Inappropriate sharing, incomprehensible ramblings, uncalled-for hostility: yup, it's a blog.

Friday, December 31, 2010

End of the year thanks

Earlier this year, which is a year on its last legs and limping toward 2011, I was walking down a street downtown. Rushing to meet the curtain of a play that didn't actually have a curtain. It was a cold evening, but there was still light in the sky so I'm gonna guess it wasn't the early dark winter months. It was probably mid to late March.

I don't remember the name of the show.

What I do remember is this: puddles of water on the sidewalk. A reptilian sheen on the concrete and the pavement, so that both the black road and the dun sidewalk reflected the same pale blue tint. People passing, umbrellas dipping or raising like a carnival ride. An intrusive wind slapping exposed flesh til the flesh turned red.

And I remember this: an older woman folded against the wall just outside of a Starbucks, a wet blanket gathered around her, a McDonalds soda cup beside an exposed shoe, an arm slipped outside the blanket and holding her knees to her chest.

It's a myth to say New Yorkers don't notice homeless people. It's also a joke. Certainly we notice them. And certainly we joke about them. New Yorkers also notice and joke about fat people, short people, tall people, ethnic people, white people (who are also ethnic but reluctant to admit it), people who walk with limps and people who walk with broad, even strides. We joke about cat people, dog people, gingers, brunettes, gays, straights, single people, married people, promiscuous people, celibate people, people who think 'Mama Mia' is a good musical, people who hate 'Mama Mia,' people who haven't heard of 'Mama Mia.'

We notice others. We make fun of others. We welcome others. We pity others because they are not us, and we expect the same pity in return since we are all others.

So, I noticed the homeless woman.

I ignore several homeless a day, but I didn't ignore her. I dropped a coin into her McDonalds cup, and the coin made a splash because the rain had filled her cup in a way none of the passers-by would.

The lone arm outside the blanket twitched, and the hand at the end of it waved.

I moved on. I think I was going to see 'Our Town.' Maybe not.

The idea of charity has taken a beating the past few years, which is only natural since so many families now depend on charity to get by.

But the truth is, you don't need as much as anyone else. You--editorial you--have Internet; you have a computer; you have your wits about you so that you can make sense of what I'm currently typing. You have a roof over your head, a floor beneath your feet, and you presumably have the intention of keeping that roof and that floor as long as you can. So give.

Give.

It turns out a flat quarter can make a splash in a water-filled cup. I still made it to the theater on time, I still sat in my seat and enjoyed the play (maybe it wasn't 'Our Town.' Maybe it was something else). And the fingers of the exposed hand, connected to the exposed forearm, connected to the exposed bicep, connected to the shoulder of the person beneath the soggy blanket outside of the Starbucks just off of Christopher Street--I remember those waggling fingers more than I remember which play I was rushing to see.

Later in the night those fingers might've closed around a syringe or around a sandwich. The next day, they might've clutched a crackpipe or a key to a new apartment. Who knows. Who cares.

As the year dies, so do we. We're older, and closer to our terminus. Tomorrow, the new year will begin but we'll still be older. We'll still be in an old year, with the same old things.

So here's what I'm thankful for: I'm very thankful for the people who helped Greg and I get thru this year. And I hope we helped others get through some bad times, and in the coming year I hope we continue to help out. And I hope everyone drops a quarter into a water-logged cup from time to time. It's like dropping a coin in a fountain, really. The coin makes a splash, and one can wish it means something more than just a coin sinking to the bottom of a pool of water.

To mangle Kurt Vonnegut: We're all here to help each other get through this thing, whatever this thing is.

Happy New Year.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Donny and Marie: A Christmas on Broadway


Donny and Marie. At the Marquis Theater.

First off, both Osmonds are stunning performers. Not necessarily great performers, but stunning all the same. They dance modestly, they have bland but strong voices, they wear clothes well, and they know how to work a crowd. Also, they look good standing in front of giant brightly-lit screens, posing in silhouette. Not everyone can pull this last talent off. It's very difficult to hold a dramatic pose whilst standing before a giant brightly-lit screen. Donny and Marie seemed aware of this, and therefore endeavored to plant themselves before giant, brightly-lit screens as often as possible.

Marie managed to convey a hint of human emotion despite the obvious crippling paralysis of her face muscles. I'm not sure what terrible malady--stroke, perhaps?--caused her left eye to droop or her eyebrows to remain arrested midway up her forehead, but she gamely overcame her hardship by using her excessively-toothed mouth to draw attention away from the crisis area. That the lips of her toothy mouth were distorted to near-Jagger proportions only assisted, rather than depressed, the illusion of genuine emoting.

Donny sweated his way through his portion of the show (aside from a duo at the beginning and end, the show consisted mainly of two solo projects; it might as well have been titled, "Marie's Broadway Show, Then Donny's Broadway Show, with a Few Christmas Songs Tossed In as an Afterthought"). I mean this without any snark or irony: Donny Osmond is a consummate performer. A giant ball of cheese, sure, but he's athletic, shameless, charming, and inspired Greg to rush home to look up his Wiki page so that he might know Donny better (fun fact: Donny opposes gay marriage, but discourages homophobia. He encourages Mormons to accept homos into the church so long as those homo Mormons remain celibate. Go Donny!)

Even though the show has been extended twice--it was to have closed on December 19th, but fortunately extended long enough for me to see it on Christmas, and then extended again to get the show through the New Year--attendance was sparse on Christmas night. Plenty of seats in the house. There are two possible reasons for the lack of asses in seats: Not everyone wants to spend Christmas night sitting in a lurid theater being attacked by wholesome 1970s nostalgia, or else the show is poorly attended each night but the overhead is so low a poorly-attended show like 'Donny and Marie' still manages a profit.

A good portion of the attendees were demonstrably certifiable, I think, unless it's customary to attend a Broadway show, dangle your arms from the mez railing, and scream during each quiet pause in the performance, "We LOVE you, MARIE!" or, "We LOVE you, Donny," or attempt to interrupt each song by walking to the stage and requesting an autograph. I personally witnessed an obese woman in a t-shirt and floral-printed pants rise up from her seat during Donny's performance of "Puppy Love," peel her t-shirt away from her more-than-ample frame (not frame--something that size should be called 'structure') to flash her breasts. Fortunately, her breasts' termination was sufficiently low enough to spare the woman a strenuous t-shirt lift. Minimal effort, maximum boobage. Win-win.

Back to Marie. Marie moved me. Yes, make jokes about the wholesome Mormon silliness that is the Osmond legacy, but the fact is nothing about the public lives of any Osmond suggests they are a disingenuous showbiz family; the Osmonds as a whole seem transparent, honest, genuine.

Look. This is the one paragraph where I'm gonna be just as wholesome as the Osmonds, and it's gonna be a long paragraph because it's very difficult for me to be wholesome and I need to build up some momentum, maintain focus, and power through to the end. Marie Osmond lost a son earlier this year. He killed himself, took a header off the balcony of a multi-storied building. During the show, Marie made mention of this unfortunate event--her eyes almost moved from the emotion she no doubt felt. When she launched in to her set-up for Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'Pie Jesu,' I was prepared to scoff, to cringe, to pinch G's leg and register my scorn, because I knew the song was coming and was horrified/amused Marie Osmond fancied herself an operatic singer, and fancied the song to be worthy of an operatic performance. When she brought up the death of her son, she cried. And, being a cynic, all I could do was think, "Yeah, well, you cry this same speech each night just to get the audience to love you." And that may be true. And when she launched (there is no other way to approach Andrew Lloyd Webber: one either launches into his music, or retreats into a corner to be away from it) when she launched into the 'Pie Jesu' from Requiem, Greg leaned over and whispered to me, "She's singing a requiem for her son." My cynicism took a smoke break. For a moment, I watched the performance without a critical or sarcastic or cheeseophobic intent, deciding to give Marie the benefit of the doubt. A mother, on stage, working the first Christmas of her life, standing on a platform with dry ice pouring from a trap-door behind her, singing Andrew Lloyd Webber. Honestly, I felt pity, and understood. The part I most dreaded in the show became the one moment in the show that moved me. A mother singing a requiem for her dead son, mourning him in a way she thought appropriate.

I just hope she doesn't break down in tears each performance.

Because this was the Christmas performance of a Christmas show, I hope her emotion was real. Using the death of your dead son 8 times a week to create a 'mood' before singing a dreadful Andrew Lloyd Webber piece is beyond crass.

Moving on.

One of the many wonders of the show was the Donny-and-Marie Dance-off, wherein the brother/sister duo competed in a faux "Dancing with the Stars" popularity contest. Using the music from 'West Side Story,' the girl dancers backed up Marie while, predictably, the boy dancers backed up Donny in an alternating dancing spectacular, the scale of which has not been seen on Broadway since the 2004 production of 'Dracula: The Musical.' No clear winner was announced. My money was on Donny, for the record.

And then the Christmas show was over, and seemed embarrassed that it had called itself a Christmas show, and promised itself it wouldn't make the same mistake again, even though it was contractually obligated to call itself a Christmas show until well after the New Year. Applause all around. A standing ovation by the certifiable loons in the audience.

Donny and Marie took their bows.

Each has spent nearly a half-century in the Business, by the way. I have it on good authority that such longevity isn't easy to do.

But then, neither is affording a ticket to a good show on Broadway.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas Past Stave 3

Managed to finish this before Christmas, which is kinda surprising. Here's the previous entry.


The first day back was the worst. Joyce greeted him. Her elf costume was draped over her forearm and her elfin face was stripped of purpose. She was a woman born to play an elf. Carl could not imagine her frolicking on a beach or strolling into a supermarket.

Joyce was stooped over herself inside Santa’s plywood house, accent lights bouncing around her nose and cheekbones and creating grotesque shadows against her skin. The accent lights, which from the outside made the windows of the false house glow with warmth, created a ghoulish horror inside, distorting everything within.

“So you’re here again,” Joyce said.

Carl bent himself almost in half and bumped his way through the door. “I’m here again,” he replied. Closed the door behind him.

“The roof is lower this year,” observed Joyce. “They must think we both got osteoporosis this summer.” She removed her civilian clothing. “Why are you here?” she asked.

“Why are you?” Carl, not yet readjusted to the vision of a bra-and-panties Joyce, busied himself by examining the quality of his velour Santa suit. He checked the suit for holes, for frayed edges. For patches of the cloth worn into a shiny finish by repeated friction.

“I love working with children,” Joyce replied. She slammed herself into her elf tunic. Then she dropped to the floor and began fighting with her green tights. “You don’t.”

“I wouldn’t say that.”

“You,” Joyce said, “don’t say a lot.”

+++

Quick note: Irene no longer believed in Santa Claus. It’s a delicate thing to believe in something like Santa so it takes very little to shatter the belief. She never saw her grandfather again. His fake beard and uneasy laughs--not to mention the lack of a parrot among her gifts from Santa the previous year--cinched it. She was done with the whole business of being intentionally good. One day, she told Tangie, “It sucks to pretend. I just am.”

Tangie replied, “Okay.”

“I never wanted a parrot,” continued Irene. “Can’t take them for a walk.”

+++

Each day Carl took his place on Santa’s throne, surveyed the fake cotton plains of Santa’s domain, and greeted each child passing through the flimsy fence gate. Each child was a disappointment, just as each parent was a disappointment. Not Irene, he’d think to himself. Not Tangie. Not Irene. And no, not Tangie.

Nights, Carl crashed onto his bed to watch TV. Coughed up various items of random colors from putty green to blood red.

Sometimes he stared at his telephone and pretended to call his daughter. Explained to her once more the reasons he’d done what he’d done. He also took out the picture. Carl knew the picture without looking at it but looking at it over and over made the picture genuine. The picture: he was sitting there and Irene was sitting here and there was Tangie at his elbow, her arm wrapped around Irene’s waist. Behind them shadows wandered into clothing and coffee stores, blurred from movement. Frozen in the foreground were Irene and Tangie and himself.
+++

“I took the job to meet my granddaughter,” Carl admitted to Joyce one night just before Christmas Eve.

“Let me guess,” Joyce said, crammed into a corner to work on her tights, legs like rabbit ears on an old Zenith waving around to get the right angle. “You’re dying.”

Not even his doctor had admitted that much. “Not yet dead. Not yet.”

“And you aren’t welcome to Christmas dinner.” One of Joyce’s legs caught a tide and her foot slid home.

“Daughter doesn’t want to see me.”

“You’re doing this for yourself.” Joyce worked her other leg into the tights, then bumped her butt forward while hoisting the waistband to her belly.

Carl brought his velour pants up to his shins. Then: “No. I just want to make. You know. Amends. Meet my granddaughter. Make my daughter feel loved, be in her life.”

Joyce, sealed in her elf suit, got up out of her corner spot in Santa’s house, bent forward to avoid striking her head against the plywood roof. She said, “Bullshit.”

Carl sat down to pull on his boots. “I’m dying. Things should be made right.”

“Whatever. You did this for yourself.” Joyce, stooped, looked through her eyebrows at Carl. “I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, but if you took this job to meet a granddaughter and connect with your daughter, it’s a selfish thing. There are kids out there who, you know, believe in you.”

“I’m dying,” Carl said again.

“So are they.”

A half-hour later, Carl, on his plywood throne, greeted a young boy. Joyce dropped the boy into his lap, and they conversed for a bit until Joyce slipped behind the camera and snapped a picture. Then the boy was gone, a young girl taking his place. A flash from the camera.

Removal, replacement.

At the end of the day, Joyce said this to Carl: “You gave them a memory. It lasts or it doesn’t.”

That night, Carl took out the picture of Irene and Tangie. He looked at himself, dressed as Santa with the fake bushy white beard and the aggressive eyebrows, the soft maroon pants and coat, the lopsided maroon cap.

Tangie’s arm was around Irene, and both of them smiled with bright toothy smiles. Tangie was on her knees beside Carl, and leaning slightly against his chair, while Irene sat on Carl’s thigh with most of her weight supported by that arm slid around her waist. To both the girl and the woman, Carl was just Santa Claus, a prop for Christmas, no more real than the shadows behind them passing into a clothing store or a gourmet coffee shop.

He was also a memory for them both, and a memory for them to share.

Tangie had, and would always have, an identical copy of the photograph, maybe stashed away in a box or pasted into an album or scanned onto the computer or secured with a magnet onto the refrigerator. Maybe framed on a dusty shelf. Maybe pinned to a cubicle wall.

Somewhere, Tangie had a picture Irene and herself, smiling for the camera. Tangie's arm was wrapped around Irene's waist. And Irene, balanced on Santa's thigh, also smiling.

He had given them that moment.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas Past Stave 2

Stave 1 is here.

Carl had many regrets. One cannot live long in this world without acquiring a few, and do not believe anyone who claims otherwise.

Carl's primary regret, the one late at night that needled at him as if he were a sampler, was walking out on Tangie and her mom several years ago. On a night in midsummer when Tangie was a young girl not much older than Irene, Carl had gotten up from the dinner table, taken the car keys from the rack hanging beside the kitchen door, announced to the house he was going out for a beer, and slipped off into the salmon-colored evening world. No reason, at least no reason he could articulate. It just seemed, at the time, like the right thing to do.

No love was lost, or at least none he knew of. It was several years until he noticed it: love. He noticed it this way: sitting alone in his livingroom many miles from Kansas, Carl happened across an airing of 'Miracle on 34th Street.' Young Natalie Wood reminded him of his daughter--dark features, innocence, trust. Carl began to sob.

During a brief encounter not long after that lonely night, Tangie told her father to continue living as if she didn't exist. "You've had plenty of practice in doing that," Tangie told him. They were sitting across from one another at a sticky table in a sticky diner in downtown Wichita. Her stomach, swollen in pregnancy, pressed against the table's edge. Neither acknowledged the rather poor choice of meeting up over a meal, since the last time they'd seen one another had also been over a meal.

So. Here they all three were. The little girl, the grown woman and the deadbeat father Christmas, all pretending their lies--Santa was real, Santa was a fraud, even Irene pretending because the instant she was placed in Santa's lap the truth hit her with the power of a religious conversion. Santa doesn't exist. Otherwise he'd have a more convincing beard.

Carl tried to control his emotion. His hand trembled. Tangie, noticing this, assumed poor Santa was late for his afternoon drink. Irene, also noticing this, asked, "Are you cold?"

"No," Carl responded. Now self-conscious, he trembled harder. "I'm just so excited to meet you." He added, "Little girl," casting a quick glance at his daughter and grateful for the enormous white false eyebrows stuck to his forehead which all but obscured his eyes.

"I bet he says that to all the little girls," Tangie mumbled lightly, smiling at her daughter.

"I say that to all the moms too," Carl replied. Realized it sounded more like a proposition than he'd intended. "And dads." Another added phrase, another cautious glance at his daughter. Tangie was still smiling at Irene.

"Tell Santa what you want, Irene," Tangie said.

Irene, Carl thought. Tangie had named her daughter after his abandoned wife. He wondered if Irene knew he existed.

"Ho-ho, not so fast. First we've got to work out if Irene," and her name nearly brought tears to his eyes, "has been a good girl this year."

"Don't you already know?" Irene asked. Her eyes were trained on him, looking for more cracks in the facade, more hints betraying the strange man's identity. He wanted to return her observing gaze but feared Tangie would become suspicious. Carl took to staring at one of his black boots.

"Oh, I know you've been a good girl," Carl said. "Santa's job is to make sure all the good boys and girls realize just how good and wonderful they really are."

"Mommy sometimes says I'm not a good girl."

"Not true!" Tangie protested, laughing slightly. "You do not-good things sometimes."

"Like the pancake batter?"

"Yes, like the pancake batter."

"But I learned from the mistake. Right?"

"Seemed too. We'll see."

Irene listed her good deeds. She cleaned her room without being told, she rode her bike only when Mommy was looking, she was polite and respectful, and she knew how to tie her own shoes. Carl marveled over each deed, ventured a few head-pats, smoothed her hair with his white glove, wished he could remove the glove to touch her hair with his own trembling palm.

And then: "A parrot."

This was an unexpected thing for the child to say. Both Tangie and Carl, surprised, locked eyes for a moment, only a moment, but it seemed an eternity to Carl. Tangie's eyes were tired, lined with wrinkles and mooned with baggage. The sharp bright brown eyes Carl remembered were still there, but the face in which they were set had seen kinder days.

He again looked at his boot, hoping she had not recognized him. But it was true: the unexpected gaze shared by father and daughter had been mutually intense, mutually curious.

"A parrot," Tangie repeated. "When did you decide you wanted a parrot?"

"Yesterday."

"It's Christmas Eve," Tangie said mostly to herself. Carl knew the tone, could read her mind: where on earth could she possibly buy a parrot this late on Christmas Eve?

"Why do you want a parrot? Fine birds!" Carl was way off script by now and embracing his freedom.

"Because I can't have a brother or sister. I want to teach something to talk to me."

Carl wasn't sure how to respond because each response running through his mind was inappropriate. "Mommy can't have more children?" was one thing he wanted to say, "Do you still have a daddy or did he leave as I did?" was another, and still another was "I would give anything to talk to you each day, and buy you a parrot too." In the end, Carl settled on, "Why, I'm sure there are plenty of things willing to talk to you." Then, "Ho-ho."

"But they're not as pretty."

"Thanks, Irene," Tangie mumbled.

Joyce, Carl's helper-elf in charge of getting kids out of Santa's lap and keeping the line in motion, stepped up to Carl and whispered, "Santa, I think it's time to take the picture and move along." Joyce was a sharp-faced elf, which was appropriate during Christmas but rather unsettling during the rest of the year.

"I know," Carl sighed. Then to Irene: "You ready to smile for the camera? Mom, would you like to join us?" Please say no, Carl thought. Please don't come closer, please don't look at me.

"Certainly," Tangie said, and crossed the fake cotton plains, took her place at Santa's elbow, kneeling down to place an arm around Irene's waist. Tangie's hand brushed Carl's. He gasped slightly, cleared his throat, and gestured ahead, to a digital camera poised atop a tripod. Joyce adjusted the camera.

"Say, 'Merry Christmas,'" Joyce commanded.

The three--Carl, Irene, and Tangie--echoed the phrase, the flash went off, and then Irene was whisked from Carl's lap. He watched as Irene and Tangie hurried out of the flimsy green fence, discussed photo costs with Joyce, grabbed a print, and disappeared into the crowd of shoppers.

Later that night, against regulations, Carl printed out his own copy of the photograph. He stared at it for a moment, then took it home and stared at it more, and he continued to stare at it throughout the next year.

Then, a year passed and his illness grew more severe, and money dwindled like a yule log on the 26th of December. He took the job as the Santa of the Vernon Hills Mall again, reclaimed his plywood throne. Waited. Resolved this time he would tell Tangie, tell Irene, who he was and how wrong he'd been.

Christmas Past Stave 1

Definite trilogy. Not that anyone is clamoring for it, but I'll return the other serial later on--this new series is definitely three parts.

Carl was nearly sixty. His liver was failing in the way most things fail: slowly, unnoticed. His back hurt. His knees hurt. Last week, he’d gone to a doctor, and the doctor told him, “Carl, you’ve the body of a twenty year old if that twenty year old died in 1965.” The doctor laughed. Slapped Carl on the back.

Carl bought a Santa suit. When the Santa suit was on, Carl looked like a fluffy, feather-stuffed comforter. When Carl took the Santa suit off, he looked like a wet cat--hair and bone and little else. Off, Carl was a corpse. On, Carl was vital and rosy and alive. Very alive.

Carl, nearly sixty, with a dying liver and pain in his joints, sat on a plywood throne as child after child after child (after child after child after child) was dropped into his lap. Confessed desires. Dreams. Secrets. Accomplishments. Carl’s plywood throne was in the Vernon Hills Mall, just outside of Wichita, KS. There was a flimsy fence surrounding Carl’s fiefdom, some synthetic cotton pushed around the edges, a small plywood house, a fake evergreen tree.

“My domain,” Carl thought each morning as he slouched out of the plywood house to limp towards his plywood throne.

Vernon Hills Mall appealed to low-income patrons. Seven days a week, from 9AM til 9PM, the customers would march towards the doors unsure of what to buy, then they’d march away from the doors, unaware they’d entered, pretty sure they’d made purchases. Evidence of purchases: bags of useless things weighing them down as they walked away from the doors.

The only time most shoppers remembered entering Vernon Hills Mall was Christmastime because they remembered seeing Santa Claus sitting on his throne, and children lined up to confess/profess/beg. The first year Carl pretended to be Santa, one of those kids was tiny Irene Hurston.

Irene Hurston, in line with her mother, stood impatiently on one foot, then the other, then on both feet but with her hands on her hips. The line moved slowly. Santa--Carl--seemed far away from her. She had a lot to tell Santa. Four years old, Irene had already accumulated a great deal of needs and she’d accumulated a great deal of confessions. She’d also learned that the best way to have her needs met was to confess her failings. Tell Santa how bad you were, Irene thought, and he’d be extra-nice to you on Christmas.

In her head, Irene rehearsed: “Santa, I need a parrot. It doesn’t have to talk, but it needs bright colors. I’ve been--no, I am. I am a good girl, except I spilled pancake mix onto the floor once and when I used water to clean it up I made batter. No. I’m a good girl except once I used a crayon to pick my nose and it got stuck. Santa, I need a parrot. It’s gotta sing like me, but I did drop a glass once. Mommy yelled at me. So I guess I was bad.”

Here’s all you need to know about Irene’s mommy: her name was Tangie--short for Tangerine. And Tangie hated her name, and she hated her father for giving her that name. Also, the only time she came to Vernon Hills Mall was to take her daughter to see Santa.

The most important thing to know about Carl is not that his liver fails or his joints ache. The most important thing to know about Carl is this: he’s the man who named Tangie “Tangerine.” He took a job as Santa at the Vernon Hills Mall just to meet his granddaughter, who is Tangie’s daughter.

Not many fathers would name a daughter after a fruit. And not many grandfathers would sit from 9AM to 9PM, seven days a week, just to spend three minutes with a granddaughter--especially if those minutes required him to be suited up in red, with a fake beard across the face and loose script to recite. Anonymous, disguised. Santa, reciting a script.

The line ahead of Irene got shorter. The line behind her grew. She danced. She shuffled. She looked up at Tangie. She looked ahead to Santa on the plywood throne.

Carl’s right knee swelled. Carl’s left knee also swelled. His butt hurt. Parents plopped children into his lap as if he were a cup of coffee and the child was a donut. Down the children came, then back up, and Carl nodded at each child while giving a hearty laugh, promising the child there’d be toys. There’d be absolution. “Ho-ho-ho,” Carl said every five seconds.

Carl sat there. Waiting. Granting wishes he couldn’t grant. Suggesting children check out the only toy store in the Vernon Hills Mall.

Christmas Eve, a woman old enough to be his daughter plopped a young girl onto his lap and said, “Tell Santa what you want.”

Tangie took a step back from Santa’s lap. She waited by a plywood fence.

The young girl looked up at Carl. Brown eyes, Carl thought. Then he thought, I missed too much.

Irene was in his lap. “Hi Santa,” she said.

“Hello little girl!” Carl responded as jovially as he could.

Silence.

Irene turned her head to her mother. “He didn’t say, ‘Ho ho ho.’”

“He’s working up to it,” Tangie told Irene. “Just give him a minute.”

“It’s been a long day,” Carl said. He wanted to look at Tangie, thought it would be a mistake. “Ho-ho-ho.”

Monday, December 13, 2010

Untitled

Random thing:

First, I'm hesitant about writing too much about this, because the emotions are still raw and upsetting for the victims, and I care about them too much to want to risk causing them more pain. But I'm also a compulsive over-sharer with a weak will, and while I'm determined to exercise restraint (something I seldom exercise--my restraint muscle is atrophied to the point that a two year old is more restrained than I am), there are some things I simply must write down.

Can't help myself.

So. A little background. Not sure how Greg met John but he met him not long after we moved from the Upper West Side to Inwood, a rather traumatic move for me because I loved being in our old neighborhood and was very unhappy over moving so far uptown. If the move from AL to the UWS of Manhattan was like going to a new state (literally!), the move from the UWS to Inwood seemed like moving to a foreign country. My relationship with Greg was showing the strain and we were fighting a good deal.

Greg, being a gamer, did what gamers do: he searched the neighborhood for fellow gamers, found John, and joined a weekly gaming group hosted in John's near-by apartment. Tensions between Greg and me eased a bit since Greg now had Something to Do once a week, and friends to do it with.

Right. So.

After his first night at the game, Greg returned, excited. He told me about the new people he'd met, the events of the game, described John's apartment ("And his girlfriend, Kristen, just lets him host these things," he said with a bit of reproach since I usually vetoed any attempt he might make at hosting his own gaming events), then capped off his story with this: "They have the most adorable mini-Dachshund named Murphy! He spent the entire night up in my face."

Which didn't sound terribly appealing to me but G was glowing so I knew it'd been a nice experience for him.

When we got Waffles, one of the first things we did was call John and Kristen, arrange a play-date, and rushed across to Isham Park to introduce Waf to Murphy. The dynamic between the two dogs was immediately evident: Murphy, three years older than Waf, hated Waf because our dog was too bouncy, too erratic, too nose-up-the-butt; Waf loved Murph, wanted Murph's approval and attention. Also, he wanted Murph's toys and snacks.

For the past year and a half, Waf and Murph spent a lot of time together. Greg would meet up with John for walks in the park, leisurely strolls around the neighborhood, or else take Waf to the apartment to hang and play games and watch movies. And on my walks with Waf, he and I would encounter John and Kristen and Murphy, and spend time chatting while Waf tormented grumpy Murph.

It was cute. Waf would freak out whenever he saw Murph. His tail would have epileptic seizures, his feet would do that Jennifer Beals Flashdance running in place thing (sans leg-warmers) and he'd whine excitedly. Murph would cower behind Kristen or John, preparing for the Luftewaffles bombardment.

The day of the fire. It happened around 7:30AM. Greg and I were totally unaware of the tragedy occurring a few blocks away--I don't even think we heard the sirens. We were both in bed, preparing for the shock of our alarm clock to force us out of bed and start the day. Neither of us were asleep, but we weren't quite awake either.

Waffles was at my calf-level, also not quite asleep, not quite awake.

A quick note here about my belief in the paranormal and the psychic, and the note is I'm not a believer. Certainly there are things we can't readily explain. Certainly it'd be hubris to say we know all there is to know, or can discover all there is to learn. I don't go for this sort of thing, usually, but as Greg and I lay in bed, in the thin state between sleep and wakefulness, just as the fire was wounding the lives of our friends not far away, a strange thing happened.

Waffles began whining.

Waffles is a pretty quiet dog most of the time. He barks at strange noises, but he seldom makes a sound when routine is involved. Sleeping in bed with us is routine for him, even if it's half-assed sleep. And both G and I were awake enough to be aware of him--we weren't rolling over onto his tail, say, or twitching in our sleep and kicking him in the head. Both of us were inert, breathing lightly, eyes partly opened and staring at the clock anticipating the dreadful screeching of the alarm.

Once a dog attacked Waf. Bit his neck, drew blood. Even then, he didn't whine with as much insistence, such sharp fear as he whined last Thursday morning. His whining scared both Greg and me. We sat up immediately and reached down to where he was buried beneath the comforter. Greg checked him over. Both of us looked for wounds. We pressed his stomach, thinking perhaps he'd swallowed something obstructing his tract, we inspected his paws for splinters. Nothing.

Waffles whined. A deep, sorrowful sound from deep in his throat.

Again, not one of 'those' people. But. Yup. There's no denying that it happened at the same time Murphy was going thru his terrible, final ordeal, and there's no denying that dogs share special bonds humans are just beginning to understand. If Waf were the type of dog to vocalize constantly, I'd write it off as coincidence, but he simply isn't a vocal dog.

Greg, btw, was stunned that I suggested to him Waf sensed Murphy's experience. When I mentioned it to him that night--not long after learning the horrible story--Greg said, "Wow. That doesn't sound like you at all." And it doesn't. But there it is.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Black and tan reality

It wasn’t that I hated dogs. I just wasn’t fond of them. When I was growing up, my dad would acquire a dog--a collie, a mutt, a shar-pei, a boxer, a lab--and we’d keep the dog for a few months, then give it away. Over and over. I’d get attached, then the dog would be gone. After a while I lost the ability to bond with dogs.

A few years ago, Greg began hinting that he wanted a dog. He hinted in a subtle way. "I want a dog," he told me.

“I’m not a dog person,” I replied. “Dogs are dumb animals. Their only talents are leg-humping and slobbering, and they have terrible pee-aim.”

Six or eight months after Greg’s biological doggie clock kicked in, we were asked by friends to dog-sit. We agreed--it’s what friends do, right?--and John brought Murphy, a black and tan mini-Dachshund, to our apartment. He also brought a bag stuffed with toys, dog food, treats and a blanket. John gave us the basics in Murphy-care, thanked us, kissed Murph’s head, and left.

After a few moments whining at the closed door, Murph turned to stare at G and me. He sat down. He cocked his head to one side. Licked his nose. Stared. Snorted. Licked his nose again.

“Cute,” I said.

“Murph!” Greg squealed, and threw himself onto the floor. Murphy launched himself into the air, front paws splayed, and landed on Greg’s face. The two immediately started playing together.

“Don’t break him, Greg,” I advised. “Greg, don’t be so rough. Greg, be careful.”

Greg and Murph ignored me.

To get to the point: it’s because of Murphy that I agreed to take in Waffles. During that dog-sitting session, I was left alone with Murph for a while--Greg went to work, and it was just me and the dog. We were both suspicious of one another. I sat on the futon, typing, and Murph would nudge my ankle, snort, run into the bedroom and wait for my reaction. I’d offer him a squeak toy, hold it out for him, then place it down just as he ran forward to retrieve it. We spent a lot of time staring at one another, trying to work out what the other was thinking. What I was thinking was, “Jesus, dogs really are cute when they want to be.” And what Murphy was thinking, probably, was, “Why is this asshole just staring at me. PLAY, dammit.”

We played, eventually. Blankets, toys, mindless running, giggling, barking, slobbering play. By the time John returned to take Murphy home, I’d bonded. Greg and I began working out how to afford a dog, and a year later we had Waffles. Below is video evidence that I've played with a dog that wasn't Waf:



Murph was wary of Waffles. Waffles adored Murphy.

On the 9th of December, John’s wife Kristen had a terrible thing happen to her. And the terrible thing spread, and then it happened to John. And it happened to Murphy, too. And the terrible thing happened the way terrible things usually happen: very quickly and very finally.

After the finally, Greg and I stood in John and Kristen’s charred apartment realizing how lucky Kristen had been to escape. Soggy piles of charred ceiling and walls were on the charred, soggy floor. The DVD collection, the TV, the furniture were all gone, and it hadn’t been removed by humans, these things, but by fire. Obliterated.

Kristen, when the terrible thing happened, was pulled from the apartment by neighbors. She was pulled from the apartment as she tried to go back into it. Against all sense and safety, Kristen tried to save Murphy, a terrified dog that wriggled from her hands and dashed down the burning hallway to the safety of the bedroom.

There are two types of terrible things. One has a finally, and one keeps going. The fire ended, thanks to FDNY. But the loss continues, and is also terrible, a sustained terrible which hits you over and over again as if you’re a bell. Just as you forget about it, it hits you again: Loss. Loss. Loss.

Greg and I spent some time standing in the remains of Kristen and John’s apartment, then we came home and stood in our own apartment. We evaluated all the things we’d managed to accumulate over the course of our own shared lives. We hugged one another. We stopped thinking about the things in our apartment.

Waffles danced at our feet. With a lot of mixed feelings, both Greg and I bent down, patted his head, competed with one another for scruffing rights, causing Waf to dance even faster.

Here's as good a time as any to work in a Vonnegut quote, which is, "I cannot distinguish between the love I have for people and the love I have for dogs.

When a child, and not watching comedians on film or listening to comedians on the radio, I used to spend a lot of time rolling around on rugs with uncritically affectionate dogs we had.

And I still do a lot of that. The dogs become tired and confused and embarrassed long before I do. I could go on forever.

Hi ho."

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Racigan's Very Long Night part 1

Racigan’s Very Long Night

Part 1: Because it is bitter, and it is my fart


Donnie Racigan could do two things well: eat Gil’s food and pass gas. He was equally appreciative of both talents, and enjoyed showing off both talents as often as he could.

“It’s a compliment,” his wife Gil used to explain to horrified dinner guests. “He eats, then he farts. The eating is his statement and his fart is the period.”

“Even though it sounds more like ellipses,” Racigan would say, fanning a hoary hand in front of him.

“Or Morse code,” Gil would add. And laugh. Racigan loved Gil’s laugh because it was like his farts, only warmer and with less stench. A smile at his wife. A smile from his wife. A routine for them, an endearing couples’ performance, like Arnaz and Ball, Stiller and Meara, George and Gracie.

The night Gil died, Racigan buried her in a hole dug with his own hands--no shovel, no pick-ax, no hoe--just his own fingernails and fingertips scraping into the earth, piling a mound of soil against his knees, then his thighs. Gil had been murdered by a neighbor. Not that it mattered who killed her. Not that it mattered who dug her grave. Bent over, clawing at the earth, Racigan managed to deliver a 21 gun salute in her honor, firing through the seat of his jeans. “I know that’d make you laugh,” he said to Gil’s body. “That was the last of your chili.” He meant it as a compliment.

He jacked a police car the next day.

It’d been a simple thing to do. The car had been Tom’s patrol car, left in the Stay ‘n’ Go’s parking lot with Tom’s body in the driver’s seat and the keys in the ignition. Tom was two sizes smaller than Racigan. The brown and beige sheriff’s uniform failed to flatter Racigan when he shucked it from Tom’s corpse and put it on but the car fit him just fine--Racigan left Tom’s naked body in the parking lot. Drove away in Tom’s patrol car, in Tom’s uniform, with Tom’s gun. Racigan intended to do something Tom couldn’t do: He intended to set right the wrongs. He intended to protect the unprotected. He intended to make Gil proud.

He intended to bring order to an unruly world.

Racigan’s first task was to kill the neighbor who had killed his wife. He assumed wearing a uniform of the law and driving an official-looking vehicle would give him legitimacy.

It didn’t.

Here’s what the uniform and the official-looking vehicle brought to Donnie Racigan: nothing. Nothing happened when he pulled into his neighbor’s driveway, because no one came to the front door of the small house and no one peeked around the yellow curtains in the windows.

And no one fussed over the ill-fitting sheriff uniform when Racigan rocked himself back and forth out of the car and managed to place his feet onto the cement drive, managed to lift himself out of the seat, managed to stand and walk towards the closed garage door. No one cared that Racigan had Tom’s gun in hand, pointed at random targets. Pointed at the garden gnome. Pointed at the garden hose. Pointed at the silver gutter lining the roof.

The gun might as well be pointed at Racigan’s head. No one cared. No one reacted.

A bird commented on the indifference. The bird was in a crabapple tree in the front yard. The bird said this: “Tweet.” Then, “tweet-weet.” Then, “wee-twee.”

The neighbor had killed Racigan’s wife by taking Gil's head and ramming it into the dining room table. Repeatedly. The neighbor’s name was Christine. Christine was a single mother, two kids, polite, reasonable, typical. Christine enjoyed the fart jokes. She giggled whenever Gil and Racigan went through their routine exchange. Until she didn’t giggle, was on Gil before Racigan realized what was happening.

“It’s a period,” Gil said.

“Sounds like ellipses,” Racigan started to say, but was too busy diving forward to say anything at all as he watched his wife’s head driven again and again into the corner of the table.

Anyway.

Racigan stood in Christine’s driveway with the gun in his hand and wondered what it’d be like to kill Christine. He imagined it’d feel pretty good--the bullet moving from the gun to Christine’s head or her heart, requiring little effort on its journey, all it’d take was a sure aim and a gentle trigger squeeze, a tickle, really, and Christine's collapse.

He’d never used a gun before.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Elena Callahan's Very Big Day Part Ten

Here's the final part of this thing. There'll be another section, but this part of the story is done.

So! Part ten. Part nine is here.

Part ten: Rural Silence

“You’re going East, right?” Officer Racigan pushed the gun deeper into Agatha’s forehead. “If you were headed the other way I wouldn’t give a shit.”

Agatha continued to wonder why the direction, and not the contents, of her car mattered to the officer.

“Turn off the motor and get out of the car,” Racigan said. He pulled his gun from her head, observed the circled dimple he’d left in her skin. Took a step back.

Agatha, her eyes still on Racigan, asked, “Why am I getting out of the car?”

“You’re headed East.”

“I have two beheaded children rotting in the back seat.”

Racigan glanced at the corpses. “So you do. Good for them. I hope they enjoyed the ride.” Gun still pointed at Agatha. “Now open the door and get out.”

Agatha didn’t move. She kept one hand on the steering wheel. She looked ahead at the road stretching into oblivion, a pale grey stream rising and falling away, and felt the motor of the car rattling weakly through her bones. “Officer,” she said, “nothing I’ve done compares to what I’ve seen done by others. Recently.”

Then she said, “Please.”

Then she said, “Dammit.”

Racigan just stood there, gun in hand, gut barely contained within his shirt, both Agatha and Racigan listening to the Taurus's engine purring like a cat with a stutter. Rural silences are never complete without the low hum of a car engine.

Racigan, who had lost his wife nearly a week ago, took another step back. His boots were now on the center line, the yellow line, of the highway. The shadow of his extended arm stretched forward into the car.

“Lady,” Racigan said, “you got two choices. Get out of the car. That’s one. That’s the good choice. Get out of the car and come with me. Or go on your way. That’s two. That’s the bad choice. If you go on your way--”

“Jesus,” Agatha said. “Just stop for a second.”

“If you go on your way,” Racigan continued, “it won’t be to salvation.”

Agatha told Racigan, “I’ve killed three people today.”

Racigan shrugged. “Better day than I’ve had. I’ve only managed one.”

“I’m not used to killing.”

“Neither am I.” A lie, but an honest lie.

“Then,” Agatha said, “put down the gun. Let's just talk for a minute.” I don't want to freak out, Agatha wanted to say.

“Turn off the car.” Racigan had a voice raising up and going down, as if he remembered human inflections but had forgotten the implications.

“Not a chance.” Agatha weighed her options, which were pretty heavy no matter how she tipped the scales. Turn off the car and open the door, or floor the accelerator and risk a bullet to the head. If she opened the door, she didn't know what Officer Racigan might do. If she floored it, she knew what he'd do. If she floored it, she had a 50/50 chance of ending up like Moulder and Dee Skully.

Racigan stepped forward, pressed the gun into Agatha’s forehead, missing the circled dimple by only a millimeter, fired, and stood beside the car for a moment as Agatha’s body, blown backwards by the force, threw its arms in the air, leaked some of its contents onto the empty passenger’s seat, and bowed itself across the center console. The body’s stomach bent to the ceiling. A delicate arch. Racigan reached into the Taurus. He fussed around, stomach pressed against the Taurus's door, and found the keys. Twisted. The car went silent.

Pulling himself out of the open window took effort.

When he managed to straighten himself, he turned, dropped his gun into his pants pocket, and crunched along the broken asphalt to the patrol car.

He slid into the driver's seat with a grunt, turned the key, and started the car up, recovering rural silence.

==

“Haven’t we been through this already?” Elena asked, her hands grasping Cobble’s.

“Not really,” Cobble answered. “I mean. Maybe. Or. Over what? The return of Jesus?”

Elena released his hand and sat back in her chair with an expression not unlike shock. “Cobble.” Her voice direct, steady.

“Over what?” Cobble repeated.

“You’ve lost more boyfriends in ten years than I’ve lost husbands in 60.”

Cobble stopped kneeling. He stood. He lurched sideways, grabbed the sword he had stolen from a display case, and held it up. The jewels embedded in the hilt caught the diffused light sidling through the only window in the room as if the light were a sullen 7th grader not too happy to be in an old woman’s apartment.

The jewels glowed with a certain amount of petulance, refracting the sullen light and magnifying its resentment to be where it was, doing what it was doing.

“Jesus is back,” Cobble shouted.

“Stop waving that cane around,” his grandmother replied. “Jesus, you’re not Preston Brooks.” Elena instinctually threw a forearm up across her face, threw a hand up to fend off an attack. For a moment, her eyes went wide and her mouth went tight, and she leaned far back into her chair, far away from her grandson, and Cobble realized he had frightened her.

And he liked that he had frightened her because she needed to be frightened.

“This is a sword, Grandma. A sword. It’s not a goddamn cane.” He moved closer to the window, shoving a wilted fern out of the way. The fern was on a pedestal, which tipped over. The fern, the pot, the soil and the pedestal hit the hardwood floor in two different shattering movements, the pot with a dull thud followed by an earthy sigh of relief and the pedestal without a thud but with a crunching, clanging sound of hollowness.

“I didn’t lose a boyfriend. I watched his body go in two different directions at once. And then I stayed in a fucking tower for three days, got your call on my cell phone, and risked getting my own body torn in two just to come here. To get you. Because I’d assumed you were dead but nope, you called me. You called me and you were expecting a ride to the fucking grocery store because the Carter kid hadn’t shown up with your groceries for a few days and you were out of sugar for your coffee. ‘That Carter kid,’ you told me, ‘he’s usually so reliable.’”

Elena, lost in mourning for her destroyed fern, dropped her arms down and put her hands on the armrests of her chair.

“He is reliable,” she mumbled.

“He’s dead,” Cobble yelled. “The Carter kid... That wasn’t even his name. Benny Carter hasn’t been around in five years. The kid getting your groceries and doing your errands for the past six months was named Marla Leibowitz. She’s probably dead and wondering why the old woman she did all that stuff for thinks she was a 22 year old man.”

Cobble remained where he was, which was nearly ankle-deep in the carnage of a destroyed plant, beside a window with curtains that kept swallowing him each time the wind blew.

He held the sword in his right hand--or the cane--and he wanted Elena to see the sword for what it was, and he wanted Elena to understand what he’d gone through the past few days, and he wanted her to understand what the world continued to go through. He wanted her to know how much bravery it had taken for him to climb a rope down from the tower of the Cloisters and grab a bike and pedal to her apartment to save her.

He wanted her to recognize she was a damsel in distress. He wanted her to understand he was her savior.

Elena sat in her chair, a copy of Great Expectations beside a cold cup of coffee and a magnifying glass resting beside her on a shaky end table.

Elena said, in her craggy voice, “Jesus is like Miss Havisham.”

Cobble replied by not replying. He understood he could not save his grandmother. He took a step forward, fertilized potting soil sliding from his boot, and brought the sword down. The dull blade managed to work its way into Elena’s skull, slip through her brain, and scatter her thoughts.

The thoughts of the Carter kid went one way. The thoughts of her long-dead husband Gordon went another. And her thoughts about the Messiah came forward, so that this was her final thought: I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress.

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