The Midnight Song

I wasn’t on the schedule that day, but there was an emotionally pivotal scene being shot, and I wanted to be there to watch Bryan and Claire work. It was one of those soul-crushing moments we actors salivate over. Claire had her work cut out, but I knew she was up for it; we’d worked together on another film a couple years earlier, and her presence and vulnerability had impressed me.

Action was called, and I sat back in video village watching the monitor. In rehearsal, the camera had begun in a two-shot, then moved in for an extreme close-up on Claire as she finished her monologue.

On both the first and second takes, she crushed it. But it wasn’t Claire that was grabbing my attention. It was Bryan. He was sitting there listening to her: no dialogue, just sitting there and listening. Listening like no one I’d ever seen before. And I wasn’t the only one who noticed. I saw the director motion over the DP and the camera op and whisper something to them.

The third take began the same way, but as the camera pushed in, it panned to Bryan. Hanging on him. The deep, hidden emotions leaking out on the monitor in front of me. A chill walked down my spine.

After he wrapped for the day, I caught up with him on his way back to his trailer.

Hey man, that was incredible.”

Thanks,” he said, “Claire is super easy to work off.”

Dude…” I paused, not sure how to ask, or even if I should, “where the hell were you during that scene? I mean, it was a heavy moment, yeah, but you just… I don’t know… you elevated somehow.”

I realized I might have overstepped, “If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s cool—“

He laughed me off, “Nah man, it’s okay. Most of the time, I’m not all ‘super secretive’ about my process.”

So can you tell me what you were thinking about? Or whom? Or whatever? I just wanna try to wrap my head around it. I’ve never seen someone listen like that before.”

He opened the door to his trailer, “You wanna come in for a minute? I’ve got some whiskey. I’m gonna need it if I’m gonna talk about this.”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that when you’re offered a whiskey, you say yes. Always.

Bryan pulled a bottle from the cabinet, and poured a couple fingers into a pair of Solo cups.

Cheers. I like to drink classy.”

Cheers to classy drinking then,” I saluted him, and we clicked cups.

I’ve never told this story before,“ he took a sip and rolled the whiskey around in his mouth, “not for any reason in particular… just never have.” He shrugged, looking out the window.

Let me guess, it starts with a girl?” I asked.

How’d you know?”

Doesn’t it always?”

He smiled, “Yeah… yeah, I guess it does. This girl and I had known each other for like, I don’t know… two or three years. Same circle of friends, you know how it goes. Never dated or anything, but we got along really well whenever we happened to hang out. Well, one night I got this text from her… her sister had killed herself.”

Shit…”

Yeah. I didn’t know the whole dynamic, but apparently there had been some relational distance there… but I mean, family is family, you know? So I drove over to her house, and when I got there a few other friends were there too. I didn’t really know what to do other than just hang out and be there. I’ve been around death enough to know saying stuff never really helps.”

I know,” I said. “Way better to just sit there and be with them.”

Right,” he said, “so that’s what I did. The group of us just hung out, drank a few bottles of wine, played music. A few people ended up leaving, but a couple of us stayed. I don’t really remember how and when I fell asleep, but I woke up the next morning on the floor under this pile of blankets, and she was lying beside me, just kinda huddled up against me. I had a meeting I had to be at that afternoon, so I got her up and got her to bed, made sure she was okay, then I left.”

He looked in his cup, “You want some more?”

Sure.”

He got up and poured refills, then sank back into his seat.

So later that night, I get this text from her saying thanks for coming over, and I was just like of course, if you ever need anything, call me and then she texts that she’s out with a few girlfriends and asks me to come hang out with them. Well, it was late, so I asked you sure? and she says please, I’d like you to come. So I went. She was already a few tequilas deep by the time I got there, and when she was saw me, she ran over and hugged me. Hard.”

He took a sip, “It’s crazy how when you share a moment like that—the night before—it can change the way you relate to each other. It’s like it can jump a relationship way further down the line. Anyways, a few of us went back to her place again that night, but this time I was the only one who stayed. It was late, and we both passed dead out. But the next morning we wake up together and…” he trailed off.

You ever have one of those moments: you’re with someone you know, and you’re in a situation you never would have dreamed up in a million years, but it’s like everything came together in that moment for a reason, like you were supposed to end up there?”

I shrugged, “Can’t think of one personally, but I feel where you’re coming from, sure.”

And I promise this is all coming around to answer your question from earlier,” he said.

Hey man, no rush. Take your time.”

Okay, well we’re both lying there, and we look at each other, and we’re both like are we doing this? ’cause when you cross that bridge for the first time with someone you’ve been close to, it can go a million different ways after. And it was like we both took that split-second, and… you know, honestly, I think there had always been an attraction between us, but it was so subtle… it was almost subconscious.”

He paused, started to say something, stopped. “Anyways, that started off several months of us spending nights together, and it was always really natural, like if we didn’t hear from each other for several days, we didn’t think much of it, but if we had time then we’d meet up.

So, one night—and I’m finally getting to your question—we were up late. We were on the couch. I was holding her; we were sitting there in the dark drinking whiskey.” His voice got quieter. “And she tells me she wrote this song about her sister. And then she asked if I wanted to hear it.”

He looked out through the window, and I knew he was back there: back in that dark living room, sitting on a different couch, drinking a different glass of whiskey. I realized I was holding my breath.

I said yes. And so she picks up her guitar, and she’s sitting there in her underwear wearing my t-shirt, and she’s just so open, so… vulnerable. And she plays this song, and her voice… singing those words… it was so raw, there was just so much hurt. And, I felt like something inside me came undone. Like I had just gotten to see inside another human in a way I had never, ever experienced. I sat there, and I cried, because it was real—one of those moments that two people share at the deepest level.

So every once in a while, I get a moment as a character where I’ve got to listen to someone tell me something hard. And sometimes—not always—I’ll find myself back there. And that feeling just washes over me again.”

I sat there looking at him, waiting for something more. But he was quiet. I didn’t know what to say.

What happened to her?” I finally asked.

Uh, I’m not real sure,” he sighed, then took a long drink. “The nights we spent together just gradually got farther and farther apart. But last I checked, she was doing good.”

He shrugged, and I saw a touch of sadness—but it was a peaceful sadness—move across his face. “I haven’t seen her in years… you know, I think that once in a while, when you’re in a broken time, you cross paths with certain people. And in that moment, you fit together perfectly. But as you heal, you just don’t fit together in the same way anymore. Sometimes you might get months with someone. Sometimes maybe only days. But for that time that we had…” he smiled, “it was right.”

***

Flame”

Maybe we weren’t meant for each other
But o
nly for those nights.
You scarred my heart
With your guitar
And covered me in light.
-ijs

Echoes – an essay

Three notes. Three notes pulsating through the darkness. Something within me rises to meet them. I’ve never heard them before, but I could swear a buried memory wants to claim them. Around me, the dimmed theatre sits hushed as the opening chords of “The Mighty Rio Grande” whisper in. For a moment, the movie takes a back seat to its own score; the story somehow overshadowed by the melody.

The moment passes. But somehow the music touched somewhere. Stirred something.

You know the feeling: a chord, an arpeggio, a riff . . . you hear it, and a memory explodes across your mind. A memory so clear, so present, you can taste, smell it. You’re there. Somehow.

“Jessica’s Theme” . . . It’s dusk; I’m on a ridge looking down across the North Carolina mountains. Fog slowly fills the fields, puddling like some lazy stream. A breath of mountain air ruffles my hair and whispers on through the trees. Absolute solitude. Reverence. Stars fight their way through the last light of the bleeding sun, their icy brilliance adding another dimension to the deepening void. That song somehow takes me there every time.

Through the years a group of songs has become so entwined through my being all I need to hear is one whisper–notes through the open window of a passing car, a barely-caught bar while scanning the radio, background mall music–and my senses jump on edge. Ears straining to catch it. Imagination somehow already replaying the scenes. “Taps,” “Bolero,” bagpipes wailing “Amazing Grace,” “Freedom,” others . . .

What is it? I hear it. Eyes widen. A smile tugs at the corners of my mouth. I feel myself turning to the nearest person. Wanting to explain. To share. The half-smile freezes. The words die before they’re born. I’ve learned–it’s not their memory. It’s mine. I sit back.

In the theatre. Not alone, but alone, I take in the music. Acknowledging the rare moment–the moment when another song adds itself to your life’s playlist. You don’t pick the songs. They pick you.

I sit back and listen.

*author’s note: I wrote this on September 27, 2011, but over the last week a couple of songs crossed my path again. They took me back. Way back. So I decided to dig in my files and dust this off. Hope you enjoy it.

Tomorrow Will Be Here Soon Enough

truck-bed

The party was lame, and when I say lame I mean that there were so many people there I felt like I’d walked into a Black Friday Walmart event. My only reason for attending—a favor to a friend, who’d introduced me to another friend before disappearing into the maelstrom of humanity.

So there I was—or rather there we were—standing like concrete stanchions suffering the abuse of a never-ending sea.

My new companion looked as thrilled about the situation as I felt.

“Give you a lift home?”

She laughed, “That obvious?”

“It’s coming off you in waves,” I smiled.

“Thanks,” she said.

***

I helped her into the passenger seat, slipped a tip to the harried valet running the key-stand, jumped behind the wheel, slammed the door, and exhaled in the sudden silence.

“Right?” she laughed.

I liked her laugh, there was something easy, yet heavy to it, like it had to push its way to the surface and was almost surprised at itself that it had somehow made it again. I smiled back at her.

I maneuvered out of the lot, inching past cars that most people only ever dream of buying. On the open road, I finally loosened my tie and sank back into my seat.

“Sorry about the lack of introduction. Did Kelsey drag you out too?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said, “it’s fine though. She’s great.”

“Yeah, she is.”

“Where am I heading?” I looked at her. “For you, I mean—sorry, I totally forgot to ask.”

She hesitated, “Would you mind if we just drove for a little bit?” Then in a quieter voice, “I’m not really ready to be home yet.”

“No problem,” I said. “Help yourself to the radio; passenger has DJ status.”

“Okay,” she said.

We drove on in silence for a couple minutes before she reached over and tuned the radio to an oldies station.

“I’ve got a place I like to go and sit when I want to be alone,” I said, staring out the windshield. “We can go be alone together if you want.”

She was quiet for a long comfortable moment.

“I think I’d like that,” she said.

***

Twenty minutes later, I’d backed my truck onto a dune overlooking the ocean. I pulled a blanket from under the back seat, and she followed me to the bed of the truck. Sitting there side by side, the gray sands ran away from us into the curve of the ocean, the waxing gibbous washing it all in an otherworldly glow.

I don’t know how long we sat, but the moon had moved a good hand’s breadth toward the black line of the horizon before she spoke.

“Kelsey made me come to that party because tomorrow . . . or, today I guess, is the anniversary of my divorce.”

I didn’t say anything. It’s always taken me a long time to think of something to say, and then more often than not I usually just say it to myself. Besides, there’s no correct response to something like that. I didn’t turn, but I felt her staring far away into the water.

“Do you ever wish you could stop time?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said.

She sighed, a quiet sound, almost drowned in the whish of the whispering surf. I don’t know if she even heard it herself.

“Just enjoy it,” I said, “tomorrow’ll be here soon enough.”

Her head was resting against the back of the truck, but she cut her eyes toward me and smiled. She had a beautiful, tired smile—the kind of smile that was finding it increasingly hard to get up in the morning.

“It’s hard to let people go, even when they’re gone,” she said.

I nodded then looked back out to sea.

“Do you think he ever really loved you too?” I asked.

She pulled her knees up to her chest, rested her chin on them, “Sometimes I wonder about that . . . but rarely more than twenty times a day.” She forced out that deep breath of a laugh again. “I don’t know why I’m dumping this on a complete stranger.”

I shrugged, “Sometimes the right person’s just in the right place at the right time.”

“I don’t know,” she said. She turned and looked right at me then. I could feel the weight of it.

“You have this . . . I don’t know . . . this cosmic sadness about you, like there’s someone way down deep in there—someone safe. Do you ever let people in?”

“I try not to,” I held her eyes for a few moments then offered a rusty smile of my own.

“What would it look like if you did?” she asked.

“Maybe I’m too scared to find out. Maybe they’d see me for the fraud I am,” I said.

She pursed her lips, thinking. Still staring at me but not at me.

“Maybe that’s it: maybe we’re all just frauds.” Her eyes came back. I was still watching her, sensing I needed this moment—this answer—somehow. She looked like she was going to speak again but then nodded like she’d solved some puzzle that had lain unfinished for years on the back table of her mind.

***

The moon had set. Across the horizon a buzz of warmth glossed the sky. It was a moment when the construct of time disconnects from the spinning planet we call home, the hands of the clock stand motionless almost in disdain of the parameters we dare to impose upon them. The bleeding sky reeled up the sun, but there was a weightlessness—a moment—I will never forget as we sat side by side, and when I looked at her again, she had fallen asleep on my shoulder.

 

*Author’s note: I have to give credit to Stephen King, Wendell Berry, and the film Before We Go for their influence on this story and to Jake Sidwell’s music for keeping me company while I wrote.

Familiar

ghost

I lean into the warm water, feeling it fill my ears with a soft whoompf, the tip of my nose and lips just breaking the surface. Slow, measured breaths. Quiet breaths. The ceiling shimmers and flexes as I open my eyes, the water stings for a second. I like the pain. I’ve always liked it. Razors with their warm shiny edges, beautiful wet blades. It connects me to a body I don’t quite own.

The light flickers, buzzes, blacks out, wavers back to life. The cold fluorescent echoing in shadows.

Warm waves flood my scalp as Mama’s fingers ripple through my hair. Hands move mechanically, massaging my head. I go limp.

Shall I braid it?

I slide up, nuzzling my neck into the edge of the porcelain tub. I nod. I’ve missed my braid. Wiggling my fingers, I check the mobility in my left hand. A little better.

Good girl.

She leans over me. The light pops zzzaaap, black splatters her face.

“Sing?” I mumble.

Her hands disappear for a second. I feel her shift behind me and then lean closer.

Rock-a-bye, baby

fingers trace the red welted scars on my wrist. My blood burns. An itch only a razor can scratch.

on a treetop

fingers press into the flesh, digging, searching.

when the wind blows

Zzzzaaaaazzzaaaap a cough of darkness.

the cradle will rock

Something is shifting, changing. Her arms elongate, thinning, a yellow foot hooks over the edge of the tub.

The door handle rattles. “Ava? You in there?”

Patrick? What’s he doing here? His flight gets back tomorrow.

Zzzzzaaaazzzzzz a chaotic symphony of shadows dance gleefully along the walls.

Mama perches on the edge of the tub, all elbows, knees, and bony edges, like she swallowed a bag of hammers. Emaciated skin sucked around jagged ribs.

I wonder why he doesn’t come in. I don’t remember locking the door.

when the bough breaks

Her eyes are gone. Just a white sloping emptiness distending from straggling ropes of hair down to a pocked nose. The cheeks pull into something resembling a grin. Part of her bottom jaw is gone.

“Ava, who are you talking to? Who’s in there?!” The rugged mahogany groans as he throws a shoulder into it. “OPEN THE DOOR! AVA!”

Mama turns and scuttles up the wall, her wet, hacking voice splattering around me.

the cradle will fall

I can’t pull my eyes away, fascinated by the ripples of her distended spine protruding through her back. Bony shoulder blades squirm and jerk.

ZZZZZZZZAAAAAAAAAAAA POP the light goes out leaving me with one last glimpse of her body splayed across the ceiling above me, small but impossibly large, her head rotating, black hair falling around a sightless face.

and down will come baby

BOOM!

“AVA!”

BOOOM!

“BABY! PLEASE! AVAAAAAA!!”

I reach up in the darkness, “MAMA! DON’T LEAVE ME AGAIN! DON’T LEAVE ME!”

cradle and all.

CRAAAAACKKK! The door splinters open, a beam of light catching Mama’s form as she launches herself toward me, all disjointed arms, knobby legs, hooked fingers.

“AVAAAA! NOOOO!”

And then I am awash in fire and blackness and rushing water. Patrick diving, reaching, but he’s late. He’s too late.

Mama takes me.

Down, down into wet, shiny nothingness.

She Sleeps

she-sleeps

She sleeps.

I sit and watch. She feels safe when I’m there with her. I know even though she’s never told me. It’s there in the tranquil way her body lies under the sheets.

The autumn breeze whispers through the screen. The purr of cicadas whirs in my ears.

Is it possible to be so infinitely happy? So at peace. So still. So at home with the love of your heart.

She is the one I love. I knew it the first moment I saw her—that coffee shop in late August two years ago: me lost in some worthless conversation on my phone waiting on my order, and then I . . . how do I explain it? I felt her near me. I felt her before I saw her. I turned, and we saw each other.

Is it possible to fall in love at first sight? Can I use that cliché? It is a cliché. I know that, yet, I have to use it. No other words will do.

She didn’t smile, not right away, but in those bottomless eyes, those turquoise infinities, I felt her reach out to me. And I fell for her like a tree struck by lightning in the thundering mountain storms. Struck dumb to my core. Scarred for life. Scarred with a love so deep, so endlessly exquisite.

In that sliver of time—that breath—so marginal, so meaningless in its length, I was undone.

I became hers.

She became mine.

She stirs. I caress a strand of raven hair from her brow. I feel it damp with sweat.

I step to the window and raise it a bit more. Yes, good. The breeze flows around me, embraces me.

I stand watching her. My heart pumps, throbs, thrums threatening to explode with a love that consumes me.

She moves, subconsciously leaning into the night’s coolness. The curve of her breast pushes into the sheet for a moment as she turns and nuzzles deeper into her pillow.

I sit on the edge of the bed and watch her. She needs her rest. She works so hard; I can see the strain in her eyes when she gets home from work, the way she composes herself in her car before coming into the house. She doesn’t know that I know.

But when she sleeps, I know all is well. She is safe. She is loved.

I kiss the top of her head. Softly. So softly. I will not wake her.

She squirms, twists, turns onto her stomach. Glistening black hair cascades across her pillow, her naked back flawless in the moonlight.

I feel the love in my heart washing against my chest, waves crashing on forgotten beaches responding to the haunting call of the moon.

She sleeps.

At peace.

Radiant.

Goodnight I whisper.

I let myself out quietly.

Her husband will be home soon.

Stay with Me

natchez-trace-parkway-bridge
The phone rang at 9:30pm.

Kelly uncapped her pen, flipped to a new page in her binder, and thumbed her headset.

“Hello.”

Nothing on the line but silence. Normal. A lot of people who called weren’t ready to talk. The fact that their fingers had dialed a strange number set off some kind of mental denial. Like they wanted to take it back, to hang up.

“I’m here. You can talk to me.”

Now she could make out something—heavy, labored breathing.

“Can you talk?”

The breathing hitched.

“It’s okay. Take your time.”

When the voice came, it sounded soft and garbled in her headset, like the throat and jaw muscles were trying to figure out how to coordinate.

“ . . . didn’t think . . . was going to make this call.”

“Why not?” She jotted down male, and waited a beat. When the voice didn’t respond, she tried again, “Why didn’t you think you would call?”

“I wanted to be alone.”

“Are you alone right now?”

No response.

“Can you tell me your name?”

“Paul,” he whispered.

“It’s nice to meet you, Paul. Is it okay if I keep talking with you?”

He mumbled something.

“Paul, did you take any drugs?”

His breathing evened out like a person drifting off to sleep.

“Paul, are you still with me? Can you say something?”

“No drugs.” It sounded like nuhdrukz.

She scribbled no drugs. “No drugs? Good! Good. What else can you tell me? Can you tell me what you’re doing?”

“Stars . . . so clear tonight.” His voice strengthened then dropped back to a mumble.

“You’re outside, Paul? Can you tell me where?”

“So clear . . .”

“Paul, where are you?”

His breathing juddered. He coughed. “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“Have you . . . have you ever lost someone close to you.”

She thought she had never heard such sadness and loneliness in a human voice. She rubbed her eyes. “No, Paul, I haven’t. No one close. I guess I’ve been pretty lucky.”

She heard a small sob—a sucking, wet sound.

“ . . . lost my wife and baby girl. Some kid was texting. Didn’t even touch the brakes . . .”

Another horrible sob.

“I just wanted to kiss them goodbye . . . but I didn’t even get to do that . . . I think I’ve been waiting to die ever since.”

Kelly’s pen hovered over her pad, shaking.

She cleared her throat. “Paul . . . I can’t even imagine. I’m so sorry.” She sucked a breath, exhaled, told herself to focus. Find another track. “Do you have other family around?”

“Huh?” He sounded disoriented.

“Do you have family you’re close to?”

She could hear his slow breathing, the work it took for him to get the words out.

“ . . . only child . . . parents gone . . .”

Her pen scratched across the page. “When was that, Paul?”

Strained breathing in her ear.

“Paul, are you still there?”

“Mmm-hmm . . .”

“Are you falling asleep?”

“ . . . tired . . .”

“Paul, why are you tired? Are you sure you didn’t take anything?”

“ . . . so big . . .”

“What’s so big? Where are you?”

“ . . . Natchez . . . bridge.”

Icy fingers squeezed into her stomach. She knew the bridge—a picturesque tourist destination with a soaring double-arch spanning the 145′ drop to the ravine below. She swiveled to her computer, pounding the keys, firing off the message to the local police department.

“You’re at the bridge, Paul?”

“Mmm . . .”

“Paul, stay with me, okay? Stay on the phone with me.”

“Tell me a story . . . any story . . . doesn’t matter.”

She fumbled through a story from elementary—a school play; things went wrong; general mayhem ensued. Every few sentences she took a beat listening for the slow breathing, for anything. She could hear him—a monotonous undertone accompanying her.

“What’s your name?” he whispered.

That’s when she heard it. Sirens. Somewhere far away but coming through her headset.

Hurry up!

“Paul . . .”

And then his voice, clear, low. “You have a kind voice . . . wish I could’ve . . . had the chance to meet you.”

“My name’s Kelly, Paul! It’s Kelly, okay? You know me now. You know my name. And we can still meet.”

The sirens were close now.

“We can still meet, Paul, okay? Just don’t jump. Promise me you won’t jump!”

His breathing trailed away to nothingness. The sirens still howled in the distance, bleating and echoing in her headset but somehow getting no closer.

Hurry the hell up!! Why aren’t you there yet?!

“ . . . blue . . .”

“Blue what, Paul? What’s blue?”

A whimper. The sound of a small animal lying broken in the dirt.

“Paul, don’t do it! Please!” She slammed her fists on her desk helplessly again and again.

“Don’t do it!”

The messenger alert on her computer chirped.

“RESPONDING UNITS ARE REPORTING NO ONE ON THE BRIDGE. PLEASE CONFIRM LOCATION.”

“ . . . did . . . good job . . . Kelly . . .”

“REPEAT. NO ONE ON BRIDGE.”

And then she heard him—his voice far away, a whisper echoing in and out of the sirens, a voice so tired, so infinitely tired, finally succumbing to sleep.

“I already jumped.”

***

*Author’s note: When I was at the Natchez Trace Parkway bridge several weeks ago, I noticed a sign with the words “There is hope” and the number for a helpline. That–along with the short film “The Phone Call”–heavily influenced this story.

Father’s Day

Dad, I need to say thanks for some things:
you taught me to throw a baseball,
you taught me the hook shot,
you taught me to ride a motorcycle,
you taught me to shoot a gun,
you taught me to polish shoes,
you made me learn to change the oil and change a tire,
you taught me that chivalry isn’t dead yet,
you taught me that if you wear something with confidence, it never goes out of style (those plaid pants though),
you gave me a love for literature (although hearing “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs” at six years old is still seared in my brain),
you pushed, nay, demanded that I write (all my awards and scholarships, I owe to you),
you took me out in nature and acted like it was completely normal when I was a hundred feet up in a tree,
you held the ladder that time I grabbed a live wire, and–while I stared at the third degree electrical burns on my hands–calmly looked up and asked, “you okay?”
the first time a girl gave me her number you said “good job. you gonna call her?” then walked off,
you took my brothers and me on late night runs into town when you just had to have some pizza,
you cooked up burgers at midnight (if I die ten years early, it will have been worth every greasy minute).

You were the first person to make me stand up and perform,
you demanded excellence,
you didn’t complain,
and I know it’s been rocky,
and we’ve butted heads,
but things are better now, and I’m glad–
I’m glad that on this crazy ride of a life,
I get to call you Dad.
dad