ONE MAN’S MEAT

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I tested the ripeness of Mr. Skelly’s soul more than thirty times this evening, all at the insistence of his wife, Tamara, who never left my side for an instant. I tried to explain to her that this was a delicate process that could not be rushed, but my words never reached her, as if her ears were made of cloth. Mr. Skelly’s ash gray body was laid out on the dining room table like a flesh centerpiece, table decorated with the finest cloth and place settings that she could afford.

This wasn’t uncommon. Most people were ignorant of the proper protocol in manners for a matter such as this. They would set out red wine and wafers, or specially baked bread and cakes, and some even brewed their own ales. Those trappings weren’t necessary, born mostly of superstition and old wives’ tales, but had they been presented, I would have tasted the offering.  If for no other reason than to be polite.

Her husband had come to see me some six months earlier. He was skeptical, as most people are when seeking my services, but I never believed in hard selling my skills. It was a matter of faith. Either you believed that I could do what I claimed I could do, or you didn’t. In the end, Mr. Steven Skelly did believe. He revealed to me he had Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia and wasn’t expected to survive the year. And the diagnosis proved to be accurate.

When I first arrived at her door, Tamara debated whether or not to let me in. Not with me. She debated with herself. A loud conversation, as if both halves of her brain, the logical and the emotional sides, succeeded in separating themselves from one another and exercised shared control over the body. A conversation only the bereaved could have had and still seemed sane.

This was nothing new to me, in fact, Tamara’s discourse with herself counted amongst the tamer exchanges I had been witness to over the past ten years. I remained silent, taking no side in the argument, and was prepared to comply with her decision, either way. If she declined my services, I would have quietly tipped my hat and walked away.

When she quieted down, we stood there, me on her porch, unmoving, and she wedged in between the narrow crack of her door, unspeaking.  Then, she shifted aside slightly, which I took as an invitation to enter, and squeezed past her as politely as I could manage in the limited space provided.

As I stated earlier, Mr. Skelly was laid out on the table in the dining room, dressed in his Sunday best, a Bible laid on his chest with his hands folded upon it.

“Mrs. Skelly, I wish you hadn’t gone through all this trouble—”

“Tamara, please, and it was no trouble at all,” she smiled kindly as she touched her dead husband’s face.

“No, what I mean is, we’ll have to remove your husband’s clothes. I can’t perform my job this way.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. I thought—”

“It’s all right, you didn’t know. How could you know?”

Mr. Skelly was a tall man, a sturdy man, and even cancer couldn’t rob him of that, but it made his dead weight all the more difficult to manage. How Tamara succeeded in dressing him all by herself in the first place was remarkable. Where there’s a will, I suppose. In silence and in tandem, we stripped the corpse, being as respectful to the man who was no longer with us as we could have managed.

“How long?” Tamara asked.

“Excuse me?”

“How long will it take for you to do your…thing?”

“There isn’t a set timeframe for this sort of thing, Tamara,” I took one of her hands in mine, and she let me.

“Most people believe that life and the soul are one and the same thing. This simply isn’t the case. Life ends when the human body shuts down completely. The soul is eternal. The soul doesn’t power the body. If that were the case, we’d all live forever.”

Tamara looked at her husband, hopeful. “So, you mean Steven’s soul is still here, with us?”

“His soul hasn’t released itself from the flesh yet, so yes, in some way, it is still with us.”

Tamara pulled her hand free of my grasp and rushed over to the table and caressed Steven’s face gently. “Honey? Steven? Are you still in there? Can you hear me? Give me a sign if you can hear me!”

I moved behind Tamara, placed my hands on her shoulders and whispered into her ear, “It doesn’t work that way. I’m sorry, it just doesn’t.”

She turned on her heels and was in my face suddenly, like an attack dog. Delicate hands balled into fists and pounding on my chest. “Then why are you just standing here? Why aren’t you doing what we paid you to do?  Why aren’t you helping my Steven? I can’t bear to think of him trapped in there like that, helpless!”

Her energy spent, she folded herself into my chest and I held her.

“He isn’t trapped, Tamara. He’s in a transitional stage, like a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly. If you can imagine a spiritual chrysalis, enveloping his soul, molding and shaping his essence into what it needs to become in order to move on, that’s what’s happening now.”

Tamara looked up at me, concerned. “Then shouldn’t you be getting to work now?  Before it’s too late?”

“His soul isn’t ready.”

“But how do you know?”

I couldn’t stifle a slight chuckle.  “I’ve been doing this for over ten years now. I just know.”

“And you’ve never been wrong? Never made a mistake? Not once?” Her concern was understandable but unjustified.

“Not once. When his soul is ready, when it reaches the stage just before it emerges in its new form, I’ll do what I’ve been paid to do.”

“You’ll eat his sin?” That question was the one thing that never varied in deliverance, from person to person, job to job, regardless of who said it. It always came out sounding the same. Part skepticism, part hope.

“Every drop of it.”

“And there’ll be no retribution?” she looked up at the ceiling but I understood her meaning.

“No retribution. He’ll move on to a better place and none of his sins will transfer to you.”

“And what about you? You take this all of this on yourself. What happens to you?”

“With all due respect, that’s none of your concern,” I expected an argument. None came.

“Well then,” Tamara straightened up and composed herself.  “Can I interest you in a cup of tea?”

“Tea would be nice.”

She stared at me a long moment, no doubt trying to decipher what made me do what I did. Trying to puzzle out how I came into this profession. But she never asked. I think she knew I wouldn’t be very forthcoming anyway, so she simply shook her head slightly and moved to the kitchen to put the kettle on.

©2011 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Creative Commons License

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THE SUBMISSION

My Movie

Darryl paced the length of the gravel path that divided the perfectly clipped lawn and stared at the bluestone pebbles that reflected the early morning light. He clenched an artist’s portfolio in a white-knuckled death grip, constantly checking his watch as he shot an occasional glance at the front door of the private house. He was clearly anxious about knocking on the door, but in truth was more nervous because he wasn’t sure of the makeup of the neighborhood or how he would be perceived, a young black man loitering on someone’s property.

He stopped and looked fixedly at the door. One deep breath to gird his loins. “Bump this.” He stepped up and wiped his sweaty palm on his pant leg before ringing the doorbell. An action, he discovered, that once began, could not be stopped. He worked the doorbell like a telegraph key — three short, followed by one long. “C’mon, c’mon, ‘fore I lose my nerve.”

***

The walls of Mark Brown’s bedroom were decorated with posters of comic book characters, and special collector’s edition comic books and rare comic art hung in ornate frames. Bookcases, a chest of drawers and anything else that provided a flat surface were littered with statues, model kits, action figures, toys, and piles of comic books and graphic novels. The room could have easily belonged to that of a young boy instead of a black man in his thirties.

Mark nearly leaped out of bed at the sound of the doorbell—more the pattern of the ring than the sound itself. Three short rings followed by a long one. Over and over again. He blindly reached for the alarm clock on the nightstand, rubbed the sleep from his eyes, and checked the time.

“Who the hell’s ringing my bell like they lost their goddamned mind this early in the morning?”

The doorbell chime continued as Mark stumbled to the front door in his pajamas, still wiping sleep from his field of vision. “All right! All right! I hear you!” Mark violently swung the door open. “What? And it better be good!”

“Uh—what’s crackin’, I–I mean good morning, sir. Sorry to bother you ’cause you look like you were sleepin’, but I’m lookin’ for a Mr. Mark Brown. He still live here?” Darryl stammered.

“Don’t you people keep in contact with each other? I’ve never bought a Watchtower from any of you, and I’m not going to start today, get me?”

“I ain’t no Jehovah’s Witness, sir. It’s a portfolio, not a briefcase.” Darryl held up his portfolio.

“Then who are you?”

“My name’s Darryl. Darryl Jackson.”

“That supposed to mean something to me?”

“’Pends on who you are.”

“I’m Mark Brown. What do you want?”

“The same Mark Brown who owns and publishes the Perceived Onslaught comic books?”

“The same Mark Brown you pissed off for getting him out of bed on his day off!”

“Mr. Brown, I said I was sorry ’bout that, but check it, I got here earlier than I thought I would and I tried to wait until a decent hour to show a brotha respect, but I’m kinda anxious, yanno? Slow, ya blow, snooze, ya lose.”

“What. Do. You. Want?” Mark said through gritted teeth.

“Uh — I was—I was kinda wonderin’ if —uh— you would—like—take a look at my submission samples? If it’s not too much trouble, an’ all?” Darryl said, visibly flustered.

“Well, it is too much trouble, and besides, all samples go through the submissions editor at my business address, so why don’t you drop them off there and I promise someone will take a look at them and get back to you.”

“Yo, but I tried that already, Mr. Brown, an’ all I keep gettin’ are form letters an’ stuff, tellin’ me to practice and submit again in a few months! What’s up with that?”

“What’s up with what?”

“What’s up with your submission editor? No offense, but I don’t think they know they butt from a t-square! I think they stoppin’ a lot of good work from reachin’ you, includin’ my stuff!”

“Look, Darren—”

“Darryl! Why you playin’ me?”

“—Darryl, my staff are dedicated professionals trained to spot talent and hire them if they’re at a professional level, and to nurture them if they’re not—”

“Yeah, yeah, I read all that in them interviews you be doin’, but I’m askin’ you to give me a chance! You run the company, don’t you? Can’t nobody veto your word, am I right?”

“Okay, I’ll tell you what, I’ll call the office and tell them to expect you. Instead of a form letter, someone will personally sit down with you and go over your submission.”

“No!”

“No?”

“No disrespect, but I don’t wanna deal with no flunky. I came to meet with you.”

“Then you should have made an appointment. Look at me. I’m standing here in my pajamas. I don’t do meetings in my pajamas. Maybe some other time, huh? At my office?”

“I tried that, too! I left you a hundred messages, but you never returned any of my calls! All that paper you got, you can’t get a beeper or nothin’? Page a brotha back or somethin’, know what I’m sayin’?”

“Hey, Darryl, no need to get upset, okay? Sorry, if I didn’t return your calls. It’s nothing personal. I just get so many messages on a daily basis that it’s impossible to call everybody back.”

“Yo, I didn’t mean to flare up at you, Mr. Brown, it’s just I took the day off from work and travelled here all the way from Ithaca for you to take a look at my art—”

“Speaking of which, how did you get this address?”

“From one of your old comics from like seven or eight years ago, when you used to publish outta your house, before you blew up an’ got that corporate office in the city. See?? I been readin’ your joints from way back, Mr. Brown. Why don’t you hook a brotha up with a portfolio review? Make up for them unreturned messages, know what I’m sayin’?” Darryl could tell by Mark’s expression that he wasn’t biting. “Awww, c’mon! Don’t sleep on me! My game is tight! Lemme show you a little somethin’, somethin’, an’ if you ain’t feelin’ my art, I’ll bounce. Simple as that. That’s my word.”

Mark sighed and sized Darryl up. “A quick review, then you leave and let me get back to sleep, deal?”

“Bet!”

Mark ushered Darryl in through the foyer into the living room and gestured for the young man to take a seat at the table, while he stepped into the kitchen.

Darryl was momentarily stunned by all the comic book related paraphernalia that adorned the place. “Yo, this crib is phat. I’ma get me one just like it, but bigga! Yup.”

He moved to the framed comic book art pages that lined the walls and inspected them with childlike exuberance. “Man, I remember all these joints! Yo, hang on to these, Mr. Brown, cause they’re gonna be like priceless collector’s items or somethin’.”

“You can call me Mark. Every time you say Mr. Brown, I turn around and look for my father.” Mark called from the kitchen. “Can I get you something to drink? Coffee?  Juice?”

“Sure, whatever you got.” Darryl answered. “Yo, check this, Mr. Brow — I mean, Mark, you ain’t gonna be sorry you gave me this chance, word. An’ I ain’t never gonna forget it, neither. I’ma be loyal to you! Forget Marvel! Forget DC! Me an’ you! That’s the way it’s gonna be forever! An’ when I start drawin’ your books, sales are gonna blow up, wait an’ see! I’m the next—”

Mark poked his head out the kitchen door. “Stop!”

“What’d I do? I ain’t break nothin’.”

“Let’s get two things straight, Darryl. First, this is a portfolio review and that’s all it is. No offer of work was made or implied by me, got it?”

Darryl nodded. “I hear you, I hear you. Just got a little carried away, yanno?”

“Second, you say I’m the next anybody and this review’s over quick-fast-in-a-hurry.”

“Why?” Darryl asked.

“Because two-thirds of the submissions we receive come with a cover letter that contains the sentence, You won’t regret hiring me because I’m the next— fill in the artist of your choice. Those submissions usually turn out to be the most amateurish, done by people who try to imitate their favorite artists.  Submission editors aren’t impressed by the statement, so do yourself a favor and avoid getting lumped into that wannabe category. Strive to be yourself, not a carbon copy of someone else.”

“Good lookin’ out.”

“Mark disappeared back into the kitchen and rummaged through the cupboards, which were just about devoid of anything remotely related to sustenance. “I’m out of coffee! How about some juice?”

“A’ight.”

Mark opened the refrigerator, which was in the same shape as the cupboards, and grabbed the lone orange juice container. He shook it, checked the date, then opened it and took a whiff.  It’s gone bad. “Juice is out, too! How about some water?”

“Nah, I’m straight.”

Mark shrugged and put the container back into the refrigerator. “I sure could use some coffee.” He mumbled.

Mark reentered the living room and pulled a chair up to the table, right beside Darryl. “Sorry about being such a bad host, but that’s one of the drawbacks of being a bachelor. Nobody around to remind you you’re out of the essentials like coffee, bread, toilet paper. What about you? You married?”

Darryl dug a wallet out of his pocket and rummaged for a picture that he handed to Mark. “Yeah, that’s my wife, Lashawndra, and my baby boy, Tyriq.”

“Beautiful family. Your son has his mother’s eyes. You must be proud.”

“Yeah, they my world. I’d do just about anything for them.”

Mark returned the picture to Darryl. “Cool. Okay, let’s see what you’ve got.”

Darryl placed his portfolio on the table, unzipped it and turned it in Mark’s direction as he opened it. Mark’s eyes passed over the pages quickly and he flipped through at a speed faster than Darryl appreciated. Darryl’s glance darted back and forth between the portfolio and Mark’s expressionless face.  When Mark got to the end, he flipped all the pages back to the beginning.

“Well?” Darryl asked, hopefully.

“Well, your work shows promise—”

“I knew it! Didn’t I tell you your submission editor was weak?”

“—However, you still need to work on a few areas.”

“Like what?” Darryl sounded more defensive than he wanted to.

“Hey, don’t get discouraged by my criticism. Very few people have broken into the comic industry without receiving at least a dozen rejections. A little hard work and a lot of practice is all you need—”

“Now you startin’ to sound like your form letter! I didn’t come all this way to hear you recite that mess verbatim!”

“You want to know what I really think?”

“Hell yeah!”

Mark shrugged. “You asked for it.” He started flipping through the portfolio pages again, this time stopping at certain pages. “I can tell that you never studied anatomy outside of copying it from a comic book. You’re inventing muscles that don’t exist, at least not on humans.  And look at your facial expressions. Why are all your characters yelling or gritting their teeth? Not to mention the stiff poses, the lack of background detail, you don’t spot enough black and your perspective is — just plain bad.”

“Damn. Then what’s good about it?”

“Your pencil lines are solid and you understand line weight, which’ll make your inker happy. Your panel layouts are good, too. You just need to fill them with more believable and fluid poses and background detail.”

“Man, you don’t know what you talkin’ about!” Darryl reached into the inside pocket of his portfolio, pulled out a comic and slapped it down on the table. “I been published before! If my art was so jacked up, why’d they print my work?”

Mark picked up the comic, looked at the cover with a mixture of astonishment and disgust. His expression didn’t change as he flipped through the comic. “Nigga Press presents The Togetha Niggaz? What’s this?”

“That’s real life, son! It’s about these four bangers, real hardcore street niggaz, that form this posse and be makin’ mad cheddah an’ be smokin’ corrupt  cops an’ whatnot! This book be keepin’ it real! What you know ’bout that?”

“Real? Is this what it’s like in your neighborhood?”

“For real!”

“In Ithaca?”

“What you tryin’ to say?”

Mark shook his head and tossed the comic on the portfolio. “Nothing. Forget it. Look, congratulations, you’ve been published. Maybe if you put together another story, they’ll print more of your work.”

“Can’t. They ain’t in business no more.” Darryl mumbled.

“I’m not surprised.”

“What’s that mean?”

“You’re kidding, right? Nigga Press? Negro, please. I’m surprised a printer actually wasted paper on that garbage! And you wonder why they published your work? Your art was the best thing in there! They’d be stupid to turn you away! But your work on The Togetha Niggaz is a far cry from commercial standards. I’m not trying to tell you what to work on but damn, couldn’t you find another company to work for?”

“What you think I’m tryin’ to do now? But fake-ass companies like yours be frontin’! Y’all don’t respect a brothas potential! So if Nigga Press is the only company tryin’ to big up a black man, what am I supposed to do? Say no? Then what? Then I’m ass out all around!”

“You have a point. Look—”

“An’ why you judgin’ me, huh? I ain’t even into “reality” comics, no how. That’s a’ight for TV an’ movies an’ books an’ junk, but comics, to me, comics is always ’bout superheroes. Cosmic brothas, mystic sistas, yanno what I’m talkin’ ’bout? But them kinda books, and the companies that make ’em, when they do come out, they don’t last that long. You in the business, you must know somethin’. Why’s that? Why do most of the comics with people of color as the star fail so fast?”

“You looking for some special answer? They fail for the same reason a good majority of the white hero titles fail. Poorly written stories with stereotypical, underdeveloped characters. Poorly financed. Poorly marketed. Poorly illustrated in what is commercially thought of as the “urban style”. All of the above. None of the above. Take your pick. But whatever you choose, realize that it’s only half true.  The reality is that most minority-themed comics are nothing more than rehashes of successful white comics done in black face.”

“I hear what you sayin’! White corporate America don’t want to publish no minority titles, but they can’t show their racists faces to the public, so they hire Uncle Toms to put out this substandard crap on purpose just so they can say, We put it out there, but there just doesn’t seem to be an interest for this type of material.”

Mark rolled his eyes. “Here we go again with that white corporate conspiracy to keep the black man down. One day I would love to have a professional conversation with a person of color and not have the white man is the devil pop up in the exchange. Don’t think I’ll ever live to see the day, though.”

“Somebody gotta keep it real!”

“Look, white-owned or not, any publisher would be stupid to intentionally produce a product that was substandard.”

“But now you’re contradictin’ yourself!”

“No, I’m not.  You’re not listening to me. Truth: a good majority of the minority comics published are crap.  Truth: a good majority of the non-ethnic comics published today are crap.  Truth: the number of high-quality non-ethnic comics on the stands greatly outweigh the number of quality minority comics, but a large part of that is due to the sheer number of non-ethnic titles being flooded into an oversaturated market.”

“Yeah, I been readin’ ’bout that comic glut an’ whatnot, so I can’t argue with that.  I’m just curious about why minority titles don’t do well.  I buy every title I know is published by a black man representin’ our people.”

“Even if the book is bad?”

“Come again?”

“You said you buy every minority title published by a black man. I asked you if you also bought the books that were of poor content quality?”

“Hell yeah!”

“Why?”

“To show a brotha support! White man ain’t gonna buy the book an’ put no paper in a black man’s pocket!”

“I understand supporting black-owned enterprises, but don’t we as a black consumer have the right to demand quality? Don’t we as black professionals owe it to one another to pull a brother’s coattail to shoddy workmanship? If you bought a chair from a black carpenter and it fell apart the first time you sat in it, wouldn’t you hold him accountable for giving you a quality product? Of course, you would. Why should it be any different when it comes to comics?”

“Yeah, well, that’s an interestin’ theory an’ I’m tryin’ to stay open-minded, but I get this vibe that you tryin’ to come off all superior on me. Lookin’ down on my published work, an’ all—”

“I’m just telling you like it is, or how I know it to be. But since we’re keeping it real here, I’ve got a question for you. Do you really think that the artwork in your portfolio is of a professional level?”

“Well, that’s not my most recent work—”

“Then why’d you bring it?”

“Cause the new stuff’s not finished yet. Work got me tired, black. When I gets home, I ain’t thinkin’ ’bout nothin’ but eatin’ and bustin’ z’s. But that sample’s the same one that got me a job with Nigga Press, so I figured—”

“You figured that it’s the kind of work all publishers are looking for?”

“Right.”

“How many publishers have you sent it to?”

“Not includin’ you? ‘Bout twenty, thirty.”

“Besides Nigga Press, who else offered you a job?”

“Nobody.”

“Then that should’ve told you something!”

“Why you attackin’ a brotha like that? Why’re you, a black man, endorsin’ the same two-dimensional thinkin’ that the white comic book industry uses to hold you down?”

“Endorsing? What the hell are you talking about? What’s me not thinking your samples are of a professional quality got to do with the white comic book industry?”

“Yanno what? Forget it, dog. I’m wastin’ my time here. In fact, yanno what else? Your comics suck! I only came here ’cause I figured I’d help a brotha out, know what I’m sayin’? But if you too stupid or too proud to accept my offer, I’ll just take my samples to a bigga, betta company. An’ I want you to remember this day, son, cause when I blow up, I’m comin’ back for that apology. Best believe that.”

“Oh, I’m too small for you now, huh? Whatever. See ya. Don’t let the doorknob hit you where the Good Lord split you.”

“Yeah, you like one of them tiny little Oreos that come inna cereal box.”

“And I’m an Oreo?”

“Think you ain’t? What relationship you got with the black comic readin’ community? What black comic associations you belong to? What black creators do you mentor?”

“What’s that got to do with you and your samples?”

“Why’re you ducking the question?”

“Because it bears no relevance—”

“Answer the question.”

“I don’t have time for this—”

“Answer the question!”

“Fine! I don’t belong to any black organizations, happy?”

“Why?”

“I don’t owe you any explanations—”

“Why?”

“I’ve had enough of this! Get out of my house!”

“Why!”

“Because black people can’t organize, that’s why! You think when I entered this game I didn’t want to make change, unite the black community, put out a product that would help uplift the race?” Mark’s tone took on a sermon-like quality. “And there are a hundred people just like me that start out trying to do the same thing, dreaming of the same outcome, outreaching the same hand, making the same offers! And you know what happens? White people do laugh at us, but it’s not the ones you think! It’s the ghosts of the whites from over 400 hundred years ago that are laughing! Cause they planted a seed in us that’s growing stronger with each generation! That seed causes us to challenge each other rather than organize! What do we call it? Crabs in a barrel syndrome? And it kills us every time! And why do we need that? Why do we have to make ourselves look bigger by tearing another brother down?”

“An’ you think you ain’t a goddam crab in that same mutha fuckin’ barrel? How you figga? Every time you turn a blind eye to a black man tryin’ make endz, or look right through a brotha that needs help, ain’t you holdin’ him down? Stoppin’ him from climbin’ out that barrel?”

“You want me to help you to make it in this industry? All right. I’ll give you a nickel’s worth of free advice. Stop looking for an excuse to hate a successful brother and take a tip from the white man, instead of blaming him for your inadequacies! Learn the comic industry first. Study it. Understand what makes it work. Understand what it is. Despite the fact that you grew up on comics and love to read them and drawing comic characters has always been a hobby, this is a business. A real business. Understand how a business operates. Study the mistakes and accomplishments of the people who are doing what you want to do. And forget about the instant gratification. Pay your dues. Do what it takes to break into the business. By any means necessary? By all means that don’t require you to compromise your beliefs or dreams.”

“Paper must be good.” Darryl said under his breath.

“For what?”

“Your job.”

“What, publishing? I don’t know, I make a living.”

“Nah, your other job.”

“What other job?”

“The one the white man pays you for.”

“What?”

“For doin’ his job for him.”

“Why do you keep bringing the white man into this conversation? There’s just the two of us standing here and no white man in shouting distance.”

“Matter of opinion.”

“Meaning what?”

“There’s always been so-called brothas like you out there, livin’ all comfortable in the white man’s world, afraid to break the shackles, fight the massahs, own your destiny as a free black man!” Darryl held his arms out in front of him, wrists pressed together as if they were shackled. “C’mon, say it with me now, Give us us free!”

“What do you know about me that allows you to come into my house and attack my character?”

“Well, I know you ain’t stupid. White man don’t hire stupid brothas. Probably sent you to college to get that degree in self-loathin’. What was your major, black? How To Discreetly Hate Anyone Darker Than Milk?”

Mark let out an ironic chuckle. “I get it. It all makes sense now. You can’t break into the comic business and it’s got nothing to do with the fact that you need to study and practice harder for your work to take on commercial qualities. It’s all my fault. I’m a hater hired by the white man to single-handedly keep you from entering the market and toppling the great white comic empire. None of this could possibly be your fault, right?”

“You can’t blame a victim of America, dog, cause that what we are, victims! Brought here against our will, enslaved, beaten, killed, forced to embrace a culture not our own, forced to forget our heritage, deny our birthright! An’ you’d know all this if you were a real black man!”

“Oh, give that old, tired downtrodden for 400 years bullshit rhetoric a rest!”

“Do you even notice what you doin’? Every time I try to drop a little science on you, you respond with contempt. Did you learn that from the whites?”

“From the whites? What am I, in South Africa?”

“You might as well be, you apartheid mutha fucka.”

“Get out of my house!”

“Why’re you afraid?”

“Afraid of what?”

“The truth! Hearin’ the truth, acknowledgin’ the truth, speakin’ the truth!”

“I’m not afraid of a goddamned thing! Now pack your things and get out of my house!”

“Oh, you not afraid, huh? Then why won’t you tell me what you thought of The Togetha Niggaz?”

“What I thought of—? It’s a revolting piece of shit, all right? Is that what you want to hear?”

“And Nigga Press?”

“All that ranting you do about the evil white conspiracy and you can’t see?”

“See what? Drop science.”

“Darryl, if there’s anybody that absolutely does not pose a threat to white corporate America, it’s illiterate, ignorant assholes like Nigga Press that perpetuate the negative stereotypes that castrate us as a race!” Mark’s calm and professionalism have unraveled at the edges. “But you can’t really blame them, can you? That’s our one claim to fame. Who needs the white man to hold us down and pick us apart? To devalue the black family structure and make us apathetic to the crimes we commit on our own kind? We do the job better than they do, cause we work twice as hard at it! In fact, if Nigga Press was smart, they would’ve sent copies of that garbage to the KKK! I bet they would’ve received enough funding to put Marvel and DC to shame!”

“All that, huh?”

“Take a look at that book again! This time try to be objective!”

“Can’t do that, dog.”

“Why not?”

“Cause I’m Nigga Press.”

“What?” Mark asked, confused.

Darryl grabbed the comic book, opened the cover and shoved it at Mark. “Read the indicia. ‘Sides bein’ one of the artists, I’m the writer, editor, publisher. Just like you, only different. Only real.”

“But why?”

“Why what? Why Nigga Press? Why alienate the white audience? Cause I don’t give a fuck about comic sales in a white comic store! Cause I wanted to create somethin’ the black youth could relate to! Cause I believe in our segregation from the white supremacist comic book industry that is determined to remain ignorant of any other culture than their own! Cause I am who I am, an’ who I am is a servant to my people! Cause I knew nobody else’d take the lead, so I became the mutha fuckin’ pioneer!”

“No. I no longer care why that trash was published. My question is why all the pretense?”

“Cause I had to peep your game, playa. Fuck your comic art job and your bitch-ass comics! That shit’s nickel an’ dime, kid.”

“Peep my game for what?”

“Ever see that commercial with that mutha fucka wearing the Riddler suit with all them question marks on it an’ shit? He’s always talkin’ about all this government money floatin’ around out there, an’ white people are on it with a quickness! So I did some researchin’ on my own an’ found out there’s much benjamins out there for minority businesses! Free money! An’ all you gotta do is meet some stupid criteria! Like being black in America ain’t criteria enough.”

“You still haven’t answered my question. And why come to me if my product is so bitch-ass?”

Darryl hesitated a long moment then shrugged. “Guess it don’t matta if you know, cause my game’s so fulla Machiavellianism you can’t touch it.”

“Machiavellianism. Riiiight.” Mark smirked.

“Yo, I ain’t even hearin’ you, fool, cause you ain’t gots nothin’ to say to me! See, I’m inna process of building a black multi-media alliance, but not just with comics an’ shit. I gots me all kinda TV, film, an’ record producers lined up, I’m talkin’ to magazine an’ book publishers, an’ my cousin even hooked me up with some toy an’ videogame makers. We gots every aspect of entertainment covered an’ it’s all black-owned! Way I figga it, separately we can apply for all that free government money an’ start poolin’ it all together into the umbrella company of the alliance! But before I start makin’ offers, I gotta make sure I come correct an’ flush out all you fake-ass Uncle Tom-owned businesses. So, go back to playin’ it safe in that lily white imaginary hater world you livin’ in, Chicken George, an’ give my regards to Mickey an’ Pluto an’ all them other mutha fuckas!”

Darryl snatched his comic out of Mark’s hand, shoved it back in his portfolio and turned to leave.

“Whereabouts, Darryl?”

Darryl stopped and cut Mark a glance. “What?”

“You said you traveled all the way from Ithaca this morning. Whereabouts?”

“What’s it to you?”

“I have friends and family in Ithaca. Maybe you know some of them? Maybe they know you? Hell, only so many Africans were brought over here, and even less survived slavery — we might be related. So where are you from?”

Darryl hesitated. “Greenville.”

“Greenville, huh? Funny, I know Ithaca pretty well and I don’t recall there being a Greenville.”

“Yeah, well, it’s a small hood an’ folks pretty much keep to theyselves.”

“Yeah, I guess it’d have to be small for me not to have heard of it. Most folks probably steer clear of it, being so dangerous, and all. Or there’s one more solution — you’re full of shit.”

“Yo, you best raise up off me!”

“Or what? You’re going to bust a cap in my ass? Violate that strong code of black ethics you’ve been slinging around here by participating in a little black on black violence?”

“I’ll do what I gots to do, bitch!”

“I ain’t your bitch, Darryl. Or your dog. Or your son. It’s either Mark or Mr. Brown, pick one, but if you call me outside my name one more time, I’ll show you how we get down where I come from.”

“Man, forget you! You ain’t worth the jail time! I’m ghost!”

“Why are you running from it, Darryl?”

“From what?”

“The truth. You accused me of refusing to acknowledge and speak it, but of the two of us, you’re the one with the real problem.”

“You the one livin’ the snow white lie—”

“Don’t play me, Darryl, play Lotto. You’ll get better odds.”

“Anybody played you, you played yourself!”

“That’s what you’d like me to believe, isn’t it, Darryl? It’d let you walk out of here with a little face.”

“Whatever you need to believe—”

“No, it isn’t whatever, it’s the truth. What, you think you’re the first? First artist to ever sneak through and get a private session? First person of color to accuse me of selling out? First person that thought I owed them something just because of the color of their skin? I’ve been doing this for eight-plus years,  you tell me what the odds are that you’d be the first to do any of these things.”

“I don’t care.” Darryl shrugged.

“All right, Mr. Machiavellianism, how about this, Why the portfolio?”

“What?”

“If your game was as tight as you wanted me to believe, then why didn’t you bring your research with statistics and figures that supported your proposed idea? A model business plan? Something? Instead, you brought artwork, and poor artwork at that?”

“I ain’t need to bring you jack!”

“And why meet at my house? I’m here once, maybe twice a month. Most times I sleep at the office. So how did you know I was here today? Luck? Coincidence? Or were you watching me?”

“So now I’m a stalker?”

“For how long? A couple of days? A week? Longer? And if you could afford to spend so much time watching me, that means that you probably don’t have a job, not a regular one anyway.”

“You ain’t gots to worry ’bout me gettin’ paid! I gets mine, black!”

“And since I’m on a roll here—”

“You ain’t on nothin’!”

“—I’m going to go out on a limb and say this probably isn’t even about you, is it? Awful lot of trouble to go through for a comic job for yourself. It’s about your family, isn’t it? Unless that picture you showed me was a lie, too? What was it? Some street ho and her crack baby?”

“Don’t you talk about my family, punk! An’ what you know ’bout that? What you know ’bout tryin’ to raise a family, huh? What you know ’bout me?”

“To tell you the truth, I don’t know anything about raising a family, but I do know, or I’m almost certain that you really came here looking for a job, didn’t you? And I can’t fault you for that, trying to do right by your family. That’s actually pretty noble. I could have done without the lies, attitude and language, though.”

“Fault me? Fuck you! I ain’t come here for no mutha fuckin’ job! Job? What that mean? J.O.B.? Just Over Broke? I ain’t about that! I’ma get paid an’ blow up much spots, know what I’m sayin’?”

“This isn’t about a job? Fine, then prove it.”

“I ain’t provin’ shit!”

Mark stood up, walked around the edge of the table and put out his hand. “I’m about to offer you a one year contract with Perceived Onslaught. That’s a year’s salary guaranteed, provided that you show up for work everyday and perform the tasks assigned to you. If it works out after that time, we’ll renegotiate your contract. All you have to do is shake my hand to cement the deal. And if I’m wrong, if this isn’t about a job, or the money, or feeding your family, then just walk out that door. No harm, no foul.”

“You so fulla shit—”

“I never offer what I’m not prepared to back up. I’m a smarter businessman than that. The choice is yours. It always has been. It always will be. You decide what course your life takes. All black men do. Many of us just don’t want to live up to the responsibility of our choices. I don’t really know you, but I don’t think you’re like that. So where do we, two black men with not a white man in sight, where do we go from here?”

Darryl just stood there for a long minute, head hung low, thinking. Reflecting on his past. Reevaluating his present. Reconnoitering the paths for his future. “You ever do somethin’ on impulse? Seems right at the time. Harmless. Then after it’s done you see the effects an’ you wonder, Why I ain’t seen that inna first place?” He said in a low voice. “Wasn’t nothin’ political ’bout Nigga Press. It was just a comic, yanno? People don’t take comics serious. With all the gangsta rap an’ thug life hype goin’ ’round, an’ people gettin’ mad loot offa it, I figured I’d get me a slice, too. No harm in that, right? I mean, I ain’t create none of that stuff, an’ with or without me, it’s still gonna play on, right? So, what’s one comic gonna hurt? Get in quick, make some paper an’ move on before anybody knows I’m Audi. Nobody’d care, right?”

“But my wife did.” Darryl continued. “Said I got a son an’ should be settin’ an example cause what other role models is he gonna have if he can’t respect his father? An’ I ain’t wanna hear that. Told her she messin’ up the cash flow, but she was right, tho. So, I ain’t say nothin’ else ’bout it. Just packed up the copies of the books that didn’t sell an’ stuffed them in a closet. I figured it was over, but she never lost that look in her eye, like she was ashamed of me or some shit. An’ when I lost my telemarketin’ job, shit started gettin’ worse. Ever try to live on unemployment checks with bills comin’ due an’ three mouths to feed? An’ one of them mouths is too young to understand why there ain’t enough food in the house to get fed three times a day.”

Mark’s hand remained outstretched. “Darryl, you don’t have to do this. I’m not here to judge you.”

“But even now, when I got nothin’, I still got my pride. An’ I don’t need nobody’s handouts.”

“Handouts are what you get from the government. A hand up is what you get from a brother. A true brother. And trust me, everybody on my payroll earns that money. My name isn’t Salvation and I’m not trying to raise an Army. Work or begone is the company motto. But if you’re loyal to the goal of trying to make my dreams a reality, then there’s nothing I wouldn’t do to help you—”

Mark took a few steps towards Darryl. “—I’d even meet you half way.”

Darryl knew it was do or die time. Put up or shut up. He stepped up and gripped Mark’s hand firmly.

“Welcome on board.” Mark said.

“But I thought you weren’t diggin’ my artwork?”

“What’s your artwork have to do with your job?”

“Then what I’ma be doin’?”

“I like that idea about the black media alliance. Think you could pull it off?”

“Hell yeah!”

“Then we’ll start mapping out a game plan tomorrow, but on two conditions—”

Darryl eyed the man suspiciously. “What?”

“One: Nigga Press never rears its head anywhere near my company and its business dealings, in fact this is the last time I hear the word Nigga at all from you.”

Darryl put a hand in the air. “Word is bond.”

“And two: you wait here until I get dressed.”

“Why?”

“Why? You bust into my house and disturb my sleep on my day off and you think you can just get away with it?”

“Said I was sorry ’bout that, bla—uh — Mr. Brown.”

“Mark. And sorry, my ass! You’re going to buy me a cup of coffee, goddamit!”

“Bet to that. I can charge it to my expense account, right?”

“I got your expense account, right here.” Mark gestured towards his crotch.

“Yanno, it’s funny how things work out.”

“How so?” Mark asked.

“If I’da said I lived in any other place but Ithaca, I’d be ass out right now.”

“Uh, not necessarily. All my folks are in Brooklyn. I don’t know a damn thing about Ithaca.”

“You played me!”

Mark shrugged and smiled. “Hey, game recognizes game.”

©2001 & 2018 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

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About The Submission:

I was going to be a filmmaker.

Well, I still can be, especially if George Eliot’s words ring true—It is never too late to be what you might have been.It was the 90’s and the independent film movement was just beginning to blossom. I was lucky enough to publish a line of comic books and graphic novels during the independent boom of the comic book industry, and wanted to step boldly into the world of cinema.

I took a two-day Hollywood film course and filled with intent and blissful ignorance, I wrote the story you’re about to read. Based very loosely on a series of events that happened while I published comics and was foolish enough to list my home address in the indicia of the books, which resulted in more than a few unwanted visitors.

Principle photography was to begin in September 2001, but the events of that month pushed the schedule back a few years.

I eventually filmed it and while it’s not Oscar worthy, I learned a valuable lesson about storytelling—overwriting, on the nose dialogue, and editing, in particular. Still, it was a hell of an adventure.

Oh, and if you’re curious to see how the film turned out, you can catch it here:

The Space Between

angel-statue-angel-statue-stock-by-stock-weeping-angel-statue-for-garden

When I was asked to deliver this eulogy, I was terrified. I am not the best orator in the family, that honor goes to Arthur, my brother, who couldn’t be in attendance because he and his family lived too far away, as opposed to my youngest sister, Ethel, who simply couldn’t be bothered to pack up their families again for a repeat memorial service. You see, we buried my great grandfather Walter two short weeks ago and while I understand the inconvenience, family is family and they should have made it their business to be here, if not to offer support to those of us this passing strikes hardest, then at least out of familial obligation. If it sounds like I’m bitter, I am, and I apologize for burdening you with it but not sorry for voicing the way I feel. That was one of the lessons I learned from the person we’re memorializing today.

This woman gave life to the woman who gave life to the woman who gave life to me and I owe her so much because I have a good life. If it’s true that grandparents give us a sense of who we are and where we come from, then great-grandparents let us know how far we’ve come and the sacrifices that had to be made for us to exist.

Today, as we bid farewell to GiGiMaw Eleanor, I realize the size of the hole left in my heart and in my family. I am truly blessed to have so many strong women in my life and it is extremely rare for a relationship three generations removed to be so crucial and so enduring but then Eleanor was that phenomenal sort of person every single day of her life. And you don’t have to take my word for it, others will come up and tell stories that will make you laugh and fill your hearts with joy and hope. I, on the other hand, wish to tell a different story, one that few of you know but I think it’s time to clear the air of ghosts and secrets from the past.

Eleanor and Walter had two children, a daughter, my wonderful GiMaw Ruth, who is with us today, and her older brother, Ned, who is no longer with us. From the stories Eleanor told me, Ned, the granduncle I never had the honor of meeting, was an active little boy, rambunctious and always full of playful mischief, but he was kindhearted, especially to his baby sister. Always the defender of the weak and a paladin of justice, he had the makings for growing into someone important, someone the world needed.

When he was just six years old he was the victim of a hit and run which cut his life short. Alerted by the neighbors, Eleanor and Walter rushed to the scene of the accident and gathered up their son’s body and immediately carried him home as not to cause a spectacle. They carefully and lovingly cleaned Ned head to toe, dressed him in his Sunday best and placed him on their bed in the space between them and mourned their loss in private all through the night.

This was in a time before the dead were taken to morgues, back when it was the family’s responsibility to take care of funeral arrangements themselves. My great grandparents were poor, like nearly everyone else in town, so these two people, these two parents, dug their son’s grave with their bare hands, wrapped him in his bedsheet and placed his body into the ground, burying his corpse handful by trembling handful.

Eleanor and Walter divorced each other two months later. They were still in their twenties and chose to remain living under the same roof for their daughter’s sake, together but separated. Eighty plus years of sleeping in their marriage bed with a space forever between them where their phantom son lay, sharing an experience that was so painful that they couldn’t risk casting an eye upon the other for fear of reopening a wound that never fully closed.

But as I mentioned, they were private people who managed to keep that pain to themselves and had I not known the story I would have been hardpressed to spot their unhappiness whenever we stopped round for a visit. Up until the end, GiGiMaw Eleanor had more energy and showed more interest in my life and the lives of my children than anyone I’ve ever known. No offense, Mom.

What made my great-grandmother special? So wonderful? As the relative who lived the closest, she was always present, part of our everyday lives in such a tangible way, baking and cooking and babysitting and taking our daughters for surprise days of shopping at the mall.

You impacted my life in so many ways, GiGiMaw Eleanor, helped shape who I am, who my children are. You influenced all of us so greatly and I will always love you and save a special corner of my heart to keep you with me because you held the family together.

And in keeping with your tradition, I wanted you to know that we are not only laying you to rest today. It took some doing but we located Ned’s original burial spot and we’re having your son reinterred with you and GiGPaw Walter in the place he never ceased to exist, in the space between the both of you because family needs to be together.

©2018 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

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The Heart Wants

Scary burning man with arms in a fire.

Dean wondered how long it had been since death set in? Had it actually mattered anymore? Of what relevance was time to the deceased? Especially when there were other niggling concerns such as not being able to move a single inch in any given direction, trapped within a decaying coffin of flesh. That was the toughest adjustment to contend with. And what was the explanation? What answers could he have offered himself this night, the last of his life, the first of his death, in the wee slight moments after the coil of mortality had been sufficiently shuffled off and he lingered in the strangled silence of limbo while the haunts of regrets past swooped down like raptors from on high?

There wasn’t only the matter of kidnapping and molestation, as if he could have simply left it at that.  There were also the mutilations, amputations, beheadings, and cannibalism that needed to be addressed. All sorts of mental distractions that, in the short run, served as curative methods to hush the whispers that shouted malevolence into the folds of his brain. Dean explored them all as he was never quite sure how much of which activity would have been necessary to ground him back down to normalcy.

There was also the presence of the obfuscation demons who frolicked in public places, daring the rest of society to gaze upon their putrescence, that forever clung to Dean’s flesh and flashed serrated toothed smiles from their insatiable maws, fingers tapping, awaiting the next feast. One million beasts ever at the ready, awaiting a sign or signal from him that the carnage that fueled their existence was about to begin.

Go on, they prompted, we understand what you need to do. We won’t judge you because we understand how difficult it was to treat meat with dignity. We can see it all so clearly from where we are.

They made it seem so obvious to Dean. Just one nudge at the right moment in the right direction. One glimmer of hope that the nightmares would end and he would find peace at last. One suggestion from the proper imp who offered him the precise piece of the puzzle that was needed in order to view the larger picture.

Pick your targets, that’s the ticket. The demons advised. Start small. Tiny murders can be done, they’re done all the time. Success stories abound. We can read you a list. Start today with a little ‘un and keep your focus there. Lay down a simple execution that you’re happy with. A death can be executed a thousand ways and despite how clairvoyant you think you are, you can’t predict the pleasure you’ll derive from adding this exciting little twist in the structure of your average day.

And of course, you can kill anytime. Why don’t you kill?  You never kill when you get like this. Why don’t you just kill?  It’s not a burden, not at all. Not killing is the burden, don’t you see?  Look what happens when you don’t kill. We get to this point of crisis where nothing works. It all gets broken like a skull shattered with the claw end of a hammer and you can’t reach down to gather up all the skull fragments because you’re holding your grey matter inside your head and we’re saying let’s stop the skull from shattering in the first place. We can turn the hammer away from you and swing the claw end at someone else. But you have to help out on your end and let us know you’re reaching for the hammer.

And eventually, we’ll get to a place where you don’t take every godforsaken murder you commit personally. It’s not always about you and where your soul will visit when you die and you’re making these assumptions and it creates all this drama. All the outbursts, then the realization that what you’re doing serves the greater good, then the embarrassment from the remorse and the humiliation from the shame. An endless tug of war needlessly played against yourself until you just feel tortured about feeling tortured. And you see this as somehow easier than slitting a random throat for our bounty?

Perhaps what troubles you is you don’t believe that our words, our cause has merit. Fair play. Why should you trust the imps?  We’ve never trusted anyone’s word. We’ve never followed a single command that anyone has given. And who has really? Is that ever how it’s done once you’ve been blessed with the gift of free will? The heart wants what it wants and who can deny it? What does yours want?

That was the question that ran through Dean’s mind. What did his heart want? Love? What good was that? Even if it wasn’t too late, what would it matter if the whole world lined up to love him if there was no penetration? Knowing what the heart wanted would be an unsolved mystery that would plague him in the grave.

And he would have eternity to hunt for clues. As the imps who turned on him abandoned him and found another, who in turn slaughtered Dean in much the same manner that he himself had killed so many others.

His soul should have wept as the demons tore into his flesh, but the truth of the matter was he finally had something to occupy his mind.

And that was the grace he found in death. The peace to deconstruct an unsolvable mystery.

©2014 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Creative Commons License

Bath Time For Jadie-Mae

Depositphotos_170805564_xl-2015

Jadie-Mae loved Satur-days, especially after all the chores had been done, that’s when all the carefree frolicking occurred. Satur-nights was a whole different story. That was bath time and she didn’t want to get into the bathtub, even though Momma added her favorite scented bubble bath and tested the water to make sure the temperature was baby bear. Just right. She stood still as a picture, bare, grimy feet on the cold tiled bathroom floor, staring at the fluffy mounds of soap bubbles that resembled clouds in a storybook.

Momma came knocking, back of her hand rapping on the door like a dish panned woodpecker. “Jadalyn Maeve Langford, I distinctly remember telling you this was bath time, but I don’t hear any water splashing!” she said in that strict voice laced with a care that only mothers possess.

Jadie-Mae quickly dipped her hand into the tub and made a couple of quick splashes. “I’m splashin’, Momma, I’m splashin’.” Bubbles lingered on the back of her hand, tickling slightly as they popped out of existence.

“You better not be in there horsing around, young lady! If I come in there and find you’re not in the bath, only one of us is going regret it, and it’s not going to be me, hear?”

“Yes, Momma,” the little girl answered, deflated.

Jadie waited until she heard the sound of Momma’s slippered footsteps moving away from the door—scuff-plap, scuff-plap, scuff-plap—the woman’s voice fading yet still audible, speaking to herself as she often did, “I just don’t know sometimes. Why would anyone want to stink so bad the devil can smell them down in hockey sticks?” No one was allowed to say the name of the devil’s home inside the house. One of Momma’s Golden Rules. It went from being H-E-double-hockey-sticks down to just plain old hockey sticks.

Still, she didn’t want to step foot in that tub, something just wasn’t natural about sitting in hot water like a stew rabbit. But Momma could get right ornery if everything and everybody wasn’t clean. Cleanie-ness is next a’kin to Goddy-ness, she always used to say, or something like that. There really wasn’t any choice.

Jadie-Mae squeezed her eyes shut, held her breath tight, let the towel drop to the floor and stepped into the bathtub. As usual, the temperature of the water was just right. Momma was always good about getting things just right. As she sank down into the tub, the girl let her breath go and opened her eyes and smiled at the bubble welcoming committee.

Unnoticed as she played with soapsuds, dirt began sliding off her body, along with dead skin cells, hair, grease and body oils. All of this combined with the soapy water, creating a film that made a slimy grayish ring that clung to the bathtub wall. Then a shoreline developed on that ring. An eviscerated landscape in which idols of many and various forms pulled themselves from the gunk in fantastic and intricate detail.

Jadie-Mae stopped her bubble festivities for a moment and strained her ears. She could barely make out faint voices, implorations hidden within the murmurs of supplicants pledging their fealty to the unnamed ones and torturers laying whip to the split flesh of the unrepentant.

The soap bubbles slowly undulated as it began its metamorphosis into billowing clouds of fog that lost their tenuous grip on the murky water’s surface and circled in a tightly controlled oblong within the bath basin. From within the fog, at the other end of the tub, two cones of light rotated, sweeping the waters and Jadie was unsettled for a moment by the sound of foghorns of purest agony.

She shifted in the tub and shook her head, trying to clear the illusion from her sight. Her movements created ripples on the water’s surface. Ripples that grew into waves that carried with it the minuscule Charon skiffs, pitching them against the shoreline, splintering the vessels into so much wreckage. First, she heard the sounds of the tiny people who threw their arms up and pleaded to Little Horn, the anointed covering cherub, as a monstrous tidal wave crashed down on the landscape, reducing it to ruins. Then came the screams of those who lost their lives.

Her shock lasted all but a moment until she realized what was happening. Momma was right—when was Momma never right?—the devil himself smelled her from hockey sticks and sent his minions after her! They were going to make her home sick with wickedness and she couldn’t allow that. Momma didn’t raise no sinner! “I’m powerful sorry but I gotta do my washing up. I can’t have Momma be mad at me.”

Jadie-Mae grabbed the bar of soap from the dish and scrubbed her skin like her life depended on it, and it did. Her life and the lives of her family. Then she poured a dollop of shampoo on top of her head and worked it with her fingers into a lather. She dunked her head beneath the water level for a rinse, which created a wall of undulating foam and debris of proportional gigantic height that rolled towards the lighthouse made of skulls nestled betwixt her ankles. When the wave finally hit, the lighthouse was engulfed in churning water. It rocked back and forth and for a moment it looked like it would have remained anchored to the spot but the sweeping lights exploded and rained infinitesimal sparks as the structure crumbled.

Momma’s face was fierce like thunder when she stormed into the bathroom. “What in the world is all that commotion—?” and she stopped in mid-sentence, for there was her daughter, Jadalyn Maeve, a squeaky clean angel, beaming her biggest, brightest smile.

“All clean, Momma!” she said as pulled the stopper from the drain and stepped out of the tub and into the towel in her mother’s loving, outstretched arms. “Cleanie-ness is next a’kin to Goddy-ness.”

“Yes, it is, baby. It most certainly is.” Momma chuckled and dried off her precious little girl as the lifeless bodies of devil minions and the remnants of false idols spiraled in the whirlpool back down to hockey sticks.

 

©2014 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Creative Commons License

Home, At Long Last

girl returning home to high roofed house

The car pulls into the driveway. It’s called an Uber and at first I think it’s the make and model of the car but the driver tells me it’s the name of a car service and although he’s patient and friendly in his explanation, I can feel my face flush red hot in embarrassment. There are so many things I don’t know that I don’t know. The entire world has a steep learning curve for me.

I wouldn’t have recognized the house, couldn’t have picked it out among the others because I haven’t seen it in over sixteen years and the memories are fuzzy because those years haven’t been kind. I’ve been told that it’s the house I grew up in and I nod with no acceptance or conviction because when I think about where I grew up all I can picture is being trapped in a dark and cold basement in a strange location. This house has never once appeared in my mind not even in my dreams.

From the moment the car arrives, people surge out of the front door but they don’t approach the car, perhaps because they’ve been advised not to or perhaps they’re as afraid to meet me as I am to meet them.

I thank the driver as I close the rear driver side door and walk toward the crying and smiling crowd, desperately trying to untwist the constrictor knot my stomach has become. I’m sure they don’t mean to be but each and every one of them is too loud and although they’re careful not to touch me, they’re too close and I want to run. I want to run into the basement and lock the door behind me and go down as far as I can manage and find the darkest corner to curl up into and if that place doesn’t exist, I want to dig a hole into the earth and bury myself in it until the world becomes a quiet place again.

It’s unmistakable, the feeling of warmth and comfort and community that exists in this place and I hate it almost instantly. I’m not supposed to as I’m a human being and we’re known to be social animals but if truth be known the only peace I’ve ever experienced has always been in complete isolation.

Nothing seems right. The sound of people’s voices expressing gratitude and the low volume music in the background blend into some abnormal din that assaults my ears like the opposite of white noise, even though I know that isn’t right because the other end of the spectrum from a combination of all of the different frequencies of sound would be silence and silence would be a welcome change at this point.

Even faces are foreign and I’ve known most of these faces for the first nine years of my life but the arrangement of their features is wrong. Even my own reflection is out of place and unfamiliar. I want to leave, to pivot on my heels and push past this closeness of flesh, flag down a police officer and ask them to take back to where I was found a fortnight ago.

I miss that basement because it’s the only home I know.

I want to back away but there are too many people behind so I push forward looking for a little elbow room, a safe barrier of personal space where I don’t have to feel the nearness of otherness or fight off a wave of nausea when someone’s aura scrapes against mine and makes a teeth-clenching noise like God raking His fingernails across the skin of the universe.

In the crowd I spot a face I don’t know and because I don’t know this woman and have no expectations of the way she must look she appears less odd than the rest. I lock onto her eyes and feel a transfer of knowledge between us. She is like me. She understands the words I’m unable to speak, words that will never be uttered by me in my entire life even if I live for two centuries. I want to move to her, to be closer to her, to stand within the sphere of her understanding but another woman, an aunt, I think, appears from nowhere and pulls me into an unwanted embrace and whispers into my ear with hot breath laced with wine, “You are such a brave girl.”

Brave? I want to say. What’s so brave about being afraid to let myself die? But instead, it comes out as, “Thank you.” I’m not even sure that’s a proper response, I simply need to say something to break the hold and by the time I manage it, the other woman, the woman with the understanding gaze, is gone.

And I’m aware of the people behind me again moving in closer pushing me forward without making contact with me when I come to the realization that their action is purposeful, they’re urging me forward from the front door through the foyer and into the living room for a reason and that reason being my mother and father standing in the center of the empty living room. I step in eagerly, not because I’m particularly glad to see them, I love them but the real reason I’m eager to get into the room is for the space so my soul can breathe again.

There’s this moment of silence and it’s like heaven and my mother takes on the form of Lucifer Morningstar by attempting to shatter paradise with the calling of my name that turns into a shriek that eventually ends in tears and hitching breath. Before I realize what’s happening, she’s on me wrapping her arms around me and lifting me off my feet. I am nearly as tall as she is and outweigh her by thirty pounds easily but this thin woman lifts me as though I was still the same nine-year-old who went outside to play and missed her curfew by more than a decade and a half. My face is buried in her hair and unlike this place that used to be and is once again my home, unlike the matured faces of the people I vaguely recognize as family, the smell of my mother’s hair, the scent of her coconut shampoo smashes through the floodgates of my mind and I am buried beneath wave after wave of memories which scare me and my eyes leak tears because I now realize how much emptier my life has been without this woman, although the world she inhabits still feels alien to me.

I say, “Hi, Mom,” and the word Mom feels distant, like I understand what the word means but the direct connection with it has faded and I don’t want to call her Mom at the moment, I want to call her by her first name but I have no idea what my mother’s name actually is.

She sets me down gently and her arms loosen and slide from around me but her fingers never leave me as they trace sweaty contrails across my back, under my armpits up to my neck where she cups my face in both hands. A move only mastered by a mother. “Hi, baby,” she says and I both resent it because I’m not a baby anymore and miss it because I would give the remaining years of my life for the chance to be nine again in the company of this woman if only for one day.

She calls my father over while carrying on a constant stream of nervous and excited chatter in an attempt to catch me up on all the events that occurred since the last time we laid eyes on each other.

My father approaches with caution as if I come with a warning. He has undoubtedly been told what has been done to me while I was in captivity and probably some of the things I had to do to myself in order to stay alive. He doesn’t know everything because I am the only survivor, there’s no one else to bear witness and I will never tell another soul everything that I’ve been through in order to be here today. And it would break him to hear it so it becomes one of the many burdens I must bear alone.

His haunted eyes are misted with tears that he fights to control as he offers me that sidewinder smile of his–a name Mom gave him because he only smiles and talks out of one side of his mouth as if he’s a stroke victim. “Hi, kiddo,” he says.

All the others unknowingly crowd me and the only person I would not mind that of, my father, does not. He sees it, the invisible property lines that mark my personal space and respects the boundaries. I want to tell him, forget the signposts, just come hug me, Daddy but those are words I don’t know how to speak so I say, “Hi, Dad,” and I manage to dig up a smile from the recesses of some long forgotten happiness. At least I hope it looks like a smile, I haven’t done it in so long, I fear I might’ve lost the knack.

Mom is still babbling away nonstop when she remembers her basic etiquette, “Oh! Are you hungry? You must be famished!” And before I can answer,

“Get her something to drink,” Dad says. “Something cold.” And Mom takes off like a shot into the kitchen.

My father just stands there looking at me, taking in the measure of me. I can’t see the missing years on my mother but on him, I see every second, minute, hour, day, month and year. Beneath his thinning hair, deep wrinkles crease his face. He’s worried and afraid of me and for me but he manages a smile.

In a voice low enough for my ears only, he says, “It’s gonna bother you, what you did, but just know you did the right thing. You ended the man who stole you from us and found your way home again. That’s my girl.”

I’m stunned. Of all the things I expected from this moment straightforward acceptance was never in the running. I rush my daddy and throw my arms around him and break down and cry and he squeezes me tight and all the things that I can’t say and all the things he can’t say, they’re all there, transmitted on a biological level and he doesn’t move, doesn’t speak, doesn’t loosen his grip on me until my body stops shaking, until I have no more sobs and no more strength left.

He scoops me up into his arms and for the second time today I am nine years old again. “I think she’s had enough excitement for one day, so thank you all for coming but now it’s time for us to be alone,” Dad says, as he pushes through the crowd and carries me upstairs to my old room.

He sets me down gently on my bed that’s now too small for me, brushes the hair matted by tears and snot from my face, kisses my forehead and says, “When you’re ready.” and I know exactly what he means.

He leaves, taking Mom with him, assuring her it’s the right thing to do and as their voices get smaller I get up from the bed, lock my bedroom door, draw the blinds shut and crawl until my bed and ball up fetal, relishing the dark and the quiet.

Tomorrow I’ll begin trying to locate the house I was rescued from because although this house is nice, it’s no longer a place for me.

I want to go home.

©2018 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Creative Commons License

We Bought A Graveyard

Old_graveyard,_Copeland_Island_-_geograph.org.uk_-_209117

I opened the apartment door performing my famous grocery juggling act, organic cotton bags of the heavier items in each hand with two more sacks containing lighter stuff dangling off my wrists. I could have pulled out the shopping cart and saved myself the hassle of lugging the load from the supermarket, true, but the building’s elevator was on the fritz yet again and I didn’t relish the thought of pulling my arms out of their sockets by dragging the cart up seven flights of stairs one agonizingly slow step at a time. Slamming the front door shut with my heel, I went to the kitchen and flicked the light switch with my nose—and nearly dropped the bags.

There was someone standing in the kitchen.

My husband was at work and Katy was watching my daughter so the apartment was supposed to be empty but there this stranger stood. Terror trapped the scream in my throat and locked my legs rigid. I walked in on a robbery and now there was a very distinct possibility that I was going to die. And even if the burglar didn’t kill me, I wouldn’t be able to identify him. I was born with a visual processing disorder where I wasn’t able to differentiate between certain shapes, letters, small details and facial features. Therapy helped me learn a unique way of processing visual information so it was manageable except during anxiety attacks or when I encountered a sudden visual shock.

The man in my kitchen–I assumed it was a man because the blob was taller and broader than me–appeared to me as nothing more than a silhouette, a thing that didn’t compute, that didn’t make sense because he wasn’t supposed to be here. Still rooted to the spot, unable to move, I tried to calm myself, to focus, so that if I managed to survive I could give the police some sort of description.

And slowly I began assembling and rearranging bits of visual fragments. It was a man. His back was to me. He was standing in front of the under-cabinet mounted microwave, his hands picking at something that sounded like plastic. Then the puzzle pieces fit into place and I knew this man by his brown comb-over with its deep part, the slump of his shoulders in the navy pea coat.

“Caleb! Oh, my friggin’ God! What the hell are you doing lurking in the kitchen in the dark like that? You almost scared the living daylights out of me!” The tension flooded from my body and I was suddenly aware of the weight of the groceries that nearly slipped from my hands as I stumbled to set them on the kitchen table.

“I thought you were a burglar about to kill me or something! What are you doing here? Why aren’t you at work?” I demanded.

“Sorry about that, babe, I should have called,” Caleb said. He was about to put a small bag of pork pot stickers in the microwave but set the plastic pouch back on the counter. He didn’t turn around.

“Honey, what’s wrong?”

“I have to tell you something,” he said and I didn’t like the sound of his voice.

“What something and why won’t you turn around and look at me?” I asked but my heart was hammering in my chest because all I could imagine was that he was going to admit he was cheating on me. All those long hours when he was supposed to be at work–

“It’s about the job.”

It almost didn’t register because I was preparing myself for the worst. When it finally sank in I let out a sigh of relief but caught myself. “Did you get fired?” That was something that absolutely positively could not happen now, not with Elizangela going back to school next month.

“Worse than that, I’m afraid.”

“What’s worse than getting fired?” I asked. After being frightened half to death, the needle on my patience gauge was swiftly approaching the big red E.

“I got–” Caleb swung around and smiled that fantastic smile of his, the one that made the butterflies flutter in my stomach. “Promoted!”

I could feel my eyes going wide. “No friggin’ way!”

“Yes friggin’ way,” said Caleb and he was on me before I knew it, sweeping me off my feet in that wonderfully secure bear hug of his. “And it comes with a hefty, hefty, hefty salary bump!”

I went rigid in his arms. “Wait a minute. Three hefties? Either you’re exaggerating or that’s a lot of money. Don’t get me wrong, honey, I’m not saying you don’t work hard and deserve every penny of it but what’s the catch?”

Caleb set me down gently. “It isn’t like that, babe, there’s no catch. Not really.”

“I knew it. Spill.”

“Built into the pay raise is an insane relocation fee–”

“Relocation?”

Caleb nodded and continued, “If I can manage to move house and start work by the fifteenth.”

“The fifteenth? That’s only a week away!”

“I know but we’ve always been the #ChallengeAccepted type,” he smiled again but I wasn’t having any of it this go-round.

“Relocate to where?”

“Fort Wayne, Indiana,” he said under his breath.

“Who-what-where? What the hell is in Fort Wayne, Indiana?”

“I’m sure there’s plenty of stuff but the biggest attraction is the relocation fee could cover the cost of our first house. Our. First. House. Our dollar would go a long way and we could spend more of it on Liza to make sure she gets the best of everything, things we can’t afford to give her in New York. Where is she, by the way?”

“With my sister, it’s easier to do the shopping with her preoccupied.” Elizangela was at the Ooo, Mommy, can we please get this? stage in her development which was okay for the leisurely stroll through shops but not so great on the money-is-tight necessity runs.

I looked at him for a long moment. He’d have had to know about this for a while now but he kept it from me even though we made a no-secrets pact and if I brought this up he’d hand me some line about not wanting to jinx the promotion and I’d be upset but I’d know he was telling the truth because he was a big believer in the almighty jinx.

My first instinct was to say no, to fight him tooth and nail, all because I hadn’t consulted me on this enormously life-changing decision. But that would have been petty. Yeah, my feeling were hurt but it would be our first house, something we’d been talking about for years. And a better life for our daughter? I’d be a heinous-monster-worst-mother-on-the-planet if I didn’t set my wounded pride aside and at least consider it. So I did. “Okay.”

“Okay?” he asked.

“Okay, let’s do it,” I shrugged.

“Are you serious? I can tell my boss yes?”

“You didn’t accept it already?”

“Of course not, not without checking with you first.”

I gave him a hug and a quick kiss on the cheek before leaning in to whisper in his ear, “You big, stupid idiot! I love you, sometimes, you know that?”

***

Thanks to the internet, finding a house, even one that was seven hundred and forty-seven miles driving distance away was a piece of cake. The hardest part? Ignoring the common sense warnings from our parents and friends who thought our decision was rash, something we’d done because we were bored. But in the end, it was our choice to make and if they still hadn’t liked it after we explained the situation to them, they could just go ahead and lump it.

Online, we managed to locate a real estate agent who understood our situation and was willing to work with us in finding a fixer-upper in our price range, getting the house appraised and coordinating the paperwork so we could close the sale in five days, skipping the entire mortgage credit process by paying in cash.

Elizangela was the biggest shock in the relocating process. I’d have bet my eyeteeth that she would have kicked up a storm having to leave Queens and all her friends behind but Caleb cleverly presented the idea using Duck Tales, her favorite tv show, as an analogy.

“We might solve a mystery?” Elizangela asked, face full of childish hope.

“Or rewrite history,” Caleb answered and joined her in singing the show’s catchy theme song.

And like that, our daughter was sold on the idea and helped pack all her things with nary a complaint. My only complaint? We decided it was cheaper to drive, though it added five hours or so to the trip which Caleb and I took turns behind the wheel of the rental so there was no problem there, it was Elizangela singing the once adorable but now monotonous Duck Tales theme song on a loop for most of the time she was awake that began grating on my nerves.

***

Our new home pretty much matched the virtual tour we took on the realtor’s website. It was indeed a fixer-upper and would probably take the better part of a year before all the repairs could be completed. The outside was another story entirely. The front lawn was a respectable size, enough for me to create a nice vegetable garden, but the backyard was massive and overgrown to the point I thought we’d have to buy a couple of machetes, like in those old safari films, to hack the tall grass down to a mowable size. The plan was to tame the savage land and maybe build a grilling deck for our eventual summer barbeques and a playset for Elizangela to go on her Duck Tales adventures in and maybe entice some of the neighborhood kids to come over so she could make some new friends. Those plans all changed the moment we came across the graveyard.

I was on Caleb the moment he stepped into the house after work. “Do you want to know why this house was so cheap?”

“It’s a fixer-upper,” he answered, confused and a little more than slightly uncomfortable at the proximity of my face to his own. “We both knew that going into this. Why is it a big deal all of a sudden?”

“It’s not the repairs, Caleb Allen Mitchell,” I whisper-screamed. Even though I was on the verge of hysteria I was mindful not to upset Elizangela who was upstairs playing in her room. “It’s the friggin graveyard sitting smack dab in the middle of our backyard!”

“Graveyard? Did the previous owner bury a pet or something?”

“Pet? There are twelve graves with headstones out back! That’s not a memorial for poor, dead Fluffy, it’s a creepy-as-hell-honest-to-goodness graveyard!”

“Okay, calm down. Let me check it out,” he said trying not to sound skeptical and doing a lousy job at it.

I marched–it was more of an angry stomp-walk that seemed to me at the time to be childish but I couldn’t help myself–him down the foyer, past the living room, through the kitchen and flung the back door wide.

“Tell me I’m overreacting,” I said gesturing at the tombstones.

Caleb trudged over the carpet of tall grass that I spent the better part of the day attacking with the weed wacker and knelt beside the closest headstone.

“These are pretty old,” he said, running his over the cracked surface of the crumbling stone. “The inscriptions aren’t even legible anymore, most likely due to acid rain which means they’re probably made of calcite.”

“How do you know so much about headstones?”

“My dad,” Caleb answered. “My gran died when I was little and I was terrified of the cemetery when we buried her so my dad took me on walking tours of graveyards and told me the truth about what happens when we die and why funerals were important. Sometimes we’d just marvel at the tombstone designs and he could tell what they were made from just by looking at them. Some fathers and sons had sports, me and my dad had graveyards. That may seem pretty morbid to you, but those were some of the best memories of my dad. It was just the guys and he would talk to me like a man.”

“I think it’s kind of sweet in a weird way,” I said and placed a hand on his shoulder.

“Yeah, Dad’s always been pretty unconventional,” Caleb patted my hand, stood and dug the cellphone from his pocket. He made several calls, the first being to the realtor who sold us the house. I had to admit, he was good deal calmer and damn sure more polite than I would have been had the roles been reversed.

“No, this is not a crank call,” Caleb said into the phone. “Yes, there are twelve headstones. No, they’re really old, the information on them has been worn. No, I have not dug them up to confirm the existence of dead bodies. How do I know it is a graveyard? The headstones I just mentioned are giving me a strong indication that someone interred their dead beneath them. I can snap a couple of pics and send them to you if you’d like.”

Believe it or not, he had to repeat those answers several times to several different departments and organizations and what we learned was there was not going to be a swift resolution to our problem.

First, we had to contact the Historic Preservation Office to see if the land our house was built on was a former cemetery. Luckily for us, it wasn’t. Nor was there a family plot permit on record with the town Zoning Commission or approval from the state Department of Health.

We were informed there was a possibility the gravestones had been discarded. As creepy as it sounded, some people saw the value of the stones as building materials, but our stones–I didn’t like the fact that Caleb acknowledged ownership when speaking on the phone or that I had come to refer to them in the same manner–were out in the open and not used as part of our house’s foundation. The other suggestion offered was the previous owners might have thought they made for cool conversation pieces during backyard barbeques. Since the only way we could have verified this was to dig up one the graves ourselves–and there was no way in hell we were going to do that–we contacted the police.

To make a long story short, let’s just say the grave markers weren’t for show. Each stone did indeed contain a coffin in which were human remains. When the medical examiners arrived with the local tv station reporters and camera crew, our internet-folly-first-house became a tabloid story and possible crime scene.

A forensic anthropologist was brought in to examine the human remains to establish the identity, or if that was not possible, at least the age, sex, number of individuals present, and other facts. Once it was established that the remains were not part of a crime scene they were turned over to a local cemetery for reburial.

Then we were contacted by the Registrar of Cemeteries and told about the Funeral Burial and Cremations Services Act, which made it our responsibility to fix the problem. Because some grieving or possibly idiotic person choose to bury their dead in the backyard and the realtors hadn’t bothered to check the tall grass behind the house, we had to foot the bill for either reinterring at another site or cremating the remains–hell, let’s just call them what they were, bones–at a price tag that ranged between $500 and $1,000 per body.

That was when I went lawyer shopping, even though the realtor assured us, “The situation can be worked out amicably.” Amicably meant they might accept partial financial responsibility for a clerical oversight. My aim was to make them pay entirely for their screw up with a little extra for the obvious emotional distress. I played that distress up on camera the day I discovered a newspaper reporter lurking outside my daughter’s school waiting to ambush the both of us for an interview.

During the entire ordeal, Elizangela was grace under fire. She got that from her dad. She was full of questions, though, and we answered them as truthfully as we could. The graveyard forced us to introduce the concept of death sooner than we wanted to and she struggled with the same concepts I struggled with when my parents had the talk with me.

“Death is permanent,” Caleb said. “Do you know what permanent means?”

Elizangela shook her head and her bangs danced in front of her eyes.

“It means forever, honey,” I said, taking her tiny hand in mine. “It means once you die, you go away and never come back.”

“You mean move? Like we did from our old home to our new home?”

Calen shook his head slowly. “No, Liza, when a person dies, that means their body stops working. Their heart doesn’t beat anymore, they don’t need to eat or sleep, and they don’t feel any pain ever again. They leave their body because they don’t need it anymore.”

“But that’s other people, not us, right?” Elizangela asked.

What followed was a very long, extremely exhausting everything that is alive eventually dies conversation that ended with our baby saying, “Oh.” No tears, no hysterics, no subsequent nightmares or follow up questions. Just, “Oh.”

***

After a month or so of avoiding the backyard after the police concluded their business and things in the neighborhood began returning to normal, Caleb and I revisited plans to spruce up the area behind the house. The first order of business was filling in the former graves.

The problem was they wouldn’t stay filled.

The dirt shoveled into the holes the day before appeared by the graves the very next day. Not all the dirt, mind you, but enough to make noticeable piles. I didn’t want to worry Caleb about it, he had too much on his plate as it was with the new position and following up on our lawsuit with the realtor and tracking down the previous owners of the house, so I shoveled the dirt back in and never mentioned a word to my husband. But the following morning, sure as bread fell butter-side down, there the dirt would be in neat little piles.

We had gotten to know all our neighbors pretty well, especially after the tv news coverage put our area in the spotlight longer than most of the residents were comfortable with, but the neighbors to our immediate left, Hannelore and Sean Bogatz were two of the kindest people that ever set foot on God’s green earth. I spotted Hannelore–Hannie, to her friends–one morning when we were both retrieving the morning paper from our front lawns. During casual conversation, I mentioned the grave issue.

“It just boggles the mind why anyone would sneak onto our property and dig up the graves after we fill them? I’d write it off as an animal or something but the dirt is always piled up so neatly.”

“Well,” Hannie shrugged. “It could be kids up to a little mischief they consider to be fun or funny and if you’re leaning toward that way of thinking, I’d take a good look at those Woods boys, always up to no good. Sean and I had a run in with them a little while back that ended the moment we spoke to their parents. Strict as Irish priests in the seminary, Michael and Ella are.”

I had half a mind to pay Michael and Ella Woods a visit but what would that accomplish, accusing their sons with no real evidence? Which meant I needed to gather some. So, later on, after I put the day’s affairs in order, I took a midday nap before I needed to pick Elizangela from school and while she was up in her room, I quickly refilled the holes in the backyard–more scraping dirt into the open former graves that shoveling.

It was hard concentrating on conversations during dinner and the board game during family time because I wanted nothing more than to go out back and patrol the yard. But that had to wait until Elizangela had been put to bed and Caleb’s deep breathing turned into a light snore.

Sliding out of bed slowly and lifting my smartphone off the nightstand, I stepped as silent as I could manage, trying to remember where the creaking boards were located on the hardwood floor, and crept out of the bedroom and downstairs to the kitchen.

The casement window gave me the perfect vantage point to see out over the entire garden and one of the backless saddle stools we used for the kitchen island was the perfect sitting height for me to rest my elbows on the counter beside the sink. Earlier today I downloaded a night vision app–that was actually capable of capturing images at night, not the fake ones that simply inverted daylight images with a green overlay–on my phone in preparation for the stakeout. Not only was I determined to catch the culprit, I was also willing to sit up all night if need be.

I activated the night vision and turned the phone’s camera lens slowly, sweeping the yard. There was movement! Not a body, but dirt flying out of the hole nearest the house! I hopped off the stool, made a beeline to the kitchen door that led to the backyard–and it was unlocked? Had Caleb missed it when he made his nightly rounds securing the windows and doors? It hadn’t seemed likely. We were both native New Yorkers, Caleb represented Queens and I was raised out in Brooklyn, just like the lyrics of that LL Cool J song, and we never went to bed without making sure the house was secured.

Never mind, I would deal with that later. Now, I was racing across the cool grass and ignoring the pain in the soles of my feet as I pushed pebbles and pointy stones into the earth, on my way to gather evidence I could show Michael and Ella about their boys.

I stopped at the edge of the hole and snapped a picture. “I’ve got you now, you little shi–” It wasn’t the Woods boys.

Elizangela knelt in the center of the hole, nightgown pulled up above her knees, dirt cupped in her small hands.

“Liza, why are you playing in the–” I nearly said grave but caught myself and changed it to, “hole? It’s the middle of the night, honey!” Elizangela became upset and started to cry. Was it because I startled her, or made her feel she had been caught doing a bad thing?

I climbed into the (grave) hole and wrapped my arms around my daughter. I held her in silence until sobs waned to tears that quieted down to the occasional shudder.

“It’s okay, sweetheart. I just want to know what you’re doing and why you felt you had to sneak around at nighttime instead of just telling me?”

I thought Elizangela was so distraught that she couldn’t answer my question but after a long silence, she said, “Because you and Daddy said we shouldn’t tell secrets.”

“Secrets? Whose secrets are you keeping? Did your daddy tell you a secret?” I became suddenly afraid of what her answer might be, but she shook her head.

“I can’t tell you. I’m so sorry, Mommy,” Elizangela paused and asked, “Do you still love me?”

I was floored by the question. I cupped her small face in my hands and wanted desperately to say something definitive, something that would stick within her always so she never felt the need to ask that question ever again.

“Of course I do,” I answered. “I’ll always love you, Liza, no matter what.” And I meant it but it came out too quickly, sounded too rehearsed, too much like a pat answer.

“Maybe,” Elizangela started, careful not to look at me. “Maybe it’d be okay to tell if I asked them.”

I was about to ask her who they were but she began talking out loud in a funny voice, one I would never have recognized as coming from my daughter. At first, I thought she was talking to herself then I realized she was asking questions to the dirt walls surrounding us, reasoning with them, before she made her request.

My daughter smiled, finally making eye contact. “They said okay.”

“Who said–” I started and then a door opened in my vision, a door that has been hidden in plain sight, most likely for the entirety of my life. A door that could have been responsible for my visual processing disorder. From the doorway emerged ghosts of all ages shapes and sizes. Some of the older spirits carried the essences of babies that perhaps weren’t alive long enough to develop physical bodies.

They spoke to me but not in words. Images flooded my mind, of light and darkness, of peace and violence, each of them a history being forced into my mind, faster and faster until they became a subliminal blur.

Out the corner of my eye, I saw black ink bleed from the grave walls and swirl around me and I was suddenly caught up in a tornado of black. I lost sight of Elizangela and tried to call out to her but my jaw was clamped tight as if it had been wired shut. Electrical pulses shot through my body and deadened my nerve endings. I couldn’t catch my breath as my vision started to slowly fade out.

I found myself in that ethereal realm that occupied the space between dreaming and consciousness and in that space I wasn’t me. Though I couldn’t see myself, I knew that I was in another body, or better yet, bodies, twelve to be exact. The same as the number of graves. I was in twelve different places as twelve different people living twelve different lives at the same time. The histories that had been forced upon me moments? days? years? ago now made sense. I understood these people. I knew who they were, knew their struggles, their loves, their pain, their inevitable fates and more to the point, I knew their names.

The information burned itself into my memory as I lost my footing in the intangible nirvana and slipped toward the harsh reality of the waking world. When I came to my senses, my head was resting on my daughter’s lap and she was stroking my hair the very same way I’d done to her so many times before.

“It’s only like that the first time, Mommy,” she said, smiling in that way that always reminded me of Caleb.

I sat up in the grave. There was no escaping the cold that seeped into my bones and settled in the marrow. Everything felt wrong, not just the cold. There were foreign sounds in my head, voices that weren’t my own, too loud, too busy when all I wanted was a bit of silence, some time to sort things out. And there would be time but it would come later.

I focused on Elizangela with a desperation I hadn’t felt since the day she was born, when I was afraid I knew nothing about being a mother. But my daughter’s eyes were calm and wise. Without saying a word, she told me she knew.

And now I knew, too. The bodies belonged here, it was their land first. They needed to be returned, needed to have their grave markers restored with their names and information to mark their forgotten existence on the planet. Once that was done, they could finally move on.

Now all I had to do was convince Caleb which meant I’d have to give my father-in-law a call for some pointers.

©2018 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

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Vacancies, Vacancies Everywhere, Yet None of Them For Me

no-vacancies

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 Wednesday 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.

But until then, sally forth and be buying me a nice room-warming giftingly writeful.

©2014 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

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The Tam Commandments

10crack-commandments

My past often crossed paths with my present, but never with the people I desired to see again. Because of this, I’m always filled with an odd mix of embarrassing nostalgia and unwanted reflection, followed by the inevitable introspection. I see where old acquaintances are in their lives and I can’t help but look at where I am in relation to my dreams and aspirations.

No matter if you’re the outgrower (the disinterested party) or the outgrown (the rejected party), neither are comfortable during a random meeting. Also, dealing with people from my past have had the effect of feeling like I was moving backward. As if all the growth I’d experienced after being separated from that person vanished because they’re present in my life again.

And these chance encounters happened in the damnedest places. At the time the incident that is the subject of this post occurred, I was tucked away in a small town in a new state on the opposite coast when I ran into a childhood friend. Well, friend might have been a bit of a stretch. She wasn’t really friends with anyone. Truer to say we ran in the same circles. Even truer than that, we ran in different circles that sometimes overlapped like a Venn diagram of societal misfit kids.

Rough and rugged, tough as nails, she took no shit off anyone, not even her parents. She went her own way, did her own thing, and everyone in the neighborhood, kid and adult alike knew she’d most likely end up either dead or in prison. Some people only left their future open for those two options.

Anyway, I was at the local thrift store when I heard someone calling my name. I assumed it couldn’t be me since I knew exactly zero people in Los Angeles, but as this person kept calling, my curiosity got the better of me and turned to see her: Tamika.

It took me a moment to work out who she was. Not that the years hadn’t been kind to her, it was just that she wasn’t a person I had ever thought about remembering.

She, on the other hand, treated me like we were lifelong buddies. Big hugs and kisses and a smile that could have lit the Hollywood Bowl. Time has a funny way of altering the past. She remembered our relationship very differently than I had.

So, we did what people who hadn’t seen one another in ages do. We shared past stories, gave abridged accounts of our lives since then, and painted the brightest possible picture for our futures. And me being me, I remarked on how I never thought I’d see her ever again. Of all the people, not including those that had passed, she was easily the last person I ever expected to clap eyes on.

She hadn’t taken offense. She knew better than anyone the type of person she was back then and she said she probably would have fulfilled everyone’s prophesy of jail or death if not for Chickie.

Chickie was the only other person who could’ve matched Tammy pound for pound. Cut from the same cloth, sisters from a different mister, they were thick as thieves. And probably would have been for life, had Chickie not met her maker at the claw end of a hammer in a drug deal gone horribly wrong.

That’s when Tam found the way.

My internal groan was so loud I feared she might’ve heard it. I myself am areligious, and though I don’t begrudge anyone their spiritual beliefs, I have a hard time listening to the sanctimony of proselytizing born-agains.

But she hadn’t found Jesus, at least not in that way. Nor had she joined a cult. She claimed she simply hit rock bottom and having no one to turn to, sat down and wrote out a list of commandments for herself. A self-imposed list of rules in which she would like to live by.

And while I wish I could remember the list verbatim–my memory, unfortunately, has a mind of its own–I instead offer up a similar list that contains many of Tamika’s instructions for living a good life:

The 82 Commandments of Alejandro Jodorowsky

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1. Ground your attention on yourself. Be conscious at every moment of what you are thinking, sensing, feeling, desiring, and doing.

2. Always finish what you have begun.

3. Whatever you are doing, do it as well as possible.

4. Do not become attached to anything that can destroy you in the course of time.

5. Develop your generosity – but secretly.

6. Treat everyone as if he or she was a close relative.

7. Organize what you have disorganized.

8. Learn to receive and give thanks for every gift.

9. Stop defining yourself.

10. Do not lie or steal, for you lie to yourself and steal from yourself.

11. Help your neighbor, but do not make him dependent.

12. Do not encourage others to imitate you.

13. Make work plans and accomplish them.

14. Do not take up too much space.

15. Make no useless movements or sounds.

16. If you lack faith, pretend to have it.

17. Do not allow yourself to be impressed by strong personalities.

18. Do not regard anyone or anything as your possession.

19. Share fairly.

20. Do not seduce.

21. Sleep and eat only as much as necessary.

22. Do not speak of your personal problems.

23. Do not express judgment or criticism when you are ignorant of most of the factors involved.

24. Do not establish useless friendships.

25. Do not follow fashions.

26. Do not sell yourself.

27. Respect contracts you have signed.

28. Be on time.

29. Never envy the luck or success of anyone.

30. Say no more than necessary.

31. Do not think of the profits your work will engender.

32. Never threaten anyone.

33. Keep your promises.

34. In any discussion, put yourself in the other person’s place.

35. Admit that someone else may be superior to you.

36. Do not eliminate, but transmute.

37. Conquer your fears, for each of them represents a camouflaged desire.

38. Help others to help themselves.

39. Conquer your aversions and come closer to those who inspire rejection in you.

40. Do not react to what others say about you, whether praise or blame.

41. Transform your pride into dignity.

42. Transform your anger into creativity.

43. Transform your greed into respect for beauty.

44. Transform your envy into admiration for the values of the other.

45. Transform your hate into charity.

46. Neither praise nor insult yourself.

47. Regard what does not belong to you as if it did belong to you.

48. Do not complain.

49. Develop your imagination.

50. Never give orders to gain the satisfaction of being obeyed.

51. Pay for services performed for you.

52. Do not proselytize your work or ideas.

53. Do not try to make others feel for you emotions such as pity, admiration, sympathy, or complicity.

54. Do not try to distinguish yourself by your appearance.

55. Never contradict; instead, be silent.

56. Do not contract debts; acquire and pay immediately.

57. If you offend someone, ask his or her pardon; if you have offended a person publicly, apologize publicly.

58. When you realize you have said something that is mistaken, do not persist in error through pride; instead, immediately retract it.

59. Never defend your old ideas simply because you are the one who expressed them.

60. Do not keep useless objects.

61. Do not adorn yourself with exotic ideas.

62. Do not have your photograph taken with famous people.

63. Justify yourself to no one, and keep your own counsel.

64. Never define yourself by what you possess.

65. Never speak of yourself without considering that you might change.

66. Accept that nothing belongs to you.

67. When someone asks your opinion about something or someone, speak only of his or her qualities.

68. When you become ill, regard your illness as your teacher, not as something to be hated.

69. Look directly, and do not hide yourself.

70. Do not forget your dead, but accord them a limited place and do not allow them to invade your life.

71. Wherever you live, always find a space that you devote to the sacred.

72. When you perform a service, make your effort inconspicuous.

73. If you decide to work to help others, do it with pleasure.

74. If you are hesitating between doing and not doing, take the risk of doing.

75. Do not try to be everything to your spouse; accept that there are things that you cannot give him or her but which others can.

76. When someone is speaking to an interested audience, do not contradict that person and steal his or her audience.

77. Live on money you have earned.

78. Never brag about amorous adventures.

79. Never glorify your weaknesses.

80. Never visit someone only to pass the time.

81. Obtain things in order to share them.

82. If you are meditating and a devil appears, make the devil meditate too.

Not being a fan of dogma, creed, or commandments in general, I admit I can find merit in many items on this list as suggestions for people to find their own path in life. Hell, if it worked for Tamika, it damn sure couldn’t hurt giving it a go.

So, sally forth, true believers and blasts from the past, and be making your own commandments and living by themingly writeful.

©2014 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

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JCBMX or One Set of Footprints (Alongside a Set of Tire Tracks)

christ-on-a-bike

For as long as I can remember, my mind has been a hornet’s nest of thoughts, worries, stories, alternative timelines in which I live the dream and face the consequences for daring to do so. It gets to be maddening every once in a while. To calm the hornets to a dull buzz, I often take brisk long walks, always alone, except today.

There’s a saying you grow accustomed to when you live in El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula: straight out of Central Casting, which applies to a person who happens to strongly match a particular stereotype.

My guest on today’s journey was Christ on a bike.

The man, in his thirties, kept pace with me on his bicycle for a bit before flagging my attention, as I was otherwise occupied by my trusty dusty travel companion, ye olde iPod.

Before he said a word, my first thought was, Man, he looks just like the actor who played Jesus in that Son of God film. Long hair. Mustache and beard that teetered on the edge of becoming unkempt. No white robe, though, this cycling prophet rocked a denim shirt and jeans, but he did pedal in open-toed sandals.

He stated who he was, but as I am the infamous forgetter of names, I’ll simply refer to him as Jay. Polite enough, he attempted to engage me in conversation, but as I’m a New Yorker born and bred, whenever a stranger approaches me, I’m predisposed to assume they either want money or trouble. This go-round I placed my bet on money and smirked, thinking, You’re seriously barking up the wrong tree here, dude. Turns out I was wrong on both counts. All he was interested in knowing was if I had “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?

Doesn’t take knowing me for long to realize I cannot abide proselytizing. It always carries an air of condescension, despite the best intentions of the Born Again speaker. Once you’ve asked and I tell you I’m not interested, your following action should be to move along to the next hopeful convert. This almost never happens. But as I said, Jay was polite, so I let him cycle through his spiel, occasionally answering

  • Yes, I’ve read the Bible, but I can’t quote chapter and verse.
  • No, I haven’t accepted the Lord into my heart, just as I don’t take in any of the other belief systems I don’t embrace.
  • Yes, I’ve heard the saying, the greatest trick Lucifer ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.

Clearly, the standard approach wasn’t working, so Jay switched gears and attempted to relate to a wretch like me. Turns out he, too, had fallen from the path of righteousness, lost his way and his faith in The Almighty, and it wasn’t until he was in his thirties (thirty-three, perhaps?) that a man approached him in a similar manner, directed by God to save a particular soul. Not once, but thrice did Jay try to stop me in my tracks and get me to pray with him in order to receive an instant release of all the burdens in my life. And like Peter, I denied him three times.

When it was evident that I wasn’t going to break stride, even if just to be rid of him, Jay shifted to the movie route. He offered me the red pill/blue pill Matrix option, tried to twist my melon with the Inception angle of this life being Man’s dream within Satan’s dream within God’s dream, before going off on a Jacob’s Ladder tangent that he couldn’t quite bring around to make his point. To his credit he didn’t challenge me with that time-honored favorite, “You don’t believe in God because you can’t see Him, but you believe in air and you can’t see that, right?

But eventually, he did ask, “Well, if you don’t have faith in God, what do you believe in?

I believe I’m not smart enough.” I answered, as I always did whenever anyone bothered to ask. But it’s a poorly constructed answer that required clarification. I should change it, but it had become an almost automatic response at this point. That, and I’m just too damned lazy to do so.

Expanded, my response is:

I, myself, am a non-spiritual entity who believes that when it comes to the origin of things–the universe, life, etc.–that I am simply not smart enough to know the truth. And when I say I, taking the full weight of ignorance upon myself, I actually mean we as in mankind or peoplekind or whatever passes for politically correct phrasing nowadays. This does not, however, mean that I do not applaud attempts to gain answers, I’m just not satisfied with any of the options presented to date.

And that’s not just with religion. Creationism versus evolution? I’ve got no dog in that fight. I proudly ride the ignorance fence when it comes to our humble beginnings because, in my opinion, religion and science both offer up a series of theories yet to be proven as fact.

You believe differently? Good on you. I sincerely hope that works out for you, sincerely hope you’re right, and sincerely hope you receive your reward for being righteous.

I’m not in the habit of knocking people’s spiritual beliefs. It’s none of my concern what system you choose to embrace, and with all due respect, I couldn’t care less who or what you worship. Totally your business and I’m cool with it all, especially if it gives your life some sort of balance and leads you to do no harm.

This isn’t to say that I don’t find the Bible a fascinating read, but I view it as–again, no offense intended–mythology. Same as with Greek, Celtic, Aztec, African, etc. writings that deal with the human experience in relation to the worshiping of gods. I also enjoy apocryphal and pseudepigraphal texts, all of which eventually finds its way into my work.

Jay didn’t agree with a lick of this blasphemous nonsense and after a good forty-five minutes of loggerhead debate, he gave the “stop and pray with me” one last-ditch effort. When I refused, he gave me God’s blessing and cycled off politely as he arrived.

So, in honor of the noble efforts of Jay, today, I urge you all to sally forth and be true to your own belief systemingly writeful (and should you wish to add this sinner to your prayers, I surely won’t stop you).

©2014 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

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