A comfortable uncertainty

By Michael Miller

First, let me begin with a brief but some-what boring biography, I know I know, I can hear the collective sighs already, but bear with me just a moment, I promise there’s a method to my madness. I’m by all respects a rather normal and possibly just a bit cliché middle aged male. I’ve done most things expected of those in my particular demographic. Labored in the same field for the past 40 odd years, bought and sold more homes than I care to admit, raised my children to the best of, or rather lack of my ability. For the most part they seemed to have survived the process with-out to many scars. Admittedly I do wonder about a couple of them.

I’ve kept my head down and my nose to the proverbial grindstone. A baby boomer, though and through. Yep, I had it all figured out. Just above the horizon the golden rays of retirement were just starting to peek above the mountain tops, and then “It” happened. What was “it”, well that’s what my little tale is about.

  I envisioned myself (as a great many of us guys do) a man’s man. Being a mechanic and self-professed daredevil for the greater portion of my life, I felt as if I laughed at the very existence of pain. Life had thrown no less than 17 broken bones in my direction (the result of countless auto accidents), some how managed to get shot once (I’ll fill ya in on that one later), I had even been afforded the opportunity to have been blown up on at least one occasion. Yep, within myself I knew beyond any shadow of doubt I could handle what-ever pitfall life might sling my way. But it only took the constant prodding from my wife to prove me wrong, not just a little wrong mind you, but life changing totally wrong.

            In June of 2017 I relented to the wishes of my lady and succumb to the dreaded, embarrassing and (rightly so,) colonoscopy. That’s right, in my mid fifties I relented to an altogether grown-up version of peer pressure, don’ed the odd looking hospital socks and floral gown only to figure out what the split up the back was really for. “But I had this” I told myself, no big deal. Right?

            We have grown up in a world of absolutes. Our researchers have found a pill for everything from common hives to erectile dysfunction. Spoiled we have become, our society has taken for granted not just the word, but the very definition of “chance.” Oh we love “chance” don’t we? There is a novelty in it’s definition. We buy lottery tickets and travel to far off locales in search of adrenaline, the rush, the uncertainty of it all. We do this because we can control it. Then at the end of the week, when we’ve satiated our minds with the thrill, (or ran out of money) we simply turn it off, returning to our structured lives, adjustable rate mortgages, 2.5 kids and illustrious career. After all we are in control, Right?

            Then “it” hit me. I couldn’t just pack my bags and check out. I couldn’t simply throw the lottery tickets away and hope for better luck next week. I had been lied to; I had bought into the false sense of control that gives each and every one of us comfort. That as a society, we can count on a simple yet finite solution to any of life’s problems. Think I’m wrong? Just stop for a second and think about it, I mean “really” think. Look around you. What would you do?

It’s been nearly three years now, a small victory for my corner. I was given eighteen months in the beginning but I’m still here. For the first two years I did everything I was told. Radiation, twenty-five hits followed by another fourteen a year later. Twenty-five Chemotherapy Infusions once, then another twenty-five when it returned again only a few months later. First the removal of a large portion of colon, then laser surgery on the liver. Soon followed by the loss of two thirds of same said liver along with the gallbladder, once again, just a few months later.

The latest in this morbid game of whack-a-mole was the esophagus along with the accompanying lymph nodes, and of course came the dreaded “trials.” For quite some time it seemed every time I went into the hospital they took something out. Pain, and plenty of it had become as common place as breathing. At some point I had all together forgotten what it was like to be pain free. But wait a minute; where the hell was all of this control I had become so accustomed too?

Through all this, family gathered around doing their best to lift me up. “You can do this” they would say, “ There’s medicine for it” and “ Oh you’re gonna beat this.” Somewhere in the midst of all this tumult I noticed something. Fifty some odd years had conditioned me as to what I was to expect. Life had laid out a path before me and I had little choice but to follow. Like a train on rails, there was a beginning and an end. I was for lack of a better term, “along for the ride.” Oddly enough I began to find an almost indescribable peace in this new found “uncertainty.”

During my last visit my oncologist suggested an MRI in an effort to determine whether “it” had indeed found a way into my grey matter. After a lot of time sitting on the beach and no small amount of urging from my family, I made a painful decision. I simply didn’t want to know. Needless to say; my decision went over like the ever so popular “excrement in the punch bowl.” But somehow I found peace in the uncertainty.

As a man I’ve come to believe most guys find the same peace, that’s why it’s so difficult to get us into the physician’s office. We’ve heard it said, and honestly, most have even said it themselves, “I’m not goin’ cause they might find somethin’.” The hunter, provider, he man in us all, deeply ingrained in our psyche finds a bit of peace in the not knowing. A popular sitcom made common place the reference to Schrödinger’s cat, Google it, it’s interesting reading. In my case, that’s what lies at the core of my reasoning.

As long as the cat in my brain is both alive and dead, I find life just a bit easier to live. It’s taken me nearly three years, and a great deal of soul searching before I at last allowed peace to replace just a bit of the fear and even some of the anger. I am routinely asked the same question; Don’t you wanna know for sure? To be brutally honest, I’m not sure that I do. I refuse to assign myself an expiration date, I don’t live by a curfew (I never have), and no I don’t eat all the stuff the pundits tell me I should.

Life is not a set course laid out before us, there is no set track, no map or GPS. The best we can do is simply that, “The best we can do.” It’s more likely a carnival (if I’m allowed the cheesy metaphor). Yes the milk bottles are rigged, the ring toss is near impossible, and those darts are dull on purpose. But we still give it our all simply because our little girl just has to have that pink and yellow striped elephant. So by God the manly man is gonna get it for her, never mind the dozens of goldfish we take home only to flush to oblivion a few days later.

Uncertainty has forced me to appreciate the journey, enjoy the day, simply because I’m not sure of the ending. I’m not entirely certain, but I think maybe just a little bit of that may be rubbing off on the rest of my family and that’s a good thing. I have no idea how much time I have left, I have chosen to live the day. I try not to ruin those days by fermenting solely on what happens at the inevitable end. As we all do, I have my beliefs, so choose to believe or not, the choice is yours to make. I don’t believe there is a right one or wrong one.

So, guys listen, yes that means you. Stop looking down at the rails, stop chugging away like the engine that could without looking up at the destination. Postpone that business trip, just stop. Take a breath, look around, focus intently on those bottles in front of you. Shoot a wink at your little girl and win that damned elephant.

Just me, it’s just me, “Mikey”

Who am I? Nobody really, just a normal eleven year old. Kinda skinny I reckon, long slim face and dark hair. I don’t like my hair, or my nose, never have. My hair has a mind of it’s own and I think my nose looks to big for my face. I live with my ma in an old trailer a bit from my papaw’s house. The old man’s been gone for a while now. I reckon the pressure got to him so he took off a while back. That’s all I want to say about that for the time being.

The trailer sits on the far corner of my papaw’s land. The old girl has a mind of her own and it’s all ma and I can do to keep her a going. If the pipes ain’t leaking the outlets might quit working on which ever side she chooses. And there’s always the furnace, it’s alive I tell ya, and has a mind of it’s own. For the most part I got her figured out, but every winter the two of us are locked in an epic battle of wits, neither one willing to admit defeat.

Papaw works on big trucks in a large garage behind his house. It’more or less the local hang out, but that’s not where he makes his real money. Folks for miles around know him as “the” source for home-made whiskey. Let me tell ya some thing, this cat makes the best hooch in the state, it’s a tradition in our family, past down from generation to generation. That little fact (as you’re gonna find out) is destined to bring me no end of hard-ships. He’s my pa’s old man and I reckon he lets us stay here outta pity or something like that. He can be kinda hard to deal with but I’ll get into the reasons for that a bit later on. Ma say’s we’re gonna get outta there some day, but for the time being I don’t see that happening.

I ain’t got much in the friends department other than the guys I’ve mentioned. Cain’t say that I’ve got much of an interest in sports either. Matter of fact, I generally do my best to avoid those jocks at any cost. It’s not that I haven’t tried because I have, Lord knows I have. The end result of such an endeavor usually leaves me with some manner of personal injury or mental trauma. In other words; jocks are to be avoided at all costs. Trust me on this one, I know from experience.

Remember that hooch thing, yea that’s what got this entire mess started. It seems one of those “jocks” got word of my family’s little side business and figured he’d found himself and his buddies a ready supply. The resulting series of events would prove to change our lives in ways I’d never have dreamed of.

Spoiler alert; we all survive our first mystery. We figured out friends can come from the most unexpected of places. True friends always and I mean always got your back. It’s not just the old folks who have the best advise. Every body has a secret. And most important of all; no matter where you live or who you are, you’re a lot stronger than you may realize.  Life is full of wonder with no end and The Tin Cup Clan is gonna find it.

A laugh like a chipmunk “Chucky”

Next there’s Chucky Mathews. He’s kind of an odd duck. A dark headed short kid with an abnormally large mouth. Not big like he talks a lot, even though he does. I mean big bright red clown lips that cover the entire bottom of his face. They remind me of the wax ones you can buy at the dime store.

They make him look kinda silly, and he’s all kinds of sensitive about it. He has a laugh that’s just as weird, sounds a lot like a chipmunk or squirrel. He uses that weird laugh all the time, laughing at everything, funny or not. Even when he’s in trouble, especially when he’s in trouble, which now that I think of it is a lot. Him and Stick are pretty tight, makes you kinda wonder if slapping one will bruise the other.

His dad works the belt and washer, just as dirty, if not more, but maybe just a little safer.

The pay’s not near what the hole pays, but he’s lucky to get it. He used to work at the mill in the next town over, but when they cut back he was one of the first to get the axe. Big David’s dad pulled some strings and got him on at the Blue Diamond mine. He ain’t been there to long so he’s still playing catch up as far as money goes.

Chucky’s place is about a mile down the road from me. He don’t like us coming by his place much. We all figure it’s because he’s kinda embarrassed by it. It’s been tough for him, his place ain’t much really. His Pa lost their house to the bank when he lost his job at the plant. No warning or nothing, just went in one day and found a piece of paper with his time card. Right now, they’re rebuilding, they all live in a Shasta camper with a room built onto the side.

The room’s not very fancy, just boards and tar-paper topped off with a metal roof. Just stuff his dad could scavenge up I spose. He ain’t never let any of us inside yet, we don’t say nothing about it. Out of proper respect I reckon.

That’s one goofy lookin’ red head

Excerpt Chap 22: The Leech Cemetery Witch

“Stick made his opinion clear regarding the trash bag theory. “Great, we all gonna be seen ridin’ thru town, in the dead of night, in the pourin’ rain, totin’ a bag of dead varmints, and wearin’ trash bags.” Cain’t get any better than that.”

Let me introduce you to “Stick.” David Byrge was his real name, but nobody calls him by that, it’s just plain ol’ Stick. He’s as skinny as a hoe handle. His bright red hair usually looks like the bowl it was cur around. When I say red, I mean “RED,” not light, not dark, not almost, but bright flaming red. He wears bib overalls a lot and worn sneakers.

  You cain’t put a finger on him no-where’s with-out covering a freckle, I mean he’s covered with em. So much so that you’d think they were on the whites of his eyes. He’s been known to drop a fib or two as well, but other than big David, so have the rest of us. I swear he knows about every single dirty joke on the planet, and he ain’t afraid to tell any of em to just about any-body at any time.

Stick’s ol man drives a coal truck.Takes a special kind of stupid to climb on top of sixty thousand pounds, then try to control it down steep mountain roads and switchbacks. It takes years to learn how to operate and control one of those things. They’s been quite a few lose their lives on the mountain. Once that truck takes off down that hill, she takes on a life of her own.

If she gets loose, you got two choices, step out on the tanks and look for a soft spot before jumping and hoping for the best. Or hold on and try to ride it out, either way you’re probably gonna die, simple as that. The secret is picking a gear at the top and leaving her there. Once you try to shift down, she’s gone for sure.

Once she goes over, the grounds to steep to get her back up out of the holler. The mountain side is littered with dead trucks, overgrown with weeds and rusting away just where they landed.

The character of “Big” David

First and I my opinion the very best is my friend David Owens, “Big” David to the rest of us. He’s a big un’ with huge fingers and thick hands. Even though he’s just in fifth grade he’s already nearly six feet tall. His head is covered with wavy dark brown hair which he keeps parted to one side. His face is wide and a pug noise barely sticks out from the center. That big head sits on top of a pair of broad shoulders by way of an unnaturally short thick neck.

His size is betrayed by his temperament. He seems to exist in a continuous state of mild mannered happy. I don’t reckon I’ve ever seen him with out a slight smile on his face. I’ve come to believe he’s just made that way. When he speaks the words come out soft and low, slow on the ears and easy to listen to. There’s a simple wisdom in his words, he don’t say much, but what he says is generally worth hearing. I’ve never seen him put one bite of food in his mouth with out asking for the Lord’s blessing first, and I ain’t never heard any sort of curse or swear from his lips.

Him and his folks live down the road on a hilltop known as Owens ridge. They’s a lot of em’ and like the rest of us, money is tight. I believe the ol’ boy’s got more brothers and sisters than were animals on good Noah’s ark. They’re always out in the yard, running and chasing, screaming and hollering. Climbing their big brother like an old oak, and David loves it, every minute of it.

When his pa ain’t at work in the mines or home in the garden, he’s always out there with the kids, running and screaming as loud as they. That’s the part that make me a bit jealous, my pa’s gone so it’s me and ma. Even when he was here, he didn’t have much to do with me.

The oddest thing about big David is the ever present smell of wood smoke. It follows him every where he goes and even goes so far as arrive just a little before him in most cases. Of all my friends he’s the best, ma calls him a sweet spirit, says friends like him are hard to come by. I reckon she right about that.

David’s size is about all our little group needs to stay out of trouble. We know if there are any problems all we gotta do is yell for him, that’s about enough to diffuse any situation. Even though Chucky and Stick have pushed that theory to the limit more than a few times.

Gulf Coast Poet


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