Saturday, November 19, 2011

Embellishment

Here is another story from long ago (30+ years). I recall being energized by the range of authors I was reading, beyond those assigned in English class. Barth, Barthelme, Pynchon--these were my heroes at the time. Now, years later, I still get a tremendous kick from their work.


Frank looked up at the red plastic sword stuck through the olive on his plate. it was a green olive, and it was stuffed with pimento. he did not like green olives. he did not like green olives stuffed with pimento, either. He was rather fond of black olives, though.

"Goodbye, he said," he said to the cashier, as he paid the bill. It was from something he had read.

When he arrived at his apartment, it was dark. Frank took off his jacket and went into the kitchen. He was quite hungry. On the way to the refrigerator, he tripped on something. Switching on the headlights, he saw that it was one of Mrs. Fitzpatrick's shoes. He had forgotten to repair them, and she was supposed to recharge them that night.

"Damn it, son, what's gotten into you?" asked the chunk of Camembert on the table.

"Shut up, you!" Frank said, as he pinned the bit of cheese to the table with a steak knife. The Camembert screamed. Justifiably.

Frank went to Mrs. Fitzpatrick's apartment. It is on another floor, Frank thought, as he stood at the door with her shoes. He rang the doorbell, and she answered.

"Here are your shoes. I am sorry I did not fix them."

"Never mind," she said. "I picked up some enamel on the way home so I could fix them myself."

"Ah!" noted Frank, realizing her intelligence. "It seems to transcend granite," he added.

"Verily," she replied. 

The door shut.

Frank walked back to his apartment. He decided to take the elevator. He pressed a white button. It lit up. There was a plastic palm tree in a yellow vase beside the elevator. There was dust on the artificial plant. The elevator answered. Frank said nothing. Justifiably. What was there to say?

Frank went into his apartment and turned on the fog-lights, in addition to the standard headlights.

What was that? Frank listened intensely. It was the water-floss in the bathroom, chattering away to itself. Frank resolved to put a quick stop to it. This he did quite effectively by tying a knot in the rubber hose running from its base to the transparent tube at its tip. It had been determined to put up a fight, writhing about. 

In agony, no less. 

Frank knew it was finished when the the rubber hose burst.

He went into the living room and decided to think on the sofa. He thought (about it) and slept.

On the lawn, the ceramic donkey brayed loudly, while the sea horse with pink scales swam convincingly about the blue-mirrored ball on its concrete stand. Don Pedro's sombrero was peeling, but no matter. There was much work to be done. Tractor tires could always be painted white and buried (halfway) on either side of the mailbox. There was always room for another weathervane. (Perhaps the one at Henning's Garden City...Yes, that one...No, no, no, not that one...Not the one with the carved sailor harpooning Moby Dick, either...the one with the little milkmaid in the yellow frock and the cow...It's quite a handsome cow, actually...Tan and white...It would add a kind of domestic dignity, don't you think?...Yes...Yes...Yes?...Yes, it does portray the clean way of life...Universal husbandry!...I know that...Tomorrow...Tomorrow, I'll take Santa's rocket ship off the roof...Because the wiring's tricky!...Whatever happened to those space helmets we had for the reindeer?...What?...Just tell her that if her pooch tries to rust our cast-iron geese again, I'll have it stuffed...I know they're close to the property line...Because that's where I want them...They look fine there...I don't feel like explaining it any further...I just want them there, so it looks as thought they're thirsty and going for a drink, which not only explains the goldfish pond, but that Rumplestiltskin with the watering can...Rumplestiltskin certainly did have a white beard!...The hell he did!...I'm leaving!...You've got another thing coming if you think all elves wore cute little slippers with bells at the toes!

Click goes a tape recorder (somewhere).

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Shots

I wrote the following story many years ago. 33 years ago, in fact. I was in high school and had discovered the metafiction pastiches of Donald Barthelme. I can see his influence—and Beckett's—in this particular piece, but I like to think there is something of the off-center slant that continues in my current work. 


"For Godsakes, grow up, Wulfhund."

"Easier said than done. Easier to articulate than activate."

They argue as to whether Hitler had charisma or not."

"He could gesticulate. But arbitrate? I think not."

"Some can, some can't. Some will, some won't."

"Some do, some don't?"

"---- ---."

"And what do we do? Who are we?"

"Who aren't we?" replied Wulfhund, marking the trousers with quick, deft strokes of the tailor's chalk. "We don't make money, and we don't spit teeth."



Wulfhund and Jeremy have acquired a reputation and all of its trappings: identity crises, misplaced change, dust.

Sometimes they rifle through cigarette machines, seeking slug coins. They no longer mark trousers, adjust hems; instead, they drive on the turnpike in Jeremy's Rambler, trying to "...consolidate..." things.

Themselves. They stay in Holiday Inns, thinking about who they aren't, about owning a hunting lodge on Baffin Island. A place where they "...could hunt polar bears with machine-guns..."

Now they watch television at a Quality Motor Inn. But, as Wulfhund has seen Death of a Salesman, they know that "...failure's waitin' 'round the bend..."

"But what will we fail at?"

"What won't we fail at?"

"Pessimist!"

"                ;         ,               ,                         ."



The television is still on and the sink and bathtub have overflowed and are running onto the orange-and-ochre shag rug and

Wulfhund brushes lint from his beret on a PanAm flight to Dublin.

Taking pictures in profusion. Kodak Brownie, dated Leica, assorted lenses.

Shot of cobblestones. Shot of cat. Shot of newspaper vendor. Shot of newspaper. Shot of newspaper against sky. Shot of Jeremy gesticulating obscenely.

Wulfhund and Jeremy bum a lift to Londonderry. Purpose: "...to take artsie shots..." This they do without hesitation.

Shot of rusting Mini Morris. Shot of shoe reflected in hubcap. Cheap shot of Jeremy sprawled on street, doused with ketchup. Shot of doorstep.

They seek bombings, wishing "...to portray the guts and steel..."

Jeremy books them a room in the Hotel Viscount.

The television is on, and Jeremy puts an edge on his scimitar; Wulfhund mounts a flashlight on his .22 with black electrician's tape. An I Love Lucy rerun comes on the television, and they look at the set and then at each other.

Jeremy: Do you remember the time little Ricky played the drums and sang "Babaloo"?

Wulfhund: No.



Sunday, October 2, 2011

Homogenized Blogging: Why Google Scribe scares me

While updating this blog earlier, I noticed a promotion announcing the launch of Google Scribe. The announcement asked "Do you ever find yourself writing slowly, staring at a blinking cursor or looking for words to express yourself?"

Well, yes. 

For most of us, that's what writing is all about--the careful selection of words and the thoughtful assembly of those words into sentences, paragraphs, whole narratives. 

Apparently the folks at Google Labs believe such endeavors to be a problem worthy of a solution. So Google Scribe promises to offer text suggestions and an auto-complete feature--all to help us write "more efficiently."

I don't know about you, but when I'm writing, I'm striving for eloquence, rather than efficiency. My goal is to say things in a way that could only come from me--not a lab. I'll go out on a limb and posit that hearing the voice of the individual is the reason that I--or any of us--read and follow blogs in the first place.

 If every blogger were to embrace Google Scribe, we might as well simply create one ├╝ber-blog and take turns posting. 

Who wants to go first?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Just a quick post to announce that my story, "A Place on the Wall" is now Squawk of the Week on Squawk Back, an online literary journal. Check it out at http://www.thesquawkback.com/

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Freelancer




Riley Brickle sucks the casing of a Winchester .30-06 hollow-point — the brass cool on his tongue — then uses it to trace the outline of the Maine State flag on the map across his knees.



He taps the bullet on the twin figures flanking the state seal, the mariner and the farmer, and thinks about his slide from one to the other. He will be the first Brickle in four generations who won’t haul the bulk of his living from the sea. The boat holds once heaped with iced cod and haddock are now nothing more than stories his father tells after too much Canadian Club. The groundfish are gone; the Gulf of Maine is a vacant aquarium. The mariner is dead.
Men who once captained their own fishing boats are lucky if they can find work in the seafood section at the local FoodFair. Those like Riley, who know they could never hack a job dishing up McLobsters at Micky D's or stocking shelves at L.L. Bean, try their hand at diving for sea urchins and scallops when they can scrape together enough money to have their scuba tanks filled. There are Japanese brokers on every wharf from Kittery to Quoddy Head, and they pay a decent buck, shipping the urchins overnight to Tokyo for their mustard-colored roe; but diving is a bitch even when it’s good, and that’s damned seldom. Working two- and three-hour shifts in 35-degree water has given Riley the swollen, gumball knuckles of an arthritic; He laughs and says, "Some pretty, hunh?" whenever some girl in a bar runs her fingers over the pattern of wounds from urchin spines on his arms. Both the line and the bust-ass work have gotten old.
So he’s onto something better. A win-win situation was how the Indian had put it. The guy had a funky name — Running Bear or Blue Moon — and wore a lot of turquoise jewelry. He didn’t look red-skinned as much as sun-tanned, with swoopy gray hair pulled back into a ponytail. Gray Wolf — that was his name. He sent over a pitcher of beer at the Black Sail one night and sat down beside Riley, talking like they already knew each other. No accent or anything, but what the hell? It wasn’t as if Riley had ever hung out on a reservation or anything. Gray Wolf said he owned a business out on Route 1. Said to stop by, have a few pops, shoot the breeze. 
A few days later, Riley took him up on it, showing up just before the place closed. There was a mildewed teepee out front, and a sign that said it was some kind of arts center. Gift shop was more like it. He had to hand it to the guy, there was a lot of inventory: counters filled with turquoise stuff, beaded moccasins, totem pole thermometers and rubber tomahawks for the tourists, some paintings of braves on the warpath that Riley wouldn't have minded buying if he had money to blow. 
When he strolled up to the cash register, Gray Wolf looked up from a copy of Rolling Stone and said, "Hey, Brickle." If anything, Riley was the one who had been a little rattled. Not that he showed it. He just glanced around and said, "You didn't have me come all the way out here to admire the souvenirs." 
The Indian put up the Closed sign, locked the door and got a couple cans of Michelob from a refrigerator in a back room somewhere. By the time they killed the six-pack, Riley knew as much as the guy was going to tell him about the situation. "See," Gray Wolf said, "You win, I win." If he was telling the truth, it will be a hell of a lot better than risking the bends every day as an urchin diver.
Now Riley is sixty miles from the Atlantic, at the end of a course he has charted across asphalt and dirt back roads to 200,000 acres of pristine National Park. 

Back to the land. 

He tosses the map aside and checks the logging road in the rear-view mirror, catching a glimpse of his reflection. The whites of his eyes are the color of ivory and webbed with inflamed blood vessels. Thirty-nine freakin years old and he looks like a punk who's just smoked a joint. He throws the Ford pickup into first gear, bouncing over the drainage ditch at the side of the road as he steers into a small clearing in the pines. 


Within twenty minutes, he’s sawed enough tree limbs to disguise the boxy profile of the truck. Seen from the road at 55 miles-per-hour, the pickup will look like a heap of blown-down timber. Not worth a second thought.
Pulling on a set of camouflage coveralls, he stuffs a box of hollow-points into the chest pocket and unlocks the toolbox behind the cab. He removes a Remington bolt-action rifle, a hunting knife and a couple of Ziploc plastic bags, relocks the box and starts off into a shaded gully.
Ain't life a joker. He tightens the straps on the rifle sling and thinks about the yearly hunting trips with his father and uncles on the first day of deer season, all of them stumbling around so that somebody could take a shot at a sick buck or worse — an undersized doe. He would rather have stripped down an engine or messed around with some girl down by the lighthouse. He wonders what his old man would think of him now, knocking around where the roads are unnamed and you can plug everything in sight without having some hard-ass game warden come down on you.
Still gotta watch it. Seems every day the tree-huggers and anti-nukers are mouthing off in the Press-Herald, telling folks to love Mother Earth and boycott the local fish markets. Hell, they’re the reason he’s out here in the first place.
The sun has nudged above the treeline. The massive trunks of the first growth timber cast black bars across the forest floor. Riley weaves through the trees, his boots treading silently on tufts of moss and pine needles. He stops every so often to listen to the forest, checking off the noises in his mind: the sweepy sound of pine boughs, the stream chuckling over a bed of stones, the creak of a dead limb overhead.
But there is something else — a hard splash from somewhere along the stream below him. Riley slips the rifle off his shoulder and moves toward the sound, keeping close to the pattern of shadows.
There it is again. A crisp slap against the water, just beyond the knoll in front of him, then a weak mewling sound. His second trip out, and now there’s some kind of hitch. Riley feels in his pocket for a bullet, works the rifle bolt back, and eases the round into the chamber. He blinks back a trickle of sweat and begins a slow crawl, stopping when he reaches a granite spine above the stream. He sucks in his breath, straining to hear over his knocking pulse, then rolls to his feet and fits the butt of the rifle stock to his shoulder.
A black bear cub smacks at its reflection on the surface of the stream, then scampers up the bank, its glossy fur reddish at the tips against the curtain of sunlight.
Riley lowers the rifle and grins. Well, hell, look who we got here. BooBoo freakin bear. Hey there, little fella, ain't you a cute one. Run along to momma now.
The cub sniffs the air, whimpers faintly, and waddles away from the stream up a slight rise. Riley trails behind at a distance, striding over granite slabs that will be clotted with blueberries in a month. The stony rise tumbles away to wetlands.
Riley hears the cub crash through an alder thicket on the edge of a bog filled with the trunks of drowned birches. He recognizes one of the trees by the branches that curve up to form a fiddle shape. 
Same damn tree. No question. He had only seen it from the other side. Mother Nature. She'll twist you around, then drop you right where you were headed in the first place. Just won't know it till afterwards. 

There had been nights at sea when his boat had shuddered under 20-foot swells, her decks caked with ice, the electronics shorted out. Each time, dawn had broken over the water like a furnace door opening, and he found himself within sight of shore. 

His path is stranger this time: a loose arc strung over a mile-and-a-half of broken ground. He was heading for the bog when he left the truck — before he heard the cub and took some kind of ass-backwards shortcut. 

Motherfreakin Nature. Riley has let the cub wander too far ahead. Now he has to work blind, listening for the damn thing in the puckerbrush. He works the bolt on the rifle, checking the round. Give Momma a proper greeting.
He hears the cub snuffling in the brambles thirty yards off. It gives a little cry and charges forward before he can swing around and get ahead of it. BooBoo’s got some speed for a little guy.
Riley follows into the tangle of saplings. He doesn’t know shit about bears except for what he’s seen on Animal Planet. What the hell is there to know? I’m the one with the gun.
When Riley comes out of the trees, the cub is licking the paw of a hulking sow bear that has backed up against an old spruce. Riley raises the rifle, tightens his grip on the stock. Hey, Big Momma. Been expecting you. 

One of the sow's front legs is locked in the steel teeth of the heavy-gauge trap he had chained to the tree. He had baited it with suet a week before. Flies sizzle over the sow's bloody paw where the trap has cut a raw seam of frayed tendon and wet bone. The sow snarls and shakes its head, trailing strings of pink foam from its jaws. 
Riley presses the gunstock to his shoulder. Settle down, girl. Mother Nature's had a change of plans.

The sow comes at him in a black rush of muscle and rank breath that whips the trap chain against the tree. Riley pulls the trigger as the chain bites into the bark, yanking the sow off balance. He fumbles for another bullet in his pocket, scattering several to the ground, then works the bolt on the rifle and chambers a round. Time to smoke old Smokey. 
The sow swats the air and lunges forward, ringing the steel links of the chain. Fish in a barrel. Riley puts the second round just in from the right shoulder, then adds two more. The sow gradually stops moving, like a cheap toy winding down. Now where the hell is BooBoo? 

Riley stalks in a wide circle, searching the brush with the rifle at waist level, his finger hooked through the trigger guard. As he cuts back toward the dead sow, he spots flakes of bark tumbling through a ribbon of sunlight. The cub is about 20 feet up a fir tree, looking like a stuffed animal at a carnival midway. Knock down the milk bottle, win your girl a prize. 

Riley walks around the tree to a spot where the sun is behind him, then drops the cub within ten feet of where he’s standing. What’s the word the NRA boys use for hunting? Harvesting. Like everything’s a crop to be picked or something. Hell, this is easier. Like plinking beer cans. 
Riley's arms are gummed with blood to the elbows before he gets the hang of gutting out the cub. Even this chore has its rewards. Keep the skin for a bathroom rug. Something to keep his feet warm while he sits on the can. But the Indian said No souvenirs. Riley reaches inside the opening he's sliced along the belly of the cub, finding the gall bladder right where Gray Wolf said it would be. 

Paging Dr. Brickle. 

He cuts the organ free and drops it into one of the Ziploc bags. Great commercial. See how it seals in freshness. 


He leaves the carcass for the coyotes and wanders over to work on the sow, wishing he’d brought a camera and a pack of Camels along. Get a shot of Smokey the Bear offering a light. 
The sow takes more time than the cub. It’s freaky, reaching inside the steamy bulk of a creature that could have torn him apart only a half-hour before; it reminds him of all the bluefin tunas he’s caught and reduced to heaps of flash-frozen steaks. 
After bagging the sow’s gall bladder, Riley wipes his hands on some leaves and stows the pair of steaming organs in the chest pockets of his coveralls. He reminds himself to pick up a sack of ice at a package store in Millinocket, keep the gall bladders chilled. Maybe treat himself to a six of something and have a nice little buzz going by the time he reaches Buck’s Cove. 


Riley 






Brickle, this Bud’s for you. 

























Tuesday, May 31, 2011

2008 Volvo…Monday…2:17 a.m.…77 m.p.h….


What is there to say when the unspeakable is…?
The phrase escapes me. Ironic, given that I earn my living telling corporate stories, crafting annual sagas illustrated with compelling financials for the benefit of key stakeholders, these being consumers and investors.
Visited—that’s the word.
When the unspeakable is visited upon you.
Upon your family.
Your child.
            Like the rest of America, I’d read the headlines, watched the crime docutainments, consuming the re-warmed cold cases and counting the minutes before the doors were kicked in and justice was served at the top of the hour. But it was all at arm’s length—or farther—viewed on silent screens while I emailed clients from airports where men like myself—husbands and fathers on vacation—grew annoyed with looping questions from their children.
            Kids like my son.
            I have nothing but questions of my own now, endless fodder for frustration. But the irritation isn’t there. Where is the anger that once smoldered around me every morning on the drive into Manhattan and lingered after heated discussions with finance guys?
            What I wouldn’t give to be pissed off right now.
            Gwen has her yoga, her women’s groups, her centeredness.
            I have inertia.
            Just north of Stamford, a sign along I-95 announces Vacancy at a motel with an all-you-can-eat Indian buffet. Proof that there’s nothing like the hospitality of the American road.
            In this spirit, I extend an invitation to rage:
Welcome.
Come on in.
Visit anytime.
            But I already have a guest—my conscience—a presence both quiet and unfailingly polite.
            I pray that riding shotgun with me will change that.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Matinee


Hank's mother was gone by the time he woke up. It was a Saturday, a day when his mother no longer had to press cotton factory uniforms and institutional linens. Mr. Duvall had told her she was too pretty to be stuck in a laundry on a Saturday afternoon. After that, his mother worked on the weekday shift. Usually, she would be in Aunt Lily's kitchen on a day off, the two women still in their robes, talking while they warmed their hands around cups of tea. In the afternoons his mother sometimes sat on the porch, wearing trousers that had legs like old balloons. Riding clothes, she called them.
            There were two coins by Hank's place at the table that morning. A nickel and a dime, and a piece of yellow paper. It was a note from his mother. Here is money for the pictures and a sweet. Mind your uncle Rollie. Mother.
            Hank sat at the table and ate a piece of bread, pulling the crust off with his fingers. He ate a second piece with currant jam, taking care to not use too much. They were guests in this house, his mother said, and they were not to take advantage of his aunt and uncle.
            Hank heard his uncle get up from the blue chair in the front room. Uncle Rollie's chair. He could hear his uncle fit his arms into the padded cuffs of his crutches. Uncle Rollie's arms were like legs. His thick-soled shoes squeaked like wagon wheels as he came through the front room, then down the hall and into the kitchen.
            "They've gone out, the pair of them," said his uncle. "Out before a man could get a lick of tea." Uncle Rollie was from Belfast, as were his aunt and mother.
            Hank knew to light the stove and put the kettle on to boil.
            "What's it coming to when a boy of seven makes tea for a cripple of forty? Can you tell me that?"
            "Do your legs hurt?" said Hank.
            "Like the goddom devil. A bit worse today. No figuring why. But don't you mind, you'll be having a life of your own soon enough."
            Hank swept the coins off the table into his cupped palm, then slipped them into his pocket.
            "So you're going to the picture show," said Uncle Rollie.
            "Ma said I could."
            The kettle began to warble softly.
            "I'll walk you then, if you don't mind me dragging."
            "I'll wait," said Hank. He splashed the hot water into the teapot with the spiderweb cracks. He let the tea steep a full three minutes the way his uncle liked it, then poured a cup for the old man.
            "That's a lad, Hank." It sounded like honk the way he said it. "A cup and we'll go."
            They walked along Hinckly Street, stopping at every other corner so his uncle could rest.
            "I was a keen one for the football when I was your age," said his uncle. Hank knew it wasn't really football, not like they played in the States. "Oh yes," his uncle went on, "but my bones got rusty, just like a machine."
            His uncle stopped again when they had walked as far as Tack's. "Tell you what, Hank," he said. "I'm not one for the picture shows. Too fancy for the likes of me. So you be a lad and run along now. If you're quick, you'll have your pick of the seats and you won't miss the Mickey Mouse. You can tell me the story when it's over. I'll be waiting."
            "I'll run straight back," said Hank.
            "No need to run, lad. I'll be here."
            Tack's served hamburger sandwiches and there was bowling in the basement, but his Uncle Rollie never ate the food and liked to sit upstairs. He would listen to the radio and drink Ballantine Ale with his crutches beside him.
            "Off you go," his uncle said. Rested now, he clumped up the stairs and pushed through the door.
            Hank bought his movie ticked with the dime in his pocket. The man in the booth asked him how his mother was.
            "Fine," Hank said.
            The man winked back at him and fingered the brass buttons on his usher's uniform.
            Hank felt the heat of the nickel in his palm as he walked to where they sold steamed hot dogs and candy and lemonade. The candy was a penny a piece, so Hank bought four different kinds and asked the woman to put them all in a paper sack. There was a licorice whip for Uncle Rollie, and orange jelly for Aunt Lily, two Mary Janes for his mother and gum ball for himself; he wanted something that would last.
            Hank wasn't the first one in the theater—he was the fifth. He took a seat exactly in the middle of the theater, three rows behind a girl from school who was there with her parents. She had gotten sick in class once, and her name was Laura. When she saw him sit down, she stared at him for a moment, then snapped her head around, flinging her pigtails. Hank wondered what she was whispering to her tall father.
            Hank's father had been a short man, an Italian. His name was Elario Martinello, but at school Hank wrote Martinell. His mother said that she didn't want people to get the wrong idea.
            Hank popped the gum ball into his mouth when the cartoon came on. It wasn't a Mickey Mouse, but it was funny enough. It was about a porcupine that was lost in someone's house. The people who lived in the house kept sitting on the porcupine, thinking it was a chair or a cushion. The feature was called The Dusty Plains of Amarillo. Hank liked westerns that had a silent Indian scout and a hero who could shoot from the saddle. This one had a crooked sheriff, a band of Mexican thieves, and a half-breed boy who could ride bareback. In the picture, they said the boy was as fast as the wind.
            Hank had liked the sound of that. He repeated the words to himself as he ran to Tack's with the candy rustling in the paper sack. He found Uncle Rollie at the table just inside the door. Hank counted three large wet rings on the surface of the table, two smaller rings and a lot of peanut shells. Uncle Rollie had a fleck of foam on his chin and his eyes were closed. Hank touched him on the shoulder.
            "Dommit now," said Uncle Rollie; he flinched as though he'd been stung by a hornet, then opened his eyes. "You're back early."
            "I ran," Hank said.
            "And you're waiting for me to hobble home with you."
            "Yes."
            "Help a man up then, lad."
            On the walk back, Uncle Rollie bit off pieces of licorice and pointed out the Fords and the Buicks and the Plymouths.
            "Do you see that one there, Hank?" his uncle asked as they passed a bluish-black car parked in front of the house. "That one they call a Packard, and she's a lovely automobile."
            The car glowed in the yard like the shell of a june bug. Hank drew a horse and then a teepee in the thin film of dust on the fender. The half-breed boy had held a knife in his teeth and had gone after the man who had killed his father.
            "Wouldn't it be grand to have a ride in her, Hank?" said Uncle Rollie.
            "I don't know. Maybe."
            "Sure you'd like it, a fine motorcar like that."
            "I guess so," said Hank.
            He could see that there were people standing by the windows in the front room. Some were moving about and others were drinking from the good glasses that Aunt Lily kept wrapped in twists of tissue paper. A man in a blue suit was laughing. Hank thought he saw his cousin Jackie, but then he wasn't sure.
            The narrow house was filled with people. His Uncle Jimmy mussed his hair when he came inside, and his Aunt Charlotte kissed him twice, and a woman from Mr. Duvall's laundry told him that he was a lucky boy, maybe the luckiest. A man with a stiff mustache shook his hand for a long time. "That's right," he said. "Manners is what makes a man." The guests stepped aside so that Uncle Rollie could get to his chair.
            His Aunt Lily was alone in the kitchen, taking dainty puffs on a cigarette while she carved pink slices of lamb on a platter. A bright, coppery coil of hair unraveled over the collar of her dress as she worked. It was the green dress, the one she wore to services at the First Presbyterian Church and to the Flora MacDonald Lodge meetings.
            She stubbed our her cigarette when she saw Hank. "Dear Hankie, did you ever see such a lot in this wee house? Thirty-eight souls and more to come."
            "Where's Ma?"
            "She'll be along quick as a cat. Promise. She's got a bit of news for you. A surprise like." Aunt Lily looked closely at his face. "Now you make me a promise. You'll do that for your Auntie, won't you, dear?"
            "Yes."
            "Promise you'll stay with the guests and be the fine lad that you are. Go on now, and you'll get a king's slice of this at the table."
            His aunt opened the door to the pantry. There, on a glass plate, sat a tall white cake with two celluloid figures perched on top. A little man and woman.
            "I promise," Hank said, giving her the orange jelly from the sack in his hand.
            "You're a dear, sweet one," said Aunt Lily. She watched him leave, then gave a little sigh as the picked up the carving knife.
            Hank took the paper sack quietly upstairs to his room and shut the door. The sounds of the guests in the front room burbled beneath him like a hidden stream. He pressed his ear to the cold iron register so that he could hear them better. There was talk of President Hoover and a warehouse fire and the new silk factory that had been built along the river; but nothing was said about his mother. Hank heard a man say that the unions were around to help men like Uncle Rollie—men who had gotten hurt filling the pockets of the fat factory bosses. Uncle Rollie laughed at that and said that the unions had their own fat bosses and plenty of them, so it was all the same to him. The man told Uncle Rollie to go to a union meeting, so he could see the matter for himself. Uncle Rollie said he didn't need to join anything that took his money. The government did that already, he said. The man was quiet after that.
            Hank lay down on his bed and drew pictures in the margins of a newspaper. He made a stagecoach and a knife, and then wrote his name three times. Martinell, Martinell, Martinello.           
            Hank's mother was standing by his bed when he awoke. She kissed him on the cheek and said, "I'm sorry I was gone, love, but I have a surprise for you."
            She was wearing a gray dress that Hank had seen before, but with a new hat that dipped low over her eyes. She took both his hands and told him to sit up.
            "I have something to show you," she said.
            "Wait, Ma," said Hank. He shook the paper sack over the bedspread in front of her.
            "Mary Janes," she said, poking at the candy with a gloved finger. "And two of them. Are they for me?"
            "Yes. Both."
            He could smell her perfume as she hugged him; it was strange and sweet, like the smell of a substitute teacher.
            "Close your eyes now, Hank."
            He could see only her mouth and part of her nose.
            "Come on," she said.
            Hank put his hands over his eyes.
            "No peeking," said his mother.
            Hank squinted through the space between his fingers at a plain-faced man walking into the room. The man was holding a homburg hat in one hand and a box wrapped in red paper and a ribbon in his other hand. Hank's mother smiled at the man under the brim of her hat.
            "Look what I brought you, Hank," she said.
            Hank let his hands drop to the bed spread.
            The man stepped forward to give Hank the package, then backed away, gripping his hat with both hands. "That's for you, Hank," said the man. "Hope you like her."
            Hank looked from the man to his mother, then opened the package. Inside was a wooden tugboat with a string nailed to the bow, a baby's toy.
            "Thanks," said Hank.
            "I thought you might like her," said the man. "Maybe you and me could try her out at the park, down by the stream there."
            "Sure." Hank pushed the boat beneath the brightly colored paper.
            Hank's mother sat down on the edge of the bed and said, "Mr. Pikes is going to be your new da."
            Hank looked at the man, not wanting to see his mother's eyes under the hat.
            "Every boy needs a proper father," said Mr. Pikes. "That's the way I figure it."
            Hank's mother stood up and smoothed the back of her dress as she glanced at the mirror on the back of the door.
            Mr. Pikes looked at his watch and said, "We got time, Aggie."
            "I won't be losing our reservation," said Hank's mother. "Not tonight. Come down and see us off now, Hank. We'll be leaving in a wink. Mr. Pikes and I are spending the night in New York City, but we'll be picking you up come morning."
            Hank watched his mother go downstairs, bending her neck to keep from bumping her hat on the ceiling.
            Mr. Pikes leaned back against the door jamb. "I'd like you to call me Dad, but I won't be making you do it," he said. "You think it over some. We'll have ourselves a talk sometime. I figure we got all the time in the world." Then he was gone. 
            Hank heard the voices downstairs as a toast was made to his mother and Mr. Pikes. He listened in the dark until the only remaining sound was a moth throbbing in the lampshade across the room, distant Indian drums.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

VW Westfalia…Monday…7:02 a.m.…68 m.p.h.…


I had a screamer on the phone, a line four deep at the service desk, and Lothar was nowhere to be found. As far as I’m concerned, the German reputation for discipline is as overblown as their pricey beer. They’ve been coasting for years. Hell, most of the cars on the lot were cranked out south of the border in Puebla. It being Friday, I figured our Teutonic technician was at his girlfriend’s place in Port Chester, sleeping off a night of salsa dancing.
When the phone rang again, I handed it to Larry Junior, the dealer’s son, who had just strolled in with his cruller and coffee. LJ, as he prefers to be called, is the nominal head of Sales and Service, though he has no knack for either. His only talent, if you want to call it that, is an ability to find nonexistent problems. He’ll pace around the service bays, sniffing out a faulty transmission on a car in for an oil change or a worn-out universal joint on a job that should call for no more than a new fanbelt. A real trouble-shooter, if you know what I mean. Of course, these issues just happen to be on vehicles still under warranty. After all, the customer is less apt to complain about a whopping service ticket when the manufacturer is paying.
When I got a heated call from a guy who bought a New Beetle for his teenage daughter, I made inquiries. Was it really possible that a piston rod, the gas line and the catalytic converter could crap out on a car with less than 10k on the odometer?
LJ looked up from the game of Omaha high-low poker on his computer. “Don’t make ‘em like they used to,” he said.
“Come on, LJ. I’m not some putz out tire-kickin’.”
“The customer is always right,” he said, “but sometimes he needs to be told what right is.” 
I didn’t say anything right then.
Didn’t need to.
I imagine he got the message 20 minutes later, when Lothar informed him that the new kid, Rodrigo, had seen me driving off the lot in the ‘85 Westfalia that served as the courtesy van...

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Death by Pixel


After 27 years as an actor—ten of them on the stage, the rest on the big screen—Gil Shades was suddenly unable to muster an appropriate tone of outrage. He had wept for Strasberg, sweated for Adler, and yet now he was incapable of delivering even the slightest inflection of disgust upon hearing the news from his agent, Morty Mortenson.
            “They’re giving the lead to another talent,” Morty had said. “But being grounded individuals, we’re going to assess our collective gifts and embrace the potential of the future, right?” Morty had recently returned from an empowerment retreat with a mouthful of new catch phrases.
            “Who is it? Clooney? Pitt? Don’t tell me it’s Depp.”
            “They were a little vague on the details.”
            “You never settle for vague. That’s why you’re my agent.”
            “Some unknown. I told them they were really rolling the dice here. Said we’d be interested if they had a change of heart.”
            “Don’t snow me, Morty. You can recall who got points on pictures you didn’t even see fifteen years ago. Is it Hanks? Hanks I could live with.”
            “You’re focusing on negative polarities. All things seek light—”
            “A name. That’s all I’m asking.”
            “A-1.”
            “The steak sauce?”
            Morty sighed. “The actor. Actually, their people referred to it as a 3D CGT—computer-generated talent...”

To be continued

Friday, April 8, 2011

Scavenger


     By 10:17, Cort Hayden had run out of ways to procrastinate. He had paid his overdue bills, returned a few phone calls, watched CNN from one commercial break to another.
     He spun around in his chair and eyed the string of luminous green words on his computer screen: Union National Bank. A Friendly Place To Put Your Money.
     Only two months before, he had been a creative director at a Manhattan advertising agency, where his campaign for a BMW dealership had won him a shelf of chunky trophies and a job paying more than he felt he was worth. Six weeks later, his suspicions were confirmed.
     Now he was freelancing out of his one bedroom apartment on East 86th Street. He missed the arguments over craft, the recording sessions, the office peccadilloes.
     Cort riffled through his datebook to check the deadline of the Union National assignment. He found his notation and clapped the book shut. He still had a day to come up with a theme-line that was, in the words of the client, "bankerly yet approachable."  
     Cort peered at the screen once again. The words hadn't improved since the last time he had looked at them. They seemed approachable enough. But bankerly?
     He still had twenty-four hours.
     He shucked off the expensive chronograph watch he had bought the day after taking his former high-paying job and laid it on the desk blotter. It was part of a little pact he sometimes made with himself: if he buckled down for fifteen minutes he could look out the window for one minute. Lately, he found himself relying more and more on such tricks to get him through assignments.
     Cort waited until the second hand swept across the twelve o'clock mark, then began batting out words on the keyboard, hoping to punch in the combination that would reveal the soul of the Union National Bank, a savings and loan that had somehow survived the late Eighties.
     Union National...A Safe Place To Put Your Money...Where Your Dough Always Rises...The Fort Knox For The Rest Of Us...
     At seven minutes, thirty-three seconds, he became aware of something at the open window, a stirring of light and shadow. When he glanced over, whatever had been there drifted just out of sight, as though made of smoke.
     Cort returned his attention to the computer.
     Union National...A Real Banker's Bank...We'll Treat You Like A Million Bucks...
     The shape was back at the window a moment later; Cort could see it settle itself there out of the corner of his eye. He slowly swiveled his head around, careful not to frighten what he had already begun to think of as a sentient being.
     There was a bird on the ledge--a crow or something--blue-black, iridescent; its feathers glistened like motor oil in the morning light.  
     The ledge was a favorite roost for pigeons, a place where they squabbled over God-knows-what, oblivious to the world beyond the windowpanes; the crow, however, was peering intently through the glass, as if scrutinizing the contents of Cort's bedroom.
     The crow moved its head jerkily, cawed twice, then dipped its bill to peck at something at its feet. When it raised its head, there was something flickering in its bill.
     Cort eased himself off his chair and took a slow step toward the window. He found himself talking in soothing tones: "What've you got there, sport? Hmmm? Something pretty?"
     He was quiet when he saw the diamond ring. The thing was just wobbling there in the bird's beak like a piece of rock candy. The whole episode was like a headline from the Post. Crow Feathers Man's Nest.
     Cort tried to muster some of the relaxation techniques he'd learned on a holistic retreat in the Catskills with his old creative department. The agency had paid a small fortune to a yogi named Raj-Bernie, who had taught them the Seven Chakras. Now Cort was hard-pressed to recall even the basics of deep-breathing. He tried briefly to center his life-energy--what Raj-Bernie had called prana--then realized it was pointless. The important thing was to avoid frightening the bird.
     It was still perched on the ledge, watching with obsidian eyes as Cort recommenced his slow-motion advance.
     "Nice and easy, sport," he crooned. "Just hang on to your shiny toy."
     The crow cocked its head, dropping the ring on the ledge.
     Cort closed his eyes, sipped a breath through clenched teeth. When he opened his eyes, the crow was flaunting the ring again.
     "Not smart, sport," Cort said, taking another step. Everything--the open window, the crow, the diamond ring--was all just five feet away.
     The question was what to do next. He had heard somewhere that crows were fond of bright objects. They were gatherers, collectors, thieves. Of course--he would appeal to the bird's natural greed--try to distract it, get it to part with the ring.
     Cort backed away to his dresser and opened his sock drawer, all without taking his eyes off the crow. He groped around until he came up with a tie-bar that his grandmother had given him for his graduation from St. Bernard's. This would be the only time he had ever used it. He stripped the laces from an old pair of wing-tips, knotted them together, then fastened the tie-bar to the end of them.
     Once more, Cort padded slowly toward the crow, which had been amusing itself by alternately dropping and retrieving the ring.
     Cort dangled the tie-bar just inside the open window, letting it sway appealingly from the shoelaces. "What do you say? Fourteen karat gold. You want to trade?"
     The crow fluttered its wings, let go of the ring, and cawed four times.
     Cort jiggled the tie-bar and said, "You like that, hunh, sport?"
     The crow hopped closer to perch on the windowsill, following the movements of the tie-bar with its eyes.
     Cort took a step backward, hoping to draw the bird into the room, then make a decisive sweep around the left to grab the ring on the ledge. He seemed to recall a similar maneuver from the Civil War series on PBS. It was either A.P. Hill at Antietam or J.E.B Stuart at Chancellorsville.
     "Come on," Cort said, jiggling the tie-bar. "You know you want it."
     The crow squawked, dipped its tail, then flapped its wings like a collapsing umbrella.
     The phone on the nightstand twittered a moment later, sounding three times before the answering machine clicked in.
     "Hey, uh, Cort--Jerry here...It's like eleven, and I was kind of hoping you would have faxed me some stuff on Union National...Their marketing guy's left me four messages already. I'm not about to call him back until you can give me an ETA...The clock's ticking, buddy. Don't screw me..."
     The crow hopped back to the ledge, snapped up the ring in its bill as the answering machine beeped once more; then it flapped its wings and lofted out of sight.
     Cort leaped to the window and eased himself out onto the ledge. A compact shadow corkscrewed over the street, looping around a dying gingko tree before settling onto an upper branch. The crow cawed twice. Cort thought he could see a faint wink of light in the fan-shaped leaves. When he looked up, he saw an old woman scowling at him from an apartment across the street. He blew her a kiss and crabbed his way back into the bedroom.
     When Cort stepped out on the street, the crow was still in the gingko tree; the ring twinkled in the bird's bill like a Christmas tree light.
     Cort saw that there was no one else on the street at that moment, nothing to come between him and what he already thought of as his. He strolled toward the crow at a deliberate pace, whistling faintly through his teeth. He found himself trying out snatches of bird song--bobwhite quail and whippoorwill--in an effort to put the crow at ease.
     The crow cocked its head at the sounds and dropped to a lower branch.
     "Fancy meeting you here, sport," Cort said, pressing forward with slow, gliding steps. "Bet you're getting tired, carrying that rock around. How about letting your friend Cort here help with the load for a while?"
     The crow blinked sleepily and puffed out its breast.
     Cort continued his seduction until the crow was no more than an arm's length away. "That's it," Cort said. "Just shut your eyes and let it go. I'll take care of the rest."
     The bird shut its eyes for five seconds straight. Cort reached out with his hand, his fingers pinched together as though offering a morsel of food.
     "Polly want a cracker?" he teased idiotically.
     The crow flew at him with clapping wings. Cort felt it pass over his head like a whisk broom. He turned to watch it flap toward the traffic on York Avenue, the words as the crow flies rising on his tongue. He trotted after it, then broke into a heart-thumping run. He lost sight of the bird at the intersection, then picked up its unveering flight path up York. From this distance, it was impossible to tell if it still had the ring.
     Cort continued the northward chase up York Avenue, crossing at Dont Walk signs, leaping across streams of cabs and bike messengers. The crow flitted toward the river on East 90th Street.
     Cort caught up with his quarry near the entrance to Carl Schurz Park. The crow was pecking fiercely at the remains of a hot dog bun in front of a bench occupied by an old man wearing a guayabera shirt and army fatigue trousers. The man was cleaning his ears with a key on a ring chained to his belt; the diamond flared bluish-white in the dirt, of no more interest to him than a broken bottle shard.
     Cort took up a position at the far end of the bench and forced himself to keep from gawking at the spangle at his feet. There was no point in rushing things. One finds the treasures of life in the rhythm of life is how Raj-Bernie had put it.
     For the next hour, the rhythm of life on the park bench was marked by the metronomic pecking of the crow as the old man tossed it scraps of white bread from a supply he kept in the cargo pockets of his fatigues.
     At one point, the old man looked over at Cort and said, “Always thought this was a rye bread town, but the birds like the Wonderbread. Go figure.”
     “Builds strong bodies twelve ways,” Cort said, forcing a vague smile. He had no idea why he said it.
     But the old man was already nodding and saying, “That’s right. Sure, that was the slogan: Wonderbread builds strong bodies twelve ways. How’d you remember that?”
     “I’m in the business.”
     “You make bread?”
     “I meant the ad business.”
     “You’re kidding--you’re one of those guys who comes up with slogans and stuff, television commercials?” The crow fluttered into the bushes after a crust that the old man had thrown too far.
     “Yeah, I’m one of those guys,” Cort said. “Actually, it’s not that exciting.” He slyly lowered his glance to check on the ring; it sat there next to a bit of crushed stryofoam, mocking him. 
     The old man scooted closer and slapped Cort playfully on the arm. “Come on, you’re being too modest. I’ll bet those companies pay you a bundle. So what the hell are you’re doing sitting here with an old man?” 
     “I like to get away from my desk sometimes. Helps me think.”
     “You mean I’m here feeding the birds and you’re thinking up a slogan for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes or something? What are you working on? Just give me a hint.”
     Cort was about to make something up, but the crow was back; the flow of bread had stopped and the ring was of great interest to it again.
     “I think your friend’s still hungry,” Cort said.
     “Yeah, well, he’s out of luck.” The old man patted his empty pockets and laughed. “Maybe tomorrow.”
     Cort dug for his wallet and said, “Hey, I didn’t have any lunch, did you? Here’s ten bucks--how about getting us a couple of hot dogs? And maybe some chips? I’ll stay here, if you don’t mind.”
     The old man’s frown bent into a smile. “I’ll bet you just had a brainstorm,” he said. “That’s how it happens, right? One minute you’re on the can or something and
then--”
     “Please,” Cort said, “I don’t want to lose my train of thought.”
     “Hey, whatever the professor says.” The old man pushed up from the bench. “You like everything on it?”
     “Pardon?”
     “The dog?”
     “Oh, mustard. Thanks.”
     “Coming right up.”

[To be continued]