I’m not feeling very chatty tonight. But for some reason I’m up late. So, I’ve decided to subject my blog readers to three failed short stories (hell, maybe they are stories in progress — things I’ll finish one day). Enjoy these raw first draft stalled abortions I’ve created within the last month.
I didn’t recognize Douglas at first. I was standing in front of a series of charcoal studies for the mural “Gods of the Modern World” at the San Antonio Museum of Art’s show, “Orozco Framed, the Smaller Works of José Clemente Orozco,” when some asshole dug his elbow into my side.
“What the fuck!”
“Man, don’t be like that,” replied a smirking middle-aged man in sandals, shorts, and a t-shirt for what I presume was a pop band that I wasn’t hip enough to have heard of.
“Douglas! The hell you doing here?”
He gave me an awkward hug.
“Like you. Digging the art.”
“No. What are you doing in San Antonio?”
“I do some web consulting. I’m here for some telecom company.”
“Shit, I haven’t seen you since …. Christ, it must have been about twenty years ago. You guys were opening for Dirk Autoclave and His Butterscotch Morsels.”
A matronly woman was standing perilously close to us. I knew she was not really looking at the art. She had stumbled on a couple of corn-fed “characters” and she was going to hang onto every word, hoping we’d, I dunno, say something horrible.
“Yeah. That was at Ralph’s. I was too wasted to play.”
“Naw, you did fine. You guys should get back together again,” I said, none too seriously.
I could tell Douglas had noticed the matron.
“We could open for Dirk again,” he said.
“He still have his band?”
“Naw. Actually now he’s calling himself Melvin von Tibia. He’s wrangled a shitload of funding from the NEA for his new off-Broadway show, Buttplug, the Musical”
“No fucking way!” I said.
“Well, he sure as hell didn’t get the grant with the current title.” Douglas looked up, as though searching his memory. “He was shopping the thing around with the working title of Mister Persephone’s Miscarriage — changed it the second the check cleared.”
At the moment, we both noticed that the older woman was nowhere to be seen.
Douglas used to wear a punky spiked haircut, dyed black. Now his natural dirty blond hair, long and held back with a rubberband, showed streaks of grey. He still wore the black Buddy Holly glasses.
At the moment I suspected that we had exhausted our repertoire of commonality. The past can be a sparsely populated realm with very thin air. But Douglas invited me to lunch.
“Saw a Greek place on my way here. Any good?”
“Yes, it is. Let’s go.”
It was early in the afternoon, and I was tooling around downtown San Antonio on my bike taking surreptitious photos of people lugging about obvious tourists items. You know: sombreros, Frida Kahlo mesh bags, lacquered maracas painted green and red, that sort of crap. I felt the beginnings of a sunburn spreading across my forehead, so I entered into the cool darkness of the Aztec Coffee Shop. A friendly boho sort of place, where they’d never raise an eyebrow if someone walked to the counter rolling a bicycle. I ordered a double cappuccino, paid, and took a seat at a little table near the wall beside a grouping a sofas gathered into a cozy rectangle. I leaned my bike against the wall, pulled my little laptop from my backpack, and plugged it into the wall outlet.
John Lydon croaked a song over the speakers in the ceiling. The girl who took my order — Kelly, according to her name tag — bobbed her head in time to the music as she worked the huge espresso machine. She might be new to the Aztec, but she was no stranger to this sort of work. It was just the two of us in the place. And then, Foster and Felipe, the owners, came out from the back office. We were all on nodding terms, and they might even know my name. And, in fact, they both nodded and smiled at me as they marched to a large painting hung on the wall back beside the performance stage.
The painting possessed an off-kilter oddness — something painfully naive — but nonetheless it struck me as quite beautiful … and certainly it was very colorful. Even as far away as it was, I could make out a good deal of detail. It was very big.
“This is it!” said Felipe excitedly to Foster. He held up his hand like a game show girl.
“Wow,” Foster said. He moved about like a large cat in the zoo sizing up a baby in a stroller. “Wow. This is something. Powerful.” He turned to Felipe with a grin — he even grinned my way. “I mean, wow! This was done by kids?”
“I guess they really liked the tour,” Felipe said. He turned to me and raised his voice over the music for me. “This was done by the fourth grade English class from over at Edgar Allen Poe Elementary.”
“I particularly like the portrait in the lower left corner,” Felipe said. ” Annabel Lee, I have to surmise. Such dynamism.”
I had to look up from my computer. The huge mural of a painting featured, in the center, the planet Earth, floating in space. The title, written large above, asked for “Peace on Earth.” And in the four corners were portraits of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, and César Chávez (who, I should admit, I only recognized because he was wrapped in the UFW flag).
“What’s wrong with you?” Foster asked, with an edge to his voice. “Can’t you fucking recognize Mother Teresa?”
“Oh, yeah. I see it now. Because she’s wearing a, um, one of those–”
“Habits. A nun’s habit.” Foster shook his head. He shot me a nervous smile — one of those what-are-you-gonna-do looks. “What were you thinking?”
“It was many and many a year ago / In a kingdom by the sea / That a maiden there lived whom you may know / By the name of Annabel Lee.”
“What the fuck are you on about?” Foster demanded, crossing his arms.
“It’s Edgar Allen,” Felipe said, turning with a smile to Foster. He reached out and tousled his partner’s hair. “As in Poe, the elementary school.”
The girl placed my coffee down on my table just as a Gang of Four song started up.
She paused for the eye contact to see if I needed anything else.
“Thanks,” I muttered. Then: “Hey, you study the poetry of Poe in school?”
Kelley lifted heavy lids and gave me a soft smile. She looked over her shoulder at Foster and Felipe who were quietly and smilingly communing with the fourth grade mural. She tugged for a moment at the ring through her pierced eyebrow as she stared at the floor. And then with a sweeping angelic smile she whispered to me in a voice straight from the clipped and nasal diction of north west Texas.
“Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December / And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.” She paused with a frown. “And something about Night’s Plutonian shore.”
“They teach you that in Midland?”
“Abilene,” was all she said, with a faux flirty smile, and then she was gone, to go wait on three men who had just entered.
I was sitting at my computer the other night furiously instant-messaging with a young French exchange student studying international law at St. Mary’s University over on the west-side. If her photos posted on her website were to be believed, she fancied leather bustiers, combat boots, and colorful tattoos of retro robots and William Morris-style floral wallpaper patterns — and that was just on the flesh which was demurely exposed for the photographs. She was conveying to me her favorite Fluxus filmmakers, and in my gushing response, I was doing my best to pepper my witticisms with the odd Gallic twist of phrase. My office is in a little nook off my kitchen, and at a crucial point my attention was shattered by the clatter of one of the half dozen empty beer cans lining the counter by my sink as it tipped over. It was those goddamn roaches partying on the previous nights dregs of Lone Star beer. In their inebriated shambling, they were making a racket. I was thinking to pull away from the keyboard just long enough to knock a few of the rascals to the linoleum and stomping them flat, but all I did was to inadvertently hit “send,” and too late to pull it back from the cyber ether. At the moment of its vanishing, I realized I’d poorly conjugated a bon mot lifted from Rabelais’ grand opus. I wasn’t sure — my French is really quite sad, and my comprehension of idiom (be it of the 16th century, or today’s) is practically nonexistent. I’m not sure, but I think I called her a “cunt” — but, you know, in French. And is that really a bad thing?
“Oh, dear me,” was her fast response. “Beast = you.” And as I was frantically composing a cockroach-free excuse, she added: “OMG! Roommate needs computer. Later later gator!”
And she logged off. I shot to my feet and turned my rage on the roaches. But their blunder with the can had spooked them. Like seasoned soldiers at the Battle of the Somme, they were waiting me out in the narrow spaces behind the upper cabinets or under the sink lurking in the shadows of the cleaning supplies I never used and the plastic gallon of white vinegar I don’t even know why I own. But then — aha! — I saw one still on the counter. He had been hunkered down under my little espresso machine, but I could see his little butt sticking out.
I lifted up the coffee maker and the critter would have yipped had he been so endowed. Instead, he bolted for a crevice where the ceramic tile of the counter meets the wall. I stymied him with my hand and he pivoted and scurried straight towards me and leaped to the floor. Ha! Just where I wanted him. I savagely stomped down with my Converse All-Stars three times, in quick succession. Dammit! The little feller had certainly gotten a snootful of cheap American beer, because he was weaving and skittering all over the place — flushed with adrenaline and alcohol, he was a zippy and unpredictable target. He made it to the safe haven beneath the water heater.
Jesus! What am I doing with my life? It struck me that this living hand-to-mouth was wearing thin on me. Sure, I was expecting a small but useful check from my last gig in the mail in three or four days. But as things stood at the moment, I had two choices on how to spend the last five dollars in my pocket. A six pack of tallboys, or some roach poison. Of course, there was no doubt as to what my decision would be. And I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that Suzette573 wasn’t actually a playful kohl-eyed 24 year old grad student from Lyon who was living just a few zip codes away from me, but, instead, some fat forty-year-old pervert living in his mother’s basement in Norman, Oklahoma.
So, the next morning when I was woken by my cell phone at eleven o’clock with the promise of a job, I heaved myself to my feet and grabbed a pen and some paper.
It was Sandy, a woman who worked the phones for Travis County Extra Casting. I’d signed up for them maybe two years ago when an actor friend of mine started getting loads of extra work up in Austin. What with the rising gas prices, the overhead travel expenses made their 50 to 100 dollars a day somewhat less inviting seeing I would have to drive over a hundred miles. So I placed a tick on the form that I was only interested in work in the San Antonio area. And I never heard back from them. Well, until now.
Sandy said she needed people, and she needed them fast. Three days, a hundred dollars a day. Starting this afternoon. San Antonio, she quickly clarified.
“Time and place,” I said, doing my best to inject a smile into my voice. “And how shall I dress?”
Sandy gave me the particulars. She told me who the on-set contact was. Some guy named Davis. I was to be at the San Antonio Zoo by two in the afternoon. Casual dress, like what I would wear were I taking a child to the zoo.
“They’ll write you a check for a hundred dollars at the end of each of the three days,” she said. “Two p.m. until two a.m.”
I thanked her and staggered into the bathroom for a shower.
For those very bored intrepid souls who’ve read this far down the page, I have only one thing to say:
Get off the fucking computer!
Later later ….