Ellie Searl Stories



 He was just a kid, and he used to live in that shack-turned-shrine.

Gaudy bouquets of sagging paper roses fall into the weeds. Wrinkled posters scrawled with “Rest in Peace,” and “I will love you forever,” written in black magic marker above a distorted sketch of his face. The ink, purple from rain and dew, bleeds across the page. Candles, balloons, American flags, and melted candy lump together in piles. Stuffed bears and tigers and dogs with matted fur and faded bows are topsy-turvy, tossed among crumpled sympathy cards and hand-written notes.

Slumped mourners take snapshots of each other—marking history—capturing tears of personal loss in front of the twisted Do Not Cross police ribbon stretched from the fence and around the stubby tree—jammed with soggy dolls, hand-made gifts, and toys—into the bareness of the backyard.

And across the street, protected from the sun and rain by black and white striped tent awnings, are card tables stacked with souvenirs. Over-sized t-shirts, CD’s, and DVD’s, each on sale for the low, low price of $15.00. Seems like a deal. Mourners pocket their cameras and hold t-shirts to their chests. “Do you think I look best in this one? Or this one?” Boom boxes at top volume play “I’ll Be There,” and “Thriller,” and “Billy Jean.”

He was just a kid. A cute, black kid. One of nine, all squeezed together in a foursquare shack—all trying to find space—like too many broken crayons shoved into a torn, over-used box.

He was just a kid. Handsome. Talented. Could he sing! And dance! He was the best of the five. He was the lead. Still . . . just a kid. And all the while, they say, as he was growing up, they say, he was filled with fear, crying and enduring the onslaughts of an abusive dad, they say.

He and his brothers were well behaved. No playtime, no running around the backyard, no friends, not even real school—just rehearse and perform. Rehearse and perform. Entering contests. Winning competitions. Entertaining the patrons of black nightclubs from Chicago to DC. Then Motown. Then LA. Then Neverland. Then . . . what?

He was just a kid who grew from a sweet, round-faced Gary, Indiana, toddler into an exceptional and celebrated entertainer and onto stardom and world-wide fame and finally into a grotesque, disfigured, emaciated man-child who liked to spread love by sleeping with little boys after serving them the wine he called “Jesus Juice.”

That tiny, garage-shaped home—that empty, rotting, paint-chipped, clapboard house—now the backdrop of a massive mound of tributes to the one who had captured the hearts of devoted fans and had filled the pocketbooks of enabling promoters and had satisfied the photo-lust of the paparazzi and had crammed the agenda of the media and then, after years of mystery, and innuendo, and hanging his baby over a balcony, and being tried for pedophilia, and reshaping his body into a sculpture so skeletal and so removed from the robust cherubic-like child he had been, had finally given the world the option to ignore his misdeeds, his over-spending, his drug use, and his scandalous behaviors.

He had given the world a final performance—one that would wipe his tainted slate clean, one that would allow him to rise from the mire he made of his life and ride new waves of esteem and veneration, one that would crescendo him into virtual saint-doman extraordinary, untimely, unrehearsed death.

But he was always and ever just a kid. A very, very sad confused disturbed talented little kid. 

EVS 08/13



Dreams are illustrations . . . from the book your soul is writing about you. ~ Marsha Norman

They’re Gatekeepers, and they prevent the unskilled culture-defacers from assailing the public with crap.They guard the entrance to creativity, allowing the select few—those who pass muster—to enter. Not the riff raff. Not the wanabees—those sad, misguided dilettantes who think their work shows merit—who try to worm their way through the slats.
If it weren’t for that Cadre of Connoisseurs assessing, ranking, and restocking the Aesthetic Empire, the eating, viewing, and reading public wouldn’t know what to eat, view, or read.

Take food. Without Big Food Houses, like Poach Board and Pot Watch, anyone and his second cousin could open a restaurant. BFHs put aspiring restaurateurs through a series of trial kitchens where chefs prepare innovative fare for taste testing, after which the Palate Committee flavor-edits the dishes, taking, say, six to ten months, eventually returning the recipes with recommended modifications that the would-be culinarian must integrate into menu options before contracts are finalized.
The Big Food House then spends the next year and a half designing and building the restaurant, and, once open for business, collects all restaurant proceeds, forwarding to the owner maybe eight percent of the profits in quarterly installments.
Gastronomic Gatekeepers save the world from being saturated with substandard eateries, i.e., self-established restaurants whose owners believe their food actually tastes good.

Then there’s art. Painters, sculptors, photographers. Those quirky right-brainers who think that producing art is a way of life. Without Art Gatekeepers there’d be oils and watercolors and photographs and sculptures on display all over the place—museums, galleries, stores, street corners, gardens, offices.
Big Art Houses, such as Design Depository and Statue Statutorium, keep the art world under control. They stash submissions for review in massive warehouses, where they remain until the Talent Assessment Guild determines their attributes. The evaluation process is simple. TAG, made up of the administrative assistant and night janitor, stands in front of each work of art and throws Rock, Paper, Scissors. A coin toss determines who represents the artist.
Rock-over-Scissors means the piece is rejected, or if small enough, displayed over the urinal in the men’s room.
Paper-over-Rock means the art is returned to the artist for revision—with a note:
“Jackson – Uh, we think you sent us your floor tarp by mistake.”
“Ansel, a bit of color would be nice.” 
 “Say Vincent - Don’t give up. With some practice, you’ll master perspective.”
“Yo! Leonardo! My Man! – Everyone on the same side of a table? Hello.”
Now those artists, if they want a second chance with TAG, must edit their pieces according to where the dart lands on the revision wheel—Color Within the Lines, Smooth Out the Dots, Quit with the Umbrellas, Straighten the Watch, Add Velvet—anything to show they’ve at least parked at an art school.
Scissors-over-Paper means the piece is a keeper, and contracts are signed. Once a piece of art is chosen for public view, it’s put aside until there are upwards of twenty additional Scissors-over-Paper wins by the same artist—enough for a full gallery open. Could take two to five years, during which time the artist waits tables for a Pot Watch Restaurant.
Art Gatekeepers save the world from being saturated with substandard museums, galleries, and studios, i.e., self-installed exhibitions whose artists believe their art actually looks good.

Then there are writers. Good writers. Bad writers. Mediocre writers. Doesn’t matter. They all want to be published. Somewhere. But especially by the Big Book Houses, like Reticent Review and Predictable Press. Ask any writer, and he or she will say that publication is a primary goal, so it's imperative to have Reading Gatekeepers. Otherwise, just anybody could write and publish a book. And if just anybody could write and publish a book, there’d be books everywhere. We all know that the reading public lacks wordsmith sophistication. They read books indiscriminately, ignoring taste, creativity, style, and quotation marks on the wrong side of the period.
It’s essential that Reading Gatekeepers guard the reading public from piles of word hash plopped beside gourmet prose at any reader’s table. How dare a writer expect to publish a book without it first being prepared, plated, and presented to judges who can attest to the quality and doneness of a piece of writing?
Big Book Houses judge a book by its cover. Therefore, it helps if an aspiring writer has a close working relationship with a Scissor-over-Paper art winner. Once the cover passes muster, the interior text is evaluated. Currently, the book must be about dogs, celebrities on drugs, or a vampire who looks like a teen-aged Christopher Robin, and there must be a plethora of words with only three syllables, at least one fancy font, and an appropriate dedication to one’s mother.

The publishing world has evolved to the extent that anyone—Grandma Jones, Aunt Agnes, Cousin Earl—can publish a book. But self-publishers have no gatekeepers. Self-published books aren’t legitimate. They’re written by amateurs. Ask the Reading Gatekeepers. According to them, self-published authors use bad grammar, change tenses, and incorporate too many adjectives and adverbs. Self-published books are puerile, shallow, and undeveloped. They’re not properly edited, they’re boring, they’re tedious— a scourge on the market.
It doesn’t matter that someone’s father, a gentleman in his early 90s, wants to publish a series of stories and see them in print before he dies. Or that a Mid-west bride wants to write her story of how she met a retired NYC police officer while playing on-line Scrabble, fell in love, and got married. Or that a mystery writer—an esteemed mystery writer—an award-winning mystery writer—chooses to go indie instead of kowtowing to the King of Kopy. 
It doesn’t matter that some, perhaps many, writers have dreams of seeing their words, their stories, their manuscripts, stand on a shelf between Shakespeare and Steinbeck. It doesn’t matter that, like restaurateurs and artists, they want to see their hard work come to fruition and become products they can sell to the public, or share with their friends, or give to their children, or put in Grandma's hands.
What’s that you say? Not all self-published books are full of crap? There are well-written, self-published books by excellent authors already in the marketplace? That these books are good? And selling? And popular? And that even some authors have left the Big House and gone indie? That it's not the self-publishing in and of itself that qualifies a book for the back porch, not good enough for the grown-up table, not worthy of the good china? And that just as establishing one’s own restaurant doesn't mean bad food or installing one’s own gallery doesn't mean bad art, self-publishing one's own book doesn't mean a bad read?
How radical.
If that's the case, then here's to all writers who dream of seeing their labor on the bookshelf or shining through the small screen of an e-reader or sitting on the coffee table in Grandma's house or in the hands of Grandma herself. 
Go for it. 
Don’t be intimidated by the elitism of The Gatekeepers—those people reading, and judging, books on their side of the gate. So what if they don't read yours? That doesn't mean no one else will.

EVS – 07/13



 . . . AKA Our Move to Delaware

fter a thirty-five-year career as a Unitarian minister, my husband Ed decided to change his life direction. He was ready for no more church: no more hospital visits, no more evening meetings, no more sermonizing, counseling, and funerals.
     I agreed. I was also ready. Not that I didn't like church.  I did.  Ed made church interesting. But I suffered minister’s wife guilt, especially when I ducked Sunday services, potlucks, Friday Fun Nights, Third Tuesday Movies, and coffee hour.
So in October of 2011, Ed submitted his resignation as minister of the Unitarian Church of Hinsdale beginning January 1, 2013. Christmas Eve would be his last service, and December 31 would be his last day. 
Ed had a plan.  His mom and dad, Mary and Clint, then 95 and 96 years old, were becoming frail, and Ed wanted to live with them so they could stay in their home— the one they built when Ed was a baby—for the remainder of their lives.  It was the right thing to do. It would doubtless include hospital visits, counseling, and maybe even funerals, but we figured a congregation of two would be easy to manage.


Moving in with Ed's parents was a long way off.   Fourteen months. Plenty of time to get our household items sorted, donated, recycled, and packed.  Plenty of time to update the house, stage it, sell it, move to Delaware, and care for the elderly.  
But from October to the next July, we did nothing. We talked about it.  We thought about it.  We even looked forward to it.  But we did nothing, as though we expected the Relocation Fairy to burst through our inertia and take action.
  I continued designing books, Ed continued ministering, and we both continued drinking champagne on Sunday afternoons, riding kick bikes in Oak Park, eating tacos at La Cabanita, and taking walking tours of the city.  But get the house ready?  Nothing.
Friends would ask. "Is your house on the market?" - "Are you unloading stuff?" - "Need boxes?"
Our answers were the same.  "No." - "No." - "Not yet."
We were in denial.  At least I was.  Maybe I didn't think it was real.  Having lived in La Grange, Illinois, for 30 years, it didn't seem possible that I'd be leaving.  I couldn't imagine myself not being in these rooms or using that sink or climbing those stairs.  So I ignored what I had to do.
Every now and then Ed would say, "El, we have to do something about the house."
I’d say, "Today isn’t really good for me.”


As the summer of 2012 approached, we decided to spend the month of July with Ed's parents to test the elder care situation.  Still having done nothing with the house, we loaded our technology and a month’s worth of clothes into a big black Enterprise Toyota Avalon—leather seats, Sirius, and On-Star, which I promised not to play with like before when I declined emergency services after I  apologized to the agent for the accidental crisis call—and headed to Delaware.
A month with Mom and Dad was somewhat enjoyable, somewhat frustrating, somewhat humorous, and somewhat worrisome.  Ed and I took care of Mom and Dad—shopping, cooking, helping, conforming—and when we were off duty, took drives into the country, explored the neighborhoods, walked the nature preserve, and found fun restaurants.
We worked as a team as we maneuvered in and out of the parents' habits and schedules. We laughed privately at the ridiculousness of some things and vowed never, ever, to be like that when we are timeworn and frail.


Mary and Clint are as sweet and lovable as two people can be when they're reaching the edge of life. And like many elders, they live in the past with stories of growing up on the farm when the world was "far better than it is today," and they live in the present with unyielding routines, rules, and recriminations.

¨     Only one box of ice cream open at a time.  Even if you don't like it so much. 
*    "You shouldn't have opened that. The Banana Peanut Butter Mint isn't finished."
¨        The mayonnaise goes behind the coffee, not in front of it.  
*   "I couldn’t find the mayonnaise today. I don't want to make a sandwich and find out I've spread my roll with coffee grounds!" 
¨        No keys to the house for us.  
*        "You might lose them." 
¨        Air conditioner - 81 degrees.   
*        "Wait 'til you're 96, you'll see."
¨        Breakfast - 7:00, lunch - 11:30, supper - 5:00. 
*        "It's almost 5:00 and nothing's happening in the kitchen."
¨        No snacking between meals. 
*   "You shouldn't be eating those crackers. Supper is only a couple of hours away."
¨        Early light meal on Saturday. No eating later.
*        “The kitchen closes at 5:00. Period.” 
¨        Don't lift the Dirt Devil off the floor. 
*        "I'm not fussy.  I just want it done my way." 
¨        Wash all the Baggies. Hang them up. 
*        "You’re so wasteful." 
¨    Buy exactly and only what's on the grocery list, which is determined by what’s on sale. 
*        “You paid too much for that chicken, you know."
¨        No doing laundry on Sundays.  
*        "You've got all week to do laundry. Except Monday.  That's my day." 
¨        No cooking things for later at lunchtime. 
*        "It’s lunchtime. Not cooking time." 
¨        Bedtime at 7:00. 
*        "Wait 'til you're 96, you'll see."

Mary and Clint might live by routines, rules, and recriminations, but they find interest and joy in their projects.  Mom likes baking, doing the laundry, ironing with starch, reading the newspaper cover to cover, watching "Judge Judy," and marveling at the beauty of her back yard.  Dad takes care of the bills, loves genealogy, and makes sure the landscaping is up to par, even though he can't do it himself anymore.      And they love their dinner conversations about days long gone—stories of hobo Peg-legged Pete who clomped to Mom's farm each spring and fall to change his clothes and have a meal, or slaughtering pigs in November, or planting onions right after St. Patrick’s Day—each story accompanied by Mom’s coconut cream pie, or lemon sponge cake, or the one permissible ice cream.  
Ed and I kept our spirits high by listening, cajoling, laughing, and drinking. We had cocktails every afternoon at 4:00 as we prepared dinner. In the evenings, Ed and I read, wrote, or watched Hulu Plus videos on our Kindle Fires and iPad.  By the end of July, the double-sized bottles of vodka and bourbon were gone, and our Verizon bill was close to $500.
The month lasted what seemed like - well, a month.  Not so bad, really—almost doable. We figured we could keep our sanity and take care of the parents, so we drove home and calculated how long it would take us to sell the house. We had five months. 


Throughout August, we sorted some of our extraneous household items into keep, trash, and donate.  We packed a few boxes of office supplies.  We dumped junk onto the curb for Waste Management, but local pickers grabbed most of it first. We took stuff to Helping Hands and donated a sofa and an over-sized chair to Sharing Connections.  But we didn't do anything with our still-being-used household items.  And we didn't call a Realtor.
Then we had four months. The more we put it off, the more we panicked—and to avoid feeling panicked, we put it off.
In September, Ed began his last half-year of work, giving him less time to devote to the house.  I continued to write, design books, have lunch with clients, meet friends, go to movies, and ignore the house. 
By the last week in October, we had managed to clean and stage enough to ask a Realtor to help us put our house on the market.  We picked a top-notch Realtor—one with the best record in the Western Suburbs.  We figured that since we had put off this exercise in ignorance so long, we'd need the royalty of real estate to bring us to closure. But we knew that even she, with her selling wizardry, wouldn't be able to do the job in our time frame. Putting a house on the market in late October, hoping it would sell by the end of December was dumb, really dumb, especially given the collapsed market.
Ed and I expected to sign with this woman, after which we'd sit in a holding pattern for at least six months drinking coffee at Starbucks while potential buyers tromped through the place complaining about this or that or the other thing. And then, after putting in an offer, they'd want things repaired, changed, rewired, plastered, and plumbed.  We knew we’d be in one huge financial fix, shelling out several months' worth of mortgage payments after Ed’s paycheck had stopped coming in.
Of course, any potential sale could fail.  “I sell a house three times,” the Realtor said. “Once to the buyer, once to the bank, and once to the inspector. The sale could fall through at any stage.”
Our house-selling anxiety rose to a new high.
Also in October, Ed and I began planning for several events that were to take place before the end of the year.  One event was a late October trip to Cape Girardeau, Missouri, where I was to give a presentation on book design to the Southern Missouri Writers Guild.  
Then there were three BLESS-ED Events to celebrate Ed's 30-year tenure as minister: a concert on October 20, a testimonial on December 1, and Ed and Ellie's Diner on December 16.  Each celebration would be a huge party with music, speaking, hors d’oeuvres, and champagne. All ending with Christmas Eve—the big tearjerker—Ed's final service.
And I needed new clothes.
Throughout the month of October, I shopped for outfits at Veni Vidi Val’s in downtown La Grange. The owner, Val, and I had become good friends over the years, and her store was my place to shop.
On October 24, the day before Ed and I were to leave for Southern Missouri, I had an eleven o’clock nail appointment, and we had a one o’clock signing appointment with the Realtor. 
At five minutes to eleven I stopped at Val's.
"Don't even know why I’m here,” I told Val, “’cause I can't stay.  Have two appointments practically back-to-back.  Nails now and signing with a Realtor at one.”
Val said, "Ellie, I thought you put your house on the market months ago."
"Nope. We've been dragging our feet, and now we’re in a real bind.”
"My husband rehabs houses, and he's currently looking for one. Can he take a look at it?"
"He can go there now."
I phoned Ed and told him a man named Silvano would be showing up.  When I got home at noon, Silvano was sitting in our living room extolling the virtues of our house.
We never signed with the Realtor. 
After a few more looks at the house, a couple of meetings at Starbucks, a nice dinner at Prasino's, and a nicer dinner at Alexander’s Steak House, we sold our house to Val and Silvano—as is.
No hassles, no headaches, no house fixing, no extra work. Just pack up and leave.
Palpable overwhelming relief. 
I had sold the house in less than five minutes. 
Must be a record.
There was, indeed, a Relocation Fairy.

We closed on January 11, ordered a PODS container and a dumpster, arranged for furniture pick-ups, called Salvation Army, took crap to Good Will, and pretty much became overwhelmed at what we hadn't done months earlier. 
We started the real packing on Monday, January 14.  Our house looked like those seen on the TV reality show, "Hoarders."  Stuff strewn everywhere.  Our bones and muscles ached from hefting, shifting, loading, packing, tossing, rearranging, and everything-elsing. The weather was cold, and on the last day, it was zero degrees.
Ed hired Frank—a displaced gentleman Ed knew from church drop-ins—to help us pack the POD.  Frank was a godsend, practically packing the POD himself. He arranged everything and hefted the big pieces.
Throughout the packing and sorting, when we came across something we didn't want, we'd put it on the curb.  Pickers took it within the hour.  Pots and pans. Gone.  Queen sized mattress.  Gone.  Baskets. Gone.  
Ed put a sign against a tree.  "Dryer. Free. Inquire within."
Dryer.  Gone.
A mountain of boxes and bags sat on our front porch ready to be carted to a donation center. Neither Ed nor I had the wherewithal to take them.
The dryer guy came back the next day with an empty flatbed gardening truck. He took everything off the porch, and then he stood at the front door while I went around the house looking for more stuff to give him.  Pillows, blankets, stuffed animals, dishes, doilies, candle holders, and on and on. By the time he left, his flatbed was overflowing. 
Later in the afternoon, another metal picker came into the house. I looked for something to give him.
"Want a toaster?"
"Want a toaster oven?"
We gave him andirons, shovels, and hoes.
We gave Frank a TV, rakes, blankets, and a kitchen table set, all of which he shoved into the back of his van.  Frank’s friend took two dressers, two beds, two love seats, and a chair.
We marveled at how quickly we were able to unload our belongings. Had these people not stopped by and taken what they did, we wouldn’t have had room in the POD for everything.
By the end of the day on January 21, the POD was so crammed full, Ed had to punch his foot into the back of the stuff to roll down the door. We had worked for twelve hours straight in zero degree weather.  Back pain made me sag. My legs gave out under me. Ed's frigid fingers swelled up and stopped moving.
Note that January 21 was Obama's Inauguration Day, so we had the TV on all afternoon while we packed. It wasn’t until after we locked the POD that we realized the TV sat on the empty living room floor. After a couple of self-recriminating “duhs,” we placed the 43” flat-screen TV on the back seat of our 2-door Cabrio, leaving little, but just enough, space for what had yet to be packed into the car.
  Before we left the house for the last time, I put a couple of inches of Scotch and water into an empty one-liter coke bottle, and Ed found a forgotten half-bottle of Madeira left over from Christmas Eve chicken picatta.  
Exhausted, hungry, sore, weak, cold, and looking forward to a great dinner, the hot tub in our room, and a comfortable bed, we pulled out of the driveway at 8:00 pmEd guzzling Madeira, and I surreptitiously sipping Scotch and waterin the looney tunes clown car, piled so high that if I slammed the brakes, suitcases, bags, and boxes would tumble forward and bury us.
 On January 22, we headed to Delaware.


And here we are.  In Wilmington. Redesigning our lives.
Ed and I have the upstairs for ourselves, and we'll be phoning Salvation Army soon to clear out the parents' furniture so we can replace it with ours.  The garage and the basement resemble, again, a house from “Hoarders,” but there is little we can do about that, much to the parents' dismay.  Our important papers were stashed somewhere in the rubble, but the title to the car and my birth certificate mysteriously rose to the surface just when we needed them.
We convinced Mom and Dad to upgrade to Comcast’s Xfinity Triple Play, giving us cable, phone, and wireless Internet.  We keep our liquor, club soda, soft drinks, and snacks upstairs—in case we’re thirsty and/or hungry between meals and after the kitchen closes. Cocktail time begins . . . whenever.
Ed and I have made a pact to stick together on all issues and to protect our lives, combined and individually, from being sucked by the undertow of an elder-person culture.
I’m continuing my writing and my book design business, which is expanding weekly. Ed and I joined the Brandywine Valley Writers Group in West Chester, PA, and have been to a couple of  meetings—the second one on self-publishing, and after I put in my two cents about ISBN numbers, free Library of Congress Control Numbers, and Smashwords’ rules, picked up two invitations to be a presenter on panels about publishing and book formatting.  
Ed is working on a Delaware, 12-Mile Arc, book project.  He’s researching the area for local lore, places, and history to include in his book. We've been exploring the countryside, discovering Smith Covered Bridge, the Mason and Dixon Star Gazer Stone, the 1763 Birmingham Friends Meeting House used as a Revolutionary War hospital, everything about the Wyeth family, and Indian Hannah, the last of the Lenni-Lenapes.
We’re also taste-testing the subs around here. And no matter where we go, the subs are authentic, packed full, piled high, juicy, and delicious.
We have yet to visit Chesapeake Bay, Baltimore, and Washington, DC. We'll soon go to Philadelphia and wander across the Brooklyn Bridge into New York.


Ed’s mom and dad continue to live in their world of perfection—a world they began creating 75 years ago when they got married—a world of memory and reminiscence.
And as they continue to teach us the errors of our ways, we learn more about love, acceptance, understanding, patience, and grace.
We’re in a good place.
As long as we follow the rules, we’ll be okay. 

The Ganesh Connection

At the December BLESS-ED testimonial event, a church member presented Ed with a statue of Ganesh, a Hindu deity known as the Remover of Obstacles.
Ed placed Ganesh in a prominent place in our La Grange home where he could witness our final months' activities from a 360 degree vantage point. 
Ganesh looked out for us as.  He invited people to our curb so they could haul off junk. He led people into the house for giveaways. He sent Frank to carry boxes and load the POD. He tricked one of the pickers into leaving his industrial-sized packing tape dispenser on the kitchen counter. He dropped off empty boxes just when we needed more.  He found room on the back seat for a big TV, and then he fit everything else into the car.  He found my birth certificate and car title in a pile of rubble.
And it was Ganesh who handpicked Val and Silvano as our house buyers way back in October.  Because that’s when the obstacles began to melt.

Ganesh. Our Relocation Fairy.

EVS - 04/13