Thursday, December 23, 2010
Stage One - The early roll-out
You know what I'm talking about. It's the week after Halloween and the grocery stores begin re-stocking Christmas themed candy. Stuff like Hershey's Kisses and red and green M&M's. Most stores aren't bold enough to drop the candy canes in yet, but you know it's coming.
Stage Two - Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and the first Psychotic Break
This is the stage where retailer desperation mixes dangerously with a diminishing middle class fresh off feasting on hormone injected turkeys and copious amounts of beer and wine. The resulting commercial chaos is said to carry businesses over into the black for the year, but the resulting physical chaos of douche bags giving each other black eyes while fighting over half-price blu-ray players is much more fun to watch.
The other hallmark of stage two is the beginning of the utter deluge of Christmas music. Look, if you know me, you know how I feel about 99% of all the Christmas music ever created. It's not only hackneyed, overly sentimental crap but also incredibly familiar and overplayed. I guess it's kind of similar to the music of the Bee Gees in that regard. I'm sorry, but it doesn't matter what instruments you play or how well you sing, it's still just a song about a disfigured reindeer who finally gets in with the cool kids. And don't even get me started on all the songs about snow. There's only so many ways you can express how much you love snow in song, unless you're an Eskimo... Am I ranting? Sorry about that. On to...
Stage Three - Fever pitch. The last weekend.
The height of misery for most people, this stage is the result of people waiting to do all their shopping on the final weekend, with their last paycheck before Christmas. Because nothing puts people in a better mood than sitting down and figuring out what bills they are going to skip paying in December just so they can thrust themselves out into a retail meat grinder to find a Deluxe George Foreman Grill for their mouth-breathing cousin Cletus.
For customers and employees alike, Stage Three is a bloodbath. Scorched Earth commercialism. Anarchy with a debit card. All of the anger, resentment and cynicism people have unknowingly been hoarding all year long tend to bubble over during this stage and we often find ourselves screaming past each other in parking lots and in register aisles. We find ourselves working so hard to make the holidays happen, like they are just another chore that we need to get finished by the end of the day, and in Stage Three it is very late in the day indeed.
Which brings us to the calm after the storm...
Stage Four - "Cynicism Falls Asleep..."
Something seems to change following that last frantic weekend. Having expunged vast quantities of angst during our final fleeting hours of shopping, we seem to lapse into a cheerful aloofness. It's as if our holiday struggles have exhausted our capacity for frustration and irritation, bitterness and distrust, and all of the other emotional toxins that have built up within us over the year past. To quote a favored songwriter of mine, we allow our cynicism to fall asleep. And with sleep come dreams, and with those dreams comes hope. Hope that next year we can be better, and appreciation that we have people in our lives who make us want to be better.
It is this sense that pervades those final few days before Christmas and makes them my favorite of the season. To all of my friends and family, Merry Christmas.
P.S. - Be ready, because my cynicism is going to wake up bright-eyed and refreshed on January 1st.
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
CRAIG, a young man wearing a sandwich board advertisement for
a 15 dollar oil change stands on a moderately busy street
corner. He is waving at the passing cars with faux
enthusiasm. Into the frame comes another human advertisement,
this one in full costume as an ELEPHANT. He has an elaborate
trunk with no visible mouth hole. He stands next to Craig and
begins waving at cars.
(taking a closer look at
Can you even breath in that thing?
Fully functional trunk.
Yeah... They spare no expense at
Earl’s House of Peanuts.
(pointing to the logo on
for a cigarette right now.
(looking at Craig)
Got a smoke?
Yeah, I’m not really sure I should
do that... I mean, these peanut
people... They were pretty serious
about not breaking character... I
need this gig!
hasty here. I need that smoke.
Well, unless you can take a drag
through your trunk I don’t see how
this is going to w-
That's perfect! You draw on it and
blow the smoke back up my trunk.
(holding the trunk out)
through your elephant trunk?
(shaking head doubtfully)
FULLY functional elephant trunk...
Come on, man. I’m jonesin. Help a
owe me one.
Hey, we NEVER forget, right? Don’t
worry about it. Let’s do this.
and trucks rumble past.
Okay. Here it comes.
Okay... Now pinch the trunk so the
...Oh yeah, that’s the good stuff.
What are these, menthols?
Craig is stamping out the CIGARETTE on the pavement. The
Elephant is standing next to him, wisps of smoke escaping
from the headpiece. They are waving at passing cars.
Whew! Now I’m ready to pimp some
Thanks, bro. I owe you one.
at cars again. After a pause, a man in a fish costume
approaches and stands next to him. The costume has small,
little flippers in place of functional arms, and a logo sewn
into the chest reading SUSHI SHACK. The FISH begins waving to
(trying to look busy)
(squirming in his armless
Man... I have to pee SO bad.
and looking down at his own crotch helplessly.
Hey, buddy? Help a brother out
After a pause the Fish begins waving at cars again.
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
Time is graying. Sixty pages, creased and faded.
I twist my nose sourly and you glare at me.
It always smells like carpet shampoo here.
The couch is clad in plastic. I sit, septic.
You pace the empty room, tobacco smoke fading.
We scrawl our dreary names for the mistress in blue.
My feet drag, but you don't notice. You never notice.
The hallway is an endless cipher. Vacant.
Capsules of life, left and right. Leaking.
Bleak mortality laps at our feet. Flooding.
Remember how we used to collect seashells?
We find her in the lunch room. Alone with her food.
She is ancient and meager. Her smile is robust.
You plead with her to eat. She shakes her head no.
I sit, impotent. Fashioning a lifetime's regret.
I make the same empty promise every time we leave.
Next time it'll be different. I'll finally know how
to tear myself open and leave something for her
An ear for one last story, whispered through a seashell.
Tuesday, June 1, 2010
There are lots of little rules for beginning writers. Write every day. Show, don't tell. Avoid purple prose. Edit, edit, edit. All excellent rules, very useful to the developing writer, but by far the most common piece of advice is to write about what you know, or alternately, to write about what you love. I've always wondered what this last bit of advice has to say about a guy like, say, Thomas Harris. Does he simply just happen to know a lot about cannibal serial killers, or does he love them too? I guess he knows at least enough about them to know that he loves them, or loves writing about them in any event.
Anyway, the reason I'm pondering such things is that I'd like to focus a series of blog posts on a specific subject, and the rules say to write about something I love and something I know about...
So I'm basically looking at writing about comic books, video games or television. Oh yes, I'm a Renaissance man. Look, I'd love to be writing about impressionist painters or world travel or macroeconomic policy, but that would be going against the rules. Write about what you know... write about what you love...
But how did I settle on television over the other two?
I bought my first proper comic book, Spectacular Spider-Man 132 (Part 6 of the classic “Fearful Symmetry” arc featuring Kraven the Hunter), at age 13 and from that point forward there was rarely a weekend where I didn't manage to whinebomb my mother into a trip to the comic book store. I absolutely loved comic books, still do, but I'd also like to secure a date with a member of the opposite gender persuasion one day, and I'm worried that a six part blog series on how chronically mishandled Wonder Man has been in the mainstream Avengers continuity over the last 25 years just might adversely affect my chances.
Video games? We got an Atari 2600 in our house when I was seven years old. I got one of the greatest gaming computers ever built, my beloved Commodore 64, just a couple of years later. I was born into the age of video games, forged in the crucible of Dig Dug. I was Sid Meier's bitch. From age nine until age twenty-one video games were indisputably the most important thing in my life. (Sorry, family. Sorry, friends. Sorry, personal growth and development.) I considered writing about my lifelong love of video games, but the nostalgia inspired by writing just this one paragraph has ended with me searching on Ebay like some frantic ex-junkie, calculating how much it would cost to reconstitute every video game system I've ever owned. No way, man. I'm mostly clean these days. I won't go back.
Which just leaves television. The alpha and the omega. My white whale. No other pop culture based anesthetic quite got its hooks into me as deeply as television. You know those ubiquitous studies showing the average American kid watching between three and four hours of TV a day? Yeah, well, I was in the vanguard, baby. I put in a good four to five hours a day, more in the summers. I like to think that I was making up for all those kids unfortunate enough to be born into television-less homes. Those poor bastards.
Like any all consuming, soul absorbing passion, my television watching preferences have evolved through the years. From cartoons and game shows as a kid, to cop dramas and adventure series as an adolescent, to the science fiction and fantasy genre stuff of today. I have deeply loved it all, but there is one particular genre of television that I loved more than any other. I'm talking about the half hour situation comedy.
You want to know how much I love sitcoms? If it were legal to marry a sitcom, you'd be talking to Mrs. Curb Your Enthusiasm right now. That's how much I love a great sitcom. I even like a mediocre sitcom. Hell, I'll even tolerate the most hackneyed, laugh track ridden, 22 minute suckfest if it has a compelling ensemble character or two.
Characters are obviously the heart of any television show, be it drama or comedy, but there's something special about a well constructed half hour sitcom ensemble. In many ways it's like having a character laboratory to experiment in: You take a bunch of quirky, eccentric, flawed, often archetypal characters and mix them up in a workplace or family setting and watch to see how they react to each other. Of course, the irony of the sitcom is that the situations are often the least important part. This is evidenced by the fact that so many sitcom plots are utilized over and over again in show after show. This works because it's not the situation, but how characters in the ensemble react to the situation (and more importantly, each other) that matters. The way in which Kramer and Frank Costanza go about starting their own business in an episode of Seinfeld will differ drastically from how Frasier and Niles Crane would go about opening their own restaurant in an episode of Frasier. Same basic plot, vastly different shows.
Because I'm a deeply disturbed individual, I also really enjoy breaking down sitcoms into sub-genres.
Undeniably the most established set-up is the family sitcom. The roots here go back to the 50's with shows like Father Knows Best, but they probably enjoyed their apex in the 70's with the brilliant All in the Family. Of course there was no shortage of family comedies in the 80's either (Family Ties, Cosby Show, Growing Pains), but they all lacked an edge and their wholesome banality ultimately helped inspire a backlash of satire against the ideal family, typified by shows like Married With Children, and later, Family Guy.
Like the family, the workplace has been some of the most fertile ground for ensemble comedy. Maybe there's something about the stresses of work or perhaps it's the sheer variety of settings, but the workplace sitcom has been responsible for some of the most memorable characters of all time. The “office weird guy” is a staple of workplace comedy. Think of characters like the Reverend Jim on Taxi or Matthew Brock on Newsradio. An interesting melding of family and workplace shows would be the school sitcom. Welcome Back, Kotter and the Howard Hesseman 80's hit, Head of the Class follow this formula, wherein life lessons are heavy-handedly doled out by the teacher to the students, or sometimes, the other way around.
Then there's the “single in the city” sitcoms that we saw a lot of in the 1990's. These shows were very relationship driven. Mad About You starring Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt was a prime example, but mega-hits Seinfeld and Friends spawned a seemingly never ending slew of shows featuring attractive people living and dating in New York. Suddenly Susan with Brooke Shields, Caroline in the City with Lea Thompson and the Jonathan Silverman series The Single Guy all had multiple season runs in the 90's.
Another widely used sitcom set-up has been the buddy comedy. The Odd Couple, with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, was never close to a ratings hit when it ran on CBS from 1970 to 1975, but the laughs generated by forcing two polar opposite characters together have been so strong that dozens of shows over the last three decades have tapped into this successful formula. Laverne and Shirley, Bosom Buddies, Kate and Allie, Perfect Strangers, Will and Grace and many others had successful runs in the 80's and 90's, and more recently the BBC cult hit Peep Show has taken the Odd Couple theme to a new creative high.
There's one final sitcom set-up that deserves mention. It's the nostalgia comedy. These shows are set during specific time periods in the past. Happy Days is the most well known, and highly regarded show within this sub-genre, but several other shows have made their mark. The critically acclaimed ABC comedy/drama the Wonder Years ran for six seasons into the early 90's, and That 70's Show capitalized on a mysterious nostalgia for the 1970's for a highly successful eight season run more recently. An unfortunately short-lived gem in this realm was the 2003 Fox sitcom, Oliver Beene. Set in 1963 New York, it followed the trials and tribulations of the 12-year-old titular character, in first person perspective, with the wonderfully dry narration of David Cross as an older Oliver reflecting on the experiences. The show also featured Grant Shaud (Miles Silverberg on Murphy Brown) as Oliver's hyper-Jewish dentist father.
So there you have it. An overview of the mighty situation comedy. I now realize that I've just written nearly 1500 words on how much I love sitcoms. Clearly it's time to go have a nice long cry, and re-examine my life. Next time we're going to go in depth for a look at three of my favorite ensemble casts. One each from the family, workplace and buddy sub-genres.
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
The sun was still some minutes from rising over the mountains to the east when Dan Wyman swung his truck into the gravelly parking lot of the Cascade Ranger Station. He skidded to a halt in front of a rustic looking stained log residence. A sign hanging from a chain attached to two wooden posts carved with totemic symbols read
Cascade National Forest
He grabbed his worn green ruck from the seat next to him and hopped out of the truck. His heavy boots sank slightly in the dry, dusty gravel. He took a moment to stretch leg muscles gone stiff during the long, twisty drive up from the foothills. He sampled the unsullied mountain air, inhaling deeply as he approached the lodge. It was a traditional log structure with carved stone columns as vertical corner posts. Three windows fronted the entrance. Two smaller ones framed a large wide one running to the left of the entrance. The only thing Dan could make out clearly through the window was an infant fire smoldering in the stone fireplace. The sun, having finally mounted the peaks to the east was busy filtering a blanket of gray over the darkness of night. He kicked the dust from his boots and stepped into the lodge.
The interior of the lodge smelled vaguely of cedar. A number of souvenir racks were displayed about the room. There were post cards, hats and t-shirts, books and bumper stickers, as well as a large glass case containing dozens of small porcelain figurines of forest animals. A long, wooden counter ran parallel to the back wall where a set of stairs lead up to a second level. Brochures and fliers were stacked neatly along its length, but no sign of a service bell. He warmed his hands by the crackling fire and stared at the map hanging above the fireplace. Two days in the woods with a couple of college students searching for a myth... What was he thinking? He traced the path of the hiking loop on the map with tired blue eyes. Could be a long couple of days.
Dan turned to find a rotund figure grinning at him through a bushy red beard.
“Corporal Killian!” Dan smiled as they embraced. “It's been too long, Kill.”
He tilted his wide brimmed ranger hat back and clapped his old army buddy on the back.
“Well, that's what happens when you retire...”
“Eh. I'd worn a uniform long enough.” he gave his friend a long look. “Looks like you've gone up a size or two.”
“Hey!” he smoothed out his tan button down shirt and sucked in his gut. “The food up here beats Army chow.”
“Coffee, Sarge?” he placed a couple of cups on the wooden counter.
Dan nodded and took the cup.
“So tell me about these kids?”
“Ugh. These kids are killing me, Dan” he shook his head and sipped on his coffee. “They go to the university in the metro. One of 'em is studying to be a zookeeper or something, I don't know.”
He motioned Dan over to a couple of chairs by the fire. The gray of the morning was melting away outside the window.
“So anyway, they been buggin' me for weeks wanting to come up here for an expedition to search for a Bigfoot” he chortled heartily, “A Bigfoot!”
“So you weren't pulling my leg about that?”
“Wish I was” he rolled his eyes. “I told em' they could camp the park as much as they want, but apparently Bigfoot doesn't come into the designated recreational areas.”
“He's a rebel like that, Kill” Dan said.
Laughing, he leaned forward in his chair and grabbed a folded map off the table. He tossed it to Dan.
“I figured you could hike the game trails that loop north and west and then back down south of the periphery.”
Dan ran his finger along the path highlighted on the map.
“That should be far enough out to satisfy them.”
Dan folded the map and slipped it in his jacket pocket.
“Why am I doing this again?” he asked.
Killian rubbed his left side with a dramatic, faux grimace.
“Funny how that always seems to act up when you need a favor.” Dan said.
“Hey, if you'd prefer to have the shrapnel in your side...”
“Alright, alright... you win.” Dan grinned.
“It's good to have you back up here, Dan” Killian rose and cleared the table of the coffee cups. “We've missed you.”
It had been nearly five years since Dan had left the Forest Service. He'd joined up after his discharge and spent four years as a Ranger at Cascade National Forest. In fact, he had been the one to recruit his old army buddy to join. They'd worked together for nearly a year when Dan took a leave to care for his wife, Penny, who had taken ill.
“It is nice to be back,” he glanced out the window. The sun had finally broken its misty gray shackles and was bathing the forest in radiant sunshine.
“Any thoughts about maybe coming back to work? We could use ya...” Killian gave him a hopeful glance.
Dan shrugged his shoulders. He'd entertained the notion briefly in the months after Penny's passing, but he never felt quite ready, or willing. Her death made him feel empty, and any thought of trying to fill the hollowness inside filled him with guilt. Moving on with life seemed almost an abandonment, so as his grief calcified he desperately preserved that void in his heart, as if her absence was all he had left of her.
“Mmm. I don't think so, Kill...” he rose from the chair and paced the room. “Thanks for the offer though”
Killian was readying to pour them some more coffee when they heard the crunch of tires sinking into the gravel of the parking lot outside. Dan could hear the thumping baseline of rock music pumping from a car stereo and he made his way to the front window. A purple Volkswagon bus, caked with dust, sat parked just outside the lodge. The door slid open and a sprightly young woman hopped out. She had dark brown hair cut short with curls that fell in rings around her ears and danced along her rosy cheeks. She wore a thin green flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up and her bright blue eyes darted enthusiastically.
Killian was at the door.
“Come on,” he smiled. “I'll introduce you to your platoon, Sarge.”
He was enjoying this entirely too much.
Dan stepped out onto porch just in time to see a stringy young man lugging a backpack around back of the van. His blonde hair was deliberately unkempt and fuzzy sideburns angled half-way down to his chin. He squinted uncomfortably at the bright blue sky as he finally leaned against the van to rest. He was saying something to the girl as she went through the backpacks.
“Erin. Oliver” They both looked up as Killian approached, “This is Sargent Dan. He's gonna be your guide on this little...quest of yours.”
Erin's eyes flashed angrily.
“Excuse me? It's an expedition.” she snorted and rolled her eyes at them. “Quest makes it sound like we're looking for dragons!”
Behind her the young man, Oliver, was smiling and nodding as he watched her lecture Killian. There was something in the way he looked at her, admiration mixed with intimidation, and... something else.
“...And just last year they discovered an entirely new species of Hooded Gecko in the Mekong Delta that has been around for over 200 million years without anyone noticing so don't tell me...” she was peppering Killian rapid fire, like a boxer with his opponent against the ropes.
Oliver cleared his throat and stepped forward offering his hand to Dan
“Uh, good to meet you... Sir.” he said, “I'm Oliver.”
They shook hands and watched as Killian finally threw up his hands in surrender to Erin's fact-bombing.
“Okay! Okay! I apologize!” he turned to Dan and said “Godspeed, soldier.”
Killian retreated towards the lodge. Dan couldn't decide whether his last look back at him was one of pity or satisfaction. He picked up his ruck and turned to the two erstwhile monster hunters.
“Let's do this.”
“So how long have you guys been monster hunters?”
They had been on the trail for just under an hour. The forest was now fully awake, and the chirping of birds and skittering of animals provided a pleasant bed for conversation.
“What did you call us?” Erin asked.
Dan could hear Oliver suck in a breath.
“Oh, dude. No...” he whispered with a knowing smile.
“We're scientists, okay?” she said, “Cryptozoologists to be precise.”
“Ah. I see” he said, “Sorry.”
“It's alright, man” Oliver said, “It's just, well, the field doesn't get a lot of respect as it is, and when people start saying 'monster hunters' you know, it just kinda seems all Van Helsing and stuff.”
They hiked on for another couple of hours and eventually the trail came to track alongside a small bubbling creek. Erin rushed ahead of them to search the creek side, presumably for tracks. Dan watched Oliver gaze at her as she knelt down to examine the rocky bank.
“So, you and Erin...?” he asked.
“Hmm? Oh! Uh... no.” he stammered, “we're just, you know, friends.”
“I see.” Dan smiled. Who was this kid fooling?
Oliver swatted at an insect buzzing his face.
“What about you, married?” he said.
“My wife and I were married for thirty-five years” he paused for a moment, letting the warm breeze wash over him. “She passed away a few years back”
Oliver sighed. “I'm sorry... I...”
“It's alright, kid. Don't worry about it”
Up ahead Erin was waving her hands at Oliver.
“Ollie! Bring the camera. Might be a print!” she called.
Dan took the opportunity to have a seat on a gnarled old tree stump. He was in fair shape for a man his age, but his knees needed the break. He watched as the two of them snapped pictures of the ground and talked excitedly. Erin was all smiles now, and Oliver feasted on her joy as they laughed together. She could be a lovely young woman when she wasn't climbing down your gullet for some perceived insult, he thought.
They finished by the creek and the three of them continued on hiking late into the afternoon. When they rounded a bend and found a clearing nestled up against a short ridge Dan called for a stop. Erin showed no signs of fatigue, but Oliver had been puffing pretty hard for the last hour. It was a good place to camp for the night.
“Alright, guys...” He slung his sack to the ground and inhaled deeply, “Let's down for the night here, eh?”
Oliver's eyes brightened thankfully and he slumped to the ground.
“On your feet, soldier!” Dan used his command voice, but softened it with a wink. He saw that Erin was already laying out the tents.
“You're on wood gathering duty, kid.” he pulled Oliver to his weary feet “Come on. We get the fire going and we can eat.”
Oliver trudged into the brush, slapping at the mosquitoes dining in the early twilight. While he was gone Dan built a rudimentary fire pit and helped Erin raise the tents. She seemed more relaxed around him.
“So, Ranger K called you Sarge...” she pounded a stake into the ground. “Were you ever in Iraq?”
“Yeah” he said. “Why do you ask?”
“Oh, I read something once about a species of scorpion in the Middle East that dates back to the Pleistocene” she said. “Supposed to be the size of a small dog.”
“Can't say I ever saw something like that” he laughed. “I once woke up with a camel spider damn near a foot long sleeping in my helmet though.”
They were still laughing when Oliver returned with a heaping armful of wood. He dropped it in a pile next to the pit.
“...Wood...” he huffed and puffed. “...Eat...Now...?”
“Take a break, kid” he said, “I'll put the stew on.”
Oliver sprawled out on a blanket near the tents and Erin, notebook in hand, took a seat next to him. Dan watched as Oliver rolled up on his side, leaned on one elbow and watched her take notes. By the time he had a small fire going the two of them were deep in a conversation punctuated by fits of laughter.
Later, after supping on old army ration stew, they sat before the dying embers of the fire and attempted to spot stars through the gaps in the tree cover overhead. Dan's body eventually offered its surrender.
“Alright, kids. These old bones need to turn in” he groaned as he rose and stretched. “Snuff that fire out before you bed down.”
He slipped into his tent and closed his eyes. Outside, a light breeze tenderly tickled the forest trees.
Dan woke quick, and slightly panicked, a legacy of his years of military service. He raised up on a single arm and listened. He'd heard a rustling of some kind outside the tent. Perhaps some small animal looking for food? He was sure he'd secured the supplies before turning in. He sat up and pulled on his first boot.
It was Erin's hushed voice.
“I'm trying!” Oliver said. “I can't find the other flashlight!”
Dan saw a beam of light bouncing around outside the tent.
“Here.” Erin said. “Let me look...”
Dan hastily pulled on his remaining boot, unzipped the tent flap, and crawled out into the bracing night air. Erin and Oliver froze as he glared at them.
“What the HELL are you two doing?” he checked his watch. It was just past 1:00 AM.
“Okay. Well, Dan.. You see...” Oliver sputtered.
“It's like this,” Erin interrupted. “Most researchers assume the Sasquatch is primarily active during the day, but I have a theory that they might be nocturnal...”
Dan put his face in his hand, rubbed his eyes and sighed deeply.
“We just wanted to scout around a bit.” she continued.
“You wanted to stumble around, in the dark, in an unfamiliar wilderness for a Bigfoot who works nights?” he said.
“We were going to take the flashlights” Oliver turned his flashlight in Dan's direction, and quickly turned it back away when he caught Dan's unhappy expression. “We didn't think you'd let us go.” he finished.
“Well, you got that part right at least.” he muttered.
Erin, predictably, wasn't done arguing.
“But since we're all up, maybe we could...” she said
“Negative, soldier” He was in the command voice again. “You two will return to your tents, and I won't see you out before 0600 hours!”
Erin huffed, but retreated back towards their tent. Oliver hesitated, glancing at his watch.
“Just to be clear...”
“Six o' clock, Ollie. Don't come out before six o' clock!” he barked.
Oliver scurried back to the tent and Dan took a deep gulp of night air. He reflected on Killian's parting smirk a day earlier as he slithered back through the narrow opening in the tent flap and struggled to find sleep once again.
The next morning found Erin still quite displeased with him. Oliver tried to mend fences, but the girl had quite the stubborn streak. They breakfasted silently on rice cakes and jerky. Erin scribbled notes in her pad while Oliver leaned back, eyes closed, resting. The kid clearly hadn't slept much.
Dan studied the sky. It was more gray than it had been the morning before. A good deal cooler as well. The mild breeze of yesterday now had a bit of chill bite to it. Thankfully the thick wood provided decent cover, but still, he thought the weather bore watching.
They set out, and once again Erin took to the forefront. Dan was grateful as it spared him her angry glare. She ranged a good 30 to 40 yards ahead of them, occasionally stopping to examine what might be a footprint or other sign of their quarry. Dan found himself having to slow his pace for poor Oliver, who was having even more difficulty than the day before. There wasn't a tree root or small rock in sight that he didn't manage to catch his foot on and nearly trip. To make matters worse, today he had been suffering vicious sneezing attacks inspired by nearby wild flower patches. He was an exhausted, runny-nosed, miserable mess. And it wasn't even mid day yet.
Dan tried to take his mind off things with conversation.
“You doin' okay there, Ollie?” he said.
Oliver sniffled and rubbed his nose on his sleeve.
“...Man... I hate nature.”
“Isn't that kind of strange given that you're studying zoology?” he asked.
“Huh?” he paused to sneeze, it was a small one. “Oh. Nah, man... I'm not studying zoology. That's Erin. I'm an English major.”
Dan stopped to give Oliver a breather. In the distance ahead he could see Erin photographing a copse of trees.
“Let me ask you something, Ollie.”
“Sure.” He was rubbing his arm where he'd tripped and scraped it against the ancient bark of an old pine tree.
“Why are you out here doing this?” he waved his arms around at the wilderness. “Do you even even believe in Sasquatches and Chupacabras and hooded lizards?”
“I... umm, Erin...” he threw up his hands. “I don't know, man. She's my friend... I guess. I like spending time with her.”
They started walking again. Dan smiled. Oliver was out here looking for something alright, but it wasn't a Bigfoot.
“You know, I met my wife in college,” he said. “first time I saw her was at a weaving class.”
“You weave?” Oliver asked
“I have weaved, yes, but that's not important.” he continued “I had ROTC training every morning at 0500 hours”
“Five AM!” Oliver said.
“Yeah, but listen” he said “Every day when training finished I would race across the quad to make it to that weaving class on time, merely to be in the same room with her.”
“Yeah...” he said.
“Oliver, I spent nearly a year taking weaving classes, beginner to advanced, and I absolutely hated weaving.” Dan laughed recalling the memory. “But I kept going because I thought it was the only way I could ever spend any time with her.”
He stopped them again so he could look Oliver straight in the eye.
“I spent nine months of my life weaving what might have been the ugliest red and gold rug anyone has ever seen, before I decided to stop pretending to love something she loved and instead offer something real. Myself.”
“How many weekends are you going to spend looking for creatures who may not exist before you offer her something real?”
Oliver broke his gaze and looked ahead at Erin who was standing in the path, hands on her hips, her dark curls cavorting in the increasingly austere wind.
“And it worked out okay?” he said unsteadily.
“Thirty-five years, Oliver” he said “But trust me, kid. No matter how much time you end up having together, it won't be enough.”
Oliver dropped his pack on the ground and began jogging up the trail to where she waited. He glided over the rough path like it was perfectly smooth pavement.
Dan supposed he should have been concerned about her reaction, but he wasn't. He'd seen them together.
He watched as Oliver shook his head and motioned to the woods around them. Then he smiled, bigger than Dan had ever seen him smile, and pointed directly at Erin. The shock on her face rendered into a broad smile within two heartbeats. Her blue eyes sparkled fiercely and they embraced.
Dan turned away and took a seat on a fallen tree covered with thick moss. He found himself overcome with emotion. It was all so familiar. The vacancy inside him reserved for Penny seemed to throb.
He thought about love then, and the way we clumsily paw around after it. How we constantly draw ourselves in reach of it, but never risk to grasp it with both hands, or have the strength to let go once it's gone.
He watched Oliver hold Erin under a canvas of leafy green. He used both hands.
Monday, May 10, 2010
I don't remember the exact date the war started... Perhaps January or February of 2008? I'm not even sure how the war started... I seem to recall browsing the iTunes app store for games. I remember coming upon a simple, yet nifty, logic puzzle game called Blocked. I thought, "Well, I really suck at these lateral thinking games, but it's only $2.99. Why not?"
The next thing I knew, some Archduke got himself knocked off and my brain found itself mobilizing for the puzzle game to end all puzzle games.
Blocked, if you haven't played it before, is a game where you slide gray blocks back and forth and attempt to clear a path to move the blue block through the opening to the right. So simple, so elegant, so... incredibly aggravating.
I tore through the first ten levels blitzkrieg style and I must admit, my confidence was running high. Perhaps I was better at lateral thinking than I thought?
I think it was around level 17 that I was disabused of that notion. It was then that I realized I'd been drawn into catastrophic, mind-grinding, cerebral trench warfare. Where before I was completing levels in under a minute or two, now the progress was slowed. Five minute levels... Then ten, or fifteen. Occasionally I'd flail away for the better part of a half an hour. I inched my way through the rest of the teens and began the brutal slog through the twenties. My sanity took high casualties, but I was progressing.
And then I reached level 33. It was like my own personal Battle of the Somme. Again and again I thrust myself into the breach only to be repelled by my inability to work out the solution. Days, then weeks passed with no victory. At about a month and a half I took a break from the game, hoping some leave would bring fresh perspective, but each time I returned I found myself knocking against the same dilemma. I just couldn't work it out.
And then, after about three or four months of this stalemate I finally broke down and did what needed to be done. I went on Youtube and looked for a cheat solution. Look, I'm not terribly proud about this, but it was war! Men do what they have to do in war. I guarantee you that if Churchill could have simply gone on Youtube and watched a five minute video and ended the Blitz, that cigar chomping fat-ass would have been all over it. Then he would have watched that OK Go video like 25 times and drank whiskey until he puked.
Anyway, so I had cleared my first big hurdle by less than ethical means, but I had very little expectation that I'd be getting much further without repeatedly cheating. But a funny thing happened. I started getting good at the game. I knocked off the rest of the thirties in under two days and it only took me another two weeks to get up into the fifties. But more important than the fact that I was completing levels was the fact that I was beginning to see the puzzles differently. Instead of moving the blocks in a linear fashion, step by step until blocked, then reversing and trying again. I was able to analyze the whole puzzle and make moves based on where blocks potentially could be. In short, I was learning. I was getting better at the game.
I realized something very basic and obvious then that had always escaped me in the past. My capacity for lateral thinking puzzles wasn't static. It was dynamic and able to develop. To that point I had always considered Blocked a game I would play as far as my limitations allowed, never realizing that my limitations might lift simply by the act of doing.
I think it was when I hit level 60 that I determined I was going for total victory. I was going to win this war and I was going to do it without any more help. The campaign was slow and dirty. I finished some levels in ten or fifteen minutes, but most were taking me a day or two, and some a week or more. I had my challenges, particularly in the 80's (screw you, Reagan!), but over the last six months I methodically pushed my way through. The enemy army was on full retreat. I was cruising through the nineties
I'd been sitting on level 100 for the last three weeks. I'd grown weary and haggard, frustrated by my inability to decisively end the conflict. My brain was longing for V-Day, maybe a nice parade, certainly a baby boom, but I couldn't finish that last level!
Then, late last night as I was laying in bed playing my customary fifteen or twenty minutes before bed, it happened. I actually audibly gasped when I opened up the path for the blue block. I paused for a couple of seconds to reflect on the accomplishment of getting to this moment. It may seem a silly thing to take such pride in, but finishing Blocked and winning the "war" meant an awful lot to me at that moment.
I slid the blue block free and read the rather underwhelming "Congratulations." message that popped up on the screen. I was really hoping for that parade.
In fact, I feel so proud of winning this war that from now on I'm going to tell people I'm a member of the Greatest Generation. In your face, Brokaw!
Tuesday, April 13, 2010
I crouched down against a wet, whipping wind and waited patiently in the mid-morning muck. Despite my best efforts I could never avoid being early for this kind of thing. My internal clock was simply programmed for early arrival. Interestingly, the less I was looking forward to something the earlier I seemed to arrive. Because of this, I tended to spend quite a bit of time in doctors and dentists waiting rooms. It was the same way with job interviews and school exams, and dates. I once showed up at a restaurant three hours early for a date. I guess my anxiety just required time to stew. And sure, the date was a disaster, but on the positive side I learned a lot about how busboys reset a dining room for dinner.
I stared at the silvery stalactite daggers of ice hanging off the roof of the Riverline Cafe. They had just begun to sweat under the glare of a still muted morning sun. I checked my watch again and alternated listening to the distant rush of the river to my right and the much closer rumble of cars passing by on the highway to my left.
I'd begun to wonder if I hadn't been abandoned to do this job on my own when Jake came trudging down the path from the lodge parking up above. He was a big kid, descended of lumberjacks. Literally. Jake's dad, granddad, and several uncles had been fixtures at the local mill that up until the last twenty years had been a major employer in the region. It was now nothing more than a bit of local flavor, a historical landmark in waiting. Jake was bundled in red and black striped flannel. He peered out at me from behind thick dark rimmed glasses.
“Where are the guys?”
I threw out my arms and shrugged my shoulders. I'd known Jake since the first day of the seventh grade. Along with being the only seventh grader to stand over six feet tall, Jake was one of those kids who started shaving before he started driving. His longstanding redneck roots also provided him a sort of immunity when it came to the more rurally inclined of high school antagonists. These factors contributed to him being one of the least picked on kids in school despite his gentle, soft-spoken nature. I won't deny that I benefited from some of this immunity by way our our friendship. Purely in terms of utility, Jake was one of my best friends.
He cupped his hands against the thick paned window of the cafe and strained to see inside.
“Is she in there?”
“I haven't seen anyone.” I admitted.
Jake stuffed his hands back in his pockets and kicked at some sidewalk gravel.
“Well... Maybe she's in back?” He seemed concerned. If she wasn't there, we'd just thrown away an entire afternoon for no good reason. Perhaps the others had been tipped off? Maybe that's why they hadn't shown up?
“Maybe...” I was about to forward to possibility of bailing on the job when Dean came skidding down the path towards us. He was a gangly mass of arms and legs, and had a head topped with a frizzy shock of sandy blonde hair. He smiled as he carefully navigated down the icy path, slipping and sliding occasionally. Balance and coordination had always been Dean's mortal enemies, much to my constant amusement.
“Dean!” Jake slapped him on the back, nearly knocking him to the ground. “Where you been?”
Dean gathered himself. “Had a study group for AP English. We just finished.”
He tried to look casual as he scanned the length of the wide cafe window.
“So... have you guys seen her?”
Jake and I answered in unison, “Nope.”
“She could be in back.” he offered. Jake nodded hopefully.
Dean dusted some frost off of a nearby bench and plopped down. I hadn't known him all that long, but I liked Dean. He was a funny kid. Unintentionally, usually, but always a lot of laughs. We'd met through a mutual friend, my life long buddy Brandon, and Dean had quickly become an essential member of our group. His awkwardness and dearth of grace always led to some wonderfully memorable catastrophes. It was like having a teenage Don Knotts in your circle of friends.
“You think Brandon's going to show?”
“Oh. He's coming” Jake laughed, “He's not gonna miss a chance to work alongside Janey all afternoon.”
“Like any of us would...” Dean added.
They were right, of course. None of us had signed up to paint the Riverline kitchen for the money. In fact we'd all roundly dismissed the notion when Franklin, the cafe manager, had swept through the Lodge kitchen looking for workers. That is, until it was recalled that Janey worked there part time. Minutes later we were scrambling over each other, clawing and kicking our way to the sign up sheet, motivated by a desire for proximity to a girl that our hormone hazed brains were fooled into believing was remotely attainable. And fifty bucks.
I was drawn from my thoughts by the sound of a vehicle choking and gasping to a stop in the lot up above. It was a brown van with splotches of gray primer patching the sides. The fourth member of our crew swung open the driver's side door and hopped out. Diego was heavy set and rounded in the middle. His black hair was tied back into a ponytail and he had a hint of a goatee sprouting on his chin. Diego was the requisite aspiring rock star of the group, and as he made his way down the path toward us I could see the natural rhythm in his gait that only musicians seemed to possess. He wasted no time getting to the heart of the matter.
“She's here, right?”
We were a trio in response. “No!”
“I bet she's in back.” he countered predictably, “Hey, where's 'Freaklin?' It's almost time to do this.”
I checked my watch again. It was nearly time. Maybe Brandon wouldn't show up? The thought sort of encouraged me. Why was that? I'd been friends with Bran since we were babies. The legend went that we had both been placed in the same crib as toddlers and ever since that day had been inseparable. It was like we forged a bond behind those bars, like two convicts serving time, plotting their escape into life. And then we got out, and the real crime spree began. We had been the best of friends for over fifteen years, and in a way had become reflections of each other. We dressed alike, thought alike and shared the same passions. We were tight. But something subtle had changed lately. There was a friction, imperceptibly buried most of the time, that occasionally rose up into my consciousness and injected a reluctant antagonism into my feelings for my best friend.
I suspected that our shared interest in Janey was provoking some of this anxiety, but why was it so specific to Bran? Why was I not equally annoyed with Jake, Dean, and Diego?
I heard keys jangling from inside the cafe. I looked up, hoping to see the short blonde curls of Janey dancing before my eyes, but was disappointed to find the plodding bald mullet of Franklin the cafe manager instead. He swung the door open.
Hellooooo Booooooys. The way he held the sound of his o's was so creepy.
“Is this all of you then?” he held the door open, inviting us in.
We hesitated and Freaklin flashed us a quizzical look. He scrubbed at the stringy hair draping the back of his neck and pulled a cheap gold necklace out into better view.
“Ummm. One more guy is coming.” I replied. “We should just wait out here, right?”
“No, no... Nonsense. Come in. Come in!” he waved us forward, the fingers on his hand heavy with garish gold rings. We dragged ourselves warily into the cafe.
We all poured into a booth to wait. Four sets of eyes gazed hopefully at the back kitchen as Freaklin gave us the lowdown on the job.
“Alright boys. You're going to be on your own today as I have a very important, uh, meeting to get to.”
“So, it's just us... No one else? ” Diego asked.
Freaklin was laying some drop cloths on the counter top. He considered for a moment.
“Well, my assistant Janey might swing by to drop off some supplies later.”
I wondered if he might have suspected an impending mass evacuation on our part and thrown out the possibility of Janey as a lure to keep us on the job. If so, he was far smarter than he looked.
Freaklin's phone rang and he pointed out the front window as he stepped aside to answer.
“Looks like your friend is here. Let him in for me. I have to take this...”
Brandon huffed and puffed as I opened the door to let him in. I couldn't believe what I saw.
“Dude. What the HELL are you wearing?”
He wore a pair of neatly pressed black slacks and a teal button down shirt that looked brand new. His black dress shoes, which I hadn't seen him wear since we went to his uncle's funeral three years ago, were polished to a brilliant shine.
“What?” he smoothed his shirt and puffed out his chest, swinging his gaze around the room.
“You're dressed like you're going to Prom! We're just painting the kitchen!”
“Yeah... I know,” he carefully framed his freshly gelled hair as the rest of the guys gathered round.
“Whew! You clean up nice, boy!” Jake laughed. Diego gave a whistle of appreciation.
Brandon had only been here for a few moments and already my annoyance with him was swelling. “She's not even here, you tool.”
His face crinkled in concern. “Have you checked in back?”
As Dean explained that there was still a chance she might come, I found myself hoping for the first time that she didn't. I felt ambushed by Brandon's fanciful appearance. He'd sought a strategic advantage over the rest of us, and done it on the sly. I found it unseemly, and perhaps more disturbing, potentially effective. I was drawn away from my spite by Freaklin approaching. He was still on the phone.
“Right...okay. Well, see if you can get two seats at a blackjack table. Ten dollar... yeah. Okay, I'm almost out of here. See you in a few.”
He turned towards us.
“Okay guys. I gotta get to that, ahem, meeting” he said, slipping on a worn black jacket.
Five sets of eyes rolled back in concert. This guy was so full of shit!
“The supplies are behind the counters. When you're finished just toss all the garbage in the dumpster out back and remember to lock up.”
Within seconds he was gone and there was little left for us to do but start working.
“Umm. So does anyone actually know how to paint?”
I looked around hopefully. Diego was using the long handle of a paint roller to reach a persistent itch on his lower back and Brandon was dusting some crumbs off a worn marble counter with the freshly stiff bristles of a new paint brush. Jake busied himself punching holes in the lid of a paint can with a screwdriver, while Dean hopelessly tried to disentangle himself from the folds of a drop cloth he had somehow lost himself in.
This was not going to go well.
We spent a few minutes prepping the area to paint. Unlike the well manicured dining area, the interior of the Riverline kitchen was in a state of extreme disrepair. The kitchen was a wreck. A thick sheen of grease sealed in the worn yellow color of the walls, and the linoleum floor, where it hadn't peeled away exposing rotting wood underneath, had faded under years of neglect. The once impressive marble counter tops were now chipped and the edges were rough. Two antiquated fryers housed oil that hadn't been changed in years. The air was heavy with deep fried despair. The place needed far more than a hasty coat of paint slapped on by a bunch of slacker teens.
After nearly a half an hour of carefully laying drop cloths and wedging open cans of paint we were finally ready to put paint to walls. Dean stood ready, brush in hand.
“Soooo. How exactly do I do this?
“I think you do it in little circles, like this.” Diego motioned with his brush. “You know, like in the Karate Kid.”
“No, man. The circles were for waxing the cars” I said. “Wax on. Wax off.”
“I thought the circles were for sanding the deck?” Jake asked.
We were beginning to wander...
“Well, he painted something in that, right?” Diego countered.
“Paint the fence!” Dean exclaimed as he gave the wall a long stroke with the brush north to south.
“No. I think he stained the fence, didn't he?” Diego asked.
“It doesn't matter!” I snapped. “It looks good.”
“Actually, Diego's right. Paint the house was side to side...” Bran added.
I wanted to crane kick him in the face.
Dean was now alternating north to south and side to side. It looked good enough.
“You know who was really hot in that movie?” Bran said.
“Pat Morita?” Jake quipped.
“Oh yeah. Her too...” Jake deadpanned as we picked up our brushes and began painting, visions of Shue dancing in our heads.
An hour later we had made more progress than I would have imagined possible. We were close to a quarter of the way done. We chatted to pass the time. Diego had just come up with a name for his new black metal band.
“Yeah! It's cool, right?” he said.
“I don't know, man...” I shook my head. “Do you even know what it means?”
“Who cares? Doesn't it sound dark and sinister?”
“Yeah, but I mean... Doesn't it mean...”
I looked at my chubby, rock star friend. It was the worst possible name. I just didn't have the heart to bring it up.
“It means 'excessively fat', Diego” Dean interjected.
“Dude!” I shot him a nasty look before turning back to Diego “It's not that you're, you know, fat... but maybe you should go with something else.”
“I guess...” Diego gave a shrug, “I could have sworn it had something to do with pus.”
“Hey, what about my idea?” Jake asked.
“Dude. I told you. I'm not naming my band Various Artists!”
“Whatever, man. It's clever.”
We had a few empty paint cans starting to stack up.
“Hey does someone want to dump these cans out back?” I asked.
Diego hopped off the counter top where he had been angling uncomfortably to paint a ceiling corner.
“I got it” he said.
Dean had just finished painting a section of wall and I noticed that he had stopped in front of a large chrome dispenser.
“Check. This. Out” he said rapturously. “Ice cream machine! I wonder how it works?”
I paused painting and looked over. Dean had already started twisting knobs and tugging at levers, so far with no success.
“Hey... I really don't think you should be fiddling with that, man.” I cautioned.
“Come on. Don't you want some?” He kept pulling, pushing and manipulating the controls, but nothing would come out.
“It's probably empty, dude”
Just as Dean was about to give up the machine began to hum loudly. He jumped back in surprise, nearly falling to the floor. I rushed over expecting to see ice cream pouring out of the spigot, but there was nothing. The machine still hummed.
“Hmm. It's probably just the generator. Leave it alone though, okay?”
He nodded and picked back up painting, but before I could return to my spot I heard some vicious barking and a bloodcurdling scream coming from the back exit. Brandon dropped his brush, splattering paint on the surrounding floor, and bolted for the back. I followed.
Diego was standing, his back pressed forcefully against the closed door. A dog barked ferociously on the other side.
“Dog... Big...Dog. Very. Big. Dog.” he panted.
Bran guided him away from the door and took a look through the peep hole.
“Whoa.” he exclaimed.”Looks like a mixed breed... Doberman and... Triceratops?”
“There is NO WAY I'm taking these things out” Diego kicked at the pile of empty paint cans.
“Well, I'm not doing it!” I turned to Brandon. “Your step-dad is the one who raises pit bulls. You do it.”
He shook his head vigorously. It was worth a shot.
“Alright. Well lets just stack the garbage up here. Maybe he'll go away before we're done.”
Happy with this compromise that allowed all of us to escape the possibility of savage canine mauling, we returned to the kitchen. Thankfully, Dean had refrained from playing with the ice cream machine further, although it continued its low vibrating hum.
It was around the two hour mark, just over half way done, when nerves began to fray. It was looking more and more likely that there would be no Janey. And without the promised carrot, we were left only with the stick, and we proceeded to beat each other over the head with it.
It started when Dean kicked over a paint can, splashing a bit on Brandon's fancy shoes.
“Watch it, you klutz!” he barked, hastily wiping his foot down with a cloth. “My mom will kill me if these shoes get fucked up.”
“Well, maybe if you didn't come to work dressed like some club hopping douche it wouldn't be a problem” I muttered.
“What the hell is your problem, man?” he turned to me, “So I dressed up a little bit! What, are you jealous or something?”
“Oh yeah, I'm jealous!” I said. “If only I could dress like Don Johnson's retarded cousin...”
“Whatever, man...” he glowered at me. “Lets just get this done. This whole day has been a waste.”
It was the first thing we'd agreed upon all day.
We were making good time once again when Diego started whining.
“Man, I'm starving!” he tossed his roller in the pan and hopped off the counter. “There's got to be something to eat back here somewhere...”
“Oh come on, man” I groaned. “Can we just get this done?”
“Relax, dude” he said, digging into a cabinet drawer. “Since when are you such a taskmaster?”
I could hear Jake chortling behind me.
“Ah, excellent. Bagels!” Diego grabbed two from the drawer. “Here, have one!”
He wound up and flung one in my direction, like a miniature Frisbee. I ducked instinctively and watched the bagel slam into the back of Jake's head. He turned, his eyes flashing with a mixture of surprise and amusement. He scanned the counter in front of him and dug his hand into a large container of dried macaroni. He whipped a handful in a wide arc, scattering the dried pasta like shrapnel over us all. The macaroni made a rat-a-tat sound as it bounced off of walls, ceiling and kitchen appliances.
At that point there was a pause. We all silently considered the consequences of what was about to happen. And then we made it happen. In an instant the Riverline Cafe became a war zone. The five of us scattered about the kitchen, over turning prep tables for cover and digging into every cabinet, drawer, and storage bin we could find looking for ammo.
I found myself stocked with mostly breads and pastry items. I caught Dean in the ribs with a dinner roll that was so hard it might have been petrified. He shrieked and discharged an over ripe tomato in my direction. It sailed high and splattered against a freshly painted wall.
“Ha!” I cackled, and reached down for a crumbly muffin. I whirled around looking for a target and spied Brandon. He was flinging dried oats in the air in every direction. They stuck to the freshly painted walls and floated to the floor like confetti in a parade. I cocked and fired the muffin at him, missing wide left. The muffin exploded on contact however and bits of bran and blueberry sprayed everywhere. Turned out it was a Frag muffin.
Bran turned my way, and for the first time in a long time, we shared a smile. Somehow the anarchy that we created had released something in all of us. In the madness and delirium of that moment we found something that had quietly been stolen from us in our ascent away from what we had always been and toward what we almost certainly had to become. In the chaos of that food borne war zone we set aside consequence and accountability, and allowed ourselves to simply become what we were in that moment: five best friends who didn't give a shit whether that kitchen got painted or not.
We spent the next several minutes propelling every bit of organic matter in that kitchen at each other, roaring with laughter the entire time. The war might have lasted hours had Jake not taken control of the walk-in cooler and its armament of extra large eggs. By the fourth dozen he had bombed us into a sticky submission. We were about to offer our unconditional surrender when I noticed a familiar hum. It seemed to be getting louder.
“... Do you guys hear that?” I yelled above the din.
“I think it's coming from the ice cream machi-” Dean was cut off by an ear-splitting pop, as ice cream exploded out of the pressurized spigot of the machine. Streams of chocolate, vanilla and strawberry splattered every square inch of the kitchen, along with us. The ice cream machine had dropped a Neapolitan nuke. The war was over.
I took a moment to survey the battlefield.
The walls of the kitchen were coated with food. Fruit stains blended with the fresh paint and streaked down the walls hideously. Globs of melting ice cream pooled on counter tops. Paint cans had been turned over everywhere, The floors were coated with a thick layer of gummy egg mixed with flour and assorted cereals. Dried pasta crunched underneath our feet. There was chocolate sauce drizzled all over one wall. I giggled, recalling Diego spraying it around madly like it was napalm.
Dean was looking at the wall, arms folded like he was at an art museum.
“Maybe they'll think we were going for a whole Jackson Pollock kinda thing?”
We all laughed and began smearing the walls with our hands like flamboyant artists, reluctant to let our hysteria pass.
Eventually it did of course, and we were left to ponder what to do about the mess. Thankfully, we were all in agreement on the first principle.
“So... We're not actually going to clean all this up, right?”
Five heads shook in unison.
“So then we're all just going to quit our jobs?” Diego asked.
I could hear the alley dog barking out back again. An idea flowered. What if we had finished painting the kitchen? What if we opened the back door to take out all the garbage like good little workers? What if an aggressive, possibly rabid, dog bolted through the open door and tore apart the kitchen while we all watched helplessly? Could we do this? We'd shirked our responsibility, gone berserk and destroyed a kitchen, and now we were going to frame up an innocent dog. It was good to be young.
“Actually, that might not be necessary.” I smiled as I gathered my friends around. “Listen up, here's what happened...”
Thursday, March 4, 2010
(Okay, guys this began as a bit of a writing exercise. I wanted to see if I could write something that incorporated three of my favorite pop culture elements in the same story.)
The sun still lingered 'neath the eastern horizon when Captain Gregor returned from shore. The handful of sailors following him seemed to drag their feet a bit in returning from such an abbreviated leave, but their displeasure was muted behind the captain's purposeful stride.
Doctor William Madsen watched as the returning crew scattered across the deck of the three masted sloop, Black Fang. Some of the scraggly sea-dogs retreated to their sleeping quarters mid deck while others were gathered into the purview of the quartermaster Snorri. He barked orders to the weary sailors and they began tying down the rigging. It appeared the Fang would be off again before light fall.
Captain Gregor, paused briefly to speak with his quartermaster, then strode across the deck towards William. His black boots were caked with the mud of the mainland. His deep set gray eyes scanned the night sky.
“I'll be needing to sup', Doctor.” His long strides carried him past William towards his quarters in the aft. He didn't look back. William fetched his canvass satchel, took a moment to hunt for the soon to be rising sun, and scrambled along after him.
William was struck by how large the dimensions of the captain's cabin could appear when he was used to bunking on a small cot in the ship's infirmary. And even he had it better than the sailors, who mostly resided mid-ship on the gun deck, or when the oppressive smell got too much and the weather permitted, top side on the main deck.
The cabin, while large, did suffer from a decided lack of ventilation. Gregor had had the ship's carpenter build over the single window, now sealed tight with a wooden plank and plenty of oakum. The cabin was pitched thick in darkness, without even moonlight to frame it. William was glad when the captain lit some candles.
“Bombo, William?” the captain poured the rum into a dinged up old brass cup and offered it across a small wooden table.
“Thank you, sir.” William took a swig of the sugary drink. “Your inquiries went well ashore?”
“Well enough, I think.” He sat back on a plain wooden bench and worked at unlacing his boots. “The Amity left port not two days past.”
“And its passenger?”
“The cargo is still aboard. Apparently the captain invited several of the town's luminaries aboard to view it.” He ran his hand through his well oiled black hair and spat contemptuously. “A plague of rumors about the Amity and it's 'undying man' spreads through every brothel and punch house we visit.”
He suddenly looked very weary. His skin, always pale, looked almost spectral in the quivering candlelight.
“William,” he was always so apologetic, “I must eat.”
William reached into his canvass bag and pulled out a stoppered glass vial. He had layered it within the folds of several silk scarves to prevent it from breaking. The crimson liquid inside seemed more black in the low light of the cabin. It was still warm. William steadied his hand as best he could when handing it over to his captain. He politely averted his eyes as Gregor drank it down. He looked back as the captain placed the vial back on the table, laying it gently on top of the pile of silk scarves. William noted that his color looked unchanged, but his gray eyes seemed to flash with vigor. It was fleeting.
The captain rubbed at his temples and grunted uncomfortably. Dawn was near.
“Higgins. Complained of stomach ache. I bled him this evening.”
“Thank you, William. See that he gets double rations today, please.”
William made for the door of the cabin. Gregor followed gingerly. He was bent and rickety, as if aging with the coming of dawn. Yet outwardly he appeared no older than the thirty years he had always looked. It was as if the coming light robbed him of his vitality.
“Yes sir.” He stepped out of the cabin and heard the door being barred from within. “Sleep well, captain.”
He made his way up onto the main deck to see that the sun had finally pierced the eastern horizon and the Black Fang had indeed set sail once again.
Jojo Watkins watched the sun rise as he broke his fast sitting on the deck of the merchant barque Amity. He scraped the remainder of his rapidly cooling grundy up with his last bit of tack and climbed to his feet. They were two days out and the wind had been strong. His mop of shaggy red hair had been soaked through by the steady salt spray, leaving his locks tangled and frizzy. It was only just more than six months ago that his step-mother had found his perfectly straight hair a clear sign of his unholiness.
“Pressed by the devil 'imself” she'd mutter as he was getting lashed for something or other. He could only imagine that the hard old missionary would nominate him for sainthood if she could see him now.
He'd been done with his breakfast not long before the ship's master Leeks had found him.
“Boy! Be swabbin' the fo'c'sle before noon.” Leeks was an ugly, unpleasant chap, but as long as you gave no lip, and appeared to hustle, the whippings were rare. “And that water's not gonna' move itself!”
Jojo nodded and proceeded below deck. He'd get to the forecastle soon, but first he wanted to check on Lem.
They'd placed the feverish Lem in the forward hold, away from the rest of the crew. A large pallet had been draped with a canvass sheet and Jojo found his friend and fellow cabin boy curled up there, pallid and shivering.
“Lemy?” Jojo crouched down at his side.
“Nnguh.” Lem rolled over onto his back. His face was dark and puffy, the area around his eyes so swollen that Jojo had a hard time telling whether they were open or closed.
“Jo...jo?” The sounds limped from him, throaty and desperate. He looked so much worse that he had the night before. His right arm was heavily bandaged where he had been bitten.
“I'm here, Lem... Doc says your fever should be breaking soon.” He took a hold of Lem's left hand and gasped. Where yesterday his skin was warm, almost hot to the touch, today it was so very cold. “It's a good thing, too. That fat frog Leeks has me doing all your work.”
“Is it... still aboard?” Lem shivered and pulled his arms close to his sides, “do... do you still have to feed it?'
“Oh, it's still aboard. Captain Wittman ain't gonna get rid of his prize just cause it bit some swab boy.” He patted his hand gently. “They got it locked down in the bilge hold. We don't feed it no more, though.” Jojo was happy for this. It didn't seem to matter anyway. The creature didn't seem worse for the lack of eating.
Lem seemed calmed by the news. He groaned and rolled back onto his side.
“Hey if the smell down there doesn't end 'im, maybe it really can't die.” Jojo meant it as a joke, but in reality it didn't look like the creature could be killed.
When the Captain had first brought it aboard two weeks ago most of the crew thought it was merely some sort of islander taken to madness. The creature was lethargic, slow moving, even shambling. It snarled and groaned, but was rarely aggressive unless someone got too close. Once when it lunged too close to the captain he ran his long sword straight through its chest and then watched aghast as it continued staggering about, unfazed by a certain killing blow.
It was then that the Captain realized that he might have found a new world curiosity that could bring him great fame and notoriety. He would present it at court back home. He, Captain Reginald Wittman, would be the discoverer of The great “Undying Man” of the New World.
Since then they had sailed up the East Caribbee, seemingly docking at every port along the way. The captain was eager to indulge his fame fetish. Martinique, Guadeloupe, Montserrat, Nevis... at each port Governors, wealthy merchants and plantation owners would be brought aboard to see the captain's prize and toast his great discovery.
Then, two days ago Lem had been bitten. The captain had invited the Governor of Nevis and his plain-faced daughter aboard to see the creature, who that night was reluctant to shuffle into a better light for viewing. Lem was sent into the hold with a fresh rabbit carcass to draw him out. The creature had moved with uncommon quickness and bit deeply into his fore arm. Lem managed to scramble away when a sailor sunk a crossbow bolt into the creature's chest, but his fever had followed just a few hours later.
Following the incident the captain ordered the creature down into the bilge hold and decided to make preparations for the long voyage home. They would fit for the trip in St. Kitts in three more days. Jojo wondered whether Lem would be alive when they sailed into harbor.
He gave his friend one last pitying look and rose up to start on his days work. Dabber, the ship's surgeon entered the hold just as Jojo was exiting. If he hadn't have been so late to start swabbing the forecastle he might have noticed the bandage wrapped around fresh bite marks on the doctor's left hand.
“Shit.” William handed the spyglass back to Snorri, who grunted and took another long look.
“How long would you say?”
Snorri's reply was thick and heavy, like a hammer falling. “They make time on us... Even at full sail they take us before nightfall”
Their pursuer was almost certainly a pirate hunter, probably commissioned out of San Juan. New colonial governors loved to flood the waters with crown sanctioned hunters, opening up the trade lanes and making life very difficult for vessels like the Black Fang.
“Looks like a frigate. Full compliment of guns. We gonna be outnumbered if they board.” Snorri stepped away from the wheel and a scrawny little sailor took his place. He looked comically small in replacing the burly quartermaster.
The captain had given strict orders to flee from any engagement, and Snorri had every intention of complying, but it was only a matter of time before they would be falling into range of those cannon.
Snorri was directing sailors below to the gun decks and prepping the ship for the eventual combat. William knew the Fang was lucky to have such a capable number two, particularly given the unique limitations its captain faced. He checked the sun, which was waning its way west, but not nearly fast enough to make a difference. They'd likely be blown out of the water before Captain Gregor emerged from his cabin.
“Doctor. Clear some space to work. You'll be having some business.”
The crew was arming itself. Most men carried cutlasses or hand axes tucked into belts or sashes. William cleared a long wooden bench to operate from. His medicine chest stashed safely beneath. Snorri was back at the helm. “We'll keep this heading as long as we can...” he bellowed above the din of action. “But when they start firin' on us we'll have to turn and engage ship ta ship!”
The crew roared. Conflict, even of a futile nature, stirred their blood lust. William frowned. He didn't like their odds. If only they had more time. Captain Gregor could surely tip the balance. If they could somehow delay for another hour it might be enough...
At once he was racing across the bustling deck. He nearly knocked over a portly sailor hauling a coil of thick rope. The sailor, William thought they called him Rudi, snapped off a raspy “Arrr!” as the doctor slid past. If this didn't work he'd likely be picking buckshot out of the surly bastard's arse later.
He called out to Snorri, who was once again peering through the long brass spying tube.
“Not a good time, Doctor Will.”
“No, wait. Listen,” he tugged at the sleeve of the giant quartermaster, garnering an angry stare. “You've got to raise the white!”
“Surrender?!” he roared, “I haven't time to discipline your cowardice just now, doct-”
Just then the frigate fired its first shot, traditionally one of warning. It sailed over their heads, followed by a thunderous crack.
“No! Think... We need time! If we fly the white they'll look to board and take the Fang as an undamaged prize. They'll be in no hurry if we aren't resisting.” Snorri was big, but no oaf. Understanding blossomed on his monstrous face.
“And come sundown... The captain...” Snorri nodded.
“We get our best piece back in the game.” William hoped the chess metaphor wasn't lost on him.
Snorri set the plan in motion at once, ordering sailors he had been whipping up for a fight only moments earlier to stand down. Well trained, the men fell into line quickly, and within seconds a white flag was jerking its way slowly up the mast. William had gambled their lives, and now waited for the cards to turn.
The sun had only just nestled itself in the bend of the western sky when the frigate's captain and a small contingent of marines finally clambered onto the main deck of the Black Fang.
“Who commands?” The frigate captain was adorned in full military dress. A long royal blue coat, thick cotton trousers, and shiny black leather boots. William was particularly envious of the boots.
“Sir.” Snorri stepped forward.
“You will present a manifest and ship's log,” his voice was disinterested and formal. “Your officers may remain aboard for the time being, all other sailors will be placed in our brig.”
Snorri was escorted by three marines below deck to retrieve the logs. William hoped that he would take his time. He squinted at the sinking sun as the frigate captain inspected his new prize. Not much longer...
Dusk was nearly upon them when Snorri and his escort finally arrived back on the main deck.
“Clumsy ogre's son took a bleedin' lifetime to open the chest, sir” the marine handed his commander a ratty leather backed log book and a tube of rolled up papers.
“No matter. We've got what we needed.” he spent a few moments reading the book and scanning the scrolls. “As suspected, these dogs operate without a Letter.”
The commander handed the papers off to one of his men and cleared his throat. The last sliver of sunlight was zipping up along the horizon.
“In light of your piracy, I claim this vessel for the crown.” he swept his arms in their direction, “Toss them overboard. We'll not waste good ropes to hang them.”
A low rumble began to emanate from Snorri, and he flexed his considerable muscles. He aimed to take a few to the drink with him. William dropped his head for one last prayer, the sun had fallen and with it his hope.
“A word if I may, commander?” Captain Gregor edged up the wooden steps from below. He was still in his sleep clothes, cotton knee length breeches and a silk vest. His normally tight, tied back, black hair flowed wild and out of control. At that moment he looked anything but their savior.
The marines raised rapiers in his direction. The commander barked harshly.
“Who are you, sir!”
“According to your words, I appear to be the former captain of this vessel.” he raised his arms over his head and continued his slow walk onto the main deck. The frigate captain looked over to Snorri for confirmation. The big man shrugged his shoulders sheepishly. William nearly burst out laughing. He wondered how this was going to play out. He knew the great and terrible things his captain was capable of under the shroud of night.
“Why have you not presented yourself before now!” The frigate commander blustered.
“I'm a heavy sleeper.” he smiled, a glint in his eye. “Now I know you'd like to be on with dumping us all in the chop, but might I have a word, gentleman to gentleman?”
The commander let loose with a disparaging Hrrmph but moved forward, with two marines at his side. William could not hear the words his captain spoke, but he noticed that Gregor had captured their gaze... all of them... and he held it in a most uncanny way. It almost seemed as if he was directing their gaze. William found it most queer, and somewhat unsettling. The seconds passed slowly, and for a time Gregor didn't speak at all. For a long time the only sounds were of the wind whipping and wood creaking...
And then Captain Gregor was speaking.
“So you'll be off then?” he was walking the commander to the port side, where planks had been laid down for the boarding.
“Of course, sir.” the commander's voice was still formal, but his disinterest was replaced by admiration, even rapture. “Thank you for your time, sir.”
As the hunters crossed back over to their vessel, William crouched down and leaned against a slick wooden railing. His sigh of relief inspired a playful chuckle from the approaching Captain.
“Quite a gamble, doctor.” he held out a hand and pulled William to his feet.
“Didn't like our odds.” William wiped some nervous sweat off his brow. “Figured I'd draw for the wild card.” he shook his head at the captain. “The alternative was getting blown to the bottom of the sea or going ship to ship. Would have gotten real bloody.”
“More importantly it would have cost us our pursuit of the Amity”
The captain's eyes grew dark and serious whenever the topic turned to the Amity, and William had no doubt that he would exchange infinite amounts of blood and oblivion to prevent that cargo from reaching its destination. The captain noticed his consternation.
“There are things in this world that should not exist,” William followed him as he moved below deck. “I know this better than most, William...”
“Aye, sir” he croaked, suddenly very, very tired.
“We must take the Amity before it crosses. At any cost.”
The cool night air soothed Jojo Watkins' sun-blazed skin as he entered his second full night of captivity high in the Amity's crows nest. Or as Jojo thought of it, his sanctuary from Hell on Earth.
He crawled to the edge of the platform, rubbed the salt from his eyes and peered over the low railing. He choked up a heavy sob at the sight.
The main deck of the merchant ship Amity was littered with corpses. Walking corpses. They had been staggering slowly back and forth across the deck, mindlessly and endlessly for nearly two days. They groaned and snarled, and occasionally snapped at one another when crossing paths, but thankfully showed no inclination to climb the rigging to reach him.
He recognized, barely, the faces of his friends and fellow sailors amongst the undying horde. He saw what once was Master Leeks trying to gnaw on a thick rope tied along the port side. His mouth was caked with dried blood. Rope hadn't been his first course.
Jojo rolled away from the edge of the platform, closed his eyes, and not for the first time cried violently. His body shook in throes of helplessness. His step mother had always warned him that his wickedness would one day draw horrors to his eyes. He wished he'd stayed and let the pious old witch continue to beat it out of him.
With his fit of weeping behind him Jojo once again tried to piece together the events of the past few days. Days that, until quite recently had actually been some of the more pleasant times he'd spent at sea.
The captain, officers, and much of the crew had been taken poorly and were abed for several days. No one really had thought much of it at the time. Sickness was far from uncommon at sea, and it always spread rapidly. The common sailors and swab boys had of course taken full advantage of the lax discipline. They had kept the ship sea worthy, but mostly had spent the days and nights deep within their cups, drinking, gambling and carousing the nights away.
Jojo had been no exception. When he awoke that morning, curled within his worn cotton blanket in the mid-ship, he thought he might have died within the night. He closed his eyes tight, seeking to seal off access to his battered brain to the sunlight gleaming in through the port hole. He remembered little of the previous night, but the rum fuzz coating his tongue enlightened him in a most unpleasant manner.
He rolled up and onto his unsteady legs. His hangover had robbed him of the sea legs he had worked so hard acquiring during the last few months. The ship rolled from side to side rhythmically, but Jojo noticed a decided lack of forward momentum. Had they anchored? He pitched and swayed his way up the wooden steps to the main deck.
The sun was almost directly overhead. He had slept away half the day. His head roiled at the clamor of altercation. There was fighting all over the ship! Men were screaming and hacking at each other with swords and axes. Up ahead he noticed two sailors grappling with each other. Jojo rushed forward, his legs strengthened by the rush of adrenaline, just to see them tangle up together and fall to the deck. The man on top wrenched his head clear and sank his teeth into his opponent's neck. He tore at the flesh, rending a chunk free and settled back contentedly to feast upon it. Jojo looked into the face of this walking nightmare, and through a spray of blood and bits of bone recognized the dead-eyed stare of his friend Lem. His face was ashen, the skin sallow and loose. Tufts of hair had fallen out and in places his skin was peeling off in thin raw strips, exposing the muscle and bone beneath.
Jojo emptied the contents of his stomach over the side after watching Lem chew ravenously at the bloody chunk of meat in his hands. He spared a quick glance around the ship. The sails had been torn down in the initial fighting and the mast looked like it may have been damaged as well. That would explain why they were dead in the water. Everywhere he looked he found the same scene. The dead men swarmed the living, tore at their entrails and then crouched down to feed before clawing out another helping. The screams of the survivors had mostly ceased. The only sounds left were the scraping of wood against wood, and the sickening smack of dozens of dead men chewing. He turned his eyes back to what had once been Lem. The creature, finishing with his slab of neck meat, still hadn't noticed him. Lem crawled back over to his victim, moaning hungrily.
And then Jojo watched in horror and amazement as Lem's dinner let out a groan himself, rose up and slapped Lem's hungry hand away. When the newly born dead man turned in his direction Jojo noticed he shared the same dead-eyed stare as poor Lem. Around the ship the same process was playing out over and over. The half-eaten were rising to join the ranks of the hungry undying. The mutiny of the dead was complete.
His escape up the rigging to the safety of the crows nest was harrowing but brief. His long wait until death from dehydration and exposure would be longer he knew, but there were worse deaths you could have at sea. Much, much worse.
He felt another crying jag coming on, so he stood up on the platform to look out upon the cherry blackened night sky. He cursed his wet, blurry eyes when he thought he saw a three masted sloop crossing over the crease at the sea's far edge.
“Just once I'd like to look through this thing and see good news.” William quipped as he handed the spyglass back to the captain. Snorri grunted lightly, was it a laugh? It would be a first.
The Amity sat lonely and adrift under a near full moon's silvery light. The sails of the merchant ship were riven and tangled, sagging sadly across her bow and dipping into the choppy water.
“She's not takin' water, Captain.” Snorri observed.
“No... I'd imagine the ship will survive” the captain was pacing the deck, never quite taking his eyes off the Amity.
“Pity her crew didn't...” William was again through the spyglass. He scanned the deck once more, trying to count the roaming dead. He added to his count one whose legs had been ripped off at the waist. It dragged itself along the wooden deck, leaving a trail of gore and cartilage in its wake.
“Indeed,” Gregor sighed and rubbed his face roughly, “hoped this might go easier.”
“What could be easier?” Snorri interjected, “All of 'em are dead! We load up the guns and send the entire thing ta the locker!”
The captain shook his head. “Not an option. If even one of these blasted things washes ashore...”
William noticed that the captain had buckled his scabbard. In the years he had sailed with Gregor it had been a rare occasion that he'd seen him draw his sword.
“The heads must be severed. Every last one.”
“Hah! So we board and do it the fun way!” Snorri fingered the rough wooden handle of an ax half as heavy as William.
The captain laid his hand on Snorri's thick, sinewy forearm, “I board, old friend. Alone.”
The quartermaster's protestations were cut short as Gregor ordered The Black Fang alongside the stranded Amity. As they closed William could hear the desperate mewling of hungering dead. Icy spikes shot up his spine.
“You sure about this?” he offered.
Captain Gregor drew his blade. It was forged into fine black steel, “I'll be fine, Will.”
“I can't die twice!” he leapt from the Fang, soaring the twenty feet separating the two vessels and landed gracefully on the starboard side of the doomed merchant ship.
The captain's work was brutal, efficient, and breathtakingly beautiful. William stood slack jawed, watching Gregor glide from corpse to corpse, clearing the deck as calmly as a serving wench might sweep a hall. What William had expected might take over an hour was finished in minutes. Heads were literally still rolling when Snorri finally laid down the boarding planks and motioned Will and the rest of the crew across.
By the time he had finally urged his shaky legs to carry him over to the Amity, the bodies were being piled up by a crew that William judged deserving of a very large raise in pay. He found the captain facing away from their work, wiping his blade.
“Necessary.” the captain finished.
A commotion broke out behind them.
“Survivor! We got a live one!” the crew had paused their grim work to hoot and holler as Snorri climbed down the slumping rigging, a scrawny red-haired boy slung over his shoulder.
The captain placed a firm hand on William's shoulder and leaned in close. His words were stern. “Check him for bites.” he laid a hand on his sword hilt idly, “And, doctor? Be thorough.”
He met the Captain's eyes and nodded firmly before rushing to the boy's side. He was grievously dehydrated for a start and William called for water immediately.
The boy downed a full skin of water before his strength returned enough to speak.
“Am...I” He shifted aggressively, trying to sit up, “Is it over?”
“Easy, boy.” William cut his clothing away and examined him closely. His skin had been blistered badly by days in the sun, but he could find no signs of bites.
“He's good, Captain.”
Gregor smiled, and his darkness lifted like a fog being swept away by a stiff breeze. He knelt down alongside William and the boy. He leaned in close and captured the boy's gaze.
“What's your name?”
“Jojo” the boy's eyes grew soft and malleable.
“Jojo, you're a very lucky chap.” Gregor swayed his head side to side. Jojo followed his eyes, “You get to forget...”
It was a glamor. The same one he had used on the hunters. Fascinated, William waited for the captain to finish.
Gregor rose to his feet as the boy Jojo was lead aboard the Black Fang. “We'll drop him in St. Kitts. With any luck he'll never remember what happened here.”
William's envy was as thick and briny as the salty sea.
Gregor went back to wiping his blade. The ship was silent, but for the gathering of bodies. It was unsettling. He was glad when Gregor offered more conversation.
“They fell so easily...” he motioned to the bodies of the dead, “Not a moment's recognition that their existence was about to end,” he finished wiping his blade and slid it into the scabbard.
“They died long before we arrived, sir. I'd imagine the will to continued existence is beyond the dead, even if they still walk.”
“As it should be, I suppose...” Gregor's words were drenched in regret. “I think I might envy them that, William.”
William closed his eyes wearily. Envy and death mingled in the cool night air.