There was a mysterious element to the appointment. Having not previously met, we meekly made our introductions. We started out as strangers, me holding high hopes, and both of us holding hot coffee on a lazy light-filled cafe corner in Oakhurst. His presence is gentle, his speaking voice even and easy until that moment when he unleashed himself into our conversation like a fast-forward science video of a fern unfurling.
I asked if he writes to make money or for some other reason, and he leaned into the question as he smiled, or perhaps he leaned away from me to let his body answer before allowing his mouth to do so. This man thinks at lightening speed, and he’s honed the indomitable skill of giving away only what he wishes you to know while sharing a kind of intimacy. He raised his face and narrowed his eyes to the sky, lips slightly parted without speaking for a fraction of a minute. It was a cinematic cue coupled with a common question. I imagined Christian Slater’s deceptive albeit alluring “Pump Up the Volume” persona, and then he gave me what I wanted.
Now may be this artist’s reference to a changing of the seasons, a total eclipse in pursuit of high art. Winston Blake Wheeler Ward doesn’t have to give away anything, not even one of the four words in his lyrical name. He says that while there’s nothing artistic about it, that it’s just the name his father gave him, no one is going to confuse him with someone else. None of the facets of a matter seem to elude this man.
His life’s dimensions themselves culminate in an exercise- an ongoing attempt to fill himself, to stretch himself out, with the expanse of human emotion. Ward writes to figure out as well as to express how he and others around him feel in light of certain experiences. The complex short stories featured in his upcoming anthology, “There Appeared a Sadness,” span an ocean of emotions in a brief sea of white pages. The blackness of the type buoys readers’ minds from one line to the next. The subject matter is hard to swallow, like saltwater when you're thirsty, though the aftertaste neither dries us out nor leaves us underwater. On the contrary, Ward's stories take us from a place of preserved fear into the fullness of understanding that the author says is a sense of finding parameters and moving through them. As a writer, Ward facilitates the reader’s ability to feel the depth and complexity of their own emotions.
His work gives credence to his natural desire to adequately express awe in the face of the sublime. In that vein, I began to wonder what, if anything, is risked as we seek to festoon the frills of our First World kind-of-life. I asked Ward about his experience with people who can’t access or discuss certain feelings.
Ward lamented, “People hate being questioned, hate talking about things, but they like horror movies. It’s a primal way of feeling something intense, but it’s a buffered feeling of sorts. Nothing truly is at risk in such a scenario. Being on the front lines of war-that’s my hell. A gun. Killing. Freezing cold. Hungry, and people are trying to kill you. That emotion is prevalent for me.”
If this season is his springboard toward emotional prevalence, then his fall has danced by the light of a harvest moon.
“I was a blow-hard in my 20s,” Ward admitted. “Pride damages. Relationships are hard because the other person involved is exposed to so much of one’s personal madness. I write to present a ‘realization of reality.’ Man’s ability to be open-minded about different ideas is a hallmark of our race, and enriching that experience in the most vital way is essential. So if I feel responsible for showing people how to do that it comes from a place of being sure of myself. I’m not equipped to speak to humanity’s ultimate purpose. The quest for that answer is important, however. Humans are cursed to have this question but not have access to the answer. Our boundless intellect coupled with very limited senses, and then in a practical way, we’re parasites using resources that we ourselves can’t sustain. There are things of life that we have to face, and they scare us so we take a lozenge to feel better, but we are still sick.”
Ward faces things in remembering his own past, many of the early school years spent in the southern town of Brunswick, Ga. The author was born in Concord, Mass., and has lived throughout the country and overseas including a move to South Korea. His father was an Army intelligence officer, and when Ward was very young he lived with his family in Germany during the Cold War.
Having made his home on foreign soil at various times, it’s not a stretch for Ward to create far-off settings for his characters. In his story, Detachment, the fear associated with disease and isolation pervades. It sets the tone for all subsequent decisions following the sudden death of nearly the entire crew aboard a mining spacecraft.
There was a boundless ether - a warm, pastel infinity, and then he was suddenly sure that he was drowning. He felt his body seizing as he gasped madly for breath. As he contorted and coughed, light slowly began to fill his vision...His lungs felt of fire...and everything tasted of bile...but he was alive.
“I don’t feel like I’m living if I’m in a space where doors are closed,” Ward acknowledged. “I wanted to counterbalance the future with prehistory, when disease was something you could do very little about. This story indicates that a brand of disease [always] exists for those unequipped to deal with it. Even our astronauts on the isolated other side of the moon, while briefly without radio contact, are still in our gravitational pull. All the suffering on Earth is still connecting us. The fact that we’re not alone, that we’re all breathing the same air, warmed by the same sun-I wanted to delve into how much worse it could be.”
Woo-Jin, the story’s protagonist, calls the outbreak on his ship an infection, but he knows little else about the mysterious cause of his crew-mates’ deaths. With the introduction of Thomas, a corporate employee associated with the failed mission, Woo-Jin's fears begin to paralyze him, creating a kind of wakeful death. In an honorable turnabout, Ward illustrates Woo-Jin’s courageous understanding of his friend’s needs that are unrelated to his own but vividly valid. The imbued intellection is born of the characters’ mutual needs to embody their own humanness as well as a desire to show a modicum of culpable compassion.
“I just need you to know that this isn’t because of you.”
“What do you mean, Thomas?” Thomas crouched now, bringing his shielded eye level with his friend’s.
“I mean...that I’m not trying to kill myself, Woo-Jin. I’m not trying to escape you. I’m trying to live.”
The characters in Game Pieces seem to be willing to die to the pain of their present circumstances. Karen and Kyle are brother and sister opposed in most every way; she lives what her brother considers to be a dull, domestic life complete with SUV and organized daily routines. He is a mostly intoxicated, musing musician-a loser in Kathy's estimation. Ward spoke almost parentally of Kyle, couching his Prodigal Son pathology as the most compelling, reasonable character of the three stories. We’re introduced to the pair as they descend upon their deceased parents’ seaside home having literally drove all night. It is in this tired and uncomfortable dawning that the author ironically demands his characters to perform, to accomplish the task of taking inventory of the life of the dead. The painful foreshadowing is palpable as we watch their moorings give way like dunes washed in waves.
The night's drive had been awkward, but the sky still refused to blush. And now, in that tense darkness, Karen pulled up in front of their destination.
About Kyle, Ward said, "he skirts responsibility wherever he can. He doesn’t value routine, family, paying bills or taking care of himself, but he comes from a place of emotionally detached reasoning. He’s analytical about everything whereas my other characters are bound by their attachments." In Steinbeck-esque style, Kyle’s keen appraisal of the world in light of a favorite family board game puts his sister’s outlook in plaintive perspective.
Here, twelve years later, upon reopening the long-hidden box, the memories of those exchanges smashed against both of their minds. And as Karen affixed the plastic wheel which would decide the fates of the tiny peg-like people tasked to complete the cardboard gauntlet, a thought occurred to her.
Perspective within the family construct is a poignant aspect of Ward’s own experiences.
“My mother got cancer when I was nine and died when I was a teenager,” the author related. “It’s certainly important to how I turned out.” He paused, inhaled and looked away. Had I blinked I may have missed the affect. Later he explained that those years were marked by medical treatments, surgical transplants, trauma and financial tension. “My most memorable emotion from that time is the fear of death. Not the pain part but the thought of the end, of no longer being alive.”
I thought about what it takes to maintain, or in some cases, heal ourselves, from within. Ward’s own realistic reality demands his inductive reasoning, but it doesn’t discount his obvious appreciation for people’s penchant to think differently. In that understanding, he turns himself inside out, exposing himself to both discover and speak of truth in a vulnerable way. His writing compels us to accept a dichotomy: Emotional deprivation is endemic and humans make choices to insure their artificially safe feelings. The author’s stories acknowledge this and attempt to offer an olive branch-like key that can unlock the door to self discovery. Ward does not turn the key; he is not arrogant as to think it necessary, and he laughed when I asked if the weight of his vocation ever allows him to glean any humor.
“Sure I laugh or else I’d cry! That’s what they say!” He said this as his lips curved into a requisite smile. Despite the sunglasses, I felt like his eyes belied the sentiment. Ward glanced pensively toward the passing of cars on the road and replied, “I’m concerned people will think I only write about sad things. I actually had the idea to write a companion to this book but take the stories to a ridiculously funny place.” He teased me with alternative plots, describing Mary seeking a transplant for “wooden hands” instead of broken eyes. Deftly, he conjured up daft, bizarro-world counterpart stories. Their peculiarity gave way to our delight, and it was then that I saw his eyes smile and the sensation of curling up with a good book gently hit me. He left a little less mysteriously as he appeared, all the while behind those sunglasses.
A week later, Ward and I met up during the day at a Decatur brewhouse staple. I could at last see the whites of his pale eyes as he poured my poison of choice, Gomez’s Oatmeal Pepper Porter. The cold, heady darkness laced with peppers lacked any bitter burn, and he and I agreed it was a delicious beer. A Mark Twain quote about sin caught my eye on the menu, and I read it aloud. Ward volunteered that he leaned toward less criminal sins.
I took a stab and asked, “What are your sins?”
“Drinking,” replied Ward.
“Is drinking a sin?” I pondered aloud.
“Drunkenness,” he volunteered. “I don’t drink because I like it too much. I have a pretty good switch-don’t have an addictive personality, thank goodness. I quit smoking like that,” snapping his fingers and leaving me with my suppositions on sin while he tended bar. I watched him move back and forth between customers, feet turned out like a dancer, relaxed in his hips with reverent intent, a kind king among merry men and a handful of swollen faced subjects. The man to my right, dedicated to a silent lucidity, consumed almost a dozen shots of Jaegermeister while we worked. His wet eyes and long face hung on the sour-smelling hand towel of a life that isn’t so easily sopped up.
When Ward returned I went back to the subject at hand and wondered, “Does not drinking keep you from sinning?”
“No,” responded Ward, and he smiled a Cheshire grin as he shook his head under lowered eyes. He raised them and continued, “I’m human, but there’s doing the right thing and doing the wrong thing. I try not to hurt people. I try not to talk bad about someone, and when I do I am human, but I know right from wrong. I know what hurts others and what doesn’t.”
This vantage point allows Ward to develop characters that inflict pain on others. He describes Andrew in Eyes Like Atoms Splitting as the most complex character in the anthology. Andrew constructs his reality and then justifies himself to suit his own feelings in a relatable way. Ward says, “He’s pouting in the most profound way you can. He becomes a victim.”
“...by his own sword.” I added.
Ward concluded, “I was going for that despite his selfishness and despicable way of making it all about him.”
It is Andrew’s beloved and seemingly lovely wife Marie’s life-long blindness and recent desire to see that he remarkably makes about himself. The author employs use of Andrew’s achingly ornery and one-sided letter to tell us how the tightly woven cape of their marriage feels on the man. I asked Ward if Andrew loves his wife or if he fell in love with a single aspect of her.
He replied, “I look at it this way. A person who always gets what he wants-and he got what he wanted for over a decade-makes it all about him.”
I knew instantly that the change wasn’t in the electromagnetic field of a television but in the immeasurable connection shared between you and I, and by the time I recognized that change it hummed furiously.
Andrew begrudges Marie for her natural interest in the surprising possibility of restored sight. Representative of his ego, she is made to remain as mute in the story as she ever was blind. He pens a shattering letter of leave detailing his longing for things to stay the same. The author’s elegant effusing of Andrew’s tunnel vision illustrates the character’s alarming ability to see life through a blurry bleakness of his own design.
These things I learned from minutes and hours and days and weeks and months and years - the years of constant companionship. We built a world together, Marie. We didn’t need anything else but one another, and we reveled in the fact. We gloried in our total dependence on the other, and it was all I ever wanted.
I brought up Ward’s apparent intrigue with the unsaid between people and the tension it creates. "I try to get readers to feel a kind of frustration, to make them want to yell at the character, ‘Why aren’t you doing it that way?!’ Maybe I want to incite an emotion, to ask, ‘Have you ever felt like me…[had a feeling] that’s not such a good way? Have you? Huh?!’”
Our conversation that day at the bar began with a satisfied feeling; Ward told me that he’d recently held a proof copy of the manuscript. He watched his own hands as they mimicked grasping the sides of something heavy. I asked him how that moment felt.
“It felt pretty good," he remarked, drawing out the word ‘pretty' with a slight grin. "I trusted Davy [Minor] to give me a good printer. I could tell he took a lot of pride in his work. I’m sure he’s like that for all of his clients.”
Ward’s ease with giving compliments and his confidence about the things he’s set in motion for himself accompanies him on his most human quest. I was struck to feel a sense of connection with Ward through his book. The unsaid words between Kathy and her brother, the friendship of Woo and Thomas, and Andrew’s forlorn heartbreak halved by selfishness contrast with Ward’s own loss, his love for humanity and simultaneous concern for those who cannot allow themselves to feel. The stories he writes serve to make meaningful connections for some that their life may not allow for them, and it could prove true all of Ward’s dreams-a quest that includes meaningful characters, both real and imagined. It reminded me of what Ward said on that cafe corner over coffee. “We all have wooden hands,” he quipped, as the steam rose from our mugs into the air that carried our laughter.
- Amanda Rose
"Winston Blake Wheeler Ward is an Atlanta-based writer of satire and short fiction. He is the founder of the monthly, online, flash-fiction challenge the Five Hundred. He has made appearances at Write Club Atlanta, BURNAWAY, Scene Missing, and Fanzine to name a few."