Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Beatles Death Match: Revolver Vs. Pepper



The recent 50th anniversary of the release of The Beatles' album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was much heralded in the press. Without a doubt, the album proved to be a major cultural achievement that helped define 1967's Summer of Love, which was perhaps the high point of the 'sixties idealism. However, despite the near universal acclaim for the album, the festivities have sparked a intense debate within Beatle fandom. Was Pepper indeed the Beatles' best album? Many critics and fans contend that their previous album, 1966's Revolver, was the high water mark of the Beatles' storied career. To answer that question, my wife Deborah and I decided to compare the two albums during a long drive from Baltimore to Ohio.

Initial Prejudices (Sean):

I grew up a Beatles fan. The first album I ever bought was the VeeJay album Introducing The Beatles, an Americanized version of their first British album Please Please Me. However, my main gateway into their music remained the Red and Blue compilation albums and what I heard played on the radio. I did not systematically begin purchasing all of the individual albums until I was much older.

I first heard Pepper around 1974. I went to a friend's house, and he played the album on his stereo while he changed after a baseball game. We only stayed long enough to hear about four songs, but I was utterly amazed. This was the first time I remember being completely mesmerized by an album. Still, it would be many years before I bought the record myself. I finally did so after already buying Abbey Road and The White Album, and I ultimately found Pepper wanting in comparison.

I believe Revolver was the last Beatles albums I purchased and I frankly didn't like it. Like all of their early releases, the American and British versions of the differed substantially.  The first three completed tracks, all featuring John Lennon, I'm Only Sleeping, And Your Bird Can Sing and Doctor Robert, were taken by Capitol and added to their Yesterday and Today hodgepodge. As a result, I found the American version of Revolver far too McCartney-centric and soft for my taste. It wasn't until the release of the CD that I really heard Revolver as the Beatles intended.  (That said, I think I prefer the American version of Rubber Soul to the official British version. It has a more consistent folk rock feel.)

Initial Prejudices (Deborah):

Deborah is a Beatle fan, but she never dove very deeply into the individual albums. This test would prove to be the first time she heard some of the songs on Pepper, and most of the songs on Revolver. She had very fresh ears.

The Competition:


We listened to the fourteen song Revolver CD first.  Taxman started us off strong with a biting rocker which showed George Harrison very much living in the material world at the time. The string-laden Eleanor Rigby followed. Although I consider this song top-tier McCartney, I always found the original stereo mix off-putting. The awkward way the voices shifted around in the mix always pulled me out of the song. Fortunately, the remixed version on the new Yellow Submarine Soundtrack album rectifies the problem.  Unfortunately, this CD had the old mix. I'm Only Sleeping, an enjoyable, mid-tier Lennon track enhanced by some backwards guitar, follows.  Harrison's first real foray into Indian music, Love You To, was next. While listening to it, I tried to put myself into the mindset of listeners of the time. I'm sure many people grooved to it, but I'm sure just as many of their early fans thought WTF? Personally, I find it the weakest of Harrison's Indian numbers. Deborah and I both considered it the weakest song on the album.

Here, There And Everywhere put the album back on track.  I always felt this was one of Paul's best ballads. I believe this was Deborah's favorite song on the album. It is also one of my favorites.  The novelty, Yellow Submarine, followed with an endearing vocal from Ringo. What's not to like? Criticizing it would be the equivalent of kicking a puppy.  The first side of the album ended with the acid trip inspired She Said She Said. This is my favorite Lennon song on the album. It inspired a pause as Deborah asked me the backstory on the song.

Side two begins with Good Day Sunshine. Another excellent McCartney track. I must confess, that although I found the American version too McCartney-centric for me, Paul doesn't contribute a single weak track. On an individual song-by-song basis, this might be his strongest album. The songs might not be as innovative as John's numbers, but they all stand the test of time.  The rocking And Your Bird Can Sing follows.  Initially, I was somewhat dismissive of this Lennon track, but the more deeply I got into playing the guitar, the more I came to appreciate it. I still can't play it, though. Another top-tier McCartney ballad, For No One, follows. Paul was really on fire during these sessions. Lennon's mid-tempo rocker, Doctor Robert, a homage to a real life doctor who supplied his clients with illicit pharmaceuticals, came next. Not a classic track, but definitely needed in the context of the album.  Without Lennon's more band-driven, rocking material, Revolver, as a wholesoftens considerably.

The next track, Harrison's I Want To Tell You, has grown to become, if not my favorite song on the album, the one I listen to most frequently. In the process of writing the song, Harrison reportedly invented the E7b9 chord. McCartney follows with the upbeat, horn-driven Got To Get You Into My Life. It is another very strong track from Sir Paul. Then we end with Lennon's tape-loop-driven  Tomorrow Never Knows. This is an innovative, highly-influential track that showed that rock music was only limited by the practitioner's imagination. Plus, it features one of Ringo's best performances.  A great end to the album.


For Pepper, Deborah and I listened to the newly released remixed version on CD.  The album starts strong with McCartney's rocking title track segueing into With A Little Help From My Friends. The song features Ringo's best performance as a vocalist on a Beatles album with great support from John and Paul (but where is George?) That said, the melodic bass line nearly steals the show. Next Lennon delivers one of his most memorable numbers Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds. The song might have been inspired by his son Julian's drawing, and not LSD, but the Lewis Carroll inspired lyrics definitely give it a druggy feel. McCartney returns with Getting Better, which in my opinion doesn't live up to the standard of the previous numbers. I feel the same way about the following song, McCartney's Fixing A Hole. Both songs are pleasant enough, but simply not top-tier material. Those songs are followed by yet another McCartney number, the string-laden story song She's Leaving Home, which is considerably enhanced by some counterpoint singing by John.  (Once again, where's George?) The first side of the album ends with Lennon's playful Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite, which was inspired by a 19th century circus poster. Once again, however, I think it is a song more memorable for the production than the lyrics.

Side two starts off with a distinct change of pace with Harrison's Indian-inspired Within You Without You. This is my favorite of George's Indian numbers. It does an excellent job of counterpointing Indian and Western musical sensibilities. It is followed by McCartney's When I'm Sixty-Four, a memorable piece of vaudeville highlighted by some more fine counter-point singing by John. It is followed by the enjoyable but forgettable Lovely Rita. McCartney gives way to John next on Good Morning, Good Morning, another song, in my opinion, that rests primarily on its production.  Then, after a harder rocking reprise of the title song, we finish off the album with the brilliant A Day In The Life, which I consider to be the Beatles' masterpiece, and perhaps the highpoint of rock and roll music in general.

And The Winner Is....

Beatle Judges Deb and Sean

I assumed Deborah would pick Pepper, but she gave a quick nod to Revolver with its slew of excellent songs by Sir Paul.  I was more conflicted.

On a song-by-song basis, Revolver is definitely the superior album.  Too many of Paul's songs on Pepper feel like dressed-up filler in comparison.  The same is true of John's material. I also don't hear enough of George on Pepper.  I miss his harmony singing on this album, and his guitar-playing doesn't figure as heavily on the more symphonic album. Ringo, however, supplies some of his best and most distinctive drumming on both albums.

To me, the most frustrating thing about Pepper is the knowledge that Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane were the first two tracks recorded for it. However, they were pulled from the album to be released as a single instead. Had those two tracks replaced two of the weaker songs on the album, say Lovely Rita and Good Morning, Good Morning, Pepper might have well been the best rock album ever.  However, that was not to be the case.

Still, despite my quibbles with Pepper, I chose it as the better of the two albums.  Why? Because of the production, the album itself held together better as a single listening experience. Although Revolver has the better songs, the album as a whole is constantly zig-zagging right and left and pulling me in different directions. It is strange that I hold that trait against the album when that is one of the things I enjoy most about The White Album. I think my prejudice against the original American version of Revolver is also a factor. Ultimately, however, Pepper wins because it ended with A Day In The Life. It's hard to beat that.

So what does it matter? Do we fans have to choose one album over the another? No, of course not. However, the perceived superiority of Pepper does have repercussions.  On the 50th Anniversary of Pepper, Apple released a great box set featuring an amazing remix. (BTW, I have no problem with remixing the stereo versions of the early Beatles albums. All of the attention was focused on the mono mixes at the time. The original stereo mixes were an afterthought that the Beatles didn't even even attend themselves.) Where was the lavish 50th Anniversary box for Revolver?  Or Rubber Soul, for that matter? I would love them to lavish the same amount of attention on that album. Hopefully, in the future, the record label will give all of their albums the attention they deserve.

Now here's a contest for you.  Which version of my book do you like more? The paperback or the kindle version? Try them both!

Monday, July 24, 2017

Congratulations Jamie and Shevon!



I would like to congratulate two-time Olympian, and star of "The Encounter," Jamie Nieto and his wife Shevon on their wedding.

After a freak accident during a routine back flip left him paralyzed, Jamie pledged he would one day walk down the aisle with his fiancee. It seemed like an impossible goal but, in a typical Hollywood happy ending, Jamie succeeded. It is a miraculous story as inspiring as the film we made together.

In addition to being an athlete and an actor, Jamie is also a talented writer, I hope one day he shares his story with the world.

Mazel Tov!

For my story, be sure to read my book "The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God."

Monday, April 17, 2017

"Made In America" wins Peer Awards



"Made In America," a narrative film based on a true story I wrote about nuclear proliferation for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, won a number of Peer Awards issued by the TIVA. The awards include:



Direction - Fiction, Gold
MADE IN AMERICA / Rocket Media Group / Federal Bureau of Investigation

Director of Photography - Fiction, Gold
MADE IN AMERICA / Rocket Media Group / Federal Bureau of Investigation

Editing - Fiction, Bronze
MADE IN AMERICA / Rocket Media Group / Federal Bureau of Investigation

Education/Training (25K and over) - Gold
MADE IN AMERICA / Rocket Media Group / Federal Bureau of Investigation



I want to thank the folks at Rocket Media and the FBI for bringing me onto the project.  I think these films I have been writing for the FBI have been some of the best ones I have made. Congratulations to all the winners!

I wish I could show you the film, or at least the trailer, but it doesn't seem like it has been publicly posted by the Bureau on the internet yet.  I will post it when it becomes available, but here are some behind the scenes stills.



Be sure to check out my book:

Friday, December 16, 2016

ChristianCinema's Top 100 Bestselling Films



I am pleased and grateful to announce that eight films I wrote made the Top 100 Bestselling Films of 2016 at ChristianCinema.com.  One of them, the always reliable "The Encounter," co-written by the mighty Timothy Ratajczak, made the Top 10.  Additionally, a film I edited but did not write also made the list.  Also, when you consider that I did some ghostwriting on another one of the films, which shall remain nameless, I had my hands in ten percent of the films on the list.

I am extremely grateful for having the opportunity to work on these films, and I want to thank all of the talented people involved.  Film making is a collaborative venture,  No one person can take all the credit, or all the blame, for a film.

Here are the titles:

#9.  The Encounter.



#20.  Revelation Road 2:  The Sea of Glass and Fire.



#32.  Hidden Secrets.



#49,  The Encounter: Paradise Lost



#56.  Marriage Retreat.



#70.  The Black Rider: Revelation Road.



#78.  Revelation Road: The Beginning of the End.



#88.  Sarah's Choice.



Here's the additional film I edited:

#39.  In The Blink of an Eye.




If you liked any of these films, you will love my memoir published by Touchpoint Press.  Be sure to check it out:

Monday, December 5, 2016

RESTINGPLACE.COM: Chapter Four

Please read the earlier chapters first.

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, typical anxiety dreams plagued me. 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 Johns Hopkins 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, shine, give God the glory, glory.” I remembered that tune 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. In reality, however, it was a memory we wouldn’t have shared if Lenny had his way. I 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, and 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. An unclimbable seven-foot-high, wooden privacy fence surrounded the entire Coleman backyard. 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 supposedly kept 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? 

The sound of a soft splash interrupted my thoughts. I stepped into the yard to find Lenny floating in the pool. When I got to the pool, 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 died of a heroin overdose just 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 did not look very inviting. The water was black as tar and I had a strange feeling that if I got in, it would never release me.

“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, 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 dead. 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 to find the 1973 horror film The Legend of Hell House, starring Roddy McDowall, playing. It was actually one of my favorite horror films of the period, but I was in no mood to watch it now. Picking up the remote, I remembered something. The Orioles game was the last thing I remembered watching, 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 is 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. The photograph made it easy to see why he held onto so many friends despite his frequent bouts of madness. There is 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 image suddenly changed again and I found myself staring at Elisabetta Kostek. Her smile was now a bemused taut as if to say she had done this thing.

“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 appeared bold as I walked over, the outcome somewhat surprised me. Part of me feared her face would not 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.

Click here to read Chapter Five.




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.

I rarely left a cemetery with pictures of only two graves, especially Eternal Faith. With over forty thousand graves and only about three thousand memorials uploaded to Resting Place, the cemetery was practically virginal. Whenever I visited it, I always strolled up and down a few rows photographing every visible monument. It seemed a waste of gasoline to leave here with only two graves to upload. However, the paranoid fear that grabbed a hold of me in the mausoleum robbed me of the sense of purpose I normally felt walking in a cemetery. I had to leave. Therefore, 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 avidly. It was the only team sport my mother deemed safe enough for me to 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 believe 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 married and started reproducing, I found it increasingly hard to fill the second seat. Gina Holt, my long-suffering former girlfriend, found baseball boring and I found it too depressing going alone. My seats also sat increasingly empty as my mother’s lifetime of smoking caught up with her and she needed a great deal of my attention while she battled lung cancer during the last year of her life. In the end, I gave away most of the tickets or sold them on StubHub. It became more trouble than it was worth and I eventually let the seats go. Still, I enjoyed watching the games on television. They brought back good memories of being part of something.

I originally planned to spend hours creating dozens of memorials on Resting Place while I watched the ballgame. I thought my premature departure from the cemetery meant I would be able to watch the Orioles beat the Cleveland Indians without any distractions but I was wrong. I found myself strangely 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 did not want to look into her eyes again. No, I felt something deeper there, far beyond mere flesh and bone and even mind. I felt 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. Irrational. There were no shadows lingering over me. 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-years-old. I certainly went through deep and profound moments of sadness, but it was nothing like the continual 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 pretty girls at the mall and have them laughing and smiling in minutes. 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 an adult 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 us. However, Lenny used the words manic depression, bipolar, paranoid and schizophrenic to describe himself during 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 a 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 he 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. The mind is our window to the world, and our only means to process it. If we lose our ability to control our mind, 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 previously 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 could not fathom what sent my mind reeling in that direction. I was not that kind of guy. I might have been half-Irish, but I was not 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 did, and, in my own way, I considered myself very strong. I knew the visit to the cemetery was not responsible for my strange mood either. I had visited Eternal Faith dozens of times without experiencing any inordinate sorrow. It might have been different if I actually went and visited the family graves, but I was not there to mourn my family today. I was there for another family.

The dark woman, I thought.

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

It was just a strange day, I told myself. Things would definitely improve 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 the smell of spoiled, rancid meat overwhelmed me. 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 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. The list still included Matilda Ritter. I wasn’t sure it meant I had really beaten Tombstone Teri, or whether the listing simply not been updated yet. Either way, I decided to proceed. 

I found the directory of my camera card, 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 pictures to deal with.

I find it difficult to explain what I felt at that moment. As irrational as it sounds, part of me honestly felt some unseen force was guiding me 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. Why was there a conflict at all? 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 victim. 

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 only her name and the years of her birth and death. She was seventy-two-years-old. Not a child. Moreover, nothing on the marble face of vault or the bronze plaque indicated she died by her own hand. My misgivings seemed groundless, 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 perform as 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 absolutely nothing about her. Opening yet another tab, I googled her name. 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. One would 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. 

Delete the files,” said the voice.

I highlighted the two Kostek files in the folder. My finger actually went to the delete button, but I couldn’t do it. 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 felt once again 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. However, 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.

I clicked 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 a perfect example of 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 will rest under their monument for a long time. They should be entitled to choose one indicative of their 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 was cost. It is cheaper to cut the grass with these flat monuments.

When I turned my trusty red Toyota Corolla into the cemetery, my eyes turned toward our family plot without any mental prodding. The graves laid near the top of a small rise about a hundred-and-fifty-yards from the service road. A sheltering willow tree standing nearby made the spot extremely easy to find. Now you would think someone as obsessed with cemeteries as I was would take this opportunity to visit the graves of his immediate family but you would 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 was never repeated at the graves of people I actually knew in real life. All I felt when I stood at their graves was their absence. 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 could see myself asking out for a date. Then again, so was Rita Falstaff. At least on the days she tolerated me.

Rita was the receptionist slash secretary slash sales representative 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 possessed a friendly smile, and she always seemed relieved to talk to someone who was not in mourning, unless said person was a genealogist. Genealogists were the bane of her existence. Our questions always sent her to a wall of black filing cabinets in the unventilated back room. She despised rummaging through those 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 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 photo to the website before she did, I could 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 sucked 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. My sudden realization that I was afraid shocked me, but it was true. 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 had 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 housing Mrs. Matilda Ritter’s casket. The third tier was slightly above eye level, but the camera angle would not be too awkward. I just had to brush away the brittle, dead flowers in the bronze vase partially blocking 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 was when I noticed the other flower fragments. The floor was littered with them.

I turned to 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 the money and staff to police the grounds properly. Jose, the groundskeeper, was particularly meticulous. The grass was always cut. The trees and bushes were neatly trimmed. The dead flowers were always discreetly discarded. 

This was sloppy. And 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 the last two months, I had 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. Instead, they angered me enough to shame the absentee owners 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. Nevertheless, 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. The number of flowers made me think it was a new interment of a much beloved individual. After snapping a quick photo of the Ritter grave for the webpage, 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 failed to listen. At the time, I would say it was probably my unwillingness to give into superstitious fear. Looking back now, I still do not believe I really had a choice. My steps were 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. A photo gave you a definite feel for the dead person. This black and white photograph revealed an attractive woman in her mid-to-late forties. Her dark hair and dark eyes did not surprise me. My long years of walking through cemeteries taught me that Italians, Jews and Eastern Europeans were most likely to memorialize their loved ones with photos. Therefore, I expected her to have stereotypical dark features.

I could have confirmed my assumptions about her ethnicity by looking down at her name, but her eyes would not release mine. They grabbed a hold of mine and pulled me forward. They were not inherently intimidating or scary. The eyes, much like the half-smile lingering beneath them, hinted at a world-weary wisdom. They possessed the power to seduce, but without the power to love. She seemed to know 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 did not want to know the reason behind this dark 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 was not 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, dead by her own hand. 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 closed casket 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 dead brother and my mother’s uncontrolled grief. I rested in the soothing darkness for a moment, my heart still thumping, before finally opening my eyes. 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 an anniversary of some sort. Perhaps a wedding anniversary, but no husband was listed. These vaults generally sold in pairs. 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 a step back, and then another and another. I thought I was leaving, but that was not the case. Instead I found myself raising my camera to photograph the grave for the website. First, I took a wide shot capturing 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 as they did previously, but this time she simply stared blankly. Still, call me crazy, but it seemed 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. An irrational fear suddenly overwhelmed me that the doors would not open when I pushed them, but they did. Still, I did not slow down until I was out of the shadow of the building and bathed entirely in the purifying light of the sun. 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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