Thursday, December 25, 2014

A Christmas Carol For A Dying Breed

Redball Charlie Dickens carried only a small pack, yet he walked the walk of a man heavily burdened. It was Christmas Eve 1954, and most of his hobo brethren were long gone. After a slow start, the West Virginia snow was playing catch-up, and it covered all of Grafton in a heavy, cold blanket - five inches thick, and growing. Charlie hated snow. It always found its way through the holes in his ancient shoes, simultaneously soaking and freezing his feet. Cold feet, cold heart, they say. "They" say? Who are "they?" Who says that? Well, it sounds like a thing they would say, so let's just proceed.

"Look at those people," Charlie snarled, "risking life and limb to race across Main Street, rather than walk past the likes of us."
Pally McAffable, Everybody's Friend, Charlie's only acquaintance, snorted.  "Maybe they're just going that way to get a picture of their kids in front of the Town Square Christmas tree.  See?  There they go.  You're such an old cynic."

"A cynic is just an idealist with experience, Pal.  I've got a good fifteen years on you.  Wait 'til you're my age.  You'll see."

Pally shook his head emphatically, as if trying to keep an image from forming in his brain.  "I'll never be like you," he said quietly. "Not if I can help it." 

At the intersection of Main and Latrobe Streets, near the roundhouse and locomotive turntable, the two men stopped.  "You're camping under the bridge, again?" Pally asked.

"On the pristine shore of Whiteday Creek, yessir."

"And you're sure you won't come with me to church tonight?  Sylvia and Timmy would love to see you."

Pally McAffable, Everybody's Friend was married to a fellow hobo named Sylvia Patience Hidden-Forks, and together they had a five-year old son, the unwell but irrepressible Timmy Hands-Covered-In-Scotch-Tape.  Sylvia wasn't one to hate, but she had no love for Charlie, and he didn't much care for her, either - what with her being a person, and all.

"Me?  Go to church?  You must be joking," Charlie scoffed.

"But it's Christmas Eve."

"All the more reason for me to say no.  It will be just that much more crowded with townies, staring at us, terrified that we're going to rob them or breathe on them or soil their precious pews.  I don't know why you subject yourself to it."

"I do it because it's Christmas, of course.  And I figure getting in there under God's roof from time to time can't hurt. I'm going to ask him again why he would disfigure our son so badly, and beseech him to heal the boy."

"Good luck with that," Charlie said. "I've got to get my fire lit." He turned to start down the path that led to the creek.

"Hey, that reminds me," Pally called after him, "I heard you chased away a couple of hoboes, last night - two old-timers from Cincinnati."

"Yep.  What about it?"

"That's not how it's supposed to be, Charlie.  You know the code.  There aren't many of us left. We're supposed to help each other out - always.  It's the hobo way."

"Well, it ain't MY way.  You know I don't care about that stupid code."

Pally McAffable stared for a moment at his grouchy, on-again, off-again traveling companion.  "But it's Christmas..."

"Christmas?" Charlie spat. "It's December twenty-fourth, Pally. That's all. I'll see you around."  The old hobo stomped away, down the snow-covered path.

"Geez, Charlie!" Pally shouted. "You know what? I'm gonna go pray for you, you old fart.  I'm gonna pray hard that you have the merriest Christmas ever!"

*   *   *

Two hours later, drunk on hobo wine and relatively warm by the campfire he refused to share, Redball Charlie Dickens sank into a restless sleep.  Before long, he awoke to an oddly disturbing combination of sounds, which simultaneously sickened and annoyed him.  There was a man's voice, hacking, choking, and loudly moaning - and punctuating these haunting sounds of suffering, there came the high-pitched metallic clinking and clatter of chains.

"Say, brother, may I warm myself by your fire for a minute on this chilly Christmas Eve?" The unseen man growled tiredly.

Charlie strained to see into the shadows that wagged and wavered at the edges of the firelight.  "No.  Go make your own fire.  I'm trying to sleep."

The invisible voice coughed and moaned some more, and gradually it became a tall, slender figure, materializing between the fire and Charlie's disbelieving eyes.  He wore a tattered black long coat and a nearly-disintegrated top hat, and he was, in fact, draped in thick steel chains.  "Redball Charlie Dickens, you have been a hobo for thirty-five of your sixty years.  It is time for you to learn to share your fire!"

"How did you do that?  Who are you?  How do you know my name?" Charlie demanded, still trying to work out whether he was more afraid, or irritated.

"You don't recognize me?" The stranger reached behind him and snatched a burning stick from the fire, then turned back toward Charlie, holding it up to illuminate his face.  His skin was deeply furrowed, and appeared to be decomposing, but his eyes held sparks of familiarity.  In his hand, the flaming stick hissed and smoked.

Charlie looked up at the man in disbelief.  "It can't be.  No way.  Do I know you?"

The man laughed, coughing as though he might at any moment free one of his lungs from his chest.  When this fit was over, he moaned again.  "In life," he wheezed, "you knew me as Undertaker Robert, The Lint-Coffin Weaver, your only friend and partner in all things hobo."

Charlie tilted his head and squinted. "Impossible," he declared. "Undertaker Robert is dead.  I watched him die.  He was--"

"Crushed by a steel girder as it was lowered into an empty gondola in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania? Yes, I know. I was there. That was me. You barely made it out of there alive. I didn't."

"But, then... That would make you a..."

Undertaker Robert coughed and moaned again. "A ghost. Yes, that's exactly what I am. And I'm in a hurry, so listen up. I'm here to warn you that you must change your ways - and not just at Christmastime. You have to abide by the hobo code.  Share your fire, help your fellow 'bo, watch out for children in trouble, be a gentleman when in town - the whole list - or you'll end up in chained, damned misery, the same as me."

"You're in a hurry?" Charlie said. "What's your rush? What are you - late for church? You're a ghost!"

"Ghost stuff. Now, listen..."

"What the hell is 'ghost stuff?'" Charlie laughed.

"Shut up!" the ghost snapped, rising several feet off the ground and pointing an angry finger at his old friend. "I'm in a hurry to not be around you anymore.  Now, I'm telling you that you have to change, and you have to do it now.  Tonight, you will be visited by three spirits.  Listen to them, do what they say, and you might be saved from the fate that has befallen me and my hard, selfish soul. That's all. Good luck.  Bye-bye..."

"Ugh," Charlie grunted. "You mean I gotta put up with two more of you spooks?"


"But, you're a spirit, right?"

"I am."

"So, you, plus two more.  That's three."


"But you said--"

"I know what I said!" Undertaker Robert coughed and spat.

"Swell.  Three more goddamn ghosts..."

"Yes.  Three more.  Tonight.  After I leave."

"When are you leaving?"



He was gone. No fading away, nor floating, nor moaning. He simply vanished, leaving Charlie alone with his crackling fire and his cold feet. And a headache.

*   *   *
Charlie barely had time to start convincing himself that the ghost of Undertaker Robert, The Lint-Coffin Weaver had been the product of tainted hobo wine, before the silent night was again interrupted by the impossible.

"Get up.  I have things to show you." The voice was that of a young man, full of energy and urgency.

"Oh, geez," Charlie groaned, laboriously pulling himself from beneath his ratty pile of old blankets and burlap. "Are you the first spirit?  Or, second.  Whichever?"

"I am." The ghost was indeed the image of a young man - maybe twenty-five years of age - but frightfully dead. "I am Spooky Night, Spooky Day..."

"I thought you looked familiar," Charlie said, rubbing his eyes. "Hell - you were a scary kid when you were alive, but now you're terrifying..."

The spirit cleared his dead throat.  "...and I am the Spirit Of Christmas Past."

"Do we really have to do this?"

"We do." The young ghost said flatly, extending a semi-translucent hand to Charlie.  "Take my hand and don't let go."

Charlie obliged, and in a split-second hurricane of lightning and chaos, the world exploded and rebuilt itself as something completely different - something which the old hobo instantly recognized.  It was a house - humble, but warm.  Seven-year old Charlie was hanging ornaments of glitter-covered paper on a prickly but fragrant scotch pine Christmas tree.  His father was replacing the fuse that had blown when the tree's lights, the crystal radio set, and the new electric clothes iron had overwhelmed it with amperes.  His mother was in the kitchen, basting something, humming "Adeste Fidelis," and doing whatever it was that mothers did to magically make Christmas happen.

"I remember that Christmas," Charlie said.  "That was the year I got a wind-up tank and an orange."  

"And?" the spirit said.

"And that tank was the best toy I ever had.  And I was happy.  So what?"

"Do you remember this part?" Spooky Night, Spooky Day pointed, and the scene changed, as if time sped up for a few seconds, then returned to normal speed.  The boy Charlie was bouncing excitedly on his knees, watching his parents open the gifts he had made for them.  His mother cried when she saw hers - a hand-sewn felt teddy bear with a big red heart on its chest.  On the heart was stitched, "I lov [sic] MOM."  Charlie's father's gift was a pipe - a corncob pipe - hand-carved and fully-functional.  They smiled at each other, and wrapped themselves into a family hug, as the scene faded from view.

"I remember, I remember," Charlie said impatiently.  "So what?  I liked Christmas, once upon a time. What's your point?"

"So, did you see your face, while they opened their gifts?" the spirit asked. "You were seven years old, but the highlight of that Christmas was the giving, not the receiving.  That's kind of a big deal."

"Yeah, yeah. Christmas spirit. Who cares? Let's get on with it."

"Your heart was filled with joy, Charlie," the spirit sighed.

"Well, of course it was.  I was seven.  I thought that moment was forever.  I thought my folks would be there forever.  No one had told me that ten years later, my father would get fired from his job as shift foreman at the shoe polish factory, come home early, find my mother having tea with Mr. Gibbers from church, assume that there was more to it than just tea, fly into a rage, chase my mother out into the street, and get both of them run over by an ice truck.  Where's that scene in your little newsreel, huh?"

"I have that.  It was right before you joined the hobo nation.  Would you like to see it?"

"No!  Thank you, I can remember it just fine. Look - you may not know this about me--"

"I know everything about you, Charlie," the spirit interrupted.

"Then you should know that I've read that wretched Christmas story, and your showing me my past is just not going to cut it.  I remember perfectly well.  I don't need you to show me stuff."

"Yes, you're quite the tough one, aren't you?" the ghost scoffed.  "Well, just like Undertaker Robert, I'm in a hurry, too, so take a quick peek at this..."

"Okay.  Wait.  What the hell are you in a hurry for?  You're a ghost!"

"Ghost stuff," Said Spooky Night, Spooky Day. "Never you mind. Just look at this." He grabbed Charlie's arm and squeezed hard, and the world once again went kablooey.  

Charlie saw his twenty-four-year old self, sitting on a railroad track, with a dirty, but extremely pretty young blonde girl by his side, laughing and looking at him as though he was the dawn, the dusk, and everything good that happened between the two.  "Oh my God - that's... that's her."

"That's who?" the ghost, said, knowingly.

"Marian," Charlie said softly. "Marian May Wyomingsong.  Why would you show me the only woman I ever loved?"

"To remind you that love exists, and that it is not beyond your reach. Don't be stupid."

"I already know that, you big jerk. I'm not stupid.  Love of my life. The one that got away. I get it."

"I don't think you do, but I'm not going to spell it out for you," the ghost grumbled. "You loved. Past tense. It's not just a feeling; it's an ability, and it's one that you lost, through lack of practice.  There. That's your lesson, smart-ass. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got ghost stuff to do.  Merry Christmas to you, and to you a goodbye."


*   *   *

The spirit was gone, and Charlie was alone again. His fire was struggling, so he gave it a poke and a couple of new sticks. He turned around and came nose to nose with a wide, startling grin. He flinched, let out a yelp, and very nearly fell backwards into the fire.

"Hi!" the clown-like caricature blurted. "I'm the Spirit of Christmas Present! I'm also Santa Fe Jinglebell, The World's Most Christmassy Tramp! That is, I was, until I died, three years ago, surrounded by my loving family, after a wonderful, miraculous life..."

"Oh, hell's bells," Charlie muttered.

"Don't give me any guff, Dickens! Undertaker Robert warned me about you, and I'm telling you right now, you can just stow it. I don't have time for your crotchety foolishness."

"Oh, are you in a hurry, too?" Charlie taunted. "Is there some sort of Christmas party for ghosts, and if so, why didn't you schedule better, to accommodate it?"

"Shoosh," the spirit said, "our scheduling is just fine.  And I know you don't give a hoot about redemption, but heed my words.  Redemption takes many forms, from the birth of God's only son, to a hobo who went home, as I did.  For years, I assumed that I was unforgivable, but in the end I was more than forgiven."

"I've heard your sappy story, Jinglebell," Charlie muttered. "A bunch of hooey, if you ask me."

"Well, I'm not asking you, Dickens! We don't have time for my story, anyway. Look..." The spirit gestured toward Charlie's fire, and in an instant it went all crystal ball, displaying a 1954 black and white TV image of the front steps of St. Augustine's Church, up on West Washington Street.

The stairs were lined with luminaria, and it looked as though half of the population of Grafton was filing into the church. At the end of the line was Pally McAffable, Everybody's Friend and his wife and son. Sylvia Patience Hidden-Forks wore a coat that looked as if it might have been fancy, once. Timmy Hands-Covered-In-Scotch-Tape was bouncing excitedly. He was careful not to touch anything, but otherwise seemed pointedly oblivious to his infirmity.

The elderly couple ahead of him in line turned to greet Timmy and his parents, and they asked the boy what he had asked Santa to bring him, this year.  "All I want for Christmas is to be allowed to go to school, so I can play with other kids," he declared.

Fast-forward to the Christmas mass: Timmy smiled brightly and sang the hymns and carols at the top of his pristine little voice. Communion was a bit of a challenge, what with his Scotch-tape-covered hands, but he soldiered happily through, and everyone instantly loved him. The scene faded to black.

Charlie blinked at Santa Fe Jinglebell. "Sweet kid," he said. "Shame about the hands, but he seems happy enough."

Jinglebell snorted, then did a little dance, causing the bells on his shoes - and almost everywhere else on his person - to jingle festively. The image in the campfire flickered back to life. It showed two men, dressed in rags, huddled together in the snow on a hillside.

"Who are they?" Charlie asked.

"They are the two strangers who asked to borrow your fire, last night," the spirit said, "and they are dead."

"What? Where? How?"

"They moved on, as you suggested, and tried to continue on to Cumberland. It got very cold up on the hill, and they froze to death twelve miles east of Grafton, before they could get a fire started."

"Man, that's dumb," Charlie said, shaking his head. "The should have just moved to the next bridge, or holed up in a boxcar in the yard, or something. Guess they won't make that mistake again, huh?"

The spirit stared at Charlie for a few moments. "Wow. You're really not a nice person."

"You're not going to start preaching at me about the hobo code, or goodwill toward my fellow man, or God, or whatnot - are you?"

Santa Fe Jinglebell, The World's Most Christmassy Tramp sighed heavily. "Preach? No, I'm not going to preach at you, friend. Christmas spirit, kindness, goodness - get some, and get it quick, or you'll be sorry. I gotta go - I'm late, already." With that, he was gone.

"Wait!" Charlie yelled at the empty air from which the spirit had vanished. "I'm already a little bit sorry. You can preach if you like. I think I might even have some questions for you..."

*   *   *

Behind him, Charlie heard a low growl. It was deep and rough, and it carried a menace that echoed off the hills of Grafton.  He turned to face it, and found a patch of air that was blurry and distorted, as light twisted and melted into a heavy, hulking, robed and hooded figure.

"Yipes," he said, "Does the Spirit of Christmas Yet To Come always have to look like the grim reaper? It's such a cliche. Nice job, though - very ominous."

The figure growled again, and continued to gather itself together and into better focus. It pulled back its hood, and Charlie gasped. It was not the grim reaper. Reaper, maybe - but far from grim. It was the fabulous face of Fabulon Darkness, who in life had been the coolest, most fashion-forward hobo anyone had known. If he had been around in the next millennium, it would have been suggested that he looked as though Avril Lavigne, Robert Smith, and Billie Joe Armstrong had had a baby. He was Dark Wave, Punk, and Goth, long before any of those things existed.

"Whoa..." Charlie said, "Fabulon Darkness! It's a pleasure to meet you, and I assume that since you barely said a word when you were alive, this will be a quiet and hopefully very quick haunting."

"It will," Fabulon Darkness said.

"And I assume you're in a rush, anyway..."

"I am."

"Great. Well, would it help if I already know what's coming, and that I'll try to be nicer?"

The spirit shook his head slowly, and reached out to Charlie with a half-decomposed hand covered in silver rings and black spiderweb tattoos and nail polish.

"Fine." Charlie took hold of the cold, cool hand. "Let's get this over with."

In a flash, they were standing by a fire much larger than Charlie's, surrounded by low, sad voices. It was a bona fide hobo jungle - a camp with more hoboes than Charlie had ever seen in one place. There was a sort of receiving line, with dozens of hoboes waiting to share a word of condolence, a prayer, or a hug - sometimes all three - with Pally McAffable and Sylvia Patience.

Charlie turned to the spirit. "Timmy's dead?"

The spirit nodded.

"That's terrible," Charlie said softly. "He was a bright kid. But I have to ask - and please don't take this the wrong way - besides being a horrible tragedy for my only friend, what does this have to do with me?"

Fabulon Darkness raised an eyebrow at the old hobo. It was an eyebrow that desperately wished it could speak, so that it might say "Really?"

"What? It's not like the boy's fate is my fault."

The spirit pointed a super-goth dead finger at Charlie's pants pocket.

"Oh. I see." Charlie reached into his pocket and pulled out a fistful of lint. "Aw, geez. I really am a stupid jerk. Lint is the enemy of Scotch tape. If I had shared my damned lint - and no, I never did - I could have cured Timmy of his Scotch tape problem."

The ghost nodded.

"And he would have lived.  Oh my God. Look at Pally and Sylvia. They're inconsolable. I've seen enough, spirit. Get me out of here - please."

There was a crack of thunder, and in a blinding flash of blue light, the setting changed. Charlie and Fabulon stood in a desolate woods, beneath a grey winter sky, looking down at a pile of dead leaves in the shape of a human body. At its head, there was a scrap of plywood, with a few words scribbled on it in creosote. The ghost pointed his fabulous finger at the board.

"Do I gotta?" Charlie protested. "I know it's me. I know I'm dead and no one cares, or they're happy I'm gone. But listen - I don't care. I really don't. It doesn't matter to me at all, what people think of me. I'm not learning any lesson, here."

The ghost growled, and pointed again, emphatically.

Charlie sighed, trudged over to the makeshift grave marker, and bent over to read:

This was Redball Charlie Dickens. He was no hobo. 

"Damn, that's harsh."

A gust of wind chose that moment to push the leaves away from the dead man's head, which appeared to have at least a dozen stab wounds all over it.

"Stabbed in the head? Oh come on - that's a bit much, don't you think? And they didn't even bury me? Shit, man!" Charlie studied the horror that was his fate for a minute, shaking his head, first in disbelief, then in anger, then sadness, and finally in refusal. "Mister Darkness - I know this story. This is only a vision of what may be, not what will be. Right?"

Fabulon said nothing.

"Okay, listen. I've thought it over, and I think I want to avoid getting stabbed in the head and dumped in the woods. What do I need to do? You gotta at least give me something to do - something tangible. What do I do?"

The fabulous Fabulon Darkness leaned in close to Charlie, far into what anyone would consider very personal space, smiled coolly, and growled, "Change." The scene morphed back into Charlie's campsite, with the purple glow of dawn spreading from east to west. The final ghost didn't disappear, but walked away through the snow, flashing a hand signal - something which, decades later, would symbolize rock n' roll "devil horns" - over his shoulder as he went.

"Wait!" Charlie cried. The ghost did not wait. The ghost was late for his ghost stuff (today, that was a Christmas brunch with the other ghosts). "I'll change - I promise. If it's not too late. Oh, man - if it's too late, I'm going to be so mad..."

"Are you okay, mister?" A young boy walking a little white dog, clearly a townie and not a hobo child, had happened upon Charlie's camp.

Charlie wheeled to face the boy and demanded, "Hey! What day is it?"

"Whoa," the boy said, "Don't yell at me. It's Christmas. Where's your Christmas spirit?"

"He went that way," Charlie said. "If you hurry, you can catch him."

"You're goofy," the boy declared. "Merry Christmas to you, though. Bye." He turned and headed up the hill toward Latrobe Street, with his dog trailing behind him and glaring at Charlie over its shoulder.

"Wait, kid," Charlie called after him. "I don't suppose you've seen a couple of hoboes around here with a hobo kid, have you?"

"You mean mister McAffable and his wife, and Timmy - the boy with tape all over his hands?"

"Yes! That's them!" Charlie enthused. "Have you seen them?"

"Well, sure. Everybody likes them. They're camping down at the other end of the train yard - at least, they were last night."

"You're a good kid," Charlie said. "Merry Christmas. I've got to run."

When Charlie approached Pally and Sylvia's campsite, calling their names in a sing-song voice and shouting "Wake up - it's Christmas," they didn't quite know what to do, at first. Well, Pally and Timmy didn't know what to do at first. Sylvia immediately picked up a rock and threw it at the newly-festive old hobo. Pally gently took her arm and said, "It's okay. I'll handle this."

"Pally, my friend! I didn't mean to startle you, or your wonderful, beautiful wife. I won't be long. I have to get to church..."

"Mass isn't until ten-thirty, Charlie," Pally said. "What's the matter with you?"

"Ten-thirty, of course. Well, I want to get there early, and get a good seat. But before I go, I wanted to give you something.  I have a gift." He reached into his pocket and pulled out the giant ball of lint. "It's for Timmy."

This post made the most of one of this week's Studio 30-plus prompts, "Wait," from Nonamedufus' post, Nodding In Agreement. Check out his blog - you won't be disappointed. But first, have a very merry Christmas, everyone! If you don't observe Christmas, then have a great day! Catch you guys later...



Monday, December 1, 2014

That Thankfulness Thing 2014 - Part Three Of Three (Thankfully)

First, there was 2012's That Thankfulness Thing. Then, because "quit while you're ahead" is nonsense, there was More Of That, in 2013.  Now, because a few weeks ago, I foolishly felt that something was missing from my growing list of Good Stuff, I've gone and done it again - in three bite-size parts, this time.


By way of wrapping things up and putting a bow on them, here are the final ten (of thirty) things for which I am feeling especially thankful, at this time...

21.  Spam emails.  Job offers from moystTV (ew) and A8C73 E7f19359DE260a.  Other offers from [random letters, numbers, spaces, underscores, dashes, and other punctuation] - like "G.UC.C.I WATCHES AT CHEAP PRiCE," or "Sale: CANADIAN MEDICINE SHOP EXCLUSIVE MALL."  That last one was addressed to "Joe san."  ((bow))

22.  Covers, which here means the 18 different renditions of "Tomorrow Never Knows" currently residing on my old-school iPod - or maybe the 9 versions I have of "In The Year 2525."  As long as your mind's ears remain open, these things are wonders.

23.  Right Turn On Red.  Sadly, I remember when this was new.  Can you imagine having to sit there, watching no cars go by, unable to make your turn simply because of the color of the traffic light?  Horrors!  Bonus points for those who remember that, early on, the sign also said "After Stop."  Hahahaha... After WHAT??  That's priceless!

24.  Beth Greene.  I know she wasn't real.  I also know that she wasn't necessarily the best-acted (or even best-written) character on television, but I'll miss her, just the same.  She was part of the family - "her beauty and her innocence a credit to the South."  There's a hole in our hearts tonight, young lady.

25.  The martini.  It is truly an acquired taste, and I've acquired it.  Also, SO easy to make, but so hard to make well, but I'm gradually acquiring that skill, as well.

Bombay Sapphire, straight-up, twist, very cold.

26.  Particles.

27.  Movie Day.  [Maris] picks 'em, we both watch 'em.  Sometimes, there are drinking movies, like "A Million Ways To Die In The West," or "Phil The Alien."  Sometimes, chick flicks.  Loud blockbuster stuff.  Indy stuff.  Themes, like 80s night, or comic book adaptations, or spy night, or Mad Max day.  Even when it's bad, it's good.

28.  Self checkout.  Not really.  On the one hand, I adore being able to procure my Mexican Coke, Kickstart, and Funyons without interacting with another human.  On the other hand, I loathe the notion that I'm being conditioned to like doing the grocery store's work for them, and I don't like the stress induced by the slightest delay that results from any misstep on my part, or digital faux pas on the part of the hardware.  Yes, I know these aren't bananas.  I hit the wrong touch-screen button, and there's simply no explaining that to the machine...

29.  Wormholes.  The only way back, for [M] and me.  We will never give up our search.  We know you're here, somewhere, you portal through space and time...


30.  Finishing.  I do it so rarely.  I start and I start and I start again, but to finish... What a rush that must be.  I'm thankful, dear reader(s), for the finishing of this year's thankfulness list.  Oh, and for this:

(it's technically not at all finished, but maybe - someday...)

So.  There it is.  For another year, at least.  I've got more.  Come with me...

This one, as they so often do, comes as an admittedly jury-rigged response to the Studio 30-Plus writing prompt.  This prompt, "Something Was Missing," belongs to the gifted Nonamedufus, and his post Never Had A Chance.  Check him out.  He may not have a name, but he writes.  Fun ensues.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Just Another Manic Monday (They Wanted To Call Themselves "The Bangs")

"Six o'clock already?  I was just in the middle of a dream."

She did it again.  Please, please, PLEASE stop waking me with 80s song lyrics.  It's bad enough that I have to become conscious, at all.

"Do you remember that song?" she asks, knowing full-well that I was DJ-ing at the college radio station in 1986 (and therefore was all-too familiar with that song).

"Ugh.  Yes.  Hit snooze."

"I love how this song brings me straight back to April of 1986 - back to my second semester in college," she said, more wide-awake than I could ever reconcile with the time on the clock.  "Do you remember where you were or what you were doing when this song was everywhere?"

I grunted again.  "Of course.  How could I forget?  I was nineteen - working the dodge-ems - sorry, bumper cars - at the amusement park in Pripyat, Ukraine.  I was sharing a flat with two Ukrainians, three Russians, a Greek, an Uzbek, and a Belgian, and we were having the time of our lives.  There was never much to eat, but we had more Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish vodka than we could drink, and if there were twenty good-looking young girls in town, I swear to you that nineteen of them were at our place, every night.  It was heaven."


"Then, as you know, on April 26th, there was an explosion at Chernobyl.  They told us to stay put.  On April 27th, there was panic.  They told us nothing.  On April 28th, an evacuation order was issued.  By April 30th, everyone was gone.  I missed the last bus out, because I was having drunken, end-of-the-world sex with the only Russian nurse from the hospital who was under 99 years old and thrice as many kilos."


"And to this day, I can see the terror in her eyes as I left her there, naked and alone, with the Central Emergency Government Ministry-issued Geiger counter buzzing away, on that mattress in the hallway, the lights having long-gone.  Who knows - perhaps she was pregnant with my doomed fallout baby... I turned and ran as fast as I could, while securing my pants and such, and never looked back.  I'm sorry.  Listen to me, droning on and on.  What about you?  Where were you when that song was hot?"

"I... I was working at the movie theater, and trying to figure out how to tell my high school boyfriend that I was sleeping with this college guy, and transitioning from blue eyeshadow to, you know, more of a green..."

"Oh.  Cool." 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Siderodromophobic Billy - The Worst Hobo Ever

I never met Siderodromophobic Billy, and to be honest, I had never heard of siderodromophobia, and for three weeks, I assumed that the friend who told me about it was just having a laugh.  So, ever the skeptic, I did some research.

Well, whaddaya know - he was real, and so is the condition for which he was given his hobo moniker.

Now, I know that you, gentle reader or readers, have access to something called (or a lot like) "Google," so I won't bore you and waste your valuable Insta-Crush time with a lengthy and tedious description of siderodromophobia.  

So, let's focus on Billy.

My first question was, quite naturally, how can you possibly have been a hobo at all, and follow-up question - how does one even begin to think about considering developing such a disorder?

The first answer:  It's hard enough to be a hobo, but being a hobo who is deathly afraid of trains is nearly impossible.  "You still walk the rails from town to town," he supposedly once said, "but you can't abide the sound of a whistle, nor the sight of steam."  This resulted in a lot of running perpendicular lines from train tracks, hiding in the woods, and sweating through panicked heart palpitations.  The average hobo spent more time walking than riding, so in reality, having siderodromophobia didn't make that big a difference, so never mind what I said earlier about it making it nearly impossible to be a hobo.

The second answer was harder to find.  I mean, what could make someone so afraid of trains?  Of course, they are massive, fast-moving, and thunderously-loud - especially close-up, but lots of things are that way.  Horse races are that way, strictly speaking.  A large city can be that way.  The ocean.  A hurricane.  War.  I was a bit lost, but perseverance pays, and the internet is sometimes a wonderful tool.

It might not sound like much.  A train killed little Billy's parents.  It might not add much, the fact that a train killed them before his six-year old eyes.  And it still could fail to impress, the fact that a train killed his parents - pulverized them, really - in the warm, safe comfort of their kitchen, as the complementary aromas of kielbasa and sauerkraut filled the air.  These facts, these indelible sights and sounds of horror and instantaneous, permanent loss, excruciating as they are, do not fully explain a true case of siderodromophobia.  There had to be a missing element.

I had to resort to microfiche - material that has, to date, not made it to the digital domain.  I found it in a Pittsburgh library, slated for demolition in 2006.  The extra piece - the bit that made it all make sense - was not the fact that an eastbound train of 98 hoppers filled with a hundred tons of anthracite coal, powered by a total of four heavy locomotives (two up front, one mid-train, one on the rear) jumped the tracks and plowed into little Billy's house.  Fear of ordinary objects stems from a perception of reach.  Obviously, if you live 25 feet from railroad tracks, an accident can land a train in your living room.  

But Billy lived over five blocks from the tracks.  The lead locomotives, coal tenders, and a half-dozen loaded hoppers rolled a half-mile down Sycamore Street, from the Pennsylvania main line, past two stoplights, past the school and the fire house, over a small hill and around a 10-degree curve in the road, before slamming into the house and annihilating Billy's parents, two minutes before supper.

So, yeah.  I guess I kind of get it.

Siderodromophobia.  Look it up.  

Thursday, November 20, 2014

That Thankfulness Thing 2014 - Part Two Of Three

Okay.  Two years ago, I did the Thankfulness Thing.  I should have stopped there, but no - I did it again in 2013.  And now, I just can't stop.  No time to lose!  Herein you will find the second ten of thirty things for which I find myself thankful in November, 2014...


11.  Jets.  Benny or no Benny - they are bone jigglingly amazing, whether just rolling from point A to point B...

Or performing the Missing Man formation...

...over the Daytona 500.

12.  Sparkles.  (for [Maris])

13.  The 1st-generation Sony FM Walkman.  From Rehoboth Beach, you could hear Ocean City (NJ or MD) pop stations, as well as 96-Rock, 98-Rock, and the legendary WHFS (on a clear night), and life was good.  Life was, of course, already pretty good, being life at the beach, and all, but the Walkman made it just that much better.

14.  Flasks.  Yes, these little life-savers have previously appeared on this list, but this year, more than ever...  And no - I don't need a flask in order to survive my wife's family - or MY family - but it's always better to be prepared, right?

15.  The fact that [Maris] was willing to help with this year's list.  Granted, I out-drank her (for once), tonight, so she has been of VERY little help, but still.  Just knowing that she's in my corner makes ALL the difference.

16.  Mountain Dew (Throwback).  As long as we're talking about sleepyhead over there.  This stuff is like honey.  But with caffeine.  It's... It's just TOPS...

17.  Legs.  Still.  Legs.  Sue me.

18.  Anthony Rendon and/or Asdrubal Cabrera.  Yes, it's a baseball (specifically Nationals baseball) thing.  If that's not your thing, no worries.  Go to 19.

19.  Vacations.  It doesn't matter if your vacation is some six-star escape from your five-star life of utter leisure, or a one-star motel on the "cheap" side of your nearest budget/family-friendly seaside town - or something in between...

...just getting away is half the battle.  Read, sleep, eat, write, play mini-golf - whatever - just get away.

20.  Doctors.  Mine, [Maris]'s, my mothers', my nephew's, my in-laws', and so on.  Independent of everyone's individual issues and/or coverage options etc. - I'm just really glad, tonight, that they are there, doing what they do, sometimes utterly thanklessly.  Here's to YOU, docs!

More on the 30th.  There's just so much for which I should be thankful.  Will Spridel and Chim Chim make the cut?  Stay tuned...  

I found a way to, lame as it may be, incorporate my own phrase/prompt, "I should have stopped," for my buds at STUDIO 30-PLUS, and I'm at peace with the results.  Come back again, won't you? 


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

200 Bits Of Mostly Harmless Drivel


For my 200th post, I wanted to do something special.

Instead, I did this.  What follows is one word from each of my first 200 blog posts - the first word of the first post, the second word of the next post, and so on.  Ready?  Okay!

I the trains. family you Hall welcome only that I half was gently us have the your is acquisition that are huge groups previous Head Doom thinking hi! piece with By along well-intentioned camp but saw middle paper mode floor Rockville.  Seven the hardest words in succumbing I wrap. It's other picture foist verb Lake corner Knotted public tell sucks to complaints an members named it names yet done who haha my main death fight start did still long happened he lot didn't Seventeen? plans historic walking might KNEW against I Perhaps Right from put spoons house accent birthday Tuesday what blocks met everything questions understandable Pennsylvania made police like for 2:09. again learned bored end or Christmas not ones minute him father dozen finale advancement sticks wretched spring this advice pointed so "Nope."

maybe Poor, poured me would be sell possession glare Achilles separated Glimpses own Bat "find." muttered. never also commerce smile hope road idea go? writer off you're illegal brick Pass! to Barb It's fiction Flowers from great this?** dream was traumatic as in rushed least "Oh, widely you right non-issue navigation about Stingo newly hate work... aspect his On Squeeze come that his room doc. commerce

There.  Wasn't that monumental?  If you knew how much time I spent on this, and you like me at all, you would be overwhelmed with pity for me, tonight.

Still.  200 posts - probably 50 good ones.  It's been a lot of fun, for me, and I very much appreciate your visits to my silly little corner of the virtual universe.  Tune in tomorrow for more of this year's Thankfulness Thing...

** this post did not have enough words, so I used "this?" because it was the last word in the post.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Session Number 199 - What About Hyperion?

While we're on the subject of therapists - which, technically, we are not, but which, 24 hours ago, we briefly were...

Doc:  You're late, again.  I have an appointment immediately after yours, so we can't run long.  I'm sorry.

Joe:  (standing)  Well, I'm off to serenade a parking meter...

Doc:  Seriously?

Joe:  (sits down)  No.  Serenade wouldn't really make sense, anyway.

Doc:  (writes on note pad)  Okay.  So.  Last week, we left off with you feeling confident about...

Joe:  About my job interview - yes.

Doc:  So, how did it go?

Joe:  (thought bubble: SO not hired)  Not bad, actually.

Doc:  Excellent.  I'm encouraged.  So, no trouble with the coprolalia, this time?

Joe:  Well, I didn't say that, but it wasn't bad.  I didn't get kicked out, and there were no cops.

Doc:  So, you made it through an interview.  There was never a doubt in my mind.  Mazal-tov.  

Joe:  Um.  Thanks.  I didn't have half of the experience they wanted, though.  

Doc:  How does this whole encounter with potential authority figures leave you feeling?

Joe:  This, again?  'And how do you feel about that?'  Really?  How do you think I feel about it?  It was an interview, doc.  I did better than usual, but they gave me no reason to get my hopes up, blah blah blah...  Can I ask you a question, though?

Doc:  And how did things go with that other issue we discussed?  The guns?

Joe:  (avoiding eye contact)  Yeah.  That.  I kinda bought three more guns - two fully-automatic, and one old .38.

Doc:  And?

Joe:  (sighs)  And nothing on me has gotten any bigger than it was before.

Doc:  And how does that--

Joe:  But I haven't been to the range, yet!

Doc:  (writing on note pad)  I see...

Joe:  Listen, doc - I've been meaning to ask, and don't take this the wrong way, but...

Doc:  Yes?

Joe:  Well, with you over there, and me over here on this clichéed couch, we can't even see each other.  We might as well do this over the phone.

Doc:  No.  I don't want you multitasking your way through these sessions any more than you would want me to to sit here reading, while you talk...

Joe:  Wait.  You're not reading, over there?

Doc:  No!  I'm listening, and taking notes.

Joe:  Oops.  Well, I'm working on my novel, on my iPad.

Doc:  (turning to look)  You are not!

Joe:  Well, not right now, but last week, I completely rewrote chapter sixteen, about Edward meeting Callista's family at Thanksgiving...

Doc:  Mr. Scott!

Joe:  What?  I was fully-engaged.  I'm an excellent multitasker...

Doc:  Understood.  Okay, let's get back to an issue you brought up during our first session...

Joe:  Ugh...

Doc:  Tell me about Hyperion...

Joe:  You mean the Dan Simmons novel?

Doc:  Great book - but, no.  

Joe:  (repositions self several times, looks at clock)  What?

Doc:  Can you tell me about Hyperion?


Doc:  Are you ready to talk about Hyperion?  About what happened, there?


Doc:  It's okay to say no.

Joe:  No.  Not yet.

Doc:  That's okay.  

Joe:  Thank you.

Doc:  Change of subject.  How about the 'roid rage?  How has that been, lately?  You're stepping down off the prednisone, as I recall...

Hyperion, summer.

Stay tuned, kiddies.  Assuming that my math is correct (a generous assumption, to be sure), the next post is NUMBER TWO HUNDRED!!  What can up with I come, to the occasion mark?  Join me.  Joinnnnnnn meeeeeeeeeeeeeee...

Monday, November 17, 2014

Out Of Order

Sometimes, I know exactly what I want to write.  I'm in tune with my reader, and with my other reader, and I don't dither and watch "American Dad" until it's too late to come up with anything new or worthwhile.

Every once in a great while, I have Too Much Material, and I end up failing to write anything, simply because I couldn't pick from the myriad of great ideas. 

The memories are coming fast and thick, now, and I can't stop them.

Should I write about: 

The control room of the Haunted Mansion ride in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware - and the horrific crimes I witnessed there, when the power went out on the ride, and I got lost, trying to follow the glow-in-the dark emergency evacuation route signs.  No one believed me at the time, so I very much doubt that anyone will take my word for it, now.  I'm pretty sure even my therapists have dismissed my account of that night as some sort of paranoid delusion of imagined ultraviolence.  So, never mind.

During the 1993 Storm of The Century, I sold urine to a desperate George W. Bush for $700,000, in the rest room of a Petro truck stop near "South of The Border," on I-95 in South Carolina.  Say what you will about the guy, but he seemed really cool, that morning.  Check bounced to hell and back.  Lesson learned.  Wanna hear about that?  No?  I'm not surprised.

How about my Spring Break 1988 hook-up with MTV's Tabitha Soren?  My back starts to hurt when I think about that night.  I called it a life-altering, near-death experience.  Apparently, she called it "Thursday."  [Note:  I didn't know who she was until much later, but somehow, she knew all about me.]  No - I don't have pictures or video.  Oh, I see how it is.  Fine.

There was the mystery of the poop in the hall, and the 3rd floor of residence tower "D" at Towson State, following the 1988-1989 Christmas break - a mystery, I might add, that was never solved.  Yeah - I don't have a whole lot of interest in rehashing that crap, either.

Maybe I should tell you about The One Who Got Away.  [Maris] is asleep, so I'm pretty sure she'd never know.  It was the stuff of epic romance, of rom-coms, of Ross & Rachel, Ren & Stimpy, and Heathcliff and whats-her-face.  Ha ha ha I'm kidding; she didn't get away!  It's [Maris]!  Duh!

Okay that's enough good night.


Sunday, November 16, 2014

Wormy Glenn and Nootka the Flatworm

Nootka regarded his master blankly, unable to speak.

"You're wondering where we're going, I bet," Wormy Glenn said.  

Nootka remained expressionless, and said nothing.  

"Winter's coming, buddy. We're heading south." 

Nootka opened and closed his mouth twice, which Glenn interpreted as a kind of "Whatever."  

"Trust me, Noot.  It's getting cold - definitely time to get to California."  Glenn returned the tiny flatworm to the mulch- and dirt-filled canvas sack that served as his home and carry case.  The empty livestock car in which they were stowed away had been cleaned, but there was still some manure in the stalls, so Nootka would be well-fed, all the way to Fresno.

Glenn and Nootka met near Nanaimo, on British Columbia's Vancouver Island, and had been traveling the roads and rails of the Pacific Northwest together for almost a year.  Glenn was already a seasoned, weary veteran of the hobo life by then, but it was all very new to Nootka.  This is primarily because Nootka was a flatworm.

They never made Fresno.  In Eugene, Oregon, the train stopped.  It stayed stopped.  After almost 24 hours stopped, it showed now signs of un-stopping.  Glenn gathered his gear and his sack of Nootka-sustaining gunk, and ventured out.  There were other hoboes in the area, and although none of them knew exactly where, it was established that there was at least one bridge out, south of Eugene, on the Northern Pacific mainline.  

"Change of plans, buddy," Wormy Glenn said to his miniature friend as they sat in the raw November Oregon rain, near the passenger station.  "Don't give me any guff!  There was too a plan.  I just didn't tell you."

The flatworm said nothing, as per usual.

"I don't have to tell you everything, Nootka!  You're just a worm.  You eat and poop through the same hole!"

Nootka was speechless at his friend's cruelty - both the suddenness and severity of it.  It was more than he could process.  He squirmed.

Glenn looked at Nootka - at where he had long imagined that the worm's eyes would be, if he had any.  He was quickly overwhelmed with guilt.  "I'm sorry, buddy.  I can't believe I said that.  I'm so sorry.  I'm just frustrated, is all."

Nootka remained silent, and drooped a little.

"I couldn't tell you the plan, Nootka, my friend.  My plan was to get to southern California - or maybe Mexico - turn you loose in a nice pig pen, and find a palm tree, where I would sit and drink myself to death."

Nootka opened his mouth and held it that way for several seconds, which Glenn had always assumed meant "Oh my God!"

"Don't act so surprised, buddy.  I can't do this, anymore.  This world is going to kill me, anyway - and soon.  I won't let it.  I'm going out on my own terms.  Hence, the change of plans."  He reached into Nootka's mulch bag and grabbed the worm, shook off some of the dirt, held the wriggling little parasite up high, and dropped it into his mouth, swallowing it whole.

"Don't be sad, Nootka," he sighed.  "It's gonna be okay.  You'll have plenty to eat."


Saturday, November 15, 2014

Dear (17-Year Old) Joe,

Dear Joe,

I don't know what to say. Well, maybe I do have a few things to say, but I don't know where to start.

Arbitrarily, I guess I'll begin by telling you to forget about business and accounting - and maybe even college in general.  You need to create stuff - not sell stuff, not count stuff, not just take up time and space.  Now, you're only seventeen, and you have no idea what any of that really looks like, so I'm asking you to please just take my word for it.

Next - and I know this is going to fall on deaf ears, but PLEASE don't marry that girl your coworker sets you up with, in 1990.  

Also, don't pick up that hitch-hiker in the rain on St. Patrick's Day, 1992.  He's not just a little odd; he's actually a she, and armed and extremely dangerous.

Don't - do NOT - waste more than ten minutes stressing out about politics.  You're going to like the conservatives for a while, then become educated and experienced, abandon them, and embrace some of the liberal stuff.  By the time you grow up enough to grasp that the only place where any common sense exists is the CENTER, there will BE no more center, and you'll save yourself a lot of frustration if you just skip all that trying, and accept the fact that, at the end of the day, it simply Does Not Matter.

Next, don't stop watching cartoons.  You will be tempted to do so, but don't.  If you have to cut some TV from your diet, make it news - or crime shows.  Oh, and when something called "Reality TV" comes along in about thirteen years, ignore it.  No, it won't go away, but ignore it just the same.

Now, this is going to be unpleasant for you to hear, but you have to come to grips with the fact that in the future, when it gets really late, you're going to have to stop writing your insipid blog posts or whatever, and GO TO SLEEP.  

Thank you.  Sorry I wasn't more helpful.  I'll write again in the springtime, when I'm more alive.

Love, Future Joe