Excerpt from The Art of My Life by Ann Lee Miller

*Honorable mention for fiction in the 2nd Annual Arizona Writer’s Conference.

Starr stood on the dock and stared across the water at the Escape. Angry clouds boiled and spit mist from the sky.

Cal hunched over the back of the boat, his cupped hand moving to his lips, pausing, returning to his side—a dance she’d watched her parents do till she could watch the video on the inside of her eyelids. But never Cal. Of course, she knew he smoked pot. He’d been arrested with a felonious quantity on his person. But actually seeing him smoke—

She sank to the damp boards of the dock, winded by the impact of her emotions. Oh, God, no. Her son repeating her father’s life. She clenched her arms across her waist and tried to pray, but her thoughts seemed to plummet into the Intercoastal instead.

Gradually, grief receded, and rage crashed back in its place. She texted Cal to come in and paced the dock.

Cal palmed his phone, stared at it. The drawbridge opened, slicing a ribbon of purple sky between the two halves of the town. Cal pocketed the phone. He turned his face toward the dock.

Starr halted, hands at her sides. If Cal didn’t make a move in five minutes, she’d take a dinghy tied behind one of the larger boats and row out to him.

Cal looked away. A gull swooped toward the mouth of the Intercoastal and the freedom of the ocean. He stood, took a long drag, and flicked the remains of the joint into the river.

Starr watched Cal untie the rope from the deck and drop into the dinghy, wondering if Cal obeyed because he felt her fury from across the water.

He rowed with languorous strokes. Muscles worked across his back, the cords of a man. He wasn’t the six-year-old who pulled a Calvin and Hobbes prank or the teen who skipped school. But he was still her son whom she loved with desperation.

Cal tossed the oars into the bottom of the boat and grabbed hold of the ladder. He shot a sullen glance at her, then stared at the barnacle-encrusted piling in front of him.

“Evie came over this morning in hysterics because you and Aly slept together. Didn’t I teach you better than that?”

Cal raised bloodshot eyes to her. “We did not have sex.”

She believed him, and she was surprised. Maybe she was crazy, but something in his eyes, the flatness of his voice convinced her. A mother knew when her son was telling the truth. Relief sanded the edge off her anger.

“I get down here and I see you smoking weed, something no mother should ever have to witness. I’m watching a rerun of a bad movie—my dad’s life.”

Cal’s jaw hardened. He stared past her right ear.

“People say pot’s not addictive. That’s bullshit.”

Cal’s head jerked up.

Good. She wanted to shock him. She probably hadn’t used a coarse word in four decades—since her girlhood best friend’s mother taught her what they were. “You want to be Leaf? Well, I have a story to tell you.” She crossed her arms and stared down at the off-center part in Cal’s hair.

“My father came home drunk and fought with my grandfather. Leaf knew he’d never been able to do anything good enough to please his father. And when he said as much, my grandfather said, ‘You’re damn straight you haven’t.’ ”

Cal’s knuckles whitened on the ladder.

Starr sighed. “That was the last time they saw each other—the night of my father’s high school graduation. I heard the story when I was a teen one night when Dad was flying particularly high.”

She tucked a wisp of hair behind her ear that had fallen from her bun and tickled her neck. Her fingers brushed the slick outline of her scar. “I researched his three siblings on the Internet—all college graduates with white-collar jobs. But my father chose a love affair with marijuana instead of a real life. Pot numbed him from the pain his father generated, but it also robbed Henna of a deep emotional connection with him. It robbed me.” Her voice broke. She stopped, filled her lungs with damp, fishy air.

Cal looked up, his eyes searching hers. Something inside each of them welded in that second.

Starr squatted down, shortening the distance between them to a few feet. “We have an addict’s genes. If you don’t make a choice, you’ll keep walking down this road. Someday you’ll be a paranoid old man with no gut-level bond with another human.

“Maybe you can live disconnected from me, but I can’t live disconnected from you. I’ll starve. Maybe you think you can smoke recreationally. You can’t. Not with our genes. In fact, I think you’re in too deep now. Only God can get you out.”

Cal’s expression hardened and her anger intensified.

“How’s it working for you, Cal—without God?” She rose, pirouetted, and walked down the pier as calmly as if she exited the Nutcracker stage. Her chest and throat ached to cry all the tears she’d never learned to cry.

The sound of Starr’s voice clanged off the weed altered fun-house walls of his skull. God, God, God, God.

There was something his mother had said he wanted to remember. But the slapping of the waves against the dinghy seemed to separate into octaves, punctuated by a pelican squawk, the deafening bass of wire and rope pummeling masts in the wind.

Blood careened through his body. He could feel it pulsing in his veins and capillaries, webbing through the back of his head and in his throat—intensifying like headlights recharged by a car’s generator.

The boat bounced in the small swells of the river where it had drifted. He should thread the oars through the oarlocks, angle the bow toward the Escape, and row, but the process seemed too complex.

The stench of exposed barnacles filled his nostrils—like Starr’s tirade. He didn’t want to remember it. He’d smoked to forget her expectations. Still, something niggled at him. Something important.

His mind merry-go-rounded to Aly. He loved Aly’s order—everything in its place—the peace he felt when he stared at his work, matted and framed on the wall of her condo. Thoughts materialized, clouded, and wisped through his fingers. She’d learned to read his art and understand things he didn’t know how to voice. The guy inside meant something to her.

Aly’s face, the touchdown of his lips on hers, the forest scent of her sleeping in his arms, the timbre of her voice when she said she loved him a long time ago…. He’d banked on Aly’s still caring. But it didn’t matter how she felt if he had nothing to offer her.

The airplane engine drone of vehicles crossing the causeway crept to an automobile hum. The crackling of wind in his ears no longer sounded like maximum decibel radio static. A musty blanket of dissatisfaction settled on him.

The boat jostled, and he felt disoriented. He eyed the marina, North Causeway Marine, the opposite shore. He’d drifted into the middle of the river. He shoved one oar through its metal circle. The second. He dug into the water. Heaved the oars. Glanced over his shoulder at the Escape. Levered the dinghy five feet closer.

Starr had come down to the dock why? His brain slogged through river silt. She’d been pissed. Odd. She was critical, always. But clamped down. Under control. Because… he slept with Aly.

Ha. If only.

Something about Cal’s smoking… reminded her of Leaf.

His head cleared as he neared the Escape. He tied the dinghy up and hoisted himself onto the deck. Leaf’s story. That was the thing he wanted to remember. He sat on the deck until he scraped all the chad of his grandfather’s cautionary tale from the fuzz of his memory.

He didn’t want to repeat history any more than Starr wanted him to. He thought about the hundreds of times he’d stopped by Leaf’s metal trailer on the beach. He’d always chuckled at the queasy mix of hot dog and head-shop odors that spilled out the window. But it wasn’t funny if it smelled like your future.

He stumbled below to shower and shave away the leftover lethargy. Lego pieces of a plan stacked one on top of the other in his head. Starr’s criticism finally did something other than make him want to quit trying.

Ann Lee Miller, a BA in creative writing from Ashland University has published five novels. She loves speaking to young adults and guest lectures on writing at several Arizona colleges. When she isn’t writing or muddling through some crisis-real or imagined-you’ll find her hiking in the Superstition Mountains with her husband or meddling in her kids’ lives. Over 100,000 copies of Miller’s debut novel, Kicking Eternity, have been downloaded from Amazon.

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