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Back You are here: Home Stories Words for the People Short Stories Writers in Residence: Ryan Wilson May 2011 Writer in Residence - Spiral Bound Brother: Chapter 1
Monday, 09 May 2011 14:12

May 2011 Writer in Residence - Spiral Bound Brother: Chapter 1

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Duke and Lila, 17 and 21, don’t know some key things. They don’t know that they are brother and sister, or that other even exists. They don’t know their real father. And they don’t know he’s a killer. Linked and guided by Craft, a burned out, depressed, pied piper of a 9th Grade English teacher, the three fatherless pilgrims make their way across their absurd, brutal, and beautiful homeland to confront the man who triggered their bond, their voyage—and for Duke and Lila, their existence.

Each pilgrim gets a turn in the driver’s seat, but the chapters to appear in Thunderdome for the next four weeks spill from the mouth of Craft, the binding agent and the first narrator to hold the wheel.  

Overdosing on Eliot & I Am Not Dying Now


I hadn’t been to a doctor in six years. I’d hit an age where I preferred a series of arcana, to let it be a surprise, whatever foul thing was growing inside me. Sitting in Earhart High’s charmingly round library, reading Prufrock as if listening to a song that began anew immediately after fading out, I mashed my hair down for the hundredth consecutive time. I found it moist, of course, and stuck to my scalp like I’d applied rubber cement. I probably read the poem forty times before Mike Dunham, a senior (I taught him as a freshman), stopped me—all star shortstop, great glove man, B+ on every paper, every test, participation grade, quizzes, B+. It was astounding consistency. I once gave him a D+ on a paper, which was actually very solid if not exactly powerful, just to see what he’d do. I wrote the same kind of notes I always write in the margins of his essays:

-Good start identifying Poe‘s theme of Unity, but go further here. You’re cowering from the fire breathing dragon!

-Keen Observation! Bravo! You’re almost faculty!

- Missing a quote! Looks like someone was watching ESPN while they wrote this part of the essay.

- This quote reveals much more about the narrator than you’re illuminating! Illuminate, Mike! Poe wants you to shine.

- Mike, A very solid and convincing argument concerning the narrator’s unavoidable path to meet all aspects of himself in death. Everything you point out is on target throughout. But try to identify more of the jaw dropping choices Poe makes in his description, in mood--in other words, make an incision and look inside! Go past the skin!

Then: D+

He approached me after class with the essay between his thumb and index finger, and just cocked his head ever so slightly, then walked away. I meant it as raillery, no harm to his semester grade, which I’d adjust as needed, but I was consciously ignoring what I knew about Mike Dunham. He always seemed poised to explode. He was friable despite his steady glove work at short, the reliably straightforward analyses in class. He made every play he was supposed to, and the hard shots too, the tough hops, made something like two errors his entire senior season, and at least one of those was due to the Earhart High scorekeeper guarding his son’s earned run average. But he rarely seemed to come up with the incredible catch, and never did I see him celebrate with the lowest octane of high-fives after turning the double play, still somewhat rare in high school. He just didn’t dance with it.

I called Mike in during his period in Flyer, our school newspaper. Chuck Loder taught Journalism, a lovely guy, bitter as Job and unafraid to make the administration squirm. They would have fired him years ago, but those Famous Barr Clearance Suits that made up the Earhart administration didn’t have one body part heaving with life, not a one between them.

“Mike, I’m very sorry about that D+. I meant to write B+.”

“I know what you did, Mr. Craft.”


“You wanted to see if you could rattle me. Like I’m some kind of robot. I get it. But let me tell you, okay, I have some very serious crap going on at home right now and I don’t think it’s that funny really.”

“Mike, you have me all wrong. I was only trying to light a fire.”

Mike’s cheek muscles dropped, and his eyes welled up, not with tears, but pity, for me.

“I thought you were the kind of teacher who would own up to it, Mr. Craft.”

I wanted to put my hand on his shoulder, but you can’t do that sort of thing anymore.

“I‘m a callow man for my age, Mike, and I don‘t get much pleasure from life, not now anyway. Do you understand?“


“I know I used to be different.”

“Yeah. My sister loved you.”

“Really? She hardly said a word in class.”

“She’s like, a real good listener. So, anyway, I gotta go.”

“Okay, Mike. I‘m sorry. If you need someone to talk to—”

“See you in class.”

Three years later and set to implode at the library study table, with the insanely masochistic notion that I should tangle with this episode, whatever it was, armed only with T.S. Eliot. The man once had a soft spot for Hitler (my former colleague, actually, John Marauder, wrote a brilliant, if a bit overreaching, paper on Eliot’s Nazi imagery in “Burnt Norton”). And Mike, emitting the same nervous calm for which I’d known him, a senior now, an impressively full beard, watched me read Prufrock for the forty-first time:

Like a patient etherised on a table…

I have gone at dusk through narrow streets

And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes

Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows…

And in short, I was afraid.

I looked peripherally at Mike, who implausibly pretended to study while sneaking glances at me, and thought of my mother, how she’d always envisioned me to be a bold child, and how I’d disappointed her, slowly, until we only feigned closeness and true care, warmth. Thinking of how she toiled the beauty right out of herself, and hunched herself over, dazed from life’s invisible blows to the head. Would the same blows overtake me? While remaining busy and always under attack, one way or another, my sanity hung there in the occupation of saints and idiots, as my department chair and old friend called our line of work. Via ninth grade English, mine was a faineant life in anything that truly mattered, presupposing that anything truly matters. I’d become, or more likely, I discovered I’d always been a tragic, grotesque creature, filled with beautiful memories that only made things sickeningly more difficult.

I closed my eyes and Prufrock echoed in my head, narrated by my mother‘s voice, morphing into Eliot’s, then mine, then mine as a child, at which point I must have begun vocalizing, some kind of guttural sound usually associated with anguish.

Ahhkahh,” I said.

“Mr. Craft.             Mr. Craft.           Mr. Craft.             Mr. Craft.”

“Mike. Hello.   Ahhkahh!”

The slippages were beyond my control, a possession.

“Mr. Craft, you haven’t turned the page since I’ve been here. I’ve been here for a while. Like an hour and a half.”

“I’m reading, Mike. Ahhkahh!”

“Are you okay?”

“I’m thinking of teaching this poem—Ahhkahh—in class next year. I was just going over it.”

“You’re not taking any notes or anything.”

“Mike, you know, you’re observant to a point—Ahhkahh—and honest, but there’s a reason you got B+’s, and not A’s in my class. Ahhkahh!”

“You shouldn’t equate life with grades, Mr. Craft. That’s so like, teacher, like, stupid.”

“Mmm. But you should realize that books can be read—it’s up to the reader to decide! That’s what makes them powerful. Ahhkahh! When you‘ve spent an hour with one page, pouring over the tiny explosions of language, really seeing—Ahhkahh—the… the maelstrom of the human mind, come talk to me!”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Craft. I thought you might be going over the edge. I was concerned. I‘m still a little—”

“Don’t be.”


Ahhkahh! Things of beauty shouldn’t be given up so easily!”

I sent my face plunging onto the table, unconscious. Some of the faculty, when alerted to the situation, thought of driving me to the ER, but they were all far behind schedule in their grading. Essays really do take forever, if you do it right. Chuck Loder told me I was comatose for about an hour and a half, but they were diligent about putting a pocket mirror under my nose every fifteen minutes or so, presumably the time it takes to grade one essay and drink a small Styrofoam cup of Folgers Crystals. The next day I figured I ought to at least check in with my old, senile medicine man.

“There’s no good reason for you to have your pants down right now. Pull them up.”

“The nurse told—”

“Damn the nurse.”

Dr. Trisk, an authentic asshole of the first order, wearing the inscrutable beard of a debilitating hand condition, was my first doctor out of college, so I stayed with him to limit my contact with insurance companies I suppose. It would have come as no surprise to me if he told me I had a few months to live. Instead he just scowled.

“Breathe. No. Breathe.”

He touched me on the abdomen, roughly. I cringed.

“You’re fine. Stop smoking or nobody will care when you die. That’s how it works. I’ve seen it.”

“What if I pass out like that again, out of nowhere?”

“It‘s harmless probably. Anxiety. You seeing any women? Start getting intercourse regularly again and I won’t see you for another six years. You’re going to live to be a hundred if you quit cigarettes. Longevity curse. And better yours than mine, believe me, Craft.”

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Ryan Wilson

Ryan Wilson’s Spiral Bound Brother, won a fellowship for novels in progress from the Vermont Studio Center. He is Stories Editor of The Black Boot (theblackboot.com). Ryan works in counseling and teaches writing at Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles. He wishes to lovingly namecheck his family: Sarah, Chance, Seamus, and Tuva.   To reach Ryan-- ryanewilson5@yahoo.com

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