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The Cardboard Box

The box arrived. It was standard cardboard about two feet tall by two feet wide. It didn’t make it past the foyer for weeks. I could tell the day it appeared that my mother was afraid of it, which made it all the more interesting to me. I was six years old. I was interested in anything that appeared to have power over my power source.
The box was put in the corner of our foyer. Our address was written on it in the loopy script of my grandmother on my father’s side. Long, full letters written in black ink fountain pen making me remember the flourish of her handwriting. My father had died several weeks before in a home in Alabama that my family once lived in together. His mother lived closest to him.
I wanted to know what was in the box. I offered to open it.
“No,” my mother said hurriedly. She was the single mother of three young children; the man she was reconciling with had just died unexpectedly. She was keeping herself busy, too busy to open a box.
I waited a few days and then asked again, suggesting that I could unpack it as a form of help.
“No,” she snapped as she looked in its direction. “Abbbssooolutely not!”
It was a plain brown box sealed with brown masking tape positioned to the right of the front door in the house in Connecticut where we lived. It arrived and was dropped feet from the front door, released from her hands like poison after noting who sent it.
We passed the box several times a day. It was impossible to avoid. Our only television was in a room off of it, our coats hung in the closet across from it, and it was positioned steps from the powder room and the kitchen. The only more obvious place to leave the box would have been in the middle of our dining room table.
I can’t remember my brother’s reaction to the box, but my sister who is the oldest in our family was as unsettled by it as our mother. Of the three siblings, she had been the closest to our father. There was nothing busy about the way she was coping with his death. It was quite the opposite.
“Please,” I begged our mother. “What if it’s a present for us?”
“It isn’t,” she said flatly and definitively with sadness creeping into her voice. She didn’t want to open the box, but she didn’t know how to deal with the box. She couldn’t even touch it.
So I started to sit with the box. I leaned against it. I propped my feet on it. I read to it. I put army men on it. I put stuffed animals on it to keep the army men company. I curled around it like a cat when the sun shone into the room.
One day when I found out that a babysitter had been hired to watch me and only me, I plotted the opening of the box. I scouted my favorite hiding places: a corner of the kitchen with an open space, my bedroom closet, the basement, and under the grand piano. I settled on under the piano since it was closest to the foyer and next to a window that offered lots of natural light. My brother’s red Swiss Army Knife would provide the tool I needed.
Once my family was out of the house and the babysitter had settled down to read, I picked up the box, which was surprisingly light and carried it to the piano. I carefully sliced through its brown masking tape, first along both sides and then down the middle, the blade moving through the tape like butter. I snapped the blade shut and then opened the flaps of the box. What I saw was a scattering of newspaper clippings that had been neatly cut. The corners were scotch taped and sticky to the touch. The clippings were photocopies of black and white photography or pen and ink drawings of civil war battles that took place in Alabama. When my father died, he was researching a book during his free time that he planned to write about the civil war. He fell while staying in a hotel near one of the battle sites. That fall led to surgery, which led to a blood clot and sudden death.
Under the clippings were his unpublished manuscripts neatly stacked in folders. The only one I could appreciate at the time was the children’s rhyming book that he had told us about over the phone and in letters. Its rhymes reminded me of Dr. Seuss, but many of the words were too advanced for me. The book appeared to be written to teach vocabulary to older children. Along with each of the manuscripts was one to two rejection letters from people who work in publishing. The letters were long and thoughtful and personalized. He had received them over many years. He was told he was young and to keep writing. He was told he was talented and to keep writing. He was told his heart was in the right place, and he should be a writer. Our father wanted to focus on civil rights and produce work similar to the journalist and author William Bradford Huey who lived nearby him. Huey was a Southerner fighting racism. Our father did research for Huey on occasion, including when he was writing Three Lives for the Mississippi, the non-fiction book that grew out of an article Huey wrote for the New York Herald Tribune. The book was released a year after the murders, and about twenty years later it was made into the movie Mississippi Burning.
What I found most curious about the box once it was open was the scotch tape on the corners of the clippings. It had not been folded down to prevent the clippings from sticking together or marring the other contents. My first grade teacher always removed or folded down the scotch tape they used to hang our drawings before returning them to us. I imagined my grandmother moving quickly through my father’s office, pulling the photocopies that represented his last creative work from the walls and throwing them in a box that she would send away. Her only son was dead at age thirty-seven.
The day we received the call from his mother with the news that our father had died I didn’t know how to feel. Everyone else in my family was crying, but I was six years old and barely knew my father. My parents separated when I was a baby. What I knew of him other than from his phone calls and letters was secondhand and filtered. I wasn’t allowed to visit him as my brother and sister did on occasion or go to his funeral. I was told I was too young.
That box is why I became a writer. Its mystery. Its power. Its demanding deductions. The concept of attempting to hide from something that is in plain sight. It all fascinated me, and I may not have known how to react when my father died, but I was old enough to understand its impact on those around me. With time, I better understood and empathized with my mother and grandmother’s choices. The contents of the box filled them with regret and longing. For me, the box revealed a person I should have known intimately but never would in a way that no description could. I admire his continuing to write despite rejection. I admire his focus on civil rights. He was inside that box, and it was a gift.
*****
If you liked reading this blog, please let me know via email. I’m working on a series of short stories (memoir and fiction) to be published next year. I’ll include the ones that get positive feedback.
Also, please check out my novels:
Sunday Best  (2018) and The Adjustments (2016)
*****

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    Pork Chops, Meatball Grinders and Lunch Ladies

A boy recently tired to gain the attention of one of my daughters by repeatedly calling her fat. She was more annoyed by him than upset because he had started to badger her and his tactics were getting more overt. She went to the dean of her school and reported it. The boy was adequately reprimanded: A note was added to his file, he was given a minor form of detention, and he had to apologize. This is how well-managed schools handle bullying, and this is how kids who are taught that bullying is wrong and that they don’t deserve it respond to it.

When I was in seventh grade, a boy named Robert started to chase me through the halls of our school yelling “Pork Chop”.  I would exit IPS or Algebra, and he and a few of his punky friends would be waiting for me. Robert was a foot taller than my five-foot, three-inch frame, and weighed a good fifty pounds more than my one hundred and ten pounds. He was the biggest kid in our school. The badgering would start as I stepped into the hall and by the end of it,  I’d often be in a full sprint clutching my schoolbooks with my friends trailing close behind.

We went to a small Catholic middle school and half of our classes were held in an adjoining high school. The halls of the high school weren’t as well monitored as the halls of the middle school and Robert knew it was a place where he could taunt me. It never occurred to me to tell on him. I can’t explain why other than name calling was a much more common and accepted thing in all of the environments I experienced as a child.

Our class took a field trip to Mystic Aquarium at the end of eighth grade. Robert approached me while I sat with a friend at an outdoor exhibit. He sat to my left, and as I began to move away, he stretched a clutched hand out in front of me, blocking my departure. As I stared at his fist debating what to do, he slowly turned it over and opened it. Lying in the middle of his beefy palm was a perfectly shaped pale pink heart made of soap.

“It’s for you,” he said. “I bought it in the gift shop.”

We shared a seat during the bus ride home, and we became friends. High school started the following September and wherever I looked, there was Robert. He was no longer trying to taunt me. Instead, he had begun a very successful campaign to make me smile.

We shared the same math class, and every few days it would go something like this: Robert would drop a pencil to get my attention. Then he would shove an entire piece of loose-leaf paper in his mouth and begin to aggressively chew it returning it to pulp. When our teacher, who everyone in the class hated, would turn to the blackboard, he would remove the wad from his mouth and fling it at the board several feet from her. It would explode on impact, spraying the backboard with white bits of pulp. She would spin around and face the class, angrily asking who did it. No one ever told on Robert; she was that hated.

At lunch, Robert would wait for me and my friend Lisa outside of the cafeteria leaning against the tiled wall with a giant smile on his face. We would enter the food line together, and he would proceed to eat as much as he could before making it to the register. His face and shirt would be covered in mayonnaise and crumbs, and his pockets bulging from hastily crinkled sandwich and cookie wrappers. One day, Robert ate three large meatball grinders in line, shoving them into his mouth and chewing like an animal before one of the more astute lunch ladies began to yell:  “Robert, I see you!!” … “Robert!!! Stop!!!” … “Robert, you are going to have to pay for those!!!!” Lisa and I were doubled over in laughter, barely able to push our trays through the line.

Three years ago Robert died. He overdosed, reportedly, and from what I’ve been told, there were several suicide attempts over the years. Robert and I lost touch after high school. He lost touch with most of our mutual friends. I read about his death in a Facebook post. Included with it was a picture of him smiling broadly; his bright, mischevious eyes and his tremendous, familiar grin overtaking my computer screen. If I hadn’t seen the post, I wouldn’t have heard about his funeral in time to go.

Robert lived close to the schools we attended together, and his funeral was held in the chapel of our middle school. I recognized very few people at it but noted who had become his friends in the twenty-five years in-between. Some were clearly still struggling with what killed him. Seeing his mother was the hardest part. Based on what was shared about their relationship during the funeral and after, she had dedicated her life to get him clean.

A mutual friend of Robert’s recently reminded me of a story about him from high school. Robert and a group of boys were asked to sprint from one end of the gym to the other during a race. Determined to win, Robert ran hard and fast, slamming into the mat-lined brick wall on the other side. He broke both of his wrists badly and ended what was a promising basketball and baseball school and potentially college career.

I cried like a baby at his funeral. As much as I hated him during middle school, I had grown to love him in the years that followed. I loved and worried about him. Signs of a growing addiction weren’t noticeable to me during high school, but his extreme nature was evident. I wish it could’ve been channeled in a way that led to a fulfilling life; he was one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.

And I wish those who are bullied could recognize that the person who is taunting them is in as much pain as what he or she tries to inflict.

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Up, Up With People…

My mother joined an alternative Catholic Church called Emmaus in the ‘70s. It was a newly formed, experimental community with a groovy “Up With People” vibe.  Organized by a group of educated and well-intentioned people who were looking for a less fear-based, more liberal approach to religion, it was the ideal community for her.

Mass was held in the cafeteria of a local Catholic school, and we sat on folded metal chairs in front of an altar that was rolled in each Sunday. A priest, who had to be given permission by the Archdiocese to work with the untraditional community, led the masses but the adult Emmaus members were in charge. They planned all of the ceremonies.

We were allowed to wear jeans and t-shirts to mass for the first time; our Sunday Best tucked away and reserved for special events. The Emmaus sermons discussed current events such as civil and women’s rights with an overall message of equality and fairness. They were more interesting to me than the ones given at our previous Catholic Church, St. Leo’s, and at the ultra-conservative church our grandparents attended.

There was more spirited singing at Emmaus than at St. Leo’s.  Depending on the song, hand holding, vigorous clapping, and raising arms accompanied it. The music group, which was positioned to the right or the left of the alter depending on the day, was a ragtag ensemble that reminded me of the gang from Scooby-Doo. Dressed informally in polyester or denim bell-bottoms with polyester button downs or cotton peasant dresses with bell sleeves, they strummed, banged, blew and belted out songs. There were a few standout talents in the group, including an opera singer. Our mother played the tambourine and sang backup on occasion.

Bible stories were reinterpreted and incorporated as mini performances into some of the masses. Largely acted out by the parents, the plays were meant to be entertaining and instructional but the kids in the community were convinced that they were designed to satisfy the theatric aspirations of the adult members. To this day, I can’t think of Good Friday without a smile. Every year, one of the fathers would dress up as Jesus in a scrap of white cloth and during a reenactment that involved other members walking along beside him, he dragged a massive wooden cross made out of fencing posts through the aisles. A different dad performed the routine each year giving the lugging and three “falls” his own spin. During these ceremonies, small eruptions of laughter broke out in the cafeteria; the kids of the community simply couldn’t hold it in.

There was a “Personal Share” portion of the mass that I have since likened to the reveals of support groups such as Alcoholic Anonymous. The shares weren’t exactly confessional, more of an opportunity to brag, complain or rant, but they possessed the same eye-opening observations that spying on my mother and grandparents’ dinner parties allowed. What was shared was by turns funny or frightening.

The Emmaus “Kiss of Peace” wasn’t the quick turn to your neighbor and extend a hand or a wave across an aisle with the occasional peck on the cheek that I had experienced at St. Leo’s. It lasted at least fifteen minutes, longer on holidays when all the members were in attendance, and involved kissing and hugging every single person in the cafeteria. You know how teenagers enthusiastically greet each other? It often went something like that with the adults revving up, spreading their arms and smiles wide as they moved quickly towards their mark. What followed felt suffocating, although it was always well intended, and I wrestled my way out of at least one long embrace every mass.  Announcements signaled the end of, what by that point, had become a tortuously long time for a kid to sit on a metal folding chair.

Despite the entertaining and often-hilarious theatrics during the mass, all the kids wanted out by the end. The ceremonies regularly ran over ninety minutes.  The adults loved the hour of Coffee, Cake & Conversation that followed but the kids dashed from it like rats abandoning a sinking ship after grabbing donuts and Kool-Aid. We would meet up at designated spots and do one of three things: Scale the high school’s metal security gates and explore the rest of the school; play outside on its sports fields; or pile into one of the parents’ cars and listen en mass to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 while laughing about what we had just witnessed during mass.

My mother loved Emmaus and still does. She’s now in her eighties and remains a very active member. My siblings and I stopped going regularly in high school and completely stopped when we went to college. All of the children of the original members did the same. It’s a wonderful, supportive community but it was our parents’ concept of an ideal alternative church, not ours. What I liked the most about my time with Emmaus was the kindness of the members. I spent countless hours playing in their homes with their kids, which in retrospect, I believe was offered to give my single mother some time to herself. They brought meals to our house when she was sick and the entire community showed up on one moving day to help when my mother felt overwhelmed. It’s a community in the truest sense of the word.

Sunday Best, my second novel (following my first The Adjustments), was inspired by my time with Emmaus. One of Sunday Best’s plotlines has its roots in a church experience. Sunday Best is a comic mystery and involves an alternative Catholic Church called Unify founded in the ‘70s. Unlike Emmaus, a guru and a clairvoyant run Unify, and the storyline is potentially linked to two gruesome crimes committed in 1988 and 2017. Like Emmaus, Sunday Best’s liturgies regularly include mini-performances, personal shares, and a kiss of peace, but the Unify members and their antics are fictional.

My friend, the playwright, Jacque Lamarre and I will be discussing how to include friends, family and foes in fiction without upsetting them or getting sued at the Mark Twain House Writers Weekend on September 29-30th. Jacques has written over twenty plays and I’ve written two novels based, in part, on personal experiences. The Q&A is titled: “How to Avoid Lawsuits and Other Awkward Encounters.” Attorney David Polgar will join us to give his legal perspective. If you’re a writer or interested in becoming one, or just like to read and talk about it, please join us at the event.

Another attorney friend recently asked me about Sunday Best. When I told him its plotlines, his response was, “My God, where do you come up with these ideas?”

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Flying Porta-Potties & Other Curiosities

After reading the morning headlines, I like to scroll Facebook for funny videos. Recently, I’ve found two memorable ones.
The first one is of several Porta-Potties that took flight in a park in Colorado. It was a windy day in Denver, and it blew them into a series of parked minivans and then sky born. Incredibly, no one was hurt as flocks of parkgoers ran for cover while waste spewed from the sky. The second video is of a white minivan towing a U-haul. The camper wasn’t correctly hitched, and after it slammed into the minivan causing considerable damage, it flipped on its side. The driver didn’t stop to right it, and it’s seen being dragged down the highway with sparks flying. As the camera zooms closer, I expected to see Clark Griswold behind the wheel.
Curiosities fuel my writing. Of the two videos, I can relate to the second one the most. One summer when I was a sophomore in high school, my mom and I towed a fourteen-foot Laser to a sailing regatta in Long Island. To get to the competition, we had to cross five highways and the Throgs Neck Bridge. The turn signal of the trailer hadn’t been adequately connected, but we didn’t know it. Every lane shift or attempt at a lane shift was met with furious beeping followed by lunging middle fingers as cars roared past us. My boat rattled and bounced along, miraculously, still attached.
Then my mother got lost, and we ended up at a gas station in Harlem. I remember in vivid detail her attempt at a fast turn around that temporarily jammed the trailer hitch causing our car and the trailer to be positioned in a perfectly immobile V. When we finally arrived in Long Island, my sailing instructor questioned why we were late. The explosive interaction that followed led to my boat being towed home by him and to and from every race for the rest of the season.
After watching the U-Haul video, I wondered if my mother would have kept driving if my boat had flipped on its side while we were on the highway? The answer is a confident yes. And I also wondered what I would have done in her position. She was a single mother of three children, and until she was in that arrangement, she had hauled little in her life. I imagined that I would keep driving, too, if I thought no one would get hurt.
My next book, Sunday Best, is due out in September. It’s a darkly comic mystery that revolves around a clairvoyant named Eleanor Powers who starts an alternative church in the 70s. Her daughters, Lauren Mark and Brooke Edwards, have long suspected she’s a con artist. Her “gift” arrived too neatly, appearing within days of their father’s sudden death when Eleanor was most worried about finances. The sisters are largely estranged from their mother and her church, Unify, as adults but when their employer, real estate and publishing mogul Walter Bloom, is the victim of a sex crime, which is linked to the unsolved, decades-old, murder of one of Unify’s original members, they’re thrown into an investigation revolving around Eleanor, Unify, and the secreted sex clubs he frequented. Sunday Best offers a satirical look into these unique worlds as a study of the selling of hope in contemporary America.
This is my first blog post, and the ones that follow are meant to amuse, but some will cover serious subjects. Prominent journalist and novelists will be featured. I hope you will read along.

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