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.

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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

Coda

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

routine

 

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

choices

 

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

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

kevinatpiano

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

paul

 

doug

 

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

norma

 

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

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

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

mrscarpose

 

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

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

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

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

jackarnold

 

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

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

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

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

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

pachelbel

 

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

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

kevinandcarpose

 

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

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

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

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

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

ronaldsarcasticclap

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

peerpressure

 

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

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

 

writing

 

Thank you so much for reading them.

–Mike

The Night of the Meek

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

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

norton

 

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

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

santaatbar

 

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

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

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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.

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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!”

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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.

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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

No Story too Small

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

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

waltons

 

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

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

ajcovington

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

storytotell

 

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

christmasmemory

 

The opening paragraph reads as follows:

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

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

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

story

 

Your readers will be glad you did.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet

Have you ever gone through something and wondered if you were losing your mind?  Have you ever witnessed something no one else saw?  Did you try to convince others that what you saw was in fact real, only to be met with skepticism, unbelief, and odd, quizzical glances?  And, after facing the doubts, did you then begin to question your own perceptions, doubt your own eyes and ears?

This is precisely what happens to Robert Wilson (played by William Shatner in a pre-Star Trek role) when he boards a plane in an unforgettable fifth-season Twilight Zone episode called “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”  Recently released from a sanitarium, where he’d been admitted for six months following a nervous breakdown on a flight much like this one, Wilson is noticeably nervous as he takes his seat–beside the emergency exit.

shatner

 

“I’m not acting much like a cured man, am I?” he says to his wife.

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His wife assures him all is well, they just need to get home.  “Everything is still intact,” she says.  To which Wilson replies, “Except me.”

Adding to his distress, the aircraft is flying through an electrical storm.  It is night, as the thunder rumbles and the lightning flashes across the black canvas of the sky.  His wife now asleep, Wilson glances out his window.   He does a double-take.  There is a man on the wing of the plane!

onthewing

 

Wilson buzzes for the flight attendant, but when she arrives, the man on the wing is gone.  He draws the curtain, as if trying to block out the vision of what he just witnessed.  The commotion wakes up his wife, but he tells her not to worry, he’s just having trouble falling asleep.  She gives him a sleeping pill, and dozes off again.

He tries to relax, but the pill isn’t working.  Glancing at the window, tempted, he pulls the curtain back again.  An inhuman face stares back at him.

monsterthruwindow

 

The man–the creature–is back.  But how?  How can there be a living thing out there, on the wing of an aircraft flying through a storm at 20,000 feet?  “It isn’t there,” he tell himself, closing his eyes.  “It isn’t there!”

questioningsanity

 

But when he opens his eyes, the creature is still looking in at him.

onlyhecansee

 

Wilson rings for the attendant again, but, just as it happened earlier, the creature vanishes when she looks through the window.   Sure enough, when the attendant leaves, the creature returns.  Only this time, he begins to tamper with the wing, as if he wants to crash the plane.

onthewing

 

Wilson wakes up his wife, tells her there’s a man on the wing.  “No, no, don’t look!” he says when she tries to see past him and out the window.  He explains the man out there disappears whenever anyone else tries to see him.  Then he clarifies.  The creature on the wing is not a man.  It’s “a gremlin,” he tells her.

She looks at him like he’s lost his mind.  He can’t deal with that look.

wifelook

 

“I’m not imagining it!” he says.  “He . . . he jumps away when anyone might see him.  Except me.”

He continues to explain himself:  “I know it sounds crazy.  But do I look insane?  I know I had a mental breakdown.  I know I had it in an airplane.  I know it looks to you like the same thing’s happening again, but it isn’t! . . . If I described him [the gremlin] to you, you’d really think I was gone.”

His wife tries to console him, telling him it’s all right, but he grows angry, tells her not to patronize him.  He could see in her eyes that she doesn’t believe a word of what he’s telling her.

“I am not insane!” he shouts, and says he’s only telling her about the gremlin because he’s starting to tamper with one of the engines under the wing.

arguingwithwife

 

He asks her to tell the pilot what he’s just said, and to keep an eye on the wings.  If they see nothing, he says he’ll re-commit himself to the sanitarium.  “But if they do . . .”

When his wife gets up and walks down the aisle, Wilson sees the gremlin return.  The creature pulls up a cowling plate.

wingplay

 

“Hurry!” Wilson shouts.  “He’s out there!”

But of course when his wife and the flight engineer rush to his seat, the gremlin is gone.  The engineer, however, pretends that he’s seen the creature before.  Wilson sees through the act.  They are merely trying to placate him.  “You can stop now,” he says.  “I won’t say another word.  I’ll see us crash first.”

otherslook

 

Later, his wife asleep again, Wilson sees the gremlin come back.  The creature continues his assault on the wing, and Wilson decides to take matters into his own hands.  He steals a gun from a sleeping policeman, then returns to his seat, careful not to wake his wife.  Before allowing himself to back down, he opens the auxiliary exit window, and, despite being nearly blown out of the plane, succeeds in shooting and killing the gremlin.  He screams as he fires the final shot.

After the plane lands, Wilson is carted off in a straitjacket.  Everyone on board is sure he has gone insane.  But then the camera pans to show us the damaged airplane wing–which no one has yet seen.  But when they do, they will realize Wilson had been right.  There had been a gremlin out there.  He wasn’t delusional, after all.

wingdamage

 

The beauty of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is that we the viewer, along with Wilson himself, are not sure what he sees is real.  Is there really a creature out there, on the wing of the jet?  Or is Wilson suffering another breakdown?  We do not find out the answer for sure until episode’s end.

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

A parallel exists in The Eye-Dancers.  The four main characters journey through the void, and when they emerge on the other side, they find themselves in a strange new world.  But are they still dreaming?  Is this nothing but an extension of their shared nightmare of the “ghost girl” and her hypnotic, swirling blue eyes?

In chapter 6, as Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, and Ryan Swinton, walking in their sleep and caught up in the throes of their nightmare, begin to vanish before Marc Kuslanski‘s eyes, Marc wonders the same thing.

“He reached out with his own hand, placed it on top of theirs.  Instantly, he felt a force, like a vacuum, grab hold of him.  He tried to pull away, but couldn’t.  . . . Had he somehow entered into their dream?  But that was impossible.  He was wide awake.  Besides, since when did dreams exert a force, a literal, tangible force, that could hold you in place?

“He tried to think–all of his knowledge, the theories he had studied, the insights he had gained–searching for the answer.  Possibilities, potentialities spun around in his mind like clothes tumbling, layer upon layer, in a drier.  He hoped one of those possibilities would stick, make sense, unlock the trunk that contained the answer.  But nothing could adequately describe what he was experiencing.”

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

What is real?  What is a dream?  How much does perception shape what each of us views as “reality”?

Maybe Einstein was right when he said, “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a persistent one.”

Or, in the words of Thoreau:  “The question is not what you look at.  But what you see.”

reality

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Shadow Play

When I was six years old, I had a nightmare. I have never forgotten it, even all these years later.  In the dream, I stood at the edge of a deep indoor pool.  I was alone, and knew something wasn’t right.  For one thing, my two older brothers were supposed to be watching me–but they were nowhere to be seen.  I called out their names. but the only reply was the reverberating echo of my voice as it bounced off the walls.

When I called their names again, and still received no answer, I became worried.  I instinctively knew they were in trouble, perhaps deadly trouble–trouble that lurked beneath the surface of the water.  I looked into the pool–I couldn’t see the bottom.  I shook my head.  How could I not see the bottom of an indoor swimming pool?

Nervous, thinking about the warnings I had received from my parents never to dive into a pool unsupervised, I jumped in.  As soon as I went under, I realized I had somehow switched locations.  I was no longer in a pool.  I was in an ocean, surrounded by coral and strange, green plants undulating in the current of the water.  Sharks swam past, menacing, threatening.  But where were my brothers?  How would I find them in this vast expanse of water?  I started to swim, but then realized, horrifically, that I wore no underwater gear.  I couldn’t breathe!  I raced for the surface, kicking and thrashing, passing exotic fish along the way, wondering if I would make it.

I never found out.  As my lungs burned and my heart thumped in my chest, I woke up–gasping, out of breath.  I raced down the hall and looked into my brothers’ room, just to make sure they were all right.

I wondered if I would experience the same dream when I fell back asleep.  I didn’t.  I never had another dream like it.  What did the nightmare mean?  I’m not sure.  But even to this day, the memory of it is so real–as if it really happened.

And, in a way, perhaps it did.

dreams2

 

***********

In a second-season episode of The Twilight Zone titled “Shadow Play,” a man named Adam Grant is sentenced to the electric chair for first-degree murder.

shadowplayweaver

 

When the judge issues the verdict, Grant screams, “No!  Not again!  I won’t die again!”  Adam Grant, you see, believes that this is all a dream, a recurring nightmare he experiences every time he falls asleep.  In his dream, he is always sentenced to die by electrocution–and the judge always says the same exact thing.  Grant actually mouths the judge’s words as the verdict is spoken.

shadowplaychair

 

Grant tells everyone that if they electrocute him, they will all cease to exist.  Since they are merely figments of his dream-imagination, they will vanish into nothingness when he dies in the chair and wakes up.

One person who believes in the possibility of this story is the local news reporter.  After the courtroom scene, he visits with the DA, Mr. Ritchie, and talks to him about Grant.

shadowplaydaandreporter

 

He says Grant’s dream theory makes a weird sort of sense.  Maybe this is all just a dream.  “Can we prove he’s wrong?” he asks.

Ritchie won’t hear it.  “I can’t prove the world isn’t going to end,” he says, realizing after saying the words that this is exactly what Adam Grant predicts.  Than, almost as an afterthought:  “But it isn’t.”

Ultimately the reporter urges the DA to visit Grant in his cell–to talk things over with him.  Reluctantly, he agrees.

Ritchie is escorted to Grant’s cell and begins talking with him, trying to get him to see reason.  It doesn’t go the way he wants.

shadowplaydattalkingsense

 

Grant tells the DA that things are all wrong here.  For example, he was tried and sentenced the same day.  “It doesn’t work like that!”  But in a dream, it can . . .

Ritchie counters with a bit of logic:  “You say all this is a dream.  When you’re electrocuted, you wake up, and when you wake up, we all disappear.  Well, what about our parents?  And our parents’ parents, and everybody who never even heard of you?”

“What about them, Mr. Ritchie?” the condemned man says.  “A dream builds its own world, Mr. Ritchie!  It’s complete–with a past.  And, as long as you stay asleep, a future.”

Ritchie, growing flustered, asks Grant why he doesn’t just sit back and enjoy his electrocution.  If it’s all just a dream anyway . . .

Grant laughs maniacally.  How can he enjoy it?  “Haven’t you ever been hurt in one of your dreams?” he asks the DA.  “Haven’t you ever fallen out of a window or been drowned or tortured?  You have!  Don’t you remember how real that it seemed?  Remember how you woke up screaming?  How do you like to wake up screaming?  That’s what I do!  Because I dream the same dream, night after night after night!  It’s this one!  I can’t go on dying, I can’t go on dying . . .”

That night, at the stroke of midnight, Adam Grant is electrocuted in the chair.  As the switch is pulled, the scene shifts to the DA, his wife, and the news reporter.  They vanish, one by one, just as Grant said they would . . .

Another scene shift.  We are back in the courtroom, and a judge is sentencing Adam Grant to die in the chair for first-degree murder.  It’s the same exact scenario as the one we saw at the beginning of the episode.  Grant was right all along.  It’s the next night, and he is asleep again, dreaming–an endless nightmare that won’t let go . . .

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

This is certainly a theme explored deeply in The Eye-Dancers.  Throughout much of the book, the four main characters wrestle with the question:  Is this all a dream?  Or is it really happening?  And is there any difference?

dreamsvsreality

 

The “ghost girl’s” visitations, the journey through the center of her eye into the endless blue void.  The variant world of Colbyville.  What is real?

In chapter seven, when Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski find themselves in a strange new place, they try to figure this out.

“‘You know what it felt like,'” Mitchell says near the end of the chapter. “‘When she [the ghost girl] was in our dreams, it felt real–like when I skinned my knee and Ryan hurt his wrist.’

“Ryan nodded.  The line between dreams and reality had certainly been blurred, if it existed at all.”

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

Returning to “Shadow Play” . . . and Rod Serling’s closing narration  . . .

“We know that a dream can be real, but whoever thought that reality could be a dream?  We exist, of course, but how, in what way?  As we believe, as flesh-and-blood human beings, or are we simply parts of someone’s feverish, complicated nightmare?”

Or, in the words of Edgar Allan Poe,

“Is all that we see or seem

But a dream within a dream?”

dreamwithinadream

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Do You Believe in Miracles?

During the waning moments of the hockey game between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics, broadcaster Al Michaels uttered the now famous line, “Do you believe in miracles?”

Certainly, prior to the game, a miracle was the only hope anyone gave the American hockey team.  Composed of a collection of college kids, the U.S. team was a hard-nosed, well-conditioned group, but way out of their league squaring off against the Soviets.

hockeyteamusa

 

The Soviet team, which had won every gold medal since 1964, was considered the best in the world, more powerful, even, than professional teams in the NHL.  In fact, just months before the start of the 1980 Olympics, the Soviets had thrashed an all-star team of NHL players, 6–0.  And days before the Olympics began, the Americans faced the Soviets in an exhibition game, losing 10–3.

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For Team U.S.A, it appeared to be a case of Mission Impossible.

To everyone on the outside, that was.  But Coach Herb Brooks believed in his team’s chances, and instilled in them that same belief.

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Most teams, he explained, were afraid of the Soviets, didn’t think they could compete with them, and, in essence, had already lost the game before it even began.  It would be different with this U.S. group.  In the locker room before the game, Brooks told his team, “You were born to be a player.  You were meant to be here.  This moment is yours.”

Team U.S.A. had talent, of course.  They represented the best amateur players in the country.  But it wasn’t talent that would enable them to defeat the “unbeatable” Soviets.  It was an ability to believe in the near-impossible, a faith to hold on to their dreams in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

It was, in short, a belief in miracles.

**********

In the Twilight Zone episode “Kick the Can,” this same principle is explored, tested, and, ultimately fulfilled–for all who believe.  For those who don’t–the ending is quite different.

Charles Whitley is a retiree who lives at the Sunnyvale Rest Home.

truax

 

One summer day, while looking out the window, Charles can’t help but notice a group of children playing Kick the Can and Hide-and-Seek on the grounds of the Rest Home.  He’s delighted watching them, and remembers playing the same games in his youth.  His roommate, Ben Conroy, is less nostalgic, and just wants the kids to go away so he can have some peace and quiet.  “They’re making enough noise to raise the dead,” he moans.

benkick

 

But Charles continues to ponder.  Kick the Can.  Hide-and-Seek.  “All kids play those games,” he says.  “And the minute they stop–they begin to grow old.”  And miracles?  Magic?  He and Ben used to believe in magic once, too, when they were kids.  But not anymore.  “What happened?” he asks.  “What changed?”  Ben says they grew up, that’s all.  “Everybody gets over it.”

Charles, though, is undeterred.  Thinking out loud, he says, “Maybe the people who stay young  . . . maybe they know a secret that they keep from the rest of us.  Maybe the fountain of youth isn’t a fountain at all.  Maybe it’s a way of looking at things, a way of thinking.”

Listening to this, Ben thinks Charles is going crazy, and worries about him.  And when Charles persists in his new outlook, when he starts acting like a kid, playing tricks and running through sprinklers, the other residents of the Home begin to wonder about him, too.

kickcan1

 

That night, late, Charles wakes the residents up, asking them to remember the way it used to be, when they were kids, how they would sneak outside and play Kick the Can.  The others reminisce, too, wistfully.  “Seems like a million years ago.”  “Look how I’ve changed,” they say.

Charles tries to encourage them to join him, to go outside and play.  He looks out the window, into the night.  “Can’t you hear it?” he says.  “Summer.  Grass!  Run!  Jump!  Youth!”  “Wake up!” he pleads.  “I can’t play Kick the Can alone.”

The others join him–all except for Ben, who thinks it nothing but foolishness.  They’re old, he says.  They’ll hurt themselves trying to play a children’s game.

kick2

 

Charles won’t accept that.  “There is magic in the world,” he says. . . .  “And maybe–Kick the Can is the greatest magic of all.”  But Ben won’t go–he remains inside while the others head out to play.

Later, when he does go outside to see what’s happening, Ben is amazed to find a group of children playing Kick the Can.  Only then does he realize–Charles had been right.  The magic did exist.  It was real.  Wanting to join his friends, now magically transformed into children, Ben, begging for a second chance, asks the suddenly young Charles to take him along, too, to make him a kid again.  But Charles the boy no longer recognizes him, and returns to the game.

The gravity of it hits Ben hard–it’s too late.  For the miracle to happen, for the magic to work, he had to believe when the others did.

***********

It is no different in The Eye-Dancers.

After Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski are marooned in the variant town of Colbyville, they discover that the only way to make the trans-universe journey back home is rife with question marks, uncertainties, and risks.  After everything they’ve faced, the challenges and dangers they’ve overcome, their chances of getting back to Earth seem all too bleak.

On the night they intend to go back home, utilizing methods they don’t understand and relying on the same “ghost girl” who got them into this jam to begin with, Joe Marma struggles to try and find a reason for optimism.  He does.  Reflecting on everything that’s taken place, he believes that, somehow, some way, someone must have been watching out for them the entire time.  Too much had happened, too many fortuitous “coincidences” had occurred, to chalk it all up to blind chance.

The text reads:

” . . . Or so he wanted to think.  Maybe it wasn’t true.  Maybe they were just lucky.

“But he didn’t buy that.  He wouldn’t accept it.  Now was not the time to doubt.  It was a time to hope, to trust.  To have faith.  In what or whom, it didn’t really matter.”

All that mattered was that they believe. . . .

So, to return to Al Michaels’ question at the end of Team U.S.A. defeating the vaunted Soviets.  It might just as well have been rhetorical.  No one would have blamed Michaels for not providing us with an answer.

But he did.

It was an answer that the four protagonists in The Eye-Dancers would, by novel’s end, agree with.  It was an answer the residents of Sunnyvale Rest Home not only agreed with, but lived out.  All but one, anyway.

It was an answer, I hope, that we all can echo . . .

“Do you believe in miracles?”

“Yes!”

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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