Indentured Solitude

Indentured Solitude

It was four-thirty in the morning and Ernest stared blankly through the fog that clung to the window of the black cab. He found himself lost in the lights of London shimmering on the Thames. He realized how close he was to getting the one thing he most desired.

“How far away are we?” Ernest asked the cab driver.

The cabbie glanced up and their eyes met briefly in the rearview mirror.

“Six more blocks, Sir, roughly,” answered with a strong Hindi accent.

Ernie reached into the inside pocket of his wool pea coat for a wad of Pound notes and started thumbing through them.

“You can drop me off right here.”

The driver pulled to the curb, draping his thin arm across the back of the passenger seat, “That’ll be an even fifty-five quid, please.”

“Keep the change,” Ernest nodded as he slipped two carefully folded fifty pound notes in the driver’s ashy palm.

The driver quickly jerked his hand away.

“Ouch! Nothing starts off a shift like a paper cut! Paper cuts are like annoying little f*cking barking Chihuahuas only you can hear,” the cabbie said.

Ernie laughed to himself and immediately repeated the line under his breath so he wouldn’t forget it. Life sometimes handed you these glorious lines, words that deserve to live forever in fiction and this was just such a gem.

“Thanks, mate. Enjoy your stay.”

One more act of kindness can’t hurt he thought closing the cab door and watching the taillights of the taxi as they disappeared into the darkness.

Despite how unfair the world seemed Ernie still believed in karma. Besides, money would be of no use to him where he was going now. Taking in a few deep breaths of the cool, fresh air he almost forgot for a moment why he was here.

Ernie had been extremely shy as a child and life was easier when he lived it inside his head. He spent most of his childhood within the confines of his own imagination. Solitude was Ernest’s cocoon, the shield that protected him from the world’s harshness, and over time solitude grew to be his best friend. Back then, if he wasn’t scribbling in his bedroom you could find him lying on the shag carpeting in front of his parent’s console T.V. engrossed in some British sitcom on PBS.

Ernie had always felt an unexplainable familiarity with British culture. He loved their dry wit and even the gloomy weather. It didn’t surprise him when he discovered later in life that his ancestors had immigrated to America from Warwickshire in the late 1600’s. He’d always suspected he’d lived a past life as a Brit but now his theory leaned more towards genetic memory.

Ernest sighed heavily and made his way against the biting November wind. He tried to focus on the rhythm of his footsteps instead of his fears but he was failing miserably at it. It didn’t help that his brain still buzzed from too many cups of coffee during the flight. He could never sleep on planes so any trip over four hours was pure torture.

As he turned the corner he realized that this would be the last block he would walk as a free man. As charming as this neighborhood was, each step brought with it a greater feeling of dread.

This is my own green mile, he thought.

He wasn’t literally losing his life but it felt like it.

Ernie’s eyes scanned the addresses of the Victorian row houses as he walked. When he spotted 1356 Tenley Place the gray canvas duffle bag he was holding slid from his fingers and fell to the sidewalk with a dull thud. He felt a sharp stab of pain in the pit of his stomach followed by the urge to retch up the remains of the disgusting breakfast sandwich he devoured on the plane.

“Just what in the bloody ‘ell ‘ave you done now, mate?” he whispered in the best Cockney accent he could muster.

Thank God I still have my sense of humor, he chuckled nervously to himself.

A few months after he received the advance for his first novel, Ernest bought a condo in the very building F. Scott Fitzgerald was born. He thought the place would be inspirational, and it was for a while. In the quiet hours, just before dawn, there was a perfect stillness and it was as though he could hear Fitzgerald’s ghost whispering words and ideas into his ear. For almost three months last winter he rarely left the condo and wrote the best fiction of his life. This gave him such confidence that he felt his second novel could be the next Great Gatsby. One morning, about halfway through the first draft of his second novel, the ghost didn’t pay him a visit and the whispers stopped.

Ernest didn’t overlook the irony in the fact that his literary agent chose London for this scheme. The city now considered so civilized was built on a foundation of suffering and barbarism. Ernest knew that nearly everything of any value was born of suffering, if he didn’t he would never have agreed to this plan.

Ernie remembered so vividly the afternoon this insane idea was born. He was alone, cooking dinner in his condo, streaming Tito Puente a little too loudly from his phone. He was already two glasses into a bottle of a nice cabernet and feeling the comfort of its cozy warmth. A cool breeze blew in from the open window and the scent of pepper beef stir-fry filled the air when the music stopped and his phone began to ring. He almost didn’t answer the call when he saw it was Harold, his literary agent. He knew what it was about but decided he had avoided the conversation too long already.

“How’s my favorite author?” Harold said.

Ernie rolled his eyes dramatically.

“Hey Harry, I’m doing okay,” Ernie answered.

“You don’t sound okay, Bud. We’re only six months away from the publisher’s deadline. How’s the progress coming?”

Ernest didn’t want to admit that he hadn’t written a word of substance in months and was beginning to fear his debut novel was a freak thing he couldn’t repeat. Every time he sat down to write his mind went blank. He was desperate to get his mojo back.

“Honestly, Harry, I’m petrified. I have the worst goddamn writer’s block of my whole life. These past few months have been a roller coaster. Between the book tour and the media interviews, I feel like time is rushing by too fast. Everybody wants a piece of me. All I need is solitude, some time away…from everything.”

During the flight’s excruciating hours he had questioned a thousand times if he would’ve agreed to this Harry’s plan if it hadn’t been for those two glasses of cabernet. He always came up with the same answer; no. The wine was the rickety bridge that had temporarily merged his world with Harry’s.

The line went quiet for a moment. “Gosh, Ernie. You know if you don’t give them something Doubleday can terminate your contract and we have to pay back a substantial part of the advance.”

Harold Cincotti thrived in the alternate universe that was Manhattan. A person who didn’t know his backstory would never guess he fought his way up from poverty in the streets of the Bronx. Ernest didn’t see the other side of Harry until the final days of the contract negotiations with Doubleday when Harry’s demeanor went from polished executive to a Soprano’s cast member in under three seconds. Witnessing that kind of explosive fury scared the hell out of Ernie. However blunt they were, Harry’s negotiation skills secured a record-breaking three book deal from one of New York’s most respected publishers and made Ernie a rich man.

“I have an idea, I know this guy who owes me a favor in London…” This was the exact point where Ernie couldn’t bear to replay any more of the conversation in his head, it made him feel too foolish.

So, instead of taking in the sights of Britain here he stood, before the heavy wooden double doors of a fancy Victorian row house. This is the first moment it all felt real. This place would be his prison and the length of the sentence would be totally up to him.

“You are a desperate and a very stupid man,” Ernest muttered.

The creaking brass hinges of the heavy wooden double doors broke him from his self-loathing.

“Please come in, Mr. Solomon. Mr. Jacobs has been expecting you,” the butler said with nothing but emptiness in his eyes. He looked more like a linebacker than a butler; this man weighed three hundred pounds if he weighed an ounce.

As hard as he tried Ernest could conjure no words. His head was spinning and the salt crunched under his feet as he climbed the stairs to the front door. By the third step he realized he left his bag on the sidewalk behind him but he knew if he turned back the urge would be too strong to try to make a break for it. As he crossed the threshold, the air inside held a different kind of gravity, it was heavier somehow. He knew he was entering a world in which he didn’t belong. The scent of the place was just as he expected a proper English house to smell, the subtle fragrance of fine leather, expensive candles, and generational wealth.

“This way, Sir,” the butler said as Ernie followed him towards the back of the house. Ernie felt the man’s heat signature as he walked three feet behind him.

Ernest’s breath quickened. Beads of cool sweat began to form on his forehead as they approached another doorway leading to a flight of stairs down to the basement. The old wooden stairs groaned, protesting each of the butler’s footsteps as they descended.

“Watch your ‘ead, please. I believe you’ll need it,” the butler whispered, smirking over his shoulder.

The bottom of the staircase opened to the limestone walls of the damp, windowless cellar. Two leather wingback chairs were facing one another on a faded red Oriental rug. In one of the chairs sat a dapper man with a perfectly shaped bald head. His legs were crossed at the knee and he wore an impeccably tailored gray suit with brown saddle leather boots polished to a mirror shine. As the man stood to shake Ernie’s hand he noticed a deep and jagged scar that ran from just above his ear to his chin.

“Welcome to London, Mr. Soloman, I’m Peter Jacobs. Before we begin I must tell you how much I admire your work. I can tell from your writing that you’re an honorable man. I told Mr. Cincotti that after I read your book I saw the world in a completely different way. Do you know how rare that is for someone like me? When Harry told me of your troubles I couldn’t bear it because I recognize such an immense greatness in you.”

Mr. Jacobs stood so close that could Ernie feel his warm breath on his face. Ernie’s body tensed as Mr. Jacobs rested both hands heavily on Ernie’s shoulders and gave them a firm squeeze, staring him straight in the eyes.

“I’ve developed a great instinct for people. It’s a talent that has served me well in my business. We’re rooting for you.”

As he smiled slightly, the light caught the flash of a gold-capped tooth as he turned on his heel and began to pace back and forth in front of Ernie.

“Anyway, I digress. I’ll be administering the process here today,” he said.

“Let’s run through the terms of our agreement, shall we?”

“Well, umm, Mr. Jacobs you see…I think I’ve changed my mind,” Ernie pleaded as his eyes dropped to the floor.

“Come now, Mr. Solomon, relax. Shall I remind you that I made our friend Mr. Cincotti a promise? In our world our word is all we have and we live and die by it,” he said, staring at Ernest intensely with his piercing blue eyes.

“First, we ask that you turn in your mobile phone and empty your pockets of all personal belongings and place them into this plastic tub.”

Ernie tried to find comfort in Harry’s words as they kept echoing through his head, Let me tell you two things I’ve learned, Number one, in this world the hero and villain can possess the same kind of greatness, and Number two, everything in this life, good or bad, comes with a price.

He didn’t have the life experience it took to understand what Harry meant until this very moment.

Back in Manhattan Harry was probably already two whiskeys into the night, getting his ego stroked by an attractive waitress in some swanky Manhattan restaurant. This plan was easy for Harry because he wasn’t the one standing in this dank basement, alone with a powerful British crime boss who happened to be Ernest’s biggest fan.

Ernie tried his best to swallow but his throat was far too parched. He began to accept his fate as he started to empty the contents of his pockets into the clear plastic tub.

“The terms of our agreement are as follows,” Mr. Jacobs said as he walked a few feet towards a gray steel door, rapping it two times with this knuckles as it rang like a bell.

“This is your new home. You will be housed in this secured room, eight feet by ten feet in diameter including one writer’s desk with a chair, a bed, a lavatory, and a shower until such a time as a draft of your new novel, deemed worthy of publication by Mr. Cincotti, is produced.”

Mr. Jacobs’ face took on a more serious expression and he started pacing back and forth again as he continued, “You will be issued a laptop computer and access to reading material of your choosing. A chef will be at your disposal from 6am to 9pm to prepare anything you desire. There will be no internet access, radio, or television to distract you. There is an intercom system in the chamber to communicate to my staff but you shall have absolutely no contact with the outside world save for one call per week to a single party of your choosing. These calls will be monitored closely and I promise you that there will be a severe penalty if there is an attempt to breach any of these terms. A press release has been prepared by our staff informing the public that you are taking a hiatus from public life for an undetermined amount of time until your task is complete.”

Ernie twitched as the large stainless steel lock on the gray door buzzed loudly. Mr. Jacobs swung open the thick door to reveal a sparse vault-like room.

“Smith, show Mr. Solomon into the chamber, please.”

“Of course, Sir,” Smith quickly complied, he rested his enormous hand in the middle of Ernie’s back and pushed him six feet into the middle of the room.

“Hey!” Ernie screamed as spun around to see the steel door slam shut behind him.

This last outburst was like the final whimper of a baby before surrendering to sleep. After a few seconds Ernie’s tightly clenched jaw relaxed and his shoulders slumped forward. Everything was instantly quiet and still. Instead of feeling confined by the tight space he felt his imagination expanding, this gave him hope.

In a moment of desperation Ernest had agreed to pay a price far greater than money for what he desired. He willingly agreed to pay with his freedom and his time but now that he understood his predicament on a deeper level, he realized he might even pay with his life.

Ernest slid the simple wooden chair away from the desk and sat down. As he opened the laptop and rested his hands lightly on its keys he felt a shiver run down his spine. Ernie realized that for all of Harry’s wisdom there was one thing a person like him couldn’t begin to understand and that one thing was how complex an author’s creativity could be.

Muse was magic, like a beautiful monarch butterfly that decides to land on you when you’re standing all alone in a garden, perfectly still. Muse could never be forced or even willed. Ernie closed his eyes and prayed that this locked chamber, in the basement of this Victorian row house in London might possess the kind of perfect stillness that would welcome the fickle whispers of Fitzgerald’s ghost.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Just Another Day

Darren was a bachelor, he would claim by choice, and he was also very particular. His life was lived like a sacred ritual, trying his best to make sure that each day was the same as the last. He woke each weekday morning at 5:20am sharp, showered, and shaved his salt and pepper shadow with a vintage chrome safety razor. He then brewed an extra strong cup of coffee and prepared breakfast which consisted of steel cut oatmeal with a quarter cup of blueberries and half a pat of grass fed butter, never more.

Although Darren was what most people would consider content he had always felt like his life was missing something indescribable. It was as though his soul was a jigsaw puzzle that was almost complete, the few missing pieces were where his heart was but he had no idea of where to find them.

Just before leaving for the office Darren always watered his bonsai tree, a ficus of the variety sold at Walmart, with one half cup of spring water, perfectly measured. For the last ten years Darren had cared for the bonsai like it was his first born. He even gave it a name, he called it Moe because the shape of the tree’s foliage reminded him of the mop top hairstyle of the lead stooge of the same name. His boss had given him Moe as a gift for his fifth anniversary with the accounting agency.

The first night Darren brought the bonsai home to his apartment he had the distinct impression that, in some inexplicable way, Moe’s well-being would forever connected to the security of this job. He believed with all of his being that as long as he kept the bonsai healthy he would never need to worry about the security of his job at the agency. In Darren’s mind his theory was substantiated the following year. He had overslept by only few minutes and was running late, as a result he had forgotten to water Moe. This couldn’t have happened on a worse day, it was the day of his annual performance review at the agency and his absentmindedness cost him dearly, that year he received a measly ten cent raise.

Each Saturday morning Darren allowed himself the luxury of one extra hour of sleep, he felt that any more would be wasting the day away. Upon waking his Saturday ritual was almost identical to the previous five mornings except for one: instead of taking the northbound train to the office he crossed to the other side of the station and boarded the southbound train to the Snelling Avenue stop. Just across the street from the Snelling station stood Wimbley’s Books and the hand painted sign out front, in bold red letters read, “Rare and Out of Print Books.”

Darren spent nearly every Saturday weeding through the stacks of books, intoxicated by the mustiness of antiquity. Wimbley’s was the one of the few places on Earth where he felt like he fit in. Sometimes he would pack a sandwich and a piece of fruit in his messenger bag for sustenance enough to spend the entire day there.

From the moment he got off the train he felt as though a magnet was pulling him towards the front door of Wimbley’s shop. His strides were a little more hurried than usual as he crossed the busy street. Sam, one of Mr. Wimbley’s clerks, had left Darren a cheery voice mail on Tuesday morning with the news that his book had arrived. It took all of his restraint not to continue riding right on past his normal stop that night after work to pick up the treasure. Darren worried over the matter for the rest of his workday that Tuesday but was worried that any deviation in his routine might throw off his luck for the rest of the week.

Darren turned the doorknob and stepped inside Wimbley’s shop and as he did the tarnished brass bell that hung above the door chimed alerting the staff he had arrived.

“It’s Darren, nine o’clock exactly…punctual as always. I have no idea how you waited four days to pick this up, you have more patience than me,” Mr. Wimbley said peering over top of his wire rimmed glasses, eyes squinting as he smiled.

“It wasn’t easy, Sir! I was just so busy,” Darren answered as he blew into his hands and quickly rubbed them together.

The treasure that Mr. Wimbley spoke of was a copy of a fifteenth century Irish illuminated manuscript obtained from an extensive book collection in Dubai. There were only three known copies of this ancient manuscript created by a lone Irish monk.

Legend has it that the monk, whose name had since been lost to history, lived in a two room stone house that stood alone amongst the craggy cliffs of the Irish seashore. The monk had befriended the two Gaelic tribes in the region he was put in charge of converting to Christianity by the Vatican. After living among the native people for only a few months the monk went rogue and adopted the pagan people’s dress and their way of life.

The monk was so taken by the power of these people’s spiritual beliefs he felt it his duty to meticulously transcribe the Gallic druids’ oral tradition word for word. Each page of the book was handwritten in flowing calligraphy; although it was officially untitled, the book was referred to in collector’s circles as The Gaelic Book of Wisdom. The book contained three hundred and sixty-five passages, one for each day of the year. The monk then made two additional copies of the book, he kept one for himself and the remaining two were given to the chieftain of each of the two tribes. When the word got out that the monk had been turned by pagans and failed in his missionary work, assassins were dispatched by the Pope himself to put a swift end to the monk’s shenanigans before a legend was born.

The Gaelic Book of Wisdom is now considered one of the grails of bibliophiles. A person had be in the inner circle to even know about, let alone, get a chance at owning something as special as this. Darren’s ticket into this rarified world was Mr. Wimbley and his admission was earned slowly over decades of patronizing his bookstore and thousands of dollars changing hands.

One of Wimbley’s long time clerks, Samantha Fletcher or Fletch as she was called by the regulars, came from behind the counter and handed Darren a pair of white gloves, “I know you’re a virgin,” her face turned a bright pink, “umm…I mean, uh when it comes to owning rare books.”

Fletch took a deep breath and regained her composure, “You’ll want to wear these gloves whenever you handle it. Otherwise the oil from your skin will discolor the pages. Always remember, this book is an irreplaceable artifact. It’s so easy to forget in today’s world of disposable things how fragile and valuable something like this is.”

Fletch was attractive in a waspy conservative sort of way. Her hazel eyes were studious and she wore her brown hair short in a fashionable bob cut. She was almost always stealing glances across the shop at Darren on Saturdays and he would occasionally sneak a look at her too.

Darren had the distinct impression that there was something meant for him in this manuscript and that it would somehow help him to feel whole again. He was hardly a man of means but he was so sure of the importance of this purchase he took out a loan against his 401k to buy it. The incredible details that Fletch had shared with him over successive Saturdays put to rest any reservations he might have had.

Fletch lightly placed her hand on Darren’s shoulder and glanced from side to side to make sure no one else was within earshot, “The auctioneer we bought this from said the previous owner of the book bought it nearly a decade ago a flea market in Paris and found an old letter written on parchment between its pages. The letter told of how the book had a way of finding the person who needed it most and shared stories of how past owner’s lives were magically transformed for the better after acquiring the book…” Fletch trailed off as the brass bell rang and a few new customers noisily filed through the door. There was a look in her eyes that told him there was much more she wanted to say.

“Well, I could really use some magic in my life,” Darren laughed nervously.

Mr. Wimbley wrapped the book carefully in brown paper and tied it off tightly with twine. Darren eagerly handed him a cashier’s check for ten thousand dollars. Mr. Wimbley removed his white gloves and held the check up and studied it in the light. He then paused, slowly twisting the end of this handlebar mustache.

The pause lasted a bit too long for Darren’s liking. He feared Wimbley was having second thoughts about the transaction. Wimbley then shot Darren a look of concern, flicked the check noisily with his finger and said, “Darren, you’re now among the ranks of a precious few. Do you promise to take good care of this book?”

Darren exhaled more deeply than he ever did in his life, he knew now he had crossed all of the hurdles.

“I do, “ Darren said.

As he exited the shop Darren cradled the book against chest as if it was a newborn baby. He decided he wouldn’t take off the wrapper until he was home but could swear that he felt the power in it as he held the book close.

He could remember nothing of the train ride home, all he could think about was unwrapping his treasure. He quickly unlocked the door of his apartment, slid on the white gloves Fletch had given him, then carefully cut the twine with his Swiss army knife. Darren held his breath as he slowly peeled back the brown paper revealing the book’s cover, it was an emerald green leather and was in remarkably good condition for its age, only slightly faded.

As Darren cracked open the book he was in awe of the richness of color on the pages and elegant flourishes of the calligraphy. The scent was a combination of old paper, leather, and the sea. He started to read and from the first few words Darren felt wisdom and vitality pour over him. Immediately he got the distinct impression that little by little the puzzle of his life was being completed and this book contained all there was for him to learn.

A few days passed and he read from the book religiously. Each day he arose an extra fifteen minutes early to allow himself time to mindfully absorb each new passage. Almost immediately he began to notice a great change in his life: men treated him with more respect; women began to notice him; and the day’s events seemed to suddenly flow effortlessly in his favor.

On Wednesday of the following week Darren’s phone buzzed as he was grocery shopping, he glanced at it and decided to pick up the call when he noticed, “Wimbley’s Books” flash across the screen.

“Hello,” Darren said sheepishly.

“It’s me, Fletch,” she paused, “I don’t know how to tell you this but I just couldn’t go through with it any longer.”

“I’m not sure what you mean,” Darren said dumbfounded as he continued bagging his pink lady apples.

“There’s something I need to tell you.” Darren could hear Fletch breathing heavily on the other side of the line.

“Sure, what is it?”

“I made it all up about the book,” she said as she started to sniffle. The sniffles then turned into sobs.

Darren tied off the plastic bag and dropped the apples into his cart, “Made it all up? I guess I’m still not sure what you mean.”

Fletch continued nervously, “I mean the book is old and super rare and it was written by an Irish monk but I concocted the whole part about the magical aspect of the book, there was no letter. There’s no magic in it either, Darren. Believe me, I had good intentions, all I wanted was to see you happy and get to get to know you a little better. I thought I might even have a chance to go out with you or something. Please forgive me.”

Darren’s face took on a look of bewilderment as he walked away from his grocery cart. For a moment Darren let his emotions get the better of him and completely forgot where he was.

“You’re lying. I feel the magic in it, I feel the change in me and nothing you tell me can convince me otherwise!” he yelled, now pacing back and forth in the produce aisle.

“Oh I get it, you probably just want the book for yourself, don’t you Fletch? This conversation is done!” Darren said as he forcibly tapped the end call button and shoved the phone into the pocket of his trench coat.

Oh my, after all these years now I have to find myself a new bookstore Darren thought to himself as he took a deep, controlled breath and continued shopping as though it was just another day.

 

~Eric Vance Walton~

From The Land of the Lost

Michael Callahan started down the well-worn path leading from the edge of the woods. His gut told him he wasn’t alone, but his passion to wrap up this project had long ago eclipsed any fears he might have for his own safety. He scanned the underbrush for any signs of movement.
Five weeks of life on the road were starting to wear on him, especially in the sauna that was summer in Florida. Michael’s once chiselled physique had become soft and shaving was a chore he gave up weeks ago. He looked like a character that stepped out of an old Woodstock news clip from the 60’s.
He longed for the old, comfortable routines of his life, but more than anything, Michael was itching to start the months of editing the footage he’d shot. The only thing stopping him from heading home, was a nagging voice in his head that kept telling him he wasn’t done.
As his eyes swept the woods, he felt a ghostly presence among the trees. He quickly spotted what he had been looking for. Not far down the path, was a sunburned man wearing a tattered Yankee’s baseball cap, poking at a small fire with a stick.
Michael called out to the man. “Hi there. I mean you no harm. Are you hungry? Would you be interested in a free lunch?”
The man looked up, but seemed dazed from staring into the fire.  He sprang to his feet.  “I always heard there was no such thing as a free lunch.”
  “You’re right. I just have a couple of questions to ask you. In return, I’ll give you as many subs as you can eat.”
 The man looked at Michael suspiciously. “Are you a cop or some kind of pervert?”
“What? I’m no pervert! My name’s Michael Callahan, and I’m just a storyteller, or should I say, a story gatherer. There’s no pressure at all. Just follow me if you’re interested in answering a few questions.”
 Michael knew that hunger was a powerful motivational tool.  He turned and headed back towards his vehicle.  Within minutes, he heard the man’s footsteps crunching the forest floor behind him.
“My name’s Jeremy–Jeremy Schiller,” the man said as they neared Michael’s dingy, yellow RV.
     “Nice to meet you, Mr. Schiller.  Welcome to my humble abode,” Michael said, unlocking the door and standing aside to allow the old man to enter. He thought he caught a glimpse of an Asian man watching intently from behind a large oak tree at the edge of the woods.
“Mr. Schiller, come right in and have a seat on the couch and make yourself comfortable.” Michael was being overly attentive, speaking in a slow tone that he might use addressing small children.
“I’ll get those sandwiches that I promised you, but first let’s just talk for a minute.  I’m traveling around this country of ours, gathering the stories of people like yourself in hopes of someday turning the footage into a documentary. Are you camera shy, Mr. Schiller?”
A hesitant smirk appeared on Jeremy’s lips as he took off his faded baseball cap and ran his fingers through his thinning blond hair.  “Umm, no.  I suppose not,” he said.
Michael walked over to a video camera perched on a tripod in the corner.  Turning it on and adjusting its aim, he turned back to his guest, handing Jeremy a cold Gatorade from a large cooler. “Good. Just try to forget this thing is on. Now, could you please tell me a little about you and your situation?”
Jeremy stared at the bottle for a moment and then ran his sunburned finger down the tiny beads of sweat that blanketed its label. He cracked open the cap, and took a long drink before clearing his throat.
“Well, where do I start? Umm, my name is Jeremy. These woods out here have been my home for close to…I guess, eight years now. It’s not a bad place, once you get accustomed to it. To me, it almost feels like a resting place between two worlds.”
“I’m not sure what you mean. Can you explain?”
“You see, sometimes in the morning, in the hazy moments right after I wake up, the life I now live still seems unreal to me.  During the day, memories of the life I once lived seem like they happened a hundred years ago.  These memories sometimes fill me with joy–most times they make me angry–but nonetheless, they are mine, and they’re all I have left.
There are a lot of things I miss. Sometimes I close my eyes and swear that I can see Ashley and Genee playing on the jungle gym in the schoolyard.  It might sound strange, but there are times that I’ll just sit among all these trees and smile, thinking of something as mundane as a trip to the neighborhood co-op to buy groceries, or walking the dog in the crisp air of Fall. As each year comes and goes, I’ve replayed these memories over and over again. You see, if you’re an optimist, time has a funny way of polishing the bad and leaving you with only the good.  There are a couple of things I’ve learned in my forty-three years on Earth. The first is there are lessons to be learned in every second of life; the hard part is, you must be awake for them. Second, none of us are entitled to a goddamn thing. If life is good, enjoy it and give thanks to whomever or whatever it is you believe in. If life is bad, don’t blame anyone, just get busy fixing it.   Time is a precious thing and too many people waste too much of it playing the blame game.”
Michael paused to reflect. “Hmm, you’re right. Very wise words, Mr. Schiller. What was your childhood like?”
“Well, I had two brothers. My parents, I guess they were lower middle class, but they worked hard, every day of their lives. My mother told me I was always chasing dreams, but she raised me to believe they were all within my grasp. Things never came easy for me, but what I lacked in intelligence, I made up for in persistence.”
Jeremy chuckled softly and continued, “I had a few years of college and was majoring in journalism, but learned how to write computer code the summer of my sophomore year.  It took me a year to master it, and then I dropped out of school.  I took the plunge into the world of software engineering. It was good timing, we were smack-dab in the middle of the dot-com boom.
My friend Matt and I, you could say, we had a fairly decent idea, and just happened to be in the right place at the right time. We started our own firm and opened up shop in an old warehouse. It wasn’t long before we had a staff of ten. That’s how I met Ashley.  I’ll never forget the first day she came through the front doors to interview for one of our first marketing positions. Lord, she took my breath away.  She still does–every time I think of her.”
Jeremy stopped for a moment; his eyes began to well up as he continued. “Those years were a whirlwind and before I knew it, Ashley and I were married with a beautiful baby daughter, Genevieve.”
“What a great name.” Michael said.
The grin of a proud father flashed across Jeremy’s weather-beaten face, “Thank you. The name was popular during the Victorian era, Ashley felt an affinity towards that time. Our house was filled with all kinds of antiques. She always had such a great eye for a bargain, buying pieces dirt cheap and refinishing them.”
Jeremy cleared his throat and continued, “Well, after Genevieve was born, we bought a house in an exclusive gated community called, ‘Whispering Pines’.  Ashley never asked for any of this excess, but I felt she deserved only the best of the best–the American dream, you know?  Whenever I would buy her anything nice or expensive, she would look deep into my eyes and ask, “Do you know none of this is necessary?””
  Michael noticed an ever so subtle twitch in Jeremy’s eyelid as he took another small sip of his Gatorade.
  “The ironic thing was this place, ‘Whispering Pines,’ was the type of place I wanted to live in since I could ever remember, but once we had achieved this lifestyle, it never really felt like home. It seemed like everyone was just trying so hard to convince themselves, and everyone around them, that they were happy.”
“How do you mean?” Michael asked as he sat back in his swivel chair. His Zippo clicked as he lit a cigarette.
Jeremy’s brow ruffled as he leaned forward on the couch and looked Michael directly in the eye. “It was more like a sickness, this endless aching for more things.  It was a kind of darkness that slowly eclipsed every part of life that had any meaning. More money, nicer things, more exotic travel destinations. People in that community had one thing in common, this tired, empty look in their eyes. You know what I mean?”
Michael squinted as he took a drag off of his Winston. “Yes, I’ve seen that look many times in my travels.”
“We were surrounded by all these nice things, but we weren’t happy.  I personally was too focused on the future to enjoy my life then. I suppose, we all got caught up in the euphoria of it all. The one thing I noticed about lusting after money, after a certain point, it was worse than walking around hungry. It was a hunger that a person just couldn’t shake.”
“I understand, please continue, Mr. Schiller.”
“We lived in one of the largest houses in the community, but still that wasn’t enough. I felt we also needed to have the best vehicles money could buy. I drove a BMW 740i. The instruction manual for the damn thing was as thick as a phone book! Do you believe that? I bought Ashley a top of the line Land Rover.  At this point, I could tell she was beginning to get a little worried we were in over our heads. She walked around in a cloud for the next few days. To ease her mind, I logged onto my broker’s website and finally showed her exactly what our stock was worth.  She was speechless. I will never forget the look she gave me. Her eyes were glazed, her mouth upturned in a silly smile, as though she had just taken a hit of some potent drug. I pinpoint this as the precise moment she changed. Never again did she look me in the eyes and tell me the material things weren’t necessary. From that moment on, we were both spending like mad and it was my fault–all my fault.”
Michael’s leg began to bounce nervously as he pulled a small notepad from the pocket of his wrinkled Hawaiian shirt. “How were you doing financially at that time, Mr. Schiller?” Michael asked as he furiously scribbled notes.
Jeremy hesitated, and his eyes took on a look of suspicion. Michael knew people desperately wanted to tell their stories, and a good interviewer knew how to massage and coax, not prod and probe. He’d forgotten this basic rule and hoped Jeremy would let it pass.
Although he still held a slightly guarded look in his eyes, it seemed Jeremy’s memories had been locked away for far too long. His words continued their flow, “Well, let’s just say we could’ve paid off everything–all of our bills–and lived out the rest of our days comfortably just off of the interest from what we had.”
Michael’s eyes widened as he took a sip of his coffee. “I see. Can I call you Jeremy?” asked Michael, as his voice suddenly took on a more respectful tone.
“Sure you can.  What about those subs you promised me?”
Michael began to see beyond the tattered clothes and leathery face and saw a glimpse of what once made Jeremy such a successful business man. There was a certain “realness” about him. Despite his ragged appearance, in only a few minutes, he earned Michael’s complete trust and respect.
Digging through the loose ice cubes in the cooler Michael asked, “Roast beef or turkey?”
“Both please.” Jeremy answered politely.
“What happened next?”  Michael asked as he handed him two subs, still dripping from the melting ice.
Jeremy unwrapped the first sandwich and placed the other one on the seat beside his leg.   “Well”, he said, his words muffled between chews, “the stock market crash happened. It was as though everything we had acquired disappeared into thin air. We lost the house. Shortly after, we lost everything, and Ashley left with Genee.”
“I’m so sorry.” Michael put his hand on the old man’s shoulder, but Jeremy jerked away then smiled, as if to assure Michael that everything was alright.
“I was too ashamed to take help from any of my family. It was too much for me to deal with at once. At that point nothing mattered. I felt completely numb and the only thing I could think of to make me feel better was to see the ocean, to feel the salt breeze on my face.  So I left town.  I drove twenty-two hours straight to Cocoa Beach with nothing but the clothes on my back and whatever cash was in my wallet.”
“What is the hardest part for you now?
“There was the loss of my family, of course, but there was also the shame. The hardest part was knowing there was nowhere to go. It was a strange predicament and filled me with anxiety.  After eight years, I’ve learned to come to terms with it.  The life most people are living is not natural. It’s simply not the way it was meant to be. Michael, we have been conditioned to be nothing more than money-making robots.  The most difficult thing now is also the easiest.  Out here, there are no laurels on which to rest, you’re staring your demons in the face every waking second, so you’re forced to deal with them. This, I think, is what drives most people to the bottle or to madness and I came very close to both.”
Michael was engrossed, but at the same time shaken by Jeremy’s words. He felt exposed as if his own deepest fears were on display.  He asked his next question with the desperation of a snake bite victim searching for an antidote. “And what saved you, Jeremy?”
A deep smile flashed across the face of Jeremy Schiller as he finished the last bite of his sub and crumpled up the wrapper. “My savior came to me.”
“Do you mean Jesus?” asked Michael.
“Not exactly. I have to ask you something. Did you feel the presence out there in the woods?”
Michael nodded, not wanting to interrupt Jeremy’s train of thought.
“I’d bought an enormous jug of whiskey, stumbled into these woods almost a decade ago with the intention of drinking myself right into oblivion.”  Tears began to stream down Jeremy’s face as he continued.
“I was sitting out there in the dark in horrible, drunken misery when he came to me.”
Michael was beginning to wonder if madness had taken hold of Mr. Schiller. Jeremy’s eyes took on an ethereal glow as he continued. “Through this drunken haze, I remember seeing this thin, toothless Asian man. Honestly, he scared the hell out of me.  He came out of nowhere and was dressed in rags from head to toe. Duct tape looped around both of his shoes to hold them together, but something about this man left me speechless. His eyes were so humble and kind.  They sparkled with so much pure happiness it was almost like there was a fire lit behind them.  He didn’t speak a word, just held out his hand.  This stranger, who had nothing, was standing there, offering me something rare; his total acceptance and unconditional friendship.”
“I think I saw him at the edge of the woods. What’s his name?”
“Yep, that was him. I have no idea what his name is, he never talks, he just smiles, but we manage to communicate just the same. He sometimes scratches pictures in the dirt.  Mostly pictures of tanks and artillery.  My best guess is that he’s a Vietnamese refugee.  He’s taught me survival. He delivered me from my misery, from the land of the lost. Now I am a free man.”
Michael was moved by Jeremy’s story.  He realized the nagging voice in the back of his head had served him well. This interview was the Holy Grail of his documentary. It was a testament that one small act of kindness, something that costs absolutely nothing, can ripple forth in waves and touch the lives of countless others.
“Jeremy, do you ever think you’ll ever want to give the world another chance?”
Jeremy didn’t pause before he answered. “Never. Not that world!  That world out there is too far gone; it is nothing but a fragile house of cards. Power and money are now the only gods left.”
As they said their goodbyes, Michael handed Jeremy all the cash he had in his wallet.  Although Jeremy argued, Michael insisted, comforting himself with the knowledge that the two hundred dollars would keep the two from going hungry. He fired up the engine of the RV and began his journey home.
The documentary that started out being about the perils of homelessness in America, was transformed.  Instead, Michael knew the film would be about the root cause of homelessness, the broken system that helped create it.
He invested all he had, less than twenty thousand dollars, and dedicated the film to ‘His Savior’ and called it, ‘The American Dream’.  It debuted the following year at Sundance and became the surprise hit of the film festival.  It was released nationally, and in its first year, grossed one hundred and twenty-three million dollars.  When interviewed, audience members credited Jeremy’s interview as the reason for the memorable impression that people walked away with from the theatre.
    Michael went on to produce a string of successful films and acquired all the material things that spelled success, but he was careful to live a balanced life. He spread the money around to those who needed it and he never forgot the lesson he learned from Jeremy—his—Michael’s savior.
Years after the release of ‘The American Dream,’ Michael took a road trip.  Leaving Manhattan, he drove down the coast with nothing except his phone and a duffel bag full of hundred dollar bills.   He knew that he had met Jeremy at the exact moment he needed him.  He had time during the ride to reflect how everything unfolded the way it did for a reason.  He was awed by the fact that all actions and reactions are part of an amazingly complex web that can best be deciphered in reverse. If success had come his way before meeting Jeremy, he was certain he would’ve been sucked into the very same hellish world that Jeremy had narrowly escaped.
Michael entertained many fantasies about what Jeremy would do with the cash. Now that he’d absorbed the lesson, maybe he would finally be ready for a new beginning.  Maybe he would just hide the money in the woods, but he’d never have to wonder where his next meal would come from.
He took the Rockledge exit off I-95, his heart racing as he got close to the patch of woods that were the incubator of his rebirth.
He threw his Prius into park and grabbed the duffle bag, making his way down the familiar path. This time, something seemed different.  At first, Michael couldn’t put his finger on it.  Then it dawned on him.  The presence that he once felt in the woods was gone.  Farther down the path, he noticed a bright yellow bulldozer standing motionless near a pile of fallen trees.
“Jeremy!  Jeremy!” Michael called out frantically. While holding the heavy duffle bag, he continued calling, but his voice dropped to a whisper.  He sat down on a fallen tree just long enough to realize how foolish he was. Jeremy and his friend would have moved the minute the bulldozer encroached on their peace.  He picked up a rock from the path, dusted it off and studied it in the sunlight.
  In a year’s time, when the magical patch of woods was replaced by another outcrop of cookie-cutter condominiums, he figured that he would have just a single stone to remind him of a wonderful journey.  He felt a tingling sensation on the back of his neck, and he noticed the hairs on his arm were standing straight up.   His eye caught something in the sunlight near his feet–a weathered Ziplock bag. Inside, he found a piece of paper with Asian characters flowing wistfully down the page. Instinctively, he knew that he was holding something of value.
There was nothing left there.  It was time to go home.  The first thing he did when he crossed the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan was to head to Chinatown, the only place he knew where he could get the treasure translated.   He double-parked on the street in front of a small souvenir shop.  A stocky man with a soggy stump of an unlit cigar dangling from the corner of his mouth, sat behind the counter. Michael inquired about the translation and the man happily obliged after he pocketed the twenty-dollar bill offered for his services.  He leaned over the outstretched paper on the counter and, with furrowed brow, quickly scribbled the translated text onto a stiff yellow note card.   

From the Land of the Lost

This life is a free-falling dream
In which time is the only gravity
reach out, but there’s nothing to cling to
Until you awaken to discover your wings
these wayward wanderings will bring
many a lonesome stings
but your soul is a phoenix
and a most faithful guide
make your journey to the peaks
and take comfort in the sunrise
of each day born anew
taste the wine and know in time
that you will make your way
from the land of the lost.

Michael thanked him and walked out of the shop staring up at the sky in a blissful daze.  The words on this card were a testament to him that no matter what negative forces existed, they could never, ever extinguish the good that dwells in the collective hearts of humanity.
 Michael laminated the card and carried it with him for the rest of his days.  It served as a reminder, not only of Jeremy and the smiling man who never spoke, but the lesson he too learned in the woods.  He never forgot—the gifts–the sunshine, birdsong, and the kindness of strangers.   As a result Michael never, ever found himself among the ranks of the lost.

~Eric Vance Walton~

Level Me

A succession of shrill rings jolted Julie from her mundane dream.

Her left eye barely opened to a slit as she reached for the phone, put it to her ear and uttered, “Yeah?”

“I’ve done it.” Whispered a gruff voice on the other end of the line.

“Hey, is this Dimitri? My friend who lives just down the hall but I haven’t seen in months?”

The line went silent.

“I’m sorry, Julie, I’ve been busy. I can’t explain it, you’ll have to come down and see for yourself.”

“Have you been drinking again? What is it you’ve done?” Julie mumbled as she rubbed her eyes and propped herself up in bed.

“I haven’t had as much as a glass of merlot in weeks. Please, just come down.” Dimitri pleaded.

Julie grunted as she jammed the phone down onto the cradle, flung open the covers and crawled out of bed. She tied the belt on her white terry cloth robe, squinting at the hallway’s painfully bright lights as she closed her apartment door.

As she made her way down the hall to Dimitri’s door her legs felt stiff and heavy. She was growing concerned with what she might find on the other side. He was a completely different person since his fiancee had gone missing a little over a year ago. It was obvious that he and Crystal were crazy in love. For the first few months Dimitri was so consumed with finding her that he lost his dream job as a programmer with Google. Another month passed and he had become a full fledged recluse.

Julie rapped gently at his door with one knuckle and pressed her right eye to the peephole. She heard the click of the deadbolt as Dimitri quickly opened the door. A wall of stench hit her as she crossed the threshold so sour that almost made her wretch. Dimitri looked ashen, as though he’d aged ten years since she last saw him.

His eyes stared through her, he began speaking in rapid clips. “It took so long…because all I had to work with was a few voicemails…a handful…of pictures…I found.” Dimitri clicked the button on his mouse and a beam of light appeared in the middle of the dark and cluttered room. Suddenly a three-dimensional image of Crystal stood before them. The hologram looked so much like Crystal that Julie’s first inclination was to hug her but her second notion was to backhand her and demand an explanation as to where the hell she’d been.

Crystal was smiling in the sunshine as a light breeze blew her auburn hair. She reached in the deep pocket of her chambray sundress, unfolded a piece of paper and began to speak, “Level me with one glance, as you look over your shoulder and smile sweetness with your eyes.” Dimitri was silently mouthing the words to the poem as Crystal continued, “Our years are a dance only just begun. Yet I know in some distant time when the days grow short I will chuckle with content as we sip our tea with a dust of a million miles on our feet and I know this life was lived complete, my Dear.”

Julie carefully stepped over a tangle of wires to embrace Dimitri as his tears soaked her shirt through.

“She wrote that for me, Julie. This took me months of programming but this is the precise moment I fell in love with her. Now I never have to let her go. Code is poetry too you know, now she’s made of it.”

Things I’ve Learned From Puerto Rico

1. The weather doesn’t get any nicer than this.
2. The people are standoffish at first but warm up quickly.
3. There seems to be a real “Love/Hate” undercurrent in their relationship with the US.
4. The music is loud.
5. They eat lots of meat. “Vegetables” usually consist of either a root vegetable or shredded iceberg lettuce with sliced tomato.
6. Driving is aggressive but people are not as heavy on the horns as most US cities.
7. Coffee is served with milk, almost never black.
8. Life is less orderly and lived at a much slower pace. After coming from mainland America it took a solid 3 days of varying degrees of frustration to get used to it. Now that I am I’m much happier for it.
9. My priorities will be re shifted with less of an emphasis placed on things.
10. I love being immersed in foreign places, learning subtleties of the culture.
11. I’ll be back.

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The Heiress and the Pea 

ONCE upon a time there was a prince who wanted to marry an heiress; but she would have to be a real heiress. For nowadays, with inflation and all, being a prince wasn’t what it used to be. He traveled all over the world to find one, Saks 5th Avenue, the Hamptons and many other spots where heiresses tended to congregate, but nowhere could he get what he wanted. So he came home again and was sad, for he would have liked very much to marry a real heiress and have his own reality TV show.

One evening a terrible storm came on and the rain poured down in torrents. Suddenly a knocking was heard at the city gate, and the old king went to open it.

It was an heiress standing out there in front of the gate with her camera crew in tow. What a sight the rain and the wind had made her look. The water ran down from her hair and clothes; it ran down into the toes of her Prada shoes and out again at the heels. And yet she said that she was a real heiress.

“Well, we’ll soon find that out,” thought the old queen. But she said nothing, went into the kitchen, prepared a meal fit for a royal feast but placed one single conventionally-grown pea among the organic, heirloom peas heaped upon her plate.

The meal was presented with lavish style and grace. The heiress totally ignored her gracious hosts. She talked on her cell phone, flipped her hair and admired herself longingly in any reflective surface. She was making a very good impression but the prince still wasn’t completely convinced that she was a real heiress.

All of a sudden a blood-curdling shriek broke the silence! “Ewww! You idiot! I cannot believe you had the nerve to serve me this conventionally grown slop!”

Nobody but a real heiress could be so abrasive and self-absorbed. So the prince was smitten and asked for her hand in marriage, for now he was sure that he had found a real heiress.

Moral: Given enough time, sooner or later people will get what they deserve.

Dichotomy

There I stood in an empty art gallery on an early spring morning in Northeast Minneapolis. Dressed in my best suit, I was filled with the kind of nervous excitement that a person feels when they are about to take the next step up the ladder of their career. This day was the culmination of years of struggle, at last, my very first book signing. I could only hope that the place would soon be packed with people willing to their hard earned dollars for an autographed copy of my book. The owner of the gallery had entrusted me with the keys so I could come in early and get everything set-up for the big event.

As I began to stack new books on the table I saw in the window a fleeting image, his shadow falling across the well-worn hardwood floor. He quickly turned around and peeked his head in the door.

“Anyone else here?”, this man asked as his eyes scanned the gallery. His hands clumsily tugging on a leather tool-pouch and as he walked closer the smell of cheap wine escaped through missing teeth.

“Just me” I said, “We open in a half-hour.”

We stood in silence for a moment, I could tell his wheels were turning as he was trying to formulate a wine-dazed hustle.

This man walked towards a windowless hall, stopping in front of one of my friend’s paintings, a scene of an old boat resting on a peaceful shore.

“Come here for a minute. I got a question about this one.” He said, slowly pulling a scratched blue pry-bar from his belt.

“What would you like to know?” I asked cautiously, inching further away and closer to the door.

His eyes shifted nervously from side-to-side and his breathing quickened. “Umm, there’s offices back here right?”

“Let’s come outside and talk” I said, wanting nothing more at that moment than to find a witness. He ran outside to meet me.

“Man that’s cold!”, he said as his eyes bulged and stared me down with what seemed a half-hearted rage. “A man want to look at paintings and because of the color of a brotha’s skin you ask him to come outside and talk!”

We stood face to face outside the gallery door and the pry-bar made its pendulum swing just inches from my face.

“You nothin’ but a racist motha fucka!” he said. “I’ll tell you what, I’ll kill you and make your coffin!”,he yelled as he pulled a hammer from his leather pouch.

“If you want to fight, we can fight, but put down the tools. I don’t have anything to defend myself”, I said. Suddenly this man’s face registered a kind of surprise as if this response wasn’t at all what he expected from a guy in a suit. The pry-bar hit the grass with a dull thud. Then his eyes softened a bit. “Man, I done seven years in the pen. They beat me more times than I can count.”

“It doesn’t have to be like this, man. Why’re you so angry?”, I asked in a voice as calm as I could manage.

“I’m the wrong one to fuck wit today. I been livin’ on the street for two days. My girlfriend threw me out, the bitch.”

“Life can be hard sometimes.”, I said. “What happened?” The hurt began to show as his eyes pooled. “We have a son together, you know. She was makin’ me breakfast and we just started arguin’.”

“I’m sorry about that. Maybe you can go back and talk to her?”

“Come here a minute.” I said as he followed me into the gallery, still toting his claw hammer. “This is yours to keep”.

“What’s this?” he asked, looking as if kindness was a stranger.

“It’s a book of my poetry, go back and read her this one”, I said with a wink and opened the flimsy book to a poem called Imaginary Embrace.

A childlike-look washed across his face as a tear streamed down his cheek

“You alright!”, he said, looking at the book and then back at me. “Maaannn, you wrote all these?”

“Yep” I said. As we stood and talked I began to slowly see the real person emerge from behind the armor that allowed him to survive the days in his world. We shook hands and he made his way around the corner.

Seconds later he peeked his head around the corner of the building, blind anger again beginning to reclaim his soul.

“You know what? Tomorrow you’ll be gone but I’ll still be out here livin’ in these streets.” Once again he disappeared into his world, I was speechless.

What If “Wrong Way Corrigan” Had A Little Less Nerve?

Written for the 2008 James Thurber Treat Contest. The assignment was to take a historical event and give it a different ending.

The morning of July 17th, 1938 dawned like many others at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York. It was unseasonably cool for mid-July and the sun was playing hide and seek amongst clouds and a thick layer of fog. The birds chirped melodiously and people were rushing about, making their way to church. Douglass Corrigan had been up before the sun having barely gotten a wink of sleep. All he could do the long night before was lay in his old army cot, staring up at the ceiling and methodically going over his laundry list of excuses as to why he had flown the wrong way to Ireland instead of back home to California; a broken compass needle, bad sense of direction, poor light in the cabin and what ever else he could concoct.

Corrigan could wait no longer. He put on his pilot’s jumpsuit and set foot out of the hanger door. It was utterly impossible for him to wipe the mischievous grin from his face when he saw the sky. This was it, the day that all his training had prepared him for. For years the government had denied giving him clearance for his lifelong dream, a transatlantic flight, and he had lost hope that they ever would. After multiple attempts and countless miles of governmental red tape the appearance of the blessed fog was not only the perfect excuse but was an affirmation that, this time, even the gods were on his side. He took a long drink of his strong black coffee, winked affectionately at his heavily modified OX5 Robin monoplane parked on the runway and said, “There’s nothin’ they can do to stop us this time, girl.”

Corrigan had taken his first flight many years earlier when he was a mere lad of eighteen. Eagerly arriving with $2.50 in hand, he was taken for a short flight over the city of Los Angeles in an old Curtiss biplane. He had been hooked ever since. Douglass had taken many aircraft mechanics jobs over the years and even worked on the crew that built Lindy’s famous plane, “The Spirit of St. Louis”. Ever since baring witness to that famous transatlantic flight in 1927 he had vowed to one day make his own symbolic journey to the emerald land of his ancestors, beloved Ireland.

In the distance Corrigan saw a man of slight stature quickly approaching him. His was toting a clipboard and trying his best to keep the wind from snatching his tattered fedora.

“Good Morning Mr. Corrigan.” said the thin man as he squinted over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses. “The name is Jones, Edward Jones and I’ll be the one seeing you off today.”

Corrigan took the last drink of his coffee, nodding his head, “Good mornin’ to you, Mr. Jones.”

“Hmm. It says here that you’re flying non-stop to California today. Unfortunately, it seems we have a little bit of a problem here Mr. Corrigan.”

Douglass got a lump in his throat as his heart began to beat like a drum in his chest. “Umm, what do you mean Mr. Jones?”

Jones fought with the wind to steady the checklist on his clipboard as he walked around the plane, “You see, because of this here fog rolling in, you can take off any direction but West. As you know, plane loaded with enough fuel to fly cross-country isn’t the easiest to maneuver. Are you confident that you turn ‘er around quickly enough to clear those buildings if you take off in another direction?”

Corrigan took a deep breath and felt as though he had dodged a bullet. He calmed himself as best he could. “I’ve been flyin’ her for years Mr. Jones. You have my word that I‘ll be extra careful.”

These preflight inspections had always been a nightmare for Corrigan. His plane was literally a patchwork of pieces and parts. Approval was always a crapshoot and depended upon the mood of the inspector. Sensing by the furrowed brow of Mr. Jones as he inspected the left wing, they had reached a pivotal moment in the inspection. Douglass reached into the pocket of his blue jumpsuit and pulled out a dark stogie. He decided to sacrifice one of the three cigars that he planned on enjoying during his post-flight celebration.

“There’s nothing like a fine Cuban cigar to make this harsh world seem like a more civilized place.” Douglass managed a nervous smile as he tucked the cigar into the breast pocket of Jones’ threadbare sports jacket.

The gesture seemed to have the desired effect. Jones smiled as he touched the lead of a stubby pencil to his tongue and marked off the last box on his checklist.

“Why thank you sir, it appears that everything is in order here. You’re cleared for takeoff!”

If Mr. Jones had any indication of what Corrigan was up to he either sympathized or possibly couldn’t care less. He removed the cigar from his breast pocket and sniffed it slowly from end to end.

“Oh, I almost forgot. This telegram came in for you early this morning. Seems to be from your wife back in California.”

Mr. Jones handed Douglass the thin strip of paper and shook his hand, disappearing as quickly as he came.

Corrigan beamed as he opened that hatch of the OX5 Robin and climbed inside. After firing up her mighty propellers he absent mindedly unfurled the strip of paper and let it rest across his knee.

The telegram read, “Douglass Corrigan. Stop. Do not even think of doing what I think you’re going to do. Stop. P.S. Bring home bread and milk. Stop.”

A grimace appeared on his face as he crumpled up the strip of paper and furiously threw it over his shoulder to the floor of the cabin.

The plane taxied quickly down the runway and the wheels at last broke free from gravity’s heavy grip. Corrigan expertly cleared the tops of the buildings with plenty of room to spare, just as he had promised. When Douglass was safely at cruising altitude the weight of the moment came crashing in on him.

He mumbled to himself, “If the blasted plane doesn’t do me in, the wife surely will!”

With his head hanging low, Corrigan turned his plane westward and flew home to California to live the rest of his days in relative obscurity, forever to be known merely as Douglass instead of “Wrong Way” Corrigan.

TheAmericanDream (written for a C. Michael Curtis short fiction workshop)

Michael Callahan started down the well-worn path leading from the edge of the woods. Michael was by himself but his passion to wrap up this project had long ago eclipsed any fears he might have for his own safety. His gut told him that he was being watched as he scanned the trees and underbrush for any signs that he might not be alone.

Five weeks of being on the road were starting to wear on him, especially in the damp and stifling heat of the Florida summer. Michael’s once chiseled physique had become rounder and he had given up shaving weeks ago. The reflection that now peered back at him from the mirror could’ve stepped right out of old Woodstock footage from the 60’s. He longed for the old comfortable routines of his life but, more than anything, Michael was itching to start what would be long months of editing. The only thing stopping him from heading home just yet was a nagging voice in his head that kept telling him he wasn’t done.

Michael’s eyes swept slowly and carefully, back and forth for any hint of movement. He felt a ghostly presence among the trees. Just ahead he quickly spotted what he had been looking for. Not far down the path was a sunburned man, wearing a tattered Yankees baseball cap and reflectively poking at a small fire with a stick.

Michael cupped his hands on either side of his mouth and called out, “Hi there. Are you hungry? Would you be interested in a free lunch?”

The man seemed relaxed and dazed from staring into the fire. Not being used to visitors, the shirtless man looked up suspiciously and said, “I always heard there was no such thing.”

Michael smiled and seemed truly entertained by the bluntness of this stranger.

“You’re right. I just have a couple of questions to ask you. In return I’ll give you as many subs as you can eat.”

The man, intrigued, stood up quickly and looked Michael suspiciously. “Are you a cop or some pervert?” he asked.

“What? Oh no! The name’s Michael Callahan and I’m just a storyteller or should I say a story-gatherer. There is no pressure at all. Just follow me if you’re interested.” He said as he went up the path in the direction from which he had come.

Michael knew that hunger was a powerful tool and he had used it many times in the past five weeks. He walked about twenty yards ahead and the man fell in step behind him on the narrow path and called out, “My name’s Jeremy. Jeremy Schiller.”

As a dingy yellow RV slowly came into view through the leaves Michael looked back and said, “Nice to meet you Mr. Schiller. Welcome to my humble abode.” as he pointed towards the old RV that was parked in a gravel lot.

Its once shiny chrome wheels were covered with dust and the cabin smelled sour from the trip cross-country. Michael unlocked the creaking screen door and held it open for his guest. As he walked behind Jeremy up the stairs he caught a glimpse of an Asian man in the distance watching intently from behind a large oak tree at the edge of the woods.

“Mr. Schiller, come right in and have a seat on the couch and make yourself comfortable.” Michael said. He was being overly attentive, speaking slowly and carefully, in a tone that is usually reserved for small children.

“I’ll get those sandwiches that I promised you but first let’s just talk for a minute. I’m traveling around this country of ours, gathering the stories of people like yourself in hopes of someday turning the footage into a documentary. Are you camera shy, Mr. Schiller?”

A hesitant smirk appeared on Jeremy’s lips as he took off his faded baseball cap and ran his fingers through his thinning blond hair. “Umm, no. I suppose not,” he said.

Michael walked over to a small video camera perched on a tripod in the corner. Turning it on and adjusting its aim, he said, “Good. Just try to forget this thing is on. Now, could you please tell me a little about you and your situation?” Michael reached over and handed him a cold bottle of Gatorade from a large cooler. Jeremy stared at the bottle for a long moment and then ran his sunburned finger down the tiny beads of sweat that had blanketed its label. He quickly cracked open the bottle cap, took a long drink and cleared his throat.

He began to speak, softly and humbly, “Well, where do I start? My name is Jeremy. These woods out here have been my home for close to I guess eight years now. It’s not a bad place here once you get accustomed to it. It almost feels like a resting place between two worlds.”

Michael seemed intrigued, “I’m not sure what you mean. Can you explain?”

“You see, sometimes in the morning, in the hazy moments after I wake the life I now live still seems unreal to me. During my waking hours, memories of the life I once lived drift in and out of the corners of my mind like a dream. These memories sometimes fill me with joy, most times they make me angry but nonetheless they are mine and they are all I have left. There are things I miss. Sometimes I close my eyes and swear that I can see Ashley and Genee playing on the jungle gym in the schoolyard in the thin light of March. It might sound strange but sometimes I’ll just sit among these trees and smile, thinking of something as wonderfully mundane as a trip to the old organic co-op to buy groceries or walking the dog through the neighborhood in the crisp air of fall. As each year comes and goes I’ve learned to value these memories more and more. You see, if you’re an optimist, time has a way of polishing the bad and leaving you with only the good. I’m finding myself revisiting the good now almost every day. There are a couple of things I’ve learned in my forty-three years on this Earth. The first is there are lessons to be learned in every second of life, the hard part is you must be awake for them. Second, none of us are entitled to a goddamn thing. If life is good, enjoy it and give thanks to whomever or whatever it is you believe in. If life is bad don’t blame anyone, just get busy fixing it. Time is the most precious thing and too many people waste too much of it playing the blame game.”

Michael nodded, “Hmm. Very wise words, Mr. Schiller. Can I ask what your childhood was like?”

“Well, I didn’t have a privileged childhood. I had two brothers, my parents were what you would call lower middle class and worked hard every day. My mother always told me I was born with a desire to chase after my dreams and she raised me to believe they were all within my grasp. Things never came easy for me but what I lacked in intelligence I made up for in persistence.”

Jeremy chuckled softly and continued, “I had a few years of college and was majoring in journalism but dropped out to take the plunge into the world of software engineering. We were smack-dab in the middle of the ‘dot com boom’. My friend Matt and I, you could say we had a fairly decent idea and just happened to be in the right place at the right time. We started our own firm and opened up shop in an old warehouse in a trendy part of town. It wasn’t long before we had a staff of ten. That’s how I met Ashley. I’ll never forget the first day she came through the front doors to interview for one of our marketing positions. She was as bright as a ray of sunshine. Lord, she took my breath away, she still does every time I think of her.”

Jeremy stopped for a moment to gather himself, his eyes began to well up as he continued.

“Those years were a whirlwind and before I knew it Ashley and I were married with a beautiful baby daughter, Genevieve.”

“What a great name.” Michael said.

The grin of a proud father flashed across Jeremy’s weather-beaten face, “Thank you. The name was popular during the Victorian-era, Ashley felt an affinity towards that time. Our house was filled with all kinds of antiques. She always had such a great eye for a bargain; she would always buy the pieces dirt cheap and refinish them.”

Jeremy cleared his throat and continued, “Well, after Genevieve was born we bought a house in an exclusive gated community called, ‘Whispering Pines’. Ashley never had asked for any of this excess but I felt she deserved only the best of the best, the American dream you know? Whenever I would buy her anything nice or expensive she would look deep into my eyes and ask, “Do you know none of this is necessary?””

Michael noticed an ever so subtle twitch in Jeremy’s eyelid as he took another small sip of his Gatorade and continued to speak.

“The ironic thing was, this place, ‘Whispering Pines’ was the type of place I wanted to live since I could ever remember but once we had achieved this lifestyle, it never really felt like home. It seemed to me like everyone was just trying so hard to convince themselves and every one around them that they were happy.”

“How do you mean?” asked Michael, as he sat back in his swivel chair. His Zippo clicked as he lit a cigarette.

Jeremy’s brow ruffled as he leaned forward on the couch and looked Michael directly in the eyes, “It was more like a sickness, this endless aching for more things. It was a kind of darkness that slowly eclipsed every part of your life that had any meaning. More money, nicer things, more exotic travel destinations. People in that community had one thing in common, this tired, empty look in their eyes. You know what I mean?”

Michael squinted as he took a drag off of his Winston, “Yes, I’ve seen that look many times in my travels.”

“We were surrounded by all these nice things but weren’t fulfilled. I personally was too focused on the future to enjoy my life then. I suppose we all got caught up in the euphoria of it all. The one thing I noticed about this lusting after money was, after a certain point, it was worse than walking around hungry because this was a type of hunger that never left you.”

“I understand, please continue Mr. Schiller” Michael said.

“We lived in one of the largest houses in the community but still that wasn’t enough. We also needed to have the best vehicles money could buy, I drove a BMW 740i. The instruction manual for the damn thing was as thick as a phone book! Do you believe that? I bought Ashley a brand new Land Rover. At this point I could tell she was beginning to get a little worried we were in over our heads. She walked around in a cloud for the next few days. To ease her mind I logged onto my broker’s website and finally showed her exactly what our stock was worth. She was speechless. I will never forget the look she gave me. Her eyes were glazed, her mouth upturned in a silly smile as though she had just taken a hit of some potent drug. I pinpoint this as the precise moment she changed. Never again did she look me in the eyes and tell me the material things weren’t necessary. From that moment on we were both spending like mad and it was my fault. All my fault.”

Michael’s leg began to bounce nervously as he pulled a small notepad from the pocket of his wrinkled Hawaiian shirt and flipped open its cover. “How were you doing financially at that time, Mr. Schiller, if you don’t mind telling me?” he asked as he furiously scribbled notes.

Jeremy hesitated and his eyes took on a look of suspicion. Michael’s expression reflected the fear his questions had burrowed too deeply into the wounded recesses of Jeremy’s mind. He learned long ago people desperately want to tell their stories and a good interviewer knew to massage and coax, not prod and probe. He still sometimes got too anxious and forgot this, especially when he was truly engaged.

Although he still held a slightly guarded look in his eyes it seemed Jeremy’s memories had been locked away for far too long to be quelled. His words continued their flow, “Well, let’s just say we could’ve paid off everything, all of our bills, and lived out the rest of our days comfortably just off of the interest of what we had.”

Michael’s eyes widened as he took a sip of his coffee. “I see. Can I call you Jeremy?” asked Michael as his voice suddenly took on a more respectful tone.

“Sure you can. Does the offer of the subs still stand?” Jeremy asked.

Michael began to see beyond the tattered clothes and leathery face and saw a glimpse of what once made Jeremy such a successful business man. He had a certain “realness” about him. Despite his ragged appearance, in only a few minutes he earned Michael’s complete trust and respect.

Loudly digging through the loose ice cubes in the cooler Michael asked, “Roast beef or turkey?”

“Both please.” Jeremy answered politely.

“What happened next?” asked Michael as he handed him two subs, still dripping from the melting ice.

Jeremy unwrapped the sandwich hungrily and placed other down closely beside his leg. “Well”, he said his words muffled between chews. “The stock market crash happened. It was as though everything we had acquired went up into thin air. We lost the house. Shortly after we lost everything and Ashley left with Genee.”

“I’m so sorry.” Michael leaned forward and put his hand on Jeremy’s shoulder. Jeremy jerked away but then smiled as if to assure Michael that everything was all right.

“I was too ashamed to take help from any of my family. It was too much for me to deal with at once. At that point nothing mattered. I felt completely numb and the only thing I could think of to make me feel better was to see the ocean, to feel the salt breeze on my face. So I left town and drove twenty-two hours straight to Cocoa Beach with nothing but the clothes on my back and whatever cash was in my wallet.”

Michael asked quietly, almost in a whisper, “What is the hardest part for you now?

“Of course, there was the loss of my family, there was also the shame, but the most difficult part was knowing there was nowhere to go. This was such a strange predicament and filled me with such intense anxiety. But after eight years, I’ve learned to come to terms with it. I’ve realized the life most people are living is not natural. It’s simply not the way life was meant to be. Michael, we have been conditioned to be nothing more than money making robots. The most difficult thing now is also the most beneficial for me. Out here, there are no laurels on which to rest, you’re staring your demons in the face every waking second so you’re forced to deal with them. This, I think, is what drives most people to the bottle or to madness and I came very close to both.”

Michael was engrossed but looked shaken by Jeremy’s words. As if they touched his soul and peeled away its many layers, exposing some of his greatest fears. He asked his next question desperately as a snake bite victim searched for an antidote, “And what was it that saved you Jeremy?”

A deep smile flashed across the face of Jeremy Schiller as he finished the last bite of his sub and crumpled up the wrapper into a tight ball, “My savior came to me.”

“Do you mean Jesus?” asked Michael.

“Not exactly. Not directly anyway. I have to ask you something. Did you feel the presence out there in the woods?” Jeremy asked, still smiling.

Michael just nodded in agreement, not wanting to interrupt Jeremy’s flow of thoughts and words.

“I had bought an enormous jug of whiskey, stumbled into these woods almost a decade ago with the intention of drinking drink myself into oblivion.” Tears began to stream down Jeremy’s face as he continued.

“I was sitting out there in the dark in horrible, drunken misery when my savior came to me. He looked then just as he does now, he hasn’t aged a bit in all these years.”

Michael was beginning to wonder if madness had indeed gotten a hold of Mr. Schiller. Jeremy’s eyes took on a growing ethereal glow as he continued, “Through this drunken haze I remember seeing this thin, toothless Asian man. Honestly, he scared the hell out of me at first. He came out of nowhere and was dressed in rags from head to toe. He had duct tape looped around both of his shoes to hold them together but something about this man’s eyes left me speechless. His eyes were so humble and kind, they sparkled with so much pure happiness it was almost like there was a fire lit behind them. He didn’t speak a word but just held out his hand. This exact moment for me was a revelation. No words were spoken but this stranger who had nothing was standing there offering me something which was very rare, his total acceptance and unconditional friendship.”

“I think I saw this man you’re talking about at the edge of the woods. What’s his name?” asked Michael.

“Yep, that was him. I have no idea what his name is, he never utters a word, he just smiles but we manage to communicate just the same. He sometimes scratches pictures in the dirt. Mostly pictures of tanks and artillery. My best guess is that, in his former life, he is a Vietnamese refugee who has seen God only knows what horrors. He’s taught me everything I know, the least among them is survival. He delivered me from my misery, from the land of the lost. Now I am truly free.”

Michael was moved by Jeremy’s story and the power of it changed something in him. He realized once again the nagging voice in the back of his head had served him well. This interview was the Holy Grail of his documentary and was a testament to the fact that one small act of kindness, something that costs absolutely nothing, can ripple forth in waves and touch the lives of countless others.

He looked deep into this homeless man’s eyes and asked, “Jeremy, do you ever think you’ll ever want to give the world another chance?”

Jeremy didn’t even pause to reflect before he answered, “Never. Not that world! Michael, when your mind is clear you can see it so plainly. That world out there is too far gone; it is nothing but a fragile house of cards. Power and money are now the only gods left.”

As they said their goodbyes and Michael handed Jeremy all the cash he had in his wallet, about two hundred dollars. Jeremy argued but Michael insisted. Michael figured this would keep the two from going hungry for a while and this comforted him in some small way.

Michael Callahan fired up the engine of his musty RV and started on the road back home to his life.

All the way home he daydreamed about how he would splice together the footage. The documentary that started out being about the perils of homelessness in America was transformed instead into a film about the root cause of the problem, the broken system that helped to create it.

Michael dedicated the film anonymously to “his savior” and called it, “TheAmericanDream”. When it debuted at Sundance the very next year it was the surprise hit of the film festival. Michael had poured his entire life savings into the project, roughly twelve thousand dollars. The film grossed one hundred and twenty-three million dollars in its first year.

Time after time it was always Jeremy’s interview that woke people up and touched their hearts. Michael went on to produce a string of successful films and acquired every single material thing he ever wanted but was very careful to live his life with a certain sense of balance. He discovered he had a wonderful knack for spreading the money around to those who needed it. He never forgot the lesson he had learned through listening to Jeremy, his savior.

Three years after the release of TheAmericanDream Michael took a road trip from Manhattan down the coast with nothing more than his phone and a duffel bag full of hundred dollar bills. During the drive, he reflected on the fact that he had met Jeremy at the exact moment he needed to and how everything unfolded the way it did for a reason. He was awed by the fact that all actions and reactions are part of an amazingly complex web that can best be deciphered in reverse. If success would’ve ever come his way before, he would’ve have likely been sucked into the very same hellish world that Jeremy had narrowly escaped from.

On the drive Michael entertained many fantasies about what Jeremy would do with the cash. Now that his lesson was learned maybe he would finally be ready to make a brand new start with his wife and child. Maybe he would just hide the money in the woods and live out the rest of his days in peace, never having to wonder where his next meal would come from.

He took the Rockledge exit off I-95 and his heart thumped in his chest as he got close to the patch of woods that had served as the incubator of his rebirth. He quickly put his Prius in park and grabbed the duffle bag, making his way down the old well-worn path. But this time something seemed different. At first Michael couldn’t put his finger on it. Then it dawned on him, the presence that he once felt in the woods no longer seemed to be there. He made his way deeper down the path and noticed a bright yellow bulldozer standing motionless near a pile of fallen trees with heaping mounds of twisted roots and raw earth on either side of it.

“Jeremy! Jeremy!” Michael called out frantically. While holding the heavy duffle bag, he called out Jeremy’s name a few more times. With each time his voice became progressively quieter. He sat down on a fallen tree just long enough to realize how foolish his original intentions for making this trip made him feel. Michael smiled as he realized that this lesson had many layers and he had just peeled back yet another one. He knew in his heart that Jeremy and his friend had moved on to another place the moment that progress had encroached on their peace. Michael reached down and picked up a rock from the path, dusted it off and studied it in the shaft of sunlight created by the fallen trees.

In a year, when this magical patch of woods is destroyed to make way for yet another outcrop of cookie-cutter condominiums, as Michael liked to call them, he figured that he would have only the single stone to remind him of this wonderful journey.

All of a sudden, he felt a tingling sensation on the back of his neck and he noticed the hairs on his arm were standing straight up. His eye caught something in the sunlight near his feet. He reached down to pick up a weathered Ziplock bag. Michael unraveled the bag and in it he found a piece of paper with Asian characters flowing wistfully down the page.

He instinctively knew that he held something very special and kept it close to him on the ride home. The first thing he did when he came across the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan was to head to Chinatown, the only place he knew of where he could get this treasure translated. He double-parked on the street in front of a small souvenir shop and ran in. The owner of the shop was a stocky man with a stump of an unlit plastic tipped cigar dangling from the corner of his mouth. Michael inquired about the translation and the man happily obliged. He leaned over the outstretched paper on the counter and, with furrowed brow, quickly scribbled the following translated text on a piece of crinkled yellow paper.

From the Land of the Lost

This life is a free-falling dream

In which time is the only gravity

reach out, but there’s with nothing to cling to

Until you awaken to discover your wings

these wayward wanderings will bring

many a lonesome stings

but your soul is a phoenix

and a most faithful guide

make your journey to the peaks

and take comfort in the sunrise

of each day born anew

taste the wine and know in time

that you will make your way

from the land of the lost.

Michael stood there enraptured by the wisdom of the words. He quietly thanked the shop owner and walked out of the shop in a blissful daze. To him, these words were a testament to him that no matter what negative forces were out there they could never, ever extinguish the good that dwells in the depth of the heart of humanity. Michael carried this poem with him on a laminated card for the rest of his days. It served as a reminder not only of Jeremy and the smiling man who never spoke, but most importantly it reminded him not to ever forget the things that mattered most; the sunshine, birdsong, the kindness of strangers. With these words, as long as he was mindful to hold the things that truly mattered close to his heart, Michael knew he would never, ever find himself among the ranks of the lost.