I started working at Shivers ice cream shop in April, midway through my last semester at community college and just before I was set to transfer to a university halfway across the country. I’d finally gotten my crap together and lived up to the academic potential that had always eluded me. I’m not sure what it was; laziness, I guess. Or boredom. But I’d grown bored of being bored and the prospect of working at a place like Shivers for the rest of my life made me get my act together and finally apply myself.
Not that it was all bad. I worked most nights with Sara, a really cool and funny high school junior who wore purple lipstick and plaid skirts; she seemed to be trying to effect some sort of hybrid goth/schoolgirl thing that would have looked stupid on most people. But Sara managed. She carried off with effortless cool the nose ring and Tigger tattoo in the space just behind her ear. She was also wicked smart and really sweet. I’d miss her.
There was little else to miss in my town. My parents had split up years earlier. I’d stayed with my mom and lately she and her boyfriend Hank were spending every minute with each other and were as nauseating as teenagers. They were talking about in moving in together. It was time for me to flee.
I was grateful that my last night at Shivers was slow. It gave me and Sara time to just sit and talk instead of the usual assembly line operation we had to employ: one of us yelled out orders, the other ran like mad to fill them, and then we’d swap, carrying towers of cones, whipping up milkshakes, refilling the toppings tins.
But on this night, a combination of fog, rain, and cold front had lowered the temps to the low 60s. Lots of our traffic came from the nearby pool and that day it had closed after a round of thunderstorms. Clearly, people just wanted to hunker down at home.
So Sara and I sat on the counters and let our legs swing and counted down the minutes until closing time. We talked about boys—well, I did mostly, giving her my usual lament about how utterly unsatisfying they were, how they simply didn’t know a thing and the only men who were probably worth anything were no doubt too old for me anyway.
“You should expand your horizons,” Sara said. “I don’t even think in terms of male or female. No binaries for me. I’m open to whatever comes my way.”
“Yeah, well, I like guys,” I muttered.
It was another way I felt like I belonged to an entirely different generation than Sara; she just seemed so much more liberated than I was. Or maybe she simply hadn’t been disappointed too many times yet.
As we ticked toward closing time, we told each other I love you and promised to keep in touch. Her plan was to head to Yale the following fall, though she was considering taking a year to travel around Southeast Asia instead.
“I envy you,” I said. “You have your whole life in front of you.”
“You act like you’re eighty years old. You’re, like, three years older than me.”
“I stand corrected. I’ll call the retirement castle now.”
She hopped off the counter. Her thick-soled shoes made a clopping sound that echoed through the store.
“What are you doing?”
She pointed at the empty sprinkles tin.
“No one’s coming in,” I said.
“You know how much I love this.” She tipped a bag of multi-colored sprinkles into the empty tin, listening with satisfaction to the peculiar sound it made: the initial clank of semi-solid food on metal, slowly subsumed by a smooth whooshing sound. I had to admit, it was a great sound.
“Here we go,” she said. She plunged a paper cup into the sprinkles. “God, I love that,” she cooed. “It’s like a shovel sinking into sand.”
“You are such a nerd,” I said.
Smiling, she grabbed the cup from the tin, full of sprinkles, and cocked her hand back as if threatening me.
The door flung open, bells clanging like mad, and a guy came flying through, skidding and then tumbling onto the floor. I let out a screech and when he leapt to his feet, Sara tossed the sprinkles at him.
“Hey!” he yelled.
They were all over his hair. A bunch adhered to his face. They lined the collar of his shirt and lodged in the cracks near his eyes, some in his ears.
“What did you do that for?”
Sara muttered a half-apology, though she still held the cup in front of her like a loaded gun. I knew why she’d reacted that way; we were both still on edge because of what had happened a week earlier when some guy came in and ordered two scoops in a cup with gummy worms and while there wasn’t anything that particularly stood about him, after five minutes, two cops came in and grabbed him. He just hung his head and put his hands behind his back like he was expecting it, and the three of them walked out without a word. It freaked us out. Even after they were long gone and his ice cream had turned to chowder, the worms sunk to the bottom but peeping their heads out of the gelatinous goo, neither one of us wanted to touch it, as if we’d be implicated in his crime or accused of tampering with evidence or something. Eventually, I wrapped my hand in about twenty napkins and threw it out.
We just stood there a moment—me, Sara, and the sprinkle man—waiting for someone to make the next move.
“Hey, Joanna Benson,” he said, looking right at me. “I know you.”
“Oh, my God.” Of course. I knew him too: Sebastian Fine. I’d known him maybe longer than I’d known anyone else in the world.
When my parents were still together, they used to throw big neighborhood parties three, four times a year. The Fines were neighbors, so Sebastian and his mom always came.
Our basement was one giant playroom, stocked with the accumulated toys of my childhood. The adults used to steer their kids there, mentally locking the door behind them. As I got older, I better understood the appeal of this set up: the adults could be adults without the insistences of their kids, which allowed them, paradoxically, to act like kids again—drinking, yelling, flirting—and we kids could pretend to be adults, making our own rules and acting in all kinds of forbidden ways. Punishments, when they came, were usually pretty tame because exasperated parents had to first sort out competing versions of what had precipitated this one crying or that one bleeding, before giving it up and declaring that they had better not hear one more word about it and that, so long as no one was dead or maimed, we needed to work these things out on our own, which was everyone’s desire in the first place. It was great, all around.
But not so much for Sebastian. He hated it in the basement. I called him on it once, as he sat upstairs with the adults, tethered to his mom’s side. “Why don’t you come down with us?” I asked, a big glass of lemonade in my hand.
His reply: “Well, Joanna, I don’t so much mind being in the gutter, but it feels like I’m the only one looking at the stars.”
“You’re weird,” I said before his mother hauled him off to a corner to discuss the finer points in the art of making friends.
When his mom forced him back downstairs, he floated along the periphery, observing, like the scientist he would become. He stared at me a lot, but in a way I found endearing. It was never creepy or possessive. But mostly he watched the boys. And I suppose they were the most interesting to observe. They had no idea how to check their instincts. If a boy coveted a toy someone else was playing with, he might simply walk over and snatch it, at which point a drizzle of whines and high-pitched squeals would break out. They were little different from chimpanzees, really. All impulse and only hierarchy to check it.
All the while, Sebastian set up camp in this corner, then moved to that corner for a better view, then the couch for a new perspective, composing in his endlessly working brain an entire scatology of this subspecies: the human boy. Then, getting his fill or finding himself on the receiving end of juvenile taunts, Sebastian would flee back to the adults on the upper level. Often, I followed, intrigued. Looking back on it now, I realize that I was always intrigued by Sebastian; he was just so . . . weird, so thoroughly in his own world and his own head, so completely unlike anyone I’d ever known.
“Maaaaaa,” Sebastian whined. I stood next to him, watching. That was another reason I often followed him; there was something in the way his mother interacted with him that fascinated me. Part of it I found abnormal, even then. The other part made me envious; she lived for him. My own parents would never engage with me the way she did with him. I think this made me a more independent person and that was probably my parents’ goal. But when I was a kid, I saw only lack of interest.
As for Sebastian, Mrs. Fine could get him in to the right academic programs, under the right kind of tutelage, so that one day he would use his prodigious mental powers for the common good. His name would be on that rarefied list that was shorthand for righteousness and selflessness: Gandhi, Salk, Wallenberg, Schindler . . . Sebastian Fine.
She scooped him up. “What is it, my dearest?”
“I wanna go.”
“I want you to stay for at least a half hour more. You need to learn how to endure all kinds of people. You will find a special coterie—one day—who share your interests and your intellect. And it’s important you get the necessary socialization now.”
Sebastian started to protest, but then collected himself. “I have been doing some interesting observations,” he said.
“You see? All that will pay off. I promise. Besides . . .” and here she jammed a teasing finger into Sebastian’s ribs. She turned him and pointed in my direction: “It looks like Joanna’s going back down there.” She delivered “Joanna” in a sing-songy tone that made the implication clear: he was in love with me.
A lot of the boys used to scramble for my attention, climbing over one another in a parade line to give me various unusable gifts: hockey pucks, sheets of dinosaur stickers, scuffed lacrosse balls, new hats and gloves. This happened quite a bit; I think it was because of my blond hair and, eventually, the fact that my breasts started growing before the other girls.
But Sebastian never did anything like that. This endeared him to me, especially when I entered that cruel phase of childhood where the other girls started hating me for the attention I got. I liked having him around. He treated me normally. Besides, whatever I wanted to do, we did. He was the smartest kid—strike that, he was the smartest person—I ever knew, and that included our teachers and parents, but when it came to playing together, he never seemed to have any ideas of his own and was thrilled to do whatever I suggested.
Even as we got older and I came to better understand the implications of his interest in me, I just couldn’t seem to give him up. This was tested, though, the time Mrs. Fine came over alone and asked to speak with my mom while I was shooed off to my bedroom. Of course, I slipped out of my room moments later and sat on the stairs, able to hear them whispering in the kitchen, but out of view.
Mrs. Fine’s story: she and Sebastian were in the car and Sebastian was being very quiet. He was, according to Mrs. Fine, giving off his “thinking waves” again, and she knew better than to disturb him. She glanced occasionally in the rear view, taking in his knitted brow. I’d seen that brow and knew what she was talking about. Even at ten years old, it was furrowed with the depth of a middle-ager who’d spent decades wincing against the sun. I used to imagine that his eyebrows would one day spontaneously burst into flames.
“Mama?” he finally said.
“That Joanna sure is pretty, isn’t she?”
Here my mom chuckled. Mrs. Fine did, too. “Sometimes, I allow myself to forget that my son is still, in the end, just a boy.”
“And, apparently, a rather healthy one,” my mom added.
“Yes, well . . .” There was a long silence. I tensed up, ready to spring back into my bedroom in case they were coming to see if I was listening. But after a few throat clearings, Mrs. Fine continued: “Well, that wasn’t all. He said something else, and that is why I am here.”
“Is everything okay?” my mom asked.
“Well . . . he said to me, ‘Mama, I think I want to put a baby inside Joanna’.”
I had only the vaguest notion of how babies resided in people and I imagined it had something to do with swallowing them because of the big bellies women got. Whatever it was, I knew it probably wasn’t something very pleasant and it wasn’t something I wanted to have happen to me. Would I get a choice in the matter? Was Mrs. Fine asking for my mom’s blessing?
“I was so shocked to hear this kind of talk coming out of my boy’s mouth that the steering wheel slipped through my fingers.”
Apparently, she didn’t regain control very quickly and wound up careening into a rather big roadside rock. The smashing sound had been awful. The tire was flat, of course. But it was more than that. She could see the bends in the strut as she struggled with the spare. All the while Sebastian stood over her pleading to help.
“So what did you do?” my mom asked. If I didn’t know better, I could have sworn she was holding back giggles.
“What could I do? I changed the tire best I could. Thank goodness we weren’t too far from home. But I had to get the entire front end realigned. Cost me a thousand dollars.”
Looking back on it now, I’m sure my mom thought that maybe Mrs. Fine was asking for her to help pay for the repairs. But instead, after a long uncomfortable silence, Mrs. Fine simply said, “Well, I just thought you should know.” And that was that.
I ran back to my room. From behind my closed door, I could hear my mother’s howling laughter after Mrs. Fine left. I didn’t know what to think. But I could hear my father’s oft-repeated comment, back when we had our parties and he watched Sebastian toddle with his odd gait down our sidewalk: “That kid is either going to rule the world someday or turn out to be a serial killer.”
Poor Sebastian. I could imagine Mrs. Fine at the scene of the accident letting him have it. “You see what you’ve done? Do you see?” she would have asked while holding out her hands, covered in blood and grease and probably also a horribly eviscerated nail. He probably imagined that nail being pressed into his eye and most likely felt that he deserved it. No less than torture would befit him for upsetting his mother who wanted nothing but good for him.
I could see her driving the rest of the way home at half the speed limit with the flashers on, terrified she’d attached the spare incorrectly. And no doubt the sound of those flashers would become ingrained as an unease so deep and unrelenting that Sebastian would never be able to hear it again and not think about the moment when he confided to his mother that he wanted to put a baby in me and she ran off the road. That was how Sebastian was.
As for my mother, she never brought it up to me and no doubt she was simply amused by the whole thing. But I was just plain confused. Confused and intrigued. Either way, it wasn’t enough to make me want to give him up.
One summer afternoon I ran over to the Fines when I heard voices in the backyard. I walked around the house, but I stopped when I heard Sebastian talking with his mom. There was something about eavesdropping that way, some allowance that told me that listening, unnoticed, might help me better understand the boy who wanted to “put a baby in me.”
“I don’t know the rituals, Mama,” Sebastian was saying. “I don’t value the same things the other boys value.”
“Please tell me what you mean. Give me an example of what you are talking about.”
“Roger Metheny, down the street . . .”
“Yes, I know the Methenys. Father smokes cigars—can smell that man from down the block. And the woman, Pam, smokes also, like a chimney. Menthols. She blows it out of her nostrils like a dragon. Yes, I know them, and the boy, Roger. Poor child will most likely have carcinoma by his twelfth birthday.”
“You remember I played with him about three weeks ago.”
“We were in that copse of woods behind his house.”
“I was pointing out the foliage. Especially interested in the leaves of one tree I couldn’t identify. The leaves were pandurate and . . .”
“Could be invasive. Was there only one?”
“That’s really beside the point.”
“Yes, go ahead. Sorry.”
“He had no interest. None. Just stood there and bit his nails and then asked if I was ‘queer’.”
“And you explained to him that such a term is derogatory?”
“I told him I was in love with Joanna Benson.”
Even though I knew this already, I still felt a weird flutter run up my chest. It wasn’t excitement, not like the kind I imagine you feel when you fall in love with someone. It was instead something unknown to me then, maybe that old feeling of figuring out whether my continued friendship with him was simply a bad idea, a prescription for his eventual heartbreak. But what else to do? Abandon him? That would hurt just as bad, if not worse. Besides, I liked him. For some crazy reason, I really liked him.
“And he responded?” Mrs. Fine asked.
“Well, he was bored. He kept suggesting we go back to his house and play Grand Theft Auto.”
“But the carcinogens in the house.”
“And it was a beautiful day. Anyway, I saw a turtle.”
“Yes. Eastern box turtle. Do you know that it’s the only turtle endemic to the state that can retract its entire body into its shell?”
“I did not know that.”
“I believe you.”
“Roger asked me if he could have it.”
“And what did you say?”
“I said no. There were several reasons for this. One, that house . . .”
“With the smoke.”
“It’s an unhealthy environment for any living creature. I questioned his ability to provide the proper living conditions for the turtle. But most importantly, I didn’t feel that my placing it in my hands conferred ownership. Mama, it wasn’t mine to give.”
“And then what happened?”
“He told me that if I gave it to him, he’d be my best friend.”
“I thought that was preposterous. I don’t know how one trades a turtle for the promise of best friendship. It doesn’t make sense to me. But more to the point I had no faith that he’d follow through. It seemed a pretty obvious ruse to simply get the turtle. I’m not so sure that being the possessor of Roger Metheny’s pledge that he’d be my new best friend is really all that valuable in the end.”
“I would think not.”
“So I said as much, but in much nicer language. Just told him I was going to put the turtle back on the ground so it could go to its natural home.”
“And how did he take that?”
“He snatched the turtle out of my hands and ran off.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I suspect the turtle is deceased by now.”
“I’m afraid to say that you’re probably right.”
“I haven’t seen Roger since.”
“I’m not so sure that’s such a big loss.”
“It’s the larger point, Mama. I just don’t know how these boys’ brains work.”
I sympathized with Sebastian on this. I didn’t either—I still don’t, if I’m honest.
I didn’t see Sebastian much after that summer. He went to a special school for 7th and 8th grade, then was home schooled for a year, and by the time he started attending the high school where I went, we had been separated too long, what with my parents’ divorce and my moving across town. Plus, we weren’t in the same classes; actually, he wasn’t in the same classes as anyone. He had his own schedule, a series of independent studies, like Abstract Algebra, Real and Complex Analysis, Integrative Biology, Human Developmental and Regenerative Biology—stuff the rest of us had no hope of understanding. Still, I always tried to say hello when we passed in the hall. But he had a way of moving as if he was either fleeing from something or racing to something, his books threatening to spill from his arms, and he only ever managed a quick, distracted, “Hey,” before he was off, leaving me behind to wilt under the looks of my friends who wondered why the hell I was even acknowledging the existence of a spazz like that.
The answer, but one I never actually said out loud, was that I couldn’t forget about him. It was some weird, unnameable thing that stayed with me through all those years, this idea that I might like to deflower him, give him that huge break, that I would be doing something sweet and kind for him—but it might just be something I liked, too. I had to admit that. Of course, I never did it. I mean, what if he rejected me? I couldn’t even imagine. Plus, when it became clear that he was going places, that the brain he had would carry him around the world, well, what did he need me for anyway? I was floundering through high school, scraping together a B- average, getting stoned in the woods with my friends, and letting greasy boys feel me up in my house before my mother got home from work.
He won some huge international science award when he was sixteen. Of course, that didn’t help his social standing. But I thought it was pretty cool. All those idiots who made fun of him, calling him Poindexter and stepping on the heel of his shoe when he walked so he’d step right out of his sneakers, it was clear that they were never going to amount to a tenth of what Sebastian would.
I watched him being interviewed on the local news and was surprised and impressed by his poise. He looked dapper in a blue sweater with a collared shirt underneath. I recognized the plaid couch in his living room. The lighting was good and he kept eye contact with the reporter, who dutifully nodded and smiled at the appropriate moments as Sebastian explained the genesis of his discovery: “Currently, electronic medical implants like my Uncle George’s pacemaker rely on batteries, and these batteries require surgical replacement. We’re talking here not only of Uncle George’s pacemaker, but also defibrillators, neurostimulators. So I was thinking, why not instead run these batteries off the body’s normal thermal energy? Nanocrystals can easily transform into efficient semiconductors.”
Ardent reporter nodding.
“Quantum dots can produce highly efficient heat engines that have super-high efficiencies because of their chemical potential energy.”
“The body has natural temperature gradients, and if one implants a subcutaneous chip set to harvest this energy, it can power the implant naturally.”
The reporter, clearly having little idea what was just said to her, turned to the camera to sign off, pumping up, once again, the genius in our midst, the local hero who would no doubt go on to do more truly great things.
And now that hero, several years removed, was standing in the harsh light of Shivers shedding candy sprinkles from his collar.
“Sebastian,” I gasped.
“Sebastian, this is Sara. Sara, Sebastian Fine.”
“Sorry I chucked sprinkles at you. You scared me running in like that.”
“I thought you guys might be closing and I’d miss it.”
“Yes, well, you’re right.” Sara grabbed a broom and dustpan and headed out from behind the counter, but Sebastian intercepted her and did the sweeping himself.
Sara and I exchanged looks. I smiled. She raised a pierced eyebrow.
“Hey, what are you doing tonight?” I asked. “I’m about to get off.”
“Come with me,” I suggested.
Sara and I hugged goodbye and Sebastian gave her a formal handshake before he and I walked out into the thickening night.
“You want me to follow you?” he asked.
“No. I’ll drive you back later. I’m only a few minutes away.”
As I drove to my house, I found that I couldn’t stop smiling. There was something about having him in my car—this kid, this guy I’d known forever and yet somehow never really known.
“How’s your mom?” he asked.
“Good. Got a new boyfriend. He’s nice enough. They’re in Florida for the week.”
“And your mom?”
“Great. Same old mom.”
We grew silent. We passed a field where I used to play soccer. I did it for years; it was the one place I felt like I didn’t have to be just a girl, where I could be a little warrior and sweat and grunt and get covered in mud. By contrast, I couldn’t recall one single instance when I saw Sebastian doing anything even remotely athletic. He was always of the mind, never the body.
Then we drove past a playground where I used to go as a kid, where one of the neighborhood boys had all his birthday parties. I couldn’t recall if Sebastian had been at any of those. I suppose not, as at this point we were no longer neighbors. It all seemed so long ago and so very far away.
“So, what are you up to these days?” I asked. “Haven’t seen you on TV.”
“Working on trying to better understand liver disease.”
“I’m sure it’s not.”
“I mean that you’ll think it’s boring.”
“I’m sure I won’t.”
“Well, the foundational work was easy enough; it took only rudimentary study to understand that the livers of A1AT-deficient patients contained accumulations of mutant A1AT-Z cells, which caused scarring, inflammation, even cancer. If one could slow or stop the degradation of A1AT-Z cells, the toxic accumulation might not occur.” His hands flailed, suggesting the vastness of his subject by placing them far apart, then the microscopic nature of the elements he was dealing with by cupping them together. “The harder part was the discovery of two taggers,” he continued. “FBG1 and FBG2, proteins responsible for the degradation of both non-aggregated and aggregated forms of A1AT-Z. Ultimately, if some pharmaceutical company developed a drug that would encourage interaction of FBG1 and FBG2 with A1AT-Z to degrade the toxic protein, the result might be therapies to treat liver disease.”
I raised my eyebrows at him.
“Anyway . . . that’s what I’m working on.”
I pulled onto my street. The entire neighborhood was in darkness. “Huh. Storm must have knocked out the power.”
I parked and we headed inside. I knew it would be fruitless, but out of habit I switched the lights on and off—nothing.
“Hey, you never did get your ice cream,” I said. I led him to the kitchen where I got us both a bowl of chocolate ice cream.
“Better hurry and shut that freezer door,” he said. “You don’t know when the power’s coming back on.”
I fished out a candle from one of the drawers and lit it and we ate our ice cream by candlelight. Occasionally, we caught eyes above our bowls and we smiled and stifled laughs in between bites. I noticed a dark mole near his hairline. I hadn’t remembered him having that.
“Thanks,” he said, finishing his and letting the spoon rattle against the empty bowl.
I took the bowls and placed them in the sink. “Come on,” I said and I grabbed the candle and his hand. I led him to my bedroom where I closed the door behind us.
I placed the candle on my desk and it guttered a few times, throwing wild shadows across the walls.
I removed my clothes down to my underwear while Sebastian watched, the tips of his hair darkening with sweat. “Your turn,” I said.
He slowly took off his clothes, keeping his eyes on me, until he had on only one sock and his boxer shorts, which strained under the force of what looked to be a rather well-endowed and wholly engorged penis. His chest was concave, and each rib was clearly defined even in the half-darkness.
I took his hand and we lay down in my bed. He gave off a heat like I imagine animals in extreme distress or arousal do. I tried to calm him by running my hand over his and then through his hair. I kissed him on the tip of his nose and then plucked a brown sprinkle from his forehead which, I realized, was the “mole” I’d seen in the kitchen. I put it in my mouth, where it slowly dissolved.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Yeah, um . . .”
“What is it?”
“No, I want to know.”
“Okay. You ever hear the one about the sick chemist? If you can’t helium, and you can’t curium, you’ll probably have to barium.”
I burst out laughing. “I’m happy to see you,” I said.
I edged up against him and wrapped my arms around his skinny chest. I nuzzled my head into the crook of his neck. I had to adjust from the boniness of his collarbone, but eventually I found a comfortable position and it felt almost as if I was a missing puzzle piece, so I wrapped myself tighter around him. I wanted to hold on this way before the inevitable pawing and squeezing and urgency that I’d experienced with other boys. They were forever grabbing, roughly, over-eager, concerned only with their own wants and needs as if I was the only girl they’d ever been with before or would ever be with again.
But Sebastian simply hugged me back, and so we settled in, quietly, sweetly.
We passed an hour this way without saying a word until I must have fallen asleep because the next thing I knew I was opening my eyes to find him still staring at me, his twiggy arms wrapped around me. I smiled at him and then got up to put my clothes back on. After he did the same, we walked outside into the inky blackness of a summer night in a neighborhood without electricity. The crickets took up their song and we walked, hand in hand, to my car.
When we got back to Shivers, he got out and climbed into his mom’s old beaten up Chevy. The door growled in protest as he closed it. He shot me an embarrassed look.
I inhaled deeply and waggled my fingers at him before I drove away, down the street and toward a new life. I would be leaving soon and he would be gone soon, too, I was sure, off to rule the world.
Evan Balkan has published six books of nonfiction, including The Wrath of God (Univ. of New Mexico Press) as well as many essays and short stories. His novel Spitfire was published in Fall 2018 (Amphorae Publishing). His screenplay Spitfire, adapted from his novel, won the 2016 Baltimore Screenwriters Competition, a Saul Zaentz Innovation Fund Fellowship, a Rocaberti scholarship, and was a semifinalist in the Screencraft Family Friendly Screenplay Competition and a finalist for an ISA fellowship to the Stowe Story Labs; his screenplay Children of Disobedience won the 2017 Baltimore Screenwriting Competition. He is a co-writer for the television series, Wayward Girls. He coordinates the English Department at the Community College of Baltimore County, where he runs the creative writing program, and is an adjunct faculty member in the Johns Hopkins University's graduate Teaching Writing program. He holds degrees from Towson, George Mason, and Johns Hopkins. The latter degree is in fiction; his thesis project, the novel Root That Mountain Down, won an Individual Artist Award for Fiction from the Maryland State Arts Council.