Thursday, June 27, 2013

Heads - Dancing. Tails - What Was Tails, Again?

(This is Part Two.  Here's PART ONE)

Edward was lost, but unafraid.  He hadn't expected to meet anyone at the club, and had not for a second thought that his heads-or-tails request for a dance would lead him outside into the cool spring night, hand in hand with a pretty stranger.  He had never actually picked up a woman, and had never excelled at small talk, but a couple of drinks, her smile, and a huge looming decision all combined to put him strangely at ease with the prospect of talking to her.  

The first important fact Edward and Callista learned about each other was revealed as they tried to converse among the smokers loitering outside the club.  "You don't smoke, do you," they asked in unison.  Thank God, they both thought.  They strolled down the two blocks that separated the club from a riverside park, part of an area that was in the late stages of transition to nice from not-so-nice.  

The walk was just long enough for her to learn that he was a sales manager for a company that made teleconferencing software, and that he was divorced with no kids.  He learned that yes, he had heard her name correctly, and that he was not to put a "Flockhart" after it, or he would never see her again.  She was a corporate trainer for a cell phone manufacturer, and had been laid off that afternoon.  Also, she promised she wasn't a hooker, not that the thought had crossed Edward's mind.

A lazy rain began lightly spritzing them as they walked, but neither wanted to be the first one to acknowledge it.  Edward knew the park, and steered them to his favorite bench, knowing that one way or another, they wouldn't be there long.

"So," Callista said, "You're a Kate Bush fan?"


She smiled, assumed an English accent and softly sang, "'Heads, we're dancing?'  That's a Kate Bush song.  You found the only woman in that club - maybe in the whole city - who knows that song.  So, ten-out-of-ten for style, but minus several million for... luck, I guess."

Edward shook his head.  "Man.  Busted.  I really like that CD-- Wait.  Are you paraphrasing who I think you're paraphrasing?"

She tilted her head at him.  "I don't think I've ever heard a sentence with 'paraphrasing' in it twice.  Also, what?"

He thought for a moment.  "Well, when you were getting hit on by that big blonde guy, what would have happened if I had walked up and said, 'Hey sweetheart - is this guy boring you?  Why don't you talk to me instead?  I'm from a different planet.'"

"Hey doll," she corrected.

"Excuse me?"

"It was 'Hey doll, is this guy boring you.'  At least, in the book it was.  I can't bring myself to see the movie.  And I would have left with you on the spot."

A multitude of electrical impulses surged through Edward's brain, and in that millisecond he saw himself, decades later, sitting in a rocking chair, telling his grandchildren that this was the moment he fell in love with their grandmother.  A woman who knew The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy and obscure 80's musicians?  And who seemed interested in him?  And who didn't seem to mind a little rain?  Ridiculous.  Too good to be true.

"Well, the heads-or-tails thing was all that came to mind," he sighed.  "Next time, I'll know to quote Douglas Adams at you."

"Nah.  The outcome's the same," she said, looking up at a nearby streetlamp to check on the gradually intensifying rain.  "So.  Not to sound too much like some wretched twenty-something on a dating show, what does a software sales manager do for fun?"

"I'm in a Leon Redbone tribute band," he answered matter-of-factly.

She stared at him.  

"What?  It's fun."

"How old do you think I am?" she asked. 

"Not old enough to remember Leon Redbone," he countered, "but there are tons of Beatles tribute bands whose members weren't born yet when the band was still together."

"Yes, but..."

"I had a weird roommate in college, and he used to play all these old vinyl Leon Redbone albums, and I just got into it, I guess..."

"No," Callista interrupted. "I get that.  I'm just wondering how you're in a band that covers a guy who used to sit alone on stage - just Leon and his banjo."

"You do know Leon Redbone!"

"Probably not as well as you do, but yeah.  I'm familiar.  Look, it's really starting to rain, and it's been a long day.  Would you mind walking me to my hotel?"

"Not at all," Edward said, rising from the bench and offering her his arm.  "It's about time for old Hobo Jack to be getting here, and this is apparently his bench.  Wait.  Hotel?  You're not from DC?"

"Nope.  I live in Philadelphia."

"So, they laid you off when you were traveling?" Edward was equal parts confused and incredulous.

"Yep." She nodded in the direction of the hotel. "I won't be surprised to find my suitcase in the lost-and-found, and my train ticket canceled.  But whatever."

"That sucks.  I was going to ask you out on a real date."

"So ask.  I got a great severance package.  Maybe I'll stick around for a few days." 

"Would you like to have dinner with me, tomorrow night?" Edward asked. "Please?"

Callista laughed at the "please," and promptly felt bad about it.  "I would love to."

They were nearing the front steps of the hotel.  A wave of nervousness finally caught up with Edward, who didn't know what the protocol was, here.  To the front door?  To the elevator?  To the room?  Ack!  He heard himself stall for time with, "So, I told you about my hobby.  What do you do for fun?"

She stepped in front of him and took his hands.  "I seduce unsuspecting men and trick them into assisting me in high-level international espionage, crimes, and assorted capers."

"Like Angelina Jolie in 'The Tourist?'" 

Crap.  I picked up the only guy east of the Mississippi who's seen that movie, she thought.  "Yes.  Like that."

Edward played along.  "Oh my God!  Are you going to 'Tourist' me?"

"Well, that depends, Edward.  Are you a tourist?" she tried to raise one eyebrow at him, but both went up, resulting in an awkward, surprised look.  Edward saw only a pretty woman, suppressing a smile.

"Well, no."

"You're safe for now, then." She handed him one of her now-obsolete business cards.  "The cell number is my own, so they can't have turned that off.  Call me tomorrow afternoon.  Good night, Edward."  She kissed him, quickly but softly, before he had a chance to kiss her, then scampered up the steps toward the hotel lobby.

"Good night," he said, nearly overcome with happy hope.

She turned around on the top step.  "Hey.  Are you really in a Leon Redbone tribute band?"

Edward smiled guiltily.  "No.  But I've always wanted to start one."  He soaked up the smile she left him with, and watched her lean into the revolving door and disappear.  He knew he was late for his nightly chat with the old homeless man whose bench they had borrowed, but right now, standing in the rain with Callista's card in his pocket, he didn't care.

Another fine writing prompt (SHOWER) from my friends at STUDIO 30 PLUS !

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Achilles Snail-Hair the Buddha

The devastation of the Great Depression reached virtually every person in the United States.  The rich lost their riches, the middle class became destitute, and the poor turned to dust and blew away.  The financial impacts were obvious, immediate and overwhelming, but there were a number of other losses.

One non-monetary, but equally destructive, loss experienced by millions of Americans was that of faith.  For every penniless bum and wandering hobo who prayed his or her way through the Depression, there was one who found no solace in religion.  For some, God was deemed to have died.  For others, the higher power had turned its back on them.  Many more simply abandoned their faith, concluding that they had been on their own all along.

The rampant faithlessness among the nation's hoboes makes the life of Achilles Snail-Hair the Buddha one of the more surprising of the stories I've uncovered to date.

Achilles' path from a normal life to hobodom was unremarkable.  He was the only child of young Greek immigrants.  His father, a grocer, was accidentally crushed to death under a truckload of honeydew melons when Achilles was five.  Before he turned thirteen, his mother was gone, as well.  She was a hairdresser, and was giving her son a "snail do" when she badly burned her hand on a hot iron curler.  The wound became infected, and within two weeks she had succumbed.  From there, Achilles, who kept the snail hairdo for the rest of his days, went quickly from odd jobs to blah blah blah to hobo.

He had been raised Greek Orthodox, but there was little room in his difficult vagrant life for such strict and solemn worship.  As the 1930s - and Achilles' twenties - dragged on, his faith waned.  He kept mostly to himself, but when he met other hoboes, he was always warm, cordial and quietly friendly.  He grew wise.  He made no enemies, but many lifelong friends. 

None of this is what makes his story stand out.  What was unique was the way people sought Achilles, now called Achilles Snail-Hair the Buddha, for words of wisdom, hope and enlightenment.  He was respected for his gentle, sage advice and insights, and loved for his genuine compassion and love for all of his fellow humans.  His reputation grew, but as it did so, it turned into something it shouldn't have.

He was thought to be some kind of enlightened spiritual leader, a preacher, a Buddha, but the fact is, he had almost no faith left.  He was just a really sweet little man, with a strong belief in the goodness of his brethren.  If you asked him a question, he would smile thoughtfully and give you the answer.  He was also short, and had a plump, round belly that protruded as though he might be a mannish-looking mother-to-be.  In Hobo Nation, a quiet, wise, friendly man who looked like the Buddha was assumed to be a Buddha.

He was frequently found sitting as the Buddha sat - on Jefferson Rock, high above Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.  He made his home, so to speak, in the thick woods along the Shenandoah River, and lived out his years, content with his scarce material necessities.  He continued to serve as the secretly-faithless spiritual teacher to a generation of the wandering poor along the B&O, happy to be of whatever help it was that he was being. 

Yet another writing prompt, "PLUMP," from my friends at STUDIO 30 PLUS.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Heads, We're Dancing

It must have been the lasers.  Edward hadn't seen lasers in a night club in fifteen years.  This was primarily due to the fact that he had not seen the inside of a night club in fifteen years.  The dancing beams of light, bone-buzzing music, liquor and a sea of youth around him combined to give him the sense that anything was possible.

He was fully aware of the enormity of what he was about to do, and it both terrified and thrilled him.

He stepped outside of his comfort zone and, second-guessing himself all the way, left his safe perch at the back bar, circumnavigated the throbbing mass of humanity on the dance floor and climbed halfway up the six steps that led to the front bar, stopping in front of the girl he was pretty sure had twice smiled at him.  He took a quarter from his pocket and held it up.  It was a brand-new coin, and at that moment caught a bit of laser light, sending it for an instant directly into the girl's eyes.

"Ow!" she yelped, her squint quickly becoming a glare.

Edward was oddly undeterred.  "Sorry," he shrugged, then leaned forward with the hope that she, and only she, would hear him.  "Hey, listen.  Heads, we're dancing."

She stared at him as if he had just stepped off a passing garbage truck and proposed marriage.  Really? She thought.  Before she could come up with an appropriately stinging brush-off line, he was even closer, yelling over the music.

"Come on.  Head's, we're dancing."  He flipped the quarter high into the air, and it spun and flickered and played with the flashing colors as it ascended.  Too high.  It arced gracefully out of Edward's reach and bounced down the steps, stopping on the bottom one.  He scrambled after it and bent over to check the result of his gamble, though he figured at this point the coin would have no say in the matter.  He picked it up, disappointed, and turned to smile some sort of apology at the poor girl and leave her alone forever.  Dumbest pickup line ever, and I am way too old for this shit, he scolded himself.

"Well?"  She had followed him to his wayward quarter, and was smiling brightly when he turned around.


"Heads or tails?"  She blinked expectantly.

Edward's honesty betrayed him, and he frowned down at his hand dejectedly, and shook his head as if to say, "Tails, because this stupid quarter is broken."

"Best two out of three?" she suggested.

Edward's world turned away from the abyss and came back to life.  "Okay!"  He flipped the coin again, and again he sent it spinning out of control.  They followed it to the edge of the dance floor, where it eventually twirled itself to a stop.  The two of them bent over it.  Tails again.

"Oh well," she laughed.  "Better luck next time."

"That's okay.  Thanks for playing along." He could swear he felt himself bow slightly - what was THAT? - and he started to make his turn toward the nearest exit, then he stopped.  "Wait.  We didn't say what tails would be."

She laughed.  Again, his world put down the bottle of sleeping pills and perked up.  

"Oh, I know what tails was," she smiled. "You picked the prize for heads, so tails was up to me."

For the first time in at least two years, Edward allowed hope to open the door - just a crack - and peek inside.  "Oh?"

"Tails was 'We're not dancing.'" she said flatly, and she held her face expressionless for as long as should could stand, which was not long, before laughing and giving this affable stranger a playful shove.  "I'm just messing with you!  Tails was 'Let's go outside where we can hear each other.'  Come on."  She motioned toward the main entrance, and felt a little flush of warmth run through her when he gave her the happiest, sweetest and most sincere smile she could remember ever seeing on a man.  

As they picked their way through the crowd, she took the lead, and took his hand.  He died a little happy death inside.  "I'm Edward," he shouted over the thundering beats.

"Nice to meet you," she answered over her shoulder. "I'm Callista."

Another fine writing prompt (ENORMITY) from my friends at STUDIO 30 PLUS !


Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Ballad Of No-Banjo Burnes

No-Banjo Burnes had four possessions.  That is, of course, excepting his tattered woolen trousers, threadbare shirt, disintegrating coat and hole-pocked shoes.  And a hat.  And a few other ratty necessities.  Okay, he had only four beloved possessions.

He had the requisite hobo stick and bindle. 

He had a locket containing a picture of his mama. 

He had a pocketful of priceless lint.

And he had his banjo.

He loved his banjo, and rarely put it down.  A friend tried to tell him once that it was an expensive instrument, and its value could be restored, if only he would let someone clean and restring it.  Of course, hoboes were not a trusting lot, and Burnes refused to put it down long enough for anyone to do a thorough assessment.

The banjo had no strings, and its owner preferred it that way.  "Sounded like a damn banjo when it had strings," he would tell his fellow hoboes.  Since it had come into his possession, it had not been played, and as long as he had any say in the matter, it never would be.

No-Banjo Burnes was raised a child of considerable privilege in New York City, by gifted musician parents.  His mother was a mezzo-soprano who often performed at the Metropolitan Opera House.  His father was a conductor with the New York Symphony.  It was the roaring twenties, and the boy wanted for nothing.  His parents employed one of their peers, the world-class first violinist of the orchestra, to teach their son to play.  

Through six years of lessons, the boy never managed to master the art of plucking.  This was unacceptable to his mother, whose approval was the kid's only motivation.  She would scream at him to get his plucking right.  "It sounds like some kind of dirty old hillbilly banjo!" she would rail.  "I'll not have the sounds of banjo music coming from this penthouse.  No banjo.  NO BANJO!!"

The morning after an evening practice session with a string-plucking passage that had been especially banjo-like, Mr. and Mrs. Burnes were walking along Fifth Avenue, their sixteen-year old son sulking along about ten feet behind them.  Six stories above them, a team of burly movers lost control of a hoist, dropping a baby grand piano and crushing the musical couple to death with the thunderous sound of one massive, terrible A-minor chord.

His parents' holdings evaporated when the market crashed a few months later, and the road from there to No-Banjo Burnes' hobo life was a short one.  From odd jobs to the soup lines to rummaging through dumpsters, to following the tracks to warmer climes - all within about a year's time.

No one knew at what point (or how) he acquired his banjo, but anyone who didn't know that it was used exclusively as a weapon needed only be taught that lesson once.  He used it to protect himself from the worst of his hobo brethren (he even chased off Ol' Barb Stab-You-Quick, once), to kill small game, and to enforce his "No-Banjo" rule.

Hoboes, especially in the Appalachians and the deep south, loved banjo music, but word made its way through their ranks that it was not to be played in Burnes' presence.  When he heard it, he flew into great violent fits of rage, and his string-less formerly musical instrument would swing like Babe Ruth's bat, sometimes with deadly results, as No-Banjo would scream and spit and sputter, "No banjo!  Mother says no banjo... NO BANJO!!"

He enforced his intolerance for the sounds of banjos until one cold night in December of 1940, when he was beaten to death in his sleep, with his own non-musical instrument.


Saturday, June 1, 2013

Dear "Valued" Employee . . .

Mack's workaholism had finally caught up with him, and he had very badly needed a vacation.  After months of his wife's begging - and some prodding by his boss - he finally took a break.  In late April, while their two daughters were still away at school, Mack and Katie spent ten days hiking and climbing their way through the mountains of Peru.  No schedule, no computers, and almost no cell phone signal.  It took two days for Mack - a salesman - to adjust to this disconnection, but before long, it was heaven.

Their return flight arrived at its Logan Airport gate at almost midnight on Sunday and as much as it pained him to do so, Mack went straight to bed without checking his voicemail, or taking so much as a peek at his work email.

The next morning, he returned to the office a few minutes late, but energized and ready to sell.  He had been selling ad minutes for the local all-news radio station for almost three-and-a half decades.  He was good at it because he loved it, and he loved it, because he was good at it.

The side door through which he had always entered refused to acknowledge his key-card.  So did the main entrance.  He had to be buzzed in - after a lengthy hesitation - by the receptionist, who regarded him as one might a ghost, or a suit-wearing llama.  Mack thought little of it, as he'd probably only seen her twice in all of her five years at the station.

Then things got weird.  The sales department, a section of eight cubicles, was empty and quiet.  Then, things got bizarre.  Mack's cube, his home away from home since the last year of the Carter Administration, was in disarray.  The PC tower was gone, as was the printer, and there were three boxes on the desk.  They appeared to contain all of his personal belongings.  There was a post-it note stuck to the now-orphaned computer monitor.  Mack leaned in to read it, and things got ugly.

"Dear 'Valued Employee' -- We regret to inform you that you're position has been eliminated.  You will be paid for today, provided you take your personal belonging;s, return your badge to H.R. and leave the premises without incident.  We 'appreciate' you're years of service.  Sincerly [sic], you're 'favorite' boss, Gregg."

Mack sat for the last time in his old chair and lost consciousness for about thirty seconds.  When he managed to refocus, he experienced a near-seizure of gut-punching shock and panic, followed by heartbreaking sadness.  It was too much to process, so his brain did what it always did in times of crisis, and found one thing on which to focus.  

That gutless little prick fired me by sticky note.

He staggered to the little prick's office, but found no little prick.  There was no one around, so Mack zombied back to his cube to gather his belongings.  His peaceful, controlled, pacifist nature was nearly overwhelmed by a tsunami of thoughts of going absolutely postal, but after a few reps of the breathing exercises he had learned in college, he relaxed.  

First, he wrote a note on the back of an old sales pipeline report:

"Dear 'Boss' -- You are the most cowardly piece of shit I have ever met, and you seem to have no idea what quotation marks are 'for.'  I won't bother to ask how you sleep at night, because I already know.  You cry a lot and suck your thumb.  At least, that's what your wife told me, after I 'fucked her' at the sales retreat in Palm Springs in 2010.  Oh, and she at least know's that A) an apostrophe doesn't mean 'Look out - an S is coming,' and B) your name has too many Gs in it.  Anyway, see you in hell.  -- You're (really?  REALLY??) favorite 'valued' employee, 'Mack'"

He held the note before him and admired his work.  Then he breathed a long, heavy sigh of defeat, crumpled the paper and stuffed it into one of his boxes of your-services-are-no-longer-required.  He grabbed a post-it pad, peeled off the top piece and scribbled three words upon it.  He found the mail cart, loaded it with his boxes, and wheeled toward the side door, slapping his note onto Gregg's door on his way past.

So.  What three words did Mack leave for his boss?

This post, inspired by more true stories than I care to recall, was written in response to yet another prompt from my brethren (and sistren) at STUDIO 30 PLUS