In the Midst of the Action, a Quiet Remembrance (Or, Hanging Out in the Comic Book Shop)

In recent years, the world has been introduced to the Marvel universe through a series of Hollywood blockbusters, complete with endless action, A-list actors, and hi-tech special effects.  The result has been a surge in superhero popularity.  As a lifelong comic book aficionado and collector of the vintage comics from yesteryear, I view all of this as a positive development.  That said, I am not a huge fan of these movies.  I’ve seen a couple of them, thought they were okay, but I am far from a devoted watcher.

 

In a way, this seems counterintuitive.  Why wouldn’t I, of all people, who spent a good chunk of my childhood lost in the pages of The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, and The X-Men, be the first in line to see the debut of a new superhero movie based on the comics I love?  Of course, it’s not that I dislike these modern-day box-office smashes.  It’s more . . . I can take them or leave them.  They’re okay.  Not bad.  If I had the choice to watch a recent Marvel movie or an episode of the original Twilight Zone or a rerun of Cheers or The Honeymooners, it wouldn’t be a close call.  I’d go for Serling and the sitcoms!

 

One reason for this, I suppose, is the fact that I am a comic book purist.  (Is there such a thing?)  I have a deep fondness for the comics themselves, the original stories, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and the talented staff at the old Marvel offices back in the 1960s.  So when I see the movie adaptations, which, while endeavoring to be as faithful as possible to these adventures from yesteryear, nevertheless take dozens of liberties with the characters and plotlines, I become, how shall we say, a bit unnerved.  I equate it to watching the film adaptation of a beloved novel.  It’s never the same, and you recognize the cinematic shortcomings and limitations within the first few minutes of the movie.

 

But it’s more than that.

The movies are loud.  In-your-face.  As they should be.  I’m not criticizing them for that.  They are, after all, action-packed blockbusters replete with the best special effects our technology offers.  But, for me, the comic books I remember, the comic books I still own in boxes and protective Mylar sleeves, are steeped in quiet.  Some of my favorite childhood memories revolve around the comics shop.  When I was a kid, before I was old enough to drive, and before the advent of the mobile digital age revolutionized our culture, my mother would usually take me to the local comic stores.  We didn’t have a comic book shop in our neighborhood.  We needed to travel to the other side of town–generally once or twice a month.  There were a couple of different comic stores we went to.  One was owned by someone I always thought of as The Lion Man.  But the store I went to the most was Empire Comics, located on Rochester, NY’s south side, across the street from Mt. Hope Cemetery, which at nearly 200 acres, is a destination unto itself, and just a few blocks removed from Highland Park, a verdant oasis amidst the urban hustle and bustle, and home every year to the Lilac Festival.

 

Sometimes I’d go there just with my mother.  Other times, some of my friends would tag along and we might make a day of it–starting out at the comic shop, then maybe taking a hike through the park or the cemetery (which is like a park), all topped off with lunch and ice cream at one of the many local restaurants.  Whoever was with me, though, I always savored my time in the shop.  Empire Comics was long and rectangular.  The owner, Jim, had his best, most valuable comics locked away in a glass display case by the register at the front of the store.  Beyond that, there were rows and rows of back issues, lining the shop, sorted in alphabetical order and arranged by issue number.  The layout and floor plan of the fictional Eastside Comics in The Singularity Wheel, where Mitchell works, is based on the interior of the old Empire Comics. (Empire Comics closed its doors about ten years ago.)

 

My mother, indifferent to the world of comic books, nevertheless made the most of these sojourns.  She’d talk to Jim and his staff–she was much, much more outgoing than I am.  It got to the point where, when my mother and I walked into the shop, Jim would yell her name, akin to the famous “Norm!” greeting from Cheers.  He wouldn’t shout “Michael!”  No–it was always, “Linda!”  I didn’t mind.  I just wanted to look at the comics.  And buy a few, too.  As my mother chatted away with Jim and the other workers, I lost myself in the comic book bins, browsing through hundreds of back issues.  I’d wander to the back of the shop, take in the sights–for me, it was heaven.  I felt as though I were in a magical cocoon.  It was quiet.  Oftentimes, my mother and I were the only customers in the shop.   I’d get lost in the musty smell of decades-old comic books, and I’d dread the moment when my mother would call over to me and tell me we had to go.

 

And so when I watch one of the new Marvel movies, they just seem too aloof somehow, too loud.  As the cliche goes, and as I’ve said aloud to more than one Marvel movie, “It’s not you, it’s me.”  Because, for me, those old comic books, those long-ago visits to Jim’s shop, are sacred.  Personal.  They are embedded, tucked away in a corner of my heart, entrenched in a permanent wrinkle of my soul.  In some ways, The Eye-Dancers saga is an extension of this, a literary shout-out to my childhood, the comic books I shared it with, and the remembrances that remain, steadfast and solid, like a faithful and devoted friend.

 

Will I watch another Marvel movie, despite my lukewarm, even critical, view of them?  Sure.  Any movie that features The Avengers can’t be all bad.  But while I do, you can bet I’ll be thinking of Jim and my mother and the sounds and silences of the old comic book shop on the corner of Langslow and Mt. Hope on the south side of Rochester.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Joy in the Journey (Or, Stopping in Dot-on-the-Map Towns Along the Way)

Tomorrow, I’ll be heading “back home” to Rochester, NY, to visit family and old friends–some of whom served as the inspiration for the protagonists in The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel. It’s a visit I always look forward to.  It’s good to see the old house where I was raised, to walk through the same rooms and hallways I did when I was growing up.  It’s good to sit and chat and reminisce; to enjoy the company of people I’ve known and loved for my entire life; and to play Trivial Pursuit, my favorite board game, and a tradition every time I return home.

 

So when I arise bright and early tomorrow morning and hop in the car, I will look forward to arriving in Rochester later in the day.  But that’s not the only thing.  Because, as much as I want to get there, I also enjoy the getting there.

 

Indeed, there is an appreciation for the drive from my current home in the hills of east-central Vermont to my childhood home not far from the water’s edge of Lake Ontario.  The drive itself comprises approximately 350 miles, one way–and takes just shy of seven hours.  There are different routes I can take, especially once I cross the state line into New York.  I can get on 87 South and whip down to Albany, and from there speed west on I-90 straight into Rochester.  That’s the fastest way–all highway driving.  It is also the route I will not take.

 

Sure, I’ll merge onto I-90 eventually, but not at Albany.  No.  Rather than zipping down to the state capital, I will instead travel first on Route 4 and then Route 29, traveling through small towns like Whitehall, Hudson Falls, Fonda, and Herkimer–off-the-beaten-path places with weather-beaten houses and 19th-century storefronts and village greens, straddling the verdant valley of the Mohawk River or the easy, gentle path of the Erie Canal.  The kinds of towns most motorists sail right through without a thought, eager to arrive somewhere else, somewhere bigger or glitzier and more represented in travel brochures.

 

But me?  I like to linger.  Not too long.  I want to visit my family, after all, and there are still miles to go before I get there.  But for a little while.  I’ll pull into an empty lot or park along the shoulder of the road and take a ten-minute walk–perhaps down the Capra-esque Main Street or along the quiet sidewalk of a side street, appreciating the architecture of the century-old homes, breathing in the spring air, contemplating the aroma of flowers and newly sprung leaves.  Or I’ll enter an establishment, a local shop as far removed from a chain store as possible.  Maybe it’s a general store or an antique shop, or a restaurant with the town’s name emblazoned somewhere on the awning above the door.  Even when I don’t get out of the car, I make sure to slow down, observe the surroundings, take note of the pedestrians and the signs and the banners flapping in the breeze.

 

I’m not sure why I’m drawn to these old, old little towns in eastern upstate New York.  Maybe because there is a sad charm to them, a dignified sense of age and experience that, while not showy or ornate, commands a species of respect.  Or maybe it’s just realizing that these towns, these way stations in the rural heart of the Empire State, are rich with history, with experiences.  With ghosts.  How many stories are contained within the town limits?  What might the buildings and houses, some of them crumbling, in states of disrepair, say if they could speak?  Or . . . maybe they can speak.  Maybe you just need to stop for a moment, look beyond the peeling paint and the broken shingles, and listen.

 

This isn’t so different from a literary journey, either.  How many times have we undertaken a novel or a memoir, or anything that requires us to write hundreds of pages, and bemoaned the pages yet left unwritten, the scenes yet left unrealized.  “Only on page 57?” one might complain.  “How am I going to finish?  How can I get to the end?”  It’s human nature, I suppose.  We want to complete what we start.  We want to beat our competitors.  We want to get there.

 

As such, the words “The End” are two of the most fulfilling for any author.  But . . . are they not also bittersweet?  Because while you may have become tired of the never-ending work-in-progress, and longed for the beginning of a new project, a new novel, you have also spent hour upon hour, day upon day, week upon week, with your characters.  And now–you are done.  Finished.  What once seemed a burden (“What will I do in the next chapter?  How will Jennifer deal with that?  Does George call her out in chapter 30 or not?”) now seems like a friend who’s left you, who’s gone across the globe, or the universe, to a faraway and inaccessible land.

 

In driving the seven hours to the old family home, or in writing a novel that carries on for months or even years, there will always be an ambition, a quest, a need to finish, to accomplish, to arrive.  But while in the midst of it all, it’s a good idea to take a breath, forget about where you’re going, and instead experience where you are.

There is a joy in the journey.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

Photograph

Here is my kindergarten photo . . .

 

It was taken decades ago–in a September that occurred long before the advent of the digital and smartphone era.  Certainly long enough ago that I cannot remember who took the picture, or what time of day it was, or even how I was feeling when the photographer asked me to smile.  In terms of pure, conscious memory, it’s as if the photo was never taken at all.  There is nothing I can latch on to, no anchor to grab hold of, no guiding light to serve as a beacon from across the chasm of years.

 

But then I step back, think about it some more, and I realize–that’s not entirely accurate.  While it’s true the day the picture was taken is an empty space upon the radar screen of my memory, there are things about the picture that are clear in my mind–bits and pieces that come into focus as if a pair of binoculars are scanning into the past, zeroing in on the visible landmarks of yesteryear.  My mother, for instance.  When she first saw the picture, she said it looked as though I’d just swallowed a mouthful of sour grapes and attempted to smile through the bitter aftertaste.  (It’s never been natural for me to smile for pictures, even from way back when.)  I guess she liked the picture well enough, though, because she had it enlarged and hung on the wall in the back hallway.  All through my teenage years, I gazed daily, though not necessarily fondly, at my kindergarten self. Even back then, though, much closer in proximity to the origin of the photo in question, I couldn’t have told you anything about the day I posed in front of a school camera when I was five years old.

 

Which begs the question.  What happens to our experiences when we forget them?  If you can’t remember what you did on, say, February 1, 1997, is the day essentially nonexistent, for all practical purposes?  If a day from your past is erased from your conscious mind, did that day truly and actually transpire, or was it somehow removed, like a vanishing rabbit in a magic trick?  The thing is–the majority of our days are like this, are they not?  Take today, for instance.  What are you doing?  Sipping coffee at a corner cafe?  Taking a stroll through the woods?  Driving home from work?  Stressing over your tax returns, wondering if you fudged too much, or too little?  Now, fast-forward a year.  Two years.  Three.  What will you remember of this moment?  Anything?  A small speck of the whole, perhaps?  Or will it be gone, like a breath, an exhalation, here one moment, dispersed into the ether the next.

 

In The Singularity Wheel (as in The Eye-Dancers), the protagonists experience this at an extreme level.  They are voyaging across dimensions, after all.  And so, when they return to our reality, our earth, the particulars from the alternate world they had journeyed to fog over and blur almost immediately.

 

Near the end of The Singularity Wheel, Marc Kuslanski reflects on this.  While in the alternate world of Colbyville–not to mention the netherworld connecting dimensions–he had been forced to confront his deepest and fiercest inner demons.  But would he remember, even as the details of that alternate world faded?

The text reads . . .

“He wondered if everything would be lost, if in a month’s time, it would be as though they had never journeyed anywhere, their minds swept clean of it all.  But he didn’t believe that.  Because they had done substantial things, too, momentous things that mattered and defined–and these would remain, however faint, like whispers from another time and place.

“Even if they forgot, they would remember.”

************************

And so now I return, full circle, back to my kindergarten photo.  I look at it closely, trying to remember.  Maybe if I stare at my eyes from decades ago, little-boy eyes gazing out across the years, I can recall something, anything.  But I cannot . . .

So how do I hold onto it, then?  How do any of us?  On a certain level, it’s disconcerting, disturbing even, that so much of our lives, so many moments and feelings and words, become lost, victims of time and the limitations of the human brain.

 

But then I check myself.  Because . . . isn’t one of the themes of The Eye Dancers the idea, the truth, that our minds are in fact limitless?  That they can travel faster than the speed of light and bridge incomprehensible distances?  I cannot in good faith maintain the position that our memories–even when “forgotten”–are lost forever in some dark, deep Letheian well.  So I ask . . . what did Marc mean when he said, “Even if they forgot, they would remember”?  What did I mean as the author?

 

It seems to me that, even if our conscious minds forget so many events from our past, our inner selves, our subconscious, if you will, does not.  Like buried treasure (or ruins, I suppose, depending on the incident), the comings and goings of our days are stored away, as in a vault, behind a wall that separates the outer world of sensory and mental now-ness from the deeper world of soul and heart and intuition.  Maybe that morning from the fall of 2008 is gone from your surface memory.  Maybe you can’t recall even a single detail from the day.  But then you have a dream, experience a feeling of deja vu or an “aha” moment with a WIP you are struggling with.  Maybe you paint a picture that, somehow, has materialized in your mind, as if by sorcery.  Maybe one of your characters in a story you are writing says something that rings a bell, a familiar echo from somewhere, someplace, some time.  Maybe a poem emerges, unasked for, unplanned.  And when any of these creative rushes happen, these gifts from the artistic gods, who’s to say they do not stem from that morning in 2008, or from some other memory your subconscious self has grasped onto for you to incorporate in the here and now even as your conscious memory has nothing to refer back to?  The creative process is mysterious and inscrutable.  It has always been this way, and always will be.

 

But call me a believer.  A believer that nothing is wasted.  That all of our experiences remain within us, somewhere.

And that, even when we forget, we remember.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Of Childhood Memories, Cars Full of Twix Bars, and an E-Book Sale!

Sometimes, memories and dreams mix and intermingle to the point where it’s difficult to discern one from the other.  There are times when I have to pause, take stock, and think:  “Did I really do that years ago?  Or did I just dream it?”  And, perhaps even more disconcerting:  “Is there truly a distinction?”  Who’s to say our dreams aren’t “real”?  Who’s to say they don’t represent an existence as actual as the one we live when we’re up and around?  This, of course, is a question central to The Eye-Dancers as well as its sequel, The Singularity Wheel, and one I am sure I’ll return to in future writing endeavors.

 

But, for the purposes of this discussion, I can say–right now, I am thinking of something from my past that combines both memories and dreams.  My own memory, but someone else’s dream.  Confusing?  Let’s proceed!

Sean was a childhood friend of mine from the neighborhood I grew up in.  He lived a street over from me and up the hill.  His family moved away after he and I turned thirteen, and I never saw him much after that.  But for a few years, on the threshold of adolescence, he and I hung around together a lot–he’d stop by after school or for an entire day during the summer.  In winter, we’d watch TV, play video games or board games, or just talk about stuff.  In more pleasant weather, we’d play catch, take walks through the neighborhood, or go hiking in the woods and pretend to be explorers blazing the trails of a remote and hitherto unknown jungle.  We’d listen to the bird calls and rustlings in the woodland shrubbery and imagine we were hearing flesh-ripping velociraptors who might emerge at any moment from the shadows and attack.  We needed to be on guard.

 

Our flights of fancy weren’t restricted to our jaunts through the woods, however.  We would also share with each other the highlights of some of our wildest, most reality-busting dreams.  I certainly told him about the nightmare I had as a six-year-old, wherein I jumped into a pool that, in turn, metamorphosed into a sinister ocean populated by child-eating monsters.  And one day–one summer’s day in the middle of a hot July in the 1980s, he told me about a dream he’d had.

 

“So, you know, I had a dream about food,” he said.  We were sitting at the old red picnic table in the backyard.  Some of the paint had peeled off, revealing the weather-beaten grain of the wood underneath.

“Food?” I said.  Didn’t exactly sound riveting.

“Yeah.  Candy.”  Sean loved candy.  “And not just any candy.  But my favorite candy.”

That one was easy.  “Twix bars?”  I said.  Almost every time I saw him, he had a Twix bar or two in his pocket.

 

He smiled.  “A carful of ’em!”  I raised an eyebrow, and he went on.  “I dreamt that I had a wish,” he said, shifting on the firm bench attached to the table.  The clothes my mother hung on the clothesline swayed and danced in the humid summer breeze.  “I could get as much of anything I wanted for just one dollar, and it would all fill the inside of a car.”

“Who granted the wish?” I wanted to know.  “A magician?  A genie?  A warlock?”

 

He shrugged.  “I don’t even know.  It was like, I just knew I had the wish already granted, and I could just ask for anything.  So, I went inside this car, put a buck on the floor–you know, for the payment–sat in the back seat, and . . .”

And . . . the car filled up with Twix bars?”

He smiled again, this time a prize-winner.  It was so broad, I thought his face might split in two.  “I was swimming in ’em!” he said.  “I was pinned down in the seat, Twix bars covering me all up, almost up to the roof.”

 

“Sounds kinda scary,” I said.  “I mean . . . could you move or get out if you wanted to?”

“Why would I?” he said.  “I was in heaven!  Besides.  I could just eat my way out.”

I let that sink in.  It was a curious visual.  “And all for a dollar,” I said.

“Best buck I ever spent,” he said.  “For real, or in a dream.”

I just nodded.  Who was I to argue?

 

*************************

All this week, the Kindle version of The Singularity Wheel is on sale for just 99 cents–or, one cent less than my friend’s all-you-can-eat Twix dream from decades ago.  The base price of The Singularity Wheel e-book is $2.99, so this is a good-sized discount.  For anyone who may be thinking of downloading a copy onto their Kindle or Kindle App, now would be the ideal time!

Okay, so that was a pretty blatant sales pitch, I admit.  But I hope you’ll consider it and give The Singularity Wheel a look–even if it won’t be accompanied by a thousand magical candy bars.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Mud Season (Or, “Signs of a Literary Spring”)

Vermont is a land of seasons–hard seasons.  There is nothing subtle about them, from the rich green landscape of summer, to the reds and golds and oranges of autumn, to the icy, interminable wasteland of winter, and the riot of color that signals the rebirth of spring.  People in New England often say, “If you don’t like the weather, wait around five minutes.  It’ll change.”  Except . . . that’s not necessarily true, especially this time of the year.

 

March is, arguably, Vermont’s least attractive month.  Winter hangs on, stubborn, digging its frostbitten fingers into the earth.  Snowstorms still arise.  Freezing rain and melting snow that re-freezes overnight create conditions more suitable to ice skates than shoes or tires.  Trees remain bare, their trunks gray and brown against the rust and heaviness of the low-hanging clouds.  And as the month pushes on, the days inching inexorably forward toward a longed-for if mercurial April, there is enough snowmelt that the grass finally emerges after being buried and hidden since November.  But it’s not a green, healthful-looking grass.  No.  It’s yellow and flattened, bereft of vibrancy.  It will be weeks before it begins to turn.

 

Perhaps more than anything, though, March in Vermont is famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for its mud.  Rural Vermont is replete with dirt roads that wind along and through the hills and valleys of the state’s rugged terrain.  I myself live on a dirt road, and when Mud Season–as they refer to it here–arrives, well, let’s just say you need a good pair of boots and a tolerance for swerving while driving along the rutted, grooved surface of the road.  Some tire grooves are a foot deep or more–and many drivers have become stuck over the years during Vermont’s season of mud.

 

This all grates on the residents.  Cabin fever sets in.  After all, come March, Vermonters have endured nonstop Arctic conditions for months.  We long to see the tangible manifestations of spring.  The calendar, late in the month, tells us it’s spring–but it doesn’t look like it, and it sure doesn’t feel like it.  I always think about Groundhog Day, February 2nd.  If old Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow, we’ll still be cursed with six more weeks of winter, they say.  That’s supposed to be the bad news.  But, in Vermont, if, on February 2nd, you were told there would be just six weeks left of winter, you’d celebrate.  Six weeks?  Is that all?

 

And yet . . . and yet . . . for all of its bleakness and unwillingness to yield, a Vermont March offers hope.  There are shy, subtle hints that Old Man Winter is retreating, or, at least, about to retreat.  On the surface, these hints can be easily missed if one focuses exclusively on the sub-freezing temperatures, the snow, the ice underfoot.  But they are there.  Like the daylight–which increases.  The four-o’clock evenings of November and December have melted away to longer afternoons and later sunsets.  (Not taking into account Daylight Savings Time, which, of course, creates its own species of havoc!)  There are also the blackbirds and the grackles, who arrive by the middle of the month, returning from their winter migration.  And . . . what’s that?  A sneeze?  Runny eyes?  A scratchy throat?  It’s not a cold.  It’s the first manifestation of seasonal allergies, the pollen that is my lifelong scourge stirring somewhere, unseen, in the shadows.  No life, no renewal is evident.  All looks as stripped and cold as ever.  But something is happening.  A latent life-force is awakening.

 

*******************

It can be like that with creativity, too.  Much like the seasons of our natural world, there are seasons in our creative life, as well.  Sometimes we’re swept away in the lava flow of words, ideas, images, inspirations, epiphanies.  Other times, however (and far too frequently), we lie fallow and windswept, our stories, our paintings, our songs snowed under, cut off from the light.  It’s as if we’re lost in a maze, with no idea how to find our way out.  In the distance, around the corner, through the mountain pass, there is an other side abundant with flowing waterfalls and fields of flowers, basking in the midday sunshine.  We long to get back to that place, where the art seemingly creates itself.  And when we’re not there, we wonder if we’ll ever return.

 

The winter wilderness, when ideas seem perpetually blocked, can cause a sense of panic.  Will I ever get a good, workable idea again?  Has the well run dry?  Is that it?  Am I done as an artist?  Have I written my last story? Believe me, I have been there.  (I was there in the months after finishing The Singularity Wheel.)  And I’ve learned that, sometimes, when we’re particularly fortunate, we emerge from our unwanted creative sabbaticals with a flourish.  A new story comes, like a gift from the muse, and you feel as if you must write it immediately.  A picture forms in your mind, as if by magic–and you know you have a tour de force in the making.  Such unasked-for inspirations are the ultimate highs.

 

But other times, and probably far more often, the rebirth of your creative self is gentler, quieter, less flamboyant.  It doesn’t soar from 23 degrees to 84 degrees Fahrenheit in a single bound.  It takes time.  Maybe a new idea comes, but it needs work still.  The foundation is there.  Now you need to build up, create rooms for the characters in which to live and breathe, and dream. But you’re moving.  You are escaping the dark heart of literary winter.  You have discovered the way out of the maze.  Now, you just have to get there.

 

One step at a time.

*********************

It’s cold today–temperatures not even reaching 20 degrees.  But the sun is shining high in the sky, and the rays are soothing.  And above me, ahead of me . . . what’s that?

The distinct, watery sound of a red-winged blackbird.  The first time I’ve heard a blackbird this calendar year.

 

I look at him, perched on the bare limb of a sugar maple.  He returns my gaze, a knowing sparkle in his eye.

He understands.  Despite the frigid conditions today, he realizes.  And he’s returned.  He’s flown hundreds and hundreds of miles for this.

Spring is almost here.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Shelter

Walls.  We’ve been hearing a lot about them lately.  Concrete walls and steel walls and bollard fences. But walls are not just physical barriers that stand between people or communities or nation-states. There are other kinds, as well.

 

Some walls are not built with metal or wood or whatever else technology or ingenuity can manufacture.  They are, rather, erected within our minds and our hearts, born from blind prejudices and long-festering hatreds that too often span centuries and generations.  These walls, these soul-killing monuments harbored by far too many for far too long, aren’t visible to the eye.  But they are experienced every day, in all corners of the world.

Rod Serling knew this well, and some of the more memorable episodes of The Twilight Zone dealt with such issues.  One in particular, which sometimes flies under the proverbial radar, was a third-season tour de force called “The Shelter.” (Airdate September 29, 1961.)

 

The episode begins with a panoramic view of a suburban neighborhood, at night.  Everything looks peaceful, serene, the American ideal.  And when we enter the home of Dr. William Stockton, we witness a gathering of friends and neighbors, celebrating the doctor’s birthday.  One of the neighbors, Jerry Harlowe, gives a speech honoring the doctor.  He says that Stockton is a good friend, an excellent doctor, someone who has treated them and their children for twenty years.  They make lighthearted fun of Stockton and the bomb shelter he has built off of his basement.  Laughter is plentiful, and hearty.  These are people who know each other–or so it seems.  They know and respect Dr. Stockton.

 

Just then, Stockton’s son enters the room, tells everyone that the picture on the television set just went dark and an announcer came on, informing the audience to tune into the CONELRAD (Civil Defense) station on the radio.

Stockton does, and the throng of neighbors is shocked by what they hear.  The CONELRAD announcement states that there is an unidentified flying object on radar, traveling southeast.  The president of the United States has declared a “yellow emergency.”  The announcer tells his listeners to retreat to a shelter if they have one; if not, go to a basement or, lacking that, to the centermost position in the house, while closing all doors and windows.

 

The neighbors run out of Stockton’s house and into the street, in a panic.  The announcement can mean only one thing–a nuclear attack.  This is the event the nation, the world, has dreaded.

 

At this point, Rod Serling provides the opening narration.

 

“What you are about to watch is a nightmare,” Serling intones.  “It is not meant to be prophetic.  It need not happen.  It’s the fervent and urgent prayer of all men of goodwill that it never shall happen.  But in this place, in this moment, it does happen.  This is the Twilight Zone.”

 

The doctor, his wife, and his son prepare for an extended stay in their bomb shelter.  They fill jugs with water, gather canned goods.  Efficiency is paramount.  Lights are flickering, the power threatening to cut out.  They may have twenty minutes, perhaps a half hour at the outside, to supply the shelter with everything they’ll need to weather the cataclysm of the potential bomb blast and resulting aftermath.

 

The food and water procured, the family of three locks themselves inside the shelter.  There is a radio within.  Stockton turns it on, as they listen for updates.

Upstairs, neighbor Jerry and his wife let themselves in.  Realizing that Stockton and his family must already be secured in their shelter, Jerry heads down to the basement.  He knocks on the shelter door. Stockton opens, it walks out.  Jerry tells him that he and his wife have no basement in their home.  Theirs is the “only brand-new house on the block.  We’re sitting ducks over there.”

Dr. Stockton tells them they can use his basement.

“Your basement?” Jerry says. ” What about your shelter?  It’s the only place we can survive!”

The doctor explains that the shelter was designed for his family, for just the three of them.  They don’t have enough room, or enough supplies, to take in anyone else.

Jerry won’t give up.  “We’ll sleep standing up,” he says.  “We won’t use any of your stuff.”

“What about air?” Stockton snaps back.  “Will you bring your own air?  I’m sorry, Jerry.  God as my witness, I am sorry!  But I built this shelter for my family.”

 

At this, Jerry becomes hysterical, and knocks a jug of water from Stockton’s hands.  It breaks on the concrete floor, the water spilling out.

Stockton pulls away, retreats into the shelter, shouts at him.  “I kept telling you, Jerry.  All of you.  Forget the card parties and the barbecues–for maybe a few hours a week.  Admit that the worst was possible.  But you didn’t want to listen, Jerry.  None of you wanted to listen.”

He finishes by telling his neighbor it is now out of his hands, and he slams the shelter door in Jerry’s face.

Meanwhile, another neighbor–Marty, along with his wife–arrives at the Stockton home.  When Jerry tells them that Stockton won’t let anyone in the shelter, Marty is incredulous.  “He’s got to let us in.”  But he, too, runs into a locked door–literally and figuratively–when he descends into Stockton’s basement and pleads with the doctor, to no avail.

Marty returns to the upstairs portion of the house as still more neighbors arrive.  None of Stockton’s friends are ready for the cataclysm.  All want refuge in the shelter.

One of the neighbors, Frank, is angry.  They should break into the shelter, he says.  Batter in the door.  But Jerry reminds him that the shelter is too small.  They couldn’t all survive.

Marty opines that they should pick out one family, just one, who could join the Stocktons inside the shelter.  But then they argue over which family should have the privilege.

 

Here, Frank snaps, and he tells Marty, who is Hispanic, to shut his mouth.  “That’s the way it is when the foreigners come over here,” he says.  “Pushy, grabby.  Semi-American.”

The two come close to blows, and Frank, still full of rage, races downstairs and pounds on the shelter door, demanding entry.  Stockton remains firm.  No one gets in.

A member of the growing throng of neighbors says he knows someone down the street who has a steel pipe they can use as a battering ram.  If they get their hands on it, they can bust through the shelter door.

Jerry tells them to stop.  “You’re all acting like a mob!” he shouts.  Marty concurs, tells them to cool down, think it through.

 

To this, Frank scowls and says, “Wasn’t I clear before?  Nobody cares what you think, you or your kind!”  This time, the two do come to blows.  Frank punches Marty in the mouth.  There are shrieks, screams.  A siren goes off, whining in the distance.  Frank yells that they need to batter down the door, and they run off for the steel pipe.

Moments later, they are back, in a frenzy.  They swing the pipe, crash it against the shelter door, frantic, violent.  Again and again and again, until the door gives way.

 

And then . . . the power flicks on, the lights come to life.  And the radio crackles, the announcer speaks.  The president has determined that the UFOs are not nuclear missiles, but satellites.  “Repeat–there are no enemy missiles approaching.”  There is no danger.  The state of emergency has been called off.

 

Everyone smiles and laughs.  Couple hug each other.

But then a startled, regretful expression comes to Frank’s face.  He approaches Marty, apologizes, explaining to his neighbor that he “went off [his] rocker” and that he “didn’t mean any of those things I said to you.”

 

Jerry chimes in.  Feigning joviality, he says they’ll pay Dr. Stockton for the damages to his property.  “We’ll take up a collection right away.”

“We can have a block party tomorrow night,” Marty says.  “A big celebration!”

Jerry is all for it.  “Anything to get back to normal.”

Stockton, exhausted, defeated, tells them he doesn’t know what normal is anymore.  And paying for the damages?

 

“I wonder if any one of us has any idea what those damages really are,” he says.  “Maybe one of them is finding out what we’re really like when we’re normal.  The kind of people we are underneath the skin.  A lot of naked, wild animals who put such a price on staying alive that they’ll claw their neighbors to death just for the privilege.”

 

Rod Serling sums it up at the closing, as the camera pans the Stockton living room, the tables overturned, casualties of the neighbors’ recklessness and rage during the crisis.

 

“No moral, no message, no prophetic tract, just a simple statement of fact: for civilization to survive, the human race has to remain civilized.  Tonight’s very small exercise in logic from the Twilight Zone.”

And, no doubt, it’s an exercise at least as relevant in 2019 as it was in 1961.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Anatomy of an (Incomplete) Story Idea (Or, The Adventures of Ferdinand)

Imagine this scene . . .

A man is driving along a lonely country road as midnight approaches.  I don’t know how old the man is–perhaps 40, maybe 45.  For the time being, it’s not important.  Nor do I know his name.  Jeff?  Fred?  Ferdinand?  Pick a name, any name.  Just as with his age, it is irrelevant right now.

 

The man (okay, we’ll settle on Ferdinand!) glances in his rearview mirror.  A dark stretch of asphalt merges into the background, swallowed by the night.  He can’t help but inhale deeply, taking in the warm summer air through the open window of his car.  Above, in an oily canvas of night sky, hundreds of stars sparkle like diamonds.  He used to study astronomy as a kid, and, momentarily, he looks up, through the windshield, seeing if maybe, just maybe, he can identify some of those stars.  No such luck.  Like eighth-grade algebra, the knowledge is gone, captured by the wide gulf of years, of time and distance.

 

He hasn’t driven through a town of significant size for miles.  He’s “smack-dab in the middle of Nothingville,” as his mom used to say about the house and town he grew up in.  Where is he headed?  I’m not sure, and neither is he.  Doesn’t matter.  What matters is the drive, the stars, the gentle night breeze wafting in through the window, the fields and trees that come and go, come and go, as he drives on.  There are few houses.  But occasionally, there is a porch light in the distance, a beacon in the dark.  It makes him reminisce.  He grew up on a farm.  He couldn’t wait to get away, escape to the city.  Now he wonders if perhaps that had been a mistake.  His life isn’t what he thought it would be.  Maybe that’s why he’s on this long drive.  Maybe he’s running away, fleeing something from a long-ago, irretrievable past.

 

Ferdinand sighs, turns on the car’s radio.  He scans through the stations–not getting much, this far away from populated areas.  He comes across a sports-talk station with a caller screaming in a heavy Brooklyn accent about why the New York Jets need to move in a new direction.  The host cautions restraint, the caller yells again.  Ferdinand presses a button, and the angry Jets fan is gone.  For a moment, Ferdinand imagines the owner of that voice, that frustrated fan.  He’s shut him out, erased him from the confines of the car, but surely the man is still raging from somewhere in Brooklyn.  An apartment, perhaps?  Maybe the guy lives above a bakery or a pizza parlor, or a pawnshop.  Maybe he owns a brownstone on a busy corner, with cars honking and people talking on the streets and sidewalks outside.  Miles away from Ferdinand.  Worlds away.

 

He continues to drive, cruising along at 55.  Not a single car passes him. The road is his, and his alone.  He imagines driving through a vortex, through an intersection of space and time, plunging into a parallel world, as if a character in an old Twilight Zone episode. And all the while, he continues to scan through the radio dial.

 

There’s one station playing ’80s pop.  He pauses on this one.  Some of the songs he remembers well from his youth.  This makes him feel at once nostalgic, and old.  Could that really have been thirty years ago?  He glances in the rearview again, not to look out for traffic–he knows there isn’t any–but to check his thinning hair and the worry lines on his forehead.  Where has the time gone?

 

Muttering, Ferdinand fiddles with the dial again.  The scanner skips over stations and plays back static with others, interspersed with a few more songs that he doesn’t care for–there’s a heavy metal piece, a country song.  A grunge number from the ’90s.  Just as he’s about to switch the radio off entirely, he hears something odd.  A voice, talking to him.  But not just any voice.

 

His voice.

“Don’t do it,” the voice on the radio–his voice–says.  “Think twice, champ.  Don’t.  It will be the biggest mistake of your life–and that’s saying something, considering your track record.  Don’t go there.”

Ferdinand shakes his head, hits his forehead with the palm of one hand.  Don’t do what?  Don’t go where? And how can he be hearing himself on the radio?

“I need some sleep,” he says.  The next sign of life, the next town–he’ll pull over, get a room for the night.  Maybe order some takeout, watch a movie.  Relax.

 

He reaches to turn off the radio.

“Not that easy, you don’t,” his voice says back to him, tinny and crackling, as if losing reception.  “You’re not going to shut me out . . . or up.  Listen, for a change.  Don’t do it.  Don’t you dare.”

He takes a long, deep breath, looks out the window at the stars, at the empty, open vastness of the night.

 

Is he losing his mind?

And if he’s not . . . what does it mean?  How can it be?

Maybe he has driven into the Twilight Zone, after all.

 

**************************

This is an idea that hit me with the force of a hammer last week.  The scene unfolded in my mind as described above, formulated within seconds upon waking from an overnight sleep.  As I always do when an idea that energizes me comes, I immediately jotted down the gist of it, the essentials–so I wouldn’t forget anything important.  I did the same thing with the scene that came to me in a dream back when I was in high school–the dream that morphed into Mitchell Brant‘s dream in the opening chapter of The Eye-Dancers.  For two decades, I couldn’t seem to fit that episode into a story–until, at last, The Eye-Dancers was born.

 

Will this new idea, this new situation, also take weeks or months or years to grow and expand and flesh out into a story, or even a novel?  I hope not.  But I don’t have much control over it, either.  This is how ideas work for me, most of the time.  Every now and then, an idea arrives fully formed, beginning to end, a complete story that only needs to be written.  But that is the exception, not the rule.

 

The rule is both riveting and frustrating.  Exhilarating and tantalizing.  Because what normally happens is–I am given a piece, a small slice of the whole.  Just enough to hook me, pull me in, grasp onto to me like a feisty dog taking a firm hold and not letting go.  I am forced in, unable to discard, feeling the need to explore the path and see where it leads.  See what discoveries await on the other side.  Sometimes that process is sudden and immediate.  Other times it is slow and full of pitfalls, as I await the pleasure of a capricious and all too often stingy muse.

 

So, for right now, I reluctantly set Ferdinand aside.  Oh, I’ll think about him.  I’ll turn his predicament over in my mind a thousand times before Sunday.  But I know the full story cannot be forced.  Just as Ferdinand’s voice spoke to him from the radio, so it will to me–in its own way, at a time and place of its choosing.  I can coax and goad and ponder and cajole, but I cannot dictate.  The creative process must be allowed to work its magic in its own inscrutable way.

 

Then again, maybe tonight I will dream of this again, and, maybe, upon waking, the riddle will be solved, and the story will be written.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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