Back Issue Archive
And The Good News? Ann Lewis Hamilton
Let’s see. I’m grateful for… wait a minute, it’ll come to me.
We’re living in the middle of a pandemic. We can’t go to church or celebrate Thanksgiving with our family. We can’t go to plays or concerts. Businesses have closed, children aren’t in school.
The election is a shitshow. What has happened to our great democracy?
Today I was taking a break from writing and sitting outside reading a book about film composer Max Steiner. Our dog Winston kept dropping a tennis ball in my lap for me to throw. At one point, I looked over and he’d discovered a bee. Naturally he decided to chase it. And naturally, there was absolutely no way he could catch it. But he didn’t give up. He ran after that bee, doing his crazy dog dance. Leaping in the air, a blur of black fur. I could hear his jaws snapping shut – crack – missing the bee every time.
I’d swear the bee was taunting him. Eventually Winston gave up, grabbed a tennis ball and delivered it to my lap, ready to resume the game.
I’m grateful for a back yard to sit in and a good book to read, lovely Southern California weather. And a crazy black dog who just might catch that bee one day.
Ann Lewis Hamilton is a writer living in California.
Reflections from the Bathtub
Tomorrow would be Jason Akins eighth week in the cancer group. He hated it, refusing to speak, even when Dr Taylor, a cancer survivor of some ten plus years, tried to push him to say something about how he felt about the seemingly death sentence he received.
It was two weeks before Thanksgiving and Dr Taylor announced that the next week’s topic for the group would be, “What are you thankful for?” and everyone, and Dr Taylor meant that EVERYONE! would speak, including him.
Laying in the bathtub, the water so hot it killed thousands of sperm just by sitting in the water, listening to Jerry Jeff Walker sing “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” a song when he heard it reminded of the times he spent with his grandfather and how he missed them so. Jason reflected on what that question really asked. “What am I grateful for?” repeating those words over and over until he acknowledged for the first time he just didn’t know how to answer such a complicated question.
The group cancer sessions were held in an atrium of University Hospital. It was cheerful, beautiful, a place of reflection. The group’s session was always the same, the inclusive six members - now down to five since Ozzie Woodruff got himself killed at an anti-Trump rally when he drove his pickup through the crowd hoping to take few of them with him before pulling an empty gun on the cops who tried to arrest him - lead by Dr Taylor, would sit in a circle and muse about how they were dealing with their cancer diagnosis.
The group was an interesting mix. Toby Sinclare was the youngest of the group at just sixteen, she was headed for a pro tennis career after being an alternate on the US Olympic team. When she spoke, it was with an optimistic spirit of youth who hadn’t yet met the harshness of reality. Mike Powell sat to her left and he almost always dragged the group toward a political conversation before Dr Taylor reined him back in. Next in the circle was the perpetually pessimistic Deacon Johnson who could find the dark cloud hidden in a rainbow. Then there was Olive Wilkens who was, kindly putting it, a force of nature. She liked to dominate the group’s conversations, peppering everything she said with, “When I ...” Not so sadly,her future would be short. She wouldn’t see Thanksgiving Day because she stepped into oncoming traffic while listening to NPR on her phone and would get hit by a dump truck as she was running late to meet her best friend Natalie for dim sum at their favorite place, Cookie’s Cookery and Dim Sum Emporium. The group’s leader was Dr Taylor, a slim man with a runner’s body and a voice as smooth as Irish butter, looked much younger than his seventy-nine years. He would sit next to Olive, often placing his hands on her arm whenever she went too far in her dominance of the group, reminding and encouraging her to let others speak.
Finally, there was Jason himself. He would sit on a wood folding chair, not in the circle but not out of it either, resting his arms on the back of the chair, head on his arms, baseball cap pulled down low, and as he rolled his eyes at Olive he would mutter softly the only words he would ever say at the group meetings, “Here we freaking go.” when Olive spoke in her shrill voice.
In the bathtub Jason started to think about his life. He never intended to be anything of substance and without much work achieved that goal with ease. He’d been a soldier in a shooting war, narrowing escaping death unlike the man standing next to him when the enemy began firing at them. He survived a roll-over when he stupidly pushed his car beyond its limits while at speeds of over 150mph. He survived a helicopter crash, a crash which killed the pilot and which left Jason paralized from the waist down and had to learn to walk again. He was certainly grateful for the people who adopted him and gave him a family. When they were murdered he became bitter and closed off to the world and disappeared to Latin America to figure out his life…
He thought about his grandfather, their days listening to baseball on the radio and the memory of that time made him smile. He thought about his grandmother who died from cancer like he shortly would and who taught him that each day of life was a precious gift not to be ignored or wasted. Jason was grateful for the time they had as he wiped a tear from his eye.
He thought about his meager career in Hollywood, the friends he’d made, the people he’d help gain success while he himself floundered for lack of ambition. But even at that he was thankful for the opportunities he was given.
Adding more hot water to the bath, Jason thought about the dogs he had in his life and the joy they brought him, the cold days on the beach, walking with his dog and not a single person within eyesight or the hot mornings in the hills above his Studio City home and walking alongside the rich and famous as they shared the experience of being in nature.
Jason and his wife left California to pursue other opportunities for work and to secure a more affordable lifestyle for their eventual future retirement, they found a pleasant little home not far from the state capital of their new state. They spent time with their new dog and made a few friends before the pandemic hit.
Jason closed his eyes as he soaked and thought about how he and his wife met and it made him smile. She had taken a great risk when she fell in love with him, barely knowing him and his questionable past. But love him she did and he was grateful for that love, it was the one thing he would treasure most in the short time he had left.
The cancer had spread from his manhood into his lymph nodes and through his body. It also was in his kidneys and terminal. He would be dead in a matter of months and while not concerned with the eventuality of dying he did worry deeply about what would happen in the aftermath of his death. What would his wife do? Would she be happy again?
Jason drained some water from the tub and again added more hot water. He looked at the medicines given to him intended to mitigate the pain living in his body. It would be an easy thing to overdose on the pills, fall into a deep pleasurable quasi-sleep and slip under the water to drown. He reached for the pills, examining each container, setting them back down and picking them up with each new thought about what would come next in his slide into death.
He thought hard. It would be the easy way out, why drag things on? Why let his wife suffer as he deteriorated into a frightful shell of skin and bones with each passing day. There was nothing to be gained by waiting for the undertaker.
The neighbors didn’t know about Jason’s plan and would’ve been annoyed had they known the police and ambulance would arrive shortly after his wife would find his body, in a vain attempt to save Jason from himself.
He grabbed the bottles and opened each one.
At group again Dr Taylor spoke in a quiet voice. He faced the circle and said he had an announcement.
“I received a phone call last night,” he said. “I’m not sure how to say this--”
“Where’s Jason?” Olive interrupted. “He’s late. I’m sick of that guy, he’s such a downer. I want to get started.”
The door to the atrium opened with a bang.
“Shut up, Olive.” Jason says, his words louder with each step as he walks across the floor to his place in the group. “It’s my turn to speak, I’m going first. I’ve got a lot to say thanks for and you’re going to listen for a change.”
Jake was a writer living in California. He doesn’t live there anymore.
Come See About Thanks
Ok. I need to be productive. I need to get outside of my mind and outside of this world. I will write. What are Ann and Joe up to this month with Hot Valley Writers? I will just open my email. Hmmm, they say, “But because 2020 has clearly been the best year ever (is there such thing as an irony font?), we thought we'd go for thankful.”
Thankful? Be thankful. Yes. YES. YES!!! I can do this.
I think they wanted more. Who am I thankful for? Or what am I thankful for?
Well: Thanks for protecting and serving. Thanks for wearing the mask over part of your face. Thanks for worrying about closing the borders, but letting a shipful of infected into the country. Oh yeah, thanks for that dumb ass wall that could have paid for masks for every citizen. Thanks for allowing Amazon to become a monopoly and having all the small businesses close. And thanks for $600 extra dollars for like 2 weeks. What a difference that made. I mean thank you for that. Thanks for teaching the world that cheating is the best way to win. Thanks for actually stacking the court and then saying we should worry that the other side might stack the court. Thanks for making us all sick and then taking away health care. Thanks for turning the older TV generation into mindless zombies. Thanks. I mean just so much to thank you for.
This isn’t what they said to do. Hold on, why is my phone buzzing?
Oh shit. THANKS FOR THIS BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Shocking? No. But thanks.
[Scott’s wife comes into the room with a cup of hot tea and a fresh baked cookie and sets it down by the computer, iPad, and phone.]
Scott Ryan is a writer living in Ohio.
John W. Smithwick
Ten years ago I was standing at my kitchen sink. It was a Sunday morning and I had just swallowed a teeny, tiny pill for my blood pressure. It felt like the pill got stuck in my throat and I began to feel light headed. This wasn’t the first time and I thought, like all the other times, this feeling would go away. But it didn’t. I remember thinking this was the worse ever. I closed my eyes and when I opened them again, I was laying on the kitchen floor.
At that time, I had never heard of the Vagus nerve. But I became very familiar with it over the next few days. Simply, it controls a lot of functions in your body including your heart rate. With me, it affected the muscles in my neck and the flow of blood to my brain and I blacked out.
The next day, Monday, I had an EKG. I had a longer EKG on Tuesday. On Thursday I had a pacemaker implanted. The following Thursday I drove 150 miles to have Thanksgiving with my sister and her family.
I had plenty to be thankful for that Thanksgiving. My heart doctor told me I was fortunate to have been standing when I fainted. Lying prone on the floor allowed my heart to start beating again. If I had been sitting in a chair, I may not have been so fortunate.
Having a pacemaker also made me realize that for years, I have not been a fat, out of shape pudge who got winded climbing stairs or doing yard work. It was an irregular heart beat not allowing my blood and its oxygen to circulate as it should. The difference of having a pacemaker can’t be overstated. I can now climb stairs without using a hand rail. I still don’t do yard work but now it’s because I don’t want to and not because I can’t.
I had been losing weight prior to all this, so that Thanksgiving I had my niece take several photos of me that I posted on a Baby Boomer dating site. I met my future wife two months later.
That was ten years ago and another Thanksgiving is approaching. On the thankful side, every one from ten years ago are still with us and all are doing well. But unlike Thanksgivings past, there will be no family gathering because of Covid-19. It’s 2020’s version of Damocles sword.
Everyone in my family is reacting to this virus in their own way. Some only go out to buy food. Others haven’t stopped going out but always wear a mask, even in the car. Some haven’t been to their office in months and are now comfortably working from home. For me, Facebook is getting a workout and the playground near where I live is still locked. While I’m a bit too big for the swings and slide, it was always nice to sit under a tree and take in the fresh air. Air that now, if you believe what you hear and read, is infested with tiny viruses waiting to make a home in my lungs.
I’m thankful that the restaurants are starting to reopen. My wife and I went to a Japanese restaurant a couple days ago for dinner. Masks were required but you didn’t have to wear them to eat. Disney is also slowly opening. Disney is just down the road from us and we would often go for a change of pace, to walk and look, to eat ice cream and enjoy the free shows. We haven’t been there in months and I look forward to our next visit. I’m not a fan of Mickey but I liked saying hello to Snow White. I’m curious to see what she looks like in a mask.
People talk about the new normal. It’s a nice catch phrase that I believe is starting to have more truth to it than I though this past spring. I’m thankful I’m able to roll with this “normal.” The sky isn’t falling and there aren’t any bodies in the street. I don’t think there will be a zombie apocalypse and I can still buy toilet paper. I’m thankful I’ve kept my head while others have lost theirs.
But I temper my thankfulness when I see how easy it is for people to fall in line, to allow themselves to be ordered about. I think about the tough, free living Americans that created this country. The people we read about in history books like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. These are the kind of people we think of when we hear “Remember the Alamo” and “Millions for Defense But Not One Cent for Tribute.” While it is all right to see Clayton Moore wearing a mask, it’s not all right for Davy Crockett. Nor me.
Will this new normal mean the end, or at lest accelerated demise, of the American spirit? Will we become a nation of followers, a tough bull but easily controlled by the media created ring in our nose? That, I can’t be thankful for. That is what I wonder about when I lean on the locked gate to the playground and when I see small children wearing masks. Like elephants in a row, grabbing the tail of the elephant in front of it, looking neither right nor left but content to walk in tireless circles, following some media savy ring master wielding a whistle and whip. Are we now glimpsing our future?
John W. Smithwick is a writer living in Florida.
THE WORLD UNDER REVIEW
The thunder sounds ominous tonight.
The aggressiveness of posters on other sites
Pound the boards and scorch the screen
With red-hots pixels that burn my eyes.
Death, lies, and trying times
Leave me picking the lint from between the keys
And I'm not sure which is more important
Or if there's a chance in hell for any redemption.
I'm accused of having an opinion or two,
So I consider just keeping them as thoughts.
But I can't help but wonder which of them
Will vex my mind, all through the night.
Open a page, scroll down the screen
See what jumps out and grabs me
And see what really merits scrutiny.
Or is it all just an illusion of words?
In the end, nothing's adding up.
Chaos eludes order's restrictions
And order denies chaos' delight.
Yet both abhor a vacuum's plight.
The world under review coughs up no clues
As to what's going to happen next
And the aggressive thunder pounds my eyes
With death, and lies, to a mind that's vexed.
Brian Lux is a writer living in California.
The Open Window
The man stands in the middle of a black-and-white street.
He has been buffeted and chased by powerful winds that are taking the town apart around him. Cars overturned, buildings destroyed, massive paddle-boats torn from their moorings, frightened people tumbling into shelters.
The man was asleep in a hospital bed when the building around him ascended into the heavens. Then his bed was pushed through the streets of the town, wind and debris silently shrieking all around him.
The bed comes to a stop in front of a house. He hides under the bed, and then the bed is yanked away by the wind.
The man stands in the middle of the street, alone, unprotected, rubbing his neck while the shadows change on the front of the house behind him. The sun isn’t moving, the house is; leaning forward. It is a heartbeat away from falling on the man and crushing him. He does not know what is happening behind him. He will be killed and he will not know how or why. He is standing where he is standing and that’s all the reason nature requires.
The front of the house falls forward, surrounding the man for an instant. Then the wood and beams and plaster are everywhere. But the man is alive and unharmed. He stands in what was a second story window left open. The house fell around him. Miraculously. He looks at the crushed house at his feet in what was an instant ago an empty street.
He realizes what’s happened, what almost happened, and runs away. He runs from the storm that still pursues him, still capable of killing him in numerous ways. He is buffeted by the storm, by rain and wind and boxes and lamp-posts and trees and mud and chickens. He is able to continue this desperate hunt for survival because he was standing at the exact right spot at the exact right moment to spare him from being squashed. He did not chose the place to stand. He did not calculate the odds. He was just there, and the house missed him. That's all the reason fate requires.
The storm gives him no time to contemplate his escape. He does not have time to be thankful. He does not have time for gratitude. He still has to deal with the storm. And he is able to deal with the storm…and save the girl and save his father and save the father of the girl…because he was standing where he was standing. That's how things work.
Gratitude comes later. Much later. After the storm.
Joe Gillis is a writer living in California.
Shine down on me
With every thought we share we touch the silence within our hearts
Every morning tells the story of the nights we’ve left behind
And she runs into the sunshine of each new day
I want to watch her as she shines, let it shine down on me.
Let it shine, let it shine down on me
I want to feel the sunshine of her love shine down on me.
Now, as her world swiftly turns I reach inside her dreams
Holding on to just one moment she becomes a fantasy for me
Her thoughts and mine are running wild
Holding hands as we run into the sun and share the silence in our hearts.
For every word we share a thousand thoughts come alive inside these dreams
And every morning I awake knowing that the sun is shining down on me
Let it shine, let it shine down on me.
A fantasy to look inside and live within these dreams
Watching as the sun shines down as she reaches out to me
sharing a thousand thoughts she comes alive with just one word
touching the silence within my heart she shares her dreams with me.
And I watch it shine, shine down on me.
I don't mind
When I look up in to the sun everything around me blends into one
All that I see and all that I feel become free and my thoughts start to run
Faster and faster as words fly by it’s hard to see the stars in the sky
Eventually all will come to rest as time passes by and I don’t mind.
The world is all that it is and it spins around me like a laser in the mid-night
So here I stand with the stars in my hands and a girl like you laughing to the world's delight
Can you see inside of all that she hides, pieces of me like a laser in the mid-night
A shooting star across my mind burning its image in space and time, and I don’t mind.
She cries alive into the light spinning all around her and I don’t mind, she’s alright to me
If you want to look inside just close your eyes and listen to her laughter passing by, you won’t mind
She sounds like the ocean of space and time crashing through dreams into the mid-night, alive she cries
So if you want to see the stars then close your eyes and look inside, she’s passing by laughing at the mid-night.
Listen to the sounds of crashing tides, foot prints passing in the sands of space and time leaving dreams in my mind
Now the world can see her talking to the storm and laughing at the mid-night and we don’t mind
She moves around like the stars in the sky and I can see her as she passes by
Now I’m laughing at the mid-night and I don’t mind.
Jeff Nesvig is a writer living in Florida.
Your Daily Bread
I certainly was not expecting to find the son of God working at a diner off the Dallas North Tollway.
Jesus was a terrible waiter. I ordered water, but he kept bringing me wine. I did not complain. Times must be tough if he needed this side hustle.
I found watching him drop off breakfast specials and condiments to impatient travelers oddly hypnotic. Would Judas be the bus boy?
I polished off my cheese fries and dabbed at the grease that dripped down my knit jersey with my napkin.
Jesus dropped off my check. I tipped extra and hit the road.
Eve Allen is a writer living in Texas.
Shakespeare has said, “Nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”
Today’s world is so much more evidentiary focused – and by that, I mean what you see, the events you experience – those tangible mortal material things you can point to and say, “Yeah? Look at this? How are you going to spin this into gratitude? How do you rethink COVID into good? Shakespeare never met a Hitler!”
We’ve lost our way in today’s extreme society – everything is viewed from the cold hard science of empirical evidence – you don’t think there were plagues and bad nasty people in Shakespeare’s day?
If someone has grace and gratitude today, they are seen either as a clueless but kind individual – or simply clueless.
How do we maintain a grateful mindset in a world that focuses and promotes negative drama?
The first step is to see that our minds are prone to disaster-focus. We have airlines that fly thousands of flights a day – but we focus on the one crash in a year. We have a world where billions of things go right – but we overwhelmingly report the wrong.
Sure, it’s important to fix the wrong – but it is important to accept and acknowledge and be grateful for the right!
Have you ever looked at our freeway system, for example, and thought, “Wow – the planning and work and the upkeep to keep this system together is insane! People have created smooth roads for us to travel anywhere on the entire continent. What a convenience!”
Usually we only notice when something goes wrong, “Damn road work – I’m going to be late!”
Grocery stores! What a miracle! Food is brought to us – we have multiple choices! The work that goes into the growing and harvesting, trucking, placing on shelves and making available to us is immense!
Usually we only mention the grocery store in terms of “They were out of the bread I wanted, so I had to buy this.”
One of the things we need to do is to train ourselves away from the negative. The old saying goes you believe what you see and see what you believe. If you believe in good things – you are considered foolish or too soft. For years when I was writing professionally the knock on me was that I was too optimistic, too positive, and therefore too soft of a writer.
What does that say about Hollywood and what they believe about us? They are profit based and they think that unless you are writing a kids show for Disney – you have to be cynical and dark – and the age they target for optimism and hope keeps lowering. Kids movies of today have a good dose of cynical sarcasm in order for them to be four quadrant movies (movies which will appeal to all demographics).
Gratitude for our country has really been hit – somehow the United States is seen as a place that owes everybody everything, is deeply flawed, has victimized everyone and no one wants to say a pledge, sing a national anthem while standing, or have a sense of pride and gratitude.
Our country is an idea – it’s a great idea – the people who have carried out this idea are human and flawed. Many here have done great jobs and have tried to push the country to higher manifestations of its potential. But standing for the national anthem is a moment where we can come together in unified gratitude for the promise of the country – for the promise of humanity – if you stand and love your country it is not saying “Everything is OK.” It is saying even though there are areas where we need to improve, how great it is that we live in a country where I can express my feelings, I can help it get better, I can be grateful for the country and still make it better.
And guess what – more change will come faster with gratitude than complaint.
Have you ever bought a car and suddenly, from the moment you bought that car you start to see your make and model everywhere?
You have become conscious of that make and model, so you recognize it everywhere. I remember when my wife got pregnant with our first child, I could not believe how many pregnant women I suddenly saw. It wasn’t luck or happenstance – it was the fact I was conscious of it – those women would have been there anyway, but I was seeing them now.
The same holds true with gratitude – if you live in a grateful and graceful consciousness – you will see reasons to be grateful everywhere – its axiomatic. It takes a bit of discipline and you may have to fight off demons for a while, but it is true – “Nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”
Peter Crabbe is a writer living in California.
Melrose Hack: Tales of Frustration
Once upon a time in a land not so far away is a store that I call Melrose Hack or The Hack for short. Not sure why, as The Hack is located on the esplanades of Olive Boulevard in beautiful downtown Burbank. It is a store filled with heroes and villains. Shadows and substance are indiscernible, and logic vanishes like the wind.
Our story is not a bedtime story, but it could be a nightmare for those who cross the threshold between light and darkness. There are good guys and bad guys and the evil villain, Justin “The Terrible,” stalks the terra with vacuity. This is my story, my descent into the bucket of hell, it is a place called Melrose Hack.
Our society today requires us to be tethered to technology to communicate and function. Industry and culture have created a world where we need to be “plugged in.” So, this is the case, we require our phones and computers in order to be relevant. The alternative is a cabin in the woods, and at this point, that doesn’t sound so bad.
About a month ago, I turned on my MacBook and powered up. As one of my wife’s cooking shows blared in the background, I realized it was taking more time to turn on than being on hold with Spectrum. This barely used laptop, as Lili Von Shtupp said in Blazing Saddles, had gone “kaput!”
Donning my KN95 mask, or at least that’s what it claims to be, I headed over to a local computer store that I call The Hack, to see what was wrong with my MacBook.
I checked the computer in, waited a few days, and was informed it was a logic board failure. That means it’s like Frankenstein’s brain before they plug in the power. It’s going to cost $800, a cheery woman tells me on the phone. Don’t you love it when cheery people give you bad news?
It reminded me of the day a young kid arrived at my house. With a big smile, he held a box out to me and said, “Here’s your mom.” And so it goes.
Back at the Hack I asked the service guy behind the counter, “I suppose it’s out of warranty.”
He smiled at me. “Yeah,” he said, “it went out in January of this year.”
“Are you friggin’ kidding me?” I asked.
He smiled again. “I do not kid.”
Logic board or no logic board, it sure didn’t take any logic to know that this was the end of the line. No use having it fixed when I could get a new computer for a couple of C-notes more. I waited for my computer to be returned.
You know when you watch something develop and know it probably isn’t going to end well? This is the start of a trainwreck.
The cheery woman looked for my broken computer in a line of cabinets behind her. Peering in one cabinet after another, she repeated this five times. She was on her knees and seemed to bow at each cabinet (perhaps a prayer of uncertainty?).
Exasperated, she exited through a side door to the back, came out a few minutes later and continued to look in the cabinets again. It was quite remarkable.
We were fifteen minutes into the Easter egg hunt, and so far, no egg. I thought Godot would appear before my computer would, so I decided to wait outside.
A few minutes later, she emerged, smiling. “Here you go.” The computer sure was beautiful… but so’s Marilyn Monroe, and she’s dead too.
I decided to call Apple and see if they would take my MacBook a for a trade-in and maybe knock a hundred or so off a new computer. Steve Apple is a good guy, said our president, so maybe they would cut me a break.
When the Apple guy came on the line, he said there was nothing they could do with any type of trade-in, then suggested I try eBay. Just as I was about to hang up, he said, “I suppose you didn’t know you have AppleCare Plus, or you wouldn’t have called me? It runs through next year.”
My mouth dropped.
“Yeah,” he said. “Just send it in and we will fix it for no charge.”
“But the Melrose Hack said it expired this year,” I said.
“Tell them to pay more attention,” he told me. “It’s not that hard.”
Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” crawled out of the deep recesses of my brain as I headed back to The Hack for round 3.
I pushed my dead computer at the same service guy standing behind the desk. “You said this is out of warranty and Apple says it’s not.”
He looked and shook his head. “Nope, expired this year. Sorry about that.” But before I could respond, he looked up at me, surprised “Yeah, I guess you do have AppleCare until 2021.” He sent the computer to Apple for repair.
In the movie biz, this is what’s called the plot turn. It’s when the music goes, “DA-DA-DA,” and the story turns in another direction. So, DA-DA-DA.
Cheery Woman called about a week later and said my computer was back and ready to be picked up. I headed over singing to myself, “On the road again, ain’t it great to be back on the road again.” Back at the Hack, I walked in and nodded to the guy at the reception desk, who reminded me of Winslow Leach from the Brian De Palma cult favorite, Phantom of the Paradise.
Standing in line behind a nice frustrated guy, I began to chat with Winslow about nothing, really. He seemed like a nice enough guy but he was bummed to be working at The Hack instead of writing his master rock cantata based on Faust. I like to assign lives to people when I stand in line and am bored out of my mind. I flashed from Phantom of the Paradise to another movie, Groundhog Day. I’d been in this line several times before.
AH HA!!!! I realized why it was taking so long: they couldn’t find the computer for the guy in front of me. I waited patiently, looking at the same displayed computers that I had already looked at fifty times. The guy in front of me turned and shrugged. “Been there done that,” I said. He snorted, and turned back to stare into space.
A new customer sauntered in. Winslow instructed her to wait outside in line and then turned to me and said, “You have to go outside too.” He lowered his voice to tell me, “We don’t want too many people in the store.”
As my dad would say, “Hold the phone!”
“But there are no more people in the store,” I said. He shrugged.
Now he’s telling me this? Now? Really? I had been standing in line for twenty minutes and now he asks me to move to the back of line which had formed behind me.
There were no more people in the store than when I’d first entered, clearly a logic board fail for Winslow. This made no sense.
I tried telling my story again, but he cut me off. “You still need to go outside,” he said. I looked at him and asked, “Are you kidding me?” He fidgeted and looked down and said, “I don’t know. This is my first day. I don’t know anything.” Poor shmuck, I thought and then asked for the manager.
This is where the DA-DA-DA happens again and Justin “The Terrible” enters the story. Every good tale needs a villain, and Justin “The Terrible” is our Gene Hackman’s characterization of Lex Luther in Superman II. You know, a goofy kind of bad guy. When Justin “The Terrible” emerged, he looked more annoyed than if I’d interrupted him watching Bachelor in Paradise.
His eyes were glaring before I said a word. I repeated my tale of woe but he was not impressed and showed no sympathy that The Hack had caused the problem in the first place. He didn’t care that their ineptness was going to cost me $1,500 as I sought to sell a perfectly fixable computer for a hundred bucks. I asked if I could just get my computer.
He angrily said that Winslow was right, and I had to go outside. He barked at me, “Go wait outside!”
Taken aback by this order, I asked him for a logical explanation of why I’m being sent out at this point when I wasn’t asked to stand outside when I entered the store twenty minutes earlier. He literally said, “GET OUT OF MY STORE RIGHT NOW!” I had no idea that this was his store, and I’m sure the owners of Melrose Hack didn’t know that, either.
I took a breath and said, “This is a great way to treat a customer.”
“Get out!” he shouted again. I wanted to tell him that Get Out was a pretty good movie, but I thought I might never see my computer again.
As I walked out the door, I turned back and told him, “I’m a writer and I can’t wait to write about this―it’s better than fiction.”
Now, sometimes in this world you see adults regress to their teenage years. And although I didn’t see the synapse misfire in Justin “The Terrible’s” brain, what I can tell you is that he became 14 years old instantaneously. He was not the sweet little boy that Tom Hanks became in the movie BIG, but the total ass bully that can be found on the playground picking on the little kids.
“Oh, you’re a big man, you’re a really big man. I hope that makes you feel like a big man,” he said. The name Biff came to mind from Back To The Future.
Let’s paint the picture. Here’s this 30-something guy, hands on his hips, raising his voice and yelling at me in front of staff and customers, “Oh, you’re big man!” By the way, I had a great retort, but he had me by the balls and I wanted my computer.
I went outside and stood at the back of the line.
In about three nanoseconds and a half, Cheery Woman (who now didn’t look so cheery) came out and told me to come in and get my computer. When I entered the store, everything was exactly the same. Guy was waiting for his computer, Winslow sat at the reception desk and Justin “The Terrible” was staring at a computer. Nothing had changed other than I had been sent outside, I guess so that Justin “The Terrible” could show me that he was the really big man.
The same guy at the service desk handed me my computer and looked at me with sympathy. He knew the story and saw it all happen, but he needed the job so he kept his mouth shut. Computer in hand, I turned to leave. As I passed Justin “The Terrible,” he said, “Big man, you’re a big man."
So, The Hack cost me jack and a hell of a lot of aggravation, plus some dough but, I chalked it up that I got some great material. As Vonnegut wrote, “And so it goes.” I took my computer, mounted my pony, and headed into the sunset to fight another day. So long, Melrose Hack, we shall not meet again.
Rocky Lang is a writer living in California.
“Temperatures will be moderate today and unemployment numbers are improving,” the newscaster said with a parenthetical of relief in her voice. “Thank God,” I thought, “Finally this heat wave is done.”
“But the big news breaking overnight, the President and First Lady…,” click. I turned the radio off – I wanted it to be a good news day.
I pulled into a spot near my favorite coffee shop and got out of the car feeling a little more upbeat than I had in a long time, “Maybe the heat is done, maybe COVID is coming to an end, maybe….”
“Hey Clark!” the shrill but muffled voice of my longtime friend Tina belted from behind her industrial grade shield and mask, ‘Where’s your mask?”
“Oh! Got it right here in my pocket!” I said, having for a brief moment forgotten we were in a bizarre re-make of the Andromeda Strain.
“Well put it on! You don’t want to end up like you-know-who!” She yelled as she shook her finger at me causing her Biden-Harris button to shake violently on her collar, “It’s so good to see you! It’s been ages!”
“Yeah crazy times, isn’t it?” I said, honestly glad to see her. She was really a fun, smart and cool friend.
“Well with that orange-headed idiot running things what do you expect? He got his Karma didn’t he?”
I had no idea what she was talking about and didn’t care to. “How is Bill? Where is he?” I asked. Bill was her longtime significant other – they had been together for so long they may have been the first “significant other” couple that ever was.
“He’s inside having some argument about writing with a moron who thinks he knows something about writing. It’s all bull shit, I tell him ‘Bill, it’s all bullshit why do you bother?’ But does he listen?... First act this, crisis climax that… God if I hear the term character arc again in my lifetime…”
“I see,” I said noting that Tina had stopped and was looking at the bumper of my car.
“What?” I asked.
“Huh?” she said.
“What are you looking at? Did someone hit my car?”
“Oh no I just noticed you don’t have your Biden bumper sticker on yet – you know this election is no joke we have to get the vote out. I have an extra in my car, if you want, I can get it for you.”
“Oh no that’s OK, I’m just going to go grab my coffee. Don’t bother.”
“You don’t want a Biden sticker for your car?”
“Well… I… it’s just…”
“Clark! You aren’t voting for Trump, are you?” she queried, her eyes wide and the only part of her face I could see behind the shield and mask… or wait …two masks! She was double covered. And yet her voice was still being felt in spots on my spine which I haven’t been able to reach since I was 17.
“Oh, no I don’t think so.” I said trying to inch away to what I really wanted, my coffee.
“You don’t think so?! That is not an answer! That’s not good enough!” she belted at me as if she were auditioning for The View. “We have to get rid of that asshole! He’s a fucking idiot! A moron! A liar!”
“You ‘don’t think so’? Clark! Are you a Republican?...”
“…One of these hidden racist, gun toting Nazis who let Hilary down last time? Need I remind you we are standing south of Ventura Blvd?”
“No… no…,” I said thinking it was none of her business but not daring to say it. “Look I’m a moderate, right in the middle and I really don’t like talking about politics… I… I… didn’t vote for him last time.” I finally conceded breaking my rule of not talking about my politics but hoping it would appease her.
“Did you vote for Hillary?”
“No…. but I live in a state she carried...” I offered hoping I’d be let off the hook.
“OH MY FUCKING GOD! You are! You are a right-wing prick! You are the problem!!!”
“I am?” I said, having never considered being in the middle and always desperately trying to be accommodating and even minded as the problem.
“You sure as hell are! Oh god, oh god oh god….” She repeated as if we had been married 30 years and I had just told her I liked men – no - that’s not right - THAT she would have probably accepted. Suddenly she turned, grabbed me by the arms, “SILENCE IS VIOLENCE!!!” she screamed as she shook me so hard, I felt a filling loosen.
“So is breaking my neck! Look Tina, I think Biden seems like a fine guy… but he has been in politics for 45 years and not the strongest choice they could have put forward, but if he wins, he’ll be my President just like Trump is now and Obama was. And that will be OK, we will all get through it.”
If her mask wasn’t acting as a mouth-bra, her jaw would have hit the pavement. “Did you just say ‘Trump is your President’???? You right wing Nazi prick! You support him as your president?
“Well, he is the President – I support the office, I don’t know that I would say I support him. I think he has done some awful things; I don’t like his personality much – he’s an egotist, pompous and should keep his mouth shut. But there are a couple of things he’s done – stood up to China, re-negotiated some bad trade deals. He’s ending wars, bringing troops home. We are all still alive – we will be OK. I DIDN’T VOTE FOR HIM… I just don’t think…”
“Right! Exactly right! You don’t think! Unbelievable that’s what you are! I had no idea what a fucking idiot you are! To think I liked you and respected you!... So, you are in favor of Police killing innocent people and immigrant babies dying in captivity?” she screamed, her head shaking as if it were reaching critical mass.
“No, of course not. Tina, I’m an independent. I just think things would be better if all the noise were turned down and we tried to get along and thought about the whole picture without being so extreme. You know, compromise and reason.”
“You can’t reason, compromise or get along with a hater Clark!” she bellowed as her hand hit the trunk of her Mercedes with a thud and crows flew off high voltage wires above, “How can you like a hater? He is a fucking hater and I hate him! And I hate you if you even think that hater has done anything right! He’s got to be fucking removed and someone with love, care, and compassion needs to be in that office – that’s what we stand for! Reason, logic, love and compassion. We are trying to be inclusive! Everybody has a place with us! And there is no room in our movement for people like you who don’t get it and don’t denounce him outright!!!!"
She grabbed her phone and fumbled with it.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m unfriending you! If Facebook had a hate icon I’d be sending it your way.”
“Look,” she said adjusting her 50 pound purse on her shoulder like a gunfighter straightening his holster for the draw. “Once Biden is in Office and that fucking idiot is gone and we run the White House and Congress, then this country can heal and be unified – because the stupid asshole fucking republicans will be out and reasonable people will be leading - but not till then!”
I stared at her, dumbfounded and also feeling so bad things had come to this. “Tina, I’m sorry…” I said, not sure why I was apologizing, I guess I just didn’t like to think that I could have anything to do with making her upset.
“Don’t, Clark,” she said holding up her hand and walking away, “And don’t you dare show up at the house next week for our party – you are not welcome until you can be inclusive and loving. Knowing what an idiot you are you probably got COVID like he did, and you deserve it!”
I stood for a long time dazed, stunned and sad. What a world we have evolved into. And the President has COVID? Wow, that’s just what we needed – the election period was feeling sort of boring and uneventful! I decided to avoid my favorite coffee shop and walk down the street to the other option – not as good, but probably no one I knew was there and that was rapidly becoming my desire these days – avoid everyone!
As I approached, I saw a long-time friend, Daryl standing on the corner wearing a red MAGA ball cap. “That takes balls,” I thought, “Geez, he’s on Ventura Blvd in Studio City…”
He turned and saw me, a quizzical look on his face. “Hey Clark! Don’t tell me you’ve bought into this whole COVID media bullshit.”
“What?” I asked.
“That mask! You aren’t one of those ‘Oh god we’re all going to die’ types, are you?”
“Oh, no. No. It the law so I wear it….. Wait. I just heard that Trump has COVID.”
“And you believe that? What are you stupid? It’s the old rope a dope buddy – Ali versus Foreman – Trump pretends he has COVID – kicks back in the hospital, everybody feels for him, he’s about to die…but wait! A week before the election. BOOM! He’s back like Rocky Balboa in the 15th – swinging and hittin’… he’s James Brown thrownin’ off the cape… he’s…."
“Michael Meyers in the third act? Never dead and always dangerous?” I inserted.
Daryl smiled and pointed at me. “Michael Fucking Meyers! That’s perfect! It will scare the shit out of the lefties. Fucking asswipes with their COVID panic. It’s pathetic isn’t it?” He looked at me and sneered again at my face, “Take off the mask, Clark, show some sack, man. Before you know it, you’ll be wearing a dress and joining Transgenders for Biden.”
“That’s hilarious.” I offered, not thinking it was hilarious at all, “Good to see you, Daryl. I’m just going to go in and get coffee.”
“Hey, Trump is coming for a rally in Orange County at the end of the month, you want to go see Rocky Balboa – Michael Fucking Meyers??”
“Come on, man we have to show support. Somebody has to save California from the Newsome nightmare. If you just stay silent you are part of the problem.”
“Yeah I’ve heard that.”
“More people like us got to stand up. We can’t let Creepy Joe win.”
“What makes you think I’m voting for Trump?” I asked.
“Wait, you aren’t a fucking lefty, are you?”
“I always thought you were one of us.”
"One of what?”
“A true American.”
"I am an American, yes.”
“Oh, thank God, for a minute you scared me I thought how can a guy who looks like this be a fucking socialist.”
“Excuse me? Looks like what?”
“Like you! Tall, white, blue eyes…”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
He looked at me as if he were seeing me for the first time.
“Don’t tell me you are voting for Biden! Clark, really? You own a German Shepard for Christ-sake.”
“So, Biden has a German Shepard. And by the way James Brown wasn’t white. Or Ali for that matter”
“Jesus… oh my god, you are! You are a fucking liber-tard. You limp dicked asshole. Do you really want the socialists to take over? You know who supports Biden? The fucking socialists and the anarchists. Seen them riots? – They are coming for us – You won’t have a pot to piss in if Biden wins.”
“Well Trump hasn’t exactly been the greatest role model as President.”
“Listen to you! A fucking left wing commie – after all these years – let me guess – oh boo-hoo the cops are mean – boo-hoo the immigrants won’t get to take all our services that we pay for if mean old Trump is in office. What the fuck is wrong with you? Don’t you support the police and military?"
“Yeah – I think the good police are great. But..”
“Don’t you believe in America?”
“Yes, but Daryl…”
"But nothin! End of story – Get out of my face you left wing asswipe. You probably jack off watching Don Lemon on CNN. Mark my words, the libertards will take your guns!”
“I don’t have guns.”
“Jesus this just gets better and better, well when Kamala becomes President when Creepy Joe dies, don’t come running to me to buy a gun cuz my 50 are not for sale.”
“Fucking left-wing idiot – You know, Clark, I can’t believe I liked and respected you all these years. Had I known what a radical you were I’d never let you in my house. How can you line yourself up with those haters? They hate everything – they hate me, you and America – and the fucking media is all about them and their agenda. If Biden wins there will be no safe place – they will crush us – and destroy the country. Our only chance is to get Trump re-elected and then we can heal and unite because people with brains will be in control.”
So, there was my Tuesday – life as a moderate in today’s world. My friends on the right think I’m a socialist and my friends on the left think I’m a Nazi – so I have no friends. And I’m beginning to like it that way.
Donald Biden is an annoymous writer living at the center.
The thing he noticed first was how lurid his dreams were becoming.
They seemed louder, more crowded, iced with an extra helping of that particular dream anxiety where something or some action has been forgotten and has to be completed NOW. That was one thing. There was also the sensation of clawing yourself up to reach the surface of wakefulness and then spending minutes under the covers convincing yourself that it was only a dream, there is no crisis, it wasn’t real, your mother, who died in 1994, hadn’t lost her luggage at the airport and was going to miss her flight to Johannesburg to meet with Joan Blondell.
Soon he was experiencing things much more stressful than the Mom/Joan Blondell dream. He was caught up in the sort of panic inducing scenarios that kept him from falling back to sleep for fear the dream would pick up right where it left off.
They were his dreams, he recognized that, but there was the sense of someone or something stirring the cauldron, pouring in hot sauce laced with LSD. They were photographed at closer range and with a disturbing wide-angle lens. And the things revealed in the dreams, the appetites… He was surprised by what he seemed to want, experiences he was open to, desires without precedent.
Or maybe not. Maybe these were things he always wanted. He started to look back and began to see moments when he seemed much closer to the figure in his dreams than he thought he’d been. He started to remember moments, slices of moments, looks and gestures, errant thoughts. Not even complete thoughts, but something like the subway platform idylls that come in those empty moments of watching the lights of the local collect on the tunnel walls. When’s the last time he waited for a subway?
Flickers of things. What if that happened? What if this presented itself? What if she said she wanted to kiss you? What if the glass rolled off the table? What if you fell off the bridge or down the elevator shaft? What if you were being pulled under the waves, ignored by the people on shore like the man in the Stevie Smith poem? ”…not waving but drowning.”
The dreams were rummaging through forgotten boxes of memory and aggressively re-mixing the contents so that the falling of the glass was the thing that made the girl ask if it would be all right to kiss him. Now the front of the house he grew up in was suddenly attached to his second apartment in Floral Park.
At first he thought it must be a factor of quarantine and the endless roiling of the crisis. Other people were telling him their dreams were getting increasingly weird and strident. The world was turning into a vulgar nightmare, why shouldn’t the same thing happen while he was trying to get some sleep?
But then he thought, “What if my dreams are getting more fantastic because my life is getting so dull?” All his missed opportunities were coming back with a vengeance as he clocked more and more years and everything went gray. His hair as well as his outlook. His dreams were welling up like banshees to torture him for all his prudence, all his careful, well considered judgements.
He came to the grim conclusion that it was only a matter of time before V. showed up to join the punishing chorus. Chorus nothing. V. would have a solo. An aria.
Like so many men…maybe even most men…he was guilty of looking at a woman and being willfully unaware of her history and all those relationships and events that orbit a woman’s life like invisible asteroids and comets, warping their personal gravity.
V. was at the center of a particularly unstable solar system. He ignored that, to both their regrets.
It ended very badly. Very selfishly. Too often men get into relationships misinterpreting their greed as an act of charity. “What she needs is me.” When the truth is what he wants is her and what she needs doesn’t enter into the discussion. He wasn’t a terrible man. He was probably better than most. At least he felt bad about what happened.
What he did, unfortunately, was try to bury the memory of his blunders. Nobody wants to be revealed as a selfish, unfeeling jerk, least of all to himself. He pushed the memory away, eventually pushing away the entire geographical area associated with the affair and moved to the other side of the country.
But now disease and an incompetent federal government had conspired to bring a vast assortment of his chickens home to roost during his nightmares. He anticipated V. every night, and while those nights were filled with magnified childhood shame and amplified examples of his cowardice, V. did not appear.
And every morning, he feared what was to come.
He moved through the day, one Zoom meeting to the next in that sort of daytime sleepwalking we all seem to be doing now. He would have a drink in the evening, followed by another drink, followed by looking at the news on the internet and having another drink. It had become the structure of his life. No wonder his dreams were attacking him.
He didn’t realize he was dreaming at first. He was at his desk, working on the computer when the doorbell rang. He got up from his desk and left his den, stepping not into his house in North Hollywood, but into his apartment in Jackson Heights. As is the way with dreams when we’re in them, this didn’t seem unusual at all.
He opened the door and saw V. standing on the other side. She was smiling. She was wearing her black velvet coat with the fur collar. There was fresh snow on the collar and on her blonde hair. She was wearing her red leather gloves and offered him a sack of White Castle cheeseburgers. And since this was a dream he didn’t question any of it. And he wasn’t afraid of her.
He remembered the coat and the snow in her hair, but she hadn’t arrived with the cheeseburgers. They had gone out together to walk up to Northern Boulevard to buy them. It was snowing and the snow pulled the sound from the air. The streetlights turned the snow on the branches of the trees a sort of sepia tone. Like a tintype.
In the dream V. came into the apartment and the bag of cheeseburgers was left on the kitchen counter. She took off her coat. She was wearing black jeans and a sweater that changed color from green to pearl to rose each time he turned and looked away. She sat down on the sofa and unzipped her boots. He took the boots and put them on some newspaper near the door.
At this point the dream edited out the part about eating some of the cheeseburgers and smoking some grass and went directly to the two of them naked, making love on the floor in front of the sofa. He was on his back looking up at her as she looked down at him. She was on her haunches, straddling him.
And the world fell away.
There was nothing but the two of them. Nothing but what she felt like in his arms, the sound of her breathing, the thin draft he felt on his side, coming through the bottom of the window above them. The light coming through the window was from the streetlights that turned everything…V.’s face shadowed by her tousled hair, the edge of the sofa at the corner of his vision, the ceiling a mile or so above them…all the color of amber.
No regrets, no confusion, no concerns, no questions about the husband or the other lovers she had or why she had them.
Back then, the grass they smoked worked to make things feel like a dream, so having it all come back to him now in a dream seemed to reverse the process and made it vivid and real and precise. Time stretched in all directions. Slowed by the grass, compressed by the dream.
There was the feeling of things being pulled toward their centers, something magnetic. He bent his head back as the sensation grew and when he did this he could see out the window and saw, upside down, how the snow had collected in an even drift-let along the fire-escape railing. The snow was as amber as everything else.
He woke up then and sat on the edge of the bed and was, a moment later, crying. Weeping. The sort of weeping you associate with grief.
In pushing away his shame, he had pushed away the memory of what was one of the few perfect moments he’d ever had.
He was sure she hated him when it ended. The parting left a sour aftertaste and was not accomplished with any grace or respect. It was like dropping a cinder-block on a two-by-four. The board breaks apart, but the ends are a mess of shards and splinters and spikes. Like crude weapons. He was frightened by the letter she wrote to demand he return all the photographs he’d taken of her. He had no right to her image. He returned the photographs and for weeks afterward kept looking over his shoulder expecting…he wasn’t sure what.
To survive he built a wall between himself and the end. But that meant walling off what had come before: What he thought the first time he saw her, the way they stumbled toward each other, how grateful they both seemed at the start of things. He was bold back then…bold or stupid, they often achieve the same goal…and he had won her. At least some of her. At least for awhile.
Regardless of how it ended, regardless of how he bungled things, there had been that one night. There had been a couple of hours when everything rhymed.
And while that was gone, it had happened. He was part of it.
He did not know where she was. He did not know if she ever thought about him, remembered him, cursed him. It was such a long time ago. Forty years. They were both old now. He didn’t know if she was even alive, if the virus had found her. After all, they were both members of a “vulnerable population.”
If he didn’t have the right to keep the photographs of her, did he have the right to remember that night?
He stood up, went in the bathroom and washed his face. Then he went into the dark living room and looked out at the street through the front windows. He could see the streetlights. They were a cold, blue-white. They were not amber.
Joseph Dougherty is a writer living in California.