knifeknifeknife

knifeknifeknife

by Kim Peter Kovac

 

In the 1960’s, Ford’s Theatre was a tired museum with footprints painted on the stage.  Footprints? Yep, footprints, like at those Arthur Murray dance studios, marking the route John Wilkes Booth took leaping from the Presidential box to the stage, shouting Sic Semper Tyrannis and running out the exit backstage, a path he would have known since he was a working actor. And all the while brandishing a Bowie knife, named for 19th century soldier, smuggler, and slave trader Jim Bowie, who died at the Alamo.

 

It is unclear whether Booth knew that John Brown also carried a Bowie knife.

 

Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln saw John Wilkes’ brother Edwin play Shylock in an 1864 production of The Merchant of Venice, where they saw   Shylock sharpen his knife on the bottom of his shoe as Bassanio wondered, “Why does thou whet thy knife so earnestly?”

 

In the 1980’s, the costume of a properly outfitted theatre technician included plaid flannel shirt, leather vest, do-rag, and lockback Buck Knife in a leather holster.

 

Unionist Edwin Booth was arguably the greatest American actor of his time.

 

It is a long-standing tradition to not speak out loud, in a theatre, the name of a certain Shakespeare tragedy or its title character.  It is mostly called ‘The Scottish Play’, and the main characters called Lady Scottish and Mr. Scottish, the latter of whom says, in iambic pentameter:

Is this a dagger which I see before me, The handle toward my hand?

. . . or art thou but  A dagger of the mind, a false creation, Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?

Filmmaker Roman Polanski’s first feature was Knife in the Water.  Of French-Polish descent, he met his second wife, Sharon Tate, while making The Fearless Vampire Killers, a film not watchable today unless you channel your chemically altered hippie past. Tragically, Sharon is best known for being murdered in 1969 (with a knife, mostly) by the Manson Family.  Roman was overseas working at the time.

 

knknighgh pronounced knife is a one word poem by ultra-minimalist Aram Saroyan.

 

The first film Polanski made after Tate’s murder was Macbeth, released in 1971, which received an x-rating because of nudity and graphic violence. The superstition about speaking the word Macbeth is not operative in movie theaters.

 

At an international theatre festival, colleagues from Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Croatia all claimed me as being one of their tribe. The name Kovac (and/or variations thereof) is part of all of these Slavic cultures, meaning smith, or blacksmith.

 

Among other things, blacksmiths make knives.

 

Those whose teeth are a-gnashing and knickers a-twisting about the recent Public Theatre production of Julius Caesar which included the title character (clad in long tie and yellow-orange hair) killed by knife-wielding Senators have not actually read or seen the play, since it is in no way about the virtues of assassination.  Additionally, there is a long theatrical tradition of making parallels between Caesar and any random current president, including, as only two examples, Obama and Lincoln.

 

The actor Rick Miller has long had success with a one-person performance mashing the Scottish play with the Simpsons, a piece called MacHomer.

 

My paternal grandfather, of Polish descent, was named Ignatz Kolacz (pronounced, more or less, Coal-aash).  I never met him, since he died exactly one year before I was born.  Lucky thing my mother was reading Kipling’s novel Kim during her pregnancy or the calendar synchronicity of my day of birth might have meant I’d be known today as Iggy.

 

Selected fun knife names:

  • Butterfly knife
  • Corvo
  • Dirk
  • Flick knife
  • French Nail
  • Karambit
  • Kris
  • Kukri
  • Puuko
  • Rampuri
  • Stiletto
  • Trench knife

 

After Ignatz divorced my alcoholic grandmother, my father, Stan, lived with her.  For a time.  Then she threw him out, in the midst of the Great Depression, and his home was a cardboard shack in Cleveland’s Hooverville. For a time.  Then Ignatz found out and brought his son to live with him and random cousins, a tribe of warm and happy drunks, one of whom owned a low-rent bar we called a ‘beer joint’.  The story goes, though, that Stan’s mother changed their last name to Kovac – she hated her Polish ex so much that she rebranded herself, and her son, with a name from her homeland, Czechoslovakia.  There are those in the family who say this name thing is not true.

 

The iconic USMC KA-BAR combat knife traces its lineage to the Bowie knife.

 

A DIY prison knife is commonly called a shank or a shiv. Not to be confused with The Shawshank Redemption or the Hindu god Shiva.

 

knife+strife=no longer rife w/ life

 

bang the drum slowly and play the fife lowly

play the dead march as you carry me along

 

On the iPod playlist: the Swedish electronica band The Knife, and avant-jazzer Nate Wooley’s album of minimalist variations inspired by the above poem “knknighgh.”

 

Five years before I met my bride, her mother passed away.  Officiating at the service was Reverend Francis Kovacic.

 

Major Henry Shakespear (sic), an Indian Army officer and well-known hunter, designed a particular dirk known as the ‘Shakespear’ knife.  Not to be confused with ‘Shakespeare’ brand fillet knives, used by contemporary fisherman.

 

It is said that the Scottish Play was President Lincoln’s favorite play.

 

A dagger of the mind.

 

knknighgh.

 


Kim Peter Kovac works nationally and internationally in theater for young audiences with an emphasis on new play development and networking.  He tells stories on stages as producer and tells stories in writing with lineated poems, prose poems, creative      non-fiction, flash fiction, haiku, haibun, and microfiction, with work appearing or forthcoming in print and on-line in journals from Australia, India, Dubai (UAE), England, Scotland, Singapore, South Africa, and the USA, including The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Red Paint Hill, Elsewhere, Frogpond, Mudlark, and Counterexample Poetics. He is fond of avant-garde jazz, murder mysteries, contemporary poetry, and travel, and lives in Alexandria, VA, with his bride, two Maine Coon cats, and two Tibetan Terriers named Finn and Mick.

Intercept

Intercept

by S.J. Dunning

 

WITHIN A TRUNK IN someone’s attic, a postcard depicts young girls using telephones to call their mothers. Their mothers are presumed to be dead. Tin Pan Alley’s “Hello, Central…” inspired the image. When I answered the telephone my muse painted in what seemed like a rush but probably wasn’t, the party on the other end—the painter herself, presumably—had to remind me that saying HELLO is proper etiquette for letting a caller know you’re there, twirling the coils of the cord on the other end of her/his transmission. HELLO? The cords on the telephones on the postcard that depicts young girls calling their mothers who are presumed to be dead are charged with symbolic power. The mothers could be LIGHT. The young girls may have fallen into the material world from a better realm. Where they landed—here—is like a long summer camp they didn’t really want to go to. They’re homesick. The telephone rings backstage during a rehearsal trapped inside the ribbon of a VHS home movie in my repertoire. HELLO? Someone says something about how everything is falling apart. Low low low goes the frequency of Jane Barbe’s   special tones when I dial that space in time now from my innermost  TELEPHONE. If there were an a priori tune I’ve been longing to hear again, even if it has a haunting quality, I’d guess it would open like that. Whatever the case might be, in my copy of his volume of The Great Masters, Picasso says you have to start with something. We’re all artists. The problem is remembering we are when we grow up. I’m the one smuggling rotary telephones into the digital era, reclaiming Jane Barbe’s intercept. I want to be resourceful with what’s left. HELLO! I can hear you now. Can you hear me? Please don’t hang up. This is not a recording.

 


S.J. Dunning lives in Tacoma, WA. She edits and designs 5×5 Literary Magazine and teaches English online for Central Washington University. Her work has previously appeared in Creative NonfictionThe SunThe Meadow, Sundog Lit, San Pedro River Review, The Swamp, and elsewhere.

The Bay

an essay by Emily Howell

 

The Brewster Building, in Chicago, is located on the corner of North Pine Grove Avenue and Diversey. Built in 1893, the building was declared a Chicago Landmark in 1982. If you stand in the lobby of the Brewster and tilt your head skyward, a web of bridge walkways with cast iron rails are layered 9 stories high until you reach the massive skylight in the ceiling. The walkways are made of paved glass blocks and when the sun shines through the skylight starlets of light and rainbow prisms ricochet around the cavernous room. And in the basement of this ornate, century-old building lives a hole in the wall dive bar—the Galway Bay.

A set of concrete stairs leads to the double glass door entrance of The Bay from the sidewalk on Diversey Avenue. The walls are a patchwork of stone bricks, roughly mortared together. The floors are wooden, scuffed and covered in a layer of enduring grime. There are two bars in The Bay, the front bar—a large rounded spot accessible on all sides by patrons—and a smaller bar in the back. Strings of Christmas lights are stapled to the cabinets above the bar—their shelves are crowded with empty cans and bottles of beer people have drank, most of them there, but some brought back from overseas as gifts for their Irish bartenders. Behind the bar a basket sits, full of things customers left behind. The coatrack by the door is always full, even in the summer.

There are only two full-length windows in The Bay and they are covered fully by Ireland’s flag and the Cubs Win flag. Even when the sun is shining brightly outside, the Bay relies on false light that makes the air look thick, hazy and amber as if it’s been saturated in beer.

On one side of the front bar, there’s an area with a couch and a large Lazy boy armchair where a flat screen is attached to an old-school play station. The wall it’s mounted on is made of shelves and on them there are 144 PlayStation games, ball caps that customers have lost and left, a large framed photo of the Titanic, and beaten up books, like The Third Fireside Book of Baseball, The Kings Way, and Five Star Recipes.

Right when you walk in the front door a Touch Tunes jukebox has been mounted to the wall—glaring, electronic, and alien compared to the old piano sitting nearby that no one ever plays. The top of the piano is used as a shelf for an old Royal typewriter, a red water pump, and a wooden James Buchanan Scotch box. Next to it, a grandfather clock towers, dusty with its ornate hands stuck on 3:11. Tabs are kept in spiral notebooks, the pages of which are filled with last names and tally marks.

The walls are covered with miscellaneous things: a framed copy of the Irish national anthem, a signed picture of the 1969 Cubs all star infield, framed rugby jerseys, vintage posters and tin signs advertising different beers and liquors, plaques with sentiments like “Irish Diplomacy: the ability to tell someone to go to hell so that they will look forward to the trip,” a lit up illustration of a sagging, bald old man being showered by a can of PBR, and an arrow labeled ‘fire extinguisher’ that points directly into the trashcan below.

Cockroaches have made their home among the empty cardboard beer boxes in the back room where the kegs are kept. Every time it rains or snows more than a few inches the bar floods, inevitably causing a temporary mold infestation and hours of extra work for the underpaid bar staff. The owner’s of the Galway Bay, Nolan and Jason, are middle-aged married men. Nolan, or Noly, moved to Chicago from Ireland over ten years ago and has two kids; he doesn’t wear a wedding ring and sleeps in the basement of his home. Both he and Jason rarely do anything that resembles work when it comes to the Bay, aside from stumbling in at late night hours with a throng of others and serving themselves from behind the bar. Most of the scheduling, ordering, and administrative work falls on Chris, the general manager and Nolan’s 28-year-old cousin, who’s been in Chicago for almost 3 years. Nolan, Jason and Chris all bartend in shifts, along with Bill, Tony, Arturo, Keoki, Besco, and Aldon.

Most of the regulars call Chris “Sparkles,” a stage name he drunkenly assigned himself one Sunday during the bar’s weekly karaoke night, but whenever I use the nickname, I shorten it to Sparky. I never considered myself a bar fly until my roommate pointed it out to me one day.

“What did you do today?” she asked, lying across my bed in our third floor gray stone apartment in Wrigleyville.

I sat cross-legged on the hardwood floor in front of my full-length mirror brushing shadow across my eyelids. “I went to The Bay.”

“Isn’t that where you’re going?”

“Yeah, I came home to eat dinner and change.”

“What did you do all day?”

“No one was in, so Sparky and I watched a movie, drank, and ordered Yakzie’s for lunch.”

“You’re turning into a bar fly,” she said.

I turned away from the mirror to look at her, the hand holding my mascara brush hanging in mid air, and raised my eyebrows.

“Think about it. You spend your days and nights there at least five times a week, usually more like six or seven, and all the people you’ve started hanging out with since you finished school you’ve met there.”

“That’s not true.”

“Uhhh. Greg, Rachel, Ryan, Jim, Colleen, Merry,” she lists. “And Chris.”

“Chris and I have been friends for almost two years.”

“Yeah, well, you didn’t always live in the bar he works at.”

“What the hell else am I supposed to do?” I snapped. “The rest of you are in classes and have homework. So what if I’m spending a lot of time at the bar.”

“I just wish I saw you more,” she said quietly.

“Then start going out.”

***

My sister and I called my dad’s father Grandpa Howell—I don’t think anything more endearing would have fit. I never heard anyone call him by his name, Ken. He was dad, grandpa, or the nickname given to him long before I was born—bighead. It fit; his head was massive along with the rest of his nearly 7-foot frame of thick muscle covered by calloused, sun-spotted skin. He lived in Prince George’s County, Maryland—a quick hour and change from where I grew up in Centreville, Virginia. There are only a few details I remember about his house—the contrast between dark wooden furniture/paneled walls and light carpet that was probably once white, a box set in the corner of his living room, the short back yard that ended in a drastically steep wooded ravine, and that the glass doors on a large wooden hutch in the kitchen as well as the exterior of the refrigerator were covered in cut out pictures of swim suit models—some yellowed and frayed with age, and others so fresh the scent of ink still lingered on their glossy surface. It was both cluttered and clean—the furthest thing from kid friendly—and I loved it.

We’d visit a few times a year, usually on the way home from my mom’s brother’s house or after making a trip to College Park so my dad could have a fix of his favorite Ledo Pizza. I’d sit on the steps leading down to his basement and watch him and my dad play darts for hours—beer bottles and peanuts littering the small wooden bar—full of odd trinkets: a lamp in the shape of a portly man wearing a top hat with a red light bulb for a nose, multiple pipes, ashtrays and an assortment of flimsy coasters sporting different beer and liquor logos. Neither he nor my dad smoked, but the basement always seemed to take on that hazy after-hours feel of a bar at 4am, when your eyes are heavy, the lights are dim, and poor choices seem to snake along the surface of your skin.

***

I turned 21 the November I moved back to Chicago after spending a semester in Dublin, Ireland. That spring, I started going to The Bay. My friend, Laura, who’d lived in Ireland with me, had already been to the bar and couldn’t stop talking about the one Irish bartender, Sparky. We pre-gamed at my apartment; brilliantly, I drank a six-pack of Bud Light Platinum in half an hour, and by the time we walked into the dimly lit bar, it was spinning.

“Em!” my friend Evan’s voice slid into my ear, and he materialized next to me.

“Ev!” I threw my arms around him. It’d been over a month since I’d seen him last. He still lived in the South Loop, close to campus where we all had gone to undergrad together.

“This place is great! How long have you been coming here?”

“This is my first time. Laura’s been here before. I can’t believe you actually came up.”

“Yeah we haven’t been up here in a while so–”

“We?” I narrowed my eyes.

“Baby girl!” Jones’ voice yelled from across the bar. He had two drinks in hand as he walked over.

I glared at Evan, and he laughed and leaned into my ear to whisper, “What was I supposed to do, leave him home?” His roommate has been vying for my attention for months, which I probably could have dealt with if it weren’t for his array of obnoxious traits.

“I’ll be right back,” I said, before Jones could get any closer. Barging my way clumsily through the bar, I saw Laura in the back talking to a bearded man wearing a blue and green plaid flannel shirt. Tattoos cover his freckled skin. My ability to judge my speed was slightly off, and before I could stop myself, I stumbled into him, steadying myself by grabbing his shoulder. “Are you Sparky?”

“Aye,” he said, and I saw two of his sideways smile. I sucked in my breath and tried to lock onto his eyes.

“I’m Emily.” With that I spun around, walked into the bathroom and spent the rest of the night sitting on the floor. My feet straddling both sides of the toilet with my back propped up against the graffiti clad door.

The next night, when I walked in, Chris was behind the bar. I sat on a stool, and he looked up smiling. “What’s up fucker? Welcome to the Galway Bay…I figured you might not recognize it since you spent the whole night in the bathroom.”

He teases me about that night and how our friendship began by me literally stumbling into him. “You just barged right into my life and now you’re the best friend I’ve ever had.”

***

That fall, the last semester of my undergrad, I spent Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights at The Bay. All the bartenders knew me, so I rarely paid, and when I did it was always a $10 credit card charge and I’d leave a $10 tip. I fell in with the regulars. Chris and I would sit in the darkened bar after hours, our beers illuminated by stray passing headlight beams finding their way into the bar.

Some nights, Noly or Paddy Hammon would join us. Paddy was from Ireland too and he made his living playing gigs at all the Irish bars around the city. On the nights he came around I would sprawl on the couch and drift in and out of sleep, lulled by his soft Gaelic singing.

On others, always right around 3am, blue and red lights would bounce around the room and shut off before a banging at the door and a call of “Police, you fuckers!” Cassidy, the ginger-breaded cop would pound on the glass and embrace Chris, who always let him in followed by the newest set of busty women from out of town who were often southern and “tryin’ ta see the big city.” One would always sit and chat with us, while Cassidy led the other into the ‘office,’ always unbeknownst to his girlfriend, always out the door in time for the 4am patrol, when all the late night bars let out.

Most nights though, I’d help close up – wipe the bar down with a disinfectant drenched rag, pass pint glasses through the sink, and sweep up the popcorn pieces littering the floor while Chris counted out the cash register. Then we’d sit and talk, taking turns pouring shots until sunrise.

***

Growing up, whenever I was argumentative or stubborn (which was often), and I still refused to listen after a walloping with the wooden spoon, the beat red anger would drain from my mom’s face, and before walking away, she’d resign herself and say, “you’re such a Howell.” Any time we’d get together with my dad’s old childhood friends, upon seeing me, they’d all turn to my dad and say, “Jeez Mike, she looks like you” or tell my mom, “Oh Judy, she is all Howell.” The handful of relatives I’ve met on my dad’s side all call me Little Virginia, after my dad’s mom, who died before I was born. A painting of her hangs in my parent’s living room – auburn hair, fair skin, freckles, light eyes that are scrunched into a squint as she smiles – the resemblance is undeniable.

Looking back, I realize I didn’t only have the Howell looks. While my mom and sister scrapbooked, my dad and I threw the baseball in the yard. While they shopped at the mall, my dad and I sat on one of the benches and people-watched until they were done. Even though we were only a family of four, we’d often have both cars when we went out for dinner because my dad would meet us on his way home from work. As soon as the check was paid, I’d always rush to leave, “I’ll ride with Dad!” In his car, we blasted Conway, Waylon, and Merle, both of us singing along. But best of all: I was allowed to roll the windows down—a forbidden concept when riding in my mom’s AC chilled vehicle.

On weekends, when I was in college, and sometimes even still, my mom would call me on Saturday or Sunday morning, her voice laced with concerned probing about what I’d done the night before or if I had a hangover. Ever since she’d been diagnosed with a fatty liver she had a distaste for alcohol and had become notorious for slipping comments into conversation discouraging drinking in any capacity. The first time I went home to visit after I turned twenty-one, my dad picked me up at the airport. On the way home, he pulled into Eggspectations a local restaurant, so he could be ‘the first one’ to buy me a beer.

***

During the day, The Bay is fresh and cool. The windows are open and wind rolls off Lake Michigan and into the bar from a few blocks away. Sometimes, before hours, when Chris, Bill and Keoki are milling around, repairing things to no visual difference, plugging in tips, and ordering inventory, they’ll prop an empty keg in front of the double glass doors so the wind can run down the cement steps. It’s days like these, I sat hunched over on the wooden stool next to the door, holding whatever book I was reading at the time in my lap. An occasional passerby would walk down the stairs and peer into the bar. “Closed,” I’d say offhandedly, without looking up.

When I was there it before opened, Bill would usually sit and chat with me, every so often, taking off his baseball cap to scratch his buzzed, age-spotted scalp. Every time I see him he brings up when we drank all the champagne in The Bay, referring to the day of the Chicago Marathon. My friend and another regular, Rachel, had run and afterward a handful of us had come in to celebrate. Bill was stuck working because all the other staff was at Tony’s annual cook out and someone had to stay behind. We found him in a bitter mood and by the end of the day we’d finished off a garbage bag full of champagne and he was beaming and taking pictures with all of us to text to the rest of the bar staff gloating about his records sales.

 

“You know Bill is filthy rich?” Chris told me one day.

“You’re kidding?” I said, taking a frothy swallow of my freshly poured shandy. It was the beginning of summer, and they had just put my favorite Leinenkugel on tap for the season, per my request. “Why the hell does he work here?”

“Gives him something to do,” Chris shrugged. “He likes the regulars. Only way he has friends.”

***

I finished undergrad in December, a semester earlier than all of my friends, so I started spending more time at The Bay. Despite my 3.8 GPA, lengthy list of internships/accolades, and overachiever attitude, my BA in Photography had left me feeling useless. I didn’t have any responsibilities besides going to my sporadic part-time nanny job. I was biding my time—waiting until August, when I was supposed to move to Virginia for grad school. I was dreading it; I didn’t want to leave, and despite the fact that I realized logically I couldn’t spend the rest of my life drinking all night and day, I didn’t care. I was happy, busy, distracted, and mostly, I was never sober long enough to think about the future. Sometimes, for days straight, I wouldn’t see the light of day unless it was the red glow of the sunrise as I walked home at 7am. I’d pull my curtains shut and sleep, waking just in time to see the same glow setting and darkness blanketing the city. I’d shower and eat for the first time that day before setting out in darkness, back to The Bay.

The time I’d spent at Columbia had stamped out my desire to be a photographer—even the act of picking up my camera seemed daunting. I was burnt out, uninspired and broke. I’d decided I wanted to teach after working with the Museum of Contemporary Photography’s educational outreach program, but didn’t have the prerequisites (or funds) for a masters program in education. During undergrad I’d filled all of my electives with writing workshops—I’d enjoyed writing as long as I could remember, and one of my professors encouraged me to pursue it further. So, I’d applied to a handful of MFA programs for Creative Writing—hopeful that would at least be a baby step in the right direction.

***

I remember these things about my Grandpa Howell: he always bought my sister and me ‘boy’ toys (to which she turned up her nose and I relished); he carried around a pocket knife; he was relentless in his teasing because it was the only way he knew how to show affection; he was always drinking beer or liquor; he always told stories that captured the room; there was custom made sticker on the passenger side window of his champagne colored Lincoln Town car of his self-developed mantra ‘scart, say yer scart” (scared say you’re scared); he was loud, crass, and his hands always shook. He was a Howell.

Late morning, on October 2, 2002, he was mowing his lawn, and a neighbor noticed that the mechanical hum of the mower had been on the other side of the house for an abnormally long amount of time. She went to check on him and found him crumpled on the ground next to the puttering machine, his gold rim glasses resting in the grass a few inches from his face. He was dead, but the ambulance still came and took him to Fort Washington Hospital.

My dad called my mom to give her the news and left work to go to the hospital alone. I was in fifth grade, and I remember walking into the house with my younger sister after the bus dropped us off on the corner of our street. My mom was standing behind the counter, both her hands grasping the ledge, leaning against it. She asked us how our days were, and we took turns rambling as we dumped the contents of our backpacks on the kitchen table and sat down to do our homework.

“I have some bad news,” she said.

We both looked up.

“Grandpa Howell died today.”

She looked at me when she said it. My sister, who’s always been quick to emotion, ran to my mom and sobbed into her pant leg.

“Where’s dad?” I asked.

“He’ll be home later.”

That night, around eight, the three of us were sitting around the kitchen table when the rumble of the garage door opening cut into our conversation. We sat in silence as my dad shoved the key into the lock, turned it, and walked into the room. He stood with his brief case in one hand, his tie and jacket slung over his arm—his white shirt unbuttoned slightly and wrinkled. I stood up, “Is it true? Did he really die daddy? Is grandpa really gone?”

From their seats, my mom and sister started crying but my dad held my gaze. He walked over to me and steadied his shaking hand on my shoulder, “Yes, it’s true.”

Then, we all cried.

***

Most of the days and nights I spent at The Bay blur together in my mind, but July third stands out. It was around 11am, and I was feeling particularly sorry for myself. I’d been consistently drunk or drinking for the past week. The next day, Rachel, Greg, Ryan, Blair and I were going to the Dave Matthews concert to celebrate the fourth, and the following morning, I was supposed to fly to Virginia before driving to the Outer Banks with my family for a week. I didn’t want to go, and I’d been bitching to my mom each time she called about how I didn’t want to spend an entire week of my last month in Chicago not in Chicago.

I sat lounging with my arms dangling off the rounded back of one wooden barstool and my feet propped up on another. Chris sat across the bar writing down inventory, a bud light open next to him. Without moving my arms I leaned toward the bar and sucked down the remains of my rum and coke before sliding back into my lazy lounge. I let my head fall backwards and my eyes registered the ceiling for the first time. How had I never looked at the ceiling before? It reminded me of a high school classroom, made of the same flimsy plaster panels. Cracks webbed between the beams, there were large chunks missing in places—openings to black cavernous spaces I could only assume were home to all kinds of dust and cockroach carcasses. “Jesus,” I said to Chris, lazily motioning toward the ceiling with a brief twitch of my wrist. “This place is falling apart.”

“You’re fucking telling me.”

***

The morning after the Dave Matthews concert, I woke up 45 minutes before my 7:45am flight. Wearing the same clothes as the night before, I grabbed my half-packed suitcase off the floor, ordered an Uber, and ran down the three flights of stairs to the street while all the alcohol from the night before pounded against my head. Somehow, we made it to Midway airport in 20 minutes, and after throwing a convincing fake-panic attack on the phone, allowing me to skip straight to the front of the security line, I ran to my gate.

“Oh good!” the flight attendant said cheerily, “We were just about to call your name over the loudspeaker. Glad you made it.”

I puked three times on the flight to Dulles, thankfully I had an aisle seat near the bathroom. When my mom pulled up to curb at the airport, she got out and put my bag in the trunk, squeezing me into a hug before I slunk into the passenger seat. As soon as we pulled away she said, “Rough night?”

“You could say that,” I said, grinning at her.

She didn’t smile. “You reek.”

“Well, I didn’t exactly have time to shower this morning.”

“I mean you reek of alcohol. It’s coming out of your pores.” It’s coming out of your pores. That was her favorite line. She said the same thing to my dad every time he came back from a weekend golf trip or grabbed a few beers at the club on his way home from work.

“I’ll shower when we get home.”

“You better watch it,” she pushed. “You’re going to become an alcoholic. You know it runs in your dad’s side.”

“I’m not an alcoholic, Mom.” I rolled my eyes.

“Thank God you’re starting grad school soon. I can’t wait to get you out of Chicago.”

My stomach dropped. I turned and stared out the window at the dull Virginia landscape and began to count the seconds until that week was over. I clenched my hands shaking hands together in my lap.

***

From above, Lake Michigan looks like crinkled contact paper with air bubbles trapped beneath the surface. Occasionally, a white cap appears—a slip of motion at the heart of so much stillness. I press my forehead against the oval window squinting in an attempt to see the skyline I know will appear any second. My foot hammers against the floor of the airplane and I twist the claddagh ring on my right ring finger—proof of my paternal Irish heritage. When I see it, the outline of Chicago at dusk, deep black with pinholes of light standing starkly against the surrounding deep blue, I feel the familiar tingling at the back of my scalp. Pressure builds behind my eyes and I breath out slowly through pursed lips—when I first moved I had traveled back every two months, but it’s been seven since my last trip.

I go to The Bay every time I’m back in the city. I organize a dinner with Greg, Laura, Rachel, Ryan, Jim, Colleen, Merry and Chris at the sushi place up the street where we can BYOB and afterward we all walk to the bar, playing rounds of pool for hours and drinking more than most of us have in months. Greg and Rachel have both started new jobs and rarely make it out anymore, Jim and Colleen moved in together and spend most nights at home on the couch, Ryan steers clear of the basement bar and the unrequited love he has for one of the bartender’s girlfriends, and Merry now works at a bar down town where she brings in a grand a night – on a bad day.

I watch all of us, laughing and happy, it looks the same as it did before I left—it even feels the same—but it’s different. None of us can drink like we used to and we’ll wake up in the morning hung over, we’ll spend the day recuperating and then we’ll go back to our routines and responsibilities. For a few weeks after I leave and go back to Virginia we’ll be good about staying in touch, but it will peter out—until the next visit. We’ve all moved on, except Chris, who tells me over and over that he’s sick of working there, that he’s going to quit—but every day he continues to descend the gray concrete stairs and push through the grim-covered glass doors into The Bay.

 


Emily Howell is a writer, photographer, traveler and taco enthusiast. She earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Old Dominion University and BA in Photography and Teaching Artistry from Columbia College Chicago.

 

Out of the Cave and Down the Slope

by D.M. Kerr

 

The narrator ponders the source of creative output, and whether the act of mining that source has any value.

1. I WRITE BASED on emotional experience that has been inside me a long time and am surprised that others are willing to consider listening.

I have often come down here for the flames. Here is deep, a murky cavern. It has not tasted fresh air in many years. The flames spurt and die, casting strange shadows in the gloom. Each time I come, I gather a flame in my arms and nurse it with my breath as I return to the surface. There, it is less precious, for the light makes it difficult to see, but I offer it up anyway. I do not know if it is accepted, for once offered, it vanishes into the blank faces of my listeners. But still I offer it.

I will not keep these flames, no matter how precious they have been in years past. When I was troubled by the world, I used to bring them down here, and watch them sputter in the sickly air, but there was something sweet about each one, and from the one I had brought I would proceed like a priest from flame to flame, until the cave felt hollow and my tears flowed. But I will keep these flames no more.

“This is the cave,” Fredrick said. The gas mask added a mechanical wheeziness to his voice, but it could not hide the reverence in it.

I stooped to enter. Ahead of me, I saw pinpoints of light, a votive of tiny flames, maybe two dozen or more. Each flame sat in its own pool of blackness—the murky tar that sustained it. A few of the fields, the ones closest to us, were empty.

“I used to come here all the time,” Fredrick said. “This was my sanctuary. My     private place.”

“Why?” I asked. “Why remove them?”

Fredrick just tugged gently at the pipe of his gas mask, as if it were a beard. He knelt over the nearest flame and gazed at it for a long time. We heard nothing but the rasp of our breaths through the oxygen tanks, the faint crackle of the flames, and the occasional rumbling of the deep toxic gas that underpinned this floor.

“I think we’ll take this one.” He carefully scooped the flame and a bit of the pitch into his insulated rubber gloves. He held it as if it were an offering. The flame continued to burn, thought it seemed less confident now.

“Wouldn’t it be better to leave them here? You can always come and look at them when you want.”

“No,” Fredrick said. The ancient military green of his facemask and the attending oxygen hose gave his chin a look of firmness it lacked in real life. “There’s no joy in keeping things that others never see.”

I considered the irony of his statement when, back on the surface, and freed from our encumbrances, we lowered the small flame, practically invisible in the summer sunlight, onto a small leave and set it afloat down the stream. Would anyone even see even one? I could not imagine how.

 

 

2. I FIND THAT, even after writing about the experience, it still replays in my mind; it   never seems to shrink.

A blast of light around me. We are near, but not near enough. I rage against something inside of me, some silly decisions that have cost me. But what cost? It is nothing. There is nothing lost. Yet I rage against it. What am I seeking? What old dead dog am I trying to jab with my foot? I don’t know: It all sits beneath me, only every time and again something little floats up to the surface and I let it go.

“Damn! Damn and double damn!”

“What is it?” I ran over to where Fredrick knelt, beside one of the small flames. We had been carting flames for days now, and only a few small flickering ones remained.

Fredrick’s hands were screwed tight, not in pain but in rage. Even as I approached, he slackened them. His mask, as always,   revealed no emotion.

“Nothing,” he said, and glanced down at the flame in front of his knees. “Nothing was lost, that cannot be recovered. I tend to forget that.”

Once more I worried about that seething bubble of gas beneath the floor of this cave.

“It’s gone now.” His hands now hung uselessly by his side. “I don’t know about this one. Maybe we shouldn’t be taking any more. It won’t grow, and it won’t die. It will always be a weak flame. They’ll never be worth anything.”

“Whatever,” I said. He had no right to put this on to me. I was only the paid help. “We brought twenty to the surface. They’re all floating now. That’s enough.”

Just as I said that, something burbled in the gloop beneath our cavern, and some gas escaped. The flame flickered bright now, its yellow and ochre light reflecting on the mask’s eye outlets.

“Just wait for them. No need to get angry. We’ll take this one up and let it go. You don’t have to take any more if you don’t want to.”

 

 

3. I FEEL BOUND to move forward, even if there is no emotional reward.

Yesterday was hard, tomorrow will be hard again. This sitting on scraping noises is not going anywhere that I can see. I play rough against the handle and hold my jests to myself. No turning, held on side by side by big tuft-coated blocks.

What seemed like ages later, when all the flames had been set afloat, Fredrick took me down the old railway track. We rode a small mining trolley that must have come with the original deed. Fredrick sat in front and I sat behind of the trolley, and we said nothing for hours on end.

We followed the track through a small cutting in the grey landscape, growing ever deeper in the cut until the land fell off and we were on a berm again. The cuttings were the worse part: we could see nothing, and the walls, grey, rough shale, closed in on us unmercifully. The walls echoed the scraping sound made by the cart’s iron wheels.

“It seems like we always are trying to get back into a mine but the land won’t let us!” I yelled, over the sound.

Fredrick did not acknowledge my words, even with a shrug of his shoulders. He continued to push against the turning rod of the cart, causing us to rock back and forth against the tracks. I couldn’t tell if it were a deliberate attempt to slow us down, or if he were trying to temper his despair and anger.

 

 

4. I FEEL BOUND up by banality that permeates my writing.

How can the singers feel, I ask, when the words are so far from anything I understand? Their words are common, not turning fresh nor bleating like old tired sheep I understand them. Let me break out! Let me go! I turn from side to side but there is no turning here, only a straight scraping track that takes my time from old to new without a change: yesterday it was hard, tomorrow it is dull.

That evening we spent in a small inn that bordered the track. I had been looking forward to some good food, wine and company after the three weeks with this dour man, but I was disappointed.

Fredrick and I sat at a tipsy wooden table after the meal while a group of men near the fire sang the country’s folk songs. I don’t know if it was because of Fredrick sitting stone-faced beside me, or because of the singers themselves, but I found the songs banal and lifeless. They sang of losing love, of bright flowers, of market fairs but I found I could not connect with anything they said.

Losing love is not like this, I thought. This is window-dressing. Losing love is the dying look in Fredrick’s eyes as he sets the flames afloat on the river. How can people not know what the feeling is?

“Tomorrow?” I asked Fredrick.

“We go.” Fredrick said. “After here it is not so steep. We will both have to push.”

“Will there be fields and streams?”

“No. Only slag.”

 

 

5. I TRY TO convince myself that I should ignore this sense of fruitlessness, because somewhere in the past is the key to who I am.

But I still hope. This is a long journey. It doesn’t matter if I’m late. There are answers in the past; there are things there that, if I let the burlap open, would tell me what to tell myself. I don’t mind the fire, I don’t like it, but I don’t mind the scraping away little by little. There is a wall, I’m told. I’m told it has to come down. It will come down, I promise. And it’s a long journey.

“You didn’t appreciate the lodgings last night,” Fredrick said.

We were pushing the cart—the incline was not steep but   deceptive. The morning sun burned hot, and perspiration had formed on his ridged forehead.

“I felt unmoved. As if the landscape itself had entered through the mouths of the singers and had removed their souls.”

Fredrick grunted. “Poetic.”

“Aren’t there any trees at all? For the rest of our journey?”

“It’s a long journey.” Fredrick smiled wistfully—the first sign of hope I had seen on his face in a long while. “I don’t mind the   scraping away.”

He stopped, and the cart kept moving. Apparently we had reached a crest, although there was no sign in the landscape to confirm it.

An hour later, unannounced, a black stream appeared beside the tracks. I wondered at the debris floating on the calm water, and realized with a shock I was staring at the lights we had set afloat, at the entrance to the mine.

“There are answers in the past,” Fredrick said, when I touched him on the shoulder. “It hurts to look, but there are answers in those flames.”

I contemplated that for a moment. What answers? The flames here, in the fierce sunlight, were only barely alive. We had a long journey, I reminded myself. Something will come up.

“Fredrick, why is the water so still? It’s not as fast as our cart.”

Fredrick motioned languidly with his hand. “There’s a wall up ahead. A dam. It will have to come down.”

 

 

6. WHEN I’M NOT pushing so hard for an answer, I suddenly realize the past starts to flake off more easily.

When you believe, you can accept. When you can accept, you don’t push so hard. When you don’t push, little flakes come off one by one. Going this slow will take a long time but I am committed.

“It’s stuck,” Fredrick said.

We had reached a cutting, one of the few left in this nearly level plane. Fredrick and I had been pushing from behind the kart, arms held straight in front of us, heads facing the rails. We had heard scraping.

I glanced around the side of the cart. The walls were too close to the rails here, and the rust-red edge of our cart had left marks along the black, wet slate of the cutting’s walls.

“Don’t!” Fredrick had been about to stand up when I warned him. “It’s not stuck, just scraping.” I pushed at the cart with the back of my shoulders. “If you let go, it will just roll back on us.”

“Then what?” Fredrick asked.

“I’m holding it. Check your side. It’s just scraping, right?”

“Yeah. But it will stick more. Let the cart go back a bit and I’ll get around and dig away the walls.”

“No need. This is really loose shale. All we need to do is push slowly, and let it flake itself.”

“We’ll get stuck. And then we won’t be able to go backwards or forwards.”

“Trust me. It will work. We just need to give the shale a chance to crumble. See? Like that.”

“This will take forever.”

“Stay on it. Slow and steady. Like that. Let it scrape away.”

 

7. I CONSTANTLY REMIND myself I need to expose my journey to others.

Each little scraping step, each jolt from side to side, reminds me to ask for help. I ask, not knowing if the asker has heard, but I don’t care. In the asking is the help granted. Even if there is no change, even if the next jolt just goes back to the other side, I will wear away this wall flake by flake until it is just an old sodden mound and I won’t be crazy any more.

Our track now led us into an inhabited area. On either side of the cuttings, now, small houses squatted, decorated with knee-height white fences and small, green lawns. Through the windows of the houses, on occasion, we could see people watching, their hands holding cups or plates and drying cloths.

Fredrick did a curious thing: this man that I had come to know as silent and reticent, who had found happiness in a dark cave, his face obscured in a breathing mask, began to ask for help.

The gully in which we travelled was exceedingly narrow. Sharp, dark scale hung from each side, and our cart often got stuck.

“Please, if you can, we’d like a push. We’re on our way to the market.”

“They don’t want to help you,” I said, when another figure turned from its window.

“Helping is not the point. Asking is the point.”

I was about to question that logic when the sadness in Fredrick’s face caught my eye. He knew the danger of his ways and, timidly, was trying to battle it. Even asking for my help had been, I now realized, a struggle for him.

 

 

8. I REALIZE WHAT I have written is no longer attached to my self.

When I step into the cold, it seems different. It seems now like I am walking a little higher. The flakes are crunching under my feet, those fires and fears I offered up. Now they just lie about on the ground, no longer part of me. They no longer have any life. They no longer can hold back my soul.

We had finally escaped from the trenches. The plain lay on all sides of us, grey shale stretching into the distance. Our faces were smudged and our clothes torn from the constant pushing and scraping.

Fredrick’s cart ran freely now, although it still squeaked and jolted sluggishly. Fredrick sat a little taller on his seat. A certain pride enveloped him like a cloak and I realized all these past years he had never had a feeling of self-worth. It had been so constant, that lack, that I had just assumed it was part of his personality.

“Look,” I said, pointing at the now blackened concrete gully that ran parallel to our path. “Your baubles have made it this far. Perhaps they will even find fame.”

Fredrick turned away haughtily. “They aren’t mine. Look at them more closely. The life has gone out.”

He was right. In my haste to connect them to Fredrick, I hadn’t noticed the change between these ones and the ones I had set floating near the top of the spring. Those ones had glowed with that strange subterranean flame. Now the oil had congealed over them and the only light they gave was that reflected from the stars.

 

9. EVEN THOUGH I don’t see an end to this process, I gain a feeling; this is the way out.

So each step forward and back is still a step forward in my mind. I continue to trust, even though if I turned to look back I think I would see only caverns, the same that are in front of me. I don’t mind. I’m on my way out.

Finally, on the third day, it happened. The gully seemed like every other gully,   ragged black shale walls, a bleak flat plain beyond, but as we pushed the cart over the cusp, I could see, faint in the distance, the lights of the city.

Although we had been under the impression we were going downhill, we in fact had been making our way further and further up. From this point we could see that the plain before us was indeed falling away, and beyond it, about five miles distance, the rock was subsumed completely in verdant grass and farms. It was perhaps a trick of the clouds, but it really did appear that the sun shown only on the city, bathing it in a soft, amber glow.

“It’s like your lights,” I said, “but so much larger. It’s the image your lights were trying to capture.”

Fredrick said nothing. He did not even acknowledge that he had seen the city, as he loaded our backpacks onto the cart. But I did see him glancing back. His face was   taciturn as always, but he seemed to have in it now an underlying glow—not of hope, but, perhaps, of faith.

“Give us a push,” he said. “It’s still a long way forward. But we’re on our way out.”

 

 


“D. M. Kerr” is the writing name of a Canadian writer living and working in Singapore, where he teaches IT and game design. His stories have been published in Linden Avenue Literary Review and Beyond Imagination Magazine, among others. He is a founding member of Singapore’s Writing the City project. Even so, he is pleasantly surprised you are willing to consider reading his work.

 

 

 

 

R.J. Fox: FBI’s Least Wanted

FBI’s Least Wanted

A couple of years ago, I ventured into Detroit for a scouting expedition for what I thought was going to be my first feature film – a gritty, crime drama using Detroit as a backdrop. We were in search of the most run-down, decrepit locations imaginable – which is something Detroit has an unfortunate abundance of. Accompanying me on our mission was an international crew of immigrants and fellow Americans – a Polish storyboard artist, a British director, an American location scout and my fellow American producing partner.

It was a dangerous undertaking for four white suburbanites, venturing deep into inner city Detroit and into abandoned structures in various degrees of decay, ranging from neglect, to arson. Many were clearly currently being used as halfway houses and crack dens. Although it may have looked like we were traversing on a grand-scale, post-apocalyptic movie set, we know full-too-well that we were miles away from a Hollywood ending.

Well past midnight, we ventured into the infamous, virtually desolate Delray “neighborhood” of southwest Detroit, running concurrently along the Detroit River. We approached the entranceway to the man-made, industrial wasteland of Zug Island, which resembles the skyline of Gotham City (which Detroit later was used for in Batman vs. Superman. Although I was vaguely familiar with the island, I had no clue what actually happened there. I was naturally curious and rolling in the safety of my “crew”, I decided to take the plunge and see for myself.

“Let’s go check this out,” I chirped, turning onto the gravel driveway leading to a one-way bridge leading to the island.

“What is it?” my director asked.

“Not really sure,” I said. “But just look at it. We have to have this in our movie!”

“Yeah, but it says no trespassing,” said the storyboard artist, referring to the enormous “NO TRESPASSING” sign posted on the bridge.

“Guys, think about it,” I began. “What do you think we’ve been doing in all the other places we went to tonight?”

“Well, this isn’t abandoned,” said the director. “And they didn’t have ‘no trespassing’ signs on them.

“But it was still trespassing,” I said, holding serve. This point seemed to do the trick, as everyone finally agreed to “Fuck it” in the name of art. And when it was all said and done, in the face in of stupidity.

We traversed onto what resembled a post-apocalyptic, industrial wasteland of an island, we observed what was at least 100 cars in the massive parking lot wrapping around the endless Habitrail system of a factory. Despite the cars, there wasn’t a single human soul in sight. It seemed unfathomable that any human life could possibly survive – let alone work – on such a God-forsaken property. For those fortunate few who somehow managed to escape from the island had one possible outcome: death by cancer. This, theory, of course, assumed that there was any human life on the island at all. It was becoming increasingly apparent that we were in the human-less domain of robots – soulless cyborgs – hell-bent on destruction, programmed to wipe out any sign of life.

As we drove deeper into the abyss, none of us said a word, as though in mutual fear of voice-activated robot snipers. Or, as was more likely the case, we were paralyzed with the realization that robot snipers were already targeting our car.

From a distance, the flaming towers of Zug Island resembled an enormous, scrambled pipe organ. Up close, the island resembled the gateway to hell, as enormous flames gushed out of industrial smokestacks, accompanied by the cacophony of various clicks and clanks, bleeps and bloops of whirligigs, gremlins and what-not overlooking an industrial wasteland devoid of human existence.

“Welcome to Cyberdyne Systems,” my co-producer said.

“Cyberdyne?” I asked.

“You know … where Terminator and its ilk are manufactured. Skynet and shit.”

“Oh, yeah!” I said, realizing, as flashing lights approached us from behind, seemingly out of nowhere. I couldn’t help but think of mind the driverless police cars in a Ray Bradbury story. A human voice (or something programmed to sound human) commanded: “Pull over at once. I repeat, pull over at once.”

Since it was clear we were the only humans in sight (clearly, the police were robots), we had no doubt that the command was intended for us. Since we were traversing across a parking lot, there was really nowhere to “pull over” so I just stopped the car, awaiting my final moments on earth.

The cop car’s spotlight was blinding and nobody was coming out of the vehicle.

“What the fuck is happening?” the Polish storyboard artist said with genuine panic in his voice.

“Great idea, Bob,” my producing partner said. “If we go to jail because of this…” His voice trailed off.

“I’m sure we’ll just be asked to leave,” I said, trying to remain calm as any captain of a ship should, simultaneously shitting my pants.

“What is this place?” the British director said.

“Zug Island,” I said. “That’s all I know.”

“But I mean, what goes on here?”

“I honestly don’t know,” I said. “But I have a feeling we’re about to find out.”   The fact that we didn’t find out only deepened the mystery and intrigue of our trespass.

After five excruciating minutes, a figure finally emerged from the vehicle, swallowed by shadows. If it weren’t the cop from Terminator 2, it would be Robocop. This was Detroit after all.

Finally, a grim-faced, human-looking security officer approached my window, draped in a jet black security uniform, adorned in a red shield on his shoulder that read “Zug Island Authority Patrol”.

“May I ask why you are trespassing on the premises of Zug Island?” the officer asked, with a steely gaze and eyes that seemed incapable of blinking and emotion.

“We’re scouting locations for a feature film. We come in peace.”

“IDs please,” the soulless officer said, not buying what its programmer downloaded into his memory as a bullshit excuse.

We produced our IDs and Officer Android disappeared back into the blinding light of his vehicle. We waited 10 minutes for him – it – to process our data.

Once again, nobody said a word. We were frozen with fear.

While we waited, it dawned on me that in my car was a Polish national and a UK national. On the surface, nothing overtly suspicious, but just off-kilter enough to alert at least some suspicion.

The droid officer finally returned.

“Do you have any cameras on your person?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“How many?”

“Two, I think. Right guys?”

‘Yes, two.”

“Please hand them over.

We turned our cameras in and I felt deep despair in the pit of my stomach, as I thought about that hundreds of personal photos from various vacations and family events that I would probably never see again. This was before the days of the Cloud and Dropbox.

The cop pocketed out cameras, before handing us back our IDs and issuing a stern warning.

“If you come back onto the premises of Zug Island again, you will be arrested. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes,” we all replied in unison.

“Now go. Leave the premises of Zug Island at once,” leaving me fully convinced that we were communicating with an automaton.

“Can we get our cameras back?”

“No. Your cameras are now the property of Zug Island.”

“Just curious,” I began. “What exactly goes on here … on the premises of Zug Island?”

The cop simply glared at me with his beady, soulless robot eyes, before heading back to his car. It was clear to me that he wasn’t programmed with a response to this particular question, which made perfect sense. He then proceeded to follow us right off of the island until we were safely back on the mainland of inner city, abandoned Detroit.

“Well, that was fucked up,” the British director said.

“Yeah, probably a dumb idea on my part.”

“You think?” said my producing partner.

“But so worth it!”

“Was it?” the director said.

“I think so.”

I would later change my tune on this assertion. At that moment, however, I assumed that this ordeal was over at that point. I also knew sure as hell that I would not be returning to the premises of Zug Island … ever … again.

When I returned to the safe confines of my domicile, I immediately Googled Zug Island in an attempt to uncover just what exactly was so top secret about it. The only thing I could find was a vague reference to “top-secret government projects”, which – in its ambiguity – clearly explained the tight security and confiscated cameras. The lack of specific details was even more confounding.

A few days later, my theory that it was all over was proven bunk when I received a phone call from my mom, which served as yet another reminder why being named after your father has its disadvantages.

“The FBI left Dad a message on his work phone,” my mom began, filling me with dread. “They want to interview him about his trespassing incident on the premises of Zig Zag Island … or something like that. Do you know anything about this?”

“As a matter of fact,” I told my mom. “Yes.”

“What did you do?” she asked.

I explained to her what happed. She questioned my judgment, then gave me the number to the FBI Special Agent awaiting my phone call.

I’m not quite sure why they contacted my father to begin with. Sure, we shared the same name, but not the same address. Yet somehow, they tracked him down at his workplace.

Shaking in fear, I called the number, already envisioning my future life on Guantanamo Bay.

“Hello, this is Robert Fox. I’m calling about trespassing on the premises of Zug Island. You guys called my father, but it was actually me.”

“Oh, yes. Mr. Fox. We need to talk.”

“Am I in some sort of trouble?” I asked.

“We would like to question you regarding your involvement trespassing on the premises of Zug Island. Can we come to your place of residence at your earliest convenience?”

My convenience? Are actual terrorists given such courtesy? I definitely hoped not, while simultaneously grateful in this particular instance. Realizing I really had no choice, we arranged a meeting for the following afternoon, imagining myself slowly turning into a character out of a Kafka story.

The FBI had me pegged me as a terrorist suspect. This was my new reality.

Fuck.

I immediately called my international “crew” to see if they, too, were contacted. They were not. I was sure that it was only a matter of time.

“What do you mean by the FBI?” my co-producer asked.

“What do you mean, what do I mean?” I asked. “The F-B-I. The one and only.”

“This is the last thing I have time to deal with.”

“Well, hopefully, I can clear the air and everyone else will be off the hook. “

“Just like you said we wouldn’t get in trouble for trespassing to being with?”

“Yeah, well ..”

He had a point.

“Right now, it’s only my fish to fry.”

“It better be.” Click.

Subsequent conversations with the rest of my crew followed a similar script. I scratched my head over this, asking myself repeatedly … why just me?

And then it dawned on me. I lived in Dearborn, Michigan. Dearborn is home to the largest Muslim population outside of the Middle East. Not only did I live in Dearborn. I lived in east Dearborn, where over 90% of the largest Muslim population outside of the Middle East called home.

Having a (now ex) wife from the former Soviet Union certainly added to the suspected international espionage. However, if that was the case, then why weren’t my international crewmembers also being spoken to? The only explanation I could discern was that I was the driver. My passengers, on the other hand, could have been held captive, against their will, for all the FBI was concerned.

I decided it was probably a good idea to let my wife know that the FBI was planning on stopping by.

“What?” she asked, flabbergasted.

“The FBI. They’re coming to talk to me.”

“Why? What the fuck did you do?”

“I trespassed.”

“Where?”

“On the premises of Zug Island.”

“Where’s Zug Island?”

“In Detroit. I’ll explain later.”

“Why does this type of shit always happen to you?”

I had no clue what she meant. Nothing even remotely close to this had ever happened before. But I didn’t have the time, nor the energy to inquire further.

“Everything is going to be fine,” I said, suddenly realizing that his conversation was in all likelihood wiretapped. It was only a matter of time before I would hear the whirring of a helicopter.

“I have to get back to work,” I finally said to my wife, realizing that I was now more afraid to tell her about our confiscated camera more than I was the FBI.

I continued to feel a growing sense of paranoia, despite my rational self being fully aware that I had absolutely nothing to incriminate myself with, aside from a simple trespassing violation. Yet, somehow, I couldn’t help but feel that I was a marked man. That my top-secret life as a terrorist was so top-secret, that not even I knew that I was a terrorist. These are the overriding thoughts one has when the FBI IS COMING OVER TO INVESTIGATE YOU!

After work, I rushed home and prepared to meet my maker. I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I somehow guilty beyond a simple act of trespassing – that I was truly a terror suspect. It was similar to the irrational feeling I get in airport security lines. I am overcome with the paranoid sense that security is on to me and therefore, I start looking guilty, which only makes me look even more suspicious, giving them an actual reason to suspect me, rather than the imagined one in my mind which kicked off the whole thing. It’s a vicious cycle.

As I was straightening up my flat, I reminded myself that acting nervous and jittery wouldn’t help my cause, but this thought was only making me more nervous. No amount of deep breaths or medication could help me now. And then it dawned on me that it probably didn’t help my cause that my walls were all bare in preparation of a paint job we were about to do, creating a sense that my living space was simply temporary, a terrorist cell awaiting activation. So I did the only thing I could think of to neutralize the situation: I put a nail into an empty hole and grabbed my crucifix from my bedroom. It was my only defense.

With over an hour to spare, I sat down in my La-Z-Boy and turned on Fox News to appear as patriotic as possible when the SWAT team arrived. I tried to take a nap, but it was no use. Time continued to trudge on in a slow drip.

My hour of reckoning finally arrived when the doorbell rang, alleviating my fear that their entrance would be heralded with the abrupt, crashing of windows. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad, after all. Maybe I would live to see another day – that I wouldn’t be stripped of both my freedom and my dignity.

I let the two agents in, trying with all my might to appear as calm as possible, despite my rattling nerves. I politely offered them a seat, as well as something to drink. They sat down, and politely declined my drink offer, likely fearing a ricin attack, or an apartment full of explosives.

The two agents seemed nice enough and far more “human” – not to mention humane – than the emotionless, droid officer from Zug Island. Agent #1 was tall and thin, with an almost scholarly demeanor. Agent #2 was short and stocky like a prototypical blue collar beat cop and probably reported to Agent #1. Neither agent fit the profile of the stereotypical FBI agent that I envisioned, nor did I resemble the stereotypical profile of a terrorist. Then again, my olive skin tone from my half-Italian heritage might lead one to suspect that I was of middle-eastern descent.

Once we were settled, the interrogation process began. I tried to remain as calm as humanly possible. Other than the uncontrollable, repeated wiping of sweaty palms on my pants, I think I did okay, considering the surreal, nerve-wrecking circumstances. If I was this nervous being an innocent man, how does an actual suspect keep it together?

Agent #1 did all the questioning, as agent #2 scribbled down notes.

“So, what were you doing on the premises of Zug Island?”

“Scouting locations for a feature film.”

“A future film?”

“A feature film. And, I suppose, future film.”

“About what?”

“A gritty crime story set in Detroit.”

“Sounds interesting.”

“Thanks.”

“Have you ever been involved in terrorist activity?”

“No.”

“Are you affiliated with a terrorist organization?”

“No.”

“Are you aiding or abetting a terrorist organization?”

“Have you ever conspired with a recognized enemy of the United States?”

“No.”

“Okay, I guess our work here is done. Thank you for your time.”

The agents stood up, in perfect, synchronized unison.

“Wait, that’s it?” I asked, realizing that I sounded disappointment that my interrogation was over so quickly.

“Yes. We had to interview you as a formality, but we weren’t really worried,” Agent #1 said, as he handed me his business card. And then he threw me for an even bigger loop:

“By the way, since you live here in east Dearborn,” Agent #2 began. “We’d appreciate it if you could be our eyes and ears around here.”

And just like that, I was no longer a terror suspect…I was a quasi-FBI informant. God bless America.

“If you see anything suspicious,” Agent #1 began “Let us know immediately. And whatever you do, stay off of the premises of Zug Island.”

“I can assure you of that,” I said. “But what exactly goes on those premises?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know…” Agent #1 said.

Yeah, no shit. I do want to know.

“Any chance I can get my camera back?”

“We’re afraid not,” Agent #2 said.

And he meant it.

As I led the agents to the door, I still couldn’t believe how easy I was let off the hook. I was never more relieved, despite the lingering paranoia the whole experience left behind.

I never saw anything suspicious lurking in my neighborhood, so never had the need to call. But it sure felt pretty cool to have a direct connection to the FBI. I still have the business card till this day. Despite the unfortunate misunderstanding, I continue to experience minor inconveniences at the airport, but nothing that leaving early doesn’t rectify. Call me paranoid, but I’m pretty sure my brush with the FBI has at least a little bit something to do with this.

Regarding the future, feature film that was indirectly the catalyst for this experience, it is still yet to be produced, but I remain as determined to get it made, as I am to get off of the FBI watch list. Of course, if I had my druthers and had to choose one outcome versus the other, my dream takes the cake.


 

Brandon Benevento: Back at the DuPont Plaza Hotel (essay)

Back at the DuPont Plaza Hotel

The hotel looms. Over the beach, it hangs brute uniformity over tourists and staff, people playing volleyball, lounging on chaise, bringing drinks, raising umbrellas, calling to children in the water, and here I sit picturing my mother on this same spot of sand picturing her children burning— have they got in an elevator? she has told me she was thinking, have they passed out from smoke? And the hotel is literally on the beach, like sprung from the sand, sand right up against it. How can these things not lean like Pisa after so much time? Twenty-one stories—no, there’s no thirteen, so twenty—and I count and it’s just tall enough for that disorienting thing where you lose count somehow even though you’re looking straight on; twenty stories plus that pillbox sign-cum-A/C-unit thing on top which made landing helicopters so difficult, almost thirty years ago. This is when it looms from for me, though with what we know about memory, the refraction of this moment though VHS in the form of an episode of William Shatner’s Rescue 911, plus my family’s retold stories, and newspaper clippings saved in a box marked FIRE, not to mention my way-too-many attempts to write about it (the best from first grade, when I drew myself behind the grid of the hotel, flames at the base, helicopters in the air, with a brief descriptive paragraph below)—all this seems active in the loom effect as well. But it’s the physical loom of this bulking box I’m struck by, lounging—a bit tensely, it turns out—under it on the beach. The Marriot, previously the DuPont Plaza, seems too big, while all the space around it feels sucked away, making everything tight and close and charged with energy, the insects in the air and voices against an inconsistent meter of surf.

So it looms, this hotel. Large in rectiline mid-century mod—why, I wonder, did the era of square buildings overlap the age of such frivolous, baubbly cars? And really, how great a Batwing Impala must have looked parked out front, or down at the still gorgeous Caribbe Hilton, disposing suitcases from a huge trunk and a nuclear family in Bermuda shorts, waited on, as we are still, by uniformed people probably wishing they were somewhere else, or that we were. I think of the woman cleaning my room, maybe at this very moment I hunch writing on the mesh of a not-new lounge chair, waiting for a waiter to bring me my second Presidente. The era the hotel looms from, originally, when conceived and raised from the rich port sand, is gone, leaving leisure ideals spaced out all along the Candado, and just shit tons of poverty. This mid-century idyll is not the moment the hotel looms from for me, though as a story of connectivity, the middle of the last century can’t really be over-emphasized here as background for first my parents’ and now my own luxie dreams. I would frankly love to pull some rented big-finned gas-guzzler up to the deco fluorescence of cool, like in the picture.

Anyway, the fucker looms, and, under it, I think of my mom on the beach, letting her children run on up to the room for cartoons 28 years ago. Perhaps a few moments of peace, with John at the casino and a New Years Evening ahead, a few minutes of sun… and then a smell she thinks, at first, is barbeque. I never heard an explosion, she said, just things starting to be not right, the tones of voices altering, a very different moment emerging from where she’d been, facing that blue water. So she turned and God smoke had surrounded the bulk, the bottom half gone, and her children gone, and the top sticking out, looking like it might be carried off, out to that very blue sea. This is the moment from which it looms for me. But I’m struck, just shocked, at this moment writing on the beach, by the material loom of the thing. It doesn’t pretend, like newer buildings with curves and glass, that inside it isn’t all steel, straight and unyeilding, infallible apparently, as that very steel met flame hot enough to bring Joey Cal flying down with Bob and Al’s dental records, and seems to have not sagged an inch. It is now painted the color of sand as envisioned by Florida mall-designers, a bit pinker and more orange than real sand ever is. The balcony rails—from which actual people actually dropped tied-together sheets with big cartoon knots—are a color or teal reminiscent of 1993. In 1986, the year of the fire, they were black, against which the previous white of the then-DuPont seems so classy compared to the current scheme, a color-combo admitting, I think, the not-first-rate status of the now-a-Marriot, though my father in a New Haven Register interview remembers it even at the time of the fire as not quite on par with the other destinations of his poker group’s junkets, which for the first time that year had decided to allow families. It was kind of an older hotel, he says from the past, in the black ink of newsprint. The picture of its opening in ’64, as a Sheridan—it’s like a cat, this hotel—show a horseshoe-shaped entry flanked on each side by an arc of flags, frozen in diplomatic snap, a residue of steamship luxury-liner pomp; this entry would keep San Juan’s hook-and- ladders from getting close enough to bring people out, and is, far as I could tell this morning, standing on the street, holding the picture on my phone up to the hotel, still here, though the flags are gone. Other tourists were also holding their phones up to the structure, presumably not comparing it to old photos from before the fire, so I looked, I guess, to be capturing the present like the rest, which I suppose I am. Anyway, the hotel is now Pink-Orange and Teal, which makes the loom more repulsive, like a dictator in Mickey shades.

What have I come here for? My wife told me my mother said I hope he finds what he’s looking for, which is exactly what the towel kid said this morning—as we stood where I’m fairly sure my father landed after jumping from the casino—after he asked, quite politely, why we were taking pictures of windows and patio pavers. I hope you find what you’re looking for. Which is extremely annoying, but as yet he’s the only one even remotely interested in my story, which I’ve been introducing with something like: the last time I was here this place was on fire, which is also extremely annoying. The best response by far came last night from the baseball trophy sellers’ convention guy at the bar, who said Hell-Yeah! When we first started coming this place was on Fire!… Now it sucks. The towel kid pointed out, when I asked what he knew about the fire, that he’d not been born in 1986. He, my wife, and I, standing by the pool, surrounded by palms lit in midmorning sunlight, looked up at the underside of the big spiral staircase, leading down from the lobby. On my phone, I have a grainy newsprint image of two men walking on these stairs the day after the fire, between them a sheeted body on a stretcher; seeing the staircase was the moment I realized how little had changed. I’ve been watching people flip-flop up and down it with books and beach gear, and have avoided using it. The hotel has no plaque to memorialize the 98 people who died here, which I hadn’t expected, but which gets weirder as it becomes clear this really is the same place; I pretend the stairs are a memorial, and when I do take them, I take them slow. After checking-in yesterday I asked the concierge—definitely born by 1986—about the fire, and if anyone who worked here then might still. No, she said, pissed off behind her desk, a few feet from the window I think my dad jumped from, it’s a completely different hotel. These words set me comparing old pictures with current structure, and the only major change I’ve seen is the casino now occupies a larger windowless side area, no longer overlooking the water of pool and sea. The window’s same Cartesian frame can be seen in another picture I can’t stop looking at, stored in the phone next to me on the lounge: a cindered body behind the aluminum bars, cinder legs hung over the ledge; it appears he or she almost made it out.

So I sit and soak the sun, a tourist on vacation, thinking of my mother, here, looking up at this same structure, knowing her kids are in it, her husband nearby, having been dragged off the patio, placed on a lounge chair, bones broken, disks slipped, just besides himself she has said, just beside himself, in pain and fear for my sister and I, refusing to go to a hospital, screaming God, Please don’t take my children, God, please don’t take my children, which He didn’t, which we reconstruct as both luck and love of God—as in: we were so lucky and as in God was looking out for us—not accounting for the 98 people who were, by logical extension, both unlucky and un-looked-out-for by God, let alone of course the just endless numbers of people subject to the hotel’s now fifty-years of labor and resource expropriation—a group that includes the men who started the fire, who never meant to kill, who were angry at management—people I see all around me, here, at home, everywhere, always close to wealth, the Bridgeport-in-Fairfield County effect we always think is an accident—people making my bed and worse; here, I sit and write where helicopters landed the groups of tourists my mother kept looking for us among, but no children, who would have come first, she knew, as that afternoon wore into darkness—the children would have come down first—and then no more people coming out, despair unlike anything I’ve known, so unlike this other moment, this so-called “now” with my wife next to me on a lounge chair, and all of it, suddenly, poised to slip away as well (and I think, God, please don’t take my wife) even though life and death seem so absent as I wait for a dark-skinned person to bring me beer #3; here where despair illuminated in helicopter spotlights scouring the grid finally, after four hours, yielded the happy resolution she narrates from the taped past, posed by Rescue 911 producers against the floral print of one of her many terrible sofas: when I just had no other places to turn, I thought I saw some movement up in the balconies and as I got a little closer, I could see that someone was carrying someone, a little closer still and that person was a little person, and then the dark hair and then I saw that it was Brandon, who was me.

 


Brandon Benevento works as a PhD student in UConn’s English Department. His dissertation project is titled “Upkeep: The Celebration and Erasure of Maintenance in Twentieth-Century American Literature.” In his spare time he cares lovingly for an aging strip mall in the New Haven area, a job in which he excels at picking up lots of trash. He lives with his wife, Amy, and daughter, Hypatia, in Branford, CT.