If you’re already a reader, scroll down to see the latest writing.
If you’re new, you can start an ongoing story or read older, completed stories at the Library.
If you’re already a reader, scroll down to see the latest writing.
If you’re new, you can start an ongoing story or read older, completed stories at the Library.
Life has kept me too busy to update this site with any regularity, but I haven’t stopped working on projects — the latest of which is an Android mobile game, RGBPONG. I used to be into game design back when I was a kid — it was a ton of fun getting back into it to build this app from the ground up. Game development is and isn’t much like writing; maybe I’ll write a piece about that (from my very limited perspective on either).
RGBPONG is a cross between old-school PONG and Simon Says. It’s fast-paced arcade fun — easy to learn and hard to master. Give it a try!
You can find it, play it, review it and share it all in the Google Play Store right now.
There will be more content over here in good time, but in the meantime — enjoy!
Another excerpt from my aborted series on Pan’s Labyrinth. I may post all of these (I ended up with ten or so), or I may pick a couple more that contained any particular insight. We’ll see.
Our first sight in the movie is incoherent; we’re panning horizontally across darkness flecked with light. Then, a bloody hand, and our first sight of Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), bleeding from the nose and glassy-eyed.
The camera is constantly moving here, first panning, then rotating while closing in on Ofelia’s face, so that it might take you an extra moment to notice that the blood from Ofelia’s nose is traveling in reverse, as if whatever wound she’s received is being undone. It would have been easy, and might have amped up the surrealism of the moment, if the sound of Ofelia’s breathing were also reversed to match the visual. Played like it is, though, there’s an immediate, if subtle, unsteadiness to our sensory information, which heightens as the narration takes over and we zoom into Ofelia’s eye to be told the premise of a fairy tale.
The zoom transition into the eye opens up possibilities for just about anything in the next frame, but notice that the fantasy world we enter is just as dark, cold, and bleak as the dying girl; beautiful, but somber and monochromatic.
The Underground Realm is a place “where there are no lies or pain,” but the princess flees to the human world. Why? It’s what she dreams about; dreams escaping to the reality of their dreams. Generally, the fairy tales told throughout the film seem to match up less to their own internal consistency than to Ofelia’s emotional needs or immediate concerns as she reads them.
Something else to notice: The camera hasn’t stopped moving since we’ve had anything on screen. This isn’t really a virtuoso move, intended as “look at me” camerawork (the cuts aren’t being deliberately masked, and we aren’t being asked to marvel at cinematography); it’s more about emphasizing the seamlessness with which we can move between realities in this film’s universe.
Here is a follow-up to my older post on Hannibal and The Good Wife: That comparison now seems particularly inapt through the first half of Hannibal‘s latest (and, likely and sadly, final) season — but, then, the “procedural” label at times seemed equally inapt in the most recent season of The Good Wife.
First, the latter: The Good Wife awkwardly grafted political elements onto itself last season, and the case-of-the-week structure became increasingly ancillary. The show started to show some strain trying to service its many well-developed cast members (and continued to misuse and betray the once-so-intriguing Kalinda, right up until her strange anticlimax of an exit). The reasons were twofold: 1) the show underestimated, perhaps, the value of Josh Charles/Will Gardner as a central force among otherwise somewhat disparate characters; and 2) I think it underestimated, too, the value of the law procedural format in giving primary characters a clear sense of purpose. Making Alicia’s ennui such a part of the plot could have been clever (episodes like “Mind’s Eye” made good use of it), but instead it made me increasingly miss the courtroom scenes, the law-talk banter, and the clean narrative arcs of seasons past.
Hannibal much more successfully began to discard the case-a-week format in its second season; by the start of the third, the show was pretty much an nonstop expressionist nightmare, the procedural elements far forgotten. This led to some beautiful, brilliant moments both of visual splendor/horror and to some really gutting emotional beats, but it also led to some moments of meandering or strain, rare up to that point. While the climax of that first-half season storyline was as thrilling and powerful as I’d expect from the show, it’s this currently-running sequence that shows the power of the procedural as a fundament. The show’s doing its spin on Red Dragon, and while it’s most successful for how it can pivot and deviate from the police story elements of the book and prior adaptations, that grounding and, again, clear sense of purpose add tremendous weight and meaning to each scene. (Horror works best when we follow characters who want something even when we, the audience, can see that the “something” is really a nightmare in a thin disguise…)
Both shows can still flex their muscle and display their strengths, but Hannibal‘s more successful in part because it understands itself better and uses its origins and foundations to novel effect. The Good Wife stumbles most when it coasts on the talent of its actors and forgets to give them something to focus on — like, say, a case of the week.
So, within the first 48 hours or so of its beginning, I contributed to Don Hertzfeldt’s ongoing Kickstarter campaign to fund a Bluray release of his 2014 masterpiece short film, World of Tomorrow. Hertzfeldt, for those who don’t know, is a wonderful animator and storyteller; World of Tomorrow‘s just the latest (and probably best) work in a hilarious, gorgeous, heart-rending oeuvre.
(I’m going to talk mostly about the pretty/sad bits, but the “funny” part is equally important, and equally brilliant. Just saying.)
He also happens to work mostly with stick figures:
This is obviously cruder than your average Disney/Pixar creation, but to me the simplicity is part of the beauty. One of the small, wonderful things about good animation is how it exploits and exaggerates the human face’s natural plasticity — facial expressions are weird, contortion-prone things, and smart animation takes advantage of its ability to reach more deeply to the core of those expressions than the human face, which for all its plasticity is bounded by bones and physics and details.
Hertzfeldt, in this respect at least, removes more details than most. He executes extreme minimalism perfectly. Just look at that screencap. The still frame works as a joke itself, because the frozen expressions are so perfect: the horrified silly-hat-wearers, the pleasantly oblivious man in the normal hat. Three circles and a line per face, but each has a specificity that the brain recognizes immediately. You don’t need noses or chins or proportional eyeballs, just a knowledge of how the parts you do have work in concert. Reacting to this is intuitive, but crafting it isn’t.
Many of Hertzfeldt’s characters look harried to me, the rough lines around their eyes suggesting stress and sleeplessness and ennui, regardless of their facial expressions. It might just be a fortunate side effect of his medium, but it’s something almost all of his films address deliberately.
Hertzfeldt does a lot of other great, interesting things with his medium — his “special effects” range from incorporating other visual media to manipulating the paper on which the frames have been drawn. He knows both his medium’s tools and its limitations, and uses the latter as the former. World of Tomorrow has many utterly gorgeous, artistically rendered backdrops and landscapes, but most of them are made particularly effective because of the stark way they’re thrown against Hertzfeldt’s stick figure protagonists:
That image can make you feel lonely, small, crude against the enormity of the universe. So does the film, sometimes, even/especially in its funniest moments.
Watching the Kickstarter campaign tear through stretch goals, earning (so far) more than six times its initial goal, has been heartening but, in a way, not too surprising. Hertzfeldt’s work has always felt primal to me, his art style cutting closer and more deeply than most animation I watch, because it’s so focused on the few details it chooses to display.
There are 24 hours left to contribute to the campaign (and, in doing so, pre-order a copy of this film, which is really, truly wonderful): https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1072409840/hertzfeldt-on-blu-ray
If you’d like to watch the movie right now (you should!), Vimeo has it on demand: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/worldoftomorrow
A while back, I had an idea to dissect a particularly rich film by doing a micro-essay for each individual minute (sort of like a Star Wars Minute for people more into boring academia than funny podcasts, I guess). I chose Pan’s Labyrinth, because it’s gorgeous and I could watch it over and over without even having a reason.
Of course, that idea turned out to be both labor-intensive and just a tad repetitive (plus, I don’t have the education to talk in such depth about many of the technical aspects of what’s working so brilliantly from moment to moment), but I still did finish a small percentage of the micro-essays, so I figured I’d publish one or two here, just for posterity. I still love the idea, in that it’s fun to tease out all the many interwoven threads of successful narrative art. In any case: Enjoy.
There are no visuals in the first minute of Pan’s Labyrinth. As the opening credits flutter in and out, we hear two things: first, a strange ambient noise quietly echoing in the background, and then (much louder) a child’s heavy, rapid breathing. Over these sounds comes a song central to the movie: the lullaby, which we know nothing about at this opening moment except that it sounds like something being hummed by a woman and that it is both haunting and beautiful.
We’re in a surreal, blank dreamscape, in other words; we’re primed for a surreal visual to pair with this layered sound design.
Instead: “Spain, 1944.” We get our quick history lesson, our context for the reality of the film, as text overlaid over a nightmare. Of course, as the text crawl explains, Spain in 1944 was something of a war-torn nightmare, but before the movie has even shown a visual on screen it has already begun to play with the line between a child’s (albeit frightening) dream and the reality of the world around her.
This is something we come back to repeatedly with Pan’s Labyrinth, and it’s therefore no accident that the movie begins with such a juxtaposition: This is a movie about how our dreams, no matter how fantastical, are born out of our waking lives, and how the two can bleed together freely and meaningfully especially in the most traumatic of circumstances.
Also (probably more) worth reading: Jim Emerson’s on Pan’s Labyrinth‘s opening shot, written back in 2007.
I wrote a little while ago comparing Silence of the Lambs to The Good Wife, which was a bizarre enough juxtaposition that it kept me thinking. Silence, of course, isn’t the most recent property to star Hannibal Lecter. In fact, the most recent (NBC’s strange, horrific, wonderful Hannibal) certainly has more in common with The Good Wife than the 1991 film. For one thing, both are modern television shows, still airing on major networks; more interestingly, both are (or at least commonly present themselves as) procedurals, television’s favorite format for churning out episodes in bulk, with a built-in case-of-the-week structure.
The Good Wife is essentially a legal drama, and Hannibal is essentially a police procedural, but both treat that “essential” nature differently. Neither acts like a Law and Order or a CSI. Those shows are built around syndication; serialized stories happen but are relatively rare, characters are easy-to-grasp archetypes, and bad guys are introduced and dispatched within the same 44 or so minutes of airtime. The idea is that I can drop in on episode 12 of season 67 of CSI: Nantucket and it won’t take longer than a minute or so to understand who the good guys are, what their roles are (manly cop hero, computer geek, wisecracking sidekick, etc.), and what I should expect to see just before each commercial break.
Hannibal, in its best episodes and when it’s using its best instincts, ignores the trappings of the police procedural almost entirely. Bryan Fuller’s show replaces explicable, coherent weekly villains with insane, absurd creators of ghastly art. Plausibility or practicality take a back seat (if they’re even allowed in the car) to aesthetic and thematic resonance. By the latter I mean that the weekly psychos exist not to tell weekly mini-stories, but to reflect the psychological damage or progression of the show’s main characters. Hannibal uses the police procedural only insofar as it allows the show to play around in a larger sandbox, expanding the ways in which it can communicate about death, suffering, passion, and art.
I love that show, but I actually think The Good Wife might be more interesting than Hannibal in this respect because it doesn’t throw away the conceit. The CBS show usually has a legal case of the week, even in episodes or arcs where a lot of serialized content is running around in the main plot and subplots. What those cases provide, perhaps more than anything else, is a release valve for a show that might otherwise cannibalize all its worldbuilding detail.
The Good Wife juggles legal, political, and domestic stories not only with ease but with the eagerness of a street performer; its characters (especially Alicia, its lead) are constantly on the brink of exhaustion, running from one thing to the next. In most of the plots, we deal with the same players: Alicia’s ex-husband Peter, his mother Jackie, and his political aide Eli Gold; Alicia’s two children, Grace and Zach; and Alicia’s coworkers, Will and Diane and Cary Agos and so on.
Lots of names, sure–but this is a show on its fifth season. Audiences are familiar with all of these characters; their subplots revolve around similar themes or plotlines, and the show is often at its weakest when it re-explores plots that didn’t work the first time around (see: any extended plot involving a Kalinda rival/love interest).
So, how does a show that thrives on throwing subplots on top of subplots handle the potential to burn out its reserves? With a case of the week, of course. The procedural format allows the show to introduce new elements as a matter of course. After all, the audience won’t be upset that new actors are being added arbitrarily if new actors pop up every episode. The Good Wife has used this to introduce new recurring characters (Dylan Baker’s Colin Sweeney, for example, or Amanda Peet’s military lawyer from season 4) or whole chunks of worldbuilding (the most frequently-appearing case being the somewhat ridiculous Google analogue ChumHum). Or the show can discard a new character after their 44 minutes are up. It gives The Good Wife the shaggy, loose-end-filled feel of real life, and it allows the writers to keep fresh voices and perspectives on screen even while straining to run 100 miles per hour at all times.
Hannibal doesn’t have this problem; it’s telling a focused story that would suffer from The Good Wife’s deliberate shagginess. It’s telling, to that end, that Hannibal gets 13-episode season orders, while The Good Wife produces 22 per season. Each production has its own needs and problems; it’s interesting to see, then, how these shows deal with a similar problem differently based on their distinct needs.
“It was a fucking joke, man!” Miles sputters with blood after the two are pulled from each other, after Miles tries to tackle Travis’s ribs to reciprocate the blow while his new college peers hold him back, after disinterested former players retreat to the parking lot, unlocking the cars their parents purchased for graduation presents: everything for everyone else a graduation present, another rung on a ladder leading away from the County.
“I know,” Travis says long after Miles has left. The fist said their goodbyes and Travis feels no more spite. He stares at the wide expanse of the park. From where he stands he can’t see Route 4, but he can make out the squat skyline of Walmart and the supermarket in the shopping center on the other side of the road, Subway somewhere beside them, distant but omnipresent.
After the throw, after everything, Travis runs as if to outrun failure, approaching his fallen friend with mounting dread, but he stops at the last moment. The wrong sound reaches his ears: not the horrible constant scream of Mark Stetson, but a stuttering laugh.
“Oh my leg,” Miles wails, “oh my leg, oh Travis you went and broke another leg!” He convulses and guffaws and clutches his knee, contorted halfway into the fetal position. No one else laughs; the boy who was chasing Miles throws up his hands and calls him a jerk.
Violence jams Travis’s brain. His eyelids sting like whiplashes. He knows he will not see Miles Harris again for a very long time, the way he will not see Sarah Teague for a very long time. I just wanted a good memory, Travis thought. I just wanted to keep things here another moment. But Miles won’t remember, and I don’t think he’d care either way; no one will remember, everyone made escape plans without me, was I the only one who loved this place?
Travis dives to the ground. His heart shatters in his chest. He pins Miles to the mud with his knees and throws a fist at Miles’s teeth to stop their chattering. “You were my friend,” says the fist, “you were my friend,” but Travis just screeches incoherence. His fist misses teeth, hits a cheek instead; heat and pain explode under his knuckles.
Travis arrived an hour early on Saturday to jog and stretch. He wore black gym shorts and the same undershirt he had worn at work the night before. If the odor lingered, it wouldn’t matter after the group’s collective sweat overrode their senses.
Miles drove into the parking lot at noon with three kids packed into his mother’s blue luxury SUV. Travis had seen the kids at Miles’s parties, but they were Miles’s friends, not his. Two of them wore University of Maryland shirts; Miles had a grey shirt that screamed DUCK FUKE in blue college lettering. All four exited the van yelling at each other, exchanging the second half of some collective in-joke.
“Enjoy my shift, Trav?” Miles asked with a grin. He slapped Travis on the back.
“Sarah showed up,” Travis said. He didn’t know whether to sound confused or angry.
Miles tried to slacken his jaw in shock, but the strain of pretending sent him into a spasm of giggles. “Sorry, man,” he said. “But, admit it, I fooled you pretty good.”
“That was a prank?”
“I didn’t see me working at Subway last night,” Miles said. Small titters punctuated each of his words like a stutter. “Did you?”
Even now, Travis thought, Miles was high-school cruel: His definition of a prank was arbitrary trickery, where the punch line was simply that anyone would trust Miles to be honest. A high school stoner’s idea of a prank. But they weren’t in high school anymore, Travis thought. Was Travis the only one who saw things moving forward? Would everyone else pretend it was fine and leave Travis scrambling in the background, trying to collect the pieces left behind like the discarded trash that littered the edges of Route 4?
“Let’s start already,” yelled one of the boys in a Maryland shirt.
“Miles is the same way,” Travis said, resisting the urge to defend the job and realizing as he spoke that there was no more Miles at Subway; this was Miles’s last shift, sans Miles. Travis halved the sandwich and swaddled it in paper packaging. Vin, who Travis figured had too little energy to engage in a teenage chat, finished the other sandwiches and set them by the register.
“I just can’t wait to get out of the County,” Sarah said, rifling through a shiny red purse for her wallet. Travis had never seen the purse. It could be her mother’s, he thought, or a graduation gift from her father Dr. Teague, the oral surgeon, who ran his practice in the same business park as Dr. Harris, both a half hour’s drive north of their comfortable County homes.
“There’s nothing wrong with the County,” Travis said.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine once I’m only visiting for Christmas,” she replied.
Sarah laughed, but gentle, melting whatever resentment Travis meant to carry. She held the sandwiches at her side with the red purse slung over her other shoulder. If she didn’t leave, he wouldn’t have to think about Miles or what morning shifts would look like next week. Travis knew this was the longest talk they would ever have, and it only made him want her more; he wanted to keep her here a second longer, to stop her from fading into memory with spitballs.
“I’ll see you around,” she said.
“Definitely,” he said, knowing it was a lie, and she left.
It feels like it might rain as I step outside of the bar; ordinarily the air here is dry and grainy, but tonight it shimmers on my skin. The highway is desolate, glinting under the high moon. I’ll be a failed hitchhiker for hours, in all likelihood.
I walk by the fat nose of Miriam’s car, its enormous headlight eyes bulging in the direction of its owner. Myself, I don’t look back. I can’t; I’m Lot escaping Sodom. The faster I move, the less likely it is that someone shoots me in the back while they can still see me.
So fear keeps me moving, as usual, but this time I’m unleashing it on purpose, with all the indifference of a tidal wave. Fear moves me past the trunk of the vintage car. I could open it if I wanted to, now, and peek inside or steal the rich man’s secret, but fear pushes me away, gently, and I sway into the night like a ship rocking as it balances in the current. A coward after all, and always. That’s for the best, I think, and better than cruel.
Behind me I hear the clap of a gunshot. I’ve lost track of time, from standing to here; the shooter could have been anyone. Even that bartender. But I don’t flinch, and I don’t even consider turning around.
When Travis came out of the bathroom, he saw Sarah Teague waiting at the counter, wearing a shapeless black tee shirt and blue jeans.
“Short movie,” Travis said without meaning to sound bitter.
“I don’t know what that means,” Sarah said. “I’m picking up food for dinner.” She scribbled on the sandwich order pad and slid it across the counter. “I can’t believe my sister wants food from this place. She’s trying to torture me.”
Behind the counter, Vin had arranged four sliced breads for four sandwiches. “Help me out here,” he said, jabbing his knife toward Travis.
“Didn’t Miles ask you out?” Travis asked. A twinge like yesterday’s upset stomach bubbled under his apron.
Vin let out a low whistle as he opened the oven. Sarah’s eyes narrowed, but her cheeks flushed, which told Travis both that Miles had asked her nothing and that, if Miles were to ask her, she’d say yes.
“Oh,” Travis said, answering himself to kill the silence.
Sarah stared at the chopped lettuce and cleared her throat. “Isn’t Miles usually here on Fridays?” she asked as though the name were being mentioned for the first time. “How much did he take from his dad’s checkbook to get you to cover his last day?”
Travis grabbed the order pad, read Sarah’s tidy handwriting, and assembled a veggie sandwich: lettuce, tomatoes, green peppers, black olives, onions, pickle relish. He listed the ingredients in his head, over and over, not because he might forget but because they made better sense than Miles and his non-existent date with Sarah Teague.
He added the pickle relish as Sarah spoke again. “You’re going to Maryland, right?” she asked. “Picked a major yet?”
“I’m not going to college,” Travis said, embarrassed by the decision for the first time. He forced himself not to mumble. “Not for a while, anyway.”
“Well, you’re not staying here,” she said like saying made it true. She leaned over the counter and smiled. “I can’t believe you and Miles held up so long here. If my parents hadn’t forced me into a job this summer, I wouldn’t have stayed a week.”
“Excuse me?” the brother snarls. He’d shoot me, I guess, or threaten to, but he can’t afford to move the gun.
“She’s here. You’re here. Ask her yourself.”
“That wasn’t our arrangement,” he says. “What, are you afraid to hurt a girl? Coward. You’ll get nothing from me.”
I want to laugh, that he’s calling me a coward of all things, but I just shake my head. “Don’t want it,” I say, but before I can stand, my hand is pressed to the table. Miriam. Her hand’s harpooned out to mine, pinning me as best as she can.
“Don’t go,” she says.
“I bet you’re faster than you look,” I say to her, and I set my knife down on the table with my free hand, a few inches from her spread fingers. All things considered, I’m acting very calm.
“What are you doing?” asks the brother, who doesn’t interest me anymore.
“Brett,” she whispers, still frozen by the gun at her back. “Please.”
“It’s Rick,” I say, grinning. “I’m a changed man, and this isn’t my fight.”
“Rick.” She’s trying to hold me in place with her eyes. If she had a gun, I think she’d point it at me right now, despite what I’m doing. “Help me.”
“I am,” I say, sliding away from the barstool. “I’m being the best version of what I am. Like you said.”
Saturday: Travis runs like he means to catch his own pass. The football bounces on the ground, ten yards short of where Miles lay crumpled. Travis decides that he is a failure; no one will return to Elmswood for this, to feel this badly again.
The normal Friday night shift consisted of Miles, Vin, and a sophomore named Lonnie DiCarlo. Lonnie called in claiming to have the flu, but rather than call a substitute, Vin and Travis decided that they could manage the few extra responsibilities.
Travis mopped the floors where customers had tracked mud onto the white tile. Subway’s yellow light felt unreal against the blackness outdoors, as though Travis were standing inside a jack o’ lantern at midnight. Vin rested his elbows by the cash register, stared at a blank order pad, and fought the urge to sleep. He worked morning and night shifts on Fridays, which to Travis sounded unbearable.
“If I could, I’d stay here ‘til four in the damn morning,” Vin said. He closed his eyes, as if he could wander halfway into dreams without interrupting the conversation. “Money’s money. The County ain’t a cheap place to live, even if it’s cheap to look at.” He snorted at his own joke.
“You could move somewhere else.” Travis set the mop in the water bucket and slumped into a red torn-leather booth. His limbs buckled; Vin’s exhaustion passed to him along the oily air. “They have Subways in cheaper places.”
“I’ve been here too many years. Family’s been here too many years.” Vin shook his head. He looked old with his eyes closed, somewhere past middle-aged, digging into thick and muddy experience. “It’s like living any place. You don’t mean to get stuck, until the place piles on and you can’t get up to leave.”
Travis thought he should say something profound in reply, but he only managed “I’m gonna use the bathroom,” which at least gave Vin a chuckle.
She won’t break eye contact. I have known this woman for less than half an hour. But she has me swimming, in my mind, through old memories. Floating downstream with distant aches and pains. This is enough money to pay a year’s rent. Maybe a year and a half, if I move. Not many other ways to get that kind of money when you’re broken the way I am.
“So, where’s she keeping it?” the brother asks. “Some lockbox somewhere?”
“No,” I say without turning.
“Years without a word,” Miriam says, looking at me and talking to him, “and you do this now? Why bother? Can’t you leave anything in peace?”
The brother snorts. “Well, where, then?”
I feel the tickle of rushing water filling my eardrums and the heaviness of salt water across my back. We took ice baths after games; they always reminded me of distant beaches, places like where Grandad tried to teach me fishing but soon abandoned me to slap waves and build mountains. Places I would have visited more often, if I’d had the time back then. Exhaustion, more than anything, overtakes me.
“Nah,” I say. I pull my blade away from Miriam’s thigh. Her eyes widen; I watch a line of sweat expand along her eyebrow. “I’m out.”
Thursday night: Travis’s finger still stung, and his stomach churned even before he ate a foot-long B.L.T. on his lunch break, so he chose not to throw the football with Tony in their driveway. Tony had turned on only one of the house lights, a dim standing lamp in the living room which glared against the setting sun creeping through the windows. Travis tossed his polo and khakis into a small hamper hanging on his bedroom doorknob and walked into the living room in a white undershirt and boxers.
Travis’s mom had left a sticky note on the kitchen counter that read CHICKEN IN THE FRIDGE. XOXO. She had managed to balance the store-brand chicken wing box atop the milk and orange juice; there was no other space in the old refrigerator.
“At least let me come Saturday,” Tony said. He slumped against the foot of the couch, his torso hiding the torn part of the cushion where the foam stuffing had begun its escape.
(Tony, though four years younger, stood half an inch shorter than Travis. He had wide shoulders and a thick neck, and could run the length of Elmswood Park without getting winded. All Tony had talked about since June was playing fullback like his hero Joe Riggins, the legendary Redskin that wouldn’t go down with a dozen defenders on his back. Travis knew his brother would shine on the high school team as easily as he had on Pop Warner teams. Sports might be Tony’s future; Travis just had the one day.)
“No,” Travis said, pulling his shoulders back. He had learned years ago that if he stood upright and projected his voice, he sounded enough like their father to keep Tony in line. “Play with your own friends. Put that chicken in the microwave.”
“Want to play some Halo?” Tony asked as he rose to obey the command. The brothers never had more sophisticated conversations than this. They played catch in silence. From their parents, they gained work ethics and an ideal of home as a quiet respite from the exhaustion of employment.
“Sure,” Travis said. He grabbed a video game controller, sat on the couch, and tried to think of Elmswood Park to replace the image of Sarah’s orange hair, framed by a green hat. The best he could do was to instead remember the back of her hair in social studies class, pretty even when pocked by spitballs. Even after closing his eyes to sleep, waves of orange colored his vision like cheap sunglasses.
“Yeah,” I say, meeting her gaze with heavy eyelids.
The bartender appears from the back room and stares at the scene before him. As far as I can tell, he can’t see any weapons, but he can probably smell the sweat and fear in the room. Maybe there’s a shotgun under the bar on his side, but maybe not, in a sleepy place like this. It doesn’t matter. He’s frozen, more confused than terrified.
“Get back in there,” the brother snarls. “Now!”
He backs away. I imagine him hiding in the back room, fetal curled around his stash. Lucky for him, nothing will be stolen, and the plan is to get her outside; he won’t have to explain anything at all to the bar’s owner. Life will return to its regular schedule.
“I’ll tell you where it is,” Miriam says. There’s no clear panic in her voice, but I can see as she looks at me that she’s struggling to stay level. But she’s done this before. He’s done this before. She thinks she knows the drill. “You can have it. I’ll go.”
“You were going to keep it from me,” he says. “I don’t like that.”
At four o’clock the four employees removed their gloves and exchanged goodbyes, exiting into the open air of Elmswood. They behaved, Travis thought, as if all four would return without fanfare for work on Monday morning, but it broke his heart to smile and turn away when Sarah closed her car’s front door.
Saturday, the game, Travis’s pass in the air: Miles turns his head to locate the ball. In that moment, although he is barely five foot ten and built like a matchstick, to Travis he looks exactly like Mark Stetson. The grass trips him, Travis thinks, or else the defender steps on the back of Miles’s heel. Either way, Travis watches his friend twist and collapse into the wet dirt. He hears someone groan. Kyle Samson, one of the varsity team’s receivers, spits into the grass and turns away from Travis and the field. Not this again.
He’s wearing a trench coat, the kind that screams “criminal” or at least “flasher.” And horn-rimmed glasses. This is the first time I’ve seen him. From Miriam’s reminiscence, I might have expected a boy, but this is a man of leathery skin and a set jaw, with crinkles along his eyes. A man who looks at the world with a mixture of amusement and revulsion.
“Hey, Miri,” says her brother, as he pulls an arm from the folds of the coat and places the nose of a pistol against the middle of her spine. “So good to see you, after all this time.”
“You’re late,” I say. My instinct kicks into gear, and before Miriam can twitch her neck to see what’s happening, I’ve pressed the long end of my switchblade against her thigh, a few inches from the femoral artery, where all the life can pour from a body in minutes.
“Did she tell you where it is?” His voice is a raspy snarl, a lung cancer drawl, like he’s trying to sound decades older than he is.
Miriam looks at me, and for me everything clicks at once. I’m expecting rage, or anguish, or pure fear–the typical reactions. Instead her eyes settle into mine and soften. A face of forgiveness.
Miles laughed and slapped Travis on the back, at once becoming his usual self. Sarah, Travis noticed, had seen their illicit bargaining, but she only raised her eyebrow for a moment before focusing on squeezing mayonnaise onto a blanket of shredded beef.
“Everything good here?” Vin asked with a scowl. He stood where Travis should have been, slicing bread. A line of customers snaked long past the entrance again.
“All good,” Travis murmured, repeating it like a desperate mantra as he returned to the sink. All good. In a few seconds he’d pull away the paper towel, grab a fresh pair of gloves and replace Vin, rejoining Sarah and Miles on the assembly line for the last time.
Football would happen; Travis would be all right.
The television has moved on, at last, from sports; now it’s just an aerial shot of a townhouse catching fire somewhere nearby.
Miriam shakes her head. She won’t look at me. To her, we’re strangers now caught in intense, awkward intimacy. She’d probably like to leave, but she thinks she’s been waiting for someone else. I wish she would say “sorry” again.
“People are what they are,” I say. “From birth, it’s always there.”
“You might be right,” she says, sounding hoarse, “but you’re wrong, too.”
“If people are what they are,” she says, “they can still choose to be the best or the worst version of what they are. You think you’re a coward, but maybe you just knew you didn’t want that kind of suffering in your life. If you hadn’t drowned in self-pity, maybe you would have found something you liked that didn’t have that pain. My brother could have become Robin Hood, or something like that, instead of stealing from the poor or from his family. Same instinct, better outcome.”
Sweet idea, I think to myself, watching the bartender disappear into the back room, either to take a final bump or to hide his stash for the night, keeping it safe for tomorrow night.
That’s when her brother walks into the bar.
“I don’t need it that bad,” Travis said. He tried to cover the lie with confidence by turning to meet Miles’s eyes with a paper towel pressed hard against his wound.
“Take my shift tomorrow night,” Miles said. Travis could smell lemonade on his teeth, which beat the skunk odor that hung on Miles’s lips and clothes during night shifts. “I want to ask Sarah out to a movie.”
Travis froze. Out in the restaurant, Sarah filled a diet soda for a middle-aged businesswoman who carried a bagged lunch. The woman came in every other Thursday, just for the soda; she knew Sarah’s mother from local PTA meetings. Sarah’s face sparkled as she talked about Johns Hopkins and practicing medicine, like her oral surgeon father.
“Come on, man,” Miles murmured into Travis’s ear, beneath Sarah’s voice. “You’re not here Fridays. I’ve thought about this for months and now the summer’s over. Be a friend.”
“Why wait until now to ask her?” Travis asked. Blotches of purple danced in front of his eyes and his stomach was upside down. He tried to focus. Miles wasn’t making sense; didn’t Miles know, anyway, about Travis’s feelings? “When have you been nervous about girls?”
Miles shrugged and kept his shoulders raised.
Just a movie date, Travis thought. He wanted to crawl into bed, feeling deathly ill, like when strep throat took two weeks of seventh-grade classes and replaced them with sweaty sheets and a boa constrictor around his neck. He could hear Sarah laughing, but he wasn’t sure if he was imagining it or if she really was laughing. Either way she was right there, ten feet away. She wasn’t Travis’s girlfriend; how could he stop Miles from asking her out, if Miles really wanted it? At least, this way, Travis could get something he wanted, too. Seems reasonable, Travis thought, and so he resisted the urge to vomit.
“Deal,” Travis said.
“Oh?” she says.
It must be past midnight, but as long as I’m starting, I’ll finish.
“It was an MCL sprain,” I say. “A minor one. Recovery should have been six weeks, give or take, and it happened in September, so I should have been able to play again that year.” Suddenly my bones ache for another beer, to have the foam collapse against my tongue. “Just some light rehab, they said, and wear your brace. You know what I did? Nothing. I sat around and drank in my dad’s house until he hated me. Dropped out of school by Halloween. Never answered my phone. Saw myself in local news stories, the reporters asking where I’d gone.”
“Why?” Miriam asks. “Hadn’t you been injured before?”
I shook my head. “Not like that. I hadn’t realized I could be hurt like that.” I wish I had another drink. I was a stupid, coddled child. “My parents never kicked me out into the world; they let me choose to hide.” And I suffered for it, and so did they. “Once I took that hit and felt that pain, all I could think was, I never want to hurt like that again. No determination in me except avoidance. I was a coward then, and I stayed coward. I threw everything away.”
When the customers began to appear, the Subway shift fell into its usual routine, even on Sarah’s last day. Travis took orders, sliced breads, and assembled the meats and cheese; he passed the sandwich to Sarah, who added vegetables and condiments; she wrapped the sandwich and moved it along to Miles, who took cash or credit before telling customers to have a nice day. Vin ran to the fridge when they were low on peppers or provolone. During the lunch rush, when the order line stretched beyond the front door, they became a mindless assembly line. Travis often found it relaxing, like a long jog around the park, except for the oily skin.
Today, however, Travis wanted to stop; he had to convince Miles to play football. He funneled the anxiety into the job, mishearing three orders, dropping a turkey sandwich meat-down on the floor, and slicing open his index finger while halving six inches of wheat bread.
The latter, at least, brought momentary peace. Travis soaked his finger in the back room sink, watching the blood twirl red ribbons into the hot rushing water. The distraction of stinging pain pulled some of the panic from his afternoon. He wondered if he could drain even more of his adrenaline through the open wound, if only to keep him from tripping over his own feet and decapitating himself with the bread knife.
“Trav,” Miles said, sidling over and putting an arm around Travis. “Let’s make a deal.”
Travis turned away from his damp hand. Miles was sweating; his fingers tapped a rapid gallop along Travis’s shoulder. Even at his most stoned, Miles never came to work this anxious.
“We can play football,” Miles said, “if you need to so bad.” He flashed a smile. “Just do something for me first.”