31 October 2012

June of '73

I looked down into that small hole out in the back yard. It was a hole that I had begun digging the day before. I had dug it with the small garden shovel that my mother called a trowel, and that spent most of its time hanging from a nail in the shed.

I remember digging the hole when I heard my dad talking about a gas shortage and something about the Chinese. I said to my cousin that I might try to dig all the way to China, as I was intrigued after my dad had been talking about it. My cousin assured me that it would not work, as he and a friend had tried doing the exact same thing last week and they had no luck. “You end up in India,” my cousin said, “and they don't speak any English there.”

I got myself ready for the dig and for the trip, nonetheless. I packed a small bag with some necessary items, including some adhesive bandages, the flashlight that I took from a drawer in my mother's sewing room, and a couple of pixie sticks. I figured that the pure cherry-flavored sugar would keep me well fueled for the journey and might also make good trade items for bartering with the Chinese or the Indians – pixie sticks were probably legal tender anywhere you might go.

There were a couple of things that I didn't put in my bag that I could have but decided against. I did not take a firearm, although I considered packing the rubber band gun that my brother had made for me out of a wooden ruler. I did not take with me any of my G.I. Joes, although I thought they might have been good company. I did not take any of the pencil drawings that I had made while watching The Flip Wilson Show, nor the not-even-close-to-scale model that I had made of the World Trade Center (which had opened that very spring!) that I thought might be a nice peace offering to the Chinese. I understood little about geopolitical affairs, you see.

And so I stood there on the edge of the small hole that I had begun the day before, and the spirit of adventure percolated just below the surface of my heart. My sweaty little grip on the garden trowel tightened.

“Tommy! Come and get cleaned up! It's time for dinner!” Mom was leaning out the back door, calling to me.

I could smell the casserole. Even out here in the back yard, on the very edge of my journey through the earth, I could smell my mother's casserole coming out of the oven.

A little later, over dinner, my dad said that Secretariat had won the triple crown. I had no idea what that meant. “So, Tomaszu, what did you find out in the yard today?” he asked. He always called me that when he was having a really good day. I didn't appreciate it until I was nearly 30. I didn't miss it until I was 42.

“Oh, nothing,” I replied.

“You know what they say,” he said, smiling at me, “if you dig deep enough, you might get all the way to China.”

29 October 2012

Bezelda...a Travelogue

(This may or may not be an excerpt from Yerba Maté- A Novel)

“So tell me about your home planet,” said Michael Nitrous.

Jerry Grogan leaned back in his chair, took a long drag off his cigarette, and blew the smoke out in the shape of a question mark intersected with an exclamation point. He ran his fingers through his hair, broke wind, and then began to tell Michael Nitrous all about the wonderful springtime on the planet (or rather, moon) Bezelda, how the flowers only bloomed in the middle of the night so as not to be accused of vanity, and how the barnyard animals have elaborate mating rituals involving dice and hat pins. He told the tale of the Way-cheeda Glacier that encircles Bezelda like a great, icy doughnut, forming a perfect circle around the equator. Unlike so many planets and moons that you find out there, the equator of Bezelda was the coldest region, while its poles were the warmest. Don't ask me how it works – I have no idea. Jerry Grogan couldn't explain it, either.

Grogan went on to describe the miniature mountain lions that were used for giving exfoliation therapy in the barber shops of Bezelda, and the things that looked like leeches that were used as marital aids. You could buy these anywhere, incidentally – not just at special shops. He sang a few bars of the Bezeldian national anthem – there is only one nation on Bezelda, so there is no need for a whole bunch of anthems. The anthem went something like this:

Bezelda! A little dab'll do ya'!
Bezelda! You'll look so debonair!
Bezelda! A little dab'll do ya!
An extra-planetary home so fair!

Grogan did the little Bezeldian dance that traditionally accompanied the singing of the anthem, wherein the singer places his or her hands on his or her buttocks, stamps his or her feet repeatedly and then shakes like a bed-vibrator in a cheap motel.

“That sounds a lot like an old advertising jingle that I remember,” said Nitrous.

“Impossible,” said Grogan, going back to his seat. “That song is from another universe – a parallel universe.”

“Well, then there is an incredible coincidence.”

“Impossible,” said Grogan again, “there are no coincidences allowed on Bezelda – beside the fact that they are impossible there, owing to the interesting laws of metaphysics that the whole of Bezelda embraces.”

Michael fell silent again and lit another cigarette. He really didn't like to smoke, but sometimes he did this – he would buy a pack of cigarettes and smoke all of them, usually in one sitting. He wouldn't do this again for a year or two, and in between he would sometimes make a puritanical display of displeasure if he happened to be in a roller-skating rink or a milk-bar and someone lit up. He would fan his hand in front of his nose and maybe even move to a different table. This day, however, he was going for all the gusto – smoke 'em up! Yeehaw!

“Let me tell you about the medicine man, OK?” asked Grogan, taking his finger out of his nose and wiping it on his trousers.

Nitrous made a sour face. “OK.”

26 October 2012

Here's to You, Mrs. Robiczyk

If I had a lever and the right place to put it, I could move the world.

Somebody said that once...I think they even told it to me, but I forgot it for a long time. I tried using short sticks – just little broken-off pieces of longer sticks, such as you find when you've been following that one kid home from school past the corner sausage-shop. That one little kid from the immigrant family up the street (and don't forget that you are only a generation behind him – you just don't have to deal with hand-made sweaters, the way he does). That kid would walk home and grab fallen branches, break them up into smaller pieces and leave a trail of little sticks on the sidewalk.

“Stop makin' a mess!” I wanted to shout at him. I never did, because I knew I would be making the same mess if I were alone. We all make messes of one sort or another, and it would have seemed a little hypocritical to shout that at him, knowing full well my own desire to break branches apart. I didn't know the definition of hypocrisy back then. Did you? Who did at that age? Who knew what an immigrant was? That little kid had hand-made sweaters and a mom and dad who shouted at him in a different language. It was the language my grandparents spoke – not my parents, though. I had sweaters that were purchased at a store.

He broke sticks apart, and he broke things apart when he got older. Broke people apart when he got older. No one wants to break things like that, but some just do it, and he was one of them. He didn't speak the same language as his parents anymore. He didn't speak my language, he didn't speak anyone's language. He spoke his own language and broke things. And his parents weren't buried in Polish soil, but soil is almost the same anywhere you go, isn't it? And if you imagine hard enough you can see it's all connected and maybe leaving a path of little broken sticks can help anyone find his way home, as long as the soil is all the same.

But it isn't.

The story? The plot? Kid grows up. Kid trips out on chemicals that he injects into his tongue to make his language better. He takes a long syringe and injects industrial chemicals into his tongue – right underneath, where the veins are blue and slippery. You know where I mean.

Kid gets the chemicals into his brain and they make his eyes get all loooooopy-wild. Kid clocks his mom and dad on the head (both of their heads) with a pipe or a steel rod – no one was sure what it was. Kid lights the house on fire. Kid sits in the front yard and injects industrial chemicals underneath his tongue while he waits for the fire department to show up. Kid's heart explodes from overdose of industrial chemicals. Kid is buried in soil (please see reference to his parents, above).

And we all lived happily ever after.

If I had a lever and the right place to put it, I could move the world.  I just know I could.

24 October 2012

Q & A at Nib Magazine

Please have a gander at the nice Question and Answer interview-thinggy that Nib Magazine did with me after they published my short story "A Mound of His Own" in their launch issue.  You can click here or on this tasteful picture of the magazine cover.  Thank you!

22 October 2012

In Defense of Pasteybottom Joe

(An excerpt from the forthcoming Yerba maté - a Novel.)

"There was a small boy. I was just now going to tell you what his name was, but then I realized that it really makes no difference what his name is, and the only possible benefit to telling you his name would be for the benefit or the ease of storytelling. But let's try this, shall we? This small boy was a thin little nipper, quiet and given to introversion. He was a fair student , but he genuinely loved going to school. There was hardly a thing that he did not absolutely love about going to school, in fact, even though he struggled to keep up at times. He was, for the most part, a fairly normal little kid in all other ways, aside from his unfortunate cauliflower ears. He had never suffered an injury to his ears, nor had he ever been in a fist fight. He just had these enormous, puffy ears that stood out like veritable cauliflowers. They were so prominent that one year at Halloween his mother suggested that for variety they just cover the darn things with green makeup and send him out as a broccoli merchant. His mother was not very creative, and did not see the obvious impropriety in her suggestion.

One fair day during a group assignment in their chemistry class, the small boy was sent out into the hallway with three others to take measurements of a small stockpile of a radioactive isotope that the teacher had placed there just for this very experiment. The small boy loved these sorts of assignments, and he relished the work of measuring isotopes. He was the first in the group to complete his portion of the work, and so he waited just outside the doorway of the classroom while the others finished up.

While the other students worked, the small boy overheard the conversation in the classroom between the teacher and the rest of the class, and he heard the students voicing their concern that the small boy and his teammates would be bothered by the heinous shriek of the decontaminating unit that they would have to enter after their exposure to the isotope. They expressed particular concern about the small boy, as they felt he was a particularly tender flower.

“It's OK,” said the teacher, “with those hellish-looking ears of his, I don't think he can hear a damned thing most days.”

The small boy was crushed. Suddenly he had no desire to complete any more isotope-measuring assignments, and he lost all desire to return to class. He left his worksheet just outside the door of the classroom, and with his shoulders hunched and his head hanging low, he shuffled home. Things were never quite the same, and his schoolwork suffered for the rest of his time in public education. He managed to graduate and join the Merchant Marine, but we'll just use this little section of his life as an example of what happens when one is hurt by unintentional words . We can always come back to the small boy at a later date. 

 How does that sound?"

19 October 2012


“He was safe,” said the burly catcher to the umpire.

“I said he's out,” shot back the umpire, flexing and swelling the veins in his neck. (Have you ever seen umpire veins flex and swell in the same motion? It is almost erotic. At the very least it is titillating.)

“Listen here, Mr. Umpire, sir...let me tell you a little story,” said the catcher, removing his mask.

“I ain't got time for this. He's out. You tagged him. What the hell is your problem?””

“In the ancient days of baseball, when the world was still young, and the dew of creation still hung on the outfield,” said the catcher, “there was a tiny, tiny shortstop, possessed of a quirky, forthright spirit.”

“I told you I ain't got time for this.”

“Bear with me.” The catcher motioned for the umpire to sit down, which he did. They both sat down cross-legged on either side of home plate. The first baseman had strolled over and pulled a harmonica out of his pocket. As he played a plaintive tune, the catcher took a deep breath and continued the story.

“The dew of creation, in fact, had hardly dried in the outfield when the primordial umpire hollered 'play ball!' and the first pitch was thrown. It was only on the second pitch, I think, that the first batter got some wood on the ball. It took a couple of hops on its way to the shortstop. It bounced off the top of his glove, and when he grabbed for it on the ground, he missed it twice. An easy out turned into a base hit.”

“Some kinda' rookie?” asked the umpire.

“They were all rookies at that point,” said the first baseman, taking the harmonica away from his lips for a moment.

“It went on like this for eight innings,” said the catcher. “The shortstop kept on messing up easy plays.”

“I woulda' benched the guy and put in a different shortstop,” said the umpire, pulling some pemmican jerky from his bag.

“They didn't have enough shortstops to go around at that point,” said the pitcher, who had left the mound and joined the others in sitting cross-legged around home plate. “Not enough players at any position.”

A large bird winged its way over the box seats down the third base line, and a vendor in the stands hollered out “peanuts!”

“Well, somehow the home team managed to hang in there and was down by one run in the bottom of the ninth. With one out and a man on third, the tiny, tiny shortstop came up to bat. Everybody held their breath. One elderly lady in the bleacher section passed out, in fact.”

“What happened?” asked the umpire.

“On the third pitch, he hit a long fly just to the left of center. Two outfielders both ran for it and collided in mid-stride. It was spectacular. The runner on third scored, and the tiny, tiny shortstop's little legs churned as fast as he could turn them. He went past first, past second, and rounded third. The second baseman had run out to shag the ball, as the two outfielders were lying unconscious in the grass, and he made a mighty throw for home.”


“The throw was just in time, and no one could quite tell if he was safe or not. The umpire started raising his arm like he was going to call him out, but just then there was a rumbling of the earth and the skies darkened. The backstop in the bullpen was rent in twain. The runner, the catcher, the umpire and most of the coaching staff of both teams were struck dumb and were paralyzed.  And everyone heard a voice from the heavens, booming out of the clouds.”

“What did it say?” asked the umpire, his mouth agape and full of pemmican jerky.

“Learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”

The same large bird winged its way over the box seats down the third base line, and a vendor in the stands hollered out “cold beer!”

Wind blew over the infield. The umpire and the players got up from the ground and dusted themselves off. The umpire pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his brow. He swallowed hard, choking down the jerky. It was as though there were mighty drops of blood upon his forehead. He stared into the silence of the outfield.


16 October 2012

Reverse Paristaltic Wave

I walked over to the small box that was lying on the ground and I gave it a little kick. It tumbled over and I could see that it was empty. I thought about stepping on it and crushing it. It looked as though it was made out of cardboard, and it would have crushed easily under my shoe.

“So you thought better of it?” said the voice as I walked away. I knew it was him again, but I didn't want to acknowledge the voice in my head anymore. It was the same voice that had awakened me on the morning that my father died – about an hour before my phone rang and my brother told me that he was gone. “You're such a loser,” it said to me that morning, “a complete and total loser – a slacker.” I hate that voice.

I decided to speak up and defend myself.

“I just decided to walk away. There was no moral weight to the decision, you bastard,” I said.

“You're getting feisty. And you're using rude language. If you were a child I could bend you over my knee and paddle your bottom.”

I tried to ignore the voice after that. I put my hands into my pockets and I shuffled down the avenue, but the voice wouldn't shut up.

“He was never proud of you, you know that?” asked the voice. He sounded just a little feminine today – a little bit like Ethel Merman. I always hear her voice when I am feeling insecure.

“He never really knew me, so to say that he was not proud of me really makes no sense,” I said. “If he had really known me, he might have been proud of me.” My eyes burst out of my head and my heart ripped right in half with grief and fear and loneliness and pain and confusion and loss and the feeling like you might get if suddenly you were the only person on the earth. I turned around and walked back to the box and crushed it. I brought down my 10 ½ D black cap-toe oxford right upon that crappy little cardboard box and I crushed it. Crushed it flat.

The voice was strangely silent after I did that, and I continued down the avenue, in search of a shoe store that would sell me a pair of wingtips. I couldn't find wingtips anymore, it seemed. The kind like my father had worn. The kind he had always worn. I would look down at the wingtips, brown on some days, black on some days, and then I would look up and smell his blue aftershave, and see his tie. I always loved how his ties looked.

He wasn't wearing a tie the day he died. The voice had made sure that I was aware of that.

10 October 2012

In Time

Pearly Hotdish played ever such lovely dirges on that harpsichord in the village square, and it wasn't until “the condition” set in that she ever had any problems whatsoever. In fact, we all thought that Pearly Hotdish would go fantastic places, do great things, and make a wonderful, wonderful and most delightful name for herself on the blessed harpsichord.

“Play me some of those old-timey songs,” would screech Rascal Matley as he drew close to Pearly, his dank, reeking breath forming droplets of moisture on her alabaster back (for Pearly Hotdish would only play the harpsichord while entirely devoid of clothing – she said that woven fibers made her weak and tone-deaf). “I love those old-timey songs.”

Miss Hotdish would oblige, of course (How could she resist the four-toothed grin of Rascal Matley? How could she?), and Rascal would leap in the air, sloughing great clouds of dry, dead skin as he pirouetted. Crowds would form. Elderly men and women would dance a small folk dance from a far-off land, and Miss Hotdish would play all the more earnestly and with greater emotion, working herself into such a haze of perspiration.

“I have for you a small treat,” said Rascal Matley, producing a small sugarcube from the folds of the adipose tissue around his waist. The cube was moist, as you might expect, and perhaps just a little foul-smelling. “Allow me to improve upon this fair cube of sweetness,” he did say, turning away and pulling a small brown bottle from the pocket of his loin-cloth. The label on the bottle read “Scramble the Melon!” and Rascal twisted it open, drew out the eye-dropper attachment, and dropped a single spot of the pinkish fluid onto the surface of the sugarcube. The cube drank up the fluid, and nary a stain remained upon its surface.

“For you, the precious Pearly,” said Rascal as he offered her the sugarcube. Pearly stopped playing for a moment and turned around on the bench, her sweat-moistened bottom making a queer squeaking noise as she swiveled.

“Mister Matley,” sighed the precious Pearly, “it is ever so kind of you.” She received the tiny sugarcube into her dainty, outstretched palm, and conveyed it thence to her pink, waiting lips. “My, but it is sweet,” sighed the precious Pearly.

The pinkish fluid worked quickly, and Pearly Hotdish was as limp and flaccid as a Maine Coon in its lover's arms.

“I can no longer play a delightful and melancholy dirge for you, Mister Matley,” sighed Pearly as she slumped onto the keyboard of the harpsichord. Short, red-haired attendants that were waiting nearby walked up to her and, taking hold of wrists and ankles, carried her to the waiting sedan chair. Pearly allowed herself to be gently tumbled into its seat, where another attendant covered her with a modesty-shawl.

“Precious Pearly,” said Rascal Matley with reeking breath, “you will, no doubt, be my guest at Matley Manor this very evening, where I will feed you shellfish and bitter herbs, and you might delight me with a dirge upon the harpsichord.”

Pearly Hotdish looked at Rascal Matley through woozy eyes and tried to focus on his four-toothed grin. “I do not think that would be prudent,” sighed Pearly as her brother, Captain Traynor Hotdish of the Duke's Grenadier Guards walked up to the edge of the sedan chair.

“I believe I will escort my sister to her home,” said Captain Hotdish, his saber and medals jangling.

Rascal Matley let out a great, reeking breath. His face flushed a bright red.

Captain Traynor Hotdish scooped his sister and her modesty-shawl into his arms, and with a turn and shake of his spurs, they strode off toward the Hotdish estate, the plume in his hat bouncing jauntily.

The harpsichord in the village square was quiet that evening, as was the harpsichord in Matley Manor.

05 October 2012

A Little Bit of Chapter One

( Excerpted from the forthcoming Yerba Maté - a Novel )

“I been off the sauce for eighteen years now,” grumbled the gravelly-voiced old man with the nine o'clock shadow. “Lemme' tell you, when a man hits rock bottom, there's nowhere to go but up.”

“Or stay on the bottom,” said Michael Nitrous.

In another universe or in another dimension, Michael Nitrous had run into a man who was a deep-sea pearl collector. That is, he went and collected pearls on the bottom of the deep, deep sea. He did not just go and buy pearls that someone else had gone to the trouble of harvesting, no sir. He went there himself, and faced the dangers that one faces when collecting things while on the bottom of the deep, deep sea. Sharks. Piranhas. Cuttlefish. Jacques Cousteau Disease.

Shark are large, top-level predators that like to eat soft things without a lot of crunch to them. My friend Brian (a friend of Michael Nitrous, as well, in case you were wondering) always used to maintain that there was nothing like a normally soft food that suddenly had a little crunch to it. He was thinking in terms of chocolate and nougat bars and that sort of thing. Maybe a nice soft cheese sandwich. When you hit some nuts or a crisp wafer in your nougat bar, it makes your palate sit up and take notice. You do too, in fact. You might say “wow...this is some nice wafer in this nougat bar.” If you come across something crunchy in your nice soft melted cheese sandwich, there is the same effect. You might say “wow...this is some very nice crispy bacon in this cheese sandwich.” It all kind of goes together.

With the sharks, it is quite different. As I am told, they tend to like nice soft foods like jellyfish and squid, and when they hit something crunchy, like a femur or an oxygen tank, they are less than excited about it. Wouldn't you feel the same?

Piranhas don't actually live at the bottom of the deep, deep sea – they are river-dwelling carnivorous fish with enormous appetites and razor-sharp teeth. They mostly populate the murky waters of the Amazon and late-night horror films.

Cuttlefish are cephalopods who have the most amazing ability (also known as a “super-hero power”). When threatened, they are able to throw off what is called a “pseudomorph” - a glob of ink surrounded by mucous that looks amazingly similar to the cuttlefish itself. It will do this to confuse an attacker, who will bite the pseudomorph and get a mouthful of ink and mucous rather than cuttlefish. How delightful!

Jacques Cousteau Disease is a disease named after a famous deep-sea diver. The disease is contracted by speaking French at extreme depths. Some people have even developed symptoms of the disease after merely thinking in French at the right depths. Native French speakers are immune, however.

The deep sea diver whom Michael Nitrous had met in another universe and another dimension had said something very simple and very profound to him. What he said to him was this seemingly pithy little epithet: “when you hit the bottom, you can only do one of two things – go up or stay on the bottom.”

There you are. Michael looked at Jerry Grogan, sitting there and weaving. Weaving while he sat in a chair – this was no small feat. Michael knew that he was most likely lying about being dry for eighteen years. He could smell the booze on him.

“I have two questions for you,” said Nitrous. “One, how come every time I meet a drunk who has gone through rehab the only two subjects they want to talk about are themselves and recovery from alcoholism? Two, how the hell do you expect me to believe that you haven't had a drink in eighteen years? You stink like a distillery.”

Jerry Grogan sat upright as much as he could. “First, I ain't never been through rehab. I'm a stinking drunk, and I just like talking about myself. Second, I never said I don't drink – I said I've been off the sauce. Clean out your ears, homeslice.”

The phrase “the sauce” or “on the sauce” or “off the sauce” usually had to do with alcohol, you have to understand. You probably do already. “Sauce,” then, was this euphemism for alcohol. To be on the sauce was to be actively (or passively, I guess) allowing alcohol to have a physiological effect on you. Typically it suggested that the person “on the sauce” was drinking regularly and giving into a destructive dependence on alcohol.

The crazy thing is that when Jerry Grogan said “the sauce” he did not mean alcohol. He was actually referring to a sauce. As I am prone to do, I will share the recipe for this sauce with you now:

2 eggs, separated
1 cup white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 micro-rod of partially-depleted Tropericium (finely ground)
salt and pepper to taste

Beat egg whites until stiff peaks form. Discard. Combine egg yolks, vinegar, mustard and ground Tropericium in a lead bowl. Stir until it forms a smooth paste. Apply paste to base of skull. Sprinkle salt and pepper onto tongue until the taste goes away. Repeat as necessary.

Jerry Grogan had been repeating this far more than was absolutely necessary until about eighteen years ago, when he finally managed to quit using “the sauce”.

03 October 2012

Camptown Races

“That old ham-handed ditch-digger went down like a sack of crap. You shoulda' seen it.” Rafey chewed his tongue and spit these words like he was spitting a wad of chaw out of his cheek.

“Rafey, ain't that old sayin' 'ham-fisted' and not 'ham-handed'? I had a cousin who said it different,” said Chorley the plump-ugly chin wiper. “My cousin done said different and I think he always said ham-fisted.”

Rafey's eyes drew long and the venom, like acid, pooled up in the pits of his mouth. Little pools beneath his tongue. Little pools on either side of his lower molars.

“Shaddup. He's a ditch digger and if'n I say he's damn old ham-handed, then that's what he is. You just shaddup.”

Chorley picked a long hair out of his sandwich. A long black hair that you could just tell was no doubt greasy and filthy before it went into the pickle salad. A long black hair that you could just tell came off of a dirty, greasy scalp on a dirty, greasy person who had been scratching with dirty, greasy fingers. Dirty, greasy fingers that mixed the pickle salad and made Chorley's sandwich with a hum and a chuckle.

“But he went down like I said,” said Rafey. “Down like a sack of crap. You watch yourself. You end up the same.”

Chorley used his own dirty, greasy finger to pick at a grub. The grub didn't move. Chorley bit down and felt the pop. Another bite. Another pop. Another bite. Another pop.

“Rafey, my sweetest, hairiest, lovingest friend,” said Chorley, layin' it on thick, “you want half of my sammich?”

“Aww, yeah, gimme...” said the tongue chewer to the plump-ugly chin wiper. “Gimme...”

Chorley carefully, gingerly handed the sandwich to Rafey.

“You gonna' like it,” said Chorley. “Lotsa' raisins in that there salad.”