When I was a kid, my first real interest in stories was horror, specifically Fortean horror, which (apart from a devotion to the lightweight TV form – represented by the prototypical Chris Carter’s X-Files inspiration “Kolchak, the Night Stalker” (1974-75), I pursued in the main through comic books. I favored the denser, more prose-laden double length “digest” comics – about the size of a Reader’s digest (roughly 8″ tall and 5″ wide) but thicker. They were my favorites, because there was more text and there were more stories, so they lasted longer than the standard variety. which felt more like brochures. DC & Marvel weren’t my thing. I read a lot of Golden Key comics which, like the 1950s era comics put out by EC (Entertainment Comics), had rejected the Comic Code Authority “seal” of content safety for children, without which most retailers wouldn’t stock them. No “decency” for me – I wanted it raw and uncensored. [Read more…] about Horror Was My Childhood Doorway to Conscience, Art, and Wonder
At the semester’s first Vespers, the boys gathered around the sofas in the dormitory parlor, and I sat among the other unknowns – the incoming mid-year dropoffs – “new boys” as opposed to just “boys”, whose parents had decided to wash their hands early or late, and whose place it was now to find their place and to fit in. The Vesperal prayers took five minutes, the roll call and account of completed chores, demerits, and new job assignments lasted forty. Last year’s boys were old hands at this, and laughed easily at each others exploits, which they recounted with mock sternness and calls for maturity, order, and piety in good service to the school. “Old boys”, the seniors, led the younger. “Police Yourselves”, was the frequent motto, sometimes interspersed with a dreadful stare and “or we will.”
I hadn’t checked in yet, which is what they called inspecting your assigned cubby hole, locking up your carryable gear, and making sure your bed was in order. I wanted to go upstairs, see my room, see who else shared it, and see whether my back was to a window or at least a wall. But Hoss stepped toward me, like the arrival of a sudden train when you’re just turning around. I could almost feel a wind from this behemoth of sixteen-year-old Maine country field hand material clad in a nylon vest that didn’t seem to zip all the way over his chest.
“Bainbury,” he said.
“Excuse me?” I gripped the railing. I might have fallen down if he took another step.
“Bainbury. I thought they sent you home.”
It was a name, then. “I think you mean someone else. I’m Brown.”
“Quit playin games, Bainbury. You”re back. Different hair cut, but it’s you all right. I knew you’d be back.”
“Really, I’m not Bainbury.”
Another boy walked by. “What’s up Bainbury?”
Hoss smiled. Those buckish front teeth said he had me.
I took a deliberate step down off the first stair. “You guys are joking around. Who’s Bainbury?”
“You are,” said Hoss. ‘Ask an honest question,’ said his eyes.’Get an honest answer,’ said his grin.
It was friendly enough. He liked Bainbury. He just didn’t like being gaslighted. I didn’t either.
“Look…” I started to say. I was going to say that we all look like somebody, after all.
“They called your name at roll, and you didn’t say nothin’. You’re Bainbury, Else why would the school have you on the roll as such. They know who you are.”
I had zoned out during the roll. Had they called my name? I couldn’t remember. But there was the faint echo of an old boy’s voice in my mind, the sound of his voice saying “Bainbury”, and others murmuring answers for that name. “He’s right there.” Was it really me they meant? Did I suddenly get assigned the identity of someone everyone recognized but me?
“Bainbury…” I heard an old boy on the other side of the room saying. He was regaling a new boy with my exploits. That is, the exploits of someone named Bainbury. But he was gesturing at me, almost with a wave, as I made eye contact.
Hoss simply waited. It was the patient look of someone used to a simply parental morality. ‘Confess your tall tale, and it wont be a lie.’ It was the rightness of the day after a big fishing trip or the evening after a night of too much beer around the camp fire. ‘You told your story,’ those eyes said, ‘now tell the truth and I won”t hold it against you.’
“Sure,” I said. “I didn’t think you’d recognize me.”
“I’m big, not dumb,” he said. He clapped me on the shoulder, and I thought maybe a molar rattled in my head. So that was how you got teeth like Hoss.
Hoss started to go out to the porch. He signaled this mission by dipping largely into a big bag of Red Man. Almost all the boys dipped or smoked. The school frowned on it, but as long as you were discreet, they pretended that a sixteen-year-old was a day or so from manhood anyway, so it was your business.
I asked Hoss one more question. “Hoss, do you remember where we met?”
“Sure, Bainbury.” He stuffed the wad of shredded leaf in his mouth, making all his words after that sound faintly strangled, yet languid and satisfied. “We met that time when you were striper fishing out on the rocks near the dam, down Tunneytown. You were trying to use a jig and I told you live bait was the best when they’re spawning. You all right, Bainbury?”
“Sure,” I said. Then he walked over to the door, which was open now, and joined other boys for a lot of smoke and spit.
I went up the stairs. Funny thing. I do remember being on the rocks and striper fishing. I do remember using jigs and being frustrated. And I remember trading a few friendly words with a bigger boy in a vest and getting a handful of live bait from his bucket, a detail Hoss didn’t mention. In my head, though, my name is Brown, and I don’t remember seeing that boy at all again.
At the top of the stairs, i turned left, then left again into room 2F. My bed and cubby were at the back. A window and a corner, and on my cubby was a label bearing my name. I dropped my duffel, put away my soap and shampoo, and the care box from my grandmother. I put my new Master lock on the hasp. Then I looked again at the label, before going back downstairs. There were white letters on black vinyl, one name only – in the quasi-military style of boys schools everywhere. And of course, it said ‘Bainbury.’
It took a while to get my bearings. Not as long as you might think. One of the new boys, formerly of the bad boys, sent away and allowed back in the fold. I said a prayer, the next Vespers. The school insisted on a show of contrition, but I really meant it. I’m not sure if Brown heard it, though. These things come out like water released from a dam, rising inevitably, until it flows over and past. You cast your hook, then, and take an opportunity where you find it. It’s a whole life that plunges in, whether it wants to or not. Bainbury is a fisherman – fished his whole absence – always with live bait – these days, at least. Quite a character. Brown was a boy finding a different fit, somewhere under the rocks.
Flat on my belly, the coat against the gravel roof, my extra set of eyes polarized against any glare, I sometimes think I can feel every vibration sent up through the frame by the elevator sinking toward the basement and every shift in temperature as the boilers kick in. The snatches of an argument from one window, crescendos of rapture from another, even the squeal of a town car to the curb cannot escape me. I am the building, the street, the city itself, the fulcrum of its life and death. My hands are a trigger, my eyes a crosshair, my mind a bullet, muzzle velocity 770, two grams of powder, 50 millimeters of near soundless doom if I choose it.
Mrs McGornedy thinks my trombone case is because I’m on medical retirement and like to take my instrument to the park. She thinks my trench coat in Spring signals the early onset of arthritis, and my dark sunglasses conceal a vitamin deficiency that causes sensitivity to the light. The way I barely speak to her when she’s mopping up the foyer or cleaning dust from the fixtures in the hall she takes for a bout with depression or an attempt to hide the fumes of an alcohol addiction. Mrs McGornedy sees the world as a dialogue with disability. I see her checking the medicine cabinet in my room when she’s sure I’m gone.
I lift the cap from the lens. Mrs. McGornedy is not wrong, not entirely. I do suffer from something. There she is, back in her apartment now, finding the envelope of bills her husband stuffed under the third drawer from the bottom, center. She takes just enough so he won’t notice. What hurts, Mrs. McGornedy is that I envy the people content in their booze or able to play music to a midday throng of pigeons. If I walked with a cane and could bore strangers with the sounds of a career I deeply miss, the vowels in between the words rich with satisfied ahhs and suddenly remembered ohhhs, then maybe I wouldn’t be waiting for the day someone phones the police about the out of place watcher on the rooftops. But there you are and here I am, with the one illness anything could cure and nothing ever does. I don’t love anything, Mrs. McGornedy. Not nearly so much as you love those extra few dollars in your purse, or making up stories to tell Mr. McGornedy about such quaint tenants in your not so private rooms. Wouldn’t you be impressed if you knew the closest thing I have to love is watching you, or the dozen other Mrs McGornedy’s my trombone sees from such a distance. You’d really have a sickness to talk about then, wouldn’t you?
Should we all go on waiting for the curtain to lift and the players to lay down their parts. Am I supposed to go on wondering whether you, or one of you, will look up and see a glint, because I’ve timed my aim wrong against the shadow of the sun, even hoping it’s so, though I never make that mistake? I’m too good at being both the actor and the audience, so the play never ends. I need a third act. I need the applause, or something more than silence. The cap is up. There you are at the window and, for the first time, I think I might just play the trombone.
The bath is its own season, a submerged oasis, scented vaguely of almond bark, diffident toward the stark onset of Winter in the valley. She peels the washcloth from its stiff perch on the soap dish and whisks it slowly through the water like the tail of some rough crocodile, swimming lazily on the current with not the slightest hunger – full, satiated with the steam rising from its body like smoke from a bed of embers when the tamper blots out the excitement of the flames.
The bruises swell, concealed in the thermal cocoon of bubbles. She washes her toes, methodically, unhurried, getting at the betweens and even under the nails. What matters is the feeling of clean and the simple movement of hands which, despite anything, are still hers after all. Sometimes the motions you go through are more real and generous than the gestures that constitute your life.
She folds the washcloth over her forehead, over the bandage that newly rests there. She closes her eyes under the warmth, walks backwards through her mind, and stands in front of the tall, oaken door engraved with the only word that really matters to a door – “knock”. She lifts the handle and lets it fall with a rattling clack that speeds her heart a little, no matter how many times it has struck before.
The face that answers the door is always a little different – a worn, dog-eared memory trampled by bleary years and muddled by all the guile that wanting imposes on a hope visited out of need. The hands are the same, though. Slow, methodical hands. Hands that have bathed and held and surrendered only reluctantly. Hands that have soothed things hurt and bandaged the simple griefs of falling down or missing something really good, like a Saturday show.
There are occasions to have entered life by a different door. Sometimes it’s held open by some happy soul passing through, and you think of running for it but hesitate, because you might not make it. A hesitant life is easier – at least it’s predictable, and maybe it feels more like your own. She holds back a little, swollen and maroon with shame – not that different from a skinned ankle earned by skating in the park. She looks up from those hands, sucks in a long breath, and asks the thing a proud child can want to ask but never quite manages for fear of drowning. “Help.” She says it in her mind and aloud and with supplication as the shape of her hands. Her eyes are open – they are closed – and she feels the heat slowly draining away where it touches red skin.
In things already past, the only answers are your questions. Hers is the fall of a knocker, ricocheting and repeating from an open door, like those recoil driven weapons she’s read about from a war that was supposed to end all wars but that itself has never seemed to end – instead entering a permanent freeze, punctuated by shards of ice. It pierces wood, and empty space, and all things corporeal. She lifts the cloth from her face and waits as the latch finally bursts onto the bathroom floor. It’s always the weakest part of a thing that gives way, letting in the thing you dread, as easily as cold permeates a membrane of skin, making you shiver from an unwelcome freshness of the air.
She raises a slow finger, breaking the wet, tepid surface like some elusive beast, serpentine and repeatedly curling at the neck. She eases her lips apart, and makes her eyes turn from the hand on the knob, a hand that won’t hesitate, and she hold hims first by his blinking eyes. You can only turn what you hold, after all. They made love back when she liked to, and it might even be a kind of love the way he has started liking it, which always seems to be a beating down of something soft and a shattering of something hard. If you can hate what you love, maybe you can also love what you hate.
The bath is a valley. The season has changed, and her coating of white drains thickly away like the drop of some gauzy negligee. It swirls down the drain with a ticking slurp, and she waits for him – the man who treats her like a door you have to force in a place that, once you open, you can only ever have in the way you have a memory or a dream.
Asher wrote this at:
Flash Fiction Writing Intensive
Hosted by Laurie Stone
Hudson Opera House
I don’t really care for severed heads and people terrified out of their wits or writhing in agony. I don’t cheer or laugh when chainsaws come out like adolescent boys might whoop and shout at explosions in an action film. I don’t particularly enjoy being scared – quite the opposite. And just like it’s a bogus myth a lot of non-literary people have that storytellers who write fantasy have psychedelic minds or are “weird”, it’s not true that people who tell horror stories secretly have actual heads in their freezers and ‘sick’ minds (we’ll address whether the horrible is always attributable to illness another time). But I have to deliberately ponder the question – actually I have to write it – to get at exactly the reasons horror, as a genre, appeals to me. So here goes: [Read more…] about Why Severed Heads Actually Matter
Occasionally I revisit the reasons why I chose New York City as my next home. I had narrowed it down to cities with relatively solid mass transit: NYC, Chicago, Seattle, Portland, Philadelphia, Washington (DC), and Boston. I had considered Los Angeles, but don’t want to spend 900 hours annually in a car while breathing the fumes you can see rolling across the highway. I considered San Francisco – great food, but the hills make walking a chore, there’s the addict culture, small size, and the lack of subways ruled it out. My criteria also included arts, street culture (including street food), and a cutting edge attitude in at least one category of business or art. I dropped Seattle, because of the hills again, and the fact of the electric buses being stuck in traffic twice a day. I love Portland, but it’s got 11% unemployment – a depressed economy. Along with Chicago and Boston, it inhabits my fall back plans. DC and Philly mass transit are “depends on where you want to go”, and the quantity of stuff I like would just be too small a footprint for me. That leaves NYC, Chicago, and Boston. Boston is way up there on my radar, and I might still do that at some point. But there is no rent savings at all, so for now it’s NYC and Chicago, which come down to rent, amenities, and culture, and that’s what I based my decision on. I feel no loyalist impulse toward boosterism, so this is simply a life optimization choice for me, and a personal one. [Read more…] about Why I Chose New York City
When I used to ask the question of writers’ groups why it was that most of the writers expressed, in one form or another, doing just about everything but writing, I was generally greeted with indignation and outrage. The other night, my friend Chuckles and I were discussing how video games do not prepare you to be a Navy Seal, wield a battle axe, or ride horses into battle. In fact, if you’re still playing them several hours a day by the time you hit adolescence, the likelihood of you putting in the concentrated, long-term hard work that one of those disciplines requires starts to plummet. If you’re still doing it at 25, you’re probably an expert at delivering pizza – which is fine – I’ve done six dozen jobs at least, including that, and I’m not knocking it. But you can deliver pizza when you’re 40, which is one reason some of those guys do – you can’t start at 40 and become a ballerina or a concert pianist or fly an F15. You’ve heard of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-Hour Rule from Outliers – that’s 10,000 hours of actually doing something, not talking about it. Maybe Sun Tzu would say 9,000 hours of planning and only 1,000 hours of war, but he was already a general. [Read more…] about 12 Reasons I am Not a Writer
When I was a boy, I played using the imagination as my primary raw material. I had books, toys, and other things, but the imagination was my Greyhound ticket to the road to anywhere. It got me, like The Saint, out of locked rooms, like Jane Austen out of occupied rooms, and like a cat burglar *into* all kinds of forbidden places. [Read more…] about Journeys in Alternate Reality
Sometimes the most horrible things that happen to us don’t show up in theatres or along the spines of novels. They have no title, and the blurb is too deep and felt too inarticulately to imagine. But horror can rescue us, too. We can’t describe the nameless thing that is trivialized by the mere attempt at narrative. But we can do battle with it. We can fly in the face of the amorphous dark. Horror can be the tale of that kind of love and friendship. We can acknowledge that the awful thing can’t be spoken, not really, but that “I am here with you and I will not leave”. And telling that, even if nothing else can be said, can be the means by which we reach across the night and race in the face of terror on behalf of those who matter to us. If you are interested in this, you are offered this tiny piece of multimedia fiction – a children’s tale if you wish (I don’t mind), because we are all children in the face of our monsters. It is crafted with care and laid gently, like a weaving of twigs, at the feet of suffering. Read the Sparrows’ Tale [Here].
When I was a kid, my parents considered me to be useless. I had it drilled into me that I was the guy that, if any ordinary person could tie his shoes or make his way in the world, would still fail. Defining myself as a man required not only a break with the family, but recognizing and overcoming (at quite some cost, and with significant pain) the similar voices that are ready to join the chorus in the world. I always looked at the world in unusual ways, and was never cut out for academia, corporate life, standard religion, etc. I specialized in doing things that were adventurous to try to change my life and the bigger they got, the more helpful or disastrous they were. But sometimes they helped a lot. I had to define who I was, determine what the world was, alter the conception of my relation to the world, and ultimately decide what to do then. [Read more…] about Beyond Being a Real Boy
The car isn’t routinely maintenanced. It is never booked or reserved. Its passengers never disembark. No engineer can remember coupling or decoupling it. I certainly can’t. No conductor ever passes through or punches a ticket. The car is there and not there, depending on the level of your attention. One thing is certain – it’s along for every journey. [Read more…] about Forever Car
The Orson Example: I think most people who have read a lot of Orson Scott Card’s work and have also spent time in social media are aware that there are years’ long campaigns going on to punish Card for his opposition to gay marriage (which is forbidden in his religion), comments he’s made in opposition to homosexuality (which is forbidden in his religion), and his participation in conservative organizations (which most prominent people in his religion do). It’s nothing that’s not common among Mormons in general, evangelical Christians, conservatives, and indeed half of the United States – but what really pisses people off is that his books are so good, too. In fact, if he wrote lousy books or was less popular, there wouldn’t be an issue. That’s how common his views are and how good his books are – the backlash underscores both. Let’s be honest about that. [Read more…] about Rescuing Art from Ideology
The knock is the same as the one in your dreams – it’s a knock. It comes at the same time as you dreamed, which is at some time. It’s neither loud and angry nor gentle and timid. It’s as you had imagined it – a knock that says nothing. It’s a sound that is, by all other aspects of its character, another kind of silence. You think of Poe – the tapping in The Raven, the door blown open in the House of Usher, the locked room of the Rue Morgue and the sealed fortress of the Red Death. All your fears are in that sound – not for what’s beyond it – but instead for what probably isn’t. How many times have you opened the door, and no one was there? You have felt shame – and for so long that it has been a kind of dying. [Read more…] about She Knocks in Your Mind
The crowd did what it always did – it cheered. On this day, it cheered like opening night. Crowds have moods within moods, like people do. Sometimes joy is rageful joy, and sometimes it’s delirious, sometimes serene. The crowd cheered with the joy of relief, after a long off-season of waiting. [Read more…] about Winding Up
I have a rather unusual personality – so I am told, continually. A close colleague of mine says it’s all about context. Drop me into most standardized social settings and I stand out quite a bit or quietly observe from a dark corner. Standard social situations do not readily accommodate intense personalities. Put me in a restrictive one, like a corporate office, and I’m really out of place – I’m not a team player, by any stretch. Unleash me in an open, continually out-of-the-box environment with piles of legos and unrestricted freedom to go all Montessori on my surroundings (think TED rather than Walmart), and I tend to thrive and deliver keen insights and a lot of value. This is why I’m a decent entrepreneur and suck at being a cubicle jockey. [Read more…] about The Bizarre Life of Fiction
“The quality of mercy is not strained.” Another story teller said that. I have to decide whether to show mercy on an enemy. A post about ethics? Stock in trade, my friend. What do you think we story tellers do? We aren’t talking about bean dip and Budweiser, even if we are. We tell lots of lies, but some things aren’t. And the transcendent things – that’s our bread and butter. The bread and the butter, the bean dip and the Bud – those are just useful metaphors for what the story teller says is really real about life – meaning. [Read more…] about Mercy and Marigolds