My monotony needed twisting yesterday, so I went for a stroll, sans iPod. You know, breathe in a bit of city fresh air, clear some cobwebs, that sort of deal.
There I was walking down the street, mind-sifting through character conversations and scene settings when I looked down at the pavement and realized that I was traipsing through what looked like the aftermath of the Great Worm War of 2021. The sidewalk was a battlefield littered with the corpses of thousands of earthworms that coated an entire city block.
Logically I knew how this could have happened. I knew they came to the surface either during the heavy rains–but it’s been dry weather for the past week–or to pair off and mate only to get caught on things that are hard for them to crawl across, like sidewalks and subsequently fry on the surface from sun rays–but that normally occurs during spring.
So, what then? Had there actually been a battle? Warring clans pitched against one another over territorial disputes? Factions in conflict over the claiming of a throne? Families locked in a deadly dispute over an unholy union?
Or was it a warning?
As I stood there, staring at their dried remains, curled into runic shapes, I wondered if they had been somehow gifted with a vision of the approaching apocalypse and had sacrificed themselves in an effort to warn us in the only language they knew. The last Germanic language spoken to them by man before the two species went their separate ways.
At that moment I felt like Indiana Jones in the passageway to the Grail chamber, trying to decipher the worm cadavers’ possible portents of doom, only without the aid of a diary or Sean Connery whispering something about, “Only the penitent man will pass.” or like John Nash without an ounce of the mental code breaking ability.
And I stood there. Longer than I’m comfortable admitting. Frustrated by the limits of my linguistics. Finally, I forced myself to move on, but not before making a promise:
My secret self—the bit of me that hides in plain sight just behind a corner of reality—has been wandering my memory palace of late, searching for an empty room in which to steal a bit of solitude for I sometimes need to swaddle my internal dialogue in silence when even the quietest place on earth can offer me no rest.
You might have surmised correctly that I’ve been met with very little success.
Oh, there are rooms aplenty in which I enjoy the occasional lounge-about, each filled with bric-à-brac I’ve accumulated along the way. Items or concepts or vagueries that may or may not find their way into a story, plot germs that piqued my interest for one reason or another, displayed neatly on shelves beside those things kept precious, but each of these pieces of me gives off unique vibrations that assault my mind’s ear like anamnestic tinnitus.
A few of my unused characters who can afford the steep rent have made the suggestions that I either choose my favorite among them to room with or take turns bunking with every one of them for short periods as not to overstay my welcome.
But that really isn’t my style. I like the idea of knowing where characters are so that I might visit them and engage in brief social interactions when I’m in the mood, and leave them to their own devices when I’ve had my fill. And although I am quite capable of being alone in a crowded room, I cannot find solitude with people around, not even the people in my mind, the ones that I have breathed life into.
My irritation at not being able to claim residence in a place that I have been constructing since childhood is beginning to infect other areas of my life. My current location annoys me. My inability to write annoys me. The presence of other people annoys me. The sameness of the day annoys me. Even my annoyance at everything annoys me.
And so Sunday comes ’round and I am attempting to build a new foundation for the memory palace extension on the lone and level sands of ground-down ideas, in a new territory where the old housing rules may not apply. Eventually, when my hoarder nature reveals itself and this section of the palace becomes filled with miscellanea most likely better left forgotten…
I’ll repeat the process. Search for my own patch of solitude. Light a candle and still curse the darkness. Build another room. And fill it with possessions that squeeze me to the point of eviction.
“You have a messiah complex, got to save the world.” — Dean Koontz, Odd Thomas
I’ve never been much for crowds, not even as a child. People huddled en masse tended to embrace a hive mind of boorishness, which was why I tended to do all my necessities shopping early on Tuesday mornings. Fewer people and less hassle as I collected my weekly provisions, zipped through the express lane, out of the market and on to the next chore on my list that required social navigation. But something wasn’t quite right today. Tuesday? Of course. Early morning? Naturally. Empty supermarket? Not by a long shot.
The aisles were crawling with miscreants of every possible variety. Attention deficit disordered shoppers who treated their shopping cart like cars out of a Fast and Furious film, crashed into other carts and shoppers with reckless abandon in search of the ever elusive sale of nearing-their-sell-by-date items they probably had no practical use for; forsaken carts parked in the middle of aisles blocking throughways and creating bumper to bumper trolley traffic; and coupon carrying cretins stalling checkout lines because they hadn’t quite mastered the simple art of having payment in hand for their items and beating a hasty retreat out into the open plains of the parking lot.
I contemplated pivoting on my heels and leaving the shopping for another morning or possibly next Tuesday—surely I could have survived a week on basic rations. But had I left, I wouldn’t have run into Tatum.
It was seventeen years since I laid eyes on her last. She was still attractive, more so now, a slender Honduran with mocha skin, shoulder-length dreadlocks, and a disarming smile that tended to pull a bit to the right side of her face. Unlike previous times when I randomly encountered someone from my past on the street and immediately began flipping through my mental card catalog for any excuse to walk away, I was actually pleased to see her. In that moment of reciting the usual social pleasantries by rote, all the negative history hadn’t existed. We waded in a pool of heart-warming nostalgia.
Her smile never wavered as she told me how her life hadn’t turned out quite the way she planned. When we were together, she studied to be a lawyer. Now, she worked as a marketing senior manager for a cosmetics firm, was the mother of two, a girl and a boy, seven and nine years old respectively, who were fathered by a deadbeat boyfriend who ditched both the wedding and his kids in one fell swoop.
I had no idea how long we stood there blocking the aisle much to the ire of the other shoppers nor did I care. For the first time in quite a while, I honestly enjoyed exchanging words with a person who wasn’t trapped within the confines of a television set. But all good things, as they say—so, we exchanged numbers, promised each other we’d call and went our separate ways.
And on the way home, the strangest nagging notion crept up from the back of my mind: had we been able to work things out all those many years ago, her life might have turned out differently. Better. Then came the guilt as if my absence was somehow responsible for the direction her life took. And on the tail end of that guilt came the shame for not being a better boyfriend to her and a better person in general.
I promptly crumpled up her number and kicked it down a storm drain. Neither she nor I needed to be reminded of what might have been.
Less than a week later, once I had time to regret trashing her phone number, she called me out of the blue with an invitation to have lunch and meet her children. I wasn’t particularly keen on the latter, but I definitely wanted to see her again.
We met at a faux Italian restaurant, a fast food chain done up in dime store décor to give the eatery a stereotypical taste of Italy, and I had to admit that I didn’t mind her kids all that much. They were a bit unruly, but what children weren’t at those ages? Although I felt a little awkward being interrogated by her brood, it was nice being in Tatum’s company. I experienced a level of comfort in her presence that oddly felt like home.
That was, until her daughter, Tracie, asked, “Did you and Mommy have S-E-X?” as if spelling the word somehow made the question safe to ask.
Confirmed bachelor that I was, I wasn’t comfortable chatting with a nine-year-old about sex. I had no idea what the proper protocol was, so I turned to Tatum and with a look, asked, Did we have S-E-X, Mommy?
Without batting an eye, Tatum answered, “Yes. We had sex.”
Was that how it’s done nowadays? Was it the norm for ex-boyfriends to be brought to lunch with the kiddies to openly discuss their sexual history? I was still reeling from that exchange when her son, Lee, chimed in, “You could be our Dad!”
The old one-two punch. These kids worked me over like a speed bag. They laughed at my embarrassment and I tried to play it off, but it unnerved me on a deep level. The rest of the conversation was downhill after that in terms of my personal discomfort. We got on well enough, the four of us, better than expected and when we said our goodbyes after lunch, I was hit with another weird sensation—jealousy. Because her children weren’t our children and in her family, there was no place setting for me at the table. It only lasted an instant but long enough to have registered.
I tried to put things into perspective, tried to remember why our relationship ended in the first place, it wasn’t a build up of all the minor things, the petty annoyances that masked the underlying truth that people simply grew apart. If I was honest, it was the Santería, the Afro-Cuban ritualistic and ceremonial worship of saints her family practiced religiously that rubbed me the wrong way. She asked how I felt about it and I told her I didn’t believe in things like that and it was the truth, but the other truth, the deeper truth, was that it scared a part of me that I didn’t want to acknowledge.
To be clear, it wasn’t Tatum practicing rituals so much as her mother. That woman hated me from the moment she clapped eyes on me, no rhyme, no reason, just pure unadulterated hatred. For some reason, I hadn’t measured up to her exacting standards of what constituted a proper boyfriend for her daughter and she never bothered hiding that fact. She visited our apartment constantly and after she left, I would find things hidden around the house, under the bed, in the refrigerator. Little Santería objects tucked away everywhere.
One day when I arrived home early with the intention of whipping up a surprise dinner for Tatum when she got off from work, I walked in on Tatum’s mother and sisters in the middle of a Santeria ritual. There were others with them, perhaps family members I hadn’t met or just fellow practitioners, all clad in white. Drummers talked to the saints, playing their specific beat, eyes closed in a trance while robed dancers chanted in ancient Yoruba as they spun and shook off the evil eye.
And in the center of the living room, Tatum’s mother stared at me like I was a burglar, like I was the thing that didn’t belong in my own home. Before I knew it, the last of my resolve evaporated and I began yelling for her and everyone else to get the hell out of my apartment, jabbing my finger in the air at her for emphasis. The old woman ignored me and she walked in ever-expanding circles while smoking a cigar that smelled of things I’d never smelled before and blew smoke in my face as she spoke in tongues. It made me gag and start to cough. I clutched at my throat and lost consciousness to the sight of Tatum’s mother and sisters laughing at me.
When I came to, Tatum was home. I told her what happened and she called her mother on the phone. After a lengthy conversation, she said she understood how things must have seemed and apologized for not telling me she allowed them to use the apartment while we were out but ultimately she sided with her family over me.
That was all it took. I moved out of the apartment that night and never looked back. Depending on how you looked at it, if her mother was casting a spell to get rid of me, it actually worked because I was out of her daughter’s life.
I kept this firmly in mind when Tatum phoned and invited me around hers for dinner. I accepted the invitation, mind you, but I kept the incident with her mother firmly in mind. It had been a month of Sundays since I had a proper home-cooked meal because no one in their right mind would have called what I did cooking.
Tatum greeted me at the door, apron on, dusted with flour and seasonings, happy homemaking in full effect. The kids were in the kitchen and to my astonishment were finishing up washing the dishes. They dried their hands before they ran up and hugged me. I looked into their faces and something seemed off. Their smiles were too wide, teeth too white and there was something unnatural about the intensity in their eyes. And their faces looked different. They still possessed features that were reminiscent of Tatum but the rest was somehow different, incomplete, like faces in transition. I chalked it up to being overly tired and thought no more of it.
Dinner went well. Who knew Tatum could have been such a gracious hostess? The kids made the meal a pleasant experience, as well. They stopped bickering and playing with their food when I asked them to, laughed at my jokes and listened with rapt attention as I talked about the time I met their mother.
When dinner was over we sat in the living room. The apartment was too small for two growing kids but Tatum arranged everything in a way that made it feel roomy, as though it was a real house.
We sat on the sofa, all of us, Tatum paging through a family photo album on her lap. Pictures of vacations with the deadbeat boyfriend, of her during various stages of her pregnancy, of her and deadbeat holding a newborn Lee and later with Tatum holding a newborn Tracie while deadbeat lurked somewhere in the background. A life well documented.
Tatum told me how difficult things had been. Deadbeat had developed a drug habit and came around under the guise of seeing his children only to beg off some money to score and if that hadn’t worked, he stole things to sell or threatened to take the kids.
One time when Tatum refused to give him any more money, he made good on his threat and Stacie and Lee were taken from her by Child Services because of alleged abuse charges. She described the hell she had to go through to get her family back.
As if on cue, there was a knock at the door. It was deadbeat, whose Christian name was Oscar, most likely coming around again to score. She spoke with him in hushed tones through the space in the door allowed by the security chain. When his shouts turned to raged kicks on the door, I stepped up behind Tatum so that he could see me. “Everything all right, Tate?”
It was like trying to put out a fire with gasoline. Oscar lost his mind and no manner of reasoning calmed him. I showed him my cell phone, made sure he had seen me dial 911 and only then as he weighed the options in his mind did he leave, but not before he made his threats. He would be back, to kill me, get his kids and make Tatum pay.
Tatum convinced me not to involve the police but only after she agreed to let me stay the night in case Oscar decided to return. We tried to salvage the rest of the evening for the sake of Tracie and Lee but deadbeat’s presence lingered in the air.
The sofa was made up for me as comfortable as she could manage, but sleep was the furthest thing from my mind. I was afraid that Oscar would return, afraid that I wouldn’t be much use since I wasn’t a violent man. All I could have done was to block his attack while Tatum grabbed the kids and made their way to safety. And if that was what it took, then so be it.
When the tension of the evening finally loosened its grip and I began drifting off, Tatum came to me. Without uttering a word, she slid her nightgown off her shoulders and let it fall to her ankles. Why hadn’t I ever noticed just how perfect she was before? She stood there, naked and beautiful in the moonlight that poured in from the living room window, and I knew then and there that I would have done anything for her. Smiling, she climbed on top of me and it was paradise.
After we were done, after all the love I was capable of making had been made, after the pillow talk in which things were said that were sweet and emotional and ultimately meaningless, Tatum gathered her nightgown and went back to her bed. I understood her not wanting the children to find her in my arms in the morning, but a small piece of me was gutted.
My head swam with a million thoughts, my heart filled with far too many emotions, and that, combined with the feeling that something still wasn’t quite right, meant there was no sleep for me this night. And so preoccupied was I that I hadn’t heard it at first. The sound. The jingling of keys.
I strained my ears, trying to locate the noise again. After a few moments of silence, I wondered if it had just been my overactive imagination. It couldn’t have been him with a set of keys, surely Tatum would have changed the locks. Then it happened again. The sound of a key sliding into a lock. I sat bolt upright on the sofa, eyes scanning the darkness for a weapon. Remote controls, game console controllers, DVDs—the candy dish! It was no gun, but the glass was solid enough to crack a skull.
I stared into the dark hallway from the living room entranceway and heard the front doorknob turning. The door opened a crack and light spilled in from the apartment building’s hallway. An arm slipped in through the crack holding a hooked wire, perhaps a piece of a clothes hanger, that scratched at the door until it found purchase in the handle of the security chain which it then dragged along the track slowly until the chain fell away.
I should have acted then. I should have rushed the door, slammed his arm in it, put my full weight against the door, held him there and called the police for them to cart him away. But I was held in place by a tension that locked inside of me. Instinct had taken over. So had the fear.
The intruder’s silhouette appeared in the doorway before the door clicked shut behind him, plunging the hall back into darkness. Footsteps, slow and deliberate. The floorboards creaked as if they were screaming a warning. I threw the candy dish with all my might into the darkness and knew that I missed my target completely when I heard it crash off the front door and glass rained down on the floor.
Then I heard a rustling come from the kids’ room, obviously awakened by the noise. Were they coming to investigate? Something snapped inside me. This bastard wasn’t going to harm those kids!
I charged into the darkness until I collided with the intruder. But as angry and determined as I was, I was no match for his explosive violence. He heaved me into the air and threw me onto the floor, unleashing a hail of punches and kicks that knocked me senseless. I put my arms up to protect my face and instinctively curled into a ball but my defensive position blocked none of his attacks.
He must have sensed how weak I was, what a uselessly pathetic man he was dealing with because he stopped hitting me and chose instead to wrap his hands around my throat. I flailed spastically to get him off as I gasped for air but the intruder was having none of it. He slammed my head against the floor in a violent demonstration of his control over me as I gasped my last remaining breaths.
Then light flooded the room. Tatum and the children stood at the end of the hall, staring at me. My emotions were mixed. I wanted them to go away, I didn’t want them to see me like this. I wanted them to get to safety, but on the other hand, I wanted them to help me. I didn’t want to die.
But there was something in the way they looked at me, something that told me things weren’t right. And I looked up at the intruder—
Who was no longer there. And now I understood why they were staring at me. Here I was lying on the floor with my own hands wrapped around my neck. It took some effort for me to loosen my own grip. I staggered to my feet and tried to explain how Oscar had come back, how he had a key and he broke in and was going to do something terrible to them, but they didn’t understand.
“Who’s Oscar?” the kids asked and, “What’s wrong with Daddy?”
“Stop that! It isn’t funny anymore!” I tried to yell through a raw throat. “I’m not your father!”
A genuine look of pain danced across Tracie and Lee’s faces as they turned to Tatum, asking, “Why is he saying this, Mommy? Why is he acting so strange?”
And I was feeling strange like my entire world had suddenly shifted on its axis.
“I can prove it,” I said as I ran past them into the living room and grabbed the photo album for proof and flipped through the pages of—
Tatum and I on vacation. Me posing with her during various stages of both her pregnancies. The pair of us cradling a newborn Lee and later with us holding a newborn Tracie while Lee lurked in the background pulling a silly face.
These weren’t the pictures I had seen earlier and I had no recollection of having taken these photos, yet they existed.
And I looked at Tracie and Lee and they were different again, now a mixture of Tatum and I thought I actually saw bits of myself in their faces. The kids asked Tatum what was wrong and she explained that I, Daddy, just had a nightmare, that’s all. She told them that everything would be all right in the morning, everything back to normal.
After Tatum swept up the shattered candy dish, she began to usher me to the bedroom, grabbing the pillow off the sofa when something fell to the floor, something that had been resting under the pillow. It looked like a figure made of red-tinged folded palm leaves, bound together by hair but I couldn’t see it properly because she quickly brushed it under the sofa with her foot. I asked her what it was and she said it was just one of the kids’ toys and she would talk to them about picking up their things, or she suggested maybe I should do it, after I got back from Tuesday morning shopping, because she wouldn’t have time since she was staring at a monster of a day down at the law firm tomorrow.
“We gave the Future to the winds, and slumbered tranquilly in the Present, weaving the dull world around us into dreams.” ― Edgar Allan Poe, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt
I spent most of my early teens in the Bronx. The street I lived on, corner to corner, ran the length of three average city blocks and was the picture of diversity—the melting pot that New York had become famous for. It was all about migration. Italians were moving to new ground as black people nestled in and on their tail were Hispanics followed by West Indians. It was a neighborhood in transition where multi-cultures learn by cohabitation that differences in race didn’t make a person less human.
It was also the 70’s and I rocked a killer afro to end all ‘fros. Metal pronged afro pick with the handle clenched in a black power fist and a peace symbol carved out on the base, tucked in the back of my hair.
It drove my parents crazy. They rode my back constantly to get it cut but there was that preteen Samsonian fear that the strength of my personality—-my Madd-ness—-would be stripped away, were a barber to lay clippers on my precious locks. When I got the “as long as you’re living under my roof” speech, I knew I needed a solution and I needed it quick.
Enter: Cynthia Holloway. I mentioned my plight in passing and out of nowhere she offered to braid my hair into cornrows. So, we sat on the stoop of a private house and armed with only a comb and hair grease, Cynthia worked her nimble fingers like a loom.
She was one of those neighborhood girls that I’d never really spoken to before outside the odd hello. Not that there was anything wrong with her, she was simply a person that kept herself to herself. The type of person you’d have to make an effort to get to know.
It would take many years for me to become that type of person.
But in sitting with her I discovered she was both intelligent and imaginative, with interesting stories to tell. Her father was a retired Army Ranger colonel, who spent a great deal of his free time on the road in a jazz band.
I’m not sure how much of that was true. No one could ever remember seeing Cynthia’s dad, so maybe it was a story she invented to keep nosy kids at bay. Or perhaps it was one of the quiet lies that parents tell their children to spare them from the harsh realities of troubled marriages.
Since we had nothing but time to kill, we talked about our constricted home lives, mentioned the odd hobby, told a few jokes and had a couple of laughs, and when all the conversation wells had run dry, we told each other stories.
At the end of every month, when the braids began to look a little ratty, I’d take them out and Cynthia met me back on that stoop to repeat the process. And after a brief bit of catch-up, we’d go back to telling each other imaginary stories and without meaning to, wound up designing an illusory sanctuary from the burdens and pains of our everyday pre-teenage lives.
While we mentally terraformed our neighborhood row by cornrow, we got to know each other in those months as the monarchs of our fantasy world. We explored the surroundings, went on adventures, and basically forgot the world for a few hours a month.
Come the fifth month, I sat on the stoop and waited, my hair a wild crop of imagination waiting to be plowed, but Cynthia never showed. I later learned from a friend of a friend’s sister that she and her mother had moved away in the middle of the night without telling a soul where they were headed.
I tried to imagine all the possible reasons that would cause them to make a hurried escape under the cloak of twilight and seriously hoped it had nothing to do with her retired-Army-Ranger-colonel-jazz-band-dad. Nothing negative, anyway.
And yes, I eventually had no other choice than to submit to the butcher shop barbershop haircut. Much to my surprise, I managed to retain all of my Madd-ness afterward. I was still filled with my nerdy sameness and when I missed her a bit, I’d sometimes sit on the stoop and give an imaginary Cynthia updates on the latest goings-on in the world we created.
Thanks for humoring me as I wool-gathered.
PS. Cyn, if through some bizarre happenstance you should come across this, hit me up real quick. There’s a world in some need of serious upkeep.
Even though it’s true that I’ve written as far back as I can remember, there were people along the way who either directly or indirectly inspired me to create and as a part of my planting memories in a retrievable location for later use, I’d like to acknowledge as many of those individuals as I can recall, while I’m still able to recall. FYI, this will be one of those long and winding roads to a heartfelt thank you, so if you’d rather move on to juicier posts, I won’t hold it against you.
Some stories are meant for you…this one is meant for me.
I’ve lived with a variety of people and families growing up. My mother was an unconventional woman who lived life the best way she could manage, but that lifestyle couldn’t bear the weight of additional passengers, so I was often the extra bit of her life that she couldn’t quite fit into her travel bag when she was bitten by the wanderlust bug.
I won’t bore you with tales and half-remembrances of the various and sundry family doorways I’ve darkened in my youth—not now, at least—but sometime back in the early seventies I landed in the final household of strangers I’d ever be forced to call family. Don’t bother pressing me on an exact date. My mind doesn’t do date-stamped memories all that well. The family isn’t the focus of this story, the kid who lived across the street is. A kid named Gary.
Gary was several years older than me and how or why we became friends is still a mystery, but we used to talk about superheroes into the night—-in particular, Captain America and Bucky. You see, Gary’s take on the whole superhero thing was that it was actually doable, given the proper dedication to the cause and constant training. In the mind of a normal kid, these talks should have been one of those topics that you explored as a fantasy and laughed about when you bumped into your childhood friend years later on some random street corner.
But bugs have a nasty habit of planting themselves in my brain.
I trained every day, sometimes with Gary, but mostly without, trying to duplicate some of the more physically achievable moves found in comic book panels or mimicking fight scenes from TV shows, especially those Shatnerific Kirk-moves from Star Trek. Yeah, I know, but I was a kid, remember?
And I believed in the superhero cause so much that I began recruiting members, much the same as the X-Men’s mentor, Charles Xavier, in order to create my own Avengers or Justice League. Carefully selected individuals who were kindhearted and often bullied, kids who could be taught to fight back for a cause larger than self. It soon blossomed into a superhero big brother program.
Gary hated the team idea, but to his credit, he stuck around longer than I thought he would have and even trained with us on the odd occasion, but eventually, he hung up his cape and cowl and called it quits. Shortly thereafter he informed me that we had to stop being friends because his mother thought I was a bad influence on him.
She wouldn’t be the last mother to have that impression of me.
I was saddened by his departure, sure, I mean it was initially his idea, but I had a group to run, and our roster was growing. We had the nimble guy, the scrapper, the acrobatic guy, the tagalong guy (hey, he was my best friend and I couldn’t say no, even though he wasn’t truly committed to the cause, he just wanted to hang out), and the leader guy (me), but we were still missing one key ingredient… the muscle guy.
Turns out the acrobatic guy knew someone from school whom he thought would fit the bill perfectly. Enter: Derrick. Hated him from the moment I clapped eyes on him and the feeling was probably mutual. We met at our headquarters. The X-Men had the School For Gifted Children, The Avengers had a mansion, the Justice League had the Secret Sanctuary (inside a cave in Happy Harbor) and we had…the public library.
Our first meeting was across the table in the Children’s section of the library (hey, it was the only empty section after school) and Derrick sat there grunting and throwing bits of paper at me for some odd reason. He was weird, to be sure, but I chalked it up to muscle guy mentality, bit the bullet, and despite my intense dislike of the kid, accepted him into our ranks. Not like I was inundated with candidates for the position.
I don’t know how long we kept it going, my memory being the spotty thing it is, but I think we had at least one solid summer of training for The Superhero Thing. Yes, that’s what we called it. Well, we eventually came up with an official name, but that’s a story for another time.
And since all good things must come to an end, the following summer the group disbanded when all the members moved away to parts unknown. The only person who remained was Derrick. We kept the group alive for as long as we could in comic book form, drawing our exploits as we battled Mugly, Schmultron the Schmobot, Quirst (yup, named after the drink… it was a tragic soda factory accident that set him on the path of evil) and other baddies either based on real people or swiped and modified from the pages of our favorite comics. We’d even sometimes swap pages and continue each other’s stories. Derrick would, of course, eventually grow up and live the life of a proper adult, while I went on to publish comic books for a seven-year stint.
So, a tip of the hat to both Gary (don’t worry, your mom was probably right) and Derrick (stop whining, dude, I didn’t use your last name, so your secret identity is still intact) for providing me with creative outlets. Especially since they’re so very hard to come by these days.
PS. Derrick is the only childhood friend I’ve managed to keep throughout the years. Go figure.
P.P.S. If I may be so bold as to quote Elwood Blues, “I’m thinking of putting the band back together.” so if you were a member of The Superhero Thing and you’re reading this, I’d advise you to brush off the latex. It’s crime fighting time!
“You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows that they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.” ― Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus
There are different types of stories. Some you share, some that transform themselves into other creative endeavors, some that are stillborn with no hope of resuscitation, and some that you hide from everyone, sometimes even yourself.
When I wore a younger man’s clothes, I wrote a story. One that I’ve never shared, one that will never transform itself into another work of art, one I have not read since its inception. But every so often when my mind settles into a rare resting mode and all my thoughts become inconsequential white noise, the story whispers to me so that I don’t forget it. It does what it needs to do in order to survive.
No, it’s not a true confession, nor is it based on or inspired by true events. There’s no deep-seated ideological conviction behind it. It’s also not the most powerful or hard-hitting thing I’ve ever written. Hell, the thing isn’t even written in my voice. Chiefly because it’s not my story.
The story belongs to someone else, told to me in part before she died.
Rose loved to tell stories to take her mind off her illness, so we’d meet occasionally when her health allowed or sometimes talk over the phone and she would spin her vignettes. She wasn’t a professional writer so the stories were uneven and structurally unsound, but they were enjoyable nonetheless. She was witty and articulate and sometimes, but not too often, a good telling trumps structure.
And she continued telling stories until the pain became too much to bear, but before Rose died she said to me, “complete it,” and slow on the uptake as I can often be, I didn’t catch her meaning until months later.
It wasn’t an easy process. When I finally wrote the story down as close to verbatim as my past-its-sell-by-date memory could manage, I looked at the work and was confounded by what I could actually do with it. At first, I wanted to restructure and outline everything so that I could plot a logical ending, but that wouldn’t have been true to Rose’s storytelling style. A style I had become very protective of.
In the end, I decided this wasn’t a story that could be written, only transcribed, so I sat in front of a mirror with a digital recorder and recited the fragments Rose left me as a parting gift and traveled down a nonstructural road to see where it led me.
And I didn’t go it alone. I could feel Rose’s hand in mine, leading me down the path to the story’s final destination.
Sally forth and be damn-the-structure-and-just-tell-your-damned-storyingly writeful.
Native New Yorker, born in Manhattan, raised in The Bronx, and because I inherited my mother’s transient nature, I’ve managed to live in each of the five boroughs. Poor as a skunk’s misery, a church mouse, Job, Lazarus, and dirt. Hell, I’m still poor, and most likely always will be.
The best thing about growing up without anything is that you learn to make the most of what you’ve got and distract yourself from what you haven’t got. My major distraction was television.
It was my babysitter, my tutor, and my secret friend that entertained me as the rest of the world slept. Its siren call would lure me into the living room, where I’d toss my blanket over the both of us so the light didn’t spill out of the room and give away my position. Then I’d plug my mono transistor radio earphone into the headphone jack and marvel at all the noir, horror and science fiction movies that played on CBS’ The Late Show, The Late Late Show, and The Late Late Late Show.
I was always a wreck in school the following day, but man was it worth it.
The only thing that trumped this near nightly process was the first Saturday of the month. Like most poor folk, we were on welfare and this was before the Food Stamp bill was passed in 1970 which meant everything, rent, bills, and food monies arrived in the mailbox in one convenient check. The Saturday that followed check day was always considered my day. Wherever I wanted to go, wherever I wanted to play.
My playground of choice? 42nd Street. The first stop was Tad’s Steak House. Sure, the broiled steak was thin and more gristle than meat, the garlic bread was oilier than Brylcreem, the chocolate pudding coated with that yucky skin and a fountain Coke served in a large red plastic tumbler that smelled like the previous beverage it held… but to me, it was pure heaven.
Then my mother gestured at the movie theaters that lined both sides of the street and said the most perfect thing anyone could have said to me at the time, “You can see all the movies you can stay awake for.”
These were once majestic movie houses that slowly transformed during the decline of New York City starting in the late 50’s into grindhouse theaters before grindhouse was even a word. Each one ran three films, usually one current and the others whatever was on hand.
On these magic Saturdays, I tore through Roger Corman flicks, Hammer Films, the Toho tokusatsu imports and so much more. All uninterrupted viewing aside from the occasional mom hand that would clamp over my eyes during nude or sex scenes. Only when I started to nod off was it time to head home, despite my protestations.
On the way home, we’d stop off at the Horn & Hardart automat and my mother would dump tokens into my hand and send me off to fetch dinner from the individual glass door compartments. Even though it was only plain food — sandwiches, beef stew, and the like — there was something about slotting coins and retrieving a prize that appealed to me.
The final detour before reaching home was the Optimo Cigars shop that had a spinning wire rack of comic books where I’d select my month’s reading material.
I realize this may not seem like any great shakes to you, but it remains the only positive memory I have of my mother — too long and too personal a story to go into here — and I can’t think of a better way to honor the anniversary of her passing.
Sally forth and be playground exploringly writeful.
“I love short stories because I believe they are the way we live. They are what our friends tell us, in their pain and joy, their passion and rage, their yearning and their cry against injustice.” ― Andre Dubus
I began writing when I was young.
Well, back then I drew pictures and wrote little stories beneath them in a prehistoric blog-like fashion. The first story I remember writing was about God. Couldn’t have been more than five years old at the time and I’m sure it wasn’t much of a story. The only reason I remember it is because I was punished for it. Not the story so much as the crayon drawing of God accompanying it. Just a bearded man sitting on a chair in the clouds. To this day I have no idea why it sparked so much anger.
In school, I devoured comic books and my storytelling reflected this as I scribbled comic panels in my composition notebooks and sometimes my textbooks if I ran out of paper. I only shifted gears to prose after Frank Herbert absolutely blew my mind with the first book in his Dune series that I read in the sixth grade to impress a girl named Jeanette Baker.
It was her favorite book.
Ultimately, she wasn’t all that impressed by either me or my ability to read feudal interstellar societal science fiction, but Paul Atreides, The Bene Gesserit, The Fremen, and The Spice Melange left a lasting impression on me.
Unavoidable circumstances after college pulled me away from writing for longer than I’m happy to admit, but today marks the completion of my seventy-fifth short story since I was lured back into writing after reading a copy of Harlan Ellison’s short story collection, Strange Wine, in a public library tucked away in Portsmouth Virginia.
Another mind altering experience, as Harlan introduced me to the world of speculative fiction.
This milestone doesn’t include my detours into graphic novel self-publishing or article writing and short/feature length screenwriting. Nor does it include the many and various unfinished stories that inhabit my Story Box Full of Regret. A handful were sold to a number of low-level zines during the halcyon days of snail mail querying and submissions and only thirteen have been forever filed away in the fad drawer due to outdated themes.
Of the remaining sixty-two stories, only six are so cringe-inducingly bad that I refuse to revise them. They serve as a reminder of just how awful my writing can be when I’m off my game and a yardstick as to how far I’ve come since my far-too-late-in-life return to the medium (no advice please, I’ve already written two posts on the subject and I’m well aware of the ages of the older first published authors).
The forty-five on the rung above are all inspired by actual events, ripped from the pages of my journal—-when I used to keep a journal—-and fictionalized into speculative and science fiction, horror and modern day twisted fairy tale pieces. This was when I followed that old chestnut piece of writing advice, Write what you know. These stories know the terrain well enough since they’ve been around the block a time or two. All they need is a bit of a touch-up, light revision at the most before they make their rounds again. I’m confident they’ll find a home somewhere.
The final eleven are hatchlings, newbie stories that are a tad more introspective and feature solid speculative elements. I’m a proud Papa so I must admit that these tales are my best, though if I had my druthers I would have planted their roots more firmly in the soil of either horror or science fiction instead of having them languish somewhere in the bleed of the two genres.
Of these, four are out for approval which leaves seven that I’m in the midst of revising before they join their brothers and sisters in the cold cruel world. The aim naturally is to send them all out so that can quit bugging me about wanting to be read. They can be so annoying that way.
“People they come together, People they fall apart,
No one can stop us now, ‘Cause we are all made of stars” — Moby
Ideas spark ideas, as I’m sure you well know, and while contemplating a previous post on the message I would send to my younger self, I was hit with another thought along similar lines, but the scenario requires a little theater of the mind setup first:
It begins with the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) Institute detecting a radio signal that finally confirms the existence of extraterrestrial life. How did the aliens learn of our existence, you ask? You know the deal: Voyager 1 and 2 get swallowed up by a singularity and spit out in the middle of uncharted space and intercepted by a curious and as-yet-thought-to-be-benign alien race. Now quit bogging down my backstory with unnecessary questions.
Top minds–-including astrophysicists, cryptanalysts, linguists and mathematicians–-are called in to decipher the message and after an exhaustive code-breaking session, the oddest thing is found embedded in the communique: My name.
Uh-uh, no questions, remember?
After being properly vetted—they’d have to make sure I’m not some wackadoo that’s gonna build himself an Interocitor using off-world schematics or sell the Earth off to the highest bidder—I’m brought in to begin a controlled dialogue with the alien. During the exchange, my new intergalactic pen pal asks the question: “Who are you?” I answer with my personal history and the reply I get back is, “No, who are you?”
We’re all stumped at this point.
Over a pint and some pub grub, me, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Brian Cox, and Michio Kaku (let’s face it, they’re all my buds at this point) are trying to puzzle this out when I’m struck with an idea, “What if the extraterrestrials are utilizing fourth-dimensional, or higher, level thinking and need broader definitions in which to extrapolate the answers they seek?” The astro-brainiacs think I might be onto something.
[I need to pause the post at this point because I can hear your laughter and it’s a bit disruptive. And rude, if I’m honest. Out of everything so far, the only problem you have is that I offered a solution in an astrophysics think tank? Really?]
And now we get to the meat of the nutshell:
If I had to encode myself into a relatively short information sequence, what sources would I pick?
Since mathematics and I feud constantly and are court-ordered to remain at least 500 yards apart from one another at any given time, I know I can’t make this work on a fundamental science level. My only option is to go the artistic route.
Now, the chore becomes one of selecting 10 works that once read/viewed/listened to/etc., would allow an absolutely non-terran life form to know the essence of me. This is what I came up with:
Movie: The Lion in Winter
The film takes place in the year 1183 AD and tells the story of King Henry II’s three sons all of whom want to inherit the throne, but Henry won’t commit to a choice, so they and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, variously plot to force him.
I’ve chosen this to illustrate the relationship between me and all my families (both birth and extended). It speaks to the complexities of familial love and how I tend to love what I destroy and destroy the things I love.
Book: Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A, Heinlein
In not so subtle Christ analogy, the book tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a human who comes to Earth in early adulthood after being born on the planet Mars and raised by Martians. It explores his interaction with—and eventual transformation of—terrestrial culture.
This was chosen to illustrate my social anxieties–that wax and wane in an unpredictable manner–and the fact that I never feel I properly fit in with any crowd that isn’t one of my making. There truly exists no place on Earth where I feel at home.
Poem: Desiderata by Max Ehrmann
Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be critical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.
Chosen to represent my attempt at zen thoughts. These are the inner things I strive for that always seem to exist just beyond the reach of my higher consciousness fingertips. One day, though. This and the lottery. Hope springs eternal.
Art:The Scream by Edvard Munch
In his diary in an entry headed, Nice 22 January 1892, Munch described his inspiration for the image:
One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became The Scream.
This piece represents the insanity that lies just beneath my cool surface. The things I see and hear that apparently, no one else acknowledges. But it’s real, dammit. It better be.
Sculpture: The Thinker by Auguste Rodin
The Thinker was originally meant to depict Dante in front of the Gates of Hell, pondering his great poem. This is precisely why I have chosen this, as I am well aware that I am the cause of most of the disasters that have occurred in my life and have often sat and pondered how I let things get to their current state.
Photography: Tank Man by Jeff Widener
The iconic photo of Tank Man, the unknown rebel who stood in front of a column of Chinese tanks in an act of defiance following the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. This is an obvious one as it represents my personal autonomy and contemptuous behavior/attitude towards authority figures to the point of appearing as a provocateur or just plain anti-social.
Music: Ágætis byrjun by Sigur Rós
This album is 72 minutes of sonically rich, emotionally pulverizing perfection. From the orchestral splendor of “Starálfur,” to the transcendent ache of “Ný batterí.” each decayed synth tone and cymbal splash conjures a world of endless possibilities. Jón Þór “Jónsi” Birgisson wrote the following mission statement:
“We are not a band, we are music. We are simply gonna change music forever, and the way people think about music. And don’t think we can’t do it, we will.” 14 years after the fact — Spin presented Birgisson with that quote. He responded with laughter, “You’re young and full of energy and have this cockiness,” he said. “I think it’s beautiful.”
This represents my initial mindset when I first began to write again.
Television: The Twilight Zone (1959 series) by Rod Serling and various
This science-fiction/fantasy anthology series consisting of unrelated stories depicting paranormal, futuristic, Kafkaesque, or otherwise disturbing or unusual events (typically featuring some sort of plot twist and moral), represents my imagination as it shaped the way I view fiction.
Play: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street by Stephen Sondheim
A 1979 musical thriller set in 19th century England tells the story of Benjamin Barker, aka Sweeney Todd, who returns to London after 15 years transportation on trumped-up charges. When he finds out that his wife poisoned herself after being raped by the judge who transported him, he vows revenge on the judge and, later, the whole world. He teams up with a piemaker, Mrs. Lovett, and opens a barbershop in which he slits the throats of customers and has them baked into pies.
This speaks to my Scorpio nature of quietly holding a grudge with untold patience until the chance presents itself to sting back. Not so much anymore, though. I’ve mellowed in my old age. Stop looking at me like you don’t believe me.
Performance art: The Invisible Man: Liu Bolin’s camouflage artwork
Liu uses paint to camouflage him to make himself invisible in public. This represents the fact that I was born invisible and the only time I’m ever seen is when I write.
Before you start nitpicking the logic of sending earth-logic/culture-bound works of art to an alien, I refer you to the Moby lyrics quoted at the top of the post and if we are all truly made of stars, there surely must be some commonality that binds us together, yes? Why can’t art be the universe’s language?
“I have no doubt that my story will end in very much the same manner as it began, with a secret. And as I stand at the crossroads, caught at the precise moment where a lifetime of secrets left untold should either be revealed or die forever, I stare at the younger man, eyes full of dreams that have not yet been crushed ‘neath the heel of reality, and find it difficult to believe that I was once him.” — Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys, The Very Fabric of Time Itself
I was riding the Staten Island Ferry today and it was one of those rare occasions when I wasn’t plugged into my iPod. I had just finished listening to an episode of The Afternoon Drama (a daily BBC radio play series) and as I was letting the weight of the story settle in, I overheard a conversation between a couple. They were talking about the five messages they would include in a letter if they were able to have it delivered to their younger selves.
This, of course, got me thinking about my own letter and how difficult a process it would be to write. The younger me, we’ll call him Li’l Madd for the sake of this post, was a card-carrying member of The Bronx Chapter of the International Skeptics Society who wouldn’t have believed
the letter came from the future, and more importantly,
that his future self had written it.
Also, I’m sure if I flat out told him of the obstacles he would face, that information would be redacted by some faceless wage slave at the Temporal Post Office, so the message would have to be as succinct as possible. And, if I’m honest, I wasn’t in love with the notion of sending five messages because that seemed a bit much to me. No one follows all five pieces of advice they receive. Humans just aren’t built that way. I’d either have to settle on offering Li’l Madd three pieces of advice, hoping that at least one of them stuck, or offer one simple, yet key, bit of advice with a unifying thread. Most likely I’d go with the second option.
The next problem is offering the exact piece of advice Li’l Madd would listen to. That’s a toughie, that one. Yup. Yessiree, Bob. Sigh. I guess it would all have to fall under the category of Try Harder, as in:
Love fiercely and try harder not to break hearts. Befriend the friendless and try harder not to burn bridges. Laugh more and try harder not to take life too seriously. Follow your bliss and try harder to stave off the darkness. Turn off the TV and try harder to think deeply. Take your time but try harder to avoid procrastination. Dream bigger and try harder to stop worrying about dreams not coming true. And stay away from Jane Hester. Sure, she’s pretty to look at but she’s nothing but trouble and It. Will. Not. End. Well.
I’m sure that last bit will get redacted, but here’s hoping!
Author’s Note: While Jane Hester most certainly exists, Jane Hester’s name is not Jane Hester. I wouldn’t out anyone like that, not even Jane Hester. But if you ran into Jane Hester in the real world, you’d know exactly who she was, without even checking her scalp for the Mark of the Beast.