Take a stroll up “Pitman Creek,” my new essay in Ascent. I’m pleased to announce the publication of my work in such a highly regarded journal, “simply and unobtrusively one of the best,” said Literary Magazine Review. It’s an honor to appear in its pages, and I’m grateful for the support of Ascent Editor W. Scott Olsen, who helped me improve the piece. Thanks, too, to many friends and family members, especially my father, as well as the Ashland University MFA Program, where I began writing the story in 2010.
Why does this essay matter? Well, it might be the best thing I’ve ever written, the thing I’m most proud of sharing. By that I mean it’s the hardest I’ve ever worked on writing, on editing, on figuring out who I am on the page and in my heart, trying to align the two. The language still struggles here and there, but I’m pleased to put it out there, to let it go. Here’s an excerpt from near the beginning, the rumination of a middle-aged man:
It’s difficult to sort out these feelings I have for my father, the way cigarette smoke or someone’s beer-soured breath can conjure him in my mind, in my heart, in unpredictably complicated ways. On one hand, such moments lead to nostalgia, but on the other, a reluctant longing, and melancholy, and confusion. I’ll remember the times he leaned over to kiss me goodbye, his black mustache scraping my forehead like gentle needles, a fleshy shadow that lingered in the long minutes after he was gone, after he had crossed the door’s threshold and driven away. Or I’ll remember years later when I was becoming a man myself, much bigger and taller than him, when he was sitting in his own living room or on his front porch in Indianapolis, drinking from that sweaty glass of rum and coke, its bottom dripping onto a glass end table flecked with ashes and tree pollen and the dust of city streets, and again I’d feel his mustache against my skin—grayer now, softer, but still prickly, still leaving a mark that lingered as I drove away.
Before I departed, though, as I passed through his front gate, I’d hear him whistle and call out, “Hey, boy! Don’t let your meat loaf!” Or some such nonsense. Even Dad’s goodbyes could be a kind of joke—funny, light-hearted, but always crass, and troubling in a way I couldn’t figure out. As I said, it’s complicated. It’s confusing.
Or am I merely imagining all of this, not only what happened but how it made me feel, how it still makes me feel as a grown man, a decade shy of Dad’s age when he died? Truth is, I was often embarrassed by my father, particularly during my teenage years and especially by his unusual name: he was born Wendell Muse in Dubre, Kentucky, a hillbilly haven in the sticks. Thank God, I thought, everyone called him by his middle name, Keith; Wendell was for hicks or hayseeds, or, as Dad liked to call himself, a redneck. Then again, anything I called him sounded like disappointment, if not anger or gut-gnawing dread. I hated holidays, the drunk phone calls, his excuses for being late. That is, if he showed up at all. I first felt it after the divorce in early 1978, when I would see that can or bottle between his legs on our drives to Dairy Queen. An hour or two every couple of weeks–that was our relationship. That and a few road trips to Kentucky.
Yet how could a child ever come to know his father, sharing the occasional Brazier burger and butterscotch malt? The scrape of Dad’s mustache was surely real, but all the rest? It’s a jumble. It’s elusive, like him.
Ready for more? Please visit Ascent to read “Pitman Creek” in its entirety, roughly 7,000 words—a long essay for a long, heartwrenching, heartwarming relationship. I’m sure many a reader can relate.
To enjoy the full essay, click here. And please let me know your thoughts, about this story or your own. You might also appreciate “Mapping Your People, Your Place,” which appeared recently in Hothouse: A Place of Inquiry. Thanks for reading!
Copyright 2014, Jeff Darren Muse.
Photo: Visiting my father’s gravesite near Dubre, Kentucky. PAULA OGDEN-MUSE