Note: This book does contain some rather harsh language.
his is one fucked up way to start Christmas.
Not the most eloquent final words, but they were exact to the situation and had entered his mind in whole. Of course, he could not speak them out loud. Not down here.
No more words. No more deeds.
As a boy, he had never been able to open his eyes while submerged, but somehow he was looking around in the murky, muddy water, shady and blue. His whole being was telling him if he could not save himself, he would breathe it all in, filling his lungs. The world would darken around him, and he would sink into the quagmire below. He would have to act quickly if indeed he wanted to live.
Only, he wasn’t convinced he did wish to live.
No more dreams. No more nightmares.
I can’t believe I rented a tux for this.
He had had enough of this world, and the world seemed to know he thought so. After all, it was the very earth which was trying to swallow him up.
Bubbles rose from his nostrils as he looked at the thick sheet of ice above his head. He couldn’t see a break to the surface, but he knew if he’d looked hard enough, he’d find the opening his body made on the impact that had landed him in this silent, frozen hell.
No more debts. No more harassing creditors.
Dammit. I lost a shoe.
There was no telling how long he’d been in the water, but he knew there couldn’t be much more time before everything would start happening. Already, his fingers were numb. Already, his chest and stomach were crying for warmth.
Somehow, he found serenity in it all. Maybe it was God’s hush bringing this calm.
Yeah, maybe, but it was probably just the head wound.
No more hair loss. No more tooth decay.
Did I tip that waitress?
Blue hands hung in front of him. Suspended in the water, they reminded him of the limbs of a tree, blown lightly by a passing breeze. He knew they were his, but he couldn’t feel them anymore. In a way, they already belonged to the grave. This was all there was left. Just to float. And then to die. No fanfare or trumpets or a flickering film of life passing before his eyes. Just this.
Just cold water and a painful death.
No more sunrises to break the dawn. No more stars burning overhead.
I wonder if they’ll ever find me here.
He forced himself to recall the events of his life, to remember the moments that led to his demise. He conjured the faces of those he loved into the dusky bog, but it suddenly felt wrong to do it – to bring them all down here with him, so he simply closed his eyes.
It seemed life had one lesson left for him: How to let it all go.
No more fading memories. No more moments to look forward to. No more.
Oh, God, no! I’m not the only one down here.
The following is an excerpt from the T rated version of “Sick Day.”
To find out how to get your own copy of the book described as “Clerks” meets “Ready Player One,” click here.
I’m going to tell you a story that changed my life. It must have been eleven or twelve years ago I heard it. I’d just moved to San Diego, so this would have been my first time at Comic Con. Actually, it was my only time at the San Diego Comic Con. These days I set up interviews downtown and chat with the cosplayers without ever actually entering the convention center. Back then, I could stand in line and buy a ticket, but since then it’s gotten so big tickets are basically impossible to. . .
Whatever. That’s not really the point, is it? What’s important here is this story, and I wanted to give you some background on where I heard it.
I was in the main hall when I spotted this gawky kid. Nothing special — like I said, this is Comic Con, right? But something about the way she was moving around the hall – as though she was seeing the world for the first time – caught my attention. She would run a few steps, stop, clasp her hands together, gape at a booth, and make this high pitched “squee” noise. I found the whole thing endearing, probably because she reminded me so much of myself at the time. That’s the thing about a comic book convention: we come from all walks of life, from all over the world, and we are united in our mutual enthusiasm for something everyone else thinks is nerdy.
Okay. Again, this doesn’t have much to do with the story exactly, but for the purpose of background, this was before every movie and TV show could point to a comic book as its source material. This was before video games went mainstream. We were nerds. Geeks. Misfits. And it was awesome. So what if I don’t have the emotional range to squee at stuff? We were still forged from the same adamantium. And one of the things we had in common, if we were being perfectly honest with ourselves, was that we had times when we absolutely lacked the confidence to make it in life. There were times when our love for heroism only amplified our own lack of nerve. And that’s why I’m writing down this story I heard third party.
Yes, this story is based on true events, and yes, I did my own independent research to flesh it out. Still, I’m doing what I can to maintain the spirit of that original telling, because, like I said, it changed my whole life. I was a coward with no self-assurance, and I felt inadequate. I wasn’t getting anywhere, and I was getting there fast. The story of Buster Benjamin changed all of that for me.
So the kid was looking at these trading cards that this vendor had on his table. The guy at the booth was tubby. He was wearing a Captain America t-shirt. If Steve Rodgers had bought a similar shirt before he took the super serum and then put it on afterwards, it would fit him about as well as it did this guy. Only this guy wasn’t muscular. He was like the little tea pot; short and stout. The flabby Cappy finished with one customer and then turned to the kid. He asked if he could help her, and she looked up at him and froze. It was like she thought herself invisible and shocked to discover he could actually see her.
“Um,” she stammered. “Are these all of your Mystic Cards?”
“Those are the cards I let people touch. I’ve got my good ones back here.”
She smiled, putting her hand over her mouth to cover her imperfect teeth. “I’m looking for a Grimdrake.”
“There are Grimdrakes in there.”
“I want the Ginger Grimdrake from series one.”
The vendor grabbed at the hem of his shirt and pulled the fabric until the star-spangled shield was tight against his fluffy chest. He reached under the table and after a few seconds of wheezing and turning red, he placed the card she was seeking in front of her.
When she saw it there, I swear I could see her heart beating hard in her throat. “Do you take trades?” she asked.
“Depends what you’re offering.”
With shaky hands, she placed two of her own cards on the table. The vendor looked them over and stroked his weedy beard. “I think we can make this wor-”
“No way! A Ginger Grimdrake?” A large woman who came dressed as Xena, the warrior princess, leaned in over the gawky girl. “How much do you want for it?”
“It’s my only one, and I just sold it.”
“How much was it going for?”
“Two hundred dollars.”
The gawky girl’s eyes widened. She hadn’t realized just how much the card was worth.
“I’ll give you two twenty-five for it.”
The vendor folded his arms. “I believe the girl still has the better offer.”
“What?” the large woman said, gripping her Chakram. “An Albino Hill Giant and a Silver Serpent-Eater? I have three of each of those in my collection.”
“Even so. We’ve already made the deal.”
The woman stared down at the gawky girl, her eyes burning. “And if she decided to withdraw her offer?”
The gawky girl looked up at the woman and quickly turned away, staring down at the cards on the table. After a heavy moment, she picked her cards up and quietly walked away.
I witnessed all of this from the line I’m standing in. I’d been waiting for over an hour to get an autograph from a venerated veteran of the comic industry. I’m not going to say his name here, but you know the guy. I just don’t want any legal issues, and besides, if we end up turning this book into a movie, I don’t want anyone to get the impression this was just meant to be a cameo.
I wasn’t the only one who was watching this kid get bullied out of her dream card. This comic guru — who again, is someone you’ve most definitely heard of — was keeping tabs too, and when the girl was walking past us, this inventor of so many incredible super heroes said, “Excuse me, miss. You aren’t going to take that lying down, are you?”
The girl looked over both of her shoulders. One at a time, not all at once.
“That’s right, young lady. I’m talking to you. Are you let her get away with that?”
She stared back at him, her chin on her chest.
“Why don’t you step on up over here, and let’s have a little chat.”
She stumbled forward, eyes dead like a zombie’s. Everyone in the line groaned as she cut in front of me. Some of the people behind me vocalized their disapproval with guttural grunts and nasally naysaying, so the comic guru held up his hands. “Calm down. I just want to talk to this precious child a moment and fill her head with wisdom. Alright? ‘Nuff said.” He set aside his Sharpie and prints. “Alright, sweetheart. Why don’t you tell me just what happened?” And then he waited while she swallowed and blinked and her senses slowly returned. “Why did you just walk away like that?”
“She’s bigger than me.”
“Ain’t that the truth!. She’s bigger than me! But if there’s one thing I know, it’s most of life’s obstacles will be bigger than you.”
“What was I supposed to do? I’m just a nerd.”
“Just a nerd? Just a nerd? I’ll have you know no one is just any one thing, and besides, being a nerd is a great and noble thing. Where would the world be without nerds?”
“Look, you come from a long line of important people. Newton was a nerd. Einstein was a nerd. Buster Benjamin was a nerd.”
“Who? Newton? He’s the cookie guy! What kind of nerd doesn’t know who Isaac Newton is?” He got a smile out of her, which perked him up like black coffee.
“No!” she said, finally not shaking. “I mean the last one. Who’s that?”
“Oh. You mean Buster Benjamin?”
“You’ve never heard the legend of Buster Benjamin?”
She shook her head.
“Well, no wonder you’re so lost in the world. You don’t know what you’re capable of.” The comic guru leaned back in his chair and intertwined his fingers behind his head. “Sit back, kid! I’m about to unravel a yarn so spectacular – so incredible – it’ll sweep you away into a world of endless possibilities.”
The sounds of angst and reproach that rose from the line was practically deafening.
The majority of you who have come to see this update are my friends and family at this point, so I thought it appropriate to help you see just how many of you have been instrumental in the making of “Home Street.” Please keep in mind that context is key, and a lot of the references you’ll find here will make more sense once you’ve read the novel.
If you would like to preorder “Home Street,” simply go here and do so.
Without further ado, I present…
Legend has it I’ve been working on this book since I was seven years old. The thing about beginning anything at such a tender age is I’m not entirely certain it’s true. I know I began not long after we moved to Florida. Seems about right, but just like Paul, my timeline can be confusing.
There’s a lot I can say that about: “Just like Paul.” I could go into detail, writing dissertations on what’s a memory and what’s pure imagination, but that’s not the point. The goal here is to thank those who’ve inspired, motivated, and aided in the creation of this book. Still, the legend is important.
Truth is I have so many people to acknowledge in this affair it’s practically criminal. One of the reasons I’ve embedded so many names in the narrative is to purposefully pay homage to those folks. If you’ve known me at any point in my life leading up to the publication of this work and there’s a character with a name similar or identical to your own, it’s a pretty good bet I’m full of thanksgiving our paths have crossed.
The legal department would prefer I add a disclaimer.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
That is an important statement. Not just because it will keep me out of court, but also – while I’ve been inspired by real individuals, these characters are pure fiction. The characters on these pages are here to serve the story and not to be mirror images of complicated flesh and blood individuals.
The original stories – which were the spiritual precursors of this tome – were mainly screenplays, and my full intention was to film them. I learned the format from reading old Three Stooges scripts. Instead of hiring actors, I would cast my friends and family. By doing so, the roles I created were greatly influenced by their personalities.
The very first story was called F.B.K.I.S. (or Federal Bureau of Kids Investigations and Stuff). That cast included an assortment of elementary and middle school acquaintances.
I say acquaintances, because I didn’t have many friends in those days. Certainly, there were some who were more. There was Kyle, whose last name has been lost to history. He was my first and only friend from the time I moved to Florida until the time he moved away.
When Damon Matrocos came to town, I saw a new opportunity. Despite the fact no one else in school wanted to play with me – that I was the punchline to so many jokes, I would earn this new kid’s friendship. This was after my fervent prayer in the tub but before I discovered “Weird Al.” I was still learning to craft my charm into a tool. I’m happy to say Damon became my friend and was a part of that original cast, as were Michael and Benjamin and my best friend throughout my life, my brother Andrew.
We would go on neighborhood adventures, sometimes searching for Old Mr. Green in the woods. On one occasion, we investigated a real-life predator in the neighborhood. That was the day Damon suggested we start a club. That was the day that inspired me to start writing.
After my parents divorced and we moved to Ohio, I became further influenced by the people I met while briefly going to the private school where my mother taught. Christian Hodges, Michael Smail, and Jacob Lees would sit with me at lunch, listening patiently as I told them about the script I was writing for us all.
I moved into a trailer park and started going to school at Big Walnut. That was the first major shift in the overall story. It became a study of the kids in my neighborhood. They were trying so hard to grow up while I was desperately clinging to childhood. Some of them were turning to drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, petty crime, and sex. I was witness to arson, incest, and brutal violence while living there, and two of my friends from school were prototypical Dylan Kliebold/Eric Harris types, building pipe bombs and threatening to one day come to school with guns. Not to be contained in a single volume, I typed out a film trilogy under the banner Debt 2 Society on our first family computer.
By this point in my life, I was the class clown and on the opposite end of the popularity totem pole. I’d already laid down the groundwork with classroom antics during eighth grade, but what really put me over the top were two events. First, I accidentally pushed Joel Reynolds through the fire extinguisher glass on the first day of our freshman year. The second thing happened the very same day. We were in the orientation assembly when the vice principal opened the floor for questions. I raised my hand and asked if a public display of affection could be counted if it was just one person. When asked to clarify, I specified that I figured this guy was probably alone in a bathroom stall and could unwittingly create a slipping hazard.
That set it off. I became a legend. At least in my own mind.
My cast had swollen, including people who succeeded in making their impressions felt and a handful of legitimate lifelong friends. There was my high school community (Jeff Murdock, Ann Gentile, Jes Antolik, Shawn Page, Dan Strohl, Jamie Cox, Erin Sayers, Elizabeth Grooms, Nicole Butz, Mandy Detty, Erica Roche, Naomi Kresgi, Janet Dougherty, Barnabas Boehler, John Copley, John Stankowiz, Seth Rogers, Adam Govoni, Danielle Conklin, Anya Velasquez, Bethany Whittington, Tiffany Evans, Jamie Sumner, Stephanie Heckler, Julie Thompson, Jennifer Schirtzinger, Maria Lynch, Steve Tack, Steve and Julie Murdock, David Gentile, Eric Antolik, Trent and “Bubby” Carter, Valerie Popovich, Beth Trusler, Emily and Alex Beard, Ethan Whitney, Leela Bean, Melissa Kopp, Jayson Hummel, Geoffrey Miller, Mindy and Jason McComas, Stacey Mullins, Travis Garrabrant, Shaun Decker, Brad and Kelly Wolfe, Jesse Haines, Mitch Fry, Ben Edwards, Damon Frentsos, Heath Stickney, Andy Kerr, Steve McDonough, Chris Smith, Roy and Robert Merchant, Andrew Hartley, and Jill Ceneskie), my Camp Lazarus family (Kent “Dingo” Keister, Chip Burke, Dave Hudler, David Brant, Josh Steele, Barbara Lovell, Caty Peters, Kyle Allen, the English twins, The Leonards, Eddie Wilson, Daniel Anschutz, Jason “Cookie” Cook, Ian and Nathan Cheeseman, Tony Marrazzi, Brian Roy, Anna Haas, Charlie Adams, Matt Long, Chris and Bridget Link, Jennifer Councilman, Martha Channell, Laura Henry, Maggie and Tim Smith, Clark Schwenke, Jeff Westlake, Eric Fox, and Brian Canini), and my Camp Blue Ridge kids (Drew Lerman, Larry Zinn, Ian Kay, and Josh Blum).
Suddenly, tragedy struck. My classmate, fellow camp counselor, and dear, dear friend Bill Tack took his life. Writing silly, disconnected stories focusing heavily on action and cartoony violence wasn’t what I want anymore. I felt compelled to write more personally.
In college, my focus shifted to describing what it’s like to take tentative steps away from childhood. The original Home Street featured two protagonists: Paul (who represented my my more introverted aspects) and Bill (who exhibited my extroverted tendencies). Paul was stuck in the past. Bill was stuck in the future. They were both returning to their hometown for the wedding of Tom and Jen.
Bill aspired to shake off the dust of that crummy little town and make his mark on Hollywood, but first he would have to confront the shadows of his father’s physical abuse.
Paul hadn’t spoken to anyone in the four d since they graduated from high school. He was there to see everyone one last time before he disappeared for good. The complication, of course, was his high school sweetheart, Gayle, who despite having moved on with her life, was obviously still in love with him. The major dramatic question: Can love save a life?
This was easily the longest series of revisions in my history of long running revisions, having lived in my memory, in dog-eared copies handed off to friends, and table readings for two full decades.
So many people from my college years at Kent State became prototypes. Amanda D’Angelo, Ian Crossland, Leslie Diamond, and Eric Van Baars. Even more people from this period have influenced this novel. Nate Hodges, Mike Maletic, Kariem Marbury, Leigh Ann Miller, Carl Gannon, Jes Kreusler, Ryan Davis, Brian Massolini, Cat Kenny, Peggy Elliott, Jef Snopel, Kat Savering, Melissa Wintringham, Kenny Bentley, Tarah Hamilton, Kate Sopko, Marya Bednerick, Sukriye Yuksel, and Holly Magnani.
As I’ve aged, Paul has aged, and even while I’ve focused on other things, Paul’s story has been alive, festering in my mind as I’ve experienced more and more of the world. This novel has taken several years to write, mostly because like Paul, I’ve had obstacles which have held me back from fully pursuing my dreams. While working retail (and never, ever stealing from the till), I’ve made movies, recorded albums, and wrote plays and comic books. I’ve done music videos, sketches, web shows, and talked to a few of my heroes about storytelling.
I never stopped believing.
People like Richard Baker, Jason Nestler, Jaz Williams, Godson Chamberlain, Kurt Braun, Elizabeth Jackson, Debra Plante, Mark McKinney, Peter John Ross, Yochanan Sebastian Winston PhD, Kathy Robbins, Cristina Leduc, Elaina Pajimula, Angela Lynn Cousins, Carl Gannon, Jesse Dillon Sorrels, Holly Elswick, Tawny Whaley, David Shoemaker, Charles Castro, Dominique Gilbert, JeanCarlo Mendez, Chase Pado, Paula Stead, Jason Mank, Ryan Spratt, Jim Larkin, Michael Magnuson, Jessica Nigri, and Andrew Nielsen have fleshed out the characters herein. A school teacher who shopped at my store invited me to speak to his class and emboldened me to claim myself a writer. Thank you for that Anthony Poggiali.
While this story’s about Paul’s family and includes entirely fictionalized events, the spirit of my own family is ever present. I must thank Nana and Pop (Walter and Louise Grant), Grandpa and Grandma Ball (Orville and Maxine), Great-Grandma Lemley (Ilabell) and her lover Baxter, my mother (Deborah Ball), my father and step-mother (Greg and Jackie Grant), my sister and nephew (Elizabeth and Gabriel), my brother (Andrew, again), my uncles and aunts (Dad’s side: Steve and Pat, Tim and Pegi, Marilou and Earl; Mom’s side: Dan, Mark and Chris, Pam and Ron, Mike and Brenda), cousins (Dad’s side: Stephanie, Matthew, Jennifer, Shaun, Nicole, Rachel and Rebecca, and Nathan; Mom’s side: Ashley, Josh, Jessup, Shelby, Justus, Nathan, Alicia, Anita, Annalee, and Sean), my beloved baby sweets (Stella Ingram), and her parents (Dennis and Estrella).
Of course, there are parts of Paul’s life I never lived. These are experiences essential to the story I wanted to tell. I’m sure it comes as no surprise to read these were the most difficult parts for me. Writing about a war you did not fight is not an easy thing to do. You go to the history books, to names and dates. It’s dry, confusing, and distant. There are some excellent frontline accounts on record. I particularly liked On Call in Hell: A Doctor’s Iraq War Story by Cdr. Richard Jadick and Thomas Hayden, Combat Corpsman by Jonathan P. Brazee, House to House: A Soldier’s Memoir by David Bellavia and John R. Bruning, We Were One: Shoulder to Shoulder with the Marines Who Took Fallujah by Patrick K. O’Donnell, No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah by Bing West, and Surviving Twilight: A Soldier’s Chronicle of Daily Life in Iraq by Shane A. Bernskoetter.
The more I learned about the war, the men and women who fought it, and the sacrifices made, the deeper I felt my responsibility to tell this story with dignity, truth, and accuracy. I had to get this right for it to be meaningful. It had to hurt.
If I got any part of the experience right, it was due to the brave men and women who told me their personal stories and answered my absurd, obsessive questions. A heartfelt thank you goes out to Sgt. Trent Fellur (3664th Maintenance Company, Army), Sgt. Kristopher Chan (166th SOC, Army), Muhamad Dea’a Jassem (an Iraqi citizen who worked as a procurement officer for the U.S. military), and MCPO Frederick Berry, who suggested Paul should be a corpsman. Fred also went above and beyond the call of duty, agreeing to read through this novel and correct as many of my military facts as possible. Talk about honor, courage, and commitment!
I also owe a great deal of gratitude to Fred for reassuring my fears. “Don’t worry about making it political,” he said. “You can’t write it without it being political.”
One of the common challenges I’ve heard about those who serve is when they get to the V.A. for help with their PTSD, and the psychologist is someone with no combat experience. It’s not comfortable for them to share their feelings – to expose themselves and their frayed thoughts – to someone who doesn’t understand what they’ve been through. I’m fully aware in the context of trying to cull information, I was playing the role of neophyte. It’s the major reason I owe so much to those who chose to speak with me.
I sincerely hope I’ve contributed something meaningful to the conversation. To those who fought, I hope this book brings some clarity, compassion, maybe even closure. To those who still fight the demons of war, I hope this book inspires you to ask for help. And to those civilians like myself who stoked the home fires, I hope this book helps to make the cost of freedom something a little more personal.
To me ‘Home Street’ isn’t a war story. It’s not even a Christmas story. It’s a ghost story – a fictionalized memoir thirty years in the making. It’s a deeply personal story and something I’ve been compelled to work on for almost as long as I can remember.
This leaves me with one last acknowledgment.
Thank you for picking up this book and allowing me to tell my story. Thank you for taking the time to read it. Thank you for reviewing it online, spreading the word, and recommending it to the special people in your life. In that way, you’ve shared a piece of your life with me too, and I’m eternally grateful for that.
10. Keanu!!!, in which I review the Key and Peele film.
9. How Should I Spend My Lottery Winnings, in which I make plans for a couple million bucks
8. The DO’s and DON’T’s of Action Flicks, in which I compare and contrast the original Jack Reacher film with Skyfall
7. How to Spot a Racist, a post that is even more important today than it was when I wrote it in 2013
6. The Greatest Depictions of Single-Minded Emotion, a continuously popular blog
5. VOTER’S GUIDE: California Propositions and Measures, a helpful voting tool
4. Back Story, the story of my debilitating back injury and the miracle that went with it
3. Ghostbusters (2016): A Superfan’s Perspective, my thoughts on the reboot
2. Going Long: Reviews for “Kill Me Now” and “Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie,” reviews of a couple of independent films made by popular Youtube artists
1. Predator versus “Predator,” my take on female teacher sexual scandals
I have started another blog. This will be my third. So I thought it might be useful to let you all know about the other two.
Wolf In Wool Tales
On this blog, I post the things that I write (novels, short stories, screenplays, etc.). I’m currently working on a comic adventure called Sick Day.
You can check it out here.
This is a blog that I add to when I have something to express regarding my philosophies on managing people and a business.
You can check it out here.
While filming the opening credits for The Sheepdog Show I got into a conversation with a homeless lady. She told me she was tired of people assuming she was a drug addict. “I’m addicted to food,” she said with a laugh, and then shrugging, she added, “Oh, and I smoke cigarettes.”
About this time, a friend expressed concern to me about my relentless pursuit of artistic endeavors. He told me he was seriously worried I might end up in the streets trying to produce these projects. (Ironically, this was the same conversation where he was trying to convince me to pay him for helping, but I digress.)
From late 2011 until very recently I have been struggling financially. It has made it very difficult to get things done. I mean, PayDay was my last major accomplishment, and thay was 2012. My eyes have always been bigger than my wallot, and in America, when a risk doesn’t pay off with financial gain, you are labeled a loser. Between the struggle, the “failures,” society’s pressures of success, and the slow churn of results measured against the relentless rolling clock, some may say I am put of my mind for continuing down a pathway of all or nothing total ruin, and I suppose when looking at Einstein’s definition of insanity (doing the same thing and expecting different reaults), they’d be right. After all, how long before I’m selling my body on the streets for an imdb credit?
But I assure you, I don’t have a drug habit, just an art one.