating around in there, along with the truths he only partly glimpsed, that it was hopeless; so, he played along with the game again, and watched disinterestedly when the demon was exorcised from his oldest sister, but he couldn’t keep from crying when the dog he had sometimes hated and sometimes loved was gassed by the exhaust from a car, to remove the evil that lurked within it from the face of the earth. All in God’s name.

As anyone wiser than young Jim Walsh would have predicted, his mother and siblings left Afghanistan in ignominy, traveling on tickets paid for by the U.S. Department of State. But, deep within his mind a seed had been planted, which would require many more years to mature into a shrub, or perhaps even a tree, that would nourish him through a lifetime of disillusionment.

TRANSITION

Upon returning to northern California to rejoin Jim’s father, there was a season of peace within the one-bedroom apartment he had remained in for the year they were absent. His mother remained contrite and agreeable for as long as she could and began attending a large evangelical church not far from home. As his home life returned to its normal, contentious routine, Jim turned to God for escape and became devout, reading the bible and praying several times every day. Church was also fun because they had a big choir with a top-forty hit and the pastor, whose excitement infused the congregation without fail, didn’t talk about Old Testament sins but instead walking in Jesus’ shoes and loving each other, which apparently meant tolerating people who were different and even getting along with his own family. Jim enjoyed it and continued attending church with his mother after they returned to the small town in Arizona where he had grown up, but this time they lived in an apartment.

Jim Walsh started high school where his journey of discovery had begun, but now he was a born-again Christian who carried a bible with him to school every day. He appeared to be the only evangelical in his school, however, and it wasn’t much fun being the only devout Christian in an entire high school. This situation only exacerbated his growing sense of being lost, common to that period of time in one’s life called adolescence; and since he had only become religious out of inertia and the momentary pleasure of emotion-laden church services, he stopped being an evangelical practically overnight. Actually, it took a week of finding no one who wanted to talk about Jesus, even though, curiously, no one ridiculed him. In fact, when he showed up at school without his bible or the attendant religious conversation, there seemed to be no response from his fellow students, other than talking about things of interest to an adolescent.

With God now tossed on the scrap heap of useless concepts, along with family and respect for adults, which had joined his growing pile of refuse after he saw the actions of men and women he had assumed to be rational in Afghanistan, he was ready to concentrate on what he soon learned was the number one objective of high school: surviving academically while not being consumed and destroyed by the harsh reality of spending six hours a day with hundreds of other teenagers. However, Jim never grasped what he was supposed to be doing in high school. He couldn’t get excited about the classes he was taking any more than he had in junior high. His ambivalent attitude seemed to be shared by almost everyone, including the teachers, whose primary concern seemed to be taking attendance.

After quietly and thoroughly renouncing his religious beliefs, Jim found that he had no desire to replace them with a new moral or ethical paradigm. More disturbing, at least to a more perceptive mind, was that he had no interest in making friends in high school. It wasn’t intentional but more like a natural phenomenon, like bears choosing a solitary lifestyle rather than forming packs like wolves. It was the most natural thing he had yet experienced in his life. He was a loner and he liked it; however, he also liked group activities because they didn’t require too much personal interaction.

It was natural for him to become interested in the military; the majority of his relatives descended from either of his parents’ lineages (he had five step brothers) served in different branches of the armed forces. Thus, he joined ROTC his freshman year. He liked marching and wearing his uniform on Friday and learning about aircraft and the physics of flight (his school had an Air Force ROTC program) but, most of all, he liked learning how to march in complicated patterns with the drill team. He imagined himself as a fighter pilot when he graduated from high school, until the teacher, a retired Lieutenant Colonel who had been a fighter pilot himself, informed him that two factors made it highly unlikely he would ever sit in the cockpit of an F-4 Phantom: Jim had poor vision; and there was very little chance he would ever go to college.

Having had his fantasy of a life flying through the clouds and disseminating them with the turbulence created by the jet wash of his F-104 Starfighter crushed, he didn’t become disillusioned but did as he had with every other disappointment he had experienced in his life: he tossed it on the scrap heap, forgot about it, and moved on to his next fantasy. Unaware of what life and his own physiology had in store for him, young Jim Walsh determined that he would work on jet aircraft engines or electrical systems. He had seen military aircraft on ROTC field trips to local air fields and at air shows. There was an Air Force base near where he had grown up.

NO WAY OUT

His fantasy took a detour when his parents moved to Phoenix and he started his junior year in a brand-new high school that had been populated with students from two other area high schools. No one knew anyone and Jim felt at home with the anonymity that comes from being lost in a crowd of strangers. Later in his life, he would have very few memories from Trevor G. Brown High School, except that he met John Holmes, who had moved to Phoenix from Chicago that same year.

They were both in the ROTC program and took the first-year class, which allowed the students to field strip and reassemble an M14 rifle. They even went to a firing range and fired a real M14 at targets. This was a lot more fun than Air Force ROTC had been, especially when Jim qualified to join the drill team, which gave him the opportunity to perform the M14 manual of arms, as well as advanced maneuvers like the Queen Anne Salute, with the heavy weapon in parades and during halftime at football games. John Holmes didn’t join the drill team, but he and Jim had a lot in common, like skipping class because they didn’t like school.

One day they took Jim’s car to a nearby park to waste time until they both went to work and had the same conversation they had every time they took a break from the boring school routine. John was staring into the bright, cloudless sky as he started the dialogue.

“I’m going in the Army when I graduate. I’ve got to get the fuck away from my dad before we kill each other.” He paused a moment before adding, “I hate his guts.”

Jim nodded absentmindedly and responded, “I don’t hate my parents because I didn’t get a beating several times a week like you. No…instead, they make me sick to my stomach the way they carry on, with their constant quarreling. You’d think they would just stop after being married for decades, but they’re too goddamn stupid to learn. I’m going into either the Navy or the Air Force as soon as I can after graduating from high school. I’ve got to get away from them…”

John turned his gaze to the brown grass in front of them and said, “Your brother went in the Air Force, didn’t he? How’s he doing?”

Jim scoffed and retorted, “The idiot got kicked out for using drugs. Now he’s in Viet Nam working for some company doing the same thing he did for the Air Force but for five times the pay. My sisters are even bigger losers; the oldest married a drug dealer and had a baby, and the younger had a baby and dropped out of college. She thought she was smarter than the rest of us. What a joke!”

“At least you know what they’re doing. My family was split up and I don’t know where my sister and brother are.”

Jim had to think a moment before answering, “You’re lucky. I couldn’t care less about my brother and sisters and especially my parents. All families do is drag you into their shit, which is hard to get out of…you, like, have a responsibility that you didn’t know about. I wish I didn’t have a family.”

John looked at him and said, “I see what you mean. I hate my dad.”

Jim shrugged and turned his gaze back to the dead grass and leafless trees and wondered why so many snow birds flocked to Phoenix, where the winter was too cold for him. He assumed it must be a lot worse in places like Chicago or New York.

After a lackluster performance his senior year, caused equally by his disdain for learning and a part-time job he had gotten, washing dishes in a cafeteria, Jim barely graduated after concocting, with other failing students, an ill-conceived and even more poorly executed scheme to cheat on an algebra final exam. This ignoble end to his education didn’t bother him because he had already signed the papers to join the Air Force, on the day he turned seventeen years and six months, which was the minimum age for enlistment with parental approval.

He did learn something that year, however, when he went to a large amphitheater downtown, along with all the other potential enlistees in the armed forces, for his physical examination. He had flat feet and would have been disqualified for entrance in the Army, but the Air Force didn’t care since they apparently didn’t go on ten-mile hikes. He also learned that he had difficulty seeing colored dots that revealed the presence of numbers in a background of other colored dots. He didn’t see any of the hidden numbers. But he could tell green from red. The doctor called it color confusion, whatever that was; one thing it meant was that he couldn’t work on anything complicated. He was disappointed to discover that about the only thing he would be allowed to do was work on the airframe or be a cook, but he wasn’t excluded from working on jet fighters. Nevertheless, his future career had deteriorated from flying to airframe repair, whatever that was.

Probably the greatest pleasure in his life, up until getting on the plane that would take him to San Antonio, Texas, for Air Force Basic Training was quitting his dish-washing job with no notice and leaving that asshole manager in the lurch. He would never have the opportunity to quit a job again in his life, and it was a very uplifting experience.

ACTIVE DUTY

There were still quite a few experiences in life that hadn’t disappointed Jim Walsh yet when he got off the bus at Lackland Air Force Base to begin his basic training in how to be an airman. It didn’t take long for the military to make the list. The six weeks he spent in Texas weren’t as challenging as he had expected from the movies he’d seen, however, with most of the recruits’ time spent in classrooms being shown how to fold their underwear and behave like airmen, which meant saying “Yes sir” to anyone wearing cheap metal insignia on their cap or uniform. And he only got to fire a plastic M16 rifle once during his entire time in basic training.

Technical school was a major disappointment. He spent a couple of months building an aluminum box with a door in it, which apparently demonstrated all the skills required to repair the airframe of a modern aircraft. They didn’t even take the time to explain what the pieces were that comprised the airframe but kept referring to the on-the-job training he and the other trainees would receive when they got to their permanent duty stations.

After flying back to Phoenix, he drove his car to Beale Air Force Base, fifty miles north of Sacramento, California, in the middle of nowhere, to a place with town names like Grass Valley, Yuba City, and Wheatland. The rolling hills were covered with grass and, apparently ICBM silos; Beale AFB was a Strategic Air Command facility, but Jim didn’t learn what that meant until he reported for work at a windowless building next to the runway. He could see the B-52 bombers parked in rows near large hangars and a half-dozen smaller shelters right on the taxiway, probably for some kind of small aircraft. He was certain he would be working on the big boys, which would be almost as much fun as fighters; curiously, the Air Force had never taken even a day to introduce any of the recruits to the U.S. military aircraft, so he had no idea what kind of planes he would be working on. They seemed to have a serious communication problem, or maybe they didn’t care.

As it turned out, Jim didn’t go to the big hangars where the bombers were parked and, in fact, he wouldn’t go near an airplane until he had completed his OJT period, which was self-paced.

He and the other new guy, a proud and obnoxiously loud Italian-American from Ohio, spent their time studying thick three-ring binders filled with detailed instructions about aluminum annealing procedures, aluminum alloy strength characteristics, rivet patterns and such, sweeping and mopping the painted floor of the sheet metal shop, and taking turns cleaning the toilets, which were called latrines. Jim worked as hard as he could to get through the binder and the tests required to pass each section so that he could work on an aircraft.

At first, Jim was awestruck by the black aircraft that looked like something from a sci-fi movie sitting in their individual shelters next to the main runway. The SR-71 was an impressive aircraft, until he learned that it was constructed of titanium; there hadn’t been one word about that particular metal in the binder filled with useless information he had spent months studying. However, that wasn’t a real problem because Jim and his coworkers in the airframe repair shop spent most of their time replacing fasteners used to secure dozens of panels, which held the avionics equipment. Jim visited a friend who worked in the avionics shop, where they set up and installed instruments that could take photo-quality images through clouds and other things. The avionics guys had gone to technical school for over a year because they weren’t color confused; never mind that all of the wires were white with tiny numbers stamped on them. He could read tiny print. After seeing how much more interesting other jobs were, Jim hated his job and he hated Beale AFB in Bumfuck, Egypt, and after visiting a friend at a Tactical Air Command base, in Sacramento, where they worked on fighters, he hated SAC.

There was another airman in the shop, who Jim immediately took a liking to; Lucian Lange was a tall, blonde, blue-eyed, antiauthoritarian guy with a Nordic build from southern California, who had actually been a surfer until joining the Air Force. Lucian was a year older than Jim and had been at Beale AFB for six months before they met, and he was married to the most beautiful woman Jim had ever seen. Rebecca was a blonde bombshell; there was no other way to describe her, from her golden blonde hair and perfect face to her figure, and even her feet. Jim didn’t understand why she wasn’t a model, until he spoke to her; she wasn’t able to carry on a conversation for more than a minute. It soon became apparent that Lucian was struggling to keep his wife from wandering, a fact that was made painfully clear to Jim one day, when he dropped by unannounced, while Lucian was overseas for two months on temporary duty (everyone in the maintenance squadron spent two months overseas every year to support the war effort in Vietnam), and found a handsome and well-built man visiting Lucian’s wife.

Jim was appalled at the similarity of Lucian’s situation to his father’s. He didn’t know what to do but, by the time his friend had returned from his temporary assignment, he’d decided to share what he’d learned. They stopped by the Airman’s club, where low-alcohol beer was served to airmen under the California minimum age of twenty-one, and Jim said the words he didn’t want to utter.

“I don’t know how to say this, Lucian, so…here goes. I saw a guy at your apartment while you were TDY (temporary duty) and he wasn’t delivering a package. I thought you should know…”

Lucian nodded and grinned toothily and said, “Yep, I’m not surprised. We got married just before I joined the Air Force and when I got back from tech school, I heard the same story from my friends in Los Angeles.” He chuckled and added, “Becky has a short attention span and she really likes the attention guys give her, even when she’s with me.”

Jim nodded as if he understood and replied, trying to compliment Lucian in his choice of wife, “She’s very good looking, that’s for sure.”

Lucian continued, “We probably shouldn’t have gotten married, but I didn’t want to go off for a couple of months and leave her thinking I’d abandoned her…” Lucian had a way of sloughing off unpleasant news with a grin and a toss of his head.”

Years later, when Jim saw Lucian after they had both been discharged from active duty, he found Lucian divorced and in a new romantic relationship.

Sometimes, disappointment in a misguided long-term objective—like making a career of the Air Force—could be a blessing in disguise. That was the lesson Jim Walsh learned when the Viet Nam war ended suddenly, to no one’s surprise except his; however, as with previous lessons he had learned, this one was assimilated in a convoluted manner.

One Friday afternoon, about an hour before the swing shift would come on duty, he was sent to do a routine job, so he took one of the toolboxes sitting near the shop door and headed out. It is worth noting that the Air Force (or at least the SAC) has a protocol for the upkeep of the toolboxes: They are to be checked for missing equipment after each use, before each use, and by the shop chief or his designate to make certain everyone else is following the protocol. Our somewhat hurried young protagonist had failed to check the toolbox he took because it was Friday afternoon (never mind that he had no place to go). However, a simple piece of bent aluminum tubing with an air fitting attachment, known as an air-vac because it was used to clean up small debris (jet engines don’t like metal debris entering their intakes), was missing from the toolbox. Not having the required equipment, and not wanting to go all the way back to the shop to report the problem and acquire a replacement, he asked the aircraft’s ground crew chief if he would be able to clean up the affected area, which showed him in person. Interpreting assent as an assurance that a ground crewman would get right on it, Jim returned to the shop, where he reported the missing equipment to a disinterested shop chief.

Needless to say, the offending FOD (Foreign Object Damage material) was discovered by the quality control inspector and Jim was found culpable of failure to follow protocol. He foolishly complained about the comedy of errors surrounding his violation, but it didn’t help, and he was given Article Fifteen punishment, which included a reduction in grade, and a fine of fifty dollars. He accepted that it was ultimately his fault and thus he learned two lessons. The first was the most important and he would not forget it for the rest of his life: Do not trust anyone to do something that they could not be held liable for if they didn’t do it—never, no matter how sincere they are. The second lesson was that the easiest way to get out of any bureaucratic organization when they want to cut costs is to give them a reason to want you to leave in the most efficient manner possible. This second lesson would turn out to be very useful more than forty years later.

Jim Walsh received an honorable discharge with full benefits and was free to pursue a civilian life within two weeks, while his coworkers were filling out forms and trying to transfer to the Air National Guard. You never know.

There was an aside to this interval in Jim Walsh’s life however; he was at first determined to remain in the Air Force and finish his enlistment because he had no place to go. He was only convinced to take the discharge by his shop chief, an affable middle-aged E-6 who told him that the Branch Chief (who was an E-9) had taken a dislike to him and pushed what should have been no more than a Letter of Reprimand to an Article 15; and he would find a way to kick Jim out dishonorably, no matter what it took. When Jim expressed confusion at this, Sgt. Hamm told him that this was how the world worked and there was nothing he could do to change it. After expressing his genuine abhorrence to quitting the Air Force and not fulfilling his obligation, Jim reluctantly accepted an honorable discharge, having served two years of a six-year sentence.

CLIMBING THE LADDER

Unemployment had reached more than eight percent during the two years Jim Walsh had been in the Air Force, so jobs were not easy to find when he got out. However, he had been fortunate because he beat the rush of ex-military aircraft technicians who flooded the job market within six months of his discharge. Thus, he found a good job rebuilding derelict helicopters just like the ones used by the Army in Viet Nam, but these had been used by the Peruvian military to transport cattle or something like that. It was far more interesting and fun than replacing broken fasteners.

There was a downside to Jim’s short tenure with the Air Force. He had never had a drink of alcohol in his life nor smoked anything, especially not marijuana, until he was thrown into a potluck of people of every walk of life; it turned out that, in the post-draft military era, in the middle of an unpopular war, the military had turned to the judicial system for recruits. A substantial number of the airmen he’d met had been coerced into joining as an alternative to jail or prison, depending on the jurisdiction; thus, there were a lot of guys from the southern states. The result was that Jim, with his mindless way of getting along and trying to have fun, had been introduced to beer, wine, distilled liquor, marijuana, heroin, cocaine and speed before his twentieth birthday.

Lacking either internal or external moral guidance, Jim passed a couple of years spending his waking hours working, drinking, looking for adventure (e.g. seeking female companionship), and suffering from hangovers. His only high school friend, John Holmes, had disappeared into the Army to follow his own path, which he later learned was about the same routine.

It was during this period that Jim found the job that justified his becoming an airframe repair specialist instead of a jet engine technician or an avionics expert. In a small hanger, sized for general aviation aircraft, he was shown four seriously damaged and disassembled airplanes; and he was hired to reconstruct them into working order. This wasn’t replacing fasteners or body panels, but making something fly again, against all the odds. It was like the emotional scene in a movie, when the hero realizes his purpose in life; the building was filled to capacity with parts, trash, the shop equipment necessary to make the repairs, and inspiration. He took the job and kept it as long as it lasted. During the ensuing six months, Jim reconstructed two airframes and saw the aircraft fly, straight and true he was told, to the amazement of their pilots and his employer.

Jim was living with his brother—who had become a real person named Mike rather than a cut-out character—by this time because his job was only a few miles from Mike’s house in west Phoenix. In fact, Jim had only recently noticed that Mike was as tall as him (just over six-feet-one-inch) but weighed thirty pounds less. He was thin. John Holmes showed up one day, having recently ended his two-year enlistment with the Army, and moved in and slept on the couch while he figured out what he was going to do next. They sat around and drank and talked about things every evening. One such conversation stood out in Jim’s memory years later.

Mike was slumped down on the sofa as he asked John, “So, what did the Army teach you to do? Anything useful?”

John shook his head. “I was working in a listening post in Thailand. I know how to scan a lot of frequencies but not how to repair the equipment. I guess I could go to work for the National Security Agency, but I think I was already doing that.”

They all laughed.

John then turned to Jim and asked, “How’s college going? I’ve heard from several guys that they take basket-weaving and keep the GI Bill checks coming in for years.”

Jim laughed and responded, “That’s bullshit! The VA counselor won’t sign off on any class that doesn’t push me towards an Associate of Arts degree. In fact, I’m taking a geology class this semester, which is kind of interesting. We’re going on a field trip to pan for gold in Prescott.”

Mike interjected, “What happened to your interest in technical drawing?”

“It was interesting for a semester, but it doesn’t pay any better than what I’m doing now. I talked to a couple of students who were doing it. To be honest, I have no real interest; I just want the monthly check from the VA like John said…”

Mike continued, “I used the GI Bill to go to computer programming school, but I didn’t like it. I dropped out. But now I’m getting tired of rewinding industrial motors. I plan to become a salesman.”

Jim chuckled. “A salesman? It’s hard to imagine you as selling anything; you don’t like most people any more than I do.”

John added, “Why don’t you just go into politics? I’d love to see you kissing a baby as its mother looks on in disgust.”

Mike laughed with them and explained. “I’d be selling our services to commercial enterprises, like mining companies and power generation facilities. In case you two morons didn’t know it, electric motors use the same technology as generators.”

It was silent a moment while everyone got another beer. When they had retaken their assigned places, Jim turned to John and asked, “What about you? Do you think you can get a job in broadcasting or something like that?”

John shook his head thoughtfully and said, “I’m going back in the Army. They’ve already told me I would be posted to Europe, probably Germany, to monitor radio communications in East Germany and the Baltic region. The Viet Nam War may have ended but the Cold War is in full swing; in fact, intelligence gathering is more important than ever.”

John stayed until his new enlistment came up and he went to Europe to eavesdrop on the Communists.

Jim’s fantasy job ended when he was told that Lloyd Townes was going out of business because he didn’t have enough paying customers. Jim took it stoically and went back to repairing small aircraft and helicopters at his previous employer, who’d been offering him a larger salary for months. He tossed his dream of making the world a better place by getting abandoned aircraft back into the air onto the growing pile of unfulfilled illusions.

Answering a rare ad in the newspaper for aircraft mechanics, Jim got his next break. After a comprehensive and very technical interview, he was hired by Hughes Airwest, a regional airline in the southwest. Overnight, his salary trebled, and he went to work in a real hangar. This was much better than the Air Force, where he’d worked on thirty-four-million-dollar aircraft in an open shed. They hadn’t even had doors but, to be honest, that had been a field maintenance organization; Hughes Airwest did both field and depot maintenance in one facility, and he would be doing both. He was excited, and the job didn’t disappoint him, at least not at first.

It was a great job and the work was challenging because these were not titanium airframes, but good old-fashioned aluminum, and they wore out, cracked, and even broke. Several years passed in the ecstasy of knowing he was part of a community with a single purpose, five-hundred men (there were no female mechanics) keeping forty-eight aircraft flying on a tight schedule and making a profit while getting people where they needed to be on time. There was a brief period of unemployment when another union went on strike, and there were compromises when deregulation bit into the company’s profit margin. None of that bothered Jim because he was part of the American Dream, until two events happened within six months.

Hughes Airwest merged with a couple of other regional airlines and, naturally, they couldn’t have three maintenance facilities. They had to make money. Thus, in the coin toss, or perhaps poker game, played out in a smoke-filled room somewhere luxurious, it was decided to close the facility in Phoenix that had been operated by Hughes Airwest. They were munificent in their offer to buy any employee’s home in Phoenix at market value if they agreed to move to the facilities in either Atlanta or Minneapolis. This would have been an easy decision a couple of years earlier, but his life had become more complicated recently.

One day, he was on the roof of the hangar, smoking a joint with his friend from the fiberglass shop, Brad Goodwell, and the shift lead man, Terry Lambert, when the subject of the imminent closing of the Phoenix facility came up. Terry took a long drag on the joint and got the ball rolling.

“I’m going to Minneapolis. I’ve been talking to Jack (the shop foreman) and he says that the money is in the north and North Central Airlines (one of the three regional carriers which had merged to form Republic Airlines) is in the best position. We’re all going to be speaking with a German accent before the dust settles.” He passed the joint to Jim as Brad responded.

“No company with the word ‘Republic’ in its name has ever done well in the long run. This is a temporary situation. Republic is going to be bought out or merge with an even larger air carrier in a few years. I’m putting my money on Delta Airlines, and their maintenance headquarters are in Atlanta. There are no major carriers centered in Minneapolis and so it’s a dead end just like Phoenix.” He accepted the joint from Jim, took a long drag, and continued.

“We’ll all be wearing Delta insignia within a few years.”

Jim had to interject, “I think you’re both right, but at different time scales. I disagree with your short-term prediction, Brad, and, if I were to stay on, I’d go to Minneapolis with Terry because that is the official headquarters of Republic Airlines. However, having no more than intuition to go on, with the unpredictable effects of deregulation, I think we’re going to see a lot of mergers in the years ahead. I think that Republic and Northwest will merge in a few years, but eventually Brad’s prediction will come true. It all comes down to the international market.”

They both looked at Jim uncertainly as Brad handed the joint to him. Finally, Terry said, “I’ve met guys like you before in my ten years in the business. There was one guy who was fixated on carburetors and he quit and went on to make a million dollars designing them for race cars. What’s your thing, Jim?”

Jim exhaled and handed the roach to Terry as he answered, “I love working here, but I became fascinated with geology while taking college courses, so that I could collect my GI Bill benefits. I don’t think I’ll make any more money than you guys, but it’s what I want to do. It’s become an obsession.” He shrugged as Terry and Brad nodded knowingly.

RISKY BEHAVIOR

Jim took the biggest risk of his life and remained behind as many of his friends and colleagues moved to either Atlanta or Minneapolis. In the end, he accepted a layoff because he had found something in himself to believe in, which had been laying fallow for years in the deep recesses of his mind. Somewhere in his cerebral cortex was the seed, planted years before, which had now grown into a seedling, unknown to his conscious mind; he could think beyond the day that lay before him. His life didn’t have to be limited to what he saw when he awoke every morning. He had some control over how his future life might be manifested. Thus emboldened, he wholeheartedly pursued the dream he had only expressed to a few people.

Then the unthinkable happened. His older brother, Mike, with whom he had gone through several crazy years while they’d both searched blindly for the meaning of life, died in an automobile accident in Texas, where he’d recently gotten a new start as a salesman, just as Jim had in deciding to finish college and give up his career with Republic Airlines. He attended the funeral with no remorse or sorrow; he was still too surprised at the tragedy to feel emotions. After watching his brother’s ashes spread over the mountains west of Phoenix in accordance with his wishes, he thought about what Mike had become to him. There had been no sibling affection because of how an older brother invariably treated a younger, and thus their early relationship had been relegated to the dust heap of illusions Jim had gradually given up over the years. If Mike wasn’t a lost loved one, perhaps he had become a newly gained friend, someone whose company Jim enjoyed and had looked forward to sharing for many years, possibly for eternity because Jim still couldn’t imagine the specter of death; at least, not until this event had made him painfully aware of his own mortality. When the ordeal was over and he had returned to his ephemeral life which probably had no meaning, he realized that he would miss his brother for the rest of his life, even if he had been a part of the family Jim was irrevocably alienated from; after all, it hadn’t been Mike who had caused the rift in Jim’s mind.

Someone more contemplative than Jim Walsh would have foreseen that relationships with women were bound to end up on the dust pile of disillusionment, after a sufficiently painful learning experience of course, but he tentatively explored these unknown waters against his better judgement. He had discovered that he wasn’t looking for someone to marry after meeting several very nice and even attractive women during the decade he spent attending college. In fact, he had invariably failed to call them after a couple of dates in every instance. There were two exceptions worth mentioning, however; not so much because he wanted to marry them, but because the break-ups had been ambiguous.

The first example, which should have set off alarms for Jim, occurred when he was attending a community college. He dated a girl his age for several months and they spent much of their free time together. He wasn’t in love and neither was she, but it was a lot of fun being with her—until she disappeared. She had expressed no change in behavior that he had noticed in the weeks before her disappearance, so he thought something had happened. He went to her house and spoke to her parents, who informed him that she had joined the Coast Guard. Needless to say, this was a surprise; but one that he got over until, a year later, she called him to say that she was in town and wanted to see him. Thinking that their romance could be rekindled, he took her out to a nice restaurant and hinted that their relationship still had potential. When she informed him that she had a boyfriend in Alaska, where she had been stationed after finishing the Coast Guard boot camp in Cape May, New Jersey, he came to the immediate and probably biased opinion that she was crazy. She should have disappeared from his life forever, never to be seen again. Decades later, he would realize that she was even more schizoid than him.

Jim dismissed this romantic disappointment as a fluke and, not letting his illusions on such an important matter as romance get in the way of his fantasies about life, went on to date a graduate student when he was approaching graduation from Arizona State University. They dated for six months and she even moved in with him and his roommates, and then it was time for him to graduate and move to Florida to attend graduate school himself. There was no talk of breaking up, nor were any tears shed when he loaded his paltry belongings into a trailer for his trip east. After all, they both understood that graduate school was a temporary and necessary stage in building a career. Apparently not; because it wasn’t a month until Jim learned that his girlfriend had taken over his room in the house that he’d shared with three other men and had a new boyfriend. He never even got a “Dear John” letter. If there was one thing in life worth being optimistic about, despite any setbacks, it was the chance of falling in love and sharing one’s life with someone. Nevertheless, Jim threw pieces of this romantic fantasy onto the scrap heap with the other illusions he had apparently been born with.

HIGHER EDUCATION

Graduate school proceeded without further disruption of Jim Walsh’s illusions about the world; to the contrary, he found that working on research wasn’t just interesting but a way to construct even more complex illusions about the world; however, he didn’t realize what he was actually doing at the time. He sailed through a Master of Science program at Florida State University with his few remaining fantasies intact and several new ones under construction; and moved on to Penn State to work on a Ph.D., having had no more difficulty than constantly repairing his aging car, which was something he was accustomed to. He was working hard to create a set of personal illusions to join his scientific ones, and there would be no need to toss any more onto the trash heap. Or so he thought.

He had met a graduate student at Florida State University named Tom Laughlin, who was working on a Master of Science degree like Jim, having started a year before him. They spent a lot of time together, often going to the sinkholes which permeated the land throughout Florida. One day they were at one such swimming hole, called Turtle Lake, and Tom expressed his intent to quit graduate school.

“What the fuck are you talking about!” Jim exclaimed.

Tom shook his head in a desultory way and responded, “My thesis would smell like beer. I can’t do this, Jim.” He shrugged.

Jim couldn’t believe that someone who had spent weeks in a small boat collecting water samples would think he had been wasting his time. “I drink more than you! You’ve collected a lot of data and then you analyzed it in a lab, whereas all I did was process some sand from a beach. You have never gone to the lab after drinking so much as one beer, so I don’t get it—your thesis would smell like beer?! What the fuck!”

Tom looked at him forlornly and replied, “You’re right about the data collection and processing, but I can’t put it together. I think I’m more impacted by drinking beer than you are, Jim. I’ve tried to start writing my thesis, motivated by your sitting in the cubicle next to me and furiously writing with a pencil on that used z-fold paper you get from the computer center. I don’t have any ideas.” He looked so distraught that Jim wanted to hug him, but he didn’t like personal contact.

Instead, he said, “So, drink a couple of beers and write the worst first-draft of a thesis anyone has ever seen. Then, give it to your committee members for comment. That’s their job. And revise it while having a beer; who gives a fuck, Tom, as long as your field and laboratory efforts don’t go to waste. Do whatever it takes for Christ’s sake.”

Tom looked steadily at Jim as he replied, “That’s easy for you to say, Jim, but you’re not me. It isn’t so easy for me.”

Jim shook his head in disgust and retorted, “What a cop out. You’re as smart as me any day. What does it matter if you don’t like to write—who does? You don’t even need a plan, Tom, because your years of work will support your theses, no matter how badly written. We’re not doing ground-breaking research here but only advancing scientific understanding of the world one step at a time. Nothing more and nothing less.”

Tom shook his head emphatically and avoided Jim’s eyes as he said, “I’ve already accepted a job with the Navy. They don’t care if I have a Master of Science degree. I’m leaving at the end of the semester and going to work. That’s all there is to it.”

Jim nodded dumbly, realizing that the conversation had been nothing more than an exercise in futility. He hadn’t thought that someone would go to the effort of spending several years of their life in a difficult endeavor and then just give up.

FAMILY LIFE

Jim’s fantasy became reality, so long as one didn’t look too closely, and he certainly didn’t; he fought his way through the intellectual struggles one would expect pursuing a Ph.D. It was during his last year at Penn State that he faced the one aspect of life which he hadn’t thrown onto the pile of useless illusions. He fell in love, although he couldn’t define what that was; at any rate, he was excited when he met Ellen Grover during happy hour, when the graduate students from the Geosciences Department got together once a week. Within a few months they were planning their marriage and their future together and Jim didn’t mind because he was getting the whole story ahead of time. There would be no surprises. To avoid anything like the ending of his last college romance, he insisted they should get married before he graduated and moved to another state; they both understood that their life would be tumultuous for a few years, so she agreed and their wedding was attended by most of the graduate students in the Geosciences Department.

Over the next twenty years, Jim became convinced that his fantasies were all coming true. Ellen and he raised a son and a daughter together and they never fought and seldom argued, and it was just what Jim had imagined. There was nothing to disagree about because Ellen and he were so much alike; eventually, that became the problem because, after the children went to college, their independent personalities took center stage. Everything came to a head when Jim retired at only fifty-seven from the oil company in Houston where he had worked for twenty years. He felt as if he were watching someone else’s life unfold when Ellen confronted him about his plans.

“What are you going to do now? You’re too young to retire, even if Shell doesn’t require your services anymore.”

Jim had to think a moment before answering. He’d given that a lot of thought, and even inquired about employment opportunities in the area, but none of the options looked like he could remain in Houston and be employed. He couldn’t very well move to another city, leaving Ellen alone in their large house, just to keep his career going. Finally, he answered.

“I have a pretty good retirement plan and we’re not going to be financially pressed. In fact, with the house paid for and the kids in college, we’re in great shape. I’ve never been unemployed before—actually I’m retired—and I thought I would take some time to get used to my new status.”

She looked at him doubtfully before responding. “I suppose that’s true…” Something else was bothering her, but he would wait for her to tell him on her own; Ellen didn’t like being asked questions.

Jim cleared his throat and tried to talk around what was on her mind. “I’m very fortunate to have had a job that allowed me to retire early; just imagine if I were ten years younger? It’s hard for petroleum geologists to find work when they’re approaching sixty…” That did it. She was ready to speak openly.

Ellen looked at him uncertainly and said, “It isn’t much easier for oil exploration managers, even when they’re only approaching fifty.” She paused and bit her lip before continuing, “I’ve been offered a position with Global Energy in Malaysia, coordinating regional operations in the South China Sea…”

Jim interjected his words of support because he knew she had already made her decision. “That sounds like a great opportunity. Is this a promotion?”

She relaxed visibly, probably having expected him to voice opposition to her plans, but he’d learned never to disagree with her pronouncements. Open confrontations always worked in her favor and against his best interests; he hated confrontation.

“Yes, but not like moving into senior management. As I see it, going overseas is a back-door to a corner office. Besides, if I didn’t take this position, I would probably be joining you in your retirement, except that I would be unemployed rather than retired.” She sighed and Jim knew the risk of sudden hostility had passed, so long as he watched what he said.

Before he could respond, she continued, “We should have a lot of fun there, even though I’ll be traveling a lot and very busy. Still, we can travel around southeast Asia when I’m free and the kids can join us.”

Jim refrained from responding immediately. There was no way he was moving to Malaysia to spend his time surrounded by people he couldn’t talk to. He didn’t even know what language they spoke but he recalled that they spoke several. His mind was working overtime until he came up with what he thought was a counter-proposal Ellen would accept.

“That would be fun but, since it’s only for a couple of years, it might be best if I stayed here and took care of things. For example, the kids are living in that townhouse we bought while going to college; and we may as well sell this house since I doubt that you’ll find a corner office waiting here in Houston when you return from this posting.” He hoped that wasn’t too much because he had one more item to add—when the time was appropriate.

She stared at him for several moments as if trying to figure out what he was up to before replying, “Don’t you want to go to an exotic country and live with me?” She was ready to explode, so Jim chose his words carefully.

“It will be exciting when the kids and I visit you at a convenient time, considering the busy schedule you’ll have. Nevertheless, we can’t just walk away from everything…” He paused and waved his arms around the living room before continuing, “This is going to be a turbulent period for the whole family and someone who’s not busy with work responsibilities will need to keep an eye on things.”

Jim could tell that he’d walked the tightrope without falling when Ellen gazed at the ceiling fan, as if imagining herself as the CEO of a major corporation, and said, “That’s true. I will be very busy with work and you can all come and visit, and someone does have to deal with things here.” Jim could tell that she wasn’t finished, so he waited for her to add, “And you have nothing else to do, so it makes sense…but where will you live after we’ve sold the house?”

Jim refrained from clinching his fists in victory but instead tried to look thoughtful before responding with carefully chosen words. “We’re probably going to get four-hundred-thousand for our house, tax free. We could use that money to pay off the townhouse where the kids are living, which would get us out of debt. We could get a small motorhome for me to live in; that would give us flexibility and I could travel around the country when I wasn’t taking care of the kids and everything else that will come up with this change in lifestyle.” He didn’t think he had gone too far but you could never tell when dealing with Ellen.

His disingenuous justification for getting a motorhome worked because she only cared if her own independence was threatened, just like Jim.

Ellen seemed as pleased as him when she said, “That’s a great idea. Let’s go look at motorhomes tomorrow.”

He kept his grin to himself. He had been doing just that since his retirement and he knew exactly which RV he wanted to get.

AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

Jim watched his old and mostly unhealthy neighbors, who were invariably walking their little dogs, in disgust and realized that he was tired of the lifestyle he had pursued since Ellen had transferred to Malaysia. However, he had no home to return to, not that he wanted a house and a yard, not even the townhouse the kids had been occupying for three years. He just didn’t want to be around old people anymore and he felt the same about college students. Both were insufferable although for different reasons. The elderly struck Jim as being in a death spiral, kept alive by vast quantities of medication, and living each week exactly like the previous; their weekly life cycle specified that certain activities were to be completed each day of the week. He knew that he didn’t even have a weekly cycle himself, but he was at least writing and creating new stories which people were finally reading. These old people told the same ones every week; one story for Monday, one for Tuesday…

College students were just as bad because their lives were locked to the university’s class schedule, and they were so busy trying to learn old knowledge, being spoon-fed to them by bored and incompetent instructors, that they had no time for original ideas. It seemed that the weekly cycle was fundamental to human activity at all ages, which made sense biologically. The upshot for him was that he didn’t want to live in RV parks anymore, even though he loved his motorhome (when the weather was warm), and he didn’t want to move into the townhouse with his college-student children.

He exchanged meaningless greetings with his octogenarian neighbor who was shuttling by and looked at the clock—noon and time to begin writing and drinking. He knew he had become a functioning alcoholic, but he didn’t care because he was doing what he loved.

Jim’s cell phone dinged as he poured a light beer into a plastic cup. It was a text message from John Holmes, who had retired a year after Jim and moved to northern Germany. He pressed the Accept icon and went outside to take his seat in a twenty-year-old canvas chair he hadn’t gotten around to throwing out yet, despite its stretched and threadbare condition. As he waited for John to rearrange himself in his tool shed and get situated, Jim realized that he was no different from anyone else; he looked forward to talking to John, even though their conversations were meaningless.

John’s image appeared on the small screen as he said, “How’s it going?”

After a noncommittal response from Jim, John launched into his usual thirty-minute tirade about his wife and his in-laws. She didn’t appreciate everything he had done for her for thirty years of marriage and tried to start fights over every little thing, and the in-laws were ignorant barbarians living in the hinterland of a thoroughly modern and advanced Germany. When this phase was completed, he then described all the (apparently) enjoyable activities they had done together. When John finished his family update, which could have been a recording of any of their previous conversations, he gave Jim a chance to speak; however, Jim no longer had anything to say after listening to John for half an hour.

Understanding why some people contemplated suicide, Jim reluctantly began, “Do you remember that movie, Forest Gump?”

“I love that movie. I think I’m just like him,” John responded immediately.

“Do you recall when he ran back and forth across the country until, one day, he just stopped and said that he was kind of tired?”

“Hell yeh, I do. All those people had been following him and they looked at him as if was Jesus or the Buddha and all he said was, ‘I think I’ll go home now.’ That was great.” There was a brief pause before John added, “Is that how you feel?”

“Yes, it is, but not because I’m tired. I can’t stand these old people. They’re sucking the life out of me.”

There was a long pause before John responded, “Take a break and spend time with the kids in the townhouse until you get tired of them. You just gotta go back and forth. Find a balance.”

Jim shook his head. “No, John, that’s not the solution. I hate the townhouse and living with the kids. They’re okay but the situation is mind numbing, almost as bad as the RV parks have become. I need a change of pace.”

John thought a moment before saying, “Isn’t Ellen about to come back from Indonesia—”

“Malaysia,” Jim interjected.

“Oh yeh, that’s it. You’re about to have your change of pace when she returns. You guys will get a place in Atlanta or Dallas, or some other big city where you can join an intellectual club like you’ve been talking about. It looks pretty good to me.”

“She’s not coming stateside, John; instead, she’s being transferred to the Middle East. I don’t want to live in that part of the world, despite the interesting geology and history of the region. Unless you’re traveling with an armed guard, you could find yourself a hostage to some extreme religious group. I won’t do it…”

John grinned and retorted, “That’s not why you don’t want to go to the Middle East, or why you didn’t go to Malaysia. I’ve been married ten years longer than you, so I know what I’m talking about. You and Ellen don’t have anything in common, now that the kids are in college. I understand. I would get divorced except that I can’t afford it; I would get ass-fucked if we divorced because my wife would be seen as dependent on me, especially here in Germany. It’s different for you and Ellen because she makes more money than you ever did and you’re doing okay with book sales. Your situation is completely different from mine.”

Jim grimaced at the idea of his last remaining illusion being shattered. He wouldn’t do it.

“No. I’m not going there. I have no desire to get divorced and I think that Ellen and I will find common ground when she retires. She’s just really busy with her career, a possibility we were aware of when we got married. We don’t fight or have long-lasting arguments or name calling like what you’ve described.”

John shrugged. “Okay. As I understand it, you think your marriage will be solid after another couple of years living in different hemispheres. And then you’re going to enter some kind of heavenly state of retired marital bliss and go to the opera and book signings together…shit like that. Is that what you imagine?”

Jim had to nod his agreement. “Something like that. I know it sounds stupid but there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with our marriage. We don’t hate each other nor has either of us found a new romantic interest, as far as I know.”

John rolled his eyes as he answered, “Okay. What the fuck. Let’s go with your fantasy. In the remote possibility that you and Ellen are rejoined in the hereafter—when she retires in seven years—you, Jim, have to live with reality in the interim, in which case you either learn to live with old people or young people, neither of whom you have any appreciation of. What’s it gonna be, Jim?”

Jim knew that John was correct, but he wasn’t ready to face it; at least not yet. He offered a compromise.

“What if I park the motorhome for a few months and live someplace with people who are neither too old nor too young?”

John scoffed. “Okay Goldilocks, but what do you have in mind? I haven’t come across a web site offering to find the perfect retirement place for any taste; and you certainly have very specific requirements.”

Jim had an idea that would allow him to keep at least one of his illusions alive. “I need to live in a city…more than that, I need to find a place where recent college graduates are struggling to survive, but where the weather is warm. I learned that, unlike you, I don’t like cold or even cool weather.” He nodded triumphantly at John.

“I guess you’re moving to Los Angeles.” John was shaking his head in disgust at his own words.

3 responses to “The Illusionist”

  1. Tim Hall says :

    A deceptively detailed short story that covers a significant amount of years that literally spans a lifetime. Jim Walsh is fortunate. “The Empty Slate” in many other people’s circumstance would have been more aptly titled “The Butcher Block Chronicles”.

  2. timothyrkeen says :

    It’s all in how you look at it. Adversity helped make us who we are, but it doesn’t continue to have that influence…or it shouldn’t.

  3. Tricia says :

    A well-written chronicle of Jim Walsh’s early life! I wonder, did his opinion of his loser sisters ever change? I disagree with your comment that childhood adversity doesn’t influence our lives…perhaps it shouldn’t… but from my perspective, it absolutely does. Those experiences are hard-wired into the way our brains function. We can spend a lifetime constructing scaffolding and walls around it, but over time the walls weaken, and there it is – biting us in the butt.

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