August 25, 2021KR OnlineFiction

James Dean as a Catalyst for the Multiverse

I kept telling my father that his apartment at the assisted-living community in Shepherdsville, Kentucky, looked just like a regular apartment—a living room, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, no roommate, an outside entrance with a ramp that led down to the sidewalk, the whole deal. In the center of the community, there was even a pond bordered by a wide concrete path accessible enough for him to get right alongside the water in his wheelchair and roll himself in.

“They’re just counting the days, Troy,” he told me. “All these people, they look at me like I’m a beagle about to get put down.”

We sat by the pond—me on a sun-bleached wooden bench, him in his wheelchair—and watched a team of ducks glide across the water and leave a series of rippled Vs in their wake.

My father was scheduled for a CT scan the next day. His sciatica, misdiagnosed as phantom limb pain, had worsened since he fell out of his bed six months earlier, and he had suffered bowel blockages in the two years since his rectal prolapse surgery. After his fall, I moved him into this assisted-living community. Since then, the pain and sensitivity of his stumps had increased to the point that he was regularly taking opioid pain medication, which made his constipation worse. Because of the stump pain, he rarely attached his above-knee prosthetics.

I had moved away from Shepherdsville at age twenty-five, when I got hired as a writer’s assistant for a network police procedural. Now, ten years later, I was still a staff writer and consulting producer on that show, but, more important, I was getting ready to pitch the network a pilot that I’d created. The network had had several failed dramas in the past three years and was desperate for a win, so I was optimistic, coming from one of their longest-running franchises. I had been living in Burbank and only flying back to Shepherdsville during hiatus of the police procedural, but if my pilot got ordered to series and Dad’s health kept getting worse, something would have to change, and I knew I couldn’t count on my sister to pick up the slack.

“I’m meeting with the network,” I said. “To pitch them the pilot.”

“Quack, quack,” Dad said to the ducks. “When is this?” he asked.

“Next week. I need you to tell me what you think of my pitch.”

The show’s main character, Scott Drakemen, works for MultiQuest, a private company with the technology to transfer a person back to their original universe if they’ve become misplaced in the multiverse. For example, a wife may notice that her clean-shaven American husband wakes up one morning with a mustache and a Scottish accent. After determining the claim’s validity, MultiQuest could send the man back to his appropriate place in the multiverse. Of course, this involves a leap of faith for the hypothetical wife—she must believe that her original husband will return to her from another universe. Drakeman, who is the director of the MultiQuest Verification department, meets a journalist who claims to be a misplaced person and answers all the exam questions correctly, but Drakeman knows something is wrong, which sets him off on a path that leads to shocking discoveries about the origins of his company and the multiverse itself.

The ducks were gone from the pond. Dad was looking at me now.

“How does he know the guy is lying?” Dad asked.

“Because of the James Dean questions,” I said. “On the verification exam, there’s a whole section of questions about James Dean’s sexual orientation. In the show, they’ve done research, and it’s been proven—nobody ever answers the same. James Dean has too many sides, impossible to reconcile. This journalist is the first person whose responses are nearly identical to another person’s, so the guy’s trying to get somewhere. You won’t find out until later in the season, but James Dean isn’t just a way to navigate the multiverse, his presence actually caused it. ”

Dad didn’t quite smile, but his eyebrows rose and fell in a quick movement.

“Well, that wasn’t in your first draft,” he said. “Are you sure you want to use Dean? He didn’t do anything to warrant all that acclaim, not until Giant, and even in Giant he was no Rock Hudson.”

“But who would be more divisive than Dean?”

“I don’t know. Nobody, I guess.”

After high school, my father had attended the Wake Forest theater program for two years, appearing as Konstantin Treplev in The Seagull and Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. Between his freshman and sophomore years, he worked at the Stratford Festival in Henry IV, Part II, where he was the understudy for Hal but also went on stage every night as Ned Poins.

He met my mother at the Stratford Festival and then took the next year off from Wake Forest to live with her in Ontario. Before his scheduled return to Wake Forest and—he hoped—his chance to play Hickey in the fall production of The Iceman Cometh, Dad was drafted and sent to Vietnam. In March 1971, his helicopter crashed during Operation Lam Son 719 near Laos and lost both his legs below the midshaft of his femur. When he returned to the United States, he married my mom, moved back to Shepherdsville, and started selling cars for a local Ford dealership. He never returned to Wake Forest or to acting.

“I’m sure you’ll make it work,” Dad said, “but people will start asking questions about how the multiverse stuff works.”

“We’ll get to it.”

“Better do it quick.”


You have just watched Rebel without a Cause in the MultiQuest immersive cinema room, where you were asked by your Personal Verification Guide to scrutinize the interactions

(a) between James Dean and Natalie Wood and

(b) between James Dean and Sal Mineo.

On a scale of 1 to 6, with 1 being Completely Heterosexual and 6 being Completely Homosexual, assign a number to the sexual orientation of James Dean.

NOTE: Use as many digits after the decimal as needed.


The next morning I sat in a padded plastic chair in the University of Louisville hospital waiting room while my father was undergoing a CT scan. He had spent the entire drive to the hospital telling me not to go with him back into the scan room.

I couldn’t tell how worried he was about his health. Even at his most honest, I felt as if he ended his stories too soon, as if he were hiding a major plot point. Once, as a teenager, I walked in on Dad watching East of Eden on the living room TV. Dad was leaning forward in his recliner, his beer bottle held so loosely between his thumb and forefinger that the bottle would have fallen onto the carpet if I had slapped him on the back. The light from the television reflected off Dad’s face, where he wore a pleasant almost-smile, and his head tilted when James Dean as Cal Trask began to hit on his brother Aron’s fiancée. I cleared my throat and Dad boosted himself off the couch and up onto his prosthetic legs, his beer bottle firmly in hand.

According to Kristen, my older sister, her problems with our father all stemmed from his inability to acknowledge his own weaknesses. He was a disabled veteran who told all his customers at the Ford dealership that he’d never taken a single disability check. He never returned to Wake Forest or pursued acting after his injury, even though he could have auditioned for certain roles or become a drama teacher. He couldn’t accept himself as anything other than what he intended to be. Seeing Kristen fail at something reminded him of his own failures, so he tried to protect himself from those reminders. For example, Kristen was a .230 hitter on the high school softball team, seventh in the lineup, a catcher with average defensive skills. Whenever she mentioned her teammates signing letters of intent to play in college, Dad would go silent and shake his head. One time he said, “Isn’t it time we move past this?” What he didn’t realize, Kristen would say, is that he actually paralyzed her into thinking she couldn’t do anything at all. She didn’t start to reverse the effects of his toxic behaviors until she began therapy and later on when she stopped dating men and met her girlfriend Casey. It was different for me, she said, because I was the golden child, the boy.

After Dad’s CT scan, the doctor told us that Dad had a severe blockage in his lower intestine. They could give him some drugs to try and get it to move, but after that the options became surgical: an expanding stent in the lower intestine or a colostomy. I drove Dad back to the assisted living facility, and then I called Kristen from the lobby.

“It’s worse than before,” I said. “If drugs don’t work, I don’t think he’ll agree to anything more invasive.”

“Well.” Kristen half-laughed. “He doesn’t have much of a choice.”

Down the hallway, a pair of young patient-care attendants stopped to admire each other’s earrings before continuing on in opposite directions.

“I’ll let you know how it goes,” I said. “With the drugs.”

“What do you need me to do?” she asked.

I needed her to do what I’d asked her to do for the past five years: come see our father. After her last trip to Shepherdsville, their relationship had taken such a turn that she stopped visiting altogether, and now they rarely spoke. I tried to hash it out with her multiple times—reminding her that she couldn’t take Dad seriously, that he’d never confronted his PTSD, that he still asked about her every time I talked to him—but Kristen had a way of blocking out words that didn’t reinforce her own opinions. I wasn’t sure how Mom ever got Kristen to listen to her.

“I don’t know what there is for you to do,” I told her on the phone. “Call him, I guess.”


Describe your reaction to this quote about James Dean.

“It’s very funny. If you get four or five people around who knew Jim, everyone has a story to tell that they remember, or everyone has something to say about it, but if you put them all together, it almost sounds as if you’re talking about four or five different people, save for a point here or a point there.”

—Sammy Davis Jr.


The multiverse is a file cabinet, and our universe is one file among many. When a hole is cut through those files, the contents begin to switch places, from one universe to another.

Carol Donaghy’s husband, Brad, left at 9 a.m. on the morning of the Appleton Fall Parade, of which he was to be the grand marshal, and never came back. A man who resembled Brad returned to the house that evening—same rim of red hair, same gray eyes—but there was a stiffness in his posture and in his voice that Carol had never witnessed before, and she had seen it all: jittery Brad, sleepwalking Brad, horny Brad, angry-over-football-officiating Brad, coming-out-of-anesthesia Brad, every version of Brad over the past twenty-eight years. This was not her Brad. She didn’t even recognize his smell.

Manny Guttierez was sitting with his girlfriend Elisa on the patio of a downtown biergarten, two liter-mugs of light German beer in front of them. A polka band played inside the restaurant, and the loud white people were drunk enough to dance. A waiter approached Manny and Elisa’s table, a tall man with slim, tattooed forearms and a metal bracelet on his writing hand. The waiter avoided Elisa’s eyes as she ordered. After the waiter left, Elisa kept asking Manny to repeat things, as if she couldn’t understand his voice. “The week must be catching up with me,” she said. “I might need to go home.” Throughout the weekend, Manny would catch Elisa staring at him with the narrowed eyes of a woman trying to figure out what someone is up to.

As the director for the MultiQuest Verification Unit, Scott Drakeman is charged with sorting through the stories and their contradictions and determining the truth about the MultiQuest clients.

“Help us send you home,” Drakeman says to the clients, “where everything is the way you remember it.”


A month later, I was sitting in the writers’ room for my new show. After pitching to the network executives, the show got a direct-to-series order. The network’s VP of series development was a huge James Dean fan who’d had such vehement debates with his husband about Dean’s exact placement on the Kinsey scale that it was now one of their untouchable subjects. He was thrilled to have a high-concept drama that involved one of his all-time favorite icons.

We were starting to map out the two-part finale of our first season, which had yielded only one notecard on the board so far, a plot point about Drakeman discovering the family connection between the MultiQuest founder and the man whose truck collided with the Porsche Spyder driven by James Dean in his fatal accident. A few of the writers and an assistant were eating lunch at the conference table.

In the middle of lunch, I stepped into my office to take a call from Dad’s assisted-living community. The nurse told me that Dad had been vomiting feces and had been admitted to the hospital. The blockage still hadn’t been broken up, apparently, and Dad had stopped eating. I knew I needed to fly back to Kentucky that evening and convince Dad to have the expanding stent put into his colon, because he would never agree to a colostomy.

I called Kristen, who had me on speakerphone in her car. I could barely hear her.

“Tell him when your show is going to air. It’s so—” The reception crackled, but her voice was excited. “‘Created by Troy Wiley.’ He’ll do everything he can to see that.”

“He already knows,” I said into the phone. “I don’t think I can pull this off, not by myself. I really need you to be there.”

I heard Kristen’s car stereo through the phone.

Five years ago, Kristen and her girlfriend, Casey, had considered moving to Shepherdsville so that one of us kids would be closer to Dad. Kristen knew I would have to work in California for the foreseeable future, so she took Casey with her to stay with Dad for a week, as a trial. Dad twice smacked the dogs after Kristen told him not to. He got angry when he saw Kristen wearing a pair of Mom’s earrings. He told the story about Kristen being in the bathroom too long while she was supposed to be sitting with Mom after her chemo treatment and Mom had to lie in bed with her own vomit on her nightgown for an hour. Finally, in a late-night conversation near the end of their stay, Dad warned Casey to be skeptical of Kristen’s newfound same-sex interest, which was coming on the heels of a failed heterosexual engagement, and not to make any long-term plans with her.

“Kristen never really changes,” he said. “She just runs from things.”

I’m not sure why Casey felt the need to repeat that story to Kristen, because that’s not how you deal with Dad. You tell him he’s an idiot to his face, right in the moment, or he’ll never let up. But Casey said nothing to Dad and then told Kristen everything, which sparked the blow-up on their final day in Shepherdsville. Dad told Kristen that she was only with a woman now to excuse her past failures with men and that he’d never supported her because she never stuck with anything long enough. Kristen told Dad that he was sabotaging her relationship because he couldn’t stand to be around strong women and that he’d never supported her because he needed someone to be a bigger cripple than he was. They both said that Mom’s life would have been better without the other.

So, that was the last time Kristen visited Shepherdsville.

One of the writer’s assistants knocked on my open office door. He held a half-open laptop in his hand.

“I have to finish lunch before everyone is back,” I said to Kristen over the phone.

“OK, love you, baby brother,” she said.


You and James Dean are seated on a couch. He is telling you about the death of his mother when he was nine years old. Describe the proximity of your bodies while he relates the story (arm placement, leg angles, hand-gesture proximity), and then describe your physical response after his story has ended.

• •

The next day, Dad and I were sitting in his hospital room. The room had a linoleum floor and a TV mounted on the wall. There was no one in the room’s other bed, which was nice because I didn’t want Dad’s pessimism to spread. He looked paler and his arms thinner, and his stomach was distended.

“So it’s like an old noir detective bit?” he asked. “A Spade or Marlowe type of guy?”

“Drakeman’s not as hard-boiled as a noir guy,” I said. “He’s more of an analyst. A smart guy who’s drawn into this mystery—what caused the multiverse, how MultiQuest was involved in Dean’s death, what this journalist’s endgame really is. He has to be persistent enough to get to the truth, but the network wouldn’t want him as rough as Marlowe.”

“Well, they won’t know what hit them. You’ll…” He closed his eyes for a few seconds and then opened them as if he had been prodded awake.

“You OK?”

“Yeah, yeah. What were we. . .?”

“The show.”

“Right, that’s right. Just don’t make it all about Dean. Marlowe and Spade never needed to go far to find trouble. The hometown characters were dangerous enough.”

When my mother died and I moved back in with Dad, I was twenty-three and just starting to send out spec scripts to production companies. At that time, my father began talking more than ever about what Vietnam had cost him. He was the same age as Liam Neeson and Tom Hanks, and when we rewatched Gangs of New York and Cast Away, he would tell me exactly how, if not for Vietnam, his career path would have taken him from the stage production of The Iceman Cometh at Wake Forest to the set of those movies, and how he would have played the characters differently, better than his famous peers. I encouraged Dad to try out for a stage role—something small, local. He walked with a pronounced limp and exerted more effort to sit and stand, but that was perfect for some roles. There was a dinner theater nearby, so I urged him to audition for Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, a role he had already played as a younger man. Dad refused, citing the farce that was the TV remake of Rear Window starring a paralyzed Christopher Reeve. Dad didn’t want to overcome his injuries to start acting again; he wanted to be an uninjured actor who had never stopped.

Later in the evening at the hospital, the doctor came to Dad’s room and reiterated the options—a colostomy, a stent, or another round of drugs and hoping for the best. After the doctor left, I couldn’t get Dad to consider the invasive options.

“I told you before,” he said. “Never. That’s not living.”

“Tons of people have colostomy bags,” I said. “They live for decades, they’re totally fine.”

“Young people.”

“No, people your age, lots of them. They get through it.”

In Gone with the Wind, Dad had always admired the death scene of Scarlett O’Hara’s father, Gerald O’Hara, who has dementia. Gerald hops onto a horse and rides at full gallop in pursuit of a man who has tried to convince him to pledge his allegiance to the Union. As Gerald tries to jump the fence, he is thrown from his horse and killed. “That’s the way to go,” Dad would say. “Full speed.”

Two days later, my father’s blockage broke apart and gave him such severe fissures that he needed xylocaine for pain and a shot of botox in his anal sphincter to reduce spasms. The doctor admitted to being cautiously optimistic.

• •

You are at a party with a circle of friends to whom you once felt close but in whose company you haven’t been happy in a long time. After one of these friends relates a crass story that confirms to you that your connection with this circle of friends has ended, James Dean looks at you with his classic squinted-eye confidence, and his mouth breaks into a smile. How do you feel?


To be clear, I would not have sex with James Dean. Not if he offered, not if he begged. And I know he’s so much better-looking than I am that this scenario is ludicrous. Still, I wouldn’t do it. If I had to, I’d shove him out my front door and lock it, and I’d call the police if he stood in the yard pining after me all night.

But in the hours after James Dean left or after the police dragged him off my lawn and assured me that they see unrequited lovers like him every day, I’d stay inside and be unable to concentrate on anything else. I wouldn’t regret telling him no, but I would wonder what he was doing, where he was, what he was watching on TV, if he was still crying, if people were treating him with the delicacy that his constitution required. I’d stand in the middle of my living room and feel that something was very wrong. I’d wish that things didn’t have to be the way they were between us. I’d wish we could sit on a couch together and really listen to each other and talk about our mothers until they both came back.


The weekend before production was scheduled to begin on my show, our parent company fired the network’s president of original programming, VP of series development, senior VP of research, chief marketing officer, and most of the accounting department, and then temporarily stopped production on all of its new shows. I met with the interim VP of series development at the end of the week, and she informed me that the network was permanently halting production on my show.

“It’s not a fit creatively for where we’re headed, with our renewed focus on unscripted series and traditional dramas,” she told me. “Personally, I loved your work, but we didn’t see a way forward with the multiverse concept and the James Dean thread working together. They felt like two separate stories.”

Over the next few weeks, I pitched the series and its ten completed scripts to three cable networks and two streaming services. I gave them the rundown of season one and told them the outlook for season two, which would have Drakeman stuck in a different universe and trying to get back to MultiQuest before the journalist’s allies enacted their plan to shut off the connections between the universes. I teased the point in season three when James Dean would finally show up as a character.

By the end of the year, the show had been turned down by every network I respected. My show was dead, MultiQuest was dead, Scott Drakeman was dead. No one would ever get to see James Dean again. I went back to work in the police procedurals writers’ room, where they were nice enough to give me an Assistant Producer credit for the upcoming season.


In January, I flew back to Shepherdsville because my father had developed another bowel obstruction and would not eat or drink anything. His sciatica had worsened, and without the pain medication my father couldn’t stand to have anything touch the tips of his stumps, but he couldn’t have a second back surgery unless his bowel obstruction was resolved. I didn’t agree with my father’s Gerald O’Hara outlook, but I couldn’t shove an expanding stent into his colon myself.

I talked to Kristen on the phone as I rode in a taxi from the Louisville airport to the hospital. It was a cold day and the wind was rocking the taxi within the lane on I-65. Over the phone, I could hear dogs barking in the background.

“Dad’s worse since you were there last,” Kristen said. “He sounds like—like he decided he’s done with everything. I had trouble even hearing him over the phone this morning.”

“He wasn’t great the last time, either,” I said.

“And I think he’s been thinking about how Mom’s not around anymore, and how if she were, at least he wouldn’t feel like a burden to us? When you don’t have that type of support system there—I don’t think it fully hit him before, how that support system he always expected, with Mom and, you know, grandkids or whatever, how that isn’t there for him. I told him he wasn’t alone. He has us, and you’ll be there soon.”

“Do you think you’ll fly out here this week?”

“OK, so,” she said, “I’m buying a ticket for next Friday. I’m not ready this week.”

I groaned loud enough for the cab driver to glare at me in the rearview mirror.

“For Christ’s sake, he’s probably dying,” I said.

“Troy, you and I—we are talking about two completely different—”

I hung up.

When she was fourteen, Kristen spent an entire weekend in her bedroom and cried whenever she was awake. She had just quit her job at the Little Caesars inside of Kmart because the manager was making her do more than could be expected of one person during a lunch shift—working the register, putting the cheesy bread in the oven and monitoring it for freshness in the display, retrieving more pizzas from the walk-in every half hour, tending to the fountain soda machine, cleaning up the dining room floor. After explaining the problem to Dad, he said that not everything could be as easy as softball and that she might be surprised how much she could accomplish if she didn’t give up before she started. She had a big decision to make: be someone who could handle the stress of a regular job, or try to stay a kid forever. Something like that. According to Kristen, he’d said it quickly and fluently, as if he’d rehearsed the same lines aloud many, many times before he performed them for her. That’s what she was crying about in her bedroom that weekend: all those times he must have rehearsed that monologue.

I arrived at the hospital and saw my father in a critical care room. The gray skin on his face hung past his jaw, the layer of fat no longer holding the skin in place. I could see the veins beneath his scalp. The small hairs on the tip of his crooked nose were white. He didn’t look like my father.

I told him that the hospital had called me about his new bowel obstruction, and I told him that Kristen was planning to fly in next week.

“How are you feeling otherwise?” I asked.

“No otherwise,” he said. “This is all of it. I talked to your sister, then slept for hours. The concentration, talking to her—killed me.”

“Kristen said you mentioned Mom.”

He winced, tried to reposition his head on the pillow. “What’s that?”

“Kristen.” I reached over, pulled his pillow lower to support his neck. “She said you mentioned Mom. When you talked on the phone earlier?”

“Talked to your Mom?”

“When you talked to Kristen this morning. Kristen said you guys talked about Mom.”

“Oh. No, I don’t think so. She did most of the talking. Her lady friend opened a greenhouse. In the Pacific Northwest. I told her, pray for sunshine.”

“Have you thought any more about the stent? It could at least help clear up your stomach.”

His voice was a rasp. “What’s to think about?”

“You could think about making some effort.” I clamped my teeth together. “If you’d think about more than how bad everything—”

He was asleep again.

I left the room and walked up and down a few hallways and past two nurses’ stations and then out into a courtyard with a two-tiered stone fountain. I looked for the parking lot, but I’d walked to the wrong side of the building. I sat on the low edge of the fountain, my knees higher than my hips.

When I was in tenth grade and missed school for a week after my volleyball-captain girlfriend dumped me—soon thereafter, she went to prom with a libero teammate—my dad convinced me, eventually, that I was mourning over one narrow section of a vast world.

“It’s like if you had a ’67 Stingray,” he said, “and you totaled the thing. The frame’s bent to hell, the engine’s in pieces. You could spend a year, two years, imagining that car and what you used to have. But think about it—you evidently had enough money to get a Stingray, or enough know-how to fix one up. What’s stopping you from ending up with…maybe a ’67 Shelby?”

Intestinal obstruction is not the same as getting dumped by a high school girlfriend who turns out to be a lesbian, especially considering that the intestinal obstruction comes after decades of dealing with prosthetic legs and phantom limb pain and chronic back pain, after years of living as a widower and being left alone in Kentucky by your youngest son, who leaves to go write for a network drama that earns respectable ratings for its timeslot but never cracks the Nielsen Top 50. Still, I went back inside and asked someone at a nurses’ station how to get back to my father’s room. I sat next to him as he slept the rest of the evening and told him his own story about the ’67 Stingray and how things could be good again even if they weren’t the same. I left just after midnight. The next morning I arrived at 8:30 and he died twenty minutes later. Staff members came quickly. The room felt empty, even with my father and his caretakers near me.


Reconcile the following quotes about James Dean.

“A lot of guys make him out to be gay. Not true. A lot of gay guys make him out to be gay. Not true. When Jimmy and I were together we’d talk about girls. Actors and girls.”

—Martin Landau


“All of my life I’ve spent a lot of time with gay men—Montgomery Clift, Jimmy Dean, Rock Hudson—who were my colleagues, coworkers, confidantes, my closest friends, but I never thought of them as who they slept with. They were just the people I loved.”

—Elizabeth Taylor


The problem that Scott Drakeman has in the Verification department is that he’s convinced of two possibilities: (1) a change in circumstance, personality, emotion, or luck could be an indication of a universe displacement, and (2) such a change could have nothing to do with universe displacement—a change could be the result of complex people, of naïveté. Life may just be going badly for someone.

I didn’t know how long the show could have lasted beyond the first season, but I knew how it would have ended. The multiverse would collapse. The contents of the file cabinet would merge into one single file. Each version of each person would stack themselves one on top of the other and join together, and each resulting person would be an impossible blend that could never be described as a single character. Drakeman would have to live the rest of his life among impossible people and impossible memories that could never be reconciled.


Describe your reaction to this quote.

“Jimmy was—I mean, he did everything. I don’t think he lived—he didn’t let anything go by. I think that—I don’t think he was essentially homosexual. I think that he had very big appetites, and I think he exercised them.”

—Mark Rydell


Kristen scheduled the funeral arrangements over the phone before she arrived in Shepherdsville that weekend. She picked out the eulogist and the casket and the tiny programs for the service. She wrote the obituary that appeared in the local papers. I paid for everything, but I didn’t arrange anything. The funeral was scheduled for Tuesday, so we had Sunday and Monday free. The two of us drove around to see our old school and our old house. We stopped and walked through the park where our mother used to take us for picnics and to ride the seesaws, which she and Mom could ride so well that I once started crying.

Afterward, at an ice cream stand downtown, Kristen and I sat on the hood of my rental car and ate chocolate-vanilla swirl cones.

“Even the way he died, it sums up his whole philosophy—no dignity in compromise,” she said. “He decides on one approach and then spends the rest of his life convincing himself he was right. What’s so hard about reappraisal?”

The ice cream was low-quality soft serve, but the smell of the ice cream stand and the cone and the passing traffic exhaust all made me feel like a content child, even while Kristen and I sat in the absence of our parents.

“I can’t believe this is the same place,” she said. “When it was the four of us, this town was the only place in the world. You know what I mean? Like, I didn’t even think about there being other places. We loved each other so much.”

She began to cry and the ice cream was dripping down her cone. I put my arm across her rounded shoulders.


James Dean confesses his love for you. What does he mean, “love”?


Because only my sister and I are left, there are now only two perspectives on the kind of person our father was. Eventually, there will be only one of us to encapsulate everything about him. Since Kristen’s assessment is so negative, I feel compelled to focus on how he was the first person to read anything I wrote, how his love of acting made me decide to become a writer, how he made me believe that I would succeed if I just kept writing. Without my sister’s negativity looming over me, however, my assessment would be more ambivalent. I would talk about my father as someone quick to anger, someone who respected me only after I insulted him back, someone who undermined my sister because her only recourse was crying and resentment. I would quote him as saying “Talk about a disaster. . .” when my sister mentioned the possibility of auditioning for her high school play. I would talk about how he would defend his actions but never evaluate them. Yet I would mention how he endured the challenges of his prosthetics and his stump pain every evening to take a walk with my mother, how he told me that one of my early scripts was better than Mean Streets, how he was so proud of me that he cried when I landed my first writers’ assistant job. Mostly, though, there were great stretches of time where, although he did nothing inspiring or worthy of improving his reputation, he didn’t do anything wrong. There were countless dinners and weekend trips to see our grandparents when Dad and Kristen were curt but polite to each other, even though the two of them never laughed or seemed to enjoy the other’s presence. Shouldn’t that mean something: that most of the time he was neither a good father nor a bad one?


There is a universe where Scott Drakeman successfully navigates the collapse of the multiverse and understands how one man changed everyone’s story. There is a universe where Carol Donaghy recognizes her husband Brad’s posture and smell when he returns home from the Appleton Fall Parade, where Manny Gutierrez and his fiancée, Elisa, resume their conversation after the waiter with the metal bracelet leaves their biergarten table. There is a universe where people watch these characters on television and think about them while getting ready for work in the morning.

There is a universe where James Dean’s love wills my father into accepting a colostomy bag. There is a universe where James Dean visits my sister every day one summer and kisses her behind the magnolia tree in our yard and convinces her she is an angel, a conviction she maintains years later while visiting our father in the hospital.

There is a universe where James Dean is a patient-care assistant who flirts with my mother and makes her smile despite her radiation-induced hair loss. A universe where Mom and Dad and Kristen and I all watch my series premiere together and eat popcorn and Kristen and Dad banter but never yell and Mom hugs me as the credits roll. A universe where I will always love James Dean even though I will never understand him.