The news was tragic: the girl had killed herself.
They talked about it in the hallways, between classes.
“All because of those rumors,” some said.
“But if they weren’t true, then why?” others countered.
Amidst the gossip and speculation, he giggled. In his pocket, he stroked her locket.
They’ll never know. It’ll be our secret.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. © ELIZABETH MICHAUD JOHN.
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“So, what do you think’s waiting on the other side of the door?” Tommy asked.
“I’m sure it’s scary, whatever it is!” Jason’s voice quivered with fear and excitement.
The older boy looked down at the younger one. “Think so? Monsters, maybe?”
“No, no monsters. Ghosts.”
Tommy squinted. “Ghosts?”
“Yea, of those boys that went missing a few months ago. No one ever found them.”
“Could be.” Tommy cocked an eyebrow at Jason. “You sure you want to open it? See what’s on the other side? You brave enough?”
Jason hopped from foot to foot. Hesitating only for a moment, he nodded.
Tommy curled his fingers around the handle. He pulled it up, then down, but it didn’t yield.
Jason sagged his shoulders, and kicked at the door. “Damn it! We’re locked out!”
Tommy shook his head and shrugged. Releasing the handle, he turned slowly to Jason. “Doesn’t really matter, though.”
“Because the monster isn’t on the other side of the door.” From his jacket, he pulled out a long, serrated knife. “He’s right here.” Even in the semi-darkness, the blade gleamed. “And you’re gonna be the ghost.”
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. © ELIZABETH MICHAUD JOHN.
As some of you may or may not know, I’m Haitian-American.
I don’t make this proclamation to be facetious or sarcastic. I make it as merely a statement of fact: I’m black.
It is what it is.
But I do bring it up because when I write, my race is not always evident. The person that I am is not always easily seen.
I usually prefer it that way.
But it is interesting, because strangers who are just becoming familiar with my work and getting to know me have said to me on more than one occasion after having read my writing, they didn’t realize that I was black.
As if that’s a problem. Thank goodness I have a thick skin, otherwise I might be offended.
I’ve written about this before, but I’ll say it again: I don’t think my race should define my writing. My writing should define my writing. My stories should speak for themselves, and my verses should sing their own songs. It is always my goal to tell a good story, as prose or as poetry, and I succeed at this objective as I can. I try to leave myself out of it as much as possible.
However, every once in a while, a little bit of me will peek through, and a little bit of my history, my person, my culture, my thoughts or my beliefs will make their way onto the page. I don’t think that this is unusual. I think it would be hard to write otherwise if I didn’t leave some of myself behind, exposed for the world to see.
But it is telling when someone reads something I’ve written, and make the connection between my words and my race, and they are surprised as a result.
I bring this up because my good friend, Francis F. Keating, (who, through two posts now, I hope you are getting to know), is also African-American.
Francis is also black.
But I think to the casual reader, many people wouldn’t know it by the poems he’s shared thus far.
In the work we’ve seen to date, Francis presents verses with an old-world, very classically structured styles and rhymes. In my opinion, they read like great literature and have a sense of timelessness about them.
Plus, it’s just a great voice that he uses to spin his verses.
I’ve told him on occasion that I expect to see these poems in high school English textbooks somewhere, being memorized and recited by thousands of students. He likes to laugh and disagree (he’s too humble to say otherwise) but I believe what I’m saying is true. His poems transcend race to focus only on a story, to speak only about the human condition, to espouse the many trials and tribulations to which we as individuals can all relate and understand. What English teacher wouldn’t flock to that theme?
As writers, I think there is value at being able to write about a variety of topics in a myriad of styles that move beyond who you are in order to capture an experience common to everyone. Following Francis’ lead, I’ve written many poems where I have tried to do just that. I like to think I’ve hit the mark once or twice on that account, and certainly I believe Francis has it in the bag.
However, sometimes you have to write to share your unique self to the world, the common experience be damned. Sometimes it is all about you, about sharing your story or your history and conveying those words that are an extension of you as a person.
In this case, I’m talking about writing black.
I don’t think this would be any different if I were Jewish or Hispanic or Chinese. I believe this wouldn’t matter if I were a northerner, a southerner, from the East Coast or the West. This would be the same if I my native tongue were English, French, Russian or Farsi, or if I were tall or short, fat or skinny, full of happiness or full of grief. No matter what I could be, my own life experience, whatever it is, however I perceive it, would eventually appear on the page. Of course, I have my own ideas about what I want to address when I write about topics that are afro-centric in nature, but that is the nature of the human experience: it is unique to everyone. Even when we share the experience, our perspectives will make it singular to who we are.
Certainly, I believe this is true when Francis writes; he has authored quite a few poems where he addresses his own experiences and perspectives as a black man, and creates a voice and a style to reflect that. In one of his newer poems, Ghetto Smoke, he shows just how diverse and broad his range can be. It speaks not only to the breadth of skill that he possesses with his mighty pen, but also to who he is and what he sees are problems and ills that our community faces. Always literary, always poetic, but very raw and gritty, very streetwise and urban.
Ghetto Smoke is like that. It flows almost like a song—a hip-hop anthem, if you will—but forever dark in both the reality it presents and the story he tells. But it is as much as part of him as is the rest of his poetry—as it should be, since we all like to share a part of ourselves in the stories we write.
And as a black man, he sometimes likes to write black.
JoJo was born smokin’.
Soon as he come out his mommas womb
His daddy popped a cigarette in his mouth
“Smoke up mutha fucka
You ain’t got time for mother’s milk.
Hope you like sleepin’ on broken glass
Cuz we don’t know shit about silk.
The way of the devil is all that we have.
So buck up my nigga, hold tight to your brass.
The wheelin’ and dealin’ so thick
That the smoke makes you choke.
Our burdens a bitch on the yoke.”
So JoJo behaved like a young nigga should.
He smoked up dem smokes
And gave love to the hood.
By ten he was smokin’
Two packs of fuck you every day.
Young JoJo’s a player that way.
By twelve he was cuttin’ the yoyo for slice.
By twenty that nigga was rollin’ in ice.
The roll of the dice
The smell of the kill on the steel
Joe smoked up that shit with appeal.
Pop! Pop! In the head for a fool talkin’ shit.
Mad hate to his God for the fate that he spit
“No shame in my game”
Was the blunt that he hit with a smile
JoJo smoked on that shit for a while.
In the cut
With a strut
“Gotta problem with me!
COPYRIGHT 2012 © FRANCIS F. KEATING. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
“Crime is naught but misdirected energy.” Emma Goldman 1869-1940
There’s a knock upon my door
Despite the lateness of the hour
From this sound I turn my ear
And step away a little further
From the stranger who awaits me
On the other side of the door—
I ponder his desire
But I do fear his intentions
So I leave the door unanswered
I wish for more modest conventions—
But the knock does come again
With a force a little harder—
I pose a question to the stranger
But an answer comes forth not
Just a greater sense of danger;
Fear begins to seize my heart—
And the knock becomes a pounding
A multitude of fists—
Door trembles, shakes and shudders
What is this curious twist?
To the man I ask a question
Who does beat down my door;
He seeks an entry to my home
To shatter my abode;
I shout a question of this man
(Or perhaps he is a beast?)
What it is his heart demands?
What it is he wants of me?
But no answer yet is given
And the pounding is a clamor
I feel a shudder in my heart
My speech begins to stammer—
I shriek a question to the creature:
Won’t you please sir leave me be?
I seek solace on this night,
I wish not for company
But the man who is a demon
As his intent from hell must come
Refuses my request,
My words to him are merely jest—
And the banging does continue
‘Til a crack shows in the door
‘Til the frame once strong is shattered
And I feel my breath no more—
Through my door which is now broken
Through the threshold he does step
I now stand in utter terror;
I’m loathe to hear his manifest—
A knife gleams in his hand
And he holds it up so high
It shines with menace from the light
And there’s evil in his eyes—
I beg for a response
To my question from before;
And as I scream a desperate prayer
For some help from this dark strife
He looks at me and does respond:
I’ve come to take your life.
COPYRIGHT 2012 © ELIZABETH MICHAUD JOHN. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Note: I don’t really classify this story as a “true” horror because of its ending, but what happens inside the story is still, to me, very frightening. I’m sure any parent would agree. This is my attempt to touch on a broader range of emotion.
“Aw, Dad, can’t we do it just one more time? One more launch. Please? Please?”
Stephen looked down at his young son, marveling at this creature that was his own creation. Tommy was a little replica of Stephen himself, with cheery brown eyes, and a big, happy grin that he shared as easily as his father shared his own.
“I don’t know, son. Your mom and your sister are going to be wondering where we are, don’t you think?”
“Naw, she’s busy with Jessica. They’re getting their nails done. Yuck!” He stuck his tongue out in disgust and Stephen laughed.
“Alright,” he said to his six-year old son. “How about a little snack first? Some hot dogs and soda? Think your mom’d be upset?”
Tommy opened his eyes wide with excitement. “Oh no, Daddy. She’s always saying she doesn’t want me go hungry. That’s why she’s always saying I have to eat everything on my plate.”
Stephen chuckled. “Yeah, you’ve got your mom’s number, alright,” he murmured, amused. He loved his son’s simple honesty—if somewhat misconstrued and self-serving—and the innocence with which it was always expressed. He found it completely endearing.
“Alright, kiddo, let’s go.”
They walked together, father and son, through the thick grass. The park was full of people: families sitting on bright colored blankets, having a picnic and sharing stories; couples and their dogs tossing a Frisbee. Beyond the center fountain, teenagers were playing a spirited game of volleyball, a boom box blasting music providing a soundtrack for their fun. The day was sunny and bright, the sky dotted with clouds. A perfect day to be out with my boy, Stephen thought contentedly.
They reached the refreshment stand, where the line snaked several feet beyond the concession stand. They took their place in line and chatted together. Stephen listened patiently and with amusement as his son rambled excitedly.
“How high do you think we can make it go, Dad?”
“I don’t know, Tommy. What do you think?”
“I’ll bet we can make it touch the sky!”
Stephen encouraged him with a smile and an affectionate pat on the head.
Suddenly, Tommy steered the conversation from their impending activity and turned to more pressing, more immediate matters. “I have to go to the restroom.”
“Can you hold it?” The line was still long and moving slowly and Stephen was loathe to leave the line now that their place was well-established.
“Nope.” As if to prove his dire emergency, he immediately crossed his legs and began jumping up and down.
Stephen scanned the area for a restroom and discovered the sign behind the refreshment stand. “You sure you can’t—“
“I can go all by myself, Daddy. I’m a big boy.”
“Are you sure, son?”
“I’ve got this, Dad.” And before Stephen could protest further, his son took off in the direction of the restroom. Just as he was considering going after him, a customer leaving the refreshment stand laden with drinks, ketchup and mustard dressed hot dogs, and cheesy nachos crashed right into him, spilling food everywhere.
“Oh my god, excuse me!”
“No, no, it was an accident, it’s alright.”
It was well after the ensuing commotion had died down that Stephen realized that Tommy had never returned from the restroom. He went to the restroom, where it was quiet and impossibly deserted.
“Tommy?” he called out. “Tommy, are you here, son?” He waited but there was nothing, no sound, no response. He must be outside, he thought. He has to be outside. He refused to panic.
But Tommy was not outside. He was nowhere to be—
And then Stephen found him. His back was to Stephen, but he recognized him by his striped shirt and his kinky hair and his new white sneakers. He squatted by the fountain, bent over the side, his small hand carelessly swishing and swirling water.
A well of relief that washed over him and his chest suddenly loosened, relaxing a knot of tension that he hadn’t known was there.
He moved to his son, and as relief turned to annoyance tinged with anger, Stephen reached out, putting his hands on his shoulders, and spun him around.
“My god, Tommy, why did you leave—” he yelled, but then he suddenly stopped short.
“Hey!” the boy in front of him shouted in surprise.
“Hey, get your hands off my son!” someone else started. It was a woman, and she immediately went to Stephen, yanking the boy back from his grasp. He was the same height as Tommy, but now Stephen saw that the striped shirt he wore had colors of green and white instead of white and blue, and the new sneakers he wore were not so much a shiny white but more of a silver gray.
Stephen released the boy, stunned. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled, stumbling backward. “I’m sorry, I’m looking for my son. I thought he was my son.” The words came out in a rush, and he turned away from the mother and her son before anyone could say anything else.
Fingers of fear reached for him then, trying to take him into their grasp, but still he refused to panic. Tommy was here, in this park, at this moment, and of this, he had no doubt.
But even when police, firefighters, and volunteers got involved, there was still no sign of him. They spent hours searching for Tommy, and every possible hiding place and attraction was searched and searched again. But he was gone, vanished, like a whisper on the wind: here one moment and gone the next.
Stephen, though shocked and horrified by the disappearance of his son, was determined to stay strong. When he spoke with authorities, his voice never wavered, and his eyes were cold steel. They would find his son. Through sheer force of will he would deem it so.
But it was later into the night, when Officer Johnson came to him, that Stephen finally broke down.
“I’m sorry Mr. Wells, but so far, all we’ve found is this.”
Suddenly, it was all too much. Taking the object into his hands, Stephen finally broke down and began to cry.
A year had passed since Tommy had disappeared. There had been starts and stops, a few small leads, but all that had been produced was false hope. Immediately after his disappearance, there had been interviews, hundreds of them: with police and detectives, with journalists and politicians, with citizens groups and talk show hosts. In his mind, Stephen remembered them only as one long blur, with flashes of microphones, tears, and pleas for the safe return of his son. The ringing of phones had been constant, a harsh cacophony of sound that could have heralded good news, but only brought more angst, more misery, more disappointment.
A month after his disappearance, a shoe and a torn piece of shirt had been discovered, but there had been no prints, nothing for the police to work with. Six months later, the interviews became less and less frequent until they eventually stopped altogether. Little was heard from the phones that had once been ringing without cessation. The case eventually went cold and was filed away under Missing Persons. Stephen wondered vaguely if they would ever pick up his file again.
He walked slowly through the park where he had last seen his son. In his hands, he held the object that they had first found the day he had disappeared: his model space shuttle. As he walked to the spot where he and Tommy would have launched their ship for the last time that day, he regarded the other park patrons. How easy it is for them, he thought bitterly. How blissfully ignorant they are. He wanted to scream, to yell: Don’t you know my son was taken? That my son is gone? How can you not know or care?
He felt his anger rising, his grief surging, and fought to control his emotions. He was only here for one thing, and it was not to judge or assign blame or make accusations. He didn’t want to be angry today or succumb to bitterness or even grieve. There would be time for that again tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that. But today was special. He was here for a sole purpose and he intended to be strong. For Tommy.
A year ago, Stephen had promised his son they could take his space shuttle up one more time before they left. But of course, that had never happened. That promise had never been kept. Until now.
In the clearing where they had spent a happy afternoon before something had gone terribly, horribly wrong, Stephen set up his son’s rocket-powered shuttle. Once everything was set, he took out the remote and stepped back. He looked up, and noticed that the day, much as it had been a year ago, was beautiful: the sun cast its golden light with abandon, and the sky was again a soft and lovely shade of blue. A breeze blew through the trees, whispering gently. Stephen thought he heard someone call to him: Daddy?
He turned quickly, looking left and right, but there was no one, nothing. Brushing away tears, Stephen spoke quietly. “Tommy, we’re going to take it up one last time, okay? Just like I promised. This is the last space shuttle launch, son.”
He pressed the button and watched his son’s rocket fly up, up, up.
And for a moment, he let his son go.
“In time and with water, everything changes.” Leonardo da Vinci, 1452-1519
What you know of water
Is what we all know of water:
The cool liquid is salvation
On a hot day
When the sun shines too bright;
Or that the sound of it,
Crashing against the beachhead,
Is music for lovers
On the sand–
Yes, what you know of water
Is what we all know of water:
That when the cool liquid
Falls from the sky:
The silvery drops, the crystal drops…
When the treasured drops
From God’s own hand
Touch the ground,
They rejuvenate the earth
And enrich the land–
But what do I know of water?
I know that when the cool liquid
Pours over my hands—
My dirty hands
My stained hands
My evil hands—
It washes away the blood
It absolves me from my act
It liberates me from my guilt,
From my crime
And it frees me from my sin
COPYRIGHT 2012 © ELIZABETH MICHAUD JOHN. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.