that's why all the folks on rocky top get their corn fom a jar


It was another bittersweet day. More than anything, I regret the things I said and did when Brian and I argued at the end of our trip. With Andrew and Chad's help, I had trimmed the argument scene from the play down to a much faster, much angrier, and much more accurate portrayal of that fight. That Nick and Thomas (and Jen and Jenna) played their roles so splendidly made it that much harder to watch and listen to...take after take.

Then again, they turned in great performances today and we wrapped the shoot on time and on budget (I think).

After we left the set, in ones and twos a few of the crew gathered at Chad and Jen's place. We drank the better part of a quart of moonshine and encouraged Emily to tell us more stories from Breathitt County. I was writing them down when Andrew, feeling the corn liquor, narrowed his eyes a little and drawled across the table, "Boy, when we're talkin' around the shine WE don't take notes."

As eager as I am to see Tab and the girls tonight, it was hard to leave this morning. Jen has been so gracious and generous while I've been squatting in Dylan's room for the past two weeks. And Andrew has become like a brother to me--not just because he FELT this story so strongly, but because I could sit and talk with him for hours.

And especially because Chad and I, who have always shared a loss, have spent the last two weeks handling it again. And because all of us, working together, brought something of them back.

Night for Day


Chad and Andrew and Tommy loaded a camera worth more than all of my possessions into a flat-bottomed boat today so they could shoot and shoot and shoot from the water. John and Angela and Ian stood in the water to hold the boats steady and in position.

It was, finally, sunny. Brilliant. Perfect for shooting "day-for-night" with filters and low angles.

At lunch, Emily told the story of one of her mother's elderly patients who, on her very first visit to a hospital, complained to Emily's mother about the food in her hospital room. "There's something wrong with that Kentucky jelly. I tried some on a biscuit and it just tasted terrible."

The news crew canceled out of consideration for the scenes we were shooting today.

One of the interns, a great guy named Kenny, took my camera out in the canoe so I could have a shot of the four cast members out on the dock (in the "wish" scene). I was asked to back his car out of the way of the shot. I told him that if he didn't get my camera in the lake I wouldn't put his car in the lake.

All four of the actors nailed that scene.

Nick (as "Scott") howled as he threw the typewriter out into the lake. Angela and John retrieved it from the water. He threw it again and again.

Jen ("Tab") told me that she once owned a dog that would never come when it was called. Her mother named it "Godot."

Nick had to change clothes for the scene in which he is finally revealed to also be the "narrator". We stood on the dock and talked about his lines. He was covered in mud and I poured lake water on his head and down his back. When we were alone, he asked me what the lines meant, what I really wanted out of my brother. I told him.

Andrew called action and I poured another bowl of lake water on his head and leapt out of the shot. Nick shouted "Swim, Goddammit! Swim!." He screamed it out over the lake. He wept and howled and screamed it again and again and again.

When that was over, Chad and Andrew took a break as DP and Director and came over to sit in the beached canoe with me. You would have thought none of us already knew how this ends.

Also, Jen and I watched a finch landing on a cat tail at the lake's edge. It plucked a wisp from the ragged end and flew off to pad its nest. It kept coming back for more.

Day for Night

After a beautiful day shooting the hiking scenes at the pinnacles yesterday, today they shoot the lake scenes. The accident (they won't actually show it) is the first series of shots of the day. They are shooting "day for night" which means they darken it in post-production. Catchy phrase.

I'm uploading photos while they shoot those first several shots, then I'll head back to watch the dock scenes (in which "Scott" throws the typewriter off the dock, and the fantasy scene in which the four are reunited on the dock). At some point this morning, a TV news crew is coming. That will be weird. After the newspaper story last week, I'm a bit nervous about talking to a television reporter. I don't want to misspeak again.

Echo chamber

Yesterday, I spent most of the day in the recording room with Nick and Andrew, and the "location sound" guy, Brendan. Nick was recording the voice-over parts (mostly the narrator's lines) and I was along to assist as best I could.

First, let me just say how strange and gratifying it is to listen to someone read the words you wrote. Since some of the stuff Nick laid down was poetry, that was especially thrilling.

Second, let me say how hard it is to read poetry out loud. I've been doing it for as long as I can remember--and I think I'm pretty good at it. I can even read other people's poems out loud pretty effectively (I love reading Liz's poem "Inshallah"). But even actors struggle to read it with emphasis, shifts in tempo, caesura... Nick did a great job, but it must have been frustrating to him to have Andrew and me stopping him all the time.

And that brings me to my third point. I can't say enough about Andrew's direction on this film. He knows every word of this script. If you poured all of them onto the floor, he could put it back together again. He's also climbed in and explored the cavities and spaces between the words. He understands not just what each line means. But what it also means. And also means. And also means....

What a privilege it is, as a writer, to have someone who fully inhabits your work.

Herons, Typewriters, wishes

I lay in bed for a long time tonight/this morning thinking about that last post. That question still dogging me.

Thursday or Friday we'll be shooting the lake scenes. Obviously, one is the accident.

The others are fantasies.

I forget now what the various stages of grief are supposed to be. One, I'm sure, is the blind acceptance of pop psychology. Another is anger. The kind of anger that makes you rave against the dead. Or hurt the living. Or throw typewriters off a we will do later this week. This scene is daydream rage. Rage against Brian, against Wendy, against God, against lakes and water and mud and night. Here's a poem that is daydream rage too (but read on after the poem, also):


In tangled hemp and scrub oak, I watch a heron
fall from a branch into a heavy glide
over the Missouri. By now, I know how a frog
or a sunfish freezes him in mid-stride
and I can guess which silence
turns his head, which ripple
will bring him sailing to the shallows.
Stillness isn't camouflage: to break a heron's back
requires careful, random movement; step when branches
scrape the levee, when the river shifts
a stone.

My brother's laughter flew from stream
to leaves when the wind lifted the dry flies
from my box into the water. One leafless branch
opened ragged wings and fled downstream.
Brian stopped laughing long enough to watch
it disappear. I searched for my lost lures,
recounting a friend's haiku: Heron following
river following heron...
Brian whipped his rod, back and forth, settled
the fly onto the surface. He said herons
scared the hell out of him. Madness.

The plan won't work--the heron feels me
watching. When branches click, I plant
a toe; when a carp's back rolls on the surface,
a heel. I stop thinking and become a tributary
winding down between the bluffs. A heron's vision
is nearly 200 degrees. It meets your gaze
from almost any angle. When my foot meets water,
the heron's eyes shoot wide; stumbling into flight,
he stretches out his neck, leaps into the air.
I throw sand, a broken clamshell,
and kick the waves.

Who's stupid enough, in rain and fog, to load a boat
with beer and friends and row until night
takes the shore? Factor in one affair
for each couple, one betrayal apiece.
Factor in two married mothers, two bachelors.
They huddle together in an unseasonably cold 53 degrees
and surely someone suggests they pull anchor,
pull oars, pull the hell out of here.
Factor in two who can swim, two who can't.
My brother exhales smoke into fog, lays
a hand on the oar and laughs.

Head drawn between its shoulders, one leg
hovering slightly forward, my heron studies
the current. For three days, concealed, dreaming
of nets spread in the overhang, wire snares
weighted in the shallows, I've watched
his shadow unfold in the river. Lately,
I imagine similarities in the accurate gravity
of beak and fist. When he strikes,
his body pours it's long neck and face
into the river: Ciconiiformus Ardea

Kicking the boat and the dock they couldn't
reach, shouting and weeping for Brian's lost
eyeglasses, which were presumed hidden
in the lake, I prayed.
Great God,
you vicious son of a bitch, tell me
one thing you love, and I'll destroy it,
and be done.
Somewhere in a clear darkness,
coursing up the long rigid trachea,
shuddering out the beak, a heron's cry
rolls across the water.

Assuming the attitude of the dead, I float:
breathing when the river breathes, pushing
away from snarls and the levee until at last,
above me, the heron glances away
from a corpse. I catch the base of his throat,
and rising--both of us--out of the water,
I snap him hard, right and left,
his sharp feet clawing my thighs and belly
until with both hands, and all my weight,
I hold him under. Choking, convulsing,
his wings beat uselessly on the current.

We'll be filming another fantasy, too. When we met in New York to work on the script, I made the first of several important friendships that have come of this project. As we worked on the final pages of the script, Andrew asked me what I would have wished for Brian and Wendy and all of us. I've been in a state of rage and loss for so many years that I had rarely considered such a question.

We're going to film the four of them, alive, on that dock, on that lake, laughing and having fun. Uncorrupted. Clean. In love with each other.

I don't know what I expected or wanted from this film when I wrote the first drafts. But Andrew helped me unearth something in the story that I had never seen in it before. Instead of chasing them into the void with anger and pain and guilt and loss, I get to send a wish after them--a snapshot they would have loved.

ring the bell

I spoke to Roger on the phone tonight for the first time in several weeks. I haven't mentioned Roger by name in a single posting. Not on this blog. Not on the Rocky Top blog.

Roger was Wendy's husband. He was, and is, one of the closest friends I've ever had. I proposed to Tab on their couch. I called him at 2 am on several occasions to read him bad poems. I held their son, Jhett, when he was the size of a loaf of bread. Even before I lost one brother, I had found another. After the accident, we called each other across the country and around the world to howl our agony.

We talked about this film--really talked about it--for the first time ever. That conversation is between us. However, it made me keenly aware that my family and friends--especially those whose lives were changed by Brian and Wendy's deaths--are watching the whole thing unfold again.

Later, as I watched TV with Chad and Jen, I was asking myself why I'm doing this. Why am I putting Tab and Roger and our kids and siblings and parents and friends through this? What is there to learn? What is there to gain?

I don't know. I can only say that sixteen years ago a hammer struck and I am a bell that's been ringing ever since. I don't know how not to.

Blue cars


Funny the things that catch me. Last night we filmed a scene at a roadside grocery store. In the scene, we have stopped for supplies. Tab is sitting in the open door of the passenger seat, stretching her legs and back. Wendy and I are on the trunk of the car passing a joint and being silly. Brian walks out and tosses us a bag of chips.

It's just a brief scene illustrating the tension between us: my neglectfulness of Tab, Brian's growing feelings for Wendy, Wendy's growing flirtatiousness, Tab's isolation, the beginnings of the jealousy, resentment, and recrimination into which the trip eventually devolved.

I suppose that was why it was hard to watch. This scene begins to establish my culpability. This scene represents one of the last places where I could have changed course.

And then there is the car. It's no 1976 Mercury Marquis, but it is very nearly as big and square as the real one. And it is adorned with the actual artifacts of the trip. Brian's bag and pullover. The bone necklace Hans made me. The tassel from my college graduation (I graduated college the day before we left). It's the movie's perfectly cast fifth character. It's the scene of the crime. It's a broken time machine.

I drove it home from the shoot last night while Chad and Andrew returned the equipment van to the EKU campus. I was glad to have the time alone. It's a smooth ride, but it drifts away if you don't hold the wheel.DSCN2140

The Plank

I had a dream about a year ago in which Brian was alive and we were (in parts of the dream) kids. We were playing in the driveway at one point and I accidentally knocked him over. He stopped speaking and began to lose his shape. I dragged him by the feet into a sort of wooden shed that was suddenly, conveniently, nearby. I took an old plane and began to run it up his torso toward what should have been a face. By the time I got there, he was a wooden plank.

There was one part of the newspaper story yesterday that bothered me more than any other: "I'm a writer, a poet and I wrote it out of myself years ago," he said. "I've written this thing so many times it's almost not my story. It now lives on paper."

I was misquoted, but only slightly. I mostly said what she wrote. I wish I hadn't, though.

I was thinking about that as I was trying to fall asleep last night. We need a journal for the waterfall scene and I had volunteered to use Brian's actual journal from the trip. Chad and Andrew didn't like that idea for obvious reasons so this morning I'll walk over to the college bookstore and find something else.

I lay awake for a long time last night thinking about the ways I am shaving him down.

In the hall...

I was late getting to the set this morning because I had to stop off and answer some emails from PSU. When I got there, I bumped into Chad as I was coming out of the elevator and he took me aside for a little chat. He was very gentle. He was a little embarrassed. The bottom line, they were afraid the actors might be a little uncomfortable with me watching them shoot the morgue scene.

I'm not sore. It's a tough one. It's based on my poem, The Morgue, and it's one of the two or three harshest scenes in the script.

So I'm down the hall in one of the university computer labs (wow! EKU has invested in some nice equipment) waiting for them to wrap so we can drive out to the falls for this afternoon's shoot.

Here's the poem:
The Morgue
In the room where I walked as quietly as I could, afraid any sudden noise
might precipitate his collapse, I found my brother was still beautiful.

All afternoon, riding to the morgue, I fought the image of him, swollen,
his flesh like dough that's risen too long, become too light to support its own weight.

The mortician, disapproving of my insistence on seeing my brother
before taking care of business, promised no sign of his `ordeal'

still marred the body, a little bruise maybe, on his throat, where the hook
had caught and dragged him to the surface, and nothing else. Unveiled,

the traces of all his smiling still pulled at the corners of his mouth, for a moment,
I thought how my mother would look on her youngest child, in his coffin,

and know that in life, his smile had been effortless, the natural lay of his face.
But across the sterile basement from where the tips of his hair soothed an illusion

of living into my palm, across the room from where I bent, pressing my ear
to his chest, feeling nothing, except his awful solidity, the chill of his skin,

his hand, nerveless and so much heavier in death, beyond all these things
I glimpsed the slender black hose as it lay draped on a hook, its dull metal spout

blurred by a single thumbprint. This was the hose the man had used to spray
the mud from between my brother's toes, from the creases in his lips, his teeth

and the folds beneath his tongue. This was the hose that washed his hair, the palms
of his hands, so that on seeing his first dead body, his brother would not know

that this had been a filthy death. This was the hose that rinsed the backs of his thighs,
scoured the debris from his ears and his lashes and his clean white ankles

so that I would not see how he had suffered in the dark water, how his cries had broken
on the hard black shore, how his lungs were soothed with damp leaves, mud

and the sluggish silence of his own isolation. I tried to turn around
in the basement room, to tell the mortician that he had done nice work,

but by then, vomit had pooled in my shirt pockets and on the clean, well-mopped
floor of the basement morgue and in my brother's open, immaculate hand.

Two Dairy Queens

I promised Chad I would not tell his wife, Jen (not one of the several Jens cast in the film), that we went to Dairy Queen twice today. We spent much of the day driving through some real Kentucky. Torrential rains last month meant that several rivers and creeks flooded--there were wrecked trailers and appliances along the banks of almost every waterway we passed.

It was fun, though, to hear and meet some real Kentucky. As we four-wheeled along muddy, washed out roads, Emily told us about her great uncle, "River" Arthur. So named to distinguish him from her Great-Grandfather, "Creek" Arthur. River lived down by the river. Creek lived over by the creek. "We're all Johnsons named Arthur. We don't get too creative with names."

Anyway, River Arthur was walking along the rain-swollen river one day when he saw two pages of a book floating by. He waded out into the brown flood to fetch them back to shore. He read these two pages and liked what there was of the story so much that he walked the creek and river every time it flooded hoping to find the rest.

We even met "Unk Arch's" uncle, "Unk Junior." He was in front of us on the tractor as we drove out of Emily's lane. He had to be 75, naked from the waist up. Half my size and twice my strength. Unk Junior was coming in out of the fields to pick peaches to sell at the farmer's market on Friday. Emily honked the horn and he pulled over. He grabbed a hoe from the tractor's fender and waved it menacingly before he smiled wide and walked over to the truck window. He ended many sentences with "I mean you know?" Emily leaned across the passenger seat and spoke out the window, "What's Aunt Doris up to, Unk? [pronounced 'uh-unk']"

"Oh, I got her workin' them beans." He smiled and winked. "You GOT to keep these people workin'."

We chatted about the floods and the bad roads and the poor tobacco crops. Unk wanted to know if Emily was going to get rich off of these movies so she could lend him some money. It was easy to see why Chad relishes every chance he gets to hang out with these very warm, very colorful characters.

Alas, we couldn't stand around jawing with Unk Junior all day. We had to go to Dairy Queen. Again. Chad practically cried for it. This DQ featured an important archive of historic Dairy Queen photos from the 1940s and 50s. It also had the Ten Commandments posted above the trash bins.