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

Distraction

She wanted my heart
but all I could give
was my body
and so we drank a bottle
then played that song

and I held her
while she rode me
into the morning
threw the alarm clock on the floor
and we followed it
while our heat went up in shadows
on the walls

She asked me to stay
unable to see
she was talking to a ghost
and in the morning blue
I closed the door
and walked out of her life
and left her alone
wearing nothing but her makeup.
-ijs

Come On Home

pen and paper

I would’ve missed him except for the bachelorette party. I don’t spend much time down on Broadway. Too many people. Way too many people. The beacon lights outside of Bridgestone Arena draw the tourists like bugs—swarms and swarms of them.

I was fighting my way up toward the intersection at 5th when the girls came pouring out of Tootsies. Jean shorts, check. Tank tops, check. Boots, check. Official Nashville bachelorette party attire checklist complete. The one in front nearly ran me over—the maid of honor I guessed by the way she was shepherding the poor girl sporting the lacy BRIDE sash. She managed to redirect at the last second after ricocheting off of me.

“Mscuseme! I am sooo sorry!”

Two blonde girls bringing up the rear found this whole thing uproariously funny for some reason.

I took it in stride. Considering where I was, I deserved what I got.

“It’s fine,” I said.

Bachelorette parties. On Broadway. Like shooting fish in a barrel—you couldn’t miss ’em if you tried.

“Congratulations.”

The blonde twins laughed even harder. It was nice to see them enjoying themselves since they probably wouldn’t remember much the next morning judging by their complete lack of pacing.

It was only 8:30 in the evening.

I left them there, a pack of dizzy minnows fighting the river of life flowing around them.

At the crosswalk, I lost the light and settled in for another wait. Something red to my left caught my eye. Turning I saw an elderly gentleman. He was wearing a sunny yellow polo shirt tucked into neat blue jeans. The starched jeans sported razor-sharp creases breaking over blindingly white Nikes. On his head was a scarlet baseball hat with USMC VIETNAM VETERAN stitched in gold lettering above the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor crest. It was his hat that caught my attention, but what held it was the look on his face—a look of calm, the kind of look you’d get while staring out across the gulf at sunset while the sun bled away . . . a look of tranquility stumbled onto after years of searching. It was completely incongruous with the mayhem around us.

“Semper Fi.”

He turned and looked at me, and I saw his eyes coming back, coming back from wherever that peaceful place had been, and for a moment I wished I hadn’t spoken. I wish I’d left him out there . . . wherever there was. But the smile he offered put me at ease—a smile that all those mall variety Santa Claus’s would kill for, full of thrumming warmth and vibrant humanity captured in an old soul.

“And same to you.”

His voice was quiet, but it cut through the tinny cacophony around us.

I stuck out my hand, and he shook it. Before I knew what was I was saying, my mouth took on a rare initiative.

“Buy you a drink?”

He cocked a furry white eyebrow at me then nodded.

“Down here?”

“No. Let’s go someplace where we can hear ourselves think.”

***

We tucked ourselves into the corner booth, and after the waitress dropped off our drinks I made my confession.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I have no idea why I offered the drink. I know this sounds weird, but there was something about you that I saw, and . . . well . . . I wanted to know your story.”

He took a sip of his beer, “That’s good.”

“Told you. Locally brewed too.”

He raised his glass, and I clinked my bourbon against it.

“So what do you want to know?”

“I . . . I don’t know how to say this . . . when I met you, you had this look on your face—this look of peace that I rarely see in anyone, much less anyone on Broadway on a Saturday night.”

He smiled, “Nashville was a special place for us—my wife and me. I was remembering our last time here.”

“I’m sorry. Is she—“

“She passed away two years ago.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you. We had a great life together.”

“I’m sure she was a lovely woman.”

His eyes got that far-off look again, “She was. We loved to travel. We went all over the country.”

He pulled an old Rand McNally map of the United States from his pocket and spread it on the table. It was creased, worn, and covered with pencil marks: cities circled here, notes jotted there.

“This was our bible. After I retired, we took this map and made our wishlist of all the places we wanted to go.” He ran his fingers across the map touching city after city as he told me stories of where they’d been. When he touched Charleston, something in his pale blue eyes sparked.

“One of our favorites. Spent our honeymoon there, and when all was said and done, that’s where we settled down. That’s where—“ he trailed off. His eyes were wet and bright.

“You know what’s great about getting old? You can cry whenever you want and no one’ll say anything about it.”

I raised my hands, “Nothing to fear here.”

It’s just . . . sometimes memories come back all crystal clear like you’re actually re-living them and not just remembering them.” He glanced out the window, his voice fading away. “We made love on the beach. The night was perfectly black, and we just lay there after . . . . Wrote our names in the sand, then lay there looking up at the stars and feeling like we’d never get old.”

He traced the X, “Charleston was always my favorite.”

Looking back down at the map, he touched a few more X marks, and when he turned his face to me again, it was the face of a man haunted by ghosts of pain I knew I did not fully understand; I only knew that it was awful.

“I lost her before I lost her. Her mind, you see, it went early. I think that was the worst because she was still there, and when I looked into those hazel eyes of hers—those eyes that made you want to walk into fire and kill dragons for her—and I didn’t see her in there anymore . . . it was almost more than I could handle.”

He took another drink then whispered, “Sometimes it was.”

He looked up and I saw a desperation in his eyes that didn’t touch his voice, “Do you understand what I’m saying?”

I nodded.

I did.

***

I took a deep breath then knocked.

“Come in.”

Stepping into the room, I fought the claustrophobia clawing up the back of my throat. Grandma sat in the small chair to the left of her bed. Through the two windows, the late afternoon sun warmed the gold walls above her dresser—one of the few pieces of furniture she’d brought when she’d left her house to take up residence in the assisted care facility.

“Hi, Grandma, how are you?”

For a second I wasn’t sure if she remembered me, but then she lit up, and I saw the shadow of the woman I’d always known—the razor-sharp mind behind the English professor, the prolific reader, the only one in my family who read faster than me. And for a few minutes we got to talk, and she was there, really there. But then I saw the light go dim as something in the back of her mind reached up and pulled the blinds.

She sat silently twisting her hands in her lap.

“Are you married?”

There it was.

I said no. I said no to my grandma who’d sat at my wedding in her flawless green dress, fur stole, and diamonds. The lady who exuded effortless class. The lady who now looked at me with empty, childlike eyes.

She pointed her finger at me—the timeless way she had of demanding absolute attention—and said, “Well, you find a good girl. Okay? You find a good one.”

Somewhere in my chest my heart crawled away into a dark corner.

I told my head to nod.

“Okay, grandma. I will.”

***

She would write poems.”

He was swishing the dregs of his beer round and round in his glass. “She would write poems when she had her clear moments. Sometimes not more than a few lines, sometimes she’d fill a page . . . it all depended on how long she was there. Once, she’d been gone for almost a week, and I was losing my mind, just losing it you know? I needed her . . . I needed her.”

He touched the map again almost as though the memories captured in the pencil scrawls gave him strength. “I came in and saw her with the pen in her hand. I could tell she’d just finished writing. I ran. I ran to her, but when I turned her around her eyes were already empty.”

He pulled out his wallet and extracted a tiny piece of yellow paper. Once he unfolded it, I saw it wasn’t yellow; it just looked that way. It had been folded and unfolded countless times until the original white paper had faded into a dusky yellow. The fold marks were nearly translucent.

He placed it on the table between us. Even though it was warm in the bar, I felt a cold hand slide down my spine as I read the beautiful, looping cursive—

Listen
For it is in those moments
Of deepest silence
I often scream
Loudest.

His hands trembled as he slid the paper back into his wallet then gulped the rest of his beer. “I almost went crazy when I read it . . . think I would have if she hadn’t written another one.”

“So she did write another one?”

“Yes. One.” He pointed at his wallet where he’d replaced the slip of paper.

“She wrote it three weeks later.” That horrible ghost crossed his face again. “Those weeks . . .” he trailed off.

“But we don’t need to talk about that. What matters is the last one.” The smallest hint of a smile touched his eyes. “But that one’s just for me.”

He faded off. Away out there again. I hated to interrupt, but I wanted to know.

“So why Nashville?”

He looked up, and I could see the young man deep inside him—the one lying on the beach tangled together with his hazel-eyed girl watching her eyes shift to green in the darkness. I saw the iron-edged strength at the pale edges of his blue eyes.

“When she wrote her last poem, we had a couple hours together—a couple hours where I had all of her. And she held my face like she’d do when she wanted to make sure I was paying attention, and she got real close—almost nose to nose—with those eyes of hers pulling me in, and she said You go on out there; you take our map, and you go way out there, and when you’re ready—when you’re really ready—then you come on home.

And so that’s what I did. I’ve been all over revisiting our favorite places and waiting for something—I’m not sure what. I just knew I’d know when I finally found it.”

He exhaled.

“I found it tonight.”

Folding the map in his cracked hands, he caressed it—a lover’s note that had whispered in his ear for maybe a little too long. As he slid it into his pocket, a weight seemed to slide from his shoulders. The last tiny cog in the maze of his soul fell into place, and with it, a small piece of himself that no longer needed chasing.

“I think I’m gonna go on home now.”

He nodded to himself, “Yeah. Yeah, I think so.”

He stood, and I watched him go, a small, hard man pushing through the door and out into the big night.

 

*Author’s note: I saw this man while I was driving through downtown. I couldn’t get his face out of my mind, and that’s where this story grew from.

Written while listening to Augustines “Walkabout.”

My Offer

IMG_4654

Most nights we’ll glide along the sand
While men sleep
And the gods of the deep
Hold their pale-faced lover
But once in a while
Darling, once in a while
The tides will change
And we’ll reach up with reins
Of fire, and spark an inferno, desires
Born to dance
On the bones of forgotten worlds.
Here’s my hand
And my offer–with me
Lonely sometimes you may be
But alone? Never.
You’ll see
You’ll see clearest in the nights
Dark and free.
Will you come?
-ijs

I’m Sorry I Don’t Have a Story – an essay

Writers Block

I’m sorry I don’t have a story for you.

See, things started off going downhill when I pulled into Starbucks and realized I forgot my headphones. Okay, so no tunes. Fine. No. Not fine. I walk inside and am confronted by a completely full store. So not only am I cut off from music, but I am shudder forced to sit directly by a person at a high-top table. I don’t hate people, I’m just a normal introvert who likes my six feet of space.

My first interaction with a person today is with the barista. At 6:30pm. Normal. (no judgment please in the six foot bubble)

Here’s why I feel the pressure to write. I got a text from a dear friend:
“Just wanted to tell you that I appreciate you so much . . . I read your writing sometimes, and wanted you to know how deeply it touches me . . . I appreciate your honesty, and you’re a great writer. The one about the coffee shop, and being free, really affected me.
Trying to deal with pain from the past and [I’ve] been so emotional recently . . . even being emotional, sometimes I can’t cry and let it out. I started crying when I read that . . . I’m struggling with anger and numbness . . .”

With a message like that I’m all fired up to knock another one out of my literary ballpark. Okay maybe I’m overreaching, but a double at least would be nice.

Images of a follow-up to my coffee shop story materialize, vanish: rainswept mountainsides; dying caresses; traumatic secrets divulged and forgiven. I crack my knuckles and set to it, except nothing happens. My creativity’s at home with my earbuds. The cursor sits there blink blink blink while my brain stays blank blank blank and all I can think about is if the joker across from me hacks and clears his throat one more time I’m gonna climb on top of this bloody table and reenact the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

HACK

I will him into anaphylactic shock.

He does not die.

An elderly woman to my right sips her drink and bobs slightly to the beat of her own music. I consider walking over and stealing her headphones. I doubt she’ll notice. She doesn’t look like she’s noticed anything since Y2K.

This is getting me nowhere nearer the elusive goal of “story” — something sweet, engaging, beautiful. I am irritated. Scraps of poetry crawl across my screen, are deleted, reappear. Scraps of nobility, fragments about “scars, lost roads, love . . .” Writing is generally peaceful, cathartic. I now see that music factors into my writing WAY too much. This is not a problem EXCEPT WHEN YOU FORGET YOUR FLIPPIN HEADPHONES. Bleh, I’m feeling zero levels of creativity and romanticism right now. I don’t care if it is National Kiss a Ginger Day.

Even a creative double is looking like a stretch; heck, I’ll take a bunt.

Screw it, GET THE T-BALL STAND.

HACK

I give up. I have to get out of here before I show up on the next season of Making A Murderer.

I really wanted to write something. I really did.

***

Why does my soul call for the ocean?
What is it in the cacophony of windswept beaches kissed by northern lights that I crave?
I’ll take you away
I’ll take you there
Far away where our universe realigns
Where the pain leaks from our bodies in the newness of spring.

-ijs

I’ve Been Hiding

I’ve been hiding.

There I said it. You freakin’ happy now, Jiminy Cricket?

It’s an easy thing to do once you get into it–you take one step, then another, and the
next thing you know you’re off somewhere in left field daydreaming and doing absolutely nothing constructive. As my dad likes to quote, “The good is always the enemy of the best.” I set myself a creative goal to write a poem each week, knowing I could do it–it wouldn’t be that hard. A weekly poem is something I can sit down and knock out in
anywhere from fifteen minutes to three hours depending on how my coffee–I mean creative— vibe is going. But there’s the problem: I set myself up to fail. I gave myself the easy way out. I’ve been content to throw back handfuls of M&M’s in the candy aisle when I should be marinating and prepping a steak.

So I’m done. I’m done hiding behind weekly creative “highs.” I’m not knocking my poems; I’m really proud of most of them, and I love hearing from songwriter friends who use them for inspiration (I still want my cut when you write the next #1 hit–you know who you are! also, I love you guys). But that’s not the end of my writing spectrum. Fiction is calling me, and I’ve ignored it for long enough because I was scared of the work. My first book wore me out. But I have more in me. I’m going to get back to work on the stories I need to tell. Cal, Bobby, and Little Pete . . . my government operative . . . I’m not sure which way I’m going to run, but it’s time to dig a little deeper.

Thank you to everyone who’s supported my weekly writing. Nothing encourages a creative like hearing that their work touches someone. I’ll continue to share writing tidbits as I go, but I’m done hiding.

Here’s one more for the road . . .

Tell me about your scars
Tell me a story you’ve never told anyone
It’s quiet
I’ll sit here and wait
I’ll wait with you by the sea
Watching whitecaps break themselves to pieces on the rocks below
While Orion keeps us company.
-ijs

PS. I’m also working on new short films. I’ve got my second short written; I’m just
waiting to get the funding together for it. This screengrab from my film “Stay” pretty
much sums up how I feel right now: scared but ready to embrace this new challenge.

tsay.Still023