Third bit of news today! I’m so excited and honored that Internet Void started the new year with my work. Here’s a CNF about the grandpa I never got to meet, about our shared love of The Twilight Zone and us both being dreamers and grief that you can have for someone you never knew. 💙
I made something for you all.
It’s strange promoting this book, being excited for something this personal & hard, wondering how to show & describe this what-could-have-been.
So anyway, I made this book trailer & I think it captures it. Thank you. ❤
This CNF is one of the hardest things I’ve written, but I’m glad I did. This is for Chuck Yacullo. I never got to say this, so: Thank you for being there, Chuck. I love you.
My piece on grief through the lens of video game glitching is live in one of my dream journals, Cleaver Magazine! This flash is also an excerpt from my WIP, so it makes this feel even better, and then Cathy Ulrich, one of my all-time favorite flash writers, read and shared this, so that pretty much cinched the great day trifecta for me. 😊 You can read this story here!
It’s seeing the spider-web fractals of light coming in, through his busted windshield, to wake him up for another day. Turning the key to check gas gauge but then shutting the car back off, hearing a brief interval of morning radio show before it all goes quiet again. He’s gone a distance of about 800 miles now, he realizes. Not all at once but piecemeal, day after day, parking somewhere farther than where he came from, putting it all together like a quilt he’d watch his grandma make way back when. He’s thinking of the nature of being homeless, and the myriad “Home is…” decorations that he’d find in the suburban homes of friends and girlfriends growing up, thinking then even when he had a house that he didn’t exactly find home there, but he didn’t see an alternative then, any sort of way out. He was just staying there till he was old enough to legally leave. He remembered looking up emancipated minor laws as he was studying for finals his freshman year, and the chaos that was his living situation: a house filled with mildew and garbage , with no utilities and barely any food, a mother monster who would berate him even as he shaped himself to be a model student and son. The old words and moments come back, but only just now. They’re hazy around the edges, indistinct. He’s remembering the lapses of good, back before the divorce, when his parents’ mental states were fragile but still intact. When they’d do things like shoot home movies on a clunky old camcorder and go down to a park or a pumpkin patch, depending on the season, an old Wolverine action figure in his hand, something from the dollar store, and they’d put off fighting for a bit, at least until the shot was over, and he learned to live in these moments of focused attention, these comings and goings of surface-level normalcy. He remembers more and more of these good times now, and he doesn’t know whether that’s a side effect of his current condition or just a side effect of getting older. He doesn’t really care either way.
He keeps his feet bramble-beat, mud-puddle sheen, elastic waistband stretched past use and hanging, sagging really, on hips left to mottle in the sun, worn down from it, but he’s not worn, no sir, and can’t you see that smile on his face meant to tell you as much? If you’ll give him a dollar for some food then that’s your prerogative, but he understands if you can’t, if you need it for yourself, etc.
He’s been out on the street long enough to know the prognosis of the city. He studies its lungs as they choke for air in the twilight hours, its murmuring heart as it wakes up for another day. It susurrates to itself, leaves as whispered self-encouragement, until the rain sticks the words to the ground like haphazard tattoos from the city’s younger days.
They call him York, because that’s where he’s from, NYC, but the way it comes out his mouth when he’s been cold all day and he’s got brain fog and his tongue is stuck in a slow-mo movie, it comes out like Yorick, and that’s fine too, if people call him that, he figures, because it’s only a name. Just poor Yorick out here on the streets, trying to make every dollar count and stretch.
And he’s here, stretching too, under this melange of sunrise sky, these oranges, reds, purples in places, it’s beautiful if you notice it, if you really stop and see it and pay attention to the design of it, like a massive oil painting in appearance, but this one’s been done in photons.
He thinks he’s lucky, he says as much when people ask him, and he’s past worrying much beyond the next six hours or so. Anything further is beyond his immediate control, doesn’t exist, and so doesn’t matter just yet. It can’t matter.
Weightless dreams when sleep comes easy, which is rare, but these dreams are like glimpses of heaven when they come to Yorick, dreams not so much of flying as floating as a feather would, on the breeze, without sore ankles and tired eyes, dreams where he sees his kids again, and they’re safe, and happy, and the same age that they were back when he last saw them, when he could see them, when they called out to him in their sing-song voices and hugged his legs that were to them the size of tree stumps.
He isn’t hard on himself the way he used to be. Doesn’t curse fate, or God, or any other unseen force that might’ve put him where he is right now. He gets up with the light and goes to sleep with the darkness, fixing himself to the firmament because that’s the only thing he can count on most days, and that’s just fine by him.
He’s got a person over at the library who’s helping him with the internet and the computers and the websites. He was on the street long before the dot-com boom, and this librarian has been kind enough to show him how it all works, why it matters, what it can do.
Yorick’s got pages of research now, the librarian lets him print for free within reason, and he keeps it in his back pocket and reviews the data by the light of a streetlamp near where he usually sleeps for the night. Pages and pages of entries, permutations and possibilities of where his kids might be, separated by cities and states, their names common enough to give him scores of results, dozens of possible addresses and email addresses and phone numbers.
At night, he pores over these pages and eliminates the dead ends and the false starts, writes notes in the margins when he thinks he might be onto something. By day, the kind librarian helps him draft emails, encourages him to get even more use out of the library, and checks out books for him under her card, because you need a permanent address to get a library card, and Yorick hasn’t had one of those for the better part of 30 years.
It’s months of this, searching, hunting, crossing out, scribbling on the pages, checking the email inbox that the librarian set up for him, day in and day out, watching the sun rise and fall, his hopes with it, all of it, changing in the way that you only can with age, by the force of time, until that one day, with a simple reply, just the one word at first, but that’s all Yorick will need for now, because a simple “hi” from his daughter is worth more than hundreds of kind words from the mouths of strangers out on the street.
When I got the call and heard that my little brother had attempted suicide, there was that long, false, beautiful moment where my brain decided this was Not Real. This was an incredibly tasteless joke, or maybe it’d been a case of mistaken identity. I’d talked with him the week before, seen him in person last month when I’d flown back home, and he’d seemed fine. Stressed, maybe, but okay. A couple weeks later, he’d downed a bottle of pills and waited for an end that refused to come.
I know that discovery, that mix of shock and relief and disappointment. I’ve been in that position, been hospitalized for it, seen the looks on the faces of the people who matter most to me, and now I couldn’t help but make the same face. Couldn’t help but sort through the years, looking for any clues that this could possibly happen. Regressed mentally until I was a little kid myself, holding my little brother for the first time, just a baby, with no concept of the fact that what was just given to him could so easily be taken away.
When I got off the phone and reality finally caught up, I walked into the bathroom and knelt in front of the toilet. My stomach heaved, mouth stayed open, but nothing came out. Like words left unsaid for years, gathering, with no outlet, no exit, mingled and mangled until they’re unrecognizable and you can no longer say what needs to be said.
I cried. I allowed myself that much.
Powerlessness is an old friend. I knew him well when I was younger, but I thought we’d parted ways for good. I was wrong. How much consoling and comforting can you do from 800 miles away? What can you say over a static-y line that could make all of this go away? To see that kid at knee-height again, tearing through the house and laughing as you pretend to be a monster and give chase? What words can you offer beyond the ones that everyone already says, the words I myself had heard in the hospital, from friends and family and staff?
When I was sure I wouldn’t throw up, I got the number for his facility and called. Hearing his voice was like hearing someone come back from the dead, with every nuance and vocal quality vivid and obvious. I’d never pinpointed the details before, always subconsciously assumed that he’d always be there for me to listen to. I’d taken those things for granted.
What is a person made of? Is it the tiny changes in inflection when they’re making a joke? The glint in their eye when they haven’t seen you in months? For my brother, it was being able to be sarcastic in any situation, including and especially when relaying the facts of a suicide attempt. It was asking about family members and hoping they were okay, as if what had just happened to him was insignificant. It was the way that every “I love you” that came out of his mouth was genuine. True. And always would be.
Later that night, lying in bed, I checked my phone. I didn’t want to call anyone–I had already called them all. So I scrolled down the list, down and down, so fast that I could no longer see the names, just inbound or outbound.
The day I saw my mom again, it was cloudy, and gray, and cold, and I got off the bus about a mile early to pick up kitty litter. I hadn’t planned the stop, wasn’t even sure I needed to, but I did it anyway. Maybe a part of me knew what would happen.
Lugging the 20 lb. box home wasn’t practical, but I was stubborn. On the way back, there was a rehab facility. Physical rehab, not drug. I always had to make the distinction later, when explaining to others where my mom was living. The thing was, at base, my mom was homeless. Sure, she was staying at this rehab facility and getting just enough surgeries to prolong her stay and keep herself off the street, but she was technically homeless. I don’t know, though. Saying that implies that she had a home to begin with. She had houses, apartments, and duplexes, but no home. I guess I never had one either.
I definitely knew that she was staying there, but the part of me that knew that wasn’t conscious at the time. I was just lugging the kitty litter home, already breaking a sweat even in the chilly November air. By the time I got to the rehab facility, I was swimming in my thoughts.
I saw her standing there, smoking a cig outside the place, talking with a fellow resident. She was about a block away and hadn’t seen me. She hadn’t seen me in years.
I actually froze. I remember that. I stood there, totally still, kitty litter in hand, and had no idea what I was going to do. I looked across the street, considered jaywalking and moving briskly past, hiding my face until I was out of view. I thought of turning back, no destination planned. I thought of doing many things, but what I actually did was walk right up to her. What I actually did was greet her, and set the kitty litter down, and tell her that we needed to talk.
She didn’t know what to do.
The person she was talking to gave me a knowing look and walked away, cigarette cherry glowing in the wind. And there was my mom standing in front of me. Her face was bloated, scarred, and worn from all that the elements had done to her, all of the rage that her body had inflicted. Her eyes were hazy skies threatening rain, foggy like antique marbles. Her mouth was a straight line.
Historically, her thing was to initiate a hug in the hopes that it would make me forget about how she’d treated me. But she didn’t do that this time. What she did was stand there with her arms at her sides, awkward and tense. She was never contemplative, not one to ever stay silent, but no words would come to her. She’d look like she was on the verge of saying something, but then she’d falter.
Looking at her there, standing in her tattered shawl draped over hunched shoulders, face wrecked and body worn out, all of my anger went away. It wasn’t replaced by love, but by a mournfulness. It was like I was looking at a dead person who hadn’t been put in the ground yet.
I hadn’t seen her in years.
It looked like she’d only anticipated being outside for a quick smoke, her shawl insufficient against the cold Chicago air. Or maybe that’s all she had. I remembered hearing that she’d had all her things stolen from her one night while she slept at a homeless shelter in the city. And there I was, standing in my nice jacket, wearing my nice jeans and nice shoes. Everything was nice.
We talked for hours. I led the conversation at first, updating her on everything that was going on in my life. For a time, we were able to set aside the past, all those hurled insults and slammed doors and broken homes. We were old friends maybe, catching up over a cup of coffee.
She told me all about how she’d regularly walk over to the Vineyard Church in Evanston, detail the services and the people and the conversations. We were just C&E parishioners growing up: Christmas and Easter. But now she was going to church once a week, if not more. I could tell she needed it, and that was fine.
I remember feeling the heat escape my body, noticing the cold as it seeped into my bones. Me, with my nice jacket, half-frozen. But it didn’t seem to bother her. I figured all those months of homelessness probably got her used to it.
We both knew when it was time to go. I’d realize when I got home, after I fought past the preliminary tears, then the cries, then the sobs on my walk back that we’d been talking for four hours. But I wouldn’t know then. All I knew was that I had to hug her, and to hug her for real. Like it mattered, because it did. And when I turned to go, she called out to me in a worried voice I’d never quite heard before:
“Don’t forget the kitty litter.”
I remember at a young age being at Chuck and Mary’s house and seeing the framed picture Chuck had on the wall, a crying man’s fingers trailing over the Vietnam Memorial Wall, his buddy reflected in the smooth stone, still in uniform. I didn’t have a way of conceptualizing any of what Chuck must have gone through at that point. War to me then was propping up green army men and zooming jeeps along the carpet by hand. I couldn’t understand Chuck’s long pauses, the way he stared through things, the weight that each of his words carried.
There’s no other way to say it: Chuck is one of the toughest people I’ve ever known, but the kind of tough person whose armored exterior hid a sweet and mushy interior. He’d die to protect the people he loved. He had a way of getting me exactly what I wanted for Christmas, giving a matter-of-fact “you’re welcome” when I’d jump up and down and scream “thank you.” He’d take me aside, ask me about school, football, work, writing. I don’t know if he knew it while he was alive, but in a lot of ways, he was like a father figure to me.
As Chuck got older, his health deteriorated. He suffered illnesses I could never withstand, and he did it with grit, toughness, and humor. Maybe it was something he picked up in Vietnam, maybe it was just a part of him, but it seemed like nothing could keep Chuck down. I watched him lose weight dramatically, watched his mobility go away, watched him have to suffer the indignities of a body that simply didn’t want to do what he needed it to do.
As I grew up, Chuck went from being the guy whose presents I looked forward to every holiday to the guy who would level with me and talk through just about anything I was going through. Even as his body failed him, his spirit remained the same. It seemed like nothing could keep Chuck down.
Even to the very end, he remained that strong motherfucker, that guy who could disarm you with his dark humor and who hid how much he cared beneath his indomitable toughness. And sure, his humor got darker, and things pissed him off a bit more than they did before, but who could blame him? He was fighting the hardest battle of his life.
Chuck’s passed, and the hole is there, but I don’t think he’ll ever truly be gone. He’s just on the other side of the wall now, finally meeting up with his buddies after all these years. His body is strong again, and he can go where he wants to go, do what he wants to do. Not even death can keep Chuck down.
I’m on fire watch. It’s Fort Benning hot, humid, clouds of fly sex every five feet you walk. The barracks are quiet, everyone asleep, and I’m thinking of what to say. Mom tells me PGN is sick. She doesn’t want to say too much, but I can tell it’s bad. They keep moving his room in the hospital. It’s hard to get a hold of him.
I’m the only one on fire watch tonight. I’ve been waiting weeks for this, to be able to do what needs to be done. High fences box us in, open fields beyond them, no roads in sight. I remember staying long after Red Devil practice was over, still in my football pads, after everyone had left, and standing out in the middle of the field, surrounded by grass.
The phones aren’t supposed to be operational after sundown, but there are ways around this. I’ve got our phone number memorized, of course. Memories of me dialing with Waldo, turning it into a song to help him remember. He couldn’t have been older than two. Two, and tiny, and the way I’d prop him up under the armpits for one of Mom’s polaroids.
Who knows what my drill sergeant might say, or do, if he caught me doing what I’m about to do. He already put a guy’s head through drywall for defying orders. Made the same guy clean up the mess after a recruit attempted suicide with an M16, his face and jaw fragments sticking to the ceiling, unsalvageable, and by the time they did surgery on the poor fucker he was barely recognizable.
I go outside, look over the barracks, take in the fact that this will be the last time I see them. And there’s PGN at my age, in Korea, the details fuzzy now, him never quite wanting to relate them. The recruiter told me I’d be deployed at the DMZ, would never see combat. I’ll be shipping off to Afghanistan.
I make my way over to the comms room, shut the door behind me. I dial our number. Take my time on the last digit. Eventually press it. Ringing. And ringing. And ringing. Someone picks up. Waits a while. Breathes. Doesn’t say hello, but hell. Voice croaks on the last syllable. It’s Waldo. Even hearing it, knowing it’s him, it sounds like Roger, like a higher-pitched version of him. Maybe I don’t answer the phone like Roger because he’s not my dad. I wonder if I answer the phone like Joe, wherever he is, whoever he is. All I have to go on is an old polaroid, his arm around Mom like he owns her, a punchable smile, body all sharp lines and angles. Mom’s showing too much skin, clownlike makeup on, enough eyeshadow to droop eyelids till they can’t open back up again. I found his number once, snooping through Mom’s room. Never called. Now I’d never get the chance to. I’ll never be home again.
There’s a bruise on my shoulder from where the butt of the drill sergeant’s drilling rifle made contact, his idea of correcting the way I did jumping jacks. It’s like that one time Roger cut Mom’s eye open and we hurried to put ice on it, blood still flowing, speckling the bottom of the bathroom sink. Roger, drunk, punching himself in his own eye, asking if that was enough. Did he need to keep fucking going, or was that enough? His eye already blackening, blood trickling down the corner of it, like a statue of the Virgin Mary weeping blood. We didn’t bother with Roger, just tried to get Mom’s bleeding under control. And when we couldn’t, me punching Roger out so he couldn’t take the keys, us piling into the car. Waiting outside the hospital as they looked at Mom, Waldo and I jousting with tree branches and wheelchairs, bruises on shoulders no different than mine now.
Waldo doesn’t say anything else. What can he say? What can I say? I can see him now, sitting alone, Mom and Roger asleep. Maybe writing another one of those ridiculous stories. I don’t know. What I do know is that I can’t keep going. What I do know is that I need to hang up. So I do.
When I’m ready, I enter the arms room. I grab an M16 and take a seat. A seat, like strapping into a ride with Waldo, the kid nearly pissing himself on the Batman ride, Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose” playing in the background, the sealed-off floppy rubber Batsuit melting in the summer heat when we get back. Running back to the front of the line, waiting in nacho-stink till the front car opens back up. Here I am now, sitting with the M16 in my lap, reclining. Like all those days with Roger reclining in his chair, waiting till I’d get home to start his shit. Mom disappearing to the bathroom, running the faucet, probably trying not to let us hear her cry, eyes like black holes when she’d come back out. But more than all of that, it’s spinning Waldo by the arms in an empty field in Dee Park, and when I put him back down, him telling me the sky looked like Pepto-Bismol, and me saying he should use that in one of his stories. That it was pretty good, kid. Pretty good.
I put the M16 under my chin, barrel touching my neck. I don’t want to fuck this up. My finger touches the trigger. Nearly squeezes it. And there’s Waldo and Mom and Roger and PGN. Their faces at my funeral.
I put the M16 down. I close my eyes. I breathe.