Friday, March 29, 2013

Drifting Luxury Tomb

In response to another writing prompt from my friends at STUDIO 30 PLUS...

It's a photograph, this time!  By Marie of my cyber house rules!

[For this one, I'm going to allow a peek into the still-very-rough first draft of one of my NaNoWriMo zombie novels.  There aren't any zombies in this scene, but whatever.  My protagonist and his dog still don't quite know what's going on, at this point...]

He tried the satellite phone a few times, once actually connecting (more or less) with Bart.  Apart from proving to each that the other was alive, the conversation provided little more than frustration, with Bill yelling "what's going on?" and Bart yelling "where are you?" simultaneously, until after a minute the connection was lost.  By just after dark, Bill had reached St. Kitts, which put him maybe a day or two from the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.   

Here, his exhausted little psyche took another hit.  As they approached Basseterre's Port Zante, with its cruise ship terminal and mega-yacht marina, Bill eased past a massive Royal Caribbean liner, apparently adrift, about two miles offshore.  No fire or passengers were visible, but he thought for a moment that he could hear distant screaming and yelling.  Also, smoke was pouring from the ship.  It was beyond acrid.  Bill gagged and choked and pulled his shirt over his face.  It smelled like burnt hair and raw sewage and body odor all went swimming in vomit together, then wrapped themselves in Styrofoam and lit the whole thing on fire.  Doug threw up a little at his master's feet, then hid in the cabin until the smoke thinned.

Closer to the Basseterre waterfront, Bill spotted what looked like a big red and white sail ahead of him.  As he got closer, he saw that it, too, was smoking a little.  As he made the turn into the biggest, most brightly-lit marina he could find (none of them had answered his radio calls), he saw that the sail wasn't a sail; it was the tail section of a Delta Airlines jet, and the water around it was littered with floating debris and what appeared to be bodies - or parts thereof.  The smell of jet fuel soon overtook the stench of the cruise ship's smoke, and it burned Bill's eyes.  He closed the hatch to try to keep it away from Doug.

He slowed the Sedna to a crawl and approached a pair of gas pumps at the end of the marina's pier.  A powerful hand-held spotlight beam blasted his eyes, zipped around the boat and settled on the bow.  Rubbing his eyes, Bill made out two dark figures between the pumps.  One of them appeared to have a large rifle - maybe a shotgun - aimed at Bill.  Reflexively, he slowly raised his hands, eventually putting them on top of his head.  "I don't want any trouble," he said. "I just want to buy some gas."

"Put your hands back on your wheel, you dumb American!" one of the figures yelled with an odd and very menacing accent. "But first let me see you take the cartridge out of that 9-millimeter you're carrying - and don't do anything stupid or I will blow your head halfway across the harbor."

Bill complied, quickly and a lot more smoothly than he thought he could have.  "I'm cool, I'm cool.  Look, I can just turn around and never look back.  No problem." he said.

"How close you get to that ship?" the other, apparently unarmed figure asked.

"Maybe within five hundred yards.  Meters?  Not that close." Bill felt as though he had wandered onto the set of a disaster movie.

"You pick anyone up?"

"What?  Out there?  No.  I didn't see anyone to pick up.  But I wasn't really close enough to see anything." Bill's internal fight-or-flight debate was over, and he fully expected wings to spring forth from his back at any moment.  He had swung the Sedna around, almost in-place, and now had the port side of the boat up against the pier.  Great, he thought. I'm going to be robbed and murdered, and I'll never get to find out what the hell is going on.

"You stay away from that boat, bro.  You know what's good for you.  You got cash?"

Bill surrendered the sizable roll of bills from his pocket - probably $1,500 dollars, then stood with his hands on his head while the men topped off the Sedna's tank.  Just as the flow of gasoline shut off, from out of the shadows at the far end of the dock, another pair of men charged toward them, cursing and shouting and brandishing a shotgun of their own.  "Hey!  Get away from my pumps!"   

The two guys who had just taken Bill's money and given him someone else's gasoline leapt from the pier into a small skiff, ripped its motor to life and buzzed away.  Bill was right behind them, gunning his boat's big inboards and nearly taking a gas pump with him.  He thought he heard at least one shotgun blast over the roar of the engines, but he didn't look back to see.  A few seconds later, he caught a glimpse of the robbers' skiff, zipping across his bow about two hundred feet ahead in the darkness.  "Good.  Go that way.  I'll go northwest.  Good luck, dudes," he said.

He cut a wide arc around the smoking luxury liner, and when he'd put a few miles between the Sedna's stern and Basseterre, he opened the cabin hatch and let the dog out.  Doug was not amused, as he hated hearing conversations he couldn't sit in on - and utterly despised being closed in the cabin when the boat was moving.  He didn't mind at all being in there, even on rough seas, but only if the hatch was open.  He was not having fun anymore, and stayed very close to his best friend for the rest of the night...

Monday, March 18, 2013

A Slacker* Looks At 40 (From 46) - Honey, Where Are The Kids?

This post was orignially featured by my good friends at STUDIO 30 PLUS - but just in case you missed it...

About three months before I turned forty, I went out to lunch with a group of coworkers from what had not yet become the Vortex of Doom. As is often the case with my work groups, thanks to my so-called career in and around accounting, I was one of only two men at a table of ten people. I'm used to this. It's nice. So when the topic of conversation turned to children, I was neither surprised nor unhappy. I love kids, and I know that it's generally a good idea to let the people around you talk about what they want to talk about.

One of my newer coworkers asked me the question I had known would eventually come my way.

"Do you have children, Joe?"

It's such a simple question, and yet so very loaded. It needn't be, but it is. Before I go any further, please know that I am fully aware of the intensity of people's feelings on this subject. Volumes of books, research studies, advice columns and websites, television and cinema and blog after blog after blog have been - and are still being - produced on the subject of what follows.


Oh, if only we could say "nope" and be done with it. It usually helps to say "No, how about you," but she had just been talking about her kids, so that wasn't an option, this time. Naturally, her follow-up question was immediate.

"Are you and [Maris] planning on having children?"

I'm aware, thanks in part to [Maris]'s sharing of hundreds of stories and discussions from Etiquette Hell, that to some people, just being asked this question is bile-inducingly offensive. I am not one of those people. I know that 99% of the time, it really is simply conversation.


Here's where it gets a little dicey. Sometimes - okay, once - I've managed to change the subject and derail the question train. That was not to happen on this day. In my experience, there are two ways this will go. If my questioner is boundary-sensitive, or perhaps a man, the next thing I hear will be some (usually lighthearted) quip about how I'm not getting any younger, and "better hurry up and get started." Again, many people find horrible offense in that stuff. I don't. But, more times than I can count, my questioner has taken the other route.

"Why aren't you having children?"

Sometimes, you can actually hear the judgement in this question. The urge to jump up and say "None of your business! Why do you [something outrageously personal and intrusive]???" is almost overpowering, when I hear that judgemental tone. That was not the case, this time around, but what I did hear was if anything just ever so slightly more unsettling. My coworker, whom I still didn't know very well, was UPSET that I wasn't going to be a parent. It was as if I had told her that I had cancer, or a loved one had just passed away. It actually hurt her feelings that I wasn't going to have children. I know this is an extreme reaction. I had never seen it, and haven't since, but it haunts me still.

Now, I know I'm a blogger and we're supposed to be all about over-sharing and whatnot, but this post is already longer than I'd like it to be, and this topic is huge, so I'm going to withhold any serious sharing of my reasons for not having children, for now. I will say that they are numerous and thoughtfully, exhaustively-explored. So meanwhile, go ahead and assume anything you like, on a spectrum from "I can't have kids and it breaks my heart every waking minute" to "I'm a selfish, immature asshole." We'll return to the topic when and if I'm good and ready.

I will share [Maris]'s response to the "WHY NOT?" question, which is "Because I don't want them." But there's is also no shortage of fun to be had with people too interested in one's procreation decision:

"The judge said no."

"Because [Maris] is human and I'm, um, not, and we're just not, you know, compatible. Here - let me show you... Where are you going?"

"Because robots can't have babies."

"Because we're allergic."

"Because we still have stuff to talk about."

"Because she's hot, and we don't want to ruin her."

"We'd love to, but there's this old witch who years ago gave us a win over the cowboys in exchange for our firstborn."

"Because we drink."

"Because we drink enough already."

"Because the mere thought of being pregnant and/or giving birth makes [Maris] want to vomit and cry and hide under the bed for a week."

"Because they talk through Nats games and other important events."

"Because without sleep, we would undoubtedly murder them."

"It's a matter of national security, and that's all we're authorized to say at this time."

"Because clearly we are horrible, horrible human beings."

"To stand in glorious judgement of your decision to have them. Obviously."

I could go on, and I've actually forgotten some of my more amusing and/or biting retorts, so I'll stop here.

Watch for future posts in which we tackle the unwieldy subjects of "Seriously, why?" and "you'll change your mind," and the inevitable tangential discussion of hurtful judgmentalism in general. Someday, I might even talk about how close I came to becoming a parent with my first wife, when two miscarriages stepped in to say no. Yeah. How about that? It might get all kinds of emotional, up in here!

Until then, I remain,
Uncle Joe (the best uncle in the whole wide world)

*And no, I'm not really a slacker. I really do love the word, though.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Honest Amelia Dirt - Because She's a DANCER

Amelia Dunham stood near center stage and stared down at her choreographer.  George, the hated "boss" of the 1936 Rockettes had just given her an ultimatum:  If he saw her en pointe one more time, not only would she be fired, but she would "never work in this town again."  She was a Rockette, dammit, and there was no place in a Rockettes show for that "hoity-toity ballerina baloney."

She felt her face go red.  This was the first paid work she'd ever had, and although she hated it, she had found that it came naturally to her - and with the Great Depression dragging on, she desperately needed the money.  An argument erupted in her mind.  Income that comes with a creepy boss who was positively made of hands, or a return to homelessness.  She had been pretty good at homelessness, and her hobo life had only ended a year earlier, so the prospect was not as terrifying as it might have been to a nineteen-year old girl who lacked such experience.  She missed her trees and her freedom, but she had learned to love the hot water in her studio apartment, unreliable though it was, and would miss her afternoons spent getting lost in Macy'sShe let the internal debate play out for a moment, and inhaled deeply.

To say that Amelia was not fond of ultimatums was like saying that the stock market on October 29th, 1929 was "in the red."  She was once expelled from the second grade for defying her teacher's final warning, and wearing her handmade tutu of leaves instead of her school uniform one time too many.  A couple of schools later, in the seventh grade, she was expelled for her ongoing refusal to speak.   

Her most severe ultimatum had come from her mother.  By her fourteenth year, Amelia had long-since decided that she was a wood nymph, preferring to loiter and dance alone in the woods near her Corbin, Kentucky home, rather than study, or do her chores, or play with others, or even to talk.  Her mother had arranged a job for Amelia, working as an office clerk for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, in town.

On her first day, when her mother sent one of the wood nymph's miserable little brothers to fetch her for breakfast, Amelia was nowhere to be found.  Later that day, she strolled back into the house, muddy, sweaty and tiredly happy from hours of dancing and cavorting with "her trees," in the thick woods that lined the railroad tracks near the Dunhams' home.  Her mother was too angry to look at Amelia, and her father was working a double shift at the locomotive shop that night, so it was left to the wretched little brothers to deliver the ultimatum.  Show up for work tomorrow - dressed as a normal person - or get out and never come back, they told her.

Before her father got home, that night, she packed some of her homemade skirts and halters and dresses - all of which exposed shocking amounts of skin, especially for the early 1930's - into a couple of pillowcases and danced out the front door without a word.
Dances With Trees

The four years she spent as the hobo Honest Amelia Dirt were the hardest and happiest of her young life.  She made her way south, carefully avoiding people as much as possible, until she found a climate warm enough for her scantily-clad wood nymph lifestyle.  She adopted a small pine forest along the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad near Jacksonville, and lived and danced among the trees, speaking only to them.  

Her hobo years were more difficult than they could have been, were it not for Amelia's strict adherence to a no-stealing policy.  Of the few fellow drifters she met, even fewer were kind-hearted enough to try to teach her anything useful, and whenever their lectures came around to theft, she would shake her head vigorously.  That, coupled with her unflinching penchant for answering truthfully (using head nods/shakes and pantomime, mostly), and an obvious affinity for having maximum earth on her skin, led rather directly to her hobo name.

Life on the road and in the adjoining woods was not easy.  Being a tall, slim, barely-clothed and long-legged dancing teenage human wood nymph in the early 30s was basically living, breathing pornography to most of her fellow hoboes.  She was assaulted more often than she could recall, by the end of it.  The first time, her naïveté had allowed her attacker to take her by surprise by first teaching her a couple of legitimate hobo lessons, and she barely escaped him.  After that, she was more cautious, and although she was thin and not particularly strong, she was light on her feet, and could kick a man in the nose before he knew her foot had left the ground.

In the 1930s, there were no "teenagers," or "'tweens."  If your age had two digits, you were basically an adult.  Amelia was given no special consideration.  At best, she was respected as a woman of the road, staunchly honest and not as easy to rape as she looked.  But beyond the assaults, she also endured a number of awkward proposals of marriage from men from eleven to eleventy. 

She quickly learned to accept this reality, and spent most of her time communing with her trees.  She taught herself to trap, kill, skin, cook and stomach small game, as well as to catch, gut, bone, cook and appreciate fish.  She learned to build her campfires in deep holes, to minimize the chances of rude middle-of-the-night awakenings to bandits or worse.  She made slightly more substantial patchwork clothing for the chilly northern Florida winter nights.  And her thin, muscled arms and legs became tanned, and her eventually hip-length auburn hair lightened, and she danced.  

She taught herself the few classical moves she knew, though she didn't know their names.  She found herself simply moving from her campsite to the stream en point - dancing everywhere she went, every waking minute.  She danced through her conversations with the trees.  She danced through her suitors' mesmerized propositions.  She could not imagine a state of being that didn't include dancing.  

Her leap from life among the trees by the tracks was not by her design.  She had been in the woods of northeast Florida for over three years when she developed pneumonia.  Frog-Eatin' Lou, her only true friend in Hobo Nation, found her unconscious and barely breathing when he came to check on her one January night.  He carried her to a hospital for the poor in Jacksonville.  She slept and absorbed intravenous saline and drugs for a week.  When she woke, she stretched and stripped and found her leafy skirt and started dancing.  She pirouetted through the front door without a word.

As she left the hospital late that night, a pudgy, creepily-imposing little man was dropping an opium-sickened hooker outside the emergency room doors.  He glimpsed Amelia's dancing, weakened though it was by her illness, and was entranced.  He offered her a job - not an audition, a job - with the Rockettes, who would be moving to Radio City Music Hall in New York, that spring.  Honest Amelia Dirt thought about it, and found that she had to admit that life as a dancer with a place to live sounded like something worth trying.  Within a month, she was living in the big city and doing that famous Rockettes leg-kick with two dozen strangers, in front of a theater packed with whooping and howling men.

The city excited her, and one of her biggest fears - having to talk to people - proved false, as it turned out that she could get through an average day without uttering a complete sentence aloud.  The dancing was routine and not nearly natural enough to give her any satisfaction, but it paid for a one-room apartment in the Bronx, and food, and that was enough.  For a while.  As her job became increasingly tedious, she began to add some of her own balletic flourishes.  The Rockettes were - and still are - all about precision in unison, so Amelia's extra-curricular activity was immediately problematic.

She had a choice.  Dance the steps exactly as choreographed, or go back to income-less drifting.  George's tiny face glared at her.  She glared at him.  She took a deep breath.  

She leapt over the orchestra pit and landed, still en pointe, in front of George.  She thought about kicking him in the nose, as she had so many men, including George, over the past five years, but opted instead for a dramatically-loud slap across his oily face.

"I quit."  She scampered to the dressing room to fetch her bag, then danced out the front door without another word.

Friday, March 1, 2013

When Fear Was Fun

It's Flashback Friday, gang.  Why notRecently, I've been finding magic in unusual places.  Tonight's story, however, is real.  It occurred in the late 1970s, during one of my family's August trips to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.  It is sad.  It is creepy.  It is kind of gross.  And it is a childhood memory which simply refuses to leave me.

We arrived for our two-week stay, unloaded the car and helped Mom make the beds as quickly as humanly possible.  Then, all six of us headed down to the Boardwalk before our annual first-night dinner at the Crab Pot, to assess what was new since last year.  My brothers and I were mostly interested in mini-golf, arcades and rides, while our parents lamented the demise of the old chicken stand.  But something weird was in the air.  I didn't notice it until my older brother pointed it out, but then it immediately became palpable, even to my ten(ish)-year old senses.

Instead of the usual happily-milling crowds, we found a couple of hundred people gathered at the edge of the Boardwalk near Rehoboth Avenue.  They were all watching a hovering helicopter and several small boats very close to shore.  Three black-suited divers were in the water, disappearing for a couple of minutes at a time, just beyond the waves.  Word was efficiently passed from mother to mother that a boy had disappeared in those waves not two hours prior, and the operation was now focused on finding his body. 

They did not find a body that night, and the next day the search was called off. Grownups seemed sad.  The big kids were fascinated.  Little kids - like me and my younger brother - were spooked.  Playing in the waves had a new potential hazard, as we were sure at any moment a dead kid would brush against our feet.  Our father explained as carefully as he could just how a submerged body works - rolling on the ocean floor, potentially catching a current that takes it many miles away, and so forth.  Still, we were afraid.

We went about our vacation, but there was a haunted quality to everything.  Even the magical boardwalk, with its rides, arcades, cotton candy and Nick's Pizza, was different.  That body was out there in the ocean. 

We stubbornly went ahead with our nightly family walks on the beach, and there were plenty of chilling moments there, too.  Any odd shadow in the sand or surf looked liked a body, and some were quite convincing until proven to be otherwise.  I secretly hoped we would be the ones to find the body, and I assumed it would be at night, for maximum creepiness.  I gave myself more than one nightmare, thinking about it night after night.  What would it look like?  Smell like?  Would the eyes be open?  Would stuff already be living in it?  It terrified me, but it also lit a new spark in my young imagination, because it was real - finding that body was not impossible.  Now, I know boys are stupid, but rest assured, Mom made sure we all had the proper appreciation and respect for the fact that a boy - not that much older than myself - had been playing one minute and dead the next, that his parents were devastated, that it could have been one of us, and that it wasn't "neat."  Still, it kind of was.  It was electrifying, in spite of all the negatives.

About a week after the drowning, my brothers and I were in our beds in the awesome front bedroom of our rented Philadelphia Street house when a beach patrol truck (they weren't called SUVs, yet) roared past, headed toward the beach.  It was followed immediately by an ambulance (no sirens) and several police cars (again - no sirens).  We knew.  The body had been found.  Also, confirming our creepiest fears, it was found at the end of OUR street, where we'd been playing in the surf for a week, and where we had poked a washed-up jellyfish with a stick that very evening.

The fact that a boy had drowned was not fun, even to a little kid, but this vacation enjoys special status in my memory.  It was exciting to be that creeped-out by something real, at that age.  It gave our whole family a common ground we didn't often enjoy.  We were all spooked, and somehow that unified us - especially me and my brothers.  It wasn't exactly Stand By Me, but it was still very cool and utterly unforgettable.  Somehow, death had become magic.  Dark magic, perhaps, but magic nonetheless.

The only way it could have been more gross would have been for us to find the body.  The only way it could have been scarier would have been for the body to have never been found.  ::shudder::

There.  This concludes our flashback.  I'm going to go watch a bunch of cartoons or a Will Ferrell movie or something.  See ya!