Monday, December 29, 2008


11:45 p.m.
“Look at that bunch. Tell me, are those people you’d be comfortable dying with?"

Strange question. I have no answer. So I hand him his scone, blueberry, and his change, sixty-five cents. But he lingers. Still fifteen minutes until he boards and becomes the flight attendants’ problem. For now, I guess, he’s mine.

“That’s what I ask myself whenever I fly. I look at my fellow passengers and I say, ‘Billy, worse case scenario: would you be okay falling from the sky and meeting your maker with these folks?’”

This is graveyard shift. This is Molly’s Muffins, a coffee-stand in the international terminal. It’s rare to work in the service industry and have no regular customers. But here people come and go. From everywhere and to everywhere and at all times and I never serve the same person twice.

“You know,” he says. Pretty much a monologue by now. Couldn’t call this a conversation. “People always say, ‘you’re born alone and you die alone.’ But that needn’t be true. Me for instance, I have a twin. And if I die in a plane crash, I’ll have proven the exception to both rules.”

Can I get him with anything else, I ask. He stares off at the crowd. “They seem alright,” he says.

3:23 a.m.
Working nights, sleeping days. You fall out of rhythm with the rest of the world. I never see my friends anymore. Same for family. I can’t catch the primetime television lineup and I eat my dinner at eight in the morning. I’ve lost touch. I no longer empathize with the problems of day dwellers. So when some cranky old lady, red-eyed and sleepless, moans something awful about our over-priced water bottles, I care so little I don’t even try to justify it.

“Four dollars! Four dollars for water! It falls from the sky for Chrissakes. And you’ve got the nerve to charge four dollars. This is one hell-of-a racket.”

After the summer 2006 revelation that terrorists had planed to blow up transatlandic flights with chemicals smuggled aboard in water bottles, all outside liquids were confiscated at the security checkpoint. In the wake of this development, my manager inflated the price of bottled water an extra buck fifty. So yeah, it’s a racket

“This is robbery. I ought to call the police. Ugh! How do you sleep at night?”

But of course, I don’t sleep at night. “Ma’am,” I say. “There’s a water fountain near the restroom. Maybe you can find an empty bottle in the recycling bin and fill it up.”

“You’d have me root around in the trash like a bag lady? My Lord! You people are despicable…” And on and on she went. Until finally, she ponied up four dollars for the bottle. They always pony up the four dollars.

6:55 a.m.
When the sun starts its rise, my stomach turns. The clear, cool morning forms underneath the dense night. No more mystery. All is laid bare.

And waiting for my shift to expire, I find myself privy to a thorough explanation of the benefits of child dentistry. “Another thing, they don’t have coffee breath. Oh man. Back when I dealt with adults, used to drive me ill. Reminded me of grandma’s kisses.” And while he says this, I should point out, he’s finishing his third cup. Forty-five minutes into his layover.

“Oh oh oh,” he starts so suddenly. “I almost forgot the best part. Baby teeth! When the kids start coming to me, I don’t even pay attention. Cavities? Who gives a shit. Those are just practice teeth.”

I shrug. “And when the baby teeth pop out,” he taps at his chompers with his index fingers. “Then I have half a mouth worth of work. Fucking cake walk. And my hygienist does the lion’s share. Most of the day I’m in the back, dicking around on the computer.”

Across the terminal, my daytime replacement has arrived. She walks through the metal detector and past the newsstand. “Ha ha. And all these suburban mommies, I can charge whatever I like. Nothing’s too much for their babies.”

And I reach in the drawer and pull out my timecard. My sunglasses. I punch out. Grab a danish for the road. And behind me, as I work through the terminal’s morning crowd, I hear, “Four dollars! Who the hell do you think you are?"

Monday, December 22, 2008

Three Scenes of Christmas

In the stool next to mine is a man with a blood red suit, furry white trim. He orders eggnog and says, “Gotta stay in character.” I think he’s talking to me. But I don’t know. I don’t look up from my pint.

Only a special breed of loser congregates in bars on Christmas Eve. The sort without family or friend or sense of tradition. One rung up from hermits and vagrants. Our only consolation, the bed—or futon, or cot—to which we’ll eventually retire. That and alcohol.

The man orders a second eggnog. It’s thick and milky-yellow and looks pretty much the same way it will when it comes back up. “You the Macy’s Santa?” I ask him.

“No.” And I can smell the bitterness in his words, even over the brandy. He pulls at the silky beard hanging from an elastic band around his neck. It snaps back hard. “That's the major leagues, dude. They only hire Santas with real beards. A year long commitment for a five-week job.”

I nod in sympathy. The clock reads five past eight. Happy hour’s gone and I’m not one to pay full-price. Even if it is the holidays. “Take it slow,” I tell Saint Nick. “Rudolph’s the one with a red nose.”

And he laughs but his belly doesn’t really shake. Total second-string Santa.

* * *

From the bar, I take a scenic route home. So cold out, the air is almost unbreathable. You have to suck hard to get anything and it burns your lungs like a kid’s first drag on a cigarette. The week-old snow has either turned into some sort of soft-serve mud in the gutter or a slick, well-trampled layer of ice on the sidewalk. Twice I nearly slip and brain myself. These extra-few blocks, I’m not walking for exercise. What I want is to hit up the market, grab more drink.

The big glass door is bordered with multi-colored lights. Has been since Thanksgiving. I push through and walk to a cooler in the store’s rear. There are clear bottles and brown bottles and green bottles and slapped across are labels in every color. Add to this the glimmer of Christmas lights.

I allow myself a minute of window-shopping. In the spirit of the holidays. But really, I haven’t any option. I grab a forty-ounce bottle of malt liquor and turn towards the counter. There’s a reason every other commercial is for Bud Light but you never see one for malt liquor. Cheap brew with high alcohol content, that sells itself.

Waiting to pay and some guy enters talking all loud into his cell phone. Everything is, “Do you want me to pick up some milk?” and “I’ll be home in a few honey.” When he passes, I see his scarf is Burberry, tag facing out. So he makes more than you. He claps his phone shut and sidles to the counter. Of course, he’s buying a sixer of some micro-brewed winter ale. Labels on the bottles, very festive.

I pay partway in change. When I move for the door, the micro-brew guy says, “Hey buddy, enjoy your Christmas.”

I mumble something like, “Fuck your mother,” before almost eating it on a patch of ice.

* * *

In space—I’ve been told—No one can hear you scream. Well New York—where people commute underground and work high in the air and live one stacked on another on and on—New York sure-as-shit ain’t space.

So sitting on my couch, sipping my bottle, it’s really hard to hear the weatherman on the news tell me Santa’s slay has passed over Ottawa. My neighbors are yelling. About responsibility. About money. About drinking too much and screwing too little. Then three blessed beats of silence before, “Get your ass back in bed or I’ll tell Santa to fuck off.”

Tomorrow maybe—just some hours from now—maybe they’ll cheer up. Over torn wrapping paper and Tonka trucks and waffles with sausage. I think, if I wake early enough, I can listen to them come together on Christmas morning. And how creepy that would make me, I’m embarrassed by the thought.

Tired and drunk and looking forward to New Year’s, when getting blitzed is a mainstream custom. Roll my empty. Uneven revolutions until it clanks against the far wall. Slouch. When I fall asleep, Santa has just been spotted above Boston.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Troll's Decline

Once was, folks feared the bridge. On its far side grass grew tall. Beyond was anyone’s guess. But in time, all that remained was a well-worn path to mundane countryside. The change in condition, a testament to the poor work ethic of The Troll.

Time was, nobody dared step foot on the bridge. The Troll, he would bellow from below and his inhuman growl would freeze blood and liquefy bone. He requested neither money nor services from would-be travelers—the shrieks of children, the hurried footsteps of once-courageous men in retreat, this was reward enough.

But The Troll got sloppy. In later years, one was likely to find the poor sap sprawled on the creek bed. Sleeping off a case of cheap beer or stoned silly on a stick of weed. His roar regressed to nothing but a mumble and he did little to dissuade townspeople from crossing the bridge that—not long ago—he had tended with territorial fervor.

At most he’d toss a few empties—of which there was no shortage—at an oblivious wanderer and fall back to sleep. On one occasion, he caught a young girl with a drained fifth of Jack Daniels. The thick glass and squared-off bottle resulting in seven stitches. The locals were angered, even a little disgusted. But not frightened much at all. Mostly, they shook their heads at the fallen creature. The pathetic beast.

Listen good, I tell you what’s what. Troll still hate people much as always. Still hate sad little girls and big angry men. Troll hate and hate because that what trolls do. But here my point: I such a troll, I even hate trolls. Really, this make Troll most troll of all.

Townpeoples say, “oh, that Troll. All he like is drink boozes and smoke dopes.” But townpeoples—how Troll hate them so—they is wrong. Troll hate the drinks and the smokes too. But it make I think less about hating little sad girls. And it make I think less about hating big angry men. And it make I think less about hating trolls. Also, make Troll sleep good.

So, one day, as happens to those in a freefall of spirit, The Troll hit bottom. What occurred was this: After draining four Olde English tall boys and punctuating with a joint—fat as a baguette—The Toll succumbed to a comatose slumber. Upon waking with a killer hangover-headache, he discovered the townspeople had played quite a prank. His hair—once black and oily and streaked across a blemished forehead—was dyed the most obscene shade of green. And more than that, it was washed and combed and spiked into some sort of Don King styling. It goes without saying, The Troll hated his new ‘do.

And I wish I could say The Troll rebounded. That after this unfortunate episode he went back to the same fiend all of us wanted him to be. I wish I could, but it just wasn’t so. Truth is, no one knows for certain whatever became of The Troll, though rumors abound.

Some say he moved to the city, developed a smack habit, blended in among the dirty, misshapen addicts of urban alleyways. Some say he filled his pockets with stones—from bitty pebbles to near-boulders—leapt off the bridge that once he protected and into the icy creek below.

Other folks—those more into the whys than the whats—they see the Troll as a tragic figure. A wretch who realized all too late that he was full of love. A pitiful soul whose broken disposition had skewed a passion for menace and uncrossed creeks and tall stalks of unmolested brush growing like over-moussed hair.

Monday, December 8, 2008

No Good Deed

Often the phrase is repeated, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. And poetic though it is—cute and clever and pleasing to the ear—this saying amounts to little. For if no good is ever intended, than all good is left to chance. And that’s just no good.

But this thought has not yet come to Kenny. All that tomorrow. Right now he is settled into the well-worn ass groove of his sofa. The television on, tuned to CNN and Kenny reads the quick moving ticker at the screen’s bottom. Looking for a clue or a hint. Anything for encouragement. Anything to reinforce his theory.

But all he gets: last night’s hockey scores and something about a tornado that tore across central Kansas. Then the threat level, still yellow, not at all promising. So Kenny flicks off the set and ponders. What, oh what shall he do.

Finally, a decision: action before apathy. If he does not act. If his fear is actualized. The guilt, it will gnaw at his core. More every day until nothing exists at which to gnaw. So, rubbing the small piece of paper between his thumb and forefinger. The little scrap that plunged him into this mess. Rubbing the piece of paper until the ink smears and colors the contours of his fingers a dirty blue, Kenny resolves to make a trip to Henry Clay Middle School in the morning. Personally, he will tell them terrorists have plotted a bombing. On their campus. In three days.

* * *

Any number of things can drive a man mad. One factor, quite possibly, is the piercing, unavoidable cold known only in select corners of our often-temperate country. The sort in which you dare not chatter teeth for fear the impact will splinter your taut, frozen cheeks. Another, waiting in great hurry for your bus, long past the time you are expected at work. Watching bus after bus pass in the opposite direction and wondering what your eighty-dollar Metro Card, what your thousands in taxes have bought.

So, it is understandable if, experiencing both these aggravations, Kenny was not quite himself when finally he boarded the cross-town earlier that morning. And if mistakes were made—and no doubt they were. And if someone must bear the blame—and no doubt that someone is Kenny. Well then, let us remember this: his mindset was colored by forces outside his control. Let us not be too hard on the fellow.

And it was in this sour mood that Kenny found himself in the rear of the bus, staring at his watch and cursing with vile disregard for any who sat near him. Damn this and screw that and other words as well, too distasteful to repeat. And then he saw it. Just a torn corner of notebook paper, some figures scrawled across. Maybe that, but maybe more.

On one side, a possible codename, a location: #108, Henry Clay Middle School. On the other side, something slightly more sinister: 11-21-08 Pop! And today being November the eighteenth, Kenny knew: if he intended to intervene, the road to valiance ever-narrowed.

* * *

So let us jump ahead. Now, twenty-four hours removed from that vexing bus ride. A sleepless night past his ill-fated decision. Now, Kenny sits in the administrative office of HCMS. His ass half stuck in the misshapen groove of a couch where many a sick child has awaited the nurse. He pled his case, delivered the single damning clue to Mrs. Feldworth, the principle. All to do now is wait. Wait, he assumes, to be declared a hero.

But then this, Mrs. Feldworth returns and with a curl of the forefinger, beckons Kenny follow. A sucker for authority, he obliges and finds himself in a nearly desolate hallway—it is, after all, smack in the middle of third period. Nearly desolate, except for Mrs. Feldworth and a freckled boy of about twelve.

“Michael, please demonstrate to our visitor the meaning of your note,” this being Mrs. Feldworth. And his face flushed so red his freckles almost vanish, the boy walks to a dented locker. On its door a plaque reads 108. The kid twists a combination lock right until it aligns with the number eleven. Left to number twenty-one. Right again to eight. Then, pop! And the locker swings open. “Thank you Michael. Please return to the computer lab.” And red as Michael’s face had been, Kenny surely beat it. But such is the road to hell, they say.

Monday, December 1, 2008


I have full faith in karma. I’ve seen it move swift and accurate right before me. How an ancient will attest to hearing the roar of God in an earthquake. So too I believe in the ebb and flow of karmic justice. A belief so embedded in personal anecdotes that no amount of scientific evidence to the contrary could ever change my mind.

The way a man, having just stiffed his taxi driver on the tip, is smacked across his head by the side view mirror of a passing bus. Not with the force to brain him, just wake him up. I’ve seen it. The way a middle school bully finds himself in the emergency room. Nothing serious, just a broken hand. I’ve seen it.

And this was on my mind the day Gunther asked me to hit him. He jogged up, sucking wind while I finished off a cigarette break. And he said, “Punch me. Hard and in the face. Make sure to leave a mark or it’s all for naught.” And I almost forgot to ask him why. Just let myself become a vessel of universal balance. Because this was Gunther. And karma’s a bitch.

* * *

There’s a reason Caring Christmas Charity won’t allow you to wrap Wish Tree presents. Gifts bought for disadvantaged children, likely they’ll receive nothing else this holiday season. There’s a reason Caring Christmas Charity requires all gifts be donated in their original packaging. And that reason is Gunther.

Two years ago Gunther selected three cards off the Wish Tree—a giant aluminum Douglas Fir that each year cast it’s shadow over the strip mall. Every card with the name and address of an underprivileged youth. Also, a present they hope to receive. The idea being: those whose circumstance permitted could fulfill the holiday wishes of a child. Like I said, Gunther picked three.

What these kids discovered on Christmas morning wasn’t a Tonka Truck and it wasn’t a Barbie Doll. It wasn’t a Gameboy and it wasn’t a stuffed unicorn. The three kids Gunther chose, what they received on Christmas was a box of coal. Kingsford self-lighting charcoal briquettes to be accurate. Maybe the only gift they got. So this year, when you give to Caring Christmas Charity, don’t wrap your donation. Thank Gunther for that.

* * *

Now, this much I’ll admit. For the longest time I had wanted to shake Gunther. Just grab him by the shoulders and shake him and demand to know what his goddamn problem was. For so long I’d wanted to do this, that when he asked me to hit him, I shot a quick uppercut before asking questions. This because I figured it wouldn’t leave a mark. A free shot.

“Fucker,” he said after his jaws clacked. “In the face bro. Bust my lips, blacken my eye, get my nose bleeding. No uppercuts.”

“Woah, woah. What’s the score here? What are you getting out of this?”

And funny thing was, Gunther thought about it for a second. Like he could say, “nothing,” and I’d buy it. As if this was for kicks on both our ends. But then, “I can’t be late. Maurice said I clock in late again and he’s gonna fire me. Just be a pal and bust me up. I’ll tell him I was jumped on the way over.”

So while his plan seemed pretty weak, I happily obliged. A quick jab to the crook of his nose, then a hook to the eye, then a slap or two just for the hell of it. And repeat until I drew blood. Because I figured, no matter how it ended, Gunther deserved this. Plus me, I was having fun.

* * *

Two weeks before, we had been out barhopping. Returning home down damp sidewalk, I figured I had bought a good three rounds more than Gunther. That, and I spent the whole night playing wingman. Still, only the two of us passing over the dark boulevard. This, at 2:30 in the morning.

“Check it out,” Gunther said and made a quick b-line up the stoop of some random apartment building. Like giving a high-five, he slapped the buzzers for all fifteen units. Even from the street I could hear the dull ring. The wrong letter guessed on Wheel of Fortune. Then, “Let’s go.”

And as we ran down the block a chorus of “Hello’s” and “Who’s there’s” and “What the fuck’s” called after us. Angry and part-asleep.

* * *

So things went like this: I finished my break and moved inside, commenced working. Gunther held tight, this to ease any suspission on Maurice’s part. But believe me, I stuck by the boss man’s side. Waiting for Gunther’s enterance.

When finally Gunther pushed through the revolving door, he looked even better than when I’d left him. Or maybe worse. What you see depends on where you stand. Anyway, he was still bloody and bruised but the guy had torn his t-shirt so it hung loosely over one shoulder. And he must’ve been doing jumping jacks or some such shit because perspiration dripped from his busted nose like a leaky faucet.

“Maurice, Maurice,” Gunther panted as he hurried to make audience with our boss. “Man, so sorry I’m late. But these guys, they jumped me in the park. Maurice, they beat me bad, they took my wallet.”

Maurice scratched at his beard. He looked at the caked blood and the purplish eye and the glassy sweat. And he said, “Well Gunther, this must be the worst day of your life. Because you’re fired.”

And karma caught right up with Gunther. Just how the man, counting dollars in his wallet, doesn’t see the oncoming bus. Just how the bully missed my face and cracked his fist on the locker behind. Karma caught right up with Gunther the way it catches us all. By our own invitation.