Monday, October 20, 2014

FREE on Amazon Kindle, Oct. 21: Alcyone

FREE on Kindle.



Four

Audrey LaBrea

Spooked by the instinctive knowledge of the Pirate King and the Texas Belle, Scootie spent the next few weeks warding off thoughts of Juliana Kross. He was helpfully distracted by the Kabuki Troupe of Nagasaki, who had hired a scholar of dubious talent to translate their program notes. The ones who play (the players, Scootie guessed)  will aggrandize you with their marvel daring feats of do. Scootie spent hours trying to unwind such tangles into a workable text.
           
Still, there was no way to avoid the great adobe house that shadowed him on the way to the parking lot each evening. Thursday night found the Pleiades themselves lifting out of the chimney like a silver-blue cinder.
           
The light that Juliana watched was the square of window just beneath the Fetzle battlements – the one that lay at the back of Scootie’s office. She first noticed it on Monday, sharing a late cup of coffee with Virginia Mendheart. She took note of it each evening since, little knowing that she had lost both of the men in her life to the Japanese.
           
Scootie’s attentions gradually shifted southward. On Wednesday, he released the last of Audrey’s pigeons, and he knew what that meant. He woke up early Saturday morning, gathered his own pigeons from the coop behind his apartment, and started out for Big Sur.



Three summers before, Scootie journeyed from the LA suburbs of his childhood to his new job on the San Mateo coast. For a veteran of the short-lived theater groups of Southern California, a job with this much stability and prestige was a dream come true. The import of the occasion called for the scenic coastal route, but by the time he reached Big Sur the winding roads had worn him down.
           
The state park was full-up, but he managed to find an inexpensive walk-in campground a mile’s walk from the ocean. After pitching his tent beneath a wind-blown oak, he drove into town for dinner, but was immediately distracted by an import shop called Beatniks. He ventured in to find virtually every rhythm instrument known to mankind. He spent the next two hours applying his hands to every tabla, conga, shekere and berimbau in the place. He spent a full fifteen minutes on the dundun, or talking drum, from Kenya, taking in the delicious swoop of tone as he beat the head with a hooked mallet and pulled the skin tight with its outside laces. He was trying out an anklet of Peruvian sheep’s hooves, exuberantly stomping the floor, when the manager of the store appeared at his shoulder.
           
“Hi,” she said.
           
“Oh. Hi. Have I been taking too long?”
           
“Well,” she smiled. “The store did close a half-hour ago. But I hated to stop you. You’re so... devoted.”
           
Scootie smiled sheepishly. “I’m in love with sounds. You have an amazing collection. I’d buy the whole damn store, but I’m on my way to a new job right now, and...”
           
“No need to explain. I have no doubt you’ll be back. I’m Audrey, by the way.”
           
“Scootie,” he said, and took Audrey’s hand.
           
“Tell you what, Scootie. I’m headed next door for dinner. Would you join me?”
           
“Well... sure, I’ve been driving all day, and... well, yes.”
           
They were halfway out the door when Audrey turned and laughed.
           
“I think you might want to take those off first.”
           
“Scootie looked at the sheep’s hooves, still wrapped around his ankles, and said, “Oh. Right.”
           
Audrey LaBrea was a witchy red-haired beauty, product of a half-Jewish, half-Catholic household in Florida (“Guilt,” she said, “was the unifying concept.”). She was thirty years old and had just completed her third divorce. The latest ex was Tiger LaBrea, whom she met while working as a cocktail waitress in Vegas.
           
“They called him Tiger ‘cause he was a baseball fan from Detroit,” she said, picking over a salad in the woodsy Ventana Restaurant. “He covered the gambling beat for the Las Vegas Star-Press. Guy hits a jackpot, Tiger takes a photo in front of the slot machine with the oversize check. Some of the nasty stuff, too: casino fights, gambling-related suicides...
           
“I met him, in fact, because some guy I was serving drinks to, real estate agent from Chicago, lost a hundred thousand bucks at the craps table, then went back to his room and blew his brains out. Turns out he had marital problems, was looking to cash it in one way or the other. You get very jaded in that business, but Tiger was very respectful about the guy, and I found that very touching. I gave him my phone number, in case he had to ask me some more questions, and a week later, he asked me out to dinner. We dated for two months and then got married. In Vegas, things happen quickly.
           
“Thing was, as soon as we got hitched, Tiger lost his libido. Completely. Two, three times a month, if I was lucky. That’s a funny thing about me, Scootie – I like to have sex with the man I sleep with.”

Scootie surprised himself by feeling suddenly and intensely embarrassed.
           
“Scootie! You’re blushing! That’s so sweet. Are we getting too deep into Audrey’s sordid affairs?”
           
“Well,” said Scootie, fingering his breadstick like a cigar. “I guess it’s... well, we just met.”
           
“I’m sorry. But you know? After watching you pay such careful attention to my wall o’ percussion, I just knew you were someone I could talk to.”
           
“I’m flattered.”
           
“So where was I?”
           
“You were not screwing your husband.”
           
“Well! That’s better. So. We tried everything – marital aides, soft-porn, counseling, Kama Sutra. Nothin’. Six months ago, we signed the final papers. Cheers?”
           
“Congratulations,” said Scootie, clinking her glass. “But if it’s not too personal a question – what do you think caused Tiger’s mysterious lack of interest?”
           
“For a long time, I thought it was me – a natural response, given my religious upbringing. But I’ve got a theory. In Vegas, the idea of sex is so externalized. YOu can only take so many naked legs and tits and butts before you get a little bored of it all. And poor Tiger, he was right in the middle of it, every working day of his life.”
           
“So how did you get from there to here?” Scootie asked.
           
“Ah! Another of Tiger’s misfortunes. As soon as we signed the divorce papers, I took off on a rare gambling binge. In Vegas, smart girls like me never gamble – we see too much of what it can do to people. But that day seemed like a good time to break some personal taboos, so Katie McGregor and me took a thousand bucks that I was saving for a trip to Guadalajara, and we just went nuts! I was down to two hundred when I hit a hot streak on a roulette table, and walked away with ninety thousand dollars!”
           
Scootie let out a low whistle.
           
“And who shows up to do the story?”
           
“Oh, no,” said Scootie.
           
“The same poor sap who had just signed away any stake in his wife’s financial fortunes. Poor Tiger. I bought him a nice diamond earring for a going-away present. After that, it was straight to the coast. When I found a ready-made percussion shop for sale, I remembered all the Latin rhythms of my Miami childhood and jumped on it. Katie McGregor, I might add, is my assistant manager.”
           
They talked for four hours, all the way through dinner, a bread pudding dessert and three gin martinis. At a quarter to midnight, Audrey’s hazel eyes got big with ideas, and she took Scootie by the hand.
           
“What?” he said.
           
“There’s something I want to show you. Goodnight, Max.”
           
Max telegraphed a wink from behind the bar. “You take care, Audrey.”
           
Scootie had all kinds of ideas about where Audrey might be taking him, and every single one appealed to him. They climbed a twisting stairwell at the back of the percussion shop and came out on a rooftop deck. Scootie could make out a large shed-like form, covered in chicken wire, and heard a distinct baritone mumbling.
           
Audrey drew him to the door and ulatched it. “They’re so sweet when they’re sleeping. Very calm and unaware.”
           
She reached into a small wooden niche and pulled out the largest, most muscular pigeon he had ever seen. The bird opened its wide yellow eyes and burbled in protest as Audrey wrapped her fingers around its wings.
           
“A thoroughbred homer,” she said. “Raised for flight. A blue bar – you can see the stripes across his wings. Here. Hold him with one hand like this – make sure he can’t flap his wings – then hold him upside down and run your hand over his chest.”
           
Scootie followed her instructions with characteristic grace. After a couple of nervous struggles, the bird fell asleep in his hands.
           
“Just like I thought,” said Audrey. “You’re a natural.”
           
A shaft of moonlight lit up her lips, drawn to a devilish smile, and she came closer to kiss him, the way a thrice-divorced 30-year-old should kiss. Scootie lost his grip on the bird, who fell to the floor with a thump, then staggered back to his box.
           
Audrey laughed. “Okay. So maybe you’re not such a natural.”
           
Scootie took her downstairs and made love to her on a large taiko drum, then drove her home, two miles up the steep hillsides of Big Sur.



They spent the next night at Scootie’s hike-in campsite, in a field of sand-colored grass. Scootie roasted a marshmallow while Audrey talked about sex.
           
“Oh, and I understand this thing you men have about the doggie position. It’s an animalistic, tribal sort of thing, and you just love the way we look over our shoulders with that helpless look in our eyes. Not that I don’t like it – any new angle is a plus for a wise woman – but some of you guys get carried away, start smacking our cheeks and whooping like a bronc buster.”
           
Scootie jabbed his marshmallow into the fire, letting it torch to a bubbling black before blowing it out to consume the crispy skin.
           
“And it’s men like you – the ones who burn their marshmallows – who are the worst butt-riders of them all.”
           
“You’re wrong,” said Scootie, licking the mess from his fingers. “I prefer the female superior, so I can get my hands on all essential parts.”
           
Audrey sighed wickedly. “We’ll have to try that out – after a few more marshmallows. She retrieved her stick from the fire and extracted a marshmallow with a perfect Playboy-bunny tan, then popped it into her mouth. As she chewed, her expression grew surprisingly serious.
           
“My other weakness, Scootie, is that I like to talk with the men I have sex with, which contributed to my first and second divorces. They seemed to think that talking about it took the passion out of it. But what are we supposed to do? Read each other’s minds?” She turned her gaze to the orange breaches of the fire. “And I’m sorely afraid that once you hit that dream mansion, we won’t have any more times like this.”
           
Scootie began to protest.
           
“No,” said Audrey. “Let me finish. I am at least three, four, maybe twelve years from wanting to get involved with members of your particular gender. Nothing personal. But I have an idea.”
           
The idea was for Scootie to take a couple of Audrey’s pigeons to Hallis, breed them until he had a decent-sized flock, then release the original pair so they could fly back to Audrey’s. They would then exchange a dozen birds and use them to deliver messages to each other. They would write about sex, and the things they wrote would seem deeper and more real, because they would travel the long beaches and rocky coastlines of Monterey Bay on the leg of a beloved pet, arriving at the whims of airflow, weather and the inattention of predators. When the final pigeon was sent off, they would meet the following Saturday in Big Sur to replenish their troops and, if both parties were amenable, explore some of the issues brought up in the intervening weeks.
           
Which brought Scootie to the wide, uneven artichoke fields of Watsonville, zipping along under a bright, fogless sky. He recalled his and Audrey’s second night, when he stuck his head through the tentflap to discover a full moon coating the grass in silver.
           
The three years since had aged her not a bit – in fact, had taken a few years off, as she distanced herself from her failed marriages. They sat outside at a St. Patrick’s arts festival, surrounded by craft booths, kids splashing in a swimming pool, and an Irish folk band playing on the deck behind the Ventana (Scootie could swear he’d seen the same musicians playing polkas at Oktoberfest). The sun sparked off Audrey’s teeth as she bit into an ice cream cone.
           
“I love that thing you wrote about masturbation,” she said (a bit loud). “It’s the same with me. I’m constantly fantasizing about people I would have no business fucking around with. I think I even did my priest once. Or was that my rabbi?”
           
Scootie laughed. “Must be nice to have two religions to get you off. Being a born-and-bred agnostic, I sometimes feel like I don’t have enough taboos to break. By the way, that Xerox reduction technique is fabulous!”
           
“I was feeling guilty,” said Audrey. “My letters were getting longer, and the poor pigeons were listing on takeoff. Are they legible?”
           
“Yeah. I got one of those senior-citizen magnifying strips. I’ll see what I can do about using that technique myself. There’s a good copy shop in Half Moon Bay.”
           
“Why don’t you use the copier at work?”
           
“I’m deathly afraid I’m going to leave the original in the machine. My co-workers don’t need to know quite that much about me.”
           
“You’ve got amazingly small writing as it is. Good thing that’s not reflective of your other qualities.”
           
Scootie smiled and stretched his chest, still stiff from the drive down. “It’s not the size, honey, it’s how neatly you print.”
           
“Well, I was thinking,” said Audrey, getting that look in her eyes, “that since it’s so sunny, we can go to a secret cove I know of and chip into that outdoor-sex fantasy of yours.”
           
“That sounds dandy,” said Scootie, biting into his popsicle. “But I was thinking I might hold off this time.”
           
Audrey smiled. “Do we have a budding love interest?”
           
Scootie had no idea what the hell he was talking about. Was he intending to stay faithful to a married woman he might not ever...?
           
“Scootie? Are you all right?”
           
“Oh, uh, yes,” said Scootie. “Ya know? I think I’m being a bit rash about this. If you will forgive me, I’d like to recant my last statement.”
           
“And?”
           
“And fuck your brains out on a beach.”
           
“Now you’re talkin’!” Audrey placed a hand on Scootie’s ribcage and gave him a long vanilla kiss.
           
“And later on,” said Scootie, “we can try out that anal sex you were talking about. I still can’t believe you’ve never tried it.”
           
“I was always too shy to ask.”
           
“But not too shy to write.”
           
“The pigeons,” said Audrey, whacking Scootie on the butt, “are the couriers of truth.”



The next evening, sore all over, sunburned in new and unusual places, a dozen Big Sur homers mumbling in the back seat, Scootie passed the Santa Cruz Lighthouse to find the sun half-swallowed by the ocean. If a weekend of Audrey LaBrea cannot remove Juliana Kross from my head, he thought, I am in deep, deep trouble. He left the idea on a box kite over Natural Bridges, and returned to the highway for Hallis and home.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Cafe Phryque, FREE on Amazon Kindle, Oct. 18

Free on Kindle.



Deck


Coco Shell on new redwood,
soaking up sunrays,
chasing a golden tan.

I dip my brush and
slap it on. The open
grain fizzes like soda.

Coco rolls onto her stomach and undoes her top. I try not to stare.
           
“Was it hard being a stripper?”
           
She laughs.
           
“It was hard stopping. Men telling you you’re gorgeous and handing you cash.”
           
I kneel at the meeting of house and plank, sliding the stain along the siding, drawing it
forward to take out the laps.

“But you’re still in showbiz, right?”

A scornful yip.

“And free ocean voyages.”

Her voice sinks an octave.

“They hide us below decks like slaves. No fraternizing with passengers. Like I’m gonna
run off with some octogenarian with a blue pill.”

I crank the edges of a can and fill my tray to the grill. Then I dip the brush and work it
into the cracks.

“Ozzie?”

“Yes?”

“Is this place… private?”

I lean on my paintstick and scan the vicinity, endless walls of redwood and Douglas fir,
the yellow surprise of big-leaf maple.

“We’ve got one neighbor up the road, but I think you’re safe.”

“Good. We’ve got strict rules about tan lines.”

I hear her shifting on the chaise but stick to my work, scrubbing the inside of a knothole.

“Oh for God’s sake, would you go ahead and look? It’s not like you’d be the first. Or the
millionth.”

“Maestro!”

Rupert hails me from the drive. He’s wearing his client clothes, artfully layered to hide
the splashes of stain underneath.

“Yo! Bossman.”

He stands at the top of the steps and leans forward, appraising my work.

“Tremendous! Beautiful work, Maestro. Do you think we could’ve gotten away with
Golden Tan?”

I take off my hat and use it to wipe my forehead.

“No. There’s some old stain on that back section. Too much of a contrast.”

“Did you give it a light sand?”

“As always.”

He picks up a can and studies the label.

“Ah yes. Nothing like Coco Shell to cover the flaws.”

“It’s like dipping your deck in chocolate.”

“Aha! I may use that on a female client sometime.”

“As long as she doesn’t actually lick the deck.”

“Oh! Imagine the slivers. Well, I’m off. Must do an estimate in Scotts Valley. Wish me
luck!”

“Kick ass!”

Rupert walks to his truck, tossing micromanagement grenades.

“Remember, stop at five! Dewpoints! Oh, and tidy up the cans, would you?”

“Gotcha.”

“No fuck-ups!”

He revs the engine and charges the hill, kicking up gravel. Coco peers around the corner.

“No fuck-ups? Seriously?”

“Our company motto.”

She readjusts the chaise and settles back down. I take the prior invitation and give her a
once-over. Her skin is coffee and cream, with subtle gradations: Sumatra, Kona,
Ethiopian, Italian roast. Guaranteed for three years with normal sun exposure. She catches my
gaze and smiles.

“Do I pass muster?”

“Always, Coco. You’re gorgeous.”

“At forty bucks a gallon, I should be. So why does Rupert call you Maestro?”

I press the button on my CD player. It’s Renata Tebaldi, from Suor Angelica.

“Nice.”

“Also, I’m good with a stick.”

She stretches her arms.

“I will just bet you are.”

A swallowtail flutters the
railings and lands on
Coco’s stomach.

I dip my brush.
A breeze feathers the evergreens.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Frozen Music, FREE on Amazon Kindle, Oct. 16

Free on Amazon Kindle.


Six

Friday
Valzer cantabile



I read a collection of Grimm’s fairy tales last month, and their themes come back like heartbeats. The ugly villain does something to the beautiful victim – lays on a curse, puts her to sleep, occasionally even cuts off her head – and the hero must wander into a dark wood to do something about it: kill the monster, slay the witch, trick the ogre. The details stray all over the place, but one thing remains constant: you must always go into a dark place to save something beautiful.



A month and a half after our first date, Stacy and I had settled into a regular dating relationship. We saw each other about every three nights, going to the movies, touring wineries, building campfires on the beach, sleeping together on the weekends. I had the feeling that the only thing we needed to kick this into full gear was a minor trauma, some obstacle to force us into deciding just how badly we wanted to be with each other.

The friction came from Stacy’s circle of friends, and my desire to have her all to myself. The Love Generation wanted her to play the party girl; a requisite part of this was recreational drugs. I had just watched a friend flush several thousand dollars down the toilet when he got involved with a small-time cocaine dealer. Late one night, I arrived with a friend’s truck to move him out. The next day, the police raided the place.

I sat in a smoky poolroom, debating the merits of jazz fusion with Johnny, a tow truck driver who had some wild stories.

“The guy had a twenty-foot stretch limo, champagne all over the place, and when I hitched the thing up they rolled down the window and I see this nude woman in the back seat…”

I lost the story when I saw Stacy and her friends gathered at the end of the bar, holding a serious conference. A couple of guys broke off toward the restroom with a guy dressed all in leather. Stacy headed my way.

“Excuse me, Johnny. Can I have my dance partner back? I think Steve back there wants a word with you.”

“Yeah, sure, Stace.” Johnny grabbed his beer and wandered back to the bar.

What Stacy wanted to tell me was that she and her gang wanted to go off and party, and she was thinking it might be best if I didn’t come along. She didn’t think I would understand. What I found out later was that they’d gone off to snort coke, and no, I didn’t understand. But what could I say? I had no particular reason for living other than the affections of Stacy Wilkes, and why would I want to risk that on some small matter of principle? She at least had the decency to give me an anxious look as she left the bar. One thing was for sure. I had to go somewhere, had to occupy myself.

Joe Fatazzio held the dual honors of manager of Catch This and owner of the county’s best comic book store. He also moonlighted as a singer/guitarist, and for ten years had entertained an increasingly familial ring of fans at the Grapesteak Restaurant in Capitola. I had yet to see one of his performances, but I remembered Stacy mentioning they were on Saturday nights.

The coastline clouds of Monterey Bay had a habit of letting you know exactly how they felt. During July and August, they huddled up against the hills. Come September, they headed off into the ocean, leaving the drive on Highway One a paring-knife slice through moonless nights. I circled the offramp and entered the lounge of the Grapesteak, sitting against the far wall with a seven-and-seven.

Joe leaned to the folk-tinged music of the sixties and seventies: Gordon Lightfoot, Harry Chapin, Pete Seeger, Everly Brothers. He sang with a barrel-chested baritone that matched his thick beard. I was suitably impressed that he played four-hour sets, but I was beginning to understand how he did it. A lot of his show was talking.

“This thing, ‘Red Rubber Ball,’” he said, setting down his drink. “Great melody, great hook. Some of the stoopidest lyrics you ever heard, but you know who wrote ‘em?”

Someone yelled, “Richard Nixon!”

“Wise ass,” said Joe. Okay, let’s start from the beginning. Three college musicians from Pennsylvania go to Atlantic City, this New York attorney sees ‘em and likes ‘em. One of the attorney’s clients is Brian Epstein, manager of a band called the Beatles. One night the attorney is hanging out with Epstein and the boys, says he knows this group that’s looking for a name. John Lennon says” – Joe adopts a very bad Liverpool accent – “‘Wuhl, I’ve always thought a good name would be Cyrkle. C-Y-R-K-L-E.’ So already, these three have a name given to them by John Freakin’ Lennon, right?

“Next thing you know, they’re hanging out with Simon and Garfunkel in Greenwich Village. Artie and Paul hire their bass player, Tom Dawes, to tour with them on a month-long tour. Paul plays him this song, ‘Red Rubber Ball,’ says he can have it if he wants it. Dawes asks Epstein. Epstein says it’s great, you should record it. It’s a huge smash, number two on the charts behind Sinatra and ‘Strangers in the Night.’ Then, Epstein asks the band if they want to open for the Beatles on what would prove to be their final tour, in 1966, so now they’re playing in front of 70,000 screaming fans every night.

“But here’s the capper: Paul Simon offers the band another song, and they turn it down. They turn it down!” Joe slaps his forehead. “‘No thanks, we’ve got enough songs for now. Really you’ve done enough for us.’ DUH!” Joe waits a few seconds for that to sink in. “And what’s the name of the song? ‘The 59th Street Bridge Song,” also known as…” He waves a hand toward his audience.

“‘Feelin’ Groovy!’” says the wise-ass.

“‘Feelin’ Groovy!’” says Joe. “Idiots! Well, the gods of rock ‘n’ roll were quick to mete out punishment. The group was driven quickly back into obscurity, where they rightly belonged, except for Tom Dawes, who went into commercial jingles and wrote that ‘plop, plop, fizz, fizz’ thing for Alka-Seltzer. And now, I’ll sing the stoopid song for you.”

He followed that up with “Those Were the Days, My Friend.” When he got to the lah-lah-lah chorus, he let the audience fill in the final six lahs. This was great medicine; I really owed Joe for this one. Actually, I was feeling so good, I was thinking of calling it quits and heading home, when they walked in.

I never figured out if she brought the party there because she thought I’d be there, or if this was just more stoopid luck. They were whispering and walking tippy-toe, in that way that always draws more attention than it diverts. I pretended not to see them, but then Stacy sat right behind me. I froze for a count of three, then I figured what the hell. I turned and found her wearing her bad-puppy face, the cute collie seeking forgiveness for eating the roast. What could I ever say to those big brown eyes but yes?”

“Hi,” she said.

“Hi.”

She took my hand in both of hers and studied it, trailing a finger over the knuckles down to my wrist.

The custom at Joe’s performances was to write requests on cocktail napkins, then fold the napkin around a generous tip and pass it to the stage. Stacy wrote something, put in a twenty and struggled between the tables to hand it to Joe. Joe raised his eyebrows, then went on to the next song, “It’s All Over Now.”

When he finished, he looked my way and winked. “There’s a guy here tonight, plays a hell of a mean shortstop on my softball team. I got a napkin here says, ‘Sing with Michael,’ and since I don’t know any song called ‘Sing with Michael,’ I’m going to invite Michael the shortstop up to the stage.”

I had heard about people singing with Joe before, mainly this annoying friend of ours who told this story about singing “Summertime” with Dizzie Gillespie when she was a kid, and then of course she gets up with Joe and can’t remember a word. Hmm, this was not an encouraging line of thought. But there I was, sitting at my table, and suddenly all these competing musical ideas are flying at me like yellowjackets. Something high, something difficult. With harmonies. And romantic. And something Joe might know. Miraculously, all these requirements managed to shuffle the list down to a single tune: “If I Fell,” by the Beatles.

I boarded the small stage; Joe gave me a stool and a microphone. We conducted the negotiations – me on the high melody, him on the low harmonies – and we got down to business. The intro sounded terrible, which it always does cause it’s so hokey British music hall – but once we broke into parts we were on it like cats on new furniture. Joe liked it so much he slowed down the tempo just to enjoy the sound. The audience was probably in shock, and Stacy was just glowing.

She wouldn’t take me into her condo that night; she wanted to sit outside. The stars were still out, handfuls of glitter in the late-summer sky. We faced each other on a bench off the courtyard lawn, holding each other’s hands. She looked at me and broke into an embarrassed smile.

“Michael, I really don’t know how to say this but you have just blown me away. I’ve never fallen this hard for anyone, and that’s why I had to get away from you tonight. I’m scared.”

“It’s…”

“Hush-sh-sh. Michael, I’m… hold me.”

I put my arms around her neck and pulled her closer, looking past her at the lights of the harbor. After a minute, we pulled back.

“The company wants me to go back to headquarters in New Jersey pretty soon. I’m not sure when it’s going to happen just yet, but when it does… I was wondering if… if you’d like to go with me.”

She started to cry.

“I love you, Michael. I really do.”

I kissed her, feeling dizzy, feeling the stars eddying above us.

“I love you, Stacy.”

It was the first time I had ever said that. Somewhere in the foolish chaos of teenhood I had decided to treat those words as precious gems, not to be given away easily. Now, I had just condemned myself to adulthood.



The scene is the Bus Barn Theater in Los Altos – which, yes, used to be a Bus Barn. They’re doing Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound, which is a bit of a mind-bending affair. A cornball mystery is taking place onstage, but there are also two theater critics, who are part of the play. The third level is me, the theater critic critiquing the theater critics who are critiquing the play but are also part of the play. Shew!

Intermission is another scene: a warm Friday evening in late May. The theater borders on a soccer field, bright yellow nets hooked over the goalposts for Saturday morning games. A dark figure traces the chalked boundaries, sipping at his coffee, looking pensive. You’d wonder why anyone would tackle such an anxious-looking person.

“Michael?”

“Hmm?”

“Michael? Is that you?”

He can’t see her face, but she comes to him with arms spread, so he has no choice.

“Michael! God! It’s been so long!”

Three exclamations in a row. It’s got to be Suzanne.

“Suzanne! What are you doing on this side of the hill?”

“I’m from this side of the hill. I’ve come back for good.”

Her eyes scrunch upward, that smile she makes with her whole face, cat-like. “Oh, Michael, it’s so damn good to see you. You always were the best lay in the county.”

She was a hobby actress. Not a big talent, just in it for fun, and the cast parties. They were at a party in Ben Lomond, in a small mountain home, and they kept rubbing against each other till he couldn’t avoid the subject.

“Have you ever just slept with someone? Just sharing the bed? I’ve always thought that would be kind of nice.”

Even now, he can’t believe he would use such a bullshit line – but he’s pretty sure she didn’t believe it, anyway. They lasted ten minutes before his hand drifted to her breast and it was on. Six times that night. A personal best. It wasn’t till three weeks later that he realized he didn’t have the slightest bit of a thing for her, and she was pretty special, the way she took his honesty as genuine. They even agreed to leave room for the occasional booty-call, but when he saw her at a party, cavorting with a Deadhead named Joey, he was actually pretty happy for her.

Suzanne was still exclaiming over six times when the theater lights blinked on and off.

“Guess we’d better hit the trail,” he said. He took a last slug of coffee and poured the rest onto the grass. Suzanne stood in her spot, rubbing a hand down the side of her jeans.

“Listen, Michael, I’m here with some friends. But would you like to join us afterward for some drinks?”

He folded his program and slapped it against his thigh. “Yeah! That would be great. I’ll meet you right here after the show.”

“Okay.” She smiled and ruffled a hand over the top of his head.

“Walk you in?” he asked.

“Sure.” He pivoted and offered his arm. They waded into the entrance, and she left him at his seat, throwing a glance over her shoulder.



The theater critic critiquing the theater critics critiquing the show stole out the exit while applause shook the corrugated steel. Life on the edge of living made an exhilarating picture, but he wasn’t ready yet for another victory. He backed up and kicked a pretend ball into the bright yellow net.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Interplay, #1 on Amazon's free performing arts list

FREE on Amazon Kindle, Oct. 14.



Creative Lollygagging

 

(Excerpt from Interplay: Finding the Keys to Creativity)


Experiencing Writer’s Block? Maybe you need to work harder on working less.

First published in Writer’s Digest

Perhaps the biggest mistake that writers make is thinking that they can sit down in front of a notebook or computer screen and wait for ideas to simply show up.
           
Nope. You’d better have some ideas before you sit down, and you’d better figure out a system for harvesting those ideas.
           
You can start by thinking of yourself as a satellite dish. The way that a dish receives signals is a decidedly passive activity, but nothing comes in until the equipment is properly charged and opened to the universe.
           
A few years ago, ensconced in one of my “brewing” modes – done with my last novel, waiting for the next to come a-knockin’ – I decided to take my dish to the beach and open ‘er up.
           
About a half-mile along, I noticed a friendly spark among the small rocks, and found bits of frosted glass – triangular shards worn to a gem-like smoothness by sand and wave. I remembered the fascination I felt as a child – that nature could take a piece of manmade litter and make it so beautiful. I walked a little farther, discovered another smattering, and had the following thought: What if someone became so obsessed with frosted glass that he decided to make it his life’s work?
           
I didn’t know it yet, but the satellite dish had just taken in an entire novel.
           
But not just that. It also took in the process for imagining a novel. In the following months, as I continued my beach hikes in search of frosted glass (if my character was obsessed, I had to be obsessed), I discovered an intriguing pattern. I arrived at the beach between chapters (my characters dangling in mid-air, awaiting their instructions); I left with pocketfuls of glass and my next chapter, nicely mapped out in my head.
           
It began to seem, in fact, that my novel was scattered along the beach, like pirate’s treasure, and all I had to do was come along and scoop it up. The real secret, however, came from my protagonist, Frosted Glass Man, as he was helping a neophyte who had lost her "glass vision."

“Let me guess,” he said. “Suddenly you can’t tell frosted glass from the Queen of England, and you’re sort of losing your place on the sand. Feeling disoriented.”
           
“Yeah. That about describes it.”
           
He grinned. “You’re trying too hard. When you begin to lose your sight, just rub the last piece you found, and listen to the ocean.”

In other words, if you subtly stimulate your other senses – in this case, tactile (the glass) and auditory (the ocean) – you can take the “edge” away from your conscious, purposive mind, return the satellite dish to a state of active passivity, and open yourself to the forces of serendipidity. And if you come to the beach for frosted glass, you’ll also get ideas for your story, slipping in along your peripheral vision.

A Definition


So what makes lollygagging creative lollygagging? Let’s look at the basic elements:

Activity: We are not talking about sitting around on a couch. Just as a satellite dish needs electricity, you need some blood pumping into that brain.

Low Focus: Neither should the activity be so intense that you don’t have time to think (Grand Prix and ice hockey are out). Look for a mellow pursuit, surrounded by low-level distractions.

Separation: If you don’t hie thee away from the computer, the TV, the bills and the kid, you’re headed for a mighty wall o’ brainlock.

May We Suggest…


Mobile (because it’s hard to preoccupy a moving target): biking, hiking, kayaking, Rollerblading, a long road or train trip.

Idle Pursuits: fly-fishing, horseshoe-tossing, kite-flying, a solo game of eight-ball (loser buys), a solo game of bowling (winner buys), a session at the batting cage or driving range.

Boring Jobs (for those who simply must be productive): paint the garage, rake the leaves, pressure-wash the deck, clean out the roof gutters, mow the lawn.

Dilletanting (only effective if you try something for which you have absolutely no talent): abstract painting, composing chance music on the piano, creating monsters from modeling clay, inventing a ballet to your favorite symphony, pounding on a conga drum.

The Coffeehouse Ritual

           
If you’d like to take this one step further, try combining your lollygagging with your writing ritual. The Coffeehouse Ritual is a routine I’ve followed for 15 years, with excellent results (in fact, I used it to write this story).

Pick Ur Place: Locate a coffeehouse a mile or two from your home (ideally, a 30-45 minute walk).

The Walk-Up: Head off at an easy pace (no power-walking, please) and let your thoughts drift. For the first few blocks, you’ll likely be occupied by small matters of the day. Don’t worry – this is a necessary step, one that will clear out your mind for the work ahead. As you pass the halfway point, your thoughts should turn naturally to the project at hand.

Write! Buy something large and sippable, find a non-jiggling table and go to it. Note: keep your coffeehouse sacred. Be polite but not excessively friendly to baristas and regulars. If a friend drops by, tell them that you have five minutes to talk, but then you really need to get back to work. If they’re not buying it, tell them you’re on deadline.

The Walk-Down: The hike back home is often the most rewarding part of the process. Still adrift on your creative buzz, you may find that your satellite dish is more open than ever. It’s a great time to think about what you’ve just written, and to contemplate future developments.

The Lollygagging Habits of Successful Writers

Tanya Shaffer, playwright, Baby Taj

“Before I was a mama,… I would just get in the car and drive for a while and see where I ended up. Out of that came a habit of staying a few days at the Motel 6 in Petaluma.”

Mary Bracken Phillips, lyricist/playwright, The Haunting of Winchester

“I walk with my dogs (one Australian shepherd and one border collie) on the Croton Aqueduct, a real old road in the woods. And a lyric I was stuck on is suddenly there.”

Jane Hirshfield, poet, After (HarperCollins)
           
“When I’m actually working on a poem, I often do something I think of after the fact as ‘taking it for a walk.’ That is, once I’ve reached a certain stage of revision, I set the poem aside and go walking – but the poem often starts saying itself in my mind – often with new ideas for revisions, additions, changes.”


Photo by Janine Watson

Saturday, October 11, 2014

FREE on Amazon Kindle, Oct. 12: Fields of Satchmo


FREE on Amazon Kindle.

Pal

Cinema clown on the
center stripe, cleansing the
world of appurtenance.

A hat on a table.
Poet in a parking garage.
A baseball. A pen.

Deal a deck of human flaws,
take none. You are an
augmented note, non-essential,
a little bit off.

Yes, I love you.
But you should fear your friends;
they know your crimes.

Let me buy you a hot fudge sundae.
Let me buy you a cast.
Let me be the first to sign it.



California Quarterly
Orange, California



Photo by MJV

Friday, October 10, 2014

Litter


Litter

Kinetically armatured to the
greater world, I am all-fire,
I am beasthood, I am gravenous.

The first chapter of an epic involves
lostliness, desperado, great moons of
pain and devastation.
You couldn’t write a blues
song without it.

But even Caravaggios have
daubs of light, even
ghost towns have sheltered
corners where feral labradors give birth.

Her pups wander into the
street and are picked off by tourists,
drizzled with ooh and ah,
taken home and given frontier
names like Pistol and Cody.
Mother stands at the crest of the hill,
breathing the last grains of scent as
her runt grows smaller in a
station wagon window.

She paws the ground.
Goes to the stream for a drink.
Smells a rabbit.
The epic begins.





Iodine Poetry Journal
Charlotte, North Carolina

from the collection Fields of Satchmo 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

FREE on Amazon Kindle, Oct. 8: The Grand Fool Double


FREE on Amazon Kindle, Oct. 8.

Chapter One

When he sees it in his dreams – the ball bounding toward him like some round promise of destiny – Billy realizes that he cannot move his arms, because Frankie Minor has wrapped him in an ill-timed embrace. The ball flies past, so close that he can see the stitching. Billy’s anger is animal and quick, until he looks behind them and sees the ball bouncing into the right-field corner. The dream fades as McCarthy rounds third.

When he sees it in his dreams, the ball arcing toward the spruce forest like a Satanic missile, David realizes that he has superpowers. He takes a deep breath and blows the ball far into the woods, where it will do no further harm. Where it will not inspire his best friend to launch a Willie Maysian sprint away from the infield, and to end up in a crumpled heap at the left-field fence, his heart collapsing on itself like a termite-riddled shack.

They gather on the end of the jetty at Point Brown. David cannot recall the significance of this spot, but the will was clear. The trek was perilous – a half mile into the ocean along a narrow strand of rocks – but the late May weather is a miracle of sun and calm.
            David sets his sportcoat on a rock and offers the brief tribute he’s been running through his mind all morning. A man of music, and nature, and laughter. The kindest man I have ever known. He tells Larry’s favorite joke – the one that ends “tank tankity tank” – and is relieved when everybody laughs. And he tries, in his creaky bass-player’s voice, to sing a few measures of “Someone to Watch Over Me,” because that was Larry’s favorite song. He’s surprised to find that he’s not crying. He turns, opens the lid and sends the ashes into the ocean.
            When they return to the beach, Elena’s eyes are too dark and moist for him to fathom. Pablo and Derek are annoyed, but they’re teenage boys, it’s their job. He’s happy enough when they take turns slapping him on the shoulder.
            “I hear you were wonderful,” says Elena. “You’re such a good friend.” She hugs him, but he pulls back.
            “Dios mio!” (This is their little joke, the Anglo husband with his Spanish eruptions.) “I left mi jacqueta on the jetty.”
            “Silly gringo. You’d better get it – it’s your favorite.”
            “Okay. Ten minutes, tops.”
            “Don’t hurt yourself.”
            Derek and Pablo do their best not to groan.
            David runs the jetty, the same game that he played with his boys when they were small. Find a flat surface, stick it, look for the next. Elena couldn’t come to the scattering because she’s too fat. He hates to think these things. David slows his pace. He’s tired; he’s near the end. He hears singing.
            He sees a scarlet hunting cap, in the Bavarian style. A short black feather rises from the band like the flag on a mailbox. The cap looks like it’s gone through hell, and so does its owner, a human fencepost dressed all in denim. His wiry hair and beard are the color of rust, his skin like a sunbaked saddle. He aims a crooked, avian nose toward the landing point of Larry’s ashes and sings “‘Round Midnight” in a sandpaper baritone.
            David was wrong. This was Larry’s favorite song. And he knows why he didn’t sing it, because he can feel it taking him apart, brick by brick.

Photo by MJV