Thursday, December 30, 2010

Short Story Rerelease


(Originally posted in January of this year as POP02. Reposted because of its timeliness.)

Every year New Year's Day Philadelphia is invaded by strange-looking Mummers, creatures who've been making costumes and practicing all year to be "on stage" in the Broad Street parade their one special day, the parade beginning appropriately in the huge crazy neighborhood of South Philly. It ends there as well that same evening after the City Hall awards competitions when many various Mummer clans return to their Two Street home base for a gigantic block party stretching from Washington Ave in a mad carnival pointing endlessly south to the end of the world, or at least the end of town. Many participants by then have exceeded 24 hours straight of drinking, marching, and partying.

On this particular New Year's Day Maggie aka Mags was working deep into her South Philly dialect while sipping beer from a plastic cup having become separated from her own club of Mummer creatures. Her costume was a mad sparkling mix of violet, silver, and green, of feathers and sequins, with a violet star spread over her silver face. She drank now among rival Mummer gangs. A silver cap obscured her red hair.

Stumbling, she backed into a tallish young man or young-something in a harlequin get-up of black-and-white.

"You clown," she drawled. "Whyn't youse watch what youse doin?"

The clown grinned stupidly at what he'd found before him.

"Didn't I see you strutting at City Hall earlier?" he asked. "You're quite the dancer. How'd you finish?"

"Foist place, of coise," she bragged. "We took the prize. T'anks for the compliment-- but youse forget the middle of my routine I slipped and landed on my fanny!"

He said, "All along I thought that was planned!"

They leaned together for support. Mags liked this guy, but realized she was smashed and the colors of the world were spinning on all sides. She needed to get back to her friends before she did something messy.

"So, tell me, young lady, how you became such an amazing dancer?" the boyish clown asked with intense seriousness.

Mags snapped her fingers, which caused him to start.

"I just am," she said, looking into his blue eyes. "Comes easy." (Pronounced "oisy.")

Completely entranced, the clown took the gorgeous colorful creature in his arms and kissed her very sloppily full face. The kiss lasted a full minute, long enough for Maggie to feel a fire begin inside her costume, which she was surprised didn't burst immediately into flame.

Then the striped clown had vanished away.

For a week afterward Mags was crazy in love and tramped all through the riotous huge area of South Philly thinking she could somehow run into the clown creature and recapture the magic. She had no idea what he looked like beneath his costume and makeup, though she recalled he had dark hair and of course she remembered his blue eyes. Maggie walked up and down Passyunk east and west; up and down 13th Street, which contained many young people; of course Two Street, the Italian Market on 9th including Gleaners coffeeshop and 12 Steps Down bar; Pat's Steaks and their rivals Geno's; and all over and around South Street; futilely.

It occurred to her the young man wouldn't recognize her either; that maybe she'd looked more dazzling in Mummer costume than in reality.

Mags sat in her place, contemplating. She snapped her fingers.

"Oh well," she said, resigning herself to the loss, of that which for only a moment had been found. "That's life." She put the encounter out of her brain.

Two months later Maggie was drinking at a tough but trendy saloon up on 7th Street with a gal pal named Connie. Dark-haired Connie and Mags had met after work for a quick beer, but both were dressed as if on the make, and there were now many a green beer bottle on the polished dark table before them. Maggie's black top and blue eye shadow contrasted starkly with her red hair and white face in the subtly-lit room.

Maggie was thinking how many new people were in the neighborhood who weren't real born-there South Philly people. It was a great neighborhood and they wanted to get in on it, but it'd always been a great neighborhood.

A table of the new type sat near the two women; college-grad people who'd come to Philly to attend school and stayed. They worked Center City jobs and had easy money.

Mags sneered their way. "What do you know about the Phillies?" she asked. "Where were you when they had losing seasons? What marks the true Philadelphia fan is their loyalty."

Part of Maggie's attitude was territorial, but part may have been an age thing. She was already 27 and the kids now in bars appeared to her to be babies.

One of the table looked at her with amusement.; a lanky pretty boy in a tie and white shirt, already drunk, bangs of hair on his forehead disarrayed.

"You can't be serious?" he said seriously. "Throwing snowballs at Santa? That's your history. Booing your own players? Scott Rolen. Even Mike Schmidt! Is that loyalty?"

"But we were there!" Maggie insisted. "Thick and thin. We booed affectionately."

Mags took a swig of her beer. Lager: Yuengling. Philly's beer. No designer beer drinking for her!

"Yuppies," she muttered. The young man's friends glanced her way, snootily. "How gauche!" one said.

"Oh really," Maggie replied. "What do you know about Philly, anyway? How long you been here? A year? Six months?"

The young man stared mystified and curious at the outspoken South Philly creature.

"I'm learning that in Philadelphia," he said, "rudeness is a way of life. I've been here myself five years, by the way. I love the place as much as you do, you know. I am now fully a Philly native! You could say I've been baptized. But tell me, miss, how did you get to be so rude? Is it a learned trait? Or were you born that way?"

Maggie snapped her fingers.

"I just am," she said. "Comes easy."

Maggie braced herself, because the young man rose from his chair and stepped, carefully and quite drunk, toward her table. His friends and Connie watched in anticipation of a fight.

Mags clenched her fist was ready to knock the boy out-- almost did, but fortunately waited. He leaned over and kissed her sloppily on the face. She recognized his blue eyes.

He stood up in triumph, with a pronounced smirk, was about to return to his seat.

"Nothin' doin'," Maggie said as she grabbed his hand and pulled him down next to her onto an open chair. "You're not getting away from me twice!"

Their friends were confused, shaking their heads in disbelief, saying, "They're drunk," but the two people furiously kissing remained oblivious.

Friday, December 24, 2010

POP19: “The Lovers”


A phone call came in to Big Boy at the Green Club.

“Yeah?” he asked.

“I have her!” the voice of Fake Face exulted. “Listen listen pretty pretty please.”

Merrily’s voice, which Big Boy hadn’t heard in four years:

“No Max! Don’t come. He’ll kill you. He’s pure evil. Leave me be. I’m dead. He’ll kill me anyway. Save yourself. I’m nobody. Don’t come. Don’t come!”

As Big Boy swelled with comprehending anger, Fake Face’s voice came back on the line.

“I have her at the Armory. We’ll see you see you there!”

Fake Face touched off his phone. His malevolent eyes stared down at the girl. She was held prisoner within the lock-up ruins. Decayed green bars stood open around them. Fake Face had secured her with a fresh chain.

“Thank you very much for your outspoken approval of me, you sad little girl,” the eerie voice said from behind the static smile.

Darkening blood from her scalp mixed with her pink-dyed bangs. Both her eyes had been blackened. Her lips were split, several teeth knocked out. Bruises mixed with purple-green tattoos on her arms. What had been young artist Merrily would be unrecognizable to friends and family, except perhaps for the strands of pink. As her bloodshot eyes stared up at her tormentor, Fake Face grabbed those bangs and yanked her head forward. Enough strength remained in her to resist.

“I’m happy you’ve decided not to oppose me,” he sneered ironically.

“You can’t intimidate me,” she replied. “I’ll never be intimidated. Beneath your mask, your power, and your gang you’re cowardly.”

His evil eyes met hers in some surprise. Her hatred didn’t flinch. The small girl showed intelligence and will like few of his enemies. The Big Boy, for all his stupidity, had found an impressive mate. Too bad, Fake Face thought with some glee—they were fated to remain forever separated!

After the eyes within the mask turned away, the girl tried reason on him.

“Carny won’t like you in his territory,” she said.

“I’ll kill him after I finish with the Big Boy,” spoke the inhuman voice.

Fake Face checked the metal bracelets on her wrists. They were tied to the chain. His steps casually descended the stairway. After a minute she heard the cocky footsteps exit the building. His gang had smashed open the doorway. Likely Fake Face was checking on the men who’d been placed strategically around the tower to await Big Boy’s arrival.

Merrily exhaled. She was so tired. . . . Existentially tired. Her eyes gazed around this place. What time was it, she wondered? Morning? Not yet. Shadows of stairs and bars shifted inside the tower, a frame around the garish red-and-black expressionist painting which had become Merrily.

She prayed Max wouldn’t come. He was a bull in strength, but hadn’t the nature to go against Fake Face. Whatever Max had done, whatever part he’d played as a gangster, Max, after all, remained a human being.

Merrily realized then she cared more for him than she’d believed.


At the Green Club Max—also known as Big Boy—bounded from behind his desk at the conclusion of the phone call with uncontrolled rage. The men present in the office saw what was happening and moved to restrain him.

“Don’t!” they said. “Big Boy, don’t! You heard her. It’s a trap.”

“AAARRRRGGHHH!” Big Boy yelled as he threw the several large men away from him.

He propelled himself into the main body of the Green Club, his men fighting him every step of the way.

“Quick,” one of them said. “Get more men. Bolt the doorway. We have to stop him. If he goes after her it’s suicide.”

For thirty minutes the battle raged within the Club—Big Boy against his own gang. The struggle wrecked the place—chairs, tables, rows of glasses crashing to the floor as the wrestling moved behind the long mahogany bar and outside it, across the vast room, shaggy-haired Big Boy carrying several men on top of him. At one point his voice was heard to cry out with love and desperation, “Merrily! MERRILY!”

“Get more men!” came a tiring refrain. Then: “Max. Max! You can’t go there. You can’t go there!”

At last five huge men halted his progress. They held him down with their weight against the green carpeting, yet felt his welling strength as Big Boy readied for another attempt.

(NEXT: “Killtown USA”)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

POP18: “The Armory”



Sal the Hood escaped the police. But now he faced a greater danger.

He stood in a second floor room at Fake Face headquarters. The right side of his face was red-bruised from the Boss’s pistol-whipping.

Sal backed toward a large window as Fake Face and the gang interrogated him, surrounding him in a semi-circle like a hungry wolf pack. The silver-blue room was designed in trapezoids. The floor and ceiling spread in unusual angles. The room made no sense. The effect was unsettling.

“Kill him now,” Jake Pol suggested.

“Where’s the girl?” Fake Face asked Sal.

He wanted answers before he killed anybody.

Sal the Hood needed answers. He’d been utterly surprised by Big Boy’s trap, but could see why he’d be blamed for it.

Sal wondered how Fake Face had survived the onslaught of machine gun fire. The Boss moved very quickly—but could anyone move that quickly?

“The girl is innocent, Boss,” Sal said.

“No one is innocent!” Fake Face exclaimed.

His burst of emotion was enough opportunity for Sal to bring out his two pistols, with right hand and left hand, which he pointed at the gang.

“Dummies!” Fake Face said. “We didn’t search him.”

Fake Face held his own pistol, gold-plated, casually on Sal. The pistol glimmered in the room’s light. Involuntarily, all admired its polished beauty. The Face’s confidence was overbearing. Sal wished to disrupt that confidence.

“Stalemate,” Fake Face said. “I don’t care about you, Sal. I want the girl. The girl!”

At that moment Sal left his feet and crashed through the sleek window behind him in an explosion of cascading glass, dropping with it to the street.


Sal found Merrily at the coffeeshop where she worked. She’d not been home when the war of gunshots took place—had missed the action. But she’d heard about it.

Now she saw Sal walk into the coffeeshop bruised and bloody. Beads of blue glass and blood drops fell from his hair and clothes.

“I’m sorry,” he told her. “I’ve f’d up everything. You’ve got to get out of here. Bad people are after you.”

They left his car parked hidden behind the shop, then ran on foot. Merrily was too stunned by Sal’s appearance and the city’s gang war to say anything. The world had been tossed into chaos.

“I know a place,” he said.

Half-a-mile away in the midst of No Man’s Land stood a yellow-brown stone tower which looked like a castle. Sal pointed to it. The tower loomed amid the squat neighborhood in front of them.

“The Armory!” he said.

They hustled to reach it.

The Armory had been built during the nation’s Civil War. Later it became a police station used for gang squads, and to house in its lockups dangerous criminals. Gangs of various sorts had traversed the city for more than a century.

Three decades ago the Armory was used as a performance space. Now the entrance and windows were boarded. Local artists had painted a mix of swaths and lines of bright colors on the lower boards, to create vibrant artworks against the drab urban backdrop.

“Will we be safe there?” Merrily asked.

Sal replied, “It’s our only chance.”

He told her Fake Face was Max’s enemy—that Fake Face surely controlled a wing of the police. The cops wouldn’t involve themselves in a gang war.

At least, the Armory offered the illusion of safety. The kind of place to which kids growing up in Killtown wished they could escape. A castle! Protection against a hostile world. Now it’d become that for real.

“I know a way in,” Merrily remembered. “When I was younger we’d sneak inside to smoke dope.”

The tower looked impregnable, but a certain board could be shifted to create a sliver of an opening. Merrily was tiny enough to squeeze through. Sal was compact enough that she pulled him within. They shifted the board back into place.

Once their eyes adjusted, Sal found a hammer and nails among the debris: tools left by years-ago workmen. Quickly he hammered a two-by-four against their way in.

“Further security,” he said.

They climbed a metal stairway that rose into the higher reaches, past the level which held the lockups. As they passed they glanced at the rusted, inoperable doors.

Above this, they found a comfortable spot on a walkway. They crouched down in shadows against a wall. Merrily had stuffed her pockets with pastries from the coffeeshop. They shared these. Around them could be heard sounds of movement. Rodents.

Merrily shivered. Sal looked at her from his swollen right eye.

“I, Sal the Hood, promise I’ll do everything possible to get you out of this mess. I swear to God.”

“This Fake Face,” Merrily asked him. “Why doesn’t somebody do something about him?”

“Fear,” Sal said. “Or because they’re as corrupt as he is.”

Sal took out his two pistols, flipped off the safeties, and made sure bullets were in the chambers. They were ready to fire. He handed one to Merrily.

“If anything happens to me, wait until he’s right in front of you before you pull the trigger. Don’t miss.”

“How do we know it’ll be him?”

“It’ll be him,” Sal said.

As they spoke, a host of cars surrounded the Arsenal. Ever-happy Fake Face stepped out of his bright yellow limo, Jake Pol next to him. They wore their dress suits. The gangster’s keen eyes within the mask scanned the old structure in front of them.

Minutes later a figure could be seen climbing the tower, outlined against the purple sky. The figure found an opening on one of the upper floors and vanished inside.

“What’s the matter?” Merrily asked in a suddenly hushed voice.

“I don’t know,” Sal whispered. “I thought I heard a noise. Probably a rat.”

He stood up. A face smiled in front of him.

“Hello hello!”


Their pistols went off simultaneously—two flashes with accompanying roars. Merrily saw amid light and smoke a plastic smile.

“No!” she screamed as Sal the Hood tumbled through space to the ground far below.

With both hands Merrily frantically pointed the other pistol—too late. Fake Face grabbed it.


Cold rain pounded down hard upon the city. Particularly hard along the riverfront. Police in long raincoats stepped from patrol cars in response to a call. Beneath the bluish dark sky they searched the scene with flashlights. They’d been told a criminal would be found here. What criminal? Who’d be out on a night like this? An amber beam landed on a round red object. Cops ran toward it. One of them vomited. The gruesome object was a human head. Sal the Hood.

(NEXT: “The Lovers.”) 

Thursday, December 16, 2010

POP17: “The Trap”

The Big Boy Saga Continues


Sal the Hood was a young guy with attitude, his confidence bolstered by two pistols kept on his person. He outlined to Fake Face his plan of how to use Merrily the coffeeshop girl. She’d innocently arrange a meeting someplace with Big Boy, then when Big Boy arrived, she wouldn’t be there. They would be.

“Sound good?” Sal asked.

Fake Face’s head moved in an agitated way, though of course the mask that was his face to the world smiled as always. You never knew where you stood with him, Sal realized. He couldn’t be fathomed.

“A nice plan,” Fake Face said. “But in my outfit I make the plans.”

He pointed to himself. His gloved finger jabbed himself several times.

“ME! Me me me me me. This is what we do. We don’t wait. We move right away. Right now. This minute. Speed is everything. You think I want to wait wait while maneuvers are created against me and flanking takes place on all sides in this game of mouse and cat? We go grab the girl now and once we have her Big Boy is ours!”

Sal the Hood shook his head.

“No, I’m against it. This girl. . . . No can do. It’d be kidnapping, Boss. You heard it on the cd. Big Boy’s aunt is the friggin’ District Attorney! That’s the trap. They’ll fry you for sure if we do that.”

“And I say we go NOW,” Fake Face insisted, holding a gold plated pistol against Sal’s head. “We go, just the two of us.”

The irony wasn’t lost on Fake Face (he was nothing if not ironic) that he was kidnapping Sal. But Sal was a thug, while he himself was a much beloved celebrity in Killtown. Rules were made for those with power.

Sal drove the two of them to the girl’s place, in the chaotic neighborhood of Anarchia. Fake Face couldn’t wait for other gang members. His greed and his hunger were his strengths. He was hungry to grab the girl. She lived with another woman in a tiny basement room which could be reached only from an alley. It was early afternoon. She slept late. She was undoubtedly there now.

Another cloudy day, so dark Sal had the car’s headlights on. The sky moved; purple: ominous. The car pulled into the alley and stopped in a side space against a fence so to not block the way of possible delivery trucks. Sal had described the small door leading to the basement. The door waited fifteen yards ahead. The two men looked at each other.

“Boss, I . . . ,” Sal began.

Fake Face hit Sal across the side of the head with the gold pistol, then again.

“What?” Fake Face asked the dazed figure. “WHAT?! You don’t want to go with me? Is that what you want to say? Or maybe you do want to go. A bad idea! Ha ha. Don’t you think I noticed when you played the recording? Methinks you fell for the girl yourself! No, no, a bad bad idea. You wait here. When I come out with her I only hope you’ve recovered.”

Fake Face left the car and stepped into the alley.

Here is where his plan had gone wrong. A trap had been set, yes. For him. He was the intended victim.

As Fake Face moved confidently forward, three large men in green appeared at the other end of the alley. Big Boy was one of them. They held, in order, an AR-14, an Uzi, and an AK47. They saw the hatted figure pause. In a moment orange flame and gray bullets jumped from their muzzles and tore through the alley to kill and destroy any living thing. For three minutes the weapons fired—the shocking noise of a war.

“Enough,” Big Boy finally ordered.

They ran forward to verify their victim and discovered—nothing. Nothing except the shreds of an expensive burgundy derby, which Fake Face had looked to be wearing when he approached. But where was the man himself? Where was the blood?

“Here’s a few red drops of something,” one of Big Boy’s men said.

The drops went right up to a wall. Fake Face couldn’t have gone through bricks!

For all they knew it was a rodent’s blood.

The three former college football players wondered if, as in a game, they’d been too slow—if they’d hesitated just a moment; full of too much eagerness—before pressing the triggers of their weapons. Had they fired too high? They didn’t know.

To the side sat a car with the gangster Sal half-passed out in the driver’s seat. A few stray bullets had dusted the car’s fenders. It was otherwise untouched. Big Boy and his men looked underneath the vehicle and behind it. Sirens sounded in the distance, growing louder. The three men were puzzled. The sirens grew louder.

“What do we do?”

The sirens grew louder.

“We beat it,” Big Boy said.

That evening Big Boy had a drink with his aunt in the District Attorney’s private office. He filled a plush red armchair as if it were a toy. The man was visibly shaken. A collection of nerves which no amount of whiskey could cure.

“Get ahold of yourself, Maxwell,” she scolded him. “It’ll do no good to fall apart.”

“But—,” Big Boy said.

“But—yes,” she countered, looking away from him toward the vulnerable window. “If Fake Face is alive we’re in trouble. He’s the kind you have to finish. Otherwise, he’ll be after us.”

The beetle-browed woman shuddered at the thought.

(NEXT: "The Armory")

Monday, December 6, 2010

POP16: “The Recording”


“I met him at school,” a woman’s voice said.

To Sal it was strange to relive the conversation. His memory returned to the coffeeshop of paintings and plants, and the girl behind the counter who resembled a kind of wild artwork herself.

“It was a small school for poorer kids or those who can’t get into the big name places. We were in the same class. Astronomy, I guess it was. We both arrived late all the time and sat in the last two seats in the back row. The prof hated us! That made a kind of conspiracy between us.

“’I’m going to fail anyway,’ I told Max.

“’No, you won’t,’ Max said. ‘You’re too smart. You’re the smartest person in class, Professor Harbus included. And I’ll pass no matter what!’

“Max was on the football team and football players always passed.

“Max was gigantic. Not just a football player, but a very large football player. I’d laugh when he’d squeeze himself in or out of his desk, which looked about to collapse. Max laughed also. He was a genuinely nice guy. A little naive, but so was I. Among the normal students we both stood out, were freaks. That’s what bonded us, even though we were opposite in everything else. Max was a frat boy and rather conservative, if he’d ever thought about it, while I was a bi-punk artistic anarchist.

“We came from different worlds. Max came from money, power, influence. He could’ve gone to a way better school if he’d been smarter, or applied himself. He was a black sheep in his high-brow world, but still carried the air of a preppy. A failed preppy, but a preppy all the same. Me? I was a runaway who lived in a squat.

“We had a phrase between us: ‘It’s only life.’ That’s how we approached the class and everything else. A pop quiz? Other kids laughing at us? The professor’s grimace? ‘It’s only life.’”

The voice on the cd continued on for several minutes about the class and the college, until it came to the part which most interested the two men.

“Anyway,” she said. “It was spring, near the end of term. The fraternity that Max belonged to threw an outdoor kegger, with a garage band playing crazily enough in a garage. Max had invited me, so I stopped by. Now, know this. I liked Max, a lot, but just as a friend.” She sighed. “You men! You always have to ruin it. Max had been impressed with me and maybe even intimidated by me—I’d picked up on that—I was outspoken in class, while he’d gone through his entire life in the presence of powerful people like his aunt—she’s the D.A., you know—and had never spoken up about anything in his life, browbeaten, kind of a forced disability, if you will, his mind and potential crushed into a tiny box. He was afraid to speak to me! I put this together later.

“It turned out he put so much into me going to their little frat party, and built it into importance, so that by the time I arrived he was drunk. Blotto. Which for him must’ve taken a couple kegs, he’s so big. He embarrassed himself, introducing me to his friends as if to say, ‘I know a girl’; pawing me, trying to kiss me—which he’d never have done if he hadn’t been drinking. If he’d been smoother. . . but the size difference between us was so great it was too awkward and I guess we looked ridiculous. Too bad he couldn’t leave it alone. We connected in other ways, you know. Through our minds. Maybe just a little through our souls.

“As he tried to lean down to kiss me, Max tripped and fell, to many laughs. His face turned red. To hide his embarrassment and to show off to me, Max immediately challenged another boy to a chugging contest. Someone brought out two large tankards. I didn’t watch the other guy. I watched Max. I pleaded with him to stop. Beer splashed down his face and neck, but enough entered his mouth to put him over the edge, into unconsciousness. He staggered and passed out. ‘Do we drag him in the house?’ his friends asked themselves. Instead they let him lie there like a felled ox.

“Max skipped the last two days of class. A buddy of his brought me a note. ‘I’m sorry,’ was all it said. It was signed, ‘Max.’ The final exam was in a large lecture hall. Max made sure to sit across the room from me. Not once did he glance my way. I wanted to somehow tell him, ‘Hey, it’s only life,’ but missed the opportunity. Max finished the test early and walked out. That was the last time I saw him.”

There followed three minutes of silence on the cd. Sal held up a forefinger, signaling Fake Face to wait. Thunder could be heard in the background. Then a man’s voice came on: Sal’s.

“Would you like to meet him again?” Sal asked.

“Sure,” Merrily answered.

The way she said “Sure” captured many emotions, good and bad. Hope; uncertainty; surprise; weariness; longing; doubt-- and many other feelings among them.

NEXT: “The Trap”

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

POP15: “The Girl”


Sal the Hood was given the task to set-up Big Boy. For Sal it was a chance to jump up the ranks. Little did he realize he was a pawn being used in a plan to set up his boss: Fake Face!

Unaware of this, Sal went ahead with his plan. He knew that the Face employed several attorneys and accountants. They helped in financial schemes of the outfit, but would be useless to combat the nascent Big Boy empire. Big Boy had the legal authorities already in his pocket, as police occurrences across the city made obvious. Needed was that most reliable of devices to lure Big Boy from the protection of the Green Club. A woman.

That was Sal’s covered ace. He had the means to trap Big Boy—wouldn’t have made the suggestion to the inscrutable and dangerous Face otherwise.

A few weeks ago he’d stopped late one night with Jake Pol at a garishly designed punk coffeeshop.The coffeeshop sat in what might be considered neutral territory, uncontrolled by Fake Face or Big Boy. Or by the police, for that matter. It was a decrepit no man’s land filled with dives and squats; vagabonds, fugitives, and low-rent artists. An insane local character named Carny held some influence, but otherwise the scene was anarchic.

The barista at the indy coffeeshop was a fascinating young woman named Merrily. Merrily wore the usual piercings and tats, was small and fragile looking, but fascinating, with large eyes and an intense personality. Tensile strength, Sal thought. Merrily took an interest in him. The intensity of her eyes when she looked at him was overwhelming. Later he realized she was like that with everything new to her, a part of her curiosity at life. She had the innocent freshness of a child. He enjoyed the attention all the same.

“Let’s go,” Jake said, because there was no attention given to him. Sal noted the quirky venue’s location and a few days later returned on his own.

During his second visit Sal learned that Merrily knew Big Boy, whose real name was Maxwell.

“It was a dark and stormy night.” Sal was her only customer. There was time to talk.

“I left my phone in the car,” he told her. “Let me grab it in case my, er, friends call.”

“You mean Jake?” she innocently asked.

“Yeah,” Sal said, as innocent.

Thunder rumbled within thick blue clouds in the sky outside as Sal resumed his seat. He placed the phone on the counter, its recording device turned on. Merrily had bangs of pink-dyed hair, the rest of her head shaven. Sal studied the bangs, her freckled face, and her blue eyes as she told the story of her and Max.

“Here it is, Boss,” Sal told Fake Face a day later. “I have it on cd.”

“Play it,” the smiling face ordered.

The creepy eyes within the mask studied Sal as the recording began.

NEXT: “The Recording”

Sunday, November 28, 2010

POP14: “A Digression”


(Can be skipped. Not in the regular flow of the plot.)

Fake Face remained standing at the head of the purple or orange room—the color shifting with sunlight entering through the broad bay windows overlooking Killtown. His followers, black-and-white coated Jake Pol among them, wondered where in his hidden mind Fake Face was going. His voice continued in a low murmur, almost a whisper, before subtly rising. Fake Face was speaking about rodents cohabiting the building with them.

“Do you ever wonder?” Fake Face pondered. “Those gray creatures. They’re our underclass, remaining within the walls or under the floors of this too-old Civil War-era place while we gleam like rulers, like sungods in daylight. They won’t come out. That they so studiously avoid us is a mark of their intelligence. They know us well!”

On coffee tables arrayed about the brightly lit orange-or-purple room sat thick glossy fashion magazines with Face’s plastic visage smiling from their covers. Several of the photos were in black-and-white, others in color.

“They’re our Other, these skulking bottom-feeder friends of ours. The other side of our coin. Everything has its underside. Everything is its opposite. Our society presents the good. The look of the good. The polished presentation. But what life is really about is pure malice. Mendacity. Stabbing crushing disposing of all who oppose you, but especially those who don’t oppose you, who just are. When I present the good to my fans and followers they know—they know—I’m the opposite. That’s the subliminal appeal. Maybe not even subliminal. In the open. Don’t give me silly notions of the authentic. What we’re about is co-opting the authentic, replacing it, killing it, neighborhood by neighborhood territory by territory.

“That’s my philosophy it’s a godless philosophy yes but only when you embrace your godlessness can you become a god yourself as I’ve become one.”

Fake Face smiled at this. But he was always smiling. They sensed somehow that this time behind the fearsome mask he was smiling for real.

His ambitious paramour Rhonda Ruthlessness dressed in red sitting diagonally across from him openly beamed.

As they reflected on this a colleague of theirs, Mike Mild, stood next to Fake Face. From where had he come? Likely stepped into the room between sunbeams from the arched hallway beyond.

Mike Mild was a representative gang member: handsome, clean, and square-jawed.

“Take young Mike,” the Face said. “Our good friend. He’s been representing our organization with the press. Witness if you will Mike’s stunted personality, his inability to read people. Mike’s senses have never been challenged by questions of survival. He’s never feared anyone, not even his parents—least of all his parents—and so never was forced to consider, to analyze, the nature of the human beast. Given our enemies, our need to analyze them, to know them better than they know themselves, Mike Mild is no longer a relevant model.”

Before the room could react Fake Face slipped a slim .38 automatic pistol from his pocket and put a bullet through Mike’s head. They heard a distinct “pop” as Mike fell to the floor. They felt no emotion about the event, instead wondered that the image of the killing came to their senses a microinstant before the sound.

Mike lay across thick shag with tongue hanging out of his mouth and eyes wide open, staring blankly upward. Another young man stood now in his place, equally square-jawed but with darker hair and vaguely Asian features.

“Meet Mike’s replacement, Dao Loon,” Fake Face said to his people. “I think he’ll be from New Orleans, but I’m not sure. We’re still writing his bio.”

The words smirked. The plastic smile in front of the roiling gang members became more intense. Several of them sweat. Jake Pol sweat most of all.

“Poor Mike!” Fake Face eulogized. “Sad Mike! There he lies. A fallen idol. We knew him well, but then again, we hardly knew him. Now he’s forever gone. The problem, you see, isn’t the sudden disappearance of Mike Mild. He himself our precious and perfect Mike in the larger scheme of things which means in our scheme of things meant nothing. The important thing the only thing is that Mike’s red blood has stained our imported rug.”

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

POP13: “The Green Club”


“Where are they?” Big Boy asked.

Business at the Green Club came at a trickle.

“They afraid of Fake Face,” one of his hulking friends said.

“What you need, Big Boy,” another put in, “is some experience to run this operation. A man like Jake Pol.”

Jake Pol! Of course. Fake Face’s former Number Two, said to be responsible for the Fake One’s success. Now relegated to lowly club floor manager.

“Bring him here,” Big Boy ordered.

Late one night Jake Pol stepped from the burgundy glass tower within which hid Fake Face’s popular Downtown Club. Jake wore his usual black-and-white suit. From the shadows two large black men appeared, one on each side of him. They were dressed in green. Jake reached for a silver pistol inside his checkered coat. A large hand stopped him.

“You’re coming with us,” a rumbling voice said.

Jake Pol stood inside an office deep within the Green Club, facing an enormous man plopped behind a tiny desk: Big Boy. The walls of the cube-like office were painted bright orange, as was the desk. The room glowed.

The man in green sat so high he must be propped on phone books, or have an enormous ass. Now that he was out from under Fake Face’s dominance Jake’s innate sarcasm spread over his features. His bottom lip curled with contempt.

“So, you’re for real,” Jake said. “I thought you were made up.”

He looked around himself. This guy’s a stooge, Jake thought.

“I’m real,” Big Boy said, adopting a tough guy pose picked up from television mob shows.

Big Boy held an apple in his hand. While staring at Jake he crushed the apple into pulp, then wiped his hand with a green handkerchief. “That’s what I’ll do to Fake Face,” he said.

“What do you want from me?” Jake said.

“I want you to manage the Green Club. I’ll pay double what the Face pays.”

“Sure you will,” Jake laughed. “No thanks. Nobody crosses Fake Face and gets away with it.”

Big Boy had no response to this. He looked perplexed. There was no backup plan.

After a few minutes of puzzlement, he pressed a buzzer. The two men who’d brought Jake entered.

“We’ll have to kill him,” Big Boy said.

“Now hold it a minute!” Jake said.

He’d overestimated Big Boy’s intelligence. Stupidity can be dangerous.

“I’m more valuable to you alive than dead,” Jake insisted.

“How so?” Big Boy asked.

“Look. I’m not going to anger the Face by joining you guys. That’s a given. For me that’d be suicide. It’d be worse than suicide. But I can help you out while still working for him.”

Big Boy was confused. He wondered if this smug shark was trying to trick him. His face reddened and his body swelled within his too-small green suit. He imagined crushing Jake’s head. Jake raised his hand.

“Settle down! What I mean is, I can pass on to you information about Face’s rackets, about his whereabouts. I have no sympathy for the man, only for myself. Every man for himself. I’ll give you all you need to compete with him. The rest depends on how well you make use of it. Take down his activities, if you can. If you’re bold enough. Hurt him, Big Boy. Trap him. Kill him!”

Big Boy grinned like a child.

For the next hour they worked out a simple code to communicate by text message. Morning rose outside. Big Boy’s men drove Jake back to the heart of town.

Things happened quickly. Fake Face’s network of streetcorner drug dealers were chased out of their neighborhoods. Several were arrested. Three afterhours bars which featured hot guns and prostitutes were padlocked. Action seemed to be coming from the D.A.’s office.

“It’s indirect,” Fake Face said to his gang at their Veronica Street headquarters. “The police wouldn’t act on their own. Someone’s prodding them.”

The main members of his gang sat around him. His sourfaced gun moll girlfriend known for her ambition. Several obedient toughs. In black-and-white clothes, the cynic, Jake Pol. The rust-red arched room around them looked archaic; baroque.

“Would the D.A. be that crazy?” Jake Pol wondered out loud.

“No one’s that crazy crazy like a madman like a sneak, but people can be greedy greedy,” Face said. “Temptation gets them every time. Many many stupid people have horribly horribly died that way.”

The eyes within the bizarre plastic face studied his employees. Unease shot through each one of them. A few were guilty of thoughts, if not the reality, of betrayal.

Jake was thinking that his move against Fake Face must be buried in layers upon layers. It could never trace back to himself. He put a blank expression on his face so Fake Face couldn’t read him. The caustic eyes settled on him for a moment, as if they tried to.

A stubble-faced thug named Sal spoke up. “Boss, it’s this Big Boy dude,” he said. “He’s behind everything. He’s throwing around all kinds of money, yo. He’s paying the D.A. and the cops more than you are.”

Fake Face’s eyes looked frantically alive.

“So what? So what are you saying? So what do we do with him? What do we do, what do we plan, who is he, what do we know about him he’s so secure in his ‘Green Club’ this interloper this copycat this idiotic fat upstart, how do we get to him how do we take him down what are you suggesting, what do we DO, WHAT DO WE DO??”

“Boss, we need to set for him a trap.”

Alone among them, Jake Pol faintly smiled. Opportunity had dropped into his lap, in the person of Sal. Jake saw his opening.

(To be continued.) 

Friday, October 22, 2010

POP 12: “Fake Face versus Big Boy”


Killtown’s District Attorney called her nephew into her office.

The nephew wore a spiffy tan uniform. His name was Maxwell, but everyone called him Big Boy.

“What is this crap?” she yelled.

The D.A. tossed a stack of newspapers onto her black desk.

The gleaming visage of local gangleader Fake Face smiled out from photos on the gray newsprint pages.

“This benefit! That benefit! I allow him to operate in this town and he takes it over. He turns legitimate! At the same time, all our joint rackets—excuse me, ‘projects,’—that I allowed him in on, he’s taken a controlling interest!”

“You wanted his money,” Big Boy said.

“Money, schmoney! I can’t call him on it. I can’t schedule a press conference to say he’s taken over my underage Asian prostitutes!”

The District Attorney resembled a severe black brow beneath a silver-gray wig. beneath the brow, deep-set blue eyes peered out at the world. Big Boy didn’t see the eyes, but he felt their anger.

Outside the office window stood blue, red, and green skyscrapers. Inside, her nephew stood as straight, as tall, and as massive as those structures.

“You’re the only one I can depend on, Big Boy,” she said. “My assistants are incompetent. The Mayor’s a bozo fit only for photo ops, or playing with the train set I gave him last Christmas. I’ve been running this town the last ten years and now I find it’s being stolen!”

“Yes, Auntie,” Big Boy said, straightening himself more in his uniform of epaulets, starched collar, and polished jack boots, indicating his loyalty and willingness to serve.

Unlike everyone else in the city, Big Boy wasn’t completely out for himself. He had few ambitions. His powerful Auntie had caused him to be made a Sheriff’s deputy. This allowed him to wear a badge and play cop. Beating up the occasional speeding motorist was a bonus. Max was an overgrown frat boy. He was like an obedient big dog that’d listen to the last person who told him something.

“I’ve had you given a Leave of Absence,” his aunt told him now. “Henceforth you work for this office. Your job will be to take over Fake Face’s territory. To disrupt his operations. You’re going undercover.”

His nephew looked quizzically at her. She wondered how to simplify her instructions. Max raised his hand to ask a question.

“Does that mean I don’t get to wear a uniform anymore?” Big Boy frowned.

“You’ll no longer wear a uniform,” she admitted. “But you get to play gangster.”

With an unlimited expense account, Big Boy set up shop. A few years ago Max had played football at a small college. Now he recruited former teammates for his new project. Having trouble finding and keeping jobs due to poor grades, criminal records, or lingering concussion problems, they were happy to sign on.

Big Boy outfit them in a new style of uniform: gaudy green suits with purple shirts and green hats with purple bands on them. He did the same for himself, except that his suit jacket had epaulets. Then Max spent a large sum of cash renovating an unused bowling alley at the edge of Fake Face territory. The gray and dilapidated structure transformed itself into the city’s largest nightclub.

Big Boy’s club was done in shades of green, with purple highlights. “The Green Club,” a large purple-green neon sign on the roof announced. After dark the sign could be seen for miles.

Max stocked the club with cases of good whiskey and with busty waitresses, and brought in punk-style hip-hop musical acts—the latest craze—and lit up with a flick of a switch a long glowing green bar with flowing taps of orange, gold, silver, and white booze. Easily obtainable within, toward the back: illegal drugs. Big Boy and his colorfully-arrayed henchmen stood at the entrance, near massive porticoes before a sweeping circular drive displayed by two dozen spotlights, and waited for the crowds.

NEXT: The Big Boy Saga Part Two: “The Green Club”    

Friday, October 8, 2010

Pop and Simplicity

On an on-line forum I briefly discussed Sylvia Plath's "Daddy" as an ideal poem. What I like about it is its clarity, its apparent simplicity. Yet by being simple, with astute structuring, the poem fills with thematic complexity. It's like a modernist painting within which the viewer can see many things. Depending upon the angle from which it's approached. Another example is the four Gospels, which approach one subject from four different angles, and in their simple language create a compelling, three-dimensional portrait.

It's a paradox of nature and art that often the greatest art is the most apparently simple. I tell you, there are many more depths to "The Wizard of Oz" than to "Citizen Kane." One goes to the heart of the subconscious, while the other remains on the intellectual surface. It's the simple things-- a children's jangle, perhaps-- which unlock the treasures of the mind. Another example is H. Rider Haggard's "She," a straightforward adventure tale which was praised by both Freud and Jung. Surface artistic complexity often serves to hinder the artistic experience, while traditional tools like a narrative line can drive a knife into the psyche.

In other words, as they say in sales, "Keep It Simple!"

Monday, June 28, 2010

POP11: “Kevin and Koreena”



Kevin and Koreena met during a one-day conclave of their firm’s artists in Monopoly City. They worked for a huge conglomerate which employed thousands of artists scattered across the continent, paying them starvation wages, using their art in various promotions for the several hundred products made by the powerful company. The artists never knew when they’d glimpse a snatch of their art. On a passing bus maybe, or in a psychedelic TV ad for hair color, laundry detergent, or a band’s new cd. There’d be a split-second of artistic satisfaction before the image zipped away, the artist saying, “That was me.”

This was the way of life in a land where everything had been commercialized. All goods were produced by super-gigantic companies which the most cynical individuals speculated was really only one company.

Even if it wasn’t the only such giant, the company Kevin worked for was impressive up close. Four blue skyscraper towers rose into the clouds before him. The interior lobby connecting the towers was the size of a football stadium. Everywhere: elevators, glass, cascading fountains. Confusion.

“Take Elevator C to floor 57B,” a guard glancing at Kevin’s Permission Pass told him.

The Young Artists Conclave turned out to be one of a score of such conclaves taking place within the towers this day. No special treatment. The few hundred artists invited were mere cogs in a machine. Morning presentations were to be followed by a ninety minute lunch period, then more lectures. There’d be time for partying after five.

All of the artists except Kevin were healthy, clean and confident; of substantive backgrounds; well-educated and well-groomed, despite their bohemian trappings. Judging by the clothes they wore, Kevin figured many of them supplemented their meager incomes with trust funds.

Kevin was pale and ill-fed, wearing a raggedy checked sportcoat over a faded polyester shirt. He was aware he saw little sunlight, holed up in his little studio. Worst of all, he was from Depressionville, a city that because of its crime and poverty was a national embarrassment.

At lunchtime the Young Artists paired up boy-girl. In some cases, girl-girl and boy-boy. Like the last two chosen in a pickup baseball game, the last pair left were Kevin and Koreena. Kevin looked, perplexed, down at her. “Well, let’s go to lunch,” he finally said.

The other artists dispersed to trendy bistros. Kevin led Koreena to a nearby diner for hot dogs. He didn’t tell her this was all he could afford, or the only kind of place where he’d be comfortable. “Good atmosphere,” Kevin mumbled.

“Oh, I love it!” Koreena said, wide-eyed. “Interesting types for my sketchbook.”

Koreena had the ultra upbeat attitude which all handicapped people seemed to have and which Kevin frankly found irritating. Koreena wore a chic black outfit with a red scarf. She was no beauty, but presentable enough. Her figure was decently proportioned considering her circumstance. Her only drawback was that she was one-foot tall. “Tiny” didn’t quite encapsulate it.

As they sat on round stools at the counter in the diner, the gruff hairy-armed foreign-born counterman at first thought Kevin was ordering for, and talking with, an invisible person. He leaned over to see for sure and saw Koreena.

“Oh,” he said, shrugging as if to say that nothing in this city surprised him.

“Hi!” Koreena called up to the man in her perky manner.

During the afternoon presentation, Kevin felt the chili-covered ‘dogs he’d eaten at the diner coming up on him. He belched, and passed gas. Koreena next to him stared ahead at the speaker, studiously taking notes. Didn’t she realize who she’d paired up with, he wondered?

At five the entire room of artists jammed onto elevators which took them to a huge stainless steel club within the skyscraper complex. Kevin and Koreena blindly followed along. Throbbing music pounded their ears while mosaics of colored lights shot by on all sides.

The other couples made out frantically at other tables. Many vanished to rooms in the complex’s centerpiece hotel, for the purpose of having sex. Kevin and Koreena sat sipping from cold glasses of ginger ale, pretending to enjoy themselves.

Kevin was aware of his uselessness. He’d never made out with a one-foot woman before, or had sex with one. He wasn’t sure it could be done. He’d had little enough sex as it was. Unsatisfying encounters with an older woman named Betty back in Depressionville was about it. He sensed that Koreena was a virgin. She had a sheltered air about her. Yet she was well-decked out . Her red scarf gave her a sheen of prettiness. At some point in the afternoon during a visit to a restroom she’d sprayed on nice-smelling perfume. She smelled good, no question. Why? For him??

They ran out of small talk and sat awkwardly. Both studied the times on their cellphones.

“I, er, have to catch my flight,” Kevin said, his mouth drooping. Koreena was traveling by train.

Kevin sweat in embarrassment, more profusely than the cold air conditioning of the club could stop. When the bill came Kevin realized he’d consumed five overpriced ginger ales, while tiny Koreena had downed two. No free refills. He’d be hitchhiking his way to the airport.

“Let me help with that,” Koreena volunteered.

“Oh, no. No!” Kevin insisted, magnanimously placing down all his cash, knocking over his empty ginger ale glass in the process. The glass rolled off the table before he could stop it. A moment later someone stepped on it.

At the massive entrance to the four-towered blue skyscraper, Kevin gave Koreena a crouching half-hug then fled into the mob of people on the populous avenue.


The journey to Monopoly City was hugely disorienting to Kevin. It was the first time he’d ventured out of Depressionville, which wasn’t the kind of city from which to judge the outside world. Depressionville was a wrecked landscape of enormous industrial factories, many of them useless steel hulks sitting closed, a few still belching out products. The city had been built not as somewhere to live, but a place to work. Living—or rather, sleeping in-between 12-or-16 hour shifts—had been considered by the city’s owners to be a necessary inconvenience. If they could’ve kept workers at their machines inside the monster plants 7/24 they would have.

When Kevin was born, the industrial hive still hummed. His father was a highly-placed executive at the most gigantic factory. At the time, the largest industrial complex in the world. His mother was a scrawny blonde white trash waitress at a greasy diner on a dilapidated soot-sky street outside the plant.

The Important Exec took a liking to the waitress at the dump where he’d have acid-tasting coffee every cold morning, the red fires of the factory glaring unromantically through the diner’s gray windows. The Executive was married to someone else and lived in the city’s best barricaded neighborhood, on the other side of town, so that when Kevin was born the man couldn’t fully acknowledge the child, but over the next dozen years he endeavored to slip the waitress a few bucks every now and again for the kid.

Kevin met his father twice. The first time was when the Executive made an impromptu visit to the humble house where Kevin and his mother lived. Kevin was eight.

The man’s bulk and booming voice overfilled the tottering clapboard residence on a muddy road near the diner.

“You, uh, said that sonny liked to draw,” the embarrassed man on the threshold said to Kevin’s mother.

The Exec didn’t look at Kevin directly, but took surreptitious glances at him. He had two teenaged daughters who lived with him in his other world. Kevin was his only son. Curiosity at what the boy looked like had prodded the visit.

The Important Man held a beginning artist’s kit under his arm. He laid it out on the floor—an easel, oil paints, brushes, and an instruction booklet.

The man watched as the dirty kid gazed with wonderment at the colorful entry to a new world. The man scratched his head, with his own wonderment at the fact the child was his. Perhaps trying to determine what part of Kevin was him. What did he recognize in the boy? Was the man’s perplexed expression surprise? Disappointment?

The second time Kevin saw him was four years later upon the Important Man’s death.

His mother received an abrupt phone call one night. Afterward she was silent, then cried a little. Then nothing. A couple days later very early in the morning the largest car Kevin had ever seen pulled up outside their house. Kevin had put on a tie, black trousers, and white shirt, normally worn Easter the one time a year his mother took him to church. A stone-like chauffeur motioned Kevin to the backseat. His mother wasn’t coming along.

The limousine took Kevin out of his neighborhood cross town over bridges down avenues, including a short trip on a freeway, into a gorgeously green tree-filled neighborhood with massively large and stately homes. Gray-stone, tan-brick, pink and beige, with dark purple roofs.

People actually lived like this. It wasn’t a fantasy on television.

The car pulled into a back driveway at a pillared funeral home as an orange band of morning burnished the edge of the dark sky. The boy was ushered inside, into an eerily silent room enveloped in cool air, velvet walls, and silence.

In front of him too close to escape lay his father in a gold casket. The man’s face looked strangely fake, daubs of red makeup on it. He’d been painted. The face remained impressive nevertheless. A work of art. Kevin tried to see in the chiseled features and granite expression a trace of himself. How inadequate he felt!

To the side observing with hazel eyes stood the two most beautiful women he’d ever seen. The taller had brown hair. The younger was blond. They wore black dresses. They were impossibly tall.

The two stared at Kevin in the same way his father once had. The younger, more impulsive sister gave Kevin a hug. The other followed her example.

“We’ll remain in contact,” the two imperial young women promised him.

The large hand of the chauffeur, unobtrusive but with great strength, touched Kevin’s arm. The hand communicated to Kevin the power of this world. Kevin was guided out of the room.

Kevin’s mother died two years afterward. One night she came home with a cough which didn’t go away. Three weeks later she was in bed. A month after that she was gone—an experience Kevin put permanently out of his head.

By this time Kevin was gaining glimmers of understanding of how the world worked. He wondered if the neighborhood’s everpresent pollution had caused his mother’s illness. The huge plant and its neighborhood were bounded by a stream so filled with iron pollution it’d been named the Red River, in celebration of its color. Animals that drank from it, from cats to pigeons to pheasants to rats, developed tumors over their bodies. As did a few people in the area.

Kevin painted the scarlet river, with the towering black industrial plant next to it.

Kevin’s Uncle Joe moved him, his artist’s materials, and his few clothes to a room on the other side of the Red River. The room was above a garage where Joe stored two junk cars, next to the large scrap auto parts yard where Joe worked.

Uncle Joe was his mom’s youngest brother. Joe wasn’t all that much older than Kevin, but to Kevin seemed an alien creature, all tendons, knotty muscles, grimy blue work trousers, yellowed t-shirts and protruding yellow hair and whiskers over every inch of his face and body. Kevin looked for a hint of resemblance to himself in the antedeluvian man, finding his mother’s blue eyes, which—like hers, and maybe his own—appeared curiously vulnerable.

The small garage was surrounded by an eight-foot high cinder block wall with a nine-foot tall iron fence around that. To get in and out Kevin had to scale the fence, crawl along the top of the wall, and jump to a window ledge, the window his entrance to the room.

As the shack garage was backed up to the Red River—only a narrow dirt path separating the building from the glowing stream—Kevin wasn’t sure how Joe had got the damaged cars into the garage, or how he’d get them out.

This was Kevin’s new home, where he’d lived since.

An orange cat lived in the garage and became Kevin’s buddy. After a hard day chasing mice and rats in the garage and in the yard next door, when Kevin returned from school the cat would appear from a secret entrance, some structural crack in the wall, to share Kevin’s food—a baloney or tuna fish sandwich or such. At night Kevin and the cat stared out the window at the large junkyard next door, where after hours large killer guard dogs roamed.

In wintertime, covered by snow, the yard and the city sprawling beyond took on a pacifist glow, the city’s ever-raging fire subdued by the cold.

Joe dropped in on occasion without warning, after an argument with his girlfriend, or to sleep off a drunk, plopping down on the hard floor next to where Kevin and the cat slept on a narrow bed. In the early morning Joe’d cook over Sterno a breakfast of fried baloney and onions for them before leaving for his job in the yard, while Kevin went to school.

Kevin had few friends at school. School activities which motivated normal students were to him meaningless noise. All he cared about were his sketches and paintings; his art. Prom night he spent home with the cat.

At graduation after the ceremony his two mysterious half-sisters appeared, as tall as he’d remembered. The oldest was strikingly impressive; the younger moreso, not quite as tall but even more beautiful. Kevin was struck dumb in their presence. They handed him an envelope with a letter inside signifying his acceptance at a prestigious local art school. Tuition was paid for.

“Thank you,” he mumbled with intense gratitude, before his half-sisters vanished as suddenly as they’d appeared.

After art school Kevin got the job creating art for the monopolistic corporate firm. It didn’t pay much, enough for his food, and a token rent payment to Joe every month, which Joe spent on beer and prostitutes. Kevin could survive. That was all he’d hoped for. Life was good—except one day the cat wandered off and never came back. Likely eaten by the killer dogs in the yard next door. The cat’s disappearance emphasized Kevin’s loneliness.


Koreena lived with her elderly grandparents in a modest but comfortable house in an unremarkable but long established community 100 miles from Monopoly City. Her grandparents watched her with care and worry. Also with humility. They’d given Koreena’s mother too long a leash—all of the leash, in fact—so that if they erred with Koreena it was on the side of safety.

In the raising of Koreena’s mother they’d failed spectacularly. She’d been a mercurial personality, had grown up believing she was the center of everything. First she’d wanted to be a star ballerina. Then, after an ankle injury, a rock singer.

She left home at eighteen, becoming pregnant via an anonymous guitar player. During her pregnancy she continued what she saw as the rock star lifestyle—copious amounts of pot and LSD washed down with Jim Beam.

After Koreena was born, the child was left with the mother’s parents. At this time in the mad society (despite the energy spent selling them things) children were a low priority. An afterthought in the pursuit of ME.

The prodigal mother would visit once a season. “She’s so tiny!” she’d marvel about the baby. “Like a doll.” Then she’d drop into a spare bedroom to sleep twenty hours straight, before going back on the road, leaving in the middle of night.

She died of a heroin overdose when Koreena was three.

All the little girl had of her mother after that was a promotional photo that remained forever larger than Koreena. She would stare at the large photo for thirty minutes at a time, before she returned to her playing. Koreena’s dolls were larger than she was.

Koreena was raised to believe she was as good as anybody. When allowed outside to play, she’d be there with the other kids rushing at a soccer ball, though the ball was her own size.

Growing up, she never did grow up. Her grandparents worried. They took her to specialist after specialist, all who pronounced the girl healthy. “She actually is growing,” they’d say. “You just can’t see it.”

That she was healthy was her grandparents story. Koreena had the memory of medical operations when she was very young. The memory of a high-up hospital room at Christmastime, meeting other hospitalized children down the hall in a room with a green-and-red Christmas tree in it. She knew she’d not been expected to live. Everything that happened to her afterward, then, was extra.

A lady in the neighborhood owned a miniature dog—a Yorkie. Koreena identified with the animal. That was her. She was like anyone else, only smaller.

Throughout her student days other kids went out of their way to make Koreena part of their activities. They did so conspicuously, the tiny girl placed at the forefront of events, so that the message sent by her peers was, “Aren’t we good people?” Whether at dances, banquets, or student meetings, the efforts were stagey.

Koreena didn’t mind. She wanted to be part of everything. That she endured being the “Poor little girl,” “Little Koreena,” showed her desperation.

Still, as with Kevin in his very different city, when she graduated high school her dominant emotion was relief.

College was for real. Less role playing. Koreena was one hungry student of many. She worked hard at becoming an artist. She had a unique perspective to offer. She wanted to give that perspective through art.

Yes, the corporate job she ended up with was creatively unfulfilling. Neither did it pay enough for her to live on her own. Yet, it was a job. She was an artist. She was employed. She had pride. That was something.

Despite her size, Koreena was as mature and capable as anybody and wanted to be taken seriously.

After the work conclave, Koreena’s worried grandparents questioned her in the expansive living room of their comfortable house, Koreena parked on a square rug in front of two vases and a fake fireplace. The grandparents cleared their throats. They worried about whether Koreena’d find happiness in every aspect of her life. They’d done everything they could for her. But after all, she was only one-foot tall.

“Did you enjoy herself?” the well-intentioned couple carefully asked. “Did you meet anybody?”

“Oh, a lot of people.”

“Anyone in particular?”

“Well, one nice young man had lunch with me.”

If they’d seen Kevin, the worried couple would’ve become more worried.


It was a sign of how fucked-up Kevin was that after the conclave he’d been eager to get back to his Depressionville shack. It was a grimy rathole, but he was used to it. It was his.

One afternoon two months later Kevin’s cellphone rang. A call from a number he didn’t recognize.


“Hi!” came a tiny voice. “This is Koreena. How are you?”

Oh yeah, he remembered. They’d exchanged phone numbers. He’d meant to call her, but had lost the napkin he’d scribbled the number on.

“I’m in town,” she explained. “Right here in Depressionville!”

She’d flown into the city for a job opportunity with one of the city’s dinosaur industries. The interview over, she thought she must give Kevin a call.

“I’m practically in your neighborhood!” Koreena gushed.

Koreena suggested they meet at a trendy bar bq restaurant she’d been told about. Kevin knew the place—had been dragged there once for a drink by his friend Betty. It was the city’s only trendy restaurant.

“I’m in a coffeeshop across the street from it now,” Koreena said.

Sounds of a talking, clattery room could be heard behind her.

“Yeah, I know the coffeeshop,” Kevin shouted, as if to make up for Koreena’s small voice by amplifying his own. “Stay there! I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

He hung up.

He had no time to wash up, but decided to at least change his shirt. He’d bought a new shirt a couple months ago, on sale at a chain big box store, in case he might someday need it. The shirt was blue. No paint, food, or coffee stains on it, unlike his other shirts. He put on the new shirt and squinted at his image in a handheld mirror.

Kevin didn’t know why he’d told her twenty minutes. It’d sounded assertive. Twenty minutes had passed by the time he climbed out of his room to the wall and down the fence. He’d have to hurry. No telling what could happen to the little visitor.

Kevin hustled to a nearby avenue. Their meeting spot was two-or-so miles up. All he’d do is catch a bus and he’d be right there.

After fifteen minutes standing on a streetcorner in the hot sun, Kevin recalled that the buses in Depressionville were notoriously slow, when they ran at all. Kevin began to run. She’d think he’d stood her up. Granted that a part of him wanted to stand her up. (He felt shame at the thought.) Kevin disliked change from his narrow comfort zone. But, anything might happen to Koreena in this unruly town. There was no mercy here, no safety zones. In person he’d clue her in that he was a loser and anything between them wouldn’t work.

Kevin ran two miles through the heart of a chaotic city over and past endless decrepit landmarks, of closed soot-yellow churches and aged, crumbling gray expressway bridges, white-painted iron-barred groceries amid red-frame dilapidated houses, the expanding mess of it punctuated by huge green weeds and wild packs of mangy dogs. In the near distance, a downtown where half of the glass-gleaming towers sat vacant.

Kevin sweat heavily. Blue circles of wetness appeared under his arms. He looked at his cellphone as he ran. Oh Christ! Over an hour had gone by. He was way late. He imagined Koreena sitting in the place waiting, object of stares.

At last he noticed the coffeeshop in front of the town’s long-closed ruined eyesore of a railroad station. Kevin ran into the coffeeshop out of breath. Customers stared at him. He didn’t see Koreena.

“Over here!” a voice called.

Koreena sat alone at a back table against the window, barely noticeable.

“I saw you run up,” she laughed.

“Yeah, I’m a mess,” he acknowledged.

Through the window he saw the growing line at the bar b-q place. It’d be a long wait for a table.

“We better get over there,” he said.

She hurried across the avenue with him, through a gap in cars, endeavoring to keep up.

“Sorry, sorry,” he said. “But I know how this place is. I’ve been here once.”

The chaos in his head momentarily slowed as they waited in line. The racing world stopped. The line inched forward. Kevin put his hands in his pockets and looked down at the sidewalk. He scrunched up his forehead, fumbling for small talk.

“Er, ah, how’d the interview go?”

He considered Koreena’s well-groomed, perky persona. She wore an orange-and-white striped dress, her lightly tanned face delicately made up to highlight her green eyes, framed by pert reddish-brown hair, the result attractive if doll-like. Kevin felt himself crude and ungainly by contrast, a too-perfect representative of his city.

“No doubt you nailed the interview,” he guessed.

“I don’t know,” she frowned. “When I talked with them over the phone the other day, they sounded like I’d been hired. The in-person interview was a formality. Today they were hedging, making excuses. Telling me it wouldn’t be the best fit for me. That kind of thing.”

Kevin shifted awkwardly. He wanted to explain to her the nature of this world, but hesitated.

“Koreena,” he said. “The world is a nasty place. You can’t go through it with rose-colored glasses, ya know.”

“Oh, I know very well,” she insisted.

“I sense you’re a very optimistic person. I wish I had one-tenth your optimism. But Koreena, you’re too trusting. I mean, even with me. What do you know about me? For all you know I could be a serial killer.”

“You’re no serial killer,” she told him.

“Well, you’re right. In this instance you’re right. But you know, you never know.”

The line moved ahead. Soon they were inside the door. A hostess approached with an armful of menus.

“How many in your party, sir?” she asked.

“Er, ah.” He looked down so the hostess would look down also. “Two.”

Koreena dominated the conversation while Kevin made a mess of his barbecued ribs. Red sauce went on his hands, face, and blue shirt: everyplace. Koreena pretended not to notice.

“There must be a trick to this,” he said.

The hostess had seated them at the back near the kitchen so they wouldn’t be conspicuous. They were conspicuous regardless, object of stares, to which Koreena was oblivious.

“My whole life,” Kevin admitted, “I’ve felt part of a geek show. I don’t like people. I don’t know how you deal with it.”

“You get used to it,” she said. “Even humiliation gets old. You just plunge in and expect the worst.”

He didn’t tell her he wanted this social thing over with. Though, now that he had the ribs finished—handled disastrously, but finished—he felt a trifle relaxed. He even touched his water glass and took a few quick gulps, then carefully set it down before it toppled over. He visualized ice cubes and water everywhere, The waitress was horrified at them as it was.

The air conditioning, anyway, felt good.

The restaurant: the nightmare city’s only refuge. Even here the tension intruded into the crowded room, among the narrow walls.

“Where’s your hotel room?” Kevin asked.

“I don’t have one,” Koreena said. “I was hoping I could crash with you.”

Kevin knocked over the half-empty water glass. His panic level went up several steps.

“I, er, don’t know, yeah, I guess, my place, you see. . . .”

He needed to rush home and tidy up the place, but realized it’d take a week to tidy it, and it still wouldn’t be presentable.

“Face it, you’re stuck with me,” she told him.

At this moment loud dyed-hair Betty and several of her girlfriends barged into the restaurant. Oh oh! More panic. Betty would be savage with a girl like Koreena. Kevin heard Betty’s boisterous low-class laugh. Betty operated on a basic level and could be merciless. On the other side of things, Koreena would wonder how Kevin could ever know such a person.

“I, er, think I dropped a rib on the floor!” he said, ducking his head under the table. Koreena laughed at this.

“Just leave it!” she said. “They’ll clean it up. You’re sometimes comical, you know.”

On her level for the first time, Kevin’s eyes were inches away from hers. He sat up. Betty’s back was turned, safely at the bar on the other side of the room.

“We’d better get going,” Kevin said.

The waitress hurried with their bill. Then they faced at the entrance to the room the waiting crowd.

“Kevin,” a voice among those waiting said.

In line stood his oldest half-sister, as tall and elegant as ever, wearing a chic black-and-gold dress. A distinguished man stood beside her.

“Imagine seeing you here,” she said as she gave him a hug. “Good to see you’re okay. Who are you with? I thought I saw. . . .”

“She was here a minute ago,” Kevin said, scanning about. “Might’ve ducked into the restroom.”

“Be well,” his imperial sibling said as she moved away.

Koreena waited for him outside. She’d ducked under the line to escape. Her small size had advantages.

“A confusing night!” Kevin said.

The sun headed down. The air smelled of fire—a latter-day Rome that was always burning. A huge truck bounced down the upheaved avenue with clangorous noise, leaving a cloud of diesel smoke behind.

“Did your friend see me?” Koreena asked.

“My half-sister,” Kevin said, toying ineptly with a toothpick. “I’ve noticed that many in this country are invisible. It’s when people look beyond you to the next person in line, and you have to hold up your hand to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute! Here I am! What about me?’ That must be your plight, Koreena.”

“For me, that’s life,” she said. “If I wasn’t aggressive sometimes, I wouldn’t get anyplace. I mean, look at me. That’s obvious!”

She laughed, while Kevin puzzled.

Before them stretched the remains of a city—a city that’d been turned over to industry. Built for industry. When industry failed, no provision was made for those who remained. They’d received no notice stating, “It’s time to leave.”

Evening shadows turned the hulking ruin of the train station into a scary monster. Chunks of fallen concrete lay at its feet. Kevin had lived in Depressionville his entire life and still found it ominous.

Many had left. For decades this had been the most violent city in North America. Of late it’d lost even that distinction, simply because the population dropped so spectacularly. There was little left to steal, few left to kill. Half the city consisted of abandoned streets.

A two-mile walk awaited the couple. Kevin stood with anxiety, considering his date’s limitations. She faced ahead as stoically as always.

At this moment a bus pulled alongside, possibly the only one this evening. They climbed aboard.

From where they stepped off the bus to Kevin’s place was a short walk through an empty field. He hoisted Koreena onto his shoulder so her fine clothes wouldn’t become tangled in weeds. Ahead sat the scrap yard. Down a dirt road next to it, the Kevin residence waited.

Walking along the road, they noticed a jet of red flame from a black smokestack, across the glowing red stream. The huge old plant yet operated, despite diminished capacity. To the left, a line of long trucks backed up from an iron bridge crossing the stream—trucks feeding parts into the simmering Monster, or come to take manufactured goods away.

Kevin put Koreena atop the garage’s surrounding fence. “Wait for me on the wall,” he instructed.

When he’d climbed up they crouched along the top of the wall to the garage. To the right, in the scrap yard, roamed great growling dogs with fiery eyes, searching for enemies.

“Koreena!” Kevin said. “Grab onto my neck. Don’t let go!”

“Okay,” she said.

A leap to the windowsill and they were quickly inside.

Kevin saw his room through the eyes of an outsider. It was a hovel. No way around it. The naked lightbulb when turned on showed yellow walls, a single flat mattress surrounded by a plastic bag of empty food cans-- “I should’ve taken the trash out!”—and various paint-covered canvases revealing scenes as grotesque as the room and the environment outside. Attached, a closet-sized space with no bath or toilet, but a spout and a sewage drain. The place smelled of paint, mildew, urine, and mothcake. He hoped she didn’t notice the smell, but realized this was impossible.

Kevin stood in total embarrassment. How could anyone live like this? How could he expect her to spend the night? He’d become comfortable in squalor, was worse than an animal. Whatever illusions about him this intelligently adult creature had created were destroyed. He peered in every corner. At least his Uncle Joe wasn’t here drunkenly sleeping. Be grateful for small favors.

“It’s cool,” Koreena remarked with crossed arms. “An artist’s loft.”

“You’re impossible!” he told her.

Her composure was unfathomable.

“Have you ever been in a place like this before, Koreena?” he asked her. “In a neighborhood like this?”

“Never!” she exclaimed. “I love new experiences.”

Kevin climbed down to the garage below the room and returned with a can of beer of Joe’s plucked from a hiding place. With two plastic cups they shared the beverage, sitting back on the mattress.

“I’m done in,” he admitted.

When they finished the beer he pulled on a long string to turn off the lightbulb. From the window, scattered light of the forgotten city fell across them. Koreena moved next to him. The raging dogs quieted, gone to sleep. Nearby trucks went silent.

“Ya know,” Kevin said. “I’m a clown, Koreena. I hate to inform you of that. But that’s all I really am.”

“We’re all clowns,” she told him. 

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

POP07: "Ezra Meets Esther"


Esther looked at herself in her bathroom mirror. She only had her panties on. She looked at the way her mouth always seemed to have a bit of a frown to it, even if she smiled. She spread a base over her face to cover up the damage from her acne years. Then she put on her eye-shadow, sensing Ezra leaning in her doorway and watching her. She put on a light shade of brown over her whole eyelid and an ever-so-lightly darker eyeliner. Then, she picked up a tube of dark pink lipstick, looking at herself in the mirror as she did so. She puffed her squirrel cheeks out for a moment and put the lipstick away.

“What do you need to wear make-up for?” Ezra asked her, from his spot in the doorway.

“I feel more confident with it, that's all,” she said. She left the bathroom and pushed him aside to go into their bedroom where she stood in front of her closet. She pulled out an off-white bra and put it on. Then she picked one of her skirts. Green. Light green. Nearly to her ankles. Heavily pleated. Ezra sat on the bed, watching her.

The shirt she chose was off white and light, but long-sleeved. None of her shirts had any darting. They all had collars. She started to button it up, but Ezra said, “That one is too see-through.”

“Not really,” she said.

He stood up and selected another one of her shirts from her closet. It was heavier, thicker. He said, “Wear this one.”

“It's getting sort of hot for that shirt,” she said, as she tried to button the sleeves of the shirt she'd selected.

“It has the nice stitching on it,” he said, with that big confident smile of his. Esther changed.
Esther looked at herself covered in sweat. Her hair had matted to her head as if she were some sort of greasy cop in a 1970s crime flick. She smiled big.

Her cardio-kick boxing instructor shouted, “Now LEFT!” The whole class pivoted on their right feet before stepping forward with the left one and beginning to punch the air with their left fist. Every time Esther did a transition smoothly she got a little thrill, as if she had worked out a hard crossword puzzle question.

Her cell phone buzzed on the phone at her feet. She leaned over far enough to see the LED tell her who was calling. Ezra. She'd let it go to voice-mail. She went back to punching. She envisioned a bag in front of her. She concentrated on making a little snap to her punch just as she hit the imaginary bag, like her instructor had shown her a couple weeks before. Pull back as soon as she makes contact.

The phone buzzed that she had a voicemail.

She tried to bring her consciousness into the first two knuckles of her fist. She pictured them hitting just where she wanted them to, over and over and over. She tried to make the front knuckle lead just slightly as she made each strike. She puffed out some air with each extension.

Then her instructor added a cross and a hook to their sequence. Esther liked to lean in a little bit on the cross then retreat a bit with the hook. She felt herself rocking back and forth with her three punch sequence, moving in time to the music and in sync with everyone else in her class who knew what they were doing. She preferred it when her instructor let them stay on a sequence for a while. She could really get into the metronomic quality of executing a sequence again and again, just right.

Her phone buzzed again. She looked down. It was Ezra. Again. She bent over and picked it up and jogged out of the room.

“Keep moving!” her instructor yelled back at her. Esther looked over her shoulder and gave a little laugh as she opened the glass door. Her instructor was a youngish, black woman who'd logged a few years in the Army before becoming a personal trainer. Everything she said had a quality of command to it. Outside the room, she still felt as though she were partly in class. Their workout room was surrounded by huge windows on two sides and mirrors on the other two sides. She could stand outside and still bounce in time to the pace of the class.

“What's up?” she asked Esther as she opened up her phone, trying not to let sweat drip onto it.

“There's a carpet sale on up in Bethesda,” he said. “We should go.”

“Right now?” she asked.

“They close at 8.”

“We can't go this weekend?” she asked, giving sort of half-kicks while she talked to him, keeping her heart rate going.

He put that great big smile in his voice as he said, “I'm two minutes from the gym. Meet me out front.”

She looked back at the clock. Twenty minutes before her class would end. She didn't feel like she'd gotten started. “Can I shower?”

“I don't want to circle the block forever. Just come on down.”

So she met him out front. She waited for him for a while, standing in her tiny gym clothes and a long sleeved t-shirt pulled on over it. When he pulled up, she got in the car and said, “Two minutes, huh?” and kissed him on the cheek.

“What's with those shorts?” he said, pointing at her close, very tight gym shorts.

“They are the same ones my instructor wears.”

“Can you put something on over yourself before we get to the carpet store?”

She unsnapped her seatbelt and leaned back to start going through her gym bag for her skirt. First, though, she gave a little squeeze to his inner thigh.

U2's “New Year's Day” came on the radio and he turned it up.
Esther worked on the stairclimber, the one with the little escalator built into it that went down as you tried to climb up. She'd been setting aside a little bit of cash with each paycheck so she could buy a new gym outfit. At lunch she'd run over to the running store near her office and picked one out. She had it on now. It was light green, almost fluorescent. She wore little tiny, tighty shorts that just went down a little past her butt. The tank-top didn't quite reach her belly button, and it had white racing stripes running down both pieces.

An older black woman she knew from kick-boxing walked by the stairclimber, and Ezra gave her a wave with four fingers, saying, “Hey, girl!” The woman shot her with the finger pistol and Ezra smiled. When her machine's LED told her that she'd reached her goal, she put her fists in the air in a moment of triumph. Then, she hopped off the machine and set her mind to running up a flight of real stairs to the mats where she'd do a little ab work.

She started to semi-jog across the gym floor. When she turned the corner, she really would run up the stairs. When she rounded the corner for the stairs, though, she could see the front desk, and that's where she saw Ezra, filling out a membership form.

She stopped. She looked at him for a moment and then she put a smile on her face and walked over. When he saw her, he got that big smile on his face, too, and said, “Hey, hon, thought I'd follow your good example.”

She placed one hand on his forearm and one hand on his hip and kissed him on the cheek. “You're not going to get all skinny and make me feel bad, are you?”

“Just trying to keep up,” he said.

She asked him to find her upstairs and turned away.

When he finished, Ezra went upstairs and saw Esther doing snatch and grabs with a big medicine ball at the far end of the weight room floor. There were maybe a dozen people in the weight room at the time. He had a good view because he stood in the middle of the main walkway that ran from the stairway around to the men's dressing room.

Esther was bending over with her legs locked to set a medicine ball down at one foot, then reaching up with it till she was 100% stretched out and leaning to one side. When she bent back over, she stuck her butt way out. Ezra looked at every person in the room. Only three of them were women. He looked at each one in turn, and back at his girlfriend each time.

She hadn't seen him yet, but, once he crossed the gym floor to her, she stopped what she was doing and gave him a little play-punch in the stomach. Then, she stepped back and crossed her arms low and loose in front of her. She had one foot cocked on its edge, as if she were holding up the line at Wendy's because she couldn't decide which Biggie Value Meal to get. “Isn't this gym out of the way from your office?” she asked him.

“I thought it would be more fun to work out near you,” he said.

She set her foot down flat, “I just find that I make it more often when my gym is near my office.”

“Do you really have to dress like that?” he asked.

She looked down at herself. She could see a little innertube around her waist, made of the fat she just couldn't shake. Her thighs: she could see a lot of them, were white like an old undershirt and still pretty fleshy. Her outfit was really much more eye-catching than she was. “It's a gym outfit. I just bought it.”

“The other girls in here are just wearing shorts and a t-shirt.”

“I'm sorry,” she said.

He gave her half of that big smile of his and said, “I think I'll lift some weights.”

She smiled and nodded and went back to doing a thorough abs workout. It wasn't long before he came back to her and said that he didn't really feel like doing a full workout on his first day. Then he stood in front of her. He looked at her as if he could see every square inch of her at once. She crossed her arms in front of herself.

He was waiting. She glanced over at her jumping box and tapped her foot a couple times. “Can I shower?” she asked.

“Sure! I'll beat you. See you downstairs.”

She changed back into her day job clothes after her shower. She had a long grey skirt on and one of her full white blouses, buttoned one from the top. Her hair was back with a hair tie. He got up when he saw her and set down the copy of the Sports section he'd found. “That's better,” he said. He kissed her on the cheek.

When they got home, she made love to him in a way she only did ever three or four months, and he fell right to sleep. It was 9.
The first time Ezra showed up for one of Esther's Tae Bo classes, he showed up early, found his girlfriend and took a spot within arm's reach of her. Most of the class arrived shortly after him. They stood around the outer edges of the room. Regulars, like Esther, stretched a bit on the floor. Co-workers chatted with each other.

Just before the instructor got there this tall, early 30s guy with a look of enormous confidence about him showed up. He looked at Esther in the mirror and gave her the head cock hello. She waved back with a little wrist flip hello. He wore gym clothes that he might have had in the 80s.

He took a position that would have been a couple people behind Esther, which confused Ezra. He wanted to be seen standing next to her, but he also wanted to obstruct this guy's view. He ended up moving a little behind her and a little closer in.

Ezra looked on edge. He could tell that Esther was pretty popular in here. Most of the participants gave her little looks or smiles. Only a couple guys were doing the class, besides him and the 80s guy.

The instructor showed up next. She had a face that looked like it didn't have the muscles to smile with. She was very fit. You could believe she'd been in the Army Corps.

Class started. Esther stepped guardedly. She looked around all the time. She looked at the floor to her sides and behind her to see if she were going to set her feet down in Ezra's space and trip over him. She also looked at the other people in the class through the mirror at the front of the room. She watched their faces. Some of them were looking at the instructor. Some of them looked at Ezra. He was a lot closer to Esther than anybody else was to each other.

The instructor talked about everyone's heart rate through the whole class. In between each exercise she would tell them that it wasn't a break. In the middle of each exercise she'd tell people not to stop moving. If anyone did anything that wasn't on the agenda -- like checking a cell phone or tying a shoe or going outside and getting a drink -- she would shout at them not to stop moving.

Ezra really worked it hard through the first half of class. He punched and kicked with all the force he could muster. Then for the second half of the class he lost that ferocity. His kicks got lower and slower. The expression on his face in the first half was a fierce smirk.

Second half, his expression went dead.

When class ended, everyone applauded another high-energy jumping and stepping experience. Ezra hopped in close to Esther and gave her a swift kiss on the lips, as if her were a kissing assassin. She puckered her lips mid-smooch and did not pull away, but she left her eyes open and looked side to side, past Ezra's head.
Next week, Ezra showed up fifteen minutes after Esther's kickboxing class had started. The classes took place on the 3rd floor. They had two workout studios up there with a floor space between them that a lot of members used for abdominal or light weight training. It also had a punching bag, but not many people used it. Half the walls of each studio were glass, so other members could look in from the ab space and watch classes.

Or check in on girlfriends.

Once Ezra showed up, he stood there in his "Free Bratwurst Festival" t-shirt and red coach shorts and watched until Esther saw him. They made eye contact. She smiled first. Then he smiled and pantomined her pulling down her shorts a little bit She complied.

Then, Ezra started working out up there in the floor space. Doing a dozen or so curls with a ten pound weight. Then doing a few presses. Then some sit-ups. Every few minutes he would look in on Esther and smile.

By the time he walked Esther down to her locker room, he only had the lightest mist of sweat on his forehead.
The next week he did the same thing.
The next week.
The week after that, same.
The next week, he showed up again. Ezra did not look any more fit by now.
The next week, Esther showed up to class in Ezra's Bratwurst t-shirt and basketball shorts. Her two friends in the class, the ones she liked to stand next to, each said hi to her with a little tiny wave. The instructor came in as the clock hit 7 and looked Esther up and down. She came over and gave her a long hug. Then, she pulled back, her arms still around Esther's waist.

She looked Esther in the eyes, hard.

A little while after class started, Ezra showed up and did his thing.
The next week, Ezra showed up outside the class and saw Esther working through a sequence of jab, cross, kick, power punch without a stitch of clothing on. In fact, no one in the whole class had any clothes on. They were all doing Tae Bo naked. You could see them slipping about under their kicks as the sweat and hardwood made a frictionless mess of their effort to stand and fight and the invisible.

Ezra stood there staring at her without that great big smile. Then he hit the glass with the meaty bottom of his fist. They didn't hear it inside, though, and no one looked at him. Esther could see him in the mirror. He yelled her name. She couldn't hear it. They had the music up real loud. She concentrated on looking herself in the eyes in the big mirror in front of her.

Inside, his hysterics just sounded like hollow throbs. He hit the glass again, but he didn't turn. She set her face hard and bit her lower lip and if she hadn't been so sweaty already he might have been able to see her let drop one of two tears, but he didn't really try to look at her face, anyway.

He left. A minute or so after she watched him go, the instructor said, "You can all put your clothes back on if you want to, now, but don't stop moving."

- the end -

(Brady Russell grew up in Southeast Kansas, where he created monsters and superheroes. Now he's a community organizer in Philadelphia. Doesn't eat meat. Does drink coffee. His website is )

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Color It Up

The point about the most recent story here, "The Machine," is to show how rigidly controlled and unexciting literature is today. To me, "hipsters" embody cultural lethargy. The laptop set looks uptight. They'll soon be superceded. They'll have to be, or American culture will die from lack of energy.

Since 1960-- fifty years ago!-- no art has undergone less change than literature. The institutions erected to support literature have imprisoned it. Great big unreadable postmodern novels are still considered the apex of the art. New Yorker stories are still New Yorker stories. Bland academic poetry is still bland academic poetry.

The world rockets forward. Our nation's insular, elitist literature stands still.

Except here.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


I'm beginning to think that writing pop stories is a revolutionary act! I've received few good ones for consideration. Which leaves the field open for myself. I can easily claim to be the best pop short story writer in America.

In my opinion, if you're a writer you should be able to write anything. The benefit to writing new-style "pop" is that it's strangely liberating. Writing good pop requires MORE creativity and imagination than writing the standard literary story. I intend to demonstrate this.

Friday, February 5, 2010

POP04: "Introducing Fake Face"


Fake Face had a sterling reputation in the aging east coast city of Killtown. Though he was a corrupt gangleader who extorted money, cheated the public through government frauds, paid kickbacks and bribe money, and ruthlessly destroyed enemies, everyone loved him.

Politicians praised him. Businessmen lined up to cut deals. He was in continual demand at charity events-- in fact, he ran several charities of his own used as money laundering fronts for his criminal activities. The local bigs-- the socialite gentry-- competed to sit on the boards of Fake Face organizations.

Why Fake Face was so popular in the city would be puzzling were you not from there; not a participant in its unique brand of insanity.

There were two reasons he was liked.

First, it fit accepted ways of doing things. Beneath the thin trappings of democracy, the local populace understood that the ruling principle of the city was power. Power first. Power only. Fake Face had power. The public instinctively got in line.

The second reason was the face itself. So smiling, kind, and innocent, it could not be other than real.

The face was a psychological trick. It took advantage of an unwillingness to believe the true nature of human beings. "WE are innocent," the believers proclaimed, though in reality they were the most venal of people.

That the face was a slick exaggeration added to the effect. Its very boldness and lack of transparency made it believed. "Look at me!" the face shouted. "I am who you want me to be. Accept me. Love me!"

While Fake Face money and power accumulated. Never mind! One could present to the citizenry mountains of documented evidence about Fake Face crimes (and those of his gang) but this couldn't sway the psychology. The fans were willfully blind.

The river, at night: Fake Face's yellow silk gloves became covered in blood as he pummeled a dissenter. Henchmen held down the man. To Fake Face the man was particularly reprehensible. The lowly character put out a cheap scandal sheet promoting stories counter to the "all-is-well" propaganda of the town's official newspaper.

The moon hid behind clouds during the beating.

"Punch! Punch!"

The man's face made a thick pulpy sound as Fake Face hit him again and again in the one-sided fight.

"You can destroy my face, to look like your real one," the man spat out between blood-covered lips. "But inside, I'm right. I've told the reality."

"You'll tell it ELSEWHERE," Fake Face screamed in an hysterical voice as he kicked the man in the side. "ELSEWHERE!!!"

His men restrained him. Fake Face already was laughing. He looked at his smeared gloves.

"I've dyed them!" he announced in wonder. "Isn't that amazing?"

"Uh, what now, boss?" one of the henchmen stupidly said.

"You take a break ," Fake Face said, for the moment satiated. "Run run be wonderful be amazing be innocent as a wonderful dog as you run away. Scatter from me. But be ready and waiting when I need you. For now, I'm going partying!"

A fan awaited, Mrs. Thunderbrook, a superwealthy matron married to one of the town's official pillars, 90 year-old Smedley Thunderbrook, who'd made his fortune through manipulations of finance.

Middle-aged Kristina was a healthy blonde with large shoulders. Evenings, while hubby napped, Kristina went out.

Fake Face picked her up at her in-town mansion in his bright yellow-colored limo.

"Where to?" Kristina breathlessly asked like a child skipping school as she plopped onto the seat beside him.

Kristina Thunderbrook was covered in silver fox fur, violet lipstick, and diamond jewels.

"A party at the Downtown Club tonight, my lovely," the ever-smiling Face told her. "We are going to swing, going to shake, going to dance dance to the music to the pulse the beat of the city MY city our city high above the crowd in the clouds dance dance we'll dance to the music all night."

"I love it!" she exclaimed as the limo rocketed forward through red lights down the sparkling avenue.

The gleaming vehicle cut through the mass of hectic poor city neighborhoods like an aristocrat's carriage.

The nightclub atop the second tallest structure in town pounded with throbbing colors and loud music. Huge doormen in burgundy suits stepped back at the arrival of the power couple. Though their business was muscle, their eyes disclosed fear at recognition of the gangleader. Those who didn't know him were happy to see him.

The endless bar was silver and blue.

"Chief," a dark-haired man in a black-and-white checkered suit said to Fake Face with exaggerated deference.

This was Jake Pol, who'd once been the Face's Number Two until he became too ambitious and was utterly broken-- no one knew how. When he resurfaced six months later his ambition had gone. Fake Face kept him around as a joke. Jake reciprocated by behaving like a subservient clown. He managed this club, which Fake Face owned.

"Jake!" Mrs. Thunderbrook shouted with naked insincerity.

Jake Pol bowed.

"This way," Fake Face said, putting his yellow-gloved hand on Kristina's waist and guiding her toward the central, most prominent, the highest place at the bar, which of course was reserved for him. His strained voice revealed distaste at his one-time assistant.

Their coats were magically taken off them. Fake Face admired the mature woman's turquoise dress, and the sparkle of diamonds hanging from her lobes. She was the type of woman he could never have dated in his early youth. Now he saw her insecurity and saw her stupidity, saw her as he saw any object. He gloried in the shining fact of her.

Kristina Thunderbrook was a symbol of the city's power, which he wanted to grab and hold and tarnish and corrupt all at once.

How old was Kristina, he wondered? Fifty? He could look it up. Fifteen years older than him but she kept up on the dance floor, like the tigress she was.

"Slow down," the Face whispered in her ear as they moved.

He touched his gloved finger at and into various vulnerable parts on her body, causing pain. She reveled in it.

Lights . . . drinks . . . music.

When she went to the ladies room he sang softly to himself, "Old money! Old money money money!"

He knew she'd been snorting cocaine or more to be this charged.

They moved to a private room to get away from the crush of the growing crowd. The room-- plush leather sofas, floor, ceiling, tables, walls-- was entirely in burgundy color.

She kissed Fake Face frantically like a hungry beast while he sat back like an Imperial Roman. For a time she kneeled. Fake Face sipped from a blue martini through a straw in an opening in his facade. He saved more intense lovemaking for his condo.

The limo: speeding through the night, its warmth shielding its occupants from the cutting world.

Now they sat in his suite in the tallest structure in town; high above the city they owned. Floor-to-ceiling windows. The two humans frolicked in an opulently furnished room. Obscenely opulent: splashy artwork, sculpture, rugs, of the highest quality, from every corner of the globe. Daubs, splotches, layers: color and more color. A profusion of color.

"Love me love me love me love me," Kristina said as she crawled on top of him on a thick white sofa in a room that was very warm.

Her dress was off; her gym'd physique muscled. In contrast Fake Face in loose black slacks and burgundy turtleneck appeared relaxed and vulnerable.

"Why are you such a genius?" Kristina asked. "Tell me confidentially. What's your secret? What lies behind the mystery, the glamor of you?"

"Nothing," he answered.

"You're so modest!" she laughed. "Your humility is what makes you attractive. You're so great yet at the same time you're humble."

"It's really nothing," he asserted.

"Bosh! I want to know you, I want to know all about you. You you you!" she exclaimed in something close to drug-or-love induced delirium.

The delirium of the total fan.

Music in the room welled, broke, crescendoed while subtle light behind the many objects created a fantasyland. Lamps became bears. African sculpture became soldiers. Amorphous paintings of exploding blue and red became a battleground.

"I want to know," she cooed.

"There are some things you shouldn't know," he told her.

"But you see," she replied. "I want to know."

"You're in a strange mood," Fake Face said, to change the subject.

"MOOD?!" she pouted. "That maybe I'm just a little bit just maybe in love?"

Her eyes teared a bit as she gazed at him and stroked the back of his head. This donor-- this powerful charitable rich woman-- was in a mood of sympathy, which for all her causes in her boring and empty life had become her dominant mood. She floated above the world, above the poor, in her isolated capsule, and yet she wanted to help them all.

She was so sympathetic! She'd made sympathy her life. The sympathy never changed her station. It was part of her superiority. Now she felt sympathy for him! For the beloved crime boss.

"Can I see it?" she begged. "Pretty pretty pretty please!"

No sound came from him, though something expressive was in his eyes. The face itself innocently smiled.

With no resistance from him, she put her fingers under the bottom part of the mask and slowly lifted. It came off with surprising ease. She placed the mask to the side. She saw--

"NO!" she screamed. "No-oooooooooooo!"

Her screaming could be heard through the entire tall tower, piercing the floors and walls. It was heard outside the building. Frantically the woman toppled lamps and tables knocking aside paintings in her mad hurry to get out of the suite. What she saw-- no time for her fur coat. She went fleeing down the hallway. No time for the elevator. Down stairs flight after flight her heart pounding head throbbing from too much reality the reality she'd been protected from her entire life, all the while screaming a mad scream as hard as she could-- "NO-OOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!"-- as she escaped the building and fled into the night.