Monday, June 30, 2014

Nature Boy, Chapter Twelve: Flirting with a Firebird

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Flirting with a Firebird

The problem with the West is its essential interminability. The eastern half of Colorado is at least colorful – golden grasslands, great mountains in the rear-view. And Kansas starts out all right, blacktop running the long hills like a self-serve rollercoaster, patches of green prefiguring the onset of the Midwest. And then flat. A cornfield! And then flat.

On the map, Kansas looks innocent, a homey rectangle. On the road, however, it’s a lo-o-ong rectangle. And Skye lives in a new world now. He envisions the tops of skyscrapers, lit up from the gargoyles, sailing the clouds like the tallest of tall ships. At the next rest area, he digs into the stash of maps behind his seat and discovers a plug-in GPS. He uses it to locate the Kansas City Airport (three miles off of I-70) and leaves his pimped-out Toyota in long-term parking. He strolls the concourse, window-shopping the ticket counters, and ends up at United.

“Hi. Looking for the next flight to New York.”

The plane tracks a gentle semicircle over the metropolis, affording a view of the night’s treasurebox, half the lights in the civilized world. He grabs his carry-on, catches the shuttle to Pennsylvania Station, and finds himself hailing a cab across the street from Madison Square Garden. It seems like five minutes ago he was peeing in the middle of a Nevada highway. He jumps into a cab and greets an extremely thin driver, Puerto Rican or something like it, a silver lightning bolt dangling from his right ear.

“Where ya headed?” He smacks his chewing gum, loud enough for percussion.

“You know a good after-hours jazz joint?”

“Kinda mellow?”


He smacks his gum a few more times. “Matthew’s! Greenwich Village.”

“Let’s do it.”

He alights at Bleecker and 6th Avenue, before a big black door and blue neon letters in Helvetica font: MATTHEW’S. Inside, it’s a little too nice to seem genuine, but then he’s heard all the real hipsters have fled to the East Village. The tables are stained white wood with inlays of black onyx, over a black tiled floor. Skye ducks to the back, sliding onto an upholstered bench and stashing his suitcase under the table. He orders a Manhattan and receives a visit from a pale, dapper man with moussed blond hair.

“Excuse me,” he says. “Are you by any chance a member of the homosexual class?”

Skye blinks twice. “I’m sorry, no.”

The man gives him an embarrassed smile. “Sorry. It’s late and my gaydar is all effed up.”

“No problem.”

The band creeps into an intriguingly slow version of “Cotton Tail.” A large grizzled black man steers the piano, accompanied by a tall, thin black man on bass and a curiously small Italian-looking dude on a cocktail drum kit. They pick it up into a slow swing. Skye is just settling into the groove when a stunning woman sits across from him and slides a checkered case under the chair.

“Mind if I join you?”

“Not at all.”

She turns sideways to watch the band, listening carefully. She’s wearing a red cocktail dress with white arrowhead spangles. The hem settles at her knee but it’s clear that her legs are extremely long. She has thick red hair, falling in waves past her shoulders. Her face is cat-like: sharp brown eyes, a small nose, thin, pliable lips. The band chatters to an unresolved ending, and she unleashes a Broadway smile.

She claps loudly and shouts “Yesss!” The piano player searches the room and gives her a wave. The bassist hits a walkline that morphs into “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby.” The pianist throws a chiming chord, then another. The redhead drinks it in, then turns to Skye.

“So, Mister Guggenheim. How many minutes have you been in town?”

“Twenty-seven. Is it obvious?”

“Suitcase under the table?”

“Well you’ve got a case.”

“My case is different.”

“How so?”

“It’s magical.”

She speaks precisely, taking care to strike all the consonants. Skye lapses into a long thought that takes a brief time: if this is going to be something, he’s going to be painfully honest. He folds his hands, a dutiful witness, and testifies.

“I’m a journalist from San Francisco. I came into a lot of money, so I took off on a road trip. Kansas was boring the hell out of me, so I hopped a flight to New York and asked the cabbie to take me to a good late-night jazz joint.”

She gives him a studied look, reading his intentions, and then smiles. “I think you and I could have an interesting time. What’s your name?”

“Skye Pelter.”

“No, really, what’s your name?”

Skye chuckles. “Yeah, I get that a lot. What’s your name?”

“Delilah Coswell. Of the Tampa Bay Coswells. Are you able to cede control, Skye? To let someone else drive?”

Skye thinks about it, rolling his knuckles along the tabletop. “I think that might be nice. I’m assuming you would be the driver?”

The conversation is turning otherworldly, two lawyers haggling a prenup. Delilah combs her fingers down either side of her hair, stopping at the ends to give a subtle tug.

“I would be… the stage director.” She looks toward the trio, which has slowed into the haunting intro of “Stardust,” and raises a finger. “’Scuse me. And don’t you dare leave.”

She rises and takes a precise walk to the stage, settling on a chair next to the bass player. Her case contains a silver trombone. The band repeats the intro, the pianist tossing out speckled variations, as Delilah assembles the slide and makes a few quiet blows into the mouthpiece. They reach the end of the intro and leave it dangling, the drummer feathering the snare with his brush. Delilah climbs three notes to the melody and is joined by the rhythm section as the pianist plays little bits of birdsong. Delilah plays it straight, a warm brown tone, and gives the lines a beautiful shape, clipping here, extending there.

One time through is all she requires. She receives the traditional soloist applause and holds her trombone across her lap as the pianist takes one more go-round, wrapping the progressions in rollercoaster scales. He climbs to a high trill and fades it off like an oceanbound seagull. Two dozen late-nighters give a bleary applause.

“The lovely Delilah,” says the pianist. “Our favorite dropper-inner.”

Skye is still applauding as she approaches the table. She gives a deep Shakespearean bow, holding her trombone like a bouquet, then sits down to sort the pieces back into her case.

“A leftover from high school,” she explains. “It’s sweet of them to let me play.”

The drummer mixes up a samba, striking the clave beats on the rim of his snare as the bassist plays “The Shadow of Your Smile.” Delilah slips onto the bench next to Skye, opens his palm and traces the lines. Satisfied with her reading, she folds her fingers into his and watches the trio. He has known her, so far, for twelve minutes.

A short cab drive later, they’re in Tribeca, at a warehouse-looking club with a brick façade and a line stretching around the corner.

“Oh man, that doesn’t look promising.”

“There are no problems when you’re with Delilah.”

They head for the back of the building, where a man in jeans and a black T-shirt is muscling beer kegs into a service elevator.

“Hi Ziggy.”

He nudges the keg into place and looks up. “Hey there, Delilah.”


“Sorry. Going down?”

“Yes. Please.”

Ziggy slides the accordion gate, and the elevator’s gears grind into action. They descend for a very long time.

“Club at the Center of the Earth?” Skye asks.

“Just about,” says Delilah.

Finally, they klunk to a stop. Delilah takes Skye into a dead-end hallway and gives him a kiss that goes on for a while. She releases him with a smile. “Sorry. Just had to know how that felt.”

“Apology accepted.”

She flattens a hand against his chest. “Here’s the agenda. I will take our cases to a nice hidey-hole. Your assignment is to go through that door, get a drink and keep yourself amused. You can even do a little flirting if you like. I am not the jealous type. You will be seeing me in about a half hour.”

She slaps his ass and walks away. Skye watches attentively, amazed at the grace of her locomotion. The mystery door reveals a short black hallway and a young-looking bouncer who eyes him warily.

“Hi. I came in with Delilah.”

The bouncer gives a knowing smile and waves him through. What greets him first is the music: Indian, tribal, with a techno background. The bass shakes the floor; the drums are surprisingly crisp. The basement is three stories tall, painted black. A web of luminous pipes and wires covers the walls like foliage, breaking here and there into shapes: fern, tree trunk, green panther, blue snake, an oversized flower bursting with red wires. A bar runs the leftward wall, sheltered by palm trees dotted with low-level white lights.

The front wall offers a stage, and the stage sports a volcano of a dozen different greens, twenty feet tall, magma flowing down its sides in streams of orange, red and yellow. At its left stands a circle of percussionists, augmenting the music with conga, bongo, djembe, doumbek, tabla and hand chimes, plus a sinewy black dancer in African garb with bells and goat’s hooves tied to his ankles, waist and wrists.

At the foot of the volcano stand two DJs in green camo jumpsuits, massaging a trio of turntables and associated electronics. Directly before them is a wide dance floor, covered with what looks like a jungle of trees in a high wind. Despite all the illuminated objects, the dancers remain in darkness, caught here and there by a strobe or squares of roaming colored light.

The final touch is a quartet of birdcages dangling from the ceiling, occupied by dancers in bird-like body paints. Skye likes the idea that they’ve divided it evenly (near as he can tell) between men and women. He manages to shout out an order for a beer as the nearest cage is pulled up through a hole in the ceiling.

The beer is ten bucks, which would have killed him a month ago. He finds a railing spot next to the dance floor and studies the hoi polloi.

“Kind of intimidating, isn’t it?!”

He turns to find a cute Jewess with a thick head of black, wavy hair.

“Pardon?!” he half-yells.

She smiles and pulls up to his ear. “I’d love to dance but I might not make it out alive!”

Skye would like to say something devilishly clever but all he’s got it, “Yeah, me too!” Brilliant.

She’s got eyes that are jet-black and luminescent at the same time, and a Girl Scout smile that’s just killing him. Clearly, she had to work up some courage to try this.

“What if I acted as your bodyguard?!”

The smile widens. “Sure!”

He takes her hand and leads her into the mob, which sucks them in like quicksand. Skye has never been a clubber, but he can see how it serves to knock down inhibitions. The ratio of bodies-per-square-foot guarantees a certain number of tactile accidents, and the only way to keep track of your partner is to grab hold. His Jewish friend is wearing a black sequin halter top over buoyant breasts, and is forced by the crowd to press them into his chest. He tries to brace her by settling his hands at her waist and is pleased to find taut muscle. The music shifts to Brazilian, a little slower and tastier. The fourth birdcage has reappeared, descending slowly from the ceiling.

Skye leans to his partner’s ear. “Had enough?”

She laughs. “Oh God yes!”

They squirm their way off the dance floor and discover the miracle of an empty table. Skye leaves to get some drinks. As the bartender grinds up his mai-tais, he checks out the occupant of the fourth birdcage: a tall woman painted in swirls of red and orange, circles of yellow around her eyes and a plume of black feathers descending from her head to her waist. Watching her movements, he catches the strategy of dancing in a confined, non-anchored space: plant your feet and let your torso do the work.

Great, now he’s flirting with a firebird. He picks up his mai-tais and runs the gauntlet back to date number two.

“Thanks!” says Jewish girl. She takes a sip. “I love mai-tais! My name’s Rachel!”

“I’m Skye! Hey, what’s the name of this place?!”

“The Jungle!”

Skye laughs. “That’s a little on the nose!”

“A little what?!”

He puts a finger on his nose. “A little obvious! It’s a writing term!”

“Did you come by yourself?!” She slides a hand onto his knee.

“No! Came with a friend!”

“Oh! Is he off dancing?!”

Skye considers his recent vow of forthrightness and decides that it is all-encompassing.

“It’s a she!” This small bolt of confession acts like a border collie, herding random bits of information into a useful realization. “That’s her in the cage! The firebird!”

The slump in Rachel’s shoulders is both flattering and guilt-making. He gives her credit, though. She bulls on through in order to remain pleasant.

“She’s good! How long have you known her?!”

Truth. Shit. “Two hours!”

Another slump. A simmering annoyance. “I have no idea how they do that! I would be scared out of my mind! So are you traveling?!”

Skye takes the offramp with pleasure and gives her a sexless account of his adventures. This gives Rachel the chance to finish her mai-tai and make a graceful exit to reconvene with her friends. In the real world, Rachel would be a much more reasonable woman for him to go out with. When he returns his gaze to the birdcage, the real world can go to hell.

They cab it to Chelsea, to an all-night diner covered with French images: mimes, Gerard Depardieu, the Tour de France. The salt and pepper shakers are Eiffel towers. The menus are in English, but still confusing.

“Am I not getting something?” asks Skye.

“Pour quoi?”

“We have petit, moyenne and le mangnifique. But of what?”

“Oh!” says Delilah. “Excuse-moi. This place serves pommes frites, and nothing else.”

“French fries?”

“Non! Pommes frites! And twenty-seven different toppings.”

Their waitress arrives, dressed as someone from Les Miz. Delilah orders four-cheese Alfredo; Skye, Thai peanut sauce.

“I hate to admit it,” says he, “but this is tres bien.”

She smiles in the Cheshire fashion. “Something about the Jungle makes me crave carbs.”

He swipes a spot of red paint from her neck. “You were fairly amazing up there.”

“Not bad for someone with a fear of heights.”


“A friend of mine took me to that club and said, ‘Oh! You could never do that.’ What she didn’t know was, I am completely unable to resist a dare.”

“Has it lessened your fear?”

“Not much. But now I’m better equipped to control it. Once in a while, I still get this inner voice saying, Delilah! What the fuck are you doing up here?”

Skye lets out a laugh that turns into a yawn.

“Poor baby!”

He stretches his arms. “Woke up in Colorado.”

“Don’t worry. We’ll get you to bed as soon as Mama loses her adrenaline.”

He rubs his eyes and finds that he can’t re-open them more than half-way. “So is this a thing? Are you a Renaissance woman?”

“I am the world’s biggest dilettante.”


She bats her eyelashes. “Do you know the etymology of ‘dilettante’?”

“Absolutely not.”

“In Italian, it is the present participle of the word ‘dilettare,’ which means ‘to delight.’”

“Well you certainly do that.”

She smiles more brilliantly than a person should at four in the morning. Skye takes a moment to rest in her brown eyes.

“Does this pattern continue? Are you also a drum major? Tightrope walker?”

Delilah holds up a trio of freshly Alfredo’d frites. “We’ll just have to see, won’t we?” And chews them up.

Photo by MJV

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Nature Boy, Chapter Eleven: Fangs at the Ready

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Fangs at the Ready

The Serpentine is a single golden door between two of Denver’s ugliest skyscrapers. The only thing approaching a sign is an Arizona sidewinder in the shape of an S.

“That’s it?” says Skye.

“You don’t like?” asks Sigh.

“What is says to me is, We’re so fucking hip we don’t even have to tell you where we are.”

“And that’s a bad thing?”


Sigh opens the golden door and leads him inside. The first long hallway is painted deep purple. The right-hand wall features a silver-blue anaconda, thirty feet long. A jog to the left offers a yellow hall with a gold-brown Burmese python. To the right, a lime-green straightaway hosting an army of dark-green garter snakes. Another left: burnt orange, seven cobras, standing at attention before a charmer. A right turn into a set of switchbacks, each corner marked with a single snake and its identity: water moccasin, gopher snake, copperhead, black samba.

Pacing the turns, Sigh calls back. “Okay, at this point I think they’re just fucking with us.”

Finally, they arrive at another golden door, with another sidewinder. Sigh pulls it open to reveal the most surprising thing of all: fresh air. The Serpentine is a perfect square of open space surrounded by the backs of four buildings. The left half features an awning of galvanized steel, sheltering an espresso counter with a bright aluminum façade. The end of the counter makes a U-turn into the dining space, a silvery zig-zag that breaks here and there into benches and tables.

The right half is open to the elements and populated by black tables that are supposed to look like wrought iron. A series of concrete steps rises to a broad stage. The wall behind the stage features a frieze of a rattlesnake, ten feet high and coiled, fangs at the ready, as if it’s about to spring from the wall.

“Okay,” says Skye. “I gotta admit, I’m intrigued.”

“Whattya want?” asks Sigh. “Latte? Guinness?”

“No,” says Skye. “I’ll get it.”

“Yo, brotherman. You get the big stuff, I’ll get the small stuff.”

Skye laughs. “You already got me a Brandy.”

“Or Sandy. Or Mandy.”

“Hi guys,” says Peter. He sets down his guitar and gives them a once-over. “Oh, I get it. Y’all had a great time without me, didn’t you?”

Sigh wraps him in a hug and lifts him off the ground.

“Peter, Peter, Peter. I have a great time regardless.”

Peter regains his footing and gives Skye a handshake. “So now you know Sigh Cavalier.”

“He’s a great provider,” says Skye. Sigh snickers.

Peter holds up a hand. “Okay. Stop right there. This has the markings of a long story, and I’m running late. How’s my car?”

“Soul annoyed,” says Sigh.

“The starter,” says Skye. “Had the same thing myself three weeks ago. Didn’t cost much at all.”

“Good,” says Peter. “I am going to pay you back.”

“You are so not.”

“Yeah. You’re probably right.”

Sigh butts in. “Gentlemen? Drinks?”

“Cappuccino,” says Peter.

“I’ll take that Guinness,” says Skye.

By the time Peter sets up, a dozen Friends of Sigh have settled at the stagefront tables. Twenty non-listeners are scattered towards the awning, hovering over laptops, chatting over drinks, snacking on pastries. Sigh takes a seat behind the mic and smiles.

“Hi. The folks at the Serpentine are shy, so they asked me to make the introduction.” He takes a deep breath and rubs his chin.

“When I first met Peter, he was a tiny green caterpillar. And now he’s not. Would you please welcome my best friend in the world, Peter! Chung!”

Peter begins, as always, by addressing the elephant in the room. As he’s tuning up, he takes several glances at the rattlesnake behind him, and finally yells toward the counter.

“Excuse me! Is this thing supposed to make me feel welcome?!”

And he’s in.

From there it’s the usual excellence, but Skye finds it hard to concentrate due to a singularly beautiful woman at the front table. She is gloriously Latin: glossy black hair in straight bangs over wide-set cat’s eyes and a sharp, generous Aztec nose. She reminds Skye of some fifties actress, perhaps Ava Gardner, and spends large portions of the concert sending smoky glances toward the stage. Twice, Peter breaks character to smile back.

Skye leans toward the red planet. “Who’s the hot muchacha?”

Sigh gives a self-satisfied smile. “Remember how I procured for you – a man I barely know – a pair of lusty dwarves?”

“Of course.”

“For my best pal Peter I got Molly Santiago, a woman so hot she scares me. Really I just asked her to give him a ride to the gig, but let’s just say I was playing a hunch.”

“You are the world’s best wing-man.”

“I like to think so.”

After the concert, Peter and Molly sit together selling CDs. The crew from CU sticks around, coalescing into a post-performance shindig. One of the workers wheels in a Mexican chiminea in the shape of the winged serpent Qetzlcoatl, and lights a fire in its belly. Skye joins the circle around Sigh and consequently meets every good-looking woman in the coffeehouse. He takes a break to hit the restroom and passes Molly and Peter in the hallway, deeply committed to a liplock.

He’s waiting at the counter for another Guinness when Peter comes up and grabs his shoulder.

“Skye! Hey, thanks again for saving my Bug. I’m gonna do something big for you. I’m gonna name an album after you.”

Skye wraps an arm around Peter’s shoulder. “You just keep singing. That’s my payback.”

Peter turns and waves across the courtyard. Molly smiles and waves back.

“Thing is,” says Peter, “I think I’m in love. I was thinking I might stay around Boulder a couple weeks, maybe hit the Eastern U.S. some other time.”

Skye laughs. “What are you, crazy? You can’t flake out for some chick.”

Peter’s expression goes serious. “She’s a little more than some chick.”

Skye holds up his hands. “Hey, I am not averse to a fine piece of ass, but…”

“Are you fucking kidding me, man? Who made me a fucking monk for the arts? I’m sick of being dead-ass broke and lonely and getting all these pricktease promises that turn into shit.”

Skye puts his hands on Peter’s arm. “No! You have to keep going. You’re too talented. I won’t let you do this.”

Peter shakes off Skye’s hand and steps back. “I’ll do whatever the fuck I want. If you’re gonna be a dick about it, just take my fucking car back to Vail.”

The crowd around the stage is now staring at them. Skye lowers his voice. “You’re being an idiot.”

Peter gathers his breath, trying to stay calm.

“Get the fuck out.”

“Gladly,” says Skye. “Fucking ingrate.”

He follows the snakes all the way out and sits in his truck, waiting for the anger to even out. He is sorely tempted to drive all the way to Kansas, but he spots a motel in Aurora and thinks it best to catch some sleep.

He wakes to a rainstorm and turns on his cell phone. It buzzes with a text from Sigh.

Dood! Sorry abt last nite. B4 u leave town, let me take u to bkfst.

He suspects that a negative response will result in several more texts, so he just says yes. He showers up and reports to a cowboy-theme diner a couple blocks from the U. He finds Sigh and Peter at a corner booth underneath a bullwhip. Sigh pops up from his seat.

“Well! I’ve done my job. Now you two fuckers have a civil discussion. I will be at the counter, and I swear, if I hear any yelling I will call the fuzz.”

Sigh trots off. Skye and Peter avoid looking at each other. Skye sits down and picks up a menu.

“Whatcha havin’?”

“Denver omelet,” says Peter.

“Being ironic?”

Peter laughs. “Dude, I am so sorry for being such a dick. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“I do.”


“Molly Santiago. And I do not blame you. She’s fucking hot.”

Peter flares his fingers. “Right?”

“And generosity does not buy one the right to run someone else’s life. I’m kinda new at this money thing.”

“And really, I am so thankful for what you did.”

The conversation eases into normalcy and soon Skye is telling the sordid tale of Glenwood Hot Springs over a pile of Buckaroo flapjacks.

“So we are not completely certain that we were not, in fact, dealing with triplets.”

“Oh my God!” Peter exults. “That Sigh, he’s my hero.”

“Mine too, but don’t let him hear us.”

Skye stirs a sugar into his coffee and notices a bookstore across the street.

“When I was younger, I wrote a book about performers and I sent it around. It was unanimously rejected, so I signed up for a subsidy-publishing deal and I lined up readings at 25 bookstores across the country.”

“Awesome!” says Peter.

“A month after I got back, I found out the whole deal was a scam. The publisher was using on-demand printing technology. They would promise to print five thousand copies, but in fact would only print copies as orders came in. The two owners took the authors’ payments to Vegas and blew it at the casinos. That’s how they were caught. They’re both in jail now, and I have not received one red cent. My only consolation is that my tour forced them to print a thousand copies of my book, so I was probably their least profitable author.”

Peter chews on a hash brown, waiting for an ending. “I’m sorry. Is this story supposed to inspire me? ‘Cause I’m not really feelin’ it.”

“Oh!” says Skye. “He wants a Disney movie. Nah. Just this: I do not regret it at all. That tour was a magnificent adventure. I learned a lot. And I will never be young enough or stupid enough to do it again.”

Peter smiles. “I see what you’re doing there. You’re describing me.”

Skye takes a bite of his Buckaroo flapjack and gives him an index-finger pistol shot.

Photo by MJV

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Nature Boy, Chapter Ten: Soul Annoyed

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 Soul Annoyed

Skye and Sigh take off first thing in the morning. By noon, they’ve got Peter’s VW at Spotless Auto, a garage with perfect white walls. They are greeted post-diagnostic by Piper, a mechanic with a vanilla jumpsuit and a schoolboy wave of frosted blond hair. He taps his clipboard like a doctor reading test results, and twitches his lips.

“Mmm. Not good at all. Your Beetle has blown its water pump.”

“Aiee,” says Skye. “So why wouldn’t the engine turn over?”

“Computer,” says Piper. “Shuts everything off so you don’t drive into the Rockies and fry your engine.”

“Ah. I drive an ’86 pickup. Not a high-tech vehicle.”

“I saw that! How is it running?”

“Better than you would ever dream,” says Skye.

“I tell you, eighties Japanese pickups…”

“I get regular offers from Mexican gardeners. They see that extra-long bed and start salivating. So, I hate to ask, but…”

“How much! That is the pivotal question. Give me a second here.” He scratches figures on the clipboard, humming the math, then twirls the pen and gives it a double tap. “Twenty three eighty.”

Sigh has been keeping quiet, chewing on a maple bar, but the number makes him gasp.

“How much if we want it by tomorrow?” Skye asks.

“Twenty five even,” says Piper.

“Cool. Let’s do it.”

“Okay. Sign here and… phone number there. We will have it for you by three tomorrow.”

“Fantastic. Thanks.”

Sigh follows him out the door, snickering. “Damn, dude! Will you adopt me?”

“No, but I will buy you off, if we tell Peter this was a four-hundred-dollar solenoid.”

“Soul annoyed,” he repeats. “Buy me off how?”

They arrive at the truck. Skye unlocks the door. “Where would you like to spend the evening? And night, and morning?”

Sigh flashes a grin. “I have just the place.”

Skye sits in the corner of the largest pool he has ever seen. On the far side stands a grand lodge constructed from rough-hewn blocks of sandstone, and it’s as if the street that might usually run past such an edifice has been scooped out and filled with water. From what his companion tells him, it’s the size of a football field plus a hundred feet. Past the lodge, a herd of cirrus clouds feathers a modest ridge of rocks and evergreens.

Sigh sighs. “Doc Holliday.”

“Annie Oakley,” says Skye.

Sigh proceeds unhindered. “Doc Holliday came to Glenwood Springs to take in these very waters. But these waters do not cure leukemia, so he died.”

“Poor Doc.”

“Do you know there are a million gallons in this friggin’ thing? They diverted the Colorado River so it would run right through this pool.”

Skye stretches his arms. “Not that I don’t appreciate the renowned Glenwood Hot Springs – it’s very relaxing – but who made you the chamber of commerce?”

“I deal with touring musicians. I like to tell them intriguing places they can go.”

“So where would you like to go for dinner?”

Sigh tugs at a snag in his ‘fro. “I think I know a place.”

“I suspected you might.”

Backtracking makes Skye feel itchy, and now he’s back in the first floor of the Hotel Denver, at the Glenwood Canyon Brewing Company. The place is clean and airy, with a chatty, boisterous crowd. Skye indulges in an onion-glazed pork chop with garlic mashed potatoes. Sigh is ignoring a half-consumed New York steak in order that he may lean back in his chair and chat up a redhead at the next table. The girl is laughing and twirling her hair – both positive signs – but she stops when a large, gruff-looking man appears across the room. Sigh clears his throat and returns to his meal.

Skye picks up his cell and sends a text: Boyfriend?

Sigh reads his iPhone and punches back: Father!

They manage to land a family suite, which provides the much-desired feature of two separate bedrooms. After the long soak and three amber ales, Skye is ready for an evening of drowsy television. His roommate is feeling the opposite, pacing about like a caged tiger.

“Gotta be something to do in this town.”

“Get a massage,” says Skye. “They’ve got a full-service spa.”

“Oh I’ll get a massage all right.” He stops and sniffs the air, then heads for the balcony. Seconds later, he dashes through the room, holding a raised index finger, and reappears in his bathing suit. “I’ll be right back.”

Skye discovers the film “Office Space” on channel 32 and settles back against his pillows. He wakes to the sound of suppressed giggles and a tap on his shoulder.


“Get thee up, sleepyhead.”

He turns over to find a wide smile under a red planet.

“Greetings, Mister Pelter. I don’t know if Mister Chung informed you of this, but I have mad skills.”


“I can score women like nobody’s business. I don’t quite understand it myself. It’s either the afro or the ten-inch dick. The thing is, you’ve been so awesome to Peter, I thought you deserved a reward. Right now, she’s taking a shower.”

Skye rubs his face, trying to process Sigh’s meaning.

Sigh taps the bed. “You’re welcome.” And leaves.

Skye sits up in bed and slaps his cheeks, fairly certain that he looks like hell. A minute later, he is greeted by an odd vision: a young girl, maybe four feet tall, equipped with the hips and breasts of someone much older. Wrapped in a bathrobe, she picks her way through the room, inspecting a magazine here, a painting there, until she arrives at Skye’s bedside and gives a shy smile. The elements of cuteness are overwhelming: a pug nose, smattering of freckles, dark doe eyes and straight, long, jet-black hair.

“Hi. I’m Mandy.”

“Hi Mandy. So you met my friend Sigh?”

She giggles. “Yeah. He’s funny.”

“He is.”

“So, um, he said you might like to…?”

She leaves the sentence unfinished, so he has to make assumptions. “Yes, I would. But aren’t you a little young?”

Her eyes flip upward. “I’m short. That’s all. Very short.”

She gives a furtive sideward glance, on the verge of crying. Skye’s not buying it.

“I’ll need to see some I.D.”

“Oh very funny.”

He gives her a flat look. “Not really kidding.”

The eyeflash-dropmouth combo is pretty convincing (she’s a fine actress). “But it’s all the way back in my room!”

“I’ll wait.”

She tightens the sash on her robe and stomps off. Skye considers the possibility that she won’t return. But after the Ringwald Incident, he understands his motives. Not only is this the smart thing to do, it’s kind of a buzz. Five minutes later, she stomps back in and serves up an Illinois driver’s license.

“Have a seat, Mandy.”

She plops into an easy chair, arms crossed, feet dangling. Skye puts on his reading glasses and gives the license a going-over. It appears to be legit.

“What’s your address?”

Mandy twitches her lips. “One-thirty-three Napier Drive.”

“Date of birth?”

“February 21, 1993.”

Skye smiles. “A full twenty years!” He leaves the bed and kneels on the floor in front of her. “I’m sorry, Mandy. You’re quite lovely. But I’m a cautious man. Now. How many times have you had sex?”

She flushes red, which multiplies the cuteness. “Three times. My… the dwarf thing scares them off.”

“Boys your age?”


“Was it good?”

She puts a hand over her eyes. “Um, I guess? But… but I…”

“Out with it, Mandy.”

“My friends tell me about this thing where you sort of… lose your head. Like a drug trip. Like the best thing ever.”

“Did your boys give you foreplay?”

She creases her forehead. “No. There were only three.”

Skye tries hard not to laugh. “Okay. I want you to pay close attention to what I’m about to do. And I want you to demand that your boyfriends do the same.”

He opens the flaps of Mandy’s bathrobe and works his way up.

Skye wakes at first light and finds Mandy grinding at his side.

“What’s up, lovely girl?”

“Again,” she murmurs.


“That thing you did last night. Again.”

“Wow. Okay.” He rubs his jaw and slides down the bed to get to work. Mandy seems more responsive this time – and aggressive. She grabs the back of his head and pulls him tighter. Her legs begin to twitch and flail and she lets out a muffled scream. Catching his breath, Skye notices a tattoo of Tinkerbell just above her bikini line. He rides her out, wipes his mouth on the bedsheet and slides back up to find her smiling wickedly, eyes on the ceiling as she savors the comedown.

“So who exactly are you?”

She extends a hand. “Hi. I’m Brandy.”

“Mandy’s twin sister.”


“No offense taken.”

“We had a little conference in the bathroom, and she had great things to say about your work.”

“I’m flattered.”

“We’re not completely alike, you know.”

“How so?”

She grabs his head and inserts her tongue in his ear.

“I’m much nastier.”

She kneels on the bed and works her way down.

The next time he wakes, it’s the red planet, sitting in the easy chair, smoking a joint.

“Sigh! You magnificent bastard.”

Sigh releases a cloud of smoke. “Using my talent for good.”

“That was quite a switcheroo.”

Sigh stops mid-toke. “Beg pardon?”

Skye barks out a laugh. “They switched.”

Sigh drops his arms, flabbergasted. “No!”

“One of them had a Tinkerbell tattoo.”

“Wow! I really have to pay more attention. Oh well – just makes for a better story.”

“You’re going to tell the story?”

Sigh smiles. “To every single person I’m not sleeping with.”

“Limited audience.”


Skye gets up and slips on his jeans. “So where are the evil twins?”

“Having breakfast with their parents.”


“Don’t worry. They’re staying in separate rooms.”

“Oh well that’s reassuring.”

Sigh takes another drag. “Yaknow, come to think of it, there was something different about morning Sandy. Very touchy.”

Skye enters the bathroom, stops, and then leans back out.

“I’m sorry. Sandy?”

Photo by MJV

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Exit Wonderland

The author's band, Exit Wonderland, just released its first video, "Rise Up," with audio from Grammy-winning sound man Bill Hare!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Nature Boy, Chapter Nine: A Hike to Valhalla

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A Hike to Valhalla

Skye is barely under way when he discovers Hotel Denver, a big red block of a building, and checks in. The king-size bed is magically comfortable, and he falls into a deep, dream-filled snooze – so deep that he wakes the next morning feeling a little woozy. He suspects that he’s also suffering Lindsy-withdrawal, all those sex-triggered chemicals seeping out.

Out of lifetime habit, he dismisses the hotel restaurant as too expensive, and then recalls the digits in his checking account. He sits at a window that looks out on the street, and gathers from the serious expressions of the natives that it must be a weekday. He orders a breakfast steak with eggs and home fries, feeling decadent. Sipping at his coffee, he envisions Lindsy’s return to Salt Lake and guesses at Thad’s reaction. Thorny self-righteousness? Calm forgiveness? Morose ambiguity?

The sun is out and frisky, making it feel like the last day of summer. Glenwood Springs looks so appealing he’s tempted to stay, but his inner gyroscope is pushing him east. It could be the magnetic pull of curiosity, the 15th century explorer standing on the shore of Portugal wondering, What’s out there? Or the promise of all that shiny metal under his hood.

He’s had enough of barren landscapes, and enjoys the sight of trees, rivers, wooded lakes. He clears the Vail Pass and takes an abrupt northward elbow at Copper Mountain, passes Dillon Reservoir and enters the Eisenhower Tunnel. The tunnel is fantastically long, one mile, two. When he finally re-emerges, the light is blinding. He fumbles for his sunglasses, and has just put them on when he sees the word BOULDER on the back of a guitar case. Skye is not usually a proponent of hitchhiking – has seen too many horror movies with untoward consequences – but the musical element eases his anxieties. Through the dustcloud appears a tall, surprisingly well-dressed man in a yellow windbreaker. He opens the door and slides in, framing the guitar case between his knees.

“Wow, man, thanks, I… holy shit!”

Skye laughs. “I was about to say the same thing. Why don’t you slide your guitar behind the seat there.”

Peter twists around to settle the case over a sport bag, then buckles himself in.

“Wow, this is so weird. But… I’m sorry. I can’t remember your name.”

“Skye. Don’t worry. It’s unusual.”

“Yeah, but you bought ten CDs.”


Skye watches his left-side mirror, waiting for an opening, and enters the roadway, kicking out gravel. “Don’t tell me you’re hitching the whole tour.”

Peter lets out a theatrical groan and rubs his forehead. “My Beetle! I stopped at a McDonald’s in Vail and I couldn’t get it to start. Tried to jump it – nothing. So I left it there and stuck out my thumb.”

Skye takes a moment to enjoy the mountain on their right, a gravelled spine with traces of snow. Gray’s Peak.

“I admire your determination, but aren’t you being a little drastic?”

Peter lets out a horse-laugh, a sound that will never match his face. “I’m not completely nuts. An old school-buddy got me a sweet gig at the University of Colorado. A five-hundred-dollar check on the other end. Which I’ll probably spend on my damn car so I can get back to California. Okay if I smoke?”

“Sure.” Skye slides out the ashtray. Peter takes a drag and eases back in his seat, shedding a couple layers of stress.

“Were you actually going to Boulder? I don’t want to mess up your plans.”

Skye takes a moment to recall his cover story. “Nah. I recently inherited some money, and I’m taking a joyride. Going wherever the wind and hitchhiking guitarists take me.”

Peter smiles and closes his eyes. “That sounds awesome!”

“It is.”

Peter crushes out his smoke, watches the mountains roll past and falls asleep. Skye drives on toward Denver, working out the jigsaw puzzle of Peter’s troubles.

Skye is wily enough to skirt the big city, taking 93 through Eldorado and up to Boulder. Peter wakes up in time to guide him to the university, the sun tippling the Flatirons, the triangular formations that loom over the town. They park near campus and hustle through the red-roofed buildings, checking at map kiosks until they reach their destination. Built in 1876, the Old Main Chapel projects a regal bearing, a red brick exterior lined with tall, narrow windows, capped with a hexagonal belfry.

They talk their way inside, where a willowy guitarist with straight brown hair accepts an applause and describes her next song. A tall white man with a tremendous orange afro embraces Peter and takes them into a small hallway.

“Skye, this is Sigh Cavalier. Sigh, Skye. Skye, Sigh.” He lets out a snort. “Sorry. I’m a little punchy.”

Sigh takes Skye’s handshake and flips it into the soul shake/clinch combo. He grins with lips that never seem to stop moving, like a shaky stop-motion animation.

“Thanks for savin’ our asses, dude. Really not cool to book your friend and then have him disappear in the Eisenhower Tunnel.”

“Got a place I can tune?” asks Peter.

“Yeah, let me take you backstage.” Sigh taps Skye’s shoulder. “Um, try the balcony. There’s always an extra seat somewhere. And here.” He hands him a business card. “If they give you any trouble.”

Skye climbs the stairs and finds a seat on the far left. The Old Main’s auditorium is a gem, maybe two hundred red theater seats before a small stage. The front of the stage features alternating bands of blonde and reddish-brown hardwood, and the sound – at least as produced by Katie Garibaldi – beats the hell out of the Kickstand Café.

He worries that the classy setting will give Peter a case of nerves, but his first instincts about him prove correct. After the sound-more-Chinese schtick, Peter recounts his day.

“So I pull into a McDonald’s in Vail, Colorado and I’m thinking, Wow, there’s a McDonald’s in Vail, Colorado? The guy at the counter wore a top hat and tails. The value menu includes foie gras, and they call the french fries pommes frites. They have cloth napkins folded into the shape of Mayor McCheese, and an attendant in the men’s room.

“So anyways, after eating a McSmoked Salmon McPannini, I go out to the parking lot and my Volkswagen is absolutely dead. So I hitchhike to Boulder like Woody freakin’ Guthrie and here I am. So if I seem a little flustered… it’s because I’m a little flustered. This first tune is a bitter love song. If there are any women in the audience, I apologize.”

Nothing ingratiates an audience like humorous confession, and the rest is easy, because Peter’s talent is obvious. Afterwards, they take a hike to Valhalla, a biergarten on Boulder’s main drag, and sit at a broad-timbered picnic table hoisting oversized steins.

“To our guardian angel,” says Sigh. “And to Peter. Dude! You sound even better than I remember. Which is good, because if you sucked I mighta lost my job!”

The eventual goal of a toast – to actually drink – has been lost, so Skye takes a quaff on his own and studies the scene. The garten features two dozen tables, brimming with yammering, laughing students. The yard is bisected by an actual creek, guarded over by three German-looking sprites that Skye takes as Rhinemaidens. He soaks in the post-adolescent energy and smiles, feeling like somebody’s cool uncle. When he returns his gaze to the table, he finds Peter looking suddenly somber.

“I guess this is my last hurrah, man. I’m glad it could be at your most excellent theater.”

“My honky ass!” Skye exclaims. “Where’s your next gig?”

“Coffeehouse in Denver,” says Peter. “Two days from now.”

“Okay then. Assuming the mayor of Boulder here can get you a ride to Denver, I say he and I head for Vail and rescue your car.”

Peter waves a hand. “No, no, I couldn’t.”

“You could, and you will. Listen, I’m doing this strictly for my own amusement, and I’m playing with house money. Please allow me to help you.”

Peter takes a sip and slowly grows a smile. “I am going to have to take you up on that.”

Sigh, who cannot hold it in anymore, doesn’t.

“Road trip! Hahahahahaha!”

Photo by MJV

Monday, June 16, 2014

Nature Boy, Chapter Eight: Typical Asianality

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Typical Asianality

They spend the morning in a dance of kisses, each a little closer to the last. Very soon, Skye is standing on a curb in front of the casino, watching her car fade off down the road, a period at the end of a clean gray sentence. His lips feel chapped and dry.

Dry. Through all the heartbreaking drama, he promised himself that he would remember one practical item: his truck is an oil-burner, and he needs to give it a fresh quart. He walks a block to a convenience store and finds an overpriced 10W-30. When he returns to the casino lot, he flips the hood and just stares.

His engine is blindingly shiny. It takes a minute of memory scan before he figures out what he’s looking at: a genuine 1986 Toyota pickup motor that has never been used. He checks the oil, finds it full, and begins to laugh.

He can’t possibly go through Salt Lake, so he cuts south to Highway 50, where the markers read Loneliest Road in the U.S. It proves to be true, an infinity of scrublands, dry creekbeds and graveled mountains. On a long, empty straightaway he gets out and pees in the middle of the road. As he zips up, a drizzle of rain passes over, flushing his urine and kicking up the smell of sage from the roadside. He finds a motel in Delta, Utah, sits under a tree and lights up a cigar that Sarge’s minions stashed in his glove compartment.

He drives over the Wasatch Plateau in a lightning storm. The strikes are thrilling and a little terrifying. He tries to recall practical bits of science – will the plastic steering wheel insulate him from a strike to the chassis? He wouldn’t be surprised if Sarge’s mechanics installed a lightning rod. Four hours later, the rain is falling in blinding sheets, and he decides to give his nerves a rest.

He recalls the town of Glenwood Springs, Colorado from a train trip. Viewed from the station, the town looked bucolic and inviting, rows of old-fashioned storefronts on a tree-shaded main drag, the Colorado River running between the town and a rocky, fir-treed mountainside. He later realized it was a way-station to Aspen, which explained the prosperous atmosphere.

He’s now driving that very drag, and stops to park when he sees the word “coffee” next a dangling bicycle. The Kickstand Café. He orders a latte at the industrial copper counter, and hears what sounds like live music seeping through the back wall.

“Something going on back there?”

The barista gives him a dead-eyed look. “Oh. Uh. Songwriter night? In the back room. Costs like three bucks.”

“Oh. Cool.”

She flicks her eyebrow ring. “It doesn’t entirely suck.”

After this kind of testimonial, how can one resist? He shakes a little cocoa on his latte, pays his three Washingtons to a girl at the door (like the barista, practiced in the art of minimum enthusiasm), and enters a dark room full of brightly painted tables and terrifying artworks. He sits next to a painting of a blue Satan holding a pitchfork on which he has shish-kebabbed an American family: mom, dad, teenage daughter, golden retriever and a blond toddler about to be dipped in a deep frier. Is there something in the water of Glenwood Springs?

A slim fiftysomething with a Grateful Dead beard and a red mandolin adjusts the mic stand and smiles beatifically.

“We have a visitor from the cultural hinterlands of San Francisco, who is in the midst of a cross-country tour of funky coffeehouses. I listened to the stuff on his website, and I think you are going to be blown away. Would you please welcome Peter Chung!”

Peter is a slim, tall twentysomething with attractively angular features and a clean-cut look: button-down shirt, new jeans and a corporate haircut. The sole bohemian clue is a silver necklace with a Celtic knot pendant. Any thoughts of typical Asianality are dispelled when he speaks: a scratchy baritone that ought to belong to a cowhand or a carnival barker. In the way of all good performers, he addresses the obvious.

“I know what you’re thinking: shouldn’t this guy sound more Chinese?”

The gothed-up teen audience, all geared up to be aloof, can’t help but snicker.

“Story is, I was abducted in Beijing and raised by a pair of black gay auto mechanics.”

Bigger laugh. Peter waits a beat (he’s obviously done this routine before) then puts a hand to his forehead.

“I’m so confused!”

By now he’s done with his tuning. He stings a high note, slides it low and pulls it to a jackhammer strum. His singing is back-porch rough, invested with crackles and barks, a brown timbre that cools to a tender indigo. His playing is blues-based but eclectic, ranging into single-note arpeggios, wiry rock solos and the ukelele swing of the recent happy-pop. His lyrics center on love, with a wry wit and surprising flashes of sincerity. He finishes with a stop-and-start Chicago blues, “Don’t Let a Vampire Drive Your Car,” and finally releases a smile under the rain of applause.

Hippie-dude retakes the mic and announces the opportunity to purchase Peter’s CDs at $10 per. The next act, a trio of banjo, mandolin and standup bass, takes the stage and begins the business of plugging in. Skye heads for Peter’s table and hands him a Benjamin.

“Oh dude. I don’t think I’ve got change for…”

“Ten, please.”

“Well, yes, they’re ten apiece.”

“I would like ten CDs.”

Skye has flapped the unflappable. Peter develops another smile.


“Not that a man should have to justify anything when he’s handing you a hundred bucks, but yes. You’re an awesome singer, and I’m going to make sure all my friends know about it.”

“Well that’s a deal!” He sorts out ten copies and hands them over.


“What’s your name?”


They shake hands. “I’m… well I guess you know who I am. You have made my night, Skye. Hell, my week.”

“No problem. Keep up the good work.” He turns to leave.

“You’re not staying for the bluegrass?”

“Nope. Little tired from driving. Take care.”

“You too.”

Skye doesn’t really know why he’s leaving, but the idea takes shape as he walks to his truck. A ridiculous show of generosity should be followed by a quick exit, lest the recipient feel uncomfortably indebted. He slips Peter’s CD into his stereo and heads out in search of a motel.

 Photo: the real Peter Chung.