Justin Reese is a programmer, filmmaker, & writer from Texas. Please enjoy.

And Then November

How young and dumb I was in June.

I snapped this photo from my hotel room at the New Orleans Marriott at around 6 A.M. You can’t tell if the clouds are coming or going, but I can tell you: they were going. This foreboding apocalyptic hell-scape was rolling on past and I happened to snap it at the perfect time, with the sun just peeking on out from underneath the oppressive (and strangely, deeply blue) cloud-bank. I hunted for a good quote to accompany it, and was gutted by the absolutely perfect line from Dave Eggers’ novel about Hurricane Katrina, Zeitoun:

Yes, a dark time passed over this land, but now there is something like light.

Great, right? Not only did it fit the image perfectly, and not only was it literally about the city captured in the photograph, but this was June of 2016. Trump had, inexplicably, survived the primary and was the presumptive Republican nominee for President of the United States of America, but nobody – nobody – expected him to win. We had seen an incredibly ugly past year of politicking. The dark clouds of racism, sexism, transphobia, and xenophobia – battles long fought and often lost but ever so slowly marching toward light – had rolled back over our sunshine, but we thought this was merely a hiccup on the way forward.

And then November happened.

Well, of course, and then so many other things happened first, culminating in Comey’s absurd and probably election-defining letter to Congress. And Donald J. Trump, con-artist playboy misogynist imbecile, was elected to the highest office in the land and the most powerful position in the world.

And now my picture looks pretty damn naive. Or worse, like it’s celebrating exactly the opposite of what it is. As if I might be suggesting that the previous eight years of a dignified, intelligent, diplomatic executive were actually an oppression, and the orange glow of populism was finally cracking through the bleak to save us.

That is certainly not the case.

So anyway. Here’s to the next four years, or however long this craven unqualified pop-tart dismantles the country with his pendulum-swing between incompetence and unbelievable malevolence.

This is a dark time, but soon there will be something like light, again.

Something Like Light

Sunrise peeks out from under a foreboding cloudbank above the Mississippi River in New Orleans, seen from the 19th floor of the Marriott Hotel on Canal St.

Yes, a dark time passed over this land, but now there is something like light.

– Dave Eggers, “Zeitoun”

The Only Child

It was five in the morning when they heard him coughing again. They were so used to it that at first the father sunk his face deeper into the pillow and prayed it would stop, not a prayer of healing but a prayer of self-preservation. But the coughs became ragged and accompanied by little shrieks and sobs, and they knew something was different this time. The mother pushed his arm and they rolled off opposite sides of the bed and ran into his room where he was curled, wracked and sobbing, a pig tail of limbs and snot and wet hair.

The father carried him into the bathroom and turned the red knob. While the room filled with steam he shifted the boy to one arm and unscrewed all but one of the light bulbs over the mirror, but when he turned it on the boy whimpered in even that dim sudden light so the father turned it off and sat on the toilet and held the boy in the steam and the dark. The mother tried to make the boy drink from a bottle of iced orange juice but he just rasped and buried his sweat-soaked head into his father’s arm, and by noon he was comatose, and by midnight he was dead.

The mother did not hear the words. The doctor said them again. The father stood between the mother and doctor and took the words and stared them back at the doctor, and stared them at the ground, and stared them around the room, looking for the seams that would reveal the illusion and collapse the dream. But the doctor was still making new words, his mask pulled down and bobbing like an idiotic wattle beneath his chin. His eyes were watery and sincere but the things he said were compressed and mathematically designed to move the family through the stages without appearing to move the family through the stages, and he seemed a little inconvenienced when the mother didn’t beg him frantically to change his words and also did not fall to her knees like an empty bellows, choking on the fire in the air, the way parents do when their five year old child is a dumb lifeless shell in the next room. She stared away at a painting on the wall and the father clutched her arm and her eyes were glassy beads and her mouth was a rigid horrible flat line.

The funeral was very short. The father said a few words but the mother only sat by the casket and watched the people. Before they lowered the lid she kissed the boy on the forehead and she did not cry.

  1. I made an appointment.
  2. You what?
  3. I called. They were very understanding and I made an appointment.
  4. You should have consulted me.
  5. I did consult you, and you said I shouldn’t, and I disagreed.
  6. This is madness.
  7. Listen to me. Charles.
  8. This is a goddamn madness.
  9. Charles! Let’s just hear what they have to say. There might be a cha—
  10. Don’t say a chance.
  11. There might be. One. A chance to have him—
  12. Goddammit! (He threw his laptop and it skidded across the floor.)
  13. That was a really destructive thing you just did.

They would have to move. The thing wouldn’t make sense to anyone outside of them, and besides, they would only need themselves. The edges of their wholeness, the definition of their boundaries, the space that made up who they were and just as importantly the negative space that made up who they weren’t and was itself another type of definition, were all so clear to her now. Elated, she planned, and loving, he helped, though a concern burned deep inside him.

He arranged things with his job and she told a story to their family and friends. Even the people who advised against change during such a delicate time knew to let grief express itself in its own voice. If they needed to move away for a while, even if that was a really bad idea, then they wanted to support them.

They used his hair. He had been buried whole but they had a lock from his first haircut, and the quiet scientist dressed as a doctor said that would be enough. They took half and dropped it into a vial and whisked it away to be liquified and centrifuged and studied under microscopes and generally made magic.

She took hormone pills, and there was a terrifying period where they had to talk about candidates and survival rates, but in the end it was a textbook case, had there been a textbook. They injected her one morning while she stared up exposed at the buzzing fluorescence and within two months they heard the immaculate heart beat from within her.

They made the due date the same. Not that the boy had been born on his, but so the development would be the same when they induced her. She did all things again, as best she could remember. She played the same music and went for the same runs and ate the same foods. The new house had a different geography than the old and this worried her, but they arranged it closely using memories and manifest recordings.

One night they stood in the doorway of the nursery and he held her pulsing stomach, and her eyes shone at the reliving.

On the appointed day, the boy was born again. They gave him the name bequeathed to him, and stared at him and at each other and the bellows filled with clean air. The boy grasped her finger and her eyes thawed and ran and she looked at him deeply and said “My son, my son. My son, my son.” The father wept and clutched them both and kissed him and kissed her, and the burning was for this moment suppressed by reuniting.

The Book Cellar

There is a street in a large city that is smooth and flat and straight with respectable shops and offices on either side. It is clean and safe and when light bulbs go out, they are replaced quickly. You can walk down this street and the most anyone will ask of you is the time. You will not be disrupted or distracted. The street is made to stay out of your way. It will not burden you with interest or thought.

Between a pharmacy and a tax preparer, there is an alley. You can tell it is an alley because the smooth and flat pavement stops and the old cobblestone appears. You can tell it is an alley because if, as you are passing it, you stop and look in, you will see vents belching warm steam. You will see trash cans lying dented and empty on their sides. You will hear a sudden unfamiliar quiet, out of tune with the comfortable buzz of the street, but a moment later the quiet will be rent by the scream of a cat, which will make you jump and continue walking again. You won’t have seen the end of the alley, even if you had squinted, because of the steam and the trash cans and the way the buildings leapt up and made a canyon in the city that never let the sun illuminate the cobblestone below.

If the cat had not screamed, and if you had looked a moment longer, you would have seen, about half-way down the alley—though you wouldn’t have known it was half-way at the time—a small wooden sign hanging from an iron rod at about the eye level of a small child. The sign would have read The Book Cellar, and beside it would have been steps leading down beneath one of the nice clean thoughtless shops to a door made of heavy oak with frosted panes. Because you would have been there quite early in the morning, the glass would have been dark, and you would have pressed your face against it and tried to make out the geography inside. Between frost and dust you would not have seen much, but a warm and sad feeling would have turned over in your stomach. You would have been surprised by the warmth and the sadness, because you wouldn’t have been used to feeling either of those things on that street in the morning on your way to work in the office beside the travel agency. But it would not have been the sort of sadness that made you cold and drove you away. It would have been the sort that made you want to set down the things you were carrying, and look for anyone near you, and ask them “It will be alright, won’t it?” and tell them “Yes, it will be alright.” And the warmth would not have been the warmth of the sun on a beach which made your skin glow, it would have been the warmth of a strong drink on a slow and rainy day when you couldn’t start the fire but so you wrapped yourself in a second blanket and stared at old photographs and made them move with your mind. You would have looked so deeply into that glass that you were almost certain you saw movement inside, that one of the dark shapes turned and looked at you. You might have knocked gently, but the shape wouldn’t have moved again and you would have decided you didn’t see what you thought you saw.

There were no hours posted, so you would have decided to come back over lunch and try again, when perhaps the door would be open or at least light leaking out of the frosted panes in the oak door at the bottom of the stairs beside the wooden sign on the iron rod at the eye level of a small child half-way down the cobblestone alley belching warm steam off the smooth and safe street in the large city, and then maybe you would find out how to feel that warm and sad feeling again.

The Boy Who Named the Stars

He lay in the long grass and waited for the sky to darken as he did every night, his head resting on a pillow of dirt and tangled black hair. The deepening blue was torn and re-torn by waving blades of green and brown, whispering and rasping in his ears. He listened to their murmurs and smiled.

Away down the hill, the great fire was kept alive by brown bodies glistening orange and gold at the edges. Kills were opened and dismantled, bright red blood making dark puddles in the sand. He was too far away to hear the people chatter or the flames roar or the skin tear and bones crack, but he heard sometimes the sharp report of stone on stone, as natural as thunder and yet warning that same nature, “Do not hide, we are coming, and in greater numbers.”

The first lights were appearing now. He didn’t have to wonder where to look. Twelve times he had journeyed around the great light, 4,380 times had seen its face. His oldest memory was of wandering away from a flickering safety to the glittering darkness beyond. Lights above the horizon calling him innumerable, lights below blinking hungrily and darting forward. A scream. Rough ungentle hands snatching him back into the protective ring. The lights below extinguished with a snap and disappointed growl.

Now he raised a finger and touched the white glow. The fat traveler, never happy to move as slow as the others. He appeared first and shone brightest, and the boy wondered if the others looked at the traveler with love or looked away in the shame of comparison. The boy knew one of his own kind like that.

The singing below had started, syncopated howls punctuated by dust-clapped feet and cracks of wood on stone. The boy knew from other nights that he was not the only one looking up, but that the others wore unknowing faces, merely gathering information like the testing of wind. Only he was awaiting the arrival of company.

The great light had long reddened below the ragged black edge of sight, and tonight the great white would not appear. The boy scowled. He did not count the great white among the others. It was not fair to count a tree among the grass. The fat traveler was great and bright and fast but was undoubtedly one of the rest. The great white, so beloved by the boy’s people when it lit the dark and made it safe, frightened so many meeker lights away. No, the great white was not for him. But tonight it would not appear, its cloak was fully drawn as it rested. The boy smiled.


Hand-carved ice ball on a cutting board overlaid with the Shard logo, with lemon, lime, and ice pick in the background

Produced this video for Shard’s Kickstarter campaign, along with a quick companion piece on hand-carving a clear ice ball.

Birthrights and Deathbeds

Brother’s back.


Father forbade me from seeing you before Sunday. I suspect Jacobian theft of a birthright is in scheme.


Father leans over to me at the dinner table and whispers “There’s always equity in the banana stand.” I smile comprehendingly.

Later Tiffani asks me what he said. “I don’t know,” I frown. “Something about horses and bananas.”


“Father, see Father? The drachma you gave me, I planted in the ground, knowing you were a hard man who reaped what you did not sow. See Father I have kept what is yours and now I return it to you.” You hand him a golden coin. He removes the wrapper and a swarm of ants envelop his hand. His eyes darken.

“You knew I was a hard man, you knew I reaped where I did not sow. And yet you buried my bedtime snack in the ground where thieves can steal and moths may eat?” He begins to cry. You dodge around the house. “No! No! I think we have something! I think we have maybe some jelly beans?” He wails.


I return some minutes later, forlorn but with purpled mouth and stained lips. “Father, there were no jelly beans.”

You leap from your chair to accuse me, but the falling of a jelly bean from your lap is heard loudly. Father’s eyes turn to you in horror, and mine slant in victory.

You will always wonder how I did it, the jelly bean in your lap. But I will die with the secret, and it is only on your deathbed, with your son grown tall and fair sitting beside you, when he whispers low “It was I. You cannot speak but your eyes ask why. ‘Why.’ I could ask the same, as a small boy of ten with a basket of Halloween candy who awaited me – a basket that contained four lollies when I slept and three when I awoke.”

And the rift in your heart will be but a blip on the doctor’s monitor, and the warden will say “It is time.”

The Place to Be

The death of Gramie brought us home. From across Texas, from Arizona, from Jamaica, and in a brilliantly kept secret, even from France, as Conrad walked in the front door with nonchalance and beer. Only a few absences made the reunion imperfect.

For three days our independent lives stopped. We were again children, but children with children, swarming about the family home like a gleefully disrupted ant pile. There was a memorial service at the center, somber and teary despite our attempt to celebrate life. On either side of the service was the true celebration, three generations reveling in the joy that Gramie bequeathed.

There was no guilt in hours of coffee and cigarettes on the porch, watching Eli and Ava and Ethan inch permissively from paddleboats to swimming. No guilt in Cody and Conrad playing wandering games of pétanque, nor Cameron studiously tuning everyone out for bitwise operators. None in the sisters running regimens around the lake in brown-limbed clusters, or Ashton waddling gleefully from Savannah to Jon, arms outstretched toward his endless family. In Mama and Papa rocking, relaxed and reflective, on the porch as their generations played out before them. Arguing Lord of the Rings and George MacDonald with Will and Carolyn deep into the night. Tacos from the taco shack, misunderstandings and explanations, flared anger and quiet forgiveness. It was sheer and endless joy, deep and true joy. It was one of the better Bluth parties.

It’s an odd and beautiful thing, that death can be the nucleus for so much life. Odd, but so completely natural. “When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass.”

Only the insecure wish to be grieved. Gramie would be happy to know she was the reason for all these beautiful moments. We miss her, but more to her liking, we guiltlessly swim in the joy of being.

Another Time, Maybe

Today was the first day since December 20, 1927 that my Gramie did not wake up. She died at 9:07pm yesterday, holding the hands of my brother and sister-in-law, her son at her feet. She lived 87 years, almost 70 of them married to my Grandad. She was a triumph of class, dignity, and poise. She went by Joey to her friends.

Gramie and Grandad posing for a photo for the Philadelphia Inquirer

For days we took turns keeping vigil and company while she slept. She roused herself only briefly for quiet conversation and smiles. She would reach for Grandad first, ever present in his wheelchair by her side. Then she stopped waking at all. She might open her eyes and briefly see you, but just as quickly slip back away.

We knew this was coming. It was no surprise. The body falls apart at the end, an unhappy but gracious preparation for everyone.

Yesterday, the day she died, I came to her door. Grandad was sitting alone beside her bed, watching her. He asked her a question. I didn’t hear it, but I heard her silence. Grandad waited a few moments and said, gently and truly, “Another time, maybe.”

Gramie and Grandad waving to the camera in an unknown airfield

Ashton woke up early today. I took him to the park and let Rae and Ethan sleep. The sun rose without Gramie. Ash ran guiltless and squealing after squirrels.

My sons will only know her through museum glass. They won’t know her shimmering bell-chime laugh, often delayed by asking someone to repeat the joke. They won’t know the way she would look deeply in your eyes and pour her concerns into you and draw your concerns into her, and the way she would gasp, moved beyond measure by your travails, and say “Oh, Justin.” They won’t know that peculiar combination of intimidation and warmth you felt upon entering her perfect home, where tiny china cups of coffee sat beside ferns she’d potted that morning, where a sparkling crystal decanter cast rainbows on a sleeping cat. They won’t know her as a woman of unimpeachable grace, who showed her class through kindness and hospitality. They will know of her, but they won’t know her.

But another time, maybe.

The Largest Quantity of Hemlock I Could Procure


I’m hurt, Roger. There’s no other way to say it. I’m hurt. I wrote you a letter, Roger, and I expected a return, but none has been posted. How do you think that makes me feel, Roger. Do you like making me terribly vexed, you cruel thing? You awful, cruel thing? You want me to swallow hemlock, don’t you Roger? That would make you happy, wouldn’t it, you cruel sadistic thing? I know you care, Roger, I know you do. You just don’t show it and I don’t really know.

Send your regards, Roger. Or send the hemlock.

Breathlessly yours,


Dear Rose,

Please cease your endless barrage of sentimental babble. I realize my attempts at polite conversation upon my weekly visits to the grocery were translated as romancing. I found the first letter rather unsettling, as well as the proceeding dozen. Please do not be offended, but I find you repulsive. I’m sure one day in the future you will stumble upon a very sad, lonely, and undoubtedly homely boy who, in a desperate attempt at the basest form of affection will muster the strength (with eyes closed and breath held, surely) to pull you close enough to his breast to sate your incessant pleas for validation. In the meantime, I would recommend you subscribe to Readers Digest, or perhaps a Sears catalog, and concentrate more on the knitting course you are so fond of mentioning. Stop taking to heart everything “Mother” tells you, and for God’s sake Mittens’ paw will heal in time, maybe if you stopped trying to get her to exercise on it and rubbing it with every magical potion you dig up from the old wives’ tales passed about by your Mother’s friends at the Sunday Luncheon. With only a layman’s knowledge, I am still fairly confident in saying garlic and peppermint oil will do nothing, nor will caging her with a live cricket and thistle leaves at midnight under a full moon.

If you insist on sending future letters, at least stop dowsing them in whatever general store, paisley-boxed reeking essence you attempt to pass off as perfume. It has made my dog quite sick, and I have to walk him around in fresh air every time I come home and find a letter obtrusively thrust under my front door, the thickness of which usually impedes in the actual opening of said door, a very unhappy nuisance to occur after a day’s work.

No, the post was not losing your correspondence, I had specifically requested that no letters from you be delivered.

Enclosed is the largest quantity of hemlock I could procure.

Sincerely Agitated,



Colonel Samuel Wilson
Subversive Activities Investigation Group
ANCIL-3, NORAD, Colorado


Please find attached a series of correspondences forwarded to us by a Ms. Rose Wilson of Oak Park, Illinois. It concerns a colleague of hers that she claims may be a Communist subversive. As per protocol, please investigate. However, you should have some background about Ms. Wilson’s history with our department.

We receive on average two or three such accusations from Ms. Wilson per month. Around certain holidays, this number will often triple. As of yet, none have resulted in conclusive evidence of subversive activities. Traditionally, she’ll annotate the letter she forwards with guidance markers: underlines, arrows, assorted marginalia drawing attention to particularly damning passages. Previous investigators have found these annotations unhelpful, although often entertaining. (See below, “This RED CAD marches to the RUSKIE beat!” and “Evidence of Orgy participation--- sexual COMMUNISM and a SCARLET letter?!”)

Audible sigh. Sam, I have to be honest. This woman frightens me. When the Senator first established this program, you know I was in full support of it. I turned my d—ed mother in, for Pete’s sake. Yours, too! (Sorry, again, about that. Really, though, who goes to eleven pot luck dinners in a single month?) But the fervor with which the women, these lonely women, point the accusing finger… it sickens me, Sam. Hell, Sam, you know I’m a Patriot, I live and I’d die for this country. D— all the Communist subversives, is what I say. But if I have to corner one more lonely bank manager in his office and make him explain just what the nature of these letters are, watch him lick his sweaty, trembling pencil mustache and crush the brim of his hat in his white hands and stammer his way through my questions, all because some old maid with a senile mother didn’t return his affections… it’s enough to make a man want to turn in his badge and go back to farming, Sam. I’d take the midday sun over the glaring incandescent bulb of the investigator’s office any day. I just don’t know what to do, Sam. I believe in this, I really do, d—it Sam you know I believe it from my Irish toes to my American eyeballs, only I’m not so sure I believe in it any more. What hell hath we wrought with our zeal? Look at me. Trying at poetry, Sam. I shouldn’t drink before midday, I really shouldn’t. Particularly not while giving a letter.

Anyway. Follow protocol, look into this fellow… but answer me Sam, answer me: Why? Can you do that, Sam? Can you?

Red [hunting], white [skinned], and [feeling] blue,

Cap. Joseph Maddox
Processing and Response Dept.