Last Resort [story] by James Kincaid

Rescue the perishing
Care for the dying
Snatch them in pity
From sin and the grave

Dear Readers: You imagine you know what’s coming, having spent years with Abby and Amy and Ann. An honorable tradition, or at least hoary. However, if I give you what you expect, I will have failed. I do not intend to fail.

In sixth grade I decided to play football, not because I nursed an admiration for the sport; but because our team had a tradition: boys only. Not after I was done.

You think upsetting pee-wee football hardly matches up with rocking the big-time world of syndicated columnists, but that shows how little you’ve considered it. People care, really care, about kids and football; they don’t, really don’t, care, about newspapers. That’s true even of people who run them. Newspapers are going the way of the Dodo anyhow; but for the couple of years they’re still here, I intend to set off bombs. I am not modest, and you shouldn’t be either.

I find most people tedious: little white people, little white lies. You are yourself a vapid, dead center honkie, of course, or you wouldn’t be reading. And I recognize, no one more clearly, that trying to reach the poor, the rich, black, red, or yellow in my read-ership is pissing into the wind.

So, overstuffed puffs, I will wake you up. Woe to those of you at ease in Zion.

I deal only with desperate people, those who have lost their way, and I take up blinding problems that occupy every minute and every inch of our mental lives. Consid-ering writing me? Unless you are caught inside something that can break your heart and your life along with it, don’t.

There’s a reason they call me “Last Resort.”

***

Dear Last Resort,

I don’t know where to turn. My daughter and her boyfriend have evicted me, just thrown me right out. Several months ago, I signed over power of attorney to Jo Ellen, who said she needed it so she could take care of me properly and not face problems with the taxman. I transferred to her the title to my house. She said it was a formality. My bank account and small savings also. She said it would be hers eventually and this way she could avoid inheritance tax and it’d be the same for me.

Last week I received a registered letter telling me I had 30 days to vacate, as the house had been sold. I asked Jo Ellen about it, and she said she and Benjamin had decided I needed full-time care and that the house had become too much for me. They refuse to talk with me about this and won’t tell me where I am to go in 30 days.

Jo Ellen would never do such a thing, were she not under the control of this Benjamin. Jo Ellen won’t listen to me when I try to discuss this, now won’t return my calls.

What should I do? Please help me.

—Homeless at 83

Dear Homeless,

You need to contact the police immediately, explain what has happened, and press charges against your daughter. Insist on this and promise them you will not back down, be dissuaded. (That’s vital, as they are otherwise reluctant to work very diligently on family issues that so often collapse into the mush of forgiveness.) Stop blaming the boyfriend, who could do none of this on his own. It’s your daughter.

Get it through your head and accept it.

She doesn’t love you, wants your money and wants it now. The fact that she has made no arrangements shows just how much she cares. You must treat her as a dangerous enemy. Don’t let sentimentality get in your way.

There’s only one place for little Jo Ellen, that once-adorable tap-dancing honey for whom you sacrificed everything—and that is behind bars.

The police may tell you there is nothing they can do, since you have apparently signed over control of your life to those who wish you would vanish. Don’t trust the police on this point (or any other) but you may have dug yourself a deep hole. If the papers are properly drawn-up, you may be left with no recourse.

If that is the case, try AARP legal department, assuming you belong to AARP. If not, join. It costs $16 and surely you have that much left. (If not, tell me.)

Also, start calling rest homes in your area. Do NOT tell them you have only Medicare. Let them think you can pay full fare. Once you get the paperwork going, they probably won’t be able to eliminate you.

That’s it. Remember: when life gives you lemons, squirt ‘em in someone’s eyes.

—Last Resort

***

Dear Last Resort,

I want you to know that you and your column are stinking piles of dung. You are a moron and that column does big-time harm, assuming there are people out there stupid enough to take it to heart. I hope you are a cynic, making money by bilking the people willing to draw wisdom from a journalism student. To imagine you as sincere is too dark altogether. I’m sure you won’t publish this paragraph, so let’s get to the useable part.

I am writing you because my wife says she will leave me unless I do. She means everything to me. If she leaves, I will have no reason to live. I realize you hear that from probably 60% of those seeking your advice. I differ in that I have genuine insight into my own character and this situation.

My wife insists that I tell the whole story. Here it is: I had an affair with a graduate student in my lab, working on a grant project funded by the National Science Foundation (an important project, supported by our nation’s most prestigious agency, a point added in the interests of hiding nothing). I do not wish in any way to excuse my inexcusable actions. I mean that from the bottom of my heart and do not seek to diminish my responsibility. At the same time, I owe it to myself to tell an accurate story. It is complicated, not a melodrama. Though I am at fault, I am no villain.

Even the woman involved, the grad student, would agree that she was far from being the victim of my seductive wiles. She was not lured into a sordid affair, nor was she the subject of a deliberate plan. In fact—I am being candid here—it was she who pursued me. Of course I should have resisted. No excuses. Still, I will say that not a day went by in a period of several weeks that she did not make it clear, unmistakably clear, that what she wanted was me, sex with me. (I have an unblemished record as regards my treatment of women in the workplace.) She spoke of the two of us, our bodies and what we might do with them, in a way impossible to misinterpret, touched me inappropriately, actually made me the object of what would properly term sexual harassment.

But I should have resisted. I did resist for several weeks, as I say; but that makes no difference. I finally succumbed. That was wrong. I think my wife knows it was not the real me doing this. I was under great pressure at work; the project was not going well (thanks in no small part to the girl at the center of all this), my usually robust health was sagging. I make no excuses. I did it. I am sorry. I say that with deep sincerity. Absolutely, it won’t happen again. No matter the pressures or the temptations or even more outright harassment, I will be as faithful as the geyser.

—Sincerely, Repentant Husband

Dear Repentant.

Repentant is what you are not. There are many other things you are not: decent, honest, insightful, deserving of your wife. I say the last without knowing her, realizing it’s just possible she was not forced into marrying you, only deluded. She was in love, right? More women are hurt by that sappy mythology than by all the guns the NRA manages to wheedle into the hands of the pathological. The patriarchy does a slick job of selling “love” and its endorsement of the licensed prostitution called marriage, prettying up rape and making thugs like you unmerited beneficiaries of large-hearted women.

I received another letter that will serve as a response to Repentant. I print nothing but legitimate letters, as you know. I mention it again, as the massive coincidence involved might otherwise seem incredible. I should add that I can’t be sure that the writer of the following letter is the same “girl” referred to by Repentant. It hardly matters.

—Last Resort

Dear Last Resort,

I know you must receive so many letters opening with a declaration of being “desperate,” hoping thereby you will answer them in print. Well, I am certainly “desperate” too, hoping you will NOT print this but help me anyhow.

I was the victim of a most brutal form of sexual harassment over the past five months and more. A terrible story, made no less terrible by being banal: thousands of women have similar tales to tell. My variation is also a common one: a university graduate student attached to a professor who held over me not simply my livelihood (I was his lab assistant and needed the small stipend and the large tuition waiver) but my career. He could find ways to terminate my graduate studies altogether.

I am writing you not to seek advice, though I am sure you could provide excellent counsel, but because you will be hearing from my assailant. I have come to know his wife, who told me she was enacting this vengeance, forcing him to write and tell all. The professor in question would feel his dignity compromised by having even anonymous publicity. That’s part of it. Another part is that he is so egotistical as to imagine that everyone will at once read through the disguise, as if, in all the world, he were the only second-rate biology prof with a minor grant and no conscience.

His wife tipped me off to her revenge plan, so I could take steps to protect myself. I was unable to talk her out of doing this, so set is she on making her particular worm writhe. While I do not blame her for that, I wish she weren’t putting me at risk, too.

I am asking you, then, not to publish his letter, tempting as it might be. I have not seen that letter, but I can imagine the sorts of things he would say.

If you feel you cannot resist airing his nonsense, at least add the following, from an anonymous but 100% trustworthy source: his wife is dumping him anyhow.

—Sincerely, Screwed Over

Dear Last Resort,

I think it was quite wrong of you to publish the letter from “Screwed Over” when she asked you not to. By publishing hers and the one from her seducer, you have added to her pain. Of course, she was wrong to have sexual relations with a married man, no matter how much authority he held over her. There are police and campus authorities there to handle just such crimes, and she should have made use of them before committing a sin. But we should judge not less we too be judged.

I think you are no better than those papparazzi [sic] who feed on the public’s thirst for smut. Whatever happened to Christian charity?

—Sincerely, Mercy for Sinners

Dear Mercy,

It’s Christians like you who allow premarital sex to flourish. I hope you know that. By extending what you call “mercy” to fornicators, you may as well just provide them with alcohol, soft music, a bed, and condoms. You should talk right away to your priest, rabbi, minister, or cult leader. But it’s probably too late. And it’s “lest,” not “less,” birdbrain.

—Sincerely, Last Resort

P.S. I have learned never to underestimate the stupidity of my readership, so I have to say straight out that I am being sarcastic here.

***

Dear Last Resort,

Can you help me? I am in love with my sister. I can’t tell if she is “in love “ with me. I think she is; I really am pretty sure she is, so maybe I shouldn’t have said that I couldn’t tell. What I guess I mean is that I don’t know what we should do.

We are both 15, not twins but separated in a freakish way, by 11 months and 28 days, Mom and Dad being unable to hold themselves back, I guess, and Mom not nursing my sister, who is the older of our almost-twinned pair. Not that any of that matters.

I realize that what I am asking about shouldn’t even be a question. It is deeply wrong to be in love, so very much in love, when you are brother and sister. There’s a word for what we long for and it’s as ugly as any word there is. I have read a good deal about it, learning that it is nearly a universal taboo.

I realize too that we are young and cannot gauge very well what lies ahead and what deep problems we are causing for ourselves, problems we can’t quite see now but will come to cloud our lives or destroy them.

But I have no life I can imagine apart from Katherine, or she from me. I shouldn’t speak for her, but I know I can. (I will show her this letter and send it only if she agrees.) We have known about our love for three years, and have spoken of it openly in the last months. That means the sentences I wrote at the beginning were dishonest: my sister and I have no secrets from one another and are equally tangled inside this trap.

You are wondering if what I am asking about is having sex. I don’t think that’s it exactly. What we both want to find is some way to have a life together, a full life. Otherwise, neither of us wants any life.

Our parents are good to us and we love them, but they would not understand what it is we want, what it is we are, and would try very hard to separate us if they knew.

Can you help us?

—Yours sincerely, Thomas Abbot, Katherine Abbot

Dear Thomas and Katherine,

I make it a practice never to edit or alter letters, but I have changed your names, since otherwise your parents might spot this and, as you predict, move to separate you. I am convinced that such a separation would indeed be fatal.

It’s vital you both be very careful for a few years. Spend every minute you can together, since our lives are so short and such a bond as you have forged is so rare. Have sex too, all kinds of sex, at least all those kinds you both find enticing. When you, Thomas, are 18, and Katherine only days short of 19, run away together, change your names, and enroll in a college in a different state. Contact me then, and I will help.

I think you know that what you have together has so much power that ugly words cannot touch it. Count yourselves very lucky. You don’t need cautions—apart from being careful never again to let loose your real goddamned names—only good cheer, good luck, good loving.

—Sincerely, Last Resort

Dear Last Resort,

Now I know you are a fraud, though a pretty good comic fraud. Inventing that incest letter was pretty bold of you, pretty gross too. Did it occur to you that you might be lifting the lid of the proverbial Pandora’s Box, as hundreds of thousands of horny brothers and sisters now feel it’s perfectly okay to bounce into one another’s beds?

More power to them, I say, were it possible to escape the guilt that is going to land like a sledge-hammer and crush whatever joy they might otherwise have known. Taboos don’t just hang there like friendly warning signs; they are enforced with terrible penalties.

I speak from experience, having loved my older brother with a love that came to consume our world, constitute the only reality. I am married now and no more unhappy than most people, but I struggle every day against my ghastly secret, which is that I can never love any man as I loved and love my dear brother.

—Sadder and No Wiser

Dear Sadder,

Leave your husband and persuade your brother to leave the wife he doubtless has. Live together always. Incest is nothing but a word; and in your case it spells glory.

—Last Resort

***

Dear Last Resort,

I have a problem, YOU. You feed off the unhappy and the weak. You make fun of decent people, people whose problems are real. I wouldn’t be surprised if some went and committed suicide as a result of your heartless quest for money at their expense. Imagine some poor and unsophisticated person whose only crime is never having had the chance for an education. Or, okay, people who are rather unintelligent. Is that their fault? Imagine them sitting down in anguish, embarrassed to write to you but having nowhere else to turn. They spend hours trying to find words to explain, hoping for some direction, anything that will lessen the heartache. What do they get?

You either ignore them or publish their letter to humiliate them.

I know it is possible you invent these letters, but I feel sure you are telling the truth when you say you do not, when you say nobody could invent such things, when you say you have no need to invent, “in a land where stupidity and self-pity flourish.”

How do you sleep at night?

—Sincerely, Appalled

Dear Appalled,

Feel better? All aglow?

The only product more plentiful in this country than the stupidity and self-pity you mention is self-righteousness.

Now that you’ve had your moment, your cleansing spew, you feel justified in going on about your filthy practices. You write to me to build up capital in your own mind, some psychic assurances of rectitude. Now, it’s back to the slime, right Appalled?

My guess is it’s porn. Cheerleader porn?

Only a guess, but I’m never wrong.

—Sincerely, Last Resort

***

Dear Last Resort,

I know you won’t publish this but a private answer would be appreciated. Me and my friends here at the Wal-Mart have a bet that you are a man (three of us on that point), or a team (three others), or Abigail Van Buren having a good time of it after all those years with the hysteric women (two bets here). We promise not to reveal what you say, but we’ll cut you in on the prize if you tell us true.

—Sincerely, Fun-Lovers

Dear Fun-Lovers,

Abigail Van Buren is dead, God rest her soul, and shame, shame on you and your Wal-Mart mates.

I am actually your Daddy, the Daddy of all of you-un. Yo Mamas be skanky hos and yo Daddy is shamed to have sired such a bunch of slack-jawed morons.

—Sincerely, Last Resort

***

Dear Last Resort,

I am no idiot and realize you feed off poor fools lobbing pitches you can knock out of the park. But you also seem smart and not too attached to conventional decency. Therefore, there’s a chance you can help me. For sure, nobody here will.

I have cancer, not yet advanced but bad enough. I am at an assisted living facility and have no real freedom of movement, though a little money.

Simple problem: the only thing that will help my pain is pot, which really is effective and also illegal in this state. I can find no one who will help me, though I am sure my grandchildren would, had I unmediated access to them. Can you?

I promise if you help me that I will not pray for you.

—Sincerely, Cancer Cindy

Dear Cindy,

Yes.

—Sincerely, Last Resort

 

 

Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: This essay put the editors in mind of Judith Sara Gelt’s essay “I’m Using You.”]

Image by Martin Alonso

James Kincaid has published many non-fiction and academic books, several short stories, and two novels, one of them co-authored with Percival Everett. Two new novels will be coming out in early 2016: You Must Remember This and Wendell and Tyler. Kincaid taught for years at Southern Cal and is now at Pitt.