Wednesday, July 15, 2009


The following is a draft of Chapter 18 of my post-oil novel AMERICAN CRUDE. Comments have been disabled. If you wish to comment, please go to TheKunstlerCast at and join the discussion.


--Innocent Byproduct


I sat in the tack room upon the sofa, lifeless and empty, Misty’s head on my lap. She sensed my sadness and lay there with an empathetic stillness so thorough that even her tail didn’t move. I marveled at the love and faithfulness such a dog could offer and lamented MK’s denying Jason and me a dog all those years.

From outside in the barnyard I heard a car door open and close. Then I heard the powerful Jaguar engine fire to life. It purred its way out of the driveway and faded into the distance.

I pondered one possibility of contacting Catherine without Doctor Tuxedo ever knowing: snail mail. But what could I say in such a letter? Should I tell her that Doctor Tuxedo was a crazy man? Would she even believe me? I recalled Catherine’s smiles, her laughs, and the two instances where she took hold of my arm. I began composing and re-composing such a letter in my mind. What if she became afraid of me after that kind of letter? What if she showed the letter to a lawyer and had a restraining order issued against me? Maybe I could word the letter in such a way so that it was only clear to her what I meant but not to anyone else, like a code that no one else knew but Catherine and me.

This desperate game of thinking through the wording of a letter without the benefit of having pen and paper in hand reminded me in a regrettable way of my marriage to MK and the years of letter writing she and I engaged in. As soon as I realized the emotional overlap I was experiencing between Catherine and MK, I instantly stopped my mental letter composing and rubbed my eyes, trying not to let actual tears come forth.

By noon time Kyle came back from having ridden the last of the horses for the day. He said he could give me a ride back to my van as soon as he had brushed the horse down and watered it. “But do you wanna stay for lunch before we go?” Kyle asked. “Mrs. Valera usually feeds me a sandwich, and she told me a few minutes ago that she’s going to serve lunch to you and me in the family dining room. So she asked me to find out if you had time to stay for lunch.”

The thought of sitting in Captain Warren’s chair sickened me. I shook my head and said, “You can eat if you want to. I’m not feeling very well right now.”

Kyle nodded and went to tending to the horse.

After he left, I glanced at the metal cart Catherine had lay upon the night before. The lower shelf still had her brown velvet hat. I knelt down, picked it up, and held it against my chest -- it smelled like her. I breathed deeply. Misty came over and licked my face.

Still kneeling, I put the hat down and said good-bye to Misty, explaining I would never see her again. She whimpered at me and bore her head deeply into my chest -- she knew exactly what I was saying.

Half an hour later Kyle came and declared it was time to go.

As Kyle and I entered his pickup and drove away, Misty cried and howled from behind the barnyard gate.

“Wow,” Kyle said quietly, “she really got attached to you. You should come back some time and cheer her up.”

I snorted with a wry smile and shook my head. “I don’t belong here,” I mumbled.

We drove through Glicksville -- a beautiful little town of postcard perfection. I was too depressed to enjoy it, but on a very numb and detached level I could see its fine qualities.

After leaving Glicksville we drove past acres of tract houses -- McMansions. I had done the pipe work for many similar houses in Delaware County just southwest of the City, so I knew their general layouts as well as the materials used in construction.

Next we were driving through actual farm land, real Amish country. And seeing these Pennsylvania Amish suddenly reminded me of my summer in Ohio not far from a large population of Ohio Amish. I attended plumbing school in Ohio ten years earlier. It was in Ohio that the fine art of my brief stint at coded letter writing reached its zenith, all at the urgings of my beloved wife at the time: Mary Kelly.

Back when the Iraq War first went live, MK began a sizeable project that led to a life long habit of my composing all letters or e-mails with over a dozen different language filters operating in my brain at once, steering my careful word selections.

It was St. Patrick’s Day in 2003, a huge holiday for MK’s diehard Irish family and also for about half of Philadelphia. She and I had been married less than a year at that point so she looked forward with pride to the honor of walking into church with her new husband on the morning of St. Patrick’s Day, and later walking just as proudly with me into her family’s house for corned beef dinner. But then that evening, instead of heading to her cousin’s Irish bar and getting drunk on green beer, MK and I stayed at home and watched the TV in horror, witnessing the bombings of Bagdad.

We turned off the TV and she cried in my arms, pleading with me not to go to war. I assured her that I was not an actual Reservist, so the Army had no immediate claim upon me, and there was no active draft anymore, so I was safe from that as well. But I gently explained that if an American draft got started again I’d be among the first to go, and there would be no choice in the matter. She instantly latched onto the fear of a draft since we were actually fighting two wars: Iraq and Afghanistan. So she insisted that if a draft did get started and if I did go overseas, then I was to write her letters telling her what was happening, where I was, and whether I was going to be fighting anywhere. But then I told her my letters would be censored by the Army. She next took the conversation off into a strangely paranoid and surreal path by demanding that if I were ever captured by enemy soldiers and held in a prison camp, I had to write her the whole truth of how they were treating me. While I at first wanted to tell her that such a possibility was quite far removed from reality, I merely insisted for a second time that such letters from me would most likely be heavily censored by those imprisoning me. So she said maybe I could write my letters to her in some kind of code so that no one would even know the letters needed censoring.

And so it began.

MK suddenly embarked upon a crusade of borderline madness that ultimately proved detrimental to her during our divorce proceedings and in her custody claims on Jason.

She and I had already built up a considerable vocabulary of private marital words between us -- every married couple has private words that mean nothing to anyone else but them. However, MK came from a family that was really big on crossword puzzles and reading mystery novels. So during the years prior to the War -- as we dated and then moved in together and eventually got married -- she took our private romantic language to a level of complexity that I suspect few other couples ever attained. We of course had our special bedroom words (everybody has those), but beyond the bedroom these code words entered into literally every corner of our lives including our discussions of our finances, of our extended families, of our restaurant preferences, even discussion of our annoyances with various neighbors. It was quite a vast vocabulary, most of it her own invention, but some was from my creativity also. And together we made it all up piecemeal, adopting each new word one at a time as we went along through life. As vast as this secret lovers language had become, we had it all comfortably memorized. Speaking it was so effortless and intuitive of a thing that I never bothered to ponder how large the language had grown over the years.

But then in March of 2003, MK began to do the unthinkable: she began to write down all of our private marital language and compile it into a master glossary. So at last I could see the entirety of the Beast in all its swaggering magnitude. It exceeded forty hand-written pages. After getting over the shock of seeing a quantifiable measure of its immenseness, I was actually embarrassed to know that she had done this and I worried about the sexier details of it all appearing somewhere on the internet one day. And while I was somewhat relieved to know she chose to do it entirely with paper and pencil rather than use the computer, I was quietly weirded-out later on when she explained she wanted to avoid the computer in case the government was electronically spying on us.

MK wasn’t satisfied with merely writing down a formalized compendium of our private marital language. She wanted to develop and refine a system of written communication between us so that anyone who read any of our letters would merely think they were just typical letters in plain and simple English. But unbeknownst to the rest of the world there would be hidden clues in the letter to a secret sub-text within. So she came up with a hierarchy of codes. The hierarchy required that the letter’s formal date always needed to be written out at the top, and so the numbers in the date would be the key to deciphering the letter. Those numbers indicated which words to skip and which words to pull out separately. The pulled out words became the real message. And MK made me practice this new code. For several months we sat across from each other at the kitchen table each night and hand wrote mock letters back and forth. She was adamant that the wording of the superficial letter had to look and feel like a normal letter -- even if I had to ramble on for an entire paragraph or two just to camouflage three code words into a string of organic-feeling sentences.

This was at first a very silly game that I merely tolerated. It seemed to make her happy, and I reasoned that a false sense of control was perhaps the best medicine for her during those scary first few months of the war. When summer came I went off to plumber’s school. And this time of separation provided a near-perfect opportunity for our code language to be put to the test.

I spent eight weeks in Ohio at an intensive training program for my master plumbers license. As soon as I arrived I wrote my first “real world” coded letter to MK. It took me over an hour to compose, but I stuck with it and fashioned it according to the hierarchy. A week later her reply came back, also coded, so now I had to decipher. And when I deciphered her hidden message, it revealed that she had successfully gotten my own hidden message from the week before. I marveled that we had actually achieved this level of sophistication. It all so amused me that I became eager to keep this whole thing going. As soon as I was done with her letter, I diligently sat down to reply with yet another coded letter of my own. After she and I exchanged four such rounds of letters the code became easier for me to work with. Meanwhile the other guys at plumbing school expressed their with admiration at how intent I was about writing letters to my wife, and at how quick she was to reply. Sometimes her letter arrived in a care package with homemade cookies, making me a very popular guy on my dormitory floor.

After plumbing school I returned to Philadelphia in time for Labor Day weekend. I hoped the change of season would quell her anxiety of a military draft getting started. But all through the fall she fretted all the more. Thanksgiving and Christmas were both dampened by her overt and constant voicing of those fears. And she made me keep up with our kitchen table practicing of coded letters well into the new year.

By February my thirty-sixth birthday was approaching and then I would be too old for the draft to touch me. On the eve of my birthday I told her the only present I wanted was that I be allowed to stop with the coded letter drills. She refused to acknowledge that I’d even asked for such a thing. The next morning I went to the breakfast table and found a small gift wrapped box on my plate. Inside was an early pregnancy test indicator displaying a positive reading. I held it in my hands and for the first time in my adult life I cried. That October she gave birth to Jason right in front of my eyes, and there in the delivery room was the second time in my adult life that I cried. We eventually stopped the letter drills merely because life got too hectic with a baby.

MK and I of course continued for many years with the original verbal marriage language we’d fostered. But the complex written code of secret letter writing ceased entirely. When our marriage started waning, even the verbal codes ceased and so from then on we merely spoke in the same normal English common to everyone. It’s not that we’d forgotten our secret language, it just that it had simply become too painful for either of us to try and use anymore. Meanwhile, the prior existence of the written language came out in family court in all its embarrassing details. My lawyer was banking that the whole ridiculous undertaking would smack of just enough crazy to sway the judge into granting full custody of Jason to me. Instead the judge merely ordered MK to undergo counseling.

As Kyle and I drove past fields of corn, trotting horse buggies, and tall grain silos, my prior stance of secretly mocking MK’s paranoid fears of electronic spying was suddenly replaced by an ardent respect for her insightfulness. I sat there in Kyle’s moving truck and made a vain fantasy-wish that Catherine and I likewise had our own coded language between us, allowing us to exchange secret snail mails that Doctor Tuxedo could never get to or even understand. But I knew that was a futile hope.

Catherine said she would call me later the following week. But if Doctor Tuxedo was the all-powerful super spy he was posturing himself to be, then he would somehow find out that Catherine called. And he would definitely keep up his end of the bargain if I failed to end my association with her in that one phone call.

-------------------End of Chapter 18--------------------