Monday, December 12, 2011

The Smell of Cobblestones.

He had never told her that he spoke Spanish. It was a guilty pleasure to listen to her speak it. They had walked arm in arm for weeks, through the plazas of Cartagena's old city. Her broken English sufficed when they talked. Her Spanish melted the hard edges of his frozen heart when he only listened. They walked the three legged walk of lovers as she described the clouds, the smell of the street food, or the ugliness of a woman his gaze had lingered on; as if he could not understand. A mundane narration made delicious in her smoky accent.

On a stroll one day, she had been testy and tired. Pressing on, she had drug him with a hint of urgency through the now familiar colonial streets. Swiftly, they had passed through a half dozen of their favorite plazas, until she had found a stone bench in a dark corner of the Plaza Bolivar. They sat, rested and halfheartedly began to kiss.

Darkness encroached on the vivid, busy city. In the midst of the fading color and clamor, they had found a nearly invisible spot all their own. Exhausted, she cooed her soft Spanish syllables, but could only muster an old Tom Petty lyric:

"No tiene sentido pretender en

Tus ojos te delatan

Algo dentro de ti es sentir que puedo hacer

Hemos dicho todo lo que hay que decir"

Her breathe tickled passed his ear.

She traced the seam of his chinos with her finger. A bright red fingernail buzzed along the worn threads. She stretched an arm across his lap to caress his thigh.

A cold ooze of dread shocked him awake when she had dictated in a whisper "Llaves del barco en el bolsillo del pantalón derecho (boat keys in the right pants pocket)."

Hugging him gently, low on his torso, she leaned her head on his shoulder and paused her hand in the small of his back. The metallic finality in her voice scratched at his ears: "Sin armas (unarmed)."

Then soft again, already suffused with regret, she pleaded, "Trate de no matarlo . . . por favor (Try not to kill him . . . please)."

Faintly, a starched shirt strained against muscular shoulders, and, too late, he heard the airy whistle of a truncheon.

He woke in the shining sun, against the cobblestones. His nostrils pulled at the rich air of the plaza floor, damp cobblestones warmed in the late morning. Hints of the jungle in the decaying earth in which the stones were set. He had traveled the world and crossed oceans. There had been modern day pirates, thieves and third world bureaucrats. There had been storms, reefs and starvation. Yet, it was love that had tripped him again.

As he awoke, his heart argued with his head. The heart proclaimed she had been worth it.  The head wondered where his boat was and how he would get home. A plaza stray licked at his ear, begging breakfast.


Image lifted without permission from Lure Cartagena.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

New Review

My dream job is listening to and writing about music.  Occasionally, I get to do this dream job volunteering over at WYCE on the CD Review Crew.  In order to get some momentum back for writing season, I thought I post my latest review here.  If you're quick and run over to the WYCE Music Journal, this review is the featured jazz review.  'Featured' simply because it is most recent.

Here's the review:

I'll learn to work the saxophone / I'll play just what I feel.” Reunion brings together two great players after 40 years apart. At once like zen warriors stalking each other, and like old friends talking over martinis, Caliman and Christlieb mine their rich personal histories, mutual and otherwise, to forge an album of West Coast Cool.

On the Steely Dan track “Deacon Blues,” as Donald Fagen sings about working the saxophone – a track loaded with superstar sax players [Tom Scott, Wayne Shorter, Jim Horn, Bill Perkins, Plas Johnson, and Jackie Kelso], it is Pete Christlieb ripping the tenor solo throughout the song. Hadley Caliman was the older, wiser saxman who took Pete “under his wing” when Christlieb was only 20 years old and subbing in an LA jazz band.

Hadley Caliman and Pete Christlieb go way back – back to the heyday of the Central Avenue Scene in 1950's and 60's Los Angeles. Caliman made an early name practically imitating Dexter Gordon; earning the nickname “Little Dex.” He was an L.A. session stalwart, got into drugs, into prison, and into Santana's band. He eventually cleaned up and settled in the Pacific Northwest, teaching for twenty years at the Cornish College of Arts. Caliman is a radiant West Coast Player with a bit of East Coast edge. Christlieb was a “string bean” kid subbing in Bobby Bryant's band. The kid had chops, but got his history and bandstand etiquette playing next to Caliman. Christlieb went on to play with Woody Herman among others, and spent 20 years with Doc Severinson's Tonight Show Band.

Pianist Bill Anschell brings several original tunes including “Little Dex,” a tip of the hat to Caliman's early days. Each of our hosts brings a couple tunes. “Comencio” was written by Caliman in prison. He also brought the exotic, haunting “Gala.” The soulful “Dream On” and the burner “Nasty Green” both came from Christlieb. Beyond their pianist's other songs, they pick great covers in Cole Porters' “Love For Sale,” Freddie Hubbard's joyful “Up Jumped Spring,” and Johnny Mercer's “I Thought About You.” You'll be glad these two kindred spirits, long separated, have found each other again. Bookend “Wide Stance,” “Dream On,”or “Little Dex” with “Deacon Blues for a sweet time machine treat. “Love For Sale” is the Mother of all Sax Battles. Reviewed by Todd Townsend.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Esquire Fail

Esquire Magazine is 78 years old. They decided to celebrate by having a writing contest; a 78 word short short story contest. Apparently, Colum McCann, or whoever is vetting for him, didn't like mine.

That's cool. I have started a deliciously crazy love/hate relationship with Flash Fiction [a buzz word for short short fiction].  One of my short shorts appeared on Every Day Fiction.  Yet despite reveling in the haiku-esque simplicity of short shorts, I'm beginning to think that the next great novel [not remotely mine] is going to be lost on the rocks of the foreshortened attention span of the internet age. Setting revenue completely aside, if writers start to think that some idea is finished because it was succinct enough to be short, who will ever bother to write several hundred more pages?!?!

Despite all that, its fun. You should try it. Like any form of distillery, care must be taken not only with good quality ingredients, but with the process as well.

I've already written twice the words I wrote for Esquire. Here, dear reader, is my unaccepted short short:

He was supposed to be across the street in an hour, but had stumbled into an old haunt. Staring at fluid shapes as ice melted into amber liquid, he smiled wryly. It had been such a long time. He missed the smoky bite of Kentucky Bourbon. He missed the low tones people spoke. He missed the warm glow of nicotine stained sconces. He missed that nobody gave a goddamn what he was up to. He missed her call.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

My man, Spike.

Damien had his numbers - the mark of the beast.  There are days I think I'm just a mark.  I've got one of those faces that panhandlers seem to love; the mark of a sucker.  It doesn't help that I decided a few years ago to greet people.  I like to wander the earth face first - head up.  Whether it's at the store or on the street, I say hello to people.  Its funny to watch the Average American, head down, face taut, staring at the ground to avoid any eye contact; looking a bit like they're constipated.  What was it George Carlin said about Richard Nixon?

As I'm stuck in this sucker face situation, I've developed a system.  I have a number in my head, some amount of money that I don't need.  Call it the Sucker Fund.  If I get hit up for spare change while the fund is flush, whoever asks ... gets it.  No questions.  I don't have to listen real close to their story.  I don't have to wonder if they are actually in some kind of trouble.  I don't worry if they are going to buy food for their kids or end up buying liquor.  That karma is on them.  My karma is just fine because I gave.  The Sucker Fund balance usually hangs around ten or twenty dollars.  One person might get it all or three people might share it over the course of a week.  When I'm having a bad week, the fund is broke, but as soon as I get paid, it's flush again.

There was a guy who hung around Meijer where I was working that tapped into the Sucker Fund a few times this Summer.  For the most part, however, I've been too busy to be around anyone who's begging for a bus ticket or gas to get home or whatever.   The Sucker Fund has been in surplus for a while now.  A couple Wednesday nights ago, as Art Prize began, that all changed.

I walked out of an Introductory Meditation Class at the Grand Rapids Zen Center and into a crowd.  From the serenity of the meditation hall, I stepped into pandemonium.  The Center is a wonderful oasis; exposed brick on one wall, an old wood floor,  and the smoke of incense creeping up a deep red tapestry behind the altar.  The candles, a singing bowl, and the staid ceremony are conducive, by design, to slowing down and pondering.  When I pushed open the door to leave, I was on the fringe of Art Prize - Opening Night.

The crowd on the sidewalk flooded around me like a snow-melt swollen creek.  They'd been to Art Prize and were done -- really done.  They'd spent more time and more money than they had meant to.  For some, they didn't see one thing in all that art that they could understand.  Now they had to walk six or eight blocks to find where they'd parked the damn car.  A totally different kind of energy.

I had my own trek back to my truck.  Swimming against everyone's haste, I stumbled toward the first corner to the east. Before I could round the corner, a man crossing the street caught my eye (face first, remember).  "Howdy" I said.

"Do you know where I can find a church that's . . . ."  his voice trailed off as he turned his head looking up the street.  Whatever else he said was swept away in the riparian confusion of the crowd.

He was a black man in his 60's.  His face was highlighted with grey stubble surrounding a goatee that had been trimmed up neatly.  When he spoke, intelligent eyes glistened under a baseball cap.  His teeth were kind of sprawled out from each other like they were running scared.  But the teeth were in good shape, he must have been doing all right, at least recently.  He reminded me of Spike Lee, a bit older.

"You know, I was up here to get something to eat.  They make it hard on ya now.  I had to walk eight miles to get up here to that shelter where they were serving food.  And my momma is a hundred and four years old.  She's at home with my granddaughter, and she's only five."

"That's quite a spread in ages," I offered.

"Yeah and you know I'm just trying to take something home to them.  Do you believe in God?"


"You don't think you could spare a little? Just so I could take home a loaf of bread and some lunch meat or something."

His pitch reminded me that I had stopped by the bank on my way.  The suggested donation for the Intro Meditation Class was twenty dollars.  I had gotten another twenty just to last me the week.  In the tea session afterward, I had met some new folks, to several regulars, and I had forgotten to leave my twenty bucks while I was there.  Meanwhile, I was not really listening to Spike Lee's pitch. I didn't really need to listen.

Coming back to the scene on the sidewalk, I heard him repeat the question "Do you believe in God?"  I'd love to give everyone the benefit of the doubt but spiritual talk suffuses the pitch of most panhandlers.  That's all fine, but it seems like some sort of political, or at least ecumenical pandering.

Spike Lee told me that he and the family had just moved from Milwaukee.  They were trying to find work.  He also said he was a pastor.  I like big cities.  I've been in and around them for a good part of my life.  I've seen enough little storefront gospel churches to figure that that part of his story was likely true.  All across this country there are little independent outposts scrabbling to pay rent on some retail space or renting a hall each week.  The administrators of the Sucker Fund held a quick board meeting.

"Used to be, you could arrive in a new town and be to work in a few days," he continued.  He'd seen my sucker mark.  He knew that I was good for it.  I had made eye contact with him, and even listened to most of his story without walking away.  His pitch went into full swing.  I just smiled.

"Today's your lucky day," I said abruptly. With the first sounds of my interrupting him, a doubtful line crossed his brow.  He had thought he was going to close on me; make the sale.  Now he worried.

Fiddling with my wallet and not showing too much, I pulled out the twenty that was meant for the temple's collection basket.  "Here, man. Good luck."

"Sweet Jesus, bless you. Thank you," he blurted.  And as if he couldn't resist, "You believe in God. Don't you?"

"That really doesn't matter. Does it?" I asked as I turned to head off toward my truck.

My man, Spike, couldn't have a clue where I had just come from.  I didn't know what his situation was.  I'd never walked even a block in his shoes, but I've been poor.  I've been down to brown rice and water more than once.  I know what that part feels like; not really knowing the next time some cash might roll your way. When you haven't got an extra dime, there's just no use in shopping.  He wouldn't know there was a temple in the storefront between the Coney Dog place and the Chinese buffet because it wouldn't have occurred to him to look.  It also wouldn't occur to him that there was any other way to live in America.  He hasn't walked in my shoes either.

There was a plaintive edge to his voice when he called after me as I left, "You do believe in God, don't you?" Maybe his story was mostly true.  I don't have to worry about it.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Pancho's Fish Fry

In 1995 or so, I lost the tip of my finger. I was rebuilding a thermoforming machine and the weight of a large gear assembly shifted. WHAM! It just clipped a tiny chunk of my fingertip on a funky angle. Nevertheless, I came out of the Emergency Room with a bandage on my middle finger like a large pear.

It had happened very early in the day; a day that became a comedy of errors. The boss' kid, who worked for me, helped wrap my hand in what few clean shop rags we could find.  Horrified, and white as a ghost, he drove me to the local hospital.  After sitting at the local ER a long while, the doctor carefully unwrapped my hand, took one look and said "Oh, we can't do anything for you here. You've got to go to Kalamazoo." 

. . . and he left the room.

We drove ourselves the 45 minutes to Kalamazoo. After sitting there for at least an hour, and finally getting my finger cleaned up and bandaged, they asked if I wanted my prescription filled there at the hospital or at my home pharmacy. Despite not having a regular pharmacist back home, I decided on the latter. As the kid drove us carefully through the little town of Vicksburg, the company truck died. So, I found myself sitting on a curb at a Shell Gas Station, halfway home, waiting for a ride, when the finger started throbbing. All the medicine from the hospital visit was wearing off. More pain medicine was at the unknown pharmacist back home; if we got there before they closed.

A few weeks later, I was back in familiar territory; sitting in a bar telling boat stories. Working in a factory that made running boards, I had met and was dating the woman who would become my second wife. My boss and his wife, had invited the girlfriend and me to a fish fry. We were in a tall, narrow storefront bar in the one sided, one block long, downtown of tiny Burr Oak, Mi.

It was a typical small town tavern with a few tables up front by a dusty plate glass window. Midway, back to the left, was the bar, with smaller tables on the opposite wall. At the far end of the bar, was the window to the kitchen and next to that, a hall toward the backdoor. The walls were covered with beer logo mirrors, pictures of local hunting heroes, and other swag. A grey cloud of cigarette smoke hung high enough in the ceiling that we hadn't noticed it yet. Haphazardly taped to the front door were a couple handbills; one for a tent revival and another for a turkey shoot that had already happened. We found an empty table near the bar.

I had just gotten the news that Pancho, an acquaintance from Florida, had drowned off a boat that, technically, I still owned. It was interestingly ambiguous spot to be in. I had left Florida in a rush to take a job. The plan was to live with a Great Aunt, save some money and come back to buy a bigger boat and live aboard.

Though I tried to just give him my sailboat, a sailing buddy, Tom, had volunteered to help me sell it after I'd left. I had bought the boat from a salesman who sold cardboard boxes to my company. It was a big boat for its size; a 21 foot sloop with a small cabin capable of long weekends. That was the last I ever heard from Tom. I got the Legend of Pancho, some months later, from a former business partner still in the state.

The last Fourth of July weekend that I was in Florida, Tom and I had spent four days drinking beer, sailing around Sarasota Bay watching the offshore powerboat races from the water. I don't know how many times Tom "sailed" the boat while he was helping "sell" the boat, but I know he was going sailing at least once. The story was tragic from the very start. Pancho's granddaughter had been killed in a car accident. He was, of course, taking it hard. Tom, and a third friend, decided they should take Pancho out for a sail to get his mind off everything for a while. A sail . . . on my boat.

They had already been drinking when they gathered an aluminum jon boat, beer and munchies. My boat was swinging on an anchor in a cove off of downtown Sarasota; the same cove I had lived aboard another boat for a year and a half. They piled their supplies and themselves into their boat and rowed out to mine. I'm sure it was a sight to see them clamoring aboard. As they settled into the cockpit and readied the boat, someone decided they needed more beer. The fateful decision was made for Tom and the friend to leave Pancho on the boat, row to shore and get more beer.

It is hard to imagine what thoughts might fill your mind if you had just lost a young loved one. I don't know any details, other than Pancho had been distraught for a few days already. Compound those feelings with being left alone in a cove full of strange boats; some palatial, some derelict. Whatever was on his mind, when the other two came back with more beer, Pancho was missing.

At the risk of repitition, its hard to imagine what thoughts might fill your mind if you were missing a drinking buddy from a boat that wasn't even yours in a cove off downtown Sarasota. Pancho was found the next day. He washed up on the rocks at the end of a kidney-shaped park near where the boat was anchored. Perhaps, that was when Tom vanished.

When I lost track of Tom, I lost track of the boat. He left the company he had worked for and left no other information. Someone told me he had gone up into North Florida cow country. I searched a couple times back in the very early days of the World Wide Web, but he had walked off into the ether; unfound. The boat had three and half feet of keel and no trailer. I had never considered being able to bring her to the Great Lakes. And I really hadn't known what was going on back in Florida at the time.

About a year later, I got a letter from the County Sheriff. Fortunately, not about Pancho, but about my boat. Apparently, the boat stayed for some time in the cove right where I had left her.  In a storm, she had drug her anchor and was drifting out to sea.  She was between Siesta and Lido Keys, headed out toward the Gulf of Mexico, when the Marine Patrol found her and towed her back to the City Dock. When no one claimed her, she was hauled to a city yard and unceremoniously stood up on a couple 55 gallon drums.

The letter, forwarded through a couple addresses, explained that I could pay various storage and hauling fees and keep my boat, or she would be auctioned at the upcoming Police Auction. Sadly, I let her go. I had started a new life in Michigan and met a woman whom I was planning to marry. My plans for a bigger boat and a life aboard were, more or less, voluntarily sunk; scuttled might be the appropriate nautical term.

When I got the letter, I had called my old business partner. We chuckled about the sad story of my boat. He had sailed with me occasionally as well. Then he asked, "Did you hear about Pancho?" and told me the legend. I had been a little sad about the boat but I was not prepared for Pancho's story.

Pancho was one of those stoic, steady guys; a jack-of-all-trades. Near as I could tell, he was just a hard working guy scrabbling to do the best he could for his family. Some people always manage to drift away from their work and dally. Others are drawn back to it, double checking that their work had been done right. Pancho was one of the latter. He was the sage workaholic in a small lazy shop that made chalkboards for schools. He had always said he was Mexican American Indian. I can still picture the cracks and crags of his weathered face, his salt and pepper hair in a ponytail and, everyday, a headband.

Pancho worked for Tom, who was running the company for our landlord. Both our companies were young startups. One shop was always lending a hand to help the other; sharing a forklift, or unloading a big delivery like a bucket brigade. Friday afternoons would get a little lazy and we'd all just hang around. Someone usually snuck out for a six pack. Four or five of us would end up standing around in the alley between our two buildings as the sky darkened. I don't remember any specific conversation. There probably weren't any specific conversations on those slow Friday afternoons.  Pancho stood out among the forgettable blue collar drifters around him.  He was the kind of character whose memory would bounce off of some mundane object and sneak to the surface in my mind. The thought of him, at some odd moment, never failed to make me smile.

Back at the Fish Fry, listening to Pancho's Legend, my boss and his wife were mesmerized.  The girlfriend had heard it a couple times already. I talk with my hands and the boss's wife had been watching me wave around this gigantic bandage on my middle finger as I spoke.

Just as I finished the story, she asked "Now, what did you do to your finger again?"

Taking a pull on my neglected beer, I said, "Actually, I was shoving Pancho off the boat and he bit me."

I hadn't noticed but in the small bar, right over the boss' shoulder, a guy was sitting alone at the bar. We were all close together in the narrow establishment. The lone waitress wiggled her way between tables and bar stools carrying big platters of fish and pitchers of beer. When I said, ". . . and he bit me," the guy at the bar spit his beer and laughed out loud. We realized at once he had been listening all along. Pancho's Legend would be told again.

As the bluster of the bar story, and a good laugh, began to fade, like the darkening sky on a lazy Friday afternoon gone by, my heart dipped. Just then, in the noisy little bar, my ears got hollow and my gut went heavy. Damn it, I missed Pancho. I missed those lazy Friday afternoons. And while Pancho had never had much in this life, now he had a legend. Vaya con dios, mi amigo.


Image used under the Creative Commons license.

"Washed-up On the Rocks" by Annika Wetterlund

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Pony League Football

I was a sorrowful, ridiculous sight standing on the football field with uncomfortable shoulder pads and an oversized jersey soured from years of too much sweat and too little washing.  And pants two sizes too big.  A coach had tried to tape the pads and pants around my thighs to hold them up, but the tape couldn't hold once I actually moved.  So the pant legs hung around lazily.  The dirty white adhesive tape hinting of some vague injury.  One leg caught somehow on my calf and hung jauntily at my knee.  The other leg was loose, hanging open toward my foot.  A scrawny ankle disappeared into the gaping hole like a fragile clapper in a big bell.  Luckily, my mouthguard was the one piece of pristine equipment I had been issued.

Pony League Football was one of my very few forays into sports.  It had all sounded cool, but I didn't burn for the game like the other guys.  The ill fitting, used and abused, league supplied equipment did not make me feel like Spartacus.  I felt like the Tin Man and moved with all his pre-oil-can grace.  Dad and I had watched a lot of football but I didn't grow up in a sports family.  Thankfully so actually, my life has been rich in other things.  I quit even watching sports on purpose long ago.

In the practices and bull sessions, the ill equipped, volunteer dad coaches talked strategy and tried to build a team with what they had.  Finding that I matched a lack of grace with a stunning lack of speed, the coach assigned me as Defensive Tackle.  Whatever deficit I had in grace and speed, I hid it in a stature not quite as big as most of the other lineman.  I was pushed and shoved, jostled and punched.  But it was football; it would make me cooler.

From the coaches, I had gotten an embryonic idea of what me role was.  I was to penetrate the Offensive Line.  The Quarterback and the ball, however briefly, were back there somewhere.  I would lunge and roll, fake and push, and shove trying to get past whatever meathead they had put in front of me.  Unbeknown to me at the time, the Quarterback, and especially the ball, were never back there for long.  And the Offensive Line was supposed to tie up the Defense as long as possible to help the ball get from behind the line down the field.

When the ball was snapped, I would lunge and roll and push and shove and . . . then the whistle would blow.  Turning around usually, I would walk down the field to wherever the Offense had got and we would line up again.  Ball snap, jostle, whistle, walk.  If the other team scored, or somehow used up their downs, I would walk off the field and our Offense would give it a go.  Sooner or later, the Defense and I would go back on the field.

It never occurred to me, until years later, and nor did any of the dad coaches mention, that I should have kept my head up to watch the overall action.  I never knew what was going on or where the ball was going.  I was just trying to break across the line.  Rarely, my Offensive opponent would drop his guard, or if he knew the real action was long gone, save his energy, and I would make one last triumphant shove and roll and . . . get by him!!!  I was actually standing in enemy territory!

. . . and looking around, no one else was still back there.

I think many of us live out lives like I played Defensive Tackle.  We keep our heads down.  We push and shove and blindly work only on the problem right in front of us.  If you keep your head up and watch the ball, you can adjust; stay in the game.  You can do something productive and contribute, rather than just wasting your energy on some smaller problem that doesn't affect the overall game.   Of course, we could also quit pushing and shoving and play a different game, but that is a topic for another day.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Kitchen Table Drunk

I was digging through my notebooks to find something else, but ran across this strange verse.  Its either just an angry poem or the germ of a country song.  Not sure how it came out this way exactly, but there's some juicy bits in there. Some food for thought.

It was written some lonely night on the road when I was truck-drivin' - who knows when.  Probably propped up on one elbow in the bunk of a semi cab sleeper in the rain. Actually, I like the rain and I don't feel like this anymore.  I'm still looking for the other story, but in the meantime here's a lame ramble.    Here's to unfulfilled potential and ex-wives.

Kitchen Table Drunk

I never did nothin' that carried my weight.
But everything I started was gonna be great.

I've always been good at spinnin' big plans.
Never stopped to wonder if I ever took a stand.

Then you came along, like a bird on a fence.
And I went with you without meaning or sense.

To you, I gave it all, there ain't any left.
So we bide our lonely time, kitchen table drunk, bereft.

I was orange, yellow and red, you were tan.
Still I could have been a better man.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Warthog Princess

Self righteousness wafted about her like the musk of a warthog. Her nose, more like a snout with each step, inclined as she lumbered toward me.  She smiled conspiratorially and I half expected tusks to spring from under her ample cheeks.  I shook my head in an effort to lose the vision of wallow mud caked under her chin.  Clip earrings and a bauble necklace hung on her haphazardly.  A light scarf hung around her neck over a nondescript sweatshirt.  She wore a fashionable warm-up-like suit that reeked overly expensive.  The warm-up suit, once exclusive to athletes, now de rigueur for older woman who'd decided they looked better in loose clothing. The effect was that of sow who'd found an old steamer trunk in the barn.  After rifling the trunk, she had emerged dragging jewelry and silken clothes.
Her wattle, spilling over an invisible collar, trembled as she laid a hand on the edge of a bin of bubble gum.  Struggling to strike a royal pose, the warthog princess cast a significant glance into the bin.

"If someone just took one of these to chew," she grunted, "would that be stealing?" I understood the words but all I really heard were snorts and the slop of mud.

Her question fell to the floor, like a pork carcass that slipped off a meat hook, and slapped the damp slaughterhouse floor.  Her eyes  widened flashing the international-gossip-whore-signal for "right behind me." I looked over her shoulder to see a family walking the other direction.  Mom, Dad and a little girl ... chewing gum.

I shrugged and smiled in the noncommittal way of polite society.  The family was different.  Even in my head, the warthog whispered "different;" one of those words, like "cancer" or "unwed," that grandmothers would rather not say out loud.  The warthog's clothes, and the gaudy jewelry, probably cost more than the happy family spent on food for the month.

A weary sadness welled up in my gut.  It had flashed as anger but faded just as quickly to a jaded fatigue.  In the 21st Century, are we still divvying up us's and them's?   I turned and walked away.  I couldn't decide whether to bitch slap the old hag, or just sit down and cry.  Maybe I'd give the family an unexplained apology. The maliferous, odiferous, nasty bitch would think nothing of popping a cherry or a green grape through her tusks without paying.  Yet somehow, she feels superior to someone else primarily because of her lack of epidermal melanin.  She probably dyes her hair too.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Panther in an herbal jungle.

Even in the yellowy commercial lighting, way up in the ceiling, she glowed with confidence and beauty.  She was stunning.  With each step, her jet black hair, like a panther's coat, shuffled and twitched with a motion all its own, waves of light shimmied down its length.  She was vaguely Japanese, and extraordinary.  The kind of beauty that must be hard to live with; like a streetlight outside a bedroom window, blazing and never off.  As she approached me, little bubbles and tiny stars seemed to trail behind her as if we were in some Pepsi commercial.

"The rosemary is out.  Can you help me?" she asked.  It came out flatly, like the bored command of a woman used to getting her way.  I might have cringed at the abruptness of the words, but I hadn't even processed her question yet.  Her stars and bubbles swirled past her as she stopped moving.  They tickled my nose, spun around my shoulders and drifted toward the floor.

She meant, of course, that there was no rosemary, but I did not understand.  The little bubbles had popped against the bridge of my nose and tiny puffs of ether had made it to my brain.  "The rosemary is out" I thought again.  Of course its "out," I'm putting "out" the corn and the grapes and the bananas; cilantro and parsley and klondike rose potatoes.  Everything is "out," because that is what I do.

"Show me what you mean," I said, "and I'll see if I can help."  I was giddy and clueless.  That's when I noticed the tall Midwestern American guy standing a few paces behind her.  He was good looking, charmingly rugged, but clean and seemed smart without uttering a word.  Three days of dark whiskers smudged his chin and cheeks.

The three of us walked over to the herb section.  I lead the way because I like to seem like I'm busy and capable.  The woman followed closely behind me pushing a cart with shallots, portobello mushrooms, other fancy veggies and an expensive looking cut of meat. As we arrived, she said "See, no rosemary."

The commanding tone rung in the air like a large deep bell, the kind of bell that is struck by three men and a large, swinging log.  It was now obvious, even to me, that she needed rosemary for some extravagant meal, but I didn't have any "out."  I poked at the other packages of herbs hanging there; hoping.  Occasionally, an extra of one thing gets put behind a row of something else.  I had no such luck.  Mr. Clean and Steamy brought up the rear and waited for us to resolve the situation.

"Give me two minutes and I'll check if I have some in the cooler," I said, sounding crisp and confident, like some minion trying to please the lady of the manor.

I walked briskly toward the backroom with the vague worry that I wasn't going to have any rosemary.  This worry competed with the not so vague sense that this woman, as beautiful as she was, was actually quite difficult in real life.  She countered the fear that every man who talked to her was on the make with aloofness and brutish behavior.  Mr. Clean and Steamy was probably doing all the cooking tonight; under careful supervision.

The skin on my arms shrank and goose pimpled in the cold air of the cooler.  Occasionally, even if I knew we were out of something, I'd wander into the cooler for a minute or two, before telling a customer we were out of what they had wanted.  They felt better because I had made some effort to help them.  I felt better because I had spent 90 peaceful seconds alone in the cold hum and out of the chaos of the retail trade.  This time, however, I thought I might find some rosemary.  The cooler was packed.  Neither the night shift nor the morning crew had been able to make much of a dent in the huge delivery we had received.

I was looking for the little card stock boxes that the herbs came in.  The herbs all seem to get ordered at the same time and the pile of small boxes is easy to spot.  The herbs were a pain to put out.  The clear plastic clamshells stuffed into little boxes could only be priced one at a time.  Rather than the rat-a-tat-tat of a rapid fire pricing gun, these went up slowly.  Each shift was likely to put them off for the next.  There was no pile of little boxes, I left the cooler empty handed.

As I pushed through the swinging doors from the backroom, the panther woman was walking across the floor toward the fancy tomatoes.  The same bounce, the same glow, the same shimmering waves of blue black light.  She smiled expectantly.

"I'm sorry," I said as I headed back toward the herb section, "I don't have any rosemary back there, but I should get some on the truck tonight."  Out of the corner of my eye: a little pouty frown.

She followed me over to the herbs and watched me paw at the potted plants.  It would be more expensive to buy a whole pot of rosemary, but it would be rosemary.  In fact, a renewable resource of rosemary.  I'm sure they lived in some trendy, formerly industrial, neighborhood.  Their bright, open loft would be decorated in a minimalist way.  Expensive Scandinavian furniture, in teak and chrome, would sit on an expensive rug, apart from everything else on the reclaimed industrial wood floor.  The sterile, professional kitchen would tuck against an exposed brick wall on one side of the open space.  Stainless steel and european birch would stand proudly under a bevy of expensive, but rarely used pots and pans clinging to a repurposed industrial rack.  They could put the pot of rosemary with the other plant that sits under the window on the old radiator.  The radiator they don't even use for heat anymore.

"Nope, sorry.  I don't have rosemary in a pot either."

"There might be some in these tubes," Mr. Clean and Steamy offered, a whiff of desperation twisted through the air like a chili fart at a funeral.

The panther woman's face slammed shut like a prison.  I felt the big door hit the hinges and heard the dead bolts slide home.  The little bubbles and stars were swept away as smoke oozed up from under her black hair.  Fire flashed behind her eyes like a broiler's first roar off the pilot light.

"We're going to another store," she said curtly and was gone.  Only the smell of burning hair remained . . .  and the squeak of italian shoes on terrazzo as Clean and Steamy struggled to catch her.

Silently, I saluted him.  Putting up with her shit probably seems worth it.  But he should really be thinking in the short term with that one.  I grabbed the cart and started toward the meat counter, the fancy vegetables I could put away myself.

Monday, April 11, 2011

I am the Ostrich, goo goo g'joob.

She was friendly enough, perhaps.  Standing at the door, at attention, she greeted customers with military precision.  Leaning in, anticipating the customers who would enter next through the automatic doors, like hogs in a slaughterhouse.  She stared unblinkingly at the inside of the door - waiting.  She did nearly nothing else.  If she wrangled the grocery carts into order, she was crisply efficient and thrust them together almost with disdain, like pushing a cow into the yoke to be brained. Whether a family of noisy children, a retired couple or a man in a suit, her precise greeting of clipped, identical words were thrust at them.  More like brass casings showering the floor of a gun range, than the warm friendly embrace her employer had envisioned. The nice words stood in stark contrast to her delivery.

Her hair, coifed in a short, low maintenance way, hung in vaguely straight, ragged clumps like a Japanese cartoon character.  Proving each day that style is often completely absent from hairstyle.  Her unblinking eyes, magnified by large thick glasses, scanned the entryway like klieg lights at a prison riot.  In Winter, her calf high boots and fleece vest, worn over the requisite red polo shirt and a turtleneck, gave her a vaguely sinister look; like a Scandinavian Nazi.  Not heinous, but like a cheap effort at heinous in order to curry the favor of an actually heinous occupier.  More accurately perhaps, she looked like a Swedish Nazi in a drag show; if there could ever be such a thing.

When she sauntered into the breakroom during my lunch, I smiled and went back to my smart phone.  She sat at a table across the room and began twitching like a nervous bird.  Her gigantic ostrich eyes panned the room, each time jerking back to a point at a purposely obtuse angle from me.  I swept the phone's screen with my finger, turning a virtual page.

"Playing a game?" she asked.  The sentence fragment crashed around the room like a tear gas canister.

"Oh, no," I countered, "I'm reading."

"What's it about?" she asked, her clipped words, like three errant sniper rounds, smacked into the back wall.

"Well, the Daily Beast has a panel of five authors discussing the new, posthumously published, novel of David Foster Wallace. He was a famous author who killed himself a few years ago.  He wrote fascinating, densely detailed books that I have never actually been able to read."  I had rambled on, without a breath, as if I was at a writers conference or in a bookshop coffee bar.  Instead, I was sitting in an overly warm breakroom, deep in the aseptic bowels of a big box retail store, having lunch during my shift at a minimum wage subsistence job. The job allowed me to eat while going back to school for a certification.

With a creaking cartoon stretching sound, her neck pushed her tiny head toward the dirty panels of the dropped ceiling.  A curious rustling echoed off the institutional laminate walls as tiny feathers, like peach fuzz, sprang from behind her ears and at the neck of her sweater.  With a disgusting smack, her upper lip slid down toward her chin to form a beak, and her cheeks sucked in around her teeth.  The sinewy tendrils of her throat and neck twitched.  I could hear individual tastebuds being peeled from the roof of her mouth in a dry swallow. Huge bird eyes, now free from the thick glasses, plinked sharply in the dead air, like ice cubes slowly dropped into a highball glass.  Big pink eyelids closed, and then raised again.  Suddenly a terrified ostrich, she just looked at me.  Her beak swung nervously toward a noise in the hall, and  abruptly snapped back to me and my phone. I went back to my reading. The sterile silence was only broken by the rustle of feathers and the scraping blink of those huge, dry eyes.

More noise crashed in from the hall as two women walked in.  The feathers and the plinking eyes were drowned out by the swish-swish of polyester pants and the Swedish Nazi countenance returned. The ostrich was gone.

"How are you doing today?" she practically shouted at the two women who had entered the room.  Like a roadside bomb, her loud question had destroyed the conversation the two ladies had been having and exposed the presence of my phone and me.  We were round pegs that could not assimilate into her ostrich world. I swiped the screen and went back in my virtual coffee bar. The ladies decided they were on the precipice of intimate details they could no longer discuss. Thankfully, thankless jobs don't allow for long lunches and I escaped back to the serenity of the produce department.

Image lifted from

Monday, January 24, 2011

Better Late and Never

NPR is again running their Three Minute Fiction Contest.  In this, the Sixth Round, a story needed to have a character who cries and a character who tells a joke.  Of course, while I knew the contest was on, and the deadline approached, I hadn't made up my mind to enter.  I hadn't written anything either.

Last night, about 10:15 pm, I started birthing a story for no reason.  It was especially for no reason at all because the deadline was 11:59 pm . . . last night.  As I started to type madly under the spell of some new muse, I knew I couldn't finish on time with anything worth entering.  The following story is better late because, had I rushed to finish it last night, it wouldn't yet have been fully formed.  And the story will never be read by NPR's judge,  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, unless she mistakenly stumbles by here somehow.  But I couldn't stop writing.  Having finally finished it this afternoon, I thought it would be fun to post it anyway.

Here is my all-for-naught Round Six non-Entry:

The newspaper was open, wide and flat against the sidewalk, like a person completely sprawled out after stubbing a toe. It rose suddenly in the gentle wind, tucked into a roll and wrapped around her slim calf and ankle, like a hug. It was then he could see she was crying. Not a sob, but the slow moistening of her eye, with tears that seemed to slowly climb down her cheek as if ducking away not wanting her to know.

She didn’t really know how she had gotten sad. It was a beautiful day for a walk. The sun had crept into her office while she wasn’t looking, as if beckoning her to leave. A splash of prismatic color creeping across the bookshelf had startled her at first. She looked for what might have refracted the sunlight. She got up from her work, and even walked to the window, but she hadn’t found the sneaky prism.

Like an invisible wood fairy casting a spell, the prism had lead her to look down from her window toward the park. Spring had come without her noticing. Bright colors and deep green grass were creeping at the edges of the grey city. She grabbed her trench coat and rushed to the elevator.

Walking down the street, her open coat snapped and floated behind her. The sun was warm, but the breeze carried the lingering cool of the city’s cement and stone. The ends of her ears, and the tip of her nose, knew that Spring was still wrestling control from the stubborn, but tired Winter. She grabbed a coffee, but didn’t waste time eating lunch. She walked into the park and reacquainted herself with a favorite path. The bud laden trees waved at her gently and welcomed her back.

“You’ve been working too hard,” they seemed to say. “We’ve missed you.” In the hustle and bustle chasing some external definition of success, she hadn’t paused long enough to decide if she was actually happy.

He patiently held a peanut for the pigeon. The bird cocked her head slightly, trying to decide if she could trust him. The other birds surrounded him in a loose circle. They cooed and jumped and strutted, hoping another peanut would be pitched their way. He loved the sounds the birds made.

Ever since he started Fifth Grade, his mother had let him walk down to the market at 32nd and Van Dam to buy more bread when they needed it. She used to send his older brother, but he always came home with a big wad of bubble gum in his mouth and Momma’s change was always short. Now, when he went for bread, Momma’s change was always just right.

When winter came, he watched the birds poking around in the cracks of the sidewalk looking for something to eat. They picked at the shiny wrappers that blew along the curb. There were less plants and less bugs than in the Summer time, he knew they must be hungry.

One cold day, he was surprised to find himself at the market counter with a loaf of bread . . . and a little bag of peanuts. Halfway home, in a little park just past the office buildings, he’d stopped and fed the hungry birds. They were so happy, he never even ate any himself. When the bag was mostly empty, he poured the little peanut hearts onto the grass and the birds jumped all over each other to get at them. He felt good, even kind of warm inside against the cold.

Grabbing the cold doorknob at home, he thought of his Momma. He could see that look on her face as his brother stood there chomping on that bubble gum and handing her the crumpled plastic grocery bag with the half smooshed loaf of bread inside. Outside the door, a bag hung from his little hand, not quite touching the ground. The loaf should be fine, he’d carried it carefully, but the dollar for peanuts, missing from Momma’s change, was burning a hole in his pocket. He turned the knob and trudged in the door in his brother’s too big boots.

Momma was waiting in the kitchen, rattling around picking out pots for making supper. Looking toward the floor, he handed his Mom the bag. His puffy Winter coat drifted off the back of his shoulders. He shook his arms until the coat slid off and fell on the kitchen floor. The big zipper made a funny clunk on the tiles. The long sleeve of his shirt bunched up on this arm as he dug deep into his pocket for the change; short change. As he handed her the money, he tried to smile shyly at her warm face. Momma dropped the assorted coins into her jar and absentmindedly shuffled the bills, counting them. She worked at another store and counted money all the time. Her hands stopped at the end of the bills and she looked at him; not angry, just blank-like.

Her eyes twitched as she scanned him standing there. For almost a minute, she didn’t say anything. But he wasn’t sticky on his face or his hands. He wasn’t smacking his lips on bubble gum too big for his mouth. He wasn’t carrying a comic or some cheap toy. The twitching stopped and a twinkle passed across Momma’s eyes. The corners of her mouth almost turned up as a smile came but was stifled.

“Huh, the price of bread went up a little.” Momma said, and she tussled his hair. She just turned and went back to preparing supper.

He stifled his own smile then, and turned to pick up his coat. He put the coat and his brother’s boots away. Somehow, Momma seemed to understand that he was doing something good. Maybe she didn’t mind, like when he wanted to tell his grade school jokes to her friends. She’d heard them all before but she always laughed when the friend laughed. He could tell when an adult only laughed to be nice, but Momma always laughed as hard as she could.

Spring had started to sneak in under the snow. His little park had some color again. The grays and browns of Winter started to have little stains of green and yellow around the edges. The birds probably had stuff to eat now, but he brought peanuts whenever he could. One day, all the snow was gone and he walked a little deeper into the park. The birds knew who brought their peanuts, and he was soon surrounded by cooing and scratching and the flutter of wings.

He always pitched a nut at individual birds to see if they could get it before another bird stole it. The birds made him laugh. They climbed on each other and pushed and shoved to get at his peanut treats. Their wrestling and cooing reminded him of when he and his brother used to horse around together. Then he pitched three peanuts at once and caused a commotion. Five birds crashed together and rolled around. Two birds, tired of the ruckus, flew up to a tree branch over the cement pathway. He liked it when the birds flew. They clawed at the air and, almost by magic, let go of the earth and went wherever they wanted. Being a bird must be real cool, he thought. His eyes left the flying birds, and he saw a lady sitting on a bench about thirty feet away.

Somehow, he knew she was sad. Momma was sad once in a while, and he knew sadness, too. The lady looked down just slightly, and though her eyes weren’t closed, she didn’t really look at anything either. He shook the peanut bag empty, and little kernels scattered by his feet. The remaining birds fluttered and cooed while the lady wiped a tear off her cheek. When his Mom got sad, he would tell her one of his best jokes. When it was just the two of them, she wouldn’t laugh so much, but he knew the jokes helped her then. He didn’t understand how, but Momma might stop crying after a joke or two, so he knew it worked.

Cutting straight across the path, he put the peanut wrapper in a big green trash can. He brushed the front of his jacket and pushed at the bottom snap until it clicked shut. The lady sat her coffee cup down and leaned over to pull at a piece of newspaper that had caught on her leg. He wasn’t supposed to tell jokes to strangers when Momma wasn’t with him, but he wanted to tell this lady a good one. Trying to be brave, he walked toward the bench. His sleeve and his jacket swished against each other and made a happy zoom sound. In the Winter, the City put sand on the path to keep people from slipping. His shoes shuffled and scratched the leftover sand across the cement. He got to the bench and stood by the lady. Usually a stranger would look at you when you stopped in front of them, but the lady didn’t move for a time. He heard her sniffle and, finally, she looked up slowly. She tried to smile but just looked at him; puzzled.

“What did the cow say to the farmer?” he asked her. His voice sound a little funny in his own head, but he got the whole joke out without a mistake.

The lady’s makeup was bunched up around her eyes, and on one side of her face, a little black line rolled down toward the side of her chin. High on her cheekbone was a little smear. She looked at him for a couple long minutes. She didn’t smile, but he saw a wave of friendliness roll across her face. To him it looked like her face had borrowed someone else’s happy face for a second, but it only drifted by and didn’t stay put.

“I don’t know. What did the cow say to the farmer?” She had a nice voice and talked like some of his teachers did. Her eyes got a little brighter and warmer.

Slowly, with practiced nonchalance and perfect comic timing, he put a fist on each hip and cocked his head like a mother does when she tells her kids something; something happy. He took a nervous breath.

“Cows don’t talk, Silly,” he said with as big a smile as he knew how to make.

The lady choked and then smiled softly. The choke was more a laugh than a sob, but it sounded to him like both at the same time. She took a tissue from her coat pocket and wiped her eyes. She reached out, still smiling, and stroked the sleeve of his jacket. Her hand made the same zoomy sound against the fabric. Her smile twisted one way and then the other, then opened up and spread across her face. It was that somebody else’s happy face again, but now it was happy all over and it stuck.

“Thank you,” she said with a funny quiver in her nice voice.

He felt funny. Kind of silly, and lighter. Sort of floating in a way he had never felt. There was a little tingle in his fingers and his earlobes. This must be how a bird feels, he thought.

“OK . . . ,” he stumbled, “I mean, you’re welcome.”

He didn’t know what else to say, but it felt like he made the lady happy again; just like he did for Momma. His feet twisted in the leftover sand, and he turned to go. Two steps toward home, he heard the lady’s voice call after him.

“Don’t forget your bread. Doesn’t that grocery bag belong to you?”

Copyright (c) 2011, Todd R. Townsend.

Photo by Paul Goyette. Used without individual permission under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Rock n Roll Moments

Recently, a musician friend posted this picture of a band playing while people danced. From the 1960s, the picture was part of his “Rock a...