I had the great honor of speaking with Gauraa Shekhar about Here’s Waldo, growing up poor, trauma & recovery, writing & home. Thank you so much, Gauraa, for the wonderful interview, and thanks, Maudlin House, for sharing my story of a poor kid from DP. This is a dream for me.
I’ve been gone a little while according to the timestamp gap, a digital exit followed by a digital reentry. Keeping busy of course, but just not visible here.
When I was 21, I enrolled in my first semester at Columbia College Chicago, a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed freshman film student. Concentration in screenwriting, never quite able to shake the written word even when it’d be translated to the screen.
I took a grand total of one (1) fiction class, which is funny considering the direction my life has taken, and how much of my focus has shifted toward literary shit. You can’t plan these things.
I graduated, focused on flash fiction and novels, and used this site as a refuge (quarantine?) for written anxieties, understandings, and fictional journal-keeping. Mostly I stuck to the post-once-a-week rule, but sometimes (lately) I didn’t.
So here’s where I was.
Last month, I took a trip down to Asheville. I saw Tame Impala there and roamed the streets and hills all night after, cataloging the experience I just had, people-watching, and taking notes for a feature screenplay that hit me all at once as I walked those quiet, foggy streets and waited for day to break.
I was an anthropologist as I met strange and interesting people that night, all of them informing this weird, existential, cyberpunk, scifi, dark comedy thing that I was constructing on the fly. I started writing the thing shortly after getting back home, and I haven’t taken a day off from it since. I’m 60 pages in, the commonly-accepted midpoint in screenwriting, letting this thing shape itself as I listen to Jack Stauber in the early mornings, watch B movies in virtual reality, and take midnight walks. It’s exhilarating.
I met a couple filmmakers here in Winston-Salem, a filmmaking couple, separately, not at first connecting the dots that they were together. I met the dude at a Confederate protest as we stood down the Confederates together, talking film and filmmaking in between bouts of shouting them down. (Their statue was later taken down, by the way. Where it once stood there’s now a nicely-landscaped crop of flowers.)
I met his wife at a creative event I went to for work, and only after talking film and filmmaking with her did I realize that she was mentioning working on the same projects that he had. They were a couple.
I went on a road trip back home to Chicago for an extended weekend. Didn’t visit Columbia College specifically (I didn’t want to feel old), but I did point it out a few times to my girlfriend Harmony, all too proud to be like, “Hey! Right there is where I went to school. … I used to take walks down there in between classes all the time. … The film building is right over there. …” Etc.
I’ve long had an all-or-nothing, this-or-that brain, so it didn’t compute that I could maybe do fiction and film. Like I had to give one up to do the other. And then I realized: Hey. That’s bullshit.
So long story short, we had an awesome visit to my hometown. I took Harmony to all my old haunts, relived decades-old memories in the places that spawned them, reminded of details I’d forgotten by my friends and little brothers as we wandered these places together, letting it all come back like no time had passed at all.
I got back to North Carolina, and the filmmaking couple got in touch with me. They were doing the 48 Hour Film Project, a challenge where a film crew writes, shoots, and edits a short film in 48 hours and then competes with other film crews in their city. This is an international thing with screenings, prizes, the works. They wanted to know if I’d crew with them. They didn’t know this, but I’d wanted to do a 48 for over a decade, but just never had. They were both awesome people, and it didn’t hurt that they’d worked with the likes of VICE and PBS before. That was one of the quickest and easiest “yes” emails I’ve ever sent.
We shot the film, and it was a crazy amount of fun, and we screened it, and got a great response, and I got compliments on how great it was to work with me on set, how vital I was to the production. I’ve already been invited to crew on future projects, and I sent some old scripts over to the guy after being asked.
All this because I was friendly and talked with people. So yeah. This is an unexpected yet very welcome chapter of my life. A chapter where I’m open to all the possibilities in front of me, where I’m doing all the things I always dreamed of doing. That’s where I’ve been, and that’s where I am.
A pile of counterfeit purses sits in one corner of the living room kitchen till Saturday when Momma will try hawking them on the corner of 63rd and Halsted. JT’s got a hot dog over the gas burner, skewered with a plastic fork, and he’s hoping the thing doesn’t melt and drop the dog into the fire ‘cause he’s only got two for the rest of the week and it’s Monday. Momma’s got the gas station and the McDonald’s and the beauty salon where she washes hair and sweeps up at the end of the day. Dad’s got who-knows-what ‘cause he hasn’t been seen since JT was three days old.
At the bottom of the shoe closet, under Dad’s jackets that Momma “just hasn’t gotten around to pitching yet,” JT keeps a stack of books he’s lifted from the library: biology textbooks, history books above his grade level, Shakespeare. Some action adventure for fun. He hides the peeled-off barcodes under a radiator in the library, puts them back on when he feels bad and swaps one book for another. Lifts them because he can’t afford the late fees and he’s not the type to keep a book for only two weeks.
Momma’s name is Hi-Bye, but JT doesn’t tell her this. Back from Mickey D’s and then a shift at the beauty salon: Hi-Bye. Dropping off the leftover purses to get to the gas station on time: Hi-Bye. JT makes up stories in his head where Momma ain’t Hi-Bye and you’ve got more than a couple hot dogs for the week and dads don’t leave when you’re three days old. Sometimes he writes these stories down and slips them into his lifted books like too many bookmarks. Sometimes he forgets them and they stay there when he returns them. Sometimes he leaves them there on purpose.
He starches and irons his own shirts ‘cause when Momma comes home the last thing she wants to do is be minding no shirts or pants or anything but sleep. He doesn’t mind starching and ironing his shirts. He handles each one like it’s a butterfly he’s setting gently on the bark of a tree. When he’s done, it might as well be a brand new shirt. The other kids at school don’t know about Hi-Bye and the shirts and all that. They don’t know about how when the hot dogs run out JT waits for lunch ‘cause that’ll be the only food he gets all day.
JT gets lonesome on the weekends when Momma’s busy working and no kids are around and it seems like it’s just him in the whole wide world. In the summertime, you can’t tell if the sounds outside are gunshots or fireworks, so you go out anyway. When the crunchy leaves are on the ground and you can play tackle football ‘cause the snow’s there to break your fall, you know the sounds are gunshots. When you hear the sounds, you go back inside even if it’s a tie game and you’re playing best two out of three, one game won a piece.
On the times when there’s no gunshots and no football games and the lifted books have all been “returned,” JT walks around and tells himself in his head that he’s an important man who tells stories and everybody loves him. One day he was so important he saved up a couple bucks and hopped on the el train. It was dinnertime when he got on and he watched the sky’s color darken, buildings and cars and everything rushing past.
When he woke up, there was no one else on the train. If it weren’t for the streetlights outside, he could be on a train riding through outer space. Then the man sitting next to him made a noise. JT looked around and saw that the man could sit anywhere in the whole train car but he chose to sit next to him. The man spoke up.
Didn’t JT have no Momma to mind him? And he did, but she was at work. And was he all alone then? And yes, he was. And that was quite a shame.
The man pointed at the stars outside the el train’s window and leaned in close to JT so he could tell him which constellation was which. When he got up close, the stink on his breath made JT’s eyes water. It was the same stink his Momma’s breath had when it was her day off and her eyes got bleary and she cried a lot and had to have JT help her to bed.
The man put his hand down on the edge of his seat, next to JT’s leg. He lifted and dropped his pinky like it was a worm inching on pavement. The streetlights outside went whoosh and neither of them made a sound.
The train clacked on the tracks and the worm went inch, inch, inch. JT leaned into the barrier next to him and made like it was just so he could see the subway map better. And the clackclackclack went to just clack, clack, clack, and the train came to a stop at Division. When the doors opened, JT ran like it was a football game in the snow and he just heard the sounds.
The snow crunched under JT’s feet as he ran all the way back, streetlights like false stars above him, snow coming in his shoes that had holes in them ‘cause Momma ain’t got the money for boots, JT wondering if he really is an important man after all, wondering how it is we can leave so many tracks behind us when we’re running away.
We come in on either the beginning or the end of Damen. You: The end. Me: The beginning. Down a block is the Mountain of Fire and Miracles across from the Indian place. Neon JESUS shines onto chicken biryani when we pass.
How about we speak of the sounds?
Reggaeton provides the beat for a cellular scuffle and how many cars there are and the cars all drive. The bags swish at my side and the boxes make box sounds on your head as you balance them like a tribeswoman. I say I can take a box and you say Don’t understand, carry forth, and you actually say carry forth. The kids are melting into orderly lines in front of us and they step to locomote to homeostate to pass on their genes. We are here because of our love and the varied tones as it passes our ears. It can be silence or it can be thunder. You: Silence. Me: Thunder. I keep tapping your leg with a bag and you say Unobtainable and when you say it it’s a stranger’s voice and the kids are segueing into the sky in front of us. I ask you if you’re feeling okay and you intone Save. I put the bags down and I collect the daisies from an unknowing lawn and you sidearm them up over and onto the collapsed boxes that are your collapsed boxes.
There’s a scab on the sun as it sets and the moon’s picking at it.
You turn so you want to scream and you try but nothing comes out after all. I say we can pick up people who wait for public transit and stack them on your boxes. You say Keeping out the light. The kids who are transitioning are sixteen or seventeen or eighteen but no older. They say words to each other like licking ice cream feels and the moon is their moon and the street is their street and the city is their city just as these things once belonged to us. Now my legs are tired and your legs are not tired. You can continue to step to locomote to homeostate to pass on your genes. Your genes can mix with my genes or not my genes.
How about we speak of the sights?
I spy with my little eye you on the street that is a sea with a raft of your choosing and the planks underneath are swollen from the water, where I grab them, underneath, under the water. I say What do you remember lately and you say Nothing’s seen the same. Inside in our place there is a bag where the cat shit goes, but not our shit. Our shit goes down a pipe. The children with various ages and forms are being dabbed into the sky’s canvas, swirled into impressionistic whorls.
Here we are on Damen.
Elements were taken from the earth and heated and shaped and cooled to provide an escape from fire if fire ever comes. You drop the boxes and you climb to the top and you say Nothing and it’s the word, not like nothing nothing because even nothing’s something and I drop the bags by the boxes where your things will be contained and I climb and I sit, where you are, inhabiting space. The aged children collapse into starlight. When I touch your back I know you. When I kiss you I know you. When I do these things you can either understand or not understand.
We melt into Damen’s beginning like we did when the city was ours. We go back home.
It had to be just before I walked in the door, of course. The slush seeped in through the metal-edged holes which all Converse have on either side, those holes that are all too helpful in the summer but which aren’t nearly as useful when you’re facing your average Chicago winter.
I hung my soggy socks to dry and navigated over to Amazon, found a reasonably priced pair of boots that had excellent reviews. The shipping speed was lightning quick, it seemed.
Immediately after I clicked that little checkout button, my doorbell rang. A car sped off right after, out of sight before I even opened the door. And there, sitting right on my doorstep was a box from Amazon.
It couldn’t be. It must be something else I ordered earlier. But my order history didn’t lie–those boots were the last thing I’d ordered in the past six months. I fetched a box cutter and braced for impact as I opened the thing up.
The boots seemed to glow as they sat there in the box, laces woven from golden thread that looked nothing like string; the rubberized coating of the boot’s outer shell looked as if it could withstand a flood of biblical proportions. But that was it. No packing list, no ads for the brand–the boots’ tongues didn’t even show the size.
But I wouldn’t need to know the size, it seemed, as I slipped the boots on. They conformed to every square inch of my feet perfectly, my toes felt as warm and cozy as if they’d been tucked securely into their own miniature beds. I looked out the window, at the flurries and mounds of snow that the Windy City had to offer. There could be no other option.
Nothing could stop these boots. Slush, snow, brackish puddle water… they stood up to everything. They might even be able to walk on air.
I checked that no one was watching–they weren’t. I put my right foot in the air, mimed as if I’d just taken a step toward the sky. But when I went to put my foot down, it crunched against the air as if I’d just stepped in snow. I lifted up the left foot–it crunched just as satisfyingly as my right one had. I looked down, and my eyes seemed to lie as they took in the fact that I was now hovering a foot in the air.
I took another step up. And then another. Within seconds I was moving past treetops, ascending beyond the pitted roofs of musty storefronts, walking up some sort of invisible staircase in the sky.
The people below were like ants in the distance as I leapt up the invisible steps two at a time, my boots crunching the air-snow and compacting it with each step. Before long I was above even the twin antennae of the Sears Tower (real Chicagoans don’t call it Willis), and the sun sent out blinding rays from dead ahead. It was like a guiding star as I headed up and straight for it, my hand shielding my eyes all the while.
The crunching stopped. So did my labored breathing. I looked down.
Earth hovered beneath me, encased in its little blue bubble–a bubble that I was no longer a part of as I floated weightless in space. Despite the lack of air, my body felt refreshed and oxygenated. None of it made any sense, but then again neither did a pair of boots that allowed their wearer to climb an actual stairway to heaven.
I pushed on, the sound of crunching unable to be carried without the medium of air but no less satisfying as the vibrations buzzed up my miracle boots and into my toes that were still snuggled up securely in their little beds.
The stairs abruptly ended; they opened up to an invisible floor that stretched on in every direction, limitless. I ran forward and jumped, let the sun’s pull guide me in–an elliptical force that whipped me around at speed like the rock in David’s sling. I throttled on at incomprehensible speed, curved around the sun’s surface even as nuclear fusion occurred millimeters from my outstretched fingertips. I felt the heat but none of the incineration.
And then it happened.
A micrometeorite struck me in the chest, knocked the wind out of me as forcefully as it propelled the boots off my feet. I watched helplessly as they toppled end-over-end away from me, the weightlessness returning to me as my miracle boots slipped away.
This was it. I’d die in space, adrift beside the star that was responsible for my birth in the first place.
But no. There had to be a way back. If the boots took me here, I could take myself back. I concentrated intently, tried to channel a bit of the wise old Spirituality prof from my undergrad days as I meditated weightless in space. My forehead tingled as I willed myself to believe that I could get back home. It was true. It needed to be true.
I hurtled through space in an instant, by the power of my thoughts alone, toward the pale blue dot I’d always called home. Within seconds I was in the atmosphere, burning up as I guided myself over the familiar form of North America. I found the “U” of Lake Michigan through my squinting eyes, adjusted my feet like rudders until my city, my neighborhood, my street were all in sight.
I crashed right through my front window; the glass didn’t shatter so much as melt away. I hit my beanbag chair with an emphatic thump and tumbled over onto the floor.
I breathed in slow and steady, the sound that reached my ears more satisfying than it ever had been before. I looked to my computer’s monitor.
A pop-up had appeared next to a picture of the miracle boots: “Satisfied with your purchase? Leave a review!”