spook #1: X marks the spot

spook

Martin woke slowly. It took almost a minute before he realized where he was: face down in a pool of blood. He had no idea, however, that most of the blood was not his own; soon after though, he became acutely aware of the still-bleeding corpse that lay diagonally across his back. Together, he and the dead man formed an X; as if to mark the spot. The right side of Martin’s face was covered in blood but he was in no real pain. What was left of the dead man’s head stared straight back him. His grey-blue eyes filled with righteous disdain. His swollen mouth was agape as if in the midst of a raucous laugh. Nothing much about the gruesome display made any sense at all. Then, before Martin had summoned the wherewithal to move, he heard the rumbling echo of distant voice: “Well, I didn’t see that coming.”

In a single motion Martin pushed himself clear of the dead man’s body and twisted around to see who had spoken. There did not appear to be anyone near. Suddenly Martin noticed that he had a gun in his right hand. He raised it up slowly and waited, like a sniper ready to shoot. The problem was he wasn’t sure exactly what direction the voice had come from. This was strange because, as Martin was at the dead end of long dark lonely alley, logically there was only one direction the speaker could be. Therefore, Martin’s still foggy mind concluded, whoever had just spoken must have have moved along. Martin sat up and edged himself back up against the wall at end of the alley wall for support, gun always at the ready. What the hell was going on? Had he been drinking? Had he been drugged? Had he taken a blow to the head so violent it knocked a screw loose? Martin ran the fingers of his left hand all over his skull. Nothing was missing. No cracks. Nothing seeping out. All seemed intact. So what in high heaven had happened? For the life of him Martin could not recall how he got here or anything thing that took place. He wasn’t even sure who he was for certain. He sure as hell didn’t recognize the dead guy at his feet.

“What’s your name, Bub?” Martin jumped to his feet. The voice must have come from the darkness but he still had no sense of where or how or why. The voice seemed somehow very close and far away at the same time. “You don’t have to say it out loud. Just think. Who are you, Bub?”

Martin had no intention of doing anything the stranger told him to but he could not stop his own mind from thinking. “Martin. That’s right. I expect that’s about all you can be sure of right about now. Don’t worry, Bub. It’ll all come back to you soon enough. Well, most of it.”

“Who are hell are you?” Martin hollered with all the bluster he could muster.

“Is this what you’re looking for?” A milky apparition appeared next to the dead body. Martin shot his gun then fell back to the ground in shock. “You already killed me, Bub. No use shooting me again.” The ghost was much younger than the dead body, and fitter, and more handsome, and more fashionably attired. The ghost wore a well-tailored suit, and a natty, charcoal-grey fedora.

“You’re…” Martin stammered furtively.

“Conrad. Jack Conrad. CIA.”

“You’re…”

“A spook? Well, we in the agency don’t like that term, but…”

“No!” Martin yelled, waving his gun in the air.

“I’m just messing with you, Bub. Hell yeah, I’m a ghost; but I prefer the term spook because I am CIA as well. Well, I was… until you shot me. Well, I was… once: several bodies ago.”

“I killed a CIA agent?”

“Officially, you killed an insurance agent. He was my latest shell but he was going rogue. Frankly, Bub, I’m glad you knocked off that old bag of bones. It was a mistake ever getting tangled with him to begin with; but sometimes… well, we don’t always have a lot of options. I like you, Bub. You are obviously very willing to use a gun. This dummy was never gonna be able to shoot any body. That’s why you ended up killing him, you know? He just refused to pull the trigger… until it was too late.”

“I killed him? I don’t remember a thing.”

“It happens. It’ll come back to you. Eventually. Some of it. I’ll give you some free advice, Bub. Stick with me. Listen to me. It’ll all come back a lot quicker. This ain’t my first time through the drill.”

“Oh my god,” Martin said, dropping the gun. “I shot someone?”

“Look,” the ghost said firmly. “If it will make you feel any better. He shot himself. He aimed to shoot you but wouldn’t do it. You tried to take the gun off him. He decided to shoot you after all. You struggled. He pulled the trigger and blew off half his face. You fainted. He fell on top of you. End of story.”

“But. The gun was in my hand when I woke up.”

“Ok. So, it was a little hard to tell what was going on exactly. Sue me. Here’s the truth, Bub. It was either you or him. If he didn’t end up dead, you were going to. He’d gone rogue, I tell ya. Certifiably insane.”

“Oh, Jesus. I’m going to jail.”

“You are not going to jail. Listen to me. From the trajectory and the distance this is going be a clear-cut suicide. Or rather it can be. All you got to do is clean the gun and put it back in his hand. We’ll clear all the traces that you were here and leave him gun in hand back down in that pool of his own blood. No one will ever be the wiser…and believe me. No one is coming looking for this loser.”

Martin tried to think but nothing would happen. Nothing about this was familiar. The alleyway seemed real enough. He seemed real enough. The dead guy definitely seemed real enough. But this voice in his head and this ghost thing? What the hell is that…spook? Jack Conrad? Secret Agent man. Had he gone mad? This is all some bad dream. Martin looked up but the vision was gone. There was a brief pause, a moment of stillness, then the voice returned. Closer now, more assuring. More like the workings of his own mind.”

“You’re not crazy, bub. No more than any other man. And this ain’t a dream. This is real. And you can take advantage of this situation. You really can, bub. You just need to change your perspective. I can help you but for now you got to do what I say. We’re gonna clean this whole mess up and we’re gonna get you away from here before any knows you’ve been here. Do what I say, bub, and do it now.”

The only thing that really seemed to make any sense was the voice in his head so Martin did exactly what it told him to do. He pulled a rag from dumpster and wiped off the gun, the wall, the ground around the body, it even reminded him to wipe of the dumpster. The voice told him how and where to place the body, how to fit the gun back into the dead man’s hand, how to remove any and every trace of his own existence in this place. Just when Martin felt like he surely must be about done and that he really much get away from this place Jack Conrad, the ghost himself, suddenly appeared once more.

“Martin,” Conrad said directly and firmly. “Listen to me. You are done here, except for on very important thing. This is something you must do. I cannot stress this enough.” Martin paused awaiting Conrad’s instructions. Pull up you sleeves and reach into the inside pocket of this guys jacket. Inside you will find a key. You need to get that key. Without that key you will not get away from this place. Do you understand? Get the key, Martin.” Martin, fully used to taking direction by now, even from a CIA spook, pulled up his sleeves as directed, lifted up the body once more, and pulled a key with a large green plastic keychain attached to it. “Good work, bub.” Conrad nodded. “Now let’s get you the hell out of dodge.” With that, Conrad faded again from view but his voice remained. Conrad’s voice instructed Martin how to exit the alley without drawing attention to himself, it told him where and how to dispose of his blood-stained jacket, it directed him to a public restroom to clean himself up, and after that the voice said simply: “Bub, I’m guessing you could use a drink about now. I know a place nearby that’s dark and safe and quiet. A place you can be invisible, like me. Let’s get you a bourbon, straight up. What do you say?”

Martin, unable to concoct any other plan, continued to follow Conrad’s directions without question or emotion. He had become a blank slate. He knew his first name, or he thought he did, and he knew what the voice told him. He had no idea who he actually was or what he did or where he lived even. “Of course, a wallet!” Martin suddenly exclaimed as he walked into the bar Conrad had told him to enter. “I must have a wallet on me somewhere.” He thought while feverishly feeling his pockets.

“Good thinking, bub. They don’t ask many questions in places like this but they do expect you to pay.”

Martin quickly found a wallet in his back pocket. He whipped it out with a flourish, opened it up as fast as he could and stared intently inside searching desperately for clues.

“Easy bub. You’re acting pretty damn suspicious about now. Remember, the goal right now is not to be memorable in any way. There’s plenty of time for figuring out who you are. You need to cut the nut-job act pronto and head on over to the back corner nice and easy like.”

Martin paused and slowly dropped the wallet away from his face. The bartender and two old flies at the counter were all watching him a little too closely. He pulled a twenty from the wallet and, nodding at the barkeep, said quietly: “Bourbon. Straight up.” Frankly, Martin had no idea what in the hell he might actually like to drink so he took Jack’s advice from earlier.

“Oh Jesus,” Martin thought. I just referred to a ghost by its name. Conrad. Jack Conrad. CIA. Jesus. I am losing it.”

“You’re almost home, bub.” The voice assured him. “Now, pay the man, then go over to the corner and take a seat. Let’s think this whole thing through nice and relaxed like.”

Martin took a seat in a booth along the back wall of the bar. Out of view of any seated out the counter. He stared at the shot of bourbon for a few moments, then took it up and swigged the whole thing in a single gulp. It did not go down well. Whatever he was, he most definitely was not a bourbon drinker. “Think dammit,” he told himself. How did you end up in a dark alley in a pool of someone else’s blood with a dead body on top of you? Was it really the way Conrad said? But why was I even there in the first place? Then Martin had a moment, a memory, a point-of-view vision of shoes shuffling along a dark street, then a flash of light of some kind, then an old man – the old man at the end of the alley – pointing up at a streetlight. “He brought to the alley,” Martin thought. “But why? Who was he? Why did I kill him?”

“I’m trying to be quiet, bub. I really am…” the ghost butted in. “But this is killin’ me. Anyway, I see you’re starting to remember so maybe you want to move on to your original plan and open up that wallet of yours.

“Oh damn,” Martin muttered. “What is wrong with my brain? I just can’t think straight.”

Martin lay the well-worn black leather wallet out on the table and first pulled out the drivers licence. “Martin Warrick. That’s almost a British name? I’m not British, am I? I don’t sound British.” The address on the license was a California address. It was at that moment that Martin realized he didn’t even know what town he was in. Martin did not realize that while he was puzzling over this Conrad had returned. He was sitting in the seat across from Conrad in plain view of the bar.

“What are you doing?” Martin whispered. “They can see you.”

“No they can’t, Bub”, Conrad broke in. “None of them look like mystics to me. They can’t see a thing. Besides, I know where you are. You’re in Baltimore.”

“Baltimore, Maryland?”

“No. Baltimore, North Dakota. Jesus,” Conrad snorted. “This whole thing has really tapped you out.” Conrad pulled an old pack of cigarettes from coat jacket and a zippo lighter from his pants. His lit up a cigarette and leaned back against the back of the booth.

“I don’t think you are supposed to smoke in here.”

“Relax, bub. They can’t see me, they can’t see this… and don’t give me any lip about it not being good for me. I’m not exactly alive anyway, remember. Besides, it pretty much the only enjoyable thing I got left in this world, except for talking to you.”

“You enjoy talking to me?” Martin said curiously.

“Of course I do.” Conrad said while blowing a cloud of smoke from his nostrils. “What else is left for me?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know much of anything,” Martin replied. “But, I guess, as long as you are enjoying it some much would you mind calling me Martin instead of bub?

“Now hang on, bub. Let’s not get a ahead of ourselves. I don’t know how long this is going to last. This is not my first rodeo, you know. I don’t make a lot of personal connections in my line of business, if you know what I mean.”

“No, in fact,” Martin said raising his hands in surrender. “In fact, I do not know what you mean. I have no idea what your business is with me. I have not idea what is going on… and, I need another drink.” With that Martin got up and returned to the bar and said: “Ah, letsee… let me try a scotch this time. Only, this time, make it one the rocks.” He looked over and saw Conrad happily puffing away in the corner clear as day. Conrad was right though. Nobody else seemed to have any clue. “Haunted by a CIA spook, just my luck,” he said quietly.

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Die Mockingbird! Die! Die!

aiming gun

Harper Lee’s new book Go Set a Watchman is generating serious buzz and even more serious consternation. Critics, readers, and especially life-long fans report they have been left “shocked” and “agast” at the revelations within. Those who, years ago, read Lee’s original draft, however; were not at all surprised by how far from grace the once noble Atticus Finch has fallen.  

In the draft, known only by the working title Die Mockingbird! Die! Die! a teenage, but still grammatically challenged, Scout Finch, discusses, at length, the Finch family’s troubles after the Robinson trial.

I thought Atticus was feeble when he was nearly fifty. Hoo-boy! You sho’ have done seen him when he was nearing sixty. To be fair, the years after Tom Robinson’s trial weren’t easy on old Atticus. He kept getting calls to defend pretty much every innocent black man in town and every time he proved they didn’t do nothing of the sort and every time they hung the poor chump anyways.

“That’s justice round these parts, Scout.’ Atticus got to saying; “Guilty till proven innocent, then hung… then an alcoholic spits in your face.”

It weren’t much of a good time for me neither. Kids at school all start calling me Spit Ball. Like it was my face all them toothless racists drunks were spitting in. Try getting a date for prom when all and sundry look at you ‘an picture pickled phlem.

All in all, I guess it were much worse for Jem though. He dropped dead in his tracks one day. He were always so darn crazy for football; but, you know, Atticus would never tackle him. He’d always say: “I’m too old for that, son.”

Well, anyways, one day after his broke arm done healed good, ol’ Jem says he’s ready to play football again ‘cause one day he wants to go to Alabama and play for the Crimson Tide.

“An,” says Jem. “If Atticus won’t tackle me, I know someone who will.” ‘An with that, Jem, he goes next door and he calls on ol’ Boo Radley to come out an’ play football with him. ‘An Boo, you see, he don’t really know his own strength and on the very first tackle he done hit Jem so hard he broke his arm again, and both legs and cracked open his skull a bit as well. The doctor tried to bandage him up again as good as he could; but Jem died of the internal bleeding later that very night.

We was all plenty broke up about that for a while. Atticus was even more tired than ever before. He wouldn’t even sit in the livingroom and read at night no more. That were around that time he started the drinking as I now recall.

Whenever I asked him why he took up drinking at such a ripe old age, he’d say: “Remember, how I told you that sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whisky bottle in the hand of another?”

“Yessir,” I’d say. “I do remember that. You said there are just some kind of men who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one.”

“That’s right,” says Atticus pouring out another five fingers. “Well, I’m finally learning how to live in this one the best way I know how.”

When Miss Maudie heard about that, she said she was going to have some hard words for Atticus; but he just told her that he always believed that when a child asks you something you should answer them, for goodness sake, and not make a production out of it.

Thing was though, Atticus started to pick and choose when he would answer me. The things I really wanted to know – like especially about boys and dating – he pretended he didn’t even hear at all; like he was deaf in both ears in addition to being blind in one eye.

Basically, like me, Atticus was born good and grew progressively worse every year. Then he up and stopped teaching me anything at all. Especially grammar and such things.

But worser than all the rest, was the day Atticus finally cracked. The fateful day he committed the ultimate sin.

I still don’t know how it all came to be ‘cause Atticus wouldn’t talk about it except to say that I wouldn’t really understand because I couldn’t climb inside his skin and walk around in it so how could I even hope to consider things from his point of view? It must have been all them trial loses or all that spit in the face; but fact is, somewheres along the line, Atticus changed his whol’ mind about them mockingbirds.

Instead of him sayin’ them birds was singin’ their hearts out for us, he’d constantly complain about “that damn noisy bastard out back that never seems to shut up” and that “them mockingbirds aren’t smart enough to make up their own noises so they just copy all the other birds around instead only twice as loud so everyone gets to thinking it was their idea” and always he was saying that he’d bin “woke at the damn crack of dawn again because of them miserable mistakes of nature.”

Then that fateful morning out he staggers just before lunch; gun in hand, still reeling from all the whiskey he’d gulped down the night before, and he lifts that gun sight up to his good eye and mumbles:

“People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for… and I see one dead damn bird that I won’t ever have to listen to again.”

I knew Atticus was a good shot. He’d killed that rabid dog when no one, not even the sheriff dared to try. But, to see him pick off that tiny mockingbird at a distance of well over 100 feet, dressed in nothing but his night robe and barely able to stand from all the alcohol still surging though his veins. Well, frankly, it was time like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the craziest old coot who ever lived.

But you know, like Atticus always said: “You can choose your friends but you sho’ can’t choose your family, an’ they’re still kin to you no matter whether you acknowledge ’em or not, and it makes you look right silly when you don’t.”

Las’ thin’ I ever want to do is look right silly.

on rejection

giphyI am quite used to rejection. I’m not saying I’m good at it; but I am very used to it.

Way back when, before I got old and comfortable, I was an actor. So, yeah… I was dealt a heavy dose of rejection very early on. Rejection for an actor is constant, immediate, and pretty much soul crushing. In fact, right behind the almost total lack of monetary reward, rejection is the worst thing about being an actor.

All of which is to explain why, after 10 mostly forgettable years, I couldn’t take it anymore and got a real job. Yes. It’s true. I gave up the actor’s life before I hit thirty. I am the very definition of a corporate sellout. It wasn’t as hard a choice as you might imagine. In fact, very soon thereafter I noticed something quite strange: I was happy.

I started doing fun things like go to the grocery store and buy supplies without first figuring out exactly how much it would all cost. I even did a few truly crazy things like buy health insurance*.

*Author’s Note: For those of you reading this outside the general realm of United States, note that health insurance in the US costs approximately twice what the average actor makes; at least it sure did back when I was still doing it.

Still, despite all this positive change, and despite all the years that have passed me by; deep down in my soul, a tiny but mighty creative flame still glimmers. All I need is the barest flicker of hope to ignite that spark.

Some dry tinder was thrown on that fire recently in the form of a playwriting competition. Specifically the temptation I could not ignore was an invitation to enter the WORST Play Ever Contest.  It was an opportunity too perfect to resist.

“Hello. I thought. This is right up my alley. In fact, it’s perfect! Theater is in my blood. It’s part of my DNA! Why, I have stacks of horrendous material and ideas to draw from!”

I threw myself into the project without delay. I have to say, the bad playwriting process is unlike any other I have encountered. I fell immediately into that trance-like state known as the zone. Epically terrible dialogue flowed through me like… well, like fecal matter through a shit tube. I sat there, hunched over my laptop like a gargoyle on a gothic cathedral, motionless except for my ten furious fingers flailing away. Imagine Kerouac, hepped up on bennies, banging out the scroll for his magnum opus On The Road and you get the picture. Before I knew it, all in one marathon sitting, I was done. That is to say, over the course of a couple of hours. It takes a couple of hours to run a marathon, right?

Having spewed out such a violent torrent of words, I didn’t even consider anything as onerous as editing. In fact, mere moments after I finished typing “The End,” my masterpiece of stupidity was off to the review committee at a lightning fast 18 megabits a second. The rush I felt faded the moment  I hit send.

Those of you familiar with rejection know all too well how quickly creeping doubt seeps into your consciousness. At first it was little more than nervous whispers.

“Are you sure that was your absolute worst work? Wouldn’t it have been better to wait a day or two to let it sit so you could review it with a clear mind? Do you really think it was a good idea to base the play on actual events? Couldn’t having some form of plot and character work against you in the long run?”

Not an hour had passed before despair hit me like a 2×4 to the noggin. “You idiot,” I screamed. “That pathetic piece of crap is nothing close to your worst work!”

The dread that followed was almost too much to bear. With each passing day I became more and more convinced that rejection was inevitable. I knew with absolute certainty that a cruel dismissal of my creation could hit my Inbox at any turn.

“We’re sorry,” I imagined it would begin, “but your play was too good to be considered for this contest.” Before the rejection officially arrived I set about to mend my broken psyche.

“Tomorrow will be another day.” I reassured myself. I will rise again. I will put on my suit and tie (my business costume) and head off to the safety of my office where so little is expected and everything not done can be put off till next week. “I will survive this,” I said wiping back tears of regret. “I always do. I always will.”

And then, today, my friends…something magical happened! This was in my Inbox!

Hello Horrible Playwright, 

I regret to inform you that your play has been selected as a finalist in the WORST Play Ever Contest to be performed on Oct. 12th.

Who says dreams have to die? Who says we have to live under the brutal heel of rejection’s tyranny? Not I. Not today! Today I revel in the words of the great American essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who famously wrote: “Do not waste yourself in rejection; do not bark against the bad, but chant the beauty of good.”

Then again, there are five other finalists still. I bet one of their plays is worse than mine. Hell! All five are probably much worse than mine. There’s no way I can win. Oh well… I better get to bed. I have to get up early and make my way to the office. I have a big conference call in the morning.

What’s Eating Tony Abbott?

My recent blog for the Pig’s Arms…

Window Dresser's Arms, Pig & Whistle

US-AUSTRALIA-DIPLOMACY-OBAMA-ABBOTT

Story by Pig’s Arms North America Correspondent, Neville Cole

The best thing about being the Pig’s Arms North American correspondent is the unspoken freedom I have to do whatever it takes to chase down a story.  Interestingly, I have learned over the years that the best stories don’t have to be chased. The best stories come to you. The trick is letting them find you.

This can be tougher than it seems. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve sat for hours at the bar of some swanky hotel eating mixed nuts and ordering overpriced cocktails waiting for something important to happen; but, every now and then, it does.

Case in point… Not long ago I was hanging out on the beltway, working the angles, trying to wrangle an exclusive with President Obama when quite by accident (or was it fate?) I happened to spot this miserable-looking bloke…

View original post 758 more words

Hung One On Whitman

we oughta be poeting our guts out
we oughta be poeting our guts out

I’ll admit it. I tied one on with Hung One On down the Pub last night. As I recall, it all started amicably enough. All the locals were there celebrating the 5th Anniversary. Viv’s spread was a real treat. Gregor took to the mic early on and told some raunchy jokes. Big M was singing some classic Karaoke. I had a grand old time catching up with Algy, Shoe, Voice, Gerard, Helvi, Warrigul and, of course Emmjay. But, much, much later, as closing time drew nigh, things got a little…well, strange. Hung grew increasingly introspective, almost wistful, as the night went on and we began to talk – as we often do when we get the way – about life, about love, and about…poetry.“Some day, Mate,” he says to me, “I’m gonna go walkabout. I gonna drop this…” he paused for a moment to choose just the right word, than added: “façade…and start living.”

“I know exactly what you mean,” I replied, appropriately emphasizing exactly in exactly the right way as I downed my last Trotters.

“I think you do. I think you do. I know you do!” Hung said with a sudden smile. “You and I aren’t the types to be penned in by… by rules…and, and  rules. We are the truth tellers. We are the rebel alliance. We are poets, man…and we should be out there poeting our guts out.”

“We are poets,” I agreed with him. “When I look at you that’s exactly what I see.” I was at this time somewhat fixed on the word exactly as you might have already guessed. But I continued nevertheless: “You, for sure, are a fucking poet, Hung. Walt Whitman’s got nothing on you, brother.”

“Walt Whitman!” Hung leapt to his feet like a sleeping dog woken by a noisy cat. “That’s it!” Hung cried climbing his stool to reach the bar.

“Hey, hey,” Emmjay sang out. “Closing time, Hung. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”

“Hear him out, Emmjay,” I said quietly. “He’s on a roll.”

“Warrigul kept to himself. Quietly sketching away in the corner; but I saw a wry smile break across his face as Hung began to recite a poem in a loud, clear voice.

“Song of MY self,” Hung announced to the almost empty bar. “By Hung One On Whitman.

And what followed, I recorded exactly as it poured from his soul…’cause no one would believe it.”

Song of my self

Come breathe the musk of morning

sit silent at the desert dawn;

Listen for my breath

Hear me cry the empty sky

into being

Bathe in the light

I am not lost

nor hidden in the rock

I am not dead

you are not dreaming

we are Life eternal

Throw off your shoes

Dig toes in solid earth

Draw kindred souls into your veins

Fill yourself to overflowing

There is no end in sight

no apocalypse is nigh

there is not one of us will die

we all are Life eternal

we are the one supernal

I take you in as you do I.

Give yourself to the forests and the seas.

We are all what feeds the other.

There is no turning back.

This never ending track leads to an open door;

no floor,

no ceiling to block the light,

you are my sight,

no need to fear the night,

all will be all right.

Feel my warmth on your skin

Let me in

Turn your face to me

Give me a smile for today

You are Life eternal

Look to the sky

Not a cloud to block the blue

This is my gift to you

This blue sky

that greenish-yellow leaf

the purple pinkness of the flowers

the richness and ceaseless variety

you are wrapped in a multitude of colors

all for your enjoyment

all for you this glorious display

I paint the world this way

To make each day your canvas

your delight

Take it in

Hold it with you to look upon

During the hours of grey and black

Remember my gift

Seek it out

The new day is just beyond the horizon

It will not be slowed or stopped

it will not hold back

Even if you doubt or despair

Even if you curse and cry

Even if you lose your way

Even if you forget

A new day is coming

Every moment

a hundred million every second

all across the Earth

a billion others like you and I

feeling with you and I

We are Life eternal.

 

Hung stopped for a moment, then a moment more, then paused, then graceful as a dancer,

he bowed deeply and humbly. Emmjay and I cheered. Even Warrigul rose to his feet in applause.

I don’t remember much that happened after that. It’s a bit of a blur. I remember

watching the sun come up a few hours later and replaying Hung’s poem in my head;

but that’s about it. Still, it was a top notch 5th Birthday bash and I can’t wait till next year’s party.

 

 

Andreoli Italian Grocer (Scottsdale)

Originally featured @ AroundPhoenix.com

I used taunt an Italian friend of mine by calling Olive Garden an Italian restaurant. Just the mention of the words olive and garden in the same sentence could set him off. He’s gone back to Chicago to live now – to eat real food again, he said – but I am certain that he would love Andreoli Italian Grocer.

This is the place for people who love Italian food. Around Phoenix  loves this place. When you are here you really are family.

Image

The place itself is full of surprises. What they have done with what was once a strip mall Jack in the Box is quite remarkable. Walking in to Andreoli’s is stepping into the sitting room next to mama’s kitchen. Imported pasta, olive oil and assorted goodies are stacked on one wall. An eclectic collection of rustic furniture is gathered about. A wine cabinet is open for perusal and, best of all, at the front counter are gathered a delicious array of desserts along with all the amazing ingredients that will be used to prepare your meal.

At Andreoli’s you order at the counter deli style, grab yourself a nice bottle of wine, find a seat and enjoy.  A quick note: bring a cork-screw with you and you can avoid the $5 opening charge. Wine with your dinner at Andreoli’s is a very reasonable deal.

Also speaking of finding a seat, Around Phoenix suggests you arrive before 6:30 if you plan to dine in. The place gets packed fast.

In fact, we highly suggest you arrive right at 6pm on Saturday and be first in line for Chef Giovanni Scorzo’s house speciality – focaccia-style, wood-fired pizza.

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Andreoli’s only serves up pizza on Wednesday and Saturday nights and the experience is not to be missed. Around Phoenix says this is hands down the best pizza in town. You’ll have to turn up yourself to find out what Giovanni is fixing that day but go ahead and try any of them you won’t be disappointed.

The pastas are generous and delicious too. I tried the spagettini and clams on Friday which it was excellent. When Ms. AP saw the pile of fresh clams in the shell she wished she had picked it too.

We also tried the grilled calamari appetizer. Very flavorful, but beware you can definitely taste it’s been grilled.

Finally, don’t resist dessert even if you have to take it home and enjoy it later. I’ve never had a croissant with such a light, sweet and crunchy crust. I don’t know who Chef does it. You’ll likely be saying the same thing about any item you pick.

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Get yourself to Andreoli Italian Grocer. If you’re like us and don’t like to wait get there early. If you are also like us and love great pizza go there next Saturday night.

Andreoli’s is at 8800 E. Via Linda in Scottdsale, on the NW corner of 90th Street and Via Linda.

The Soulard Swing

The street where Buddah lives...
The street where Buddah lives…

One: The Soulard Swing

Mardi Gras is winding down for the night. Geary St. is a ghost town.

“It’s Monday, okay, but this is bizarre,” thinks Buddha Bailey. He pronounces bizarre bee-zah in his head. Buddha likes making up new ways to say old words. He can’t hardly help it. For a moment Buddha stops in his track to ponder a realization: tomorrow’s the parade, the biggest day of the year. Could it be the whole of Soulard has gone home early to rest? That didn’t seem likely. Buddha never gave much thought to resting. Long after midnight, pretty nearly three hundred and sixty-five nights a year, he wanders the streets of Soulard with his big bass drum, trumpet, ukulele, his gear and all his assorted odds and sods in tow.

When Buddha reaches his mother’s door he takes things real slow. He cracks the door all silent like and avoids the light switch so as to avoid his ol’ Ma. Yeah, Buddha still lives at home. I don’t want to get into that right now. The point I’m trying to make is that it’s pretty late and very dark and maybe even that Buddha is a little tipsy. That’s why he’s trying to creep as quiet as a mouse, you see, but his damn Doc Martens they are squeaking with each timid little step (like mice, come to think of it), so Buddha, he figures he will kick them buggers off. Big mistake. How so? I’m trying to tell you. Picture this. Buddha is making his way, shoulder to the wall (again, much like a mouse would do), and, sure enough, just as mice often do when they travel this way, Buddha walks right into a trap.

Now, this is something I suggest you avoid if you can. In fact, one the last things you wanna be stepping on in socks is a rat trap. That thing snaps shut and Buddha hurls himself away from the wall and starts twirling round and round like of them whirling dervish fellas until he can’t spin no more and then, he topples. “Timber!” some subconscious lumberjack cries and, before he can right the ship, inertia takes over and crunch-snap-grunt-thump… Buddha Bailey is down but good.

“Don’t move!” a hysterical voice cries out from the void. “I’ve got a gun.”

Buddha makes out Ma, silhouetted in the faint moonlight glinting in at the end of the hall. She’s swinging something large and threatening around her head. Before he can think to speak, she clobbers him right on the noggin.

“Ow! Fuck Ma!” Buddha howls.

“David Patrick Bailey,” his mother screeches. “You scared me half to death!”

“You nearly beat me whole to death. Jesus, Ma! I’m bleeding here!”

“What are you doing creeping round in the middle on the night stinking like a sewer rat? And why didn’t you say it was you when I gave you the chance?”

“You call that a chance? That was assault and battery. You done brained me so bad I’ll bet I probly get some kinda syndrome.

“A couple of classes at community college and this one thinks he a lawyer,” Ma says all snide like. “Maybe if you hadn’t thrown away that scholarship you coulda been one; but you decided to be a street bum instead.”

Buddha got a feeling as soon as them words left her mouth Ma regretted saying them ‘cause she quickly changed the subject. “Get yourself into the kitchen and I’ll fix you up some comfort food,” says she. “I might as well put this frying pan to proper use now that I done got it out. You want some eggs and bacon, baby boy?”

“Mmm, okay,” Buddha replies and hauls himself up off the floor. Things were definitely getting worse round the Bailey place and things had never been good. But bacon sizzles and eggs bubble and Buddha’s skull throbs and those two miserable sods say nothing further until the midnight snack hits the table just out of Buddha’s reach. He leans over to grab it with a heavy sigh.

“What’s the matter with you now?” Ma snaps; then, without so much as a heartbeat she yaps on and on: “I swear to Jesus in heaven,” says she, “I never did see such mope in my life.” Ma sits down to the table and lights up a smoke.”

“Nothing’s the matter, Ma,” Buddha lies, “I just got things on my mind is all.” Then he starts up to go grab a beer but crazy old Ma she beats him to it.

“Sit. You eat. I’ll fetch you a beer,” says she. “It’s the least I can do, I suppose.” Mean ‘ol Ma is out of her chair and to the fridge before you can say supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Well, before Buddha could anyways. He always did have trouble with that bloody stupid word. “How’s that head of yours?” Ma says as sweet as parsnip (that is, not too bloody sweet-ha ha). “Has the bleeding stopped?” she adds.

“I’m fine,” Buddha mumbles. ‘Cause honest how he gonna stay mad with a big plate of bacon sitting under his chin?

“Well, just maybe I knocked some sense into you.” Ma says as she sets a beer in his vicinity and drops a half-smoked, still burning butt near the already overloaded ashtray. Buddha never seen her like this in years. You would of thunk she was conducting Beethoven’s Fifth with all the waving and pointing she was carrying on with.

“Anyway, I glad we got this chance to talk. There’s something I’ve been waiting to tell you all day long,” says Ma. “I was speaking today to that nice Mr. Fletcher, today. The one from bingo?” She looks at Buddha like he should know all them idiots who go down the Lafayette Bingo Hall of a Wednesday; but he just shrugs so she goes on. “He owns that Fletcher’s Pawn” says she, “and he’s looking for someone just like you to help him out. Isn’t that the most wonderful news?”

All Buddha could hear was “Dah dah dah duuuummm. Dah dah dah duuuummm.” But once he figured she had finally shut up and was waiting on him to speak, he goes: “I got plenty of jobs, Ma.” Buddha is sucker for punishment you probably noticed. What they call a sadocist.

“I’m talking regular employment, Buddha” she starts up again. Doris Bailey only calls her son Buddha when she’s trying to butter him up. She’s such a broken record, he can’t even listen no more but she goes on conducting nevertheless.

“This is a real job, Buddha. Not that two-bit hustling you get up to every night. Besides, this is a day job. You can carry on with all that other business any time you want.”

Buddha can’t but help himself, and he tries to explain to her one more time: “Things are just starting to come together for me, Ma.” Says he, sweet as can be. “They might hire me and the Soulard Swing as a regular band at Big Daddy’s after tomorrow. I done a tryout tonight already.”

“And what will that pay, pray tell?” Ma snaps. “All the beer you can drink?” Meanwhile I’m left keeping the lights on on my disability alone? I already told you. You can get up to whatever mischief you want nights and weekends but you are going to see Frank Fletcher tomorrow and get yourself an honest income ‘cause I’m here to tell you the gravy train has left the station. It’s time for you to pull your own weight.”

At the mention of weight Buddha stops ‘cause he knows that a punchline is soon to follow. And sure enough after two beats she adds: “All two tons of it…or whatever you up to now!” Bah-dum-dum.

Buddha don’t like fat jokes. He sits in silence and imagines he’s alone. This trick sometimes gets her to leave the room; but not tonight.

“Well?” says Ma.

“I can’t go down tomorrow. It’s parade day, Ma! I’ll pull in two hunderd easy. I’ll see that Mr. Fletcher fella right after Mardi Gras, I promise.”

“Mardi Gras ain’t nothing special, you know,” says the all-knowing, all seeing St. Doris. “It’s not Christmas day. It’s just an excuse to get drunk instead of going to work. You want to do something special tomorrow? Get yourself out of bed bright and early and go see Mr. Fletcher first thing, ‘cause I’m telling you right now, if you don’t…well, you don’t have bother coming home again.”

There’s no point arguing anymore once she’s dropped the “don’t bother coming home again” line. Buddha knows least that much by now. So he just say, “fine,” and push himself back from the table. “I’ll drop by and talk to him in the morning,” he says as he head out the door. “I just hope he don’t mind me wearing my parade day get up.”

Buddha’s already out the door and she don’t try following him. Still, he can hear her screeching down the hall. “You’re not even a real Catholic, you know. Well, I don’t think you are, anyway. Who knows for sure? Mardi Gras…” Ma says bitterly. Ain’t even a real holiday.”

“Thanks, Ma!” Buddha calls back happily. “Good talk.” Then, before she can say another word, he shuts the door behind him. Peace at last.

Like a smoker desperate for a puff, Buddha whips out his ukulele. It’s the only thing he’s allowed to play this late at night. Ma cries out again at the very first strum: “And don’t stay up all night plunking that damn ukulele,” she bitches. “I’m not deaf, you know. I’m blind.”

“Blind my foot,” Buddha says so quiet only ghosts and spirits could hear. “You don’t miss a thing.” With that he sits up, puts down the uke, reaches for his pen and writes. 

Mean Ma’s Swing he jots. Then he scribbles a call and response. She blind as a bat / But she don’t miss a thing / Hold on to ya hat / When that Mean Ma Swings! 

It weren’t going to be easy for the Soulard Swing to record this. It will probably take three dozen takes at least. But, Buddha knows: if you’re gonna be a one man jazz band you got to have plenty of patience, perfect timing, and you got to know how to swing.

The 12 Days of Christmas

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On the first day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:

a Partridge in a Pear Tree.

The cat ate the partridge and the pear tree lost all its leaves overnight.

On the second day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:

2 Turtle Doves

Both of which the cat is eyeing hungrily.

On the third day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:

3 French Hens

I think they are French. One is wearing a tiny beret.

On the fourth day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
4 Calling Birds

Enough with the birds! There’s bird shit, feathers and bits of wing all over the living room. The cat is so fat she can barely stand.

On the fifth day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
5 Golden Rings

I was excited until one of the “golden” rings turned my finger green.

On the sixth day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
6 Geese a Laying

Oh boy, my true love is really getting on my nerves now! Hello, I live in an apartment!

On the seventh day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
7 Swans a Swimming

There are currently seven swans a swimming in my bathtub and six geese a laying on my bed. Best Christmas ever!

On the eighth day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
8 Maids a Milking

Ok. I have to admit, after seven days of disappointment this seemed promising; but cows are even messier than geese and swans.

On the ninth day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
9 Ladies Dancing

There wasn’t room for the ladies to do much but gyrate in place but I was fine with that.

On the tenth day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
10 Lords a Leaping

The lords got drunk, trashed the place, ran off with the ladies and the maids and left me with the eight cows.

On the eleventh day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
11 Pipers Piping

This one just about did me in as I had hit the eggnog a little too hard the night before with a bunch of leaping lords.

On the twelfth day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
12 Drummers Drumming

It took me twelve days to figure out my true love didn’t want to be my true love any more. She sure knows how to hurt a guy. I’ll never get the smell of bird shit and rancid milk out of my rug.

Merry Christmas, Everyone! I hope you got all you deserved for Christmas and more! I know I did.

My Finest Hour

Here’s a snarky little snippet I wrote many years ago after appearing in an amateur play with a scene-stealing, bit-part player with a single line of dialogue and some baffling concepts of stage blocking who succeeded in his quest to be the most memorable part of the production.

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the author, during rehearsal, sans chilies

My Finest Hour

 I don’t mean to belittle Mr. Olivier; but widespread praise of his accomplishments should be tempered with the realization that… he was given all the great roles. I should have liked to have seen Olivier tackle some less than perfect material. Frankly put, I should have liked to have seen what he would’ve made of some of the roles I’ve had to contend with!

For example, when I first arrived in this country I took on a minor role in an entirely forgettable play by one of your more mediocre local talents. A role, I might add, that had but a single line of dialogue. Yet, I was able to draw so much from my character that my performance was pivotal to the arc of the rest of the play.

I remember as if it were just yesterday; the tidal wave of anticipation that washed across the audience as I made my entrance, throwing open the door of the diner with an almighty shove of my crutch, striding downstage center with chilies aloft to mysteriously announce: “I’ve got the chilies for the Chili Special.” I tell you the whole theater was transfixed. Even my fellow thespians could not help but take full stock.

I must note here that it was my choice to play my character as a cripple. No such direction had been written into the rather vague description of my role. Still, I am utterly convinced the moment absolutely made the play…and to think now of the torment I had to endure to ensure that it happened at all!

I had to battle the director tooth and nail throughout the entire rehearsal process. From the first table read I was convinced that the cook was clearly an emotionally crippled individual – what else could explain someone who hangs around on stage for so long and yet has so very little to say? I proposed on a daily basis that this inner subtext cried out for physical representation.

The director did allow me to “try” my ideas during rehearsal but, at the last hour, he tried to sabotage all my creative endeavours.  I shudder to think that the whole performance could have been for naught simply because an inexperienced director was unable to understand some very basic blocking concepts. He claimed to have never heard of the “upstage” rule. I literally spent several hours trying to explain to him that in the theater a cripple always drags his upstage leg. Eventually, when it became clear that I was never going educate this neophyte with mere words, I “agreed” to “do it his way.”

Thankfully for all concerned I had a change of heart moments before I hit the stage on opening night.

Needless to say, my bold choice absolutely made the play. The critics could talk of little else. In fairness, I must say that it was clear from many of the comments that few in attendance that night seemed able to conceptually grasp exactly what they had witnessed; but aren’t all truly great performances just a little ahead of their time?

Looking back, I do view that role, and specifically that particular moment, as my finest hour for the simple reason that against such unfathomable odds I was able to dive deep into my own soul and pull out a moment of pure theater magic. It is what all true artist live for and, quite frankly, I don’t believe Mr. Olivier could have done any better. Beside, did you ever notice? He has very cold eyes.

 

 

Old Notes

durantyI recently uncovered an old notebook; squirreled away for over thirty years. It contains some fine memories. For one, I was reminded that in my late teens and early twenties I listened to fine art as much as I looked at it. I wandered regularly into galleries and flipped often through art books in those days. When I did, I usually jotted down things I heard the paintings say.

Here’s one of those ramblings…told to me by Edgar Degas’ Portrait of Duranty.

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Portrait of Duranty by Edgar Degas

There are, I find, now periods of time – on occasion weeks in length – during which I am lost. Melancholy is a most peculiar infirmity: a wellspring of vague doubts that bubble up quietly at first but inevitably threaten to pour forth into an inferno of misery. My head aches. My ears ring incessantly. Tears press up behind my eyes and I rack my brain – my dammed rational brain – for a reason, for a clue, for an excuse.

And here’s the story Mr. Clark told as I listened to Hockney’s Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy.

Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy by David Hockney
Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy by David Hockney

Actually, the whole episode was rather painless. I drew up the papers myself; which is ironic as I had written our vows as well – the alpha and omega, as it were. My guess is it was never meant to be. We were too alike. There was no spark. It was all too damn comfortable. But, that’s past life now. Only Percy remains. Christine remarried within a year and, though I will confess I haven’t been a saint, I’ve spent most nights here alone… and most mornings too it’s just me with a cup of tea and Percy on my knee sitting at my window watching the city wake. Percy isn’t bothered all at, of course. My brother was right. He always told me: “Never get rid of a good cat.”

I’m still meandering through my old things – it’s something you do after you turn fifty, I guess – but I’m looking forward to digging up a few more memories. I can only hope I find something (anything) inside that isn’t positively dripping with teen angst.