In It For The Empathy

I feel the need to facilitate empathy.

I’ve been writing my second novel, poems to fill out my first book of poetry, the first substantial section of my first book-length memoir, writing and writing like I have limited time on this earth, which I do, though thankfully no one has put an exact clock on the remainder of my time. I feel a sense of urgency to delve deep enough inside the dreams of all three genres, hoping to share a connection with someone who needs to know they’re not alone. I feel the need to facilitate empathy.

And so I’m on a mission, a man possessed. I’m not looking for fame or even money (though it would be nice not to have to scrape by for a change). I’m on a mission to send these books out into the world, your world, and widen someone’s fishbowl, maybe even spark the awareness that they’ve just swum another lap and might pause this time around and look in the mirror and see their reflection is beautiful or stronger than they’d been led to believe.

It’s so easy (so human) to forget. We were all once a baby. A perfect little alien who had endless potential. It’s so easy to fall into the quicksand of adult thinking, to believe the consensus view that we are the summary of our flaws and that we have more flaws than others do. But we are not defined by these perceived imperfections; we are not meant to drown. No, we are meant to reach out to the drowning and remind them that the water actually is shallow enough to stand. I am doing my best to share pain and struggle and find the threads of light that when woven together blaze a path to hope. I am trying to share what it feels like to be human.

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Culture Versus Cult-ture

[This is a poem I wrote]

At Peace with Sin

Thank the dead parrot for not speaking,

the three-legged dog for not complaining,

the mentally challenged child for not wandering

into the highway,

the serial killer for going next door.

Fear of the outside,

that’s all it takes to settle in

under the microscope—

the one that breaks things down,

to tiny parts, the unseen, the unimportant

bugs on the door handle. Sing crazy

and naked and at peace with sin,

walk through crowds of porn-stars

and brain surgeons, birdwatchers

and athletes,

there’s a channel for everyone here.

They’ll keep riding

and cutting, watching and playing,

but they won’t notice the elephant

in the living room;

they simply nod and smile

and parrot-speak

while the news reports

that the horrors of the world

continue happening

to someone else.

(J. A., 2008)

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Method (a scrap of something larger)

My eyes opened as ants crawled along my forehead, ears and mouth. The birds shrieked out conversations from their perches in full-flowered bushes and tree branches high above my head. There was that initial moment of confusion, when someone returns from the other side, as I just had, every detail of my surroundings amplified and vivid as the manic brushstrokes of a crazed artist, the colors so violent, even within the folds of the flower petals. This world of shards. The sun splinters down and I’ve awoken to witness its intricate assault on the stark white of a virgin canvas. Their world is not an island without castaways like me.

The scene formed in fragments, memory shards fusing back together at their shatter points, while the sirens wailed, squirrels scurried up tree trunks, taxis screeched and honked, police boots click-clopped on sidewalks, someone screamed, other voices talked in a low mingled mumbling, sun, burning, sweating in too many rags, grass clippings stuck to my cheek, a raft for ants, I was, I am; my voice still works, words flying out like vomit, screaming before I spotted the mother with her baby watching me with fearful eyes. I’d screamed to remind myself I was alive. I was alive. Where, what park, in what city was I? What was my name? New York? Will? Will ran through my mind, over and over. Turn over, Will, turn over. Will. I was Will, before I died, that had been my name.

I raised my head from the matted grass and swiped ants from my face and ears, spat one from my mouth. I noticed the hard plaster of the cast on my left arm and the bandage, stained brown and stiff with dried blood, wrapped around my right hand. I didn’t remember the hospital, how the arm had broken or how the palm had been cut. I reached into the deep pockets of my trench coat for a cigarette, but instead found the rolled-up pages of the script—the one I’d lived by for what must have been years by then, the one I’d once memorized, but now had forgotten every word of.

The script could tell me where I’d been. The script would tell me who I’d been. Here. Here it is. Will Chase. That was my name. I played the lead role in a film that had very nearly killed me, and brought me here. I’d played an addict. Washington Square Park, Tompkins, Central? It was New York. I could be sure of that much now. I could smell New York. I could smell myself.

This is the downside to method. You don’t act, you become. And when the film wraps, you know you need to walk home, and that it will be a long, long walk; but the real challenge lies in the fact that the road home has no signs, and for the first night or two there won’t be a trace of moon, and the streetlights are dim as shit.

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An Architect’s Dream (excerpt)

Cut to a park bench. Early afternoon, December, the oak branches are bare and gnarled as ancient fingers and the sky is the color of mummy skin. Our hero is sitting on the weathered wooden bench, watching pigeons scrounge for crumbs in the pavement cracks. A young woman pushes a baby carriage past him, avoiding eye contact. He feels her thoughts. He has a beard and long tangled hair. If he were clean-cut, she may have smiled.

A gunshot shatters the quiet of the park and shouts immediately follow. Two men stomp full-bore in the direction of the bench, toward the woman and her baby and her fear. Our hero stands. He sees one of the men has a gun in his hand. The other man runs with a purse swinging from one hand. They are close, their footfalls creating a thuggish drum-roll between his ears, close enough that the woman is pushing the baby carriage at a crazy pace down the concrete footpath. Pigeons scatter as the heavy boots move through their concrete lunch table, and our hero jumps in front of the men, waving his arms like a lunatic. They stop. The man with the gun points it at our hero’s head.

“Wait,” Jesus says calmly, and holds out his hands. “There are only two ways out of this. You can keep running, only to be shot and killed by the police, or you can give me the gun.”

The two men face each other and smile ridiculous smiles just before the gun is fired. Luckily, the path of the bullet doesn’t travel quite where the gun had originally been aimed, and he falls only as far as his knees, a hand pressed to his shoulder as he quickly returns to his feet. The two men run past the woman huddled over-top of the baby carriage, and neither of the thieves has looked back, so neither has noticed the pursuer, the man with a brand new bullet wound, has closed to within inches.

Our hero stretches his good arm out and lunges to get hold of a collar. The man with the gun crumples backward, his head smacking the pavement with enough force to knock him unconscious. His accomplice turns to see the ragged man with a bloody shoulder stand with the gun in his hand. The thief drops the purse, the contents scattering everywhere, and turns again to run. Sirens blare on the street bordering the park, then police shouting commands.

Jesus sits next to the unconscious man with his legs crossed, removes the clip from the gun and places the two pieces on the pavement.

“Freeze!” Two officers are running toward him. He raises his hands to show them he is unarmed and cooperative. Their guns are drawn, both barrels pointed at his vitals.

“Down on the ground, hands behind your head!”

He tries to comply, but the pain in his shoulder has sharpened and he can hardly move his right arm. The police don’t seem to hear him when he tells them he has been shot. His bad arm is jerked back to meet the good one and cuffs are tightened around his wrists. He remains silent through the pain, knowing that if he complains the situation will only worsen. Never underestimate the lengths that men in positions of power or authority will go to in order to prove their strength. It is better for him to quietly endure, and hope they notice the blood on their hands when they push him into the backseat of the squad car.

“Jesus,” one of the cops finally says, eyeing the blood on the pavement. “This guy’s bleeding pretty good.” The other cop jabs our hero in the chest and tells him to look him in the eye. They stare at each other long enough for the cop to see that the man before him should not be handcuffed. He unlocks his wrists, tells our hero to sit, then radios for an ambulance.


G stands up from his director’s chair and walks over to his lead actor.

“Great job, Will.”

The actor doesn’t respond. G has forgotten the extent of Will’s dedication to method acting. He won’t answer to his real name until the final day of filming. When not in character his name is Will Chase, but he is still in character. So G has to act along with him if there is to be any chance of a dialogue.

“I mean, Jesus, I never doubted you for a second. You really made me believe.”

The actor allows a mild hint of a smile to emerge. “I am not here to make you believe. I’m here only to help you to see.”

G smiles, thinking that his actor is either the true genius of the medium for his generation, a theatrical prodigy, or the craziest madman outside of an asylum he has ever known. Filming is done for the day. G watches Will walk away with a slow stride. His head is slightly bowed, his hands deep in his pockets. He has not changed from his bloody coat. He descends the steps for the subway.

(An excerpt from an old novel idea–An Architect’s Dream)

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The Zero Hour

The Zero Hour

Just past the zero hour and the stars are out and I’m cradled in the arms of a worn fake-leather desk chair, having just leaned back through the drawn-out metallic shriek at the hinge. My boots are crossed at the ankles and propped up on the desk inside this shack, and aside from the boots I’m dressed in a sharp-collared shirt, synthetic gray pants, and a knit cap with the word SECURITY embroidered where it stretches across my forehead.

This shack stands at the divide between a wild field of grass and a wider plain of cement. A long and winding two-lane driveway leads to the steel mill. Though there are no employees inside, the machinery runs and spurts steam and churns and rumbles and hums with furnace fire—it seems alive, eighteen buildings with towering rooftops and silos and smokestacks breathing. I listen all night.

This chair is the center of my universe, at least until my shift ends at noon. This beat up, wobbly, tired old chair—this was the launch pad I’d jumped from the first time I heard a chorus of coyotes baying from the scrap metal hills, from somewhere near the wetlands; this is also the chair where I’ve sat and let eternal voices of dead writers soak in through squinted eyelids, and at times where I’ve scribbled a few words of my own… Like yesterday morning, after the geese had landed and I’d watched them quietly graze— a page of handwriting and early light silence.

I lean forward an inch or so sometimes just to hear the hinge recognize my weight, my existence, and then I fully recline again to create and hear this experimental music of wear—forward and back, repeated, until I realize that this squeak-rocking is not music but its antithesis. This is the sound of insomnia, cultivated by the faint buzz of these fluorescent rods, and there will be no harmony until after some hours of sleep.

Hours have passed by the pace of turning pages. I think of her and my eyes react, like snapped window shades. My boots slip from the desktop and the chair’s joints seem to cheer my decision to stand; the chair wheels roll as tiny thunder in the floorboards. The seatback hits the wall. I open the shack door, greeted by fire rippling along the horizon and the faraway bluish outline of the still snowcapped Mount Hood.

A deer prances by, then another, and then the awkward steps of the fawn. Even as I watch all of this life waking up, I am thinking of her, of her smile, thinking also of the dreams she has been having without me. I look inside the shack and see the empty chair. I can’t call her at 5am, so I turn back to the field. I whisper sweet urgencies, not to myself but to the perked ears of these curiously staring deer. And headlights are approaching. And so the dayshift begins.


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All music has silences

          When I listen

In a quiet room, my head is full of noise. I see a second version of myself, a third, a fourth, and the mirrored walls accommodate the rest of me. I see too much of myself, my dreams, my millions of years of existence that flash only in the fluttering moment when I awaken, and then every memory of the odyssey has vanished. I am lost. I am home again. Somewhere in the past it seems I knew the sound of epiphany. She was the most temperamental goddess I’ve heard sing.

In a quiet room, I am filled with music. Some notes are birds anticipating a season, while others bubble to the surface as the sounds of steam. I am an alchemist, attempting to change myself, but instead of silver or gold I have been altered to some denser metal, resembling stone. I am alone. I am the central figure of this space, hunched over a blank page, dying to create. In this quiet room, silence has a pitch. This is the sound of my hand as it writes.

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An Excerpt From A Work In Progress

Staff Sergeant Clyde “Haymaker” Periwinkle and his wiry little boy rarely mention the accident, but tonight the gloomy topic has loomed its skulking shadow. Clyde has been imbibing an obscene volume of malt liquor all day, dinnertime has come and gone, without dinner, nor the mention of dinner, and Hapson knows his father’s expressions as distinctly as letters of the alphabet. This one he sees now includes Clyde’s lazy eyelids half concealing the boiling, glazed eyes, red where they should be white, the wetness at the crow’s feet, and three distinctly etched lines like heartbeats across his father’s forehead. Hapson thinks of this expression as the letter F, for fire.

“It was your fault,” Clyde says from his recliner. “Your poor mother and little sister.”

“I didn’t do anything,” Hapson says, straight-faced, ten years old and standing his ground beside the TV, hands jammed into his pants pockets. He knows not to show weakness. If there is one thing Clyde Periwinkle hates, it’s weakness, and he’ll be damned if his one and only progeny will grow up to be some pinky-out tea drinker, some sensitive fairy, some goddamned coward who’ll duck and cover rather than try to pull his buddy out of the line of fire; and he sees his boy’s spine stoops forward with all that flimsiness, and Hapson’s mop haircut kind of makes him look like a girl, and it’s Clyde’s own fault for not beating him into fighting shape. He kills the warm swallow of foamy Old English 800 and drops the bottle, thinking: scar tissue is stronger than skin that’s never been forced to heal.

Clyde tips forward so the armature squeals as the chair lever collapses from vertical to horizontal and the footrest slams into the base of the stuffed chair. He clips his prosthetic leg in place while maintaining a hold with his eyes on his son, the boy who looks on as though he has no notion of danger, like a doe viewed through a rifle scope, dumb to the cold hard reality of reality. Clyde has gone red, sweating as he balances himself at the worn chair edge. He blames Hapson for the head-on collision that changed everything, that left him legless, that left him daughterless, loveless. In his boy he sees only what has been lost, and tonight he may just kill him for having survived, for having to remember the others each time this kid enters his field of vision. He stands on his artificial femur and grabs one aluminum crutch, wobbly from the beer, breathing fumes.

Hapson slide-steps backward, fumbling in his pocket to make sure he’s got his key. He sees his two options in the form of side-by-side holographic images. He can either grab his coat from the couch or leave immediately. The results of both register—he will be hurt badly if he goes for his coat; he will see a black Labrador retriever on the street and later drink a free soda if he doesn’t hesitate another second. The doorknob turns in his hand as Clyde takes his first full step forward, and Hapson is out of the apartment, door slammed, down the hall and outside in less time than it would take to say: Staff Sergeant Clyde “Haymaker” Periwinkle.

Hapson breathes heavily, slowly descending the building’s front steps. He’s never told Clyde about his visions, or that they began on that fateful day when their family was cut in half, at the precise moment when the firemen cut into the car with the Jaws-of-Life and a pinwheel of fire rained sparks against Hapson’s seatbelt.

(To be continued)

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