The Noose of Judas

Dracula 2000 (2000)

Amid the noise and haste of life, I have continued to chip away at the last installment of my angel trilogy, The Saint of El Camino Real. Here is how it begins. Tell me, does this make you want to continue reading?

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that he was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” And throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself.

– The Gospel of Saint Matthew, Chapter 27

Jerusalem, 33 AD

The stench was so awful it almost made the young Vespasian vomit. He ordered Laelius, his slave, to grab the rope. No one was else near. The Jews would not approach the rotting flesh for fear of contamination. Roman slaves would later remove the corpse as a random punishment for some invented offense. But only after the Jewish Sabbath had passed, of course … everything had to be done in accordance with the Jewish schedule.

Vespasian’s cohort had been dispatched to Judea a month ago because of the Jewish holiday. Pilate, the Prefect of region, had requested that the Emperor send extra troops to quell the expected crowds.

Vespasian hated Judea. He’d been there once before, en route to Egypt. He hated the Jews and their strange religion. And the tolerances of Pax Romana — he hated that too. Why didn’t Rome just wipe them out and have it done with? Or leave the place altogether? For Vespasian, he couldn’t get back to Rome soon enough.

He wasn’t sure why wanted the noose. It was a quirk of his. He enjoyed collecting instruments of death. He believed they held power, the power of the victim. And this victim was quite unique. He’d been duped by the Jewish leaders into betraying one of his own kind — a man who had gained the reputation of a prophet. A man who the Jews saw as a threat. And after the weak Pilate acquiesced to the Jews’ demand for an execution, the betrayer felt remorse and hung himself.

As Vespasian and Laelius made their way back to their encampment, they saw a group of Jews coming towards them. A member of the Sanhedrin, the high council of the Jews, was leading an ox cart. Vespasian recognized him by his long beard and elaborate robe. Behind the cart were three women and a young man, all walking slowly. As the group came closer, he could see that they were in tears and that the cart was carrying a bloodied corpse wrapped in a large sheet. Over the side of the makeshift bier, an arm was hanging out from under the sheet. Blood trickled from a large deep gash just above the wrist bone. The unmistakable wound of crucifixion.

The prophet, thought Vespasian.

And no sooner had the thought crossed his mind than he became gripped by panic. Vespasian, a man who had survived terrible battles against ruthless enemies, found himself feeling like a scared child.

Though it was a warm spring day, his hands suddenly grew cold. The rope he held felt heavy, even burdensome. He dropped it to the ground and immediately the sensation left him.

The small entourage came to where Vespasian and Laelius stood. The old Jew stopped, looked at Vespasian, and waited.

Vespasian eyed the body of the dead prophet in the cart. The sheet was dark brown where the blood had dried and crimson where still wet. Only small patches of the original white remained.

Vespasian nodded to the Jew and stepped back to let the group proceed.
After they had passed, Vespasian reached down and picked up the rope.

… Yes, there is power here. Dark power, true, but power none-the-less.

Maslow’s Tower


I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Abraham Maslow. Anyone who took General Psychology in college may recognize the name. In truth, I don’t know too much about him myself, only that he developed the hierarchy of needs model where he breaks down human needs into five categories, each built upon the other. This is often illustrated by a pyramid, or tower.


Our basic physical needs (food, shelter, etc.) are at the bottom, then safety, then the need for belonging (the need to love and be loved), then success or accomplishment. The final step is self-actualization, where we reach our full potential and are able to contribute to our world – to “contribute our verse,” as Robin Williams said in the movie Dead Poets Society.

In the following poem, I examine Maslow’s theory..

Maslow’s Tower

Attempting Maslow’s Tower
My SELF got in the way.
I stopped at love and be loved
And lingered half the day.

When I rose another tier
The climb became intense.
Doubt spiked me with a twisted thorn
Causing countenance to wince.

I tumbled down to level two
And there felt safe again,
But as I heard my belly cry
The floor went caving in.

Like Sisyphus in Hades
I try to reach the top,
But sins distract my best intent
And my stone of virtue drops.

I must cast aside this human good
Which seemeth right, I know.
It’s now the middle of the day
And I’ve nothing yet to show.

I think I’ll journey to that hill
That lies off in the east.
Seek shade beneath the tree there
And find a moment’s peace.

Later, I may rise again
To try the dreaded tower,
But for now my strength is gone
It’s time to rest an hour.


I lay beneath crossed branches
And dream of level five.
Oh, to be self-actualized
And sate this human drive.

If only I could stand aloft
Possessing all I want,
Imparting cosmic wisdom:
Behold, the great savant!

It is then the idea strikes me
That I may be deceived.
Perhaps this tower in the west
Is not to be believed.

I’m mindful of another tower
That men once tried to mount
Yet, in the end, their efforts
Did result in no account.

Just then, off in the distance
I hear a curdling cry,
And watch to see a body spinning
Downward through the sky.

Another soul on Maslow’s tower
Has reached the golden summit
And, with nothing left to live for,
Met its end in splendorous plummet.

© Harry Steven Ackley

The Two-Headed Baby


Mrs. Forsythe had consented to allow David to go to county fair with the Durkee family, but she did not relish the idea of turning her son over to them, even if it was only for a few hours.

As she turned into the driveway of the Durkee house, Mrs. Forsythe tightly gripped the steering wheel of the families’ brand new 1964 Ford Country Squire.  The afternoon sunlight caught her eyes as she made the turn and her well-made face crinkled up, as if she smelled something putrid. Mrs. Forsythe had attended a tea that afternoon and was wearing a red dress, with a pillbox hat and white gloves. She was a thin woman with refined features. At that moment, she just looked mean.

“Now if they try and get you to go to church, you just tell them, no thank you. You have you own church to go to,” said Mrs. Forsythe. The Forsythes were from a long line of Methodists; the Durkees belonged to one of those Pentecostal churches where they were always trying to convert everyone. Mrs. Forsythe resented the Durkees trying to get David to go along with them on Sundays.

“Aw, Mom!” said David.

“Aw nothing. You just do as I say.”

The big station wagon came to a stop and David exploded out to meet his friend Arlon who had been waiting on the front steps. The two boys quickly disappeared around the back of the house together.

“Hey Linda, how you been?” came a slow twangy voice from the direction of the front porch.

Mrs. Forsythe squinted to see where the voice was coming from and then finally made out the shape of Mrs. Durkee’s big silhouette veiled behind the screen door.

“I’ve been well, Betty. How about yourself?”

“The good Lord takes care,” said Mrs. Durkee, as she opened the door and motioned for Mrs. Forsythe to come in.

The inside of the Durkee house was filled with the smell of chicken fried steak. Mr. Durkee, a large man with an oversized forehead that made his face look like a lightbulb, sat at the kitchen counter, waiting for his supper. He nodded silently at Mrs. Forsythe as she entered the house.

“You weren’t planning on feeding the boys, were you, Betty?” asked Mrs. Forsythe. “I already gave David something to eat before we left.”

“Oh, why yes,” answered Mrs. Durkee. “I thought we’d all have supper together. Didn’t I tell ya?”


“Oh, I am sorry. I just figured, if I didn’t give the boys something to eat, why they’d be munchin’ down a bunch of garbage at the fair,” said Mrs. Durkee. “Maybe Davey will still have room for a little something, huh?”

Mrs. Forsythe did not like her son being called Davey. She’d made that very clear in the past. However, at the moment, she did not wish to broach the subject.

“I don’t know, Betty, I suppose you’ll have to ask him and see,” said Mrs. Forsythe. “So you think you’ll be back around ten o’clock?”

“Oh yeah, but don’t trouble yourself to come back out. We’ll drop Davey off on our way home.”

“That’s awfully far out of your way, Betty. You only live a half mile from the fairgrounds. I’m all the way back in town.”

“Ain’t no trouble at all,” interjected Mr. Durkee in a powerful baritone voice. “We’ll bring him on by at ten.”

With that settled, Mrs. Forsythe saw no reason to stay around. So, after she bade the Durkees a quick and courteous farewell, she turned to go. As she did, the Durkee’s five year-old son Cloy came screaming at her from out of nowhere. He ran right past Mrs. Forsythe, jostling her and causing her hat to fall to the floor.

Cloy grabbed his mother around her waist, leaning his head into her side while fixing his gaze on the stranger in the room.

“Cloy!” barked Mr. Durkee. “That ain’t nice. What’s wrong with you, boy?”

Cloy clung even tighter to his mother, never taking his eyes off Mrs. Forsythe, who picked up her hat and smoothed the veil of netting that hung over the front.

“Now, Tucker, he’s alright. See, he’s just not used to Linda, that’s all. He musta been hidin’ just outside the front door.” Mrs. Durkee turned to Mrs. Forsythe and smiled with a doughy grin. “When he saw you comin’ towards him, he musta got scared.”

Cloy pointed a wet finger at Mrs. Forsythe and said, “Who’s that?”

“Why, that’s Mrs. Forsythe,” Said Mrs. Durkee. “Davey’s mom. You remember Mrs. Forsythe. They live around the corner from Arlon’s school.”

“Could you please refer to him as David?” asked Mrs. Forsythe. “He doesn’t like being called Davey.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Yes, you mentioned that before,” said Mrs. Durkee.

Still staring at Mrs. Forsythe, Cloy breathed heavily through his nose, green snot flagging from his nostrils in rhythm with each breath. Cloy’s head jutted forward from his mother’s side and he stuck his tongue out at Mrs. Forsythe.

“Cloy!” yelled Mr. Durkee, getting up from his chair and lunging at the boy.

Cloy ran screaming down the hall to the back of the house. Mr. Durkee began to undo his belt and went after him. “You come here, boy!”

A minute later, a swatting sound came from the back of the house. In between swats was a high-pitched yelling. Mrs. Durkee pointed her large dopey nose towards the hallway. “Sounds like Cloy’s gettin’ himself a lickin’.”

Mrs. Forsythe stood in silence. She had been all ready to make her escape, now she felt obliged to stay until the commotion ceased.

Mr. Durkee reappeared and Cloy came running from behind him, his eyes running with tears. He bolted towards the front door, but Mrs. Durkee stepped in front of him, heading him off.

“Now where do you think you’re going? Supper’s ready,” said Mrs. Durkee, using her big hips to corral the boy back to her husband. Mr. Durkee snatched the boy by his armpits and forced his wiggling body into one of the dining room chairs.

“I’m awful sorry about all his, Linda,” said Mrs. Durkee.

“It’s OK. I —”

Mrs. Forsythe was interrupted by the sound of the screen door opening and closing with a loud WHAP. The two older boys came rushing into the house.

“Say, Linda, I got an idea,” said Mrs. Durkee. “Why don’t you stay for supper? Then you can go out to the fair along with us.”

There was nothing Linda Forsythe wanted more than to grab her son and get away from the Durkees. She and David could go the fair by themselves, or to a movie — anything to escape.

She watched as David and Arlon quickly sat down and scooted themselves up to the table, both wearing broad smiles. If she went along, at least she’d be able to keep an eye on things.

“Well, I’ll have to call Bill to see if he needs me at home tonight,” said Mrs. Forsythe. “Come to think of it, it might be nice to get out and see some of the exhibits.”

“Yeah, Betty’s got some of her stewed tomaters put up in Ball jars out there this year. Won an honorable mention,” said Mr. Durkee.

“Aw Tucker, shame on you. Why do ya have to go and tell all?” Mrs. Durkee said with a blush.


Big farm machines and the raucous crowd greeted the little entourage as they walked past the entrance gate and towards the great midway, the boys taking it all in with wonder. Mr. Durkee gave each of his sons three dollars to spend. Not to be shown up, Mrs. Forsythe matched he sum, which, when added to amount he’d been given at home, gave David a total of eight dollars.

As the fantasyland of roaring contraptions, whizzing lights, and tent-covered dime toss and three-for-a-quarter games opened before them, David and Arlon could not contain themselves. The two boys bolted away. Cloy immediately tried to follow but was restrained by his mother’s pudgy hands clutching tightly on his shoulders. In frustration, he socked his mother hard in the leg. Mrs. Durkee let go of her grip and Cloy ran after his brother. His father gave chase and caught up with the three boys at a cotton candy booth. Mrs. Durkee was left hunched over in pain, rubbing her thigh.

“Are you ok, Betty? Can you walk?” asked Mrs. Forsythe.

“Mmm … oh, I’ll be fine. He’s just a little mischief maker, that’s all.” Mrs. Durkee looked up. Her eyes were wide and sad. “It’s just cause of his mind, ya know. Cloy’s got himself a weak mind — one of God’s blessed ones. He can’t help what he does.”

Mrs. Forsythe had heard the story before. David had told it to her time and time again — how Cloy was always being let off the hook because of his being slow. Cloy would come up behind David and box his ears or pinch him real hard and David wouldn’t be able to retaliate or defend himself because Cloy ‘didn’t know no better.’

Mrs. Forsythe didn’t buy it. Why couldn’t they just reason with the boy? Why couldn’t they set rules and guidelines for the boy and teach him to respect them?

A few minutes later Mr. Durkee and the three boys returned, each with a big poof of cotton candy in hand. Cloy’s rage had been placated and the little unit was once again herded together.

Well, what d’ya all wanna see first?” asked Mr. Durkee.

“We wanna go on the rides!” shouted the two older boys in unison.

“Yeah, the rides,” said Cloy.

“You’re too young to be goin’ on any of them rides, Cloy,” said Mrs. Durkee in a stern voice.

Cloy began to whimper.

“Hush now!” said Mr. Durkee. He then bent over and put his face right up to Cloy’s. Now you can’t go on any of them rides, Cloy. You’re only five. Them others, Arlon and his friend, is nine. They’s bigger than you.”

The bear-like man then moved over to his wife, getting close to her so Cloy wouldn’t hear. “Betty, why don’t you and Mrs. Forsythe take Cloy and go and look at your booths and so on, and I’ll take the two older one on the rides.” He mumbled in a low dark voice, dipping his head as he spoke, as if to say, ‘This is what we WILL do. This IS the plan.’

“I think that’s wise,” answered Mrs. Durkee. “To take him along with you would only cause trouble. He’d be tempted to try and hop on all them rides and just be throwin’ fits all night long.

“Cloy, you come along with us,” ordered Mrs. Durkee.


In the Will Rogers memorial exhibit hall, as the two women viewed the dried flower arrangements, Mrs. DeeDee Asmuth, a church friend of the Durkees, came up and said hello.

“Why howdy, DeeDee! Where’s Joe? You here all by yourself?” asked Mrs. Durkee.

“Joe’s home. I came out to work alongside Billie Crandall in her patchwork booth. Mrs. Asmuth then cast an appraising eye on Mrs. Forsythe.

“DeeDee, this here’s Mrs. Forsythe. Her boy’s a friend of Arlon’s.”

“Howdy,” said Mrs. Asmuth. She wiped her hands against her barrel-shaped thighs and extended one to Mrs. Forsythe.

“Hello,” said Mrs. Forsythe, taking the hand and gently clasping it as though it was made of cigar ash.

With the formalities over, Mrs. Durkee interjected once again, “So how’s Joe’s tomatoes doing, DeeDee? Has Joe been able to get himself some Mexicans to do his pickin’? I remember you mentioning it to keep it in our prayers at last Sunday service. It’s terrible how them braceros is starting to unionize and all.”

Mrs. Durkee turned to Mrs. Forsythe, “DeeDee’s Joe farms near the basin. He had a bad time getting workers this season cause of the Mexicans striking.”

Mrs. Forsythe had nothing to add to the conversation about Mexican farmworkers. She was a Kennedy Democrat and supported the workers. But she wasn’t about to let her true feelings be known at this point. She simply wanted the night to end. She politely turned up the corners of her little mouth and nodded at Mrs. Asmuth as if she cared — as if she fully understood her plight.

Mrs. Asmuth smiled back, then turned to Mrs. Durkee and said, “Yeah, we was in a fix for a while. But we got ourselves some new boys last Tuesday. We’re OK now.”

“Oh, praise God!” said Mrs. Durkee with genuine relief.

“Yes, that’s right. Praise his name.”

The two women turned to Mrs. Forsythe for some additional spiritual affirmation. She responded only by widening her smile and nodding.

“Well Jesus did it,” added Mrs. Asmuth. They’s Guatemalan boys. Hard up, I guess. But Jesus brought ’em in.”

A mental picture of Jesus leading a train of impoverished Guatemalans onto the Asmuth ranch formed in Mrs. Forsythe’s mind — Jesus the labor contractor.

“Say, where is Arlon anyhow?” asked Mrs. Asmuth. “Where’s Tucker and Cloy?”

“Oh, the boys is off with Tucker going on rides. Except for Cloy. He’s…  Now where is he?”

The three women all looked around in the immediate vicinity for Cloy. Finally, Mrs. Durkee spied her son ripping apart cattails from a nearby dried flower arrangement. The cattail fluff was being scattered everywhere.

“CLOY!” Mrs. Durkee hollered as she shot after him. The boy screamed and ran away from her, knocking over a card table of dolls made out of tree bark.

“Cloy, you come here this instant! I’m gonna whip your little bottom.”

As Mrs. Durkee continued to give chase, Mrs. Asmuth turned to Mrs. Forsythe and shook her head piteously; her big eyes brooding doglike in their sagging sockets. “That poor boy. He’s just one of the simple ones of God.” She shook her head even more gravely. “Ya know, at first they thought it might have been a demon in him. They tried casting it out but it just didn’t take. Then they maybe figured he was just simple.”


After the women had viewed all the various exhibits, they went off to look for Mr. Durkee and the older boys. They found them at the far end of the midway, sitting on a bench. Mr. Durkee looked weary and disheveled. The deep folds of his face were all bunched up and he looked like an old man about to nod off during a long sermon.

“Why, Tucker. You look as if you’d died and gone to heaven,” said Mrs. Durkee with an amused tone.

“We went on the Zipper and the Rock-O-Planes!” shouted David.

“You did?” asked Mrs. Forsythe with a mixture of excitement and concern.

“Yeah,” answered Arlon. And now we wanna go see the two-headed baby. Can we go, Ma?”

“Yeah, can we?” repeated David.

The WHAT?” asked Mrs. Forsythe.

The boys simultaneously pointed past the woman to a tent made of red and yellow striped canvas. Above the entrance was a large sign that read 2 HEADED BABY. Below the words was a picture of a sinister looking nurse with dagger-like fingernails standing behind a two-headed baby. The diapered baby sat on a table, a grotesque cross between a hydra and a Gerber label.

“Oh my God,” gasped Mrs. Forsythe. There was no way her child was going to go inside that tent. But before she could say a thing, Mrs. Durkee was giving her approval.

“I’m too tired to take ’em, Betty,” said Mr. Durkee. “Ya mind if I just sit here while you go on in?”

“Betty, I don’t know about letting the boys go into a freak show,” said Mrs. Forsythe. “After all, they’re only nine years old.”

Mrs. Durkee looked at the two boys. “Well now, that never occurred to me.”

“Aw, Mom. C’mon,” pleaded David. “We already saw the woman who turns into a gorilla.”

Mrs. Forsythe shot a stern glance at Mr. Durkee, then turned to her son. “Well, I’m certainly not going to give you the money for it. After all those rides and candy, I doubt if you have anything left.”

“I have enough,” said David. “Remember that other money you gave me before we left home.” And with that, the boys got up and began to amble in the direction of the tent. Cloy followed.

“Now hold on boys! Cloy! You boys wait a minute,” snapped Mrs. Durkee. “Maybe it’d be best if Cloy stayed here with you, Tucker. After all, he is a young’un.”

Cloy began to cry and stomp his feet. “No! … I never get to go! I never get to go!” he wailed.

“Aw, let him go on in, Betty,” said Mr. Durkee. “He’s had to tag along with you gals all night long. Let him go in with the other boys.”

Of course Mrs. Forsythe had no intention of going in herself. But as the three boys and Mrs. Durkee began moving away, and she realized she was being left alone with Mr. Durkee, she followed. She justified the action by telling herself that, if David were to see something appalling, or that he wouldn’t understand, it’d be better if she were on hand to explain.


At the front of a group of about fifteen people, the five of them stood, silent and waiting. Facing them was a high narrow table and on top of the table, near the edge was a drum-sized object with a blue towel draped over the top. On either side of the object were two, flat, glass cases in which yellowed news clippings and photos were arranged, giving the history of the attraction.

The man who had sold them the tickets outside was a plump balding man, about fifty years old. He wore thick glasses and had a kind, even childish-looking face. It was he who came through the back of the tent and stood behind the table. He flicked a couple of overhead switches and, as he did, the lights where the crowd stood went dim. At the same time, a bare lightbulb came on above the table with object covered by the blue towel.

He lifted the towel.

“This is a two-headed baby. It is a real baby. It was born with two heads. His name is Terrell and Adrian Devorak and he was born in 1942 and lived for approximately two hours and forty minutes. He went on with his well-rehearsed yarn, accenting the same syllables he had accented a thousand times before.

As he spoke, the man looked down at a huge glass jar. He had an almost endearing expression on his face. The jar was on a Lazy Susan. He turned it slowly so it could be seen from all sides.

The baby was a grayish-yellow color, probably affected by the light and the liquid in the jar. At first glance it looked like a big wad of old chewing gum. The heads and the arms were curled in towards its chest and the only features that could be clearly seen were its tint feet and the raw purplish pigtail of what was left of its umbilical cord. Little pieces of flesh that had broken off of the child were dancing around in the formaldehyde as the man kept turning the jar.

Mrs. Forsythe stood stone-faced. What a vile thing to do for one’s livelihood, she thought. How could anyone live with that thing? She grew angry for having allowed the Durkees to talk her into this.

Suddenly Cloy spoke up. “What’s that?” he asked.

Mrs. Durkee bent over son and spoke softly. “Why, that’s a little boy, Cloy. It’s got two heads.”

The man, now finished speaking, kept turning the infant in a jar. Its heads came around to face the front again, and there he stopped. The solution, still swishing from all its turning, caused the small lips to move as if they were trying to speak.

A monster’s roar erupted from Cloy as he lunged for the jar and pulled it down onto the hard earth floor where it shattered and spilled its contents. The formaldehyde soaked into the ground leaving, a midst the glistening shards of glass, a twisted little heap of gray bulbous matter.

The man shouted and rushed from behind his table, knelt down beside the child and began to weep. He cried, “It’s my baby. You done in my baby! Oh Jesus, my baby’s gone.” He moved some of the pieces of glass and found a small hand.


On the way home that night Mrs. Forsythe was silent and remote. The big station wagon moved along quietly as hot air blew in through an open window.

When they got to the street where their house was, Mrs. Forsythe, her eyes gazing blindly in front of her, missed the turn.

© Harry Steven Ackley

Swimming with Pregnant Ladies


Since the publication of The Prophet of Shattuck Avenue, I realize I’ve sorely neglected my blog here. I hope to rectify that going forward.

I’m presently in the research phase for my third and last “angel book.” My working title, which most likely will stick, is The Saint of El Camino Real. The main character is Heather Campbell, daughter of Emily, who has just started college.

The historical background for the story goes from the Roman Empire, to the Spanish Inquisition, to the California Missions (hence the El Camino Real part). To educate myself, I am reading a couple of books. The first is The Spanish Inquisition, a History by Joseph Perez. The second book is A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions by Elias Castillo.

I imagine (hope) the book will see the light of day sometime in 2020.

In the meantime, I am editing and posting some of my earlier writings, just to “get them out there.” This includes a memoir I wrote about running away to Mexico, a few plays and screenplays, past blogs, and also some select poems and short stories.

I’d like to start out with a poem: Swimming with Pregnant Ladies. This was inspired by impressions gathered at the Community Center pool in Campbell, California. I was working nights as an adult education teacher. During the day, after dropping my daughter off at preschool, I’d go swimming.

Swimming with Pregnant Ladies

Their eyes beam at each other
As they ease themselves in.
As if bringing delicate odd-shaped packages
To some sort of gift exchange.

They bob and buoy through the water
As though to tell their babies
Of their eagerness to be with them
— A call to come out and play.

One young mother
Wears a two-piece.
Her navel protrudes down into the water
— A soft blip on her smooth southern hemisphere.

The light sifts down
Though shafts and shades of chlorine blue
Her skin glows a creamy yellow,
Supple and sensual.

They congregate at the end
Laughing, not swimming.
Their sleeping children
Rumbling in wonder.

© Harry Steven Ackley


Apologies to my followers…


Dear blog followers,

A Happy Easter to you all! My apologies for not writing for a while, but I’ve been fighting  some personal battles.

Throughout my adult life I’ve struggled with a clinical condition called major depressive disorder (MDD). It started in my twenties and I’ve had several bouts with it since. Sometimes it’s brought on by circumstances (like financial or family problems); sometimes it comes without much external provocation. Something very simple can trigger it. Research shows that the origins of MDD may be genetic. Perhaps this is true in my case. My dad experienced severe depression, as did his mother, my paternal grandmother.

I’ve been going through such an episode since mid-January. After a few weeks, I recognized it for what it was and sought help. I believe the mere act of seeking help is the beginning of healing. Things have since improved and I believe I’m now on the mend.

This is not easy to share. But I wanted to, because I want people out there who suffer from the same thing to  know you’re not alone. Many famous people suffer from MDD or other forms of mental health challenges…

(And let’s not forget Vincent Van Gogh. He painted beautiful pictures but had immense trouble coping with daily life.)

All that said, I am pressing forward with publication of my next book, “The Prophet of Shattuck Avenue.” I need to do it for myself, if nothing else. Before all of the above happened, the book was pretty much finished. I just needed to upload it into the CreateSpace publishing tool and provide all the ancillary info (author bio, price, etc.). I’ve done that. Now all that remains is reviewing the final proof.

Thanks for listening. Keep me in your prayers. I’ll let you all know when the book is ready.

– Steve

For further reading:

My brief tenure as a cartoonist…


Last week I was cleaning out a closet and came across my old Ivory Towers cartoons.

While a student at Bethany Bible College, I was cartoonist for the school paper during the 1985-86 school year. Being a religious college, Bethany required its students to take systematic theology courses. And since it was a Protestant school, we spent time focusing on the early reformers … Martin Luther, John Calvin and so on.

Looking at pictures of the reformers, I was curious about the odd hats they wore. I still don’t know their origins. If anyone does, please comment. Perhaps they’re a forerunner of the mortar boards people wear at graduation. Anyway, that’s where the idea for the cartoon came from.

Ivory Towers takes place in a fictional seminary, presumably located in Protestant Northern Europe of long ago. (Where the ray gun and the change machine came from, I have no idea.)

You can see how the comics progressed during the school year (more detail and shading as I went along). I also eventually gave the characters names. Hippotus and Creetus were my two main theologians; Nuisance – the student who was always asking questions; Father Loopin – the priest from the village.

Poking fun at the stuffy theologians provided fun relief from my studies. Hope you enjoy the toons!

(Click on a panel to activate slideshow.)

Texting Through Glass

In Our Lady of West 74th Street there’s a short scene where Emily, the main character, is texting with her teenage daughter through a window at Starbucks…

The bus stopped at West 63rd Street and the two got off. Starbucks was located just a half-block from the bus stop. As Emily and Martin approached the corner, they could see the two girls through the window. They were chatting and laughing.

Emily went up and tapped on the glass. Rather than being met with expressions of excited welcome, the girls’ faces turned serious. Heather lifted her cup, pointed to it, and mouthed some words to Emily who shook her head and pointed at her watchless wrist. Heather typed something into her phone and a moment later, Emily heard her phone beep from inside her purse. She took it out and looked. The screen showed the words ‘almost finished.’ Emily then did the same and typed ‘hurry up!’

I’ve always liked this passage. It was an attempt to poke fun at the way our communication has grown so impersonal. How we have forgotten how to talk to each other … across generations, across philosophical barriers, and just in general. We text each other through glass.

It seems the practice of genteel conversation has all but disappeared. This was surely exhibited in the recent U.S. election. Political choices aside, there was very little decorum shown by either side. And it wasn’t just the candidates. From major news personalities down to individuals posting on social media, there seemed to be only one way communication. How can it be otherwise when everyone is talking at once?

WELCOME TO FACEBOOK: Let’s all talk at once.

We’ve forgotten the other part of conversation—listening. It’s the nature of social media. Everything is outbound. And in the midst of the resulting cacophony, we’ve lost the art of listening and considering what’s been said. There’s no time to think things through anymore. We must respond now or our comments will be lost in the fray.

Hat’s off to the monk…

I recently finished reading The Sign of Jonas by the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton. The book is a memoir about his first years of living a monastic life. One of the things I was struck by was his intense desire for silence—for contemplation. To listen.

Though Merton wrote many books in his short life, he was a reluctant writer. He often had to be pressed by his abbot to write—to gain support for the monastery. Merton simply wanted silence. I think as a result of his reluctance, and his silence, he was a better writer.

I realize we’re not all monks. And that we must function in this age of digital clamor. However, let us remember take time to put down our phones and step out from behind the glass. To handle a printed page. To speak to each other with our breath and to listen with our ears of flesh.

The Writer’s Dance

(The Maritime Bhangra Dance Group – click the image to open in new window)

I love this. The above dance performance was making the rounds on social media about a month or so ago. If you haven’t seen it already, please watch. Or, if you have, watch it again. It’s fun.

There was another video clip about dancing that came across my Facebook feed a couple of weeks ago, about a different kind of dance. It was something I really needed to hear. I wanted to share it then, but like many others, the election was weighing on me, and clarity of thought was in short supply. Perhaps now is an OK time.

This video, by Swedish videographer David Lindberg, gives visual context to the words of Alan Watts (d. 1973). I had only heard of Alan Watts, that is to say I knew the name. I recalled that he was a new age philosopher type in the 1960s.

(Alan Watts & David Lindberg – Why Your Life Is Not A Journey)

Lately, I’ve been seeing the world in very linear terms. I know that that can be a prison, stealing joy and creating bitterness and regret. I wrote about this once in another blog a started years ago—about the idea of “having arrived”—of striving to reach that elusive destination of “having it all together.”

With respect to writing, sometimes I feel (as I’m sure other writers do) an impatient rush to get to the end, to complete the final draft be done with it. It’s definitely a temptation. But what’s more important is the dance—the words you use and the story you’re trying to tell. The enjoyment of the creative process.

I recently learned that two most famous American writers, Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams, were both as much enamored with the dance than they were the end product, perhaps even more so. They had no problem years later going back and revising their earlier works. Hemingway, decades after writing them, rewrote the memoirs of his life in Paris in the 1920s. Williams would change lines and even scenes in plays when they were in mid-production. So it’s OK to indulge in the thousand visions and revisions that T.S. Eliot spoke of. It’s not all about getting to the end.

Note to self: Enjoy the dance.

Relics from the Past

[Three reliquary busts from the Cloisters museum in New York City. These are each believed to have once held a skull of one of 11,000 handmaidens who were martyred with St. Ursula.]

In honor of the upcoming Dia de los Muertos holiday, I thought I’d write a bit about relics and the incorrupt bodies of saints — a macabre subject to some perhaps, but hey, it is that time of year. defines relics as, “the body, a part of the body, or some personal memorial of a saint, martyr, or other sacred person, preserved as worthy of veneration.” That’s pretty much my understanding as well. And then a reliquary is “a repository or receptacle for relics.”

As for the incorrupt bodies of saints, Wikipedia defines incorruptibility as “a Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox belief that divine intervention allows some human bodies (specifically saints and beati) to avoid the normal process of decomposition after death as a sign of their holiness. Bodies that undergo little or no decomposition, or delayed decomposition, are sometimes referred to as incorrupt or incorruptible.”

When I was young, the idea of venerating relics seemed superstitious. But events in my life over the years, witnessing death, and perhaps just aging itself, have caused me to have a more open mind. And I have even used the subject of relics and the idea of incorruptibility in my writing, deferring to the possibility and the mystery of such things.


In my forthcoming novel, The Prophet of Shattuck Avenue, there is a scene where the body of the prophet Daniel is discovered in a tomb beneath the Syrian Desert…

The four of them all looked down on the body of a man. He was clothed in ornate robes and adorned with rings, bracelets, and necklaces. A gold band was placed around the top of his head like a crown. His hair was long and flowing. He had a scant beard. His skin was mummified but wasn’t emaciated like a museum mummy. His eyelids and lips were closed and he looked at peace.

“The preservation is amazing,” said Victoria.

She held the light to his face and studied it. She then noticed engraved writing around the inside rim of the sarcophagus.

“What is it?” asked her brother.

“It’s in Hebrew,” answered Victoria. “Here lies Daniel – God is my judge – the prophet. Most beloved of the angels. May they carry him to YAWEH in paradise.”

She looked up to the others and said, “Well, according to this, it’s him.”

They all stared at the body for a long moment, as if revering some dignitary, lying in state.

In the original version of the story – a screenplay entitled The Tomb of the Prophet – I spent a lot more time dwelling on the physical condition of the body. I also had people experiencing unexplainable emotional changes when they were near the body. However, this got to be a distraction that really didn’t fit with the main story, so I dropped it.


The idea of a saint’s body being incorrupt is a little spurious, in my opinion. If you Google the words “incorrupt relics” and then click on images, you’ll see lots of photos of the long-dead bodies of saints. None of them look as though they are sleeping. Their skin is dehydrated, Their eye sockets are sunken … you the the drift. Many of the bodies have been covered with death masks made of wax (which, to me, seems a bit of a cheat.) Nevertheless, I find it fascinating.

I’ve only had one close encounter with relics myself. When I went to view the relics of St. John Maximovitch in San Francisco (also known as Saint John the Wonderworker). Saint John was a Russian Orthodox bishop who came to San Francisco as part of the Russian diaspora. He had a reputation for being a very wise and compassionate leader, often taking more populist stances on issues and shining light on hypocrisy. St. John died in 1966. In 1993, his body was exhumed and his relics were found incorrupt. He was made a saint in 1994.

[An Orthodox priest looking over the relics of St. John Maximovitch at at the Joy of All Who Sorrow Cathedral, San Francisco, CA.]

The experience of venerating St. John’s relics was odd. Being a product of small town American Protestantism, I wasn’t sure what to do. I stood and looked down into the case they had him in. I said a few familiar prayers. And then I waited. And in my silence, I felt moved. I felt a peace that I didn’t feel before. Here’s a poem I once wrote about the experience. Perhaps it best summarizes how I now feel about such things…

The big priest
Came and unlocked the door.

Walking in,
The darkness
And the stillness
And the light
Bathed me.

The heavy glass wall
Separated us
Like in an aquarium.

The big priest
Opened a second door.

I went in to view you
To see your bones.

You were in a place
Off to the right
In a small case of wood
Your vestments were clean, white, and gold
Ornamented with pearls and silver

Your shriveled hands were raised from your chest
As if from beyond death
You had one last thing to say
To me
Your visitor
A pilgrim towards eternity

For further reading:

On relics and incorrupt corpses…

  1. Relics and Reliquaries in Medieval Christianity
  2. The (Not Really So Very) Incorrupt Corpses

On saints mentioned…

  1. Saint Ursula and the 11,000 British Virgins
  2. St. John the Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco

Inspiration from the Movies

[The late movie reviewers, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, back in their heyday, looking up at the big silver screen. They were the best.]

Truth be told, I’m not really the literary type. So it might seem a little strange that, as I slouch towards geezerdom, I decided to start writing novels.

The thing that is most fun for me about writing is not so much language or literary nuance, but the love of the story. In that sense, I like to think of myself as more of a storyteller than a writer. For that same reason, when it comes to genre, I’ve always enjoyed reading plays. In plays, stories are forced to keep moving and not allowed to wander down the dark corridors of introspection – even the heady stuff like Chekhov and O’Neil. They’re concrete. And when you see them acted, the characters are always doing something, even when they’re not. Even the actors standing upstage, the good ones anyway, are always doing SOMETHING … raising their eyebrows or fumbling with their cigarettes.

Likewise, I love the movies. In fact, it’s from movies, not books, that I’ve taken a great deal of the inspiration for my stories.

When I was in college, I loved going to see independent films. I liked seeing how creative directors were able to get the most out of their low budgets. This sentiment is reflected in the lines of one of my characters, Colonel Alves, when he says…

“I love old science fiction, horror, and fantasy films. Anything made before 1950 … before giant radioactive insects and men from Mars … before special effects and computers came along … when people had to use ingenuity and talent to make the illusions seem real.”

[John Sayles and David Strathairn – the original “men in black” from the 1984 independent film, The Brother from Another Planet. It’s one of my favorite examples of ingenious cheap special effects when the two alien bounty hunters, upon discovering a crucial clue, hold flashlights to their faces and begin screeching.]

When I graduated from college in the late 80s, I wanted to be a screenwriter. The idea of being able to create imaginary worlds and populate them with characters, and then have people – the audience – go along with me for the ride, seemed like the best of all possible ways to spend ones working life. Alas, it did not happen. I was not destined to be the next Kubrick or Altman. So it goes. But the imagery from the movies never left me. And I often borrow ideas from movies when I’m writing fiction.

What follows are some movie-inspired ideas that have shown up on my books…

La Belle et la Bête

In one scene in The Prophet of Shattuck Avenue (also with Colonel Alves) I mention the French Director Jean Cocteau and his 1946 masterpiece La Belle et la Bête (The Beauty and the Beast)

Hellmann slowly turned his face towards Alves. The movement of his head and eyes suddenly reminded Alves of one of the movie posters on his office wall — the French version of Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête). Hellmann’s motions were eerily slow and surreal, like the enchanted statues in the beast’s château.

[Cocteau’s beast being watched by one of the château statues.]

Granted, it’s just someone in a costume. But the way Cocteau was able to create those preternatural movements – the eyes and the heads turning – with the technology of the 1940s is still quite amazing. When I think of the angels and demons in my stories moving, I always think of them that way. Not quite at ease in human form, their motions are different, not mechanical – much more elegant than that – just different.

Wings of Desire

Continuing with the subject of angels – a centerpiece in both of my books – there’s Wim Wenders 1987 film about the angel Damiel losing his wings for the love of a woman. I refer to this movie directly in Our Lady of West 74th Street in a conversation between the main character Emily and the angel Cassiel who, in this scene, is posing as a graduate student doing research…

“So we meet again,” said Cassiel, rising to greet her.

“Yes,” answered Emily with a cautious smile. “When you introduced yourself, I couldn’t help but take notice of your last name. I recognize it from the Kabbalah, am I right?”

“Very good. Yes, it appears there,” answered Cassiel, as they both sat.

“The watching angel,” added Emily.

Cassiel smiled. “Yes. He also appears in the German movie, ‘Wings of Desire.’ Ever see it?”

Cassiel recited:

“Als das Kind Kind war,
wußte es nicht, daß es Kind war,
alles war ihm beseelt,
und alle Seelen waren eins”

Then in English:

When the child was a child,
it didn’t know that it was a child,
everything was soulful,
and all souls were one

Emily raised her eyebrows. “Very good. I’m impressed. You know your foreign films.”

“It’s one of my favorites.”

“Yes, I’ve seen it. It’s very good,” said Emily. “Then there was that terrible American remake with Nicolas Cage. ‘City of Angels.'”

“Yes,” agreed Cassiel. “… except for the beach scene. The beach scene was somewhat accurate.”

“Accurate?” asked Emily.

“I mean believable,” said Cassiel.

The “beach scene” referred to by Cassiel is an interesting one. In the 1998 American remake of Wings of Desire (City of Angels) the angels gather each day at sunrise on the beach in Santa Monica. Here they listen to the song of the heavens. (Here’s a link to the scene, if you’re curious.)

In the German original, the gathering place is the main library in Berlin.

[The angels Cassiel (Otto Sander) and Damiel (Bruno Ganz) strolling through the library in Berlin in Wim Wenders’ 1987 Wings of Desire.]

My takeaway from the two scenes is the idea of angels having a gathering place. In Our Lady, the gathering place is the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park…

Kevin nodded but didn’t speak. Greta then asked, “So he just went on an afternoon walk to the park, and died?”

“According to the timing of things, that’s what it looks like,” answered Kevin. “He died right in front of Bethesda Fountain.”

Greta gave her brother a questioning look.

“It’s the one with the big angel in the middle,” said Kevin. “He once told me that he thought that fountain was a power center where angels gathered. That’s the place where he keeled over. By the time someone got to him, he was gone.”

Indiana Jones

Indiana Jones only gets mentioned once, in passing, in The Prophet of Shattuck Avenue. In the following passage, Victoria has just returned from the Middle East and has a bad case of jet lag…

Victoria looked down at her empty cup. Despite the heavy dose of caffeine, she could feel herself starting to fade. She looked up at Maia, took a deep breath and let out a long breathy sigh. “Thanks for letting me share all this. I needed to talk to someone. Honestly, I don’t know what’s next. I’m supposed to meet with Senator Stamps later. As I said, archaeological discoveries notwithstanding, the place also has some strategic military importance that I’m not privy to. I think she wants to gather my impressions of it all.

“I don’t know. After all the subterfuge, I’m just looking forward to getting back to work and into the rhythm of things. I wasn’t cut out for the Indiana Jones crap.”

Even though the mention is brief, the “Indiana Jones crap” played an important part in both of my stories. I love the way, in both Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade, religious history is at the center of the plot. Each story focuses on an object – the lost ark and the holy grail. And each of those objects has the power to change both individuals and societies. That, to me, is quite intriguing.

Where I think I try to depart from Indiana Jones is to downgrade the swash buckler dynamic (neither of my main characters wield a whip) and focus more on how the two women in my stories are changed by what they encounter. Harrison Ford’s character is pretty much the same snarky fellow from beginning to end in each of his movies. I’d like to think that my characters progress and expand a bit more.

So there’s a scratch at how certain movies have whipped up my imagination. Like I said, it’s the story and the imagery of the movies that spark those moments of, “Yes! That’s it!” in ways that prose doesn’t do. At least for me. As Chauncey Gardiner (Peter Sellers’ character in Being There) puts it, “I like to watch.”

So … Until next week, the balcony is closed 🙂