Wolf’s Eyes

It has been eons since I shared one of my old short stories on The Eye-Dancers!  And so, for this post, blemishes and warts and all, I will share a story I wrote way back in 2007–just before I began writing The Eye-Dancers the novel.  The story is called “Wolf’s Eyes”–and, again, I am not going back in and updating it all.  What follows is the story, exactly as I wrote in fourteen years ago.

On the surface, this story is very different from The Eye-Dancers, but what they have in common, I hope, is an honest exploration into the human condition and a depiction of the struggles and challenges and loves and hurts and joys and wonders of life.

I hope you enjoy the story!

 

“Wolf’s Eyes”

Copyright 2021 by Michael S. Fedison

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Nick dodged the punch easily.  The guy had telegraphed it by a mile.  Off-balance, stumbling forward,  the puncher fell into a snow bank.  Nick could have pressed his advantage, pummeled the guy, but he didn’t.  Over the years, he had learned to keep his cool—essential in his line of work.  He would only use force as a last resort.  Even then, it was risky.  Breach of the peace lawsuits were common, and often went in favor of the debtor.

“Look, Mr. Hickman,” Nick said, speaking slowly, calmly.  The man who had tried to hit him—Hickman—regained his feet, brushing snow from his nightclothes.  Fresh flakes, swaying drunkenly in a light, cold breeze, salted the air.  The only light came from a nearby street lamp, which glowed in the dark like a beacon, and a small fluorescent light that hung above Hickman’s front door.  “I have to take it away tonight.  You know that.  Why make it any harder than it has to be?”

“You lied to me!” Hickman said, closing the distance by half between himself and Nick with one long step.  “You told me you’d give me more time.”

Nick took a deep breath.  This was a part of the job he hated.  It was why he’d come here tonight after eleven—hoping to avoid a confrontation.  But no such luck.  “I didn’t lie to you, Mr. Hickman,” he said.  “I said I’d give you more time, and I did.  But I can’t give you another day.  My boss wouldn’t like it.”

From behind, a door opened, then slammed shut.  Nick turned, but kept an eye on Hickman, just in case he tried something again.  Great, just what he needed.  Mrs. Hickman.

“We’ll get the money!” she yelled.  “Just give him one more week.  Can’t you do that?”  She was now face-to-face with Nick.

Nick shook his head.  “I extended the deadline last time,” he said.  “I wasn’t authorized to do that, either, and I got an earful for it.  Can’t do it again.  The car needs to come with me.”

Hickman tensed, and Nick readied himself for a second attack.  But the thin, balding man just stood his ground.  The fight had apparently gone out of him.  “I’m just a little down on my luck right now, that’s all,” he said.  “I need to get a job.  I will get a job.  It’s not my fault I got laid off.  But how can I get hired somewhere if you take my car away, huh?  It’s the only one we have.”

Nick shrugged.  “I’m sorry.  But if I don’t take this car tonight, I’ll be looking for a job myself come tomorrow morning.”  With that, he got on his hands and knees, ready to finish what he’d started before Hickman had interrupted him.

The Hickmans stared at him while he worked.  It was as if they were frozen into silence by a combination of the subzero temperatures and Nick’s unbendable resolve.  He had pulled his tow truck into the driveway, directly behind the Hickmans’ blue ’03 Stratus.  Now, with the aid of a flashlight strategically placed on the snow-dusted surface of the driveway, he secured the tow chains around the car’s rear axle.  That got Hickman moving again.

He placed his gloveless hands on the Stratus’s trunk, as if to proclaim ownership and a right of refusal for its being towed away, then quickly pulled his hands away, wincing, the metal too cold to touch.

“Stop!” he said.  “Stop it!  How will I get a job without a car?  There’s no good work to be had in this town, and the city’s twenty miles from here.”  It sounded like he was on the verge of tears.

“I know,” Nick said, as he operated the winch, lifting the car off of its back wheels.  “I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry?”  It was Mrs. Hickman.  “You’re sorry?  How can you do this to us?  How can you just . . . steal our car like this?”

“It’s not stealing, Mrs. Hickman, and you know it.”  He checked his work, making sure everything was tight and properly secured.  Then he hopped into his truck.

As he backed slowly down the driveway, the Hickmans followed him.  Mrs. Hickman signaled for him to roll down his window.  He did, not sure why he was still such a glutton for punishment after all these years.

“You have no soul, do you know that?” she screamed at him.  Puffs of vapor escaped her lips, adding emphasis to her accusation.  “You are evil!”

Nick reclosed the window.  It served no purpose to argue with these people.  When he drove away a moment later, he looked in his rearview mirror.  Mrs. Hickman had her head on her husband’s shoulder, and he was holding tightly onto her, as if it were her support alone that prevented him from falling, face-first, onto the ground.

Two hours later, Nick thanked his father for staying over and watching Angel.  His father said to think nothing of it—Angel was a joy, as always—but Nick knew how fortunate he was.  Having his parents still living in the same community as he did helped him out immeasurably.  How many times had his father or mother babysat for Angel when Nick was out roaming the streets on one of his jobs?  Hundreds, easily.  And often at odd hours of the night.

When his father left, Nick felt bad.  He wished he could do something special for his parents, something more than the standard run-of-the-mill “thanks, Dad, thanks, Mom.”  He shuffled into the kitchen, ran some tap water into a tea kettle, then placed the kettle on the front left burner of the stovetop.  After turning the heat on high, he leaned against the counter.  Maybe he could put aside some money for them—little by little—and, once it amounted to enough, present it to them so they could take a cruise or visit Switzerland—a lifelong dream.  He shook his head.  He wouldn’t be able to save that much.  Not with Angel to look after.  Any money he could squirrel away went toward her college fund or the braces she might need in a few years.  Not for the first time, he thought back twelve years and wished he’d chosen a different line of work.

It had been one of those spur-of-the-moment decisions, made by an eighteen-year-old kid, fresh out of high school.  A friend of Nick’s at the time had an idea:  His uncle ran a repo agency, and was willing to hire the two of them on a trial basis—just to give them some real experience before they decided what to do with the rest of their lives.  “If nothin’ else, the job’ll show you how well you can work under pressure,” the friend’s uncle—a gray-bearded man who went by the name of “Buddy”—explained to Nick during their interview.  Nick found out quickly how true that was.  His friend, apparently unable to cope with that pressure, quit after a week.  But Nick stayed on.  He didn’t mind all the driving, worked the tow truck with ease, and wasn’t afraid of confrontations with angry debtors.  Nick was 6’3”, and, even at eighteen, was chiseled with muscle.  Most people didn’t want to tangle with him.

After a month on the job, Buddy told Nick he was hired, full-time, if he wanted it.  “Man, you’re already one of my top agents,” Buddy informed him.  Nick accepted.  The pay was decent—not great, but a lot better than flipping burgers.  The hours were long and irregular, but Nick didn’t mind.  He was a teenager.  Who cared if he sometimes spent entire nights driving around, searching for cars?

But, eventually, that all changed.  He met a girl, fell in love, and suddenly resented the crazy work schedule.  Sometimes, out on a date with Marie, he’d hear the whine of his cell phone, and he knew what it meant.  A job.  He’d need to cut the date short and perhaps drive as far as the county line—fifty miles one way.  Once he got married and they had Angel, it just got worse.  He wished he could work at an office, like a normal guy, and come home every night by six.

Additionally, after years on the job, he was tired of it.  Seventy-five percent of the time, he was able to avoid the debtors.  That’s why the late-night shifts often proved to be so effective.  There isn’t going to be a confrontation with someone who’s asleep.  But the other 25 percent of the time . . . He was burned out with it.  The ridiculous excuses.  The threats.  The name-calling.  It had just gotten old.

But the worst aspect of the job was what he’d experienced tonight.  Taking the car from the Hickmans wasn’t easy—it bothered Nick, and he suspected he might lie awake in bed for a while, replaying the image of the couple holding onto each other at the base of their driveway.  He wished he could be more hardhearted, but Marie had been glad that he wasn’t.  She used to say, “If it didn’t bother you, then you wouldn’t be you.”

The kettle on the stovetop began to whistle.  He shut off the burner, poured the steaming water into a teacup, then mixed in the hot chocolate packet.  It was a good night for hot chocolate.  The thermometer out on the front porch had read seven below when he’d gotten home.  Spring didn’t want to arrive this year.  Tomorrow was the first of April, and still there was no melting of the snow pack, no relief from the record-setting cold, no signs of the earth’s renewal.  Normally, crocus flowers would be pushing their way through the last patches of snow, and the daffodils, eager to upstage them, would be ready to bloom in a matter of days.  But now, there was only the deep snow and the whipping, howling northwesterly winds, and the endless days of leaden-gray clouds sealing off the sky.

He sat down at the table, took a sip of the chocolate.  Good and hot, and sweet, just the way he liked it.  He thought again of Marie.  He tried to push her away—thinking of her was too painful, but in his mind’s eye he could see her so clearly, as though she were sitting across from him, smiling, waiting to listen to how his job went.  If only it could be.  She would never smile at him again.  Never talk to him again.  Five years ago, she was driving along Pebble Creek Road, south of town.  Suddenly, a deer darted in front of her.  Swerving to avoid it, she lost control, and slammed into a tree.  The impact broke her neck, killing her instantly.  And Nick never could come to grips with that.  The power of an instant.  One moment, driving home, looking forward to seeing your husband and baby daughter, the next—in the blink of an eye, two final beats of the heart—slumped dead and motionless over the steering wheel.  He shuddered to think what might have happened to him if it weren’t for Angel.  She was the reason he’d managed to hold on—she still was.

He put his cup of hot chocolate down, rubbed his eyes.  It was no good brooding this way.  “Quit it,” he told himself.  “Why don’t you just quit it?”  As if in response, the wind grew louder outside, screeching, rattling the eaves and seeking entry into the warm house.

“Quit what?” a high-pitched little girl’s voice said from behind him.

He turned.  “Angel!  What are you doing up?”

“I couldn’t sleep.  I thought I heard the wolf, and . . .”  She tilted her head.  “But, Daddy, quit what?  What are you gonna quit?”  Her eyes were bright and alert.  Here it was, after one o’clock in the morning, and his seven-year-old was wide awake.  Like father, like daughter, he thought.  She walked up to the table, and looked into his cup.  “Can I have some?” she asked.

He handed her the cup.  “Careful, Angel.  It’s hot.  Just take a sip.”

She did—a loud, slurping sip.  He laughed, and it felt good.  Angel usually had that effect on him.  They had named her Angela, but he had never called her that, and was sure he never would, not even after she grew up, settled down, and had children of her own.  She would always be his Angel.

“So what are you gonna quit?” she said again, once she had sampled enough hot chocolate to her satisfaction.

He placed the cup back onto the tabletop.  “Nothing, Angel.  I was just thinking about my job, that’s all.”  He didn’t want to mention Marie.  No reason to go down that path.

She sat on his lap.  “You don’t like your job, do you, Daddy?”

He smiled.  “I just don’t like taking stuff away from people, that’s all.  I remember how, right after I started, a couple of the other guys told me not to worry.  It would get easier, the more I got used to it.  But it hasn’t.”

She looked up at him.  “Well, if you don’t like it, then why do you do it?”

It was a fair question.  He asked it himself from time to time.  But the answer was obvious, as clear as the blue in his daughter’s eyes.  There weren’t many good jobs in the area—Hickman had been right about that.  Besides, what could Nick do?  He had no degree, no special skills.  His entire working life had been spent repossessing automobiles from people who couldn’t—or, at times, wouldn’t—pay their bills.

He put his arms around Angel.  “To take care of you,” he said.  “And so when you get to be, oh, seventeen or so, you’ll be able to go to the mall with your friends and pick out all the jewelry you want, and they’ll say, ‘How can you buy all that stuff?’ And you’ll say, ‘Cause my dad’s a repo man, and he takes of me.’”

Angel giggled and rested her head on Nick’s shoulder.  “You’re silly, Daddy.”

“I’ll show you who’s silly,” he said, and reached for her underarm.  Even through her pajama top, he knew how ticklish she was.

She squirmed and laughed.  “Stop, stop!” she said.  When he did, she kept on laughing.  Then she looked into his eyes.  “I love you, Daddy.”

He almost cried then.  The trust in her.  The confidence she had in him.  He hoped he would prove worthy of it.  “I love you, too, Angel.”  He hugged her tight.  “Now, why don’t you go back to bed, honey?  It’s way too late for little girls to be up.  You have school tomorrow.”

She pulled back, sitting on his knees now.  “But, Daddy, I can’t sleep!  I heard the wolf howling!  I hoped maybe he wasn’t really there, but I kept on hearing him!  Didn’t you hear him?”

“No,” he said.  “And I don’t hear him now, either.  Do you?”

She turned her head sideways, listening.  “No,” she said.  “But I heard him before!  I know I did.  What if he’s here now?  Right next to my window?  Right—”

“Ssh,” Nick said.  “I’m sure he’s not here.”  Well, he was fairly sure.  Wolves were rare in these parts, but periodically some hunter or hiker might come across some paw prints deep in the woods, or even catch a glimpse of a wolf pack, especially at dusk or dawn.  Even then, the wolves were generally of no concern.  They almost never ventured into the town, and, though he lived a few miles out—in the boonies, as his parents liked to say—Nick hadn’t ever seen one on his land.  But he knew this year might be different.

Over the past two weeks, there had been an abnormally high frequency of wolf sightings
. . . though Nick wondered if they were genuine.  Maybe the folks who claimed to have seen a wolf were just trying to cause a stir.  If that was their intent, they succeeded.  Some of the town’s residents had joined together on what they called a “wolf watch.”  They thought some of their livestock might be in danger of attack, and, besides, wolves shouldn’t feel free to roam this far south.  “Keep ‘em up in Canada,” one old man had told Nick last week while waiting in line at the post office.  “They got no business comin’ down here.  Where’s the Border Patrol when you need ‘em?”

Still, Nick didn’t think he’d see a wolf on his property any time soon.  And he certainly didn’t want his daughter losing sleep on account of such an unlikely scenario.

“I’m sure it’ll be safe in your room, Angel,” he said.  “Go to sleep.”

This seemed to reassure her—a little.  “What about Michelle and Tammy and Carrie and Henrietta and Rosetta and—”

Nick let out a chuckle.  He kept a dozen chickens in the barn (he had always loved the taste of fresh eggs), and Angel had named each one of them.  Some of them were hard to distinguish, but Angel always seemed to know who was who.  “I’m sure they’ll be fine, too,” he said.  “The barn door is shut and latched.”

“I hope so,” Angel said.  “’Cause Jane Ferguson told me in school today that the wolf musta come to her house last night, ‘cause this morning, when her dad went outside, he saw wolf tracks goin’ straight to the barn.  And if the wolf went there . . .”

“Don’t worry about that, honey,” Nick said, but he understood Angel’s alarm.  The Fergusons lived only a half mile up the road from them.  That was too close for comfort.  “Nothing bad will happen.”

She got off his lap.  Her eyes were finally starting to look sleepy.  “Promise?”

“I promise,” he said.  “No wolf will break into our barn tonight.  Okay?”  He smiled at her.  “Here.  One for the road.”  He held the cup out to her, and she took one last loud sip of the hot chocolate.

“Thanks, Daddy,” she said.  “But it’s not so hot anymore.  G’night.”

“Good night, Angel.”

She left the kitchen, and he heard her climbing the stairs to her bedroom.

Ryersons’ General Store was one of those relics from America’s past—a small-town shop with dusty hardwood floors, a proprietor who knew you by name, and cramped shelves filled to overflowing with items you could buy much cheaper at the super chain stores in the city.  But Nick had always liked this place.  He’d shopped here since he was a kid.

When he opened the door, a bell announced his presence.  Jim Ryerson, who had owned the store since before Nick was born, stood behind the cash register, chatting with a red-haired woman Nick couldn’t identify.  He glanced up at him and waved.  Nick waved back, then proceeded to the refrigerator case.  He slid open the glass door, which squeaked, and retrieved a gallon of whole milk, along with a package of sharp cheddar cheese.  Then he approached the checkout counter.  Close up, the redhead looked familiar, but Nick still couldn’t place her.

“You should put a signup sheet outside, or right up front,” the woman was telling Ryerson.  “And get the men to band up.”

Ryerson looked over at Nick.  “All set, Nick?”

Nick nodded, placed his items onto the counter.  The woman eyed him, unfriendly.

“Impound many cars lately?” Ryerson said.

“A few,” Nick said, and suddenly it occurred to him why the woman looked familiar.  A couple of years ago, Nick seized a minivan from her.  She’d been four months behind on her payments.  At the mention of impounding cars, the redhead’s expression darkened.  Nick worked the entire county, and many of his jobs sent him down to the city.  He didn’t usually need to repo cars from his own town.  But he’d gone after enough that awkward, chance encounters like this one were bound to happen once in a while.  “Awful cold lately,” he said, wanting to change the subject.

“Tell me about it,” Ryerson said.  “Worst spell I’ve ever seen this time of year.  Makes me want to pack up an’ move to Florida.”

“Nah, too crowded,” Nick said.  “And too flat.”

“Well, at least they don’t have wolves there,” the woman said.  She was still scowling at him.

“Has there been another sighting?” Nick asked.

Ryerson nodded.  “They saw ‘im up by the Baker place at dawn.  Tried to shoot ‘im, but Kenny Baker never did win any prizes for marksmanship.”

“Man, what’s going on?” Nick said.  “Nothing like this has ever happened before.”

“It’s probably this crazy weather,” Ryerson said.  “With the cold we’ve been gettin’, and with the snow still so deep, pickin’s must be slim out in the woods.  So what’s a wolf do?  He comes raidin’ our barns, lookin’ for meat.”

Nick thought about that.  It was as good an explanation as any.  He was relieved he had a shotgun at home—an old Remington his father had given him.  He didn’t think he’d need to use it, but he was beginning to wonder . . . .

“Raiding barns would be bad enough,” the woman said.  “But he’s goin’ after pets, too.  My neighbor said the wolf got to chasin’ some cat right out in the road.  And my kids are havin’ nightmares, worryin’ about ‘im!  You got to put that signup sheet out, Mr. Ryerson.  Get a bunch of men to go out together and not come home till they gut that monster.”

Ryerson told her he would consider the suggestion.

“Do more than consider it,” she shot back.  “Everyone in this town will rest easier once that wolf is dead.”

Another late-night job, but this time there was no confrontation.  It went smoothly, and he was home just after midnight.  As he went upstairs, to check on Angel (his dad said she’d been asleep for hours), he felt that familiar sense of relief mixed with regret that he always did after completing a repo job.  He was relieved that the job was over, but he regretted having to take someone’s car.  He didn’t know the person he had targeted tonight.  A woman, apparently living by herself.  He didn’t know if she was delinquent on her payments because she was stupid with money, irresponsible, or whether she had been dealt one of those cruel, random blows life sometimes liked to dish out.  Maybe she was a good person, who tried hard to balance her checkbook.  Maybe she was kind and generous, lending money she didn’t have.  He didn’t know, and didn’t particularly want to.  Knowing always made the work harder.

He tiptoed to Angel’s door, gently pushed it open.  Her nightlight was on, and she was breathing gently, in a deep, sound sleep.  Any doubts and misgivings about his profession left him.  Everything he did, he did for Angel.  That was the only thing that mattered.

All through the next week, it snowed.  Still no sign of winter’s retreat.  Easter was approaching, but it seemed more like Christmastime.  And the temperatures remained well below freezing.  The townspeople openly wondered whether spring would ever come this year.

There were more wolf sightings, too.  A high school boy, out snowshoeing in his backyard, saw paw prints that led straight up to the porch.  An old married couple said the wolf had raided their storage shed, rummaging for scraps of thrown-out meat.  Another couple said the wolf had scratched at the side of their barn, apparently sniffing the sheep within, until its paws must have bled.  Dried red streaks littered the siding like a crazed, haphazard display of graffiti.  Even Jim Ryerson claimed he thought he saw the wolf out behind the general store, right in town, one night, in the moonshine.  And several people said they heard the wolf howling, deep into the night.

That whole week, whenever Nick came home from a repo job, he always thought of his Remington, secured and locked away in its gun case, but ready to use if necessary.

 

“Daddy!  Daddy!  The barn’s open!  Daddy!”

Angel was shaking him, rousing him, but he didn’t want to be roused.  This had been a rare night with no jobs.  He’d tucked himself in early.  “Wha?” he said.  “Angel, what are you doing?”  He shook his head, trying to clear it, rubbed some of the sleep from his eyes.  Checking the digital clock on his nightstand, he saw that it was 2:33 a.m.

“Daddy, the barn!” she shouted.  “I can hear the door!  It got loose!”

He sat up.  “That’s impossible, Angel.  That door’s latched.  It—”  But then he heard it.  A dull, rhythmic thud, thud coming from beyond his window.  The wind had been fierce earlier—fifty miles per hour.  There had been an advisory to stay off the roads.  Somehow, it must have jarred the door loose.  He slid back down, plopping his head onto the pillow.

“Daddy, what are you doing?” Angel said.  “The barn!  The chickens—”

“I’ll check on the chickens in the morning, honey.  If the latch broke, there’s not much I can do till it gets light anyway.”

“But, Daddy, the wolf!  He’ll get Jillian and Henrietta and Rosetta and—”

He sat up again.  “Angel . . .”  But then he stopped himself.  She was breathing so fast, nearly hyperventilating.  He knew she would never be able to get to sleep until he checked outside.  “Okay,” he said.  “Okay, honey.  I’ll go take a look.”

“Hurry, Daddy!”

He hurried.  And, once downstairs, he actually felt alert and awake.  He put on his overcoat—it was in the teens outside, and with the wind chill, it surely felt a lot worse—then considered the Remington.  He doubted the wolf would be out there, but if he was going to wander outside in the middle of the night, he wanted to be prepared for anything.  He unlocked the case, and pulled out the gun.

“Daddy?”  Angel looked scared.  She stared at the Remington.

“Go upstairs, Angel,” he said.  “I won’t be long.  I’m sure everything will be just fine.”  He offered her a reassuring smile, then opened the front door.  The wind sliced into him, freezing his exposed cheeks and hands.  Stupid, no gloves, he thought, but he didn’t want to go back and get them.  He went outside.

The barn door was clearly visible, bathed in the glow of two lamps that hung directly above it.  It had gotten loose, all right.  It banged repeatedly against the side of the barn, wood smiting wood, the sound echoing along the cold current of the wind.  A few bundles of straw whirled about the open entranceway, some of it spilling out into the snow-strewn path.  Looking more closely, Nick thought he saw something else, too. . . .

Tracks.

He walked over to the barn.  There were several sets of tracks, both going and coming.  He knelt down to examine them.  Wolf tracks, without a doubt.  And fresh.  Interspersed with the tracks, trickles of blood marred the path, freckling the snow with reddish-brown blotches.

“Great,” Nick said.  “Just great.”  From behind him, deep inside the barn, he heard the chickens clucking and moving about.  How many of them had the wolf gotten?  He was about to go check, when, from the corner of his eye, he saw movement.

He wheeled around, quickly, and saw, in the distance, a large shape heading for the woods.  It had to be the wolf, the same wolf that had raided his barn and killed who knew how many of his chickens.

“That’s the last time you’re gonna kill anything,” Nick said.  As if speaking for the wolf, in response, the loose door slammed into the barn’s side, causing Nick to jump.  “Get a grip,” he told himself, and set off after the wolf.

In his haste, Nick had forgotten to grab his flashlight, but the night was clear, and a cluster of distant stars along with a waning gibbous moon provided just enough illumination for him to see.  Snow crunched beneath his feet as he trudged into the woods.  He had lost sight of the wolf, but the tracks served as a guide.

He picked up his pace, nearly running, not wanting the animal to escape.  The tracks led around a bare maple tree, its limbs casting black shadows, like twisted fingers, onto the ground.  Nick sped past the tree, ready to continue the pursuit.  He was in a clearing now, but the tracks no longer forged ahead.  Rather, they veered sharply off course, they—

To his right, not ten feet away, he spotted two yellow eyes, reflected in the moonlight, staring at him.  He swallowed, but it felt scratchy.  His throat had gone dry.  The yellow in the wolf’s eyes was wild, feral.  Nick realized one wrong move might prove deadly.

At the wolf’s feet, three dead chickens lay in the snow.  They appeared remarkably unharmed—but they were dead, just the same.  Nick felt a rage come over him.  Angel would be heartbroken over this.  “Just stay right where you are,” he said, and slowly raised his Remington.  He tried to remain calm, but his heart was beating like a trip-hammer.  He was sure the wolf could hear it, sense it.  Just like it could probably smell the fear on his skin, the way it seeped through his pores and spread over his body like sweat.  He took aim.  Still, the wolf stood its ground.  Nick had it now.  All he had to do was fire his gun.

But then the wolf staggered.  It nearly fell over, but it was able to balance itself with an effort.  Nick couldn’t help but notice how ragged the animal was, how thin.  Its ribs stuck out through a mangy coat of fur, its left ear was gashed at the base, and blood leaked from its forepaws.

Looking into those wild yellow eyes, Nick pulled back the trigger, and . . . hesitated.  The wolf continued to stare at him.  It was almost as if the animal were attempting to communicate with him, connect with him.  That was a ridiculous notion, absurdly impossible.  And yet . . . why didn’t the wolf attack?  Or run away?  Or move at all?  Why did it just stand there like that?

Again the wolf staggered.  Clearly it was exhausted.  Finally, it looked away, at the multiple sets of tracks it had made.  Then it glanced at the chickens, before locking its gaze back onto Nick again.

Nick returned the gaze, peering deeply into the yellow depths of the wolf’s eyes, as if they were the gateway to a strange new world and he was an explorer intent on discovering its secrets.  He blinked, wanting to look away, wanting to fire his Remington and rid the community of this menace.  But he was unable to.  He was getting lost in the animal’s eyes, searching, searching. . . . until, like a cog fitting perfectly into place, he felt something click inside his head.  And he was able to see . . . really and truly see.  He saw the wolf for what it was . . . for what she was.  He saw a den tucked away deeper within the woods, where pups huddled together for warmth.  The wolf’s brood.  Somehow, he had no idea how, he knew those pups desperately needed to eat something, or they might not live to greet the morning.  He considered the wolf’s protruding ribcage again, her state of exhaustion.  How many nights had she hunted for food?  How many nights had she gone back to her children with nothing to share but hunger?  She must have been ravenous, on the verge of starvation herself—but she hadn’t taken a single bite out of the chickens.  She was saving them for her pups.

The wolf sat down, too tired to remain standing.  She wouldn’t take her eyes off of Nick.  In them, he thought he saw a recognition.  A species of kinship.

He lowered the gun.  “Go ahead, then,” he said.  “Take those birds back to your pups.”

The wolf, still, silent, looked at him.  Looked in him.  It even seemed to Nick that she nodded her head, ever so slightly.

He turned around, headed back through the woods, following the wolf’s tracks and his own, in reverse.  As he walked, he thought about what to tell Angel.  He knew she would ask him why he hadn’t shot the wolf, why he had let the wolf get away after killing the chickens.  He wished he might be able to invent a story for her, one that would lessen her hurt and outrage.  But all he could do was tell her the truth.  Tell her how shooting the wolf was something he just couldn’t bring himself to do.

And maybe someday, after she had grown older and this night had become merely a momentary blip on the radar screen of her memory, she would come to understand.

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

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Carpe Diem (Or, Pursue an Idea When It Hits)

There is a scene, early in the 1989 drama Dead Poets Society, where the new English teacher at the Welton Academy prep school, John Keating, has one of his students read aloud from a 17th-century Robert Herrick poem.  The stanza reads:

Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to day,
To morrow will be dying.

Keating and his class are standing in a hallway, beside the school’s trophy case.  Old team photographs of long-ago academy sports teams are hung inside the case, the students from a different time staring out at the onlookers, their expressions locked in place across the chasm of decades.

 

Keating asks his class what the verse means.  What was Herrick getting at?  “Carpe diem,” he tells them.  “Seize the day.”  But why?  Why “seize the day”?

“Because we are food for worms, lads,” Keating goes on.  “Because, believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room, will, one day, stop breathing.  We’ll die.”

Here, Keating asks the students to step forward to look at the photographs of the old sports teams.

“They’re not that different from you, are they?” Keating says to his class.  “Same haircuts. . . . Invincible, just like you feel.  The world is their oyster.  They believe they are destined for great things, just like many of you do. . . . But you see . . . these boys are now fertilizing daffodils.”

 

Keating then has them lean in close, tells them to listen, listen to the voices, the murmurs of the ghosts before them.  Do they hear it?  Keating whispers in a voice meant to sound like the grave:  “Carpe . . . diem.  Seize the day, boys.  Make your lives extraordinary.”

This scene is memorable for many reasons, not the least of which is the remarkable performance of Robin Williams, who plays Keating.  But what of the message?  What of carpe diem?  Is it wise counsel?

As with anything, if misunderstood or taken to the extreme, it can harm more than help.  After all, I may want to “seize the day” by climbing Mount Everest, even though I have no training and no preparation.  Or I may want to drop everything and experience life to the full by walking across America, leaving all my responsibilities and cares behind me.  That might feel good in the moment, but doubtful it would lead anywhere beneficial.

 

What, then, is carpe diem, and how should we apply it?  How about with writing or creativity?  Is there a literary version of carpe diem?  And if so, what does it look like?

I don’t know about you, but when it comes to anything creative–a story idea, a scene from a novel, an inspiration–I cannot force things.  If I say, “I want to write a short story today,” but have no workable idea to write about, try as I may, I won’t produce anything of value.

On the other hand, my best ideas always come unasked for, unplanned.  I can be doing anything–mowing the lawn, taking a walk, lying in bed–and boom!  It hits.  Where does it come from?  We may never know.  But it comes.  And it comes in its time and its choosing.  What to do then?

 

Carpe diem, of course!  It’s not every day an inspired idea strikes.  Whether it’s a novel idea, a short story, a poem, a song . . . it doesn’t matter.  When that idea strikes, in the white-hot fire of the creative epiphany, that is the time to act.

 

If it’s a poem, write it.  Right then and there, if possible.  Same with a song.  If it’s a short story, maybe jot a few notes if you can’t write it immediately.  Capture the details lest you forget them, and then, at the first opportunity, write the story.  If it’s a novel, again, jot down plot points, character traits, perhaps even make an outline.  However you work, whatever preparations you need to do before undertaking a long-form creative endeavor . . . do what you must.  And then begin writing the actual novel as soon as you can.

Because . . . why wait?  Why wait and allow apathy or indifference to seep into the picture?  Carpe diem.  Seize the literary day!  Take advantage of that gift–that new idea–while it’s fresh and you are fired up.

Write.  Create.  Make your words sing.

And make your (literary) life extraordinary.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Walk Down Memory Lane (Or, Where the Inspiration Comes From)

Recently, I took a short trip “back home” to visit my family in Rochester, New York, where I was born and spent the first two-and-a-half decades of my life.  Only . . . “Rochester” is too general.  I stayed at the old house, the house where my father still lives, where I grew up, where I spent a childhood and adolescence living and learning, and dreaming.

Rochester, New York - Wikipedia

 

Mostly dreaming.  I was an introvert growing up (and still am), and I spent a good portion of my time “elsewhere” in my mind.  I’d go out into the backyard and hit the Wiffle ball, pretending to be participating in the World Series.  I’d create lineups, do play-by-play, and even keep statistics.  Or I’d head out to the driveway and shoot baskets.  My parents had a hoop attached just above the garage.  The gutter that lined the garage bore the brunt of numerous misfired shots–by me, my friends, my brothers–you name it.  Even today, though the hoop is long gone, that gutter still wears its decades-old battle scars.  Other times, I’d go down into the basement and spend hours writing in the cool, dimly lit space, escaping the heat and humidity of summer days.  The common theme was–a lot of solitary activities, sequestering myself away from others, content to create an alternate universe, as it were, one as boundless as my imagination, with no limits and no restrictions.

The Wiffle Ball, Inc. - Official Site

 

That’s not to say I was always alone!  I often got together with my neighborhood friends, some of whom were the real-life inspirations behind the protagonists in The Eye-Dancers.  We’d do all manner of things throughout the year, but especially during summer.  We’d even have sleepovers, in my basement, that same space in which I spent so much time on my own.  I’d tell them of the ghosts and vampires that lurked in the shadows, under the stairs, in the crawlspace.  I was so convincing, I avoided going down there alone after sundown!  My solo basement adventures were exclusive to times when the sun was up and streaming through the cellar windows.  To be down there at night, I needed the company of my friends.

Soundbytes: Pop Music's 5 Best Vampire Songs | Wisconsin Public Radio

 

In the main, however, I was a loner.  Though often by myself, I never felt “lonely.”  There was always so much going on in my imagination, so many story plots being concocted, so many “out-there” scenarios playing across the movie screen of my overactive and fanciful mind.  And these flights of fancy did not occur only within the confines of the house.  No, indeed.

I would take walks through the neighborhood, sometimes for hours.  I’d go far afield at times, several miles out, walking, observing, saying hi to the cats and dogs that sometimes would follow me for a block or two.  I’d look at the houses, the architecture, especially examining the older abodes.  Two stories, with rotting shingles, mature oak trees and maple trees, and surely full of memories and experiences lurking within their walls, these houses never failed to capture my attention.  Sometimes I’d stand there on the sidewalk, just looking at the house, a corner of the yard, a specific tree or bush.  More likely than not, people inside probably watched me and wondered what the odd boy on the sidewalk was doing, and what he was staring at.  No one ever came out to interrogate, though.

Toronto seeks to save oak tree older than Canada | CTV News

 

Numerous story ideas were born on those walks.  Potentialities, possibilities, hauntings, evil, goodness, all manner of things would percolate in my mind, to the point where, often, when I arrived back home, I would whip out my old-school pencil and paper and jot down notes, or even dive right in to the story proper.

When I visited the old house, the old neighborhood, earlier this month, I took a long walk.  It was along the same route as some of my childhood walks.  Some things had changed.  Some of the houses–especially the ancient, haunted ones (or at least what I always told myself were haunted)–were gone, replaced by newer, more sterile homes.  Much of the neighborhood remained unchanged, however, and as I walked through the interlocking streets, it felt as though I were walking through time, my steps commingling with those of my younger self.  Memories swirled, regrets.  Joys.  And when I returned to the house, I whipped out a pencil and some old-school notebook paper, and jotted down a few new story ideas.

Meet the Andromeda galaxy, the closest large spiral | Astronomy Essentials | EarthSky

 

Works every time.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Dalkowski vs. Koufax (Or, the Importance of Sharpening Your Tools)

There is likely something you take to–something that, for as long as you can remember, has always come naturally to you.  As a child, when others around you struggled, you enjoyed doing it; it flowed like water down a mountain slope, easy, fast, and free.  The something in question can be anything: tennis, a foreign language, algebra, memorization, dancing, singing, juggling, writing.   But whatever it is, you always knew you had a natural bent toward it, a tilt, as if the skill in question were a star and you were a planet kept in orbit through its gravitational pull.

How to Understand Algebra (with Pictures) - wikiHow

 

For Steve Dalkowski and Sandy Koufax, the talent in question was throwing a baseball.  Indeed, it’s possible that someone could be a bodybuilder, the world’s strongest human, and still not be able to throw a ball inordinately hard.  And then you get someone like Dalkowksi, an unremarkable five foot eleven and 175 pounds but who could, reportedly, throw a baseball as fast as 110 miles per hour.  Koufax wasn’t quite as fast, but he was a contemporary of Dalkowski’s, and he threw plenty hard enough.

the long, hard journey of steve dalkowski, possibly the fastest pitcher ever!

 

Both men were lefthanders, and, at least early in their careers, despite their obvious inborn natural gifts, they were not overly successful.  Dalkowski, in fact, never was.  He never made it to the Major Leagues.  Blessed with that golden arm though he was (every batter who faced him maintained no one ever threw harder), he was fragile mentally, heaping enormous pressure onto himself before he took the mound.  He also, how shall we say, enjoyed a good time and did not train with the vigor he might have.  During his minor-league heyday, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Dalkowski would essentially strike out, or walk, every batter he faced.  In 1960, for instance, he both walked and struck out 262 batters in a single season.  Statistics that would be unthinkable for anyone else.

Dalkowski never made it out of the minor leagues.  He toiled away for nine seasons before flaming out, a footnote in baseball history despite being the fastest pitcher who ever lived.  He had all the natural talent in the world.  But talent, alone, wasn’t enough.

Meanwhile, Sandy Koufax began his career in much the same manner.  Admittedly, Koufax was never as wild as Dalkowski–no one was.  And he did make it to the Major Leagues at a young age and stuck around.  But for the first handful of years of his career, Koufax was a mediocre pitcher–full of potential but not coming close to realizing it.  Like Dalkowski, Koufax was a lefthanded flamethrower, but he was also blessed with an off-the-table curveball that, coupled with his fastball, made batters look silly.  He had one major problem, though–he did not have pinpoint control.  He would walk too many hitters and didn’t hit his spots consistently in the strike zone.  As a result, for the first five years of his big-league career (1955-1960), Koufax was a forgettable player–just “a guy” as they say.

Sandy Koufax Gallery | Trading Card Database

 

But he worked at it.  He was determined to get it right, smooth out his form, take away the hitches in his delivery, and overcome his control issues.  The hard work really started to pay off in 1961, when he won eighteen games and posted a 3.52 ERA.  Not earth-shattering numbers, but he was on the right track.  Then 1962 came along, and the countless hours he’d put in, perfecting his craft, would manifest in the best five-year stretch of any pitcher in baseball history.  From 1962 until his forced early retirement in 1966 (Koufax had suffered massive arm injuries during his career), the lefthander was virtually untouchable, posting ERAs as low as 1.93 and 1.85, winning twenty-five or more games in three of those magical seasons, and striking out 382 overmatched hitters in 1965.  “Trying to hit Sandy Koufax,” Pittsburgh Pirates great Willie Stargell once said at the peak of Koufax’s career, “is like trying to drink coffee with a fork.”

From Oakland to Pittsburgh, Willie Stargell - African American Registry

 

Two pitchers–both blessed with almost freakish talent–but only one of them “made it.”  The difference?  One honed his craft, worked endless hours, refused to accept mediocrity, and never relied on just his talent alone.  If you are a writer, for example, maybe you have an innate sense of pacing, of language, of turning a phrase just so.  Maybe people have said things to you like, “Wow.  You are such a poet!  The way you put words together.  You make them sing.”

 

All may be true.  But if you don’t take that gift and work with it, if you don’t master grammar and punctuation; if you don’t study story structure and learn how to “kill your darlings”: if you don’t strive to prune and pare down and remove pesky adjectives and adverbs and redundancies from the text, you will be the equivalent of the 100-mph pitcher who couldn’t throw strikes.  Your talent will shine through, but it will be buried underneath too-wordy and sloppy prose.  It will not be maximized, and your potential will not be reached.

Off to the Red Pen! – Heidi Eliason

 

So, whether you write or sing or play basketball, or pitch a baseball–put in the hours necessary to master your skill.  Sweat the small stuff.

It can make all the difference.

Just ask Steve Dalkowski and Sandy Koufax–and the batters they faced.

PRACTICE CHART - Callirgos Music

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

Thankful (for the Memories, and the Inspiration)

Late November, the northeastern United States, the hill country of east-central Vermont.  No snow whitens the landscape yet this year, as the fields and meadows remain a stripped, subdued green dotted with dead, scattered leaves.  Cows and sheep enjoy the cool, bug-less weather.  There is a stillness, a quietness in the air.  It is a season of thanksgiving, even amid the calamitous year of 2020.

Post-Thanksgiving R&R AND Putney Craft Tour! Nov 27-29 | Vermont Gay Male  Rock River B&B Resort near Brattleboro

 

And for me, today, this year–and always–one thing I am eternally thankful for is my childhood.  I was lucky.  I was raised in a stable and loving family.  My father still lives in the same house where I grew up.  I never had to move as a kid.  And, with that stability, I acquired neighborhood friends who stood the test of time, season after season, year after year.  Fixtures of my youth.

Indeed, as I’ve mentioned previously over the years on this blog, the protagonists from The Eye-Dancers were inspired by the friends I grew up with, the kids from the old neighborhood.  And I think, even back then, in those long-ago summers of the 1980s, navigating a childhood without the Internet, without smartphones and tablets and smart speakers and Wi-Fi, I knew that what we shared was something special.  Something enduring.  To this day, when I hit a dry patch in my creativity, I pause, think back, and remember.  Because I know that the essence of creativity–my creativity, anyway–streams forth from those adventures decades ago–the inquisitiveness of childhood, the explorations, the stories, the inventions.  The wonder.

1980s retrospective - National Library of Scotland

 

I am thankful for that.

Rick and his brother, Bill (Ryan and Tyler from The Eye-Dancers), lived next door, and Joe (well, Joe, from The Eye-Dancers) lived kitty-corner across the street.  Grronk (well, Grronk from The Eye-Dancers), Matt K. (Marc from The Eye-Dancers), and Matt B. (Mitchell from The Eye-Dancers) lived a few streets away.  If I felt bored or had nothing to do on a weekend or a summer day, I’d head outside, grab the basketball, and start shooting at the hoop my parents had in place above the garage.  And–like clockwork–snap!  Screen door opening and shutting.  Rick next door, coming over, responding to the bouncing basketball.  And, moments later: slam!  Joe’s screen door across the way banging shut, as he waddled over. And we’d shoot at the hoop.  Talk.  And plan something for when Matt, Matt, and Grronk would come.

93,032 Basketball Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free Images - iStock

 

There were sleepovers, too.  We’d head down into the basement, where we’d play games I had invented.  Sometimes I’d read aloud from stories I’d written, and it would be well past midnight before we turned in in our sleeping bags.  The basement was old, creepy, with mysterious noises and strange clicking and hissing sounds that would come unbidden, in the dark.  As we drifted off to sleep, I’d be sure to tell them of the ghosts, the goblins, and the vampires that hid, silently, underneath the stairs.  Invariably, a flashlight would flick on, cutting through the gloom.

A guide to ghosts by Jonathan Stroud | Children's books | The Guardian

 

Mostly, though, I just remember the camaraderie.  The walks we’d take.  On some of those summer sleepovers, we’d take a walk around the neighborhood, after midnight.  Was it safe?  We thought so.  Safe enough, anyway.  Besides, there was strength in numbers, and there were half a dozen of us.  As we walked, we’d look at the houses.  Most were dark.  A few still had lights on.  We’d guess who lived there (if we walked far enough afield and no longer knew), what they might be doing on the other side of the walls and windows.  We’d look up at the sky, and if the stars were out, we’d talk about space travel, time travel, and how the light from those stars took millions and millions of years to reach us, and how, seeing them now, we were, in effect, gazing into the past.

What's Your North Star? A Short Guide In Defining Your Purpose | The  Minimalist Vegan

 

“Is it possible that some of those stars aren’t even there anymore?” Matt B.  (Mitchell) would ask.

“What kinda stupid question is that?” Joe shot back.  “‘Course they’re there!”

“Well, I don’t know,” Matt K. (Marc) would chime in.  “Theoretically, they could be gone.  The light we’re seeing is from millions of years ago.  We have no way of knowing what’s happened in the intervening years.”  (Hey, Marc Kuslanski didn’t materialize out of thin air!  Matt K. was a grade-A inspiration for the character.)

We’d keep walking, talking, wondering, arguing.  We felt very young, and very strong.  Full of potential, the years ahead of us yawning wide, decade upon decade.

ᐈ Vortex stock pictures, Royalty Free vortex images | download on  Depositphotos®

 

That’s what I remember the most.  The feeling of possibilities.  Ambitions.  Dreams.  The sense that we had all the time in the world, and nothing was going to stop us.  The full-throated expression of creativity and what-ifs.  Daring to imagine.  To wonder.  To consider.  Nothing was off-limits.

Which brings me back to today, 2020, decades removed from those days of my childhood.  Back then, the year 2020 would have seemed like a century away, some distant, inconceivable future on the other side of tomorrow.  Yet here I am.  Here we are.

The City of the Future: Closer than We Imagined? | IndustryWeek

 

But those memories live on.  And the energy and enthusiasm of those long-ago days, and the friends with whom I shared them–spur me to press on, to continue dreaming and writing and creating.  To continue looking up at the night sky and asking questions.

And to never, ever forget.

What's the matter with the Universe? Scientists have the answer | Deccan  Herald

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

An Ode to Fluff (in a Sober Season)

It is indisputable.  We live in historically stressful times.  While a worldwide pandemic rages on, growing worse by the day, while crises arise in both far-flung places and close to home, and while perhaps the most consequential election in American history approaches, people everywhere feel a sense of anxiety, a tightening of the chest, a species of fear.  When will the pandemic end?  How will we get out of this?  When will we feel safe again?  When can we return to a sense of normalcy?  Stressful times, indeed.

Great whites found to contain very high amounts of mercury and arsenic -  Insider

 

And while it is important to engage, to tackle the issues and problems of our time head-on, to speak out for truth and common sense–there is also something else that is important: our well-being, our state of mind.  Our sanity itself.  One thing is certain–too much stress and anxiety, especially over a protracted period of time, can have a deleterious effect on our health.

So, what to do?  Well, there is much we can do.  Go out for a jog, get the heart pumping.  Write a poem, or a novel.  Or a song.  Read a book.  Do Pilates or Tai chi.  Volunteer in the community.  Mow the lawn.  Meditate.  Take a night and go to bed early–regardless of what you have to do.  But one thing I try to do when the pressures of life seem too great, when the vice pinches tighter, when the clouds darken and multiply in a bruised sky the color of gunmetal is–to seek out something fun.

Dreary and cool day ahead

 

I am a proponent of the serious, the studious, the deep, and multilayered as much as anybody.  But in times like these, when the world is collectively holding its breath, there is also much to be said about lighthearted, airy entertainment.  Do you have a “guilty pleasure”?  Perhaps a silly movie or absurd TV show that you love?  Does a certain sitcom make you laugh, even as you realize how ridiculous it is?  What do you enjoy that is fluff, light on substance but high on laughs?  There must be something.

Sugar Free Marshmallow Fluff - Step Away From The Carbs

 

Seek it out.  Take an evening and stream some episodes or, to go old school, break out a DVD and pop it in.  But give yourself permission to enjoy something frivolous.  Are you a Seinfeld fan?  The GolbergsModern Family?  What about The Big Bang Theory?  Or maybe it’s a movie.  Maybe it’s an old movie–perhaps a golden oldie like Caddyshack or Trading Places or The Seven-Year Itch.  Maybe it’s all of them and more.

Episode 44: THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH with Grae Drake — CLARKE WOLFE

 

For me, when I’m in need of something to make me laugh and forget about the strains and the struggles for a while, I turn to Cheers, The Honeymooners, and–though not exactly a comedy, and certainly not altogether lighthearted–Forrest Gump.  Or maybe I’ll seek out a classic 1970s sitcom like Sanford and Son or Happy Days.  Or something really old like The Philadelphia Story, or, my all-time favorite, It’s a Wonderful Life.  Again, not all of these are pure fluff.  The point is, they take me away on a pleasant journey.  They allow me to disengage for a time.  They make me laugh.  They sometimes make me cry (but in a good way; the climax of It’s a Wonderful Life gets me every time).  They enable me to step away from the insanity and the craziness and the deadlines and the worries and the anxieties and the strife, and they provide a moment of respite, a safe space, an oasis overflowing with elixirs for the soul.

The Odd Places It's A Wonderful Life Has Turned Up | Den of Geek

 

Your places of fun-filled and lighthearted refuge may be different from mine.  But you have them.  You have your go-to sources for comfort.  We all do.  So, on this Halloween weekend, I hope you have the chance to dip your toe in, if only for a while, to settle in and relax and laugh.  Laugh at something silly.  Laugh at some corny, dated sitcom produced in the years before you were born or a contemporary comedy that never fails to amuse.

Stressors are all around us.  And real problems need to be tackled and overcome.  But we can all benefit from taking a brief detour in a friendly neighborhood bar where “everybody knows your name” or a lively and song-filled jaunt down the Yellow Brick Road.  I know I can.

There's no place like home: The Wizard of Oz, 80 years on

 

And, maybe, just maybe, this weekend I will.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Curious Case of the Beagle and the Purloined Loaf of French Bread (Or, You’ll Never See Unless You Look Up)

She’d been gone the entire morning, and I was worried.

“Mom, we should go looking . . . in the car.”  I’d already walked the neighborhood, without any luck. I didn’t see our dog anywhere.  And, at eight years old, I couldn’t very well drive myself.  I needed someone else to step up.

“I’m sure Poopsie will be back soon,” Mom said.  “You know how she is.”

To step back, yes, you read that right.  Our dog was named Poopsie.  Well, Poopsie III, if you want to be precise. Don’t blame me.  It was a family tradition.  Every dog we ever had, my mother named Poopsie.  She wouldn’t have it any other way.  We had four in all, and number four would end up being my best friend throughout my teen years and beyond.

 

But Poopsie III was a good friend, too.  She was a beagle, who spent most of her time in the fenced-in backyard.  My father built her a doghouse, and she would hole away in there for hours on end, only to reemerge ready for food and play.

 

Play, indeed.  Poopsie III was a high-energy dog, often running around in circles chasing her own tail, hunting birds, and playing fetch with the stamina of superdog.

And, oh, yeah.  She liked to run away.

We tried to prevent it, but it was a losing proposition.  We didn’t want to keep her on a leash 24/7–she was too rambunctious and full of energy.  And we hoped the fence would keep her safe and secure in the yard.  It didn’t.  Not only did Poopsie III have the stamina of superdog; she had the leaping ability of superdog, too.  She jumped the fence with ease.  (She also dug underneath it, burrowing down and crossing into the neighbor’s yard via her hastily constructed subterranean path  The neighbor had a poodle, Satch, and when Satch was in his own backyard, Poopsie would invariably tunnel under the fence to go play with him.)  Of course, I recommended that we just let her in the house and have her live with us inside.  My mother objected (though Poopsie IV, a cocker spaniel, would indeed be an indoor dog).  What could I do?  I didn’t have the necessary clout as an eight-year-old.

 

And on that day, that overcast, muggy August morning, Poopsie was missing.  When I checked the clock that hung above the sink, the hands told me it was nearing noon.  And Poopsie had been gone since before eight–four hours ago!  She’d never been gone this long.

“Mom!” I protested, unwilling to let this go.  But my mother stood firm.  She gave me a two o’clock deadline.  If Poopsie didn’t show up by then, we’d head out in the car and search for her.

Those two hours crawled by like a tortoise lugging a piano.  Finally, though, 2:00 p.m. arrived–and still no Poopsie.

“Okay,” Mom said.  “Let’s go.”

 

We headed out to the driveway.  But rather than entering the car directly, we decided to walk into the street and peer into the distance–just in case.  By this time, there was a break in the cloud cover, and a warm summer sun shone upon the neighborhood.  I shielded my eyes with my right hand and peered up the road.  A few seconds went by, and nothing–only a few neighbors milling about in their front yards. The street was empty–not even a car. But then, I saw movement–a shape emerging atop the hill that lay beyond the stop sign at the nearest intersection . . . could it be?  I took a few steps forward.  I sensed Mom did the same, though I didn’t know for certain as my focus was 100 percent on the tableau playing out before me.

 

As the shape in the distance grew nearer, sprinting down the hill, closer, closer, running faster, I knew.  Poopsie!  There was no doubt.  But where had she gone?  Why had she been missing for so long?  And . . . what did she have in her mouth?

Indeed, as she bolted through the intersection, now on flat ground, and approached us, we could make out what she had: a long, full loaf of French bread.  She hadn’t taken a bite out of it–and it had to be two feet long.  She gripped on tight, careful not to drop her catch.  When she finally reached us, my mother and I burst out laughing.  How could we not?

 

“Poopsie!” Mom shouted.  “Where did you get that?”

There was a bakery way up and over the hill, two miles up the road on a different street–Ricardo’s.  We went there sometimes to acquire fresh bread and other delectables.  Had Poopsie gone inside the bakery?  Or had she hid in the shadows nearby and waited for an innocent customer to emerge with a loaf of French bread?  I tried to picture the theft.  How had she managed it?  And why wasn’t anyone chasing her?

 

Before Poopsie could settle in and partake of her ill-gotten bread, my mother yelled at her for running away and for stealing the loaf.  Instantly, Poopsie–still with a vice-grip on her prize–darted toward the backyard and hopped the fence.  We went back in the house, looked through the window, and there she was . . . trying to enter her doghouse with the loaf of bread.  But the bread was too wide and kept barring entry.  She’d plow ahead, but the bread would catch on the wood of her house, rebuffing her time and again.  Finally, Poopsie solved the riddle, dropping the load and nuzzling it into her doghouse with her nose.  When she vanished inside her abode, we knew she’d be there for a while.  We just hoped she wouldn’t get an upset stomach!

 

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

Have you ever felt desperate for an idea?  Have you ever experienced writer’s block?  Do partial ideas come your way, tantalizing in their promise, but frustrating in their incompleteness and the many gaps that still need to be filled?  The muse isn’t always in a giving mood.  Sometimes, we just need to wait.  Because I know that, at least for me, ideas cannot be forced.  Creativity cannot be coerced.  I can think about a skeletal idea, I can attempt to build muscle and sinew and attach them to the bones, but, in the end, the full flower of the idea, the complete telling of the story, will come when it comes.

 

And this happens a lot.  More times than I can count, I get fragments, partial inspirations, intriguing scenarios and what-ifs.  But until those scenarios can be expanded, until characters and subplots and layers upon layers of story can be added to the initial idea, until a palette of colors can be applied to the sketch, I am stuck, in an embryonic state of the process, waiting on a capricious and too often shy muse to come to call.

 

And there are times when it all feels so hopeless, when the lack of workable ideas rises up like a taunt, when it’s easy to wonder if the literary well has gone dry and the pump forever malfunctioned.  But in those moments, after searching and cajoling and overthinking and obsessing, when characters and dialogue are silent as the grave, be sure to look up.

To believe.

To survey that hill in the distance.

Because maybe, just maybe, the answer, like a jubilant, rediscovered dog with a purloined bakery prize, will come dashing toward you with the answers you need.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

That Old Black-and-White Movie Magic

“The best thing about the future,” Abraham Lincoln once said, “is that it comes one day at a time.”

We can all relate to those words, especially these days.  A worldwide pandemic has a way of making us pause and focus on our perspective, values, beliefs.  It’s been a remarkable and horrifying few weeks.  The world has changed overnight, it seems.  And all we can do is our part to get through this once-in-a-lifetime crisis, to help in any way we can, and to be smart and responsible.

 

Some, of course, the frontline emergency nurses and doctors, are at the center of this war on humanity.  They are fighting the battles raging in hospitals and ERs.  They are the soldiers fighting for each of us.  For most of us, however, we are either hunkering down at home all the time or only going out to work at our job and perhaps shop for necessities every now and then, only to return home as efficiently and quickly as possible.  Either way, a lot of people are spending a lot more time in their abodes.

 

For me, personally, this “social distancing,” as it’s called, isn’t that difficult to get through.  I’m a natural introvert.  Nevertheless, the degree of hunkering down at home is a challenge even for a lifelong loner like me.  I spend most of my days working from home, editing and proofreading manuscripts for book publishers and individual authors.  But at night, or when I just need a break, I am seeking an escape, a place to turn to, a temporary refuge from the world and the work.

 

Sometimes I read–either books or my vintage comic books, which, with their musty, magic smell and corny, dated story lines, have been my loyal companions since junior high.  Other times, I’ll pop in a DVD (I am old school that way) of a favorite sitcom or a Ken Burns documentary or an episode of The Twilight Zone.  But more and more these days, I am watching old movies.

 

I love old movies, and by old, I mean old.  Black-and-white Cary Grant, James Stewart, Fay Wary, Katherine Hepburn old.  I have a number of DVDs acquired through the years; for ages now, a lot of them have sat in piles, tucked away, gathering dust.  Now I am watching them.  They provide a comfort, I suppose, a lightening, before sleeping at night during such dark and uncertain times.  They are my own personal island, a tropical beach of the soul where I can walk along the water’s edge, sand in my toes, getting lost for an hour or two.

 

There is much to choose from.  Hitchcock classics like Rope, Rear Window, and To Catch a Thief.  Sappy Christmas movies that I love–It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, Meet Me in St. Louis.  Film noir classics with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Veronica Lake, John Garfield, Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, and Robert Mitchum.  And the dramas like Gone with the Wind, Citizen Kane, The Lost Weekend, just to name a few.  The classic romances–Casablanca, The Philadelphia Story, Rebecca, and so many more.  A virtual treasure trove.

 

 

Admittedly, sometimes I’ll go for something more “modern” like Forrest Gump or Field of Dreams or Back to the Future.  But, by and large, when I fish for a movie to go with the overly salted popcorn, it’ll be a vintage film from the 1940s or 1950s, and then I will allow myself, temporarily, to take a detour from reality with Clark Gable or Ingrid Bergman or Burt Lancaster.  I know I need to come back to the real world soon enough, so while I’m gone, I make sure to enjoy the journey.

 

 

 

I hope each of you is finding a way to cope and push through this insecure and troubled time as well.  Whatever your pleasure, whatever your method of dealing and persevering and finding some solace, somehow, please be careful, take care, and stay safe.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

Mike

The Gift

The season is upon us.  It has arrived, and regardless of your faith, your beliefs, your worldview, there is no escaping the yuletide.  It is all around us, enveloping the streets and stores and online digital marketplaces like an omnipresent universal force, inexorable and all-consuming.  For many, Christmastime is stressful, tragic, depressing.  For others, it is joyful, energizing, the apogee of the calendar year.  And, perhaps for most of us, it is somewhere in between–a little of this, a little of that–some years tilting more toward the negative, other years more toward the positive.

 

For me, as I wrote last year, this time of the year will forevermore be bittersweet, and it will never, can never, be the same.  However, there are things I can do, memories I can cherish, perspectives I can take that contribute to making the yuletide a special season still and after all.  Be it watching a classic movie, or enjoying the company of family and lifelong friends, or remembering things, little things, that stay with me through the years, there is no shortage of material to work with.

 

This post is about a memory.

And a gift.

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

I’ve written many times on here about my love of comic books, how I was introduced to them at a young age, and formed a lifelong friendship with these pictorial tales of wonder.  I’ve also written about some of the various comics shops in Rochester, NY, in the 1980s, where I grew up.  And the one that stands out from the pack is, without question, Empire Comics.

 

Empire Comics was already a Rochester niche phenom by the mid-1980s, when I started going.  It didn’t take me long to see why.  Back then, in the ancient days before the internet, it was the comic book shop where collectors went if they wanted to buy “back issues”–those gems from yesteryear that seemed always to accrue in value exponentially each year.  If you weren’t wealthy, you had to pick your spots, and, for me, often, that meant selecting back issues that were ragged.  Maybe a water stain, a spine roll, a missing staple–maybe all three.  The fact was, the mint-condition issues were usually priced too high, so I needed to dig down, beneath the surface, and appreciate the singular aesthetic nuances of issues with plenty of wear and tear.

 

By the winter of 1987, Jim, the proprietor of Empire Comics, knew this about me.  I’d been a regular visitor and shopper to his store on the city’s south side for two and a half years by that point.  He also knew that, within a week of Christmas, the previous two years, I came into his shop with my mother to select a special “Christmas back issue”–the sort of issue I usually wouldn’t be able to afford the other eleven months out of the year.  (Okay, so my mother’s the one who actually paid for it, if you want to get technical!)  How do I know Jim knew about this developing Christmastime tradition within my family?  Because of what happened in late December 1987 . . .

 

We arrived midmorning, four days before Christmas.  It was a Monday; I remember that.  It was sunny, a rarity in western New York in December, the cloudiest month of the year.  Entering the shop, the bell Jim had placed atop the door tinkled, a welcoming sound I always looked forward to.  The store was free of other customers–validating my mother’s prediction.  “Monday morning, no one’ll be there,” she said.  She was right.  She often was.

As we stepped inside, Jim shouted my mother’s name–“Linda!”–as was his custom.  Though I was the collector, it was my mother he usually talked to.  I was busy flipping through the merchandise, and my mother, outgoing to her core, did not choose to simply stand there while I browsed.  So she and Jim had become friends.

This time, though, after calling her name, Jim beckoned for me to join him by the register.  It sat atop a glass display case housing Empire Comics’ most prized back issues–rare jewels from the 1940s and 1950s, so far removed from my price range, they might as well have been for sale on Mars.  That didn’t stop me from peering inside, though.  Looking through the glass was like looking into a realm of pure possibility.  It always made me think of the Gold Rushers from the middle of the 19th century.  Buried treasure.  Items so rare as to be precious.

 

Someday, I’d think, in awe.  Someday . . .

But that day, that sunny December day, like a sleight-of-hand magician, Jim pulled out a comic from underneath the register and set it atop the display case.  It was a worn copy of Fantastic Four number 20, originally published in November 1963 and featuring the first appearance of the supervillain The Molecule Man.  It was my ambition to own every back issue of the FF, as fans called them.  I was getting closer and closer by the month, but number 20 was one that had alluded me.  Jim knew that, too.

 

“Take it,” he said.

“Huh?”  It was the only thing I could think of.

“It’s yours, free of charge.  A gift.”  He spread his arms and smiled.  A few feet away, I saw my mother giving him the side eye.  Sure, he was a nice guy and sure, he’d become something of a friend.  But who ever heard of a shopkeeper giving away his merchandise?  While the issue before me was beat up–heavily creased with a slight mouse chew ripped out of the top right corner–it still likely garnered a $15 or $20 price tag (far higher today; if you’re looking for a strong “stock,” you can’t go wrong with old comics!).

“I got a bunch of ’em in the shop right now, and I know it’s one you need,” he said.  “So, take it.  On me.”

We talked for a while, my mother joining in.  It didn’t take long to see Jim was serious.  He was giving me a $20 comic book.

What was I to do?  Refuse the gift?

I took it.  I still have it to this day.

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

When I think of all this now, it strikes me as remarkably old-fashioned.  So 20th-century.  Almost like something you’d discover in a time capsule.  The fact it feels that way at all, however, is a warning, a signpost up ahead, if you will, telling us as a society to take a breath and slow down for a moment.

 

We live in an age that is so far removed from 1987 technologically, the distance ought to be measured in eons, not decades.  In the ’80s, we had landlines, the postal service, VHS tapes (video stores!).  Newspapers and the nightly news were still the media most people used to digest their information.  Even fax machines did not become widely used until late in the decade.  If you went to an office, you did your work on a typewriter, and a personal computer was a Commodore 64.  And smartphones?  Social media?  WordPress?  All the accoutrements that so monopolize daily life on the precipice of 2020?  These existed only in the pages of science fiction.  To a 21st-century native, the 1980s and the Mesozoic era are, no doubt, for all intents and purposes, synonymous.

 

Today we can buy literally anything we want, no matter how obscure, on a device we carry with us wherever we go.  We can look up information anytime, anywhere.  We can watch movies while we walk, find Babe Ruth’s 1929 batting average in ten seconds flat, interact digitally with people all over the world, any time of day or night.  In a way, we can do anything.

 

And yet . . . for all the value in finding that deeply discounted item on Amazon, or that comic book on eBay, there is something to be said for the human connection, for a store owner to know his customers well enough to plan ahead, prepare a holiday surprise for a middle-school kid who frequented his shop, month after month, year after year–and to be able to do it not because a software application told him to, but because he remembered, personally, all on his own, due to a genuine and real rapport that had been earned and nurtured through person-to-person interaction.

Honestly?  I don’t even remember what I purchased that day at Empire Comics.  Whatever it was has been blurred, swept away in the mists of thirty-two years.  All I remember is the gift.

“Merry Christmas,” Jim hollered as my mother and I exited the shop.

And a joyful and blessed holiday to all of you, in 2019.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Where Freedom Lies

Have you ever turned your attention heavenward on an overcast day? I think it’s safe to guess you probably have.  I know I have.

Maybe you’re feeling low, beaten down, hampered by circumstance and the unfortunate course of recent events. And when you look up, hoping, perhaps, for a kind of solace, a jolt of inspiration, instead you are confronted with a sky that is low and gray, appearing as if some celestial giant has dumped their dirty laundry into the dark slate of the clouds.  And sometimes it’s easy, and natural, to feel trapped.  Is there any way out?  Is there some unseen escape hatch that can be discovered and pulled?

 

We’ve all been there, at one time or another.

In The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel, the protagonists find themselves in an alternate reality, after having traveled through an interdimensional void.  Quite literally, during their adventure, their very survival depends on their point of view, their ability to transcend their predicament with perspective, insight.

 

And thoughts.

In The Eye-Dancers, as he ponders the manner in which Mitchell Brant, Ryan Swinton, and Joe Marma have been able to tap into the “ghost girl’s” otherworldly powers and navigate through time and space, Marc Kuslanski, as is his wont, attempts to drill everything down to the rational, the scientific, disregarding anything that is supernatural.  As he does this, however, he reflects on how quantum mechanics intersects with the limitless capacity of thoughts.

 

From chapter 22:

“If a person could alter reality simply by observing something, then how much more powerful were his thoughts?  Take Ryan and Joe and Mitchell.  They had convinced themselves that some ‘ghost girl’ was contacting them in their dreams.  They had no doubt that this was true.  And so . . . their thoughts created a new reality. . . . Their potent and shared belief had transported them from one world, one universe, to another.”

Indeed.  The realm of the physical is finite, limited, and restricted.  We can only walk so many miles, jump so high, meet so many deadlines.  But the internal space, the world of the mind . . . is as boundless as the universe itself, able to traverse infinity instantaneously, able to elevate and overcome and conquer.

 

Able to be free.

In the last stanza of his poem “To Althea, from Prison,” 17th-century British poet Richard Lovelace expounds on this liberation of the mind, this ability of thought . . . and love.

“Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage.
If I have freedom in my love,
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone that soar above,
Enjoy such liberty.”

 

I find that all of this is especially germane to the creative world.  The transformative quality of the story, the magic of the written word, is an elixir for the soul.  On the writing side, I can be having a long day at work, slogging through a pile of bills, cleaning out the attic–but the story, the idea–it lives on.  It just needs to be written; or, if a work in progress, continued, edited, polished.  I can lose myself in my characters, their struggles, triumphs, tragedies, and accomplishments.  I can be lifted high above the clouds during that “aha” moment when the plot clicks together, a jigsaw puzzle fitting in place after months of searching.

 

And as a reader?  The dynamic is similar.  Open a book.  Or scroll through a Kindle.  With no visual aid, you are transported, instantly, to the time and place the author has created from their imagination.  It’s a kind of magic, really, a form of telepathy.  You can find yourself in a drab, windowless room, a gray office cubicle (not that you should be reading on the job, mind you, *wink*, *wink*), or a crowded, stuffy waiting room.  It doesn’t matter.  The words on the page (or the screen) offer an almost out-of-body experience, where, regardless of what’s happening around you, you can live vicariously through characters born from the mind of someone who may live half a world away, or who may have died hundreds of years earlier and yet is able to speak to you across the chasm of centuries.

 

Magic, indeed.  The ability to soar high above, to travel through the depths of space and land on the far side of the universe.  Or right in your own hometown, able to see your world in a new and different way through the adventures of the characters you read about.  Or created yourself.

Freedom can be found anywhere, so long as you can dream, and think, and imagine.

“The stars are yours,” Ray Bradbury once wrote, “if you have the head, the hands, and the heart for them.”

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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