Empty vessel, sinking ship

Chapter one: Crosstown traffic

“Gina, I need your advice.”

Hank stared into his bowl of cereal with a cavernous gaze. From his hanging lips, the words leapt into the milk like drunk paratroopers.

“Give it to me straight, bubs.”

“I’m in love with my boss. What should I do?”

Gina turned off the faucet and slid the last plate in place to be washed. Her golden brown hair fell across her face. She searched for his downcast eyes.

“Well, you have two options: Give it a shot, ask her out, and risk getting fired or let it sit and eat away at you.”

The pieces of once-dried strawberries floated lazily as Hank stirred them with his spoon. He took a swift stab at one and mashed it at the bottom, twisting it into submission. The milk turned a shade pinker.

“Anyway, I thought you had a crush on me.”

“I do. I always have. But you and I both know that’d never work. You couldn’t love me if your life depended upon it, and I’m suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.”

“Stress my ass. That was three years ago.”

He leaned back on the barstool and cracked a few vertebrae. Sitting in my recliner next door in the apartment complex, I cringed at the sound.

“I know. And it still feels like yesterday.”

“Oh, cut the cliches. Get over it: The past is past.”

“Cut the cliches? Speak for yourself.”

The brakes of a school bus creaked through the open sliding door. Light, pattering footsteps and the sound of a hydraulic whoosh spilled in.

“I just don’t want to wait for love anymore. It’s time I did something about it.”

Gina sighed and grabbed her keys off the hook.

“Follow your instincts, Hank. If it’s meant to be, then it’s meant to be. Just don’t come home crying if it doesn’t work out.”

She adjusted her collar in the reflection of the glass covering a photo of last year’s Christmas party and started for the door.

“See you after five.”

Accidently flipping off the lights on her way out, Gina left Hank in the streams of natural light just breaking through iron-willed clouds and seeping into the apartment. As the latch clicked, he went to draw the shades the rest of the way.

He then followed the warmth to the still-damp deck.

The cast-iron railing sent a chill through his hands upon clenching it. For a moment, he felt like the captain of some ancient schooner off the shore of New England. But then an early autumn leaf falling slowly caught his attention, and the ocean receded from view.

“You’ve always been a dreamer,” he thought to himself.

Across the street, a steely blue sedan pulled up to the curb. A dusty blond twentysomething in dress shirt and slacks stepped out and waited on the shoulder of the road. The lavender streak that was Gina’s car passed by with the windows rolled down and Hendrix blaring.

Through the railing’s bars, Hank caught Rosie, whom he had met a few days previous from down the hall, walking out to meet the man, who was wiping from his shoulders the dust that had settled, whipped up a few seconds previous by Gina’s breakneck drive to work.

As if from the perspective of an Edward Hopper painting, Hank felt like he was the one on the outside, and the couple was seen through a window, there for all to watch. Although the conversation was barely audible from his stakeout, he imagined each drawing out their words with delicate overtones of tenderness.

Rosie leaned in and kissed her beau on the cheek. She handed off a wad of bills with a jokingly stern look on her face and turned to come back inside, hands clasped carelessly behind her back. Hank saw for the first time a flower in her hair, which bounced merrily with every step.

“Oh, get over it. You have no chance with Shari. She’s thirteen years older than you, for God sake. Just let the happy be happy. Don’t envy them. You could be happy too, even without her.”

A fit of laughter broke out from under his feet as Rosie turned her key. This time as clear as a bell, Hank heard her words. “Oh, how I love that boy.”

Chapter two: Once I had a woman

Hank bit down on his lip as he entered the elevator. He slid into the corner all alone, pressed three and waited for the door to close. Over the smooth jazz crackling through the speakers, he could hear an argument escalating from around the corner.

“Don’t you dare leave me!”

“Howard, it’s for the best. We’ll always be friends.”

“We’ll always be friends? Didn’t the last eight months mean anything to you?”

I stepped through the closing doors, postponing the trip to the sky a little longer, covering up the first words of the girl’s answer. Almost on cue after the commotion, my stomach tried to start small talk with Hank to little effect. He shot me a nasty look, which I understood to mean, Quiet down, kid.

“…so please get my things, and I’ll be on my way.”

There was a brief pause in which the temperature seemed to drop slightly as if a cloud had just shrouded the sun.

“Fine. Fine, I’ll get your things. You’re right. You’re always right. Lousy, lousy me.”

The doors began to close again, but a hand shot through the void and sent Hank a few inches off the floor. The car shook violently when his feet hit the tarmac and the burly interruptor strode in.

“Six, please.”

A ruddy, wrinkle-worn face entreated him to push the button.

“And could you lend a little pick-me-up?” A nervous laugh erupted from the man’s bulky frame. Hank shrunk, almost melted, closer to where the two sides of the lift met at a 90 degree angle.

Sweat beaded on his brow, partly from the twenty-minute bike ride in warming weather, and partly from where this conversation might go.

“Bad day?”

“The worst. My girl… well, my ex-girlfriend now, is moving out.”


“Oh, don’t be. I guess it had run its course. What I can’t stand, though, is that she’s making me move her shit out. She can’t face this music, she says, won’t ride the elevator.”

Silence. Howard, who had been directing his attention toward the floor glanced up at Hank, then did a double-take.

“May I ask what…”

“Luging accident.”


“Logging accident.”

Well, scratch that one, Hank thought to himself. “Luging? Really?”

Each time he was asked about the scar, the reasons became more and more inventive. He once convinced a friend of his father’s that a stray wildebeest accosted him in a dark Chicago alleyway, “And you can imagine what happened after that.”

Truth is, no matter how many fictional accounts he could muster, the embarrassment could not be stamped out. A cheese grater gone awry, that’s what happened. No one would believe the truth: Muenster cheese turned him into a monster.

Granted, the monstrosity across his cheek was nothing compared to the disfigurement an urban wildebeest could inflict, if such a thing existed. But, like albinism or a port wine stain, the strange set of evenly spaced grooves under his right eye were unavoidable for all of Lansing’s citizens that ran across him.

“Good luck. Good luck with everything.” Hank tossed the empty phrase backward as he rolled his bike toward his apartment.

The man didn’t stop to think but shot back, “You too.”

Chapter three: Manic depression

Shari sunk in her chair, picked the phone up off the receiver, and twirled the cord around her finger. She let the dial tone talk to her for a few seconds until a man she knew all too well politely patched himself in and told her to hang up.

“We’re sorry. Your call did not go through. Will you please try your call again.”

She wondered what he was doing right now, the man behind the recording. Was he doing the dishes? Reading the newspaper?

Was he thinking about her?

“You really need to go see a doctor,” her mind told her. “He’s thirteen years younger than you for God sake.”

She sat, hopelessly romantic, and let his voice repeat itself over and over. Shari knew every intake of breath, each slight peaking of sibilance, slight popping of plosives. It was her job, after all, to oversee the production of voiceover talent.

Her heart interjected, “And what a talent he is.”

Mind: “Oh, give me a break. If you didn’t fall into a swoon every time you went to work, maybe you could pull yourself together. Maybe you could say hi.”

The doorbell rang.

She let the phone fall back to the receiver and picked herself up. She brushed the animal cracker crumbs off her blouse then went to the mirror to check her hair. An evening rainstorm sent waves of reverberant thunder through the panes of glass, the bricked facade, layers of insulation and sheetrock of her living room wall.

A light but insistent rapping broke my concentration, and I looked up from the story, which lay on the dining table nearly finished under my pen.

“I’m coming!”

She reached the door and opened it. Hank stood soggy under the awning. The rain had washed away all traces of tears, but his dogged appearance otherwise put forth no pretenses.

“I need to be with you. No matter how far I might bring you down with me, I need to be with you. Please give me just this one chance.”

She smiled like a fourth-grader who had just played a piano recital.

“Hi Hank.”

Published in: on July 12, 2009 at 6:50 pm  Leave a Comment  

Ledopole’s last stand

Lollin’ lightheartedly by the bubblin’, barkin’ brook, Willy Weimensheiner chased a chortlin’ Charles Childress through thistles, thatch, and this and that.

The two turbo-trekked the typically traipsin’ tree-lined trail, stompin’ snails and boundin’ over bales of hay, stoppin’ seldomly to gasp great gulps of Oregonian air. They were actively assailin’ an assignment of alignin’ with tattletale alliances by squealing on ole Leland Hale, who lived just down the road from Walt Weimensheiner’s weeny wedge of willows and weeds.

You see, somethin’ shorn Leland’s steel storm door somethin’ terrible, leavin’ smithereens and not much more. Flora Floozey, his northern neighbor, went wild with wide eyes at the sight. I declare, it was a mangled mess of metal and glass, gouging every which way while the rest of the regal residence endured immaculately as always. Odd occurrence it was.

One to wallow without fail in Mister Hale’s by and large bizarre business, Flora charged flightily off her property and propagated a press release to Willy wily as ever and Charles chuggin’ along in just long johns in the dog days of summer – Charlyne Childress sure was dumber ‘n a duck in decidin’ on dapper dress for her even dumber descendant.

“Now, you boys!” Flora fired. “Don’t you dawdle. No matter what you come across on the way, keep on a-truckin’. Tell e’rybody you see, this here recluse living next to me’s lost it. He’s shot that storm door clean off its hinges and God knows what he’ll be doing next.”

Being bumblebee boy scouts, Willy and Charles howled at the opportunity to take the spooky, supposedly spectral-surveilled shortcut through Misty Meadows. That is, until they heard undertones of Untertanng, the leery language of Ledopole, Oregon’s gloomy, gadget-gawking gorilla.

“Hypou teneu bolling, aggle goh weimenflabber reup,” it eerily intoned. “Gothma rall dallreich ling faitlah, poh qlate. Derrunt venume, ghower, draght, et une trattenlop oich weyole. Ja eshen kallindrope!”

To be continued…

Published in: on July 7, 2009 at 5:16 am  Leave a Comment  

Journalist, Journalist?

I’ve had a few family members and friends ask if I could send the articles I’ve written for the newspaper through e-mail. I’ve also been terrible at doing that. So here are a few articles and columns for the summer Daily Nebraskan and a few from spring semester. Let me know what you think.







Published in: on June 21, 2009 at 3:59 am  Leave a Comment  

Sam and Nina Plan a Heist

SAM: Is there nothing in yellow?
In white, my eyes will not sparkle
I think a saffron
Would be my best plan of action
For stealing Jacksons

Did you find us some vodka?
And a copy of La Strada?
We’ll mix the cosmos
Learn to live with Gelsomina
Then the big show
Will start to roll

Every step of getting prepared
Must be shared among all members
If we want this heist to pan out
Listen up and please remember

The color of ski masks
The contents of our flasks
The film I dare to ask
You to try to obtain
All factor in the raid
There’s no way we can trade
My scheme for anything
So please work with me, Nina babe

NINA: Is that all it entails?
Well then, I command you fail
This is a stick-up
And you won’t look like a pinup
Maybe I messed up

Had I looked any harder
For the balls before the partner
Or put in the listing
“Please no fairies will be helping
With this thieving
My apologies”

Every color swatch you render
Puts a chip into your gender
Soon all chauvinistic natures
Will suffer a final fracture

Sam, you’ve got it all wrong
Take a hit off my bong
Breathe it in till it’s gone
All your elitist shit
If you want to be mine
When we commit this crime
You’ll have to unwind
And stop being so feminine

Published in: on June 19, 2009 at 1:17 am  Leave a Comment  

A Closer Look at “Hitting Rock Bottom”

Here’s to forgetfulness, for without it, life would be dull.

“OK, hold up, buddy,” Mr. Counterpoint says. “Wouldn’t total recall of the grocery list you left on the kitchen table come in handy? Or how about when the beads of sweat are congregating about your brow, seconds away from parachuting onto test question number twenty-eight, ‘Explain polyrhythm using examples taught in class’? Wouldn’t it be nice to simply drop a needle on that mental record player and jot down the perfect answer?”

Sure, but think of what comes packaged with the deal: Art dies. Self-expression falls by the wayside. Every second of every day is cliched, and the needle gets caught in the groove, sounding out the same, old nonsense you’ve heard before. So I say, thank goodness for forgetfulness. [Mr. C. grumbles unintelligibly and walks off stage right.]

As I set out to write “Hitting Rock Bottom,” I couldn’t forget that originality was a fool’s errand. (Note: This kind of pessimism’s not usually my bag, but a few previous whacks at my obdurate writer’s block hadn’t produced much of a crack, or even a chip, so give a guy a break.)

It’s not that everything has already been made. Everyone’s eccentricities offset their natural inclination to be formulaic, and like any kindergarten teacher can tell you, everyone’s unique in their own way. But the influences I’ve cobbled together over the years aren’t necessarily under lock and key, and my penchant for the soft and pensive came out in full bloom here.

What came was a folk song, and the words spoke of the irrationality of relationship wreckage. Considering that a massive portion of songs written are concerned with love, it’s impossible to say no one has thought along these same lines. But, since any sort of hard proof that would have uncovered my creative borrowing is subjected to much harsher elements in my memory than your typical historic document, it has long ago turned to dust. Ignorance is bliss.

Cultural / Historical Background of the Song

In the early 1960s, there cropped up a mostly young, predominantly brazen group of songwriters wielding nothing more than their opinion, an acoustic guitar, and maybe, just maybe, a harmonica. The up-and-coming generation of the time, already hip to the beatniks, caught on, and the so-called folk music revival here in the States was born. Although it came and went in only a few years, ultimately falling victim to electricity, the movement’s own aftershocks are still felt today.

Largely spearheaded by a mysterious twentysomething from who-knows-where, Minnesota, named Bob Dylan, these ragtag bands of truth hawkers stuck out like a sore thumb against the annals of popular song’s history. This wasn’t fluff meant to set the heart aflutter, it cut straight to the point. Dylan liked to call his socially-conscious tunes “finger-pointing songs.”

As per the usual, criticism soon materialized. It was thought by some that the folkies were undisciplined and could not compare to the classical music or jazz greats, or that their cause was ephemeral and destined to putter out. An article from the New York Times dated November 29, 1964, and titled “Folk Music: Pompous and Ersatz?” responds to such denunciation.

“Item: ‘The folkies . . . have not produced one composer the equal of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen . . .’

By championing composers of light music over the folk song-writers, Mr. Lees (the critic in question) is trying to compare apples and oranges, a quick way to destroy the symmetry of any still-life bowl of fruit. Does an appreciation of Gershwin, Porter, or Arlen preclude an appreciation for other types of music? Is there not high artistry in Guthrie’s love song to the America soil, “Pastures of Plenty’? Is there not poetic beauty in Dylan’s apocalyptic view of a tortured world in ‘Hard Rain’ or philosophic validity for his generation in ‘The Times They Are a Changin’? (Shelton 1)”

Was it merely intellectual bias that turned some away from Baez and friends? Were these critics missing the point entirely? This debate over folk music’s real place in the musical chronicles continued to rage throughout the movement’s existence.

Other bones to pick had to do with what the lyrics stood for and how much permanence they held. Johnny Cash’s pioneering album “Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian” spoke out, from the opening track to the closing one, against the oppression of the American Indian. Others served as the mouthpieces of the Civil Rights Movement. Still others voiced anti-war sentiments as U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War escalated.

Would these creations stand up artistically in another context once their causes were resolved? The Times article had this to say.

“Is the problem of our treatment of the American Indian as posited in the songs of Miss Sainte–Marie, Johnny Cash or Peter LaFarge temporary? Is the question of equal rights raised in the songs of the Freedom Singers temporary, or has it existed since the first slave ship landed in America? (Shelton 1)”

After all, the budding songwriters of the movement were walking in the footsteps of Woody Guthrie, who spoke for the downtrodden before it was hip. He composed his own entire-album ode to a theme with “Dust Bowl Ballads,” a record which Dylan would later cite as a major force in his choice to become a folk music writer and performer.

As written in A Change is Gonna Come by Craig Hansen Warner,
Like his descendants in the folk revival, Woody wrote dozens of message songs including ‘Hang Knot,’ a blistering condemnation of lynching, and ‘Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportees),’ written after he’d read a newspaper story about the crash of a plane carrying migrant farmworkers back to Mexico. The news report identified the Anglo crew members by name but cloaked the migrants in anonymity. Adapted by activists working for immigrant rights in the nineties, the chorus of ‘Deportees’ redresses the dehumanization. (Werner 50)

From both sides, a lot of the folk revival was polemic. So how does “Hitting Rock Bottom” fit into all of this? The words aren’t calling for widespread change. Although somewhat introspective, they’re very introverted.

Quite plainly, it sounds like a folk song because the words tell a sensible, everyday story, and because it’s nothing but vocals and guitar set to a steady but slightly shifting chord progression. Folk music encompasses one of the largest number of songs among the other genres partly because of these shady boundaries set by the materials of music.

Musical Mumbo Jumbo

Harmony: At the very start, a descending thumb-picked bass line is introduced along with a mostly-there D chord on the top three strings. This will serve as one-half of the contrary motion that results when the melody comes into play. Once the vocals enter in, the opening motif is repeated for a third time, after which a G chord dislodges the harmony from its needle-stuck-in-the-groove state. The bass descent continues down from G to F sharp, with an accompanying D chord on top, to E, which supports the e minor chord above it. Finally, an A7, the fifth major minor seventh in the progression, ends the phrase.

A second stanza of the verse repeats the steps down of the first exactly until the E chord, which is changed to an E7, and then moves back to the A7. For the climb that leads into the chorus there comes a B minor, an F sharp major (the only non-traditional chord of the song), a G, and an A7. The chorus contains a D, a D major seventh, a D7, a G, a g minor, another D, and an A7.

Lastly, there is a bridge which shifts to E minor then A7, repeats the opening motif, and ends with E minor and A7.

Rhythm: All in all, the strum pattern here is an ostinato, and the only variations that might be noticeable are a small change of dynamics in the chorus from soft to loud and a couple ritardandos, most notably the one as the bridge ends.

In one measure of quadruple meter, the strum is one quarter note, two eighth notes, an eighth rest, and three eighth notes. Accents fall on the first, third, and fifth strums of the rhythm.

Melody: As previously stated, the melody ascends with its first two notes, in contrary motion with the harmony. This is a perfect fifth interval from the home tone of D to A. Over the course of the whole song, it features similar jumps periodically making it, on the whole, more of a disjunct melody. Other parts examined closely, such as the chorus, though, characterize it more as a conjunct.

Texture: Since this is a song composed of only an acoustic guitar and vocals, it is homophonic. The melody of the vocals stands against a harmony played by the guitar.

Style: Generally, this falls in the folk music category. It is as such because of the bare texture and inclusion of a narrative in the lyrics.

Form: With A standing for a verse; B, a chorus; and C, a bridge, the form is ABABCAB. It’s mostly a strophic form with the addition of a bridge.


This is what it comes down to: Does the song work?

At this point, “Hitting Rock Bottom” is the most thorough song I’ve written. It follows a strict form and, though it strays from the lyrical theme at times, it’s centered on a subject and, in my mind, goes along with one man’s elevator ride to the sixth floor as he recounts in his mind the end of his love affair.

I tried to imbue it with some humor, and hopefully the absurdity of the breakup, namely the obvious lack of explanation of why the two broke up, comes across in the lyrics. For some, it could border on being too silly, and the second chorus, with its abundance of censoring, might be too much for others.

Still, I’m satisfied with the musical content. It may be that the song has a novelty that’s obscuring the weaker spots, but for the most part, it doesn’t seem to lag. The verse’s melody is probably more memorable than the chorus with its fifth interval jump, which doesn’t add or detract to the success of the song necessarily, but it should be noted.

Not to be a sympathizing self-critic, but I’m very proud of the way in which the song is divided into three distinct reactions: first, the anger, second, the introspection, and third, the “I’m-moving-on-and-this-did-nothing-to-my-masculine-ego.” Although I’ve never been through a nasty separation, it seems like these three emotions would be common to have.

And secondly, I’m proud of the use of three perspectives: the narrator, his girlfriend, and his ego. As each chorus is a direct quotation, or in the case of the first chorus a direct translation, it makes the form a lot more clean-cut than throwing the different perspectives in haphazardly.

On the whole, I think “Hitting Rock Bottom” is going to be heard quite a bit around my apartment, and I hope it leads to more sturdy songwriting in the future.

Published in: on June 6, 2009 at 4:58 am  Leave a Comment  

Hitting Rock Bottom

Listen at myspace.com/mikejtodd.

Six, please, and could you lend a little pick-me-up?
A touch of gin in my cappuccino?
What’s that? Some breathy scatted jazz that’s faker than my
Ex-girlfriend’s promise that we’ll always be friends

Just a simple euphemism, which translated, said
“I wish we would have never dated
Look at all the mess you’ve made
It makes me want to throw myself out of your window
But the elevator plays the same, old Musak every day
So I’ll just keep on fuming at ground level while you get my crap out of your way”

Sunshine, I’ve kept myself locked up behind all the clouds
Of desperation or doubt
Even though we tried, we tried too hard to set our heartbeats in time
Or to rhyme our syllables
That was so close!

But you were always good at metaphors
Which with some censoring said
“This bleeping pile of bleep you want to bleeping throw on me
Is full of bleeping bleepy bleep, and that’s a bleeping travesty
Somehow I had a tiny hope that you wouldn’t bleep with me
But that bleeping elevator music leads me to have nothing else to say”

So that’s it, all the months of trying to carry on
Have up and gone like a fart in the wind
Only, it smells too dank to say we’re back at square one
My babe, we’ve only begun to get along

Or so my spider senses tell me, without rhyming
“Every girl you’ve ever dated thought you were a gift from God
And in other news, you’ll always get that job you wanted
Making up the crap that goes into the New York Post
You’ve made it to the top, and now you’ll blast out of the roof like Willy Wonka

Published in: on May 22, 2009 at 3:30 am  Leave a Comment  

Caloric Coma

Sammy somehow stymied sets of sloppy, slimy sausages
In the process partly pulverizing Paul’s Pad Thai

Ramping up the rummage, Ryan wrestled with the cabbage
And capped it off cathartically, cramming corn cobs and cold turkey
In his crowded cheeks

The two then topped their teetering tower of free food
With a fake flower
And had a humble horticulturistic high

Published in: on May 21, 2009 at 2:14 am  Leave a Comment  


Graham curled up into a ball, grabbed his ankles and braced for impact, less than a minute away. All fell down.

Through the floating Cadillacs, hot dog wrappers and Coke bottles, he hurtled toward the earth at a rate of 8,000 miles an hour, though he didn’t know what the hour was. He didn’t know what the year was for that matter. He had lost track of time somewhere along the line during his 35-year sentence and had been twiddling his thumbs ever since.

Now having nothing to do but wait for the ground to meet him, he thought about how he was rocketed up there in the first place.

A day before the trial threw him into the upper stratosphere, Graham was out and about his route from 34th and Sax to 70th and Bridges, stopping at each mailbox, imparting the various postcards from Italy, care packages from Mom and Reader’s Digests for grandma. It was at 2645 Trivet Drive that the idea hit him.

Always eccentric, Graham couldn’t help but yelp with delight at his own genius. This would turn up in the papers to be sure. It would take planning, though. Diligent planning.

So getting back to business, he squirted across every intersection with reckless abandon. He darted down the cobbled streets of Mayberry, Iowa, haphazardly stuffing the plain grays, the flowery handmades and flipping up the multicolored flags. His workday was over in five and a half hours, three and a half under the usual nine.

He made for the post office and turned in his ID badge with Pam at the desk.

“You have yourself a wonderfully fantasterrific evening, Pamela!” he exclaimed.

Pam retorted with a little less heart. “Yep. You too.” She muttered “psycho” under her breath.
This was the one. This was really it. It was Graham Time.

First stop, hardware store. It had to be spring-loaded, couldn’t be anything but spring-loaded. Three gallons of lavender, a gallon of lime and a pint of chrome later, he was set.

He jumped in behind the wheel and popped some Creedence into the Oldsmobile’s tape deck. “And I wonder, still I wonder, who’ll stop the rain?” Graham howled as the wind whipped through the shoddy weather-stripping, falling in gentler wisps farther in to rearrange a few tufts of hair here and a few more misplaced coupons for five-second tans there.

Outside, the sky was brewing a dusty summer thunderstorm, but having memorized the yearly forecast, the better part of Mayberry’s townsfolk were holed up inside their homes waiting out the cool. The glow of their entertainment centers through energy-producing windows dotted the landscape less and less as Graham spun farther and farther out into the countryside.

In big, blocky letters arching over the highway, “No Trespassing! Wildlife Reserve!” flashed violently in red then slowly faded behind the Olds, puttering along.

The sedan was running on empty, and Graham’s gas can had leaked all but a few drops onto the old newspapers and hand-me-downs strewn about the wide expanse of the trunk. He’d have to gun it up the last hill and hope to coast all the way home.

It was either that, or he’d have to happen upon another stranded, thumb-in-their-mouth tourist.

Luckily, not too long after he pushed the pedal to the metal one last time, a light breeze out of the northwest came lolling along, picked up and pushed him past the toolshed through the open gate to his parking spot. Once at rest, he had to squeeze through the crack of space allowed by the open door of his crooked vehicle and the family tractor’s rear wheel.

His spirits weren’t dampened in the slightest by any of this. Just obstacles on the road to joy, he told himself.

“Don’t bother me, Mom. I have work to do.”

Judy Redding strolled by on her way to the hammock hung between the front yard’s two oak trees. She didn’t care to reply much less look at her son, in all his infinite hopefulness.

“It’s very important. You’ll see. You’ll see all right,” Graham sputtered in short blasts flung over his shoulder.

He swung the creaky screen door open, supplies in hand, then reached the kitchen counter and spread it all before him. All the colors of paint went into their respective Dixie cups. The springs, he laid out in rank and file according to length and thickness.

From his satchel, he drew out a felt-tip pen and a notepad.

“OK, the Hablutzels get the lavender. The Webbs, lavender. Hmm, Derringers? Definitely chrome…”

For the next twelve hours, he rattled off every last last name he had committed to memory, jotting down who, when and where would get his artistic treatment.

It all fell in line with the plan.

That is, until he woke up with his face half-lime and his notes in disarray, shuffled by his tendency to stir in deep sleep. The clock read 9:34 a.m.

“Oh nooo. Oh noooooo.”

Graham raced to the bathroom, turned the faucet on full-force, hot as could be. According to plan, though, no matter how hard he scraped, the coat of color hung on with a death-grip to his chubby mug.

As if taken by a bout of asthma, he breathed wheezily in and out in a fit of panic. What to do, what to do?

For all he cared, the world had just stopped spinning, and the only way he could set things back on course was to set his scheme in motion seven days ahead of schedule.

He threw all the springs in the bag then grabbed the box of Saran wrap from the cupboard and covered twenty of the hundreds upon hundreds of cups he had set out. This would be only a test run, though with things the way they were, he’d have to carry out the plan flawlessly.

And so, he set out on the highway at 15 miles an hour at the helm of the old International.

After a few furlongs, his hysteria began to give way to recovery, and a small grin began to coalesce across his face. He rolled down the road.

The first mailbox he came to was that of Frank Rasmussen. He parked his means of transport, and gathered the tools.

First, he drilled a screw into the back. Next, he thumbed on the pointy end of that screw a firing cork. Last, he hooked a spring to the end sticking out the other side. He slopped some rubber cement on the cork and stuck a sideways, full-to-the-brim cup of lavender to it, with the plastic wrap holding on tight with the aid of a constricting rubber band.

At 10:37 a.m. on the nose, as per the usual, Frank came into view, and Graham began his run to the nearby wheat field with the ever-expanding spring clutched tightly in his hand. When it reached full tautness, he spun around and crouched behind a particularly bushy stalk.

Frank advanced slowly. Each footfall made Graham’s heart skip a beat, but surely enough, Frank made it across the gravel road and assumed a wide stance to anchor his efforts in opening the rusty mailbox door. His gelatinous flab swung sweetly in concert with his exertion of eroded muscle.

Luuuuuurrrrch. He paused for a moment, befuddled by the dark shape inside. Then. Then it. Then it came. In stammering stages.

“Kablooie!” Graham’s exclamation rang out across the suburbs.

snap. Phingg. Twwwhap. POP!

And with that, Frank became a plum.

But not two seconds later an alarm sounded from some undefined place in the sky, and a robotic arm materialized out of thin air. It picked Graham up by the neckline of his T-shirt and shook him savagely. A few pennies and nickels sprayed out of his pockets.

What appeared to be a metallic backpack then dropped from somewhere else and mounted itself onto Graham. A warmly printed scroll was shoved into his right hand.

“You have committed a crime of culture. By painting Frank here, you expressed yourself beyond the bounds of Code 243,502,595, which enumerates the 5,206 ways in which humans can be too imaginative. Please notify your loved ones and let them know of your sentence, which will expire in 35 years starting from the moment your call ends or surpasses two minutes.”

“Thank you for your patience.”

Published in: on May 5, 2009 at 5:38 am  Leave a Comment  

Clearing the air

Even the shell of him that was left was cracked, and it resembled little of what I remembered from the time before the signs started to show. After the mountaintop high of rehab’s effects had eased back down into another valley, my dad was on his way out of the family.

This was three and a half years ago, but I’ve tried to push it out of time and out of mind ever since. Now and then someone will crack a one-liner about something related to cocaine, and the memories will come rushing back, but for the most part, the sense of loss I felt back then is kept locked up, irretrievable.

Then I read “Sonny’s Blues,” and I was there once again.

Usually I feel distant from fictional characters, and the bond I share with them generally becomes more tenuous as the stories reach back further in history. What can I say? Life in Nebraska isn’t something that would captivate the world, and aside from one deep-tissue emotional bruise, I’ve had it easy.

So to relate my personal experience with that of someone infatuated with yellow wallpaper or a couple mulling over whether to get an abortion or not, it takes a mighty long stretch.

Here, in James Baldwin’s short story, it took only a few sentences, and I was the narrator. I’ve felt the way he did.

“A great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long… It kept melting, sending trickles of ice water all up and down my veins, but it never got less. Sometimes it hardened and seemed to expand until I felt my guts were going to come spilling out or that I was going to choke or scream. This would always be at a moment when I was remembering some specific thing Sonny had once said or done.”

Just as the narrator received a blow to the gut when he read Sonny’s name in the paper, grasped the same pain when my mom told me about a time years ago when my dad left me and a friend at our cabin at Lake Minatare to hop on his Harley and make for the garage sixty miles away back home in Alliance. Before that moment, when it all clicked, the tension in our family wasn’t real to me.

When it hit, it hit hard. The stagnant memories once filed away felt like that had been pinned to the bulletin board at City Hall. I turned in on myself, and I never wanted to talk about it, preferring to go back to the way it was, when it wasn’t my problem. It seemed all was lost, and the true emotions broke through the seams of my facade only sparingly.

In the same way, Baldwin imbues the story with a sense of standstill, a stubborn refusal to be rational. No longer can the narrator accept that his brother is a heroin addict. He says, “I couldn’t believe it: but what I mean by that is that I couldn’t find any room for it anywhere inside me. I had kept it outside me for a long time. I hadn’t wanted to know.”

It’s not his staggeringly veiled hints at some foreshadowing of death or clever wordplay that so often grabs the focus of someone taking a “reading” of literature that makes Baldwin’s writing so moving. It’s the humanity, the visceral truthful feeling spread out on a page for all onlookers to see and take part in.

The mistrust the narrator has for Sonny’s boyhood friend cuts, yet he still gives up a five to tide the junkie over till the stash runs out. His heart gets twisted by what used to be and what is, longing for a return to better times and bearing the agony of what has become of the world surrounding his brother.

I remember the e-mails my dad sent me during the roughest spots, after he had been kicked out of the house and was living at the cabin. They were always somewhere between desperate pleas for attention and heartfelt apologies.

He’d either tell me everything that was on his mind, or try to keep from me something he feared I would forward to my mom. I felt like a tennis ball being slammed back and forth across the net of middle ground: both kinds of messages incited invisible guilt that I had for the dissolution of my family. It wasn’t really my fault, but what was between the lines in those “I miss you” missives knocked me out.

The letter Baldwin includes hits the nail on the head. “Sometime I think I’m going to flip and never get outside and sometime I think I’ll come straight back. I tell you one thing, though, I’d rather blow my brains out than go through this again.”

Then I remember the times when it’d be just me and him, without the buffer of my sister who could diffuse the awkwardness. We’d go to dinner and be done in fifteen minutes, exchanging a few words from time to time about school or the weather. There was a high-strung energy that poured profusely which took the place of conversation.

“We hit 110th Street and started rolling up Lenox Avenue. And I’d known this avenue all my life, but it seemed to me again, as it had seemed on the day I’d first heard about Sonny’s trouble, filled with a hidden menace that was its very breath of life.

‘We almost there,’ said Sonny.

‘Almost.’ We were both too nervous to say anything more.”

Sonny would continue to speak his mind through music. My dad sought solace in hard labor, working full time as the owner of a body shop and filling his time with odd jobs here and there. Neither the narrator nor I thought much of these outlets of frustration and sadness.

We’d fall apart even more as our paths diverged and hope for a better relationship seemed to be flushed down the tubes. I started immersing myself in music, and Dad didn’t understand what I was trying to do. Everything I was doing was “neat,” but that’s all my battered teenage feelings would get out of him.

Then I remember when I began to see things from his side. Once I reached furthest point in the metaphorical boomerang curve that took me away from my dad and brought me back, I needed a job, and it just so happened that the kid who washed the “done” cars at the shop had just quit. So I took the spot. And I saw my dad again for who he truly was in his natural environment, working away with the group of guys he’d employed for years. They plowed through each week’s pile of repairs with finesse just like they used to before it all. I knew, once again, he loved what he did. He had kicked the habit for good, and realized that I loved him all along.

“Then they all gathered around Sonny and Sonny played. Every now and again one of them seemed to say, amen. Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his.”

Published in: on March 26, 2009 at 11:45 pm  Leave a Comment  

Save One For Me

Huddled over the pan like a numb handful of eskimos over a fire, they nervously talked about yesterday’s game. None of it was in truth. Filler mostly. Just biding the time until a glance here or a distraction there opened up the line of attack.

If timed right, a miracle of a swipe could cut through the oncoming flurry to the prize. It all came down to the moment when their shooting hand was drawn from their pocket.

“I hear that’ll be all for Gary. He ain’t got that nerve, the stuff to take it to the house. And that’s why coach is canning him for good.”

Howard Billis, standing head and shoulders above the rest at 6-foot-10, could have fooled the chief of police himself with the banter.

His wide stature was unflinching. His brow was as dry as the sandhills, withering away toward the horizon, which peeked through the garage door of the quonset.

There were four men bellied up to the collapsible table and, in the pan, only three goodies glistened with mocking sneers. As Howard beat his point to death, the others painted him as the odd man out and honed in on their target.

“I mean, just look at what Britt’s done to the kid. She hasn’t let him outta her sight since birth. He’s a blind follower of her creed, can’t take no instruction from anyone else.”

“Sure, you could say that has something to do with it,” Don chimed in. He couldn’t contain himself. What they were saying hit home, and he wasn’t going to beat around the bush anymore.

“But that kid’s my nephew. Britt’s my sister-in-law, and she ain’t got nothing but love in her heart. Why, you try and raise a child, Howard. I can’t see you making it past ten days. You’d be running back to the hospital to give ‘em back.”

“Now, Don. This ain’t a matter of me and your nephew. You know Britt hovers around her son like a shark. And whenever she smells blood in the water, whenever anyone takes a step toward Gary, she swoops in to save the day. Gary ain’t got no heart just ‘cause he’s never had the chance to see if he had one.”

You could almost hear the steam hissing out of Don. For him, the pan in front of them, the thing that had lured him in to begin with, was up and gone, like a fart in the wind.

For the rest, especially for Howard, it was the first order of business. So Don wallowed in his woes, struggled to win over his friends in this argument while, unbeknownst to him, they couldn’t give a flying whoop about it.

“It’s all a matter of time, Howard. You’ll see. You’ll see when Gary takes us to state. And your kid ain’t gonna play a minor role. Ain’t that right, Troy?… I said, ain’t that right, Troy?”

Troy was already in for the kill. He grabbed his flaky hunk of chocolate brownie and threw it down his gullet in nothing flat.

Frank, who had been silently waiting for someone to break, pounced on his piece and did the same.

That left one. Over a brownie, Don set himself up for a knock-down-drag-out fight. He boiled with rage. Howard didn’t move a muscle.

“Daddy. Daddy, where did they go?”

Damon pulled at Don’s pant leg.

“I thought they were in the house, but I looked there, and I didn’t see them.”

Howard jumped at it. In a flash, Don was on his back, and it went flying. Damon picked it up, smiling.

“There it is.”

Published in: on March 7, 2009 at 6:10 pm  Leave a Comment