Approaching a stranger


There’s always a lull between my writing projects. It’s not intentional. Everything I write tends to be a long-term relationship and I’m always reluctant to move on. Maybe not reluctant so much as stuck. I go back and forth between reviving old projects and seeking out something fresh.

I’ve written a lot of stuff over the years, some of it good, some a little messy and rushed, some painfully self-indulgent, and some inspired by Hemingway. Hemingway on a binge.

And now I’m stuck. Stuck between calling up an old girlfriend and seeing if we can pick up where we left off, or introducing myself to a mysterious and alluring stranger. A stranger who won’t even tell me her name. (And no, not literally… I’m married… Hi, Hon!.. just drawing a weak analogy here!)

The last couple of days I’ve felt a spark. A little shimmer of an idea. Barely a flicker. But it’s there.

One of my favorite endings to a Stephen King novel was in “Misery”. Paul Sheldon, the protagonist, has been terrorized, traumatized and completely emptied of all inspiration. He’s a haunted and terrified man. And then he sees something during one of his therapeutic walks. Just a small something that shines a light in his imagination. And the reader is left with the idea that maybe Sheldon will heal. The process has begun.

All this to say, I think I’m going to approach the stranger. We don’t know each other, might not even like each other, but it’s worth a shot. It could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. (Hi Hon! Of course you can have a new horse!)



I killed my first boy when I were fifteen year old, my stomach hurt so bad.
His name was Charlie and he was showin’ off his ’61 T-Bird. I could make out the evenin’ star – Venus was her name – and everything looked like a photograph, with the soft blanket of twilight descendin’ ‘pon us.
Charlie was drinkin’ a Pabst out of the can and I was buggin’ him for a sip so’s to rinse the taste of Dr. Pepper out of my mouth. Charlie stood there like he was Bruce Springsteen — whiskers creepin’ up his cheeks, dark green shirt unbuttoned to his belly, worn Levis tucked inside engineer boots — lookin’ at me like I was a bug, or a Chevy. He stood maybe six feet, but he looked shorter on account he was always slouchin’.
“Chronic, I swear your mamma would kick my ass if I gave you any beer. She could smell it on you from here to creekside.” You never knew if he was jokin’ or being dead serious. He had that reform school look in his eyes, like he could out-punk anyone in shop class. You couldn’t tell what was goin’ on in his head unless it was about his ‘Bird. She was a candy-apple red four-door, a chopped and channeled 429.
Charlie worked in a garage part-time. He spent most a’ the time workin’ on his ‘Bird. He found it in an auto wrecker’s yard while makin’ a parts-run for his boss Johnny Clifford. More like it was a beer-and-parts run, since Johnny liked his beer more than he liked his wife, or even his dog.
There stood the ‘Bird, said Charlie, crouched between an AMC Pacer and a Ford Fairlane, covered with about a hundred years worth of rust and dirt. She was lookin’ sad but not too hurt, tattooed with rust and faded pink body-fill. She was a honey even though she was busted up. Charlie just had to have her, so he dropped a few bills and ran some dope for Johnny so’s he could restore her. That was last year, and now the ‘Bird was cherry. He wanted it restored to original, not custom, mostly ‘cause he was dirt lazy and had no imagination.
We were at the fork of Milk Road and the dirt swatch that everybody called O’Connor’s Corduroy, me on my Mustang bike (banana seat, ape handlebars), Charlie slouchin’ by his ‘Bird waitin’ on his hoodlum friends, Junior, Gabe and Ducky. I kind of admired Charlie for the right reasons: the whiskers, the macho slouch, and the ‘Bird, of course.
But if you say the word “Mamma” to me, I get skittery. My stomach does funny things, churnin’ and burstin’ up into my chest. I always had a sour stomach, something that blooms inside like a poisoned flower, blossomin’ ‘til I can’t hardly stand it.
That woman was not my Mamma. She was just a sallow, whisp’ry thing imitating my Mamma, not much more than a common whore who got paid with food stamps and a twenty dollar gov’ment assistance check. She fed us and clothed us, more or less, but we were something that paid for her bingos and Jim Beam. Five of us, brothers and sisters by address only; three boys and two girls who shared the same toilet and discount hotdogs.
“That whore’d feed me Beam from the nipple if she thought I’d piss it back in her glass,” I said.
Charlie laughed. “Whoa, little man. You got big balls if’n you call your own mamma a whore. Mine’s a fine piece o’ work, but I’d never call her a whore. Not to her face.”
“She ain’t my Mamma,” I hollered. I felt my face burnin’, and my stomach was churnin’, like it was made out of oily rags smokin’ on a woodstove. “My Mamma’s a famous actress livin’ in California, Dee-Dee Martella, and she make three pitchers last year.”
“An’ I’m Steve-fuckin’-McQueen. So why don’t you get your skinny white ass and your big floppin’ balls outta here ‘fore God strikes you down for lyin’.” He grinned and it was nasty and dirty. “He’d prob’ly miss you and hit my fuckin’ ‘Bird. Then I’d have to kill you and maybe even your whore mamma.”

I kill’t him in a red blur, a darker red even than the candy-apple color of his Thunderbird, smoky purple clouds barely hiding my anger. I don’t remember what I done, but I knew my stomach felt better after I finished.

We are the Cheryl Crows


This was a short story I wrote early last year for a competition. I didn’t win, but I was commended for my strange imagination.

All right, I admit it. When Dwayne first suggested the hike, I dove right in. The invitation was both touching and absurd. Listen, he said: brand new Salomon hiking boots (Kiwi Green), $250; bottled Norwegian ijsberg water, $5 a pop; spending the day with your boy: priceless. I said yes before I even thought about it.
The warm and fuzzies didn’t last long. Even before he hung up I started thinking about the logistics. I really wasn’t prepared to handle a hike of any distance. Sure, even five years ago, I might have considered it. But I was seeing the crispy side of sixty and…
“Come on, Bim, it’ll be good for you,” he said. “You need to stop doing old-man stuff and start spending time with your kid.”
“And hiking’s the best thing you could come up with? What’s wrong with –?”
“Too late, you’ve committed,” he said, and hung up. Just like that.
He didn’t even tell me when this alleged adventure was going to take place, so I figured he’d forget about it, or get so caught up in his research at the university that he’d put me on the backburner again. Stuff happens. That was one of the reasons we hadn’t seen each other for almost two years. Stuff happens. Though it might kill me, backing out really wasn’t an option for me. The old man needed to spend some time with his son. Dwayne made that abundantly clear. It was either hike or give up.
Dwayne was always full of piss and swagger, even as a boy. He did little-kid things when he was young, but he always did them with attitude. Bravado, even. When he got old enough, he started calling me Bim instead of Dad. It was grating the first few times, but it came to fit us both after awhile. It suggested a closeness that really wasn’t there.
So when he followed through a couple days later, I was surprised. I was on the verge of forgetting about it. Stuff happens.
“In the mood for a hike, Bim?” he asked. No intro, just jump right in, that’s my boy.
“What? When… you don’t mean today, do you? Jeeze, Dwayne, a little heads-up?”
“It’s not far,” he said. “I’ll pick you up in an hour.”
“I—“ And he hung up. Just like that.
As promised, he brought me hiking boots. They really were kiwi green, and they really were ugly. Nothing you’d want to be seen wearing anywhere other than the great outdoors. What must the forest animals think, and would they laugh? Probably. I wanted to balk, but Dwayne looked harried, like he was about to be audited. There was no warm hello-hug, no arm’s-length examination of how much we’d changed over the past couple of years. He just shoved the shoebox in my hands when I opened the door.
He saw I was wearing my favorite worn-out jeans, and shook his head like I just straggled out of transvestite bar. “Nothing fancy, Bim,” he said. “Get as comfortable as you can. Could be a long trip.” He smiled in a way that made him look like a complete stranger.
I never considered my old Levis fancy, but shrugged it off. Hiking, apparently, had become nouveau and I didn’t have the fashion sense of a… well, a kiwi. “Your sweat pants will be fine,” he said, exasperated with me for no good reason. “Sweat pants and an old tee.” Hiking, I suppose, had changed a lot since I was a kid.
How could a kid as smart as Dwayne not know the difference between west and east? My boy is smart in every other way. Did I ever know that, or had I forgotten?
I don’t remember the drive to… wherever. I remember lacing up those hideous boots and then… well, then, we were at the edge of a forest. Only it didn’t look like a regular forest. It looked like some garish Disney wilderness, with old Walt done up on Jack and blow, trying to color between the blurred lines. It was just a little too… beautifully weird.
“I’ll meet you west of that hanging rock,” said Dwayne. “Or maybe east.” I heard him, but didn’t see him, and I had no idea what hanging rock he was talking about. I didn’t even know what a hanging rock was, other than a place where they might string up horse thieves in old Westerns.
“I thought we were going to spend time together,” I said. “Where are you going?”
“West,” he said. “Or east. You’ll know it when you find it.”
“Find what? Dwayne, where are we?”
“Admire the scenery, Bim,” he said, and disappeared. Literally. Just faded like a shadow in a dark room.
I saw a path uncoil towards the woods ahead. As I walked closer to the forest, I noticed the trees. I have never seen breezes in trees such as these, thought my inner Seuss. Towering, spiral, translucent, fragile. And as real as rain. I rapped my knuckles against a seedling that was at least twice my height and girth. I could feel the rough bark scrape the back of my fingers.
“I’m here,” he said, and now I was the one who didn’t know his east from west. The sound carried long, and he could have been behind me or ten miles ahead.
“I can’t see you. Where are you?” I tried to rein in my panic. I was afraid of being in such a strange place without him.
“Keep looking,” he said. “Just keep looking, Bim.”
I looked down and saw I wasn’t wearing any pants.
“Dwayne? Where are you? I think one of us is lost, and I think it’s me. Or I mixed my meds and I’m floating around in Butt Nibble Forest, naked and alone, and don’t have the sense to wake up.”
“You’re not lost,” he said, and I looked behind and noticed the owl. It was speaking with Dwayne’s voice. “Touch the leaves,” said Dwayne/Owl.
Obediently, I stretched my arms and tugged at the low-lying tree limbs, grabbing fistfuls of leaves. Yep, they were real. Oak and maple and others I couldn’t identify. But real. I felt them. I could smell them: earthy and damp, the smell of greenness and fertility.
“Where are we? Where are you?” I studied the owl, hoping for an answer, but the owl had apparently gone mute. “Where are you, son?”
“I’m right here,” he said. I looked down again and saw that not only was I still not wearing pants, I was no longer wearing any legs. And it wasn’t as disturbing as you might think. Dwayne was looking up at me from the ground, his face a perfect circle that was bordered by orange daisies.
“This is weird, kid,” I said.
He laughed, and it was the most genuine gesture I’d seen from him in… well, a couple of years. “Yeah, daddy-o,” he said.
“Where are we, Dwayne?”
“Does it matter? We’re spending time together, Bim.”
“Why aren’t I wearing my legs?”
“Of all the things you see, you’re worried about your legs?”
“Well, yeah, kind of.”
“My face is a shape on the ground and it’s surrounded by daisies, and that doesn’t bother you?”
“A little, yeah.”
“And you’re naked from the waist down.”
“If I had a waist.”
“You do, it’s just not here at the moment. Look again.”
I did, and I was back intact.
“Were we killed in a car crash on the way to the hike?” I asked. “Is this, you know, heaven? Or hell? Either one, it ain’t what I expected.”
“Even better. We’re inside your shoes.”
And with that, I shut up.
Dwayne let me think things through, and I admit I had to plod my way through the dense underbrush that contained my thoughts. I reached down and cupped my hands around my calves. Okay, they were real. I could feel the flabby old muscles beneath the skin and it was all me, right down to the old dimples and scars. I looked at my feet and saw I wasn’t even wearing the shoes. My legs and feet were bare. And, much more distressing, I no longer had any genitals.
“You don’t need that equipment here, Bim,” said Dwayne as if reading my mind. “And really, I don’t need to see your junk.”
“My junk?”
A trio of black crows flew overhead, and all of them had Dwayne’s face on them.
“We are the Counting Crows….”
“The Sheryl Crows….”
“The Texas Rose….”
“Okay, Dwayne. This is getting stranger than your mother. Where are you?”
He laughed again, and he was standing right next to me, smiling his sunny, open smile. His hand fell on my shoulder.
“I’m right here, Bim. The whole time.”
“’We are the Sheryl Crows’? What the hell, son?”
“You needed to get shook up, that’s all.”
“Shook up?”
“Like a soda pop, Pop. So I brought you the shoes. For the hike. Get it?”
“For the hike,” I said.
“I wasn’t sure they’d work.”
“And they do, right? They work?”
“Yes sir, they sure do. Man, trying to get you to do anything with me anymore is like pulling the skin off a crocodile. You’re so planted in your ways. You were busy getting old even when I was a kid. I figured a hike was what you needed. A good old-fashioned kick—“
“— in the junk?”
He laughed. It was good to hear my boy laugh. It had been such a long time. Always excuses, always other things going on. I didn’t realize how much of it was my doing.
“We gotta laugh, old man. From time to time, we gotta laugh.”
“So can I please have my legs back? And my, you know, equipment? Feels kind of strange not, uh, having any.”
And then we were back in my apartment, standing in front of the doorway, as if we hadn’t traveled at all. Dwayne still had the shoebox in his hands. He didn’t look so harried.
“Was that real?” I asked. “What just happened?”
“As real as trees.”
“Were we really there?”
He rubbed his forehead, and I noticed for the first time how far his hairline was receding. He really did take after his mother in that regard. “We were somewhere,” he said, a little elusively.
“Was it the shoes?”
He smiled and, for the first time, I realized my boy was getting older. I could see the fine mesh of lines around his eyes as he tried to clarify his thoughts.
“Sometimes, you know, a good pair of shoes will take you places your feet can’t go.” He shook his head, dissatisfied. “I know that doesn’t make sense, but that’s the best I can do. For now.”
I held out my hands. “Do I get to keep them?”
“If you want. If you think you need them.”
“Do I?” I thought about it, and, though only a few seconds had passed, it felt like I had considered the question for a long time. “Is that what it’s going to take? You know, for us to spend time together? A pair of ugly shoes?”
He shrugged. “Maybe we both need a pair,” he said. “But they’re so damned expensive.”
All right, I admit it. When Dwayne first suggested the shoes, I hesitated. The offer was both touching and genuine. Listen, he said: brand new Salomon hiking boots (Kiwi Green), $250; bottled Norwegian ijsberg water, $5 a pop; spending the day with your boy: priceless.
Neither of us really needed those shoes, ugly as they were. And really, it was never about the shoes.

RIP October


October was such a strange month for me. Many changes and much stress.

I was “promoted” at my job (and promotion is very much up to interpretation)… more work, more responsibilities, more co-ordination between departments. More pay? We’ll see). It required me to be in LaGrange, Georgia for three days for training, and there’s nothing more depressing than being stuck in hotel, alone, two States away from home.

And the weather has abruptly changed, from lackluster October to what-the-hell-is-this-stuff cold November. Half an inch of snow on the ground Saturday morning. The older I get, the less prepared I am to handle it. But of course I will. I’m a born and raised Canadian, so it’s not like it’s a foreign substance. Just the circle of freaking life, eh?

And then yesterday I finally launched my first ebook on Amazon… the culmination of a lot of hard work, sweat, cursing and anxiety. I swear the writing was the easiest part of the whole process. Editing, sculpting, tossing, re-writing, editing, polishing, editing. And then formatting for a decent presentation. And now promoting. Promotion is not my strong suit, but I push onward because I don’t want “Ordinary Handsome” to die on the vine. It’s been a large part of my life and, regardless of its success, I’m proud of it. It’s good. I hope. I think. Or am I one of those “American Idol” wannabes who steps on stage who think they sound like Sinatra and… well, the grinding screech of a braking train carries a better melody? It’s all subjective. God bless ’em, some people were meant to be shower-singers, and some people were meant to be “maybe my grandma might like this” kind of writers. I hope I’m not the latter, but I don’t know. Because writing is so subjective (as is all art) that I just don’t know. Self-doubt, I think, is part of the genetics of a writer.

But now it’s there. It’s done. It’s waiting to be read.

And now it’s November. A few small creative ideas are flickering around my imagination, but nothing hard and shiny yet. Dust mites. And I don’t want to rest. I’m waiting for that big kaboom idea. I know it’s there, and I’m looking for it. And then I’ll start the whole process over again. And man, I can’t wait!

The Wyoming Coast


(This is the opening of a completed but as yet unedited novel I finished four years ago. I’m thinking of revisiting and polishing it as my next project. Please let me know what you think.)

When did the music begin? It started on a saloon piano, a quick-fingered splay of keys. And then it faded, faded into the wet cup of a respirator. But it was sweet music, and it made my face sweat.

A guy with Alzheimer’s walks into a saloon. I don’t remember the rest, but I think it’s a hoot.

Little Kinsi walks her doll. Her blue dress is faded almost white. She stares like a harlequin, big blue eye. Old tears smudge lines across her cheeks. Face drained gray, the color of smoke. The doll is an old thing, its shoulders bleed polymer. It bounces off her hip, twisted hair done up in a thick bundle. It smells like Pine-Sol and mothballs.
Mister can you help me, she says, and I shake my head, my soft bald head the color of lacquered pine.
She lives the next street over, except she’s not six-years-old, she twenty-six, and the baby is not pretend, it’s real, and it’s dirty, and the stink from its diaper is corrosive. How do I look to her? Like someone capable of saving someone, anyone, or just another phantom wandering the street? Where is Kinsi, she was just here.

“It was a dream,” says Cholo.
“I saw her. She was talking to that man.”
“We were watching ‘Criminal Minds’. Don’t you remember?”
“This was different. It wasn’t a dream.”
“How is it different?”
I thought about it. “Nothing happened. Something always happens in dreams. The man could have been a grandfather or an uncle.”
“Then maybe that’s all it was.”
“No. She was scared. Nervous.”
“That’s how you saw it. Some kids are naturally nervous.”
“This was a different kind of nervous.”
Cholo shakes his head. “Then why didn’t she run away? Or yell?”
“There was no one else. Just me. Just another old man, watching them.”
“Then why didn’t you try to get some help?”
“I didn’t know. It looked… natural. Like he was a grandfather or an–”
“Older uncle. Yes.”
“Is it because of this thing? Because of the ‘A’ word? Just because I have it doesn’t mean I can’t see things as they really are.”
Cholo pats me on the shoulder. “We were watching TV last night. ‘Criminal Minds’. Remember? And before that we watched ‘Jeopardy’ and ‘Wheel of Fortune’. And before that we had a light supper. You weren’t anywhere to see such a thing.” He smiles at me fondly, like a grandfather or an older uncle. I hate him for it, but I’m not sure he’s wrong. Maybe it was just…
“A dream, cowboy. You just had a strange dream.”
And I wonder. Am I fading faster than we thought?

A Whiskey Drinking Man

slipping away

Push a narrow slice of sidepork around the skillet with a fork, then drown it with an egg. Cup of Jim Beam coffee, heavy on the Beam. The sizzle and the pop, the grease jumps up, the Beam jumps down and it’s the all-American, how-do-you-do breakfast, every morning, pal. Wake up and slap your face with water and cologne, and let the day open up. Radio in the background, something low, something slow, something from a time when jazz houses were busting open and the gin stayed cold in the glass.
Every morning the same; same dull antidote for the night before. Shaky hands wash away the sleep, the tiredness, but not the grime hiding behind the eyes and underneath the skin. Arms calcified, shoulders hard as planks. A hard night in the Round Table, shuffling goons and serving the dollies, some of them lonely, most of them bored, wanting to break up , break in, or just break clean. The same nickel movies and the same greasy dives, no night life, no flash, just the same over-and-over. The night blurs like a shaggy curtain, and the bed, a dirty cluster of unwashed socks and unclaimed brassieres, leftovers from another damaged night.