There is an old house out on the fringes of West Strawberry. It sits by itself and has sat there for as long as anyone can remember. These days nobody lives there. The windows are boarded up and the front door is barricaded. Sometimes children go by and dare each other to break inside and spend the night. Nobody even gets up the front steps to the porch. The house looks like a face, with two wide windows on the top floor looking out over the little dirt path that folks call Wendy Lane. The door in front, rectangular and lopsided looks like a crooked mouth. The house bulges out, pale blue chipping paint like overblown cheeks, and in certain moonlight, the rust against the chipped pale blue paint makes the whole place glow.

The last person to live there was a poet who worked at a small community newspaper in West Strawberry. When he disappeared he had no friends, no acquaintances and no living family. He’d grown up in Southport, and he’d lived there all his life. After he finished school he felt he needed to move someplace that would nurture his poetic vision. He traveled to West Strawberry one afternoon on a lark. He fell in love with the old houses, the small town feel, and the local community. But what he loved most of all was this large old house that was for sale way on the outskirts.

He worked and saved for two years living in Southport. When he had enough money to strike out on his own he was happy to find the house was still for sale. It was a fixer-upper, but that didn’t bother him. He could get it at a great price, and he could set it up where all day he’d look out the window and write verse.

It didn’t take him long to find work with West Strawberry Press. They were happy to have someone with his talent, youth and energy. He started as assistant editor. Every now and then they even let him slip one of his poems into the paper. Folks around town started to know his name. After work he and his coworkers would go out for a beer and a bite to eat. After that it was the long walk home back to his quiet old house.

He liked to sit upstairs and watch the bats flap against the windows with the moon large, and the stars aglow, and the quiet chirping of the evening. He’d light candles and write. He drank bottles of red wine and wrote late into the night, going back over and back over again the same verses, writing and rewriting until they felt perfect. Then to bed, and then back to the same verses the next night. When he was feeling too tired to write, he’d stay up late reading. Usually poetry. He didn’t have hopes of being well known. He didn’t care. He was known in West Strawberry and that was enough. All it was ever about was improving the poetry. He wasn’t prolific, because nothing was ever finished. Every night he’d edit a poem to his satisfaction, and the next night he’d go back to it. He’d revise it and revise it until his verse turned into terse, tight, compact experiments with language, sound and sensation. In the morning he’d get up with the red and auburn dawn to watch the birds plummet from his roof, dive down and swing back up. His evenings at home were his poetry, and these mornings were his poetry. He loved them both, and they inspired him. But something was missing.

What was missing from his poetry was what was missing from his life, and that was love. He didn’t know this. One night while he was out with the folks from the paper, he met a girl with hair like autumn. Auburn-gold Wendy.

“So you’re him,” she said. “I wondered what you looked like, what with all your creepy little poems.” They talked late into the night. The folks from the newspaper went home. “See you tomorrow, fella. Don’t stay out too late. We’ll talk to you in the morning.” Wendy was a poetess. She wrote much different verse than he did. Her verse was light, airy and confessional. She showed him a couple things she wrote. He was impressed. He didn’t like confessional poetry, but he was impressed. He said, “I’d like to take you out to dinner sometime Wendy.” She said she’d like that. They exchanged numbers. He kissed her quick on her little lips. He walked home. In his small orange room where the candlelight weaved to and fro he sat at his desk and watched the bats crash against the window. He couldn’t write, and he couldn’t read any of his own work. He couldn’t edit it, because it wasn’t good anymore. He couldn’t go to sleep either. All he could do was think about Wendy and that wonderful kiss. He sat in bed with a bottle of red wine and talked to the walls. He put phrases together. Rhymes and words and tried to say what he was thinking in poetry. Or even in prose. Wendy resisted poetry. He didn’t sleep that night.

Folks around the office gave him a hard time about his “new girlfriend.” It made him feel pretty good. All that day at work he smiled. He couldn’t stop thinking about Wendy. He wanted to write a poem about her, but he didn’t know how. He went home and forced himself to write. He went through sheet after sheet in his notebook. It was all too romantic. He didn’t write romantic poetry. He would write a verse and edit and re-edit. Reduce it to its most essential language. Wendy resisted poetry. He tried to write his usual stuff, but he couldn’t do that either. He forced himself to read. He needed to get to know Wendy better. His life was changing. Things like this happened to poets. In the end it would make his work stronger.

That weekend he met Wendy for dinner. He was completely himself with her. He told her about how she’d made an impression on him. He told her he’d tried to write about her and couldn’t. She was charmed. She’d written about him too, but only as an aside to a larger idea in one of her confessional poems. They went out and saw a play at a small theater. It was a beautiful summer night. They walked down the main strip. He pointed out constellations to her. They admired the small town with the people and the shops and the sparse lights running down the block. He told her how the bats beating against his window in the evening, and the swooping birds in the morning, inspired him. She told him how her childhood, her old friends and the people she loved inspired her. They stopped and had a few glasses of wine. Somewhere into the evening she flushed red and giggled and said she liked him a lot. When they parted for the evening, they kissed for a long time, like he had never done before. He walked home glowing. When he got home that night he went straight to bed. He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.

The relationship blossomed. At first he only saw Wendy on the weekends, but after a while he saw her all the time. They never ran out of things to say. Her poetry blossomed and so did his. Things at the office were going well. Wendy got along well with everyone. She would come along for afterwork drinks. Everybody liked her. When will you marry that girl? they asked. He said he didn’t know. He would marry her. He didn’t know when. It would make itself known in time. He told Wendy she should move in with him. She was paying too much for her apartment. His house was already paid off.

The first day she moved in, Wendy turned into a ghost. She was consumed by the presence of the house. The giant face, with its rectangular mouth swallowed her up and her presence disappeared. He was drinking red wine every night. They stopped going out as much. Sometimes at work he said he didn’t believe Wendy existed; when he went home every night she was there.

Wendy stopped working when she moved in because he asked her to. She’d sit at the downstairs table and write confessional poetry that became more and more about the house. Her long sprawling lines shortened, like his. They became terse and focused. Always about the house. Never about herself, the confessional poet. The birds swooped down in the day and the bats flapped at night and the sun never broke through the windows. She lost weight and turned pale.

His poetry was getting stronger. The folks at the office were impressed. He compressed language into vital blocks of words, like music. The tones were dark, but they were effective. In the evenings he sat up all night drinking red wine and writing poetry. She would sit with him. They would write together. Neither of them could remember being more in love, or being more fulfilled by the presence of another person. When they made love, they made love all night, the sweetest, strangest lovemaking ever made. He would stand up from his desk, where his wine and poetry sat orange in the candlelight. Pale auburn Wendy would look up, and she would smile. “Wendy.” Her hand in his. Silent, violent sex where the bed groaned and the house glowed and the bats flapped crashing against the window with the night chirping silent on and on and on.

All around the house a deep quiet grew nightly. It grew within Wendy’s disappearing voice and in the strange wonderful lovemaking and in the isolation from the rest of the world. He loved Wendy and Wendy loved him with an intensity that made it more and more difficult to speak to each other. They couldn’t bear to be out of each other’s company. He was withdrawn at work. He didn’t have anything to say to anyone. He was less friendly. He never went for an afterwork drink. He hurried up the long worn path to the house where Wendy sat waiting, writing poetry sinking in on itself. He unlocked the door and she stood up. They didn’t speak. The house whispered, “Wendy.”

They spent evenings outside where the bats circled overhead and the stars blinked bright and the moon grew red and the clouds dark. Seasons passed and each season transformed the setting. Beneath the full weeping summer trees, and the brisk ghastly autumn color and the skeletal, white murdered winter, and the always too precious spring, he did not change and Wendy did not change and their love did not change, not for each other and not for nature. His poetry continued to improve, but it mattered less, because Wendy was the only thing that mattered. Her poetry disappeared. In the end she stopped writing, maybe because somewhere in all this silence she’d finally found just the voice she’d been looking for. The silence droned its own romantic tune. The stars went out and so did the moon.

He woke up one morning, and something had changed. Wendy slept dead ghostly poetess on the unmade bed and the birds swooped down from the roof in the orange dawn. These were facts. He opened the window and the fall came cool through the window, and the little road ran quaint off where before he used to sometimes smile in the mornings. These were facts. Morning coffee brought him little to no joy. Once outside the trees were banal. Inane red and gold testaments to their own mortality. He went upstairs to where Wendy lay sleeping. She was beautiful maybe, but dead like the trees. He drank a glass of red wine hoping to recapture the past, but the transformation was stronger. Back outside the day sank black bright orange morning blue skies nothing. Work was worse. He went out for afterwork drinks, but he ended up regretting it. Why stay? There was nothing to say.

He came home listless. Wendy stood up from the table where before all her old notebooks used to be. He didn’t say anything. The house whispered, “Wendy.”

He kept walking. The sun was going down like it does everyday. Wendy said, “let’s watch the sunset.”

Outside the sun went down like it does everyday. Wendy didn’t speak and neither did he. He couldn’t stand how she sat there and felt when it was just everything the same as always as everything else. He said to her: “I need to go inside and write.”

The pages of poetry in the notebook were competent music. He read them over a couple times and wondered why he’d bothered. He wrote a few more verses. Tight, terse, enigmatic words strung together, phrases rephrased in strange music, neither harmonic nor discordant; indifferent. Outside the twilight gave in and it was night. The bats flapped idiotically against the windows. He drank wine until the stars came out and Wendy came trembling up the stairs. She said, “there’s something changed about you.”


The next morning was the same or worse. The stupidity of everything even more annoying. The birds in the morning made him angry. The trees made him angry. The colorfully fallen fall leaves made him angry. Work was okay. The enthusiasm of his coworkers made him angry, but work was okay. He avoided everyone. There was nothing to say.

Going home was worse. Wendy loved him. She felt compelled to say so. He didn’t say anything. He went upstairs and tried to write poetry, but what was the point of writing poetry if there’s nothing worth saying? He went downstairs and opened a bottle of wine without saying anything. He poured a glass and drank it, but it was foul. He left the glass on the table and went back upstairs. The twilight was setting in and the last orange blue rays of sun were running back up behind the clouds. He went back downstairs and outside. He walked a few feet down the path, turned around and looked at the house he’d loved so much. It looked like a face, looking right back at him, and looking right back just as angry, detached, and indifferent. How come he hadn’t seen it like this before? The house was disturbed, but everyone needs a face.

When he went back inside Wendy was sobbing.

“I don’t know how much longer I can do this,” he said. “Maybe it will just be a matter of time and everything will be the same again. For now I don’t know if you should stay here. You can always go back to your mother’s house.”

After Wendy left her ghost remained. He worked all day and paced all night. He walked from the front door, to the upstairs bedroom, downstairs to the kitchen, through the hallway, back upstairs, downstairs to the kitchen over and over again while Wendy’s ghost followed him and kissed him and they made love and he’d wake up sweating in his bed in the middle of the night. He didn’t drink and he didn’t write. The stairs and the floorboards creaked with his pacing while the bats clattered up against the window where the moonlight fell just short of the floor, always outside. The candle spat orange, weaving the same spells, scents and memories of Wendy where she followed him, dressed white, ghost white in a wedding dress, sometimes stopping on the stairs he’d kiss her where her hair, red-brown like autumn leaves fell auburn from the meaningless trees.

Work was work and the evenings were ballets with spirits. Every object transformed into every object. Doorknobs shook his hand going from room to room. Wendy’s ghost followed him, kissed him, they had silent, violent sex and he was always pacing from room to room. Up the staircase and back down again. The candle and the house and the bats and the birds and Wendy’s ghost and the house and himself silent, everything the same. He looked for answers in his old notebooks of poetry. The words ran together like one, like how everything was one. Wendy stopped him on the staircase.

The house whispered, “Wendy,” over and over. He turned and hurried down the stairs into the kitchen where he poured himself a glass of wine, which was Wendy. Wendy followed him through the kitchen, into the foyer, out of the foyer where the doorknob was Wendy’s hand. He went back up the stairs, where her ghost still followed. In the bedroom the bats crashed against the window, and the little orange candle weaved Wendy on the walls.

The walls whispered, “Wendy,” over and over. The din of whispering ran together like lines of poetry, like how everything was one. He walked over to the windows, and pulled them open, one by one. The moon came crashing through in a crescendo where the bats blackened the glow and blew out the candles and circled into the bedroom. He stood in the middle of the room, and listened to the house. The house sank dark music in on itself like lines of poetry, like how everything was one, like how he stood in the middle of the black bedroom with a glass of wine in his hand and hordes of bats circling him and the walls whispering “Wendy,” and Wendy in her wedding dress, ghostly dead poetess.


There is an old house out on the fringes of West Strawberry. It sits by itself and has sat there for as long as anyone can remember. These days nobody lives there. The windows are boarded up and the front door is barricaded. Sometimes children go by and dare each other to break inside and spend the night. Nobody even gets up the front steps to the porch. The house looks like a face, with two wide windows on the top floor looking out over the little dirt path that folks call Wendy Lane. The door in front, rectangular and lopsided looks like a crooked mouth. The house bulges out, pale blue chipping paint like overblown cheeks, and in certain moonlight, the rust against the chipped pale blue paint makes the whole place glow.

(Whit Frazier, From Strawberry Press Magazine, October 2003)

An Imaginary Museum

The museum can be a pretty lonely place sometimes, especially if you’re just going to hang out by yourself and check out an exhibit. That’s why I usually don’t go to museums unless someone’s in town wants to go or something like that. You just need to be in the right mood. I’m not sure I was in the right mood the other day when I went to check out Max Beckmann’s “Hell” exhibit, which was on display at the Met until August 31st, 2003.

I just didn’t have the kind of focus you need to go do a museum right. I got there, slipped into the main building, passed the security guard and didn’t end up paying anything, which, if you’re more poor than rich, is the way to go about things. I knew from research that I had to go to the south wing or something like that, but when you walk into the Met without focus, you get lost. Really the building, what with the architecture and then the ancient sculptures and such, works as a pretty fantastic work of art in and of itself. I found myself wandering up and down the halls. Into rooms and out of rooms. I wasn’t looking at the art – the individual works – this happens to me every time I go to the Met – and it never puts me in the right mood to sit down and observe a picture. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever done that – sat down on one of those benches and observed a picture for a long period of time. I know you’re supposed to, and that people get a whole lot out of the artwork doing it, but I never have the patience. I like to wander around museums the way I’d want to wander around an old castle or something – just mazing my way through an old, elegant landscape of relics. But today I was planning to sit down and take in Beckmann’s “Hell” lithographs. I wasn’t in the mood, no; but I had a story to write, and while usually I’d just can the story and come up with a new one, I’d already printed up August’s cover – so there was no turning back.

I worked my way through the Greek and Roman Art – straight into the bar and cafeteria. It’s a pretty drastic change, but it works because it snaps you out of your wandertrance and reminds you that you’re here for a purpose. Right. Max Beckmann. I stopped at the bar and had a Beck’s and moved on. It wasn’t the right thing to do to have that beer, but that’s how it happened. Besides, it was just one.

After the bar I went through the African and Asian Art gallery, which put me right back in wandertrance; the trance now decidedly deepened by the Beck’s effects. I went through that wing without really seeing a single piece – or anything at all for that matter. I was walking slow, and I felt like I was absorbing everything, but when I went through the doorway everything vanished into the twentieth century.

It was a pretty busy Sunday at the Met, especially in the Twentieth Century Room – or however it’s called. Beckmann, apparently, was directly upstairs from there, so I pushed my way through the crowd and headed up to check out Beckmann’s “Hell” lithographs.

I have to say, it wasn’t the most popular attraction in the museum that afternoon. There was only one person spending any time with the exhibit; everyone else just breezed right through. The person sitting there taking in the overwhelming black and white lithographs was a very skinny, very pale young lady, maybe twenty eight or twenty nine. She had a mop of curly black hair and was wearing faded blue jeans and a tee-shirt. She was really into the lithographs – like you see sometimes in Museums – people sitting there with a book open – looking, writing and sketching. She was doing all three.

It was kind of uncomfortable. I’d been hoping either no one would be bothering with the exhibit – or there’d be a crowd – either way, so long as I got to remain innocuous. But there wasn’t any way around it. I sat down on a separate bench, opened up my notebook – and looked.

There are eleven lithographs total in Beckmann’s series, all of them black and white, and all of them disturbing. I did a little research on Beckmann before coming out to the Met. Just the basic stuff – a quick online Bio – a little bit of background information about the lithographs. Apparently Beckmann worked as a medic in World War I, and during that time he saw the atrocities that inspired these prints. The prints are dark, chaotic and powerful. The way I understand it (and I could be wrong) is that Beckmann had a nervous breakdown while working as a medic in World War I. After he recovered, his art made a drastic change from Impressionism to the more reality based constructions that you see in the “Hell” lithographs. But I’m not sure Realism is the right term for what he’s doing. For example, you can see some early Impressionistic influences in this work – and also an element of Cubism, where his characters seem to be uncomfortable in the space they occupy.

Let me stop right here and admit something. I’m no good at talking about the visual arts. In fact, I’m not sure why I decided to write on a painter to begin with – especially one I know almost nothing about. I think I was just testing myself to see if I could do it. The truth is I can’t. I can say if I liked it or not; but that’s about as far as I can go. And I liked the Max Beckmann “Hell” lithographs. But everything I just said about them I lifted from the girl who was sitting there. So I’ve admitted it. Those are her observations and not mine. Here’s how it happened:

I was sitting there looking at the pieces, feeling warm and sleepy because of that bottle of Beck’s, and sort of dreaming about when I’d be able to have another, when the girl came over and asked me if I was a big fan of Beckmann’s work. I told her I wasn’t, but that I wrote articles sometimes for a downtown magazine, and that my latest assignment was this exhibit. As it turns out of course, she was a big fan of Beckmann’s work, and she asked all these questions about the magazine, and what it published, and when, and etc… I was pleased to be able to promote Strawberry Press a little bit. But what was really great about it was that she seemed to know everything about this Beckmann character. So I just started asking her questions and let her talk. She talked about Beckmann’s early years as a softer, more impressionistic painter – like Delacroix maybe. She talked about how at twenty-six or so he was already a well-renowned painter in Germany – about his aspirations to live and work in Paris – about his long and troubled marriage to Minna Tube – how he eventually divorced her and remarried. It was really pretty informative – a lot better than the little bit of information I found online. She went on to talk about how Beckmann served as a medic in World War I, about how the atrocities he witnessed caused him to have a nervous breakdown. And when he began to work on his painting again in 1917, he came back a new artist. He developed a style that was very much all his own, and he eschewed references to movements when discussing his work. How his work made it into galleries and museums all over Germany, only to be removed and confiscated when Hitler came to power. How he was an exile from his own country after that. How his work matured. How his style in the “Hell” lithographs is apparently the beginning of the budding of his mature work.

The lithographs are unique and unsettling. They borrow technique from Expressionism, Impressionism, Cubism and Classicism, but align with none of them. The girl went on to talk about how mythology and religion played a large role in his work – like the work of Expressionist Gustav Klimt. She talked about how the colors in the paintings became more intense – how they battled with each other. She explained that what was so great about these lithographs was that by working in black and white he’d achieved that same intensity of color and expression by using these two opposing colors to depict a hell that was so real it became unreal. She let me know (which at this point didn’t surprise me) that Max Beckmann was her favorite painter of all time. That she came here every Sunday afternoon – she had been coming every Sunday afternoon ever since the exhibit opened, and she would continue to come back until it closed.

I listened to what she said, and I actually took notes. I mean, she was doing all my homework for me. It was really pretty cool. But finally I had to come out and ask her: what is it about Beckmann that you find so fascinating?

Really, her answer, it was just the same thing that makes any of us fascinated by any artist: she first saw Beckmann’s work in High School while taking an art class and going through a big book on the history of Western painting. The work spoke to her right away. From then on, the more she saw Beckmann’s work and the more she learned about his life, the more she fell in love with him. I can understand that. That’s how it works with everything. She said something really memorable – I just like the ring of it: “You go through your life admiring some artists and not admiring others – and then one day a real friend comes along and changes your life.”

The way I see it, that pretty much says it all. Artists are craftsmen, thinkers, revolutionaries, whatever. But that’s beside the point. When someone really connects with an artist, it only has so much to do with how talented the artist is – there’s probably someone else that’s more talented. It’s the feeling of making a friend – finding someone who really understands you (illusory or not, I don’t think it matters) – that adds that element of what people call “magic” to art. And that magic is what makes art such a spectacular thing – art in every creative manifestation.

Anyway, she went on and on about Beckmann while I listened and took notes. After a while she laughed like, ‘are you gonna reference me in your article?’ It was pretty funny. I told her sure, why not. She could pick up a copy of the magazine at St. Mark’s Bookshop. She should check out the website. Did she have any writers she was really into? She said she read, but not all that much. Mostly when she read she liked to read mysteries and such.

Her name was Chloe. Which is just to say, there, I’ve officially referenced her. I imagine she’s at the Met right now. It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon – a week later, actually. I can see her sitting in that large room with her sketchbook open, quiet, awed, reverential. She’s discoursing with a friend that died a quarter century before she was born.

The museum can be a pretty lonely place sometimes.

(Whit Frazier, From Strawberry Press Magazine, August 2003)

Twitter-Bop for Emmett Till

The following poem was basically an experiment. I wanted to write something for Emmett Till in the wake of the recent justifiable outrage over the vandalization of his memorial. Since so much of this outrage was expressed on social media, I wanted to see if I could use that medium to change the form/approach to my memorial poem. The medium I chose was twitter, because I wanted to make each line of the poem work alone as a tweet, with all the force of a well written tweet, and I also wanted each line to act like a traditional line of poetry, driving the momentum of the poem forward, step by step. Of course, any such experiment is on some level doomed to failure, but I wanted to see where it led me all the same.

I decided to choose the form of the Bop poem, recently invented by Afaa Michael Weaver, because I think it’s a wonderful form, with a lot of lyric opportunities, and also because it allowed me to post the poem over a couple of days on twitter, without over-posting. The Bop is generally comprised of three stanzas: the first stanza is six lines, and states a problem, followed by a refrain; the second stanza, eight lines, delves into the problem, followed by a refrain; and the last stanza, six lines, followed by the refrain, attempts to find a solution or come to terms with the inability to do so. As you can imagine, this leaves a poet a lot of possibilities to work with. I played with the form a little bit to increase the overall musicality of the poem, but generally, I more or less stuck to that original form.

Anyway, here’s what I came up with. Hope you enjoy it:


Twitter-Bop for Emmett Till

Just another one of them times the future leans back to politic with the past;
The present is something like a beacon between what we dream to what we’ve seen;
Bullet holes in a black boy’s grave, and folks like: all lives matter, I don’t know what you mean.
And no, the revolution will not be twitterized, and tho open caskets don’t convert criminals,
I still wake each morning to waves of wakes and the waves of the blue of the day,
And lately I find myself leaning back to listen for what the future’s leaning back to say.

Twitter-Bop for Emmett Till
Twitter-Bop for Emmett Till

The night was still and the moon was gold and the leaves came tumbling down;
I wrote this bop for you, Emmett, because I wonder with anger and wander with pain;
The dogs were howling and the wind was blowing and the moon was red and round;
A twitter Bop to keep me honest and true, with each line like a thought, each line like a shot;
Shouting and screaming, defiant proclaiming, to hell with you white devil bastards, a retort, and then no sound;
I wrote this bop for you Emmett to say what I know I’ll end up failing to say, when terror, fetid hot, yet clammy cold remains;
I wrote this bop for you Emmett cuz every time a cop hits a brother or sister his old club goes bop! Bop!
And it don’t stop y’all. And it just don’t stop.

Twitter-Bop for Emmett Till
Twitter-Bop for Emmett Till

I guess a twitter-bop is something like a New Orleans funeral with music, a jazz funeral.
At first the notes moan low and groan, bemoan the way a loss leaves us more alone.
The dirges and hymns intone the long slow walk from enwombed to entombed:
Hell, we’re all of us doomed.
But if the music swings down low, well by and by it swings high to merry memorials
Celebrating a life and a spirit that transcends racism, politics and even burials.

Twitter-Bop for Emmett Till



(Whit Frazier, October 25-27, 2016)



Another look at “Capturing the Friedmans”, or Re-evaluating the American Family Unit

This is the type of shit makes you want to give up fiction. Capturing the Friedmans, Andrew Jarecki’s debut film is a multi-layered piece that can be discussed from a number of different angles. So much so that the essential meaning of the film will be different for different people. It’s a film that says just as much about the audience member as it does it’s own subject. With that much said, keep in mind I’m writing this perspective as a fiction writer and not as a film critic.

The film is a documentary about an upper middle class family living in Great Neck, New York – an affluent Long Island suburb. The basic family unit consists of the father, Arnold Friedman, the mother Elaine Friedman, and the three boys Jesse, David and Seth.

The father, a pedophiliac, is unmasked by a police undercover operation. From there shit escalates rapid-fire until the situation gets completely out of hand. A stash of hidden kiddie porn found in his study leads to a full investigation of this Arnold Friedman – an award winning, well loved and respected computer teacher – that leads ultimately to charges of horrific sexual abuse performed on children in his own classroom.

I went to the film thinking Friedman was guilty as sin. I really didn’t know much about the film one way or the next before seeing it except that it was about some child molester who lived in Long Island. But Jarecki likes to play with the audience’s conviction about the innocence or guilt of Arnold Friedman and his son Jesse (also brought up on charges of child molestation). It looks at first like Arnold Friedman is just a closet pedophile – a guy who doesn’t actually act on his desires. And maybe that’s all he is. I mean the best angle in this film is the actors – or rather, the family. It’s hard to say if the family members are acting or being honest interviewees. No one in the family is able to tell the truth. Half the time not even to themselves. When Jarecki uses Buck Owens’ version of the song Act Naturally to open the film, it’s a brilliant choice. The family’s immersion in their own fictions, lies, fantasies and denials paint these characters much better than actors could have done. It’s already a family of actors.

Capturing the Friedmans is also a reflection on film itself as a medium. Jarecki pulls this off naturally and confidently. The Friedmans after all, are a family obsessed with watching themselves on camera – particularly David, who does most of the home filming. It’s an aspect of the family that makes a lot of sense alongside their inability to grapple with reality. David admits that some of his memories he doesn’t remember at all outside of the camera, like “a picture your mother takes of you as a child. You don’t remember the moment, just the picture.”ª The film weaves layers of present day interviews, home footage and sensationalized media footage to create a multidimensional work capturing the perspectives of each of the family members from the start of the scandal to present day (excluding Seth, who refused to be interviewed), the media and community and to a lesser degree, the filmmaker himself.

Jarecki seems to be of the opinion that Friedman is innocent – and as an audience member, it’s the impression I got as well. Who’s to say if this is because of Jarecki’s direction or simply the facts of the case. But the charges against Friedman are so outrageous, and there is so little actual evidence against the man that to believe him guilty is to buy into the hysteria of a community terrified of anything outside the norm. Is Friedman being prosecuted because he’s an outed homosexual pedophile with an upstanding position as a teacher in the community, or because he’s actually guilty of molesting children? It’s a hard call. Even his family is divided: his wife loses faith in him early on, but his children don’t; especially David, who even now argues his father’s innocence to the point of fanaticism.

But how are we supposed to understand innocence? Clearly Friedman’s guilty of being a pedophile; moreover he’s guilty of raising his children and living with his wife under a curtain of deception that immediately makes a happy, well adjusted family an impossibility; but most importantly he’s guilty of feeling guilty. Well shit, he probably should feel guilty. After all, he ruined his children’s lives before they were born, he ruined his wife’s life because he couldn’t be honest with her and he ruined his own life because he couldn’t be honest with himself. In the film Arnold comes off as a friendly, charming, intelligent and thoughtful man it would be difficult not to get along with. It doesn’t change the fact that he’s also selfish and cowardly. He may hate himself for it, (which it really appears he does) but he doesn’t hate himself enough, because he does nothing to change. Everything he does, right up to his last decision on the planet, is a glaring testament to his cowardliness and selfishness. When he kills himself to get his son the $250,000 on a life insurance policy, is this supposed to be an act of redemption? Besides the uncertainty of whether or not Friedman molested Jesse as a child, Friedman was also responsible for Jesse’s thirteen-year incarceration. To atone for this, he doesn’t try to become a better man – a man that his children can look up to, get answers from later in life, and maybe even learn to understand and respect; instead he kills himself to buy everything off for two hundred fifty grand. I mean, shit. That’s not even all that much money.

As it turns out, Friedman isn’t exactly innocent. You feel like you’re getting hints at this throughout the film, just from the way interviewees talk about the man. Regardless of whether or not Friedman touched any of the children in his computer class, he did molest two children at another time and place. This is serious information. It changes the man from a pedophile to a child molester. It’s one thing having fantasies; it’s a whole other thing to act on them. In this light it’s hard to feel bad for the man even if he’s not guilty. Most folks (and I’m right there with them) feel that molesting one child warrants a lifetime of suffering, and if it had to be the result of trumped up false charges, well fuck it; what goes around comes around. In fact, throughout most of the film, even though I realized I’d probably never find out for certain what happened in that classroom – whether the charges were a hundred percent accurate, grossly exaggerated or altogether false, I really hoped I would find out. As soon as Jarecki revealed that Friedman molested two children – one the child of someone he has the audacity to call a friend – it didn’t matter anymore. Good riddance. By any means necessary.

So what is this film about? Is it about film and America’s preoccupation with watching itself? (One of the funniest, creepiest scenes is David in his bedroom looking into the camera, explaining that unless you are him, you have no business watching the footage that you’re watching.) Is it about family? Is it about lies, denial, deception and the blurring of the lines between reality and make-believe? Is it about the media, community, hysteria, America, pedophilia, homosexuality?

I mean, shit, it’s really about all these things. It doesn’t really say anything about any of them, but it confronts us with a lot of questions we don’t ask ourselves on a day-to-day basis because we aren’t looking at ourselves. Which is just to say that Capturing the Friedmans, more than anything, is about the audience. And not the audience on a communal level either, but each audience member individually; the way a good book can be about how each individual reader discourses with it.

Most films aren’t like that, just like most people aren’t like Arnold Friedman – at least on the surface. But beneath the surface is precisely where Jarecki wants to go with this film. The American family unit is an interesting phenomenon, and it probably hasn’t been explored as fully as it needs to be. Since the advent of television the United States has understood family in two ways: Family on Television and Family in Real Life.

Everybody knows families in the fifties weren’t all Leave It To Beaver and The Brady Brunch; that’s just the way television depicted the middle class American family, and it was an ideal to aspire to. This mentality of making a distinction between real and ideal persisted for a long time in American culture. The blaxploitation sitcom families of the seventies and eighties portrayed an ideal for African American families to work towards – case in point The Jeffersons. Even the far less affluent Evans family in Good Times, despite living in desolation, managed to maintain a relatively upbeat, positive and happy household, where issues arose, were confronted and resolved. This is a role Hollywood continues to support, and it always has been and always will be a popular vehicle for entertainment: showing things how they should be as opposed to how they are. As wealthy America gained more affluence in the eighties, the standard of the ideal continued to rise. Sitcoms like The Cosby Show, Silver Spoons and Family Ties depicted families where affluence and healthy homelives were the norm. But somewhere in the early nineties the American public began to develop a cynical attitude toward these kinds of shows. They were lacking authenticity. Strong expressions of disaffected family life were coming into mainstream culture through youth culture, which was disenchanted with the fairy tale reality their parents grew up striving after. This led to a basic formula of change that has repeated itself in the arts time and time again. The first step is satire. Shows like Married with Children, The Simpsons and In Living Color spoofed the concept of the healthy family by creating gross exaggerations of the opposite. The concern wasn’t with getting closer to reality, but getting as far away as possible from the absurd picture perfect family portrait. The second step is a move away from satire into a new vision. That new vision was reality. Gritty television shows like NYPD Blue and Law and Order led to grimier and grimier realism. And then of course, the advent of Reality Television which, ironically enough, is less realistic than Leave it to Beaver ever was.

Capturing the Friedmans on the other hand is very real. When we watch the Friedmans – certainly a gross exaggeration of the average person’s situation – the grotesque falls away just enough for us to recognize ourselves in these people. For example, why didn’t the wife believe her husband and why did the children?

My guess is that in this documentary, as in life, the relationship between husband and wife is essentially the relationship between two strangers. The relationship between parent and child is not – or at least, it’s a lot less so. Elaine defends her position by saying that Arnold “has never been honest with [her].” That’s undeniable. She wakes up one morning, looks at her husband and realizes she’s given thirty some odd years of her life to a man she doesn’t know. How can she unconditionally believe he’s innocent? The children never think of their father that way, because they are him. You see Arnold in David and Jesse. You see a lot of Arnold in David and Jesse. He molded them, and the man they understand him to be is as much (if not more) a part of themselves as it is him. David says it at the beginning of the film: “despite the fact I know my father did all these things, I don’t think he was a different person than the warm, funny man I knew him to be.” Well, he was and he wasn’t; but that’s not the point. The point is that David is really just talking about himself.

Elaine was never good enough for her own family. The most thought provoking thing she says in the whole film is that “children latch onto the abusive parent.” I don’t know if that’s true or not – for myself, both of my parents were abusive – but it’s a line I’ll probably think about for a while. Of the two Arnold certainly was the more abusive. The fact that he raised a family in the first place is testament to that – a man who had to go to therapy because he couldn’t trust himself to have male children. His behavior once he had the children continued to be abusive. In the end he landed one of his sons in jail. The children’s attitude toward their father is therefore, understandably ambivalent: they love and respect him, but they hate him and don’t respect him. Jesse says, “I’m certainly not going to end up like the old man, throwing chairs around the room…” – and the brothers laugh. They laugh their way through a lot of things – frantic antics that work as distraction from an ambivalence they feel for their father, and ultimately themselves.

I think a lot of families have a similar dilemma, and this is what’s at the heart of the dysfunctional family. It’s not necessarily that dad slipped out or mom was screwing around or Uncle Funky molested you. The family unit is a war. And it’s a brutal one. Anyone who sees Capturing the Friedmans can tell Elaine Friedman was on the losing side, and can see what that does to a person and what that in turn does to the children. Husbands and wives stay strangers; children are free game – and the children become weapons of war in a battle the parents themselves don’t understand. The children learn to identify themselves with both parents, but lots of times they take sides. The problem is that being raised in this type of situation comedy breeds sickness. The symptoms of this sickness are a strong duality of self-love and self-hate. The war after all between husband and wife is sexual. And the child must be either male or female. Layers of complicated sexuality develop in the child without the child realizing it. And when it comes time for the child to get married, he or she inadvertently brings some freaky shit to the table. This has always happened, and will continue to. What really warps the game is contemporary American culture’s tendency to think of family as Family on Television and Family in Real Life. The objective used to be to make the two things synonymous. Then, realizing we’d never realize that, Family on Television focused on spoofing the idea of Family on Television and that was supposed to be closer to the spirit of Family in Real Life. The thing is, in the process we’ve forgotten to look at family for real. It will never be accurately portrayed on a sitcom, cuz honestly man, family ain’t funny. It’s fucked up. But we learn to heal ourselves by looking at ourselves – and Law and Order and Reality television and Al Bundy and Family on Television and Family in Real Life – that’s not looking at ourselves. It’s looking the other way. They fuck you up, your mum and dad. Should we continue to be the victims of strangers?

* All quotes in this article have been paraphrased.

(Whit Frazier, From Strawberry Press Magazine, August 2003)

Preface to a 20 Volume Suicide Note

It’s been time to leave Strawberry for a while now. Your mother and I haven’t gotten along in years, but she calls me everyday and begs me to come back to Washington. I’ve been thinking about it. She says it won’t do you any good not to have a father in your life. She says she’s afraid. Between you and me it feels good to have her worry about me like this. We haven’t gotten along for years, and I’m sorry for that. To you, I mean. I want to apologize to you. Things don’t always work out the way you think they will when you’re younger. If you’re old enough to be reading this, I guess you know that already.

It’s not easy for me to sit down and write this to you – especially because I’m writing all the time – all day every day. It’s not fun like when I first got here and met Jim at the hotel and we went out for drinks and I looked at this decimated little town and thought I’d really stumbled onto something that might be life changing. It’s been life changing, but just in a different way than I’d imagined.

But it’s difficult to write this because of the implications involved in your actually reading this – and it’s difficult to write this because if you are reading this I don’t know you like I would’ve liked to know you, and it’s heartbreaking to think about my little girl grown up and reading words written by a father that never existed.

The citizens of Strawberry are dealing with their circumstances admirably. Naturally many people have left, but a lot of people feel a strong connection to this town. There’s no danger of contamination anymore, so there are relatively few environmental dangers, but Strawberry is decimated. Buildings are burned down or cleared out, the streets are empty and dirty, there are no jobs and almost no municipal services. Children go around in tatters without parents, scavenging the streets like hungry dogs. I don’t know if these children know of any other reality than this depressing giant dockside ghetto. Jim tells me when Strawberry was still a pleasant little town people used to like to go up to the docks and spend long days there – lovers and families and whatnot. I try to picture it – and I can a little bit – but it’s not easy to do. The dock smells like rot and dead fish, the water is a sick pale brown green kind of color, and the docks are a pretty dangerous place to hang out, especially late at night. Supposedly people dump bodies in the dock all the time – corpses are always surfacing. I saw the body of this young lady – she couldn’t have been more than twenty-three or twenty-four dragged out one morning, and the girl’s mother was there and got sick and started crying.

What little you do know about me you know through my poetry. Most of the books I’ve published have been mediocre at best. I think my publisher cut me a break just because I’m a reporter for the Washington Post. Not that the poems are without technical merit, but I think I’m starting to see now that they were missing something – something I suppose I’ve been chasing after for most of my life, and I really don’t know how to describe what that is. I wish I could express it a little bit more clearly.

It’s amazing to see people stripped of everything. It will probably make you laugh, but when I was in college I used to think of myself as an Anarchist. It’s true. I used to wear black – I even had one of those shirts – you know, with the red A with a slash through it and a black background. I think I just thought it was a cool thing to be. Later on, when I first started working at the Post I used to talk about Social Anarchy, and talk about Marquez’ “Hundred Years of Solitude” and say that the little community in that book started as a perfect Social Anarchy, and it was an ideal to work towards. I’m not really political like that anymore, grown up and whatnot, but I do have values and ideas and I believe in helping other people whenever you’re in the position to do so. Washington is a funny city, and it’s not an easy city to be a reporter in. Especially working for the Post. The politics at that paper are tangled up enough already; and it makes you not really want to think about what’s going on with all the politicians you’re always writing about. I still write editorials, but I don’t know if I will anymore. I don’t know if I’ll write for the Post at all anymore – or any paper for that matter. We’ll see. I don’t mean to ramble like this. I’m thinking on the page. I want you to know something about the way that I think about things.

The reason I’m bringing all this up is because Strawberry is the closest thing I’ve ever seen to what could really be called anarchy. During the two years of contamination, this town, which is real small to begin with, was sectioned off from the rest of the world. It was quarantined, no one could leave and no one could enter, and the town just died. Literally and figuratively. The population was decimated, the government stopped operating, the people lost hope and contact with other human beings, and now that it’s become re-integrated into the world, it’s a town that runs off the aggression built up between people who’ve suffered crimes too inhuman to consider. They still have no answers. No one knows what the plague was and no one knows how it started. Jim tells me a lot of people in Strawberry think the Federal Government designed it as a biological weapon. That they experimented its effects on a small town that no one would care about. People wonder how they were able to quarantine Strawberry so quickly. I don’t know what to believe, but I see what biological warfare can do to a community. Strawberry is not a part of the United States as you or I understand it.

No one in Strawberry is safe – and yet, I feel like I’m safe. I’m treated like royalty here, coming from Washington into Strawberry, the way Americans are sometimes treated going to European countries. The women love me! It’s the first time in my life I can say that with confidence – except, of course, for your mother. Your mother is one of the most wonderful women in the world, and I only wish things could have been different between us. I feel like they could be now – if I were the person then that I am now, I mean – and that’s hard for me to explain to you, but it’s a moot point because it’s too late.

I’m treated like royalty, but also I believe with a certain amount of suspicion. After all, coming from Washington I’m pretty much the enemy – from the city that possibly decimated these folks’ home – and when I think about living back in Washington, with our Georgetown condo, and with the wonderful life of luxury and comfort we live in – with the taxes we pay and the money we give to Washington – and the mindlessness of being able to enjoy everything – just pay a small cost to the government so they can do whatever it is they do – if there is any merit to these conspiracy theories, how can I sit around and be the same person knowing that in some way, no matter how indirect, I’m contributing to the suffering of other people and doing nothing to put an end to it? I don’t want to get up on a soapbox here or preach to you. I know you’re smart enough to make up your own mind about things. And I don’t think people should spend their lives feeling guilty for being born prosperous. I’m just launching off some questions I’ve thought a little bit about.

I remember the day you were born. There are two days I think of as the happiest days of my life. The first is the day your mother and I were married and the second is the day you were born. I remember holding you for the first time, and that feeling – that feeling like, my God, I’m a father – like nothing else in the world, and how my whole life changed all of a sudden in a moment. And I knew I’d be a father – and we’d been preparing for it, your mother and I, but there’s nothing in the world like holding your little baby up for the first time and thinking about all the possibilities and opportunities open to this little creation of yours. Not to sound too sappy, but you are truly my most perfect poem. Okay, so that does sound sappy. Forget I wrote it.

The point is just that when I brought you into this world, I hadn’t seen anything like Strawberry. I knew the world was a place full of suffering and sadness and this and that, but I didn’t know it, like I know it now and I never felt like this is a world where you’re either prey or predator. And you can be a predator and never let yourself know it, but you’re still a predator all the same, and there you have it – prey and predator – and that’s just the state of nature and when you shut off the lights what you’re left with is Strawberry. The world is not the world I imagined I was bringing my child into.

There was a gang shoot-out in Southport last week and a twelve-year old boy was killed. Jim knew his family and we went to the wake a couple days ago. There were all these people lined up side by side in the church, as many children as adults – and everyone had the same look on their face. It’s a look I can’t describe, and I feel like it’s important that I learn how. The church was silent and eerie for a long moment right before the pastor started speaking and the old wooden beams leaned shadows into the pictures of Christ in the windows and nobody cried. People at the Post think I’m crazy. They say I have enough material to write my book and why am I still in Strawberry? Your mother calls me everyday like I said, and she begs me to come back home. She has a point. I need to be there for you. But I haven’t ever written poetry like I’m writing now – and in the last two months I’ve really become a poet. And it’s something – something in the faces of these people – is it the eyes – the whole expression? I don’t know. But I know that I have to stay here until I understand it.

Again, this isn’t an easy letter for me to write. Let’s hope you never have to read it – or if you do it will be some day when I’m old and gray and we’re having a few laughs maybe in Rock Creek Park on a sunny spring afternoon. It’s cheering to think about home, to think about the park and nice restaurants and to think about you, my lovely little daughter and our home and my morning Starbucks and all those other small things that I love. Kiss your mother for me. Tell her I love her and miss her and I’m sorry. Don’t be angry with me. Understand I had to do this. It’s important to me that you can forgive me. You always have my love.

(Whit Frazier, From Strawberry Press Magazine, July 2003)

Everything for a Reason


It started with the church bells. He wasn’t religious. He wasn’t superstitious. They woke him up. The sky was gray; it was cold out. Forty maybe, middle of July – and it had been a pretty warm spring – hot even – a chill had come in with the morning. It woke him up – along with the church bells – he’d left the window open. Nothing. He closed it. All spring – nothing. Things happened just like they were supposed to. No signifiers. Everything for a reason.

Cause and effect. Early March year before a cab driver made him a proposition. You need a little extra cash? We can help you make a little extra cash. Just carry this envelope to a man in Connecticut, it’s nothing. No big deal. Five thousand and it’s like nothing ever happened. I don’t even know who the hell you are. You a cop? Fuck you. I’m no motherfucking cop. Fuck you too, creep. Here, take my card in case you change your mind.

Everything for a reason. Christine left him sometime early April. Work was bad. Times were tough. He was drinking a lot. Fuck Christine, right? Fuck everything. Fuck life, fuck death, fuck the whole nine yards of all this shit, right? I’ll call that motherfucker, take his money and get the hell out of New York.

The thing is, the guy was a cop. Fucking sting operation. When he got to the apartment in Connecticut about twenty cops jumped out with guns drawn. Well fuck it. On top of everything else it only made sense. His lawyer said: cut yourself a deal.

You a motherfucking snitch? In the mornings, brushing his teeth, the warm spring morning coming calm through the windows, he looked into the mirror, asking himself over and over again. You a motherfucking snitch? Fuck you. You’re a fucking snitch motherfucker. Fuck you. But at least he wasn’t locked up. Even if he was out on the street informing against motherfuckers. How had he got here? It just wasn’t like him to turn snitch. Shit, well shit, well yes it was, cuz here he was. Cause and effect.

Besides, they were scum. The people he was going after. Fucking crooked cops, mostly. They had him tearing down their own people. Acting like he was out there working the streets, hey man, let me be out here, I’ll cut you in. Look the other way. You’ll get paid twice a week, I got you man. He didn’t even know who he was working for. It wasn’t NYPD. They never really told him – the Feds maybe – FBI or some shit – Secret Fucking Service, who the fuck knew. It was how things were. It all made sense. No signifiers.

June came. People were looking at him crooked around the neighborhood. That was understandable. Sometimes he woke up in cold sweats. That was understandable. Christine called him, she wanted to get back together. Maybe they could work something out – did he still love her? Fuck you Christine. Fuck the whole operation. I gotta get out of here.

End of June he went to a guy he knew and got a fake ID. He had a new name, he had a lot of dirty money, and he had a lot of people that didn’t particularly like him. A lot of crooks and a lot of cops and then the Feds or FBI or Secret Fucking Service or whoever, but he got out. Moved out of New York and hid out in a little town no one had even heard of, some fucking place Strawberry, boring as shit, but whatever. He was out. He’d been a snitch, a crook, a dealer, a liar, a hypocrite, but now he was someone else and everything was over and done with. You can’t begin again, but you can wipe the slate clean.

The year passed slow. I am other. No one knew shit about him. No one in Strawberry really cared. He lived in a little neighborhood called Southport. It was nice. He’d spend days down at the dock, hanging out, drinking bottles of Beck’s and skipping stones. Tra la la. Wasn’t life grand? A year passed. The spring was warm, real warm, hot even like summer. That was nice. A little rain, but not too much. He met a nice girl named Stacy, a fucking church girl if you’ll believe that shit. A fucking church girl – well, shit, cuz believe it or not, he’d become a churchgoing man himself. This new person, whoever. That old name, whoever he was, that cat was dead – shot down in New York or some shit it didn’t matter. He was out of that game. Out of that whole racket. Stacy liked to cook him dinner. Shit, what had he seen in Christine? Heh. An ass that don’t stop. Cause and effect.

It started with the church bells. He wasn’t religious. He wasn’t superstitious. They woke him up. The sky was gray; it was cold out. Forty maybe, middle of July – and it had been a pretty warm spring – hot even – a chill had come in with the morning. It woke him up – along with the church bells – he’d left the window open. Nothing. He closed it. All spring – nothing. Things happened just like they were supposed to. No signifiers. Everything for a reason.


The church bells and the cold weather had him shook. Signifiers. The rest of the day seemed okay. So he missed church, overslept, that sort of thing happens. So he’d been drinking the night before. Too hung over to get up and go to church. So what? Heh. It was Saturday night, I guess that makes it all right – what have you got to lose? You could lose your life the way he used to live. Monday morning by the docks. It was raining, but that was alright. It was still cold out, but that was alright. Spring had been nice, too nice, just a little payback, that’s all nothing more to it. Way he used to live was like rolling dice with your life. He walked down from the docks to the corner store. Let me get a pair of dice. Back up to the docks. I roll evens, it’s nothing, I roll odds, I’m fucked. Shit. Best two out of three. Shit. Fuck dice. He threw them in the bay. The fuck am I doing? Signifiers. Everything for a reason.

Stacy a little angry with him for missing church. Angry again cuz he spent all afternoon at the dock in weather like this. You’ll catch your death of cold. That’s a rotten thing to say, Stacy. Well, I’m just worried is all. There’s no reason to be worried, he told himself. Later in the day he went out for a walk. A group of young blacks hanging out on the corner. They were looking at him funny, like motherfuckers hadn’t looked at him since back in New York. He looked right back at them. You think you can fuck with me? A motherfucker born and raised in Brooklyn? Fuck you. Not that he said anything. He walked by and looked right at them. The whole group got real quiet. One of them raised up his fingers like a pistol, pop! pop! Keep walking.

When he got back home he fucked Stacy like crazy. Then she cooked while he watched television. Stupid shit like Seinfeld and Friends. Shit to take his mind off things. Around eight o’ clock Stacy made him watch some documentary on the history of Christianity. Brutal. Motherfuckers eaten by lions and shit. Some serious shit went on back in the old days. He fucked Stacy again before going to bed. Dreamed he was in a large grassy field surrounded by naked screaming babies. Lions stalking the whole field, devouring the little bastards; closing in on him. He woke up right before


Tuesday the weather had cleared up again. Signifiers. When Stacy left for work he got down on his knees and prayed. He almost cried. Jesus, he was getting soft. He turned on the television. Couldn’t bring himself to leave the house. He didn’t know why. He just needed to chill out with some Jerry Springer, a little Oprah, fuck it, what the hell.

He couldn’t help wanting to test himself. Late in the afternoon he threw on a light jacket and headed out for a walk. Still a little chillier than it had been all season, but the rain was gone, and a little bit of sun was starting to break through the clouds. All in all not such a bad day. Went to the corner store, bought a pack of cigarettes and had his first cigarette in eight months. Fuck it. What did it matter, really? Especially if all the signifiers were – had to stop thinking like that. Cause and effect. You have a certain mindset, you make it a reality. On the way up to the docks he saw a group of guys standing around. Not the same guys from the day before. A bunch of whites. They looked Irish, like the poor Irish over in Jersey City or some shit. Young toughs whatever. They were giving him that look. The fuck is this? Strawberry becoming some sort of fake ass thug town? They kept looking at him. He kept looking back. Walking by was intense as shit. As he passed he heard someone say, you’re a fucking snitch motherfucker.

When he got up to the dock he looked into the bay and twisted up his face against the rippled reflection. You a motherfucking snitch? Fuck you. You’re a fucking snitch motherfucker. While he was looking in the water the clouds swung up fast and blotted out the sun and the wind blew in five degrees cooler. He sat up and pulled his jacket around himself. Shit was starting to get to him. He got up and walked down to the corner store. A pair of dice and another six pack. Walked back up to the docks. Best two out of three. Shit. Right on. Okay, okay, last roll’s the tie-breaker. Fuck. What am I doing? Take a walk around.

Walking back there was a young black on the corner. He was on the soapbox, with a few stragglers pausing to hear what he had to say. I’m out here to talk about love. Love your neighbor. Like it says in the Bible. He might have a nicer house, a nicer car, nicer clothes. Be happy for him. Work to make things better for yourself. Like the saying goes, don’t player hate, congratulate. Get down on your knees every morning and every evening and thank God for what you do have. A lot of people leave their homes in the morning and they don’t come back at night. Get down on your knees every night and thank God for blessing you, allowing you to make it through another day. Thank Him in the morning for blessing you to see another morning. Thank Him before you eat; ask Him to bless your food. What goes around comes around. The energy you put out into this world, you can be sure will come back to you. Put out good energy. Put out love. Even when times are tough, and times are tough for us all at times, put out love. Trust in God, thank Him, ask Him how you can learn to help yourself, and He will bless you… People coming and going. No one paying the young man all that much mind. Something about it was touching. He walked up to the young man and shook his hand. He didn’t know what to say. The young man smiled at him. A broad warm smile. All he could say was thank you. The young man said I understand. God will bless you. What goes around comes around.

When he got home he locked himself in the bathroom. He looked in the mirror. You a motherfucking snitch? Fuck you. You’re a snitch motherfucker. He repeated it over and over. Looking in the mirror. Drinking Beck’s. What goes around comes around. Snitch. Count your blessings. When he finally turned to leave he knocked over his bottle of Beck’s. Signifiers. As he knelt to sweep up the wet broken glass the bathroom light went out. 


He dreamed that night that he was fucking the young man on the street corner up the ass. His dick turned long and skinny like a pencil and started to bleed. He woke up in a cold sweat like he hadn’t done for a year. It was three in the morning. He couldn’t go back to sleep. What the fuck kind of fucked up dream was that? He got out of bed. Real quiet. He didn’t want to wake up Stacy. He threw on the first clothes he could fumble out of the closet in the dark.

Outside it was starting to clear up. The stars were out. It was warm like a real summer night. The moon was full. Signifiers. He walked toward the dock. On the way there he saw a group of young Latinos hanging out on the street corner. They were giving him the lookdown. He didn’t have the heart to stare back at them. It was late. The streets were dark and quiet. No people. Definitely no cops. You a snitch motherfucker. They were looking at him hard. He looked down. Thought he heard someone say, that motherfucker’s shook. He turned around. They were staring at him. You fucked with the wrong Puerto Ricans motherfucker. He walked faster and turned the corner. His whole body was buzzing. His hands shaking. Fuck you too.

When he got to the dock he started smashing bottles and throwing them into the bay. No matter how many he shattered . Still not enough. I am other. The stars turned black beneath the clouds and the wind came in ten degrees colder. It started to rain. He ran down the docks and stood under the awning of the closed corner store. He waited an hour until the rain passed. He felt tired again like he could sleep. When he started home he felt so sick and scared he thought he might throw up. Signifiers. The moon and the rain and the people on street corners and the bathroom light and the young man on the corner and his dreams. He wanted to walk home. He couldn’t. Everything for a reason.

Sinking back into the awning of the store he saw headlights come on down the street. Who the fuck? He crouched back into the doorway, reaching down at his sides like he was packing shit, but he wasn’t fucking armed. The car pulled up slow. Slower pulling up in front of him. I should run, fucking run. He couldn’t. Deer caught in headlights shit. The window rolled down. This is fucking it. Get in the car.

Everything for a reason. That’s the first thing the guy said to him. A tall Asian man. Eyes like teeth. One sheisty fucking smile. I’ll break it down for you. Cause and effect. We don’t make errors. Just remember that. It started last year. It’s still going how it’s supposed to. Don’t think we didn’t have this all worked out. You getting religious? You getting superstitious? Man stopped the car, looked over at him. Flashed those eyes and that smile. This is your place, right? Don’t worry about the money. It’s time for you to be on your way.

When he got inside he went to the liquor cabinet and drank until the sun started to come through the windows. His last memory was sitting at the kitchen table.


No dreams. None that he could remember. He woke up naked on the kitchen floor. Stacy had already gone to work. It was late in the afternoon. He sat up and looked for his clothes. He couldn’t find them. Walked around the house naked. He wasn’t really a blackout drunk. Freaky shit, man. He went to take a piss.

In the bathroom he saw his clothes balled up in the tub. The tub was filled with water and the water was red. He wasn’t in any position to handle this. He went into the bedroom and got dressed. Sat down on the bed and tried to think. Tried to remember. What had the man said to him last night? Everything’s going the way it’s supposed to? What the fuck was that supposed to mean? He undressed and checked himself for cuts. Nothing. Was that blood, and if so, whose?

The phone rang. He looked at it. Who the fuck? He walked over to the night table and picked up the receiver. Hello? The voice wasn’t familiar. Man, were you fucked up last night! How ya feeling? Who is this? The line went dead. Star sixty-nine the son of a bitch. The number you are trying to call cannot be dialed by this method. If you know the number of the party you are trying to call, please hang up the phone and dial the number directly.

He hung up the phone, got dressed again and walked to the bathroom. He pulled his shirt from the tub. A white shirt, it had a pinkish color stained all over it. He dropped it back in the tub and left the bathroom. He went into the hallway and pulled down the attic door. It was time to take some kind of fucking action. He kept his small Beretta from back in New York locked up in a box in the back of the attic. Everything for a reason.

Let’s see if it’s all part of the plan when next time I see that motherfucker I fucking pop him. He closed up the attic, took a drink and walked outside. The moment he walked out the door the sun disappeared and the wind blew in fifteen degrees colder. It started to rain. He got a six pack and walked up to the dock. Nobody was out on the street. Nobody at all. Fucking strange. Signifiers. He drank, fondled his pistol and rolled dice until the evening when a hazy twilight came breaking through the clouds. The rain was light, just a little more than a drizzle – nothing. He walked down to the store and bought another six pack. We’ll see who’s running what. Cause and effect motherfucker. Cause and effect.


He woke up Thursday afternoon on the dock. Hadn’t remembered passing out. Made his way up to the corner store and bought a six pack. Coming out he saw a police vehicle pull up ahead of him, lights flashing, silent. He stepped back and to the side. He fondled his pistol. Fucking shoot this shit out.

A group of young blacks on the corner. Some sort of drama had gone down. Cops were there for them. He kept walking towards the dock. Head down. As he passed he heard the kids talking to the cops. Don’t know who he was, man. Didn’t even see him. Nobody did. But you catch him you let me at that motherfucker.

He walked up to the dock. Opened a beer. Shady shit going down in Strawberry, man. He started rolling dice. His nerves were breaking, what the fuck? He was armed. No one could fuck with him right now. Was he really headed for a dead end? Death? He felt nauseous. What a thing to think about. Fuck it. I’ll be eighty years old. Sitting on the porch with Stacy. I’m not going out like a punk in these streets. Jesus Christ. If I’m gonna die out here like this, at least give me a sign God.

A man walked up to him. Middle aged, white, dirty. Looked homeless. Hey man. Can I trouble you for a minute? I got no change for you motherfucker. I don’t want your money. Listen and you shall know: The crimes of the wicked shall be visited back upon them. Jerusalem, thou hast suffered and shall suffer again. If thou art not thy brother’s keeper, thou art nothing in the eyes of The LORD. The iniquities of thy heart have damned thee; blessed alone is he who walks the path of righteousness. Yea though the wicked seek to send him wayward, he is the shepherd of The LORD. And I will execute great vengeance upon thee with furious rebukes; and thou shalt know that I am The LORD when I lay my vengeance upon thee. Ezekiel 25:17.

Late that night, drinking all night, he walked back to the store and stood under the awning. He stood there. Holding his pistol. Waiting. No one crossed his path. Around four in the morning a black cat crossed his path. He almost shot the fucking thing. I’m going home. Signifiers.


He dreamed thousands of black cats were eating him alive. Fucking nightmares, he woke up in a cold sweat in the middle of the day. He hadn’t talked to Stacy in days – hadn’t even seen her except for when she was sleeping. What the fuck must she be thinking right now?

He went to the bathroom. The light was still on. That was pretty unusual for Stacy. Anything’s possible. Everything for a reason. The clothes from the other night were gone. He took a quick shower and felt better. Getting dressed the telephone rang. He picked it up and put it to his ear. He didn’t say anything. The other end was quiet too. Who the fuck is this? he shouted into the receiver. The number you are trying to call cannot be dialed by this method. If you know the number of the party you are trying to call, please hang up the phone and dial the number directly. He hung up the phone and lifted the receiver again. Just a glitch in the phone system. That was all. Nothing more. He hit star sixty-nine. The phone started to ring. An answering machine picked up. A woman’s voice he didn’t recognize. Sorry I missed you last night. I couldn’t make it out there. I’m sorry. I know you were out late and I realize you were all alone. I know how that can be dangerous, but at least you were armed. Everything’s still going according to plan. Remember that. I knew you’d call.

He hung up the phone. Fuck, there was no one to shoot. He needed someone to shoot. A drink would help him think through this thing. Shit. He laughed. This shit is nothing. Signifiers. Cause and effect. Everything happens for a reason. Bullshit. He tuned on the television. Oprah Fucking Winfrey. Predict this motherfuckers. He pulled out his pistol and shot the television. The screen exploded into sparks that flared and died on the carpet. Fuck you.

The doorbell rang. He held the pistol down by his side, walked over to the door and looked through the peephole. It was the young man who’d been on the street corner preaching. He had something with him.

He opened the door, grabbed the young man by the collar, dragged him into the house and held up the pistol. He shut the door and threw the young man against the wall. I saw you on the street corner the other day. You were preaching or something. The fuck is this all about?

The young man was shook as fuck. Wait! Wait! Oh my God, don’t shoot! That’s right, I spread God’s word. I also do deliveries. It just pays the bills. I’m delivering a television. Ordered by someone named Stacy. Maybe I’ve got the wrong house. Please, man, don’t shoot me. I’ve never done anything to anyone. Holy shit, man, please don’t shoot me. The young man’s voice was cracking. He was starting to cry.

He lowered the gun and let the young man go. A fucking television? For Stacy? Yeah. I must have the wrong house. No, Stacy’s my girlfriend. What do I have to do? Just sign here. Thanks. He signed and the young man brought in a large brown box. After the young man left he closed the door and sat down on the couch. What goes around comes around. Predict this motherfuckers. Everything for a reason.

No way he could face Stacy with this mess. He’d fucked up good. Pure coincidence, right? Everything. Get a hotel room for the night. Think shit over and call a hooker. Heh. Not much chance Stacy’d be putting out tonight. When you thought about it this shit was fucking hilarious. Downright funny as hell. Shoot a television set and it will blow up. Cause and motherfucking effect. Need another one? The Lord will provide.


Fucking hooker was a really bad lay. What the fuck was he doing? He’d moved to Strawberry to change. I am other.

He stopped at a greasy spoon before going home. He was dreading facing Stacy. On his way out of the diner two Latinos followed him. He turned a corner to lose them. When he looked back a few minutes later they were still there. He mazed his way up to the docks, back around the border of Southport, across the docks and back towards home again. When he looked back they were gone. Five minutes later he looked back again. They were there. He put his right hand around his pistol and slumped into the doorway of a closed down store. Let the motherfuckers come.

When they passed they gave him a hard look. No words exchanged. Palm on the pistol. He wanted to start something. Fuck it. Catch me after dark. Then we’ll see what’s what.

He got home a little after two in the afternoon. Stacy was home. She’d already tidied up the place. She was sitting in the living room watching something on the new television set. When he walked in he just slumped his shoulders and said quiet, hey baby.

She looked at him. She started to cry. Oh my God. I’ve been going crazy these past couple days. What the hell is going on? He went over to the couch and held her. It’s just something – a bad person from my past, baby.

He got up, walked across the room and opened the window. He lit a cigarette. I’m smoking again. But fuck it. I’m quitting again tomorrow. It’s been one fuck of a week, eh baby? He laughed. I don’t remember much from the other night, you know. I don’t remember anything actually. I gotta stop doing this shit. You can’t begin again, but you can wipe the slate clean.

The clouds were moving across the sky quick. Sunlight and shadows dipped in and out of the room. It had been pretty cold all day. All week, really. Maybe it was starting to warm up. He walked out of the living room. He kept walking. He opened the front door and walked outside. Somehow he had to make sense of all this. The dipping shadows and sunlight were following him. They followed him up the street, past the blocks where the ghosts of the black and Irish and Puerto Rican hoodlums still chased him. They followed him along the way to the store, where he picked up his six pack of Beck’s. They followed him all the way to the dock where he drank and rolled dice all afternoon. And they stayed with him until twilight came blood orange through the clouds. Signifiers. When the sun went down he went back to the store and bought another six pack. He went back up to the dock and kept rolling dice. Waiting. At one in the morning he finished his last beer.

He walked back down to the store. It was closed. He ducked into the awning. The wind blew in twenty degrees colder. It started to rain. He took his usual position and waited. Sinking back into the awning of the store he saw headlights come on down the street. The car pulled up slow. Slower pulling up in front of him. The window rolled down. Signifiers. You need a ride somewhere?

He got in. He didn’t even see who the driver was. He pulled out his pistol and shot. He got out of the vehicle, removed his jacket and threw it on the seat. He closed the door and walked home. When he got back home he climbed up into the attic and put away the pistol. He took off his clothes and locked them up with the gun. He climbed into bed naked, quietly, right next to Stacy. She was asleep. You can’t begin again, but you can wipe the slate clean.


The next morning he got up with Stacy and they went to church. Everyone in their best Sunday attire. Right as the service began he leaned over and gave her the most beautiful kiss in the world. What goes around comes around. It started with the church bells and that’s where it would end.

(Whit Frazier, From Strawberry Press Magazine, July 2003)



The sick summer flowers startle me with the stench of death.

By August a third of Strawberry is dead.

The first lesions start on the hands and face, small patches, soft and pale.

Sunday morning Mortimer spends almost an hour in front of the mirror.

He finds that he’s afraid of the things he’s always loved: the long walks out to the beach, the cool green water where he’d walk out up past his knees, the wonderful and silent mysteries of the woods, the walk home again through the small and charming town of Strawberry.

But most of all he’s afraid of other people.

By the afternoon the full sun and cloudless sky make the heat unbearable.

Outside there is no breeze. The air is stagnant and humid. The sky is sickly pale blue. The few people outside look tired to death.

Out beyond the town square into the surrounding little woods, the trees give nothing away. Occasionally he passes a carcass.

Past the woods and out to where the beach separates Strawberry from the world, the green bay waters give nothing away. The beach stinks of dead fish washed ashore.

Mortimer wades into the water dizzy. His relationship with the world hasn’t felt the same for weeks. Terrified or not, he needs to talk to someone.

Back in the small town square of Strawberry the few people outside look tired to death. An old woman in black looks like she’s dying of thirst; she’s afraid to drink the water; the sound of crying children comes loud through closed windows of depressed looking apartments; a bedlamite dressed in rags is standing on the corner screaming. For the first time ever Mortimer thinks he’d prefer the company of drunks.


They’re not letting anybody leave.

I know, says Mortimer.

And they’re not letting anybody come in.

Who the hell would want to?

Christopher has frequented this same bar for as long as Mortimer can remember. Only casual bar acquaintances they’ve never been good friends; terrified or not, he needs someone to talk to.

What do you think it is? Mortimer asks him.

The hell should I know?

How many people have died? Do you know?

I don’t think it’s all that many.

Not that many, huh?

Just a few of the unlucky ones.

Mortimer lets his sleeves slide up over his hands.

Are you afraid?

If it gets me, it gets me, says Christopher. We all have to die somehow or another anyway.

People say it’s the plague.

What do people know?

The bar is empty; the bar is bright, the summer sun comes heavily through the windows and the ceiling lights are on. Fans turn lazily around defeated. Christopher looks intent on something for a little while.

They’re saying not to drink alcohol, he says.

I know, says Mortimer.

But everyone’s too afraid to drink the goddamn water, so what’s the harm in a little beer?

Mortimer shrugs. We’ve been sectioned off, he says.


So what if we’re all doomed to die here like this?

Shit, I don’t know. Can they do that?

Maybe they have to.

Yeah. Christopher orders another. He looks out the window where the heat is visible in blurry nauseating waves.

Shit, it’s like I said before. If it gets me, it gets me.

What do you think started it?

Neither of them says anything. The bartender brings Christopher’s beer.

Fucking Strawberry, says the bartender, and walks off.

I don’t know, says Christopher.


Out in the street again there’s a girl crying in a doorway. Death and alcohol make Mortimer bold.

Is there anything I can do? he asks her.

When she looks up her face is pale and she looks old for a girl so young. She doesn’t say anything.

Mortimer sits down next to her.

Go away, she says.

What do you think started it?

She starts crying again.

Mortimer puts a hand on her shoulder.

Don’t touch me, she says.

I just wanted to help.

For your own good. She looks up at him and pulls back her sleeve. It’s covered with lesions. I’m infected, she says.

They say they don’t think it’s contagious.

Then why can’t we leave? And why can’t anyone come in?

Precautionary, Mortimer says not believing himself. The heat is making him dizzy again.

My mother died from it yesterday, the girl says.

I’m sorry.

I’ve seen it, she says. It’s contagious.

What’s your name? he asks her.

Does it matter?

We need friends now more than ever.

The girl looks up squinting at the sick blue sky. Mary.

My name’s Mortimer.

I don’t care. I don’t need any more friends and neither do you.

They don’t say anything for a little while. The street is dull with the sound of sobbing and fighting and fear.

Won’t you go away? Do you want to catch it too?

I think we’re all going to die here, says Mortimer.

Please leave me alone.

Mortimer touches Mary’s arm. She looks over and sees his hand.

You see? I’m infected too.

It feels like it gets very quiet on the street all of a sudden. Christopher is coming out of the bar with a bold stagger. Mortimer watches him walk off towards Southport.

When he looks back at Mary she’s smiling, looking far away and straight ahead.


By early October half of Strawberry is dead.

The infection’s spread from families to friends to relatives to acquaintances. Corpses in houses are left in bed; sanitation units come for bodies in the street.

The lesions cover all of Mortimer’s arms and chest. They run in soft pale splotches up his neck.

Mary’s condition is worse: the lesions on her are thick and putrid. They cover her breasts, neck, face and upper torso. She’s weak all the time; Mortimer stays with her all the time. She’s afraid all the time.

Sometimes he goes to talk to Christopher at the bar. Christopher’s healthier than Mortimer, but he has lesions all up his arms. He drinks more heavily than ever.

We’re all gonna die here Mortimer, he says.

I know.

Why Strawberry? he says.

I don’t know.

You’d think New York or L.A. or something.

I know.

Why Strawberry? he says.

I don’t know.

By late evening Christopher is incoherent. The kind of terror Mortimer sees in Christopher’s face makes his greatest fear that others see him the way that he sees them.

Out into the cool autumn evening he can see in the faces of the people on the street the dead hope that the cool weather will kill the plague. The leaves strike him as symbolic.

On Sunday morning he goes with Mary out into the desolate Strawberry streets. The town square is cold and black and red. Already dead bodies are lying in corners of doorways like the homeless in cities.

Out past the town square they go to the little woods surrounding Strawberry where the leaves are all of fall’s myriad colors.

Mary holds onto Mortimer’s arm.

The woods give nothing away, she says.

The carcasses, he says.

But if you ignore them.

Yes. If you ignore them.

Out past the brittle leaves and carcasses onto the beach, the stench of the dead fish is so thick that Mary gets sick. She vomits on the pale shores where the cold waters rush with carnage.

Mortimer cries.

I’m fine now, she tells him. It was just the smell is all.

Aren’t you afraid? he asks her.

Yes, she says.

Christopher says we’re all going to die.

Mary sits down on the beach. She feels drowsy. We probably will, she says.

What do you think started it?

The unanswerable question again, she says.

It’s the only question Christopher has anymore.

Mary lifts herself into Mortimer’s arms. I know. That question is probably the only thing Christopher has anymore at all. She laughs. Except maybe his drinking.

It’s not funny, Mortimer says.

I know. I can’t help it.

He smiles at her. Neither can I.

She slides back down onto the beach. I’m going to die first you know, she says.

Why are you talking about this?

Because it has to be talked about.

How do you know you’ll be first anyway?

Mortimer, I’m serious.

He doesn’t say anything.

I might not make it through the month. I’m weak all the time.

Mortimer doesn’t say anything.

The beach is alive with the sound of waves and the stench of rotting flesh.

I’ll come down here and drown myself if you die first, he says.

I don’t want you to do that, says Mary. I want you to see if you can survive it.

We’re all going to die here Mary.

Maybe, she says. But we don’t even know what it is. What if the winter kills it?

I wouldn’t want to go on anyway.

Promise me, she says.

But I wouldn’t want to go on.

Promise me, she says.

I can’t.


By January three quarters of Strawberry are dead.

The warm and wet yellow snow covers corpses left dead in the road. The sanitation units don’t come anymore. Apartments are burned down regularly. Suicides are frequent.

Mortimer has lesions covering his entire body. He’s weak all the time. He’s with Mary all the time. She’s in bed all the time. She’s dying; she’s dying slow.

Mostly she’s delirious.

The cold wet streets of Strawberry are always deserted. The roads and building are falling into putrid disrepair. The town square is peopled by corpses; empty stores are peopled by corpses; restaurants and bars are peopled by corpses. Mortimer goes sometimes to talk to Christopher.

Christopher is sick, sick to death, worse than Mortimer, always weak. The lesions cover his face and body. They’re thick and scaly. They peel off in flaking silver scabs onto the floor.

The bartender lies dead where he dropped weeks ago.

Why don’t you get out of here Christopher, Mortimer says to him.

What’s the use?

Mortimer doesn’t know what to say.

Christopher leans forward and pours himself another drink from the tap.

Turns out to be something of a boon, this plague, he says through a breaking smile. Been drinking free for weeks.

He laughs. Mortimer tries to smile.

Still haven’t lost the drunkard’s sense of humor at least, Christopher mumbles.

Why don’t you get out of here Christopher?

Christopher doesn’t say anything.

These long silences are uncomfortable and frequent, but Mortimer doesn’t mind them.

What do you think happens? Christopher asks him after some time.

What do you mean?

You know what I mean. Christopher takes a long drink. When we die.

I don’t know.

Do you think about it a lot?

Of course. We all do. You know that.

Christopher shrugs. I know. He drinks again. Are you religious? Shit, you know all this time I never asked you that.

I don’t know, says Mortimer. I’m not even sure what that means.

It’s all over’s what I say, says Christopher. It’s just fucking stupid that we’re put here for this shit.

Maybe so.

It’s not fair. Fucking Strawberry. What a place to live and die; and what a way to go.

Mortimer doesn’t say anything.

Would you do it again? asks Christopher.


Fucking life, Mortimer. If you had the choice would you choose to be born knowing all this shit or would you just say fuck it.

I don’t know.

I’d say fuck it. Never had a choice to begin with. Or if I knew about all this shit, I’d of moved out long ago. Done something with it.

Problem is, you already have to be born to be able to choose if you want to be born or not, right?

Christopher laughs. Well that’s the fucking kicker, isn’t it? Pour yourself a drink man.

I’m alright.

What? You on a health kick or something? Christopher laughs again.

Even Mortimer gets a chuckle out of that.

You know what, says Christopher. You know what I’ve decided?

What’s that Christopher?

I’m gonna go out laughing. I mean, that’s my final fuck you, right? That’s all I have. I could sit here and cry and piss and moan all day. Shit I did it long enough. He laughs again; but fuck it, you know? Find the absurdity in it I say. Find it and laugh at it.

That’s not a bad plan, says Mortimer.

The old expression laughing to keep from crying.

Sure, I’ve heard it.

Well, shit. Christopher takes another long drink.

They’re silent for a long time.

The bar is cold and small and dim.

How’s that little girl of yours doing? Christopher asks after a little while.

Mortimer shrugs. Not so well.

Not so well, huh?

Not really.

She as bad as me?

This time Mortimer laughs. Almost.

Well, shit. He looks down at the bar. I would’ve liked to take a wife sometime myself, you know. Always figured I would someday, even though I used to say I wouldn’t.

Things go that way.

Yeah, well.

They’re both silent for a long time.

After a while Mortimer stands up. Well, Christopher, I’ll come by and see you here tomorrow.

I’ll be here, drinking for free like always, says Christopher. He points to the corpse of the bartender on the floor and laughs.


He says over his dead body! Christopher starts laughing again.

Out in the empty street Mortimer can still hear him laughing. The snow runs down wet and dirty and uncomfortable. The streets shake with the sound of the old fool laughing himself to death.

When he gets back home he finds Mary dead.

She’s smiling, looking far away and straight ahead.

(Whit Frazier, From “Youth and the Unreal City”, 2001)

Phoebe’s little adventure

as a little girl she always looked like a little boy so she knew some things.

her name was Phoebe, but she called herself Philip. after a while she gave up altogether trying to make people understand that she was a girl. socially she became a boy.

she cut her hair short and wore jeans and jerseys. she liked baseball caps a lot. learning about sports was fun. her only real problem was her voice.

Phoebe sounded like a girl.

this was a problem for her because all the other boys called her a faggot and made fun of her a little bit. but most of the times she got along with them just fine. once she even kissed a shy little girl on the lips who had a crush on her just to prove she wasn’t gay. it was one of the most disgusting things she’d ever done, but people thought about her differently after that.


one day Phoebe comes to school a little later than usual. she’s missed her bus and her mother gives her a ride. as she’s heading towards class she meets a boy in the hallway.

aren’t you Philip, he asks her?

uh-huh, she says. why?

I don’t know. I’ve seen you around is all.



what’s your name, she asks him.

Leslie, he says.

Leslie? isn’t that a girl’s name?

some people say so, but my mother says that it’s both a boy and girl name and they don’t know what they’re talking about.

he blinks at her in such an innocent way she thinks he’s very attractive. he’s much different than all the boys she hangs out with.

the hallway is narrow and gray. everything’s made out of dirty old metal. it’s a nice day and she’d rather talk with him outside.

aren’t you late for class? she asks.

I’m going to skip my class.

her face goes soft and curious. skip class? do you do that a lot?

I’ve never skipped class before, he says. that’s why I’m going to try it out.

why today?

well, last night I read this story where this kid skipped class and had the most wonderful day of his life because of it.


yeah. and my dad says that, and here his voice goes deep and stately, literature is the very germ of all human truths.

Phoebe laughs and covers her mouth. why does he say that?

he says that whenever he doesn’t want me to watch tv. he says to go read a book and then I ask him why.

do you read much?

Phoebe looks at him and squints. I think life is a story already, she says. and it’s better than dusty old books.

well, that’s what I’m going to find out today, he says.

can I come with you?

it’s dangerous you know. we could get caught.

what happens if we get caught?

Leslie shrugs. the boy in the story got in a whole lot of trouble. but it was worth it, he said.


his whole life changed.

well then I think we should skip class too.

well come along then and follow me.

they sneak around the corner and back out the front door. Phoebe feels really happy to be outside.

say, I like you Leslie, she says.



I’ve heard rumors that you were gay, says Leslie. he looks at her sideways.

that’s a lie, says Phoebe. it’s just because of my voice is all.

do you believe me?

I believe you.

there’s something romantic about the schoolyard today. a large oil stained parking lot sits shining beneath dozens of colorful cars in the morning sun.

is it too dangerous to go to the playground? she asks.

I think so. we have to stay away from windows too. that’s what the boy in the story did.

where should we go?

let’s hide between the cars.

the pavement is awful hot to touch and warm to sit on, but Phoebe doesn’t mind.

do you watch baseball, Leslie?


yeah, like on tv.

my dad doesn’t like me to watch too much television.

but I don’t mind so much, because I don’t know if I’d watch baseball anyway.

Phoebe looks at Leslie’s flat face and wide ears. she smiles.

what would you watch?

I don’t know. something with a story, I guess.

you like stories a lot then?

a little I guess. just because I’m always reading them when I can’t watch tv.

you’re a strange boy, Leslie.

am I?

I think so.

I guess I am a little bit strange. but I’m not all that different from other kids.

I guess not.

I think maybe someday I’d like to write stories, he says.


yeah. Leslie kicks out his legs like he’s uncomfortable with his skin.

Phoebe decides he looks adorable. what would you write stories about?

I don’t know. people I guess.

just people? doing what?

having adventures. he looks at her and smiles. just like we are now.

what about big adventures?

like with pirates and soldiers and knights and things?

yeah. like tv and the movies.

I don’t know.

I like those types of stories, she says.

Leslie frowns. well, that’s the problem. I mean, so do I. everybody does.

so why not write them?

well, I’ve tried.

you’ve written whole adventure stories?


I’ve never known anyone who wrote a whole story before.

just because I wanted to try.

well, what’s wrong with big adventures?

maybe it’s just because I’ve never had one.

what do you mean?

well, just that I like to read and write about people like me. like the boy who skipped class.


yeah. and then you can go try it out for yourself and learn something from it.

Phoebe’s hand rests on the hot pavement next to Leslie’s. when she shifts her pinky touches his very lightly.

you sure are strange, Leslie.

maybe. why do you keep saying that?

I don’t know.

the sun feels like a warm poem on Phoebe’s face.

I like poetry a lot too, Leslie says after a while.

so do I. I mean-. Phoebe looks up at the blue layer of clouds squinting. I mean I’m not sure I’m supposed to like poems though.

why not?

being a boy and all. aren’t they for girls?

Leslie shrugs. are they? I don’t know.

that’s what my friends say.

they don’t say anything for a few minutes. Phoebe’s watching the cars as they pass by the school.

I like stories that are poems, Leslie decides.

stories that are poems?

like Shakespeare.

Phoebe frowns. Shakespeare doesn’t make any sense.

but it sounds nice.

does it?

yeah. and I like reading the short lines of verse.


the rhythm of it I guess.

but how can a short story be a poem too? it’s not like a play, you know.

Leslie folds up. I know.

for the first time in a long time Phoebe wishes she weren’t a boy.

but here’s the thing, Leslie says. I know I can write a story poem if I think about it enough.


well, maybe. I hope so.

I don’t know. I don’t read all that much, but maybe I’ll start.

if I ever did figure it out, I’d write a whole book of them. nothing but.

she smiles at him. me too.

my dad says that literature and love are the same thing.

why does he say that?

because I told him about my idea and how it might be impossible.

and that’s what he said?


what do you suppose it means?

I don’t know. maybe when I get older I’ll find out and then I’ll be able to write a story poem.

Phoebe screws up her face. why do you suppose we learn more as we get older?

Leslie shrugs.

do you think it’s school?

Leslie looks at her smiling. but we’re skipping school to learn, so it can’t be school.

you think it’s adventures?

that’s what I think.

I bet it would take a big adventure to find out what your dad means.

like pirates and soldiers and knights?

soldiers at least.

I don’t know.

has your dad had a lot of adventures?

he was in a war I think.

I bet that’s where he learned it.

may be.

the sunshine is quiet and warm and minutes pass.

Phoebe balls up her fingers and squints. she can feel her heart in her throat. I want to tell you something, she says.

sure, go ahead.

I mean, but it’s a secret, she says.

a secret?

I don’t know. you’re not like other boys. I like you and trust you for some reason.

well, I won’t tell anyone.

you promise?

Leslie unfolds again like he’s uncomfortable with his skin. he’s grinding his palm into the hot pavement.

listen, he says. I’ll tell you a secret first and that way we can both feel safe.



they don’t say anything for a while.

well, it’s just that, says Leslie. you remember how I said people said you were gay?


well, he squints. have you ever been curious?

but I told you I’m not.

well a year ago, says Leslie, I read a lot of Walt Whitman and I heard he was gay.

who’s he?

he’s a poet. and he’s a real good one.


yeah, but, he pauses and looks at Phoebe. I mean you have to swear not to tell anyone.

I swear.

Leslie looks at the ground. it’s just that I’ve been curious about kissing another boy ever since I read that Whitman.

have you done it?

no, he says.

they don’t say anything.

Phoebe smiles nervous through the sun and the shining metal colors of cars.

I’d give it a try, she suggests softly.


just this once and all, I mean.

they turn face to face and pause in the awkward moment.

Phoebe doesn’t know who moves first. she feels his lips against hers.

afterwards they don’t say anything for about a minute.

what did you think? he asks.

I don’t know. what did you think?

I don’t know.

Phoebe feels even sicker than she did when she kissed the shy little girl. she’s dizzy and the sun and the pavement are very hot now.

she wants to die for dread of his next question.

(Whit Frazier, From “Youth and the Unreal City”, 2001)

The Sailboat Story

when he’s six years old Andrew’s father buys him a toy sailboat. all that summer he sits by the pond downhill and watches the boat go from inbetween the tall grass out into the small water where he could still see the clouds. after a while it would wander downstream a little towards where the hill dipped, and he’d have to go splashing after it. if he was feeling daring he’d let the boat roll over the hill and splash the reckless journey down. one time at the bottom of the hill he meets a girl. the sun is going down and the pond is orange and black.

are you the boy with the boat? she asks him. her name is Delta.

Andrew just looks at her.

the boy with the boat, Delta says. everyone knows about the boy with the boat.

who’s the boy with the boat? he asks.

follow me, she says.

they walk down the hill and out into the long fields where his mother and his father told him not to play. his boat is in the water and they’re keeping pace with it.

have you ever heard the story? she asks him.

the story? what story?

the story about the boy with the boat.

but if I am the boy with the boat, then I must know the story because it’s about me.

Delta stops, kneels down and gives the little sailboat a flick with her finger.

cut that out, Andrew tells her and she laughs.

do you know how I know you’re the boy with the boat? she asks him.


well they say that the boy with the boat is the only one who doesn’t know that he’s the boy with the boat; that’s how you can tell him apart from all the other boys who go and play with their sailboats by the pond.

and that means I’m him?

Delta nods.

well then why did you ask me if I’m the boy with the boat if you already knew I was and knew I didn’t know because I was already him?

cuz I didn’t know you were him until I asked you if you were him and you said you didn’t know.

what if I’d said I was him?

then I’d know you weren’t him.

you’d think I was lying?

I’d know you were lying.

does everyone else think I’m him?

that’s what they say.

Delta smiles at him in a way that makes him blush.

but who is the boy with the boat? he asks her. what’s the story about him?

it’s about you, you know, Delta tells him. are you sure you want to hear it?

why? is it mean? do people make things up about me?

you see, you must be him, Delta says.

I still don’t know what you’re talking about.

well, it goes like this: once, a hundred years ago there used to be this boy who’d come down to the pond and play with a toy boat.

a hundred years ago?

yeah. maybe even more.

but I’m not a hundred years old.

well, I know, she says. see the boy with the boat set it out adrift one day and it went down the hill and out past the fields.

where we are now.

right, but farther even. and the boy followed his boat into the pond and out into the river.

into the river?

yeah. and it kept going and he kept following it. he vanished out in the ocean somewhere and no one’s ever heard from him since.

did he drown?

nobody knows what happened. but the story has it that one summer he’s going to come back.

and you think that’s me?

I think so.

but why me? and why would I come back now?

they say that the summer he comes back will be a sign.

a sign?

yeah. that the waters around the island will turn to dust.

all the water’s going to turn to dust?

and mainlanders will overrun what was once our island.


and he just wants to come back to enjoy his boat one last time. while the water’s still here.

I don’t know if I’m him.

they say that you are.

I don’t want to be him.

but you are. pause. she says, do you remember the bottom of the ocean?

Andrew stops to think. Delta kneels down to flick his boat.

I think I do remember it, Andrew says.

really? what was it like?

it was warm and like a dream because I felt like I was sleeping.

all you did was sleep?

but I wasn’t asleep. I was awake, it was just like I was asleep.

and I could talk to all the fish.

what did they say?

I don’t remember anymore. I think one of them mentioned you.

Delta laughs. don’t be silly, you’re making this up.

I’m the boy with the boat aren’t I? Andrew looks at her. are you scared? he asks.

she looks up at the clouds. yes. pause. are you?

Andrew shrugs. I don’t know if I’m supposed to be.

yeah. neither do I.

have you ever seen mainlanders? he asks her.

I’ve only heard about them.

me neither.

you didn’t see any when you went out in the ocean?

only some who were already drowned.

her voice goes low. what did they look like?

fallen angels, he says.

a breeze picks up and pulls the sailboat sailing beside them a little ahead.

I’m not supposed to go out this far, Andrew says.

but you’re the boy with the boat.

I don’t see how that changes anything.

that changes everything, she says. she pouts. why did you have to come back just now?

I didn’t even know.

you weren’t out here last summer, she says.

I didn’t have a sailboat then.

how long were you out there in the ocean?

I don’t remember anymore. it feels like only a second.

I wish you’d waited until after I grew up, she says.

I didn’t know about you.

I thought you said the fish talked about me. which she says in a way that makes him blush again.

that’s true. they did. I think I timed it badly.

coming back?

yes, he says, or maybe I just got my sailboat too soon.

the sun tucks away orange behind the clouds and the sky turns a rich and darker blue. Andrew and Delta keep pace with the sailboat.

it’s getting late, Andrew says.

in a lot of different ways, Delta says and looks at the sailboat.

will I still be here when the mainlanders come, he asks her. or do I go away again?

I don’t know. maybe you’ll go back into the ocean before it turns into dust.

but that wouldn’t make any sense. I’d still be around after it turned to dust wouldn’t I?

I guess so. she kneels down and flicks the sailboat. maybe there’s an ocean somewhere you’ll go to that won’t.

I think I’d like to find one.

I don’t want to meet the mainlanders, Delta decides. I’m going along with you.

I don’t even know if I’m going to go yet.

but if you do. and you should go anyway.

will you be able to breathe under the water?

was it difficult?

it was at first, says Andrew. but it got easier as the years went by.

did it take long?

not too long. the fish showed me how.

were all the fish nice?

even the sharks and jellyfish are nice if you know their language.

how did you learn it?

I listened for a long time and soon enough I could speak it.

say something to me in fish, she says.

just like that? what do you want me to say?

I don’t know, anything.

the moon starts to pull out from behind the twilight sky. the field and the pond settle dark and wide where the sailboat glides. Andrew and Delta walk beneath the small blinking stars.

I think I could breathe underwater after a little while, Delta says.

we could go to a tropical ocean, Andrew says.

that would be better anyway, agrees Delta.

for a while they’re perfectly quiet.

how would I have found out that I was the boy with the boat if you hadn’t told me?

you wouldn’t have.

then how would I know to return to the ocean?

you wouldn’t know.

would the ocean still turn to dust?

I don’t know. I think so. pause. but I’m part of the story too, you know.

you didn’t tell me that.

well, a girl tells the boy with the boat who he is.

and what happens after that?

Delta kneels down and flicks the boat. I don’t know.


well, no. except that the ocean turns to dust and the mainlanders come.

the story goes on, I think. there’s a whole saga about it. but I only know the story about the boy with the boat.

why don’t you know the rest?

because I always knew in my heart that the girl in the story was me. and so that’s the story I cared about the most.

how did you know that?

Delta shrugs. I don’t know. I just knew somehow.

did you ever feel like you were somehow special? she asks him.

I never even knew about the boy with the boat before.

not even that, she says. just different somehow.

I guess. but all I ever do’s sail my boat. I don’t play with the other kids.

neither do I, she says. because I always knew I was the girl in the story.

will we be famous?

we already are, she says. and nobody knows it yet but us.

she kneels down and flicks the sailboat.

hey cut it out, says Andrew.

the sailboat spins in a little circle and heads out across the pond.

it’s going away, she says. should we go after it? she takes a step towards the dark pond.

Andrew walks up to where she’s standing. I’m going after it.

give me your hand, she says.

they take small steps out to where the pond runs up past their ankles. the sailboat is running far out, guided by the moon white on the water.

do we keep going? Delta asks quietly, laughing.

it won’t be easy out there.

she turns and smiles at him. she squeezes his hand. say something to me in fish, she says.

what do you want me to say?

he turns and catches her eye. the sailboat passes out of view. fish don’t speak, silly, he says.

the look she gives him is like a shy and innocent kiss.

(Whit Frazier, From “Youth and the Unreal City”, 2001)

siamese twins

he stops by her apartment just a little after midnight. she doesn’t say anything when she opens the door, she steps to the side and lets him in. all the lights are off. in the bedroom the moon lights the room evening alabaster through two large windows. she sits down on the side of the bed in the moon. she’s not wearing anything. he takes a seat across from her in a large blue chair.

you didn’t think I would come, he says.

I didn’t know.

neither did I, he says.

you’ve been drinking.


would you like another?

he stands up. don’t bother, he tells her. I’ll get it myself. are you having anything?

she shrugs. bring me whatever you’re having.

the moon through the windows looks like large piano keys.

he comes back with two drinks, hands one to her and sits back down in the chair.

I wish you hadn’t come, she says.

I wish I hadn’t either.

then why did you?

he shrugs. what did you do today?

not much. I walked out by the pond.

women are being attacked out there, he says.

I know.

he finishes his drink without looking at her. I could use another, he says.

do you want me to get it?

never mind. I’ll get it myself.

she doesn’t move. he comes back and sits down without looking at her.

I shouldn’t have come tonight, he decides.

you should never come.

maybe I should leave.

she pulls up her legs and folds her arms around them. she laughs. did you hear about the guy in the news today who burned down his own house?


yeah, there was a mouse in it. he chased it all night and he couldn’t get it. it drove him crazy.

sure sounds like it.

well, he got so mad at the mouse, well this is what he said happened anyway, that all he could think about was getting revenge on the mouse. he didn’t care what happened to his apartment.

so where is he now?

I think they’re putting him away in a place for crazy people.

I guess that’s where he belongs.

when I was a little kid, she says, and he’s looking at the moon making squares of light on her bare legs, I burned off a little corner of my windowsill because it hit me in the head one morning as I was getting out of bed.

sure, that’s different.

I don’t see how it’s that different. given the right circumstances I might have burned my house down too.

did he get the mouse?

I don’t think so. I think the mouse got away.

that’s the way of things.

is it? maybe that’s what would happen if the man upstairs tried to burn us down. which she says in a way that makes him stand up again. is he listening? I need another, he says. are you having anything?

I suppose so, she says. I suppose I’m going to need it.

as he comes back into the room she asks him, aren’t you drinking too quickly?

is it any different from any other night?

she thinks. no. I suppose not. in fact-

he smiles and she smiles back at him.

you’re like the sun, she says, when you do that.

like the sun?

is that the sun I see,

smiling back at me? pause. what do you say someday we go sailing together?

sailing? really? I think I’d like that a lot.

so do I. did I ever tell you the story of the first time I went sailing?

I don’t know. maybe.

well, tell me again. you think I remember every little thing you say?

when you put it like that it doesn’t sound nice at all.

she smiles at him and he smiles back again.

you’re like the moon, he says, when you do that.

the moon?

I saw you standing alone.

without a dream in my heart, she says.

I was only sixteen.

that’s not that young. I tell you that every time.

it felt like I was very young. and I’d never been sailing before.

what time of year was it?

well that’s a silly question. it was spring.

was it just spring, or had it been for a while?

it was well into the spring season, he begins. beneath the late may sun, friend and friend and friend embarked together on a journey by sea.

I thought it was just a little creek.

oh, go to hell.

what kind of thing is that to say?

well, let me tell my story.

you’re going to need another drink.

am I?

I think so. I think tonight you’re going to need another drink.

should I just bring in the bottle?

yes, after all, I’m going to need another too.

he gets up and leaves the room. she leans forward on the bed, arms still around her knees so that her whole body bathes in the moonlight. he comes back and stops to look at her.

you should learn to be polite, she says.

he puts the bottle down next to her glass and sits back in the large blue chair.

you should be more appropriate around guests, he says.

you’re an intruder, she says. you’re no guest of mine.

that’s right, he says. I’m an intruder.

the sound of someone stomping around upstairs comes through the ceiling.

doesn’t that guy ever go to bed? he says.

never, she says. he’s always there. all day and all night. he doesn’t sleep and he doesn’t leave the apartment.

have you ever met him?

no, she says. I’m afraid of him.

sometimes he’ll get quiet when I’m here.

yes, he’s listening.



how do you know?

I can imagine him. I can see what he looks like and everything.

have you ever seen him?

no, she says. I’m afraid of him.

well, I’m certainly not afraid of him. let’s go have a talk with him.

she shivers and slides back on the bed. no!

yes, he says and fills up his glass again. I say yes. he finishes his drink.

aren’t you drinking too quickly, she asks.

am I?

yes, she says.

he pours himself another. I’ll decide what’s yes and no.

will you tell me the story? she asks.

which story?

the sailboat.

oh, the sailboat story. have I never told you the sailboat story before?

no, never.

well, it begins with father and son on a sunny autumn day.

and you’d never been sailing before?

never; but I was only sixteen.

that’s not so young.

not so young to some, but I was in the prime of my youth.

and you’re past that prime now?


are you no longer in the prime of your youth?

alas, he says flourishing, I am not.

you should go.

father and son on the high seas.

I thought you said it was a creek.

a lie, he suggests, in order to appear humble. it was the high seas indeed!

you’re drinking too quickly.

I’m drinking at just the appropriate speed. did you know that when I first came over here I dreaded everything?

you did?

yes. almost as much as you dreaded my coming. but now nothing seems better.


yes, after all, here we are, talking about sailing.

will you take me sailing some time?

is a promise a promise?

yes, she says. a promise is a promise.

do you know, he says, that the moon makes you look more lovely than Helen of Troy?

does it?

oh, I could write soliloquies.

did you know Helen well?

I knew her intimately.

anyway, you shouldn’t be so happy as you are.

not so happy as I am? can anyone be less happy than they are? he finishes his drink and pours another.

you’re drinking too quickly.

too quickly? he says.

and so you’re forgetting, she says.


that he listens.

yes. that’s right. he listens. pause. storm the staircase, he shouts. we’ll kill him!

we can’t kill him, she says.

and we can’t let him live, he says, standing up again and pacing the length of the floor flooded by the moon. she slides up against her pillow. you’re scaring me, she says.

scaring little girls, murdering tenants, drinking glass after glass of god’s glorious gin, what kind of men do you let into your apartment at odd hours of the night?

will you tell me the story about the sailboat? I’d much rather talk about sailboats.

sailboats and sailors and sinners all go to hell, he shouts, finishing his drink and stopping a minute to pour himself another.

be quiet for a second, she says.

he stops pacing and stands in place.

you hear? she says. no more stomping. he’s listening.

shameless bastard son of shit! he yells at the ceiling. you’ve got nothing better to do every evening I suppose.

don’t be angry, I bet he’s lonely. she smiles at him and he smiles back. he walks over to where she’s sitting on the bed and sits next to her.

you’re like the moon, he says, when you do that.

like the moon?

I saw you standing alone.

without a dream in my heart.

he says, beautifully, yes.

she leans herself up against him and whispers no.

he rapes her.

afterwards she won’t talk to him. he sits in the large blue chair and finishes the bottle while she lies in bed smoking. after the last glass is finished he stands up.

he was listening, he says.

she doesn’t say anything.

I’m not going to come tomorrow, he says.

she doesn’t say anything. he goes to the door and looks back at her. I mean it this time, he says.

he opens the door and pauses at the threshold. she’s saying something:

(Whit Frazier, From “Youth and the Unreal City”, 2001)