Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Monday, December 5, 2016

RESTINGPLACE.COM: Chapter Four

This chapter will be the last one of my preview of my new book.  I believe it shows the direction of the story.  I hope you enjoy it.

Click here to read Chapter One.
Click here to read Chapter Two.
Click here to read Chapter Three.



CHAPTER FOUR




T H E  K O B A Y A S H I  M A R U



I don’t usually remember my dreams.

When I was in college, I was plagued by the typical anxiety dreams. You know, the ones were you show up at class only to find the teacher handing out a test for which you hadn’t prepared. Or, worse still, dreaming you’re in class only to realize that you’re naked. I had those dreams many times. I also had workplace variations of them when I started at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The change in location did nothing to lessen the anxiety.

Most of my dreams, however, were completely unmemorable. All I would remember were snatches of faces and maybe a line or two of talk. Even when I found myself in a vivid enough dream to remember it, my analytical mind almost always ruined it for me. For example, I remember someone was chasing me in a nightmare. The chase started near my childhood home on Rueckert Avenue in the northeast corner of Baltimore City, but when I turned a corner, I found myself in an alley near the hospital and the next turn found me near my current high-rise apartment in Towson, Maryland. Even in a dream state, my mind couldn’t accept the juxtapositions. They pulled me out of the dream and woke me up.

This dream began with a young voice singing, “Rise and shine and give God the glory, glory.” It was a tune I remembered from earliest childhood. My paternal grandmother Eleanor, who was a very religious woman, used to sing the song to us in the morning when we spent the night at her house. However, this wasn’t my grandmother’s voice. It was my brother Lenny. That’s what he would sing to wake me up. Not out of any reverence. He gave up on God, too. Never asked him why, but I’m sure it was the death of our father. But now I had to wonder whom he was mocking when he’d sing that: God or our grandmother. I hope it was God. My grandmother was a nice woman. She didn’t deserve to be mocked.

Finally, the bed shook. “Come on, Ricky,” Lenny said. “We’re going to do a little trespassing.”

I opened my eyes to find myself face-to-face with twelve-year-old Lenny in our old shared bedroom in the old house on Rueckert Avenue. He stood up. “Get your bathing suit on,” he said. “And whatever you do, don’t wake mom up.”

The next thing I knew I was walking down the street with Lenny. Everything was deathly quiet, except for a little faraway traffic on Harford Road, the main artery through our neighborhood. I knew what we were doing. We were going pool hopping. It was one of my best childhood memories with Lenny. Of course, in reality, it was a memory we wouldn’t have shared if Lenny had his way. I had forced his hand.

One summer evening the year after my father died, Lenny convinced my mother to let him and two of his friends, Charlie Woods and Pete Thompson, camp out in the backyard. This was when my mother was at her over-protective worst. There was zero possibility that she would let him go on a real camping trip, or even spend the night at a friend’s house. I don’t know how he managed to convince her to let him set up that little pup tent at the back of our yard, but he did. He did not, however, intend to stay in the backyard all night.

He knew she would be watching, but he also knew he could outlast her. What he didn’t count on was me. I kept my eyes open even after my mother went to sleep. I waited until I saw them leave the tent. Then I went outside to join them. Lenny heard the creak of the back door and turned to me. He angrily pointed back inside, but, in a rare display of boldness, I shook my head no. He hurried over to me.

“Get inside,” he whispered.

“No,” I replied, “I want to go with you.”

Lenny pushed me. “You go inside or I’ll beat the crap out of you.”

“If you do, I’ll tell mom.”

That trumped his threat. Charlie and Pete wandered over. “Come on, Lenny,” Charlie said. “Let’s give him an education in trespassing.”

Lenny gave Charlie a look, then turned back to me. “You say a word about this and I will kill you.”

With that warning, we indulged Charlie’s favorite summertime passion: pool hopping. That night we wandered throughout the neighborhood clandestinely swimming in the pools of our neighbors. By four a.m., we swam in thirty pools. Charlie said that was the all-time neighborhood record that would never be broken. I know I never broke it. I tried to repeat the night with my friends, but they always chickened out. I don’t think Lenny and his friends came close to that record again. The next summer, they discovered pot and spent most of their time getting high under Charlie’s porch.

Now, in this dream, it looked like Lenny and I were finally going to get the chance to break the record.

I don’t remember getting dressed. The next thing I remembered was walking down the middle of Beechwood Avenue trailing a few steps behind Lenny. This was quite unlike our last adventure when we all stayed closer to the shadows out of fear of being spotted. Looking around at the houses, however, alleviated that fear. There wasn’t a single light on anywhere.

“Must be late,” I said.

“Yup,” Lenny answered.

It suddenly struck me that I was speaking in my adult voice, not my ten-year-old voice. However, since Lenny was so much taller than me, physically I was still my ten-year-old self in the dream. That was exactly the type of incredulity that normally pulled me out of dreams, but this time I continued walking in the silent night. Only our footsteps disturbed the silence. 

“Where are we going?” I asked Lenny.

“The Kobayashi Maru,” he said as he turned and gave me a wicked smile.

The Kobayashi Maru was a Star Trek reference to an unwinnable training exercise in Star Fleet Academy. I knew immediately what Lenny meant by it: The Coleman Pool. It was the only one we opted out of hopping on the night of our triumph. The pool itself wasn’t much, just a four-foot-circular above ground model. The problem was the location. The Coleman backyard was completely surrounded by an unclimbable seven-foot-high, wooden privacy fence. The only outside entrance into the backyard was a gate between the garage and the side of the house, which was only a couple of feet away from the back door. Therefore, if you woke up the owners, you would have to pass right by the back door to get away. To make matters worse, Mr. Coleman was rumored to keep a shotgun loaded with rock salt near the back door. Even the always-reckless Charlie balked at hopping that pool. He was the one who named it the Kobayashi Maru.

The next thing I knew we were sneaking alongside the Coleman house toward the gate. I should say, I was sneaking: Lenny walked normally. When he reached the gate he opened it. The metal clicked so loudly it seemed to echo throughout the neighborhood. I grabbed his shirt to pull him back.

“Let’s get out of here,” I said.

Lenny just turned to me. “No,” he said softly. “This is one thing I always regretted not doing.”

I released his shirt. He turned and walked into the yard. I stood motionless for a moment trying to figure out what was going on. What did he mean when he said he always regretted not doing this? Was that from his childhood perspective, or his adult one? Who was this Lenny? 

My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a soft splash. I went into the yard to find Lenny floating in the pool. When I got there, Lenny was floating on his back with his eyes closed and a smile on his face. After a moment, he opened his eyes and turned to me. “What are you waiting for?” he asked. “This is the Kobayashi Maru and we’ve beat it.” 

 Lenny laughed sharply. “I betcha Charlie’s rolling over in his grave.”

That comment scared me. Charlie just died of a heroin overdose two months earlier. I went to his funeral. Everybody from the old neighborhood was there. I put up a very nice memorial for him on RestingPlace that made his poor mother cry in gratitude. How did Lenny know Charlie was dead? He was long gone before it happened. I answered the question myself. This Lenny, this person before me, was just a figment of my imagination. He knew everything I knew. That thought reassured me. This was all just a dream. I might as well enjoy it.

“You coming in or not?”

Why not? I moved closer to the pool, but I hesitated. In the darkness, the pool didn’t look very inviting. The water was black as tar and I had a strange feeling that if I got in, it would never let me go.

“You’re not afraid, are you?” Lenny asked. He stopped floating and straightened up in the pool, kneeling down enough to keep just his head above the water.

“It’s not bad in here, Ricky. Not bad at all,” he said, his eyes becoming more serious. “I wish I had taken the leap earlier. I couldn’t keep going the way it was.”

His words gave me a chill. I knew what leap he was talking about. Was he just a figment of my imagination?

“It’s not what you think, Ricky. It’s very peaceful here. You’ll like it,” Lenny paused, and then added. “The world has no pity for screwed up people like us.”

“I’m not screwed up,” I replied. 

Lenny laughed as he moved closer. “Please! You’re the boy in the plastic bubble. You don’t touch anyone and you never let them touch you,” he said. “I might have been a paranoid schizophrenic, but I embraced things. I followed my feelings. I loved.”

“And what did that get you?” I said defensively.

“Peace,” Lenny answered. “Come on, Rick, I don’t want to argue with you, man. We’re brothers. We’re supposed to love each other.” Lenny swam back a little and opened his arms. “Come on in and try it out just for a minute. You’ll see what I mean. I promise.”

Lenny’s eyes radiated sincerity. Despite my misgivings about the water, I decided to give it a try. After all, it was just a dream anyway. Nothing could hurt me. 

I took a final step forward toward the pool and hoisted myself up on the rim with both arms and threw a leg over the top. Then, before I even felt the water, I heard a fire engine. The sound stopped me. The siren was echoing, as if it were reverberating off tall buildings. It should not have sounded like that here, where the trees would have swallowed and muffled the sound.

“Don’t worry about that,” Lenny said. I turned to him. His eyes were anxious now, but he forced a smile. “Come on, let’s do some laps before Mr. Coleman breaks out his shotgun.”

There was something wrong about him. I could see it now. Brothers were supposed to love each other, but I wasn’t so sure he was my brother. Who was he? What was he?

The siren continued. I turned to it. When I did, I really opened my eyes. I could see the fire truck moving down Joppa Road ten stories below me. I watched its progress for a moment before I realized I was standing on my balcony and that I was hanging halfway over the railing.

I normally enjoyed the view from the balcony, but now it was dizzyingly terrifying. I froze. I had no idea how strong the rail was and whether it could hold my weight. I was afraid to move and equally afraid to stay still. Closing my eyes, I resolved to throw myself backwards in one motion. Like a frightened child, I even counted to three before I pushed myself back.

My neck hit against the seat of one of my lawn chairs as I tumbled backwards onto the hard concrete of the balcony floor. My elbow and back ached as I reached back to rub my neck. My other hand went to my skinned elbow. There was blood, but it was better than what almost happened. I slowly stood up and looked over the balcony. The fire engine was gone. All that remained immediately below was a decorative fountain in front of the building. I doubt the five inches of water in it would have done much to break my fall.

I staggered back into my apartment. The television and lights were all on just as they were when I fell asleep earlier in the afternoon. I looked to the clock. It read: 3 a.m. Exactly. That was almost my time of death, I thought with a chill. 

I sank into the sofa to let the cushion soothe my back and neck. I turned to the television. The 1973 horror film The Legend of Hell House, starring Roddy McDowall, was playing. It was actually one of my favorite horror films of the period, but I was in no mood to watch it now. As I picked up the remote, I thought of something. The last thing I remember watching was the Orioles game, and that was playing on the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network. They didn’t play movies, especially horror movies. I clicked the information button on the remote. The Legend of Hell House was playing on Turner Classic Movies. Did I change the channel? I didn’t remember doing it. Then again, I didn’t remember climbing up on the railing either. That was just a dream.

Was I going crazy?

It’s hard to explain how unsettling it is to learn you were doing things you have no memory of doing. I suppose alcoholics and drug addicts, and mentally unstable people like my late brother experienced it frequently. I didn’t. I hated losing control. That’s why I never took drugs or drank to excess. I liked living a neat and tidy life. This incident threw a monkey wrench into my worldview. I just hoped it was a one-time aberration. 

I clicked off the television and stood up. My eyes went to my desk. As they did, the screensaver switched to one of the pictures of my brother Lenny that I used on his RestingPlace memorial. He had a lazy, happy smile in it. Looking at it, it was easy to see why he held onto so many friends despite his bouts of madness. There’s no way I’d get as many people at my funeral, even if everyone brought a date.

“Lenny, are you here?” I asked, not believing the words as I said them. Of course he wasn’t here. He was dead and dead was dead. Forever.

The screensaver suddenly imaged changed again and I found myself staring at Miss Elisabetta Kostek. Her smile was now a bemused taunt. She had done this. 

“This is crazy,” I said with the voice of rationality as I walked over to the computer. I moved the mouse and the image of the dark lady disappeared. Although my gait might have seemed bold as I walked over, I was halfway surprised by the outcome. Part of me was genuinely afraid that her face wouldn’t disappear. That she would stay as long as she wanted.

Without bothering to turn off the lights in the living room and kitchen, I retreated into my bedroom. I closed the door and locked it. I believe that was the first time I ever locked my bedroom door in my own apartment, but it would not be the last.




Copyright 2016 by Sean Paul Murphy.  All Rights Reserved.


Be sure to read my memoir The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God.



Sunday, December 4, 2016

RESTINGPLACE.COM: Chapter Three

I am posting a few sample chapters of my upcoming novel.
Click here to read Chapter One.
Click here to read Chapter Two.





CHAPTER THREE

U P L O A D 


I headed straight for my car after leaving the mausoleum.

It was rather unusual for me to leave a cemetery with pictures of only two graves, especially Eternal Faith. There were over forty thousand people buried in the cemetery and only about three thousand graves were uploaded to RestingPlace.com. Whenever I visited the cemetery, I always walked up and down a couple of rows and photographed every visible monument. It was a waste of gasoline to leave with only two graves captured. However, the paranoid fear that grabbed a hold of me in the mausoleum robbed me of the serenity and sense of purpose I normally felt walking in a cemetery. I had to leave. And I did.

Normally, I would have gotten something to eat on my way home. My trusty Corolla, knowing my normal routine, seemed to find its own way into the slow-moving drive-thru lane of a McDonald’s near my one-bedroom apartment in a Towson high-rise without any conscience assistance from me. However, the sight of the glossy pictures of the items on the menu, which always looked more appetizing than the food itself, made me feel strangely nauseous. And I liked McDonald’s food. At least three or four times a week I stopped at this location for a super-sized Big Mac meal and a small hamburger. I always got a small hamburger to eat on the short drive home. Otherwise, I would eat all of the fries on the way home leaving me only with a sandwich. This time, however, the hamburger meat on the menu appeared sickly grey. Dead. Like it was tough with rigor mortis. Coughing, I felt the sharp sting of some bile at the back of my throat. That was all I needed. I pulled out of the lane and headed home.

I had no firm plans for the day. The Baltimore Orioles were playing the Cleveland Indians that afternoon. I enjoyed baseball and followed it rather avidly. It was the only team sport my mother deemed safe enough to allow me play, especially since my general lack of ability relegated me to the undemanding role of late-inning replacement right fielder. Still, I always looked back on those days fondly. Although I think the guys viewed me more as a mascot than an athlete, playing on the team during my middle-school years gave me a much-needed sense of identity. Once, when some bullies tried to pick on me, a couple of my teammates rode to my rescue like the cavalry. I always appreciated that.

For a couple of years, I had season tickets at Orioles Park at Camden Yards. Two seats. However, as my few close friends got married and started reproducing, I had an increasingly hard time finding someone to fill the second seat. Gina Holt, my long suffering former girlfriend, found baseball boring and I found it too depressing to go to the games alone. Plus, my mother’s lifetime of smoking finally caught up with her and she needed a great deal of attention while she battled lung cancer during the last year of her life. In the end, I was giving away most of the tickets or selling them on StubHub. It became more trouble than it was worth and I eventually let the seats go. Still, I watched the games. It brought back good memories of being part of something.

I originally planned to spend hours uploading dozens of new graves to the webpage while I watched the ballgame. I thought my premature departure from the cemetery meant I would be able to watch the Orioles take on the Cleveland Indians without any distractions but I was wrong. I found myself oddly restless, shifting from my IKEA sofa to my chair. A couple times I found myself walking toward my desk, but I always stopped myself. I knew what I would do as soon as I sat down at the desk: I would take the card out of my camera and load it into computer. Then I would I upload the dark lady’s photograph.

The thought scared me. Not just because I didn’t want to look into her eyes again. There was something deeper, beyond mere flesh and bone and even mind. Some inchoate fear that I was no longer in control of myself: That something, or someone, was manipulating me from shadows too deep to examine.

I tried to shake off the feeling. It was crazy. There were no shadows. Not in my life. I had experienced my share of darkness, perhaps more than my share with the deaths of both of my parents and my only brother by the time I was thirty-three. I certainly went through profound moments of sadness, but it was nothing like the depression that killed my brother Lenny.

I always secretly envied Lenny when we were younger. He had an easygoing charm that worked on both parents and peers. Everybody liked him, especially the girls. I would watch in amazement as he would walk up to girls at the mall and have them laughing and smiling in no time. I, on the other hand, got better grades in school. It was not a fair trade. The grades got me into college, a life experience Lenny opted to ignore much to our mother’s consternation. Lenny wanted to start living life. On a whim he became a car salesman. I have to admit it was an excellent choice. He could sell anything when he was sane. The problem was that those sane periods became increasingly infrequent.

Lenny started drifting into madness in his early twenties. When we first noticed the odd behavior, we thought the culprit was drugs. After an arrest for disorderly conduct and a forced committal, we discovered the real problem was in his mind. We never got a complete diagnosis of the problem. Lenny was an adult and he never allowed his doctors to discuss this condition with any of us. However, Lenny used the words manic depression, bipolar, paranoid and schizophrenic to describe himself in his lucid periods, which often lasted for months provided he took his medication. When he was off his medication, he would eventually wade into the darkness of insanity again.

It was frightening what happened to him. It was so cruelly unfair that some dark fluke of internal chemistry would send a decent, good-natured guy with prospects spiraling downward into a tortuous world of his own creation, buffeted by voices and images only be could see or hear. If I were in his shoes, I would never have survived as long as he did. We are our minds. Period. It is our window to the world, and our only means to process it. If we lose our ability to control our minds, we are left with nothing except the derision or pity of those around us, and I could never accept that. In the end, neither could Lenny. 

One day he jumped from a six-story balcony at a hotel in Ocean City, Maryland where we had stayed with our family as children. He landed head first on the concrete about two and half feet away from the edge of the swimming pool. Some of Lenny’s more optimistic friends chose to believe this death was just a crazy stunt gone awry. They said he was probably aiming for the pool, but I knew the truth. It was suicide, pure and simple. Poor Lenny was doomed. It was only a matter of time.

I shuddered with the memory of my brother, but I couldn’t fathom what sent my mind reeling in that direction. I wasn’t that kind of guy. I might have been half Irish, but I wasn’t prone to prolonged bouts of melancholy or regret. When I mourned Lenny, I was genuinely distraught but I moved on. That’s what strong people do, and, in my own way, I considered myself very strong. I knew the visit to the cemetery wasn’t responsible for my mood either. I had visited Eternal Faith dozens of times without experiencing any inordinate sorrow. It might have been different if I went and visited the family graves, but I wasn’t there to mourn my family today. I was there for another family.

The dark woman, I thought.

“No,” I said out loud as I immediately dismissed the thought.

It was just a strange day, I told myself. Things would get better if reliever Darren O’Day held onto the Orioles’ one run lead through the top of Cleveland’s order. I got up from the sofa and headed into the kitchen to get a beer. When I opened the refrigerator door, I was struck by the overwhelming smell of spoiled, rancid meat. Cupping my nose and mouth with my hand, I quickly shut the door. I was stunned. What could have gone that bad that fast?

I cautiously opened the door again. This time the smell was gone without a trace. I couldn’t believe it. Had I just imagined it? Hearing the commercial ending in the other room, I decided just to grab a beer and forget about it. But as I reached for the beer, the mere thought of drinking one made me nauseous. What was going on? Was I going freaking crazy or something? Closing the refrigerator door, I headed back to the living room to watch the game.

I was headed for the sofa, but instead I found myself sitting down at the desk looking at the computer screensaver, which consisted of all the family photographs I had scanned during my genealogical quest. It unnerved me. I hadn’t intended to go to the desk. Why did I? Angry, I wanted to stand up and get a beer but I became suddenly defiant. Walking away now would be giving into this absurd fear. It was better just to get my work out of the way now so I could watch the rest of the game in peace. Plus, I still had a chance to beat Tombstone Teri to the punch with the Ritter grave.

I removed the chip from my trusty Nikon camera and plugged it into my USB adapter. Using the mouse to dispel the screensaver, I quickly opened the browser and went to the RestingPlace webpage. I found the listing for Eternal Faith Cemetery and clicked on photo requests. Matilda Ritter was still listed. Did that mean I had really beaten Tombstone Teri, or had the listing simply not been updated yet? Either way, I decided to proceed.

I found the directory of my camera card and removed all the photos and placed them in a folder with all my other cemetery photos on the computer. Then I clicked on Matilda Ritter’s memorial. If Tombstone Teri had uploaded a picture, it hadn’t shown up yet. Her loss would be my gain. I clicked on add photo then dragged and dropped my photo of her grave into the box. I didn’t add a caption. It didn’t seem necessary.

When the photo uploaded, the memorial for Matilda Ritter refreshed. The photograph was fine, but I didn’t care much for the memorial itself. It only listed her name and the dates of her birth and death. Not even a maiden name. Had I created the memorial myself, I would have gone to the newspaper and included the death notice. Then I would have gone to the webpage of the funeral home. Nowadays they featured photographs of the deceased. Pictures of the dead are what gave a memorial life. And, speaking of pictures, I still had two more to deal with.

I find it difficult to explain what I was going through at that moment. As irrational as it sounds, part of me honestly felt I was being guided by some unseen force to post Elisabetta Kostek’s photograph on RestingPlace.com for the whole world to see. The rest of me pushed back hard, very hard, against that desire. It didn’t make any sense. I had posted literally thousands of photos of graves and their inhabitants on the webpage and not once did I feel like I was making a moral choice. I certainly felt sad sometimes, particularly if I was creating a memorial for a child or a suicide.

I clicked on the file in my cemetery folder. The image of Elisabetta Kostek’s grave appeared on my computer monitor. It was a simple monument featuring just her name and the years of her birth and death. She was seventy-two-years-old. Not a child. And nothing on the marble face of vault or the bronze plaque indicated she had died by her own hand. I couldn’t understand my misgivings, except that there seemed to be something strange about her face.

I clicked on another file in the directory and the close-up of Elisabetta Kostek filled my monitor. This time she didn’t creep me out quite as much. The eyes looked strangely satisfied. The smile now appeared to be a tiny gloat of victory, as if she knew I would do as I was instructed.

I went to the main page for Eternal Faith. I typed in Elisabetta’s name. It didn’t show up, which meant the grave was unlisted. I clicked on add memorial and typed in her name then stopped. I needed more information. Was she married? If so, what was her maiden name? I opened another tab on my browser and went to the death notices section of the Baltimore Sun. I typed in her name but nothing came up. That was surprising. Maybe she wasn’t local. Or maybe she was so local that her family only put a death notice in one of the pain-in-the-ass smaller community papers instead. I opened up Ancestry.com with the hope of finding an obituary there. No such luck. I found some public records from the late-eighties and the early-nineties giving her address and phone number, but that was it. Opening another tab, I googled her. Nothing much came up. Just those find-a-person pay websites that you’d get when you type any name into the search engine.

That was strange. You’d think a woman who earned such a wall of flowers two years after her death would have left more of an Internet trail.

I returned my attention to RestingPlace. The cursor was blinking in the slot to add her date of birth. The fear that engulfed me in the mausoleum returned. Except this time I knew I couldn’t get away by running outside into the sun. Some wordless voice beyond the realm of logic and reason assured me that the only way to dispel the fear was to finish the memorial. Still, another voice, much quieter, warned me that I was making a dangerous mistake. That I should just deleted the Kostek files.

I highlighted the two files in the folder. My finger actually went to the delete button, but I couldn’t do it. For me, deleting those files would be giving into superstition. I always considered myself a rationalist. I’m an accountant. I live in a world of numbers. One plus one equals two, even if a black cat walks by or someone breaks a mirror. I must confess I never had the temperament or the tools to measure the things of the spirit or the heart.

No. I would not delete the Kostek files out of fear. That was absurd. With newfound resolve, I typed Elisabetta’s dates of birth and death into RestingPlace using the brass plaque as my sole source. Then I clicked on the add photo button. It took me right to my photo directory where I clicked on the file of the wide shot of the Kostek grave itself. I pressed add this photo and felt no misgiving as it quickly uploaded onto the webpage. That was not true when it came time to add the close-up of Elisabetta’s face.

As my cursor lingered over the button to add the photo, I was once again struck by the feeling I was making a moral choice between good and evil. A small voice, drowned almost entirely out by the voice of reason, told me I was making a horrible mistake. But in the end, I couldn’t blame reason. The real reason I pushed the button was fear. I knew deep down that something dark had a hold of me, and that it wouldn’t release me until I put the photograph on the Internet.

So I clicked on the button and the haunting photograph of Elisabetta Kostek was added to her memorial for the world to see. I gave her one last look before I closed the browser. Her smile now seemed to reflect some happiness, as if I had freed her. And, if I did, she freed me, too – at least temporarily. When I closed the browser, I felt better than I had all day. And hungrier. I was famished.

I went to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door again. I barely remembered the horrible stench that greeted me a few minutes ago as I pulled out some containers of leftover Chinese food. I heated it up in the microwave and took it back into the living room to eat during the last few outs of the game. Happily, the Orioles won and, despite my plans to take the salsa dance lessons that night on the thirteenth floor of the Belvedere Hotel in downtown Baltimore, I found myself drifting off to sleep.




To read the next chapter, click here:  Chapter Four.

Copyright 2016 by Sean Paul Murphy.  All Rights Reserved.


Be sure to read my memoir The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God.

Friday, December 2, 2016

RESTINGPLACE.COM: Chapter Two

Click here to read Chapter One.





CHAPTER TWO



E L I S A B E T T A



Eternal Faith Memorial Gardens was exactly the kind of cookie-cutter cemetery I grew to despise over the years. It gave me no comfort to know I would be buried there one day myself.

To preserve the so-called natural appearance of the landscape, the management only permitted flat markers, dull rectangles of granite topped with bronze nameplates and the occasional ceramic photograph. Spare me. A person is going to rest under their monument for a long time. They should be entitled to choose one indicative of their unique personality. Throughout our entire lives, society forces us unceasingly into conformity. Shouldn’t we have the freedom to express ourselves in death? I suppose a philosopher could argue that the cemetery policy satisfied some equalitarian impulse. The graves of the rich and the poor and the famous and the common are indistinguishable at Eternal Faith. Whatever. I suspect the real reason for the policy involved cost. It is cheaper to cut the grass with these flat monuments.

When I turned my Toyota Corolla into the cemetery, my eyes turned toward our family plot without any mental prodding. It was located near the top of a small rise about a hundred-and-fifty-yards from the service road. A sheltering willow tree stood nearby making the spot very easy to find. Now you’d think someone as obsessed with cemeteries as I was would take this opportunity to visit the graves of his immediate family but you’d be wrong. I couldn’t. Sorry.

While I often felt a strange mystical connection to my distant ancestors when I stood at their graves, that sensation wasn’t repeated at the graves of people I actually knew in real life. All I felt when I stood at their graves was their absence. Their loss. And I didn’t want to feel that today. It was too bright and sunny. Life was still too alluring. I preferred to think about Andrea, a girl who had asked me to dance three times last night. She was somebody I’d like to ask out. Then again, so was Rita Falstaff. At least on the days she tolerated me.

Rita was the receptionist slash secretary slash sales rep at the cemetery office. She seemed to be about thirty-two-years old, which would make her five years younger than me, a perfectly acceptable age difference. She was a little heavy, but she wore it well. Her hair was blonde, but her roots made a lie of that on occasion. She had a friendly smile, and she always seemed relieved to talk to someone who wasn’t in mourning, unless that person was a genealogist. Genealogists were the bane of her existence. The cemetery records hadn’t been computerized yet so their questions would send her to a wall of black filing cabinets in the unventilated back room. She didn’t like going through the file cabinets, especially since her predecessor only appeared to have a passing knowledge of the alphabet.

“No, I don’t have time for you, Rick,” she said, groaning audibly when I stepped through the door. “We’ve got three interments today.”

“Only one name, Rita,” I said. “Please.”

“Is it a relative?”

I hesitated.

Her eyes narrowed. “Are you going to make me go back there for that stupid website?”

“I’m doing a favor for someone.”

“I’m the one who’s doing the favor,” she sighed as she picked up her pen. “What’s the name?”

“Matilda Ritter.”

She didn’t even bother writing it down. “She’s in the mausoleum. Third tier, on the left.”

Forty thousand people were buried at Eternal Faith, and she knew the one I wanted right off the top of her head? I was understandably skeptical. “Are you sending me on a wild goose chase?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “Somebody was just in asking about her.”

Oh, no. “Was it Tombstone Teri?”

“Who’s Tombstone Teri?”

“Describe her.”

“White. Mid-thirties. Kinda stiff -- like a high school math teacher,” Rita replied. “Is that her?”

“Don’t know. I never met her.”

“Then why did you ask me to describe her?” She replied, pointing to the door. “Get out, and don’t come back this week.”

“Thanks, I owe you.”

“I know you do!”

I jumped into my car and drove over to the mausoleum. There weren’t any other cars parked out front. That meant Tombstone Teri probably already got her picture, but I could still beat her to the punch. If I uploaded my picture before she did, I’d still get the credit for fulfilling the request. Talk about snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. The day was getting better by the moment.

I opened one of the heavy glass double doors of the mausoleum and stepped inside, shivering instinctively. It was eighty-five degrees outside, but it felt like sixty-five degrees inside. The white marble walls and floor seemed to suck the heat right out of the air, leaving only a cool, clammy humidity. If I had a sweater I knew I would have wrapped it around me. Not simply for the warmth, but also for protection. Yes, protection. I was shocked by the sudden realization that I was afraid. I was actually afraid.

I couldn’t believe it. My genealogical journeys had taken me into catacombs and crypts. I have seen exposed human remains on numerous occasions, but I had never been afraid. There were no such things as zombies or vampires or ghosts. The dead were simply dead: unmoving, uncaring, and unknowing. They were worthy of respect for who they once were, not for what they have become. The dead could not hurt you, aside perhaps from some living disease brewing in their decay. I knew all of that, but I was still afraid. It was crazy. I had been in this mausoleum many times before and I had never felt this way. It had to be the cold. The sudden shock to my system sought a supernatural cause where none was necessary.

I quickly found the vault that housed Mrs. Matilda Ritter’s casket. The third tier was slightly above eye level, but the camera angle would not be too awkward. All I had to do was brush away the brittle, dead flowers in the bronze vase that partially blocked her name. When I touched the flowers, they disintegrated as if they were a thousand years old. The tiny fragments fluttered slowly to the marble floor. My eyes followed them. That’s when I noticed the other flower fragments. The floor was littered with them.

I looked at the nearby vaults. Dead stalks rose up out of the vases. Their petals lay brown and crinkly on the floor. The sight surprised me. This wasn’t like Eternal Faith at all. The cemetery was young and viable with thousands of empty plots for sale and dozens of new burials a week. They had both the money and the staff to police the grounds properly. The grass was always cut. The trees and bushes were always neatly trimmed. The dead flowers were always discreetly discarded.

This was sloppy. Creepy, too.

Once again, a strange supernatural fear tugged at me. I immediately pushed it out of my mind. Why would dead flowers frighten me? Over the course of two months, I documented a large, abandoned African-American cemetery. Every time I visited it, I found human bones and coffins exposed by decades of unchecked erosion. Those sights never scared me. They angered me enough to shame the absentee owners of the cemetery by exposing them on the Internet. And I did. So why did these flowers scare me? It was irrational.

At first I theorized that the unnatural cold of the mausoleum killed the flowers, but that didn’t make any sense either. You refrigerated flowers to maintain their freshness. They should have thrived near the clammy marble. But they were dead, all of them in the building.

Well, no. Not all of them.

A veritable forest of flowers bloomed near a vault at the other end of the building. There were so many that I theorized that it must have been a new interment of a much beloved individual. After snapping a quick photo of the Ritter grave, I found myself walking toward the vault, but the colorful array of flowers brought me no joy. If anything, each echoing footstep shouted a warning into my head. Stop. Don’t do it. I have no idea why I didn’t listen. At the time, I would say it was probably my unwillingness to give into superstitious fear. Looking back now, I don’t believe I really had a choice. My steps had been pre-arranged and pre-determined. I was a chess piece being moved into position by forces beyond my control.

As I neared the grave, I noticed that there was a picture of the deceased. I smiled briefly despite my growing dread. I really appreciated it when people included a ceramic photo of the deceased on their monument. Those photos gave you a definite feel for the dead person. This black and white photo revealed an attractive woman in her mid-to-late forties. I wasn’t surprised that she had dark hair and dark eyes. My long years of walking through cemeteries taught me that Italians, Jews and Eastern Europeans were the people most likely to memorialize their loved ones with photos. Therefore, I expected her to have stereotypical dark features.

I could have easily confirmed my assumptions about her ethnicity if I looked down at her name, but her eyes wouldn’t release mine. They grabbed a hold of mine and pulled me forward. They weren’t inherently intimidating or scary. They did, however, like the half-smile beneath them, hint at a world-weary wisdom. They were eyes with the power to seduce, but without the power to love. It was like she possessed a cynical secret that empowered her, but at a terrible price. People have spent centuries speculating on the meaning of the Mona Lisa’s smile, but I didn’t want to know the reason behind this woman’s smile. I knew instinctively it would terrify me.

Still, I walked forward until we were practically face-to-face. Only the wall of flowers stopped me. The smell of flowers could charm me in the wild, but their scent in enclosed areas often sickened me. They reminded me of all of the funerals I dutifully attended. Now, however, I wasn’t thinking of the emotionally neutral funerals of my many aged cousins who contributed mightily to my family tree. I found myself instead at Rucks Funeral Home staring down at the white, powdered face of my dead mother Alice Ann Bakos, nee Sullivan. Eyes shut. Jaws wired tightly. Lips twisted into a smile she never made naturally. Blinking, I found that I had somehow travelled three more years back in time to the funeral of my poor, doomed brother Lenny. My mother’s mournful wailing filled my ears.

I shut my eyes, hoping the self-imposed darkness would break the spell. It did. Soon the dark woman was gone, as were my brother and my mother’s grief. I rested in the soothing darkness for a moment, my heart still thumping, before I finally opened my eyes again. I resolved not to meet the woman’s eyes again, but I was too curious to turn away. I had to know more about her. I turned to the inscription. It read:

Elisabetta A. Kostek 

September 19, 1942 – November 15, 2014 

The date of death surprised me. From the overflowing abundance of flowers, I assumed she had recently died, or, at the very least, experienced a recent anniversary of some sort. It could have been a wedding anniversary, but no husband was listed. These vaults generally housed two caskets. The names of surviving spouses were usually listed in neat bronze letters on the marble, waiting only the inevitable date of death. Maybe she was single, but then who left the flowers?

And, more importantly, why were her flowers so fresh when every other one in the mausoleum was dead.

I took one step back, then another and another. I thought I was leaving, but I wasn’t. I found myself raising my camera to photograph the grave for the website, as I had done literally thousands of times before. First, I took a wide shot which captured the entire front of the vault. Then, with some trepidation, I zoomed in on the photograph of Elisabetta A. Kostek until her face filled my viewfinder. I half-expected her eyes to hook me again like they did the last time, but this time she simply stared blankly at me. Call me crazy, but it did seem like the corners of her lips had crept up a little bit.

Once the camera found the proper focus, I snapped the shutter and turned away. At first, I walked briskly toward the exit, but my speed increased the closer I got. I was practically running by the time I reached the looming glass doors. I was suddenly overwhelmed by an irrational fear that the doors wouldn’t open when I pushed them, but they did. Still, I didn’t slow down until I was out of the shadow of the building and bathed entirely in sunlight. I sucked in the fresh air as if I had been drowning.

In a moment, the chill of the mausoleum left me.

Or so I thought.

Click here to read the next chapter: Chapter Three.



Copyright 2016 by Sean Paul Murphy.  All Rights Reserved.


Be sure to read my memoir The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God.

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RESTINGPLACE.COM: Chapter One

I have decided to post a little preview of my upcoming novel RESTINGPLACE.COM.  I hope you enjoy it.





CHAPTER ONE


R E S T I N G P L A C E . C O M



You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything
in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.
You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord
Your God, am a jealous God.
Exodus 20:4-5 


July 2016.

My name is Rick Bakos, and I am a cemetery junkie. It is an obsession that nearly cost me my life and my soul.

My obsession was an outgrowth of genealogy. As a middle-aged bachelor with no progeny of my own in which to boast, I turned my eyes backwards toward my ancestors, a motley crew of saints and sinners that made me the man I am today. I traced all of my familial lines back at least a couple of centuries. In the process, I talked to hundreds of cousins while compiling my extensive family tree. They tended to be elderly women happy to share the stories that their own children and grandchildren had grown bored of hearing. As the years passed, I found myself attending their funerals out of gratitude for the stories and photos they shared generously with me. Their children, also my cousins, usually had no idea who I was.

Perhaps as a result of all of the funerals I attended, I developed a desire to visit all of the graves of my ancestors. On both business trips and vacations, I would find myself tramping through overgrown cemeteries, thorns and stickers tearing at my khaki pants and tennis shoes. I often felt an acute, practically supernatural, sense of connection to my kin as I stood upon their graves looking down upon their weathered monuments. I couldn’t get over the fact that they were all once just like me. They lived. They loved. They fought. They laughed. They worked. Then they died. But part of them remained: Me. Did they imagine when they bought their little oblong plots of land that a hundred and twenty years later a great-great-great grandson would stand above them in respect? Were they looking down at me from heaven? Or up from hell? Was there even a heaven or hell? Or do we just disappear into nothingness. That was the truly scary thought.

How many people in this world truly achieve fame that will outlive them? None of my ancestors, that’s for sure. They were the drones: the worker bees. They lived in little houses and toiled endlessly at jobs to fulfill the dreams of men who the world would consider greater and more important than them. In the end, what did my ancestors have to show for their labors, aside from generations of progeny they would never know and who would never know them? A tombstone. That’s it. A slab of granite or marble with their names etched into it. In theory, those stones could last for centuries. The elements were already erasing their names on some of the marble and limestone markers, but the granite ones remained pristine. They could conceivably last for thousands of years, far longer than the once living bones buried beneath them.

That was encouraging. Many of my ancestors managed to buy themselves a small slab of immortality, but what did it really say about them? Occasionally, my relatives had a short poem or Bible verse inscribed into their monuments. That, I suppose, was reflective of their personalities, or at least the personality of the loved one who bought the stone. However, the markers mainly recorded just their names and the dates of their birth and death. I hated seeing these people, whom I had painstakingly researched over the years, reduced to a mere string of facts. A person is more than a sum of their name and dates. I wanted the world to get a taste of their individual humanity: Their personalities, their struggles, and even their small triumphs, as insignificant as they might have been in the overall scheme of human history. I wanted the world to see them. Over the years I gathered an impressive collection of photographs of my relatives from various distant cousins around the country. I was particularly proud of the tintypes of my 3rd great-grandparents I had rescued from a distant cousin’s musty old cedar chest. It was amazing to see traces of myself in the faces of people who died over a hundred and fifty years earlier.

Fortunately, I found the perfect place to build monuments to my family. A website called: RestingPlace.com. It is a vast online database of millions of graves slowly compiled by thousands of volunteer contributors around the world. When I found the website, I began building online memorials to all of my relatives. I included pictures of them and their families as well as photographs of their graves. I even included biographical sketches of the people and linked them all together. A person could easily click through my entire family tree person by person. Now they were no longer simply names and dates carved in stone. You could look in their eyes and get a sense of their identity. Sometimes their soul, if that’s the right word, shone through the computer screen.

In my own way I believed I was granting my family cyber-immortality, which was probably the only actual form available. I wish I could bring myself to believe in some sort of spiritual continuance, but I couldn’t despite my nominally religious background. My parents were both Catholics. They weren’t necessarily weekly churchgoers, but they took their faith seriously enough to send my brother Lenny and me to St. Dominic Elementary School. After my father’s death, my mother took us out of the Catholic school and dropped us in the public school system. I don’t know if that was a sign of her rejecting the cruel God who prematurely took away her loving husband or whether it was a simple matter of economics. However, even as a child, I noticed that she went to church much more infrequently. Afterwards she only went to church for weddings and funerals and occasionally Christmas when she was feeling particularly sentimental. Still, my mother did not reject all spirituality. If anything, she became even more superstitious. She was always seeing signs and omens and became obsessed with various charlatans and fortunetellers who played her like a violin.

Like my mother, my beliefs changed with the death of my father. I stopped believing in a loving God who took a personal interest in the lives of his people. It wasn’t until college that I pretty much closed the door on the very concept of God itself. I wasn’t an atheist. Atheism was too intellectually arrogant for me. I accepted that there was a limit to current human knowledge and understanding. I was willing to concede that some entity that we could define as God could possibly exist somewhere in some unknown dimension. However, for all practical purposes, I believed we human beings were on our own. When we died, we probably just blinked out of existence. That thought fired my resolve concerning RestingPlace. I would provide the human race what little measure of immortality I could muster.

I became so obsessed with the website that I began documenting the graves of strangers when I ran out of my own relatives. I started with a small Methodist cemetery a few blocks away from my home. One sunny Saturday afternoon I walked through the cemetery and photographed every tombstone. I spent the rest of the weekend uploading the photos and documenting the graves on the website. Whenever I came upon a name I found particularly interesting, I would research the individual on various genealogical websites and include the information I uncovered.

I’m sure this hobby of mine sounds as dull as dishwater to you, but it came very naturally to me. When I wasn’t traipsing around cemeteries, I worked as an accountant at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. My primary responsibility consisted of checking the various inventories throughout the hospital: counting all the essential implements of modern medicine you would die without. The doctors and nurses get the glory. I get the clipboard. By the time I finished my rounds, it was time to start walking those corridors again. At least I managed to get some fresh air when I documented the graves, and people really appreciated my genealogical efforts. Every week I got emails from happy people thanking me for finding the graves of their relatives. No doctor ever thanked me for making sure there was a stethoscope nearby when he needed one. No patient did either for that matter.

I also made it a habit to fulfill photo requests placed on the website. People submitted requests when they suspected that a loved one was buried at a certain cemetery. If the cemetery was nearby, I would drive over, go to the office and get the location of the grave. Sometimes the people were mistaken and their loved one wasn’t buried at the cemetery in question. In that case, I would send them an email saying so. If their relatives were indeed buried there, I would photograph the grave and upload the picture to the website for them. I did that fifty-two times before that fateful Saturday afternoon in June.

I got up late that morning, around eleven. Usually, I didn’t allow myself that indulgence, but I was out late the previous night. The weekly Friday Night Swing Dance at the American Legion Hall represented my last vain hope of actually meeting a woman in the flesh. Most of my dating was done on the Internet and tended to be unsatisfying. The women disappointed me because they never seemed to be who they said they were, and I disappointed them by being precisely who I said I was. At least at the dances I could hold a woman for a few minutes. The atmosphere was very friendly. Anyone could ask anyone to dance, and everyone always said yes. It was that kind of place.

Some of the ladies seemed interested in me. Straight, unmarried men in my age group, unencumbered by crippling child support payments, are apparently very rare. I was very tempted to ask out two or three of the women, but I could never pull the trigger. I was afraid if I asked one of them out and it went badly that word would burn through the place that I was a loser. It was safer to keep my options open for the time being.

After completing my morning grooming rituals, I had a light breakfast seated behind my computer. I went to the webpage of the local newspaper, the Baltimore Sunpapers, and checked the death notices. Genealogy was an ongoing endeavor for me. I checked every day for my cousins. Today, however, the greater Bakos family appeared unscathed. Then I started making memorials for the deceased on RestingPlace.com. I was lucky. Another local contributor who called herself Tombstone Teri also combed through the local death notices. If I started too late in the morning, she would quickly memorialize the dead listed there before I had the chance. I don’t know if she considered me a rival, but I certainly viewed her as one. Tombstone Teri was putting up some impressive numbers. I had posted about sixteen thousand memorials over the past four years. She was only a member for two years and was already up to nearly fifteen thousand memorials. I couldn’t let down my guard for a second.

While memorializing one of the recently deceased at Eternal Faith cemetery, I noticed that someone had just placed a photo request. I paused. The cemetery was only about five miles from my home. It would be simple to go over and get the picture, but I always approached the place with a heavy heart. Eternal Faith Memorial Gardens was slated to be my own final resting place. My father, Stan Bakos, bought six plots and joked that we could have them on a first come first serve basis. Of course, the joke was on him. He snagged the first one himself a short year or two later when I was nine-years-old. My older brother Lenny got the next one. My mother Alice was next. Only my sister Janet and I remain on this side of the grass, and it looked like we were going to leave an empty plot unless one of us got married.

Something told me not to go to the cemetery, but fulfilling that request would be a matter of pride. Tombstone Teri was racking up some good numbers but she was lazy. She generated most of her memorials from Internet newspaper death notices and funeral home listings. Her fieldwork was weak. According to her profile, she had only fulfilled three photo requests. I had fulfilled forty-nine more than her. I couldn’t resist making it an even fifty.  



Click here for Chapter Two.

Copyright 2016 by Sean Paul Murphy.  All Rights Reserved.


Be sure to read my memoir The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God.


Thursday, October 6, 2016

Unlock Your Inner Screenwriter



This weekend, I have the honor once again to be a guest at the Churches Making Movies Christian Film Festival in Elizabeth, New Jersey.  On Saturday, between 1pm and 2pm, I will be delivering a dynamic workshop that will vault the participants to screenwriting success -- or at least that's what the brochure says.  The workshop will take place at the Courtyard Marriott, 87 International Blvd, Elizabeth, NJ  07201.

I think everyone had a great time at last year's seminar so come on by.  I will also be attending the Red Carpet Gala on Friday night.   Feel free to introduce yourself.

Here's the website for the festival:  Churches Making Movie.


Also, be sure to check out my book.  Click for a free preview:







Monday, September 26, 2016

RIP Herschell Gordon Lewis

Herschell Gordon Lewis with my wife Deborah Lynn Murphy
Many years ago I helped edit the film Jimmyo Burril's "Chainsaw Sally"starring April Monique Burril and Mark Redfield.  The true highlight of the project was the opportunity to meet horror icon Herschell Gordon Lewis, aka The Godfather of Gore.  I rarely venture onto the sets of films I edit, but I did go to meet Herschell, who turned out to be a really nice, unassuming guy, who, like myself, spent most of his career working in advertising.


I have been a fan of horror movies all of my life and I have always respected Herschell as an innovator.  His low-budget exploitative film "Blood Feast" initiated the "gore" subgenre and paved the way for films like "Night of the Living Dead."  Generally speaking, I am not a fan of gore for the sake of gore, but I really enjoyed Herschell's film "2000 Maniacs," a twisted version of the musical"Brigadoon," about a Confederate town that reappears 100 years so that the inhabitants can take revenge on Yankees.  Herschell infused the film with a certain goofy, maniacal gleeful charm that kept the proceedings entertaining throughout.

Rest in peace, Herschell.  I'm glad I had the chance to meet you.

You will find considerably less gore in my book "The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God" than Herschell's films.  Be sure to check it out:



Wednesday, June 29, 2016

"The Company Man" Wins Three Emmys!



The National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, National Capital Chesapeake Bay Chapter, recently awarded "The Company Man" three Emmys.  The film won Best Director, Tom Feliu, Best Photography, John St. Ours, and Best Program/Special.  This brings the total of Emmys won by films I wrote to six.

Yours truly with one of the previous Emmys.
"The Company Man" was made by Rocket Media Group and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  It was directed by Tom Feliu, produced by Ward LeHardy, Tom Feliu, Jarett Melville and Dean Chappell III, and written by your humble narrator.  It is a narrative short depicting the very real threat of economic espionage at the behest of foreign powers.

The film is based on an actual case of attempted economic espionage that was successfully thwarted by the joint efforts of the targeted company and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  Some names and details were changed in the film to obscure the actual identity of the company itself.

"The Company Man" might be my favorite project for the FBI.  As a screenwriter, I was really drawn to the case.  It was very Hitchcockian.  The story revolved around a mild-mannered everyman who reluctantly finds himself in the center of an international game of cat and mouse.  In order to catch the foreign agents, the FBI needed to use an employee at the targeted company as bait because it was easier to teach the engineer the necessary spy craft than it was to teach an FBI Agent the detailed engineering knowledge.  The film is told from the perspective of the courageous engineer.  It was a great story with a great result:  Thousands of American jobs saved.

I am grateful for the opportunity to have worked on this film.  I always enjoy working with Rocket Media and the folks at the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  Each project has given me great insight into serious problems facing our country.  I am hopeful that the films will be part of the solution.

And, despite whatever National Public Radio thinks, they are not propaganda.

Here's the film:



Have you read my book "The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking to God" yet?  If not, what are you waiting for?  Check out this free preview on Amazon: