The Warmth of Ashes - Sneak Peek and First Chapters
I wrote “The Warmth of Ashes” during overnights working for my clients “Patty and Jess.” Patty and Jess have been changed in this novel to protect their identities but all the same, they helped me through the late nights writing the book. The real inspiration behind the story was daily shared tragedies dealing and relating to George Floyd and my former client “Samantha.” I spent many midnights drinking and trying to cope with what happened in the Summer of 2020. This novel is the result, a family drama detailing the conflict between the Chinese government and the Hmong Community in Minneapolis, the dynamic of Floyd, Black Lives Matter and the caregiving crisis. It was really the perfect blend of current events and news-cycles. These are moments frozen in time, a capsule we can bury for the next century to dig up later to reexamine the pandemic era. In these pages you will find a tertiary Minneapolis tale running parallel to the main drama. It is a vein of struggle that continues the Floyd tragedy forever branching forward, into the future.
“So the girl in your story didn't cheat at Harvard?”
I reclined in my office chair, took a sip out of a mug filled half full with rum and cola. Of course my therapist didn't know it was alcohol. There wouldn’t be a scent as we were meeting via video conference in pandemic quarantine. She agreed that I could have a couple drinks now and then. Anything more and my medication wouldn't agree. It wouldn't agree with my bipolar disorder but my PTSD and anxiety didn't seem to mind.
Lately it seemed that some days I would drink an entire bottle. I couldn't tell her that. I wouldn't. A Harvard girl made me want to drink, fall in and never come out again. It was 2:43 pm on a Wednesday afternoon on June 30, in the year of whatever unholy demon was now in control of the planet. George Floyd was dead. I was in therapy and having a drink. After Harvard, I needed both. After knowing Floyd I needed both. Melody didn't need to know. I wouldn't tell her.
I swished the mixed liquor in the glass a little and stared back at the computer screen.
“Well, I don't really remember that clearly. She might have,” I replied.
“Daniel, be serious. This girl’s life could be on the line, her career, her reputation.”
“Okay,” I conceded. “She didn't. I never really said she did though. I said I dreamt it.”
“Do you really think that is any better?” she questioned.
“I don't know,” I replied. I stared down at the cup sheepishly and took a sip. I tried not to wince. The mix was fairly heavy on the rum. I swallowed hard and gazed at the screen. Melody didn't notice. “All I can say is that the admission is driving me to drink. I am bathing in hostility every day. The death of George Floyd doesn't help either.”
Melody's father had been African American and her mother Puerto Rican. She did her best not to react when I mentioned Floyd's name, only shifting in her seat a little bit.
“And... how are you coping with that?”
“Having PTSD doesn't help. When I have episodes now, flashes of his face appear sometimes. Sitting behind the front desk, outside with his walkie-talkie, grabbing some food in the cafeteria after the place cleared out with the other security guards. Every night I volunteered, I would take the garbage out into the darkened back alley behind the shelter. I ran into him a few times back there and trust me, I was glad to see him at that point. Seeing that flashback though,” I trailed off. “I can think of worse things to have a PTSD episode about.”
“I can understand how it would bother you.”
“I know, Melody.”
She paused, “And you say it drives you to drink?”
I took another swig from the cup.
“Well, not right at this moment, no.”
“Good,” she seemed satisfied with the blatant lie. “I am concerned though. What do you mean by worse PTSD episodes?”
I sighed. “Sometimes I have visions of being somewhere in a Chinese political prison.
The emotional pain is so intense it is agonizing. It is physically painful. It comes without warning and I immediately have to lie down.”
“Where do you feel that pain in your body?”
“Everywhere. It's like I am being tortured just enough to keep me alive and then when it is done it stops and then starts over again later. Maybe it will come back the next day but it can be longer. Sometimes I can go a week without feeling anything.”
“When did this begin Daniel? Why haven't you mentioned it before?”
“I didn't think you cared. I don't think it is the Chinese doing it. Maybe it is actually Donnie Yen doing battle with a wooden dummy and I got in the way,” I joked.
“This is serious,” she frowned.
“It began around the time my first novel came out.”
“So, I suppose you attribute it to this Harvard situation in your mind?”
“Well,” I paused to gather my thoughts. I was getting a little intoxicated. “Sometimes it’s an Iranian political prison.”
“Are you kidding?” Melody raised an eyebrow.
“Daniel, it's your pain and I don't mind if you joke about it. That being said, if you want help you need to be serious
about your treatment.”
“You know what I told my mom to help her
through the pandemic?”
“What is that?” she sighed.
“The only thing that can heal pain is empathy, humor and tenderness.”
“It seems like you are using your wise mind at least. I would, however, like to recommend Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy for this. EMDR for short.”
“What the hell is that?” I asked.
“It seeks to reconnect your mind to more natural, comforting thoughts through rhythmic movement and repetition.”
Melody laughed, “I wish I could hypnotize you and make you forget Daniel. This works more internally. Actually,” she paused. “They aren't really sure how it works. It just works for some people.”
“Sounds very promising,” I rolled my eyes.
“Have a bit more faith.”
“I will do the pledge of allegiance, an Our Father, a Hail Mary, then baptize myself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka.”
Melody sighed, “It will help Daniel. Trust me.”
I took a sip from my mug, the contents almost gone.
“I do,” I acknowledged. However I also wondered, could she trust me to take care of myself?
“It's about time we wind down. We can talk more about EMDR next time.”
“Okay.” I lifted the mug and let the remainder of the liquid slide down my throat.
“Be safe, okay? Try to stay away from alcohol for the time being.
“I’m drinking straight cola from now on.”
After the session, I walked out of the bedroom and let our two dogs out of their kennels to stop their whining. My girlfriend Paaj's brother was asleep on a mattress lying on the bare, carpeted floor. The dogs ran across the room and jumped on him when I let them out.
“Ahhh damnit! Get away from me!” he yelled, rolled over and pulled the blanket over his head.
“Come.” I gently patted my leg and brought them back into the bedroom with me. I fell into the desk chair and began navigating to my favorite video game, clicking on the icon.
“...Pray, return to the Waking Sands,” I muttered to myself.
I leaned my elbow on the desk and nestled my chin into one of my hands, letting out a long sigh. After leaving Sam, my quadriplegic live-in client, one month ago, I had lost my sense of purpose. I was drinking every day, playing video games and sleeping. Working for Sam nonstop had burnt me to the core and the delusions and paranoia that she would report me to the county for negligence were crippling.
I would have nightmares about it constantly and even now, enjoying myself on my computer, I could not escape the threat of being banned from caregiving for the rest of my life. As our shared lives unraveled there was a foreboding sense of dread that Sam would turn on me, lie about me and make my life a living hell for leaving her stranded. There were signs of upheaval at the company that paid me. There were a few emails I had sent about her treatment of me. We hadn't documented everything and Sam hadn't said anything. Her complaints amounted to trivial things such as leaving crumbs on the counter, waking up late every day and forgetting her medications a few times. It hardly accumulated. It was more about how I had left her alone with no one to care for her. It reminded me of a quote from one of my favorite movies, “What kind of a sick bitch takes the ice cube trays out of the freezer?” It was me, Sam. It was me.
Greta, a petite, middle-aged woman with angular glasses stared at me through the retina display. She was wearing a University of Minnesota Duluth sweatshirt with golden hair, pulled back in a headband. There was a plain white wall behind her with a single rectangular door frame off to the right. She smiled at me through the computer screen and gave a small wave.
“Daniel! It's good to see you. We heard you were writing books. We thought you would be a famous author by now! We wish you would come see us but yeah, you know. Pandemic and stuff sucks. I guess home is where the heart is.”
“More like home is where the snacks are. I have already gained twenty pounds.” I patted my stomach. I was used to having a very thin athletic frame. Some would say I looked much healthier now. I didn't feel any different. Appearances didn't matter much for that. I continued, “becoming an author is kind of like getting your band's promo-tape accepted by a record label. There are plenty of awesome bands out there who make awesome music and aren't on record labels. Have you ever heard of The Beef Slough Boys? Great band. Local band. Outside of Duluth? They're just a bunch of washed-up old farts.”
“I get it,” she smirked. “I live here and I have no idea what you are talking about, Daniel.”
Her features made her look like a brownie, or a gnome, a Scandinavian pixie with naturally blushed cheeks and a twinkle in her eye.
“So when you called, you wanted to talk to me about a new opportunity in the Twin Cities? Are you guys expanding?”
“Well, yes and no.”
“Yes and no?” I repeated.
“So, here is the deal,” Greta leaned back in her chair. “We have a disabled middle-aged couple in the Twin Cities who own their own house. We were contacted last week about a proposal they wanted to make with our company, that we would provide staffing for them in the Twin Cities and they would allow us to use their extra rooms for additional clients.”
I was looking down at the keyboard, running my fingers along the edges to remove the dust. I had feigned to listen and now she looked impatient. I remembered the few words I’d caught.
“Why a company in Duluth?”
“I guess the owner knows them or something. They wanted to help her expand.”
“Nice couple,” I mumbled.
“Yes, I would say you would do well caring for them. They are kind, like you.”
“I am not kind anymore. Sam broke me.”
Sam and her vulgar ways. Sam and her insults, her humiliations, her castrations. Sam too, left broken and alone. I could hardly be angry with her.
“We don't talk about Sam, oh no no no. I am not getting into that one.”
“You know what she said to me before I left?”
“Oh my God. No. I mean, do I want to?”
“She told me she wanted Chauvin to kneel on her neck.”
“Don't tell me these things, Daniel. My heart is broken enough. We heard you were writing but also that you knew Floyd? Is that true?”
“Trust me there are much better people you could talk to about that. I just walked past him like a thousand times. There were so many good people coming and going from that shelter. Talk to his friends or loved ones, people who actually knew him. I would say that my life ran parallel to his. He was my protector for a year. I suppose that was how I knew him.”
“Well I would love to do that, Daniel. You're the person I know, though. It sounds like he was a special person to you.”
Greta nodded knowingly and began scrolling on her mouse. She selected a tab that read, “The Gersons.” sharing the screen so I could see a schedule marked July. It was empty.
“We can do a meet and greet as soon as possible. They have very few staff right now. The schedule is wide open. What type of hours would you like?”
“Well, I haven't accepted yet. What kind of disabilities do they have?”
“Daniel, you acted like you were desperate over the phone! We are trying to help you out,” she smirked and slapped at her desk a little bit. “The wife has Parkinson's disease. She is a little shaky but she can care for herself independently. The husband is paralyzed from Cerebral Palsy. He's been that way since birth. He can feel things throughout his entire body but has extremely limited movement in his arms and hands, enough to press buttons on a touch screen but little else. He is the tough one of the two honestly. He has an ostomy bag and wears a condom catheter. So, unlike Sam you won't have to worry about a bowel program.”
“I am familiar with the catheter. What is the ostomy bag for?” I questioned.
“Well, I will give you the layman's terms,” she took a breath. ”They rerouted his intestine to a hole in his stomach and he poops in a bag.”
“Ahh. When I was young I had a friend whose grandmother had one of those. I would always ask her what was in it and she would just say, 'dry leaves.' Never thought about that until right now. Isn't that weird?”
“You are a weirdo, Daniel. We know that. So, what do you say?”
“What are their names? What are they like?” I asked.
“Okay, awesome, you are in. Their names are Jessica and Patrick. He typically goes by Patty though and she goes by everything but late for dinner. They are funny, very religious but still inappropriate enough to ease you off the humor heroin
that is Samantha.”
“I'm sure with the ostomy bag poop jokes are a must,” I laughed. “The humor heroin? After going through Sam I could do with some wholesomeness. The girl never won any awards with that mouth. When can I start?”
Later that night Paaj arrived home late from work. I sat in the kitchen at a plain wooden table, painted white, surrounded by four chairs, all in different styles. Appa the Japanese chin and Lulu the corgi puppy ran around on the fenced in deck, chasing squirrels and barking. The floor always seemed to be dirty in the small space, seeing regular use as a food prep area, pantry, receiving space and dining room. It was the hub of the house and gateway to the outside world. The cool summer wind breathed through the screen door and ran across my head and face, leaving traces of the outdoors and causing the scar on my neck to tingle. My right cheek, where lymph nodes had been removed after contracting stage three melanoma, glistened with sweat as the glands had become disturbed after surgery. Although I felt cool I knew it had been a natural reaction to something, I just couldn't say what. Random face sweat. I could think of worse problems to have.
Paaj entered through the living room and wrapped her arms around me. Her round face brushed up against my neck from behind while her fine, black hair danced against my shoulder. My scar was electrified and I shuddered with a jolt.
“What?” she smiled. “Not happy to see me?”
“It's the scar. Even after some time it is still sensitive. The nerves are in disarray. You touch my neck and I feel it in the tip of my ear.”
She frowned. “Why don't you ever act like you're happy to see me?”
I smiled and turned my head to give her a kiss. “I am happy to see you. I am just not feeling so great.”
“Why not?” She rolled her sleeves up onto her shoulder to create a tank top and walked over to the fridge for a cold bottle of water.
“Post Traumatic Stress. You better recycle that bottle or Thunberg will call you a garbage person,” I smirked, trying to lighten the mood. I knew that if Thunberg saw the inside of my car she would probably have a melt-down and call me THE garbage person. Paaj winked at me.
“Takes one to know one, Danny. Why don't you go downstairs and lay down?”
“Paaj, I got the job in Anoka.”
“You mean you didn't get the position with that Hmong gymnast's family?”
“Nah, they didn't want me.”
Paaj shrugged, “Good, Danny. That makes me so proud that you are getting back to work.”
“I just need to take it slowly.”
Despite the perfect evening outdoors, my mind was spinning with delusions and uncertainty. I looked longingly at Paaj. I didn't want to retire to our cold, dark, basement bedroom. The coolness was a comfort, yes but to be alone underground was more the life of a mole or worm. I would never admit to that thought, as Paaj's brother spent most of his time in the downstairs living room. The coolness of the basement was like the coolness of the ground, the earth, or the spent remnants of a fire after a summer rain. I didn't want to be buried down there. I didn't want to be entombed in the ashes of Minneapolis.
I descended the steep carpeted staircase until I arrived at a wall of polished wood. I followed the wall through the dimness until I reached the bedroom. The floor was soft and cold. I took off my pants and slid between the mattress and the heavy comforter. I lay on my back with my legs crossed and hands at my chest, like a corpse or vampire.
The pain came gently at first, just a tingle in the crown of my head but eventually wrapped itself around my neck like a noose, then a dagger in the center of my chest, then my heart, a puncture wound in my stomach and my legs wrapped in barbed wire. My face grew tight as I grit my teeth. I began to squirm and wince in near convulsion. I shifted my body into a fetal position and remained motionless, my shape paralyzed as though held in stasis by an iron maiden.
Then the flashbacks came like a horror movie about trapped prisoners of war. It's almost like I could see myself in a cell. The ancient Asian features. Rounded face with a nub for a chin, short black hair, cheeks that seemed stricken with rosacea, a body draped in prison garb.
This was me. Or had it been me? Perhaps he was a real person on the other side of the world? I couldn't say for sure. Stuck in this place, these visions lasted nearly half an hour. They eventually subsided, retreating into my subconscious. The confusion and dread lingered in my mind. A disturbance to drive most insane. After my mental health journeys it was all but commonplace. Typically in my trauma, I would dream about Mexican hitmen following me or torturing me. However, in the months following the release of my first book I was suddenly in Asia. I did not want Paaj to know. All secrets were known in our marriage except this one. She could never know.
I pulled up to the two story townhouse in Anoka at five minutes to eight o'clock. It was the last unit in a long row. The paint slightly bubbled on the exposed east side of the structure from spending too much time in the late morning sunlight. I rang the buzzer and waited a couple minutes. Light commotion could be heard inside. I peeked through the small rectangular window in the center of the door, hoping to get a glimpse of the source of the noise. The door stirred twice and a small, bookish woman appeared in the crevasse, trembling like a leaf in the wind. I quickly pulled up my face mask which had been hanging around my neck. Her graying hair was cut to her shoulders which deceived her face, largely without wrinkles. She looked to be over fifty but not by much. Crow’s feet appeared in the corners of her eyes as she smiled.
“You must be Daniel,” she held out a meek, shaky hand.
I helped her prop the door open a little wider so she could backtrack into the house and I could follow. The place was scattered with all sorts of knick-knacks, religious statues and paintings, piles of paper on a computer desk near a very odd looking keyboard, and other random clutter. Jessica had a slow gait as her Parkinson's was getting the best of her. I followed leisurely behind.
“You can call me Dan if you want,” I replied entering the living room.
“...and you can call me Jess,” she paused. “That's what my friends call me.”
Jess turned to me and motioned upstairs, “Patty is still in bed. Morning staff has yet to arrive. Why don't you come and introduce yourself?”
There was a large rectangular platform cut into the floor at the bottom of the stairs. I assumed it was an elevator of some sort for Patty's wheelchair. The banister was solid, forming the stairwell into a long corridor which rose into a sunlit hallway and continued on to his bedroom. Jess climbed the stairs slowly, one by one and I continued on closely behind her. Once on the second level I glanced into the first room we passed. It was a kind of pantry with a large, metallic cabinet. Typically houses had an area like this to store medications and other medical supplies. The familiar logo on a case of latex gloves caught my eye. There were several cases marked both medium and large. “At least they have the right sizes,” I thought.
We made a right turn into the following room. Patty laid in bed on his back, a breathing mask attached to his face, covering his mouth and nose. He strained to see who was entering the room but could not lift his head, only shifting his hazel eyes slightly downward, staring down past his nose.
“Hello.” The soft but masculine murmur escaped from his mouth during a prolonged breath.
“Hey there buddy,” I greeted him. “Rough night?”
Jess and Patty both stifled out a few giggles.
“Yeah,” he smiled. “You could say a rough life.”
“At least you have this beautiful young lady
with you, right?”
Patty glared at me, “That's my wife you're talking about.”
They both giggled again.
“You know, I live with my girlfriend. Her name is Paaj.”
“That sounds so nice,” Jess said as she sauntered over to the other side of the bed, pushing a button to raise Patty into a sitting position. His hair was darker than hers, cut short and parted on the side. He wore a thick, bushy mustache, trimmed just above his upper lip. The blankets were pulled up to his neck. Judging by the suggested form beneath, he was of stocky build. Like my former client Samantha, his arms and legs were thin and frail with the bulk of his weight appearing around the torso and midsection.
“Can you take this mask off of me? Use the sanitizer first.”
“Sure thing,” I replied, rounding the bed and generously lathering my hands with sanitizer.
I detached the straps on the side of the mask, carefully lifted the back of his head and pulled them out from behind. I placed the mask in a basket attached underneath the humidifier machine.
“Dry mouth,” he coughed a little. “Not much fun
late at night.”
I stared down at him and was reminded of Sam. I still hadn't talked to her since I abandoned her in her new apartment. I didn't know if I ever would.
“You know, we want to just let you know that you can skip the formalities. We may be disabled but we want to be treated like anyone else.”
Jess nodded in agreement.
“Oh? So you haven't heard of my credo yet?” I raised my eyebrow.
“What's that?” Pat gurgled in his throat a little.
“There is nothing quite as dangerous as a well placed poop joke.”
“Plenty of bullshit around here, Daniel,” he snickered. “Plenty of bullshit.”
I did not expect swearing. Greta had told me that they were strict Catholics.
“So, are we cursing in this house then? I mean, I saw the dying guy hanging from the crucifix a bunch of times downstairs and just wanted to be sure.” Patty and Jess giggled again.
“As long as it isn't gangster rap we are okay with it,” Jess chided.
“Oh damn, well I was listening to some Tupac on the way here. Have you ever actually listened to Tupac? Or any rap music?”
Patty seemed to be leaning to one side of the bed and I instinctually straightened him on bed and fluffed his pillow a little bit.
“Well, not really,” Jess continued. “Why would we?”
“So, if you watch a lot of gangster rap music videos, they all have tattoos of crosses, there is a lot of religious imagery. They rap about God and Jesus all the time.”
She looked puzzled.
“Most of what they talk about is along the lines of 'I don't want my kids to grow up like me' or 'why are we fighting each other' or even 'I hope I can go to heaven someday.' Very common themes in even hardcore rap music.”
“I guess you learn something new every day,” Patty breathed out.
“Tupac and Biggie are like modern day prophets to me. They died to show us that fighting amongst our tribe is a painful war. I guess they had other, well, habits however so people don't think of them that way.”
“Thank you for enlightening us,” Jess walked trembling around to the foot of the bed. “That is one thing we can all agree on. Shall we get down to business?”
“Yes of course,” I let out a nervous laugh. “God, for a moment I almost forgot I was at work.”
Patty coughed, “Haven't heard that from a staff, like, ever. Glad to know.”Jess smirked.
“Now, when the morning staff arrives we can begin the morning care routine. It takes about two hours to get Patty ready and up into his chair. He will have breakfast, brush his teeth, range of motion, wash and powder his back and groin, get him dressed, check his ostomy bag, replace his catheter and then put him in his chair. Showers are Friday night, Monday morning and Wednesday morning. He usually has oatmeal for breakfast. Kitchen is downstairs through the living room and oatmeal is in the cupboard near the stove. He takes about two servings. Why don't you go get started on that?”
“Sure thing, Jess,” I nodded.
“Maple syrup please. Not the sugar free garbage,” Patty piped up.
“Of course,” I agreed, and headed into the hallway.
Once on the main floor I navigated to a small kitchen, tucked unobtrusively in the back corner of the house. There was a glass door that lead out into the backyard where a small plastic slide lay on its side next to a kiddie pool, half filled with dirt, leaves and murky water. The space was done up with pink tile and white cabinets which offset the colors of the older appliances, which had yellowed a little with age. I found the oatmeal and measuring cup and got to work on breakfast. I could hear Jess shuffling down the stairway and making her way across the adjacent room. She appeared in the doorway.
“Patty already seems to like you, Dan. We both do already. It's nice to have a young person like yourself around.”
I laughed a little, “You know you are only about fifteen years older than me. Maybe not even that much. Look at my chin once.” I titled my head up and ran my hand across a large gray patch of hair on the underside of my jaw and neck. My scar began to tingle. Jess made no mention of it.
“Oh really? You seem so much younger,” she admitted.
“Yeah, everyone says that,” I paused. “Do you want to know my secret?”
“What's your secret?”
“I am an expert at acting stupid, being an idiot, faking naivety. Life is always better when you find pleasure in your own ignorance. Learn to use your stupidity effectively and you will go far.”
“That's brilliant,” she laughed.
“I can do you one better even,” I replied, taking the hot bowl of oatmeal out of the microwave and pouring on a few squirts of maple syrup.
“What's that?” she asked.
“Embarrassment is laughter fuel. Learning to find humor in your own shame will keep you happy for the rest of your life,” I smiled. “Can you imagine how many people go through life protecting themselves from being embarrassed? Oof. Too much energy wasted for me. They make bad decisions just to avoid it and screw things up even more. I would suggest to just laugh it up.”
“Ahhh. We will get along famously, you and I. Now Patty, he has severe depression. He really needs someone with your temperament in his life. We both do. It eases the day along. It seriously feels like a weight has been lifted here.”
“Well, I am no magic leprechaun. I just know what it is like to be in pain. It's not fun.”
She paused, “Well, I am sorry to hear that.”
I looked down at the oatmeal and glowered.
“So hot lumps with lumps and sugar today is it? Off we go!” I spun around Jess and headed up the stairs. There was a knock at the door as I reached the top. It was the morning staff.
“Don't worry, I will get the door!” Jess yelled up at me. “Don't worry about a thing!”