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Should I Still Wish: A Memoir

Should I Still Wish: A Memoir

by John W. Evans
Should I Still Wish: A Memoir

Should I Still Wish: A Memoir

by John W. Evans


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In this candid and moving memoir, John W. Evans articulates the complicated joys of falling in love again as a young widower. Though heartbroken after his wife’s violent death, Evans realizes that he cannot remain inconsolable and adrift, living with his in-laws in Indiana. Motivated by a small red X on a map, Evans musters the courage for a cross-country trip. From the Badlands to Yellowstone to the foothills of the Sierra Mountains, Evans’s hope and determination propel him even as he contemplates his vulnerability and the legacy of a terrible tragedy.

Should I Still Wish chronicles Evans’s efforts to leave an intense year of grief behind, to make peace with the natural world again, and to reconnect with a woman who promises, like San Francisco itself, a life of abundance and charm. With unflinching honesty Evans plumbs the uncertainties, doubts, and contradictions of a paradoxical experience in this love story, celebration of fatherhood, meditation on the afterlife of grief and resilience, and, ultimately, showcase for life’s many profound incongruities.



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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803295797
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 01/01/2017
Series: American Lives
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 160
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

John W. Evans is a Jones Lecturer in creative writing at Stanford University. He is the author of Young Widower: A Memoir (Nebraska, 2014), winner of the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize; The Consolations, winner of the 2015 Peace Corps Writers Best Poetry Book; and two poetry chapbooks.

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Should I Still Wish

A Memoir

By John W. Evans


Copyright © 2017 John W. Evans
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-9579-7


Leaving Indiana

I left Indiana and drove toward happiness. I meant to get far to one side of the map. In two or three weeks, I told myself, my car would take me across the Mississippi River, through the Badlands, into the Rockies, and out of the High Desert, arriving finally to hills at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, golden in late summer, where I would sublet a small apartment from the friend of a friend and begin my next life. That I could name the place, San Francisco, and had been asked to go there for work meant that no one would fault me for my leaving. I was thirty-one years old, healthy, and still reasonably flush with insurance money. I had someone else's home to squat in, and a reason besides death to continue living in the world.

I had lived in Indiana with Ed and his family for a year and seven weeks. The night before I left, we went to dinner at the Italian restaurant. We drank expensive cocktails and ordered the specials. I made a toast and picked up the bill, fought back tears and tried the usual small jokes, and of course, it didn't feel like nearly enough of a gesture of thanks, and nothing at all like an end. For every new way we had imagined to say good-bye that summer, from the impromptu mall photo booth visit to the movie-plex binge on romantic comedies and space epics to our last-last trip to Baskin Robbins, in letters and collages and a terrific block party where neighbors inscribed with good wishes a Far Side anthology while we mixed cocktails in a cake mixer and sang the back catalog of Billy Joel, the prospect of my absence seemed only to stunt the emotional asymptotes, lengthening our days as we approached my departure date. Surely, we agreed, un-tacking the wall calendar and boxing my books, I wasn't really leaving. All this time, I think we meant, I hadn't only been their sad interloper.

All summer, I had sent letters and packages to a post office in the Sierras. Cait lived in San Francisco, but she was spending the summer at her family's cabin. We were old friends from the Peace Corps. Cait had come to our wedding and, three years later, to Katie's funeral. In the first months after Katie's death, Cait had mailed care packages from the Bay Area: sourdough bread, Pride pins, a Hang in There, Kitty picture book, a jar of fog. "This jar smells like mustard," my niece had said, frowning. A few weeks later, she swiped it from my desk and stuck it under her bed. Now, a carpenter named Dave was rebuilding the cabin deck. Sometimes when I called in the middle of the day, he and I would talk about the marmot slowly eating its way through the cabin walls or the free movie playing that week at the firehouse. When Cait called back in the evenings, I would disappear into the back room or yard. Some nights, I walked to the end of the subdivision and back, home and back again, running down the details of my day, the last hours since we had spoken, listening to her voice as the streetlights came on in sequence and around corners, lighting the path through the park where, on the Fourth of July, I held my finger in my ear and watched the sky hold the shapes of electric flowers that changed colors as their centers disappeared. Cait said she liked the print of the Barton Hays strawberries that I had sent from the Indianapolis Museum of Art. So there really was fruit in the Midwest. Had I read Cannery Row yet?

After our good-bye dinner, at a bar down the street, I drank beer with Ed and his friend. It was muggy, even for August. Water beaded our pint glasses. We talked about mountain biking, rock climbing, road trips, and finally, California. How long would I stay there? Where did I want to live next? I took the map out of my pocket and opened it on the table. We traced the route, agreeing it would be a beautiful drive, whether I went north through the Badlands, as I planned, or south through Kansas City, my hometown. South, we agreed, was probably faster. North would have the better trails. Before last call, we drank a shot of Katie's favorite whiskey. Through the window of the bar, the cars lit up, shook off the rain, and disappeared. The family that had taken me in and loved me after the great tragedy of my life, entirely and without hesitation, would tomorrow head back to school. In a few weeks, my room off the garage would become again the office.

The next morning, I made breakfast and drove my nieces to the bus. They waved from their seats, crowding near the back, smiling and waving. Wasn't this my year of grief and tragedy, as I had planned it, finally coming to its end? Already, the parents of the other children on the bus had gone back inside their houses. The street was quiet. Even my hybrid engine, idling, did not turn over. I watched the bus to the end of the block, where its hazards stopped flashing. The safety stop closed shut. The driver made a wide turn out of the subdivision. I pressed a button, pulled a lever into gear, and rolled silently through the light.

* * *

As the car picked up speed, my body felt lighter. I could not quite name the feeling: nostalgia, but also a familiar resolve, tinged with frustration, to push on and past and through. With Lucinda Williams, I passed Lafayette. Katie had always called Ed from the Purdue University overpass to say that we were less than an hour away from Indianapolis. Past Remington, I cued up the Judds, Susan Werner, Randy Travis: three hours of freight traffic and soy fields, truck stops with diners, and the Tippecanoe war memorial, all the way to Hobart, the one last small-big town east of the Skyway where, four years earlier, Katie and I had married.

I hadn't been back to the County Line Orchard since, though it occurred to me, as I passed the retro-chic gold-mirrored façade of the Radisson, bronzing the highway with its long shadows, that I might go one last time. The place would be quiet out of season; in the middle of the week, almost certainly between weddings, with no apple blossoms pasting the ground and no show tractors baling hay. But the lacquered trellis in the loft of the barn, wrapped in tea lights, might look again at least as quaint as I remembered it. The stain on the wood would still dull the rafter lights. A year after the wedding, Katie had sent the wedding planner two deep-dish pizzas from Gino's East, frozen and packed in dry ice, delivered by private driver, to say thank you for making the day beautiful and memorable. It had cost us, what, a hundred dollars? The gesture had seemed so extravagant. Katie had thought of it right away: the planner's favorite Chicago haunt. Did she live still in the house down the road? Did she know about Katie's death? Would she at least remember the pizza? There was a clearing about halfway through the orchard where the owners staged antique tractors. With me in ridiculous two-tone Doc Martens and the elegant suit my father had picked out, Katie and I had taken our wedding photos there. Twined with branches and run through the machines with purple and green ribbons — our wedding colors — the place, in memory, might again seem the beginning of a long and happy life.

Widower. All year I had hated the word. I tried not to use it in conversation. For a while I had even insisted: widow. Widow seemed more quietly distinguished. Thinking I misunderstood the convention, someone had written after the funeral to say that I was misusing widow by not adding the -er. I shot back an impromptu near-thesis about the virtues of gender neutrality in a liberal age, as though any sense of the political governed my reluctance to join the world's team of failed husbands. Really, I hated how collective and indistinct the word made us, as though I had only to stand at the wall and welcome the next hysterical sap to say that this was how it was now. A part of our life was over. We had not stopped its ending.

I-465 made a circle around Indianapolis. All year, it had been my rim-and-spoke way station to the world, the place from which I could leave for a time and go anywhere else, before gradually drifting back. Always, I came back. I had only to pick an exit, drive fast, and when I was done — tired, or lonely, or simply feeling I had run out the clock — I raced back to my beautiful and temporary home, where I felt loved and safe. I had mostly gone east that year, to see friends and family. I had been to Vermont and back, Virginia and back, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York City, and always, back to Indiana. I knew the sequence of exits from the interstate in both directions by their neon signs: Gas & Food, Mega Shops, A Better Tomorrow. At the northernmost exit, the numbers reset. A short ramp doglegged into pasture and industrial farms. The larger interstate merged from all sides, pointing in one direction toward Ohio, the other toward Illinois.

Through construction lanes I followed heavy trucks overfilled with gravel. Every few miles, our logjam broke, and a fine dust of pellets rattled my windshield, blowing a sour tang of coal and fire through the vents. Fields on both sides of the interstate were green, still, but at the end of the season the color had dulled a little. The corn had begun to split. Could I really stop here and still leave Indiana? All year, I had wanted to stop. I had told myself I would do it. Now, I did nothing and waited. Already, I was past the orchard. Merrillville was a blur. Hobart was miles back. I kept pace with the luxury sedans and sports cars. They knew to watch for cops. A few lengths back, I matched their speed for a mile or so, but always, the faster cars opened the gaps between exits and quickly sped away.

* * *

At Katie's funeral, I had wanted so much to stake out immediately for the West, to buy a car, disappear into the Rockies, and arrive somewhere I had never before visited, where no one I met would know Katie and where I had no part in any past that belonged to someone else. California. It was a plan that formed so neatly in my mind, and so manically sidestepped the obligations I felt in the moment to Katie's memory and her family, the funeral, the past, and our life generally, that I didn't trust it. I tried not to even think about it as we set the readings for the mass, dressed her body, and sat out on the back porch telling stories with strangers who had known Katie for longer than I had. And yet, in the nature preserve, after we spread her ashes, the plan returned. I imagined hills lined with trees and mountains near lakes, with open fields where everything anyone loved to eat grew year-round. I thought how unlike the rural Midwest all the places that Katie and I had chosen to live together were: Bangladesh, green all summer, until it became the season of rain, like Miami but more tropical and cooler at night, far from all that concrete that made Bucharest gothic and gray and temperate, its nearby mountains dotted with freshwater lakes between valleys, a long and perpetual season approaching spring that never seemed to settle as the extremes of midwestern winter and summer settled, though Bucharest was as much a city as Chicago would ever be, the heart of a region and for miles the only city that tourists bothered to name. Why had we never gone west across our own country? Someone had said before the funeral that there was a chance of rain that night. Rain would soak into everything and make the place green and bright. I thought how Katie would have liked becoming so quickly the place we had chosen for her, in a big field, almost an equal distance between her mother's house and her grandmother's house. It was a place I could always imagine visiting.

It seemed that I stood a good while by Katie's ashes. The afternoon heat was finally breaking. The sun was lower in the sky. I could hear cars on the state highway, nearly rush hour, with the first traffic coming past the lights at the state line. I started back up the path, and as I did so, I could not see the group. Surely, I thought, they were there, walking the trail back to their cars. We had agreed to meet for dinner at a shanty-themed restaurant facing the Chain O' Lakes. It would be our Illinois Catholic take on an Irish wake. No speeches, but chicken fingers with draft beer, flat-screened televisions, and an alt-country jukebox. We would leave the nature preserve and gather again later, though what seemed clear to me as I stood alone near her ashes was the creeping certainty that everyone had already gone, returning to families and homes and lives that waited to take them back, into which they might continue to carry Katie's memory, as they had known her, with or without me. What I felt was shame: that the service had been no good, that I had picked the wrong place for Katie, that the preserve was too remote to visit regularly and, without a marker, we would never again find the exact spot. I wanted instead a place to remind me exactly of where and how Katie had died. I feared forgetting it. And weren't Katie's ashes clumped too high on the ground to soak through?

Perhaps it occurred to me for the first time, then: I had no idea how to get from Illinois to California, or where I might stop on my way. I knew I would not return to Romania or Bangladesh or Chicago or Miami, but where exactly was I headed next? Already, I had a pile of letters, an in-box filled with emails, phone calls I had sent straight to voicemail that I could not bear to think of returning. After the local priest had given his lackluster eulogy for Katie, my sister-in-law's mother had called him personally to chew him out. He said he was sorry that he could not do better. She said she was sorry that he had not tried. I was grateful for such attention. I wanted to be the object of anyone's advocacy. I did not want to feel loved forever in sympathy. And yet, I wondered. Who would welcome my grief and look also with me beyond it?

I don't remember when I heard footsteps on the gravel. Someone was crossing from the clearing in the preserve. He might have stood there a good while watching me. The road ran nearly a half mile to the parking lot. Not a man but two friends turning the corner from the trail. My old friend Don stood on one side of me. Cait stood on the other. We made together a kind of sad lean at the place, into me but also with the slight suggestion, not quite a nudge, that we should step lightly away, catch ourselves, and begin in any direction, if only to catch up a little to the rest of the group. We walked like that very slowly, listening to the cars and the birds in the trees, of which there were so few as to constitute entirely an invention of song, a soundtrack to our unspectacular progress that we lacked a band to strike, until finally we saw them. What was it, maybe fifty people who had come to spread Katie's ashes? Everyone was there, on the far path to the parking lot, walking in twos and threes, not so far away at all. I thought, I'm a part of that. I can still be a part of that. It was a little more than a mile's walk. The path itself meandered as the full distance came gradually into view and then grew smaller by half, and half again. Katie's family was at the front of the group, nearly to the entrance. My family walked at the back, more slowly.

Three adjacent municipal baseball fields shared the parking lot. Lights on the diamond were warming up for the evening games, mostly dim bulbs still but a few brighter ones shining through the dusk. Simple patterns, the day's first constellations. It had been so easy, all week, to make small talk, but in my relief to find a group there, in my gratitude to see my two friends, what could my strange ambition to leave Indiana mean to anyone else? I said the first thing that came to mind. California. I tried to smile. I hated imposing like that. I hated needing anyone's sympathy. Years later, Cait would tell me that Don, so often irreverent, had asked her that night to make sure that I kept my promise. When the time was right, he told her, Cait should get me to California, if only for a quick visit. She agreed she would try to do it.

* * *

I can only describe the beginning, and try to describe it honestly — to narrow down the exact moment that an affection between Cait and me took root, and then name it, even if I'm not sure where that beginning really is. Was it that afternoon in the nature preserve? Was it six months later, when I flew out for Don's California weekend, corralling old friends for dinners and walks across the city, only talking about Katie, hardly myself, heartsick for Indiana? Was it that same afternoon sixteen years ago that I had met Katie, when she and Cait and Don and I were all new Peace Corps volunteers together, standing in a circle in a hotel ballroom in Seattle, playing icebreakers and scanning the room for some sense of what the next two years might make us into, and with whom we might become it?

What sticks in my memory now is a different afternoon. Late March. Almost nine months to the date after Katie had died. I have driven from Indiana to O'Hare Airport, on my way to visit my brother for the weekend. I am picking up Cait during her seventeen-hour layover, San Francisco to Chicago to Marrakech. Already, I know that I am moving to San Francisco that fall. Grief doesn't feel quite so desperate still. On a whim, Cait calls to say that I should show her my beloved adopted city, which becomes instead a long picnic at my favorite spot on the lakefront, followed by a walk across campus. I drop her off at the airport to make her connection. She is flying halfway around the world to hike across Morocco with an ex-boyfriend. And yet I feel so happy for the day. Some incantation I refuse to say out loud. The future? No, that's not right. I protest, again and again. I will have no interest in Cait, in anyone at all, in fact, until at least one year after Katie's death. I mean to keep my chaste year with all the vigilance of the cloister. Still, I know, one day, it will only technically be true. However I still feel like Katie's husband, I want to love again.


Excerpted from Should I Still Wish by John W. Evans. Copyright © 2017 John W. Evans. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Leaving Indiana,
Crossing to Safety,
Signal and Noise,
The Big House,
Unanswered Prayers,
Not So Much,
The Lake,
Mountain Rain,

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