Lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and two sons. Previous publications include 3AM Magazine, InkPot, Tryst, Pindeldyboz, and several others. He is the Editor of SmokeLong Quarterly.


The Ann Lamott Flu

For his midlife crisis, James found Jesus. While friends found women half their age, he found a man about five hundred times his. It was the least conventional thing he’d ever done.

It crept up on him subtly. Elise was going through one of her phases again, writing this time. She’d picked up every book on writing she could find and had been particularly struck by Ann Lamott’s “Bird by Bird,” so struck that she’d also picked up “Traveling Mercies.” While “Bird by Bird” found and kept an honored place on her nightstand, “Traveling Mercies” lay forgotten atop the toilet in the guest bathroom.

It probably would have remained forgotten had he not been struck by the flu that was leaving the United States helpless in fits and starts. The guest bathroom was much closer to the big screen TV where he lay watching bowl games. The attacks, no matter how much he thought himself ready, always caught him by surprise, typically at the peak of an exciting drive to the end zone.

Perched on the toilet, he found nothing to read but the forgotten Lamott. He wasn’t typically a reader, except while doing his business. And even then, he generally preferred the current issue of Sports Illustrated. As much as he reminded himself to cart some magazines into the can in between bouts, their denouements were met with such relief that he just gratefully crawled back to the couch.

Elise was hit far worse by the bug. While he evacuated the virus one way, she expelled it in a far less pleasant manner. She kept to the bedroom, trading fevered bits of writing for the occasional cool of the porcelain against her forehead. The few times she made it downstairs, she sent a withering glare at James. This, like so much else in her life, was absolutely his fault. He pretended not to notice, a technique that had become his preferred method of keeping the peace over the years.

The flu lasted for about a week, during which time Ann Lamott took over and divided the house. Upstairs the pages flew, as Elise wrote her stories not bird by bird, but fault by fault, litanies of incompetent and unloving husbands (or so he imagined). Downstairs, James was stunned to learn that not only did he like “Traveling Mercies,” but it made sense. The concept that there are essentially two prayers, “Help me” and “Thank you” was perfectly logical to him. On the few occasions in his life that he’d prayed, the prayers had been “God help me pass this exam” or “Thank God that car missed me.” Religion, and Christianity in particular, was at last clear to him.

And so the prayers began. At first, he was ecstatic to find this new relationship and didn’t even notice that his prayers were heavily weighted in one direction. “Lord, help me to ignore Elise’s bitching.” “Lord, help me not to make an ass of myself in front of the Board.” “Lord, help me to remember to take out the garbage tomorrow so Elise doesn’t get pissed off.”

It took a period of weeks (and a re-read of “Traveling Mercies”) before he realized that he almost never said a “Thank you” prayer. He took to adding one line to every prayer. “Lord, help me to be thankful.”

He searched avidly for things about his life for which he was thankful. He and Elise lived in a beautiful house in Winnetka. They had plenty of money. It seemed empty, though. Since the Lamott flu had hit the house, he rarely slept upstairs anymore, preferring either the couch or the guest bed. Elise didn’t comment on it, seemed relieved, in fact.

As he struggled to find gratitude to God, his prayers became shorter, finally just repetitions of “Help me, help me, help me.”

Finally, one night, he decided he needed baptism to be truly saved, to find the ability to deepen his relationship with God and Christ enough to be grateful. The epiphany came at one o’clock in the morning in the middle of the week. He didn’t want to wait.

The drive to the lake took about ten minutes. The air was warm for a December morning on Chicago’s North Shore, perhaps twenty degrees. Crossing his arms, he briskly rubbed them through his robe.

He trotted down to the shore, his sheepskin slippers flip-flopping against his heels. He quickly removed his robe and his silk pajamas. Carefully, he folded his pajamas and set them, along with his slippers, several feet from the robe. He figured the terrycloth would make a good towel once he came out.

He sucked in one deep breath and prayed, “God, help me to feel closer to you. Amen.”

Shivering, he raced toward the lake, knees pumping high, not letting himself feel the biting cold of the water, until he finally lost his footing and plunged forward, perhaps twenty feet from shore.

The water was colder than he’d imagined. He tried to find his footing, but was disoriented and could not find the bottom. Panicky, he knew that hypothermia would not take long to set in and he swallowed more of Lake Michigan than was healthy. “Help me,” he thought.

As his energy was leeched away by the icy currents, he ceased struggling. Miraculously, his body righted itself, and his head broke the surface. His flailing had taken him further from shore.

He tried to breast stroke back, but found his limbs too heavy to cooperate. Before going under one last time, he realized what it was he wanted to say, “Thank you."

Copyright © 2004 Dave Clapper