my idea of the perfect writer's retreat?
Withdrawal In Moderation
By Gregory Gerard
(n): To withdraw.
I'd guess that many writers draw on serene lakes set against shimmering sunlight as the key to prolific inspiration. For me, this only makes up one third in the trinity of retreat:
A serene lake (with shimmering sunlight), to draw my wandering gaze between thoughts of consistent character and believable dialogue
A three-prong electrical socket, to propel my laptop beyond its battery's dying gasps
And, of no less importance, a pizza parlor within driving distance; one that has a thick, chewy crust, endlessly stretchable cheese, and a crimson sauce that is spicy and rich - with just a hint of something forgotten and sweet
learned from them all – but the things that guide my life today,
I learned from Sister Marguerite.
In English, as we read Beauty and the Beast, she instructed us never to drive over the body of a dead animal, that the bones might puncture a tire.
Health, as we studied muscles, she warned us to rush a person
to the emergency room if they had trouble holding their head erect;
someone she knew had died with this condition.
She finished her rounds and revealed the assignment. They were spelling ladders. We were to make 100 "steps" on the paper, filling each rung with a correctly-spelled word. The hook? Each word had to begin with the last letter of the previous word. She showed an example:
a difficult pattern. We had a week to complete the task and, if
all 100 were spelled correctly in the right pattern, we'd earn
a peppermint stick.
I meticulously processed Teresa's (prepared to knock out the competition at the slightest error) but hers was correct. She received her peppermint and flashed me a smile.
Teresa worked her way through Cathy's list. It was tense for me to watch as she picked her way carefully along the rungs…but Cathy, too, earned the coveted mint.
had my ladder. She was going slowly (slower than I had with Teresa's,
that was apparent) checking each rung excruciatingly.50, then
75, then 95 words passed her discriminating eye. She reached the
top of my list.
"You know, Yay! Like Yippee!" I offered enthusiastically.
"I don't think that's how it's spelled," she said in a cutting tone, both of us knowing well that yay did not appear in any version of the dictionary, no matter how contemporary.
"I was just excited about finishing the list. Here, I can change it to YES!" I said, desperately trying to salvage the situation.
"I don't think that's allowed," she finished, both of us knowing well it would not be allowed. Sister have given the assignment, it was now complete. No room for adjustment.
Cathy brought the evidence before my sage mentor, my fifth-grade heroine.
"I'm sorry," Sister Marguerite said pragmatically. "That doesn't qualify."
turned back to face Cathy and Teresa, who were meticulously peeling
the plastic wrap from their peppermint sticks.
Drew and the Disappointed Schoolboy
Seventh grade had just begun when I read my first dirty magazine.
Cloistered in Sister Marguerite's coat closet, my school friends conspired in whispers about Melody Brewster's bulging chest, about Farrah and her blood-red bathing suit poster. I prayed for the allure to grab me, but listening to the guys drool over Cousin Daisy Duke's short-shorts -- nothing grabbed. Regardless, I listened, enjoying their camaraderie. And their enthusiastic proximity.
Pornography first entered my world in another cloister -- the hidden grain bin in our barn. My personal Fortress of Solitude.
The perfect place to explore my first dirty magazine.
My dad was unknowing supplier. His corner grocery had been successful in the fifties as the neighborhood's source for gas, fruit, bread. By the late seventies, when I worked the counter, Seven-Elevens and shopping marts choked both ends of Main Street. As profit margins on Band-aids and Allspice shrunk, Dad sought out merchandise that made more money.
That's when he started selling Playboy.
I worked there often, manning the counter before my voice had deepened enough to be defined as a man. Magazines were my turf, creating signs and categories to help people find High Times, People, and Rolling Stone quickly.
I didn't have a category for Playboy, finally deciding to place it behind the counter so the lunchtime factory crew wouldn't browse for free. I maintained a detached disgust for this new addition; I knew from church it was wrong to lust.
Until Pamela Sue Martin appeared on the cover.
I'd loved Nancy Drew since I was six. Her blonde locks, her clever mind, her calm in harrowing situations. When Nancy came to TV in the form of Pamela Sue Martin, I was the most excited boy in Western New York.
The magazine spread had sparked controversy I'd already heard about; the network wasn't happy about having TV's undercover operative working on top of the covers. I looked at her portrait and felt my own turmoil. Nancy, who danced gaily at the policeman's ball, who drove a stick-shift convertible and always outwitted criminals, was on the cover of PLAYBOY.
A half-unbuttoned trench coat draped across her figure.
A huge Holmes-ian magnifying glass in her hands.
I had to see the inside, to see how deep the indiscretion cut. During my Saturday night shift, I snuck a copy into my backpack. This type of investigation was best conducted in private.
At home, I retrieved my flashlight and climbed into the grain bin. Brushing the grime off a low wooden ledge, I sat alone with my heroine. I decided to turn through the book page by page - I knew I was supposed to be excited. Building suspense might help. There, in the limited circle of white, I slowly digested my first dirty magazine.
Reaching the center article, Nancy Drew Grows Up, I stared at the pictures. In one, her breasts poked through some silky see-through material. In another, she sprawled naked across a chair, a velvet blanket barely covering her privates.
What was the thrill? Why did men stand around the store and gawk? Why did my school friends strain to make out Melody's boobs beneath her sweater?
In the deeper folds of my mind, the sections far from everyday boyhood wondered at my lack of excitement - but huddled in the darkened bin under the stark scrutiny of my flashlight's shine, I only felt overwhelming disappointment that Nancy Drew had done something so sleazy.
yells up the musty stairs if I'm gone too long. She shouldn't
worry, I'm not doing anything bad. Nothing I'd have to go to confession
looking through stacks of curled, black-and-white photos. Or digging
for more of my sisters' Nancy Drew books. Or (if I'm absolutely
sure no one's home) pulling out Aunt Margey's flowery knitting
bag to see if I can figure out how to make one of those handy
attic is my dust-smothered retreat, my own crowded kingdom. Here's
where I stay dry while raindrops pound on the roof over my head.
Here's where I find mysteries that chase away the loneliness of
drawn-out summer afternoons. Here's where I escape my older brother's
I don't have a lot of friends.
guys in my neighborhood like to play football. Tackle football.
Or else they play pranks on kids, like stuffing Sammy Oakes into
the garbage dumpster behind church.
different from them.
don't like to do any of those things; they scare me. I'd rather
read a mystery book by myself. Or spend time in the attic.
I found something really interesting. A "Daily Missal"
prayer book that looks as old as the frilly white coverlet on
my Aunt Margey's bed. For people who don't know, a missal is the
little book gray-haired old ladies take to Mass on weekdays, it
covers all the Monday through Saturday readings (the books in
the pews only cover Sundays and Holy Days.)
we're Catholic, and because I want to be a saint-with-a-capital-S
someday, I know things about books like this. They're for holy
flip it open carefully. It's got an old leathery cover, worn but
still very intact, an indecipherable name scratched on the first
page. My imagination goes to work; I see some older guy receiving
the book at his first communion (back in aut four) taking it with
him everywhere (perhaps having been dragged to Daily Mass by some
gray-haired old lady), maybe carrying it to the trenches of World
War II. Maybe he even used it Over There, to read to the German
prisoners he had captured. Thirty years later, back in the States,
followed through my hometown by a Nazi spy, he barely had time
to hide the book in my parents' attic before the Krauts busted
down the door and rubbed him out.
how the attic makes my summer days less lonely.
the back of the missal there's a list of "Fixed and Moveable
Holy Days." That's a little directory to help people know
when the special holidays are, like Easter, the ones that fall
on a different date each year.
check out the list. Not only does it show every year into the
way past (1960!) but it continues right through to the year 2000,
when everybody knows we'll have flying cars and little flavored
pills for food.
the quick math, I figure out I'll be 33 when 2000 hits, the same
age as Jesus made it to.
follow the list back to 1966, the year I was born.
review the Holy Days in 1966
and then I see it
Thursday was observed on May 19, 1966. Ascension Thursday, the
moveable holy day when Jesus floated up toward the clouds after
His resurrection to join God in Heaven.
has to mean something. The date moves around each year, what are
the chances that it would be the EXACT day I was born?
like Nancy Drew, I go to work on a theory. Maybe this birthday
thing means I am supposed to float up to Heaven when I die. Maybe
I won't die at all, just take a shortcut up through the clouds.
start thinking about the year 2000. A good time to close up shop
down here. A nice neat number for God to call it quits and send
Jesus back to take us all up to live in the Kingdom. Sister Marguerite
taught us all about the Book of Revelation in fourth-grade religion,
and that was just a few months ago.
what if God was going to fake everybody out and have
Jesus come back as a child? Maybe in a small town like mine. What
if He just appeared from the crowd one day, 'Hi, I was really
here all along!' What if He is gonna start out as a regular kid
who maybe doesn't have a lot of friends so He can learn all the
stuff He needs to know so He can be God?
I am gonna be 33 in 2000.
This is all starting to fall together for me.
Am I Jesus?
always felt smarter than the other kids in Sister Marguerite's
class. And certainly smarter than my older sisters who nag me
constantly about the dumbest things. I know I'm holier than most
of my family too, except maybe my mom, she says the rosary almost
every day. My dad is a lost cause; he takes the Lord's name in
vain and always falls asleep during Mass.
the Bible it says that Jesus (the first time around) "grew
in wisdom and stature". Sister Marguerite read that to us
one day. She told us how He didn't even probably know that He
was God when He was a little kid. He just did little-kid things
- like get lost in church and get yelled at by His parents.
why not during the Second Coming as well?
try to poke holes in my theory, like Nancy would if Bess Marvin
came up with some stupid idea about solving the crime even though
Nancy had it practically figured out.
think about the sin issue. Of course, Jesus had no sin, everybody
knows that. And I had taken change off my older brother's dresser
to buy candy lots of times (but I'd cleared that up with Father
Bragdon in my very first confession.)
that stuff wasn't as bad as Sister Marguerite taught us. I never
thought it was that big a deal. My brother owed me anyway - for
all the teasing. That I was afraid of spiders. That I couldn't
pee if anybody was listening.
reality of it makes my head feel lighter, unless it's all the
sneezing from the dust I'd stirred up.
would I do as Jesus?
could clean up all the dust in the attic just by snapping my fingers.
Like Bewitched. But I wouldn't be lame like Samantha and withhold
my powers just because Darren said not to.
I'd make it snow really hard, so we wouldn't have to go to school,
maybe for a whole month. Or walk across the pond in the lot next
to church, and then just say "tut tut" when the gray-haired
old ladies gasped and pointed at me. And of course I'd be really
good at football, but I wouldn't play with the neighborhood boys
best thing about being Jesus is that I'd have lots and lot of
friends. People would come from all over just to listen to Me
and follow Me around wherever I went.
might be some down sides to this whole thing. I'd probably have
to go to church more often. Would I have to make a big sacrifice
at 33, the same way Jesus did? Me on trial, maybe at the courthouse,
with a lawyer like Nancy Drew's dad trying to defend me for a
crime I didn't commit? While the District Attorney insists that
I deserve the death penalty?
I decide, that won't happen this time around. Sister Marguerite
taught us that Jesus' Second Coming is gonna be a "trumpet-sounding,
riding-on-white-horses, God's Justice-with-a-capital-J" kinda
know some people have never heard of them. Sister Marguerite taught
us about that too. The Fatima stuff happened a long time ago,
back before Aunt Margey was even born, but it is a cool story.
How Jesus' mother floated on a cloud and three kids were the only
ones who saw her. And she told them secrets that they couldn't
tell the world. And how they offered up sacrifices until they
got to go to Heaven.
probably be like that - the secret, mystery stuff with sacrifices.
I've read all the Saint books. The really good Saints, the real
holy ones, had to suffer to get to Heaven. Just because they were
different from everybody else.
know suffering. Just because I'm different. I can feel it.
For now, I'll keep God's secret between Him and me.
boy, my brother better look out at the turn of the millennium.
NERVOUS STOMACH Series*
Saturday, November 03, 2007
The NERVOUS STOMACH Series: Ego Strategy 9 - LIQUOR STORE ROBBERY
I hit the vodka aisle while they wander toward the Jim Beam, Southern Comfort, and Bicardi. While I'm back there, I hear a scream and a crash up near the front of the store. I look around the Absolut cardboard cut-out of a hunky skiier sipping his screwdriver (made with Absolut) in front of a cardboard fireplace with some hot cardboard chick. Near the cash register, there's a short guy with a nylon stocking over his face. He's got a black pistol in his hand, and he's pointing it at the clerk, an older guy who always smells like cigar smoke.
He screams at all my friends to lie on the floor, but he doesn't see me. I grab a smaller bottle of Smirnoff (.5L) and sneak up the side aisle, the one near the coolers of boxed wine.
He shouts at the clerk to stuff all the money into a black satchel that he's brought with him. He keeps glancing around and waving the pistol, and although I don't know a thing about guns, I imagine that it's a semi-automatic, something that will "riddle me with bullets" like in a Raymond Chandler novel.
In a single moment, several things happen at once:
The front door swings open, ringing the bell hanging just above the hinge. It's two college-age girls.
My high-school best friend (the one I secret have a crush on) shouts at them to get out.
The gun man fires once toward the girls, missing them completely, but shattering the large glass display window that explodes into a billion pieces. The crook pivots, aiming the gun at my best friend.
I've seen all this happen, but my body is in motion without me thinking about it. I'm climbing the cases of local New York wines, yelling at the top of my lungs like something out of Platoon, and I whip the Smirnoff bottle at the perp's nylon-covered skull.
Later, when the police and ambulance lights are flashing at frantic intervals in the parking lot, when the cops are talking to each of us, writing furiously on their triplicate forms, when radios are buzzing with static and barking orders from some unseen dispatcher, I watch them haul the crook away on a stretcher, his head still bleeding from the force of my well-aimed blow.
The girls, the clerk, the cops are all praising me -- but it's the full-body, never-ending hug from my best friend that makes my heart race.
is a split stage. Stage left décor smacks of the Middle
Ages, European, a kingly hall. Stage right is modern times, a
dance club with a rotating disco ball flashing overhead.
the kingly hall, an older woman sits on a throne-like chair; a
twenty-year old girl squats silently on the floor at her feet.
The woman is wrapped in regal finery; purple swatches of velvet
and silk brocade are draped around her prominent shoulders. Her
quaffed hair resembles a tightly-wound hornet's nest.
In the dance club, an older, balding man sits on a bar stool while a twenty-year old boy dances very energetically nearby. The man wears neatly pressed dress pants and a black turtle neck that reaches nearly up to his chin line.
up on Stage Left:
"Guards! Take this fool away and do with him what you will!"
Woman reluctantly joins him at the bar.
Fabulousness Of Gay*
(Two men sit in a shiny new Honda CRV outside of a Target store.
The driver is forty-ish, a sleek and cultured queen wearing a black turtleneck. He has pursed lips, and there are hints in his face that suggest a history of alcohol consumption.
The passenger, his apprentice, is younger, fresher looking, although his nervous gestures and quick glances suggest a man less sure of himself.
A lone shopping cart occupies the parking space opposite theirs.)
Apprentice: Let's start with her, she's gonna do it, she's feeling too goody goody today. You can tell by the way she's looking all around for the cart return.
Queen: (acerbic) Sister, her box of wine is calling her name LOUDLY and, besides, she has to race home and catch General Hospital.
Apprentice: (laughing) Oh, you're SO right! OK, how 'bout this one? The one with the paisley leg warmers?
Queen: Hmmm, no, no she has to pee. See how she's waddling along all leaned over like that? Plus she's too worried that her husband is knockin' booties with his secretary to notice a cart in the middle of the parking lot.
Apprentice: Alright, let me do one. Oh! Oh! Over there, that guy with the tight jeans
Queen: (leering) Oh baby, he can return my cart anytime. Yoo hoo! Tight Jeans Boy!
Apprentice: SHHHH! He'll hear you!
Queen: You ARE new at this, aren't you? We observe and we comment. We NEVER SHHH.
Queen: (over-dramatically) All Is Forgiven.
Apprentice: It was my turn. Ummm, how about Blonde-Out-Of-A-Bottle over there?
Queen: Honey, with the spare tire THAT truck is hauling, she'll be lucky if she makes it into the store without her OXYGEN tank.
Apprentice: What's up with all these women out shopping at Tar-jzay at 6 o'clock? Shouldn't they be home making their manly-men dinner?
Queen: This is the age of empowerment, Sister. They're off running up the credit cards on new curtains and dried flowers while Daddy sits home and changes the diapers. That's why WE'RE holding all the cards, Honey. WE'VE got the money, WE'VE got the personality and WE'VE got the designer wardrobe. The straight boys just don't have a chance anymore. Not that there was ever much hope for them to begin with.
Apprentice: So if we're the ones with all the power and money, what's the rest of the world do?
Queen: (with open disdain) They push out a few kids and show up at Grandmama's on Sunday for meatloaf. It's FRIGHTENING, I know, but take comfort, my dear, the world doesn't belong to them. They like to think that it DOES but we know the truth. And that's the beauty of all of it, the FABULOUSNESS OF GAY.
Apprentice: (looking at Queen in awe) How did you learn all this? Until I met you and the other guys, (he drops his gaze to his lap) things were kind of tough.
(Queen looks directly at the Apprentice, and his face softens ever so slightly, as though remembering some private pain of his own.)
Queen: (with a slightly lower, normal speaking voice) Diamonds don't shine until they're nearly crushed under the pressure, kid. We've all been through it. We make it to the other side. We become FABULOUS and the rest just falls into place.
(Apprentice looks back to Queen, his eyes damp. His naïve awe prevents him from comprehending the shared connection that has been extended. Uncomfortable with tears in front of his mentor, he spots movement in the parking lot, and quickly shifts back into the game.)
Apprentice: Hey, look! Here comes Tight Jeans Boy again. Look, he's returning the cart to the store. It figures, the man to the rescue.
(Queen's face is unreadable for a quick moment, as though some emotion might surface, then takes on the former, familiar pursed-lip look.)
Queen: (returning to affected sophistication) The WAY of the world. OH, TIGHT JEANS BOY, DO YOU NEED A RIDE SOMEWHERE?
Apprentice: SHHH! He'll hear you!
The Queen: (coldly) SHHH me again and we're no longer sisters.