I Thought You Were Deadby Pete Nelson
For Paul Gustavson, life is a succession of obstacles, a minefield of mistakes to stumble through. His wife has left him, his father has suffered a stroke, his girlfriend is dating another man, he has impotency issues, and his overachieving brother invested his parents’ money in stocks that tanked. Still, Paul has his friends at Bay State bar, a steady line of… See more details below
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For Paul Gustavson, life is a succession of obstacles, a minefield of mistakes to stumble through. His wife has left him, his father has suffered a stroke, his girlfriend is dating another man, he has impotency issues, and his overachieving brother invested his parents’ money in stocks that tanked. Still, Paul has his friends at Bay State bar, a steady line of cocktails, and Stella.
Stella is Paul’s dog. She listens with compassion to all his complaints about the injustices of life and gives him better counsel than any human could. Their relationship is at the heart of this poignantly funny and deeply moving story about a man trying to fix his past in order to save his future.
—The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
- Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
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I Thought You Were DeadA Love Story A NOVEL
By Pete Nelson
Algonquin Books of Chapel HillCopyright © 2010 Pete Nelson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTwo of Them Going Nowhere
In the winter of 1998, at the close of the twentieth century, in a small college town on the Connecticut River, on the sidewalk outside a house close enough to the railroad tracks that the pictures on the walls were in constant need of straightening, not that anybody ever straightened them, Paul Gustavson, having had a bit too much to drink, took the glove off his right hand, wedged it into his left armpit, and fumbled in his pants pocket for his house keys.
The snow was coming down hard, which meant the plows would be rumbling all night, clearing the roads. It was early March. Paul would have to shovel in the morning, a favor he did for his landlady, who lived upstairs and hadn't raised the rent in years in part because of the kindnesses he'd done her. His go-getter neighbor would already have finished snow-blowing his own drive, salting it, sanding it, probably drying it with a hair dryer before Paul got out of bed. Paul didn't mind shoveling, even though he'd shoveled enough snow as a kid, growing up in Minneapolis, to last a lifetime. He had to be at the airport by noon to catch his flight back to the Twin Cities, a flight that might not have been necessary had he been more on the ball. Some days were better than others.
"I'm home," Paul said, letting himself in and closing the door to keep out the cold.
"I thought you were dead," the dog said. Her name was Stella, and she was a mixed breed, half German shepherd and half yellow Labrador, but favoring the latter in appearance. Fortunately, she'd also gotten her personality from the Labrador side of the family, taking from the Germans only a certain congenital neatness and a strong sense of protectiveness, though since she was the omega dog in her litter, it only meant she frequently felt put-upon.
"Once again, I'm not dead."
"Joy unbounded," she said dryly. Stella had no sense of permanence and therefore assumed Paul was dead whenever he was out of sight, hearing, or smell. "How was your night?"
"I went to the Bay State and heard the blues," Paul said. His head swam as he bent over to scratch her behind the ear, jingling her collar.
"Do you realize you're only slightly less routinized than a cat?"
"No need to insult. Do you want to go for a walk or what?" "A walk? Yes. I think a walk would be nice. Is it cold out? I don't want to go if the weather's bad."
"There's no such thing as bad weather," he told her. "Just bad clothes."
She could still walk to the door, though sometimes Paul had to lift up her hind end to help her get off her dog bed. Usually he took the dog with him wherever he went, but tonight he'd left her home because of the weather. They lived in an apartment on the ground floor of a double-decker between the railroad tracks and the cemetery in Northampton, a small college town in western Massachusetts.
Stella paused on the front porch, gazing apprehensively at the snow, then took a cautious step forward.
"Hold it," Paul said, picking her up and carrying her down the three concrete steps to the sidewalk. He'd built a ramp for her to walk up, made from an old door with carpet squares nailed to it, but walking down the ramp was difficult for her. He set her down gently. She walked ahead of him, sniffing at the Sliwoskis' bushes, and at the house next door to that, and in all the places where she'd stopped and sniffed every night for the seven years they'd lived there. She stumbled occasionally.
That made two of them.
Paul inhaled deeply through his nostrils. He felt snowflakes on his face. The neighbors across the street still had their Christmas lights up. The neighbors next to them were watching television. At the corner house, he looked up. The student who lived there, Journal Girl, he called her, was again at her computer, her profile lit blue in the second-floor window. Sometimes she was brushing her hair. She was lovely.
He examined the pavement at his feet beneath the corner streetlamp. The snow was falling in flakes fat enough to cast shadows that, as the flakes fell, converged in the circle of light cast by the sodium bulb overhead. He stood in the exact middle of the convergence and imagined he was absorbing some kind of boreal energy, then stopped himself before anybody saw.
"Did I tell you you're going to be spending a week at Chester's house?" he told the dog.
"No problem," Stella said. "I like Chester."
"What's not to like?"
"Why am I going to Chester's house?"
"I have to fly home. My dad had a stroke."
"What's a stroke?"
"That's when part of your brain dies," Paul said. "Either you get a blood clot that blocks an artery so your brain doesn't get enough blood, or else an artery bursts and you get too much blood. I looked it up."
"And too much blood is bad, but not enough is bad too?"
"I guess," Paul said.
"A conundrum," Paul agreed. "An irony." "So part of his brain died?" she asked.
"Something like that," Paul said. They walked.
"What part? How many parts are there?"
"Lots. They don't know how bad it is. I was talking to a guy at the bar who said if they get to you in time, they can limit the damage."
"A guy at the bar said that?"
"Always a good source for reliable medical information," she said. "I'm sorry for you."
"He was shoveling the walk."
"Your dad or the guy at the bar?"
"My dad. So it's my fault. We should have bought him a snowblower. I was supposed to do some research and find out the best one to get, but I hadn't gotten around to it. We were worried about him shoveling. There's a family history of strokes and heart attacks."
Paul scraped a handful of snow off the hood of a car and tried to make a snowball, but the snow wasn't wet enough.
"I'm confused," Stella said, pausing to sniff at the base of a fence post. "If there's a family history, then how is it your fault?"
"He was exerting himself," Paul said. "If we'd bought him the snowblower I was supposed to research, he could have taken it easy."
"Shoulda, woulda, coulda."
"Even though he probably wouldn't have used it. He liked the exercise."
"There you go, then. You can't live your life second-guessing yourself."
"Dogs," Paul said, turning left on Parsons.
"Where to?" Stella asked.
"I need to walk a little bit," Paul said. He was headed toward the cemetery.
"The sign says no dogs," Stella reminded him.
"Let's live dangerously," he said, turning his collar up to keep the snow from falling down his neck. He took a glove off and checked his back pocket to make sure he had plastic Baggies to pick up after his dog. He did. They walked in the street, keeping to the tire tracks. The sound of his feet crunching in the snow reminded him of his teenage years, before he was old enough to drive, the miles and miles he'd walked, in blizzards even, looking for friends, for adventure, for something to do, anything to get out of the house. It pained him now to recall how much he'd once craved being free from his parents. He'd be free of them soon enough, the stones in the cemetery reminded him. Walking among them, it was hard to pretend that wasn't true.
"Beautiful night," Stella said, trying to make things better. "I love how quiet it is when it snows."
"Though it makes it hard to smell things."
"Why is that?"
"Water doesn't evaporate in the cold the way it does in the heat," Stella explained patiently. They'd already had this conversation.
"Know why they put this fence around the cemetery?" Paul asked, reading the names on the grave markers. One of the town's celebrities, Sylvester Graham, was buried here. An orator and health-food advocate, he was widely misidentified as the Father of the Graham Cracker, though he'd only invented the flour the cracker was made from. The other regional celebrity was Emily Dickinson, who'd lived across the river in Amherst. He wondered if they'd ever met, as contemporaries or as ghosts.
"Why's that, Paul?" Stella asked, though she'd heard it a dozen times.
"Because people are just dying to get in."
"That's a good one," Stella said. "Wasn't the road outside the cemetery where Emily Dickinson got pulled over for recluse driving?"
"I've told you that one before?"
"Once or twice," Stella said. In fact, he told it every time he told the cemetery-fence joke, and in the same order. He had other jokes he felt obliged to tell in specific circumstances; whenever he saw a kitchen colander, for example, he would advise the cook, "Be careful not to sing through that - you'll strain your voice." The dog tolerated it. Better than some people, Paul always said.
When they got home, he carried her up the front steps and set her down on the porch. Inside, she took a drink of water in the kitchen, sniffed her food bowl for recent additions, and then went to her bed by the radiator. L.L. Bean, red plaid, down filled, only the finest, she told the other dogs in the neighborhood, though Chester, her boyfriend, swore it was poly fill, but then, he was a golden - in other words, no rocket scientist. She let out a grunt as she lowered her weight to the floor, then appeared satisfied. Paul threw his coat over a chair and sat on the couch.
He took the TV remote control in hand and began at the top, channel 98, surfing down slowly, pausing just long enough at each channel to pass judgment. No, he did not want to invest in real estate, or car polishes, or stain removers, or hair or skin care products endorsed by aging actors and actresses. He could remember back when cable TV was first introduced in the seventies. "People will pay a monthly fee to watch the shows, so there will be no need for commercials - it will be commercial-free television," they'd said.
Paul turned the TV off. And Karen said he had no self-control. She never did like to watch television. He'd known that about her from the start and married her anyway. He had only himself to blame. It was a mistake he wouldn't make again, assuming he'd ever have the opportunity to repeat it.
He was tired and wanted to go to bed. Flying made him anxious, which meant he was going to have a rough night sleeping. He realized only as he locked the back door that he'd forgotten to check messages on his answering machine. There were two.
The first was from Tamsen, the woman he'd been seeing for the past three months, not exactly a true romance, more a strange but mutually satisfying exchange of courtesies, a benevolent closeness that allowed for physical contact, which it made him slightly tumescent merely to recall. Yet to qualify as a true romance, the relationship would have to hold promise for both the near and the distant future, and as far as Paul could tell, the long-term prognosis was poor. "Hi, Paul - it's me. Just calling because I had a terrible day. It's not looking good at WebVan. Everybody around here is freshening their résumés and stealing office supplies, and here's a bad sign - Derek had his favorite pinball machine taken out for 'repairs,' or so he said, but I'll bet you anything he's hiding it somewhere so they don't repossess it when the whole thing goes belly-up. So anyway, I just wanted to talk to you because I miss you and I need to hear the sound of your voice. It's eleven now but you can call me and wake me up if you want. Have a good flight tomorrow if I don't hear from you, and call me when you get to your parents' house. I know it's going to be hard for you but you can do it. I know you can do it. Okay? Your dad's going to be okay. So call me."
She had a sexy voice, slightly smoky and tinged with a Northeast Corridor Boston-Rhode Island-New York accent that made her seem tougher than she really was. It was far too late to return her call.
The second message was from his mother, who always began her messages, "Hi, Paul - it's your mom," as if he wasn't going to recognize her voice.
"Hi, Paul - it's your mom," she said. "It's about eleven o'clock here, and I'm at Mercy Hospital. Your father is still resting comfortably and your sister is here and I'm going back just as soon as I get some coffee. Pastor Rolander was here visiting but he's left too. I think Bits will meet you at the airport, and she has your flight number and all that, so don't worry. I'm looking forward to seeing my little boy. Love you lots. Bye."
It was nice to think there was at least one person left on earth who thought of him as a little boy.
Paul filled a glass with ice and poured himself a scotch, adding an extra splash for good measure, because it had been an extradifficult night, and tomorrow was likely to be worse. He took the drink to bed with him, where he read another paragraph of Anna Karenina. He'd been reading the book about one paragraph a night for the past three years. He heard toenails clicking against the floor. Stella had risen from her dog bed all on her own and had come to join him.
"You want up?" he asked her.
"Promise not to whimper in the middle of the night to be let down?" he asked. "I need my sleep. Chester's owners are going to come get you and take you to their house while I'm gone."
"No whimpering, I promise," she said.
He lifted the dog up onto the bed, where she made a nest for herself at his feet. He tried to read. Levin was convinced that Kitty thought he was an asshole. Paul was inclined to agree with her. He put the book down. He wondered if his father knew the difference anymore between being asleep and being awake, or if he had no words in his head at all and felt trapped, bound and gagged. Maybe the opposite was true and he was engaged in some kind of unbroken prayer and felt entirely at peace. Strokes could occur in any part of the brain, couldn't they? Each stroke was probably unique, immeasurable or unpredictable to some extent. His mother said that before it happened, Paul's father had complained of a headache and his speech had seemed a little slurred, though she hadn't made anything of it at the time. "I saw him shoveling, and then when I didn't see him anymore, I thought he'd gone down the block," Paul's mother had told him on the phone. "Then when I went to look for him, I saw him lying on the sidewalk and I thought at first that he'd slipped on the ice."
When he didn't get up, she'd dialed 911, fearing he'd had a heart attack. The operator told her not to move him because jostling could cause a second heart attack. Paul's mother had covered her husband with blankets where he lay and stayed by his side. They took him in an ambulance to the hospital, where doctors diagnosed a stroke. There they gave him a drug to dissolve the clot, but it would only work, they said, if it was administered in time, before too much damage had been done to the tissues in the brain that were being deprived of blood and therefore oxygen. Maybe the old man simply thought he was dreaming and couldn't wake up. Maybe it was a good dream. Maybe it wasn't.
"What?" Stella asked. "You sighed."
"Just thinking," Paul said. "If you could be a vegetable, what vegetable would you be?"
"Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable?"
"There's been some debate. Why would you be a tomato?"
"To get next to all those hamburgers," the dog said.
"But if you were a tomato, you wouldn't want to eat hamburger."
"Of course I would. Why would I change, just because I'm a tomato?"
"You'd want tomato food. This has got to be the stupidest conversation we've ever had," Paul said.
"Actually, this is fairly typical," the dog said.
"You think my dad is going to be okay?" Paul asked.
"Sure. He's a tough old bird, right?"
"He used to go to the park and play pickup hockey with the high school rink rats until he was, like, sixty-five years old."
"The only guy alive who thinks Gordie Howe was a quitter."
"That's right," Paul said. "The only guy alive who thinks Gordie Howe was a quitter."
"Your dad's not a quitter."
"That's got to be in his favor."
"On the other hand," Stella said, "everybody gets old and dies. You know that, don't you?"
"Of course I know that."
"It's supposed to work that way. If it didn't, the whole planet would fill up with decrepit, useless old wrecks everybody else would have to take care of. And that wouldn't be good, would it?"
"No, that wouldn't be good."
"If you ask me, you humans have already artificially extended your life spans to the point where you're seriously screwing up the environment for the rest of us. You're supposed to die at forty or forty-five, tops. You're not supposed to gum up the works by hanging around for an extra thirty or forty years."
Excerpted from I Thought You Were Dead by Pete Nelson Copyright © 2010 by Pete Nelson. Excerpted by permission.
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