Checking in

I only just now remembered that the title of my last post was “Down with the Sickness.”  Given what’s going on right now, I feel I should check in with the few people who follow this and let you know that I’m doing fine.  I made a full recovery from that illness, which was just a common cold, and I’m doing well.  My allergies are acting up a bit, since Freda and I took our dogs on a play date with other greyhounds yesterday.  Dirt + Dust + Dogs + Dry air = allergies.  Watery eyes and scratchy throat are the main symptoms of this, though thankfully, not as bad as I’ve had them before.  I remember once being completely laid up following a particularly strong pollen season one spring a few years ago.  So, all in all, I’m good.

I braved the supermarkets today and didn’t have an issue.  As far as I know, I’m still expected at work tomorrow, despite my office being located in a county that has ordered all non-essential businesses closed.  I may see how it all goes tomorrow and decide what I’m doing after that.

Lastly, I’ll reveal that I’m in the midst of revising my new novel.  Yes, my first full-length novel since 2010’s “October and Everything After.”  Right now, the novel is called “Take the Long Way,” and it takes place in both 1996 and 2016.  I’m really happy with how it’s working out and I’m excited to get this out to everyone.

Stay safe, everyone.   Wash those hands.  Cover those mouths.  Stay home if you can.  Smoke if you got ’em.

Down with the Sickness

Yesterday, I started feeling the first inklings of a cold.  They rapidly increased as the day went on, so I devoted as much of the second part of my day as I could to finishing anything deadline-oriented.  Anything else could wait.  I left work, came home, and relaxed as much as I could.  This morning, when I woke up, the cold had fully taken me over, and I knew I wasn’t going in to work, so I called out.

And yet, I felt bad about it.  Like, I should just power through it and go to work and relax over the weekend.  That’s what I might’ve done when I was young, but now that I’m on the other side of 40, I look at things a little differently.  I’ve known people who never take off work, even when they are clearly sick to a distracting point.  I used to shrug that off but as of late, I find that mindset annoying.  If you’re stick, stay home.  Don’t come in and possibly infect other people in the office.  One coworker of mine once said that, with his wife and kids at home, he actually prefers being at work when he’s sick than at home.  Once again, a mindset I don’t get.

I guess what I’m saying is that there’s a mindset in this country that I’d like to see changed: putting work over yourself.  Someone once told me to be loyal to people, not to companies, because companies will screw you over at the drop of a hat.  I consider myself loyal to my fellow employees, specifically those who sit around me, so I stayed home today.  Whatever I have should be gone by Monday, at which point I can catch up on any missed work while feeling much better than I do now.

Not sure if any of this makes sense.  Time for another dose of Dayquil.

A Weekend of Goodbyes

On Saturday, I went to the Ritz at the Bourse.  For those who don’t know, it’s one of three (four, if you count the Roxy) art house theaters in Center City Philadelphia, where you could go to see movies that wouldn’t normally play at multiplexes or neighborhood theaters.  The others are the Ritz Five, which has been around for eons, as far as I’m concerned, and the Ritz East, which opened in 1999.  I remember that because I almost saw Magnolia there when it opened in early 2000, and the theater had already been open a few months at that time.  From what I’ve read, the Ritz at the Bourse opened in 1990 (I couldn’t remember exactly, so I looked it up) and came along just in time for the indie film boom of the 90s.

I didn’t make my first visit there until 1996, when me and my oldest brother Mike saw I Shot Andy Warhol there on a warm June afternoon.  A month or so later, both of us went back to see Trainspotting.  I’ll always remember one of the patrons walking out in a huff during the “diving into the toilet” scene.  Some other movies I remember seeing there were All Over Me, subUrbia, Run Lola Run, Being John Malkovich, Edge City, State and Main, Waking Life, The Business of Others, and Before Sunset in 2004, the last time I’d visited that theater until this past weekend.

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to see.  I’d already seen The Irishman, though the prospect of seeing it on the big screen was almost too enticing.  I passed on A Hidden Life since I’m not a Terrence Malick fan (I tried, really I did, but The Tree of Life bored the hell out of me, and I still haven’t forgiven him for that pointless, long-winded exercise in plotlessness).  I had some curiosity about seeing the Pauline Kael documentary, as well as Pain and Glory and Honey Boy.  However, I chose A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.  I enjoyed it, and Tom Hanks’ performance, in any other year, would be Oscar-worthy (this is Brad Pitt’s year, I feel, so that third Oscar will have to wait).  The vintage clips of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood brought back a lot of childhood memories for me, in the same way that visiting that theater for the last time brought back memories of when I was younger and more optimistic and ambitious about my place in the world.  I feel I gave the theater a nice goodbye.

Then, today, while I was out food shopping, my phone started blowing up with news alerts.  I ignored them at first.  Then I checked Facebook, since there was a picture posted on there from a friend that I wanted to show my mom when I stopped to visit her today, and that’s when I first saw the news about Kobe Bryant passing.

He’s the same age as me.  Accomplished a helluva lot more than me, but we both share “1978” as our birth year.  I remember being a senior in high school and watching all the news reports about his historic run in high school basketball and also the picture on the cover of the Daily News of him taking Brandy (the singer and actress) to his prom.  I never seriously followed basketball, except for the Sixers’ run in the 2000-2001 season, during which they made it to the Finals only to lose to the hated Lakers, featuring Shaq and Kobe.  However, I always tried to follow his career, and it seemed like he had a hard working ethic along with the respect of those he played with.  True, he ran into some legal and PR issues here and there, but all of that faded away, and after he retired, he seemed poised to have a nice second life after basketball.

Which makes it all the more tragic that he passed the way he did.  Not only that, but according to news reports, his 13-year-old daughter died with him.  For their remaining family, what they must now face from this day forward is unimaginable to me.  My father passed of a sudden stroke one Sunday morning in November 2003, and I thought that was difficult to move on from.  This—what happened to Kobe and his daughter—is epic in the worst possible way.

So, I guess this weekend is yet another reminder of how nothing lasts forever, things can change in an instant, people can be gone in a snap, and don’t take any of it for granted.  I’ll do my best to keep that mindset moving forward.

“Gotta keep dancing when the lights go out…”

I forgot to include Coldplay’s Everyday Life with the music I dug in 2019.  It’s a much different album than what they had previously put out, but it’s also beautiful and relevant.  The last song–the title track–has been in my head ever since the first time I heard the album all the way through, and that line–“Gotta keep dancing when the lights go out…”–has stuck with me.  What it means to me, I’m not sure, but it’s hit me particularly hard.

Saturday Night

During the summer of last year, my wife and I made the decision that in 2020, we’re going to try to move out of our neighborhood.  It’s gone downhill fast, and we’re having an issue with one of our neighbors, and also, the majority of the people that we were friendly with have all moved away, so it’s time to get out.

As part of getting ready to move out, one thing I’m going to focus on is decluttering.  One of the ways in which I plan to declutter is to scan in any stray documents I have laying around that aren’t already saved somewhere.  Today, I scanned in all 98 pages of the first screenplay I ever wrote: “Saturday Night.”

I wrote the original draft of it near the end of 1995.  This was after I bought the screenplay book for “Pulp Fiction” and finally got to see what a screenplay looks like.  Of course, I also learned that proper screenplay format is keeping directions and descriptions as brief as possible, whereas Tarantino, in all of his scripts, writes them almost like novels.

“Saturday Night” focuses on three best friends: Lou, T.J., and Nixon.  All 20-something Gen-Xers (remember, this was 1995).  They meet at the Mayfair Diner, an all-night diner in Northeast Philly, and discuss the Saturday night that they’d all had, going on separate adventures.  Lou convinces his longtime girlfriend Gina to have sex with him but it doesn’t go as he hoped and they nearly break up but stay together in the end.  T.J. breaks up with his current girlfriend only to end up in bed with a prostitute.  Nixon spends the night hanging out with his boss’s sister and falling in love with her.

I tried not to read it as I was scanning it in, for fear of what I’d find in this very early attempt at writing.  However, I ended up scanning pages here and there and…well, there were germs of later ideas that showed up in better stories, and every so often, there was a good line of dialogue.  However, it was also overrun by pop culture references from its time, and it also read very clearly like it was written by an 18-year-old without much life experience at the time.  I probably should’ve tossed it and forgotten about it altogether, but since it’s the first thing I ever completed of that nature, I can’t bring myself to simply discard it.  I need it as a record of how I started and how far I’ve come since then.

There’s no telling what else I find when I continue digging into my loose documents, but I did enjoy that trip down memory lane today.

Thoughts on 2019

This blog has been a bit stagnant for a while, but one of my goals for 2020 is to post more in here.  How often?  I’m not sure just yet, but I want to add more content to this site, so you may be seeing more movie/book/music/concert/theater reviews from me on here, as well as previews of upcoming works.

Overall, I’d consider 2019 a success.  I self-published my second short story collection, “Something Happened.”  Three short plays that I wrote were performed by the Wings of Paper Theater Company, newly of Northeast Philly, and it was thrilling and interesting to see other people interpret my work.  I also shot a new short film, “Bitter Pill.”  A previous short film, “Two Birds,” screened at the Philadelphia Unnamed Film Festival, which was a cool experience.

I also got a promotion at work.  Since 2013, I’d been an internal quality auditor, a job I loved up until about 2017, when it really started feeling like a slog.  Then, late summer, a new position opened up for a Document Control Leader, and I was recommended for the position, and it’s what I’ve been doing at work for the past 4 months.  It’s challenging and tedious but I feel like I’ve made a positive impact on the company so far, and I’m looking forward to what else I can do in the role in 2020.

Also, and more excitingly, I finished the first draft of my new novel right before Thanksgiving.  My 3rd novel, “October and Everything After,” was completed in 2009 (though not officially released until 2010), and ever since then, I’ve been struggling to complete a new novel.  Some never got past the first chapter, while I got many thousands of words deep into two other novels before abandoning them.  This novel actually occurred by accident.  It started off as a short story, one that I knew would be long-form.  However, the story just kept expanding and before I knew it, I had over 70,000 words, and I was very satisfied with how the story was structured from beginning to end.  The title for now is “Take the Long Way,” and is told in two parts: part one is in 1996 and part two is in 2016.  The influence of “Before Sunrise/Sunset” is clearly evident in this story, but I also feel like–especially in part two–this is the most “me” story I’ve ever told, and I’m anxious to get it out there for everyone to read.

Movies I dug this year were Avengers: Endgame, Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, The Irishman, Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker, Brittany Runs A Marathon, and BooksmartGlass was a disappointment, though.

Music I dug this year included An Ode to Joy by Wilco, Help Us Stranger by The Raconteurs, On the Line by Jenny Lewis, All the Feels by Fitz and the Tantrums, FEVER DREAM by Of Monsters and Men, and the soundtrack to Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood.

Books I dug this year were autobiographies by Jerry Blavat and Jeff Tweedy, The Beatles by Bob Spitz, The Dark Half by Stephen King, and the continuation of Doomsday Clock, the Watchmen/DC Universe crossover event.

I didn’t make it to any concerts this year, aside from Jim Gaffigan at the Met.  His show was hilarious.  Some shows that I thought were cool were To Kill A Mockingbird on Broadway (with Jeff Daniels as Atticus), Love’s Labours Lost at the Lantern Theatre Company, Legally Blonde and Young Frankenstein at the Walnut Street Theatre, Civil War Voices at the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independent Studio on 3, The Sunshine Boys at the Bristol Riverside Theatre, and A Christmas Carol as performed by Anthony Lawton at the Proscenium Theatre.  Oh, and Hamilton at the Forrest Theatre.  That was excellent.

I think that’s enough of a wrap-up for now.  2020 is looking like it could have some interesting things in store, so let’s all go into the new year with a sense of wonder and excitement!

“The True Believers” excerpt, from the upcoming collection, “Something Happened”

Trisha had everything packed and ready to go.  All she needed now was some more money.  She’d cleaned out her bank account but since there wasn’t much in there, she needed extra cash and knew exactly where to get it.  She walked into her parents’ bedroom and searched through their closet until she found the jar where her mother stashed her extra cash.  Her mother didn’t know that she knew where this was, and over the years, Trisha had lifted a few bucks here and there from it, nothing that would arouse much suspicion.  This was different, however.  Trisha needed a lot of money and took nearly half the jar’s contents.  She replaced the pilfered money with a folded note explaining in vague details written in black ink and barely legible cursive why she needed the money and that, in time, she would try her best to repay what she took.

She put the jar back and made sure it looked like nothing had been touched.  With any luck, this little crime wouldn’t be discovered until after Trisha had gotten to her destination.  She’d told her parents the night before that she’d been assigned the closing shift (again!) at the fast food joint she worked at and wouldn’t be in until past midnight.  She didn’t tell them that she’d quit that awful job the night before, taking great pleasure in flipping off her slimeball of a manager as she left.

She looked at her watch and saw that it was almost time to go.  She ran downstairs to the front door where her black upright suitcase and black backpack waited for her.  She took her black jacket out of the closet and put it on over her black long-sleeved shirt, the one with the name of her favorite heavy metal band on it.  Black jeans and boots capped off her clothing, while her dark hair (pulled back into a ponytail), naturally pale skin (thank you, Irish ancestry), and two piercings (a stud in her left nostril and a hoop in her right eyebrow) drove home her alternative appearance.

She caught a lot of crap about the way she looked, especially from her parents, who hounded her to no end about the need to look more respectable.  Well, they wouldn’t have to worry about her appearance anymore.  Trisha gave one last look of disdain at the small house she’d grown up in.  Then she opened the door, slipped on her backpack, and wheeled her suitcase outside before shutting the door and locking it for the final time.

The bus depot was a ten-minute walk away.  Her bus didn’t leave for forty-five minutes but she didn’t want to risk missing it.  She’d called the day before to find out departure times and ticket prices.  She didn’t want to get there and find out that her bus had left or that she couldn’t afford the ticket.  Nothing could be left to chance; this was too important.

Trisha quickly made her way through the streets of her neighborhood, which was just outside the city.  She hoped that no one who knew her or her parents would see her rushing to the bus station with luggage in hand.  She wanted anonymity, at least until the bus had left the city.  In the note she left her mother, Trisha was non-specific about her destination or about when she’d get in touch with her.  She just wanted to vanish for now.

Ten minutes sure felt like a long time when you wanted to get some place as fast as possible.  She wished that she’d chosen a pair of sneakers instead of her boots, since her feet began to ache.  Maybe on the bus, if room permitted, she’d take off her boots and relax her feet a little.  Right now, though, she had to keep going.  The bus station wasn’t much farther and she had to press on.

She experienced a brief but unexpectedly strong temptation to turn back and go home, probably due to the risk inherent in this venture.  While she knew that someone would meet her at the other terminal when her bus pulled in and that she’d have a place to stay, she’d still never lived away from home before, and where she was going was far away, indeed.  The bus ride itself was five hours straight through, and she already knew that the bus would have to make at least one rest stop, not to mention possible traffic snarls.  If she got out there and suddenly found that things weren’t going to work out how she’d hoped, there would be no place for her to go.  She wanted to leave contacting her parents as a last resort, given the amount of apologizing, explaining, and groveling she’d have to do over the phone to them.

At last, she arrived at the bus depot.  She walked through the front doors and entered the large, high-ceilinged terminal.  She checked out the departure times and then checked her watch.  She’d arrived in plenty of time, just as she’d hoped.

She stood in line only a few minutes before walking up to the ticket counter and asking for a seat on the bus going into the western part of the state.  The middle-aged woman behind the desk printed out the ticket and Trisha handed over the money.  With ticket in hand, she walked through the terminal to the hub for her bus, sat down on a bench nearby, and waited patiently for the bus to arrive.

A number of people started congregating at this hub.  Most were middle-aged, the youngest looking around 35 or so.  Trisha, at 21 years old, was easily the youngest person there.  She kept quiet and didn’t fidget as much as she usually did while waiting for something.  She didn’t want to draw attention to herself.  In all honesty, she really didn’t want any of the people around her to feel compelled to strike up a conversation with her.  She wanted to ride out the next five hours or so alone.  If anyone wanted to talk with her, she’d reply kindly but try her best to kill the conversation quickly.  Should someone ask her what she was doing on the bus (especially any of the guys), she’d just tell them that she was on her way to visit her boyfriend at his college.  Which was kinda, sorta true.

The bus finally pulled into the hub and the driver, a tall, stocky man, opened the door and got out.  He told everyone gathered outside to have their tickets ready and leave their larger pieces of luggage to the side, as he would pack them later.  Trisha made sure she was one of the first in line.  The driver checked her ticket and then waved her inside.

After leaving her black upright suitcase with all the other baggage to be stowed in the bus’s lower cabin, Trisha bounded up the small steps and turned left to face a long narrow aisle with rows and rows of seats to either side.  To her right was the driver’s main cab area and on the left in the back she could see the entrance for the lavatory.  She made her way down the aisle and took a window seat in the back on her right.  She placed her black backpack on the seat next to her.  She patiently waited as the other passengers got on and took their seats, none sitting too closely together.  Her eagerness to get going made her restless.

Once everyone’s tickets had been checked, the passengers seated, and the luggage stowed in the cabin below, the driver came back onto the bus and stood before everyone: “Good morning, folks.  We’ll get going shortly.  I just want to let you know that we need to make stops at two more terminals that should only take around forty-five minutes or so in total.  They’re on the way so we won’t lose much time.  After that, I hope you like looking at turnpike, because that’s what you’ll see for the next five hours or so.  The bathroom in the back is in good working order so feel free to use it.  We’ll make a rest stop about halfway into the trip.  My name is Woody.  Just sit back and relax and let me get you to where you need to go.”

Woody sat down in his seat.  A minute later, the bus slowly lurched forward toward the terminal’s exit.  It made a left onto the main road and picked up some speed.  All the while, Trisha stared out the window, her mind going haywire.

Two more terminal stops?  Forty-five minutes or so?  Crap!

Thankfully, the terminals weren’t far away and the stops weren’t very long.  More passengers came on but they stayed up front, leaving Trisha alone in the back.  Still, she fidgeted.  Woody seemed like a nice enough guy but she really wished he’d pick up the pace.

After the last terminal stop, Woody made the same announcement to everyone about hoping they liked looking at turnpike.  Some titters of laughter came out of the other passengers but Trisha felt like she was about to burst.

Ten minutes later, Woody steered the bus up the turnpike’s on-ramp and after passing through the first toll plaza, the bus hit a nice stretch of open road.

Thank goodness!  Now, nothing can stop me.  Well, a blown tire or a traffic jam or…no, can’t think like that.  (Deep breath)  I just need to chill out for however long it takes to get out there.

The ride was smooth and the bus’s motor sounded soothing to Trisha’s ears.  For the first time that day, she allowed herself to grow complacent.  There really wasn’t much more that she could do besides ride out the rest of the journey.

She stared out the window for a little while, watching the sites pass by.  She quietly slipped off her boots and gave her grey-socked feet a rub.  Maybe when she got to her destination, she could dig her sneakers out of her suitcase.  When she grew tired of looking at scenery, she reached into her backpack and pulled out her well-worn paperback copy of Contact by Carl Sagan.

She’d been reading the over four hundred page book for a few months but had only gotten up to page 144.  She was a slow reader and usually shunned books longer than two hundred pages, if not books altogether.  She’d rather watch a movie or a TV show.  She just didn’t have the patience needed to finish a book.  However, she tried her best with this book, since it was the basis for one of her favorite movies.  There were a number of differences between the two, and despite having seen the Robert Zemeckis-directed adaptation many times, she just couldn’t visualize certain sections, and the highly scientific descriptions and dialogue gave her trouble.

Trisha had hoped she’d finish the book by the time she made her trip.  The only reason she was reading the book in the first place was because of Scott.

Ah, Scott.  The thought of him always made her warm.

She stretched her legs out over the two seats.  An hour passed and she’d read about fifteen pages.  After another five pages, she’d had enough and decided to put the book away.  She pulled out her iPod and put her ear buds in.  She started up her music and stared out the window as a mixture of heavy metal, punk, and hard rock filled her ears while her mind wandered back to the night that changed her life.

She was 9 years old and on a camping trip with her Girl Scout troupe.  After a day of hiking and exploring, they pitched their tents in a clearing in the woods, set up a campfire, and ate hot dogs and ‘smores before going to sleep.  In the middle of the night, Trisha woke up with a strong, sudden urge to pee.  She fumbled for her jacket, socks, and boots but the urge was too intense and wouldn’t wait so she ran out into the woods in her sleep shirt and bare feet.  As she searched for a place to go, she noticed lights far off in the forest and the sounds of feet trampling on the ground.  Curiosity won out over caution and Trisha wandered farther out into the woods, forgetting her urge to pee or her lack of proper clothing or footwear.  She stood transfixed as she saw several figures moving about with a blinding white light around them.  These figures—more like outlines—resembled nothing she’d ever seen before.  Their shapes were not human.  She took baby steps forward, taking great care not to crack a branch or rustle a leaf.  She wanted to remain in the shadows.

Then, the figures began disappearing into the white light.  Trisha looked up.  She saw several more lights in the sky.  As her eyes adjusted, she barely made out the shape of a huge saucer.  Her heart beat faster and she grew frightened, an emotion that triggered the release she’d originally gone out there to do.  However, she paid no mind to the warm trickle that ran down her legs and over her feet as she watched the saucer soundlessly move higher into the heavens and then vanish from sight.

“Dead Man’s Alley” excerpt, from the upcoming collection, “Something Happened”

On a hot August night in 1987, I braved the treacherous, foreboding terrain of Dead Man’s Alley, and somehow lived to tell the tale.

It all started with the three of us—Warren, Lou, and myself—sitting in the basement of Warren’s house, just killing time before our curfew.  The day’s temperature topped out at just under a hundred degrees and the night hadn’t gotten any cooler.  Despite the heat, we still spent the day playing multiple games of stickball at the local playground.  Once the weltering sun fell behind the row homes that lined the streets of our neighborhood, we retired to the finished, air-conditioned basement in Warren’s house, chugging sodas and listening to the radio, with nothing in particular to do for the rest of the night.

Three twelve-year-old boys with nothing in particular to do on a late summer’s night will always yield mischievous results, and this night was no different.

I distinctly remember U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” playing on the radio in the background as Lou and I sat on the couch and flipped through a comic book, which detailed an epic battle between The Mighty Thor and the Incredible Hulk.  The two of us resembled prototypical nerds, with bushy heads of hair and thick-rimmed glasses.  I had a thin, wiry body while Lou was slightly overweight.  Both of us wore geeky T-shirts—the Superman logo on Lou’s and an image of the Starship Enterprise on mine—along with sweat shorts and high-top Chucks.

Out of the three of us, though, Warren was definitely the coolest.  He wore a black T-shirt with the band Poison standing in front of a drum kit with their green-lettered logo hanging above their heads.  His brown hair had been chopped up into a mullet, which left him with long hair on the back of his head and short hair on the sides and top.  He wore blue jeans that were crudely cut off at the knee and black Converse high tops.  His body was fit and toned, courtesy of an exercise regimen overseen by his high school football-playing older brother.

Warren was the essence of what the characters in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders referred to as “tuff.”  He suffered no fool wisely and had a short temper.  He could be a major pain in the neck at times but he was a good friend to Lou and myself.  We had grown up on the same block and had been friends for as long as we could remember.  We looked out for each other, always backing each other up in good times and in bad.

While Lou and I focused our attention on our comic book, Warren paced around the room, all revved up with no place to go.  He finished off his Coca-Cola, placed the empty can on the floor, and crushed it with his foot.  He ran a lay-up to the trashcan, mimicking Charles Barkley, and dunked it into the metal container.

He looked at Lou and myself and sulked.  “I’m bored, you guys.  Let’s go out and do something.”

“Like what?” I said, glancing up from the comic.  “It’s too late to do anything now.  Let’s just chill out here for the night.”

“Oh, come on, you guys!  We’ve still got over an hour before curfew.  We should go out and…I don’t know, find something to do!”

“It’s late, it’s hot, and we’re tired,” Lou said.  “Pull up a chair, grab a comic, and chill out.”

“No, that’s boring.  Besides, comics are stupid.”

“Put on the TV,” I suggested.  “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is on tonight.”

“Aw, Temple of Doom sucked, man,” Warren said in disgust.

“I gotta side with him on that one,” Lou said.  “Raiders of the Lost Ark was way rad, but Temple was weak sauce.”

The U2 song on the radio faded out and Def Leppard’s “Animal” blared from the speakers.  Warren grabbed a nearby high-backed swivel chair and swung it around so that when he sat down, the front of his body hung over the back.  He sank into serious contemplation, something he wasn’t known for doing very often.  His mindset was one of split-second actions and snap decisions.  Lou and I looked at each other, clueless as to what Warren was pondering.

Suddenly, Warren shot a wicked glare at me and said, “You still haven’t paid up on that bet you lost.”

“What bet?” I asked.

“When we were playing ‘Home Run Derby’ in the playground the other day, you said you could hit five home runs in a row over the fence but you only hit four.”

“Are you kidding me?  In the major leagues, that last one would’ve been considered a home run.”

“Not by our rules, though.  I thought I made it crystal clear to you that the ball has to clear the fence completely.  If it hits the top of the fence and lands on the other side, it’s not a homer and I win.  It didn’t clear the fence so I won.  Now, you have to pay up.”

“Okay,” I mocked, “what do you want me to do?  Give you a dollar?  Give you my Mike Schmidt rookie card?  Steal a Playboy from your brother’s room?”

Lou belched out a laugh and I joined in, not taking the conviction of Warren’s intentions seriously.  Warren, however, maintained a staunch poker face while he schemed and plotted.

“Dead Man’s Alley,” he gravely announced.

Darkness descended over the room.  No one said anything.  A deadly serious expression froze onto Warren’s face.  My mouth instantly dropped open when he uttered those three grim words.

I looked over at Lou and he appeared as shocked as I was.  I continued gaping at Warren for a few more seconds before I cleared my throat.

“Dead Man’s Alley?” I repeated.

“Yeah, did I stutter, McFly?  You have heard of Dead Man’s Alley, right?”

“Don’t be silly.  Of course I’ve heard of Dead Man’s Alley.”

Of course I’d heard of Dead Man’s Alley.  What kid who lived in our neighborhood at that time hadn’t heard of Dead Man’s Alley?

Dead Man’s Alley was located in between two sets of abandoned row homes on the edge of our neighborhood.  The houses were cheaply erected nearly a hundred years ago as a place for lower income families to live.  While the streets of our neighborhood were flat, this area was steeply sloped, with the houses curving down a hill and the alley following suit.

Legend had it that sometime in the early 1900s, a convicted murderer escaped from police custody, stole a horse from a nearby produce salesman, and led the cops on a chase through the neighborhood that ended in the middle of the infamous alley.  As the escapee sat atop the horse, the police surrounded the area, cornering him at each exit.  A Mexican standoff occurred that lasted nearly an hour.  Then, seeing no way out and refusing to go back to jail, the convict pulled out a gun that he had lifted from an officer while escaping, jumped off the horse and shot the animal in the head.  He took his own life shortly thereafter.

Since then, tales began circulating throughout the area regarding ghostly sightings of the man and the horse in the alley at night.  Residents spoke of seeing this apparition at least once a month.  The stories persisted even as the area became a ghost town in the Old West sense of the term.  People fled in droves once the shabbily constructed houses, which weren’t built on a firm foundation, started sinking into the ground.  When the last of the residents moved out, the houses fell into disrepair and the area wallowed in squalor.

However, the place still held much fascination in local folklore, and every now and then, groups of kids would ride their bikes to the area at night and stare into the deep dark mouth of Dead Man’s Alley.  Few ever propelled themselves down the unpredictable terrain.  In fact, many talked a big game about conquering the alley only to balk at the last minute.  This bizarre stretch of land instilled fear into even the most intrepid of souls.

I, however, lacked any form of intrepidity.  While I would never admit it out loud, least of all to Warren and Lou, the stories spooked me and I had no intention of ever riding down the alley.

“You’re going down the alley or else,” Warren stated with finality.

“Text” excerpt, from the upcoming collection, “Something Happened.”

“Help me, plz.  My bf wants to kill me N I have no wear 2 go!”

Matt stared at the text message on his Samsung Galaxy S8 with a mixture of shock and surprise.  The buzz and ding that came from his device alerting him to a new message cut abruptly through the pleasant silence of his quiet night, which he’d spent sitting at his computer desk playing video games and keeping up with social media.  When he heard the alert and saw his phone vibrate on his desk, he picked it up and checked the number but didn’t recognize it.  He did a quick Google search on the number but found no useful information about it.  As he read the message, he ran his fingers through his disheveled black hair and scratched the back of his head.

Matt sat back in his seat, astounded and baffled, clueless about how to respond to this anonymous texter.

Three weeks ago, the twenty-six-year-old had moved into this first-floor apartment on Laramie Street in Northeast Philadelphia.  The apartment was part of a row house whose two main floors had been converted into small but comfy living areas.  The place had a straight-through layout, with minor separations to section off a living room, an office area (where Matt’s computer desk sat), a kitchen nook, and a bedroom/bathroom.  This represented the first place that Matt had ever occupied by himself.  He ventured out of his childhood home in Levittown so that he would be closer to his newly acquired job as a computer technician in a small neighborhood shop, his first full-time job after obtaining Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in CMIS from the local community college.

Since moving in, he had kept to himself, preferring to lead a quiet and uneventful existence.  He rarely set foot outside his apartment, aside from going to work and doing his food shopping.  He chose instead to interact with the world through digital methods of communication, since he considered real world interactions too unpredictable and volatile.

As he continued staring at the text on his phone, a wave of chills surfed through his body, not just because his apartment lacked adequate heating to keep out the bitter February cold, but also because the phantom message lingered eerily on his phone’s screen, beckoning him to answer.  Matt weighed his options.

I don’t know anyone around here, he thought, so if someone’s messing with me, it’s probably some random psycho loser with nothing better to do tonight than to sit around in his parents’ basement, send out fake texts, and basically be a nuisance.

With a twinge of morbid curiosity and a shiver of nervousness, he typed out his response: “What’s the problem?”  He kept it short, not wanting to dive head first into deep waters right away.  He punched “Send” and his response appeared in an orange dialogue bubble under the original message, which was in a grey dialogue bubble.

Matt stared intensely at the luminescent phone screen as he awaited a reply.  The sound of silence, accompanied by the rhythmic buzzing of the fan inside his computer box, filled his ears.

Suddenly, another ding and buzz heralded the arrival of a response.  Just under Matt’s question appeared the answer: “My bf is drunk N krazy N when he come back I know I just no he goin 2 kill me!”  Matt inferred from the broken, incorrect grammar of the response that the person on the other end of this discussion was either truly distressed or, should this turn out to be a hoax, lacked basic typing and writing skills.

Another ding and buzz and another message: “Will you help me plz????”

Matt felt his chest growing heavy as he realized that these messages could really be an authentic cry for help and not just someone getting a sick thrill at his expense.

He promptly texted back: “Can’t you go to a friend’s house or somewhere safe where he can’t find you?”

A minute of eager anticipation mixed with jittery dread elapsed until the familiar “ding” and buzz returned: “I have no wear 2 go.  I know he find me if I run from him.  Plz plz PLZ!  Will you help me?”

Matt contemplated if the best course of action for this situation was intervention or ignorance.  He finally settled on the former after a minute of tense deliberation.  He would rather help this anonymous victim in some way than hear on the news about some poor girl who died after a severe beating inflicted upon her by her crazed boyfriend.

“Where are you?” he typed back.  “I’ll leave right now and pick you up.”

“Meet me @ the corner of Rawn N Frankfurt.”

“Wait!” Matt quickly sent.  “What’s your name and what do you look like?”

“Tabitha Wagner.  Youll no me when you c me.  Plz come soon.”