As it eventually will with every young man, he sees her and is struck. He is struck by her beauty, struck by his own youthful incapacities, and struck by the giddy paralysis of a fear so deep it can only be known by one whose own status is deemed by themselves to lie below that of their infatuation’s. “I cannot,” he reasons as he gazes upon her, “be worthy of her. Yet who else would ever love her as I would? Who could?”
“But, how to make her notice me?” He wonders, until presently it occurs to him to display for her that one thing that he can do well, as that one thing might somehow reveal to her the feasibility of other, hidden potentials within him which she, and only she, might manifest within him given time… if only she would look at him now.
And so the boy shows himself off to her. He is young. His skillsets are few and mostly outlandish, but he is completely unmindful of what the rest of the watching world may think. The urge is strongly upon him to somehow impress her in ways which he has not yet had time enough in this world to formulate, but he will try. He must try. And if the lad has wit he will manage it in a convincing and winsome enough manner that he will gain some however-so small affection from her... a smile, a touch, a peckish kiss. Any of those would be enough for now, as he would have been seen.
It began two Thursday’s ago, and has not let up since. Out of the blue the boy began showing up nearly every day, some days two or three times a day, dribbling his basketball on the sidewalk out front of Trisha’s house. He could only bounce it, as there is no basket out there to shoot at, so sometimes he bounces it up high, or sometimes he dribbles it down low, wrapping it effortlessly behind his back and then scissoring it between his legs, spinning the ball on his finger, and then on his forehead, and then dribbling it some more and more and more as he spins and jukes and out-fakes invisible sidewalk defenders.
Oh, she sees him all right. Trisha watches him through the window slats, her face a torpid mask meant to hide her curiousity away from sniggering parents. The boy was actually quite good at bouncing his ball, so she waited to see what tricks he might do with it next.
He made dribbling the ball look so easy that once, when the bouncing boy had finally gone, Trisha went out to the garage, where she picked up her brother’s ball and tried dribbling it herself, but her hands moved awkwardly, and the ball was too heavy. It always bounced too high, so that she couldn’t even begin to do the boy’s tricks. In fact, it was all she could do to keep the stupid ball bouncing near enough to her that she could bounce it again. She quickly discovered that what the boy made to look so easy was really not so easy at all.
Of course, at least initially, it wasn’t just her parents, but even Trisha who found the bouncing ball annoying. The infernal thump, thump, thumping of the ball drug her to the window from her daytime bed where she laid listening to music, or from the couch when she was watching television. The thumping was out there during supper, and when she was dressing, and all the time it seemed. When she could do so without it being obvious Trisha would sneak over to peek between the blinds at him dribbling the ball, and spinning it, but the boy never, ever looked over at her window, or even towards her house, but only dribbled his ball as though neither she, nor even her house, were even there.
But our girl Trisha was no one’s dummy.
Who was he, she wondered? And why was he doing this? It seemed to be a very strange thing to do, but then it also didn’t. At first it had appeared to be a random act, as though her house just happened to sit on his route home from the basketball court or something like that, but it quickly became obvious that there was a greater purpose to his dribbling here, that it was for someone’s benefit, and her vanity allowed her to suspect that the someone he was doing it for might be her, not that she really cared about the boy one way or another. She didn’t even know him. But why else other than to impress her? Why did he always stop right here in front of her house every day? And why bouncing a ball? If he was truly coming to impress her, or any other girl for that matter, why bring a basketball? Why not sing, or dance, or anything more romantic than bouncing a ball? It was a curious mystery, but then… she did enjoy a curious mystery.
Regardless of their intent Trisha came to look forward to his visits, her heart leaping at the first thump. She no longer felt the need to go peek every single time, though she did it quite often anyways. It was enough just to know he was there. After all, she knew very well by now what he looked like, and what he was doing, and she suspected that she was the reason, so there was really no need to peek, was there? If he truly was coming here to dribble in front of her house in an attempt to impress her then not peeking was almost a form of playing hard to get, wasn’t it? A way of showing him that she had more important things to do than to watch him play with his ball? So she shouldn’t make herself available to him every time, should she? The boy might get the impression she was easy, or uninteresting. No. She could not allow that.
Still, most times she peeked. She couldn’t help it. And when she did so she wondered if he noticed the break in the blinds, and if that break gave her peeking away? Sometimes she even hoped that he did see it. Trisha was alone a lot, which did not make for a particularly happy girl, and during those times when she was not peeking she took on an unconscious habit of brushing her hair until the thumping echoes of the ball faded away into the twilight, and of smiling as she brushed.
Oddly, Trisha began to wish the boy was out there even when he wasn’t, and she found herself discouraged when he was not. Depressed even. She began to wonder where he was, and what he had found that was more interesting to do? And then she would hear ghost balls thumping on the sidewalk. She would run to the window but the boy wouldn’t be out there; this seemed always to happen while lying in her bed at night for instance, or when she was naked in the bathroom. And even more strangely, she found herself peeking out when there was clearly no ball out there thumping, hoping that the boy might be just down the street, bouncing it up the sidewalk towards her house.
”Is that boy a friend of yours?” Her father finally asked her. “Why don’t you go out there and make him stop?”
Go out there? Was her father a fool? She couldn’t go out there! Going out there would break the magic. The boy would see that she was not so special, that she was just a girl and not so pretty, and was infinitely awkward at that.
”What’s the matter? Scared?” Her father taunted, making fun when there was nothing funny about it. But was she scared? Scared of what? Of a boy bouncing a stupid ball? Of course she was not scared. She would show her father. She would go out there! But first she would go see how she looked. Once in front of the mirror she touched her hair a few times to little effect, but it wasn’t really her appearance that she wanted to see, was it? What she needed to see lay deeper than that, so rather than primping she gazed into her own eyes, gauging their strength, asking them if this was truly what she wanted, to meet this boy whose attention she had somehow attracted, and to take a chance on driving him away? Wasn’t it better to leave things alone, and to keep this little thing between them as it was? The eyes in the mirror told her no. Trisha saw in them a readiness, almost a hunger to meet the boy, to find out who he was. Taking a deep breath, she hesitated no longer.
It was actually a relief to find herself on the tiny front porch, and to hear the door click shut behind her, and to see that he had not noticed her there yet, but there was no turning back from here. She was committed.
The ball got away from him for just a second. It was a little thing, but it was the first time in all her peeking that she’d seen a fumble from him, which meant nothing really, while also meaning very much when she considered her own continuous fumbling in the garage when she had attempted to dribble her brother’s ball. Trisha’s initial thought had been that he was a boy, so dribbling the ball was easier for him, but that was not right. He was obviously athletic, but where did that come from? Was it genetics, hand-eye coordination handed down from mother or father, or both? And how did speed play into that, and balance, and dexterity, and strength? No, he could only reach the level of skill he had achieved through diligence. She wondered where he found such a thing as diligence, and why?
He was really not very big, seen from a closer perspective, not much taller than her actually, yet he looked strong, if lithe. He caught up with the fumbled ball and tucked it under his arm as he turned to face her, his weight balanced evenly on both feet, his chin held high in an exaggerated, almost comically masculine posture.
“Hi.” He did not smile, though his expression was soft, his eyes kind. His voice was surprisingly deep for such a youthful looking face.
“What are you doing out here? Why do you keep bouncing your ball in front of my house.“
The boy shrugged.
“You are driving my parents crazy.”
There was a pause as she considered her answer. Her eyes refused to look at him as she gave it, though she longed to see his response. She had never suffered rejection and didn’t know if she could take it, but she had a feeling that she needn’t worry. He instilled in her that feeling. “Yea, I guess you could say that you’re driving me crazy, too.”
With that said she did look up. He wore a brilliant smile now, which she could not help returning. “Good, then I’ll be back tomorrow.” He said it as he turned to go.
”Hey!“ His still smiling face glanced back at her call. “Why don’t you try ringing the bell?”
The boy nodded and took off running down the street, the ball thumping expertly at his side.
Warning: the following account contains mentions of suicide. There, there's your trigger warning; if you're still with me after that I will put down the facts not as I see them but as they occurred. First of all, I'm a private dick. I mean that in the old fashioned sense that I'm a detective. Now that your mind has been hurled from the gutter and back on to the pavement. Here's how it went down.
I was in my office in some back alley in the squalor of the city. Having tired of pitching playing cards into my hat I was hard at work reading a newspaper article. Yes, that's right; I still read a newspaper. Trust me when I say it's more fulfilling than scrolling on a device. I digress.
The article that had my attention was a report on a suicide. The subject was a prominent businessman. In fact I had worked a case for him about three years prior. Good man. He'll go unnamed out of respect. But he was a family man . His business was flourishing. And so far as I knew he was a happy man. I guess you don't really know folks though. Three years ago I solved the case he brought to me and now he'd done the high dive of a roof.
His was only one a recent string suicides. Males and females. They'd all been in their late twenties and well into their fifties. Every instinct told me something wasn't right but I couldn't put my finger on it's pulse. Suicide while tragic isn't unusual in and of itself. This however was a scale of self destruction I'd only seen in lemmings.
I tried to lose myself in the funny pages but I could only see the cynicism. The strips had been written with. Tossing aside the paper I opened up my file cabinet and rummaged through the records. Finding the deceased man's address I closed up shop for the day and drove to his home in the suburbs.
The family's wealth was not reflected in their house. It was a single story home with a small backyard surrounded by a picket fence whose pristine white coat of paint would make Tom Sawyer proud. The roof consisted of aging shingles and the garage was large enough for two cars that I knew from a previous visit here were both late models and far from BMW and Cadillac.
I knocked on the door and after a few seconds the widow answered the door. She was lovely but the mental image I had retained no longer matched what was in front of me. Her hair had been cut short at some point and her countenance bore all the signs of grief and sleepless nights. “Yes,can I help you?” She asked in a voice that told me she thought I was about to offer a visit to my cult.
Suddenly the light of recognition flashed inside the sad eyes. “Detective Johnson? What are you doing here? Come in.”
Once I sat down on the Laz E Boy sofa she went to the kitchen and returned with two glasses of water. She sat across from me in her husband's recliner. Last time I had been here it was in celebration of a case cracked. Now I was paying respects to a life shattered. “I'm honestly surprised to see you,” she commented, “I didn't think you even remembered us.”
“I remember all my cases ma'am. It was only a matter of finding your address in my records. “
“What brought you here anyway?”
“read about your husband's death in the paper. I wanted to offer you my condolences.”
I'm quite sure what processes fired off in the auburn framed head of hers put she blurted out details. He'd become withdrawn and depressed. He kept going on and on about how he missed the old days. And he talked about his childhood more than usual. Then two days ago. He brought it all to an end.
I dipped my head, let her cry, and then I took my leave. I don't do emotions very well. To keep this account moving right along. I had a chance to talk with a friend I had in the police department. I had many friends among the cops(I had many enemies too). My pal was telling me about a new kind of drug they were trying to get off the street.
“It's the most confounded thing,” he gripped in between bites of cheese danish, “We can't find the dealers, the users all end up dead somehow and the drug barely leaves a trace in their system and what is there is nothing we've ever seen before.”
I listened while he rattled on. Then he said to me: “I know you have some shall we say less than upstanding citizens in your network. You can get places we can't. I was hoping you could help in that capacity. “
“I'd need a starting point, “ I answered with my characteristic bluntness.
He sketched something down in a notebook. Once he finished he handed me the paper. I saw a symbol. It was a loop made of three arrows almost like the symbol for recycling. In the center was a series of words.
“ This was on the packets that we assume contained the drug.” Whoever is putting this stuff out this their insignia.”
“Like ecstasy dealers.”
I studied the symbol latching onto the words in the center of the loop. “Once and Future.”
“What?” exclaimed my friend. Puzzled.
“The phrase is Latin for Once and Future.”
“How do you know?”
“I read a lot. It's from King Arthur stories. You know, the once and future king. “
So that's how I got involved in police business. That would soon become my business.
A young woman of college age came to see me. She was lean, her hair was the color of a raven, and she was clad in a white t-shirt, cut of jeans, and flip flops. The times I got any clients her age were unicorn rare. So I took immediate interest. “What can I do for you?” I inquired.
“My name is Tiffany. My brother's missing. Has been since last night.”
Well this was odd. “Tiffany, we do have a police department here. Why didn't you tell them?”
Her voice was raised now to a slightly higher level. It was obvious I'd miffed her. “I did Mr. Johnson, but they wouldn't do anything because it hasn't been a full 24 hours yet.”
“Ok. Still, why come to me? You'd better tell me everything.”
She sat down and launched into her story. Her brother attended the university here in the city. He was supposed to have met up with friends out in the country last night when she hadn't heard from him she had texted them and called them and learned he never showed up. She decided to come to me out of concern, impatience and a desire to preserve her sibling's sterling reputation. She didn't want people getting the wrong idea about him if they saw cops crawling everywhere. Made sense.
“Tiffany I don't normally take skip trace type work but for you I'll do it.”
I drove out to the campus. It took some coaxing from Res Life and the campus 5-0 but I got into her brother's dorm. All I had to dowas flash my credentials and assure it was a simple matter of indulging a concerned sister nothing more. That is honestly what I thought I was doing. Then came the investigation of the dorm room. I was small with a closet one bed and a desk. The TV sat on top of a mini-fridge. And a busty vivacious blonde with perfect breasts protruding through a yellow bikini stared at me from the wall above the bed. So it would seem the good little boy scout has his vices like anybody else.
Any illusions I may have had about the simplicity of this job vanished when I discovered a plastic wrapper with a loop of three arrows and Latin words sitting beside a slip of paper. Half naked females weren't this kid’s only vice after all. Using some tweezers from the bathroom and a sandwich bag I pocketed my clues.
Once I left the college I phoned Tiffany. It was the weekend so she was prompt in answering. “I need to know where your brother was headed and how to get there. A description of his vehicle would also be helpful.”
“Is everything okay?”
“Honestly I found a clue. I can't get into details but I found something the cops would need to know about.” I can't sit on it for too long. I may have to call in my friends from the Force.”
“Do what you have to, Detective.” she said, barely masking the disappointment in her voice.
A few minutes later I received complete directions to the friends’ weekend getaway and a photo of her brother's car where the plate was in view. He was a handsome young man and it would have been a shame if something happened to him.
Now comes the part of the story I have no desire to drag out. Neither do I enjoy having to retell it. I found the car. Up in the woods between the city and the local where Jake was supposed to meet up with his friends. He never made it. The car was hidden from the view of all but a well trained observer. Its driver was skewered on a tree branch. The investigation was out of my hands now. I turned over the wrapper to the detectives I knew.
The investigation of the crash concluded it was another suicide. Tiffany would never contact me again except to pay my fee which I had discounted for her. I really hate my job sometimes.
I scrolled through my phone one day and found the picture I'd taken of the paper I'd found in Jake's dorm. On it was written the following: That which has been is now;and that which is to be has already been; and God requires that which is past. The sprawling seemed biblical in nature. I drove to a place I hadn't been in a long time to talk with someone I hadn't seen in a while.
The Reverend and I sat on a pew looking at the painting of the Holy Mother. “What do you make of it Padre?”
“It's from Ecclesiasties.”
“That book King Solomon wrote when he figured out 700 hundred wives was to depressing to handle?”
“Something like that. Perhaps it has something to do with that symbol on the drugs.”
“You know about that?”
“Johnson, you're not the only person with a badge that comes here seeking guidance. “
I got up and made to leave. “Thanks, Padre. You've been a huge help.”
“An answer to prayer, right?”
“I don't recall praying. “
“Perhaps not verbally but the silent prayers are often. The loudest.”
It was time to shake bushes and bust balls. My contacts were going to find me some answers whether they wanted to or not.
It was Friday night at Joe B's a bar so seedy you could grow plants in. You had your normal colorful cast of characters. The fifty year old lesbian waitress passed out some of the stoutest drinks on Earth. Behind the counter stood the bartender. His name was not Joe B; it was Franklin. His mood shifted from jovial to crabby depending on the day of the week, the weather patterns, and other arbitrary factors. Tonight he was positively grouchy.
None of those people were my concern though. I sat at a table under a blue neon sign advertised some sort of beer. On the other side of the table was Finnigan, one of my contacts. In the grand scheme of the universe he was a gnat. He was a junkie and he was currently displaying several withdrawal symptoms. “You're back on the stuff, Finney. That disappoints me. We had a deal.”
“I don't know what you're talking about.”
“Bull crap. Finney you look like you ain't had a fix in at least two days.”
“Did you come down here bust my chops?”
I took a deep breath. Finnigan had gotten hooked again. He knew the bargain we'd reached. I kept him out of the slammer and he stayed clean. “No, Finnigan. I need information and you can help I believe. I don't give a frick what drug you're on. I probably know already. “What I do care about is a new one circulating around. It's become a problem for me and the cops.”
“What is it?”
I showed him the sketch. His beady eyes grew large and he made a move to leave. “I gotta go I just remembered someth– “
I drew my pistol on him beneath the table. “It's gonna be hard to walk out of here with your legs blown out from under you. That’ll bring the popo and then they'll find out you're doing drugs and you'll tell them what you know anyway. “
“You're bluffing, Johnson. You wouldn't risk losing your private detective license. “
“Go ahead and test theory. It'd be worth it. This job's lousy anyway because I have to rub elbows with the likes of you.”
Finnigan saw reason and plopped his rump back in his seat. “Good,” I responded, “Now you tell me what you know about this symbol and I'll forget that you're on the stuff again.”
“It's called Reminisce; it's a new super drug. It comes looking like a gumball but can be crushe and snorted or chugged down with your choice beverage.”
“How does it work? Why are no traces left in the user's system?”
“I can't tell you that. All I can tell you is that it has something to do with memories.”
“Who's pushing the stuff?”
“No clue, buuut I maaay know someone who knows the guy who knows the guy. I could set up a meeting. “
“You do that Finney and I'll leave you alone.”
“Fine, but I'm putting my neck out here you know.
“Buster, you did the day you started buying crud to pump through your system from two bit mooks.”
Ol’ Finney would have shut up tighter than a clam if he knew I was working with the police. I didn't like being neck deep in their work but I was cozy with some of the detectives especially the two working this drug racket. It was worth it if I could bring Tiffany some closure and, if my growing suspicions were true, a certain widow as well.
I went to the department with everything I'd learned. The next a message from Finney was shoved through the mail slot of the empty room next to my office. This was a measure I had copied from The Shadow, a fictional crime fighting detective after I received a package that made a ticking sound. That was ten years ago. Funny the stuff that sticks with you. Memories. It has something to do with memories. That echoed in my brain. The looping arrows, the Latin phrasing, answers married to more questions.
It was late afternoon two days later when I met with a man who looked like a beatnik clad in a leather jacket that was past its prime. Sunglasses hid his eyes but still he looked like he could talk the wool off a sheep. He greeted me with an outstretched hand and a smile that any crooked preacher would envy. “Say you must be the friend that Finnigan wanted me to meet.”
“Yeah, that's me.”
So we walked into the viper’s den which reeked of stale cigarettes, old booze and other aromas I'd rather not trace the origins of. “You don't mind the pat down do you?”
“No,” I replied confidently, “I have nothing to hide.”
The frisking was done by two muscular dudes named Tom and Jerry. Right like I'd believe that. One of the two found my credentials. “HEY, he's a frigging badge!”
Lester the beat nik scowled behind his shades. Say, what is this? You a freaking narc?”
“Calm down, boys. Look at my credentials. I'm strictly in the private sector. “
They combed them over. “It's true boss. He's one of those private gumshoes.”
Lester was still on edge and grilled me like a steak. “What brings someone like you here, Johnson?”
“My job's crappy. I was told yall had something that could make all those bad feelings go away!”
“Yeah, I know just the stuff you mean.”
With that I was escorted to a wooden table in the center of the restaurant. At this point I should clarify that it was deserted except for the goons and myself. I took a seat. One the six goons retreated into a back room leaving the rest of us in an awkward silence.
Moments later the lackey returned and deposited a blue object in a plastic wrapper upon which was the logo now all too familiar to me. With not a word spoken he opened the plastic & let the drug roll toward me a little. Then without warning WHACK. Another thug smashed the thing into a powder with a hammer. The one who brought it to the table blew it in my face. I blinked. I found this all to be extremely bemusing. Then it happened.
My mind began to wander. Happy thoughts from my past and memories previously stashed away. So I had a sense of not sitting at the table but walking through each memory as it came in rapid succession. I forgot all else. I had a vague sense of something strange at the back of my skull and then falling. I did not care. It did not matter because I suddenly fell into a warm, delicious sleep filled with reflection of the past and the bittersweet feeling of nostalgia.
When I regained consciousness I was in the back of a car. These hoods clearly hadn't gone for the cliche approach and stuffed me in the trunk. They probably thought I'd still be under the influence of Reminisce and I feigned stupor while the goons up front talk. “How are we going to do him, lester?” Asked one with a gravelly voice.
Lester, the beatnik wannabe, was the driver. He answered, I told you one to the brain pan through the temple. Make it look like he offed his own self like the others.``
They'd damned themselves and didn't even know it. While still pretending to be in the Twilight Zone I attempted to work loose the bonds around my wrists. Once that was done. Undid the ones around my ankles by the time the other occupants of the car realized I had regained my senses I was on them like a tiger. A firm elbow to the front of the neck rendered the slab of muscle in the passenger seat out cold.
Lester pulled out a gun. The scumbags had the sense enough to relieve me of mine. I grabbed his gun hand, flung it up! The fracturing of the wrist and the profanity was drowned by the bullets puncturing the roof. His hand now useless I wrestled with the steering wheel and was bedlam as the car went wild and flipped over just as I dove out the driver side window.
Once that nightmare ended. A very lacerated Lester pulled himself from the mangled wreck that was his car. He took two steps and collapsed onto the asphalt of the lobby stretch of road heading to who knows where. A car passed and the rest is history.
The sirens blared and the lights flashed and soon I was telling this very portion of the story to the police detectives. They were happy to have a link in the chain. “I'll be darn!” Exclaimed James Munday. “A drug that traps people in their memories. What was that like?”
“In truth it was wonderful even when the memories were painful. It was weaponized nostalgia. A drug made into an even more potent one. You could escape into the past and totally blot out the present. It leaves wanting more. And even I'm left with a feeling I don't much like.”
“That would explain the suicides I guess. Are you going to be OK, Johnson?”
“No, but that's just life.”
Lester pulled through his injuries and gave up his cronies including the two men above him. The feds even got involved and came down hard. I learned two important things from this. One: visit the past but don't stay too long. Two: stay the heck out of police work next time.
The Alternate Truth (Part 2?)
To @DanPhantom123 challenge post: https://www.theprose.com/post/764252/the-alternate-truth
I never lied.
Woman: "He's behind the curtain."
She shook her head. It wasn't time. There had to be that part where they go on and cut you open, check for probable cause or unnatural motives. What's the word? ...autopsies.
But they never see the inner drive.
I could see both sides now, disparate. Me prostrate. Jimmy perpendicular. The blue curtain rippling like parting waters in a reverse birth. The fourth floor holding us both, and all of Meadow Shade as shadow. It's well past morning. I expect it happened many times before. For namesake, because in following our footpath we come into our own. And I was a wizard. The big brother.
"Rebecca Braum?" and she answers promptly to the intercom, walking expediently on command. A pawn, she'll take her check on Friday, and another case on Monday.
It's just us now.
I mean Jimmy.
Would he throw something at me? I still felt I deserved it no less than since our nearing the end of days when he'd hurled metal. Yeah, in what do they call that, that backwards curiosity-- "Re tro spect?" It wasn't at me then. But I still felt it should have been.
It was my primal memory in tick-tallying my calendar. After the nightmare, the undertaker's dream I'd had, I had morphed the image of the candies and the seat into one blackened opening. Hate's last breath vomiting out the toxins of us. Me. Peddling arms and legs through nothing. The self hate had to go. Through Jimmy's innocent and silent gaping. It was shit.
Maybe he at least could be purged now. That was my thinking in carrying on with this new forever, in a closure. For all of us. I had weighed the injustice. When I think of scales now, and the blindfold, it came down to this possibility.
At your doorstep, of life, there's a basket. It isn't exactly empty. You're carrying it up that winding path passed flying monkeys, and little people and big oafs as Dad used to say. Before he cut the ties. Jimmy would listen captivated. Growing into his own understanding. You think you know the non-contents. I mean it's like there's this hole in your heart, or your head, or in your pride or something.
And you're asking for it back. Groveling from behind the curtain, to the unknown.
Something tells you it's a potty not a basket. That whatever is missing has to go through you. Be processed. I want Jimmy to walk from that drape. Look if he has to, see it's just a body, decrepit matter.
But walk away, and leave the basket.
It was a good day
My parents divorced when I was five, and as an only child, my childhood was almost always entire days with just my mom and me. These days included movies followed by lunch or ice-cream at Rompelmeyer; birthday dinners at Benihanas or Il Boschetto; trips to Disney World, Bermuda, Trinidad, Europe, Canada; Broadway plays; ballet at Lincoln Center or City Center; rainy days, snow days or Saturdays of Monopoly, 221B Baker Street, chess, 500 rummy; Sunday church then Sunday afternoon tv movies... It was a very full childhood for which I am forever grateful. Despite being the only child of a single parent in a neighborhood where that was distinctly frowned upon, I was beyond fortunate.
I have a single memory of one whole day spent with my dad. I was fourteen. I spent the night at his apartment and we were up at 4 am to catch a boat. We had a cooler full of Colt 45 for him. I had a ham sandwich and a ginger ale in my backpack. Near the dock we bought some minnows for bait then boarded a fishing boat. We were on the water for hours. My dad made friends immediately and introduced me around with more than a little pride. This is my baby girl, Danny. Watch out for her. He fished a little, drank a lot, and spent some time playing cards below deck. I learned to put the hook through the eye of the minnow and almost won the pot by catching the biggest fish. It ended up being the second biggest. I remember how happy he was, bragging about the fish his baby girl caught. Or maybe he was just happy I was there doing something he loved with him. It was a good day. I wish we'd managed more of them before memories and pictures were all I had left of him.
When I met her, I had no opinion of Eira. She seemed polite, kind, but not the type to stand out in a crowd. She had friends, but not too many. She was in two of my classes, Art II and Sociology. I barely noted her existence until I found her outside of class one day.
I was at the park because I didn't want to be at home. It was a cold December day so I didn't expect anyone else to be there, and was shocked to see Eira sat on a swing. When she saw me in the dark she smiled and invited me to the swing next to her.
Ignoring my hesitance, I cleared snow off the swing and smoothed out my dress and sat next to her. She complimented my dress, saying the way dark blue blended well with the colors of the next. I expressed a similar sediment in the rings she was wearing, the way the silver reflected off the snow made it appear to be glowing.
She smiled and asked what I was doing there. It was the first time she ever said my name, and it was lovely how the vowels in 'Ada' sounded.
I explained my woes of being at home. Although my parents were given a daughter, I was more inclined to the romantic pursuits of a son.
Eira laughed at my phrasing, saying she always found my dramatic nature to be charming. I blamed my flush on the cold. She explained she preferred to be in cold, and how she wasn't fond of the summertime.
We talked about dull things for hours, although being next to her made them seem like the most interesting things in the world. It wasn't too long before the cold got to me and I began to shiver.
She noticed and told me I should head home. It wasn't until then I noticed she had no winter clothes, just a long sweater and leggings. I forced her to take my scarf, fearing her getting frostbite. She said she would only take it if I took her ring.
After I allowed her to slide it onto my finger, she kissed my cheek and told me she would be there the next night too.
Evening after evening, we would meet up. She would be wearing normal clothes besides my scarf I refused to take back, while the only stable thing about my outfit was the silver ring. Eira would observe it on my finger with a look of happiness I rarely saw in her any other time.
It changed on the first day of spring officially, when it was obvious there would be no snow. I went to the muddy park, dressed in a light coat along with the ring, and she was not there. I waited for her, and she did not show.
I went to the park and waited for a week, before something bright red caught my eye in the darkness, right underneath Eira's swing. It was the red scarf I gave her all that time ago.
That was what filled me with dread as I realized I would not see my love again. I slipped the silver ring off of my hand and wrapped the scarf around it, before sticking it back in the mud.
The only thing I can I do is wait for winter.
Why You Definitely Should Not Follow Me (Wink Wink)
I cannot even begin to describe the many reasons why you should not follow me. But I will do so anyway. You see, I am full of ideas, and I'm always coming up with new ways to convey them! Do you really want to follow someone who has ideas? Didn't think so. Secondly, I'm constantly learning! I know what you're thinking. Learning? What is this, school? What kind of total loser wants to learn? Exactly. This is why you definitely shouldn't (wink wink) follow me! You'd totally hate it.
My name is Alex, and I love to write.
But lately, it's all been boring.
Should I switch the scene from day to night?
Change the windows or the flooring?
Perhaps I need some sudden deaths,
Yes, that will do the trick!
When characters take their last breaths,
The reader is shocked real quick.
Katie and Sarah should be in a car crash.
Matthew will drown in a swim.
Pierre's set on fire and burned straight to ash,
No firefighter could save him.
Melissa should fall off a three-story roof,
With Simon caught below it.
This recipe is completely foolproof,
I'll get awards before I know it!
Autobiographies aren't very frequent,
But I'll get some money for the time I've spent.
From Lady C to Augustus Gloop
In my second year at grammar school, I decided to become a school librarian. There were several perks to being a librarian. For instance, we had a small kitchenette annexed to the library - about the size of a boot cupboard, really - in which we could make tea and toast at break-time. Another perk: we could easily ‘check out’ as many books as we liked. But the greatest benefit of being a member of this select band was that we had unfettered access to the ‘black books’ contained within the ‘forbidden section’ - a glass-fronted locked cabinet that contained various volumes to which access was carefully controlled. Unless you were a librarian, that is.
What books lay within this inner sanctum, this Unholy of Unholies? There were various graphic illustrated sex education manuals (well, graphic to the mind of a twelve-year-old lad enrolled at an all-boys grammar school in 1970s Britain: hardly sensational stuff by today’s standards). More interesting was the slang dictionary of the English language, which I eagerly scrutinised for the plethora of intriguing words that, curiously, were omitted from our standard school dictionaries. Restricted access or not, certain pages were blatantly more well-thumbed than others. Which was also the case with the most notorious tome that had been deposited amongst the other ‘black books’: DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley's Lover. By the time I came to read it, almost twenty years had passed since the famous prosecution of Penguin Books for publishing this infamous work: perhaps the greatest cause célèbre in the battle against censorship in the 20th century.
The chief prosecutor in that famous trial, Mervyn Griffith-Jones, had become a laughing stock by suggesting that this was not the kind of book ‘you would wish your wife or servants to read.’ Britain was on the cusp of a social and sexual revolution that would shortly consign Griffith-Jones’ world-view to the dustbin of history. He wasn’t alone, of course, in being unprepared for this; as the great Philip Larkin mournfully expressed a few years later in his poem Annus Mirabilis:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three (which was rather late for me)
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
Once I had read the book for myself, I must confess to a certain disappointment. It wasn’t a patch on other works by Lawrence, like Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow or Women in Love. Yes: here in the text of a novel, for the first time, I was able to read some of those ‘forbidden words’ I’d previously been looking up in the aforementioned slang dictionary. But, on reflection, I didn’t really understand what all the fuss had been about.
In the same year that I read Lady C, I also read George Orwell’s Animal Farm, followed soon after by his masterpiece, 1984. What had been a vague unease with the idea of censorship now hardened into an unyielding opposition to it. More than forty years on, my feelings on the matter are stronger than ever. As Winston Smith, Orwell’s protagonist in the dystopian nightmare world of 1984 writes, in his diary:
‘Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.’
Revisionist views of literature, art and music are no less dangerous than revisionist views of history. And, in my view, the rewriting of Roald Dahl (yes, I got to the subject of this Challenge in the end…) is nothing short of monstrous. Or - to use a very Dahlish word - beastly.
Less than a week has passed since I first read, in an article published in The Guardian on February 18th, that new editions of Dahl’s work had been published (in which, amongst other things, Augustus Gloop is now ‘enormous’ rather than ‘fat’; Miss Trunchbull is now a ‘most formidable woman’ rather than ‘most formidable female’; and Mrs Twit is no longer ‘ugly’). And I’m still fuming.
It seems ironic to me that these changes have been made by Dahl’s publisher Puffin, itself an imprint of Penguin - the very publishing house that was once willing to champion DH Lawrence in the battle against censorship. How the mighty have fallen!
Now, it’s important to distinguish between changes of language that might be required for the purposes of understanding and clarity, as opposed to alterations motivated by a desire to bring the thinking of the past into line with whatever happens to be the prevalent attitudes of the current day. Clearly, these are the principles that should be applied when translating from one language to another. Even then, there remains the clear understanding that reading the original text in the original language of composition is always to be desired, if possible.
My understanding of the New Testament, for example, has been greatly enhanced by my reading the text in the original Greek, as I and a few friends have regularly been doing together on a weekly basis for over four years now. CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien and various friends once did exactly the same, almost a century ago, when they gathered week by week to read the Icelandic Sagas in their original tongue, as part of the Koalbiters’ Club (a precursor of sorts to the later Inklings). Much as I love Tolkien’s masterful translations of some of the foundational texts of Middle and Old English (not least that superlative epic poem, Beowulf), I know it cannot compare with the original. If I really want to appreciate Beowulf fully, then I should learn Anglo-Saxon (I have tried, actually!); and then I should read the original text - a text that has not changed for a thousand years. But I shudder to think what text of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory will be available for future readers in a thousand years time; and how similar (or not) it will be to what Dahl originally wrote.
Translating is not, therefore, the same as rewriting. Nor is adapting. I mentioned, in the previous paragraph, JRR Tolkien - surely one of the greatest philologists and wordsmiths of the 20th century. Tolkien’s greatest work, The Lord of the Rings, has been adapted for radio, television and film on numerous occasions. Sometimes, these have been faithful adaptations (such as the wonderful BBC radio version, made in 1981). Two decades later, the Oscar-winning Peter Jackson film adaptation worked under different constraints from those of a radio studio, albeit with a far greater budget; yet that too was also a loving and thoughtful production. Both productions were faced with hard decisions about what to omit, what to retain and what to re-purpose from the source material. The large-scale action scenes were, of course, realised with far greater effect in the film adaptation that would ever have been possible within the confines of a radio studio. By contrast, the radio drama retained much more of Tolkien’s poetry from the epic; a much-loved element of the novel that many of the film’s aficionados, like myself, nevertheless missed from Jackson’s version of the tale. Interestingly, both adaptations completely removed the Tom Bombadil sub-plot (wisely so, in my opinion - some of course will disagree). But I have a great deal of respect for both adaptations, making the very best use as they did of their contrasting dramatic forms.
However, the less said about Amazon’s recent television series The Lord of the Rings: the Rings of Power, the better…
So, adapting is not the same as rewriting either.
What, then, about rewriting? What are the ground rules for this?
One word: Don’t.
Or - to expand slightly - in my view, there is generally only one person who has the authority, should they choose to do so, of rewriting (as opposed to translating or adapting) a work of literature. And that is the original author. Which in the case of the deceased Roald Dahl is now impossible.
It’s interesting to note that very few authors ever do succumb to the temptation - or the pressure - to rewrite their work, once finally published. One of the few recent exceptions I can think of to this is the fantasy author Neil Gaiman, who has published several slightly-revised ‘preferred texts’ after-the-fact of his original published works. There’s also the interesting example of science fiction writer Douglas Adams, who in his own lifetime (let’s forget posthumous travesties like the film adaptation) was creatively involved in several different versions of his most famous work, The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, in radio, TV, LP and novel formats. Sometimes these versions diverged from one another in quite significant ways. So, which one is ‘canon’? The short answer: All of them!
Generally, unlike Gaiman and Adams, most authors have resisted the temptation to revisit their published works; and that isn’t at all surprising, really, when you think about it. When one considers the amount of time and energy that is lovingly poured into crafting their works, you can see why authors, once finally reaching that cathartic point - It is finished - would generally rather move onto the next work, or otherwise take a well-earned rest. And this is still the case, perhaps even more so, if they are aware of the limitations and deficiencies of their work. Returning to Tolkien, the preface to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings contains these remarkably honest words:
The most critical reader of all, myself, now finds many defects, minor and major, but being fortunately under no obligation either to review the book or to write it again, he will pass over these in silence, except one that has been noted by others: the book is too short.
Amen to his last statement.
Sometimes - before publication - authors, dramatists and composers expend considerable energy on rewrites. They cannot bring their work to completion. They set the work aside - hoping to return to it, perhaps. Or sometimes admitting to themselves forlornly that it will never reach that final form. Afraid, even, to finish it. To say: ‘There! It’s done.’ For examples, think of The Silmarillion (Tolkien again). Or Schubert’s famously unfinished 8th symphony. And sometimes Death himself intervenes: none more poignantly so than in the case of Mozart, in the midst of writing his Requiem. Lacrimosa dies illa / Qua resurget ex favilla /Judicandus homo reus (‘Full of tears will be that day / When from the ashes shall arise / The guilty man to be judged’): possibly the final words of the Requiem score that he worked on.
(Let’s not get into whether unfinished works should be completed by other hands - even hands as respectful as Mozart’s pupil Süssmayr, or Tolkien’s son Christopher. That’s another controversy for another time.)
But Roald Dahl indisputedly completed many works. Many of them have become beloved classics of children’s literature. He did not feel the need to rewrite them. With what audacity should lesser writers (and publishers looking for a ‘fast buck’ from ‘new’ editions) feel the need to do so? It’s not ‘artistic reinterpretation’. It’s not reviewing the language ‘to ensure that it can continue to be enjoyed by all today’ (as the publisher's blurb maintains). It’s cultural vandalism - pure and simple.
Yes, there are plenty of controversial works in the vast canon of literature. Are we going to raise the age of Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, or Nabokov’s Lolita, because they make us feel uncomfortable these days? Are we going to rewrite Huckleberry Finn, removing from Twain's work every use of the ‘N-word’? That’s the logical next step - it would seem - from trying to tell us that Augustus Gloop might be ‘enormous’, but he certainly isn’t ‘fat’.
Some commentators have suggested that Roald Dahl is being retrospectively ‘punished’ for his well-documented anti-Semitic views. Well, again, I don’t want to go too far down another rabbit hole, that of so-called ‘cancel culture’; but altering or invalidating another person’s work because of some supposed moral shortcoming in the artist - real or otherwise - is unbelievably facile. Caravaggio was, possibly, a murderer. He also happens to be one of my favourite artists. The late Eric Gill’s sculptures have become enormously controversial recently, in view of discoveries about his personal life. But what, then, about film directors like Roman Polanski? Or the possible proclivities of Lewis Caroll and JM Barrie? Or poets like Jean Genet, once a petty thief; or the perpetually inebriated Swansea poet, Dylan Thomas? What about drug-using novelists like William Burroughs? Or even - in the current moment, most controversially - JK Rowling? Can I divorce the art from the artist? Should I? To what extent does the artist inform the art? Should one appreciate the music, or the novel, in and for itself? Complex questions, to be sure: but the unyielding orthodoxies of ‘cancel culture’ seem to be a most illiberal response to me.
‘Ah, but Roald Dahl is a children’s author’ - comes back the rejoinder. ‘Corrupting the young - we can’t have that!’ Well, I’m certainly not dignifying that criticism with a response. The artificial division of literature into ‘children’s’ and ‘young adult’ and ‘adult’ categories is something I began to reject long before I took an interest in Lady C and the other ‘black books’ in our school library.
If you think a work lacks literary merit - don’t read it. If as a publisher you think it’s had its day - don’t reprint it. Altering the text to suit current-day identity politics, without the author’s express permission, is tantamount to pissing on their grave.
Good art should entertain us, challenge us, inspire us, and even, sometimes, disturb us. Think of one of Picasso’s most famous works - Guernica. It contains some shocking imagery - such as a gored horse, screaming women, a dead baby, a dismembered soldier, and flames. It was meant to shock. It was the artist’s response to the Spanish Civil War and the Fascist destruction of the Basque town of Guernica in 1937. Are we to judge Picasso’s work as too troubling for consideration today? Of course not.
But, then again, are we step by step remorselessly heading for the kind of world that EM Forster warned about in his extraordinary short story, The Machine Stops? In this remarkable work, first published in 1928 (!), the author predicts the rise of the internet (yes, really), human dependency upon machines, and the death of scientific inquiry and artistic imagination. In the story, we are introduced to a Lecturer, an ‘expert’ in French history, who to ‘tremendous applause’ declaims the following to his enraptured audience:
‘There will come a generation that has gone beyond facts, beyond impressions, a generation absolutely colourless, a generation “seraphically free from taint of personality”, which will see the French Revolution not as it happened, nor as they would like it to have happened, but as it would have happened had it taken place in the days of the Machine.’
Sorry Huxley - sorry Orwell. Forster got there a few years before you.
I’m going to give the final word to Salman Rushdie: a man who appreciates the cost of creative integrity, and the dangers of censorship, far, far more than most of us ever will. He posted his reaction to the brouhaha about Dahl on Twitter a few days ago. He wrote:
‘Roald Dahl was no angel but this is absurd censorship. Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed.’
Spot on. Now I really need to get around to reading The Satanic Verses.
Analytics, analytics, all they fucking care about are analytics. This is what journalism has become. It no longer has anything to do with your interviewing or writing skills. Just analytics
My last article was my pièce de résistance. A multi-interview deep-dive into the life of an Afghan refugee who came to Canada with nothing more than the torn clothes on his back.
A nineteen-year-old who spent the last five years of his life in a refugee camp determined to make it out alive and start a new life. The kid got his hands on every book he could and learned five different languages, so wherever he found himself, he would have a better chance to integrate.
He made it out, and he made it to my small town, and I sat down with him and conducted multiple detailed interviews. Did anyone read it? Not many. Not enough to get me ranked in the top ten most read articles in our analytics system. So, at the last weekly pitch meeting with the editor, ole Jamie Wells says
“Hey, I, uh, noticed that your articles haven’t been picking up any steam lately. I can’t guarantee job security if you’re not ranking in the system, okay?. So, let’s get out there and get some good stories this week. Check out Caroline’s last few articles.”
“I’m covering everything that’s going on in Mill Haven,” I answered, knowing that an argument was futile, but also knowing that I was going to defend my side, anyway. “I just wrote the Afghan refugee article, interviewed veterans for Remembrance Day. I even spent an afternoon digging through archives at the museum for stories of local World War 2 heroes. I did the Lakeview festival, several on the hospital crisis, and an 800 word article on the sale of the sawmill. Christ, Jamie, what else do you want me to do?”
“Just check Caroline’s last few articles, okay?”
“Yeah, sure. Whatever.” I answered, feeling veins pulsating from both sides of my head.
It was no dig at Caroline. She was a fine reporter, but her last few “articles” were only rewrites of police reports. Headlines like, Two Dead After Sunday Crash on Route 11. 21-Year-Old Overdoses on Fentanyl. One Dead, One in Critical Condition After Accident Near St Pauls. Headlines that wrote themselves. I felt like screaming at the prick, Do you want me to go out and hit someone with my car, so I can get a top ranked article and keep my fucking job, Jamie?
Yes, I understood that those press release rewrites were the top three ranked articles in the province. But not one of them had anything to do with reporting, at least not in my humble opinion. The RCMP shared the releases; the reporters reworded them, and the public jumped on them like the vultures they were. It didn’t take Woodward or Bernstein to do that.
I stared at the blank screen of my WordPress page, feeling disillusioned about a career that I once considered a dream, but now realized was just another pointless job. The more time you spent doing anything in this life, the more you realized dreams were only the wanting of things that seemed out of reach. Once you grabbed them, reality set in and those dreams ceased to be. It was a bad time to be a reporter in a safe city. The vultures were no fans of the happy ending.
Then, for the hell of it, I started typing in the headline section. 73-Year-Old-Man Dies in Bank Robbery After Heroic Effort. Would you like that, Jamie?. I continued writing.
A 73-year-old-man has died after a heroic effort on Monday morning at TD bank on Main Street. Two masked assailants carrying automatic weapons entered the bank demanding all cash on hand, says Wendy Andrews, a 52-year-old resident of Mill Haven,
“I don’t trust online banking. I still come on Mondays to deposit cheques and socialize, you know? Like people are supposed to do. Then these men came in, waving guns around. It was terrifying. I thought I was going to die until an older gentleman ran at them and tackled them both from behind. He was like a linebacker. We called the cops. The masked men panicked and shot the old man before hightailing it out of the bank.”
This shit just writes itself. Even Wendy Andrews, a name I just made up on the spot, seemed to fit the article. Good ole Wendy, no way she’ll ever make the transition to digital banking, not my Wendy. I even gave myself a metaphorical pat on the back for coming up with her quotes for the press. They seemed authentic enough, and if that were a legitimate article, the province would gobble it up. And maybe next time, when things slowed down on Caroline’s end, Jamie would tell her to check out my articles. That would be the day, wouldn’t it?
But the facade revealed itself to be just that, and Jamie’s high-pitched nasally voice echoed in my ears, “I can’t guarantee job security, if you’re not ranking in the system, okay?” So I closed the WordPress page and refreshed all the tabs of my different news sources to see if any breaking stories had developed since I started writing my little piece of fiction.
A story had been published seconds ago with the headline, 73-Year-Old-Man Dies in Bank Robbery After Heroic Effort. This was the breaking story of each of my news sources. I was stunned. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. It had to be a coincidence. Even if it was the grandest coincidence I’d ever experienced, it still had to be one. Just had to be.
I clicked on the story from the RCMP website and scrolled down to see that it was word for word what I had written. Even the quote from Wendy Andrews, the woman I was sure I had just made up. But there she was telling the “press,” though I was the only press in town, that she went to the bank every Monday to socialize, ya know? Like people are supposed to do.
For a moment, I didn’t know what to do or what to think. I actually pinched the skin on my arm. As ridiculous as it sounds, I did it. Pinched and twisted, but there was only pain. There was no gasping moment where I awoke in the middle of the night lying next to my wife. No, she was at work, and I was at work, and this press release was somehow filled with the words that I had written only moments ago.
I went back to the article, and decided that I would continue writing, just to test this insanity. I added at the bottom. “The man’s dying words were, Gosh, I love this town, and I love this country,” says bank manager Margaret Macmillan. Another fictionalized name. I gave a half-hearted laugh at this. An all Canadian man giving his life, and not regretting a single second of it. It was a pleasant touch, I thought, but it wasn’t reality. No, sir.
Lather, rinse, repeat. I hit refresh on the news pages, and once more started with the RCMP release. There it was at the bottom. “Gosh, I love this town, and I love this country.”
Jesus Christ. This is crazy. But…. I paused. This is job security. If I sent this to Jamie now, he would have to praise my punctuality, and Caroline would certainly be knocked from the top spot by the end of the day. A man who died yesterday is old news compared to a man who has died today.
I edited the story a little, added some more fictionalized information that I was sure would prove to be reality once I hit refresh on the RCMP page, then sent it to Jamie. For a brief moment a voice inside my head whispered, “you killed this man. You killed this man.” But I shook it off with relative ease. And it was soon replaced by an even louder voice that said, “Think about the analytics.”
Top ranked stories every day for this small town reporter. I thought of next week’s editorial meeting, and Jamie telling the rest of the reporters to check out my articles for ideas on how to rank high in the system, and have some of that sweet old job security.
All that mattered in reporting these days was analytics. Goddamn analytics.