Your most recent book, Missing Lucile, is about your grandmother, who died long before you were born and, in your own words, was no one very significant. Surely you must realize that grandmothers, especially insignificant ones, are unusual subjects. Not exactly bestseller material. Did you expect only grandmothers to read your book?

I would be delighted to know that grandmothers were reading my book, but believe it or not, I wrote it for a general audience. Missing Lucile is about my father’s mother, who died when he was a little boy. All his life he missed having a mother—that loss colored his relationships with his wives, his children, his friends, even the choices he made professionally. It was the first thing I think I ever really knew about him: that he didn’t have a mother, had never had a mother as far as he was concerned. And when, at the end of his life, he was talking about obsessively about his childhood, and his missing mother, I decided that I would try to find out about her for him.

 

That’s very generous. But let’s be frank, why would anyone else want to read a book about your father’s mother?

My goal was somewhat more audacious than finding information about my father’s mother. I decided I would try to find her. The woman herself who had been missing for 75 years. Lucile. So you could say this book began as a pair of impossible tasks: 1) that I would “find” a person I had never met, and who had been dead for decades, and who had left little behind in terms of a personal record. And 2) that I would give another person something he’d been missing nearly all his life.

 

What a presumptuous idea!

The presumptuousness of this project was almost as startling as its possibilities for sentimentality, but writers are presumptuous. We presume that what we know, or think we know, or want to know, is something other people will want to hear about. We have to be presumptuous, or we would never write anything. But with that presumptuousness comes the terrible responsibility to be worth listening to, to have something to say that is, actually, worth hearing.

 

It sounds like you had a real battle on your hands in this case.

Well, yes. Because not only was I proposing to write about my grandmother, about whom I knew next to nothing, but I was proposing to write about a woman who, in the eyes of the world, did not “matter.” She was not famous. She was not historic. She had done nothing spectacularly horrible—had not murdered anyone, or been a drug addict, or a child abuser. Nothing spectacularly horrible had been done to her: she was not murdered herself, or maimed by an accident, or the victim of a monstrous crime. Nor had she saved anyone, discovered a cure for anything, painted pictures or been on stage. She had not even married twice. She was a woman from Cincinnati, Ohio, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, a woman of her times, maybe somewhat ahead of her times, because she had gone to college in 1907, had been for a while a businesswoman, and had gone to France after WWI to help with the reconstruction.

She came back to Cincinnati, married, had children. Got cancer. Died.

She was, as Virginia Woolf would have described her, a person to whom things had happened. And this is exactly what I found so monumentally challenging about her. As Woolf puts it in a “Sketch of the Past”: “Here I come to one of the memoir writer’s difficulties—one of the reasons why, though I read so many, so many are failures. They leave out the person to whom things have happened. The reason is that it is so difficult to describe any human being. So they say: ‘This is what happened’; but they do not say what the person was like to whom it happened. And the events mean very little unless we know first to whom they happened.”

And that was exactly what I was proposing to do–to discover this woman, my grandmother, Lucile, to whom things had happened.

 

Did your reasons for writing this book—by the way, what should we call it, since it’s not exactly a biography, or a memoir, or fiction?

Let’s call it an uncertain book.

 

Did your reasons for writing this uncertain book change as you were working on it?

I certainly had my personal reasons for searching for my grandmother—I wanted to try to make my unhappy elderly father happy, to give him what he had been missing for 75 years, and by doing so give myself some of what I had been missing as his daughter. But I had my own pressing artistic reasons as well. And to be honest, these artistic reasons were my real motivation for writing this book.

What I wanted to address is the presumption that lies at the very heart of memoir and biography: That by telling the story of another person’s life you are capturing the person herself.

As Virginia Woolf also said, and this is from Orlando: “A biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have many thousands.”

How on earth can you capture the many thousand selves of another person?

I managed to find a lot of facts about the things that had happened to my grandmother Lucile. I had a box of small objects that had belonged to her, which I tried to use as a kind of historical DNA to reconstitute her. I had photographs. I had a letter she had written, a few pages of diaries, statements other people had made about her. I had her college transcript. I had her wedding ring. I had my own genetic relation to her, and the shadow of her that had hung over my childhood. But I did not have her. I never had her. Even for an instant. And I knew it.

 

So is that what this book is about, not knowing someone?

Yes and no. Because once I accepted that the subject of a biography—the person to whom things had happened–is always going to be missing, I had another question: So what? Does that mean you have to give up writing about her? Can you write about someone anyway—even someone who doesn’t “matter”–and do it honestly, even when what you don’t know vastly overshadows what you do, like a magic mountain looming behind a boulder in a meadow?

 

You could have written this book as fiction, that seems a fairly obvious answer to your question. You could have made up what you didn’t know. Why didn’t you just call the book Missing Lucile: a Novel?

That’s true. I could have written this book as fiction—but had I done so, I would not have directly addressed another question, which began to seem more and more pressing to me: What if you really do want to find the person herself, what you can find of her, that person to whom things have happened? And what if you want to claim that this person, this ordinary, unimportant person, did matter, if only because she was once alive, as alive as you yourself are now?

 

So what can you do? Is there an alternative?

That is what I wrote this book to find out. And though it is highly debatable that I succeeded in writing a book that would satisfy a reader looking for a biography, or a reader looking for fiction, I did put right at the center my own uncertainty about who my grandmother was. And right beside that uncertainty I put my desire to try to know her anyway. And in the end, this is what I found out: That it is in the act of wondering about another human being that we may come to know her best. Wondering about someone else, looking for clues based on the things that happened to her, and a few things she said, or did—that she liked the word “ribald,” for instance, and read the poems of Heine, and raised chickens, and didn’t wear jewelry—musing about patterns and inconsistencies, that’s what you can do. If you want to find another person, that’s where she is—present within the act of being wondered about. Because as soon as you start wondering about someone, she’s not altogether missing anymore, whether she’s been gone for 75 years or just since yesterday afternoon.

 

But it seems there must be catch here somewhere.

The catch—and it’s a big catch—is to stay honest about what you don’t know, about what you wish you knew, and about what you imagine you know about another person. The danger of any biography is losing sight of how much fiction is going on when you try to write about someone else. It’s fiction we can’t help—we are always going to project ourselves onto other people when we try to understand them. But it’s fiction we should stay clear about.

If we can stay clear about our own uncertainties, then we have a chance at a three-dimensional image of that person we’re trying to understand. Or at least a more nuanced image.

 

Are you saying that focusing on what you don’t know about someone else may be the best way of trying to understand her? That’s a rather radical claim, don’t you think?

A book isn’t worth writing unless it’s radical in some way, though it can be quietly radical. And who’s to say that writing about your grandmother can’t be as radical as writing from the point of view of a cockroach or writing a novel in pieces that a reader can arrange in whatever order she likes? There’s nothing more boring, in a book as well as in life, than something that proves to be just what you think it is. If I have devoted my writing life to anything, it’s to writing books that appear to be one thing and are not really that thing at all.

 

But back to being radical—and perhaps we should point out here that you are a suburban middle-aged woman with a husband, two children and a dog, who votes in every election and believes, more or less, in a two-party democratic system—how are you defining radical, at least in terms of your book?

I am talking about changing the way we think about biography. I am advocating uncertainty as a way to write about someone else. When I see a book described as “the definitive biography of so-and-so” I feel faint. Given the multiplicity of informational sources we have nowadays, most of them contradictory–from blogs and Facebook and Twitter to CNN and Google and Wikipedia to self-interviews–one might be forgiven for thinking that the conventional, unilateral idea of biography would be falling out of favor. But most of us still expect a single product when we read a biography; we are expecting “the life” of the subject. And we want a story “worth reading,” which often means survivor stories, celebrity tell-alls, exposes, confessions. Stories, frankly, that we already know. Those stories have their place, of course, but there is room for a more questioning attitude when it comes to biography.

 

Questioning how?

In the act of wondering about someone else, we take a step out of ourselves for a moment, we step forward to encounter another person. What a radical thing to do! Especially when we acknowledge that it is not the person herself standing there, but a kind of shadow based on who we want to know. A ghost. A silhouette. Our idea of that person.

That idea, that shadow person, has its own dimension, its own vitality, its own ability to shift and change based on how well we’re able to question our perceptions. That idea is animated by our desire to know the person it’s based upon, and that idea is equally animated by our frustration and despair when we’re forced to admit that we cannot, ultimately, succeed.

 

Why despair?

Despair because if we can’t fully know another person, it stands to reason that we cannot fully be known ourselves. We are all mysteries. And perhaps that, finally, is the real job of biography–to acknowledge the mystery of being human, again and again and again.

 

I can feel your anxiety from here.

Christmas is just over two weeks away and you’ve still got shopping to do.  You opted for the “lots of little presents” route, instead of the “one big enchilada” route, and now you find yourself a few gifts short of a stocking.  Worse, you’ve got one or more rockers on your list, and they’re such ungrateful snobs that you’re afraid to get them anything having to do with music for fear of the inevitable snarky comment ending with the word “lame.”

What’s an elf to do?

Relax- I’ve got you covered.

The only real point to life is for it not to turn out the way you expect. Think about it. If, at an early age, you mapped out a life for yourself, and it played out exactly the way you wanted, you would be fantastically bored. In fact, if nothing or no one placed obstacles along the preordained path of your life, you would probably introduce those obstacles just to experience a little variety. I think you can make an argument that those of us prone to self sabotage are not necessarily fighting some deep interior hatred of ourselves but simply bored.

Julie Carr’s new collection of poetry takes us on a journey where fragmented thoughts and abbreviated memories exist in varied form. Coffee House Press is known for publishing groundbreaking authors and championing the work of writers who have made a place for themselves in the literary landscape. This work addresses the humanity of death and contemplates what happens when faced with a life-threatening illness, the loss of our faculties, and often times, the spirit of love. These poems also illustrate the joy of new beginnings in exploring the feelings connected to giving birth and pregnancy. The 75 plus pages of poems examine the complex responses that come into play when dealing with health struggles and faded memories; a pastiche of familial responsibility. Fragments, abstracts on death, exhaustion, mothers, and unexpected scenarios are only some of the themes at play in these pages, but Carr gives her full attention to each sentiment expressed in this collection. What’s unique about the writing is the manner in which the narrator attempts to digest her reality. Poems and fragments share titles but shift in their POV. This technique seems to demonstrate the need to digest sentiments from different points of view, thus allowing for multiple perspectives on the same scenario, on the same difficulties we encounter, regardless of where we sit.

When I was young I often wondered what the world would be like if superheroes were real.

Now they are.

And I don’t mean that superheroes are real in the sense that single parents, hard working people, and people who go out of their way to help others are superheroes (though they are). I mean specifically that there are people out there who dress up in tights and help the city in costume as real life superheroes (except to be fair–it’s more like body armor instead of tights).

Keef

By J.P. Smith

A&C Reviews

Musical autobiographies—apart from those by, say, Berlioz and Stravinsky, Art Pepper and Anita O’Day, which are genuinely enlightening—have always struck me as being about as helpful as interviews given by athletes after a game. Very little is said in a coherent fashion about an activity that has little to do with language. Being a rock star, however, is much more than the music: it’s the look, the attitude, the degree of untouchability one assumes. So I came to Keith Richards’s book (for which Little, Brown reportedly paid over seven million dollars) with heightened interest—this is Keith Richards, after all, not just a rock icon but the walking embodiment of a slow shrug and an extended middle finger—and, thanks to his choice of editor, with some very high hopes. James Fox is an old Etonian (i.e. nothing like Keith) who wrote White Mischief, a much-praised work of nonfiction dealing with the 1941 murder of the Earl of Erroll in the debauched British colony in Kenya known as the Happy Valley. At first it seemed an odd match (though the two men have known each other for years), but for the fact that the Rolling Stones are yet another colony of people who have been thrown into close proximity for so long that something had to give. If there’s been a murder, we haven’t heard about it yet. Oh wait: Brian Jones.

I was a haughty and insufferable young man, intent, ironically, upon a direction of which I was unsure. I am less intent these days and I have worked to lose the haughtiness, though I am still unsure as to where I am headed. A true north, presented as a reasonable and intelligent sensibility remains unknown, a shrouded mystery. Schopenhauer said that walking is arrested falling down. I am walking, and conscious that every step is taken in self-defense, taken to keep from collapsing. I have concluded that for me life holds only surprises and reveals little. I am in a poker game and am blind. I did not spring from the womb playing Mozart. I cannot do math. I have not experienced a particular urge to save the world or develop a vaccine or build an empire. I have no natural capacity for anything, as best I can tell. The writer in me struggles to spin my web, but that is the nature of the discipline. I work from my gut. In short, I exist, like, as best I can tell, many of us exist, without a clarifying direction or calling. Most of the time, sadly, I am not even cognizant that I even exist. When I am aware of the fact, I keep my eyes open and take notes as I am able. The best I’ve been able to do thus far is string them together and search for patterns.

Words Save Me

By Mark Sutz

Writing

You begin by finding solace in the written word.  How the letters fall one after another, then the words, the sentences, the paragraphs, the stories, the complete attempt by someone you have met only on this sheet, a paper wall between time, sometimes epic, centuries-long chunks of time, a substantial wall yet so membranous you can smell the streets of London in 1840 when you’re twelve with a bellyful of creamed tuna made by a housekeeper named Maxine in Scottsdale in 1980.

You continue your affair with the written word every day of your life, the thrill never waning, even when the sharp teeth of suicide threaten you every few years, you stave it off with the rote, delicious phrases that are your religion, your own private way to order the world, those words that draw you up from the abyss like some thread from the past and settle you, if only temporarily.  In those moments, repeating just five or ten words that someone wrote down once in the perfect order in a room six thousand miles away are enough to make you feel your blood bump along in your fingers and feet, your proof of life the salt from the tears you lick from the lonely corners of your mouth.  You are able to fall asleep, panic averted by words.

You muddle through bad times, trying times, and enjoy the moments when the black cloud abandons you for a few days or weeks or months, your affair with the written word enough to lift yourself out of bed and move forward.

You start laying down your own words, the ineptitude of your perfect, complete, pristine thought apparent when you reread the sentence or story and it is exactly the same feeling you get after you masturbate – why did I do this?  Silly, silly.

You implement daily the pen, pencil, typewriter and lay down hundreds of thousands of words over decades, not a single string of them what your mind’s eye saw in a flash.

You send a friend a story once, for no reason other than to know that one person out there will sit back with your words for a few minutes, up there, deep in your head.

You don’t hear anything from your friend, not even a potentially withering crtitique.  Silence.  You stop sending your words to friends, content that you’ve even found a few through life, no need to annoy them into avoidance.

You submit your words to people you don’t know who run entities that purport to publish stories sent in by people just like you.  You do this a thousand times.  Then a thousand more.   Occasionally, very rarely, you feel like you’re giving them a winning lottery ticket, if only the recipient would scratch off the coating and see what is underneath.  But they don’t.  They toss it aside, another losing ticket.  You hear: nothing.

You perceive faint echoes in the dark.  Always sounding like a wheezy, impatient, “No.”

You cement your self-image to this small word, these two letters carrying more weight than the text of a doorstopper of a novel.

You firmly believe this thing you use to order pizza or communicate with a neighbor about his overflowing garbage can is not a thing you really have any business trying to make your own.  Your pizza is often not what you ordered and your neighbor’s garbage still stinks, year after year.  Language doesn’t seem to work for you.

But you continue, through it all – you must, no choice.

You become certain that this activity of yours is as useful as a ‘61 Silverstream is to a death row inmate. Maybe less.  Then you write about this death row inmate and how his life would be if the guilty party was finally discovered, confessed and assuaged his guilt when he could no longer sleep.

You have another story, another prism, the only success that matters that you somehow got this man out of prison and onto an open highway, the next stop unmapped, unknown.

things start

By David McLean

Poem

things start and stop too soon,
or maybe never; they are eyes
between stars, gross ghosts
and vast absences,

all the missing crystal that god said
was his best medicine, courtly
love refuting nothing. things start.
they grow up to be dead children,

such subtle lesions on innocent skin
and so very little innocence within,
just meat in so many lonely colors,
where things start and go missing

dead things living

Dear Gloria circa August 2000,

I am writing from the future. Ten years ahead in fact.

I’ve seen all the movies and read all the cautionary tales that warn about the negative effects altering the past could and most likely would have on the future, so I want to be really careful here. It’s important that I impart a few words of advice, but, though there are aspects of my life today that I would love to undo, there are many aspects that I wouldn’t change for the world. I have no desire to try to alter your path. I wouldn’t wish any of your choices be different. My goal here isn’t to warn you against doing what I’ve already done, but to arm you with tools that I’ve only just begun to collect and use.

There’s something you should know about me. I just turned 30. That, and I’ve always had a secret desire to write a self-help book. Not something like Chicken Soup for The Soul, something EXACTLY like Chicken Soup for The Soul. Except that I’d want to fill it with totally depressing aphorisms about how tough life is, start a huge controversy, go on Oprah and get a fucking TV show doing magic tricks and finger painting for little children…

Some of what I said in that first paragraph is true. But most of it is total and complete bullshit. And this leads to the first observation that I have observed in my first 30 years on earth:

Observation #1: Most Of What You Hear Is Total And Complete Bullshit (including much of what I’m about to tell you).

Observation #2: I’ve always thought I’d die young. But contrary to what Billy Joel might say, the good only die young if they also happen to have crippling addictions to illegal drugs. Otherwise they get to stress out about getting old like the rest of us.

Observation #3: The thing that separates us from the apes isn’t opposable thumbs, it’s climate control. If you don’t believe me, visit a Las Vegas casino during the summer.

Observation #4: Baltasar Gracián’s book, The Art of Worldly Wisdom is the most useful book ever written. Seriously, read it.

Observation #5: While on the one hand I hate yuppies/well to do people/people with their shit together, I realize that their existence allows for the bohemian fixie riding revolutionary who may or may not have their shit together. Someone has to pay for all these park benches to sleep on.

Observation #6: I’m only interested in hearing about dream interpretations if they are my dreams and the interpretations don’t somehow imply that I’m gay.

Observation #7: If the word “cuddling” sounded more like the word “fucking,” men would claim to do it all the time, even if we were secretly doing it alone.

Observation #8: Science has yet to explain jack shit about our emotions. Saying which chemicals are released when we get off is one thing, but the reason for it is something entirely different. As an example, if I asked you “why does a car go faster?” you could launch into a discussion about compression and torque and drive trains, and so on. Describe the whole fucking thing from start to finish. Hell, make diagrams if you like. But the reason an engine goes faster is because the driver stomped on the gas. It’s the same with the so-called science of our emotions. Just replace “love” with the gas pedal in my previous example.

Observation #9: I should never be allowed to watch the show JERSEY SHORE and then be allowed on Facebook within 24 hours of one another.

Observation #10: To this day, something really weird happens to my heart whenever I eat a hamburger and fries from Wendy’s. If I eat just the hamburger, I’m fine. If I eat just the fries, I’m fine. Both together and I’m looking up cardiologists in the yellow pages and banging handfuls of Xanax. I am terrified of fast food that should come with interaction warning labels. Especially when said foods are on the same menu.

Observation #11: The easiest way to quit smoking is to have an impending disease that will kill you in months, not years. If the government wants everyone to stop smoking, they should make cigarettes MORE dangerous, not less.

Observation #12: I am generally not materialistic and could give two shits about birthday presents … unless they are REALLY good birthday presents.

Observation #13: Google is making me stupid, yet, like having a bitchy girlfriend who fucks like a champion, I’m helpless to do anything about it.

Observation #14: Coconut M&Ms have restored my faith in candy. They can restore yours too.

Observation #15: Skydiving would have been an awesome skill to have as a passenger on one of the 9/11 planes. Also, parachutes would have been nice as well.

Observation #16: Shockingly, skydiving is way more safe than it sounds. Something like 1 person per every 100,000 jumps dies. Impressive, but still not a good reason to jump out of a perfectly fine airplane.

Observation #17: Nothing outside of yourself will ever make you safe, happy or whole. You’re either born this way or you learn to ignore it to the point where you feel safe, happy, and whole. Sorry to be a bummer (but not really).

Observation #18: Sylvester Stallone is the most successful screenwriter. Ever. And this sort of depresses me.

Observation #19: On the subject of drugs and literary composition: it’s a delicate balance. If every time you drink you wake up under a freeway overpass clutching an empty, perhaps consider switching to herbal tea.

Observation #20: On the topic of cocaine and literary composition: I’M THE KING OF THE WORLD!

Observation #21: On the topic of my last topic: I’m kidding.

Observation #22: On the topic of my last two topics: Or Am I?

Observation #23: Leave well enough alone. Especially if “well enough” is aiming a semiautomatic weapon at your junk.


Oh boy. That about does it. Let’s see, what else? Oh yes, winner of the best birthday present in the last 30 years goes to Nate Brown of Anaheim, CA. Congratulations Nate, I’ll be sure to hang it next to my painting of a man vomiting in a urinal. Thank you, come again.

First Floor

 

 

Second Floor

I came in early yesterday from work. My wife and I had an appointment with our real estate agent to view a handful of homes. Before we left, I checked my messages on Facebook. In my inbox was a message I never expected to read from a mutual friend who now lives in Florida.

“He died a couple of weeks ago,” the message read.

Between the ages of 15-18, I never had a greater friend than Brian. From dawn till dusk, we four were inseparable. Then the house came crumbling down. Rick had a bad trip on acid and did a stint in a psychiatric ward in Petersburg. Ricky was in and out of jail for drug possession, and BBP had returned to New Jersey to be with his family.

After he left, Brian used to call me at all hours of the night. His mind had began deteriorating long before he left, and as it would be later confirmed, he suffered from the disease of paranoid schizophrenia.

He changed his phone number a half dozen times, his number never the same each time he called.

“They are listening,” he would tell me. He believed the government had tapped his phone.

“They are following me,” he said. They being government spies.

He would see friends from Virginia he believed were in New Jersey, visiting.

“I saw Jeremiah,” he would say. “I saw Kelly and Gary.”

But he never really did. They were never in New Jersey.

He saw ghosts of friendship.

He ditched his cell phone and started using calling cards. He would call me from various payphones in Trenton, New Jersey. Then one day he arrived at my doorstep in a beat-up pickup truck. He had no driver’s license and he was supposed to be in court that day in New Jersey for assaulting a police officer. But he was here, in Phenix, Virginia, to visit his friends — one last time.

He arrived around 4 AM and we visited his old home that he had boobytrapped before he left. He believed people were breaking into his house when he was not there.

“Stealing my dope,” he thought.

But they were not.

A string was tied from the front door knob on the backside to the trigger of a loaded shotgun. If someone entered that was not supposed to, it’d be “all she wrote,” he said. But no one ever had their head blown off because no one ever entered his home except him.

After he left Phenix that day years ago, he called me a couple of time using his calling cards. Then I never heard from him again. None of us did. And we had no way of contacting him though I tried numerous times to find a way to get in touch with his sister.

“He died a couple of weeks ago,” the message read.

From what cause, I don’t know just yet. I imagine I will shortly. Maybe. If anyone knows.

It could have been a car wreck. A sickness of some sort like cancer. Drug related. Suicide.

Suicide wouldn’t surprise me, though it saddens me.

“The comfort I take in his death,” I said to my wife, “is that he will have found peace that he no longer could find while alive.”

And I am trying to find a way to reach his sister but will probably fail miserably like I have for the past ten years.

We four were inseparable at the height of our teenage existence.

“He died,” I said to Ricky over the phone. He choked up.

“He died,” I said to Rick.

And we feel so detached from the death of a friend so great. I think in that detachment is the comfort he has finally found peace, as cliche as it may sound. It’s true.

I searched for his obituary but have been unable to find it. His family did not celebrate birthdays and, for all I know, maybe they do not celebrate deaths either.

“An individual person is not important,” he had said of his father’s beliefs which he did not share.


Years ago, in my last seminar while at the University of Virginia, we were given a final project. The class was The Road in American Literature taught by Jennifer Wicke. We had the option of writing a story 10-15 pages in length.

I ended up writing an 80-page story on BBP’s return to Phenix those years ago. I fictionalized it by changing the names. But it was no fiction. Brian’s name was not Ezekiel. My name was not Jackson. Ricky was not Charley. Rick was not Chuck. This is part of what I wrote:


I was lying in bed, a book in hand, my thumb resting on the inside joint of the pages when an old ghost pecked at the window in my room. The floor creaked as I made my way across to investigate the sound. The ghost pecked again. Crunchy wasps and ladybug shells, their souls retreated, were scattered in chipped white paint on the window sill. I drew up the Venetian blinds. Dust fell freely and tickled my nose. The apparition below stood in four sections, divided, suspended on the cross of the pane, glaring up at me. His arms were spread. He let them drop, releasing a pebble from his palm.

The figure motioned with his hand and began to walk toward the front door. I paused from where I stood and glimpsed at the neon light of the alarm clock atop my nightstand: 4:30 a.m. Possessed with the motion of the apparition’s hand, my body responded and drifted wearily down the staircase toward the front door. I began to open it simultaneously reaching up to flick the porch light on from the interior, but the bulb only flickered and fizzled out, the sight outside the door becoming visible only momentarily as if a match’s flame snubbed out. I opened the door. Three invisible Mary’s stood by the ghost in disbelief. None had removed the stone from the tomb but the body had emerged and now stood before me—intact, breathing. He is no Christ figure, I thought, only the criminal who asked for redemption in the final hours.

“It’s been a while Jackson,” the phantom said but ghosts do not speak. I stared into the darkness. The darkness stared back. The figure lifted a cigarette to his mouth and inhaled. The red cherry lit up his face. The face grinned.

****

Quite some time had passed since I had last seen Ezekiel. I never expected to see that sinister face again—the split front lip, the cigarette dangling from it, tobacco smoke pouring out of his nostrils; but now, standing before me, the face beamed. The abandoned orphan had come home in search of his natural family. Dried spittle gathered around his mouth like a rabid dog broken free of its chain. A beat up Ford pickup truck sat in the distance with New Jersey plates. As the two of us began to walk toward the truck in unison, matching one another step for step, the smell of gas fumes too early in the morning nauseated me to the core of my stomach. Ezekiel turned the key. The engine roared in the calm of the otherwise silent morning as sleeping birds nested high atop the limbs.

Painted strokes on a gray-black canvas kept in harmony as Ezekiel and I rode off into the hours before dawn. The crisp morning air drifting from the open windows of the truck wrestled with loose paper in the floorboard as we began to pick up speed.

I looked at Ezekiel.

His hair had grown out, an afro of sorts, jutting into the background like hungry snakes lying wait on the dewy grass of a cornfield in spring time. His mind was ready to bite, spit venom, and then retreat back to the path it slithered its way from prior to our meeting again. Thick glasses like Coca-Cola bottles framed his eyes. These were the same glasses given to him less than a month before his disappearance, now a little scratched on the lens but holding up nevertheless. Ezekiel looked as if a mad scientist or some sort of social deviant unfit to roam the streets freely at will.

Send him back, his father would say.

Send him back.

To the white padded walls of the asylum. Four pills at breakfast. Four pills at dinner. Mouthwash that tastes like toilet bowl water. There you just sit in a room without locks. An eye peeking through the keyhole. Peeking through the pane.

A toilet in the open.

A nurse watching you shit and piss and twiddle your thumbs and color in a coloring book like you are in elementary school.

She knows by now on average the amount of times it takes you to wipe your ass. She watches you like a hawk does prey through the glass pane and counts each wipe out of boredom more than anything. Six good wipes usually and before you wipe she knows you always lift your ass off the seat a little and look back into the bowl to see what you’ve expended.

“Cigarette,” Ezekiel asked tapping the bottom of the pack with his palm. His face lightens up.

“I’ll have one.”

“I thought maybe you had quit.”

“I did.”

****

Two cars were out at this time of morning: Ezekiel’s raggedy pickup the two of us secured in its seats and Kenneth Gold, the local newspaper deliveryman dropping off a fresh batch of the day’s Dispatch. Ezekiel flung his arm into the air, waving. Kenneth reared his head only to nod slightly and in a begrudging manner, and then returned to opening the orange box to place inside the newspapers. Ezekiel turned off the highway and up the dirt driveway to his former residence. The road was weathered and eroded, conduits made so by rain onto the silt and bits of orange clay, nay enough compacted dirt nor rock to keep the road whole and ingot; and as we traveled down it, the truck shook from side to side as the house came into view. He downshifted gears, slowing the engine to a halt. The porch light was on.

The hummingbird moth
Danced into the morning sun
But there was no sun.

Ezekiel took a drag from his cigarette and I heard the crackling of the paper as the cherry ate away toward the filter. He removed his glasses and wiped the corners of his eyes. The whites of his eyes had the appearance of jaundice and the vessels around the iris were burst. The stubby beard on his face looked of four or five days since last seeing a razor. The smell of sweat and an unwashed body seeped through the white shirt he wore, the neck of the shirt yellow and brown. He opened the door and placed his foot to the ground. Ice crystals had formed in clods of orange and brown soil. When Ezekiel’s feet met the earthen floor, a crunching sound was heard as the crystals collapsed into nothing. Standing outside of the vehicle, he crouched down and peered back in to where I still sat. He flicked the cigarette butt to the ground.

“You coming,” he said.

As we made our way on foot up the remainder of the driveway, the white light from the porch grew brighter. The house sat high atop the hill like a poor man’s plantation manor. The windows were non-existent and the panes stared back at us forming hollowed out eyes. Shards of glass had fallen from the metal crosses that were not completely concave as if melting ice-cycles in February stabbing into the ground. The roof was of rusted tin spotted with patched blocks of shiny silver. Black tar used as sealant oozed from the corner of the patches, its tin quilt in dire need of more patterns to sustain the rain whence it came, leaking from the ceiling.

Together the two of us sat down on the front stoop. Ezekiel pulled the pack of cigarettes from out his front pocket and tapped two cigarettes above the rest. He lit one and the other by its cherry, handing it to me. The smell of smoke was thick as we both looked out into the yard. Pipes were scattered about, as were bolts, a porcelain toilet, and kitchen sink. Primordial oak trees that witnessed every life that went inside, that died inside, and that left and never returned stood to the left and right of the tattered home now become of itself with no inhabitants yet another decrepit country house. The limbs reached out like his father’s hands beating the termite infested wood siding and moths flew into the porch light and fell like Icarus back to the wooden planks into a black sea of other dead and decomposed insects.

Ezekiel stood up from the stoop and peered into one of the broken windows at the front of the house. Inside were buckets to relieve the floor of rot. Trails of splotched black mold peppered the rotting floor. He pulled a flashlight out from inside his jacket pocket and shined it at the ceiling. The ceiling was warped and stained tawny and coffee colored, and there too splotches of black mold. A lone light flickered about inside, shorting from the water that had leaked from the roof over time and found its way into its circuits.

****

The sun rose, febrile and hot orange, birthing the start of a new day. Far off, the cockalorum of a rooster could be heard, the shrill of its lungs blowing mightily as was its everyday call. Sleeping birds arose and ruffled their feathers amongst the leaves of the oaks and people all across this sleepy town smacked at their alarm clocks and awoke with deep yawns expelled from their guts . . . .

Written in 2004

THE LADY NEXT DOOR was a thin figure slightly gaunt in stature and form from the years to which her body had accumulated. Her height was nothing profound through the eyes of a small child—the pinnacle to her highest point no greater than 5’4” tall. This comparison may be slightly off for many years have passed since young eyes stared upward to gaze upon the lady next door. Thus, the only contrast to which my childish eyes can relate lay in my great grandfather, Charlie Marion, a man of Native American descent who stood at 6’7” with legs that stretched for miles and miles as if trying to touch eternity with the tip of his boot.

Mrs. Hartness, for that was her name, was a tiny thing indeed. Soaking wet, her weight may have faintly surpassed one-hundred pounds. A curve in the upper portion of her back was exposed through garments, which rested, swathing her delicate build. Her skin was stretched loose and markings of age covered her entire body from head to toe—from her neck all the way down to her swollen pale ankles.

The hair atop her head was thin and fine, the color of faded strawberries and silver and snowflakes like the cap on the peak of the Alps of Cisalpine with small hints of white flowing in between. From her larynx came a soft voice that shook with each word she spoke. Though, I must say, it would only be accurate in this account to mention that within her soft voice was contained a slight scratchiness and congestion. At any given moment, a cough would erupt and it would seem to those around that her lungs had surely failed her.

When this happened, she would stand up, her body as erect as gravity and arthritis would allow, and grasping for the closest solid object to balance herself, a wall or a doorframe, she expelled from within what the cilia had failed to catch.

Reaching upward to cover her mouth, the veins in Mrs. Hartness’s emaciated hands were quite noticeable and plump. Her fingers were thin and long; and much to the mimicry of her voice, her fingers shook with her every movement as if the last leaf in autumn blowing in the wind—quavering yet resilient.

Everyone she knew and loved from infancy to her adult years had by now passed away into the verve of the afterlife except her own flesh and blood: the precious children she weaned many years ago.

Yet, there was one without a drop of kinship that loved her just the same—not as if she were his grandmother or even a relative—but as his best friend.

The young boy was her neighbor. His stature was less than a foot in height shorter compared to his elderly friend with long, skinny arms that seemed out of proportion with the rest of his body. As the years passed, his body would grow into these long extremities, taking away from the disproportionate specter to which he had known for such a protracted period in his childhood. He had deep blue eyes reaching Caribbean depths, dirty blonde hair, and skin the color of fresh homemade biscuits straight out of the oven, painted as if with a blend of russet and taupe acrylics from an Impressionist’s palette.

Everyday, the young boy would scurry across the green grass, past the pale leaf Yucca plant one house over, to his elderly friend’s door. Her face so gentle and kind was the only face other than his immediate family and friends that he remembers distinctly from that age—a mere four years old.

Sometimes, more often times than not, the lady next door could be seen crouched over, the bumps of her vertebrae poking through her shirt, raking leaves that had fallen from the oak tree that adjoined her and her young friend’s residences. Other times, she was to be found hanging wet laundry from the turning wire clothesline that sat beside a leaning cement birdbath in her backyard. When the wind blew its breath against the clothesline, a slow but acute noise would follow.

“Nails on the chalkboard,” the lady next door would whisper under her breath. “Just like nails on a chalkboard,” the loose skin on her neck and underneath her chin all the while jiggling to and fro.

Her young neighbor referred to this loose skin as turkey neck.

“Mama, why does Mrs. Hartnence have a turkey neck?”

“Because she’s not a spring chicken anymore,” his mother would say. “Hartness,” she added.

“What?”

“It’s Hartness.”

“Hart-nence.”

“Hartness, but don’t worry. You’ll get it one day.”

But the young boy loved her turkey neck. He used to pull and stretch the skin as if trying to wrap it around his fingers as he sat on her lap while she rocked back and forth in the wooden chair on the front porch.

Mrs. Hartness let him do this never blinking an eye for a second.

It gave her sagging skin a certain kind of beauty she knew not before; well, that is to say until her young neighbor began visiting regularly; and visit he did.

If ever the boy wanted to find her after school as he stepped off the bus, there she would be, sitting on her front porch, one leg crossed over the other, smoking filter-less Lucky Strike cigarettes, rocking backwards and forwards in her faintly stained wooden chair. On rare occasions, too, it must be added, when the weather forbade her from escaping outside, she was to be found inside her home alone at the kitchen table with an ashtray, a Dr. Pepper, and the day’s newspaper.

Choking smoke danced from the end of her resting cigarette. Ashes un-ashed grew in length by the trice, but the lady next door was not bothered in the least. This was a pattern to which she belonged—the smell of smoke both a friend and foe; and so it was, she would lick the tip of her finger, sip a long sip of Dr. Pepper, and turn to the next page of the local weekly, The Charlotte Gazette.

The chill of the wind.

The downpour of rain.

Whatever condition the Heavens sent down would have to be waited out.

Mrs. Hartness’s young neighbor had much more mobility. He was a rambunctious little fellow. He could never quite keep still no matter what his mind found favor in doing. Because of this surfeit in energy and vigor, his mother allowed him to meet his older cousin, Robbie, early each morning at the basketball court before school. The parents of both families agreed: Exercise was not only necessary for these two but also indispensable if the sanity in their respective homes would continue. Not only that, but it would keep the two out of trouble once the playground was replaced with the school room, their weapons no longer walnuts and sticks, but #2 pencils and writing pads.

The young boy and his cousin were good kids: polite, well-mannered, and reverential to their elders, but a half-pint of chocolate milk at lunch and a chocolate-banana fudge bomb to follow and the very axis to which the universe rested would be tilted, disrupted of its very mellifluous harmony at the local elementary school. The basketball court would at least rid them of this surplus in energy. It was to them itself a sanctuary for the neighborhood kids and was only a hop, skip, and a jump away from the young boy’s front doorstep.

Through this front door and just to his right lay the house of Mrs. Hartness, its gray and black speckled shingles holding on for dear life. As a souvenir of his adoration, the young boy used to bring her a handful of rocks as a gift: the prettiest, most beautiful rocks he could find to give to the little old lady as a gesture of his love and appreciation—for she was his best friend, he knew no other.

Two or three times each week he did this—never missing a step, never faltering the beat. What is more to say is that he never, oh never on his life would he, settle in giving her the dull, colorless rocks of gray and charcoal; no, only the best for the lady next door, only the prettiest and most beautiful in her eyes and his.

They were just ordinary rocks in a driveway to most people; but to the young neighbor they were much more than that. They were a precious token to the little old lady he cared for so deeply, so true and innocently.

To characterize the rocks distinguishing them from the rest in the driveway were the heavenly brushstrokes of color, epidote, and other mineral deposits. Some were speckled with green, others with pink and some the color of sunshine, and even more a light blue like the Heavens above that the lady next door stared at during the day as the young boy sat in Kindergarten class daydreaming.

Day after day, the young boy waited patiently yet with eager volition to get off that big, yellow school bus to go see his friend; and so, as his routine schedule was sentient of, one day after the bus let off, he knelt down in his driveway as he did everyday. Juggling the gravel in his hand, he fished out the most beautiful rocks that he could find from all the rest. Though he only gave her rocks two or three times a week, he would nevertheless collect them each day. In his room at night, he would pour them out like marbles onto his bed; and then again, the young boy would separate the most beautiful from the strictly beautiful.

His mother used to tell him not to dump the rocks out onto his bed sheets because it would cause a given spot on the cotton linen to turn all the beautiful colors of his gifts to the lady next door, but he paid no mind. Thus, when the lights went out and his mother had left his bedside, he would reach under his bed where the rocks lay hidden in a shoebox and repeat his partitioning of gifts. Subsequently, he would wipe away the residue from the consolidated minerals and close his eyes for the night. The dust of the rocks would itch him as he slept like cracker crumb morsels eaten in bed, imprinted in the skin of his back.

This day, as a repetition of previous days, the young boy stepped off Bus 38 and ran from the driveway in front of his home hurrying to his neighbor’s doorstep with his oversized book-bag nearly ripping at the seams. He pushed his tiny, little finger hard against the doorbell because it always took some extra effort for someone his size to make that old thing sound; but it is what he had to do to let Mrs. Hartness know that he was waiting for her; and so, he pushed and pushed in anticipation of seeing her face.

RIIIIIiiiiing! RIIIIIiiiiing!

The noise it made was always so drawn out. It was not a pleasant ring but the doorbell always made that particular clamor. It was a sharp-pitched tone like an antique wind-up clock one can still find at a Pawn Shop or Flea Market if searched for long and hard enough. Nevertheless, the young boy loved the sound that doorbell made. Its significance meant that soon after it was sounded the person he cared so profoundly for with all his heart would soon be on her way to open up the creaking and hinged screen door to ask him how his day went at school.

“I hope you are getting good grades and paying attention,” she would say as the door opened slowly. Then with his two little hands covered as if he were hiding a baby bird that had fallen from an oak tree, the young boy would open them, palms up together in unison, exposing his gift as his face lit up with joy; and there they were: the most beautiful rocks you would ever see.

“Aw, are those for me,” Mrs. Hartness would ask in question, knowing the answer already as she leaned out her fragile, shaking hands.

“They are beautiful,” she continued, giving a wrinkled smile his way and tapping her hand on her lap, and the young boy would hop up and give her a kiss on the cheek. “Thank you so much.”

Mrs. Hartness, with her young neighbor now firmly planted in her lap, would begin rocking back and forth in her chair. He grabbed four fingers of loose skin from her turkey neck and folded the layers over his finger as if a blanket. Not long after, he was sound asleep.

He pushed on the doorbell again and then waited a moment on the concrete slab at the entrance to her home. He jumped one step down and then back up. No one answered.

She might be sleeping, he thought. But she always answered the door. Sometimes she was slow to answer but she nevertheless came within a minute’s time. It had never taken this long all the other times he had come to visit, so he stretched his arm out once more elevating himself on his tippy toes and pressed the white, rectangle doorbell with a faint orange light inside yet again.

RIIIIIiiiiing!

He waited. No one answered.

RIIIIIiiiiing! RIIIIIiiiiing! RIIIIIiiiiing!

Still, she did not come to the door.

The young boy dropped his outstretched arm, cupped his lone, full hand together, and ran across the yard back toward his own home, his book bag smacking back and forth and all. As soon as he opened the door to his house, he asked his mom for a Zip-loc bag to place his rocks in for safe keeping. That way when his friend woke up, he could still give her his present and his beautiful pink and green and yellow and blue speckled rocks would not go to waste. With the Zip-loc bag in hand, the young boy hustled upstairs, jumping one step, then two steps at a time, and threw off his book bag onto the floor and ran directly back outside, grabbing his bike before heading over to the basketball court to wait for his friends, Robbie and Jeremiah.

Later that evening around 5:30 PM when his friends had to leave to get ready for dinner, the boy decided to go back over to his neighbor’s house.

RIIIIIiiiiing!

No answer.

RIIIIIiiiiing.

Still nothing.

She must still be asleep, he figured. It has only been two hours since I got home from school anyway.

The next afternoon upon his arrival back home from Kindergarten, the small boy noticed more cars than usual filling up the driveway next to his: the driveway of the lady next door. The Zip-loc bag full of rocks from the past day was in the small pocket at the front of his book bag with his pencils and crayons just waiting to be delivered. He even took them to school so that once he stepped off Bus 38 he would not have to run back in his house to fetch them.

He slowly edged off the bus this time in a non-haste like pace, unzipping the front pocket of his book bag, and pulling out the plastic bag. His eyes focused on the extra cars he saw in Mrs. Hartness’s driveway and then back toward the entrance to her home.

The wooden door was wide open and the screen door, too, where the top bolt had been locked as to keep it open so that someone could enter, leave, and then re-enter again.

He started to make his way from the road that passed from in front of both of their homes into her front yard, brushing up against the two bushes that had not more than three inches between them that were always connected by a thick spider web that forever had a few drops of moisture waning on top of it; but he went in between the bushes each and everyday regardless even though he was terrified to death of spiders.

The young neighbor made it about halfway through Mrs. Hartness’s yard when the door to the house to his right, his home, where he lived, opened. As he heard the turn of the door handle at his home, he turned his head. His mother appeared. He stopped, was at a standstill, and looked in his mother’s direction. Her mouth shifted downward and her eyes, cat green in color, had a very precise look to them, never blinking, not even for a second.

“Son, come here for a second,” she said with a maternal presence.

At that very moment a figure appeared from the inside of his neighbor’s home while he stood like a fixed statue in the yard, like the cement birdbath out back. The young boy turned back into the direction of Mrs. Hartness’s home, and holding his bag of beautiful rocks in his hand, he noticed how the dust from the gravel had settled on the sides along the bag.

“Hey,” he said kindly to the stranger who looked to be about in his fifties with light gray hair wearing a green sweater and dress slacks.

“Well hi there, young man,” the stranger responded quickly as he continued to walk toward what appeared to be his car in Mrs. Hartness’s driveway.

“Son, come here for a minute,” the boy’s mother said again.

“But I’ve gotta—” he started to reply before his mother interrupted.

“Please come here, Jeff. I need to talk to you.”

Ugh, he thought as he began to trample back toward his yard, his hand running along the two bushes. His little head went under his mother’s arm as she held the door open as he entered, still grasping his beautiful bag of rocks firmly in his hand.

Immediately the door to his home reopened and he appeared grabbing his bike from in front of his house. He pedaled as fast as he could and headed by the basketball court and straight toward the woods and creek that lay down the street from his home. He sniffled and his breathing was heavy now. He wiped his hand across his face as the wind tried in futility to dry the tears that poured from his eyes. His legs kept swiftly pedaling the entire time. Robbie and Jeremiah saw him at a distance and called his name. He heard nothing but the sound of his own whimper and running of his nose.

A few hours later the young boy returned home. His mother awaited him at the door. He laid down his bike and sat on the front steps to his house. His head was buried between his knees and his forehead rested heavily on his arms. You could still hear the young boy sniffling and his breath was hesitant as if he was gasping for air. His right foot moved from side to side as if he were stamping out a lit cigarette. The strange man he had met earlier with gray hair and a green sweater came from his right. The young boy looked up, his eyes painted red, his high cheekbones and face laced with dried tears, salted.

“Would you all like to come into my mother’s home for a few minutes?” the stranger asked.

“Yes we would like that,” the young boy’s mother answered as she motioned to her son for him to get up, but he did not want to.

“Come on, son. This nice man is inviting us into Mrs. Hartness’s house. Let’s not be rude.”

The young boy still did not want to get up but he did eventually just because his mom had asked him.

They made their way through the adjoining lawn and walked casually in the already open door. The little boy’s head was still down. He looked at his feet as he followed behind his mother. There was no reason to ring the doorbell anymore.

The three of them—Mrs. Hartness’s son, the young boy, and his mother—passed through the hallway, its wooden planks much the same as in his own home and into the kitchen where the man asked them to sit down and have a glass of tea. The young boy could smell the aroma of his familiar friend trickling in and out of his nose. A pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes sat beside a more than full ashtray next to the nightstand in Mrs. Hartness’s bedroom as they walked past. Yesterday’s paper was on the tabletop opened as was a Dr. Pepper can beside it.

As the man poured tea into tall glasses, the young boy reached inside the inner pocket of his coat, wondering exactly what that was rubbing up against the left side of his chest. What is that, he thought. As he moved his hand into the already open pocket of his coat, he wiped a tear from his cheek and then noticed something in the corner of his eye. His mother tapped him on the shoulder. The stranger, Mrs. Hartness’s son looked too.

The young boy’s mother pointed upward to the open top shelf that ran horizontally atop the kitchen sink and stove; and in his pocket, the boy pulled out the little plastic bag filled with rocks that had been pressing hard up against his chest. And on the shelf, one by one, hundreds and hundreds of pink and green rocks, and some the color of sunshine and light blue like the Heavens above sat in rows: the most beautiful rocks you would ever see, all lying silently in glass pickle jars, dozens of them.

The boy’s mother lifted him up eye level to the shelf. He stretched out his arm that shook with every movement and gently placed the bag of rocks beside the others that had already found their way into old Ball pickle jars on the shelf top. The stranger, still holding his glass of tea in one hand, stood up beside the young boy and then placed the glass of tea down, letting it rest on the countertop beside the sink. He turned one of the lids counter-clockwise, opening up a jar that was not quite full yet.

“I think those belong in here,” he said to the young boy.

They were just ordinary rocks found in a driveway to most people but not to the lady next door. They were the most beautiful rocks you would ever see and she kept every one.

Yesterday, Diff’rent Strokes star Gary Coleman, 42, died after suffering a brain hemorrhage on Wednesday, May 26. On Thursday, he slipped into unconsciousness and was put on life support. Yesterday, Friday, his family took him off life support and stood by his side while he died.

As soon as I read about his death, I posted a link to the story on my Facebook page with a simple note that said, “Crap. I feel sad about this.”

Immediately, people started making jokes. My friend David suggested that all flags should be flown at 4’2″ for at least a week. My friend TJ asked, “With this tragic loss, how can you not feel a bit shorted?”