Taking thoughts captive

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Location: Midwest, United States

Favorite smells: mown hay, turned earth, summer rain, line-dried laundry

29 September 2005

The Exile (a short story)

For a long time, I’ve been on the run.

It started when I got a car. I loved to tool down the road with the windows down and the radio up, my hair and my mind flying while Steppenwolf and I sang “Born to be wild!” into the wind.

The worst thing my parents could do was take away my keys, which they did whenever I didn’t come in early enough to suit them. Eventually I got smart and had a spare set made. I was dating a hot cheerleader from North High in Sioux Falls and I couldn’t imagine calling her to cancel because my parents had taken away my keys. I’d just call her and make it later, wait until my parents were asleep and leave.

Cheri never seemed to have any kind of curfew. We’d meet at the diner on the corner down from her house and have a bite to eat. Cheri’s older brother would usually drive up about the time we finished and he’d sell me a six-pack in the parking lot. Then Cheri and I would drive to some quiet country road where we’d drink and neck. She didn’t care what time I dropped her off. I can still see her tottering up the street under the clouds of bugs swarming beneath the streetlights. I never did see where she lived.

My parents eventually got wise and met me one night when I snuck into the house after coasting into the drive with my lights off.

“Where have you been, young man?” my preacher dad was in my face the minute I shut the door. My mom was crying on the couch.

I guess my breath gave me away and he didn’t buy my story about having to go help a friend whose car had broken down. The conversation kind of deteriorated from there. I don’t remember all of it, but I remember his final words.

“Joseph, we’ve given you plenty of warnings and second chances. You know what we expect from you. If you can’t live by our rules, you can’t live here anymore.”

Well, I packed a bag and I literally left that house running.

I moved in with Cheri’s brother and he got me a job with a friend’s construction crew. There were three other guys living in the apartment, so things were pretty crowded, but there was always plenty of beer and pot—for a price.

My job was over in the fall and I couldn’t find anyone else willing to hire an underage worker. Even though I began easing up on the beer and pot, I was still racking up debt for rent each month.

So I ran.

I drove to Chicago. It was easy to find new friends, but finding work was tougher. I had a series of minimum wage jobs that didn’t begin to pay the rent, let alone for any habits. I sold my car. There were times when I lived on the streets. Sometimes I’d think about my mom’s Sunday dinners and my soft bed in my own room. But I’d remind myself that the Sunday dinners came with the price of Sunday sermons and I couldn’t crash into the soft bed without first running the gamut of my father’s questions.

Every once in a while, the image of my mom crying on that couch would come to mind and I’d feel guilty. I’d been working nights as a hotel clerk for several months and was making decent money, so I decided to call home one Mother’s Day. I went to the pay phone down the corner from the apartment I shared with Sharla, who worked as an exotic dancer in a downtown club.

“Hello, Meulpolder residence.” It was my mother’s voice.

I felt as if a baseball had lodged in my throat.

“Hello?” she said again.



“Joseph? Is this Joseph?”

“Yeah, it’s me.”

“Oh, thank God!” I couldn’t make out the rest of what she was trying to say because she was blubbering so much.

“Mom, Mom,” I tried to make her stop so she could hear me. “Listen, Mom, I just called to tell you ‘Happy Mother’s Day,’”

But her crying faded and I heard someone else’s voice.

“Joseph?” My father had taken over.

“It’s Joe.”

“Thank God you’re alive, Joseph! There hasn’t been a day that you’ve been gone when we haven’t prayed for you.”

“Yeah, well, I’ve kept myself alive,” I said, “no thanks to God or anyone else.”

“We love you, Joseph, and want to see you again.”

“Well, I haven’t been working at my new job that long and I really can’t afford to travel home.”

“Where are you, Joseph? We’ll come to visit you.”

“No, don’t do that!” I could just imagine my mother gingerly stepping over the empty take-out boxes on my studio apartment’s floor to shake hands with a sleep-fogged Sharla, naked under the leopard throw on the air mattress.

“Look, I just wanted to talk to Mom. You know—extend greetings of the day and all that jazz.”

“And she appreciates it!” My father was more enthusiastic than I’d ever heard him. “She’s just a little overwhelmed right now, understandably so after all these years.” I can’t say for sure, but I think my father’s voice trembled.

“How’s Debbie?”

“Deborah’s doing very well,” my father said. “She married David Dorenkamp. You remember David? They used to walk to catechism together on Wednesday evenings.”

“Oh, yeah, I remember Wednesday evening catechism all right.”

“I just want you to know that we love you, Joseph.” My father was speaking in a rush as if afraid I’d hang up on him. “And you know God loves you no matter where you are or what you’ve done. His arms and ours are always open to you, Joseph.”

That’s just like the old man, I thought, equating himself with God.

“Well, I’ve gotta go,” I said. “I’m calling from a pay phone.”

“Please call again or write, Joseph.” My father’s voice was definitely trembling.

“Yeah, maybe.”

“We’re still here at the same place,” Dad rushed on. “We’re not going to move or change our phone number without telling you.”

“Yeah, well, don’t do me any favors. Give my love to Mom,” I said and hung up.

I ran all the way back to the apartment and Sharla’s sleepy embrace.

A few months later some old lady living at the hotel made a pass at me and when I didn’t take her up on it, she concocted some cock and bull story about me to the manager and managed to get me fired. A week later, Sharla left for a fatter sugar daddy.

Without Sharla’s tips, it was tough to meet the rent. The day before it was due, I ran with my friend, Jake, to Minneapolis.

We lived in an apartment with two other guys, who were students at the University of Minnesota. Our apartment wasn’t ghetto, but it was on the edge. It was within walking distance of Dinkytown, tucked on a dead end street between a fire station and a White Castle. I would often startle awake with a thumping heart while fire trucks raced off with their sirens blaring. And on good weeks, I’d treat myself to steamed burgers and onion chips on payday.

I worked down at the St. Anthony Main movie theater. Jake was a waiter at a downtown restaurant and made good tips, especially on weekends. When he enrolled at U of M, I decided I ought to at least get my GED. I didn’t want to be the only ignoramus in the apartment. Once I had my GED, I thought, What the heck? So I began taking classes at U of M, too.

We were all poor working students with barely enough money to pay tuition, buy books, and meet the rent. We never had much money for groceries so we hardly ever bought beer. When we did buy it once to celebrate Jake’s birthday, I found that I didn’t even care for its taste anymore. And I had lost my desire to get high. I was busy with classes and homework, and I worked a lot of hours to pull my weight on the bills.

At Christmas all of the other guys cleared out to spend time with their families. Jake’s parents picked him up about noon the day before Christmas. They were going to spend the holiday with his aunt, down in Owatonna. He asked me about three times to come along, but I politely declined each time. Frankly, I was looking forward to having the whole apartment to myself. I planned to just sit and enjoy the quiet.

I slept until about noon, but woke up enough to say good-bye to Jake and pass on his final invitation. I put one of his blankets on my bed and scooted down to try to get some more sleep. When I couldn’t fall back asleep, I got up and fixed myself a can of clam chowder. It was nice to hear the burner click as it heated up and to watch the bubbles burping in the soup. And it was relaxing to sit in the living room with the Christmas lights strung along the ceiling, eating out of the pan and watching the snow turn the cars along the street into a line of igloos. I turned on the TV, but there wasn’t anything interesting on, so I worked on homework for the afternoon.

I made supper and ate it in front of Christmas specials.

Here it is, Christmas Eve, I thought, and I’m eating ramen and watching Rudolph. I turned off the TV and thought about taking a walk, but the wind had sprung up and I could hear sleet pinging against the window. I didn’t have boots and when I thought about my thin coat, I decided to stay put.
I noticed how the phone on the wall convexly reflected the dim string of lights.

I walked back and forth across the living room, between the pinging window and the silent phone, with my hands in my pockets.

Finally, I picked up the receiver and dialed my parents’ number.

It began to ring. I rehearsed what I would say when my mom answered. If my father answered, I would ask to speak to Helen in my most businesslike voice.

I counted five rings and still no one answered. It wasn’t a big house; anyone could get to the phone by six or seven rings.

I let it ring ten times.

I dug through the books in both bedrooms, looking for something to read, but I could only find textbooks and I was sick of studying. I put on some records and listened to music until I got sleepy enough to go to bed.

I slept late the next morning and thought about going out, but the weather was still nasty. I thought about trying to call my parents again, but I realized that they would be in church most of the morning. And they would have a big meal with some widows from the church over at noon. I decided to wait.

I opened a can of tuna and made myself a sandwich. Then I said, “Merry Christmas,” aloud to myself. And I added, “Ho, ho, ho.”

There was nothing interesting on TV today either. About 1:30, I decided to give the phone call another try. This time I counted three rings before someone answered.

“Merry Christmas! This is the Muelpolder’s.” I heard singing in the background. I had forgotten that my mother played the piano and whoever came for Christmas dinner gathered around to sing Christmas carols after the meal.

“Hello?” The voice said. I didn’t recognize it. It sounded a lot like my mother, but she must be the one playing the piano.

“Hello,” I finally said. “Is Helen there?”

“Yes, she is,” said the voice that was so much like my mother’s. “May I tell her who’s calling?”

“This is Joe.”

“Joe! Oh, my goodness! This is Deb. How are you, Joe?”

“Debbie? You sound all grown up.”

“I am all grown up, Joe!” She laughed. “I’m married, Joe, to David Dorenkamp, and we’re going to have a baby next spring. Mom! Dad! It’s Joe!”

The music stopped and I could hear excited voices.

“Joe! How are you?” I knew my mother’s voice.

“I’m fine, Mom. Merry Christmas!”

“Oh, Joe! This is the best Christmas gift I’ve ever had! It’s so good to hear your voice! Are you really all right?”

“Yes, Mom. I’m really all right. I’m working and I’m going to school.”

“Really? That’s wonderful, Joe!”

“Yeah, I got my GED and I’m taking college classes.”

“That’s great, Joe! I’m glad you’re going to college. Where are you working?”

“Just at a movie theater,” I said apologetically, “but that way I can work in the evenings and go to school during the day.”

“Are you getting enough to eat?”

“Yeah, I eat enough, I guess, but I’m sure not getting fat.”

“Are you eating meat every day?”

Meat? I thought, meat like the t-bone steaks and roast chicken you used to fix?

“Most days,” I hedged, thinking about bits of clam and beef flavoring packets.

“Try to get some fruits and vegetables, too,” she said. “Are you staying warm?”

“Yep, I’m in a nice warm apartment, listening to the wind howl outside.”

“I’m so glad you’re warm and safe, Joe.” She sounded as if she were about to cry. “I love you so much, Joe, and I pray for you every day and every night. When I wake up in the middle of the night, I pray for you until I finally fall back asleep.”

“Uh, thanks.”

“Your father wants to talk to you,” and she handed off the phone before I could say anything.

“Merry Christmas, Joseph!” My father’s voice boomed in my ear.

“Merry Christmas to you, too.”

“I’m glad to hear that you’re well; that you’re working and going to college. We’d love to see you. Where are you?”

“In the snowy Midwest,” I said, “just like you. How’s the weather there?”

“We had some sleet during the night,” my father said, “but the sun is peeking out now. Is there anything we can do for you, son?”

“No, I’m fine, really. I just wanted to wish you all a Merry Christmas.”

“It is a very Merry Christmas for us, Joseph. It’s wonderful to hear your voice. The only way it could be any better would be if we could see you.”

“Well, maybe I’ll visit some time.”

“That would be great!”

“Maybe after I get through school.”

“Or we could visit you…”

“No, that won’t work so well. I’m living with three other guys so there’s really no room for visitors.”

“We could stay at a motel and take you out to dinner or something.”

“Maybe sometime.”

“Whenever you’re ready, son. Just let us know. We love you very much.” I could hear him swallowing. “I’m sorry, Joseph. I’m sorry for so many of the things I said to you when you were a teenager.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I’d never heard my father say he was sorry to anyone. He’d always thought of himself as perfection personified.

“Yeah, well, I’m sure I said some things I shouldn’t have, too.”

“You know, Joseph, you’re God’s child more than mine,” my father continued. “When you were baptized, we promised to raise you in the Lord. And God made a promise, too. He promised that you would be His child, but you have a responsibility to live up to that promise.”

“Hey, no one asked my opinion at the time.” Only my father could turn an apology into a sermon.

“Look, I gotta go,” I said. “I need to do some homework. Bye.”

I heard my father say, “We love you!” as I hung up.

After that, I couldn’t stop thinking about my family. I wondered when Debbie’s baby was due. I wondered where she and Dave lived. I couldn’t imagine my little sister as a pregnant wife. When the weather started to get warm, I wondered if my mom was beginning to work in her garden. When I woke up early to do homework while the apartment was quiet and watched the sunlight bless the tips of the budding trees outside the window, I wondered if my father in his t-shirt and sweat pants was gently closing the screen door as he left for his early morning walk.

My roommates had plans to clear out during spring break, and I felt more restless than ever. I got another guy to cover for me at the theater, but I declined Jake’s invitation to go home with him. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I knew that I didn’t want to spend spring break with someone else’s family. And I didn’t want to waste money getting stoned on a beach somewhere like a bunch of other college kids. But I sure didn’t want to spend spring break by myself in the empty apartment. I had saved up some money and I began looking at bus routes. It wouldn’t cost that much to take the bus into Iowa; I could even get a connection into LeMars.

I dialed my parents’ number. My dad answered.

“Hey, it’s Joe.”

“Joe! How are you? I had a feeling that we’d be hearing from you soon. Dave and Deb had their baby last week!”

“No kidding? What’d they have?”

“A little boy.”

“Really? What did they name him?”

There was a pause at the other end of the line.

“Daniel Joseph.”

“Daniel Joseph? Did you say Joseph?”

“Yes, Joe. They named him after you. I’m baptizing him next Sunday morning.”

“Does church still start at 9:30, Dad?”

“Yes, son, same as always.”

“I’ll be there,” I said and hung up.

I was tired of running.


Blogger sally apokedak said...

Very nice story, Glenda. you gave some great bits of detail in your descriptions that put me right there with Joe. Nice job.


9/29/05, 1:24 PM  
Blogger Elaina Avalos said...

Loved your story. It made me cry and think of my brother.

Thanks for that!

9/29/05, 2:21 PM  
Blogger Angie Poole said...


Many of us can relate to your story. It's easy to fill in our mistakes for his.

Good job.

9/30/05, 8:58 PM  
Blogger The Curmudgeon's Rant said...


I loved your first person voice! I felt his rebellion and the emptiness it brought him. I loved it! Very cool!


10/3/05, 3:42 PM  
Anonymous Doug B said...

Well-done, Glenda. I knew you were a writer -- but there are writers, and there are *story-tellers*. You have been blessed with both gifts in abundance.

Thank you for sharing your gifts.


10/4/05, 10:08 AM  
Blogger Gina Burgess said...

I loved this story. It reminds me of my daughter.

10/6/05, 12:36 PM  

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