Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Amanda Stewart

Midnight Rider DAY ONE.jpg

Author’s Note: This is a strange post; strange even for me.

Some weeks ago, I was offered a job to write an independent investigative column. I thought it was a good idea, so I wrote a demo article for it. Today I decided not to do it, for a lot of reasons, but I liked what I wrote a little, which is rare for a writer; so I thought I’d publish it anyway on my own blog.

The heart of it will always be true - the hero thing: because that is who I am.

After about a year of research, I also started writing my film today. I feel better writing that. That will do a lot of what I planned on trying to do with this; but I still wanted to share it because “there’s somethin’ there.”


Expense account item 2: one tall English Breakfast tea. (Item one was coffee.) I learned to drink this stuff in Dublin. (I lived there for two years.) That’s the real religion over there- tea.

It’s a crisp fall day, even though it’s still technically summer: 75 degrees and sunny, but with the kind of cool breeze that is unique unto fall and makes it by far my favorite season of the year.

Today is also the first day of a new chapter in my life. I will explain.

The Boulevard Is Not That Bad
It was the summer of 2015. I was running on John Glenn Boulevard, near where I lived then, as I often did, when I came across what looked like the contents of a purse that had been strewn over the side of the shoulder, probably the night before judging by how those things closest to traffic had been shattered.

There was makeup and whatnot, but what was most peculiar to me as I leaned over the mess was a cell phone: still partially charged, and on the lock screen image was a young girl, early twenties, with what looked like a sister or a friend in the backdrop. She was somewhat attractive and looked like the kind of girl who was down for anything, which is what I assumed was going on before losing her purse.

It was the presence of the phone that disturbed me though. A thief would have kept it, taken out the memory chip, and sold it for fifty or a hundred bucks at a pawn shop. But it was there, which suggested to me some sort of physical altercation had taken place, the assailant not being interested in the value of the contents of the purse, and the texts from several friends and someone whose contact was listed as “Mom” wondering where she was seemed to confirm this suspicion.

A few feet away I found a Wegman's card with a name on it: “Amanda Stewart,” it said.

The phone was locked; otherwise I would have texted “Mom” myself to get to the bottom of things. I took it home.

After a few unsuccessful Facebook messages to every Amanda Stewart I could find in the area, I called the cops and told them the story. They said I could take it to the station nearby and have them jailbreak it and track her down. I told them I was worried Amanda was in trouble.

There was no urgency on the other end of the line. I supposed they saw this sort of thing all the time and it didn’t phase them.

It was phasing me.

I dropped the phone and the card off at the County Sherriff’s station. He took my name and number and I walked away, feeling like a Good Samaritan, but still not at peace.

About a week later it was still bothering me, so I called the sheriff to see if they had found her. The voice on the other end of the phone told me they had no record of the event at all. I asked them to double check.

Nothing; they had nothing.

I went back online and searched frantically for her, calling jobs some of the girls had listed, but no one was really allowed to give me any information, no matter how far deep into the story I got.

A year later I was running through the same place and it bothered me so much I checked again. Same thing.

Part of me thinks she’s fine: she’s home with her family or off at college enjoying a normal, young-girl-in-her-20’s life. The other part of me does not.

Sometimes I see her face when I wake up in the middle of the night. And I can’t go back to sleep when I do.

The Professor
A week ago I got an email from an ex-professor at Syracuse University who is a fan of my work: mostly because “I kill bad people” and have “an extraordinary sense of sight.” He “had an idea” he said that would be “something I would be interested in.”

“Bullshit,” I thought. I’m a writer and I don’t write other people’s shit anymore. I agreed to meet but told him I would probably say “no.”

I had to hear him out though.

He said he was putting together a new indie news site and wanted me to write an investigative column and I could write “anything I wanted” and operate autonomously.

“You’re my first pick,” he said, because I was a “great” writer and also because, “You’re not afraid,” he said.

I looked at him.

“No, I’m not,” I said.

Glen Zinszer
I used to be a journalist. Ended abruptly because it wasn’t my thing. Just because you write doesn’t mean you are good at writing everything. Just because you’re a musician doesn’t mean you can play every instrument.

I’m more of a jazz musician.

This lady contacted me about a year ago, telling me her married boyfriend, who I had written a few articles on, had stolen a million dollars from his own company and that no one believed her because they thought she was crazy.

She was def crazy, I could tell, but even crazy people tell the truth sometimes.

I took the story to my contacts at the downtown paper, and worked with John O’Brien, the seasoned investigative reporter there for the next eight months until we got him.

I remember there was a moment when I looked at John and he looked at me and we both knew he was guilty but we couldn’t prove it. We got the Board of Directors to open the bank account, find the evidence, and fire him from his own company.

When that fucker found out his mistress had informed on him, he beat her half to death, almost blinding her in one eye.

It took all of me to not drive over there and do the same to him.

We turned all the evidence over to the District Attorney. Last I heard he was still free, I don’t know why, that motherfucker.

A little while ago I was in a dark place. For an artist, it is in the darkness that the most unusually beautiful things grow.

I was listening to the Allman Brothers song, driving down the infamous “13 Curves” (a haunted roadway south of where I live) when I felt it: I saw in my mind’s eye a man depressed to the point of suicide, driving in a car with the windows down, running drugs, caught up in the world of human trafficking, somehow.

It was the beginning of my current film script Midnight Rider.

I wrote an ad on Craigslist, asking for information regarding sex and drug trafficking. I thought my chances were slim to none getting any response.

I got responses.

I met with a couple of people who knew stuff. Cops followed me around for a while, I kid you not.

As a writer, in order to write something authentic, you have to get a little “method,” like Marlon Brando or Daniel Day-Lewis in any role.

I got connected to a lawyer out of the Midwest, a friend of a friend, and now a friend. He really has balls: he goes to Asia to bust assholes who pimp out kids.

I run in the city at night in Batman spandex. It’s more an exercise thing but I saved somebody once. I’d do it again.

I was talking to this lawyer and he was telling me the tip of the iceberg on all the shit that goes down in that world: the third world, and also under our noses. We got talking about Batman.

I am Batman.

“He knows Gotham will always be corrupt, that shit will always happen there and that he can never completely stop it,” said the lawyer.

“But what keeps driving him to go out there every night is this idea that ‘you can’t save everyone, but you can make a difference.’”

You can’t save everyone but you can make a difference.

I once worked on the film The Stoning of Soraya M., which won 2nd place in Toronto to Slumdog Millionaire and outlawed stoning in Iran.

When the professor came to me with this, I thought of that.

The Midnight Rider
I agreed to give this column a shot because after all, I was looking for true stories surrounding the fiction I would put in my movie. Why not kill two birds? Plus. I had the chance to make a difference while I did so.

Everyone has seen the haunting faces of the kids who are missing on the wall at WalMart, on the milk cartons, or in those “throw-away-almost-as-soon-as-I-get-them” things they send in the mail.

I didn’t throw it away this week. I ripped off that page that had the missing kid’s face and put it in my pocket.

“Standing by the checkout line
At the CVS, by the missing signs
She puts her quiet hand in mine,
‘Cause she’s the brightest thing I got.”

(I just went to that concert.)

Most of those kids are probably dead. The rest of them nobody cares about.

I care.

Two years ago, a high school buddy of mine was found dead in the middle of a field, empty gas cans surrounded his body, and a set of footprints led away from the corpse and off to the highway where they disappeared.

His name was John Allen. He was the happiest, most athletic kid. He was like a brother to me.

Two detectives were assigned to the case. His brother told me the autopsy revealed that he died of “natural causes” and that the family “was okay with it.”

Bullshit! I am not okay with it.

I told the professor I would take a stab at this because it was a road I was already walking down. That I literally have the scorpion jacket from Drive in the back of my car and I wear it at night when I have insomnia and walk the city.

“I don’t wear a mask,
I don’t carry a gun,
I drive.”

I can feel things as they happen, far away, kinda like Bruce Willis in Unbreakable (the greatest film in its genre); I feel things that happened in the place I am in the past, from the people they happened to, as if they are speaking to me without words. I was in the woods yesterday near where I grew up and I felt this strongly.

“I will tell your story,” I said to them, silently.

“All these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” - Rutger Hauer

The professor wants me to get my private eye license. I’m talking to one of those tomorrow.

I used to be an over-planner. Now I feel you can’t discredit the value of feeling out what you’re gonna do when you gotta do it. But in any case, no pun intended, I’d appreciate any thoughts, tips, stories, cases you may have that you can send to us.

I’ll make the professor sift through that shit.

I grew up on detective stories. It made me an okay writer and left an unquenched thirst in my soul for justice. This column made me feel, for the first time in a while, like I had somethin to drink.

Maybe we’ll solve a case; maybe the Bills will win a Super Bowl (my team) - who knows. I’m gonna try anyway.

I told the professor I swear a lot and to “shutthefuckup” about it. [Laughs.]

I’m sure there are some bad motherfuckers out there who are wondering “do I have to worry about this guy?”

Yeah, ya do.

That includes you - Glen Zinszer: I’m coming for you.

And Amanda Stewart: wherever you are, I will find you.

I will find you.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Letter to Wade

March 27, 2017

Wade Cleveland
DIN: 16B3094
Moriah Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility
P. O. BOX 901, 75 Burhart Lane
Mineville, NY 12956-0901

Hey man,

I saw you wrote to Josh a while ago. He posted your address and I made a note to write to you. That was a while ago obviously but I made a point to sit down and do it. Here it is.

When I was in the seminary, looking back anyway - the thing felt like a prison so I kinda sorta know what it’s like. No one writes letters these days but, I remember when I did get one it meant a lot.

Katie read to some of us what you wrote her recently so I heard about all the stuff. Shock camp. Reminds me of how I was training for the Marines. I worked out 2 hours a day, everyday. Ran a lot. Felt great. Was hard but felt good. I keep some of that up. Always gotta look cool for the chicks, haha.

I don’t have any money. In fact, I’m literally paying for my mistakes now and for a while as well. I meant to visit you when you were being held downtown. I had to take care of my kid. He’s always my priority.

I look back at my life and honestly, even though you could say I fucked up quite a bit, I have no regrets. I have my son and life is good. I recently got over losing my ex. It was really hard but I’m a better man now.

I realized the other day that I am so proud of who I am and mostly I am proud of my mistakes, because they made me the man I am today. It wasn't just the mistake though; it was the will to rise above it that made all the difference. I am stronger and cooler and better than I ever was. I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m not perfect but I’m finally cool with how I am.

I wanted to send you what I do have - not riches as in wealth, but riches in character. There were two poems, one especially that help me through life and the worst times. “If” - I used to yell that everyday when I got out of the seminary and didn’t know what the fuck I was doing with my life. I felt later - after I memorized it - that it was inside me and it guided my actions and made me a man.

I wanted to give these to you. Because they are worth more than anything I got besides my kid. Nothing I could write could be better.

Read them. Memorize them. Breathe them. I hope they help you like they helped me.

I can honestly say that I both felt bad for you and didn’t when I heard the news. I felt bad cause you’re human. And I didn’t because only in justice do we find peace. I’m sure you’ve had a lot of time to think about it. I can’t say I don’t judge you 'cause we all do all the time about everybody. The rest is bullshit.

There was a time when I was in a dark place when it was hard to see that life was worth living. I think that if I lost my kid I would have a lot harder time believing that, but I do, very much so, mostly because my son but overall because it’s true in general.

That’s enough I guess.

I’m sure I’ll see you again man. Read the poems. Memorize the poems. And don’t lose hope man.

You are the master of your fate, you are the Captain of your soul.


Joe Cunningham

PS: The gold:

By Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, 

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

By William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll, 

I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Gift

By Joseph Cunningham

I wrote this a long time ago when I was a seminarian, obviously. It won the Christmas short story competition at my college and, even though there were only two other contenders, I still take advantage of the bragging rights.

I concocted the story from two sources: the first, two great short works of literature: one, no doubt, most will recognize; the other needs slightly more of a hint of an explanation. The rest comes from personal experience. As to the gap between what is true here and what is fiction, I will leave for you that mystery.

It was the twenty-second of December and the first blizzard of winter. I remember trudging through snow drifts to the train station on my way home to Buffalo for the holiday. We had left Stamford at a quarter to seven and were making our way up the Hudson when I suddenly became aware of a tall, clean-cut gentleman in a trench coat sitting in my cabin in front of me. I had been so enthralled by the Times that I hadn’t noticed his entry. He was middle-aged, as was I, of fair countenance and complexion, and sat silently staring out the window as if mesmerized by the storm. I thought I’d break his reverie with a word or two.

We discussed astronomy and astrology, the finer points of Irish eggnog, the average annual snowfall in Buffalo, and the incoherence of modern man. He said that his brother would be waiting for him in Syracuse and, if I didn’t mind – which I didn’t – he’d tell me a story of his childhood there and of a Christmas long ago, a Christmas never to be forgotten.

It was my 10th birthday,” he began, “St. Nicholas Day, December the 6th, in the morning, when I awoke and ran to where I had left my shoe for St. Nick the night before, as was our family custom. Santa, we were told, would come not only on the Eve of Christmas, but also on the Eve of his feast and drop chocolates and other goodies into the shoes of good little boys and girls, as he had once left gold in the shoes of poor cobblers and the like. My many siblings and I all fought for one of father’s shoes – because they could hold more chocolate – and that year I had gotten one, naturally, being the second oldest and the oldest of the boys. My elder sister Lucy got the other. On inspecting the treasure that morning I was in for a surprise. For there in that dark hole I saw nothing, and after quickly reviewing the past year’s misdeeds and finding none that in my mind merited such cruel punishment I reached my hand inside the shoe and felt something.

It was paper, some sort of card, and I pulled it out quickly. On the front was an old Byzantine icon of St. Andrew, and on the back, the words of a prayer.

A Prayer to St. Andrew,’ it read:

For whosoever shall recite this prayer thirteen times a day from the 30th of November [which is the feast of St. Andrew] to the midnight bell of Christmas, SHALL OBTAIN any favor asked.’

There was one lonely chocolate quarter taped to the bottom. ‘Any favor.’ I looked down the hall. Apparently we had all received the same from Santa and my brothers had all discarded their holy cards and candy wrappers and were running across the hall in pajamas with chocolate smeared across their faces. But Lucy’s door had shut quickly and I surmised that she had had the same idea as I.

I closed my door as well, quickly crossed myself and prayed, pausing at the end of my words to decide just what it was that I would ask for. Anything. My mind became a giant toy store, and I floated through the seemingly endless possibilities. But why just toys? There was an entire world of marvelous objects I’d never imagined, never mind the things on the far-off planets they’ve not yet discovered? This was an ingenious trick indeed, for Old Saint Nick knew a boy’s chief desire could change 371 times before Christmas, and surely no one knew the very best thing to ask for. I would not be fooled. I simply stated,

For the best and most magnificent gift, um – in the whole world – no…ever!’ And I added, ‘Please,’ to seal it. ‘Amen.’

Thus the countdown to the holiday began. Thirteen times a day, without wavering, I prayed my St. Andrew prayer assiduously. I had asked my father and mother, who were infallible on these matters, and they had both assured me that the fact that I began my ritual a week late did not disqualify my efforts, since I could not be blamed if I hadn’t received it on time. That was Santa’s fault, not mine. When they asked me what it was I prayed for, I wouldn’t tell them, since that would surely jinx it. Besides, I didn’t want them to worry whether or not I had been suddenly transported to the Taj Majal when they found my bed empty on Christmas morning.

Finally, Christmas night arrived: the night on which it seems no child in the world gets any sleep at all, and I was no exception. I lay silently in my bed, listening to the muffled bumping and banging of Santa Claus downstairs, as was my custom. What sort of shape and noise had my prize package? I knew not, but listened. Then, I heard something I had never heard before: slow and heavy footsteps on the stairway, which stopped outside my room. The door opened. My heart began to pound. Whoever it was turned on the light and walked over to my bed. I had shut my eyes and was feigning sleep, trying to muster up the courage to suddenly open them. But I couldn’t. I felt a rough and gentle finger trace a cross upon my forehead and then I felt a kiss; and the most spectacular things that followed will remain forever in my memory.
I suddenly felt icy wind rushing by and I opened my eyes to find myself in a sleigh, not a tiny, two man sleigh – but a great flagship of the sky, flying high above the sparkling cities down below. To my right and left, in back and as far as my eyes could see were children, all dressed in nightgowns like me with giggling glows upon their faces. I saw Lucy, and I called out to her, but she did not hear me, we were traveling so fast. Far ahead I could see a shiny red ray of light, followed by reindeer, galloping wildly through the sky.

When we reached the place we were expecting, we were escorted to the main square by elves that looked and talked just as I had imagined: dressed in green and brown and scarlet, with pointed hats and pointed ears, and varying degrees of whiskers – looking like short, grumpy old men with all sorts of smiles on their faces. The chief elf, nearly as tall as a man, introduced Santa Claus, who drew a wild applause from the audience. We clapped and cheered for what seemed like a full five minutes.

But then, instead of a long speech and presents for one and all, Christmas songs and magic; instead of the ringing of bells, and a showing of the reindeer – he looked at me. I turned and looked at the boys and girls around me – everyone seemed frozen, gazing at the Toymaker. His lips did not move – he spoke not a word, but looked deep into my eyes with a mysterious smile, and I heard these words:

In the morning.’

I awoke suddenly. Bright light filled my eyes and the scurrying of my siblings in the hallway rang in my ears. It was Christmas morning! I sprang from my bed and threw my robe on. Downstairs my parents led us into a children’s paradise. We dove into the pile of presents and tore and squealed with glee for the most joyous half-hour of the year. When the giggling died down and all the big and mysterious packages had been opened, I sullenly piled up my new sweaters and my undershirts, and patted the stuffed teddy on the head, to charm my parents, who exchanged happy and exhausted glances. There was still Aunt May’s house in the afternoon, but I was certain I had not gotten what I had wished for.

We dressed, shined our shoes, combed our hair, and left – late, a family tradition. I grumbled into church that day, and sat through a high-pitched, off-key choir and a sermon that was much the same. They sang my favorite carol for communion, but I didn’t care, until my eyes caught my sister kneeling at the rail. She had just received, and was still kneeling there after a good thirty seconds, before walking back to the pew like an angel. She hadn’t looked like that since First Communion, and even then it was only just for show.

I went up to the sanctuary and knelt. The priest came with the altar boy and I opened my mouth, closed my eyes, and felt the host lie there on my tongue. I didn’t open my eyes for a long time. I saw a bright light at first, and then figures in the light moving to and fro, but their features were indiscernible. At the center, where it seemed the light was coming from, I saw a child in a manger, and the most beautiful young lady I have ever seen beside him. She was very young; her skin was somewhat tan and her hair, the darkest brown; her eyes were pure and she was smiling. She looked at me, pointing to the infant.

I felt a hand take mine and lead me back to the pew. I still kept my eyes shut, and peered into the crib. No words can properly describe the warm sensation of joy that flowed through me. His face was sweet and his infant skin soft; he opened his eyes, and I knew – it was something akin to faith – I knew I had him in me, and I had gotten what I’d asked for.”

There the stranger stopped and smiled, seeing the incredulous look upon my face. I searched for words, but found none. Then the whistle blew for Syracuse and the storyteller stood to go. Before exiting the car, I caught one last glimpse of him that shall be ever engraved in my memory; for that story and what I saw made of me a fervent churchgoer ever since. He gave his, “Merry Christmas!” and the scarf that had been wrapped so tightly round his neck opened for an instant, and I saw a Roman collar underneath.