I know many are concerned about how I'm doing. For someone so used to blabbing to the world, it's strange that I feel nearly choked when I try to imagine a post on FB.

My mom died yesterday at 1:39 in the afternoon (her time). Almost everyone in her family and Dad's had been to see her in the previous 48 hours. Many were just outside the door. She was surrounded in the room by my brother and sister and my dad. They were holding her hands. I had spoken to her a couple of hours before, telling her I loved her, that she had raised us to be strong and to be strong for each other, that she could go because we were going to be OK. June asked me to tell her about Italy, so I rambled on for awhile about the lemon trees and the orange trees and the olives and the sea. Her breathing then was terrible to hear. Her body was too weak cough, liquid was filling her lungs. She didn't move. When June messaged me to call her later in the evening (I am seven hours ahead), I knew what I would hear.

I'm OK. I slept more deeply and long last night than I have since I left home. Grief doesn't wake me up ten times a night the way fear and anxiety did. I woke up this morning at 9 am to my brother Mark texting me (Viber) that he was finally going to try to sleep (2am CST). At our request, the hospice folks had come and cleared away the bed and the equipment and so the family had kept busy last night putting the house back together. Without her.

Here, I got up, dressed and cooked an egg and toast and ate standing at the window looking at the stone pines. I walked around the courtyard of the apartment complex and threw fallen oranges into the gorge behind. I wanted the tears to come. They didn't.

View from one terrace of the courtyard and Stone Pines (also called Umbrella Pines).

View from one terrace of the courtyard and Stone Pines (also called Umbrella Pines).

I walked down Via Degli Aranci, where I live, East about 3/4 mile to Corso Italia and had an espresso. I stopped in the Deco to buy chicken and pasta for dinner and more power converters (both of mine blew yesterday). In Piazza Tasso, packed with families and old couples strolling around in their Sunday clothes, drinking cappucino at sidewalk tables, the bells of the town went wild for awhile. It was 11 am and every bell in every church (that means hundreds of bells) began to ring violently. I thought maybe carthagenians were swarming the beach. No one else seemed to notice. They rang for five or ten minutes. For an instant, they cut through the numbness and I felt the grief squeezing me, but I walked on and through it.

Even though it was only 11, I thought I might have a drink. One pub in particular, The English Inn, has traditionally catered to american students at Sant'Anna and their faculty. I was introduced to Fabio, the legendary owner, on my first night here. But I hadn't gone in yet on my own. First, because I wanted to be home in the evenings to keep in touch with Tab and my family over wifi. Second, because I feel strange drinking with my students and they are there every night. I wanted a bourbon. I've tried to eat and drink like an italian so far, but I wanted a bourbon or nothing. This early in the day, though, Fabio wasn't there and the woman on duty in the front of the house was not interested in me--families were eating and the dining room was hopping. I sat at the bar (truly, very like an English pub) by myself for a few minutes, then took my shopping bag and went out again.

Next door is a leather goods store where I have been admiring a leather bag since my first night here. I admired it again and, as usual, when I saw the shopkeeper coming to engage, I fled. On Corso Italia, I was thinking of how much easier it would be to keep my phrasebook and maps and sunglasses, etc., in such a bag. Only american men are afraid to carry such bags. We are still afraid of the schoolyard bullies who might call us sissies.

Then I started thinking about my mom's purses. Valises, really. My mom could never have owned one of those tiny sleek black purses stylish women wear. She might have considered putting twelve into the shopping bag she preferred. She could never find anything in her purse without first dumping it out. To read a menu at a restaurant, she would first fill the booth with pieces of folded paper, bottles of lotion, birthday cards, bags of food (and bits of food wrapped in napkins), used kleenex, kleenex packets, gum, cigarette lighters, paperback novels, spiral notebooks, oranges, pens, water bottles, and 40 other unidentifiable things before she could find her reading glasses and read the menu. And then order the same thing she always ordered. It always amused and embarrassed me that her key ring had an enormous stuffed yellow smiley face on it the size of a large hamburger bun. I first thought it was so she could see the keys in those chaotic bags. Now I think the smiley face acted as a sort of buoy--keeping the keys floating near the surface.

Now the tears were coming. I stepped into a narrow alley with no people (even narrow alleys are likely to be crowded in Sorrento) and turned my back to the street. I leaned against the wall and let it out just a little. If mom had been here, she would have 150 kleenex to offer me and I could have opened it up. But she's not, so I wept a little and then took a deep breath.

Me being alone and far away when she died is not what I feared. My friends and family support me even from the other side of the planet. Me not being one of the people holding her hand is what I could not bear. Probably, I'm lucky I was spared the awful sound and sight of her body's struggle. They will hear that sound in their dreams. But I wanted to share her life--every last bit of it--feel it in my hand. I wanted her to feel me with her, not hear my voice on the phone.

By now, I really needed some kleenex. I went back to Corso Italia and turned and climbed Via Sersale through the ancient gate of the city and back to my apartment. But first, I went back and bought the goddamned bag.

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.

Wasps and Sparrows

Since today is a day off for the cast and crew, we've broken into splinter cells for the day. Andrew went to the airport to pick up his girlfiend, Christina, flying in from New York. The crew is largely hung over and lounging the campus of EKU for the day. The Missouri boys (Chad, Kurt and me) hopped in Emily's big truck and drove down to her family place in Booneville, KY. The road between here and Richmond is where we will film most of the driving shots next Wednesday. It is not Colorado or Utah or Nevada...but it is beautiful country--steep hills, remote hollows, tobacco farms...

Wading in the creek where we'll shoot the waterfall scenes Friday...

Wading in the creek where we'll shoot the waterfall scenes Friday...

Right this minute, I am on the wrap-around porch of Emily's home-place having just finished uploading a dozen or so pix to the other blog then hunting down bugs in my sloppy HTML code so I could make that post work. Emily and Chad and Kurt are in the pool below and I am watching the sparrows hunt wasps in the eaves of the porch and the black tobacco barn through air so thick I want to slice some, wrap it in wax paper to bring home.

Yesterday we scouted the location for the morgue scene. Chad told me that he and Andrew didn't want me to come to the set the morning they filmed it. I said they were being silly--I've talked and written and told and read this story until I have power over it. Pretty much. Still, when we were checking out the location--a basement in one of the medical classroom buildings on EKU--it was a relief to see how different this space was from the one I actually remember. THAT space was all stainless steel and well-sealed concrete floors and ominous steel cabinets. This place was full of medical mannequins tucked each in a bed. While Chad and Andrew and Emerson and Emily framed shots and imagined blocking, I sat on the edge of a bed and looked down the long row of ailing dummies.

Chad rubs the sun out of his eyes.

Chad rubs the sun out of his eyes.

The more things change...

Strange first day. Dozens of new faces and names and job titles and relationships. We shot two scenes in two hotel rooms (same hotel) today. One is the scene based on our actual night in Utah when Brian and Wendy slept in the same bed (but in the same room as Tab and I). The second scene  was based the hotel room where Tab and I stayed south of San Francisco while we waited for Brian and Wendy to come back from the city. I spent a good part of the day trying to be out of the way (though I do get credit for pointing out that the Wendy, Tab and Scott characters all needed wedding rings) and turning the ceiling fan on and off between shots. I am proud to say that at no point did an expensive and dangerous 5000 watt light come crashing to the ground because I had knocked it over trying to squeeze into the tight spaces.

Each scene was comprised of several shots--many of which required that the set be re-lit, the camera repositioned, and sometimes the furniture rearranged.

The  biggest surprise for me: at the end of the first scene that I described, Brian (Thomas) and Wendy (Jenna) are in one bed whispering. The script doesn't specify what they are saying, just that they are whispering. Scott (Nick) and Tab (Jen) are in the next bed. Scott turns and looks over at Brian and Wendy--in anxiety, jealousy, anger, fear, etc--just as Wendy can be seen to stroke Brian's hair. This scene is one that came out of the collaboration with Andrew and Chad and it is really telling. Andrew told Thomas and Jenna that it was not important for the audience to hear WHAT they were whispering, just that they WERE whispering. I should say here that these two have incredible chemistry: Thomas IS Brian--in tone, in sense of humor, even in some of his physical mannerisms. Brian (Thomas) and Wendy (Jenna) between takes in Scene 15.They shot a few takes while I squatted near one of the light stands (everything has a name in this business--I know none of them). In one shot, Jenna's whisper was very clear to the whole room. She said, "This was so unexpected. Thank you." Then she stroked his hair.

For a few seconds, I was in that other bed. All of the anger and jealousy and hurt (and the remorse for all of those things) squeezed me hard. It made me breathe quick. Then it let go.

They can't use that take. The audience can't hear her say that.