29 March 2011

Wrong Number

It was such a clean, well-lit restroom that St. Mark's Hospital had to offer to those who found themselves unable to hold their bodily juices until they arrived at home. Clean, well-lit, and with a certain smell of watermelon, owing to the urinal-freshening agent used in those great porcelain contraptions known to the free world as “urinals.”

It was into this fresh and sanitized world that David stepped on a fine Tuesday morning. Uncertain exactly why he found himself in St. Mark's Hospital, David was certain about his bodily juice levels – they were creeping toward the “F” mark, and he needed to address that before he could do anything else. “Men,” David said to himself, reading from the small black and white plaque on the laminated door.

While he expected a quiet inner sanctum of porcelain, cool water and near silence, he received only the first two. It was as if he was being rudely awakened when he heard the voice.

Only two more to go. I gotta' get to the clinic before noon, and then pick up sandwiches. Lots of blood-thinner riding on a pile of subs.” There was someone in a toilet stall. This particular someone was either talking to himself, praying aloud, or on his cell phone.

Hang on a sec. I got a call coming in.”

David figured that it was most likely option #3. Some pharmaceuticals rep was carrying on a conversation while relieving himself of yesterday's fried chicken dinner complete with the Twinkie he used to wash it down. Pharmaceuticals reps sometimes live on the edge, you know.

The fellow continued with his conversation while David attended to his own business. David made the point of coughing and clearing his throat rather loudly several times, as if to give the fellow in the stall due warning that he was not alone in this tiled haven. He then flushed the urinal several times, figuring that it might be amusing to tip off the person on the other end of the line as to the place where the call originated.

Naah...I ain't gonna'. I'm just gonna' go grab a ham croissant down in the cafeteria. They've got the best ham croissants at this place,” opined Mr. Talk-while-you-squat. David made a mental note, however, as to the possible high quality of croissant sandwiches in the St. Mark's cafeteria.

Before he left the men's room, David walked into each individual stall and flushed the toilet. Four successive flushes echoed through the restroom, and hopefully into the ear of the person talking to Mr. Loaf-pincher. Several more loud coughs and he was ready to go. He thought about holding the back of his hand to his lips and blowing for all he was worth, but decided that would only be cheap theatrics.

After his visit in the Human Relations office, David decided to grab a quick bite downstairs in the hospital cafeteria. He made his way through the line and decided upon a bowl of pepper-pot soup and a brioche. He headed to the cashier, and fell into line behind a young man in a sharp blue suit with a crisp white pocket square. “Good to see some young guys wearing pocket squares,” he thought to himself.

As he began to draw his debit card out of his wallet, the young fellow in the blue suit moved ahead to deal with returning his own wallet to his pocket. As he fumbled with it, he dropped his Blackberry, which went skittering across the floor towards David. David reached down and picked up the phone and handed to the young man.

Thanks a lot...I guess I was trying to hold on to too many things,” said the young man, taking back his Blackberry.

No worries,” said David, smiling. He noticed the ham croissant on the young man's tray just as his own errant thumb landed in his bowl of pepper-pot soup.

25 March 2011

Spades and Sofas

I never meant to understand that trashy train-wreck watcher with the dirty red hair…that fellow algae-drinking Appalachian good-for-nothing pea farmer named Alphonse.  Why his bow-legged father decided to name him Alphonse, I will never understand, if I live to be ninety-four.  Perhaps it was that restaurant…that one restaurant he had ever eaten in.  I do believe that it may have been named “Alphonse’s”, or perhaps the owner was named Alphonse, or perhaps there was a waiter by that name who worked there.  Perhaps there was no connection whatsoever.  Perhaps it had only to do with the boy’s dirty red hair.

Alphonse, you trashy pea-picker, there were so many piles of soil outside your home.  You would pile them up, one after the other…pile after pile after pile.  All the way around your home they stretched – that ramshackle frame home of yours.  Two stories of scratchy, flaky clapboard that hung in there like scales on a diseased fish…a diseased fish that would stare into the west wind that swept over that dirty, dirty pea-farm.  Did you bury things in those piles?  Did you pile them there as art – the only art you knew how to create with your calloused, filthy hands with bruised knuckles and twisted, arthritic joints? Hands that would shake the soft, smooth hands of that pastor from that Lutheran church down the road from your filthy, filthy pea-farm, and wave after him when he left.  Hands that you wrapped around his neck and with which you throttled that same Lutheran pastor when he spoke to you of sin and the dangers of drink.  The judge put you in for 90 days and that pea-farm grew filthier than ever – filthier it grew even after you were let out.  The people never understood.  Never understood.  I could never understand, either.

They said it was a woman who took you away.  A woman or the bottle, I guess.  I would have put my money on the bottle, although no one ever really saw you again, the way you would see men like yourself when that happened – face down in the ditch (as the stereotype would have it), or with your back against a cold, stone building and your chin on your chest.  No one saw you like that, so as my brother Audie said, you probably done ended up far, far across the state with some woman who never minded your drinking and your carrying on and your hoopin’ and hollerin’ at the top of your lungs when the bottle was empty.

Alphonse, why did you look at me like that the last time we saw each other in town, now some twenty years ago?  That toothy grin and that dirty red hair – your eyes all wild.  I thought you were drunk.  I thought you were half out of your mind with whisky, the way you were when you throttled the pastor.  I thought you might reach out and put those calloused, calloused hands around my neck and throttle me to the end of my breath.  You did not.  You only blinked twice and coughed out a single word. 

23 March 2011

Valley of the Kings

A mummy in the making, covered in balm and bandages and - having just narrowly escaped the ravages of putrefaction - now awaiting a nice sarcophagus, stared blankly at David.

"It's a fricking mummy," he said aloud.  Those were his exact thoughts, in fact.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Honestly, what else do you expect someone to think when he comes face to face with an ancient Egyptian mummy in the making?  More to the point, what does one expect a person to think when he happens upon a workplace for mummification in the ancient Egyptian manner...and happens upon it in the canned goods aisle of a large Midwestern grocery store?  Sure enough, there between the early peas and the button mushroom caps was a priest of Ibis or some or another Egyptian god, cleaning off his braining spoon and about to prepare a mixture of salt and some other naturally-occurring dessicant.

The Egyptian priest turned and looked at David.  "Can I help you?" he asked.

"Ummmm...I was...looking for the..."

"Brain spoon...?" offered the Egyptian priest.

"No," replied David, "I just need some artichoke hearts."

The Egyptian priest moved aside some clay jars and a flask of some aromatic ointment.  David knew it was aromatic ointment because of the label: "Aromatic Ointment" it read, the words scribbled onto a piece of white athletic tape, presumably with a black Sharpie.  The priest reached back behind a few more jars, some perhaps containing hearts of a sort other than those found in artichokes.

"Here you go," said the Egyptian priest.  "Green Giant.  Good enough?"

"Uh huh," replied David, rather in a daze.

"Good to go.  Is there anything else I can help you find?"

"No, " said David.  "Thank you."  He ambled down the aisle, heading toward either the pickled herring, the pomegranate juice or the frozen pizza.  He could not quite remember what other items he had come here for.

The clinking of a metal spoon mixing dessicant powder in a pottery bowl echoed down the canned goods aisle, competing in volume with the sound of the priest's assistant sloshing something back and forth.

David turned the corner just as "Don't Stand So Close to Me" came over the sound system in the store.  A stocker dropped a case of Fruity Pebbles from an hydraulic lift and cursed. David decided that he would go into the office a little later tomorrow morning.

22 March 2011

And a Little Plastic Knife

As if the darkened skies were not enough, there was a sprinkling of rain in the air as well. David walked down that smudgy old main street of that smudgy old town that he called home and wondered how long those smudgy old buildings had been there. “The Midwest is no place for dreamers,” his uncle John used to say. What a fool Uncle John was – the entire world is no place for dreamers, for dreams always come to an end. We wake up. Everyone wakes up. We all wake up and we are forced to see what the real world is like. Is it a cup of coffee? Is it bacon and eggs? Might it rather be a carcinogenic, processed sausage and cheese biscuit monstrosity from the fourth ring of hell, served up to you in your car, piping hot and handed over by a bored, sullen teenager with bad skin and a pierced cheek and lip? Mornings are always a cold start, for it means the dreams come to an end.

The dreams come to an end,” said David aloud, as he continued his walk down that smudgy old main street. It looked smudgy to him, he thought, really smudgy. Like a watercolor that you walk by in an art museum because you are bored and do not want to look at another watercolor. You just want to press on to the masterpieces that you know are in the next gallery...just around the corner...just beyond your view...just out of reach. “Don't wanna' look at it anymore...tired.” He had thought this once while walking through the Uffizi, and another time while walking through the Tretyakov. Now he said it aloud as he walked down the smudgy little main street of his home town. Where was the brochure to tell him how to get to the exit? He was tired of looking at this particular gallery.

I would like a bagel,” David thought.

His mind drifted back to a bagel he had bought from a street vendor in midtown Manhattan several years ago. It was an “everything” bagel, and he could still dredge up from the recesses of his memory the feeling of the poppy seed stuck in the front of his teeth. He was scared to smile. He had been scared that day, too, several years ago. No smiles. No laughs. Just an everything bagel, he thought. Just some cream cheese, maybe, to go on top of it. Just a small cup of coffee. Just a walk through Central park with his wife. Just a smile. No more smudgy art gallery. No bastard art gallery guard to look at you with his greasy, sweaty face, looking at you like some kind of greasy, sweaty gargoyle who wants to take your everything bagel away from you and shove it in his own gaping maw, filling that greasy, sweaty belly.

Home again. Coffee in the percolator. The dog is wagging his tail. David's wife would be home in a couple of hours. He smiled. The skies looked a little less smudgy.

18 March 2011

Chantilly Truck Stop

Such a mad, mad dash I did just take across part of this beautiful country – these beautifully united States of America. So open and so dry-looking were the fields of Indiana, along with the crazy congestion of her largest city. So open, once again were the roads across Ohio, though they empty out on her eastern border into a land of excitement and promise and rolling hills that presage something more to come. West Virginia – once across her panhandle, once right up her entire length...what a place. My friend Ernie who grew up there just laughed and said “almost heaven” right after I said “West Virginia.” The two seem to go together ever since that John Denver song. He was right. Those ancient hills and seams of coal and smoky little hollows are almost on another plane of existence.

Virgina, Virginia, Virginia. The Old Dominion. When you drive through her in the early morning hours, you can see why Lee and his boys fought so hard to keep out an invading foreign army. She is sweet and lovely, like a beautiful southern belle at a cotillion, and any red-blooded American man would want to fight to defend her honor against any indignity. That long stripe of Interstate 81 running along her western backbone is nearer to heaven, perhaps, than West Virginia, although Virginia cries deeper, harder tears than West Virginia ever dreamed.

And there, deep below the tail of the Old Dominion, I found a small hillock in North Carolina, nestled within foggy, foggy mountains that reached up and up and up. There I paused and breathed in the fresh North Carolina air. I felt the cool raindrops on my face. I smelled the woodsmoke on the breeze. An elderly lady in a tiny thrift store told me “we don't get verruh mannuh visituhs from youah pahts 'round heah.” I am sure she was right. I felt ashamed, a little bit. I stood there in my chinos, tweed jacket and sweater vest, and I could almost feel a black Hardee hat sitting on my head. I am sure she never noticed.

The coffee was horrible all the way throughout the journey, and I was reminded once again that the American diner is getting harder and harder to find. McDonald's and BK have just about driven out the quaint little places called “EAT” as well as the ones called “GOOD FOOD” that used to litter the landscape. America is changing. America has changed. But if you look hard enough, she is still there, in her foggy mornings, her Blue Ridge Mountains, her Appalachians, her Shenandoah Valley. She sleeps quietly in a tiny holler' where wood smoke wafts out of that little shack and the coffee is just now beginning to perk.

Almost heaven.

14 March 2011

Taps Will Blow Tomorrow for an Old Soldier...

...and so I am frantically racing east across I-70 and I-79 and I-68 and I-just don't know anymore, taking in the landscape and fueling myself with cheap coffee.  I hope to make it to Arlington National Cemetery and say goodbye, before turning the rented car around and heading west again.  I pray the coffee gets better in Virginia.

11 March 2011

My Kingdom for a Flint...

Waaaaaaaaaaaaell, Mr. Andrews, aaaaaaaaaaaaaaI can't say that I understand why a man can't looooooooooove chemistry,” said the crew-cut Mr. Flannery, a severe man who had dropped out of med school and into high school chemistry-teacher school, and now was nearing retirement. Mr. Flannery was meeting with my father and me, so that we might discuss how it was that I might be drawing a "D" in his beloved chemisrty class. I could tell them – quite simply I hated chemistry and found the class boring. I really did not care to be there, and I did not put any energy into it. Mrrrmmmph.

Naaaaaaaaaaaaow, what is it that you want to find yourself doing after caaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaollege, Thomas?” asked Mr. Flannery. I think he wanted me to say something about using the chemistry skills I was learning.

I was thinking I might be a writer...a journalist maybe. I like to write,” I responded. I would like to have said that I just wanted to win the lottery, live on an island and drink Tanqueray and tonics for the rest of my life. I had a discerning palate, even at age 17.

Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaell, now aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaI have never had much use for journalists, Thomas, and aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaI just know one thing about journalism.”

I wondered, almost aloud, why he drew out certain vowels and not others.

I know that if aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaI ever find myself out of a jaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaob, I know that aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaI can always cook over this traaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaausty Bunsen burner.”

I had absolutely no idea where Mr. Flannery was going with this one. I glanced at my father, who had an uncomfortable look on his face, as though he was trying to pass a whole turnip.

But aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaI don't think that if I put a can of soooooooooooooup over a naaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaewspaper, aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaI don't think I could get it to baaaaaaaaaaaaaaoil. Could I?”

Dad just fidgeted a bit. He was not one to normally fidget, so I figured that turnip must be well on its way out, or something else was making him uncomfortable. He glanced at me and gave me one of his trademark “eye lifts.” God, how I miss my dad and how he used to do that.

Mr. Flannery chuckled to himself quite a long while about the thought of trying to boil a can of soup over a newspaper. I never got around to asking how an unemployed chemist would ever pay for the natural gas to make his Bunsen burner work any better than a newspaper for cooking. Nor did I suggest the word “matches” to him. Dad just thanked Mr. Flannery for his time, and we got up and headed out of the sciences wing of the high school.

Dad waited until the doors had closed behind us before he just said “well, just buckle down on that chemistry homework a bit harder, OK?” I agreed and we went out to hit a bucket of golf balls. On the drive home, Dad asked more than the usual number of questions about what I was writing for the school paper that semester.

10 March 2011


Have you ever had one of those days?  The kind of day that finds you sitting quietly in your armchair and suddenly a terrific din is heard outside.  You might stand up and walk to the window, in order that you might see the source of this noise.

My word!  Heavens! Crikey!

Look at that, will you...a tiny parade filing past your house.  Right here on quiet, peaceful Juniper Lane!

It is not the clown with the bleeding head wound marching by that scares you, as much as does the pack of trained Pomeranians.  The little devils have teeth that have been filed to razor-sharp points, and their backs are shaved (you wonder about the clown's back - is it shaved as neatly and as cleanly as are the backs of the demonic Pomeranians?).  The Pomeranians jump and twirl and stand up on their hind legs, all at the behest of the woman in the top hat, it would appear.  Looking as dangerous as Ecstasy-fueled Euro-trash in her tuxedo jacket and fishnet, she shouts in guttural Slovak at the demonic Pomeranians, and lashes at them with a tiny, tiny whip.  "Nadol, hnusné beštie!  Nadol, hnusné beštie,"  she cries.

The diminutive whip cracks.  Pomeranians growl. "Nadol, hnusné beštie!"

Mrs. Remke pokes her head out the door.  Your neighbor is obviously concerned, but stares longingly at the top hat and the tiny, tiny whip.

While the marching band laboriously struggles through the overture from Tannhauser, the bleeding clown weeps and twists a balloon monkey into shape.  The squeak, squeak, squeak of the latex causes tiny, closely-shorn hairs to stand up on the backs of seven demonic Pomeranians.  They growl.  They yap.  The woman in the top hat cries out in a seething rage, "nadol, hnusné beštie!  Nadol!"

Nothing like this has ever taken place on Juniper Lane, you are certain of that.  While the strains of the overture are pleasant, you remember that there is a nice cup of coffee waiting for you next to your armchair.  Wouldn't it be nice to sit back down, enjoy the morning and relax in the comforting quiet of your parlor?  Yes, indeed it would be.  You take your seat, enjoy your coffee and dig in to your crossword puzzle.

The clown is left, barely breathing, in a heap on Juniper Lane - his balloon monkey in shreds.

Mrs. Remke puts a plate of bacon and eggs in front of Mr. Remke.  A tiny, tiny whip cracks over his head.  "Nadol, hnusné beštie!" cries Mrs. Remke, in her best Slovak.

(Appeared in Red Fez #33, April 2011)

08 March 2011

Cuyahoga and Smoke

87 freaking Chihuahuas in one trailer home,” I fumed to myself. I could barely imagine 87 little yapping dogs in one place, let alone in the same single-wide trailer.

Except they were not yapping. They had been what those in the puppy mill “industry” refer to as “de-barked.” Some slimeball veterinarian-school dropout gave his services to the puppy mill for the right, cheap price, and the poor little pups had their barks taken away permanently, along with their canine incisors, which Dr. Slimeball removed so the desperate pups would not tear each other apart in fear and anxiety.

87 freaking Chihuahuas in one trailer home.” Long, long inhalation. Longer exhalation. Looking up into the scary, self-conscious skies. They look that way because they know, you know. Those skies see it all, and they wish they didn't.

We all get up. We all put on our eyeglasses, if we wear eyeglasses. We all eat that damnable salad dressing that has gluten and high-fructose corn syrup in places that no self-respecting salad dressing should have such things. Why on earth do dogs get treated like dogs? Probably because the humans who do it are a little lower than dogs.

Long, long inhalation. Longer exhalation. I crane my neck backward and feel that dull ache somewhere deep in my head, and think about a scared chihuahua.

I think I need a drink. 

02 March 2011

Que Sera Sera...

The summer of 1986 was an unseasonably hot summer, if I recall. Perhaps it was an unseasonably cool summer, or on third thought it might have been altogether unremarkable for its climatic character. The summer of 1986 is only remarkable for me for two reasons, if the true story be told.

In the summer of 1986 the federal government (or rather, the section of the governmental department that keeps us safe from foreign aggression, otherwise known as the Army) told me that my ankles were no longer healthy enough to defend our country against communist aggression. My ankles had never seemed to shrink at the prospect of stabbing, shooting, slicing, dicing or ricing communist aggressors in the past (although I can no longer remember the preferred method of dealing with communist aggressors in 1986 – perhaps my ankles would one day be needed in a 24-hour Charleston contest against said communist aggressors, as they can be sly, crafty dancers). I gathered up my ankles, saluted a final time and did the samba out of there.

The second remarkable thing that took place that summer was the hiring of Betty Trebbe as the pancake lady. Perhaps the more accurate description would be the “pancake girl,” as Betty was only 17 and eagerly awaiting her senior year of high school.

Betty was remarkable for only two things, as well. This made her a natural for being one of the two remarkable things about the summer of 1986. First, Betty's name was Betty, obviously. In and of itself, this was not entirely odd nor remarkable, but Betty had been named “Betty” long after people in the western world had ceased to name their female children “Betty.” In fact, I do believe there was a federal moratorium placed on the name “Betty” sometime during Lyndon Johnson's administration. This was done right after he declared a war on poverty. We still have not dragged ourselves out of that quagmire, and our boys are still marching off to die in the trenches. What a senseless waste of human life – poverty seems to be getting the upper hand.

But I digress.

Betty was secondly remarkable for having over-active sweat glands, particularly in her underarm regions and groin. Great damp patches would appear whenever she wore unfortunately-colored clothing on warm days or whenever she found herself nervous about an upcoming calculus exam. Sadly, this allowed Miss Trebbe to appropriate a most unfortunate yet strangely poetic nickname. By her 15th year she had become known in her class as “Sweaty Betty,” and she realized there was little she could do to direct attention to some other aspect of her being so as to play down this label. Could she become more worrisome, so as to gain the title “fretty Betty?” Unlikely. Would greater diligence in academic pursuits cause many to think of her as “heady Betty?” Probably not.

In June of 1986, Betty Trebbe was hired by the local pancake house to stand on the street and flag down customers with promises of the carbohydratic wonders within during their “colossal pancake-riffic” promotion. Most mornings of that terribly hot summer, Betty would ply the wares of the pancake house, clad in the thickest, hottest and most realistic-looking foam rubber pancake suit that anyone on the south side had ever seen.

Some things are just meant to be.

01 March 2011

Schenectady in Springtime

Talk about white, ceramic coffee cups and really rickety, old mom's kitchen-style chairs with the little handle cut through the top of the chair back. “Aside from wireless internet, this place could be 1980.” Father Mike Stencil, our erstwhile hero, was staring at a really clean floor. “New tile,” he muttered aloud to the four walls and those kitchen chairs with the handles cut into their backs.

The Mexican nuns busied themselves with breakfast preparations – a little bowl of butter pats here, some carcinogenic sweetener packets there; oatmeal, oatmeal, fricking oatmeal in a big old fricking tub. When Mike thought of the oatmeal, he used a different word than “fricking.” The Bishop would never know...only God would know, but He probably had the same feeling about the big old oatmeal tub, Mike thought.

Call no earthly man “father,” Mike liked to think to himself – to remind himself, to shake his head over at times like this. The nuns could not resist saying “good morning, Father,” each time they walked past him. “'Morning, S'ter,” he would respond each time. No commands about whether or not to call an earthly woman “sister,” is there?

Mrmph,” said Mike aloud, “more'nother cuppa joe.” A Mexican nun looked at him strangely. She was not used to hearing priests talk to themselves, apparently. Maybe he was talking to God in sort of a coffee-hound's prayer...maybe it is an ecstatic moment...perhaps the Holy Ghost is moving this bleary-eyed, middle-aged priest to new heights of spiritual rapture. He thought about bursting into song in Spanish to freak the ever-lovin' daylights out of the nuns, but the only Spanish song that he could think of was “Don't Cry for me Argentina,” and he quickly realized that while Eva Peron most assuredly spoke Spanish, the song itself was in English. “The Girl from Ipanema” would probably not do, either. That pretty much exhausted his quasi-Spanish repetoire.

The coffee was good and hot, and the white ceramic cup ever so clean. The day so bright and the Old Spice on his face so aromatic. What more could a man ask for? Many, many things that Mike could think of, to tell the truth, but on this morning he was content to sip coffee and wait for the sisters to finish their breakfast preparations.

Cella Luna, mezzo Mari, mama mia ho maritari,” sang Father Mike Stencil in pigeon Sicilian, not quite at the top of his lungs, “vica mia cutadari mama mia pe' sacce du!”

A thin young nun dropped a big old fricking bowl of oatmeal on the tile floor. A fat nun laughed a good hearty laugh.

Mike Stencil smiled from ear to fricking ear.