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Glory of Rome - writing sample

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SECOND SCENE. Follows the Prologue, which has minimal dialogue. The Prologue features the main character sitting in his father's office contemplating suicide. Then the narrative jumps back in time to the beginning of the story that will lead him to that tragic moment/state of mind.

It is a morning like any other morning when it all changes. Or, rather, it does not change. The undaunted and undauntable world, such as it is, was created longer ago than we dare comprehend by forces far greater than our poor power to manipulate. It is only that the late surface matter is scoured away and the skeletal truth revealed through white fire and through clouds of bilious hellsmoke in a manner so striking as to suggest a deviation from the old. But in truth, what change there be, if there be any, is not to the immovable shared destiny of humanity, but only among the vast and variable landscapes of the many personalized human experiences on a case-by-case basis.

A graven red sun rises over the quiet suburban wash in which a boy sleeps peacefully and without dreaming in the quietude of youth. Then, in his bedroom, he is jarred awake by the bleating siren of his digital alarm clock, which he reflexively snaps off without opening his eyes. He drags his tall, lanky frame from his full-size bed and pads out into the hallway and to the white tile bathroom at the end of the hall.

He yawns and relieves himself as the shower water warms. On his scalp, sleep has made a tangled and gnarled bramble of his thick black curls. He strips off his shorts and his tshirt, leaving them in a pile on the tile floor, and steps into the shower.

The water is hot and at first he stands still in the spray, letting it warm him. Then he rushes to soap and rinse himself, well acquainted with the limited duration of the old house’s hot water supply. When he’s done, he gets out of the shower, towel dries himself, and shaves with his Norelco electric, testing the contours of his face in the mirror.

Fifteen minutes later, he’s dressed in his sports coat and slacks with his red and gold tie loose around his unbuttoned collar. He descends the stairs and crosses into the kitchen, where his mother sits at the end of the rectangular kitchen table. She has a cigarette clenched between her fingers and is drinking coffee from a plain white mug.

Good morning, Bobby, she says.

Good morning, Mom.

Have a good day at school.

I will. 

The boy secures one silver sleeve of Pop Tarts and is on his way. Out to the front hall where he collects his backpack and a set of keys hanging on the wall-mounted key rack, then out the door and into the old green Chrysler he’d gotten from his parents on his 17th birthday when his learner’s permit became a full license.

Up in one of the bedroom windows, the boy catches a glimpse of his father getting ready for work. Dad’s mustached visage seems to sense the eyes of his departing son and he turns to the window and looks out. The boy gives him a wave and the father returns it, face still half covered in Barbasol foam. 

It is a short drive to high school. The boy clicks on the AM radio and bids a good morning to the over-caffeinated sounds of sport talk radio. He makes his way along the main turnpike that runs traffic-jammed through the center of the island like a clogged artery. He eats the Pop Tarts while he drives, doing his own arteries no small disservice. But he is young and for him the world is still safe for Pop Tarts.

Eventually he turns free from traffic and onto the narrow side street that borders the tall brick school building. Though he’s nearly an hour and a half early for homeroom bell, he gets the last spot on the side street, a healthy walk yet to the front entranceway around the far corner.

Aided by the rearview mirror, which he realigns to his purpose, he buttons his collar and yanks his tie up into place. Then he grabs the near strap of his backpack and slings it over one shoulder as he steps out of the Chrysler and shoves the door home. 

He walks around the building, bracing against a fall breeze that makes a lie of the cloudless, sun-drenched sky. Up the two flights of wide concrete stairs and under the school crest, Bobby Kent has arrived. It is Tuesday morning.

As quickly up, now Bobby shuffles down a musty inside stairwell to the cafeteria on the first floor. It is a large, square room with garish linoleum tile floors and polished wood tables, each with seating for four boys.

He is not the first to arrive and dark sports coats are scattered throughout in small buzzing clusters. But he is early enough that he has many empty tables from which to choose. He settles on one near the small pathway out to the adjoining courtyard. He plops down into one of the hard plastic chairs and then sacrifices another to his backpack, which he opens and leaves unzipped after withdrawing a book.

He’s reading A Farewell to Arms, which is the current book on the syllabus for Senior Fall English. He has read it before for his own pleasure, but he is enjoying his second more academic journey through the story of Il Tenente as an exploration of the depths he had felt but not understood in the first. He considers this enjoyment highly confidential.

The metal legs of a chair scrape across the tiles and another boy sits down across from Bobby. Bobby replaces his bookmark, returns Frederick Henry to his backpack, and looks up at the grinning face of Ryan Dunlevy. 

I got good news about St. Anne’s, Ryan says with bright eyes.

Bobby’s face stretches out into a wide smile. Let’s hear it, he says.

Both starting cornerbacks are out this week. One got hurt last week in a scrimmage against St. John’s and the other is apparently out of town for a wedding.

And how did you come across this information?

My cousin goes to St Anne’s. She’s dating the team manager. Or water boy. Whatever. The info’s good.

Bobby leans back in his chair and considers. That’s fucking outstanding, he says. A wedding on opening weekend. You hate to see it.

It’s a damn tragedy is what it is. For them, of course. A gift for us. All you gotta do is look for me downfield.

That’s all, huh?

That’s all. You know me, I was born for prime time.

The game is at noon.

It’s just an expression, Bobby. Jesus Christ.

I’d keep that blasphemy down, Prime Time. I saw Brother Tom walk by just before you got here.

Please, Brother Tom is the biggest blasphemer of the bunch.

There are an awful lot of blasphemers around for a Catholic school.

Jesus would be severely disappointed in us, just like our parents are.

The blasphemy goes unsmited and soon, in the disjointed way of teenage boys, they are discussing passing plays and game strategies and then weekend plans and then tales of adventure with the opposite sex. In this sort of adventure Bobby is a character of some repute. And Ryan, being endlessly eager for new stories, makes a perfect audience. Bobby weaves verses of conquest told with hyperbole, embellishment and outright fabrication such as to render them fitting additions to the evergreen tomes of teenage mythology. And Ryan pays them tribute as chief priest and theologian. 

But soon enough the warning bell rings and the boys go their separate ways to homeroom. A morning prayer is recited. The Pledge of Allegiance is pledged. Announcements are announced. The normalcies advance with unvarnished normalcy. 

First period English follows homeroom and Bobby sits in the middle of the class, as dictated by the alphabetization of his family name. Mr. Spiro wheels the creaky overhead projector out and pulls down the rolled-up white screen and flicks on the projector’s internal light. The light reflects through the contraption’s one cyclopean eye and onto the projector screen where notes on A Farewell to Arms now glow in the dimmed lighting of the classroom.

A section of the book is investigated. Questions are asked and answered and Bobby takes more than his fair share, though remaining careful to infuse his voice with the appropriate amount of disinterest. Every so often, Mr. Spiro will offer a sidewise look toward Bobby and Bobby is fairly certain that the old English teacher knows his secret. Yet this knowledge does not displease him, as it would were it to manifest in the awareness of his peers. 

The bell rings at the end of the period and the transition to second period begins with the customary clamor. Yet an entirely uncustomary moment prevails through the din. Bobby passes Ryan in the hallway and Ryan grabs him by the bicep of his sport coat.

Bobby, you hear the twin towers are on fire?

On fire?


What does that mean?

I don’t know.

And then it’s over, the tides of period two sweep each boy off in their own academic directions. The comment barely holds in Bobby’s brain, so imprecise and non-cataclysmic as it then seems. The twin towers are on fire. Okay?

Second period Calculus begins and heavy text books are put upon fiberglass half desks. However, barely a differential is found when the PA chime alerts the building to an imminent announcement.

It is the clear, somber voice of Father James, the school President. Through the slight warping of the PA system, he announces, The United States is under attack.

A pause, as this announcement takes a moment to process even for its speaker. It is like a sharp and sudden wound in which the knowledge of the injury runs ahead of pain’s experience. 

Earlier this morning, a plane was hijacked and flown into one of the twin towers, continues Father James. We know many of you have relatives who work in the World Trade Center. We’ll do our best to keep everyone updated as this story develops. Until otherwise instructed, classes will proceed as normal. But first, I would ask everyone in the school to join me in a prayer.

The prayer is given, beseeching high God to take in the souls of the dead, though the scope of that request will remain largely unknown to the students for some time, and to strengthen the families and friends given to loss. There is no call for mercy with regard to the hijackers. Those calls will come but at this early juncture it is too much even for these disciples of cheek-turning. 

Despite Father James’s request, classes do not proceed as normal. For Bobby, one might argue that nothing will ever proceed as normal again. At least not as that word had been understood when the universe still contained two fraternal skyscrapers at the heart of the Financial District. 

An old TV on a rolling AV stand is wheeled out in front of the Calculus class and the news blinks to life on the screen. A morbid silence holds all tongues but those of the news anchors, though forty pairs of shock-stripped eyes stare in bewilderment at the events as they unfold only miles away. 

By the time the TV set is up and running, the second plane has reached its murderous destination. And then it gets worse. Tiny silhouettes plummeting, hand-in-hand, to a chosen earthly doom, forsaking the flames. What that choice must be like. To have everything come up in an instant, all your memories and plans and dreams and fears and things unspoken to confront you, to press upon you as do the devouring heaves of fire. To burn or to fall, think quick! Could there be another way? How long do I have? Will it hurt? Will my life flash before my eyes and will I see God? Or will I see nothing? One last mortal view of concrete and then the lasting dark.

Some time or another second period ends and so do all the others. It all blurs into a single cotton spread of time, muffled and featureless. One tower falls, and then the other. Some teachers are crying or have red eyes which give them away. None of the boys cry. To cry would be to give a tangibility to something as yet intangible. They have not lived long or hard enough yet to connect the sudden ruinations with associations of their own, and so the ill omen gathers, growing large but amorphous in unready minds.

The United States is under attack, thinks Bobby. My country! Our country! Previously, a country had been a place. A location. A span of the Earthly surface upon which he and his family and his friends and his enemies and everything that had ever directly impacted him and most things that had indirectly impacted him resided. 

But, in the instant of Father James’s announcement, the country had evolved into something new in his conceptual paradigm. 

It is senseless to attack a place. Surface areas give no offense. Only things are attacked. Wretched, hated, things. And so it is that the United States becomes a thing, a single insoluble entity, in the mind of Bobby Kent. He is no longer a creature in a place, but he is a cell of a larger body called Country, the word now capitalized in his reckonings for ever after. He and everyone he loves are cells therein, microscopic but vital. And, as that Country has been attacked, so too has Bobby and all he loves.  

My country has been attacked! The manta repeats in his mind with growing rage. 

My country has been attacked! 

We have been attacked!

He does not yet understand that a country is neither a place nor some external collective organism, but that it is something inside you which cannot be attacked except by oneself.

Throughout the day, students are pulled out of class if they have relatives in the World Trade Center and are allowed to call home. Bobby has an uncle who works in WTC 7, but he does not want to call home. He does not want to take the walk down the linoleum tiled hallway to Brother Joe’s office, where the phone awaits. It feels too much like a walk to the electric chair. 

Finally, the school day ends. There are few goodbyes, few words at all, as boys scatter to their many winds. A gray smokey haze has enveloped the side street where Bobby is parked. Bobby walks around the corner and heads to his car.

He starts her up and the radio clicks on but there is no sound. Just static. Bobby tries a different station. Static. He switches to FM. Static. Hits the tuner. Only static. 

He puts the car in drive and swings it around through the adjacent neighborhood to rejoin the turnpike heading home. If normal traffic is a clogged artery, this is a full coronary. Nothing moves. He waits in a sea of tail lights, choked with exhaust fumes and the spreading clouds of grayness that carry forth the last debris of death, the final flung resting place of untold and unsuspecting and unready ashes. All to the scream of static on the radio.

When he gets home, Bobby parks the car and comes in the house. In the living room, his mother is sitting on the couch. She wipes her eyes when she hears the front door open but she doesn’t look away from the screen where CNN is covering the attack. There’s an ashtray on the coffee table and a cigarette there burns a long, forgotten ash. 

Bobby opens his mouth to greet his mother and then the programming freezes him. Though the headline references the attack, the video stream depicts people dancing on hardpan dirt streets. The subline indicates that he is looking at footage of Palestine.

They’re celebrating, says Bobby.

Can you believe it? she says. 

Why would anyone celebrate this? I don’t understand. 

Me either.

Where’s Dad?

I don’t know. In his office I think. 

Bobby turns to go. 



Are you okay, Bobby? She looks away from the screen for the first time.

I’m fine, Mom.

Are you sure?

I think so.

Okay. Let me know if you want to talk.

I will.

He leaves the living room, walking across the dining room where the stairs land. Upstairs he can hear heavy metal music jamming through the closed door of his sister’s bedroom. He passes the stairs and arrives at his father’s office door. He knocks.

Come in, says his father.

Bobby opens the door. His Dad is sitting behind the heavy French desk, which faces the door, but is swiveled around in his brown leather chair so that all Bobby can see is the back of the chair and a single arm propped on an arm rest and gripping a tumbler of brown liquor, no ice. On the far wall there is a print in a golden-colored metal frame of the Mets winning the 1986 World Series, which Bobby’s Dad seems to be contemplating.

Dad, says Bobby.

I know, says his Dad.

The chair turns. His Dad looks old.

Sit down, son, says Dad. Bobby sits in one of the fabric and metal chairs that face the desk. Are you holding up okay?

Did you see the people jumping from the roof? Bobby asks.

I did, says Dad. He takes a sip of the whiskey. Then, upon the occurrence of a new idea, the older man rises from the chair which squeaks in relief from the weight. He crosses to the bookshelf that matches the desk, where lawbooks dominate but the second shelf is reserved for decanter and glasses. He pours a glass of bourbon neat and hands it to his son.

After today, I guess you’re all grown up, says Dad.

Bobby looks at the glass uncertainly.

It’s okay, son. You can drink it. But you don’t have to if you don’t want to.

The boy takes a sip. It burns something awful, a liquid fire scorching its way all down to the unarmored gullet. A gagging cough seeks escape but Bobby chokes it back, feeling that he must show no outward sign of discomfort if he is to live up to the gesture.

Why would someone do this? Bobby asks. He tries to keep his voice sounding unaffected by the bourbon but does not succeed.

America has always stood for something, says Dad. Land of the Free and Home of the Brave. I guess there are parts of the world out there that don’t care much for freedom and won’t tolerate bravery in its advocates.

But why would someone dislike freedom? It seems like the most obviously good thing in the world. Bobby takes a sip of the whiskey. The first had burned him out and then hardened him, and now the second sip is comforting, it fortifies.

Things that seem obvious to us may not seem obvious to everyone, everywhere. Obviousness is a local phenomenon. Things become obvious when you see them around you all the time. But even all your many experiences are just a tiny tiny fraction of the history of the world. Something can seem obvious to you anecdotally but be completely wrong.

What does anecdotally mean?

It means based on your personal experience. 

Bobby thinks this over. But how do we know we’re right then?

Dad finishes the whiskey and goes to refill it. Bobby has never seen him drink two whiskeys in a single sitting.

Are you okay, Dad? Bobby asks, eyeing the second glass.

Yes, son, I’m okay, says Dad. I’m just buying time to think about how to answer your question. The ghost of a smile twitches at the corner of Dad’s mouth and then vanishes as he prepares to take on the philosophy.

Dad takes a slow sip and puts the glass down on his desk. He leans forward. The truth is, I’m not sure we do know. Questions of morality are so subjective and impermanent, changing with time and with culture and with need. But here’s why I THINK we’re right: because our morality mourns the death of non-combatants, it doesn’t look to cause them. 

There are no combatants. We aren’t at war, says Bobby.

Well, that may seem obvious to you, but that’s one of those things about obviousness. There are U.S. military bases in the Middle East. Soldiers with American flags on their uniforms and guns in their hands standing on soil not our own. We may say it’s peacetime operations in friendly countries but that may not be obvious to an Arab kid who wakes up every day and knows nothing about peacetime garrisons or national alliances but only knows that every day he has tremors of fear as he walks beneath the watching eyes of American soldiers. To him, the fact that there is a war may be just as obvious as the fact that there is none is obvious to you.

But, I mean, only one thing can be true, right? There is some actual reality. We either are at war or we aren’t, it can’t be both based on who is doing the thinking.

Can’t it? What does it mean to be at war? It’s a hard question to answer. If everyone in one country believes they are at war, then doesn’t that make it so, whatever the other country might think or do? In many ways, war is a state of mind. During World War II, if a day passed with no one shooting at anyone else, did that mean the war was over?

No, says Bobby.

Of course not. There is a war when enough people believe they are at war. Certain activities lend themselves to that belief, naturally. Shooting. Bombing. Capturing. These things are strong evidence for the presence of a war. But the real test is whether the state of mind exists. And the real question, therefore, is how many people have to believe it, and on what sides, to pass whatever critical mass threshold there is for war status.

If that’s all true, could it just be individual then? If an Arab kid believes he is at war then there is a war for him, even if no one else in the world believes it. 

Dad sips from his whiskey. Maybe, he says. 

Okay, says Bobby, trying to wrap his mind around it all. He takes another sip from the whiskey. But so you think we’re right because we wouldn’t celebrate the death of non-combatants?

Yes. That’s how it feels to me, anyway, says Dad. Have you heard of Osama Bin Laden?

I heard that name today at school, but I’d never heard of him before.

Me either, but let’s say it turns out that this is the guy behind the hijackings. I would venture to guess that there will be some mighty strong political pressure to go get this guy and probably to kill him.

I agree, says Bobby.

And I suppose, when it comes down to it, that’s what I want too. If he is behind this, I want to kill him. That’s the honest truth. And if tomorrow morning in the news I read that the U.S. sent some cruise missiles and melted this guy, I think that news would make me happy.

Me too, says Bobby. 

And maybe that’s wrong! There’s a voice in my head yelling that it’s wrong to want to kill anyone, even bad guys. But it’s a small voice and it doesn’t amount to much against the pounding of my heart and my gut that says it is good to kill someone who would mastermind this kind of attack.

I think we should kill him, Bobby says. I don’t know if it’s wrong or right but if you handed me a gun right now and he was standing in front of me I would shoot him.

Dad takes a deep breath. I think I’d do the same, son. And as time goes on we will have to face our own reckoning with that feeling. But let’s put that aside for a second so I can revisit my original point.


Whether one day I will look back in shame for the way I feel right now toward Osama Bin Laden and his terrorists, I can’t say. But I can say this: if someone right now hijacked a plane out of Afghanistan and crashed it into a building of random people in Bin Laden’s home town, I would grieve for those killed. Not celebrate. If nothing else, that’s why I think we are right and they are wrong.

But what if that’s just obvious to us anec…anecdotally?

That’s a good question, son. Unfortunately, in my experience, there are few certainties in life. The best we can do is try to learn as much as we can and do the best we can with what we learn. Do you want another whiskey?

No, thanks. I’m going to go sit with Mom.

Okay. Let me know if she needs me for anything.

I will.

Bobby gets up, vacating the chair and leaving the empty tumbler behind on the desk without a coaster. Dad swipes up the empty glass and puts it back on the tray with the decanter on the bookshelf. 

There may not be many certainties, Bobby thinks as he leaves his father’s office, but there is one thing certain. I want to kill Osama Bin Laden.

It is the first truly adult thought he’s ever had.


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