Poor Yorick

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.

 

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Something Like Clarity

Getting up in the morning, so early that you’re the only one up in your household, maybe on your block, and just sitting and breathing.

There’s something to be said for emptiness–of not being devoid of something but of being inside that blank slate state of true happiness. Apart from excitement, from joy, because a real content is just itself inside of itself–the word and the definition.

Getting up and exercising, having breakfast, brushing your teeth, because you know that schedule and routine works for you, and though you’re not in crisis mode right now, you have been before, and you know that these little things can help keep you out of it. Of not being afraid of crisis anymore so much as respecting it, recognizing it, and taking regular, concrete steps to keep it contained. You used to think the crisis and chaos in you was something to be eradicated, but now you know it’s not that simple.

Of making progress, scary in itself, and a feeling like when you were a kid just learning to ride your bike and your parent let go of you, that realization of your progress mingled with the terror that you might fall at any moment. Of sipping this fear in your morning coffee, letting it pass before moving on to more important things.

It’s the quiet struggles that no one knows about, the ones that all of us have. It’s the whispered self-encouragement, the half-smile that you sometimes have to force but which you won’t give up on, the smiling past tears and seeing this cloudy world, this bubble world, and being okay with the momentary blurriness to get at something like clarity.

Start From One

The last time I made a big, personal, maddening, heartening, and major life change like this, I felt like I had no way out, no alternative, and it was this or nothing. It’s not nearly as serious this time around, just something I really want to do for myself, and that’s both a relief and an anomaly. It’s always been that I get hooked on things easily, and it used to be that I’d get hooked on all the wrong things, ballooning in weight and stress, pre-diabetic, high blood pressure, eyes and mind myopic and bloodshot, stuck in behavior loops that seemed out of my control, dangerous and destructive, and the genuine belief that my time was running out, that I was living on borrowed time and it’d all be over soon. Unsustainable living like an engine sputtering and stuttering in the cold, smoke and fumes signifying something I didn’t want to see or acknowledge. It’s true that you can get addicted to pain and hardship, to despair, and that when you’re in that headspace, the notion of getting out of it is at best laughable and at worst the enemy of the disease you now find yourself affected by. It’s a parasite, a self-serving organism that feeds on your insecurities and doubts, your justifications and hollow ameliorations. And then you get the double-edged sword of talking about it, of sharing this struggle with others, which is especially dangerous when you’re still in the middle of it and everything you see and hear is a portent of either doom or salvation. You run the risk of turning yourself to salt by looking back that much, and there’s no sense in rewriting a story you haven’t finished yet. But now I’ll live with these feelings, these experiences and lessons learned, a lifetime covering every genre–from horror to mystery, mystery to drama, drama to comedy, always switching from one to the next, but it’s a slipstream existence, with genres bleeding at the edges, and the punchlines don’t get a laugh till it’s years later and you’ve achieved the required time and distance from the joke, till you can see how perfectly it was crafted. But there’s always that potent, monolithic, very human ability to start from one. To go back to the beginning and try again. I’ve recreated myself over and over again over the years, to the point where the me from seven years ago is unrecognizable from the me I am now. A Ship of Theseus paradox I didn’t know would happen but which I now welcome. Any rebirth requires a prior death, a doing-away of what was before to make way for what could be.

The Genesis of Genesis

When I was younger, I wanted to put everything I made into a category, a code, identifying theme and character, plot and arc, never fully immersing myself in the work, or else only in fits and starts before I’d look at the strings again and ruin the illusion. I guess that’s just how you have to start, or at least how I had to start, because it all seemed to work out in the end, but for a while there it was like banging my head against the wall, magic-appreciation-wise, because it didn’t seem as fun to constantly see what you were doing with a story, to not be in it but somewhere apart from it, outside of the action. But that’s the beginning of creation, the genesis of genesis, making every story about the creation of story, pieces populated by characters who know they’re characters, and the only magic you can find then is in look-ma-no-hands writerly showmanship, pointing out to the audience just how much you know about what you’re doing, making your characters just as self aware as you hoped you were appearing then at the time. That’s what I was doing. And it’s fun to go back and look at this work now, to see just how much it’s all changed, replacing sarcasm with honesty, irony with earnestness. Wanting to participate in a radical new sincerity, still, less jaded now than I was then, even though I know publication, know the slog of it, the hours and hours that go into rejection after rejection, until something clicks into place and gives you temporary respite, and you’ve gotten a piece out into the world, just to start the process over again. It’s like that now, and it makes it easier going through this process when I’m doing that for others now too, having to accept and reject and coach and advocate and do all the rest that comes along with editing, and the world seems much smaller than it once did, more accessible, less daunting, when you can read the work of people in countries you’ve never visited and get a piece of that experience for yourself, see the similarities that outweigh the differences, recognize these disparate struggles as the same as your own, and you realize that this is what they mean when they use that oft-tread phrase, coming-of-age, as if it’s something you just stumble upon one day, as if it isn’t something you have to work for, over time, developing your voice even as life develops your character, desperation giving way to something more calm, more sustainable as you develop faith in the process and let it happen the way it’s going to happen. And suddenly you’re back where you were when you started, in a room by yourself, smiling at something you’ve written, something you’ve read, seeing for yourself the magic of the written word, of the stories we can tell as people.

 

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Old Habits Die Hard

Sometimes I feel like I’m making up for lost time even though I know that, realistically, I’m working myself to the grave, and that I’ve already justified my seed again and again and again, and that I continue to do so, that I proved my point years ago and now it’s all just verging on masochism. I know that. But old habits die hard, and if I’m not hurting myself physically, then I guess this is just the next step down.

I convince myself daily that this pain is okay, that it’s useful, that the suffering I’m charting now is a “grind” where in years past it was much more destructive and purposeless. And that’s true, I guess, to an extent, but I’ve never been one for moderation, so I clock 50 hours in a week and then write stories like these and craft feature screenplays, novel manuscripts, edit the work of other writers, start investigative journalism projects with local professionals, defining myself not by inner terrain but by output, by outward progress. The inner terrain bleeds out, anyway–it can’t help but bleed out. And then I sit in the dark, willing sleep to come so I can do it all over again the next day. Make no mistake–I love my life and the people, places and things I now find within it. I just haven’t given myself time to rest.

I feel I’m guiding myself by the same principle that I did when I was self-harming, only now aimed toward a productive end. I don’t know if I’ll live a long life, but now that’s chalked up more to adverse family medical history than by a potential suicide I once felt compelled to see through to the end.

And I still have trouble accepting help, and I still have trouble taking care of myself, because I lived an entire life of not doing so, of feeling like I was living on borrowed time. I don’t want to live that way anymore, and I know that it’ll take time and effort to undo habits of the past, but at least the intention is there. You can’t do anything without right intention.

I guess the thing that gives me hope most is that I’m being honest about everything now. I know that I’m exhausted, that I’m burning myself out. I know why I’m doing it, and I know I need to stop. And yet I find myself here, at this keyboard, typing up something new. Old habits really do die hard.

I think I’ll take next weekend off. I won’t work, won’t write, will do nothing but rest and recuperate. Because for once, I feel like I truly should, and for once, I feel like I actually deserve it.

 

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Lost in the Options

Lost in the options, hanging out back of a Taco Bell, a stained and worn strip of cardboard sitting on the concrete next to us, blasting some Reggie Watts off of a smartphone, shaking a can of spray paint that’s half out, and Sammy’s rendering a Renaissance mural on the wall, a bloodmapped mattress off at the end of the alley, from some old motel, a seedy place next to the exact replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the only tourist trap and place of note in this small Illinois town, small relative to the size of Chicago, though infested by denizens of same, with driveby shootings in the middle of Touhy Avenue, civilians caught in the crossfire, never able to react to the light as it turns green, and we passed by the art park on our bike ride over here, the one with anything and everything on display, modern art, experimental, abstract, the homeless people on the side of the street, next to the canal, shooting heroin in between bouts of panhandling, the software designer from Florida among them, the guy I talked to, the guy I walked past on my way home from MMA one night, soaking wet with sweat, asking him about his life, finding out the details, offering to draft up an interview, maybe a series, online, hashing out the social media details, getting his story out to an audience so the world could understand what it’s like, what the experience of homelessness is, always seeing it through the lens of passive news viewer or vaguely worried passerby, not knowing when to make eye contact if at all, all of us wanting to ignore the fact that we can all be at this place at any time, are always one paycheck, one decision away from having nothing, and I knew this from the time I was a boy, before even my mom became homeless, when I could see it firsthand, could see the way that life had melted her, shaped her into someone she wasn’t, always a respectable member of society until you aren’t, until people have a reason and excuse to cast you aside, and I’m thinking about these things while Sammy is doing his work on the Taco Bell wall, an ethereal representation of Sodom and Gomorrah, cities quickly turning to ash, burning, eating themselves, with a figure of the Madonna in the foreground, with the baby Messiah suckling at her breast, looking content, peaceful, maybe with no idea what’s going on behind her, just pausing in this moment to have her likeness captured, and we’re talking about childhood books that were read to us when we were little, Goodnight Moon, Where the Wild Things Are, thinking back to a time when things weren’t fucked up, or not quite as fucked up as they are now, a time before responsibility and accountability, and there are sirens in the distance, Skokie cops, and Sammy has to get the last details right before we go, has to get it just right, because there’s no way we can come back here again, not even once, because once we’ve tagged a place we’re gone from there for good, so he finishes, and we take our last swigs of the wine we bought and brought, and we run away to the next street where we can ride off in peace.

Inbound/Outbound

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.

Pique/Peek/Peak

Pique

like a kid sitting on the floor

at the Scholastic Fair

debating stealing a book

because he can’t afford it

eats public assistance at lunch

can already see the looks of shame

on the faces

of his parents

when they walk into the principal’s office

so he doesn’t

so he puts it back

and tries to picture imagined worlds

his mind won’t be shown.

Peek

like hearing “don’t peek”

from the lips

of his first girlfriend

removing her bra straps

audibly

and the space between them is filled

with electricity

and when they touch

it’s a revelation

and when they finish

he tells her stories

disguised fictions

makes them up on the spot

like he did

as a kid

when the only time you heard

“don’t peek”

was during a game

of hide and seek

Peak

like seeing your name

on the cover

of a book

and you don’t know

how it got there

even though you do

don’t know

the steps that got you

from point A to B

and if you try real hard

you can almost see

the kid that would go hungry

can almost see

the kid with ripped-up

hand-me-down

jeans

and eyes that wanted

but couldn’t always

see

and now you’re at the top

of a tall

tall peak

breathing in the thin air

and seeing all

you can see

Log 42

“I guess this is like log 42 or something I don’t know I’ve lost track anyway I don’t even know if this tape recorder still works but if it does I’m just going to play this back for Microsoft Sam and see if he can turn the talk to text so I can put it on a floppy disk for later Sanford’s asleep right now and I’m trying not to wake him so I’m walking my bike down the tunnel it’s kind of creepy the way the chain click echoes down the tunnel click click click like some sort of weird alien getting ready to jump me or something I mean I’ve seen crazier stuff I wouldn’t be that surprised Sanford still doesn’t believe me about the world out there about how I saw myself above ground as a little kid coming out of cryosleep he thinks it’s too far-fetched but I say living down in tunnels Underground with all sorts of weird ghoulies and all that jazz is pretty far-fetched too I’m trying to figure out a way to get back there back to that cold white room with the Weird Science e dude but I don’t know how I don’t know maybe it’s like a video game you know let’s say you get murked in like Pac-Man or something what happens game over right who’s to say that’s not the same thing here the simulations a lot more advanced but it’s still a Sim I don’t know maybe if I just find one of the outflow tunnels the tunnels that shoot down into the ground and extend for miles the ones I’ve heard stories about where people fall into them and you can never hear them hit the bottom sometimes I think that if I jump into one of those I might just wake back up in the real world and I want to try it I really do but I know that if I tell Sanford this ish he’s just going to make me about face and March on back home you know I’ve known Sanny B since we were both super little and I love the guy he’s my brother but he doesn’t always know what’s up and the wack thing is that I can’t tell him that it would crush him I don’t know if I’ll end up jumping into one of those tunnels or push on to climb out to the top into the above ground but I guess we’ll find out at the very least when I feed this thing into Microsoft Sam it’s going to sound freaking hilarious I can hear his voice now sounding like a cross between a robot and an alien trying to sound human but yeah that’s what’s up right now I guess I’ll go wake up Sanford so we can continue our Quest and sheez.”

Green Fields Forever

“So here’s a dream: I’m in a wide open green field, and the sun is shining.”

“Like the actual sun?”

“The actual one. And I know I don’t know what the sun’s like, but in the dream I do. It’s warm, and bright, and it makes my skin feel good, and I just feel like smiling when I’m under it.”

“How bright is it?”

“Super bright. So bright it hurts to look directly at it. So I look at what it’s shining on instead: the grass, the trees, all that.”

“Grass and trees?”

“Yep. The grass is itchy when you lie on it, but it’s still super nice. There’s bugs in the grass, but mostly just ants and stuff, not the weird creepy crawlies you find here in the tunnels.”

“Huh.”

“Yeah. And the trees are plants, but they’re crazy strong. Like you could karate chop one and not even leave a mark.”

“Holy crap.”

“I’m telling you, Sanford. But in the dream, the green field doesn’t go on forever. There’s like clear borders and stuff. I’m boxed in, you know?”

“Yeah.”

“And right outside the border, everything is crazy messed up. Like exactly how you’ve said above ground probably looks like. Fire, destruction, all that jazz.”

“And brimstone?”

“Brimstone confirmed. And if you get close to the border, it smells sour, like the air is burnt. There are people crying, only you can’t see them. You can hear them, but they’re out of sight.”

“Can you cross the border?”

“Yeah, but I’m scared to. In the dream, I’m not 20. I’m like 11 or 12. I’m freaked out, you know?”

“Of course.”

“And the weird thing is that I can sense that nothing will ever change in this green field. I’ll stay the same age forever. I’ll never get sick, never die, but I can’t leave the field. If I leave it, I’ll suffer. But I want to leave it. I don’t want to get hurt, but I need to know what’s out there. I need to know who’s out there. Because I get the distinct impression in the dream that my parents are alive somewhere out there. I have no idea where they are, but I’ve got to find them. You dig?”

“I dig. So this is like your cryo dream? Where you saw your mom and pop getting blasted by some evil science dude?”

“Kind of. Like I’m the same person, same age, but this is for sure a dream. The cryo thing was real.”

“Sure.”

“It was real.”

“Okay, User. So what else about the dream?”

“It keeps going on like that. On and on and on.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean everything keeps moving and changing outside of the green field. The sun above me stays right there, but a second sun outside the border rises and falls, rises and falls. Gnarly trees grow up, birds nest in them, plants sprout out of the broken concrete, and all of this happens in seconds.”

“Like that dude we saw back there in the tunnel who kept going through life cycles and junk?”

“Yeah, only it wasn’t one guy getting born and dying again and again, it was everything. And the more time that passed, the less cries I could hear. Instead of cries, I just heard birds chirping and nice little rainstorms and sheez.”

“Sounds kinda nice.”

“Yeah, except in the dream, I know that with each cry that goes quiet, there’s one less person out there. I’m okay in this green field, but it’s only me in here. I’m alone.”

“So how does it end?”

“It doesn’t. Not really, anyway. I want to leave the field, but I’m afraid of suffering out there. I want to stay safe in the field, but I don’t want to be alone. So I don’t do anything. Then I wake up.”

“Shiz.”

“Yeah.”

“So, uh… What do you want to do now?”

“I want to find the green field.”

“Like stay safe and all that?”

“No, the actual green field.”

“User, it’s not gonna be there. It’s not real.”

“Right. Fire and brimstone. But the thing is, fire and brimstone doesn’t last forever. It can’t. There’s cycles. The world’s gonna be bad for a while, then it’ll get kind of good. Then it’ll get mondo sucky, but then it’ll get way better. The fire will die out, and the plants will sprout. How long have we been living in these tunnels? How long has it been since our ancestors came down here? We really have no idea what it’s like up there. And we’ll never know unless we try and find a way out.”

“Okay.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. I’m in, bro. If it keeps you away from the cryo stuff and focused on the real world that’s right in front of you, I’m all gung ho about it, my dude.”

“What?”

“The cryo stuff’s real, too. I have a family out there, and I’m going to train my brain to wake up and find them. But in the meantime, I want to see what above ground looks like.”

“Well then you know what I’ve gotta say?”

“What?”

“Let’s boogie!”