24 January 2020

Ten Pin Alley


Riley Fox
Riley Fox
Riley Fox is my oldest grandchild. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee.  He's been writing or telling little fiction stories ever since he was five years old. For past ten years he has done stand-up comedy writing his own jokes. This is his first fiction story to be published.     — Jan Grape


TEN PIN ALLEY
by Riley Fox

There’s something about the smell of a bowling alley that is hard to define. From the coat of mineral oil on the wooden lanes, to the inescapable presence of cigarette smoke that clings to the brick walls like a memory that refuses to leave you alone in the dead of night, to whatever it is they spray into the insides of those cheap rental shoes that always seem to be too big and too small at the exact same time, it’s a smell that you can only identify in fragments. But that’s exactly what Earl loves about it. Sometimes you can only appreciate a full image by its parts.

Earl has owned this bowling alley for so long that many frequent visitors greet him by name. Even the ones who don’t know his name recognize his ever-present smile peeking from beneath his thick white mustache and his piercing blue eyes that seem to see into your heart without seeing through it. He asks them about their days, their families, their lives, and he remembers the details. He delights in their successes and commiserates in their failures, and usually throws in a free game or, depending on the circumstances, a free alcoholic beverage to long-time regulars. He never sees them beyond the bowling alley, so they are the closest thing to friends he has, but he doesn’t mind. He’s happy to have the repeat business.

Each night, when the hour strikes eleven, Earl switches off the neon sign outside, and after escorting the night’s final patrons to the exit, he locks the doors, goes behind the bar to pour himself a glass of Coors Light, plays the Hotel California album by The Eagles on the jukebox, and opens a lane to roll a single solitary game. Some nights go better than others, but he doesn’t think nor care about the score. Instead, Earl uses the nightly ritual to meditate and reflect, to wander and get lost within the vastness of a mind that has vicariously lived hundreds of lives in a single day. The bright crackle of pins being knocked around by a speeding ball is an intoxicating sound, itself a repetitive rhythm that soothes the soul and ignites the synapses to look into the past, present, and future. Some nights he imagines the ball rolling on forever until it becomes the size of a speck of dust and then disappears into nothingness. Infinity is only bound by the limits of how far one chooses to see.

After the last roll of his game, Earl waits for the ball-return machine to spit his bowling ball out to him so he can return it to the nearby shelf of in-house balls. Bowling balls are identical in size, but vary in weight. For casual players, this simply means finding the weight you are most comfortable rolling. However, for more experienced players, this can create strategic opportunities: a lighter ball can be spun faster and create a wider-angle trajectory for picking up tricky spares, while a heavier ball creates a more powerful impact to increase the likelihood of a strike. As Earl has gotten older, his preferred weight has dwindled slightly– he currently uses an eleven-pound ball as opposed to the fourteen-pounder he rolled in his younger years– but he still likes a simplistic approach: feet lined up along the center boards (the thin lined rows along the lane), throw it down the middle, between the center head pin and the pin to its right, which seasoned bowlers refer to as “the pocket,” and try to strike. Then, if any pins remain standing, adjust to the left or right along the boards, and angle the throw however necessary in order to attempt the spare. Earl never bowled at a competitive level himself, but after spending so many years watching others, he learned a few things along the way. If he saw someone successfully pick up one of the more difficult spare arrangements, such as a 6-7-10 split, he might pick their brain for a tip.

After placing his ball back on the shelf, Earl sat at a laneside chair and finished drinking his beer as the warm sound of The Eagles continued to fill the room. When the final song concluded, he unplugged the jukebox, performed one final sweep around the alley to turn off all the mechanical machinery that makes a bowling alley operate, turned out the lights, and headed for the exit. Looking out into the parking lot, he saw a handful of vehicles scattered across the moonlit pavement. The air was thick and still. Even though he was the last one to leave, oftentimes visitors left their cars overnight, particularly if they had had too many alcoholic beverages and called a cab home, and later returned to retrieve them the following day. Earl never minded this; he was certainly much happier to allow these vehicles to remain parked in order to prevent someone from driving when they shouldn’t.

Because he remembered what happened that night.

He remembered the glint of shattered glass on the highway beneath the stars. He remembered the grim taste of blood in his mouth. He remembered the overbearing stench of burnt rubber. He remembered the way time itself seemed to slow to a harrowing crawl; every second seemed like a minute, and every hour seemed infinite. He remembered the cacophonous anti-symphony of wailing sirens and shrieks. He remembered not remembering what happened next. He remembered waking up in a bed that wasn’t his own, surrounded by people he didn’t recognize. He remembered a man in a suit standing at the foot of the bed, speaking words that blurred together, a violent collection of syllables twisting into each other until three slashed their way to the forefront.

Manslaughter.

The word sliced through every cell in his body. The man in the suit dryly and methodically recounted the sequence of events, as though he were giving a presentation. Earl did the best he could to keep up despite his disoriented state: torrential rain, low visibility, hydroplaned, lost control, careened into oncoming traffic, female high school student, graduation party, flipped into a roadside ditch, died instantaneously upon impact. Infinity is only bound by the limits of how far one chooses to see, and he had robbed someone of making that choice for themselves. The man in the suit said something about justice for the family. Earl looked at the couple holding each other next to him. They were sobbing. Earl cried with them.

The trial was mercifully swift. Earl pleaded guilty. The girl’s parents asked the judge for moderate leniency on Earl’s sentence, citing the fact that Earl had no prior criminal record, and that living with the guilt of his actions--which he had already begun to experience when he grieved with them in the hospital--would be punishment enough. Earl testified that, while he was grateful for the parents’ kindness and compassion, he felt he did not deserve it due to the nature of the crime he had committed, and asked the judge not to grant any measure of leniency, for he believed that the only thing the family truly deserved was something that was impossible, and therefore anything less than the maximum sentence would still come up short of what he considered to be justice for the family. The judge handed down his sentence: four years in prison, half of the maximum federal sentence for involuntary manslaughter.

Earl’s incarceration was a lonely time. When he slept, he dreamed haunting tales of isolation. When he was conscious, he would read books from the prison library, or he would simply lie on his bed and stare at the ceiling. He thought about the girl. He thought about her parents. He thought about that night. He replayed the details over and over until he made himself sick and vomited into his toilet. He wanted to rewrite her history. Scratch that, he wanted her to live out the rest of her story. His was over anyway.

On the one-year anniversary of the day he entered prison, Earl received a letter in the mail. His first piece of mail since being incarcerated. He looked at the envelope. The return address was from his town, but he didn’t recognize it. Maybe it was from an attorney about his case, or a relative who had heard about what happened. Earl carefully opened the envelope, treating it like some kind of rare gemstone. Inside was a letter addressed to him. Before finishing the opening line, he began to cry. It was from the girl’s parents. His heart flayed open and his soul crawled through the incision, not like someone trying to escape but like an infant emerging triumphantly from a pile of rubble, fully aware of its surroundings and yet without the communicative tools to express itself effectively. He pored over each word, each line, with the studious eye of an academic, while letting every emotion underneath fight its way to the surface.

He learned about the girl, at least as much as the parents were willing to share to the man who stole her from their lives. He learned about her sociopolitical interests (criminal justice reform, the environment, gun safety), her hobbies (binging Netflix shows with her friends, fashion blogging), her favorite authors (Haruki Murakami, Toni Morrison, Ursula Le Guin), her dreams (she had planned on attending the University of Oregon that fall with the intent to major in journalism, but wanted to wait a year or two before committing). Each new detail was another stroke of paint on a blank canvas, and after finishing the letter, Earl wanted to expand the palette of colors. He wrote back to the parents. He thanked them for being kind enough to write to him, explaining that their letter was the first communication he’d had with the outside world in a year. He asked them to write back, to share more about their wonderful daughter, because he wanted to use the remainder of his life to honor her in whatever way he could. He wanted to lift her into Infinity’s grace, so she could see the precious gifts that lie beyond the limits of space.

For months, Earl heard nothing. Each day the prison guard tasked with handing out mail would pass by his cell without acknowledgement, and Earl would spend each night silently begging the girl for forgiveness, for just a modicum of compassion. He looked out the window of his cell at the sparkling dots of the distant city, each one twinkling at its own tempo. He often wondered if one of them belonged to the home of the girl’s parents. He imagined them attempting to have a meal together, only for it to be derailed when one of them broke down in tears. He often wished he could be there for those moments, in order to comfort them, to hold them tight and tell them he was sorry, that sorry would never fill the permanent void in their hearts, that he shared their feelings of loss, that he hated himself as much as they did, even if they never dared to admit it, because they didn’t want to desecrate her memory with vengeful rage, even if it was a natural part of the grieving process, to feel the impulse to wrap their hands around his throat, to become a self-appointed god of revenge, to hear the croaking struggles of his desperate final breath, to see his eyes become vacant and lifeless, in acceptance of a fate so violent, so primal, knowing he deserved to choke on his own benevolence, such that were he to ask for mercy, he would know the true answer. Every night, he wished for this. And every night, his yearning desires went unanswered, and he would cry himself to sleep. So often the pain of not knowing hurts worse, because there’s no bone to stop the questioning blade from slicing deeper, until your body has become a pile of shredded ribbons where you once stood.

A few weeks before Earl was scheduled to be released from prison, the answer he begged the endless sky for arrived. Another letter had come for him, this time with no return address. The envelope was much thinner than the one he had received previously, but he didn’t care. He ripped it open with the same ferocity of a child on their birthday, eager to caress the contents between his fingers but careful not to damage them in the process. Inside was a single piece of paper. It was another note from the parents. They wished him luck with the rest of his life, and asked that he refrain from ever contacting them upon being granted his freedom out of respect for their privacy. Then they reiterated their hope that he would use his remaining days to honor their daughter, like Earl himself had pledged. Unlike the first letter, however, this one ended differently. The first letter had been signed with two names: those of the two parents. This one had a third name added to the signature line.

Sadie.

He read the name over and over. Sadie. Sadie. Sadie. Sadie. Sadie. It rattled around his brain until it hurt. He certainly thought it was a prettier name than his own. For a name without any hard consonants, Earl had a guttural inflection to it that he often likened to human vomit (it didn’t help that his name rhymes with hurl). The name Sadie was soft and delicate, like a rose petal floating gently towards the ground long after the flower itself crashed with a bursting thud. He wanted to keep her name suspended in midair, between the chasm of life and death, where all things can exist forever in Infinity, from the blackest days to the brightest nights, with the dazzling vibrancy of colors, the sonic clarity of sounds, and the neverending collage of the grand tapestry of the universe.

Back in the present, as Earl approached his vehicle in the bowling alley parking lot, he gazed up at the stars as they danced in the moonlight. He turned to take one final look at the pink-and-yellow neon sign in front of the building– which read: Sadie’s Ten Pin Alley--muttered a prayer to himself, and drove into the night as the sign illuminated her spirit into the sky.


23 January 2020

R.I.P. Neil Peart (1952-2020)


Neil Peart (1952-2020)
One of the greatest musicians of the 20th century died earlier this month. An intensely private, and highly introverted man, he would in all likelihood have quailed at the public testimonials (including this one) which have poured forth since the news of his passing.

Well, who was it that said, "Funerals are for the living"?

Whoever it was, they were right.

So I'm going to use this week's blog post to talk about the late great Neil Peart, no matter how much he might not have wanted me to.

All that said, I scarcely know where to begin. This is because Peart, and Rush, the band he, guitarist Alex Lifeson and bassist/keyboardist/vocalist Geddy Lee helped make iconic in the annals of rock & roll, have had such an outsized influence on my life since that day, not long after my 16th birthday, when a friend introduced me to their work.

And fittingly, my first impression of Rush's work was getting to watch them in concert on MTV, back when MTV played nothing but music videos. I saw Neil Peart perched behind his massive drum kit, all focus, all professionalism, the embodiment of precision and perfection, seemingly unaware of the audience, and came away from the experience changed.

(The concert film in question was "Exit...Stage Left." If you're curious you can check out live cuts from it such as fan favorites "Xanadu"  and "La Villa Strangiato" on YouTube. Or you can watch the entire thing (just under an hour in running time), if you're unfamiliar with Rush, and want to know more. Just be prepared to say, "How did they DO that?" over and over again)

I had no idea someone could play drums like that. And as part of a three-piece! It sounded like there were six or seven guys up on that stage!

I had to learn more. So the next day, I went out and bought their most recent studio album, 1981's Moving Pictures (of "Tom Sawyer" fame). I couldn't believe what I heard. Not just "Tom Sawyer" (The band's biggest hit, and without doubt the most "air-drummed" song of all time), but a host of incredible songs, including, but not limited to "Limelight", "Red Barchetta", and the instrumental "YYZ" (taken from the three-letter geocode designation for Toronto's Pearson International Airport, with the morse code for the letters "Y-Y-Z" played as both the intro and outro of the song, no less!). That was it. I was a fan from that first listen onward, and have been ever since.

And this was before I even began to explore the band's extensive catalog of previous work. Too much to go into here, but 2112, A Farewell to Kings, Hemispheres, Permanent Waves, Fly By Night, all great in their own way, and no two of them alike in approach and content.

Neil Peart (pronounced like "pier" with a "t" on the end) did for the drums what Eric Clapton had already done for the guitar, what Elton John had already done for the piano. He helped redefine percussion for an entire generation of rock music fans, and for their kids and their kids, and...etc.

Rock had already given rise to a whole succession of great drummers: Ginger Baker of Cream and Keith Moon of The Who (both of whom were early idols for Peart when he was still learning his craft), John Bonham of Led Zeppelin and Bill Bruford of Yes and King Crimson, just to name a few.


But Peart transcended all of them, combining the flourishes of the wild men (Baker and Moon) with the rock-steady bombast of Bonham and the technical innovation of Bruford. I mean, come on. The guy played everything you can think of to hit and get a sound from and still call it "percussion." And he could do it faster and cleaner than any other rock drummer out there. AND, like Michael Jordan dunking from the top of the key, he made it look effortless.

And as if that weren't enough, Peart also served as the band's lyricist. Lee and Lifeson wrote the music, and Peart gave them the words. Reminiscent of the collaboration between Elton John and his lyricist Bernie Taupin, if Taupin had been an introverted genius with a voracious appetite for science fiction and a strong "independent contrarian" streak.

By and large Rush eschewed love songs (at least the traditional ones). Their career arc hewed from early twenty-minute-long sci-fi epics such as the first side of 2112 to ever more introspective pieces which wrestled with the human condition. "Limelight," for example, gave  the notoriously shy Peart's response to the (for him) exhausting question of what those who achieved "fame" owed to the world at large and to those who admired them in particular:

Living in a fish eye lens
Caught in the camera eye
I have no heart to lie
I can't pretend a stranger
Is a long-awaited friend

In other words, "Nothing."

On 1982's Signals, the band's follow-up to the multiplatinum Moving Pictures, Peart, Lee and Lifeson produced a lead single "Subdivisions", which addressed the generational experience of modern youth growing up stultified in the banal suburban tract houses of their parents, of their inevitable flight to the flash, bustle and noise of the big city, and of their eventual middle-aged longing to return to the neighborhoods of their adolescence. "Sell-outs in search of a hit," they were not.

Here are the lyrics to "Subdivisions" in their entirety:


Sprawling on the fringes of the city
In geometric order
An insulated border
In-between the bright lights
And the far, unlit unknown

Growing up in all seems so one-sided
Opinions all provided
The future pre-decided
Detatched and subdivided
In the mass-production zone

Nowhere is the dreamer
Or the misfit so alone

Subdivisions
In the high school halls
In the shopping malls
Conform or be cast out
Subdivisions
In the basement bars
In the backs of cars
Be cool or be cast out

Any escape might help to smooth
The unattractive truth
But the suburbs have no charms to soothe
The restless dreams of youth

Drawn like moths we drift into the city
The timeless old attraction
Cruising for the action
Lit up like a firefly
Just to feel the living night

Some will sell their dreams for small desires
Or lose the race to rats
Get caught in ticking traps
And start to dream of somewhere
To relax their restless flight

Somewhere out of a memory
Of lighted streets on quiet nights

Subdivisions
In the high school halls
In the shopping malls
Conform or be cast out
Subdivisions
In the basement bars
In the backs of cars
Be cool or be cast out

Any escape might help to smooth
The unattractive truth
But the suburbs have no charms to soothe
The restless dreams of youth

* * *

(Sidenote: I used "Subdivisions" in my first teaching job as a tool to teach my eighth grade English classes the difference between a metaphor and a simile.)

This song tore through me the first time I heard it. Of course, at seventeen myself, on the cusp of adulthood, growing up in a comfortable suburb of Spokane, Washington (an experience which my parents had worked damned hard to provide for my brother and me, and for which I am still grateful, at least, I am now.), I guess you could say I was pretty much this song's target audience.

And it goes without saying that I followed this path: took off for the Navy and then for the city (several times). And now, staring down fifty-five, I've come full circle: I live on a well-lit suburban street, and my nights are quiet.

Who knew a hard rock band was supposed to make you think? Most of the other stuff I listened to at the time (Read: early '80s Heavy Metal.) sure didn't.

In many ways Rush's music and Peart's lyrics served as a double-gateway drug for me. Had I never listened to the complicated arrangements of such Rush songs as "YYZ," "Beneath, Between and Behind," and "Cygnus X-1," I might never have gone in search of more adventurous music, listening to artists who took chances. I definitely wouldn't have been able to appreciate the likes of Miles Davis, or The Police, or Bowie, or Roxy Music, or, or, or..

And Peart's lyrics pushed me to find other voices, like Springsteen, and William Shakespeare, and Loreena McKennitt, and Bob Dylan, and James Baldwin, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ross MacDonald, and Toni Morrison, and Sting, and, and, and...

There's so much more I could say about Neil Peart, but others have said it better elsewhere (including Peart himself, in his book Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road, wherein he chronicled the experience of losing his teenaged daughter in a car wreck and his wife to cancer, within an eighteen month period, and what it took to come back from that experience.).  And this isn't intended to be a comprehensive retrospective.

It's really just a fond remembrance of a great artist, who died this month after a three-year-plus struggle with brain cancer. Peart left behind the second family he built after he finished mourning the loss of his first one: a second wife, and a second daughter. He also leaves behind legions of fans he touched without really trying to.

In one of his infrequent interviews Peart revisited his struggle with the demands fame placed on the artist, something he had chronicled so ably in "Limelight" a couple of decades before. "I never wanted to be famous," he said. "I just wanted to be good."

Whether he liked it or not, he was both.

Me during Neil Peart's drum solo in the middle of "Freewill,"  Columbia Gorge, 2011

22 January 2020

Once Upon a Time



This is a quixotic sorta thing, but Once Upon a Time in Hollywood got me thinking about Who It Might Really Be. Granted, it's a counter-factual narrative, and part of its weirdness is how and where the real world overlaps the fantasy. Sharon going into the matinee and watching herself in The Wrecking Crew is an enormously charming conceit. Her murderers going to the wrong house and finding Brad Pitt stoned out of his mind is a lot more disturbing, because in real life the Manson crew did actually go to the wrong house, and Terry Melcher wasn't home.

Anyway, some of you might have noticed that Edd Byrnes died last week. He was obviously most famous for 77 Sunset Strip and Kookie. He was also from a generation of actors who caught the last gasp of the studio system. He was under contract to Warners, along with Ty Hardin, and Peter Brown, and Troy Donahue. Doug McClure signed with Universal, as did James Farentino and Guy Stockwell. They did a lot of series TV with their respective stablemates, for their specific studios, and they got feature work, but again, they were locked into longtime studio commitments.


The part that Leo gets in the pilot for Lancer was in fact played by Joe Don Baker, who was in his mid-thirties at the time. Jim Stacy and Wayne Maunder, series regulars, were in that same age band. It's one of those simply odd things, that one of these guys breaks out. Steve McQueen, for instance, after Wanted: Dead or Alive, the model for Rick Dalton's show. Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood came out of the same Petri dish, but bear in mind that for every one of them there was a Vince Edwards or a George Maharis.



Of this group of actors, what you might call male ingenues - like Robert Wagner or Jeffrey Hunter a couple of years earlier - I've always thought Guy Stockwell was the most poignant. He got some really good breaks. So did Doug McClure, for that matter, but Guy was an actor with more range. (They worked together twice, in Beau Geste and The King's Pirate, both of them dogs.) Brad Pitt has himself remarked that there are a lot of pretty boys out there, and a lot of pretty boys who can act, but it's still purely a crap shoot. Guy did a bunch of guest shots, and then he was signed for Adventures in Paradise. A year after that, he joined Richard Boone's repertory company for Boone's anthology show, which unhappily only ran one season. Then we get The War Lord, with Boone and Chuck Heston (and James Farentino), Blindfold and Tobruk,  with Rock Hudson, and Banning, with Wagner, and Farentino again, and Gene Hackman - right before Buck Barrow. Not too shabby a playlist.



He doesn't catch fire. It doesn't help that he gets cast in some real stinkers, but he goes back to guest work in television, much like Rick Dalton. Lancer (you guessed it), Bonanza, The VirginianThe F.B.I. (more cross-collateral with Once Upon a Time), and like as not, playing a charming psychopath. As he gets older, character parts.


It isn't that his career went in the tubes. That's not what happened. It's that he couldn't or didn't leverage his early advantage. Maybe he was disappointed in the parts he was offered. Maybe he didn't have enough animal magnetism. He reinvested himself in theater, and was a highly-praised acting teacher. It's not like he lost his chops. It's one of those unfathomables. He should of been a contender, along the lines of Bob Culp or Brian Keith.


All the same, he's got a legacy, whether or not he's the real-life model for Rick Dalton or not. That's just a conceit on my part. Every time I watch The War Lord, I think, Jeez, this guy is good. And this is a picture, basically, where everybody overacts. On the other hand, it seems so physically authentic. The bare stone tower, the winding stairs. When do any of these people bathe? you can only wonder to yourself.

So there it is. My little paean to Guy Stockwell, probably over-thinking on my part, conjured up by Tarentino.

21 January 2020

Lessons Learned as a Freelancer


I have been freelancing most of my life, but until April 2003 I did it as a side gig while gainfully employed. My initial attempts to freelance full-time came after job losses, and, unable to generate sufficient income as a freelancer, I soon returned to full-time employment.

I can point to many reasons for my initial failures, but key among them may be my inability to hustle. Selling—myself, my services, or my product—does not come naturally. Though I am much better now than I used to be, I dislike cold-calling, I’m not good at asking for work, and I’m not good at closing the deal when an opportunity arises.

Writing short fiction, essays, and fillers allowed me to avoid the parts of freelancing at which I was least successful. I could generate copy and allow it to sell itself when discovered in editorial slush piles. Alas, that method produces highly erratic income.

LESSON ONE

My current run as a full-time freelancer began, as before, with job loss. I did not, initially, consider freelancing as an option, and I prepared my resume intending to seek full-time employment. Within a week, though, the publisher of a monthly newspaper offered me a steady, long-term freelance editing gig that would pay approximately half what my previous employer paid for full-time work.

I took the gig—which lasted almost 15 years—and I dove into freelancing, seeking one-off gigs to make up the income difference.

Three months later, the publisher of a regional consumer magazine offered me a steady, long-term freelance editing gig. I took the gig, which, 16-plus years later, continues.

Even with steady income from two clients, I continued seeking one-off gigs, and that led me to a professional orchestra, where I began, in September 2005, a steady, long-term gig creating advertising and promotional material.

With three steady clients generating more income than I had earned from my previous full-time employment (though sans benefits), I stopped seeking one-off gigs.

I applied the concept of repeat clients providing steady income to my fiction production as well, and I concentrated on producing short stories for a small group of publications that, between them, published several of my stories each month.

LESSON TWO

Each of my income streams requires different, though related, skills, and it is this combination of skills that allows me to continue freelancing.

Writing fiction is my first love, and the ability to create publishable short stories provides my favorite income stream.

The other income streams include:

Writing essays and various forms of non-fiction.

Copywriting (creating advertising and promotional material).

Editing (selecting work for publication) and copyediting (correcting spelling, punctuation, and grammar).

Layout/design/typesetting, most often in combination with the other skills.

I trained as a typographer when I was younger, and I maintained many of those skills as printing and publishing transitioned to desktop publishing. So, not only do I copyedit the articles published in the consumer magazine, I also design and layout the pages, and prepare print-ready files for the printing company. The same with the orchestra’s advertising and promotional material. I not only write the magazine and newspaper ads, I also design them and submit print-ready files to the various publications in which they appear.

This combination of skills allows me to take on projects that I might otherwise avoid, and I’ve learned that a diverse set of skills opens up a wide range of opportunities.

LESSON THREE

Prior to my latest venture into freelancing, my experience was almost entirely with print media—newspapers, magazines, brochures, flyers, and all manner of other things that are produced on printing presses. During the past several years, my creative world has expanded. I’ve edited electronic newsletters (one of which I’ve produced every week since April 26, 2006), I’ve written or written for websites, and I’ve written radio and television commercials.

Though I didn’t actively seek out most of these opportunities, none of them would have come my way had I not been open to them.

LESSON FOUR

Throughout all of this, I have continued to write and edit fiction.

While I enjoy all that I do, my first love always has been, and likely always will be, telling stories. So, whenever I find the volume of work skewed too far from what I most love, I seek ways to bring everything back into balance.

SUMMARY

Before I wrap this all up, I must make a few observations:

Somewhere over the years, I stopped freelancing for the orchestra and became a part-time employee. Yet, because I work about 60 hours a week, I’m still a full-time freelancer—a full-time freelancer with a part-time job.

A freelancer’s life is not for everyone. Despite having a few steady clients, the income can be wildly erratic and things many people take for granted—health insurance, sick leave, vacation time—a freelancer just can’t.

So, the lessons:

1. Find and nurture repeat clients.

2. Market your entire skillset.

3. Expand your abilities in multiple directions.

4. Continue doing what you love.

I don’t think I will ever return to a full-time job. At 62, though, the likelihood of being offered a full-time position as anything other than a Walmart greeter is slim, and that’s fine with me.

The first season of Guns + Tacos is now available in two handsome paperbacks: 

Volume 1

Volume 2

20 January 2020

Santa Noir


by Steve Liskow

Everybody has too many Christmas parties and get-togethers in December, so the Connecticut MWA members threw a procrastinator's bash on January 11 in Middletown. Middletown is, of course, in the middle of the State, home of Wesleyan University and several fine restaurants, so we gathered at Esca, three blocks from the college and on a main intersection.
Chris Knopf addresses the motley crew. He mostly obscures Mark Dressler.
Bill Curatolo and Mike Beil are at the upper right.

Chris Knopf and Jill Fletcher, who organized the event, suggested that in addition to the usual gift grab bag, drinks and meals and catching up on everyone's accomplishments for the year, people write a 200-word story on the theme of Santa Noir to share with their accomplices. Alas, loud hungry patrons mobbed the eatery on a Saturday evening, so we abandoned the readings. Some of our recent predictions on this blog have made the upcoming year look a little bleak, and I agree, so the stories seemed like a definite counterbalance.

Here are four of them.

Santa Claus and Me by Mark L. Dressler
Jill posted this graphic, which inspired Mark's tale

I stared at that red Santa Claus outfit for several minutes. The lifeless man inside sent an eerie feeling through me matching the bitter night chill. I knew I'd never see that costume again.

Year after year, it was a never-ending journey, make-believe to many, but I knew differently. This was the night it would finally end. No more toys, no more nagging kids, no more workshops with elves, no more agonizing trips to the ends of each continent...and no more reindeer slaves.

I took another glance at that red uniform before walking away. I had no idea who that homeless man inside it was, but his clothes fit me perfectly. It was time for me to find a new home because I couldn't go back to the North Pole. I'd cleanse myself of this long white beard in the morning and become a free man. My name would no longer be Kris Kringle.

(Mark Dressler has published two novels featuring Hartford cop Dan Shields.)

At Burke's Tavern in Woodside, Queens, December 24, 1969 by William O'Neill Curatolo

Recently discharged marine Luis Martinez, high bar champion of the 43rd Street playground, sits alone on the broad windowsill across from the end of the bar nursing his fourth beer. He looks in need of cheering up. It's possible, no, it's certain, that the only advantage of having left his right leg back in Vietnam is that he now never has to pay for a drink, ever, in any of the watering holes up and down the length of Greenpoint Avenue.

Burly cop Georgie Corrigan bursts through the barroom door, dressed as Santa Claus. "Ho, ho, ho. Merry Christmas!" Santa Georgie moves along the bar clapping people hard on the back, and turns over to a couple of friends the bags of pot he took from a kid on his beat in Brooklyn a few hours ago. As he makes his way along the bar, he notices his old friend Luis, glassy eyed, staring off into space. Georgie sits down next to him and uses a burly arm to clamp him in a headlock. "Semper Fi, Jarhead!" and then, "Get up off your ass and onto those crutches. We're going outside to smoke a joint. Santa wants to see you smile."

(Bill Curatolo has published two novels.)

Santa By a Nose by Michael D. Beil

Christmas Eve at the Subway Inn, a dive bar that's a dead possum's throw from Bloomingdale's. Beside me is a bag with Isotoner gloves and a faux-cashmere scarf for the old lady. Three stools down is a schmoe in a Santa suit. The line of dead soldiers on the bar tells me the poor bastard is trying to forget how many brats had pissed their pants on his lap. For about a second, I consider sending a drink his way. But when he lifts his head, I realize he's the SOB I've been chasing for a week about a B&E in a bike shop on Second Avenue. No doubt about it. Eight million people in New York, but there's only one nose like that one. Fill it full of nickels and he could buy everybody in the place a drink.

I'm reaching into my coat pocket for my shield when a blast of frigid air blows in a tired dame in a coat that probably looked good during the Clinton administration, with three kiddies in tow.

"Daddy!"

I throw a twenty on the bar and nod to the bartender on the way out.

(Michael Beil was an Edgar finalist for Best Children's Novel for the first of five books in the Red Blazer Girls series.)

I Saw Mommy Killing Santa Claus by Steve Liskow

Detective Angel Noelle looked at the body, a fat man with a white beard and a red suit, underneath the mistletoe. Wrapped presents, grungy with fingerprint powder, lay under the tree.

"Your first, Noelle?" That was Detective Shepherd.

"Violent night," Angel said. "Got an ID yet?"

"We're waiting on fingerprints, but we've got a suspect and a witness."

Noelle turned to the woman in the green robe, the slit revealing black fishnets--previously hung by the chimney with care--and four-inch stilettos.

"I'm a dancer," she said. "All my son wanted for Christmas was his two front teeth..."

The small boy peeking from the stairs nodded.

"But instead, he brought..." The prancing vixen buried her face in her hands. "He deserved it..."

Noelle turned to the tech filling out the evidence label.  "What was the weapon?"

"Well, right now it looks like a fruitcake."

"Fruitcake?"

"Yeah, been re-gifted so many times it's hard as a Jersey barrier. The label on the can says, 'Do not sell after 2004.'"

Noelle looked at the body, deep in dreamless sleep.

"The contusions fit?" The open fire crackled in the fireplace.

"Yeah. Really roasted his chestnuts."

Outside, the black and whites rolled by.

(Steve Liskow practices piano about fifteen minutes a week.)


19 January 2020

WalMart da Bomb!


Florida woman– yes, there is such a meme– almost set off a bomb in a Tampa WalMart. Of paramount concern, as evidenced by multiple headlines, she hadn’t paid for the goods used to MacGyver the bomb.

Details remain sketchy, but the incident might have come about something like the following
Walmart logo

Bang!

Emma’s day started with an explosion, not the good kind. She stared at her sad Toyota, its left front WalMart-brand tire blown out. Further under the car, a pool of Great Value oil gathered.

She slammed the car door. Signs out front advertised Great Value powdered peanut butter and Moochie the Slacker Sloth, endorsed by author Eve Fisher. Emma grabbed a shopping cart and ignored the WalMart greeter.

She whipped past Quest Diagnostics who’d collected blood and urine samples. Either they or the Great Value early pregnancy test kit were wrong, she wasn’t sure which. Maybe her craving for all things pickle was trying to give her a clue– pickle freeze pops, pickle chapped lip balm, even the pickle yodeler.

Emma stomped past the WalMart pharmacy. They’d refused to honor her medical marijuana card. When she loudly enquired about medical meth, they’d asked her to leave.

She continued, ignoring a woman in pajamas entering the in-store McDonalds. The WalMart eyeglasses store looked fuzzy through her GV glasses. Money Services had cost her $1452 in a combined Nigerian prince and IRS scam.

Emma stopped at the salon to speak with her sister, Ella.

Ella said, “You need what?”

“Nail clippings, as many as you can get.”

“But… Is this another of your weird inventions?”

“Just do it. Sweep them up, whatever. Nails, real, artificial, I don’t care. Okay?”

Once upon a time, Emma had made the ideal WalMart customer. Where had it all gone wrong?

Chinese products, that’s what. No, even before that, her appearance on Shark Tank. She’d gone on the show to tout her latest invention, the Pooch Pouch, a hoodie sweatshirt with a built-in pocket for her puppy, Little Scabies.

Mr Wonderful himself, Kevin O’Leary, laughed his arse off.

Her ex-boyfriend had tried to warn her. Afterward, he must have heroically bitten his tongue.

Then what happened? The Kittyroo launched, an identical Chinese knockoff sold by WalMart. It wasn’t fair.

WalMart Chinese products drove her nuts. It wasn’t merely the lead paint on the toys, but nothing seemed to work right. Their melamine powdered milk could maybe kill you, but the ineffective garden insecticide couldn’t knock off a fire ant. The powders looked idential. Heck, they even tasted the same. When she added the insecticide to her now ex-boyfriend’s cereal, he merely burped and left for work.

She’d come to hate him. When she bought WalMart’s sexy Halloween mermaid skeleton costume, he stared at her weirdly. He’d had the same look when she’d given him a pink octopus mug.

Emma had tried to make her house a home. WalMart provided her biker gnomes and gangsta gnomes. She ordered WalMart Golden Girls Chia Pets.

For the kitchen, she’d bought the Poop Emoji cake pan, bacon bowls for taco salads, and cock-flavored ramen noodles.

For her bathroom, she’d picked out Pain in the Butt Diaper Rash Cream, WalMart Christmas-themed toilet paper, and Aztec Secret Indian Healing Clay. Plus the ultimate bathroom book How to Poo on a Date.

Little Scabies fled when she presented her puppy with doggy nail polish and a Dinosaur Pet Costume. Her ex and even her sister Ella gazed at her strangely.

Well, she had a solution for him. She phoned and ask him to meet her in WalMart. He groaned but agreed to come.

She wheeled her cart with the wriggling wheel to Housewares. She picked out the largest Mason jar she could find. In Home Improvement, she picked out denatured alcohol and Chinese-manufactured paint thinner. She dumped the contents into the jar.

In Girls Fashion, she picked out pink shoestrings. In Outdoors Goods, she bought a giant box of matches. She returned to the WalMart Salon.

Her sister cautiously handed her a baggie of nails and clippings. Ella said, “I added some from pedicures. Is that okay?”

“Sure, peachy, wonderful,” Emma said.

Her phone beeped. Text message. From ex-boyfriend. “Parking now. Meet you Sporting Goods.”

Emma dashed to the back of the store. Under a suspended canoe, she knelt and added the nails to the solution. She draped a shoelace into the jar. After a moment, she felt it. The shoestring wasn’t soaking up the liquid. What the flip? Was it some kind of weird non-absorbent Chinese polyester?

Quickly, she undid one of her own laces. Yes! In moments, it was thoroughly doused. It would make the perfect wick.

In the distance, she saw her boyfriend arriving. She’d already selected a WalMart crematory jar, much cheaper than the sports fan coffin.

Calmly, Emma opened the WalMart-brand matches. She struck one.

Nothing.

She struck again. Nil.

And again. Nope.

She tried another match. Nada.

And another. Zilch.

She grasped a half dozen and stuck the strip.

One gave a little pizzle and snuffed out.

Weeping, she seized a handful and tried fruitlessly to ignite them.

Nothing, not even a poof.

Emma burst into tears as a security guard closed in.

“Ma’am? Did you pay for those goods?”

And that might be how a Florida woman almost set off a nail bomb in a Tampa store. Perhaps. Note that all of the above are genuine WalMart products.

18 January 2020

Writing for Fun





As mentioned in two of my earlier posts at this blog, I'm not one to stray far from my comfort zone in my writing, and I also don't care much for New Year's resolutions, but--at the urging of my publisher, Joe Lee--I'm going to try at least one new thing in 2020.

A quick background note: In the spring of 2006, it was Joe's idea (he owns and operates Dogwood Press here in Mississippi) to put thirty of my previously published short mysteries together in a hardcover collection called Rainbow's End and Other Stories. Thankfully, that book sold well enough for a second printing, and since then Joe's small, traditional press has published six more books of my stories--as well as the work of eight other writers. Another idea Joe had, back in 2015, was to veer away from my usual story-collections and produce a softcover book of fifty of my lighthearted tales with the mysteries in the front of the book and the solutions in the back. That project, called Fifty Mysteries (let's hear it for appropriate titles), was great fun to put together, and has sold well also. I think its success was due to (1) its "puzzle" format, (2) its humor, and (3) the fact that all of its stories feature two familiar characters from my longest-running series--all of which were reasons I thought it might not work. The point is, when Joe has a brainstorm, I listen.

So, what was this latest idea? To publish a book of my poetry.

A what?!

You heard right. Over the past 25 years I've sold poems to more than 100 different markets, including Writer's Digest, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Farm & Ranch Living, Mystery Time, Wordplay, Futures, Satire, Grit, The Lyric, Writers' Journal, Mobius, Murderous Intent Mystery Magazine, Capper's, The Mystery Review, and so on. But be aware . . . this is not the deep, profound, life-changing poetry you might find in prestigious literary journals. I'm not a contemporary poet and I noet. This is easygoing, humorous, Ogden Nash-style verse whose sole purpose is to put a smile on your face, and maybe even make you Laugh Out Loud and slap ya mama. The kind of thing that a lot of readers--and editors too, thank God--seem to like. (If you're at all interested, here's a SleuthSayers column I did about Nash and light verse, several years ago,)

The title of this unusual (ad)venture is called Lighten Up a Little, which is also the title of one of the included poems and might, I think, be good advice for all of us. The book will contain 300 lighthearted poems I've published in the aforementioned markets. Some are long (up to four pages) and many are short (as few as four lines), and all are an exercise in rhythm and rhyme and wordplay, because I love that sort of thing. As for subject matter, some of the poems are crime-based, but others cover everything from kids to sports to medicine to politics to movies to animals to technology to writing. The book is scheduled for April 2020.

Note: When the decision to publish was made and Joe and his wizards had started working on the layout, I sat down and drew a little cartoon I thought might work for the cover. I then scanned it and emailed it to my friend Chuck Galey, who's a professional illustrator, and asked him if he knew of any online coloring programs I might use to insert color into my dull-looking black-and-white drawing. Chuck responded by coloring it himself and sending it back to me. Boy, does it help to know the right people . . .


Here's an excerpt from my introduction:

"The following poems, grouped in a dozen categories of 25 each--and most of which are capsule-sized--may be ingested separately or in gulps of several at a time. They were designed to provide temporary relief from everyday stress and fatigue, but seem to also be effective in treating insomnia.

"To those who seek enlightenment, inspiration, and/or insights into the Meaning of Life . . . well, you might want to look elsewhere."

Which is true. No psychology or angst or navel-gazing here. Since I like movie comparisons, this is more of a Blazing Saddles than a 2001. And in case you're wondering what in the world I'm even talking about, here are a few really short examples of the contents:



A WILD ALLI-GATION

The wife of Mean Willie LaBrock
Disappeared off the end of their dock;
Willie claimed that a gator
Just swam up and ate her
But that sounds to me like a croc.


NEVER TOO LATE

"You're Al Capone?"
He said: "That's right."
"You're dead, I thought."
He said, "Not quite."
"Then you must be--"
"I'm 103."
"So you're retired?"
"That's not for me."
"But how do you--"
"Get by?" he said.
He pulled a gun.
"Hands on your head."


LOVE IS BLURRY

Thought not legally blind, Nate was badly crosseyed
When he married Big Lucy, a mail-order bride;
"Get some glasses," friends urged, but he figured, well, hell,
It might not be too smart to see Lucy too well.


PURPA TRAITOR

When Purpa's flights were smuggling grapes
Its king escaped in vain;
The Purpals found His Majesty
Aboard a fruited plane.


SOUTH OF SAUDI

If the country of Yemen
Were governed by Britain,
Their gas would be petrol,
Their dresses tight-fittin'.
And sports fans could watch,
For the price of a ticket,
Arabian knights
Playing Yemeni cricket.


A BOLD ASSUMPTION

"Since I'm quite debonair, I don't travel by air,"
Leonard bragged, from the helm of his yacht;
A storm came the next day and blew Leonard away--
I don't know if they've found him or not.


THE BOOK DOCTOR

When they're edited, writers have said
Semicolons are something they dread;
What if someone had stolen
One half of your colon
And plugged in a comma instead?



So there's a preview. If you're tired already, be forewarned: there are 293 more of these in the book. Some are silly, some are (I hope) witty, and some are just observations about people and places and situations in our workaday world. I doubt Maya Angelou or Robert Frost would've felt threatened by this masterpiece--but I can also tell you I had a great time writing it.

I'm hoping those who read it (release date April 23!), will feel the same.