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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Let’s talk. I don’t say that lightly. Let’s talk about anything and see where it leads us. Let’s talk about things we didn’t even know we wanted to talk about. I’m on my knees, which I’ll prove to you on Zoom.
I put this out there for a reason, on another day where it seems hard to find a reason to do anything. Six months into the Grayness I see I don’t miss movie theaters, restaurants, even most of my friends; I miss conversation. I miss how you fall in love someone you’ll never see again through a conversation you didn’t expect to have. Zoom calls are a marvelous invention, although as with most Modern Breakthroughs the only truly marvelous thing about it is finding out you can do it at all. After that, it — whatever it is — pales, and you go back to the old way (which hasn’t happened yet). True conversation doesn’t demand a level of presentation, flattering lighting, fiddling with controls and crying I lost you! I hate this thing!Can you hear me? True conversation, like a true friend, doesn’t mind if you wander, and in fact encourages it, as the wandering is a good sign that you feel free enough to wander, to relax in the just being with someone that conversation inspires.
And for all its wonders there’s none of the necessary just-being-with-someone with Zoom. The technology is the someone; it has no warmth, no comforting human curiousity, and doesn’t pretend to, unlike the social media platforms which pretend to have warmth. The name “Zoom” as much as says no musing, please, get to the point, don’t let the door slam behind you. There’s a Nora Ephron essay in which she describes what starts out as a pleasant evening with friends. Nice dinner, good coffee, a torte but not a cake, general name-droppy-schmoozing in the kitchen while you (or Nora) do the dishes yourself (“Thursday’s our Just us night”) which gives way to trying to remember the name of some wonderful old character actor in some wonderful old movie. Some helpful person does a little Googling and in two seconds has the name — Thomas Mitchell! Franklin Pangborn! Eugene Pallette! — and Ephron points out the answer kills the evening. No one really wanted the answer. They wanted the conversation that circled it; we long for connection, not information.
I tested this theory/observation not too long ago, during a strenuously merry Zoom birthday party. I wrote out a question that I didn’t know the answer to, that could be answered — this was a movie lover’s birthday, one of the guests was even an Oscars Rainman — but would at least lead to interesting speculation and might sprout odd tributaries along the way. The question: who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1954? I dropped it in, casually, and someone said “Who knows? Let’s Google it!” But I stopped them. I told them about the social experiment I had in my mind — to see if not knowing is still bearable? — and the result was a terrific conversation that jumped from Bob Hope to the Vietnam War to Sacheen Littlefeather and on and on. The question was forgotten, and the evening was saved.
And it was Donna Reed, by the way. Yes, that one. In From Here to Eternity, a movie set during WWII that is somehow about a time like ours, when no one knew what was coming and had to live their lives and have conversations that could go where they would go. See it, if you haven’t, and then call me. We’ll talk.
Richard Kramer is a writer living in California.
Ann Lewis Hamilton
“I’m wearing pants.” That’s the first thing he says.
She’d stalked him on social media so she knew what he looked like. He’s cuter in motion though, a smile that curls up at the edges like a cartoon.
He stands up and looks down. “Well, not pants exactly. Shorts. That’s okay, right?”
“Shorts are fine. I’m wearing leggings, I’ve worn them like every day since this started. I wash them. Really.” She sticks her leg up in the air. Uh-oh, is he going to think she has fat legs? Has he stalked her on social media? Oh, man, he probably saw the photos from her trip to Zuma with her high school friends last summer, why did they have all those Moscow Mules and why did she post the photos, dumb dumb dumb. He’s probably totally regretting this blind date, who even has blind dates any more?
“I’m Chris,” he says, settling back into his chair. “I know you know that already. That my name is Chris. Because that’s what Barry told Elana, right, so this isn’t a surprise or anything. I’m talking too much, you can tell me to shut up or maybe you can pretend you dialed the wrong number.”
He smiles again and his goofiness makes her laugh out loud. “Elana told me you have a great sense of humor. I’m Katlyn, pleased to meet you, Chris.” She holds her hand in front of the camera and waits until he does the same. They pretend to shake. “Are there people who don’t wear pants?”
“You mean when they’re doing this or on Zoom? Yeah, probably. I’m wearing what I’ve been wearing all day. No offense or anything.”
“Me, too,” Katlyn says, hoping her face doesn’t betray the lie. The lie of changing her clothes at least a dozen times. Spending way too much time on makeup, thinking about borrowing her roommate’s ring light.
“It’s going to be weird to go back,” he says. “I was working in an office before all this and we could wear jeans, but no t-shirts. I wore khakis a lot. Now – I’m used to shorts.”
“Are you working now?” She hopes she doesn’t sound judgmental. About half her friends are looking for full-time work. It’s tough – a year out of college, finding a job in the middle of a pandemic. She thanks her lucky stars every night she’d started a job six months before the quarantine locked everything down.
“I’m doing some production accounting – but I’d been thinking about law school. Now... who knows?”
Katlyn nods. “Yep. I was happy being back in L.A., wow, I’m going to work at this little talent agency and maybe I’ll be an agent one day, at a big place, like CAA.” She sighs. “Who knows?”
“You have pretty eyes,” he says. “They’re blue, right?” He moves closer to the camera on his computer.
“Blue grey. Do you think we’re going to go back, I mean, soon? Sometimes I worry it’s always going to be like this.”
He takes a sip from his water bottle. “I don’t know how soon, but I’m sure things will be back to normal. Unless it’s an alien invasion and they’re taking over the world. That would really suck.”
He’s funny. And smart and cute. Does he smell good? Suppose they continue to date on FaceTime and the quarantine continues and they meet for picnics and cocktails, but they maintain social distancing and so she’s never close enough to smell him. And they fall in love and the quarantine ends and they’re together, face to face, and he smells like… bacon.
Or old eggs. Or socks. Or he’s one of those guys who doesn’t use deodorant to save the environment so he smells like b.o.
“Did I lose you?” he’s saying and she realizes she’s dropped out of the conversation.
“I’m just trying to wrap my head around the weirdness of this. Elana says you have a couple roommates.”
“Yeah, Jeff and Dave. They’re cool. Dave makes me a little nervous sometimes – he thinks the mask stuff is government control and we shouldn’t be breathing in our own CO2.”
“One of my roommates says masks destroy your immune system. People are weird.”
He laughs. “People are really weird. Is that a System of a Down poster?”
He’s looking at her room. “My big brother gave it to me. He was totally into metal. It’s sort of a joke.”
“You strike me more as a Taylor Swift fan.”
She mock gags. “I have to end this call, I thought we were really connecting – Taylor Swift? That’s the meanest thing anybody ever said to me.”
He’s teasing and she knows he’s teasing. This is going well, this is going very well.
“What posters do you have?” She looks at his room. Pale green walls, a bookshelf behind him. The edge of a poster. “I see it, cool, BTS.”
He clutches his chest and falls to the floor. Sits up quickly. “Actually it might be fun to go to a K-Pop concert. Except for all the screaming tweens.”
“We’d probably be screaming, too. Let’s do it. When the quarantine is over.” Whoa, is she asking him on a date?
She checks out his book shelf. Sees Stephen King, Jon Krakauer, a Harry Potter collection. Excellent. Some textbooks, a few baseballs, a single white sock, a box of animal crackers, a hairbrush.
“I used to eat animal crackers,” she says.
His face changes. “What you mean?”
“The crackers, my grandmother used to get them for me.” She points to his shelf. “It’s so cute, the box.”
He grabs the box and pulls it down. “That wasn’t supposed to be there. Sorry.”
“You’re going to hoard your animal crackers? Is it a thing, like toilet paper and disinfecting wipes?”
“No, not like that.” He won’t look at the camera.
“Hey, I didn’t mean to get snoopy or anything. I promise I won’t take your crackers.”
“They’re not crackers,” he says. His face is serious. “My girlfriend, this girl I was dating…” A long pause. “She died. Her parents scattered most of her ashes, but they gave some to me. So they’re in the box. Of animal crackers. She loved them, she loved circuses and zoos, she was old fashioned, it was kind of nice. She liked the camels the best.”
Shit, shit, he seemed so normal and nice and funny and he’s a fucking crazy guy who has his dead girlfriend’s ashes in an animal cracker box. Who does that? How did she die? He probably murdered her. Danger danger, get out now. But he seemed so nice.
Except he’s going to kill her, he’s a serial killer and didn’t Elana know she was setting her up with a killer, thanks for nothing, Elana.
He’s watching her. Not talking. Probably thinking about how he’s going to end her life. Strangulation? Something clever like poisoned berries in her komboucha?
“Um,” she says. “Maybe I should… ” What excuse is she going to come up with to end the call? Wash her hair, call the police?
And he grins again. “Kidding,” he says. “Just wanted to see if you’d fall for it. It’s so much fun to goof on people. Ha ha, the look on your face – it was fantastic.”
“Fantastic,” she says. Fantastically strange like everything these days. Living in quarantine, dating online, nobody knows anything, maybe it is an alien invasion.
He’s got that maybe I’m a killer/maybe not smile again. She smiles back, but she’s mentally chopping him up in her mouth like a cracker, biting him over and over again until he turns into crumbs.
Ann Lewis Hamilton is a writer living in California.