Monday, March 30, 2020

Dragons - Chapter 33 (DRAFT)

We were there for another hour, Bethany and me, stuffing tickets and ribbons into envelopes with the rest of the junior staff members. We got some surprised looks when we first came over and asked how we could help, none of them likely suspecting that we’d ever do anything so far beneath our station. And I have to admit it felt odd, running counter as it did to Mary’s rigid hierarchy of tasks and the people meant to perform them. But at the same time it felt right, as if, by sharing their work, we were communicating something more clearly than words ever could, something much more meaningful than Gerald’s suggested gesture of letting them knock off early.

“What?” Caroline said when I first approached her. “You want what?”

“A stack of tickets,” I said. “Or ribbons. Whatever needs to be done.”

She looked at me blankly for several seconds, as if I was speaking a foreign language.

Bethany stepped forward and gently took a piece of paper out of her hand. “What’s this?” she asked, looking down at it. “The list of people that need VIP ribbons? Where are those?”

Caroline continued to stare at us silently, her eyes flitting between me and Bethany as if a single wrong word would plunge her into the abyss.

I took a stack of gold ribbons out of Caroline’s other hand, her warm fingers yielding and releasing them to my care without question. “These are them,” I said to Bethany, then, “we’ll finish with these,” to Caroline. “Go start on something else.”

She stood motionless, as if waiting for the miracle that had fallen out of the sky to sweep her off to the great beyond.

“Go on,” I said gently, the way you might talk to a child trying to ride a bike for the first time. “You can do it.”

Bethany and I worked side by side with the junior staff until the work was done and we could legitimately call it quits without anything extraordinary waiting for us in the morning. I felt strangely happy, picking my way through the envelopes and stuffing little ribbons and slips of paper inside, satisfied with the simple mechanics of the task and the way progress could be easily and objectively measured. To help keep my mind occupied I began to cogitate on some of the names I saw—some of them familiar and some of them not—members of the organization we served, thousands of them lined up in neat alphabetical order. They were from all over the world, dozens of nationalities equalized in large manila envelopes, their names printed on white labels in the upper right-hand corner.

Bethany was working next to me and at one point I elbowed her in the ribs.

“Look,” I said quietly, holding one of the envelopes so she could see the label. “Anastasia Amarosa. It’s kind of musical isn’t it?”

“Mmm mmm,” she said in assent. “I know her. She serves on one of our grant review committees. She’s nice.”

“What about this one?” I said, pulling out an envelope I had seen a few minutes ago. “Mert Aassen. Do you know him?”


“That’s not musical at all. Mert Aassen. That sounds like something you need to cook really well before you eat it.”

Bethany laughed, doing the best she could to hide it behind her hand.

“What about this one?”

I looked up. One of the junior staff farther on down the row had spoken. His name was Jeff Hatchler. He worked for Angie, I think. A couple of other staff looked horrified, aghast probably that he had dared intrude on a private conversation between two of the bosses, but Jeff was smiling in his gap-toothed way, like we were all in this together.

He held up an envelope. Knowing he was too far away for anyone to read the label, he spoke as if announcing someone at court.

“Surender Viswani. Isn’t that what the Wicked Witch of the West wrote in the sky over Emerald City?”

There was some stifled laughter among the group, more nervous than genuine.

I reacted instinctively. “That’s nothing,” I said, moving down the row and clawing for an envelope I had seen while stuffing committee chair ribbons. When I found it, I held it up just as Jeff had done.

“I think this is the new Wookie ambassador in the Imperial Senate—Karnen Baratawidjaja.”

The laughter was more genuine now.

But Jeff was not the kind of guy to be outdone. I could see it in his eyes, a relentless mirth that itched to infect everything he did, including something as soul-sucking as stuffing reg packets in the air-conditioned concourse of a Miami Beach hotel.

“This one needs no introduction,” he said, as he held up yet another envelope. “Bengt Weeke.”

“Bent Weekie?” I said, before he could tack on his own joke. “That reminds me of something that happened on my honeymoon.”

The laughter was slow in coming on that one, but my delivery was ribald, and as my meaning became clear the snorts and guffaws that followed were no longer polite, but deep and heartfelt. They were all laughing, I saw, or smiling at least; Caroline also staring at me with disbelieving eyes. It certainly wasn’t the kind of crack a supervisor should make, I realized retrospectively, but it was out and no one seemed offended by it. Besides, after the day I’d had, I didn’t much care.

“I always knew there was something crooked about you,” Jeff said good-naturedly, as if we were partners in a vaudeville act.

+ + +

“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Image Source

Monday, March 23, 2020

Sachiko by Caren Stelson

In many ways, this a remarkable book. It certainly tells a remarkable story.

August 9, 1945, began like any other day for six-year-old Sachiko. Her country was at war, she didn’t have enough to eat. At 11:01 a.m., she was playing outdoors with four other children. Moments later, those children were all dead. An atomic bomb had exploded just half a mile away.

In the days and months that followed, Sachiko lost family members, her hair fell out, she woke screaming in the night. When she was finally well enough to start school, other children bullied her. Through it all, she sought to understand what had happened, finding strength in the writings of Helen Keller, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr.

Based on extensive interviews with Sachiko Yasui, Caren Stelson shares the true story of a young girl who survived the atomic bomb and chronicles her long journey to find peace. Sachiko’s story offers readers a remarkable new perspective on the final moments of World War II -- and their aftermath.

That’s from the front flap of the book jacket. And it’s a faithful description of the book I read. One of the things I found remarkable was how prescient those last few words were. Sachiko’s story offers readers a remarkable new perspective on the final moments of World War II -- and their aftermath.

Let’s begin here.

Sachiko’s brother Ichiro, and eventually Sachiko, Misa [her baby sister], Mother, Father, and Uncle, suffered from radiation sickness, which few at the time understood. People who were exposed to the radiation often showed few or no signs of illness at first. The symptoms came in stages. Thirst, weakness, nausea, fever, diarrhea, and vomiting were the first signs of radiation sickness. Three to six weeks later, more symptoms appeared: hair loss; bleeding gums; listlessness; and a prolonged, elevated fever of 104℉. Purple spots dotted the skin, indicating internal bleeding. Painful sores in the mouth and throat were also common, making swallowing difficult. Infections often set in, further weakening a person’s condition and leading to delirium and death -- or to a long, painful recovery.

Awful. But here’s the remarkable part.

The scientists who had developed the atomic bomb were unaware of the effects of full-body radiation exposure. They had not conducted any tests on the potential impact of radiation on humans. Nor had the US military tried to develop medical treatment for radiation exposure before the bombs were dropped. Doctors offered what treatments they could. Radiation sickness would continue to perplex doctors in the months and years to come.

They were unaware of the effects of full-body radiation exposure.

One thing I enjoyed about Stelson’s writing was how sparse and economical it is. She is dealing with a very difficult and painful subject, and my sense is that she labored over each and every word of her often short and descriptive sentences. She not only wants to get it right, she wants every word she uses to count.

And in that context, the idea that the scientists -- not the bureaucrats or the elected officials, but the scientists -- were unaware of the effects the bomb would have on the population that survived its dropping is as jaw-dropping as it must be true.

But, of course, it wasn’t just the scientists who were ignorant.

Every day after school, Sachiko ran home, crying. She could not find the words to tell Mother about the teasing -- the bullying -- how much it hurt to be picked on for things that could not be helped. How could she explain her dizziness? Her inability to stand during the morning assemblies. Her lack of concentration. Her loneliness. Her envy of other children’s laughter. She had no words to describe her anguish.

Besides, Mother had her own struggles.

So did Father.

And Misa.

“Why can’t you understand anything?” Sachiko’s teacher tapped her fingers on her desk. “Tell me, why?” Even the teacher couldn’t make sense of Sachiko’s behavior.

In truth, how could the teacher understand what Sachiko had been through? Under US occupation, the government strictly enforced censorship. No word was to seep out about the sickening and often deadly effects of radiation on the human body. Censorship agents carefully reviewed newspapers, magazines, movies, books, and scientific studies. Any criticism of, information about, or photos of the use and impact of the atomic bomb were deleted or blackened out. Even the Japanese characters for genshi bakudan, “atomic bomb,” could not be printed.

And there was more than just a media blackout. Note Stelson’s use of the term “scientific studies” in her list of items that were subject to censorship. Prior to the dropping of the bomb, scientists were unaware of the effects of full-body radiation exposure. After the bomb was dropped, they stopped being unaware. Indeed, they seemed to make a careful study of it.

In 1946 President Truman ordered the establishment of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC). The goal of the commission was for American doctors to go to Japan to observe and track the lifelong effects of radiation on atomic bomb survivors. Along with Japanese physicians, the American doctors examined survivors, asked questions about their atomic bomb experiences, calculated the distance they were from the hypocenter, and charted medical observations.

Over the years, ABCC doctors documented the thick, itchy, and painful keloids that had healed over the thermal burns of the hibakusha [survivors of the bombing]. They observed cataracts in damaged eyes and noted birth defects in the children born in the months after the bombing. And they diagnosed cancers: skin cancer, lung cancer, stomach cancer, breast cancer, liver cancer, thyroid cancer, and leukemia.

But there’s of course one painful twist. None of this information was to be made public.

Under ABCC rules, American physicians were not permitted to share their growing database of clinical knowledge with Japanese physicians nor were ABCC doctors allowed to treat their patients’ illnesses. They were there simply to collect information. Hibakusha felt deep distrust of American ABCC doctors. With no offers of medical treatment, many hibakusha felt the ABCC had reduced them to numbers on a chart rather than people in need of help.

What I find remarkable about all this is not what some might construe as malice or arrogance. There may indeed be some malice or arrogance in the minds of those who pushed and approved the use of atomic weapons in World War II. But, if so, that is only one facet of a multifaceted phenomenon, and it should not be viewed in isolation of the other facets.

No, what I find remarkable is the fact that something of such phenomenal and inscrutable power was used at all. That something with such far-reaching effects, even though those effects were evidently unknown at the time of use, should have been used at all. Was the power of the bomb so far beyond human understanding that no words of caution could have been expressed that would have curtailed its use until it was better understood?

It makes me wonder how little we know about other forces we unleash on the world today, and how, like those scientists, bureaucrats, and elected officials in 1945, we may unwittingly be causing far-reaching effects because we can only view what we do today through the paradigm of the past. The atomic bomb was, after all, called a bomb, as if it had anything in common with the ordinance that had been dropped out of airplanes since those aerial vehicles had been invented.

+ + +

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, March 16, 2020

Dragons - Chapter 32 (DRAFT)

After hanging up I realized that my original reason for calling—to get advice on the kind of puzzle book to get for Jacob—had gone unanswered. I thought about calling back, but saw how late it was getting, and decided instead to get myself over to the registration desk. I left the bookstore without picking something up for my son.

The walk back to our conference hotel was a short one, the warm night air mixing pleasantly with a cool sea breeze and making me think of places I’d rather be. When I got to the hotel I marched right through the marble-pillared lobby and up a wide staircase, an immense sea mural of playful dolphins and ethereal jellyfish wrapping around the curving wall to my left, and into the hotel’s dedicated convention space. Two ballrooms, fifteen breakout rooms, a grand concourse for receptions overlooking the ocean, and two dedicated registration desks—everything decorated with the same seashell-shaped wall sconces, pearl-drop and oyster-shell chandeliers, and acres of teal and peach convention carpet, repeating the same interlocking design of starfish and coral to infinity. A group of our staff people were clustered in one of the registration spaces, their fingers combing through thousands of registration envelopes, alphabetized in a long buffet line of much-abused copy paper boxes. Standing off to one side, speaking softly to each other, like prison bosses worried about trouble on the chain gang, were Gerald and Bethany.

“How goes it here?” I asked, nodding a hello to each of them.

“Well, we’re getting there,” Bethany said, smiling like I had brought her an award for maintaining a positive attitude in the face of adversity. “It was a little dicey there for a while, but things are getting put straight now.”

“What?” I asked. “What happened?”

“The freight was late,” Gerald said. “The hotel had everything set for us this morning, but the boxes we shipped from the office weren’t here.”

I looked at the long line of cardboard boxes, dirty and battered from their long trip across the country. “When did they arrive?”

Gerald looked at his watch. “A little over two hours ago.”

“What?!” I cried, looking at my own watch. It was twenty minutes to nine. “What time did everyone get here this morning?”

“A little after eight,” Gerald said. He was smiling, too, but not in the way Bethany was. Bethany looked satisfied, as if pleased for finally getting a chaotic situation under control. But Gerald looked sardonically amused, like a professional auditor, whose job was to find the errors but not fix any of them.

I did the math in my head. “What did everyone do for ten hours?”

Gerald shrugged. “We drank a lot of coffee and took turns going to the can.”

“It wasn’t so bad,” Bethany said quickly, obviously trying to soften the blow. “The computers were working, so we were able to make most of the changes and print all the corrected tickets. We’re just putting them all in the right packets now.”

I looked back at the row of people hunched over the row of boxes. They were all junior staff—Caroline Abernathy and people like her—and they were all combing through the misshapen envelopes into which we had stuffed each attendee’s name badge, ribbons, and session tickets. It was a system designed with the convenience of the attendee in mind. Stroll up to the registration desk, give us your name, and we’ll hand you a catalog-sized envelope with everything you need for the conference inside. It kept lines at the on-site registration desk to a minimum, but it required weeks worth of effort back in the office, weeks when hundreds if not thousands of changes to the registration records were coming in. Given the lead time necessary to create the envelopes—or “reg packets,” as we called them—there was never a time when we could just print the materials, stuff the envelopes, and be done with them. No, for the last few weeks before the conference we were running daily batches of corrected tickets and badges, and constantly going into the packets, loosely alphabetized in discarded copy paper boxes on long tables set up in our multi-purpose room, to remove old materials and insert new ones. The junior staff assigned to such thankless work usually developed a condition we called “packet finger,” nails and cuticles torn and sometimes bloodied by brushing repetitively by all the envelope flaps. Indeed, nearly every staff person now working feverishly to stuff the last remaining items before tomorrow’s grand opening had band-aids on at least one of their fingertips.

“Has anybody eaten anything?” I asked, trying not to calculate all the wasted staff hours.

“We had the hotel bring down some lunch around one o’clock,” Gerald said. “But no one’s had dinner yet.”

“Should we go get some?” I asked quietly, remembering Mary’s lie to Eleanor about me taking the staff out for a celebratory dinner. I knew such a thing would never fly, that unless I took everybody to Burger King I could never get away with expensing such an extravagance. But it felt like I should do something.

“I think everybody here would just prefer to finish the job,” Bethany said. “I heard Caroline and a few of the others talking about going out afterwards, but I think most will want to get a quiet bite and then go to sleep. Tomorrow’s going to be a big day.”

Going out meant going to the bars and clubs—probably a foolish thing to do on the night before the start of the convention, but I kept my mouth shut. I looked over at Caroline and her eyes flipped up momentarily, her fingers still walking through the ‘H’s below. Our eyes met briefly and she gave me a look I could only describe as equal parts apprehension and mistrust. I tried to silently reassure her, but she turned back down to her bandaged fingers.

“This is seriously fucked up, Alan.”

It was Gerald. He wasn’t angry, but his tone sought to make a point.

“I know,” I said, not taking my eyes off Caroline and remembering the way Don had humiliated her and made her cry.

“There are better ways to do this,” he went on, speaking softly but insistently. “There are vendors that handle this kind of thing—registration for large conferences. Making our people do this is a waste of their talent and the client’s money.”

“I know,” I said again. He was right. This was stupid. Anyone standing here could see that. I had just arrived, but Gerald had been watching the madness for ten hours.

“Are you going to do something about it?”

It was a good question. I knew something certainly should be done about it, but I didn’t know what. I had talked to Mary about it before, and it seemed like this was the way she wanted things. A vendor couldn’t be trusted to get everything right. For some members this was the one interaction they had with staff all year. It was an essential part of the client service pledge we have made to the organization. Sitting in her palatial office surrounded by her stolen treasures these bogus reasons were persuasive, delivered, as they were, by all the force of her authority and with the veneer of character. They were obvious, incontrovertible, the very foundation of the business model that drove our success. But standing there looking at the human misery they caused, those reasons were empty, baseless, and cruel.

I didn’t immediately understand it—this incongruity of thought that manifested with changes in time and place—and wondered naively how I could explain it to Gerald when I couldn’t even explain it to myself. Too bad I hadn’t yet learned the simple rule that a boss was under no obligation to answer every question asked of him.

“I don’t know if I can.”

It was the truth, but sometimes the truth should keep its damn mouth shut. Gerald looked at me dismissively, his eyebrows lifting and his nose turning down so he could peer at me over the top of his designer eyewear.

“I see,” he said with a tone of profound disappointment, as if I had just failed some colossal test.

“What would you have me do, Gerald? You know where Mary stands on this.”

“Maybe you should bring her down here? Let her see for herself how ridiculous this all is.”

“She’ll be here tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow will be too late,” he said bitterly. “By tomorrow everything she sees will convince her she is right.”

“Then what should I do?”

Gerald stood silently for a moment, an idea clearly creasing the corners of his eyes, but his lips wrestling with some unwillingness to share it.

“Tell them to stop,” he said eventually.


“Tell them to stop. Let’s call it a night. Whatever still needs doing they can finish in the morning.”

I traded a look with Bethany, wanting confirmation that I had heard Gerald correctly and her assessment of how feasible such a suggestion was. Her doubtful look told me everything I needed to know.

“How much is there left to do?” I asked.

“Does it matter?” Gerald snapped.

“Of course it matters. If they’re almost done, they might as well finish.”

“They’re not almost done,” Gerald said quickly, as if he was making it up on the spot. “There are hours of work left to do. They could work all night and they wouldn’t finish it.”

I looked at Bethany again for the same kind of confirmation, and she gave me the same doubtful look.

“Does that change anything, Alan?” Gerald said. “Come on, call it a night. They’ve worked long enough.”

At the time I didn’t know what Gerald was trying to do. The nearest I could figure, he was worried about staff morale, that he thought working people all night long on such a menial task degraded them, and that maybe they would work better and harder in the morning if we showed them a little bit of our humanity tonight. But if so, then Gerald was clearly overplaying his hand, pretending there was an impossible amount of work left for them to do. Even I could see that there wasn’t, and at my side was Bethany, wordlessly and dutifully reinforcing my perspective. Muscling on through and getting it done seemed like the wiser course of action.

It was another rookie mistake. By that time I should have known not to take people like Gerald at their word.

“They’re almost finished,” I said. “Let’s pitch in and help them get it done.”

“Oh, Jesus Christ!” Gerald said, throwing up his hands. “You do whatever you want. I’m out of here.”

He stormed away, making a huff loud enough for all the junior staff to hear. I looked over and saw a few brave heads peek up, but most of them kept their noses down in their work.

“What’s up his ass?” I asked Bethany under my breath.

She shook her head. “He’s been grumpy all day.”

“Well, whatever,” I said, dismissing Gerald from my mind. It had been a long day, and I figured I could give him till the morning to apologize. “Let’s go help them finish.”

“Okay, boss.”

+ + +

“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Image Source

Monday, March 9, 2020

Black House by Stephen King and Peter Straub

I don’t remember much about this one. No dogeared pages and nothing scribbled in any of the margins -- so I guess I didn’t find much either remarkable or objectionable.

I do remember trying to figure out which parts were written by Stephen King and which parts were written by Peter Straub. And although I’ve read plenty of King, I don’t think I’ve read any other Straub; so eventually, I think I gave up the quest. Whatever didn’t seem King-like, was probably Straubian.

But what parts didn’t feel King-like? Well, the opening two paragraphs, for one.

Right here and now, as an old friend used to say, we are in the fluid present, where clear-sightedness never guarantees perfect vision. Here: about two hundred feet, the height of a gliding eagle, above Wisconsin’s far western edge, where the vagaries of the Mississippi River declare a natural border. Now: an early Friday morning in mid-July a few years into both a new century and a new millennium, their wayward courses so hidden that a blind man had a better chance of seeing what lies ahead than you or I. Right here and now, the hour is just past six A.M., and the sun stands low in the cloudless eastern sky, a fat, confident yellow-white ball advancing as ever for the first time toward the future and leaving in its wake the steadily accumulating past, which darkness as it recedes, making blind men of us all.

Below, the early sun touches the river’s wide, soft ripples with molten highlights. Sunlight glints from the tracks of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad running between the riverbank and the backs of the shabby two-story houses along County Road Oo, known as Nailhouse Row, the lowest point of the comfortable-looking little town extending uphill and eastward beneath us. At this moment in the Coulee County, life seems to be holding its breath. The motionless air around us carries such remarkable purity and sweetness that you might imagine a man could smell a radish pulled out of the ground a mile away.

That ain’t any kind of Stephen King I ever read. Ayuh.

+ + +

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, March 2, 2020

Dragons - Chapter 31 (DRAFT)

Five minutes later I was leaving the hotel and turning back onto the main drag. All the talk about dinner had reminded me of how hungry I was, so I looked up and down the street to see if there were any nearby options. The burger joint or taco place I saw—their lighted signs glowing brightly in the warm night air—was all I probably had time for, but something else caught my eye. It was a bookstore; one of those national chains with a coffee shop and lots of comfy chairs inside. It seemed out of place among the surf and souvenir shops, and maybe that’s why it struck me. It made me think of the one back home at the neighborhood mall. I took Jacob there sometimes. It had an extensive children’s section on the second floor, and a wooden train table for the kids to play with while their parents picked out books they felt were age-appropriate and supportive of whatever brand of spiritual or ethical beliefs they ascribed to.

The thoughts occurred to me in a chain, one linked to the next like the magnetic couplings between the wooden train cars I knew I’d find inside. I had to bring something home for Jacob, and instead of sifting through mountains of plastic junk at the souvenir shops, I could get him a book—maybe something like the picture search book we had looked at the night before I left, or something filled with other kinds of puzzles. It was such a compelling idea that I forgot momentarily about the burrito dinner calling my name, as well as the supervisory chore at the conference registration desk that wasn’t. I turned and starting walking towards the bookstore with happy thoughts of Jacob and I working together on puzzles dancing in my head.

Inside the aroma of sand and surf gave way to coffee beans and bindery glue, a familiar scent that seemed to transport me, as if the sliding glass doors were a magical portal capable of transcending time and space. The decor was identical to the store back home, identical, I knew, to hundreds of other stores across the United States. Caricatures of famous authors were framed on the walls—mostly nineteenth and early twentieth century, names everyone knows but no one reads—looking down on a labyrinth of wooden tables and laminate shelves, each with a tasteful sign bearing some generic category of books—subjects like history, fiction and poetry squared off against weight loss, sports and gardening, as if it was reasonable to put such topics on equal footing. It was filled with quiet people, shuffling between the rows and stealing a few paragraphs out of random tomes they had pulled off the shelves. In our modern world I suppose it was what passed for a temple, a cookie-cutter one, dedicated not to the sum of human knowledge but to the information people will pay $8.95 a title for, and only then if it’s on sale.

The children’s section was identical to the one I took Jacob to—the train table surrounded by the same display of wooden toys, and the books organized both by subject and by age. I found the shelf stuffed with puzzle books and was overwhelmed by their sheer number. There were picture search books like Jacob’s on every subject imaginable, and hundreds of other options, from sticker books and coloring books to word searches and crossword puzzles.

It was bewildering. Maybe it was the drinks I had poured on my empty stomach, or the disorientation that always came with travel and lack of sleep, but I just couldn’t decide what to get. I wanted something challenging, something Jacob and I could do together, but not too challenging, something he wouldn’t shrink from, something that would nurture that inner genius I so desperately wanted him to reveal. Pulling out my cell phone, I decided to call back home and see what Jenny thought. The phone rang six times before it picked up.

“Yes? Hello? Who is it?” Jenny sounded breathless, as if she had run for the phone.


“Yes?” she said into the phone, and then, with her mouth away from the receiver, she barked at someone like a drill sergeant. “Put it down, mister! Right now!”


“Yes! Who is it?”

“It’s me, Alan. What’s going on?”

“Alan! It’s your goddamn son. He’s driving me out of my mind.”

“What is he—”

“Jacob! No! Oh my god!”

Then the phone must have fallen out of her hand because I heard the shuffling of fabric against the ear piece and a loud thump as it hit the floor. Jenny’s frantic shouting and Jacob’s screaming echoed in my ear as if from a great distance.

“Jenny!” I called into the phone, knowing she had left and couldn’t hear, but needing to say something all the same. Looking around to assess what kind of scene I would create if I started shouting, I lowered my voice only slightly. “Jenny, what the hell is going on?”

No response. I waited, the phone pressed hotly against my ear and a finger stuck in the opposite organ, straining hard to pick up every auditory clue. I was angry, viscerally so, but held it in check out of courtesy for the bookstore patrons surrounding me. Jenny’s final intelligible comment—oh my god—seemed to fill my world. It had been desperate, as if something not just frustrating but tragic had happened. My thoughts ran wild. Jacob was hurt, he had cut himself and was bleeding all over the floor. Or he had found some matches and had set the house on fire. Or he had hurt Jenny or the baby in some way, striking out in blind fury and hitting her in some tender spot. I couldn’t tell. The thumps, shrieks and footfalls I heard weren’t enough to piece anything together, and here I was, two thousand miles away in a bookstore in Miami Beach.

What the fuck am I doing here? I thought absently, staring blankly at the puzzle books arrayed before me. Entertaining a pack of influentials while my real life was destroying itself back home. And for what? A paycheck? A career? A chance to do something important? Did any of that stuff even matter?

It was a long and frustrating wait for Jenny to come back on the line. I almost hung up twice, figuring she could call me back when the crisis had passed, but both times decided not to, afraid I would involuntarily hurl the phone against the wall. Instead, I closed my eyes and started counting the slow and measured breaths I forced myself to take.

“Alan? Are you still there?”

“Yes,” I said, with renewed calmness. “What happened?”

“It’s Jacob.”

“I know it’s Jacob.” I was a stone. At the bottom of a forgotten well. “What’s he done?”

“He’s wild, Alan. He’s out of control. He doesn’t listen to me when you’re not here.”

“Jenny,” I said measuredly. “What just happened? You dropped the phone and said, ‘oh my god.’ Is Jacob all right?”

“You need to talk to him, Alan. You need to make him listen to me.”

It was like she wasn’t even hearing me, like I was just the buzzing of an annoying insect in her ear. Every time I said something, she just spoke more loudly.

“Put him on.”

“He’s always like this when you travel. Something happens to him when you leave. It’s like he turns into a monster.”

“Okay. Let me talk to him.”

“Christ, he makes me so angry! It’s like he’s looking to cause trouble. He won’t do anything I tell him to do.”

“Jenny! Put him on and let me talk to him.”

“Here, just a minute.” And then with the phone away from her mouth, “Jacob! Come here and talk to your father!”

“No!” I heard Jacob say, as if curled up in the corner, a voice like the yip of a wild dog, raised on the streets and alleyways, subservient to nothing but its own need for dominance.

“You get over here right now, young man. You need to talk to your father.”

“I don’t want to!”

“I don’t care what you want, mister! You’re going to talk to him.”

Then I heard Jenny’s heavy tread across the room and when Jacob began to scream, I imagined her grabbing him by the arm and twisting it.

“Take this phone, Jacob! Take this phone and talk to him!”

“Jenny,” I said, a sickness creeping into my stomach. “Forget it, honey. I’ll call back later when he’s calmed down.”

She couldn’t hear me. The phone wasn’t even next to her ear. The way Jacob’s cries suddenly amplified, she must have been pushing the receiver against his face.

“Jenny,” I said helplessly, wanting to shout but knowing it wouldn’t do any good. Nothing I could do from that distance would have any positive effect. “Jenny, it’s all right.”

“Talk to him, goddammit! Or so help me, I’m throwing all your trains in the garbage!”

That must have got Jacob’s attention. Threatening his treasured possessions usually did.

“Hello, Daddy,” he said feebly, as if defeated.

“Hi, buddy,” I said as pleasantly as I could. “What’s going on?”


“Why is Mommy upset?”


“Why is Mommy upset?” I repeated, more loudly.

“I don’t know.”

“Did you do something to make her angry?”


“I said, did you do something to make her angry?” Could he not hear me?


He must have, I knew, but he wasn’t likely to tell me. He may not even know, I realized. Sometimes it seemed like cause and effect didn’t work in Jacob’s world, or at least like he had a faulty understanding as to how they were connected. The way he faced life, it was as if the good and bad things that happened were the capricious acts of a trickster god, wholly unconnected from his behavior in any way.

“You must have done something,” I coaxed, knowing that unless I figured out what he had done, there wasn’t any remote parenting I could do. “Why else would she be so angry?”

“Daddy?” A new tone in his voice, like he hadn’t heard me again and was starting his own line of inquiry.

I sighed. “Yeah, buddy?”

“Where are you?”

“I’m in Miami. I told you that yesterday.” Yesterday, right? It already felt like a month.

“When are you coming home?”

Now he was hard to hear. I closed my eyes and plugged a finger back into my free ear. “Not for a while, buddy. Not for a while. Can you be a good boy for Mommy while I’m gone?”


I heard the static this time. “Can you be a good boy for Mommy?!”

“Uh huh.”

What that a yes or a no? I wasn’t sure. “I really need you to. I need you to do what Mommy says. Can you do that for me, buddy?”

“Uh huh.”

It was the best I was going to get. I was just a tinny little voice in his ear. Ten minutes from now, would he even remember anything I said?

“I love you, buddy.”

“Okay. Bye!”

His farewell was said with the receiver falling away from his mouth, as if now that the obligatory conversation with Dad was over he could get back to the more serious business of tormenting his mother. The way his voice faded away I wondered if the ten-minute estimation I had just made wasn’t optimistic.

“What did you tell him?” It was Jenny, back on the phone and insistent.


“Jacob,” she clarified. “What did you tell him?”

“What do you mean? I told him to behave.”

“That’s it? What about the way he’s treating me?”

“Jenny, I don’t know how he’s treating you. I’m in Miami, remember?”

“Go!” Jenny said suddenly, obviously to Jacob and not me. “Go play!”


“Jacob! Stop climbing on me! Go in the other room and play!”

Another rustle of fabric and a thump like the phone fell to the ground again. I heard Jacob cry and then launch into full-throated wails that faded as he either ran or was carried away. Then Jenny was hollering from far away, telling Jacob to stay put until Mommy was done, and then a door slamming as if the house was empty, and angry footfalls coming back to the phone.

“Alan? Alan! Are you still there?”

I took a deep breath. “Yes, I am.”

“I really need you to talk to your son. Get him to stop acting this way.”

“Jenny,” I said with forced serenity, conscious again of the bookstore patrons around me. “I did just talk to him. I don’t know what you think I can accomplish from here.”

“Well, you have to do something. He won’t listen to me.”

And then the farcical enormity of it all struck me, pushed me over the edge, and I flew into a rage. “Goddammit, Jenny! What the fuck do you expect me to do? I’m two thousand miles away in the children’s section of a goddamn Barnes and Noble, trying to mediate a dispute between a grown woman and a four-year-old boy.” My eye caught a teenage girl with orange hair on the other side of the bookshelf wrinkling her diamond-studded nose at me. I gave her a look like she was the one acting crazy. “And my cell phone keeps losing its goddamn signal. Can you even hear what I’m saying? You sure as fuck don’t act like it.”

“What did you say?”

I'd heard the static on the line during my tirade, but I had pushed right on through anyway. Now, I didn’t have the energy to repeat it.

“You’re just going to have to deal with him. There’s only so much I can do from here.”

“But I don’t know what I’m doing, Alan,” she said, a note a desperation coming into her voice. “He just won’t listen! Am I doing something wrong?”

“Lower your expectations,” I said glibly, like a radio show psychologist used to diagnosing problems over the air. “You’re both perfectionists and are bound to butt heads. When I’m not there, seek compromise instead of obedience. You may find what you’re fighting over has an easy solution if you each just give a little. You’re the adult. Take the high road.”

There was silence on the line. At first I thought the call had been dropped, but then I could hear Jacob’s muffled wailing echoing in the background and something else, much closer, like the coughing of an old carburetor.

“Jenny? Are you crying?”

Breath hitching in. “Y-y-yes...”

Oh, sweet Jesus, she’s crying. “Honey, don’t cry. What are you crying about?”

“I don’t know how to do this, Alan,” she confessed angrily. “I don’t know how to be his mother and now we’ve got a second one on the way.”

She sounded lost. At her wit’s end. Ready to give up. Part of me was angry, convinced that she had the far easier job between the two of us, but her misery touched me and I could feel my heart fluttering in my chest. I didn’t know what to say.

“Jenny… I’m sorry… but you’ve got to hold it together. I just got here. I can’t come home and help you with this.”

“I know.”

“Stop trying so hard. You’re his mother. He loves you—more than me, anyway.”

“Oh, is it a contest now?”

It was a barb, meant to set us off into an argument, but I didn’t take the bait. “That’s not how I meant it. Just go easy with him. What are you two fighting about anyway?”

“It’s time for him to brush his teeth,” she said through her sniffles and tears.

I waited for more. “And?”

“And he doesn’t want to do it.”

“So? Skip it tonight.”

“Alan!” she said, as if I had suggested she cut off one of his fingers. “He has to brush his teeth!”

“Fine,” I said, switching gears and knowing the idea of not brushing your teeth before going to bed was as wild to Jenny as the idea of climbing into bed with muddy boots. “Then ask him when he wants to brush his teeth.”


“Give him a choice. Brush your teeth before or after you put your pajamas on.”

“He’s already got his pajamas on.”

“Oh Christ, Jenny, I’m not going to playbook this one for you. Make him a deal. Let him decide when he brushes his teeth. Or sweeten the pot. Tell him after he brushes you’ll read him one of his favorite books. Just don’t order him to do something and expect immediate compliance. Nobody likes that. Especially not children with genes from you and me. Okay?”


I felt like I was talking to a member of my staff. “Has he stopped crying yet?”

She paused, as if holding the phone away from her ear to listen. “I think so.”

“Good. Give him a few more minutes to calm down and then go in there a talk to him.” I paused, consciously softening my tone. “What about you? Are you all right?”

“I’ve stopped crying if that’s what you mean.”

I expected as much. Her acerbic tone had returned in full force. When she spoke I imagined her wiping a finger under each eye and looking up at the ceiling like she did when she was done crying and ready to move onto the next thing. “I love you, honey.”

“I love you, too.”

+ + +

“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Image Source