CONTENT WARNING: Discussion and depiction of grief, trauma, and loss, implied suicidal ideation, mentions of drowning, bullying, and mild substance abuse.
B-Side 01: Reminiscences on life, loss, love, and healing from Sam Bailey.
Starring Trevor Van Winkle as Sam Bailey, with original music by Jesse Haugen. Written by Trevor Van Winkle and produced by Trevor Van Winkle and Virginia Spotts, and made possible by our supporters at Patreon.com/homesteadcorner
For more information and additional content, visit thesheridantapes.com
CONTENT WARNINGS: Discussion and depiction of grief, trauma, and loss, implied suicidal ideation, mentions of drowning, bullying, and mild substance abuse
[The faint sound of static giving way to rain pattering against a window, and the faint crackle of a fireplace]
[The light roll of thunder]
When I was a kid, my mom used to tell me – Sam, just because you don’t love the people you’re supposed to, doesn’t make that love any less real. She used to tell me — Sam, you have a heart as deep and dark and wide as a lake, but most people only see what’s on the surface. Once you find someone who’s willing to dive in and look for what’s beneath… then, only then, do you know you’ve found your person.
My dad, on the other hand, told me that the secret to finding love was learning to play the guitar. I guess that’s the trade-off for having young parents still very much in love… You may end up with some half baked advice about romance.
It’s strange… I lost both of them when I was barely five years old, but I can still remember them so clearly that it’s almost like they’re still here with me. Like they never left. I can still remember their faces. I can still remember dad’s voice, singing The Parting Glass while I listened from the stairs, legs dangling through the banisters. I wasn’t supposed to be up that late, and I knew it, but I just wanted to hear him sing. His voice wasn’t especially smooth or elegant, especially not once he’d had a few drinks. But it was warm and full and it felt like home. It didn’t surprise me when I learned he sang in a band, though I didn’t discover that until years after he was gone. Back then, I thought his voice was something that only existed between the three of us – me, dad, and mom.
When he sang, it was like the rest of the world just… faded away.
I can still remember my mom’s arms: how strong they were, and how safe it felt when she held me. Dad could make the whole world disappear with a song, but she could fight it off with one hand tied behind her back. I remember her eyes: steel blue, sharp and bright as arrowheads. I knew I could lie to dad, so of course I did… More than I should’ve, I’ll admit. But I never dared lie to mom. I knew she would cut through me with a look, and I’d end up a blubbering, undignified mess on the floor, confessing every lie I’d ever told anyone. But even so, I knew she’d still pick me up, clean my face, and tell me – “It’s okay Sam… The world has enough good liars. Maybe it needs some bad ones.”
I don’t know how I remember so much about them. I can barely remember anything about those first few years of my life. Maybe it’s just that back then, my parents felt like my whole world, and so I didn’t bother to remember anything else. I’d like to think that. But I think it’s more likely the fact that when I went into the lake, they were the very last people I thought of before the water filled my lungs and the world went black.
I tried to believe I’d imagined it. The questions. The voice. What I’d promised to give it. I tried to pray. I tried to make other bargains, other deals with anyone, anything who was listening. But evidently, no one was. And so, later that spring, a lone police officer showed up at school and told me, in no uncertain terms, that I’d just become an orphan.
I didn’t cry for a long time after that. I couldn’t. The part of me that would have cried or should have just – shut down. It actually made grandma nervous when she saw it. She watched me identify my parent’s bodies, attend their funeral, and move out of my childhood room with what looked like a cold, mechanical detachment. It was only when I had to go through their possessions and decide what should go into storage that I finally broke down. I remembered visiting a storage locker with dad after his brother died, and the rows and rows of blank steel doors alway made me think of tombstones. That, of all things, was what finally made it real to me… The cold, pragmatic certainty that mom and dad wouldn’t need their stuff anymore. The fact that I had to decide whether I wanted to keep dad’s Stratocaster, or seal it away until I was old enough to play it. Whether I wanted to keep mom’s shawl, or if I thought it was a little too big for me. That last one ripped a harsh laugh out of me between sobs.
Of course it was too big for me. It was all too big for me.
I was a mess, but somehow, grandma helped me muddle through. I didn’t realize how hard that must have been for her until years later. She helped me pack what I wanted to keep, supervised my uncle as he stacked the rest into a small storage unit, and then bundled me into the back of her old station wagon later that evening. I watched the old billboard that said, “Come again soon, y’all!” vanish into the distance through the back window, and felt the strangest sense of relief at the thought that I might never see it again.
Within a few weeks, I’d more or less settled into my new home, if not my new life. Arrowhead Elementary was different from Agate Shore… Bigger, for one thing, and meaner. Or at least, the kids were. And once they learned that I was an orphan on top of being from a backwater town down the grade, it’s… well. Anyone who thinks children can’t be cruel has either never been a child, or was one of the cruel ones. But even if my mom didn’t raise me to be a fighter, she showed me how. And the playground bullies of Arrowhead Elementary soon realized I could be just as mean as them if they tried to back me into a corner… even if Charlie Spenser didn’t get the message until I sent him to the nurse with two black eyes. I was suspended for a week after that, but when I came back the other kids kept their distance. And not just the bullies, either. I have to say, I was more than happy with that arrangement.
Grandma did her best, but honestly, she didn’t know what to do with me. I think she kept expecting the sweet, happy child she knew before to reappear once the grief had passed. But I was a sad, angry kid who’d just lost my parents, my home, and whatever friends I had in Agate Shore, and so I stayed that way. She didn’t know about the deal… She couldn’t have understood that I blamed myself. Maybe if I’d been a little younger when it happened, or even a little older, I might have handled it a little better… But as it was, I was too old to forget and too immature to process it in anything resembling a healthy way. And so I let my anger turn inwards, festering and smoldering inside my heart like a fever. And when it finally found its way out, it burst forth in hard words and sharp-edged hatred that burned those few people who dared to try and help me.
I always apologized once my anger had cooled again, tried to rebuild those friendships and relationships that were already frail to begin with. Sometimes it worked – but even with those friends who were willing to forgive and forget, it was only a matter of time before that guilt and self-loathing in my heart took root again, and I turned that anger against them. After all, if they hadn’t tried to be my friend, tried to show me the joy of being young and alive and free – then I wouldn’t be able to notice how cold and dark and trapped I really was inside. And so, one by one and year by year, my friends fell away from me… Sometimes in a flurry of angry words and raised tempers, but more often than not in just a simple, quiet fading away.
I spent years on the edge of that cliff, teetering between just wanting to be left alone and needing to be loved. Elementary school, middle school, and the first year of high school all passed in a blur before I realized I couldn’t stay that way forever. That I had to make a choice before I couldn’t.
I just wish it hadn’t taken grandma dying for me to see it.
My grandma was the sweetest, most patient woman I ever had the pleasure of knowing. While I gave her nothing but bitter anger and teenaged angst, she returned it with kindness, homemade cookies, and a space for utter honesty whenever the rage inside me cooled enough to feel the depth of loss within my heart. It was only at her funeral that I realized she’d done it all struggling with her own demons.
I met her therapist after the service: a middle-aged, short haired woman who’d helped her through the death of both my father and grandfather years before, and who visited her every day in the hospital after her cancer returned and she was no longer able to stay home. I was stunned. Grandma had suggested I go see a therapist more than once, but I scoffed at the idea, saying I was fine and didn’t need to see a shrink. Of course I didn’t notice the way she reacted when I said that.
I started seeing her once a week. At first the truth came out just bit by bit, each crumb and scrap feeling like barbed wire in my chest as she pulled it out. After so long hiding the way I really felt even from myself, it was a wonder they came out at all. But slowly, as I learned to trust this strange, sharp-edged woman, it began to get easier. I told her about school. I told her about the few friends I hadn’t managed to scare off yet, about how classes were going, about which teachers made me want to tear my hair out.
And finally, on one rain-soaked afternoon when I could barely think for the sound of the waves in my head, it all came out: my dad’s voice, my mother’s arms, the lake, the bargain, the fear, the friend I suddenly realized I had a crush on when he…
She listened quietly, never writing any of it down on the ever-present legal pad I’d only seen her use once in six months. When I finally ran myself out on that last confession, she gave me the first warm, genuine smile I think I’d ever seen on her face and said, “Thank you for telling me that, Sam. Now we can get started.”
I visited her every week without fail as I made my slow, tenuous way through the last two years of high school. She helped me realize that I didn’t feel the same way about boys as most of my peers did. Then she helped me realize I didn’t feel the same way about girls either, or really about myself. That last one took longer to realize than the others, and I only really accepted it after I left high school, left Arrowhead, and left Nevada altogether to move to L.A. and go to college. I learned a lot in those four years. I learned how many beers I could – and couldn’t – drink. I learned that I wasn’t half as alone as I’d felt in that dry little town in the middle of nowhere. And I learned that I wanted to help people. For some reason, I decided that the best way to do that would be as a police detective, solving crimes and setting wrongs to right.
Like with so many things back then, I was just smart enough to convince myself to make the wrong choice.
I fell in love again – slowly, awkwardly, and mostly unsuccessfully. I reached out, opened my heart to it… and more often than not, had my heart broken by people I didn’t really love and who definitely didn’t love me. I tried not to let it turn inward, tried not to repeat the mistakes of the past – and failed in a slow, spectacular way. By senior year I was a coffee and alcohol fueled mess, locked in my dorm obsessively studying to try and pull my frankly below-average grades up and land a nice job right out of college. It worked out about as well as you’d expect. In the end, I was too busy puking up my guts to even walk at graduation.
Two months later, I was sleeping on a friend’s couch when the last of my applications came back rejected. I almost gave up and started looking for a barista job, but then I noticed a new listing for a homicide detective. I clicked on it, more out of desperation than anything else… And then I saw where it was from. Agate Shore.
Seeing that name again made me feel like I was suddenly back under those icy waters, struggling to breathe as I tried to break through the surface. And then the moment passed, and I looked closer. Honestly, it seemed tailor made for me. The job requirements were simple, and even without any practical experience I more than exceeded them. Legally, I still owned my parent’s house in Agate Shore… They’d bought it at a time when a struggling musician and a competitive archer could still buy a home and leave it to their kid. I hadn’t set foot inside since the day I’d left Agate Shore all those years ago, but moving back in would be simple enough. And so, more out of curiosity than anything else, I sent my application to the listed email address and went to sleep. I woke up the next morning with a new email in my inbox, requesting an interview.
A month later, I showed up for my first day of work at Agate Shore Police Department. A month after that, I was bored out of my mind. There wasn’t much for a homicide detective to do in a town as small and quiet as Agate Shore had become, and on a busy week I might be called out to the site of one, maybe two bad car crashes just to rule out the possibility of foul play. Not that I complained about the lack of work. Not when I had Allen to distract me.
Sweet, kind, patient, strong, beautiful Allen. Irritating Allen. Vexing Allen. Annoying Allen.
He was all the best parts of all the best people I’d ever known and so much more besides… And yet, for the longest time, I didn’t know if I loved him. Not the way he loved me. Definitely not the way he deserved to be loved. One drunken night after the station New Year’s Party, he accidentally blurted out that he, uh… well. I think it’s better that what he said exactly is uh, is lost to history. Suffice to say it made my little grey-ace heart clench into a tight little fist of panic. I’d been on the other side of the unrequited love equation more than once, and I hated the idea that when he woke up, I’d have to be the one to say, in all honesty – I don’t feel that way about you. Not yet, anyway.
It was that not yet that he latched onto. Not in a possessive way, not pushing or pulling me into something I didn’t want or skulking around until I gave in and just said I loved him back. The next day we both went back to simply being coworkers and friends… As much as was humanly possible in that situation. I badgered him about police procedure and how messy his desk was. He pestered me out of the office whenever I’d spent too many days in there obsessing over some small thing I couldn’t change. And slowly, bit by bit, my heart unclenched, then opened, and then, finally, on a late Autumn day just before Thanksgiving, I saw him walking to work through one of the lobby windows. The police station boasted two of the only maple trees in town – no small feat of horticultural wizardry this far out into the Nevadan desert.
As he strolled across the street, the early morning light and the slow spiral of falling leaves framed him in a way that I had never seen him before, and suddenly, I felt a kind of love I hadn’t felt in nearly four years, and I finally understood what my mother’s words had meant.
Even so, it took me more than a week to actually tell Allen how I felt. Even though I knew he felt the same way about me, I still felt like an awkward kid with a new crush – which, if I’m being honest, is what I was. But once I did, it took us less than a month to move in together. That may have had more to do with the fact that Allen’s lease was up that month, but even so…
Allen brought Russel with him, still basically a puppy at that point and full of boundless, wild energy. We never had dogs in my family, even when I was a kid, and Russel was just – the best boy. I loved him nearly as much as Allen – sometimes more so. Even if he did occasionally piss on the carpets.
And we were happy. For many, many years, we were both so, deliriously happy. We spent our days full of work and love and food and sleep and TV and Russel and slow dancing in our socks on the kitchen floor.
We grew older. I grew kinder, my hard edges wearing away, and somehow, Allen managed to grow kinder still. And he always knew how to make me laugh, even on the darkest days.
[Sam takes a deep breath]
And I wish I could say the story ended there. That this long history of life and loss and growth and healing and love could be tied up in a neat little bow at that moment. “And they lived happily ever after. The End.”
But we all know that’s a lie. We always know it’s a lie. It contradicts itself. “Happy ever after” can’t exist alongside “The End.” Doesn’t work like that. Never has. No matter how much we wish it could.
But, I don’t think it has to. I don’t believe that the ending has to be, or even should be, happy, ever after. It doesn’t even need to be happy, at the end. It just needs to be happy, sometimes. It just has to be happy, enough. From time to time. In the little moments. In the times we really remember.
My mom used to tell me that I had a heart as deep and dark and wide as a lake… and most of the time, that feels exactly like it sounds. But not always. Not when it matters. She told me, “Just because you don’t love the people you’re supposed to, doesn’t make that love any less real.” And my heart is full of that very same love. Allen’s love, of course, but also my mother’s and my father’s. My grandmother’s, and the love of that friend who let me crash on their couch while I looked for a job. The love of Bill, and even Maria, new and unsure as it may be. Even the love of that sharp-edged old therapist, who smiled and told me that the real work starts here. That life doesn’t end with loss and brokenness and death – it begins there. And it begins again. And again. And again.