Underthrow, 2

Travis spent months preparing for the game.  The park gates opened at eleven, but most summer mornings he crept through a hole in the fence near the intersection at Route 4.  The hole was five minutes’ walk east of Travis’s home, a single-story stack of bricks that nestled below their neighbors’ towering houses and backyard pools.  On Fridays, Travis’s only free weekday, he and his younger brother Tony left home at dawn, through the fence and the bounding line of tall oak trees, so that Tony could catch pass after pass.  They practiced at night in their empty driveway, while their parents endured late shifts inside the local supermarket.

Organized sports left Travis afraid of disappointing coaches with his awkward gait or limited grasp of the rules; basketball’s frantic flow doomed him to mistake.  Pick-up football, where the slowest kid played quarterback as true athletes ran and tackled, was his joy.  Practice bolstered Travis’s confidence that he could erase the disaster of early June.

New weekly feature: media criticism and analysis.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert.

I’m feeling inspired, in part because I watched the documentary Life Itself this past weekend, about the life and death of critic Roger Ebert. Ebert is one of my favorite writers in any genre, period; thinking about the art and craft of his writing always makes me want to try my hand at media criticism.

So, starting this afternoon, I’m going to be posting short essays about various media (film, TV, books) that capture my interest or provoke some thought, minor or major. Many will be about the films, television shows, and books that I love; plenty will be about things I don’t like so much. I plan to keep it fun and flexible.

We’ll start in a few hours with a post about Snowpiercer, another movie I just saw a few days ago (and very much enjoyed). New mini-essays will go up every Wednesday around noon. I hope you enjoy them.

’72 Skylark, 3

She sits two stools away from my old ass and waves over the bartender, and up close I realize my first impression wasn’t entirely true. She looks smaller, more feminine, once she slumps into the table and takes off the hat. Not young for her age, but not old for it, either; no wrinkles in her face just yet, except the ones you get from smiling.

“Scotch and a glass of water with no ice,” she says to the coked-up bartender, who rattles his head and shuffles through his liquors like a man trying to steal the best ones. “Whatever’s handy.”

I glance around the room. The frat boys took notice of her for a moment, but she’s none of their types. Too legal. No wedding ring. They’re back to watching the game. The biker’s still on his phone call. I can’t see the old man anymore; he’s to her right, and she’s blocking my view.

Time to make the first move; if she’s going to tell me what I need to know before our time runs out, I have to start now. I give the bartender another moment to rummage before I speak. “You can get better scotch lots of places with better lighting than this, hon.” Dumb line, but it’ll do.

The woman stares at the wall ahead of her; I see her muscles tense and her shoulder blades raise like wings. Was she expecting someone like me? Has the thing gone rotten already?

Underthrow, 1

Travis steadies his breathing.  He scans receivers one by one.  Cool autumn wind whistles between the trees at his side.  Joey Harris has always been his favorite.  His oldest friend runs crisp routes in long strides.  Pick-up football, Travis thinks, helps Joey take things seriously.  Travis aims his shoulder and looks down field.  He imagines an oncoming rush of blitzing helmets.  His arm pumps right but he throws left, pumps left but he throws right.  Yells and trampling footsteps ricochet around the walls of trees.

After ten minutes Travis throws a twenty-yard bomb that lands like a dove upon Joey’s fingertips.  Travis leaps at the sky with a raised fist while Joey’s defender drags him to the ground.  His mind rumbles with the heady delusion of testosterone.  These other kids, Travis thinks, will leave for college without him, but they will remember this game and how impressive Travis looked.  When they play catch on their quads, they will think: Hey, we should call Travis, we should head to Elsmwood Park and play football with Travis, remember how much fun we had, remember how he jumped a drunken cannonball into the shallow end of Joey’s pool, remember when he broke the swing at elementary school recess, remember our late-night 7-11 runs for frozen blueberry slushes, yeah, we loved Elmswood, don’t you miss living there, of course, who wouldn’t, isn’t that right, Sarah?

He knows that Sarah Teague is going to Johns Hopkins, not College Park like the boys playing here, but the thought sticks regardless.

’72 Skylark, 2

The bartender’s not the only one partying here right now. A fat biker with a harelip’s taking up a booth, eating nachos and talking on a cell phone; across the J of the bar table, a couple frat boys in bright shirts keep slapping each other’s backs and howling; a few stools away from me, there’s an ancient man in a thick coat sipping the last dregs of a brown, icy drink through a straw. No one’s smiling, but everyone’s just where they should be.

Closed-captioned local sports replays on a busted-ass TV dangling above the bottles of liquor, jukebox spitting something with a jangly guitar: We’ve all seen this movie before, hundreds of times, and that’s exactly why we all showed up in a place like this.

Well, not all of us, actually.

She looks wrong for the place as soon as she steps in, but not the way I’d expected; she strides in too big for the place, instead of too small. Fits the photo in my pocket, but the real version has a red ponytail strung through the back of a black baseball cap and wide, set shoulders bare around a tank top. Hip-hugging jeans. A tattoo of something with thorns trails along her back. In silhouette, she’s something remembered from a grungy lesbian porno, or old B-movies about all-girl prisons.

’72 Skylark, 1

I see my mark pulling into the last open parking spot on the curb. I’ve been sitting in this dank sewer for an hour and I’m four beers under, but I still recognize the license plate once the headlights go off, and I catch the dull metal in the floodlight hanging above the front door. I want a smoke, but I also don’t want to move.

I’ve been sitting at the far end of the bar waiting for her to show up, and I’ve kept my head down; the only person who’s really noticed me is the bartender. He’s given me a few screwed-up faces when he’s served me, which means some foggy part of his brain might recognize me, but it won’t stick; he’s been sneaking bumps off his switchblade all night, and his cheeks are sheened over with sweat, glassy like his eyes.

Hell, he wouldn’t recognize me anyway. Not with my thinned hair, my nose still sitting crooked from the motorcycle accident eight years ago, my sun-leathered skin. I am a collection of faded scars; I haven’t looked like myself in at least a decade. I am the forgotten man in this town. That’s the only reason I can do what I do.

Elevating, 4

It’s frigid and lonely at the mesopause, one hundred kilometers up. Lonely as everywhere else in stupid space, Madison thinks. Her fingers are numb and bloated, so she couldn’t text even if she had her phone. She’s sure her intestines have unraveled, flapping like the limbs of those advertising balloon dancers on top of car dealerships.

Earth’s a watercolor smear – oh yeah, her glasses, she remembers now, are on her bureau, right next to that dumb phone and a bottle of Tylenol PM. She wishes she could take some pills right now; the thin air’s exhausting, but not enough to see any trippy hallucinations. No angels or ghosts; no hunky astronauts; nothing.

This, Madison says through lips that must look like elephant trunks, is lame.

When she hits one-hundred-twenty kilometers, barely a third up the thermosphere (oh who cares which sphere anyway), the low pressure stretches and pops Madison like a long blister, and the slimy remainder of her hurtles back to earth like a clump of bird droppings, thank God.

the end

Scheduling changes.

You’ll notice there is no new story update for today. Starting tomorrow, we’re changing to a twice-weekly updating schedule every Tuesday and Thursday. There will be additional, intermittent updates on the occasional Wednesdays.

Tomorrow, “Elevating” ends; on Thursday, a new story begins.

Spark, 21

I am Marge’s roommate now, in a basement room that might have once been a closet, but her big smiles have been replaced by many long, sad looks. I suspect she thinks you never existed — that my fantasy was engulfed in flames. I’ve never told her the truth about you because it would only push her further away from me. Already she’s insisting I should see a therapist – another doctor, like him. I don’t need that anymore. What I need is you, my darling.

“Mommy please,” I hear in every one of my dreams. At night I cry out your name, again and again.

I’m right here, dear. I’m right here. Please. Please forgive me. I love you. Please come back.

the end

Elevating, 3

Fifty kilometers high, passing into the mesosphere, the air is static, but a chill curdles her veins and thickens her blood.

Floating, it turns out, is boring; if Madison had her phone, she’d tell Alisha never to try it. Instead, she busies herself counting space rocks that tumble past and downward, until they catch silent flame and disintegrate. She wants to prick her finger on that dumb pine tree and wake up already. Instead, oceans and mountains lie flat before her like elementary-school cardboard dioramas.

So small, yet so great, yeah, how wondrous – but she just wants a blanket.

Spark, 20

They didn’t find your body, of course. They found his, still slumped on the couch — he must have returned to that chair after you ran away, content to let the flames engulf him. The men who picked through the ashes of that house said he must have been unconscious throughout, stuck in a drunken coma. They’re wrong. If I looked long enough I could see your dark tracks on the asphalt, the wake of your independent burst.

They had to take me away screaming, you have to know that. Not for him, like they might have guessed, but for you – just to see your face one more time, to let you know that I wanted you to escape. To tell you to find your house on the shore, and to wait for me there.

Elevating, 2

Old Mr. Lee, Madison’s next-door neighbor who complained to 9-1-1 about the noise at her fourteenth-birthday party last year, walks over to her parents and points up at her. The sun makes him squint; she squints back, because apparently she forgot her glasses, too. Again: oh well. Where does she think she’s going, Mr. Lee asks; it’s the last thing anyone says within her earshot.

She realizes, after a minute, that soon she’ll reach the clouds. Madison loves when clouds come up in science class; she’s flown on airplanes that passed over puffy landscapes of cumulonimbus mountains and altostratus dunes. As her spread arms disrupt a chattering flock of orange robins, she wonders if you can breathe inside the thick wisps.

On the ground, her parents – who, if Madison had her glasses, might be visible dots next to the dot of her house – could still be calling her name. Or Mr. Lee could be calling the cops. But her ears feel packed with foam. Somehow everything keeps getting more silent, deader as the planet gets smaller.

Finally she hits a cloud, but it’s a half-formed cirrus: she clears it after a second of crummy fog. Madison scowls; she bets that even the huge clouds would have looked less landscape-y, more like the contents of an exploded Readi-Whip canister.

Spark, 19

From around the street corner, still nearly half a mile from our front door, I started to run when I saw the smoke. As soon as I saw it curdling up into the air, I knew where I would find it. I had never run that much in my life, and have never run as much since, but as fast as I could move still took what felt like hours to reach what was left of our house.

As I ran I thought about you, how you had never run an inch in your life because we’d never let you out to try. But I’m sure you ran that day, my beautiful daughter. I’ve thought so many times about what must have happened. My first thought was that I was to blame — perhaps a cigarette or burning embers had caught something and flown into a chain reaction. But, no, it must have been you, my brilliant and powerful child.

Did he chase you in a fit of sudden, lucid rage? That tall Frankenstein’s monster of a former doctor, twisted by his perceived failure and the real failure that followed. I know you were afraid of him; I should have been, too. Did you trample your feet against the carpets and the tile, running for the first time as I ran that day, casting wild flames into every room of the house? I’m sure that’s what happened. I can see your eyes now, full of panic and defiance. You bolted from that house and found your freedom somewhere, somehow.

Elevating, 1

The troposphere, for the first few kilometers, feels a lot like the ground, except Madison’s parents are yelling. Seconds ago, she sat with her parents on the patio chairs; she was finishing a glass of pink lemonade, reading a weird German book for English class about a guy who turns into a beetle: gross, but kind of cool. Now, in a blink, she’s floating among the pine trees next to her house.

She pushes her thumb against a pine needle, like a pinch to see if she’s dreaming, but she rises too fast to press hard enough for a straight answer. It’s okay, she thinks, this is neat; she’s never seen anyone else float before. She decides to text Alisha about it, except that, when she reaches in her pockets, there’s no phone. Oh well; still exciting!

Spark, 18

Two days later, I left work early, walking instead of taking Marge’s carpool. I wanted to surprise you with a trip out to the boardwalk and the ocean shore. I wanted to tell you about my dream. I could see your eyes lighting up as I explained our little one-story home: cool aluminum floors, a short hammock with plenty of room for your feet to stretch and relax in an open breeze, and that beautiful, calming shoreline water. At that house you could read stories all day, and when I came home I’d read to you even more.

Learning about this dream, you’d embrace me and I’d hold you as I did when the cops almost saved us from your father — but this time I could really save you, by giving you a life without closed windows and constricting wraps.

It’s the life that you deserved from me. I’m so sorry.

Tommy Flies, 18

Tommy pushes his feet against the center of the tree and launches himself homeward. Tommy tries to angle himself downwards, closing his eyes and thinking about pushing against pool water.

A wind rushes in from behind and whips his body around. He keeps his eyes closed as he rotates, trying not to become too disoriented. He is very proud of himself for getting the hang of this, for improving, by himself. Tommy usually has trouble getting better at things, even when his mom and Miss Gladstone and the principal try to help him, but this is only his second full flight and already he has some control.

When Tommy opens his eyes, he can see past the highest point of his house, almost out to the strip of pockmarked road that lies beyond the driveway. He is still higher than he wants to be, but he catches the top of the roof.

From here he can see Patches’ doghouse. The dog is asleep and snoring just like he had hoped. He hopes she is dreaming about butterflies and grasshoppers. If he wanted to, Tommy could climb down his chimney like Santa Claus, but Tommy doesn’t want to do that. He could tell his mother about this night as well as with each other moment, but he decides to make it his own, something separate from his mother and school and Patches. It is a secret that he will keep private for the rest of his life. He crawls down the roof like Spiderman now, a silent hero sneaking through his bedroom window and floating back to his bed sheets.

the end

Spark, 17

There was so much stress at that time that I started to smoke cigarettes in the morning — compulsively, the way others drink coffee. Within a month I was running through a pack a day, eating at the money I made just as much as your father’s bourbon. He would laugh when he saw me smoking, without comment. Once in his life, when his medical degree made him feel like judge and jury, he had taken pains to chastise smokers, about their needless hastening of death. But by then he was too worn, and would be too hypocritical, to bother with anything but a quiet sneer.

You were trapped in the middle of all this. Each day you asked I could see the anger I’d felt at your birth growing again, and indeed at nights your wrappings seemed to end increasingly charred and burnt. One morning I found the posts at the end of your metal bed frame warped and melted by the heat, the supposedly non-flammable wraps lit like wide matches. You didn’t even ask me where I was going.

“I love you,” I tried to say again and again, but for the first time you didn’t seem to be listening. Maybe the nicotine on my breath was driving you away, just as much as my complacency with leaving you in your father’s terrible care.

I feared I had lost you then, not knowing what was about to happen.

Tommy Flies, 17

Tommy’s mother has told him that owls are some of the smartest birds in the world, and he wants to ask it some questions. Tommy has never heard an owl’s hoot except on television shows; he wants to ask the owl if it could hoot for him, as loudly as possible, and show him how to hoot as well. He would still like to ask if it lives here, and if it doesn’t, Tommy wants to know why it wouldn’t just fly back home and stay at home forever rather than perch in the cold and the dark.

He doesn’t know how to ask these questions, though, and the owl’s distant gaze makes him too nervous even to inch any closer to the bird.

Eventually Tommy decides that the pine branch hurts his hand too much to stay. He waves goodbye to the forest and to the owl, who fails to acknowledge the gesture.

Spark, 16

It was six months into my job, and I was starting to feel almost comfortable there, using that respite from your father’s grumbled curses and from the process of re-wrapping your feet. By then you were asking full questions, and every morning you asked me where I was going and if you could come, too. You wanted to explore, but we wouldn’t let you. You wanted me, but I was gone.

What was your father doing in those hours I was gone? I wish you could have told me, though even today I struggle not knowing what I could have done to stop him. Did he learn to yell again in my absence, hurling all the blame on you? Did he try to strike you? It was all his fault, my child, everything was his fault and I only wanted to protect you from him. I swear it.

Tommy Flies, 16

Tommy takes a moment to look out at the forest, which he finds to be larger than he could have imagined from his backyard. Green treetops form a mountain range as far into the distance as he can see. Tommy pulls himself close to the pine, trying to get a better view of the other trees. The crescent moon provides too little light for Tommy to see below from so high above; the trees appear to sink endlessly beyond the center of the earth. Tommy wants to examine their roots, but he does not know what predators may lie in wait for him to tread closer to the ground. This journey has been a large enough risk, he thinks, and he has swallowed more than enough fear just to make it this far. His heart might burst at the strain of any more reasons to be anxious.

There is a silver owl on a tree across from Tommy. Tommy knows that it is an owl, though he can only see the glimmer of its eyes and beak against the moonlight. He wants to ask the owl if it lives here, but instead he just waves to it, allowing his body to float upwards save for the hand which grips the pine branch. The owl does not respond; its eyes twitch to him and then to the left and right, but it does not seem to notice Tommy at all.

Spark, 15

Marge would have taken care of you. Like I said, she asked about you every day. But she was working too, and… oh, that’s just an excuse. The reason why I didn’t ask her was the mommy club. The one time she invited me scared me away from all of them. Half a dozen women making a semi-circle around a coffee table in Marge’s living room, sipping chardonnay and joking about diaper changes. All our children playing in the grass in front of us — except you. You would have burnt that field to a crisp, and the other children with it. But I couldn’t tell them that.

I had nothing to say to them, and the ones who weren’t Marge exchanged glances whenever I spoke, just to ask for the restroom or say “I know what that’s like” while refusing to elaborate. Marge patted me on the shoulder each time I spoke, trying to be encouraging but really confirming my fears that no one wanted me there, that re-socializing me after what your father did would be impossible. I never wanted to run away more than in that moment, and for a mad instant I wanted to run away from you, too, just run off on my own to try to make a new, different life.

It must have been that awful thought that finally brought things to their terrible conclusion.

Tommy Flies, 15

Below Tommy is his quarter-acre backyard: his muddy sandbox full of forgotten toys; the moldy doghouse with its red faux-barnyard roof; and his mother’s flower garden, half-dead from neglect. The flower garden has only been in the backyard for the past year; his mother had wanted something that was hers alone, something aside from Tommy and work. She had explained to this to Tommy on the day she planted the first rose, as she knelt in the dirt wearing blue jeans and an old college t-shirt. She had tapped Tommy on the nose with a potting glove and laughed at the dirt left behind, but Tommy pouted, his feelings hurt by her divided attention. The flowers were watered and loved for only two weeks before his mother forgot about them. He passes by them now and looks to the back of the fence, trembling with excitement as it drops from his view.

Just beyond Tommy’s backyard is a small patch of forest that he has never been allowed to enter. He closes his eyes for a moment as he approaches the trees and he hears the paper-shuffle rustling of the branches. It is only when he sweeps his arm to reach for a tree branch that he realizes that he has been flying upward as well as forward.

Panic rises in his chest, and Tommy looks around for something to secure himself with, afraid of floating away into the endless sky. After a few moments of blind scrambling, he brushes against the top of a massive pine tree. He grabs hold and refuses to loosen his grip, even as the needles dig into his palm.