An Understanding

The old man sat on his terrace listening to his ancient radio, wearing the clothes he chose by habit from his over-large dressing room. His rocking chair facing the ocean he could no longer see, obscured by newer construction.

Isabella brought him his drink at the usual time, a soda in a bottle, unopened. He struggled to twist off the cap, slippery from the condensation, hands gnarled by the years. 

“Let me,” she said, reaching down, “don’t you want a glass, with some ice?”

“No,” he barked, and she stepped away, as she always did, then fell back into his orbit.

“Why do you treat me so? I have been here since before…”

“I’m near blind, woman, don’t make it personal. Do you think I want this? Do you think I want to need you this way? Anyone can do this, you aren’t special, know your place woman.” 

“You know my name,” she said, and left him on the terrace to sort out his bottle of sugar and water. Until that day, she still saw the old man as he had been in better days, younger years, when the world beat a path to his door and begged for his genius, his art. When the years caught him and time took its toll, he was left alone and bitter to wonder where they’d all gone, where he’d gone wrong. 

Only Isabella remained to nurture his rage, all the others faded away, found new heroes to follow. She remained trapped in her memories of the last good days, accepting his treatment of her as a burning badge of misplaced honor, adoration for a man who no longer lived.

The following day, Isabella did not come to care for him. Someone different arrived, unannounced. She appeared long after the younger man who stayed with the old man through the night had left. 

The old man was perplexed and agitated. He heard faint footsteps tapping through his entry hall. “Woman,” he shouted, “I’m thirsty, the sun is beating me like a drum.”

“I’m here,” she whispered in his ear, startling him. 

He drew the back of his hand across his forehead, scraping away the sweat. “Where’s my drink?” he huffed.

“Beside you,” she said, drawing the pointed nail of her index finger, a light touch of a sharp edge, along the dry parchment skin and coarse hair of his boney arm, “here on the table.” Her hand reached his, she wrapped her delicate fingers around his wrist, lifted it, moving him toward the cool dripping bottle.

He snatched the bottle up toward his face,“Who are you?” he growled.

“I’m here, what does my name matter,” she replied, her voice a cool breeze against the heat of the day. 

He paused, began to speak, then took a sharp breath and twisted away the cap. “You are not Isabella,” he said. 

“No,” she replied, “I am someone new.”

“New?” he laughed, “there’s no such thing as new. There’s only the same old thing, bound in different cloth. There is nothing new.” 

His bitterness amused her. She smiled at the old man, ran her hand across his balding scalp, tickled the flesh of his flapping earlobe, then caressed a line along his scruffy chin. “You need a shave,” she said, as if finding something hidden, “why hasn’t the man looked after your face?”

“Hah,” he choked out between swigs, “he’s afraid to cut me. The woman is better, she looks after my beard.”

“Old man,” she said, her voice slipping into his ear, a gust of wind to fill a sail, “you have no beard, only a shadow on your chin. Shall I take care of it for you?”

“Fine, woman, if you must, but mind the scars, I don’t need more.”

She laughed in a way he knew was meant to tease him. He allowed it as the shore allows the wave. 

She left him for a while, then returned with the implements required for the task. She wrapped a towel around his neck, lathered his face, “Lean back” she said, and he did. She opened the blade, wiped it against the linen at her thigh, then dragged it across his cheek, beginning near his ear and swiping across his jawline. 

A tiny bit of blood dribbled from an edge. She licked a bit of tissue and staunched the flow. 

“You have a light touch,” he said, “lighter than Isabella, but she never nicked me. Is this your first time?”

“Of course not,” she answered, “now be still.”

The old man did as he was told. He sat like a stone while she carved away, leaving the flesh of his face fresh and new. She wiped away the soapy residue of her work, then stood to admire the results. 

He ran a shaking hand across his cheeks and chin, cracking his rotten-tooth grin. “Smooth as a baby’s bottom,” he remarked, “you do have the touch. What is your name?”

“Call me woman, if you like,” she said, “or Marguerite.” 

He laughed at her then, he’d finally got the joke. “You’re here to kill me I think,” he said.

“No,” she replied, “I’m here to set Isabella free.”

“Then get it over with, I’m too old to waste time begging, you’ll get none of it from me. And if you’re not here to kill me, fetch me a damp towel for my face, you’ve taken half the flesh away.” He snapped his fingers twice, “Be quick about it.”

“Old man,” she said, her laughter little birds flitting around a feeder, “your vanity…, it’s too much.”

She went inside, banging about his kitchen, leaving him there to feel the sun’s heat burning the pink flesh of his newly shaven face, too hot for the faint ocean breeze to cool. When she came back an hour later, his face had turned the bright red of a boiled crustacean. His silent tears assured her the point had been made.

She draped a damp towel across his face, cold from the icebox. “Now old man,” she whispered through his fear, “do we have an understanding?”

His voice was muffled through the cooling towel. Flicking his tears away with a bony finger, he dared not turn his eyes toward her. “Yes Marguerite,” he said, “we do.”

She returned to the chattering screen door, then stopped when he said her name.

“Marguerite,” he asked, his voice betraying his hope, “will Isabella be back tomorrow?”

“That is up to you old man,” she said, then returned to the shaded interior of the grand decaying house. The door banged shut, her footsteps echoed against the high ceiling and plaster walls, and she began to sing a tune in time with his radio.

He sat in silence, his face no longer burning, the pounding of his heart slowed to a lesser beat. He listened to the woman sing, her voice dancing through the corridors and rooms of the house as she made her way back to the door, across the creaking boards, and down the stone steps, leaving him to wonder what tomorrow might bring. 




A piece of flash fiction published by Drunk Monkeys – written a long time ago but seems quite relevant during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. You can read it here, or visit Drunk Monkeys and check out their other content.


WordPress doesn’t like the Drunk Monkeys URL so I can’t embed it. A simple link will have to do.


If I ask about your shoes, there’s a reason.

I was sitting in the waiting room – I’d driven a long way to see this one particular doctor – and I knew I had a long wait.

There was an elderly gentleman sitting alone when I got there. I checked in, then sat down near him.

I was filling out a stack of forms – I was a new patient and I had to tell them my life story. Do they think I remember the date when I had my tonsils out? Let’s skip that line.

I sit down, start filling in lines that are too small for my handwriting, and this elderly gentleman compliments my shoes.

I’m deliberate about my shoes. I have shoes for every occasion. As a bonus, my shoes last a long time. I have some I’ve never worn. I’m convinced one day I’ll be in a forest with an axe and those steel-toed shin-high American-made Red Wing boots will say “I told you so.”

“Those are nice shoes you have. One must have good shoes, and those you have are very nice.”

He says this with a German accent. I know this because I’d just spent the summer in Germany, and, yes, I speak German.

Everybody in Germany wanted to speak English. Everybody except the people protesting against the US military. What did they expect? We send plane-loads of 18 and 19 year-old kids over there and you think they’re all gonna behave? No way.

That didn’t have anything to do with me. I was there with my backpack kicking around while the Berlin wall was being broken down into a billion little pieces. I got bored after a while, so I hopped a train to Greece while I waited for the guy I met in Italy to meet me in Belgium to go to a concert. I thanked God, and my parents, every day I was there for the Unlimited Eurail Pass.

I speak enough German that I knew his accent was German.

I thanked him in German, which is easy, and you woulda thought I handed this man a bucket of gold coins. He was really happy. Which, to be honest, made me happy.

Since we didn’t have anything else to do, we talked about shoes. In German. Well, not entirely in German. My vokabular was pretty good, but it wasn’t that good.

He believed shoes were important, that you could learn a lot about someone from there shoes, and even more from how they felt about their shoes.

Maybe it sounds weird or crazy, but the alternative was to sit there in silence and wait to get called back to see the Doc. Why not have a conversation in German about shoes instead?

I don’t remember every word, but we kept at it until his grandson sat down next to him.

This is when things got interesting.

His grandson, a handsome dark-haired thirty-something with a lovely smile and a beautiful soft baritone voice, sat down after finishing up at the check-out counter. Is that what it’s called? I don’t know, the place in the office where you pay and set your next appointment, if you need one.

The handsome grandson sits down and listens to us talk in German then gives me this big perfect-white-toothy smile before he introduces himself. For the barest of seconds I thought about hitting on him, then I checked myself. Grandson wore a ring.

I asked grandson if he spoke German too, and he laughed and said “No way, my grandmother forbid it. My dad doesn’t speak German either.”

Oh. That’s curious. What’s up with that?

Grandad sees the look on my face and starts to explain.

He told me how he fled Germany as a young boy, when the Nazis took over. He escaped, his future wife escaped, and both of them lost their entire families to the concentration camps.

They each, separately, made it to England, with lots of help along the way, especially in France. Their paths didn’t cross until they were placed with two different families on the same street in London. Then they had to get out of London because the verdammt Nazis where bombing the hell out of the place.

They met, they fell in love, they survived the war, and they had not a penny to their names and no relatives left alive. They did what anyone back then would do – they went to America.

“Wir haben das Memo über Israel nicht erhalten,” grandad said, with a smile that looked a lot like grandson’s.

Once again they found themselves living with two families in the same neighborhood, this time in New York. They found jobs, saved up their money, and when the time was right, he proposed.

She said yes, on one condition.

He said “You name it” and she said “We will never speak German in our home, only English, and our children and their children and all the children that ever come after will never speak German.”

Grandson confirmed this, so I know it’s true.

Grandad agreed, they got married, and grandson was the son of their first child. They had five children and twelve grandchildren, so far.

Not one of them speaks a lick of Deutsch.

We went on like that until they finally called me back.

There was something peaceful and sweet in his manner, and about our talk, that caused time to stop for a while. I think other people were listening. In fact, the receptionist sent somebody back before me that should have gone after me. I was fine with it.

In the short time we had together we conversed about shame, hatred, family, love, country, forgiveness, a few other things you wouldn’t expect, and shoes. Sometimes indirectly, when to be direct wasn’t possible.

From this conversation I learned an entire philosophy of shoes, which I believe to be solid to this day.

So, like I said, if I ask about your shoes, there’s a reason.


So You Want to Be a Writer? Part 1

[This was the first in a four part series of essays for The Dillydoun Review, sharing my experience to date in the business of writing.]

Writing is not easy, it seldom pays well, and it fills your inbox with rejection. In early 2020, because I’m a glutton for punishment, I decided to write full time. 

If I knew then what I know now I would have made the same choice, but with a better strategy.

Because writing is also emotionally rewarding, intellectually stimulating, and can provide a good living for those who persist and hone their craft. As for rejection, it’s like table stakes in a poker game. If you can’t manage the baseline bet, you should sit out the game.

With that said, I am no expert. I did write for a major news outlet years ago, but that was a side job to my real job. Since last year, I’ve completed three novels, a book of poetry, a script for a TV pilot, and have a growing collection of short stories. 

In my first year I made every mistake a rookie writer can make, and it’s possible I invented some new ones. The last six months have gone much better.

I’m not a rookie anymore.

What do I have to show for all this you ask? Good question. 

My first script was a finalist in a TV Pilot competition, my self-published novel (under a pen name) was a finalist in another competition and cracked the Top 100 in its genre on Amazon (#98 briefly), and I’ve had several short stories accepted for publication. I have one novel in the hands of a publisher right now, another one just completed, and I have begun querying agents.

So far I’ve made exactly zero dollars.

The Big Payoff for me is experience

I learn best from hands-on experience. Now I’m on this journey and I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned so far.

Let’s start with the most basic – Do The Work. 

It sounds simple, but many aspiring writers never write, and for active writers, writing is haphazard and filled with distractions.

I spent years dreaming of being a novelist, and I didn’t write a single word toward my goal, mostly out of fear and self-doubt.

Your dream of being a writer won’t materialize if you don’t sit down, put your fingers on the keyboard, and type. Hemingway wrote his first drafts in pencil, so that works too. 

As new writers, the odds are already against us in this business. But there are ways we can start to tilt things in our favor.

I’ve found the three most important things for me are having a dedicated space to work, blocking out distractions, and setting a writing a schedule (and sticking to it). 

I work in the afternoon, six hours per day minimum, on average.

This includes research, querying agents, or submitting to publishers, contests and literary magazines. Mornings are for strong coffee, light reading, and walking the dog. In the evening, I do more research and a lot of brainstorming.

Yet I still struggle.

My schedule was recently obliterated by a piece of mail. Its contents presented a frustrating problem, but not an urgent one.

I spent ninety minutes of my afternoon dealing with it. 

Then I spent the rest of the day trying to refocus on writing. I got next to nothing done. It felt awful.

I didn’t properly prioritize my time and I paid for it with a lost afternoon. 

If I’m to have any hope of succeeded as a writer I have to learn to be selfish with my time, my space, my priorities, and my writing.

Because a loss of focus can cost even more time by allowing loads of errors to sneak into my work.

The less focused I am, the more likely I am to make mistakes I will fail to find and fix later.

The most insidious of these are typos. I am a self-taught typist, so I make a lot of typos.

For the record, spellcheck is not your friend and auto-correct is your declared enemy.

Spellcheck won’t tell you when you’ve typed “form” instead of “from” and it won’t tell you when auto-correct changed a mistyped “decided” to a correctly spelled, but wrong, “denied.” 

These tools are unreliable. They are often a hinderance. Plus, I tend to read right through typos and incorrect words, my mind filling in where my eyes refuse to see. 

I’m not saying, ‘don’t use them,’ I’m saying, ‘don’t trust them.’

I learned this the hard way when I wrote my first novel and decided to self-publish. I ran spellcheck and grammar check, fixed what was found, and sent the manuscript off to The Land of E-Book Publishing. 

When I loaded the ebook into my reader, I discovered it was filled with typos. I stopped counting at 47, across 42 chapters. One was in the opening paragraph. It wouldn’t have mattered if no one had downloaded the book. But they had, and I was embarrassed.   

Don’t trust automated tools, ever. 

Reread, reread, then reread some more. If you have someone in your life to proofread your work, or can afford to pay someone, consider yourself lucky. 

My solution is to reformat my text every time I read it. 

Change the font, the spacing, the borders, or even print the work if it’s not too long. If it’s a novel, I export it as an EPUB and read it on my favorite device. Think of it like driving down a bumpy road, then driving down the same road after it’s been repaved. Same road, different experience.

When I do this, I’m more likely to catch my errors and correct them before anyone else sees my work. It’s not a perfect system, but I’ve gotten good results from it.

In the end, writing is editing and editing is writing. I allow myself one exception to this rule. I try to avoid extensive editing while writing a first draft, whether it’s a novel or flash fiction, or anything in between. I like to capture my thoughts, finish the story, and clean up the words later.

Whatever I write, I expect to edit and revise until the work is polished. 

Here’s another useful tip: take some time between each pass. A day, a week, a month, you’ll figure out over time what length of break works for you.

Work on something else, read a book, improve your third-person bio, or research publishers, agents, journals, and competitions. Create some space to let your mind forget some of what you just wrote, then come back to it and edit with fresh eyes. 

Since you’ve read this far, I’ll leave you with a final thought. 

Don’t believe everything you read about writing. 

People like to Tweet quotes by famous writers, and Hemingway’s missives are no exception. The attributions are often wrong, or the words taken out of context. 

Hemingway is often quoted as saying, “Write drunk, edit sober.” 

I’d argue that’s objectively bad advice. 

According to Katherine Firth, Hemingway never said it. What he wrote in A Moveable Feast was: 

‘…my training was never to drink after dinner nor before I wrote nor while I was writing’ (p.61).

You can see the difference. 

The internet, and book stores, are loaded with advice for writers and a lot of it is good. But even the good advice won’t always be a good fit for you, and the bad advice can send you on some costly detours. Consider the source, take what works for you, leave the rest. 

I said I was no expert, but after 18 months of full time writing and research, I know where to find a few experts. 

Below are links to some websites I’ve found useful. If you’ve been writing for a while you know them already. If not, they make terrific companions for your writing journey. 

To sum it all up, work hard, be selfish with your time and attention, write-edit-repeat, take advantage of the help that’s out there, trust yourself, and learn from your mistakes. 

You got this.

Writer’s Digest: workshops, free downloads, how-to articles, competitions, you name it, they’ve got it, and most of it is free.  https://www.writersdigest.com

Winning Writers: one of the Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers, they’ve got a focus on competitions and a massive list of links to great resources for writers, everything from advice, to literary forums, to ways to spot scams targeting writers. https://winningwriters.com

Alliance of Independent Authors: This should be your first stop if you’re considering self-publishing. There’s a LOT here, just like the two websites above, but one of the most useful things you’ll find is their ‘Best Self-Publishing Services’ list. If you read nothing else before you self-publish, review this list. https://selfpublishingadvice.org/best-self-publishing-services/

Lit Rejections: A site with stories, quotes and a blog about literary rejection, it also has some great interviews as well as information about literary agencies. If none of that sounds useful, at least visit and take a look at the collage of book covers from best sellers that were initially rejected. It’s eye opening. http://www.litrejections.com 

Authors Publish Magazine: Everything is free on this site and their email newsletter is filled with great information, but not overloaded. They research publishers and provide links to one that are open for submission, with a healthy does of paying markets. https://authorspublish.com


The Golden Girls Make Me Sick

I was in my late twenties and cancer took a great deal from me – mountains of money I didn’t have, a year of my life, some body parts, several friends, and “The Golden Girls.”

“The Golden Girls” ran for seven years on NBC, a whopping 180 episodes in total. By any standards, that’s an impressive run. The star power of the cast was undeniable. Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan, and Estelle Getty delivered adult but family-friendly comedy, occasionally with a touch of drama to mix things up. The show’s staying power is impressive, its reruns are still available on streaming services and on demand via Hulu.

And to this day I cannot watch an episode without feeling a near overwhelming desire to vomit. This condition has improved over the years, but beginning in late 1991, a few years before the show ended, I could not so much as hear the show’s opening theme music without violent gastric distress. 

In 1991 I had cancer. Bad enough on its own, but add in a hospital wing being actively remodeled and a wall-mounted TV that got exactly one channel (NBC), the unfortunate timing of my chemotherapy, and the heavy rotation of  “The Golden Girls” reruns in the afternoon, and you’ve got yourself a witches brew, a confluence of ingredients ready made to create lasting associations.

I was in my late twenties and cancer took a great deal from me – mountains of money I didn’t have, a year of my life, some body parts, several friends, and “The Golden Girls.” The financial impact of cancer and the year of illness and recovery, these were temporary impacts compared to the Golden Girls-adjacent nausea. The body parts (I’ll spare you the gory details) while permanent losses, were manageable and sustainable losses, necessary for my survival.

The friends who walked away because they couldn’t handle the fact I might die or because, in at least one case, they thought I had AIDS, these too were sustainable losses – other friends rose to the occasion and remained steadfast during my illness and beyond.

But cancer has destroyed my enjoyment of “The Golden Girls.” My inpatient chemo was perfectly timed to run through the lunch hour. A nurse would hook up the IV bag, dial up the dose, then head off for their lunch break, a set-it-and-forget-it process, interrupted by the arrival of my hospital lunch. The quality of my meals, and I’m just being honest here, was rarely good on the way down and did not improve on the way up. 

But I had to eat and couldn’t always count on a visitor to bring me my favorite “I’m too sick to eat” meal of a baked potato and Frosty from Wendy’s. It was a struggle that dropped my weight from an unhealthy 275 pounds down to an even unhealthier 175. Although, on the upside, I had a 34 waist again for the first time since high school and could once again fit into my old American-made Levi’s. Nevertheless, it is not a weight loss strategy I can recommend.

There I would be, stuck in my hospital bed, a remote control for the TV that had two big and noisy buttons, On and Off, because there were no channels to change, and a few hours after starting my chemo both the nausea and the Golden Girls would arrive. “Thank You for Being a Friend” became the theme music for both the TV series and my episodes of retching. 

One might ask, “Why not turn the TV off?” and I would answer because I was stuck in a hospital bed, unable to sit up to read and desperate for any distraction that would help the time pass and simultaneously drown out the sounds of construction reverberating through the walls and floors. Also, the association between the sitcom and the sickness didn’t become apparent to me until the first time I watched the show at home after my treatment was complete and I was on my way to recovery.

I remember with absolute clarity the first time this complex relationship made itself manifest. It was one month after my last hospital stay. I was at home, alone, making dinner. I turned the TV on and by coincidence it was the top of the hour and “The Golden Girls” theme started playing. I was in the kitchen, the TV was on in living room – I couldn’t see the screen. Within seconds, I was making a beeline for the bathroom. Once I’d ejected everything I’d manage to eat that day, I entered the living room and plunked myself down on the sofa.

And I felt worse. Much worse. I decided to turn off the TV and put aside the meal I was making. The moment I shut off the television I started to feel better. Soon after I felt like I could get up, make dinner and go for a walk. Without thinking about it, I turned the TV back on and within seconds of Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan exchanging a couple of snarky lines, I was ill again. 

Shut the TV off, and I felt better. That’s when I knew, “The Golden Girls” makes me sick. I know the title of this essay does not use proper grammar. Proper would be to say “The Golden Girls Makes Me Sick” because we’re talking about a singular TV series, but I like my title the way it is, there’s a better flow to it. At any rate, there’s one positive to this, which is the original Andrew Gold version of “Thank You for Being a Friend” is not now, nor has it ever been, a part of my medical oddity.

I’ve never been a big fan of the song, but it’s also never made me puke. I’ll put that in the plus column. Regarding “The Golden Girls,” as part of the writing of this essay I started an episode on YouTube, to see if the connection was still there. Sadly, it is safe to say, “The Golden Girls” still makes me sick.

In the grand scheme of things this problem is small and unimportant. But it’s an unusual remnant of a long-ago period of my life, one that reminds me more than anything else that I survived cancer and have now lived more years since I was diagnosed than I had lived before I fell ill. That’s at the very top of my plus column. You might say I’m durable, like a beloved sitcom, albeit not nearly as funny and hopefully never as nauseating.

One final note. After I recovered I spoke with a lawyer. I had been misdiagnosed by an ER doc who refused to listen to my symptoms and wrote my condition up as “stress induced gastritis.” He gave me a shot and sent me on my way. A few months later, the cancer had spread into my lungs and was making a forced march toward my brain. The lawyer told me, and I’m not sure he was right about this, but he told me I didn’t have a case for medical malpractice because I hadn’t suffer any permanent harm. I could debate this on any number of points, but from my current perspective, I’d say losing out on what was arguably one of the greatest sitcoms of all time represents a significant loss. There’s also that bit about the money and the body parts, but like I said, those were survivable. This Golden Girls issue is not going away.


Fitting In

Honorable Mention: Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest 2022

My short story “Fitting In” was published by The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. This month it received an Honorable Mention in the Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest 2022 from Winning Writers. That’s top 12 out of over 2400 entries.

You can read it here, on the Dead Mule website or check out the judges comments and link to the story at Winning Writers.

Winning Writers is one of my favorite online resources for writers. Whether you’re starting your writing journey or are well-established, it has invaluable content and links to a long list of writing competitions.


Fitting In

Fiction published by The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. This goes to a dark place, it is not for the faint of heart. If you can make it through to the end, you’ll see that the story is really about owning your truth, no matter the cost, because the lies will eat you alive. This story received an Honorable Mention from Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest 2022, a Winning Writers competition.

Enjoy it here, or visit Dead Mule for some truly extraordinary writing (and some fascinating “Southern Legitimacy Statements”).

Trigger Warnings: Violence and offensive language.

Fitting In

As a boy, I longed to speak like the other boys I met when we moved to Georgia.

My parents divorced when I was 4, and my earliest memories are blissful and dreamlike days and nights on my grandparent’s farm in Iowa, early dawn hours of sweet air laced with dew, drifting in with the birdsong through the open window by the bed I shared with my uncle. He was eight, and my moon and stars. I was parked there for a year while my mother went out of state to work and figure out how to make a new life as a single mother.

She married a man in Texas, and his job took us from Houston to New Orleans, then landed us in Georgia, just outside Atlanta. 

We got to Georgia as I was starting third grade. A teacher decided there was something wrong with the way I talked, so they set me up with a speech therapist. I don’t know what they set out to fix, but I could take a guess.

All I know is I wanted to sound like all the other kids. 

The boys in Georgia would say things like “ain’t” or “dang-it” or “fixin-to” or “crik” and I soaked it up like the earth soaks up the sun. 

My mother had no intention of raising what she called “a redneck kid.”

“You won’t go anywhere in life if you don’t speak proper English,” she would say. I never dared ask her what that said about her new husband, the man I called “dad,” and his Texas drawl.

I secretly cataloged the Southern-isms I heard and by high-school I could pass as a native, at least among those who didn’t know the truth. 

It felt good, those times I was anonymous, and could drop into the drawl and twang at will and be accepted like any other kid. 

It had other uses too, like the time a cop pulled me over for speeding. “Awright young man, I’m gonna write you a warnin’ this time, but I ketch you drivin’ hell-bent for leather agin an’ I’m writing’ ya for real, ya unnerstan’?”

“Yessir, I do, you ain’t never gonna see my face agin, offsir, I swear.” 

I could start a new job and slip into a conversation with the other employees without anyone asking me “Where you from boy?” 

Living this dual-dialect life also came in handy as training for how to deal with bigger problems. 

Like being gay at a time and in a place where such a thing could get a person killed, without much consequence. 

I had to talk a certain way, walk a certain way, be a certain way. I had to fit in. 

I perfected the act, until one day in Texas, senior year in college, when the lie was ripped away and the truth spilled out like the bloody entrails of a butchered animal. 

I had to face a new reality. I had to deal with it. I had to survive those walks across campus where it seemed everyone found joy in shouting out words like “faggot” and “cocksucker” and “queer,” perverting the beauty of their colloquial speech. It was a small school in a small town and everyone was in on the game. 

Then one Friday night, I had to fight it. 

A fraternity brother, Greg, came to my apartment half drunk and full of rage. He pounded on my door, screaming those words I heard every day. I could hear some of the other guys at the bottom of the stairs. “Damn, boy, give it a rest” or  “you’re gonna have the cops here, let’s git outta here” and  “what the hell’s wrong with you, man, the girls are waitin’ fir us.” 

I’d had enough. I was cornered, there was no other door. I couldn’t run if I wanted to, but I didn’t want to, not this time, not ever again.

I opened the door, and he rushed in. He must have thought being gay made me smaller or weaker. It made me scared, yes, but that night, scared made me dangerous. 

He came at me, eyes bloodshot from chugging cheap beer. Greg always drank before he drank. I fell back to buy some space, then grabbed his shirt and swung him around, intent on shoving him back out the front door, ready to throw punches. 

He was heavier than I expected. Instead of flinging him back the way he came, I sent him through the bank of windows set low in the wall next to the door. 

He crashed through and landed on the porch. I heard a familiar voice shout “Holy shit!” 

I stepped onto the front porch, looked down to the parking lot, glaring at the three below me. All of them dropped their “shit eatin’ grins” in a hurry. 

I looked back at my former friend, trying to extract himself from a glittering field of shattered glass, blood already flowing down his face in black-red rivers. 

My first impulse was to tell him I was sorry, to rush inside and grab a towel to staunch the bleeding, find some way to roll back the clock, try somehow to make things right. 

When he looked up at me I could see the force of his hatred rising, the pale blotches of his face  turning red, framed by ribbons of blood.

“You fuckin’ faggot!” he screamed, and started to rise. 

His scream purged that place in me that housed my empathy.

I was six foot two, and two hundred pounds of well honed muscle, with adrenalin and sobriety on my side. 

I grabbed him by his shirt again, pulled him the rest of the way to his feet, and flung him down the stairs. 

I hadn’t noticed the two guys rushing up, almost at my landing, until I released Greg to the open air. The ascending and descending forces collided, neutralizing one other. They fell back, none the worse for wear. 

It could have ended there. They tried to pull Greg away, to end the mayhem. The neighbors would put up with a lot, especially when it came to me, but screams and shattering glass crossed the line. 

Greg shook them off, shoved them away, then turned to look up at me. Before he could speak, I started down the stairs. 

All my life, even before that night and ever since, I have experienced profound states of calm in the most dire of circumstances. A car accident, a boat sinking beneath me, a gun pointed at my face, all of these things, and more, had already happened to me before that Friday night. Such situations, when most panic, bring me to an intense mental focus and physical calm. Some special cells in my brain take over and say, “You got this, let’s go.” 

When this has happened, people have said I looked different, like another person, like no one they’ve ever seen before, someone that frightened them. Only years later did I learn it had a name – dissociation. 

In the case of Greg, my first two steps toward him brought him to a halt and silenced his voice. 

I didn’t stop. 

He step backwards and slipped on his own blood. He stumbled down to the shared landing between the two second-floor apartments, and fell to his knees, leaving another puddle of himself on the concrete surface. 

I kept going. 

He couldn’t get to his feet, instead grabbing the next step below him and dragging himself lower. The two who had abandoned him on the staircase came back. They grabbed him by the armpits and dragged him the rest of the way to the parking lot.

I maintained my deliberate pace.

The four of them backed away, all now speechless, until finally the one who I knew wanted least of all to be there said “awright, dammit, awright, it’s a ‘nuff already.”  

Then I stopped. His voice grabbed my attention, then his eyes held it.

In a flash I relived all the times we’d spent together, Mark and I. The football games, the parties, the booze, and of course that one particular night, after the party died down, our lives coming together in a fearful embrace that grew into something more. Something I thought would last forever.

Until I walked into his room one afternoon, using the front door key he’d given me almost as an afterthought. I knew the man he was with that day, but even if I hadn’t, my heart would still have broken. The image of the two of them together, burned into my memory.

I made my threats, and he made his, though mine were empty and his became my new reality, placing us on the path we were all now walking. 

I suppose there’s a fine line between powerful love and raging hate, and I’d found the way to push him, and everyone else it seemed, across that line. He told a few friends, and in a few day’s time my secret life became an open book, a story to be told and spread with whispered voices in the halls and courtyards and ballfields of higher education. 

I didn’t know it then, but though he seemed safe behind his accusations and condemnations, his world was growing smaller and darker than it had ever been. Hindsight educates my understanding of him in a way the experience couldn’t. All I knew then was betrayal and the pain that came with it.

I looked into those pricing blue eyes, and felt it all again. I had to look away from him, to hold back my tears. 

I scanned their faces, took note of Greg’s fear, then returned to the source of my suffering. When I saw the look on Mark’s face, with no hint of sadness or regret, I didn’t feel like crying after all. 

“Forget I exist,” I said, choking out all the disgust my throat could carry, “I’ve already forgotten you.” 

I turned away and headed back up the stairs as the wailing sirens grew closer. I climbed up to my porch and sat on the edge, my legs draped over the top steps. 

They piled Greg into the backseat of Mark’s car and before he got in, Mark looked up at me. His face never changed, even as he raised his right hand and shoved his middle finger into the air, a performative act for everyone peeking out through their curtains to witness. I laughed at the impotence of it. He responded by getting in the driver’s seat and slamming the door behind him.

I watched the life I’d known drive away, taillights rushing into the darkness, until the space around me filled with flashing blues and reds, sounds of brakes screeching to a sudden halt. 

Four cars, eight officers in all. I guess someone convinced them it was necessary, or maybe they were just bored cops working in a small town. 

They held a little confab below me, then one of them made his way up the steps, scanning with his flashlight, trying not to step in any evidence. 

I knew him and he knew me. I’d done a month of nightly ride-alongs with him as part of my criminal justice curriculum. 

“Hello Tom,” I said. It’d been a while, but I knew we were still on a first-name basis, “how ya doin’?”

“I might ask you the same question,” he said, “you wanna tell me what happened?”

“Not really.” 

“Any of this blood belong to you?”


“You wanna file a report?”

He was standing with his eyes level to mine, just a few feet away. I looked down at the gaggle of officers in the parking lot, all of them with a hand on a hip. 

“No,” I said. My voice was calm, my heart beat slow and steady, I felt lighter than I had in years.

“This gonna be a regular thing, ya think?”

“That’s not up to me.”

“No, I guess not,” he said. 

With a look down and a nod of his head, everyone but his partner returned to their cars and drove away, lights blinking out as they went.

When they were gone, he leaned in and stared into my eyes. I returned his stare. 

“Buddy,” he said, knowing I liked it when he called me that, “you know we can’t protect you. There’s just not…”

“Did I ask you to?”

“It’s my job…”

“And you can’t do it.”

“I’m not your enemy…”

“Yes,” I replied, cool as a Hill Country winter, “you are.” 

He pulled back and his voice rose an octave when he asked “How so?”

“The truth used to be my enemy. Now it’s the lie. You’re part of the lie.” 

He raised his palms up, “Whatdya want me to do?”


We looked at each other until he shook his head and let out a sharp exhale that sounded like defeat. 

“You sure you wanna stick it out here?”

“I’ve got three months, then I’m done, nobody’s taking that from me.”

“Might be easier for ya back in Georgia.”

“Here, there, what’s the difference?” 

I looked over my shoulder at my ruined window, then down the stairs at the blood already drying on the steps. 

“Besides,” I said, “I think I made my point.”

“You think this is gonna quiet things down a bit?”

“Yes,” I said, and believed it, “it’s a small town, news travels fast.”

After that night, I moved through the world like a boulder in a stream, life rushing around me as I waited out the weeks. Some still shouted their hate when I walked across campus, while a few made attempts at eye contact, flashing fervent smiles filled with sadness. 

None of it mattered.

I was alone, an outcast in a world filled with lies. 

But I wasn’t afraid anymore.