Joe Parrino, Writer

Musings on Life, Writing, and the Free Territory of Ascham

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Man Dies in Shack

“Fourteen people dead in as many days!” The shout was followed through with the sound of a newspaper slammed into the hardwood desk. “We look like idiots!”

The department stared at the red-faced chief, his dark blue uniform in disarray, his face apoplectic with rage. Elaborate mustaches quivered. Nervous coughing sounded from the gathered police.

“You are idiots,” a new voice announced from the back of the room. The crowd parted as the chief inspector’s head almost burst. One detective stifled a laugh, expecting this to be some joke in bad taste.

The man who stepped into the room, was clearly not joking. Dressed in a sober black suit, with a sober black overcoat and topped with a sober black hat, he brandished a sober black wallet. A gold device glinted within for just a second.

The chief inspector went pale.

One word squeaked from between the chief inspector’s lips, “Out.”

His shoulders slumped as the black-clad figure approached.

The department, Shack’s Central Police Force, milled about in confusion. Steel lodged in the chief inspector’s voice again. He barked, “Out!”

They jumped and ran, looking for something outside the room.

The black-clad man allowed a flicker of a smile to cross his deathly pale face. The gesture was meant to put the Chief Inspector at ease, to relieve the tension.

It failed utterly, so he switched directions. He tutted. “You know who I am?”

The Chief Inspector shook his head.

“Ah, but you know what I represent?”

The Chief Inspector nodded.

“Good, then I’ll spare the introductions,” the black-clad man smiled again, brief and fleeting. “The case is going cold, Chief Inspector. My superiors aren’t pleased.”

He paused, allowing the Chief Inspector to soak that up. The police officer shrank into his desk, his moustaches drooping. He looked for all the world like a scolded child.

The other man, who had yet to remove his hat and overcoat, stared down at the Chief Inspector’s desk with eyes of glacial blue. Fourteen dossiers, each inscribed with a dead man’s name, were spread across it. A black gloved hand darted out and grabbed one, seemingly at random.

The name, scrawled across the folio read: Winslo Spoons.

“The latest?” the black-clad man asked.

“Yes,” the Chief Inspector stammered.

Blue eyes perused the contents of the folio, darting back and forth. He snapped it closed. The Chief Inspector jumped.

“I’ll need a detective.”

He didn’t ask because it wasn’t a question, merely a statement. One that betrayed no emotion and brooked no response.

A black leather shoe tapped impatiently as the black-clad man stared at the Chief Inspector. “The detective? The one I mentioned I needed?” he asked.

The Chief Inspector started, and fairly sprinted out of the room. A moment later he brought a poorly garbed detective into the room who nervously made his way forward. He wore a mustache that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a walrus’ snout.

The detective tried a smile and extended his hand in greeting. The Chief Inspector stared at the proffered hand in horror.

“Your name?” asked the man in black.

“Reginald, sir,” the man quickly stammered. “Reginald Danfrith. I’m the… uh…”

“The?” the black one said impatiently.

“The lead detective for the lower wards, sir,” Reginald finally got out.

Another slight smile slipped across the black-clad man’s face. “Perfect,” he said, “I’m sure we’ll get along famously.”

The man in black didn’t wait, he just turned and stalked out of the room. Danfrith stared at his back for a moment before the Chief Inspector shoved him.

“Uhm sir, I didn’t quite catch your name,” Danfrith called as he stumped forward.

“That’s because I didn’t offer it, Detective Danfrith.”

“I just think it would be a bit easier to work together if I knew your name sir.”

The black-clad man paused. He turned and faced Danfrith. His blue eyes searched Danfrith’s brown ones for a moment. He seemed astonished at the lack of guile there. A thousand details stood out there, a veritable map for those with the ability to see, and comprehend. The black-clad man’s decision flashed.

“Drowns,” was all he said.

“I’m sorry sir?”

“My name is Drowns, Branthony Drowns.”

The Library and Other Horrible Places

I love books. There, I’ve said it. Secret’s out. There’s no turning back.

But, I hate libraries. Not in the sense that I am opposed to them ideologically. I think they are wonderful places.

For other people.

To me, they’re like a little private slice of hell.

The library, in my humble experience, is a shining beacon of Studiousness, of Productivity, of Organization and all those other Wonderful Qualities of Which a Student Will Find Most Practical.

In short, the antithesis of myself. I hate this place, loath it with a passion bordering on unhealthy. The light in here is too cold, austere, unpleasant.

The insufferable silence is the worst. There’s only the clitter-clack of keyboards, the shifting of starched arses in seats. God forbid some cell phone rings, or some petty indiscretion of noise such as a question for clarification. That’s when knives are drawn (silently of course), daggers are glared. These people mean business.

This place should be amazing, it should be fun. Surrounded by old books, old thoughts, old theories. Here the place’s organization defeats itself. Stuffed away in shelf after shelf, helpfully organized to ensure that you can never find anything ever. It is a maze that swallows knowledge while keeping it contained at the same time.

It is a place of last resort. A refuge to retreat to when a paper is due the next morning, when the comforts of home become too comforting. A place to be uncomfortable on purpose, to allow the productivity of others to inspire your own.

It is akin to the lecture hall, to the classroom. These other spaces are horrible, but less so. There at least, is the comfort of human speech, of language, of interaction. The library is a place to be alone with others.

I write this while sitting in the library. Dull and dreary, gazing longingly out the window, towards freedom, towards chaos, towards noise. The wind howls outside, but I cannot hear it, The only evidence of its fury is the movement of trees.

How much better it is to be cold and miserable, than to be stuck away in this place.

But productivity calls. Mounds of obscure academic readings need conquering before I drown beneath their weight.

So this is goodbye for now. Take pity on this poor wretch, this sad creature known to all and sundry as a “Graduate Student.”

On Awkwardness

There are many skills that I lack, patience, interest, writing ability.

Some stood out last night for their fundamental absence.

1) Musical Talent and 2) Tact.

Let me set the stage.

Fresh from a mediocre, albeit fierce, performance at my very first Pub Quiz, I decided a bit of traditional music might be in order. Off through the streets of Edinburgh we ambled, amicably eating chicken and basking in the glow of our non-defeat.

There were no winds that night, but damn cold it still was. Hands in pockets after disposing of aforementioned chicken, we briskly made our way towards a student pub. There, so we were led to believe, was the goal, the endpoint.

It seemed innocuous enough. At first. The doors were closed. That’s fine. People were still inside, the warm inviting glow of yellow lamps seen through old windows.

So we tried a door.


Still not a problem. We tried another.

Locked as well.

Feeling a bit stupid, we hovered outside the door, hoping, praying for some miracle of door opening.

Our prayers were answered.

A surly Scot, tired and at the end of his shift, politely informed us that last call had already been announced.

Feeling a bit cocky I responded, “We’re not here for that. Y’know where the folk music people are meeting?”

A twinkle entered the Scot’s eyes. That should’ve been our warning. That should’ve given us a hint as to just what we were getting into.

He offered to take us there, and we, the fools, followed him.

Up stairs and down stairs, down back corridors and through others, we were led through a shifting maze of backways and secret passages, until we arrived at the Door.

It was a fairly innocent looking door, nothing too intimidating. Nevertheless it was our second clue. The Scot left us to our own devices, to our own doom.

The third clue announced itself by absence rather than presence. It should have been obvious. There was no music. No sounds of fiddle, nor drum, nor accordion nor anything else of that nature.

My hand stretched out, despite the dire warnings my subconscious shouted. Door handle grasped, turned and the Door opened.

I popped my head in. What I saw was a tad disconcerting. A group of people, musical instruments clutched in clammy grips, sat in a rough circle. At their centre was an altar of Irn Bru and crisps. Music was being sung, conducted, call it what you like. A man was attempting to belt out the words of a song about the Northwest Passage.

Now we had several options.

The first, and most sensible, would be to turn right around and leave.

We did not seize upon this course.

Instead, we walked inside and sat outside the circle of erstwhile musicians.

Where we proceeded to sit.

For ten minutes.

Not speaking.

Not singing.

Just quietly sitting, trying not to look as awkward as we felt and failing miserably.

The song ended more or less how it started, in awkward silence.

A pillow flew out of nowhere and hit me in the face.

Now our presence was acknowledged with more than furtive and clandestine glances.

The nice young lady in front of me turned and apologized for this “assault by the Pillow of Happiness.”

I smiled and nodded, while inwardly wondering what sort of madness I had gotten myself involved in.

After much assurances of forgiveness and lack of ill-will towards the Pillow of Happiness, we clambered to our feet and slowly edged towards the door.

People turned to look now.

There was nothing for it. It was now or never. My face beet red, snickers of laughter already streaming from betwixt clenched lips, I opened the door as quietly as possible and we slipped out into the night.

In Search of a Pub

The bouncer, his face a knot of surly scars and surly disposition, growled the words that set us to moving on through the cold dark night. “That’s four pounds, please.”

The streets of Edinburgh were a crowded place last night. From students in all-advised clothes of dubious warmth to kilt-clad prom-goers.

The wind whipped through cobbled streets, moaning, push us forward. We were in search of a pub. An action, which in Edinburgh, stuffed full of the damn things, wouldn’t seem to be quite difficult.

Oh, but it was.

After channeling our inner high schooler by ne’erdowelling in a public park, we happy few, we corps of those unwilling to yet call it a night, to throw in the towel, were wandering the streets.

Rumours of promised lands flowed ahead, their footing fleet, their warmth promising.

“Just ahead,” they promised.

“Open til three,” they urged.

“Not crowded,” they lied.

Like the beginning of a bad joke, three English, three Irish, two Americans and an Austrian sought refuge from the cruel-bladed winds of Scotland.

Failure meant the warmth of home, the solace of bed, but it was still failure. Victory was a pint in some nebulous place.

It had become less a thing of need for the pub, although that played a role. Now pride was at stake. We would triumph in our search, our quest.

In the end we had our victory, we had our triumph. A pub by the name of the Royal Oak had open doors, flooded wall to wall with tourists and locals alike. Drunken Scots sang ballads about Guinness and the heather of home.

We lingered for a time, basking in the glow of a task well accomplished.

Then we were chucked out.

Ghosts Don’t Exist

What a strange title for this little blog?

Now to directly contradict the title, I do believe in ghosts. I am, in fact, one of those crazies who thinks there’s ghosts and goblins and whatnot.

“So what’s the deal with the title then, Oh Illustrious and Great Captain of Chickens?” I hear a particularly spectral shout from the crowd.

Over on Mr. Chuck Wendig’s blog, Terrible Minds, he hosts a little Flash Fiction challenge every week.

This week’s challenge involved picking one of a selection of settings and writing a little story with a thousand words or less. I picked the setting that involved a haunted mountain pass.

Here’s my own humble addition to the contest.

Ghosts did not exist. Call them what you like: ghost, spooks, spirits, grandma. Stupid, silly names, something best left to crazies and children. More importantly, they especially did not exist here, on this ancient mountain pass, where everyone said they did.

Haunted my left foot. Probably just a bunch of sheep, or children, or…something easily explained.

That’s what I repeated, over and over in a litany of reason, logic and modernity.

The effect was somewhat spoiled by the rancid bubbles of fear threading themselves through my body.

Rock walls loomed in the darkness, craggy and indistinct. Snow glowed a faint and unearthly blue. Wind whipped the snow into flurries creating strangely familiar shapes in the darkling gloom. The comforting warmth of whiskey (the catalyst for this ill-conceived adventure) was rapidly fading and I realized belatedly that this was probably not a great idea.

The mountain air was frigid. The wind howled like a chorus of…well ghosts actually. A banshee’s wail, a piercing keening that assaulted my eardrums reverberated along the hunched cliffs. My flashlight made shadows rather than illuminating the darkness.

Shapes writhed in the black. I stopped looking anywhere but at my shoes.

I picked up the pace, hugged my coat nice and reassuringly close and tried to remember the fervent prayers and righteous exorcisms I had shouted at my spooky closet doors.

They seemed to have no effect.

‘Great idea,’ I thought. ‘Let’s go for a night hike. Let’s explore the countryside. Let’s prove a tough American mindset conquers local superstition.’


“Shut up,” I hissed. Then I froze. Trick of the wind. Must’ve been. Ghosts don’t exist.

“Interloper,” accused a voice that was probably the wind.

My shoes were fascinating.

“Trespasser.” the voice was cold. Still probably the wind though. Too bad the wind had stopped.

“You don’t exist,” I insisted, fear making me stubborn. My footfalls clattered as I started a jog, deciding that now might be the perfect time to go for a midnight run. At least, that’s what I told myself.

A pause for a moment. The wind died down with a distinctly whiny tone. Rocks clattered in the distance.

“We do so…” the voice claimed with what sounded like a feeble attempt at self-assurance.

I sputtered for some response, some clever thing to say, some repudiation. Nothing came to mind.

Mist started to writhe between my sneakers. The wind picked up. I could hear giggling. Then sobbing.

The breath hitched in my throat. Tears of manliness streamed down from my eyes. Courageous whimpers leaked out of my mouth. My legs pumped. Snow fell, drifting lazily and with menace down from wintry skies.

My flashlight flickered. It caught a face in the gloom, rotten and glowing, an evil smile plastered over withered lips.

I screamed.

Restless Fingers

Crows caw outside my window. The wind gently shifts slender tree branches. The clatter of keys accompanies my every thought and motion.

My fingers and my mind refuse to sit still. I want to write, I can feel the inspiration lurking. The possibility of endless stories limited only by focus and imagination.

But there’s a problem.

There’s too many and my mind won’t cease. My fingers won’t cooperate.

They’re restless and so am I.

So much is coming together at this moment, this little juncture in time. I’m bursting at the seams with ideas and considerations, with roads to travel and vistas to uncover.

Everything around me is still. But I, like the opposite of the Eye of the Storm, am awash with motion.

All I need is a push to send this chair sliding forward into the wild unknowns.

Ancestral Homeland

The toddler screamed next to me. I winced and tried to close my ears, to make myself deaf to the pitiable cries. Before you think me some heartless bastard let me explain. He was doing it on purpose, a scream for attention, for pacification. He wasn’t fooling my uncle, nor my aunt, nor myself, so cry away he did.

It was a fitting beginning to our return to the ancestral homeland. A place whose very name conjures shudders in all those who’ve managed to escape its clutches (a surprisingly small number).

The wooded expanses of northeastern Pennsylvania (a blighted place if ever there was one) rolled on beyond the confines of the car.

Traffic slowed to a crawl, caught up by senseless construction, leaving us trapped in the Friday heat along with all others heading to points unknown for the weekend.

The trees, leafed out in green glory, wave and bid us onwards in the slight breeze, as if to say “Leave us. Keep moving. Get out of here.

We didn’t listen and continued to roll onwards. The little tyke next to me began to bawl anew. My mind turned inwards, away and into the misted paths of the past.

I’d done the drive before, in all seasons, but for some reason, I always remember snow. There’s great escarpments that rise to either side of the highway as you head north, great cuts in the Pennsylvania rock where humanity carved its way into the landscape. Every time I pass between and wonder at the achievements of those who passed before, I picture snow flurries fluttering about between the rocks.

I could almost see them, in the ninety degree weather, through the stifling heat of late June. Little flakes of white, carried and floating on the howling wind. I longed for them, but they refused to appear, except in memory.

The car climbed a ridge. There, sprawling before us in the Wyoming Valley, was our destination.

The child grew silent as if he could sense the pall, the dismal nature of this city. The mood in the little car dropped as we fell into silent contemplation.

A name clawed its way into my brain, dread and insistent. “Wilkes-Barre,” a distant voice shouted, half-curse, half-sigh.

We crested the ridge and the car nosed downwards into the grey cloud that sheathes the city, keeps it hidden from the rest of the world.

The sun became a distant thing, wreathed in the haze of centuries of industry.

No one spoke as we flashed past mile after mile of dilapidated houses and broken strip malls.

Like some sort of secret code that only locals could understand, the same five types of business lined the same streets. Funeral parlor, Chinese restaurant, pizza joint, car repair shop and used car lot. A pattern unbroken for decades.

The same families jostled next to each other, the small yards littered with old dreams and old feuds.

Here lay the origin of my mother’s family going back as far as our family records could go. I thought to myself, ‘Here, but for the grace of God, I could’ve grown up. I could’ve lived in any one of these houses and would probably still be here, sitting on the same stoop my great-grandfather had sat on.’

There’s something to be said for such continuity, but I’m glad my mom’s family fled this place.

Towns cluster along the bank of the Susquehanna, forming the terrible conglomeration that is Wilkes-Barre. Kingston, Forty Fort, Edwardsville, Plains, Pringle. Borders, distinct only in the minds of inhabitants, are nebulous and ill-understood. The normal laws don’t apply here. People jump red lights to turn left, sitting on the front stoop is still a viable way to pass the time. Neighbors wander into each other’s houses without permission, without thought. Roads twist and turn along shabby houses without rhyme or reason. Potholes gouge out huge chunks of street.

Here and there an effort has been made to resuscitate the city, but these too fade away, forgotten and abandoned.

During the day, it’s a place much like any other old American city, with 1800’s politics and burnt out industry. At night the character of the city changes. The street-lights cast shadows rather than light. People, half-seen in the dark, amble along the canted sidewalks in the light of fireflies.

Coming back here always brings on weird, unidentifiable feelings. I feel a strange sense of nostalgia for a life I never experienced, a connection to family I never met. The city feels at once familiar and utterly foreign.

I had a point when I began writing this, but it got lost in the malaise of reflection. Which I suppose is fitting, considering the subject matter.

I’ll cut this post off early, as its grown long and rambling. Stay tuned for further stories out of Wilkes-Barre.

Thanks, as always, for reading.


The Imaginary Crowd grows ever more agitated. I hear a word whispered again and again in tones, both hushed and open. “Riot,” they say.

The chickens babble away insanely in their own gibbering conspiracy. I am watchful but loath to intervene. I value my hide and the hide that covers my chair.

Good news has been flowing in unabated and entirely welcome. The good news brings with it work and soon I shall share it unto you, my dearest readership. When I can make an announcement that’ll spread like oil over storm-tossed seas, both illuminating it with fire, and calming the raging depths.

Alas I can’t say nothing and these lips are sealed (at least announcement wise) for the moment so I shall write instead of frustration.

I imagine it’s a writer’s lot, is good ole frustration. It hounds at your heels when a word or phrase refuses to appear. There’s been times when I’ve sought a word so dearly and ardently, like a hunter searching for some mythical beast of old, that I’ve dashed hand upon desk.

I feel it nipping even now, taking little chunks of annoyance out of my soul. I thrash my hands about, flailing like a madman, and it cowers away by inches. But it always comes slinking back as a whisper, a sigh and sometimes a roar.

At its lowest, frustration is an immobilizing force, paralyzing with intensity. At its highest it galvanises me to achieve, to rise higher, above its murky depths. Sometimes it does both.

Such is the state I find myself in now as I rack my brain for ideas and thus drive them away. Bars are being set, higher and higher, reaching unto the very heavens of personal achievement.

My mantra has become, “Be as the sponge and soak up the stories that lay about you.”

So I hope and pray that what emerges from the sloshing pile of fluid and flesh that lies at the heart of my head is worthwhile, compelling and interesting whilst simultaneously creating entertainment.

In the end I know that frustration is but a prelude, the opening stages to a symphony of glory. I just have to get out of the muck, the mixed metaphors and the mire to hear the music.

The Dream

It’s been a little while since I’ve posted any writing samples up on here. Well this is something I wrote on Friday about a dream I had on Thursday night. It’s a nice little vignette so without further ado read and enjoy.

Also if you can guess the subject matter and setting of the dream I shall award you with a place in the Imaginary Audience. So comment and conjecture away after the post.

The rain pattered down through the misty night. Ancient trees, their bark gnarled and coated with snaggles of moss and lichen, reared up through the blackness. A slight breeze made the branches whisper.

I felt I only had to strain my ears just a little harder to understand their hushed conversations. Instead, my feet brought me padding along the trail.

A howl tore through the night. My heartbeat thudded louder in my chest. Breath, given tangible form by the chill air, curled away from my lips. I tried to appear unconcerned and unafraid. I failed miserably.

As the howl echoed through the valley, I heard a new voice join it. Angry and primal, this bestial roar ripped the night asunder.

Instinct had me running. There was no time for thought, no need to evaluate the reality of whatever was out there.

The myths were real. The legends were true. And they hunted me.

Sneaky Little Update

So I probably should’ve mentioned this before, but I’ve morphed up the website a bit.

If you look over to the left hand side of the main page you should see some fancy new stuff. On it is a list of books that I’m currently reading (or rereading), a list of blogs that I regularly read, a bit of random stuff and my latest tweets.

So if any of that strikes your fancy take a click and a look.

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