Monday, March 31, 2008

The Sound of Silence

Sir, I’m sorry about the mess but there’s no need to throw me out of your fine establishment. No, just hold on a second and we'll work something out. How about I just sit myself down, order a drink and we discuss the situation. Yes, that sounds like quite a plan.

What’s your best red wine? ‘House wine’ you say? Well, that sounds very nice, yes I’ll take a glass of that. You said your name was Carl didn’t you? Well Carl, let me assure you that I am not a vandal. How about you slide that glass of delicious house wine my way and I’ll tell you how all this came about. What do you say Carl?

* * *

I suppose it was just about a month ago when the rejection letters arrived. The first, I believe from American Verse Quarterly, on Monday and followed in short order by a second from New Century Poets. Your standard artist might have been a little frustrated, what with two rejection letters in one week. Your run-of-the-mill artist might have taken this for a sign, a sign that he ought best find a new occupation. Your everyday, white bread artist just may have called it quits. But Carl, believe me when I tell you I am not your normal artist.

The third letter came, oh just about a week later. This one happened to be from The Patterson Review. Are you familiar with Patterson Carl? Well, allow me to enlighten. See, The Patterson Review happens to be the boorish and poorly edited literary arts journal published through Patterson City College. I know, a community college lit mag, is it even worth the paper to produce? Save a tree is what I say.

Anyhow, I knew upon submission that these blokes wouldn’t know a good poem if it landed at their doorstep. And of course that is exactly what happened. The rejection from Patterson was not a setback, no quite the contrary. If my work—my art—was not for them, well then it must have some merit indeed. If ever I desire my work published in Patterson, I will be sure to send a limerick.

* * *

Still with me Carl? Excellent, excellent, because here is where my story gets interesting. Here Carl, here you shall see that I’m more than your common, vanilla sort of artist. See, your typical artist may have given up. At best he would have continued submitting his poems, likely very bland poems at that, to journal after journal. And journal after journal would have said to him, ‘thanks, but no thanks.’ And maybe a city college monthly might have cut him some slack, but only if his work was just the most ho-hum sort of drivel. A true artist, an artist like myself, takes fate into his own hands.

I knew Carl, I knew I had to get my work out there. I knew my poems were meant for the world to enjoy. The question was 'how?' How, if at every turn I was rejected by dimwitted editors and below-average students posing as dimwitted editors? Well Carl, I have one word for you my friend: classifieds. That’s right, I figured to bypass the whole elitist literary establishment. I would have my poems circulated by the tens of thousands, delivered to people’s doorsteps, sold on every street corner. It would have been perfect.

It would have been perfect, but a ‘starving artist’ can’t very well afford a dollar a word. Not to mention the paper would have given me very little formatting input. So, another roadblock to be sure, but I would get my work to the people. Oh yes Carl, I would get my work to the people.

* * *

So Carl, why don’t you top me off? Well, of course I know there’s still half a glass left. I’ll tell you what, you can just charge me for a glass and a half. That seems fair, no? Now, as I was saying, my work had to find its way to the people. And as only happens in times of hardship, inspiration struck. Let me ask you this, where do most people get their reading done? No Carl, not the subway, though you’re close. The toilet Carl, on the toilet.

Public restroom stalls, they’re the future of literature. Nobody wants to read crude penis graffiti and phone numbers of tramps. People want substance and that is exactly what I provide. So you see, what was done in your men’s room was not vandalism, it was art. Please Carl, there’s no sense in calling the police, go ahead and put the phone down…no, I can’t just wash it off. I wrote in white out, I’d have to scrape it off if anything. But you don’t want me to do that Carl, trust me.

Think of the big picture. I’ve transformed your fine establishment into a forerunner of the new literary revolution. Likely, this joint will be made a museum in a quarter century or so. Be proud Carl, be proud. At the very least, you’ll one day sell the stall door to the Smithsonian. Think about it, this isn’t some dime-a-dozen literary movement. This is the real deal sir, and you’re involved on the ground floor. Carl, buy a lottery ticket because this is your lucky day.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Theo Goes on a Date

Theo entered the restaurant and walked to a corner booth. “Julie?” He sounded hopeful, which is okay. But hopeful can often be confused with desperate, which is not okay.
“Oh,” said the woman. “Hello.” She sounded disappointed, which is also not okay. But Theo told himself not to read too much into her tone. He always over-thought these things and damnit, he wasn’t going to let his insecurities ruin this date. No, not this date.
“Have you been waiting long? I would have been here sooner but…”
“But you insisted we wait until ‘after sundown.’ I have to admit that’s kind of odd. What, are you a cowboy or something? Have you had your hands full since high-noon?”
“Actually,” said Theo and he paused for a moment. Usually he did not announce this so early into a relationship. Still, insecurities to the wind, right? “Actually, I’m kind of…I’m kind of a Vampire.”
Julie did not look shocked. Not like Diana had, and he had not told Diana until the third date. Diana just kept pressing him to have brunch with her. And a meal between breakfast and lunch, well there would be no way of avoiding daylight there. No, Julie did not look shocked at all, but she did not look pleased either.
“Jesus Christ,” Julie exclaimed, and Theo cringed slightly. Not because of Julie’s overt annoyance, but rather because the thought of the Good Lord’s one begotten son reminded him of crucifixes. And of course, Vampires are not at all fond of crucifixes. “Not again,” Julie continued.
This inspired in Theo quite a bit of confusion. He had not met many Vampires in New York City and he had searched very thoroughly. Indeed, the few he had found were already in relationships, but such is life.
“Do you date Vampires often?”
“No,” said Julie. “Not exactly. It’s just that Hannah always sets me up with Monsters.” Hannah was the mutual friend who had arranged this blind date. Hannah was a plumber and also a lesbian, but that was neither here nor there. “Last week she set me up with an Invisible Man and the bastard stood me up. I have a feeling he was there, he just stayed, you know, invisible. Bastard.”
“I’m sorry,” said Theo and he really was. Not too long ago, he had been stood up himself. As far as he knew his date did not have the power to be invisible, she had simply not shown up.
“And you know,” Julie continued. “If I had blue eyes would Hannah only set me up with blue eyed men? If I had one leg would Hannah only set me up with amputees? But because I’m a Monster she thinks every other Monster would be my perfect match. I am going to have a long talk with her tomorrow. Jesus Christ.”
Theo cringed again, because of the Jesus reference, but also because of Julie’s pessimistic outlook. This was a bad start to be sure, but he was not ready to throw in the towel. “Well,” Theo said and mustered up a very charming smile. “What kind of Monster do you happen to be?”
“I’m a Werewolf.” And it was so matter-of-fact that Theo did not know where to go from there.
“What’s good here?” He asked, hoping to buy some time in which to think of an interesting, Werewolf-related question. Maybe one that would show her some Monsters could be worthy and capable dates.
“The chicken parmesan is pretty good.”
“Then that’s what I’ll have,” Theo said with a little too much enthusiasm. Amiability was the goal, but he feared he came off as desperate. Or worse, a little dim. And then, “So, you’re a Werewolf. How’s that going for you?” Not the most interesting Werewolf-related question to be sure. Theo knew this too, but his nerves had gotten he best of him, and quite possibly reinforced the theory that he was a little dim.
“Uh…” Julie began. But then, oh merciful fate, their waiter arrived.
“May I start you folks off with a drink?”
“Yes, please,” said Julie. “A draft beer.”
“And I’ll have a glass of white wine,” said Theo.
To the kitchen the waiter went, napkin folded over his arm, intent on providing excellent service. His name was Mikey and he had a particularly poor tip haul the evening prior. Tonight he was set on making up for the loss in funds, but that was neither here nor there.
Meanwhile, back at the corner booth, relations had not exactly improved. “White wine, huh? I would have expected red,” said Julie.
“Red? But I told you I was ordering the chicken.”
“Well I just assumed. Since you’re a…”
“Since I’m a Vampire?”
“Yes and…”
“And blood is red so I must drink red wine? It doesn’t work like that.”
No, relations had not improved much at all. But at least Theo was no longer feeling insecure, for in the wake of such an ignorant question he could not help feeling anything but offended. Rather than laughing it off, rather than taking it like the man he fancied himself to be, Theo decided on a most juvenile form of rebuttal.
“It must be nice to be a Werewolf,” said Theo. “You’re only a Monster once a month.”
“I suppose that’s true,” said Julie.
“Let me ask you, as a female Werewolf, does the full moon sync up with know, your cycle?”
“No,” said Julie sharply. “No, they actually come two weeks apart. Totally opposite.”
Theo did some quick math. It being the first week of March, with the full moon scheduled for the third week…well, if his inappropriate question had not sullied his chances his calculations left little doubt. It would not be that kind of date.
Mikey, the friendly and slightly broke waiter returned with drinks. “Here you are folks, one draft beer and one glass of white wine.” He smiled from ear to ear. “Are you ready to order or would you like a few more minutes?”
Julie requested a few more minutes, leaving Theo slightly miffed as he had decided upon an entrĂ©e quite some time ago. Mikey continued to smile, said “No problem at all folks, no problem at all,” and back to the kitchen he went. Of course there was a problem and it was quite obvious to both Theo and Julie. The problem was this: thier blind date was a total bust.
“You know,” Theo said. “Another reason you Werewolves have it easy is that only a silver bullet can kill you. That isn’t so bad really, getting shot with a silver bullet would probably kill just about anyone anyways.”
“Oh,” Julie said. “I think the same holds true for a stake to the heart.”
“Fair enough, but I also have to watch out for crucifixes and garlic. Those are certainly not everyday worries for normal people. And don’t get me started on sunlight.”
Julie just let out a sigh and turned her attention to her draft beer. So, things were not shaping up so well at the corner booth, but Theo and Julie could have fancied themselves lucky, for theirs was not the worst date at the restaurant that evening.
Across the room sat Mr. and Mrs. Rubenstein, a couple 81 and 75 years old respectively. They had not said a word to each other throughout their entire meal and had in fact said but a dozen words to each other in the past week. They would have divorced quite some time ago, but at their age they did not see much point in going through all that hullabaloo. Until one of them kicked the bucket, this is the way life would be, but that was neither here nor there.
Back at the corner booth Mikey had returned to take dinner orders. Theo, as had already been established, ordered the chicken parmesan. Julie ordered the linguine with shrimp and alfredo sauce.
“Excellent choices,” said Mikey. And then, to help boost the nightly haul, “very excellent.”
“Oh,” said Julie as Mikey was about to walk away. “Also, I’d like to start off with some garlic bread. With extra garlic.”
Indeed, thought Theo as Mikey left for the kitchen. It would not be that kind of date. No, it would not be that kind of date at all.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Story of Henry Johnson

They say there ain’t any real men left in the world. Well, I never was too sure who “they” were, but I reckon’ I’ll have to agree with them on this one. Still, I take comfort in knowing I bore witness to the last of the real men. And Brother, believe me when I tell you the good Lord saved the best for last.

I never talked to anyone who was too sure ‘bout where Henry Johnson came from. Never found anyone who knew much concerning his folks or his schooling or how he came to show up at the Big Bread Toaster Factory back in April of nineteen-ninety-three. No, there ain’t a single story going back that far, and Brother, I’ve heard just ‘bout every story there is to tell when it comes to poor ol’ Henry Johnson.

See, just so happened that he showed up there at the factory back in April of nineteen-ninety-three, and he sat himself right down at a work bench, and he went to work. And from as far as anyone could tell, that Mr. Johnson must’ve been buildin’ toasters all his life.

Some of “them,” they say it was his second nature. Some of “them,” they say it was a gift. But I’ll be damned if there’s one man, woman or child who ever saw ol’ Henry Johnson work and didn’t swear the fella’ was a flat out toaster buildin’ man.

Well, Henry Johnson sat there at his workbench in the Big Bread Toaster Factory, and he put those toasters together like it was nobody’s business. And for a while that was plenty fine. But then, as tends to happen from time to time, everything went to shit.

* * *

“Outsourcing” was the term the Boys Upstairs used but from as far as anyone ‘round here could tell that just meant they were fired. See, the Boys Upstairs, they figured to build themselves a factory in a whole new place. Not just a new town but a new country. And in this new country the Boys Upstairs could hire six workers for what they were paying one here in America. And Brother, as far as they could tell, that just made good sense.

Then, a real peculiar thing happened. Someone, and “they” never can agree on who, but someone tipped ‘em off upstairs that this fella’ Henry Johnson was the real deal: a real toaster buildin’ man.

So it was that the Boys Upstairs decided to hold onto ol’ Henry Johnson. The Boys called it “efficiency” but from as far as anyone ‘round here could tell that just meant Henry could make ‘em money. But with the factory all closed down, well ol’ Mr. Johnson was sent to work at the head office out in The City. He sat in a funny little room called a cubicle and in his cubicle was a workbench. And at that work bench poor Mr. Johnson kept on working just like he always had, putting together toasters like it was nobody’s business.

Time went on and things seemed plenty fine for ol’ Henry Johnson. But then, as tends to happen from time to time, everything went to shit. The Boys Upstairs, they just ain’t in the business of leaving well enough alone and they figured poor Mr. Johnson could likely make ‘em a few extra bucks. The Boys, they sent out a press release all ‘bout “The man who defied outsourcing.” And they got ol’ Henry on the talk show circuit and before he knew it he was a real, big time celebrity and Big Bread Toasters had the kind of publicity that money just can’t buy.

Now Henry, he was of the stock that didn’t have much use for fame. He didn’t have much use for television appearances and press tours. He didn’t have much use for autograph signing and photograph taking. He didn’t have much use for hob knobbing and elbow rubbing, hand shaking and smile faking. No, about all Henry Johnson had much use for was toaster buildin’.

* * *

There, in the head office out in The City, as ol’ Mr. Johnson toiled away over his toasters, upstairs a plan was being hatched. The plan, it was just like all the others that came before. The plan, it was a plan to make a few more bucks for those folk that already had a few bucks to spare. The plan, it went something like this: a big, Pay-Per-View spectacular held at The City’s finest sporting arena. Henry Johnson would square off against six of Big Bread Toaster Company’s finest out-of-country workers in a half-hour toaster building contest. To the Boys Upstairs it was like charging people to watch a commercial. And brother, as far as they could tell, that just made good sense.

So the day came, and all across this fine country good, hardworking folk gathered together in their living rooms and at sporting bars to watch the main event. Good, hardworking folks crammed into The City’s finest sporting arena, not a seat went empty, and every one of ‘em was rooting for good, hardworking Henry Johnson.

The curtain came up, the announcer sounded off and ol’ Henry Johnson, well the man took a big bow. And I’d like to think that at least for a moment Mr. Johnson saw in himself what all the good, hardworking folk saw in him. Well, a moment would’ve been about all he had because after the announcer sounded off and the bows were taken, an old-fashioned steam whistle cut through the air like an axe. And the competition began.

At the outset things were looking a little rough for poor ol’ Henry Johnson. Those out-of-country workers, well you cold tell they were the cream of the crop. And while Henry’s heart was in it, sometimes that just ain’t enough. But then, well something peculiar happened. Some of “them,” they say he hit his stride. Some of “them,” they say he was possessed. Well, I ain’t exactly sure what to call it but looking into Henry Johnson’s eyes, there wasn’t any doubt that something just plain clicked.

Beads of sweat dripped from his brow and his jaw was set and he fit the heating coils inside the metal casings and connected the wires to the power source. Yessir, he was building those toasters alright, just like he always had. Like it was nobody’s business.

As the final seconds clicked down and the old-fashioned steam whistle cut through the air like and axe, there wasn’t an ounce of doubt concerning the winner. The good, hardworking folk all knew it. The cream of the crop workers from out-of-country knew it. The Boys Upstairs, well even a dense bunch like that knew it. And, in those last moments, I’m sure Henry Johnson knew it too. ‘Cause as he slumped over his workbench, right there in the middle of The City’s finest sporting arena, poor ol’ Henry Johnson had one helluva grin slapped ‘cross his face.

* * *

Some of “them,” they say it was a heart attack. Some of “them,” they say it was an aneurysm. Well, I sure ain’t no doctor and I couldn’t tell you one way or the other. All I know is that some folk, they just ain’t meant for this world. And I reckon’ a man like Henry Johnosn is one of those folk.

So, next time you remember, say a prayer for poor ol’ Henry Johnson. And when someone tells you there ain’t any real men left in the world, well you tell them you reckon’ that’s probably so. But then you tell them about that time, not so long ago, when the last of the real men made a stand. And brother, you tell them that the good Lord, he saved the best for last.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Hardly Working

The second punch breaks my nose and I know it right away. Between the loud crunch and the sting and the throbbing, there really ain’t much doubt. But I’m lucky, ‘cause it never hurts as bad when you’ve got it coming.
“Damn dude,” I say and it comes out all nasally, kinda sounds like "bamboo"
“What the hell were you thinking, Mikey?” He’s standing over me like he’s a tough guy. Man, real tough guys don’t need to sucker punch.
“I was thinking I’d make a little extra cash, but shit…I think I need to go to the hospital.” It hurts my face to talk. Still, there ain’t that much blood. Not as much as you’d think.
“Harold knows it was you,” he says. “And he’s pissed. Understandably.” This is Wes. Sucker punching, tough talking, motherfucking Wes.
“Man, Harold doesn’t know who I am,” I say. “How’s he…”
“Shut up, just shut up,” he cuts me off. “I’m going to help you get out of this one, okay?”
Help, huh? Like I want any of his help now. The asshole just broke my nose for Chrissakes. Man, all this is his fault anyhow.
Last week I saw him at the pub. Wes, the nose breaking, ball busting motherfucker. He said, “Hey Mikey, how’s it going?” and, “Hey Mikey, can I buy you a beer,” and man, I liked him a lot better last week.
So, I sat there and we were talking a bit. Just small talk and all. I told him my boss had been riding me man, and it ain’t like waiters don’t get enough shit as it is. “At least you get tips,” he said. “Come work at the deli with me. It’s all the shit and none of the tips.” Yeah, I guess he had a point.
Then he said this, “I don’t know how Harold does it. Every night he closes that place all by himself. I’m off at six and his worthless son is god-knows-where. But Harold stays late. It isn’t safe.” And yeah, that got me thinking. But I guess I thought wrong because now my nose is broken.
“Did you think I wouldn’t find out,” he says.
“I don’t know,” I say. And I don’t. All I know is my face really hurts.
“So here’s the deal. Harold is willing to let this slide if you give the money back. He says business is bad enough as it is, doesn’t need a robbery scaring off customers. Just give me the money, I’ll get it back to Harold and we can all forget about this.”
“Screw that,” I say. “Why would I just give it back?”
“Because if you don’t, then we call the police. And if we call the police, you lose the money and you go to jail. Understand?”
“Under my bed,” I say. “In the blue duffel bag.” And then, “Hey, can you give me a ride to the emergency room?”

My father always told me, “Son, this is America. Just work hard and everything will turn out alright.” He was stuck in a factory until his heart gave out at 52, but I sure believed that lesson. Turns out, we were both fools.
I’ve done my share of labor. Worked in kitchens, worked on docks, even spent a summer in the North chopping trees. I’ve worked every damn day of my life, even my days off. I’ve worked every damn day of my life and every day it was honest work. Well, I’ll tell you something I wish my father had told me: hard work kills you early, and honest work is for chumps.
Now, that’s something I’d like to tell my son. I’d like to, but the kid probably knows it already. Working for his Pops, he must see the poetry in motion everyday. The kid, it must be getting to him. He hasn’t been acting the same lately. No, he sure hasn’t been the same at all.
But that’s all beside the point. See, I worked hard and honest and I saved up a little cash. Not much, but enough. I opened a deli. Someplace all my own, someplace where I wouldn’t have to answer to any boss. And yeah, the son of an Irish immigrant opening up an Italian Deli, sure I caught some shit. But it was just more honest work and it paid the bills. Barely, but it paid them.
Lately though, lately business hasn’t been so hot. I’m coming up in the red. And sure, that’s bound to happen every once in a while. But six straight months? That I cannot deal with.
And things keep on getting worse. See, two weeks ago I find out I’ve got an employee stealing from me. He always seemed like a straight shooter, but what do I know? So I fired the kid. Nothing else to do.
Honestly, that didn’t help any. Last two weeks I’ve still been coming up short. And things keep on getting worse. See, there’s a nice little cherry that tops this sundae. Past Friday, just as I was closing up, some thug comes in, smashes up my deli case with a bat. Now, forget that it’ll cost me a good $1,200 for a new case. Forget that I had to throw out all my meat because the little shards of glass went all over the place. Nope, all that aside, the bastard robs me and a week’s worth of hard, honest work gets thrown in a duffel bag.
So, I’m done. If ten minutes of working easy and crooked will get you as far as a week of working honest and hard, well then sign me up. Sorry Dad if I’ve let you down, but this is America and working hard only gets you buried in a poor man’s grave long before your time.

I’ve got nothing against stupid people. Nothing really, except stupid people, well they have a tendency to be predictable. And predictable people, they’re easy to manipulate. I’m not a bad guy, I’m a guy who was done wrong.
See, I didn’t deserve to lose my job. Harold, he was nice enough when he let me go, but the man’s in denial. And denial, well that’s for stupid people. And you know what they say about stupid people.
Yeah, Harold doesn’t want to face the facts. The fact is his son’s a no good smack-head. Fact is his son’s been stealing from the family business to keep that shit flowing. And the fact is I caught the little punk with his hand in the cookie jar.
But the kid, he wouldn’t go quietly. Shit, I wasn’t even going to rat him out, but he flipped. Ran and told Harold I was the one ripping off the deli. Harold, deep down he knew I was innocent, knew his son’s no good. But the man’s in denial. And while I’ve got no problem with stupid people, I do have a problem with being fired.
And then there’s Mikey. I don’t know Mikey that well. His sister and I dated for a few months. I’d buy a round whenever I ran into him, stay on the family’s good side, you know? But that was a year and a half ago and the kid still thinks we’re buddies. Mikey’s another guy who ain’t exactly MENSA material. Mikey likes to drink, likes to smoke, likes to take it a little too easy. Mikey, he’s stupid and man, is that kid predictable. I used him sure, but the lazy fuck had it coming.
And yeah, maybe he didn’t deserve the broken nose. But with guys like that, you’ve got to grab their attention. Stupid folk appreciate violence. And besides, he went a little overboard with the baseball bat.
There it is. Harold fired me for stealing, so sure-as-shit I had to make things square. I’m not a bad guy, I’m just karma in the flesh.