Alternate Ending

For David

In the alternate ending you don’t die.

In the alternate ending you take my advice and call your cousin in North Dakota, the one who’s working in one of those new oil boomtowns way out in the middle of nowhere. You take him up on his offer to land you a job, maybe something in human resources or some kind of staff psychologist position. It might not be something you’re 100% qualified for, but the company is willing to overlook that because folks with multiple advanced degrees are in short supply out on the range. If you have qualms about the damage your new employer is doing to the environment, you can remind yourself that you’ve done questionable things for a paycheck before, like that year in New Orleans when you worked for the law firm that specialized in screwing over Katrina survivors. That time you eased your conscience by volunteering for Ninth Ward rebuilding projects. This time you take the job and tell yourself you’ll donate a good chunk of your salary to conservationist charities and you don’t die.

In the alternate ending you move into a little trailer in one of the makeshift towns they’ve thrown together on the prairie. It’s not much, but it’s home. You spent enough time in FEMA trailers to know that a lot of people are making do with a whole lot less. Hell, you lived in a converted shipping container for two years when you were in grad school in Amsterdam. So you settle in to your new home and put your nose to the grindstone, spending your days listening to the hopes and horrors and histories of a bunch of hard-luck cases who all want so badly to believe that this is the gig that’s finally going to take, that hard work and the emptiness of the plains will be the magical combination that finally forces them to get their shit together and start building a real life. And you can’t help but sympathize with these burned out husks who couldn’t pronounce even the titles of half the books on your shelf, because if you’re honest with yourself, isn’t that what you came here to do as well?

In the alternate ending you don’t die alone.

In the alternate ending you talk the company into footing part of the bill for more schooling, telling your supervisors that the business is going to need some fully certified professionals on staff if the town keeps growing at its current rate. You spend your nights studying and corresponding with your professors over the web and weekends making the six-plus hour drive to Grand Forks for in-person classes. You might as well, because there’s fuck-all else to do in this town except drink. (And you’re still doing that too, of course, just maybe not quite as much as in the past because your studies keep you busy and anyway, when you live this far out, the mark-up on a bottle of Beam is about three times what it costs back in civilization.) The few times your cousin has talked you into going out with your co-workers you’ve just wound up feeling lonelier than ever because there’s no one in this bunch that you can talk to, I mean really talk to. And maybe that gets you thinking about the old days enough that you decide to call me, and I don’t answer because I’m writing or putting my kid to bed or something, and I won’t get around to calling you back for another week because I’m kind of a dick about returning phone calls, so you sigh and just watch one of your 30 Rock DVDs on your laptop for the umpteenth time. When I do finally call you back our conversation is awkward and stilted because neither of us is any good on the phone. We trade in-jokes about our days behind the counter of the crummy New Orleans coffee shop where we first met. I talk about how I’m definitely going to make the trip out to see you soon since you’re only one state over, even though we both know that we’re nearly a full day’s drive apart and I haven’t had that kind of free time since I’ve had a kid. Still, before we hang up we both say, “It was really good to hear from you,” and we mean it and you don’t die.

In the alternate ending you finish that PhD. It isn’t the most prestigious degree on your résumé, but it’s the most useful in your current situation. You’re strangely sad to wrap it up. Your commute was harrowing but at least it offered some relief from empty North Dakota flatlands and oil derricks. You stick it out for a few more years at your job, long enough to let the company feel like they made a good investment in you. You move out of the trailer and rent a nice one-bedroom apartment downtown (there is a downtown now, the boomtown having shed its “boom” and become just a town proper). Eventually you rent the storefront downstairs too and launch the private practice you’ve been secretly planning for ages. The first couple of years are shaky, as mining town roughnecks don’t necessarily take kindly to psychoanalysis. You wisely keep yourself on hire to the company so as not to burn any bridges. Between that and assorted court orders and nervous breakdowns, you’re able to keep the business afloat.

In the alternate ending you don’t die alone in a studio apartment.

In the alternate ending you become something of a local icon, a character about town. By this time other educated professionals have moved in, looking to capitalize on the opportunities available in America’s final frontier – school teachers, doctors, journalists, government bureaucrats. You form a fast friendship with this group. You meet every morning before work at the coffee shop up the street, the one that carries the New York Times, has open mic night every Friday and is derided by the locals as “that hippie place.” You all sit at the big round table near the door, sipping decent Central American blends and pontificating on politics, the books you’ve been reading and the hopelessness of the town’s sizable redneck populace. One of your buddies nicknames you “The Professor” and it sticks. Soon your every entrance is greeted with a chorus of “Hey Prof!” Your standard response is, “That’s Doctor Prof to you!” and everyone chuckles lightly as though they haven’t heard the same joke a hundred times over and you don’t die.

In the alternate ending one of your coffee shop compadres brings along a fellow teacher one morning, a fellow teacher who happens to be a rather attractive lady. He tries to act as though it’s not a set-up but he’s not very good at this sort of thing and you end up asking her out on a date almost out of pity for him. It turns out he’s a better judge of character than you’d have guessed. You and she strike up a friendship that quickly blossoms into a full-fledged relationship. Part of it is that you’re both aching for companionship in this lonely expanse, but there’s more to it than that. She’s older than you by seven or eight years, divorced for nearly a decade. She makes no effort to hide the damages of her past. She doesn’t apologize for them or dwell on them either. She makes it clear from the start that she never intends to marry again, which is fine by you. As much as you dislike loneliness, you’ve always cherished solitude. The two of you settle into something like a partnership, keeping your separate apartments and sleeping over at one or the other’s several nights a week. There are grumblings from some of the more conservative parents about her loose behavior, but she is an excellent teacher in a school that struggles to maintain a full staff. One morning you wake up and realize you are the happiest you’ve ever been.

In the alternate ending you don’t die alone in a studio apartment in a city you never liked.

In the alternate ending I drop you a line out of the blue one day. I have a free weekend coming up, so I suggest that we meet in New Orleans and revisit some of our old haunts. It’s been a few years since we’ve seen each other, not since you flew in for that psychology conference at the Saint Paul Radisson. It never takes us more than an hour or so to fall back into our old easy manner. We get a hotel down in the Marigny and spend the weekend watching live music, catching up with the few old friends who still live there and eating at all the places we couldn’t afford when we were twentysomething baristas. On our last night in town, we stagger into our hotel room far drunker than befits two men of our age and refinement. We slump into easy chairs on opposite sides of the dusky room and talk about the old days, rehashing the same anecdotes we’ve been passing back and forth for decades. We laugh like hell even though there’s a bit of sadness behind the laughter, a mourning for the pair of eager, young coffee shop dreamers who have somehow faded into these drunken, middle-aged day-jobbers. When we part ways at the airport the next day we hug, a good, solid clinch. I’ve never been much of a hugger but I know you are, and there’s something so infectious about your sincere embraces that I can’t help but squeeze you back and you don’t die.

In the alternate ending you don’t die. You don’t die alone in a studio apartment in a city you never liked, out of work and out of money, worried like hell about your future and your family. You don’t die two months after I last visited you, leaving me with a final image of you slumping out of my car and trudging up the sidewalk under a grey Chicago sky. You don’t die with me wondering if I could have done anything to help other than advise you to call your cousin in North Dakota and take him up on that job offer you told me about.

In the alternate ending you don’t die.

But I don’t get to write your ending. And neither do you. Ultimately, I don’t know if anyone gets to write any of our endings, or if all of our endings were pre-written long ago, or if endings just happen in the moment with no forewords or postscripts. All I can do is be grateful that we got to help each other write some of the middle bits. Those are usually the parts I like best anyway. As for the ending, I can write alternates upon alternates, sending us spiraling off into endless adventures we never got around to having until I lose sight of what made the original narrative so special. Or I can swallow hard and look the real ending, the only ending, the immutable ending, full in the face.

In the end you die.

You die.

You die.

You died.

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