Saturday, March 21, 2009

Behind the Green Curtain: Ch. 1

So, this is a currently untitled story that I'm working on right now that I hope to keep building into a complete novel. This is the first chapter, but I've written more. In weeks to come I may post subsequent chapters if I think that there's enough interest. It's meant to be a new take on a kind of Maltese Falcon-ish detective novel. Take a look and tell me what you all think. Who the hell came up with the phrase "Great American Novel," anyway?...


It was another Saturday night at King Harrod’s up near the Georgia border and I wasn’t winning any. The nickel slot crowd would hang around my table long enough to see me lose my shirt, then they’d lose interest and move on to dine on other more serious gamblers. No matter what magic spells I tried to breathe into the cherry red dice I never came out ahead. I would curse the miserable bastards that had the game loaded from the very beginning and retreated to the bar repeatedly to lick my wounds. I pushed away some vinyl palm fronds that hung over the long under-lit bar and hunched over it feeling sorry myself. Tim the bartender would come over rubbing a glass with a dirty rag.
Tough break, he said automatically. If you need anything, I’ll take care of it. Maybe give you a shot in the arm?
I nodded my head staring into the walnut counter top like a real sad sack, and another gin and tonic appeared in front of me. I gobbled it down and thought about what a good idea it would be to get up to my room, splash some cold water on my face and get some sleep. Just forget this whole night ever happened. Losing was just part of the whole thing, and now it was my turn. Now it was time to gather up what little I had and just call it the cost of doing business. I still had that option, but I could also tell that tonight wasn’t the night for teary goodbyes. I had driven an hour and a half. The MG purred like a kitten on a bowl full of cream the whole way. The air actually felt a little cooler than a hundred degrees, the humidity had retreated a little bit. The insects had gorged themselves on just enough of your blood and were now fast asleep. The stars were being whipped through the sky by the warm winds of fortune. It was a magical evening. I could keep it that way with just a little more luck.
Tim was still buying me drinks so I drained another gin and tonic before making my way heroically back to the tables. I reeled away from the bar and could now feel the tiny fingers of the spongy red carpet under my white alligator loafers. The drinks were taking effect now and it didn’t look pretty. The small money weekenders were away from their posts at the gas pumps and waffle houses where they gained little and lost more. They wandered gelatinously from one noisemaking gewgaw to another exhaling Bud Light, cheap cigarettes, and bad perfume. They lurked in the aisles not knowing what to do with themselves. Pausing only to sink their fangs into each other’s necks and feast on each other’s remains. This was the night where the Legion of the Black Lagoon arose from their watery cells to guzzle free booze and cannibalize the weakest among them. I could feel them all watching me. This was no way to start a winning streak. I would need some help. I made my way through the coin operated jungle and into the restaurant where they had the floor show. The girl that they had on now got me real interested in a big way. The light came up and she walked through the blue velvet curtain all covered in these white feathery boas and fans. Everything was covered up but her long pale legs and white satin pumps. A husky voice like raw silk emerged from somewhere within the feathers. I hustled up to the front row with all of the other slobs and lit up a cigarette. The waiter came by with some pink drinks that had fruit dangling out of them and I handed him a crumpled up bill.
The girl’s voice started roiling somewhere within the nest of white feathers and with each passing note, the fans and boas would be pulled away from her long white body, revealing more and more skin. Everything about her was white except her deep red lips and dark brown eyes. As I watched her in the darkness I imagined her on my arm at the craps table. She’d give me a smile and blow a kiss to the dice in my hand and they would jump off of the boards, landing me big money every time. As morning approached somewhere beyond the borders of the casino’s perpetual daytime I would gather up all of my chips into one big pile and the girl would look me deep in the eyes while I pulled her closer, closer.
Her song was winding down now and it was almost time for the big finish. She brushed the last remaining feather fan around her chest and then threw it away as her voice went into the final crescendo. Simultaneously, the lights went out completely, but you could still see the outline of her perfect, curvy figure in the dark while she belted out the last note. Then she disappeared behind the curtain. The lights came back on and the crowd went nuts. You could hear guys whistling and banging the backs of their chairs. They’d waited their whole lives for something like this and now they were going to tear the place apart. I sucked down what was left of the whiskey flavored fruit salad they gave me and I got up to make my way to the backstage. I had to get this girl to help me win. Just this one last thing was all I needed to get me ahead.
Sir, there’s no smoking in here, said one of the waiter’s while I was pushing through the swinging doors that led to the back of the stage.
Sorry about that. I’m going back there to say hello to an old friend, I said, dropping my butt into one of the potted plants.
I’m afraid there’s no guests allowed backstage, said the little flunky in a red vest.
Well, I’m no guest the young lady’s expecting me, I said flinging my whole body weight into the red vinyl padded swinging door and hurrying down the hallway. I took another right down a narrow little stairway that I knew had to lead into the girl’s dressing room. I went through a heavy black curtain and she was there unclasping one of her big dangling earrings.
She turned around to look at me and her big, round, perfect breasts stared right back at me. Sobriety hit me like a cold bucket of water. I had a made a terrible mistake. This could only end badly.
What the fuck are you doing in here? she said. Who are you?
Two giant men seized me on either side like an octopus in a movie. They pulled me out of the dressing room and showed me to another guard who was waiting outside. I knew the guy. he was a big black kid named Reggie who’d been working steady at King Harrod’s for a couple of years now. Reggie had a heart of gold and would never hurt a fly.
Good to see you again, Mr. Cruz, he said to me.
Hiya, Reggie. How’s the wife? I said. He nodded.
Sorry bout this, man.
He pulled back and slugged me full on the jaw with his big fist, but I knew that he could’ve done a lot worse. I fell like a bundle of dirty laundry into the arms of the two other guys. There was darkness. I could see the girl looking angrily at me like I was something small and scaly that had slithered into her dressing room. I could see the mad face of the craps dealer lording over the crowd.
SNAKE EYES. No help for the gentleman in the white hat, he howled. The fluorescent lit, chain-smoking zombies all around him cheering and laughing.
I came to and I was slunk into a wing-backed chair in some spacious mahogany paneled office upstairs. An old clock ticked immensely somewhere. The side of my face was numb and my head felt like a box of dancing hammers. Across a massive desk full of handsomely bound ledgers and fountain pen sets sticking up at rakish angles sat Paul Blackbench, the owner of King Herrod’s. He finished writing what he was writing in his book before carefully placing his pen into its little holder and looking up at me.
Hello, App. Had a late night, haven’t we?
‘Lo Paul, I said rubbing my temples. It’s either a late night or a very early morning.
I guess the tables aren’t treating you well. These things happen to the best of us. I like it whenever you come out to see us, App. I try to get you everything that you need, make sure that you’re well taken care of.
Thanks, I said, hearing my swollen jaw click as I tried to close it.
Crystal said that you tried to rape her. Said that you looked like you had a knife, but she didn’t seem sure.
The jaw was starting to swell up now but I managed a smile.
Crystal’s alright. No, I wasn’t trying to rape her. I saw her act and I decided I was a big fan, wanted to see if I could get her autograph.
You wanted to get her autograph, he said very slowly.
I need more money, I said, figuring now was as good a time as any.
Paul looked at me for a moment and then let out a long weary sigh. He got up from his wine-colored executive chair and made his way over to the high window at the side of the office. He gazed sadly out into the blackness. He looked out somewhere beyond the acres of parking lot and the highway. He had made sure that they were built by securing all of the no-bid contracts in this part of Florida. All of them won by weeks and months of pumping the right hands and leaving all of the right palms good and greasy; playing golf with politicians and letting them play slap and tickle with his girls whenever they came to his town. He looked out somewhere beyond into the southern Georgia woods. A prehistoric frontier full of faceless, tooth gnashing abominations, a land of unspeakable horror. He looked out over all that he had built and finally despaired. Heavy lies the crown, indeed.
He said, when I was a boy in Arkansas we spent a lot time camping. We’d do that whenever it wasn’t raining buckets and the roads weren’t washed out. We’d just go up in the woods, my brothers, and my uncles, and my pa. We’d never take a thing with us but our guns and our sleeping rolls. We’d get ground squirrel, pheasant. Even caught a razorback hog a time or two. We’d cook that over a fire and my uncles and my pa would pass the jug around and tell all kinds of stories. I don’t know how we did it. We lived, all eight of us, in that little one room shack and it never bothered me. It bothered me later, but it didn’t bother me then.
He stood there a moment looking sad. He stuck his hands in his pockets. I could hear the loose change jingling around in there. He walked over to his chair again and sat down.
How much did you need? he asked.
Three thousand dollars, I said.
He opened up a large book that had pages of oversized blank checks in it. He took out his pen and wrote the three thousand dollars out to me, and then he took out a piece of silk cloth and pressed away the wet ink. Then, he tore the check out and handed it to me.
Care for a drink? he asked.
I thought he’d never say so.
Don’t get up I can make one myself. What’ll you have? I said standing up. The blood rushed out of my head and I could feel the floor rising up to get me. I stumbled once, and then fell with all of my weight onto the little liquor caddy that was in the corner. Decanters of scotch and rye spilled onto the bearskin rig, glasses shattered, ice went everywhere. I didn’t know my own strength. Reggie opened up the door.
Everything’s alright Reggie, Paul said, helping me up. Can you please go find someone to help us clean up in here?
I leaned heavily onto Paul. Sorry about the mess, I said thickly.
He sat me back in the chair and opened up a cabinet behind his desk. He poured us two glasses from his own private reserve. I drank mine down in two gulps. I had taken up enough of the man’s time.
Well, it’s been swell, but I’d better be off. Thanks for everything, Paul. Come over to my place and I’ll let you break a couple of dishes, just for old time’s sake.
Paul gave a small laugh and helped me out of the chair. He made sure I was steady to walk this time. He held onto my shoulders and looked me into the eyes.
It’s nice to have friends in Jacksonville, App. Maybe, I can call you up next time I need something?
I nodded my head vaguely. He patted my shoulders and steered me out the door.
Get some sleep, huh? he said.

Who I Was and Where I Came From

So, I've taken a couple of months off from blog posting to work on some creative projects. This is a 99.9% true story from back when I was a kid in Sandy, Utah. It's mostly a hodge podge of events that happened in grade school. Hopefully, it gives you an idea of what things were like back then. See for yourself:


Mike Peterson and I usually played near the big storm grate just behind the batting fence and the swing sets. We were playing Chronicles of Kings. Today we slew a phalanx of orcs. They surprised us in a mountain pass. They were sent to steal back the sacred sword which we recovered from the ruins of Ashtoran, but having the sacred sword made them easier for us to kill, which they, being orcs, hadn’t thought about. A phalanx of orcs wasn’t as big as a horde of orcs, but still. Then we were attacked by a swarm of bees and we ended up starting this float trip thing that involved rafts and aquatic monsters. It was a good story. The idea was to create this epic story that would get expanded with each recess. We were both excited about the rafting thing. We never thought about sea monsters before. It was a good angle.
We were next to the tall metal swing sets that flanked this big triangle area full of pea gravel. There was a jungle gym, monkey bars, parallel bars, the whole thing. There used to be a slide but that got taken out and we never figured out why. The rest of the big yard was just grass with a couple of stands that would’ve been soccer goals if there had any nets. All of the Red Rover kids and the Crack the Whip kids and the Smear the Queer kids were usually over there. I was never a Red Rover kid, but I was sometimes a Crack the Whip kid or a Smear the Queer kid. I’d gotten ahead in Crack the Whip but I never really caught on to Smear the Queer. You picked a kid that nobody liked and you just chased him around. It was mean and we knew that, so we tried to limit how often the game got played. This was before Mrs. Moss said that we couldn’t play it at all any more. Somebody had complained. It was an open secret that Paul Lefferts usually got picked for the queer, so we naturally assumed that he was the whistleblower. But, now Lefferts was targeted even more because now he was a squealer on top of being smelly and always talking with his outdoor voice. I never thought that Lefferts’s mom had thought that through. Now, that this had happened I kind of felt sorry for the guy.
We’re not going to play Smear the Blank any more, Mrs. Moss said.
“Blank” meant that queer was a bad word. I had no idea and I felt instantly ashamed. This was a couple of weeks ago.
Let’s play Sewer Theater, I said to Mike. Sewer Theater was this game I made up where one guy would yell through the big sewer grate near the batting fence and the sound would come through another storm drain that was near the tether ball poles. The idea was to make up a story and yell it through the grate loud enough so that the other guy could hear it. You’d make up part of a story and then the guy on the other end would make up another part so, in the end, you would have a full story before recess was over. I usually made up a lot of sound effects to go with the story, but Mike said that he couldn’t hear them very well through the grate. This just meant I needed to improve the sound effects to compensate for the echo in the drain pipe.
That’s a stupid game, Mike said.
The game had it’s flaws, but I thought calling it stupid was a little off base. We were trying to make memorable narratives here, and Mike wasn’t being very collaborative. Besides, I was the leader of the two of us, and he was just a sidekick. I came up with the big ideas and Mike was there to provide color, charm, embellishment. That was the dynamic that we agreed upon. What was the point of having somebody who had all of the great ideas if no one was there to follow him? The leader needed someone he could rely on to get him out of all of the tough scrapes he got himself into. I had said that Batman would be dead without Robin and without Chewbacca, Han Solo would have no idea how to fly the Millennium Falcon. Mike agreed. We discussed it months ago and he said that he didn’t mind the sidekick role and that he liked the idea.
You’re stupid, I said, shoving him to the ground.
He was smaller than me, so it was a little cheap, but Batman would’ve done the same thing. A leader commands respect.
Jerk, Mike said.
The bell rang. We got all clustered together and pushed our way through the big swinging brown doors that took us into our classrooms. I stood right behind Michelle Perry. I could almost smell that lemony smell in her hair. Michelle was blonde and her hair was pulled to the sides and banded with elastics that had these clear marble things on them. She had pronounced cheek bones and when she smiled her mouth was full of perfect white teeth. She was stunning; second only to Susan Hunter who I was desperately in love with but told no one. It was my secret, this great love. The first day I saw her was on Halloween. She was dressed in these medieval clothes with a golden princess crown and a little plastic sword. She had thick brown hair.
What are you? I asked.
I’m a warrior, she said.
I vowed that day never to tell anyone about her, and I promised to think about her all of the time. I did talk about how I felt about other girls, but not Susan. She was special, while the other girls: Michelle Perry, Roseangel Martinson, Madison Graves, and Emily Fichtner, were just conventionally pretty. I still crushed on them too, but not as intensely. One summer, I pulled Bradley Gumble under this boat that was parked in a neighbor’s drive and told him that all of these girls could never be had by any man. They were all being held captive by some horrible malevolent power similar to the dark side of the force in Star Wars. Only one man could break the spell of this power and then these girls would give themselves totally and unspeakably to that man, effectively becoming his slaves.
What can we do? he said.
He was stunned by this realization. I had told him the big secret. We spent the rest of the afternoon planning how we would each break the spell and become this one man who had absolute power over all of the pretty girls. So far, nothing had worked.
When we were all inside after recess we got to work on this project that involved cutting out pieces of paper and gluing them to colored pieces of cardstock. I always hated these kinds of art projects. I didn’t care about cutting things up in creative ways and gluing them onto whatever we had laying around. That was more of a girl thing. All I wanted to do was doodle in the notepad that I kept in the cubby tray under my desk. I coasted on this cut-and-paste job. I’d cut out one piece and then take a trip to the drinking fountain, cut out another and then go to the crayon bin pretending that I was searching for a peach colored crayon. This ate up enough time.
Our teacher, Mrs. Dehaven, was now standing in the front of the room. She wore a long, brown dress and today her hair was curled and her lipstick was this dark, autumnal looking shade. I remembered hugging her earlier in the year. There was this warm smell that she had. There was a softness in the way that she hugged you. She was wearing these pearl earrings and she started pointing to the board with this long stick using these swift, exacting strokes. It was easy to look at her while she was doing all of this. I probably looked like I was paying attention.
Michael, she said. Did you understand that you have to cut your paper out evenly on both sides so that when you unfold it, you’ll have a leaf shape? I said yes, but she looked like she didn’t believe me.
Then, there was computer class. On good days you could play Oregon Trail. In Oregon Trail, you were trying to get a wagon train to migrate west without the whole group dying of malaria or running out of water or food. This game was nearly impossible and if you played it the right way it was still not very interesting. The only thing worth doing was to buy only guns and bullets at the general store before your wagon trip began. Then you could hunt these animals that ran across the screen with incredible quickness. The game ended early this way because your wagon would break down and you didn’t buy any spare parts at the beginning of the game because you blew it all on guns and bullets. Your whole group died of malaria and you’d lose, but nobody cared. Trying to shoot these impossible to kill coyotes and jackrabbits was the only fun part of the game.
Computers was taught by Mr. France, an overweight guy in his forties with a white beard, who wore pleated grey Dockers with big, white New Balance walking shoes. If you did something wrong he’d call you an idiot and then explain to the class what an idiot was and how you fit really well into his nuanced, intricate definition of an idiot. That day, I was waving my hand in front of the flashing green computer screen so that my hand turned into this mesmerizing green blur if I waved fast enough. This kept me occupied for awhile.
Did you hear me? he said. I turned around to look at him like I had just been awakened from a decade long coma.
Idiot, he said.
After that, we ate lunch. There were pigs in a blanket and mashed potatoes and gravy. Pig in a blanket day was my favorite. They were really good with lots of ketchup that came in these little white cups at the end of the lunch line. I washed all of that down with a little carton of Viva chocolate milk. It used to be that you could never get chocolate milk, only regular, but now they had it all of time so everybody was drinking it. The only kid that didn’t drink chocolate milk was Caleb Beckstead. Caleb said that he didn’t like the taste of chocolate milk and that his mom told him that he was allergic to chocolate milk, but not regular milk. Caleb always wore his glasses at an angle over his nose so that the lenses pointed down at his desk. He said that this was the only way that he could see anything, and that wearing his glasses normally actually made his vision worse than if he wasn’t wearing glasses at all.
I wanted to eat lunch in a hurry, because we had recess right after that. I went through all of the brown halls with the glaring fluorescent lights and the weird orange carpets and I went out the door. Mike was waiting for me at the storm grate.
Hi, I said. Listen, I’m really sorry about earlier. We don’t have to play Sewer Theater anymore. I guess I can’t even hear you all of that well on the other side, so it’s no big deal. Sorry, I pushed you. That was really mean.
Yeah, I don’t want to be the side kick anymore, he said. You came up with Sewer Theater, but we both worked on Chronicles of Kings, and you, me, and Eric Stonehocker all came up with Aliens vs. Predator, because we all read the comic books. I think nobody should be the leader, because we don’t need one. Let’s just all play together, and come up with good stuff.
I said that was a good idea. We did our ritual handshake that involved snaps and fist bumps, and all of that. Nobody knew how to do that but us. Then, Matt Matthews came over to us. He was at least six feet tall with a mouth full of big even teeth and a messy haircut.
Gentlemen, he said in his courtly way. What’re you two doing this fine afternoon? We explained that we were all done with the orcs and the bees and that now we were doing this raft-sea monster thing.
There should be a kraken, he said. We agreed that krakens were cool, but that a kraken was really more of a giant, boss monster that we would have to defeat after fighting a bunch of smaller, less powerful water monsters.
What about piranhas? Matt said. We wrote Matt in as a wayfaring pirate who would show us all of the valuable sea routes for three bags of gold. I ended up destroying the piranhas with the sacred sword, while Mike shot them out of the air with his bow and arrow. Matt had magical thunderbolt so he used that to blast the piranhas off of our little raft.
We forgot to fight the kraken, Mike said.
Next recess, I said. The bell rang.