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

“The Trade-Ins” (On Love)

Mitchell Brant has a problem.  Five years have elapsed between the end of The Eye-Dancers and the start of The Singularity Wheel, and numerous life events have taken place in the interim, but for Mitchell, there is still only one girl he longs to be with, one girl who has captured the secret inner chambers of his heart.  Heather.  The girl he met, five years ago, in the alternate town of Colbyville, the girl from a thousand universes away.  His friends tell him to let her go.  What’s the point of wishing you could be with someone so unattainable, so far away the mind cannot even begin to comprehend the distance?

 

But logic, practicality, reason cannot cut through.  Mitchell thinks of her all the time, imagines she is right there beside him, a smile on her face.  He cannot turn off his feelings, tell his soul to forget what it yearns for.

 

Love is like that.

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

In a third-season Twilight Zone episode called “The Trade-Ins,” a similar dilemma presents itself.  John and Marie Holt are an elderly couple–he is 79; she is 74.  What’s more, Mr. Holt is in declining health, often wracked by intense and ever-increasing bouts of pain.  But a new hope exists in the futuristic world where they find themselves.  The New Life Corporation shines like a beacon on a cold, dark night.

 

The New Life Corporation specializes in “youth, new life, rebirth,” the salesman at the office, a Mr. Vance, explains to the Holts.  They have the technology to switch an elderly person’s body, or a sick person’s body, with a new body, a body that is “perfect in composition, concept, and construction.”  All the while, the person who makes this anatomical switch will retain all of their memories, personality, and emotions.  As Mr. Vance tells the Holts, even after the switch, physiologically and psychologically they will be exactly the same.  The only difference will be that each of them will be placed in a younger body, “in the prime of health.”  They are told the average life span of a New Life body is 112 years.

 

And then he shows them the models.  All are attractive, in perfect physical condition.  But the Holts decide on the bodies of a young couple–a couple that, following the procedure, will be them.  Mr. Vance tells them they will have an entire new life before them–they will return to the beginning, in the full flower of youth.  Old age will be but a memory.

 

But then the price comes up.  Mr. Vance explains the model couple comes as a package deal of $10,000, surely a bargain, he says, considering all the Holts will gain.  Perhaps.  The Holts, however, only have $5,000.  And Mr. Vance will not accept it as a down payment.  There are rules, he says, government-mandated, that require the full payment, up front.

Mr. Vance then pitches a half-deal.  “One of you could get it,” he says.  The $5,000 the Holts have is enough for John or Marie to switch into a youthful, healthy body.  Marie encourages John to do it–he will be free of his pain, and she assures him, “I can wait”–until they can scrounge up the remaining $5,000 for her switch.

 

John does not commit, though.  “We can’t be separated,” he says.  “We’re no good without each other.”

Desperate, his pain worsening, John later locates a back room in a bar, where a high-stakes poker game is under way.  He has the $5,000, hoping he can gamble his way to the $10,000 he and his wife would need to acquire new bodies as a couple.  But John is out of practice, a naive and woeful poker player.  It is only the compassion and empathy of the gamblers he goes up against that saves him.  Observing the pain John is in, listening to his story, the gamblers allow him to leave with his $5,000, choosing not to “clean him out,” as they assure him they could.

 

His pain continuing to escalate, John decides to undergo the switch, by himself, with his wife’s blessing.  “Yes, yes, yes,” she tells him, over and over when they return to the New Life Corporation.  She wants him to be pain-free, to go through with the procedure.

 

And when he emerges hours later a young man, running and doing various calithsenics, amazed at how energetic and strong he feels, he joyfully tells Marie, “Do you know what happens now? . . . We’ll do everything we haven’t been able to do.  The big things, the little things, the crazy, illogical things that we were too old, too sick, and too tired to do.  Every day is going to be a wedding, every afternoon a reception, and every evening a honeymoon.  Marie, my darling, you and I are going to begin to live!  We’re going to–”

 

But here, Marie steps away, covers her face with her hands, looks at this strange young man in horror.  He is her husband, and yet . . . he is not.  Not anymore.  Their eyes meet.  She is 74.  He is 22.  They no longer match, no longer a unit, a team, lifetime partners.  The procedure has created a gulf between them, unspoken but undeniable.  John’s eyes are just as wide, just as understanding as his wife’s.

 

Mr. Vance tells John to come with him to sign some papers.  They leave.  And when, later, John reemerges, he is old again, the young body gone, the tired, pain-riddled body returned.

“Marie, my darling,” he says. “If I have to have occasion of pain, so be it.  I wouldn’t want it any other way, darling.”

When she protests, he stops her with a Robert Browning quote she herself had uttered earlier in the episode.

“Grow old along with me.  The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made.”

And then they walk off . . . together.

 

Rod Serling’s closing narration sums it up tenderly:

“From Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet: ‘Love gives not but itself and takes not from itself, love possesses not nor would it be possessed, for love is sufficient unto love.’ Not a lesson, just a reminder, from all the sentimentalists–in The Twilight Zone.”

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

For a few weeks now, I have been AWOL on WordPress.  There is a reason for that.  I went back home, to Rochester, New York, the city where I was born, where I grew up.  But this time, I went back because someone close to me–so close to me–was, suddenly, near the end.  There were endless days in the ICU, walking the long, long hallway, turning the corner, calling in, visiting, hours spent by the bedside, the machines beeping, the respirator pumping air into lungs that could no longer breathe on their own.  Then there were funeral preparations, time spent with family, mourning a devastating loss, grieving.  Reflecting.

 

There were tears, so many tears.  Tender moments.  Heartbreaking moments.  Memories.  Discussions with doctors and nurses, trying to pry an ounce of hope out of a hopeless situation, seeking some possible path, some new and groundbreaking treatment.  But there was none.

 

And all I could do when it was over was to say–I love you, Mom.  I will miss you always.

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

In the days leading up to this post, I had intended to end it there.  But then something happened.  Something remarkable.

I returned to my current home in Vermont recently, a day removed from the funeral and after being in Rochester for the better part of two weeks.  I had to try to get back into a routine, to go back to work.  To live and carry on.  But then, first thing the following morning, I noticed something in the basement.

Let me back up.  We have a walkout basement.  It leads to the garage.  Every time I leave the house or come back, I walk through the basement.  And in the back corner, there is an old light fixture, a simple naked bulb screwed in to a socket attached to the ceiling.  The thing is, last spring, the chain that turns this light on or off became stuck.  The light was on, but I couldn’t switch it off.  I yanked on the chain–too hard.  It broke, severed like a mowed grass blade, falling to the concrete floor.  There was no way to turn off the light.  So I unscrewed it, removed it from the socket, and replaced it with a dead, burnt-out bulb.  The socket was “on,” but the bulb was a dud, and so it stayed dark.

 

Until that morning–my first full day back in Vermont following the funeral.  When I went down into the basement, I was surprised to see the bulb was lit.  It had been dead when I screwed it in last May, had been dark all through the summer, fall, and winter.  But now it was on.  A dead bulb come to life.  An oxidized, broken-apart filament burning brightly. And instantly I knew.

 

It was a message, a very personal one, from a mother to her son.  An assurance.  A comfort.  A lesson and a reminder.

That of all things, and across all time and space, eternal, bridging dimensions, spanning life and death, gentle but unyielding, conquering the darkness with light, love remains.

Love endures.

 

Thank you for letting me know, Mom.  Thank you for showing me.

 

And thank you to everyone, as always, for reading.

–Mike

A Quality of Mercy

Ryan Swinton knows how it feels to be an outsider.  In The Singularity Wheel, the sequel to The Eye-Dancers, set to be released later this summer, Ryan is in a major slump.  Now seventeen years old, on the cusp of his senior year in high school, he struggles to find his place in the world.  To his eyes, it seems that all of his classmates know what they want to do with their lives.  Even his kid brother, Tyler, has plans to become a marine biologist one day.  But what about Ryan?  What will he do?

 

From chapter 3 of The Singularity Wheel:

“He [Ryan] walked into the living room.  A fifty-gallon saltwater aquarium, with bright orange-and-white clown fish and yellow tangs and angel fish, lit up for the night with a florescent bulb, served as a reminder that Tyler was focused, determined, sure of what he wanted and how to get there.  Even the fish appeared to know just where to swim, as if they had each staked a claim to designated areas within the aquarium.  Everyone and everything always seemed to have a plan, a clue, a path to follow.  Why was it so different for him?”

 

In short, Ryan Swinton all too often feels like an outcast, a reject.  An other.

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

In the third-season Twilight Zone episode “A Quality of Mercy,” a young lieutenant fresh on the scene of battle understands well what it’s like to view someone else as “the other.”

 

Rod Serling introduces the episode this way in a voice-over:

“It’s August 1945, the last grimy pages of a dirty, torn book of war. The place is the Philippine Islands. The men are what’s left of a platoon of American infantry, whose dulled and tired eyes set deep in dulled and tired faces can now look toward a miracle, that moment when the nightmare appears to be coming to an end. But they’ve got one more battle to fight, and in a moment we’ll observe that battle. August 1945, Philippine Islands. But in reality it’s high noon in the Twilight Zone.”

 

The American platoon in question, a ragtag group of perhaps twenty men, have taken the high ground overlooking a cave.  Holed up in that cave, a small group of Japanese soldiers, many of them sick and wounded, resist surrender.  The American force shells the cave incessantly, hoping, thus far in vain, that the sheer bombardment will force the Japanese soldiers to quit.

 

This is the situation Lieutenant Katell inherits.  He arrives on the scene, a fresh-faced commanding officer, full of vim and vigor.  When he is briefed by Sergeant Causarano, a battle-hardened veteran, Lieutenant Katell exclaims that since the artillery didn’t smoke the Japanese soldiers from their cave, “It looks like we’ll have to do a little mopping up ourselves.  Move in frontally.  Go right in there and wipe ’em out.”

 

The sergeant and some of the soldiers push back.  What the lieutenant is proposing would guarantee casualties, on both sides.  There is little justification to assault the cave in a frontal attack.  Causarano asks the lieutenant how long he’s been out there, on the battlefield.

“What’s that got to do with it?” Katell responds, defensively.

“You talk like it’s a football game, Lieutenant,” Causarano says.  “And this is no football game. . . . You have to remember . . . you haven’t been shot at yet.  And you haven’t shot anybody, either.”

Lieutenant Katell acknowledges his relative inexperience, but promises, “When it comes to killing Japanese, I think you’ll find me a pretty efficient officer.”

 

Later, the men smear mud on their faces for camouflage.  They are grim.  There isn’t much talking. The decision has been made–they are gearing up to assault the cave.

As they prepare, Lieutenant Katell notices Sergeant Causarano giving him a look.

“I’m not your cup of tea, am I, Sergeant?” Katell asks.

“You got a little too much vinegar for me, Lieutenant,” Causarano says, and makes a plea to bypass the cave.  The men trapped in there are “sick and half-starved.”  Why go through with this?

“Because they’re Japs!” the lieutenant snarls, as if that explains everything.

“They’re men,” the sergeant counters.

 

Lieutenant Katell cannot hide his disdain.  “If I had to size you up,” he says, “I’d say you’ve either got battle fatigue or you’re chicken.”

Causarano admits he may be a little of both. The war has gone on too long.  Too much has been lost. Enough is enough.

Katell blasts him again, calling him a “lousy soldier,” and reminding him that “when you fight a war, you fight a war!  And you kill until you’re ordered to stop killing!”

 

The sergeant can only shake his head.  “What’s your pleasure, Lieutenant?” he says.  “How many men have to die before you’re satisfied?”

To which Katell answers, “Offhand, I’d say all of ’em!  No matter who they are or where they are, if they’re the enemy, they get it!  First day of the war or last day of the war, they get it!”

Here, flustered, the lieutenant drops his binoculars.  And everything changes . . .

 

A Japanese soldier picks up the binoculars, hands them to the lieutenant, addressing him as “Lieutenant Yamuri.”

 

The lieutenant, shaken and confused, runs off, only to be shot at by enemy gunfire.  But when he looks at the enemy soldiers, he sees they are American soldiers.

When he returns to where his men are, he asks, “Who are you?  Where are we?  When?”

To his astonishment, he is told it is May 1942–over three years earlier.  Even more perplexing, the lieutenant slowly understands he is now–somehow–a Japanese officer.  “What’s going on?  What’s happened to me?” he wants to know.

 

The captain arrives.  He is a serious, scowling-faced man, and he is not pleased with the lieutenant’s antics and confusion.  He tells him so.  Lieutenant Yamuri, nee Katell, tries to pull himself together, tells the captain he is okay now, that he was just “feverish for a moment.”

The captain then reports that the artillery fire has failed to do its job.  The Americans trapped in the cave before them have not been destroyed, and have not surrendered.  They will undertake a full frontal assault, and Lieutenant Yamuri will lead the charge.

But the lieutenant is shaken.  It has dawned on him that he is now living the same situation, except in reverse.  No longer is he an American officer commanding a platoon to ambush a cave full of beaten, injured Japanese soldiers.  Now he is a Japanese officer being commanded to lead an assault on a cave full of beaten, wounded American soldiers.

He objects to the mission.  The Americans holed up in that cave are wounded, sick.  Couldn’t they simply bypass the cave?  Why attack it?

 

The captain is not sympathetic.  “They are Americans!” he says.  “They are the enemy!  We have to destroy them.”  He goes on to explain the well-being of enemy soldiers should concern the lieutenant no more than an anthill he might step on during the attack.

“But they are men!” Lieutenant Yamuri says.

The captain slaps him, leaves him there.  They will attack without him.

 

“May I ask the captain,” Yamuri says, “how many must die before he is satisfied?”

The captain’s words are hauntingly familiar:  “I would say all of them!  No matter who they are or where they are, if they’re the enemy, they die!  First day of the war or last day of the war, they die!”

 

Stunned, the lieutenant glances at his binoculars, and in that instant, he is returned to 1945.  He is the American Lieutenant Katell again, in the moments just before he and his men are to ambush the Japanese cave.

But he is no longer the angry, gung-ho man of action.  His face is ashen.

Suddenly, there is cheering among the soldiers in the camp.  Army headquarters has called.  The war is over.  The platoon has been ordered to retreat.  The impending battle has been averted.

Sergeant Causarano, seeing the lieutenant standing there, shell-shocked, mistakes his reaction to be one of disappointment.

“I wouldn’t fret,” Causarano says.  “There’ll be other caves, other wars, other human beings you can knock off.”

To which Lieutenant Katell, changed, solemn, remarks, “I hope not.  God help us, I hope not.”

 

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

The fracturing of society, the clear lines of demarcation many people draw between themselves and others is by no means a thing of the past, relegated to television shows in grainy black and white, originally aired six decades ago.  Our time has been witness to a disheartening and increasing extremism, a polarization of politics, where nationalism, xenophobia, and an “us-versus-them” worldview are on full display.

 

Ryan Swinton does not like being viewed as an “other.”  He doesn’t like being left out, abandoned, misunderstood.  Shamed.  None of us do.

As he so often did, Rod Serling offered a fitting takeaway.  In the closing voice-over to “A Quality of Mercy,” Serling says:

“‘The quality of mercy is not strained.  It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.’  Shakespeare.  The Merchant of Venice.  But applicable to any moment in time, to any group of soldiery, to any nation on the face of the earth–or, as in this case, to the Twilight Zone.”

 

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

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.

gladyscooper

 

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

redford1

 

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

redfordplayinghurt

 

“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.

rgarmstrong

 

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.

serling2

 

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.

patterns

 

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 . . .

wallaceinterview

 

“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.”

eyeofthebeholder

 

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.”

serlingwallce1

 

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

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

 

A Passage for Trumpet

We’ve all been there, at one time or another.  Everything seems to be going wrong, the world, gray, dark, and bare, as if by some perverse design, conspiring against us and keeping us down.

grayday

 

The main characters in The Eye-Dancers all struggle with this as well, feeling that life, in one way or another, has dealt them a bad hand, that they have too many obstacles to overcome, too many pitfalls littered along their path.  Over the course of the novel, however, they must learn to view things differently.  Their very survival depends on it.

self-esteem

 

So does Joey Crown’s.  In a first-season Twilight Zone episode titled “A Passage for Trumpet,” Crown, a down-on-his-luck trumpet player, is at the very end of his frayed and thinning rope.

joeycrown

 

As the story begins, we see Crown in an alley behind a club, listening to the performers inside, wishing he could join them.

“Joey Crown, musician with an odd, intense face,” Rod Serling tells us in a voice-over, “whose life is a quest for impossible things like flowers in concrete or like trying to pluck a note of music out of the air and put it under glass to treasure.”

Indeed, this is a man with a keen sense of beauty, of the delicate, silk-like strands that hold life together, but who has been battered and shaken by circumstance and a string of bad choices.

joeyjukebox

 

As he loiters in the alley, the club manager steps outside and sees him.  It is clear the men know each other.  Crown has played at the club before.

“I brought along my baby,” Crown says, flashing his trumpet.  “I thought you might need somebody with a horn.”

“Not tonight,” the manager says.  “Last time you played trumpet for me, you loused it up.  I had to share you with a bottle.”

Crown assures him he’s sober now, that he’s “forgotten what the stuff tastes like.”  But when he picks up his case, he knocks over a hidden bottle of whiskey.  It falls to the ground and shatters.

“Why, Joey, why?” the club manager asks.  “You had it!”  Why has he thrown it all away–the talent, the career–with alcohol?  Why did he always have to get drunk?

joeyandmanager

 

Looking the manager in the eye, Crown says, “Because I’m sad.  Because I’m nothin’.  Because I’ll live and die in a crumby one-roomer with dirty walls and cracked pipes . . . I don’t even have a girl. . . . But when I’m drunk–oh, when I’m drunk, boy, I don’t see the dirty walls or the cracked pipes.  I don’t know the clock’s goin’, that the hours are goin’ by . . . ’cause then I’m Gabriel.  I’m Gabriel with the golden horn.  And when I put it to my lips, it comes out jewels.  It comes out a symphony.  It comes out the smell of fresh flowers in summer.  It comes out beauty.  Beauty.”

He turns, ready to leave.  “When I’m drunk,” he says.  “Only when I’m drunk.”  He walks off, tosses his case aside in disgust.

“Man, I’m tired of hangin’ around,” he says  to nobody in particular.

The next morning, Crown sells his trumpet at a pawnshop.  Reluctantly, he accepts the proprietor’s offer of $8.50.  Later, he returns, half-drunk, and sees the proprietor placing his trumpet in the window with a price tag of $25.  Crown mashes his face against the glass and taps.

“Don’t worry, I ain’t gonna get that price,” the pawnshop owner shouts through the window.  “I got an overhead, too, you know.  Guys like you, you don’t understand that.  What kind of responsibilities someone like you got, huh?  Nothin’.  Nothin’ at all!”

Crown turns away from the window.  “Yeah,” says.  “Nothin’.  Nothin’ at all.  No responsibilities.  No nothin‘.”

joeyc

 

Without hesitating, Crown steps off the sidewalk, in front of a passing truck.  A woman nearby shrieks, Crown falls to the pavement, not moving, not breathing.

The screen fades to black.

Night has fallen, and Crown stirs, gets up.  As he soon discovers, though, things are not as they were.  He talks to a policeman, who ignores him.  He asks a man for a light, but he ignores him.  He approaches a woman working at a ticket booth, asks her for a light, and she ignores him, too.  It is as if he doesn’t exist.

joeyinlimbo

 

“Look at me!” he screams at her.  But she doesn’t.

Finally, he concludes that he’s dead, his suicide attempt a success.  That’s why no one can see or hear him.

joeyconfusedlimbo

 

He returns to the alley he visited the previous night, behind the club.  From somewhere further up the alley, he hears someone playing the trumpet.  He seeks out the source, intrigued.

“Don’t stop,” he says, when the trumpet player looks at him.  “It’s comin’ out beautiful.”

“Thanks,” the man with the trumpet replies.

gabeplayingtrumpet

 

Crown is shocked he can hear him, see him, when nobody else has been able to.  “You’re a ghost, too, huh?” he says, explaining that he stepped in front of a truck earlier and must be dead.

The man offers Crown his trumpet.  “Wanna blow on this awhile, Joey?” he asks.

Again Crown is taken aback.  How does this stranger know his name?

The man smiles.  “I know who you are.  You play a nice trumpet.  I know.  I’m an expert on trumpets.”

gabriel

 

After Crown plays a short tune, the man tells him he isn’t dead.  Crown protests.  What about all those people who didn’t see or hear him?

The stranger tells Crown it is they who are dead.  “They’re the ghosts, Joey, they just don’t know it yet, that’s all. . . . You’re the one that’s alive.”  He explains that Crown is in a kind of limbo, “neither here nor there.”  He is “in the middle, between the two.  The real and the shadow.  Which do you prefer, Joey?”

Crown says maybe he just forgot how much there was for him, about the music in his horn and how nice it sounded.  “Yeah,” he says.  “Somewhere along the line, I just forgot all the good things.  That’s what happened, you know.  I just forgot.”

The mysterious stranger tells Crown there is still time.  He still has a choice . . .

Crown, animated, without a shred of doubt, says if there’s a choice, then,  “I wanna go back!”

joeyandgabe2

 

The man pats Crown on the shoulder.  “All right,” he says.  “You go back.  But, Joey, no more stepping off curves.  You take what you get and you live with it.  Sometimes it’s sweet frosting, nice gravy.  Sometimes it’s sour and goes down hard, but you live with it, Joey.  It’s a nice talent you got.  To make music.  Move people.  Make ’em wanna laugh.  Make ’em wanna cry.  Make ’em tap their feet.  Make ’em wanna dance.  That’s an exceptional talent, Joey.  Don’t waste it.”

He walks away, but Crown shouts after him.  “I never got your name!”

“Call me Gabe,” the stranger says.  “Short for Gabriel.”  He smiles again, disappears into the night.

gabeunderlight

 

Suddenly, Crown is returned to that morning, stepping in front of the truck.  The same woman screams.  Crown falls to the pavement, but he immediately gets up, only grazed.  The driver of the truck, worried, jumps out of the vehicle and hands Crown a handful of bills, hoping that will persuade him to keep the doctors and insurance companies out of it.  “Be a nice guy, huh, pal?” he says.

Crown immediately puts the money to use, buying his old horn back from the pawnshop.

That night, as Crown plays the trumpet while relaxing on the roof of his apartment building, a young woman approaches.  She tells him he plays beautifully, and introduces herself.  She is new to the city, just moved in.  “I’ve never even been to New York before,” she says.

joeyandnan

 

“It’s not such a bad town,” Crown says.  “You’ll like it here.”

The woman smiles, asks him if he might be willing to show her some of the sights.

joeyandnan2

 

Crown smiles in wonderment.  “Me?” he says.  And then, his confidence boosted, his spirits lifted as high as they’ve been in ages, he excitedly tells her all the places they can visit.

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

When we are adrift, lost at sea, a thousand miles from the nearest coastline, even then, there is still a song to be sung, lyrics to compose, and a life to live.

Perhaps Rod Serling says it best, in the episode’s closing narration . . .

“Joey Crown, who makes music, and who discovered something about life; that it can be rich and rewarding and full of beauty, just like the music he played, if a person would only pause to look and to listen . . .”

pei

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–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

Previous Older Entries

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: