A ‘Haunt’-ing Interpretation

By Cecilia Gray

Fall is upon us, and the newest digital issue of Windmill is open for submissions.

This year, the team is seeking submissions responding to the prompt “haunt.” Whether it be a haunting past, a haunted house, or even Kings Dominion’s Halloween spectacular, The Haunt, we asked for the interpretations of emerging and established writers to share with us fiction and nonfiction aligning with the theme “haunt.”  

In consideration of our spooky theme, Windmill staff has taken to the “streets” of Hofstra University to interview undergraduates about their personal interpretations of our theme.

Olivia Wisse (‘22) imagines haunt as “a time of spooks, ghosts, ancient houses, and you can’t forget trees that look like skeletons.” She says that haunt means to her a time to be scared and a time to be scary. Although she is not submitting to Windmill, she has shared with us a flash short story of her vision of “haunt” as more than just a word: With tendrils of sweat painting his neck, he knew. Someone was behind him.

Another student, Sabina Josephson (‘22) says that her first thought upon hearing the word “haunt” is “a time when there is a void of comfort in your life and all seems to be lost.” In two short sentences, Sabrina summarizes her interpretation by writing, “Empty the house. Carve out my soul.” Though, I wonder if she would then become a haunting soul.

I personally define haunt as something you cannot escape, which for me, at the moment, tends to be deadlines. As the three of us undergrads have described, we see haunt as something to fear, something that pains us, and something that, for lack of a better word, haunts. We all have our own ways of applying the same theme to our different outlooks, as I am sure all of Windmill’s Fall 2019 contributors will. As open submissions come to a close, the Windmill staff is extremely excited to see the many interpretations that we receive from around the globe. Here’s a final one from novelist Mitch Albom: Nothing haunts us like the things we do not say.

Holiday ’18: “Carp Per Diem” by Bear Kosik

We celebrate the Lunar New Year. We don’t have any Asian heritage, although being one-quarter Lebanese kind of technically qualifies me as Asian if you want to get geographical about it. Anyway, the Asian Lunar New Year falls in February. The Chinese call it the Spring Festival. It breaks up the winter the way Christmas would if it were held a month later. The red decorations blend in for Valentine’s Day, too. Très festive!

I don’t know all the details about the holiday. We just focus on the food. Certain dishes are served for special reasons. For example, long noodles symbolize long life, greens mean making money, et cetera. Serving a whole fish is one of them. Something to do with living out the whole year, I think. If it even hints at providing good luck, I’m all for it.

My Spousal Unit insists on going to the Asian market to pick out a live fish. This year, I went with him. I remember the supermarket I went to as a kid had a tank with live lobsters. Other than that, I’ve never seen any protein sold on the hoof (claw? fin?). Supposedly, my grandmother used to cut the heads off chickens. They ran around the yard before dying. That might just be a false memory to explain how my family usually behaved before Sunday dinner at Granny K’s.

So, Hubby and I go to the Asian market to pick out a fish. He hates when I call him Hubby. I do that to remind him that hate is really too strong of a word to use in that context. Anyway, we get to the fish tank and find five good-sized carp steadily swimming around. The tank isn’t really crowded. It is close quarters though, if something can be close quarters without being crowded.

I know things to look for when choosing dead fish: no fishy smell, clear eyes. I haven’t a clue how to pick a live one and Hubby can’t remember. Choosing baby bok choy wasn’t this difficult, although I do have an issue with anyone calling a food ‘baby’ anything. Well, unless it is food for a baby. I still can’t eat breakfast with my younger brother because he calls eggs chicken miscarriages. It’s a good thing I know how to pretend to be an only child.

The Spousal Unit engages the Vietnamese owner of the market. The owner pauses as a ‘what are you, stupid’ expression emerges on his wrinkle-carved face. Then he tells Hubby the fish are all fresh because they are all alive. I hadn’t thought of that.

The market owner gets a net to pull one of the creatures out of the tank. Now, trust me on this. A carp stopped swimming right in front of me. Its eye on the side I could see moves, as though it’s studying me. You know, like when the eye doctor tells you to look up left, down left, et cetera. It slowly moved its body to where it could face me. And it just continued to look at me.

Naturally, since the staring carp stopped swimming it is the easiest to scoop up. I’m standing right next to the scale where the guy dumps the fish to weigh it. I swear it didn’t take its eye off me. And it just lay there. I thought fish flopped around.

No, this one wanted to die in peace. Maybe it sacrificed itself so the others could live or it was tired of being held captive. I can anthropomorphize this incident as much as I want, but I’m just making matters worse.

I said a prayer like the aliens do in Avatar when they kill something for food. Thankfully, that turns out to be sufficient amends for me to enjoy the meal later on. What worries me is the impact that fish has had on my life. Seriously. I don’t think I can look my food in the eye ever again. In the future, we may have to serve steamed lobster for Lunar New Year. I never could tell what were eyes or antennae in the lobster tank.


Bear Kosik’s book Remaking Democracy in America was just published (Stairway Press). He also writes novels (two as Hugh Dudley), plays (six produced in Manhattan since 2016), and screenplays (sixteen laurels from competitions since 2016). Bear’s short fiction, poetry, essays, and photos have appeared in reviews and anthologies since 2015.

 

Holiday ’18: “Two Thanksgivings” by Michael Wright

One: In the Band

From 1961 to 1963, I was the first chair trumpet for the Dundalk High School band in Baltimore, Maryland.    This was the band in the Band Room, of course, where we reveled in playing yellowing old jazz charts that someone had donated in a big steamer trunk, plus arrangements of modern music and seasonal tunes.

There was also the marching band—an entirely different story.

At some point in the late 50s, a kid died on a football field in Baltimore County, creating a flurry of protective measures for all schools.  As a result, there was no high school football in my time.  There was, however, the annual Steel Bowl, played on Thanksgiving Day, which pitted the Dundalk YMCA against the Sparrows Point YMCA.  It was called the Steel Bowl because the field on which the game was played was the property of Bethlehem Steel.

It was our lot to represent Dundalk by marching up and down the field during halftime, playing fight songs from various universities.  As the holiday season approached, and the leaves burst into color, and the air began to take on autumnal crispness and the early bite of winter, the band members began to fall into a state of gloom.

It was a logical reaction: marching band meant marching and we were like a centipede with two hundred left feet.  In our defense, playing music while trying to walk a relatively straight line and not bashing into the player in front of you is much harder than anyone might think.

During October, we went outside once a week to stumble up and down on the track field, playing songs such as “I’m A Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech” and “On Wisconsin.”  We had no fight song of our own.

A week before the game we were given our uniforms: green with gold trim—the school colors.  If we were motley, the uniforms were circling the drain.  They smelled like mothballs and old sweat, had holes all over them ranging from cigarette burns to what looked as if someone had tried to chew through the sleeve, and were made of a unique wool that seemed to enhance the cold, rather than fend it off.  We were sent home with a note asking our mothers to do what they could to rescue the uniforms.

On Thanksgiving morning we were driven to the game site on a rattling yellow school bus.  The field was a dirt and mud plain with rickety bleacher seats.  Behind the seats were some booths selling hot dogs, snacks, and hot drinks.  The steel plant sat on land that was bordered by various waterways leading out to the Chesapeake Bay, which meant that at any time of the year there was a strong wind cutting across the property.  In November, the wind was sharp as flying icicles.

The band members had nothing to do until halftime, so we alternated between watching the game, visiting the food stands, huddling together to stay warm, and of course trying to get into the right huddle with a person of interest; I liked a certain red-haired clarinet player.

By the time we were set to march, I was almost too stiff to walk onto the field.  The thought of putting the ice-cold mouthpiece to my lips gave me goosebumps; the fear of it being like sticking one’s tongue on the frozen pipe kept me anxious for days on end.

We staggered up and down the muddy, gouged field, playing our marching songs largely to an absent crowd who were now the ones huddling for warmth on the lee side of the service booths.  The wind seemed to gather strength on the open field; our cheeks were flaming red and I could feel my thighs chafing from the biting gusts that were passing unimpeded through the uniform fabric.

Finally finished, we broke ranks and ran off the field at top speed.  We descended on the booth area with only one ambition: get a hot drink to stop our teeth from chattering and bodies from shaking.

And here is what happened all three years, because learning from experience didn’t seem to be in my stars at that time: drinking the hot chocolate too quickly, I burned my tongue.

Scalded it, seared it like a steak, turning it into a floppy piece of insensate meat with no taste buds, making it so useless I might just as well have had someone sew a whoopee cushion inside my mouth.

And of course, I couldn’t taste any bit of the Thanksgiving meal my mother served later that day and the same a year later and the year after that.

I never told her.


Two:  James Dean

It’s Thanksgiving, 1979.  I’m riding in a taxi heading uptown.  On my lap is a pan, still quite warm, filled with mashed sweet potatoes seasoned with cinnamon, vanilla, brown sugar, and butter, with marshmallows melting on top.

I’m staying in New York instead of going home because I have to work on Friday.  I’ll visit Baltimore at Christmas time instead.

I’m heading to the apartment of Bobbi and Mark Gordon, who are the virtual mom and dad of our playwriting workshop—The New York Writers Bloc.  It’s been going for just over a year.  Most of us in the group are in our twenties and early thirties and we look to Mark and Bobbi for reassurance that there’s a point to all this striving.  They have managed to live as theatre people for quite a while, while maintaining a positive outlook.

They’re a remarkable couple, truly devoted to one another.  Mark is this mellow guy, always seems content with the world, and a fine actor.  Bobbi, well, Bobbi doesn’t act for a living anymore but she’s a phenomenal performer in our weekly script readings.  She’s one of those rare people who just seems to love absolutely everyone she comes in contact with.  Her normal greeting is “HEL-lo, my darling, tell me how you are.”  And you do, because she surrounds you with her aura.

As the Bloc is in its infancy, the notion of having a potluck Thanksgiving together evolved readily.  Bobbi is roasting the turkey and while she labors in the kitchen, Mark is mixing up a big batch of Manhattans for all.  The rest of us are bringing side dishes.  I know my dish is pretty basic but it’s all I could think of; as the cab careens uptown the aroma is making me high and hungry.

We gather in their living room.  It’s an old-time New York apartment: a little darkish until the late afternoon sun lowers itself over Jersey.  There are many rooms with high ceilings, each filled with family photos accompanied by shots of both hosts acting in theater, films, and commercials.  They have been friends of Woody Allen for most of their lives, so there’s Mark in Take the Money and Run and Sleeper.  He also did a lot of network TV in the 70s, including a soap.  My favorite, though, is Mark as Chuckles the Clown on the “Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

Mark’s Manhattans loosen everyone up very quickly; we’re chatty as a flock of parrots.  The founding concept for the Bloc is that it would incorporate actors and directors, rather than being limited to playwrights.  This has helped us talk about the plays being worked on as performance pieces, not literature, as has been the case in playwright-only groups too often.  It has also created significant bonding across the disciplines.  Our Monday night workshop meetings feel more like family gatherings, much of that due to our mama and papa.  It’s a hard city out there, an unwelcoming world in the theatre and we cling to one another, sometimes just barely safe from going under.

The time comes to eat and we queue up.  There’s all the dishes arranged around the golden turkey: mashed potatoes, brussels sprouts, cornbread stuffing, cranberry sauce, a tossed salad.  Oh, and the sweet potato dish, which gets more takers than I’d imagined; I’m very relieved not to be uncool.  Mark does the carving with great flair and we settle into the business of consuming hillocks of food.

During dinner, the talking goes on without interruption.  It’s a mix of what we’re doing in “the business” at the moment—and hope to do—and what we might be doing with family on this day.  Everyone is groaning or laughing over being trapped at one gathering or another around a holiday table.  It’s good to be relieved of familial duty for one year.

After dinner is cleared away and dishes done, one of the women comes rushing into the room with two photos.

“I had to show these to everyone.  I saw these in your study, I hope you don’t mind.”

“Of course not, my darling,” Bobbi says.

We clamber to look.  Both are of Bobbi, back in her 20s.  In the first, it’s just her lounging on a sofa, cigarette in one hand, dressed all in black like the quintessential beatnik girlfriend, sexy as hell.  It’s a truly stunning photo.  She’s an attractive woman now in her early 50s but back then?  Wow.

But the second photo is something else entirely, far beyond just the recognition that Bobbi was once an exceptionally beautiful young woman.  She’s in a black one-piece bathing suit, on a beach, teasingly biting the extended finger of a young guy.  But, um, it’s a young guy who kind of looks like, kind of—is that, no, really, it can’t be; it’s JAMES DEAN?

We all go nuts.

Everybody turns to Bobbi, settling in like kids in jammies, dying to hear the stories.

Bobbi—back then Barbara Glenn—tells us about being Dean’s girlfriend, of their tempestuous time together, full of break-ups and reconciliations.  How he hated a Broadway show he was in but once he got great reviews for the role immediately took off to make movies.  How he criticized her in a letter for “selling out cheap” because she was doing a swimsuit photo shoot.

“So he broke it off with you to do a film?” someone asks.

“Oh, no, I was the one; I’d fallen madly in love with someone else.”

“Really?  Who?”

Bobbi just points across the room.  Holy cow: Mark.  Mark took Bobbi away from James freaking Dean.  He grows ten feet tall before our eyes.

The last thing she tells us leaves such an impression on me that I eventually write a one-act play about it.  When James Dean died, Bobbi’s phone rang off the hook and reporters came pounding on her door, dying to get hold of the letters he’d written to her.  People were offering hundreds of dollars for them.

“I never sold them,” she says and that’s where she ends her stories.

When I leave, my mind is a bit blown.  I’d come in contact with a lot of famous people through a previous job at the Actors Studio, some of them legendary like Harold Clurman, Elia Kazan, and Arthur Penn.  But this is different.  This is someone we know well and love, who was a friend and lover with, who knew the bad breath of, the ups and downs of.  This has somehow made Dean, who is a sort of infinite icon, into just a guy who had difficulties with relationships and couldn’t hold on to a woman like Bobbi.  He was just a person.  Somehow, it makes it possible for me to believe that however flawed we may be as people, the chance we can succeed at what we love is greater than I ever thought before.

It’s a cold day.  I decide to walk down Broadway for a while, maybe to Lincoln Center.  The buildings feel close as I go, not just vertical and indifferent now, but sheltering and alive and warm.


Michael Wright is a playwright, poet, fiction writer, journalist, performance artist, and stage director. His novel Down the Ocean: Summer of ’64 will be available on Amazon beginning December 15th. His poems, plays, and fiction have appeared in such productions and publications as Triple Feature (Heller Theatre), This Land (Tulsa), The Tulsa Voice, The Vineyard Theatre (NYC), Moondance Film Festival, The National Audio Theatre Festival, among others. His books on writing for performance include Playwriting in Process, Playwriting Master Class and Sensory Writing for Stage and Screen. He is a member of The Dramatists Guild and PEN America.  http://michaelplaywright.blogspot.com/

Submissions Are Open!

Writers, readers, fans all alike––

Submissions are officially open! We are accepting works of fiction and nonfiction between 1,500-2,500 words for our online issue. Our theme for the period is Holiday, and we will be looking for pieces that center around this theme.

Here at Windmill, we do not typically accept poetry, but you can head on over to our sister site, AMP!, if that’s where your specialty lies.

Our submissions are open until November 9th, and though it may seem like the deadline is a long way off, it’ll be here before you know it! We can’t wait to see what you have to offer this season!