Stay Small

Stay small. This was something my uncle used to say when giving advice after someone accomplished something. Anything. If you graduated high school, stay small. If you got married, stay small. If you got divorced, stay small. If a friend died, stay small. College graduation, stay small. Grad school, stay small. First real job, stay small. I never thought about it when he said it. That’s the way it often is with great advice. You never appreciate it until you realize it yourself. And when you do realize it, you wonder why you hadn’t kept those words in your mind your entire life. Why did you have to learn it the hard way when you’ve been learning it and hearing it your whole life? That’s the way a lot of things are. Everyone has some special saying they tell themselves from time to time. Hindsight is 20/20. Keep calm and carry on. Don’t let the bastards grind you down. Love is all you need. Don’t be a hero. Stay small.

The first time I felt the concussion of a rocket propelled grenade was when I was nineteen years old. I hunkered beneath my rack before grabbing my gear and putting it on. My uncle’s words were no longer his words. Instead, I heard my platoon sergeant’s words, “Be a small target.” The problem was that I was in a tent. I was literally inside the target. But still, the words were there, protecting me in a way. The words helped in nearly every situation I was in. If we were searching a house, I instinctively knew to stay out of windows. Nothing can be in a window frame and appear small. The same thing goes for doorways and staircases. Streets and alleys. Stay small.

When we were searching the canyons of Iraq, we were all small. But small things in large numbers become big things. Or, better yet, one big thing. We lost Lance Corporal Conner because we were no longer small. First we heard he was hit by a grenade. Later we heard he got hit by an RPG. But none of those things were true. He took a bullet just below the arm-pit, where our body armor broke to allow our shoulders and arms to move freely. The enemy hit the smallest target there was. Yet, even still, we tried to stay small. We were small. We are all small.

When I got back to the United States, I learned that one of my other friends died in Afghanistan while I was in Iraq. I talked to him the week before we left to go to two different battlefields. I asked him if he still believed in all of the things we used to talk about at home and in boot camp. About liberating the people, about doing the world a service, and about protecting the young. He said he still believed in protecting those who could not protect themselves. So long as he was still protecting those small people, he still believed in what he was doing. He believed he was protecting the small. He was protecting those too small to protect themselves. And he died protecting them. I remember visiting his memorial when I came home for good. His memorial was small. His picture was small. The school library it was set up in was small. An elementary school. It was in the same town both of us grew up in. But he was dead and I was not.

I think about how so many people use their experiences in war to grow. They use their experiences to build themselves up and become larger than they are. I’ve never been comfortable with that. I find it hard to be anything other than small. If I was not there, someone else would have been there to do the same job I was doing. If my friend (who I hesitate to name) hadn’t been there, someone else would be dead. To think anything different would be to think of ourselves as anything but small. I wish to remain small.

I’ve done a lot of things in my life. I’ve gone to war. I’ve been married. I’ve been divorced. I’ve been to college. I’ve been to grad school. I am nothing. I am small.

I’m a teacher now and I teach the small. I hold on to the words my uncle once used to say when he was able to speak and I was able to hear him. I hold on to the words of my platoon sergeant. And I hold on to the words of my dead friend. Stay small.

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Laika also sees a therapist

Connor didn’t know that Laika also saw a therapist. And he would never know. She never told anyone. She really didn’t know why she started seeing one. At one point, she thought it was because she wanted to quit smoking. And she did. Cigarettes, anyway. She could never commit to being the person to pass up free weed. She was a huge pothead in high school and continued to smoke occasionally. Most people find it hard to quit smoking pot if they live in Colorado. Much less, if they go to a university in Colorado.

Some people get high to escape. Others get high to do just the opposite. Some people get high so that they can feel even more reality than they are already experiencing. Laika liked how interested she got in everything. A person could be talking about anything and Laika would listen as if the person talking were telling her where to find a million dollars buried around town. She would listen as if they were giving her directions to the fountain of youth. She would listen to them as if they were relaying the most important information she could ever hear. Most of the time, the people talking were hitting on her and she never noticed or cared.

“Thanks,” she’d say. “And what else?”

Occasionally these conversations would end her in her telling the guy to go fuck himself. But that was usually a rare occasion. An unsolicited hand touching her would result in not a slap, but a closed-fist. That’s just the kind of girl Laika was. She feared nothing and everything at the same time. She did not typically trust strangers.

Dr. Fox, while professionally her therapist, was especially intrigued by her.

“So what did he do after you hit him?” he asked.

Laika sat across from him, twitching her legs back and forth.

“He said, ‘What the fuck?’ and I said, ‘I’ll tear your fucking eyeballs out of your head.’ That’s what happened.”

“Do you think that’s the best way you could have handled that situation?”

“Yes. Absolutely. Like, people like that need a fist to the nose, you know? And I mean that. Seriously, people like that get away with everything. They’re the ones who end up hitting their spouses. They’re the ones who end up getting away with it.”

“Well, I want to remind you that you told me that you were ‘pretty stoned’ when this incident happened. So, do you think ‘sober you,’ as you’ve called yourself when you are not high, would have done the same thing? Would sober you have punched him in the face?”

Sober me would have ripped his eyeballs out,” Laika laughed. “Like, I really don’t care how much you think I’m exaggerating. Sober me would have ruined that guy’s life. Not in a fake ‘he tried to rape me’ way either. I would have left him blind. And if I would have suffered legal consequences because of that, I’d be fine with it. I just prevented a future wife from being hit, a future child from being hit, or worse. I did the world a disservice by not ripping his balls off. And now I wish I’d have been sober when he tried to grab my ass.”

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Never Fall in Love with Potential

Goodbye, Tacoma,

where twice I was

in love.


Where the streets are always building,

where the vehicles are honking,

and the sirens don’t stop singing.


Goodbye, East Tacoma,

Where I buried my heart

in a garden across the street from that crack-house.


Goodbye, West Side,

Where days begin in cars shadowed beneath the would be

sun. Where everybody feels so important.


So goodbye, Tacoma,

where I first learned that song

that hurts now too much to sing,

“…driving down Tacoma Way,

and the world turns in slow motion.

It’s the twilight of our old home

and I’m still in love with you, here on South Tacoma Way.”


Goodbye, North Tacoma,

where I found a new heart

and his four legs.


Tacoma, there’s no place

I can be in you and not think

of how you’ve shaped me.


So I leave you and say, “Hello, you small towns

East.” And I wave and they wave back,

as those behind me turn around and go about their days.


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Dr. Kim

Connor’s therapist warned him to not get attached to Laika too much. It was still so early in their friendship, or whatever it was, that the therapist viewed it as a kind of risk Connor was taking with his emotional stability. He’d been on just about every antidepressant in existence off and on for the last two years and had just started taking what she referred to as a “mood stabilizer.” The idea was something Connor didn’t agree with. Aren’t moods supposed to fluctuate?

“Sometimes it’s nice to just hold someone, you know?” Connor told his therapist, Doctor Kim. “Like, I got so used to sleeping by myself that I forgot what it felt like to sleep next to someone who wants to hold you too. I haven’t felt like that in a long time. And honestly, I don’t think I care whether or not it goes anywhere. Even just the thought that I got to do that feels good.”

Doctor Kim looked across the room to Connor. Most therapists’ rooms don’t look like they do in the movies with the couch and the crying patient laying down on some leather, oddly shaped furniture. It’s mostly chairs.

“I’m not saying to not pursue anything, but you said some of these same things about Lauren way back when,” Doctor Kim reminded.

“There’s no way I said I felt these same things about Lauren,” Connor laughed.

“Would you like me to read some of the things you said about Lauren? Because I could. I won’t. But just be careful is all I’m saying. You know how in recovery groups they caution against moving on to a romantic relationship until you have yourself under control? It’s not necessarily something I advocate. But, in your case, I think you just need to be cautious. You’re just getting back on your feet, so to speak, and you might not be as ready to move on as you think you are.”

“Do I need to move on though? Realistically, I’m probably never going to really move on, so much as I’m going to forget about her. My goal when I came in here was to get to the point where I would be fine with or without Lauren. And now I feel like I’m finally to the point where I am fine without her. I haven’t talked to her in months. I don’t plan on talking to her anytime soon either. Laika is pretty much the only person I think about anymore. Probably more than myself.”

“See,” Dr. Kim said, “this is the kind of talk that I caution against. You need to think about yourself more than the person you are with, or whatever it is. It sucks to say that, but it’s actually how healthy relationships move along. Progress, is what I mean. You need to be fine with being by yourself, thinking about yourself, and just generally be comfortable with who you are before you establish anything permanent with someone. That’s how healthy relationships start. I want to remind you though, and this is important, that you also said that one of your goals for therapy was to start writing again, or you at least wanted to continue writing because you weren’t at the time. So far you haven’t mentioned much about writing anything. You haven’t mentioned writing in weeks.”

“Well, I guess I just don’t exactly know what it is you are saying. What am I supposed to do then? Just sit around by myself all of the time. I hate myself, and Laika makes me hate myself less. Like, I don’t know. I don’t really know what to say. I don’t think I’ve ever disagreed with you before, but I kind of like having her dominate my mind, you know? It keeps me from going crazy. I know people say these same kinds of things about their dogs too, but this is different. I’m fine, I think. And I am writing again. Not much, and it’s garbage, but I’m having fun doing it.”

Dr. Kim studied Connor. He was picking at his nails and wringing his fingers as if they were towels and he was simply trying to dry them. He rarely looked her in the eyes and when he did it was more of an I-swear-I-don’t-have-Asperger’s-Syndrome protest. Not that Dr. Kim ever suggested this, but he did fall into a lot of the telltale signs. To her, he was most definitely socially impaired.

One day Connor told her that he says weird when he drinks.


“What do you mean you say ‘weird things’? What do you actually say?” she asked him.

“Well, like, a while ago, I was watching my friend’s dog because he was out of town, right? So I’m watching this dog and I’m home alone, as per usual. So I get a call from my friend and he wants to go get drinks. Well, I’m like, ‘Shit, I don’t know this dog very well and I don’t want to leave him home alone and have him tear up all of my shit.’ So I take him, the dog, with me. We sit outside and everything is cool. Waitresses are coming up and asking me about him and I’m making up all of this bullshit about the dog because I want to get laid, potentially. So I’m there for, like, an hour. I’m about to close my tab and this bartender comes out and kicks me out of the place. We were sitting outside. So, I have this huge argument with the guy and he asks me if the dog is a service animal. First, he’s not my dog. I decide I’m going to fuck with this guy. I know the laws and everything. The bartender was breaking the law by kicking me out. So I say that the dog is a service dog. The bartender asks me what services the dog provides. So I look at the beer in my hand and say, ‘Well, when this—’ I point to my beer ‘makes me want to kill myself, this little guy keeps me from blowing my brains out.’ That’s what I said. I went home and wrote the owner of the restaurant about the incident and got an apology, but I think I weirded a lot of my friends out by it.”

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Rusty, or Laika’s Dog

I’m pretty much done with whatever my first novel-length story ends up being. This is another excerpt from it. It’s riddled with typos and passive voice. Haven’t really gone through and fixed things yet.


Laika’s father died when she was eleven years old. She was in fifth grade. Everyone at school treated her differently after he died. The teachers would give her extra attention. Every once in a while she would get called to the office to talk with the counselor. But she stayed the exact same as she had always been. When people asked her if she was “Doing OK,” she would always give a genuine, “I’m great! How are you?” He father’s death had no apparent impact on her.

Laika was obsessed with bugs, and gross things in general, and cried when her mother took the dog in to get treated for fleas. She used to sit in the basement combing through Rusty’s hair, crushing the fleas to death between both of her thumb’s nails. It was a bonding experience of sorts. When her mom came back from the vet, Laika was sitting at the bottom of the stairs that led to the basement. Rusty came and sat just in front of the bottom step, looking up at her as he normally would. Nothing had changed.

Rusty was a smaller beagle mix, which had to have been some kind of trend when Laika was younger, buying beagle mixes. It made sense. No renter or homeowner wants to be the one with the beagle that howls at everything in sight. But everyone knows that beagles are as American as Charlie Brown, so they settled on a mixed breed beagle. However, Laika learned at a young age that Rusty was mostly a beagle and a book from her school library taught her that beagles howled at things. So she was quick to show Rusty the ropes. Anytime a mailman came to the door, both she and Rusty would howl at the door before her mother answered it and quickly apologized to the mailman. The mailman at this point knew that Laika had recently lost her father, based on the kinds of letters and packages he was delivering. Mailmen are snoops, she’d heard her mother say. Laika knew that to be a snoop was a bad thing and that snoops deserved to be barked at.

Rusty died a week before Laika graduated from high school and one year before her mother died. The dog was a senior by anyone’s standards. Towards the end he could barely make it outside and Laika would often have to wipe for him, as he’d often soil his fur. She didn’t mind, but she was worried about her mother, mostly. Her mother, Jane, was battling esophageal cancer and was undergoing intense chemo. One morning before getting ready for one of her appointments, Jane took Rusty out to the backyard. The dog couldn’t standup to do any of his business. After a short conversation with Laika about the right thing to do, they loaded Rusty into the back of their shared station wagon and took Rusty to his last visit to the vet.

After examining Rusty, the vet told Jane, “There’s really nothing we can do. He’s an old dog. It’s likely he wouldn’t even be able to handle the anesthesia.”

“What should we do, Mom?” Laika asked.

“I don’t know, honey,” her mother replied in a soft, concerned voice. The clock ticked on the wall. The only other sound was other dogs barking and cats meowing behind closed doors. Finally, Jane asked the question she’d been trying to find an eloquent way of phrasing, but ultimately gave up, blurting out, “Doctor White, what would you do?”

Doctor White leaned over Rusty and thought as hard as a person can who believes in the density of thought. If there was a way to think harder or softer, Doctor White was thinking hard.

“You know, it’s never easy answering that question,” he said, “but I always say the same thing, even after thinking about it in a new way each time. I swear. You’d think it’d be easier by now. Trust me when I say this, and I’m not just saying this because it’s what I’m, or people like me, are supposed to say, I know how both of you feel right now, even if I don’t appear to. I remember when your father brought him in for the first time to get his shots. You know, I must have treated a dozen of those dogs that summer, but I never did find out who was breeding all of these beagles because I only ever saw the puppies. But there was definitely a fad going on here for a while. Your father was so happy to just be in the same room as that dog. Laika, you must have been only four or five at the time. Your father talked to me about how much you loved him, well, the dog. Said how you two would just roll around on the floor for hours and before he knew it the dog wasn’t really his anymore. He was yours. I remember he said something about how he was trying to show you some statue of a dog he named you after. You called it ‘Rusty’ and that’s how Rusty got his name. I know this dog has been with you for almost as long as you can remember. If there was anything I could do to help Rusty, trust me, I would. But there isn’t. He’s in pain, Laika. My only advice would be to prevent him from suffering.”


Rusty was dead, in a cheap, black, zip up bag, in the back seat of her mother’s station wagon after Laika dropped her off and parked the car. It was a long appointment. Laika stayed in the car. The doctor said pretty much the same thing to her mother as the vet did to Rusty. The conversations were almost interchangeable.


While Laika remained in the front seat of her mother’s car, she could not help but occasionally stare at the cheap bag in the backseat, reflected in the rearview mirror. She turned on the radio and found that every song was about someone missing someone else so she turned it off. She fell asleep thinking about Rusty at the bottom of the stairs, waiting to be scratched. When she woke up, she was considerably cold, as winters in Colorado are, and quickly started the car, blasting the heat. Only an hour had passed since her mother went in to the hospital.

“You know, Rusty,” Laika said, “this is probably the last time we’re going to have to wait in the car like this. I wonder if they ever would have said anything if we’d brought you inside. Mom never really wanted to try. I did. Would it really have been that big of a deal at this point? I mean, for both of you. She doesn’t want me to go inside because she doesn’t think it’d be good for her or the doctors to have us around in there. It’s more for her than for me.”

She turned on the radio one more time and switched over to a live broadcast of some bluegrass concert happening downtown.

“And you know what? I was kind of sad when the fleas went away. I don’t think we’d have ever really gotten to know each other if you didn’t have them. The way dad was about certain things. He could be really weird, but I still l—”

It was as if something were physically blocking her vocal cords. As if she had swallowed an apple. She could make out the phoneme “/l/,” but could not produce a vowel or the final consonant. The last thing she remembered was waking up on the floor of the main entrance to the hospital, holding something cold, familiar, and comforting. She was surrounded by nurses as one slowly lifted her arm and unzipped the cheap, black bag.

Old Shep, he has gone where the good doggies go,

and no more with Old Shep will I roam.

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Staying Warm

I’d always like to think that if it really came down to it, if it really came down to the world ending and everything going insane to the point where the majority of people (or my perceived reality of the majority of people around me) were robbing their neighbors and eating each other in a sheer and clearly recognized desperation or panic, that I would probably flee to the nearest, safest, Spanish-speaking country. That’s probably how most of us think, at least, in the United States. And if that, really, is how most of us think, I’d more than likely change my plan of action for “if it really came down to it” from moving to the nearest and safest Spanish-speaking country to something even more passive and cowardice, based on the assumption that most people would be doing the same thing I was planning to do. All dramatizations aside, if it really came down to it, as in, if it truly and really came down to it, I’d probably just starve to death while writing some longwinded manifesto that, at the time, I believed to encompass the vastness of the cult of the human experience. I would write until my hands, wrists, and tendons couldn’t input another letter. I would trust that this selfless effort, this genuine time-investment in the strongest sense of the expression, would culminate in my magnum opus: the book that defines me and others while subsequently changing some aspect of human history, or, at the least, subsequently changing some aspect of how future humans will/may know and come to understand the human history that proceeded them. That’s probably what I’d do. I’d write on whatever I could until someone smart finds my decomposed body weeks later, removes from it, and my belongings, anything of practical use, and eventually finds my masterpiece, written in mostly loose-leaf or scrap paper, and is smart enough to burn it to get a real fire started.

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Filed under Free Writes and Exercises


Before truly leaving town and setting off to the lakes, Connor took Laika to the stream running through the college campus. There was one bridge Connor particularly loved. But he’d never tell Laika the reason he loved that bridge. When Connor was first starting at the university, he was involved with Lauren. Lauren would visit Connor at least two weekends a month and each time they would stop and talk on the bridge.

“Fishies?” Lauren would joke and look over the edge of the bridge, expecting Connor to stop and look over the edge with her. Most of the time, there weren’t any fish in the stream. But a few times a year, a person could expect to see them if they looked. Lauren loved to stop and look at the fish. And, somehow, she always knew when and where to look.

Connor would pretend to be interested in the fish, while he was really only interested in Lauren’s fascination with the fish. It was enough to keep him leaning over the edge with her.

“You know,” Lauren would say, “when I was here, they used to tell us that we shouldn’t try to swim in this creek. They said it was runoff from the farms. But, you know, I don’t think any of that is true. I think they just didn’t want an entire campus jumping in and out of the stream all the time. And you know what? I don’t think I do either. Where would the ducks go? Where would the fish have to go? I kind of like that no one swims or floats it.”

And he’d sit and listen to her talk about the fish as if they were refugees, an oppressed population simply looking for a safe, if temporary, place to live. It was like meditating listening to her talk. Connor would stand and lean into her, and she would talk into his ear about how the fish know when to move and no one has to tell them to. How the ducks stop off here, and how if they didn’t stop off here it would affect so many other things that it makes a person wonder how much humans are messing with the earth when the ecosystems are so fragile, elegant, and delicate. It never occurred to Connor that Lauren saw all things this way. She saw her relationships and the rest of life this way. One thing could come in and screw up the delicate balance. People adjust to one way of doing or going about something and then something or someone comes in and rearranges things and the person has to adjust again. It made Connor proud that Lauren would take such a giant risk, make such a drastic adjustment, and allow him into her life. Everything was connected to everything else, but the connections a person made with other people were especially delicate. Love was a risk. Connor fell in love with how Lauren lived and loved in the world.

No matter how complicated Connor’s relationship with Lauren would later get, he always thought fondly of the times they shared on that bridge.

“You take me here to show me a bunch of dead fish or what?” Laika laughed.

Startled, Connor smiled and looked to his right to see Laika spitting over the edge.

“Dead fish?” Connor asked, concerned.

“Yeah,” Laika laughed. “About ten, probably.”

Connor leaned over the small concrete barrier and saw the fish, dead and floating, spinning in a whirlpool.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen any dead fish in here before,” he said. “I used to see them swimming in here all the time, but maybe I’ve never looked this time of year before. Or maybe I just never noticed and there have always been dead fish in here.”

“You know, I bet this creek is just full of runoff from the farms,” Laika said. “If you think about it, it’s the only thing that runs all the way through town, one end to the other. It probably collects a little bit of everything it touches. Those dead fish, for all we know, may be the only dead fish in the entire creek and they just got stuck here after dying who knows how far up. Now we get to see them all.”

“You have to figure, they spray for weeds around this creek all the time. They always have landscapers working around it. Some of that shit has to make its way into the water. Probably killed the fish somewhere on campus, just a ways up,” Connor hypothesized.

“Or it’s just as simple as a bunch of dead fish in a creek, Connor. If you spend too much time focusing on dead things, you’re likely to only see dead things. But if you stop and look for life, you’ll be overwhelmed. Like, look at all those bugs flying around those rotting things.”

Laika pointed to the dead fish as they spun in a slow circle.

“There’re flies and mosquitos and the birds and frogs, toads, whatever that eat those. And I’ll bet something will come here tonight and eat those rotting fish. Like, a raccoon or an opossum or something. There’s more life around a dead body than death, if you think about it. Isn’t that the point of funerals? To be surrounded by life, even in death?”

“Now who’s focusing too much on dead things?” Connor laughed.

Connor was still thinking about Lauren and wondering if she had ever seen the dead fish in the water, but chose not to say anything. He wondered if Lauren would see life or death surrounding the bodies of the dead fish, and if she would ever spit on all of it.

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