The question is not what am I to believe,
but what am I to do?
In order to tell you what really happened, what you don't know, what the journalists didn't report, I have to start at Mother's annual Christmas Eve party. Two nights before, as if the universe were the coproducer of her big show, a snowstorm whitewashed our little corner of Connecticut. Mother was thrilled. Electric candles in the windows, wreaths on the doors, picturesque drifts of snow snuggled up against the houseeverything was "just wonderful," as her friends would say. Spirits would soar, or at least appear to. That was Mothersurvival of the cheeriestand everyone was ready to suck down her holiday cure-all. We were about to welcome more than a hundred and fifty guests into our home and ignore the fact that although the invitations had been mailed out in late October with my father's name next to hers in embossed script, Old Donovan was in Europe, where he'd spent most of the year and where he now planned to stay for good.
I'd never been allowed to go in Old Donovan's office, but precisely because he was no longer home, I'd recently made it mine, lurking among his books and curios from around the world, hoping to find some wisdom to fill this awful emptiness widening inside me. If not for the party, I'd have sat in the office all night reading Frankenstein for Mr. Weinstein's class, but there was the party and Mother was upstairs getting ready, so I said fuck it. If I was going to survive it, I needed a jump start.
I locked the door to the office and sat in the swivel chair behind his desk. Nothing but the necklaces of white lights hanging on the bushes outside the windows lit up the room. I sat in the semidarkness for a while, listening to the caterers scurry around elsewhere in the house, and then I turned on the small reading lamp, only to see what I was about to do. The day calendar hadn't been adjusted in weeks, and I left it that way as I dragged it across the desk pad and flipped it facedown. The metal surface glinted in the lamplight. I shook out a couple of pills of Adderall and placed them on the back of the calendar. Using one of Old Donovan's heavy pens, I ground them down, divided the pile into smaller piles, took the pen apart, and snorted a line up the empty tube.
A scattershot of thoughts and memories exploded in my mind, and I imagined an apparition of Old Donovan nosing out of the darknesshis pale, bald head; two eyes fixed in a scrutinizing glare. He leaned toward me and grumbled one of his usual disquisitions. Boy, you can be one of two people: someone who makes reality for others or someone who has reality made for him. Old Donovan was a man I read about in the paper, one of those men who gathered in Davos, Beijing, or Mumbai and shook hands in a way that affected the world economy. Think globally, act locally, I wanted to tell him, but he was never home to work on the local part. Besides, when did I ever tell him anythingwhen did he ask?
I banged another rail. The ghostly Old Donovan dropped into the armchair, and a memory materialized in the room. He was reading an issue of Barron's. His socks were stuffed into his shoes on the floor nearby, and his bare feet rested on the ottoman. They looked like translucent, white raisins, shriveled up and drying out in front of the fireplace. He sweated, and he scratched at the crown of stubble above his ears. On the table beside him, a pile of newspapers lay folded and stacked beneath a small ashtray with crushed stubs rising from the mound like tombstones. A glass rested on the wide arm of the chair. There was plenty left in it, but he pressed his big nose against the rim and drained it anyway. The usual gluey strand remained lodged in his throat however, and he tried to clear it. Boy, you'll be lucky if you're a goddamn footnote in history. Most people live inconsequential and meaningless lives. I'm trying to help you.
Excerpted from The Gospel of Winter by Brendan Kiely. Copyright © 2014 by Brendan Kiely. Excerpted by permission of Margaret K. McElderry Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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