Young Man with a Horn (Or, Hitting the High Note)

We all have go-to movies, shows, or reruns when we need a good laugh, a respite from the day.  For me, one of my all-time favorite sitcoms is the 1950s classic, The Honeymooners.  Though the show aired years before I was born, it’s always been a joy for me to watch.  The Honeymooners features bus driver Ralph Kramden; his wife, Alice; and their best friends and neighbors, Ed and Trixie Norton.  (As an aside, I consider Ed Norton, played perfectly by Art Carney, to be the funniest character in television history, but Jackie Gleason’s Ralph isn’t far behind!)

honeymooners

 

In one memorable episode from March 1956 titled “Young Man with a Horn,” Alice digs up Ralph’s old cornet, asking him to throw it away, as she is trying to rid their apartment of unused and unneeded junk.  But Ralph protests.  “This means a lot to me,” he says.  He used to play it when he was younger, and feels sentimental toward it.  Alice grumbles, “You haven’t played it in years.”  But Ralph is adamant.  He wants to keep the cornet.

youngmanwithhorn

 

He tries it out, playing the old tune he used to practice when he was a boy.  It goes okay until he tries to hit a particularly high note half a minute into the song.  The result sounds like the wailing of a wounded banshee.

“I never could hit that high note,” he says.  This causes him to reflect.  He thinks of all the ideas, the projects he’s started in his life never to finish.  “I never stick with anything,” he says.  “I never hit the high note.”

ralphcanthithighniotecornet

 

That’s when they hear a knock on their door.  An elderly couple enters, apologizing for the unannounced visit, but they explain that, forty years ago, after getting married, they moved into this same apartment.  And seeing that today is their fortieth wedding anniversary, they are feeling nostalgic and wanted to see their old home.

oldcouple

 

During the conversation, Ralph learns that the old gentleman is the owner of a well-known donut company–“Your donuts are my favorite,” Ralph assures him.  He is impressed, and asks the man the secret to his success.

The man tells him that one day, many years ago, in this very apartment, he determined to become a success, to make it, to do whatever it took to climb to the top.  He explains that he created a list of his strong points and a list of his weak points, and posted them side by side on the wall, and then he worked to make his strong points even stronger and to eliminate his weak points altogether.

This sets a fire under Ralph,  He applies for a new job, a step up from the bus driver position he’s had for years.  He makes his own list of strengths and weaknesses.  “I’m going to be a success,” he declares.  “I’m going to hit that high note once and for all, Alice!”

youngmanralphinspiredtosucceed

 

But a week later, Ralph learns he didn’t get the new job.  Nothing has changed.  “I failed again,” he says.  “What a moax I am,” he goes on, using the term Jackie Gleason made famous during the show’s run.  “I’m not gonna be a failure anymore–what a laugh.”

But Alice will hear none of it.  She tells him she’s proud of all the changes he’s tried to make, the self-improvement he’s worked so hard on.  And as for the job he didn’t get, “there’s always next year, and the year after that,” she tells him.

Ralph looks at her adoringly, and says, “You know something–I did hit that high note once.  The day I married you.”

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And the curtain falls with the classic kiss and embrace nearly every Honeymooners episode ends with.

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Old Ralph Kramden’s wish to hit the high note, to soar high above snowcapped peaks, is something I am sure we can all relate to.  And in the world of creative writing, it seems especially apropos.

As much as I love writing, as much as I cannot conceive of a life without it, I am the first to admit–the writing life is littered with hard days, days where the words don’t want to come, when the characters are performing their own literary version of a sit-down strike, when the desire flickers and wanes, and when the ideas are nowhere to be found.

ideaswontcome

 

Indeed, as Oscar Wilde is attributed to have said one long-ago day, “I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out.”

As I continue to work on the sequel to The Eye-Dancers, I know full well what Wilde meant!  There are days when nothing seems to work, when the words you want to use are stuck, stranded on a raft upstream, separated from the page by a wide, unnavigable log jam.  On such days, I cajole, I wait, I take a walk, I key in a sentence or two, hoping for a momentum that doesn’t come.  The words seem to be coated with mud, viscous and thick, slowing the process down to a crawl.

logjam

 

There are other days when the words come a little easier, though with generous amounts of doubt and insecurity thrown in.  “Sure, I’ve written six pages today,” I might say.  “But are they any good?  Or will they just need to be scrapped and completely redone?  And what about the next scene, the next chapter, and the one after that?  Will I be able to pull it off?  Or will everything bog down?”

doubtandinsecurity

 

The questions and concerns of the writing life rarely fade, the self-doubts are rarely silenced in full.  But there are times–yes, there are times when everything comes together and wings spread wide, catching the current and soaring high over green, luxuriant meadows.  When and how these wings sprout, causing the words to sing and the ideas to race along like jackrabbits–I do not know.  I wish I did.  I wish I could bottle it.  But it comes when it comes, rarely, fleeting, tantalizing, here one day and gone the next.  But the taste of it, the memory of it–they linger, and they encourage, and they serve as a reminder that sometimes, some days, we can and do hit the high note.

soarovermeadows

 

It reminds me of all those days growing up when I would shoot baskets in the driveway.  My parents were good enough to put up a basketball hoop over our garage, allowing me and my two brothers to practice as often as we liked, despite the dented and damaged rain gutters such practices produced!  Some days, I’d go outside and dribble the ball around, and Rick, a good friend of mine who lived next door, would come out and join me.  If I was having a particularly good day and my shots were going in, Rick would say, “You got the feelin’!”

basketball

 

The feelin’.  The zone.  Hitting the high note.  Call it what you will.  We all know it when we experience it. We all hunger for it when we’re struggling.  It might be hidden, buried under boxes laced with cobwebs and old clothes dusty and  wrinkled from years of neglect, just as Ralph Kramden’s cornet was.  But it’s there–waiting, ready, and available.

oldboxesandclothes

 

We just need to keep plugging away, even on the soggy days, when the clouds are gray and low.

Because it will all be worth it when you blow your horn, hit your high note, and soar.

soarend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

What You Need (Or, Hopefully, Want!) to Read–a Cross-Genre, Multi-Author Promotion

In the first-season Twilight Zone episode titled “What You Need,” which aired on Christmas Day 1959, an old peddler named Pedott walks into a drinking establishment, carrying with him his sack of wares.

tzonebeginning

 

He approaches a young woman, seated alone at a table, and asks her, “Something for you, miss?”

womanhandingoverbill

 

She hands over a bill, asking for some matches, but the old man stares at her, looks into her eyes, and exclaims, “You don’t need matches, miss.  I’ll tell you what you need.”  And he hands her a small bottle of cleaning fluid, “guaranteed to remove spots of any and all kinds.”

“It’s what you need,” he assures her, and she takes it, no doubt baffled by the display.

womanbaffled

 

Pedott approaches the bar, where a man referred to as “Lefty” is drinking liberally.

“Whaddaya got, pop?” Lefty asks between drinks.

“Many things,” the old peddler answers.  “Many odds and ends.  Things you need.”

pedottandlefty

 

Lefty tells him there’s no chance he has what he needs in his bag full of merchandise–a new left arm.

The bartender breaks in, explaining that Lefty used to be “quite a pitcher in his time.”  He even pitched a couple of years for the Chicago Cubs.  But then “his arm went sour.”  Now Lefty comes into the bar each night, “looking for a baseball career at the bottom of a bottle.”

Pedott tells Lefty there are other opportunities, new career paths he can pursue.  Pitching isn’t the only way he can earn a living.  Lefty scoffs at this, his demeanor downcast, bereft of hope.

leftylaments

 

Suddenly the old man has a brainstorm.  “I think I know what it is you need,” he says, reaching into his bag and fishing out a bus ticket to Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Lefty laughs.  “Now, what’s in Scranton, Pennsylvania, old man?”

But then the phone rings.  It’s for Lefty–a job offer from one of Lefty’s old managers to coach for a minor league baseball team in Scranton.  He tells Lefty to take a bus to Scranton and meet the GM to interview for the job.

Lefty of course wants to know how Pedott knew he’d get a call from Scranton, but the old man has quietly departed the scene, exiting the bar.  Oh well.  Lefty isn’t about to stress over the details.  He finally has an opportunity.  He just wishes he had nicer clothes.

“I sure wish I could get this out,” he gripes, pointing at a stain on his jacket.  “I’d like to look halfway decent when I meet the GM.”

The woman with the just-procured cleaning fluid walks up to him, shyly saying she couldn’t help but overhear, and that she has just the thing.

She tries it on the spot, applying the fluid to Lefty’s jacket stain.  “When this dries, you won’t even know you had a spot there,” she says.

womantakingoutthespot

 

As she applies the cleaning fluid, their eyes meet.  There is an unmistakable attraction.

The old peddler certainly knew what each of them needed . . .

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

I am especially fortunate to be a part of a multi-author, cross-genre promotion that, just maybe, can give old Pedott a run for his money.  The talented wordsmiths taking part in this promo offer a wide assortment of stories and styles–there is something here for everyone.

promobanner

 

The details of the promo are straightforward.  Each of the authors involved will run their own special promo on their books, beginning today and ending on November 22.  What titles are they featuring in the promo and what, exactly, does their promo entail?  Where can you find and download their books?  I invite you to click on each of the links below to discover the answers.

I hope you enjoy this eclectic literary smorgasbord!

Barbara Monier –Contemporary Literary Fiction

John Howell — Fiction Thriller

Shehanne Moore — Historical Romance

Janice Spina –Middle-Grade Junior Detectives Series

Luciana Cavallaro –Historical Fiction–Mythology Retold

Evelyne Holingue –Middle-Grade Fiction

Jo Robinson –Nonfiction Publishing Guide for Newbies, Short Stories, and Mainstream Fiction

Sonya Solomonovich –Time-Travel Fantasy

Jennifer Chow –Adult Cozy Mystery (The beginning of a new series)

Nicki Chen –Historical Fiction–WWII China

Katie Cross –YA Fantasy

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

As for The Eye-Dancers, as part of this joint promotion that includes authors from around the globe, I am discounting the e-book version to 99 cents, straight through to November 22.  You can find it at the following online retail locations . . .

eyedancers

 

Amazon:  http://www.amazon.com/The-Eye-Dancers-ebook/dp/B00A8TUS8M

B & N:  http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-eye-dancers-michael-s-fedison/1113839272?ean=2940015770261

Smashwords:  http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/255348

Kobo:  https://store.kobobooks.com/en-us/ebook/the-eye-dancers

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

I thank each and every author involved for joining together and taking part in this cross-genre event.  It is an honor to be a part of this with you.

thankyou

 

And I thank everyone for reading!

–Mike

From Frost to Thor, with a Cup of Hot Cocoa (Or, the Literary Dualism of a New England Stick Season)

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to live year-round in balmy, gentle conditions, where palm trees sway in midwinter and heavy, insulated coats are strange accoutrements only seen on television.  I’ve never experienced anything like that–not even close.  I grew up in Rochester, in upstate New York, famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for its long winters and the lake-effect snow machine that produces blizzards and white-outs with alarming regularity.

blizzard

So, what did I ultimately do?  Move to Southern California, the South of France?  Tahiti?  Not quite.  I moved to Vermont, colder and harsher still than Rochester!  I have no regrets.  Vermont is a rural gem, a rugged little state tucked away in the far northwest corner of New England.  It’s one of the most beautiful places you will ever see.  It is also, to put it mildly, a land of extremes.  Few locales on earth experience such robust, exaggerated seasons–there is nothing subtle about the weather in New England.  The region, according to Henry Cabot Lodge so many years ago, yet still as appropriate today as when he proclaimed it, “has a harsh climate, a barren soil, [and] a rough and stormy coast.”

necoast

And yet . . . there is one time of year in New England that is more subdued, nondescript, and soft-spoken, almost shy in its fundamental drabness . . . The month of November, tucked away in hiding for so long, creeps up on the calendar, whisper-quiet, as if inching forward on its tiptoes.  And, once arrived, it has a personality, a starkness, all its own.

novembertiptoes

The flowers and blooms of spring are a distant memory, as are the ripe fields, muggy nights, and poolside gatherings of high summer.  October, with its breathtaking, almost narcissistic display of reds, golds, and oranges, is still fresh in the mind’s eye, but it’s a brief performance, a limited run.  The hillsides, afire with splashes of color only a fortnight ago, now lay stripped, with row on row of gray tree trunks and skeletal limbs reaching for the cold, late-autumn sky.

stickseason

So, yes.  In many ways, November (what the locals sometimes refer to as “stick season” around here) is a somber, even depressive month.  The days grow successively shorter, colder, as the interminable New England winter approaches. There is a stillness to the land, a sharp crispness to the air, and all too often a succession of leaden-sky days with low-lying clouds hovering like bruises over the earth.

There is also, at least for me, a sense of slowing down, of stepping back, looking over the bare, windswept terrain and pausing for reflection.

It’s easy to see, walking along a Vermont country road littered with the desiccated harvest of fallen October leaves, or climbing a knoll and looking out at the ancient, rounded spine of the Green Mountains, how this area has served as an inspiration for some of the world’s great writers and poets.  Something in the rocky soil, the rugged, unyielding terrain, the windswept contours of a rolling New England field in the fall instills a serious quality to an author’s prose, or a poet’s verses.  Frost, Emerson, Thoreau, Plath, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Dickinson . . . the list goes on and on.  Surely, there is something special about this place.

plathariel

 

emersonessays

I feel it throughout the year, but at no point does it affect me more than the month of November.  November brings out the serious and the brooding in my writing, makes me want to try my hand at poetry (a proclivity I rarely feel over the course of the eleven other months) and pen an introspective novel, light on the action and saturated with layered themes, obscure symbols, and tortured, existential characters.  I want to reach, pursue, challenge myself to write about the subterranean undercurrents of life, raging beneath the surface, often hidden beneath a civilized and well-practiced facade.  I want to produce art, works that inspire and examine, question and illuminate.

existentialart

Worthy aspirations, all, but sometimes, when unchecked, they can become an albatross, long-winged and sharp-beaked, weighing me down, choking off my airflow.  I appreciate the masters of the craft and serious literature as much as anyone, and hope a small smattering of my own output can be labeled “literary,” but at the same time, at least for me, there is an element even more important than the profound, more essential than the sublime.

albatross

Thankfully, the month of November also speaks to this lighter aspect.

I find November, with its protracted evenings and roaring, crackling hearth fires and frost-covered windows, to be one of the coziest times of the year.  There are few treats I enjoy more on a cold fall night than preparing a mug of hot chocolate, maybe popping a generous portion of popcorn, and settling in to watch an old black-and-white classic–nothing extraordinary, not necessarily an Oscar- or Emmy-winning masterpiece, but rather something fun, silly even.  Perhaps I’ll binge-watch episodes of The Honeymooners, or tune in to a corny old sci-fi movie with bug-eyed monsters, mutated spiders, or ever-expanding gelatinous blobs from outer space.

theblob

Other times, I’ll dig into my vintage comic book collection, perhaps pulling out a science-fiction title from the 1950s like Strange Adventures or Mystery in Space.  If I’m feeling more superhero-minded, maybe I’ll flip through an old issue of Journey into Mystery with the Mighty Thor or, Mitchell Brant‘s favorite, The Fantastic Four.  Whichever choice I make, a classic sitcom; a cliched but riveting movie produced decades ago, short on character but high on smiles; or a vintage comic complete with nostalgic ads and the musty, old smell all comic book collectors know and love, I’m just glad that Old Man November, with all its grays and dark, wistful sighs, has its lighter side to help me keep things in balance.

strangeadv2

It’s a noble thing, a calling, really, for artists and writers and creative souls the world over to want to imbue their work with meaning and thoughts, words, and images that move their audience from tears to laughter and back again.  It’s something every serious artist should have, and cultivate.  But if our creative process isn’t also fun, if we don’t love what we do, that, too, will be reflected in the final output.

“Write only what you love,” Ray Bradbury once said, “and love what you write.  The key word is love.  You have to get up in the morning and write something you love.”

lovewhatyouwrite

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with some hot cocoa, freshly popped popcorn, and a legion of telepathic crab monsters.

attackcrabmonsters

Thanks so much reading!

–Mike

Nothing in the Dark

It can be anything, really . . .

A sense of dread at the thought of standing up in front of a room full of strangers and delivering a speech.

blicspeaking

 

A heavy, sickly feeling that grabs on tight and doesn’t let go whenever you think of that annual performance review or that interview for a new job.

jobinterview

 

A sense of doubt so severe, it causes you to sweat and second-guess and procrastinate when confronted with a certain nausea-inducing task.

procrastinate

 

The list can go on and on, scrolling through the virtual pages of our minds, memories, and backstories.

For Mitchell Brant, it’s a sensation of coming up short, a belief that he doesn’t quite measure up as is, inspiring him to lie and tell tall tales about himself.  For Ryan Swinton, it’s the possibility that someone won’t laugh at one of his jokes, or that he might inconvenience or upset a friend.  For Joe Marma, it’s that he will be judged as lacking, second-rate, always finishing behind his older brother in everything he does.  And for Marc Kuslanski, it’s the frustration of uncertainty, the specter of problems and puzzles he cannot solve, of mysteries he cannot fathom.

Rejection.  Disappointment.  Failure.  Misunderstanding.  Heartache.  Loss.

We are all afraid of something.  We all must wrestle with our own personal ghosts and ghouls, worries and fears.

fearheadinsand

 

For Wanda Dunn, an old woman we meet in a third-season Twilight Zone episode titled “Nothing in the Dark,” the albatross that weighs her down is made clear from the start.

twilightzone

 

Wanda Dunn is terrified of death.

The story opens with Wanda holed up in her broken-down tenement, snow falling outside her windows.  She spies someone on the step just beyond her door–a young man in uniform.  She cowers in a corner, fearful of being seen.  And then a whistle blows, a gunshot rings out, and the man falls.

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Reluctantly, Wanda opens her door, just enough to peek outside.  The man (played by a twentysomething Robert Redford) is lying in the snow.

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He pleads to her, says he’s a police officer and that he’s been shot and needs help.

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“You’re lying,” the old woman says.  “Why can’t you leave me alone?  I know who you are.  I know what you are.”

It is here that Rod Serling provides the opening narration of the episode.  In the voice-over, he tells us that Wanda Dunn thinks the man outside is, in actuality, Mr. Death in disguise.

But the police officer continues his appeal.  “Unless you help me,” he says, “I’m going to die.  I don’t think I can move.”  He tells her his name is Harold Beldon and asks her to call a hospital.

She tells him she has no telephone, and cannot call anyone.

When he asks if he can come inside, out of the cold, she balks.  “I’d have to unlock the door,” she says.  “I can’t do that.  I don’t want to die.  I know who you are.”

gladyscooperscared

 

He grimaces, clearly in pain, and tells her as much.

Eventually, and grudgingly, she opens the door and lets Officer Harold Beldon into her home . . .

Later, we see her tending to him, as he lies in a bed.  She brews him some tea, not as afraid of him now, apparently comforted by the belief that he is who he says he is–just a police officer injured in the line of duty, and not the angel of death come to snatch her away.

As they talk, we learn that Wanda Dunn lives alone.  There are no neighbors.  They’ve all moved away.  And she can’t open the door, seek out a telephone to call a doctor, even if there still were a neighbor.

“I can’t let him in,” she says.

“Mr. Death . . .” Officer Harold Beldon replies, catching on.

“I know he’s out there,” Wanda says.  “He’s trying to get in.  He comes to the door and knocks.  He begs me to let him in.  Last week he said he came from the gas company.  Oh, he’s clever.  After that, he claimed to be a contractor hired by the city.”  He’d told her the building had been condemned and she had to leave.  But “I kept the door locked, and he went away.”

The officer objects, pointing out that people all over the world die every day.  How can one man, a single Mr. Death, be in all those places at once?

deathcomfortingsad

 

She says she doesn’t know, but she has seen him before.  Every time someone she knew died, he was there.  She admits, others don’t seem to see him, but she thinks she does because she’s old, and because her “time is coming.”

“I could see clearer than younger people could,” she says.  And yet–his face is always different.  She can never be sure it’s him at first glance, and that’s why she hides, shuts herself in, not allowing herself to venture outside.

“How can you live like this?” Officer Beldon asks.

To which she responds, “But if I don’t live like this, I won’t live at all.  If I let down, even for a moment, he’ll get in.”

Suddenly there’s a knock.  She doesn’t want to answer, but the officer urges her to.  She opens the door a crack.  A burly workman is there.

whosthere

 

“I’m sorry, lady,” he says, “but I’ve got my orders.  I can’t fool around any longer.”

The man forces his way in, and Wanda Dunn is certain it’s Mr. Death.

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The man assures her he’s just a worker arriving to warn her that she needs to move out immediately.  His crew is set to begin demolishing the tenement in one hour’s time.

“I’m surprised anyone still lives here,” he says.  Hasn’t she read the notices, opened her mail?  It’s an old building, he explains, dangerous.  It’s got to come down.

“That’s life, lady,” he goes on.  “People get the idea I’m some sort of destroyer . . . I just clear the ground so other people can build . . . It’s just the way things are . . . Old animals die, and young ones take their places.  Even people step aside when it’s time.”

“I won’t,” she says, and implores Officer Beldon to help, explain to the man that she can’t leave.  But the man asks who she’s talking to.  There isn’t anyone else in the room but the two of them.

Pressed for time, ready to coordinate the demolition, the workman leaves, again issuing a warning that she needs to leave the building immediately.

But Wanda Dunn is no longer concerned about the workman or the tenement.

“He didn’t see you,” she says to the officer when they are once again alone.  Officer Beldon tells her to look in the mirror.  When she does, she can only see herself.  The police officer has no reflection.

Finally realizing what has happened, Wanda exclaims, “You tricked me!  It was you all the time!  But why?  You could’ve taken me anytime.  You were nice.  You made me trust you.”

redford2

 

He gets out of bed, asks, “Am I really so bad?”  And tells her she’s not afraid of him, of death, but of the unknown.  “Don’t be afraid,” he says.  “The running’s over.  It’s time to rest.”

redfordcharming

 

He offers her his hand.

“I don’t want to die,” she says.

But he encourages her, softly, gently, and they touch.

“You see?” Mr. Death says with a smile.  “No shock.  No engulfment.  No tearing asunder.  What you feared would come like an explosion . . . is like a whisper.  What you thought was the end . . . is the beginning.”

“When will it happen?” she wants to know.  “When will we go?”

But they already have.  He tells her to look at the bed.  She sees herself lying there, lifeless.

Understanding at last, fearing no longer, she smiles, and, arm in arm, they walk out the door.

redfordleadinghertodeath

 

In the closing narration, Rod Serling sums it up like this:

“There was an old woman who lived in a room and, like all of us, was frightened of the dark, but who discovered in a minute last fragment of her life, that there was nothing in the dark that wasn’t there when the lights were on.”

lightdarkend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

To Entertain or to Illuminate, That Is (Not) the Question . . .

On September 22, 1959, on the eve of the premiere of the new television series The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling sat down for an interview with Mike Wallace.  Serling, by that time already considered one of television’s brightest writing stars, had amassed a formidable resume.  He was known throughout the industry as television’s “angry young man” due to his ardent and very vocal criticism of the censorship so rampant in the medium at that time.

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Determined to produce gritty, realistic scripts that dealt with injustice, inequality, and greed, Serling wrote for Kraft Television Theater, Playhouse 90, and other venues that featured live TV dramas of the day.  His breakthrough script, “Patterns,” which aired in February 1955, launched him into orbit, and by the time of the Wallace interview, Serling, already a winner of three Emmy awards, was an established industry heavyweight.

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At the start of the interview, Wallace credits Serling as the accomplished writer he is; he discusses Serling’s rise within the industry, and his ongoing battles against sponsor-mandated censorship.  About midway through the conversation, the discussion takes a turn . . .

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“You’ve got a new series coming up called The Twilight Zone,” Wallace says, and simply from his tone of voice, his delivery, one can sense Wallace’s disappointment.  After all, in the interview, Serling himself admits to be being “tired,” and that he doesn’t “want to fight anymore”–with corporate sponsors and their dictates on what can and cannot be included in his scripts.  The Twilight Zone, a short, half-hour sci-fi and fantasy excursion, was deemed by many, Wallace among them, as a sellout on the part of one of TV’s most serious and hard-hitting writers.

Wallace suggests the episodes will be “potboilers,” which Serling rejects, stating that he believes the shows will be “high-quality . . . extremely polished films.”

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Undeterred, Wallace then says, “For the time being and for the foreseeable future [since Serling would be so focused on The Twilight Zone going forward], you’ve given up on writing anything important for television, right?”

Even here, Wallace is not finished. He quotes TV producer Herbert Brodkin as saying, “Rod is either going to stay commercial or become a discerning artist, but not both.”

herbertbrodkin

 

To which Serling replies, “I presume Herb means that inherently you cannot be commercial and artistic.  You cannot be commercial and quality.  You cannot be commercial concurrent with having a preoccupation with the level of storytelling that you want to achieve.  And this I have to reject. . . . I don’t think calling something commercial tags it with a kind of an odious suggestion that it stinks, that it’s something raunchy to be ashamed of. . . . I think innate in what Herb says is the suggestion made by many people that you can’t have public acceptance and still be artistic.  And, as I said, I have to reject that.”

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

When I was an English major in college, there was a fellow student, named John, who shared several classes with me.  I’ve blogged about John before.  In addition to wanting to create something new, uniquely his own, John also wanted to create something artistic, arcane, even inaccessible.

“If just anyone can understand it,” he said once, “then I’ve failed.  I’m not writing for the layperson.  I’m writing for the select few.  If John Q. Public ‘gets’ my story, then what’s the point?  Anyone can write a story like that!”

hardtounderstand

 

I understood his sentiment–up to a point.  All writers, all artists want to say something, to have one of their stories or songs or paintings or performances move an audience to tears, open eyes, create dialogue, and promote new viewpoints.  We all want our work to matter.

artistic

 

But I strongly disagreed with his assertion that a work is somehow elevated if it’s nearly incomprehensible; that a story can only have merit if it needs a literature professor to explain its themes, ideas, and structure to a room full of confused and bored students.

Sure, I want my stories to make people to stop, think, perhaps question things they hadn’t even considered before, or, if they had, maybe the story enables them to see something familiar through a different lens, changing their perspective, granting them a peek on the other side of the mountain, as it were.  But to accomplish that, I don’t believe I, or any other writer, needs to create a piece that requires a literary road map through which to navigate.

literaryroadmap

 

Certainly it is my hope that The Eye-Dancers will prompt readers to step back and think about the very nature of what we term “reality”; to consider the mysterious, even seemingly otherworldly psychic connection two strangers can share; and to wonder at the possibility that we, each of us, are just one piece of an infinite puzzle that includes countless variants of ourselves scattered throughout worlds that parallel our own like invisible, silent shadows.

parallelworlds

 

But more than this, it is my hope that readers will relate to the characters, cheer them on, root for them, get swept up in the flow and momentum of the story, and have fun as they read.

When I explained this to John, when I told him I wanted a wide swath of people to enjoy my stories, not just a select few, he simply shook his head and gave me a look that I could only interpret as pure pity.

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

The Twilight Zone remained on the air for five unforgettable seasons; and those “potboiler” episodes, those flights of fancy that delved into the genres of science fiction and fantasy, those “commercial” attempts at expression have endured and prospered.  It can be argued, indeed, that The Twilight Zone is more appreciated, more loved, more respected now, on the precipice of 2015, than it was when it actually ran.

Serling himself expressed a possible reason for the show’s ongoing popularity.  “On The Twilight Zone,” he once said, “I knew that I could get away with Martians saying things that Republicans and Democrats couldn’t.”  He was able, in other words, to utilize imaginative storytelling, plots that took viewers by the hand and led them to strange, often frightening new worlds, to comment on and critique the social ills, prejudices, and personal crises occurring in our own, very real lives.

themasks

 

The Twilight Zone accomplished Serling’s vision and proved beyond a doubt that a story, a novel, a piece of art, does not need to choose between entertaining and illuminating its audience.

The great pieces, the truly memorable works that hold up through the dust and years and passing of decades and centuries are the ones that accomplish both.

doingboth

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

“Nick of Time”–Or, a Three-Month Holiday Promotion!

In a second-season Twilight Zone episode titled “Nick of Time,” newlyweds Don and Pat Carter, on a honeymoon trip cross country to New York City, are temporarily stranded in the small town of Ridgeview, Ohio, while their car is repaired.  With several hours to kill, they enter a nondescript diner.

As they sit down at a booth, they notice a “mystic seer”–a penny fortune-telling machine.  “Ask me a Yes/No question,” the machine reads.  “One cent per question.”

nickoftimewithmachinepatandwill

 

Don, up for a promotion at his place of employment and obsessing over the outcome, honeymoon or no, inserts a penny and asks the machine about it.  Has he been promoted at work?  He presses down on the lever, causing the machine to jingle, and a slip of paper spits out.

“It has been decided in your favor,” the slip reads.

justforfuninitially

 

Don decides to make a long-distance call back home, to the office, to find out if this is really true.  It is.  He’s made it.

“And he knew,” Don says, sitting back down at the booth, pointing at the mystic seer.

Amused, he decides to ask the fortune-teller another question.  Would they really have to wait four hours for their car to be fixed?

“You may never know,” the machine responds.

Taken aback, Don asks more questions.  The answers are cryptic, threatening even, but they always fit, always make sense.  He grows more frantic, while his wife becomes concerned.  Why is he taking this thing so seriously?

shatnerdesperate

 

The seer suggests they should remain in the diner until three o’clock.  Looking at his watch, Don sees it’s only quarter after two.

“If we don’t stay here till three, something bad will happen to us?” he asks the seer.

The machine answers, “Do you dare to find out?”

shatnerhooked

 

With each answer, Don’s wife grows more upset.  “Let’s go,” she says.  But Don stalls, says he hasn’t finished eating, hasn’t ordered ice cream yet.  Finally, at five minutes before three, Pat coaxes him to leave the diner.

As they walk outside and cross the street, a car nearly runs into them.  They escape unscathed, but it was a close call.  Don looks at the church tower clock across the street as soon as they reach safety.  Exactly three o’clock–just as the seer warned.

He convinces his wife to go back inside the diner.  Why is the machine so accurate?  He is determined to find out.

“You don’t really think that gizmo can foretell the future, do you?” Pat asks him once they’re back inside.

“Well, it foretold ours,” he says.

shatner

 

She refutes this, saying it was Don himself who provided the machine with the details.  All the seer did was churn out vague generalities.

Don asks the machine if it knows about the car that almost hit them.

“What do you think?” the ejected card reads, in response.

He then asks if it will still take four hours for their car to be fixed.

“It has already been taken care of,” the seer responds.  Not a minute later the mechanic from across the street steps inside and tell them, by a stroke of luck, the part he needed turned up, and their car is all set.

Once again, the “mystic seer” is proven to be right.

shatnerupsetwithanswers

 

Pat is still unconvinced.  Don tells her to ask the seer a few questions.  She tries to trick the machine, asking if they’ll reach Columbus by tomorrow, even though they don’t plan on driving through Columbus at all.

In response, the seer answers, “If that’s what you really want.”

Question by question, Pat becomes more agitated, more unglued.

“It’s not possible to foretell the future, is it?” she asks.

“That’s up to you to find out,” the machine replies.

“You’re just a stupid piece of junk, aren’t you?” Pat shouts.

The seer answers, “It all depends on your point of view.”

That does it.  Pat has had it.  She tells Don they need to leave, that he can’t let this machine run his life for him.

He is torn.  The machine is predicting his future!  How can he just walk away?

shatnergettingriled

 

His wife implores him.  She tells him he can decide his own life.  He doesn’t need some penny fortune-telling machine to decide it for him.  “I don’t want to know what’s gonna happen,” she says.  “I want us to make it happen.”  It is up to them to make the most of their lives, to determine the roads and byways they travel along.

Don understands.  He gets up, tells the seer they will go where they want to go, whenever they please.  He has been freed from the grip of fear and superstition . . .  in the “nick of time.”

serlingandmachine

 

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

If there were in fact a “mystic seer” available to me, I might even now know who will win The Eye-Dancers promotion that runs today straight through the holiday season, and into 2015.  As it is, it will have to remain a mystery until the promotion ends.

The details of the promotion are simple.  Between today’s date and January 4, 2015, if fifty copies of The Eye-Dancers are sold, a winner will be chosen to win a $125 gift card to a retailer of their choosing.  Amazon?  B & N?  A favorite restaurant or department store?  The choice is yours.

Beginning today (October 12) and ending January 4, 2015, if you buy The Eye-Dancers, wherever it is sold, in either paperback or ebook format, please notify me–either with a comment on this website, or via email at michaelf424@gmail.com.  I will keep track of  each person who buys the book during this time frame and then, on Monday, January 5, 2015 , the day after the promotion ends, I will randomly select the winner of the $125 gift card–provided, of course, that fifty copies of the book have sold during the promotional period.

giftcardss

 

The Eye-Dancers, the ebook, is available for purchase at the following online retail locations . . .

Amazon:  http://www.amazon.com/The-Eye-Dancers-ebook/dp/B00A8TUS8M

B & N:  http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-eye-dancers-michael-s-fedison/1113839272?ean=2940015770261

Smashwords:  http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/255348

Kobo:  http://store.kobobooks.com/books/The-Eye-Dancers/nKFZETbWWkyzV2QkaJWOjg

And The Eye-Dancers, the paperback is sold at . . .

Amazon, http://www.amazon.com/The-Eye-Dancers-Michael-S-Fedison/dp/0692262784/ref=tmm_pap_title_0/190-9007348-1553839

and CreateSpace, https://www.createspace.com/4920627

 

eyedancers

 

Even without the aid of the Twilight Zone‘s “mystic seer,” I hope you’ll take part in this promo!

fortuneteller

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

Coda

Every day, every moment, we are faced with choices.  Many of these choices are easy to gloss over.  We’re often not even aware of making them.  My morning rituals, for example, are so built in, so automatic, I don’t even consciously consider them.  I just do them, as if I have a built-in program set to function in a specific, pre-defined manner each day upon waking.

routine

 

That’s not how it is with everything, though, of course.  Sometimes we are confronted with decisions that cause us to pause, even agonize, as we hem and haw, weighing the pros and cons.  Should we, or shouldn’t we?  These are the choices that define us.  And, sometimes, these are the choices that cause us the most regret . . .

choices

 

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

The Wonder Years is easily one of my all-time favorite television shows.  And in a second-season episode called “Coda,” the main character and narrator of the show, Kevin Arnold, reflects on a decision he made, two decades ago, that he will never forget.

kevinatpiano

 

The story starts with Kevin riding his bike down a neighborhood street.  He comes to a stop in front of a particular house, and we peer in through the window along with him where we see a boy playing the piano, his instructor by his side, a collection of what we assume to be parents in the background.  The boy is playing Pachelbel’s Canon in D major.  We, and Kevin, can hear it perfectly.

The narrator, the adult Kevin discussing the scene from a perspective twenty years removed, begins this way:

“When you’re a little kid, you’re a little bit of everything–artist, scientist, athlete, scholar.  Sometimes it seems like growing up is a process of giving those things up, one by one.”   Here the narration pauses, and Kevin, the twelve-year-old Kevin, sitting on his bicycle in the fading light of dusk, continues to look in through the window, a wistful expression on his face.

“I guess we all have one thing we regret giving up,” the voice-over continues.  “One thing we really miss, that we gave up because we were too lazy, or we couldn’t stick it out.  Or because we were afraid.”

Here the scene shifts.  We see a football tossed high in the air, and we realize, immediately, that time, capricious as ever, has run backward.  We are viewing a moment prior to the opening scene.

Kevin and his friends are playing football in the street, pretending to be members of the New York Jets, complete with a play-by-play broadcast.

paul

 

doug

 

We hear the imagined cheers of a capacity crowd before Kevin’s mother steps outside to break it up.  It is time for his piano lesson. . .

norma

 

As Kevin arrives at his instructor’s house, the student scheduled ahead of him is finishing up his lesson.  But this is no ordinary student.  This is Ronald Hirschmuller.

The narrator tells us that Ronald is a “legend.”  He plays everything perfectly, and practices “4700 hours a week.  I hated Ronald Hirschmuller.”

After Ronald leaves, Kevin begins his practice session.  When he plays for a while, making several mistakes, the instructor, a straight-talking, likeable, chain-smoking woman named Mrs. Carpose, mocks that he must have practiced all of forty-two minutes this past week.  She tells him she’s going to start feeling guilty about taking his parents’ money if he doesn’t start putting more effort into his lessons.

mrscarpose

 

Then she asks him if he’s thought about what he’ll play for the recital this year.  The recital is the signature event of the year for Mrs. Carpose’s students–a chance for them to play in front of all the students and their parents.

But Kevin wants no part of it–he’s too busy to play at the recital.  He tells her he’s in junior high now, and has a lot of demands on his time.

When Mrs. Carpose presses, prodding him to reconsider, he says, “Look, I’m not like Ronald Hirschmuller.”  He has a diversity of interests, he explains.  He doesn’t want to devote all his spare time to practicing piano.  And he doesn’t want to play at the recital.

But when his father learns of this, he tells Kevin he has two choices.  He can either quit the piano (his father doesn’t want to continue paying for lessons if Kevin isn’t practicing), or he can start to practice more and take it seriously.

jackarnold

 

Kevin tries to practice that night, but makes the same old mistakes.  Frustrated, he decides to quit.

“Why?” Mrs. Carpose asks him at his next lesson when he informs her of his decision.

After avoiding the truth for a while, he comes out and tells her, “I’m not gonna be like Ronald Hirschmuller.  I’m never gonna be that good.  Even if I practiced all the time . . . he’s just more talented than me!”

“Oh, don’t give me that,” his teacher scolds.  “You have more talent in your little pinky than Ronald Hirschmuller has in his whole body.  Why that kid’s a machine!  You have a feel for music, and you know it.  But that’s not the point–who’s better, who’s worse.  Why, that’s not music!  That’s not what it’s about!”

She tells him to sit down and play Pachelbel’s Canon in D major.  “My final request,” she says.

pachelbel

 

After slipping up early, Kevin gets into a rhythm and plays beautifully.

“All of a sudden, as I started to play,” the Kevin of two decades later says in a voice-over, “it was like there was electricity flowing through my veins.  Suddenly I could do no wrong.”

kevinandcarpose

 

This encourages him to reconsider and play at the recital, after all.  “I would play Canon in D major like Mrs. Carpose had never heard it before,” he tells us in another voice-over.  “Like the world had never heard it before.  Like Ronald Hirschmuller had never heard it before.”

His optimism is shattered at the dress rehearsal, however.  With all the students gathered, Kevin learns that Ronald Hirschmuller also plans on playing Canon in D major at the recital.

He is shocked, and angry at his teacher.  How could she do that to him?  Why would she want him to play the same piece as the best student in the class?  Was she deliberately trying to humiliate him?

Ronald plays Canon in D major before the assembled students, and, of course, he is flawless, technically perfect, as always.  As Ronald plays, Kevin sits there listening, growing more nervous, more anxious by the second.  He wishes Ronald would make a mistake–just one slip-up.  But he doesn’t.

Mrs. Carpose asks Kevin to play next, which only heightens his anxiety.  How can he follow that performance?  Predictably, in a state of near-panic, Kevin butchers the piece.  It is a complete embarrassment, “the piano rehearsal from hell,” he tells us in a voice-over.  After the last note is played, Ronald Hirschmuller smirks and offers a sarcastic applause.

ronaldsarcasticclap

 

Mrs. Carpose tries to encourage him.  “So you choked,” she says as he leaves.  “You’ll do better tomorrow night”–at the recital.

“Yeah,” Kevin says, not even making eye contact.

But tomorrow night arrives and Kevin does not attend the recital.

The final scene of the episode returns us to where it started–Kevin outside of Mrs. Carpose’s house, listening to Ronald Hirschmuller playing Canon in D major at the recital for his fellow students and their parents.

Kevin sits there on his bike, looking in.  And the adult Kevin breaks in with the episode’s final voice-over . . .

“I never did forget that night.  I remember the light glowing from Mrs. Carpose’s window.  And I remember the darkness as I sat out there in the street looking in.  And now, more than twenty years later, I still remember every note of the music that wandered out into the still night air.”

Here, he begins to ride away, looking back one last time.

“The things is,” he says, “I can’t remember how to play it anymore.”

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

The ever-present specter of peer pressure, which influences Kevin so profoundly in this episode, is something that also deeply affects the main characters in The Eye-Dancers.  Indeed, at its heart, the novel is about the characters being forced to confront that same pressure, those external expectations, and learning to overcome the burdens they create.

peerpressure

 

I suppose all of us have had to struggle with those burdens at one point or another.  I suppose many of us still do.  I know I do.

My outlet for as long as I can remember, my expression of these struggles, has always been to write them out and share them on the page.

 

writing

 

Thank you so much for reading them.

–Mike

The Night of the Meek

When one thinks of The Twilight Zone, words such as “strange,” “spooky,” and “science fiction” often come to mind–and rightly so.  But over the span of its five seasons and 156 episodes, Rod Serling’s masterpiece delved into many different subject matters and genres.  For all the scary or suspenseful Twilight Zone episodes, there were also quite a few that could be termed “touching,” “magical,” and “heartfelt.”

One such episode, a second-season story titled “The Night of the Meek,” starring the great Art Carney of Honeymooners fame, has long been one of my holiday favorites.

norton

 

The story begins in a department store at Christmastime.  Children are lined up, waiting to visit Santa Claus.  The trouble is, Santa is nowhere to be found.

As we soon discover, Santa is sitting at a bar down the road.  No other patrons are there–just Santa and the bartender, a grouchy, tough-looking guy named Bruce.  The man in the Santa Claus costume is Henry Corwin (played by Carney), a down-and-out sort who has a penchant for drinking too much liquor.

santaatbar

 

Drunk, in a stupor, Corwin asks the bartender what time it is, realizing he’s late getting back to the department store.  Then he asks, “Why do you suppose there isn’t really a Santa Claus?”  But Bruce doesn’t want to talk.  He kicks Corwin out of the bar when he sees him reaching for a bottle without first offering to pay.

Stumbling around on the sidewalk, the night bright with falling snow, Corwin slumps against a lamppost.  Two children appear, one boy, one girl, attracted by his Santa costume.  Clearly they are poor, and they ask him for presents he of course cannot give.  The girl also asks for a “job for my daddy.”  Corwin puts his arms around them, cries, wishing he could help.

withthechildren

 

withmorechildren

 

Then Rod Serling appears on-screen, and offers the opening narration:

“This is Mr. Henry Corwin, normally unemployed, who once a year takes the lead role in the uniquely popular American institution, that of a department-store Santa Claus in a road company version of ‘The Night Before Christmas.’  But in just a moment, Mr. Henry Corwin, ersatz Santa Claus, will enter a strange kind of North Pole, which is one part the wondrous spirit of Christmas and one part the magic that can only be found in–The Twilight Zone.”

serlingonsetinsnow

 

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

When we next see Corwin, he is back at the department store, an hour late, and on the receiving end of a tirade from his boss, Mr. Dundee.

Trying to gather himself, though still drunk, Corwin sits in his chair and calls up the children, one by one, to ask him what they want for Christmas.  But then he falls out of the chair.

One boy exclaims, “Look, Ma!  Santa Claus is loaded!”

The mother is disgusted, telling Corwin he should be ashamed of himself.  He assures her that he is.  He tries to stop her, to explain himself further, but she barges out.

drunksantagettingyelledat

 

Mr. Dundee, livid, fires him on the spot.  He calls him a loser, a drunk, and tells him never to set foot in his store again.

dundee

 

Corwin pauses, tells his boss that his drinking on the job is inexcusable.  But then he goes on to explain, “I can either drink, or I can weep.  And drinking is so much more subtle. . . .  But as for my insubordination, I was not rude to that woman.  Someone should remind her that Christmas is more than barging up and down department-store aisles and pushing people out of the way.  Someone has to tell ‘er that Christmas is another thing, finer than that. Richer.  Finer.  Truer.  And it should come with patience and love.  Charity.  Compassion.  That’s what I would’ve told ‘er, if she’d have given me the chance.”

Mr. Dundee, desperate to get rid of Corwin, tells him again, in no uncertain terms, to leave.

Corwin continues, “All I know is, I’m an aging, purposeless relic of another time, and I live in a dirty rooming-house on a street filled with hungry kids and shabby people, where the only thing that comes down the chimney on Christmas Eve is more poverty!”

Dundee tells him to keep his voice down, he is causing a scene.  Parents and especially their children are watching, listening . . .

“You know another reason why I drink, Mr. Dundee?” Corwin says. “So that when I walk down the tenements, I can really think it’s the North Pole and the children are elves and that I’m really Santa Claus, bringing them a bag of wondrous gifts for all of them.  I just wish, Mr. Dundee, on one Christmas, only one, that I could see some of the hopeless ones, and the dreamless ones–just on one Christmas . . . I’d like to see the meek inherit the earth.”

Here the camera pans, showing the children’s faces, one by one.

“That’s why I drink, Mr. Dundee,” Corwin concludes.  “And that’s why I weep.”

carneysanta

 

He leaves the store, the kids watching as he staggers out.

Later, walking down an empty, snow-filled alley, Corwin is startled when a stray cat jumps out of a sack perched atop a collection of trash cans.  The cat’s leap causes the sack to fall to Corwin’s feet.  Suddenly, in the distance, he hears the sound of sleigh bells.  And he discovers, as if by some wonderful brand of holiday magic, that the sack is stuffed full with wrapped presents.

magicsack

 

Excited, Corwin, still dressed as Santa, flings the sack over his shoulders, and races out of the alley, shouting, “Hey!  Hey, kids!  Hey, everybody!  Merry Christmas, everybody!”

withsackgiving

 

As Corwin soon learns, the sack offers up the perfect gift to everyone.  When he reaches into the sack to give a present, it is always the one item the receiver most desires.

Word spreads throughout the neighborhood.  And a police office arrives, taking Corwin with him to the station, where Mr. Dundee awaits, having been summoned by the police, who believe Corwin must have stolen merchandise from Dundee’s department store and then stashed it away in his Christmas sack.

police

 

But when Dundee reaches into the sack, he pulls out garbage, not stolen goods, and another stray cat.

“It seems the essence of our problem is–we’re dealing with a most unusual bag,” Corwin jokes.  The officer tells him to get lost.

Back on the street, Corwin learns his sack has once again turned magical, producing gifts to every child he comes across.  Whatever they ask for, he is able to reach inside and hand it over.

Eventually, all the children leave, and the sack is empty.  Corwin looks at it, sits on a step.

santaoutsidebar

 

Burt, an old man Corwin had given a present to earlier that evening, comes out and sits with him.  He points out that, though Corwin’s given gifts away all night, he never received a gift of his own.

“Nothing for you,” the old man says.  “Nothin’ for yourself.  Not a thing.”

But Corwin assures him he’s had the nicest Christmas since “the beginning of time.”  Besides, “You know, I–I can’t think of anything I want.  I guess what I’ve really wanted is–to be the biggest gift-giver of all time.  And in a way, I think I had that tonight.  Although if I had my choice of any gift, any gift at all, I think I’d wish I could do this every year.”

Corwin leaves Burt, walks into the same alley where he’d discovered his Christmas sack.  And he sees . . . a sleigh, two reindeer, and an elf!

elfandreindeer

 

The elf giggles, says, “We’ve been waiting for you quite a while, Santa Claus.  We’ve got a year of hard work ahead of us to get ready for next Christmas.”

The elf tells him to hop in the sleigh.  “Are you ready?” she says.  And they drive off, the reindeer galloping through the night and taking to the air.

In the closing narration, Rod Serling states in a voice-over:

“A word to the wise to all the children of the twentieth century, whether their concern be pediatrics or geriatrics, whether they crawl on hands and knees and wear diapers or walk with a cane and comb their beards.  There’s a wondrous magic to Christmas, and there’s a special power reserved for little people.  In short, there’s nothing mightier than the meek, and a merry Christmas to each and all.”

xmasmagic

 

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

One of the primary goals I had when I wrote the novel The Eye-Dancers was to bring the magic alive, to inspire the belief that all things are possible to those who keep the faith, and that, in the words of Ray Bradbury, “The stars are yours, if you have the head, the hands, and the heart for them.”

merrychristmas

 

My holiday wish for each of you is that you take a moment, pause, wander outside at night and look up, at the moon and the distant stars that sparkle like diamonds across the canvas of the sky.  Take it in.  Make a wish.

Believe.

miracles

 

Thanks so much for reading, and happy holidays to all!

–Mike

Mirror Image

Stand in front of a mirror.  It can be any kind of a mirror, really–a simple bathroom mirror or an ornate affair in the ball room of some luxury seaside hotel.

mirror

 

Pause for a moment, and look at your reflection.  What do you see?  Maybe you’re looking great, refreshed, ready to take on the world.  Maybe you’re tired, with weary, sleepy eyes and a dour expression.  Either way, surely you just intend to see yourself in the mirror.  No one else.

catinmirror

 

But for Millicent Barnes, the protagonist of a first-season Twilight Zone episode titled “Mirror Image,” things aren’t quite that simple.

When we meet her, Millicent is sitting on a bench in an Ithaca, New York,  bus depot.

millicenttroubled

 

It is stormy, raining, after midnight, and the bus depot is near-deserted.  Impatiently, after checking the wall clock, she gets up and approaches the baggage clerk, a gruff older man with glasses and a perpetual scowl, and asks him when her bus will arrive.

“It’ll be in when it’ll be in,” he grouses, and says all the complaining in the world won’t make it arrive any sooner.  He tells her to stop coming up and asking him about it every ten minutes.

She is taken aback.  She tells him this is the first time she’s asked him.  But he looks at her, as if she’s speaking in an alien tongue, and shakes his head.  She’s already asked him several times, he asserts.

Dazed, Millicent approaches her bench and sits back down.

Rod Serling’s voice-over breaks in as we see a close-up of the woman’s face . . .

“Millicent Barnes, age twenty-five, young woman waiting for a bus on a rainy November night.  Not a very imaginative type is Miss Barnes, not given to undue anxiety or fears, or, for that matter, even the most temporal flights of fancy. . . . [But] circumstances will assault her sense of reality and a chain of nightmares will put her sanity on a block.  Millicent Barnes, who, in one minute, will wonder if she’s going mad.”

Indeed.  Because strange things continue to happen.  She notices her bag on the floor behind the clerk’s desk.  How did it get there?  She is sure she never checked her bag in with him.  The clerk, gruffer than ever, informs her that of course she did. . . .

goingtoladiesroom

 

Even more confused now, Millicent heads to the Ladies Room, where a cleaning woman is finishing up her shift.  The cleaning woman asks her if she’s okay–she was just in here a few minutes ago, and didn’t look so well.  Angry now, Millicent tells the woman this is the first time she’s been in the Ladies Room.  What is going on?  Are the employees in this nondescript, nearly empty bus depot all setting out to trick her, play a practical joke on her?

She opens the restroom door, about to storm out, but then turns around to say something else to cleaning woman.  In doing so, she looks into the mirror, and, with the door open, sees the depot’s main waiting area reflected there–the clock on the wall ticking, second by second; the slate-gray floor; the hard-backed bench upon which she had been sitting.

She gasps.  She is sitting on the bench.  She is right there.  But how could that be?  How could she be in the Ladies Room and, simultaneously, on the bench in the waiting area?  The woman she sees on the bench looks exactly like her, dressed in the same outfit.  It’s impossible.

mirrorimagedouble

 

She closes the door.  “I must be overtired,” she says.  A moment later she dares to fling it open again.  This time, the bench is empty.  Her doppleganger, or imposter, or the illusion she saw is no longer there.

Returning to the bench, Millicent wonders what’s wrong with herself.  “I must be sick,” she thinks.  “But I don’t have a fever, no fever at all . . .”

A young man comes in out of the cold, wet night, and joins her on the bench, introducing himself as Paul Grinstead.  He is waiting for the same bus she is–to Cortland.  From there he will go on to Binghamton; Millicent to Buffalo, about to start a new job.

paul!

 

Sensing she can trust this kind stranger, Millicent tells him about the odd things that have been happening to her tonight.

“Delusions,” he says.

paulandmillicent

 

She is quick to agree, but then says she hasn’t ever experienced anything like this before.  She is not prone to imagining things that aren’t there.  Besides, “why did that man and that woman say they’ve seen me before?  They haven’t!”

Paul doesn’t have an answer.  “This one’s tough to figure out,” he admits.

The bus arrives.  They head outside together, but just as she is about to board, Millicent sees herself already seated on the bus.  This “other” Millicent smirks at her, a glint in her eye, and she screams and races back into the depot.

bus

 

Paul follows her in and tells the driver to go on along without them, they’ll catch the next one.  The next bus, however, doesn’t arrive until seven.  They will have to while away the night at the depot.  The baggage clerk turns down the lights.  Shadows crawl and gather along the floor and on the walls.  It is quiet. “Like a tomb,” the clerk tells them.

Millicent, now lying on the bench, recovering from the shock, begins to recount something she read once, a long time ago.  Something about different planes of existence, parallel worlds that exist side by side.  And each of us has a counterpart in this other world.  When, through some freak occurrence, the two worlds converge, the counterpart comes into our world, and in order to survive, it has to take over–replace us, move us out, so that it can live.

“That’s a little metaphysical for me,” Paul tells her.

Millicent is beyond hearing him.  “Each of us has a twin in this other world.  An identical twin.  Maybe that woman I saw . . .”

Paul breaks in, “Millicent, there’s another explanation.  There has to be.  One that comes with . . . more reason.”

She doesn’t listen, won’t be comforted.  She is convinced the woman she saw on the bus is her doppleganger, her counterpart, here to take over her life and identity.  The more Paul tries to calm her, the more wide-eyed and unresponsive she becomes.

wide-eyed

 

Finally, he tells her he has a friend nearby.  He’ll call him.  Maybe he can stop by and lend them his car, or even drive them part of the way.

But as Paul tells the baggage clerk, who has eavesdropped on the entire conversation, he has no friend nearby with a car who will drive them anywhere.  He is calling the police.

“She needs help,” he says.  “Medical help.”

The police arrive minutes later and take Millicent away to the hospital, for observation.  Meanwhile Paul decides to settle in for the night, maybe sleep on the bench.  But as he takes a drink from a fountain, he notices a man stealing his suitcase and running out the door with it.

“Hey!” he yells after him, giving chase.  And that’s when he realizes it’s not just any man he is pursuing.  It is his double.  Himself–looking back at him as he runs away, a twisted grin on his face.

paulstwin

 

“Hey!” Paul keeps shouting, over and over, into the cold November night.  “Where are you?”

“Obscure metaphysical explanation to cover a phenomenon,” Rod Serling announces as the scene fades.  “Reasons dredged out of the shadows to explain away that which cannot be explained.  Call it parallel planes or just insanity.  Whatever it is, you’ll find it in the Twilight Zone.”

infinitymirror

 

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

Mitchell Brant, surely, would not call it insanity.  He would go for the parallel-planes explanation.  Unlike Millicent Barnes, however, Mitchell does not limit himself to just one “other self.”  Literally, there is no end, no limit.

endless

 

In chapter 12 of The Eye-Dancers, as he is about to fall asleep, Mitchell ponders this.

“‘Good night, Mitchell,’  he whispered, to himself, to all of his selves, in all of the worlds in existence.  His last thought before sleep finally took him away was of a line of Mitchell Brants.  They stood, single file, one in front of the other.  He started to count them in his mind’s eye, but the line went on and on, forever.  He was infinite, endless.

“When he counted the two hundred sixty-third Mitchell Brant, the line began to melt away, disintegrating into the netherworld of his dreams.”

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

So the next time you stand in front of a mirror, look deeply.  Look closely.  Perhaps, just perhaps, it is not just your reflection, and your reflection alone, staring back at you.

mirrormaze

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

No Story too Small

Have you ever wanted to write something–be it an essay, a short story, a novel, a blog entry, a poem, a song–anything . . . but then never did?  The idea perhaps seemed too small, too trivial, too run-of-the-mill.  “Who’d want to read about that?” you might have said.  I know I have.  There is an expectation sometimes that the things we write need to be big–life-altering masterpieces that ignite universes and give birth to new and exciting ideas.  We want to “wow” our audience.

This is something that John-Boy Walton once struggled with, too.  I have long been a fan of The Waltons–the 1970s dramatic television series about the struggles of a family living through the Great Depression in rural Virginia.

waltons

 

I suppose as a writer myself, I’ve always gravitated toward John-Boy, the main character on the show.  When the series begins, John-Boy is seventeen, still in high school, and an aspiring writer.

johnboy

 

In a season-one episode titled “The Literary Man,” John-Boy crosses paths with a well-traveled and well-read fellow who is passing through the area.  John-Boy invites the man, A.J. Covington, to his family’s home, where Covington stays on for a few days, helping out with the Waltons’ sawmill operation.

ajcovington

 

As John-Boy quickly discovers, Covington is a writer–or at least he claims to be.  Older, more experienced, Covington impresses John-Boy with stories of Jack London, Carl Sandberg, Theodore Dreiser, and other master wordsmiths.  He quotes passages from Moby Dick.  “Melville was my model and inspiration when I was learning the craft,” he explains.  He sees in John-Boy the makings of a writer, but he gives him this advice:

“If you want to make it [as a writer], your writing has to come first–before comfort, security, happiness . . . Very few stick it out.”  As Covington explains to the young and impressionable teenager, he travels a lot.  When John-Boy asks him where home is, the older man replies, “The world’s my home.”  He is always on the lookout for new experiences–grist for the writer’s mill.

Covington says that when he was younger, he grew up on a small farm in Indiana–rural roots similar to John-Boy’s.  But when he was seventeen, Covington left home, venturing out into the world without money, without prospects, but with determination.  He says he knew then, as he knows now, that a writer needs to leave everyone and everything behind in order to find the big story he or she is meant to write.  That story is out there–somewhere.  You just have to find it.

Hearing this, thinking about it, John-Boy becomes discouraged.  He tells Covington that he’ll never make it as a writer because his writing can never come first.  He can’t turn his back on the people who depend on him, can’t cut the ties with family and friends to go searching for the big story he was meant to write.  He doesn’t have the courage, he explains.  He’s just not cut out to be a writer.  And he plans to give up his writing and concentrate on his chores and his family.

Covington feels bad.  He never intended for his advice to have this effect.  Near the end of the episode, he has a long talk with John-Boy.  He tells him he’s not much of a writer, not really.  He’s talked out all his stories in saloons and on street corners.  But he has written very little.  And then he attempts to undo the damage he had earlier and unwittingly heaped upon his new young friend  . . .

“Don’t waste your life searching for the one big story you were born to write,” he says.  “Write the little stories.  Who knows?  The sum total of them might be the big story.  Write about . . . your feelings about your family and this place–just the way you’ve been doing.  Write about how it is to be young and confused and poor–groping, but surrounded by a strong father and loving mother, and surrounded by brothers and sisters that pester you and irritate you . . . but who care about you.  Try to capture that in words, John-Boy.  That’s as big a challenge as the Klondike or the white whale or flying the Atlantic Ocean alone.  It was too big for me.  But I think you might just be up to it.”

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

If there is a character in The Eye-Dancers who needs to hear the same message, it is undoubtedly Mitchell Brant.  A dreamer, someone who thinks big but is not satisfied with his day-to-day self, Mitchell continually invents extravagant stories about himself, hoping to impress his friends and classmates.  He doesn’t think plain old Mitchell Brant is good enough, or likeable enough, or popular enough . . .  It takes the kind words of a new friend in the variant town of Colbyville to get him to realize, or at least begin to realize, that he doesn’t need to lie and invent and exaggerate.  He just needs to be himself.

At some point or another, we all feel like Mitchell Brant.  We feel, as John-Boy Walton did throughout much of “The Literary Man,” that our stories are not exciting enough or grand enough, or big enough.  But the flip side is also true.  A person like A.J. Covington spends his entire life searching, searching . . . for the epic story he was born to write.  But all along the story he was truly meant to write was inside him.  It wasn’t something to search for.  It was something to let out.

We all have stories to tell.  Sometimes they’re nail-biting–a death-defying chase across a busy highway; a sports triumph with much of the world watching; a journey to the stars and beyond.  Other times they’re small, quiet, tiptoeing along without making a sound–baking cookies with a since-departed grandmother on a cold winter day; tossing the ball around with a big brother who could’ve been out with his girl or his friends but instead took the time to play with you; lying in bed at night, looking up at the ceiling, wondering why it hurts so much to be rejected by someone you don’t even care about, don’t even like.  The simple joys and hurts and challenges and loves and memories of living . . .

storytotell

 

One of my very favorite short stories is Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.”

christmasmemory

 

The opening paragraph reads as follows:

“Imagine a morning in late November.  A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago.  Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town.  A great black stove is its main feature; but there is also a big round table and a fireplace with two rocking chairs placed in front of it.  Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar.”

A late-November morning.  A country kitchen in a small town.  A black stove, a table, a fireplace, and two rocking chairs.  It is hard to paint a more “ordinary” picture.  It would be a challenge to begin a story in a more soft-spoken and simple manner. And yet–it is riveting.  Evocative.  Magical.

Do you have a story to tell?  Do you feel it is “trivial”?  That it won’t captivate and interest people?  Tell it anyway.  Tell it honestly, openly.  Share a little piece of your heart.

story

 

Your readers will be glad you did.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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