What Have They Done?

Let’s talk about the terrible.

Upon meeting someone, one of my go-to questions is, “What’s your favorite movie?” If my potential new friend doesn’t freeze, overwhelmed with the more than 500,000 choices in existence, based on their answer, I can get a pretty good feel for who they are.

The person who picks Gone with the Wind differs greatly from the one selecting Zombie Strippers. Does this mean one becomes my bestie while I kick the other to the curb? Certainly not! Might I have to work a bit harder to connect with one compared to the other? Most definitely, but I won’t hold their choice of Gone with the Wind against them. Sure, Scarlett is a terribly selfish person, and the movie drags on forever with a rare reprieve of her throwing up after eating radishes, and you’re like, “Yeah, doofus, you deserve that!” But I won’t split hairs.

Gone with the Wind is considered a cinematic classic, but I want the time back I spent watching it. My wife loves Castaway, but beyond the use of the line, “I have made fire,” it mostly gets a meh from me. I’ve never seen the Godfather series or Heat, but I love This is Spinal Tap and Stranger than Fiction. Casablanca and Singin’ in the Rain are incredible, and I adore It Happened One Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Art speaks to people, and discovering which specific piece speaks to someone reveals much about that person. Paintings aren’t widely distributed, and music is so accessible, when someone shares a favorite musician, my typical response is, “Who?”

That’s why movies are so great. Yeah, the market’s saturated with them, but because of their length and distribution, it limits our choices, which means we as a culture have a common vocabulary. Most everyone has Amazon Prime or Netflix, and even after traveling across the country, I found people looking forward to the latest release in the Fast and Furious series just like others back home.

For the most part, critics and audiences agree on which movies are worth seeing, and over time, certain movies will ascend the ladder of opinion to become considered classics. Therefore, if culture decides which movies are good, what about terrible movies? I’m not talking about cinematic masterpieces I just don’t understand. I’m talking about the ones critics rake over the coals or that bomb at the box office but are still loved years later — cult classics.

All over the country, fans dress up and fill theaters to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Room year after year, reveling in all the aspects one would normally cite for making them bad movies, whether it be poor acting, terrible dialogue, low production value, etc.

Watching them, one’s brain struggles to comprehend how something so awful in so many ways actually exists. They’re so bad, these trash movies take on a mythic quality, because surviving suffering appeals to us. Eating spicy food or sucking sour candy is an unpleasant experience, yet we breed spicier peppers and up the levels of sourness because people can’t help themselves. These car accidents of cinema fascinate us with their mangled scripts, and we wonder if the careers of those involved made it out alive, but we drive away with a sense of relief knowing we weren’t involved.

You know how in the Producers, Bialystock and Bloom set out to put on the worst play ever, a guaranteed flop, so they can raise too much money for it and when it fails, profit? To that end, they do everything they can to ensure the awfulness of their endeavor, but it all backfires when instead of them creating a tragedy, audiences perceive it as a comedy, loving it. That audience’s reaction is the phenomena I’m talking about with these films. Not many set out to make terrible movies, Johnny Depp notwithstanding; however, terrible movies keep showing up in theaters. Did you see the Emoji Movie? Neither did I.

Terrible movies abound so much so that Mystery Science Theater 3000 and RiffTrax, experiences where the audience watches a terrible movie but laughs all the way through because of the comedic commentary dubbed over the film’s soundtrack, are popular enough to provide their creators a good living. Sharknado (You know the movie where sharks get carried by a tornado up onto land so no one is safe?) has produced four sequels. Four! People can’t get enough, and neither can I.

Just in the past couple weeks, I’ve seen Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and The Dark Tower in theaters with friends knowing reviews weren’t good. In both cases, the critics were correct, but I enjoyed these movies flaws and all. John Carter ranks up there as one of my favorite bad movies, and I don’t even know why I love it.

My all time favorite terrible movie, though, is Flash Gordon. Yeah, the one with a ridiculous plot, terrible acting, weird choices in costuming and set decoration, bird men, Timothy Dalton, and an ending still left unresolved nearly 40 years later all set to a soundtrack provided by Queen.

Network execs showed that movie on broadcast television throughout my childhood often enough I fell in love with it. Some random Saturday afternoon, my father or I would be flipping through our five channels, there it would be, and there our flipping would stop. I love it even though I never saw the beginning until getting the movie on Blu-Ray a few years back.

Dare I say it? Along with reruns of the original Star Trek and multiple viewings of the Star Wars movies, Flash Gordon helped form my entertainment palate, God help me; I’m a sucker for sci-fi.

There you have it. All this to confess I love a terrible film. Yes, I lost count of how many times I’ve seen Flash Gordon. Yes, I’ll probably watch it again soon. How could I not?

I’ll even bet there’s a terrible movie out there you love. You know, the one you’ve been thinking about as you’ve read this.

Do me a favor and watch it again.

Revel in it like you do when a stench assails your nostrils, almost causing you to retch, but then you take a second whiff to give yourself a bit of a thrill.

Better yet, watch that terrible movie with someone you love who has yet to see it. Show them who you are, scars and all.

“Hi, I’m Jake. I love Flash Gordon. What’s you favorite terrible movie?”

Pen/sword

If asked about their favorite Star Wars movie, most would say Empire Strikes Back, because Hans Solo is a badass. When shit goes sideways, and Leia confesses her love, he responds, “I know.” But for me, Return of the Jedi is superior. Many hate the Ewoks, but I delight in the heroism they show when overcoming blaster-wielding stormtroopers with not much more than rocks and sticks. When you add in the speeder-bike chase on top of that? Mama mia!

What’s true of the original Star Wars trilogy holds true of the other trilogy in which Harrison Ford starred. Where most say Raiders of the Lost Ark reigns supreme for its iconic opening scene as well as the face-melting ending, I have to confess that for me Last Crusade trumps the other two. (Kingdom of the Crystal Skull doesn’t count.) Many moments in Last Crusade elicit giggles and gasps from me despite numerous viewings, but there’s only one reason it’s my favorite Indiana Jones anything. The scene that makes the movie for me, where Indy sets out to rescue his father, Henry, and his father’s friend, Marcus Brody, is special not because Indy takes on a tank with nothing more than a horse and a rock. What sets it apart is the moment when Henry, fighting for control of the tank, uses a pen to squirt ink into the eyes of his attacker, and Marcus, ever the academic, pauses to point out, “Well don’t you see? The pen is mightier than the sword.” My mother explained to ten-year-old me Marcus’ line was more than just a nod to how Henry defeated the Nazi; it possessed deeper meaning. To this day, at 38 years of age, I’m still realizing the significance of the metonymic adage (Thanks, Wikipedia!), the pen is mightier than the sword.

As a middle school English teacher and husband, I know firsthand the power words possess. Just this month, one of my students threatened others via social media and is my student no longer, finishing out the year at an alternative school. The other week, I placed my wife, Laura, in a situation where in jest, a friend threw out the word ‘stupid,’ opening up a wound in Laura stemming back to childhood when her mother, frustrated when she felt Laura took too long to answer, demanded, “What’s the matter with you; are you stupid or something?” Realizing how upset Laura was, I helped resolve the issue and in so doing was reminded that while calling Laura ‘asshole’ will make her laugh, calling anyone ‘stupid’ in Laura’s presence will deconstruct her calm like dynamite razing a skyscraper.

Words can devastate, but unlike an explosive, words can also restore, building others up and healing psychological wounds. Mentors who birthed the greatest positive effects in me all produced growth through words of encouragement.

Flaming with pleasure, my face refused to lift to meet the eyes of my third grade teacher, Mrs. Mann, as she told me that in over thirty years of teaching, I was her favorite student. Hearing these words marked the first time an adult who wasn’t family helped determine my value, and over subsequent years, Mrs. Mann insisted on reiterating my worth again and again, much to my embarrassment and great delight.

The victim of bullies and inept in social interaction, the high school me viewed himself a good student and well-loved at home but felt few in the wider world would call him ‘friend,’ a self-fulfilling prophesy reinforced through seclusion. My one saving grace and the first place I experienced community with others my age, our church’s youth group allowed me to thrive in my faith, functioning as a forum where I could ask all the difficult questions I wanted and still express myself as the adolescent I was. That was the first place anyone called me ‘cool,’ a descriptor I thought reserved for those with the right clothes, the right attitude, and the right amount of money in their back pocket — three things I did not possess. Our pastor, Matt White, looked straight at me with a big smile and said, “Jake, you’re cool.”

“What?”

“I said, ‘You’re cool,’ Jake.” I can’t recall if Matt went on to explain, or if he left the compliment where it was, clapped me on the shoulder, grabbed some snacks, and headed back to the circle of teenagers. Shocked anyone would view me that way, I found it difficult staying upright. Even though Matt meant what he said, my brain refused to comprehend, but as the time he invested in us stretched from months to years, the more comfortable I became, and the more I grew into the person Matt perceived. As life continued, many others came alongside, saw something worthwhile, and named it. Their life-giving words empowered me to thrive, and because of that, I have the opportunity to encourage others and help them grow.

Traditions tell that words possess enough power to alter the physical world. The Ancient Egyptian creation myth holds that Ptah, the patron god of craftsmen, produced the gods and other things once he uttered the ideas developed within his heart. The Torah says God spoke all of creation into existence. He conceived it, uttered it, and it was. Because Wiccans believe in the inherent ability of words to influence the universe, it’s encouraged that spells should have verbal components, and when Jesus healed people or cast out demons, all it usually took was a word or two to transform the lives of the victimized. Though some words spoken affect great change, most of what is said drifts away like snow before a gale.

We are leaky vessels, only capable of holding so much, and much of what we do grasp ends up dribbling from between our fingers. Some spoken words we can’t contain; others just don’t penetrate as we are occupied by other matters. We forget and move on.

Where spoken words are wild and free, ideas incarnate flying forth on wings of expression, the written word matures, condensed ideas diced and blended together to create new experience. The written word endures. Even though it often exists as no more than stains on paper or bits of data uploaded to a server; it sets the course for culture as citizens consume it, evaluate it, ruminate on it, digest it, develop from it, and produce new written work springing from the old. Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” The written word moves and breathes, cutting to our very cores and changing us. That’s why the pen is mightier than the sword. Where the sword of war alters culture, bringing death and destruction, the pen develops and disseminates ideas, enabling civilization to thrive. If no one had written the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, America would never have been established, nor would it have long endured.

So I write, wielding my pen/sword as best I can. My words may not reach many, nor may they be as clever as others’ or as beautiful, but I live my life, making mistakes and learning from them. I have stories to tell and ideas to share. That’s why I’m traveling to Arizona for spring break. I go to gather stories of the cult my grandfather helped establish 50 years ago, to speak with those who left the church and those who still cling to the decades-old promises as dusty and empty as the bomb shelters below them. I go to discover why my grandfather left his family and to uncover the kind of life he led apart from us. By putting pen to paper, I hope to close the void my grandfather left in my life, and through the means of my healing, perhaps others will find healing as well. No matter the pain, I draw the sword of contention from my side and exchange it for the pen of understanding to write the best part of my life’s trilogy, a feat worthy of Harrison Ford armed with a rock.

Apple

My son asked for a snack, an everyday happenstance not worthy of blogging, but this time when I gave him permission, he asked for a piece of candy. Also, not out of the ordinary. For whatever reason, I told him, “No, buddy, how about something healthy?”

Not only did Asher understand my flippant answer, he responded with excitement. The boy, at four years of age, went to the refrigerator, pulled out an apple, and asked me to cut it up for him. This is the kid who, up to a few months ago, would eat nothing but protein and carbs. I have never been more eager to remove the flesh of an apple from its core.

I too am an apple, at least that’s what my family calls me, for not too long ago, Asher overheard his mother using her special term of endearment for me, which he interpreted as a source of cider. In reality, her pet name marked me as a source of bullshit. Now due to Asher’s mistake, when Laura refers to me as “Apple,” it’s not because I’m so sweet, it’s because I’m a jerk.

Despite the new appellation, my flesh is not easily divided from my core. I mean, you could, but the knife would have to be super-sharp and my juices would literally go everywhere. Figuratively, I get stuck when trying to write about my grandfather, for his story is the story of my family, and my understanding of family history contains the seeds from which my identity grew, so every time I try to write about my grandfather, it feels like a knife slicing too close to my core.

I’ve got wounds inside that need healed. Anger seethes within as I consider the pain my grandfather’s abandonment inflicted upon my aunts and uncles. I bleed, and writing is the iodine that’ll prevent festering, but I know it’ll hurt, so I continue leaking onto the carpet. Meanwhile years go by, and I’ve made no headway either on paper or with becoming whole.

I am an apple. Holding back on the writing means I’m not becoming the husband Laura needs me to be, and I’m not the father my kids deserve. The reason I don’t write is because I’m selfish.

Not only will I be healed through the telling of why my grandfather left his family and what became because of it, others who grew up in the cult my grandfather helped create may find solace as well. Geez, Apple, get to work.

Improvisational Story – the Result

Well, it’s my own fault, asking you to contribute snippets of original text I can utilize to build a story. Your donations are pasted below, and as you can see, I face quite the challenge, taking this assortment of scraps and sewing them together into an exquisite quilt for you to draw up to your chin, cocoon within, and warm your soul while drifting off into peaceful slumber.

Wait, that metaphor sucks. Let’s try again.

I amassed a pile of limbs, teeth, and viscera to face frankensteining them together into a hulking monster of a story. Who knows if lightning will strike? My narrative may just lay there, dead on the table. Now that I’ve lowered your expectations…

No, seriously, check out all the cool Lego bricks you guys generated:

  • In a world of “No,” it is intriguing to play with “Yes, and…”
  • As he tumbled toward the ground with the box in his hands, the thought crossed his mind – how did I end up here? Was it really possible that something as simple as a haircut could result in a day like this?
  • “Geez oh man, eh?”
  • You often hear yourself saying things you never imagined could need to be said like, “Please stop kicking your sister.” or “No rappelling off the garage roof when I’m not home.”
  • These were not his shoes, he realized.
  • It is entirely possible that I have passed the halfway point of my life.
  • “So, then I says, ‘No, because you can’t park here!'” and the room erupted with laughter.
  • Just don’t call me a fool!
  • Where did she come up with a name like “Wild Goose” for a social club? Hmmm. I wonder what she had in mind?
  • What are writers good for? I didn’t think you would ever ask.
  • There are only two people in the world—everybody and nobody.
  • The day had begun brilliantly but by lunch time, he was overwhelmed with sadness. He wondered if people passing his office could see him, a tiny man with Coke-bottle bottom glasses and thinning hair. He sat behind his machine, head down, softly sobbing as his hands quickly worked the key-punch.
  • “Original text. I want original text — just a little, tiny bit.” I thought the request wasn’t too unreasonable.
    “Yeah. Well it’s gonna cost ya. You gotta pay; ain’t nothin’ free.”
    I quickly set him straight. “You’re gonna give it to me, and you’re gonna do it right now, or I’ll never publish another of your stupid novels. I’ve had it with you. I ask you for one little thing, and you raise a stink. On second thought, either you do it or you’ll never write another sentence.”
    “I think that was pretty clear. Right?”
  • If you use more words than necessary to relate something, they’d better be very good words.
  • I navigated the familiar route…
  • Blistering corpuscles festered and burst like popcorn kernels in a pot of oil. The stink of it singed her nostrils even as she exhaled the full volume of her lungs. The clock ticked down audibly, if only in her mind, a metronome counterpoint to her staccato heartbeat. Twenty seconds. Nineteen. Eighteen. Her trembling hands fumbled. Her eyes watered. There was no choice anymore. Should she wait another instant, she’d lose her chance. No time for apology. No time for thought. Fifteen.
    “What are you waiting for?” he asked. “Do it!”
    Twelve. Ten.
    “Do it!”
  • Electric wire — dark birds in flight…

Before beginning, allow me to present the ground rules I established for myself:

  1. Every contribution must be used as offered. No breaking it into smaller pieces or rearranging the components of a piece. Light editing only. Don’t turn off your internal grammar nazi, but keep him on a short leash.
  2. Contributions may be used in any order seen fit.
  3. Yes, and… Every offering must serve the story and add to the narrative.

Enough of my jabbering; please enjoy our creation:

Whenever we stood in her presence, my grandmother would say,”There are only two people in the world—everybody and nobody,” which sounds fatalistic, except Granny made it worse by pointing at my little brother when she said, “everybody” and pointing at me when she said, “nobody.” I navigated the familiar route of smiling at Granny and laughing along with her, but she never cooperated. “Children should be seen and not heard, Nobody.”

“My name’s Dwight.”

“Not in this house it isn’t. Nobody cleans up around here, and everybody just goofs around,” so that’s what we did. I reorganized her stacks of magazines and emptied her ashtrays as Huey played cards with her as Dallas blared in the background.

“Granny, what do you want me to do with this dead mouse?”

“Shhhhh! If you use more words than necessary to relate something, they’d better be very good words. J.R.’s about to confess his undying love.” I rolled my eyes. Granny often waxed poetic when she wanted to make a point. “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!—One, two. Why, then, ’tis time to do ’t. Hell is murky!—Fie, my lord, fie!”

I sighed. Time to clean Granny’s carpets.

I know it wasn’t Huey’s fault Granny always favored him. Mother said Granny acted a little funny off her medication, but I don’t think she was ever on any. When Mother dropped us off in the mornings, she ensured Granny took her tablets, watching the old bird place each pill in her mouth one after the other then draining her coffee cup and showing Mother an empty mouth. That was about the time Granny pointed at the wall clock, and Mother would run off, late for work yet again.

As soon as the door slammed shut, Granny slid her finger down her throat, and the pills and coffee all came back up again into the sink. It was my job to rinse each capsule off and put them back in their individual bottles, that way Granny could get three to four uses out of each pill. Mother had astigmatism, so she couldn’t make out that the pills’ imprints had faded, but Granny figured she was “dumber than hiring a midget to wash your windows. Just don’t call me a fool! I’ll slice you like a vagina going through Vaseline!”

Granny passed one Friday napping in her chair. I was twelve at the time, and Huey was eight. Granny always gave us strict instructions not to wake her even if, “Jesus and all His holy angels appeared to play a pick up game of hockey,” so we just left her in the chair all weekend.

All Mother could say after getting back from Vegas was, “Geez oh man, eh?” when she saw Granny sitting there slack-jawed with squadrons of flies circling for a landing. I guess they liked the chunks of cheese Huey kept dropping in her open mouth, “In case she gets hungry.”

It is entirely possible that I have passed the halfway point of my life, but I hope it wasn’t the high point. Huey never really got over Granny’s death. Suddenly, he was no longer special. Even on his best days, something was broken inside him. Take last Wednesday for example. The day had begun brilliantly, but by lunch time, he was overwhelmed with sadness. He wondered if people passing his office could see him, a tiny man with Coke-bottle bottom glasses and thinning hair. He sat behind his machine, head down, softly sobbing as his hands quickly worked the key-punch. Punching keys was his favorite part of working at the local hardware store. I guess that’s why they went out of business. Having two large storage units filled with pre-punched keys didn’t really help their bottom line all that much, so imagine my surprise when Huey showed up at my front door grinning like a pedophile at the Little Miss Texas Beauty Pageant.

“Hey, Dwight, Great to see you!” I slammed the door in his face.

When the state took custody of us, I didn’t expect Mother to fight to get us back. Maybe she’d visit every now and then, send us a present or two, maybe even call once in a while, but all we got were the postcards she’d send from Hawaii once a year telling us all about how great things were with Father since they remarried and how much she loved their new children.

In foster care, you often hear yourself saying things you never imagined could need to be said like, “Please stop kicking your sister.” or “No rappelling off the garage roof when I’m not home.” I hated being the oldest, always taking care of the litter of children that paraded through Gail and Eugene’s door, but I didn’t get a choice as they’d leave to take the “good ones” out for ice cream. That’s how Huey got so fat.

He made good use of his bulk, too. When in frustration I went to open the door to tell Huey to stop banging on it, it felt like someone unloaded a dumpster on me, and he smelled just as bad.

“Dwight, I have to speak with you!” he yelled two inches from my face.

“Huey, get off me! I have to get to work!”

“No, not until you hear me out,” Huey paused. “What do you do anyway?”

“Please! You’re crushing my spine! I’ll tell you if you get offa me!”

It took Huey much longer to get up than I thought possible, but with one final burst of exertion and a lot of wheezing, I was finally free. I tested for sore spots and injuries but discovered no broken bones.

“You got a job?” Huey stared like I was a magician asking him for a twenty.

“Of course I have a job, a ca-REER. How else did you think I could afford all those loans I floated you?”

“Dunno, just thought you won alot of contests.”

“Alot of contests? Are you seri…” I held my breath, held it all in until I could feel myself grow dizzy. Then I started gulping down air like Vodka. “Huey, I’m a publisher for a major press.” When I saw his eyes trail to stare at the blank wall over my left shoulder, I tried again. “I work with writers.”

That snapped him back. “What are writers good for?”

“What are writers good for? I didn’t think you would ever ask!”

He looked at me expectantly, but I could tell sarcasm wasn’t his native language.

“Huey, why are you here?”

“I got a letter from Granny today.”

“Huey, she’s been dead 20 years.”

“That’s why I was scared to open it.” He winced as he shoved a crumpled manila envelope under my nose.

Covered with notices of ‘Insufficient Postage’ and ‘Return to Sender,’ the envelope featured the return address of one “Anthony Zalinsky, Esq. Aturny at Law.”

“Huey, this letter isn’t from Granny, it’s from an attorney.”

“Then why’s it say her name on it, then?”

He was right. The letter was addressed to “Eula Beaula Smithe’s next of kin.”

When I tore open the envelope, Huey dove under the table. I ignored him and scanned the letter. It appeared to be Granny’s last will and testament, dated October 8, 1996. This badly misspelled document had apparently been floating through the mail system for a double decade.

My pulse quickened. I’d always assumed Granny was just mean as shit and purposely bequeathed us nothing, but she’d made a will. Maybe she wasn’t so bad after all!

“Huey! It’s Granny’s will!” Before I could finish my sentence, he’d snatched the document from me.

“She left me something!” Despite his terrible track record, Huey wasn’t wrong. Granny designated him as an heir, but I couldn’t find my name anywhere. I was wrong; Granny was mean as shit.

Standing in front of the dilapidated building containing the law office of Anthony Zalinsky, my life flashed before my eyes. “Huey, just open the door already. I don’t feel like getting stabbed today.” I glanced over my shoulder once again as the vagrant approached, a broken Coke bottle clutched in his trembling hand.

Huey stared off into the clouds, “I wonder what she left me.”

“Get inside and find out!” I shoved him through the door, slamming it just as the vagrant slashed the air where we stood a breath before. Shaking, I found my voice: “I thought they bulldozed this ghetto.”

“Nope, still here,” Huey said over his shoulder as he entered the single elevator. “Electric wire — dark birds in flight…”

“What are you prattling on about?”

Huey pointed to the graffiti emblazoned all over the elevator. “Must be somebody’s grocery list.”

I sighed and jabbed the button for the third floor. The elevator groaned, shuddered, and sank a few inches with the door still open. Huey stared at me with concern. “Do we have to take the stairs?”

Huey made it, but just barely. I thought he was going to have a coronary, but every time it looked like Huey could make it no further, he muttered, “Gotta do it for Granny.”

At last, we stood before the attorney’s door. “Do I look okay, Dwight?”

We’d found him a suit and tie, and Huey insisted he wear the trilby Granny got him for his 7th birthday, which was so small, it looked like a sugar cube perched upon an elephant. I lied, “You look fine.”

“I’m so glad you agreed to come with me. I couldn’t have done this by myself; you must really love me!” He crushed me in a bear hug.

Repulsed, I resisted the urge to struggle. Whatever Granny left Huey must be worth something, and if he didn’t get it, I would never see any of the money I leant him. “Yeah, that’s good. You can let go now.” I knocked on the office door before he could grab me again.

The door swung in on the top hinge, emitting one shrill squeak, which was soon drowned out by a higher-pitched scream. An emaciated man cowered behind a desk as a cloud of papers drifted to the floor around him. The room was filled with filing cabinets, a wood chipper, and about two inches worth of shredded documents.

“Don’t shoot! I’ll come quietly, I swear!” He hazarded a glance at us, which altered his whole demeanor. “Oh! Goodness me! You’re not the police. You gave me quite the scare. Please do come in. Don’t mind the mess. Just some spring cleaning.” He bustled about the room, causing some of the shredded paper to drift into the corners, and soon produced two mismatched chairs. “Please make yourselves comfortable. How may I help you, gentlemen?”

After seeing us to our chairs, the little man settled himself behind the desk and placed his feet upon it, nearly tipping himself onto the floor. Hands folded behind his head, he stared at his feet. These were not his shoes, he realized.

I explained who we were, our relationship to Granny, and why we came. After searching his records, the little man who’d introduced himself as Anthony Zalinsky Jr. produced the original copy of Granny’s will. “Lucky for you I haven’t gotten to the older records yet.” He pointed to the wood chipper and laughed too loud. Huey joined him, confused.

Anthony Jr. compared the wills side by side, pointing out minutia I cared nothing about, including a passage where Granny expressed a wish for a social club called Wild Goose. “Where did she come up with a name like ‘Wild Goose’ for a social club? Hmmm. I wonder what she had in mind?”

I exploded: “Could you just hurry along to the important part!”

“Mr. Phlebotomy, these documents express the final desires of your dearly-departed grandmother. I can’t ‘hurry along to the important part’ as it’s all equally important.'” Anthony Jr. withered me with his gaze. I lifted my hands helplessly.

It took the man two hours to fully review Granny’s will. Huey napped through most of it, which wouldn’t have been so bad, except he asked me to sing him a lullaby, and I complied.

“Mr. Phlebotomy, would you wake your brother? I have good news for him.” I elbowed Huey in the ribs. He awoke with a snort.

“Mr. Cisero?” (Gail and Eugene adopted Huey.) “You and your grandmother must have been very close.”

Huey wiped his nose with his sleeve. “Yeah, we had a special relationship.”

“Eula Beaula Smithe named you as her sole heir, bequeathing to you, and I quote, ‘all my riches in this world…'” I sat up straighter. “‘…my prize possessions…'” Huey sobbed harder. “‘…my precious jewels.'”

I jumped out of the chair with a hoot, arms raised high in triumph. “Oh, man! I’m rich!” Both men stared at me, shocked. “Oh, man, you’re rich. Huey, I mean, you’re rich!” Anthony Jr. looked relieved. Huey still sobbed into his suit coat. I sat down and pretended to console him. “Where can I…Huey…pick up these precious jewels?”

“Ms. Eula’s file also contained this large envelope addressed to Huey.” He held it out, and I took it, doing my best not to snatch it out of his hand. The envelope was fat and heavy. I could feel metallic links through the paper.

“Huey, Granny left this for you. Do you want me to open it?” He nodded through his tears.

Finally! In a world of “No,” it is intriguing to play with “Yes, and…” Hands trembling in anticipation, I broke the seal and turned the envelope. Its contents spilled into my open palm. Glittering in the light of the buzzing fluorescent bulbs, a safety deposit box key attached to a chain forged with heavy links flooded me with the all-too familiar experience of disappointment. I couldn’t help myself: “What is this?”

“It’s a key to a safety deposit box. There should be a paper still in the envelope detailing at which bank your grandmother secured her valuables,” Anthony Jr. offered.

I reached into the envelope, and to my surprise, produced the paper. “U.S. Bancorp?”

Anthony Jr.’s eyes widened. “That’s the biggest bank in Minneapolis!”

Huey whined, “That’s all the way downtown! Can’t we wait until tomorrow?”

I grabbed him by the shoulders. “Huey, don’t you want to find out what Granny left you?”

“Well, sure, but I haven’t had dinner yet, and it’s getting late.”

Anthony Jr. chimed in. “He’s right, you know. U.S. Bancorp closed hours ago.” I stared at my watch and slapped my head into my hands. “You gentlemen should get something to eat. Celebrate a little.”

Huey perked up. “Dwight! Can we go to Chop Suey Palace? Mr. Attorney, sir? You wanna come, too? It’s the best!”

“Thank you, Mr. Cisero, but I have much work left to do. Allow me to see you to the door.” We found ourselves in the hallway with the door slammed shut behind us. It sounded like the wood chipper struggled to make its way through an entire filing cabinet.

At dinner, I tried to distract Huey from the fact that as we pulled away from the office building, the SWAT team showed up, firing tear gas through a certain third floor window.

“Original text. I want original text — just a little, tiny bit.” I thought the request wasn’t too unreasonable.
“Yeah. Well it’s gonna cost ya. You gotta pay; ain’t nothin’ free.”
I quickly set him straight. “You’re gonna give it to me, and you’re gonna do it right now, or I’ll never publish another of your stupid novels. I’ve had it with you. I ask you for one little thing, and you raise a stink. On second thought, either you do it or you’ll never write another sentence. I think that was pretty clear. Right?”

John Grisham ground his teeth in frustration. “Alright, Dwight, I’ll do it, but only because you owe me one.”

“Thank you. Now, was that so hard?” Before he could answer, my phone rang. It was Huey. I dismissed Grisham with a flick of my wrist. “Huey! How are you? Ready to  go to the bank?”

“Almost.” (Christ, why?) “I need you to take me somewheres else first.”

Blistering corpuscles festered and burst like popcorn kernels in a pot of oil. The stink of it singed her nostrils even as she exhaled the full volume of her lungs. The clock ticked down audibly, if only in her mind, a metronome counterpoint to her staccato heartbeat. Twenty seconds. Nineteen. Eighteen. Her trembling hands fumbled. Her eyes watered. There was no choice anymore. Should she wait another instant, she’d lose her chance. No time for apology. No time for thought. Fifteen.
“What are you waiting for?” he asked. “Do it!”
Twelve. Ten.
“Do it!”

He screamed in pain even before Gwen touched the tattoo needle to his skin. I tried to talk Huey out of it, but he wanted to ‘honor Granny’s memory’ by tattooing her face just above his butt crack. I didn’t envy the tattoo artist her job. I had no idea how Gwen’d even start with Huey jerking like he was, but he soon passed out, and she did a helleuva job. No matter where I stood, it felt like Granny’s eyes followed me. I heaved a sigh of relief as Gwen covered her masterpiece with the sterile absorbing pad. Huey soon came to and perked up considerably when he saw the picture of his new ink. He blubbered, “Thank you so much,” and tried to kiss Gwen. Bruiser showed us out

Dusting myself off, I insisted we get to the bank. I’d cleared my afternoon for this, and would not be denied my prize.

“So, then I says, ‘No, because you can’t park here!'” and the room erupted with laughter.

I cleared my throat. “Excuse me, could one of you fine tellers tell us how to get to the safety deposit boxes?”

The one who’d been telling jokes spoke up. “Be right wit’ you, sir.”

There it was. Number 385. Granny’s safety deposit box. Huey insisted on wearing the key around his neck. “I want to keep it close to my heart.”

“Huey? Go ahead.”

“I can’t. What if it’s too special? What if it reminds me of her all over again?”

I swallowed my anger. “Huey, she left it for you. If it reminds you of her, that’s what she would have wanted.”

He met my gaze, eyes brimming with tears. “You always know just what to say, Dwight.” He took a deep breath. “Granny never treated you right.”

The blood drained from my face.

“And Mother abandoned us after Granny died.”

I tried to interrupt, but Huey held up his hand. “No, Dwight, somebody has to say this. They always did you wrong at the foster homes, especially Gail and Eugene, making you slave all day just like Granny did. You could’ve left so many times, but you stayed. I never learned to do for myself, and you stayed to look after me.”

The hotness of the tears stung my cheeks. “And here you are again, helping me. I know you grew up feeling like you were never loved, but you were. I love you; always have, always will.”

Huey went for a bear hug, and I just let him. The frustrations and feelings of abandonment and abuse all welled up out of me. I was a snotty mess, but Huey didn’t care. He just held me and patted my back while I sobbed into his shirt. Finally, I pulled away. “Ugh, I’m so sorry. Your shirt…”

“Don’t you worry about it. I was glad to be the strong one for once.” We both laughed.

“You ready?” Huey held the key up to the lock.

“Wait. I haven’t been honest with you, Huey. I haven’t been helping you for your benefit…”

He cut me off with a wave. “Don’t you think I know that? No matter what’s in the box, I was going to split it down the middle with you then use my half to pay back all those loans you floated me.”

It took me a minute to find my voice. “Really?”

“Really. I owe you that much at least.”

I smiled. “Open it.”

As he tumbled toward the ground with the box in his hands, the thought crossed his mind – how did I end up here? Was it really possible that something as simple as a haircut could result in a day like this? Huey had told his barber all about how I was helping him preserve Granny’s memory, and when Joe the barber started laughing, Huey demanded to know what was so funny. “Isn’t it obvious?”

When Joe explained all about how I planned to cross him and take the last piece of Granny that Huey would ever get, Huey figured two could play at that game, so after getting me to lower my guard in the bank vault, Huey sprung his trap, tazing me when I turned my back. Huey figured that would give him enough time to grab the safety deposit box and get out before I came to, but he’d forgotten about the guards as well as the bank’s security system. Huey was almost at the door to the vault when three guards came charging down the steps. In his attempt to taze them, the guards knocked Huey’s feet out from under him, and the box went spinning.

I decided not to press charges, but the judge sentenced Huey to three months in jail, which he didn’t mind as he got to stamp license plates, which Huey thought was just as fun as punching keys. I visited often, and we talked about growing up the way we did and how things turned out between us. Being incarcerated gave Huey plenty of time to think about his life, and he wrote me a long letter apologizing for all that had happened. The day he got out, we returned to the bank and opened Granny’s safety deposit box together.

“Godammit!”

The box contained two skeletons, a lot of dust, and a note from Granny. Turns out, her “precious jewels” were her cats, Captain Mouser and Lady Pussington. The note contained detailed instructions for their care and feeding, including the post script: “And don’t you let nobody touch ’em!”

Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Hope

Looks like Vader left his mask on the floor again…

If I’ve told that Sith once, I’ve told him a thousand times to not leave his mask lying around. I get that he feels claustrophobic behind that thing, anybody would, but his asthma gets to be a real problem without that mask.

That’s it, I’m sending him to his pod!

My son knows who Darth Vader is. Asher is three years old, and he knows who Darth Vader is. Well, not really. Whenever he pushes the button on the side of the mask and James Earl Jones announces, “I find your lack of faith disturbing,” Asher laughs, repeating what he hears, “I find your face is dirty.”

My son isn’t the only one who has a thin grasp on Vader mythology. My cousin shared how his boys got into a debate at school over whether or not Darth Vader died, and Mark educated them by pulling up the climactic scene from Return of the Jedi where Vader laid down his life to save Luke. Mark and I joked about how he now has to further spoil the original trilogy for his sons by showing them the scene when Vader tells Luke, “I am your Father,” or when Luke realizes he’s Leia’s brother.

Having grown up sleeping on Star Wars bedsheets and playing with pretty much all the original action figures and playsets, Mark had to do something. He tried years ago to sit with his sons and watch Star Wars, but the boys were too young and had too much energy to make it through even the first film. As a teenager, Mark collected the toys that came out in connection to the prequels, and his entire family has pre-purchased around 20 tickets to see the Force Awakens together.

Tickets in hand, Mark’s inviting his three sons to experience a cultural milestone, and he doesn’t want them missing out on the full experience, so he plans on watching at least the original trilogy as a family in the next few weeks.

According to Deadline Hollywood, analysts project the Force Awakens will earn $185 – $210 million opening weekend alone, and scuttlebutt says Episode VII will break Avatar‘s $2.7 billion box office record.

What is it about Star Wars that has people clamoring to see the new movie?

It’s about hope.

Upon its release in 1977, Star Wars: A New Hope revitalized the sci-fi genre. Audiences were used to seeing dystopian futures on film such as prior years’ Logan’s Run, Soylent Green, The Omega Man, Westworld, Rollerball, and the Planet of the Apes series.

Watergate disenchanted the American public, breaking our faith in an infallible President. If we couldn’t believe our elected officials held our best interests, what future could we expect? So we wallowed in stories confirming our worst fears until Star Wars showed us something different: even the poorest orphan has the power to face down the unknown. Light will overcome darkness. We are not alone; the Force is with us.

There is hope.

We wanted to hear that story of hope again with Episodes I, II, and III of the Star Wars franchise, especially after the events of September 11, 2001, but were sadly disappointed to see computer-generated, digitally-shot stories about how the future was set in stone and things will go wrong despite the best efforts of the most powerful Jedi.

Especially after the Paris attacks and shootings in schools and ISIS and violence and murder and rape, we want to hear that it’s going to be okay. We want to have hope for the future. We want to place our faith in the fact that we are not alone in this world, that even the poorest orphan has the power to overcome the unknown. I want to know that I’m going to make it, that my uncle facing radiation and chemotherapy will be cured of his cancer. I want to know that my seven-year-old daughter will never be sexually assaulted. I want my marriage to last a lifetime and that friends will not leave me.

That’s too much pressure to put on one movie. Sure, the Force Awakens will utilize practical effects and be shot on film and J. J. Abrams proved with Star Trek that he can revitalize a space-faring series, showing us through lens flares that anything is possible, but one movie cannot guarantee anyone’s future. Only a self-sacrificing god can do that.

Look at Jesus, a poor man of questionable parentage, who shook the political and religious leaders of his day with selfless answers and self-sacrifice. He exercised power to heal the sick and raise the dead. He spent time with children and touched lepers. His greatest teachings were about humility and self-denial. He showed us how to love the disenfranchised, the marginalized, and betrayers. He laid down his life for his friends and took it back up again. He died so that we may live.

I put my hope in Jesus, knowing he has a plan for my life, and if my uncle dies of cancer or my daughter is assaulted, if my marriage falls apart or my friends abandon me, even if my worst fears come true, Jesus will not leave me desolate. He is ever-present; his Spirit lives in me, which means he can work through me in power. I prayed for the sick, and they were healed. I was laid off with no prospects and got a better job. I was so overwhelmed with fear, I couldn’t make it through a day at school, and now I teach school. I messed up my leg so badly, I couldn’t walk without crutches, and now I run faster and farther than I ever could before.

Do I plan on taking my family to see the Force Awakens? We wouldn’t miss it, especially since we’ve sat down and watched the original trilogy together. I hope it affirms the story that light overcomes darkness, that we are not alone. Darth Vader may have died, but he laid down his life so his son would live, and he continues to live on.

I have hope for the future.

The Shoebox

My family kept Grandpa in a shoebox on the top shelf of the closet. We knew he was tucked up there in the corner, and we discussed why he sat out of reach. My uncles told funny stories about him and his friends living out in Arizona. We saw him at family gatherings when they’d travel through town towing Airstreams on their way somewhere else, but we kept our distance, never disturbing the layers of dust covering what we might discover about him.

Even now, almost five years after his death, I’m not sure how to refer to him. My uncles called him dad, Mom referred to him as “my father,” and as children, my sister and I called him “Grandpa Wal-Paul” in his absence and avoided being in his presence.

How does one relate to a man who abandoned his wife and five kids, the youngest of which (your mother) was only eight at the time, and who came to town once a year around Father’s Day?

What do you do with a guy called Wally who changed his name to Paul for Biblical significance?

What do you make of a salesman from Ohio who, believing a prophecy foretelling nuclear war, joined others in the Arizona desert to build a community of houses complete with fully-stocked bomb shelters?

How do you trust someone who became the leader of the group known nationally as the Undergrounders because they retreated into their bomb shelters and only came out after three months because local police went in to save a man’s wife and children reported as missing?

How do you carry on a conversation with a man who spent the remainder of his days convinced the world would burn, and the only place of safety was the one he and his friends built?

The shoebox containing my family’s collective memories of Grandpa could reveal stories and truths about him I never knew existed, which is a loaded gun mixed in with the mementos. Searching through the box, I might find stories of how he taught my mother and aunt how to ride their bikes or my uncles to drive, but it’s just as likely I’ll exhume tales such as the time the group took my paternal great-grandfather down into a bomb shelter called “The Holy of Holies” where they talked to him for three days without food or water until he confessed belief in their mission.

I want to know how Grandpa’s leaving affected my family, but at the same time, I may find out how his leaving afflicted my family among others. This incident wasn’t isolated, and the community in Benson, Arizona carries on today, more than a half century later.

My raising questions to my aunts and uncles has raised questions in at least one of my cousins, and I’m scheduled to interview him next week. Though we may choke on the dust together, we’re going to sort through some pictures and in the process begin unloading the gun.

My Writing Process

Thanks to Jeff Muse, writer, park ranger, environmental educator, and cartographer of the outer life as well as the inner, for inviting me to participate in the My Writing Process blog tour. A fellow student at Ashland University’s MFA program, Jeff came alongside to cheer me on even as I ran up and down writing’s field of play with my helmet on backwards. Nobody writes with as much intentionality and grace as Jeff does. Seriously, check out www.jeffdarrenmuse.com.

As for me, aside from this blog, I’ve got a memoir exploring my development as a nerd that I’d like to be selected for publication, the beginning of a second work about my grandfather’s abandonment of his wife and five kids to start a cult out west, and an essay in progress about the insanity of my life as a runner, while an extensive list of other writing topics ties up my cloud storage. If anyone wants to pay me for my work, I’ll be happy to quit my job to write full time; just let me know.

I work in the realm of creative nonfiction, but the majority of my selections on Goodreads fall within the science fiction and fantasy genres, so I maintain an extensive vocabulary of geek speak and pop culture sensibility that permeates my work. No, I’ve not seen the latest episode of Game of Thrones, but I have read the books, so if you’d like to know what jaw-dropping event happens next, I’ll be happy to oblige.

I write what I do because I’m the person whose head contains so much useless crap if I don’t forge it into something of value, it gums up the works, and I can’t perform my roles as a teacher, husband, and father well. I’m a knowledge glutton, and if I don’t work off the excess calories, they weigh me down. I could do all this working in fiction, but I like the realness of nonfiction, the additional oomph because the stories dwell in truth. Writing in the genre challenges me even as it imparts wisdom, revealing details I’d not before considered.

If I leave my writing up to, “Oh, I’ll get to it after school or maybe after our kids are in bed,” it only gets done when there’s the rare external deadline. I’m a morning person with enough discipline to get up at 4:15 on Tuesdays and Thursdays and 5:30 on Saturdays to run, so I figured I’d extend that model to the other three days of my work week for writing. Oh, don’t worry; coffee’s involved. After almost two months of this practice, I have yet to get three writing days in during the course of one week, but I’ve written more than ever before, uninterrupted and guilt-free.

Speaking of writing (effortless transition), allow me to introduce three friends who write utilizing the internets, who maintain a log on the world wide web, a weblog if you’d allow. I’ll just call them bloggers. They will be continuing the My Writing Process Blog Tour on April 28th.

First up, Jeff Mongold: A recent graduate of Ashland University’s MFA in Creative Nonfiction program, he currently works at Hiram College in Northeast Ohio and is revising his first full-length manuscript, Living in Reverse: A Memoir. Jeff has been published in The Broken Plate and Kept Mistakes.  His blog, Scrap Paper Vol 1 can be found at http://jwmongold.tumblr.com/.

Justin Bessler received his MFA in creative writing from Ashland University in 2012. He is currently working on a memoir and teaches as a community faculty instructor at Marion Technical College. He lives in Marion, Ohio, with his wife Crystal and their three children James, Olivia, and Miles. He wrote his first poem for his grandmother, who published it on her refrigerator, a popular place for reading material in the home. “Morning” marks his first poem published for a journal with a readership (much) greater than seven. His blog (currently in its fifth restart) is at justinbessler.com, where he intends to write about faith, family, writing, and other parts unknown

Kimberly Whitaker claims: I was born in the 80s.  I grew up in the 90s.  My most defining years were the 00s–the years that nobody knows how to reference.  The thousands?  The zeroes?  The Oh-Ohs?  Come on, America.  Let’s standardize it.
I’ve only been into writing for six years or so (but I took a year hiatus after getting my MFA in creative nonfiction, so I guess 5?)
I took a creative writing class in college.  I wasn’t very good.  I’m not very good at writing poetry.
I started writing when I started teaching in Maryland.  It started out when I would tell stories about what happened in my classroom that day (a reading quiz where a student seriously put that Roman Shakespeare performed his plays at Woodstock) or my latest misadventure in dating (He actually got so drunk he laid down on the pool table!).  I was told that I had a natural ability to tell stories by my friend and colleague, Kelly.  Kelly earned her MFA from Goucher College, and with me, shared pieces of her thesis about falling in love with the city of Baltimore and the men in it.  I figured that I could write stories too.
I got my MFA from Ashland University.  I’ve been dabbling here and there, but I’m ready to jump feet first back into writing.*
*Note: I’m very aware that I used a cliche to describe my new determination for writing.  Leave your judgement at the door, reader.
I’m currently a high school English teacher in the outskirts of Pittsburgh.  This is my 6th year of teaching.  I think teaching and writing are very similar–you try something.  It might turn out to be a dud; it might spark something brilliant.  You just have to try a bunch of things to see what makes sense.

Here’s my blog link: http://mswhitwrites.wordpress.com/

Traveller, Godspeed to you on your quest. May the road rise up to meet you, and nary a dragon befoul you with breath most dire and foul. See? Geek speak.