Wednesday, May 21, 2014

"Gentle Hands" - A Short Story

I thought it would be nice to share the most recent short story I published.  It's called "Gentle Hands" and was written about 18 months ago in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings.  It was published as the Editor's Choice last fall in The Explorer literary magazine.

Gentle Hands by Thomas Drago
The four men walking behind me toward Palo Verde Elementary School carried assault rifles.  I only knew this because I’d watched CNN every night since the Newtown shootings last December.
            I could see their reflections in the glass doors as I approached the front entrance.  Not wanting to trigger an alarm, I dropped my gaze, slowly unbuttoned my shirt collar, and loosened my tie.  Like any good teacher, I was prepared to defend my students with my life.
            I scrambled to text my wife to tell her I love her and to ask her to kiss our little nine-month-old Sabrina, undoubtedly awake in her crib and shaking her Winnie the Pooh rattle.
            As soon as I reached into my front pocket, a rough hand fell on my shoulder.  I gave into inhibition and turned to face the second biggest threat of my life, fists clenched.
*           *           *
            I grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn in the 1970’s, the second youngest of six boys.  You can’t imagine the job my poor mother had wrangling the pack of us with my dad always out on the road.  He hauled coal from Eastern Pennsylvania in his father’s beaten up Mack truck and always came home on the weekends blackened and smelling of diesel fuel.  Like most Italian men, he was short-tempered, but he was also very sweet and gentle and raised a tomato garden on our front porch.  I was amazed at the great care he put into tending those budding plants on Sundays after church. 
Clearly his favorite, Papa let me sit on the steps and listen to him pacify each little fruit while my brothers were either wrestling in the two bedrooms we all shared upstairs or racing down the street to Rimpici’s Bakery to grab a couple of loaves of hard bread for that night’s spaghetti and meatballs.  I could play rough when I wanted but didn’t always feel the need.
If I waited patiently, Papa’s attention would eventually turn to me.  He’d ask about the Mets if it were summer and casually remind me that he never forgave the Dodgers for leaving Brooklyn.
“Broke my heart when them Bums left, Sammy,” he’d always say in his soft, scratchy voice.  I’d smile and adjust the brim of my ball cap. 
If I were extra lucky, he’d call me up to the garden and let me lend a hand tying the plants off to the lattice.  I loved being in his arms as he wrapped himself around me and guided my fingers, which always seemed so tiny in his large, plump misshapen ones.
“Gentle hands,” he’d whisper if I’d snap a branch.  “Your hands will protect you when you need them to.  For now, be gentle.”
Even now, I can feel his warm breath on my neck and his roughened cheek against mine when he’d kiss me and tell me to go wash up.
*           *           *
            As I turned, I lifted my eyes.  Each of the four men wore black berets.  One was clearly the oldest and in charge, and he tightened his grip on my shoulder.  His unshaven face sprouted grey stubble.  His cracked lips opened, revealing crooked brown teeth as he spoke.
            “You’re gonna keep walking,” he whispered, his face a few inches from mine.  His breath smelled unclean.  “And when we’re inside, you’re gonna get on your knees and put your hands behind your head.”
            Two of the younger men chuckled over his right shoulder and shifted their weapons.  The fourth looked past me, scanning the front windows for activity inside.  Since school wouldn’t start for another 45 minutes, he’d only be able to spot Flora sitting at the reception desk taking calls for the children lucky enough to be out sick this morning. 
The 60 or 70 students in Morning Care were in the cafeteria finishing their breakfast with either one of the assistant principals attending.
“Don’t think so,” I said calmly and licked my lips.
Each of the four men staggered a step back.  Even the militant who had been looking through the front windows was a bit stunned.  He raised his weapon.  The hooking black cartridge pointed up at me like a twisted dinosaur tongue.
The older man regained his composure and moved even closer to my face.  His lips barely parted as he spoke.
“I’m not gonna tell you twice.”
I leaned in, suddenly hoping to buy some time, because maybe, just maybe, Flora was watching from inside the school and was calling the police right now as my heart pounded in my chest. 
Just buy some time, I told myself.  The first responders were at Sandy Hook in minutes.
“You’re gonna have to do better than that,” I replied.
“What - ?”
But before he could continue, I puffed my chest.  “You heard what I said.  You wanna get past me?  Pull the trigger.  Go ahead.”
“Can you believe this fucking guy, Carl?” one of the younger men said from behind.  He was standing near the flagpole at the center of the front courtyard.  Ray, the morning custodian, had already raised the flag high above our heads.
“Yeah, Carl,” another said.  “Just take him down already.  We need to be in position before the first bus arrives.  We’ve gone over this drill a hundred - ”
Carl broke his gaze, relaxed his hand, and turned his face as he started to yell, “Don’t you think I know - ”
But then, I moved.  I gave Carl a slight shove and a spin and reached under his left arm to grab hold of the back of his head.  I grabbed his right arm with my free hand and pulled back, keeping him close to me.  He was somewhat taller, but I could see just over his right shoulder.  The rest of him kept me hidden from the other three assailants.  I pushed his head down and squeezed my fingernails into his arm.  He squealed.
The three others immediately cocked their weapons as I backed up to a nearby pillar, shielding myself with Carl.  He struggled under my grip but couldn’t get his balance or move his weapon.
“Should we shoot, Carl?”
“No, of course not, you idiot!” Carl screamed.  “You might hit me!”
I pulled on a large tuft of Carl’s hair and yanked his head back so I could whisper in his ear.  He howled.
“I’ll tell you how this gonna go down, Carl,” I said.  “You listening?”
Carl slowly nodded his head.  Spittle shot from his lips as he tried to slow his breathing.  The other three men kept their rifles aimed but quieted enough to hear me speak.
“You think you’re tough?” I asked.  “I’ll make a deal with you.”
“Come on, Carl,” one of the other men yelled.  "We ain’t got time for this.”
I wasn’t even looking at them now.  It was only Carl and me.
“Shut up,” Carl snapped.  His breathing was still labored.
“You’re not tough,” I whispered.  I was so close to Carl’s neck I could taste his salty sweat.  “Don’t take no courage to pull a trigger.  Tell your men to put their guns down.  Then I’ll let you take me out fair and square.  Hand to hand.  The four of you get past me … the school is yours.”
Everyone was still for a moment. 
Then, the three other militants glanced at one another.  “You think you can beat the four of us?” one asked.  “All four of us against you?”
Carl tried to get his arm loose, but I overpowered the older man and held him steady.
“I didn’t say that,” I answered, lifting my head and voice with confidence.  “I might get my ass kicked.  Might not.  But, I’ll go down swinging.” 
Please, Flora, my mind raced.  Please see this.
“Whatta you gotta lose?” I whispered and then suddenly the sound of police sirens filled the front parking lot.
Carl abruptly pushed back against me, smashing my head against the pillar, and I bit his ear, tearing at the lobe until blood sprayed on my face and collar.  Carl screamed and fell to his knees.  I dropped with him and kicked his firearm free as he loosened his grip.
Startled, the other three militants whirled and ran for cover.
And then tears burned my eyes.
*           *           *
Papa died in 1979.  He was only 52.  I was 12.  I didn’t know anything about colon cancer or even that my dad was sick.  Like so many of those in his generation, he never quit working or sought treatment, from what I recall. 
I only knew that my hero was gone. 
My brothers each took the loss in his own way.  Neither was as devastated as I.  At the funeral, the twins, Rocco and Al, had a shoving match next to my dad’s coffin because they couldn’t agree on who would walk in front when carrying Papa down to the lawn at Green-Wood Cemetery.  Mama slapped them both upside their heads and moved me to the front.  The twins were put in the middle, each on separate sides.
Our family drifted apart in the 1980’s.  And it might’ve split even if Papa had lived longer.  My older brothers just didn’t want to stay in Brooklyn.  The city was beaten and ruined, quite frankly.  Joseph, the baby, stayed with my mom until she passed in 1997, but even he moved to the Pacific Northwest about ten years ago.  He finally married.  They’re expecting their first child later this spring.  If it’s a boy, I hope they name him after Papa.
I was lost without my dad.  My mother would tell me to pretend he was just out on the road again.  But I knew he wasn’t.  I knew the truth.
I’ve never felt as alone as I did in those years immediately following Papa’s death.  I didn’t know whether or not I could survive without him.  The isolation hardened me at first, and I didn’t realize how much he’d taught me in those quiet moments we spent tending to his tomato garden.
Not until I finally held my own child in my hands and remembered what he said about being gentle.
After attending college in the Southwest, I started teaching and then married later in life.  I found myself living in the suburbs of Los Angeles, less than twenty miles away from Chavez Ravine, where the Dodgers have called home for over 50 years now.
Papa would be proud.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Monster Movies

I would bet that the first monster movie I ever saw was actually Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.  My family and I used to watch all their comedies on Sunday mornings when I was a child growing up in New York in the 1970's.  That movie started a bit of a revival for the great comedy duo whose career turned a bit stagnant after they had conquered vaudeville, radio, and then the big screen.  (They ended their run on TV, of all places.  Their hilarious and innovative sitcom proved highly influential on Seinfeld, by the way.)  Abbott and Costello eventually battled the Mummy, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Invisible Man, and monster legend Boris Karloff, billed simply as "The Killer."  I watched all those movies religiously.  As a child, their motion pictures were my church and theatre.  Their chemistry and timing remain unmatched, in my humble opinion.  Or at least set the standard for all comedy teams that followed.

A long line of favorite monster movies followed, including the original Frankenstein, DraculaWolfman, and Mummy films, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Blob, Godzilla (the Shōwa series), Night of the Living Dead (and Dawn of the Dead), JawsAlien (the entire series), The Thing (John Carpenter's version), The Fly (with Jeff Goldblum), Hellraiser, Jurassic ParkKing Kong (the Peter Jackson film), The MistSuper 8, and if I were to include slasher films (and we all know that people are always the worst kind of monsters), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, Friday the 13th (from Part 2 on), and A Nightmare on Elm Street.  (If I've forgotten any, please shoot me an email - and I'm talking to my little brother here.)

Except for possibly Super 8, none of them prepared me for how much fun I would have this weekend watching the brand new Godzilla film at the theatre with my family.  This movie, directed by novice Gareth Edwards, gives true fans of the monster movie everything you expect and remains completely loyal to the Godzilla franchise, much more so than that 1998 piece of shit directed by Roland Emmerich and starring, of all assholes, Matthew Broderick.  Why the hell put Ferris Bueller, one of the biggest heroes of my teenage years, in a Creature Feature?  Is there any logic in that at all?  So fucking stupid.

When Godzilla roared for the first time, I felt a chill run through my bones.  Then, my little girl snapped me out of that brief moment of terror by joyfully declaring, "He's so cute!"  Exactly what you want to hear when Godzilla wreaks havoc.  Who doesn't love a good monster, after all?   Probably why I always root for the heels in professional wrestling.  The faces always get away with cheating.  The greatest moment of Godzilla for me (SPOILER ALERT) was when Godzilla's spine electrified and he shot his atomic breath at the M.U.T.O.  I jumped from my chair and pumped my fist.  You'd think I was watching the Jets finally win the Super Bowl again.  (And maybe this is as close as I'll ever get!)

The next day, I spent most of the afternoon researching the Godzilla franchise.  I was pleased to know that the monster traces his roots to a little known short story by Ray Bradbury.  It's called "The Foghorn," and they turned that into the 1953 film, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.  The element of science fiction is what really sets apart the best of the monster movies, in my opinion.  I also rediscovered the son of Godzilla and introduced him to my daughter.  She loves him.  He's even more adorable than his dad, apparently.  If you're looking for some parenting tips, this clip might help you: "Godzilla as Father Figure."  Otherwise, just find the old film on Netflix.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Lupus Awareness

Most people don't know that my wife has had lupus for about 30 years.  That's what makes the illness so fucking tricky.  Like most autoimmune diseases, it's practically invisible.  How do you see body aches or hear inflammation?  My wife is the strongest person I know.  She's also the most selfless.  Too often, I forget that she's sick because she never complains.  That's what she wants, I'm sure.  She doesn't want anyone treating her differently or lowering their expectations of her.  She feels guilty because she's sick (which is crazy, of course).

I remember when she first told me she had lupus.  We were driving in my old Dodge Ram (which wasn't so old at the time) to the Arby's near 99th in Bell in West Phoenix for a quick sandwich.  We had been dating for at least a month.  She asked, "Ever heard of lupus?"  It was kind of random, but not odd.  We talked about everything.  Still do.  I told her, "Yes, actually.  My mom's aunt had it.  She died a few years ago.  She was only 50 or something like that.  We used to call her Millie Rockefeller because - "  My wife nodded and interrupted (which she seldom does), "Well, I have it."

Here's what I think:  my wife knew we were at the tipping point in our relationship where we were about to get serious, so she figured she had better throw that out there to see if it would scare me off.  It didn't.

"Aunt Millie," I replied without missing a beat.  "Aunt Millie, you see, one time, she took my brothers and me out for pizza …" and then I finished the story of how after my older brother ate so many slices at the pizzeria she told him he had better slow the fuck down because she didn't have enough money to buy us another pie.  "I'm not Millie Rockefeller!" she yelled in a very loud, Italian way.  We laughed.  I don't remember much about her anymore, except that she looked and acted a lot like my grandfather, who was totally fucking hilarious, so we loved her.

Honestly, it didn't matter what my wife would've told me in the truck that day.  I knew we were going to spend the rest of our lives together from the very first conversation we ever had.

Today's Mother's Day.  My wife gave me the gift of children.  Without them, I wouldn't be able to breathe or even know that I'm alive, really.  I'm sure my wife realizes I would take the illness away from her and keep it for myself if I could, but life doesn't work that way.  We're played the hand we're dealt.  About 15 years ago, when my wife was pregnant with our son, they started treating lupus patients with Plaquenil, a miracle drug first used to fight malaria.  I can go on about our relationship, and about all my wife endured as an adolescent (she was a Make-A-Wish child, if that gives you any idea), and maybe I will someday, but for now, let me just say I'm grateful for that drug because, although not a cure, it's certainly made my wife's life easier.

Thursday, May 8, 2014


I think I can step away from Crow Creek long enough to write about my grandmother who would've turned 100 years old today.  I keep telling myself not to cry, but it's not working.  This should be a day of celebration, except that she's not here to enjoy it with us.  She died in February of 2011.  Congestive heart failure.  She got sick early on a Thursday morning but didn't want to bother my mom, so she called 911 and got an ambulance to take her to the hospital.  By the time my mother got there, they had already placed Grandma in a coma as they tried to suck the fluids out of her lungs (or whatever it is they do).  Somehow, we all knew in our hearts that this was the end, even though my grandmother had barely been sick a day in her life.  At almost 97, she was still living independently in her own apartment.  Sure, she'd slowed down some (who wouldn't?), but she was also as sharp as a tack right up until the end.

She came out of her coma long enough that weekend to say goodbye to everyone in her own way.  My mom, brothers, and uncle were all with her.  The rest of us, her grandchildren across the country, talked by phone and tried to comfort.  The last conversation I had with her was on Sunday night just as the Oscars were starting.  We each guessed the winners just like we did every year for as long as I can remember.  I also asked her how they were able to find an oxygen mask big enough to fit over her nose, which made her laugh as we told each other goodbye and said "I love you."  What a great final memory to have of my grandmother, whose constant joking was responsible for so much laughter throughout my life.  She had heart failure again the next morning while my mom was feeding her breakfast and was gone by the end of the day.  At her funeral, I dropped a lock of my hair into her coffin along with a small piece of a blanket she gave me as a gift the day I was born.  I gently sang a few words of "Heart of Rome" as I bent over to kiss her beautiful face one final time.  "Hold me very close before you leave me."

Honestly, I don't think about the day she died that much anymore.  I prefer to remember the good times.  I treasure our relationship.  I wish my own children had that kind of connection with their grandparents.  I guess what we shared really wouldn't mean anything to anyone else, but that's just how it goes with any close bond, right?  Impersonating Clouseau, strutting like Jessie "The Body," passing pinochle cards under the table, easily distracting her with flattery while playing any board game with a timer, eating the rotten bananas, hiding everything in her apartment, going to Vegas to see Tom Jones (and Wayne Newton and George Carlin), running to her place for a quick bite while on lunch break at Lucky's, switching movies on 50-cent Tuesdays, bouncing on her knee to "See Saw Knock at the Door," listening to her recite "The Night Before Christmas" and tell dirty jokes.  Her being there for every important event in my life from my first school play and her visit to NC to see the beautiful baby girl I named after her.  Her hands.  My God, how I miss holding her hand.  The list goes on and on.  Grandma Nance will always be part of my life.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Spotlight on Crow Creek

Well, it's taken me 20 posts to get here, but I've finally made it.  Crow Creek has been on sale for a few weeks now.  Thank you so much to those who've purchased a copy.  I would love to hear your feedback.  Feel free to message me on Facebook, leave comments here, or post an Amazon review.  For those who haven't ordered one yet but are considering it, here's a little background on the story.

Early in October last year, as I was closing my classroom door before the start of study hall, I had this disturbing vision of a woman scrambling into the backseat of her car.  She jumped over to comfort her little girl as their vehicle plunged into darkness.  I could vividly hear screams and crunching noises as their car was consumed.  I got the chills (like someone had stepped on my grave) and even a little teary-eyed.  I rushed to the computer after class started and quickly wrote the first draft of a story I called simply, "The Sinkhole."  This powerful image became the first chapter of Crow Creek and a central plot element of the novel.

The next afternoon, while eating a ham sandwich (my favorite) at the kitchen counter, I had another vision.  This time of a dark figure baptizing people in a pool of muddy water.  The dark figure became Black Jesus, my favorite character in the novel.  He's a superhero who doesn't believe he has any special powers.  He's part my dad, part Bruce Willis from Unbreakable, part John Coffey from The Green Mile, and part Daryl from The Walking Dead (which is where I got his real name, Darrell).

A week and a several chapters later, I realized I had the start of what could be a rather fascinating novel about people in a small town dealing with the worst kind of tragedy: the loss of a child.  I connected the  dots between the sinkhole and an idea I had in an earlier story about young girls jumping in front of freight trains.  All I needed was my villain.  While doing research on Native American mythology for Pastor Aken's backstory, I read a blurb about shape-shifters and knew I had what I needed.  I was so excited that I ducked out of study hall that day to call my wife.  I was beaming!  She could probably hear me smiling over the phone.

What I enjoy the most about Crow Creek is the world I've created.  It's my home away from home in so many ways.  I can go there whenever I want.  That town has been around for over a decade now.  Since 9/11 when my wife and I first wrote Points South together.  I've used it as the setting for several stories.  My son even wrote a concordance for me so I can keep track of all the people, places, and things.  Once I finally put Crow Creek to rest (the publicity is killing me), I'll write a sequel.  I'm thinking about calling it Queensboro.  I had visions of a disappearance and an injection.  That should be enough to get me going.